Smiling faces sometimes (are the one’s who learn most)

It’s been a while since I last put finger to screen to tap out a blog on here. But, I don’t want anybody to think I’ve been idle. Far from it! I write this having just been presented with my piece of paper that makes me a National Teaching Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. I was inducted along with 54 exceptionally talented people from across the UK in the awe inspiring surroundings of Liverpool Cathedral.

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What strikes me about these awards, apart from them making us dress up to receive them, is that when we started talking amongst ourselves there was a large amount of confusion about the role of pedagogy in what we do. We were all in Liverpool supposedly to celebrate our excellence in teaching and learning, yet we seemed to have little collective analysis of what motivates people to learn.

To be sure, there were confident people in the room who had their pet theories (which they were happy to regale us with) but I came away more confused than when I had gone in. This is not a criticism of the NTF Awards. Everybody there had been innovative in some way and over a sustained period. Having been turned down previously I am under no illusions that these awards are not easy to obtain. But, doing excellence and reflecting on it are not the same thing.

I was left wondering how I can translate my own journey into something more useful to the learning community. I certainly couldn’t say “do what I did” as some of the funding streams I have benefitted from over the years no longer exist. And, even if they did, what I did then would no longer fit what you would need to do today. Times change, after all.

So, here, in a couple of paragraphs is the sum total of what I have learned in my 20 or so years in higher education.

1. All students are different. That sounds obvious. So it should. But sometimes I worry about academics who claim “Students don’t like….” as if a casual conversation with a single student is representative of the entire student body.
2. There are lots of ways to teach. Lectures may have their place but so do debates, role plays, problem-based learning, board games etc. The only thing that constrains our teaching is our imaginations.
3. Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Just because we are teaching it doesn’t mean anybody is learning.
4. Students learn in different ways. See 1 and 3. Not all learning takes place in formal learning environments. In fact, it is highly likely that most learning takes place away from the classroom and teachers. Get over it. Students don’t need us as much as we need them.
5. There is no such thing as a weak student. I know, this one takes a bit of selling. There are students who struggle, but it is usually not because they are “weak” but because they were badly advised in their course choice or are having a life crisis of one sort or another.
6. Online learning does not mean the death of education. Just because you like standing in a room talking at people does not mean that they like listening to you. Face to face teaching retains its place, but any lecturer/academic worthy of the name should embrace technologies that help to bring education to those traditionally denied it.
7. Learning should be fun. If I have learned anything at all over my years in HE it is that too much education is pompous, dull and excruciatingly boring. Who decreed that this should be the case? If you can put a smile on your students’ faces then they will learn more. Trust me on this.
8. Student engagement is about more than retention targets. Too much student engagement is concerned either with finding ways to increase retention or in filling places on various governance committees. Neither of these are engagement. An engaged student is one who feels that they are part of a community. That community might consist only of students or of academics and students, but in some way it must be self-sustaining. The idea that we can engage with hundreds of students simultaneously is a misnomer. Relationships are not sustainable at that level, so we need to provide environments where students can connect with 5 or 6 others in an environment where they feel safe and able to do so. The massification of higher education has made this harder to achieve than previously. This does not mean it is impossible.

That’s it for now. I may return to this theme. In the meantime, I’m happy to debate these ideas if you are so minded.

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Back To The Future (for teaching and learning)

I don’t normally go out of my way to praise Senior Management. This is partly because they seem aloof and often irrelevant to the day to day activities that consume me. And, also because they really don’t need me to blow their trumpet – they manage to do that quite well on their own!
But, two events at the Open University this week inspired me. On the basis, that I am sometimes too quick to criticise, I also think I should be quick to praise.
The first event was the announcement by our Vice Chancellor, Martin Bean about the appointment of Martha Lane-Fox as our new Chancellor. This was handled particularly well with a message sent round encouraging staff to log on to this You Tube video. I just thought this was very well handled, and it reminded me that the Open University can be a very slick organisation.
The bigger event for me however was organised by Belinda Tynan, our Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching). This was a 2-day residential which brought together around 50 people from across the OU to discuss future learning and teaching.
I was impressed by Belinda’s open and inclusive approach but also her passion for teaching and learning. We ought to be able to take these things for granted, but as she pointed out senior management often operate at a level of strategy that is divorced from what actually happens on the ground. It was great to see Belinda simply being one of the participants, listening to what people had to say, making useful and practical suggestions and never pulling rank to get her own agenda accepted. I’m not sure I’d be that self-disciplined!
With this culture of openness established the event allowed the rest of us to articulate our passion for learning (and it was learning rather than teaching that people seemed passionate about). Through a series of increasingly focussed group activities we thought about where we are now, where we fit in the wider socio-economic system and where we might be in the future.
Of course, crystal ball gazing is always fraught with danger, but I have to say I was impressed with how practical most of the future thinking actually was. A commitment to capture what the OU is in terms of its shared values and to use those values to orient us in our journey into the future. Naturally, 50 people in a room many of whom have never met previously and from a variety of backgrounds could never hope to agree on every finer point. What was noticeable was that even where disagreement emerged there seemed to be a desire to find common ground.
The event was interesting as well because it brought together academics, technicians and administrators on an equal footing. It gave me pause to think as I had a debate with another delegate over breakfast about how hopeless our IT systems were, when he introduced himself as a member of the IT department! More importantly, after our discussion I realised that it was not the people in IT who are the problem, nor the systems but the fact that whilst we all believe, at the strategic level, that we are committed to enriching the student experience; at the practical level we are often overly focussed on what we personally require in the here and now. Presenting other departments as the culprits of everything that doesn’t work is a way of ensuring that we never work together to overcome the challenges we sometimes have to solve (note: I was going to write problems, but changed my mind).
It is always easier to be critical of others than to work with them to find solutions to what is, after all, a shared commitment to our students. In future, I certainly will be less quick to criticise and much quicker to open a dialogue.
Another observation was that as we discussed our vision of teaching and learning, there was a strong sense amongst many of the educational technologists present that any improvement would involve building something. For many of the academics improvement was about improving processes (for which the ed techs wanted to build a new app!) In all this, however, something else became apparent and that was something almost everybody agreed on: at some level education is about relationships. There are relationships that students have with their institution, with their tutors and with each other. Of course, technology can assist and processes can help mediate those relationships but education is all about people connecting, and supporting each other. Whilst individual motivation can help, it is important to have a supportive network of friends, tutors, administrators etc. In some way creating an environment where students can feel confident, where they can overcome personal and educational challenges and where they can obtain their personal goals remains integral to the Open University. That is an exciting challenge and it is taking us back to the future.

You don’t know like I know (which is why I set the exams for you to fail)

Last week, I ended with a rhetorical question about the 2,000 word essay and its hold on the HE imagination. You may recall that my question concerned the use of an assessment of 144 characters. In effect, what I was arguing for was the bringing in to our World the world of social media. Rather than thinking of social media as an evil presence lurking on the periphery of HE it is time to embrace it.
So, you’d think I’d be delighted this week to attend a meeting on a new module at my own institution that proposed to replace the current Level One first assignment of 750 words with one of just 250 words. However, I found myself feeling that this shift down was a retrograde step.
On reflection I have to ask myself whether I am just being a big old hypocrite. It has been known to happen. Or, am I just miffed that it was not my idea? That’s been known to happen too!
In my defence, then, when I argue for the abandonment of the 2,000 word essay as the sole form of assessment it is because I have a view that students are capable of so much more. Most students arrive at university with stories of their own to tell. Many have highly relevant experiences which underpin their decision to study. More importantly, in my area social science, all the students are members of the society we are studying. It is right, and inevitable, that given that they have spent a few years in that society that they have opinions about it.
In arguing for more imaginative forms of assessment, I am keen that students should have the opportunity to express themselves in different, but also culturally relevant ways. Students use Facebook and Twitter already – often more confidently than their tutors. It would shift the power balance to them if we allowed them to use their existing skills as some part of their studies.
By contrast, those promoting the 250 word essay made great use of the term “weaker students”. The decision to reduce the word count is not motivated by a desire to harness the experiences and imagination of students, but rather a functional imperative linked by a concern that not enough students were passing the course.
I do not like to impute motives to my colleagues as I am sure that they think that what they are doing is ‘helping’ students. But, the emphasis on weaker students does worry me a little bit. Whilst I would not dispute that any cohort of students will have a range of abilities, it concerns me that we begin to devise assessment with the stated aim of ensuring, so-called, weaker students will pass.
I am not convinced that weaker students problems are actually helped by reducing the assessment to 250 words, when the things many students struggle with, grammar, spelling, sentence construction, presenting a coherent argument etc do not disappear because they have to do these things in less words. I rather feel that to present a coherent argument, in good prose, in so few words will be harder, especially for students who are struggling anyway.
More worryingly, is a tendency to continue to negate the experience and opinions of students. Many students tell me that the reason they are studying is that they have an interest in some aspect of society and what they want to do is find out how to understand things more effectively.
What they find when they arrive at university is that they are discouraged from drawing on their own experiences. They are discouraged from using their imagination, in favour of being filled with often abstract theories by academics who like to tell them things. Moreover, we like to tell them things in a language which is often deliberately obtuse. I do wonder whether this is part of the process of professionalisation where a specialist language is invented to create an elitist illusion.
I like to believe that students and lecturing staff are in a partnership. That sometimes I have knowledge that I am able to pass on, but that my students have knowledge of their own which can, and should, shape mine. Assessment, seen through this prism is not a way of simply testing whether students have listened to what I have said but a dialogue between partners.

On my radio

Words like ‘action’, ‘fade’, and ‘sound fx’ aren’t one’s you would usually associate with teaching and learning. But, last Monday, I and a group of colleagues converged on a recording studio in Milton Keynes to record a dramatised version of the lives of three Open University students. To be called This Student Life, this fictional rendition of the challenges facing distance learning students is part of a wider project of student engagement which I am currently leading.
I have written previously about why this type of drama is an appropriate form of teaching, and will not rehearse the same arguments here. Suffice to say that a drama allows for the exploration of issues in an entirely controlled environment, involving students in an element of role play, as they are asked to empathise with characters whose lives should resonate with their own.

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There are a number of reasons why a drama might offer a good learning tool. First, it is a relatively safe place to explore issues which are, by their nature, sensitive. This Student Life will tackle dyslexia, plagiarism, student debt as well as all the usual student worries about assignments, marks, attending tutorials, self-esteem etc. Of course, we could have talked to individual students about these issues, but this relies on individuals being prepared to expose themselves. Despite what our media obsessed culture may lead us to believe most people do not want to have their lives laid bare before an audience.
Second, the drama allows us to explore these issues in a single representative student or, in this case, small group of students. Whilst we all know students who seem to be incredibly unlucky, few real people have the incidence in their lives which listeners demand. That is why they are called dramas.
This latter point, however, does raise an issue which was never far from my mind as I developed the script. Whilst the script has to resonate with real students, it also has to be dramatic enough that people will want to continue listening. This creates a tension between the made up World of the drama and the real lives we are trying to portray. A drama is not an ethnographic representation of the lives of real individuals, and I freely admit to using dramatic licence in one or two places.

Like many writers I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame half-assed assumptions.

This quote is from David Simon, the award winning writer of The Wire.
I am heavily invested in This Student Life as writer, director and a supporting actor. As a writer using fiction to explore real issues I can see a connection with David Simon. Admittedly, the connection may not be obvious to everybody. There are not many drug dealers, corrupt cops, journalists, pimps or prostitutes to be found in This Student Life. On the other hand, The Wire does not have much to say about dyslexia, assignment anxiety, or plagiarism!
Artistic considerations are not the only ones as the story develops. It is no use writing a story about three teenagers if the actors who are to play the roles are obviously in their fifties. But, this brings me full circle to the issue outlined by David Simon, how accurate should my portrayal be? Let’s face it if I were to make a TV drama about Oxford University and all the actors were clearly 50+, it would lack credibility.

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The average age of an OU student is 31, and whilst the OU points out that 25% of its new undergraduates are under 25, this means that three-quarters are over 25. Given this context, it is not entirely unrealistic to have 3 students aged 32, 40 and 54. Though, I rather suspect that the OU would prefer to have a less representative sample.

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In a single evening and a whole day we recorded all 24 episodes with each episode lasting 6-7 minutes. We had little time for multi-takes,or for the actors to inhabit their characters. Within those 6-7 minutes each of the main characters has a developing storyline. In technical parlance this is known as a multi point of view. Writing a 7 minute episode in which the three main strands are around 2 minutes each may sound easy, but it is, at one and the same time, nowhere near long enough and far too much time!
For all sorts of reasons we had to avoid long Shakespearian monologues, especially given that the actors will only see the full script a couple of days before recording and there was no money in the budget for rehearsal time. It is also important to be realistic about how much emotion we can convey. A couple of the actors, including myself, have received no training in how to act. Believe me it is much harder than it looks!
This week we go into what the professionals call post-production. That is where we make the words which we have recorded as spoken by actors come to life, by a process of editing. Bad takes will be abandoned, lines that did not work will be expunged, context will be added by the inclusion of sound effects. The magic will be done and from this the final product, as good as we can make it, will emerge. It is both an exciting and terrifying process. At the end what we will have is a way of engaging our students in a dialogue around the issues raised in this piece of drama. Real issues, but wrapped in a veneer of fiction.

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I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

In last week’s blog I was talking about how people learn and pointing out that we don’t know as much as we might think about this. My friend Lindsay Wright posted a comment quoting Timothy Galway which suggested that learning involved either changing the way we think or the way we act.
At one level, this seems self-evidently correct. Nobody learns in a social vacuum. We tend to learn for a purpose. For example, if I sign up for dance lessons it is, presumably, because I’d like to improve my dance steps. This is clearly a case of changing the way I act. If, on the other hand, I sign up for a course in philosophy, it is to change the way I think.
Now, of course, whilst all this seems self-evident, I have to ask: is it? For a start there are all sorts of reasons people take educational courses. If people go to dance or gym classes, they may well want to learn something that changes the way they act, or their motivation may be nothing to do with learning to dance, but rather a way of meeting other people. Far from changing the way we act, that learning might simply be reinforcing a pre-existing pattern of behaviour.
And, if we extend this to the example of philosophy, and sorry to disappoint all my philosopher friends, but whilst students of philosophy may be motivated by a desire to change the way they think, many will simply continue to believe and think as they did before. They may know a bit more about Aristotle, Kant, Marx or Rawls, but their fundamental mode of thinking may not alter at all.
I think what this provides an example of is what the sociologist Robert Merton called ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. The manifest function of learning is the learning itself, what we learn; but, the latent functions of learning can be many things, including social acceptance, higher esteem, relationship formation etc. In defining learning in a formal sense as an activity likely to result in a change in thinking or doing, we exclude many learning activities that do neither of these things. Indeed, the majority of education, including higher education, which purports to be about learning is indeed about teaching – not quite the happy bedfellows we might have imagined.
Which brings us back to an earlier point concerning the relationship between teaching and learning. Teachers might like to think that they change the way people act and/or think, and in some instances they might do so, but should that be their aim? Is it my goal when confronting a group of students to change the way they act or the way they think? Should I consider it a failure if I fail to do so?
So much teaching is concerned mainly with passing exams, that we have slid into a lethargic acceptance of results as the only measure of success. Many HE teachers will claim that their students only really care about their mark, but who can blame them? If learning is no longer about thinking or acting, but merely acquiring, then it is inevitable that students will only take part in activities that seem to increase their chance of success. For the teacher with a passion for their subject this raises a dilemma: how to convey that passion?
Perhaps an answer is to be found by subverting a quote which I think came from sociologist Stanley Cohen. Our job is not to tell our students what to think, but rather to give them an idea what to think about. If we can do that successfully then it is possible that the latent side-effect of our teaching will, indeed, be a change in the way they act or think.

Think (about your pedagogy)

“What is your pedagogical viewpoint?” might sound like the World’s worst chat-up line, but it is a question worth considering. Most people go into teaching with some sort of ideal about what they want to achieve. Nobody enters teaching for the financial rewards, which is not to say the pay is awful. Compared to many workers university teachers are both well paid and well looked after. But not to the extent that somebody who was money-mad would be interested.
Neither is teaching likely, in most cases, to result in public adulation. Sure, students can be grateful and a handful of academics develop lucrative TV careers. But, on the whole teachers, even good teachers, remain under-valued. We are not rock stars, that’s for sure.
So, what drives us to teach? What values underpin our teaching? What do we think about when we think about teaching? Here, I shall make a confession. When I was first employed in a higher education institution, I had no teaching qualification, at the time I didn’t even have a Ph.D., generally considered the minimum entry requirement for a career in H.E.
It never occurred to me that I needed a teaching qualification. I had an idea that being a “lecturer” was simply an extension of “careers” I had had in the past. I was a confident public speaker, both from years spent working as a club DJ and from my involvement in politics. I thought this and a commitment to my students was enough to get me through. My poor students! How they suffered as I learned my art.
If you had asked me back in those heady days about my pedagogy I would not have had a clue what you were talking about. If I had worked out that it was something to with my philosophy of teaching, I might have muttered something about being ‘student centred’. Looking back, I’m rather relieved nobody asked me, its never pleasant making yourself look an arse is it?
One reason I wasn’t asked, of course, was that the question never occurred to any of my colleagues, nor to my interview panel. But, shouldn’t that question be asked of anybody who wants to make a living teaching? Would we be happy with a pilot who had no experience of flying being employed to fly a 747? Or, a surgeon, who had some vague idea that he might like to use a scalpel, being let loose on real patients? Yet, to some extent that is exactly what we do with teachers in higher education.
As teachers we can improve through practice, through professional development and by watching others. But, students only get one chance at their education. They are not there to meet the new improved you the next time. Don’t we owe it to them to try to get it right from the start? Of course, there is something to be said for learning from experience, but that is only true if we are reflexive in the first place.
Come on, anybody who works or studies in a university can name staff who despite being high profile researchers are a disaster in front of students. They get away with it because it remains the case that research is more highly valued by academics than teaching. If you are a lecturer, what would you rather do: teach or do research? If you are a student who would you rather be taught by: the professor with the string of book titles to their name or the recently appointed, enthusiastic young lecturer with commitment and energy?
If you are a lecturer the answer is not pedagogic, but strategic. Do you want a career or not? For students, I suggest you think carefully about what you wish for. So, when asked about my pedagogical outlook I find it difficult to answer mainly because it is not a question I have spent anything like enough time thinking about.