Higher Ed Teacher In Health Sciences
Tuesday, April 29th, 2014
ENGAGED PEDAGOGY and THE RADICAL POTENTIAL
OF THE CLASSROOM
Edited notes from session
If our purpose is to improve our students’ learning – to improve their engagement with knowledge through our engagement with pedagogy then we must experiment and be creative. Doing things differently is risky. But doing things the same is also risky.
We know that the teacher in the classroom makes the difference to students’ educational experiences – we make real the University every time we walk into a classroom. We are the means by which the University achieves its objective of high quality education.
Paul Ashwin (podcast) concluded from a major research project that: ‘quality in higher education is about engaging with academic knowledge in transformative ways, in ways that transform the student’s sense of who they are and what their engagement with the world is’. And the research team were not surprised to find that ‘good teaching was absolutely essential to this, in developing this transformative relationship to knowledge; that teaching which engaged students and made demands of them and asked them to engage with difficult knowledge was crucial to this process of transformation’.
We take into the classroom every decision that’s been made about our programmes – good or bad – what it’s called, how it’s constructed and organised, the philosophy that informs it, its resources, its history – and its sense of itself. Disciplines, and types of programme, remain very important to students. Interdisciplinary modules are becoming more important and students’ needs differ across disciplines, so we need to carefully evaluate them.
Our teaching is affected by all sorts of decisions, such as the time the teaching day begins, how well our systems support our needs, the learning and teaching strategy, the latest QAA report or NSS scores.
It might be that our classroom is not a classroom at all– it could as easily be the operating theatre, the geography field trip, the laboratory, the homeless persons’ shelter or the secure mental health unit – where our students are learning, under our aegis.
And all of those things influence how we can teach and oblige us to teach in certain ways. The project or work placement bring with them a culture, a set of beliefs and values, a hidden curriculum – which often provides what David Beckett calls memorable ‘hot learning’, of the moment – and different contexts lend themselves to different responses from students. Students adapt in any number of ways to very different sets of expectations. We and they manage those changes. We see HE in all its brilliance, with all its shortcomings and we usually, together, make it work.
But there is difficult work to be done around ideas, or forms of knowledge which themselves look straightforward when contextualised in even more difficult problems in the world. Sometimes our students are confronting themselves and their own problems with learning.The classroom then, is a special place – time out from work or practice, a safe place to talk openly, to criticise, to share doubts and worries, to be, to think, to feel part of a critical, questioning, intellectual community.
But it’s an uncomfortable fact that not all our students do well in HE – or as well as others who started off in similar circumstances, as this HEA report by Jaqueline Stevenson details regarding the BME attainment gap. Similarly the challenges facing mature students are outlined by Million+ and NUS. We need to keep working to understand these phenomena and how to best intervene.
So what’s this got to do with the radical potential of the classroom?
I hope to persuade you that engaged pedagogy not only has radical potential, but is inherently radical as a concept. By inverting and subverting the didactic norms and rules – and power relations – things change and go on changing. The teacher moves out of the distant (safe) place into the classroom – among, alongside, with – doing and being, struggling, discussing, not knowing all the answers….with their students.
Doing so opens us up to questions and to challenges and makes us explain – and in doing so places us alongside our students in their difficult work, their ‘thinking’ work.
We become ‘we’ in relation to each other and in relation to others, and in relation to problems and challenges that we face outside the classroom. We view the problems, albeit for the moment, from a shared standpoint. Julia Swindells described being ‘revolutionary friends’.
So many discourses surrounding and infiltrating HE is positioning students as autonomous, self interested agents, individuals, alone in a tough world who need to get ahead, get ‘the edge’ over others, to stand out….to see their education as a means to an end. Yet for most of us, the most exciting aspect of HE is its community/ies, our networks – and our students are part of those.
David Foster Wallace, in the wonderful This is Water, said to students graduating from Kenyon College in 2005: ‘it is my default setting to think it’s all about me and I am the centre of my world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities. There are different ways to think, it is a choice, it takes will and effort, but you can choose to look differently..’ ‘if you learn how to think, you will know you have other options.. that life is about love, fellowship, the mystical one-ness of all things’ ‘that is real freedom – and it’s nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with awareness’
So the rest of this talk will be about ‘flipping’ and how far we might stretch the idea – what it is, how to do it, and why we want to.
What is it?At its most straightforward, anything that constitutes ‘information transmission’ in a flipped classroom is done in numerous ways other than one person standing in front of others, telling them things. Then the time that would have been spent telling them things, is available for, exploring the ideas, discussing the reasoning behind the ideas, looking at more difficult parts of the work, sharing different interpretations, trying out applications and so on.
David Read is a well known classroom-flipper: students work at chemistry problems using short videos, tests, and other creative resources and come to the classroom to discuss their reasoning, and barriers encountered. The teacher becomes the ‘guide by the side, not the sage on the stage’.
In doing so – straightforwardly changing the way we use classroom time together – we stand to learn much more about the thresholds students encounter.
So what is it? It’s an idea to help us be creative in NOT standing and delivering, when we can be ‘we’ and do more interesting things together.
How? Typically, information transmission precedes discussion. In healthcare, examples of existing, high quality resources might include Yasmin Gunaratnam’s films
But we can also flip in the classroom space and time – we can access materials in the class, which are good to pursue, to read, watch, critique. If it’s crucial that students watch or read, we can track to see who has watched / answered questions. We can structure reflections in private or in small groups and organise time in the classroom to incorporate ideas of flipping.
I often use the student’s sources and ideas. In the process of sharing they become more discerning of the many online sources and types of creator. But let’s stretch the idea. Beyond the classroom to the curriculum.
In health, our own form of flipping is to place ‘practice’ early in the curriculum. So when I’m teaching something about the construction of health systems, we have examples and I can be challenged.
Co-designing with students – our own global health module was designed with medical students. See ‘against value’ and the ‘post crash society’ below.
When you start to stand side by side, not at a distance, when you start to connect your teaching practice with your teaching topic/ subject, when you place your teaching in the thick of ‘real world’ problems – with their practical, ethical and political dimensions – then you become implicated in those problems. We embody our knowledge – and our interpretations and questions – in our practice of teaching.
So how, is however – however you can dissolve the theory / practice idea, however you close the distance, engage with and be by the side of, literally and metaphorically, with eyes open to the problems and the possibilities, learning how things look from the student’s vantage point.
However you can think through what you know – exactly what you know – the unspoken and unwritten ‘rules’ and make them visible, debated – and ask whether they are good rules, good benchmarks, with student’s interests at their heart. The ‘decoding the disciplines’ work helps us to look afresh at what we often take for granted in our own disciplines.
Why? Expectations of graduates are high – interviews, presentations even for unpaid internships – they need to be able to express themselves. They need to engage technologically and use social media responsibly and to feel confident.
It’s our job to make learning interesting. A rollicking good lecture is wonderful. And watching online is not the same. BUT the lecture is part of what we do and ought not define what we do, or be the default.
We have the same duty we have always had for making our education the best we can, but access to HE is changing. For many this will be their most significant experience of higher education as a result of ELQs, fewer mature students meaning fewer courses for mature students, fewer part time programmes or step-on/step-off, employers co-funding will place conditions on learning, MOOCs may or may not last. So the education we offer them needs to do its job really well and create lifelong learners.
Finally – because good teaching means continually engaging with new forms of practice and with communities of practice. Here are some you may want to learn more about:
So if new ideas, approaches, technology and social media aren’t changing how we teach and how we conceptualise our teaching then we need to ask ourselves why – to appreciate and understand the power and importance of our teaching.