Category Archives: Learning

Hopefulness or not?

I don’t know where the last year went other than into a busy working life. I think my last blog piece was in April last year. Part of my plan for the blog was to remind myself how to write, and use the blog as a way of keeping writing. Keeping writing seems to have been a bust! At least in blog terms. Although I have been working on a couple of individual pieces for publication, done an introduction to a proceedings and am editing (with colleagues) a collection for SEDA, so maybe writing has still been going on.

My daily working life is one which is fairly full with a lot of reading, writing, presenting, talking, thinking aloud and generally trying to keep up with the busy-ness of developing professional staff and understanding (and helping others understand) the sector I work in. I mostly, most of the time, enjoy what I do. Of late, working has taken over far more of my other time (for my partner, my cat, my house, my sense of self, my connection with friends and novels and the world beyond work – yes there is one, honestly!) and in particular seems to have left me with little time for thinking.

I read two things recently which have pushed me back to this blog and to thinking through writing (and writing to think), and about the future of higher education, as well as my own future place in HE.

The first piece I read was a blog about hope and despair (or not) and higher education in the USA I thought the piece was sad, but I recognised too a familiar sense of hanging in there by the fingernails that is echoed by many of those I know working in HE in various countries round the world. All we can do is teach, and write and try to make small differences and not be overcome by the pressures of governments and money to undermine any values HE provides, and the despair of a world that seems to grow less fair, less equal and more divided. The author doesn’t believe they can change the world for the better through their work, but there is a sense of trying (not despairing) to make small differences to individuals.

The other piece I read was an article about being an academic reflecting on the impact of overwork on health and trying to find some balance. I was reminded of the besetting problem faced by those whose work is often cerebral – we separate our bodies and our brains so very effectively that our bodies have to shout at us, very loudly, to be heard (usually by laying us flat!) . My own body has been sending me signals for a while now, and I’m trying to listen, but the bruises from a recent fall are a strong reminder that I wasn’t listening very well!

It seems to me that HE is at a crisis point (which may take 20 years to actually fully show). Governments have/are ‘tinkering’ and the ideological shape of that tinkering has yet to be understood. Technology is radically changing the sources and ownership of knowledge. Economic changes and approaches are driving students expectations, managerial processes and professional practices to such an extent that HE is already very different to how it was even 20 years ago. Not all the changes are negative; in fact the partnership between students and staff in Universities and the opening of HE to a far wider range of participants (both as students and as academics) is a bright light in murky waters.

But we can’t go on hoping it will all go away and everything will return to normal. And I’m definitely not convinced that the increased managerialism and business-minded approaches that seem to be advocated as an alternative are in any way suitable for education at any level.

Education changes lives. Education opens doors. Education creates citizens and revolutionaries. Education is scary, and beautiful. Those who are educated ask questions, they think, they interact, they explore creative solutions. Universities are full of educated people, so surely the answers are already seeded in the minds and hearts of those people. If we are at a crisis point, we should be well placed to identify creative solutions. We shouldn’t be despairing the end of HE as we know it, but imagining and even creating the future HE as it could (and maybe will?) be.


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Ramblings about reading and writing and learning

Interesting article about writing and speech:

I am always a fan of reading work aloud to rewrite it, which the author advocates. However, I’ve also marked a number of pieces of work in my life written by students using their spoken understanding of language, and their accents, and pronunciation can lead to some real confusion (‘being’ written as ‘been’ for example, because that’s how it is said in parts of the North East of England). So while I I am a strong advocate of making sense of writing through speech, and writing in far more straightforward ways than many academics seem to favour, I also believe that people also write better if they read. Many of the students who wrote ‘been’ were not readers. They would not normally read novels, or even read a newspaper regularly. They read, with some difficulty the academic texts they were directed towards. They often commented on how these texts and articles were difficult to understand, and in fact when writing an academic critique would sometimes comment on something being ‘badly written’ because they didn’t understand the conceptual thinking the author was expressing.

I would often find myself discussing with these students the challenge of writing about concepts and complex theoretical ideas in simple ways. I would also suggest that reading academic writing was like doing aerobics of the brain – if you practice and practice it gets easier and you get better at it, and your academic reading muscles become much more flexible. However, sometimes I probably agreed with the students assessment – some academic writers were not communicating their ideas very well.

I also admit to a real concern that these same students would learn how to write from these academic articles and from the feedback I and my colleagues provided on their written work. If that is all the input they have on what good writing is, what do they learn?

This seems to me to be an argument for getting students reading non-academic material – in the US some universities have ‘common reading programmes’ for all first year students, often with a book (usually fiction) agreed for all new students before they arrive. These are often novels which provoke discussion and thinking and students are provided with opportunities to discuss the book as a group. Admittedly USA degree programmes are more likely to be 4 years (in England, and much of Europe programmes are usually 3 year), which gives time for the first year to be about orientation and broader education. Whereas a 3 year programme means hitting the discipline ground running, making it hard to get agreement across an institution that taking the time for general reading would have value. But we also face ongoing frustrations from academics who teach about the writing abilities of the students. We can’t expect school (Pre-18) education to do everything, but should we expect them to get students’ reading and writing ready for HE? I’m not sure they do expect this in the USA, and if they do there is still room for ongoing engagement with reading, given their common reading programme. I wonder if we should learn something from this?

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Thinking about subject disciplines and assessment

A percentage of my work involves helping academics in HE think about the design of their teaching and assessment. My priority in this work is helping them explore the variety of ways they can create good learning environments for their students, and can help the wide range of students now in HE in the UK to succeed. However, there are days when I feel deeply frustrated about the ways in which the cultures and codes of disciplines constrain imagination and creative teaching. Of course on good days it’s the other way round: discipline perspectives and ideas produce a richness which enhances teaching and learning.

I work with staff from a breadth of discipline areas and have learned to approach ideas and issues in different ways (heh, sometimes I even dress differently when I work with different discipline teams!). Ive learned too, to value the variety of ways of thinking that come from different subjects and approaches. Sometimes taking a good idea from one area and translating it to another is a deeply satisfying part of my job.

Today hasn’t been one of those good days though. I’ve had a conversation about assessment in science and listened to a really forward thinking teacher argue that they should have more exams in their faculty because that’s what other science faculties in other universities do. I tried to suggest that maybe they were ahead of the game and other universities should be copying them (not the other way round) but apparently they don’t want to be outliers. I was also informed that employers in these disciplines like exams too.

But there is plenty of evidence that exams (of the blind time constrained kind, which is what was being advocated) don’t actually test what graduates (in any discipline) need to know. Being good at exams is a very useful skill for passing exams! It appears to have little real transferable learning to offer (unlike presentations, project reports, practicals, and even, to some extent, essays). In a modern world, having a good memory for facts (vital for success in exams) is a far less useful tool than having good research skills (relevant for projects and essays for example) or being able to build or produce something (practicals). There is fairly strong evidence that exams tend to encourage surface and rote learning, but we keep being told that our employers and our society want deep thinking, analytical, adaptable, reflective, creative workers and citizens.

In a UK post 1992 University, where many students have already done relatively badly in conventional exams before they get to the University (it has always interested me how many students having done badly at school under an exam model blossom in a HE context which is not too wedded to exams), using an exam method only reinforces their lack of success, whereas one of the potential advantage of some modern university learning is that it provides an environment for enabling students from diverse backgrounds to flourish and succeed.

It is frustrating to me that this retrograde thinking in favour of a return to a traditional assessment model, ‘because that’s what other science programmes do’, runs alongside a context where promoting diversity in assessment and encouraging the idea that assessment can improve learning has been on the table for quite while! And where so many good developments in both teaching and assessment have been happening across all disciplines, including science.

If you are interested in ways to think about assessment in the sciences, its worth looking at Phil Race’s guide. He also suggests ways to make exams as effective as possible so this isn’t an anti exam guide! It’s available here

NB just in case anyone wondered, Im not against exams per se. In fact, oddly enough, I was pretty good at them myself (i’ve not had a use for that particular skill for a fair number of years though!)

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Thinking organisations

Can a whole organisation be a thinking environment (Klein,2009)? And how might we achieve this?

I’m not going to answer these two questions by the way; at least not today! Instead I’m going to think about the questions a bit more. That might be frustrating, but if the idea is to encourage thinking, then that’s where I’m going to start. (but if anyone out there has already done the thinking and has some answers, please share!)

In a recent conversation with a friend who had also attended the thinking environment workshop with me (see previous posts on thinking environments, 1 and 2), he talked about the need to create thinking time within the whole system or organisation. It seems that higher education, at least in the UK at the moment, is full of small actions and behaviours which are not coming from deep thinking, but which have significant impact. Our thinking is all over the place. How can a system based on the notion of deep thinking and deep learning, (maybe it is a separate discussion to unpack whether ‘higher’ learning is intrinsically deeper learning) be so focused on surface thinking and actions?

In another conversation, with a different friend, who also works in HE, we bewailed the frustrating and unconsidered institutional mind. It’s like a HE institution actually has a mind of its own, it’s not the people in it who are deciding on actions but the being that is the institution. And these institution beings are not using deep thinking – if you set them an exam they would be regurgitating random remembered facts as evidence (‘Karl Marx was born in 1818, he wrote the Communist Manifesto’ – in answer to ‘discuss Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism?’). So what impedes thinking? According to Klein: fear.

So what can we do? Klein suggests that several things reduce fear and enable thinking, including: attention (through attentive listening), appreciation, incisive questions, allowing feelings to be expressed, creating ease, and consequentially time to think. But how do we do this for an institution? Where do we start? Answers on a postcard, or better still in the comments box below …

(This blog is partially in response to Klein, N. 2009: More Time to Think and partially in response to interesting conversations with colleagues and friends)

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Writing with personality and passion

This is the kind of blog entry I wish I could write It combines style, creativity, work and the personal. It has feeling as well as evoking feeling in the reader. The writer invites us into her learning world and into a sense of adventure. It also acknowledges weakness but not in a self-indulgent way. It is also interesting! It provokes the reader to go away and think about learning. I found myself thinking about the ways in which we make sense of new learning through the familiar and loved, through our own personal worlds. Mostly we don’t talk about that aspect of learning. This blog piece reminded me that learning is emotional and tangled up with life.

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Thinking Environments 2

Well I had a go at using the thinking environment approach (see Klein (1998) Time to Think, and (2008) More Time to Think) with a group (see previous post dated 4 June for discussion about using it with one to one meetings). Using it with a group was productive. We achieved a lot, enjoyed ourselves and came away with new ideas and a project to work on together to enhance student experience for a specific group. The meeting wasn’t shorter though! I suspect I was really just trying to do too much in an hour and a half (we took two hours).

Feedback from a colleague who participated (and had done the same training workshop on the technique) was that we did two meetings worth of activity and he thought it had worked. All the members of the group were very positive and found the style of meeting very productive. We came away from the meeting with really clear actions, particularly for us as a group. I came out of the meeting feeling pretty buoyant – not always the case with meetings!

The aim of the approach was to focus on giving people space to think effectively and creating conditions for everyone to contribute pretty equally.

Basic structure was :
– a round of ‘what is good for you.’, or ‘what is going well?’ (positive start).
– used a mixture of rounds, ‘listening pairs’ (see Klein’s books for an explanation on how this works), and some discussion, but with respectful listening.
– the discussion came after an individual round where everyone contributed, and after a shared review of the briefing paper on the topic I had sent out in advance. So the discussion was based on everyone’s knowledge. The effect of this seemed to be an incremental building of knowledge and ideas.
– action round, ‘what are you each going to do, and by when?’, ‘what do we need to do?’ – The main notes from the meeting are action points collected from this round.
– ended with a final positive round: I went for, ‘what was successful for you about this meeting?’.

This structure may not sound very different to a lot of other meetings, and I guess it isn’t but some of the difference is about intent. My understanding of this approach is that Klein is arguing for creating a space where people’s thinking can be transformed and to do that we have to address the way we listen, the appreciation we give each other, and the ease we create, so thinking can happen. I don’t think I managed all of this in the way she envisages, but I am working at it, and I’m enjoying trying.

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Thinking Environments

Some while ago I read Nancy Klein’s Time to Think, and found the ideas resonated. Key to her ideas is that we need to work to ‘create the conditions for people to do their own thinking’, which sounds pretty straight forward until you really try to do it. The whole notion probably begins with the idea of transformative listening (there are 10 components, but listening is where you start).

Not long after reading the book, I tweeted about it in the hope of finding people who were working with Klein’s ideas in their own HE context, but didn’t get any responses. I and some colleagues did try out some of the ideas but somewhat halfheartedly.

Earlier this week I attended an all day workshop on the thinking environments approach. A key aspect of the approach is the idea that each person is their own expert and it is in our capacity to create a situation where they can find that expertise – we listen, create space and provide the context for thinking, thus enabling them to access their own expertise. We might need to provide some information, but answers come from them. I really love the idea of this, but find it really quite challenging in practice: I am addicted to providing solutions! To make this approach work for me, I need to let go of my lovely list of possible solutions, which I offer up to folk when they come with an issue, and open up the possibilities for them to find their own, better, solution.

Well, I’ve been having a go, and it seems to work! I actually found it really satisfying rather than a bit frustrating, which, to be honest, is what I sort of secretly expected. I have found it gave me greater respect for the people I worked with in this way. I also felt the time we spent was much more productive. So far, I have only used this approach in 1 to 1 meetings, but my next task is to try it with groups. We’ll see how it goes, and whether I can manage to keep from falling back into my shopping list of solutions approach!

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