All entries for July 2010

July 21, 2010

Post–session reflection on 'Reflection on Practice with newly–appointed academics'

Follow-up to Reflection on Practice with newly–appointed academics from Alison's blog

I changed things at the very last minute! As I was thinking through the session just before it was about to start, I decided that I needed to adhere to my principle of not asking participants to do something I needed to model beforehand. In this particular context, it was also important for me to provide input and content, not just elicit responses from the participants. So while originally I had planned to use the three case studies as material for individual participants, at the last moment I decided to demonstrate Biggs' stages of the reflective process myself, using one of my early PCAPP workshops as an example. That allowed me to model the process using Biggs' framework which seemed to work well. However, it left me with a problem, because doing that meant that I had no chance of getting through what I had planned in the allocated ten minutes! So a bit of quick thinking... I gave out the case studies, allocated each to individual participants, gave a minute for them to read them through and then decided I could just run with one of them, so asked for a volunteer to summarise the problem his/her case study articulated. Then I invited everybody to contribute to going through the reflective stages together, all focusing on that one case study. Of course, that meant that the other two case studies weren't actually used, although I guess just having them there served a purpose of inviting further reflection once the session was over. I got it all done with ten seconds to spare! But since here in this blog post my task is to monitor, fine tune and change things for future occasions, if necessary, then on another occasion I would just prepare one case study and everyone would look at the same one. Either that, or I would offer the three and we would come to a common concensus about which one to use (although just doing that is time consuming). I wonder too whether I allowed one of the participants to be slightly left out and could have worked harder at including this person and inviting their contributions.

I was pleased the participants contributed willingly and thoughtfully. In the question time afterwards it became apparent that these were, in fact, familiar scenarios to them, so that introducing a structured way of thinking about them should have been quite useful (given their 'newbie' status). One question struck me in particular, and I have mulled it over considerably since the session. A participant asked if I thought there was one, or maybe more than one, defining characteristic of a 'good' teacher or lecturer. Gosh. I've not been asked that before and it's fascinating. At one level, it's impossible to answer, but that's just not good enough. We must know what goes to make a good teacher, or the whole of our profession and my field of expertise is thrown into question. I said, thinking on my feet (again!) that I thought the awareness of the other was probably the most important thing for me. By that, I meant much more than simple consciousness, but an awareness of what's going on, that there are real live people in front of us when we teach, who have questions, get bored or tired, can't follow, need help... On reflection now, I wonder whether I meant something perhaps better articulated as 'connectedness'. I think the mark of a good teacher is someone who connects with his/her students, doesn't see them as bodies to perform to (as in theatre), doesn't see them as animate yet largely passive recipients of the 'gift' of content he/she has to bestow, but instead sees them as beings who are in the process of growing and developing, and the teacher's role in this is crucial. I guess I'm really trying to articulate the principles behind social constructivism, or behind student-centred learning. I shall go on thinking about that.

As always, comments are welcome. What does anyone else think about the hallmark(s) of a good teacher/lecturer?

Another topic that we touched on so briefly it wasn't possible to follow up was that of the use of games for learning. I have been looking at that a bit while I've been reading in preparation for writing the paper on Visitors and Residents with Dave White, as we challenge Prensky's Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. Dave and I need to talk more about this. Prensky comes from a gaming background, but Dave reckons that the link between gaming and learning is very tenuous. Interesting, and something else to pursue.

Again, any comments from anyone?

July 18, 2010

Reflection on Practice with newly–appointed academics

I have to prepare and present a 10 minute session on the topic of 'Reflection on Practice'. Gosh. 10 minutes. The 'audience' will be small, but a group representing a variety of subject disciplines. So here I am, planning and reflecting on the session that I am gradually preparing.

I plan to use Case Studies, one for each participant, and each from a different subject discipline. Since these are newly-appointed academics, they may not have an enormous amount of experience to draw on, and I am reminded of Biggs' assertion that all reflection requires experience. I can see what he means but dislike the implication that the ability of new lecturers to reflect on their practice is therefore hampered! However, since this is the first time that I will have met this group, and as I have been assured that they really are 'newbies', providing case studies that I hope they can relate to may be a way of giving them something to reflect on.

I have chosen three typical scenarios, ones which I have encountered quite regularly.

a) someone faced with lecturing to very large classes in a fairly straight-laced discipline, who finds the traditional lecture very restricting and one which presents challenges to his/her desire for student interaction, but whose attempts at opening up subjects for discussion fall flat on their face due to the class size and location.

b) someone who is excited about the potential Second Life has for their Art and Design class, but who has discovered that the time taken to induct students into its mysteries eats into class time. There is also a small section of the student body which has reacted quite unfavourably to using Second Life in class at all.

c) a newly-appointed Polish medic who, despite having studied and worked in the UK, has retained a strong accent. He/she has students in his/her class for whom English is their second, if not third or fourth language, and many never ask or answer questions. The medic is worried that they don't understand him/her, but the only way she can think of handling the situation is by providing photocopies of his/her powerpoint and hoping that they find a way of keeping up.

I will write out these Case Studies in advance and give one to each participant. They are very brief, so it should only take them a minute or two to read them. Then I plan to ask them to think of one more 'problem' or challenge that that academic might face in that particular situation. My intention is that this will help to personalise the learning.

I will then present Biggs' cycle of reflective practice:

    1. Defining the problem
    2. Implementing a change
    3. Monitoring the change
    4. Fine tuning
    5. Discussion with a critical friend

    I plan to ask each person to think of one way of addressing (implementing a change) one of the problems I have given them. What are the advantages and potential drawbacks? This will provide them with a way of monitoring the change (point 'c'). I also plan to give them a handout with Bigg's model of reflective practice as another reference point, and something which they can take away and think about (reflect on!).

    Lastly, I will ask the participants to discuss together their tentative 'solutions' to the problem, hence engaging them in discussion with a critical friend. I will make the point that peer observation and feedback is a very valuable way of enhancing their teaching, and I would recommend they find a group of 'buddies' who will function in this way for each other.

    So, my pre-session reflection...

    A big challenge is going to be to keep within the 10 minutes. However, I think I have achieved what I want to in the plan: I want the participants to be engaged and to interact with me and each other; I want to give them some solid content as well as a reference point if they choose to follow it up, so I have gone for Biggs; I also want to take my brief seriously. I mustn't ask or expect too much from these participants. They are new to the profession (although I guess some of them may simply be newly appointed to the university and come with extensive experience from elsewhere... help! In which case I will have to draw on that experience...) and come from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines.  Another challenge might be that they feel slightly uncomfortable role playing, and if they do, then I will feel uncomfortable about having asked them to role play! I must be prepared to come out of the role play situation if that seems appropriate, and certainly be prepared to allow the session to move out of the role play if that's the direction it moves in. Can I anticipate anything else that might go wrong? (One of the most valuable things I learnt when training to teach English as a Foreign Language was to focus on 'anticipated problems' in my lesson planning. In some senses, it is easier to do in an EFL context, but with some practice, it has proved a really useful tool in all my teaching and facilitating, both before and during a class or workshop.) For the moment, I can't think of anything. I will come back and add something later if it comes to mind.

    July 14, 2010

    The reflective teacher

    I have been refreshing my memory of John Bigg's book, Teaching for Quality Learning at University (2003, 2nd edition). I always find it helpful to copy out some of the content which I find most useful, thought-provoking, stimulating, etc. Below are some of the aspects I have picked out in relation to reflective practice.

    Biggs, John, Teaching for Quality Learning at University, 2nd edition, Maidenhead: SRHE and Open University Press, 2003.

    P20. The 3P model draws attention to three sources that might affect the learning outcome: a direct effect from the student-based factors, another direct effect from the teaching-based factors, and an interactive effect from the system as a whole. Each of these ways of determining learning forms a theory of how teaching works.

    1. Learning is a function of individual differences between students.

    2. Learning is a function of teaching.

    3. Learning is the result of students’ learning-focused activities which are engaged by students as a result both of their own perceptions and inputs, and of the total teaching context.

    These different ‘theories’ of teaching are in order of complexity and sophistication, and so we refer to them as ‘levels’. They include what others call intentions or conceptions (Trigwell and Prosser 1996).

    Teachers tend to hold these theories at different points in their teaching career, some progressing to level 3, others staying at levels 1 or 2. They describe a sequence in the development of teaching skill: a route map towards reflective teaching, if you like, where the level at which you operate depends on what you focus on as most important.


    Level 1. Focus: what the student is

    At level 1, teaching is held constant—it is transmitting information, usually by lecturing—so differences in learning are due to differences between students in ability, motivation, what sort of school they went to. Ability is usually seen as the most important factor.

    Level 2. Focus: what the teacher does

    This view of teaching is still based on transmission, but of concepts and understandings not jus of information. The responsibility for ‘getting it across’ now rests to a significant extent on what the teacher does. The possibility is entertained that there may be more effective ways of teaching than what one is currently doing. Learning is seen as more a function of what the teacher is doing than of what sort of student one has to deal with.

    Level 3. Focus: what the student does.

    Teachers at level 3 focus on all the components in the systems, in particular on what the student does at process and product, and how that relates to teaching. Level 3 sees teaching as supporting learning. No longer is it possible to say: ‘I taught them, but they didn’t learn.’ Expert teaching includes mastery over a variety of teaching techniques, but unless learning takes place, they are irrelevant: the focus is on what the student does, on what learning is or is not going on.


    A reflective teacher starts with three important components:

    1. Experience. You cannot reflect on a blank slate.

    2. Deep content knowledge. You cannot teach effectively if you don’t know your subject content very well indeed.

    3. A level 3 theory of teaching. As a level 3 teacher you say: ‘Why aren’t they learning? How can I get them to be relevantly active? That is the sort of theory we want here, one that focuses on what the student does. This is a cyclical process; you keep looking at what they do, what they achieve, and link that with what you are doing. You get to know your students as learners very well.

    There are several outcomes:

    1. Teaching is enhanced, eventually. You may need several goes at the problem.

    2. Experience is enriched. Each go at the problem adds to your store of experiences

    3. The teaching theory is enriched. Using the theory in action makes you realize which aspects of the theory work and which do not.


    There are three questions that the teacher, to be reflective, needs to ask:

    1. What is my espoused theory of teaching?

    2. Is my current practice in keeping with my theory? How can my theory help me teach more effectively?

    3. What, within myself or in my context, is preventing me from teaching the way I should be teaching?


    We are back at the two faces of good teaching:

    1. Promoting those factors that support the deep approach, which we now know to be about getting students to be relevantly active, and constructive alignment is a good way of doing that.

    2. Eliminating those factors that support the surface approach, which were discussed in Chapter 4.


    Further steps. We will use an action learning structure to define and then attack your problem.

    1. Defining the problem. … The issue is what the students are doing: are they doing what you don’t want them to do, or not doing what you do want them to do?
      So the first step is to reflect on the problem, using the constructive alignment theory in Chapter 2, which addresses both students’ learning behaviour, and the design of your teaching. Examine your problem in these terms, hypothesize as to the possible reasons for it, and possible solutions. The process can be made much easier with the help of a ‘critical friend; (see below).

    2. Implementing a change

    3. Monitoring the change
      Before putting the change into effect, you need to decide how you are going to make sure that what you are proposing to do will be effective. It is necessary to observe systematically what is going on, to know where you and/or the student behaviour started from, and where it ends up after the change has been implemented.

    4. Fine tuning.
      Action learning recycles: you try something, see if it works, then try again with a slight variation. You will be unlikely to get something as complex as teaching right first time, so it is a matter of looking back over your observations, after you have implemented the change you had decided to make, and see how things are going. Did matters improve? If not, or if not enough, what might have been the problem?

    5. The role of critical friend
      Reflection is often not best carried out alone. You have been living with the problem possibly for some time and may be the last person to find out about it.

    I like Biggs' general approach, although sometimes I find him a little sweeping and over enthusiastic in the presentation of his position and views. He bases a lot of his argument on Marton and Saljo's notion of Deep and Surface level learning, which again I have a lot of respect for and, indeed, have turned to and used in my own publications (see elsewhere in this blog). However, I am surprised that Biggs appears to dismiss surface level learning altogether. It seems to me that both are important, and that Deep learning on its own, while almost certainly of a greater 'quality', however one would like to define that, is inadequate. We need to have a grasp of content, to be able to remember facts and figures, to store information and knowledge, and be able to reproduce it. The risk with a Deep approach to teaching and learning that Biggs advocates is that we sacrifice this dimension, or at least downplay it to the point of it no longer playing the role it should. I would favour an approach which emphasises both dimensions. (As I write this, I am reminded of a paper I think Biggs himself wrote about the 'Brainy Asian'. In it, he reported on a research project he and others had conducted which investigated why it was that a small group of Chinese learners appeared to do much better academically and intellectually than both their peers and most Westerners. His interest was spurred by the fact that Chinese education was principally by rote learning (and therefore tended to foster a surface approach to learning) while Western education systems valued and practised learning from experience and reflection (fostering a deep 'meaningful' approach). The 'Brainy Asians' somehow managed to bring both approaches together with the result that they were far better learners and developed in an exceptional manner. How ironic that this message doesn't come through in his book, even though he does explore aspects of it in his chapter on Teaching International Students! Unless, of course, I've got it wrong somewhere...)

    Secondly, although I think I concur with Biggs' statement that experience is indispensible to the process of reflection, it does beg the question of what that means for new and inexperienced teachers and lecturers. I suppose everyone has the experience of being at the 'learning' end of the teacher-learner relationship and so has that experience to draw on, but I really can't agree with the implication of his assertion for 'beginners'.

    I guess I would place myself as a Level 3 teacher, in Biggs' hierarchy. I am very much a facilitator, someone who does focus on what the student does, yet I am aware too of weaknesses that I want to strengthen. Maybe my comments about surface learning relate to these, since I don't have a good memory, can find it hard to recall facts and content, and can be unconfident about my 'deep knowledge' of the subject matter (although in reality that is not the case). For me, the biggest challenge to come out of this reading is Biggs' assertion that teachers need to be:

    ...clear about:

    1. What it means to 'understand' content in the way we want it to be understood';

    2. What kind of teaching/learning activities are required to reach those kinds of understandings.

    Now I have a lot to go and reflect on!

    July 07, 2010

    New idea

    Follow-up to PCAPP Assessment Practice and Strategies workshop, June 24th; post–workshop reflection from Alison's blog

    I have continued to ponder on this session in the couple of weeks since it took place. I have been wrestling with the fact that such a great variety of needs, expectations, preferences, subject disciplines, backgrounds, nationalities, ages... are generally represented in these workshops that it is a huge challenge to get positive feedback from everyone and indeed, a huge challenge to organise a session in which everyone will benefit to the maximum for themselves. Yet this is a challenge I want to rise to and I'm not content simply to shrug my shoulders and say 'Win some, lose some', or 'I can't please everyone'.

    I recently did a Return to Teaching course organised by the Training and Development Agency. It's a course intended to get erstwhile but qualified school teachers back into the classroom after a lengthy period out. It attracts women who want to get back to teaching after raising their children, people seeking to return to the classroom after redundancy, or a career break, or various other things. I found it really useful. One complete morning was spent on 'differentiation'. Geoff Petty ( states that:

    Differentiation is the process by which differences between learners are accommodated so that all students in a group have the best possible chance of learning. We used to teach subjects and classes - now we teach students.

    I was intrigued and inspired by some of the ways in which some of the teachers I observed managed to keep all the children in their classes motivated and stretched, often without having to put significant extra effort in, or providing a huge number of additional resources.

    I wonder whether the same idea could, even should, be applied to PCAPP. Can I 'differentiate' between the participants so that all of them are stretched and motivated, learning the maximum they can by attending the session. It's a tall order, and I need to do quite a lot more reading about differentiation in order to see what I might be able to put into place.

    One idea that I am playing with now, though, is the idea of using Problem Based Learning PBL) for my Assessment session. Wikipedia actually provides quite a good introductory summary to PBL, as follows:

    Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered instructional strategy in which students collaboratively solve problems and reflect on their experiences. It was pioneered and used extensively at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada as well as the Monterrey Institute of Technology ITESM. The Materials department at Queen Mary, University of London was the first Materials department in the UK to introduce PBL.[1]

    PBL is based on the educational theories of Vygotsky, Dewey, and others, and is related to social-cultural constructivist theories of learning and instructional design.

    Characteristics of PBL are:

    • Learning is driven by challenging, open-ended, ill-defined and ill-structured, practical problems.

    • Students generally work in collaborative groups. Problem based learning environments may be designed for individual learning.

    • Teachers take on the role as "facilitators" of learning.

    • Instructional activities are based on learning strategies involving semantic reasoning, case based reasoning, analogical reasoning, causal reasoning, and inquiry reasoning, These activities include creating stories; reasoning about cases; concept mapping; causal mapping; cognitive hypertext crisscrossing; reason analysis unredoing; analogy making; and question generating;

    In PBL, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their group and organize and direct the learning process with support from a tutor or instructor. Advocates of PBL claim it can be used to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skill.

    PBL positions students in simulated real world working and professional contexts which involve policy, process, and ethical problems that will need to be understood and resolved to some outcome. By working through a combination of learning strategies to discover the nature of a problem, understanding the constraints and options to its resolution, defining the input variables, and understanding the viewpoints involved, students learn to negotiate the complex sociological nature of the problem and how competing resolutions may inform decision-making.

    Support systems, which include resources germane to the problem domain as well as instructional staff, are provided to scaffold students skills "just in time" and within their learning comfort zone (Vygotsky's Zone of Proximity)

    Could I adopt a PBL approach for my workshop? How would it work... I would need to think about how to set up the problem itself, or probably have two or three problems so that participants do actually encounter thinking about a range of assessment-related issues. But it would mean that those who prefer a more formal 'lecture-style' session could possibly get that through video-casts, podcasts, and even a specialist lecturer who comes in for a short time; while others could get immersed in group work, finding the answer to their problem through engagement with a diverse range of resources that I could provide, including myself. Something to think about. If anyone has an observation or comment, please do contribute!

    July 2010

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