All entries for November 2009

November 12, 2009

PCAPP workshops

I am thinking ahead to the two PCAPP workshops I am due to deliver in December. I delivered them both last year, for the first time, soon after I arrived at Warwick. I quickly realised that all was not plain sailing and that I needed to take quick and effective action (see previous blogpost) and one of the measures I took was to move the next session into the Teaching Grid. It made a huge improvement, partly because of the added value of having the technology to play with, partly because it was much more effective at respecting the 'adultness' of participants, and partly because it allowed me to experiment with a different approach to the session.

One of the regulations that the Teaching Grid requires in order for people to use it, is that facilitators/teachers should be trying something out that is innovative. It doesn't need to be innovative within the whole teaching profession, but it does need to be new for the individual concerned, who should be trying out something that he/she hasn't done before. That was clearly the case for me at that workshop. The success of the workshop meant that I wanted to continue having it in the Teaching Grid, which in turn provided me with the opportunity to continue reflecting on my practice and exploring new ways of conducting these workshops.

The TG has requested now that for each booking we articulate, albeit in draft and semi-formed form, the innovative nature of each session we conduct there, so I need to think about the sessions I am running on Dec 15th. I have already changed a few things. I am running 'Exploring Course Design' and 'Assessment Practice and Strategies', which last year were put on as two separate workshops on different days. However, there is a clear overlap between them, and so this year I have arranged for them to take place on the same day, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, with a lunch break between. This follows the format of the Teaching Large Groups and Teaching Small Groups workshops, so there is already a precedent. I anticipate (and hope) that the participants will be largely the same for both sessions, although I can obviously not make this a requirement and it may be that some come for the afternoon that did not attend in the morning, and the reverse. I have reworked the workshop outline for each of them (these can be found here and here) and have put an emphasis on reflection and reflective practice, hopefully balancing that alongside input of content.

So what am I going to do that is innovative?

I have a number of innovative ideas that I want to put into place, but this time round I am going to hold back. It may be that I can't conduct the workshops in December; for private and personal reasons I may be absent, and so I need to think about someone standing in for me would feel comfortable doing.  However, I think that the major underlying premise of developing reflective practitioners may serve the purpose. I am planning sessions in which participants collaborate and contribute expertise and knowledge to construct something together, reflecting as they progress and as new knowledge and information becomes available. This is quite different from the traditional lead and transmit content from the front approach, and will be quite different for me in this situation, although in some senses it is an approach I am familiar with through my background in distance learning. Face-to-face and DL operate quite differently, though, so I think it is legitimate to claim this is innovative for me, especially in the context of PCAPP which has a unique group of participants.

Secondly, although I can't make too much of this, I think the idea of holding two separate workshops and integrating them into a bigger whole is also innovative. It will potentially mean that 'experts' from the morning have the opportunity (if I build this in) to 'teach' newcomers any essential information in the afternoon, which is a different approach in its own right. It means I can allow a greater degree of flexibility and follow leads and questions as they come up to a greater extent, although I must also make sure that important and necessary content is introduced and engaged with.

So what can I write for the Teaching Grid? Let's have a go...

I am requesting to book the Experimental Teaching Space in the Teaching Grid all day on Tuesday December 15th in order to hold two PCAPP workshops there: Exploring Course Design, and Assessment Practice and Strategies. It is the first time that these two workshops have been held on the same day (and therefore also in the same venue) and one of the opportunities that this offers and which I would like to explore is a different use of time, with corresponding different 'use of' or participation from those attending. I plan to use a constructivist approach in which the experience of those attending is built on and used right from the start, probably using case studies and/or the only shared programme that everyone has in common, the PCAPP programme itself, in order to encourage participants to identify and engage with the challenges, first of designing a course or module, and secondly of setting assessment for it. Because it is impossible to anticipate in what order questions, issues, ways of responding to challenges etc will arise, this necessitates a very flexible approach which is quite different from anything I have done before. It will require me to adapt my role and take on an identity with participants that they may not be expecting or be familiar with: that of an expert whom they can consult and a person who asks pertinent questions they need to wrestle with, rather than someone who delivers information they need to absorb and take away. Another innovative feature I might include (this needs further thought and/or organisation) is to invite three or four outside experts who will form a panel to scrutinise the design of the module or course that participants have drawn up, and who will therefore provide authoritative content.

In the afternoon session, the expertise of those who attended in the morning will be used in order to do a quick brief of newcomers. This again is not something I have regularly built into my workshops, but I feel it will contribute enormously to the dynamic of the session. In the past, a (small) proportion of participants have clearly had considerable experience in the area that the workshop tackles, but since it is core to the programme they have not been able to gain exemption. Rather than ask them to sit and be 'informed' about things they feel they already know, I intend to exploit (and value) this wealth of experience and knowledge by asking them to lead, mentor and contribute. All of the participants will come with some experience of assessing students, and I plan to use this for discussion leading to a critical evaluation once again of the PCAPP programme.

Lastly, one of my goals is to develop participants as reflective practitioners. Before the session I will direct them to this blog and from time to time during the session I will ask them to pause and reflect on how it's going, what is making it a success and what needs to be rethought for next time, as well as what they might be able to incorporate into their own practice. This will include the use of space, something which will direct their attention to the attributes of the Teaching Grid. I have never incorporated a deliberate reflection on the dynamics of my class as it is progressing into my teaching. I will feel somewhat vulnerable, but think it is important to model externally what I hope they will take away and put into practice internally.

For all these reasons, I feel that my sessions are enabling me to try out some innovative teaching practices that are new to me, and which I hope will develop my own practice.

November 05, 2009

THES discussion

Writing about web page

I have just spent far too long reading a fascinating discussion on the THES website (url:, or if the content is removed then I have saved it and made it available here.) It relates strongly to my previous post. Briefly summarised, a Professor at Imperial College London ( Joao Magueijo) wrote an article in the THES in which he denigrated higher education's current drive towards raising teaching standards on a number of grounds, but principally, it appears, because he feels that those delivering the programmes are incompetent, the content is irrelevant and of little use, and that attendance is a complete waste of time. Educational scholarship is similarly of little value. He is challenged by an interlocutor, Eric Sotto, who (IMHO) correctly and perceptively suggests that it is appropriate to ask those with teaching responsibilities to have an informed understanding of the learning process (my paraphrase). Sotto, unfortunately, allows himself to get too verbose and many of his very valid points get lost in screeds of text (oh dear; maybe I'm in danger of falling into the same trap!). Magueijo takes a back seat and, having set the hare loose, allows many, many others to run with it. The fact that they jump at the chance I can only interpret as an indication of the serious underlying issues that run alongside the Educational Development courses that are provided nationwide in HE institutions. It is unlikely that the article and the opportunity to comment will lance the boil, but it certainly seems to have provided an occasion for the academic community to vent frustrations, and to engage in a sort of therapeutic and even cathartic, very public exercise.

I find the article and comments fascinating and very challenging. I am, of course, one of the Educational Developers that Magueijo and his followers so despise. I found the many of comments bruising at best, wounding and even destructive. I want to rise to the defence of my anonymous colleagues whom Magueijo and others 'bin' so readily. I almost feel proud yet pitying that they, like myself, do see the value of our discipline, while the majority of those we communicate with do not. Yet I also have to recognise, both through observation and personal experience, that as a community of practice we have a long way to go. We haven't got it right. Yet. I have to believe in that 'yet' because I do, passionately, believe in what we are trying to do. The paradox is, as Magueijo et al point out, as supposed experts in precisely this area, we ought to get it right. There is no excuse for not getting it right.

Putting emotion aside, then, what do I take from Maguiejo's article and the immense body of comments that it provoked?

There are some tell-tale signs that I think we are at risk of overlooking. One, I think, is expressed in one writer's protest at being patronised and treated like a child. All too often we hold 'events' such as workshops and clinics in a standard classroom where participants sit behind desks and are expected to undergo an immediate identity transformation from respected academic lecturer and researcher, to inept and unknowledgeable students. The environment doesn't help, both because the venue accentuates the gap between 'lecturer' (me, in this case) and 'students' (them), but also because it is very difficult to do anything other than a bog standard powerpoint presentation of the things we have decided they need to know. No, I need to correct that. It isn't necessarily difficult but it is demanding as it requires us to think outside the normal box and consider very carefully how we can invite, maybe even require our participants to participate, engage, interact, dialogue... One of the fairly typical behaviours that I have to manage in the classroom is lack of cooperation which manifests itself by participants sitting with arms folded, staring at the desk in front of them, refusing to have eye contact with me, refusing to contribute, or sometimes contributing rude or inappropriate responses to questions. (I have just completed a Return to Teaching course and we did a full day of Classroom Management which focused on managing difficult children at both primary and secondary levels. I gained a number of useful transferable skills...)

Magueijo et al berate Educational Developers for being poor at their job, poor at the very skills they are there to model and transmit, poor at inspiring, motivating and equipping their 'students' with the skills HE Institutions have decided they need. That hurts. I also know that many of my colleagues are excellent at their jobs and do not deserve this criticism. At the same time, I am exploring in my head the idea that this is a comparatively new discipline which hasn't yet come of age. The principles of good practice are not yet established. EDs have yet to find appropriate ways of dealing with and managing behaviour from adult professionals that comes as a complete surprise. We don't expect adult professionals to behave in ways in which we experience, and without a genuine willingness to participate, cooperate, contribute and engage, we are put in the position that many school teachers find themselves in: first and foremost managers of a hostile and challenging group of people, and only secondly experts with treasure to offer.

This whole area of thinking fascinates me. I am exploring ways in which I can establish my own principles of good practice, and this blog is one of them. Using Warwick's fantastic Teaching Grid for my sessions is another, since it gives an immense added value to participants in addition to making them feel much more like respected adults. Watch this space for how my own practice develops.

November 2009

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