All entries for December 2009
December 17, 2009
I find reflecting on this workshop quite challenging. At one level it seemed to go reasonably well. 8 of the 10 people who had registered for it turned up, three of whom had attended the morning session on course design. There was a general mood of interest, engagement and cooperation and participants contributed well to the various activities I had organised. Discussion was focused and on task, and in general terms I think the learning outcomes for the session were achieved. Feedback too was good. All the participants indicated that the teaching and learning methods used had either been effective or very effective, with none ticking the 'neutral' box or below. There was a range of things which people indicated they had found effective, useful and would take away to use in their professional practice:
- Discussion with others, sharing experience
- Handouts that I can refer back to and which I will use to improve my essay and exam question composition
- Good mixture of lecture and group work
- Great mix of task types; kept me engaged and interested. Delivered mirrored principles.
- Opportunity to reflect and focus on this aspect of my practice
- Disseminate some of the information provided to colleagues
- Small group work was very effective
So what am I dubious about? One participant commented (correctly, I think) that 'the activities could have been a bit more challenging' and another said 'maybe we spent too long in our small groups discussing only one of the three issues'. That groupwork activity was probably the least successful dimension of the workshop and I need to revisit it. The intention was to provide content, but rather than transmit it from the front, to get the participants to engage with it on their own terms and then teach each other, but it needed more careful planning. I think I still consider the approach valid, but the way I constructed it didn't really gel.
I guess I feel therefore that I didn't really introduce the participants to some of the basic, and essential considerations when thinking about assessment. That's pretty crucial! Yet I also need to listen to that good feedback. I had deliberately designed the session in a way which acknowledged and took advantage of people's experience. Although some participants were relatively new to lecturing in HE, none of us gets through our national educational system without experiencing assessment from the other side of the fence, and all had something to contribute. My role therefore became one of guiding discussion, filtering in my expertise at appropriate points, and making sure that as far as possible people moved on in their 'informed' thinking about their practice.
I can probably leave it there. But my musings feed into my bigger questioning about how best to impart scholarly content in these workshops. I am beginning to explore the idea of a 15 to 20 min 'This is what scholars are saying' slot. PCAPP is a post-graduate certificate, and it is important that I do give participants content appropriate for that level. It becomes attractive to them too because it gives them a leg-up for their PCAPP assignments. I shall have to give that more thought.
I am delighted, once again, to hear from you. Please don’t worry about offending or upsetting me. You won’t, because I too can sense that you too are genuinely concerned to reflect and dialogue candidly and openly. Thank you.
I will need time to digest what you express, so won’t try to engage too much with the content of your email here and now. I am off on holiday tomorrow evening for the Christmas period and will appreciate the space to return to what you say and think it through. If I remember rightly, you were also articulating something of the same in the THES discussion. Instinctively I think you have an excellent point, although I equally instinctively want to respond by suggesting that reflection on teaching and one’s own role as an educator is equally as appropriate as reflecting on the learning that is taking place. Teaching and learning are partners in dialogue (that word again!) and I suppose I have exposed my reflection on my role in my blog and paid less attention to the learners’ learning primarily because I think I have a responsibility to self-examine, have experienced success in changing my practice resulting in better learning taking place, and in a public forum such as a blog I don’t want to second guess, perhaps erroneously, what is going on with my learners. That’s why I am so keen that they speak for themselves.
Your comments remind me of the position taken by Marton and Booth in their 1997 volume ‘Learning and Awareness’ where they argue very much for a study of the process of learning that begins with and focuses on the learners themselves, rather than on the internal/external interaction of teaching and learning. In a previous email you ask whether I am familiar with Rogers. Yes, of course, and Dewey, and many others to whom a student-centred approach to teaching and learning owes much. I agree that Rogers probably over eggs his pudding; Dewey too, undoubtedly, and many would consider that the thinking of these great educationalists had an adverse effect on British schools and schooling during the 60s and 70s. I come from a strong background in distance- and e-learning, together with 5 years of teaching English as a Foreign Language in Spain and France (with commensurate training and qualifications) and eventually did my PhD in Adult Education. I focused on how a particular subject discipline (theology) influences the way in which students learn.
I have taken the liberty of copying and pasting all our emails into my blog. Please do let me know if you are uncomfortable with that. I can easily edit every post.
I would be interested to hear more about you. Where are you based, and what is your background?
Many thanks for your recent e-mail. It was nice to hear from you.
First, and in reply to your question, I confirm that you are welcome to quote me in your blog. That comment also holds for this email if you so wish.
Second, your e-mail puts me into a dilemma. On the one hand, I warm to your candid and open manner. But, on the other hand, your manner tends to encourage a more than usually honest response, and I fear that you might find my response annoying, condescending, offensive, upsetting or absurd. On reflection - or perhaps it is something else - I think I will choose the latter option, because I sense that you may well find my response absurd.
I have read your email several times, and it strengthens my impression that you are deeply and honestly concerned with your teaching, and its effects on your students. But I believe that there is also a fundamental and very common error in the position that you take. Perhaps I might be permitted to try to convey what I have in mind with an analogy. I believe that the approach that you - and, in my experience, most educationalists - take, is like a person who wishes to understand the movement of tides and does so by measuring the salinity of the water.
I write like this because it appears from almost everything you have written that your focus is on teaching, and I believe that such a focus is at best on a secondary matter, and more often than not deeply misleading. I believe that the latter is the case because only a moment of reflection indicates that teaching has the aim of fostering learning; and, if that is the case, teaching is merely a tool towards encouraging a far larger aim, namely, learning. And if that is the case, it follows that a teacher’s focus should be on learning. It then further follows that a focus on teaching - understandable in egocentric terms - tends to blind a teacher to implications of the foregoing simple facts.
I have also found that when teachers begin to focus on learning, many of their concerns about their teaching diminish. It is as if, when one focuses on learning, teaching takes care of itself. Or I could say that I have found that, when teachers focus on learning, their concerns tend to change almost radically.
For example, as there is no serious difference between studying learning and studying physiology - or any other mental process, and indeed any other subject - concerns about not being condescending tend to be no stronger in the teaching of teaching that in the teaching of any other discipline. In the same way, the problem of imparting knowledge in a non-didactic manner becomes a problem in the teaching of all disciplines, especially factual ones. And perhaps most important of all, one's focus shifts from what one is doing, to what one's students are doing; and when that happens, one begins to see that much of the talk about being a reflective practitioner is generated by what happens to be fashionable, - as is so often the case in education.
At risk of sounding fanciful, I'll add that I believe that a preoccupation with being ‘a reflective practitioner’ is also, to a considerable extent, one more manifestation of the cult of the individual that is endemic in the West. From such a perspective, one might also see that a concern with being a reflective practitioner can slide very easily and very often into self-indulgence.
I've done my best to express my position as briefly and simply as I can, and past experience suggests that I am very unlikely to have been persuasive. And it is of course also the case that I may well be wrong.
Lastly, I very much hope that you sense that I do not write in order to criticise you. That is not remotely my intention. On the contrary. As I've noted, I much admire your candour, and I have largely written as I have in response to this.
With very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,
I am delighted to hear from you and very honoured to receive feedback. Thank you. My first inclination was to copy and paste some, if not all of your comments, into my blog, and if you choose not to do that yourself, may I ask your permission to do so? Your points are entirely pertinent, although I would like clarification about point (2). I also hope you noticed that while I 'accused' you (respectfully, in intention, if not conveyed adequately in tone) of having been 'verbose', I also recognised and affirmed your correct, perceptive and valid comments on the THES blog. Your contribution was vital and significant.
You are entirely correct about the role of teaching and communicating content (point 1). It is something I reflect on vigorously and am hugely aware of my discomfort in this area. I am constantly wrestling to find what I consider an adequate balance as well as appropriate means of informing the people who attend my workshops and courses about the scholarship of teaching and learning; it is something which I was working on this very afternoon as I led a workshop on Assessment Practice and Strategies and I came away dissatisfied with the approach I had taken. I have committed myself to writing a pre-workshop blogpost and then a post-workshop blogpost, so will be writing on that within the next day or two.
Thank you too for the encouragement to keep on posting. My aim is to model reflective practice, despite the fact that I may not model it perfectly. It is the prime way that I have chosen to handle the lived-out behaviour that was articulated in writing in the THES paper. I hope that participants will read my pre- and post-session reflections and understand so much more not only about how I decide to impart content, but also about classroom management, and hence how my pedagogy is consciously designed to meet a whole variety of needs. It's early days, but so far so good; behaviour in my sessions has improved enormously and feedback is excellent. The next step is to get participants themselves to contribute to the blog. The first did so today! So I hope to construct a bigger community of reflective practitioners...
Here am I being verbose in my turn: your point exactly! Ah well...
With very best wishes
This blog has attracted the attention of Eric Sotto, a respected and experienced educational developer and author. I feel privileged to engage in dialogue with him. He has given permission for me to copy our email correspondence into the blog.
He first wrote me with the following email:
I've just come across your blog, and thought you might like to have a few general responses.
1) Much of what you write is on how to avoid a conventional teacher/student situation, and the allied question of how to encourage a collaborative atmosphere in a classroom in which everyone feels inclined to participate. I warm to such wishes, but believe that you omit a consideration of something essential. This is that learning is not only a matter of debating, but also a matter of taking in factual information. Although I did not read all the earlier entries in your blog, I did not find any consideration of this essential matter. In short, how are factual matters, and especially the matter of scholarly evidence, to be brought to the attention of students in a non-didactic manner?
2) Your entries strongly convey that you not only believe in but also practice honest reflection. It also so happens that I am personally strongly attracted to such a quality. However, it seems to me that your focus on honest reflection eventually results in the neglect of an attempt also to view the matter under consideration in as objective a manner as is possible. Indeed, I note with respect and affection that your focus on honest reflection sometimes leads to what a critical person might consider self-indulgence.
3) You often mention student centred learning, but I have the impression - it can be no more - that you are not closely acquainted with the originator, Carl Rogers, of this notion. Among other things, the position that Rogers advocates is at odds with the requirement for knowledge to be assessed by objective criteria; and his focus is so completely on the individual, that he tends to ignore the needs of a community.
4) I thought your comments on what I sought to do in that debate posted in the THE plain unkind. My first responses were, I believe, succinct, but I had so much flak and rubbish thrown at me by the great majority of participants that I thought I must respond as best as I can. I also believe that in your blog you are often guilty of that of which you accuse me. But this item is of course not very important.
5) Lastly, I do hope you will continue to express your concerns on this matter of teaching and learning! The topic is of course very important.
Kind regards, Eric Sotto
December 15, 2009
I was pleased with this workshop, although (predictably perhaps) it didnt go entirely according to plan. The mindmap activity took longer than I'd anticipated, but I realised as I circulated around the three groups that they were achieving exactly the purpose(s) I'd intended: it was proving an effective way of enabling us all to map the terrain and to benefit from the experience of all attending; it immediately put the whole group into 'collaborative' mode, setting the scene for the rest of the session; it engendered discussion about why people had included certain aspects and placed them were they had, when other groups had done something different (a very fruitful discussion since participants then started to dig deeper into issues of course and module design); and it was a good way of getting participants to get to know each other relatively quickly.
Using the Smart boards was less successful! For a previous workshop this had been a definite 'value added' aspect of the session. Lots of boys enjoyed playing with lots of toys! (Sorry chaps, am I being sexist?!) However, this time round the groups generally found the Smart boards more of a distraction than an attraction and before two long two of the three had abandoned their use in favour of flip chart and conventional whiteboard. I could entirely understand why, since the tablet gave too small a writing area for a mindmap, and one of the two others seemed really tricky to write on legibly. A lesson for me here: I don't use these Smart boards regularly and although I had a good hour (plus) playing with them a few months ago and getting to know some of their features, I had forgotten how to get them to do basic things like convert writing to typed fonts, or turn over a page. Had I had that information at my finger tips I might have been able to make the experience of using them more straightforward.
I often wrestle with how to balance my desire for sessions to be interactive and participative with the need for input of content and giving participants something meaty to chew on. In this workshop, the mindmaps did seem to meet that need, and it was augmented by Jenny Hughes's contribution which a) provided us all with an authoritative source of important and relevant information, and b) offered the opportunity for questions at a later point in the session. I think Jenny achieved just the right balance too between showing people where they could go to find information and highlighting aspects that were particularly relevant.
The practical application worked well, and each of the three groups quickly and effectively understood the task and went into action. Some excellent and well-thought-through examples of constructive alignment were developed.
I think I achieved what I wanted to achieve, therefore. I wonder whether I should consider designing some sort of way of testing that, but I guess that would be unpopular! But my sense following the workshop was that we had done what we could in 3 hours: introducing participants to the major aspects that needed to be taken into consideration, allowing plenty of space for contributions and questions, giving the opportunity for practical application, and generally equipping those attending with information and skills necessary to enhance their practice in the future. I hope I also achieved some of my deeper-level goals, modelling ways of teaching and facilitating sessions that might have been new, and engaging in reflective practice.
Participant feedback and comments from evaluation sheets
Feedback from the group was good, although with the predictable mix of preferences. Some would have liked more direct input, some even less; some found the contribution about the university's regulations the most useful part of the workshop, some the least. All found the teaching and learning methods either neutral (2 responses), effective (5 responses) or very effective (2 responses). The feedback comments included:
I just wanted to say thanks for today's workshop, it was the most useful and enjoyable pcapp workshop that I've been to! Lots of useful information and it was really great to have Jenny there to answer the specific details. This made our learning very tangible.
There was a lot of reflection and group work. I would have preferred this to have been integrated with some stand alone teaching eg via powerpoint.
I really enjoyed the mind-map / group activity. Very effective model.
I take the second comment seriously. It is something I have to work at thinking through. I shall start a new blogpost thread.
What would I do differently next time? I would re-think the use of the Smart boards. I will think through whether a more focused 'content delivery' would be appropriate, and if so, how I can do that without abandoning or upsetting some of the other more reflective dimensions of the workshop. That's a good challenge I relish getting my teeth into!
December 11, 2009
As I've planned this workshop (see outline here) I've become increasingly aware of how dependent I am on the participants wanting to contribute and being prepared to engage and discuss. Without that, the whole thing will fall on its face! Unlike the Course Design workshop, however, I think I can assume that all the participants have experience both of being assessed and of setting assessments. So I think it will be crucial to take advantage of that bank of resource(s) and fully acknowledge that experience right at the start. That's one of the reasons why I've begun the workshop by asking participants to circulate round the whole Teaching Grid space and to initial each of the A4 sheets which outlines a form of assessment they use in their discipline. The point of that is not only to value their experience, but also to demonstrate to them that there are many types of assessment, some of which they may not have come across but which may well be routinely used in another discipline. I did the same exercise the last time I ran this workshop, but not at the beginning, and I was poor at following it up with the result that all the richness was not made available to everyone. This time I'm using it to kick the workshop off and it will lead immediately into a time of discussion. This will focus on questions such as, 'Why are different types of assessment used?', 'What's the difference, from a learning perspective, between an exam and an essay?', 'How do we evaluate the quality of essays?', and the more personal 'What assessment practices are you particularly proud of?' and 'What have you struggled with?'. If participants (I think about 9 of them) are unwilling to speak in front of the whole group I will divide them into smaller groups and have a feedback session after. I will follow that up by brainstorming the times when we need to be able to evaluate assessment practice (and hence introduce the need for this workshop), introducing occasions such as external examining, being an external member on a validation committee, following best practice for marking procedures, and responding to student feedback.
From there I want to go into some of the meat of the session, eliciting from the participants some of the key considerations when assessing. For me, those key considerations are:
- Constructive alignment
- Formative and summative assessment
- Good practice when designing assessment tasks and activities
- Responding to student feedback.
There may be more that I need to add as I go on reading and reflecting.
I am keen to avoid as much as possible asking participants simply to sit and listen. For one thing it doesn't cohere with my understanding of how people learn best; for another, feedback (spoken, written, and in body language) has indicated that this is rarely appreciated in the context of PCAPP. So how can I 'deliver' this content?
I decided that I would try a technique that can really only happen in the Teaching Grid given its fantastic array of technology. If I were in a traditional classroom or lecture theatre I would have to think about how it could be achieved in a different way. However, since the TG has a lot of computers available, and there is a good amount of material on the web about Constructive Alignment, I plan to divide the participants into 3 groups, one of which will use the computers to find out as much as they can about CA. Another group will brainstorm good practice when designing assessment tasks and activities, and the last will look at a photocopy of Phil Race's chapter on 'What has Assessment Done for us--and to us?' and evaluate his suggestions. Each of the groups can use a Smart Board to make notes and compile a 'poster'. After about 15 minutes I will ask the groups to reform and tell the others about their findings, going on to discuss the relevance and critique as well as find the good in all the ideas.
Then a break.
After the break the session will become more creative. Ask the participants firstly to design an assessment for this workshop. Once they have done that, then ask them to design the assessment for the whole of the PCAPP programme.
I have never tried the approach of what is effectively peer to peer teaching in this context before. I am not sure what I think about it for this workshop, although I am certainly convinced of its efficacy in other situations and have experienced its strengths. I have decided to go for it here because I really want to avoid the 'sit and listen to the expert' scenario, but also because I hope it will encourage participants to engage with the material at a deeper level, asking questions, sharing discussion and applying it to their practice. Much depends, as I said when I started this blogpost, on their willingness to cooperate...
December 02, 2009
I have just finished planning the first of the two workshops on Dec 15th, Exploring Course Design. My workshop outline and plan can be accessed here. I think it would be helpful if I provided some sort of rationale about why I've planned it like this.
I had originally wanted to do something much more innovative, bringing in people from the Capital Centre and maybe others from different departments in the University. I may still do that the next time I run it, but this time there were particular circumstances that meant I needed to play a bit safer.
My major criteria continue to focus on my desire: a) to treat participants as adults, many of whom may well bring experience of course design to the session; b) to encourage, foster and model reflective practice; and c) to make the session as applied as possible, so that participants leave not only with an awareness of the issues embedded within the subject but also having had the opportunity to think about how they relate to their own practice and discipline.
In response to the first criterion, the first aspect I know I must do is not put a 'teacher-student' relationship and dynamic in place. I think some of the metaphors for teaching and learning are very powerful, and in this case I do not want to cultivate a culture of 'sage on the stage' transmitting wisdom to those who know little; the mug and jug metaphor, where the jug 'pours' knowledge into 'mugs' (in more than one sense of the word!). Instead, I want to be a facilitator, a guide to fellow journeyers who has as much to learn from those I am guiding than they have from me; the 'guide on the side' metaphor. The obvious way in which this can be put into place is by preparing activities in which there is a significant amount of peer-to-peer interaction and learning, and I draw alongside to contribute expertise at times when needed or it would be beneficial. The opening task of my workshop will work to that principle. I hope that by asking participants to develop a mind-map using the early prompts I provide a number of things will be achieved. Those who have experience in course design will be able to use it as well as teach their less-experienced peers. Those who might be reluctant to ask questions in public will hopefully be more willing to ask, or at least learn by osmosis, through the group discussion. The mind-maps which the groups produce will undoubtedly differ from the one I prepared earlier (Blue Peter- or Delia Smith-like!) which should then give rise to a good number of questions that we can pick up and discuss in the plenary following. It's at that point that I can monitor and check what content needs to be formally introduced, but rather than present it in a 'you need to know this so please sit quietly and listen' fashion, I hope that having created the need to know, participants will be more ready to actively listen and engage. I will have a range of photocopies ready to give out so that they can go away with something as well as see its relevance for their own purposes.
This is one way in which I also hope to address the criticism that my previous workshop on assessment was 'content-lite'.It's quite a delicate balance to get this right: delivery of too much content makes PCAPP participants feel diminished and inferior; too little, on the other hand, makes them wonder why they needed to attend at all, and they leave frustrated because most of the time they actually did want to go away confident that they had a reasonable overview of the terrain. I think this is a balance that many of my academic colleagues also face in their own lectures, so I hope that maybe this workshop will offer at least one way of handling the dilemma.
Which brings me to my second criterion: the desire to foster and encourage reflective practice. I am trying something new in deliberately pausing the workshop and asking participants to reflect, privately, on the way I am running it, its structure, its plan, the rationale behind it, and its outworking. I can't afford to allow this to open up into a public discussion (and even I might find that a bit too close to the bone if they are highly critical!) but I would like them to realise that there are two dimensions to any class: content and pedagogy, and that the purpose of PCAPP is to focus their attention on the latter. I also want them to realise that there are few rights and wrongs in this arena, and that even the so-called experts can try things out which fall flat on their face, or be highly successful for one class and a flop in the next. Teaching, learning and assessment is like that: territory which, although well explored and mapped, is nonetheless often unpredictable. So I'm going to ask them to make notes, just bullet points, but something that focuses their attention on the pedagogical side of the workshop as well as on its content, in the hope that they will develop a sensitivity to thinking about their own practice. If they chose to, though, they could put some of their comments onto this blog...
Lastly, I want the session to be applied, relevant, and useful to participants. My original idea was to get everyone to design a new PCAPP module or programme. It is the only thing we all have in common, and I might still offer that as a possibility. Participants often comment on (complain about?) the fact that the PCAPP approach seems to be 'one size fits all' when in fact each subject discipline functions very differently from all the others. It would be a bold move to ask them to redesign PCAPP, but it would have a number of advantages, not least providing the PCAPP team with valuable feedback about what participants would value, and how they would go about providing it. We could then incorporate it into our own revisions of the programme. I shall play that by ear on the day though, and also go with a neutral module that most of them could hopefully relate to, as well as give them the option of designing their own. Jenny Hughes from the Academic (something) office(!) will be coming in half way through to talk about many of the university's policies and regulations regarding course design and validation. I am toying with the idea of asking her to stay, or maybe return, so that when the groups have prepared their modules or courses, she and I and the remainder of the class can act as a validation panel. This should be a reasonably effective way both of revising content and of bringing home to the participants the experience of a mock validation and the need to take a wide range of issues into consideration when designing a course.
So that's what I'm planning. The next thing is to conduct the workshop. I've got my photocopies prepared for the class, and will need to confer with the Teaching Grid staff to see how best to set up the space. But for the moment, I'm done. :-)