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Alan is a highly distinguished scholar, currently working as Professor of Child Health in Bristol Medical School at the University of Bristol. Alan has worked on many high-profile studies, including work on the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC – Children of the Nineties). He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy, with teaching interests in inter-professional learning and international health.
You recently won the James Spence medal for contribution to the advancement of paediatric knowledge – can you tell us a little bit about why you won the medal?
The James Spence medal is the highest award given by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and is awarded for outstanding contribution to the science of paediatrics. The citation for my medal highlighted my extensive and wide-ranging research work into child health in the community, my work overseas and my commitment to interdisciplinary teaching and learning. I have had a 40-year career in academic paediatrics, and have undertaken research into a range of issues affecting babies, children and young people. I was pleased to win the medal because of the recognition it gives to the importance of scientific research into community child health.
How your research work fed into your teaching?
I have been very privileged to have a job which has enabled me to combine clinical paediatrics with research and teaching, and strongly believe that each aspect informs the other. Contact with children and families as a paediatrician keeps you humble and grounded and highlights what is important for the public, and what is not fully understood in medical sciences. Clinical practice determines research questions, and research informs teaching. I am committed to practising and teaching evidence-based medicine, and utilise research from a wide range of sources (as well as my own research) in my teaching. We need the doctors of the future to be evidence-based practitioners, who apply scientific evidence in a personalised way to meet an individual patient’s needs.
Can you tell us a little more about the work you do around inter-professional learning?
In my opinion inter-professional learning is
essential for students and trainees who are going to work in the health
service, which relies on multi-disciplinary teamwork. Learning together, as
both undergraduates and postgraduate students, helps students from different
professional backgrounds understand each other, respect each other’s skills,
and experience the team working they will participate in the future. If we want
them to work together when graduated and trained, why don’t we teach them
I have introduced inter-professional learning modules for Bristol medical students with student children’s nurses from UWE (a joint case study of a disabled child and his family), and for Bristol medical students with final year pharmacy students from Bath University (prescribing for children workshop). Both have been evaluated by teaching fellows and published in educational journals, and were highly commended by the General Medical Council when reviewing the Bristol MB course.
A long- standing research collaboration with the School of Policy studies led to the establishment in 2006 of a unique interdisciplinary course – the intercalated BSc in Global Health. This one year programme for medical, dental and veterinary students is taught in equal amounts by academics from the social science and health science faculties, and the inter-disciplinary content is highly rated by both students and external reviewers.
What can we learn from inter-professional learning and apply to the wider university context?
Academic activity in universities is increasingly being undertaken in multi-disciplinary teams, and the University of Bristol has recognised the importance of fostering inter-disciplinary collaboration by investing in the establishment of the cross-faculty specialist research institutes. If carefully planned and managed, inter-professional learning can enable the of transfer of skills between different disciplines, the development of shared knowledge and understanding of a topic, and the acquisition of attitudes needed to promote respectful and effective collaboration.
Similarly, how can other academic disciplines can benefit from this approach?
Any academic discipline which wants to innovate and be different from rival departments in other universities would benefit from promoting collaboration with groups from neighbouring disciplines, which will foster new approaches and generate new research questions. Inter-professional learning can be the foundation of this- for example organising topic-based seminars for undergraduate students from different departments, or running problem orientated workshops for postgraduates. In my experience, it is difficult to predict what will come out of such encounters, but some of my best collaborations and biggest grants have evolved from ‘mixing with the other tribe’ workshops.
If you could change one thing about higher education, what would it be?
In this digital age, facts are available with a few clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen. One of the traditional aims of higher education- to impart knowledge- is now less important than encouraging students to think for themselves, to be confident in weighing up the importance of different arguments and to make decisions in the context of uncertainty. Good universities recognise this, but teaching approaches and assessment methods need to evolve- to get away from concentrating on the imparting and regurgitation of facts, and aim to produce graduates with transferable skills who can think independently.
What has been the highlight of your academic career?
In 2003 I established a joint academic centre between two universities- the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England. Initially, there was considerable scepticism of the added value of such a collaboration, but with the support of the Deans in the two universities, the Centre for Child and Adolescent Health was founded to bring together academics from different disciplines working in child health. In the next 15 years, the Centre grew from strength to strength and developed an international reputation for interdisciplinary teaching and research. Both universities have subsequently re-affirmed the value and importance of this collaboration, and when I retired in 2018 I was pleased to hand over the leadership to Prof Esther Crawley from UoB and Prof Julie Mytton from UWE. (More information about this venture can be found here.)
Tell us about your favourite teacher at school/ university and why they were your favourite.
As an undergraduate medical student at Cambridge I
intercalated in philosophy and religious studies, a year which had a long-lasting
effect on my development as a doctor and as an academic. I was privileged to
have individual supervisions with a young John Bowker, who went on to have a glittering
career and to write 41 books about important topics such as suffering , death, religious
conflicts and science and religion. I was very anxious about my production for
these supervisions, but I left each one feeling inspired, stimulated and
encouraged. I’ve tried to do the same for all my own students!
This week saw the start of our student hackathon, kicking off with two days of training and practice in digital storytelling, leading up to a showcase of the students’ own stories. Eva, Sam, Alex, and Samia share their reflections on the process.
Stories are the way in which we share things about
ourselves, make sense of the world, and remember key moments in our lives. In
our first two days, we utilised stories to share pieces of ourselves, to get to
know one another and to warm ourselves up to telling some of the many stories
which make up the university of Bristol.
We were prompted into telling our stories through visual images, a task which at first seemed daunting in a room of people who up to a few hours ago were complete strangers. But through looking at some of the random pictures during the workshop, we found a spark and started to weave a story. The activity allowed us to put our creative hats on, in some cases for the first time in a while.
As for so many tasks, the hardest bit of writing a story is
putting pen to blank sheet of paper. We tried a technique called free writing
to get over this – spend 3 minutes just writing, not worrying about how good it
is or self-editing, but just getting it down. Sounds awful, but in fact takes
the pressure off, and we were all out of the starting gates!
The two days included both creative thinking and technological hands-on practice. We all found it hard to balance the ideal with the achievable, but even though our digital videos may not have been polished, we were amazed how well everyone’s story shone through. Thinking about how to structure and present a story has given us an impetus to explore and communicate experiences.
We were struck by how many educational issues and challenges
were highlighted in our collective stories – think how many more there are in
every lecture hall and lab across the university. It reminded us how important
the student engagement work of the hackathon is, looking at some key issues for
the university with that multifaceted student perspective.
The whole experience so far has been fun, interesting, unexpected, and enjoyable. We’ve connected with each other in novel ways, and the next four weeks don’t seem so daunting any more. We’re excited to see what Monday brings.
Walker (4th Year Civil Engineering) and Patrick (3rd Year Biology) met in Clifton Hill House back in their first year. They remained close friends ever since. I caught up with them back in March to talk about their university experience at Bristol…
What made you decide to come here to study?
Patrick: I just had a really good feeling about the city. Funnily enough though, it was actually one of the only universities I didn’t visit… I still firmed it though! I just thought it would be a good place to be, the student life was good and the course was highly regarded. Bristol had this ‘prestige’, whilst also being very relaxed, lively and liberal.
Walker: Well, I went to an open day…
PatrickAs you should! * laughs *
Walker: It was great! I went with my mum, it was a beautiful sunny day…I had also visited Bath the day before, but I thought the campus and city were a bit too small for me. Bristol was larger and more interesting. I spent a lot of time exploring the city, going to the Harbourside, the markets, and I completely fell in love. I remember telling my mum I wanted to come here to study.
Did you always know
you wanted to go to university?
Patrick: I never entertained the thought of not going! I think that’s a product of the college I went to. They would say that there are alternatives out there, but they didn’t give you an awful lot of information about that. They would say, ‘Oh, I guess there are apprenticeships’ but everyone had to submit a UCAS application whether you were going to university or not. It was a way of keeping future options open!
It was very much pushed on us that university was the way forward, that it was a good career move… I don’t think I was influenced by that college mentality. I was very much into learning and biology. But I think there are people who were influenced by that and felt ‘pushed’ into it.
Walker: For me, I didn’t view this as an option or choice. I always thought it was something I was going to do. I guess it is because of how I was brought up. My parents taught me ‘once you go to school, you then you go to university.’ Unlike Patrick’s college, most people didn’t go to university at my school. It wasn’t really pushed upon anyone. But if you had ‘okay’ grades, you were expected to apply because that was seen as the normal thing to do. I think most people in my sixth form were open to explore other options.
Do you remember what your expectations were for university? Have they been met?
Patrick: You know what, I don’t know what my expectations were! I really don’t think I had an image in my head… I was nervous about the independence and the social aspect of it. I thought it would be challenging to make friends because I was really shy when I first came.
I was most excited for the academic side of university. I was excited to be taught by the best and to interact with the best researchers in the country… But I did expect the course to be more hands on. Biology is very, very independent. I don’t know if that independence is part of every course, everywhere in the country, but if I could change anything, it would be that I wish it was more interactive. I think I expected it to be a bit more like college.
Walker: I just assumed life would start when I got to university. Before that I didn’t do much. I just went to school and did my homework… It was a bit dull. But once I started university, there was so much to do and so many people to meet. I think you do meet new people that you will probably stay friends with for the rest of your life.
Patrick: I also think every university experience is personal. There are so many options out there for what you can and want to do! You’ve also got such a broad spectrum of people here… Some people are extremely active and constantly social. Some are more reclusive and not doing as much because all this change is overwhelming. There is a bit of pressure for your university experience to be great all the time, which is not good.
Walker: I agree. When I went abroad, people always used to tell me ‘this is the best thing that is going to happen to you in your life.’ I don’t think this should be advertised like that because that is not always the case. Change is hard and many people find that difficult. I didn’t really enjoy being in a new place for the first part of my study abroad, I really struggled. But once I started to meet people I connected with, things changed.
Patrick: I also think those ‘best’ experiences can kind of sneak up on you. You shouldn’t feel pressured to have the greatest time. It’s probably why I enjoyed second year more than my first year. I was doing a lot with societies, keeping on top of work…etc. But I wasn’t actively doing things to make my experience the ‘best’ time. I was just doing what I wanted to do.
What would you say to your first-year self?
Walker: Well, in first year I wasn’t as social or as chatty to new people. I’ve become more mature and more confident as time has gone on. I was, and still am involved with the Third Culture Kid Society, but initially, I was avoiding their socials because I was intimidated by meeting new people. My friends kept telling me ‘Go, these are exactly the people you would get along with.’ I resisted going for the longest time, but when I eventually did go, it was amazing.
I think I would tell my first-year self to push herself a bit more! It would have gotten involved in societies a lot earlier!
Patrick:I would tell myself to stop spending so much money.I got Dominos a stupid amount and I really saw my overdraft as free money… It’s not that at all!
I think I was very carefree and I think I made the most of it in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t say too much to my first-year self. For the age I was and the place and setting I was in, I made a lot of friends and I kept on top of my work pretty well… That’s all you can really hope for in first year and it went well!
Walker: I was too stressed in first year. I wish I wasn’t like that.
Patrick: You were too stressed in first year.
Walker: * laughs *I think I treated my university work like A-levels and spent way too much time studying instead of trying new things. I was basically a fourth year in first year.
Patrick: But it’s good to keep up that level of work, because I think it’s easy to drop your working habits drastically between sixth-form and university… It’s also easy to forget how much is expected of us as years go on. I find it hard to maintain my productivity now!
Has there been an academic or member of staff at Bristol who really engaged you and inspired you? What did they do?
Patrick: Yes, many of them, but I wouldn’t say a single person did that. I think the teaching staff is strong here, but it is also quite varied. There are lecturers who make research their priority and don’t enjoy teaching. But there are other members of staff who love lecturing and who really care about students getting the most out of their experience at Bristol. They want to make sure you’re dealing with things ok and that you’re getting on with work.
There’s one lecturer, Rosemary Crichton, who always does little meditation sessions in the middle of classes. She’s also done other fun little bits and bobs… You can tell she’s gone away and read about education to learn how to keep people engaged and how to keep their concentration levels up. She’s always pushing to try new things in class.
I know that some of my friends preferred getting more straightforward lectures, but I really appreciate seeing someone making an effort to make us learn in new ways.
Walker: James Norman, he is amazing. He’s one of our favourite lecturers ever. Especially back in 2nd year, we had 3 hours of lectures every Thursday and Friday morning at 9am for the entire year… That was hard. But he would always lecture for 20 mins, then take a break for a couple of minutes to get water and relax, then he would resume lecturing for another 20 minutes and repeat this throughout the class… He just knows how to keep us engaged, even when some students were half falling asleep!
My supervisor Rachel De Ath is also incredible. She is so inspirational. She works part-time, lectures part time, has a family, is a chartered engineer… It’s incredible how she manages to juggle it all! Working two jobs and taking care of two kids, I don’t know how she does it!
We also have this lecturer called Dimitri who is hilarious. Always talking about football with the boys in my year…
What do you do to
Patrick: I do a lot of running. It’s something I discovered at the end of first year. Initially, I hated it. But I thought I needed to do something active because I realized I never did anything before. I wasn’t particularly good at any sports in school and that kind of turned me off. I always felt I was getting compared to my peers.
It was nice to find an independent activity like running where you’re only judged against your own standards. You’re aware that you’re better today than you were yesterday, you’re quicker today than you were yesterday… You could even go an extra kilometer today!
I think that was the activity I needed because I finally learned ‘ you should only compare yourself to yourself.’ Also, if I run at the start of the day, it energizes me and makes me want to keep up that streak of productivity. But I can’t lie, doing it first thing in morning is the hardest part.
Walker: I’m with Patrick. I just love running because it really helps you clear your head. It puts you in the right place. I also started bouldering, which is super fun and challenging. It’s great because anyone can try it out and get good at it. I also really enjoy meeting up with new people, grabbing a coffee or having dinner and catching up with friends! It distracts you from other things that might be stressing you out.
Finally, what’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?
Walker: When I have time, I just love going on walks around the city with friends, exploring new areas of the town, trying out different restaurants, taking photos…things There’s so much to do, I don’t think I can choose a single thing! I also absolutely love being here in the summer. Between 2nd and 3rd year, Patrick and I stayed back in Bristol and got to enjoy the city under the sun…
Patrick: I really like all the different events that go on around the city… ‘Wildlife Photographer’ at M-shed was so good. There are so many varied events for every person’s interest. I just love that you can search ‘What’s on in Bristol?’ and there will most definitely have something that will catch your eye.
This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.
Numerical grading of assessments is something that has bothered me for a long time. I’ve had many conversations with colleagues and students over the past couple of years and I’ve realised I’m not alone in this feeling. Of course, I’ve been met with many protests of how we ‘need’ to have these numbers, but no argument has ever really convinced me. There are a number of reasons why I’ve come to realise that numbers are useless in grading – a bold claim, I know – and I’ll try and convince you, too, over the next few paragraphs.
The main and overriding reasons for my distaste in numbers is the very fact that it makes students focus on the number. Whether you’ve been given a 62, 63 or 64 in an essay means absolutely nothing when it comes to what you can do to improve. If you’re happy with the number that has been assigned to your essay, you don’t think much more about it. A lot of students won’t even bother reading the feedback (if there is any). A student doesn’t sit back and think ‘what did I do right this time?’; they are content with their number. Similarly, if a student doesn’t get the number they feel they ‘deserved’ – whether it be for the effort they put in or their perceived understanding of the topic, they feel upset, frustrated and sometimes angry. They may read the feedback but only a small proportion of these students would go away and specifically work on the points for improvement, with the majority believing that they had been hard done by in some way.
I’m not alone in my belief – both Chris Rust and Dylan
William, two prominent scholars in the field of assessment, have argued against
the use of numbers in assessment marking. In a recent interview with BILT,
Christ Rust said that the one thing
he would change about higher education would be the use of numbers in
and Dylan William advocates students only being given written feedback
(though with teachers recording grades for their own use).
I can already hear the main arguments to this point, and they are loudest from the courses that need accreditation; courses like Engineering, Medicine and Dentistry, who already have very high-achieving cohorts of students. Student who, I imagine, would argue for these numbers. It ranks them against others in the course and they use it as a measure of how well they are doing – not whether they have the sufficient knowledge to become a successful engineer or doctor. Why do we need any more than a pass/ fail in these subjects? Surely you have the knowledge, or you don’t? For any other assessment, one that assesses how well a student interacts with a patient or how an engineer approaches a problem, can be better ‘graded’ using a written statement about their performance, rather than a number?
All programmes in all universities in the UK boil down to five ‘grades’ anyway. You either leave university with a 1st, 2:1, 2:2, 3rd or a pass (or you fail, but we won’t go into that here). Essentially, you spend £27k on one of those five classifications. In the vast majority of graduate situations, all that matters is what their overall grade (or classification) is – and arguably, that doesn’t really matter at all. Almost three quarters of students across UK universities get a 2:1 or above – what does that really tell you about the student?
I’ve come up with a solution; an approach in which students,
instead of ever getting a grade, would just get a report. A paragraph or two
(or three) about what they did well and where they could improve. For courses
where they need get have a certain level of understanding or knowledge, this
could include a pass/fail option too. This feedback would accumulate over the
three/ four years of their programme to create a picture of a student who had
progressed and grown, who had worked on areas that needed improvement and who
had developed academically.
Additionally, students would have the same personal tutor throughout their degree who understood their progress not only academically, but also socially and in their day-to-day lives. From taking all their washing home at the weekend to being a regular at the launderette. From rarely exercising to being President of the running society. It would highlight students who had overcome struggles in their personal, social or academic life and come out the other side. Students who had persevered and were determined. Personal tutors could then share this as part of a running report throughout their programme, which would be given to employers as part of a university portfolio, rather than a degree classification.
This approach to grading (i.e. not grading) would also encourage assessments to be more authentic.
There’s not much you can write about a student that has successfully crammed
three months of learning about quantum physics to regurgitate in an exam, but
you can talk about how they interacted as part of a laboratory environment and
contributed to discussions and debate on the subject. A student who has
produced a print advert would better show their marketing prowess than an essay
written on it.
A bigger emphasis on written feedback may translate to a
bigger marking load for academics, but we could change assessments to reduce
summative assessment in favour for a more programme- focussed approach.
Feedback on these assessments would tie into the overall learning outcomes for
the degree and therefore ensure students are always working towards the
programme as a whole, rather than taking individual modules that don’t add up
to a whole.
The implications for the removal of numerical grading are huge and would have major impacts on nearly all areas of the University. It is a radical concept and I’m not even sure where you would or could start. But it is something to think about in a time when student and staff mental health is being pushed to its limit and in an educational climate that increasingly focuses on results rather than on an individual’s improvement.
The following post was written by Fabienne Vailes, Language Director for French at the University of Bristol, holder of a University Teaching Fellowship, BILT Associate and author of ‘The Flourishing Student’.
Mental health issues and
problems in students have been regularly highlighted by the press and the media. The
Guardian has a whole section called ‘mental health: a university crisis’. And more
recently came reports that academics in Higher Education are not immune to this
stress and suffer from an ‘epidemic of poor mental health’.
When we know that our stress
is not just contagious but that it alters the brain of others,
it’s hardly surprising, is it?
As students are focused on
their end of year exams or finals and staff are working equally as hard to mark
their work or to process their marks, now seems like a good time to reflect on all
this and explain why building a flourishing institution which lays the
foundations and provides the framework and environment for all its participants
to not just survive but flourish is vital.
A flourishing institution that
bucks the ‘mental health crisis trend, provides opportunities and resources that
enable everyone to utilise their talents fully, develop positive and nurturing relationships,
and where a sense of community, support and social justice are the norm. Impossible,
given the current climate? Let’s see…
WHY ARE STUDENTS AND STAFF SO STRESSED?
In recent interviews, students
reported that their main sources of stress are academic workload and pressure,
social media, fear for the future, financial worries, fear of not finding a
job, relationship issues, difficulties in transitioning from secondary school
Staff talked about ‘excessive
workloads, lack of job security, lack
of support and pressure from managers’ to name but a few.
Although the source of stress might
seem different, what students and staff currently have in common is that they
all experience the consequences of the current external environment which is becoming ever more volatile
and challenging. This, it would appear increases their level of stress and
‘isolates and spotlights individuals’.
It also generates a ‘survival mindset’, a fear which motivates individuals to
become perfectionists and competitive and in turn afraid of failure. This would
explain the ‘cut-throat’, ‘lack of camaraderie and collegiality’ mentioned in
the press articles.
environment can clearly have an impact on our level of wellbeing and Maslow was
right when he said that if our physiological, safety and security needs are not
fulfilled it affects us deeply
Some like Michael Ungar argue that it is the most important factor.
what about all this talk about building resilient staff and students?
IN EDUCATION- A HOLISTIC APPROACH
Building resilience in staff and
students has often been used as ‘the solution’ to ‘the mental health crisis’.
The truth is that we would all like to find a magic solution that would suit
every single person, but the reality is that just as we are all unique
individuals, so too are the solutions that will help us manage and improve our
wellbeing. There is no once size fits all, no magic wand or silver bullet.
Instead of focusing on
resilience, we need to create a workplace culture that encourages compassion to
oneself, where self-care is normalised. This requires a more holistic approach
to our wellbeing which focuses on caring for and managing not just our mental
health but also on social, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
What if the black-and-white
thinking used in recent years (either blaming the environment or the lack of
student’s or staff’s resilience) was not the only way forward?
ALL PART OF THE PROBLEM… AND THE SOLUTIONS
Seligman said that student wellbeing is a condition (or
pre-requisite) for effective learning 
But he forgot to add that so is staff wellbeing. One cannot
happen without the other. I would also add a third element in the mix. Our
environment plays an important role in our wellbeing.
None of the above elements are more important than the
We can either look at the current
situation in Higher Education and choose the simple cause and effect thinking
which suggests that for example university life or that the increased workload
are causing students and staff to become more and more stressed or we can choose to look at it from the lens
of Systems Thinking.
Systems Thinking brings a balance
between ‘holistic thinking’ versus ‘reductionist thinking’. It shows how any
set of distinct parts that interact with each other form a complex whole and
how the parts are intimately interconnected and highly interdependent. It does
not consider the parts in isolation and looks at how the various parts of the
system interact with each other and through a web of interrelated actions
produce behaviours and results and lead to effects on each other.
Senge defines it as a ‘the
ability to see the consequences of our own action. It points out to the
connections in any situations because very often we are reacting to an
immediate situation and we fail to see how things that we did or happened in
the past might have contributed to it and how things have unfolded over time.’ 
If we integrate this idea of
Systems thinking, we recognise that all participants in a system are part of
the problem and part of the solution. It encourages us to look at the issues
experienced, try to understand how they have arisen and to gain more
understanding and perspective to discover ways to deal with things differently.
Senge adds that to do this, it is
important to have a very deep and persistent commitment to learning and we must
be prepared to be wrong. For him, if it was obvious what we ought to be doing,
then we would already be doing it.
HOW TO CREATE A FLOURISHING INSTITUTION WITH FLOURISHING
STUDENTS AND STAFF?
We all know that our environment
is getting tougher. Everyone is expected to do more at a higher quality with
less resources. It’s not about incremental changes anymore but all about
quantum innovation. All actors in HE face more complex and bigger challenges.
We all respond to these
challenges differently. Some of us tend to focus on the things we can change
and some of us on the things we cannot change. It is not right or wrong, that’s
the way it is but the first step forward is to recognise what is true for us.
As mentioned previously, fear
triggers a ‘survival mindset’ which encourages us to focus on our own needs and
to protect ourselves. It’s completely normal and part of our make-up. Survival
of the fittest anyone?
If we are honest, we might even
be willing to admit that regardless of what part we play in the system, we have
mainly been focused on our individual aims and outcomes. Students just want a
good degree in the next 3 or 4 years to get a good job ; many staff just want
to focus on their research, on publishing papers, on just teaching their topic,
to get the promotion ; senior leaders are focused on finding ways to ‘future
proof’ HE. How can a system work when most of its parts are focused on their individualistic approach?
Through Systems thinking, it may
be time for Higher Education to take a hard look at how all the relationships
between all the actors, stakeholders and external factors (which include
parents, employers, secondary schools, government, policy makers etc) affect
each other rather than treating each part in isolation.
It will help us not only see but
understand how an improvement in one area of a system (i.e focus on student well-being
or student experience) can inadvertently aversively affect another area of the
system (staff well-being).
We can then start promoting real
organizational communication at all levels to avoid silos and to improve
interactions between the elements that compose the system that is an HE
institution (and any system for that matter).
This is what is increasingly
happening in the big global organisations (google, facebook, etc).
If we can create a community
which fosters diversity, inclusion, a sense of autonomy, the development of abilities
and strengths to create positive relationships and partnerships then we can all
start flourishing, and this will in turn lead to a flourishing institution.
This is what is truly needed for the next 10-20 years.
When we start our reflection on
how to create a flourishing institution – all participants in the system need
to think about what is within their locus of control and what they choose and
want to focus on. We also all need to reflect on how we are part of the system,
part of the problem and of the solution.
Once we have done this, we might
also want to look at the Canadian’s approach to ‘positive mental health’
(see image below) and to consider how we can foster wellbeing in education
through a caring and compassionate environment and how each one of us can
at an individual level?
At the family level (our
At community (school/Faculty)?
At the institutional level?
At society level?
Emerging evidence confirms that
student wellbeing can be cultivated and supported through intentional
curriculum design. .
And I believe that it would benefit not
only students but also staff.
But only when we have focused on
a systemic approach and started managing relationships across the different
silos of our institutions, can we start looking at how we can embed wellbeing
in the curriculum, develop a flourishing institution so that all actors cannot
merely survive but flourish and succeed in Higher Education, whatever their
And yes, this may seem like a
utopia and I most certainly won’t pretend I have THE answer. What I believe
though, as Gandhi said is that ‘we need to be the change we want to see in the
world’ and that it starts with each one of us.
Sometimes this might involve
simple things such as access to a staff room or a place to get together with
others to talk and debrief, the ability to refuse some of the accepted
workplace culture (i.e. to work long hours or answer emails in the evening or
over the weekend, to come to work when ill or not to take all of our annual
leave, particularly when staffing is under-resourced) or simply to take the
time to have a proper lunch break or to say ‘thank you’.
So, what will YOU do today to start this new movement toward a flourishing education?
 Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, Tamás Füzesi, Agnieszka A.
Zurek, Nuria Daviu, Neilen P. Rasiah, David Rosenegger, Jaideep S. Bains. Social
transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress. Nature
Neuroscience, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41593-017-0044-6
In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.
Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.
So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?
I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.
I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?
So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.
The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.
Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?
I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.
See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?
I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.
I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.
The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.
Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?
I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.
I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.
Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.
So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?
At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.
I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.
You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.
We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.
It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.
Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.
Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?
You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.
What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?
I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.
The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.
In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.
Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?
I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.
I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?
Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!
This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.
I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.
Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.
I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!
I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.
So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?
I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.
What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?
Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.
Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?
Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.
I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.
I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.
I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.
This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow.
“I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.” – Dr. James Norman, ‘This is why I teach’.
I read Dr. James Norman’s
ode to concrete, wood, love and teaching just after I had finished four whole
years studying for my degree (eek!). Since handing in my final assignments last
week, I have felt that the dust hasn’t yet settled and the cement hasn’t properly
set. After reading his piece, I started to think about what exactly I had made
out of the last few years of being here. What materials do we use to build our
James got me thinking about
the idea of building more generally, and how integral it has been in defining
and shaping my time at university. Of course, I am not just referring to the
physical structure of buildings. Just as this year’s BILT theme of ‘Spaces’ has
taught me, structures often carry much more weight than their physical
manifestation. Buildings and spaces are mere vessels in which relationships can
be cemented, interests can be mixed together and built upon. The bricks of my
university are made out of more than clay, but they are rather made of people,
places, things, hobbies, highs, lows, experiences, curiosity, and
determination. While many of us dwell in the same buildings throughout our years
at university, the experience we actively build there is completely unique to
I write this blog in limbo,
as my time at Bristol is not yet fully built. I have finished all my
assignments, but I can’t yet call myself a graduate until I receive the results
that will confirm the outcome of my degree. It’s easy to let my mind slip into
this blank space of anticipation, as if my entire university career will be
defined by a number out of 100. But James’ piece has shifted my perspective. A
single brick cannot construct an entire building, just as your final grades
cannot possibly account for the complexity of each university life. They are
one part of a larger totality. Just as my History teacher told me at school
before we were to take our final exams: ‘you have your education now, and no
one can take that away from you – the exams are just the finer detail.’
My time at Bristol can only
been seen as a complete structure when, as James puts it, ‘we combine our
values.’ It is only in such a matrix that we get a more trusting and fulfilling
illustration of our university life, one that is entirely tailored to you. In
our true university building, each brick is held together by the essence of
your character. I am not just my grade, I am also my love of journalism, music,
theatre, learning, people. I am my time living in Stoke Bishop (for better or
for worse), Redland, Hotwells, and Montréal. This emphasis is what I have
particularly enjoyed about studying Liberal Arts; the degree structure hangs
off you and you get to decide how your learning goes, how you construct your
own path in pedagogy.
I loved James’ description
of driving wood apart. He said it was like a ‘release of stresses locked in by
years of growing.’ Here, the force of the axe is not a means of total
destruction, but productive reinvention; the axe sublimates the release of
stress into reconstruction and reconstitution, channelling years of growth into
driving energy. A student is like wood in this way. I can only really grow if I
am willing to embrace change, allowing myself space to release and reshape,
adapt and reconstitute in the swiftly changing times of university life. From
taking up new hobbies and subjects every year, to moving away to Canada for my
year abroad, I now feel like a completely different person to when I was in
first year. I share in James’ enthusiasm for wood; I admire its ability to
change and be changed.
This is also where I find
James’ mutual love of wood and concrete tricky to reconcile. At first, I don’t see
such a willingness to change in concrete, particularly when I look up at the neogothic
tower of Wills Memorial building, made of mainly reinforced concrete. When such
a building holds the weight of the past and prestige on its back, how can a
building, and the people within it, look on to the future? Sometimes, university
buildings can make people stubborn, helping only to hinder the progress of
ideas and keeping the practice of pedagogy stuck in a different time and place,
an outdated epoch when university was made for a very specific, limited and
privileged demographic. For me, concrete feels like essay upon essay upon essay
upon essay. Concrete feels like an entire reading list built from the minds of
only white men. Concrete feels like being stuck in your ways.
When I get really
frustrated at the rigidity of such tradition which pervades many red brick
universities, I sometimes cannot help but hear the words of Virginia Woolf:
Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!”
Hear me right, I am not
endorsing arson. I think concrete can bring solidarity, continuity and a sense
of stable educational identity; it is an integral aspect to building a
university community and History. What I am proposing is that we should seek to
rebuild the ivory tower of the UK university system by integrating wood within
the backdrop of concrete. Let us throw it into the mix, injecting its potential
for conversion, fire and change. This would bring a lightness to the hefty
prestige and traditions of our education, made of a willingness to radically
innovative and to keep moving forward in these rapidly changing times.
I send my sincerest apologies to the discipline of civil engineering for pounding these materials into metaphors.
James Norman is a Lecturer in Civil Engineering and an Academic Fellow for BILT. I caught up with James on the 10th of May to talk about his path into academia, his passion for teaching and engineering, and student engagement.
Tell us a bit about how you got into academia.
into academia was a little different from everyone else’s…
I did an engineering degree at Nottingham, which is pretty normal! After I completed my degree, I got a job working in industry. I worked for about 3 years, then started doing a PhD and became a Research Assistant.
are usually hired after completing a PhD, but I hadn’t started mine at that
point. What I had was industry experience. That definitely persuaded the university
department to give me that post-PhD position without even having a PhD. That
job was a lot of fun!
years of payed research I managed to finish my PhD! It was so satisfying but it
was also one of the most difficult moments of my life. Only because, my second
son was born 3 months into my 6-month write up. I was up with my son until
10-11pm, then worked on my PhD until 2-3o’clock in the morning, I was also
working to earn enough money…
I was not a
pleasant person for a little bit. Really unpleasant actually, my wife did not
like me for a little while!
I then persuaded the university to let me work
for them on an hourly basis teaching one course unit. I did that for about 3-4
years, then I finally asked for a contract. I wanted a contract to have the
security of knowing I would be teaching this every year instead of getting to
that point when you think ‘Uhm, ok, it’s September, and I’m not even sure I’m
going to be able to teach this again.’
working part time, I thought ‘I like working in industry, but I love teaching!’
So about 4 years ago, I asked my head of department for a full-time position as a lecturer. I kind of gave him an ultimatum… But that got me the job!
How difficult is it to secure a job in
academic job isn’t easy. It feels like there’s a lot of serendipity involved.
I get to interview
a lot of people for these jobs, and I don’t think I could get a job in academia
nowadays. It is so difficult and competitive! There are days when I think, I
shouldn’t really be here doing what I’m doing.
even though my experience was quite different from what people expect academics
to do, it’s not better or worse. And
everyone has their unique path into academia. Not everyone knows they want to
get into it.
All I knew
was that I loved designing buildings! And I also knew I wanted to work in
industry and at university.
How did you combine your work in industry with
your interest in teaching?
to look at buildings that you designed and say ‘That is mine! I did all of
that!’ Nothing beats that. But, ultimately, I also felt I had something to
offer at the university. I didn’t want to just teach the norm of how things are
in engineering. I think it is important to look at the industry and think about
where we are going, what things might look like looking forward, and what are
the challenges we are going to be facing in the future.
I like to
bring in unusual buildings materials to my lectures. I like to tell students
about them in the hope that they would go out into the world equipped in ways
that I was never equipped.
that teaching offers the biggest impact for change!
Would you say you do more teaching than
researching at the moment?
I think I’m
a bit more of a polymath. There is a company mantra that states ‘do one thing
well’, well, I’m absolutely the opposite of that! I think it’s fun to do a bit
But I also
need a bit of a focus. I am supervising 1 PhD student at the moment and I love
doing that! But I’m not keen to have 100 PhD students at one time. That would
be a lot!
I also love
my research area on sustainable materials, specifically timber. It’s going to
be an extremely important material. My students know how fond I am of it.
Would you be able to name most of your
I would love
to be able to name all of them obviously, but I don’t know if my brain capacity
is that big. I’ve got 300 names to memorise across 4 years. But I do try and
take a personal interest in everyone. I think it’s very important to have a
relationship with your students!
What are your thoughts on anonymous marking for
big group projects? Is it possible?
hot topic! Most of the time, these projects are double marked, or even triple
marked depending on the situation. But it is almost impossible to mark
anonymously because group work involves supervisors and other members of staff
to talk to students about their projects all the time.
One solution would be to give everyone the
same project. But we also don’t want to give all students the same challenges,
it would be boring!
group projects tend to be more diverse. We want to make students have a choice
in what they study. We tend to offer about 30 real-life projects that students
can choose from. It is great to be able to give students a wide scope and range
of topics. If you’re interested in international development, or water, or
infrastructure, there should be opportunities catered for students’ and groups’
How do you get students to be engaged in their
know how you feel about lectures, but I love lecturing! It is one of my
favourite things to do! But, it might be
for a selfish reason. It is a bit like performance, like an actor or a
musician. Everyone is looking at you and ready to listen to what you have to
say… I think a lot of people like doing it, but don’t confess to that. Of
course, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the best way to learn. But it is a
great way of delivering information, so we should make it a performance that
students enjoy and find interesting.
have smaller classes where we work through teaching material together. I find
that it is sometimes hard to bridge that hierarchy between teacher and student.
Therefore it is important to have times where teachers and students can discuss
course material together. Students get worried if they are stuck on material
from week 3 when they are supposed to be on week 7… But at the end of the
day, it’s ok if you aren’t on that specific week. You should be able to ask
lecturers anything because that is what we are here for. It is important to
break down the barriers between academics and students to make their learning
In my mind,
the healthiest relationship between students and professors is seeing myself as
a senior engineer and the students as graduate engineers. There is obviously a
hierarchy of knowledge but you shouldn’t feel like it’s because you don’t know,
it’s just that you haven’t learned about it yet.
Would you say that knowledge is collaborative?
know. I would say that knowledge is acquired through a variety of ways. I
remember going on a training course with ‘We The Curious’. The activity leader presented
3 different ways of making Bolognaise. The 1st approach, we were
told how to make the bolognaise. The 2nd approach involved having a
conversation about the recipe and asking audiences for suggestions. The 3rd
approach was a facilitated discussion with the audience.
most people thought we would like approach 3, all the Engineering staff liked
approach 1. I think it’s because we’re
used to that kind of methodology: we take information and learn to apply it.
And I don’t think it’s an unhealthy way to learn at all! I always look for experts
to learn about new things because they use the right tools to learn from. It is
obviously very different from collaborative learning, but it does not mean it
creation of knowledge is far more complex than you think and there isn’t a
single ‘tool set’ to learn from.
Do you think Arts subjects will ever adopt a
terrible at ‘the Arts’ when I was a student, so I’m not sure I can comment on
that. But I do think that there are many ways we can design our thinking
process. I think the sciences like to over-glorify the rationalization of
ideas. But we should remember that not all ideas are naturally accepted. Not everyone has the same views.
example, I love music, and the music that I love, I love for an irrational
reason. Because they are quirky and different. I find that the more people
don’t like it, the more likely I am to lean towards it and listen to it. We all
have our preferences and our own valuable ways of learning.
was learning the same way and doing the same thing, it would be very boring!
think that there is always a sense of narrative to explain how we’ve learned
what we’ve learned.
instance, when you write an essay, you should view it as a document journeying
your learning. You have to have a conversation about what you’ve learned and how
you learned. Reflection is an important practice.
What’s one thing you learned as a teacher?
one of my favourite things to do. I am currently learning a lot about pedagogy!
But One important lesson I learned was through a scheme called CREATE.
I had to
write a reflective piece on my teaching practice. When I wrote the draft, I
thought, ‘I nailed it.’ Everything was going very well, so I thought this was
going to be brilliant. But when I got my work back, the reviewer really tore it
to pieces, but in a very healthy way!
sending about 10 revisions of my statement to Jane, who runs CREATE, and
learned a lot through those revisions…
times you think you’re great at something, and when you suddenly aren’t, it can
be a shock to the system. But it is important to experience these moments, both
as a student, as well as as an academic.
Wwhat were your perceptions of teaching from
when you were a student?
I think I
had a pretty unhealthy relationship to teaching and learning when I was a
student. I was pretty good at exams and cracked the system by memorizing past
papers and answers. It was only in my 3rd and 4th year
that I knew I wanted to design buildings and understand how they came to be. I
remember walking through a building with a friend and finally seeing the
connection between what I was learning and what materialized in real-life.
was a bad student… When I graduated, my tutor said I was one of the laziest
students he’d ever had. I used to talk to my friends in lectures, and got in
trouble because I had a pencil case full of toys that I would use during tutor
time… I would get in trouble.
education was very different back then. We didn’t have handouts, we wrote
everything down, it was far less personable. One great thing was that one of
our lecturers knew us all by name! I was always really impressed by that.
teacher now, I would never use ‘bad’ to describe any of my students! It’s not
true and its certainly not helpful! As an academic, you have to remember that
you are not necessarily your cohort. Not all your students are like you.
Do you think students get a bit too stressed
about their education nowadays?
I can see
both sides to the story. Students do worry a lot about their grades, and to a
certain extend, so do employers. But if you have a degree and a portfolio of
work that shows that you are a creative and collaborative person, these are
also important assets.
important but are not everything. People are obsessed with the number, and it’s
just a number. A number is immaterial; your job offers are placed around your
Of course, we
cannot ignore the fact that people put a lot of money into their education. It
is an important investment and people want to see students succeed. Although it
is easy to say the stress is self-imposed, it is because students want to do
well, and so do academics!
be controversial, but I am often tempted to make the grade boundaries go from 0
to 75. And for every mark you get above 75, you get marked down. So if you got
an 82, you would end up with a 68.
The reason I say this is because I don’t think we ever teach people that actually, in life, perfection is not necessary. Good enough is necessary. I don’t think people learn when to stop. They keep going and going and end up getting phenomenal marks, but the personal costs resulting from that are too much.
Teaching people ‘you can stop there, you don’t need to do that’ is important. I do have a lot of students come into my office worried and concerned about the future. But, in industry, you learn something very quickly… You learn that there are so many other priorities in your life too. We need to let people know that ‘good enough’ is a healthy attitude to adopt!
How do you usually tell yourself ‘good enough’
I’m terrible at that actually. It’s always a dilemma! As university staff, you care a lot about what you do, but there is a point when caring too much can be detrimental to your teaching. I would love for all of my lectures and feedback to be perfect, but I need to balance that against the cost of other parts of my life as well as the sustainability of my work. I’d rather be doing 20 years of teaching really well, but not perfectly, rather than 3 years perfectly and then stop because of the stress I built up for myself.
This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.
Bruce Macfarlane is Head of the School of Education and author of ‘Freedom to Learn at University’. He delivered a BILT Education Excellence Seminar in May 2019 that can be watched here.
What motivated you to write Freedom to Learn?
It is a case of mea culpa. Earlier in my career I worked
as a business and management lecturer and later as an academic developer. In
these roles I advocated several learning and teaching practices I criticise in
the book. I now believe that many of these things undermine student rights as
learners, or their ‘freedom to learn’. This includes enforced participation in
class, group assessment, and trying to assess students on the basis of
confessional style reflective writing. I am concerned that the student
engagement movement has placed too much emphasis on assessing students based on
their ‘time and effort’. This mantra has corrupted university assessment making
it acceptable to give grades for attendance and ‘class contribution’. This is
about not about real learning. It is about rewarding academic non-achievement.
While there are plenty of publications
about academic freedom these mainly focus on freedom for academics, not
students. There have been few serious attempts to understand student academic
freedom. This phrase is largely associated with student protest but I argue
that it also needs to be thought in terms of learner rights – to non-indoctrination,
reticence, in choosing how to learn, and in being treated like an adult.
Why do you think this performative culture persists?
Performativity is a term synonymous
with the demands of being an academic or, indeed, virtually any modern day
public sector worker. However, a performative culture also exists for university
students too. Three forms of student performativity affect their lives: ‘bodily’
performativity through the way that compulsory attendance requirements are creating
a culture of presenteeism at university; ‘participative’ performativity that
forces students to take part ‘actively’ in classroom learning and is often
assessed on a highly superficial basis through impressionistic grading; and
‘emotional’ performativity requiring compliance with normative political agendas,
such as global citizenship and often monitored via reflective writing
Student performativity has
developed, and persists, partly because academics are increasingly burdened by demands
to meet their own performative targets such as publishing in high impact
journals and winning large research grants. Rewarding students for their ‘time
and effort’ is a cheap and cheerful way to reduce the time hungry demands of teaching
and assessment. This, sadly, is a big reason why grading attendance and group
assessment goes largely unchallenged.
What are the long-term benefits of adopting the changes outlined
in the book?
There are important
long-term benefits in giving students the freedom to learn. The coercive and
authoritarian culture of learning at university promoted by many student
engagement initiatives infantilises students and fails to prepare them for life
as an adult. In ‘real life’ you are not rewarded for just turning up. Releasing
students from compulsory attendance rules would help to re-focus students – and
their teachers – on learning rather than rituals of compliance. If students are
going to really benefit from a ‘higher’ education they need to be allowed to
make up their own minds about the issues that matter to them, not get rewarded
for simply being compliant.
What is the one message readers will take away from it?
are two messages (if I may!). There is a lot of talk in higher education about the
‘effectiveness’ of learning but we need to question practices that are coercive
and abuse a student’s right to be treated as an adult taking part in what is meant
to be a voluntary phase of education. The means do not always justify the ends.
message concerns the meaning of ‘student-centred’ . This phrase has become a
hurrah word but its original and true meaning has been lost and distorted. As
academics, we need to start questioning practices that are really about
creating a presenteeist culture, enforcing forms of participation, and
assessing students on the basis of a confessional discourse. In short, we need
to put the freedom to learn at the heart of student learning. This is what Carl
Rogers called freedom from pressure and is what ‘student-centred’ really
The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.
Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possibly my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.
Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.
More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.
No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:
Seek: You will find your way, It is In the Same place As Your love.”
First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”
Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010
So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.
So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?
* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .