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Lisa Howarth is a BILT Student Fellow, working on the theme ‘Making the Most of our Teaching Spaces’ at the University of Bristol. As she comes to the end of her fellowship, she reflects on her time at BILT.
How have you found the BILT
It has been an amazing learning
opportunity and a diverse experience; sometimes it involved discussing the use
of facial recognition technology in universities and other times I found myself
challenging students to build a tower with marshmallows and sticks! I began the
year visiting the campuses of Northampton University, Oxford Brookes and
Southampton Solent to see their innovative use of space and ended it supporting
BILT at the Bristol Teaching Awards. In the middle I ran a workshop, interviewed
students and produced a series of videos on student perspectives about spaces
at UoB. It gave me access to a range of perspectives and encouraged me to
reflect on my own views about pedagogy and teaching spaces in higher education.
What was most interesting
about your project?
It was really interesting to
discover the impact that space can have on mental health and wellbeing. A
number of students talked about the anxiety associated with finding a space in
the library during exam season or the anonymity felt when sitting at the back
of a large lecture theatre. The majority of students mentioned natural light as
an important consideration in a teaching or study space. This experience taught
me that teaching space isn’t just about the layout of the tables or the colour
of the walls, but that the space has an impact on the way that users behave and
feel within it. A well-designed teaching space can promote active teaching and
learning, which in turn has the power to promote supportive relationships and
to encourage a sense of community.
What surprised you the most?
One of the biggest surprises for
me was that students were often more conservative in their approach to teaching
and learning than academic staff. Very few students felt comfortable with the
idea of scrapping lectures in favour of seminars and practical sessions,
despite saying that these were the classes where they did the most learning.
What did you learn?
I had the opportunity to attend some thought-provoking Education
Excellence seminars and one thing I learned is that there is a real tension
around the purpose of higher education institutions; whether they exist to
support thinking, learning and the creation of knowledge or whether they provide
a service to students in readying them for the world of work. This issue seems
to have been approached in a number of different ways, with some HE
institutions making innovative teaching their main focus and others increasing
their research output. The idea of ‘student as producer’, where students are
involved in the creation of knowledge and understanding through supporting academic
research, attempts to blur these boundaries. This approach, presented by Professor
Mike Neary, was new to me and sparks a really interesting conversation.
What challenged your views?
The seminar by Professor Bruce Macfarlane challenged my idea
that a teacher is responsible for encouraging engagement for learning. The
argument that students, as adults, have the right to choose whether, and how
much, they want to engage in sessions, was a perspective that I had not
considered, having taught in compulsory education for many years. It raises
questions about the extent to which students should be responsible for their
own learning and what is really meant by ‘engagement’. Is the person at the
back of the room absorbing information and reflecting on their thoughts any
less engaged that someone participating in discussion at the front? As an
undergraduate, the feeling amongst my fellow students was that attendance was
the most important thing, even if we fell asleep in the corner or sat at the
back of the lecture theatre eating ice cream! Perhaps discovering that engagement
in learning is more important that attendance is part of a student’s learning
What did you enjoy the most?
Meeting all the fantastic and inspiring people involved in BILT, the amazing BILT team and the Student Fellows. I’d like to say a big thank you to the team and to the UoB students involved in our research for being so open and honest and for making this experience so much fun!
The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.
About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.
Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.
But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.
But if education is really about life long learning then I
should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop
at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what
is necessary to solve the problems ahead.
And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To
learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.
The 2019 Bristol Teaching Awards took place on Wednesday 12th June, with colleagues from across the institution coming together to celebrate the inspiring teaching that takes place at the University.
The evening kicked off with a drinks reception where nominees, faculty reps, academics and professional services staff mingled together over sparking wine. Attendees then moved into the Great Hall, where they were met with an thrilling performance by the Chinese Lion Dance Troupe. Drums beat and symbols clapped at the back of the room as dancers moved around the table handing out sweets to guests.
After a brief speech from the Vice Chancellor (in which he referred to the event as the ‘Oscars of Teaching’ – thanks Hugh!), the evening continued with a two-course dinner, with dessert accompanied by a performance from the delightful A Capella Society (male group), performing hits such as ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Five Colours in her Hair’ and ‘Big Girls’.
The performance was followed by another speech, this time from Sally Heslop, our interim PVC Education, in which she highlighted some of the excellent work done by BILT over the past year. The first set of awards being given were the staff-led awards. Nominees for these awards were nominated by their colleges and included six University Awards for Education (one per faculty), an award for Enhancing the Student Learning Experience and Educational Initiative award (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).
The second half of the evening was given over to students, kicking off with a short video about what our BILT student fellows have been doing over the last six months – you can watch the video here.
Nasra Ayub and Shubham Singh, our outgoing 2018/19 Undergraduate and Postgraduate Education Officers, then gave their speeches, highlighting the fact that excellent teaching takes place across the institution and that celebrating ‘those who have been mentioned and those who haven’t’. We then moved onto awarding the Student Awards for Outstanding Educators, with one award for each faculty, and then the Award for Outstanding Teaching by a Postgraduate Student, the Students’ Award for Outstanding Support and finally the Students’ Award for Outstanding Supervision of Research Students (a full list of award winners can be found on the BILT website).
The evening ended with the Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Education, which is selected from the other 17 winners. This year, the award was given to James Filbin, who runs the Engineering Hackspace. Unfortunately, James was on holiday the night of the Awards so his manager, Jude Britton, had to collect both his awards for him, but we’re sure it will be an amazing surprise for when he is back!
Much like the real Oscars, we did have one ‘LaLa Land moment‘ (sorry to the Linguistics team, Mark France and everyone else in those categories!), but aside from that slight blip the evening was a roaring success and a great time was had by all. We are producing two videos of the event and we will share these will you in due course! Well done to all those who were nominated, shortlisted and those who won.
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!
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
“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.
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 .
From an initial interest in creating a histology game and some rough drawings on the back of playing cards, Frankie Macmillan and Zoe Palmerhave created a fun and exciting way to teach a subject that students find hard to engage with.
Histology is taught on medical, veterinary and dental courses but many students find it a challenging subject. Frankie and Zoe hope to use this game to change perceptions; to make histology more fun and to help students engage.
After designing the basic concept and creating a simple test pack, Zoe and Frankie secured Discretionary Seedcorn funding from BILT in January and started developing their game.
Histo-link is a picture card game in which students make links between different images of cells, tissues and organs. A player lays a card and the next player has to lay a card that links to it. For example, an image of the spinal cord could be followed by an image of a nerve cell, or a section of peripheral nerves. If the students cannot make an obvious link, they can chose to try a more obscure link, but another player could challenge it. The rest of the group then discuss whether they think the link is factually correct. If it isn’t, the student has to ‘pay’ a counter to the challenger, as a penalty for a poor link. If it is deemed to be a good link the challenger must pay a counter as a penalty. The game continues until players have laid all their cards, the player with the most counters at the end wins. Students can also spend their counters (shaped like red blood cells) by buying an answer from the other players, or the associated crib sheet if they cannot identify one of their cards. The game contains sixty cards and each player starts with five red blood cell counters.
Initial feedback from students is very promising. Every single student that attended a test session (31 students) would recommend the game to a fellow student and said that the game would improve their knowledge of histology. Almost all the students found that the game was pitched at the right level and that it was easy to play. Three test sessions were run; some students from each session were interested in buying the game – leading Frankie and Zoe to consider the possibility that the game could be sold to students and even to other universities! Students in the test sessions were given simple instructions but were not directly told how to play. Zoe and Frankie had expected them to play competitively as individuals, but some students played collaboratively, with their cards laid flat on the table, working together.
Although the game is still in testing phase, Frankie and Zoe have plans for how it will be embedded in teaching across year groups. First years could play in teams of two or three, with students playing as individuals in second year as their confidence in their histology knowledge builds. Students won’t necessarily be given all the cards in first year to ensure that they play using cards relating to the teaching they have had, with more cards being added into game as they learn more throughout the year. The adding and removal of cards is a simple way to differentiate learning with this game. The flexibility of Histo-link is one of its best features and means it can be a valuable resource for a student through their entire degree.
The game won’t replace the current method of teaching histology, Zoe says, but will make for a great revision tool and might help to demonstrate that histology can be an enjoyable subject to learn! Having to create links between the different images means the students not only have to identify sections but they also have to apply logic and reasoning to make the connections. This strengthens their understanding of histology which can then be applied to other areas of the curriculum. Teaching something is one of the best ways to learn and Histo-link does exactly this – students in the test sessions challenged each other and discussed their answers – something which doesn’t always happen during normal teaching activity. Frankie and Zoe not only hope that this game will help students to get excited about histology, but that it might even inspire some histopathologists of the future!