On Tuesday 26th June, we attended the second annual Faculty of Social Sciences and Law Education and Pedagogy conference in the School of Education. The conference’s title was ‘Evolution or Revolution? Teaching in Uncertain Times’ and asked us to question the changing landscape of higher education in the UK and abroad.
Paddy Ireland, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law, opened the day with a reflective lecture on the changes he has seen since he started teaching in the 1970s. He mused on the increase in student numbers and their expectations, as well as the expectations of academic staff. He believes that we have moved from elite to mass education, with the student as the consumer and universities increasingly being seen as businesses, rather than what they ultimately are, which is educational institutions. Paddy welcomed the theme of the conference and asked us to be brave – what we teach will not always be what the students want; that we have to show commitment to our subject, as well as a commitment to teaching. We must prepare to be innovative and give though to education. He believes we must balance measures such as the REF, TEF and NSS with the importance of spending time thinking about what we are doing and maintaining a passion for our subjects.
There were a number of sessions to choose from throughout the day covering topics ranging from a the BME Attainment Gap to Clinical Legal Studies. All the sessions we attended were outstanding but, to save you a ridiculously lengthy post, have summarised just two of the sessions below.
Our mid-morning session was a 40-minute lecture delivered by Paul Howard-Jones, which looked at the connection between brain development throughout history and the way we learn. This was a highly stimulating lecture and provided us with an accessible insight into the way we engage, build on and consolidate new information. He highlighted studies he had undertaken, in which learners who were given ‘rewards’ for correct answers showed improved memory and attention, whilst learners suffering from anxiety were less likely to learn as their working memory was taken up, reducing the ability to process information. Questions from the audience asked what, if any, impact technology had on the brain (it does – it is making us be able to process more yet remember less) and whether there truly is a difference between female and male brains (there is – but culture has a far bigger impact on behaviour differences). The lecture left the audience enthused to learn more, at which point Paul handed out flyers for the book the lecture was based on – ‘Evolution of the Learning Brain (Or How You Got To Be So Smart)’.
The afternoon’s keynote was a lecture from BILT’s Director, Alvin Birdi, who (somewhat accidently) tied in his lecture with Paddy Ireland’s opening musings, highlighting the difficult balance between freedom and state intervention. He delivered a ‘critique’ of Bristol Futures, in which he wove literature, educational philosophy and history into a neat, 50-minute lecture on the intellectual underpinning of the ‘Bristol Futures’ vision.
He split his animated and exciting lecture into five key areas: context (in which he introduced the concept of intellectual freedom vs. state intervention/ government funding), history (conflicts between conservative and utilitarian purposes of university), protheses (universities as a way to supplement society’s needs and how universities reflects society), eyes (highlighting how we need ‘blink’ to ensure that we are seeing and hearing properly; that we are effectively reflecting on our practice), and ways of educating (students looking at and working across different disciplines; solving real-world problems while gaining knowledge from scholars), concluding that Bristol Futures was marrying an imbalance we have seen in universities for the past three hundred years – a balance between intellectual freedom and intervention from the state, by providing students with the opportunity to explore difference areas, which, in turn, creates an awareness of civic and global responsibility and resilience to challenges.
The day highlighted the need to explore and innovate in teaching practice, placing knowledge and students at the heart of all we do. Alvin’s lecture ended with a quote from Derrida, and is fitting to consider for the conference theme as a whole:
Beware of ends; but what would a university be without ends?
(Derrida, 1983: 19.)