Pedagogy podcast with Beke Zwingmann

Louise Howson talks with Beke Zwingmann a lecturer in the University of Bristol Law School who explores comparative pedagogy and its influence on teaching and learning.  

Listen to the entire series here

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Welcome to the Pedagogy Podcast brought to you by the Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching. Each week, we look at a different piece of the pedagogy pie and see how we can inspire exciting new practice at the University of Bristol. We hope you enjoy this slice of teaching and learning engagement.

I’m Louise Howsen, and I’m joined by Beke, who is going to tell us all about what she’s been reading and how it’s influencing her practice. So I’d like to hand you over, if you give us a quick introduction.

Hello, Louise. Thank you for having me. My name is Beke Zwingmann. I am a lecturer in the law school, and the topic I want to talk about today is comparative pedagogy. And to give you a bit of background on myself how I got into that is that I’m German and I did my law degree in Germany.

I did an Erasmus year in France, where I did so-called [INAUDIBLE] at that time, so fourth year degree. And then since 2004, I’ve been in the UK, first working at Cardiff University and now at Bristol. So I’ve had experiences in three very different higher education environments and cultures. And that has sparked an interest for me to see, OK, how is that influencing who I am as a teacher and also as a learner?

And that’s how I got into this what I have very pretentiously labeled comparative pedagogy.

Lovely. Thank you. So in terms of the research, what was your problem that you were trying to fix in looking at this and then seeing how it actually links to your practice?

Well, it all started with my becoming enrolled on Cardiff’s version of the [? Create ?] program. They call it Certificate in University Teaching and Learning, and their first unit was all about exploring yourself, so basically knowing yourself better would mean that you could actually be a better teacher, so who am I as a learner and as a teacher?

And reflective practice was something I had never done. And so I got into that. And working my way through the reading list, I read, OK, lots about English language materials on pedagogy. And then I thought, OK. Let’s explore the German language literature. And I didn’t expect any big surprises, and I didn’t expect to be– you could say– well, pretend that you’ve been shocked by the discoveries or how that would affect myself.

But what I realized was that actually the way I am as a learner, which then impacts on the way I teach, was heavily influenced by having grown up in the German higher education system– or, school education system, as well, and higher education system. And then I started digging into these differences, what literature tends to label, so the Anglo-American, UK in particular. Also curriculum tradition versus the more continental European, especially German language countries and the northern European didactic tradition.


And just to clarify, because probably lots of you listening flinched at this point hearing the word didactic. So what I should emphasize is that the English word didactics, which has a very negative ring to it and sounds like indoctrination and very strict teachers and rules and very much top down education, has nothing whatsoever to do with didactic as a technical term in the German language literature on pedagogy.

As a technical term, all it means is a label for the art and science of teaching and learning. So if you look at an English language dictionary, the word you find for that is pedagogy. So you should translate that way to find a proper translation and then also appreciation for what it’s actually about.

And it is about that in the same way in the sense that pedagogy is trying to explore what it means to teach, what it means to learn. And the same happens in the German language a discussion around the term didactic.

That’s very interesting.

What is, I think, zen, or rather where I then got really fascinated by, were the differences and how they impacted on me as a learner and a teacher. And I think that’s still very much present today, potentially much more than I thought it would be. And what I’m now doing is broad brush strokes, potentially very cliched.

But the curriculum tradition is usually depicted by the idea of the curriculum. That is, what needs to be delivered. That is, you could say the knowledge prescribed in that curriculum– a national curriculum most of the time– is the key. That’s the purpose of teaching, of learning. And that’s where then teachers come in.

Basically, policymakers decide this curriculum, the teachers have very little choice, and they are expected to deliver it. It’s a question when you think about the UK’s history– say, 19th century, where teaching was much more scattered. Let’s call it that– not under the control of a national curriculum.

And then things like class and money and all of that impacted on the quality of the education you got. So the curriculum was a means to an end in the sense that no matter where you were, you were supposed to get the same kind of education, and then teachers were supposed to make sure of that.

So that sense, the curriculum was very much a means to an end. It is also, then, the idea of we’re teaching what everyone should know about this society, this country that we live in. And then flipping this round towards the didactic tradition, they went– you could say the other way, in the sense that knowledge was not the purpose, the end game of what education was about.

Rather, if we go back to modern didactic tradition starting with the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th century, especially, Wilhelm von Humboldt was very influential there where he said, OK. Education is not about learning– or rather, it’s not about studying in a very pragmatic sense– it’s about realizing who you are and then fulfilling your potential.

Becoming an educated human being was about realizing yourself, your capabilities, your abilities, acquiring abilities and knowledge that would help you become, you could say, good person, the best person you could be. And in that sense, if you’re seeing it that way, if that is the overall purpose, then knowledge is just a means to an end.

And the teacher is the facilitator. The teacher ends up having a role of creating learning opportunities that allow the students to realize their potential. And that is a very different twist on what happens in the classroom. Because when you look at the curriculum tradition, what you do to measure success is to say, OK, I can test my students and see how much they know. And then I know I’m a successful teacher because I achieved the objectives of the curriculum.

My students know about the First World War, the Second World War, the Civil War. And whereas in the didactic tradition, what you would ask is the question, do my students know about the First World War, the Second World War, becomes much less important than the question, what should they learn from knowing about this, and has that helped them?

Knowing about this, has that helped them to become much more aware of who they are and what they can do and how they think about stuff? So critical thinking is built into the whole system because the students are expected to make that journey of learning by themselves. And what I found, again, fascinating is that when you think about topics that are discussed at the moment– I think in quite a few universities at Bristol in particular as well– decolonization.

It’s just this realization that our students are not just a sort of– well, they’re not all the same. And just acknowledging that fact, that you’re just stuffing knowledge into someone, they will react to information differently. And people from, say ethnic minority backgrounds, will approach the same topic, say the First World War, in a very different way.

And so the didactic tradition has that built in the sense that the teacher needs to be prepared for that and needs to work on the assumption that all the students are different and will gain a different learning experience from the same subject matter. And that is an expectation, which then, of course, has repercussions on how I design teaching materials and the whole learning experience.

If I’m just choosing materials in terms of, OK, what are key points of the First World War that students need to know? What a curriculum tradition teacher will ask in terms of what’s important about the First World War that they need to know to understand how it happened, and what happened sort of during the war and then afterwards, and how things developed.

Well, as a didactic tradition, teacher would probably ask, OK. What do I want to learn– what would I want my students to learn about this, the destructive power of war, how wars start? How can I make that into something that they can experience and they can actually study about this and learn from this? And then, again, accounting for the fact that not all students will take away the same lesson or the same learning experience.

I think there’s also the emotional connection there to certain topics as well because that can have a major impact on how people can take in information, but also how they react to it, and also the kind of things that they would want to write as well. So it’s almost that they can take ownership of the direction of their learning rather than just, as you were saying, being given the topics, being given the information.

It’s, how do you experience it? What does it mean to you, rather than just what does it mean, what is it, which I think is a really interesting way of thinking about how we engage our learners with the material that we’re teaching.

Yeah. And it’s also this idea that– which took me a while to get my head round– that facts are not facts. You just think, OK. Certain things are facts. I mean, certain battles happened during the First World War, going with that example again. But again, what do they mean for the people that look at this stuff and maybe have– these days, probably more the Second World War when you have parents that fought or grandparents that tell you about it because they fought in it.

That is a much more personal connection, and gives an entirely different spin on things compared to someone who doesn’t have that personal connection or who has never had any contact with it. If you think about English history in terms of the Scottish move for independence, they have much more connections to certain things than, say, someone living in the South of England.

And that, whether in the national curriculum will try to force or try to push everyone towards the same content, a didactic tradition teacher can actually make much more deliberate choices. So I think what I liked about the whole construction was very much this idea that the teacher is in charge and the teacher has a lot of autonomy to decide and also that students have a lot of autonomy.

As you said, they are taking ownership of what they learn, potentially also how they learn. And I think that I found that really, really appealing.

And so what I then started doing was– first with myself, in the sense that just realizing that how these influences were there, which then made me think about– coming back to the first question you asked in terms of what was the problem I was trying to fix– was that I had noticed over the years that there were sometimes issues where I would say the students that were not communicating very well, and I never knew quite why.

And then looking at this literature and just thinking about myself, reflecting about myself, made me realize that I was going into the classroom with quite a few assumptions. And of course, the students were also coming into the classroom with quite a few assumptions. And they were not necessarily the same. So we essentially had a hidden gap, unconscious– yeah, assumptions on both sides where I then– that I didn’t bridge.

I was always– and I still do– I was always assuming that students are actually– yeah, they are in charge of their own learning, quite specific in terms of the word. Not the studying, but the learning. And it is their responsibility and their job, and I can help them. But at the end of the day, if they don’t pick up the textbook, if they don’t do the exercises, it’s not my job to force them. It’s their choice.

And I’ve always felt very, very reluctant to really push students into that, saying, OK. You need to do this to be a disciplinarian teacher. I never liked that attitude. So I just said, OK. Hey, you didn’t prepare for this seminar. That’s your loss. You’re not getting a lot out of it. But that’s your choice, and you’re allowed to make it.

And the students, of course, were assuming that I would push, that I would actually make them learn in that sense, that I would make them study. And when I didn’t, I was thinking, is she abandoning us? Is she just– she’s not pushing. She’s not trying to make us do things. And we should be guided in terms of how we should read and what notes we should take and what other key points of specific seminar topic.

And I was saying, hey. You figure that out for yourself. I can’t tell you what you think about the case. I mean, law in particular is not really about finding one right answer, because there isn’t one. It’s usually it’s usually about, have you made a good argument that supports your position? And I may not like your argument, I may really disagree with you, but that’s not my job.

My job here is to make you a lawyer, which means I need to make sure you are arguing, you’re not just stating an opinion with no foundation whatsoever. And I think that was very difficult for some students to really appreciate. So that was definitely something where students kept asking for in terms of, what are the key points? What are we supposed to be taking from the seminar?

And I was going, OK. This is really not my job. I can’t tell you what you should think. And just reading that literature then made me realize, oh yeah. There’s actually a very practical reason for why these conceptions about what happens in the seminar were clashing. And so at that point, that one, that was for me, then, the problem I was trying to fix. And what I was doing or trying to do, still trying, working on it, is bridging that gap in terms of just appreciating that we’re coming from two different perspectives and working on making my expectations a bit more transparent.

Hopefully then also making it obvious that I don’t expect them to have a specific position on something– just appreciate what’s there, what’s before them, study the material, and make up their own minds about it, and that they actually have the right to make up their own minds about it and should.

Encourage them to do that. And that is my only expectation, not that they have a specific opinion or position and defend it. And as you probably can imagine, that’s difficult.

Yeah, it is.

It’s one of those you need to do it every time, consciously remind yourself that this is what’s happening. Also with teaching materials, I would design– it’s, again, it’s always thinking about this in terms of, oh yeah, I’m coming from this perspective and this is what I want my students to do. And the students will look at this from a completely different angle with completely different assumptions and see an entirely different challenge, one I hadn’t actually meant to put there.

Yeah. It’s got me thinking about the whole– something that I’ve always struggled with is sometimes you have to give students permission to have their own thoughts, to question things. And from my own student experience, I found it really tricky to question literature because I was a bit like, who am I a first year, second year student to question professor so-and-so who’s written 17,000 papers on this particular topic?

So how am I, a lowly student, supposed to engage with that and have permission to critique it and have permission to go, actually, I don’t agree with that, and I’ve got some arguments which are to do with that. And I think there’s a real– there’s not just a power relationship I think in the classroom between lecturer and student. It’s also student and the canon, the literature.

There’s a power dynamic there. A person who may have died 50 years ago still has power over these students because of their legacy of what they’ve written as well, which can be really difficult for them to get their head around in terms of being able to challenge that in critique.

Absolutely. And I think it’s also– coming back to what we talked about earlier– is that you as a student may have experiences that shaped your view on a specific topic. And that is something that these writers may actually not have had. So your point is the arguments and the position where you’re coming from is something that you contribute to that debate as a learner, and you have a right to do that.

Because they may not actually have been able to appreciate the experiences that you have had even, say, let’s say you’re a disabled student, and that poses any number of challenges, and that shapes your perspective on how learning works. And then you read literature about learning, and it just completely brushes that aside.

And then it’s perfectly legitimate, I would say, for a student to come up with this position saying, well, that’s nonsense. But as you said, having the courage to actually do that as a student is difficult. The way I always put that to my students is that, OK. You’ve got the UK Supreme Court and the judges. And then you say, OK. They’re only human.

They’re really experienced lawyers. They’re really experienced judges, but they may get it wrong. And you’re allowed to criticize them. Tear them apart.

You may actually have to do that if your client ends up on, basically, the wrong side of a particular legal precedent. You have to make a position for your client. You need to learn how to argue against an overwhelming set of opinions that seems to point towards your client losing. And so for a lawyer, it’s never about the right or the wrong position, it’s very much about, can I defend my case?

And in that sense it’s interesting how all of this plays out.

[INAUDIBLE]. Definitely. So I’m combining some questions here, but thinking about those key messages from the paper, how are they now influencing your practice? What have you done as a result? What things do you now bring to your practice?

What I make a lot more explicit is that I want students to discuss. So it’s just in terms of setting out, say, a seminar handout in terms of thinking about these questions, consider specific points. And very much literally in terms of the [INAUDIBLE]– what I do is the two asterisks around the you when I put the question, OK, what do you think about this?

And you are entitled to think about this and have an opinion. And so then I essentially start at the point of asking for an opinion and then go back in and say, OK. How would you support your opinion with arguments? So how can we construct this as a legally reasoned argument that you could put into an essay?

So that, I start a bit earlier. What has been a real challenge was to put this into a, you would say, designing teaching materials in a way that allows students more choice in terms of, say, reading, that I give them, say, journal articles that have a very strong position, and then I try to give them some that have the opposite position and don’t necessarily tell them, OK. What is the mainstream between the two?

So that they– I ask them to really get to thinking about, OK. How am I reacting to this material? And that I make time in seminars for that very explicitly. And as you said, to encourage students to give them the courage to actually say, yeah. I disagree with that. I really do, and this is why.

And then in many ways, I come back to the very practical flip on it, acknowledging the fact that we are in a UK university and that knowledge is, to a certain extent, the end game where I then say, OK. At the end of this year, the assessment is an essay. Of course, with essay, you need to do research, you need to come up with strong arguments.

How would you turn that into a really good argument? Or how could you disagree with yourself so that it comes back to these practical side elements they need to master. And what it is definitely– from what I notice– it’s a different way of teaching that I still see myself doing. And yeah. It’s definitely tricky.

Definitely. And also I was thinking about that kind of– when they come up with quite a strong opinion and then they might read something which would change their values or change their opinions, that must be quite challenging for students as well because you’re then getting them from a place which they might be quite certain about a particular way of thinking or a particular value that they hold quite dear, and then they’ll go read something.

It may change their mind. It might change their worldview, which can be quite mindblowing for students. So it gets back to that almost dealing with uncertainty, which I think can be very, very tricky for students who may be coming from backgrounds where there was a black and white answer, there was a yes, no, a true-false.

So you’re opening their minds to lots of different arguments, opinions, potential facts, these kind of things which then can really challenge maybe who they are as a person. And as we’re going back to, that should be what higher education is about as well, not just the knowledge.

It’s, who am I? It’s, who do I want to be, I think as well, which I think– the way that you’re talking about your teaching and getting them to question their own values, I think is a really interesting way of getting them to figure out who they are and potentially who they want to be in the future as well.

Yeah. Actually, something, again, I read in a German language textbook about higher education that was actually a lot more practical one. So it had flights of theory in there, but it was– tended to go for a practical– OK. Classroom situation. What do you do?

But still in the introduction, chapter 1 thing, really struck me, and I never forgot that, is the sen– it was just one sentence and saying learning is dangerous. And precisely for what you just said, we’re exposing students to things and theories and opinions that may clash, sometimes quite strongly, with their worldview and how they saw the world around themselves and also themselves.

And really learning and wanting to learn means that you’re actually open to that and that you’re realizing that that may happen, that maybe something new will change how you see the world. And that is– it’s half the challenge. And with some topics, that can be really tricky to handle.

So I teach constitutional law, for example. So the activities of the Johnson government have been very enriching for our syllabus. It’s this idea that– so at the moment, for example, one topic that is discussed very heavily with by the government is that, do we need the Human Rights Act, the statute that incorporates the European Convention and the rights, the human rights, embodied in that European Convention that we all have?

So the Johnson government is currently thinking about abolishing it. And, of course, basically, exam question on a silver platter. We can ask our students, OK, do you think that would be a good idea? And then seeing them wondering about that, whether we need human rights protection and whether the current system, with human rights gone, would allow us to still have the same rights that we’ve enjoyed so far. Because they are no longer protected, so where they come from?

So for them really thinking through these kinds of questions and appreciating how fragile some things are when we would consider them bedrock solid ties interesting, but it is also– yeah. In a seminar situation, you can have then really controversial discussions about it, and that is then sometimes tricky to handle.


But I mean, at the same time, that is one of the things– why I love my job. I mean– yeah.

I think hearing from the students as well, isn’t it? It’s that thing of once you have that openness to discuss those kind of things, you can learn so much more about your students– what their values are, how they influence other people within your classroom as well. If you’ve got some really good people who can process, and analyze, and give a really good argument, they might be changing their peer’s points of view, and you’re they’re watching that happen in real time, which I think is just wonderful to see and to hear and be a part of.


Seeing– physically seeing– people’s minds and potential values and worldviews being changed, which is almost quite privileged, I think, at times in terms of teaching as well.


Definitely. So we’ve talked a lot about practice. We’ve thought about the literature in here, as well. And we’ve kind of touched upon this, but do you think that there are any barriers to what it is you’re trying to introduce within your practice?

Well, the barrier is myself in the sense that I need to remind myself a lot about the stuff. So it hasn’t become something that I now know not to do or how to do. So it’s still making myself remember that there are different assumptions at play. It’s then facing students who don’t like it, who are not necessarily appreciating the freedom as freedom, but rather as rudderless, at sea situation where they feel lost.

And then the other constraint is the overall setting in the sense that I’m working at a UK university, so just going with completely different assumptions into this and trying to have my teaching be completely different to what everyone else is doing is unfair to the students because it just throws them completely for just one tiny element of their whole academic year.

And so that’s something I need to be aware of in terms of how far I can push things overall. But then also it is not boilerplate in the sense that it needs adapting every single year and every single seminar group and down to every single student. So how that topic plays out in a given year will be always different.

I mean, it’s– we all know what’s different every year anyway, but I think that adds an element of uncertainty, again, where I then can’t have– you could say ready-made solutions, where it’s quite a bit about being prepared for the uncertainty to play out in the moment and then wondering, well, OK. Am I going to let it, or is this something where I need to pull things back a bit and maybe make the students go back to, you could say, safer territory.

OK. Yeah. Definitely. And I think also it’s you having the bravery to let it run.


[INAUDIBLE] isn’t it? Sometimes you’re going, I think I know where this is going, but it could completely go off in another direction, and I might not know the answers, and being OK with that, as well. And I think sometimes modeling that practice is really good, as well, kind of going, wow. You’ve taken it in that direction. I haven’t prepared for that. That’s fascinating. But let’s carry on going.

Or, actually, we need to reel it back in again. And knowing when to do that can be quite concerning as well. And then, finally– obviously, I want to end this on a positive– what are you seeing are the benefits of this particular approach in terms of your teaching?

I think, for me, it’s just very much awareness in terms of that I’m just much more aware of who I am as a teacher, who I am also as a learner and why I learn in a specific way and that my students don’t do that, and that I can bridge these assumptions. That can help my students getting the most out of a particular learning experience that I want them actually to get.

And what I also see that happening is more, you could say, what we would probably label as personal tutoring activities, which is where I, in the law school, I’m responsible for the incoming study abroad students and– where they sometimes then have cultural issues in this particular sense where they say, OK. My home higher education culture and environment is entirely different to what the UK does.

And you sometimes see them struggle. Not because they are weak students, but just because the UK system is so completely different to what they are used to, and that I can help them basically get around that a bit and overcome certain barriers that shouldn’t be there. And that with a bit of tweaking, they can handle easily when they just basically say, OK. This is what they want me to do and this is what I would expect and this is not quite matching, so how can I get that to match?

Lovely. So that’s the end of the quizzing part. Beke, do you have any final thoughts, final things that you want to get across about the papers that you’ve read, about the concepts that we were talking about today in order to end on a real push as to why you want people to get involved in this kind of teaching?

Well, I think it comes back to the label I chose, comparative pedagogy. Why is it useful for any of us? Why should we engage with this? Well, partly because we have lots of international students coming in. And I think, just being in a very practical sense, being able to help them bridge these barrier in terms of the clashing cultures. That can be quite useful. But I think they are also then two points in terms of research or other reading where I would want to dive deeper.

One is this something we’ve talked about earlier is the decolonizing the curriculum approach, where I would say this has a lot to offer in terms of overall concept, just looking at other traditions on higher education. Education, teaching, and learning can open up ways for us to just define– or, rather, reconsider how we define teaching and learning, other ways of knowing about things, that that just could open up a lot of ways for us to do teaching differently.

And then the other thing is that it goes back to what you mentioned about power in the classroom, is that I have been wondering about looking into critical theory and how that plays out or could help teach.

And one person in that respect that I’m hoping to get a bit more stuck into is Stephen Brookfield and his work on all of that where I was just thinking, yeah, this is– as you say, there’s so much power in that situation, the power dynamics in terms of how students engage with content with a teacher and how the teacher engages with the content and the student. And that is definitely something I want to have a look at.

Lovely. Thank you very much. It’s been a fascinating conversation.

Well, thank you for having me.

Thank you.

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