News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 11

‘And that’s a wrap…’

“I’m just sitting here, I ain’t saying much I just think
And my eyes don’t move left or right they just blink”

I thought I’d start my 11th and final episode of the blog series with a Dizzee Rascal quote, because as I was reflecting on the day, whilst grabbing some lunch, these words came to mind.

Today, this instant, this very moment, is the last office session. At 5pm, 10 groups will hand in 10 reports and the unit will be over for the year. I am hoping for some help whilst I shift all the furniture that I have begged, borrowed and stolen back around the building and then hopefully it’s off to the pub for a swift celebratory beer for a job well done.

The reason Dizzee’s words came to me is that every week the office has been a busy, noisy, buzzing space, but today is different. Everyone is working hard. Really hard. Because it’s deadline day. And I still have a few questions to answer, but mostly people know what they are doing and where they are going they just need to get there. And so I am, for the first time all year, able to sit in ‘The Office’ and write my blog post. I don’t intend on being overly long but I thought I might reflect back on the 10 weeks.

As I mentioned last week, after each session I write a short reflection on the day as I take the train back home to Bath. Re-reading these reflections now a few things strike me:

Firstly attendance. Attendance has been outstanding. Every week everyone has come for most of the day. Occasionally a few people are late in. And there were a few times when people were ill or had other commitments. But overall the attendance on this unit has been better than any I can ever remember running.

Space. The space has worked well. Students would like even more desk space, but other than that, this dreary flatbed lecture room is weekly transformed into a buzzing office (see the video), with people working hard and discussing timber engineering. Asking each other sensible questions.

Team. I selected the groups for this unit and so they were pushed into groups with people they hadn’t worked with before. This isn’t a new thing for our students, but most years I have at least a few complaints about teams. This year there have been none. And as I look around I can see diverse groups of students, some of whom are studying on different degree programmes, and who, for the most part have never worked together, collaborating to create something great.

Sound. One of the most striking things about ‘The Office’ is how much it sounds like an office. Every week in my reflections I’ve noted it. That busy bustling sound. Even without the pictures on the wall, and the breakout space, and the boards to hide the lectern and extra seats, and the plants by the entrance, and the tea point! Even without any of these other features that differentiate this space from any other flatbed teaching space, it sounds like an office. It doesn’t sound like a lecture theatre, which is both quieter when I’m speaking and much noisier when I’m not. Neither does it sound like a work space where students are all working on their own. Instead it has that unmistakable hubbub of people collaborating and working together. I took a very short snippet of this, and you can hear the sound of ‘The Office’ for yourself.

Speakers. Every week we have had an external speaker come and give a lunch time talk. These are not lectures, they are designed instead to replicate the weekly lunchtime talks my old business’s organised when I worked in industry. They have covered a wide selection of different areas of timber engineering and have been well attended and well received by the students. My only thought for next year was to ensure a higher proportion of female speakers, the unit was taken by more than 40% female students and so it would be good to have 3-4 of the 7 speakers as female, rather than the one we had this year.

Cake. Cake for my birthday was a real highlight (for me at least). My wife and son made it. So next year I need to move the office day to a Saturday so it coincides with my birthday again.

Jokes. So the last point was a joke (about teaching on Saturday – my Saturdays are already busy, what with running, coffee, taking my son to rugby, watching Bath rugby, cooking Saturday night tea, watching Strictly, there is no way I could squeeze the office in as well!) As was the below that I found on one of my architecture magazines. A joke I very much enjoyed, and I hope you do to.

EP11-a.jpg

And I just discovered why it is so quiet in the office today, most groups have moved up the corridor to one of our new group work teaching spaces where there are large touchscreen computers, ideal for the final edit of the report as the group collaborate and agree content and presentation together. Another new teaching space being put to good use by our students.

So in conclusion, I have really enjoyed teaching this unit in a different way. I hope that my students have found it just as beneficial (I suspect only time will tell on that front) and I am looking forward to delivering the unit in the same way again next year (but hopefully with all the books I have written to make it happen published and in the library).

So until next time goodbye and thank you for reading my weekly blog, it’s been great fun sharing all my different thoughts on teaching and I really hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

James

500 Words, Teaching Stories

Reflections from the Employability Exchange

Have you ever attended an event and just thought ‘I wish more people were here to hear this’? That is exactly how I felt all afternoon whilst attending the second Employability Exchange event on Wednesday afternoon.

I didn’t know much about the event before attending, other than that there was a free lunch (I was sold) and there was a focus on authentic learning – something I passionately feel we should be exploring more in the curriculum. Regardless of my lack of knowledge on what would take place, I was looking forward to the afternoon in Engineers’ House.

And I was not disappointed. From Tansy’s energetic introduction to her vision for education at Bristol and the new Bristol Futures Curriculum Framework (more on this at a later date) to the quick-fire contributions from colleagues implementing authentic learning in their programmes, the four-hours were pack with inspiration and enthusiasm for embedding employability authentically in the curriculum.

We were lucky to have Dr Kate Daubney, Head of Careers and Employability at Kings College London, join us, where she shared their ‘Employability Touchstone’ approach to embedding employability. Their focus is not on adding employability into an already packed curriculum but rather looking at what is already covered and highlighting where tasks, activities and content enhance students’ employability. It isn’t about fitting something new in, it’s about taking what is already there and enhancing it – you can read more about this in Kate’s slides.

Dr Kate Daubney

Kate’s talk was followed by a panel discussion with Tansy, Kate and BILT Student Fellow Marnie Woodmeade and SU Undergraduate Education Officer Hillary Gyebi-Ababio. They shared how they believe authentic learning could support both students learning experience and wellbeing, and the impact it could have on their future careers.

Our panelists (L-R): Marnie Woodmeade, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio , Tansy Jessop and Kate Daubney

We then had six very quick presentations from colleagues (four listed below) on their use and experience of authentic learning, ending with a 50-slide, 5-minute presentation from James, in which he whizzed though his journey in ‘The Office’ at a rate of six seconds per slide! I don’t want to make any promises, but rumour on the street is that we may be getting a recorded version of it to share with those who couldn’t be there… watch this space!

Some time was then spent in Faculty groups discussing next steps for exploring this further and each of the FEDs (plus a SED!) fed back to the group. The only questions I left with was how to share the day’s events with more people – and so here we are.

The day was jointly hosted by the Careers Service and BILT. Stuart Johnson, Director of Careers, has shared his thoughts:

We’re delighted to have hosted such a positive and well-received event. The presentations and discussions demonstrated how employability already is an authentic part of some curricula, and how creatively it can be explored as part of the overall student education experience. We look forward to continuing to work with BILT to surface and share activity, and to working in partnership with Schools to ensure every programme authentically embeds employability and that students recognise the associated benefits of what they’re learning.

You can find more information about the authentic learning projects below:

  1. Chris Adams’ Monitoring Atmospheric Pollution (project summary)
  2. Terrell Carver’s Contemporary Feminist Thought (unit information)
  3. Sheena Warman’s LeapForward project (project resources)
  4. James Norman’s The Office (a growing series of fascinating blogs)

On a final note – if you’ve been inspired by any of this and have an exciting idea you’d like to implement in your teaching – consider applying for the BILT Discretionary Seedcorn Funding.


Amy Palmer

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 9

Emerging Engineers

So before we go any further, a serious health warning, if you are the sort of person who feels the need to reach for the sick bucket whenever you hear self-congratulation then you may prefer to skip this episode all together, because over the next few paragraphs there is going to be A LOT of trumpet blowing. I am not kidding.

You have been warned.

Our students are amazing. I mean my students, my Civil Engineering students[1]. Incredible. Just this year Amy won the regional heats of the Women in Property Student Awards and Grace won the regional heats of the ICE (Institute of Civil Engineers) Emerging Engineers award and was runner-up in the final against two graduates who had been working for a few years (and she was a finalist in another award, along with yet another of our students). And neither of them have graduated.

If you think this is a blip, you’re wrong, our graduates had such an amazing run of winning the NCE graduate of the year award[2] that I fear that subsequent, also just-as-amazing, graduates may have been overlooked.

But it’s not just the odd student, it’s all of them. Bristol Civil Engineering graduates are amazing. I know this because I have a long list of employers who tell me. One was recently telling me how impressed they were by the recent Bristol Graduate they had employed and how seamlessly they had moved into the role of graduate engineer, successfully taking on jobs he would expect an engineer with a few years’ experience to do.

And this has nothing to do with ‘The Office’- not a sausage- because all of these things have already happened. They happened before I started The Office project.

I was having a really interesting conversation with Stuart (who is the Director of Careers Services), and it struck me how I had presented The Office as something different, maybe even something special. That it was possible to read all the blog posts and think that it exists in isolation. It was possible to think it worked because of my hard work and enthusiasm and not realise everyone else in my department (and school) is similarly hard-working and enthusiastic. That when my students enter The Office, they are ready. They have learnt to work in teams. They have become self-motivated and self-actuated learners. They know what it means to take on a wicked problem, to consider options, to put their new found learning into a context.

A few months ago, I emailed a graduate and asked them to finish the following sentence as part of updating our website.

“In my current job…”

Their response is very telling…

“In my current job… as a structural engineer, I have been feeling no difference than working on design project in the university but in more detail.”

That their work in industry, at a professional practice, where they are being employed, feels like a continuation of working on the final design project on their Civil Engineering degree. A project that has been running for years, involves numerous industrial supervisors, and is a credit to our staff and students.

In Jenni Case’s “Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar” tool 4 is all about ‘communities of practice’[3]. Communities of practice started off as an education theory where educators and older students are at the centre of the community and that newer students are at the edge but they are moving into the community. Jenni Case argues that in an engineering sense industry and ‘practice’ is at the centre and students are at the edge. That there is a language, a set of behaviours, a series of tools[4], and that as students learn, they become more able to access the community, that they are better prepared for practice.

I really like this idea. And I think that we have been embedding this practice in our teaching in Civil Engineering for years. Whether in our surveying field trip, or our professional practice unit, or our labs, or our different design-focussed units, or our two programme-level assessments – one that draws all that students have learnt and challenges them to go much deeper, by carrying out a research project, presenting at a conference and writing a journal paper[5] – the other that draws on all that students have learnt and challenges them to work in mutli-disciplinary teams to take large and complex problems and solve them both creatively and safely (this is the traditional engineering bit) – with the projects mostly taken from engineering practices.

I also think that to try and teach, sorry, I mean lecture, on the things students need to know to become more engaged with the community of practice, is the wrong approach, that it’s by embedding this information into our other teaching that it comes alive. That by looking at what we already teach and reimagining the delivery, without changing the ‘knowledge’ content, we can add so much more to the student’s experience.

So when Toby and Marnie (BILT Student Fellows) came to visit my students in The Office and asked them about the experience[6], my students were slightly non-plussed by their questions, because far from feeling like a different approach to learning, working in groups on projects felt very much like a natural continuation of everything that they had done before.

That we, the department of Civil Engineering, have worked hard to create a course which develops ‘Emerging Engineers’. That when our students arrive, normally from school but not always, they often don’t know what a noggin[7] is, or what units to use on a drawing, or that when we ask them to submit a coursework with a specific file name we mean it. But as they develop, as they draw into the engineering community, they become engineers.

However, it is important to note two things. Firstly, that I use the phrase ‘emerging’ engineer because it takes the duration of our four-year course for our students to transition from school pupils to engineers. This requires careful planning and looking across the whole programme to find opportunities for learning the skills required to be an engineer.

Secondly it is very much a team effort. That our department is a community of practice. We talk together, support each other, make suggestions and work collaboratively to make this happen. This point is really quite important because if we were to deliver a unit in the style of the office without all this collaboration and development of students I suspect the outcome would be very different. That trying to embed authentic learning is not something that can be done at unit level but needs to be considered and mapped across the degree and that we appreciate the development of our engineers and match our expectations accordingly. 

I appreciate that I have barely mentioned the role of ‘The Office’ in this post. I hope that it will play a small part in helping our engineers to emerge. But really, I wanted everyone to be able to see the bigger picture. The hard work of my colleagues. The breadth of considered pedagogy. That actually, without The Office, I really think that we would still be helping them to emerge as engineers, no wait, that’s not quite right, that we have already helped hundreds and hundreds of students emerge as engineers. Engineers who are working around the world right now, taking on big complex challenges and who are thriving in what they are doing.

Next week is the penultimate episode – and we are not shying away from exciting topics with a look at work-life balance.

PS, last week was my birthday so my amazing wife and son cooked cake which I brought in for all my employees. It was much appreciated by everyone!



[1] Please note that 2 months ago I became School Education Director. I have no doubt that the students and staff in my school are all equally brilliant and I hope, over the coming years to blow many trumpets for all of them, but as I am new to this role I mostly know about the students and staff in Civil Engineering and hence I am focussing on them for this blog.

[2] From 2012 to 2017 our students won three times and were runners up, commended or a finalist a further three times!

[3] Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[4] See my blog on scale rules as an example:- https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/

[5] Many of which go on to be published in academic journals

[6] See the BILT Blog post:- https://bilt.online/an-atypical-day-in-the-office/

[7] You may be interested to know that a noggin is a small piece of timber placed between floor joists to stop them rotating, the term has become popularised by the phrase ‘use your noggin’ because not including them can lead to the floor collapsing

Teaching Stories

An (a)typical day in The Office

Amy Palmer, Toby Roberts and Marnie Woodmeade all visited James Norman’s ‘The Office’ project and have shared their experiences below.

Amy’s reflection:

I’d been looking forward to visiting James’ ‘Just Timber’ office since before the concept had even come to fruition. Last year, while catching up over coffee, James told me about his plan to turn on one his classrooms into an office, and I was instantly excited. The project was a combination of all my favourite pedagogies: active learning, blended learning, challenge-led learning, authentic learning, group work… all coming together to form the ‘Just Timber’ office in 1.32 Queens Building.

‘Just Timber’ is a fictional engineering company James has created. His students (employees) were all set timber engineering design projects at the beginning of the unit and are working together to create real designs with real equations in an almost real-world environment. If you want to read more about the project so far, I highly recommend reading ‘The Office’ blog series .

A date was set in the diary to visit, and I invited two of our Student Fellows to come along and join me. And so, last Thursday, we went along and waited for James to show up fifteen minutes late to our visit after almost forgetting we were coming – helping further imitate the real-world, authentic environment (just kidding) and heighten our anticipation further.

And, when we arrived, we were not disappointed. We were welcomed by an offer of tea or coffee (served in a ‘Just Timber’ mug, of course) and then proceeded to look around the office and take it all in.

The first thing I was struck by was the buzz in the room. Not a noisy, can’t-do-any-work’ buzz, but the natural up-and-down of a genuine office environment, with students in their groups switching between their sketching, calculations and discussions with each other over how best to proceed in their projects. Barely a glance was thrown in our direction when we bumbled into the room, the students so engaged in their projects that they weren’t looking for distraction.

We had a quick look around the office, admiring the various projects pinned on the wall, and browsing the elegant engineering magazines by the break-out space. We then proceeded to interrupt students by asking them questions about how they were finding the unit and how it compared to others they were taking.

As you can imagine, they loved it. Of course, they are students, and so the conversations were not void of the odd grumble (nothing you wouldn’t expect from a unit being run for the first time), but the overwhelming response was that they looked forward to Thursdays – regardless of the fact they were spending eight hours in the office – and that the learning they were doing there was both enjoyable, challenging and reflective of an authentic engineering office environment. Some of the students even ended the day with a traditional post-work trip to the pub, further preparing them for life out working in the ‘real world’.

If you’ve been keeping up with The Office blog series, you’ll know that students prepare for their day’s work by watching videos James has created on their VLE, and then come to work to study their projects. This means that time in class/ office is dedicated purely to student-centred work with no didactic teaching. Students highlighted that their favourite aspects of the unit were the group work element, the room layout (large groupings of desks together), the project-centred work and the fact that they had a day dedicated to the unit. Student wouldn’t want all of their modules to run as full-day units, however, but would have found a unit like this in their previous years of study valuable and enjoyable and a great chance to get to know others in their cohort.

James’ Just Timber office is a product of a great idea, hard work and dedication to a new way of learning, and there are many lessons we can take away from designing a unit in this way. Please get in touch with BILT if you’d like to learn more about setting up a project similar to this in your unit.   

Marnie’s reflection:

I had an extremely positive outlook on the Office before I even entered the building; the concept reflected the challenge-led work that I only ever dreamed about during my undergrad. My positivity was only enhanced by the almost immediate offer of cake and tea (an important part of daily office life).  

However, two pieces of feedback from students struck me as unexpected. The first was that students said they genuinely enjoyed being in the Office. Not merely that it was a great educational experience, but they actually looked forward to coming in each day. Having an open-plan office where interaction is encouraged clearly enabled students to really enjoy their time there. 

The other piece of feedback was perhaps more sobering. One student pointed out that although they enjoyed the way the office replicates an engineering company, a ‘real boss’ is unlikely to give mass amounts of work on the same day that five of your other supervisors have given you a deadline. In order for more projects like the Office to succeed, students felt that communication between units is key. This not only has the benefit of reducing their stress but treating students as valued workers positively impacts their outlook on university.  

Toby’s reflection:

One of the things that really struck me about the atmosphere in the Just Timber office (other than the delicious smell of cake courtesy of James’ wife and son) was how much it reminded me of a classroom. Not a school classroom – there wasn’t any paper being thrown around and James hadn’t sent me out to think about how my behaviour affects the rest of the class – but a calmer and more focused 6th Form classroom. And to me that’s a real positive. All of the ‘employees’ were clearly getting work done and you could tell there was a strong sense of purpose. But at the same time, they were relaxed and there was friendliness between them, and the noise of conversation was a world away from the awkward silence of lectures or the hyperactive buzz of a library in exam time. 

However, I wasn’t there to drink in the atmosphere and reminisce about college. The students seemed more than happy to talk to us about the unit, and I think that was in part due to how much they enjoyed it. It was clear that the effort James had put into it had had an effect on them and their attitudes, but it had paid off in producing a rewarding learning experience. 

One area that students weren’t unanimous on was the intense one-day-a-week schedule. Some felt more productive, others exhausted (there was a suggestion that maybe in the future it could not be the day after sports night). However, one interesting element to me was the effect on wellbeing. With so many units and assignments to contend with at once it’s very easy to get overwhelmed as a student. Containing the work within a single 9-5 day helps to compartmentalise and means there’s one less thing to worry about for the rest of the week. Instead, something to look forward to every Thursday.

covers of the books james has read in 2019
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 8

‘A reading week special’

Depending on when you are reading this it is either reading week, or it is the Friday before reading week. Either way happy reading week*.

Now I don’t know what your plans are for reading week but I really hope you will spend at least some of it, you know, reading. So below are four random thoughts on reading for reading week.

Luke Kennard ‘Cain’ (Printed in the Margins, London, 2016)

Now you may have thought that ‘The Office’ blog series was inspired by some sitcom from a few years back, but you’d be wrong. No no no, the office was really inspired by Luke Kennard’s ‘Cain’ where he takes Genesis Chapter 4 verses 9 to 12 from the Bible and he pulls the words apart, literally reducing them to 355 letters. He then takes those 355 letters and counts how many occurrences there are of each before reconstructing them into 32 ‘episodes’. Each episode containing the 355 letters. A mega anagram. My engineering brain boggles at this concept. I have read and re-read those poems. They are bizarre, abstract, peculiar. But Luke Kennard does not stop hear. Around each poem, literally around them, in tiny red letters there is a narrative deconstructing each ‘episode’ often leaving me more baffled than I was before. But I love this book. I love it’s audacious creativity. I love that he doesn’t stop at 2 or 3 anagrams like any normal person does, but instead he creates 32. THIRTY TWO! I can’t begin to imagine the amount of time and effort that would go into making one let alone 32.

EP8d.jpg

What has this got to do with the office you might be wondering. Well I think ‘The Office’ and actually a lot of teaching is much like Luke Kennard’s series of poems. You may have noticed that every week I write about the same thing, over and over again. But each week I shake it and look from another perspective (if you are of a certain age maybe the game Boggle might help the mental image here). Like Luke Kennard we take the same thing and see it from different perspectives. I think teaching works in much the same way more generally. If we are only interested in the knowledge we pass on, or the skills we provide, or the portfolio piece that students create, or the professional qualifications that students are working towards, if we are only thinking of our teaching as achieving one of these things we miss all sorts of opportunities. Luke Kennard saw those four verses from a story right at the beginning of the Bible and he reimagined them in a very literal sense. I love to think about teaching at a unit level, a year level and a Programme level by looking at it from all these different perspectives. Trying to find opportunities and searching for gaps.

Oh and if anyone can explain to me what Luke Kennard is trying to say over a coffee I would be most grateful.

gal-dem ‘THE UN/REST ISSUE’ (print issue 4, London, 2019)

For years, I have enjoyed independent and unusual magazines but find it hard to know which ones to try, there are magazines shops popping up with too many to choose from. So, six months ago I decided to take a subscription with Stack magazines who send out a different magazine every month – they do the difficult choosing for me. Septembers issue was gal-dem ‘a publication committed to sharing perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour’. I picked the magazine up with trepidation. I am a white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man. I wasn’t sure that me and gal-dem were going to get on. In fact, for a brief moment I found myself thinking ‘I might just give this one a miss’. But them it hit me. It hit me that as a white middle age man I have the choice to not read about the perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour. In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend the rest of my life choosing to not read anything by women and non-binary people of colour. And then the penny really dropped. Because if I was a women or non-binary person of colour the same would not be true. I would have to read about the perspective of white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man every – single – day.

And I found myself shocked by this revelation. Maybe you have had a similar revelation.

So I did what I should have done from the start. I read the magazine cover to cover. I read about life, and grief, and stories of struggle, and I found much to enjoy. But more importantly I found much of the human experience that connects us. That as a white, middle age, Christian, father, husband, man my perspective overlaps with women and non-binary people of colour all over the place. And so I will continue to read as widely as possible.

The Pharcyde – Ya Mama (from Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, Delicious Vinyl, 1992)

I was driving my son home from some activity when for some very ill advised reason I mentioned the song ‘Ya Mama’ by hip hop group The Pharcyde (pronounced ‘far side’ for the uninitiated). It’s what’s known as a ‘dis track’. And it has some killer lines (if you like juvenile dis tracks about ‘Ya Mama’). I suggested we put it on for us all to listen to, but I couldn’t find it on my phone. So instead I encouraged him to google it to find the lyrics – parenting note – when you start to hear the words ‘why don’t you just google the lyrics of this 1990’s dis track and read them out to us all allowed’ coming from your mouth, stop. Change the subject, now may be a good moment to discuss the meaning of different swear words or sex or something similarly innocuous. So, obediently, he started to read the words out to us all in the car. Luckily my son is much, much more sensible than me. He started to sensor certain words, but then he stumbled across a racial swear word. Eeeeeeek. Now if I had stopped and thought about it I would have realised that reading lyrics from 1990s hip hop from a group coming out of South Central Los Angeles was never going to be a good idea (look no further than the introduction to NWAs Straight Outta Compton for evidence).

Now, a few months ago I was at a meeting to discuss my community. The idea was to capture the communities needs as part of a regeneration project. But the meeting was not a success. The developer had employed a facilitator who had prepared a series of statements about our council estate. All of them were true. But they didn’t begin to describe our estate. They missed the vitality, the community, the joy that we, as residents feel, living here. They didn’t mention that many residents have chosen to live on our estate for decades and decades because they like it. Yes we could do with better broadband. And it would be nice if the bus service was better. And there isn’t much for young people to do. But I love it. I like my neighbours. I like walking the streets. I like knowing many of the residents. I feel safe.

So here is my dilemma. Much music (and books and you tube videos) from communities much like mine have words in them that are not OK. They have ideas that are not OK. But if I don’t allow my children to hear them, much like the people who came to my estate, they will assume that they are all bad. They will miss the shear, ‘hairs standing up on the back of your neck’ visceral emotion that comes through on ‘Straight Out Of Compton’, the political unrest in tracks like ‘Sound of the Police’ they will be led to believe that there is only bad and miss all the good, just like those facilitators who came to my estate. I’ll be honest, I haven’t played my 13 year old son either of those songs…yet. But one day I hope I will, and I hope he will be able to hold the tension of the good with the bad. That he will find the joy in amongst the rage.

A final thought

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To wrap up this reading week special (which has little to nothing to do with ‘the office’) can I make a small suggestion. For the last three years every time I read a book, magazine, zine, pamphlet, poetry anthology, photo portfolio, comic or dictionary I take a photo of it. Each year I collect these images as a visual record of what I have read. I find it helpful. And it makes it easy to share with others what I have been reading. The photo Montage up the top is a selection of my reading in 2019. I would love to chat about any of them with any of you.

So next week – back to ‘The Office’ and I will try and tackle the topic of Communities of Practice.

Oh and by the way – I have never, in all my life, read a dictionary cover to cover, that was just a joke.

* It has come to my attention that whilst it is reading week in the Faculty of Engineering other faculties have reading week at other times, so if it isn’t reading week, or you don’t have a reading week, apologies, and hopefully you can enjoy the post anyway (and make some time for reading!)

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 7

‘Funding’

This week in my blog I would like to talk about funding. How have I funded my office project? Now, before we go any further, I would like to be honest; I have very little experience in funding. I have never applied for a research grant (although I have been a collaborator on one small proposal) and have had a relatively unsuccessful run of applying for teaching grants. What I have done is successfully apply for a teaching fellowship, and successfully applied for £3k from my school. That’s it.

So, this week’s blog will be short and sweet.

But first a short bit of backstory…

In 2000, I graduated from Nottingham as a Civil Engineer and joined a company called ‘Whitby Bird’ where I designed buildings for three years. In 2003, I came to Bristol as an RA and worked on a research project for three years (whilst also gaining my PhD). In the first year of my contract I supported a member of staff as they taught how to design buildings out of steel and concrete. In the second year I taught the steel component. In the third year- well in the third year I wrote my PhD (which was super tough, especially as my second son was born just months before the final hand-in). In 2006/7, I was employed 2 days a week to teach both steel and concrete and spent my other three days designing buildings. From 2007-2014, I worked roughly 4 days a week in industry and 1 day a week teaching initially steel and concrete design. Then I added another unit on sustainable materials. Then I added another unit on architecture, all on a single day a week.

Just under five years ago I stopped designing buildings (something I really loved) to go full time into teaching, something I loved even more.

So, although I am now in my forties and I have become School Education Director, I have not actually been full time at the University for very long. Most of my career I have been a practising engineer. But more than that, I gave up something I loved to do something I love even more- teach!

Now you understand the background you will hopefully understand the following comment, I have struggled to apply for funding for teaching because as far as I could tell the main item I could get funding for was for my time. As a teaching only member of staff most of my time is spent teaching. So, if my time is bought out that would surely mean less teaching. But I don’t want to teach less, if anything, until recently, I have always wanted to teach more (only a few days ago I was told off for volunteering to teach something)!

So, I have applied two of three times for funding from the University because it seemed like the right thing to do, but I never had any success, partly because I am really quite rubbish at writing applications. And partly because I didn’t really have anything I actually wanted the money for (I often wondered if I could just apply for a large supply of chocolate to give out to flagging staff and students on a Friday afternoon). It just seemed a good idea to apply for funding.

This all changed about 18 months ago when I saw the advert for BILT Fellowships. Working in a team with other academics from across the University appealed much more than applying for a simple buyout from my teaching, so I went for it. I updated my CV, filled in a form, went for an interview and got the post. Which was fantastic. I am now a BILT Fellow for 30% of my time until the end of this academic year.

However, what I discovered was that my teaching load didn’t go down, in fact it went up! This wasn’t by design- a member of staff went on long term sick leave and I covered for them at short notice. But, and this a really big BUT, having the Fellowship did mean that I had a day and a week when I could say I was working on my pedagogy. I was able to block book my calendar, turn down meetings, and sit in coffee shops:-

Plotting.

And reflecting.

And reading papers.

And drawing large diagrams on A3 spotty paper.

And writing endless blogs.

And visiting other universities (where I also sat in coffee shops).

And in this time and space I was able to dream up the office. I think the important thing, which I had not realised until then, was that what I needed was not buyout from teaching, but permission to block book a day a week where I could focus on something else. To buy-in to some quality thinking and reading time.

As part of this time and space dreaming about the project I did then write a funding proposal. It was only to my school and it was for £3,000. It’s not a lot of money, but it really has helped. I have used it to buy calculation pads with my made-up company logo. I have used it to buy books for all the groups. I have used it to buy stationary and folders and boxes to store everything in. And most importantly I have used it to buy everyone their own mug so we can have teas and coffees in the office. I don’t think my application was any better than in previous years, but as this was only school level I suspect that there were a lot less applicants – and so my bid was successful.

And so, my takeaway from this project (and my time as a BILT Fellow especially), is that the most beneficial thing is not the buyout that you get from other things (whether teaching, admin or research) but the buy in that I got for having a day where I can concentrate on pedagogy and developing ideas. That when I stopped focussing on what I didn’t want (to give up teaching) and started to focus on what I did want (to have time to think and read and write) I was more successful. But let’s not get carried away, maybe I was less successful and more content with what I was achieving.

Next week’s episode… is a reading week special. Until then have a good week.

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 6

‘All kinds of feedback’

A few months ago, I was sat in a conference when I got an email from one of the heads of department asking me if I was around. Without thinking, I replied that I was working but not in the office. The subsequent email asked me, in broken English, whether I could purchase £500 in Amazon vouchers and send them back to them. My suspicions were raised so I checked the email address – and, lo and behold, it had come from a scammer.

I spent the rest of the conference not thinking about the topics of discussion but how the scammer could improve the scam – how they might increase their chances of catching me out – and the feedback I should give them. I can’t help it. I love feedback (although I have learnt to keep feedback on the precise science of loading a dishwasher to a minimum over the years).

In today’s episode, I want to talk about feedback. It’s amazing. For me, it is one of the biggest reasons I am in education – to give kind, constructive, thought-provoking and applicable feedback. If you want a great lecture on concrete I am sure there are thousands of YouTube videos just waiting to be discovered (or maybe not) but getting personal feedback really is gold. Being able to present your design to an engineer who can gently ask questions and help a student to realise both what works and what maybe doesn’t is really important.

So when I design a unit ‘feedback’ is one of the items I really focus on. How can students get feedback? From whom? How can they apply it in the future on other units? And more importantly how will they apply it when they go into industry and act as a professional engineer?

Feedback mapping

I love to draw. And so rather than list the types of feedback I will use, I map them. For ‘Timber 4’ the feedback map looks like this:

Open a larger version of the image here.

So, what on earth is going on here? Well I have tried to show also sorts of different ‘feedback’ mechanisms.

Feed-in and Feed-out

On the left we have the ‘feed-in’ what have they learnt previously – and what feedback did the students receive which will help them on this unit.

On the right we have the ‘feed-out’ what happens to the feedback I give the students after the unit – this looks forward both to other units (which at this point in their degree is quite limited as they only have one term to go after this unit) but it also looks beyond this – to their life as a practising engineer – and the skills they will need and the experiences they will have.

The feedback on the final project is designed to support them in another project – their 40 credit Masters design project. I use the same marking pro forma and will provide feedback so that they can learn for this next project.

Different Types of Feedback

In the middle is all the formative feedback which occurs within the unit. We might call this feed forward or feedback cycles, I’m not sure what the exact pedagogic term is, but in my mind, it is where much of the learning occurs. And it’s where I can bring real value to the students by being involved. I have tried to build in a number of different mechanisms.

Firstly, I sit in the office and discuss questions that students might have. Some people call this feedback, I actually don’t like this term… I prefer ‘conversation’ or just plain old ‘teaching’! I think it’s useful to differentiate the two, feedback should be focused and specific not just a conversation. This of course doesn’t mean that these conversations are not important, they really are, it’s just I think that if we call them feedback its confusing.

Secondly, students are required to review each other’s work. Every group has a checking log which records the feedback students have produced, every calculation page has a checking box – which should only be signed once the page is checked, and every drawing has the same box. The aim is to get students to support each other’s learning whilst also learning from each other.

Next, students are required to submit their drawings from the first project and these are reviewed both by me (who will provide some generic feedback) and much more importantly, by a timber fabricator who will attempt to cost the students designs based on the information they have provided.

Finally, there is a ‘Quality Assurance Review’. This will involve sitting together with each team and reviewing their progress on all four projects. Three should be complete, and one will be in progress. The three complete projects will be reviewed to ascertain whether they can competently design a number of key components. It will also ensure they have checked each other’s work (a checking log is provided to students beforehand so they can clearly see what they need to do). Once we have reviewed the three projects we will then discuss project 4 (the Quality Assurance Review). This is the summative project which they will be about a third of the way through. The aim of the review is to give some technical feedback (based on projects 1-3) but also provide some feedforward on the project they are working on. This review is not credit bearing, but if I am not convinced that they are competent in certain areas of design I will ask for them to include these again within their final project submission.

Formative feedback – Myth busting

I don’t remember how many times people have said to me – ‘if the assessment is formative students won’t do it’ – but it’s a lot. I don’t agree. I think it is much more complex than this. Take the week 3 project for example. The assessment is formative – but ten out of ten groups submitted drawings. That’s 100%. Or everyone. So maybe they will do it if they have a good reason? I like to think that there are lots of good reasons for doing formative assessment including (but not limited to) it’s fun, it’s interesting, it will help build a portfolio of work I can show other people, it will help me develop as I work towards my summative assessment, it helps me to know what I do and don’t know (although I appreciate it’s rarely that simple). Much of this is described in detail in ‘Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice’.

Feedback on the unit

So finally I thought I’d let you know how the unit is going. I don’t have any formal feedback, yet. But I am writing a reflective diary every week so I don’t forget anything. Highlights to date have included:

  • Some really interesting external talks – including one on timber gridshells by Jonathan Roynon of BuroHappold and one on timber architecture by Fergus Feilden who’s Yorkshire Sculpture Park project was shortlisted for the Stirling prize – the highest honour in British architecture.
  • Taking the students to the Old Vic for a tour – this had two purposes – the Old Vic have agreed to be the client and they had a brand new entrance built from timber I wanted the students to see – I loved hearing their conversations as they noticed specific details.
  • The buzz of the office – every week it’s busy – people come and go – but there are always more people in than out (lot’s of students have other commitments through the day) and the conversation reminds me of when I used to work in industry – a mix of what you did the day before and technical discussion.
  • Students turning up in work attire (for the most part) every week.
  • Students not taking work out the office to continue working on it in their own time (as far as I am aware) – some students started to raise concerns that they might need to do this – but rather than pursue that option we reviewed what they were doing and why they had concerns.

And so at this midpoint in the project (and blog series) it seems to be going well.

Next week – funding and the student BILT fellows will be coming to visit!

Note 1: I decided – for ethical reasons – not to give feedback to the scammer in the end.

Note 2: My son recently discovered a TED talk by James Veitch on replying to scammers which we all watched and laughed to – a lot – If you have ten minutes and need a good laugh I can recommend – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4Uc-cztsJo.

Note 3: I just made up the phrase feed-in and feed-out. I was trying to think of fun names for the episode and I was trying different variants and they seem to make sense to me. If you have seen them used before please let me know so I can reference them in future.

Note 4: Full reference is Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D., Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education, 31, 2006.

Note 5: Timber gridshells are incredible structures – Jonathan spoke about the Savill Building – for which he was the engineer – and you can find more information here: https://www.burohappold.com/projects/savill-building/

Note 6: For lot’s of beautiful photos of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park building go here: https://www.architecture.com/awards-and-competitions-landing-page/awards/riba-regional-awards/riba-yorkshire-award-winners/2019/the-weston-yorkshire-sculpture-park

students working in the just timber office
Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 5

Authentic Learning

So, this week I want to talk about Authentic Learning. Hopefully you had a chance to look at the paper I mentioned by Marilyn M. Lombardi on ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ (Educase 2007) which provides a really nice, simple and clear framework for what authentic learning is. It breaks it down into ten key components:

1. Real-world relevance
2. Ill-defined problem
3. Sustained investigation
4. Multiple sources and perspectives
5. Collaboration
6. Reflection
7. Interdisciplinary perspective
8. Integrated assessment
9. Polished product
10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

For ‘Timber Engineering 4’- as I have noted previously- (see Episode 3) we used flipped teaching and a series of real-world projects to enable the students to learn. I also noted (in Episode 2) that we have provided a library of information which provides different information (sometimes conflicting) that students need to make sense of. In this episode I want to quickly and simply break down how I have attempted to provide all ten of these principles across the unit and specifically the four projects that the students are working on. I don’t intend to spend too long on each one – but instead provide a few practical examples that people might be able to replicate.

1. Real World Relevance

In one sense, all engineering should have real world relevance. But on this unit, I have tried to make this explicit. There are four projects and all four projects are designing buildings. One is a real building that was built, one is a real building that requires repair and two are made up, but could be real. To enhance this sense of real buildings every project includes a project information sheet and a job number. This is a simple summary of all the information provided and all the information required. This is supported with drawings, photos and further information.

2. Ill-defined problem/ 3. Sustained investigation/10. Multiple interpretations and outcomes

There are four projects that the students are working on. Two are what we call detailed design. The building size, shape and structure is already known – but the final sizes of elements needs to be confirmed. These two projects are designed to teach students the basic principles of timber design. The other two projects are less well defined. One is an existing building that needs strengthening. There are many options for strengthening a floor and students need to develop some different strategies and confirm which one the client should proceed with. The other is a portable theatre. This project is the one that students will be assessed on. It has a real client (Dave from the Old Vic presented to the students on Thursday and we are off to look round their building this Thursday) who has provided an open-ended brief for the students to propose their own solution to.

All four projects are non-trivial and require students to work on them for a number of days and weeks. The final assessed project (the portable theatre) was launched back in week 2 and students have until week 10 to provide a solution.

Finally I am looking forward to seeing the output of the final project and expect a diverse selection of solutions. Of course, I won’t know if I have been successful until I receive the students final reports.

4. Multiple sources and perspectives

As noted earlier students are provided with a library of information – not one definitive set of notes, however this is not enough to really achieve this aspect of authentic learning, as students should find the information themselves! Whilst they are presented with a large library of information they are not provided with everything. When designing a building there are a large swathe of codes and standards they should be looking at. There is also an even larger body of inspiration that they can use to inform their own design. So, as with other items, the first three projects the students predominantly have everything they need to complete the task but for the fourth project they will need to go beyond this information.

5. Collaboration/ 7. Interdisciplinary perspective

I have been running Timber 4 for a few years now and one of the most gratifying moments was when my tutees explained to me that unlike other projects they had worked on they had been forced to work together and collaborate right through their Timber Design project. I was delighted, as this is such a key skill for real life, however I am aware of other projects which are approached as ‘cut and shut’ where students all work independently and then stick their work together into one report. The design of the projects on this unit is such that working independently is just not possible. Every decision impacts on everything else. And hence the best way to work on the project is to sit together in a room and work collaboratively – in an office like environment.

Timber Engineering was the first time I felt as though I was doing ‘engineering’. This is a module that cultivated everything I’d learnt in my previous 3 years; communication, team-work, problem-solving, creativity and innovation. For a person who has never had the opportunity to work at an engineering company as an intern, this was the first real insight and experience I had as a structural engineer.” 

Making the project interdisciplinary is more difficult. The unit is after all just 10 credits, and the students are all designing in timber. They are required to think about architecture, acoustics, lighting, space. But ultimately, they are all acting as timber engineers. I would argue that on this point we are unable to fulfil the requirements of authentic learning. But fortunately, Civil Engineering students are also working on a much larger, more complex design project at the same time, where they must apply a much wider set of multidisciplinary skills. 

8. Integrated Assessment

The design of a theatre – the final project which students are marked on – is integrated right through the unit, being launched in week 2 and running until the end of week 10. The other projects are designed to both teach students and give them the skills to complete this project. There are a number of feedback (feedforward) mechanisms built into the unit – more of which will be discussed next week.

9. Polished Product

One of my aims when writing this unit was that students would produce a portfolio piece. Something that they can take to interview and be proud of. As a result the output is a report with drawings and calculations. The report is linked to the RIBA stages (which are used in industry). And students in previous years have found that the output has been very helpful in interview.

“In regards to recruitment, I would not have gotten my graduate job if it wasn’t for Timber Engineering. When I went in for my interview, the interviewers were amazed by the standards and level of detail that was undertaken in the design of the building. It was physical evidence that showed the recruiters that I had the skills, enthusiasm and ability to undertake responsibilities at their firm.” 

6. Reflection

Which leaves reflection. How do we integrate reflection into this process. I have to be honest, I find reflection hard, or to be more precise I find the articulation of reflection hard. I think, if there was one area that I would like to improve it is reflection. I will talk next week about feedback – and I hope that this will in part lead to reflection. But I know that there is more to it than just reflecting on feedback. One of the challenges is creating space for reflection, and as I sit here writing this I am thinking ‘how can I add some reflective practice into tomorrow?” After all last week, the students completed a project, and this week they start a new one, this feels like the ideal time to pause and reflect on their achievements to date, what they have learnt, and how they want to proceed. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Note: Quotes taken from an email a student sent me – used with permission

students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 4

‘Space… ‘

At some point in Spring 2018 I went for an interview to be a BILT Fellow in Assessment and Feedback. All went well and I was offered a two-year Fellowship. But on reflection, I wasn’t sure if I really should be doing Assessment and Feedback – not because I don’t think it’s important, I do – but because I realised that having worked on a number of university projects as a practising engineer I was probably more suited to the other BILT theme, ‘Rethinking Spaces’. And so, I switched.

Last year, I spent my BILT time digging through literature on space (alongside all sorts of other things) and dreamt up some fun projects about it. And from this, ‘The Office’ was born. But it turns out that when you change space you change a whole load of other things as well. In simple terms, when I moved from thinking about teaching as lectures and considered it as coming to work, this raised so many more questions: questions about teaching delivery; identity; community; authenticity- not just space.

As a result, whilst my main topic is ‘space’, it has taken until Episode 4 to really talk about the physical space because, in short, I had so many other things to talk about. But this week I want to focus on the actual physical space.

Over the course of the last 6 months there were a number of questions to be answered. Boring, practical questions.

  • Where could I base my office?
  • How was it going to fit into the timetable?
  • How would the space look like anything other than a class room with tables grouped together?

To answer the first two questions, I reached out to a variety of different staff across the university, I visited different buildings, reviewed different options, but in the end the solution to both came from Engineering Timetabling – without whom this project could never have happened. We discussed pragmatic solutions, like allowing students to be present for core hours – but being able to go and do other things (like lectures, supervisor meetings or design project meetings) outside of these. Above all else we started the conversation early in the year, enabling options to be reviewed and timetabled early in the cycle – long before official deadlines.

To answer the third question, we started by looking at actual office spaces across the university campus, but nothing quite worked. And so, we went back to the old flatbed teaching room, as beloved by engineering (a quick walk around Queens building will show you just how much we love our flatbed teaching rooms).

The room was agreed before the summer break, enabling me to plan the space, have a trial run and work out the different furniture I needed to beg, steal or borrow. I made plans. The original plan is outlined below under week 1. There were a number of key features:

Entrance – To make the space feel more like an office and less like a classroom the first step was to create a different entrance. This was achieved very simply by putting a company sign by the office door, and placing plants either side of the entrance.

Entrance to the ‘Just Timber’ Office.

Working Space – The working space is laid out as desks in groups. Much like my old companies – tables are in lines – but unlike my old companies where everyone has a computer and at least a table each, here to fit in the number of students we placed groups of 4 students around two tables and there are no computers.

Students working in the office.

Huddle Space – When working in industry we used to have a Monday morning huddle – where we would plan the week ahead – this space would also be the location for lunch time talks. I created a large space where students could bring their chairs for the huddle.

Breakout Space – In addition to more formal working spaces, I wanted to create a breakout space which students could use to have a pause, discuss ideas, drink a cup of tea, read architecture magazines and generally refresh before cracking on with the next task at hand. It has 4 low chairs – taken from my own office (which now looks very sad) and a low coffee table. There is a couple of magazine racks with the latest issue of engineering and architecture magazines.

Students taking a break

Directors’ Tables – When in industry I have always worked in companies where the directors are in the same open plan office space as everyone else, no fancy corner offices with large leather sofas. The theory is that this flattens the hierarchy (which is does) but I also imagine the financial saving from space and furniture is quite attractive. To start with the Directors tables (where a PhD student and myself sit) were located by the huddle space for the simple reason that the tables could be quickly moved making more room to huddle in.

Directors’ Table

Storage – Finally to keep the illusion alive that this was an office and not a classroom a screen is set up (which students are invited to cover with inspirational images) and behind this all the excess chairs and tables are stored along with the lectern (nothing says lecture more than a lectern) and the giant projector screen. As the screen cannot be used a large TV is now wheeled in for all presentations.

Floorplan of the ‘Just Timber’ office.

Changes and reflection following the first week

Following the first week of delivery there was some immediate feedback from the students, most notably that there was not enough desk space. In addition, my plan to huddle did not materialize. Maybe because students were on heavy static seats rather than seats with wheels which can quickly be moved to other locations. As a result, the layout in week 2 was revised. More tables were put out, so groups now had 3 tables each rather than 2. The huddle space was removed.

There were some further consequences to this change in the use of the space in that there was now less furniture to store (all the tables in the room were being utilized) and as a result the breakout space became much bigger. In the first week I didn’t notice any groups sit in the comfy chairs, but in week 2 the space was used by a number of different groups during the day. This of course may be due to the students becoming more familiar with the space and the fact that one of their projects is much more open ended and so inspiration from different sources is required. But I also believe the space is now more welcoming.

We also opted to move the directors table to a more central position, so we were more in the mix. This didn’t change the number of enquiries during the day, but I was able to get a better feel for what was happening in the room and the conversations that were taking place – being in the ‘thick of it’.

Following the end of week 2 students confirmed that they were much happier with the space. One student requested that we use the large screen as the TV was harder to see, but I am reluctant to do this as there is still space for students to move closer if they wish and we would be back to just a flat bed teaching room if we have a lectern and large screen.

I also wonder if, by moving groups apart (there is a clear gap between each group now), whether there is a reduced sharing of information across groups and the groups become more insular, something I am very keen to avoid as the aim is that all students learn as much as possible. I will monitor in the weeks ahead. My feeling was, certainly in the first week, that when I shared some key information with one group – this was being quickly fed to other groups. For example one of the questions was whether all floor joists should be the same depth? Once explaining the different arguments to one group I found as I talked to other groups they presented back to me the same reasoning I had given, acknowledging that this seemed to be the consensus among others.

So next week as we continue to consider pedagogy and ‘the office’ we will look at authentic learning. In the spirit of the project if you would like some pre-reading I would recommend you read ‘Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview’ By Marilyn M. Lombardi (Educase 2007).

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode 3

What the flip is flipped teaching?

I love lecturing. It’s awesome. I get that nervous excitement beforehand, like an actor or musician about to perform – it fires up my imagination – I think of new ways to say the same old thing. And then there is the lecture itself. The whoops of joy as I derive the equation for timber design – the ohhhs and ahhhs as it looks like my worked example has gone horribly wrong only for me to save it at the last minute with a daring leap of engineering logic (change the initial assumptions and post rationalising). And then there is the cheering – the standing ovation – as 2 hours later we come in to land. Everyone having been on an emotional rollercoaster.

Now I know what you are thinking, you think I am joking, but I am not (in fact I very rarely joke as I have a below average sense of humour – as my children like to regularly remind me). I am exaggerating – of course – but in my mind the above is how a perfect timber lecture would go.

And so, when I say “I am not lecturing on my timber unit this year”, it is with a heavy heart – and it’s important that you know that this was a hard decision for me to make, a costly one.

But I have another agenda, a more important one, I really want my students to learn about timber. I believe that the world needs more people who can design not just with steel and concrete – that we need engineers who can do more than just replicate the designs of the past – we need engineers fit for the future who can design with more materials. And however much I love lecturing I believe that by flipping the teaching my students will learn more[1].

Now let’s be clear. There is nothing new about flipped teaching. Back in 1997 when I was a green haired undergraduate studying Civil Engineering I decided to take an option on the philosophy of science. Every week we were required to read a book. And every week we would come not for a lecture but for a debate. Facilitated and led by our ‘lecturer’. The whole thing worked really well. Every week the chapter of the book would convince me that this was indeed the ‘philosophy of science’ only for this philosophical viewpoint to be slowly ripped to shreds over the course of an hours discussion and leaving me wondering why I had been so foolish to believe it in the first place? I would then read the next chapter, the next idea, which would respond to all the arguments from the discussion we had in class, only for that approach to be similarly reduced to rubble in the next discussion. Flipped teaching goes back way further than my own education. And yet in engineering it happens very rarely. We love to lecture.

But lectures are not the best way for people to learn. And so, this year, in ‘the office’ there are no lectures. No derivations. Instead I have gone for a different approach. But before I break this down maybe it would be helpful for me to describe my old approach. It goes like this:

Part 1 – Context

Talk about some projects that relate to the topic for this week for about 20 minutes. This achieves a number of things: It gives the learning some context – students can see why they are doing it. It also gives me, as their teacher, credibility – I have done it. Finally it gives them some technical language and understanding of why we do what we do – it helps them join the ‘community of practice[2]’.     

Part 2 – Theory

Next I reach for the notes. Personally I don’t like to use powerpoint for this I proffer to use a stack of paper, a pencil, and a visualiser and I will explain the theory of what we are doing – effectively teaching them what is already written in the notes. This will typically take place as two blocks of 20 minutes.

Part 3 – Example

Once the technical content has been delivered I will talk through a real example by doing it on the board. This will normally last about 20 minutes. I generally make these up on the spot – asking students for numbers. This way I have to think about what I am doing and as a result I find it easier to explain my thought process to students as I go through the example – it also slows me down (a good thing). But this also has a negative effect, for I find writing things down hard. I will say one thing and my hand will write something different. It used to make maths exams tricky as I would regularly think the right process but write down the wrong number, similarly for students my mistakes can be confusing.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Students are set a number of problems to work through where they build up and extend their understanding of the course materials: – This occurs both in example classes, where I am able to answer questions and discuss the content with them. But also outside of the taught time as students work on their own.

This year I have used the same model in many regards but rather than deliver parts 1-3 in a lecture with part 4 predominantly happening elsewhere I have flipped it (hence the term flipped teaching) so part 4 happens in my teaching environment with parts 2 and 3 occurring elsewhere.

So this is how it (hopefully) works:

Part 1 – Context

I no longer give a 20 minute talk on projects at the start of each week. Instead I have done a few different things:

  1. I have covered the walls with pictures of real projects – to give them a sense of what they are working towards
  2. I have included case studies and inspiring photos of projects in the course notes
  3. I have invited a number of practioners in to give lunch time talks (we used to do these when I was a practicing engineer) on real projects
  4. Finally I have authored books on timber, which I hope gives me credibility without having to talk about my projects

Part 2 – Theory

As mentioned in episode 2[3] I have slowly built up a set of notes which are highly detailed over the last 8 years. So now, rather than effectively read them to the students (and anyone who has witnessed me reading a bedtime story will know that that is a lot more engaging than it sounds – see my BoB lecture for evidence[4]) I let them read them to themselves. It’s that simple.

Every week I have a list of pre-reading which has been there since before the course began so that student can read it in their own time for the whole course.

Part 3 – Example

So the biggest change for me this year has been that I have created a series of worked example videos. These go through the core concepts for each week. There are many advantages to this approach (rather than doing it live in class) students can pause – rewind – re-watch – jump ahead to where they are stuck. And more importantly I don’t make mistakes! The casual feedback from students has been very positive. The down side is that each 15 minute example takes about 1-2 hours to produce. And I need to find a silent location with no interruptions to make them in.

Part 4 – Application and conversation

Which brings us to the purpose of all of this. By enabling students to learn about the subject for each week before they arrive at ‘the office’, we can use the working day to apply the information. I have created 4 projects which they will work on over the course of 10 weeks. Each designed to challenge them in a different way. Each designed to build up their engineering understanding. I have also provided a map to show how everything links together.

Having run the office for two weeks it really seems to be going well. Students come ready to learn. As I sit and work on my own projects I listen to the buzz in the room. The hum of conversation. And much of it is around the technical details of timber design. The students are discussing their work together. Working together. And I do get a good and steady stream of questions – but good questions. No one yet has asked me to give a mini lecture. So whilst there is still a long way to go (8 weeks) at this stage it feels like it is working.

Why don’t we all do it

So the obvious question is, why doesn’t everyone do this? The honest answer is for me that it is so much more work. I can see that in the long run, once it is up and running, it will be less work. But if you are time strapped now it is so hard to invest in the future – despite the reward.

I also fear it is more work for students. Not that they will spend longer working – but that it feels harder. That lectures seem easy – information being delivered in accessible bite size chunks and that somehow this is more challenging. And coupled with this, I fear that they won’t love it as much as they love my lectures – that my ratings will drop!

Another challenge is space. Physical space. Working in collaborative groups – with easy circulation and easy access for students and staff to ask question – takes up more space than lines of desks all looking towards the screen. I have been lucky in that I have got a small enough group (36) where it works. But I also understand just how big the space challenge is.

Plus a little bit of me is missing the excitement of standing up and giving a lecture!

Next week’s episode – Space…


[1] G. Gibbs, ‘Twenty terrible reasons for lecturing’, http://owww.brookes.ac.uk/services/ocsld/resources/20reasons.html, last accessed 11/10/19

[2] See Jenni Case’s ‘Education Theories on Learning: an informal guide for the engineering education scholar’ Tool 4: Community of practice (Higher Education Academy, 2008)

[3] The Office: Episode 2 – https://bilt.online/the-office-episode-two/

[4] ‘How to change the world in three simple steps’ – Jump to minute 11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be