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Who is an innovator? What is innovation? In this lecture Dr Keir Williams, Lecturer in Design at the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship will consider these questions by reflecting on a series of case studies from the world of disability arts and culture. It will draw on models of disability, social media influencers and tourettes-led superheroes.
Keir is a creative technologist, educator and researcher. Underpinning his approach to all three is a philosophy that recognises the potential for art, design and technologies to make and take on practical and effective roles in wider society and culture. His innovation research and practice considers participatory processes and structures in relation to accessibility, performance, advocacy and the potential of ‘playing the fool’ in all three. He has created commissions for organisations including TATE, ICA London, PS1 New York and Chapter Gallery, Cardiff. His recent creative technology work has included a performance and research residency in the arctic circle, and an oral history project with the MShed museum Bristol. Recent research projects include an ethnographic study on developing technologies for SEN mixed ability classrooms and an innovation training project with former Prisoners in Bristol.
Keir and I met in a design studio in the Centre for Innovation. Throughout the interview, staff and students alike would come in to fetch or print things and everyone knew each other, giving the centre a real sense of community. This was particularly fitting as we went on to discuss how he teaches community and participatory methods, as well as the effect of dyslexia on his work and his unusual and colourful journey into lecturing.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you lecture on and what your teaching style is?
Here at the Centre, I teach a few different units with slightly esoteric names, ‘Being Human’, ‘Past, Present and Futures’ and Live Client Briefs. My official title is Lecturer in Design Thinking, but it’s closer to being a lecturer in Design Research. My teaching focuses on participatory methods of research and design. So how you get other people to become researchers and participate in the process that you’re creating or get them to determine the process themselves. In my wider work, I create spaces for people to participate in. That could be research, that can be sound system parties, it can be dance classes, it could be music events, it could be art projects, it just depends on the context, really. What I teach at the Centre is how we work with other people and how we work in groups to develop ventures in different ways. As part of this, I teach innovation. It’s hard to define innovation as it’s contextual and there are so many models out there. We teach our students how to develop an innovative approach to the world and what we mean by innovation. To be innovative you need to be able to map social contexts, situations, phenomena, in a way that allows us to model it, that allows us to disrupt it or to support it.
I teach project-based work. Our first-year citizen science project gets to go and work with groups of local people in nature reserves around Bristol to develop a participant lead science experiment. For their other project students have to create a venture that creates value for someone or create an intervention that brought people into social interaction in the public space. This enables them to engage with the city as a context for research and consider how we make value for people. Underlying my engaged teaching is quite a lot of social and design theory, that comes from a lot of different places relating to my background.
So, how does your background affect the way you teach?
I’m a bit of a weird fish. I’m dyslexic and didn’t do well in assessments at school. I got eight GCSEs, no A-Levels. I did an art foundation which meant I could get into university using a portfolio of my work. I did a fine art undergraduate degree, and then was a technician and building services staff at the fine art department I studied in. I also started my own business doing videos, and a reggae sound system that’s got the longest running Reggae night in Europe. We toured and do a lot of festivals and still do. I did a Masters in Fine Art which was paid for by the AHRC with living costs. When I finished I taught on the Masters for a couple of years part-time. At the time I lived in a warehouse in a rough bit of Birmingham, where we had a gallery, and did big art parties with giant papier-Mache animals props and costumes that turned into a night called DJ sexmachine and super best friends which we toured, which was like a really campy draggy drunken night that we used to do weird performances with.
I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I did my art foundation, which changed everything for me. I didn’t get support but it changed how I saw myself and how I work. Before my PhD, I was doing a lot of work as an artist for galleries, a lot of playwork, performance art and a lot of playwork with kids with special needs. Through the sound system and my playwork, I started to work with a group called Tourette Hero who develops creative projects that challenges societal norms of disability. Jess Thomm who runs Tourettes Hero has Tourette’s and she uses her experience of Tourettes to create work. We worked together on a bunch of projects including stuff at Tate Modern and Tate Britain and lots of community and play settings around London.
At the same time as doing any academic stuff, I am also still a practising artist. This year I had a show at We The Curious with our arts collective. As a collective, we’ve been going up to the Arctic north of Norway to do an art project in an old fishing village that has the first industrial fishing processing plant in the world. Our collective is made up of a team of six artists, we’ve been doing it for 4 years. The reason I mention this is that projects like this inform and structure my teaching. In this case, we developed a project based on this for my first year and post-graduate students. It allowed us to draw on staff from the museum and use We the Curious as a venue for our annual student conference. I’m not strictly one discipline. I’m not strictly a computer scientist, I’m not strictly an artist or a designer. But all of those things feed into my practices for innovation. My work is about being self-motivated, overly enthusiastic, curious, and finding ways to help other people to learn and play.
Side note: I highly encourage readers to visit Kier’s website if you want to see more of his work, which you can find here. It’s a bit of an experience.
My question is, how do you bring those skills into teaching; you’ve obviously done a really wide variety of things outside of academia.
For me, there are three components to my work: research, practice and teaching. They are dependant on each other. I can’t teach if I’m not doing current research. I can’t do research and make art if I’m not teaching. With the two major shows I’ve done in Bristol over the last two years they became projects for my first years and master’s students. Another example is the oral history project I did for the M Shed museum, to showcase people involved in the Bristol music scene over 70 years. I worked with a second year to create portraits for the vinyl copies of the interviews I recorded. This project allowed us to draw on the museum staff to teach and provide feedback throughout the student’s projects. The first project asks our students to use the recordings I created and present issues that arose from them for an audience outside of the museums typical demographic.
In terms of my actual teaching, I see it as a performance. That is I use the skills I learnt through contemporary dance, capoeira and performance art to engage and include all of my students in the projects I’m passionate about. I never had lectures or seminars or university and never taught in that way till I started lecturing outside of art and design. What I find interesting here at the university is that the ‘flat teaching’ we do is a new, innovative form of teaching. For me and this is how I‘ve always done it. I see my teaching approach as the same for young kids with special educational needs and masters students. I have an empathic approach that creates a space to learn that is created based on the lived experiences of my students. I am also academically rigorous. I can be quite pingy and I feel sometimes I come across as quite over-enthusiastic, and a bit ditzy. But actually, the skill is to be ‘ditzy’ and enthusiastic to gather all the information and get involved in the world and then refine that into something useful within the structures of academia or creative practice. Whether that’s a narrative, an exhibition or an academic paper.
As someone who’s neurodiverse and disabled, I struggled at school, even though I’m from a fairly privileged background, white middle-class academic parents, I really struggled. I had people who supported me and helped me get through when I didn’t think any of these systems would work for me and I feel like that’s now my responsibility to do that for other people. Uplifting other people, right? The first thing I do in my first lecture is say that I’m dyslexic and I’m really overenthusiastic and at times very silly and that’s what makes me, me. I do this at the beginning of every term and I bang on about it a lot. If I spell a word wrong when I’m writing on a board, then I tell them to just imagine a little red line underneath it because I don’t care. What it does, is it draws out people with disabilities to come talk to me if they want to, to make that kind of thing possible.
I think a lot of people when it comes to something like Bristol university is scary, right? If you’re coming from a non-public school background or, you know, you don’t necessarily have a privilege that some students do. It’s why I wear casual clothes I wear because it gives that sense of not being “You have to be proper now because you’re in university” right? And not getting rid of that curiosity and joy and experience that drives students to come to uni. I’ve had students with working-class backgrounds say, “I feel so unconfident, everyone else knows what they’re doing, they know how to be and how to dress”. I think it’s really important to create a space where they don’t, they can feel that their experiences are as valid as anyone else’s.
One of the things I’m looking at is elements of Bristol University engaging with the wider community, which on your website, you do quite a lot of. Is that something that you feel like affects your students in a positive or negative way?
Yeah, so most of the stuff we do is based around engagement in communities, and also problematizing the idea of communities right, so ‘what is a community?’, ‘who makes a community?’. I think I lead by example and this comes back to the importance of having a practice while teaching. The work within Norway was working with a refugee centre that’s up there, here we worked with communities in Avon mouth, for the music project we worked with old punks, trip-hop stars and local residence. There are issues that have to be addressed so that any ‘community based’ work is conducted without harming the students or participants. I’ve just done a project for our PGT students with Universities theatre collection. The issue was none of our students had ever done work relating to participatory arts, theatre or live art. They’ve never done events and they’ve never done collections because our masters are drawn from a huge range of different countries and disciplines. The problem of doing participatory, engaged work is if I’d sent out students straight away to talk to communities and experts based on the collection, they could have made some really serious mistakes. There’s that adage of ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’. I kind of think it needs to be the opposite because you can’t do that in situations with community groups where you can hurt people through unintended consequences of the way we work as researchers.
Fundamentally if you want to work with a group of people you want to find out about them, you want to see how they do things and you potentially want to help them to make change. You can’t just chuck a lot of students out there. So, what we have to do is create some sort of a structure for them to do it. What we end up doing, is creating structures that allow them to do some participation and work with some communities and also think about their own communities. For me it’s a craft as much as it is a discipline in that you have to do it, you will never be perfect and you have to adapt it every time you do it. There are certain core skills you need in terms of personality and talking to people but there’s also a set amount of theory you need to understand in terms of power relationships, but also realising your limitations, you’re never going to be able to do it perfectly. To get students to do that’s incredibly tough, I think but it’s incredibly valuable and it’s what we try to do over the four-year course.
Other than the specific community-based skills that they gain, do you see the work they do affecting other parts of their learning?
Oh yeah. I think there should be more recognition that the university is part of the community, that it’s within the same social structures. This is the danger with some of this stuff sometimes, that you end up with this kind of deficiency model of going to work with community groups. I think what I’m trying to say is that I think a lot of our students have that idea that you’re going to go to somebody to fix them. Whether that’s Barton Hill or northern Nigeria, it feels like you know, we’re going to help these people as opposed to this notion of there’s an exchange going on. The deficiency model says you have a problem only we can fix. What we promote is going to work with people you say ‘we are here, we have certain skills and experience that you don’t, you have skills and experiences we don’t, let’s create something together’.
In their professional lives, students are not going to just do what they’ve learnt in their discipline. As a physicist, you are part of a community of other physicists and scientists, you have funders, and social and cultural issues to deal with. You have to talk to you have to communicate your ideas, you have to work in a lab or office, you have to, you know to negotiate with the world. There’s all this stuff that still exists if you’re a physicist or an actor. The work you need to do with others is not separate from the discipline.
The benefit for our students in working with ‘communities’ outside of the university is that it gives them the skills to practically go and talk to people and do things that aren’t just in their comfort zone within the university. And it offers them a huge body of evidence, skills, data, tools, methods, experiences, to build their own practice from. Its more than our students feeling good about and doing socially engaged work with people. The work they do with people outside of the university becomes an exchange, and it should be an exchange.
I have one more question that we’re asking all of the BoB lecturers this year: What do you feel the most positive change to learning and teaching that we can make at University?
Make it free. Make the whole thing free and don’t base it solely on UCAS entry.
Jarman is a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dave greets me at the Centre which sits high on the Clifton hilltops
in the Richmond Building to reflect on well-being and the value of failing for
growth. Large windows bring uplifting natural light into open learning spaces set
up primarily for collaborative groupwork – something feels different here.
So Dave, what sort of initiatives are happening at the Centre for Innovation that consider staff and student well-being?
We do a scheme called ‘Random Coffee Trials’ started by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The charity got to 60 people and realised not everyone knew anyone anymore. The meeting was half an hour, a formal set-up (so staff knew they had to attend) but there was no agenda to the meeting, they had to invent the meeting agenda themselves. What NESTA found is that staff got to find out what everyone else did. They realised that many of them lived near each other, they had kids going to the same school – they got a great community piece out of this scheme. So, what we do is ask students to volunteer to participate every two weeks, we got 52 to participate in the scheme and I match them together and give them a 2 for 1 coffee voucher to meet and have a chat.
That’s great because I think the University community
could benefit from ‘Random Coffee Trials’ facilitating interconnection outside
of their familiar friendship networks and also between staff and students.
Yes, because loneliness can be a big issue in academia.
Particularly in the masters and postgraduate communities.
So, I am trying to prompt more honest, open conversations
about the meaning of success and failure to students and staff within the
University. To represent the more vulnerable side of the Humans of
University of Bristol rather than fabricate picture-perfect narratives that
offer little opportunities for reflective thinking around our personal
shortcomings, inadequacies and uncertainties.
There’s a piece here about how we
create value for ourselves. Something about people relying on external
reference seems relevant to what you are saying. We often ask: ‘Am I doing this
thing in the right way?’, ‘Which night out should I go on?’ ‘Should I buy
this item?’. We become dependent on people around us to validate and evaluate
what is worth doing, then eventually we start to build up a sense of what is
worth doing. The problem is we don’t always recognise the value in something
until a few years down the line. When I
worked in CV reading, I found that students were typically bad at reflecting on
the value in certain experiences, especially the experiences interpreted as
failures. You almost need someone to offer that conversational space to help
you decipher the value. Yes, that is partly the role of careers. But relying on
careers and PDP does not always address the well-being side of things; careers
can be, for some students, as intimidating as any other part of the university.
I don’t quite remember to point
in which I realised this, but I did have a moment of realisation that I was
getting more value from the extracurricular things I was doing than my academic
studies. I probably took a cost-benefit analysis, though I definitely would not
have called it that back then. When I look back, I think… I got a 2:1 by the
skin of my teeth. I could have done better.
But actually, the part of my undergraduate degree which was most valuable
for me were the soft skills I acquired, all the activities I participated in.
All of these elements were integral parts of my student experience. The
University does have a role in helping students get the most out of their experience
here in whatever capacity that may be.
Yeah. It’s probably unwise to
focus on only one part of our experience and start to think about ourselves as
a whole. We are human beings, not study machines producing first-class academic
And the employers at the end of the process don’t necessarily want students to be that study machine either. Both you and the employers will value all the other bits about your time at university. I guess the thing Higher Education must consider is that students tend to be unfamiliar with reflecting on the value of certain experiences in their undergraduate degree.
I believe there could be
something mutually beneficial in having a little more openness in the
pedagogical interactions between staff and students. Where both humans engaged
in dialogue cultivate an awareness that we are all negotiating doubt and
uncertainty by articulating (where possible) our honest moments of
vulnerability in academia. Having someone to reflect on failure with at
university seems like a crucial means of mitigating negative, if not
catastrophic reactions to academic failure.
Personally, I think being human
and building some kind of personable relationship with students is part of
being a good educator.
…And some of the most resonating knowledge that has been
given to me was in a more open conversational capacity.
I think the idea of sharing stories between both parties is worthwhile in revealing the humans on each side. By and large, the tone I am adopting in this conversation is a tone that I often would adopt in the classroom. Some colleagues are not comfortable with that, some perhaps are too comfortable with that. I think it could be inappropriate to expect all staff to take up this approach if they are uncomfortable. But also, it’s partly about how we set up conversations about success and failure within the curriculum itself. So, for example, creativity naturally has to go through a lot of failure, you are not immediately going to come to the most interesting answer right away. Ninety-nine ways of doing something creatively can at first seem stupid, students must be confident with the possibility of being silly in their learning. Imagine being in a group of friends where you are confident being silly: we know that they will forgive us. Then imagine being in a group of people where you are not confident being silly. The former relationships are really good for us; it is where we build personal confidence. That confidence brings resilience. There is something here about humility, it is not always about knowing where we are good but knowing about our shortcomings and how we might be able to grow from them. I have always liked the idea that wisdom comes when we are prepared to admit what we don’t know about everything with certainty.
How can we help students admit
that not everything can be known with certainty?
I do better by offering students multiple
ways succeeding and failing. I have set my student’s impossible tasks, so
students can’t do it, but we are examiners are interested in the process in how
the student’s go about it.
Yes, embedding uncertainty into learning could prepare us
more for the inevitable uncertainties the modern working world affords. I
really enjoyed your recent blogpost about ‘How
to Succeed at Failing’ how far do these reconceptualised notions of
success, failure, and negotiating uncertainty feed into your vision for the
Centre? Does the curriculum here help students reflect on the value of failure?
We are prompting students to be more reflective in their group work, especially concerning giving and taking peer advice. In terms of self-esteem, having people around who can give you affirmation, constructive criticism, and support feels quite useful.
I have personally not taken too
well to criticism and the pressures of group dynamics, perhaps out of a fear of
rejection, perhaps out of a fear of failing. What do you think about current perfectionist
cultures in Higher Education where acute fears of failure are high among a
number of students?
The culture of Higher Education has certainly changed since I was in it. When I came through university 20 years ago a 2:1 was great! To be honest, I worked on the career side of the university for a long time and a lot of employers can sometimes be suspicious of a first-class degree. Given the way that academia has developed, the process doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the workplace. Many employers are happy to see 2:1 plus participation in sports, societies, and student media. A 2:1 shows you are capable. It demonstrates a more rounded set of skills. This is not to say university should only be rolling students out for the workplace – I would disagree with that. But there is a space in university life for students to engage in extracurricular activities and projects outside the classroom. I think the reason we’ve ended up in this situation is because we are dealing with ever greater numbers of students and we tend to resort to quite simple measures and metrics to find solutions. Lots of the important things we could talk about regarding well-being area tend to happen in smaller, more thoughtful, and dedicated educational settings. It is possible to build up better networks in smaller institutions. Having four people in your class can give rise to better networks than socialising with four hundred people in your class. Here, I am going to argue somewhere down the middle is probably the most appropriate response. Equally, academia is good at thinking critically. People like to be right: things are either wrong or their right. People rarely stop and say “Well that is wrong. But it is usefully wrong. I can build on what you just said. Or at least I can not pass harsh judgement. We can thank each other for our contribution and work out how to do something better about it.” Much of the academy is not doing enough creative thinking around failure.
What about you? How do you
tolerate your failures?
My creative confidence comes from many moments where I feel like I just make things up as I go along. Also, I recall conversations with colleagues who have experienced serious and disruptive moments in their life. Me and one colleague discussed ‘how do you make the most out of negative circumstances?’ We realised as the conversation drew to a close that we must try and find a positive frame in response even though that can feel quite mercenary. We were saying how it is partly about the fact that we must move forward with our lives – whatever happens. The rest of life does not just stop. Up to a point we do have to be ruthless and get ourselves back up after falling down and keep going. It is not about denying the disruptive things that life brings but trying to pay attention to at least a few positive aspects in our challenging day-to-day lives. Whether we deal with the challenges of bereavement by focussing on the present or by paying attention to the positive memories of a loved one. We do not deny the reality of their death but find a new frame when responding to negative things.
I see the power in your outlook, Dave. I often spend some time in the evening reflecting on moments I welcomed throughout the day. Sometimes the moments can feel seemingly simple like the sensation of a juicy orange on my tongue, or the feeling of connection between me and a friend on an evening spent catching up. The reflective process might not work for everyone, at times recalling the day can feel tedious, but in the long term you feel more secure, more satisfied. So, I will keep that close to me.
The academic team from the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CFIE) ran an interactive seminar at the International Enterprise Educators Conference (IEEC) annual conference in Oxford in September 2019. The subject was central to our core mission of enabling innovative and entrepreneurial students; how to handle the inevitable failures that arise from the process of trying to do something innovative. This seminar went on to win the ‘Best in Track’ award for the ‘Enterprise within the curriculum’ track, which shows how much interest there is in this topic.
Failure plays a pivotal role in the literature of both innovation and entrepreneurship; from the necessary failures of any experimental method that probes new territory, through embracing ‘fast failure’ in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, to the notion of expert entrepreneurs undertaking ‘affordable losses’ in the effectual logic of Saras Sarasvathy; failure is everywhere, but it doesn’t mean seeking catastrophe, it means learning through small setbacks along the path towards discovering insights and creating value.
“We fail our students when we don’t provide opportunities for failure in their Enterprise Education studies, our students fail themselves when they avoid failure at all costs. Therefore, we must design into our Enterprise Education curriculums specific opportunities to fail, reflect, and recover.” (Jones, 2019)
In our interactive seminar we had over 20 colleagues from across the UK and beyond engaged in sharing their examples of failures they’ve witnessed or suffered themselves in the classroom. We used these examples and the discussion that followed to address three questions and identify some useful principles for other educators.
How do you enable ideas to fail but students to succeed?
Recognising that students can learn a lot through making mistakes we often try to cultivate a learning environment within which students can fail without being academically penalised.
In the CFIE we use a lot of student project work; often group-based, in which the development of an idea is central. Whilst this project may carry a lot of weight we try to mitigate the risks to the students by marking their process or method rather than the idea; we also often include an element of reflection as a means for students to potentially have a car-crash of a project but still demonstrate how much they have learnt from the process.
Similarly, IEEC participants also championed the use of both ‘rewarding the process not the outcome’ and ‘using reflection’ as the best means of marking the learning rather than the idea itself. Breaking the assessment down into discrete ‘chunks’ whereby each element might stand alone in the mark scheme rather than one poor element sabotaging the rest was also suggested, as were ‘offering multiple attempts’ and ‘providing very clear examples’. We really liked the suggestion to ‘set an impossible task’ whereby the outcome was doomed to fail but the process of undertaking it might still be usefully marked, and similarly to ‘work on someone else’s idea’ which again reduced the implications of the idea itself and focussed attention on the process used.
How do you handle situations where students fail at the process of what is being taught?
Sometimes students will fail to demonstrate or execute on the process or method that is being taught in a class despite our best efforts. Sometimes they will even chance upon a decent final output that as an educator you know is derived from a poor or inaccurate method. How do you deal with a failure to learn?
Here in the CFIE we have had incidents where one or more students has not adopted the taught process and persisted in simply writing up an early concept despite all the evidence suggesting they iterate or pivot away from it, often in denial that their pet project has no traction with its intended audience.
This might be a failure on the part of the educator to get the method across, so we tend to use a mix of staff feedback, peer review, and iterative steps to catch a bad idea before it gets too far. IEEC participants also heavily recommended the use of ‘checkpoints or viewpoints’ on a regular basis, and processes of ‘external and peer review’ as another means of catching bad ideas and reinforcing the adoption of a good process. Those reviewers might be other students (in the class or beyond it), mentors, external advisors, or guest speakers who reinforce the process taught.
Opportunities to ‘hire or fire’ group members and similarly mechanisms that ‘reward or punish non-engagement in the group or the class’ were suggested as a means of making sure that individuals were participating, so hopefully picking up on all the cues to adopt the process! ‘Being clear about expectations’ was heavily recommended and again ‘multiple or iterative attempts’ might be a means of catching a poor process at an early stage.
Given that as educators we need room to innovate and be enterprising in our classrooms; how do we deal with the inevitable risk of failure as an educator?
The CFIE is still something of a start-up itself; we are only this year, 3 years after opening, teaching all four years of the new units written for our programmes. Inevitably not all the bright ideas we have for a unit work at the first attempt; so how do we manage at the front of a classroom when our ideas fail any or all of the stakeholders concerned? For example, this year we adopted not one, but four new assessment formats for a single 40-credit unit… Whilst one was a huge success and the others were all broadly effective the combined effect on the students and staff did create some uncertainty and anxiety that would have been gratefully avoided by all concerned.
IEEC participants highlighted, above all other suggestions, the value of a ‘supportive culture’ in the department to undertake innovative approaches and manage the fall-out when they don’t quite work. This includes senior and peer encouragement (not just tolerance) and ‘license to experiment’.
Linked to this was strong endorsement for ‘having time to evaluate’; so, colleagues can plan well, anticipate and respond to problems, and prepare examples and explanations to support students through new and unfamiliar processes; ‘modelling what success looks like’. Using ‘incremental adoption’ was also recommended, as was ‘sourcing and responding to feedback’. Time and tolerance are required on the part of colleagues, students, and from the educators themselves to not rush too far ahead too soon.
IEEC participants particularly championed the importance of focusing assessment on reflection and marking the process rather than the outcome and highlighted that the hardest thing to get right was finding the time as a staff member to do all these things to an effective standard. Getting the culture right to support failure as integral to learning was both championed as critical and acknowledged as hard to do.
The seminar at IEEC was a great opportunity to share practice, gather up some great ideas, and validate a lot of our current approach. Thanks to the CFIE team: Ki Cater, Suzanne Cole, Sam Crawley, Dave Jarman, Andy Littledale, and Mark Neild. Thanks also to all those who took part and shared some of their hard-won experience!
Dave Jarman, senior lecturer in Entrepreneurship and academic theme lead for Bristol Futures (Innovation and Enterprise).
During our smooth, buffer-free Skype call, Senior Lecturer in Design Thinking Ann Padley and I chatted about the fresh take the Innovation course at Bristol has undertaken. The 4-year integrated master’s programme collaborates with 14 subject disciplines (from Music, to Computer Science to Social Policy) and has a cohort of up to 80 students. The interdisciplinary programme is structured around two aims: i) specialisation in a subject and ii) the acquisition of practical skills and initiative.
‘Through the programme, we aim to make our students T-shaped
graduates.’ What Padley means by this is that the course combines the breadth
of practical skills students learn at the Centre for Innovation and
Entrepreneurship with the depth of knowledge from their subject disciplines. But
how does the programme strike this balance between breadth and depth?
The course encourages students to fully immerse themselves
within the department of their chosen subject area by fulfilling the same unit
requirements as Single Honours Students. The added dimension of students in
Innovation comes through core units.
These units are not graded with the typical summative exam
students are used to. These assignments are not floating around waiting to be
marked, processed and dissolved into the academic ether.
These assessments are not meant to be forgotten. They are
meant to engage and be engaged with.
Such assessments are business plans, client presentations,
and proposals for new innovations organisations to consider… They are projects that
burst through the bubble of academia.
The value of these projects does not only come from their
unconventional format. They reside in collaborative partnerships students build
with each other, their tutors and… external actors. That’s right, students work
with professionals through the concept of engaged learning.
In a nutshell, engaged learning is that bridge where theoretical
knowledge and the oh-so-desired work experience employers seek finally meet. But
the experience isn’t a simple binary between academia and the professional sector.
Engaged learning fosters skills like collaboration, creativity, problem-solving…
Transferable skills and experiences that would make students well rounded
scholars as well as well rounded people.
The projects that students take on are conceived through their
working relationship with tutors and the organisations that supervise them. These projects are usually a long-term
process. 2-3 weeks are taken to flesh out and evaluate the parameters of assignment
and 9-10 weeks are taken to execute the project throughout a Teaching Block.
This extended effort allows students to engage with a project they co-produced with
their tutors. Students get to shape
their project alongside their industry professionals and give them the
opportunity to claim authorship of their work.
You could call the Innovation programme the lovechild between
a consultancy position or start-up experience and a full-time degree. The
programme is practically designed to whet students’ appetite for experience and
quench recruiter’s thirst for well-equipped entry-level applicants.
Ten engaged learning projects were led last year on the
Centre’s Client-Led Briefs unit with companies ranging from a top national law
firm to Northern Surveying, a family-owned quantity surveying practice. Padley
highlights that such projects allow the concept of engaged learning to be put
into practice rather than being taught as an isolated ‘island’ concept that
students learn about without applying it to their wider academic interests and/or
Engaged Learning projects are a refreshing pedagogical step
forward, however, they are not without their challenges. This type of learning
makes students learn about the unavoidable obstacles of the working world. (Clients
that are difficult to get a hold of, team members not pulling their weight, uncertainty
about the best next step to take…etc.)
This is when partnership principles are put into place to
mitigate the obstacles of such projects and to safeguard and preserve the
interests of students, academics and the external institutions.
When conceptualising these principles, Padley states ‘We
need these principles to be able to help shape the way engaged learning takes
place and to build an ecosystem focused on creating value for all parties
involved.’ For her, principles are not only put into place to guide
methodology, but to manage power dynamics between parties and peoples. Padley
states that as well as collaborating with others, students and staff should
also learn to gage compatibilities and delegate responsibilities in a just
This hierarchy of power and responsibility should be viewed
as a network that encourages the collaboration of knowledge. In the Client-Led
Briefs units, Innovation students are considered ‘junior consultants’ and their
tutors ‘senior consultants’. These titles do confirm that a hierarchy does not
necessarily negate a partnership but enhance it.
Padley highlighted that students are not ‘placing an order
from a set, defined menu.’ Although I was a bit confused at first, this
intriguing metaphor did make sense. Students aren’t placing a fast order of
work experience to companies through a quick business transaction. Students
must think about the impact of their order, and the contributions of their
exchange. Companies are not cashiers, they are waiters, more interactive and
receptive to the order. They let you know about the seasonal specials, the
tasty work constraints, the crunchy financial plans…
Engaged learning is about understanding this academic
transaction. Students, staff and academics do not just create a partnership to
passively exchange notes, but to examine and evaluate the benefits of their
Innovation is entering its fourth year and is expected to export its first cohort of graduates next summer. When I asked Padley about the work opportunities her future graduates were expected to fall into, she said that some graduates would have the potential to start their own business, use their entrepreneurial mindset within existing organisations, go into consulting, or forge their own path into a completely different sector they are passionate about. The Innovation programme’s incorporation of Engaged Learning is a glimpse into the future pedagogical landscape of tertiary education. This is hopefully a landscape where assessments and projects are no longer feared for their immediate numerical outcomes but valued for their emergent learning experiences.
The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Senior Teaching Fellow in Civil Engineering.
It’s strange how a number of unconnected events can form an idea in your mind.
This weekend I stayed with my sister and we watched the film ‘Blood Diamond’, a harrowing film made in the early noughties about the illegal diamond trade. We started discussing the role of the press and, at a more meta level, the film industry, who were indirectly profiting from the same trade through film profits. It reminded me of a magazine I read a few years back called ‘Colors Magazine’. Each issue focused on a specific concept and the one that came to mind was Issue #86, which is all about making the news. In it there is a page on war photography, which included a harrowing photo seen in many newspapers. The magazine presented it by covering most of the photo and leaving just the part of the image widely presented in the press visible. Turn the page and you see the whole photo; it is a different story. Gathered around the incident are dozens of journalists and photographers capturing the moment. It is a shocking moment.
Fast forward a couple of days and I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Padley. Ann is a teaching fellow who works on the new innovation programmes and specialises in design thinking. As a designer of buildings and a teacher of people who design buildings, I would like to think I know a thing or two about design thinking. But it turns out there is a lot more for me to learn. Over a rushed lunch we discussed problem solving, problem definition and redefinition. We discussed narrative as well as more empirical ways to come to design decisions. We talked about the importance of active listening in problem definition. And we talked about something I have been struggling with, how do we differentiate between outcome and process? Is it possible for a student to successfully go through a design process but come up with a less successful solution and probably more commonly a successful solution without going through a successful design process (or at least unable to articulate the design process- something I have struggled with as an engineer across my professional career because it is actually really hard to do and requires a lot of practice)? Ann described the methods they use to set and assess design problems which don’t just focus on outcome but focus on the successful implementation of design processes.
Later that same day I spent a very enjoyable hour talking to Zoe Backhouse, one of the BILT student fellows. Our conversation was wide-ranging but covered different forms of assessment. We discussed the essays that she had written, and it started to occur to me that what is presented in an essay, much like the photos in the newspaper I mentioned at the beginning, is the story that we choose to tell. But what happened to all the other stories? How do we know that we have presented the right one?
These thoughts linked me back to my conversation with Ann. I realised that design thinking is not just important for designers but for anyone who is given a problem (or title) and then has to deconstruct the problem and find what the real problem is before deciding on the solution (when there are many possible solutions). Maybe not just engineers, but all of us would benefit both from learning to articulate not just the solution, but how we got there. The narrative around the solution. The options we considered and discarded. And maybe not only would we benefit from articulating this but also from discussing it with our friends and tutors. To receive feedback (or more precisely feedforward) not just on the output but on the processes through which we have gone to arrive at the solution (or essay).
Ann Padley is a Teaching Fellow in Design Thinking 3 days a week and is an independent consultant on design thinking for her other work days.
Zoe Backhouse is a final year student on the four year masters degree in Liberal Arts, she is a BILT student fellow and a fledgling zine maker. Zoe would welcome any musings, poems, doodles or cartoons from students & staff about your experiences of assessment at Bristol Uni. If you’re a student, you’ll get a £25 Amazon voucher for whatever you contribute! Email email@example.com for more details.
Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.