students working the office space
News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Four

‘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 Three

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

News, Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode Two

The Office opens for business (learning)

Last Thursday evening as I sat on the train heading home I reflected on my day. It had been a variety of things, exhausting, exhilarating, extraordinary, just another day at work, surprisingly straightforward and above all else not a complete disaster, yes!

Of course, last Thursday was not any old day, it was the first day that I ran my ‘office’ teaching project. I arrived at work at 7.30 – having unloaded my academic office (where I had been collecting stuff for months) into the teaching space the night before – and I moved furniture, set out tables and chairs to make the space feel like an office. I put stuff on tables – so much stuff (more on that in a minute) and tried to get everything ready. At 9am sharp my new employees (current fourth year undergraduate students) arrived ready for work, generally in work attire. People moved to their designated groups – unpacked and sorted all the equipment I supplied – and by 9.30am were ready for their first day of work. Which, believe it or not went without any major hitches.

At the end of the day I asked students for feedback. Two major items were raised – firstly that they wanted a bit more desk space – so I will reconfigure the room next week. Secondly and much more importantly they want milk for their cups of tea!

So I think as a first day goes it was a success.

Across the next 9 weeks, as well as recording and reflecting what happens in my office sessions I want to also unpack some of my thinking – and some of the practical sides of the project. I sat down a few minutes ago and wrote a list of 7 topics I want to cover without thinking – I’m sure more will arise as the weeks develop. In many ways the topics overlap and intersect. I fear it will be hard to discuss some – without referring to others, so apologies if I keep saying (especially in the early weeks) ‘more on this in a later episode’.

This week I wanted to focus on stuff. To make the office feel like an office I have generated a lot of it. Partly I have done this because I am old fashioned and used to work in a paperfull office (as against to paperless). Partly, whilst digital tools are nice, I couldn’t assume all students would have the same access to resources. And partly because at the end of the year when students graduate I hope they will take some of the items with them and treasure them in their future adventures, I produced a lot of stuff.

Employee Induction Pack

When you start at a new firm, hopefully, they will provide you with some information about what working there might look like. From policies on flexible working to how to use the printers. Rather than create a course pack which explains ILOs contact hours, methods of assessment, I created a ‘New Employee Induction Pack’. This pack covers a wide variety of topics from what to wear, EDI, company document formatting (for use in the coursework submission), quality assurance, what resources are available and what they will hopefully learn whilst working for ‘Just Timber’.

Calcpad, mug and pens

As part of my step into creating a work identity and creating a ‘community of practice’ I selected some of the ubiquitous tools of an engineer. The trusty calcpad (a pad of paper with squares on and a title block that records a number of details about the design necessary for quality assurance), ‘sign pens’ in black for rough sketches and drawing large details and orange for shading in timber. And a mug, for all those cups of tea one drinks when designing buildings (I don’t actually drink tea but the firms I worked for always had a company mug). I hope that these items help students to identify as ‘employees’ of my firm – and I hope they resonate with their own experiences working for engineering companies over the summer, whilst also giving some insider information on the tools an engineer might use.

Note: I intentionally did not provide scale rules (see https://bilt.online/teaching-stories-1-rulers-for-all/) because no engineering firms has their own rulers, they instead have a selection in their draws from the different sales people that routinely come to the office to tell them about their products.

Notes

I have been teaching Timber Engineering 4 for about 3 years now (maybe a little longer) and before this timber was part of another unit called Sustainable Construction, which I have run for 8 years. Over this time, I have developed the notes from 8 sides of A4 and an old handout from 20 years ago (which a colleague in my old engineering firm found for me from the days he studied in Bristol) into a detailed set of notes covering a large array of different topics with a number of worked examples which are not just the course notes but a valuable resource for practicing engineers. This year about the only thing I haven’t changed about the unit is the notes. Students receive them on their first day (and are also provided with a PDF on blackboard which they can access about a week before they start).

A library of information

Beyond the notes this year students are provided with a library of information. These are the books and resources they would find on the shelf of an engineering practice. They are not course notes as such and I certainly don’t expect them to be read from cover to cover, but they are valuable references covering a variety of topics. Each group receives 5 books (one of the minor hiccups of the unit is that one of the books isn’t published – I am hoping it comes before the unit is complete) 3 from industry and 2 currently issued to publishers for review prior to publication which have been written by a variety of academics from Bristol and further afield. These are coupled with a wide variety of online resources which students have access to in the same way they would if working in industry. When they get stuck students are encouraged first to find the answers themselves in their engineering library, secondly to talk to other employees and finally to ask directors. This is not because the directors don’t like answering questions (we really do) but because in industry this would be the expected process, you would try and answer questions yourself, failing that you would speak to another engineer at a similar level and only if they can’t answer would you ask a more experienced member of staff (with other engineers eager to listen in on the answer). 

Stationary

On top of the pens, employees are given an A4 and A3 folder to store calculations and drawings respectively, file dividers to keep their work organised (they have 4 separate projects to work on over their 10 weeks) a hole punch, stickers to label loose sheets of paper (when inspiration strikes whilst eating falafel and you have to write on a napkin, that sort of thing), and of course a propelling pencil (as maths should always be done in pencil and never in pen). Finally, every group has an A3 box to put everything in, both during the day and afterwards – so they can leave work behind them until next week. Ideally this would be shelves which could be locked, but both space and budget constraints required something a little more lofi. And anyway when I worked in industry, when we finished a project, the paper work all went into a large A3 box where it could be archived, just in case we ever needed to look back over what we did.

On Thursday the office will reconvene. Those large A3 boxes will be re-opened, project folders will be reviewed. And a new project will be launched. In next week’s episode I hope to cover ‘what the flip is flipped teaching’ as well as reflecting on another week in the office. Until then, take care.

Teaching Stories

The Office: Episode One

For the last year I have been on a BILT fellowship looking into learning space. I have travelled far and wide to see different teaching spaces, I have read numerous papers and I have written a few blog posts on the way. But also over the last year I have been planning and plotting and on Thursday this hard work all comes to fruition. Over the next ten weeks I plan on writing regular updates but let’s rewind back to the beginning.

Before I started in academia, before I did a PhD, I worked for an engineering firm designing buildings. And this work took place in an office.

Now, for many years people have learnt to do things in an authentic environment.

I learnt to drive a car in a car not in a classroom.

I have taken my children to multiple swimming lessons that occur in a swimming pool and not in a classroom.

We take our engineering students out into the field to measure and set out because you really can’t learn this just in a classroom.

And yet for many years I have taught practical subjects, like the design of buildings, in a classroom and not where they actually occur, in an office.

No more. This week, in just three more days, 40 students will walk into my new engineering practice, called Just Timber, where they will learn about Timber Engineering (a fourth year engineering option). To make this possible I will be transforming a flatbed classroom into an office.

Logo for the office ‘company’.

To understand what I will need to make this space feel like an office I went back to my old practice, Integral Engineering Design, and took a look around. I made a note of what they had, the photos of projects on the wall, the office plants, the meeting table and chairs, the library of useful books which you reach for when stuck, the comfortable waiting space, the architecture and engineering magazines which were in racks on the walls.

Various features of a typical engineers office.

Over the last year, I have been collecting up the necessary items, my office now more like a storage room than an office. I contacted old colleagues for images to put on the walls (in time I hope to add to these with students own designs). I have secured the loan of large pot plants for a day a week, will be donating my own comfortable chairs and coffee table. I have also created a library of information that each group of 4 students will have access to, this has included writing two books to fill gaps in what’s currently available and I have subscribed to engineering and architecture magazines.

Over the summer I had a trial run, moving tables and chairs around to make it feel more like an office. The typical teaching space lectern and screen hidden behind a screen along with excess tables and chairs. Pictures were spread around the space (although I didn’t attach them to the wall at the time). Plants will be brought in. And students will be encouraged to personalise their spaces, making their desk and their team space their own.

Teaching space transformed into office space.

Of course one of the things I have learnt in my last 12 months as a BILT fellow is I can’t just have an idea and do it, there needs to be a purpose, a research question. And so I wrote out what I was trying to achieve. I iterated it, discussed it with my BILT mentor (Jane Pritchard) and eventually I came up with:

‘In what ways does simulating a professional design office influence students approach to their learning in Timber Engineering 4?’

Open large version.

I then tried to work out what I was hoping it would achieve. I looked back over the last three years of feedback I had had on my Timber Engineering Unit. What had worked well, where were their concerns. And I came up with a number of desired outcomes. I subdivided these into learning outcomes and professional outcomes.

Learning outcomes

1. Students to take ownership of their own learning

2. Students to more directly input what they are learning into what they are doing

3. Students to take ownership of feedback

Professional outcomes

4. Students to work sensible (office) hours and not work more hours than necessary

5. That both learning and assessment will be integrated so students co-learn and co-create

6. That students produce outstanding projects which totally blow me away. Projects which look amazing, have clearly used the problems/constraints of timber to lead to a solution and can articulate this.

7. That students will be able to speak to their experience in a professional context such as an interview and that it would add value for them in this situation

Over the next few weeks I will let you know how it’s going, talk about ‘authentic learning’, identity, feedforward and flipped teaching. I hope to learn a lot along the way and more importantly I hope that my students both learn a lot and really enjoy it.

500 Words

Confessions of an Engineer

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

About a year or so ago I was invited to give a very short talk at Knowle West Media Centre on divergent thinking as some food for thought at the start of a workshop. I proceeded to read to the audience the children’s books ‘Stuck’ by Oliver Jeffers and ‘Shhhh We Have a Plan’ by Chris Haughton (I can’t remember now if I did the voices I do when I read it to my children or not!). The idea was to challenge people to think divergently by using a divergent approach to giving a talk. The workshop that followed my talk, looking at the housing crisis in Knowle West, was interesting but felt distinctly non-divergent.

Following the talk, we were taken to a near by community centre where architect Craig White was building his solution to the housing problem in Knowle. It was a straw-bale house on wheels, designed specifically to sidestep planning laws and provide low-cost housing solutions to people who need it most. I was blown away. Craig discussed a number of practical solutions, none of them really relating to architecture but instead looking at micro-financing and making the houses affordable and accessible to people on very low incomes. I wanted to get involved. To be part of this amazing project. The only problem was, there was no engineering to be done. No concrete to specify, no steel to check for buckling. The engineering was so simple as to be trivial. I’ll be honest; I felt crest fallen. What can I possibly bring to a project like this I thought. I don’t understand finance, or local politics, or planning law. I am an engineer. I know how to make things stand up. Deflated, I went home and thought little more of it.

A straw bale house
A straw-bale house. Credit: White Design

But over the coming year or so my thoughts keep coming back to that project. I am challenged by Craig’s desire to tackle the problems that sit outside of his own discipline. To solve them with creative solutions. I am confronted with my own limitations. The fact that I am limited by my discipline. But what separates Craig and I is not a skill set, but his willingness to step beyond that. To see a problem and then learn and play until a workable solution exists. And yet, I would argue that engineering is not about solving maths equations or deriving formulas, it is, above all else, about pragmatically solving problems. And yet I have failed to grasp that in myself. I have become lazy in my thinking, limiting myself to problems that feel comfortable and within my skill set to solve. I am, as the boy in Oliver Jeffers’ book, stuck. I have fallen into the same trap as so many others, thinking convergently when only divergent thinking will do. Only now does the irony hit me, that those people in the workshop, who I secretly felt disappointed by, were me. That I was them. Convergent. Playing it safe.

But if education is really about life long learning then I should be willing to have another go. This moment of reflection shouldn’t stop at self pity, or self realisation. But should lead to action. To learning what is necessary to solve the problems ahead.

And so I plan to try again. To try and step beyond myself. To learn new things to solve problems. I’ll let you know how I get on.    

Notes:

For more info on the straw-bale house on wheels see: http://kwmc.org.uk/projects/wecanmake/

For good bed time reading to your children and deep philosophical challenge for yourself I can highly recommend both ‘Stuck’ and ‘Shhh We have a Plan’.

Intrigued to see what a lecture given in the medium of children’s books might look like? You can see James’s Best of Bristol lecture here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qWlFNt6b4Sw&feature=youtu.be

News, Teaching Stories

This is why I teach

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Every year I give a lecture on the Civil Engineering unit ‘Engineering For International Development’. I love giving the lecture. It’s possibly my favourite lecture of my entire year, I think of it as my ‘This is why I teach’ lecture. And I talk about this weird thing called love.

Photo taken from the train from Nairobi to Mombasa in 1998

Now, anyone that knows me knows that I love concrete. I absolutely flipping love it. I just adore the stuff. I think it’s amazing. Incredible. You can build almost anything from it and many of my favourite projects include it. I spent years obsessing over it. From the exposed concrete on Oxford Brookes which is cast against timber boarding and reflects the grain of the timber, to the existing concrete on the Tate modern in those huge, awe inspiring oil tanks under the extension. And I try and inject my lectures on the subject with the same sense of joy and excitement (I have been known to try and get students to whoop with joy at the very thought of concrete). But I don’t teach because I love concrete. I designed buildings out of concrete because I love concrete.

More recently I have been getting excited about wood. I am always looking for an excuse to move logs at my in-laws so that I can breathe in the smell of a wall of logs. I got an axe for my 40th birthday so that I can chop wood. Observe the grain. Feel the release of stresses locked in by years of growing as I drive the wood apart. I have a deep attachment to wood. I have written a book about wood, with another on the way. In fact, I love it. And if I went back into industry I would love to design more buildings out of wood. I think it is amazing. But I don’t teach because I love wood.

No – I teach for a different reason. I teach because I believe that teaching can make a positive difference in the world. I teach because I think that many of today’s challenges will be solved by engineers, by my future students. That reusing existing buildings will make a difference. That designing with wood will make a difference. That even concrete buildings, when designed right, can make a difference. And once a year I stand up and tell my students my story. I tell them that at age 18 I was going to make a difference. That I had a plan. That I have failed to do my plan! But I haven’t stopped caring and loving. I have tried and tried again. I talk about what drives me. I mention this weird, unquantifiable thing called love. I mention my personal faith as a Christian. I put up some quotes about love to make myself feel less foolish and make the experience feel more rigorous. Quotes like:

Seek:
You will find your way,
It is
In the
Same place
As
Your love.”

Nayyirah Waheed, Salt, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013

First I have to look hard at the landscape, at the woods and trees, the leaves, the grasses, the animated surface of the earth, and then develop a feeling of love for what I see – because we don’t hurt what we love. We treat what we love as well as we possibly can.”

Peter Zumthor, Thinking Architecture, Birkhäuser GmBH, 2010

So, I tell them about my values, about this thing called love*, and about how I have tried to live these values out in all parts of my life. I tell them about where I live and why I live there. I tell them why I teach. And I explain to them that when we combine our values with what we do small beautiful things can happen.

Photos taken 2 minutes walk from my house. I have intentionally chosen provocative photos to make a point, but I love where I live, it is amazing, and whilst it has its challenges it also has so many great things about it

So why do you teach? And do your students know? Do they really know what gets you up every day?

* Note this is an intentional reference to the Frank Sinatra song .

News, Uncategorized

Teaching Space as a Teaching Lab

The following post was written by James Norman, a BILT Fellow and programme director for Civil Engineering.

Today I continue my physical journey into the research of space as I embark on my third road trip of the year. I am back in Winchester, where I spent so many hours, ten years ago, when working on the Oxford Brookes project I discussed in my previous blog.

The reason for my visit is to revisit the architecture practice I was collaborating with to ask them their views on pedagogy informed design in higher education. Before I go any further I need to come clean, I am a huge fan of what they do. I really enjoyed working with them on Oxford Brookes and I have a great respect for their work more generally. And I am not the only one, they have been short listed three times in the last four years as Education Architect of the Year.

Photo provided by Design Engine Architects

I was expecting our conversation to be simple, straight forward and pedagogy-focussed. Instead it was wide-ranging, chaotic, with ideas flying everywhere. I tried to keep up typing away. But my notes are so wide-ranging it’s hard to know what exactly to say. So, I will do my best to summarise two different overlapping conversations.

The first is around pedagogy informed design, at some point about one and a half hours into our conversation I asked, “When you design a building do you bring a pedagogy or do you respond to the clients pedagogy?” to which Richard Jobson, one of the directors, replied, “it’s a bit of both and we look for common meeting ground. Our job is to challenge people. You can learn and talk to people and move your own thoughts on”.

This led to a much richer discussion about not just pedagogy but all the different competing stakeholders on a university project and how each one comes with an agenda, each one has set requirements and also a vision for the future. And each one is constrained by time, money, but also the needs of other stakeholders. And that the challenge to these ideas by the architect was robust, sometimes fierce and charged with emotion. We discussed how, in our collective experience, pedagogy can be discussed and agreed before a project starts (which the literature suggests is ideal), as a project starts, or some point further down the process, even sometimes after the physical building has started to be constructed.

This led to the discussion that unlike for other stakeholders like library services there is often not a dedicated group of people who are already engaged in conversations around pedagogy and space waiting for the next large building project, that these groups need to be assembled ad hoc (or even post hoc) to try and engage with the design process. As a result, it is hard to have pedagogy before a project and too often the pedagogy comes at some later point in the projects development.

Which of course leads to a bigger discussion, and one we will hopefully be able to respond to in time. Why don’t we have a group who are interested in pedagogy and space who are constantly active? Not waiting for the next project but creating their own. Who are trialling and developing teaching methods in different spaces not as a one-off event but as an ongoing discourse in pedagogy. Maybe the BILT fellowships in space are the start of this. But it strikes me this needs to be a long-term question. Buildings takes years (Oxford Brookes took 7) from idea to completion and we need conversations which understand this and develop with both the buildings and pedagogy.

John Ridgett, the project architect on Oxford Brookes, thought aloud “why not have a teaching lab? A space dedicated to trialling new teaching, both physical and digital. It could be a large warehouse with internal partitions which is designed to be constantly reconfigured”. This strikes me as a fantastic idea which I would like to explore further.

I headed out of Design Engine to walk along the road to their neighbour Winchester University. Here I can see Design Engines work in action. I am currently sitting and typing in one of their spaces. The campus is compact and vibrant with a multitude of lovely design touches. As I am shown round campus by Mat Jane of estates I am introduced to a number of people including Dave Mason who is literally in the middle of looking at furniture layouts. He describes how they, at a smaller scale, do what Design Engine were just suggesting. They trial room layouts, they play and see what works. They notice which rooms are popular and which are not, and they carry out surveys with both staff and students on which spaces they enjoy learning in. The teaching spaces became teaching laboratories.

Take the example below. One of the many observations of a teaching space is that the front rows are often empty. So they have provided different furniture at the front. Comfy seats and sofas, and suddenly the front third of the room is more heavily utilised. Of course, if this hadn’t had the desired outcome a different arrangement can be tried, and another, and another.

And so, as I reflect on my day, I am left asking myself “why haven’t I thought to do this before?”. It seems so simple, with hundreds of rooms, there is no reason why we also shouldn’t experiment, prototype and explore a wide variety of teaching spaces with a view to exploring what works and what doesn’t. Rather than wait and then refurbish large swathes of rooms with untested approaches we should play, learn, reflect and improve.

My sincere thanks go to Richard Jobson and John Ridgett of Design Engine (designengine.co.uk) for giving up two hours of their time to have such a wide-ranging conversation about the design of space and to Mat Jane who showed me around Winchester University with such enthusiasm and pride and also for all his insights on sustainability around the campus (including my free cup made from recycled chewing gum).

Teaching Stories

Teaching Stories #8: James Norman

Dr James Norman is a BILT Fellow and Programme Director for Civil Engineering.

Take a break

Many, many years ago I gave a three hour lecture on concrete with out taking a break. In the three hours I barely paused for breath, let alone stopping to enable students to collect their thoughts and order them (or go to the loo). This was back in 2003 and I had recently become a Research Assistant. A combination of my own exhaustion, friendly feedback from a member of staff and a few reasonable student comments helped me realise that maybe three hours without a break was a little unreasonable.

So I started subdividing my sessions, first into 50 minute chunks but now into (roughly) 20 minute chunks. I generally deliver my units in two hour sessions and so I now divide this into 4 20 minute chunks. In the gaps sometimes I give students exercises and things to do or dwell on, but sometimes I just suggest they stretch their legs, get some fresh air, take a moment to catch up. I often answer questions in these breaks and I try and move around the teaching space making myself available. Sometimes these will be questions on the subject at hand, sometimes they will be about something tangential (grand designs seems to come up lot) and sometimes it will be advice about other parts of life (jobs, other units, projects they are working on, societies they are involved in).

500 Words, News

Is There Any Link Between Design Thinking and Essays?

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 zoe.backhouse@bristol.ac.uk for more details.

Colors Magazine Issue #86 ‘Making the News’ published April 2013.