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.

Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Bristol Wasn’t B(u)ilt in a Day: On Learning and Building

“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.” – Dr. James Norman, ‘This is why I teach’.

I read Dr. James Norman’s ode to concrete, wood, love and teaching just after I had finished four whole years studying for my degree (eek!). Since handing in my final assignments last week, I have felt that the dust hasn’t yet settled and the cement hasn’t properly set. After reading his piece, I started to think about what exactly I had made out of the last few years of being here. What materials do we use to build our education?

James got me thinking about the idea of building more generally, and how integral it has been in defining and shaping my time at university. Of course, I am not just referring to the physical structure of buildings. Just as this year’s BILT theme of ‘Spaces’ has taught me, structures often carry much more weight than their physical manifestation. Buildings and spaces are mere vessels in which relationships can be cemented, interests can be mixed together and built upon. The bricks of my university are made out of more than clay, but they are rather made of people, places, things, hobbies, highs, lows, experiences, curiosity, and determination. While many of us dwell in the same buildings throughout our years at university, the experience we actively build there is completely unique to each individual.

I write this blog in limbo, as my time at Bristol is not yet fully built. I have finished all my assignments, but I can’t yet call myself a graduate until I receive the results that will confirm the outcome of my degree. It’s easy to let my mind slip into this blank space of anticipation, as if my entire university career will be defined by a number out of 100. But James’ piece has shifted my perspective. A single brick cannot construct an entire building, just as your final grades cannot possibly account for the complexity of each university life. They are one part of a larger totality. Just as my History teacher told me at school before we were to take our final exams: ‘you have your education now, and no one can take that away from you – the exams are just the finer detail.’

My time at Bristol can only been seen as a complete structure when, as James puts it, ‘we combine our values.’ It is only in such a matrix that we get a more trusting and fulfilling illustration of our university life, one that is entirely tailored to you. In our true university building, each brick is held together by the essence of your character. I am not just my grade, I am also my love of journalism, music, theatre, learning, people. I am my time living in Stoke Bishop (for better or for worse), Redland, Hotwells, and Montréal. This emphasis is what I have particularly enjoyed about studying Liberal Arts; the degree structure hangs off you and you get to decide how your learning goes, how you construct your own path in pedagogy.

I loved James’ description of driving wood apart. He said it was like a ‘release of stresses locked in by years of growing.’ Here, the force of the axe is not a means of total destruction, but productive reinvention; the axe sublimates the release of stress into reconstruction and reconstitution, channelling years of growth into driving energy. A student is like wood in this way. I can only really grow if I am willing to embrace change, allowing myself space to release and reshape, adapt and reconstitute in the swiftly changing times of university life. From taking up new hobbies and subjects every year, to moving away to Canada for my year abroad, I now feel like a completely different person to when I was in first year. I share in James’ enthusiasm for wood; I admire its ability to change and be changed.

This is also where I find James’ mutual love of wood and concrete tricky to reconcile. At first, I don’t see such a willingness to change in concrete, particularly when I look up at the neogothic tower of Wills Memorial building, made of mainly reinforced concrete. When such a building holds the weight of the past and prestige on its back, how can a building, and the people within it, look on to the future? Sometimes, university buildings can make people stubborn, helping only to hinder the progress of ideas and keeping the practice of pedagogy stuck in a different time and place, an outdated epoch when university was made for a very specific, limited and privileged demographic. For me, concrete feels like essay upon essay upon essay upon essay. Concrete feels like an entire reading list built from the minds of only white men. Concrete feels like being stuck in your ways.

When I get really frustrated at the rigidity of such tradition which pervades many red brick universities, I sometimes cannot help but hear the words of Virginia Woolf:

Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this education!

Hear me right, I am not endorsing arson. I think concrete can bring solidarity, continuity and a sense of stable educational identity; it is an integral aspect to building a university community and History. What I am proposing is that we should seek to rebuild the ivory tower of the UK university system by integrating wood within the backdrop of concrete. Let us throw it into the mix, injecting its potential for conversion, fire and change. This would bring a lightness to the hefty prestige and traditions of our education, made of a willingness to radically innovative and to keep moving forward in these rapidly changing times.

I send my sincerest apologies to the discipline of civil engineering for pounding these materials into metaphors.

Phoebe Graham

News

Update on the ‘Rethinking Spaces’ theme

Since the launch of the ‘Rethinking Spaces’ theme in June 2018, several things are going on.

The ‘Teaching Space Principles’ were formally signed off in October and are now available to be used as a guide when refurbishing or building new teaching spaces.  The ‘Teaching Space Principles’ are as follows, though you can read a fuller version via this blog post.

  1. Teaching spaces will allow all students to actively engage with content through appropriate design and technologies that support multiple modes of teaching[1]. The learning that takes place in these spaces will be accessible to all students
  2. . The University will foster a welcoming environment for students beyond timetabled teaching activities, to include social, learning and recreational spaces so that students’ experience of time spent at the University is coherent and integrated and supports their well-being.
  3. Teaching and learning environments will encourage active collaborative interactions between students.  Peer learning, multi-disciplinarity, in large or small groups, through and with technology, will be key to supporting students to create, develop and extend their own understandings and learning activities.  Teaching spaces should therefore be designed to an appropriate size to allow for meaningful and comfortable interaction.
  4. Our teaching and learning spaces will allow interaction between teachers, students and others, and will thereby encourage the active facilitation of student learning.  This learning environment will be flexible, incorporate appropriate technologies, and have space to move around in by staff and students.
  5. Teaching and learning spaces should be designed using the best current evidence-based practice and flexible enough to allow for emerging and future pedagogies.

Two of our BILT Fellows are focusing on teaching space. James Norman, a senior teaching fellow in Engineering and Christian Spielmann, a Reader in Economics, are both exploring the relationship between space and learning, though from different slants – James is looking at physical space design and Christian is looking at Bristol Futures and how his open unit uses digital space. Both have published blog posts, which can be found here. We have also appointed a student fellow, Lisa Howarth to explore this theme – her introductory blog post can be found here.

We are working on the links between pedagogies, physical and digital space.  To this end we are developing strategic plans to work with interested schools wishing to move to more active styles of teaching, learning and assessment and the link to the design of classrooms.  This brings together members of BILT, Digital Education Office (DEO), and AQPO. A pilot workshop was help with member of the School of Management and more are planned.

The inaugural meeting of the Learning Environment Committee (LEC) has been held.  This committee will take strategic oversight for advising the University on teaching and learning space.