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.

News

More Good News For Education And Pedagogy Researchers In SSL!

BILT Fellow Jenny Lloyd updates us on the latest from the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law. 

For those in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law who have an interest in education and pedagogy, it’s been a pretty good couple of years.  For the last two years the Faculty has sponsored an Education and Pedagogy conference that has drawn together academics and professional staff from across the Faculty to debate, discuss and disseminate developments in research in education and pedagogy and also in its application.

Feedback for last year’s event ‘Evolution or Revolution’ was really positive. The conference appeared to strike the right balance of academic papers, practical workshops and key note speakers whilst the exhibition provided the space to discuss ideas and network with colleagues with shared interests.  Building upon this success we will soon be issuing a call for papers for the 2019 conference on the theme of ‘Space, Time and Education’. This theme was chosen because it hoped to encourage contributors to think about space and time in all of its dimensions – from the physical constructions of teaching rooms and buildings to the liminal space that so often initiates or inhibits creative change. From the perceptions of time, users of time, temporal constructions of time (i.e.the academic day/year) to historical reflections and implications of working in academia in modern times.  We are also keen to encourage creativity in the formats that contributions might take. Abstracts outlining academic paper presentations are always welcome but if contributors wish to run workshops or communicate their ideas using other media, we would certainly welcome the proposal.

However, that is not our only good news! Something that is particularly exciting is that, following the success of the last two conferences, our proposal for a Faculty Research Group (FRG) in Education and Pedagogy has also been approved. We are thrilled at this development as this has the potential to not only build on the legacy of the previous conferences but has the potential to provide the pipeline of papers and workshops for the forthcoming one. The primary vehicle for this pipeline will be a set of Special Interest Groups (SIGs) that provide networking opportunities and support for academics and professional staff with shared interests and who are interested in the co-creation of research.  Feedback from last year’s conference suggested that there was interest in the following areas:

  • Assessment and Feedback
  • Digital Technologies and Blended Learning
  • Learning Theory
  • Employability Skills and Graduate Attributes
  • Designing Learning
  • Space and Time
  • Student Engagement and Transition

Calls for interest and an announcement about a launch event will be sent out soon so watch this space. In the meantime, if you are interested in being a member of the FRG in Education and Pedagogy and/or would be like to be a member of a SIG contact me at jenny.lloyd@bristol.ac.uk  and I will add you to the mailing list.