Too much, too close

For non-UK readers, you may or may not be aware that we’re having a general election here pretty soon, in what looks like a season 4 finale for “The Brexit Saga” (many, many more seasons still to come).

I mention it here mainly because it’s made my home life come a lot closer to my work life, as I try to marry Political Science to The State of This with loved ones.

Usually when we talk about learning and teaching, we value proximity. Active learning assumes that more visceral experiences are more likely to generate deep understanding of substance and process than are passive, transmission models.

And it’s certainly the case that the immediacy of the election and the salience of the issues has driven a markedly higher level of inquiry from both voting and non-voting members of the household.

For context, our constituency has become a much more contested one of late, including the current MP having lost the party whip (but still standing) and an electoral pact between a couple of the other parties to try and improve their chances. Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of campaign materials through our door of late.

However, for some of the voters in the house, the situation is profoundly unhappy: levels of trust in anyone are low, the head vote isn’t the same as the heart vote, especially as the heart vote option might not even be possible in any case.

Some voters in the house are distinctly hacked off by this, and my efforts to apply the salve of rational choice action under FPTP aren’t going that well (especially when some voters in the house are behavioural scientists).

But enough of my exciting mealtime conversations: what might we learn from this for our teaching?

Well, it reminds me that we have to be careful not to let our students overly-invest in their learning environment. This does happen with big. multi-day simulation exercises, which is why it’s essential to have a comprehensive debrief straight after to allow they to step back out.

But it’s also an issue with emotional/sensitive topics. We need to be very careful about how we set up those discussions and how all participants frame their contributions. We also need to give space for students to give voice to their concerns and preoccupations, be that in the group or individually.

What we can’t – and shouldn’t – do is try to pretend that emotion doesn’t come into it. Politics is emotional at a pretty basic level, so if we cut that out then we lose both only the recognition of individual engagement with it, but also a part of our understanding.

Stepping back and asking people to reflect on their emotions is part of that, but even this isn’t easy. Which is why we also have to show that we acknowledge and empathise.

Sometimes we don’t have good – in the sense of being satisfactory – answers to issues, and that’s fine to admit too, because it’s in the gaps that our own reflection and understanding grows.

Maybe something to discuss over a family meal sometime?

Learning in the army

This guest post comes from Lt Chad Barrigan, Learning Development Officer in the Army’s Educational and Training Services.

I’m an Education Officer in the Army. Like every teacher, we are faced with the eternal question about what our role is. Are we there to be a font of and dispenser of knowledge or are we there to exploit the knowledge of the students in the room? I find myself firmly in the latter camp and despair at the idea of teaching classes based off PowerPoint and research tasks. The problem we face is how do we get the same base level of knowledge across the class to actually be able to do a good exploitation activity?

I think I may have found a way to do this and it is a combination of using learning technology, scenario-based learning, motion graphic design, Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch and Star Trek in an exercise called Clarke’s Crisis (solely named so as to wind up a colleague.)

Continue reading

Strikingly absent

This week a lot of people I know in the UK are on strike, as part of the UCU’s industrial action on pay and pensions.

However, none of the people I know at my institution are part of that, because insufficient numbers voted on action, so we have to continue working. It’s a labour deregulation thing.

So since I can’t strike, I’ll go for encouraging you to find out more about the action, which is also supported by the National Union of Students.

If you want to read more about the way in which colleagues are left feeling precarious and undervalued then check out #UCUstrike on Twitter for some (all-too-common) examples.

And if you want the logic of collection action explained to you, then go find a political scientist, probably on a picket line.

Skinning your (teaching) cat

No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog

The other week I got to be interviewed by our university’s Department of Higher Education, for their new podcast series.

We talked about how my practice has developed and what advice I could pass on to others, which mainly fell into the category of ‘learning to let go’.

Mostly, though, it reminded me that I like teaching and that’s the single most important thing, just as it is for any part of your working life.

I like walking into the classroom and discovering what’s happening with my students, building knowledge and understanding (theirs and mine) together.

I’m guessing you feel something similar too – otherwise you’d not be reading this blog – but you’ll know someone who doesn’t really feel that.

The trite answer would be to say that maybe those people shouldn’t be teaching, but we know that’s not often an option.

So instead, I’d remind them that ‘teaching’ covers a lot of different things: it’s no more meaningful than ‘research’ in terms of specifying what to do.

So experiment: try something else out.

Think about the things you really enjoy doing and try doing those. If that’s research, then make your students into researchers. If it’s engagement with practitioners, get them to develop those skills. If it’s being in the media, interview them.

It’s easy to be lazy about teaching, to reproduce the things you got as a students, to reuse the other guy’s notes.

So give it a whirl and maybe you’ll see why people like me like teaching so much.

Trying to up my game

At the end of last month, I came to the end of my term with UK in a Changing Europe. The programme, which aims to bring the fruits of social science research on UK-EU relations to a public audience, was a great occasion for me to bring insights from my pedagogic work to public and political communication.

Part of that was thinking about different ways to package data and information.

Obviously (since you’re reading this) there’s the blogging, but also Twitter, podcasting, vlogs and graphics. Plus all manner of face-to-face events and formats.

Now that I’ve stopped with quite such a full-on public engagement role, I want to try and bring some more of that experience back into the classroom.

My first port of call has been the graphics, because they remain one of the less-explored avenues to date.

When I started out, shortly after the 2016 referendum, I haven’t really got the hang of it [shock]: I think this is one of my very first efforts:

Click through and you’ll see lots and lots of words and not a huge amount of structure: I’m trying to cover all the detail here, but of only some elements.

However, I also notice that the very next day, I also produced something with lots of empty spaces:

Simple, yes, but not very helpful beyond some groupings.

Since then I’ve produced dozens of the things, with not much more to go on than informal feedback and personal reflection: I’d suggest that this might not be the best way to go about it. Taking a course/workshop would have saved a lot of time all round.

For me, the first big thing was thinking about how to move away from what are essentially lists (like the two above), to a format that makes real use of the visual component to relate elements to each other.

The second was about working more to produce content that met the needs of the people using this: I’ve pitched different graphics to those without any substantial knowledge and to those working closely with the material.

That’s all been well and good and I’ve had a handful of graphics get really big audiences, mainly by virtue of trying to break down somewhat complicated things into simpler summaries (e.g. here and here). Getting retweeted by key influencers also matters, so do think about tagging people in too.

But my changing status has also been an opportunity to revisit what I do, including the template, which was essentially a expedient let’s-use-the-university’s-poster-template choice back in 2016.

What’s new?

The past couple of Mondays, I’ve been posting my new efforts. Here’s the first one:

As you see, it’s not massively different: a simpler title banner, clearer details on dates, versions and sharing rights, plus my Twitter handle and a link to a PDF version (i.e. all the stuff I should always have had in).

The colour was horrible and won’t be used again, but the format does highlight my efforts to try and take the reader through the subject matter.

And as for sticking with PowerPoint? Well, I know how to use it, even if it’s not the most elegant or high-powered.

Next steps

But this new formatting isn’t the core of what I want to do: I’m going to bring this into the classroom.

As you’ll recall, I flipped my Intro to the EU class last year, with somewhat mixed results. A big part of the issues was students not seeing what the point of the contact time previously used for lecturing was.

Enter graphics.

I’m planning to use that lecture time briefly for any Q&A on the flipped lecture (as before), but much more for getting the group to generate graphics on a key question.

Given there’s about 120 of them, that’ll need some snow-balling of groups and for me to investigate some software for sharing graphical content, but I think it’ll be good for getting more active and reflective skills developed by students.

We’re still at early days on this, but I’ll report as it evolves.

Triggering debate

One of the persistent problems of teaching politics is that it’s not a steady target: things keep happening.

Niche (and better than a photo of a bus)

There has been much discussion of this, both generally and on this blog, but it’s something that come back into my consideration of late as I think about how I’m teaching.

In the past weeks, I have several classes that have started from a specific trigger. That’s either been a news event, or some material that I’ve come across that prompts a question (and a discussion).

Last week, my students sourcing some campaigning materials from the 2016 referendum and then used them in class to consider what that told them about framing and rhetoric more generally.

Tomorrow, I’m running a public event where people can ask any question about Brexit of me and my colleagues: there we’ll find ourselves very much wherever the audience want.

This connection to events (and to symbols) is important. Firstly, it helps those we’re helping to learn to see how academic study fits with the world in practice. And secondly, it provides a hook on to which we tie ourselves as we explore the issues surrounding it.

In many ways this is analogous to the use of theory to anchor our debate: in that case, we seek out master-ideas that pull together disparate phenomena and – hopefully – make them cohere. In the event-led model, we’re focusing on a phenomenon as a site of interaction for multiple concepts and ideas.

Putting it like that makes me think about why it’s important to have a balance between the two approaches. It’s good to have a rounded set of perspectives on any one event, but equally it’s important to see the structural processes that transcend it.

It might be that in the appreciation of the mixture of specificity and sameness of the world around us that we can gain the fullest understanding.

Something to talk about with class, perhaps.

GIYF, apparently

Long story

This academic year I’ve encountered a problem that wasn’t previously one I’d seen.

On several occasions, students have been in touch to say they can’t access materials, or links in reading lists are broken.

That’s bad, on my part, but a quick type into Google pulls up the correct link and/or material.

Most of me assumes that search engines are a staple of modern life, so I struggle to understand why one wouldn’t just check on one if you couldn’t find what you wanted.

But a bit of me also worries that this is symptomatic of some kind of learned helplessness: by being in the habit of just being given stuff, one loses the ability to find stuff for yourself.

I know we go around the spoon-feeding debate in education pretty regularly, but this seems like an odd case, given that we could expect using search engines to be a much more pervasive thing.

I need to follow this up with students and I’ll come back with any feedback, but I’d also welcome your thoughts too, both on causes and solutions.

From quality teaching to satisfaction

As UK universities get more fully into their new academic year, it’s also the time to dust down action plans for improving student satisfaction.

Predictable photo

I’ve discussed the National Student Survey (NSS) before here, but the key point is still that while this survey measures how satisfied students are, that isn’t the same as whether they have got a high quality educational experience.

To put it differently, the things that we might learn most from are not necessarily those which are most enjoyable, or even the most satisfactory.

In my own professional experience, I have taken a lot from unsatisfactory experiences that have generated frustration or annoyance and then (critically) self-reflection and thus improved practice.

This isn’t to say that education should be unsatisfactory, but rather to point up that there’s not a necessarily linear correlation between satisfaction and learning outcomes.

The problem is that satisfaction is easy to measure, and notwithstanding that everyone in the sector knows it’s not the same, it becomes a proxy for learning.

If we assume that just railing against the system isn’t going to work, we have instead to think about how we can work it to best effect (i.e. getting to a learning environment for our students that optimises learning outcomes).

Here, once again, the route has to be through sound pedagogic principles, rather than through targeting specific questions on the NSS list.

That doesn’t mean that timely feedback – to pick one obvious example – isn’t important, but rather that we should be framing it as important in supporting effective learning – as part of a wider system of dialogue and support with students – rather than just good-in-itself.

This matters because the NSS isn’t an exhaustive list of What Matters in Education. As instructors, we should be considering the totality of what our students encounter during their time with us.

Crucially, that means having an understanding of the relationships between different elements of that provisions and the trade-offs: increasing feedback might mean having fewer assessment points, which might compromise our ability to monitor understanding and progress, for example.

Moreover, it’s only be having such an overview that we will be able to effectively engage in the silent arm of student satisfaction: expectation management. If we don’t understand what we are trying to achieve, how can we hope to communicate that to our students?

In short, we all know that teaching to the test is A Bad Thing for our subject material, but it’s also true elsewhere too.

Branching out

So, almost overnight, I seem to have developed a profile on Twitter as a commentator on voter ID.

I was on a radio programme last night, talking about Brexit stuff, but the following debate was on the proposals to introduce free ID cards for voters, to combat personation.

Since I knew this was coming up, I’d done some prep, but didn’t get to talk about that on the programme, so I tweeted it out on the way home:

So far, so media tart-y.

But for me it’s been a good micro-illustration of how we teach.

We take material that we know something about, arrange it to make sense, share it and then discuss it with others.

Here, even more than other areas of work, I’m happy to be corrected and to be forced to explain my working/logic.

At one level, we’re all working like this: offering up ideas and conceptualisations of some thing, then testing that in dialogue with other people and (hopefully) producing a more robust outcome.

So far, in this case, that’s been really interesting for me to work through my argument and to think about how it fits with other areas of research.

And that’s why I love teaching: it really makes you think.

You don’t wanna do it like that

A quick check through the vellum parchments indicates that I’m now teaching second-year undergraduates for the first time in nearly a decade.

It turns out they are like any other group of students, albeit with the relatively fresh memory of taking my flipped module last semester.

More interestingly, I’m also teaching my first new module in a similarly long time: on European integration and disintegration.

This has posed two immediate challenges.

Firstly, that first year module was an introduction to the European Union, so how do I differentiate the two for my students?

Secondly, deliver the module at all?

My answer has been to work with what I’ve got. And what I’ve got are many of the raw materials that the previous instructor on the module very kindly left me (thank you, Roberta).

Rather than try to build up a module from scratch, I’m going to follow the existing model relatively closely this time around.

Partly that’s expediency but much more it’s because it’s not the way I would have tackled the subject.

If that sounds odd, then consider that much of the module deals with critical perspectives on the subject matter and I want students to see that I am tackling what might be nominally the same material in a fundamentally different way.

Yes, I could have wheeled out a bunch of classes that were essentially ‘more of the same’ as last semester, but I very much don’t want to do that.

Moreover, because it’s not my structure or activities, it forces me to engage more fully with the material, because I have to be confident enough to be able to help students learn it.

Again, the irony is that it’s exactly because I wouldn’t teach this way normally that I want to teach this way: I will learn something from the experience, both substantively and pedagogically.

As I seem to be saying to a lot of people recently, I have no monopoly on good practice, and there is always something new to be learnt.

Quite how that plays out remains to be seen.