Improving teaching through the use of coffee

In my role as Associate Dean, one of my big concerns is how to get my Faculty to share best practice. With my oversight of four schools (and one department) and almost 150 undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, I get an amazing overview of what is going on, in a way that isn’t so clear to others.

In particular, I’m aware that most of my colleagues only operate in their local area, interacting primarily with others in their unit. they have very limited time, opportunity and inclination to look further afield. That reflects the mixed model that operates here – as in most UK universities – where teaching staff also have extensive research and administrative duties: resource ends up being focused on what must be done, rather than being free to consider what might be done.

Naturally, we do organise learning & teaching events, both locally and at university level, and several individuals do engage with extra-mural activity (such as I’m doing here). That includes seminars, training events and the like.

However, one of the difficulties is that such activity usually only reaches those who are already motivated: the dedicated pedagogues and the enthusiasts. That’s great – especially because such individuals also tend to operate in key administrative roles in learning & teaching (and so can share with others that way too), but it still means that a large number of teaching staff do not get direct experience of new ideas and possibilities for their teaching.

With that in mind, I’m following very closely an initiative of our Faculty’s Human Resources team, which tries something a bit different.

Bob prepared for his short chat about teaching quantitative methods

‘Coffee Lotto’ just asks people to have their name put into a (metaphorical) hat, from which pairs of names are drawn at random each week. Each pair then gets a voucher for some coffee (from one of our fine beverage outlet options), on the sole condition that the pair spend an hour getting to know each other and their work some more.

The idea is a simple one: to build informal, social networks to underpin the Faculty (which has undergone some reorganisation in recent years) and, in so doing, to reinforce a collective sense of identity, by improving understanding of different roles. In my own case, I’ve been able to get to know people from marketing and HR, as well as another academic.

Such a scheme would be easier focused onto teaching staff, with a similar requirement to talk about their teaching practice. Indeed, here I’ll admit to a certain degree of jealousy, since I’d had just such an idea some years ago, when I was in a Faculty role: unfortunately, I didn’t have access to the necessary resources to fund the idea. But it’s one with which I have a lot of sympathy and want to support.

By generating random interactions between individuals, you create space for discussion, reinforced by the positive associations of a hot drink and (maybe) a cookie. One of the real difficulties that we face is that teaching is too often conceptualised as a chore (‘something to be done’), which drains enthusiasm and initiative.

Moreover (and despite my earlier comment), such a scheme is relatively cheap, with the potential to generate structural change in attitudes. If discussion and sharing becomes a norm, then we might posit a tipping point (yes, I know) where not doing it becomes the odd thing. If we could achieve that, then we could enter in a very exciting phase of practice.

And that’s something I’d raise a glass (or at least a mug) to.