Bringing it back home: can we really share from other universities’ practices?

CC3 Terra incognita 3 V2 papier froissé
Somewhere, waiting to be explored

After my week in the Netherlands*, I’m back in the office, slowly digging through the big pile of exciting work-related stuff that’s built up.

As I’ve discussed in a different context, this is where the limits to exchanging practice begin. The vast world of possibilities that seemed so enticing while you were ‘there’ (wherever it was) suddenly seem less realistic now you’re back ‘here’ (wherever that is). And so it is here.

I’ve talked to a fair few people since my return (possibly as a way of avoiding the other work), and while I’ve been super-positive about Maastricht, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and various other aspects, I’ve also been reminded about the difficulties of bringing this through into our own teaching.

The reasons for this are two-fold: structural and attitudinal.

Structurally, universities are eco-systems of practice, much more interdependent and connected than we might first realise. To take one example, Maastricht has lots of small seminar rooms, which it needs for PBL and which other universities – wanting to copy them – often do not have. Now that’s a product of the way those universities work and the cultures of learning and teaching they employ, so any change needs to be considered within a broader context, which is not only about the built environment, but also about how we view the notion of learning and the students’ development through time.

But it’s also an attitudinal problem: away from work, we can put the things that usually take up our time to one side, so we can go all ‘blue sky’ with our thinking. At work, we both lack that space (usually) and are more aware of the constraints within which we work.

Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Certainly, during my time in Maastricht I had at least one conversation about a (theoretically) brilliant idea for running modular simulations across institutions (this idea, in fact), in which I almost immediately poured cold water on it, because the logistics seemed so overwhelming (again).

Despite all of this, I still feel it’s something that we need to persist with.

Firstly, even if our wilder ideas are curbed, they can open our eyes to longer-term changes we can work to in a more gradual fashion. That demands some patience (and the ability to keep the idea in one’s head), but as a good historical institutionalist, I recognise that sunk costs are a part of our day-to-day life, so change will tend to be more gradual than we realise.

Secondly, new ideas spark more new ideas. In one discussion this week, I’ve already had an interesting chat about getting rid of lectures altogether. It’s not PBL, but it was prompted by starting to talk about PBL and my interlocutor and I had a good discussion about how/why one might do it. Such constant questioning of current practice has to talk place if we are to maintain and develop our standards and practice of teaching.

Finally, the exchange of ideas has a cumulative effect. Even if one exchange doesn’t change anything, then a dozen might. That’s always been a key idea behind this blog: that in the depth and scope of our contributions, we all benefit in myriad ways. It’s not a teleological process, where we all move in the same direction, but rather one of exploring different dimensions and aspects. And it is precisely because we question, that we advance.

So I’m carrying on talking about my Dutch trip, because it might take me into some more new territories.


* Which the locals seem to be fine calling Holland, despite all I learnt at school (namely that Holland is only a part of the Netherlands). Just goes to show. Something.