We need to talk about learning . . . and teaching

Photo by Cody Engel on Unsplash

Throughout the pandemic I, like many of my peers, have been worried by the overriding narratives around education, particularly HE, that have (and still are) being perpetuated by the media and certain parts of government about education. Debbie McVitty has written an excellent piece on WonkHE about this, and the need for for public engagement with pedagogy.

It’s a great article and does encapsulate the issues around internal university discourse, students’ developing understanding of learning, the work and research that is part of contemporary university life and public perceptions i.e. the lecture and the exam. In the article Debbie calls for more public engagement with pedagogy . Whilst this statement from the Russell Group about blended learning is welcome, it does speak volumes that this is needed at all. And, is this engagement?

In the article Debbie goes writes:
“I see this public engagement in pedagogy work less as the responsibility of institutions and organisations than as a possible emergent area of thinking and practice.” . She goes on to say “this would require people to adopt public personas in ways that are not established at scale in the UK.

Whilst scholarship around pedagogy is now an established field, it is still quite precarious. It’s still not universal in the sector to get formal recognition and promotion based on teaching practice. Whilst the number of Chairs related to learning and teaching is increasing, many staff still face issues around getting adequate official time allocation for developing their teaching practice. So much of the engagement with pedagogy is still at an internal level, which makes wider public debate even more challenging.

However, that discussion needs to take place. Even being able suggest that maybe we shouldn’t be asking our children “what did you learn in school/college/uni today” to “how did you learn in school/college/uni today” could enrich parts of wider public discourse.

One thought did come to mind though. Maybe what we need are Professors of Public Engagement for Learning, in the same way we have those roles within science. For example Professor Hannah Fry, Professor of the Public Engagement of Science at the University of Birmingham. I know many people who would be brilliant in a role like this, who are passionate, successful, articulate and steeped in knowledge about pedagogy and are excellent communicators.

As the pandemic has highlighted there is a real need for public engagement around teaching and learning to create informed, evolving conversations around the realities contemporary education. I wonder if any Uni would be confident and forward thinking enough to do this . . .

Has Bobby just come out of the shower again?

A long time ago in a galaxy not too far away, a well know TV show was trying to figure out how to bring back a character they had killed off several series before. The (at the time) outrageous narrative device they employed was to simply have the character walk out of the shower one morning, and his wife wake up from a very strange dream . . . This was of course the return of Bobby Ewing in Dallas.

This “classic” moment of TV history has been on my mind recently. It does seem to me that as we come out of lockdown there are certain factions in the UK government, the press and across society generally, that want to have that Bobby moment. That we just forget what we have all been through over the past year and half, that we just wake up and get back to how things were before. Back to how things used to be when all was well with the world. . .

This weekend The Times had one of those click bait headlines that Simon Horrocks tweeted

Of course, the headline doesn’t really relate to the actual reality. But I (and I suspect you too, dear reader) do find this type of narrative particularly worrying. As we move back on campus having 500+ students in lecture theatres isn’t maybe not the best thing to do – not only in educational terms but for public health reasons. COVID 19 is still here, we still have really high infection rates in the UK. Not all our university age students have or will be be fully vaccinated by September. There’s also the worry around flus, colds and all the “other infections” that have been suppressed for the past year and a half as we’ve all been isolating and not gathering in large numbers. A lot of people may still have to be off campus in September.

But back to the headline. Recorded lectures are not the end of university teaching. Students love them. They have really appreciated the flexibility and accessibility they provide. They also allow a redistribution of time so face to face time can be spent in smaller tutorial/seminar groups. Contact time is really important, making it meaningful even more so. Smaller group opportunities for contact are going to be so important as everyone gets used to being together again on campus. But the image of university only being “proper” if students are in crowded lecture theatres still remains the dominant narrative.

As the Higher and A Level results (or should I say teacher assessed marks) get released across the UK this week, we now have the media (and others) bemoaning the lack of exams, the need “to get back to exams”. Again it’s as if exams are the only way to assess. I could rant and rant, but tbh I don’t have the time or energy. But I can’t help but feel we are all being duped into thinking that we have all just woken up from a bit of a strange dream and all those things we did (like open book assessments), like using the VLE, like providing greater flexibility (for students and staff) and accessibility, like really thinking about and using technology for learning and teaching will all be forgotten now as we just go back to normal. . .

In case you missed it I have managed to track down moment down (thank you Gods of the Internet)