Quality assurance and quality enhancement in higher education

The UK higher education sector employs a range of mechanisms intended to assure or enhance the quality of its teaching and, more broadly, its degree programmes. These mechanisms can often be seen to rest on assumptions, tacit or otherwise, about what kind of an activity teaching is. When considering the fitness for its intended purpose of this or that ‘QA’ or ‘QE’ mechanism, then, it can be useful to consider whether its assumptions about what teaching is are sound ones.

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Jonathan Franzen’s description of a memorable teacher of his

His eyes gleamed with excitement and pleasure if a student said anything remotely pertinent or intelligent; but if the student was altogether wrong, as the six of us in his seminar often were, he flinched and scowled as if a bug were flying at his face, or he gazed out a window unhappily, or refilled his pipe, or wordlessly cadged a cigarette from one of us smokers, and hardly even pretended to listen.  He was the least polished of all my college teachers, and yet he had something that the other teachers didn’t have: he felt for literature the kind of headlong love and gratitude that a born-again Christian feels for Jesus.  His highest praise for a piece of writing was ‘It’s crazy!’  His yellowed, disintegrating copies of German prose masterworks were like missionary Bibles.  On page after page, each sentence was underscored or annotated in Avery’s microscopic handwriting, illuminated with the cumulative appreciations of fifteen or twenty rereadings.  His paperbacks were at once low-priced, high-acid crapola and the most precious of relics – moving testaments to how full of significance every line in them could be to a student of their mysteries, as every leaf and sparrow in Creation sings of God to the believer.

Jonathan Franzen. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Fourth Estate, 2006.

The experience of time of an academic/parent

Writing is a form of therapy – Graham Greene

Anxiety and guilt are the two dominant emotions in my endless agonisations over how I spend my time.  In my academic life, I suffer anxieties about not using my time effectively or productively enough.  In my life as a parent, scheduling is unavoidable, but one of its side effects is that I am usually anxiously racing or watching the clock, and therefore out of sync with my very much immersed-in-the-present infants, a fact which makes me feel guilty.

At work, my experience of time is often as follows: I’m sitting at my computer.  I have my Outlook account (my work email) open.  Sometimes I try to ‘Work offline’, but I never seem able to manage it for long.  On top of the general compulsion to receive correspondence as soon as possible, often there’ll be something more specific I’m waiting for: a reader’s report, a message finalising an appointment, a reply to a message where I’ve tried to smooth over a delicate matter, and so on.  Often one of my Twitter accounts will be open too, and there’ll be a mini-cycle of refreshing going on there too.  Perhaps I’ll be preparing some powerpoint slides, or drafting an article.  Both of these activities involve the assembling of materials – any or all of the following: books from my shelves, photocopies of articles and chapters from my filing cabinet, online resources, DVD clips, former iterations of material I’ve produced stored on one of several USB sticks, or on my desktop, or the university’s virtual learning environment.  Each of those texts points outwards, either implicitly (‘That reminds me of…’) or explicitly (in the form of quotation or discussion) to any number of other sources, and it wouldn’t take long to use a search engine to check a detail or chase up a source.  These multiple labyrinths and trains of thought are perilous enough even if one isn’t also being led out of them by the window in the corner of the screen heralding the arrival of a new email that you may as well reply to now rather than have it hanging around in the inbox.  Then there is that intimate partner of perfectionism: procrastination.  I’ve gotten better at forcing myself to commit to formulations in my writing, or to concrete plans in my teaching preparation, but it is still done over a small, persistent voice suggesting to me, with me barely formulating it as a conscious thought, that if I postpone that commitment, my future self will be better equipped to nail that passage or slide and slay it first time (never mind that writing is rewriting, or that to begin is to be halfway there, or even that I personally find it much easier to edit a first draft than to produce it).  Perhaps part of me also thinks that it should take me, say, a day, if I’m going to prepare a decent set of sessions for one of the weeks of my module, so if I’m cruising through it in less time, something must be wrong.  I’ve gotten better at recognising and countering all this bullshit, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still break off unnecessarily from what I’m doing to perform the check-the-online-communication cycle, or to go to the toilet, or to eat or drink something, more often than I should.  Very quickly, my brain is buzzing with half-finished thoughts and imagined trajectories for multiple tasks.  It’s impossible to keep either of my desktops tidy.  My PC’s desktop windows are closed down easily enough at the end of the day, but the migration of books and paperclipped piles of A4 paper from their homes to the surfaces of my office is harder to prevent, and very soon there are reproachful piles of various things to do all around me.

The productivity imperative even makes it hard to commit with a clear conscience and an uncluttered mind to tasks that one has allotted time for.  I’m working on an article at the minute that requires me to engage with a rather weighty monograph, so this reading is one of the things I’m committing my research time to at the moment.  But 100 pages in to its 500 page length, I’m already feeling the itch: surely I should now be writing something?

I won’t say too much about the time I spend with my wife and children here – that is, after all, my private life – but I will say a few things about domestic chores.  I don’t imagine many people like domestic chores, but, for me, in addition to the relative monotony of the time spent actually doing the chore (which can sometimes be quite pleasurable – and of course, some domestic tasks, such as cooking, are enjoyable, to me at least), I experience a resentment, which sometimes verges on anger, that this task is the thing that stands between me and my evening’s leisure!  The future that is within my grasp exacerbates my displeasure at the present.  (I experience the basic routines of personal hygiene that stand between me and my sleep at the end of the night similarly.)

Finally: books (and, to a lesser extent, DVDs).  Like most academics, and because I love books more than anything non-human, I have, by my estimation, more than a thousand books that I would like to read.  The anticipation of the pleasure of reading them is great, but so too is the despondent knowledge that I may in fact never find the time.

Recognising problems is said to be the first step to overcoming them.  The other piece of conventional wisdom I keep repeating to myself is that habits are hard to break but that one does it one day at a time.  I remain, for the time being at least, hopeful that I can do a better job of not robbing myself of productivity, pleasure and happiness.  I’ll try to start now.

Learning environments and learning experiences

If teachers were to live in constant full cognizance of the full weight of responsibility that they have, the result might well be blind panic, or paralysis.  I’m not referring to the quantity of work that many teachers experience, but rather to the fact that teachers take on the awesome responsibility of being the guides to particular fields of knowledge, and to the broader experience of learning as a whole.  As a result of one’s teaching, a student might be inspired to devote a lifetime to a subject, or equally might swear off it forever.  Few people emerge from their educations completely unscathed.  In my experience, teaching is second only to parenting as an activity which almost every day leaves you feeling that you failed in some small or large way, that you didn’t manage to provide what was needed in that particular situation, and that with more time, and patience, you could have done better.

Since this blog began earlier in the year I’ve been a pretty enthusiastic proselytiser of various pieces of education theory/scholarship.  And a lot of that theory itself radiates enthusiasm, if not zeal.  The parts of it that I have encountered are often very ‘up’.  In particular, books about teaching in higher education which are at once research-based and designed to offer guidance to teachers will be quick to point out where we have been going wrong up to now, but will also offer clear advice about how we can make things better, perhaps by moving towards a student-centred mode of teaching, and/or ensuring constructive alignment between learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment tasks, and/or ensuring that we create feedback-rich learning environments.  I have no doubt that thinking through all of these ideas and applying them to my own teaching has been hugely beneficial.  But I also have no doubt that in teaching there are no magic bullets.  Nothing I have learned or tried has stopped me feeling ‘down’ rather than ‘up’ about teaching a fair proportion of the time, and as I look back on my year of teaching there’s one thing in particular that I keep returning to.

I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at getting students to participate in classroom activities, and at designing those activities themselves (the two things are of course related).  Reading Diana Laurillard’s Teaching as a Design Science was something of a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me in this respect; that book gave me a name for and a way of thinking about things I had been trying to achieve for a few years.  If something is well-designed, be it a public space or a domestic appliance, then one’s engagement with it will be smooth, natural, intuitive.  Few of us need to be told how to find a cash machine or a place to sit in an urban area, nor how to operate a microwave (some people reading may also detect the influence of Heidegger via Paddy Scannell here – another set of ideas I’ve been absorbing for the past two years).  In my classrooms, I consciously design things in order to encourage students to act in particular ways, to engage in particular activities.  Sometimes it will be a spatial matter: I will make students sit in a horseshoe around a screen so that the audio-visual sequence we are analysing is there before us, everyone can see and respond to everyone else, and so on.  Sometimes I will issue a set of instructions that create a series of steps for the students.  Sometimes, taking control of the learning environment will also involve, quite simply, holding one’s nerve in the face of initial reluctance to talk.  Teaching/learning is too inherently ‘sticky’ and ‘subversive’ to be as smooth as the other kinds of design alluded to above, but there are similar motivations at work.

‘So what?’ might be the response so far.  All teaching activities are planned and therefore by logical extension ‘designed’.  What gives me pause for thought is the element of coercion that goes along with certain kinds of learning environment design.  A big part of the job of all but the most fortunate teachers is getting students to speak more than they are naturally inclined to.  We smile while we do it (well, most of us, most of the time), of course, but we are applying pressure.  A lot of this can be justified in the name of getting the best out of students (notice the language of extraction), and again, it could not really be any other way.

And yet.  There are times, over the past eighteen months or so especially, when I have felt that my role as teacher was shading into something more like that of a ‘gamemaker’.  I think that, along with carefully-structured activities which assign students roles which are difficult to escape, things like provocation, persistent questioning, playing the fool, and even plain old goading all have their place in teaching and learning.  But so too do things like prolonged solitary reflection, letting a question or a piece of reading stew in the back of one’s mind for weeks (months, years), and the right to say ‘I do not feel ready to talk about this yet’.  If learning environments should be designed to cultivate in students the kinds of habits of mind they will require for ‘deep’, ‘life-long’ learning, then those environments should not just be about cut and thrust, wall-to-wall talking, and rapid cycles of feedback.  One of my teachers once told me, as I was about to embark upon my own teaching, ‘Don’t be afraid of silence.’  More and more, I see the value of such advice (especially when I consider that the filling of silence can often be as much about the alleviation of anxiety as it is about the contribution of something worthwhile).

It is good to feel permanently dissatisfied.  It is a sign that one is still learning, and still alive.  When my teaching resumes in the New Year, one thing I will try to do is let my teaching pendulum swing back (or is it rather a deepening spiral? – that’s the metaphor that most closely fits my pattern of thinking on the topic) a little towards a set-up that allows students more space and time to reflect, and to involve themselves in ways that may be less audible and visible to others, but may also be ultimately more beneficial to them, which is, after all, what it’s all about.

Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!

Diana Laurillard, Teaching as a Design Science (Routledge, 2012)

I’m categorising this post as a review, but in what follows, rather than trying to summarise Laurillard’s wide-ranging achievements, I try to distil the heart of the book – the underlying principles upon which its vision of and suggestions for pedagogy rest.

Diana Laurillard, in describing teaching as a design science (as well as, not instead of, an art, as she is careful to note on page 1), wants us to see the similarities between teaching and pursuits ‘like engineering, or computer science, or architecture, whose imperative it is to make the world a better place’ (p. 1).

A design science uses and contributes to theoretical science, but it builds design principles rather than theories, and the heuristics of practice rather than explanations, although like both the sciences and the arts, it uses what has gone before as a platform or inspiration for what it creates.  Teaching is more like a design science because it uses what is known about teaching to attain the goal of student learning, and uses the implementation of its designs to keep improving them. (p. 1)

Paul Ramsden, in his excellent Learning to Teach in Higher Education (Taylor & Francis, 2003), sees moving away from a view of teaching as ‘transmitting knowledge’ and towards a view of teaching as ‘making it possible for students to learn subject matter’ as a prerequisite for improving one’s practice: ‘Success in learning how to improve your own teaching is related to the extent to which you are prepared to conceptualise your teaching as a process of helping students to change their understanding of the subject matter you teach them’ (p.17/8).  The focus, we might say, slightly crudely, is on getting students to do things.  However, as teachers, we have to do things to try to get our students to do things.  We have to create powerful learning environments, and we do this by designing our courses effectively.

In Teaching as a Design Science, Laurillard makes extensive use of the ‘Conversational Framework’ model which she developed in an earlier book, Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (RoutledgeFalmer, 2nd edition 2002).  The Conversational Framework presents a model which separates out a student’s conceptual understanding and their practice.  In the case of dentistry, the practice would include giving a patient a filling; in the case of English literature, the practice would involve writing an essay.  Laurillard suggests there is an iterative cycle between concepts and practice.  Dissatisfaction with one’s outputs (conclusions, perhaps) can cause one to reflect upon and modulate one’s conceptual understanding.

Sometimes an activity will produce what Laurillard terms ‘intrinsic feedback’.  Examples are most easily found when we look at babies, children, and other young animals.  When a baby tries, and fails, to get some food into her or his mouth, then s/he becomes immediately aware that s/he has not succeeded (because s/he not eating), so s/he perseveres, practicing the motion until it is perfected (as my seven month old son is reminding me, this is a lengthy process, and there is a lot of crying – and mess – along the way).  However, not all activities are as rich in intrinsic feedback as trying to eat.  This is one of the differences between informal and formal learning which Laurillard usefully spells out, and spells out some of the implications of:

Our brains have evolved to develop our first-order knowledge of the world from the earliest stages of infancy. […] While the psychologist will investigate and celebrate the power of every human brain to learn how to apply the correct force to the muscles of the arm and hand to pick up a cup, the educationist has to grapple with the problem that very few human minds ever grasp the proper Newtonian concept of force.  This fundamental scientific idea cannot be accessed in the same way as the everyday concept of force, and our brains have not evolved to cope.  Informal, spontaneous, developmental learning is immensely successful.  Formal, scientific, educational learning is at best only moderately successful. (p. 41)

Laurillard points out that an experienced formal learner will be adept at driving their own cycle of modulation and practice through research, discussion, and so forth.  What teaching as a design science aims to do is to generate varied, rich and iterative feedback loops to motivate and drive these cycles for less experienced learners.  The teacher can provide this her/himself.  Laurillard conceives of this in two main ways: the teacher can share conceptual understanding, or s/he can model instances of practice.  A lecture by itself, by the way, will not create a loop if there is no way for students to try to formulate their own understandings which the teacher can then help them to refine.  There has to be some kind of communicative loop, otherwise there is just one-way transmission.

It does not always have to be the teacher who provides the communication/modelling cycle.  It can also be provided in a peer group setting.  This still involves the teacher in the respects that an environment that facilitates effective dialogue or other collaboration has to be created (a massive and tricky topic, which I am looking into in detail before making collaborative learning a larger part of my modules), and the teacher will probably have to intervene if and when misconceptions are taking hold amongst students.  However, the process of having to articulate one’s ideas or demonstrate one’s practice to one’s peers is intrinsically valuable – it forces one to formulate – and will probably generate valuable feedback too.

The power of Laurillard’s model (which is probably best grasped in its graphic form, and at the time of writing an image is available here) really shines through in the chapters where different types of learning are examined (learning through acquisition, through inquiry, through discussion, through practice, and through collaboration), and it is shown which cycles within the Conversational Framework they will typically activate.  I had fancied my seminar discussion techniques to be a powerful learning environment, but thinking of them in relation to Laurillard’s model makes me see how much more varied and iterative I could make my feedback loops with some redesigning.

In higher education it is easy to often think of ‘feedback’ as the sheets of paper you give to students after you’ve marked their essays.  But if that were the only source of feedback they received, that would be an emaciated learning environment indeed.  Formal learning should be brought closer to informal learning in the richness and frequency of the feedback it provides in order to motivate learners and develop their abilities. As Laurillard puts it, ‘The teacher’s design task is to create the practice/modeling environment that provides the feedback the learner needs’ (p. 170).   Discussion, practice, ideas, sharing, back-and-forth: these are the things I want to design more of into my modules.  The work starts here…

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Good learners […] know how to ask meaningful questions; they are persistent in examining their own assumptions; they use definitions and metaphors as instruments for their thinking and are rarely trapped by their own language; they are apt to be cautious and precise in making generalizations, and they engage continually in verifying what they believe.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Penguin Education, 1969. Quoted in Diana Laurillard. Teaching as a Design Science. Routledge, 2012.