Cultivating a community of reflective teaching practice

What if we assumed that learning is as much a part of our human nature as eating or sleeping, that it is both life-sustaining and inevitable, and that – given a chance – we are quite good at it?  And what if, in addition, we assumed that learning is, in essence, a fundamentally social phenomenon, reflecting our own deeply social nature as human beings capable of knowing?  What kind of understanding would such a perspective yield on how learning takes place and on what is required to support it? Etienne Wenger. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Most academics are extremely adept at talking about their research in a number of ways.  Several of the longstanding practices of the academy are designed to facilitate such exchange – most obviously, conferences and symposia.  We think nothing of travelling for two hours (or sometimes even two days!) each way, to give a twenty minute ‘paper’.  And this is, broadly speaking, as it should be.  The instantaneous and vigorous exchange of ideas and knowledge is one crucial way in which those things move forwards.  It is also one of the key ways in which academics recognise and honour the fact that they are part of a social ‘community of practice’, to use Wenger’s simple and powerful term.

What about our teaching practice?  Do we go to the same lengths, take the same care, in talking to our peers about that other activity that is supposed to command at least some (!) of our professional energy?  As well as travelling across countries, or continents, to discuss our research, do we travel across the corridor to discuss our teaching?  Not as much as or in the ways that we ideally ought to, I would suggest, and I invite every academic reader to ask whether the same is also true for her or him.

For the first time this year, HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) are collecting data from HE institutions concerning the formal teaching qualifications of staff involved in that activity.  How these data will be used and how they will feed into league table positions, prospective student decision-making, and so on, remains to be seen.  However, along with the Higher Education Academy and its Professional Standards Framework and National Teaching Fellowships (with related awards), it is another move designed to incentivise the formal professionalisation of teaching in the sector.

To be sure, professionalisation can be a mixed blessing, and one frequently hears horror stories from one’s colleagues across the UK about the type of provision that institutions develop in order to tick the relevant boxes.  Some of the blame too must reside with the academics who, when they reluctantly return to the classroom, adopt the behaviours that they rightly condemn in their own students, and adopt a surface or achieving approach to the material (even when that material is trying to help them to recognise deep learning, what facilitates it, and why it is better and ultimately easier than surface learning!).

It would be a real shame if ‘getting one’s teaching qualification’ simply became the latest in an already too-long row of bureaucratic hoops, because if it did, then individuals and institutions alike would be losing out on the real and deeply transformative benefits that can arise from undertaking to learn about teaching.  My own experience of studying towards a PGCHE has prompted me to embark upon what I expect will be a lifelong process of engaging with educational literature and my fellow teachers, not with the aim of becoming a scholar of education, but with the aim of becoming a better and a reflective practitioner.  (The literature on ‘reflective practice’ is vast and multi-disciplinary, and I am only beginning to dip my toe in it.  Schön (1991) is an important early reference point.  More recent publications that I have on my shelf are Ghaye (2011) and Tarrant (2013).)

Bringing together the ideas of communities of practice and reflective practice, it seems to me that a reflective community of teaching practice would be a good thing to cultivate and sustain at the programme or subject area level in higher education.  There are of course benefits in meeting and exchanging ideas with teachers who work in other disciplines.  However, when a group of people share responsibility for the overall learning experience of a group of students, there are obvious benefits to them engaging in ongoing reflection on their collective teaching practice.  Indeed, it would seem strange if this did not occur.

One place in the literature on higher education where this type of activity is examined and models are offered is in the literature relating to peer observation and alternatives to it.  David Gosling’s (2000: 5) seminal work in this area identifies various different potential models.  To briefly summarise just two: An ‘evaluation model’ seeks, as its name suggests, to confirm proficiency or ‘identify under-performance’.  The benefits mainly accrue to the institution, and the scope of the observation is narrow (‘teaching performance, usually within a single session).  By contrast, a ‘peer review model’ encourages ‘engagement in discussion about teaching’.  It focuses not only on teaching performance but other aspects of the learning environment, and the observer and the observed stand to benefit from the process.

In the Film Studies subject area at the University of Hull, we are about to embark on an exciting process of peer development.  In the run-up to a process of curriculum redesign, which will be occurring across the university, we are going to engage in a series of activities designed to develop our ‘reflective community of practice’.  We will be drawing initially upon a ‘Journal Club’ model that I used on the second module of my PGCHE (‘Evaluating and Improving Practice’).  The members of the club read two or three pieces of academic literature on a given topic.  Then an online discussion wiki is open for a pre-agreed period (on the PGCHE we found that a fortnight worked quite well).  The ground rules for participation are that each member must make at least three decent contributions to the forum, at least one of which must me the creation of a new discussion thread, and at least one of which must be a response to a thread started by someone else.  This way, a combination of initiating and engaging in discussion is ensured for all members.  Such a set-up allows one time to reflect and formulate, and also allows participants to contribute at times suitable to themselves (summer is of course the key time in the academic calendar where sustained research and writing is possible).  The idea is that by the end of the summer, we will be primed to turn our informed, collective attention to the delicate matter of curriculum design.

The initial plan is to hold three discussions over the summer.

1 The broad and fundamental issue of teaching philosophies

This forum will not quite fit the template format in the respect that there will be no academic literature to read.  Instead, each member will be invited to complete an online Teaching Perspectives Inventory and report their results to the group, reflecting upon whether the survey is in line with what they thought they thought about teaching, or whether it held any surprises.  Each member will also be asked to respond to the question ‘What are the key things that a student ought to have learned upon leaving our programme?’

2 Designing teaching at the modular level

Readings relating to Biggs’s notion of ‘constructive alignment’ and the notion of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Brown, Collins and Duguid 1989) should prompt interesting discussions about the principles that ought to underpin module design.

3 Assessment and feedback

Finally (for the summer session), we will turn our attention to these crucial areas.  Readings will be decided at a later date, perhaps taking into account discussions that have occurred during earlier forums.

I will report back on how our experiment (which I am resisting giving an official title to!) progresses, and I hope that my colleagues will too.

References

Brown, John Seely, Alan Collins and Paul Duguid (1989), ‘Situation Cognition and the Culture of Learning’, Educational Researcher 18: 1, pp. 32-42.

Ghaye, Tony (2011), Teaching and Learning Through Reflective Practice: A Practical Guide for Positive Action, 2nd edition, London: Routledge.

Schön, Donald A (1991), Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions, Oxford: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Tarrant, Peter (2013), Reflective Practice and Professional Development, London: Sage.

Wenger, Etienne (1989), Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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The farther you aim, the more an initial error matters.  As we become more ambitious in attempts to organize our lives and our environment, the implications of our perspectives, theories, and beliefs extend further.  As we take more responsibility for our future on larger and larger scales, it becomes more imperative that we reflect on the perspectives that inform our enterprises.  A key implication of our attempts to organize learning is that we must become more reflective with regard to our own discourses of learning and to their effects on the ways we design for learning.

Etienne Wenger. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 1998.