Risky rapport

I’m chatting with an academic colleague about student engagement. He is struggling with one particular class. The students turn up frequently enough to avoid triggering attendance monitoring processes, and it’s creating havoc in the group assessments.

This is as frustrating for my colleague as it is for the students who resent having to carry peers who aren’t present.

Like this sort of conversation.

I can listen to a colleague, we can share ideas. We can explore and test wacky thoughts, and if we decide upon some actions to try, we set ourselves up for another good conversation.

A lot of the time, academic staff talk about issues that are troubling them, only they cannot see a way forward. There is always the quality assurance procedure that prevents something, or the External Examiner “wouldn’t like it”, or the students might give bad feedback in the end of module review.

There was a hint of this thinking emerging during my chat about student engagement. I had posed a question of my colleague suggesting that we might think about other ways of assessing the students’ learning.

“But we can’t give them an assessment every week.” This was an interesting statement, as my colleague had both suggested an alternate method of assessment and ruled it out in one sentence.

This made me reflect on an article I had written some years ago – “Risky Business” – where I described my experiments with curriculum creation on-the-fly with students. The semester’s plan consisted of some learning outcomes, an assessment rubric and twelve weeks of space; no session plans, lectures, worksheets or reading lists.

At the end of the module, all of the above artefacts, that might normally constitute a module that is ready to run at the beginning of the semester, were in place. The key difference being that those on the module would create the content as a by-product of our shared learning.

Almost ten years later, I have come to rely on this approach as my default position when it comes to teaching for the following reasons.

First, I have joined the dark side of academia by becoming a manager, and my time is severely limited. I use this argument when I am discussing a lack of time to do other things such as scholarly activity, research, schools outreach, income generation, etc.

Second, I have done it so many times now that I no longer regard it as “risky”. In fact it always produces more opportunities for variety of learning experience.

Third, as Head of Department I have had to stand-in for colleagues at very short notice. As long as there are some module learning outcomes, I’ll be fine. Though it would be interesting to “up” the level of risk and see what we could do if we only had programme-level learning outcomes; we would then have to sort out our own module learning outcomes during the first session.

Fourth, it works better, and more consistently than a curriculum that stifles creativity, but is administratively very organised. There is the flexibility for the students to collaboratively publish a book if they feel that it suits what they have to do.

Or build some software. Or organise an event. Or build a user manual. Or compose some music (I haven’t done that one yet, but I’m open to the right cohort suggesting it).

Finally, the approach helps me build deeper learning relationships with my students. They remember what they did as it is novel, and they usually enjoy what they have produced. They are absolutely clear that not only have they learned something, they took an active part in the debate, selection, design and realisation of their outcomes.

Whilst this all sounds fantastic, it is not always enough to sell the approach to staff that have got used to teaching in a particular way. In an era where academics are having to take notice of external measures, it is all too tempting not to rock the boat. In my conversations with academics, it is more a fear of the potential repercussions of taking risks with learning that  prevents innovative progress to be made.

I reassure staff that the repercussions are often unfounded, and usually, can be easily mitigated. If you are frightened that the students might not actually come up with something useful to do in a session, it is prudent to have some ready-made exercises up your sleeve for immediate delivery.

But I have found that the occasional “emptiness” in a session is akin to a silent pause in a speech; the atmosphere changes, people become more serious and they listen more intently. Don’t underestimate a group of students who can see that they should be doing something productive with their session. I’ve stopped under-estimating them and they are just fine!

I do feel that I have discovered the ultimate mitigation strategy though. It comes down to good rapport. The sooner that rapport is developed with the cohort, the sooner they will trust the tutor and get on with the business of learning. We want them to own their sessions, rather than passively attend a delivery event.

And so back to my colleague’s conversation. I’ve done the sales pitch for ripping the curriculum plan up. I’ve presented the compelling case for empowering the learners. I’ve also sprinkled the chatter with reminders of how much fun can be had running sessions where we are all actively learning.

There is still nervousness, though the potential is quite exciting. How can this be overcome?

One strategy could be to adopt a small risk, a small variation in delivery, and then incrementally build upon it until the innovative curriculum  emerges. I’ve tried this and it didn’t quite work for me. The piecemeal approach meant that there was no real risk being presented, and therefore little to be gained. I had to commit to something radical, as that was where the rewards lay.

My support therefore has moved on from being a sounding-board, to coaching innovation. My words are there to support a colleague who has to jump right in and feel the energy of emergent and reactive behaviour.

Which makes sense really. If we want the learners to take risks, we have to take the lead.

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