Innovating teaching and learning in HE: developing an HE studio

Teaching and learning are increasingly seen as central to the work of universities, particularly with the introduction of the TEF. One of the unfortunate aspects of this emerging emphasis is the over simplification (or complexity reduction) of the processes involved, as league tables, metrics and quality assurance systems kick in. This is a shift which occurred in the schools system a couple of decades ago, and has ultimately led to overly simplistic perspectives concerning the work of teachers, driven by an overbearing accountability system. As Halachmi (2014) states:

‘The paradox is that the accountability fervor meant to assure performance can have direct and indirect consequences that undermine it.’

Teaching and learning are elements of a much wider and very complex set of nested systems. Many universities now have a dedicated institute or learning development wing which has the responsibility for developing teaching. These departments have a crucial role in developing practice, and helping academic departments in taking teaching and associated activities forward. However, universities are becoming increasingly complex organisations, and are required to meet many agendas which are both internally and externally driven. This suggests the need for an ever wider perspective on teaching.

A complexity orientated perspective would suggest that any attempt to gain a deep understanding of teaching and learning approaches, together with the creation of innovative practice, needs a broad, transdisciplinary approach. This insight has led me to the idea of an ‘HE Studio’. In the diagram below, some of the main issues such a Studio would consider are identified. They are presented in concentric rings to reflect the idea that many of the issues of interest are interdependent but exist at different scales. For example, to consider the role and nature of assessment (defined not only by the assessments undertaken by students, but sense-making and evaluation of programmes etc) not only are other processes at this scale implicated (teaching, learning and curriculum) but processes and issues at larger scales. Assessment will be impacted by organisational policies and aims, by the use of technology, and above this, by government policy decisions and, on occasion, external partnerships. This means that to develop well-considered and robust teaching and learning environments, we need to develop holistic approaches to understanding and evidencing the web of processes which contribute to seminar room practice. In addition, such a Studio would also develop innovative practices based on practical insights and wider evidence-bases. But to do this well would require a transdisciplinary approach.

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A Studio would need to capture diverse forms of evidence. Because of the interacting scales of processes involved, it would be necessary to develop qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches to research. A range of perspectives would be important, from small-scale ethnographies and case studies, through programme-wide mixed methods approaches to larger-scale ‘big-data’ analysis at both organisational and sector-level scales. The development of fully transparent structured literature reviews would also play a role. I have chosen the word ‘Studio’ because the purpose of the research would be to help create foundations for innovation. It would not be a ‘laboratory’ as this would suggest a purely experimental approach, which whilst it might offer useful insight, would be deficient if used as the sole evidential base – it might be said to be necessary but not sufficient. Neither would it be an observatory as it would not be intended only to observe, measure and report. Instead, these would be an element of a wider set of practices, which aim to give rich, transdisciplinary insights which can then be used as the basis for introducing and refining new practices. Here, action research, design-based research, and where appropriate, quasi-experiments would become central.

The defining aim of an HE studio would be to consider, synthesise and create new practices in an emergent context. Process, experimentation, innovation and emerging insights would be the core focus of such work. In some quarters there appears to be an attempt to encourage the idea that teaching and learning are simple, easily defined processes which can be made efficient and understood through the use of a restricted set of (mainly) quantitative approaches. It seems to me that this ignores the inherently complex set of processes involved in teaching and learning, and the ecology of influences around them. The idea of a Studio approach is to put a varied spectrum of evidential bases at the heart of innovative development by accepting that useful insights can occur from a range of research traditions. It is how the evidence is synthesised and used as a basis for practical innovation which is important.             

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Making the Case for a Centre for Change Studies

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At the beginning of Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens, he makes the point that within universities there is no dedicated area researching and teaching about change,

‘It turns out they [academic disciplines] each operate with separate and often conflicting theories of change and there is no ‘department of change studies’ to sort it out.’  (Green, 2016)

As an employee of Oxfam, he commissioned a report considering how different disciplines understand the nature of change, it is well worth a read. The idea of a Centre for Change Studies makes a great deal of sense.

Green, as with an increasing number of academics, has found the use of complexity theory a useful lens in understanding the emerging processes inherent in change, as well as offering insights in how to influence and affect change. Complexity centres have already started to spring up in various guises within the university sector, the most famous being the Santa Fe Institute. These centres thrive on the interdisciplinary nature of their work, bringing different perspectives to bare on a single area of interest. These different perspectives, coming as they do from disciplinary starting points, offer both mutually supportive expertise and critical insight from many directions.

So why a Centre for Change Studies? Presently, a series of issues and processes are emerging which may fundamentally change the way in which we perceive and act in the world. The classification of the Anthropocene, worsening climate change and its often non-linear consequences, globalisation, social acceleration, the rise of artificial intelligence, medical and genetic advances, socio-economic inequalities within and between countries, the rise of post-democratic political systems, and signs of the beginnings of chronic resource depletion. These processes are suggestive of the possibility of radical and rapid and complex change. Many of the solutions and accommodations to these problems will and must emerge from innovations within specialist disciplines. However, understanding the processes of change and how we can understand and manage them require a specialist field drawing on expertise from many perspectives. We also need to help develop professionals to become sensitive to the complexities and processes of change, understanding these ideas and issues in ways that allow them to work more critically and assuredly within their own contexts.

At a time when the utility of academia is being called into question in some quarters, the development of a medium for researching, understanding and mitigating against the impacts of faster and more acute change processes seems like a good place to start in reconnecting with issues which have major practical and political implications.