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.
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.