V1 Developing our understanding of how people learn
Given my background as a language teacher before becoming an educational developer, both language and general learning theory influence my beliefs about the nature of learning. Naturally, I am also affected by my experiences as a learner and educator and my preferences as a learner, although I try not to let the latter dictate how I teach others.
A consistent theme throughout my career has been to regard interactivity in classrooms favourably. This is because, through engagement of learners together in focused activities, I have witnessed greater learner interest and improved grasp and retention of concepts. Furthermore, if learners are passive recipients, logically it is difficult to see how they may develop skills, be those skills generic, cognitive, linguistic or discipline-specific.
So, I find much that resonates with me in the literature on social constructivism, communicative language teaching (Canale & Swain, 1980) and constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). Social constructivism enjoys considerable favour in educational circles and this encourages teachers to plan for active, collaborative learning. Vygotsky (1986) saw a central role for language in cognition. He emphasised that learning should take place in meaningful contexts. If no ‘real’ communication opportunities are provided in educational settings, conditions are not optimum for cognitive development. Interestingly for me, this coincides with CLT. A well-designed communicative task puts students in situations that include an information gap between them and this is important because it is by trying to clarify matters with and for others that we reach a revised understanding ourselves. Constructive alignment, as its label indicates, promotes a constructivist view of learning and advocates learning tasks that mirror measurable outcomes and forms of assessment.
A positive by-product of an interactive, student-centred approach is that lecturers have more freedom to monitor and actively listen to students. This can have benefits in terms of informing the lecturer about the progress of learners and their mood, whether divergences from session plans are required, and what feedback to learners would be timely and appropriate.
Saying this, I accept that direct instruction has a place as an efficient means to convey information to large groups, i.e. in lectures, when self-aware learners are armed with effective learning strategies and can adjust to didactic teaching in order to internalise content knowledge. Behaviourism too offers a partial explanation of learning. Repetitive practice (rather than rote learning) can be beneficial, particularly for the development of skills. Repetitive learning can involve understanding as well as habit formation, for example in the learning of Chinese characters by writing them down multiple times.
V2 Practising in ways that are scholarly, professional and ethical
When consulting with academic departments on a requested pedagogical topic, I attempt to provoke critical discussion with and between fellow educators. My objective is to make educational research findings digestible and to encourage reflection on the relatability of those findings to specific learning environments, thus supporting the principled adoption of evidenced strategies that synchronize with established successful practice in the disciplines. For example, colleagues in the Mathematics department were enthusiastic to explore the potential of questioning skills to develop higher order thinking. After reading a wide selection of relevant articles, I raised my colleagues’ awareness with findings about the discouragingly high proportion of questions observed to prompt lower order thinking (Dains, 1986; Dillon, 1988), the benefits of increased wait time (Rowe, 1986) and avoidance of ‘echoing’ students’ responses (Craig & Cairo, 2005), and the potential for individual, pair or small group interviews as an environment in which to develop lecturers’ questioning proficiencies (Moyer & Milewicz, 2002). I informed and participated in the discussion but left the decision about how to go forward to my colleagues because I respect their knowledge of their learning and teaching environment. I hope that this is a professional and scholarly approach. I consider it ethical practice not to impose solutions on fellow practitioners in a field as contentious and relativistic as education.
Besides disseminating research findings, I also engage in research. At the time of writing I am finalising a proposal for a research project. I hope to attract funding from the UoR’s Teaching and Learning Development Fund. The research is a joint venture between myself and colleagues in other support units and academic schools. It focuses on digital literacies and is therefore in line with strategic initiatives in the University. We need to adhere to ethical standards in conducting this research, of course, and those articulated in the University Guidelines for Research Ethics.
As another illustration of the legitimacy of my working practices, I am bound to standards in my role as convener of a credit-bearing masters-level module that culminates in HEA Fellowship. All relevant University of Reading policies must be adhered to without fail. The UoR is itself bound to observe laws of the land, for example SENDO. A fresh inclusivity & diversity policy has recently been introduced at the UoR and as a consequence my team has started employing Blackboard Ally to ensure that course materials uploaded to the VLE are fully accessible to participants. On the module, participants complete a group-research task and present their findings to peers. Under the University Guidelines for Research Ethics, research ethics approval is not required because the research is carried out solely for the purposes of teaching and learning. However, requirements for data protection and consent must be adhered to.
V3 Working with and developing learning communities
I contribute to several learning communities within the University of Reading:
My role for this community is secretarial, basically. I manage the members’ mailing list, confirm and distribute meeting agendas and note actions arising, etc. I believe that the chairperson of this CoP, a Dean, is content to have an academic developer for this role. I am free to contribute during meetings, although I rarely do, but I do understand the conversations about learning; the notes that I take at meetings probably reflect my insight. For me, being a part of this CoP is great exposure to higher level discussions about student satisfaction and engagement.
- Engaging Students, Enhancing Curricula (ESEC) Steering Group
The purpose of this group is to promote student engagement in curriculum renewal processes, an objective in line with the University’s Curriculum Framework pedagogic principles. There are several academics in the group who have been seconded (0.2) to the Centre for Quality Support and Development (my department) and their roles are to take forward student engagement projects in their respective academic Schools. My role in the group, along with other academic developers, is to provide the secondees with advice and support.
I manage two learning & teaching themed blogs for my department. The T&L Exchange hosts funded project reports, so those entries are structured and evidenced, whereas the Engage in Teaching & Learning blog is quite informal, with anecdotal entries and think-pieces. Is a blog a community? Well, I’m trying to make it so. I have been learning the dark arts of building readership and connecting blogs with other social media with the aim of encouraging readers to react to and discuss the entries online. This is a challenging and ongoing project for me.
- Assessment Catalyst Working Group
This is a brand new group and I am one of its founding members. The purpose is to promote good practice in assessment, particularly at programme level. This objective is also in line with the Curriculum Framework pedagogic principles cited above. My main role is contributor of ideas. In future, there will most likely be some hands-on tasks for me as well, for example facilitating assessment audits in Schools. Again, as with the CoP and ESEC, this group should provide me with excellent exposure. I should gain insights into assessment issues across the institution.
V4 Valuing diversity and promoting inclusivity
Catering for diverse needs has always been a challenge, whether my learners are students, teachers or academic colleagues.
At the beginning of my career, I thought that I had found a solution in Harmer’s (1991) balanced activities approach. His proposal is to vary methodology so that some learners are satisfied some of the time. I found that this approach was workable for a busy teacher but is a compromise. It is not informed variation, just variation in the hope that overall everyone will learn partially.
So, some years later, I was receptive to learn about Differentiated Instruction (DI), mostly through the writings of Tomlinson (2000). With DI the aim is to arrange learning experiences so that all students progress towards intended learning outcomes but reach them in ways that are personally suitable. While outcomes and content are fixed, processes and products are flexible. I introduced an array of DI strategies to staff at a Hong Kong college and they experimented for a year. They found that the most immediately usable DI strategies were varied questioning, tiered activities, concept-based teaching and minilessons. When diagnostic pre-assessments were added as a mainstay feature of their curricula, other DI strategies also became effective, i.e. flexible grouping and curriculum compacting. The usual protest against DI, that it is too laborious, did not apply in this environment because the college staff were never expected to apply the full DI model but were free to ‘pick n mix’ strategies according to their professional judgement.
Still, I have my doubts about the suitability of DI for higher education. A paper by Ernst & Ernst (2005) mentions both positive and negative points about the approach. The main problem for me is that DI assigns the decision making to lecturers when one would hope that university students will be sufficiently self-regulating to make their own decisions about learning processes and products. With a significant increase in the proportion of the population that has access to higher education in many countries, however, it is arguable that some students will not be ready, and that DI made explicit could scaffold the process of becoming self-directed.
Recently, I followed a MOOC from the University of Southampton on the topic of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Designing out the need for (the majority of) accommodations is an attractive notion and learning technologies have potential in this regard. However, most of the examples that I have seen of UDL in action were focused on making course content equally accessible. It was less clear to me how skills acquisition could be made equally accessible but I am still investigating UDL’s potential.
V5 Continually reflecting on practice to develop ourselves, others and processes
I regard informed reflectivity as a primary means for development. I feel fortunate that I was introduced to reflective practice (Schön 1983, Kolb 1984) at the outset of my career via a rigorous teaching practicum with self, peer and tutor feedback followed by identification of concrete action points and further opportunities to refine my teaching abilities and awareness. Many initial teacher training programmes around the world make teaching practice the central element. A series of observed lessons with quality feedback processes serves to enhance teaching skills such as classroom management techniques and inculcates habits of meaningful reflection with the objective that novice teachers will continue to develop long term. However, for reasons that I will not discuss here, I have observed little appetite for supervised classroom experiences in courses the aim of which is the professionalisation of teaching in higher education.
In the absence of observed teaching practice, there are alternative mechanisms by which reflective capacities of lecturers are developed in my current context of convening a taught module at the University of Reading (UoR) that leads from Associate to full Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. Some participants on the module are well versed in reflective practice because it is a tradition in their academic disciplines, e.g. health professions. For others it is new. Participants are required to write case studies about innovations in module design that they have made. This task aims to forge a closer connection between pedagogic theory and practice in the minds of early career lecturers. A criterion for assessment of the case studies is as follows:
Demonstrate a critical and evaluative approach to professional practice
I am heartened by the quality of reflection in most participants’ accounts with some employing, e.g. Brookfield’s lenses (1995) overtly to structure their case studies.
Microteaching is another (minor) feature on the module. It is deployed to develop participants’ interactive presentation skills and provides an opportunity to give and receive targeted feedback in a safe setting. I am in agreement with Amobi & Erwin (2009) who campaigned for greater emphasis on microteaching and intend to explore its potential further in my module.
Finally, I hope that I model reflective practice. The module that I lead is evaluated in several ways including formal and informal feedback from participants and their student representative, responses from the external examiner and discussion among my team of academic developers. Any proposed changes to the module must be justified formally because it is a credit-bearing masters module of the UoR’s Institute of Education.
Amobi, F.A. & Erwin, L. (2009). Implementing on-campus microteaching to elicit pre-service teachers’ reflection on teaching actions: Fresh perspective on an established practice. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Vol. 9, No. 1, pp.27-34
Biggs, J.B. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. McGraw Hill and Open University Press.
Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass.
Canale, M. & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics, Vol. 1, 1, pp.1-47.
Craig, J. & Cairo, L. (2005). Assessing the relationship between Questioning and Understanding to Improve Learning and Thinking (QUILT) and student achievement in mathematics: A pilot study. Appalachia Educational Laboratory (AEL).
Dains, D. (1986). Are teachers asking the right questions? Education 1, (4) 368–374.
Dillon, J. T. (1988). Questioning and teaching: A manual of practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Ernst, H.R. & Ernst, T.L. (2005) The promise and pitfalls of differentiated instruction for undergraduate Political Science courses: Student and instructor impressions of an unconventional teaching strategy. Journal of Political Science Education, 1:1, 39-59.
Harmer, J. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Moyer, P. & Milewicz, E. (2002). Learning to question: Categories of questioning used by preservice teachers during diagnostic mathematics interviews. Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 5, 293–315.
Rowe, M. B. (1986). Wait-time: Slowing down may be a way of speeding up! Journal of Teacher Education, 37(1), 43-48.
Schön, D.A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. NY: Basic Book.
Tomlinson, C.A. (2000). How to differentiate in mixed-ability classrooms. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1986) Thought and Language. The M.I.T. Press.
Word count V1 420; V2 456; V3 400; V4 435; V5 418