What, So What, Now What? Covid-19 as a Critical Incident in Practice

The past eighteen months have seen educational developers navigating the emergency closure of our campuses and a changed landscape in higher education due to the global Covid-19 pandemic. In this post, we suggest that the experience of these sudden changes to educational practice might be considered as a critical incident inspiring deep reflection. We suggest that tried and tested reflective frameworks for critical incident analysis are likely to be more useful than methodologies aligning with formally designed educational interventions.

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How we can get students to think critically and talk about it

Image of the Good Practice Guide

A key debate in HE is whether tertiary education sufficiently develops students’ skills in thinking critically (Huber and Kunchel, 2016). To answer this question, a cross disciplinary community of practice called CritTALK was established at Kingston University to develop critical thinking teaching practices. Their first discovery was the lack of teaching resources in the sector, despite evidence which endorses explicit teaching of critical thinking within existing curricula (Abrami, et al, 2015). A set of critical thinking teaching resources (Wason, 2016) which were tailored to disciplinary curricula and aligned to learning outcomes and assessment criteria were developed to address this. However, despite its wide dissemination, and training on its use, teachers said that they were often unsure of the pedagogical principles underpinning the toolkit and how to use the resources. A chance encounter at a conference brought the authors together where they decided to investigate whether the principles of dialogic teaching could provide the pedagogical support needed to teach criticality. Critical thinking is both supported by and developed through educational classroom discourse (Michaels, O’Connor and Resnick, 2008). This enables teachers and students to work together to reach a common understanding (Alexander, 2010).

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Learning from the pandemic to embed empathy in students-as-partners practice

Overnight the pandemic levelled the experiences of students and staff like no other development in students-as-partners (SaP) practice.  While some existing inequities were exacerbated, and some new ones emerged during the pandemic, we all found ourselves going through a collectively-shared trauma and checking in on, and caring for each other, from our isolated bedrooms and kitchen tables.  At the same time, we found ourselves working with tools and approaches that were new to many of us.  This unprecedented and sudden change to the daily running of mass Higher Education created different kinds of dialogues between students and staff, which were fundamentally underpinned by empathy.

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Building your SoTL Profile as an educational developer

In November we ran an online workshop for SEDA and the educational development community. The two hour session supported attendees to plan practical steps they could take to develop their Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) profile. It was great to see both experienced and new educational developers come together. Wherever you are on your SoTL journey the message was clear that there can always be more to learn if you want to extend the reach and impact of your work. In the session, we explored what SoTL is and what SoTL isn’t, we looked at the opportunities and challenges in engaging with SoTL in the diverse roles and institutions that attendees came from. Attendees included academics looking to develop their SoTL profile as part of a developing claim for teaching recognition. However most were educational developers thinking about both their own SoTL profile and how they could work with teaching staff, those studying for a PGCerts and learning about SoTL in other contexts, to develop their approaches to scholarship.

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Food for thought – benefits of a World Café methodology  

World Café methodology has a powerful resonance with the values of today’s universities on so many levels. It is collaborative, conversational, participative and global in outlook. More than that, there is an emphasis on equilibrium and shared ownership, echoing values such as those found in Cedric Taylor’s article on Cooperative learning in an African context.  Therein, the focus is on ways of empowering those whose voices have been marginalised as a consequence of colonisation.

Presently, as universities are working similarly hard to bring such marginalised voices to the fore, the World Café approach has much to offer. This methodology is based around principles of encouraging dialogue amongst equals. As such, it can be used with either staff or students and there is a place for it in so many of the conversations that we are having in HE right now. Potentially it can be used as a means of teacher development or as a spark for discussion about pedagogy, curriculum, equality, diversity, inclusion and countless other areas of contemporary relevance. Significantly too, the seven principles which lie at the heart of this methodology are equally applicable to online delivery.

Essentially, as the name suggests, a café environment is created, which looks just like a scene of people at tables in any hospitality setting, such as a bar or a coffee shop. This classroom or delivery platform serves as a social space in which participants can move around and converse on topics or questions generated by a host. The role of the host is not to be a traditional lecturer but to be a facilitator of discussion. Essentially, they are there to stimulate rather than dictate the direction of conversation. As such, this has echoes of Vygotskian ideas (1978) about how knowledge is developed and reinforced on the basis of social interaction following on from an initial stimulus of exposure to expertise. An example of what this might look like in practice is shown in the image below.

Image 1 – workshop begins with input from host

After the host has spoken and the context is created, the audience are then asked to discuss a set of questions as shown in Image 2.

Image 2 – audience discuss a set of questions, changing groups and positions after each one

There are different ways of the host facilitating discussions with some asking only a single set of questions and others giving directions or theory to a greater extent. Whatever approach is taken, the end goal is to have generated some form of written output as a result of discussions and conversations, as shown in Image 3.

Effectively, the findings of the discussion are shaped by responses from the audience rather than presenting the audience with a pre-determined or finished set of assumptions to begin with. This allows for a greater sense of equilibrium and all voices being heard in some manner. Just as with Cedric Taylor’s example of cooperative learning, everyone is being given a chance to express their opinions and shape the discussion.   

Image 3 – fruit from the discussion in form of written output that presenter can then use as a means of feedback, research etc.

On the whole, a World Café methodology is an excellent means of fostering dialogue in the workplace or in any professional development setting, such as in our wider professional communities of practice. It is a creative and innovative way of changing the nature of staff development sessions and giving a greater weight to the voices of participants. By fostering and eventually adopting such cultures of equity and inclusivity at staff level, it becomes easier for participants then to purposefully enact the same principles in their classrooms.

Just as many of us are moving away from traditional lectures to shaping our courses around newer, interactive pedagogies, staff development is also becoming more personalised and discursive. Methodologies such as the World Café approach allow teams and communities to develop through the sharing of ideas in respectful, inclusive and non-hierarchical environments. At the same time, the role of theory and expert knowledge is not diluted in any way. Rather it is re-packaged, condensed and delivered differently. Everyone gets a chance to speak and equally importantly to mix with as many people as possible. That can only be a positive thing in large workplaces where staff are often very busy and want to get as much as possible out of developmental opportunities.

Paul Breen– Senior Lecturer at The University of Westminster and author of Developing Educators for the Digital Age

Special thanks to Susie Cowley-Haselden now at The University of Warwick for providing the pictures and organising the event that first introduced me to this approach to presentation and development.

References

Taylor, C.A., 1995. Cooperative learning in an African context.  International Journal of Educational Research23(3), pp.239-253.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (A. R. Luria, M. Lopez-Morillas & M. Cole [with J. V. Wertsch], Trans.) Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. [Original manuscript, c.a. 1934].

World Café website.

Supporting Programme Leadership in the age of Covid 19: The SEDA Programme Leader Tool-Kit

The programme leader is responsible for ensuring a coherent programme of study is designed and delivered by a diverse collection of academic colleagues. It is arguably one of the most crucial roles in HE (Lawrence and Ellis, 2018).

Working within institutional structures, leading, managing and bringing together academic and professional service colleagues (Lafoe et al, 2013) while addressing various stakeholder requirements and quality assurance process can be difficult (Zutshi et al, 2013) and isolating (Cahill et al, 2015) at the best of times. In the age of COVID 19, where constant change and uncertainty reigns, where the practical and pastoral support needs of staff and students are intense, this kind of educational leadership is all the more demanding.

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Leading education-focused career development: towards a common understanding of scholarship and its outputs

The UK HE sector continues to increase its reliance on teaching-focused roles with HESA data reporting 32% of overall academic staff employed on teaching-focused contracts in 2019/20 (HESA, 2021). We adopt the term education-focused to include the variation in career pathway nomenclature across institutions that align to the HESA teaching only category. Some examples include teaching-focused, education and scholarship, teaching and learning.

Unlike research career paths, a common sector approach to promotion for those on ‘teaching and scholarship’ tracks has not yet emerged, leading to variation in practice both at an institutional level and across UK HE. This has contributed to a sense of confusion for those who seek to progress their careers on such tracks. The concerns are increasingly recognised across the sector and emergent work in specific disciplinary areas, notably the UK Business School sector, is now starting to address education-focused career progression e.g. British Academy of Management (Anderson & Mallanaphy, 2020).

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Finding the I: ‘Doing a Good Job Well – Being Recognised as an Experienced, Professional Teacher in HE’: A SEDA Special

The UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) was launched in 2011 to articulate expectations of those who teach or support learning in higher education. Since publication is has become the benchmark against which many institutional and sector-wide schemes of teaching recognition are measured. The SEDA Special ‘Doing a Good Job Well – Being Recognised as an Experienced, Professional Teacher in HE’ investigates how to engage with the UKPSF. Through five chapters it examines different aspects, with a particular focus on how to make the case for ‘Descriptor 3’.

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East, West, SEDA’s best!

From 2017–2021, we partnered the Association of Commonwealth Universities in a 4-year capacity building project in blended learning in 23 universities in East Africa, in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.  Called Partnership for Enhanced and Blended Learning (PEBL), SEDA’s responsibilities were to design, develop and deliver a course, Developing Blended Learning (DBL) that explored the pedagogic underpinnings of repurposing material for online/blended delivery, which was evidenced practically by the development of a module that was shared with colleagues in the region.

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Reflective Practice: A SEDA Special

A Timely Revisit!

The past 18 months have made the activity of critically considering and reflecting on our teaching practice more important than ever as the sector has been turned upside down with the wholesale adoption of online teaching approaches.  In this SEDA Special, the authors briefly outline the current scholarship around reflective practice and offer different approaches for experienced and inexperienced teachers to interrogate their practice within their own context.

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