I was attending a conference on teaching and learning in higher education earlier in the month. I was only half listening because I was on my way out of the academy – one week away from my final day after my position was made redundant.
I am a dinosaur, an academic who clings to the idea that universities are places of learning. I don’t just mean the formal curriculum, but universities, no matter whether you’re a student or a researcher or an administrator or a teacher or a learning designer, are places that, to me, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, are places for exploring ideas … and to me, exploring ideas is learning.
Ideas can be extended upon, challenged, engaged with, debated, thought about, written about, performed, reflected on, explained, discussed, acted upon, reinforced, extended, justified. They can be tested – literally/actually/physically as well as intellectually. Ideas aren’t, in my old-fashioned way of thinking, things that are only ‘academic’ or ‘theoretical’ or ‘cerebral’ or ‘abstract’ – words often used perjoratively. They can be made concrete and real and are always worth our time and attention.
Exploring ideas can be tough – intellectually and emotionally.
It can be tough intellectually as it requires knowledge and thought and the capacity to see from a multitude of perspectives. It requires us to seek out more information, to analyse and synthesise, to create new ideas from existing ones. It requires the development of our capacity to explain the idea, to communicate it in ways that have meaning for others (verbally, spatially, graphically, amongst others).
It requires us to sit in ambiguity, to not know.
And the not knowing and the ambiguity can lead us to feelings of vulnerability, and that’s tough emotionally.
It’s tough emotionally, particularly when you’re in an environment in which your knowledge and your ideas are being tested or assessed. In which you feel that *you’re* being tested or assessed. Judged. Do you know enough? Do you know the right things? Can you communicate what you know in a way that aligns with the rubric? Can you justify your ideas and the outcomes/consequences/recommendations that result from those ideas?
I learnt in the higher ed conference I attended earlier in the month that ‘justify’ is a “triggering word for students”. That “while it’s a word academics like to use, students don’t like it”.
The academic, a unit chair in an allied health course, said that she’s changed the triggering word to ‘explain’ or ‘describe’. “It’s a change that’s been well-accepted by students”.
Students no longer have to justify the recommendations they make in relation to a client’s treatment, they just have to explain and describe them.
What are we doing in higher ed? Are we so concerned with student satisfaction that we infantalise them to the degree that rather than supporting them through the challenging aspects of their course, we instead remove any challenge?
I watched my six-year old granddaughter trying to do a headstand recently. She placed her hands carefully, ensured her head created the third point of the triangle, switched on her core, and pushed her feet off the floor. Something in her technique was wrong, and she did not manage to do a headstand. She tried again. And again. And again.
She cried in frustration because she could not do a headstand ‘properly’. Despite her tears, she kept practicing. I didn’t watch the whole session as I was on FaceTime but her mother told me later that she tried for three hours and cried each time she couldn’t do it. Finally, she was successful.
Learning is hard. I was once told I wasn’t allowed to say that to students as it’s a negative message. To me, it’s also a truth. Coming out of our comfort zone to sit in a space of not knowing, of being unsure, of reaching for understanding and not quite getting there (yet) is challenging.
It puts us in a place of vulnerability and that’s uncomfortable. But if we don’t move from our place of comfort, then we don’t grow or develop. We don’t learn.
Learning is hard. The teachers’ role is not to make it less hard, but to support students through the challenges.
We infantalise students when we remove the challenge rather than helping them overcome it.
There’s a conference happening as I type. It’s a conference on teaching and learning in higher education … and a student’s comments bring to mind a snippet of everyday life I heard about many years ago.
Annie lives in a small country town. She is married, has three children under the age of 7, and does not work outside the home. The eldest child catches the bus to and from school.
The family has one car and as Annie’s husband works in the bigger town 30 minutes away, and there is no public transport (apart from the school bus), he drives most days. That leaves Annie without a car. There are no shops or parks within walking distance and the hills and narrow roads make taking a four-year old and a baby for a walk a challenge.
The four-year old has discovered she likes mangoes. The enchantment with mangoes extends beyond the mango-growing season, which she does not understand. She wants a mango. She lets Annie know she wants a mango. She lets the neighbours and the sheep in the front paddock know she wants a mango.
No amount of explaining that mangoes are not available will convince the child that she cannot have a mango. She argues that they could go to the shop to buy one. But even if there was a shop that sold mangoes, they don’t have the car that day and the shop isn’t within walking distance. This is something that is beyond her comprehension. She thinks of herself and not of the wider system of which she, and mangoes, are a part.
Annie takes some frozen mango from the freezer, but the child is adamant it isn’t real mango and so does not want it. She takes it outside to feed to the sheep in the front paddock.
I am reminded of this snippet of everyday life while listening to the conference presenter – a student who wants to attend classes on campus when “I feel like it” and to attend classes online when “I’m not able to attend in person”. She doesn’t want to have to tell her tutor when she’ll attend on-campus and when she’ll attend online or when she won’t attend at all.
The other adults in the conference agree that that’s a reasonable position to take. No one mentions the wider systems of which the student is a part but which are outside of her immediate attention.
Ignore, for now, the administrative processes and the technological systems at play here. Let’s focus on the student experience.
Louise is a student at a university in a major city in Australia. In Week 3 she decides to attend the weekly 2-hour tutorial on campus. The tutorials are recorded so that students who cannot attend synchronously can have access to the material covered and the questions and provocations explored in the tutorial.
They’re also live-streamed so that students who cannot attend on campus can attend synchronously from a place of their choosing (home, work, the train, a holiday house at the beach, a cafe, a hospital room …). The university is known for providing opportunities for students to learn at any time, from anywhere, and at any place.
Louise arrives to find the teacher and three other students in the classroom. The official enrolment for the tutorial is 25. The tutor has connected to the live-streaming software allowing all enrolled students who attend synchronously to interact if they choose. Those who attend synchronously online have indicated that they like to feel part of the class, even if they’re not there physically.
The tutor has planned an interactive session where students have opportunities to actively engage with the ideas being discussed and hear others’ views. She has planned for students to work in small groups and in that way learn with and from each other. They will share their ideas, take a variety of stakeholder perspectives, formulate solutions to problems they’ve identified and justify which of those possible solutions they would recommend if they were working in a professional setting.
Nine students have joined the live-stream. They don’t have their cameras on and so show up as black boxes or initials on the screen. The two cohorts do not interact with each other, as those online keep their microphones off and while they talk when put into breakout rooms, they don’t interact with the four students in the physical room.
Louise finds the experience unsatisfying, personally, socially and intellectually. She had wanted to be part of a dynamic group of learners all seeking to explore this highly interesting and relevant area of the course. She wanted to share her ideas and was keen to hear others’ ideas. She had questions of a technical nature of the tutor but her voice sounded too loud in the near-empty room and so she kept quiet. Those who attended via the live stream interacted with each other but not with those in the physical room, and while those in the physical room contributed to the discussion and shared their ideas, the lack of a diversity of views, ideas, solutions and recommendations left her feeling flat.
The following week Louise finds she cannot attend the tutorial and listens to the recording. She finds the experience unsatisfying. She does not have the opportunity to share or discuss her ideas and is not able to hear others’ conversations as the recording cuts out when the students engage in small group conversations.
In Week 5, Louise attends via the live-stream. There are two other students attending in this mode, and two students in the physical classroom. When it comes time to join the breakout room, Louise logs off. It is an unsatisfying experience all round.
At the end of semester, she completes the unit evaluation and scores the tutor poorly. She did not have a good experience and wants the university, and her tutor, to know.
The situation is complex. Louise wants to be free to choose but is unaware, when making her choice, of some of the outcomes of that choice. She wants the choice to study when and where she wants and the capacity to make that decision on a weekly basis, unaware that choice has consequences for her experience.
There is nothing like a room full of students talking, discussing, playing around with ideas and of coming to better understand the skills and abilities they’ll need to be better financial advisers, or engaging and compassionate teachers, or architects who can play with shape and form and functionality. The feel in that room – whether it’s a virtual or physical room – can be energising and motivating.
When teachers create space for students to engage intellectually and socially and professionally, learning is enriched and empowering.
But those enriching and empowering learning experiences can’t happen in the absence of learners. Deciding not to attend has consequences that go beyond the individual.
I fear we’re headed towards an impoverished system of higher education that caters to an individualisation which sees decisions made on what individuals want (more flexibility to do things my way) without thinking about the wider consequences for learning and social and profesional interaction.
Flexibility has enormous benefits to students. It provides many with the only way of studying as they juggle the many other aspects of their lives. It is crucial for students to have options for when and how they study.
But, is there ever a point when we have to accept that just because we want a mango now, it doesn’t necessarily mean we can have one?
Is unbounded flexibility possible? And if it is, will it lead to the desired outcomes?
One final question, though perhaps for another time: Whatever happened to asynchronous learning?
I was one of those kids at school who teachers didn’t like very much. I’m not sure what it was, but I never endeared myself to my teachers.
Some of them hit me, some of them kicked me, some of them made me stand behind the classroom door, or sit under their desk, or leave the room. I can’t remember many of them being terribly nice to me.
I was a middling student who probably had a smarter mouth than brain and said more than I should have. I was clever, but not clever enough to keep my mouth shut or stop my eyes from rolling.
Being a middling student meant I didn’t have the educational needs some students had. I wasn’t gifted and so didn’t get any attention for being particularly good at anything; and I didn’t need remedial attention because I wasn’t really bad at anything. I didn’t have much potential for anything outstanding and so didn’t need encouragement or prompting … and let’s face it, if I was ‘prompted’ I would probably have said something that saw me sent behind the door or under a desk in no time flat.
I come from a family of middling students. None of us excelled academically. We did alright, but our place was firmly in the middle. We weren’t duxes, we didn’t win presitgious academic awards, we didn’t have ATAR scores in the 90s.
I was awarded a merit certificate in primary school one year.
It was for ‘uniform’. I felt it should have been awarded to my mother.
I don’t remember ever having positive relationships with my teachers though, although there was one female teacher in Grade 5 who was lovely.
When you have a good relationship with your students, they are more likely to feel positive about class and about school in general. They are also more willing to have a go at hard work, to risk making mistakes, and to ask for help when they need it” (Killian).
Holding high standards without providing a warm environment is merely harsh. A warm environment without high standards lacks backbone. But if you can create a combination of high standards with a warm and supportive environment it will benefit all students, not just the high achievers.
I wrote some time ago about punitive education and some of the lessons we learn from school and from the teachers who inhabit it/control it.
What might students learn from teachers who care about them (and let them know they care) and who have high expectations of them?
Late last year I spoke with about a dozen small groups of Year 9 students from a local high school. It was part of a program called Future Me; a program designed to help Year 9 students develop a range of ‘enterprise skills’, one of which is communication. In groups of 4 or 5, students spoke with a range of university staff, asking the staff questions about their schooling, their jobs, their career pathways.
A few of the groups asked me what had been my favourite subject at school. That really made me stop and think.
I ended up being honest with them and told them that I hadn’t liked high school much and I didn’t have a favourite subject. They were surprised that someone teaching at university didn’t like high school; hopefully it helped them realise that high school experiences don’t necessarily define your whole life – although in Year 9 it sure feels like they do.
If I’d thought about it some more, I may have said that English was one of my favourite subjects. The problem with it wasn’t the subject, but the teacher. I didn’t like my English teacher. He was punitive and I didn’t like his attitude. For the record, he didn’t like mine either.
Art was good because we sometimes got the opportunity to travel to Sydney to the Art Gallery of NSW – as well as other places – and I enjoyed that. But I didn’t like my Art teacher. She was punitive and I didn’t like her attitude. She really really didn’t like mine!
One of the times I was thrown out of Art class, I saw a boy being caned by a punitive woodwork teacher.
We had weekly assemblies and one of the teachers would patrol around the assembled students checking to see if the boys were wearing the right sort of socks. There were consequences for those who weren’t. Punitive ones.
It was the 1970s and I guess punitive was an educational fad back then. I like to think it isn’t one anymore …
It’s easy to be punitive though, and some still think it’s better for children and young people if their teachers are punitive, if they rule through fear. I read a comment on a ‘tell us about your favourite teacher’ blog from a man who said that getting the cane ‘certainly kept us focussed on doing the right thing’. I wonder if it helped with his learning?
Even back then schools weren’t only about learning – well, not in the academic sense. We sure learnt stuff, but lots of it wasn’t part of the official curriculum. Boys learnt to wear the ‘right’ socks, girls learnt that to get ahead they had to be ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘compliant’. Boys learnt not to cry; in fact, many boys learnt not to have emotions at all, or that some emotions were bad and therefore shouldn’t be part of their repertoire. Happy was a legitimate emotion as long we you didn’t have too much of it, and if you were tall and good looking and a favourite with the teachers, you could have pride and conceit in your bag of emotions as well, but others, like sadness or disappointment, were to be internalised or just avoided altogether.
Boys learnt that if you did the wrong thing, you were hit by an adult weilding a stick – and your parents generally thought that was an okay thing to do too. Girls learnt that if you spoke up about things that didn’t feel right – like boys being hit by stick-weilding adults – they were sent out of the room, or to that space behind the classroom door where your only companions were spiderwebs and dust.
I would have thought that these days punitive was gone from schools – but it seems to be alive and well. My 13-year old grandson said ‘hello mate’ to the school principal through the year and was then forced to sit outside said principal’s office for almost 2 hours. I’m not suggesting that saying ‘hello mate’ to the school principal is the correct way to address the principal, but sitting outside his office for almost 2 hours didn’t teach Ronan a more appropriate greeting. What a great lesson he could have had in levels of formality and when it’s appropriate to refer to someone as ‘mate’ and when it isn’t. Instead, Ronan felt aggrieved and angry and now feels more negative towards the principal than he otherwise might.
We know that learning in schools is, in large part, about relationships. Being punitive doesn’t help build good ones.
What other lessons might we teach if we stop being punitive?
That might not come as much of a surprise to those who know me well, but it comes as a surprise to me.
It remains a surprise, given that the realisation hits me every ten years or so. In the intervening times I simply forget.
Do you do that? Flashes of realisation about yourself, then forget, only to be reminded a year, or ten, later that, oh yes, that’s right. I forgot. I’m an idealist.
My latest revelation came after dinner at my sister’s place a year or so ago*. We got to talking about schooling and after chewing over certain parts of the conversation over the next few days, I had my flash of self-awareness.
I can’t think of any other way to say this than: for me, education (formal education) is about learning.
There. I’ve said it. That’s what it means to me.
And I’ve realised that that’s an idealistic way of thinking about formal education.
To me formal education is not primarily about:
a score on a NAPLAN test
a grade on the end of year exam
marks, and whether you get enough of them to get into university
whether you pass or fail an assignment, or a unit, or a course
To my way of thinking, formal education – whether you’re in Prep, or Grade 3, or Grade 11, or first year university – is primarily about learning.
Not grades, not marks, not passing tests, not learning enough to do well in spelling bees or at trivia nights at the local club.
Learning is challenging and requires thinking and changes of perspective and knowledge and understanding and questions: posing them as well as answering them. It requires reflection and resilience and determination and discipline.
And the bonus? Learning leads to test passing and success in spelling bees and impressing your mates at the local pub trivia. And a host of other, much more important things besides.
But it seems that schools and universities are not in the business of learning.
They are simply in business.
That’s how the education system seems to see it – and the politicians who enact educational policy. The education system is about students getting a good score in NAPLAN so that we (the rest of us outside of the education system) can hold teachers to account, so that we can hold schools to account; so that students – education’s ‘customers’ can move from high school to university, and from university into the workforce for the purpose of ensuring Australia is “internationally competitive”, economically strong, part of a culture built on consumption. That’s where growth comes from – from more of us consuming more.
There are implications of this thought process for what is taught, how it’s taught, who is taught and who does the teaching. It has implications for the kinds of expectations educators have of students and the level of responsibility given to students for their own learning.
And in this blighted landscape of education as business, education is something that is consumed. It’s a product we purchase. Universities don’t have students anymore; they have customers. And customers demand satisfaction for the goods they purchase. And customers’ purchasing should require as little effort as possible.
Customers don’t want to work for the goods they purchase. I mean, when was the last time you paid for a lipstick you had to then build from ingredients you had to source yourself, or even ones that were given to you? When was the last time you had to fry the chips you’d just paid for at the fish ‘n chippy, before taking them home to lavish with tomato sauce and consume?
Many customers of universities don’t want to have new ideas or perspectives to consider or to experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. They don’t want the pain of not doing well, of being uncertain, of not knowing. Some of them don’t even want the fuss of having to craft their own assignments.
Education is a business with customers to satisfy and a national economy to help grow.
It’s idealistic to cling to the idea that it’s about learning, and all learning’s attendent benefits.
And yet, I find the older I get and the more experience I have in formal education, the more I cling.
Perhaps I’ve turned into an anachronism … if I have, at least I’m an idealistic one!
* I came to my blog to write about something else entirely, and found much of this in the ‘drafts’ folder. I had the ‘I’m an idealist’ revelation again, finished the post and thought I may as well publish it.
We are asked to introduce ourselves. Most people give their name, title and something about the work they do. It’s my turn and I say ‘Hi, I’m Sharon. I do stuff.’
People laugh and then the next person introduces himself, gives his title, says something about what he does, and that continues around the table.
But … what?
Why did I respond in that way? Why didn’t I give my title and say something about what I do? Particularly as the people around the table are my colleagues. Most of them – if not all of them – know my title and what I do.
Even weirder, now that I think about it some more in the cold hard light of day. And when I say ‘cold’ I mean freezing. It’s so cold today I’m sitting inside with a woollen hat on, a buff (a scarf without ends) around my neck, a warm cardigan, while the heater dribbles out heat in the background.
I went to see Cornelia (not her real name) yesterday afternoon. Cornelia is my onc-psych (yes, apparently there is such a thing) and I told her about this because I thought it was interesting and it fitted in with other things we were talking about.
Cornelia challenged me to describe what I do and the value of what I do to an imaginary audience of Grade 5 kids. Or Prep kids. Or people who aren’t in the same industry as me.
So here I am. I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to do this on my blog, but as you’re my audience and might be good enough to give me your time and possibly some feedback, I thought I may as well describe what I do and the value of what I do to you – a real, rather than an imagined audience.
Or perhaps you are an imagined audience. I’ll imagine you’re out there, sitting in the warmth, scrolling through your emails, finding one from Musings on the Cold, and saying to yourself ‘what the heck. I may as well see what Sharon has to say today.’ And here you are.
Grab a cuppa, this is a seriously long read.
What do I do in my professional life and what is its value?
I’m a Senior Lecturer (Student Engagement) in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.
I work with academic staff (those who teach undergraduate and postgraduate students) to help further develop their teaching practice. I also work with those who work with academic staff to help them further develop the work they do in working with academic staff in further developing their teaching practice.
That sounds a little convoluted, even to me. Hopefully, it will become a bit more clear as (if) you read on.
Academics have three main parts to their role:
Research (that includes writing grant applications, conducting research – writing ethics applications, designing surveys/questionnaires/interview schedules, gathering and analysing data, writing peer reviewed journal articles …)
Service (engage in committees that make decisions about important initiatives, take on leaderships roles …)
Teach (prepare unit guides, design the structure of an 11 week unit/subject so that it has a coherent thread, design assessment tasks, record lectures and podcasts and be animated and lively as you do it, align assessment with learning outcomes, develop learning resources to scaffold student learning, determine ways of engaging students and tapping into their personal motivations and interest for studying this subject, liaise with library staff about library resources, liaise with language and literacy advisers on the best way to support students’ academic development, liaise with the work integrated learning team to determine how to incorporate some employability education into the unit, ensure compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of discipline knowledge and also how to teach and assess, present information, meet with those teaching into their units to ensure there’s consistency in the information provided to students and in the ways students are being taught, respond to student requests for extensions, comply with standards for online learning (accessibility, etc), respond to student requests for information that was in the Week 3 notes but that the student hadn’t accessed, respond to student queries about whether this particular nugget of information will be in the exam, wonder why many students don’t turn up to class, mark student assignments, give feedback to students saying the same thing over and over ‘your work could be strengthened if you accessed the materials and attended more regularly’, conduct moderation meetings to ensure all markers are marking consistently and are providing positive and constructive feedback, write a unit review at the end of the semester to justify the high fail rates, ensure there’s a spread of grades consistent with a bell curve even though we do criterion-referenced assessment to which bell curves don’t apply, read student evaluations that often say hurtful things of a personal nature (Sharon is fat, Sharon has no sense of humour, Sharon’s hair is ridiculous), respond to student enquiries within 48 hours, ensure the unit is inclusive of those from rural and regional areas, those from a low socio-economic demographic, those who have a disability, those who work, those who have children and elderly parents, those who don’t really want to be in this subject, this course, this university, this country but they have to because their parents’ expectations are high, engage students in active learning, teach them about teamwork and self management and critical thinking and problem solving and global citizenship as well as disciplinary-specific content knowledge, be familiar with a range of technologies, pretend you can do all this … and more …).
A ‘balanced’ workload is 40/40/20. That is, an academic will have 40% of their workload allocation devoted to research, 40% to teaching and 20% to service.
Many academics come to universities as experts in their field. They are expert accountants, or financial planners, or foreign exchange traders. They are keen to undertake research. Research builds your profile nationally and internationally. Research builds a university’s profile nationally and internationally. There are university rankings and all universities want to be at or close to the top. You get close to the top primarily through research, although teaching evaluations from students plus success and retention rates are also part of the equation. But research is important.
Most academics have a PhD and so come to the academy knowing how to do research. Once at the university, they often get onto research teams and are mentored and supported by more experienced others in how to write grant applications, how to write ethics applications, how to write journal articles, how to get published (or they mentor and support those who are newer to academia). They publish in teams and so an academic might have their name on a dozen papers, along with a dozen other academics, all of whom contributed in some way to the research, although not necessarily to the writing of the paper. It’s very important to have your name on the paper. It’s how you and the university builds a national and international profile.
Not many academics come to universities knowing how to teach. They’ve been in school, they’ve spent time in universities as students, but just as going to the dentist regularly doesn’t mean you know how to dentist, being a student doesn’t mean you know how to teach. Teaching is often something that is done individually. A unit chair will do much of the work I mentioned in point 3 above. On their own. Often with limited time, particularly in the initial stages of unit design and development.
Many academics come to teaching with the idea that teaching is about telling students what they need to know and then testing them on that at the end of the trimester to see how much they’ve ‘learnt’. Not many academics build their national or international profile through teaching. Not many universities get to the top of the league tables through teaching.
Teaching is often evaluated on the basis of what students have to say and when what they have to say is unhelpful (Sharon is fat. Sharon has no sense of humour. Sharon’s hair is ridiculous) then it’s difficult to know how to improve. Teaching tends not to be a team activity. There’s little mentoring and support from more experienced others. Research into your own teaching is called ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ rather than research and isn’t valued as highly as ‘real’ research, even though there are grant applications to write, ethics applications to develop, data to be gathered and analysed, writing of a journal article that will be peer reviewed … it’s just like research but it’s called scholarship and so doesn’t count as much.
So for the academic who comes to university primarily to engage in research, teaching can be an uncomfortable space. An often unsupported space.
Universities provide support for the technological aspects of teaching: how to record a lecture (as in, which buttons to push) but not so many resources on how to record a lecture (as in, how to engage students in the ways you present information, the structure of the lecture, ways to be your authentic self in front of the camera); how to develop a rubric (as in, which buttons to click to ensure it’s in the right place within the learning management system and that the numbers add up accurately) but there are fewer people employed to support academics in how to develop a rubric (as in, how do you develop criteria that align with the learning outcomes, what language do you use to differentiate between someone’s capacity to communicate at a Distinction level rather than a High Distinction level; how to assess quality rather than quantity – how well the references were used to suppport the writer’s argument or analysis rather than how many were used).
I am a teacher. I’ve been a qualified teacher since 1997. I’ve spent over 22 years in classrooms of one sort or another and/or supporting those who teach. I started out teaching English and Drama to senior secondary students. English teaching (and preparing to be an English teacher) meant that I learnt about language and purpose and audience and structure and communicating in writing as well as verbally. It taught me about nuances in language and about the formalities of language – about register and tone and semiotics and syntax. And about deliberate communicative structures and when it’s okay to break rules and why apostrophes are important.
Drama teaching (and preparing to be a Drama teacher) taught me about embodied learning, about authentic learning, about experiential learning, about giving feedback, about being in the moment, about jumping in and doing rather than sitting back and thinking, about experiences and ways of communicating them through real and imagined events, about emotionality and how to make a scream with your body rather than your voice, and about experimentation and trying things out, about flexible and creative thinking, about the importance of reflection to the learning process, and the importance of breath and movement and of voice – of using it and supporting it.
And for many years I worked in radio. Working in radio taught me about time – time management, time use, how to fill it, how to structure it. It taught me about audience – communicating with the audience, listening to the audience, speaking to one person rather than to many, imagining your listener and speaking directly to that person. It taught me about structure, how to use music to carry the program through an hour of ups and downs, of melodies and rhythms; how to use pace, when to speed up and when to slow down; how to edit an interview and to structure it to make it flow; how to present information, how to ask open questions, how to encourage people to tell their story, how to build relationships quickly, how to use humour to add light and shade to an interview (Sharon has no sense of humour), how a smile warms up your voice. It also taught me the importance of preparation, whether that’s preparing for a music program, a talk program, a panel interview, an interview with a member of parliament, for talkback with Peter Cundall, for dealing with technical issues in a dignified way on air and ensuring your microphone is off before you fall to pieces.
For many years I was a teacher educator, teaching those preparing to become primary and secondary school teachers. Teaching and learning, assessment and planning, curriculum and pedagogy were what I taught – they were my disciplines. I was teaching people about teaching – asking them endless questions about the role of schools in society, the role of teachers, the reason we teach what we teach in schools. I encouraged students to think about who they were as teachers, why they were teaching, why they were teaching in the way they were teaching, encouraging them to think about how they use their time, how they structure it in the classroom, how they plan for learning, how they know that learning has happened. I was also teaching about self-management – about planning, monitoring and evaluating your own learning, critical thinking, communicating to diverse audiences, working as a member of a team, ethical practice. In addition, I taught Drama and Literacy and encouraged students to keep their teaching real and authentic and embodied and experiential. I developed as a teacher-educator over time, just as, years before, I had developed as a teacher over time.
And so now I know something about teaching and learning and engagement and assessment. About how to structure the presentation of information, how to communicate with an audience you’re not in front of, how to ask questions that elicit responses that go beyond yes/no answers. I know about unit design for oncampus and online teaching and learning; I know what strategies will encourage active learning; I can use language effectively in the development of rubrics; I know how to design a unit to encourage intellectual engagement as well as professional and academic engagement. I have written articles and conference papers about teaching and learning, I have developed my knowledge and understanding and practice from a myriad of authors who engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I attend conferences and listen to how others enact their teaching and how they encourage students to engage in learning. My ideas about teaching are built on experience and reflection and scholarship and research and reading and interacting with others. And, if I’m honest, my ideas about teaching are also built on my experience as an educational leader.
And so, I do more than ‘stuff’. I work with academic staff (those involved in teaching) to further develop their teaching practice. I encourage them to reconsider the ‘teaching as telling’ approach; to think about teaching as an embodied, experiential, authentic endeavour that leads to students being more effective communicators and critical thinkers and team members and problem solvers.
And I work with those others in the team (colleagues employed as learning designers or educational technologists or educational developers or project managers) who also work with academic staff, to further my colleagues’ understanding of teaching and learning and how best to work with academics in helping them further develop their practice.
As well as the many failures I’ve had, I’ve also had some successes. My office is littered with Teaching Merit Certificates from my years at the University of Tasmania. Last year I was awarded Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. HEA Fellowship ‘demonstrates a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education’. Senior Fellows need to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, and so it was an honour to be successful in my application.
Most recently, I was part of a team awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) ‘Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning’. Only 30 were awarded across Australia and again, I felt very honoured to have been part of a successful team.
So perhaps I need to acknowledge that I do know stuff, and that it’s quite valuable stuff to know, and that I can add value to others’ practice and ultimately to the student experience.
I tend to think I lost the Prep audience some time ago, and possibly the Grade 5 audience too.
But what about you? Did you make it this far?
If so, do you consider what I do to have value?
Any comments are most welcome, apart from the ‘Sharon’s hair is ridiculous’ type 🙂
I was already a grandmother by the time I started teaching at university in 2000. Phil, who turned 20 earlier this week, and his brother Scott were my only grandchildren till Ronan arrived in the world eight years after Phil. Then Jordan and Hunter and Sakye – and then more and more and more!
As my list of grandchildren grew I started to think more and more about the student teachers I was teaching and I’d often say to them ‘You never know, one day you might be teaching one of my grandchildren – they’re scattered all over Australia – and that might mean me popping into your classroom to have a chat and see what the grandkids are up to’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s come to pass. Some of my grandchildren have had the pleasure of being taught by some of the very special people I taught at university and it’s always lovely to wander into their classrooms and see them as teachers now, after seeing them as students. I don’t pretend to have any influence on who they are as teachers, but it’s lovely to see them nonetheless.
I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now. Being a teacher was something I never imagined I’d do. Debbie, my sister, had always wanted to be a teacher, but it hadn’t been on my list of career choices.
I no longer teach those preparing to be teachers in primary and high schools; rather I find myself running workshops for academic staff who are teaching university students studying for degrees in commerce and accounting and information systems and business analytics. While I know nothing about accounting and commerce and business analytics I do know something about teaching.
And, what’s more, after running six workshops in the last week I’ve been reminded that I love it. I love teaching. I love asking questions that generate thinking, I love putting ideas out there and seeing how others develop them, or consider them, or debate them, or draw insight from them.
Those who know me in person, know that I’m not a dynamic person in ordinary life, but I seem to get another sort of energy when I’m teaching and as I get older and therefore more comfortable and confident with my teaching persona I find I turn into a warm and funny and energised person who is enthusiastic and passionate and insightful.
Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told.
I’ve had a few positives in terms of my teaching and supporting teachers over the last twelve months. I (successfully) supported a team of academics in their application for a VC’s award for outstanding contributions to student learning, and on the back of that award the team was encouraged to apply for a national award.
We found out earlier in the week that we’d been successful at the national level and so, as part of a team, I now have an AAUT (Australian Award for University Teaching) citation for outstanding contributions to student learning under my belt. They only awarded 60 across the country this year, so I’m pretty chuffed with that.
Last year I was successful in applying to become a Senior Fellow of the (UK) Higher Education Academy. Being a Senior Fellow means I ‘demonstrate a thorough understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as a key contribution to high quality student learning [and] impact and influence on other colleagues through, for example, responsibility for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas’ (www.heaacademy.ac.uk).
It was a 6,000 word application supported by two referee statements (thanks Robyn and Sharon B) and required a lot of evidence to support my claims.
The awards are great – even though they require a lot of work and the collection of a lot of evidence from over my 20 years of teaching and are a great recognition of the work I’ve done.
But much (much) more meaningful than the awards and fellowship came in the form of a text message from one of my daughters-in-law last week.
It turns out that Jada, one of my granddaughters, is being taught this year by someone I taught at university. Here are the messages I received:
Met with Scott [teacher] for a parent-teacher meeting this evening. He may have lit up like a Christmas tree when Jada mentioned your name (we had to go through the “Do you know Grandma Sharon” *blank look* “my grandma Sharon Pittaway” dance before he twigged).
He said you were his all time favourite lecturer and that you allowed students to give their own perspective on things and that you never just read or regurgitated information from a textbook. He said this made you inspiring. He also asked for me to pass on his regards.
He ALSO said that Jada no longer needs to come to school as she is now an A+ student because she knows ‘Grandma Sharon’.
I’m glad he took the no school rule back-Jada would have run with that! I made Scott out as being kind of excited, he was more yelling “oh my god” and “really??” He was flailing his arms around a little and slapping his thighs haha. Congratulations to you on making such an impact on people and allowing them to filter their enthusiasm for learning and growing through to the next generation. I’m especially grateful they are our kids!
He said the way I taught made me inspiring.
That’s worth more (much much more) than a VC’s award or a national citation or a senior fellowship.
In June 2014, I moved from Tasmania to Melbourne to live with my husband who’d moved here 5 months before. That move meant I stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.
I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.
And then, in 2015, I taught at university again – for one semester. And when semester ended I again stopped being a pre-service teacher educator.
I admit to falling into a bit of a hole. It took me some time to get used to the idea that I wouldn’t teach at university again.
And then earlier this year a former colleague from the University of Tasmania asked if I’d like to teach at university again.
I would. I did. It was great. One semester of interacting with students – students who were keen to learn, who were mature in their attitudes and capacity to think for themselves; some of these students I’d taught when they were in their first year of university. They remembered me, as I did them. It was great to reconnect, and interestingly, they thought so too.
And then the same colleague asked if I’d be interested in teaching the post-grad version of the unit in second semester.
I would. I did. It was great. Another semester of interacting with students – challenging their ideas about teaching, gently encouraging them out of their comfort zones, helping them see that they are more than deliverers of content, more than transmitters of what they know, and that students are more (much more) than empty vessels waiting to be filled.
I had marking to do, and I did it, and now I’m finished and the relief I feel is real and very (very) sweet.
So, am I a pre-service teacher educator? It appears the answer is ‘sometimes’ … and that’s way better than never!
It seems ages since I’ve posted a photo … in fact, it’s been over a week. This was a flower I captured a few weekends ago, in the Castlemaine Botanic Garden. Do you know what kind of flower it is? If you know, could you write the name of the flower in the comments please?
My absence from blogging has been due to the amount of marking I’ve had to do over the past week or so. For those of you who don’t know, I’m a university lecturer and this semester, in addition to my new full-time job (which I started two weeks ago), I’m teaching a unit at a different university on facilitating engaging learning experiences.
I’ve come to recognise that my approach to marking is a dialogic one. I tend to comment on students’ ideas, or I ask questions of them, or I put forward an alternative perspective. I seek to affirm, yet challenge and extend students’ thinking, and that’s challenging because I also have to be nice – and that’s one of the things I find most difficult to be. One consequence of this approach is that marking takes ages! Markers are allocated about 20 minutes per paper for marking, but I often take an hour per paper – even longer when the ideas are trapped inside somewhat clumsy expression.
So that’s what’s been taking lots of my time and attention. Up at 6 most mornings, mark a paper or two before the hour-long commute to work, work, hour-long commute home, more marking. It’s an intellectually draining process and I find that I don’t have much headspace for other things. Getting my head around a new workplace, new colleagues, new relationships, new places and ways of storing information, new processes, new location, is difficult enough when that’s all that’s going on in your life. Marking on top of that means my head is well and truly full.
Except, that I have to keep some space free because my youngest daughter is getting married! In 13 days’ time. In Tasmania. There are so many decisions to be made, so many details to organise, so many conversations to have, so many others to consult … not being in Tasmania is making the whole thing a tad more difficult, but we’re on the phone to each other a few times a day, and sometimes late into the night, and that helps in terms of decision-making and keeping each other informed of what’s happening.
I haven’t taught pre-service teachers for what seems like a long time … and out of the blue, a former colleague rings and asks if I want to teach a unit on engagement! Yay. The next week I start teaching. One student writes in his introduction: ‘Sharon, you were the most respected and most feared lecturer we had. It is poetically fitting that you are teaching me in my final year, as you also taught me in my first year.’
I had recognised this student’s name as soon as I saw it. As all teachers know, some students make an immediate impression on you. When the students are young, it’s often the students who challenge you the most that make the most impression – those students who don’t sit still, who don’t comply quickly, who ask lots of (what appear to be irrelevant) questions … the students school isn’t designed for. They remain with you for many years, and even ten years later you talk about them fondly (or with residual despair).
When the students are older the ones who make an impression are those who ask lots of questions, who bring a different perspective to class discussions, who don’t sit still in their thinking; the ones who develop tremendous resilience and now call themselves ‘teacher’ effortlessly, when initially that word reached their lips with great reluctance and unease.
A little over ten years ago I walked into the Week 1 tutorial and asked the students why they chose to study teaching. One student, a slightly chubby redhead, said that she’d wanted to be a paramedic. ‘Why didn’t you do that then?’ I asked, somewhat bluntly. Some weeks later I noticed she wasn’t in the lecture. The next week I ‘marched’ (according to her) her to my office to talk to her about the importance of regular attendance. (When you have potential, it’s a shame to waste it.) I taught her again in 3rd year, and then again in 4th year where her response to a literacy paper I had asked students to write was outstanding.
But even though students make an impression on you, at the time you’re teaching them, you don’t expect to end up lying on the grass under an umbrella listening to Ben Abraham and Archie Roach (as warm-up acts for Missy Higgins) on a hot summer’s afternoon in late January with them. Unless they’re Alison, the former slightly chubby redhead, who had come to stay for the weekend.
And then the next day, Alison asks me if I can take her photo.
Wouldn’t that be a great project … to return to all the memorable students I’ve taught and do a photography shoot with them! Who’s up for it?