Monthly Archives: December 2015

Your most influential teacher was probably pretty quirky

Don’t you think? My 3rd year junior school teacher Mr Wardley was all arms and legs and loud expression, but he taught me that it was OK to make ‘knowing stuff’ my aspiration, and I have never forgotten him. My university tutor Michael Passey occupied a room mostly buried under piles of paper and never pronounced my name right in 3 years, but had a sense of well-placed righteous indignation when talking about human rights and social justice that is still with me 25 years later.

You get the picture.

I think I have spent the last two days, at the HEA Inspire conference in the company of people who are more, or less, quirky; because, let’s face it, aren’t we all? So Claire McGourlay at the University of Sheffield has bucked the trend and made teaching-only professorship a fine art, by setting her students free to practice from the earliest stages of their legal training, and letting a pro-uno stance (not per una) – doing legal work for those who would otherwise not have it – be her, and her student’s, modus operandii. Twitter could not roll fast enough with the wisdom coming through her words this morning – just check out the hashtag #HEASocSci15 to see what I mean.

With lots of session options on offer after Claire’s key note, I headed in to listen to early-career academic Lewis Simpson from University of Leeds, exploring the use of metaphor in his teaching of Sociology. For Lewis, quirkiness is a backbone of his pedagogy, as he uses chairs or tables, and their component parts, to represent complex theories, and genuinely aims to be “as weird as [he] possibly can”. I quite fancy being in Lewis’ lectures; I reckon his teaching would be big on ‘rememberability’ and low on Hancock-faced boredom – and it was he who had us pondering the relative necessity for quirkiness in our educators. Next up, Alan Hanna from Queens University Belfast described bringing the trading floor inside his institution, so that his business students understand the challenges of making other people’s money grow in a real-world way. It seems so obvious, but I got the impression very few others were doing it, this side of the pond anyway. And Hope Christie and Karl Johnson were driven by personal experience to bring a greater degree of shared anti-worry wisdom to the students on their previous degree courses, as they transitioned into the tough final year. All of their papers, and the many, many others on offer throughout the conference are available on the HEA conference website shortly.

I was lucky enough to share twenty minutes of my own quirkiness as I delivered a paper – in which I characterise myself as a Street Level Lecturer holding back the tide of performativity agendas and neoliberalisation to keep my relationship with students authentic. That this early-career academic got her paper accepted felt like a great coup – to have had a warm reception, amongst such intense diversity, was even nicer. The individuality of each pedagogue I have met in the last two days leaves me feeling encouraged for the future of HE in the UK, no matter the pressures, the measures, or the Green Paper metrics and rhetoric. It will still be us, standing in front of our classrooms, trying to do our best by our students, for a good while to come.

So, thank you HEA, for the opportunity – and the quirkiness.

Hippos, tweckling and Dame Edna’s glasses (or, what a HEA conference has contributed to my teaching)


This early-career-but-long-in-the-tooth academic has spent her day being inspired by other hard working, highly motivated HE pedagogues (yes, I use that word deliberately – ‘teacher’ or ‘lecturer’ don’t really cover it for me).

Universities have existed in these Isles for a long time, a few hundred years now. During those centuries we’ve picked up a few good ideas about how to transmit knowledge, encourage understanding, inspire criticality. And rather than running out of steam, my day at the HEA conference has confirmed for me my sense that, as a sector, and despite the 21st century pressures we face, we are collectively committed to continuing to find ways to be even better at what we do.

Steve Wheeler has encouraged me to keep on ‘running to catch up’, to grasp the flickering nettle of technology in my classroom and my student’s lives, and recognise the power it has to shape the curricula – no matter what the module handbook says.  I am part of the ‘architecture of participation’ – connected learning experiences in which my students can teach me as much as I can teach them. He’s even given me a new – and powerful word for this: Paragogy. Comfortingly for me, too, whose teaching content is often Early Years, Steve made great use of the still-meaningful work of Vygotsky, and in doing so confirmed my growing sense that much of what I know about how our youngest children learn might also equally apply to my students at the university.

Gill Seyfang from the University of East Anglia has reminded me of the value of humour as a teaching resource. She has embraced comedy in her classroom, and as we fell about laughing at her performance, the real message of her presentation – that emotional engagement = deeper learning – was not lost. Equally powerful, the work being done by Hodda Wassif and Maged Zakher at the University of Bedfordshire in using artefacts in their ‘cultural shoebox’, brought in by students, to kickstart learning conversations really moved me. I teach a module on Childhood in a Changing World, and I minded to try out their technique next week – I’ve promised to report back to them, and they’ve even given me a few cultural objects to get my shoebox started. And thus I present, learning-in-action, almost as I type.

I’ve considered the relevance of screen capture to improve the quality of feedback I give, via the work of Nigel Jones at Cardiff Metropolitan University, as well as gained further insight into the value of classroom flipping with Rick Hayman from Northumbria University. And Elizabeth Malone from Liverpool John Moores has further warmed the cockles of my heart by confirming my sense that all that defines good teaching with our youngest children also applies to our youngest adults – and maturest students. Darren Cooper (of University of Worcester) had me considering the power of video, and Carol Zhang (Royal Agriculture University) was disarming in her honesty – being your truest self in the classroom, and focusing on a pedagogy that prioritises your relationships with your students – well, that works for me.

This Street Level Lecturer (more on this tomorrow!) is new enough to the profession to still feel a little giddy in the company of people who have been at this stuff for a while. Yet, in reality, they are a humbling bunch. They operate in ever-changing institutions, where marketing is now just as important as getting students to grasp theory, and where metrics and measures often run counter to that which would facilitate the most effective teaching. And yet they willingly acknowledge the need to be, at every juncture, what my daughter’s headmaster calls ‘White Haired Radicals’; people who know the rules so well that we know how to break them. They know how to embrace subversion, the disruptive and the new, and reject comfort and complacency, for the sake of their students – and their own sanity. I am proud to be among them – and have much yet to learn.

And the hippos, tweckling and Dame Edna Glasses? Let’s see. Joe Gadzula from the University of Bolton effortlessly applied the metaphor of hippos, and their resistance to being tamed, to the notion that we must all acknowledge our starting point (in research, in writing and in teaching) or it will come and squash us flat. Gill Seyfang had some great props for her students to use, as they got into (theoretical) character and engaged with their learning, said glasses amongst them. And ending where I began, Steve Wheeler acknowledged the power of twitter to bring the world to our handheld, to be ‘CPD personified’, while also suggesting that our students can engage with the world’s collective wisdom as they sit in our lectures, redefining notions of knowledge, and how we acquire it. Though they probably don’t do it in his lectures (my suspicion being that they are rather fun), our students are thus at liberty to challenge our omnipotence with their ‘tweckling’, democratising learning as they tap and swipe.

Let’s (try and) keep up with them.


More tomorrow from the second day of the conference; follow us throughout the day on #HEASocSci15

Are we sitting comfortably? Let’s begin.

3 reasons to go to an academic conference:

  1. A change is as good as a rest. There is something genuinely refreshing about being in a new place, with new people, hearing new things about your discipline – or other people’s disciplines.
  2. You’ll be a better teacher for it. Or lecturer. Or pedagogue. (Delete as you wish). Immersing oneself in the ideas of others is – my intuition tells me – a great way to take back new and better ways of doing things to your own institution.
  3. You might just meet the one. No. I don’t mean the one. I mean that other academic who wants to do research that you also want to do, but is struggling alone, just as you are – doing it together might just be a way to make it actually happen. Collaboration, people – it is the way of things.

As I type, I am living proof of the above. I am in a city I haven’t been to for 25 years (when I came for a University interview, ironically enough) and even before the conference I am attending has started, I’ve met some great people. Their fields don’t much overlap with mine, and their working and studying contexts are also very different, and that is thoroughly refreshing. For the next two days together we are going to listen to a tonne of interesting people speaking with passion about their pedagogical work in institutions up and down the country. I’m going to do my best to give the twitterverse and the blogosphere a flavour of their ideas. Bring it on, good people, bring it on.

You can follow what I am up to by popping back here tomorrow, and by following me on twitter @leoarnawrites, or using the hashtag #HEASocSci15.