Doors are for people with no imagination!
This is what my 11 year old said to me a few weeks ago. I can’t remember the exact context now, he was probably being cheeky, but the comment has stayed with me and has been in the back of my mind as I sit writing new modules for an upcoming validation, and review the NSS scores for the modules I have taught over the course of the academic year.
Innovation, creativity, student engagement, flipped classrooms etc. are all terms that we have come to see on a regular basis in higher education with increasing concerns about NSS scores and graduate employability appearing on our meeting agendas with increasing regularity no one seems to have a clear answer to this. What can we do to foster employability and to develop the creative skills that are currently in decline and how can we assess students in ways that test this? The answer is not an easy one when we are faced by penalties if we fail students and NSS criteria reward grade and degree classification inflation. If students fail an assessment it is the lecturers fault (performance review), not the students, as we had not explained the grading criteria in enough detail. The outcome is often to revert to a standardised approach to module delivery, a situation reflected in so many universities, where we rely on the lecture, seminar approach and produce assessments with model answers where feedback is easy and students pass at a level they are ‘happy’ with. The concept of the ‘flipped classroom’, I think for many of us, has become the flipping classroom!
But if we want employable graduates we have to think about what employers want and this requires fostering innovation and creativity and challenging students to do better. If businesses want adaptability and attitude how do we, as educators produce this in an environment of predictability and standardisation?
For me the solution is simple, we need inspiration. As educators, we need to inspire, be inspired or at the very least let others do the inspiring for you. I say this based on several recent experiences which have allowed me to reflect on my teaching philosophy in some depth. Last year I was fortunate enough to be selected for an innovation initiative developed by The Ministry of Education in Dubai where I was selected for a training programme developed by Stanford University. I attended the initial sessions with some reservations. I have been teaching for nearly twenty years now, I think I am quite good at this, what are they going to be able to tell me that I don’t already know? The answer to this was that they could tell me quite a lot, and they could do this in a way that motivated and inspired me. I came out of the initial two day training session smiling – isn’t that what we all hope our students might do? The following training sessions, one of which was a week at Stanford University in the D School provided further inspiration that I then used to develop and deliver a new module in innovation with a group of 20 students who signed up for the class as an elective.
Some of this module content I borrowed from the Stanford training and changed to fit the students’ subject specialism, some came from the sleepless nights thinking about alternatives to lecture/seminar delivery and yet other material came from more unexpected sources when I took the risk of letting someone else do the inspiring for me. One of my students suggested I bring in Raj Kotecha, someone he had been inspired by. At the time I had already scheduled a leading entrepreneur to come and do a guest lecture and he had just cancelled due to work commitments. I am often wary of using guest speakers I don’t know but decided that a source of inspiration for one may work for others. The outcome was inspiring for the students but also gave me some pause for thought as a young man in jeans and a baseball cap, who came in raving about the take away coffee he had brought with him that morning and shook every hand in the room, proceeded to deliver a rather extended session on the value of hard work and the need to find your passion in life. The class of ‘twenty somethings’ did not look at their mobile phones once!
The point I am making is that developing employable students and creating engagement in the classroom requires inspiration, in whatever form we can find it. This involves taking risks, happy in the knowledge that you don’t actually know everything there is to know. At the same time as getting the students, through their assessments, let them tell you what those ‘things’ actually are. The vehicle for assessment is their choice not yours, the word count is irrelevant and another report will fail. Be radical, revolutionary, trust the students not tell the students, and wait for the results, don’t chase them. This will require self-reflection, hard work and patience but it will be worth the wait.