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

Leoarna Mathias

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.

Leoarna Mathias, Lecturer at Newman University

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