Monthly Archives: September 2016

Discomforting Education

By Lewis Winks (University of Exeter)

It is no surprise that uncertainty has become a well-used word of late. We live in uncertain times. Some talk of wicked problems – issues so fundamentally big, that they cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple solutions, rather they demand a systemic, holistic approach or ‘nexus thinking’ as the 2016 RGS conference termed it. Every day these wicked problems ping into our inboxes, drop onto our doormats, fill audio feeds and flicker onto our screens. Ecological and social crises are unfolding across the globe – no longer the concern of those deemed to be less fortunate, as Aldo Leopold’s ‘wider biotic community’ continues to unravel at unprecedented speed. Evidenced in widespread decline of species, the spread of disease and invasive species, water pollution, displacement of people, habitat loss, deforestation, war, economic turmoil, and the marginalisation and segregation of vulnerable people…  There is no need to go on – the narrative is one well told – we’re messing stuff up and there is neither clear consensus nor solution. There is only uncertainty. But is this a bad thing? Should we hope to be certain about anything? Is certainty not another word for complacency? Does uncertainty not create fertile ground for unbounded creativity? Can we imagine a more just, sustainable world from this uncomfortable place? I cannot claim to have answers to these questions, indeed – I am unsure anyone does- but it is from this position that I would like to explore the role of uncertainty and discomfort in educating for sustainability.

This is not a particularly new topic. Others have trodden this path and have explored these themes. Of those, I particularly recommend the work of Megan Boler who has for many years written about a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’, which seeks to “invite students and educators to examine how our modes of seeing have been shaped specifically by the dominant culture of the historical moment” (Boler, 1999 p.179) and prompts both students and their teachers “[to] willingly inhabit a more ambiguous and flexible sense of self.. [and to engage with a] critical enquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs” (ibid. p. 176). There is a strong tradition of working with the unknown and unknowable as an aspect of education. In particular, education theorists have long struggled with the paradox of sustainability education: how can we educate for sustainability when we don’t really know what sustainability is? Indeed, some have proposed that it would be far better to give students the aptitudes to think for themselves: rather than teach solid facts about the shape of a sustainable world, it would be more appropriate to create critical competencies and to encourage divergent, creative thinking (Jickling, 1992). The watchword is plurality – but not everyone agrees. Plurality and uncertainty might put off action and lead to exploration of dead ends, it is claimed (Kopnina, 2015). This could be avoided by working to a plan and shifting behaviour in a predetermined direction based on policy and infrastructural changes. These fascinating discussions continue and it is probably fair to say that there is a great deal of sense in each of these positions. However, I wish to draw the focus of this piece back toward a pedagogy of discomfort, as it is there that I believe the best case is found for challenging the underpinning social norms and societal narratives which have locked into place unsustainable behaviours and practices.

Megan Boler’s Pedagogy of Discomfort and associated works have outlined the importance of ‘shattering worldviews’ if significant change is to emerge from an education which seeks to challenge deeply embedded norms. In ‘Teaching for Hope’ (2004) Boler focuses on her teaching of social injustices and the occurrence of inherited cultural perspectives which give rise to racism. Her work with HE students aimed to uncover the undercurrents of racism which prevail within large parts of American society. The work is discomforting to students – it might come across as accusatory, confrontational or challenging – and in part it is all of these things, but it is also painful, upsetting and raises issues of deep uncertainty about student’s positions in the world and their views of themselves. While Boler’s work hinges on the role of discomfort in leveraging social change in the form of challenging social injustices, the pedagogical approach also lends itself to teaching about socio-ecological crises. This year as part of my fieldwork with young people taking part in outdoor environmental education programmes I have witnessed some students shock at damage done to coastal defences after severe storms, their sadness at the rate of species decline on a nature reserve and anxiety at being asked to take part in the butchering of deer or rabbit for their dinner. I have asked myself what the role of discomfort is within these experiences and – should the educator make more explicit use of a pedagogy of discomfort – what the potential is for radically shifting worldviews and uncovering and questioning undercurrents of social and cultural norms as part of these programmes.

This is of course all far from straightforward to implement in practice. Many will read this and be alarmed at the ethical implications of making use of a pedagogy of discomfort, and take issue with causing students the deep distress required to decentre and discomfort inherited narratives – and that the nature of discomforting entails a degree of ethical violence (Zembylas and McGlynn, 2012). It is true that this educational approach does not seek security, but to say that it is not caring would be a mistake. In terms of an ethic of care, it could be the most loving and caring of activities to learn to break free of the inadequate and unjust modes of behaviour which have come to dominate society and to craft new cultural practices in their place. So too, some will cast aspersions at the naivety of such an approach in the face of the ‘student satisfaction’ agenda and the impending TEF, under which it is hard to imagine HE lecturers and educators placing students in positions of discomfort under the guise of long term and deep learning. This remains to be seen, and in many ways depends upon how such an approach to teaching is implemented in practice and how it is communicated and supported by HE institutions. My work has focused on how discomfort operates as a mediator for transformative learning in the outdoors, and I believe that the presence of choice plays an important part in the process of uncovering and rediscovering the identity of self and society. The opportunity to choose to place oneself in a position of discomfort sets this form of discomfort apart from its oppressive counterpart. In addition, discomfort as perceived by and shared with others enables empowerment to overcome previous ways of knowing. The act of sharing and collective witnessing may make discomfort formative rather than destructive (Boler, 1999 p.177).

In sum, wicked problems require more than simple answers. Working with uncertainty seems to be an important part of problem solving, but being able to work with uncertainty requires an unearthing of our own constructed social and cultural histories, beliefs and shared values – especially if those problems are deeply rooted in social practices and norms. The process of becoming uncertain can be discomforting, but this is the work that schools and higher education institutions might have to do if we are to prepare critical thinkers who are able to creatively and confidently step into a tentative future. In short, we may need to become comfortable with discomfort.


Boler, M. 1999. Feeling power: Emotions and education, Psychology Press.

Boler, M. 2004. Teaching for hope. Teaching, learning, and loving: Reclaiming passion in educational practice, 117-131.

Jickling, B. 1992. Viewpoint: Why I don’t want my children to be educated for sustainable development. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23, 5-8.

Kopnina, H. 2015. Sustainability in Environmental Education: Away from pluralism and towards solutions.

Zembylas, M. & Mcglynn, C. 2012. Discomforting pedagogies: Emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities. British Educational Research Journal, 38, 41-59.



Take it home and do it: open-book exams

By Dr Lynda Yorke, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University and Dr M. Jane Bunting, Geography and Geology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Hull.

Context and rationale:

Traditional exams (e.g. write 2 unseen essays in 2 hours) are not popular with students, often described as irrelevant by pedagogues, and don’t reflect the realities of the working world.  As a result, exams are being displaced across the HE sector by a variety of coursework based assessments, where students have several weeks or months to produce demonstrations of their competence.  However, report production on deadlines of a few days is commonly required in a range of jobs, and requires particularly efficient research and synthesis skills.  Since assessment drives learning for the majority of students, giving them an incentive to develop these skills and an opportunity to demonstrate them is in their best interests.  Independently, we both addressed this situation by developing ‘take home exams’, with a 48 hour turn-around, for the final year modules Rivers and Environment (Lynda) and Quaternary Geoscience (Jane).  We both wanted to encourage students to read widely and develop a sound understanding of a complex and evolving literature; being able to interpret and synthesise reports produced by specialists is an important skill for GEES graduates.


We have employed two different approaches: an essay and a report.  Both had a length limit of 2000 words.  For Lynda’s essay-based exam, students are given a choice of two broad questions that require them to draw on the module content and other resources, presenting evidence and critically evaluating paradigms in fluvial science. The format was chosen to complement the mid-semester, report-based assignment.  For Jane’s report-based exam, students are presented with a selection of data from a simulated Quaternary section and tasked with producing a report which identifies and describes stratigraphy units, proposes an interpretation of the environment present when each formed, and assigns stratigraphic ages.  The report format is familiar to students, through previous coursework reports on their own datasets from field and lab work, and the option to write a report on a different dataset for formative feedback was offered as preparation.

 Effects on learning:

Some students told us that the take-home exam format changed the way they studied throughout the module; they focused on collecting and organising relevant resources across the subject rather than reading a small number of selected items in detail, since they had less scope for ‘question spotting’ and knew the assessment would require them to use a range of ideas from the module.  This led naturally to them looking at more articles, as they sought to fill in gaps in their collections, and to creating their own ‘map’ of the subject matter as they worked out how to organise and label their notes, books, web links and electronic files for easy relocation during the 48 hour period.  The quality and range of references cited was at least as good as in a normal coursework essay, where students have up to twelve weeks to write about a single topic.

 Skills, employability and challenges:

Embedding employability and transferrable skills is increasingly important, and students want to be able to recognise that this is happening.  The take home exam format seems to ‘make sense’ to students in both the academic content and employability contexts, and clearly addresses some of their anxieties around the artificial but ‘high stakes’ nature of exams (“In the real world I’d just look that up!” is a common complaint).  The format requires students to draw on their knowledge from the module, and their skill in locating, understanding and synthesising information and key sources of literature. It does not rely on cramming knowledge for a 2 or 3-hour exam, but on students being able to use a range of resources efficiently to help them work through a problem.  One student commented to me (Lynda) that they “… learned about lateral thinking, applying skills and knowledge in new and different ways”.

A few students over the years have not liked the approach. One of Lynda’s students observed that “… even if you were asked to write a report in 2 days in the workplace you would not be asked to read, research and cite academic papers …”. Of course, this is exactly what you could be asked to do, and reflects some naivety on the students’ part, but also a lack of clarity on ours.  We have addressed this via pre-assessment review and preparation seminars.

Our advice:

  • Give clear instructions. For example, students are often concerned that those students that are able/happy to ‘pull all night-ers’ would be at an advantage; Lynda emphasised that students should aim to work standard graduate working hours* (9 – 12 hrs/day) on the task.
  • Timetabling the exam. Concerns about clashes with other assessment at the end of semester and during the exam period have to be clearly addressed.  We were allowed to tell the students which week the exam would be in, then wait until all the other assessment deadlines were out to identify the specific 48 hour period, avoiding clashes.
  • Alternate assessment arrangements. Since the take-home exam gives students control over their environment, it reduces the need for alternate arrangements.  One challenge we both encountered was the issue of students who would, under normal exam circumstances, be entitled to additional time based on their personal learning needs; university protocol required that a 48-hour exam be treated the same as a 2 hour exam in this case, and students were given individual deadlines with the appropriate percentage of added time.  Our experience is that most students submit within the 48-hour period even if they are entitled to extra time.

Overall, we find that this kind of assessment is popular with and makes sense to students, creates desirable learning behaviours, directly addresses employability concerns as an embedded part of the module rather than an add-on or a checklist, and is rewarding to mark, since we have both seen very high levels of performance as students rise to the challenge of the task.  We strongly recommend it as part of the designer’s tool kit for GEES curricula, and would be happy to discuss our experience with any interested colleagues.


Level Up: Writing Strategies for New Undergraduates

By Desiree Fields (University of Sheffield), Matt Finn (University of Exeter), and Yvonne Oates (Cornwall College)

As an undergraduate just starting out at university, you already have loads of writing experience, but university requires some new and different writing skills. Perhaps the most fundamental difference is that your task will often be to use your writing not only to demonstrate that you can find relevant information and report it back, but that you can use the information you find to offer new insights and raise critical questions. In other words, you will be producing knowledge yourself by drawing on existing research. At university you will likely write more, and more often, than at school, and you will have to work more independently. This entails developing the ability to self-direct your writing, from breaking down the essay question to searching the academic literature, planning your essay, and organizing your time to write (and edit, proofread, and polish, plus prepare a reference list or bibliography).


Here, we offer some strategies to ‘level up’ your writing for university. Becoming a stronger writer is important for practical reasons: employers desire workers who can communicate effectively and think critically, and postgraduate opportunities will hinge to a large extent on the same skill set. But strengthening your writing will also help you become a more articulate person, one who knows what they think and how to say it effectively.


Developing your ideas

Whereas lecturers want students to develop original arguments based on academic literature, in their essays students often rely too heavily on reporting what the literature says, with little of their own voice coming across. It can be tempting to try and sound ‘academic’ but it is often better to write in a straightforward way, using short sentences and aiming to be as clear as possible. To develop your ideas and write essays that show more independent thought, we recommend taking some time to try to answer the essay question in one sentence before you even start reading, reviewing your notes, or researching it further. This can be the kernel of your argument and help you identify where there are gaps in your knowledge or understanding (and therefore where you need to read more). Starting with what you already know (or think you know), rather than going straight to what other people have said can support you in finding your own voice. Once you have written a sentence in response to the essay question and developed a plan for what you need to read to build up your argument, come back to your sentence after each text you read: what do you need to add or change? We should caution that ‘confirmation bias’ is a potential limitation of this strategy; that is you run the risk of only reading texts that support or confirm your initial thinking. However reading should change how you think. If your argument does not change after reading, you probably want to seek out some texts that explicitly challenge your argument. After all, acknowledging alternative views is a crucial way of strengthening our own arguments.


Understanding plagiarism

Plagiarism refers to using someone else’s work—not only their words, but also their ideas—without properly attributing it to them. Most undergraduates are fearful of committing plagiarism, yet many of them will in fact do so, often inadvertently rather than as an act of deliberate deception. The consequences of plagiarism can be severe both in terms of official penalties that affect your marks and in terms of the respect lecturers accord your future work. A recent study at the University of Otago found that while university policies frame plagiarism in moral and legal terms of dishonesty and intellectual property, students were often confused about what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. The skills needed to avoid plagiarism include proper referencing and the ability to paraphrase the work of others, both of which take practice and will grow stronger as you become more familiar with your discipline and with reading academic texts and preparing academic writing. In other words, avoiding plagiarism is not simply about what happens (or does not happen) on the pages you submit, it is bound up in the broader process of becoming a geographer. Academic writing is about producing knowledge, and knowledge is not created ‘from scratch’. Instead, it is about how you combine the ideas of others to raise new questions or create insights of your own. As an author, you should therefore be able to trace the lineage of your work back to the ideas and authors that inspired your own thinking.




Writing can be a challenge and, given the other priorities you will have at university, it is easy to think, ‘just get it done’. However, writing, and writing well, can be very rewarding and many students find their understanding of an issue increases not just through listening to lectures or their own reading but as they write. To write clearly you need to think clearly so allow yourself the time to work through the challenges of how to order your thoughts and how things fit together. Everyone, including academics, can learn how to write more effectively and there are a wealth of underused books and resources available to you about how to improve your writing. The promise of writing is that over time and with practice it will allow you to know yourself and the world around you better as your thinking develops but also to know how to communicate in an engaged, informed and persuasive way.