Category Archives: Curriculum change

Whose voice is it anyway: Delivery and Development, what’s the difference and why does it matter?

by Rachel Hunt, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and Victoria Smillie, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow

This blog post came about as a result of a postgraduate teaching session at RGS 2015. There, and now here, we have sought to share our views about the importance of the role of the GTA within courses which they help to run.

Those academics engaging with the problem of the GTA recognize that from the GTA perspective there are many positives to our awkward role within the department. Not only does this work boost our wages, communication skills and employability’s (so they tell us), but more importantly provides a much needed break from the solitude that the PHD can bring.

However, Despite advances in the appreciation of postgraduate efforts, and the acknowledgement that GTA’s make up a significant part of the undergraduate teaching team in most universities, the picture is not of universal progress and Linehan’s (1996:107) comments regarding the ‘low grumbling murmur’ of postgraduates continue today. Indeed we can see papers by Linehan (1996), Muzaka (2009), and Park and Ramos (2002), among many others who lament the underpaid, undervalued and under recognised work that many GTA’s undertake.

Many authors report on the specific role of the GTA in shaping courses arguing that we GTA’s should have a role to play in course construction. Yet we are left wondering where to find the time to continually provide and update the courses on top of our phd work, our requirements to publish, to do out reach work, to attend, organize and speak at conferences. The pulls on a researchers time are endless.  As such it is not only diligence above and beyond the call of duty (or scope of payment) which is often expected in terms of GTA involvement, but we would argue that ‘we’ as a cohort are not given the full experience of this ‘apprenticeship’ to use Beesley’s (1979) term.

Despite this, very few authors provide an insight into the messy, in-between status of the GTA, nor really provide any helpful guidance as to how we might redress the balance between wanting to impact upon the courses upon which we tutor, demonstrate or lead, and keeping to our 3 (erm, 4 in our case) year deadline.

Therefore, our aim at RGS and within this blog is not only to voice some opinions from those GTA’s working within the university of Glasgow but also to discuss our own experience of creating a new level one introductory lab. In doing so we aim to make the argument for, and present one example of, the way in which PhD teaching assistants can be given a voice through involvement in the development of teaching materials. Through this we aim to ask questions of delivery and development, focusing on those questions voiced in our title, what’s the difference and why does it matter.

Now, lets hear from 5 of our fellow GTA’s at the university of Glasgow. (available here)

The views expressed here corroborate those within the literature recognizing both the positives and the negatives. Unlike many other departments however we often do have input into our courses. Working as part of the level 1/2 team we receive detailed outlines for each tutorial but these outlines also give points at which we can depart from the written word should our own experiences as researchers be more relevant.

Further to this a team of three GTAs (of which we are two), were given the opportunity to redesign course material for the level 1 introductory lab class, paid of course, giving us an undeniably invaluable opportunity for our voices to be heard. The offer for this opportunity was put out to all of the GTA’s in our department to work in groups to change any one part of the level 1 or 2 course. This amounted to any lab, tutorial or lecture. We were lucky enough to be chosen with our proposal to change a slow and dreary lab which had existed since many of the group were undergraduates.

And with this we created Disaster Island and a two hour task to save the lives and economy of those living on this hazardous place. The lab takes the form of a real time game where students are put in teams, and set to complete a number of hazard based choices. They are given money, people counters, press examples, and maps to aid these decisions.

Glasgow a

This lab aims to encourage students to get to know to each other, get used to the lab environment and appreciate the unique qualities of geography in it’s ability to incorporate human and physical elements.

The process of creating this lab was an enjoyable one. As the images below show, the process started with blue sky thinking, and was gradually narrowed down to include reality or at least a more realistic approach to creating lab materials. We learnt about the practicalities of creating teaching materials, the timescales involved and how to incorporate such work into an existing course, complimenting what was already involved in the level one course while also bringing in brand new material  and with that adding our voice. This was about a new tactile experience, which deviated from the traditional academic process of knowledge exchange, in our department at least.

Glasgow b

We would therefore encourage other university teachers to provide these opportunities within their own institutions, not only for the students, but for the GTA’s themselves. Opportunities such as the one described remain few and far between. It simply would not be economical for universities to offer these opportunities to all willing GTA’s within the department, nor practical to fully redesign courses each year in order to provide these chances.  But this represents an important way to recognize and respect the knowledge, enthusiasm and skills held within the GTA cohort. It is key for us to stress that our immediate, and award winning, teaching team do make us feel like we have a voice, and are not just a face of the department.  However, it is still fair to say that department wide recognition of the teaching team as a whole sadly appears to be generally undervalued. In order to establish a significant role for the GTA within departments it is important to provide opportunities and support for the development of those courses on which we are trusted to teach, a trust we do not take lightly.

What we are talking about with regards to our experience in the development of materials is not the finished article, not by any means, the involvement of the GTA voice could, for sure, be taken further.  Rather our suggestion is a movement towards increased appreciation, rising satisfaction, improved deployment and ultimately better departments which properly equip us for the profession in which we have made our first steps. We worry that failing to do so will continue to allow dissatisfaction to roam like monsters on maps of old. (Linehan 1996:107)

References:

Linehan D., (1996) ‘Arena symposium: teaching assistants’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 20. pp. 107-117.

Mazaka V., (2009) ‘The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GRAs): perceptions and reflections’, Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 14, pp.1-12.

Park C., Ramos M., (2002) ‘The Donkey in the Department? Insights into the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) experience in the UK’, Journal of Graduate Education, Vol. 3, pp. 47-53.

 

Fieldwork: always have a plan B.

by Julie Peacock, University of Leeds

I updated the risk assessment for a second year field trip to Middlesmoor, Upper Nidderdale, early in the Academic Year, 2015/2016. I noted the comments, ‘In the event of extreme weather, the trip will not go ahead.’ I’ve seen and even written this on risk assessments many times, but I’d never needed to act on it.

We planned two, one day field trips with 81 second year students, one in early November followed by one in March.  This fieldwork is part of a larger skills module. The students work in groups to plan, then complete a research project focusing on Ecosystem Services. The first field trip, covers key techniques and familiarises students with the site. The second enables students to carry out their projects. In between these trips students work to prepare projects and present proposals to a panel of academic staff who provide feedback.

The second trip was to take place on a Friday. Monday brought a bleak weather forecast.  Students were emailed to remind them to bring suitable clothing and asked to review their field plans to ensure they could work efficiently even in poor weather conditions. On the Thursday, the landowner advised postponing because snow was forecast. We thought it was unlikely the weather would be that bad. Crucially, there was nowhere else in the timetable for the fieldtrip, considering availability of 81 students and six staff, not to mention re-booking the labs for student’s sample analysis.

I considered the options. What if one of the mini-buses got stuck? Would the students bring suitable kit for the weather? Yet, if we didn’t go how could the students complete their projects to meet learning outcomes given timetable inflexibility?

By the time I got into Leeds University at 7am on Friday, both the landowner and local farmer had called to say not to come.  Roads were shut and still it snowed. In some ways I was relieved; the decision was made, but what now for our fieldwork?

The campus at the University of Leeds is urban. Although significant work has been done to improve biodiversity and sustainability on campus, including a sustainability garden, it has no open ‘wild’ space. It is incomparable with Nidderdale! Nevertheless, urban ecosystem services are increasingly important as urban areas continue to expand.

By 7.30am an email had been sent advising students to meet in the department foyer. One lecturer wrote the risk assessment and gained necessary signatures; university estates had granted permission for soil sampling; two large teaching spaces were booked (fortunately, it was reading week); mini buses were cancelled and colleagues who were to meet us at Nidderdale were updated.

At 8am, the planned bus departure time, students were briefed. The trip to Nidderdale was cancelled, but they were to spend the next two to three hours re-planning their work to study ecosystem services on campus.  Inevitably, reactions were mixed, some students were glad (given the weather), others understandably disappointed not to be working on well-planned projects.

Students worked in their groups with academic staff mingling to discuss ideas. The VLE was populated with links to the University’s Biodiversity Action Plan, maps and useful literature. The field stores made a wide range of equipment available and taught students to use kit they hadn’t planned to use previously. Lab technicians made themselves available to talk to students wanting to undertake different analysis.

Changing the assessment brief was probably the hardest part. Students had worked hard on projects and were due to be assessed on a scientific report. Many would have started their literature reviews and methods. It was decided to ask students to review both Upland and Urban ecosystem services, writing up both methods, one where months of planning had taken place and one which had been planned rapidly.  Students found this brief hard given the unchanged word count to meet the advertised assessment. However, no alternative seemed ideal.

Field work was successful, despite the dreadful weather, with laying and falling snow, then heavy rain. Staff circulated to provide advice. A statistics expert stationed in the foyer answered questions.  Our students demonstrated resilience as they planned new projects. They showed they could work effectively under pressure, transferring learning about planning projects to a new situation. They learned in fieldwork too, Burns’ cliché holds that ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley.’

This last minute change to fieldwork with such a large group of students couldn’t have worked without university staff’s teamwork and enthusiasm.  Students had a valuable learning experience, and we learned too.  In fieldwork planning is always key.  A contingency plan for extreme weather should occur.  Many HEIs have local areas which could be used.  Permissions for so-called ‘Plan B’ fieldwork could be gained, a risk assessment completed and students advised of the contingency plan including its impact on assessments, so if it is implemented it is not a shock. It’s useful to have a plan B and for the students to know it exists.

What have you done in similar situations? It would be interesting to hear.

 

With thanks to the following for making the changes work on the day: Karen Bacon, Janet Chapman, Dom Emery, Rachel Gasior, Rachel Homer, Jamie Mullen, Graeme Swindles, Clare Woulds and others who added useful documents to the VLE over subsequent days.

 

Creating Global Students: Internationalization of Curricula in Higher Education

Transcultural European Outdoor Studies: a case study of transcultural learning and teaching

By Dr. Chris Loynes (University of Cumbria)

Travelling, curiosity and the quest for the unknown have been a key metaphor for personal growth and human development for at least two thousand years. These ideas re-appeared in the late 13th century when students began to go on so-called Peregrinatio Academica. – peregrinations – to foreign universities. These reached their peak in the 17th century. Today most universities worldwide value transcultural travelling and cooperation in their internationalization strategies.

Financially supported by the European Union’s education programme Erasmus Mundus, a two-year joint international master’s degree entitled Transcultural European Outdoor Studies (TEOS) began in the fall of 2011 and is now in its fifth year. The programme is run collaboratively by Marburg University, Germany; the University of Cumbria, UK and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences in Oslo. It is explicitly inspired by the ancient idea of peregrination. TEOS involves travelling cohorts of students who spend a semester at each of the universities to explore three of the main European outdoor traditions in their native contexts: Erlebnispädagogik, Outdoor Education (Loynes, 2007) and Friluftsliv (Gurholt, 2008), respectively. The cohorts of approximately twenty international students each come from nearly as many countries and five continents. The course is full time and two years long.

Cultural interaction on the programme takes many forms including living and studying in an international group, studying in three countries, studying with the national cohort of postgraduate students in each country, being taught in English yet learning two other languages, exploring the local cultures and landscapes, experiencing and examining outdoor activities and outdoor educations of each nation and engaging with visiting scholars from other countries as well as the host nations. The central question of the programme is how the different landscapes and cultural contexts of the three nations, whilst influenced by many of the same historical roots, lead to varying forms of human nature relations and outdoor education practices. Over the first five years of the programme this question has been asked by both staff and students.

Different cultures of human nature relations

The understanding that is emerging is of three romantic traditions yet with different ideas of nature and landscape. In the UK the value has been placed on ‘other’ places of wilderness and strangeness both at home and abroad (Loynes, 2010). Rooted in the British imperial past and its history of exploration the challenging expedition remains a central plank of outdoor education practice. Norway, on the other hand, has only emerged relatively recently from a rural past and as an independent country (Gurholt, 2016). The mountains are celebrated both as home and as a national icon celebrated as a core element of the nation’s identity. Being at home whilst journeying in this cultural mountain landscape acts as an endorsement of an ideal of what it is to be Norwegian, something that most Norwegians engage in as part of their everyday lives. For Germans curiosity about ‘other’ cultural landscapes beyond their own borders has inspired journeys abroad and this exploration remains practiced by youth movements such as the Wandervoegel.

The journey as pedagogy

The TEOS curriculum explicitly sets out to explore this experience of the journey as a phenomenon and as an experience in which the students are engaged on a micro scale of excursions and a macro scale of the two-year study programme. The concept of journeying or of being ‘on the way’ underpins most philosophies of outdoor education. According to anthropologist James Clifford (1997) the “travelling cultures” paradigm opens up a broader dialogue concerning travel as a reflection of humanity’s transcultural condition.

Again, the three countries share a common idea of the journey that has unfolded in different ways in each culture. The three key stages of ‘departure’, ‘being on the way’ and ‘the return’ are commonly held. In Norway the departure to the mountains became the most valued element as Norway gained independence from Sweden and the person found individuality from the collective. In contrast, German practice celebrates the ‘being on the way’ as of value in its own right, learning about the ‘other’ for its own sake. In Britain it is rather the return that is emphasised. Whether what is brought back is new knowledge or some personal attribute it is what this has to offer at home that seems most important.

A paper, that has taken the full five years to craft, is close to submission. The intentions are two-fold. Firstly, we hope the paper will deepen and discuss how ideas of travelling and transcultural sensitivity are argued and advanced in the aims, curriculum development, study strategies and comparative research policy within TEOS and other programmes. Secondly, we wish to discuss the contribution to new understandings of the complexity of human-nature relationships in the increasingly globalising field of outdoor pedagogies that TEOS may represent.

References

Clifford, J. (1997) Routes: travel and translation in the twentieth century. Harvard University Press.

Gurholt, K. P. (2008). Norwegian Friluftsliv and Ideals of becoming an ‘Educated Man’. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 8(1): 55-70.

Gurholt, K.P. (2016). Friluftsliv: nature friendly adventures for all. In Humberstone, B., H. Prince, & K. Henderson (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook in Outdoor Studies. London and New York: Routledge.

Loynes, C. (2007). Social Reform, Militarism and Other Historical Influences on the Practice of Outdoor Education in Youth Work. In P. Becker, K. H. Braun & J. Schirp (Eds.), Erlebnisse und die Padagokik. Marburg, Germany: Abenteuer.

Loynes, C. (2010). The British Youth Expedition. In S. Beames (Ed.), Understanding Educational expeditions. (pp. 1-16). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

What’s going on? Secondary school teachers’ response to the geography national curriculum

By Mary Biddulph (University of Nottingham), Senior Vice-President of the Geographical Association.

This contribution to the GEES blog concerns the teaching and learning of geography in schools. It is based on a conference session hosted by HERG at the 2015 RGS Annual Conference entitled: ‘The impacts of recent policy changes to the school geography curriculum: policy, processes and subject knowledge’. To put this session into context, curriculum change is now well-underway in schools in England: since 2014 a new national curriculum has been introduced in primary and secondary schools and currently secondary school geography departments are now considering which of the reformed GCSE and A levels specifications to teach from 2016.

Curriculum change inevitably generates debate, and the recent changes have certainly caused the geography education community to ask the question: What kind of geography(ies) should be taught to young people? The ‘what’ of geographical learning came under scrutiny following the publication of the 2010 White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’. In the White Paper the then coalition government proclaimed that a return to rigour in leaning could only be achieved via a return to the “core of essential knowledge” of subjects. The White Paper made no attempt to define these terms, but political rhetoric at the time left the geography subject community concerned that we were on the cusp of a return to a content heavy, gazetteer-type curriculum which would be dense with facts but strangely short on conceptual discipline. The Department for Education and education Ministers appeared to exert considerable political influence over the curriculum changes, and when finally published the 2014 national curriculum was a significant departure from the concept-led framework of its predecessor. Emphasising locational knowledge, regional study, traditional human and physical themes and making no explicit mention of geographical enquiry, the 2014 curriculum could be said to stress the ‘what’ of geography: what teachers need to teach, with rather less emphasis on what sense we expect children to make of this.

Conversations with geography teachers reveal that despite curriculum prescription, teachers remain committed to creating curriculum experiences for pupils that are engaging, interesting and enjoyable to learn.  Teachers I have talked to in recent months see geography’s role in the broader educational endeavour as a moral one as well as an intellectual one. They are clear that learning geography provides structures (using geographical concepts) that allow students carefully and critically to examine important local, national and international themes. Themes such as European migration, climate change, national and international poverty and social inequalities are, they feel, central to teaching geography. They believe that they have a responsibility to raise important cultural, social, ethical and ecological questions with students and that school geography has a role to play in helping young people think about and engage with the world around them.

Some teachers express misgivings about the new level of prescription in part because many have received no subject-specific professional development in the last 5 years. They acknowledge that they feel less than confident to teach ‘new’ content such as soils, Russia, glaciation and geological timescales and in addition, some are frustrated that making way for new content is at the expense of topics and themes they feel are important and that their students enjoy. An further concern is that accommodating the new content may yet produce a shift in pedagogical approaches, away from more open-ended enquiry-led and discussion based learning to what is sometimes anachronistically labelled ‘chalk and talk’ (enabled these days by powerpoint!). Some teachers fear that an over-emphasis on content could jeopardise more critical pedagogies.

The curriculum changes described above are of some significance for colleagues in higher education. For most students entering higher education, the foundations of their geographical learning and their enthusiasm for the subject are laid down by their school experiences. However, if we accept that the role of school education is not just to serve as a preparation ground for a university degree, there is a deeper significance for higher education. It could be argued that providing all young people with an intellectual framework to help them make sense of super-complex world issues is the hall mark of an effective education – at any level. For geography to fulfil its educational potential, this implies the need for a closer relationship between school and university geography so that the ever-changing ‘what and the how’ of the discipline can serve to support more meaningful and better informed curriculum change in schools.