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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.

 Format:

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.

*http://www.thejobcrowd.com/employer/pwc/working-hours

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.

 

Ethics workshops for BSc students

by Julie Peacock (University of Leeds)

Where to start when teaching ethics to science students? Launch into a contrast of the theories of Bentham and Kant and your students may well think they’ve come to the wrong session; ignore these theories completely and you’re not giving students the tools to fully evaluate an ethical issue be it re-wilding of Scotland, GM crops, alien species, hunting and conservation or another issue.

For the last three years I have run a two hour workshop introducing research and environmental ethics to Foundation Level students. These intense sessions are just long enough to cover the basics and get students enthused about the subject, which they could then cover more fully at a higher level.

I find it’s useful to start to explain why we are looking at ethics – they are scientists not philosophers after all. For this I give several reasons: as scientists they need to understand what is acceptable practice; for their dissertations they will need to include a section on the ethical implications of their work; if they apply for grants in the future they are likely to have to address the ethics of their proposed project; as a science student friends and family may ask their opinion on a controversial environmental subject discussed in the news and it’s important they can give careful consideration to it. In addition to these reasons the QAA benchmark for Geography mentions ethics several times.

As a way into studying ethics I give students a handout based on an activity described in Matthews (2010). This is a philosophical thought experiment where student have to rank entities in order of their perceived value. The task starts with an opening paragraph, ‘Imagine a scenario in which a large container ship is rapidly sinking with only one remaining lifeboat. Nearby, certainly in range of the lifeboat, is a large forested island with a small human settlement. Your task is to decide in which order to place the following on the lifeboat…..’

Students work individually at first, and then discuss their rankings in small groups before a lively class debate follows on whether ‘a collie with a lame leg’ should be saved before ‘ten chickens’. Students discover there are a wide range of opinions in class even if individuals cannot explain fully the reasons for their rankings. With more time this could be extended and philosophical ideas drawn out see Matthews (2010) for ideas. We then look at another, more realistic scenario – ideas for these scenarios were originally taken from Downie (2010). With the scenarios I tell the students whether they are to think about reasons for or against the situation (rather than what their reaction is to it). This is to try and get students to think about ethical issues from another’s point of view.   I then get all the students arguing ‘for’ the issue to form a circle (or several circles depending on the number of students and the space available) facing outwards and all the students arguing ‘against’ the issue to form a circle around them, so each student is facing another ready to debate. Those arguing ‘for’ get 30 seconds to put down their main points and those against get the next 30 seconds to reply with their main points, followed by one minute of dialogue. Another scenario is then introduced and one circle moves to the left so students have a new partner for discussion.

After a few scenario based discussions we pull out some of the arguments for and against, ‘they have a right to..’, ‘we ought to…’ and ‘the outcome will be better if….’ I use these arguments to introduce deontology and consequentialism and their strengths and weaknesses.

The whistle stop tour of ethics usually results in a buzz around the class room and hopefully ensures the students have grounding in ethical thought, are more able to consider ethical issues from a different view point and will have inspired some to study it further.

If you are just beginning to get into teaching ethics to BSc students I would recommend Willmott, C.J.R (2011) Bioethics. In: Adams, D.J. Effective Learning in the Life Sciences. Chichester. Wiley-Blackwell, as a starting point. It’s actually written for bioscience students(!) but it’s ideas are adaptable to Physical Geography. Also, https://bioethicsbytes.wordpress.com/about/ a site which hosts a collection of resources to assist in the teaching of bioethics and for research misconduct see http://bioethicsbytes.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/examplesofresearchmisconduct.pdf

References:

Downie, R. (2010) Environmental Ethics: a Scenario-Based Approach. UK Centre for Bioscience Bulletin. 29, p3

Matthews, I. (2010) Articulating Values in Environmental Ethics. UK Centre for Bioscience Bulletin. 29, p2.