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Reflections on Innovation, Part 2: Embracing the Quieter Realities

As a prospective teacher and future educator, and having had some teaching experience already, I have been constantly reflecting on best practice teaching and learning from both a staff and student perspective. Working on the ‘The Warwick Handbook of Innovative Teaching’ project as an undergraduate researcher has given me something of a behind-the-scenes pass to the University, afforded me an opportunity to consolidate and explore some of these reflections with more rigour, and allowed me to interact with staff across the university. In this post, I wish to share some of my thoughts, particularly those which may provoke consideration as to what can discourage or encourage us to innovate and be open to sharing innovative practice across faculties.

I attended both the Science and Social Sciences Teaching and Learning Showcases organised by LDC at the end of 2015. The most significant takeaway was wonder: here I have an opportunity to witness attempts at professional development in pedagogy playing out at cross-faculty level. At first, being one of only two undergraduates at the Science showcase, the experience was slightly intimidating. However, the warm welcome I received from the professors strongly encouraged me to share my perspective as a learner.

I realised during these informal sharings that I can sympathise with a professor's point of view to the extent of admitting a truth which we may seek to deny: as teachers we do not always put 100% commitment into our teaching practices. We don't carefully read every single word and scrutinise every bit of submitted work, for example. Yet, if I had x number of 5000-word essays to mark within 4 weeks, where x lies in upwards of 20 and who-knows how many other commitments, I would not be surprised if I found myself flagging in motivation halfway through as well. I contend, however, that this does not mean we are compromising on feedback quality. These are simply the quieter realities of staff doing their best to uphold expectations of quality alongside many other concerns and it should not be shameful to admit these occasional dips and that inertia and lethargy happen…even at the most untimely points in the year. It would do educators more good than harm to take these realities as given and seek to improve their craft from there, rather than to attempt to hold up and be held to the alienating ideal of the unceasingly committed, non-stop, engine-like tutor and staff member. What I am interested in is how we can have quality and innovative engagement in teaching and learning match up against the realities of the average tutor. Showcases such as these certainly seem one way forward: a space where best practice and experimentation exist alongside shared realities. How then can we encourage more attendance as well as more pedagogical reflection apart from professional and departmental requirements whilst still being aware of the problematic realities already listed? Indeed, I find that underpinning my reflections on this project are similar, crucial questions. How best can this collection of innovative practices not just inspire, but actually lead to a tangible take-up rate and cross-faculty exchange from members of staff? What would make a staff member decide to read this handbook, and, after that, how can a staff member be encouraged to take up an idea to adapt it for his/her own pedagogical practice?

Undoubtedly, not every suggestion will transfer neatly across disciplines because of the different professional paradigms. However, I am confident that the handbook can offer some gentle encouragement to learn from the practices of another discipline in order to open up new ways of (re)viewing your own craft. As an aspiring secondary school English and Literature teacher, I am beginning to realise that it is increasingly helpful for me to consider other disciplines and their practices to reinvent my ways of approaching literature. If we can learn to inhabit the symbolic economies of other disciplines then there is much to learn and adapt in a way that is less like wholesale copying and more a mapping out of an area which we desire to improve by collecting the data and current received knowledge of a subject wherever that may lie. This interdisciplinary synthesis, one true to the spirit of research and innovation, can help lay out new recommendations.

I have no clear answers to these concerns yet (and if you have any suggestions we would love to hear them), but, in looking forward to the rest of the project, I hope to constantly find out what can be the best presentation of our findings, such that it appeals palatably to the audience, the reader, the end-user or, even before that, how we can get buy-in from staff: both those who are already impressively reflective and those who may have considered it but have not gotten round to doing so because of the realities noted above and the many I have not mentioned. If this handbook can be the tipping point between cursory reflection and inspiration to active adaptation for the university’s educators, then it would be a generous payoff for the time and energy Philip, Laura and I have poured into it.

Dominic Nah - final-year undergraduate in English and Comparative Literary Studies

Published: 25 February 2016