A CONFERENCE ON TEACHING INNOVATION: SOME NOTES

NOTE: This post was originally written on 11 October 2021, but it’s published now, four months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I do not know if you have noticed this but there seems to be here in Spain a certain proliferation of teaching innovation conferences recently, by which I mean about the last four years. Some conferences have been around for much longer than that (and I have been running the Department workshop Teaching English Language, Literature, and Culture TELLC for seven years now), but suddenly a new crop is materializing, with acronyms such as CIDICO or CIVINEDU, perhaps in imitation of the more veteran CIDUI. I am not in the habit of attending teaching innovation events because I usually find them too general to be of application to my own teaching–hence my setting up TELLC with my Department colleagues–though possibly this is the wrong stance. I decided, then, to correct my prejudiced view by attending two weeks ago the fifth CIVINEDU Virtual Conference on Educational Research and Innovation.

Before I sum up what I learned, which was plenty, I’d like to defend virtual conferences; they, it must be noted, pre-date Covid-19. For those of us who do not particularly like travelling for professional reasons and who find the cost of attending a conference quite steep (particularly international conferences), virtual conferences are always a good idea. I do know the social aspect is missing but debate is far more intense. In an in-person conference you’re lucky if you get two or three questions from the audience, after travelling hundreds of miles and spending hundreds of euros. In, for instance, the CIVINEDU conference (cost 80 euros for speakers, 45 for attendees), some speakers got dozens of comments and questions, as online debate was kept open for a few days, not just the 90 minutes of the specific session. I am not saying with this that all conferences should be virtual, but that it would be very useful to keep virtual conferences alive even after Covid-19 is over for good. Virtual conferences are, besides, far kinder to the planet than the events that require very high mobility and that leave a high carbon footprint, a matter we, the academic community, must also consider.

At CIVINEDU I attended the three plenary talks and saw the video presentations by 21 speakers in two days, pretty intense I should say. I mostly selected presentations dealing with university teaching in the Humanities (the conference covered all levels and all areas), but made the point of attending at least a couple of presentations about Science degrees, which was interesting, too. There was a total agreement in all I saw that the students’ learning should always be the main focus of teaching, and that teachers should be, above all, guides and by no means the protagonists of what happens in the classroom. I totally agree with that view.

As happens in all conferences, my view is very partial and another set of papers would lead to different conclusions, but the presentations I attended showed a preoccupation with the emotional stability of students, how to keep their attention engaged, and using social networks skills for improved teaching. I marvel at how often the word ‘gamification’ could be seen in the titles of papers offering the most varied advice about how to turn boredom into excitement. I have already expressed here my prejudice against this concept. In my modest view, we are going in the wrong direction by trying to have students feel excited all the time in class, when actually we should train them in accepting that learning cannot always be exciting. I attended an excellent presentation which defended the creativity of boredom but, beyond that, I think that modern pedagogy is too invested in the idea of excitement. My impression is that a student who expects excitement from classroom activities will be twice bored if classes happen to be less exciting than expected. I do not know enough, in any case, about gamification to radically disregard the whole trend, but I am asking for caution.

Something that worried me very much in the presentations addressing the emotional wellbeing of students, very much affected as we all know by Covid-19, is the underlying assumption that we, teachers, are perfectly stable persons. We are not. I do not mean that the profession is full of whacky characters, though we possibly have a higher ratio than most professional sectors. What I mean is that it is somehow implied that we can transmit knowledge about our area, train students in it and contribute to their emotional health as if we were robotic machines. I try to do my best not to cause unnecessary distress and keep my students as happy as possibly, but I am a highly stressed, often unhappy person and I do not see anyone worrying about that. By this I mean that I am pretty average, and I think that possibly 99% of my peers are subjected to human emotions that impact their teaching. A teacher can only be an efficient guide for students if s/he is reasonably stable in emotional terms when stepping into a classroom, a position increasingly harder to sustain with all the pressure put on us to perform at all levels, not to mention the job instability of the associate teachers. A presentation, I must note, did comment on emotional coaching for teachers, but my impression was that this is right now a luxury few universities can afford.

Another presentation commented on the mismatch between the competences employers sought in new graduates and the competences students had actually acquired. The same speaker offered a second presentation about whether talent was missing or had been made harder to spot with the implementation of the competence system. We started introducing the new degrees back in 2009 and since then we have been describing what we do, both to the Ministry and to students, in lists of competences. I doubt, however, that any of our graduates pays much attention to that. We should check, but my guess is that at the end of their studies no graduate is thinking of competences but of knowledge acquired. The most absurd aspect of the competences, however, is that we were never allowed to use the verb ‘to know’ in them because the corresponding committees agreed that acquiring knowledge was secondary to learning how to do something. You should have seen, though, my students’ faces when I told them that the main mission of ‘Victorian Literature’ was not just to have them acquire knowledge about this area of the Humanities, but guiding them to produce basic academic writing. What the competences of the course describe is for them secondary to the fact that they need to read and know about authors and texts, as in traditional teaching. Haven’t we forgotten, I ask, to tell students about how we actually teach and they are supposed to learn?

It occurs to me that this is a major problem. A presenter described how she established a weekly encounter with her students during lockdown to discuss how they were coping with the situation brought about by online teaching and so on. I found it a wonderful idea because we speak too little about teaching with our students. When we do, great things happen. For instance, in one of the TELLC workshops, two students expressed their view that our instrumental subjects were a waste of 24 credits for students who already had the B2-B1 entrance level our degree requires. They suggested replacing them with language courses focused on academic writing, and this is what we have started doing. I have kept the TELLC workshops open to students but I realize that we need another type of forum. I am sure students do have many more ideas about how to teach and learn, but they have no mechanism to discuss them with us, for fear of offending teachers and jeopardizing assessment. And, yes, I have indeed thought of an anonymous mailbox for suggestions, but I still hope the conversation can be started face-to-face. In the end, if you think about it, perhaps the main problem of any teachers’ forum is that we speak to each other of what we think students feel or might welcome, but do not ask them directly. This is like discussing with your best friend how to have better sex with your couple, without ever asking your couple.

There was a paper that drew particularly good criticism and many positive comments. Did it offer a ground-breaking teaching technique? Perhaps the solution to keep students gleefully entertained and the teachers happily engaged in class? No… The presenter simply drew attention to the design of our classrooms. Eleven years after the start of the new degrees, which supposedly eschew lectures for more collaborative teaching, we still work mostly in classrooms designed for a large audience to face a speaker. See the problem I have now, for instance: I have 65 students in my Victorian Literature class sitting in benches, in rows of eight seats (I think). My platform is placed to the left, and I stand about two metres from the closest student. The ones at the back must be about ten to twelve metres away from me. With their facemasks on, I can’t understand them, which forces me to teach less than thrilling lectures, shouting like I’m possessed (I refuse to use a microphone, the last thing I need!). If, instead of the compact sitting arrangements, students were in individual chairs, I could have them work in small groups and I could move around talking to them. Yet this is a luxury we only have in the smaller classrooms. Why the benches have staid put is easy to understand: in the last ten years, the school where I work has only had money to keep us going, not to consider any major investment. If you ask me, the whole building should have to be redesigned, but that is as impossible as demanding that university classes have a maximum of 30 students.

Oh, yes, I had forgotten about that. The most frequent comment to papers that called for better guidance of students was, ‘yes, I love the idea, but with one hundred in my group, how do I do that?’ I know that in smaller universities classes of 30 students may be the norm, but in big universities like my own, we may have up to 140 students per group. This is insane. Yet, there is a complete taboo around discussing the issue of group size for the simple reason that if we took it seriously many universities should double their staff. And, as things are, we have trouble enough trying to secure tenure for those who have been around for ages as associates. I will insist again and again that in my time both in primary and secondary schools the habitual class size was 40-45, and little by little 25 became the ideal. I don’t know whether this is the actual size of most primary and secondary classes but a class of 40 kids, we all know, is an aberration. In contrast, nobody remarks on the number of students in university classrooms, or if we do it, this is only in terms of the teachers’ workload. Beyond that–how can anyone guide efficiently groups of more than 30?–there is the matter of students’ rights. I think that a fundamental right is that your teacher knows your name in, let’s say, the first two weeks of the course, and can accordingly pay attention to you as an individual person. With more than 30, this cannot happen (or happens at the cost of a great effort).

The main lesson learned at the conference, in short, is that there is plenty of good will and good ideas to make teaching and learning better, but that, as long as the universities keep their old architecture, limited staff, and big groups of students, there is little that can be actually done. What most speakers proposed, from gamification strategies to flipped classes, passing through small group tutorials and so on, involved an increased workload, which perhaps some of us, tenured teachers, can assume but not so our associates, who make up now more than 50% of our teaching staff. I do not mean that the bottle is half empty and nothing can be done, but that the very concept of innovation must refer to what can be done, not mostly to what could be done if only things were better.

Now tell me what it’s like for you, whether you’re a teacher or a student.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/

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