The Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme Forum June 2015: A Day Well Spent

Intriguingly, the day offered “inspiring keynotes, stimulating and interesting presentations and thought-provoking discussions on how to innovate and develop teaching and learning at The University of Edinburgh”; a lofty invitation for a mid-summer Thursday.  Despite the fact that the title of the day was, to my mind, not particularly inspiring, the offerings suggested something a little more than the title did.  Equally, as the recipient of a PTAS 2014 award as co-investigator and a PTAS 2015 award as principal investigator, attending the day was something that I felt would be ‘useful’; not to mention a break from marking dissertations.  ‘Useful’ and ‘a break’ sells the day significantly short of what it turned out to be, and provides little insight into the conversations and discussions that were had, both formally and informally . Nor does it provide a view of the presentations that were given on such timely topics.

The first keynote speaker of the day was Professor Brendan McCormack, http://www.qmu.ac.uk/hn/BrendanMcCormack.htm

Head of Division of Nursing, Queen Margaret University, who provided a lively and informed presentation on The Theory of Critical Creativity. http://criticalcreativity.org/

The basis for his presentation included thoughts on how critical creativity can be used as a vehicle for transformational learning and development.  Much of Professor McCormack’s presentation was new to me, particularly the language and theoretical understanding of critical creativity, but that did not prevent me from sensing a shared understanding of many of the concepts.  One of the many themes that had particular resonance for me was the concept of human flourishing.  Professor McCormack asked us to reflect on the suggestion that as humans we are constantly encouraged to reach our maximum potential, and yet by working within a rapidly changing environment, our capacity for ‘flourishing’ and reaching this potential is often severely diminished with a possible end result in that people become “worn down” by organisational and financial necessity, on-going or repetitive system changes and lack of person-centred value and beliefs.  The clarity of this suggestion, did allow me to contemplate the extent to which this occurs and is managed in organisations across the country – including our own.  Are we given opportunity to flourish?  And if not, what is the greater cost to the human condition and sense of self-worth?  Questions I still ask today.  A second theme that has resonated with me, and one that is closely related to human flourishing, is the concept of empowerment and engagement.  As lecturers and academics we often talk about engaging our students in practices that will support their academic journey and empowering them to take risks and opportunities but do we really?  There is a clear understanding that we cannot ‘make’ a person engaged nor can we make them empowered, and yet we use this language almost casually in a number of settings.  Importantly, Professor McCormack suggests the engagement and empowerment do not simply occur in isolation, rather the appropriate conditions for change and an individual’s willingness for change must also be present.  I often hear myself suggesting to students to engage in the material I have presented, but perhaps, rather than looking to the students, it may be more appropriate to look to myself and ask if I am providing opportunity and the potential to allow engagement.  A closing message that I am reminded of is that rather than forcing change, an appropriate opportunity will present itself, and by recognising this window, a chance to make change can occur.

As this was a PTAS forum, the opportunity to discuss with others their experiences, both positive and challenging, was invaluable.  Previous PTAS award holders provided excellent summaries of their projects and much was gleaned from post discussion questions.  As principal investigator for a PTAS 2015 award, I relished the chance to make contacts with former and current PTAS holders and gleam the most from their experiences.  In my case, this opportunity came over lunch speaking to a colleague from another College.  One of the issues that we had been struggling with was the employment of students during the course of our project.  My colleague was exceptionally helpful in highlighting key steps in the HR process and also provided excellent suggestions for maximising the student’s experiences during their time with us.  Perhaps there is some truth the concept that great ideas appear over lunch!

The closing keynote of the day was by Professor Roni Bamber

http://www.qmu.ac.uk/research_knowledge/professoriate/roni-bamber.aspx

Director, Centre for Academic Practice, Queen Margaret University.  Professor Bamber, highlighted a key element to PTAS awards: how does one demonstrate the value of a project?  Topical, as each PTAS award holder must demonstrate that they have enhanced the quality of the student learning environment.  As was suggested, most academics are familiar with the research excellence framework and are strongly encouraged to demonstrate impact in their work.  But in teaching and learning is impact more subtle? Or, does it need another definition?  Professor Bamber presented thoughts on the triangulation of evidence, by examining research in the public domain, practice wisdom and evaluation of ‘soft’ evidence such as feedback and peer reflection, and somewhere in the centre of these three concepts, the evidence for impact might come to light.  Coming from the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, I see ‘impact’ and ‘evidence’ in a particular way, often with a quantitative slant.  Perhaps there is a need to step back from this within the context of learning and teaching and embrace a wider definition of impact, one that might not be easily quantified and one that also encompasses local evidence, local scholarship and local enquiry.

The day left me with a refreshed understanding of some key themes in learning and teaching, some practical advice for my PTAS project and some new insight into what were for me, new areas of education.  Overall, a day well spent.

Dr Sarah Henderson is Deputy PGT Director in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine,  programme director of the MSc in the Clinical Management of Pain programme, and has research interests in educational development, technologies for learning, the translation of education into clinical practice and pain management in under-resourced nations. 

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