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Jun 8, 2015
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Doctoral supervisor as ‘confident companion’

Posted: June 8, 2015

Following an interesting session with Prof Malcolm Tight (University of Lancaster), I have been pondering the use of metaphor to describe the research student experience (University of Hull, 3 June 2015). Prof Tight talked of whether the doctoral experience could usefully be seen as a ‘journey’. He also explored a number of metaphors such as ‘student as consumer, ‘student as apprentice’, ‘student as client’ and even ‘student as slave’ (a particularly uncomfortable one which I am not sure should be used, even as a metaphor).

It strikes me that all of these metaphors, in one way or another, present the research supervisor as ‘expert’ or ‘master’, with the research student taking the position of ‘beginner’ or ‘learner’. I appreciate that this may, of course, reflect the experiences of many doctoral students, and therefore, might be appropriate, but there is something about this dynamic which makes me feel uncomfortable.

If we stick with the idea of the doctoral experience as a journey, these metaphors conjure up images of the supervisor as driver, leader, route-marcher or guide. The supervisor chooses the destination, plans the route, and leads the student to make sure they stick to this route. If the student starts to wander from the path, the supervisor pulls them back. We could even go further and see the supervisor as cartographer – someone who draws the map itself. But is this the way that supervisors want to be seen?

I prefer to see my role as a doctoral supervisor as one of a ‘confident companion’. This expression is not my own, but is taken from Carl Rogers, in his work about person-centred therapy. Rogers holds a strong position that the counsellor or therapist is not the expert or sole knowledge-holder, but rather, needs to trust the client to be able to direct their own lives. In his work on empathy, he writes that counsellors need to be a ‘confident companion to the person in his or her inner world’ in which they ‘look with fresh and unfrightened eyes at elements in which he or she is fearful’ (Rogers, 1980, p142). For me, translating this to the role of doctoral supervisor is helpful. As a supervisor, I might be seen as a confident companion with a doctoral student as they navigate their way through the process of doing a doctorate. The end goal – the destination – is the production of an individual thesis, but the way in which each and every student gets there is unique, and the challenges they face on this journey is different. As supervisor, my role is not to tell them exactly where to go, or to route-march them through the journey, but to be alongside them, as a confident companion, with ‘fresh and unfrightened eyes’. The student might be seen as the navigator, the supervisor as companion. This means that each and every student can have their own personal journey and create their own route, and even their own destination.

Students might feel that this metaphor falls down at the point at which supervisors give them feedback on their written work. Students, I know, sometimes find this process difficult and challenging as they see supervisor comments as criticism. But I wonder whether this is because students are caught up in the perception that supervisors are experts (even masters), and therefore, give particular weight to their comments (ie. ‘my supervisor knows best and therefore, I must have done this wrong’). If students saw their supervisors as ‘confident companions’, they might be able to see this feedback in a different way (ie ‘they are alongside me, supporting me to work my way through my own journey, pointing out possible pitfalls on the way. I can decide for myself whether to pay attention to this. They might, after all, be wrong’).

I might just hold these ideas in mind when I supervise doctoral students. If I can manage to communicate that I am a confident companion on what is their own personal journey to a doctorate, then we might go some way to equalising the power dynamic that is inherent in all of the other metaphors. Watch this space. Any comments – from doctoral students or from supervisors – are welcome.

 

Reference

Rogers, C. R. (1980) A Way of Being. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

 

 

 

Posted:
Jun 8, 2015
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Brené Brown on empathy

Posted: June 8, 2015

Just stumbled across this short video, using the words of Dr Brené Brown, to illustrate the difference between empathy and sympathy. My favourite bit is the line which says “rarely, if ever, does an empathic response begin with ‘at least’ … “

I am a fan of Brené Brown. She has the capacity to communicate complex ideas in understandable ways. Her work on vulnerability and on shame, though rigorous and academic, is also deeply personal. And she has the gift of wit.

Worth a watch.

Posted:
Jun 8, 2015
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Quote of the week

Posted: June 8, 2015

Democratic schools, like democracy itself, do not happen by chance. They result from explicit attempts by educators to put in place arrangements and opportunities that will bring democracy to life … These opportunities and arrangements involve two lines of work. One is to create democratic structures and processes by which life in the school is carried out. The other is to create a curriculum that will give young people democratic experiences.

Michael Apple and James Beane

 

Apple, M. W. & Beane, J. A. (eds.) (1999). Democratic Schools: Lessons from the Chalk Face, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Posted:
Mar 6, 2015
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Quote of the week

Posted: March 6, 2015

Truly listening to what children are saying requires moving away from tokenistic views of engaging with children’s voices. It means trusting what children have to say. It also means being prepared to question what we do and what we believe is correct.

Kiki Messiou

Posted:
Feb 27, 2015
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A school with no classrooms

Posted: February 27, 2015

Hellerup School in Copenhagen, Denmark is one of the most interesting schools I have ever visited. It is best known for its architecture; it was highlighted by Building Schools for the Future in the UK as an innovative school design. Architecturally, the school is astonishing. There are some classrooms – science, gym and woodwork are all in rooms with lockable doors – but apart from that, the school is open-plan. ‘Class areas’ are delineated by arrangements of furniture such as moveable room dividers, lockers, desks. No class area has a door and students can wander freely from one area to another. The school is located over three floors, all looking down over a central well and the famous ‘Hellerup stairs’ (copied in schools in Hull and elsewhere). The school design in itself is innovative, but it only makes sense in relation to the school’s pedagogy. The pedagogy came first; the architecture followed. Everything, including the acoustics, has been carefully designed so that even though the school is open-plan, it is remarkably quiet.

On initial impressions, Hellerup School looks like chaos: children everywhere, all in casual clothes; piles of coats, shoes and bags littering the floor. However, it is clear that this school is highly organised with six 45-minute lessons every day, each one started by an introduction in the cosy ‘base areas’. The curriculum, testing system and staffing rotas are all organised – it is the style of teaching and learning which is flexible and has the appearance of chaos. After being set a task (or learning objectives), children can choose how they want to learn. The building is explicitly designed around this pedagogy, and children are encouraged to move around and find a space in which they want to work. There are tables, chairs, sofas, beanbags, stages, steps. Children can work in small groups, in pairs, on their own. Within the school, there are dozens of quiet and cosy working spaces for children to choose to work in, including outside areas.

The school is for children aged 6-16. There are approximately 660 students on roll (with a waiting list). The three floors house ages 6-9, mid-secondary, and upper secondary (although there is some moving about between floors). Roughly, there are 70 students in each year group which consists of 3-4 class groups (23-25 per class). Sometimes they work in class groups and sometimes in year groups, which gives them a lot of peers to work alongside. Teachers are allocated to a class and year group, and they stay with this group for at least three years, which means that they know all students extremely well. Teachers do not move groups to teach subjects; the curriculum is project-based and incorporates a range of subjects. Students stay in the same class group from the age of 6 to 16. The school values building and maintaining good relationships with and between students, and it is this which guides the structure of the school.

The school has a commitment to ensure that the ‘learning styles’ of all children are accommodated. Although the school claims to start to identify learning styles in kindergarten, it does not appear as if these learning styles are used in a restrictive or prescriptive way. Rather, the school recognises that children learn differently and they want to give them freedom to find the best way for them. Children are actively involved in this process and can try out a variety of different ways of learning. The school day is organised in such a way that children have a wide variety of opportunities to engage in different ways of learning and of working alongside different children. Collaborative work is highly valued. All classes are mixed ability, although sometimes teachers will encourage particular students to work together – this relates to ability but also to motivation.

Hellerup School has to do the same national tests as other schools (the Danish system has apparently adopted some similar practices to the UK – national testing system, Her Majesty’s Inspectors). The school also has its own testing system for Danish and maths. The Head was clear that parents would only continue to send their children to the school if test results were good; although they value the ‘soft skills’, these are seen as extras. In addition to academic tests, students negotiate individual goals through dialogue with teachers. These can be academic, personal or social goals, and students are involved in self-assessing whether they have met these goals. These goals are taken seriously and are written into work books (and sometimes on walls, making them more public). It appears as if students genuinely self-direct these goals, although this process warrants further exploration.

Hellerup School was at one time named as one of the flagship schools for the charity Human Scale Education http://www.hse.org.uk/hse/ This school is not perfect and it certainly has its challenges – and these challenges seem to be increasing as the Danish education system closes in on freedom.

If you are interested in knowing more, then please come to the Freedom to Learn event in Oxford on 12 March 2015 – we are lucky to have been able to bring the Head of Hellerup to the UK to share his experiences and reflections on the school. The event is free, but places are limited. Book now at www.freedomtolearnproject.com

 Any comments on this post very welcome.

Posted:
Feb 20, 2015
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Trampolines in Universities?

Posted: February 20, 2015

Tecnologico do Monterrey is a high-ranking university in Monterrey, Mexico. I was based on this campus last week as part of a British Council research project (‘dialogue and transformative learning in STEM education’). In many ways, the campus feels conventional in that it has a library, lecture halls, science labs, cafes and shops. Yet there is something that feels different about it too.

In contrast to the formality of many British universities, Tec de Monterrey has deliberately set out to encourage creativity and innovation. It wants students (and staff) to push themselves into new ways of thinking. One way it has done this is through building the Innov-action Centre (pictured). This building is designed to feel free-flowing and flexible. There is brightly coloured furniture. There is a pool table, a trampoline, a table-tennis table. There are pop-up tents, large cushions and swings. There are spaces where students can work on their own or in small groups. The idea behind the centre is to provide opportunities for inspiration. If they are struggling with an idea, they can move around and do something different, and then return to their work. By having the freedom to move around and be creative, they can think differently (or so the argument goes).

In many ways, the Innov-action Centre reminded me of pictures I have seen of Google’s offices. Whilst I was there, I saw students sitting on the big cushions and working in small groups. I saw some using the pool table as a normal table. I did not see anyone using the trampoline, the swing, or the table-tennis table. It made me wonder whether these facilities are ever used or whether they just give the impression of ‘creativity’.

My university in the UK has recently re-designed its library. The new building looks amazing, and it also contains brightly coloured furniture and small working spaces. Students and staff really like the new space. Yet it still looks much more organised and more formal that the Innov-action Centre.

Are there any universities in the UK which have deliberately designed their space so as to encourage creativity and innovation? And if so, do students actually use these facilities? If you know of any that have done this, it would be great to hear from you.

 

 

Posted:
Feb 11, 2015
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Freedom to Learn – want to get involved?

Posted: February 11, 2015

The Freedom to Learn Project is an international cross-sector research project that wants to  find out what happens when schools and universities, across a range of countries, make a decision to operate differently from the norm. Do radical and alternative ways of working have a positive impact on students? Do they reduce social and educational inequality? Do they offer an insight into how to improve education for all? The Freedom to Learn Project is an all-encompassing name which incorporates several separate but interlinked projects. They are all concerned with freedom, autonomy and social justice.

I am co-founder of The Freedom to Learn Project, alongside Dr Catherine Montgomery, also at the University of Hull. We have managed to draw together a fabulous bunch of people to help drive this project forward (see website for details) but we are still looking for more.

It is exciting to be working with people in schools and universities, across several countries, to explore these issues. Do you want to be involved?

Please check out our website and Facebook page:

www.freedomtolearnproject.com

www.facebook.com/freedomtolearnproject

Look forward to hearing from you.