5 key roles for supporting teachers and students to change educational practice

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Changing how we teach and learn is often a messy and inefficient process. In this article, I will describe an ideal change cycle, which I think rarely happens as neatly as we would like. I will then introduce five key roles that may be played by people (explicitly or implicitly) to make the messy reality clearer, more efficient, and inclusive.

As part of my learning design consultancy role at Warwick I work with all kinds of teaching teams to help them to find, adopt and adapt teaching techniques that fit their needs (including the needs of their students). It’s rarely the case that this is entered into with an already complete and clearly articulated understanding of those needs. That understanding tends to emerge as people consider alternative possibilities in a messy and often long-drawn out dialogue. It would be nice if we could get this operating as a clear-cut cycle with distinct stages. That cycle would be:

  1. Review and reflect on existing teaching, challenges, and emerging challenges, to define needs to be addressed.
  2. Search good sources of information for candidate solutions that meet those needs, or which might be adapted to fit.
  3. Explore potential solutions in more depth, considering features, case studies, and prototyping, so as to build sufficient understanding.
  4. Design and implement changes, adopting and adapting techniques as required, and altering the details as we reflect-in-action.
  5. Return to stage one (for example, after a session or a course has completed), to enter further iterations of the cycle if necessary. But also feedback to the community and to service providers so that the repertoire of available solutions is improved and expanded.

That’s the classic cycle. In reality, the stages get a bit mixed up, and we struggle to feed essential information, at the time it is needed, into the decision making process. We also struggle to abstract out lessons learned and feed that into service design, documentation, and the community of practice.

What can we do to make it clearer and more efficient? I’ve “invented” five key roles. They are based on good practice I have observed at Warwick and elsewhere, as well as the literature on innovation processes, communities of practice, and Design Thinking. Each role gives a different but essential contribution, fitting some stages closely, but still being involved in the whole cycle. I argue that they are increasingly essential, as the speed and scope of change increased. And they need to be well coordinated and interconnected across the whole institution. Note that these roles may be performed well by students.

The roles are:

A. Critical-creative friend – to help teachers and students to review and reflect on teaching successes and challenges, and to formulate new design challenges.

B. Informed advocate – when teaching teams are searching for solutions, the informed advocate can help them to discover things that might work, to speed up the process of finding appropriate solutions from what is available, or to get a sense of what they might have to do to go beyond existing solutions. The informed advocate knows the field, knows who to contact and where to go next. They can use online resources to assist with this, but their personal understanding of a complicated set of options is essential. Informed advocates guide people through the second and third stages, through to the point at which a commitment is made to adopt a new approach.

C. Technology facilitator – especially important in the third and fourth stages, to help people to develop sufficient understanding so as to effectively choose and implement solutions. Technology facilitators need to be good at explaining, simplifying, and demonstrating. They need to understand systems, but also people, and how people will learn to use those systems. This is in part training, in part designing.

D. Design participant – there’s still often a big gap to overcome between committing to change and implementing it. Usually this will still involve a lot of learning, thinking and experimenting to adapt techniques to needs, or needs to techniques. Design participants are able to see things from lots of perspectives, help to envisage choices and configurations, and to do the essential reflection-in-action.

E. Community facilitator and translator – we can’t expect all of this to automatically happen in a well coordinated manner. It needs facilitation, support with networking and communications, documenting lessons learned, translating between the different cultures involved (especially between teachers, students, technologists, and managers).

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Academic Technologist, IT Services, University of Warwick Fellow of the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence

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