All posts by

deep listening

I’ve been reading about the use of contemplative practices in higher education recently. Getting students to engage with wicked problems is bound to prompt strong emotions and disagreements. These are important parts of transformative learning but we need to support our students to work well with these emotional reactions. I think contemplative practices can really help with this.

I’m currently reading a book chapter by Barbezat and Bush (2013) about deep listening. They give lots of examples from higher education of students benefiting from this contemplative practice. It both helps students learn better and also prepares them well for many future roles.

The basic idea is that students practice deep listening by taking turns listening to one another for a few minutes. The idea is just to listen and try to resist the temptation to help, coach, judge or react to what the other person is saying. Once the speaker is finished, the listener can repeat back what they heard as closely as possible. Students report how much they value being truly heard in this way and how much they learn from the practice.

Barbezat, D. and Bush, M. (2013). Contemplative Practices in Higher Education : Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning, John
Wiley & Sons, Incorporated. Chapter 7.

Thinking again about curricula for wicked problems

Reading the news is so hard just now. Political crises, the climate and biodiversity emergencies and the covid-19 pandemic make me want to hide under the duvet and give up! Watching the recent David Attenborough documentary on extinction was deeply upsetting as well. We can’t give up though. Especially folk like me who are so privileged and safe compared to many others in our world. So I’ve been thinking again about curricula for wicked problems and how we in universities can support and challenge our graduates to work with us on these global challenges. Here’s the new video I’ve made based on that thinking.

Here are the key sources for the video, other than the findings from the wicked problems project.

Anderson, C. and McCune, V. (2013). Fostering meaning: fostering community. Higher Education, 66, 283-296.

Anderson, C. and McCune, V. (2013). Facing an uncertain future: curricula of dualities. Curriculum Journal, 24(1), 153-168.

Ashwin, P., Boud, D., Calkins, S., Coate, K., Hallett, F., Light, G., Luckett, K., McArthur, J., MacLaren, I., Mclean, M., McCune, V., Mårtensson, K. and Tooher, M. (2020). Reflective Teaching in Higher Education 2nd Edn. Bloomsbury.

Barnett, R. & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the Curriculum in Higher Education. Maidenhead: Open University Press 

Beer, L., Rodriguez, K., Taylor, C., Martinez-Jones, N., Griffin, J., Smith, T., Lamar, M. and Anaya, R. (2015). Awareness, integration and interconnectedness: Contemplative practices of Higher Education Professionals. Journal of Transformative Education, 13(2), 161-185.

The Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project

Harraway, D. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Lotz-Sisitka, H., A. Wals, D. Kronlid  and D. McGarry. (2015). Transformative, transgressive social learning: Rethinking higher education pedagogy in times of systemic global dysfunction. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 16: 73–80.

McCune, V. and Hounsell, D. (2005). The development of students’ ways of thinking and practising in three final-year biology courses. Higher Education, 49(3), 255-289.

Near Future Teaching

Ross, J. and Collier, A. (2016). Complexity, mess and not-yetness: teaching online with emerging technologies. In G. Veletsianos (ed), Emergence and Innovation in Digital Learning: Foundations and Applications. Athabasca University Press.

Tassone, V., O’Mahony, C., McKenna, E., Eppink, H. and Wals, A. (2018).(Re-)designing higher education curricula in times of systemic dysfunction: a responsible research and innovation perspective. Higher Education, 76, 337-352.

Wamsler, C. (2020). Education for sustainability: Fostering a more conscious society and transformation towards sustainability. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 21(1), 112-130. DOI 10.1108/IJSHE-04-2019-0152

Zajonc, A. (2013). Contemplative pedagogy: a quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning No. 134, Summer 2013, 83-94. DOI: 10.1002/tl.20057

curricula for wicked problems

Here is a short video I’ve made about higher education curricula for wicked problems based on what we have learned from this project and the wider literature.

Here are the slides for the video.

These are some of the key sources of inspiration for the video beyond the wicked problems project:

Near Future Teaching

Staying with the Trouble

Anderson, C. and McCune, V. (2013). Facing an uncertain future: curricula of dualities. Curriculum Journal, 24(1), 153-168.

Barnett, R., & Coate, K. (2005). Engaging the curriculum in higher education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

The ETL Project

GUEST blog post from emily taylor

I’m delighted to be able to share this guest blog post from Emily Taylor with some real life examples of teaching about wicked problems.

How to focus students on the solution instead of the problem? This was the conundrum I have been facing every year of teaching an online course for postgraduate students in clinical psychology. The course, Trauma and Resilience in a Developmental Context, was originally designed to show the importance of understanding and facilitating resilience for children who have experienced trauma.

However, no matter how resilience-oriented the course seemed to be, students were drawn towards the trauma and intervening therapeutically with individual cases instead of the wider contextual problem. Drastic action was needed. In autumn 2018, I completely re-wrote the curriculum in favour of an introduction to developmental trauma and resilience theories followed by seven weeks of wicked problems that impact child and adolescent mental health. Each problem was anchored in a specific context to narrow the scope of enquiry for students, but had applicability globally. The civil war in Syria provided discussion about the impact of persistent danger and displacement on children. Different problems presented different formats for learning: Orphanage care in Malawi gave us a debate on whether, as decreed by UNICEF, orphanages are always a bad thing. The topics provided opportunities for students to communicate academic learning in different ways, for example writing an open letter to the US president about the impacts on children and society of incarcerating children at the US-Mexico border. Student activity showed that we had sufficiently engaged them in the relevance of this topic, and there was more evidence of resilience-focused thinking and discourse. Non-clinical professionals on the course, such as teachers and those in the 3rd sector, were more empowered to contribute their expertise.

However, it also became apparent that we had engaged the students with trauma in a different way. Introducing a new wicked problem each week made it difficult for students to fully immerse themselves in the theory and evidence as well as the facts of each problem. Several students described feeling overwhelmed, distressed and demoralised by the scale and challenges of the problems. We had to review our plan to focus on ‘looking after the workers’ in week 10, bringing forward some of the self-care and reflective activities to help students articulate their concerns and legitimise their feelings. Self-care activities included keeping a diary of thoughts and feelings as a way of debriefing; and scheduling time off from study to go for a walk, meet with friends or eat good food.

Feedback from the students was excellent, with a real appreciation for the real-world relevance of the course, and broadening of knowledge and horizons. Their suggestions for improvement aligned with those of the tutor team: reduce the number of wicked problems to allow more depth and academic engagement, and introduce self-care earlier on. For the tutor team it was a hugely rewarding experience. The quality of student contributions to group and individual activities, tutorials and in assignments was truly outstanding at times. Focusing on problems to which there is no clear solution provided learning for everybody and, ultimately, communicated the importance of fostering resilience in children and the system around them.

Fantastic workshop with colleagues

Yesterday we ran a workshop on Teaching about Wicked Problems in the University with some excellent colleagues. I shared ideas about curricula for wicked problems that I’d been developing since our last workshop and learned so much from participants’ ideas. Sharon gave everyone a helpful reminder of the project and our main findings and Andy drew together participants messages for key stakeholders in the University.

We invited along my colleague Daphne Loads to do some work with us on a contemplative pedagogy – Lectio Divina. This involves slow careful reading of short texts, including reading aloud and paying attention to our bodily reactions. This was a really thought provoking experience. Alfy Gathorne-Hardy, from the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security, gave a lovely entertaining talk about his own teaching. He emphasised how helpful he had found it to work with students in the outdoors when dealing with challenging topics. Rachel Chisholm, from Social Responsibility and Sustainability, helped us understand all of the great opportunities in the University for students to work on sustainability issues as part of the curriculum or co-curriculum. Harriet Harris, from the Chaplaincy, got us thinking hard about what the University is really for and how that relates to wicked problems.

One of the main messages for policy makers in the University was that excellent teaching about wicked problems requires innovative interdisciplinary teaching. To enable this University practices and models need to support these developments more fully. Interdisciplinary teaching requires deep academic engagement to set up and more extensive training for tutors who have not previously studied the interdisciplinary topics. This needs to be recognised and resourced. We talked about how the consultation process for Near Future Teaching and the Edinburgh Futures Institute could provide good models for this kind of work.

This work is more urgent than ever

I’ve been dismayed by some of the news recently relating to wicked problems. A recent report tells of the unprecedented rates of species extinction across our planet. Meanwhile the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tell us how urgently we need to act to prevent a climate crisis with warming above 1.5 degrees which will lead to untold suffering, loss of life and accelerated extinction of species. Higher education is crucial to supporting the leaders of the future to cope with the problems that we have been complicit in creating. We will be pushing forward with sharing our findings with key stakeholders, running events and producing resources to do our bit.

teaching about wicked problems in higher education

On the 7th of March the project team will be running a workshop for the University of Edinburgh on teaching about wicked problems. Update – The workshop is now full but we will soon be advertising another workshop which will take place in May.

In that workshop we will be sharing some of the great ideas our participants had about teaching about tough topics like food poverty, sustainability, and the challenges of being a professional vet. Our participants often used strategies such as getting students to work in diverse groups to do authentic problem solving around wicked problems. Teaching students to value diverse and interdisciplinary perspectives was important to them.

I’ve also been looking in the literature for ideas to inspire teaching about wicked problems and I came across this interesting paper by Heila Lotz-Sisitka and her colleagues  about transformative and transgressive learning. The paper is full of rich ideas about how we can support our students to transgress boundaries to solve wicked problems. Whether these are the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines, the boundaries between our inner and outer worlds, or the boundaries between the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘student’. It’s well worth a read!

Interesting paper on higher education curriculum and sustainability

Today I’ve been reading a really thoughtful paper by Valentina Tassone and her colleagues about redesigning higher education curricula in the context of the Anthropocene. The authors argue persuasively for a transition in higher education toward more responsible forms of research and learning in relation to wicked problems. They point out how important it is to prepare learners and professionals for the ‘grand challenges’ facing our societies. Taking an action research approach, the authors developed a set of educational design principles and learner competences which can underpin curriculum development in higher education.

I particularly like this point from the paper:

“The challenging conditions of our time call for human values that return us to our basic obligation to care for others and the earth, and to permeate our endeavors with that sense of care, within and beyond the specific role one plays in society at a given point in time.”