Tag Archives: autonomy

Learning & Teaching Conference…

Today I attended the University of Sheffield’s 5th annual Learning & Teaching Conference…

The idea is to bring together staff (and suposedly students) to reflect on the curret and future directions of how the university teaches its students, and what is expected from all parties involved in learning at this particular institution. Although primarily attending in order to assist my tutor Rosie Parnell in delivering a paper on the ARC571 Module, it was interesting to gain a wider perspective on ‘learning at university’ and the views of its professional facilitators – in what is often considered ‘the other world’ of teaching.

I regard the University of Sheffield to be a forward-thinking institution – indeed, that is why I transferred here from my previous institution – and I believe this to have been reinforced by the conference attended today, although there are clearly still areas for improvement.

It was interesting to note the conference’s focus on matters that could loosely be termed as ’employability’ of its students; the plenary (introductory or key note…) session identified that often the things employers look for in graduates relate only indirectly to the actual technicalities of their subject of study (these were ’employers’ such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, NPower and HSBC…), and what they actually value are the ‘other things’ that a critically engaged university experience brings; curiosity, competency, integrity, self-awareness. Techincal knowledge – says one speaker – can be taught relatively quickly, whilst these other qualities are usually harder to develop. The breadth of a university experience, then, is what employers value in a graduate, and therefore what graduates should value in a university experience, and the question of facilitating this seemed to be a recurring theme at today’s conference.

I attended specific sessions supporting this general aim, including;

Kroto Institute – an institute based at the University that was established with support from Harry Kroto, alumni and Nobel prize winner in order to promote a resource and enthusiasm for university learning in schools and colleges. A representative from teh Institute described their efforts at creating a TED-like database of ‘talks’ and presentations that are effective in an on-line context, produced by students and researchers at the University and available globally to colleges and schools (alongside presentations from other institutions)

Lecturing as Performace – which focussed on the idea that if students are paying for tuition, they expect to be entertained, and effective learining might be facilitated by embracing this aspect of the student attitude. Letting ‘persona’ and ‘context’ influience and support tehdelivery of context can be used to teh lecturer’s advantage in tehdelivery of learning.

Social Media and new technology in teaching – which focussed on asking how things like Skype, Blogs, Twitter, etc. might be used by reluctant and technologically illiterate academics in order to facilitate learning, especially in the context of distance-learning and decreasing contact time.

In summary, the conference had added an ’emergency’ session, in which a ‘workgroup’ presented a draft of the universities strategy for addressing the 2012 fee increase, the ensuing expectations of prospective students and what this might mean for the university-student relationship. This is where I think my view of this institution as a forward-thinking entity was reinforced, as the draft was being presented in order to start a discussion amongst those staff ‘on the ground’ about how they feel they should be teaching. I made my point about the lack of student involvement, which was courteously accepted, although no ‘action’ emerged…but what seemed to be apparent was a shift from research-led-teaching to research-led-learning. This conceptual transformation necessitates a commitment of responsibility from students, and the discussion touched upon how this might be facilitated. What needs to change in learning environments in order for student to be generally more committed, more autonomous, and value the ‘softer’ things – other than the degree classification – that they leave the university with. The assumption is that valuing this leads to a vibrant learning ‘community’, that perpetuates the institution’s reputation for excellence. Quite how you managed expecting this ‘commitment’ whilst increasing what you charge for the privilege three-fold, I don’t quite know…..

Our session itself seemed to go quite well – I was responsible, alongside a colleague for delivering a series of 5-minute discussions about ‘self-appraisal’ in architectural education and its application on other disciplines. The main idea seemed to be well-understood, and I feel like my presentation of it as a concept enabled a good understanding of our intentions and ocntxt amongst our particpants. However, in 5 minutes it is incredibly hard to have a valuable discussion. One point that was made in another of the workshops, which focussed on peer-assisted learning, was teh issue of appropriate mentoring – how do schemes like the Good Peer scheme ensure that the students acting as mentors (us) do so with integrity and competency? Teh answer, at teh moment, is that there is no guarantee other than that we have been through teh undergraduate programme and therefore should have some appreciation of appropriate behaviour. In discssion later with Rosie, we talked about the particular relevance of this to health issues such as depressiona and anxiety, which seem to be particularly prevalent amongst students of architecture.

In all a good day, with some good experience gained of the conference context. It was encouraging to see that there were at least 150 delegates who wanted to discuss the issues presented, and reflect upon their own practice as facilitators of learning. It was also encouraging to contribute to discussions and feel like my voice was recognised and accepted. These people really aren’t a million miles away for myself and my colleagues, and we have views, skills and interpretations that are valid and have value for others.

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What is ‘learner autonomy’? – A manifesto for the autonomous learner in architectural education

1/ …Autonomous action in any field is underpinned by the ability to ‘pick and choose’; in the case of architectural education, this choice is between a number of approaches, methodologies, techniques and opinions. In doing so, the autonomous learner must be able to make an informed choice. So;

2/ …being able to choose wisely becomes important. Knowing what contributes to a good decision is fundamental to autonomy, as is;

3/ …having the courage to act. It can be hard to simultaneously learn and know that you’re right (in fact, or in process). Fundamental, in turn, to this is the idea that;

4/ …there is no clear cut ‘right’ or ‘wrong’;

5/ …Valuing both prior experience and personal opinion (providing it is informed and critical) is key to autonomy. Having been conceived and nurtured by individuals;

6/ …‘Position’ and ‘Critique’ are vehicles by which understanding (and therefore learning) are furthered through discussion amongst a group. Therefore the idea of;

7/ …inter-dependency, as opposed to independency, is crucial. The autonomous learner must have an understanding of the contribution they can make towards, and their obligation to, a wider whole, in terms of;

8/ …synthesizing knowledge from mere information, and;

9/ …safeguarding well-being; an understanding how things relate in an ecological sense, personally and socially, underpins successful autonomous learning;

10/ …Essentially, autonomous learning is being able to act confidently and independently, alongside, rather than instead of, directed study.

Therefore, an innovation that would support learner autonomy within the Sheffield School of Architecture would be something that;

1/ …empowered students to be happily critical of self and each other, individually or amongst groups, with or without a ‘tutor’.

2/ …served as a tool for reflection upon the practices of self or school (such as ARC571).

3/ …facilitated the intelligent archival, retrieval and promotion of shared and embodied knowledge within a ‘school’.

The Manifesto itself reflects some aspects of our shared reflections on architectural education as a whole (i.e. the idea that it is important to lean that there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’). I would argue that in many respects, learner autonomy can be considered as synonymous with a wider idea of architectural education, as its practice is so key to the survival of the process! The Manifesto is a useful tool to both frame and focus intent within a field, and therefore appropriate at this point in our studies for ARC571. The act of its preparation is a tool for thinking, if nothing else.


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Dual-course Architectural Education…

The more I spend time in studio with different years at the Sheffield School of Architecture, the more it seems like those students that study on dual courses (landscape and architecture, engineering and architecture, etc.) are better equipped / suited to design-based education. At a basic level, I guess you can suppose that studying two ‘subjects’ is more reflective of actual design practice than studying only one, simply because ‘designing’ usually involves multiple points of reference and interaction with a diversity of professionals. But I also believe that a breadth of interest and focus reinforce the idea of inter-dependency behind most good design, and certainly behind most good design practice.

Within the particular focus of our ‘ARC571 – Reflections on Architectural Education’ module – learner autonomy – it has been particularly useful to work (however briefly) with two students from the landscape/architecture dual course. My current knowledge is that these students engage with teaching from both the Landscape and Architecture Departments at the school in their first year, before picking a discipline to specialize in for the remaining two years of their undergraduate degree. Each project comes with different and potentially conflicting briefings from each department and the students are expected to resolve them in their projects. This early necessity to ‘pick and choose’ from the priorities, demands and advice of their teaching staff, in my opinion, results a more readily adopted idea of autonomy than their counterparts on the straight BA Architecture course. Being a small group of students in relation to the whole cohort, and being obviously recognized as ‘different’ by their assignment to a dedicated ‘tutor group’ (as well as attendance of a specific programme), I also feel that these students are drawn together more easily than the others. There is a camaraderie that comes with an anxiety of personal choice clearly embodied; they help each other out more readily; they crit each other; they offer each other advice. When, as 5th Year students, we venture into the undergraduate studio seeking to offer ‘tutorials’ in order to satisfy another requirement of ARC571, it is the dual-course students that accept the offers most enthusiastically. They simply recognize the opportunity to air some ideas, and gather some feedback. They’ll say “That sounds really interesting. But no thanks, I don’t think it suits my project in this case. How about this…?”.

From my own experience on undergraduate architectural education, I distinctly remember feeling that those students that had either done an Art Foundation year, or taken a particular kind of ‘gap year’ were more suited to the particular style of education found in design disciplines. This observation is echoed by colleagues I have at this and other institutions. Is there something to be said, then, for recommending that architecture shouldn’t be taught as a distinct discipline? Or maybe it already isn’t, and we just need to be more explicit about its ‘inter-related-ness’? I think the important point, however, is that simply having a wider, more inclusive ‘focus’ doesn’t contribute anything to the autonomy of students. In the case of the dual-landscape/architecture students, it is the existence of multiple, specific foci that necessitates and autonomous approach.

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