International staff development in teaching and learning: Lessons learnt

cstaAt the end of another period of working with lecturers from overseas I thought it would be useful to pause for thought and identify lessons from working in the area of transnational staff development. I have just completed my third international staff development summer school, and here is what I found. These points come with the caveat that they are only my learning, and others may, of course, have different views of what works.

Be conscious of your assumptions.

Before meeting academics from other continents it’s easy to let assumptions about what they may or may not be doing in practice, or what they may or may not believe, creep in to your thinking and planning. By example with tutors from China a common belief is that they are always involved in a transmission modes of education; this is simply not my experience and the view relates to outdated assumptions. While some Anglicized techniques may be new to colleagues from other locations my experience tells me we have a shared passion for making learning better, and some overlap already in our methods such as employing a flipped classroom.

Explore biography.

It’s always useful to start any transnational academic staff development by exploring the experiences and biography of the individuals involved. Those involved in supporting transnational staff development can then be agile and responsive to the specific needs of the group. Things that I have tried are very simple: Starting the development programme with a list of questions and concerns that the group would like to address, shared via a post-it-note board, hosting a session with no plan and offering the hot seat format where we simply respond to the questions of the group in an effort to take stock and allow international colleagues to add context to their growing understanding, and walking together to listen more informally to the needs of the group.

Ensure that learning is always two way.

One directional international staff development appears like neo-colonial self-righteousness. We need to employ empathetic methods wherein we offer our own practices, identify some of the limitations of these approaches, and also invite teachers from other locations and nations to do the same. It feels disrespectful to do anything else.

Get the basic accessibility matters right

Take care of the basics to ensure provision is accessible. Particularly it’s important to make sure that delivery is slow enough to allow the digestion of material; if you’re not sure, keep checking with the group. Also, ensure that resources (slides, papers, etc.) are available before the class so that translation apps can be used to familiarise with any tricky words.

Team teach, always.

Team teaching allows a richness which is not possiblealone; I tend to work with people who can offer a very practical take on the theoretical ideas and research that I am exploring. As well as simply providing more experience in the room, teaching in pairs provides an opportunity to model professional differences, which are inevitable in teaching. So by example when working with a colleague in a session about teaching evaluation, my view was that it is okay to identify some of the areas upon which you specifically want feedback from teaching observation, but my colleague’s view was that this might limit the range of feedback and prevent previously unnoticed habits or issues from surfacing. Our nuanced differences were explored publicly as a model of divergent views; this raises the exposure of the group to detailed discussion. Team teaching also provided in the moment opportunities for peer observation and debrief; this should be routinely incorporated through the provision of collegial feedback on what worked well, and what less so.

Use staff development as a vehicle for the host organisation’s staff development.

By keeping international staff development locked within one or two people, there is limited benefit. Encouraging colleagues who may be outside of the usual staff development circuit to come and join in, can, I think, have a considerable impact, in growing capacity and confidence for this type of work. It can also provide experience for aspiring Senior Fellows within the UK Professional Standards Framework. It can also provide challenge and a refreshing set of ideas, for staff who often manage staff development.

 

Be confident about lessons on technology transferability

Within international staff development programmes we may wish to explore tools for learning and teaching. Things like Twitter, Padlett, Nearpod, Facebook and Kahoot. A first thought may be, well what’s the point as we have access to different apps, and some of our apps may not be appropriate in a different cultural context. However, our experiences are that sharing is still good, even when the tools are not immediately transferable, as we can learn by return about alternative apps. Most importantly, since technology and the way we use it reflects much about the underpinning power, beliefs and values in learning, then exploring technology is a much more valuable experience than just swapping ideas on apps we like.

Hold discussion using first language

Group work with international, especially Chinese staff, is always very productive, but it is incredible demanding and limiting to make that group work happen in a second language (e.g. English). Permitting sense-making in the first language allows rich debate and discussion to evolve, rather than slowing down the pace and adding another cognitive load. This approach loses the opportunity for input to the discussion from the session host, but in my experience this is a process worth paying to enable lively group discussion, and in any case group précis in English can give the headlines.

Lead by self-exposure on the difficult discussions.

Asking questions, or discussing topics, which require some exposure of personal fragilities, can be tricky to get started. Working with my colleague, Jane Headley, we found that by sharing something of ourselves before we ask others to do the same was helpful in creating an open forum. So for example, when discussing technology, I shared some adverse feedback that I had received on my own approach; I then told the story of what happened next, and I identified the decisions I made that lead to a less than perfect learner experience. This lighthearted ‘fessing up’ made others comfortable to share their own critical incidents and learning from it. As well as showing openness, this deconstruction of practice also models reflection in action.

Use many examples and stories

Using real examples of situations, challenges and successes can really aid understanding, though remembering that some political context may be important to explain why one or another decision was taken at the time, e.g. we had funding for this type of work, or we are preparing for TEF.

Encourage journal writing

Finally, by encouraging some reflective writing after each topic or session, international staff can form their own ‘take away’ record of i) what were the key learning points and ii) what next to research, extent or apply aspects of learning? A simplified, structured formal of learning journals can promote consolidation and impact from learning.

This list is no doubt incomplete, so please do add any other points that you might have.

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