What is distinctive about teaching and learning at Anglia Ruskin University? I think I know, and in this post I’ll explain how I know, what it is, and why it matters. But first, can a whole University really have a single distinctive identity?
No, we have many identities. Ideas about active learning, such as ‘be student-centred’ and ‘reflect diversity’, are also reflected in the diversity that helps to define who we are individually, as well as collectively. For a university, our many identities embrace our passions, our areas of expertise, and our disciplinary cultures.
So, with this diversity, can we also be distinctive? Can we, together, have something in common when it comes to teaching and learning that we and others can say, “That’s Anglia Ruskin!”
I think so, and I think there are two ways of approaching this. There is what we could evidence and there’s what we seem to value and aspire to be. I’ll address values first and then provide you with some evidence from the work that many of us at ARU have been tackling together recently through curriculum design activities.
What do we value?
I joined ARU in January, and I have subsequently met others who have recently joined the University. Inevitably you find yourself in conversations answering, “So, why did you come here?” We have all sorts of answers to that, and usually teaching and learning is not explicit in what we say - but it is there in our answers. I find that what people do talk about is, “It’s my sort of university,” or “My subject/course has a good reputation.” Another thing that often comes up in Cambridge is the positive view about what makes us different to the other university.
Behind each of these comments, and many others as the conversation continues, are the implicit values and commitments to furthering opportunities for the students who choose to come to Anglia Ruskin; often, they are those who have already succeeded against the odds or despite expectations. Our personal commitments are to continue to inspire and engage all those students and ensure that the energy that got them this far is given further momentum.
As academics, we seem to be driven by our disciplinary commitment and by the desire to support our students to share our love of our subjects and see how it can help them to form their future identity. Their sense of ‘becoming’.
This commitment to teaching values is what keeps me going and from the many conversations I have had with colleagues at ARU, I think it’s what makes most of us tick.
Where’s the proof?
It feels like I’ve met just about everyone since arriving at Anglia Ruskin! Well, that’s not possible, but if you have taken part in a Curriculum Design Intensive (CDI) event, there’s a fair chance we have met. The CDIs have been… well, intensive. They’ve been challenging for colleagues. For many, “Not what I would have chosen to do with two days, given everything else, but now I’ve done it, I’m glad I did!” While we are still to evaluate the CDI programme, I have had many conversations that echo the sentiment that “our team should talk about teaching more often.”
My takeaway from the CDIs is Anglia Ruskin has some fantastic people who absolutely share my commitment to the students that come our way, as well as to their own disciplines. More than this, what I discovered is that the University’s Education Strategy and the principles set out in our Active Curriculum Framework reflect how our best academics already teach. These documents are not some much directive, more an explanation.
I have heard that often the challenge facing individual academics is our reticence to talk to each other about why we teach in certain ways and our academic values we hold. Without that dialogue in course teams, we easily fall into the teacher-centred paradigm that we understand from when we went to university.
However, higher education has expanded since the late 1990s, professional domains have developed (often where they didn’t exist before), and the world seems to have become digital at every turn. A consequence of these changes, and the development of higher education teaching excellence as a research focus in its own right, is that what we know about teaching has grown exponentially and this knowledge all points to adopting ideas about student-centred active and inclusive learning.
The teaching challenge, therefore, is to understand how to engage our students. All of them. The simple answer is active learning, and when you listen to the stories from inspirational academics, it becomes clear what active learning means in practice.
That, for me, is largely what the CDIs have been about - a chance for academics, in course teams, to talk together about their inspirational teaching (with a little facilitation!).
What does it add up to?
Looking at what I have heard colleagues discussing during the CDIs, a distinctive picture of active learning emerges at Anglia Ruskin. Academics tended to highlight some key ideas:
Activate - that is, stimulate student curiosity.
- Applied and authentic - that is, situate knowledge, skills and attitudes in their discipline’s professional context. Make learning real and relevant. We talked a lot about ‘integrated employability’ and the Anglia Ruskin Graduate Capitals.
- Accessibility - that is, make the curriculum inclusive so all our students can engage with it, both intellectually and practically.
- Agency - that is, our curriculum is student-centred and our approach is to set our students challenges that demand that they use their initiative to find things out through experimentation, research or enterprise.
- Authentically assessed - that is, summatively but, importantly, formatively too through a ‘learning as enquiry’ philosophy.
As you can see, A is for Active learning at Anglia Ruskin.
Visit Anglia Learning & Teaching to find out more about Active Learning.