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Joy, fun and learning: if you want it, you must build it!

25 Jul 2022 | Dr Petia Petrova Dr Petia Petrova, Associate Director of Academic Practice at the University of the West of England, shares her reflections from a workshop at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2022 on supporting staff in developing their teaching skills.

On 7 July 2022, I had the pleasure of co-delivering a workshop at the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2022 ‘Improvisation Skills for Teaching: Innovative Approaches for Positive Student Engagement’ with our partners Imogen Palmer and Stephen Brown from the Bristol Improv Theatre. I have been closely involved in designing the Improvisation Skills for Teaching (IST) programme at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and had taken part in numerous IST workshops over the years. Yet, observing Imogen and Stephen’s expert delivery to an external audience, was so very insightful. It brought to the fore, for me, some of the implicit assumptions and elements that we have incorporated in the programme. These assumptions raise important questions about how we support staff in developing their teaching skills. 

Before I delve into my reflections, here is some background detail: 

We launched the IST programme at UWE Bristol in April 2021. This was in response to staff struggling to engage students actively in the online space, during the Covid pandemic. From the very beginning, the feedback was outstanding, and this undoubtedly encouraged other colleagues to join in subsequent runs. We soon had extensive waiting lists which strained our administrators. To date, we have reached 124 staff and registered 290 workshop attendances. Many individuals attended multiple workshops. The originally six, now eight workshops, attracted a wide range of staff: some participants had taught for decades, others were preparing for their first class. 

Below, I share some of my ‘aha moments’, spurred by the Advance HE conference workshop, on what makes this programme a success. 

Setting the tone 

IST is very careful about the tone it sets for staff. Imogen and Steven always emphasise that they are not there to teach academics how to teach. Instead, IST workshops simply offer an opportunity for academics to experience, as learners, a few tools that they can then re-imagine and re-shape for their own classrooms. The phrase ‘tools not rules’ is used to highlight this ethos. 

What I love about these workshops is the focus on creating emotionally safe learning environments. We not only emphasise that this is necessary, but also highlight clear strategies, tools and techniques needed to artfully create, and maintain, such environments. We are not teaching ‘about’ doing so, we are enabling staff to develop their own toolkit. 

Observing our Advance HE workshop, I remembered my early educational development career. I was teaching on a postgraduate certificate in academic practice. My focus was almost exclusively on the scholarship of teaching and learning: enabling staff to engage with the literature, experiment, and reflect on their teaching practices. This is not to say that this is not important. I believe it is. I also now very strongly believe that we need to give serious attention to supporting staff in developing their teaching toolkit. To do so, it is best to: 

1. give an opportunity to experience a tool (a teaching technique or activity) as a learner, 

2. to reflect on its impact on us, not least on the emotional state of the learner, and how it may encourage (or discourage) learner participation, 

3. to offer peer and expert coaching on how it can be adapted for appropriate use in our own teaching. 

IST workshops are theory driven, but not theory heavy. For example, we do not teach staff about reflection. Instead, we engage staff in various individual and group reflection activities and techniques throughout the workshops. 

Let me give an example of one of the very first activities that IST workshop participants may be involved in. It is both simple, and profound. At the start of the Advance HE workshop, after an ice-breaker, Imogen said something along the lines of: “OK, this is now our first serious activity for this session. To do this, we need a volunteer." After the customary combination of panicked faces, sideways looks, and active avoidance of eye contact with Imogen, typically a brave and eager participant raises their hand. Imogen thanks them for it and says: “All you need to do now is to stand up, bow, and all of us will clap and cheer you loudly.” Instantaneous relief is experienced by all. Some nervous laughter and loud cheering ensue. Then Imogen speaks again: “OK, this was just to get you all focused. Now the real task begins. It will be challenging, but we need a volunteer to demonstrate the activity.” The next raised hand takes but only moments. Imogen thanks them for volunteering and surprises (almost) everyone by giving exactly the same instruction as last time. More nervous laughter ensues, and a collective release of a breath held. 

Now comes the moment. Imogen invites people to share how this felt for them: when she asked for a volunteer, when someone else volunteered, when they were cheered, when they did the cheering. Many hands go up. Different, and sometimes unique emotional reactions are shared. And just there, for a moment, it dawns on all of us: we need to reframe our thinking about those frustrating teaching moments: the blank screens (and faces), and reluctance to speak up by our students. We realise that we need to attend, explicitly and strategically, to developing the right ‘atmosphere’ and ‘tone’ in our classroom. We realise that we need to move beyond assumptions about our students and into designing and applying tools and techniques in our teaching that explicitly develop students’ skills as active learners. That for those hands to go up, we need to have employed appropriate tools that foster positive, and engaging, classroom learning environments. 

In the words of a participant after one of these workshops: “Just wanted to say thank you to you and the team for a great session today. Not only brilliant content (the workbooks are just excellent, and much nicer than a massive PPT deck) but I just loved the framing of 'not teaching how to teach' / 'tools not rules'. You could tell the vibe that it brought into the room immediately and it felt like a warm conversation. Very much appreciated!” 

Thank you for reading. Please get in touch if you would like to share your own practices in this space, or would like to find out more about our Improvisation Skills for Teaching programme. 

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