Making Connections in Higher Education

Making Connections in Higher Education

Relational Pedagogies

What does it mean to teach and learn in higher education today? And more importantly, what should, and could, it mean? These are fundamental questions that speak to the values that underpin our practice, and that shape the cultures we foster and work within and the experiences our students have as they transition into and through university. In recent work, we have suggested that despite the dominant discourses that focus on student satisfaction, that depict higher education as a product, and construct students as consumers, meaningful interpersonal relationships remain of paramount importance to both students and staff. Meaningful connections enable learning, and situating connections as fundamental to higher education can offer openings to reorientate the way we experience our work as educators.

This is a theme we have explored in our recent work. For example, using a creative story-completion method, we examined how relationships impact upon students’ experiences of higher education and surfaced the importance of relational pedagogies, where meaningful relationships are positioned as critical to effective learning and teaching. In this article, we drew upon data from a longitudinal study, in which students were invited to complete stories that enabled them to surface experiences and discourses surrounding relationships at university. Our data suggest that meaningful connections are crucial to accessing support. Most notable within the data were a number of key themes that recurred within the students’ stories and interviews.

Firstly, students reported that they desired the individuality of their experiences to be recognised. This resonates with other recent work examining how students experience belonging in higher education and highlighting the situated, granularity, and diversity of students’ experiences. Such work indicates a need to move away from understanding students’ experiences as universal and uniform. Second, our article surfaced the importance of achieving connections with others, and the experience of alienation when interactions are not genuine, or when communication breaks down. For students, feeling that they are understood and that they matter can be a fundamental part of their learning experience. In a broader sense, we can understand learning as situated within a wider web of relations, in which students do not exist independently and in isolation, but intra-act (Barad 2007). This leads us to ask new questions about how we want to engage with both our students, with one another, and encourages us to look again at the broader networks in which learning occurs.

From Metrics to Mattering

However, relational pedagogies, and the need for students to experience a sense of mattering, are situated against a backdrop of tensions within higher education learning environments that mean that such relationships cannot always develop. The higher education landscape has shifted dramatically towards a predominant focus on accountability and student satisfaction. At the same time, a wider era of global economic and health uncertainty means that students and staff often work and learn in contexts that are challenging for engagement. Within the neoliberal university, the student is positioned as a self-governing agent, as a consumer. Staff are under increasing pressures and experiencing high levels of workload and burnout. Our findings suggest that a greater understanding of the need to interact care-fully with our students is essential. In particular, we suggest that students need to be understood as more than customers, with diverse experiences, and that adopting such an understanding may enable more generative pedagogic relationships to develop. However, we also advocate the need to prioritise relational pedagogies, to find spaces for new conversations around relational learning to take place, and, crucially, for staff to be recognised and supported in their work developing learning.

Future Directions

There is further work to be done to understand more about what meaningful connections for students look like. This is an evolving area, generating key questions such as how we might foster connections when learning and teaching, as well as what broader sociomaterial actors might be involved in learning interactions, and how might we trace these practices and relations. Future work on relational pedagogies, connections, and mattering, to be published in 2022, will examine further the role of the relational within higher education and will argue that such a perspective offers an enriched understanding of higher education pedagogies that can be potentially transformative in creating the higher education pedagogies and practices we might want to be a part of. For now, we suggest that asking who and what matters within higher education, as well as acknowledging the importance of the relational, may be the first steps in moving towards creating opportunities for supporting staff to prioritise their connections with students. This might be in terms of increasing time for student-staff interactions, prioritising the value of teaching within institutions (and providing further resourcing), attending to the diverse day-to-day practices of learning interactions, or even just creating spaces for conversations regarding relational pedagogies to take place.

References and Further Reading

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press. https://www.dukeupress.edu/meeting-the-universe-halfway 

Gravett, K. and Winstone, N. E. (2020). Making Connections: Authenticity and Alienation Within Students’ Relationships in Higher Education. Higher Education Research and Development. https://doi.org/10.1080/07294360.2020.1842335

Gravett, K., Kinchin, I. M. and Winstone, N. E. (2020) ‘More than Customers’: Conceptions of Students as Partners Held by Students, Staff, and Institutional Leaders. Studies in Higher Education, 45 (12), 2574-2587. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1623769 

Gravett, K. and Ajjawi, R. (2021) Belonging as Situated Practice. Studies in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2021.1894118

Gravett, K. (due 2022) Connections and Mattering in Higher Education: Reimagining Relational Pedagogy, Practice and Research.  London: Bloomsbury.

 

Dr Karen Gravett

Dr Karen Gravett

Lecturer in Higher Education

Dr Karen Gravett is a Lecturer in Higher Education at the Surrey Institute of Education, at the University of Surrey, UK. Her research focuses on staff and students’ experiences of learning and teaching in higher education. In particular, she explores the role of connections in learning, and the impact of discourses and narratives in higher education. Her work also considers how theoretically informed approaches (posthumanism; poststructuralism; sociomaterial studies) can help us to understand how we learn. Karen is co-convenor of the SRHE Learning, Teaching and Assessment network, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Associate Editor of the Higher Education Research and Development journal, and a member of the editorial board for Teaching in Higher Education.
Dr Naomi Winstone

Dr Naomi Winstone

Reader in Higher Education, Director of the Surrey Institute of Education

Dr Naomi Winstone is a Reader in Higher Education and Director of the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey, UK. Her research focuses on the processing and impact of instructional feedback and the influence of dominant discourses of assessment and feedback in policy and practice on the positioning of educators and students in feedback processes. She is also an Honorary Associate Professor in the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE) at Deakin University, Australia. Naomi is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a UK National Teaching Fellow.

Education Outside the Classroom – An Innovative Teaching Concept During COVID-19

Education Outside the Classroom – An Innovative Teaching Concept During COVID-19

These days, pupils’ everyday life is characterized by health-endangering behaviors e.g. lack of physical activity or excessive sedentary times, resulting in physical but also mental health problems.

Additionally, pupils nowadays have to deal with unprecedented challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Imposed restrictions of contact and limitations of recreational activities or sport might affect their physical and mental health status negatively. 

Pupils – mandatorily – spend most of their waking hours in schools. Schools further have been identified as stress-provoking, which can be a source of mental health problems. Consequently, schools represent an ideal setting for health-related interventions reaching all kids and adolescents. This is where Education Outside the Classroom (EOtC) comes in. EOtC represents a health-related intervention in terms of a teaching concept which aims to counteract the abovementioned health risks and further support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what is Education Outside the Classroom (EOtC) exactly?

Is EOtC an outdoor excursion over several consecutive days in summer, detached from the core curriculum? No!

EotC is integrated into the regular curriculum. On a regular and long-term basis, learning environments are deliberately moved outside the regular classroom setting.

EOtC typically takes place in nature, e.g. in forests, fields, or parks. Places of cultural, political, and social significance, such as museums, libraries, and other public institutions, further represent suitable learning environments.

Wherever EOtC takes place, the outdoor location most often becomes part of the object of learning. EOtC is by no means limited to subjects that everyone would immediately associate with outdoor lessons, such as biology, physical education, or geography. EOtC can be integrated into the regular curriculum and enhance teaching of all school subjects.

Research into EOtC

In a systematic literature review, we found several studies reporting positive effects of EOtC on pupils’ social interaction, learning motivation, physical activity, and mental health. Our early results from this evolving research field—both on a practical and scientific level—are supported by more recent findings, e.g.:

Practical Implementation of Education Outside the Classroom

In our opinion, teachers cannot simply transfer indoor teaching and the respective teaching methods to an outdoor learning environment. Similar to regular classroom teaching, teaching outside the classroom requires thorough planning geared to the respective setting in order to enable EOtC to its highest potential.

EOtC involves e.g. the following characteristic features:

  • no walls limiting the learning environment
  • unpredictable and changing weather conditions
  • new and unknown materials
  • a variety of affordances and stimuli (e.g. interaction with natural elements such as trees, rivers, living animals)
  • several logistical challenges (e.g. active transport to the outdoor learning environment, transport of material for an outdoor laboratory)

EOtC’s organization differs depending on e.g. the school subject, weather, and location. If schools have a suitable permanent outdoor location nearby, classes can e.g. build long-term shelters with branches for rainy days, plant their own vegetables or use tree trunks as seating accommodations. Regardless of the general variety and flexibility in EOtC, fixed routines can provide clarity and promote discipline as well as motivation.

EOtC has great potential to enable pupil-centered and hands-on learning experiences in which teachers support pupils’ autonomy in their learning process by e.g. transferring responsibility to the students. Examples in this regard are learning by doing, trial and error, and the experience of competence or social relatedness.  

Education Outside the Classroom during COVID-19 

EOtC is a teaching concept that might help to reduce the risk of a SARS-CoV-2 infection as study results indicate that the risk of infection is highly increased in closed environments via aerosols in comparison to outdoor environments. Outdoor infection is very unlikely if distance and hygiene rules are being followed (Nishiura et al., 2020; Qian et al., 2020).

During the tuberculosis-pandemic in the 20th century, ill pupils or pupils suspected to have tuberculosis were taught outside (Open-Air-Schools) to separate them from healthy children. Instead of getting the infectious disease or becoming more ill, most pupils stayed healthy or recovered in the Open-Air Schools. In these Open-Air Schools, pupils sat on their normal tables in open-air environments, such as rooftops, factories without windows, walls, or gardens. In a New York Times article, Open-Air Schools were lately reconsidered as a promising approach during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similar to the idea of Open-Air-Schools, EOtC could enhance teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. The outdoor learning environment on the one hand involves a provably reduced – but by no means non-existent – risk of infection. On the other hand, EOtC might issue a challenge to teachers as well as students – and their parents – who are not used to outdoor teaching and learning. By our work, we aim to meet these challenges and form a basis which facilitates including EOtC into everyday teaching – now and in the future.

We hope that the current need for innovative teaching concepts which involve minimal risk of infection and enable regular classroom teaching will create awareness of EOtC’s various possibilities.

Together with colleagues from the German Forest Conservation Society, we publish EOtC teaching materials for various subjects and grade levels open access. These documents may help interested teachers taking their pupils outdoors more often. 

If now is not the time to teach pupils outside the classroom in forests, on fields, in parks, or anywhere in nature, when will it be?

References and Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you can find out more about our research here. 

 Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: a pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1·6 million participants – Guthold, Stevens, Riley, & Bull, 2020

Analysis of Sedentary Times of Children and Adolescents between 4 and 20 YearsHubert & Köppel, 2017

The pandemic of physical inactivity: global action for public health, Kohl et al,. 2012

Child and adolescent mental health worldwide: evidence for action Kieling et al., 2011

Sources of stress and worry in the development of stress-related mental health problems: A longitudinal investigation from early- to mid-adolescence – Anniko et al., 2018

The extent and dissemination of udeskole in Danish schools Bentsen et al., 2009

 Effects of Regular Classes in Outdoor Education Settings: A Systematic Review on Students’ Learning, Social and Health DimensionsBecker et al., 2017

 Stress in School. Some Empirical Hints on the Circadian Cortisol Rhythm of Children in Outdoor and Indoor Classes Dettweiler et al., 2017

 Stress Response and Cognitive Performance Modulation in Classroom versus Natural Environments: A Quasi-Experimental Pilot Study with Children – Mygind, et al., 2018a

 Stress in School. Some Empirical Hints on the Circadian Cortisol Rhythm of Children in Outdoor and Indoor Classes – Dettweiler et al., 2017; Becker et al., 2019

 Children’s physical activity during a segmented school week: results from a quasi-experimental education outside the classroom intervention – Schneller et al., 2017

 The association between education outside the classroom and students’ school motivation: Results from a one-school-year quasi-experiment – Bølling et al., 2018

 Primary teachers’ experiences with weekly education outside the classroom during a year  – Mygind et al., 2018b

 Closed environments facilitate secondary transmission of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)Nishiura et al., 2020

 Indoor transmission of SARS-CoV-2Qian et al., 2020

Dr. Christoph Mall

Dr. Christoph Mall

Senior Research Fellow at the Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health, Department of Sport and Health Sciences, Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Christoph is a sports scientist particularly interested in student physical activity, health, and learning motivation during Education Outside the Classroom. He furthermore studies how interventions taking place in open community spaces promote children’s and adolescents’ physical as well as psychological well-being. He is the project leader of Active City Innovation within the international Sports-Innovation-Network (SINN-i). He is the founding member of the Play, Learn and Teach Outdoors Network (PLaTO-Net).

See Christophs’ Twitter, Researchgate and ORCID profiles.

Jan Ellinger

Jan Ellinger

2nd Year PhD Student, Technical University of Munich (TUM).

Jan is a sports scientist and works at the Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health, Department of Sport and Health Sciences at TUM. His doctoral research focuses on health promotion and prevention in the population of children and adolescents. Jan’s research focuses on the school setting, but also considers other living environments, such as the community.

Leslie Bernhardt

Leslie Bernhardt

Student Assistant, Technical University of Munich (TUM)

Leslie studies Health Science in the 5th semester at TUM and works as a student assistant at the Associate Professorship of Didactics in Sport and Health at TUM. She is involved in the project Education Outside the Classroom which investigates the effects of regular school lessons outside the classroom on the behavior and health of pupils. She will graduate in 2021.