Lessons to be learned

Oof, it’s been a tough few weeks, hasn’t it? We thought that worldwide lockdown and 100,000s of deaths were the worst 2020 could throw at us – what fools us mortals be! I’d originally planned to write a post about the trials and tribulations of exam marking but that seems inconsequential now.

I am well aware of my privilege as a member of the majority community in Sri Lanka, and I cannot begin to understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of centuries of systemic racism and discrimination. I am however a first generation immigrant in the UK and I have many tales of the microaggressions I have experienced over the years. I have seen many others sharing their own experiences but I’m wary of doing the same; it would feel a bit ‘all lives matter’-esque to me, and this is primarily an L&T blog after all.

So what I’m going to do is share two more of my L&T observations based on situations in my life. Both have implications for equality and inclusivity in Higher Education but only one of them relates to the experiences I’ve mentioned above. The UK HE landscape has students from a variety of backgrounds (educational, geo-political and socio-economic) and it’s important that we, as academics, take the time to reflect on any microaggressions that we’re guilty of and try and be better.

Observation #4: Every student in your class is one of YOUR students

I spent some of my primary school years in Oxford and being a brown kid in an English state school in the ’80s/’90s was no walk in the park. That said, I was well-behaved, quiet and hardworking, and my teachers seemed to like me (even if my classmates didn’t). I remember we had a weekly spelling test, and thanks to my mother’s home tuition and Ronald Ridout, I topped the class every time. This went on for a while, until one week another classmate also got full marks. That afternoon my class teacher gleefully told my mother:

Today one of OUR kids was the champion!

I may be paraphrasing  (it was a long time ago) but that was the gist of it. Never mind the fact that they were wrong (joint champions, thankyouverymuch), ‘our’ kids? Was it because of my skin colour? Was it because I’d only arrived in the UK a year prior? We’ll never know. All I knew was that I didn’t belong.

We talk a lot about ‘building cohort identity’ amongst our students, especially for the freshers joining us this September, with a lot of non-critical activities being moved online. Whilst activities and initiatives are great at instilling a sense of community, we must take care to be as inclusive in our day-to-day interactions with students.

Observation #5: Everyone has the capacity to learn

The second case study is far more recent, and by contrast extremely positive…because goodness knows we need some positivity right now. Earlier in the week, this happened:

Now without divulging too much personal information, I can say that my father is a retired surgeon, currently in his second career – management. He’s roughly twice my age, and we got our first computer when I was a teenager…so it’s safe to say he’s not a digital native.

We had our IT lab session yesterday. It took about two hours, and we went through the following:

      1. Creating a Team in MS Teams
      2. Adding a guest (i.e. me) to a Team
      3. Sharing the screen in MS Teams
      4. Using the Read Mode in MS Word
      5. What is MS Forms?
      6. Creating a Form
      7. Copying a Form
      8. Adjusting settings on a Form
      9. Displaying real-time responses in MS Forms
      10. Sharing a Form

It was fascinating to see how quickly he picked it up. Of course that’s partly due to the way Microsoft has designed its platforms, but I’d say a lot of it is due to my father’s willingness to experiment and learn. I had to be careful not to overwhelm him with information, and I made sure the workshop was set up the way he’d want to run it (I resisted the urge to teach him how to embed forms in a Stream video and create break-out groups in Teams!). The true test will be when the workshop takes place next week but I’m confident that he’s got it in the bag.

All too often we give up before we’ve even reached the starting line. Students start the lesson saying “oh this is too hard, I’m no good at it”, and academics start using EdTech tools with “oh I’m too old for this technology malarkey”. What are we so afraid of? The world won’t stop spinning if we make a mistake in the classroom, it’s all part of the learning process.

At the same time, as educators we need to recognise the different learning styles of our students. If I’d run the same session with students straight out of school, I would’ve taken a different approach (and we’d definitely try out the break-out groups!). It’s important to bear in mind that the whole point of me teaching is so that my students learn…every single one of them.

I will close with the Queen’s performance of Freedom at the 2016 BET Awards. Because…well, no explanation necessary, surely?