Archive | June 2013

Compassion – an under-rated virtue

I started uni many years ago. I still remember my first day. I dressed in slacks (no jeans for me – I was trying to be “classy”) and I went to a physics lecture, a maths lecture, a chemistry lecture and then went back to my college for lunch. During the maths lecture, my friend was talking, and he ended up being kicked out of the first lecture. I was kind of terrified. I remember heading up campus, holding my campus map, thinking… “Oh, this is actually happening. I’m going to university.” The previous week, I’d been in living in residential college and had been partying for an entire week, so there was a huge shock of thinking “now the work begins”.

One of the key things that I look for when I recruit for leaders is their compassionate response. Do they remember how hard it was to start uni? Do they see the challenges and frustrations of the first years? Are they able to take themselves back to being in that space? One of the things that I always do is remember my first year – how scared I was, how anxious I was as the semester progressed and I realised I had no idea what was going on or what I was learning, and also the absolute joy it was to be free and independent.

This article has a great management principle of dealing with challenging employees from a place of compassion. What if we mustered our compassionate response for students too? Would that help?


Choose the right people, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote about some attributes I look for when interviewing for Peer Leaders. In this post, I want to outline a few more. This article on “What’s wrong with job interviews and how to fix them“* says that you choose people like yourself, and this is definitely something that I’ve been accused (accused is the wrong word – teased about is better) of in the past.  So what do I look for?

1. Compassion: It’s critical. It’s linked to patience and empathy too. If you can’t be compassionate, patient and reasonably empathic, then it’s very hard to sit alongside the learner rather than over the learner. And sitting alongside the learner is critical in peer learning.

2. Communication: I don’t mind if leaders have English as a second, third, fourth (etc!) language, but I do need peer leaders to be understandable – to be able to respond to questions well and ask questions well. Leaders report their communication skills increase enormously in the role:

I noticed that from the past week in which I had to give two speeches in different subject, I was much better than I was before at speeches and presentations where  I felt that I was not at all uncomfortable standing in front of the crowds which I didn’t realise before!

As every week, the continual routine of leading in u:pass sessions has allowed me to improve in my communication skills. I found that this particular upass skill helped me during a recent presentation.

3. Capability: Belief that they can do the role, or belief they can learn it. Some of this can come from you, but some has to come from them. (I chose capability because it’s then 3 C’s 🙂

*BTW, I try to look out for articles of interest to the team, but this particular article was sent to me by one of the leaders! Yay for such great initiative 🙂

Choose the right people

This morning I was reflecting on the different recruitment decisions I have made over time. I recruit between 50-70 leaders, per year, and the database now shows that I’m up to 344 leaders. I get a lot of experience recruiting, learning when to trust my gut, and learning when not to.

When I talk to academics about improving their tutors’ teaching skills, recruitment is a vital part of the exercise. I know it’s not possible always to recruit the right people if you’re recruiting from a fixed bunch of people, such as Honours and PhD students, but where possible I would encourage you to think about it and what you want. What you’re looking for in peer learning in my opinion is this:

1. An understanding of how people learn: I think you can teach this to a certain extent, but what you’re looking for, particularly in peer learning (where they get 2 days training) is a “native” understanding – is it too strong to say that some people are born facilitators, and some people are born “tellers”? I don’t think so.

2. Someone who can actively think about not what teaching is, but what LEARNING is. As I often recruit 2nd years, sometimes only 18 or 19 years old, I really rely on people that can identify what helped them to succeed in first year, and how they LEARNT. If they are to be authentic peer leaders, they need to be “sellers” of how to learn. They have some of this authentic-ness (is that a word?) just by being a high achieving student, but they also need to be able to articulate it. It’s an important part of the mentoring. And as I’ve said before, it’s the peer to peer thing that is critical. It’s not someone like me (or possibly you) – it’s a student to student thing.

This is another comment from a student attending U:PASS this semester:

Q: Based on the sessions which I attended, what I found MOST USEFUL about the U:PASS program is:
A: another student who can easily identify with us regarding the subject and give us advice/tips

3. Someone who knows how to shut up: Sometimes when I watch peer learning sessions I see a lot of talking from the leader. It’s (what I call – Miranda reference!) leader-directed. A really good peer learning environment is one where the students are talking and chatting, and the leader is wandering around, maybe not saying much at all, just asking a question here or there, or directing to a particular lecture slide or textbook reference. Follower-directed! Check out this maths leader’s comment from last year:

Questions/(topics) were a bit easier than the last couple of weeks, so people were a lot more engaged, talkative and helping one another out. I was a little sad, because there were (short) moments were I had absolutely nothing to do 😦

Of course, having nothing to do means the students are actively engaging and learning from each other. That’s a huge win! And that’s what I told the leader.

Of course there are other things that you should be looking for. I might speak about these in another post. 🙂

Session reports

One of the things that my leaders do is fill out a fortnightly session report. Because there are about 100 of them, it’s hard for me to keep in touch, and this is a great way to hear back from them in a semi-structured way. One of my leaders in particular had a wonderful answer to this question:

What went well in your sessions this fortnight and why?

I walked into a session with 2 students sitting down and 2 students standing at a white board covered in problems…. enough said!

What does it take to succeed at university? Just ask a student!

Well, sometimes I’m just blown away by the reflective thoughts that my leaders have when they’re filling out their session reports.

This one received today is a classic example:

A: This last week has shown me (like most last-sessions-of-semester tend to do) how the students change over the course of semester. I know I can’t take credit for it, and it’s probably not completely due to the educational aspects of university either, but all of my students have changed over the course of the semester; they have all grown. I was going to write how amazing it is that self-directed education can empower young people, even in the short time span of a single semester (and I still think this is true), but instead I’ll write that this amazing empowering and transformational effect is due to the university experience in general. That said, I do think that it is a testament to the type of students that U:PASS attracts – be they academically bright, dedicated, challenged or disadvantaged – that they are the ones who embrace, overcome and achieve growth through the challenges of the first year university experience, seemingly without fail. It seems that the students who are prepared to help themselves are the ones who persevere and prosper in the face of adversity, no matter its context or content.

The impact of U:PASS on the student leader (he just turned 22!) is clear. The impact on the first year students is also clear. This is the reason I don’t want MOOC’s to take over higher education. This is the reason I want students to continue to have face to face learning experiences at university. It matters. It changes them, forever. It helps them grow up.

Power away the power

I meet a lot of university staff who were high school or primary school teachers in former lives. For one reason or another, they’ve left those jobs. I watch my friends who are teachers now and I see burn out sometimes visibly happening. And don’t get me wrong, I totally get it – one reason I never thought I would end up in teaching is I couldn’t imagine coping with a high school classroom. I couldn’t imagine coping now, let alone when I was 22.

But one of the things that I think sometimes people don’t realise is the difference between adult learners and children. Actually, I’m not sure if this difference is really there… but assuming it is, let’s go with that for the time being. When I was studying at TAFE doing my Cert IV in training and assessment, I was strongly chastised by the trainer for “giving away the power”. I had given the learners in my course the choice of what they wanted to do. From her perspective, that was terrible!

I think she came with the same hang ups that primary and high school teachers sometimes have – fear of giving choice, and therefore giving away power. But I would argue, from numerous things I’ve read on managing people, that giving people choice helps them engage. And I love this article about 8 Things Skilled Teachers Think, Say and Do. Apologising might be seen as giving away power, as does being flexible. But I say it’s adapting to the student learner. What do you think?

I think the idea of “giving away the power” is really summed up by one of my U:PASS leaders:

“A: A particular leadership skill which I think I’ve been able to develop throughout my weeks of UPASS is being the subtle leader.

As a teacher, being responsible for a group of student’s learning can easily lead to wanting to take control of the class and make sure that everything that you had in mind is delivered. I think that this is the type of leader that I might have been before UPASS. However, as a UPASS leader, I’ve learnt that a good leader can also loosen his hold on the reins and let the group take it’s own path (with a little nudge here and there) which is often the better option.

Being involved in the UPASS program has not only developed my leadership skills in the general sense but opened them up to a range of different scenarios which I would have otherwise not experienced. Overall, I think the program has served to make me a more well-rounded leader.

The unexpected benefits of collaboration

What do you get when you cross an architect and a peer learning educator?

Nope, not a joke, just a ridiculously fun and collaborative experience.


It seems odd that someone who ran screaming from the technical drawing classroom in year 8 at Melrose High (yes, that’s an actual Australian high school) would be working with an architect. Yet, here at UTS, the opportunity to collaborate and help to further develop the already excellent peer tutoring program running in architecture studios was one I couldn’t pass up.

And what has it given me? Firstly an appreciation of the beauty and joy of architecture, the idea of space, and context, but secondly also the understanding that architecture academics are concerned with the same things I am – that students experience and learn and grow under their care.  I’ve found the desire to help students transition from the HSC learner to the professional graduate is just as strong.  And that the opportunity for friendship with someone in a design discipline (typically not my field, as I also ran screaming from art and woodwork in high school) is also wonderful. Looking up to design excellence from a naive and amateur space, I can appreciate design in a way I’ve always run away from.

Similarly, my work space is very collaborative. I’m now part of HELPS and so am learning heaps about helping students learn English, and a what a complex, mixed up, tricky beast English can be.

UTS is great at networking events, and it’s one of the things I love about working here.I worked with a colleague who once scoffed at networking events as pointless. But I would argue differently – e.g. from the Bluestocking Choir, I’ve made good friendships with women from around the university, who I otherwise would never have met.

And the other thing about collaboration – it’s fun! We spur each other on in our creativity. We build the deeper learning environments from collaborating. Vygotsky’s work shows that by collaborating we get richer understanding and his work is one of the embedding principles in peer learning.

But why should it just stop with students’ peer learning? I say everyone should collaborate!