With the crisp autumnal air comes the start of a new semester, and I’ve been back teaching undergraduates at Bath Spa University for two weeks now. In many ways things are much the same as last year, what with dusting off the old lesson plans and lecture notes, desperately trying to remember names, getting swamped by the obligatory admin and having cheery conversations with students and colleagues about summer break shenanigans.
But there’s a whole bunch of new stuff going on too. I have eager new students, a new building to get familiar with, and a new routine trying to fit teaching around my own research and projects which again, are quite new to me.
I know some people hate change. The fear of the unknown, the possibility of failure and the feeling of waste and disappointment that comes with it. But these changes, the newness of the various elements in my life (personal as well as professional) have given me renewed energy, helping me to look at things differently and actually taking the alternative fork in the road when given the opportunity.
This was highlighted to me this week when I was talking to a new friend about an organisation she’s involved in called Edventure, in Frome. They offer apprenticeships to young people interested in social entrepreneurship, helping them to develop skills and ideas for projects and businesses that benefit the community.
My friend was telling me about consensus decision-making, where individuals build groups and make decisions on projects collectively, which means they are actively involved in its planning, development and subsequent success. This interested me because every year my first year students have to do a creative project. I usually create the groups myself, taking random names from the register, but every year there are a couple of students in each group that just go along with the person whose idea seems the most feasible. Consequently they don’t get as involved as they should because they don’t have a genuine passion or connection to the aims of the project.
I don’t consider this to be the students’ fault. I’m asking them to spend a significant portion of their time planning and executing a project, writing a report and creating a portfolio of evidence, for something they don’t really care about, and I know I would struggle under those circumstances too.
So, finding out about an alternative decision-making concept made me realise there could be a better way. Perhaps if the students start by brainstorming their ideas and then deciding as a group which ones should go ahead, individuals can then decide what group they’re going to join. The theory is that each student will be given a choice based on their interests, and with that feeling of empowerment comes the willingness to be actively engaged in the progress and success of their chosen project.
I’m looking forward to trying this out in class this week. Yes, there’s the risk of failure. And yes, if it doesn’t work I’ll have wasted valuable class time. But if it does work, if consensus decision-making enables the students to create something they’re passionate about, giving them a sense of purpose for the hours they are devoting to it, as well as learning new skills and creating something they are really proud of, I think it’s worth the risk.
Either way, I’ll continue to embrace the newness because the students aren’t the only ones that get to learn new things at university.