Hidden Treasures – Dai Hounsell

Almost by chance, a little gem caught my eye in one of those glossy paid-for supplements that usually go straight to the bin. It was quite brief (just two or three sentences) but it had grabbed my interest because it was about a novel way of working with international students.

That topic resonated with me since, over many years, I have taught, mentored or supervised postgraduate students from cultures that span the five continents. It’s been very rewarding as well as enlightening and often challenging. But I’ve also been uncomfortably aware at times of the inherent risk of a sort of reverse colonisation of the intellect by host-university ‘locals’ like myself. For, having come to the UK to advance their understanding of my field (education), the international students could sometimes find themselves taking courses which addressed issues only or mainly in British educational contexts, studied via reading lists almost exclusively in English, and approached from perspectives and conceptual models in which Western and ‘Northern’ ways of thinking (or indeed UK notions of what was at issue) were to the fore.

Refreshingly, the little gem I’d spotted had tried to get round this dilemma by a much more inclusive approach — one which capitalised upon the wealth of experiences and insights that the international students could bring to their studies. In class discussions and in their assignments, the students were encouraged to share issues and challenges from their own cultures, and to feed in research insights from publications in their native tongue.

The point I want to make here, however, is less about this particular initiative (which, quite understandably, may not necessarily engage you as it did with me), and more about what it represents. It’s a vivid example of a ‘wise practice’ in university teaching and learning. As such, it captures the fruits of one teacher’s efforts to make her teaching more effective in her subject for her students. And I treasure such instances of wise practice because they can help universities like HKU to continue to refine its teaching and learning to meet 21st-century opportunities and needs.

Wise practices, I should stress, are not fixed formulae that everyone should follow. Rather, they’re welcome food for thought. Their value lies in highlighting new challenges that we too might face in our teaching, while at the same time suggesting how these might be addressed. That also means that the more wise practices there are to look at, the wider the range of options there are that can be considered, and the greater the likelihood that we can find one which – suitably adapted – will be worthwhile for us personally and for the students taking our particular courses.

In an ideal universe, the treasure of wise practices would be on open view, as in a field bright with red poppies. But they are commonly hidden from sight, and for various reasons. One is that most university teachers are modest about how they’ve come to craft their courses, and may feel (wrongly, in my view) that what they have personally tried out isn’t something that other colleagues would be able to learn from. Another is that the academic life is nowadays a very busy one: they’d find it hard to carve out enough time to write up an account of their efforts, for instance, as a journal article or conference presentation. And a third is that even where they could find the time, they may well not feel confident about how to communicate effectively with colleagues in a subject area or from a university other than their own.

It is against that background that HKU’s Communities of Practice project has been going about its work. Our goal is to bring these hidden treasures to the surface and share them much more widely, so that as many colleagues as possible from across (and beyond) the University can learn from them. Last year, our focus was on wise practices in assessment and feedback, and we created a website that brings together a rich array of case examples drawn from across HKU’s ten faculties as well as from universities across the world. These examples engage with issues that many of us find challenging. How, for instance, can we assess groupwork in ways that are fair and constructive? How might we help our students to gain a better grasp of high academic standards in our discipline? And how are we to provide them with feedback that can advance their learning without making unmanageable demands on our time?

Over the current academic year, our focus has turned to another strategic priority for HKU: making curricula, teaching and learning progressively more internationalised. We are therefore on the lookout for interesting examples of efforts, for instance, to develop students’ intercultural understanding, maximise what students can learn from study abroad experiences, or support those from other cultures in becoming acclimatised to what HKU expects of its students. So do keep an eye out over the coming months for the resource materials and join-the-conversation events we’ll be putting together. And if you have a hidden treasure on this theme, please get in touch and we’ll help you to share it with a university-wide audience.

Professor Dai Hounsell
Professor Dai Hounsell

Professor Emeritus of Higher Education
The University of Edinburgh

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