#blimage Can’t see the wood for the trees!

I’ve been challenged by @annakwood (who blogs here: http://learningfrome-learning.blogspot.co.uk/ and if you’re not reading it, you probably should be) to write a blog post as part of the #blimage challenge (details: http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/blimey-its-blimage.html). You can read Anna’s post here: http://learningfrome-learning.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/the-colours-of-active-learning.html).

This is the image Anna has sent me and I love it, particularly because I spend a silly amount of time trying to take similar photos. As a dendrimer chemist at heart, pretty tree like shaped molecules are my thing!

blimageImage Credit: Anna K. Wood, Tigh Mor

So I have to write a learning related blog post about this image. It reminds me of a photo I have on my office wall just by my desk:

DSCF5654

Image Credit: KJHaxton, Keele Woods

Then it reminded me a bit of a trip into the Canadian Rockies, to the Athabasca Glacier where all of the trees were small despite being decades old, their growth stunted by low temperatures and meagre soil. The trees in Anna’s picture (and in mine) are clearly big and strong, and probably comparatively young. They’ve had the right amount of sunlight, water and air. They’ve had decent soil to grow a good root system and the temperature has been fair. But they’ve also had sufficient wind to cause them to grow strongly and sufficient drought to cause them to sink their roots deeper into the earth. They’ve had sufficient shade to cause them to grow taller than the surrounding trees and bushes and develop canopies that gently compete with surrounding trees.  They’ve had what they needed to respond to the conditions they live in in the best possible way. And that sounds like something we should be ensuring our students have on graduation.

It’s very easy when sitting over the summer, thinking forward to next semester and what could be done differently in many different teaching sessions to take more and more on as the teacher. To hold greater responsibility for students learning and to try to fix the ‘if only my students did x then they’d get better marks’. But that misses the point. It is our job to provide suitable soil for our students, gentle watering and to step back to allow personal growth to take place. It is also our job to provide the winds that blow our students out of their comfort zone and on to develop new ways of working and thinking. In gentle watering we should ensure that our students’ study practices are rooted in their own motivation not our desire to see better grades in the end of term spreadsheet. We also shouldn’t be afraid of the shade cast by other students in the cohort who are a little further on in their development, both in the subject specific skills and in other areas. It shows our students that it is possible to achieve more, and gives them something to aim for. A little competition is a good thing.

So, have I stretched the tree metaphor far enough yet?

Ultimately as a University Lecturer, my privilege is to teach without the constraints of grade targets, prescriptive curricula and the threat of inspections. Yes, I have to cover content but I have discretion about how best to do that and if I want to fling several lectures worth of iterative examples out the window in favour trying to focus in on the key concepts, I don’t need to worry about upsetting a lesson plan. I also know that I have a responsibility to challenge my students, whether they like it or not. And I don’t just mean through assessment, in fact, I’m not sure I mean assessment in the examination sense at all. If I don’t challenge them then they will grow as coddled trees would – weak, shallow rooted and feeble. But too many challenges and they will be like the trees at Athabasca.

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