This month’s short issue will focus on things not going as expected in our learning and teaching environments and how we might turn these experiences into opportunities. There is a lot of pressure in academia to get things right first time, to excel, to demonstrate how much we know, to communicate to others what we can do, and to maintain the sense of the University as a site of higher learning. Yet, the process of learning involves failure. What does it feel like to experience and to learn from failure in teaching? Acknowledging that we are flawed as teachers, that we don’t know everything, and that things don’t always go to plan, is a powerful message to share with students. It makes us more human to our students, it also allows us to provide a safer environment in which students can fail – and learn important lessons from those failures to enable deeper understandings.
In this first post, Glen Cousquer, Lecturer and Coordinator of the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine, reflects on the transformative power of “reframing” difficult situations…
What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you in the classroom? Most of us, at some point, will have suffered the ignominy of having our best-laid lesson plans transformed into a “festival of disaster”. For the lucky ones these might not have been too disastrous; the very thought of those near misses and salvaged lessons may still leave us wincing at the memory, however. As someone whose professional practice is rooted in outdoor education, expedition work and wilderness guiding, my own classroom has more-often-than-not been the great outdoors: a place where things often do not go to plan and where we are often left having to respond to challenging situations. This does not mean that I am someone who lurches from one disaster to the next; at least I hope not! Rather, I am used to reframing situations so that “things going wrong” transform themselves into opportunities for learning and development. It could be argued that this is the essence of developing phronesis (practical wisdom), of learning from experience: of experiential learning. This growing wiser is perhaps best captured by the age-old saying “wounds to wisdom”.
I am conscious that I may be making this sound easier than it is. I do not pretend it is easy. I have, however, been asked to distil the essence of disaster into a revitalising tonic. This blog therefore seeks to explore how we can reframe classroom disasters. It will do so by considering two particularly memorable disasters. It will then consider how we can move beyond reframing to address the thoughts and sources of our attention that structure how we interpret our experiences.
To reframe means to step back and reconsider how an experience can be viewed from a different perspective. When working at the national guide training school in Morocco, I had a student suffer a nasty head injury during an expedition across the High Atlas. The seriousness of this situation was heightened because we were in remote territory. A collective response was called for to deal with the reality we were facing. The students came together and worked on a common project; that of caring for their colleague. A potentially disastrous accident transformed itself into an emergency first aid and casualty monitoring lesson and a consideration of evacuation measures should there be any deterioration.
Stepping back allows us to accept the situation. Acceptance is the opposite of resignation and defeat. It is in fact the only place from which transformative change can begin. If we remember to breathe and to breathe deeply, we can stay present to what is and respond more skillfully. This challenges us to embrace our vulnerability and the anxiety of everyday life and for me this is one of the most beautiful gifts I can share with students – it is that we are all imperfect and we can be sure of one thing in life – that it won’t go perfectly. And why would we want it to?
This might perhaps be best illustrated by an example from a school expedition that was moving from the trek phase to a classroom-based project phase. The end of each day is typically marked by a review of any significant events. On this occasion two members of the group had reported concerns that they were being bullied. They felt hurt and upset by the banter of the other group members. Paying attention to my own desire to ensure a smooth transition to the project phase and group work as well as to the anxiety and very real tensions in the group, I found my thoughts returning to the expedition objectives and the code of conduct the group had agreed before leaving the UK. I chose to reframe this difficult situation as an opportunity to invite the group to revisit their shared intentions and the need for a high level of mutual respect and reciprocity. This allowed the group to inquire into the appropriateness of jokes made at the expense of others and a realisation that the code of conduct had been breached. It also allowed us to clarify that the banter had been thoughtless rather than malicious. Creating a space for a struggle to be seen “from both perspectives at once reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point” (Haraway, 2016, p.15) is crucial for it allows those possibilities to emerge.
When I think back to this experience, I am reminded of the scene in the film “Freedom Writers” in which the teacher tells a student who has drawn a racist drawing that this is what led to the Holocaust. In this moment, the teacher realises that the class do not even know of the Holocaust. Teachers need to observe the world their students live in, what matters to them and the challenges they face, for that is what shapes their viewpoint. The teacher did that and radically changed how she was trying to teach them. She learnt to listen to them and shaped her lessons accordingly. This is a good example of paying attention. Standing up against inappropriate behaviour may be difficult and may challenge us to widen our sphere of attention, to stay curious and to harness this curiosity in order to evolve our thinking. Revitalised thinking allow us then to reframe challenges as opportunities; suddenly possibilities present themselves and we find ourselves grateful for the misfortune that has befallen us.
As Rumi says in The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The words of Rumi’s timeless poem remind me of my own photo of the “TreeHouse”; an image in which nature’s reclamation of the human house reminds us that our true home is the earth under our feet. When we look closer at this image, we are also left wondering whether the trees and their roots are breaking down the house or shoring her up. How do we understand healing when healing means to make whole again?
In concluding this blog on how to respond when things go wrong in the classroom, I would like to borrow from the Dalai Lama: When attending very holy or formal meetings, he says (2016, p.205): “I truly am thinking that I wish something would go wrong.”
This mischievous desire for apple carts to be upset and rigid formalities dispensed with reflects an important distinction in the thoughts and ways of attending that the Dalai Lama brings to life. This is born of great humility (and let’s not forget that humility, human and humus have a common etymology) and an ability to redirect his attention to the things that matter. Paying attention in this way transforms the thoughts that then follow and it is this that subsequently allows us to reframe situations.
When things go wrong, paying attention to the opportunity and to the blessing we are presented with is a choice. The alternative is to focus on our failures, and the judgement and shame that accompanies such failures. I prefer to view this as a festival even if it is a festival of disasters.
We can never be expected to anticipate and control how our lessons play out in the classroom. Things will go wrong. When they do, our students may find how we rise to such challenges and reframe them not just inspiring but, potentially, life changing.
- Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu (2016). The book of joy. London: Penguin Random House.
- Donna Haraway (2016). Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
Glen is a recipient of this year’s Social Responsibility and Sustainability Changemaker Awards in recognition of his work on sustainability across the University, including the embedding of deep listening and sustainability into postgraduate training courses for healthcare professionals. He is also a recipient of the Solidarity Prize for Early Career Excellence in Equine Research.
Glen’s research into the health and welfare of pack animals on expedition and across the global mountain tourism industry draws on Action Research methodologies to help deliver emergent futures. This work has informed the development of dialogical approaches to establishing communities of practice and inquiry, change theory and practice for sustainability as well as work on ecological pilgrimage. For the last two years he has been lecturing on and coordinating the MSc and MVetSci programmes in One Health and Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.