leadership teaching

Comment: Why South Africa will find it hard to break free from its vicious teaching cycle

There are standards that professionalise teaching and standards that simply manage teachers. While standards which professionalise create cultures of collegiality, expertise and pride among teachers, standards that manage can leave them feeling brow-beaten, untrusted, and demotivated.

Robinson, N. (2019). Why South Africa will find it hard to break free from its vicious teaching cycle. The Conversation.

While the article refers specifically to the primary and secondary teaching context in South Africa, the principles are relevant for a wide range of international higher education and professional contexts as well. The article differentiates between two types of standardisation; professionalisation and management.

Standards that aim to professionalise an activity invariably lead to virtuous cycles. From the article “…teaching [in Finland] is a prestigious and attractive profession which recruits the brightest and most motivated school graduates, who don’t require continual monitoring and oversight. Teachers instead enjoy professional autonomy; they are trusted in key decisions about their teaching and professional development.” You can easily see how this applies to any other profession as well when professionalisation standards are being applied i.e. the standards open up spaces and encourage autonomy as part of trusting relationships.

In contrast, management standards (especially when presented under the pretext of developing professionalism), can lead to vicious cycles. In these situations “…governments take it upon themselves to hold teachers accountable. Standards are used to manage teachers, and to protect students from the worst educators through supervisory surveillance and control. Invariably, the relationship between teacher unions and governments becomes antagonistic and generates feelings of fear and mistrust.” You can see how this could play out in the context of professional organisations tasked with developing cultures of professionalism. Instead of opening up spaces by trusting and supporting people who can make their own choices, organisations may use management standards that aim to close down space and control the people within them.

We need to ask if the standards we’re being asked to meet are aimed at developing cultures of professionalism, or whether they’re simply being used to manage us. One way of determining which standards are being used in your context is to ask how much autonomy you have to make decisions about the work you do.

physiotherapy scholarship teaching

Critical digital pedagogy: Theory and practice

Update (12-02-18): You can now download the full chapter here (A critical pedagogy for online learning in physiotherapy education) and the edited collection here.

This post is actually about setting up the context for a few other posts, all related to my upcoming book chapter for the Critical Physiotherapy Network. The idea I pitched for the chapter really was just the seed of an idea that I wanted to explore in more depth, and I thought that writing about it would push me to invest more time and energy in the idea than if I wasn’t working to a deadline.

The other thing worth noting is that I’m also trying to figure out where to go next with my teaching practice. For a while I’ve been thinking that what I do in the classroom isn’t enough. There’s not enough depth. Not enough connection. Not enough meaning. I feel like I’m not pushing the boundaries enough. Like I’m not pushing my students enough. So I wanted to try and understand what options are available to me. The book chapter is a way for me to challenge my thinking around what my course could be.

Which brings me to the title of this post, A critical digital pedagogy: Theory and practice. The theory part is the idea I’m exploring that relates to what I’m pushing up against in the classroom, and what ideas I can really get behind in terms of shaking things up a bit. The practice part is going to be a few posts on what I’m actually changing in the classroom as a result of what I’m learning in the theory. I thought it would be useful – for me and for others – to get a sense of this process as I’m going through it.

I have no order in which the posts will come, but I’ll make sure to highlight which ones are related to this little project. The book chapter is due this Friday, so over the next few days I’ll probably try and push out a few posts directly linked to the content of the sections in the chapter as I finish them. I’ll also try to do a few that are linked to the changes I’ve already made in my Ethics class.

I’ll share the original abstract (probably immediately after I post this) so you can see how much the idea has changed since I originally planted the seed. I think it’s good to look back and see how ideas change over time. We often forget that the finished product is often the result of countless revisions and that all creative work went through a process.


Stop curating content for students

There’s no point in spending any time curating content for students. Think of all the time you spend searching for, filtering, aggregating, and collating content for students. Then the time you need to spend keeping that list updated. Every year there’ll be new resources available, which means you need to start comparing what you have with what is new and pruning the list accordingly. All of this is done with the best of intentions; helping students spend less time on “admin” and more time on learning. But, what if the admin is actually a really important part of the learning?

As far as I can tell, there are two main approaches to curating content for students:

  • You can aggregate information from other people, which is easier and quicker but it means 1) you have to keep up to date with what everyone else is doing, and 2) the information is unlikely to be exactly what your students need.
  • You can create your own content using a variety of other sources, which is arguably better for your students (e.g. it’s context-specific) but it has a significant workload implication.

In both of the above cases, you are responsible for keeping the resources up to date for the foreseeable future. What is the long-term sustainability of this? In 5 years time will you still be aggregating content for your students? This approach – whether you’re finding other people’s content or creating your own –  is only reasonable in a context of information scarcity. When it’s hard to find the appropriate content then it makes sense to point students in the right direction by curating a list. But we’re not in a context of information scarcity anymore and collecting words no longer has the same value as it used to.

I think it’s far more useful to teach students how to find the information they need at the time that it’s needed. This is how you prepare them for the future. This is how they learn what to do when there’s no-one there telling them what to do. It’s the difference between you telling students what is important and teaching them how to make their own choices about what is important. The first (curating content) creates a context where students are dependent, obedient, and under control. The second helps them learn how to be independent and personally empowered. So maybe we should stop finding and presenting the information that (we think) students need, and instead teach them how to find what they need, when they need it.


I have spread my dreams under your feet…


I try to keep this in mind whenever I give feedback.


Accepting the default configuration

In almost every situation we come across in learning, we accept the default configuration. It’s not because we’re lazy but probably that we’re not even aware that alternative configurations exist. The first time this came to my attention was when I realised in the late 1990s that Windows was not the only computer operating system that existed. Not only were there other options but those options were – IMO – superior in almost every way.

We see the same thing in the default keyboard layout. The QWERTY configuration is not the optimal keyboard layout. It was created to slow typists down because the keys on the typewriters they were typing on jammed. The QWERTY keyboard configuration has been with us ever since. It’s called dominant design, the idea that certain design configurations are common, not because they are the best of competing alternatives, but because of a choice that someone has made.

The problem with dominant design is that almost all innovation is aimed at improving the dominant design rather than exploring competing alternatives. Think about the learning management system. It’s very hard to argue that this is the optimal online learning environment, nor is it a very good content management system. And yet, almost all effort at improving online learning is aimed at making the LMS better. Wouldn’t it be better to invest our time, energy and money into creating something better?

If you’re reading this you probably spend a lot of time writing and you probably use Microsoft Word. You probably use it because it came installed on the computer you’re using and you may not be aware that there are many other options for word processing. You probably type your documents in Calibri because that’s what Microsoft decided to set as the default. This isn’t an inherently bad thing but it has consequences. The fact that you type a document using the default configuration means that your document won’t display accurately on my computer because I don’t run Windows, I don’t have Word, and I don’t have Calibri installed. Is this your fault? Of course not. You just accepted the defaults.

What about classrooms? The configuration of things in space influences the nature of the interactions we can have in those spaces. In the classroom desks and chairs are almost always set up in rows. There is a front and back to the room. The teacher stands in the front. The students sit, facing the teacher. There is a power relationship that is set up by how we configure our bodies in space. Who stands and who sits. Who sits where? Who has to raise their hand to speak? Why have we decided to keep this up? These defaults determine how we teach. Is it because this configuration of physical space represents the optimal learning environment for our students or do we just accept the default?

I’m not saying that all defaults are bad. In cases where you’re not familiar with the field, you should probably accept the default settings. Computer security comes to mind. But, if you’re prepared to dig into the details a bit, then I’m sure you’ll find some settings that you’d rather change. Facebook privacy comes to mind. You don’t have to install open source software on your computers – although that would be a great start – and you don’t have to become an expert on everything you use. But you do need to know that every situation comes with a default configuration that someone else has set, and that you can change the settings.

The next time you are about to start something, ask if there are any changes you can make that will enhance the experience. Ask how much freedom you have to change the things you use. If you have no power to change the defaults then you’re accepting the choices that others have made about how you can teach. Just know that they didn’t make those choices based on what is best for students’ learning.


10 suggestions for health professions educators

Here are 10 suggestions for teachers in health professions education. These are not rules but rather a set of ideas that I think are powerful for enhancing students’ learning. There are others that are just as valuable but these are some that I like.

  1. Challenge students to do work at a higher level than they think they’re capable of. Students aren’t afraid of working hard; they just don’t want to be bored.
  2. Let go of power. Teaching is about developing independent thinkers who question authority. Let them learn by questioning yours.
  3. Teaching is about creating conditions that optimise for student learning. Everything that happens in the classroom should be informed by that singular idea.
  4. What students know should be subordinate to how they think. Assessment tasks should therefore focus on students’ thinking and not on what they know.
  5. Help students learn to negotiate uncertainty and develop a comfortable attitude towards ambiguity. They will need this in clinical practice.
  6. The next 50 years of physiotherapy practice will be vastly different to the last. Pay attention to the changes that are coming to our health systems and help students prepare for them.
  7. Feedback is about having a conversation with students where your objective is to help them to figure out how to do it better the next time. Design their learning tasks so that there is value in attending to your feedback.
  8. Learning happens in the mind of the student and only in the mind of the student, and they can’t be made to learn. But, you can create a space where they want to.
  9. Don’t confuse movement with progress. Giving students a lot of work is not the same as giving them an education.
  10. The Evidence will only get you so far. Creativity. Innovation. Relationship. Human connection. Empathy. Wonder and awe. Imagination. These are harder to cultivate but are more powerful for learning.

Teaching as improv performance

About a year ago I was introduced to the concept of using improv as a way of changing my thinking around teaching in the classroom, and the idea has been evolving at the back of my mind ever since. I thought it was time to get it out again.

I’m not a fan of improv theatre in the sense that I pay it a lot of attention but when I listen to interviews with people – usually actors – who got their start in improv, I’m usually quite impressed with how they connect with the person doing the interview. There’s something about improv training that seems to open you up to the possibility of connecting with others and playing off of their ideas. This seems like a useful starting point for thinking about teaching.


Another important part of improv is opening yourself up to making mistakes and showing a certain sense of vulnerability. It’s the same in the classroom; students need to know that it’s OK to make mistakes and that being wrong is not a point of failure. Often, the insight we get from being wrong can set the foundation for a powerful learning experience. But first you have to be OK with being wrong.

To be clear, teaching and using improv is not about being entertaining. You’re not trying to fill the time with jokes. Enjoyment of your time together is important but getting a laugh is not the same as delighting the audience. Improv is about creating a narrative and going on a journey together. And like the best journeys, there should be space for surprises, which means you must have less reliance on a script. The basic structure of the story is there but details are the things that you get to fill in together with your students.

Here are some basic principles of improv performance (there are many different lists, and none are rules):

  1. Listen to others
  2. Agree and support each other
  3. Respect your partner
  4. Believe in working together
  5. Don’t fear failure
  6. Bring a good energy
  7. Be comfortable being silly

The principles of improv performance may help us to introduce dynamic adaptation into our teaching practices in the classroom. The idea of roles, direction and narrative can be used to help us think differently about the actors in a classroom, as well as the relationship between those actors. We can use the connections we create to bring a story from the initial setup to a satisfying and potentially powerful conclusion.



physiotherapy teaching

Teaching physiotherapy in Kenya

A few weeks ago I visited colleagues in the Physiotherapy Department at Jomo Kenyatta University in Nairobi. I was invited as an external examiner and also to give advice on their developing MSc programme, which they are going to offer with both online and face-to-face components. This is just a short post of a few things that struck me about what it’s like trying to teach physiotherapy in Kenya.

Until recently, Kenya, like most other African countries, did not offer a 4 year Bachelor’s degree in Physiotherapy. Many countries on the continent still only offer physiotherapy as a 3 year diploma. Over the past decade or so my university has been one of the few institutions in Africa that has worked with our international colleagues to upgrade their degrees from Hon to MSc – and sometimes to PhD. Those colleagues have then gone back to their own countries and developed their local programmes to offer both the BSc (Physiotherapy) degree, as well as to upgrade local colleagues from their Diploma to BSc (Hon).

What this means is that the four members of staff in this department run two curricula in parallel – one for the new BSc students and another for the Diploma upgrade students. There obviously isn’t enough time in the week for them to do this, which is why the Diploma upgrade programme runs on Friday evenings and weekends. Think about that. They’re so committed to improving the profession in their country that they work seven days a week. I wonder how that notion would be taken up by academic physiotherapists in South Africa.

Now, also consider the fact that they’re working on developing a new MSc programme. It’s not enough that they’re already working with two separate cohorts of students (BSc and Diploma-upgrade); they also want a group of postgraduate students…just to keep themselves busy in those few moments of the day when they’re not already teaching. And this is why they need to offer the course partly online; not be trendy or because “flipped classrooms” are in but because there simply isn’t enough space in the normal day for them to pack in more classes.

On one of the days I was there I spent an hour or so with their 3rd year class because the lecturers were still busy with a practical test that had gone on for more than 4 hours. The reason that it had gone on for so long is that there were only 2 lecturers available to do the test. They finished at 18:30. The attitude of the teachers in the department is that the work has to get done and that they’re the only ones to do it, so there’s no point in complaining because complaining just takes up more time. There simply is no other option. And this is not unusual in the African context. There is one other university in the country that offers physiotherapy, and their situation is no different to JKUAT. And, from what I understand, these two departments are better off than many others on the continent.

What really struck me when I left Kenya was the fact that, no matter what challenges we might face in my own department, we cannot really understand the difficulties that our colleagues across Africa are dealing with in their physiotherapy programmes. While we complain about the fact that our air conditioning unit is broken, they don’t have lights in some parts of the building. It really reminded me, in a very physical way, that teaching is not about the equipment or access to resources. Yes, those things are important but what matters most of all is the commitment of the teachers to the students, and their passion for the profession.

All in all, I had a wonderful time in Nairobi. Everyone was incredibly friendly and welcoming and made we feel so very welcome. But most of all I was impressed at the level of professionalism and motivation shown by my colleagues in the Physiotherapy Department at JKUAT. I look forward to going back next year.

curriculum learning teaching

Groupwork and introverts

I really enjoyed this presentation on TED, particularly this line: “… the transcendent power of solitude“. Being an introvert doesn’t mean someone who is shy or reluctant to engage with others. It describes a person who has a tendency to turn inward mentally, feeling more energized by time spent alone.

As teachers who are preparing students to work as part of health care teams, I think that we have a tendency to emphasise group work as part of our undergraduate modules. But it’s also important to acknowledge that solitary work has its place, and to accommodate in our lesson designs the students who don’t draw their energy from working with others.

Being an introvert myself, I have some empathy with how it feels to be made to work with others. I much prefer to work by myself on most tasks, even though I know that collaboration and diversity of perspective are powerful tools for learning. It’s odd that I never thought about this when designing group activities for my students. Recently however, I changed track, offering students the opportunity to work together, but on individual assignments.

As part of the ethics module that I teach I’ve had students complete various short reflective writing assignments and then sharing their ideas in small groups. They don’t need to read everything that others in the group have written; maybe just share the main ideas, evidence supporting their claims and conclusions. Others in the group give constructive feedback that helps the student develop their ideas and refine their arguments. They then work individually again in order to finalise their writing before submitting it to me.

This gives them the space to work as individuals and to get their own ideas onto paper but also creates a process where they can get different perspectives on their work, helping them to clarify ideas and arguments. I want them to feel comfortable discussing ideas with others but also to make sure that they have the cognitive space and freedom to try out their ideas first before sharing with others. It also means that they are not obliged to share everything with others in the group, and that the student controls how much of themselves they are open to sharing.

curriculum ethics physiotherapy research teaching workshop

Between Cape Town and Khartoum

Earlier this month I spent a week in Khartoum as part of an international exchange programme between the following organisations:

The project is an attempt to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills with specific reference to rehabilitation and physiotherapy education in Norway, Sudan, South Africa and Tanzania. Last year several lecturers in my department spent time in Khartoum, teaching courses at Ahfad University, while we had colleagues from CCBRT and Ahfad working with us in Cape Town. The goal is to develop the physiotherapy programme at Ahfad, as well as the quality of rehabilitation in the region.

Ahfad University for Women is a pioneer higher education institution in Sudan whose goal and philosophy is to prepare women to assume responsible roles in families, communities, and in the nation. AUW achieves this goal through offering high quality instruction with emphasis on strengthening women’s roles in national and rural development and achieving equity for women in Sudanese society using a combination of well-articulated academic courses, on-the-job training, individual research, and community extension and outreach activities.

My role in the project is to help with developing digital and information literacy among participants. We’re also trying to figure out ways to improve teaching and learning at Ahfad, possibly with the integration of technology but with the understanding that that is not the primary goal. In addition, we’re exploring research opportunities in teaching and learning practices. We’re  in the process of developing a collaborative module on ethics in physiotherapy practice where we’ll have students from UWC interacting with those in Ahfad.

We haven’t figured out the details, other than we won’t be able to use Drive, Dropbox, blogs, Google+ or anything else I’m used to using that relies on a solid internet connection. We’ll have to deal with intermittent connectivity, low levels of computer literacy (from both groups), structural impediments (limited access to computer labs) and cultural differences with regards the subject matter. Of course, these challenges make this collaboration a rich source of data and research opportunities. I’ll be sharing the details of the project as we iron them out.

Here are a few of the photos I took while in Khartoum: