Why is HE like a Travelling Circus?

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Doug Parkin, Leadership Foundation Programme Director reflects on why developing leadership in learning and teaching is critical.

After falling on hard times two brothers went their separate ways.

Ivan said to his brother “you can keep the big top, the caravans, the animals and the cages, and I wish you well with them”. 

Orlov took them and aimed to keep the great traditions alive. Visiting the towns his family had always visited, he had animals doing tricks, stupid clowns being cruel to each other, strong men lifting weights, and lots and lots of dancing girls… and fewer and fewer people came. 

Ivan went to new cities and entertained in venues never visited by a circus before. Humans performed instead of animals, incredible acrobats, jugglers and gymnasts, and in his circus clever clowns created magic and told new stories.

The Travelling Circus – which university are you?

Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching: never more important!

When the Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching (LTLT) programme began the landscape of radical change surrounding learning and teaching in Higher Education appeared significant, and indeed it was, but in the short period of three-years that has elapsed since then the challenges relating to student engagement, transforming curricula, and quality enhancement have become profound. Not just because of the Teaching Excellence Framework, but further catalysed by it and the debate it has fuelled, striving for teaching excellence has become an imperative on all institutional agendas.  And the relationship with students, as partners in not just the learning process but also the on-going development of the institution itself, has created new dialogues, challenges and expectations.  Linked to this there are many other agendas that could be mentioned such as social mobility and fair access, internationalisation, marketisation, technology enhanced learning, employability, expressing learning gain, and needless to say the colossal uncertainty surrounding Brexit.

LTLT is a programme very much of its time. It is aimed at a constituency of academic colleagues whose needs have not been fully recognised by staff development in the past – namely, course and programme leaders, senior course tutors, associate deans and those in similar roles.  A key acknowledgement (and celebration!) this programme makes both explicitly and, perhaps, symbolically is that programme directors and course leaders have become some of the most important people in our universities: if they don’t succeed then neither do their institutions – the traditional travelling circus fades away and is replaced by the nouveau cirque.

The overall aim of LTLT is:

To support participants to develop the skills, approaches and insights needed to lead course and programme teams through processes of transformation and innovation.

LTLT is an inspirational programme in itself. Not because of its content or its pedagogy, although there is much to be appreciated there, but because of the community of practitioners it brings together from across the sector and the quality of dialogue, interaction and exchange it promotes.  This rich thinking environment, with a focus on transformation, innovation and new approaches, helps participants to develop the energy for change in an ever-evolving learning and teaching environment.

Reflecting on the LTLT experience and its impact, the following is some participant feedback:

  • I learned a very great deal about investment by stakeholders, partnership with students, and the crucial importance of negotiation in relation to the curriculum and much else besides. This is the most exciting (and exacting) leadership course I have ever undertaken.
  • I used one of the tools within days of returning to work.
  • I feel empowered to be a consultant/critical friend (in learning, teaching and assessment) within the workplace. This role is essential.
  • I have found this programme to be extremely useful, extremely enjoyable, an excellent networking opportunity, a great way of sharing best practice, crammed full of useful information, and at all times run by experts who are incredibly helpful and supportive. I cannot recommend this programme highly enough.
  • An excellent programme for which I am grateful.
  • The sessions were quite simply the best example of CPD I’ve been on and perfectly pitched, thoroughly prepared and delivered in an engaging manner.

Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching is a development programme offered by a sector partnership between the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Higher Education Academy. It has been running very successfully since 2013 and the next cohort begins in March 2017.

Delivered through three modules and two-on-line action learning sets over a period of 6 months, the structure of LTLT is simple. The first module called ‘Getting Started’ is a two-day residential focussed on firstly leading change and enhancement and secondly leading through inquiry and influence. The second one-day module called ‘Getting Going’ is centred around leading engagement and challenge. The final one-day module, ‘Going Forward’, uses action learning to focus fully on the participants’ own transformation pilots, initiatives they are leading in their own institutions, and how to plan for sustainable impact. To continue discussion around progress of the transformation pilots there are then two further on-line action learning set meetings. Key features of the programme include:

  • A Strategic Toolkit of organisational development tools to help support and facilitate transformational change, some of which have been developed uniquely for the programme;
  • A live case study involving a university team part way through a significant change initiative;
  • Engaging with key perspectives on leadership in an academic context, and linked to this a range of relevant change theory;
  • Considering how to lead with influence rather than through authority;
  • Opportunities to develop the skills necessary to become an effective internal consultant;
  • Exploring new approaches to curriculum design;
  • Sessions on quality and pedagogic innovation; bringing students to the centre of the transformation process; the use of narrative for change; and building communities of practice;
  • The opportunity for participants to work on and develop a current transformation initiative, with further support through action learning;
  • Use of Yammer as a social site to provide resources and allow for on-line discussion;
  • Gaining evidence towards professional recognition against either level 3 of level 4 of the UK Professional Standard Framework.

The programme espouses a number of important values and principles including working to a non-deficit model of academic development, the importance of mutual learning through the live case study and working with an appreciative spirit of inquiry. The importance of open, collaborative working and engagement is emphasised throughout.  And above all the programme illustrates how leadership is generative and endorses the notion that transformational change is iterative, emergent and intensely negotiated.

So, the travelling circus must reinvent itself to survive. Why?  Because the world is changing and audiences move on.  To change the course of history we must change the course of leadership, and if universities are to play their role in answering the big questions of tomorrow, then transformational leadership needs our full support.

Those that are excellently inspired have the capacity to inspire excellence. 

Doug Parkin is co-programme director of the Leading Transformation in Learning and Teaching programme, working alongside Steve Outram from the Higher Education Academy. Find out more and book your place here. Doug is also the author of ‘Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The key guide to designing and delivering courses’.  The book explores contemporary ideas on leadership, engagement and student learning into a practical solutions-based resource designed for those undertaking the challenge of leading a university-level teaching module, programme or suite of programmes, particularly through periods of transformation or change.