Sustainability in education – It’s about more than birds, bees and trees.

imagesFollowing a long Summer’s break, where much of the academic focus tends to be on individual reading and catching up on the latest ideas and developments, coming back to more collegiate work practices can be a challenge.

Fortunately though, some practices can really re-energize teams so that there is renewed enthusiasm for engaging positively with others and so smoothing the road for the academic year ahead. Recently, I was inspired having attended a rewarding full staff professional development event at the school where I am chair of governors. The headteacher, who has been in situ now for eight months, arranged with the senior leadership team to lead on a full morning’s activities aimed at reviewing the school’s mission and vision.

Because the head teacher had invited all stakeholders to attend this significant event the school’s hall was packed to capacity and there was a palpable air of enthusiasm and purpose. Teachers mingled with parents, teaching assistants, those in charge of the school grounds and school governors.

Our headteacher Ed, first shared why it was important to review the vision and mission of the school. He identified that as a result of the changing external and internal environments it was imperative to review current practices and the values underpinning them. Of particular import was the current and projected growth in the numbers of children attending the school. Allied to this was a noticeable shift in school demographics of this special school. Growing numbers of children attending the early years setting had been identified as being autistic. These factors, among others, meant it was important to plan for future social and pedagogical experiences for all children at the school.

An engaging attribute of the morning’s experience was the dynamic and interactive nature of the facilitated small group sessions aimed at encouraging reflection on key values and principles. Diverse groups representing all stakeholders were encouraged to identify core aspects of their future vision for the school. Within my own group, one of the participants had responsibility for teaching of outdoor education. The school is fortunate to have a wonderful sensory garden and a small woodlands area where glimpses of the wonders of the wider world outside of the classroom can be incorporated into the learning.

This teacher was passionate about the need to posit the concept of sustainability at the heart of the learning process. His passion was infectious and convincing. I was struck at the time about the relevance of his argument that sustainability could form an important strand of learning, not only for the children within the school, but also for the teachers who might learn how to become more socially responsible through a focus on issues of sustainability.

On reflection, following the event, I began to realize the wider significance of this teacher’s observations about the centrality of sustainability for learning and teaching in a special school and its wider implications for education more generally. At its core, sustainability involves the relationship between children and their environment. In many instances, whilst there should necessarily be a strong focus on academic achievement, for children with special educational needs there is perhaps a more fundamental requirement to enable these children to author their own interrelationships with the outside world. The natural environment offers a wealth of opportunities to facilitate this exploration and authorship. This is especially the case for children who are identified as being on the autistic spectrum.

In this context, sustainability is more than admiring the wonders of nature, reflected in the birds, the bees and trees, it is more a way of reinterpreting our values as educators so that what is important for children comes to the fore. It is a questioning about the efficacy of the competitive and individualistic curriculum as experienced in mainstream schools and its applicability to special school settings. It is an awaking to the potential for opening up the classroom to the world beyond and for enabling children to chart their personal learning journeys in ways that are more meaningful for future fulfilled lives. The concept of sustainability is also a challenge to teachers to challenge themselves and to engage more meaningfully in the longer terms responsibilities of the profession. It involves collegiate discussion and questioning about the relevance and future applicability about what happens inside and beyond the classroom.

In the space of a few hours, through creative and innovative professional development, honed by the art of the ‘letting go’, this professional development session inspired me to review and reinvigorate my own practices. Through dialogue and interaction, all present were able to contribute to mapping the school’s journey for the years ahead. When all have had opportunities to chart the future direction, there is a better shared sense as to where everyone needs to go. What an energizing and sustainable way this was to recommence meaningful interactions with children, colleagues and the wider world.

From Ghent to Worcester: A pathway for universal inclusion

Dr Sean Bracken, co-Learning and Teaching Lead, Institute of Education

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Patrick Clarke (Specialist Learning Support Service Mnager at Student Services at the University of Worcester) and Dr. Helen Mongan-Ralis (University of Minnesota Duluth) whose erudite discussions and generosity of intellectual spirit have revealed the potentials of Universal Design for Learning.

Two years ago here at the University of Worcester, at one of a series of ‘food for thought’ seminars organised to raise awareness about staff and student intercultural and transnational experiences, a colleague shared her reflections about being ‘othered’ and estranged both within and outside of the university. Her stories have remained with me as a testimony for the need to counter the sometimes overt, but perhaps more frequently unconscious, influences of racial and cultural bias that inform pedagogical, social and cultural practices within and beyond our University.

Some might observe that the sharing of one academic’s experiences is anecdotal and unreliable. However, as a lecturer engaging first year undergraduate students in searching conversations about identity and inclusion in the educational context, time and again students have also shared personal experiences of being harassed and abused because of their ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and/or their religious beliefs. Make no mistake about it – this also impacts on students’ learning outcomes. The lived experiences of inequalities that students encounter are clearly reflected in the data associated with students’ achievements.

Students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are not achieving to the same extent as White students. In many cases, this is despite their arriving at the University from positions of equitable achievement and academic strength. Typical analyses of this situation generally tend to reflect a desire to explain away rather than tackle such inequalities.

It is frequently argued that, firstly the data is not that reliable because there are such small percentages of students involved and secondly, it is suggested that this situation merely mirrors a similar national state of affairs. But as educators, these covering explanations should be troubling and disquieting. Searching questions ought to be posed as to how structural and systematic biases and inequalities might be tackled rather than merely explained away enabling the status quo to continue being so.

At first, such systematic challenges may seem intractable. Individuals or small groups of educators may wish to make a positive difference but become overwhelmed by the apparently deep-seated nature of social inequalities. If social inertia is to be overcome, there is a need to be mindful of the bigger picture while taking forward individual initiatives.

Through interrogating policy developments, reflecting on our learning and teaching processes, and challenging unjust social practices, the tendencies towards exclusion and power exclusivity are highlighted and can be countered. Ultimately, this should lead to a roll back of the ‘business as usual’ so there is growing capacity to tackle replications of social, cultural ethnic or value based biases that compound inequalities. The capacity to effect more sustainable change arises particularly where individual initiatives are seen to contribute to a wider culture of what I would like to call ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’.

University teachers, students and senior leaders may question the forms and processes that would enable such systematic changes to be put into place. Whatever their foundations, these forms and processes should facilitate the stable progressive building of initiatives that are increasingly realistic and sustainable. Resultant emerging actions should be able to demonstrate impact in terms of changed experiences and outcomes for marginalised students.

The good news is that such blueprints for organisational transformation already exist. We can draw on learning shared by those that have faced similar challenges previously and who have developed models and processes enabling ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’ to become the bedrock for initiatives that aim to impact systematically on current values and practices.

Recently, I attended a conference at Howest University in Ghent that showcased how European higher educational providers have adopted and adapted an approach known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL) as a model to make rapid systematic progress towards ‘intentional organisational inclusivity’.

Two particular case studies of whole organisational change were particularly impressive, those of the host University of Howest and of the prestigious McGill University in Canada. In the first instance, Howest adopted a concerted multi-layered approach involving all key stakeholders in the change process. This initiative resulted in demonstrable changes in the levels of retention and engagement of students who were identified as being ‘disadvantaged’. At McGill, the primary focus was upon up-skilling of teaching staff through targeted professional development – sustained collegiate capacity building was seen as crucial for success.

As identified in the publication by Burgstahler and Coy (2008), at its most basic universal design includes consideration of the following dimensions:

  1. Class climate – Ensure to engender a culture of respect for diversity and inclusiveness and insist upon high expectations for all students, this might also involve checking for personal bias through systematic self-reflection and awareness;
  2. Interaction – Promote regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants;
  3. Physical environments and products – Enable participation by all students by interrogating whether the physical facilities, learning activities, pedagogical materials, and equipment are accessible to all students and reflective of their diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds;
  4. Delivery methods – Encourage student engagement by using multiple, accessible instructional methods accessible to all learners, for example this might involve the use of lecture capture to enable working students to access learning if the timetables clash with student imperatives to earn additional finances;
  5. Information resources and technology -Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students, there should be consistency of availability in advance of and following taught sessions;
  6. Feedback and feed forward – Provide multiple modes and opportunities for feedback and feed forward,
  7. AssessmentRegularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and use data to adjust instruction accordingly ensure that students and professionals alike become increasingly ‘assessment literate’ through peer interactions, dialogue with lecturers and through systems such as personal academic tutoring;
  8. Accommodation – Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

At a university level, new learning and teaching initiatives should ensure that these aspects of inclusivity form the foundation for collaborative research projects. These have the very real potential to impact upon two core elements of lived experiences within the university and beyond. These are the social and cultural expressions of student and staff identities and, very importantly, their interrelationships with learning outcomes and professional progression (Burgstahler, 2013).

However, the constructive potential inherent in university initiatives should not be limited to what happens on campus. There is a social imperative to influence ways of thinking and being in wider society. When we dream big we have the capacity to tackle unjust systematic beliefs and practices on a grander scale. For example, through Project Zero, the Government of Norway has shared its aspiration to provide for a whole country that is ‘universal designed’ by 2025. It aims to do so by facilitating social engagement by all and by countering discrimination, accordingly:

The Ministry of Children and Equality is responsible for promoting equality and preventing discrimination on the basis of gender, age, sexual orientation, skin colour, ethnicity, religion or disability. Through this action plan for universal design and increased accessibility, the government is bringing both the equality policy and sustainability policy an important step further. (Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality, 2009: 7).

If a country is working towards the realisation of such an ambitious aspiration, why shouldn’t it be achieved within a university? As exemplified in the collaborative and universal designed nature of the HIVE , the only library in the UK that is at once accessible by the wider public and tailored to meet the needs of university students, the University of Worcester is well placed to provide for a similar ambitious programme of university universal design.

Such an initiative should be developed with the intention of making an impact on wider ways of thinking, doing and being so that universal access and experiences become more than university idylls. Using its good offices, the University has scope to promote this concept of equity, inclusivity and universality within the City of Worcester and wider to incorporate the County of Worcestershire.

The incidences of ‘othering’ shared by my colleague from North Africa, whose experiences I alluded to earlier, were encountered within and beyond the confines of the university. We have recently seen, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dangers arising from divisiveness and inequalities associated with race and ethnicity. More than ever, we now need to articulate a plan for ensuring that our University and our society has the vision, will and capacity to address inequities and to create greater social cohesion. The stakes are too high to merely tinker at the edges of change.

The pathways of universal design offer tangible routes for at least partial redress for social, racial, ethnic and cultural inequalities and our challenge is to avail of the opportunities provided in order to plan for, and bring to fruition, the positive changes for learning and society.

To learn more about the conference focused on UDL, please visit the conference website at:

Burgstahler, S. , & Coy, R. (Eds.). (2008) Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Boston: Harvard Education Press.

Burgstahler, S. (2013) Universal design in higher education: Promising practices. Seattle: DO-IT, University of Washington. Retrieved from: Accessed, 9th July, 2016.

Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality (2009) Norway universally designed by 2025 The Norwegian government’s action plan for universal design and increased accessibility 2009-2013. Retrieved from: Accessed, 9th July, 2016



Developing and implementing an inclusive assessment policy

21st March 2016 12:00 – 14:00              Room EE2021


In December, a Share and Inspire event entitled Inclusive Pedagogy: Principles, Policy, and Practice identified sound inclusive pedagogical practices from a diversity of courses and Institutes. Following from this successful event, we would like to explore how such practices and research might inform the ways in which an inclusive policy for assessment is developed and realized throughout the University. With this in mind, you are cordially invited to a follow-up, hands-on workshop focused on:

Developing and implementing an inclusive assessment policy:

A collaborative approach – The session will be partly facilitated by:

Dr. Samuel Elkington, HEA Lead Advisor on Feedback and Assessment

Lunch is provided.

 For further information please contact Lisa Chivers (

Please sign up for this seminar here (

Are you an inspirational assessor?


The Share and Inspire series of professional development sessions this week featured Professor Chris Rust from Oxford Brookes University.

Chris began his session by drawing close links between good assessment and its relationship to skills required for workplaces of the future. When developed effectively, assessments ought to strengthen capacity for self critical awareness and a heightened awareness of self-efficacy. Of course these skills should become an explicit focus for teaching, learning and assessment. Meaning that they should feature in learning outcomes associated with specific course content.

If this is the outcome, then the process of realisation is, Rust argues, very firmly based in awareness raising through self and peer student engagement as exemplified in the ASKe Project. Within the project students worked collaboratively to assess assessment papers, they subsequently used the assessment benchmarks to argue why they had assigned particular grades. Three weeks later the students submit their own coursework assignments along with a self assessment sheet. The project noted marked improvements on student assessment achievements.

The formative discussions related to the assessment criteria, might also be applied to an informed peer assessment process, thereby further strengthening knowledge and application of sound assessment practices. For example, there is now scope to use Blackboard to facilitate peer assessment commentary, annotation and feedback. 

Drawing on the work of Hattie and his Visible Learning Project  Rust argues that good quality feedback, used effectively, is one of the most powerful indicators of future student success  However, rather than merely aiming to get the feedback processed more quickly, as many universities tend to do,  it is  the wider consistency of quality feedback and its application which makes the real difference to student learning. 

This quintessential feature of good quality and effective assessment makes it necessary for academic staff to clearly articulate what the aims of the feedback should be in differing contexts. This requires time and expertise in honing how the shared expectations are developed and acted upon through targeted student-to-student and student-to-teacher dialogues. It requires the development of experience and expertise in communities of assessment practice.

Feedback becomes useful especially when there are:

  • Clearly shared student MOTIVES for improvement within assessment to feed forward within modules and courses;
  • OPPORTUNITIES provided for dialogic engagement with peers and teachers
  • MEANS to improve that are clearly identified within the feedback and the time to make suggested improvements  (for example, the explicit mentioning of resources need to improve the learning, which might be a rereading of a particular course chapter or journal article).

In summary then, assessment becomes effective and meaningful when there is ample targeted scope to strengthen the self and peer assessment capacities of students. This is a professional and transferable skill so it ought to be embedded as an explicit learning outcome within course and module documentation. Finally, as the quality of assessment is ultimately a socially defined professional practice dependent upon informed dialogic and intellectually challenging conversations – the learning conversations about assessment need to be ongoing.

So what might this learning mean for you and your practice? Comments welcome below

What’s new with Peer Supported Review of Teaching?


Dr Sean Bracken, Co-Lead for Learning and Teaching provides an update of how the new policy is developing across the University

The policy of Peer Supported Review of Teaching (PSRT) ( aims to enhance students’ learning experiences through systematic professional reflection and dialogue.

While identifying that teaching staff are expected to avail of at least two opportunities for PRST throughout the academic year, there is creative latitude for determining how precisely such opportunities might be realised. The sense of openness embodied in the policy ensures there is ample scope for fostering innovative approaches to peer reflection and learning. How reflective practices take shape ultimately depend upon the learning requirements of individual lecturers, their life experiences, the particular demands of their professional practices and the cultural expectations and heritages associated within specific disciplines and Institutes.

For example, within the Institute of Education there is a well-established tradition of exploring concepts associated with reflective practice. These practices are informed by inspirational educators from Dewey to Schon, and more recently as exemplified in the work of Tony Ghaye, a former lecturer at Worcester. Reflection within the discipline of education has a strong tradition of articulating ways to redress imbalances of inequality and injustice. This has found voice in the notions of self-aware action, or reflexive action, as articulated in the writings of Stephen Ball and Michael Apple. The reflexive focus on the nature of self within education entails becoming more critically aware of self and student identity markers including those of; gender, ethnicity, social class, religion and age. It posits the reflexive self as a site for research and action probing the ways in which professional identities influence values and resulting actions. Further, such reflexions encourage educators to become critically aware of the privileges, emotions and complexities that the educator self entails (thanks to my colleagues Dr Richard Woolley and Karen Appleby for opening discussions about this). Such reflexions about the nature of one’s actions within a social and pedagogical context should lead to a change in ‘praxis’ which is the professional action associated with learning and teaching. Praxis might also consider longer-term actions that accrue as a result of the learner-teacher conversational / transformational relationship. Processes to strengthen reflexive praxis, within a mentoring and coaching framework, sit comfortably within the parameters of PSRT.

Other individuals, centres and institutes will have differing localised, contextual and professional priorities that inform their approaches to PSRT. At a recent Learning and Teaching Leads meeting, a range of successful approaches were shared and each of these has evolved as a response to the interests and concerns of colleagues within their disciplines. PSRT practices include tried and tested strategies including classroom-based peer observations followed by critical reflection and discussion. This has been particularly effective where there are colleagues who are new to the profession and who benefit from opportunities to witness and reflect upon practices of more experienced colleagues.

Additionally, experienced lecturers have offered ‘open door’ access to key lectures and seminars. These frequently act as a way of exploring new approaches to curriculum content and pedagogy. For example, the implementation of new approaches to curriculum as reflected in the teaching of long thin modules, became a focus within one institute. These key lectures are followed by collegial discussions on the nature of learning and teaching that has transpired. Formats for prompting reflection and learning may also take on a more open topic or themed-based approach to PSRT, one innovative example is a ‘world café’ open forum for identifying and tackling key teaching or learning challenges.

Critically, within at least two of the institutes involved, there is strong attribute of recording, sharing and sustainability. Notably, upwards of 70% of colleagues have provided a written reflective record of their involvement in a PSRT related experience. This is a great initial achievement for the new scheme and one of the key learning points is that there should be clear mechanisms for collating and dissemination of learning within the scheme. As such, PSRT affords opportunities to enrich pedagogy and professional development. It is important that the dynamic approaches to learning are captured to inform our growth as a learning organisation.

Suggestions as to how PSRT is being realised in your personal practice and throughout your Institute would be very welcome in the response space provided below.

Are diversity, equality and inclusion at the heart of the university experience? Reflecting on ECU’s research.

Dr. Sean Bracken

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At the end of last month, the Vice Chancellor launched a series of consultation seminars so that all colleagues would have an opportunity to reflect on the content and direction of the new Teaching and Learning Strategy for the University (2015-2019). In opening the discussions, Professor Green identified the need for a continuation of the historically and culturally informed values of the University, which provide a sound foundation on which to build provision for an outstanding educational experience while ensuring that all learners are included.

At around the same time as the consultations in the University of Worcester were taking place, the Equality Challenge Unit launched a new piece of research which studied the capacity of university staff throughout the UK to engage effectively with inclusion and diversity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the report entitled Academic teaching staff: developing equality and diversity skills, knowledge and values’, found that a strategic focus on learning and teaching had the potential to impact positively on inclusive policies and practices. It identified that:

Where the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion were explicitly embedded into the teaching and learning strategy, both academic and institutional leads expressed a greater confidence in discussing curriculum design and the application of inclusion principles to practice (p. 4)

However, there appeared to be a gap between the incorporation of such strategic principles and an expectation that practitioners would need to evidence any form of expertise in the area. This was particularly the case when professionals were questioned about the forms of differentiation they incorporated into their courses in order to further support learning, or in order to make learning meaningful for those from cultural, ethnic or religious minorities. Most respondents indicated that there weren’t any mechanisms to provide pertinent evidence of effective practice.

So, while a strategic focus appears to work, there may be gaps when it comes to sharing sound inclusive practices during teaching and learning experiences. With the findings from this research in mind, perhaps we can now revisit our own strategic plan and interrogate its capacity to progress inclusive practice in two ways:

  • Firstly, by questioning whether and to what extent aspects of inclusion and diversity are explicitly embedded throughout the plan, and;
  • Secondly, by identifying ways in which evidence might be gathered and shared to ensure that inclusive practices are disseminated effectively and incorporated into all courses.

The report hints at some of the principles and strategies that might feasibly guide the realisation of an effective and inclusive strategic plan. The role of leadership in this process is crucial, so that,

A clear and unambiguous senior leadership stance and behaviours on equality and diversity can have a positive impact on staff confidence in engaging in equality and diversity issues (p. 20).

A consideration of partnership approaches is also critical in bringing about inclusive learning and teaching. For example, colleagues are encouraged to consider how the students’ union and course representatives can best contribute to developing understanding of equality and diversity in terms of; research, face-to-face interactions, classroom encounters with the curriculum, and in wider social situations. In this way, inclusion can be placed unambiguously at the heart of the university experience. Interestingly, making specific reference to the University of Worcester, the report identifies that there is scope to realise such practices, ‘not in a negative way, but appreciating what is being achieved’. Thus, the Appreciative Inquiry research into meeting the learning requirements of students with disabilities and learning difficulties, which was conducted in 2013-14, provides a clear example of how best to identify and share great inclusive practices.

Some of the research respondents felt that a continued focus on diversity and equality issues were a distraction and that such a focus was likely to generate even more administrative work resulting in less time for effective learning and teaching. However, in a context where there are growing expectations of staff professionalism pertaining to the UK Professional Standards Framework, it is opportune to reflect on ways in which personal and community practices might be strengthened. Perhaps more importantly, contextual demands are also likely to influence the ways in which we consider going about teaching and learning more effectively and inclusively. For example, with internationalization will come increased cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity and our curricula and practices will need to change accordingly. Moreover, increased resource constraints for those with learning disabilities and difficulties (for example it’s believed that the Disabled students’ allowance will shortly be discontinued), will intensify demands on professionals to become more inclusively aware practitioners.

Perhaps this blog forum, along with any other ideas you may wish to share, could provide some of the initiative required to address the issues above, and in the process help us work towards the attainment of the University’s first strategic goal, which is to:

To ensure all students benefit from inspirational, intellectually challenging and inclusive teaching and learning underpinned by active staff engagement with continuing professional development and first rate learning environments.