The 2020 Public Exams Fiasco

Giving the 2011 Government paper the title “students at the heart of the system”, suggested a caring education system where students matter. However, the inept handling of the 2020 A Level results by the UK Government and by Ofqual paints a very different picture, in which (rightly or wrongly) the image presented is of incompetence and indifference to students. This has been aggravated in England by the perception by English students that their Scottish counterparts were listened to and teachers’ predictions were accepted.

There is a reason why the class of 2020 (should) have done well – they are smart cookies. In addition, this internet savvy generation have cut their teeth in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world in which alternative facts, fake news and spin, will be spotted a mile off. Comments made by ministers about avoiding grade inflation seem to have missed the mark. As no examinations were taken, there cannot seriously be any inflation. It is not comparing like with like.

Universities have been remarkably quiet during this situation. The UUK web site only had a bland message on 13th August (results day) about how well students had done, and made no comment about the handling of the grading. Universities need to be very careful about the language they use going forward to ensure they are not seen by students as the agents of Government. The message sent is no longer equal to the message received. Phrases have been so overused by officials that they now have different meanings – “unprecedented times” now means “we were taken by surprise and didn’t have a plan”, while “robust system” means “computer says no”.

Universities now need to repair the damage caused by the Government to show that they are on the side of their students. These students have an axe to grind. They are angry and suspicious. They also have memories. Remember how students punished the Liberal Democrats for reneging in their promises about tuition fees. If universities are inauthentic in their approach to students or seem to be pandering to Governmental ineptitude, they will be punished. Universities may think they have 3 or 4 years to turn it around with this cohort of students, but if they get it wrong this autumn and students get a poor 1st year experience, they will punish universities in the NSS in three years’ time. Never has the need to show their caring side been so important for universities. All the committee meetings and strategy documents in the world will not solve this conundrum. Universities need to learn from the Government’s mistakes – there is no magic algorithm to remedy the problem. Senior management need to be visible (to staff and students). This cannot just be a welcome via  a video message during a virtual freshers’ week. They need to take the time to sit in on socially-distanced seminars to appreciate the experience; they need to have coffee with students to hear their stories, and appreciate their concerns, and they need to engage with staff who have been struggling with home-schooling and no summer holiday – staff who will start the semester already exhausted and anxious. 2020-21 will be a difficult academic year and we will all need to care for each other. The coming academic year will really show if we have a caring education system where students are seen as valued individuals, or if they are just seen as data points to plug into an algorithm.

Further reading:

Kinchin, I.M. (2019) Care as a threshold concept for teaching in the salutogenic university. Teaching in Higher Education,

Class attendance in the shadow of Covid-19

At the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Century, there was considerable concern about student attendance at school. To encourage good attendance many education authorities awarded medals to students with exemplary attendance records. This was particularly well developed in London, where from 1887 the London School Board (and later London County Council) awarded medals to students with near-perfect attendance. The medal pictured here was awarded to G. Orbell in 1899, for six consecutive years of good attendance.

School Board for London attendance medal (1899) awarded to G. Orbell for six years of punctual attendance.

As schools were run on a grant that was calculated on attendance figures, schools realized it was in their interest to award medals as there was money attached. The down side to this was that sick children (with diphtheria and the like) would be encouraged to attend school – with devastating consequences for the health of their classmates. After a break for the First World War, the scheme was abandoned after the 1920 school year.

Of course, classrooms were very different when G. Orbell was at school. But after over 120 years of educational research, we would now not expect to see classrooms in schools (or universities) where students were sat passively in rows, receiving the wisdom from the teacher who was standing at a lectern. We wouldn’t expect to see rote learning on a large scale. To continue to teach in this way would be a betrayal of a generation.

But bringing us up to date – attendance is again a hot topic. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have closed our classrooms and largely stopped face-to-face teaching. We now have the benefit of digital technologies to keep us connected and allow teaching to continue. But the big question is how to achieve this without reverting to the Victorian model of transmitting content. How do we maintain the dialogue? How do we engage with our students? How do we maintain our professional integrity and our professional values?

Covid-19 has forced our hand on this somewhat. But it will give us an opportunity to reassert what is important in our teaching. As my son recently told me, “it’s not about the content – I can get that anywhere! It’s about the experience.” So how do we promote the university experience online? Probably not by just stuffing our VLEs with content. The online world does free us from some of the constraints of the physical world. For example, there is no reason why lectures should be one hour long – that is just an artifact of the timetable and the issues of moving students in and out of classrooms. We don’t need to do that online. Perhaps shorter and more focused ‘lectures’ would be better? But our energy has to be spent on developing the experience – not developing ever more content. So the question is – what experience do we want to offer?

Structure of the rhizome


Images by author.

The rhizome is often used as an analogy for systems that lack a rigid, linear structure. However, that does not mean that rhizomes are without any structure. The gross morphology of a typical rhizome (e.g. ginger or Bracken) appears to lack an easily definable structure. It grows in all directions and does not have a clear beginning or end. This is why it makes a nice analogy for educational systems where linearity is unhelpful.

However, once we start to look at the rhizome in section, it’s structure becomes evident. Figure A shows a low power image of a transverse section (top) and a longitudinal section (bottom) of a fern rhizome. The organisation of tissues is very obvious in transverse section. The longitudinal section is more difficult to interpret and the separation of tissues is not so clear. The red arrows indicate the position of xylem vessels.

Figure B is a high power image of the xylem vessels in transverse section. The separation of one vessel from another is very clear. Figure C shows the xylem vessels in longitudinal section, in which the spiral thickening of the vessel walls can be seen.

The point is that the shapeless rhizome does have a structure when viewed in section. Different sections show different details. These details need some interpretation, and that only comes with practice and is made easier when multiple images are available from different perspectives. It should also be noted that the structures of the vascular tissue only implies movement once we realise that the xylem vessels are transport tissues and their function is to move materials around the plant. The dynamism of these movements have to be interpreted from the static images presented. The more images we have, the easier it is to work out what is moving where.

As an analogy for learning, the rhizome offers a lot. However, we should not simply accept that it has no structure. It has a complex structure that is only visible using the right materials and methods.

It has been suggested that concept mapping can be used to observe cross sections through the educational rhizome. The same caveats for interpretation (as mentioned above) will apply.

Further reading:

Bell, A. (1980) The vascular pattern of a rhizomatous ginger (Alpinia speciosa L. Zingiberaceae). 1. The aerial axis and its development. Annals of  Botany, 46, 203–212. 

Bell, A. (1980) The vascular pattern of a rhizomatous ginger (Alpinia speciosa L. Zingiberaceae). 2. The rhizome. Annals of Botany, 46, 213–220. 



Pedagogic Health: Special issue call for papers.

Kinchin, I.M. (2020) (Ed.) Pedagogic Health and the University. Education Sciences (Special Issue): Call for papers.

There are many exciting and worthy innovations that are currently being promoted within the literature on learning and teaching within higher education. However, I would venture that many of these innovations are doomed to failure. This is because the environments in which these innovations need to be activated are not receptive to them. In particular, there are conflicting discourses and tensions within the education system that result in pedagogic frailty (as described by Kinchin & Winstone, 2017). This is seen to occur within the university when there are tensions between key elements of the teaching environment, namely,

  • The focus of the teaching discourse and whether it concentrates on the mechanisms and regulations that govern teaching as promoted by a culture of managerialism, or on the underpinning theories and professional values that direct our personal perspectives;
  • The degree of authenticity within teaching and assessment practices, and the alignment of the pedagogy with the nature of the discipline;
  • The nature of the research-teaching nexus and how this is made explicit in our teaching;
  • The degree to which teachers perceive their proximity to and influence on the decision-making processes and management of teaching.

Where these elements of the environment are in tension, teachers succumb to academic stress and burnout. In such instances, any new innovations are unlikely to succeed as they will be perceived as a threat to the perceived stability of the system. Helping these elements to complement and support each other as a coherent whole will produce an environment exhibiting pedagogic health, in which innovations have a greater chance of success. This Special Issue invites contributions that consider elements of the university teaching environment that may contribute to the wellbeing of teachers and the construction of a healthy learning environment.


Kinchin, I.M. & Winstone, N.E. (Eds.) (2017) Pedagogic frailty and resilience in the university. Rotterdam, Sense Publishers.

Submission deadline: December 2020.

Special Issue “Engaging Students’ Voices in Partnership for the Rhizomatic Development of Sustainability in Higher Education” : CALL FOR PAPERS

Special issue of ‘Sustainability’- Details available online at : 

Universities are faced with the tremendous challenge of promoting a culture of sustainability within society, while simultaneously grappling with the ongoing development of a more inclusive and active pedagogy for the twenty-first-century curriculum in which students are seen as partners in learning. Rather than these being separate problems, it may be that a route towards a solution may become visible by adopting a more integrated perspective and a fresh theoretical lens.

The juxtaposition of the problem of education for sustainability with the challenges and opportunities afforded by a partnership approach to university teaching offers a fresh perspective that may be beneficial to both. The adoption of staff–student partnership has been explored as one approach to curriculum development to address many of the inadequacies of transmissive university teaching (e.g., Cook-Sather et al, 2014). However, one of the problems inherent in the staff–student partnership approach to university teaching is the potential barrier to engagement generated by differences in power between the staff and students. To address this, it has been suggested by Kinchin (2021) that reframing the issue through the lens offered by a rhizomatic perspective allows us to view students and academics on paths representing ‘parallel states of becoming’—rather than ‘being’ different at a particular point in time. This ‘philosophy of becoming’ has been championed by Clarke and Mcphie (2016) as making a positive contribution to learning for sustainability, and is part of the wider consideration of rhizomatic thinking that has the potential to revolutionize sustainability education, as summarised by Le Grange (2011, 747):

When sustainability education is viewed rhizomatically, it becomes possible to integrate and transform Western and indigenous knowledge, and thus create new knowledge spaces in which new knowledge on sustainability (education) can be produced.”

A rhizomatic view of knowledge may, therefore, provide the point of conceptual overlap between engaging with students and promoting education for sustainability. Tillmanns et al (2014, 5) argue the following: ‘the rhizome has the potential to inspire educators and learners alike to become more critically aware of the interconnectivity and disruptive influences within sustainability’. Education for sustainability has to be more than dispensing information, and it is argued by Hroch (2014, 57) that we set ourselves the challenge to prepare ‘people-yet-to-come’ for life on a ‘planet-yet-to-come’. This requires ‘valuing learning as a process of transformation, the process of students coming to think differently, thereby becoming-other in the process, and supporting thinking differently from the norm’. Adopting a partnership approach to teaching at university may help to address these issues and allow us to face the discomfort and ‘brave spaces’ that have to be encountered if education for sustainability is to be truly transformative (e.g. Winks, 2018).

This Special Issue has a focus on innovations in higher education pedagogy and disruptive processes that might help education for sustainability to break free from the hegemony of the neoliberal university (Tillmanns et al, 2014), and move away from the danger that education for sustainability might be subverted as ‘education for consumerism and unbridled economic growth’ (Le Grange, 2011, 744). Submitted papers may address related issues that focus on education for sustainability with an emphasis on student engagement/partnership, and present empirical research, reviews, case studies, or conceptual pieces that consider how sustainability fits with a transformative view of university education, and challenge neoliberal norms. Authors should explicitly address the criticism leveled by Hroch, (2014, 54) that as an educational community, ‘we lack creativity. We lack resistance to the present’.


Clarke, D.A.G. & Mcphie, J. (2016) From places to paths: Learning for sustainability, teacher education and a philosophy of becoming. Environmental Education Research, 22(7), 1002 – 1024,

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Kinchin, I.M. (2021) Towards a pedagogically healthy university: The essential foundation for successful student-staff partnership. In: Heron, M., Balloo, K., & Barnett, L. (Eds.). Exploring disciplinary teaching excellence in higher education: Student-staff partnerships for research. (forthcoming) Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hroch, P. (2014) Deleuze, Guattari, and Environmental Pedagogy and Politics: Ritournelles for a planet-yet-to-come. In: Carlin, M. & Wallin, J. (Eds.) Deleuze and Guattari, Politics and Education. (pp. 49 – 75). London, Bloomsbury.

Le Grange, L.L.L. (2011) Sustainability and higher education: From arborescent to rhizomatic thinking. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(7): 742 – 754.

Tillmanns, T., Holland, C., Lorenzi, F. & McDonagh, P. (2014) Interplay of rhizome and education for sustainable development. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 16(2), 5 – 17.

Winks, L. (2018) Discomfort, challenge and brave spaces in higher education. In: Leal Filho, W. (Ed.) Implementing sustainability in the curriculum of universities. (pp.99 – 111) Cham, Switzerland, Springer.

The Salutogenic University

New Paper:

Kinchin, I.M. (2020) Care as a threshold concept for teaching in the salutogenic university. Teaching in Higher Education, Available online at:   


The dominant narratives currently offering critique of the neoliberal university suggest a professional environment that is both uncaring and unhealthy. This paper adopts a Deleuzian gaze on the rhizomatic multiplicity of teaching to identify and reinterpret key lines of flight within this assemblage – identified as care, pedagogic health and salutogenesis. It is argued that the perspective described by the coexistence of these lines may develop a more positive ontology as a basis from which a university may be able to work towards a more productive state of healthy learning. The point at which the three lines of flight co-exist is hypothesised as a ‘triple point’.