A focus for the student voice: overthrowing passive teaching.

When I was an undergraduate, students were protesting and making themselves heard on a variety of issues. Most prominent were probably ‘ban the bomb’ and ‘save the whales’. Today, the focus appears to be more on excessive pay for vice-chancellors or the issue of tuition fees. The latter of these is not something that universities are currently in a position to fix. Having been ‘rolled over’ by successive governments over the past two decades, universities now seem to be powerless against the force of the TLA (Three Letter Acronym). Governments just need to whisper NSS, TEF or REF and universities appear eager to comply with whatever hair brained scheme the current minister has dreamt up.

Students seems to have learnt from their institutional role models and seem very quiet on  numerous issues. Perhaps this is a result of the dominance of the ’employability discourse’ over the ‘educational discourse’. Students see universities as gatekeepers of employment (rather than knowledge) and so are unwilling to bite the hand that might feed them?

And yet they do comment, if quietly, about the teaching at university. Rather than worrying about the quality of teaching, some commentators appear more worried about the hours of contact time that they get for the £9,000+ per year. But more poor teaching doesn’t help anyone. The poorest teaching often seems to centre around the lecture. Whilst there is space for the excellent lecture, or the ‘show lecture’, all too often programme teaching is dominated by the lecture. Some of these may be good, but some are clearly still seem by certain teachers to be a time when you read out the PowerPoint slides to quiet rows of comatose students – see my earlier posts about lectures and the use of PowerPoint. I suggest that anyone proposing the development of a new programme whose delivery is dominated by lectures, should have to write an open letter to explain the reliance on this medieval teaching approach in the 21st Century.

The evidence all points to active learning. As universities claim to be research-led centres of excellence, then why not look at the evidence about teaching and learning? Indeed the evidence of the superiority of active learning over passive learning is now so strong that Waldorp (2015: 273) has made the statement that “at this point it is unethical to teach in any other way” . So are we teaching unethically?

If students would focus on this issue, they would realise that some of the things that are of concern are out of control of the university. Issues under political control may currently be a lost cause. In a current age of stupidity, there are key words that sum this up and are guaranteed to be met with a frustrated eye-roll: e.g. ‘Trump’, ‘Brexit’ etc. But the teaching on campus does fall under the control of the university. It is the university that designs the curriculum, the university that delivers the curriculum and the university that assesses the students. So if we want to change these things, we don’t need to look beyond the university. Whilst things will change over time, the pace of change often feels as if is should be compared to the movement of the tectonic plates. Slow just doesn’t cover it. So how do we promote a quiet revolution in teaching?

In the sixties, the protest song was king. The likes of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger would be front and centre to find an anthem to unite a cause. So perhaps we need a protest song for active learning to overthrow passive learning?

I have a suggestion:

We’re not gonna take it” seems to sum it up! Now I appreciate that this genre might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But it works for me. I realise that this might be seen to be from a ‘certain time’ in history when make-up and long hair were cool. Bringing it into the 21st Century, the same message has been repackaged and stripped down:

Now for those lecturers out there who think that teaching is just about content, compare these two videos – same content, different delivery. The first version was derided by senators’ wives in the US as leading the youth astray. The second version was used to promote a cancer charity. How times change – even if teaching approaches don’t. In the UK, the Rolling Stones were viewed with suspicion by parents in the 1960s, now Sir Mick Jagger is a Knight of the realm.

Anyway, in my dreams I imagine crowds of undergraduates outside the VCs office, singing “We’re not gonna take it” in unison as they demand an active learning focus in their course, and an end to boring, content-driven lectures.

Is it worth making a noise about teaching? If not, then sit quietly and stop moaning about boring lectures. If however it is important, and I think it is, perhaps student unions should be printing off lyric sheets so that the student voice can be raised in unison.


Waldorp, M. (2015) The science of teaching science. Nature, 523: 272 – 274.



Pedagogical Peculiarities – New Book




  1. Pedagogical peculiarities: an introduction
    Stephen Brookfield                                                                                                                  
  2. Redefining professionalism through an examination of personal and social values in veterinary teaching
    Karen Young and Simon Lygo-Baker                                                                               
  3. ‘Messy and precise’: peculiarities and parallels between the performing arts and higher education                                                                                                                         
    Emma Medland, Alison James and Niall Bailey                                                         
  4. Research as pedagogy in academic development
    Ian Kinchin, Martyn Kingsbury and Stefan Yoshi Buhmann  
  5. The vulnerability of a small discipline and its search for appropriate pedagogy: the case of medical physics
    Anesa Hosein and Jamie Harle                                                                                        
  6. The marketization of pedagogy and the problem of competitive accountability
    Richard Watermeyer and Michael Tomlinson                                                           
  7. Strategic pedagogic management
    Gill Nicholls and Simon Lygo-Baker                                                                       
  8. Building and agenda for academic development on the peculiarity of university teaching.
    Paul Ashwin


Planning a journal article

Can we plan a paper to create a clear structure? Or does it emerge through the writing?

Whilst  check lists may be helpful to ensure that you have uploaded all the elements of a paper through a submission portal , I am not convinced they are a good way of helping to structure a paper under construction.

A recent paper by Simper et al (2016) suggests that a concept mapping frame can be helpful in constructing a narrative and in developing creativity. Drawing on their work I have tried to think of a possible frame that might help to address some of the weaknesses in papers that I have reviewed for publication in journals. I’d be interested to know if anyone finds it helpful, or if they have a similar tool that they already use.

Paper structure

The idea is that you consider the elements in blue, and add your responses within the white boxes. This might even help to structure a visual abstract that some journals are now inviting.


Simper, N., Reeve, R. & Kirby, J.R. (2016) Effects of concept mapping on creativity in photo stories. Creativity Research Journal, 28(1): 46 – 51.


Comparisons between excellent concept mapping and excellent teaching

There are some serious misconceptions in the literature on concept mapping that threaten to undermine the authenticity and potential of the tool.

When reading research papers on concept mapping, alarm bells are immediately triggered when the authors introduce their work with statements about “concept maps as a classroom strategy“. A concept map is not a teaching strategy any more than a blackboard or a textbook are teaching strategies. They are teaching tools that need to be embedded into a teaching strategy. So with the textbook, you could tell the class to go away and read the book, and come back in two weeks with any questions. Or you could sit and read through the book with the class. Or you could teach the class using all sorts of innovative classroom interventions and simply use the book for background reading. Three very different strategies using the same tool. It is the same with concept mapping. The teacher has to be clear how the tool is going to be used and how that will complement other learning activities.

Other generic and unqualified statements that can often be found include: “concept maps promote higher order thinking skills“. This statement is like saying that classes promoted higher order thinking skills. Excellent classes can promote higher order thinking skills, but poorly constructed and badly delivered classes will not. In the same way, poor use of concept maps will not promote higher order thinking skills. Some researchers seem to make the assumption that you can drop a quick concept mapping activity into any poorly constructed lesson and it will be miraculously converted into a high quality teaching episode. This is clearly nonsense. If the concept mapping activity does not complement the teaching environment and if the students have little idea why they are making a map, then the outcome is unlikely to be positive. The application if concept mapping needs to be planned and purposeful if it is to have a meaningful outcome.

So research papers need to be explicit about the nature of the concept mapping activity that has been undertaken with a class and the quality of the maps that have been used. We also need to know the details of how the maps were used. Some research papers simply state that students made maps and related to subsequent test scores. But making the map is not he end point. How were the maps used? What feedback was given and how was the map edited and refined so that the student engaged with the ideas represented? It is not always clear within the research literature what the students did after they were engaged in the concept mapping activity. How did they reflect upon their maps and how did they move forward to their next learning episode? Many papers refer to ‘an intervention’ and how the students did as a result of that intervention. But what were the wider gains? A group of students who may have ‘enhanced their learning in Biology’ might also be expected to take their new-found learning skills into their Chemistry lessons and their History lessons. But this is never reported as it is always outside of the scope of the intervention being tested. The focus is rarely the students, but usually the subject.

So how do we benefit from concept mapping activity and how do we record that benefit? What are the benefits to the teachers who are involved in these interventions? Do they reflect on their teaching practice as a result of the research and modify the ways they interact with the students?

Studies that aim to ‘isolate’ the effect of the concept mapping from any other factors, in a rigorous, controlled environment seem particularly poorly suited to enhancing classroom practice as they lack ecological authenticity. Concept mapping is part of the armoury of the teacher. It needs to be used alongside testing, feedback and collaborative reflection in order for it to be most effective. So we need more ‘messy research’ that recognises the complexity of the classroom. We need innovative qualitative methodologies and fewer randomised control trials. We need creative and imaginative research, and not formulaic experiments that will show that the ‘experimental group saw a slight advantage over a control group’. We need the research community to move forward and take some risks. Then we might see some progress. Just as the teaching risk-takers are the ones who will have the inspiring lessons.

It is time to be imaginative!






Getting published – hot tips.

The following tips were used for discussion at a recent seminar. They might be of interest:


  • Have something to say. Be clear about what it is that you are adding to the literature. Answer the ‘so what?’ question before a reviewer asks it. What’s the novel spin?


  • Target a journal from the outset. You need to know the style, preferred length, favoured topics and methodologies of the target journal. Do your homework on this. Read the guidance for authors. Look closely at the scope of the journal – they may have different categories of papers (research papers, reviews, opinion pieces etc.). Be clear what you are submitting. Read some recent issues. 
  • Target a sensible journal. Look up their acceptance rate. If it is only 5%, it might not be a good venue for your first attempt at publishing.

  • A clear title. Clear and succinct. Also, focus on the idea or concept that you are covering and not the discipline or the location. For example, geographical location in the title suggests limited international appeal.


  • Select key words. These are increasingly important for online searches and should not repeat the words in the title. Think what people might be looking for.

  • Abstract. It is important and must be clear and self-contained. Some reviewers never get past the abstract if it is poor. Ensure it fits with the journal style (look at the current volume) as some are structured and some are free-form.

  • Cite the journal you are targeting. Make it explicit to the editor that this is of interest to his/her readership.

  • Give an up-to-date reference list.
    “Recent research (Smith, 1948) has shown…”

  • Reference the methods. Don’t assume the reviewer will always be familiar with a particular methodology. If there is a ‘classic’ reference, cite it. If there are contemporary references, cite them too so show it still has currency.

  • Reference style – (accuracy and consistency). This causes editors more problems than anything else. Ensure you have adopted the correct style, and you will have to reformat them if you then resubmit somewhere else. Some journals will reject on this alone. It may vary for journals, books and web sites. (even just replacing : with , takes time).
  • Use clear English. Avoid flowery sentences and explain any peculiar terms. Short sentences are usually better than long convoluted sentences.

  • Figures must add something to the story you are telling. You don’t need a pie chart to say 50% of the cohort were female!


  • Be upfront about weaknesses and explain them. Few papers are perfect, so show the referees that you are aware that there could be improvements. If you don’t, they will.
  • Don’t make unjustified claims. “This proves that….” is rarely true. More likely to be ‘consistent with’ or ‘indicative’.

  • Check grammar and spelling. If you want to irritate a reviewer, give him/her lots of spelling mistakes to grumble about. Get someone to proof read your document as after a while you only tend to read what you think is on the page.

  • Conclusions This should do more than repeat the results and should revisit the underpinning theory to help evaluate your paper.
  • Learn to cope with rejection! We all get “Dear John” letters. Sometimes reviewers have a point and you can learn from their comments. Sometimes they don’t, and you just have to move on – not necessarily to a lower-ranked journal. But if you never get rejected – you are not aiming high enough.

  • You don’t have to agree! Depending on the nature of the reviewers’ comments, you don’t always have to roll-over and submit. Sometimes it may be necessary to disagree with a reviewer on a particular point. They are not Gods. However, often an editor will agree with a reviewer so there’s no point in contesting everything.

  • There’s always another journal, see: http://www.scimagojr.com/journalrank.php?category=3304&page=9&total_size=1066

Concept mapping & pedagogic frailty – special issue




A special issue of Knowledge Management & E-Learning is now available at:




Contents page available below:




254   Editorial: Pedagogic frailty and concept mapping

Ian M. Kinchin and Paulo R. M. Correia


261   Do no harm: Risk aversion versus risk management in the context of pedagogic frailty

Julie A. Hulme and Naomi E. Winstone


275   Mapping the emotional journey of teaching

Emma Jones


295   Pedagogic frailty: A concept analysis

Ian M. Kinchin


311   Russian university teachers’ ideas about pedagogic frailty

Svetlana Nikolaevna Kostromina, Daria Sergeevna Gnedykh and Ekaterina Aleksandrovna Ruschack


329   Using concept mapping for faculty development in the context of pedagogic frailty

Bárbara de Benito, Alexandra Lizana and Jesús Salinas


348   Developing higher-order thinking skills with concept mapping: A case of pedagogic frailty

 Alberto J. Cañas, Priit Reiska and Aet Möllits


366   From representing to modelling knowledge: Proposing a two-step training for excellence in concept mapping

Joana G. Aguiar and Paulo R. M. Correia


380   Challenges and weaknesses in the use of concept maps as a learning strategy in undergraduate health programs

Enios Carlos Duarte, Ana Claudia Loureiro and Cristina Zukowsky-Tavares


392   An exploration into pedagogic frailty: Transitioning from face-to-face to online 

Irina Niculescu, Roger Rees and Darren Gash


404   Making connections and building resilience: Developing workshops with undergraduates

Julia Anthoney, Rachel Stead and Katie Turney