“Wellbeing is something we need to do together”

Quote from Elizabeth Staddon, Head of Arts Education, Teaching and Learning Exchange, UAL

Last month, LCC hosted the annual UAL Learning and Teaching conference, this year focusing on the emerging field of ‘Teaching, Learning and Wellbeing’ (21 March 2019).  Curated by the Teaching and Learning Exchange, the one-day event shared a proliferation of activity from across the university.

The event responded to wider issues and increasing anxiety about well-being in society, and of students and staff within Higher Education, which in recent months has been dominating the national and international media. For those who were unable to join, here is a brief overview of thoughts, reflections and questions presented.

Opening with a keynote presentation from Dr. Ruth Pilkington (Visiting Professor, University of Ulster; Professorial Teaching Fellow, Liverpool Hope University), the scene was set of a world under pressure, where students and staff are negotiating an ever-complex environment. She highlighted how the issues we are facing today are not the issues we will be facing tomorrow, citing a ‘pedagogic frailty and resilience’ (Kinchin, Winstone, 2017), and the tension between pedagogy and discipline as many negotiate the world as “dual professionals” (as educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, practitioners and more).

woman standing and gesturing
Dr Ruth Pilkington (photo Cesare DiGiglio)

Inherent to these discussions was the question, how do we develop unified approaches health and wellbeing? Noting the importance of developing a common language for the latter, Ruth stated it will only emerge by becoming more familiar through open dialogue towards partnership, collegiality and collaboration – we must be brave enough to engage with the student, each other and the organisation itself (citing the SEDA award in ‘Support Health and Wellbeing’ and the ‘Academic Resilience Consortium (ARC)’ at Harvard University as opportunities for this). Furthermore, a potential of kinaesthetic learning in the arts is for use as a tool to further challenge self-awareness and understanding, whilst taking a holistic person-centred approach.

  • Learning is an emotional activity – it is about our individual and mutual values
  • Balance of risk, challenge and safety, including issues of stretch
  • Socially situated, contextually and culturally informed
  • Balance of doing, knowing and being – reflection is key.
Woman standing to give talk
Sophia Phoca, Dean of Art, CCW (photo Cesare DiGiglio)

Following, Sophia Phoca (Dean of Art, Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon) focussed on a different aspect of wellbeing – the troublesome subject of health and safety in Higher Education, inextricably linked to the ethical implications of creative, and specifically fine art, practices. She cited the use of a studio manifesto as a tool to approach and translate such issues and referenced the importance of the role of curating and its historical definition – “cura” or care – relating to care for students, each other and ourselves. She questioned, in developing future and unborn creative ideas, how do we enable creativity whilst simultaneously embedding inclusive, sustainable and ethical practices into curriculum?

Lightning talks provided quick-fire interludes throughout the day, bringing a wealth of first-hand insight into the work, initiatives, practices and projects of students and staff across UAL.  From ‘Zen and the art of curriculum design’ (Mark Ingham) to ‘Mental pain, creativity and the learning process’ (Anne-Marie Bradley); ‘”I’ve found my people”: connectedness and well-being through Books and Cake’ (Beth Thompson and Viv Eades) to ‘Wellbeing practices and Learning: making space for an inner curriculum? (Graham Barton), the Exchange encourage you to browse the list of all sessions and associated slides online to get a sense of the personal and professional insight presented as it’s near impossible to write a comprehensive overview here.

Dr Wongkaew dressed in very bright colours and standing
Dr Manrutt Wongkaew (photo Cesare DiGiglio)

Two notable examples include Dr. Manrutt Wongkaew (London College of Fashion) on ‘Feeling Teaching: How to Wear Your Emotions?’, using fashion practice and clothing as a way to translate and embody feelings. Opening with “All feelings are welcome here” and “Be gentle with me”, he framed discussion on “thinking-teaching”, more specifically questioning, how can we design a curriculum (not discipline specific) for wellbeing through a thinking of the body; curriculum as a form of self-care to build identity? Manrutt stated the importance of being vulnerable and to check how you are feeling right now – physically and metaphorically – and to let students know it is OK to explore this energy within their practice. Also, to break isolation to make (new) connections. However, what is the safety, risk and unconscious bias involved?

Anita standing giving her talk, whilst Mark stands to one side
Anita Israel (Arts SU Education Officer) and Mark Crawley (UAL Dean of Students) (photo Cesare DiGiglio)

Secondly, during a joint afternoon keynote with Mark Crawley (UAL Dean of Students), Anita Israel (Education Officer, Arts Students’ Union) refreshed the room  citing her personal understanding and experiences of student wellbeing and resilience from her difficulties when studying at UAL. Furthermore stating how the university could have provided differing support for her circumstances, where there is great potential in this area in shaping the next generation of creative students.

Anita spoke of the gravity of an individualised concept of resilience risking young people internalising all of their successes and failures. Instead, she highlighted the importance of building a community that does not require but harnesses resilience. Therefore, how can we develop resilient communities and not just make it the responsibility of the individual/student? Can we become more resilient by creating a safe place for experimentation and failure?

In addition to the above talks, two breakout workshops facilitated an opportunity to further interrogate some of the key themes from the day, including ways to connect teaching and learning systems to enhance collective wellbeing; understandings of duty of care and where our boundaries of care end, and how to develop resilience and adaptability amongst students and staff, pedagogy and curriculum. A shared Google document was used live, in session, to record feedback from groups, where collective findings have been visualised through Wordle below, immediately showing students were central to discussions.

Breakout session: Word cloud from Google Doc showing "students" as largest word
Word cloud visualisation of breakout group feedback: Students were at the core of discussions

A selection of key take-aways from the day include:

  • Encourage new emotional experiences by embracing the unknown as part of “wellbeing thinking”
  • Stay with a question – it is the ability to be in question; claiming uncertainty, mystery and doubt; model a more curious mind towards possible answers
  • Make and share mistakes and failures
  • Look after the wellbeing of staff, to look after the wellbeing of students – this goes hand-in-hand
  • Build trust, access and balance (including work-life balance); self-efficacy and belief in the system
  • We need to be more human in academia. We need to ask “how are you?” And not respond with stock replies “I’m fine”
  • Kindness as a metaphor for a mindful university, allowing “space”, acknowledging and dealing with conflict and hostility, and (self-)compassion.

Throughout the day, it became clear wellbeing is something we should aspire to in our university communities and as part of the fabric of our learning and teaching practices. Conversely, it is a tricky word and hard to define as a term and in practice. As such, this conference served as an opportunity to suggest and propose ideas; to explore, unpick and put back together the term in collective terms; an exercise towards change we must now endeavour to continue and sustain. Let’s have honest conversations.

For further information, delve into the growing archive of the event, including lecture slides, on the associated Learning and Teaching Conference 2019 webpage, and selected Twitter commentary on Wakelet.

If you have any feedback on the event please do get in touch: teachingexchange@arts.ac.uk

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