Why organise a festival of learning?

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Many projects and undertakings I initiate, probably after too much coffee, cause me to sit, less under a caffeine cloud, later in the day, and wonder whose idea was this? The answer is pretty much always the same.

The Festival of Learning might fit in this category. Organise a big event, I thought. It’ll be fun. You love chatting over coffee about ideas. Invite learning communities beyond the university, it’ll just mean another email,; you spend hours sending emails, it’s easy. You can guess how this bit of the story ends; wide awake at 4am thinking about room bookings, catering, whether anyone will turn up, and what kind of idiot would put themselves forward to organise anything, ever.

In the cold light of day, of course, the university is actually pretty good at organising events. By the university, I mean there are teams of people who actually know what they are doing with communications, rooms, strategic project planning and keeping errant academics like me on task. But these anxieties do make me reflect on why we would put on this event. There is, as you would expect, a formal rationale that was submitted, which talked of the importance of the University of Gloucestershire as an anchor institution for learning in the county, and of embedding the profile of learning and teaching within the university; and of course this is all true. But beyond that, aren’t there easier ways? Why get lots of people together, with an external speaker, to think about ‘learning’; and isn’t ‘learning’ way too broad anyway? What happens that, one way or another, I don’t learn from?

I think there are two things to say here. I’ll be biblical, and answer the last first – do we learn from everything? In a broad sense, we are, of course different from moment to moment, and the experiences we have shape this movement’s direction. But that is getting a bit vague, and in danger of me talking about the Buddhist idea of anatta, which nobody reading this wants to happen. While all that happens does shape our future selves, it’d be quite nice to think about the process and direction of this shaping, and doing so communally seems wise.

More importantly, the idea behind this event is not to merely reflect on what works in the broadest sense, but has emerged as being more focused, and more epistemic in its orientation. That is, the goal of coming together from different disciplines, and even different parts of the education sector, is to look at a common concern: we see a lot of claims about how students learn – about how their behaviour is linked to their outcomes – and ‘what is best’ for learners. But how do we know?

This was behind our decision to invite Dr Donna Lanclos to give the keynote for the event – as she is someone interested in learning, who has the rigour of an academic discipline informing her study of students. I will interview her (over Skype) for this blog fairly soon, so will leave an air of mystery for that, but I want to close this post by asserting that the motivating aspiration for this event, even when I am fretting over details, is of people coming together to share our grounded, deep-rooted, evidenced, sense of what makes student learning happen, and how we can pool our knowledge of this for to enhance our practice. I hope, put like that , that it sounds even more exciting than the sandwich lunch that’ll no doubt form part of the ‘festivities’

Dr David Webster (@davidwebster)

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