The Scholarship of Educational Leadership – some reflections

It all seems a little utopianistic trying to frame my own personal experiences and observations within a literature of the ideal avenues or traits for educational leadership. It seemed apt to write this piece now as The Times Higher Education university rating came out last week with Oxford University in the UK making the top spot for the first time. With a methodology which encompasses teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, it does appear to cover all the ‘bases’ necessary to assess how a university is performing. I would question though, in the vein of the theme of SoEL in university contexts, how can we measure good leadership and more specifically in my interests how are we assessing the scholarship of teaching and learning?

I draw in my discussion on three pieces but which in my view together frame my thinking and reservations on the possibility of an ever strengthening Scholarship of Educational Leadership (SoEL).

The first is an article focusing on what is needed in terms of leadership for the future of student learning in higher education (Quinlan 2014); the second is a short piece on how we might best map advocacy and outreach in teaching through their presentation of a matrix (Huber & Robinson 2016); I choose the third piece because I was intrigued by the use of the terms culture of innovation in the report title, there is much discussion currently on technological or scientific innovation so I thought it an interested perspective and way to look at leadership in higher education (Setser & Morris 2015).

I face a growing dilemma on a daily basis given my role within UBC’s new international student program and how the university has progressively embraced the marketization of higher education (Quinlan 2014). Despite the creation of the educational leadership stream at UBC there is still a premise that research (not that on teaching and learning) is the keystone of the academy. I do not dispute this; indeed I battle for the ability to continue my own research endeavours despite my role as a faculty member with the educational leadership stream. Entwined in this is the lack of recognition of educational leadership in higher education research, while in contradiction faculty are expected to be the best teachers and win awards based on their innovation and teaching and learning techniques. Quinlan advocates for a holistic approach, and a reality where students develop their values, sense of self, identity and purpose (Colby et al. 2003) rather than simple focusing on instrumental and economic goals such as employability skills. In order to achieve this teaching must be treated seriously (Huber & Robinson 2014), and a big piece of this is through relationships with the wider community. Ultimately, who are we serving as academics?

I truly believe that in order to remain relevant as institutions and practitioners of what we preach we must be engaged with community partners. Indeed many of our students may be the community partners of tomorrow and by engaging with people beyond the walls of the academy we get a better sense of what it is out students really need to face the world in its entirety rather than just trained to complete certain tasks. As a scalar exercise this step in developing a SoEL practice is a powerful one in my opinion. Beginning with small immediate networks developed through working with faculty at other institutions and their outreach and advocacy within their specific communities will allow these networks to grow. In doing so as academics we are being the transformative leaders that Quinlan presents as a necessity in creating a holistic teaching and learning experience for students.

I challenge Quinlan though and indeed she accepts the contradiction that what is really needed within academic institutions is instructional leadership as a more effective tool than transformative leadership. By focusing on the traits that she thinks are necessary for good leadership in higher education, she determines that there are three key components. These are: the need to create organizational conditions for successful educational change, the need for leaders to be self-reflexive and the need for instructional leadership or direct involvement in curriculum. These three components, although all necessary I would argue need to be thought of in a more scalar chronological relationship. There needs to be acknowledgment and appreciation from the most fundamental level of the importance of curriculum development and what is working and not working for students in teaching and learning. As Huber & Robinson (2014) advocate, there needs to be more people writing about what they have done in their teaching and learning designs, what has been successful and what requires more support. Once again we are back to the issue here of a lack of broader institutional support for these educational leadership activities. Conversation is losing out to a society which is interested in the end goal of getting a high-paying job or having the most research funding for the university, and are hence ignoring the process of getting to that end goal. Although idealistic this is what the Educuase report on Cultural Innovation focuses on – there needs to be a shift in labour economics in how people work and this change needs to come from within education at all levels. At present there is a culture of improvement or just fixing problems as they arise, but the report argues for a culture of innovation which entails building new ways of approaching higher education. The real change will occur when there is institutional support for the scholarship of teaching and learning at all levels. This includes offering national grants as well as institutional support from within universities and departments.


Bringing the world to a classroom

It was tasked to me this year as part of a role as faculty fellow on the welcome program for international students at UBC, to expose their minds to life in the academy. I did not wish to spend seven days giving them tips on how to study, take notes or use the library. Rather, I wanted to expose them to these aspects of learning and others through a content based approach.

Many of our international students at UBC have come from international schools in their native lands but this does not mean that they have been exposed to a wide array of cultures. Additionally through my teaching on the international program for first year students I have witnessed miscommunication and hurt due to lack of understanding: not linguistic misunderstanding but rather cultural. This experience coupled with my desire to enable students to acculturate into a welcoming common learning environment, led me to embark on designing a syllabus that focused on multiculturalism, globalization and identity. It might seem an accessible endeavour given my research interests and disciplinary approach, but designing a 7-day syllabus was certainly a challenge. I wanted to introduce discussion, group work and reflection but not make it seem tedious and pedantic to students. I wanted to have them realize that the world was right were they were but also have them marvel at its vastness and diversity.

I had a group of 33 students who were from 16 different countries a phenomenon in itself when we think about the vastness of the places they have come from for the single aim of gaining a good education. With a premise of engagement and critical thinking the first hurdle always faced in this instance of a diverse group of students, is cultural norms around speaking publicly or indeed in offering one’s opinion at all. It is a slow process for many students and one that they must be gently coerced into through their engagement in classroom activities. I decided to adopt a scalar approach where I had students begin by thinking about themselves, their routines, their worlds, before asking them to think about how their lives are connected a a global sense of being. Each day was based around a series of short activities framed by images, videos or audio that addressed an aspect of individual identity. Additionally each day students worked in groups of 4 on a project that showcased the multicultural nature of their group. They were given the creative freedom to produce a final project from a range of options including a video, a google tour map (you’ll remember from previous posts how much I like this tool), a poster or a power-point presentation. One of my groups actually made their presentation into a talk-show format for our last day presentations. At the end of class each day I asked them to reflect in their individual journals on what the activities had triggered for them. On the final day they reflected on their group work and project; some excerpts are below used with the students permission.

“I had a lot of fun doing this project and exploring the idea of what a home is. I realized that home doesn’t always have to be a physical place, rather it can be an aspect of yourself that reminds you of home, or even an object. This also brings to mind the fact that by reminding of ourselves of aspects of our home in this foreign country, we do not forget our roots and truly show the meaning of multiculturalism, since we want to create a more diverse society at UBC. With this movie I hope that I can show some aspects of this multiculturalism to the people watching it and also keep it as a personal memento of something that we did in our first weeks at Jumpstart and something that we can show in the future. ”

“Overall I found the week to be both enjoyable challenging but also quite
intellectually stimulating. This was because for the first time I was working on a project with individuals with whom I could share ideas with the intention of having them critiqued and refined into a more coherent thought. What I feel I learned most from working with my classmates was that despite the obvious presence of our diverse backgrounds there was something we all shared in common. All of us from every corner of the globe had chosen UBC out of a multitude of universities, we then had to be chosen, sorted though if you will, and eventually we all ended up here together, diverse yet at the same time united.”

The experience was really rewarding for me and I sense that the students benefited from it immensely as well. Over the course if the 7 days I witnessed an excitement growing among the students as they realized how much of their realities they could apply in an academic setting in order to grasp larger social science questions. The moment when a student pushes aside the belief that they are expected to memorize ‘facts’ from a book or regurgitate every word their professor says. Their opinions and thoughts matter – they must question their reality in order to understand it. Now I would be naive to think that a 7 day 3 daily hour course could accomplish this but it is a step. It has also triggered a research interest in me to explore cultural approaches to active learning, and how this affects students ability and indeed confidence to be a critical thinker.

Below I include my syllabus for the 7-day program as well as my daily slides where appropriate. Please feel free to use these adapting them to your purpose. The material I incorporate is all available open access online but please remember to cite creative commons and share the sources with others. As always do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments.

  1.  Syllabus
  2. Name Game overview
  3. Day One PowerPoint
  4. Day One Canada Quiz – a good ice breaker
  5. Day Two PowerPoint
  6. Day Three PowerPoint
  7. Day Four Immigration-data-worksheet
  8. Day Four Immigration-stories-from-Ellis-island
  9. Day Five PowerPoint
  10. Day Six First Nations Worksheet to accompany videos

Accounting for academia

I had a rather unpleasant experience recently with the editor of a renowned Geography journal. Following some revisions suggested by two blind reviewers I naively assumed that the process was almost at completion instead the editor decided that my paper should be written in a very particular way. The next four months involved the editor sending me PDF scans of my paper which included their hand written comments in the margin. I was surprised at first as this did not seem like a usual course but assumed that since the editor was known to me that maybe this was a personal touch. As time went on and each retuned PDF included new comments my confusion increased and gradually my article began to lose all familiarity. I love to write and I am acutely aware that academic journal writing is a very particular form and one which I have spent the past 10 years trying to embrace. The situation I found myself in was strange and suffocating. All sense of ownership was removed and still the editor was not satisfied. Eventually I insisted that if they were to return the article to me again that they provide a narrative of their sense of the article and what they wanted from me. The response was a rejection.

At first I was devastated then I was livid and now I am resolved that academic writing is in fact not at all creative. Academic writing is formulaic and involves satisfying the whims of reviewers and editors in terms of style and content. Do not misunderstand my comments here for those of someone who is bitter because of some perceived failure – I can write and I am undoubting that my research is accurately done. My concern is that I am required to write according to a formula, and simultaneously I am expected to encourage my students to be creative and to be critical thinkers.

As I delved deeper into different theoretical avenues during the course of my PhD research, I also encountered a pattern which I found extremely vexing – academics I admired publishing the same data in different journals. Data gathered reused with a different research question framed to comply to the journal’s audience. The realization that writing is not being carried out for the joy or beauty of the exercise or in order to transfer knowledge, but rather to meet career requirements. It’s less about the production of knowledge than where that knowledge will be showcased and what effect that will have  on the author’s career.

I am not saying that academic publishing has no value. Certainly well-researched, clearly written scholarly research has its own value: it shapes and reshapes understanding, and can inform policy, but the work must be accessible. Accessibility is the key question and for the present I have the strong sense my voice needs to find a different avenue.

Tourist in your own backyard

I have been blessed there is no doubt having had the opportunity to see so many places around the world. Growing up in Sudan gave us the opportunity to explore the region of East Africa, living in the UAE for my first ‘proper’ job presented Australia, Hong Kong and Egypt as destinations, and working in Bangladesh opened up Nepal, Thailand, India and Cambodia. So I have been to my fair share of trips to the ‘exotic’. When living in Ireland from 2008 to 2013 I embarked on a mission to visit many of the historical and natural wonders of the island. My mother encouraged and accompanied me and then I explored even more locations when my partner and I started dating. It is an incredible gift to fall in love with your own land, a place and space I had been visiting my whole life but never really appreciated it as a ‘tourist’. It made me realize how important it is for us to understand where we come from before we can truly know who we are or where we are going.

When I accepted my position here in Geography at UBC, I wanted to not only apply the same approach for myself but also I wanted to share this realization with my students. Hence, during my first year I applied and was awarded a grant to design and develop a field school course which would take students to Williams Lake a small city in the interior of British Columbia. Williams Lake was selected given its scale, easy to visit in a limited time frame, but also the fact that despite the fact it is a 5 and a half hour drive from Vancouver it is a vastly different world right at our doorstep.

Now a field school course in my opinion should be a very different design and expectation level than your average course taught within the walls of the academy. I want students to really understand what it is like to function in day-today life addressing and dealing with some of the issues that we study and read about in books. I therefore designed the course so that student groups (I suggest 3 in each) work with a local community partner in Williams Lake (or your chosen location). It is then a relationship of reciprocity where students can engage in real-life experiences but community partners also gain by having the students apply their skills in answering a question for the community partner. My students work with a wide spread of community partners from within Williams Lake. So is it easy? Not at all but the reward is worth the effort. The key is to have students engage deeply with the community partner and with the issue, and this cannot be done in a week or two. I therefore have my students work with the community partners virtually during the term time, communicating via email, Skype or phone, before the actual site visit at the end of term for a period of two weeks. In order to prepare the students for their research we spend the term time working through some of the main social science methods enabling the students to apply their own project to the tasks required.

It is key that good relationships are established and maintained between the department and the community partners. There is an opportunity here for the academy to give back to the community but also we must not take advantage of their generosity. Students have the independence in their communication during the projects and while in Williams Lake, but these are long term relationships that must be nurtured. Students and community partners both offer nothing but positive feedback around the experience. I am including my syllabus here along with all the weekly worksheets in the hope that I might encourage more of you out there to design and develop local field schools in your areas. We can learn so much from the experience of places just a little outside our daily lives. This was very much reflected in the feedback from my students who were Vancouver born and raised but had never been outside the Lower Mainland – it was a whole new world for them.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to know more about the experience.


A little lingusitic education 

The incident on a Southwest flight in mid-April has bothered me terribly. It has troubled me deeply because it is a result of ignorance and a lack of awareness of the other. How easily we create stereotypes out of fear – a fear which stems from a place of not knowing our neighbours.

When ever I travel to a new country the first thing I do either just prior to arrival or on arrival, is to learn how to say thank you and hello in the local language. I have found that the reaction I receive when I am able to extend this simple gesture is worth more than the thousands of more words I wish I could utter. The expansion of English as the global language for communication has certainly made travel very accessible for so many, but it has also created a sense of what I can only term as arrogance. I have too often encountered travelers who are shouting in English at a bewildered shop keeper or waiter, thinking that by raising the volume of their voice they will somehow make themselves understood.

Language and culture are intricately intertwined. Language carries meanings and references beyond itself because the meanings of a particular language represent the culture of a particular social group. We can therefore not understand a culture without having direct access to its language. Learning a language is not only learning the alphabet, the meaning, the grammar rules and the arrangement of words, but it is also learning the behavior of the society and its cultural customs. Culture is the whole from which the particular language is extracted, and hence by being unmindful of people ability and indeed right to converse in their mother tongues, we build walls around ourselves. These walls in turn create a situation where people have a choice of either to conform to what is seen as ‘culturally’ appropriate or face exclusion. I was deeply troubled after I spoke with a group of young Iraqis and Palestinians in London after the 2005 attacks as they relayed with all certainty that they would never teach their children Arabic as this would single them out. Is this the way we wish to proceed? A world where being linguistically different, just one of many cultural traits which can differentiate an individual, isolates and  ostracises. It is not only Arabic speakers who make this linguistic choice, indeed there are many Asians here in Vancouver who only speak English having never been given the opportunity to learn their parents native tongue.

I return to my original motivation for writing this post and add that I do not expect everyone to learn all languages – this would be impossible and meaningless. I do implore however that we must make a conscious effort to be aware that other languages exist in our society and that their speakers are not all ‘terriorists’! We should remember that many of the ISIL recruits are not native Arabic speakers and we can therefore not make assumptions based on linguistics. Educate yourself and ask the person beside you what language they are speaking – ask them about themselves – introduce yourself – reach out – break down the linguistic barriers…

“Culture, then, began when speech was present, and from then on, the enrichment of either means the further development of the other” A.L.Krober (1923).

What’s in a name? 

The famous line from Romeo and Juliet

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title”
is one of the most quoted lines when we think about the power of names and what we call objects are people. I agree and disagree with Shakespeare, indeed a rose does smell as sweet no matter what we call in in any language – ورد – la rose – una rosa – ar rós; but a rose is a rose because that is the name it was given were we to call it a Lilly there would be much confusion. I am returned to a conversation had nine years ago over lunch at the University of Sussex after a class on the meaning of social constructivism. We were debating the name given to a ‘mug’ and how name and function become one the same. We contemplated creating another word that our group would attempt to apply to the object used for consuming tea or coffee, but after a week’s trial we shelved it as a failed experiment. The reason was that we would have had to convince everyone around us and whom we interacted with to use the same word.
I am reminded of this issue of naming objects or in my specific discussion case people, in my attempt to understand the cultural practice of adopting a different name. What I refer to is the cultural custom where an individual gives themselves a name which they consider to be more culturally ‘appropriate’ to the context they find themselves in. I know how this transpires as I have been a participant in it. Aged 10 growing up in Sudan a military Islamic government had taken hold and the society was awash with Islamic symbology. I had lived there for 6 years already without feeling any necessity to be referred to by anything except the name given to me at birth. But I was a stubborn child on the verge of adolescence and I was determined to be a part of the wave sweeping the country – how naive I was. I selected a name I considered more appropriate and required everyone to call me by that name. We left Sudan when I was 12 and the name remained there a symbol of those 2 years of change and turmoil for the country – one from which it has not yet recovered. I have been back three times since leaving aged 12 and everyone always refers to me as Siobhán and not by the name I choose for those final two years.
I use my own memory to raise the question that has intrigued me since first going to China in 2000 and especially the past two years having a large number of Chinese students in my courses at UBC. An ‘English name’ would appear to come hand in hand with speaking the language. Despite several attempts to encourage students to educate me in the pronounciation of their names, their insistence remains on the use of their ‘English name’. I find it a prohibitive process when grading assignments to associate a face with an official name and with an ‘English name’. Do not misunderstand and think that I am critiquing the practice, I am endeavouring to comprehend it. How do my students feel being referred to by different names depending on the context? Does it change their approach or behaviour? I contemplate this on a daily basis. I would encourage you to share your experiences here or privately with me via email


‘Doing’ Multiculturalism

This entry is in a sense a practical extension of my previous entry on being cultured. Multiculturalism is a difficult concept for those who work and study immigration and the impact of immigration on receiving societies, but attempting to convey some of this complexity to students is certainly a challenge. We are faced with concepts of a society which strives towards assimilation such as the US and France, while other societies such as Canada and the UK have pitched a policy of multiculturalism.

The distinction between these two concepts is one that has plagued my own academic career and research projects I have been involved in.  If the ultimate goal is cultural homogenisation and can “Can liberal pluralism be exported?” (Kymlicka 2001) . Berry captures this in an image in an online article from 2011.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 4.47.51 PM
Two approaches to a pluralist society

I would suggest that Berry’s Melting Pot visual is equated to that of an assimilation model, there is one dominant society, while immigrant groups or other minorities remain on the margin because there is not process in place for communication. The circle on the right represents a model of multiculturalism where there is a national framework of institutions which accommodate the needs of all groups in society. The premise being that there is no dominant group but that all groups are ethnocultural with equal cultural rights in the society.

Both models have several drawbacks, for the assimilation model cultural differences are largely ignored except possibly through a acknowledgment of increased diversity in terms of food or music – tokenistic gestures towards a country’s different cultural groups. This in my opinion is the case in Germany, France and the US. For the multiculturalism model there is a shift almost to the other extreme of the spectrum where a hyper-awareness of cultural differences and an attempt to accommodate all of these means that a country as a whole loses a sense of identity and creates extremely segregated groups who are all tolerant of each other, such is the case in Canada.

The task for my international students was to illustrate to me their understanding of multiculturalism in the city of Vancouver. Vancouver is often refereed to as a cosmopolitan city by visitors, by the media, and by academics (see chapter by Dan Heibert).  If we define cosmopolitan as “including people of many different countries,” Metro Vancouver is the fourth most cosmopolitan major city on the planet.


More than 45 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents are foreign born, according to the 2011 census. The infographic above indicates that there are only three major cities on the globe that have a higher percentage of foreign born residents, they are Dubai, Brussels and Toronto. However, if we look to the bottom graph we see that Vancouver does not even feature in the top 10 as a city with a ‘cosmopolitan’ reputation; nor do Dubai, Brussels or Toronto. So simply have a large percentage of foreign born does not maketh the city ‘cosmopolitan’ or multicultural despite what it might say on paper.

I asked my students to create a walking tour for me in the city which should take me one hour and provide me with an understanding of how multicultural they see Vancouver, or indeed what aspects of the city made them see a diversity of cultural in the city which was not their own. I provided them with the instructions on how to build using Google Tour Builder and encouraged them to think beyond the socio-romantic categories of food, art or music, or at least to use their imagination beyond the norm. The results really astounded me and gave me a new understanding of the different perspectives groups of students have on the city. I include the best four below with the students’ permission. I would strongly encourage the application of the assignment in different cities – who knows maybe we can set up a website of comparisons (contact me if you think so).

Tour 1 Digging Back Through Time – A Multicultural Religious Blast from the Past

Tour 2 Stanley Park

Tour 3 Multiculturalism in Vancouver: A Walking Tour in Mountain View Cemetery

Tour 4 The Discovery of Multiculturalism in Gastown through a four course meal