All posts by collaborativeobservation

Promoting children’s well-being, right to make choices and engage in playful activities in restricted environments through music and singing

Dr. Carolyn Blackburn, Senior Research Fellow at CSPACE, is currently leading a project funded by Froebel Trust (January 2017 – May 2018) to look at the Singing Medicine at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. In this post, she shares some updates from her findings:

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Arts, Health and Wellbeing and Fancourt (2017) highlight a wide range of possible ways in which the arts can support health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and societies in the context of contemporary models of health.  This includes helping with specific identified conditions as well as promoting well-being, healthy behaviours and social engagement.  Included in the broad definition of arts are signing and musical activities as well as performing arts such dance, drama, juggling and visual art such as painting and drawing.  Associated with the concept of social prescribing (which seeks to address health and wellbeing from a holistic perspective using a range of non-clinical interventions), participatory arts projects are growing in number in the UK (APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing 2017).

More and more people now appreciate that arts and culture can play a valuable part in helping tackle some of the most challenging social and health conditions. Active participation in the visual and performing arts, music and dance can help people facing a lonely old age, depression or mental illness; it can help maintain levels of independence and curiosity and, let’s not forget, it can bring great joy and so improve the quality of life for those engaged“. (Lord Bichard of Nailsworth, 2016 cited in APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, 2017b: 47)

In relation to the benefits of participating in music and singing in health settings, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (2017) revealed that:

Participatory arts in children’s hospitals provide a pleasurable diversion from the anxiety of treatment and the boredom of long waiting times.”

In terms of children’s rights to engage in playful activities and make choices, the United Conventions on the Rights of the Child Article 31 states that Every child has the right to relax, play and take part in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities and Article 12 states that every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This right applies at all times, for example during immigration proceedings, housing decisions or the child’s day-to-day home life.

Given the evidence reported above, I have been working on a timely project which focuses one aspect of music and singing in healthcare settings; the benefits of musical games for children with a range of conditions at a Birmingham Children’s Hospital (BCH) in terms of their right to makes choices, engage in playful activities and their overall wellbeing with Ex Cathedra’s Singing Medicine service.

The project has been running since January 2017, and data collection involves interviews with parents and health professionals as well as non-participant researcher observations of singing medicine sessions carried out by myself.

Themes that arose from interviews included:

  • The important characteristics of the Singing Medicine Vocal Tutors;
  • Contribution to children’s emotions;
  • Contribution to child/family experiences of hospital;
  • Contribution to children’s development and learning (including neurodevelopment);
  • Spiritual and moral dimensions;
  • Contribution to medical care (including contribution to the wellbeing of health professionals);
  • Contextual aspects of the service; and
  • Contribution to family life, patterns and structures.
Participants commented that:
“Enables children to take a positive memory away from hospital, rather than remembering only that they had blood samples taken, they might also remember the pleasant experience from the Singing Medicine people”
“Some of the children have unpleasant, intrusive and painful medical interventions for example haemodialysis – the Singing Medicine programme is something they choose rather than something they have to do or have to have done to them”

The potential contribution to children’s neurodevelopment is an important finding since it was mentioned by participants that neurodevelopment is an aspect of healthcare provision often omitted due to the understandable need to focus on acute care and patient survival and recovery.

From observations there was evidence of:

  • Choices for children;
  • Following children’s lead;
  • Facilitating medical care;
  • Building memorable moments for families; and
  • Focussing on children’s holistic development.

These findings demonstrate the benefit of participating in the service for children, their family members and health professionals supporting them. The findings can be considered in light of significant evidence from the APPGAHW on the benefits of the arts more broadly and singing and music specifically in health settings, and also in light of the United Conventions on the Rights of the Child.

Myself and several of the Vocal Tutors from Ex Cathedra presented a workshop at the Annual Health Research Conference at BCU ‘Creative Caring’ in January of this year. The session was well received by colleagues in Health and suggestion was made to embedded the research findings within many of programmes in Nursing. The project’s approach to research with the Vocal Tutors (rather than no them) was commented.

In February, I will also presenting at the BECERA annual conference ‘Creativity and Critical Thinking in the Early Years’.

This project will finish in May 2018. A final project report will become available later in the Spring.

There is a current petition for ‘Singing on Prescription’ to be adopted by the NHS. please sign if you have time.


  • APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (2017a) Policy Briefing   Arts Engagement and Wellbeing July 2017 [Online accessed 11.12.17]
  • All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (2017b) Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing [Online accessed 12.12.17]
  • Fancourt, D. (2017) Arts in Health, Designing and Researching Interventions. Oxford: Oxford University Press


Carolyn has worked in childcare and education for nearly 20 years mainly in primary education and early years.  She has established a reputation for supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities. She led a number of national and international projects investigating children, family and education. Her recent work include include a project about young children’s musical interactions called Communicative Musicality and an international project that seeks to explore relationship-based early intervention services for young children with complex needs in collaboration with the world-leading Champion Centre.

Carolyn is particularly interested in interdisciplinary research and the ways in which researchers from diverse disciplines can seek a shared understanding of child and family work so that a richer, more diverse research culture can be envisioned. Carolyn believes that when professionals work together and communicate well with each other children and families benefit.

Following Carolyn’s work on ResearchGate.

Exploring pedagogies for professional learning across international contexts

In November 2017, a team of academics from Faculty of HELS attended and contributed  at an international conference hosted by Nguyen Tat Thanh University in Vietnam. This conference is part of the VietUKHE project, funded by the British Council, to explore and share pedagogies for professional learning and employability development.

Two senior lecturers from Child Nursing, Nathalie Turville and Ilana Pressick, presented their work at the conference. Here, they share a summery of their experience of the day.  

Vietnam knowledge exchange conference 2018 - group photo

What an experience and privilege it was to attend the international conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The conference was the culmination of two collaborative projects, part-funded by the British Council, carried out over a two-year period between Birmingham City University, Nguyen Tat Thanh University, VNU University of Education, Hanoi and HCMC University of Pedagogy. The focus of the projects was to increase the employability skills of students who are undertaking vocational courses through the use of student-centred approaches to learning. Of particular interest to us was the introduction of a tool to facilitate personal and professional development through reflection.  Vietnam knowledge exchange conference 2018 - 2

The conference began with a summary of the projects and an evaluation of the outcomes. The reflective practice project clearly demonstrated the novelty and challenge of introducing reflection in to vocational practice where it is not usual to actively question and explore practice in depth. Our Vietnamese colleagues encouraged students to identify problems, write them down and then the teacher would solve the problems for the students or with the students, an indication of reflection being a new concept. In the UK, especially in nursing, reflection has become part of our daily routine and lives. The magic of reflection lies in the process of identifying learning from experience that can be applied in other situations and this contributes to personal and professional growth. As nurse academics, we use reflection to empower our students. It was evident that our colleagues were beginning to engage with reflection and in time they will appreciate the powerful and transformative nature of reflective practice.

Following the project updates in the morning, the afternoon was kicked off in style by the keynote speaker, our very own Dr Matt O’Leary. Matt, demonstrating sartorial elegance in his trade-mark flowery shirts, had us laughing, listening and engaging in his lecture titled: Learning about vocational learning and teaching through collaborative observation. He discussed his current project, looking at how a collaborative approach between academics and students to teaching observation can enhance their understanding of the teaching and learning experience.

Vietnam knowledge exchange conference 2018 - 7

Vietnam knowledge exchange conference 2018 - 6

The buzzing atmosphere continued with inspiring presentations of pedagogical boundaries being broken in order to improve the students’ learning experiences. There was the common desire to enhance teaching and learning and a recognition of shared issues and challenges even down to the every-day level with classroom management and student resilience. These commonalities provided us with a shared frame of reference from which to discuss and share experiences.  Vietnam knowledge exchange conference 2018 - 5

Overall this was a great opportunity to collaborate with university colleagues from similar subject areas and develop an insight into the similarities and differences across programmes, institutions and countries.Vietnam knowledge exchange conference 2018 - 4

Nathalie & Ilana


Nathalie Turville is a Senior Lecturer within the Department for Children and Young People’s Health at Birmingham City University. Nathalie qualified as a Children’s Nurse in 1991 and specialised in neonatal cardiology and surgery. She joined the university in 2001 and has taught on and coordinated a number of modules across pre and post-registration nursing. She remains committed to the importance of education informing practice to promote the best care for the child and family. She is currently Co-Chair of the Faculty Academic Ethics Committee. She is also studying for a professional Doctorate in Education.

Ilana Pressick is a Senior Lecturer within the Department of Children and Young People’s Health at Birmingham City University. Ilana has worked in different intensive care settings since qualifying in 2009 and completed numerous post graduate nursing qualifications. She joined the university in 2016 and teaches on undergraduate and postgraduate courses in nursing. Currently she is involved in a research project exploring the effects of taking academia into clinical practice areas as well as a HEFCE funded research project on classroom observation.

Ilana’s teaching and learning interest align with her believes that the infant, child, young person and their families should always be at the heart of the high quality care we provide. Ilana believes that one way of helping our nurses, of today and of the future, achieve this goal is to ensure that every learning experience is one that is not only thought-provoking, but also is fun and engaging.

Follow Ilana Pressick on Twitter @i1an0


Parenting in the digital age – what age should children have a smartphone?

In this second post of the series on ‘Parenting in the digital age’, Dr. Jane O’Connor continues  to explore the relationship between children’s rights and digital technology.  

Young people and mobile phones

I recently had the following conversation with my soon to be 7 year old son that I think will sound familiar to many parents with children of a similar age:
‘Mum can I have a smartphone for my birthday?’
‘Why not?’
‘Because you’re too young.’
‘When can I have one?’
‘When you’re older,’
‘How old?’
‘Oh I don’t know, twelve, maybe ten.’
‘That’s ages away.’
‘Well you are not allowed to have one until you are ten…it’s the law.’

It isn’t the law of course, but I’m beginning to wish it was.

Limiting our children’s access to digital technology is beginning to feel more and more akin to King Canute trying desperately to hold back the waves, and the ubiquitous presence of smartphones in ever younger hands makes it increasingly difficult to justify resisting the trend. On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10, according to the research firm Influence Central, down from age 12 in 2012. According to a recent survey of parents by Internet Matters the vast majority of children aged 8 to 11 in Britain now own a smartphone, with Newcastle and Nottingham having the very highest rates of ownership in this age group at 90.5% and 90% respectively. Many schools now ban smartphones from lessons and playgrounds, but the issue is still a pertinent one for parents to navigate, weighing up the pros and cons of the peace of mind of being able to be in constant contact with their children, with the attention grabbing and potentially disturbing diversions of the phone. The following quote from the US based Common Sense media website summarises why the decision to give your child a phone is not to be taken lightly and deserves careful thought:

when you hand your children cell phones, you’re giving them powerful communication and media-production tools. They can create text, images, and videos that can be widely distributed and uploaded to websites instantly. Parents really need to consider whether their kids are ready to use their phones responsibly and respectfully’.

Perhaps it is not about the age of the child after all, but about the kind of child they are and how they want to use their phone? I know my son just wants to play games on it, and so feel no compunction about delaying the acquisition of yet another screen based distraction, but clearly ownership is becoming the norm for children not much older than he is now. As well as protecting children, as parents we also surely have a responsibility to try and ensure that our children are not left out and are socially included. Furthermore, is it not hypocritical in the extreme for adults to use smartphones for ever increasing amounts of time and reasons and yet not want children to emulate that behaviour?

The historian and mythographer Marina Warner takes a broader view of the futility of trying to keep childhood and adulthood separate by restricting children’s access to the adult world. In her essay ‘Little angels little devils: keeping childhood innocent’ she argues that:

Children aren’t separate from adults…they can’t live innocent lives on behalf of adults…Children are our copy in little…in affluent cities of the West, they’ll wail for expensive trainers with the right label like their friends.'(1994: p48)

And today, clearly, they’ll wail for their own smartphones.

This desire to hold on to childhood innocence seems to be at the heart of parental concerns around children owing smartphones, but is that innocence, as Warner claims, simply a myth?

Young person and mobile phone

Related links and publications
Warner, M (1994) Managing monsters – The Reith Lectures. London: Vintage.

Jane O’Connor

Dr Jane O’Connor is a Reader in Childhood Studies at Birmingham City University and is currently leading ‘Technobabies’, an international research project exploring parents’ perspectives on the use of touchscreen digital devices by 0-3 year olds. Jane started her professional life as a primary school teacher and moved into research due to her interests in constructions of childhood and children’s relationship with the media. Jane’s research interests include children and technology and children and celebrity.

“All equal, all different”: Contemporary research and practice in anti-bullying: 15th November 2017, Birmingham City University

On 15th November, educators, academics, researchers and campaigners gathered at  Birmingham City University to share latest research on school bullying and explore practices to tackle this important issue. Dr. Elizabeth Nassem, a CSPACE researcher and one of the event organisers, gives a report of the day.

The anti-bullying conference was a collaborative venture with Birmingham City University (BCU) and the Bullying Reduction Action Group (BRAG) which was supported by Birmingham City Council. Many participating schools and research from across the region were involved. The event was a great success as professionals worked together to share and enhance good practice. It focused on not just dealing with bullying between pupils but also involved discussions of bullying between staff and pupils and reflection on how school systems and societal inequalities contribute to school bullying and can be tackled. It has led to a growing community of professionals who are now working more collaboratively to resolve bullying. This enhanced community will be built upon through the continued partnership work with BCU and BRAG.

Anti-bullying conference at BCU in 2017
Anti-bullying conference at BCU in 2017

Baroness Sal Brinton chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bullying gave a warm welcome and was impressed by the high number of participants (over 100) and high level of engagement from schools and researchers. She explained how it is often that those perceived as different will be bullied and that this is unacceptable and how we can work together as a community to tackle bullying and discrimination such as towards traveller children and individuals who have disabilities.

Professor Peter Smith a world-leading expert on school bullying from Goldsmiths University provided the keynote on what works in tackling bullying. He has noticed a reduction in reports of bullying as research has increased. He discussed the effectiveness of strategies such as restorative justice, KiVa and the Support Group method. He also explained how a social-ecological approach could enhance understanding. Professor Smith highlighted the importance of working with the whole school community such as bus drivers and support staff who also have are instrumental in sending out messages of what behaviours are acceptable, for example, in areas which are often unsupervised by teachers. He discussed evidence that anti-bullying interventions are cost-effective for schools.

Dr Elizabeth Nassem, Centre for Studies of Culture and Practice in Education, BCU discussed the pupil-led anti-bullying strategies she has been implementing. She has used techniques such as role-play, group discussion and critical reflection to support pupils to improve their strategies for responding to bullying. She also provided details of the ‘mentoring for bullies’ intervention she is implementing to explore why ‘bullies’ behave the way they do and help them develop more respectful ways of interacting with others. Dr Nassem explained how schools can ensure there is a process in place to support staff that might feel they are being bullied by staff and/or pupils. She also discussed how children did not perceive themselves as ‘bullies’ and tended to focus on their own feelings of victimisation. She highlighted how children are rejecting the label of ‘bully’ and ‘victim’ and the importance of having a more embracing definition of school bullying.

Dr Neil Duncan is a retired expert on bullying from University of Wolverhampton and provided a controversial but well received presentation on how schools in England generate bullying cultures. He argues that children in secondary school have such lack of control that they cannot even go to the toilet when they need to. He stated that tackling bullying and anti-bullying week has become an institution and remains a problem; now we have an additional problem of cyber-bullying. Dr Duncan increased awareness of how bullying is not just an issues concerning a small number of pupils and highlighted the role of the school environment in bullying. He emphasised the importance of speaking to pupils with respect when reprimanding them.

Julie Smith from Kidscape talked about the free training they provide in Birmingham to support schools, children and families such as their assertiveness training from children who are victimised which has successfully reduced bullying for a high number of participants. Julie was pleased with the increased awareness and uptake of Kidscape’s excellent provision. In addition sessions were provided on compassion in education and the right of individuals to feel safe. Participants in the conference commented on how they had learnt how to provide a scheme of work and practical ideas on how to educate about trans/bi/LGBT bullying. The presentation by PC Simon Bolwell on sexting was well attended and participants commented on how they had learnt how to deal with young people sending child produced sexual images. They had also learnt about the support for schools when working on the compliance side of sexting.

Some schools are looking to implement the ‘No Outsiders’ method of Andrew Moffatt, MBE. Amanda Daniels launched the transgender toolkit and encouraged schools to engage with it providing advice on how to avoid prejudice-based language. Online systems for reporting bullying were also provided by Tell-Chris and Toot-toot. BCU showed it had a leading role in supporting schools through its research provision. Professor Kevin Mattinson who is the Head of Education and Associate Dean announced how he wants to build on this great success and enhance partnerships and collaboration to schools.

Further information on the excellent feedback and photos are on my twitter @bulliedvoices.

Elizabeth Nassem

Elizabeth is a researcher in the Centre for the Study of Practice and Culture in Education. She has a Doctorate in Education which she examined where bullying exists in children’s everyday experiences of school.   Her current work involves developing evidence-based pupil-led anti-bullying initiatives. She provides professional development to schools about school bullying and what to do about it.

Creativity: getting it right in a week

Creativity: Getting in right in a week
Creativity: Getting in right in a week

Creativity is often be misunderstood as being for ‘special people’ who have original ideas, or is solely the domain of the arts. We think that creativity is for everyone, in every subject, of all abilities. As teacher educators and researchers we recognised that many professionals working in education, from all phases, face increasing pressures including performance and assessment outputs. This means that time set aside to plan for creativity, to teach for creativity or develop creative learning is not afforded. We think that creativity should be at the heart of teaching and learning and through this book we want to help teachers and educational practitioner recognise it within the classroom.

Teachers and education practitioners play an important role in the development of creativity. Significantly, they have to provide learners with an environment for self-discovery leading to self-actualisation and encourage learners to become more creative individuals. To achieve this, teachers must also be afforded time to explore their own creative teaching approaches. After all, creative learners need creative teachers.

Throughout this book we want to show teachers and education practitioners that creativity is more than just that one original idea, which may have historical importance. It is a process that can be encouraged within the classroom and have significance for lifelong learning. A creative endeavour may begin with a spark of an idea, but through its development can include play, experimentation, critical thinking, exploration, investigation, discussion, collaboration to name but a few. These then lead to new insights, new understandings and new knowledge. Creativity is exciting!

We hope that this book will provided teachers and trainee teachers with practical-led guidance on creative teaching, teaching for creativity and creative learning. It presents key areas of creativity in straightforward, bite-sized chunks, offering time-saving, practical support and ideas. We do not see this book as being an additional workload pressure for teachers or educators, but as a time saving, practical support, offering the opportunity for thought and action. The book is therefore short and straight to the point for that very reason!

Designed to be read over a week, it is divided into seven chapters, each detailing clear strategies and a summary of some relevant underpinning theory. We also offer the reader the opportunity to see the strategies in action and then encourage them to try things out themselves. Sometimes this might take them out of their comfort zones, but this is a creativity book after all and we wouldn’t be doing a very good job if we were not putting theory into practice! Ultimately, we want teachers and educational practitioners to consider new insights, be open to new possibilities, to build their creative confidence which will then be passed onto learners.

We hope that many teachers and educational practitioners enjoy the book, we would love to hear from you. Most importantly we hope that they see that creativity is fun, that it is good for them and good for learners, and that that feel encouraged to leap into the deep end wearing water wings!

Taking risks

Victoria & Martin

Kinsella, V. and Fautley, M (2017). Creativity: Getting it Right in a Week. Critical Publishing.

Dr. Victoria Kinsella is Senior Research Fellow in Education at Birmingham City University. Victoria has researched widely in the field of the arts education and creativity. She has worked on a number of creative arts research projects in various contexts including schools, prisons, galleries, arts centres and with educational agencies. Prior to her academic studies she worked as a teacher in UK secondary schools.

Follow Victoria’s work on ResearchGate.

Professor Martin Fautley is director of research in the school of education and social work at Birmingham City University. He is widely known for his work on researching assessment in the classroom, but also researches understandings of musical learning and progression (especially in the novice stages), composing, and creativity.

Find out more about Martin’s work, follow him on WordPress Blog, @DrFautley on Twitter

BERA September 2017: looking again at teaching and learning – Gert Biesta’s food for thought

This year’s BERA conference took place at Sussex University outside Brighton.  As ever it was a busy event – there were more applications than ever to present and that competition was as a result more fierce than ever.

The diversity of papers and presentations was exciting and provided a lot of space for discussion and interaction.

The final keynote was a high point. Drawing on a range of insights from his work and in particular his new book, The Rediscovery of Teaching, Gert Biesta talked about learning and how it has been hi-jacked by a policy view that draws on neoliberal human capital theory. In other words, the current focus on learning is learning for a purpose connected to skills and productivity: an economised version of learning.

For Biesta, learning has now become a problem. He connects this also to certain kinds of learning that involve ‘meaning-making’. In the worst cases, this becomes ego-logical – i.e. the (isolated) individual making sense for themselves (although he acknowledged that Freirean dialogical learning is collective rather individualised).

His provocative response to this situation, embedded in his philosophical position, suggests a return to a dynamic curriculum in which students and teachers stop learning. Learning spaces then become classrooms in which the world can be listened to. He presented the issue by posing these questions:

If we are sense makers – can the world speak to us in its own terms and on its own terms?

If we are just meaning-making beings, how then can we be taught?

There was a sense in this that the cultural and economic emphasis on individualism and entrepreneurialism that is having such an impact on our ways of living and on our world needs to be checked. Otherwise, learning will only support the further deterioration of our planet and jeopardise our collective attempts to achieve a good life for everyone.

Other than referring to Levinas, Biesta didn’t elaborate on what stopping learning might mean in our classrooms, but he did assert the importance of doing something other than focusing on the transmission of ‘bodies of knowledge’. He also developed the idea that we should try to ‘bracket’ learning to open up different ways of being in the world: a ‘non ego-logical’ way of being in the world.

For Biesta then being in the world in our times is filtered by the desires that shape who we are. There is a question about the provenance of many of these desires in our commercialised and commodified world. The suggestion is that the desires created for us by the forces of marketisation and commodification are displacing desires that could be more meaningful. Out of that thought emerges the fundamental question:

Is what I desire, desirable?

While he didn’t offer any pat answers to this last puzzle, Biesta cited Spivak and her idea of the individual ‘non-coercive rearrangement of desires’ as a way forward.  Education he viewed as a space in which such a rearrangement could occur to support “grown-up ways of being in the world”.

There is something in that final phrase that brings us back to earth with a bang when we consider the current ‘common sense’ views on education that we are confronted by and also, occasionally, the level of debate.

Rob Smith

Dr. Rob Smith is a Reader in Education at Birmingham City University. His body of work explores the impact of funding and marketisation on teaching and learning in further education settings. He has researched and written extensively in collaboration with FE and HE practitioners. Currently, Rob is involved in the FE in England: transforming lives and communities project with Dr Vicky Duckworth (Edge Hill University). This is a national research study focusing on the transformative qualities of further education. He is also developing an interdisciplinary research project looking at HE space and time focusing on the design and architecture of HEIs and their situatedness with urban settings.

Follow Rob’s publications on researchgate.

Improving Learning and Teaching through Collaborative Observation

In November 2016, Dr. Matt O’Leary and Dr. Vanessa Cui from C-SPACE were successful in their application for HEFCE Catalyst Fund: Innovation in Learning and Teaching. In this blog post, Matt and Vanessa tell us about the project and some of highlights of their recent activities.


Teaching excellence has been at the centre of debates about quality in English Higher Education (HE) in recent years. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework has ratcheted up this focus even further. Fuelled by critiques of teaching as ‘the weakest aspect’ of English HE (Gill,2015), the government has argued that universities need to adopt a more evidence-based approach to learning and teaching (L & T) akin to that associated with research.

Traditional approaches to capturing and promoting teaching excellence have largely been shaped by a managerialist agenda that conceptualises academic staff as accountable suppliers of a product and students as consumers of that product, with an overreliance on reductive metrics that fail to reflect either the authenticity or complexity of HE learning and teaching. This raises some important questions for the HE sector.

How can we develop a greater understanding and improvement of L & T among academic staff and students? How can we combine scholarly knowledge, practices and our education ideologies to satisfy the demands of policymakers while generating data about L & T that is legitimate and worthwhile? What can we do to create and nurture an approach that sustains and enhances authentic L & T experiences?     

About the project

A HEFCE-funded project at Birmingham City University seeks to use collaborative observation of L & T as a means of harnessing staff and student perspectives. Observation is a common method for staff development in HE, typically through a peer observation model. Some HE institutions have introduced teaching observation as a performance management tool in recent years. However, recent research (e.g. O’Leary & Wood, 2017; O’Leary, 2016) has revealed that assessment-based models of observation can often be a deterrent to developing L & T practice. Our project is built on the belief that improving student learning requires teachers and learners to develop an awareness and understanding about learning collaboratively in the context of their programme.  It is our attempt to answer the questions raised above.

Underpinning this collaborative observation process is the principles of critical reflection (Brookfield, 1998), learning as collective consciousness (Bowden & Marton, 1998) and participatory inquiry. A key feature of our methodology is the reconceptualisation of observation as a method to enhance L & T practices through inquiry rather than as a method of assessment. Pairs of teaching staff and students come together in a collection of subject-specific case studies to co-investigate, co-observe and co-reflect on their own classroom L & T practices. Within our collaborative approach, student identity is reconceptualised from that of ‘consumers’ and ‘evaluators’ of teaching to co-researchers and co-producers of knowledge about L & T.

Our project started in November 2016 and it runs until April 2018. It is led by Dr. Matt O’Leary and Dr. Vanessa Cui from C-SPACE. The project works with five case studies in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences: BA (Hons) Early Childhood Studies, BSc (Hons) Nursing (Adult), BSc (Hons) Nursing (Child), BA (Hons) Primary Education with QTS and BSc (Hons) Radiography. Each case study is made up of two staff members and two first/second year students. On our project website, there is more details about our project, our methodology and each of the case studies:

Recent activities

During last summer, we were busy sharing our project and some preliminary findings at internal and external events. At our C-SPACE annual conference and the University’s Festival of Teaching, we hosted a symposium and a workshop where four of the case studies shared their experiences with the delegates.

Primary Education participants’ talk on their case study and their Cycle 1 experience at C-SPACE 2017 conference:

Staff from the Child Nursing case study talk about their case study and their Cycle 1 experience at C-SPACE 2017 conference:

Staff from the Early Childhood Studies case study talk about their case study and their Cycle 1 experience at C-SPACE 2017 conference:

We also ran an innovation session at this year’s BERA conference. During the session, we had really engaging and critical discussions with the delegates around issues on Ethics and power dynamics in staff and student collaborations like ours. We also discussed how this could be an opportunity for students and staff’s personal and/or professional development, and how this model could potentially be used in different types of HE educational project on student engagement and student learning experience.

Innovation session delivered by Matt O'Leary and Vanessa Cui at BERA 2017 annual conference.
Innovation session delivered by Matt O’Leary and Vanessa Cui at BERA 2017 annual conference.

To follow our project, please visit our website. You can also get in touch with Vanessa to add your contact detail to our mailing list.

Matt & Vanessa


  • Bowden, J. and Marton, F. (1998). The University of Learning: beyond quality and competence, London: Routledge.
  • Brookfield, S. D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Gill, J. (2015). David Willetts interview: ‘What I did was in the interests of young people’. Times Higher Education, Article published online June 18, 2015. Retrieved from Accessed on August 28, 2017.
  • O’Leary, M. & Wood, P. (2017) ‘Performance over professional learning and the complexity puzzle: lesson observation in England’s further education sector’, Professional Development in Education, Vol. 43(4), pp. 573-591.
  • O’Leary, M. (Ed) (2016) Reclaiming lesson observation: supporting excellence in teacher learning. Abingdon: Routledge.