Graham Hallet, Senior Lecturer, SEN/D and Inclusion, and Shelby Mercer, second year student, give their reflections on a student led conference undertaken as part of a 2nd year Inclusion module
An essential part of being a teacher is to reflect on practice, and to use that reflection as the basis for innovation and creativity in our teaching and learning activities. In the summer of 2010, the opportunity arose to implement a different approach in an Education Studies module in the 2nd year of our 4-year BA (Hons) with QTS. The module is on Inclusion, and this is seen to encompass the needs of all marginalized pupils, rather than only on those with special educational needs. Such a huge subject area seemed to require an approach that differed from our usual teaching pattern, to ensure a continued focus throughout the academic year on Inclusion. Accordingly, a number of changes were made to the usual pattern of seminars and occasional lectures.
Two further beliefs shaped the approach of the module. The first was a conviction that far too much emphasis is placed on summative assignments in the University, and far too little is placed on a continued rehearsal of the skills and attributes needed in producing those assignments. Accordingly, a system akin to the idea of Oxford tutorials was introduced; following a lead lecture, on, for example, gender inclusion, students were expected to prepare and submit a short essay of perhaps 750 words to their tutor. A week or so later, in groups of six plus a tutor, these essays were dissected and discussed in a tutorial lasting an hour. This cycle was repeated 5 or 6 times during the module, ensuring the continued development of writing and research skills.
The second belief was that students respond positively and productively to being given responsibility, even at such an early stage of their academic journey. It was decided to give the students the responsibility of organizing an inclusion conference. A model was provided through the provision of a tutor led conference at the end of Semester 1 but it was made clear that the organization of the student led conference rested entirely with the student body. Time had to be allocated within the structure of the day for the students to present a group paper that formed their summative assignment for the module, but otherwise the programme was entirely within their remit.
The first Conference took place in June 2011 and has been followed by further events in each subsequent year. Each has been very different, perhaps reflecting the personalities of the students in that year, but each has been completely successful, with invited speakers of national importance in the field, exhibitions of relevant materials, refreshments provided, webcasts organized and T-shirts produced. Perhaps the best way to show the value of these events is to listen to the student voice; in this case, Shelby Mercer, one of our current second year organisers, gives her views of the conference that was held on the 28th March 2017.
The morning had gone well. My colleagues and I, looking around at one another, felt quietly confident. Our third speaker, half way through her talk, was passionately sharing her experiences with the audience. Eyes were fixed to the front until, suddenly, our speaker’s PowerPoint disappeared and the emergency lighting flickered on. There had been a power cut.
The student-led conference is one of the opportunities that makes our degree unique. I have attended them before and know others that have previously organised them, yet, the degree of autonomy involved was still surprising. Early during the module Graham explained the conference was ours; this meant we were responsible for everything from fundraising to flyers, speakers to spoons. The extent we were involved personally was also up to us; everyone wanted to participate in the planning, driven by the strong motivation of the experience rather than a grade.
I cannot stress strongly enough the importance of the lessons learnt from creating and implementing a conference, with 20 peers, at this stage in our learning journey. Here are some:
A group of people can succeed in their goals without a leader. Early on we split into small self-organising teams, each with our own aims such as publicity and fundraising. I am not going to say that it all happened smoothly; some were more active in the planning than others and communication was sometimes lacking. However, this approach allowed us to make decisions by consensus, agreeing together therefore meant everyone was committed to turning our decisions into reality.
Some people will simply ignore your emails. Both the teams responsible for speakers and exhibitors had to quickly learn to deal with rejection or simply being ignored. However, this feeling was overshadowed by the fear that we wouldn’t have enough speakers; a needless worry as we secured four fantastic guest speakers.
Not everything will run smoothly. There is likely to be a moment, or two, or many, of stress. For us this ranged from technical difficulties, to losing an exhibitor in the carpark, and finally the power cut. Conferences are intrinsically social gatherings. It might be a cliché to say so, but, as I watched our final speaker do an impression of a Scouse lion under emergency lighting, I realised we should, after all our hard work, be enjoying ourselves. As Graham said, it’s our day.
These are just some of lessons I have learnt from planning a conference, I’m sure for my peers they may be different. However, the importance, I believe, is that we were given the opportunity to learn them – in our own way.