#Take5 #51 The best way to develop a compassionate pedagogy?

“I was asked to deliver a ‘skills’ session to a group of second years. I went into the room – the students were dotted about in ones, occasionally twos. They all had their coats on. They did not know each other’s names. These students had not arrived in that classroom. Arguably, they had not arrived on the course.” (Member of staff)

Why is this an important area to cover?

Not only is it important ethically to develop humane and compassionate teaching spaces, it is vital to the notion of facilitating the dialogic co-construction of knowledge; for active, deep and meaningful learning; and to create communities of practice where the students are engaged as actors and agents in their own learning.

Our institution is perhaps a better fit for a more caring sort of teaching and learning – the diverse working class students that we tend to attract typically come from more collectivist or communitarian spaces. At the same time, given the rhetoric about ‘standards’ and individual effort that permeates HE narratives, we have to work to continually prove the worth of a more humane and dialogic academy. At our university, we are committed to the theory and practice of an education for social justice; making our classrooms engaging and our practice holistic. We seek to celebrate our students for who they are as we facilitate a process where they can become academic more on their own terms – and without losing themselves in the process.

Image from Education for Social Justice Framework – colourful hands raised.

Picture: Image from Education for Social Justice Framework – colourful hands raised.

Building a compassionate pedagogy

One overarching approach is to share with students that we are operating a compassionate pedagogy (https://compassioninhe.wordpress.com/) as a conscious strategy in the classroom. A compassionate pedagogy is designed to create that humane space that welcomes and sustains students and their whole identities; it is committed to valuing the individual and building personal relationships. When we share that this is our approach with students, we draw them into a conversation about how the classroom can be developed in the interest of all the students. Whereas the typical HE classroom might be driven by competitive individualism, which ignites fear and increases threat, the compassionate classroom is one that fosters altruism and cooperative growth. The ideal is to work together with the students to develop the whole class as a developmental and sustaining space. Thus together, tutor and students, agree to use language and tone that reach the most people – they agree to be interested in each other – that no one will dominate the dialogue – that everybody will work to draw-in the quieter person – that they will address each other compassionately and by name – and work together to achieve common goals.

What does this mean in practice?

Celebrating the diverse classroom. There is always some common ground around student values – they are all on the same course for a reason – they have something in common! (Member of staff)

At its most basic, it begins with welcoming every student into the classroom and valuing them for exactly who they are right then – at the very start of the course. Not greeting them with a raft of study and digital skills checklists which implicitly and often explicitly further reinforces their own internalised notions that they are not good enough. If these things are important – our teaching and assessment practices should develop them. It then means embracing a teaching and learning strategy that builds on the initial welcome by foregrounding student bonding, belonging and communication – and the development of a cohort identity through active and interactive teaching, learning and assessment strategies. Not only does this better ‘hold’ students when times get tough, it starts to develop self-efficacy and well being so that challenges are embraced and transcended.

Valuing identity involves creating a secure space in the class for students to express their thoughts and ideas and to develop new skills without changing the personality.

Creating a comfortable environment for students not only to be who they are but also being valued and appreciated, feeling safe to discuss and argue the viewpoints without any restrictions; but with consideration of ethics and respecting the diversity of opinions, backgrounds, experiences…

Exploring the variety of thoughts in the room and all students being empowered to speak and to develop courage to try new things – for example, never did a presentation or podcast, being camera shy, nervous of debating in the class… this is the safe space to take that risk

Giving students the chance and opportunity to follow their passion; e,g, having a week when students can “govern” and bring their own examples, cases, experiences to discuss and lead a seminar.

It’s also to recognise who they are outside the student identity – we have multiple identities that need to be acknowledged – and also to value the ‘student’ identity within them all. To ensure that the cohort can find, and sustain, ways of acknowledging the group cohesion and peer support where appropriate.

“Today was such an amazing day as we all worked together to produce a poster exhibition based on our DigitalMe projects. My poster was created as a collage; I cut out pieces from magazines and newspapers. The words and phrases meant a lot to me and took me a few days to put together. While I was putting my poster together I couldn’t help but reflect on how it made me feel as an individual, a student, a parent and a person in society. I had doubts in preparing the DigitalMe project but now I had the ability to prepare a poster about it, it was a great feeling. This was the first time any person or institution cared about who I was and how I felt before starting university” (Student on Becoming An Educationist module – week 12 – the Digital Showcase)

How we build relationships between our students

“From my time working with students in a support role, I often discuss what their values are for undertaking their degree rather than goals. Goals are often very finite e.g. I want a good job, I want to earn more money whereas values allow the student to share what is important to them e.g. I want a job where I can give back to the community because they supported me to get here; I want to earn more money so I can travel and learn more about other cultures. Being values driven helps to create a more personal connection. This could be adapted so the students discuss this with each other, understand what drives each other and what they have and do not have in common.” (Member of staff)

This needs to be addressed not just in induction or the first week of a course, but throughout the whole teaching and learning process. Active and interactive learning promotes bonding and belonging between students – especially in fun, low stakes group work. See our #Take5: https://lmutake5.wordpress.com/2020/10/14/take5-50-the-best-way-to-bring-the-human-into-virtual-space/.

Use lots of ‘getting to know you’ activities – especially in the first few weeks of a course – sharing pictures on a padlet with a few words about oneself.

Now teaching is online – ask students to make something before the class. This year we set the making of a study apron: https://youtu.be/ty_ztNPoEp4 . Pictures of the aprons were shared on the class padlet – then discussed in our Breakout rooms.

F2F: Students to make collage of self to facilitate introductions in the first weeks.

F2F or online: Students to make representation of what ‘university’ is – this can be a group activity – though online – probably not! Representations shared. Discussion of implications for approachability and inclusiveness of the different HE models. Discussion of how those different ‘selves’ can make the models fit them. (Member of staff)

We build our relationships with students – and work to help them build their relationships with each other – through communication and discussion – and by peer exchange: ‘Has anybody else had the same issues? Would they be able to suggest …’:

Giving students an opportunity to discuss their differences and what is unique about them and their experiences in life.

Sharing something about their background, culture and interests.

Debating topics and giving their views whilst being encouraged to consider others’ views.

Students create agreements early on in class as to how they want to conduct the classes, their input and what they expect from each other.

Discussing examples of how classes or other groups in any environment may sometimes divide (e.g. staying safely with people they know or feel they have something in common with).

Considering why differences in people can enrich their experiences. Link to the inclusive teamwork/leadership or the university (linking to the strategic plan) and their current jobs or future careers.

Address the issues of fear and comfort zones. Get them to think of times when they have built a relationship with people who they didn’t think they initially had anything in common with, but the relationship evolved into a learning experience and/or a positive friendship. This can be related to age, background, authority, class etc.

Make the classes about communicating with others as a collective to learn together and from each other – whatever the subject. Move the focus away from the tutor. (Member of staff)

Tips and Tricks

First: Listen.

Lots and lots of active and interactive teaching with ‘by stealth’ group work – so that people have to get to work together and know each other – and learn that by doing so, they are each other’s best assets.

F2F: Arranging the room so that people sit with each other – horseshoe if class small enough, tables grouped into ‘islands’ if a large class – so people work with others on their table – to make this fun – cover table with sugar paper – and put chalk or felt tips down so that they can scribble and draw ideas – add a handful of sweets – so that the session feel special.

Use discursive role plays where students have to work together to solve problems. We did build those sugar paper covered islands. When the student groups had to report back, they could all use their drawings to facilitate their arguments. They had all successfully completed a group presentation, year one, week one. The feeling of collective achievement was enormous. (We are experimenting with conducting role plays in an online space…)

Tackle assignments from a place of where the student is – who the student is and how the student is – so that assessments come from the student perspective.

Where students are typically engaged in more creative making tasks as part of their learning, set short writing tasks or some other unfamiliar activity – to challenge, differently.

Virtual alternatives:

Student led breakout rooms, small groups and get a volunteer to lead each and come back to the main room.

Encourage students to use the Chat function – copy and use to help them reflect on the class. (NB: Can need to team teach here – so that one person keeps an eye on the Chat.)

Give students a task which helps build relationships – why not try collaborative writing in a shared google doc.

Get students to find a food item that represents an idea or concept you are discussing and hold it up in front of the camera.

Ask students to hold up before the camera something they have created, such as a spider diagram.

Instead of a collage made in class – find an object in their homes that represents who they are – show and tell objects.

Object Based Learning: Find an object – write what they know – write what they don’t know. Research – then change the object in the light of new knowledge – and present.

Slow learning: To student: Find a piece of art that represents the course that you are studying – or an assignment that you are working on. Sit with the artwork for one whole hour. You can make notes and sketch pictures – but not talk with anyone or go online. After one hour write exactly 300-words on how that picture represents your subject – or helps you to answer your assignment.


#Take5: https://learning.londonmet.ac.uk/take5/index.html

Especially: https://lmutake5.wordpress.com/2020/10/14/take5-50-the-best-way-to-bring-the-human-into-virtual-space/

Oliver Herring’s TASK: https://oliverherringtask.wordpress.com/

Leeds: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRYvJfYIkG8kFTKBhOFR3Xw

Scavenger hunts built into online teaching can replicate some of what we might do F2F: http://www.spencerauthor.com/scavenger-hunts/


This has been written by Vanessa Airth, Tom Burns, Jonathan Dempsey, Ruzanna Gevorgyan, James Hunting and Sandra Sinfield. Together we wanted to explore through collaborative writing our approaches to developing an Education for Social Justice.

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