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Coffee and papers blog

I’ve been meaning to post this for ages and given that I have been v v slack with my blogging (I blame pregnancy, seems as good as excuse as any!) seems appropriate to start back with this.

So I’ve talked to a few people about the genius coffee and papers idea and I can say genius as it is not my idea at all, but stolen from the inspirational Colin Beard, Teaching Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University and a National Teaching Fellow. I saw Colin speak at the SEDA conference in 2009 and really liked his approach and some easy to use exercises he had to engage students. We then invited him to run an event at City for our Learning Development Fellows where he talked through some more ideas, including the coffee and papers idea.

The idea is very simple. And lovely for its simplicity. Basically, Colin argues that none of us have enough time to read so this activity gives people “permission” to read.  As part of a workshop, seminar or away day or any time where you have people for a few hours you allocate a certain amount of time for reading.  People can go where they are comfortable and read from a selection of papers chosen by the tutor or facilitator. At the end of the time everyone comes back into the group to discuss the readings.

I loved this idea so much that I thought I would try it with our students on the Academic Leadership module. One of the problems we had is that there is so much leadership “theory” out there how do we get students to be familiar with it and critique it without just running through multiple powerpoints which are very dull.  On a radio 4 programme broadcast about leadership earlier this year – Follow the Leader - the presenter commented that a search for literature on leadership produced more results than any other, including very popular topics like cookery etc.  The Academic Leadership module is taught to staff over four days so we decided that the first morning would be the coffee and papers session.  I was concerned that the students might think it was a bit of a “doss” for the tutors, but it took me a considerable amount of time to carefully select about 20 key articles on leadership that would provide a broad spectrum, nevermind getting all the copies sorted etc.  When I introduced the idea to the students they all looked a bit stunned – “what we are allowed to just go and read for an hour and half?” was the question and they seemed a bit hesitant to select the articles etc.  I asked them to all identify three keywords from the article and provide a three minute pitch about it back to the group.

After about an hour and half we called everyone back together for a discussion. I could not have anticipated how successful this was. We produced a flip chart with all the key words on it which gave a really good overview of the kinds of issues that occur frequently in leadership literature.  Many of the articles fed from each other and there were similar or opposing concepts. We were able to have a great discussion about the weaknesses in the literature, which was much greater because the students could compare a range of authors, instead of myself and the co-tutor merely talking through each theory in turn. What also surprised me was that throughout the following two days we referred frequently back to the coffee and papers session and the themes that had come up.  The students loved it! They have asked for it to be incorporated into all modules because they loved having the permission to read as well as getting a really good overview of the key texts.  I also asked them to post their summaries on Moodle so that we had a good resource to refer back to.  The session was so successful that we ran it again at the beginning of the second two day teaching session with the focus on change management.

I would thoroughly recommend this to anyone – whether working with teams or students. Being given the permission to read is a precious thing and one that is so important but that we are rarely allowed to do in work – we must be seen to be “busy” and ironically reading seems not to count as “busy-ness”.  So thanks very much Colin :)


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