In Defence of Alchemy – thoughts on the future of student engagement

Over tea the other night my husband, a maths teacher in Sheffield, told the story of his last period of the day with his nightmare Year 10 class.  Suffice to say, seating plans had failed, engagement with the magic of number had not occurred and at one point a desk had been thrown.  Inevitably, after 40 minutes of mayhem choreographed by the charismatic Casey Wild*, his lead practitioner excellence let him down;

‘Right that’s it Casey – your name’s on the board – you’ve had 3 warnings, you’re on red detention.  You have utilised everything in your toolkit of horrors to disrupt this lesson and I’ve had enough of you’

‘No way Sir’

‘Yes, way – you’re on the board, now for the sixteenth time, sit down.’

‘But it’s not even my fault Sir – it’s your fault – you are not engaging my learning style at all!’

‘Is that right? And what is your learning style then Casey?

‘I don’t know, but it’s not this”

As any secondary school teacher will tell you, you only need 10 minutes in the average classroom on a Friday afternoon to know that ‘student engagement’ is a tough nut to crack, so it’s little wonder a whole theorising industry is building around it in higher education. Indeed, it’s easy to see why student engagement is almost becoming an academic religion – after all, if it can deliver on its promises, it could be the magic wand making all the modern university’s dreams of retained, progressing and NSS happy students come true.

Last September I sat in a large faculty meeting to discuss Student Experience and Engagement Priorities. On the desks in front of us were A3 sized coloured spreadsheets – the kind you need laser eye surgery to be able to read. I flicked through. There were about 36 priorities and most had 4-6 sub priorities and actions. I imagined that similar meetings were taking place in universities across the land, all working to a methodology of improving student engagement by breaking down the teaching and learning process into its constituent parts and formulating a list of actions to address NSS and PTES deficits.  I didn’t like to say but my own philosophy of teaching and learning, if I’m honest, is that it’s a kind of alchemy: a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way, but that is almost impossible to quantify.  Even though I trained as a teacher, I’ve never really understood how lesson plans equate to good lessons. My experience is that sometimes it works, in a magical, surprising, inspiring way, and just as often, well, it doesn’t.

Does trying to break down, isolate, and classify the chemistry of teaching and learning by focusing on ‘engagement priorities’, however sensible these might seem, set us on a rocky road to formulaic, well packaged but uninspiring teaching?  If we need any evidence of how it might – we need only look to what has happened in schools over the last twenty years. The assumption that if you use data in the right way you can cover all your bases, target your vulnerable areas and improve outcomes has only taken us so far.  Student engagement in schools is no walk in the park.

How do we develop methodologies that really listen to what students say about what they want when they are such a moving target? Do they even know? Did you at 20? Is it possible that we may be occupying some of our most talented staff with what are essentially ‘side issues’, disrupting the kind of chemistry that can build between students and teachers in an enquiring seminar or lecture room? How do we support the human encounter in our universities? How do we best defend alchemy?

My sense is that we want to avoid The Good Sex Guide approach to teaching and learning. There is a book that sold millions of copies and kept a million therapists in jobs on the basis that learning the moves and varying the positions lead to great sex!  But, in real life, surely we know that it’s all in the chemistry – we just need to create spaces where this can happen, and not legislate it out in the name of efficiency.


As the end of the longest hour on a Friday drew to a close, Casey held up her phone triumphantly:

‘Sir, I’ve found it, I’m kinaesthetic, we did it in Year 8. I’m kinaesthetic!’.

‘Right, Good to know. You can have a kinaesthetic detention then. Sorted.

 *not her real name – she chose it herself as she wanted to be in a blog

Karen Dunn is Head of Academic Development in Sheffield Institute of Education






2 responses to “In Defence of Alchemy – thoughts on the future of student engagement”

  1. Sylvia Ashton Avatar
    Sylvia Ashton

    I agree! So how do we explain alchemy to those who want us to be accountable? Noticing that the techniques labelled ‘excellent’ don’t work in every context would be a start.

  2. Jo Tomalin Avatar
    Jo Tomalin

    It was really refreshing to read this! Thank you.
    It would be great if all meetings had to stop, every now and again and address the question: “How might the change we are seeking to implement interfere with the alchemy of teaching? What could we do that would support it instead?”

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