May Newsletter

May Newsletter
May Newsletter
May Newsletter

Restorative approaches to teaching and learning in higher education

Ian Marder, Assistant Professor in the School of Law and Criminology in Maynooth University discusses how to incorporate restorative practices into how we teach in higher education and the value it brings to our teaching and learning practices.

When I teach in small group settings, we sit in a circle and the right to speak revolves around the circle sequentially. We use a talking piece to indicate whose turn it is to speak and, by extension, whose turn it is to listen. When the talking piece comes to a student, they are free to pass if they prefer. However, nobody can speak until it is their turn, and nobody can interrupt a speaker. I begin each class by inviting students to share something about themselves to help build trust, relationships and a positive social climate among the group, before we use the same process to discuss the readings or class materials.

This approach is called a circle process, which is an example of restorative practice. A growing body of pedagogical research indicates that successful teaching has a relational foundation, and that learning happens through dialogue and active participation. Yet, academic training seldom teaches us the skills to build trust and positive relationships with and among students, and to facilitate open conversations and engagement in our classrooms. Restorative practice provides both a framework to conceptualise a relational, participatory approach to higher education teaching and learning, and the skills to enable educators strategically and intentionally to design and deliver classes in this way.

The level of engagement that the circle process achieves is extraordinary, and the classroom is not the only application in higher education. We recently published a study combining circles with techniques from design innovation to enable student participation in reviewing and redesigning a module. In line with studies suggesting that student feedback is more likely to be experienced as meaningful and more likely to be implemented when it is dialogic rather than quantitative, this research facilitated students to participate actively in identifying the stronger and weaker elements of a module, and to deliberate, select and implement actions that responded to gaps and concerns. This process identified structural issues with the course and students’ emotional relationship with its delivery, yielding complex insights and actionable ideas that a survey could not. Participating students lauded circles as a way of ensuring that quieter voices were heard and permitting students to reflect and build on the ideas of others.

Another application of circles is to build a sense of community within a group. I am currently evaluating the ‘MA Dialogues’, a project bringing students and staff from a postgraduate course together outside of class time for monthly meetings to build trust and relationships among the group. Early indications are that making time for dialogue was crucial during COVID-19, but that the value in helping students and staff get to know and feel comfortable engaging with each other, means that this approach could be used to support learning and improve higher education experiences more widely. There is emerging evidence of the benefits of this approach in student residence settings, and for enabling conversations on sensitive topics on campuses.

Restorative practice skills can also be used when there is a problem. If a student comes to me with an issue, I ask the ’restorative questions’ – a series of open-ended questions that give students the space to tell their story and identify their needs and how those needs can be met. I also ask these questions when I meet a student after an incident of academic malpractice, helping them reflect on the reasons why they did what they did and the harm done and participate actively in deciding how best to address and repair the harm done and prevent it from happening again. This approach gets to the root of the problem, ensuring that students are accountable for their actions, are supported to ensure that there is no recurrence, and feel more a part of – not ostracised or excluded from – the academic community.

In such diverse sectors as education, criminal justice, social work, social care and youth and community work, professionals increasingly realise that their work can be more effective if they build relationships with, and facilitate the participation of, those citizens for whose welfare they are responsible. Higher education, too, should explore the many applications of restorative practice across our work.

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