Visit Central Bedfordshire College (CBC), in Dunstable, and you’ll see a fast-developing institution. Externally, a sleek new campus building has recently been completed, but it is inside that the college has been making its most impressive progress.
For almost three years CBC has been developing the Open Futures askit strand across all areas of teaching and learning. Feedback from participants has been remarkable: they have frequently described feeling ‘inspired’. For the college, recognising that askit was the project they had been looking for was easy. More difficult was the logistical challenge of providing askit training for all members of the academic staff.
Commitment to training
In summer 2014 the college made a commitment to offer Level 1 askit training to all members of staff who had direct contact with students. This meant teachers, assessors, learning support assistants, and learning mentors - around 170 members of staff in all, who worked variously on full-time, part-time and hourly-paid contracts for the college. Within three months, by the end of September, 12 askit Level 1 training sessions had taken place and all academic staff had taken part in the training.
But askit was not just becoming a resource for the college to develop students as independent thinkers and learners through its focus on philosophical enquiry; it was becoming a part of the value system of the College.
Following the training, teachers began experimenting with askit and the senior team made arrangements to promote it across the college. Support sessions were set up between askit trainer Nick Chandley and the college’s nine learning areas, giving teachers a reference point to consider possible philosophical enquiry prompts and stimuli and the opportunity to discuss in more detail how askit sessions might be successfully moderated.
Nick was also on hand to support teachers and assessors in the classroom, either demonstrating an askit session or observing and giving teachers feedback on their sessions. askit has also made a considerable impression on students. Members of the student council ran a survey through Moodle to solicit students’ opinions on whether or not to start up an askit student-run club and if so, an appropriate day/time. The response was massively in favour of setting the club up.
Central Bedfordshire College’s embrace of askit is nothing short of inspirational. The project has been supported in principle and in practice by all senior leaders, who have ensured that strategic measures have been put in place to make askit simply a part of what they do. This strategic commitment would not have meant anything though if the college hadn’t supported their staff through the provision of training and ongoing support.
Recognition from inspectors
This commitment was celebrated in inspections in 2016 by both the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and OFSTED. The QAA inspection highlighted two ‘headline’ areas of good practice as:
- The impartial and inclusive nature of advice and guidance provided for students during the recruitment process (B2)
- The introduction of 'Philosophical Enquiry' as a methodology across all programmes to enhance student capacity for analytical, critical and creative thinking (B3, Enhancement) (QAA1589 - R4610 - May 16)
Dr Eamonn Egan, CBC’s vice-principal for teaching and learning, reflected on the OFSTED inspection, commenting that: ’The inspectors said that the College has got one of the best integration of students they have seen, even though there is such diversity in the area. Students of all ethnicities, ages and learning difficulties and disabilities just mix in with one another, inside and outside of the classroom, and treat one another with respect. They put this down to students across the College being able to talk through difficult issues with one another in a respectful way, and learn to listen and respect one another, and that they do this through askit sessions.'
Inspectors noted that ‘Students show respect for their teachers and each other and improve their levels of confidence. They gain good independent thinking and learning skills and contribute well to group discussions.’ They also reported that ‘Teachers have adopted an approach which gives students the confidence to develop further their thinking and reasoning skills and to become more independent in their learning. Because of this, students are open and willing to discuss diversity and British values confidently.’ (OFSTED, March 2016).
Philosophical enquiry across subject areas
All staff that have been trained at CBC are now aware of, and capitalise on, the opportunity for philosophical enquiry in their subject area. In a session in motor vehicle maintenance, attended by Nick Chandley, students wrangled respectfully with each other on the difficulties they may face in the future as technology develops. One student wondered who is responsible, for example, if a self-driving car has an accident - an interesting concept that encouraged students to develop a whole range of thinking and enquiry skills, agreeing and disagreeing respectfully and relying on reason, not rhetoric, to help them. Strong links with developing English and maths through askit are identified too: askit has become simply a part of what CBC does.
With thanks to Dr Eamonn Egan, Vice-principal for teaching and learning at CBC, Rachel Jones, Learning Improvement Manager at CBC, and Nick Chandley, Open Futures askit Manager.
With the generous support of Central Bedfordshire College, three other FE colleges have been introduced to the potential of askit and are now commencing their own askit journey. Contact us for further information about Open Futures and our work in FE.