On the pedagogy of kindness

Image by me. Available under CC-BY-NC-SA.

I remember my Grandmother telling me ‘Kate, you must always be kind’.

For some reason that really stuck with me, it is a huge part of my personal values.

In today’s society kindness is one of the traits we admire most in people, along with openness and honesty, empathy and  understanding. Yet, in the professional space, the world of work, it is often viewed as a trait of failure. To be successful requires self-interest, forcefulness, sharpness etc.  In Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness Magnet et al. discuss how during the industrial revolution kindness came to be associated with the domestic, in stark contrast to the masculine pursuit of industrial toil. As a result, kindness as an emotion was simultaneously feminized and devalued. I understand what that looks like.

In a 360 review just  before I left Oxford I was advised to work on my approach to kindness, I should, I was informed, be less kind. Because being kind, could get in the way of the goals we were working towards or may cloud my decision-making. My feedback also included that I had a lot of respect and many supportive colleagues who trusted my strategic ability to lead change.   I am pretty sure that the latter trait was down to the former – listening – understanding – engaging. Recognising that part of my leadership role was to be fair, ethical and supportive. #bemusedface

After the amount of reflection it warranted, I chose to ignore this piece of advice and instead to question the appropriateness of goals and decisions that do not call for kindness in the journey to achieve them.

Recently, a tweet by Jesse Stommel reminded me of that review.

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Jesse started me thinking about kindness as an approach rather than a value. I  realise that I purposefully use kindness in my practice, not only because I believe it to be the right and human thing to do, but also because it is the heart of student-focused design, and at the heart of inclusive practice, both of which require listening, understanding and support. If we really care about education as a fundamental right, that we should be securing it and designing it for everyone, then kindness has to operate beyond individual practice and employ institutional approaches .

It is possible for an institution to be kind at scale, but it is tricky. Much of higher education is geared towards students who are already good at being students, both in terms of subject knowledge and academic skills. If being kind is to engage more widely and more diversely then we need to question the criteria for gaining access to university education in the first place.

On the other end of the scale in an increasing focus on employability and accreditation by higher education institutions we are in danger of ‘self-serve assessment’, assessment that is easy to pass without having to undertake any form of active or constructivist learning. This presentation of kindness supports the institution rather than the individual, the focus is on a business model rather than the benefit of society or enlightenment – outcomes at the heart of education. The journey to educational attainment should not be devalued, students should be required to undertake study, reflection and develop relevant skills to enact the outputs of their education in society. It is the education not the qualification that needs to be accessible.

Digital environments enable kindness to be implemented at  greater scale. Flexible learning is one form of kindness, that enables more access to education, and is suited to online education. On the web students have greater opportunity to access their learning materials and activities anytime-anywhere.

Providing more supported learning is also a structure of kindness that digital environments can facilitate well. The web has made connecting  easier than ever before. Students can engage with their courses through clearly designed narrative, and to each other, their tutors and the institution within a wide range of digital spaces. There are huge opportunities to engage in collaborative learning across the globe and networks of support that bypass the walls of the VLE.

Institutions need to take an active approach in promoting kindness online. Whilst the web provides spaces for exchange and collaboration we often use it to talk about ourselves and down to others. In digital environments, social media spaces in particular, it can be the case that everyone is so busy talking that no one is listening. We don’t see each other behind the computer screen. We blog, tweet, status update. We talk about ourselves and may use fiery rhetoric to get across our views, loud and often in return for likes and applause. A different approach to digital communication needs to be advocated and scaffolded by the educational institution, especially one where students and faculty are resident in the digital space.

Approaching our engagement in digital spaces with purposeful kindness means that we engage without judgement or agenda, ask others why they think the way they do, and listen.  Kindness listens.  Then we are in a position to reflect on our core beliefs, understandings, and concepts – how we fit in, stand out, and speak up. This not only supports good communication practice, but strategically supports learning which in part is derived from our ability to reflect on ourselves through others, to think critically and form persuasive arguments, and build knowledge collaboratively.

To me a pedagogy of kindness is not  radical. It is something that we often employ but do not refer to as an act of kindness, because to be kind is seen as too soft, or a weakness. But ‘too always be kind’ is a powerful approach in the design of learning and needs to be recognised as such. It envelopes the consistency of providing inclusive opportunities, support structures, and meaningful recognition and engagement.  Putting the student first in their education, so that they can progress, attain greater knowledge and skills and develop as a result of their experience.

I’ve made a start on some practical notes on what a pedagogy of kindness could look like:

  • Design learning so that it is inclusive. Not everyone starts on a level playing field. If someone who hasn’t developed relevant academic or technical skills / has care-giving responsibilities / has a specific learning difficulty can not make it through the course, it is not a kind set-up. Bridging courses and transition / foundation years are a good example of how this can be achieved, along with flexible timescales, supported skills development, and disability services.
  • See students. Greet them. Talk to them. Students remember the teachers who said ‘hello’ to them when they walked into the room. It is easy to be invisible online but in an educational context students need to be seen.
  • Hear students. Ask for feedback on a regular basis and respond to the areas they find difficult or stressful, be it in the design of the interface, structure of course or the subject content. Access to learning should be easy.
  • Scaffold and signpost learning, so that students know exactly what they need to do, how this relates to their learning objectives, and how the activities and assessments will benefit them. This will help them to manage their studies and understand the journey they are on.
  • Develop digital communication skills and strategies for acknowledging others in meaningful ways, as well as how to listen. Engaging online with purposeful kindness builds greater understanding of others, opportunities for knowledge building, and develops academic skills. It helps students and tutors to manage and control their online presence.


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