Is Scotland Failing its Most Disadvantaged Students? On Widening Access to Higher Education

As a teacher of philosophy and classics at university level, the issue of widening access is of the utmost importance to me. Thinking about the world we live in, our place in it, and our relationship to antiquity is not an activity solely reserved for the upper classes, and the ability to think critically and evaluate arguments is more important today than ever. It's not just me that thinks this way - promoting participation and equality of opportunity for learners is enshrined in the the core values of the Higher Education Academy's UK Professional Standards Framework for teaching and supporting learning in higher education.

To this end, the SNP want 16 per cent of university entrants to come from the poorest communities by 2021 - an intermediary step on the way to the Scottish Government's goal that, by 2030, students from the 20% most deprived backgrounds should represent 20% of entrants to higher education.

Today, however, the Scottish Funding Council released its Report on Widening Access 2016-17, exploring the data on whether Scottish students from disadvantaged backgrounds or marginalised groups are making it into university - and it doesn't look good.

In 2016/17, students entering university full-time from the 20% most deprived backgrounds has decreased 0.2% - from 14% down to 13.8%. And it's not just the percentage of the total which has gone down, but the number of actual students from the most deprived backgrounds attending, dropping from 4015 to 3965.

Source: Scottish Funding Council Report on Widening Access 2016-17 SFC/ST/06/2018 page 7

Source: Scottish Funding Council Report on Widening Access 2016-17 SFC/ST/06/2018 page 7

That goal of reaching 16% by 2021 looks far off when the numbers are decreasing, rather than increasing. And it's not just the percentages decreasing, which are tied to the overall number of students entering higher education - it's the actual number of students from the most deprived backgrounds themselves.

The issue is worse here in Scotland than in the UK as a whole, it turns out. According to UCAS figures, whilst the number of students from the 20% most disadvantaged background across the UK (Quintile 1) have comprised a smaller percentage of the student population overall in the last few years, from a high of 10.71% in 2014 down to 10.64% in 2016, the actual numbers of students from these backgrounds participating in higher education has continued to increase. 

Source: UCAS: DR2_037_01 Acceptances by POLAR3 (UK domiciled 18 year olds)

Source: UCAS: DR2_037_01 Acceptances by POLAR3 (UK domiciled 18 year olds)

Widening access to higher education is not merely about increasing the population of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as a percentage the whole - which, thanks to austerity in Westminster and Holyrood, both Scotland and the rest of the UK are failing at - but about increasing the real numbers of students who are able to access higher education.

Not only is the SNP Government not hitting its own targets for widening access to higher education - but it looks like Scotland is falling behind the UK as a whole when it comes to widening participation.

On the heels of the Scottish Funding Council's report, the Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education, Iain Gray, gave the following comment:

Education was supposed to be the top priority for the SNP – instead Scotland is going backwards on widening access.

Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to go to university, then the least likely to complete their course and the least likely to achieve honours. Rather than making any progress on this the SNP appears to be making it worse.
— Iain Gray, Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education

More needs to be done to improve access to higher education, both in Scotland and across the UK. This includes improving the secondary and further education provisions that help students reach their educational goals. In the meantime, it's the students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who will suffer.

Grammar Schools and Social Inequality - In Numbers

Grammar Schools are back in the news again, as the Conservatives pledge £50 million in funding to expand established Grammars and build satellite schools. According to Damien Hinds, this money is supposed to help "give children of all backgrounds access to a world-class education". But what if funding more Grammar School places will actually just widen social inequality, rather than promote social mobility?

I can speak from experience on this matter: I grew up in Southend on Sea, Essex, one of the last strongholds of the selective Grammar Schools. In fact, I went to a Grammar School aged 11-16, and remember the lengths some of my friends' parents went to in ensuring their child passed the dreaded 11-plus test. Growing up, I had difficulty reconciling the advantage I gained from going to this school with the disadvantage the existence of the Grammar system causes for other pupils in the borough. Studies show that, in areas with Grammar Schools, the students who don't get in are worse off than in areas without Grammars.

As a case study, I've compared some of the statistics for two schools in the area that are less than 0.1 miles away from each other - Southend High School for Girls, an Academy-run Grammar School, and my alma mater; and Southchurch High School, formerly known as Futures Community College, the comprehensive school down the road.



Using data freely available online from the Compare School Performance Service and the Schools Financial Benchmarking Service (which both still record the name of Southchurch High School as Futures Community College), we can compare the difference in pupil attainment and funding.

English and Maths GCSEs - the exams taken at 16 years old in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, similar in remit to the Scottish National Qualifications - are a common minimum requirement for entry level jobs and further education. They also ensure that pupils have the literacy and numeracy they'll need in their day-to-day lives. Therefore, the pass rate makes a good benchmark for comparison: have the schools set their pupils up for life? According to the BBC, 'Grade 5 or above' is a "strong pass", or C+ grade, and a 'Grade 4 or above' is a 'standard pass', or C-. How did pupils in these schools do last year?

In 2016/17, 100% of the Grammar School girls attained at least the standard pass or above. By comparison, in Southchurch High School, one quarter achieved the strong pass, and less than half achieved the standard pass.

The situation worsens when we narrow the data down to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Compare School Performance Service defines disadvantaged pupils as follows:

"Disadvantaged pupils are those who were eligible for free school meals at any time during the last 6 years and children looked after (in the care of the local authority for a day or more or who have been adopted from care)."

We can see from the stats above that there were only 8 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Grammar School at Key Stage 4 in the 2016/7 year, compared to the 75 pupils in Southchurch High School - 5% and 54% of the year group, respectively. There goes Damnien Hinds' arguments about Grammar Schools giving children from all backgrounds access to a world-class education: only 5% of pupils from this year group are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and their number is a mere 10% of the total of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the same year group at the Comprehensive school 0.1 miles down the road.

In addition to this, let's look at those GCSE pass rates. All 8 of those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the Grammar School got a strong pass or above in their Maths and English GCSEs. This is compared with a shockingly low 20% getting the strong pass in the Comprehensive, and only 36% getting a standard pass.

Not only are there ten times as many pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in the comprehensive school, only a fifth of them are getting a strong pass or above in their English and Maths GCSE exams, 30% below the national average.

Let's also compare the grant funding these schools receive:

Grant funding totals for Southend High School for Girls in 2015/16 and Southchurch High School (Formerly Futures Community College) in 2016/17. Source:

Grant funding totals for Southend High School for Girls in 2015/16 and Southchurch High School (Formerly Futures Community College) in 2016/17. Source:

The Grammar School - the school whose disadvantaged pupils already reach an 100% standard pass rate for English and Maths GCSEs - receives nearly £2 million more in grant funding than the Comprehensive, which has only a 36% standard pass rate for disadvantaged pupils.

What all this means is that the mere 0.1 mile difference between these schools translates to a £2 million difference in funding and a huge difference in the pass rate for the English and Maths GCSEs.

Damien Hinds' £50 million would be better spent funding State Comprehensive schools like Southchurch High School, bringing up attainment at GCSE level for all pupils, including those pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who most need the support to succeed. Every school in the UK should provide an education that's fit for purpose, providing pupils with an education that meets their needs and prepares them for further education, the workplace, and the rest of their lives. Funding more Grammar School places instead of investing in State Comprehensive Schools will only widen the pass gap - and, as a result, the social inequality gap - between the two.

Reading Pedagogical Theory: Fry, Ketteridge, and Marshall

Reading Pedagogy

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. & S. Marshall. 2015. “A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”. New York: Routledge.  

Chapter 19: Social sciences (pp 278-292)

When undergraduate students arrive for their first year of undergraduate studies in the social sciences, the challenge is how to support their transition into higher education. In a period that has seen increasing student numbers and levels of indebtedness, greater attention has been paid to their material and welfare needs as they enter university.
— p 279

Recognising that students come into the university classroom from different backgrounds, including different class and financial backgrounds, is an essential part of ensuring equality of opportunity for all learners. This needs to be taken into account when writing the course syllabus and reading-list. A first-generation university student from a working-class background might not be able to afford copies of several key texts across all of their courses. Many courses in my discipline now direct the students towards library resources, or provide PDF copies of key chapters, where copyright law allows. One way I try to handle the challenge of recognising my students’ material needs is by bringing handouts of key chapters of the texts, when I want to focus on something specific in tutorials. When I recommend them additional reading to help with their comprehension of a subject, I try to find materials that are available online for free via the Library website.

The challenge for academics is how to encourage the students to expand their comfort zone and develop both the confidence to take risks, and a healthy scepticism towards the range of concepts and master narratives they may encounter. This is particularly relevant when teaching subjects that are controversial or politically sensitive.
— p 283

The issue of approaching politically sensitive or controversial topics with first year undergraduates is a key challenge in my teaching practice; the study of philosophy is all about the questioning of our presuppositions and beliefs. Furthermore, the first year, first semester course ‘Morality and Value’ opens with discussions on practical ethics – including abortion and prostitution. I’ve used a few different methods to navigate this challenge. Firstly, in the opening tutorial of the semester, I establish my ground rules for the classroom: please do the reading, please turn up, and please respect others. This gives me an opportunity to point out that everyone has come from different backgrounds and will bring different beliefs and perspectives in the classroom. We are here for healthy discussion, and I will not tolerate rudeness or disrespect. Secondly, in tutorials that tackle sensitive subjects, I open with a ‘trigger warning’ of sorts: I tell the students that we’ll be covering sensitive subjects and that it is important to remember the ‘respect others’ rule – you don’t know what personal experiences with these topics people in the classroom may have. These strategies help make the students feel more comfortable in the classroom while we discuss sensitive subjects, empowering them to get involved in the debate.

Reporting from the Coal Face: #USSstrike Continues

As the snow melted, Edinburgh UCU members returned to the picket line this week for the second week of strike action. I cancelled three hours of classes and picketed with my colleagues in History, Classics, and Archaeology on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. It has been amazing to see the solidarity of my colleagues on the picket line, and the support from the student community and wider community of the city of Edinburgh.

Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

Picketing outside HCA on Teviot Place, Monday 5 March

On Thursday 8 March there was the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament. We were joined by UCU members from universities across Scotland, including Glasgow, Dundee, Strathclyde, St Andrews, and Heriot-Watt. The best speech by far was definitely the one given by the new Rector of the University of Edinburgh, Ann Henderson.

With Labour MSP Alex Rowley at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

With Labour MSP Alex Rowley at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

An excellent strike dog at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

An excellent strike dog at the All-Scotland UCU Rally outside Scottish Parliament, Thursday 8 March

Talks between UCU and UUK have continued this week - farcically organised on Twitter late at night on Monday - but a resolution is yet to be found. The strike action will currently continue as planned into next week, and there is worry that further action will be required during exams season.

One good thing coming out of the current spotlight on university and college teaching is the publicity of the issue of casualisation in the sector. Hope is that the issue of casualisation and early career precarity can be tackled anew after the pensions dispute is won.

Thinking about Assessment and Feedback | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 

At 12 noon today, the deadline for the 'Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment' midterm passed. As the relief sets in for the students, the fear and loathing begins for the tutors: here comes 30 essays to mark in the next few weeks - a task that looms mountainous, even without the constraints of not working on strike days. This seemed to me to be the perfect time to read Gibbs' ideas about assessment and feedback.

The first part of his article that stuck out to me was the discussion of what has the most impact on students: feedback or marks?

Experimental studies have provided students with one of three feedback conditions: marks only, marks and feedback, or feedback only. It is the feedback-only condition that produces more learning and more improvement in student marks. Students demand marks, but what do they know? Taking marks off assignments is the cheapest way to improve the impact of feedback. If necessary you can provide marks two weeks later once the feedback has been digested. Students’ extrinsic motivation and mark orientation can make even the most lovingly and professionally crafted feedback metamorphose into an explanation of why they got the mark they did. This does not necessarily help them to learn the subject matter.
— Gibbs, 2015

Students are more open to reading their feedback and taking it on board when it is divorced from the marks. This seems quite common-sense to me. I remember being reticent to read through essay feedback as an undergraduate if the mark wasn't the greatest. It took until quite late in my undergraduate career to build the emotional resilience to be able to thoroughly read and consider the feedback on my essays. Taming the emotional response and taking constructive criticism on board is a skill that takes time to develop. Would I have developed this skill sooner if the mark was withheld, and my only indicator of performance was the feedback - forcing an engagement with it?

We use TurnItIn for essays, and my students receive both their marks and feedback on the platform. However, they can see the mark before they open the feedback studio. How many of them, I wonder, look at their mark and then close the window? How many of them open the full feedback studio and read through what I've written for them?

Reflecting on this issue, I wonder how far some of my practices help ameliorate the problem:

  • I consciously try to write future-oriented feedback - rather than feedback that 'justifies' the mark. This often involves taking a specific example of an area where the student could improve, and generalising it so that they can see how it could apply to future assignments.
  • In my second semester of teaching, I wrote a 'How To Survive Your [Classics / Philosophy] Essays' guide for my students. I had noticed that a lot of essays I marked needed the same advice and feedback, such as: check that your referencing and bibliography is complete and correct according to the referencing style; consult appropriate secondary sources, not Wikipedia - and here's how to find them; state your aims clearly and concisely in an introduction, and summarise your arguments in a conclusion. I put a lot of the common feedback into this survival guide, which I revise and hand out a few weeks before essay submission time. Providing common feedback before the assignment is due has worked well as a preventative strategy - the students seem to be receptive to the advice. 
  • As far as possible according to my contracts, I provide office hours for the students after their essay marks and feedback have been released. Previously, I held regular office hours, advertised at the end of each tutorial session, but never had any takers; now I hold essay-specific office hours, with slots to sign up for via Doodle Poll. This gives us the opportunity for an in-depth discussion of the feedback I wrote for them, and how the student could improve. Formalising the process by doing a Doodle poll sign up has increased the uptake of students coming for office hours, but am I doing enough to make these sessions accessible for the students? Am I approachable enough? Would a student who is reticent to open the full feedback studio online sign up for a one-on-one office hour feedback session?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be thinking about how to make my written feedback more effective, as well as how to increase student engagement with the feedback. I'll also read Gibbs' 'Part 2' on this issue.


Edinburgh Joins The UCU Strike

As there was no teaching last week, Edinburgh joins the UCU industrial action against cuts to USS pensions today.

Despite the freezing temperatures and flurries of snow, hundreds gathered in Bristo Square for an opening rally in support of the strike action. We were joined in solidarity by representatives from other UCU branches in Scotland - Glasgow, Stirling, and QMU - as well as by Labour councillors.


Here are the dates of our branch's strike action:

Monday 26 February
Tuesday 27 February
Wednesday 28 February

Monday 5 March
Tuesday 6 March
Wednesday 7 March
Thursday 8 March

Monday 12 March
Tuesday 13 March
Wednesday 14 March
Thursday 15 March
Friday 16 March

Monday 19 March
Tuesday 20 March


I'm joining the picket lines for four days' action beginning Monday 5 March.

My statement about my intentions both to strike and take action short of a strike as a teacher and a member of the UCU is available here.

You can read more about the industrial action on the UCU website.

This week in Tutorials: Aristotle on Substance and Pericles' Funeral Oration

The philosophers finished Plato last week, and this time we started our tutorials on Aristotle, with a look at Aristotle's metaphysics - specifically, Metaphysics VII 13. The question at hand is, what is there? This is ontology: the science of being, from the Greek οὐσία [ousia]: ‘being, substance, essence’.

To understand what Aristotle means by substance and what is at stake in his theory as presented in the Metaphysics, I put the students into groups to evaluate different conceptions of substance prior to Aristotle.  I provided them with fragments from four different Presocratic philosophers, that I hoped would provide a 'shallow' understanding of each of these philosophers' conception of substance. The philosophers I provided were Thales, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, and Democritus (ft. Leucippus). Some examples:

Thales of Miletus declared that the principle of all things was water. For he says from water come all things and into water do all things decompose.
— Thales (Aëtius p 1.3.1, S 1.10.12)
Anaximenes, son of Eurystratus, of Miletus, was an associate of Anaximander, who says, like him, that the underlying nature is single and boundless, but not indeterminate as he says, but determinate, calling it air. It differs in essence in accordance with its rarity or density. When it is thinned it becomes fire, while when it is condensed it becomes wind, then cloud, when still more condensed, water, then earth, then stones. Everything else comes from these. And he too makes motion everlasting, as a result of which change occurs.
— Anaximenes (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, 24.26-25.1)
This world-order, the same of all, no god nor man did create, but it ever was and is and will be: everliving fire, kindling in measures and being quenched in measures.
— Heraclitus (Clement, Miscellanies, 5. 103. 6)
Democritus considers the nature of everlasting things to be tiny substances infinite in number. He posits a distinct place for them which is infinite in size. He calls place by the names the void, not-thing, and the boundless, and each of the substances by the names thing, the compact, and what-is. He believes the substances are so small as to escape our senses. They have all kinds of forms, all kinds of figures, and differences of size.
— Democritus (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s On the Heavens, 294.33-295.22)

The point of the comparison is to show that, generally speaking, previous philosophers attempted to define substance in terms of matter - particular kinds of 'stuff': water, air, fire, or atoms. Aristotle thinks these explanations for what there is are insufficient. He moves beyond a single material explanation for substance, analysing it in terms of 'form' and 'matter'. 'Form' refers to what kind of thing the object of enquiry is; 'matter', that which the object of enquiry is constituted. The composite of these forms individuals, or primary substances. 

Contrasting the Presocratic philosophers on substance with Aristotle on substance helped the students understand the motivation behind the formulation of Aristotle's theory. Taken in isolation, it can be difficult to understand why Aristotle approaches substances and universals the way he does. With the context of the theories of his predecessors, the theory of substance becomes clearer.


The classicists looked at Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides 2.34-46, and the controversy around the Athenian acropolis. The funeral oration was delivered at the burial of the fallen Athenians in the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Much of it focuses on the glory and virtue of Athenian democracy and civic life; in this way, Pericles tries to justify the loss of life in its defence. The Parthenon metopes and frieze were constructed as part of Pericles' building programme. Plutarch records the controversy in antiquity around this building programme in Pericles 12.1-2; the complaint is that the funds for it were pillaged from the Delian League:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping and that seemliest of all excuses which it had to urge against its accusers, to wit, that out of fear of the Barbarians it took the public funds from that sacred isle and was now guarding them in a stronghold, of this Pericles has robbed it. And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions for the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.
— Plutarch, Pericles 12.1-2

Through this comparison of Pericles' funeral oration with the question of the controversy over the Periclean building programme, we explored different perspectives on Periclean Athens, and practiced using different evidence for the ancient world – rhetorical, material, and historical. The key question in the discussion was about the concept of democracy and its representation in Pericles’ speech, as well as the the political context of the construction of the Parthenon and the purpose of its sculptures.

Next time, the philosophers are focussing in on Aristotle's four causes from the Physics. The next tutorial for the classicists is on citizen and non-citizen women in Athens.

Thoughts on Learning and Forgetting | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 

Gibbs opens this article with a story familiar, surely, to all of us; of sitting in a lecture theatre some years ago... and that being more or less all you remember about the course. He writes:

Most of what we are taught, much of what we learn, is lost, or at least not easily retrievable. It is possible that some of my economics course is buried in my brain somewhere and that a cunning set of prompts might enable me to retrieve a few fragments. But it is certainly not available to me as I read an article in the newspaper about some national economic issue and try to remember what Gross Domestic Product includes and what it does not.
— Gibbs, 2014

As a student who couldn't tell you much about some of the courses I took in my first year of undergraduate study, I can testify to the truth of this statement. But as an early career teacher, this statement is initially rather depressing. So much thought and energy goes into reading the set texts, developing lesson plans, and delivering those lessons - only to think that what the students recall about our lessons in ten, fifteen years time may be fragmentary at best. 

However, the important thing is to take this fact of the matter on board when it comes to designing learning and setting outcomes for the class. Rather than worry about the deterioration of a student's factual knowledge of Plato, can I help them develop the skills to read Platonic dialogues in the future? Can I show them the resources available to teach themselves and reinforce their understanding? The skills and strategies for reading, discussing, and understanding philosophy should endure beyond the factual recall of the texts themselves.

There is some respite from the question of "will my students forget everything we learn together?" in Gibbs' discussion relating this fact of forgetting to assessment styles. A study of Cognitive Psychology students at the Open University that showed that, many years later, many of the students had forgotten much of what they had learned on the course. Achievement in the exams did not correlate with what they could remember, however; it was achievement in the essays and coursework that predicted the long term recall of concepts. He writes:

The kind of learning students usually do for exams often has short-lasting consequences, while the kind of learning they do when they are trying to understand something well enough to write about it in assignments often has much longer lasting consequences. This is termed a ‘deep approach’ – an intention to make sense, to understand, to relate ideas together, and so on.
— Gibbs, 2014

Exams rely on memorisation of facts for recall in that one 2 or 3 hour window of furious writing that comes at the end of the course. Learning for exams is often shallow; a re-reading of notes, rote memorisation of dates, and stacks of flash-cards. This kind of knowledge is likely to slip away when not being actively cultivated in preparation for that one opportunity for recall.

Coursework and essays, on the other hand, ask students to critically engage with the material from the course. This leads to a deep approach to the material: students can return to different papers and primary sources they've read, follow the citations in them, explore the limits of their essay question. The process of relating ideas and concepts together in this way makes the students more likely to be able to remember the material further down the line.

The upside of this is that, in this aspect, tutorial teaching resembles more an essay than an exam. The aim of tutorial discussion is to practice evaluating and analysing the text, concept, or other material, much like they have to do in their formal assessments. It is the 'deep' approach to learning in practice, as I encourage the students to relate what they have learned to other concepts, whether those are from their lectures, their wider reading, or their own experience.

What this means is that, hopefully, if a student remembers anything of their course in a decade's time, then it is likely to be our tutorial discussions.

This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.


The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.

This Week in Tutorials: Definition and Translation in Plato's Meno

I taught my first tutorials for Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment today. The aim of our discussion of Plato's Meno 70a-79d was to examine the definitions of virtue given in the Meno, question “definitions” and the possibility of making definitions, and practice discussing and evaluating texts from the history of philosophy.


The dialogue opens abruptly with a conversation between Socrates and Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly. The discussion is centred on virtue, or excellence (ἀρετή), and the question of whether virtue can be taught. For many of the Sophists, the belief that virtue can be taught was key to the education they provided. However, in the Meno, the question is whether virtue is the result of teaching, nature, or practice (70a). 

But first, Socrates asserts, before we can decide whether virtue can be taught, we must define what virtue is (70a-71d). We must know what the thing that we are dealing with is before we can discuss whether it has certain qualities, such as if it is teachable. Socrates invites Meno to attempt a definition of virtue.

Definition, we find, is a tricky business. Meno offers up three different interpretative strategies. In one, he gives examples of virtue: the virtue of a man and woman (71e). However, Socrates objects on the grounds that you cannot define virtue by providing a litany of examples of it. Meno's second and third attempts are objected to in similar ways. In the 73c, Meno offers a definition of virtue as the ability to rule, and at 78c as the ability to get good things. Both of these definitions, Socrates objects, are at the same time too broad and too narrow: there are cases of virtue they don't include, and cases of less than virtuous action that they do include.

Along with the issue of definition, reading the Meno requires us to engage with the issue of translation. Some students in the class brought along copies of the text other than the prescribed translation. On two different occasions today, students offered up their alternative translations along with the interpretative consequences of their translation. The following case is the one I want to look at in detail:

ἀρετή as virtue or excellence 

How do these different translations affect our interpretation of the Meno? The problem of definition revisits us: just as Socrates says that we must define ἀρετή to decide whether it is teachable, we must make a move to definite ἀρετή in order to translate it. 'Virtue', for the students, may be laden with moral connotations from when we studied virtue ethics last semester. Already, students wanted to introduce Aristotle as a contributor to our discussion. 'Excellence', on the other hand, isn't so strictly moral. We might say that someone is an excellent vet, meaning that they are skilled at diagnosing and treating sickness in animals. What would be the strictly moral sense of being a good veterinarian? Plato's usage of ἀρετή in the Meno seems to stand between these two translations: on the one hand, there is mention of canonical virtues, such as justice and moderation, but on the other hand, the definitions that Meno gives that hint at ἀρετή as doing something well, whether that is ruling or obtaining good things, look more towards the idea we have of 'excellence'. 

Beyond the philosophical problem here is the pedagogical problem: how far should I take first year undergraduate students down the 'alternatives in translation' rabbit hole, in a course taught entirely in translation? Would ἀρετή benefit from the 'eudaemonia' treatment, i.e., being generally left untranslated? It's easy to get distracted by the different ideas we can get from the text with the different translations in mind, and there's only so much time. 

Thoughts on Anxiety in the Classroom | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 

This article was one of the first of Graham Gibbs' articles I read. It discusses the way that fear and anxiety can manifest in students and their studying behaviours. On the first page, the following line jumped out at me:

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying [...] They might choose obvious essay questions on subject matter that has been covered thoroughly in lectures or the text book, or where the ‘right answers’ seem fairly straightforward. [...] They prioritise coverage over depth. [...] All decisions are intended to reduce risk.
— Gibbs, 2014

In the course of marking student essays, I've noticed the phenomenon of the 'popular' essay. A large proportion of the class will answer this particular essay question. The question will engage with a topic that was covered in at least a week's worth of the lectures, or one of the tutorials. Whilst many students will engage with the question with the results of their own reading, displaying the development of original thought and a high level of engagement with the subject matter, many more of these essays will rely on the textbook or recommended reading, hitting the same surface-level points along the way with little critical engagement, resulting in middling marks.

In the past, I wondered whether this phenomenon was due to the essay being seen as 'easy' or 'straightforward' by the students, with little consideration for the motivations for choosing the essay topic beyond that criterion. However, reading Gibbs' article, I wonder whether the reason behind this is anxiety.

Are the other essay questions neglected because the topics weren't covered sufficiently well in the lectures or tutorials? If students are too anxious to admit to a lack of depth of understanding of the course material, they might therefore take the lower risk presented by the 'popular' essay, rather than face the prospect of asking for help. Anxiety can make asking for help seem like an insurmountable task, with an accompanying fear of shame at the possibility of seeming 'stupid'. If anxiety results in the students thinking that asking for help will be unpleasant, then this can be a huge barrier to learning. Approachability is important - letting students know that you are open to questions about the topic or the essay material at the end of the tutorial may empower them to ask for help. 

Are the straightforward essay questions picked because students do not feel prepared to tackle the more complex question? Do we do enough to help students understand what essay question-words like 'explore' and 'analyse' mean in context? Not understanding how to approach a certain essay question increases the risk of not answering it properly, or the risk of failure, which can cause anxiety. I signpost my students to writing resources; there are many excellent resources online, such as Purdue OWL, the UNC Writing Center, and the University of Southampton Writing Centre. Students in PPLS at Edinburgh can also take advantage of the PPLS Writing Centre. I'd love suggestions to add to the resources I recommend to students come essay-time.

Finally, I worry about the problem of anxiety and surface-level learning. In tutorials, I try to provide an environment where students can explore the topics, get involved with in-depth discussion, and practice original and independent thought. In this way, these tutorials are practice for the essays; students can try their ideas out on the class and benefit from hearing the thoughts of others. Am I doing enough to encourage students to go beyond surface-level fact finding and tackle the subject in depth? Am I creating a comfortable space for anxious students to critically engage with the subject material before essay time? A lot of the activities I set for my students are small-group discussions. This gives quiet or anxious students space to talk with a small number of their peers. Often, I find that this breaking of the silence empowers them to speak in front of the rest of the class later on. The risk of embarrassment from talking in front of the whole group is deflated, as they have tried out their ideas already. For some tasks, I have time to check on each group individually before asking the groups to feed back to the class as a whole. This enables me to give attention to small groups of 3 or 4 students at a time; this is when many of the 'quiet' ones may ask me a question or tell me something they found interesting about the reading. The risk of asking a question in front of everyone, of 'seeming stupid', collapses, and I can have a brief one-on-one conversation with the student. What other techniques could I be using in the classroom to reduce anxiety?

Anxiety can be a huge barrier to education. Further thought is needed on how to encourage students to critically engage with the course material as they go, with positive reinforcement along the way.  


What is Teaching? | Road to AFHEA


This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA. 

Today I went to the first workshop of the course. One of our tasks was to think about the following questions, and write our answers down on Post-it notes:

What is teaching? What is it that you’re doing in the classroom?

Each group covered a sheet of paper with Post-it notes, before passing the sheets round to the next group to read and discuss. There were a lot of answers like 'facilitating open discussion', 'imparting facts and knowledge', and 'providing students a space to develop thinking skills', but the following juxtaposition was particularly interesting:

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."  Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

Left: "What is teaching? To facilitate the learning process. To deliver course outcomes for the students."

Right: "cultivating a spirit of wonder at the world."

At first, I judged the answer on the left as dispassionate and overly analytical. I said it sounded like the job posting for teaching, and that it didn't capture a sense of the real value of teaching. I liked the answer on the right better - good teaching inspires students to engage with the course material, new perspectives and ideas, and, ultimately, the world around them. To reduce this to 'course outcomes' sounded to me like restrictive box-ticking, or doing the bare minimum.

However, a colleague pointed out that these two answers can - and, I now think, must - be taken together. Our students all come into the classroom with different backgrounds and motivations, but one thing they share is the desire to succeed. Teachers should work towards that spirit of wonder at the world, but what is that work worth if the students leave without the knowledge, skills, and understanding that they came in for? It is important not to lose sight of the essentials of the course you're teaching.

Upon reflection, teaching should deliver the course outcomes, and inspire a love of learning along the way.