ISSOTL 2015 take-aways

We had a pretty great turnout of Canadians at ISSOTL 2015 in Melbourne this year!  We asked our STLHE prez, Robert Lapp, and STLHE/SoTL Canada/EDC member Natasha Kenny, to summarize for us their takeaways – thanks, you two! Blog readers, please add your own comments to the bottom of this post.

A personal exploration into ISSoTL 2015 – Leading Learning and the Scholarship of Change

By Natasha Kenny, University of Calgary

One of the brilliant aspects of attending a conference is that it provides a time and space for us to step back, reflect and engage in meaningful dialogue about why we do what we do in our daily practice.  This year’s ISSoTL conference in Melbourne, Australia provided me with that opportunity.

photo 1 (1)

Left: Peering through the heart Melbourne’s urban landscape

Two impactful keynotes, by Katarina Mårtensson and Chng Huang Hoon were a highlight for me.

Katarina Mårtensson’s work related to the importance of microcultures and integrated networks of practice across multiple levels has been a seminal source of inspiration in my career development as an educational developer (see for example Roxå, Mårtensson, and Alveteg, 2011; Mårtensson, Roxå, and Stensaker, 2012). Her keynote provided a wonderful opportunity to look further through the lens of her research.

photo 2 Left: multiple levels of organizational meaning-making

She emphasized the importance of informal structures and local leadership in building a strong culture for teaching and learning, reminding us that mandates and policies at the macro-level don’t get us very far, unless strong informal cultures and local leadership structures are in place to help translate and mobilize policy into action (perhaps best conceptualized as “meaning-making” at the local level).  She stated that strong local microcultures are driven by passion, shared history (aka sagas), collaboration, and connection.  She highlighted that regular informal and meaningful conversations (often over coffee!) are a key activity in groups that are characterized as having strong microcultures.  She further contended that the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) provides a critical means of shifting teaching from a highly private activity, to one that is best described as a collegial, peer-reviewed, and documented practice.

Chng Huang Hoon provided a thoughtful and authentic keynote. Her presentation was grounded in an inherent vulnerability that allowed us to see into her journey of becoming a senior administrator as Associate Provost (Undergraduate Education) at the National University of Singapore.   Her keynote illuminated SoTL’s investigative spirit as a “democratic form of collaborative and collegial inquiry.”  She urged us not to lose sight of SoTL’s developmental focus, as a critical platform for supporting our development as educators.  Like Katarina, she emphasized the importance of SoTL’s local context, where it is most important to create opportunities for collegial dialogue and mentorship related to teaching and learning.  It is in this collaborative space that the diversity of our individual and collective teaching and learning narratives are honoured and explored.  Here, as SFU’s Cheryl Amundsen eluded to in her presentation, SoTL becomes a, “means of engaging with teaching as a socially-situated activity.” Huang Hoon also advocated for us to broaden our lens for SoTL’s dissemination, speaking to importance of mentorship and peer dialogue in our local contexts.  In the end, I was left thinking that we so often focus our efforts on building a culture for the SoTL, that perhaps, our efforts would be best directed at leveraging the SoTL to build a strong culture for teaching and learning – a slightly nuanced, but none-the-less important shift in perspective.

In sum, my journey across the world has left me with a few important reflections:

  1. It is critical to create and nurture the development of local teaching and learning networks.
  2. We can’t underestimate the importance creating opportunities for meaningful conversations and connections between individuals and small groups of educators. It is through these meaningful conversations that the diversity of our individual and collective narratives and assumptions related to teaching and learning are uncovered and explored.
  3. In order to support a rich culture for teaching and learning, we must create opportunities for teaching to be embraced as a socially situated activity, where local dissemination of the scholarship and practice of teaching and learning is supported through a variety of avenues and opportunities.


Roxå, Torgny, Katarina Mårtensson, and Mattias Alveteg. 2011. Understanding and influencing teaching and learning cultures at university: a network approach. Higher Education, 62 (1), 99-111.

Mårtensson, Katarina, Torgny Roxå, and Bjørn Stensaker. 2012. From quality assurance to quality practices: an investigation of strong microcultures in teaching and learning.  Studies in Higher Education, 39 (4), 534-545.

ISSoTL 2015 Reflections

by Robert Lapp, STLHE President

A 14-hour plane ride from Vancouver (21 from the Maritimes!) takes you to the “land down undah,” where October and “Noiveembah” mean SPRING: balmy, bright evenings, classes finished for the year, Convocation in the offing. When I was younger, Australia conjured the ’80s sounds of “Men at Work,” but now of course (“because it is 2015”) it conjures admirable colleagues of all gender identities who are hard at work on such issues as “Leadership, Learning, and the Scholarship of Change.” This was the theme of ISSoTL 2015 in Melbourne, a superbly organized conference that reminded us at SoTL Canada (as our own STLHE always does) of why it is worth the time and expense to attend such meetings. After all, convention-going is a form of active learning, where face-to-face, collaborative exchanges generate fresh ideas and that magic elixir of academic life–inspiration! We all know how challenging it can be to lead change through SoTL, and so we need the inspiration that comes from having our individual experiences validated and new ways forward clarified. It is also invigorating to experience first-hand a dynamic, future-facing educational context, in this case the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), a massive downtown institution reflecting the complex history and 21st-century energies of a Pacific-rim city. 500 colleagues from all over the English and EAL-speaking world came together in this architecturally-stunning space to think hard about SoTL and its role in leading change.

This conference offered a rich array of keynotes and invited speakers, so allow me to summarize some of the key “take-aways” that resonated with me, both as “review” and as offering new perspectives going forward:

  • First of all, let’s face it: leading change in academia is exceedingly difficult, partly because the “conservatory” function of universities often translates into conservative resistance to innovation, often (ironically) from our left-leaning colleagues who confuse the results of SoTL with neo-liberal efficiency measures;
  • Leadership, like SoTL itself, is irreducibly context-based, which presents an on-going challenge to our urgent need for usable, scalable generalizations;
  • Similarly, the strength of SoTL leadership is its collegiality (collaborative, not top-down), which can sometimes seem ill-suited to the urgent need for structural, “whole-of” change—whether “whole-of-curriculum,” “whole-of-institution” or even—can you imagine?—“whole-of-system”!
  • The good news, though, is that change can be led from the middle or “meso” level, radiating outward to both individuals and institutions, drawing strength from what Katarina Mårtensson identifies as the “microcultures” that many of us inhabit: those collegial, mutually-motivating knowledge-networks of distributive leadership that share a “saga” (a shared memory of how this particular context came to be), and an “enterprise” (a shared sense of trans-personal purpose, such as the golden truth that—dare we say it?—good teaching ultimately makes more of a difference in the world than disciplinary research);
  • Further, as Geoff Scott points out, the “meso” level can in fact lead “whole-of” change. Within each unique context, change can be led “deftly” by using the formula “Listen—Link—Leverage, then Lead” (for more details, google Geoff’s “Turnaround Leadership”);
  • Chng Huang Hoon (whose context in Singapore presents a test case for sheer difficulty in leading change with SoTL) reminds us that, as we go about listening, linking, and leveraging, we must take into account the socio-cultural, ideological, and life-world factors that determine “what will actually work, and for whom.”
  • Of course, “for whom” ultimately boils down to students, and Mick Healey won an ISSoTL Leadership Award for his work reminding us that SoTL leadership must be grounded in student partnerships—not just student consultation or student involvement, but full-fledged partnerships;
  • And no wonder: the challenge we (and our students) face is nothing less than the task of inspiring a paradigm shift in teaching —away from “what am I doing” to “how do students learn”?

Let me close by adding three further perspectives gleaned from concurrent sessions. The first is a useful retort to nay-sayers who regard best practices as a neo-liberal plot. Peter Felten (President-elect of ISSoTL) noted that sometimes the right thing to do is also the economically or politically expedient thing to do (for example, Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act). The second perspective also comes from Peter, who declared–in one of those luminous moments of inter-subjective intensity that arise out of conference discussions—that SoTL leadership is not just “the right thing to do,” but in fact an ethical imperative: NOT putting into practice what research tells us about how we learn constitutes an injustice to 21st-century students. And so, thirdly, can you imagine a near future in which (say) the 10% who are active in SoTL fully and effectively influence the teaching practices of the other 90%? Let this be the “enterprise” that binds our “meso”-level leadership, and let it become the “saga” of generations to come, for whom SoTL will simply mean “the way we do things around here,” no matter what the context!

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