Provocation 2

Compassionate learning design for unsettling times

EquityPedagogy of Care (POC)Compassionate Learning DesignHumanising Learning Design
Staff mental health has already been of concern globally before COVID-19. It has heightened interest in pedagogical approaches that would foreground the affective component of learning and teaching. Examples of these approaches are humanising online pedagogies, pedagogueies of care or trauma-informed pedagogy. In this piece, Daniela reflects on these approaches and the need to intentionally build these pedagogies into the learning design process.

The need for more humanising learning approaches

While staff mental health has already been of concern globally before COVID-19, based on unrealistic workload models, a constant push towards quantifiable outputs and the precarity of part-time staff (Morrish, 2018), the pandemic forced a global emergency pivot to online learning. This in turn has led to an increased demand on both staff and students with a major impact on workloads, research careers and mental health. Across the globe educators have complained of burnout, exhaustion and lack of self-care. It has also heightened the interest in pedagogical approaches that would foreground the affective component of learning and teaching including a concern for the well-being of students and staff (Association for Learning Technology [ALT], 2021; Czerniewicz et al., 2020; Imad, 2021a, 2021b). Examples of these approaches are humanising online pedagogies (Pacansky-Brock, 2020), pedagogies of care (Bali, 2020a) or trauma-informed pedagogies (Imad, 2021a; 2021b), to name a few. These approaches are not new but have received increased attention over the last few years. In this piece, I reflect on how these approaches can help staff reimagine learning design practices that would allow both students and us to flourish in these uncertain and complex times. I argue that compassion needs to be intentionally built into the learning design process, but needs to also guide us in everything we do as Sean-Michel Morris (2021) reminds us: 

Design is a living practice, not a done thing. It is a medium for building relationship between ourselves and those who will benefit from or be harmed by our design choices; and as such, design is iterative, a praxis—a process of doing, examining, reflecting, doing... and of never getting so set in our ways that we forget there are always new things to try. 

Additionally, I explore how such an approach could look like in practice, how it would impact on how we think about our teaching practice for the pandemic and beyond but will also identify the kind of questions we still need to ask ourselves.

The role of emotions in (online) teaching and learning

My own interest in the role of emotions and affect in teaching and learning emerged from my PhD studies which looked at digital storytelling as an approach to engaging in difficult conversations in post-conflict classrooms. What I experienced when using digital stories to unpack issues of identity such as race, class and gender is that these stories brought up strong emotional responses by students, both those sharing their stories and those listening to the stories. Working with these emotions became important as they created both openness and defensiveness in the classroom and as such created both spaces for increased understanding but also disruption among students. What became a useful pedagogical tool in this was the recognition that emotions are not just individual but socially constructed, situated and transferred intergenerationally. Observing how emotions circulate within “affective economies” as Sara Ahmed (2004) calls them, allows us to see them as the powerful forces in a classroom that can bring learners together but also push them apart.

As part of my engagement with affect theories I came across terms such as empathy, compassion and witnessing. I found defining these terms useful, as commonplace use of this terminology could get in the way of real engagement and conversation. For example, I had to start discussing empathy with my students, which is commonly linked to “putting oneself into somebody else’s shoes”. Often, what the digital storytelling process did was for students to learn about each other’s challenges, to get a brief glance into somebody’s lives, and many times to realise that there might be more commonality between students who are differently positioned in life based on the intersectionality of race, class, gender etc than they previously thought.

However, although I wished for my students to become closer by sharing their stories, I felt an obligation to investigate the potential risks involved when sharing personal stories as they can create a false or sentimental “we are all the same” mentality. If this mentality is left unchallenged, it results in a token understanding of difference (Zembylas, 2013), focusing on the personal and backgrounding systemic or institutional power differentials and, as such, may encourage students to ignore how power differentials work to (re)produce institutionalised and systematic inequalities.

As I continued in my work, I needed to examine how we might nurture a more nuanced understanding of difference between our students. Here, terms such as compassion and witnessing provided a language that went beyond a superficial understanding of “the other”. Active empathy or witnessing (a term coined by Megan Boler in 1999) allows the reader of or listener to traumatic stories to challenge his or her assumptions and worldviews (Boler, 1999), emphasising a collective rather than individual educational responsibility. Empathy preserves a distance between those who understand and those who experience trauma: witnessing troubles that distance, and while it does not necessarily close the distance, it transforms the distance enough for the witness “to be part of the constituency of sufferer … empathy can produce alienation” (Boler, 1999, p.144). Boler (1999) argues that only this form of bearing witness can lead to anything close to justice, and to any shift in existing power relations. In similar fashion, Segal (2007) defines compassion, or social empathy, as they term it, as empathy that goes beyond the feeling-for or feeling-with an individual and moves towards understanding the social and political structures of our society. Curtin (2014) writes that “Compassion is a cultivated feeling about emotion. It is a place where how we feel, how we think, and how we act come together. In other words, compassion is a cultivated practice, not an isolated, rational judgement about the world” (loc. 1101). Compassion is much more than “putting oneself in the other’s shoes”, but assumes that beyond recognising another’s suffering and understanding that everyone suffers, we allow ourselves to have feelings for another’s suffering, while taking responsibility for one’s own role in somebody else’s story. This might bring along uncomfortable feelings but could also create an urgency for practice, for action (Bloom, 2017).

An increased interest in pedagogies that centre students' well-being

Since the pandemic began, there has been a marked increase in interest in pedagogies that centre students' well-being. These approaches share interests in key issues such as: learning happens in community, the power of emotions in learning and teaching, and the importance of recognising power and privilege.

Learning happens in community 

Authors that promote these kinds of approaches see learning being most effective when it happens in community and when learners feel that they belong to a community of learning. As such, the learning environment and the way we facilitate learning and community becomes as important as the course content itself. While for many educators, this may be common practice in face-to-face environment, establishing relationship and belonging online is much more difficult. For example, Pacansky-Brock’s (2020) Humanising Online Pedagogy is based on four principles to establish this sense of community: trust, presence, awareness and empathy. In terms of trust, she suggests that we practice “selective vulnerability”, modelling as educators how to be authentic and allowing some of one’s personal and private world into the academic one. Online presence is achieved through intentional efforts at creating experience and spaces where educators and learners can get to know each other, “feel” each other, whether through short video introduction or spaces for sharing and engagement such as ice breakers at the beginning of online lectures and online workshops. Awareness speaks to the importance of getting to know learners’ individual contexts and needs, understanding their differences and choosing support mechanisms in response to these. Here, frequent online surveys and other tools to learn as much as possible from your learners play an important role. Finally, empathy requires educators to “slow down” and try to see their learners’ experiences through their eyes.

What is important here is that we have to be intentional about creating these caring spaces where learners can belong, as Maha Bali (2020a) writes in her blog post Pedagogies of Care: COVID-19 Edition. She encourages us to get to know our students and our students to get to know us. In a similar fashion to Pacansky-Brock, she urges educators to make themselves vulnerable, modelling sharing, so that our students become comfortable to share with us. Bali calls this a hospitable environment where everyone is given the space to choose whether and how to share. She also emphasises the importance of empathy with students while understanding and recognising that one can never fully understand what the other is going through. Although she distinguishes between showing care in a class situation, in habitual ways and on a personal level, most importantly, she argues that care needs to be intentionally built into a course philosophy and your course design before one starts to teach. 

The power of emotions in learning and teaching 

The belief that learning is relational, that it happens in community, foregrounds the role of emotions in learning. Trauma-informed pedagogies as developed by educators such as Mays Imad (2021a, 2021b) suggest that learning cannot happen when learners (and educators) are dealing with trauma. Based on studies in the field of neuroscience, she argues that emotions are key to learning. Therefore, there needs to be space within the learning experience to engage and reflect on emotions. It is only “when our nervous system is calm, [that] we are able to engage socially, be productive, and process new information in order to continue to learn and grow—and to feel we are living meaningful and fulfilled lives” (Imad, 2021a, p. 2). Similarly, educators have to learn to calm our own nervous system to create environments where students can learn to calm theirs. It is easy to understand why this resonated with so many educators during the pandemic, as both students and staff experienced trauma like sickness and loss of family and friends, loss of employment or “just” the experience of month-long isolation and loss of contact. Uncertainty, isolation, loss of meaning are all triggers of trauma. Imad also introduces the concept of secondary trauma when students and teachers witness each other’s trauma and transfer trauma to others. Trauma-informed pedagogies then aim at reducing uncertainty to foster a sense of safety, level communication to help forge trust, reaffirm or re-establish goals to create meaning, make intentional connections to cultivate community and centre well-being and care.

The importance of recognising power and privilege 

Again, these approaches share a concern for how larger systemic forces play out in (online) classrooms, i.e. the interplay of personal and systemic inequities and an understanding that we work within micro and macrosystems of power and privilege. Consequently, pedagogical approaches or interventions should have both personal and systemic implications (although these approaches differ in the extent to which they engage with the systemic dimension). 

Maha Bali and Mia Zamora (2022), for example, developed a crowd-sourced model (Figure 1) to show the importance of coupling care with equity concerns. They argue that care and equity must be both present for social justice or, as they term, socially just care. They caution that care without equity can lead to partial care, focusing on selected students, while equity without care could result in contractual equity, experienced as tokenism, or mechanical, non-contextual interventions, privileging the goal over those engaged in reaching that goal.

Figure 1

Equity and care matrix (Bali & Zamora, 2022)

Figure 1 is an illustration of the equity and care matrix. This composed by a set of intersecting axis, with No Care on left of the horizontal axis and Care on the right, Equity on the top of the vertical axis and inequity on the bottom of the vertical axis, creating four quadrants. Upper left quadrant represents Contractual equity. Upper right quadrant represents Socially Just Care. Lower right quadrant represents Partial Care. Lower left quadrant represents Systemic injustice.

Boundaries for compassion

What is evident across all these approaches then is that if we are designing for learning that welcomes all, where all feel they belong and where they can bring their whole person into the classroom, including their emotions, we need to design with social, cultural, and structural inequalities in mind. We need to design for “flattening the hierarchical structure of power embedded in [ …] dominant culture” (Pacansky-Brock, 2020). This is then what I would call designing with compassion. 

This is a huge ask and for many educators who have tried to apply these principles and create more humanising pedagogies, taking their pastoral role to heart, this has meant being accessible and available to their learners 24/7, without clear set boundaries and time for recovery and self-care. While the importance of student mental health is widely recognised, staff mental health has attracted much less interest. The drawbacks of this kind of teaching, making oneself vulnerable, being always there for one’s students, are huge and much less widely discussed. 

This then leads to the core questions of this think piece: who cares for the educators? How can we support academics who are intentional about compassion, care, and equity in their learning design and their teaching practices? Who designs for learning that creates spaces where compassion is encouraged and not just mere empathy? Where academics and students are both encouraged to think about structures of inequality and which ones include or exclude? 

What questions do we as learning designers or academic staff developers have to ask academics to guide them in this process? How can we engage with our own blind spots in this process, what structures do we need to put in place to alert us to these blind spots? How do we have to adapt learning design processes to ensure they mitigate for the causes of inequity – the prejudices of the human designers in the process, both their explicit and implicit personal biases, and the power of mostly invisible status quo systems of oppression (equityXdesign, 2016)? But also, what are the boundaries for compassion? Is there a limit to compassion? How would compassionate learning design look like that had built-in spaces for self-care for both staff and students, where care and compassion are shared between academics and their students?

We need compassion for our learners but also for ourselves. A compassion that creates both closeness and the necessary distance, to pause and think and critically reflect on our practices. Some practices are emerging in organisations such as meeting-free days or weeks, or obligatory leave. Authors such as Valdez & Thurab-Nkhosi (2020) have started designing questionnaires for staff developers working with educators to engage in difficult questions around positionality and design choices. Communities of practice have emerged where staff support each other through these difficult times (Gachago et al., 2021), but in general there is a dire need to rethink these emerging compassionate academic practices to make them sustainable. 

One of the approaches that might help us here is Sharon Ravitch’s (2020) FLUX pedagogy. Although much of her pedagogical approach mirrors the ones described above, she adds radical self-care to her toolkit. Radical self-care is not concerned with visits to the spa or regular yoga sessions, although they are important, but puts forward a more radical, communal and collective view of self-care that evokes Audre Lorde’s (1988) words: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (p. 131). Even if we don’t have the answers yet, as to what this kind of radical self-care should look like, we need to make space for conversations among us and envision new ways of doing compassion and care that feel more sustainable for both our learners and us educators. 


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Daniela Gachago

University of Cape Town

Dr Daniela Gachago is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Innovation in Learning at Teaching at the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town. Her research focuses on academic staff development to transform teaching and learning in higher education, with a particular focus on socially just pedagogies such as digital storytelling. She is also interested in innovative course and curriculum design drawing from co-creative approaches such as design thinking. She received a PHD from the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. She has published more than 50 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters and is the managing editor of CriSTaL, the journal for critical studies in teaching and learning in higher education.

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