The Difference Between Going Shopping and Going to the Gym

On February 3rd 2016, Edinburgh Napier University welcomed Professor Ray Land, from Durham University. Professor Land’s ARISE[1] lecture was entitled what counts v. what matters: transformation and troublesome knowledge in a marketised HE sector?

One aspect of the current landscape of HE explored was the construct of student as consumer, a notion which gains traction in a context of students paying fees. Following on, the need to ensure satisfaction, i.e. student satisfaction, can be seen as powerful in a consumerist model.

However, Professor Land’s discussion persuaded thinking away from the idea of students as consumers by talking about the difference between going shopping and going to the gym. I’ve been playing a little with the thoughts stirred as a consequence.

And so, thinking about shopping, providing I pay, I get something. I don’t necessarily have to have put much effort in, but could have enjoyed the process. My satisfaction might derive from the shopping experience itself, the ‘thing’ acquired, or both.

Sorties into the gym are different affairs. If I want to get fit, I’m going to have to put effort in. Fitness won’t simply happen because I entered the space. The fact that effort is required and the results can be slow, perhaps negligible, might explain why so many people take up gym memberships, but lose heart and stop going. However individual endeavour, supported by others – the personal trainer, co-gym attendees etc – and the environment – the gym itself and the equipment therein – can lead to change in me, in how I look, feel, behave.

If I persist, and that’s the point.

Shopping is easy, that’s why we keep engaged with it as a practice. Less so, going to the gym where individual effort is a necessity.

In a world where fee paying associates with the expectation of satisfaction, might we do well to forewarn students that studying which results in change that is useful, indeed transformational aligns more closely with the metaphor of going to the gym, than the supermarket?

[1] Academy for Research, Scholarship and Innovation in Education

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Welcome to the ARISE blog

Welcome to this space, somewhere for us to talk, share, listen, question and to think big, individually and collectively. And yes, we’re always against the clock, there seems so little time. Given this and competing pressures, how might this blog work for you?


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The Success of The Festival of Failure

“In a culture that is ambitious for ourselves and for our students, what does failure mean?”  

It sounds like a philosophical question – maybe even a little navel-gazing. In fact, interrogating the meaning of failure is a professional quandary that provides educators and supporters of education with a unique opportunity. An opportunity to change the way we see our jobs, increase the knowledge we produce, and improve the learning that we cultivate – all at the same time.

However, this isn’t the kind of professional and academic opportunity that simply requires access to libraries, time, human resources, critical thinking, or even funding. It also requires bravery. On the October 20th 2015, our colleagues showed that we have this in spades.

In Edinburgh Napier University’s most recent Learning Teaching and Assessment Conference, Mark Huxham held a session on what he called “Creative Failure”. This was attempt to test a possible framework – a way of taxonimising failure based on the ways in which it did or did not lead to learning. There was an air of nervousness in the room. People understood that they’d be recalling their own failures in a room full of colleagues. But Mark did what any good teacher does – he brought a new idea that made sense, gave people what they need to understand it, and made them feel safe. Then he stood back and let the magic happen.

After that success (as tricky a word as failure), this work got carried forward. This past October, Mark and a team of colleagues took this concept to the next level. This time, with a very specific focus – our jobs. The Festival of Failure was a space where academic professionals came together and reflected on some of the most challenging times in the history of their own careers. They spoke of what they did wrong, what allowed it to happen, and what they had learned. But more importantly, they reflected on how they learned from it.


It may sound overly conceptual and introspective. Quite the opposite. It was all very simple. A room of highly accomplished, published, and respected academics and professional staff each took a pen, wrote a professional failure on a sticky-note and put it up on a wall for everyone to read.

They ran the gamut between big and small, new and old, funny and tragic. And it didn’t stop there. In an institution that, like many others, prizes knowledge and professionalism so highly, they did one of the bravest things a person can do – they told you how they felt.


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For myself, the result was nothing short of humbling, enlightening, and connective. Not just of people, but of ideas.

I was particularly moved by the thread that began to tie all of our responsibilities together. Our responsibilities to ourselves, our students, our colleagues, our teachers, and our line managers. At some point every one of us had let one of those people down, and when we reflected on how we learned from those moments – something really inspiring happened. The conversation went beyond how we can prevent failures, and became about capturing the mechanisms that made learning from failure possible. We were talking about how to make those failures meaningful – useful even – as individuals and as an institution.

There are many dimensions to being a professional, a teacher, and student. Something about this exercise revealed a dimension where these roles intersect. We’re told that constructive alignment (what many consider to be the backbone of modern progressive teaching practices) is, in the most general sense, about practicing what you preach. Keeping that in mind, when I read my Biggs and Tang, I’m always struck by a particular line that’s drawn – one that separates the concept of performance from the concept of learning.

Creating a safe space to learn is what we’re encouraged to do for our students. Learning, even from failure, is what ask of our students. What would happen to our profession if each and every one of us did the same things for ourselves, our colleagues, our line managers, and our subordinates? The scholarship of failure and its role in learning is out there – but a library search (albeit not an exhaustive one) makes me wonder if that scholarship really leaves the classroom. How easy is it to turn that kind of learning back on ourselves? It’s probably much easier to feel like our reputations and lively hoods are on the line. I’d argue that anything which makes us better teachers deserves to be researched, understood, and disseminated. If there are great strides in the future of the pedagogy of failure, I wouldn’t be surprised if they started right here.

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“Organize, don’t agonize.”



Mark Huxham and I have spent some time contemplating using a blog to create a space for ARISE conversations/ information. So we set it up and I’ve been fiddling with it, ably assisted by Sarah Murray (Dept of Learning and Teaching Enhancement). The question is when is it ready to launch? Probably never; there will always be something else to try and get right.

So I’m borrowing from Nancy Pelosi using her wise words to tell me to get on with it. Let’s launch the ARISE blog and see what happens.

All feedback welcome.

ARISE is ours, so too this space.

All best wishes


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Edinburgh Napier Teaching Fellows Festival of Failure


In a culture that is ambitious for ourselves and for our students, what does failure mean? Is it something that we should celebrate, as a sign of innovation and risk-taking, or does it impugn our status as professionals?

The Festival of Failure is an opportunity to explore the concept of failure and consider our individual and collective responses.  Join us for a convivial conversation on Tuesday 20th October from 4-6pm, Rivers Suite, Craiglockhart.  Drinks and nibbles will be served.

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