Shaping Minds: Spotlight On Professor John Robinson

A new vision for teaching at York

I’m an electronic engineer. I learned my trade in a design lab in Basildon in the early 1980s. I quickly realised that the people who were most respected, who got the coolest design jobs, who influenced the company and the customer, had a particular kind of expertise. They had knowledge and skills at their fingertips, and their minds were freed to be imaginative. I felt such people were extraordinarily competent, in the way that top music performers or sports people are. They weren’t just able, they commanded their abilities. They had discovered the optimal hierarchy of skills for the problems they were tackling. They understood how good they needed to be at the various levels of a complex discipline. They were able to focus as much brain power as possible on the difficult stuff because they had the lower-level stuff (some of which was still pretty difficult) to hand, or within easy reach.

York academics have invested time and energy in realising the Pedagogy, with great success.” 

Professor John Robinson

Although I spent a few years in industry design labs, most of my career has been as a researcher and teacher in universities in Canada and the UK. That’s been perfect because I love learning: research is a way of learning things never known before, and university teaching is equipping other people to learn most effectively. As a teacher of engineering, I remembered how the workplace values extraordinary competence. I tried to guide my students towards configuring their skills to release their creativity. The message is two-thirds unexciting: some things you just have to know, some things you need to practice a lot; but that mastery makes solving real-world challenges possible and fun.

When I took up my role as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Learning, Teaching and Students I realised I needed to learn as much as I could about how university students learn, so I read many books and research papers. Some themes were prominent: the benefit to students of coherent programmes; carefully designed student work; contact events that propel learning; engaging students through assessment; being clear, concise and concrete about what graduates will be able to do, and credible in delivering those outcomes. These themes are now part of the York Pedagogy,* the framework we use for all our learning design. Over the past few years, programme leaders, professional learning support staff and all York academics have invested time and energy in realising the Pedagogy, with great success.

One area of learning research is the investigation of how people become experts. This field is now moving outwards from disciplines that combine manual and thinking skills – like music performance, sport and surgery – towards the full range of disciplines we teach in universities. Research is confirming that the tools of deliberate practice, and coaching with tight feedback loops, are effective ways of developing at-the-fingertips competence in the fundamental skills of many disciplines. There is growing evidence that getting those lower-level, though still pretty difficult, skills down pat is key to unlocking the imagination in higher-level performance. One role of the York Pedagogy is to keep us asking ourselves, how could we design the learning experience better. So I expect to see more and more of our programmes of learning using the results of expertise research, and our graduates becoming known for their extraordinary competence.

*The York Pedagogy is an evidence-based approach to the design of learning and teaching which defines our learning culture and sets clear expectations for our programmes.