The events of the past year have been challenging for everyone, least not educators who have had to adapt to new ways of working and respond to a number of different barriers to learning. But so too has the pandemic presented opportunities, and as we emerge from our battle against COVID-19, Yr Athrofa and its partner schools do so with a renewed determination to transform education and transform lives. Anna Brychan explains…

Yr Athrofa is UWTSD’s Centre for Education, the home of initial teacher education, professional learning, education policy and research. In all areas of our activity, we work closely with its 150+ partner schools and a range of other partners and people across Wales and beyond.

As a Centre, we have been having a number of discussions recently about the importance of achieving a level of comfort in dealing with uncertainty in our field. ‘Uncertainty’ must be one of the most frequently used nouns of the past fourteen months; after all, practically everything we had considered certain has been profoundly challenged.

From a UWTSD point of view, many things are actually more certain now. Students are coming back to campus in greater numbers, learning is once again becoming an endeavour that happens communally, in-person and full of serendipitous encounters and discoveries. The last year has also made us understand that blended learning offers huge opportunities for innovation; planned meetings and conversations work very well online when you don’t have to factor in traffic or parking; international encounters with practitioners, pedagogues and professors are now a matter of ‘what day shall we do it?’ rather than, ‘we’ll get them when they are in this country next’.

We have also reminded ourselves that uncertainty in the field of learning is to be valued. Neil Greshenfeld, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre puts it better than I could: ‘Uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of finding out what you don’t know, not a weakness to avoid.’

This insight is key to our model of working at Yr Athrofa. Our student-teachers are encouraged to embrace scepticism, to test, to share and to refine their practice. Our research is focused on supporting schools to work on projects where the answers may never be black and white. When we develop professional learning programmes, we do it jointly with schools, asking questions like: ‘What is progression for an individual student?’, ‘What could it look like?’ – we know it won’t look the same for all pupils. Together, we navigate a space full of contested knowledge and ideas.

These conversations are sustained over time too. Our model is based on building a career-long relationship with our students and partners. We offer courses for school students to give them a taste of university study, programmes for those who want to qualify as teachers, specialist courses in curriculum, pedagogy, leadership and additional learning needs, to master’s degrees and doctorates. This gives us rich opportunities to learn from each other too.

After a year where we have all craved more certainty and more predictability in many areas of our lives, our colleagues in schools and their partners in universities have retained the conviction that, in when it comes to learning together, there is a valuable place for uncertainty in all its creative, energising messiness.

American researcher, Brene Brown puts it like this: ‘We were born curious. But over time, we learn that curiosity, like vulnerability, can lead to hurt. As a result, we turn to self-protecting — choosing certainty over curiosity, armour over vulnerability, and knowing over learning.’

The excitement and insights are in the process of learning together. Keeping people safe will still influence the way that we do things but the principles that inform why and what we learn and teach will drive us still. We’re looking forward to it!