Star Turn

June 25, 1999

Can games and fun have a place in education? Phil Baty meets a man who thinks so.

"Education should be serious fun. As part of the wider educative role, students should be able to try out crazy and implausible things."

This, says Rob Pope, principal lecturer in English at Oxford Brookes University, is his "off-the-cuff credo". Bold words, spoken just minutes before he was about to put his teaching and learning philosophy to the test in one of the biggest challenges a teacher in higher education can face - the Friday afternoon lecture. "It's the dead spot," Pope laments.

To make matters worse - as 80 per cent of the students on Brookes' English studies courses are on combined modular courses, with specialisms ranging from biology to communications - the 18 jaded students who actually turn up do not really know each other. This unfamiliarity, combined with the oppressive atmosphere of the "dead spot", is not conducive to an environment in which students have the confidence to "try out crazy and implausible things", Pope explains.

But Pope is a persuasive character. "You can get them motivated on Fridays," he says. "If they have turned up, they should know they might as well make the most of it."

Pope is a working-class Mancunian - "from a grammar school in Manchester, but not Manchester Grammar," he is quick to stress - the son of a toolmaker and a housewife, and the first of his family to move from the council estate into higher education. "The 1944 Education Act really opened the doors for me," he says. This helps explain his passion for teaching, which he has realised with the British Council in Moscow and in universities in China and New Zealand. "Do you know you can get a chair here in teaching and learning?" he enthuses.

Pope's unique course examines English "in a contemporary global context", in which he encourages his students to rewrite classic texts in contemporary styles or different cultural contexts. The "session" - "not a lecture," says Pope - on "Reading as rewriting" forms part of final-year students' synoptic course, studied over two terms and designed to consolidate the knowledge they have accumulated over a highly unitised multidiscipline degree.

Pope is a pioneer of something now known as "interactive teaching". Unsurprisingly, it requires a great deal of student participation. The course begins with an appeal from Pope: "Can we all sit further forward? It'll be a lot cosier." He also changes the lighting - "it's gentler" - and he starts with a captionless O-H-P image for the students to "meditate" over while he fumbles through a large box of handouts. The image is an illustration of a herd of cows careering round a tiny, precarious mountain path. Students are invited to think of captions or speech bubbles.

No ideas are immediately forthcoming. "Come on," Pope says to the students, "we can't proceed without your help." One student makes a timid offer for a caption: "Live life on the edge."

Spurred on, a more quick-witted offer for a speech bubble is made: "Quick! Before they pedestrianise it." In the week that Oxford Council closed the centre of town to traffic, amid much local protest, the comment raises a laugh. Pope is pleased that the student has "placed the image in a contemporary cultural context", and helped illustrate the difference between the "drama" of the speech bubble, and the "narrative" of the caption.

The ice is broken and the snowball gathers pace, as students vie for the status of class comedian. "It's just a game," says Pope, "but a serious game," he adds rather enigmatically.

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