Comedy in the Classroom’s pioneering wearer of silly spectacles has been recognised for her exceptional teaching, and has been named a National Teaching Fellow by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) today. Dr Gill Seyfang in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences receives the prestigious title, which is the highest individual recognition for excellence in teaching in Higher Education.

In supporting her nomination, UEA Pro-Vice-Chancellor Prof Neil Ward said: “Gill’s work has helped give force and momentum to innovative pedagogy in what is one of UEA’s most prominent schools.”

Dr Seyfang is a Reader in Sustainable Consumption at the University of East Anglia. She heads a programme of world-leading research on ‘grassroots innovations’ for sustainability and draws on this to shape her transformative teaching on sustainable development.

Gill has a BA (hons) in Development Studies and an MSc (distinction) in Environmental Sciences, both from UEA, as well as a PhD in Sustainable Development from Leeds Beckett University. Her innovative and creative teaching has been recognised institutionally with two teaching awards and a University Teaching Fellowship, prior to this accolade.

She is best-known for using performing arts pedagogies and leading the development of ‘Theoretical Theatre’, where teachers and students portray different concepts or theories, as characters who interact with each other in semi-improvised scenes. The delivery brings complex abstract debates to life and help students grasp the subject. Using comedy helps students make an emotional connection with complex material and results in active and deeper learning. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only do students display a much better grasp of key concepts after a class like this, the method also breaks down barriers and changes the way students see lecturers – encouraging participation all round.

This is an engaging teaching tool for active learning about sustainability. The idea has been taken up in other disciplines, institutions and countries worldwide. It is transforming teaching in sustainable development. “Gill is an inspirational teacher and role model in Sustainable Development. Her original, entertaining and ground-breaking work sets a bold example to others”, said Dr Lucie Middlemiss, Lecturer in Sustainable Development at Leeds University.

Dr Seyfang is developing a range of transferrable teaching resources to help others to adopt these techniques, including teaching videos, and an introductory film which explains the idea (www.ComedyInTheClassroom.org). Building on this work, she plans to further integrate performance and improvisation skills into her classroom practice to enhance student learning with transferable skills in teamwork, responsiveness, spontaneity, active listening, resilience and compelling self-presentation skills. To further influence and transform teaching, Gill is currently planning to co-edit a book showcasing inspiring examples of innovative teaching in Sustainable Consumption.

Dr Seyfang said: “I believe that comedy in the classroom is a teaching tool that should be taken much more seriously.”

HEA Chief Executive, Professor Stephanie Marshall, said, “A National Teaching Fellowship is the most prestigious individual award for excellence in teaching in higher education. These awards represent a fantastic achievement by all 55 new NTFs. I am sure the whole sector joins me in applauding them in their success. The new NTFs represent some of the very best teaching in higher education and I am sure they will inspire others as we share their innovative practice and ideas across the sector. The UK is justifiably proud of its higher education sector and its reputation is enhanced by the examples of excellent teaching highlighted by these awards.”

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