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CATE award for Grand Challenges team!

6 September 2023

3 minutes to read

CATE award for Grand Challenges team!

The Grand Challenges team was award a Collaborative Award for Teaching Excellence by AdvanceHE in 2023.

The Grand Challenges (GC) team was formed to facilitate inclusive, supportive and creative environments for students to explore ‘wicked’ problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973) and develop their employability. Hosted by the Career Zone, the team promotes interdisciplinary problem solving, systems-thinking and an understanding of how social, cultural, economic and environmental issues are intrinsically connected. These principles inform how the team operates and influences decision-making. Aimed primarily at first year undergraduates, this extra-curricular programme engages with approximately 400 students per year.

A complementary team of academics, Professional Services, Postgraduate Teaching Assistants and student interns work under the strategic direction of the Steering Group. The team is re-formed on an annual basis; PS, the Academic Sponsor and many of the academic-leads are constant. That there is some continuity of academic-leads means that experience can be built on year-on-year creating a mix of experienced and developing academic-leads. The Steering Group ensures that the team are embedded within university processes, which supports the way the team operates. The construction of the annual-cycle reflects the values and ethos of the team and facilitates the achievement of our objectives.

The team’s values are embedded not only in the way we work, but the ‘wicked’ problems the Challenges explore: to be inclusive, improve access and promote sustainability by being collaborative, creative and compassionate. The team incorporated the UN Sustainability Development Goals, social justice and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, so that students can make a meaningful difference in the world (Basio, 2017), before these were articulated as core institutional values in the University’s 2030 Strategy.

We have adopted a distributed leadership model (Spillane, 2006), where authority and responsibility are shared among many leaders who have the same goals and objectives. Utilising distributed leadership creates a symbiosis, sharing skills and expertise at all levels of learning and teaching. It enables every member of the team to develop shared ways of working and to engage with development opportunities. The team are agile, adapting quickly to varying resourcing levels, priorities and partnership possibilities. The distributed leadership model supports the speed with which things can be achieved as decision-making is largely devolved. This model emphasises the importance of interconnectivity and collaboration, empowering individuals to contribute to the overall goal. There is no line or matrix management, and responsibility is based on expertise rather than role; all voices are equal:

The team embraces the idea that the learning process is more important than product, and this can only be achieved through collaboration. The team focusses on helping students to develop the ‘critical literacies’ (Andreotti, 2016) and ‘ethical anchoring’ (Barnett, 2000) necessary to make sense of living in a super-complex world.

GC is a model we have designed and developed, and through our collaborative approach we can demonstrate our reach is interdisciplinary and transcends Exeter. Other institutions have used our model, replicated it and adapted it. Some have trialled it and realised it is difficult to achieve within our resource-base, and have halted delivery, or focussed solely on one discipline, removing one of our central objectives. We have had a sustained impact on academics, thousands of students, the institution, our wider community, and the HE sector nationally and globally. The team has the skills and agency to translate strategy into outputs, which includes the Challenges themselves, policy change, publications, research grants and new modules. We have changed ways of thinking about what teaching and learning is and can be, changed the way students are engaged with and listened to, and given them power to lead their own education.



Andreotti, V. de O. (2014) ‘Soft versus critical global citizenship education’, in S. McCloskey (ed.) Development Education in Policy and Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 21-31.

Barnett, R. (2000) Realizing the university: In an age of supercomplexity. (SRHE/Open UP).

Basio, E. (2017) ‘Educating for global citizenship and fostering a nonkilling attitude’, in J.E. Pim (ed.) Non killing education. Available at: (Accessed: 20 February 2023).

Rittel, H. W. J., and Webber, M. M. (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’, Policy Sciences, 4(2), pp. 155–169. Available at:

Spillane, J.P. (2006) Distributed Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Dr. Dawn Lees
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