Thursday, 30 January 2014

The joy of salsa! #FutureEd

This is my first assignment for the MOOC #FutureEd The task is to write about something you have had to unlearn in order to learn something new. As I wrote this - initially feeling a little uncertain about the "political correctness" of writing about being the submissive female follower in a rather macho dance form - I began to see this as a metaphor for learning on a bigger scale. 

When I first went to a salsa class, I had always considered myself to be a good dancer - but I had never danced with a partner. I didn't have too much trouble learning the basic steps and picking up the rhythm - in fact that part was really fun. The unlearning came when I had to dance with a man! I really did not know how to let go of my need to be in control and let him lead. In fact, it felt unfair that the man ALWAYS led and decided on the choreography as the dance unfolded.

Frankly this made me a very poor dance partner. My arms were stiff from resisting the lead, I moved ahead of the music, anticipating the next steps - or my feet seemed to refuse to do as they were "told" and became leaden and unresponsive. Practice with my partner became a time of tears and tantrums and I constantly felt angry and ashamed of my lack of progress.

Gradually I came to feel how impossible it was to have two leads in the dance. I also began to understand that to follow was an art form in itself. To be able to interpret the subtleties of the lead, to feel the flow of the dance, required its own skill. I also saw that as the follower, my steps were often more complicated, involving lots of spinning, and it was impossible for me to concentrate on the choreography or direction of the dance on my own - I needed my partner to take care of those things, to support me and allow me to shine!

There are still times when I feel frustrated as a dancer that I am not "permitted" to take over (although I have now learnt how to lead!) but I also know that there is great satisfaction to be had from knowing how to work in partnership.

Two years ago I travelled from the UK to an educational conference in San Diego and whilst there visited a wonderful salsa club. It was a magical experience for me - dancing the night away with a succession of charming young men, feeling a great sense of mastery in my ability to "follow", and co-creating with them dances that were as lovely as they were surprising.

By unlearning my habit of controlling I discovered the international community of salsa and the joy of dancing. 

I guess the moral of this story (and I am just realising this as I write) is that letting go of control and being prepared to step into the unknown is an essential part of participating in a learning community, whether as teacher or student. When I wear the hat of teacher, I still hold on to the illusion of control and yet every new group of students, every start of each new academic year is a step into the unknown – a new dance, in which I am once again aiming to be the skilled follower.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

#rhizo14 Week 2 Enforced Independence

Well there's an oxymoron if ever I heard one....

.... and yet this is exactly what I am wrestling with in my first year undergraduate module. The students enter University expecting - and sometimes even demanding - very detailed guidance, worksheets, notes and handouts. They think lectures are the way University education should be done - I even had some first year students tell me today that they preferred exams as course work required them to do too much reading and they couldn't handle the distant deadlines: pressure, recall of facts, 2 hours of hand cramps - this is what learning is all about!

So these same students then turn up to my module and they are in a large open space with 100 other students, seated at round tables with Apple Macs available. Or they can bring their own device. Whatever. They get a few minutes of introduction from me for this week's theme and then they get to it - searching the internet, answering questions, posting responses on Twitter, Facebook, Padlet. Whatever. We think about digital identity, digital citizenship, research skills, ethics, intellectual property.  I provide a detailed written structure for the module through the VLE where I post links to videos and articles for them to read in their own time. They get feedback through a short formative piece evaluating the role of social media in research; they choose their own work groups for a final summative project using Storify or Pinterest (or... whatever) to curate their online research.

Yup. They hate it.

There's not enough teaching. They don't understand the point of what they are doing. They don't get the relevance of social media to social science research. There are no handouts! (Well, very few). The group is too big and too noisy (these are justifiable complaints in my view!). They can't find anything on the VLE (also possibly justified - its UI is Byzantine). They hate the Macs.

and yet ...... Week 13 of the module: they settle down to the task, they use the Macs with ease, they ask fewer questions. They seem engaged - with the task, with the conversations in their groups. They may just be getting it.

I cut my teeth, teaching wise, in a Person Centred Counselling course.  The curriculum was designed by the students (within some constraints). Students peer assessed all the time - in formative practical work and in the final summative dissertation and case study. The group process was in the hands of the group - I was a facilitator. Things got messy - a lot of the time. They hated it. One particularly angry student stated (to the whole group) that the course was rubbish because everything the students learnt they did entirely by themselves. On the final day, after a year of being angry with me about this, she repeated her claim - only now she got it. Yes - they had done it all by themselves. They were/had become independent learners.

The difference with my current students is that they don't really have the same Freedom to Learn. Other parts of their course are taught traditionally. There are exams and course work and grades and structures that will judge the worthiness of the student to progress to another level. There are rules about plagiarism and using Google and Facebook and Twitter and Wikipedia will be frowned upon (maybe even punished). And the biggest oxymoron of all - I am forcing them to be independent. I am not permitting them to learn in the way that is cosy for them, I am imposing (through my power as teacher) a set of conditions and expectations about what is good for them. Just as I do as a parent to my children.

Knowing when to nurture and when to push the chicks out of the nest is key - as is knowing the difference between encouraging independence and abandonment. I don't know how, when or if I ever get this "right" - but then, I am still learning....