Monday, 3 March 2014

#FutureEd How we teach shapes what we teach

In last week's videos Cathy Davidson was discussing how teaching and learning is shaped by the technology we use. This seems very apt in the case of my classroom.

Typically, the seminar rooms we use in my institution are still set out in rows - facing front. Occasionally they are grouped together to facilitate group discussion but in rectangles which leave some students straining to join in a conversation. Scale Up is different in that it has provided us with round tables.

The very shape of the tables mean that students are facing each other and many have their backs to the tutor. This can be frustrating for tutors who still need/want to deliver content but is a real boon for student led learning.

A year ago, I "delivered" a session to first year students on designing a research question. I had a PowerPoint presentation and I spoke to them for about 40 minutes. Although I would have liked some interaction, a short exercise asking them to apply what I had just said to their own projects resulted in very little response.

A year on and I knew that the same style of delivery would be difficult in the Scale Up environment - not just because of seating arrangements, but because by now the students are used to getting on with group work and impatient of long presentations.

So this time I gave them a worksheet on which they were to write their tentative research question. The worksheet also contained a list of criteria by which the research question could be evaluated. The idea was to pass on their own question for another group to evaluate and then reflect on the feedback to help refine the final wording.

As they completed the exercise, I went round the groups challenging them and debating their questions and their feedback to one another. I could have done this exercise in this way a year ago but didn't. Working in this new environment has made me think differently about how I teach.

Is my teaching content different?
There is certainly less content as the focus of the sessions is on students researching on line and finding out for themselves. The other major innovation in the Scale Up classroom is the availability of wifi and laptops. So my teaching now is less about content and more about process, and as the year has progressed and the students have become familiar with the technology and the student directed format, there is in any case less teaching altogether.

Sessions  - like today's - can seem rather chaotic on the surface as students are all occupied on different tasks, producing their final projects. This is not so much perceived as chaos by the students - who are (facing away from the front and towards one another) conscious mainly of their own group's interactions - but by the teacher. I flit from group to group helping with technical queries about specific tools and websites or answering questions about the assessment process, witnessing the development of the groups' projects as I pass by.

So the shape of the room, the shape of the tables, shape the interaction between student and teacher and shape the how and the what of the teaching. I feel too that in this environment the students are also shaping how I teach. The room, the wifi, the tables, the access to the internet, give the students a power they didn't have (or couldn't access immediately or maybe legitimately) a year ago. Now I feel that somehow the power balance in the room is shifting as they start to determine the content, pace and process of their learning, relying on me for support the way they rely on Google. My teacher is an app?

So, is this scary? Fun?  A bit of both I guess. In one sense I feel I am losing control of the classroom and that what I am witnessing is just poor behaviour management on my part. On the other hand, I am back to my Rogerian Freedom-to-Learn roots as "one who creates the environment for engagement"

Now that is exciting!

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