Co-constructing Learning

After last week’s adventure to the West Balkans, I’m back in the UK, finalising my prep (and my paper) for APSA TLC in Long Beach and generally wading through piles of work. But before I leave on another trip, I want to reflect on some of the key lessons that my Balkan trip provided.

The most obvious one at the time was that time management is very difficult, especially when using active learning techniques: the desire for people to explore ‘just one more aspect’ or to ask ‘just one more question’ coupled with the impression that there was a lot of time available (4 days in total) to result in drift.  Fortunately, I had anticipated there might be an issue with material, given my limited knowledge of the group, so I was able to use the flexibility I had built in and still hit my learning objectives, albeit in a rather different way from the one I had initially foreseen.

A second key lesson related to language. The group shared a common mother tongue with the other trainer, and they were learning so that they can use their knowledge to train others in that language, so it made sense that some of the sessions and discussions were in that language (which I do not speak at all: my big breakthrough was that ‘laptop’ is the same in both tongues!), especially as it also sped things up. But a consequence was that it became much harder for me to join up fully my elements with the other trainer and to pick up on things said at a later stage. Even if my non-verbal skills came to the fore and I could guess roughly what was happening, the experience did underline the role that language plays in the classroom. Flipped around, we might well reflect on how non-native speaker students can struggle in comprehension and discussion and the limits that places on learning.

But the main thought that came back again and again was the notion of co-construction. The participants in the training were not specialist trainers and had limited experience; as such, they reminded me of new lecturers.  Their model of training was a hierarchical one, where they transmitted knowledge to others and where they were in complete control of the learning environment.  Thus their questions often related to how to cope when they didn’t know something, or if people didn’t talk (not at all a problem with this group, incidentally), or how precisely they should run a session.

What both trainers tried to communicate was that this was not the only way to approach the matter. Instead, we underlined that learning can also be collaborative, with the trainer/lecturer working with students to build knowledge and understanding together. When someone doesn’t know something, then use that as a spur to see if the group can find solutions together: create learning activities that start from the student, not the lecturer, as a way of privileging and encouraging student voices.  Seen in this way, learning builds on students’ individual experiences and understandings and opens up new avenues of comprehension, rather than trying to close them down. In short, the lecturer/trainer is supporting student learning, rather than teaching students.

The real difficulty is one of control. Co-constructing requires that one accepts that is not in complete control, as it is the students that lead and throw up ideas and frameworks of understanding. It also requires acceptance that there is likely to be more than one way of approaching a subject.

To take an example, I asked this group to split into small groups and design a diagram to help explain to others how the competences of the EU might be understood. I’ve done this several times with students and so I had a pretty good idea of what might happen.  Instead, two of the three groups produced models and approaches completely unlike anything I had seen before, organised on completely legitimate premises, which gave me a real insight into their preoccupations, interests and worldviews.

It’s true to say that I learnt a lot during last week and that is how it should be. If we are to help students become self-aware, self-critical and self-reliant individuals, then we need to accept the legitimacy of their views, even if we can question their evidence base or forms of expression. We should not be trying to produce replicas of ourselves, but allow students to find their own way. Working with them seems to be the best way to do that.

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