How joined-up is your curriculum?

6318258412_b0209b8fa7_bWe’re rolling around to the end of our teaching here at Surrey. That means several things. First, that students are now focusing more on their final exams than on classes, since they don’t heed our advice that the latter will help an awful lot with the former. Second, that we’re trying to join the dots (again) between what we’ve joined over the past weeks. And third, that it’s nearly time for the amazing L&T new pedagogies workshop we’re running here (yes, since you ask, you can still book here).

But back to the second point, connectedness.

In my first year class yesterday, we ended up covering a bunch of concepts that I’d thought had been covered elsewhere, but which seemed not to have been. I did that because I needed them to explain some points that I knew weren’t being covered by anyone else. I could give you more specifics, but I’m guessing you know what I mean, because it’s something that happens pretty much every lesson; even if only in its mildly form of “you remember how you learnt about X in that other class? well, here’s an application.”

This is a real issue for social sciences like ours. Unlike physical sciences, where there is a much more graduated progress from core concepts to advanced application, we tend to find ourselves plunging into assorted deep ends from the get-go. The reasons are simply that we have a lay experience of politics that we don’t with quantum mechanics, and that the former is something that sits well within our reflective practice and is indeed a key part of our engagement with our environment. Put differently, you can have a conversation about power and agency with a 6-yr old and quickly get into very profound considerations.

The problem that this creates is that the degree to which we can make assumptions about prior knowledge and understanding (being two distinct things here) is highly uncertain. While we try to plan curricula for our programmes of study, we do so on the basis of implicit understandings of what an average student might know about beforehand. And of course, average students don’t really exist.

All of which makes it very hard to work towards a solution. The classic approach would have been to just give students what you, the teacher, think is important, whether they’ve had it before or not. The more modern approach would be to map out all the key points of learning and ensure that they are covered in some way.

Perhaps we need another approach, that it is more student-centric.

If we adopt an active learning approach then we work out from the students’ experience, to address problems as they find them, rather than presenting pre-packaged ‘solutions’. In endeavouring to solve the problems they find, students can draw in new knowledge, into frameworks of understanding , in ways that make sense to them. As that process continues, so the elements become joined up and the gaps reduce.

However, we have to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean that gaps disappear automatically. One of the beauties of political science is precisely that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat, working from fundamentally different premises. Organic, student-led growth of understanding doesn’t necessarily capture that.

Two partial solutions offer themselves here. One is to continue with the thing of activity that I opened with – making connections in sessions. But the other is to create learning environments where there are incentives to seek out new connections and paradigms of understandings. Simulations would be just that sort of environment, where you can take students out of themselves and ‘be’ someone else.

And yes, if that sounds interesting, there is a workshop about that.

Encouraging student feedback

Durdle_Door_OverviewAs my American colleagues know, the UK is a socialist paradise and it’s one of the reasons they’re all coming over later this month (the other is our workshop, which you can book a space at here).

One of the many great consequences of our enlightened political choices is the notion of ‘bank holidays’, days especially chosen to have poor weather, so that us Brits can really indulge in moaning about rain. We love it.

This weekend past was, unfortunately, a very poor example, as the sun shone for a full three days, but I braved it all, to go on a short family break on the South Coast. This included a Sunday lunch in a small pub, where (it turned out) a recent graduate of my fine university was one of the people serving us. Continue reading

Learning from Teaching

CgV3SvnW8AQNSAZIt’s going to sound very pretentious, but all this travel is very disorientating. Exactly one week ago, I was sat in a seminar room in Hong Kong, helping people design simulation games, something that now feels simultaneously very familiar and very distant.

Amanda and I have posted already about these workshops (here), but given some of the things I’ve been doing since then, I wanted to pick up on a broader theme, namely of how we ourselves learn from the teaching we do.

Last night, I was in London, taking part in a panel discussion about Britain and the EU, as part of my other work, with an audience of school children. And that sentence already contains my first error.

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Mid-Semester Ruminations

Thinking things over.
Thinking things over.

A few thoughts on my teaching, having just passed the mid-point of the spring semester:

Students have almost to a person stopped taking notes. I don’t know if this phenomenon is caused by a lack of will, ability, or a combination of both, but I suspect it has its roots in the K-12 system. Or my employer is simply drawing students who are not as academically well-prepared for college. Ten years ago perhaps a quarter of my students wrote notes in class. Now I’m lucky if it’s one out of fifteen. I refuse to periodically collect and somehow grade students’ notebooks. An alternative might be open-notebook, end-of-class quizzes. It’s additional work on my end — more stuff to grade and I would need to think of question or two while teaching — but it might be a way of generating the desired behavior. Continue reading

Are students conservative, or just scared?

Other people's classes always seem to be more fun
Other people’s classes always seem to be more fun

Yesterday, I was invited to talk to a colleague’s class in another university. As always, it was good to get out and about and see other places (even if that place was a tad unprepossessing), but it was the discussion over a sandwich afterwards that was most enlightening.

Discussion was ranging over a number of topics, when one of the party said that they were always surprised by how conservative students have become, in the sense of disliking anything other than conventional, lecture-and-seminar formats. This has come after someone else had related how they felt obliged to provide the more passive lecture content in addition to the active learning, so that their (final-year) students wouldn’t feel too deprived of knowledge.

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Are university students special?

This will mean nothing to many of you, which will be your loss.
This will mean nothing to many of you, which will be your loss.

Let’s try to get past your reflex answer/snort/mutter and consider this question with a bit more thought.

It’s something that occurs as I head to Portland for TLC 2016, leaving behind (for a bit) my new Fellowship, much of which is concerned with disseminating academic research to a wide variety of audiences.

In particular, I wonder whether the teaching we provide in our university classrooms is that different from the teaching we might give elsewhere, or even from the dissemination work that goes beyond this. Continue reading

Inclusive Teaching Strategies

Diverse BirdsI recently attended a workshop on diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom that included the following advice:

  • Attend to room logistics. We exist in physical space, and the organization of that space can produce a welcoming or unwelcoming environment. The arrangement of tables and chairs might facilitate student self-segregation according to gender, ethnicity, or physical ability.
  • Be explicit about equal participation in discussion and group activities. Often this means deliberately calling on the students who otherwise don’t talk.
  • Be aware of student non-verbals. Does student A produce negative facial expressions whenever student B speaks? Does student C appear mentally disengaged?
  • Use multiple outlets for students to voice their thoughts. Students who might be reluctant to express themselves verbally in class might be quite willing to do so in writing online.
  • Maximize diversity when forming groups. Create teams composed of students who have different genders, ethnicities, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Otherwise they will tend to group with people most like themselves.
  • Create and reinforce rules for discussions. This can include the use of a talking stick, tokens, or other devices to ensure that everyone in class has the opportunity to speak and be heard.
  • Model validating behavior in response to student words and actions — nod when someone else is speaking, use phrases like “thank you for that,” and be encouraging rather than sternly critical.