Horses for courses: why L&T is always problematic

12985592_10154231179959063_2464463777051743496_nI gotta tell ya: Hong Kong is a great place. I’m on the verge of saying it’s the most cosmopolitan city I’ve ever visited, and I’ve lived in (and loved) London. It’s a true melting pot of cultures, where everything seems to be the product of exciting blendings of East and West, North and South.

I’m only able to tell you this because this week I’ve been visiting, in order to run a couple of our ALPS workshops at the City University’s Department of Politics and Public Policy. Just as engaging as the city itself has been the chance to spend some time working with the colleagues there on their situation and interests about developing active learning.

However, rather than just make this a travelogue or an advert for our very-well-received and insightful workshops, I want to unpack a couple of issues that came up in our discussion that have a wider bearing.

It’s a painful truth that we often note here at ALPS that there is no one ‘right way’ of teaching: different methods are good for different things and for different students at different times. Anyone who tries to sell you something that’s perfect or problem-free is taking you for an idiot (which you’re not, not least because you read this).

However, that can sometimes be a tricky message to communicate, especially when running a workshop about active learning. Certainly Amanda and I could have just thrown the towel in and just insisted to our audience that active learning has to happen all the time, no exceptions. But we didn’t, because we’re not like that.

Instead, we got the group to sit down and note an advantage and a disadvantage of a whole range of different pedagogies, from lectures to PBL. Then they had to stick them on the board, so we could all have a look.

Unfortunately, due to the sub-standard post-it notes I’d brought along, we instead had something that reminded me not only of a beautiful display of cherry blossoms fluttering to the floor, but also that it’s good to have a back-up plan for your teaching.

So we stepped away from the remaining notes, I talked about some points from it and then promised I’d write a post about what they’d put down. This is that post.

The actual responses are recorded here, but the short version goes something like this:

Method Advantage Disadvantage
Lectures ·  Systematic and structured · Boring
Student presentations ·  Engages presenter · Often boring for others
Group discussions ·  Good for interaction with large groups · Only some students will participate
One-to-one tutorials · Can focus all attention on one student, base lesson their specific needs ·  Very time and labour intensive

·  No chance for peer-to-peer learning

Online lectures · Can learn anytime and anywhere, not limit in classroom  

·  May not be engaging

Online discussion · Enables peer-to-peer learning, good for shy students  

· Difficult to administer and make interesting

Professional placement/internship ·  Real-life experience ·  Hard to organise and to fit together with class-based learning
Simulation games ·  Interesting ·  Difficult to design
Problem-based learning · Direct learning with problems · Does not necessarily ensure familiarization with broader issues in the discipline

The even shorter version is that everything’s good for something, and bad for something else. Depending on what you chose to focus on, you get different optimal approaches to take.

This matters, precisely because it is all too easy to fall into a trap of saying “X is the best way”, without applying your critical faculties. Certainly, I can remember starting to do some work on decision trees to help with simulation game design, which all came unstuck when I recalled that you can’t start such a tree by saying that a simulation is the correct starting point for all your subsequent choices: instead it is the learning objective that determines everything else.

But there’s also another fringe benefit to recalling this point, namely that for those coming to questions of L&T and pedagogy, there is often an anxiety about how difficult it might be. If you look at the full list of responses about simulations, one-to-one tutition or about PBL, then I know that most of those disadvantages can be simply and easily addressed. However, if you don’t know, then you don’t know, so it’s good to find out that the threshold is often much lower than you might think.

An upshot then has been to encourage colleagues simply to talk to each other about what they do and how they might change or improve what they do. Taking more interest in your practice doesn’t have to mean it has to take all your attention.

As we continue with our workshops, we’ll getting more into these questions and we’ll tell you all about it.