When the table turns: Experiencing active learning from the other side

In between a day packed with meetings, I had an enjoyable break booked in yesterday – Prof. Violeta Orlovic Lovren, from the University of Belgrade, was at the University of York to deliver a workshop entitled ‘Designing Ideal Learning Spaces with Sustainability in Mind’. It was a session pitched as using ideas of utopia and sustainable development to explore what it is that we desire from our learning environments – which sounded fantastic. All good so far.

However, fifteen minutes into the workshop, something surprising happened. Violeta invited us, the attendees, to take some drawing paper and a fineliner pen and to draw what we pictured as our ideal, sustainable learning space. This itself wasn’t the surprise. What surprised me was the sudden pang of resistance I felt to this idea.

I hadn’t come to the session expecting to draw and I was now keenly aware of how awful I was at drawing. That I hadn’t had any practice. That I didn’t have any clue what it was that I actually wanted to draw. It’s been a busy semester, I haven’t had the chance to dream up utopia! Nevertheless, after a moment of slightly panicked scrambling for an idea, I got on with the drawing and I had a fun time doing so (the fruits of my labour are shared below).

That initial feeling of resistance has been on my mind since because it has reminded me that, of course, many of our students will feel the exact same way when we ask them to participate in an out-of-the-ordinary active learning exercise. After years of being on the other side of the teaching and learning equation, it’s something that had slipped to the back of my mind.

Simon Usherwood wrote a great piece earlier this year for this blog featuring some useful points on getting students to do an exercise they haven’t done before. As he says in that post ‘our students get stuck once we’re away from the nice certainties of sitting in a lecture theatre’. I had attended the talk yesterday with that very expectation of a nice certainty – that I would sit at the back and listen as a passive observer to some interesting ideas but that nothing else would be asked of me.

So, I’m left with renewed empathy for the students that might slightly roll their eyes or drag their heels when a new active learning exercise is introduced. I can hardly blame them for feeling that way – after all, I did too! But hopefully they will also go on the same journey – pushing that pang of resistance aside and end up having an enjoyable time doing the exercise (even though it turns out, alas, my drawing skills really were as bad as I had remembered).

Well… I won’t quit the day job yet.