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.

Dealing with the Know-it-Alls (aka, the Hermione Monsters)

We all know this student.  They are both the savior and bane of our classroom–the student we can count on to participate and break the dreaded silence from the sea of confused or uncertain faces….and the student who we can count on to participate at just the wrong moment, or speaks constantly and at length, or dominate any discussion or activity without regard for the opinions or ideas of their peers.

I know this particular breed of student quite well, as I used to look at her in the mirror all the time. Of course, back when I was a student, I thought of myself as the savior, not the bane.  It was only upon great reflection, particularly once I started studying teaching, that I recognized the monster I had been.  Traits of this particular example of the breed included:

–trying to answer the teacher’s question before it was even fully expressed;

–speaking anywhere from 3-5x as often as any other student in the room;

–not understanding when the professor would ignore a raised hand or call on students who raised their hands after mine;

–seeing oneself as the valiant knight, rescuing the teacher from the ignorance and stupidity (always those, never shyness or uncertainty or boredom) of one’s fellow classmates;

–going to office hours not to clear up matters of confusion but to prove to the professor how smart I was.

I really should write a formal apology to all of my college professors.  I was what I now call a “Hermione Monster”–taken of course from that most beloved of know-it-alls, Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame*.  And while I would not describe myself as cured, my self-awareness at least allows me to attempt to control my behavior–I can restrain my tendencies to talk a lot and at great length in meetings–and I can try to spot the HMs in my classroom, contain them, and help them build a tolerance and respect for the process and contributions of their peers. This is not an easy thing to do.  Any attempt to dampen their enthusiasm for speaking can result in them feeling like they or their contributions are not valued, that the professor ‘hates’ them, or that they are being punished.  The goal is to preserve the HMs as valuable members of the class while constraining them and showing the other students that you are acting on what is frequently an upspoken problem in the classroom.

I’m eager to hear of how others approach this problem.  Here are a few of my tips:

–Use a formal system of acknowledgement for discussion.  HMs can easily dominate discussion when its a free-for-all. Insist that everyone raise hands or placards, or take a speaker’s list.  You can use the conch rule from Lord of the Flies, with students passing it to each other to talk, or adopt the inquiry/query finger rule, or require time limits on participants like a 60 second rule/5 minutes before speaking again.  The key is to have a system, and not to leave it entirely up to the HM to self-regulate.

–Adopt think-pair-share type activities regularly in the classroom.  The HM is often a quick processor, and thus is the first to have an answer ready to a question.  Many other students need a few moments to think and reflect on the question before feeling ready to offer their opinion.  Using an activity that requires every student to put their thoughts down on paper and share them before returning to the large group means that you should be able to call on the opinions of anyone in the class without them feeling singled out.

–Talk to the student directly, and run with the narrative of savior.  After class, pull the HM aside and tell them that you’ve noticed how quick they are with answers, and what a boon that is to the class.  Acknowledge that their peers are not as quick to respond–they’ve already noticed this–and ask for their cooperation in helping the rest of the class by giving their peers the opportunity to think of the answer before the HM voices it.  You can even work out a signal of kinds–the HM raises their hand, you acknowledge it but with a gesture tell them to put their hand down to wait for others to start the conversation.  This lets the HM know that you see their desire to contribute, and moreover, that they know the answer, while giving the class the opportunity to think through the question without someone doing the work for them.

–Identify the other students in the class that generally know the answers but for whatever reason don’t feel the need or desire to jump into the discussion quickly or regularly.  Usually the first exam or paper or online discussion forums (if used) will reveal these students.  Try to cultivate these students so that you have others to call on when the HM’s hand shoots up.  In groupwork or activities, try to put some of these people on the same team/group as the HM to balance them out, particularly if the HM is of the loud but incorrect type.  If roles get assigned, try to have someone other than the HM be the spokesperson.

–Use your words.  Gently correct the behavior as it happens with phrases like “Thanks, HM.  I see your hand, but we just heard from you, so let’s try to round up some other thoughts before we check in with you again.”  Also try: “Does everyone agree with HM on that point?  Yes?  Okay–Student, tell me what you think was the best part of HM’s argument.”

What do you do to control the Hermione Monsters in your classes?

*Unlike many HMs, Hermione Granger’s behavior is ultimately exonerated by the author, as her esoteric and frequently offered knowledge base becomes essential to Harry Potter’s fight against Voldemort.  Few of our students will have the same opportunity to validate their HM tendencies in front of all their peers and professors, but that does not mean they won’t try.

The Take-Out Quiz

This idea comes from a friend who teaches developmental English at a community college:

Students have a specified amount of time to complete a low-stakes quiz; for example, 20 or 30 minutes. They are allowed to consult fellow students and can use books, phones, or the internet. They can even take the quizzes out of the room to work in the hallway or the library. The only rule is that they must turn in their quizzes at the end of the specified time period.

In my friend’s experience, students do not score 100 percent on the quizzes. In fact, they tend to score about the same as they do on closed-book quizzes taken solo. Students who do the readings and take notes in class do well, while those who don’t know the material invariably try to copy answers from the wrong people.

The classroom dynamic produced by take-out quizzes is unpredictable. Some students opt to work alone whether they are quiet in class or not. Students who choose to work in groups can self-sort according to academic ability, but you might see the usually shy student become extroverted within the group when he or she advocates for an answer that he or she believes is correct.

The main advantage of the take-out quiz is that it gets students engaged with the material in a different way than lecture or the traditional independently-taken, closed-book quiz. It also rewards the students who do homework.