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.

More Thoughts on Modular Course Architecture

My spring semester is over. Undergraduate students have completed an anonymous evaluation of my comparative politics course, in which I experimented with modular architecture. In this course, students chose one of five different themes to focus on for the semester — political identity, democratization, revolution, genocide, or globalization. The themes were cross-indexed by geographic region; for example, in a particular week, all students’ readings were about Latin America. At the beginning of the semester, all students read journal articles on all five themes as an introduction.

A few non-scientific conclusions about what students wrote in their evaluations:

A few students — despite regular reminders — refuse to acknowledge the importance of  the “plan ahead” concept. Yes, this book is 300 pages long. No, it’s not something you can read the night before the essay on it is due. That’s why I give you a syllabus at the beginning of the semester.

Some choice is good, but too much is bad. The reading assignments for the genocide theme were all books. I let each student in this theme choose three books to read, which meant that a given student wasn’t obligated to read anything for some of the geographic regions. A few students said they felt lost in class discussions as a result.

Groups needed to have members that were all doing the same thing. Throughout the semester, students had to do group presentations that consisted of close-readings of assigned texts. Students did not select the themes in equal numbers, so some of the groups that I created contained students who had chosen different themes. Students in these mixed groups said this hampered collaboration — one or two members of the group would contribute nothing. My expectation was that students would teach content to each other while they were putting their presentations together. So that didn’t work out. In the future I will either need to drop this kind of collaborative task or figure out a way to ensure relatively equally-sized groups, each containing students who have chosen the same theme.

Class discussions helped students see connections between different historical events and apply theoretical concepts to new situations.  One of my personal goals as a teacher is to facilitate students’ ability to  integrate knowledge, so I would like to develop more formal ways of doing this — graded writing assignments, if possible — in the future.

Incentivizing Active Teaching

Although I’m not an economist, I’m quite interested in identifying incentives, and faculty usually have few to no material incentives to experiment pedagogically.  Occasionally someone might receive a stipend or grant to vary one’s teaching methods, but these rewards are one-shot deals. Sometimes merit pay exists, but frequently it’s based on student evaluations of teaching, which is a recipe for disaster. This situation is particularly disturbing given the findings in Academically Adrift (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U. of Chicago Press, 2011) that certain writing and reasoning skills fail to improve for over one-third of  students during four years of undergraduate education. Students aren’t learning, and faculty have no incentive to change that.

I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because I’m involved in an effort to redesign an interdisciplinary major. Team teaching has been proposed as a way of delivering content that crosses disciplinary boundaries — something that I wholeheartedly agree with — but at my university there are no incentives for it. The credit hours for a course that is team-taught are regarded as shared between instructors, and any teaching duty that equates to less than a complete three credit hour course is compensated as overload at a drastically reduced pay rate. Unless a full-time faculty member is really desperate for money, the cost of team teaching to faculty in time and effort is greater than the financial reward.

Using Modular Architecture to Build Choice Into Courses

In all of my courses I’ve been migrating away from the standard textbooks put out by academic publishing houses. They are expensive, have a brief shelf-life, and are usually collections of easily-forgettable facts rather than memorable narratives.  Chuck the textbooks and you’re left with the exciting (at least for me) but time consuming process of identifying replacements. It’s a challenge to find just the right journalistic accounts, memoirs, and fiction to apply to the broad themes of whatever course I’m teaching.

While seeking out such books for a comparative politics course, a question popped into my head: “is it really necessary for all students in a course to read the same books?” This then led to another question: “is it necessary that all students in a class study the same topics and learn the same things?” To a certain extent, people choose what universities to attend, what to major in, and what courses to take. Yet once in a class, all students march in lockstep through whatever content the instructor has selected. No more choice. I’ll make an educated guess that that lack of choice at the end of the educational pipeline produces a lack of intellectual and emotional investment among students — there’s not as much buy-in as there could be.

So I’m contemplating an experiment: putting together a modular architecture for my comparative politics course. Modular architecture is a term coined by author and business guru Clayton Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma and other books. It refers to designing components (in this case particular topics and the assignments that relate to them) independently so that they can be swapped in and out of a system as needed. The “module” format is a well-known method of organizing a course — the whole class studies certain topics in a sequence. But this is different — students choose topics from a larger list and study them throughout the semester, independently of what other students in the class have chosen. I can see how such an approach might facilitate grouping students into project teams according to topic, but beyond that I’m still trying to figure out how to make this idea work.