Is It Better To Fly Blind Or Naked?

This semester I’m teaching a course on globalization; it’s the first time such a course has been offered at my university. I wasn’t too keen on trying to come up with a semester’s worth of lecture notes on the course’s topic over my winter break. So I decided simply not to lecture. No lecture, no lecture prep.

I had heard of the “teach naked” phenomenon whereby instructors avoid use of modern technology in the classroom, but I had never experienced going into a semester completely blind to what might be said in class on any given day. So far it’s been enlightening, scary, and fun, all at the same time.

My initial worry was “how am I going to fill up 75 minutes of class without any formal presentation of previously-organized information?” My basic pedagogical philosophy is read-read-read, write-write-write, so I knew — as I do in all my other courses — that some class time could be occupied with discussion of the reading. But it took quite a leap of faith to stand back and actually explore ideas that come from the readings as part of an extended conversation. I’m noticing that by not lecturing I more frequently get to point out broader implications of what students are saying, and, so far at least, the students are attentive and engaged.

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.

When Technology Almost Gets The Upper Hand

After two weeks, two laptops, one iPad, one iMac, four webcams, five microphones, a motley collection of light fixtures, and various pieces of software, I’ve finally put together a combination of equipment that allows me to produce video lectures of sufficient quality.

We commonly believe that technology is supposed to support teaching and learning, but often the reality is the reverse. And I’m not just talking about hardware and software. While reviewing the work of others and making my own error-filled practice runs, I discovered why the typical YouTube video runs between four and five minutes: long videos, especially the talking head kind, are boring. I’m a university professor, which means I’m geeky enough to actually enjoy a well-crafted lecture. But my attention span seriously dwindles when I’m experiencing the two dimensional version. Joseph Nye has some interesting ideas, but watching him continuously expound upon soft power on my laptop screen for over 49 minutes is  impossible.

If I can’t do it, I doubt my students can either, which means my video lectures need to be in the two to five minute range. Saying what you need to say within that short time span requires distilling your normal lecture down to its most essential information — spare sentence structure, only one or two illustrative examples, no amusing anecdotes. I found that I was stripping out everything except what students absolutely need to know, and perhaps that is a good thing. If they get just a skeleton of ideas from my online lectures, they might have a better sense of what they should focus on when they are in class.

Presentations in the Inverted Classroom

Interesting that the subject of student presentations has come up. Despite providing students with detailed instructions, exemplars, and advice, presentations were usually so excruciating that I simply stopped making them part of my courses.

This semester I’ve reintroduced them in my comparative politics course, which, accidentally-by-design, became an inverted classroom. I’m assuming many readers of this blog have heard of inverted classrooms — substituting activities in which student critique their own reasoning and that of others for the traditional “me talk, you listen” lecture. My problem was figuring out activities that would consume enough class time. So I decided to turn the close reading of texts, which I had used before as an individual activity, into group presentations.

Here are the directions for the presentations, somewhat condensed:

You and your group will be examining texts in detail and presenting your findings to the rest of the class. These close reading exercises are opportunities to train yourself to be a more thoughtful and efficient reader and to improve your communication skills. For each presentation, at least two members of the group will need to:  

1. Select a paragraph from the reading assignment and analyze its structure as follows:

    1. Identify the paragraph’s topic statement
    2. Explain the topic statement
    3. Identify ideas/evidence used by the author to support the topic statement 

2. Make references to the following characteristics of the paragraph being analyzed:

    1. WHO is the author addressing? WHO does the author imply he or she is, and who readers are?
    2. In both literal (the physical and historical universe) and textual (the storyline) terms, WHERE and WHEN is the paragraph set? Is there a difference between the literal and textual settings? If so, what is the effect of this difference?
    3. WHY did the author construct the paragraph in the particular way that it is constructed?
    4. WHAT mathematical or logical patterns exist in the paragraph? WHAT are the meanings conveyed by these relationships?

Because the class has seven groups of four students each, and each group presents a total five times during the semester. I get to completely avoid lecturing on the days that presentations are scheduled. Instead there is a fairly rapid sequence of different people talking at the front of the room interspersed with Q & A discussions between presenters, the rest of  the class, and myself. Students get multiple, low-stakes opportunities to practice their presentation skills, and I get to avoid a week or two of torture at the end of the semester.  

I can email the complete directions for the above exercise to anyone who wants them.