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Active learning approaches are great for getting new perspectives, sharing ideas, co-creating knowledge and trying out new skills. Many of the recommended techniques for active learning in the classroom focus on encouraging participation and discussion; after all, the seminar model is a familiar one, and verbal contribution is a good way to gauge understanding and to generate a ‘buzz’ in the classroom. Right?

Right, but… (there’s always a ‘but’). As we at UoN continue to explore active pedagogies, and with an eye on inclusion and our upcoming Learning and Teaching Conference, I want to share some conversations I’ve had in the past few weeks that turn a critical eye on classroom discussion models and unpack them from an inclusion perspective.

What is ‘participation’ for, and what does it look like?

The first of these was a conversation with Lee-Ann Sequeira, Academic Developer in the Teaching and Learning Centre at LSE. It was inspired by her session at the recent Radical Pedagogies conference, and also by her thought-provoking blog post examining common perceptions of silent students in the classroom. I won’t repeat the content of that post here (though I definitely recommend reading it), but I wanted to pull out some points from the discussion that followed, which might be of interest if you’re experimenting with active learning approaches.

In some subjects, oral debate is a disciplinary norm, if not an employability requirement: those studying Law, Politics, Philosophy and so on can expect to spend considerable time developing these skills. In these and many other subjects though, debate or discussion is also used to support the learning process, and sometimes as a way to check whether students have prepared for the class. So when asking your students to contribute, it can be helpful to think about what you want to achieve, and how your learning goals should inform the format of that contribution. For example, when one of your goals is to help students develop the skills to effectively present their ideas to an audience, you might need to ensure that every student has an opportunity to do this, but when your goal is to explore and develop an idea from a range of perspectives, is it still necessary that every single student speaks? Aligning the structure of the activity to your goals or learning outcomes can help students understand what’s expected and focus their effort accordingly.

Quality not quantity
As Sequeira’s blog post observes, the literature on active learning focuses a lot on “how to draw [students] out of their shells” (Sequeira 2017). In addition to this, a quick Google search on “active learning” will reveal a myriad of magazine-style opinion pieces on the subject, many of which seem to be in danger of advocating verbal contribution almost for its own sake, and effectively conflating speaking with learning. How then to ensure that when using these approaches, our active classroom doesn’t become hostage to those who talk most, or echo chambers of students that feel they need to be seen to be ‘participating’?
One way to prevent this is by clearly establishing, and then building towards, high standards for individual contributions. When planning your session, think about what you’d like the end result to look like, and what contributions might be needed to get there – always bearing in mind of course that you are just one perspective, so you may not be able to define the ‘finished product’ of co-creation in advance! What you can do though, is think about what a good contribution might look like. Can you provide examples, or talk through this with your students? Then as the discussion unfolds, you can encourage students to think about their own and each others’ comments – do they build on previous comments, do they bring in new evidence, do they advance the understanding in the room?

Thinking fast and slow
Of course, participation is not just verbal – and not just immediate! Active learning should not mean ‘no time to think’. When considering your learning goals, think about fast and slow modes of interaction – is promptness important or does the topic need deliberation and reflection? Silence can be a powerful tool in the classroom if we can resist the urge to fill the space, and giving students time to think before answering can often lead to more developed responses, as well as being more inclusive for those who are less confident, more reflective and/or working in their second or third languages.
Also, as Sequeira points out, participation can be multi-modal – could your students contribute in other formats? And not just to classroom discussions, but also to decision-making processes (choice of topic etc), and to feedback and evaluation opportunities? Thinking about ‘contribution’ more broadly might help to make these processes more inclusive too.

Supporting contribution: ‘productive discomfort’ and ‘brave spaces’
One of the goals of dialogic pedagogies is ‘productive discomfort’ – taking students out of their comfort zone and asking them to examine or defend their views – and being transparent about your pedagogy can also help students to understand this and recognize it in practice. This can be particularly important when working with students who are used to a more transmissive model of education, and are expecting you as the expert to tell them the answers. If your early discussions focus on sharing expectations and you know where your students are coming from, you’ll be able to plan, scaffold and facilitate more effectively.

It can also help to acknowledge that collective exploration of ideas requires both intellectual and emotional labour, particularly as it can be intimidating to voice aloud ideas that are not fully formed. Much of the literature talks about creating ‘safe spaces’, but again this is an idea that merits a more critical inspection, particularly in the context of recent debates about free speech (‘safe’ for whom?). Another approach to this is the idea of ‘brave spaces’, replacing the comfort and lack of risk implicit in ‘safe’ spaces with an explicit acknowledgment of discomfort and challenge (Arao and Clemens 2013). Whichever approach you choose, creating trust will help to ensure students feel able to contribute, and there are a range of ways to do this, including discussion, modelling and constructive feedback. How you answer a ‘stupid’ question, whether or not you ‘cold call’ students, and how you respond to their input will all inform the norms of the learning space.

“The Socratic professor aims for “productive discomfort,” not panic and intimidation. The aim is not to strike fear in the hearts of students so that they come prepared to class; but to strike fear in the hearts of students that they either cannot articulate clearly the values that guide their lives, or that their values and beliefs do not withstand scrutiny.” (Speaking of Teaching, 2003)

Communication is a two way street

These ideas, and Sequeira’s observation about valuing active listening skills, led me on to the second conversation I want to share. Last week I attended a dissemination event for the ‘Learning Through Listening‘ project, led by Zoe Robinson and Christa Appleton at Keele. The project is looking at using global sustainability issues as an accessible context for developing conversations between individuals from different disciplines. This by itself is a laudable goal, as many of the ‘wicked problems’ of sustainable development will certainly need a interdisciplinary approach if we are ever to solve them. More broadly than that though, the project is also looking at developing active listening skills to support these conversations, and at listening as an area that is undervalued in education and in modern life. The event raised a few key questions for me, which I’ve noted below.

Active listening: the missing piece?
When we talk about communication skills with students, what do we prioritise? I work with many staff writing learning outcomes for our taught modules at Northampton, and much of the language we use for communication skills is proactive and performative: describe, explain, present, propose, justify, argue. Perhaps this is inevitable, as we need to make the learning visible in order to assess it, but there’s no doubt that these terms only give half of the picture of what communication actually is. By focusing so much on the telling, on the transmission of information and convincing of other people, are we giving students the impression that listening is less important? Are we encouraging the development of what Robinson described as the “combative mindset” so prevalent in 2018, and thereby inadvertently discouraging the development of curiosity, openness and willingness to learn from others – peers as well as tutors?

To rebalance the discourse around communication, the project at Keele used a number of activities to support the development of listening skills. One idea that really appealed to me was topping and tailing a series of guest speaker sessions – referred to as ‘Grand Challenges‘ – with a workshop before the lecture and a discussion session immediately afterwards. This allowed the students to think about what they already knew about the topic, and prepare to get the most of out of the session, and crucially also to follow up afterwards by sharing and developing some of the ideas it generated. Other interventions were slightly smaller scale, although perhaps easier to implement at a session or module level. Participants at the event last week got to try out some of these, and although I won’t cover them in detail here, the tasters below might give you some ideas for your classroom.

Learning to listen
One activity asked us to think about major influences that had shaped the way we as individuals see the world. We reflected individually on this, then shared what we felt comfortable with. I’ve never been asked to list these explicitly before, and it was interesting to actually see how everyone’s perspective is unique and created from a distinct combination of personal influences. We also talked about the factors that make it difficult for us to listen, covering everything from environment to agency to cognitive load. It was refreshing to realise that sometimes, everyone is bad at listening – and this was demonstrated when one of the session leads read aloud, probably only about a paragraph, and then pointed out that most of us would miss around half of any message we hear! I won’t spoil the final activity, in case you’re planning to go to one of the events, but also because the team at Keele will be releasing guidance on these as outputs from the project this summer. But needless to say it was fascinating – keep an eye on the website and the project blog for more.

Two more things struck me about the day overall. One was the emphasis on setup of the physical space. We spent part of the day seated in a circle, and part in rows facing a screen. This was a deliberate strategy by the project team and the contrast in terms of conversational dynamic was marked. This reinforced my view that we have the right approach with the classrooms at Waterside – it’s really remarkable what a difference movable furniture can make. The other thing I found interesting is that talking about listening made me (and the other participants too) suddenly very conscious of it. Even after the first activity, I found myself monitoring my communication with the other participants. Maybe it only needs one activity or discussion to highlight the issue, to begin to change how participants communicate?

Scaffolding discussion

The final point I want to make is something that was touched on in both of these conversations, and it’s about effective scaffolding. Both classroom and online discussion is usually more productive once the students have ‘warmed up’, got to know each other or developed a bit of confidence. There are lots of ways to approach this. In the event at Keele, for example, we started with a relatively uncontroversial topic – not many people in a university context will disagree that the UN sustainable development goals are a good thing, although they might disagree about how to address them. This can be a good way to introduce dialogic pedagogies, before working towards more heated or controversial topics (see this guidance from the University of Queensland on using controversy in the classroom). At Keele we also started with group discussion before we moved on to the one-to-one. This might be counter to the usual think-pair-share approach to scaffolding, but it did mean we had all spoken, and had some idea of where others in the room were coming from, before moving into more in-depth discussion. There’s also something to be said for reflecting on your question technique – are the questions you ask opening up or shutting down discussion?

These two conversations have given me lots to think about in terms of how we ‘do’ active learning. If you have any thoughts on this from your own experience, as always I’d love to hear them, so please add them as a comment. One last question to end with, thinking back to your last teaching session. Who in the room didn’t contribute, and why might that be?

References:

Arao, B and Clemens, K. (2013) “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice”. In Landreman, L.M. (ed.) The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing LLC, pp135-150.

Robinson, Z. and Appleton, C. (2018) Unmaking Single Perspectives (USP): A Listening Project [online]. Available from: https://www.keele.ac.uk/listeningproject/ [Accessed 27 March 2018]

Sequeira, L. (2018) Heresy of the week 2: silence in the classroom is not necessarily a problem. The Education Blog [online]. Available from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/education/2017/01/19/heresy-of-the-week-2-silence-in-the-classroom-is-no-problem/ [Accessed 27 March 2018]