What happens when you bring a diverse group of people into a space and ask them to learn together?
What happens when you bring a diverse group of people into a space and ask them to learn together? As the academic year starts (well, a week late for my department!), this is going on all over the University. Strangers with different experiences and backgrounds are being asked to work towards a common learning goal. Is the diversity of the group an opportunity to be exploited or a problem to be overcome?
It might be useful to consider this question with reference to the “Robert and Susan problem” (Biggs & Tang 2011). The authors use Susan to represent students who are easy to teach because they are academic and motivated to learn. Robert, on the other hand, represents students who see university as a way of getting a good job and may be less academically inclined. In the context of the Bologna process which requires universities in forty-seven European countries to improve teaching and move towards Europe-wide standards, HE teachers cannot neglect the needs of Robert simply because it is easier, perhaps more rewarding to teach Susan.
The problem for teachers is how can these two distinct groups be kept motivated, engaged and satisfied with the outcome of their studies? Biggs and Tang argue that “teaching that requires active engagement by students decreases the gap between Susan and Robert.” (Biggs & Tang 2011, p.3)
I’m wondering if my idea of tasks which require “active engagement” are the sort which would bridge this divide between the Roberts and Susans. Is it necessary for teachers to be able to identify the Roberts and Susans in their class in order to teach effectively? Or is it enough to be aware that such differences are likely to exist and ensure our teaching is appropriate to that reality? Is it possible and mutually beneficial for Robert and Susan to work together?
In learner-centric teaching (as distinct from teacher-centric), the first task for the teacher must surely be creating the right environment for learning to take place. It’s no longer sufficient to stand at the front of class and broadcast information to a sea of anonymous faces (even if they’re all Susans!). We need to connect on a more social level with students so that dialogue and questioning can take place and activities can be engaged in more fully.
So, the first basic problem – how do you learn everybody’s names quickly. I was hopelessly bad at this in my first year and I think it hindered me throughout my teaching and feedback. It’s very difficult to bring a range of students, especially quieter ones, into the activity or discussion when you can’t remember their name. I hadn’t envisaged it being a problem. How hard can it be to remember 40 people’s names? But when I was only seeing them for 3 hours every other week, it quickly became clear that it was much harder than I’d imagined and after a few weeks into the course, it became a much harder problem to address
This is such a simple idea I’m kicking myself for not thinking of it!
This was unexpected. At the start of the PGCAP introductory session, I was asked to start knitting and then show the person sitting next to me how to do it. The boys really took to the task!
It’s the kind of activity I can imagine some students rejecting as too outlandish and irrelevant. But I found it a really useful ice breaker. Firstly, it surprised everyone and made us smile and then we started conversations about our knitting experience and as we shared the skill, we connected with each other. It’s a way of starting to build a picture of the people you’re going to be working with on the course and it’s equally applicable in the teacher-student relationship. By building small connections with students and co-learners, we are building empathy, trust and a desire to succeed together.
I do worry it’s harder to engage students in this kind of activity than adults. But I agree that we should try! I tend to get disheartened when I see one or two looking bored. Instead, I should be concentrating on the positive effect it’s having on the group as a whole – or accepting it didn’t work, reflecting on the reasons why and adapting the task for next time.
These days, my only involvement with Lego is picking it up at the end of the day after my daughters have strewn it across their bedroom. So this was fun! But looking back on what the task achieved, I can see that I very quickly felt a connection with my group as we worked on the common goal – however silly the goal ultimately was. Silliness can require as much thought as the serious stuff! For students just starting out on university life, simple group activities without the pressure of being overtly “academic,” could remove barriers by enabling them to build trust with their peers and see the value of collaboration.
The little things count in the learning environment – even something as simple as learning names. That task has to be at least begun before meaningful engagement and collaboration can take place. As a result, I’ve already posted a photo of myself holding up my name on the Flickr site I created last year for the students (but never really used).
I shall be asking my students to do the same next Friday. I may ask them to do it during a break so they’ve got time to do something a bit creative with the task – decorate their name label or photograph themselves in a significant location.I might not bring knitting….
Biggs, J, & Tang, C (2011) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (4th ed), Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University.