Can you have active learning if your approach to teaching is passive?

My task this week is to read and comment on teaching portfolios written by colleagues in my university, in two different faculties. This is proving enjoyable, as the window they offer into the different ways in which these teachers are challenged, and in which they are trying to therefore adapt and grow, provides an inspiring view of higher education and where it is hopefully headed.

However, I have been struck over and over by something that bothers me: the common use of fairly passive verbs to describe both their own teaching and their students’ learning. Here I am referring to terms like presenting lectures or tutorials; delivering content, or a learning message; allowing students to learn or engage in particular ways; covering the curriculum, and providing students with information or knowledge.

Yet, over and over, lecturers using these passive verbs iterate the desire for their students to become more active, engaged and engaging students who can embody a wide range of graduate attributes that will enable them to contribute meaningfully to the discipline whist studying, and to their professional field after graduation. I am wondering, now, whether and how students can truly attain this goal if the espoused approach to teaching is passive, embodied in the verbs noted above?

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Research over the last couple of decades in Southern Africa and globally has repeatedly, both conceptually and through empirical studies, argued for an increasingly active, participatory approach to teaching and learning. Students need to be increasingly involved in their own learning, and teaching needs to create authentic opportunities for students to create knowledge, critique knowledge and apply their skills to field or subject-specific tasks that move them closer to becoming graduates who can contribute meaningfully, both to society at large and to their chosen profession. This kind of teaching, and related learning, is anything but passive, and yet the dominance of lecture and tutorial ‘presentation’, ‘content delivery’, and ‘absorption’ or ‘reception’ of knowledge continues to persist.

I wish I had answers as to why there is this continuing gap – often unseen by lecturers who are tasked with closing or crossing it – between the passive ways in which teaching seems to be described and even enacted, and the active learning expectations lecturers have of their students on the whole. This is a challenging question for academic staff developers, and for university managers who assign time and money to teacher-development on their campuses, particularly in an increasingly volatile higher education environment globally where hard questions are being asked about the form and shape of the education students are engaged in. Academics are not hired, oftentimes, because they can be or are good teachers; they are employed for excellence in research or potential to be productive researchers. The teaching they do often feels far less valued, visible and worth investing in.

This is not a new refrain, but it is worth pointing out, again, that if universities expect their lecturing staff to be cognisant of current scholarship and practice innovations in the field of teaching and learning, and be able to adapt, grow and apply new learning to their teaching such that their own practice is aligned with their expectations of students, time needs to be created for lecturers to do this meaningfully. Teaching needs to be more fully valued, and seen as valuable work worthy of personal and professional investment, rather than expected to be an area of excellence that must be worked in in lecturers’ own time outside of research and further study of their own towards postgraduate degrees.

Further to time is the need for the creation and sustenance of meaningful and ongoing support for lecturers who are working to reflect on, learn from, and enhance their teaching and create more responsive and relevant learning environments within their disciplines or fields. Rather than ‘parachuting in’* for short workshops every now and then, and then becoming frustrated when excitement and change cannot occur or be sustained, academic staff developers need to also be willing and able and supported in offering more long-term, relationship-based and collaborative assistance to teaching academics. While also not a new comment, there is frustratingly slow change on this front.

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I don’t think the use of these passive verbs is accidental or meaningless; the words we use to talk about ourselves, our teaching and our students are powerful, and they invoke particular understandings of education and its role and purposes within our lived contexts. They have meaning, and they need to be used carefully. I think, in spite of excellent and challenging work being done in academic staff development around the world that critiques passive understandings of teachers as delivery people or messengers and students as clients or receivers, dominant conceptions of teaching and learning as delivery and receipt tend to hold, unchallenged because they are often invisible.

We need to listen for these words, and challenge them as carefully and firmly as we can, while offering support to those who need to cross the bridge from passive to more participatory teaching, bringing their students with them as they do. We need to be more united in calling for critique of dominant conceptions of lecturers, students, teaching, and learning. We need to continue to speak back to approaches to structuring university life that devalue teaching and therefore reduce the time for the work and relationship-building efforts that really go into creating meaningful higher education that can grow graduates who can and will contribute to enhancing social justice and the public good.

Teaching, learning, writing and ‘The Matrix’

Writing in the Academy

From sandboxtactics.com From sandboxtactics.com

I used the metaphor of The Matrix (from the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film) in a PhD blog post I wrote recently (here), and I have been thinking a bit more about how it can be used as a metaphor for becoming a more conscious writer and knower in higher education. Perhaps by unpacking this idea (and having a bit of fun with it) we can understand a little more about how to make what we are doing as teachers and expecting of students’ learning more open and visible for our students, and we can fill gaps and make connections more overtly.

For those who have not seen the film, the basic premise is that a computer programmer/hacker, Thomas Anderson or Neo, is approached by a character called Morpheus and offered a choice – life is not it seems, and Neo is special. He has the power to change…

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Why good supervisors might sometimes make easy things harder

Nick Hopwood

I recently had an experience that made me reflect on an aspect of research supervision (supervision of a PhD, EdD, DCA, or Masters by Research).

Bear with me: I’m going to tell a short story relating to some training I do in freediving, and then I’m going to explain why I think it points to some helpful ideas about supervision and what postgrad students may be experiencing in terms of difficulties, particularly writing.

A lesson in freediving

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When I’m not at work, one of the things I love to do most is freediving. Freediving involves holding your breath while being under water. It is an amazing activity that involves physical and mental challenge, discipline and practice. I am often at my most peaceful, focused and contented state when freediving. A large part of freediving involves depth: taking a big breath and swimming down towards the bottom of the sea. I’ve put…

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Working towards a transformative writing centre pedagogy

This could be a useful starting point for thinking about teaching students how to write in the disciplines.

Writing in the Academy

I attended a really interesting seminar presentation last week by Cecilia Jacobs from Stellenbosch University near Cape Town on ‘academic literacies and the question of knowledge’ (this is also the title of a paper the talk was based on – well worth reading). One of the points she made, referring to a 2007 paper by Theresa Lillis and Mary Scott has really had me thinking, and is the subject of this post: that we need to move, in our academic literacy work, from a more ‘normative’ framing and practice to a more ‘transformative’ framing and practice.

Briefly, Lillis and Scott describe normative practices as those which are focused on identifying textual features or features of practice – genres/moves/’rules’/steps/forms etc – and inducting students into these so that they can become proficient and recognised as belonging to that community of practice. An example would be teaching students how to write argumentative…

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Can we unthink the way we think about writing? Part 2

Writing in the Academy

This post follows on from my previous post about beginning the year challenging ourselves to ‘unthink’ some of the ways in which we think about academic writing conventions in higher education. The first post dealt with how we teach students to avoid plagiarising the work of others, and how we might go about teaching referencing differently. This post discusses another way in which I think we can rethink academic writing: by rethinking our approach to teaching different forms of written tasks, in particular argumentative essays.

I must preface the rest of this post by saying that I think this is a tough topic. It’s difficult to write good argumentative essays as an undergraduate and as a teacher of undergraduates I know that it is also difficult to teach students how to write these kinds of essays well. We see students at the Writing Centre all year long who are really…

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Why I enjoy blogging and why students could too

*This post is also published on the UWC Writing Centre’s blog.*

I startedthis blog for the Writing Centre in April last year. I was very new to blogging at the time, and wanted to find a way of writing about what we do and who we are and the issues we are concerned about as a writing centre team that allowed us to connect to readers and interested people more immediately and more informally. I also wanted the tutors to begin to write some of the posts and find a less daunting way of thinking about some of the aspects of their work with students and as writers, and share these thoughts in this informal space.

Academic publishing is a tough field. In South Africa we are encouraged to publish in accredited journals, and many of these have high rejection rates and it can take more than a year for your work to appear in print. Many of these journals make papers available only to those with subscriptions, so your work is not available openly to all who may want to read it, for free. Writing for these journals and at this level is also challenging, takes time, needs to conform in specific ways more often than not, and is not always enjoyable, especially when a paper you hoped you were done with comes back with reviewers’ reports requesting significant rethinking, revising and rewriting in order to be publishable!

I love blogging for these reasons. It’s online, it’s free to read and anyone can sign up to follow your blog and read and think about what you have to say. There is a sense of a more immediate community in some ways, as people ‘like’ posts and can comment on them quite informally, and that is always encouraging. I don’t have to reference, and find lots of evidence for all the claims I make. I can wonder, conjecture, provoke and think in this space, and just leave questions out there without immediate answers. I don’t write just any old thing and I do think about what I want to say and the relevance it may have for readers interested in writing and academic literacy in education – as an academic it all comes from spaces in my head and work-life that have theory and thinking within and behind them. But this space feels freer than my other academic writing, and it takes less time to do. I can adopt a more relaxed and even humorous tone, and I can play with words and phrases in ways that academic publishing does not often allow.

I enjoy blogging because I enjoy being free to write without second-guessing what I write, and because it gives me a space in which to form ideas and think about things I am not quite ready to research and write full journal articles about. I gives me, and hopefully also my tutoring colleagues, a place to write about ideas we may never write formal articles about but which are still interesting to us, and hopefully others, and which should be put out there, perhaps for others to take up and carry further. Many academics ask students to blog now as part of ongoing assessment, as a way to get them to think about and reflect on what they are learning – not necessarily for lots of marks, but definitely for lots of learning. As a form of low stakes and formative assessment, I think blogs are an excellent teaching, learning and writing tool. And they make writing fun, which for students ( and academics) is always a good thing :).

Useful apps for writers

We all know we have to write – the adage of ‘publish or perish’ is well-known amongst academics. But we also know we have to teach, and manage increasingly large loads of administration, and spend time with our families and ourselves, and have lives outside of work. So where do we find the time to write? There just does not seem to be enough of this precious commodity to go around, and making time to write also means having to make time to read and think and be organised and this all sounds like a lot of hard work, the pleasures of writing notwithstanding. But, publishing the work we are doing is important, and it is something worth finding time for. Not just because it is required of us as part of our work as academics, but also because it is necessary for the growth and development of our fields, and because people will be able to use the work we publish to build and develop their own work. The expansion of knowledge, knowing and also related practice and doing through scholarship and sharing of knowledge and learning is something to take seriously, and also get excited about. But, it is work.So to help out, this link below will take you to some apps we have found for writers who struggle to make time to write and to keep at it; some of them we have used ourselves and find very helpful. You might also find this post on writing worth reading too. To borrow the words of a colleague who presented a paper on publishing in academia last year: it shouldn’t be publish or perish; we should make it publish and flourish!

http://www.appslick.com/useful-apps-writers/

Can we teach academic writing (and whose job is it anyway?)

On the face of it, the answer to the first part of this question looks like an easy ‘yes’ doesn’t it? In some ways, it is a yes; easy – well, I’m less sure about that. The answer to the second part of the question is perhaps less easy in practice.

Image from socialutions.co.uk
Image from socialutions.co.uk

A few years ago I was tutoring and teaching in courses in different faculties and this was my job: to teach students how to write academically (as in, in the forms and styles required of the disciplines within those faculties, according to their criteria and standards). But here’s the thing: it was actually a really tough job, and lots of my students really struggled to get what I was trying to tell them about how they should be writing.  We were teaching students to write their essays and paragraphs in courses that stood outside of the disciplines, were not embedded or integrated into these disciplines, and yet were expected to produce good student writers at the end of a semester-long ‘academic writing’ course. And often the content we chose to give students to read and write about was not as relevant as it could have been. So, it was tricky work.

In the writing centre we are often asked by lecturers if they can refer their students to us for help with their writing so that they can concentrate on ‘content’ and don’t have to worry about ‘the writing’, which implies that they don’t see this as their job. This is also tricky work because we work with a wide range of students, many from disciplines we have never studied. So, what I am asking here is:  can we actually ‘teach’ writing to students in a writing centre or writing course with whom we may and may not share disciplinary backgrounds? Whose job is this anyway?

In the Writing Centre we don’t ‘teach’ writing didactically or from a position of being experts with knowledge that we will fill empty student heads and pens with. We  advise, guide, support, converse with, prompt… but perhaps we do teach in a more gentle way, in the sense that there are things students are not sure of, or don’t know, that we help them with in our tutorials, like how to approach a literature review, or how to write a comprehensive introduction. Ideally, writing courses should also be more workshop-based rather than pitched as lectures. We learn to write by writing, and being given feedback we can use to keep working and improving, not by being told what good writing is. So, in some ways an answer would be, ‘yes, we can teach students some of the aspects of academic writing’. But we are all too aware that there are limits to what we can do in a writing centre or literacy course that sits outside of the disciplines students are writing in and for.  We cannot teach or advise on the subtleties of writing and knowing in their disciplines if we do not share this discourse.

So this brings me to the second question: whose job is this, then? I think the answer is both parties – those in the disciplines and those outside of it. I have written elsewhere about the important role people with a specialist interest in academic writing and literacies can play in helping academic lecturers talk and think about the kinds of writing their students need to do, and how to make the standards, criteria and also forms and styles more learnable, and teachable. Many others have written about this too. I think it’s easy to say that all lecturers need to be teaching writing in their disciplines, but this is harder to do from the inside where you know what good writing and poor writing look like, but don’t always have the ‘language’ to talk about this with your students in ways that are helpful to them. We become so immersed in our own discourses that the things that  flummox students look like common sense to us, and it’s not easy to step away without some help from someone who sees thing differently and can help you work it all out.

Partnerships between lecturers and writing tutors or academic literacy specialists can be useful in working out ways to teach students in higher education how to adjust to new ways of thinking, talking and writing about knowledge that are particular to higher education, and to particular disciplines. We can and must teach students how to write (and read and think and speak) about what they know, along with the content knowledge itself rather than in a separate space or course, and the job is that of the lecturers primarily, with the possibility of partnerships and collaborations with writing and literacy specialists. It’s a job for all who take student learning, access, inclusion and social justice in education seriously.

*This post first appeared on The Writing Centre @ UWC (uwcwritingcentre.wordpress.com).

Participatory Learning in Action (PLA) techniques in tutor training

Objective tree 1I have been working quite a bit over the last two years with tutors in two faculties, EMS and CHS, along with tutor coordinators and T&L specialists. Our main focus has been to find new, interesting and interactive ways of training and supporting tutors so that they are better equipped to work with students in tutorials. This is enjoyable work, but also presents ongoing challenges and questions about sustainability because many of the approaches to tutor training in departments and faculties do not seem to find ways to give tutors more of a voice, and to draw in their own student and also prior tutoring experiences to make the training environment richer and more relevant to them.

The overall goal of the training programme I devised for CHS tutors this year was to do exactly that – to make it about the tutors, rather than about me or even the university. One of the ways in which I have managed to get them to engage on a more personal level is through using various PLA techniques in training, like the River of Life, Matrix Rankings, and Problem and Objective Trees. These techniques are fun to use, everyone can understand what is required, and they have helped tutors from different backgrounds to talk to one another across their different contexts and have built, even if only in the room during the training, a sense of shared purpose and community. The tutors’ feedback has also indicated the value of these approaches to them in terms of getting them to think about their own journeys through academia from a different angle, and also to get them to think about what the students they tutor might draw if given the same opportunity. So they are developing an empathy for their students. They are also using these tools to reflect on things like problems and challenges they are encountering, as well as highlights and rewards of tutoring, and then moving on to look at goals and objectives for next semester – what will they change and improve on? How will they do this? So these tools are helping them to approach their work more critically and also more proactively – they are being given a chance to develop agency, even if they still have to work within departmental guidelines (and sometimes confines).

The value of using PLA techniques in tutor training is significant. We need to continue to find ways of getting tutors involved in their own training and support, and make their voices, experiences and knowledge count in ways that recognise the contributions they make to teaching and learning. I think this is the way to create more inclusive training environments, and also more inclusive teaching and learning environments where tutors and tutorials are part of the whole learning experience for students, rather than an add-on or in. And this is a worthy goal to have.