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.

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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).