Sunday, 12 June 2016

On 'Student Teaching'

At our University of Derby learning and teaching day on Thursday, I dropped into a session concerned with students as "co-producers". Yes, it does sound like the unholy offspring of hippyism-muesliism and managerial piffle and this kind of rhetoric is normally enough to turn off anyone in a teaching profession. One of the reasons is while, yes, of course any learning situation is the co-production of all its participants, but there are power relations embedded in any (semi-)traditional class room setting. No amount of fluffy fuzziness can disguise the fact the power is located in the instructor who, depending on the situation, has institutionalised power over the learners and, in some cases, their later life chances. This in mind, I found the session was (thankfully) far from a Brentish experience.

When it comes to innovation in the classroom, there have been no end of attempts at reworking, undermining, and subverting the teacher/student model. Most notably, Paulo Friere's pedagogy developed out of his experience with grassroots literacy programmes in Brazil eschewed the traditional "banking" model of teaching (in which knowledge comes from outside students' social experience and is banked with them as information-receiving receptacles) and empowered them through the process of learning. The problem with this from the perspective of Western (and Westernised) education institutions is that what works in politically charged situations might not be appropriate to classrooms and teachers disciplined and surveilled by learning outcomes, targets, and the tyranny of the student experience measured by dubious satisfaction metrics.

Taken by the Law department's Dave Hodgkinson (known universally as Hodgie), he talked about how he was increasingly frustrated with the traditional tutorial/seminar format on his modules, No matter what he tried, the familiar experience of not all students preparing for the session, the lecturer having to (heavily) moderate the sessions, and - invariably - spending the hour or so doing most of the talking was tiring. In other words, they were not working to meet their desired functions as forums for learning. Earlier this semester he experimented with something different. From his hundred-strong cohort he asked for volunteers who would be willing to be a 'student teacher'. Of the four who came forward, he emailed the questions and the topics that needed covering in the tutorial before the session and that was it. The student would rock up to class and assume the top position, and get on with the teaching. Except these seminars were much more different. While Hodgie was on hand for each one, he did not intervene. The onus was on the students themselves to keep focus.

What he found was after the first few sessions, the normal hierarchical teacher/student relation dissolved. Discussions were free-ranging and when they went off on tangents (as they inevitably do), focus was brought back by students referencing Hodgie's comments in previous lectures. He also found that, understandably, students taking on the volunteer roles ensured they were well-prepared for each tutorial. Yet, perhaps because of the peer pressure element involved, students who weren't teachers were also turning up better prepared and more willing to talk about the issues raised by the material. Is it the case that the students achieve what we as teachers ask them to do by abolishing our role? According to the feedback, it was clear that the volunteer student teachers and the rest got something different from it, but for both groups the close engagement with material and self-reliance meant for an unorthodox positive experience.

In terms of one set of metrics - satisfaction - it got a big tick. But what about the rest? At the time of the presentation Hodgie had not compared marks from this with previous years, but it stands to reason that the process of preparation and the more thorough seminar discussions would have had a positive impact. We'll soon see as Hodgie plans on writing up the results for an HE pedagogy journal.

Like all academics I've had enough blank faces and awkward silences to last a life time. And no doubt there are many others yet to come, but it seems to me that if this kind of format works for sessions about black letter law there's no reason it shouldn't for, say, a discussion of social theory. Something to chew over then.

1 comment:

Metatone said...

I think it is definitely worth a try.
I teach US foreign exchange students who are in London. (Typically they are in penultimate or final year.)
The experience as a teacher is very similar to that I hear about in UK unis.
Just too many "blank faces and awkward silences."

I've done little experiments that point to something like you describe and it does seem to make a positive difference. Key issue IME is student numbers. It depends on the "characters in the room" but there's definitely a tipping point where if the class size is too large then the room just bifurcates into some enthusiastic students discussing the matter at hand and another slice more likely to have drifted off on to the football.

Did the speaker say what class sizes he was working with?