Tag Archives: active learning

Teaching: It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

In reviewing a performance of the Dorrance Dance Company, a New York Times critic praised Michelle Dorrance, the company’s founder and lead choreographer. The critic commented on their excellent collective work as well as the virtuosity of their solo performances. After noting that Michelle was the most prominent and ubiquitous tap dancer in America, he pointed out that it was easy to tell who she was – – she was the company member who had the fewest solos. Although it seems odd that the head of a company would give herself the fewest solos during a performance, it made a lot of sense to me. Like her father, Anson Dorrance, the winningest women’s soccer coach in the NCAA, Michelle emphasizes creating the conditions that allow each of her troupe to realize their full potential. The performance was not about her, it was about them.

As I reflected on the simplicity of her genius (she won a 2015 MacArthur genius award), I recognized that it exposed all that was wrong with what I’ve been observing on my occasional strolls past a local  classroom during the past semester. The instructor usually left the door ajar, and so was easy to hear his booming voice, echoing down the hall. In the first week or so of the semester I wasn’t surprised to hear only him, but as the weeks turned into months, it became increasingly clear that his was usually the only voice to be heard from that room. I peered in – – there were about 15 students, sitting around a set of tables arranged in a square .The instructor stood at the front, next to the screen on what he was projecting PowerPoint slides, talking. And talking. And talking.

I thought I must just be passing by at inopportune moments. In a humanities seminar, students surely would be offering their own observations on the material. I even shared a running joke with one of my colleagues whose office was near the classroom. She knew the instructor and so occasionally I stopped by her office after observing another monologue and joked that I still hadn’t heard a student’s voice. She said she knew him and thought that he must be a good instructor, but by the middle of the term, I demurred.

 I noted that he was teaching a class organized around his own views of the material, his own interpretations, not theirs. Out of 15 students, surely there must be other views. When will they have an opportunity to test their understanding against others? How would they even know how their classmates interpret the material? He walks into the classroom,puts his voice on play, and then dominates the next 50 minutes. It’s not about them, it’s about him.

In this era of flipped classrooms,active learning, and student-centered instruction, why does such archaic pedagogy persist? When I can figure out a polite way to introduce myself to the instructor, I suspect I will find that he is well-intentioned and probably not conscious of the extent to which he dominates the classroom. (I hesitate to say“classroom discussion” because I never really heard any.) But he has approached the design of this seminar from the wrong direction. Instead of thinking about ways to achieve the learning goals of the seminar by empowering the students,he has designed the class so that he is telling the students what he knows.Students have few opportunities to tell him what they know (or, probably, don’t know). As I pointed out in several of my other posts, talking is not teaching.In seminars, instructors who do most of the talking are like captains who add so much ballast to their ships that they sink of their own weight.

Even if you are the world’s expert on the topic of your seminar, follow Michelle Dorrance’s lead and allow your students to show their stuff. Listen to them more and talk less yourself.

Lecturing & daydreaming: what happens when students have no decisions to make?

A few weeks ago, I spent several days at a conference on a topic that holds great intrinsic interest for me. I signed up for the conference, eagerly anticipating meeting new people and being challenged with novel ideas. I had never attended the conference before and had few preconceived notions about the format for presentations. However, because most of the scholars were in the humanities, I knew that I wouldn’t be seeing many tables of numbers or hearing about esoteric statistics!

What I wasn’t prepared for was being read to. Over the course of several days, almost every speaker read their presentations from pre-prepared scripts. In one typical session, the first two presenters held their papers with two hands, looked up occasionally, and put the paper down only to change the PowerPoint pictures. They read well, using inflection and pitch to emphasize important points, but it was still a word for word matching of oral presentation to the text. The third presenter had a script but had done a better job in memorizing it, as she occasionally made eye contact with us and did a fairly good job of disguising the fact that she was reading.

Biennale sculptures in Arsenale

Which way to turn?

As I always try to do in conferences, I had made a point of sitting in the first row, so I could see the slides clearly and also have a clear view of the presenters’ faces. I found that being able to see faces helps me catch meanings I otherwise might miss when I don’t hear all the words.

Despite my advantageous location, where I should’ve been in the thick of the action, there wasn’t any. I found my attention wandering, and to stay focused, I tried taking notes of the key points that I heard. As often happens, my notes quickly became observations on the format of the presentations and not just their contents.

Why couldn’t I stay focused on the content? Frequently in such situations I find myself lamenting the lack of presentational skills by the panelists and speculating about what it must be like to sit through one of their classes. But in this case, I turned the focus on myself and asked why I wasn’t doing a better job in playing along with the role of an “audience member,” which is apparently how the presenter saw me. Then I realized that I didn’t want to play that role anymore.

Instead, I wanted to do something. I wanted the presenters to ask me questions, to solicit my feedback, and to force me to puzzle out where they were going next. Alas, their one-way talk left me with no options — no decisions to make. I had been forced into a thoroughly passive role.

If there was to be action, I needed to force it myself. I started writing down objections to what was being said, but because the presenter had left no space for such diversions, whenever I wrote something down, I missed a part of the presentation. Because the presenter was reading from the text, and redundancy had mostly been edited out, missing a few sentences often meant I lost the thread of the argument.

Colleagues who know me well will recognize that, once again, I’ve found another provocation from which to push my case for active learning! The situation in which I found myself was very much like that of our undergraduate students in classic lecture based classes: an instructor does 90% or more of the talking while students passively try to record in their notes as much as possible of what has been said. The few questions asked of the students are mostly rhetorical and only answers that conform to the a priori expectations of the instructor will be followed up.

Why do such situations make me so unhappy? Why was I so disappointed with the presentations I heard at the conference? I think it is because the presenters had made no allowance in their plans for bringing me into the session as an active participant. Just as instructors who rely heavily on one way talk give their students no decisions to make, as an audience member, I also was expected to simply absorb what was being offered rather than let the speaker know that I actually understood – – or not – – what was being said.

The decisions offered to me could have been simple ones: the presenters could’ve asked for examples of what they were talking about. The speakers could have offered several alternative scenarios that completed their narrative and then asked us which one we thought was the most plausible, and why. They could have purposefully constructed an alternative counterfactual scenario and then asked us why it didn’t occur.


Venice red threads & keys

You Keep Me Hanging On! Keys hanging by red threads at Japan Pavilion, Venice Biennale, May 2015

My point is straightforward: when humans are put in situations where they are simply being talked to, with no opportunities offered for them to engage their higher order cognitive powers, they will struggle mightily to stay engaged with the material. I recently read a blog post by a scholar who works with online courses and who noted that she had viewed some amazingly well produced videos. However, within one week, she had completely forgotten their contents! The slick videos had given her no role to play in her own instruction.

The natural cycle of human attention is quite short, but it is further truncated when people are asked to play only passive roles, as audience members. Daydreaming is a more likely outcome than deep learning!