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The Rules of Engagement

Written by Linda Westphalen

There is no rule that says that University learning can’t be fun.  In fact, we tend to learn better when we’re engaged, interacting and doing a bit more than slogging our way through a ‘checked box’ of ‘learning aims’ in a social vacuum.  Engagement is operationalised in a minimum of at least three places: the physical and/or online space (these can be anywhere – boutique, bus, bog, bedroom), the cranium of the educator at the time of ‘teaching’, and the cranium of each learner. The latter two don’t have to be synchronous, but they do have to relate and there does have to be social thingummies, like conversations and feedback, happening.

For social engagement to enhance learning there has to actually be social engagement.  In other words, for those of us who think that Vygotsky and Piaget were right with constructivist learning theory, it’s not enough to know the theory and trot out the buzz words.  Gotta live the theory.  Gotta enact the words.

Cranial engagement pretty much then proceeds from the social stuff: human beings are hard-wired to be attracted to the novel and interesting – the trick is finding out what this ‘hook’ might be and the problem is it isn’t the same hook for everyone.  Humans are also diverse, brilliantly beautifully and intriguingly so, and that means appealing to the Diversity with diversity. So that means (if we’re social constructivists who know a ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ isn’t referring to a person’s libido) that we offer pedagogic variation in the ZPD  – we zig and zag up and down, do new things, pull up our strugglers and extend our talented.  We surprise people.  We play with ideas or theories or computer languages or objects.  We send our learners on journeys.  We ask them to watch carefully and talk together about what they see.  We create with them, as well as for them.  We engage.

Ok, Linda.  Got it.  But how?

Within the bounds of the law, money and time, however you want.  Here’s few suggestions:

Set The Table:

Buy $3 plastic table cloths and set them out with whiteboard markers.  Ask the students to work in pairs to respond to a problem, solve an equation, conceptualise a theory – whatever –and draw it on the table cloth. Ask them to move around a space at the table, so they’re in front of someone else’s response.  Add to it or edit it or agree/disagree with it.  Go back to their original place and look at the peer feedback:  useful? Agree with it?  You then have concepts, designs or solutions to use in teaching, discuss together and, if you bring a pair of scissors, take away. This is a good one if you’ve limited access to whiteboards.

Crumpled Conversation Starters:

You’ve planned to discuss a difficult issue and students aren’t talking because they’re afraid to say the wrong thing.  Give them an A4 bit of paper and ask them to write their response on it, no names needed. Ask them to screw the paper into a ball and throw it in a box you hold.  Choose a ball to respond to yourself, then distribute one each to students in pairs or threes, and ask them to discuss the response and come up with a further response. (If you’re a canny teacher, you’ll know not to ask ‘cold questions’.  Always get the students to chat together about a question first.  Your response rates will be higher.)

Solution Exchange:

Here’s another.  Put the students in groups of about 4-6 people. Give each group a different problem and ask that they work out a solution together.  Each person writes down their solution.  Check the answer is correct and then regroup everyone, so that the new groups have a representative from the old groups in them.  Everyone exchanges the process of the solutions. Note: if you have a rowdy student who over-shadows all the conversation, make a rule that they can say whatever they like, so long as it’s a question.


Pedagogic diversity is just being a sensible teacher – ‘sense-able’ teachers appeal to the brain’s inbuilt desire for new shiny things.  And it’s worth noting that we don’t teach the same thing in the same way over and over, because our teacher-brains get bored too.  Brains want work.  If there’s no work, no interest, no engagement, then it either finds work elsewhere (this is called ‘distraction’) or it dulls (this is called ‘sleep’ or ‘coma’). Either way, it’s to be avoided. Whatever you do, keep a record on how it went.  Keep the things that work.  Ditch the things that don’t.

Bottom line, good teaching is creative engagement with content, delivered in a social context, with variety.  Good teaching is not the same as perfect teaching – there’s no such beastie.  Good teaching is thinking through the alignment between learning outcomes and assessment, and taking a punt on a new process of learning.  It won’t always work, but when it does….

 


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