Sunday, July 21, 2013

Teaching, AG

One of the concerns I frequently hear raised by lecturers is the complaint that universities are decreasing lecture contact time, and consequently lecturers are having to reduce the content they deliver in a teaching session. Inevitably, the fear is that standards will drop as we 'dumb-down' the content for this reduced teaching schedule.

It's an interesting concern, and reflects the curious conflict that has arisen for lecturers and teachers in this AG (after-Google) era. Content is readily available at the touch of a keyboard. There is very little that can't be found within a few seconds of a Google search. So why are we so wedded to the idea that we need to deliver content? Ironically, many of the same people who worry about the reduction of content also complain that students lack the ability to think critically, to analyse sources appropriately, and to synthesise the information they find. This seems a little contradictory: will students ever learn to be analytical and critical if we continue to provide them with the content we think they need? I would certainly agree (based only on my own observations) that many students do lack these skills, and rely too heavily on whatever appears at the top of their Google search without understanding exactly how those results lists are created. But is this any different from my own undergraduate (not quite pre-computer, certainly pre-internet) days, when we took scrupulous notes in lectures so that we could parrot back in the exam everything we had been told? The excellent students were those who worked their way through the supplied reading list; again, not too different from the Google search results.

Stepping away from content delivery can feel risky. I know. I recently was asked by one of Massey's flagship institutes to run two three-hour professional development sessions on facilitating problem-based learning (PBL) as part of their preparation for the roll-out of a new curriculum. There is something particularly terrifying about being asked to present oneself as an expert, in front of a room filled with people who are international experts in their fields.

For days, I wrestled with how to design the sessions. Lecturers from the institute openly acknowledge their tendency to be 'tough on outsiders'; an admission which increased my anxiety! Adding to this was the fact that some of the lecturers who would be attending the session were PBL evangelists who had used the strategy in their teaching for years, others were anxious but enthusiastic about the changes, and still others were morbidly opposed to being forced to change their teaching style. I felt that I needed to present them with three hours of riveting content that would convince them all of the value of PBL whilst at the same time provide them with all the skills and strategies they would need to be competent facilitators themselves. A little daunting. A throw-away comment to one of my colleagues provided me with the answer: instead of presenting myself as the expert and spouting forth for three hours, I would present the lecturers with the problem, and give them the opportunity to solve it. No better way to learn about problem-based learning than to do it.

And suddenly the task became a lot easier from my side. Instead of trying to design a scintillating three-hour lecture (an unlikely combination) with riveting powerpoint slides, all I did was find a range of practical readings about PBL facilitation, photocopy the letter that had been sent requesting the professional development in the first place, divide the lecturers into groups, and set them off developing a professional development session to train a group of lecturers facilitation of  problem-based learning!
The first session thus became a PBL-in-action session, with me modelling facilitation skills, and the lecturers experiencing the role of students. And it was an outstanding success. At the start, many of the lecturers grumbled that what I was doing was a cop-out, and the lazy option, exactly the sort of feedback shown in the literature to be the typical first response of students starting PBL. One or two actively worked against the process, again, typical of a student response. The majority, however, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, knuckled down and tackled the problem, and rapidly became engrossed in the process.

Whilst all this was happening, I was making notes on the process, the comments that were being made, and the behaviours that were occurring. That was the real focus of the session, and the debrief that followed was an interesting process. Even the lecturers who were opposed to the introduction of PBL were engaged and had a better understanding of the process. One admitted that his opposition arose out of his own anxiety of handing control of the classroom over to a group of 100 students, a genuine and common fear. What really convinced people, however, was the fact that they had remained interested and engaged (even if in opposition) for three hours; they had tackled and shared a range of literature, critically reflecting on how it would apply in their own circumstances, and by working in the group, they had generated considerably more and deeper learning than I would have had I lectured them for three hours.

An issue that arose out of the first session was the need many of the lecturers felt to have a 'practice-run' facilitating a PBL session. We arranged this by bribing a group of student volunteers with the promise of a lavish afternoon tea. Lecturers then took turns to work in pairs to facilitate the students working through one of their PBL scenarios, whilst their colleagues observed and offered feedback. Again, it was an incredibly valuable learning experience for everyone. The facilitators were given feedback from their peers and the students themselves; the students got to see lecturers working on improving their craft, and all of us observing found ourselves reflecting on our own teaching and knowledge of PBL as we watched the facilitators working their way through the process. Like the first session, feedback from this session was overwhelmingly positive. A senior lecturer noted how valuable it had been to get immediate feedback from the students, and decided he would incorporate strategies for doing this into all of his teaching. Another said that the session had been the most valuable experience in all her teaching professional development.

What did I take out of all of this (apart from relief that I had not been chewed up and spat out by a group of high-powered lecturers?) The incredible value of learning by doing. I would never have been able to achieve the same levels of engagement and enthusiasm from the lecturers had I lectured them for six hours. I am also convinced that their knowledge of PBL is significantly deeper than it would have been had I lectured them. By letting go of the need for content, and allowing them to create their own knowledge, I believe the lecturers had a far more meaningful and long-term learning experience, and one that could not have been found on Google. Was it 'dumbed-down'? No, I don't believe it was, and the lecturers certainly didn't seem to think so. Was it engaging and immediately relevant to each person in the room in his or her own context and at his or her own level? Absolutely. Was it scary to let go of control and not be 'the expert'. Very. But the results spoke for themselves, and even now, weeks later, I have conversations with individuals who participated in the sessions which indicate that they learned, retained, and have been able to synthesize, a significant amount about PBL. And for a teacher, that is immensely satisfying.

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