All I Need to Teach are Desks that Move…or Disappear

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My very first academic publication was in the journal Teaching Sociology and it focused on the use of active learning groups to help first-time teachers learn to teach.  By using group activities as the core of a course, the instructor was relieved of the “Atlas complex”–the assumption that the instructor needed to assume full responsibility for carrying the class, as is common in lecture courses.  This was especially useful in calming the nerves of first-time teachers but was an effort that embodied an entire student-centered approach to education.  This approach was something I learned from one of my grad school mentors, Bill Gamson (husband of educational scholar Zelda Gamson of “Seven Principles” fame, and a creator of innovative simulation games SIMSOC (simulated society), What’s News?, and the Global Justice Game –as well as being an early pioneer of fantasy sports.)

In this approach, rather than passively listen to an instructor lecture, students work together in small groups, completing a brief exercise related to course readings.  Often this involved a bit of role playing (“imagine you have been commissioned to advise the local city council on…”).  Through the semester, students took turns carrying out various tasks in the groups (“time-keeper” to keep the group on task, “recorder” to take notes) and towards the end of class one person from each group (the “spokesperson”) would report back to the class as a whole on what they did, often having “majority” and “minority” reports when students disagreed about a topic.  As an instructor, I designed the exercise, introduced the topic, and then moved around from group to group listening in on the discussion and answering any questions that came up.  During reports, I’d often pose questions, point out interesting convergences or divergences between groups, and try to bring it all back to the readings and topic of the day.

This approach had a crucial requirement: desks that moved.  The first thing I’d do each day is tell students to move into their small groups and get their desks in a tight circle, leaving an open chair for me.  Soon students got accustomed to putting their desks in a circle even before I arrived for the class.  During my career, as classes were being scheduled for the next semester, it became a sort of recurring joke between my department chair and me:  I never cared what rooms my courses were in as long as they had desks that moved.

To me, that physical arrangement symbolized a type of education in which:

  • The instructor played a crucial role in setting up the experience but didn’t need to be the center of attention during most of the class; this was literally student-centered.
  • Students learned to collaborate, managing the ups and downs of group work.  For example, this could include carrying a student who was unprepared on a particular day but then demanding accountability from them over time.
  • Students applied the ideas they were reading about to various exercise scenarios; a very active form of learning.
  • Students learned from each other during discussions as they clarified ideas and readings and expressed different viewpoints on the subject at hand.
  • Students experienced making and listening to short oral presentations as they reported back to the class as a whole.

Conversely, to me, there’s nothing more depressing about higher education than big lecture halls with fixed seating facing the sage on the stage–clickers or not.  Been there, done that.  It’s the difference between watching a sporting event from the stands versus sweating on the field/court/ice.  Yes, participating is harder than just watching–and requires challenging teamwork–but it is ultimately much more rewarding.

As I work on prepping my first online course, I realize that in this environment the desks don’t just move, they disappear.  Of course, I’m not the first to note the leveraging of technology to promote active learning but there’s nothing like prepping a course to drive the point home.  Clearly, many of the elements of small group exercises can be transferred to the online environment:

  • The instructor’s role is still to structure an experience to encourage learning but, ultimately, it is students—often working together—who must act to learn
  • Simple exercises created by the instructor but carried out by students in small groups, can occur online using Google forms or blog posts.
  • Space for discussion among a small number of students can happen in discussion forums, blog posts, and comments to blog posts
  • Reporting back to the class as a whole can happen via aggregated blog posts.

In addition, while I “lose” the wonderful intimacy of face-to-face discussion in small groups–a puzzled look that signals a lack of understanding or a broad smile that signals an “Aha!” moment–the unique affordances of the Web can potentially enhance the small group learning experience:

  • Rather than “sitting in” on a single group discussion at a time as I move around a room, I can now “listen in” to all of them by surveying the discussion forums and chime in as warranted via written comments.
  • Content from across the Internet can now be worked into the premise of a group assignment (via hyperlinked videos, images, and other resources) and be a part of how students carry out assignments (via curated content)
  • The time limits of a 50- or 75-minute class disappear on the web; students can use technology to more efficiency spend time on task.
  • The results of student work don’t have to disappear at the end of a class period or semester; they can be archived and made available for viewing.

I’m far from having worked out the details of what I’ll be doing online.  I’m sure there’ll be many bumps in the road along the way, so for this first effort I’m keeping my goals somewhat modest.  However, I’m heartened to be returning to familiar principles from my early academic training that seem to resonate more strongly than ever in the digital age.  And I hope to be able to expand my experimentation to see where it takes me.

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