Some years ago I worked in the professional development centre of a university. One of my roles was to run a series of short workshops for new lecturing staff. One of these was focused on developing interactive lectures where learners were more actively engaged than in a traditional lecture.
It was during a later workshop that a participant said to me “I’ve started using some of the things I learned in that session and it’s changed the way I teach. And the students think it’s great.”
I was keen to know exactly what she had changed that was working so well. I thought maybe there was one simple teaching technique she had used which had made a lot of a difference, and that maybe I could pass this on to others.
But what she told me was unexpected: the key thing was that she had gone to her next lecture and talked to the students about some of the ideas raised in our session. So she and her students had discussed some ideas about effective teaching and learning and agreed to give some of the strategies a go.
I had long thought that classrooms needed to be more open and democratic, and that the rationale for choosing and using specific approaches to teaching and learning should be made more explicit. But this lecturer had gone beyond that: she didn’t just say “here’s what I plan to do and why”, she said “here are some ideas about teaching and learning, I’d like to try some of these approaches, what do you think?” And then she engaged in discussion with the learners about how they could go about it. I was more used to lecturers saying to me “that’s all very well, but it wouldn’t work with my students/in my situation/in my subject area…”
So this person’s approach seemed simultaneously quite sophisticated and quite naive:
Sophisticated, because it required a level of trust and confidence that I wasn’t used to seeing, along with a willingness to explore new ideas and approaches.
Naive, because it seemed this lecturer had not yet been ‘inducted’ into the accepted ways of working wherein the responsibility for choosing learning activities lies solely with the teacher. This accepted way of working seems to place more power in the hands of the teacher, and yet can serve to make teaching a more anxious and isolated profession.
Perhaps if there is one change that would benefit our higher education system more than others it is this: not a new technology, not a new technique, but an approach based on making teaching and learning processes more explicit and a greater degree of shared responsibility for teaching and learning processes.
Photo of Sorbonnne University courtesy of the photographic service of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs