You want your students back in the classroom? Give them a good reason!
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! This week I want to propose an exercise that might sound, at first, a bit strange or counterintuitive. But hear me out. Let’s ask ourselves: “What do my students gain from being in the physical classroom?” Like with many things that we take for granted, we might well be tempted to engage only superficially with the question. After all, that’s the way we’ve been experiencing education for… well, forever. Until disruption came. So how about we give this simple (?) question a second thought? Seriously this time. Because our answer may impact the way we will connect with our students in the future. I’ve put down some thoughts here and as usual I am very much looking forward to hearing your ideas and comments. Have a nice week!
If you happened to work with digital education before the pandemic, you are pretty used to being often (if not always) asked to justify why, in a certain context, online or blended learning, or even the use of technology in the classroom, is a good fit. So we came up with lists of affordances and barriers, as well as strategies to make good use of the digitally- supported or virtual spaces. Then the pandemic came, and at least for a while, we got a respite from that. The way I see things developing though, we’ll be back in that mode before long. But this is a topic for a future issue.
Right now what I would like to do is turn things upside- down and bring the physical classroom and the in-person teaching and learning into the spotlight. After almost three years of doing things differently, for better or worse, I believe this is a crucial exercise that will help us calibrate our practice moving further. Ironically, despite our expectations that students will happily rush back to campus, many of us noticed a different reality: low attendance levels and in some cases also low engagement.
So, a few questions we could start by asking ourselves are:
How can we make best use of classroom time?
How can we (re)design physical learning spaces in order to facilitate learning?
How can we define and explain our teacher presence?
Do we know what kind of learning experiences our students are expecting? How can we find out?
Rethinking class time
Many of us experimented in the past years with various formats, including different technology-supported experiences, synchronous and asynchronous, sometimes in a blend with in-person, more traditional formats (in a hybrid setup). This allowed us, at least in principle, to grasp what the strengths and weaknesses of each format are so that, once we regain the freedom to choose, we can do it more intentionally.
The main question now, as we go back into our classrooms, is how we can best use this time together with students. What is so special about this setup, which many (most?) of us became nostalgic for during the pandemic? To facilitate this exercise, we could start precisely there: what did we miss most about it? What did we feel we could not really accomplish solely in the virtual environment that is inherent to the physical one?
Even though these seem easy questions, it you really start thinking about them, they are not. They really take us to the core of what we are doing, the core of teaching and learning. What is environment-dependent and what is not? By deconstructing the learning experience, what aspects are mostly benefitting from the shared physical space?
The way I see it, we can think along these two paths:
Teacher presence as an asset. Use classroom time for the activities where the teacher really brings added value (explaining difficult concepts, applying theoretical concepts to practice, activities that enable deep learning, etc) and in the moments when interaction with the teacher is most important for the students (feedback, exam preparation, etc).
Peers’ presence as an asset. Use classroom time to kick-start group work or collaborative learning projects, to facilitate peer exchanges and feedback, to enable students to familiarise themselves with each other’s work, etc.
Redesigning classroom space
We often take physical spaces for granted, as “something we can’t change”. But they are closely connected to the learning goals and teaching formats as well as to the relation between students and teachers and among students. After three years of missing these spaces and putting a lot of effort in designing welcoming virtual spaces, it’s time to bring what we learned back to campus.
Let’s think about how students learn- and ask them openly about that. Let’s think about where they learn- what types of spaces are most suitable to each type of learning activity (independent learning, collaborative work, discussion, creation, etc). Let’s think about how they interact, formally and informally- how does an environment that is conducive to effective interaction look like? What things can we control? And what things should we not aim to control? When should we, as educators, be there, and when should we step away?
And, the ultimate question, that links back to the previous section: why do we need a shared physical space? In my opinion, the shared physical learning space, whether it’s a classroom, a museum, a corridor or a courtyard, should be:
a space to connect;
a space to deepen learning;
a space to inspire and motivate.
Everything else, especially content transmission, can also take place elsewhere.
Redefining teacher presence
Time and space are not the only things we need to rethink, though. There is something even more personal that we need to question, if we really want to create classroom experiences that students value. It’s our presence. Yes, I know, yet another thing we did not have to think too much about before the pandemic. But if we’re now unpacking the learning experience, it’s worth putting some thought into:
How are we there with and for our students?
When are we there for them?
(How) do they know we are there?
These questions are closely linked to course design decisions, such as the structure and sequence of the course modules, choice and timing of learning activities, moments of formative feedback, etc. But they are also connected to the way we communicate to students, how explicit we are about our expectations and about what we have to offer. Presence doesn’t equal “being in the classroom” (neither for teachers nor for students for that matter). Conversely, even if it may be a bit more difficult, it’s possible to establish your teacher presence also in online environments. In the end it is about approaching the teaching and learning experience as full persons, beyond our (wrongly perceived as antagonistic) roles as teachers and students. It’s about showing we care, which can be done in many ways.
Making sure students get the message
Once we (re)designed the course and the space and thought about our presence, we need to “sell” our concept to students. Yes, *sell* it. I know the idea of justifying to students why they should come to class is still controversial to many, but at this point in time, keeping in mind who our students are, this is a crucial part of the process. Openly and explicitly discussing with students about the relevance of spending time in class, with their peers and with us is something we should probably all be doing right now. We can wait in vain for students to “revert to normal” (what normal? whose normal?) and complain they don’t show up in class. Or we can start to think of how we can make the classroom experience something they don’t want to miss. And making sure they understand that. Involving them in creating this experience can help give them some ownership of their learning. Ask them to choose a topic and organise a debate one week, or a study visit, consult them about the setup of the classroom- these are small steps but can take us a long way in the right direction.
Yes, all this takes work, like all good teaching does. And we thought coming back to campus it will all be easier. But making sure we are on the same page with our students is hugely important. So the next time someone asks “why should students come to class?” let’s try to answer anything else than “because they have to”.