On flipping the theatre studies classroom… back again (part 2)

My last post reported on a workshop I recently co-organized with my colleagues Natalie Alvarez and Jenn Stephenson at the CATR annual conference in Calgary. The premise of the workshop was simple: it gathered teachers of theatre and performance history, asked us to think about the benefits of the “flipped classroom” model for our courses, and encouraged us to share our ongoing experiments in active learning.

Lots of great insights emerged, and I learned a bunch of terrific new things. We also, however, used the opportunity of the workshop to air some grievances about flipping, and the second half of our session turned into a really provocative discussion about the politics of the flipped classroom.

In this (second) post on the workshop I reflect on that discussion, and I end with some thoughts about the place (or lack thereof) of arts and humanities voices in the broader discourse around flipping.

***

We’d shared our research, talked about Grahame and Jenn’s blended learning experiences at Queen’s, and 90 minutes had come and gone. We took a break, and when we resumed it was time to talk about challenges we’ve encountered with the flipped model. (God, does Moodle ever suck! And students are crap at posting to WordPress.)

That’s when one of our auditors raised her hand and said…

“How is assigning readings beforehand, and discussing them together in class, different from ‘flipping’ the classroom?”

Then we all burst into fits of giggles, nods – and tears. (Well, not literally. But almost!)

What’s a flipped classroom? It’s a classroom in which students come having done pre-prep, reading or listening to content in advance. It’s a classroom where various kinds of group discussions and problem-solving activities take place, live, between us. It’s a classroom in which students are invited actively to engage in knowledge production, to use their embodied minds to test ideas on their feet, and to work collaboratively to challenge status-quo assumptions.

In other words: it’s a typical arts and humanities classroom.

More than that, in fact: it’s a very typical theatre and performance studies classroom.

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It’s not every A&H / T&P classroom, of course: I’m not suggesting that rote instruction, lecturing, and gob-smackingly boring sage-on-stage stuff doesn’t happen in the arts. On the contrary: I was subject to plenty of it myself when I was an undergraduate student, and I have seen it in more than one classroom I’ve peer-assessed as a tenured professor.

But let’s face it. Arts and humanities teachers invented the flipped classroom, and theatre and performance, along with all the other fine arts practices taught at college and university level, pioneered embodied learning. Whether we’re talking vigorous class debate about medical ethics on display in a contemporary British lit class discussing Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, improvisation in a directing class exploring the fate of the murdered wife Desdemona in Othello, or experiments with found objects in a creative writing class focused on contemporary poetry, the pedagogical basis is the same. Student labour is framed as thinking, writing, speaking, and sharing in the room on the day. It often involves in-class collaboration. It regularly involves play. There’s often a chance to report back, to create something to share, or at the very least to get up and move around.

Which is why our workshop quickly moved on from sharing our (rather dry) findings from the flipped classroom “lit review” that opened our session to sharing best practices already in our collective teaching repertoire. As Jacqueline Taucar helpfully observed, we need to ask whether it’s the “flipped classroom” – the shiny new model, complete with how-to kit – that gets results, or the active learning component at the heart of the flipped classroom that really fires students up.

Our hunch was the latter. And around the table, numerous terrific (and fun!) examples of great active learning exercises came to light.

  • Jenn talked about her first-year theatre history students exploring the concept of “historiography” in a practical way as they worked in teams to compare and contrast the assumptions framing two different chapters in their textbook;
  • Martin Julien shared a task that saw students interviewing one another about their understandings of feminism, then reporting to the class on their findings;
  • Tony Vickery wowed us all with a description of his performance studies class on fantasy and cosplay, where students build their own board games (strictly low-tech!) and then play one another’s offerings to test their effectiveness. (The board games are all based on one or two of the theories/practices read for class);
  • Marlis Schweitzer shared our colleague Richie Wilcox’s hilarious scheme for teaching complex performance theory, in which students get to create a retelling of a well-known fairy tale in the style of a theory “ism”. (Little Marxist Riding Hood: bring it on!)

Notably, virtually all of these examples involved minimal or no technology.

So why, you must now be wondering, did we all get together to talk about “flipping” our classrooms if we’re already experts and our teaching practice is already flip-friendly?

The answer is simple, frustrating, and symptomatic:

Because what we have long been doing has now got a name, outcome stats, administrative momentum, and a budget line.

We’ve all been told from above that this thing called “flipping” is something we need to know about. Students are consumers, and we need to offer best practices that lead to strong outcomes. (Duh.) Data (typically based on teaching in the sciences, which has recently discovered flipping and wants to share it with us) shows active learning works better than passive learning. So we’ve been instructed by our resident teaching and learning experts, and encouraged by our gung-ho administrators, to learn, all over again, what it is that we already know – now neatly packaged into a model that can be easily sold across disciplines and around the world.

Or, put another way:

Arts and humanities instructors have had our teaching mansplained to us by the neoliberal university.

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Let me be clear: I’m not saying flipped classrooms are bad things. They have many, many virtues – though they also have some significant blind spots, like assuming that the internet is a panacea as opposed to a massive time suck, that all lecturing is bad and uninteresting, and that all students learn better within “activity” frameworks. (All of these things are, um, not true.)

I’m also not suggesting that T&L centres and senior administrators are wrong to support active learning (not at all!), nor that I resent the discovery of active learning’s value in the sciences (holy mary jane, of course not!).

I’m also not trying to imply that teachers like me have been awesome at gathering data on our own classrooms and shouting about the success of our models. We do this, sure, but probably not enough; it’s obvious we need to do more of it, and perhaps do it better. Some of this problem is on us, and we need to get busy.

What really bothers me, and many teachers like me, though, is that our own universities rarely bother to notice the entire faculty (faculties, in my case) of “flipping” experts on their doorsteps. They don’t visit our classes, I doubt they read our teaching publications (check out the top theatre pedagogy journal in North America here), and all too often they don’t think to invite us to present on panels related to active learning models.

(Last autumn I was asked – thanks to my forward-thinking colleagues Aisha Haque and Nanda Dmitrov – to host a session on community engaged theatre and its classroom applications at Western’s big fall teaching conference. This was the first time such a session had been offered; a number of key people, very skeptical when the session was first floated, were surprised at how well it was attended and received. Again, I say: duh!)

Nope, we don’t routinely get asked or read or invited. Instead, we are routinely told:

  • that studying the arts can’t get students jobs;
  • that our research lacks “impact”;
  • that we work on obscure topics without enough practical merit to encourage students and their parents to invest time and money in our classes.

So here’s my provocation. Could it be that, in the arts and humanities, our “impact”, our “value”, and our “interest” to students in search of both learning and jobs (yup, both of them, folks) might lie in the exceptional classroom experiences we can offer, as well as the remarkable pedagogical models we have pioneered and are eager to share with students and peers alike?

Could it be that as teachers we might inspire, change lives, redirect interests, and model excellent pedagogy – and not just for future teachers, but for current teachers across the disciplines as well?

If this is a “creative” economy, after all, our active(ist) arts classrooms are where creativity comes to life.

And yes: if you ask us, we’ll very happily talk about our awesome, crowd-shared, long-tested models with you. We’ll even make you get up on your feet! Just ask.

Please.

Kim

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