Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

***

My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim

 

 

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Reflecting on the academic year that was, part three (“pie in the sky”)

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In my past two posts I’ve reflected on what went well, and what was a hot mess, during the academic year 2014-15. In this last “academic year that was” post, I’m going to share three things that I’ve decided I’d really like to try in my classrooms next year. If any of you have experience with any of these, please share them in the comments! I need top tips, as well as fair warnings.

  1. Peer teaching. (IE: when students teach each other, and learn in turn that their peers actually know some valuable stuff.)

In the same way that I’m committed to doing a better job of peer evaluation next year, and along the same lines as my scheme to get my students to create their own supplementary readers online (see my last post for details on both of these things), I want to try more and better peer-teaching techniques in 2015-16. Madison (my ace T.A.) and I did some of this in 20th Century Theatre this past year, and I relied heavily on pairs and group work in my smaller theatre classes (because lecturing to just five people is just plain weird). Both of those experiences taught me, however, that peer teaching is hard to do properly: like peer evaluation, it requires very careful calibration by and support from an instructor.

I have lots of experience facilitating group discussions but not that much with bona fide peer teaching, and I’m always casting around for excellent examples of peer teaching exercises. Recently, one from the sciences crossed my desk – its creator is University of Michigan engineering prof Steven Yalisove. Trying to figure out how to balance “clickers” as a student engagement tool alongside lecture material, Yalisove decided to ditch the lectures entirely and use the principle behind clickers – how much are you learning, and where are you falling short? – to develop this peer-teaching model:

In class, Yalisove employs clicker-based quizzes to find out how much students actually learned from the text. Sometimes, if it’s clear they haven’t grasped a concept despite valiant efforts, and they’re frustrated, “then a short lecture can be very useful.” But he keeps it to about 10 minutes. He also assigns difficult homework guaranteed to stump his students. When they return to class, he has them work in teams using whiteboards to try to solve the homework problems. Three instructional aides – undergrads who took the course the previous year and are essentially the students’ peers – advise the teams. After each assignment, students write a “reflection” on their experience, and they’re graded on their effort, not their results.

(The above text is excerpted from an article by Thomas Grose in Prism 24.4 [2014]; it’s available here.)

What I love about this model is the fact that it’s not driven by the notion that students are “experts” (students don’t actually buy this claim, in my experience), nor is it something that happens once in a while and is thus marked as special. It’s fully integrated into the week’s work in class, every week, and it casts students not as teachers but as problem solvers, working in teams. That sounds an awful lot like life in the real world to me – built in learning outcome! It ALSO sounds like an ideal way to encourage students to recognize the inherent, knowledge-making value of their role as homework-doers and textbook-readers: both of these things, in Yalisove’s model, count as means to a clear end – tools that will be used and further developed in class in order to figure out a challenge important to the course’s stated objectives.

I’m not yet sure how I’m going to adapt this model for my own classrooms, which are smaller than Yalisove’s and do not involve clickers of any kind, but I suspect it will be a really fruitful way to work through the theoretical concepts that I introduce throughout my 20th Century Theatre class, as well as in my performance studies and performance theory classes. I especially like the idea of assigning homework with the caveat that it’s not going to be “gettable” in one reading, nor should students try to master it at home; if you break down half way through and throw the book across the room, that’s FINE – just make a note of where, and why. If the goal of the homework is simply to prepare some way toward figuring it out together, in class, with a peer partner… will students be more inclined to do the reading? I’d like to find out.

  1. Student “crits”.

This speaks to my interest in peer evaluation, and to my goal of finding ways to make it both more normative in all of my classes and less of an emotional strain for students not used to judging each other (at least, not out loud and to one another’s faces!). Anyone who went to art school knows what “crits” are – you present your work publicly to the department, and then your teachers and peers rip it apart. Well, that’s the nightmare version anyway. At their best, critiques are a chance to present work in progress, and to hear what an audience of peers thinks is working well, and what needs some improvement in the time and space remaining before the assignment is due. Really, “crits” are what we do for one another all the time when we ask friends and colleagues to read our stuff and offer feedback, and I’ve used them to greater or lesser extents in research essay assignments for a while now. But I think I could use them more, and better, and in relation to a lot of assignments – especially the ones that cause real anxiety, like presentations. This might seem counterintuitive – if students are stressed because they have to stand up and speak in front of the class, won’t getting peers to critique them out loud make that anxiety worse? – but as I noted in my comments on class presentations in my last post, I suspect the outcome could well be that students a) take the presentations properly seriously, and b) begin to understand that critique is a GOOD thing, and that receiving critique well can lead to a better grade, not a poorer one.

One thing is for certain: as I develop mechanisms for regular in-class crits, I need to ensure that students experience the crit at the true midpoint of an assignment’s allotted duration. I also want to build crit participation into the grade structure for any such assignment, so that giving generous and helpful critique, as well as taking others’ critiques seriously, gets clearly, tangibly rewarded as part of the task at hand (I’m hoping this may be a clever way to disrupt the “criticism = bad grade” formula so many students cling to). I also need to make sure that assignment rubrics are nice and clear, so that students know both what is expected OF them, as well as what measures to use to focus their critiques of each other. As Johanna Inman argued in a recent article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum (24.2, February 2015),

… prompts such as “Is this work effective and why?” or “Does this effectively fulfill the assignment?” or even “Is the planning of the work evident?” generally lead to more meaningful conversations than questions such as “What do you think?” Asking students to reserve judgment responses in the beginning of the critique is helpful to prevent generic comments such as “I like it.”

 

  1. Inviting greater student input on…assignment dates.

Yup, I think we’ve hit that point. I never seem to get it right: my Big Paper is due the same day/week as everyone else’s Big Papers, and the students freak out because, well… time management is a problem that we’re also working on. At Queen Mary, assignment dates were out of my hands, which proved to be a very good thing; students still complained, because to be honest due dates still overlapped horribly even when centrally planned, but I had no say and could send them away to grouse at someone else. I also had no authority to set extensions; that’s something I truly came to appreciate and it’s a policy I’ve adopted back at Western. When papers are due on a Friday students are given the opportunity to take the weekend for a flat “fee” of 3%; otherwise, late papers are penalized at 2% per day, and (as of next year… I’m declaring it here and now) any paper more than a week late may be received until the end of the semester, but will be eligible for a top grade of 50% and no feedback. I give no extensions beyond the weekend option; if something happens that requires accommodation students need to go to academic counseling to get an official request for clemency.

This hard-ass (ok, medium-hard ass) approach has already saved me more than a handful of headaches, and I’m loving it. And to my great surprise, faced with the no-extensions policy students this past year handed stuff in more or less on time! At first the “cheap weekend” deal freaked a few of them out: was it an extension or not? Should they take the minor penalty, or not? I told them it wasn’t up to me; they needed to decide whether or not the extra time was worth it to them. I told them I might well, in their shoes, have taken the weekend, at least sometimes. The idea that THEY got to decide, that the choice, and the consequences, were in their hands, seemed incredibly empowering, at least for some of them. And I had a lot less admin crap around extensions to worry about!

So now I’m interested in extending this policy a bit, and at the same time tackling both the time management issue and the overlapping due dates problem. What if students were given not a due date, but a date range, for each assignment, and were then required, at the start of each semester, to declare their own specific due dates compatible with their personal calendars? (I’ve not yet worked out how this would function in terms of my calendar, except to say I think it might ease the marking challenge for both me and my TA if we get smaller piles of papers spread out across the deadline period.) My logic is this: if you’ve picked the date, you live or die by it, barring unforeseen issues for which academic accommodation is appropriate. Furthermore, and in keeping with what seems to be a theme emerging from this series of reflections, a date you’ve picked is one you, in theory at least, feel greater responsibility toward: not keeping it means you have failed yourself, not me.

I also hope this could be a really helpful tool for teaching students time management, which starts with looking ahead at your whole term and plotting out your labour while you’re still in the glow of September, the nothing-is-due-yet month. Next year I hope to expand the “essay road maps” we tried out (with limited success, admittedly) in 20th Century Theatre over the winter, in order to get students checking their progress regularly against a plan they have made themselves; to further keep students on track when deadlines are floating, I plan to require them to book 15-minute check-ins with me at least once before each assignment is due. It would be their responsibility to make the appointment and to keep it, and I think it will be easy enough for me to keep a log of missed appointments, or those not made, and to build a penalty into each assignment for such misses.

***

So there we go. I think what this tripartite reflection exercise has revealed to me, overall, is that I’ve learned this year the value for them, and the gratification for me, of giving students the opportunity to take real, concrete responsibility for their own learning, in clearly framed and ultimately impactful ways. From choosing readings and due dates to engaging extensively in peer critique, online learning, and team problem solving, next year will hopefully involve lots of opportunities for my students to take ownership over elements of our course(s), to recognize themselves as responsible for knowledge-making in class and beyond, and to look to themselves as the point at which the proverbial buck stops. I’m sure it won’t all work, and some of it may be a spectacular failure. (But, yay failure! So instructive.) It’s also clear to me that it’s going to take a lot of forward planning, and not just in August, so I’d better get to work!

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(Emma, Rachel, Nora, Jonas, Kim, and Sarah: History of Performance Theory, emoji version)