When learning is not fun

Learning framed within the context of a student’s experience is more likely to be understood. Photo: The Star, 2009.

Why students crave context

“The only voices they will take seriously are those of former students who themselves were initially resistant or hostile to the learning concerned but who subsequently realized its value.”

Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher, 2015.

Skillful teaching is contextually informed, says award-winning author Stephen Brookfield, in that students perform better when lessons are relevant to their experience and understanding. In other words, a skillful teacher knows that to reach a student, a lesson must fit with the student’s experience in the world. This is one of the key tenets of education theorist, Jean Piaget, that an educator must build on what a student already knows.

As an example, Brookfield invites a small panel of former students for the first day of class, then leaves his students alone with the panel so they can talk freely. He makes a point of inviting students who struggled with his teaching. By doing this, he liberates the students from being under his watch, treats them as adults showing respect, willingly risks being negatively assessed and, if all goes well, he may have a shot at earning their trust. What a great way to kick off a course.

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Brookfield’s Core Assumptions of Skillful Teaching are –

Skillful teaching is whatever helps students learn.

Skillful teachers adopt a critically reflective stance toward their practice.

Teachers need a constant awareness of how students are experiencing their learning and perceiving teacher’s actions.

College students of any age should be treated as adults.

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Students want to learn from other students, and the greater the effort they share in that learning, the tighter the bond they forge, the better. That has been my observation, repeatedly, and Brookfield is plainly on the same page.

A few years ago, I introduced my Professional ePortfolio students to the idea of taking part in a mock interview exercise. I offered to bring in former students, now working in full-time communications jobs, to serve as interviewers. The students liked this idea and invested a surprising amount of effort to rehearse and prepare.

On the day of the sessions, students came to class dressed in their finest work wear. They wanted to make a good first impression. While we all new this was a pretend event, many were nervous, which told me they took the exercise seriously.

 I had assigned each interviewer a small team of students to work with, provided one common line of questions to all. Students could participate as well as watch one another be interviewed within their own group. This was another opportunity for them to learn from one another.

While I had wanted to videotape these sessions, several students declined. So, I asked a few to record only their voices using their phones, so they could hear themselves in situ. The recording, I believe, could have offered students another layer of learning to see or hear themselves in an interview setting, but many were not ready to take that step.

All did gain value through this session, though, based on comments and written evaluations. Each session was an authentic lived experience and, for many, their first interview ever. It was a bit scary for most and the session required considerable energy. Students later reported that the exercise felt real to them and just what they had hoped for and what I had underestimated. I thought they would be too shy to participate, as they were with me in class. I realized, however, that this exercise put students into a situation where they could learn from other students and from graduates directly and indirectly. As such, it was a double whammy experience for all involved.

The feedback students received from their ‘interviewers’ went a long way to help guide them in their professional website development process and to prepare them for the inevitable job hunt after graduation. The student feedback I received on this experiment was very positive and, given the chance, I’d do it all again.

Funny enough, I had no idea at the time we were adding rich and desirable context to the student learning experience. I now realize this real-life kind of engagement is a powerful teaching tool where I don’t teach. I just do the organizing.

As further evidence of the context students crave in their learning, I close this blog post with a link to a story I came across today from Inside Higher Education, written by Peter C. Herman. Published June 2020, Herman explores how the future of online learning was not bright at all, according to students he interviewed. Here is an excerpt –

One student said, “I did not feel challenged like I had been in the first half of the semester, and I felt the quality of learning had gone way down.” “I watched the lectures posted but I wasn’t learning the material,” wrote another. All told, moving online caused “a profound sense of loss”.

The transition from learning face-to-face to online removed the opportunity for students to learn “from other students”. In a traditional classroom, one student said, “there is this level of intimacy that just cannot develop in an online setting. The college experience is truly about making human connections. Schools, one student noted, “are like small towns. There is so much more than just classrooms, and to have classes go online, that takes away so much from the student experience”

Brookfield and Herman have helped me to see, to appreciate that the student perspective is the cornerstone of real learning. They want their learning to be social to some extent and that this context must be central to my practice if I am to become truly skillful.   

Watch Brookfield in this keynote address on Becoming a Skillful Teacher, 2014, recorded at Western University in London, Ontario.

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