When the students walk into the room there are videos playing on the monitors, one at the end of each 6 person table in our cavernous basement classroom divided by pillars. They find a seat and see there is already an assignment at their table. It is this:
- Watch the video, writing down exactly what is happening without interpretation or judgment of any kind for 5 minutes.
- What is your interpretation of what is happening?
- Who are the actors?
- What are they doing to each other?
- Why are they doing what they are doing?
- What is the survival advantage to these actions?
- How would you test your hypothesis?
I show them three videos, one on great egrets, one on wasps, Polistes carolina, and one on stingless bees. All are available on my YouTube channel, strassm. They are also available here. They are designed for watching without prejudice or narration.
They answered the questions on paper, not their computers with their myriad distractions. Then each table tackled the second question together, writing a table summary of what they saw. Discussion was lively and hard to bring to a close. To me, this is what learning looks like. Students observe and think on their own, then defend and modify with their classmates.
Isn’t that what it is like in real life, be it academia or otherwise? We lose the teachers and bosses and have to convince and learn from our colleagues. The sooner my students learn to rely on each other and their own understanding and not me, the better. The sooner my students think on their own, get information independently, the better. I don’t have time for busy work and neither do they.
At this point my wonderful teaching assistant, Omar Delannoy-Bruno, pointed out that I had not even introduced myself yet. This was true, so with only 20 minutes to go in class I called them to one wall, had them sit on the floor and introduced myself, Omar, and the class. (My other TA is still out of town.) I had already sent them the syllabus and the first readings and assignments. I had told them to begin signing up and learning how Wikipedia works. I pointed them to my class page. But sometimes it is all right to reiterate things, to tell them more about the structure of the course, once I had their attention with the behavioral work.
I also had them fill out media release forms and answer some questions about themselves so I could better remember them. Many were banal, but one was memorable: she had pet caterpillars as a child and brushed them carefully until her parents finally allowed her to get a guinea pig. I always say the way I learn student’s names is by their stories and this is a good one!
There is a lot of chatter out there about things like flipped classrooms and other innovations. We know a lot about what is important in our disciplines and what good learning techniques are. I’m not a fan of flipped classrooms. What makes you think your powerpoint lecture is so precious that students should bother to watch it outside of class? Are you really that gripping of a story teller that you can compete with all the other things they might watch?
I think there is simply no substitute for grappling with the material, then working together with others to modify your opinions or to modify theirs, and of course to separate fact from opinion. That is how I try to teach. The first day went well.