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I’ve heard a lot of colleagues lately complaining that they can’t teach some particular lesson in exactly the way they used to or exactly the way they want to because this year the room is wrong, or the number of students is wrong, or the weather is wrong. These people seem to depend on the happy conjunction of a precise set of circumstances for their teaching to work, and their teaching plan crumbles into dust if things turn out to be different.

Me, I have a different approach. If the room turns out to be a sloping lecture theatre instead of a bench lab, or if it turns out that there are loads more students than I anticipated, or if lightning storms mean I can’t use the surveying kit, well, we’ll just make the most of it, find a workaround, and do the best we can. Teaching a Geography class is not the same as building a nuclear power station or launching a rocket ship to Mars: it’s ok sometimes to use your professional imagination and make it up as you go along. Is the class too big for you to run your planned seminar session? Break it into buzz groups for a bit. Can’t use the big metal poles for surveying in a storm? Dig out the old-fashioned tape and compass kit and let the students learn a new approach. Projector malfunction? Excellent, you’ll have to improvise with the whiteboard and a piece of cheese!

For example, I decided this year to up-scale my “looking out of the window” exercise from a small-group tutorial activity to a large-group lab exercise. The exercise essentially involves students looking out of the window and making a series of observations about the world outside. Well, I got to the room and found that the windows were all blocked off with security screens, so there was no chance of looking through the window. A disaster? Not at all. If you can’t look through the window, just look around the room instead. Improvising with the unexpected constraint made the exercise more engaging for me as a teacher, and since the students didn’t know what was “supposed” to have happened there was no negative impact on them. They thought they were doing the old “let’s look around the room” exercise!

As a University lecturer, and no doubt in many, many other lines of work, you have to assume that your best laid plan will be laid low by some unexpected circumstance, and you need to be adaptable at zero notice to change what you are doing, invent workarounds, and make the best of whatever you find yourself working with. It’s much like everything else in life: if you spend the available time regretting all the things you don’t have (windows, smaller groups, more equipment…) then you won’t spend it making the most of what you do have.

When you walk into the lecture room, come prepared with a few back-up plans, an open mind, and a willingness to improvise, experiment or explore. After all, that’s what you would expect the students to do, isn’t it?

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I tried a new exercise in the opening lecture with my final year “Inspirational Landscapes” undergraduates this week. It was actually a modification of the exercise I’ve written about previously where students have to list the things they see out of the window and we then discuss how we can learn to notice more in the world around us.

In this year’s modification of the exercise I asked the students, who had never done the original exercise and so were approaching it without any prior training, to make a list of the things that they noticed about the room in which we were all sitting. After they had made their own lists I asked them to imagine what I, their geography lecturer, might be noticing about the room: what did they imagine my list would include? Interesting issues arose both from the students’ own lists and from their guesses about my list. Both sets of lists give me something to work with over the remaining weeks of the module, and in the final week I will ask them to repeat the exercise and see if their lists have changed: whether they are noticing more in the world about them after they have done the course and whether they are any better at imagining how the world looks from a different point of view.

The exercise will also serve as a bit of background if I decide to talk to them later on about Xavier de Maistre (1763-1852), who wrote a travel book about a single room, “Voyage Around my Room”, during a period of confinement. That could form the basis of an interesting project in this module, if a student were to pick up the idea. In fact, I already feel a project of my own coming on! Alain de Botton writes about this notion, and discusses de Maistre’s work, towards the end of his own “The Art of Travel” (2002). [see  The Art of Travel at Amazon]

The students’ lists of what they noticed in our lecture room were all remarkably similar. More than 90% of the group listed only items such as lights, chairs, whiteboard, projector, and so on. Almost every item on every list was visual – not many listed anything about the sounds or the smells, let alone the emotions or the social politics. Not many set their observations into any kind of framework or context – nobody pointed out that this was a room with a specific purpose, that it was part of a University, that it was designed in a European style, that it was built specifically at a human scale to accommodate particular human activities. These things were taken for granted and therefore ignored. The students chose not to notice them or, if they noticed them, they chose not to record them on their list. Not many organised their list into a hierarchy or drew it as an interconnected system. Not many started with the big picture and worked down to the detail, or vice versa. Not many compared the room with any other room to help define its essential nature, or its volume, or its history, its comfort, its temperature, or what was happening to them in it. Nobody included themselves in their list of what was in the room. Nobody thought to calculate its weight. But, then, why would they? Nobody mentioned Xavier de Maistre.

Asking the students to list what they imagined I was noticing about the room was a new exercise. I had imagined that asking them to try that new task might push them into thinking of some new things that they had not noticed until I suggested looking from someone else’s point of view, and would therefore enable them to expand their original lists of things they noticed by importing observations that they dreamed up by imagining my view. I thought that even if they only translated their own view of a learning space into what they might imagine was my view of a teaching space, that would be a step in the right direction. I was actually quite interested to see how students at this level would imagine their lecturer’s perspective.

Their lists surprised me.

Other than that they had me looking (and I use that word literally and deliberately) from a different angle, and therefore, for example, had a better view of the windows, the new lists were more or less the same as the lists that the students made for themselves. They thought that they and I, and presumably everybody, would notice the same things about the room. On my behalf they listed again the rows of seats, the projector, the whiteboard… Some of them suggested that I would notice the faces of the students, looking variously interested or otherwise, but for the most part they imagined my attention to be focused on the carpet, the ceiling tiles and the clock. The room they imagined me inhabiting sounded very dull, and from their descriptions I do not recognise the room. I wonder, if they think those are the things that I notice in the world, why do they think I am there talking to them? What could I have to say? My colleagues often ask why students don’t seem to pay much attention to their advice. Based on what these lists indicate about how students imagine their tutors’ perspectives, the ideas or insights that their tutors might have to offer, I think we have the answer. The students don’t seem to imagine that we see much more than them. Perhaps they are right. It is hard to know for sure.

Seeing things well, even from our own point of view, is difficult. Seeing things from somebody else’s point of view is even harder. Realising that the students seem to have no idea what I see when I am in the room with them is quite scary. On the one hand it clarifies for me the distance they have to travel in this module about seeing more in the world around them, but on the other hand it makes me think that when I am talking to them about all the exciting and fascinating things around us they probably have no idea what I am talking about! These things that I am explaining, these things that have inspired me – have the students noticed them? Of course, to the “educator” in me this makes me think of learning opportunities, teachable moments and the need to recognise the perspective of those with whom I am working. Do not take it for granted that they see the same world that you do when you start to explain the world to them.

Me? I see rainbows and unicorns, of course. Doesn’t everybody?

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Early in 2011 I set the 1st years a between-tutorials task of keeping some kind of reflective diary or blog about their Geography studies every day until their next tutorial in two weeks time. It sounded like a fun and useful exercise, so I thought I’d join in… partly to show them how you might do it (an example, not a model) and partly because, well, it’s a fun and useful exercise! I asked the students to treat it as an exploration and an adventure. Looking back on it a year later I found it interesting, so I thought I’d post it here, just for the record, in case anybody wondered what kinds of things went through a Geography lecturer’s mind at work, day to day. Here are my (slightly cut down) entries.

Day 1

Just had one formal class today: a 1st-yr tutorial… the one where I video them giving talks for the first time. I’m keeping up the “new style” tutorials – pretty relaxed, and the students seem happy with them. This is a good group: they all did their bit, even though I know it was painful for some of them. I’d have hated it if I was still them. What am I talking about: I am still them – they just don’t recognise me. Getting them to do the reflective diary is new, but it fills a very clear need at this stage. My dog, Gus, means well and when you set him a task (like SIT and STAY) he goes to it with enthusiasm… for about 10 seconds then his mind wanders. He needs to learn some staying power. Doing something every day without fail for a fortnight might turn out to be a challenge for the students, but it’s an important thing for them to get used to. I’m really curious to see whether they take it seriously and see the point of it. I deliberately didn’t give it a big build up. I just offered it and we’ll see whether they see what a great gift it actually is. I can guess a couple that won’t bother, and a couple might miss days and try to cover up. May be I’ll turn out to skip a day! That’s another reason it’s good for the lecturer sometimes to do the work that he sets the students: how can I fairly judge them if I haven’t actually had a go myself? Having said that, most of my life seems to be about writing reflective diaries. In other news: Routledge are asking whether we want to do an update to our bestselling -How to do your dissertations- book (hmmm, may be), the U.S, National Science Foundation want me to referee a grant proposal (sorry guys, too busy just now), Earth Science Reviews want me to referee a paper about permafrost (oh, OK), and a publisher from Romania that I’ve never heard of wants me to write something in a new Geomorphology book they’re producing (er… I’ve never heard of you!). Spent a lot of time over the last couple of days preparing Friday’s Inspirational Landscapes lecture, met with RIW to discuss next week’s practicals… uh oh, this is becoming a list of what I did, not a reflective diary. Poor example for students. Reflection on today: students did good work, and I should give some thought as to whether it was anything I did in course design or strategy that helped them to do so. Perhaps I should ask them?

Day 2

Did “video their talks” tutorial for the second group today, and was pleased again that all the students who turned up had clearly put in some work and made a good effort. Some of them were clearly nervous and I was impressed with their bravery. It’s another example of the kind of problem that anonymous marking throws up: different students deserve credit for different aspects of each task. Obviously these talks aren’t anonymous, of course, so the problem doesn’t arise here, but I do feel with other work that is anonymously marked that we are prevented from giving students all the credit they deserve.

This afternoon’s Inspirational Landscapes lecture was one that I always think should be great, but somehow always disappoints in one way or another. I think some of the students “got” what I was on about, and there were some good in-discussion contributions, but there was a group who didn’t seem to be quite on the same page and didn’t seem to want to explore the ideas I was throwing up for them. They really seemed to struggle with the task of seeing familiar things from a new angle, and reacted to the challenge by becoming dismissive, almost as though they were thinking “Oh, I haven’t thought in that way before, it must be rubbish”. I sometimes wonder whether there should be an entry test for this module, based on open mindedness and curiosity. How would you quantify and test that?

Day 3

At a superficial first thought I might say I haven’t done much academic work today. Sure, I’ve answered a few student queries by e-mail, but so far that’s about it. Superficial first thoughts can be misleading, though.

It’s important to be able to work in the background while doing other things. If you have a problem or a topic sitting just behind your front-of-mind thoughts, something you’ve put back there to be dealt with later, then it tends to pop up quietly through the day whenever you see anything that’s relevant to it, and your ideas can move forward on it without having to actually set aside time to “work” on it. So today I have all those “big projects” just simmering quietly where I can keep half an eye on them and stir them occasionally. I wonder whether students would do much better if they could master that skill. A lot of them seem to think that you are either “working” or “not working” and don’t seem to see that you can work effortlessly in the back of your mind while doing whatever else you want to do. You can actually do a lot of good work while you sleep. That’s why students who don’t sleep enough do badly. I find that if I do that, then when I eventually do sit down to finish off a particular job (like the lecture that I’m deliberately not working on today), it will suddenly seem very simple, because my mind worked it all out while I didn’t think I was looking. So, I may not seem to working today, but the back of my mind is working while I’m not looking!

I was saying to the 3rd-year Inspirational Landscape students yesterday that Geography is a curse: once you have seen how it works you can’t look at anything without “Geography” waving back at you. When you start to notice the geography in everything then you can count almost anything as work!

It’s also nice to have a job (or to be studying for a degree) where work feels like play, so you don’t really notice the work. For example, writing this entry is technically part of my job… it’s a teaching exercise tied to the tutorial. On the other hand, it’s fun and it’s interesting. However, I have a dog to walk and a horse to feed…

Day 4

I started the previous entry saying that it was “today’s entry”. In a reflective diary like this it’s sometimes good to set aside one point in each day to think back over what you’ve done, but it’s sometimes good to keep a running report as the day goes along. I keep notebooks all over the place and am rarely without either a pen and paper or at least some gadget where I can record a thought before it slips away.

When I set this task for students I said they could do it as haiku if they wanted. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about using haiku in teaching. Haiku are great for encouraging concise and precise writing, and they are also good for training students to look carefully and notice things. I spoke to the 3rd-yrs on Friday about how the best way to make yourself really look closely at something was to give yourself the task of representing it or recreating it in some way. For example, by making a model, doing a drawing… or writing a poem. Look really hard and write what you see. The first attempt will be trivial, so look deeper… repeat until you are seeing things you never noticed before. I really like the idea of Geographical Haiku. Yes, of course all genuine Haiku are geographical in that they refer to an aspect of the natural environment, but I’d really like to develop haiku that refer to a specific location and could be geotagged on google earth. I could set students an exercise to write about their home area, or a place they visited, and plot the poems up onto a big map. May be such a thing already exists in google earth… may be one of my excellent students will read this, seek it out and let me know. Meanwhile I put a few up on twitter now and again.

What do you see when you look out of the window? I see 17 syllables.

I got an e-mail asking me whether I’d be willing to join in a trial of audiotaping my lectures… been there, done that. In fact I recorded GEG30014 on Friday. My lectures don’t seem to do well for being taped… perhaps that says something about my lectures, and I need to think what that is. I’ll pop that in the back of my mind and let it simmer…

Day 5

I started today with a mountain of tasks and now here I am, half way through it (or up it)! And the evening is yet young, hey ho. Unfortunately one of today’s tasks was telling a student that I was disappointed in him. I wonder whether students believe me when I say I really want them to do well or that I am disappointed when they let themselves (and me) down. Do they understand how much lecturers can really want students to make the most of the opportunity that they have here? I wrote a reference for a former student today and was able to say how she had really lived up to the faith we’d put in her: she worked hard, did well, and put her studies to good use. You remember students like that. I’m still in touch with students from when I first started teaching in 1987, and I still remember their strengths (and weaknesses) as students, even though they have now grown well past those and are in their 40s.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about today is how students often ask for things that are actually bad for them. For example, students often say things like “can you tell me which pages I should read?” when the whole point of the exercise is for them to go through the experience of DECIDING which pages to read. Sure, I can tell you, but then you miss the whole point of being here. If you want an intellectually easy life and don’t want to do the work necessary to improve yourself, you might be better advised to consider an alternative path!

Somebody on Twitter last week asked “what makes a geographer?”. A student in their reflective blog this week said how they were increasingly seeing geography all around them. So, I’m thinking that what makes a geographer is seeing the geography around you, and not being able to stop thinking geography!

2nd-yr prac went quite well today… students seemed to be getting something out of it. Must catch one and squeeze feedback from them.

Day 6

One of the best things and the worst things about my job is the flexibility. It’s great that I could take today away from Keele to do some nice not-work stuff, but on the other hand the flexibility means that you never “finish” your day’s work just because the clock reaches a certain point, and if you keep your e-mail running you find yourself getting queries from students while you’re eating your tea. Hmmm. Banana sandwich, anyone? I make a lot of extra work for myself with some of the unusual exercises I set for students. I really enjoy keeping up with WebCT discussions, or with the reflective diaries of the students who are posting them daily online just now, but if you count it as work then it certainly adds in extra time when I’m not getting on with writing the talk I have to give to a group of visitors tomorrow! Time management is crucial, and becomes more important the more you have to do. Perhaps a good way to teach students time management, rather than “explaining” it to them, would be to quadruple their workload and give them two essays a week. That’s what we got when I was a student. When I was a lad… …and look how I turned out: yet again writing a talk the night before it’s due to be presented. D’oh! It’s actually been a longrunning discussion since I started teaching: throw them in at the deep end or let them in gradually. Swinging pendulums, and I’m erring back towards the short sharp sit up and grow up approach. I need some hyphens in there, but I need my banana sandwich even more.

Day 7

One of my jobs today was to give a 1-hour “looking at landscape” session to a visiting group of asylum seekers as part of Keele’s internationalisation program. There were many interesting comparisons between “regular” students and this group, one of which was how polite the visitors were today, and how nicely they all said hello as they arrived and said thank you and good bye as they left. They clearly weren’t taking the session for granted as so many “regular” students seem to. I wonder if students realise how much work goes into some of the sessions we give, that they roll into half asleep, chatter through without making the effort to join in with discussion time, and stroll out of, eyes to the floor, without a word of recognition or appreciation. Not that I’m moaning or anything. I’m just saying. It was nice to have a really polite and interested group of “students” who really seemed to be enjoying what we were doing. Why don’t regular students come across that way?

Day 8

My reflections on today’s time at Keele focus largely on two of my colleagues, so on this occasion I think I’d better not do a public diary! I will wonder publicly, though, what students imagine the Dept is like ‘behind the scenes’…

Day 9

This is the first time I’ve run this particular exercise with students, and while I certainly think it has potential and could be really useful to them it also needs a few tweaks. For example, it’s nice giving students total freedom to do it however they like (web, paper, VLE, etc) but now of course some are being highly visible and public while others are unseen and untrackable. It would be nice to have some degree of common sharing at this stage, so perhaps I should have at least defined a shared venue for postings, such as the VLE. Also, using the VLE would reduce the risk of students making public comments about my colleagues, which would be inappropriate I guess. The posts I’ve seen so far from the “public” students have been great, although they don’t all seem to have understood what is meant by “reflective”. Something to reflect on together in the next tutorial, perhaps.

Day 10

I’ve been very pleased to get diary updates from lots of students today, and have enjoyed seeing their entries. It really gives me (and I hope them, too) an insight into how they are approaching the course. Some seem to be underestimating how much work they need to do to keep up with a degree course, while others are engaging really well. As always it’s a mixed bag, and part of my job is work with each student according to their needs. I’ve also been getting some input from 3rd-years on a different discussion, and it’s interesting to think how students change their views (or not) as they go through the course. Some students really grow and open up their attitudes as they work through the programme. Some don’t, of course, which I think is a real shame. What, after all, is the point of University? I think I put a reasonable weight on that side of the “teaching” but it’s hard to get the right balance. I suspect I focus more on the “big picture” than most of my colleagues do, but that might be because of my particular perspective on Geography, teaching and University. I remember I used to be very pleased sometimes when I remembered all my qualifications and prizes because it reassured me that my approach and opinions must have some merit! That’s one reason it was also nice to get the NTF a few years ago. I suppose I should also take it as a reminder that saying “well done” to a student is as important as saying “change this”.

Day 11

Long day at the open day today. Amongst other things the open day is a good opportunity to speak to a different kind of audience: a bit younger (the applicants) and a lot older (their parents etc) than the usual student groups I mainly talk to. I ran a new “tutorial type” Inspirational Landscapes demo teaching session for them today, and was pleased that both the parents and even some of the applicants were brave enough to speak up in “discussion”. It made me wonder again what it is that happens to many students in that brief window while they are students, to make them so reluctant! Perhaps students should be made to take a 3-year gap between school and university, coming back when they are ready to get the most out of it. On some TV show last night one character complained about having to deal with a teenager: “teenagers are slow witted” she said. Of course my students are not at all slow witted, but certainly younger and older groups seem to get much more visible satisfaction out of my “classes”. It was great today when some bloke about my age came up after the Inspirational Landscapes demo lecture and said that after just half an hour of Geography he really looked at the world differently! We should bottle the stuff and sell it on t’internet.

Day 12

Reflective, perhaps, but less effective today than I hoped to be. Suffering from the typical student problem of distractions and poor focus I have done only part of one of the two big jobs that were on my plate for the day, but have spent a lot longer than I intended dealing with little things that kept cropping up. A student last week commented that lecturers find it easy to lecture, but in fact it’s probably useful for students to realise that we find things as hard as they do. We try to be a good example not by “being good at things” but by “being willing to work at things and try hard” even if they are difficult. I too get distracted by Twitter and Facebook and the cats and dogs and having to wash the car and doing family things and helping the lady next door when she runs out of milk. I, too, want to stop work so I can watch TV instead. We’re not immune. So that means that we do indeed, to some extent (even though some of us are so ancient) have at least some idea of what it’s like being a student. So our advice is informed by an understanding of at least some of your reality. On the other hand, some student realities continue to surprise me. Student: “Are all clouds formed the same way? I don’t know how to find out… help me!” Me: “Yes they are: try looking in a meteorology book.” Student: “A meteorology book? I hadn’t thought of that!!” Me: “…sigh…”.

Day 13

Today I’ve been thinking again about what a varied job I have and about how thoroughly interleaved parts of my job are with parts of my non-work life. That could be seen as a good thing because obviously I’m being paid for doing what I’d do anyway, but also a bad thing because it’s hard to get away from work. For example, I bought an easel today for painting out of doors, which you’d think was pure hobby. But as I’m doing it I’m thinking about how I can use art as an example in Geography teaching, about how observation (data collection) can be enhanced by but is also limited by the established purpose of the experiment (sorry I mean painting): Geography and life are one! Today I’ve updated a lecture to deliver on Friday, reviewed a paper for the editors of the journal Earth Science Reviews, adjudicated five University Appeals cases in my role as Chair of the Appeals Committee, taken delivery of a new video camera for use in teaching, (I’m not going to list the easel here because that was really non-work!), corresponded with colleagues at other Universities about research and writing projects, dealt with a bunch of student queries on assorted topics, read some student work. Of course some bits of the job are more fun than others, but the variety is part of the attraction. Along with the flexibiity: I’ve managed to fit a full workload around also doing me weekly shop, a coffee morning out in the country, getting the van serviced. Even if I often work on-and-off from 7am till 11pm, it’s really nice not to have to work 9-5. Well, I see another appeals case has come in, so I’m going to take a look at that…

And tomorrow we have a tutorial to discuss these reflective diaries.

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The American writer Austin Kleon, who wrote “Newspaper Blackout”, has also written a book called “Steal Like an Artist”, so I am hoping that he won’t mind that I have stolen his idea to help teach my Geography students. The picture here from Kleon’s website http://www.austinkleon.com illustrates what he does.

"Creativity is Subtraction" from austinkleon.com

As Kleon puts it: “Grab a newspaper. Grab a marker. Find an article. Cross out words, leaving behind the ones you like. Pretty soon you’ll have a poem.”

So how do I use this teaching Geography? The point I’m trying to make with the students is that Science is a way of exploring and understanding the world, but that there are other ways of exploring and understanding the world, and that sometimes those different approaches can help each other out. For example, as a Geographer you might often want to look closely at the world around you to see details that will help you to describe, understand and represent the way the world works. Science is one way of doing that. But I learned from my friend and colleague the artist Miriam Burke that a good way of forcing yourself to look carefully at something is to try to make art about it. Trying to make a picture or a model or a poem of something really makes you look closely at it. Art is a great way of exploring. That’s why, for me, art and Geography go nicely side by side.

So I took a copy of the first page of one of the basic course textbooks (“Geography – a Very Short Introduction” by J.A.Matthews and D.T.Herbert, 2008) and I started crossing out words. I asked the students to do the same. Now I’m sure there’s a whole psycho-pedagogic discourse on the traumatic consequences of making students cross out swathes of their text book. We’ll save that for a different blog. The point I want to record here is about how asking students to cross out most of the words in a page from the textbook makes them look much more closely at the original source than if we just asked them to read it. And if we insist that their Blackout Poem reflects the underlying meaning or core concept of the page they are editing (but that it must do more than simply abbreviate the content of the page), the activity seems to engage a whole new level of critical attention to the source (helping students to learn and think about the material) and at the same time switches on a creative or interpretive intellect that fixes the academic content of the original document into the mental context of the student’s own “work” on the piece. In other words, by USING the original document to create something new of their own, they get much more out of it.

This illustrates something I constantly tell students: that the best way to learn something is to use it for some purpose, especially if that involves communicating it to somebody. If you are struggling to understand glacier dynamics, set a date where you have to teach glacier dynamics to somebody who knows nothing about it.  It also illustrates nicely how doing something that appears to be non-academic can be a big help with your academic work. The value of play. If I can get my students to PLAY with their scientific source material… well, they’ll end up just like me!

I only came up with (sorry, stole) this idea a couple of days ago, but already I see huge scope ranging from fun little tutorial activities to major coursework projects. You could even do it just for Art. Oh, yeah, Austin Kleon already thought of that.  When I tweeted my first attempt at a Geography Blackout yesterday it quickly became far and away my most retweeted tweet ever, so this seems to have struck a chord with others, too.  And that’s why I thought I’d say just a little bit more about it here. For the record, here is that first attempt. My “Geography Blackout” redaction of the opening page of Matthews and Herbert (2008). I suspect there may be more to follow.

Gosh, I hope nobody steals this idea.

Peter Knight's "Exploration"

Peter Knight's "Exploration", inspired by Austin Kleon's "Newspaper Blackout" and by page 1 of "Geography - A Very Short Introduction" (Matthews and Herbert, 2008).

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This week I am putting together a new introductory lecture on Glacial Geomorphology for my re-organised Glaciers module. What might one say right at the start of a series of lectures on glacial geomorphology? I thought I might say something like this:

For many of us one big reason for getting interested in Physical Geography has been an interest in the physical environment around us. Our most immediate and direct contact with the rest of the universe is through the small part of it that we can see and touch and walk around.  We can experience and witness the wonders of the universe, at least in a small way, through the wonders of our own planet.

The world is an amazing place, and many of us became geographers because we wanted to experience, know about, and work in the world’s great landscapes: mountains, deserts, volcanoes, glaciers… There are many elements to a landscape, from the underlying rocks to the plants that grow on them and the structures that people build, but if we strip away everything that is superficial the underlying framework of a landscape is its topography, its shape, its morphology. That is one reason why many people put geomorphology at the heart of Physical Geography.

One of the reasons that some of us have been drawn especially to the geomorphology of harsh wilderness environments such as deserts, high mountains and glacial areas is that in these environments the superficial elements are swept away. Vegetation is limited. Human structures are few. The basics of the landscape, its bones, are clearly exposed. The underlying framework becomes prominent in these environments.

Image

Glacial landscape in West Greenland

The most valuable experience in my professional life has been to spend extended periods of time in these remote places. It has been worthwhile not only for their intrinsic interest but also because having seen landscapes with the superficial elements removed now allows me to recognise the same basic structural elements when I see them in other environments where they are largely obscured by superficial clutter. It’s easy to be amazed and say “wow” at a huge meltwater channel cutting through the frozen tundra, but very difficult even to recognise that spectacular channel when it is covered in woodland and urban development where it cuts through Stoke-on-Trent.

So the first great joy of glacial geomorphology is the opportunity to see geomorphology with a special clarity in modern glacial environments where processes and landforms are very prominent in the landscape. The second great joy of glacial geomorphology is being able to transfer the clarity of vision gained in  modern glacial environments to the study of ancient glacial environments such as those in the UK where the evidence is often less prominent.

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My colleague Rob Jackson made an interesting point in his blog about how people might use breaks within lectures to help students concentrate.

When I was a new lecturer I went on a course in which we took turns giving a short sample of our lecturing, and the other group members commented on our style. I was really shocked that some of the lecturers thought it was quite normal to come along with a script and simply sit down, eyes glued to the paper, and read aloud what they had written. If that is your idea of a lecture then give up: post your script online for them to read, or post an audio file of your reading. For me, the lecture is not mainly about information delivery. Information can be delivered quite effectively in other ways, but where large numbers of students want face-to-face access to the individual expertise of a small number of teaching staff, the lecture remains an effective way of teaching… if you are careful with it! Some of my colleagues have argued that lecturing is not an appropriate teaching tool in 21st-century education, but I think it depends on what your lecture is trying to achieve, and exactly how you organise it to achieve that goal. For me, the lecture is primarily about route laying, signposting, and motivation. Certainly there is some information content in my lectures, but the real aim is to show students the learning territory that lies open to them and to motivate them to want to go and explore that territory. The lecture is a facilitating tool, not a content holder.

There are probably lots of different ways of doing this, depending on your own course context and teaching style, but for me it has been effective to use a sort of blended learning approach in which the lecture is the glue holding together a range of other media. For example, a lecture might have strong online backup including a short topic summary and readings from both undergraduate textbooks and advanced research sources, so I can be sure that students have access to the core content even if I don’t go through all of it in detail in the lecture. Students would be encouraged to do pre-reading for the lecture (not just post-reading) so that they come along already clued up (and perhaps even with questions) rather than turning up saying “what are we doing today?” (or, worse still, if they say “what are you doing today?”). Preparation can be encouraged and enhanced by the use of resources such as YouTube mini-lectures that flag up things for students to wonder about in advance. I have done that for one module and the students did find it very helpful: it meant that they knew the key points before we started, and the lecture could operate at a higher level than if I had needed to run through the basics for 15 minutes. Also they seem more likely to watch a ten-minute video than to do ten minutes of reading! You can see an example of these pre-lecture mini-lectures on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=187HabCYZds

For courses where I’ve run strong independent prep-work like pre-videos or pre-reading, the lecture session can often be improvised in response to student questions/comments about what they have already done. It is usually easy to predict what they will want to learn more about (indeed you can steer them in a particular direction with the pre-resources that you provide), so you can still “write a lecture” in advance if you want, but then deliver it as a response to their questions following their pre-work. Alternatively you can simply give the bits of the lecture that become relevant as they ask questions about the video.

A more conventional approach that I’ve used with 1st-year students does not have the videos or such strong emphasis on pre-reading, and is a much more standard lecture format. But even if you plan to “stand and deliver” for 50 minutes, you don’t have to simply stand and deliver for 50 minutes! My approach is to break the session into manageable chunks, and to use those chunks to achieve very specific tasks.

Here’s an example breakdown of a 50-minute 1st-year lecture:

minutes 0-5: “establish a teachable moment” –  in other words, do something that puts the students into a frame of mind where they want to learn. They won’t learn just because you force information on them. They will learn if they feel the desire or need to know something. This can be achieved in different ways. One basic approach is to ask them an interesting question (interesting to them) to which they don’t know the answer or to which you show the answer is not what they always thought. Essentially you need to make sure at the start of the lecture that the students are curious to know about whatever it is you are covering.

minutes 5-20: flag up the key issues in your topic of the day. This is the “core content” section of the lecture, and needs clear signposts and subheadings so students know exactly what to go away and read up on.

minutes 20-25: short break, with a reminder that students could take this opportunity to review their notes from the previous 20 mins and identify questions they might want to ask.

minutes 25-40: present a case-study or counterpoint example (perhaps from an important research paper) that draws together key themes from the day’s topic and perhaps illustrates them in an applied context (or from a perspective that will help shed light on what you did in minutes 5-20).

minutes 40-45: time to deal with student queries and comments about what you’ve done (including opportunity for them to ask questions they thought of in the mid-lecture break), and time to reiterate your key point.

minutes 45-50: a closing activity to reinforce their learning and encourage them to do the follow-up work you may have set. One simple approach here is to give them a short self-assessed or peer-assessed mini-test on what just happened in the lecture.

Last year I set out to redesign an entire module using that kind of framework as a starting point. I didn’t really stick perfectly to the plan, but making a step in that direction was a big improvement on my previous style. If you are adopting an approach like this because you think students have short attention spans (we all have short attention spans), then you can also help by making sure you switch occasionally between different modes of presentation. For example, if your core session at minutes 5-20 is delivered by PowerPoint, then perhaps try using the whiteboard, or a box of sand, or at least a Prezi instead of a .ppt for the case study section. Or you could use a video for the opening few minutes, then talk-and-chalk for a bit before falling back into PowerPoint.

Mix it up. Stay lively.

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