Posts Tagged ‘organising’

When we do these exercises where I ask the students what they see through the window, or what they notice in the room where we are sitting, they often ask me what I see; what I notice. I am reluctant to say, in case they think that they should be taking what I see as some kind of a model, which it is not. But of course the exercise is always as instructive for me as it should be for the students. We have just done the exercise where I ask them to list what they notice about the room we are in. What might I write? What did I notice this time around?

First, as always, I notice myself, looking out at the world from inside my body. I am conscious of the familiar window through which I always look. Next, I see the room in its context: a particular, tiny location surrounded by a huge framework  of space, and a particular tiny moment surrounded before and after by a huge framework of time. I make a deliberate effort not to be side-tracked into a discussion of Proust.  Seen in that overwhelming context of history and geography the room reminds me instead of the “Total Perspective Vortex” in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which is a device that shows the person connected to it exactly where they are in the huge totality of the Universe – a tiny, tiny dot in space and time, so utterly insignificant relative to everything that ever has existed or ever will exist that the human mind cannot survive the confrontation. I see the room in context with its surroundings as the smallest inside edge of everything that is beyond it, and as the tiniest moment of time swamped before and afterwards by the rest of history. It is as though I am inside a tiny bubble surrounded by an infinite fog. All I see is the inside edge of the fog but I know it stretches out to touch everything else – all the space and time that I can’t see from here. And so, by touching the fog, I touch all of that.

Mervyn Peake wrote a poem “Is there no love can link us?” in which he referred to “this hectic moment, this fierce instant striking now its universal, its uneven blow… this sliding second we share: this desperate edge of now”.  When I look out into the room that is what I see – the sliding second, constantly slipping to the next and leaving itself behind. A moment surrounded by, and connected to, all the other moments.

Having drawn on Mervyn Peake to provide an illustration of the room’s historical context I think of another of Peake’s poems for a spatial context to describe how I notice the room as a tiny part of a bigger whole.  In “Suddenly, walking along the open road” Peake describes how – while walking amongst the “banal normality” of the houses and fields and trees of Wiltshire – he becomes intensely aware of his place on the surface of a ball spinning through space: “the world below my feet became a planet”, “a marble spinning through the universe wears on its dizzy crust, men, houses, trees…”.  As I look out into the room, I notice – and pay attention to the fact –  that the room is situated on that marble spinning through the universe, and I remember how I often used to say that a Geographer should be able to feel the world spinning.

Do I say all that to the students? No, not really. I say: “try to see the room first of all in its broader context. See the big picture. Try to think at different scales.”

Then, having thought a little bit about the big picture, I can move on and start to consider the more local, human scale… Of which, perhaps, more in a later post. Perhaps then I’ll use Proust, or at least a madeleine… or a small piece of fairy cake.


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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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It’s a Complicated World

The world is a complicated place. That’s easy to say. I could hear people saying that to me when I was a first-year undergraduate. I could even say it myself. But I didn’t really see then how complicated the world is. The older you get, the more you see, the more complicated it becomes. And so we have schemes that help us to make sense of the world. Ways of organising all those complicated things and ideas and places and history and uncertainties and contradictions. Science is one scheme that gives us a way of making sense of the world.  Religion is another. There are lots to choose from. And you don’t just have to choose one. You can mix and match. You can make your scheme, your system, your way of looking at the world as complex as you like. It can be really complicated, if you want. Of course that might defeat your original goal of having a system that cut through the complexity, if that’s what you were looking for. On the other hand perhaps you were just looking for a scheme that recognised the complexity. Perhaps you just wanted to see it and acknowledge it. Perhaps then you don’t need a scheme, you need a vision.  And then everything becomes much more simple. The world turns out not to be so complicated after all. The world is a pretty straightforward place.

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I met somebody new this week, and when I first met him I was under the impression that he was a sculptor. I noticed his hands, and I thought yes, those are a sculptor’s hands. It turns out that he wasn’t a sculptor at all. So now my map of the world has these hands just hanging there uncategorized. I think Carlo may actually have been a former aircraft engineer. So does that mean that those were “former aircraft engineer’s hands”? I don’t have a place for those. I don’t have a file or a drawer labelled “former aircraft engineers’ hands”. I don’t know what to expect of such hands so I don’t know whether Carlo’s fit the role. Were those echt aircraft engineer’s hands? And what, anyway, do I really know even of sculptors’ hands? Who was I to say “ah, yes, those are just so, exactly as they would be”? We rush to judgements on the basis of so little knowledge. In the short period of a day or so when I thought that Carlo’s hands were those of a sculptor, I looked carefully at my own hands and wondered, of what type of person would these appear to be the hands? What should I tell somebody that I was, in order for that person to say “ah, yes, those are exactly the hands of such a one”? And I really couldn’t say. Of me, and these particular hands which I know well, I cannot rush to judgement. Somewhere, somewhere between me and Carlo, perhaps there is a middle ground where I would be able to say something useful. A middle ground of just the right amount of knowledge. I thought that REM sang “I know too much”, but they didn’t, it was “Oh no, I’ve said too much”, so that doesn’t help here. T.S.Eliot wrote: “Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus’ Litauen, echt deutsch” (I am not Russian, but Lithuanian, real German), which helps a little more.

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