One of the great pleasures of my year has been my fellowship at the Rutgers Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, commonly known as RASTL. As part of my fellowship, I offer one class a semester for the Rutgers TA Project, which exists to provide training for Teaching Assistants, which is what American graduate students involved in teaching are usually called at Rutgers. (Other common terms include Graduate Assistants, or GAs, Teaching Fellows and Graduate Student Instructors – the use of terms varies widely between universities, and the role of a TA may be differently defined even within university departments.) I’ll talk more about the TA Project and what it tries to do another time, but for now let me concentrate on the workshop I gave last week.
The first thing I should say is that I suffered complete and utter tech fail. My laptop’s hard drive had died the previous weekend, so I was relying on using the TA Project’s laptop and projector. When I got to the presentation room, the projector and laptop weren’t talking to each other. Thankfully, a grad student in attendance was happy for us to use his laptop – but the projector wouldn’t talk to that either. So the student center lent us their projector… just as we realised there was no WiFi connection in the room, so I couldn’t get to my slides on Dropbox anyway. At which point, ten minutes late, I threw my hands into the air, was grateful I’d designed a decent handout, and got on with it. I think it illustrates the key point about presentations supported by tech – always do a good enough job with your handout and notes that if you need to improvise, you can.
I split my talk into three sections, so I’m going to break it down into three blog posts. The first looked at why we might want to teach creatively in the first place; the second introduced three in-class activities you might use to shake things up a little; the third looked at creative ways to use technology in the classroom. This post is going to address that first point, why teaching creatively is a Good Thing.
Creative teaching is a way of getting your teaching beyond straight lecturing for an hour and a half. It’s a fair question to ask why we want to get beyond lectures in the first place – after all, many of us were taught using the lecture-based method, and it can be a bit unnerving to think about exploring options outside that format. There are a couple of good reasons for thinking about alternatives:
- Creative teaching encourages student learning. When we’re teaching, we want students to learn. That’s the whole point of being up there in front of a classroom in the first place. Creative teaching creates other mechanisms
- Creative teaching gives you an insight into student learning that lectures don’t. Using creative teaching techniques help you watch students grapple with material in class. You can see where they’re making the connections they need to between various elements of course content, and where they’re falling down massive potholes you didn’t even know existed. When you know where these stumbling blocks are, you as a teacher can then step in and help students over them, but you need to know where they are first.
- Creative teaching gives students a space to reflect on their learning. In lectures, students don’t necessarily think about the content that’s presented to them – they hear it, they (hopefully) make notes on it, they might review their notes after class. However, they don’t have an opportunity to find out if they’ve really understood what’s going on until they come to revise for exams or, worse, see their final exam grades. Creating more space for students to engage in the content during class time helps make their understanding of the learning process richer and thus more effective. It also helps them to think about their own misunderstandings of the material without fear of the dreaded Red Pen.
- Creative teaching is more fun to teach! Frankly, there’s nothing I find more dull than lecturing to a group of people for an hour without getting any feedback from them or interacting with them. Creative teaching gives you not only the opportunity to interact with students and built personal relationships that help them get more invested in your subject, but also lets you communicate your passion for whatever you’re teaching in a way that the lecture format doesn’t.
The immediate response of any teacher to the thought of doing something like this, however, is often how am I going to do all of this and cover the content? The obsession with covering as much material as possible means we often feel uncomfortable about trying new teaching techniques, as we feel we’ll be sacrificing time that should be sent on communicating information. How you answer that question depends on what your priority is – what do students need to get out of your course? Is it content, or is it the thinking and analytical skills that they can transfer to different content afterwards? You ay well find that it’s a bit of both – in elementary Latin, we want students to have a knowledge base of basic vocabulary as well as the skills they need to translate Latin.
However you decide to approach creative teaching, the most important thing I think I can say is don’t try to do it all at once. From any teaching workshop, book or blog post, you can take ideas away and sit with them. There’s no pressure to work them all into the next lesson plan. Equally, be honest about what will and won’t work with your teaching style. At Rutgers, there’s a big faculty movement in favour of teaching with Clickers – but they don’t fit with the kind of teacher I am or the subject I teach. That doesn’t make me a less good teacher or them a less useful technology, it just means my approach to pedagogy doesn’t fit with Clickers. If something doesn’t work for you, don’t force it to – but be willing to experiment outside of your comfort zone.