Classically Inclined

April 18, 2011

Creative teaching in the humanities – Part II

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:33 am
Tags: , , ,

This is the second of three posts on creative teaching in the humanities. The first looked at why we might want to teach creatively to begin with; the third will look at creative ways to use technology in the classroom. This post introduces three in-class activities you might use to shake up the lecture format and try other ways to communicate your content. I should at the outset acknowledge my debt to Therese Huston’s Teaching What You Don’t Know, which helped me sort out some of the techniques that might be useful for first-time TAs to use without risking their confidence in their own teaching.

Sequence Reconstruction

This is a very simple activity to do in class; it works for individuals or pairs and takes between five and fifteen minutes. The concept is simple – you begin with a list, jumble it, and ask students to reconstruct the correct order of the list. So here’s a really simple example I might use in a Roman history class, a sequence of events from Republican and early imperial history, in the correct order on the left and a jumbled order on the right. (I’ve alphabetised the events, which is the quickest way of jumbling.)

Rome is founded
First Punic War
Slave rebellion in Sicily
Sulla becomes dictator
Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon
Battle of Actium
Octavian becomes Augustus
Battle of Actium
First Punic War
Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon
Octavian becomes Augustus
Rome is founded
Slave rebellion in Sicily
Sulla becomes dictator


In class, you put the jumbled list up on a Powerpoint and ask students, alone or in pairs, to unjumble the list. When they’ve worked through it, you reveal the correct order and discuss where students may have gone wrong. The good thing about this activity is that it highlights common misunderstandings about events or sequences, so you can then provide a mini-lecture to fix the problem.  Other possibilities include sequences of historical events; the chronological development of arguments and counterarguments on a subject, for instance women’s emancipation; events in a novel; a process you need to go through to do research, for instance finding a library book… the possibilities really are endless.

Category Building

This activity works for individuals or small groups, and is as much work for you as you want to make it. Depending on how complex you want to be, it takes between fifteen minutes and half an hour. You begin by presenting your students with a table containing some concepts and some features; I’ve designed a very simple one up here, based on two major Hellenistic philosophical systems which I might teach, Stoicism and Epicureanism:

Concepts Features

Emotions are irrational and driven by the passions

Epicureanism Pleasure is the ultimate good
Both Virtue is behaving in accordance with nature
Neither The gods do not care about us
  Pleasure only comes from things of the best quality
  The wise man is the only truly virtuous person
  Humans have free will
  The world is made up of matter and void
  We await the coming of a saviour
  Everything except virtue is an indifferent
  To live pleasantly, one must live wisely and justly


Students have to work out which feature belongs to which philosophy, to both or to neither – you can leave out the both and neither categories, and you can have three substantive concepts rather than two. Once you’ve given students a while to work on their categories, you bring the class back together to reveal the correct answers and to talk through any particularly difficult or contentious items on the list. The quickest way to run the activity is to give the students a handout with the table of properties and concepts, and let that form the basis of their work.

This is another good way to identify misunderstandings or confusions. Including the options of ‘both’ and ‘neither’ helps students to realise there might be grey areas in the subject matter you’re teaching, especially important for humanities subjects. Including features that students commonly yet mistakenly ascribe to whatever you’re trying to teach is a good use of the ‘neither’ category – you can show them a common mistake before they make it a context that matters.

You can also use this technique to introduce new material, by providing students with a table and letting them use their textbooks to puzzle out the right answers. You would then give a mini-lecture on the new concepts when you had brought the class back together, to explain where each idea fits in to the systems.

The Fishbowl

This is a more substantial activity that works well for discussion-based classes and requires minimal preparation from you (although you do need to do high quality prep!). It’s a good way to change up the discussion dynamics in your classroom, to give quiet students a space to contribute, and to just do something a bit different.

To begin the activity, you ask for six to eight volunteers to form an “inner circle” – naturally the talkative students will volunteer, but that’s not a problem. You set the volunteers up in a circle, possibly around a table, give them some discussion questions, and tell them they have a time limit of however many minutes to discuss the questions. The rest of the students form an outer circle who listen to the discussion that takes place in the inner circle, or inside the fishbowl. (This may involve some moving about of classroom furniture, or working around the restrictions of the room you are in.)

You ask the outer circle to observe what happens inside the fishbowl, not in terms of what people say so much as how it happens – what things people pay most attention to, what they ignore, what subjects didn’t get raised in the first place and should have been, what seems to get people really emotionally engaged, that kind of thing. By observing the discussion dynamics, the students in the outer circle have something to comment on regardless of whether they feel they can say something substantive about the topic at hand.

The inner circle begins their discussion based on your prompts, and is kept to a strict time limit; you will want to either act as timekeeper or ask a student to do so, and give them a five minute warning before their time ends. Once the time expires, you ask the outer circle to discuss what they noticed about the inner circle’s discussion; this gives the quieter students an opportunity to contribute in an environment where the more active students have already had their chance to speak.

A variation on this activity is to allow students from the outer circle to “tap in” to the inner circle – that is, tap someone on the shoulder and change seats to get into the discussion. This lets students in the outer circle contribute something if they think they have something to add to the discussion. It also lets students regulate the discussion in the inner circle by tapping out a student who is perhaps not engaging with the material constructively. You will want to establish some rules for this to work properly – for instance, someone who is “tapped out” has to wait until three other people have tapped in before tapping in again themselves.

The key thing to making sure this activity works is to generate good open-ended questions that foster discussion rather than to ask a question that produces a list of Approved Answers. For instance, rather than ask “what were the reasons that the second Triumvirate broke down?”, which is going to prompt students to list whatever reasons you’ve given in class but not actually engage with them, you might instead offer something like “some people argue that the mutual dislike between Octavian and Antony was the main reason the second Triumvirate collapsed. Why would they say that, and would you agree or disagree?” Starting with a statement for students to analyse and to agree or disagree with automatically means you have as many different opinions as you have students, and thus hopefully generates more active discussion. Good questions tend to start with how or why rather than what or who.

You only need to generate one really good question to get the activity going, and then you can use students’ discussion and the outer circle’s debrief to summarise the conversation, the take-home points, and any other clarifications you feel you need to make. The students of the inner circle are in charge of talking through the issues you want them to raise, and by engaging with other students have to articulate and explain their own positions; the students in the outer circle get to experience critically judging a discussion and listening for things they are not normally required to, which in turn enhances their own mastery of the material.


1 Comment »

  1. Some really great ideas here! I’ll definitely try some of them out.

    Comment by Naomi J. — April 18, 2011 @ 2:42 pm | Reply

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