About this blog

Students can feel constrained by ways of communicating and learning that seem opaque and fixed because they are permeated with norms never made explicit, knowledge they do not share, or the language of others.

Janette Ryan and Rosemary Viete
Respectful interactions: learning with international students in the English-speaking academy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Students (and teachers) as Creators of Knowledge with new Educational Technology

A reflection on Mike Neary's "Student as Producer: A Pedagogy for the avant-garde: or, how do revolutionary teachers teach?"

As a tertiary teacher I'm not quite sure why it took me so long to think about pedagogy. My excuse, as I've admitted to myself and others, is that I was not trained to be a teacher while studying for my Ph.D, and not many post-graduates who choose to, or are fortunate enough to remain in academia (depending on your point of view) are given the opportunity to formalise a teaching qualification while taking undergraduate classes on low pay, and further delaying submission day. But I'm thinking a lot about it now, especially as the tides of change have finally rolled in to the safe harbour of my place of employment, and past ways of teaching students seem to be on the way out. An article by McLoughlin and Lee, 2008, really raised my awareness of this issue. See references below.

This change was discomfiting, and is still as the changes are moving relatively slowly for some sections of the tertiary sector. I'm not particularly interested in engaging in a debate with myself about what I imagine my colleagues must think of this change, but would gladly have it with colleagues in person. What I'm interested in is affirming for myself an anchor point - something relatively stable which resides just outside the artifice of negotiating with the hard and soft skills of mastering new technology. This anchor point is the philosophy which shapes the educational experiences I design for my students: it is the pedagogy which guides the way I deliver a curriculum. Without this, all the workshops on effectively using the LMS, and integrating forum posts and online quizzes into classes are just so much hot, gusty, and irritating wind generated from who knows, and who cares where. Without a base of fundamental beliefs about the value of what is being taught, the winds of technological and social change can easily blow you off course.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review - Whatever Happened to Modernism? Gabriel Josipovici

This blog is a temporary home for the following review.

What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici,
Yale University Press, 2010

Reading this book over several months was not long enough. I took advantage of the requirement to concentrate this book demands to breathe slowly and allow myself to re read and re read again Josipovici's carefully crafted phrasing. To take on this book requires a certain appreciation for the historical and persistent presence of modernism in literature and art. Josipovici does not take his readers through a mundane history of modernist literature. Rather, he draws them seductively and skilfully into certain key moments within certain creative struggles by certain writers, and asks them to enjoy with him the particular pleasure, and pain, of uncertainty.

It is the complex and terrible beauty of these moments that, once recognised for their intangibility, assume for Josipovici the essence of the modernist project - or rather, it's necessary crisis. He strains towards each successive articulation with the same sense of yearning for the words to express the inexpressible employed by the writers whose work he explores. But where modern writers sought to render visible the alienation and suffering of a single character, or of a whole generation, Josipovici seeks to explain why the modernist project was, and is still, the benchmark of worthwhile art.

The uncertainties modernist writers and artists articulated in their work were not easily expressed, nor easily accepted by critics, or, indeed, by the writers themselves. Kafka wrote to Max Brod about his work in 1909: 'each word, even before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side' and 'the phrases positively fall apart in my hands' (4). This uncertainty, even fearfulness about expression is partly what gives the works discussed in this book their essentially modernist credentials.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Teacher's Experiences of being a Distance Learning student

I'm just about half way through my final unit of a Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching, a course delivered through Open Universities Australia. I do have a Ph.D, but it didn't take me long after my first horrifying weeks of teaching undergraduates, back in 2005, to realise that I was not really a very good teacher. I know a lot of people would never actually admit this to themselves. I've got more years under my belt now, but I still have much to learn about designing and delivering good programs to my students.

The final assignment of the course is to redesign one of our currently taught programs as a distance education course - a task I am as yet unsure how to tackle. But first things first - What am I making of the experience of being simultaneously a University level teacher, and a student - again?

There is much chatter in the Twitterverse among educators in the United States and Canada - Australian and British teachers only pop up now and again in my timeline - about the growing potential of distance, or e-learning. At the moment, everyone is excited, or disappointed, about whether their proposals were accepted for the upcoming conference of the International Society for Technology in Education, in Philadelphia. If I wasn't tapped into this social network, I now realise, I would be terribly ignorant about what is going on and changing in my own profession. Academic journals just don't get one excited about change!!

I do feel that much of this current interest in e-learning has to do with a general embracing of technology as an enhancement for more conventional classroom activities. There is research by respected scholars to support the trend towards engaging with learners through computer technology, and through social media which is supported by mobile devices. See for example the wonderful recent edited collection by Ulf-Daniel Ehlers and Dirk Schneckenberg - Changing Cultures in Higher Education, which goes way beyond the growing impact of technology in higher education contexts, and engages with questions of how education policy, organisational culture, technological development and globalised knowledge intersect to stimulate innovation, and direct change.

Not only learners are being swept up in a second, or third, wave of technology change, but educators themselves are enhancing their teaching practices by engaging with a wider network of professionals through the ease of access brought by mobile devices and social media. The world of e-learning is itself a diverse mixture of platforms, offering potential to all participants in the education landscape - not just students. This shouldn't be forgotten. Making a teacher's or an administrator's job easier, more enjoyable, streamlining administration tasks and enabling ease of communication with students and colleagues, cannot be underestimated. But there is substantial resistance among both teachers and students.

On a side note - so far I haven't printed out any course materials. I uploaded all the course modules and readings to my dropbox using my desktop computer. Then I opened the files from dropbox using the Noterize application on my iPad. I read the course notes, highlighted important sections with my stylus pen, made notes for my blog posts, and posted my blog posts to the LMS all from my iPad. I'm writing my assignment in Pages. I can do it in a coffee shop, if I want to.

Of course, more pragmatic reasons for the growing interest in e-learning is to enable wider, and more equitable access to quality education, and to expand the horizons of once place and culture bound classrooms and lecture theatres. The course I am doing is administered from Perth, Australia. It's students are located in many Australian cities, and other countries - mostly from South Asia. I really value this diversity, and the contributions made by the participants on the discussion board this term about their experiences as teachers in disciplines very different to my own, have been invaluable for me as I negotiate the readings and tackle the assessment tasks.

It wasn't always this good, however. This is the first time out of the four units I've done since 2008, where discussion posts made up a substantial component of the assessment. I can't begin to explain how much better the experience is, when participants are actually participating. You would think that as both adults, and teachers - presumably highly motivated individuals - these educators would be keen to share their thoughts and experiences on a discussion board. But no - when given the option, most would choose to lurk silently. Several people posting on the Welcome and Introductions module expressed fears and anxieties about making public their thoughts and ideas to their fellow students. I don't have the same fears now - but I did when I thought that what I might say could be seen as ignorant, or unimportant, by what I imagined were more experienced people who would judge me as a novice.

What I now know is that I could have learned from those more experienced teachers. As a more experienced teacher now myself, I am somewhat relieved to find that I am still lacking in substantial ways, and that other teachers who might see me as experienced, have much to teach me.

When I try to transfer this insight to designing a distance-education course for students, the one thing which strikes me hardest, is to be cognizant of the anxieties many people feel about being publicly exposed. I don't think this is a reason NOT to make discussion board posts, or blogs, or flip-cam movies or voice threads, compulsory. Rather, this challenging aspect of distance education - which is to expose yourself to and engage with others - could be more highly rewarded. And yet, there are inevitably students who sit silently all term in our face to face classes. This doesn't mean they aren't engaged and learning, however. One thing e-learning, or distance learning has going for it, is that there are diverse ways the shy and the anxious can engage, such as sending blog post directly to the instructor, rather than to the LMS. I don't believe students should be compelled to be exposed - but definitely encouraged.

Building in flexible options for participation is easier in an on-line program. This is one of the strengths of more general kinds of e-learning, and a good argument for why higher-education needs to embrace change, innovation, and recognise that not all learners (or all lecturers / professors) have the same needs, or the same levels of comfort, within this second or third-wave of change.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Involving Faculty in Pedagogy - Modeling Constructivism

As part of my constructivist agenda, I have been aiming high and trying to get the staff at my college to participate in, and generate our own professional development. See my post from where I spoke at the Staff Conference about Trends in International Pedagogy, in September.

One of the things I am doing with the generous assistance of an energetic and enthusiastic colleague, and a fabulous Educational IT person, is building a Wiki for staff from all departments across the college to participate in. I'm hoping at least some of the nearly one hundred academic staff will want to help construct the Wiki. Here's what it looks like.

It was important for the Wiki to be both aesthetically attractive, and easy to use. The name, Volta, was a brain wave of my colleague - a way to bring together the arts and sciences disciplines. It tells participants that

"This Wiki is a resource for sharing ideas, resources, research, classroom practice and pedagogy. Our broad aim is to foster interdisciplinary appreciation and collaboration, and to cultivate an intellectual community of scholars."

We announced it's "Activation" at the last All Staff Meeting, and showed staff through some of the most enticing pages, including: Book Reviews, Useful Teaching Resources, Our Research Interests, Worth Reading, Informative education Blogs, Wiki's and Twitter feeds / groups (including #mathchat and #edchat), Ideas Forum, Philosophy and Literature. Also, importantly, there is much there to look at and laugh about. Hopefully this will entice the more reluctant ones to at least look

All academic staff in the program have been invited to take part, and I will let you know how it goes. The wiki is, however, restricted to academics in our college. If there is no interest, I will try and find out why. I've had a few emails to say, "Well Done" - and "about time someone did this" but no participants yet. I wish I could set up a counter (will have to see if the IT person has an idea how to do this). Must give them time to finish marking exams, I guess... I'm impatient!!

My hope is that, being "grass roots" rather than administered from above, there will be some people who want to take part. It certainly has support on many levels, but will people make the effort? Do teachers really want to take part in evolving a resource which enhances our own professional development, and improves the learning experiences of our students at the same time?

Time will tell. It's the end of the semester, and it's winding down time. I have hopes, though.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Culturally Responsive Story Choices - Evaluation with students' voices

Well, I've had some time to read the short essays from my class, and reflect on the success, or otherwise, of the task. I have some very positive reflections about the value of the exercise overall - and in particular, the positive effects of including of a slideshow of visual images; the constructive elements of my earlier 'looking behind / below a word" exercise, and finally, the value of the exercise in terms of discovering my students prior knowledge (or lack of it) as the case may be.

Ironically, I'm really excited by my own failure to choose a story they would all understand.

The essays themselves were a mixed bag. The students who came to the last tutorial before the holidays, to engage in discussion, and receive the handout where I gave a suggested outline of things to discuss, generally produced clearer writing, and communicated more effectively. The handout justifies the suggested structure with reference to the elements of longer essay writing in Literature with which the students will soon need to become familiar. I reduced this structure to three or four very short paragraphs.

Introduce your theme / topic / (in this case 'image'.)
Indicate some places in the text where this image occurs (quotes and evidence).
Give your impressions of what purpose the image has in conveying the "deeper" meaning (from looking behind a word).
Close with a sentence suggesting an overall meaning for the role of the image in the story.

The students who didn't come to the last tutorial, struggled to structure their work effectively, and generally had a hard time linking back to the earlier exercise of looking behind an image, to this new story context. Those who did, and who referred carefully to the examples I gave using another key image from the story, wrote much more usefully about their chosen image.

No surprises there. The written work tells me a lot. However, I wasn't satisfied with only evaluating the written work. I wanted to hear from the students how they had approached their task, and some of the positive and negatives they could identify. This feedback, when combined with assessment of the writing, was infinitely more useful for my evaluation purposes than writing alone.

Employing the Ipad app Audionote for Evaluating student work

As the owner of a new Apple iPad, I am particularly keen to explore ways I can use it in my work - both to enhance my students' learning experiences, and to make my own teaching, administration, and professional development activities more effective, and enjoyable. In our first class back this term, I invited each of my ten students to consider some questions about their writing task - how they approached it, what they struggled with, what they learned - and jot down some notes. Then I sat with each student, and recorded their responses using the Audionote application.

As each student spoke, I typed their name on the note 'paper,' so that I could easily find each students' response on my recording. I could then listen back to the responses when I was reading their essays. Short notes can be added in afterwards, to jog my memory about certain issues. It is a great way to add supplementary detail about students' responses, areas of difficulty, and strengths.

I fully realise that this strategy might be great for this small class, but my regular teaching timetable brings over one hundred students into my classes each week, and the challenges might be more substantial. However, the potential is exciting. What I was able to gain from it was interesting and useful feedback from students about the challenges they faced.

Listening to the students responses before I read their work was illuminating. I learned that several students in the class had little or no knowledge,let alone understanding, of religion, and that this factor severely limited their appreciation of one of the story's major themes. Even with the three tutorials of discussion and analysis, this concept hindered a deeper understanding.

I learned that the slideshow of images I made was highly effective at helping several students to "see" the connections made in the story between the main character, the underlying theme of lost traditions in an ancient culture, and between the repeating images which all intersected and built up a powerful aesthetic. It allowed them to see in to a foreign world, using images to which they could relate, simply because the work of imagination was done for them.

Putting the images, words, and meaning together in a piece of written work, however, is something they need to learn to do on their own, with support. I feel rather pleased that the challenge was high enough that many difficulties were able to come to light. It is easy to be complacent about what we think our students know, or should know, but if we bothered to find out, we can help them to help themselves fill in the blanks. They are such vulnerable things, I've come to appreciate.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Culturally responsive story choices

My Anxiety.

It's the end of first term for my experimental Literature class, and I'm taking a moment to reflect on how I think it went. The students have been assigned a writing task over their holidays (they voted for this option themselves) and I literally have no idea what things will come back to me in two weeks time.

I must confess I'm not feeling positive. For all my ambitions to make the classes accessible, relaxed, and open in many respects for students to engage and learn in creative ways, only half the class turned up on the last day to get their assignment, and to engage with the preparatory writing activities I had worked hard to develop for them.

Sometimes I reflect that my approach might well be counter-productive. Am I going too slowly? Are the texts too difficult despite my efforts to find ones which I felt would enable these particular students to feel their way in to the ideas more easily? I'm trying to locate the "average" zone of proximal development for these students. After seeing their presentations, I got a much better sense of what they might be able to understand. The challenge is for them to translate that understanding into a written piece, in an unfamiliar discipline, in a second language. I really don't know what that's like.

The Students' Anxieties

The assignment isn't the usual argumentative essay assigned to the general cohort. I'm building on the basis I've tried to establish. Here is a word - an idea lies behind it - and an image may also be conjured (out of imagination or cyberspace) to fill in the ambiguities.

I think this is easy enough in everyday discourse: the complication comes when the word is located in a context where meaning is not immediately evident - such as in a story. To ease the strangeness which my other students have reported feeling when confronted with a literary text in English, I chose one which was, in my view, both accessible and meaningful. The story I chose has a contemporary Indonesian setting, and tells a story which goes from the present to the past, and back to the present. The visual, auditory, and sensual images which supported the story were vivid, and had clear connotations - at least, I thought so (I might well be wrong, and will be pleased to understand the difficulty). The subject matter is contemporary, relevant to a growing proportion of the world's young people, and had multiple levels of possible engagement for the students' varied abilities.

The task is to write 400-500 words on the role of one of the repeating images in the story. What is the image? How is it described? What is the role the image plays? How does the image contribute to the overall meaning of the story? Many in the group have expressed anxiety and concern that they won't be able to write well enough - mainly based on their lack of experience, or past efforts in literature in their home countries. "But this is just a preparatory, non-assessed course," I remind them. "Don't worry so much." Strained, fearful faces peer back at me - half terrified, half amused.

If you are interested to read the rather wonderful 1500 word story being studied, "The Pilgrimage" by Tim Hannigan, you can see it here at Indonesiamatters.com.


A slide show of images accompanied my presentation of the story to the class. You can look at it on Slideshare. I aimed to find location credits for the pictures, and have author/publisher permissions. The excerpts are from "The Pilgrimage," by Tim Hannigan (Timdog).


When I get the assignments back, I'll have a grounds more relative than this reflection to base evaluation upon. Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Noel Entwistle - Teaching for Understanding at University.
Deep Approaches and Distinctive Ways of Thinking

Publication Details

This book has had a profound impact on my recent reflections about my teaching approaches. Entwistle's focus is higher education, and there is much here to interest educators from diverse disciplines. Beginning from an understanding that the twenty-first century is ushering in unprecedented change in terms of global interconnectivity, Entwistle writes, "Increasingly, knowledge acquired at University can be no more than a springboard for coping with change and complexity in everyday life and the workplace." p1.

What really appealed to me about the book is an argument emphasising the need to identify and work with your subject's "inner logic" as well as the particular pedagogy to support it. "Effective university teaching thus depends on establishing a relationship between the specific subject content and the ways in which students are helped to engage with the ideas, so as to develop their own understanding" p3.

Short "bridges" connect chapters, linking the various discussions neatly. There are sections on 'How Students Learn', exploring educational psychology, learning styles, motivation and personality; 'The Nature of Academic Understanding', examining the conceptual basis of various disciplines (engineering, biological sciences, history, media); two chapters on 'How Academics Teach', and 'Research'; and also planning and designing curriculum and assessment to support student deep learning and understanding.

Student voices are included throughout - the author having sought out students' responses and evaluations of various pedagogical approaches. These sections are illuminating, reminding the educator-readers that there are end users whose opinions of our work matter. What educators think students need to know is only part of the new higher education landscape. Expository practices - the lecturer holding court with students as passive receivers - are out of style. Inspiring educators to create 'powerful learning environments' is the ambition of Entwistle's book. How to do this?

  • Provide authentic, open problems with learning materials in a variety of formats designed to make connections with students' previous knowledge and interests.
  • Use teaching methods which arouse interest, activate prior knowledge, clarify meanings and model appropriate thinking strategies and reflective processes.
  • Specify learning strategies in detail to provide scaffolding, with the guidance then gradually removed to encourage subsequent self-regulation of studying.
  • Encourage students to monitor their own strategies and discuss these with other students, to provide a classroom culture that encourages reflection on process. (p 105)

Well worth investigating.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Presentations in Lit class

In my second last post, I described the visit to the computer lab I made with my small student group. Their task: to look behind / below / around a word, idea or phrase. The groups had to then "teach" the rest of the class what they had found, and the groups watching and listening were invited to comment, question, evaluate the information imparted for its communication value.

The words / ideas / phrases chosen by the students themselves were:
1. Studying overseas 2. Cloning 3. Shake

To say I was impressed by the variety and quality of what these students presented is an understatement. Maybe it was because I have never done anything like this in my usual teaching, (where I have eight classes of fifteen students once a week) that the novelty and creativity of the activity made such an impression. I'm struggling to think of how I can do similar things with over a hundred students. Next year, there might well be WiFi enabled iPads in the hands of each student, if the pilot program our college has under way is a success.

The group looking at studying overseas produced a fantastic slideshow, with a story at the heart of it - a Chinese girl coming to Australia to study, and finding dilemmas and challenges in her way, to be overcome. This group showed in their presentation familiarity with the narrative arc of story telling, introduction, complication, climax, dénouement. I learned something important about my students' knowledge which I would perhaps not have uncovered so effectively, if I had just asked the group what they knew about story telling. Enabling them to "show" me, teach others, and share their ideas, brought this important piece of information the whole group in a powerful way.

The second presentation on "cloning" was deeply impressive. For a start, the group researching the word / idea were interested in the science, the potential, the ethical dimensions of this developing technology. OK, so, what has cloning to do with Literature? Well, the students were researching, asking questions, finding answers, and in their presentation they covered history, important moments, explored the positives and negatives, asked one another and the audience questions about possible futures - "Where would you want to keep a clone of yourself - in a deep freeze? In a specialised hibernation chamber? Would you want to spend time talking with your clone?" What fabulous stories such questions would inspire, and what complex and lateral thinking these students showed me and their colleagues! I can now draw on the ideas, problems, and ethical dimensions of this presentation to build parallel understandings with the literary and language ideas we will shortly come to.

The third presentation on "shake" was a fitting conclusion. Each student in the group found a story to match one of the several possible connotations or variations on the term. Physical movement, emotion, surprise, horrible realisations. They worked hard to find expressive visualisations to complement their presentation of the word, and the possible interpretations and uses to which it could be put in language, storytelling, experience. They DID the work required, and went beyond it.

While this isn't perhaps a revolutionary exercise, I hope that it will lay a foundation of ideas, concepts and reference points which might not otherwise have been available for these students, as they progress in the course. They were all explorers, researchers, storytellers, creators of knowledge, sharers of ideas. My aim is for them to continue to be so, but the next stage will be a development on this foundation.

In the next post, I'll briefly outline the next step towards the reading, analysis and writing task to be assigned.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Talking Pedagogy with Colleagues - A potential minefield

This week I presented a paper on International Pedagogies to my entire faculty at a staff conference. The conference title was "Engaging Students in the 21st Century". I spoke about the intersections of Quality in higher education, and learner-centred teaching theories and practice.

We only teach international students at our college, and this is a cohort of students with unique learning challenges. I talked about some of the recent research looking at the international student experience in Australia; about the need for educators to reflect on their "western" values and assumptions, and about negotiating the ever-changing terrain of ICT in education. I spoke as a student of all these areas of education - as I am undertaking a graduate qualification in tertiary teaching. Many higher education teachers in Australia, and elsewhere I assume, come to their roles with a PhD, but no teaching qualifications. Most of my colleagues are far more experienced than myself, and I was at pains to acknowledge my somewhat novice position. I only ever spoke through the lens of research.

The response was initially very positive, with some good questions from the audience, and some debate about some of the provocative things I discussed. I got good feedback from a handful of people in the lunch break, that my presentation was thought provoking and challenging.

For me the challenge will be to maintain some momentum. A few of us in one department (Literature) are keen to increase collaboration across the different discipline areas in the college. Others are less enthusiastic. My interest is to broaden participation by faculty in conversations around pedagogy, and in collaborative efforts to communicate and share the research interests, teaching approaches, and challenges we all face with this unique group of students. I am realistic enough to see this ideal as an uphill challenge.

No-one likes to have to examine their assumptions, or to reflect too deeply on what they are doing in the classroom. But I feel there is so much going on in the different discipline areas that I want to hear about. The challenge will be getting other teachers to overcome their reservations, and contribute with generosity and in a participatory spirit. There is never enough time, either.

Indeed, the kinds of reflective and collaborative things we should want to cultivate in our students, are exactly the same things educators need to do themselves. Ironically, the barriers to participation among both students and teachers, are identical.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Frisson in the computer lab - handing over control?

This week, I took my students to one of the campus computer labs - not usually a teaching space - to work on "visualising" the word and idea they had chosen in their groups last week. It is holidays for most of the student intakes, so the lab was relatively empty. The inspiration for this 'visualising process', came from an article by Patricia O'Connor, available at the Visible Knowledge Project Library on the Academic Commons website Here.

This was something I have NEVER done before, and the first problem was keeping them off their Facebook pages - unless, I said to them, one of the ways they might visualise the different aspects of their idea / word was located on their Facebook page.

HOWEVER, there was this fantastic "frisson" (panic??) in my mind and body as I felt control slipping away, and their attention diverted to their personal spaces and "real" lives - and it was very interesting to be at the nexus of that teaching / learning / real-life intersection. I'm still remembering the moment, and thinking about what it means for my approaches.

From all the scholarship I am reading, and information and ideas gained from conversations happening in the education field, and on Twitter's #edchat especially, social media is one of the "social environments" in which today's students of all cultural backgrounds participate. But at the moment, I am unsure how, or in what way, I might integrate social media into my classes. But I am opening the door to see what comes in! And what comes from the students themselves.

It's a process of slow exploration, I think.

But, back to the students. They were all logging into You Tube, Google Images, and some of the Chinese students were using Baidu - the official Chinese search engine, looking (I hope) for resources on their topics in their own languages. I didn't mind this - one thing I'm kind of trying to do is value the cultural and personal knowledge these students bring with them to Australia, and let it have a space that is acknowledged by the teaching "authorities" they encounter.

I went from group to group marvelling at the strange things they had found, and reminding them of the objectives - to teach the class the 'depth' of ideas behind a surface word. I suggested looking for positive and negative connotations, or aspects, to demonstrate the diversity of ways words, and the ideas behind words, can be appreciated.

Next week, we are back in the lab, following up the work they have done collaboratively in the previous week. Most of them were exchanging Facebook info so they could share stuff together, and planning interactive presentations for the class in two weeks time.

Because I am deliberately trying to surrender some control, I've indicated their presentations can be in a format of their own choosing. Each group of three (and one of four) have ten minutes. It will be in the reflection exercise I have planned for after each presentation, where the learning they have achieved will, hopefully, be brought back into the objectives.

What have the students watching learned?
Which pieces of visualised evidence were most helpful in conveying the depth behind the word / idea?
And finally, (because this is a Literature class) has the group tied their exploration to a human story? This can be a real story, or one they have made up together.

My next post will be on something different - a presentation I'm making at the academic staff conference about research trends in International Pedagogy - and the ideas behind constructivist and culturally responsive teaching approaches. It should ruffle some feathers - I think.

I'm now going back to the huge pile of essays from my eight other classes. And it's the weekend too!


O’Connor, Patricia. 2009. “Close reading, Associative Thinking, and Zones of Proximal Development in Hypertext”. In Bass and Eynon. The Difference that Inquiry Makes: A Collaborative Case Study on Technology and Learning, from the Visible Knowledge Project. Academic Commons. Centre for New Designs in learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) at Georgetown University. https://digitalcommons.georgetown.edu/blogs/vkp/library/

Saturday, September 4, 2010

First Class - Introductions and setting the scene

I arrived this Thursday to meet the ten students arrayed at the far end of a long U shaped classroom. This group of students from a range of South Asian and Middle Eastern countries, aged 17-20, were comfortable in one another's company, and were laughing and joking together. One young man was playing his guitar while waiting. This made all the difference, I think, in putting me and them at ease. My usual class groups are quiet and reserved on day one - not usually having met one another.

A Wi-fi enabled laptop was already connected to a large plasma screen, loaded with an image to show them to begin our discussion about words.

My opening comments were to introduce myself. I sat not at the front behind a desk, but down close to the students on a chair between the U-shaped array of desks. I then asked the class if they had any knowledge about Literature. One student admitted she had no idea what Literature was. (I should mention that my classes are a compulsory subject in the English component of the program, so, these are not necessarily students who come to class with intrinsic interest. This group is undertaking a preparatory program before the main one.)

In my explanation, I focussed first on my own passion for Literature, and the personal dimension of that passion. Then I spoke about national literatures, and mentioned some of the great names in both Western and Eastern Literature - including the Persian poets Hafez and Rumi. I then explained some of the learning objectives for the course, and one particularly important goal, that I was aiming to learn as much from them about their lives, cultures and experiences, as they would learn from me.

To understand how to make connections between words on a page, and what they mean in the immediate context, one must have experiences to connect with the new words and ideas. So my next invitation was for each student to tell me what they liked to read - not just fiction, but something they feel excited enough to bother reading about. This discussion was fantastic - and there was a broad range of interests brought to light. It gives me information to refer back to.

In a few weeks, this reflecting on reading will hopefully form the basis of a presentation from each student, where they will need to "teach" the class the most significant, and personally meaningful aspect of a story (fiction or non-fiction) they know and understand. I'll talk more about this in later posts.

The image I showed then was of the top and underneath (photoshopped) of an iceberg (above). For a western student group, the "tip of the iceberg" is a familiar saying. Not so for these students, but the image made the point about 90% of something being "below the surface." Given that in Literature I frequently distinguish 'surface' and 'deeper' readings, this image was maybe unoriginal, but it made visible the meaning I wanted them to appreciate.

They all seemed to "get it" - but rather than assume understanding, I reinforced the analogy with an activity. Australia was a new place for all these students. With what did they associate Australia? They loved this opportunity: kangaroos, koalas, the Opera House, Uluru, boomerangs, the Harbour Bridge, beaches, deserts, footy, etc.

A visualisation was required here to reinforce - so I did a Google image search via the screen which showed, yes, maps, flags, (symbols); kangaroos, Aboriginals playing didgeridoos, the Opera House, Nicole Kidman in "Australia". The new Google Images interface was good, in that the images were able to be magnified. In short, the "surface" symbolism of a nation appeared. I asked how many of the students had "seen" any of these things since coming to Australia. None. What makes up the depth of a nation, I asked? People, history, customs, culture - came the answer. No-one, I pointed out, had mentioned any preconceptions or knowledge about Australian people, or history, or current events - the details which form the "depth" of any nation. What would they find after staying longer, looking harder? Again, a simple activity, but one I can do again later in different cultural / social contexts - maybe their own.

After this, I asked the group to think of a controversial topic, which elicited a few responses, but nothing everyone was equally aware of. So I fell back to a binary idea - an ultimate black and white debate - that of East / West. What did each student think defined "The West"? Free, vigorous discussion ensued as the group discussed their opinions, and listed some features of the west. They reported back, and the list was illuminating.

Behind each of the areas identified, will be a story. One of the students remarked that the West is synonymous with democracy - something his own country does not experience. One mentioned the laws and regulations which help control standards of health and safety - something with which her own country is still coming to grips. Another mentioned the West's waste, greed, cultural domination and world power. Another thought outside the box, and reflected on the "west" of his own country. These perceptions will have been shaped by human stories, and can be communicated to others using the same human stories.

Next week, these stories are going to be brought to life: made visible. The students will, hopefully, draw from the stories the words, and through the words the ideas which lie under the surface. Because this is a Literature class, the second part of the the activity will be to work in groups to fit their words, images, and ideas into a poem - one that already exists, but makes itself open to be filled with new words, images and ideas.

It occurs to me that this simple work must happen in primary school classrooms all over the world - but perhaps this is something these students have never done. I am going to be ramping up the complexity as I gauge the students' understanding, and the ultimate aim is to move from the tip to the bottom one step at time.

I can't wait for Thursday!


I am a Literature teacher and higher-education researcher in Melbourne, Australia. I teach only international students, in a specialised multi-disciplinary bridging program for students to enter higher education. I have a Ph.D, but am studying part-time for a graduate teaching qualification.

The socio-constructive theories and writings of Lev Vygotsky, seem particularly suited to the needs of international students in the western classroom. In most disciplines, developing a deep understanding of how language, concepts, and processes work in different social and cultural contexts is vital. I am working with one "extended" (unassessed) class, designing and experimenting with some new activities to enhance their deep understanding through knowledge creation. I want to learn as much from these students as they learn from me.

I don't find space for such diversions in my regular teaching, where the curriculum and assessment tasks are created (and fixed) for use in a team, with about 400 students between us. My aim is to also think deeply about what I want students to learn in my classes, and more importantly, why.

In this blog, I am hoping to describe, justify, and evaluate the process of practicing a consciously "constructivist" and "dialogic" pedagogy. The context will be enabling students' understanding of language connections, meanings, cultural and historical dimensions of Literature, but the pedagogies to which I will refer are interdisciplinary. My vocab (and spelling) will be Australian.