Exploring Teaching Alternatives (Day 2 of a Learning Road Trip)

On the second day of the “Learning Road Trip” we drove to Kingston, Ontario to compare notes with Mac Brown, a retired teacher of forestry from Lakehead University (in Thunder Bay in the far west of Ontario), on exploring teaching alternatives.  In 1996 I attended several sessions in a Participatory Action Research series at Cornell. One of the presenters was Mac Brown, who got the audience involved in participatory activities. I followed up with him and soon followed his footsteps, which involved interactive sessions at the International Society for Exploring Teaching Alternatives (http://www.isetl.org) and facilitation training with the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Toronto (http://www.icacan.org).  During this visit, Mac mentioned his visits to the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society and participation in a few T groups, which OBTS often host.

I asked Mac what he knew about the conditions that promoted uptake of participatory or interactive processes that he introduced students to.  He could point to a few cases in which former students had gotten in touch to acknowledge his influence (e.g., from his conflict resolution class).  It occurred to me that a teacher can evaluate students on what they learn in a course and proceed as if application beyond that is not our responsibility.  The flip side is that students don’t have much chance to return for more of what we teach once their course with us is over—so we can’t evaluate what moves a person sufficiently for them to want to continue with learning and practicing the processes.

Mac spoke of a course, Forest Mensuration, that he’d taught so many times he looked for a fresh approach. He learned about the idea of students learning by writing a textbook on the subject.  He tried this out with a first semester, first year class.  He divided them into three groups to interview faculty, senior students, and practitioners about what should go in the book.  The class then identified six areas and established an editorial board of students for each area.  Students could submit material in any area, not only in the one for which they were editors.  All along they kept journals.  Mac related what happened after he collected and read the journals four weeks into the course.

The short of it was that students hated the experience.  The next class Mac acknowledged what the students felt and asked them to decide what to do.  He and the TA left for 20 minutes while the students talked.  But after 20 minutes the students, who had shifted the desks into a circle, were not ready for them to return.  And not after 40 minutes, or 60 minutes.  Finally the students invited them back in and announced that they would continue the book project and, because, they said, Mac did not want to lecture, they would do the lectures.  (Each editorial group prepared one lecture for one of the remaining weeks.)  The journals became progressively more positive about the experience and at the end of the semester every student received a copy of the 80-page textbook they had generated.  In following years Mac found ways to engage the students and much longer textbooks were created, but the crisis in that first year seemed to have had the value of turning the students into directors of their own learning in ways that went beyond Mac’s hopes.

(Start of road trip; Day 3)


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

2 Responses to Exploring Teaching Alternatives (Day 2 of a Learning Road Trip)

  1. Pingback: Home after 20 days of a learning road trip « Intersecting Processes

  2. Pingback: Home after 20 days of a learning road trip « Probe—Create Change—Reflect

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