I have been an educator and academic manager for 11 years, and for the first half of that journey, I must admit that I followed a traditional, didactic, top-down approach to both teaching and managing teachers, choosing to spend the hours with the students speaking or presenting slides, then briefing an assignment at the end of it all and expecting them to complete it. As a manager, I spent years not questioning this method. I have come to call this mode of doing things the “show me what you got” method, which establishes a relationship with students that is characterised by distance between educator and student, lacking in mutual trust, and the pressure on students to perform. In the last three years, in my roles as an educator as well as academic manager, I began to conduct research into the body of work on Research-based Education (RBE), as I began to feel and see that the traditional approach was not conducive to student satisfaction and positive experience, nor to educator satisfaction and positive experience. There was frustration, confusion, antagonism, a tendency to mock weak students, and an overall distance between the educators and the students, and an overriding lack of clarity of the purpose behind what was happening. I began to feel that there must be better ways of running courses and modules and assessments: ways and methods that established healthier and more productive relationships between students and staff. I was excited to find that there were many voices in an emerging body of scholarship on research-based education and staff-student partnerships, and I began to read this research with a mind to implementing the approach in my own work as both an academic manager and educator. My overarching philosophy has become: as educators, it is our job to make sure students know how to do what we ask them to do.
This learning facilitated the development of the following skills identified in the Department of Higher Education and Training and Council for Higher Education curriculum:
How might we better engage students in learning? I was on a mission to find a better way of running courses and modules and assessments: ways and methods that established healthier and more productive relationships between students and staff.
My overarching philosophy has become: as educators, it is our job to make sure students know how to do what we ask them to do.
I have facilitated two learning journeys that drew on project-based learning principles so far:
We faced many challenges during the pilot project, and there are many aspects of it that I would change in a second iteration. We did manage to complete the co-authored article for the honours class, but it didn’t work out with the third-years. One of the main things was that I had undertaken to automatically include the work of every student which led to pressure on me to integrate all submissions into a cohesive document and to make sure that each student was represented, regardless of the quality of the work. This was informed by the spirit of collaboration and democracy of PBL, but it didn’t work practically. In future, I would prompt students to contribute in response to a clear prompt, mark all their work, but only include the best contributions in the final document. I would create a culture of aspiration around this, as opposed to exclusion.
A second thing I would change is that in the brief I allowed the students the choice of where to put their contribution paragraphs in the co-created document, and I would also mark them on their choice and relevance of their placement choice - however, this proved to be an unwieldy process in practice, and contributed to the disorientation that came with piloting a co-authored project with 100+ co-authors. In future, I would have clearer prompts following on from my own contributions, which would make what is needed next very clear - students would then all add in their responses to that prompt, I would mark them all, and then choose the best ones to include in that draft of the document.
The second project was a mini-research project, which I decided to try a different approach with - instead of co-authoring with the students, I briefed them to choose their own problem to solve through research, and I chose one of my own as well. Adopting the Cognitive Apprenticeship pedagogy (as developed by Collins Brown & Newman in 1987), and the sub-technique of Modeling, I followed the same steps that I was expecting of the students, one step ahead of them, so that I was able to reflect on my own response to the brief and so guide them on what they had to do next. I was also spending my time generating actual examples of what I was expecting from the students, and work I could then also use and mobilize in other contexts. I found that by doing the work I was expecting the students to do myself, I was able to better guide them through their own process, and I was also more connected to the students: I was doing what they were doing, instead of just making demands of them and remaining distant.
While this was different to the kind of co-create/collaborate process of PBL, as each student, as well as myself, were doing their own work, the opportunity for sharing insights and methods was built into the system itself. This worked really well and I didn’t have the same kinds of issues that were experienced in the Living Article. It was also nice that I was able to fuse two related modules into one by briefing a single task that would cover the learning outcomes of both modules. I then marked that single outcome with two different sets of rubrics that were designed around the learning outcomes of each module. This created less work for everybody, which was great.
Students were disorientated during the Living Article process, and I learnt how the romanticization of collaboration and co-creation can give way to anxiety and stress in the absence of an effective structure. They did manage to produce good work, and the project worked as it needed to as an academic exercise, but we didn’t finalise a co-authored article with myself and the third years (we did manage this with the honours students, probably because there were 20 students in that class as opposed to 100 third years). The disorientation and lack of structured clarity fed anxiety into the system, which the status of the project as innovative and new could do nothing to ease. Students also expressed that while collaboration is valuable, they still wanted to have work of their own - individual ownership of work emerged as a dominant value in the feedback, and it seemed important for students to have done, and to own, their own work. This is antithetical perhaps to the tenets of PBL, which favours collaboration, but it was a value of the students and therefore not something I could ignore or dismiss
The Mini-Research Project was much better received, and students independently reported feeling equipped to do what I had asked them to do for the brief since I myself was producing the kind of work I was expecting from them. They appreciated that I had immersed myself in their task and that I was better prepared to guide them as a result.
The different experiences showed me that what should really matter is student orientation: the goal should be to make sure that they feel and are, equipped to do what is being asked of them. My current thinking is that if the educator also does what they are asking the students to do, the capacity for confusion, anxiety, disorientation, resentment, and distance in the relationship is limited.
I have learned some hard lessons from the experience of these two projects. I learnt, for example, about the value of structure and that the romanticism around collaboration and also the values of freedom and spontaneity in PBL, as well as dissatisfaction with the control-based structure obsession in the existing system, can all lead us to not use structure in ways that can actually serve us in PBL. Sometimes as innovators I think we also at times adopt an antagonist or hostile approach to the system in which we are trying to innovate, and this perception of the existing system as ‘backwards’ can manifest as arrogance and a lack of empathy as we think that innovation in itself is enough. It is a difficult thing because we know that there are problems to solve, and we are trying to do that, but if we look at the existing system with nothing but frustration or condescension or the arrogance of innovation fed to us through the bullish-innovation narratives of the likes of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, then we will get nowhere in practice
I am currently analysing data on a survey I designed to help me to understand the phenomenon of collective fatigue and burnout among educators. I am applying my findings in the design of my next role, which is as a lecturer of English literacy at the Soweto Campus at the University of Johannesburg.
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