Once again, I can’t believe how quickly the week has passed and we’re through our second full week of winter semester. This morning as I was doing hill repeats on Holloway Street, I had time to reflect on the week and some connections from it to teaching and learning. The very nature of teaching in post-secondary education is that our teaching lives are shaped by seasonal semesters. Our teaching year flows through repeated patterns of beginning, middle, and ending-much like climbing Holloway Street. I feel strongest at the bottom of the hill, challenged by the middle steep bits, and then I hang on until I can top out and celebrate the finish of another round.
As I tried to psych up for climb six or seven up Holloway Street, I thought about the courses I am teaching this term and realized that I am teaching HKR 4210 for the 18th time. It’s a course that I love to teach, that pushes the students beyond their perceived limits. that pushes me as a teacher in its demanding logistics and front (a.k.a. snow) loaded semester, and that I’ve begun, taught, and ended it over and over again. That the cycle re-occurs provides ample opportunity and invitation to design, plan, offer, refine, revisit, re-create, get comfy, get cozy, get psyched, get bored, etc. 13 weeks at a time. I thought about how though it is my 18th time in the course, it is my students’ first time. I can’t depend on its newness and novelty to motivate me but I use its newness and novelty to students.
I attended a session led by Dr. Goldberg this week for the Chairs in Teaching and Learning. He described how he was teaching a design course in engineering and they wanted to help the students become more engaged with the course. We’d been talking about how we often feel squeezed between our teaching and research and we have to take from one in order to focus on the other. Dr. Goldberg challenged us to think about how teaching and learning improvement(s) don’t always have to come from faculty…that it is possible to inspire and motivate students to bring more engagement to their own learning. Dr. Goldberg cited the example of the “Hole in the Wall” experiments. I know I was deeply moved by them when I heard a keynote by the primary researcher, Sugata Mitra, on that project five years ago.
Click here to watch a TED talk about the Hole in the Wall project. In a nutshell, they placed computers into under-developed areas in India and then observed how the children interacted with them. Since they were highly motivated, they essentially taught themselves and then each other. In a follow-up, they recruited some nurturing adults who provided encouragement (not instruction) and the children went on to teach themselves quantum physics. After that keynote, I designed five sessions in HKR 2000 where the students, working in small groups, spent class time seeking the answers to essential questions in HKR. It was some of the most engaged class time I’ve ever seen.
Back to the design course, Dr. Goldberg said they had two sections of the design course. In the traditionally delivered course, they did what they always did. In the other section, the only thing that they did differently was start the semester asking the students, “Why is important for you to learn in this course and why is it important that you learn it? Essential, “Why are you here?” In that first class meeting, they used several other reflective questions to move the students in their thinking away from the classic, “Because’s it required” to seeing the purpose of the learning. With the purpose out there for each to see and define for themselves, motivation levels were much higher. With higher motivation came deeper and richer engagement, which in turn led to greater mastery and learning. At the end of the semester, they asked both sections how it went and the response from the “purpose-facilitated” section was much more positive.
Back to Holloway Street, as I made my way up the hill a few more times, I thought about how lucky I was that some of the courses I teach have a built in “hook” for motivating students. This week I was teaching my HKR 4210 and 3545 students how to build quinzhees. A quinzhee is a snow shelter build by piling up snow into a mound, waiting for it to cinter ( the snow flakes to bond), and then digging out the inside through a small hole.
Students learn to build quinzhees in my courses for many reasons:
1) Because they will be sleeping in them in a few weeks and it’s good to have some practice building them before you have to use them “for real”
2) Because it gives students a chance to practice and master their clothing system for winter activities
3) Because building quinzhees is physically active
4) Because you can use quinzhee building to teach other things like snow science, physics, math, design, teamwork, survival skills, Dark NL skills, etc.
5) Because it can be empowering to face fear
6) Because practice brings mastery and mastery brings joy and celebration and the ability to teach others
7) Because it’s fun and students often can’t believe learning can be fun…and so on…
The students were highly motivated and engaged in quinzhee building class because they know they will be tested on it “for real.” If they don’t learn to do it well, they could face a long, cramped night in a snowball. I’m lucky-they really want to learn and it shows. For other courses, I have to work a bit harder to help students see the purpose but that work pays off exponentially. Similarly, we are motivated in our teaching by purpose and many others factors. In the past week, I was privileged to attend two events where I interacted with some of our grads/alumni. It was so rewarding to see them out in the community putting all the knowledge, skills, and attitudes they learned in HKR to work in schools, community recreation, and government. Seeing them in action putting their learning into action is wonderful feedback for me and for us, and in turn-deepens my motivation to climb Holloway Street and teach another semester with my deepest heart, passion, and abilities.