That's Really Hard Work

7/15/2010 11:58:00 pm

Cross posted from the November Learning blog.

Community First

Michael Wesch by flickr user poptech
Michael Wesch's keynote this morning was simply breathtaking. In the follow up breakout session someone asked him: "How do you stop students seeing themselves as students, and as collaborators?"

Mike sighed, put both hands on the podium and said: "That's really hard work."

He went on to explain "community first." He uses the first two weeks of class to build a sense of community and togetherness in a shared quest to solve a real world problem. A problem he himself doesn't know the answer to.

"Doing crazy things together creates community." 

Micheal plans his most passionate and enthusiastic lectures for those first two weeks. And he has his students do zany ice-breaking activities to help them get to know each other and break through the veneer of passivity they arrive in his class with. But it's not just about having fun; these activities (like human scavenger hunts) all have a serious edge to them. They have to see that they'll have fun learning here, but we are working hard at learning.

The Lesson Design Arc: schedule-research-paper-video 

The kids begin by co-creating a schedule on a wiki for the research they'll do to solve the problem they've decided to work on. They begin by digging into the problem and reading everything they can on it. Summaries of all their reading are compiled on the wiki. Typically they'll read over 90 articles, papers, or books in the first week of class as they do this. (In more typical University classes they read about three articles in the first week.) Mike guides them, having a little deeper experience in the field then they do, by suggesting other sources they might wish to explore. They continue this research and co-create a research paper for publication. When that's all done, they create very brief condensed video summaries of their research, submit them to Mike who then weaves them together into a brief (5 min?) video. All this is only possible because of the community building work they do together in the first few weeks of the course.

There's a lot more to all this, I'm just summarizing (his integrated, collaborative, calibrated peer review assessment scheme – which goes well beyond <-- that link back there – is brilliant), but that's the broad strokes takeaway I got.

When Things Go Wrong

My Pencil by flickr user jbelluch
Sometimes, when people work together closely on a real world problem things wrong. People get upset. Students goof off in class.

When that happens Mike intervenes using a ritual he learned from an African(?) tribe. It's very similar to the Talking Stick ritual used by many First Nations people of Canada. They use pencils instead. Anyone who is holding the pencil lets go of the little voice in their head that says "You can't say that." and speaks from the heart about what's upset them. The rest of the group talks with them about it. They don't put the stick down until they've resolved whatever the problem is. Mike usually goes first. Sometimes he cries while he's talking to his 400+ students. Then the next person in the group takes their turn.

A Pedagogy to Aspire To

Isn't that an amazing example of "intense imagination, motivation, emotion, and thought?" I had wanted to write about the amazing conversations going here: in the halls, in sessions, over lunch, every time someone stops me to talk really. But this morning's keynote. Just breathtaking. Good teaching is what comes from building strong relationships between teachers and students; relationships with a serious educational edge. (I hear echoes of John Seely Brown in this.)

I've got to think more about how to weave together such a set of diverse sensitivities into my teaching. How do you build a culture of caring in your class?

You Might Also Like


  1. I worked with a physics teacher whose classroom was an example of this. By default his job was to teach physics. By action, what he really did, was to create a community of students working together to gain an understanding of physics. He impressed upon his students a nonthreatening, supportive, classroom where they learned to be as well as learned to do. He utilized the group approach to problem solving as he moved around the room challenging the students to support their approaches and solutions. There was a Precis component to his class for which even the most milquetoast of presentations was met with a supportive ovation.
    The culminating activity for this Jr./Sr. course was a daylong Physicstock (this teacher was of the 60's). An event, born from the unit on sound, during which each student must present either a solo or group "musical" performance. He knew that the only way this would be a successful event (and not deteriorate into a nasty version of the Gong Show) was to create a community not just a classroom. And it worked. People sang along, people clapped and danced. There was never a single boo or catcall from the crowd.
    It took time for this culture to be established. When we think of cultures we are reminded of the "not built in a day" schtick. Students "expected" this culture and those who were new to the school learned quickly how it would operate. I don't have data to support this statement. My guess is though, many of the students signed-up for this course not only for the physics, but just to be in this community before they left high school. They had heard from older brothers or sisters or other students who had been the class over the years.

    So, one answer to the question "How do you build a culture of caring in your class?" One year at a time.

  2. Anonymous26/7/10 13:32

    Amazing. As a college teacher I aspire to having this type of connection with my students. My goal is to be able make a positive difference in their lives through our interactions, in and out of the classroom. I loved the "talking stick ritual" idea, but I will have to think long and hard about the "how" to make this happen in my course.

  3. @Anonymous I guess it's like Mike said: That's really hard work. Why not take @jeffmason's approach? (One year at a time.) ;-)

    Thank you both for dropping by and adding your thoughts to the mix.

  4. Anonymous3/10/10 12:02

    This article shows the real bonding between teacher and students.Everything can be possible by hard work.

  5. This really is hard work! However, when you have a passion for it, it seems a bit easier (or at least it seems easier). I believe that one way to accomplish this bonding result is for the students to get to know each other, but even more imporatntly for the students to feel the Instructor cares about their success.

  6. Really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

    I enjoyed the comments about the physics teacher, as I teach high school science as well.

    I haven't developed my community anywhere near the extent this guy has, but I do firmly believe in bonding with your students.

    Some "old school" teachers might cringe at that, but do not be mistaken. Bonding with your students is not the same as being their friend, nor does it bring you down to their level in any way. At the start of every year, I spend the first day or two playing "zany" icebreaker games. In class, I laugh. I laugh at their jokes; I laugh at myself. I clap for them. I run around and act like a maniac (to demonstrate certain things, like how insulin works as a messenger, for example). I stand in the hall and tell them, "Good morning", "Hi, Evan, how was your weekend?" and so on and so forth. Even if a student comes up with something in class completely bizarre that doesn't seem related to the topic, I try to hear them out. I get to know what they're interested in, both in school and outside of school, and ask about it, attend their events, etc.

    These are all small things, but you'd be surprised how far they can take you.

  7. @theexcitedneuron I do the same sort of thing with my students. Meeting them at the door to say hello as they walk in the class makes a huge difference. I often shake hands with them particularly when they "promise" me something and that also makes things more personal and personable.

    I also very much like the way @jeffmason describes his physics teacher's friend's class. This kind of community building with a group of students pays huge dividends in terms of student motivation and engagement with learning. Sounds like you've had a very similar experience. ;-)

  8. How inspirational is this???!! I love the sense of community that is emphasized here. I agree that it may seem overwhelming, but with passion, commitment, and dedication all things are possible. Thanks so much for passing this along!

  9. A fascinating proposition. Indeed, attempting to guide students to mentally transition from seeing themselves as more than students but active participants in the instruction process can be quite difficult, perhaps due to the historical inclination of educational structures to be quite rigid in the teacher/student relationship. I concur with the provided resolutions as the ice-breaker activities as well as the instilment of the sense of community can be quite useful in generating a more productive and flexible learning environment.