My final blog post reflecting on newly implemented practices last year is a long-overdue write-up of my experiences teaching different classes in one of City’s innovative Learning Spaces, which have been much talked about recently on Educational Vignettes. I have followed the Learning Spaces project with interest since its inception, so I was delighted that in Summer Term, I was able to book one of the rooms, which have been heavily in demand all year.
In May and June 2012, I ran three classes conceived with the new space in mind, which, between them, covered a variety of different fields of study (study skills, popular music, and classical music) and types of teaching (tutorial, seminar, and lecture-based). My view is that it simply would not have been possible to have taught these classes in the same way in a traditional classroom, and that the new Learning Space enabled a more interactive, engaging, and stimulating manner of teaching.
(1) First-year tutor group on SWOT and Time Management, 14 May 2012
For this tutorial session, intended to deliver academic skills to first-year undergraduates to smooth the transition to tertiary education, I had prepared two tasks they were to complete in pairs. The one that especially benefitted from the Learning Space was the SWOT task, for which, having explained the basics, I asked the students to write down strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats on separate sticky labels which were then affixed on the wall-based glass panels under headings I had previously stuck to the wall. (We could have used the special pens on the glass instead of sticky notes, but when I tested this beforehand, the writing turned out to be not particularly visible.)
Given that students tend to love sitting behind tables and having the space to put everything on the surface in front of them, I was particularly interested to see that when they entered the classroom, they immediately arranged the chairs in a line, moving them away from the tables and towards the centre of the room (see picture, right). Despite having a relatively large space for such a small group, with several tables to choose from, when I asked them to split up and move to different tables, they all clustered around the same table to begin with and I had to encourage them to break out into pairs. Nonetheless, I suspect that more groupwork than pairwork surreptitiously took place…
The students did acknowledge that the chairs were not at quite the right heights for the tables, and that the two parts of the petal tables made for an awkward height difference for the person sat at the join. I also observed with interest that the student who sat on the highest chair was the one who took the lead in discussion!
(2) Second-year seminar on Television Talent Discovery Shows, 22 May 2012
In my next class in the Learning Space, I adopted a similar teaching method in commencing the seminar by inviting students, working in groups of 2-4, to write down on sticky notes as many acts associated with UK television talent discovery shows since 2000 as they could recall, and then to place them under the headings I had previously put up on the glass wall panels. I asked students to place sticky notes featuring the same name together in order easily to garner a sense of the number of students who had recollected a particular act. The photograph (below left) shows a few of the students in action, some affixing their sticky notes to the wall, others discussing in their small groups or verifying information online via their mobile devices.
The results of the task were rather revealing, and my feeling is that they could not have been achieved, nor could the ensuing discussion have been as effective, via any other teaching method. For instance, many students remembered recent winners such as Little Mix (The X Factor, 2011), but had more difficulty recollecting some of the winners in previous years’ competitions. Conversely, other notable acts from previous years who did not win their associated show (such as Susan Boyle [Britain’s Got Talent, 2009] or Jedward [The X Factor, 2009]) had evidently remained in their memory. There were other telling outcomes as well, which would have been difficult to predict: as an example, several students recalled The Cheeky Girls, but they could not match them to the correct show (Popstars: The Rivals, 2002).
During the class, I invited the students to walk around the room and look at the finished display on the wall panels for themselves. I had also prepared PowerPoint slides with more exhaustive information about the acts associated with particular television shows and seasons, with which we were able to fill in the gaps. Afterwards, I went round the room video-taping the display before it was taken down, and uploaded the video to Moodle as a permanent record of the session. The classroom’s swivel chairs also helpfully facilitated an impromptu re-enactment by four of us of the judges on The Voice UK!
(3) Second-year lecture on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, 29 May 2012
The final class was perhaps the most conventional, and one that I have presented several times in a classroom set out in lecture-format. Nonetheless, I wanted to use the new Learning Space to be able move the tables and chairs easily to create sufficient space for a live task undertaken by several unwitting student volunteers during the lecture. I do recall feeling much more exposed, standing in the centre of a comparatively wide space and speaking to students sitting at tables on the periphery, than I would have done in a room arranged as for a traditional lecture.
Possibly the highlight of the class was the attempt on the part of myself and several students to copy the original choreography of a particular passage of The Rite of Spring, in order to understand the challenges presented by the highly controversial dancing, the way in which it fits with the music, and the disjuncture between the composer’s intentions and the choreographer’s. Needless to say, the idea that ‘learning can be fun’ took on a whole new level. There is some video footage of this, taken by a student on her mobile device – not for the first time – but I very much hope it never surfaces!