Thinking about teaching spaces: if you’re a lecturer, shouldn’t you be lecturing?

I was reading a comment on a philosophical post the other day and someone wrote this rather snarky line:

He’s is a philosopher in the same way that (celebrity historian) is a historian – he’s somehow got the job description and uses it to repeat the prejudices of his paymasters, flattering them into thinking that what they believe isn’t, somehow, ludicrous. (Grangousier, Metafilter article 123174)

Rather harsh words in many respects and it’s my alteration of the (celebrity historian)’s name, not his, as I feel that his comments are mildy unfair. However, the point is interesting, as a reflection upon the importance of job title in our society, especially when it comes to the weighted authority of your words. From January the 1st, I will be a senior lecturer at an Australian University and that is perceived differently where I am. If I am in the US, I reinterpret this title into their system, namely as a tenured Associate Professor, because that’s the equivalent of what I am – the term ‘lecturer’ doesn’t clearly translate without causing problems, not even dealing with the fact that more lecturers in Australia have PhDs, where many lecturers in the US do not. But this post isn’t about how people necessarily see our job descriptions, it’s very much about how we use them.

In many respects, the title ‘lecturer’ is rather confusing because it appears, like builder, nurse or pilot, to contain the verb of one’s practice. One of the big changes in education has been the steady acceptance of constructivism, where the learners have an active role in the construction of knowledge and we are facilitating learning, in many ways, to a greater extent than we are teaching. This does not mean that teachers shouldn’t teach, because this is far more generic than the binding of lecturers to lecturing, but it does challenge the mental image that pops up when we think about teaching.

If I asked you to visualise a classroom situation, what would you think of? What facilities are there? Where are the students? Where is the teacher? What resources are around the room, on the desks, on the walls? How big is it?

Take a minute to do just this and make some brief notes as to what was in there. Then come back here.

It’s okay, I’ll still be here!

Done that? Okay, let’s do the next one.

If I asked you to visualise a University lecture situation, how different is it from what you imagined before?

More importantly, and think carefully, how much of what you have put in this room has come from your own direct experience or from watching it on television?

Have you done that? Take a minute to work through that, and then I’ll go on with some other thoughts.

If your classroom is full of serried ranks of desks, with an individual student at each, black or whiteboard on the wall, teacher out the front – do you see computers anywhere? Can the students work together? In your head, who is talking and how are the students reacting? Are there books? iPads? Teaching assistants? Windows? Big room with lots of free moving space or small room with cramped quarters?

What you thought of, when I asked you to visualise those situations, is what you assume that people do in both of those jobs, even if you yourself are doing that job and don’t follow those roles. That’s your ‘lecturer’ and ‘teacher’ mental models.

Some of you will have thought, well, the students can be anywhere so maybe I want an abstract image of people in different cities and places, with clouds of information, arrows between them and the teacher functioning as a nexus of communication, rather than an air traffic controller. I suspect that these people will be in the minority and that most of you thought of a room. The only problem with the room model is that your model may make it harder for you to put new and innovative things in there. Let me give you a different example.

Look carefully at the hat.

Look carefully at the hat.

This hat is, if you measure it, the same height (from top to the centre bottom of the hat in that curved section) as it is wide. There is, however, no way that this looks right and, even when you know this, your brain just won’t let your eyes see it. Your mental model of the hat is that it is much taller than it is wide – if you went to pick a box for it, you would pick the wrong sized box. The image in your head is important.

Let’s do this again.

You are parallel parking your car and you can’t quite see the car behind you so you pull in slowly, slowly, and then stop, thinking that you’re an inch from that car. You get out and find it’s more like two feet. (Humans are really bad at calculating distance in missing ground that is occluded from view – so-called dead ground is a notorious problem for cross country navigation and distance estimation.) You cannot work effectively in that space because your mental model of the impact of your actions as they translate into spatial change is flawed, although practise and heuristics (line up point X with mirror) will help a lot here.

I’m not going to say something silly like “thinking of a different classroom will change your teaching” but I am concerned that some mental models of the classroom are automatically set us up to reject some of the more positive innovations that contemporary research and practice can offer. You can’t easily visualise teamwork in a mental classroom model that puts everyone at separated desks, for example. I guess what I’m saying is that the first change has to be in your head and, in many ways, it’s asking yourself some key questions:

  1. Why are certain things present in my mental model and not others? Does this mean that I haven’t thought about these things, or that I am actively rejecting a certain approach? If so, why and do I have a good reason that I could share with other people?
  2. What was the first thing I thought of? As in, the very first thing I put into either of those rooms? Why is it the most important thing to me?
  3. Can I add things to this room or is it full?
  4. How could I restructure this to put in everything I want and still have room for new things?

I realise that many of you will have had perfectly fine and functional rooms that can grow for the future, but I’m a great believer that we can always get better, so I hope that thinking about this, and the key questions, might help you to come up with new and novel ways to set up your teaching spaces. There are really no right or wrong answers, unless the first thing you put in the classroom was a bear trap, but it’s interesting to step back and think about your own thinking, to help you with organising and planning what you want to do.

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