Kali Quinn and TJ Kalaitzidis floated a prompt: “When we think about learning, what do we love, what do we fear, what do we feel?” During a Friday Creative Scholars meeting, they challenged us to peer through this visceral lens as we mapped the architecture of a class-term. But rather than launch directly into a syllabus, and create “a body of content that [students] must memorize,” TJ, a Digital Media and Learning PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Instructional Designer at Brown, pushed us to “look at the methods, plans, and concepts that bring us to this end.”
“What does it mean to learn?” they asked. As a Theatre Practitioner and Adjunct Lecturer at Brown, Kali perceives learning to be “believing, behaving, beholding, becoming,” a concept that derives from the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre (her alma mater). Group observations (on blue post-it notes) concluded that perhaps a full learning experience also requires a student to combine connections, create memory, and generate an ability to devise new meaning.
We then reflected individually on what we fear and long to experience in the classroom, and recorded these fears on red notes and desires on green notes. With these post-its in hand, we turned our attention to the wall where Kali and TJ had represented the trajectory of the semester with purple-colored yarn. Above the strand they placed five equally-spaced labels: Conception, Planning, Class Start, Mid-Term, and Class End. We stuck our fear and desire notes where they fall for us along the timeline. For example, beneath Class Start, I expressed how I struggle with teachers who remain at arms length. Another participant, from the teacher’s point of view, wrote about the excitement of the first day.
Kali urged us to consider both the student as well as the professor. She posed the question “How do we creatively reconcile the articulated imbalance” between what the professor fears and desires with what the student wants and needs? Kali and TJ suggested that this teacher-student binary is largely artificial. To divide the classroom by those who are taught and those who teach creates an “impoverished learning experience,” says TJ. Instead, in order to displace this imbalance, the academic environment must become a site of collaboration, flexibility, and mutual sensitivity.
As we assumed this inclusive mindset, we synthesized the categories by clumping post-its that operate in tandem with one another. Here, for instance, we connected how an emphasis on engagement mid-term points toward the benefits of minimal lecture and a flexible syllabus. Inspired by Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice, TJ framed the workshop as an exercise in juxtaposing “what we think about learning to what we actually do to encourage learning.” Because we are able to connect our abstractions about education to the realities of the classroom, we can “see which [ideas] are needs and which are wants, which frustrate, and which facilitate.” From that, we emerge with an analytic tool to examine the “internal contradictions” that exist within a course. To conclude, we reintegrated the original blue notes of “what it means to learn” as possible creative reminders, strategies, or windows into implementation.
Later in the semester, Kali and TJ will create a model for us all to collaboratively design a prototype syllabus and class based on these collected observations, wants, needs and values. The question now is how to extend this class-creation experience beyond our Friday workshop. According to TJ, “It’s a longitudinal project. The most we can do is what we do every day: conduct our research and share it.” In that case, it seems as though we are moving in the right direction.