Five key insights teachers in the Covid era can get from forerunners in digital emotional pedagogy

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Covid or not, certain skills are difficult to teach inside the classroom. It is notoriously challenging to develop people’s creativity, initiative-taking, resilience, collaboration and empathy. Such skills have always been developed more strongly when learners are immersed into the world outside their classroom. Some teachers have been forerunners in facilitating such learning experiences. In the process, they have developed some very specific pedagogical skills, including innovative uses of digital tools and a reliance on emotional events. Now that Covid 19 has forced students to leave the classroom, their teachers could learn a lot from a small group of forerunners in “beyond classroom”-based teaching. This text summarizes five key insights that could help millions of teachers who are newcomers in such teaching.

As a scholar in emotional action-based education, I have for many years studied experiential education on all age levels, from preschool to university and beyond. When students learn outside the classroom, it is often in some very specific and marginal(ized) contexts. Terms used are vocational education, apprenticeship education, progressive education, internships, entrepreneurial education and work-integrated learning. A common denominator is emotionally charged learning events taking place outside the classroom. Such learning experiences have for decades been an exception to the classroom based cognition-oriented norm in education.

“Educational innovation? Thanks, but no thanks…”

Relatively small communities of teachers have for decades developed innovative approaches, methods and techniques that support their rather specific needs and ambitions. I have worked as a researcher together with many innovative forerunner teachers, and nowadays I often get invitations to speak in front of other teachers about what I’ve learned from them. Stories of some rather unusual but powerful pedagogical practices leave most teachers politely nodding, perhaps even genuinely fascinated, but silently disengaging in regards to their own teaching. Why complicate student learning when you can keep it simple? After all, by containing all students in one single large room and doing all the necessary didactics and assessment there, life as a teacher undeniably becomes more manageable.

Teaching in the Covid era

Covid changed all this. Suddenly teachers all over the world were thrown into teaching and assessment that necessarily needs to happen outside the classroom. It is interesting to see what happens when an entire world of teachers is forced to take up novel approaches, methods and techniques, often digital ones. But I must admit that so far, for me as a scholar in the field of “beyond classroom” teaching, it has been a disappointment. Most initial attempts at moving learning outside the classroom come across as amateurish and simplistic to me. Instead of taking advantage of the emotionally charged and wonderfully rich world outside of the classroom, teachers opt for a mere digitization of their traditional cognition-oriented classroom practices. Students now sit at home, instead of in the classroom, listening passively to the teacher doing the same lectures they used to do in the classroom. The change has so far been technological, not pedagogical. Lecture length has even stayed largely the same in most cases, despite people finding it difficult to retain attention in a 40 minutes long digital lecture.

Still, there is certainly hope in the longer term. A booming interest in digital and/or emotional pedagogies could over time also trigger significant pedagogical development on a broader scale. To help teachers get beyond technology in taking their first steps into the wonderful world of emotionally charged experiential “beyond classroom” learning, I will here try to summarize five key insights I’ve learned from forerunner teachers and their students, having studied them in-depth over many years with action research methodologies.

Insight #1: Theory and practice – mix them in fine-grained ways

When the world of practice is integrated with theoretical perspectives from the classroom, we often see how students grow exponentially. Instead of teachers teaching to the test, we get students who learn for life. Putting theory into practice already while in education makes students see the purpose and true meaning of knowledge and skills. The question “Why are we learning this?” disappears from the students’ agenda, much to the relief of their teachers. But practice must not replace theory, they need to be integrated so that they strengthen each other.

Integrating theory and practice is not easy. One recommendation I’ve managed to distill from the forerunners is “fine-grained”-ness. Theory and practice needs to be mixed in a fine-grained way. When practice is integrated into theory, it is not good enough to have a year or a month of theory followed by a year or a month of practice. The mixing preferably should happen every week, even every day if possible. A vision I’ve developed for myself comes from professor Kieran Egan (2008) – theory in the morning, practice in the afternoon. Not easy, but a very useful vision to guide pedagogical decisions. Such mixing of theory and practice is often facilitated by digital tools, see further below.

Insight #2: The action-reflection cycle – assess your students through deep reflection

Teaching is often dictated by the assessment regime in place. When learning moves outside the classroom, and when learning outcomes include difficult-to-teach skills, teachers need to turn to more innovative assessment, see overview by Ferns and Moore (2012). One of the most common assessment practices among forerunner teachers is student reflections. When learning-by-doing becomes the norm, assessment of learning is often done by requiring students to reflect in writing upon what they learned from the doing. Also here, fine-grainedness is a key issue. Written reflections (and corresponding teacher feedback) need to be integrated into students’ everyday action learning processes, rather than dealt with after the action-taking is over. And also here, digital tools can be used to facilitate student reflection, see further below.

The most advanced pedagogical forerunners we’ve studied spend a lot of effort on trying to shorten the action-reflection cycle (cf. Schön 1983). Reflection is connected more tightly to the actions taken. This makes student learning more visible to the teacher and also clarifies the intended learning-by-doing path for the students. This way, teachers provide their students with increased clarity around the question: learning-by-doing-what? The end result is a better alignment between the doing, the learning and the assessment, as prescribed by Biggs and Tang (2011) in their seminal work on Constructive Alignment. Reflective depth is a resulting key challenge for the forerunner teachers. We’ve found the advice from groundbreaking work by Moon (2004) to be very useful here.

Insight #3: Value creation pedagogy – make your students make a difference to others

Much of the emotionality in the “beyond classroom” based teaching we’ve studied comes from the meaningfulness inherent in helping others. Many of the apprentices, interns and entrepreneurship students we’ve studied have one thing in common – they all learn through creating something of value to others. Knowledge and skills are “burned” into the minds of the students through the sheer emotionality stemming from deeply personal, truly relational and community-embedded experiences of helping other human beings. What forerunner teachers do is that they design value-creating assignments into the core of their pedagogies. Students then need to apply curricular knowledge in practical emotional “learning-through-creating-value-for-others” experiences outside the classroom or lecture hall (read more in Lackéus 2016). A common technique is for teachers to let students ask themselves “For whom could this knowledge be valuable today?”, and then act upon their ideas for answers to this question.

Insight #4: Social learning – make interaction with others mandatory for your students

When learning moves outside the classroom, there are myriad ways to make the learning experience more social. Pedagogically motivated sociality leans on a key principle – designing tasks that require students to interact with others. The more remote the external people in such interactions are, the more powerful the learning becomes. But students can also get started by interacting with people they already know. Forerunner teachers we’ve studied seldom need to prepare the external people much, students are in many cases fully capable of independently initiating contact with external people. Here, digital tools become a key enabler of students’ external interactions. Social media platforms are but one way to make students connect to the outside world. In a digital world, also a Covid quarantined student can experience social learning.

Students are often helped by a clearly articulated purpose with their external interactions. Here, insight #4 can be coulped with insight #3 of creating value for others. The purpose of external interaction can be stated as a challenge for the students to try to help other people. While the purpose from the teacher’s perspective is still learning of curricular knowledge and skills, students often find a helping purpose more engaging and meaningful. This is especially important in the Covid era, where self-directed learning processes are a sheer necessity.

Insight #5: Go beyond LMS – use more specialized digital tools

What is obvious from our study of teachers working in line with the four insights above is that pedagogical practices become significantly more complex. Some of this complexity can be absorbed by a regular learning management system (LMS). But LMS:es were not built with “beyond classroom” teaching in mind. They were rather built to support the administration of classroom-based teaching. The reality is unfortunately that much of the increased complexity needs to be absorbed by the teacher and her colleagues. Many schools we’ve studied have therefore employed co-ordinators who take care of some of the added complexity. But the regular Covid era teacher who just got thrown into a digital pedagogical sitation in most cases doesn’t have a co-ordinator to help her. I think this is one reason why most newcomers in “beyond classroom”-based teaching do not go beyond traditional teaching.

But also here, there are good news. What we’ve seen is that forerunner teachers try to go beyond their traditional LMS mandated by their school / college / university organization. There are many different digital tools available today for “beyond classroom”-based teaching. While this is not the space to go through them all, some tools are indeed more useful than others for digital emotional pedagogies. I could probably write an entire blog post on what digital tools we’ve seen being used out there, and how they have worked, so I will not dig into this further here. But what is clear from our study of forerunner teachers is that they all see a strong need to go beyond their limited and limiting traditional LMS. Some also take this step in practice, with much success. Digital tools can truly help teachers with all of the four above insights in many tangible ways, saving lots of time for them while at the same time increasing efficiency and impact of their teaching. I will try to come back to this topic later here. If you can’t wait, have a look at the digital tool teachers we work with use. I’ve also summarized many of our digital tool-related insights in a scholarly book chapter here. And if you know of digital tools and practices that support teachers in acting upon some or all of the above insights, please let me know!

But why change?

Despite these five pedagogical insights distilled from forerunners, teachers might still ask themselves: “Why care?”. Isn’t it enough to digitize lectures temporarily until we all can get back to normal again? That will most likely be the case for many teachers. But I think that Covid is an emotional learning event in itself for teachers of the world. My hope is that 2020 will be a turning point in the area of engaging pedagogies, where teachers start to take up interest for new and natively digital ways to teach. Forerunner teachers can show the way in education more broadly, and Covid could be the event that makes teachers more broadly pay attention to them and their unique and very useful insights. If this happens, we will get more students who get to experience a more motivating education with a resulting deeper learning of curricular knowledge and skills. We will also get more citizens who are equipped with the creativity, initiative, empathy, collaboration skills and resilience needed in a post-Covid era of skyrocketing unemployment, resource scarcity and societal depression.

References

Biggs, J. B., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does – Fourth edition: McGraw-Hill Education (UK).

Egan, K. (2008). The future of education: Reimagining our schools from the ground up. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Ferns, S., & Moore, K. (2012). Assessing student outcomes in fieldwork placements: An overview of current practice. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 13(4), 207-224.

Lackéus, M. (2016). Value creation as educational practice – towards a new educational philosophy grounded in entrepreneurship?  Doctoral thesis, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Moon, J. A. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner, How Professionals Think In Action. New York: Basic Books.

 

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