Engaged and Embodied Learning:  Ideas for a Philosophy of Teaching

In my experience, students arrive for their first biology lab simmering with nervous energy, whispering excitements and elusory dreads—if they speak at all.  Their pulsating uncertainty awaits the rules of the game and the freedoms the instructor allows within the confines of the classroom.  Being mindful of your power, set the stage for the semester in five key ways:

1. A foundation of patience and approachability
2. Engage in multiple creative approaches
3. Strive to inspire and involve
4. Employ movement and flexibility
5. Genuine and unabashed enthusiasm

How can we accomplish this?

Free student voices.

First on the syllabus—before the course outline, before the teacher’s introduction—is to have students introduce themselves to the class and explain what brought them here.  This straightforward activity is the first step to inviting their involvement.

Engage students where they are rather than where you expect them to be.  Every student enters the classroom harbouring—often covertly, even vulnerably—their own passions and fears.  Some will thrive in groups; others blossom in secluded exploration. By hearing the voice of each student we can begin to collaborate with them in a purposeful and holistic way.  Simply put, if we hope to engage learners in any significant manner we must first hear their authentic voice.

Involve students in the process.

As much as possible, have students decide what they want their learning experience to look like.  Ask for their input.  Incorporate their ideas into the course.  Let them decide on the approach (or, at the very least, be transparent in your approach).  If they need to understand the importance of safety equipment, put out a box of items from which they can choose one that resonates with them.  After handling a pair of gloves (avoid contamination), a fork (no eating in the lab) or a high-heeled shoe (unsuitable footwear), this they will remember; orating a lengthy do not do list from the front of the lab is easily forgotten.

Energize and embody the experience.

Have students move as much as possible.  Sitting in one place leads to stagnation in both attention and engagement.  Get students to form groups.  Ask them to stand up.  Go outside.  The following idea, inspired by my colleague, is a favourite of mine:  during their first session, give students an unlabelled map of the laboratory and have them explore all corners of the lab in search of emergency exits, safety equipment, glass disposal, and any other pertinent locations or items.  A fantastic way to loosen up students while familiarizing themselves with their learning environment.

Tap your students’ creativity.

Whether in the science lab or arts studio, creativity can be central to the process.  A creative environment challenges students to think outside the box and take ownership of their learning experience.  The Routledge International Handbook of Creative Learning explains,

At its most basic, the idea of creative learning stands in opposition to a steady diet of teacher directed, atomized and reductive worksheets, quizzes, exercises and tests, many of which render the teacher a mere delivery agent for a syllabus developed elsewhere.  Creative learning…questions the starting-points and opens up the outcomes of curriculum.  It makes the school permeable to other ways of thinking, knowing, being and doing.

Creativity is a mysterious and powerful force that goes beyond the arts and aesthetics.  It stretches what we believe is possible, and presents learners with an opportunity to do truly original work.  Student presentations, especially when learners choose their topic and presentation style, build confidence and enrich understanding.  Creative approaches to teaching—such as roleplaying, slip writing, and world cafés—help break down artificial student-teacher barriers and empower learners to present their own ideas in the classroom.

Reflect on the learning process.

Students are expected to digest colossal amounts of material from back-breaking textbooks, yet are seldom given the opportunity to ask how and why they have learned.  The simple inquiry of How did today go? or What did you discover about yourself? lend themselves to an invaluable exploration of personal and professional discernment.  A group discussion at the end of each session is easily facilitated.  Written reflections are of equal merit; even if students do not share these reflections they help encourage a deeper understanding of learner and self to be carried into the future.

Learn from your students.

Since every student is different, we cannot approach all students with the same formula or uncompromising standards.  Curricular consistency and pedagogical rules have validity; yet they are secondary to individual student identity and selfhood.  Take care not to sacrifice the unique heart and mind of your students in the name of rigid protocol and directive discipline.  The diversity of our learners is our greatest asset, from which we stretch and grow beyond who we are now.

When we are frustrated by our students, this is an opportunity for personal and professional growth.  Asked something you do not know?  Expand your sphere of knowledge.  Struggle to articulate something clearly?  Treat this as a call to express a concept or idea in a fresh way.  Challenged by your students and lack a readied response?  Humour in such situations keeps us human and connected.  From this potential embarrassment the seeds of change and betterment emerge—and this lies at the heart of education.

As an educator, be adaptable and flexible whenever possible.  For instance, if your way of explaining is not resonating, change your approach.  When you sense confusion, demonstrate a concept or procedure to whomever wants to listen.  If we are adaptive and vulnerable this invites students to do the same.  This is not easy, and compels us to move out of our comfort zones in order to better serve the students with whom we share the learning environment.  We are here to serve students; we should not presume their obedience or aptitudes.  To push and challenge them, yes—when they are ready, after establishing a foundation of trust and willingness.  They have not applied for a job for which we are the employer, nor have they arrived to class to be judged and criticized.  They are here for an experience that we facilitate.  And the greatest asset of the effective teacher is being an effective facilitator.  As such, strive to lead a relevant and unique learning activity during every class you teach.

Use multi-modal engagement. 

How do we facilitate involvement, especially when faced with concepts that students often struggle to understand, such as diffusion and osmosis for first-year biology students?

Show a video, explain the concepts in your own words, use analogy and metaphor, ask for their questions, ask questions of your own (and have them answer verbally or by raising hands as a group) and then facilitate an activity.  For this, volunteers are needed.  This only works if students are open and willing; hence we lay this groundwork on day one.  A line of students acts as the cell membrane, women as water, and men as solutes.  From here you present a series of scenarios that requires them to move (as water and solutes).  By acting out the experience—their excitement is palpable, even for those initially reluctant—they will carry this memory further.

Avoid excuses.

To ridicule, to condescend, shame, inhibit, demean or humiliate our students in any fashion—no matter how subtle—is perfectly antithetic to being an educator.

If your students are under performing, be wary of complaining about their lack of effort or enthusiasm.  Do not compare them to some imagined cohort with perfect attendance and attention.  Do not compare them to yourself as a student.  We dare not let our prejudice and presumptions spill onto them.  Instead, explore your own methods as an educator, devise new approaches for instruction and interaction, and challenge yourself to inspire even the most nonchalant student.  Students are unique and individual, and we should not judge them prematurely.  (Or ideally, not judge them at all.)

After professor Fred Keller (of the Keller Plan) retired, he wrote:

I learned one very important thing:  the student is always right.  He is not asleep, not unmotivated, not sick, and he can learn a great deal if we provide the right contingencies of reinforcement.

The excuse that the student is lazy, uninspired, and apathetic can also be applied to teachers.  The answer lies within the realm of tolerance and generosity, not in self-justified rationalization or—worse—the tired regurgitation that students today are different.  The students are here and now, in our classrooms and labs.  The question is:  are we ready?

De-emphasize the importance of grades.

In evaluating students, a certain amount of rigour and precision is, at times, necessary.  But grades should not serve as the sole, or even primary, motivator.  Grades are requisites for records, scholarship and employment—but they have little to do with the act of facilitating learning.  Grading has three dependable results:  students are less creative and risk-taking, tend to think less deeply, and lose interest in the act of learning.  Rubrics are, by their nature, arbitrary and subjective.  Be careful not to let assessment tools put limits on your students, and try to include qualitative feedback wherever possible.  We have failed if students leave a course with a grade and nothing more than fragments of a prescribed curriculum.

That being said, effective formative feedback is valuable in improving both student and teacher learning.

If we are too lenient or malleable, the student may take advantage.  Worse yet, they are less inclined to aspire toward being the best learner they can be.  My instinct is to be overly generous and accommodating.  It took many years to strike a balance between the role of active helper and cunning challenger.  Teaching, at times, requires tremendous patience.  The situation changes with each student and group.  Sometimes I weave amongst and encourage student-student interaction; other times I ask a question without any promise of providing the answer.

Limit lecture time.

Keller explains that the primary function of the teacher is not to lecture—which is easily fulfilled by automated means—but to engage students in direct interaction to support their individual instruction.

The lecture is overused as the cursory instructional tool.  Lecturing has its place; however, too often students sit in an auditorium listening to their professor without any opportunity to discuss or engage with the material.  The content of a course should act secondary to the method in which it is delivered.  A clear indicator of a successful class or lab is when students speak more than we do.

Of course, these ideas are not new.  The UK Board of Education in 1931 proclaimed, in The Hadow Report, that “a good school, in short, is not a place of compulsory instruction, but a community of old and young, engaged in learning by co-operative experiment.”  And yet, walking down the university halls, how often do we observe sessile students, sitting in rows with eyes glazed as a powerpoint shovels static content into brain cells already overflowing to excess?  The resources for effective teaching are available to us.  We, as educators, need to collectively embrace, discuss and apply the wisdom of our practice, and be part of this co-operative experiment.

Build in experiential learning.

In designing new lessons or field trips for students, emphasize experiential and multi-modal learning.  An easy option?  Use the university grounds as a place to explore.  Have students use their eyes, ears, nose and hands.  For ecology, get them to draw plant parts; utilize plant and animal identification guides;  observe their relationship to the forest alongside human impacts; consider and articulate a management plan for invasive species where every course of action possesses drawbacks.  Facilitate group discussion throughout this activity, and encourage them to probe the deeper connections.

Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, says that we teach who we are.  As educators, we need to explore our strengths, faults, biases, and judgements in order to provide an authentic experience in the classroom.  If we lack self-awareness in this regard, students will suffer at our expense.

In summary, here are the key tenets of an engaged and embodied teaching philosophy:

1. Allow space for the voice of your students to be heard, and respond in a thoughtful and engaging manner.

2. Lay a foundation of trust and open communication.  Use a holistic approach that views students as whole beings rather than as disembodied intellects.

3. Use multiple approaches to facilitate learning, maximizing student interaction and involvement.

4. Be adaptive and flexible while in the classroom.  This means being, at times, uncomfortable and uncertain in order to best serve student needs.  Be mindful of points of intersection, and unafraid to divert from the path of prescribed learning outcomes.

5. Always reinforce, never condescend.  Inspire rather than direct.

6. Get students out of their chairs.  Have them embody the experience.  Rarely rely on powerpoint to deliver content.

7. Give students resiliency and tools for a better life.

All students are inherently creative and resourceful.  The container educators provide should encourage active inquiry and participation within a safe and open learning environment.  Our job is to move beyond passive content into experiential discovery, hone communication skills through group and individual conversations, explain difficult concepts via movement and metaphor, promote critical thinking and build learner confidence.

The call to teach and learn is powerful and noble.  The journey is neither straightforward nor linear; it winds and meanders down one tributary and up another.  At the end of the day, we want our students to leave the classroom feeling heard and valued, and empowered to move forward with a greater understanding of the world and themselves.

Ecology students studying botanical specimens that they gathered from the field.

Ecology students studying botanical specimens that they gathered from the field.

Further Resources

2 thoughts on “Teaching

  1. Pingback: Engaged and Embodied Learning: Ideas for a Philosophy of Teaching | Lee Beavington

  2. Hi, Lee,

    I’m Professor Emerita from West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, WV. I am scheduled to give a talk to the local garden club on WV wildflowers and would love to be able to show your video on cytoplasmic streaming in Tradescantia. The meeting venue does not have WIFI. Would it be possible for you to share the video with me so that I could show it off my computer? I’ve always delighted in letting my students see the streaming in the stamen hairs but adults should also have the opportunity. Thanks if you can.

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