(Source: The Task (1785), Book II, “The Timepiece” William Cowper 1731-1800)
Most people like variety; it keeps life interesting. Unfortunately, few people associate typical schools or classrooms with variety. Indeed, it is the routinization of patterns and behaviours that makes most classrooms run like well-oiled machines. In addition, no matter how artfully decorated, the classroom space many students experience on a daily basis at school is the same from day to day. The unvarying nature of the classroom–and worse yet, a sterile learning context–is an obstacle to imaginative and emotional engagement. Simply put: taken-for-granted, routinized contexts extinguish the imagination.
This TIP in the Tools of Imagination Series is all about changing the learning context so that the ways in which students interact with each other and with knowledge leaves them feeling inspired. Inspiring educator Oskar Cymerman also reminds his readers to “Mix It Up Y’all! What, How and Where You Learn (And Teach) Counts“. The message is clear: learning context matters for engagement and learning.
An obvious way to change the context of learning is to take students on field trips. This is, of course, a physical change of context and when that can happen it’s great! But we can’t only change contexts once or twice a year. You can stay put and still transform the learning space without a huge expenditure in time or energy.
- Design a role play activity that creates a new context from which to investigate a topic. A role play does not need to involve elaborate costumes, scripts, or dialogue. Rather, you are simply asking students to think about topics from a different perspective. For example, as young children are introduced to shapes and patterns in mathematics they can be enlisted as “Pattern Detectives”; the world is theirs to explore. Or for SS teaching, your class might become a council meeting of top United Nations delegates as you study different economic systems or different countries. This is truly a tool for all ages. In my university teaching I frequently create a learning context in which we have to think like participants in an issue or process in order to study it. So, rather than studying the evaluation of educational programs as graduate students, I ask them to imagine they are consultants, hired by the government to report on best practices for educational reform initiatives.
- Assign individual students or groups of students different perspectives (with or without a larger “context change” as described in #1 above). So, for example, in relation to historical topics students can be asked to report back as if they are different stakeholders or participants. When studying different scientific concepts or processes students can become different aspects of the topic under question (e.g. different parts of a cell or different parts of the process of osmosis etc.) Each will have a different impact on their experience and each will contribute to richer understanding of the topic overall.
- Enlist the body’s tools. Think of ways to vary the attention required of students. Think of ways they can differently interact with a topic. Is there a way for them to use their bodies to express the meaning of a concept through gesture? Can they use the body’s senses to express or describe meaning? Can they learn topics through a non-dominant sense first? (e.g. through sound or smell before through sight).
- Build, make, do. What can students create that is “new” with the topic as a theme? The options are many. Students could conduct an experiment; build something; make or bake something; ask other people about it (conduct a survey); or draw. (Leave a comment: What do you have students build, make, do?)
- Re-enactments–re-creations–re-imagining (endings). The “re” is key. I grew up in the era of “choose your own adventure” books. You would turn to page 12 if you wanted one thing to happen or page 15 if you wanted a different outcome. Help your students choose their own adventure with the topics you teach. Help them show their understanding of concepts by considering alternative scenarios of their own. What would happen if…Hypothesize. Test. Assess. Re-frame. Re-search. Re-think. Re-imagine.
Spicy or bland? Unpredictable or same-old same-old?
Take this home: it’s fun to do different things, but changing context is more pedagogically significant than that. It wakes up emotions and imagination and, thus, makes the knowledge more meaningful.
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Leave a comment: How do you mix it up? How do you spice up your teaching?
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