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#TESSGTAs: Theme 1 – Learning

October 6th, 2012 by Cristina Costa

This week I started working with the Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) that have just started their 3 year appointment as PhD students who also have teaching duties. I think that is a great way to experience a bit more of academia beyond the completion of a PhD.

As part of the “deal” GTAs get an introduction to Teaching and Learning. The TESS (Teaching Essentials) programme for GTAs comprises of 6 thematic workshops where we cover different aspects of teaching in Higher Education.

Theme 1 deals with Learning. This was the first time I run this session. I was pretty nervous because I did not know how it would be received. But I guess the result was not that bad.

I wanted to make it as dynamic a session as I could, and I also wanted to inspire a culture of “thinking together”. As such, I used two questions that would guide the entire session. The goal was to answer them by the end of the session. The questions were:

What is learning?

Where does learning happen?

Pretty obvious questions, you must think. Yet, as we start to think about them, we realise how complex the answers can be.

To kick start the workshop we discussed the key reading for that theme. We are reading the Teaching at University: A Guide for Postgraduates and Researchers by Morss and Murray. It is a light, yet informative reading; a good introduction to different concepts and research on teaching and learning in Higher Education. The book leans towards a (social) constructivist approach that suits me perfectly as I feel this is the best approach we can adopt for our teaching. Our knowledge needs to be scaffold, and what’s a better way to learn than to co-construct meaning by participating in the environment that influences our thinking.

We also talked about the writing of the teaching philosophies and how it is hard to transfer our thoughts about our teaching practice into writing. Yet, it is a very important exercise because it makes it clear what our convictions and beliefs about teaching are. And those will inform how we approach learning and consequently teach. At this point it was interesting to see how GTAs were not sure of whether they should have commented on each other’s blogposts or not. I guess it is hard at first to provide a critical comment to someone’s teaching philosophy. Yet, critical does not mean criticism. It is not about telling what people have done wrong or provide a negative comment; it’s rather about thinking together by sharing similar experiences and/or providing people with new perspectives that might make them think differently and thus complement their own ideas.

For the 2nd part of the session, we did a jigsaw with 4 different readings about learning from different perspectives. Again I took inspiration from my friend Ilene Alexander, who also pointed me in the direction of some very interesting texts, one of them regarding how the brain works.

The exercise consisted in having people working in groups of 4 with each group member reading a different text on different aspects of learning. The idea was to stitch the information of the 4 papers together into a narrative that encompassed different aspects of learning. It’s a long and complex exercise to digest and process new information. As usual it would have been nice to have had more time to develop this exercise, but I think we got some good discussions going on and in the end we were able to (start) answer(ing) the questions that guided this workshop.

Besides the terrible time management issues, I also felt that sometimes I talked for too long at some points. I think I need to refine my thoughts. Yet, I know I am lucky to be working with a group of GTAs that is very participative and keen to discuss things. This has helped my job a lot! ;-)

Next week, we will be talking about Teaching. The challenge is to connect what we have discussed about learning with the practice of teaching. I am working on a session that aspires to make those connections. I think it’s important we don’t treat these thematic workshops as isolated sessions but rather build on them so we get a more robust understanding of how we can empower our students with different approaches to teaching and learning.

I truly believe that in this day and age, our role as educators in a Higher Education setting is to make sure our students are able to build on their knowledge to develop new learning, i.e, make connections. And also that they become confident problem solvers by learning to be resourceful and develop new ways of interacting with the realities that challenge their practice and perceptions.

I wanted to show this video in class (recommended by Becci Jackson) but I didn’t get enough time to do so. I think it illustrates the point above very well.

So my questions about this week session are:

  • Did the dialogic approach used in this workshop suit your way of learning? Why/why not?
  • What aspects of last week session’s would you like me to improve (because they did not work for you)? Please provide examples.

This post was originally posted on the TESSGTA space.

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