Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Observing Three Learning Situations

As part of the Environments for Teaching and Learning course I observed the work of three educational practitioners in learning and teaching situations. In choosing the settings for the sessions I attempted to diversify the spaces. The first of the three I chose was a traditional classroom with a centre ‘stage’ at the ‘front’ with equipment and a desk. In the classroom the learners were well defined as an audience and sat in rows separate from the leader of the session. The second space I observed for teaching was a large lecture theatre with seating for around one hundred people. Once again the audience sat in rows and the educator took up a position behind lectern at the front of the amphitheatre style space. The third location I observed for teaching was a computer lab where a workshop was conducted in physical computing. I commenced this study with the idea that a space defines the interactions that occur in it. This idea seemed to be fulfilled by my observations, but the focus for this report is the style and strategies of those leading the learning and teaching sessions I observed.


A common thread through each of the sessions I observed was the use and misuse of technology. In the traditional classroom setting an overhead projector was used, as well as a white board and reading aloud from primary texts. References were made to websites during the session by the educator but these sites where not shown to the class, despite their being a computer and projector in the room. These were never turned on during the session, although they working perfectly. The educator read from several texts during the session, while standing behind the desk at the front of the room. At one point a question was put to the class in general for anyone to answer but there was no response. The line between the educator’s space and the learners was crossed when hand outs were distributed but no discussion was made about the handouts only a single reference to what they described. Similarly in the lecture hall session I observed the line between the leader of the session and the audience was never crossed. In regards to the technology used in the lecture hall the educator set up a video camera to film the lecture to be put out on the web later. The projector the educator was planning to show slides on did not work. As a result the lecture is only verbal with no visual materials. The educator stated the slides will be put on the course website later. In contrast to the classroom and the lecture hall, the computer lab workshop had a technician in attendance during the entire session. As a result there were no technical problems that lasted more than a few minutes and the use of technology was extensive. I conclude from these observations regarding the use of technology in the learning situation, that technical support is an essential element in learning.

Participation and Engagement

In my limited experience of teaching I have found the active participation of learners in learning to be an effective measure of understanding and contextualisation. In the three learning sessions I observed I noticed several techniques used by the education practitioners for drawing out the learners into speaking, making a decision or seeking an opinion or confirmation regarding what was being dealt with. In the classroom questions were put to the group but of the three questions put to the class none were answered. Towards the end of the session a learner asked an impromptu question. After a short break in the middle of the classroom lecture, the educator entered the room to begin the second half of the session eating an apple. The eating of the apple seemed to disengage the leader of the session from making contact with the learners. In the lecture hall the educational practitioner leading the session opened the session with a question, “How is it going with the reading?” which led to a short discussion on the readings for the course. Later in the session the educator said “You can speak up and break in at anytime. It is so boring when I just talk”. This statement was met almost immediately with a question. Finally the educator wrote on the whiteboard several keywords and then asked for definitions from the group. It was not until definitions had been given that the next topic in the session was taken up. This forced several of the learners to speak up during the class which in turn led to short discussions. These strategies can be contrasted to the use of the whiteboard in the traditional classroom session where the educator read out from the text. There was no discussion around anything that was projected or written by the educator in the classroom setting.

The use of objects for teaching was a part of the computer lab workshop and facilitated participation and engagement from the group. While the genre of the subject area (computer science) made the use of objects in learning more self-evident, I can see that it could be possible to use objects in learning for any discipline. There was no central space defined in the computer lab workshop and the leader of the session was forced to move around the learners and speak from different parts of the space. The learner’s attention was drawn around the space rather than just fixed on a single point. While the educational practitioner moved between the four computers shared by ten learners it was the objects that brought the groups into discussion. The objects provided the educator with a focus for questions and statements to each of the learners individually. All statements that the educator made during the workshop session were inquiring or questioning and were directed towards the learners. These included “It works well, but tell me what it does.” Or “is it what I wanted?” and “It turns the motor on but is that all it should do?” The use of rhetorical questions becomes much easier and feels more natural when there is a subject for the question that is not a learner (i.e. “What do you think about it?”). The focus for questions from the workshop was not the learners, but on the objects they were dealing with. In a more humanistic subject setting, as was the case with both the classroom and lecture hall contexts, the objects of discussion could be supplied by technology. Working with objects to explain concepts I think has great possibilities in learning. Visual images, primary texts and even artefacts could be used to provoke discussion and the involvement and engagement of learners.


The performance of the educational practitioner created the situations for learning in each of the sessions observed. In the classroom session the educator seemed to have planned very well, but the contact made with the learners suffered from a number of performance issues. By standing in one position in the room or sitting on the ‘educator’s desk’ at the front of the room the educator did not move into the learner’s space at any point in the classroom session. The physical position adopted by the educator was reinforced by the use of language and the failure to take advantage of the technology. By reading out from printed material contact was lost with the learners. Eye contact and speech directed towards a present addressee is more likely to be excluded from educator’s performance if it includes reading from a printed primary text. Finally, by eating during part of the session, the educator distorted the focus, removing it from the subject of the session and from the learners. These examples are each elements within the performance of the educator. In the lecture hall session, the educator also remained in a single area of the space, but the design of the amphitheater prevents any real movement between the two defined spaces. Instead, the educator attempted at several times to project out into the learners portion of the space. By addressing questions to the group and asking for questions (“It is so boring when I just talk”), the performance of the educator attempts to break down the barriers created by the physical space and cross over into the learner’s area. The crossing over into the space and attention of the learners was not really achieved in either the classroom or the lecture hall sessions. At the centre of this failure was the performance of the educator in each.

I contrast the classroom and lecture hall sessions with the workshop in the computer lab in the performance of the educator. A sense of enthusiasm, which is not excessive but is evident, was a strong element in the performance of the educator in the computer lab session. The session was divided into five stages:

1. Learners sit in rows and listen to a short presentation by educator

2. Learners move to the computer stations in small groups. Begin planning

3. Learners move to work table were materials are needed to complete tasks set in stage

4. Learners return to stations complete programming of artefacts assembled in stage

5. Learners demonstrate projects

The variation of formats represented by each of these five stages provided a shift in focus for the learners that had continuity but sufficient variation to be interesting. Between stages 2 and 3 coffee and cookies were made available to the learners and the educator joined them in chatting. The social pause for the group provides a contrast to the educator eating the apple alone in front of the group while continuing with the learning session from the classroom situation. The experience is shared in the workshop situation, while in the classroom it becomes a barrier to communication.


I draw a number of conclusions from my observations of three learning sessions. The use of technology has great potential in learning, but it is necessary for it to be well integrated into the experience to be useful. Technical support should accessible at all times when technology is used in the learning space. The technology should also be integrated into the learning experience rather than simply added on. If a piece of machinery or a printed hand out is to be used in the session it should serve a purpose other than being an object. It should be referred to in the broader contexts of the session. Any item of technology that is mechanical should be tested before it is used in the session. Related to technology are the levels of participation and engagement generated in the learning experience. The learners are not the only ones who should be sharing in a participative and engaged environment. It is necessary for the educator to show signs of engagement and enthusiasm in the experience. If the spaces for each of the learning sessions I observed are to be thought of as broken up into particular zones, where a single definition of use dominates a single area, then the position of the educator and the learners become influential. I think the educator should use the ways portions of the space are defined by the design and layout of the site of learning. Each educator I observed made attempts to breach the space between themselves and the learners, but not all attempts were successful. In the workshop example which I observed, the division of the session into five separate zones, where activities were combined with themes in their own areas, with their own objects, forced a total integration of the educator and the learners in the space. Once the space has been defined by the educator it should be the source of strategies for integration of learners and educators into a single space. Accompanying such strategies is the use of verbal techniques for addressing learners in direct ways, encouraging conversation and questions. A break and the sharing of food with the learners in the workshop situation created a shared space with the educator. By doing so hierarchies can be resisted and more effective channels opened in learning.


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