Single Best Free Way to Transform Classrooms (Primary-Lifelong) of Any Size--and Fast Too!
It may sound like I'm selling snake oil, but I actually do have one trick that, at almost no cost, can transform your classroom or public speaking event, whether a seminar or a lecture, whether for 8 year olds or doctoral students, CEOs or senior citizens. You can try this tomorrow, and turn the biggest lecture into an interactive, collaborative experience without so much as an investment even in clickers or a projector. I've used it in most of the 55+ presentations I've given this year for my book Now You See It and I've used it in my classes. Here is the expensive version. It requires the swank new technology called "index cards":
1. Pass out index cards to each student (or audience member) (NB: If you can't afford index cards, have them take out a half-sheet of paper.)
2. Set your watch or a timer for 90 seconds.
3. Think: Tell students/participants to write down three things (and you vary the three things each time: I might ask my students to list the three most important "take-aways" from the week's readings or from last week's class; if I'm talking to an audience, I might ask the general public their three greatest fears about not keeping up in a digital age; or I might ask executives the three things they most look for in a new employee that they hope will one day become a leader in their company; or if I talk to college teachers or students, I ask the three things they think every student today needs to thrive in the 21st century. In other words, you have them commit to their notecards, for 90 seconds, three responses to something important).
4. Pair: Set that watch or timer again. Ask them to turn to someone they didn't walk in with, and, in the next 90 seconds, take turns reading the three things. First one person reads outloud while the other listens without interrupting. Then the second person reads three things while the first listens without interrupting (it may be the only time the person every hears his or her own voice--it's an important step). After they hear one another, then have them think about the six things on their cards, see where there is overlap, where there is difference, and ask them to discuss and, together, decide on what is the single most important thing to share with the whole group. It may well be a mix of things on each card. You will be amazed at how engaged and invested they are. That's why they have to have written something down before the conversation, it gets right past the "what do you think?" awkwardness. I do a version of this at some point in every class--sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle when discussion is lagging, sometimes at the end. It takes five or at most 7 or 8 minutes. All studies of learning show these are the 5 minutes where the real learning happens, where students adapt what they have heard or read to their own lives, where they make it memorable, where they understand it in new and individual and also collective ways, and they learn from how one another learns and values what they have learned. It's especially great in alienated lectures. And it works (see @ericmazur at Harvard) in physics classes and in history classes, in political science or in computer science, in English or in African American studies. In other words, anywhere.
5. Share: If it is a small enough group (I've done this with 6000 people in a basketball arena), go around and have someone from each pair read their one best idea with the whole group. Or, to save time, have them send one member to the board to write out their one best idea. (You can then conduct a whole class or session making connections between the ideas they have written on the board.)
NB: Do not skip any of the above steps. Having students write individually first, and then take turns reading out loud what they have written and then discuss their thinking ("answers") with someone else and then having them together make some kind of new decision or conclusion, exchanging ideas and convincing or listening to another person, and then explaining that process (or in a huge group, having that process discussed by the teacher) is the key part of the learning experience. (In large classes or groups, I have people shout out the circled answer and make that the focus of the next part of the conversation.
6. As a bonus, on special occasions, in a smaller group of say 30 or 40 or less, I then have them look at the shared answers and come up with the ONE best answer together---the room bursts with excited conversation when I do this. (Often I make that one answer the subject of the rest of the discussion.)
7. Finally: I lead a discussion on the difference between the student's individual experience and their collective ones. I extend that discussion philosophically, in different ways on different occasions. For example: I talk about our role as citizens of the World Wide Web, how we have to learn and respect collaboration and connection, and make the most of how we can learn from and teach one another. That's the lesson plan, and I use it in class after class, lecture after lecture. So simple. A real life example of connected learning. And all it costs (at the high end) is some index cards(even those are optional--but they do help with focus), 5 minutes of your time, and the creative engagement of your students.
Okay, there you have it my single best trick.
It doesn't just work for humanities--Eric Mazur does it in physics classes at Harvard. You can add research assignments to it as a follow-up, have them do the research and come back the next day and, guess what, you then do the process all over again, same sequence. Rinse. Repeat. It works on just about any level. We even did this at our HASTAC annual retreat and we were amazed at what we learned, and we spend practically every day together.
When I do this at conferences or in big public audiences, I often have them write their email address on the card. After they finish discussing, I have them exchange cards--that way they know that, someone else out there, shares their ideas about how to learn in an interactive age. I've had people write me six months later to tell me they are developing tools, serving on panels, or just exchanging ideas with the person they met and have kept in touch with this way.
The benefit of taking this time from a prepared lecture (either in class or in a formal auditorium setting for a larger public) greatly outweighs any drawbacks. All studies of learning show these are the 5 minutes where the real learning happens, where students adapt what they have heard to their own lives, where they make it memorable, where they understand it in new and individual and also collective ways, and they learn from how one another learns and values what they have learned.
The other benefit, for us as teachers, is that it is a great reaffirmation of what we do. It is based in a well-researched pedagogy (it's called Think-Pair-Share) that underscores that, first, we don't really know what we think until we write it down; that, second, we don't really understand what we know until we explain it to someone else; that, third, explanation is really about interaction and learning and teaching, all mixed together; and that, four, the final step, presenting the result of one's discussion to a larger, coherent group that then discusses the ideas is already demonstrating that one's thinking can have impact on others. Perfect.
When I lecture, I turn this inside out and all kinds of different ways, but the single most important point I make is you can involve students in a group of 2500 (I did this with an audience of this size on a number of occasion) or 25, with no cost (if you don't want, you can have them use their own piece of paper). You can do it with a screen and projector. You don't need to. No tech is fine. The point is interaction, collaboration, and thinking about how we think, alone and in groups, and in how we learn---by rote, by hearing, or by processing, applying, explaining, defending, and mastering.
Try it tomorrow. And write a comment and let us all know how it went!
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. NOTE: The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, www.nowyouseeit.net