Use various alternatives for transferring course content
There is little or no argument over whether students need to learn specific course content. Once the learning-centered teachers have decided that class time should be used for higher levels of learning, and have thought through their decisions about which and how much information are the most appropriate to be transferred, the only questions remaining relate to when and how this data is to be provided, and how it serves learning in the classroom.
This approach naturally means modified planning on the teacher's part, but it is difficult to say whether it will be additional work or only different than prior course preparation. In any case, libraries and support services will be available for help. This planning will require far greater inquiry into resource access than before, but it also will prepare students for a future of informing themselves rather than being given information in class. Likewise, it opens up greater opportunity for the student to seek out information from web sites and home pages, bringing a concurrent need for evaluation awareness, tools and techniques for validating that information.
The ferreting out of materials by the teacher must take place in advance of the course, raising issues of transformational support from academic leaders. Availability of traditional learning resources such as photocopied handouts, textbooks and reserve-room readings, along with audiocassettes and videocassettes, as well as the more recent additions of compact discs, computer wares, floppy disc compilations, e-mail, chat-groups, and internet make possible any number of options and combinations, while the final selection will be influenced in part by the data needs of the particular academic discipline and the level of the course, and also in part by the purpose of each class-session. There is also the comfort-level and computer-awareness level at which students are able to operate, as well as their highly variable access to these tools. A greater disparity exists between on-campus and off-campus sites, but even on campus, many students lack computer literacy, or live off-campus without computers and must juggle family and work needs. This matter is dealt with further in Chapter C-2, but exists as a major challenge and needs careful planning consideration by the teacher, who will also have his or her own comfort level with cyberspace. Assuming everyone gains greater competence with practice, collaboration and training, web pages and other sources can become useful for course enrichment by turning students loose to seek out additional materials and help them acquire tools for evaluating their validity. A teacher's creativity may follow one or many alternative paths. Since students need to be prepared before class, one can assign them specific readings from the text; homework can consist of answering questions based on study guides which the teacher has written. This kind of assistance provides direction to the students, while demonstrating that the teacher is not just assigning homework, but is helping the student to learn, through text chapters, outside readings, videos, and audiotapes, as part of their regular outside activities. The teacher can provide the students with a series of pointed questions and ideas that will help students effectively study an assignment.
Teachers can also introduce a variety of readings on the same topic for later presentation, comparison and integration of ideas in class. Students individually develop their subject awareness through engaging in this work, preparing responses to the questions, while noting down their ideas about what seems most significant, its causes and consequences, and other implications for the topic. They can also create lists of questions that they want clarified in class, or prepare discussions, which they want the teacher to pursue.
Students might gather together in small groups to study or talk over topics, or they might log-on to a group-system software on their computers for the same kind of interactive learning purposes. The teacher could help students arrange any of these activities, or could actually make them a required part of the syllabus. Whatever written work students prepare will help them learn; it can also serve the teacher to find out how the students are progressing, and can become an assignment or a portion of one, which merits grading and serves as an indication of growth.
Were these various student-centered practices to occur, some major advances in learner-helping would take place. One would be that the students would enter the classroom better equipped and ready for discourse by being pre-prepared with knowledge, impressions and certain planes of awareness about conflict areas in the subject. The teacher could interact with them in class at levels beyond the initial factual base. Students would already know the basics, or at least have a good idea about components and limits of the topic. Matters of implication, controversy and interpretation would become the discussion subject. There would be less need to write down extensive notes and thus the teacher would be looking into students' eyes instead of merely seeing the tops of their heads.
Eye contact would establish fresher and deeper levels of interaction, while observant teachers would rapidly learn to tell which students were or were not "getting it" by reading their responses and body language. Knowing where the subject had bogged down would help teachers to re-visit it to clear up problem areas. With time, teachers would need to provide less help as students gained practice in handling topics. With growth, students would seem less as receptacles and more as growing plants, nurtured in learning autonomy and self-confidence. Teacher-student understanding would increase.
In a different direction, classroom time could be used for lecture by turning it over to the students. They can all be assigned the text reading, but one group can be asked to create an outline presenting the material to the rest. This way the contents of each chapter can be discussed week by week, both by those who make the presentation and those who ask the questions. The idea is to give all of them a chance to contribute, an opportunity to find out how well they can function aloud, and the chance to debate important elements and areas of meaning with guidance.
In that sense, the students take charge of most of the lesson, gain experience in group interactive learning (with minimal direction), and are getting reinforcement of information and meaning through the interchange. By setting up a sequence of presentational versus response groups through the term, every student can become involved and therefore able to perform a role and service as a responsible learning-community member each time. Moreover, if students are embarrassed by performing live, they can be allowed to do their first presentation by videotape, responding to questions about it during class.
None of these formats imply that teachers will have to give up their lecturing. If textbooks are inadequate, if professors have special expertise to impart, or if they simply want to lecture, their informational input can certainly serve to enrich the course, and students will profit both from the lecture and ability to have access to it outside of class. Current videotape creation is inexpensive, easy, and high in quality, while library resource centers provide viewing facilities in many places on campus and at distant learning sites.
If the teacher really prefers that students watch and listen to what she or he has to say on the subject, there is nothing to prevent preparation of a lecture on tape, or even an entire semester's worth, keeping them in the library, or condensed into a video portion of a course pack. This way the student can look at the video before class, handling the information written by the teacher as previously described, and also come to class fully prepared to talk about the subject.
As for the teacher getting a case of the butterflies when facing the camera and microphone, there is plenty of patient, non-judgmental, encouraging help available, while rehearsals and practice help take the jitters away. Watching one's own tapes also shows the teacher how to make things easier and better the next time. One doesn't get worse by doing such things, and I have learned that students genuinely appreciate the teacher having taken the time and effort to help learning take place, to accommodate in some way to the students' convenience rather than to the teacher's only.
The use of videotape need not be exclusive; it could just as easily be an audiobook. Whole courses of study are now available on videotapes as well as audiobooks, opening up new territory for the professor as well as the student. Videotape would be excellent for any visual material to be presented, such as landforms in geology, paintings in art history or ceremonies and costumes in anthropology, and so on. The audio cassette, on the other hand, would work very well for musicology, literature and indigenous stories read by authors or interpreters, or auditory dialectics that do not require seeing a graphic of some sort. Part of the purpose of classroom discussion is to give students practice in handling information themselves. Another part has to do with subtly preparing them for analytical and critical learning on their own. The act of helping students through the puzzling tangle of interpretations gives them experience in going beyond the stereotype that scholarly information is of itself neutral. This is one reason for the use of the term-long Escalator assignment, discussed in Chapter B-2. I am interested in preparing them for becoming more autonomous as effective learners after their stint with me is over, and I want them to be able to transfer the skills they acquire to other areas of learning.
My own courses are interdisciplinary, and since it has been difficult to find a text which treated the course the way I wanted to, I wrote my own text chapters, and my artist wife drew maps and illustrations. We publish it inexpensively at a local copy shop. I found that merely assigning the chapters was not enough, since some students had difficulty in discerning levels of significance. I therefore turned to writing basic questions that would focus attention on ideas for discussion as well as handy formulas to help make connections. The first semester I wrote them for all assignments, but I learned that the students rapidly acquired the knack after three or four weeks.
I then turned to using my own ten questions for each of the first three weeks, then backed off to seven questions while assigning each student to write three others. I retreated further as the semester progressed, and as students gradually took over the whole job. They did fine! They did not do what I would have done, but the divergence made discussion even more meaningful as I offered by own thoughts on the matter. I did not push my side of it, however, since it would have hindered what I was trying to do.
Naturally everyone did not function one hundred percent in every way; some students wrote better questions than others, or were more voluble in discussion. But it did not matter, as it still served to motivate other students. It was interesting that peer activities seemed to evoke more inspiration and drive. When students took notes on what I said, they were generally silent, not very willing to discuss and critique the validity of my concepts and structures; any comment was usually of praise rather than critique. (I wonder why?) But when they saw and heard the work of other students, either current or from previous semesters, they jumped right in, even though most were careful not to be negative or hurtful.
As a result, I developed one of my arts courses extensively around the ideas and principles that are clearly visible in student projects. Each semester several are turned in which are of excellent quality for helping learners perceive the key points. They contain clear messages and are organized in ways that show comprehension; they also show just enough flaws or slow spots in composition and arrangement as to be easily analyzed, and they do the learner-helping job they are intended for very well. Moreover, I am sure that many students work hard on their projects in order to have their work selected for use in the subsequent term. One former student, now a medical doctor, even has a picture of his project on his office wall, and tells me that several of his patients (who have taken the course I teach) recognized it from class. It is intriguing to me how these highly human matters work.
I talk extensively with students about my role and responsibility as helper and their responsibilities as learners. Part of my discussion is that they must learn how to become self-directive and self-reliant in our subject before the end of the semester, because I will not be around to help them after that. Thus, if they take no other arts and culture course in the university, this will be their only chance to become literate in this subject. This approach seems to work, because nearly every student chooses self-direction as the goal to achieve, leading me to develop other self-paced learning devices, such as The Escalator, which is discussed in Chapter B-2.
Turning to my own favorite ways of conducting a course, let me illustrate how I use the textbooks I have written in support of the data being transferred outside of class, how I also provide important tools that will help them come into class ready and able to exercise their analytical-comparative skills of construction and constructivism through interactive discussion. I teach six courses and have written a text for each one of them: Popular Arts, Southwest Arts and Culture, Iberian Arts and Culture, Mexican Arts and Culture, Topics in Latin American Arts and Culture, and 1492 and the Arts. These are Humanities courses in the sense that they explore the arts as human expressions and values indicators, as well as having relationship to place, culture, techniques-components, artist, audience, purposes and interpretation via various schools.
Each of the courses is formulated in approximately the same manner; consequently, each of the textbooks follows the same general approach. They are developed in four sections: part one discusses the course and its components along with a description of how things work, what is expected, and some of the personal emotional crises which will occur along the way.
Part two contains seven chapters on analytical-comparative tools for application in the learning process:
Part three of the textbook provides a series of chapters on the geographical-historical-cultural context information for the region under study; part four contains chapters which either survey one of the art forms or goes into depth in one specific aspect.
I should also point out here that my wife, Gwendolyn Shire, collaborates in several ways. She is by profession a costumer and designer with years of residence abroad, and adds arts-culture dimensions to the text (and to her husband's level of awareness) which I would not be able to provide. Secondly, she produces illustrations of what we are studying, and edits my writings into readable and comprehensible prose. But most of all, she adds her own commentaries on what I have written by contrasting a woman's point of view to that of a man's. Not only does this simple act provide balance to the study of a topic, but it brings to the exploration of a subject the significant awareness that the culture and gender of the observer is consequential to the perception and conclusion inferred.
Thus, when students study Popular Arts or the Love Tragedy of Josť and Carmen, I make short assignments at first, such as asking them to read the original text by the French author. It is a short novel and we will start the next class session with questions about how they visualize the setting, and what they would do if they were going to turn the novel into a movie, which they would direct. This is a different approach than using written questions, and it works well, especially when we move along to the libretto of the opera and I ask them how they visualize the scenes, how they would make a film of them and how the two compare and contrast.
Here I am using the juxtaposition technique that I so often use elsewhere with paintings, songs, or any kinds of visuals. We do not have these in front of us on the pad camera, but rather are remembering the different pieces, and formulating the parallels and dissimilarities in words. Gwendolyn also provided me with other options. First, she created a series of colorful hand puppets depicting Carmen the charmer, Josť the willful, Micaela the demure and Escamillo the undaunted. They were marvelous props, and I could set them up in my classroom so that we could use them in our analysis of the Carmen stories. Students would seek out the characteristics of each personage in the story, discovering their own stereotypes drawn from individual up-bringings, cultural training, or media influence. Dissecting the stereotypes by "talking" through the puppets often dissolved their potency.
Finally, she created for me a magnificent porcelain doll, 24 inches high, dressed in gypsy clothing that looks as if it came right out of Merimee's novel. She is on a turntable, delicately poised in a dancing position, hands high and holding small wooden castanets carved by two of our sons. Gypsy bells adorn her ankles, hundreds of tiny mirrors are sewn into her skirt, and her velvet jacket is hand-embroidered. While it may be a job to transport this outstanding piece of art to my television classroom and set it up, the results are worth it.
Students who have prepared themselves for class discussion by having read and studied before class now receive the additional enrichment of comparative visualization, stimulating interplay between what is remembered and what is seen, furthered by hearing and debating what others have to say. The event helps students carry their own learning many steps farther, and gives them ideas on how to do it for themselves.