One of my regular classes at the University of Augsburg is “Internationally-Minded Education”. I attempt to bring the best of the private school system to future public school teachers. I focus on team-building, collaboration, classroom-design, Inquiry-Based Teaching and Values-led education. Aside from equipping my students with practical classroom methodologies and resources, one of my most important objectives is to leave the students feeling motivated to explore the topic independently and confident enough to implement elements of the class in their future classrooms. Importantly, I wish to extend students’ ideas of what school is and have them create their own vision of what their future classrooms can be. The class is intended to be inspirational in tone and so far students have responded very well to that.
The class is taught as Inquiry and I challenge students to produce real-world artefacts to help other German public school teachers become aware of how they too can become Internationally-Minded educators. Their artefacts are published here and here. However, from having spoken to students it is clear that it is often the only seminar that many will take at the university in which they are active participants in their own learning.
Without fail I hear (unprompted) from several students each semester that in so many classes they are simply expected, week after week, to sit and listen to lecturers talk over a presentation and then write a 20-page essay on the theme. There is an unwritten agreement between many lecturers and students that lecturers will talk and students will text. Where there is a particularly uninterested lecturer students will be asked, in the absence of even lecturing, to create “presentations”, that is talk about a subject for a grade with no outline, no expectation, no rubrics given. Yet students will be graded as though by magic based on the whim of the instructor. This “learning” is wholly abstract to students who quickly become desensitised to the injustice and uninspired by their studies. Beneath the weight of pointless essays, poorly-conveyed theory and random grades they lose focus on why they wanted to teach in the first place. Worse, those who make it through their programme are wholly unequipped for the classroom, risk-averse, lacking in confidence, only ever exposed to questionable methodological practice.
One would think if you were such an instructor you would keep a low profile for fear of being caught out one day but no; where mediocrity is acceptable it is easy to mistake it for “the right way to do things”.
At a recent weekend seminar in Internationally-Minded Education at the University of Augsburg we began well, exploring teamwork by doing. Students had learned how to structure quality collaboration through a series of practical exercises. We were in the middle of the “Marshmallow Challenge” when we were interrupted. A female lecturer came to the door angry and curt. Without any introduction she announced loudly “We are working here.” The room became silent. Students instantly went quiet and broke off their up-to-that-point-focused planning. It was a watershed moment. I was shocked that a fellow lecturer (though I did not know her personally) would so rudely interrupt another. She continued, “I am in my office and I can hear everything”, and then left.
The situation made me very angry on behalf of my students. I should point out that this lecturer’s office was a corridor away and she had decided that she should do her work with the door open. To me it was a selfish act of entitlement and bullying that instead of closing her door if she could in fact hear us, something which would have solved the problem, she instead decided that an entire class should shut up and “behave”. And that is what ultimately annoyed me. These students were groomed to accept this lecturer’s behaviour as normal. And of course they are in no position to speak up in such a hostile environment. Because we were active, because students were not seated in rows, because they were in discussion, we were automatically “not working”. Students, who I had carefully coaxed out of their suspicion of seminars, clammed up again.
The next day, while Skyping with a guest lecturer from the USA who was sharing his experience of being a connected educator we were visited again, this time by a neighbouring male lecturer who also had a block seminar. Once more it was crude stuff. He swept into the room to ensure that all eyes were on him and angrily demanded, “Hey, turn it down.” Again my students went cold. As did I. Without another word he turned to sweep out of the room, pulling the door closed behind him. “No. Leave it open!” I said. It was a huge shock that I spoke back to him. He was stunned that I would challenge his aggression. A student who was particularly annoyed by his actions said “He only needed to ask nicely”. And that is all he needed to do. Instead, because bullying and authority are the norm for so many, both he and his colleague the day before believed that it was ok to demand that all other groups should teach and act as they do.
The ultimate point I took from this experience (which I can thankfully say is a first – and hopefully last – at the university) is that those who attempt to change prevailing and mediocre paradigms of education will have to have some grit about them. It is not enough to send idealistic and motivated teachers out into the classroom to change lives for the better. They must also be supplied them with ample determination, resources and confidence to do so even when, unfortunately, it is not welcome.
And where can sufficient motivation be found to push back against mediocrity? For my own part I have partly found it in the artefacts that these student teachers themselves produce to inspire and educate others, examples of which you can find here and here. Please feel free to send me individual feedback on these and I will make sure that the students concerned know that their actions have a real impact.