Teaching “Active Learning”?

July 27, 2008 at 4:25 pm 1 comment

The students left ten days ago. Out the window of the dining car on the Iç Anadolu Mavi Tren, I can see the same Taurus mountains in which we spent time together. I’m returning to Istanbul from Syria. Since the students left, I’ve been thinking again and again about the summer course, about the students, about the whole project of “active learning.”

I was often confused during the seven week seminar. What is “active teaching?” Isn’t all teaching active? And if you are successful in evoking students’ own learning, is there a role for a teacher at all?

I had thought carefully about how to introduce them to Istanbul. I had considered what kinds of ground rules I would to encourage them to make for their dealings with each other. I had hoped to make them comfortable and familiar with the core of Istanbul, so much that they would feel welcome to explore it on their own. And I had assigned a “cultural events” analysis that would require them to leave their apartment and venture into unfamiliar sorts of events.

Did it work? Or should I not have worried about it to begin with? These students were truly remarkable. I came to admire each of them individually, and to marvel at all of them as a collective. They didn’t rest. They worked in the day and engaged with the streets, the cafes, (the bars) at night. There was so much to experience, so little time, they explained. If one is working for “active learning,” and the students learn an enormous amount on their own, is that successful teaching?

The Burch seminars have an innovative design. Faculty and students are expected to explore a topic together. But the university’s expectations for even such an innovative program are rather traditional. I had planned to gather inside a classroom a few hours a day to talk about the readings and our experiences. But there were too many things to experience. The discussion time kept receding into the background as the students kept forging ahead. I kept seeing that they wanted to do many things, but seemed to resist setting aside time to talk about their experiences. Weren’t we supposed to meet and have formal “classes”? We had one difficult discussion on the road to talk about how to schedule both experiences and classes. But it never seemed to work. There were always too many things to see, to do, to learn. In the end, I had to agree. We began to grab whatever time we could. We talked about nationalism, identity, resources, and tourism sitting on the rocks in a beautiful mountain stream. We identified Byzantine iconic representations standing in a cave staring at the paintings. We talked about confusions and reflections over breakfast in a hotel restaurant.

I found that the students had actually been reflecting on all of their experiences–I just hadn’t been around to hear it. They talked in the evenings and at night, listing the things they didn’t understand, the things they really appreciated whether they understood them or not, and the things they had just figured out. (See a list on Emily’s blog.) They posted great photographs and analyzed their days in the blogs they struggled to keep up with. But there was a continuing problem–there would be time to reflect later, but they could only experience NOW!

Sometimes I thought I actually had no role. I set up the course, assigned the reading, planned the introductions, and they did the rest. I still think they were the ones who made the program work. But I hope that my questions–probably much more than my answers to their continuous questions–helped them along the way.

My own reflections from the summer are now focused on the fall. Whatever I did to encourage active learning–should I call it “active teaching”? Is that what keeps students from becoming tourists? Whenever people asked them if they were tourists, they always demurred. No, they answered, we’re students.

From my first visit to Turkey, I was struck by the tourists’ experience. The huge air-conditioned buses that kept them high above the level of the streets took them to the most important monuments and then back again to their western-style hotels. They didn’t ever get to encounter the stuff at street level, have to figure out how to use a squat toilet, taste the local foods, ride the local ferries, see the local poor. They didn’t know about the fascinating and complicated politics, the way children greet their grandparents, or the amazing scenes down by the docks. Tourists live a sanitized existence, free of everything messy but also free of everything fascinating.

Tourists simply sample, never quite engaging local societies, cultures, people. They see the monuments, eat in tourist restaurants, buy the curiosities. I wonder now if that is what the students in my large lecture courses are: tourists. They collect facts, souvenirs of a class that collectively represent the few things they will remember. But they don’t encounter the messy and the fascinating in history, the various ideas that do not connect with each other, the facts that don’t fit together, the big disagreements, the novel ideas and the strange experiences. Like tourists, they expect to be kept from having to grapple with discomfort.

These students were different. They weren’t content to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, go to the covered bazaar, eat Turkish food at tourist restaurants and consume “Turkish culture” at special dedicated evening programs. They wanted to interrogate and explore, to laugh with new Turkish friends and celebrate Turkey’s football victories, to figure out how to use squat toilets and which kinds of foods people really liked. They wanted to travel, to experience–to figure it out for themselves. They know a huge amount now about Turkey, they can get around, they know (for the most part) how not to give offense. They have at least a basic knowledge of Turkey’s history, culture, and language. But I didn’t give it to them. They got it.

We’re not tourists, they insisted to any Turks who asked. We’re students. And I think I get it now–they are students, and I need to work harder to make sure the rest of my students stop being tourists.

Farewell Dinner

Farewell Dinner

And for these students, I have nothing but admiration and gratitude. I was simply awed by the way they treated each other and me. I have never seen another ten people who cared so deeply about each other, helped each other so consistently, worked together so well, and enjoyed each other so continuously. They were amazing to travel with. They took on things by themselves, did difficult tasks without being asked, and never complained about less-than-ideal situations. I was quite grateful for their responses, especially when things did not work out; as one explained, if things aren’t OK, we laugh about it. If they are, we are happy. I am convinced I could never again find a group willing to move so many mattresses, share so much medicine, sleep in such close quarters, or stay so completely flexible in order to take advantage of whatever came up.

Thanks to them all, to Mr. Burch and to the UNC Honors program. Thanks also to all those who agreed to talk with them about various aspects of Turkish life and history and culture, who helped them find what they sought. Thanks to Katie, for her ideas with the planning, and to Friederike for her continuous assistance. And, of course, thanks to William, for his insights and support and for being the best traveling companion one could ever hope to find.

Entry filed under: Teaching.

Back in Istanbul

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Deirdre  |  August 3, 2008 at 9:14 pm

    Please consider submitting this article to the Active Learning Blog Carnival, a monthly journal about teaching. This is a great example of reflecting on your teaching. At the end of each monthly journal, there is a link to submit for next month.


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