Confronting the Unexpected: Pink Time & Intrinsic Learning

March 4, 2015, 4:13 am



A few weeks ago I met up with Tim Baird (Geography, Virginia Tech) to tour the library and talk about pedagogy. We discussed a handful of topics and I tried to capture the spirit of our conversation in this post. Tim has received a lot of attention across campus (here and here) for his Pink Time concept. Let’s start with that.

The short version: he encourages students to skip class three times a semester and to invest that time learning whatever they want. Students then report on what they did and assign themselves a grade based on the experience. The impetus for this approach was inspired by Daniel Pink, hence the name—Pink Time.

Here is a table outlining the students’ Pink Time activities: (from Journal of Geography, 2015)


 The Element of Surprise

“During one class I told the students I was leaving. I peeked in a few minutes later and saw that a number of them had left. When I came back most of the students had returned with coffee and snacks. Every time I checked in I could see them working through the material together.”

Tim shared a handful stories like this with me. His core theme: “The more I can breakaway from what they are expecting, the more I can get their wheels turning. I want them to wonder why something is the way it is. I want students to be curious about why things happen the way they do.” It seems a path to opening up  perspectives is to put them in situations where they are confronted with uncertainty and then they start asking questions they otherwise might not have considered.

Tim teaches a two-part elective course that explores sustainability through the lens of human geography. The first semester is a traditional course– students are exposed to different tools and methodologies through lectures, readings, and discussions.

The second semester is where things get interesting. “I want students to understand how the world is connected, how things are dynamic and interdependent.” After focusing on various tools students begin to apply these methods to different contexts such as social, environmental, public health, or economic domains. “When we fix one thing we often don’t realize that we might be breaking something else – that’s why interconnectivity is so important.” Tim is trying to push beyond “learning as memorization” and instead provide strategies for students to think (and act) differently.

Disrupting Grades
Tim also talked about wanting to disrupt the way he teaches. “I was using grades to get people to do things. I wondered what would happen if I removed that element.” That’s when he started exploring self-regulated learning.

I realized that Tim was applying critical pedagogy. He wants students to recognize that life is filled with decisions and dealing with unexpected encounters that emerge. His classroom (and syllabus) simultaneously empowers students to explore connections between distant ideas while also challenging the structure of authority.

Tim added: “Disruption can be a great way to promote innovation, but a key step here is assessing outcomes.  David Kniola (Virginia Tech, Office of Assessment and Evaluation) saw merit in this particular disruption early on and worked closely with me to come up with an assessment strategy.”

Breaking Walls
We talked a bit about the barrier of the classroom. The sense that things that happen in school are often perceived to be completely separate from what happens outside of it. Tim is challenging that. “How can we bring our personal experiences into the classroom? But also, how can we take what we learn in the classroom and apply it to our lives?”

When he started experimenting with Pink Time his students came to class with index cards and PowerPoint slides ready to talk about what they did during their “skip” day. Without any prompt they assumed they needed to give formal presentations similar to assignments in other courses. Tim encouraged them to talk freely without any accessories or supporting material. For many students this was difficult. It seems that he is also trying to breakdown social barriers as well.


Tim in a SPUN chair.

The Space Around You
It’s fitting that a geographer is interested in helping people consider their relationship with the space around them.

Tim shared another activity with me in which he asked his students to walk around the perimeter of the classroom. Next he started playing music and told the students to keep walking. Finally he asked the students to close their eyes and to continue moving in a circle. At that point the students slowed their pace and clumped together closely. They relied on each other for guidance.

Tim uses the exercise to frame a discussion on how different environmental factors influence “emergent properties within complex adaptive systems.”

Scale-up classroom in Virginia Tech’s Newman Library.

Does space matter?
We went into our SCALE-UP classroom and Tim commented, “I would be more gutsy if I taught in a room like this.” I was fascinated by the idea of a classroom transcending functionality, and that it might also stimulate risk-taking. Obviously one could teach differently based on the availability of technology or the furniture layout, but is there an emotional layer as well? How might a classroom setting augment and inspire (or perhaps hinder) the practice of teaching?

would it help

Photo courtesy of Monena Hall.

Walking through our library commons spaces Tim asked: “What if the furniture could talk to people? What if it could respond to their needs? What if the tables asked: would it help if you moved me?”

He was reacting to my statement on how students could rearrange certain areas. Some students didn’t realize that we gave them this sense of control. So we decided to give his idea a try.

This year I am interviewing faculty who apply critical pedagogy within their classrooms. I welcome your suggestions.


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