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From: Beckie Supiano
Subject: Teaching: Students Aren’t Brains on Sticks
- I share ideas from Susan Hrach, author of the new book Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning, for teaching in person or online.
- I pass along an idea for changing your college’s teaching culture.
- I link to some recent writing on teaching you may have missed.
When Susan Hrach was wrapping up her new book on the connection between physicality and learning, she figured it would be tough to get professors to adopt its recommendations for incorporating movement into their teaching. “It’s always been a very hard sell to get people to change what they had been doing for a long time,” says Hrach, director of a faculty teaching center at Columbus State University, in Georgia. And college instruction has long been identified with sitting in rows of chairs bolted to the floor and listening to a lecture.
Then the pandemic hit. By the time her book, Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning (West Virginia University Press), came out this spring, professors had spent more than a year slogging through the challenge of remote instruction. They had experienced the depletion that can come from spending hour after hour on synchronous platforms like Zoom. That has probably made many instructors more aware that, as Hrach writes, “we are not brains on sticks, and neither are our students” — and more open to exploring the mind-body connection in class.
Hrach, who is also a professor of English, has found ways to get her students moving even while teaching remotely. A few examples:
- Personal field trips: Hrach has had students go to their local libraries for an assignment on the availability of books translated from other languages into English. Some students told her they’d never been to their local library before. Students could even go on “field trips” without even leaving home, she added, if an assignment were designed to be done in, say, the kitchen.
- Contemplative practices: Chair yoga and breathing exercises can be incorporated into synchronous online classes.
- Walk and think: Sometimes Hrach gives students a prompt and has them take a 20-minute walk to think it over before returning to her online class.
- Just listen: Students can listen to a podcast or other audio recording while exercising or doing chores (but she warns them not to combine it with other homework).
“At first, I worried that they would think I was wasting time,” Hrach says. “Like: Why are we not focused on the learning? But I was very transparent with them about why these things would help them to have a clearer head, and be able to put aside all of their other distractions and worries, and be able to bring themselves into the right frame of mind to just focus for the next 45 minutes or so, before we would take another break.”
Despite its limitations, remote instruction has demonstrated that it is plenty possible to take a class from home. So if, come fall, professors instead ask students to trek to a physical classroom at a particular time, “we need to be mindful of the expense of everybody’s time and energy, and do something meaningful with that opportunity.” Class time, in other words, should be used for something that can’t happen anywhere else.
And, Hrach adds, it shouldn’t always be used in the same way. Neuroscience shows that “brains are stimulated by variety.” Ideally, students know that, when they come to class, “any number of things could happen. There’s just no telling what fun surprise might be in store.”
Has pandemic teaching led you to rethink how you’ll use movement or physical space in your teaching? Share your plans with me, at firstname.lastname@example.org, and they may be featured in a future newsletter.
Teaching is often an isolating activity, in the sense that professors close their classroom doors and rarely see what their colleagues do behind them. The challenges of remote instruction have started to change that, however, as many professors are talking more than ever before about teaching with colleagues.
Flower Darby, an instructional designer and the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes, shared that observation during a recent interview — and then offered an idea for how colleges might maintain this momentum. What if every department-meeting agenda blocked off just 10 minutes to talk about teaching? That simple move, Darby thinks, could go a long way toward changing the campus culture around teaching.
Does your department put teaching on its regular meeting agenda? Are you going to suggest Darby’s idea? Let me know, at email@example.com, and I might include your example in a future newsletter.
- What should professors know about the future of blended learning? The Every Learner Everywhere network has put out this new resource guide.
- Pandemic teaching conditions have prevented many professors from living up to their values as educators, leading to moral distress, writes Nate Holdren in a blog post for Academe magazine.
Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.