That’s Really Hard Work

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Michael Wesch - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
Image by poptech via Flickr

Community First

Michael Wesch’s keynote this morning was simply breathtaking. In the follow up breakout session someone asked him: “How do you stop students seeing themselves as students, and as collaborators?”

Mike sighed, put both hands on the podium and said: “That’s really hard work.”

He went on to explain “community first.” He uses the first two weeks of class to build a sense of community and togetherness in a shared quest to solve a real world problem. A problem he himself doesn’t know the answer to.

“Doing crazy things together creates community.”

Micheal plans his most passionate and enthusiastic lectures for those first two weeks. And he has his students do zany ice-breaking activities to help them get to know each other and break through the veneer of passivity they arrive in his class with. But it’s not just about having fun; these activities (like human scavenger hunts) all have a serious edge to them. They have to see that they’ll have fun lerning here, but we are working hard at learning.

The Lesson Design Arc: schedule-research-paper-video

The kids begin by co-creating a schedule on a wiki for the research they’ll do to solve the problem they’ve decided to work on. They begin by digging into the problem and reading everything they can on it. Summaries of all their reading are compiled on the wiki. Typically they’ll read over 90 article, paper, or books in the first week of class as they do this. (In more typical University classes they read about three articles in the first week.) Mike guides them, having a little deeper experience in the field then they do, by suggesting other sources they might wish to explore. They continue this research and co-create a research paper for publication. When that’s all done, they create very brief condensed video summaries of their research, submit them to Mike who then weaves them together into a brief (5 min?) video.All this is only possible because of the community building work they do together in the first few weeks of the course.

There’s a lot more to all this, I’m just summarizing (his integrated, collaborative, calibrated peer review assessment scheme – which goes well beyond <– that link back there – is brilliant), but that’s the broad strokes takeaway I got.

When Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, when people work together closely on a real world problem things wrong. People get upset. Students goof off in class.

When that happens Mike intervenes using a ritual he learned from an African(?) tribe. It’s very similar to the Talking Stick ritual used by many First Nations people of Canada. They use pencils instead. Anyone who is holding the pencil let’s go of the little voice in their head that says “You can’t say that.” and speaks from the heart about what’s upset them. The rest of the group talks with them about it. They don’t put the stick down until they’ve resolved whatever the problem was. Mike usually goes first. Sometimes here cries while he’s talking to his 400+ students. Then the next person in the group takes their turn.

A Pedagogy to Aspire To

Isn’t that an amazing example of “intense imagination, motivation, emotion, and thought?” I had wanted to write about the amazing conversations going here: in the halls, in sessions, over lunch, every time someone stops me to talk really. But this morning’s keynote. Just breathtaking. Good teaching is what comes from building strong relationships between teachers and students; relationships with a serious educational edge. (I hear echoes of John Seely Brown in this.)

I’ve got to think more about how to weave together such a set of diverse sensitivities into my teaching. How do you build a culture of caring in your class?


  1. The traditional academic process often seems so sanitized: read the required material, maybe participate in a classroom discussion, and synthesize your work independently through a paper or exam, which will then be submitted to an audience of one. This in turn appears counterproductive when students are (suppesedly) being trained to join the “community of scolars” (the academy). Professor Wesch’s approach comes so much closer to true research (and real life): problems are approached with a shared sense of purpose and community.

    Retention is such an issue in education. How many classes do we take, and how many hours of work do we put in? A few years later though, how much do we remember? From a class like this, I think one would remember a lot.

  2. I worked with a physics teacher whose classroom was an example of this. By default his job was to teach physics. By action, what he really did, was to create a community of students working together to gain an understanding of physics. He impressed upon his students a nonthreatening, supportive, classroom where they learned to be as well as learned to do. He utilized the group approach to problem solving as he moved around the room challenging the students to support their approaches and solutions. There was a Precis component to his class for which even the most milquetoast of presentations was met with a supportive ovation.
    The culminating activity for this Jr./Sr. course was a daylong Physicstock (this teacher was of the 60’s). An event, born from the unit on sound, during which each student must present either a solo or group “musical” performance. He knew that the only way this would be a successful event (and not deteriorate into a nasty version of the Gong Show) was to create a community not just a classroom. And it worked. People sang along, people clapped and danced. There was never a single boo or catcall from the crowd.
    It took time for this culture to be established. When we think of cultures we are reminded of the “not built in a day” schtick. Students “expected” this culture and those who were new to the school learned quickly how it would operate. I don’t have data to support this statement. My guess is though, many of the students signed-up for this course not only for the physics, but just to be in this community before they left high school. They had heard from older brothers or sisters or other students who had been the class over the years.

    So, one answer to the question “How do you build a culture of caring in your class?”
    One year at a time.


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