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October 28, 2012

Reflections on open–space teaching and learning part 1

Last week, I led two seminars on the second-year French module France and the World since 1945 in the University’s purpose-built open-space teaching and learning space, the ‘Teaching Grid.’ The Grid’s Experimental Teaching Space (ETS) is an open space with flexible furniture and Interactive White Boards which can be moved around to suit the needs of the teacher and the class.

I had intended to employ the ETS since I began teaching at university level in 2010, when I first began my PhD at Warwick. Tuesday’s session was thus the culmination of a long-held ambition and an important learning experience in the implementation of open-space teaching and learning techniques. The session was largely an evolution of a similar seminar which I ran on the same module last academic year. In the previous seminar, I had allocated small groups of students particular interest groups from the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), which included General de Gaulle, who returned to power in 1958, the Harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought to defend French Algeria and the Front de Libération National (FLN), the principal Algerian nationalist movements. Employing the ‘student-as-researcher’ model, the small groups were responsible for researching their given interest group, with the main research aim to understand the motivations behind the actions of each interest group. In the original session, this research fed into a debate about the Algerian War, with each group taking the side of the interest group and arguing their case.

While the research process encouraged the students to take ownership of a particular interest group and ensured that they were equipped with a thorough knowledge of this group’s actions ahead of the formative and summative assessment for the module, there were limitations in the debate format, not least that with students arguing strongly for their own interest group’s case the debate became reasonably competitive. Although students consequently knew a lot about their own subject, the emphasis in the debate was not really on sharing the research of every group, which would have provided all students with a rounded picture of the different perspectives on the war. The subject matter is also especially sensitive, since the repercussions of the war are still being acted out today in France, not least with President François Hollande’s announcement that the state officially recognised the massacre of hundreds of Algerian protestors on the night of the 17th October 1961. I therefore felt that the format of a debate was perhaps inappropriate for such a polemical subject, and that an alternative teaching model might be more appropriate.

I already employ a lot of film in teaching on this module and on other historical-political models, notably The Left and the Trade Unions in France and the first-year introductory module Modern and Contemporary France. I find that film offers an accessible method of comprehending a subject, especially a historical topic from which we as British citizens are removed. In the introductory session on France and the World, for example, I show a clip of the 2008 film Indigènes, which introduces students to the involvement of colonial troops in fighting for ‘Free France’ before and after the Liberation in August 1944. Having researched films on the Algerian War during a research visit to Paris in August of this year, I decided to combine film with the ‘student-as-researcher’ model in an open-space environment.

Having discussed my plan for the session at length with the Teaching Grid advisors (both Anne and Andree were especially helpful), I decided to divide the space up into three separate ‘zones’ for three different interest groups from the Algerian War. The basis for the session was the same as that of the previous year—the whole group (i.e. both entire seminar groups) was divided into three, with each sub-group allocated an interest group to research, following the ‘student-as-researcher’ model. Rather than preparing for a debate, however, I asked students to prepare material which would feed into a small group presentation to the rest of the group, employing the ‘student-as-teacher’/ ‘student-as-producer’ model.

Each of the separate zones in the ETS was provided with film clips which acted as audio-visual stimuli for group discussion and to prepare the group presentation. Having read an excellent article by a colleague in my research field, Dr Brett Bowles of Indiana State University, on using film to teach the history of the Occupation years (1940-44), I was conscious of the need to provide context on the films before students embarked on their discussion and presentations. In his article, Bowles notes that: ‘whenever a film is included in the syllabus, it should be preceded by supporting written texts […] that contextualise the film’s action and stress that it is a selective representation of history, not history itself.’[1]

I therefore provided each group with a short context for their stimuli, with some guiding questions for discussion to feed into their group presentations. The de Gaulle group was provided with two extracts of the General’s speeches through the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel’s website, the Harkis group with the 2006 fiction film of the same name and the FLN group with Benjamin Stora and Gabriel Le Bomin’s 2012 documentary, La guerre d’Algérie: la déchirure. Each zone of the space was provided with an iPad for research purposes and for the ‘starter’ activity, which involved the group analysis of a 1959 propaganda poster from the Algerian War, and an Interactive White Board (IWB) for the purposes of screening the stimuli and for creating the group presentation. I had pre-loaded the Smart Notebook programme onto each IWB, which enabled students to map their ideas for the group presentation. The zones were divided up with movable curtain walls, which allowed some privacy and ensured that each group was not distracted by others’ films.

[1] (‘Screening les années noires: Using Film to Teach the Occupation,’ French Historical Studies, Vol. 25, Issue 1, Winter 2002, p.30

Reflections on open–space teaching and learning part 2

The small zones worked well for the purposes of screening the stimuli and for preparing the presentations; each group had its own dedicated work space (a single table and a number of movable chairs were also provided for each group) over which it took ownership. The space allowed me to move around between groups and to provide technical assistance with the IWBs and the iPads and to offer some additional questioning where appropriate to prompt further discussion. Students were allocated just 20 minutes to watch their film clips and prepare their presentations– a tight timeframe owing to the back-to-back seminars, which on reflection was too restrictive to allow really thorough discussion. Nevertheless, the open space offered students the opportunity to discuss their interest group in an environment beyond the traditional seminar room—they were very much freed from the confines of their desks. Theorists of open-space teaching and learning, such as the team at Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning, note that open-space learning is transitional–while it takes place between clearly defined spaces (in this case in each ‘zone’), it is nevertheless constantly forming and re-forming.[1] Certainly the group discussion zones allowed students to continually form and re-form their attitudes towards their interest group, with no pressure to conform to a ‘right’ answer imposed by the presence of a teacher. With no physical space for me as a teacher, I moved between the spaces ‘owned’ by the small groups, which I felt successfully broke down any teacher-student barrier.

Although the timeframe was very tight, students appeared to enjoy the opportunity to watch the visual stimuli and to discuss the topic together in their zones. It was also apparent that they took ownership over their given interest group. The movable chairs in the ETS allowed groups to move between one zone and another, with each group presenting their interest group in their zone, using Smart Notebook. It was clear from the enthusiasm with which students presented their interest group and noted important points from the other presentations, that the open-space and use of film as stimuli had proved an exciting combination. Through employing the ‘student-as-producer’/ ‘student-as-teacher’ model, my hope is that students will retain a thorough knowledge of their own interest group and indeed, thanks to the group presentations, the other important interest groups, which will be of use ahead of formative and summative assessment on the module. The flexible space and the technology available also allowed students to develop their transferrable skills, notably team working and communication skills, in an environment without the traditional pressures of a typical seminar room full of classroom tables and chairs.

I certainly found that the open-space environment broke down student-teacher barriers, enabling me to circulate freely between the spaces occupied by the small groups. If I was to employ the same seminar again, I would consider extending the time limit on group discussion and viewing of the stimuli and aim to develop my understanding of the capabilities of IWBs beyond data projection and Smart Notebook. I have since uploaded screen shots of the group presentations to the module blog, which will provide students with some concrete points for the purposes of revision, allowing them to retain more key information. The combination of teaching models–open-space learning, student-as-researcher and student-as-teacher appeared to work well with an especially controversial and difficult subject matter, bringing students closer to an event—the Algerian War—from which the majority of the module’s students are far removed.

[1] Nicholas Monk, Carol Chillington-Rutter, Jonathan Neelands and Jonathan Heron, Open-Space Learning: A Study in Transdisciplinary Pedagogy (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

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