Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Gratitude in teaching and learning

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra where Dr Kerry Howells from University of Tasmania is speaking on "Transforming the malaise: Gratitude in teaching and learning", as part of the ANU Festival of Teaching. Dr Howells first asserted that the techniques she was proposing could not be measured. She then argued that many students were not really "awake" in class, but were good at pretending to be. She then went to a discussion of the concept of "gratitude".

I almost did not attend this event as I could not understand what it was about. But I thought I would attend and learn about it. However, after 22 minutes I was not clearer as to what Dr Howells was talking about, so I asked for an example of applying "Gratitude" to education. She replied by explaining that the current educational approach tended to have a "malaise" due to the students feeling like passive "clients" accepting information from teachers. This results in the students and staff feeling powerless and students having a culture of complaint. She contrasted this with an approach where the students would express their gratitude for the teaching.

The idea that my students would express gratitude to me is something I would be uncomfortable with. I would be happy if they said something at the end of the course, but if they are saying how grateful they are all they way through I would feel something was wrong. To me an expression of gratitude would be a measure of success for a course (an effect), not a way to make the course better (not a cause).

Dr Howells seems to be referring to old style courses where the students sit passively in a classroom being provided with information by the teacher. I don't teach that way any more. Mostly I don't use classrooms and I set the students exercises where they have to learn to do practical things. I help the students learn with each other.

Dr Howells is now describing how she teaches the students to cultivate practices for gratitude. One example was to turn complaint into critique by being proactive rather than a victim. This is a useful technique, which I teach to my Green ICT students in an on-line forum. The other practices seemed to be similarly part of good manners, good management and good teaching.

There are some good points buried done in what Dr Howells is advocating, however she ran out of time. If much of the "gratitude" rhetoric was stripped away it would be close to the Mentored and Collaborative Learning Techniques I am more familiar with. Dr Howells is giving workshops Thursday and Friday.

How can we engage students actively in their learning and transform the malaise of disenchantment? Two central components in Dr Howells’ philosophy of teaching are the notion of an ‘awake’ student, and the impact of reflection on student engagement and teacher identity. Dr Howells’ research is showing that greater student engagement occurs when teachers and students consciously prepare their inner attitudes to teaching and learning, especially in the context of gratitude. Dr Howells has introduced the pedagogy of gratitude in diverse educational settings, including university professional development, first-year transition programmes, and tutor training, with exciting results.

ps: This was in the Sparke Helimore Law Lecture Theatre 1. This room holds 60 people in a Harvard style layout. It has a lip about 80mm high which allows me to use my netbook without disturbing the presenter, which works well.

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