Like a caramel pudding, somehow

As promised in an earlier post, I would like to start a series of blogposts on different didactical settings I tried out this year and think about what worked, what should be improved and how far you can take active pedagogy with second years.

It all started in the middle of the first term, when I realised that the students consider giving presentations as being “active” in a class. I thought it was time for them to understand a little bit better what actively producing knowledge really means.

Now the problem was that I was to give these second year students only one class and the short description of the class as I was supposed to deliver it myself was printed and online already! It read as follows: 

Ce séminaire abordera l’évolution de l’Allemagne depuis la réunification en mettant en regard enjeux politiques, dimensions sociales et aspects culturels. Une première partie sera consacrée à la réunification administrative et culturelle des deux Allemagnes et aux stratégies élaborées notamment par les villes de Berlin et Bonn pour y faire face. On abordera plus en détail, en partant des réformes Schröder, la manière dont Berlin, la ville-vitrine, a dû mettre en œuvre une politique d’austérité face à une offre culturelle dédoublée à la période précédente. On verra également les conséquences politiques et économiques de la réunification sur la place de l’Allemagne dans le monde, et singulièrement en Europe. Un retour sur la célébration des 25 ans de la réunification permettra d’aborder la réflexion collective qui s’élabore autour de la réunification comme événement fondateur. Enfin, on se penchera sur la manière dont l’arrivée massive de réfugiés en 2015 a permis à Angela Merkel de repositionner l’Allemagne sur la scène internationale.

The difficulty was to reach the students’ expectations (the description was announcing quite a lot of informative input) and to have them actively take part in shaping the class. Here is how I planned it all, followed by what did not work as planned.

First, I defined 4 sequences within the 12 week term.

Sequence one (the first weeks of the term) dealt with defining the structure of the term (which themes to work on) and learning how to find resources to explore and present these themes. The definition of the themes and their repartition took about all of the first class (together with explaining the whole concept). At first, the students were at a loss and I suggested they work in groups of 3 to make suggestions for themes, then we brought it all together in form of a mindmap and finally structured it chronologically and thematically. During the following classes we hosted 2 librarians: one presenting how to find resources within the digital and print apparatus of the University Library, and Mareike König presenting German online resources. Then I assumed the students were ready to get started with actually producing some structured information on the themes they had defined.

All 3 of the following sequences were structured the same way: each contained one exploratory session to work on the pre-defined topic, and one presentation sequence to present the results. As I said, the topics were organised thematically and chronologically. The first sequence for instance dealt with the 1990s and the students split into 3 groups: one working on economical issues, one on political aspects and one on cultural dimensions. The second sequence dealt with the 2000s and the last one with the 2010s. During the presentation sequence, each group disposed of about 20-25 minutes to present first a general presentation of the topic they had worked on, and then a document illustrating this topic, along which they were supposed to initiate and moderate a debate with the whole class. Since this was a mixed group (German-French), they could choose whether they’d rather do the general presentation in French and the debate in German or the other way around. 

The students were left free to compose the groups anew for each sequence as long as everybody did an oral presentation during the term. The class took place in our fantastic Salle d’Innovation Pédagogique with laptops for everyone, 3 video projectors, and access to the library books since the room is situated within the University Library. Also, I had opened 3 different courses in our online platform, where they were supposed to upload bibliography and additional material – my goal was to be able to help and direct them via their work on the platform.

Now what could possibly go wrong when having everything so perfectly figured out and organised? For one, the internet. The only network that would really work well in our oh so beautiful classroom is eduroam, which only I and the German students had on our own computers. The French students had to go through the (really unstable) local university network. This made serious common bibliographical and editing work impossible. And while a group was adventurous enough to propose a video as a document to comment on in the first sequence, nobody tried to present any dynamical online resource after that considering the extent of the disaster.

Then, I honestly thought that after 2 dedicated bibliography classes the students would stop simply googling their queries for bibliographical resources. But they seemed to have taken very little notes during the bibliography presentations and were generally unable (or unwilling) to  use the methods that had been presented to them. This is connected to another point I underestimated: the students almost did not look for new information, but mostly tried to grab into their heads and put together what they already knew on the subject, enriching it somehow, but not really displaying an exploratory attitude. 

And they did not warm up with the University online platform at all. During the first sequence, they painstakingly put together a few information in there, but it quickly turned out that the online space they were actually working together in was the google presentation they would display for the presentation session. For their exam preparation, I reserved a whole 2 hours to go through the presentations and add the missing information – because it is all they now have to learn for the exam.

At this point, I realised that I had not thought through the collaborative dimension of the class. They started identifying with the whole “putting our knowledge together”-process when we began taking notes collectively in the “notes” section of the google presentation. This allowed to spot the open questions, to add the bibliographical reference, to add comprehensive quotes, and initiated the actual debates and discussions I had been waiting for during the whole term.

Putting students in the position to create their own syllabus and class takes more than one term. Next year, I will have the possibility to introduce them progressively to active pedagogy and not simply drop them in cold water. Also, I will see whether there is a possibility to adapt our university platform to emulate google presentations, especially since I am now confronted with a rather big issue regarding the archiving of all the presentations including our collaborative notes in the “notes” section, which is the most interesting part of what was produced this term.  My next dream would be to bring them to the point of being able to blog about this class. But it is be a lot to ask from second years. And I have the feeling that although the magic was not perfect, the caramel pudding, when turned upside down on my term-has-now-ended-desert plate, is not completely dispersing itself, but keeps its expected countenance as its nice jelly-ish, sweet self, full of promises.



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