Hands up for personal touch

2nd January 2009 at 00:00

Like me, you're probably reviewing how the teaching session has gone so far. If lecturers' New Year is celebrated in June, January offers a cold dawn, the soberest of months and time to assess the gap between the cunning plan and the reality.

The plan is always the same. This session, the students will be the ones under pressure and you will coolly orchestrate, guide and facilitate. They will be the frazzled ones fighting the calendar. You will be organised, firm, efficient. You will eat well, breathe fresh air sometimes, and stay calm. It will be a doddle.

About now, you realise your plan has failed - again. Sometimes that realisation sinks in gradually. Sometimes it comes in a blinding revelation such as this week when, during a lunchtime meeting, I realised I'd forgotten to bring the banana that would ward off starvation for the rest of the day. I found myself thinking that my colleague's sandwich, mashed potato on white bread, seemed, well, rather tasty and adventurous, and redolent of pretty smart forward planning.

How, then, do we redress the balance of responsibility?

The "free" school, where pupils can study at home, take responsibility for their assignments and meet their tutors for a briefing session each week, seems tempting, offering a change so wonderful that it would be like discovering you're not in Kansas any more.

But hold on. Would life be so different? Isn't personalised learning just what we're doing now? The reason lecturing is hard work is that you've got an awful lot of students and each has different needs, each has different ways of learning. Whole-class teaching is efficient, but rarely works well in practice. Learners are individuals, and they like to be treated as such.

What about virtual learning environments? Don't they offer some of the benefits of free schools? As in "go away and learn"? In practice, preparing and updating materials is an aeonian task. Then there's that cute little communication button. Instant connection helps bridge the gap between home and college, but it can turn into a real-time, chatty conversation.

It is quite interesting, though, that Lynne has broken up with her boyfriend again. I kind of thought she would. He's not right for her. And when Mark emails to say he's tripped over a brick and broken his toe, or Laura is frantic because she's taken her dog to the vet and it doesn't look good, they deserve a genuinely personal response, not a standard reply.

Some students thrive on independent learning. Others flounder. The cunning plan is always destined to fail, because it's always a suck-it-and-see situation: you work it out together as you go along, so that the learner is looked after.

So who looks after the lecturer? Actually, the learners do. When I got to my class after my meeting, I revealed the story of the banana. They were solicitous. "Do you want a packet of crisps?" one asked. A rummaging in bags and rucksacks produced the offer of a can of juice, the remains of a panini, two yogurts and a cheese triangle.

They know how to look after themselves, these students. And they know how to look after their lecturers, too. That's shared responsibility. That's teamwork.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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