The Secret Ingredient of Influential Teaching Lies in the Ancient Principles of Free-Range Animal Husbandry

Our education system is clucked up.

Photo by klimkin on Pixabay.

Go to class. Take notes. Listen to the lecture while you check your phone instead of taking notes. Listen to the sorority girls behind you talk about formals instead of paying attention to the lecture. Curse yourself for not taking more notes. Curse yourself for not paying attention to the lecture. 
Go home.

That’s the informal syllabus of many college classes today. I know, because I’ve been in those college classes, before I crossed the road and made it to the other side. And let me tell you, this side is so much better.

All Cooped up

It’s easy to fall into the same patterns, both as educators and students. We sink into routine, and become used to the experience that is the classroom. Education loses the excitement, or even worse, we were never excited to begin with. As a graphic design student, being in the creative fields has opened my eyes to how important it is to fight routine and innovate the classroom. Every day lies a new opportunity to approach learning in different ways, opening the doors for creativity to flourish and shape innovative minds. Any discipline can learn from these creative teaching methods, and can gain to borrow from the art programs referenced below. Especially relevant at a research institution like Virginia Tech, where emphasis is placed on the utilization of inventive sciences and technologies to solve problems, it is important to develop minds that can think creatively. As a leading research institution, it is our job to cultivate an environment of free-thinking and creative problem solving.

Free as a Bird

So, how do we address this problem? How can a chemistry professor benefit from the teaching methods of a visual design instructor? The answer lies in the free-range techniques that many of those artistic fields employ to harness the best of a student’s creative capabilities. When I use the term “free-range,” I’m referencing the farming method of allowing animals to roam free. The amount of freedom varies depending on the specific farm, many having a wide fence around the enclosure. This is a vital part to the analogy because it illustrates the importance of freedom, while still having some limitations as to where the “farm animals,” or students, can go.

Merriam-Webster defines free-range as, “allowed to range and forage with relative freedom.” Introducing this relative freedom into a classroom opens the door for an exciting, unpredictable education. When students don’t have a set routine, they are kept on their toes, engaged and intrigued in their studies. In the sense of not having a “set routine,” I don’t mean let all anarchy ensue. Rules and regulations are necessary for an intellectual space to be dignified and respected. I simply mean, students aren’t fully prepared for a 45-minute lecture every class period. Hands-on learning is essential; with so many resources made immediately available at Virginia Tech, professors are doing a disservice to students by not utilizing said resources. Essentially, 
non-resourceful instructors are committing “fowl” play, by not enriching the classroom experience to it’s fullest potential.

One of these resources, widely unbeknownst to Virginia Tech students, is the Special Collections Library. I had never heard of this section of Newman Library, and was shocked at the blatant obviousness of it; located right inside the library café, the collection is in plain sight, yet so overlooked. The first time I experienced this library was an educational landmark of our graphic design instruction. We were able to touch original, centuries-old medieval manuscripts, authentic, Victorian-age Charles Dickens book issues, and Charlotte Brontë’s own personal family bible.

Photo by Mario Klassen on Unsplash.

Realistically, a chemistry professor will have limited potential for adequate use of class time to visit the Special Collections library. However, the basic principles evident in these creative classes are still highly relevant 
cross-discipline: if your students can write an accurate lesson plan of the day’s agenda at the start of class, you’re doing something wrong. Unpredictability is the key to a good education. Take a note from my past art teachers: allowing students a change of scenery by working at locations other than the normal classroom, emailing students that the following day will be a work-from-home session, and encouraging us to make “ugly” products, as long as we are trying new methods. When class becomes less about the structure of the class, and more about the efficiency and versatility of learning, education becomes 10x more productive. The goal of learning is emphasized over the initial product. Failures are strategized to become a part of the lesson plan.

Even if it is something as small as asking your students a random question at the beginning of each class, then you are doing something right. Then, you are concerned with structuring a beneficial education for the young minds following your intellectual guidance, like ducks in a row.

One of the most renowned design firms in the nation, named among the “Top Companies” of 2017, utilizes this exact strategy of the “free-ranged learner.” Brian Collins founded Collins design firm with the one intention to accelerate growth among his employees by granting them, essentially, free rein. At Collins, junior designers pitch concepts at CEO meetings within a month of employment. This unconventional risk and structure has landed the firm wild success, along with famous campaigns for Spotify, Coca-Cola, and more.

By introducing elements of freedom to think creatively and learn in unpredictable ways, professors encourage a sense of diversity in thinking; a diverse thinking that should be a desirable goal of universities everywhere. By cultivating a student body diverse in thought, innovation is quick to follow suit — because innovation originates in unconventionality.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

It’s time for cross-disciplinary professors to encourage creative solutions to problems, where creativity is short-handed. It’s time for professors to seek authentic ways to engage learning; by doing so, students will learn to think inventively and approach solutions uniquely, no matter what area of study. Professors, bridge the gap of a decent education and a memorable one: cultivate a learning environment where students can explore education freely.

It’s time to quit routinely education, cold turkey.