Teaching in the Spiral: Less Lecturing, More Co-Creation

I’ve been exploring participatory education for a while now. I started teaching at Unlimited, a school in Christchurch, where students were just as likely to be doing kickflips as studying chemistry. These days, I’m working with Dev Academy, teaching humans how to be empathetic cyber wizards.

Having spent a fair amount of time falling asleep in tedious classes, I’ve thought a lot about how to make lectures less crap.

I’ve noticed lots of lecturers fall into the trap of just filling the time available. So normally, lectures look something like this:

lecture takes full hour, no questions

If you’re lucky, you might get a little Q&A section at the end — there’s a bit of space for clarification and reflections, so you can respond to the interests and needs of the audience.

lecturer rambles for 45 minutes, with 15 minutes left for one or two loud people to dominate the Q&A at the end

But, at best, you’re still talking for 40–50 minutes. You’ve got pretty tight control of the total spectrum of possibilities for what can happen in the room.

This perpetuates a weird power dynamic around learning: the idea that there’s one person that knows things and it’s their job to fill up the empty vessels in the audience. It leaves no room for different learning styles, and it prevents you from getting to the kind of creative breakthroughs that really engage people.

At Dev Academy this week I’ve been experimenting with a much more engaging form:

speaker covers important ground in first 15 minutes; participants co-create the rest of the hour

You start with 15 minutes to cover the core concepts. This time limit forces you to distill the most important points into a condensed form. Once those first 15 minutes are up, then you have time for 2 or 3 more cycles to co-create the rest of your time together.

You can spend those cycles in creative ways, rather than just rambling on until the clock strikes twelve, e.g.:

  • Maybe someone picked up on a tangential reference, and exploring it together will really help people get context about how this topic fits into the broader knowledge domain.
  • Or maybe the first 15 minutes is enough insight for some people, so they can leave early and follow their inspiration.
  • Or maybe an interaction within the group will open up a whole new field of learning that none of you could have planned in advance.

When you open up for questions, rather than just hearing from loud people first, you can do a lightweight process to make space for different people to participate. Surface all the possible discussion topics, then collectively decide on the most relevant one — just name the topics on the whiteboard and ask for a show of hands to gauge interest.

In a guest lecture at Dev Academy yesterday, we had Matt McKegg giving a tour of his project Loopdrop.js, a looper, modular synth, and sampler designed for improvisation and live performance.

Matt had just returned from playing this awesome set at a music festival

I gave him 15 minutes to cover the most important points, then we paused the class, and quickly decided as a group how to spend the rest of our time.

First, we surfaced some points that people might like more detail on. I suggested we could ask Matt about testing, or a technology he mentioned tangentially.

The students wanted to know how his code was listening to the instruments he had plugged in, so we spent 10 minutes on midi input technology. Then we stopped and moved on to testing. We moved through the other topics raised in order of interest, until we ran out of time.

The class was super engaging, we had a lot of fun together, and everyone left with a deeper understanding of the topic. It felt like a far better way to learn together, compared to having someone droning away endlessly from the front of the room.

Turning a one-way lecture into a more engaging spiral format is just one small example how we are consciously optimising the way we learn and teach at Enspiral Dev Academy. Giving teachers the space to experiment and learn together enables us to really walk the walk towards our mission — helping to grow technology into New Zealand’s leading export, with a thriving sector full of diverse, world-class talent.

To learn more about our junior web development bootcamp check out: devacademy.co.nz