Several revisits beat one exhaustive
When I was both an undergraduate and graduate student at UCLA, my professors modeled exemplary teacher-centered and content-centered teaching behavior. Each presentation was superbly crafted, flawlessly structured, perfectly reasoned. They began by introducing the ideas and separate pieces, characterizing them effectively, showing the contrasts and conflicts and pointing down a rational path to expected inferences. They then presented the interrelating ideas and points in a logical sequence, developing in depth the many components, and arguing their way to convincing and thoroughly reasoned conclusions.
Each lecture was a separate, self-contained entity, fully standing on its own merits. Each was thorough, covering all possible parts, anticipating and then answering questions that might arise in the mind of the listener. I thought these were masterpieces of scholarship at the time, and I still do. One left the lecture hall feeling as if the entire story had been totally encircled, dissected, analyzed, reassembled and accounted for. How could there be more to it than that? The job was complete in a single session, I thought. I was impressed; I thought what they were doing was the acme of scholarly perfection and I remember wanting to be able to teach in that way. They covered everything the first time and there was no need to go back. Or was there?
Those expert lectures were fine examples of scholarly craft, and of teacher-centered and content-centered teaching, but they did not in any way constitute learner-centered teaching. Their marvelous performances were informative transfers, cunningly-crafted data-dumps, and fifty years ago I was not anywhere near the expert at listening to well-prepared lectures that I am now. I was impressed, though I did not deeply learn from them. I found I could neither remember the parts of the argument that had been made, nor the sequences, nor the interrelationship, nor the well-formulated path to the obvious conclusion. In fact, after mentally trying to reconstruct the lecture, I felt not uplifted but incompetent, let down, substandard and quite disappointed with myself as a learner. How might I ever be able to become the equal of those extraordinary scholars?
Things are different now; I understand more about what happened, and I want to alleviate the terrible ache of inferiority that can beleaguer a learner and thus inhibit their learning potential. At sixty-five, with several decades of teaching behind me, I am an old hand at the game of impressing an audience. I also have the experience of being able to cope with and learn from the "Do It Once, Thoroughly" approach. Back then I was a young student, probably no better or worse than most, and while I knew what persuaded and dazzled me, I did not then see the difference between teaching and learning.
As I watch students today, I do not see them as being any more competent at learning-through-lecture than I was then. I have concluded that additional considerations in the helping of learners is needed and that the traditional methodology of what we might in jargon call Singular Linear Completeness (SLC) must be augmented with or replaced by another tactic which could be named Non-Directional Multi-Filamentary Repetitive Recapitulation (NDMFRR)! An extensive literature of the scholarly debate over these would naturally be provided as expected in a treatise of this sort!
This learning methodology can be labeled Post-Post-Modern, if that is helpful to the reader, or Constructivist, or Nurturistic or whatever nomenclature is useful, but the techniques would actually be one of the oldest extant andragogies. Any mother of infants can demonstrate the two fundamental components. One is to keep going back to the point you want the learners to learn, and the second is to keep changing, shifting and varying how the repetition is handled each time, and what the specific focus is. It could be called, "And now lets play it again in a different way."
It seems to work with just about anything one wants to learn: repetition-variation, repetition-variation, repetition-variation! When we keep going back to the example and examining it in different ways with varying approaches or from several points of view, the ideas stick better and we perceive them in a variety of juxtapositions. The do-it-again part can get monotonous and lose its charm if it is merely repetitious, but if you takes the potpourri parkway and first plays it like a tango, then converts to cha-cha, then switches to a march, followed by a waltz, cumbia and finally bossanova-mixed-with-salsa, it is amazing how fast the time goes by and how well one learns the tune as well as the steps.
When we have fun with repetition in its many recurrences, it remains captivating, while along the route one not only learns but discovers all sorts of interesting oddities about the topic as well as the self. It is amazing how often a student will come up with an idea or a question the teacher has not thought of or worked through before. It is extremely useful for class discussion, especially if the teacher will thank the student and reveal to the rest of the class members that he or she has learned something new from that student.
The feeling of being co-learners, mutually sharing the act of learning is far more productive than the traditional classroom conditioning of teacher giving and students receiving. After all, in a lifelong learning paradigm, after the student has graduated from university, much if not most learning will be accomplished in the co-learning manner, where interaction leads to new knowledge on a daily basis.
As one example of the learning that takes place through revisitation, let us consider how I use a student video project as a learning device. We can go back to videos over and again for useful learning moments, as well as for allowing students to become specifically aware of their personal growth in understanding as they see the difference in how they respond to the same video later in the course. In fact, the basic process of showing the video (or any device) twice on consecutive class days may be one of the most powerful tools for students, as they cross the threshold from acquisition of information to an understanding of stages in learning.
This may well be because the first viewing results in reactive response (the first rung on The Ladder) while the second immediately goes to another rung. Why does that happen? Most probably because the twists and turns of plot are no longer a surprise and the student is now actively looking for other elements of the story and its characters, characterization devices, images, symbols, and other artistic elements that are less obvious, and were undoubtedly missed in the conscious mind the first time through.
The five-minute video I most often use for this purpose is called "Carmen in the Classroom," and it was written, storyboarded and videotaped several years ago by a group of six students as their end-of-term project in the Popular Arts course. The purpose of the course is to examine the common ground among various art forms, seeing what these share, how the different arts imperatives require emphasis shifts in how the story is told, shedding greater light on the broader picture of the whole process and context of stories and tales. The course topical theme centers on how the love tragedy of José and Carmen, made literary by Prosper Merimee in 1845, and then operatic by Georges Bizet in 1875, has appeared, more than a century later in many nations around the globe in fifteen additional artforms.
The instructions which resulted in the creation of this student project had been that a course project needed to be created which would clearly show that the students understood well, and could apply, the course principles we had studied all semester. The video was shot in a classroom, with a blackboard in the background, a podium to the left, a teacher standing behind it and facing a group of students seated at desks to the right of the screen. The long-shot by the camera is standard --- teacher on the left facing students on the right, both looking towards each other. Only one camera is used, with minimal movement, while the shots basically range from medium to close-up. It is similar to making a video of actors moving on the stage from vantage point of front-row seats.
The video begins with stirring music from Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana," and we see a shot of a young male teacher, dressed in a button-down light blue oxford shirt and tie, standing at the rostrum, obviously engaged in lecture. To the right of the teacher and in the background is a blackboard with the name, Humanities 123, written in chalk, and, as the camera slowly pans to the right, we also are shown another set of words, "No Eating in Class." The camera continues its pan to the right and students appear, seated at their desks, chewing away at whatever they are eating. The expected books and notepads, etc. are on the table.
The next shot, a medium close-up, shows a male (pair of brown trousers and shoes) tight up against a slender female (in dark blue-jeans). They are shown to us only from the waist down, and they are apparently kissing (though that must be inferred). We assume they are intimate with each other because the woman's right leg is bent at the knee and she has lifted her heel off the floor behind her. Her shoes are red, extremely red high heels. There is no dialogue; the music has been continuous.
The camera then takes us back to the classroom, with a medium long-shot showing the teacher talking away as more students amble to their seats. One is a female, wearing a white, high-necked dress covered with a sweater, and seemingly older than the rest. She's hurrying and seems to be self-conscious about arriving late. Another male moves slowly and deliberately, taking his seat in the front row and then watching the professor. After they both sit, the camera again shows us the teacher, talking.
Then Ms. Blue Jeans enters. She saunters in, walks around the front desk slowly, seats herself in a calculated manner with one shoulder forward, and smiles at the teacher. She is also eating something red and juicy. The teacher's facial expression changes and he stops lecturing, walks out from the rostrum towards her with chalk in his hand, and points directly to the words on the board which state, "No Eating in Class." In response, Ms. Blue Jeans calmly extends her left arm, holding out her handful of fruit toward him, and he drops his chalk on the floor.
Her arm remains extended, and he bends down to the floor to pick up the chalk. He is obviously very uncomfortable as he rises, and with his other hand pulls at the knot in his tie as if the collar has suddenly become too tight. He turns his back on her and goes back to the podium, standing behind it to continue his lecture. Ms. Blue Jeans, of whom we are given a close-up attractive facial profile, and a shot of the red spike heels, now listens attentively, smiling at him while she plays with the small pendant around her neck. She holds it out as, chin tilted upward, she looks at him. Meanwhile, she has also put the handful of fruit on the table. We are given a close-up of three bright, almost purple, cherries in a triangle.
We continue with a brief shot of more lecturing, and then the teacher reaches into the podium and pulls out a can of soft drink, gulps it and puts it back --- still in the background are the words, "No Eating in Class." The camera now cuts back and forth between the two, showing their smiles. Finally, class is over, and the music (which has been playing the whole time) stops. We hear the teacher say, "Well, that's it. Thanks, and see you next time." The camera backs away to show the whole classroom as students pick up their books and leave. Teacher is smiling at Blue Jeans.
Older Ms. White Dress and seductive Ms. Blue Jeans move towards the podium. White gets there first and speaks to the teacher, reaching out and patting him on his shoulder, and saying something about, "later." Meanwhile, Ms. Blue Jeans has taken up a position close to the teacher. As White leaves with her armfull of books, she deliberately bumps into Ms. Blue Jeans and they both laugh. White exits, leaving Blue Jeans and teacher alone, the podium between them.
Hands on her hips, she clearly asks, "What does a girl have to do to get an A in this class?" The music resumes, and the teacher looks stunned and rapidly moves to the blackboard and begins erasing. She moves closer, backs up to the board and slides under his eraser-moving arm into a position between him and the board, facing him. The disparity in their heights now stands out clearly. He continues to erase the board, while she turns around to the board, takes the chalk and writes what we presume is her telephone number. She then walks out of the room. By this time the teacher has returned to the podium to pick up his books, soft drink and notes. He stops, looks at the board, takes out a pen and writes down her phone number. Music ends and the video is over.
I look at the students in the classroom. They are silent, though intrigued. I say to them, "I assume you are all thinking something right now, and I want you to write down your immediate reaction to the story you have just been shown. This will be your initial benchmark for where you are on your first day and the basis for your first written assessment of where you are in your storytelling awareness in this course right now, which you must write tonight. We will talk about what you all have to say at our next meeting. So long until then." They start writing, and I let them write for the final five to eight minutes left while I put things away.
The subsequent discussion will be very interesting, nearly all of it on how the students have interpreted the actions. I will ask, "What did you write about it?" Most will have written about the interaction between Ms. Blue Jeans and the teacher, having only consciously perceived that portion of it. Then someone will bring up the actions of Older Ms. White Dress, and comment on her having had an apparent prior relationship with the teacher. That will bring refutation from many students who had focused on the other relationship. I will then ask for a consensus from the class; a few students will say that White Dress is important and most will disagree. At this point, I will show the video again, and sure enough, there is li'l ole' White Dress doing her fawning and touching.
Everyone is now convinced, though a few die-hards will argue, that White Dress is not really important and the key action is between Teacher and Blue Jeans. But meanwhile, I have taken out two displays and put them up at the front of the classroom. One is entitled Composition and the other is called Characterization. They draw our attention to the structure of story-telling with introduction, development and conclusion (each with its intrinsic parts) and to the many ways in which the layout, props, dress, behavior, speech, bodily actions plus camera shots and sequences of the video have presented us with the evidence about how each of the characters in the story have qualities and "personality quirks."
Suddenly the discussion moves off the reactive response level and we begin to think about what we have seen, not as a matter of interpreting what may happen between the him and the her, but rather as a calculated construction of a story fed to us one spoonful at a time, providing us with evidence that will lead us to think what the author has wanted us to think. The second viewing of the film is responded to differently, thus allowing us to discuss what happens as we experience the cycle of first impressions and subsequent impressions.
We can easily spend the entire seventy-five minutes on this, inquiring about the qualities which were placed on the screen for us and how we inferred ideas from them, as well as the most important area of the difference between real life and story, and the difference between fully-dimensioned humans with built-in contradictions and the flatter characters with lesser attributes who are used for the purpose of storytelling.
I will use this same video several more times during the later weeks of the course as we go through various levels of the display on Characterization. We will look into the matter of colors and their use in characterization, and play with the ideas of how the teacher, the seductress, and the female friend were dressed, and what our expectations were from those characterization-prop usages and how else the creators of the movie might have dressed the main characters.
We play with the fruit prop idea, since we were shown cherries, Genesis talks about apples, and the Spanish story uses oranges --- easily allowing us to hit the images at the figurative, symbolic and allusion levels, as well as get into whose culture uses which fruit. We can then move on to other props as blackboard and chalk, versus notebook and pen, and how those were used and then confused as Ms. Blue Jeans took over the chalk to write her phone number while the teacher wrote it down in pencil, implying perhaps a change in roles?
I have created a large visual display for each of the class topics: Composition, Characterization, Character Trajectory, Camera Usage, Props, Visual Study, Tragic Formula. Others are elements I want the students to explore, find their way around in, and learn how to use and interrelate with other points of view and areas of thinking. We will revisit the video many times during the semester, and each time students gain another level of comprehension. I only say, for instance, "Well, this time let us look at what the camera or cameras are doing, and what effect that will have on what we are shown and thus, what we will make our inferences from." Another time it will be props at the symbolic level, or we can argue over whether this video makes the Jose character or the Carmen character into the tragic subject, or whether instead the tragedy lies in the expected role of the woman in white, or even the sexuality relationship conditioned in our society.
I could of course save a great deal of time by telling the students what they need to know in a single lecture, but I have learned from experience that they get much more out of it the other way. Each time we go back they see something new, and I gradually stop leading them, and simply moderate their discussion. On certain occasions during the semester I will have to be at a conference or away on University business. Years ago I would get a substitute or schedule a film. Now I ask for a volunteer to lead the discussion and ask them to choose a topic to explore which I will watch on videotape when I return. They do so well on their own! Once they have an idea of where to go, and what to look for, and that they are safe to explore and experiment in the learning process, many of the students will grab the ideas and run with them.
While this essay has concentrated on one of the items which I use in this fashion, which happens to be a video made by students, the device may be any useful and multilayered topic, subject or display which can be deconstructed in a series of useful ways. I can use a painting or a costume or a religious tract or whatever, for the purpose of getting students to go through their learning processes by examining and responding to the item through a sequence of ever-higher levels of conceptualization. In the process I am continually referring back to one of the models mentioned in chapter A-2, The Ladder. The most important aspect here is in the constant returning to the topic from a different perspective. This is what opens up the gates to the path toward wisdom.
When I show the "Carmen in the Classroom" video for the final time on the last day of the term, it precipitates a conversation about the difference between what they saw the first time and the many features they now perceive. They tell me that this is not merely the number of things they see, but also an entire stairway of understanding --- opening up for them arts which they previously did not know and which they have discovered and thoroughly internalized as the result of their own efforts, their curiosity, their open- mindedness, and their willingness to explore. Many of them tell me that their enjoyment in the arts and their appreciation for many human elements and situations in society has expanded enormously.
They often say they have been changed for life, and that they have been fortunate to have been influenced by "such a great teacher." I am glad they feel that way, but I also must respond, without false humility, that it is they who have done the learning, they who have opened up and let new ideas and levels of awareness enter, and that in total truth my job has been simply to arrange the sequence for them, a reasonable sequence which, in conjunction with the open discussion and collaboration, helps them to grow. Knowing how to do this comes from my own lifetime of learning by observing that each learner must learn how to learn, and that one of the essential components in helping to make this happen lies in using many revisits to develop ideas, relationships, reinforcement and the ability to use these techniques on their own.
Drs. Donald & Elizabeth Perrin