A New Semester’s Scale-Up Adventure

Last night I started my new semester in a Scale-Up classroom at the University of North Dakota. I have tweaked the course considerably this semester trying to do a better job of meeting the student expectations half way. In terms of course structure, I organized the class to ensure greater coverage.

I also did a few things to try to get the students to accept the Scale-Up arrangement. I got to thinking about how I should position myself rhetorically to encourage students to embrace an environments that is likely to be outside their comfort zone. It’s quite remarkable that I’ve read a significant amount of pedagogical material on teaching in a Scale-Up room, and more or less understand the strategies recommended for successful learning outcomes, but I have not read nearly as much about the tactical aspect of class. There seems to be an assumption that students will buy into the new environment because the faculty member has embraced it. This, however, is clearly not the case and many of the conversations with my colleagues who teach in this room suggest that student buy-in, early in the semester is crucial to the class being successful. 

So this semester, I decided to be a bit more deliberate with the way that I introduced my class from a rhetorical standpoint. What adds to the difficulty level is that the Scale-Up room is a challenging environment to lecture in. Since there is no clear orientation to the room, difficult acoustics requiring a microphone, and obstructed lines of sight, students have about a 15 minute attention span. So my points had to be made quickly and clearly. 

1. This is not new, nor an experiment. Last semester, I led with the position that “this room is an exciting experiment in teaching.” What I got back from the class was: “This is NORTH DAKOTA. We experimented once in 1892. The crops failed. People died.”

So this semester I backed away from the “this is an experiment” and led with “everyone is doing this” hoping to get my class to see that change in education is the norm and classrooms built around the idea of active learning and engagement with the material are far more common than they might expect. 

2. Group work is the norm in life. One of the greatest challenges to students in getting students to accept working in groups. Last semester, this was one of the biggest complaints in the class. The remarkable thing was that students rarely complained that their group was dragging them down, but rather that their hard work was giving a lazy student an unfair advantage. While this concern it bizarrely egalitarian, it still revealed a certain hesitancy to see managing group dynamics internally (without getting me involved) as an important part of the course design.

This semester, I went on offense the first day of class, explaining to them that the “rugged individualist,” “lone crusader,” and “personal accountability” were myths promulgated by three millennia of heroic literature that had no grounding in reality. In fact, these heroic myths were a form of escape from reality and since this class was all about gaining skills to make students successful in the real world, we should dispense with mythical preoccupations that we can control our fate and get down to brass tacts.

The world works as groups. Companies are groups. Economies are groups. Democracies are groups. Societies are groups. Markets are groups. Social networks are groups. The most successful individuals in the world are those who can negotiate the experience of working with other people, gain personal benefit from it, and contribute to the performance of the other people in the group. Group work, like the active learning environment of the Scale-Up room, is not some experiment or exception, but the norm in life.

3. This is more fun than the alternative. My final rhetorical move of the evening was arguing that this approach to learning was more fun than the traditional history class. There was some risk here (more in my head, then in reality) that by being open to the existence of a “traditional history class,” I’ve given students the opportunity to imagine a different class and one that has the backing of “tradition.” 

At the same time, I’m banking on a general dislike of traditional lecture-style history classes especially among non-majors and an openness to an alternative that might be more entertaining. For the first class, I had the students create a list of rules to organize a society on a deserted island. The playfulness of the exercise opened the door to a larger conversation about the limits faced by almost all preindustrial societies.

The goal is not play for the sake of play, of course. Nor am I aiming for a kind of edutainment where I replace the “sage on the stage” with a romper-room, feel good, group work. Instead, I hope I can systematically reinforce these rhetorical points throughout the semester and to use them to undermine deep set student resistance to an unfamiliar environment.

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