Imagine that your class room no longer is a class room but miraculously has become a theater stage. On this stage you and your students are the actors. Your role on this stage is no longer that of a teacher. You’ll be playing the role of a passionate professional who is a wise friend for the other actors on the stage. Your stage character has the drive to connect to young people – and to guide them.
Probably you will say: “That role is no different from whom I am as a teacher.” Well, you are right, but not to the end. On stage we’ll pretend there is no school, there is no curriculum, there are no exams to prepare, and no duties to fulfill. On stage you can play yourself as a teacher in an ideal world.
Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman helps us understand who these ideal teachers – whom he calls “educators” – are and how they differ from everyday teachers. In his book Liquid Life (2005) he sides with philosopher Richard Rorty “who “spelled out, as desirable and fulfillable aims for educators, the tasks of ‘stirring the kids up’ and instilling ‘doubts in the students about the students’ own self-images, about the society in which they belong’.” These educators, according to Bauman and Rorty, cannot be those “busy conforming to well-understood criteria for making contributions to knowledge” but should be those “trying ‘to expand their own moral imagination’ and read books ‘in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important – either for themselves as individuals or for their society’.”
You, in the role of educator in the workshop, will be on par with the other actors on stage. There is no given hierarchy, only a natural hierarchy. The opinions and feelings of all are equally respected – no immediate judgments are passed. The mutual respect is based on responsibility: if someone offers an opinion or vents an emotion they are responsible for them – just like they are responsible for their reactions. On stage the rule is: there is no freedom without responsibility.
All insights, provided they are formulated sincerely and with responsibility, are to be taken serious, no matter how ridiculous or ignorant they may sound at first sight. It is amazing what worlds can be hidden under the biggest cliches or stalest of superficial descriptions, provided they are proclaimed in sincerity. You need to listen – and speak – empathetically.
You might object that it is utopian to suppose that this kind of sincerity and responsibility is possible in the class room. But remember, it is no longer a class room – it is a stage. It is a stage with its own theatrical magic.
You might worry that there will be no reaction from your students to your efforts. But education researcher Dylan Wiliam (2011) assures us: “When teachers open up the channels of communication with the students, the students will use them.”
In this workshop you are provided with effective means to build a stage. Some of them are based on social psychology, some on technology and all are derived from best practices that were tested out many times in the class room – on stage in Greece, Poland and the Netherlands. The means will be described below.
Nevertheless, no matter what means you’ll be using, in the end it all depends on you. If you will not enter the stage yourself to play your role, no magic will help you. If you’ll behave as always, the class room will remain just a class room and will not become a stage. This is an observation taken from real class rooms that refused to become anything else but a class room because some teachers refused to play their role of educators. In that situation students were repeating after the teacher what they thought that was expected from them. Wiliam calls this state: “the students end up playing a game of “guess what is in the teachers head” and there is little, or no, worthwhile learning.”
All actors need a motivation to play their role. Yours is the following: “Dr. Madeline Levine wrote that adolescents tell her how their stress would be most reduced by quality dialogue with a sane, caring adult for 15 minutes a day. As a teacher, you can’t give that time to each student, but you make this awareness part of the way in which you interact with the class as a whole and, when possible, with individual students who seem to most need that attention.”
The result is an atmosphere that is commonly called a “caring classroom” – a class room in which all are engaged and feel secure. Daniel Goleman (2014) explains: “Such an atmosphere has particular importance for those children at most risk of going off track in their lives because of early experiences of deprivation, abuse or neglect. Studies of such high-risk kids who have ended op thriving in their lives – who are resilient – find that usually one person who turned their life around was a caring adult, very often a teacher.”
Your character is not supposed to be a psychological counselor. This is an entirely different role. You are no therapist. What you will do is “create an environment that helps alleviate the normal problems many students wrestle with and, at the very least, not add to them.”
The topics addressed in the Dynamic Identity workshop concern the students’ lives online. In particular their online identities and companies profiling them are targeted – but in the course of the workshop you will meet a rich variety of related subjects.
The stage that is set is not about discussing and solving problems. It is about conducting dialogues on experiences and insights regarding life online. Often these experiences and insights will be positive. If the stage magic will work the dialogues will be delicate, different and sometimes highly amusing. So be prepared to enjoy yourself – but be aware that potential danger looms behind every anecdote.
You could think of the didactics as an extreme version of Formative Assessment (FA). Wiliam (2011) defines Formative Assessment as: “An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in absence of that evidence.” Both types of didactics are about “’opening up’ the classroom, providing space for students to talk, both because it is beneficial for their development, but also because by careful listening to what students say, teachers can gain insight in their development.”
The difference between FA and the didactics proposed in this section is that Formative Assessment concerns student achievement and development strictly within the school curriculum whereas the Dynamic Identity didactics concerns student life online.
You might think that you are not suited for conducting a dialogue about life online. You might reason that you are no digital native – in contrast to the workshop participants. When you were born there were no smart phones around. There was no omnipresent Internet at that time. No one published personal or other information with the ease of a click.
If you’d think that you’ve got it all wrong. You not being a digital native is precisely why you are the ideal partner for the participants to engage in a dialogue on life online. Although you might even be a little intimidated by technology, or feel out of touch with it, you are highly qualified for providing the workshop on this theme. You have a unique perspective that only a diminishing number of people on this planet have: you have consciously seen the Internet come into the world. Exactly because life online for you never was a given you have a natural reflection on everything connected with the online realm. This is a precious point of view.
And then you are a trained teacher. This means that you are trained to credibly present your point of view and to assess information and provide feedback. These are very valuable assets for youngsters.
Your unique perspective about life online and your teacher skills are enhanced by your life experience. You have lived through a lot of situations – privately and professionally – that youngsters in your group are only starting to experience. The basics of life have not changed because of the Internet. Youngsters still experiment, still look for boundaries to cross, still fall in love and still have hormones raging through their bodies. Bullying still exists. Even though many processes look different in the digital age, they are not so different from what you lived through. Don’t let the tech context blind you. Your life experience is very relevant – also for digital natives.
On the other hand, don’t be surprised if some digital natives’ experiences will be radically different. Youngsters now have tools that were once the privilege of editors-in-chief and marketing directors only. One stupid joke online can cause them to be arrested. One picture sent can cause trouble with one’s peers for months to come. Any silly moment can be captured and shared with friends, acquaintances and strangers alike. This is why you need, besides your reflection, your skills and your life experience, also your empathy. Try to open up to find out how it is to grow up in this new hybrid world. Go beyond teaching – enter a real dialogue. But don’t be afraid to be critical. And be careful with your praise. Wiliam: “It is the quality, rather than the quantity of praise that is important, and in particular, teacher praise is far more effective if it is infrequent, credible, contingent, specific and genuine … It is also essential that praise is related to factors within an individual’s control”.
An important instrument to deal with the subject of online life is the proposed didactics itself for, as Wiliam writes, “what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught. … The greatest impact on learning is the daily experiences of students in classrooms, and that is determined much more by how teachers teach than by what they teach.”
Wiliam therefore assesses: “The teacher’s job is not to transmit knowledge, nor to facilitate learning. It is to engineer effective learning environments for the students.” Helping you create such an effective learning environment is the aim of the Dynamic Identity workshop. Don’t be scared that elements of the workshop will be too hard for your students to understand. Because it concerns their daily lives they are more versed in some of the themes than you would assume. Therefore you can try to create a state that Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”: “when both capability and challenge are high, the result is “flow”. On the other hand, make sure that the challenge is not too high because“when the goals seem out of reach, students may give up on increasing competence”. Check this by means of diagnostic questions as described below.
The result of the workshop didactics is a dialogue between you and your students. The aim of this dialogue for students is to learn to reflect on their on their online existence – the impact, the options, the opportunities and challenges and their responsibility in this all. The aim of the dialogue for you is that it helps you to reflect on your teaching practices and assumptions. Teaching is so complex “that high-level performance relies on making a large proportion of the things [you] do automatic.” (Wiliam, 2009) These automatisms will be of not too much help to you during this workshop. You will need to make a lot of on-the-fly adjustments. Reflections are thus bound to emerge.
An important instrument to check whether you are understood in the class room is the instrument of diagnostic questions. These are “questions that provide a window into student’s thinking”. They are not easy to generate but reading Wiliam’s book Embedded Formative Assessment (2011) will support you. Rule of thumb for those questions is: “What makes a question useful as a diagnostic question … is that it must be very unlikely that the student gets the correct answer for the wrong reason.” And, the question should be constructed in such a way that “the incorrect answers should be interpretable.”
The underlying assumption should be: “it is better to assume that students do not know something when they do than it is to assume they do know something when they don’t.” Do not rely on student self-reports.
The best time to ask these questions is “at hinge points in lessons”. These are points “at which the teacher checks whether the class is ready to move on”.