Moving teaching from classroom to community

(Edmonton) Whenever University of Alberta psychology professor Sheree Kwong See wanted to debunk myths and stereotypes about aging for her third-year students, she kept running into the same “old” roadblock.

Being old is an abstract concept for young people, she says. Many twentysomethings can’t distinguish between a 60-year-old and a 75-year-old. They rarely interact with seniors, they see their parents as old, and if they think about aging at all, they don’t think of it as something that will ever happen to them.

Kwong See decided her students needed a dose of old age—while still in their third year of university. “When they are forced to see it in front of them, their eyes are opened. It makes it real,” she said. So she assigned a project, developed with help from the U of A’s Community Service-Learning (CSL) program, to give students a chance to experience life as a senior first-hand. Students surveyed seniors to find out what kind of programming they wanted from their local recreation centre.

The change was immediate, says Kwong See. Her students were more engaged and they began to critically analyze what they were being taught. The phrase “but in my placement” cropped up over and over in class discussions. Students had tested the ideas covered in class and realized that theory doesn’t always work in practice.

Moving student learning into the workplace has always intrigued Tara Fenwick. She completed her PhD in educational policy studies at the U of A, and is now chair in professional education at the University of Stirling in Scotland. “People learn all the time, through all kinds of experiences in family, community, classrooms and recreation, but work is a particular preoccupation in our economy-obsessed society,” she says.

For Fenwick, giving students the opportunity to see how they fit into the working world is valuable but not always easy. It requires teachers to rethink their role and re-examine “where and how to intervene—and most importantly, for what purpose.”

Kwong See agrees. She was initially concerned about how she could link her students’ experiences back to the course material, but found that the students discovered connections on their own. Instead, her role was to help them make sense of what they had learned. “CSL is a leap of faith,” she says, “but a good one.”

That said, Kwong See cautions that CSL is not for every course. Teachers must be willing to relinquish control over the student experience and to accept a certain amount of unpredictability. It also requires that the needs of the community partner match the teaching goals of the course. The project must be small enough to fit into one term, and it must deliver specific outcomes.

Despite this, more and more teachers are turning to CSL. More than 50 U of A teachers have incorporated some aspect of CSL into their courses. Fenwick says this is a boon for all involved, noting that community partners benefit from “an inquiring, attentive learner supported by the vast resources of a university,” while students and teachers gain an enlivened classroom.

Festival of Teaching celebrates everyday excellence

Fenwick will return to the U of A March 6 to deliver the Empey Lecture in the Department of Human Ecology, held this year in partnership with the university’s annual Festival of Teaching. Her topic will be “Breaking Waves: Rethinking Experiential Learning for Community Engagement.” Following her lecture, she will join Kwong See as co-moderators of a panel discussion on the rewards and potential pitfalls of CSL. Everyone is welcome to attend both events and join in the discussion.

Now in its sixth year, the annual Festival of Teaching is a celebration of the excellence, enthusiasm and innovation in teaching that happens every day at the U of A.

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