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“Learning is a team sport”

Creative concepts for improving education in times of social upheaval were discussed at the Annual Conference of the German Association for Educational Development (dghd) - which took place online for the first time in its almost 50-year history

Mar 17, 2020

Understanding teaching better as a common task was the main topic of discussion at the dghd conference.

Understanding teaching better as a common task was the main topic of discussion at the dghd conference.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

In the past, students would often only see their professors from behind; their teachers would be simultaneously talking through and describing the contents of the board, meaning that they often had their backs turned on the lecture hall. Even today, there are still some seminars that take place like this, but we have since discovered more about education, and we now know that teaching and learning can be structured in completely different ways. “We learn better when we play an active role in our courses instead of simply taking notes,” said Luca Lil Wirth, who studies at the Department of Philosophy and Humanities at Freie Universität Berlin. At the 49th Annual Conference of the German Association for Educational Development (dghd), she discussed with Francis Jones, a geophysicist at the University of British Columbia, and Mandy Singer-Brodowski, an educational scientist from Freie Universität Berlin, how to embed innovative learning and teaching formats more firmly in the respective departments.

They sat in front of a webcam along with the presenter Cynthia Heiner. The conference participants were able to enter the online room and participate in the chat. The speakers frequently took short breaks in order to allow the audience to ask questions and share comments.

Understanding teaching better as a collaborative task was the main topic of discussion at the dghd conference, which took place from March 10 to 13, 2020, and was organized by the Berlin University Alliance in cooperation with the Berlin Center for Higher Education. The conference should have actually taken place on the campus of Freie Universität Berlin, but due to the spread of the coronavirus the meeting was held online; within a short period of time, the necessary technical requirements for the meeting were put into place. The participants stayed at home but were able to follow most of the presentations and symposia live on the internet and participate via chat on the AdobeConnect platform set up by the German Research Network (DFN). This year, dghd2020 became digi_hd2020.

The conference was carried out online due to the spread of coronavirus.

The conference was carried out online due to the spread of coronavirus.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

Luca Lil Wirth was invited to the symposium in order to explore the topic of “cooperative and integrative educational practices” from the students’ perspective. This is a positive development because it is still uncommon for this point of view to be included in questions about teaching. The literature student wanted professors to ask specific questions about the students' expectations at the beginning of their courses: What do you want to learn and how do you want to learn it?

“Today we know a lot more about what happens in the brain when we are learning,” said guest speaker Francis Jones. “Professors should be aware of this.” However, they often seem to lack the time and expertise needed to implement innovative new approaches to education. This is why universities in the United States have been introducing a new professional position for several years now, something which Jones described in more detail. As a “discipline-based education specialist,” he is responsible for introducing teachers in his department to the latest evidence-based teaching methods. This makes him not only an expert in his scientific field, geophysics, but also an expert in how to communicate its importance.

“Professors are facilitators and coaches." Mandy Singer-Brodowski

Teaching formats that go beyond the classic lecture model, namely those which have proven to be effective by empirical studies, would have decisively improved the teaching culture at his university. In the “active classroom,” everything is geared to students achieving the greatest possible success in their studies. This includes, for example, the discussion of classroom material with their classmates (peer-supported learning), experts interacting with beginners and professors encouraging the students to think for themselves instead of merely giving them the answers. “Humans are social beings,” said Francis Jones. “Learning is a team sport.”

“Professors are facilitators and coaches," said Mandy Singer-Brodowski, referring to teaching in times of social upheaval. Her work focuses on education for sustainable development that can be implemented in different areas of universities. On the one hand, the aim here is to communicate facts, for example, on climate change. “But it is just as important to create specific spaces in which the students' emotions can also be addressed,” said the education expert. Particularly when addressing climate change, many young people reacted with concern, fear, feelings of guilt or helplessness. Teachers should have the ability to respond to this: “They should not only give students knowledge, but also the hope that it is possible for them to create a better future.”

As a further example of cooperative and integrative strategies in teaching, the participants discussed the fact that lectures and seminars should not be exclusively taught by a single researcher. Instead, experts from other fields should be consulted, such as researchers from other faculties or universities, people from outside of academia – business leaders, political and societal figures – and even students themselves. Another positive example mentioned was courses that are largely organized by students, for example, at Universität Erfurt, where they are pursuing the “service learning” concept, which promotes not only specialist expertise but also social skills like volunteering in society.

“Students want to be taken seriously.” Luca Lil Wirth

The Berlin University Alliance wants to strengthen the link between cutting-edge research and teaching and has set this cross-cutting theme as one of their goals. For example, the Berlin Student Research Opportunities Programx (StuROPX) encourages including students in the integrated research environment. Students have broader access to the regular courses at all four institutions of the network – Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin as well as Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. They can also take part in new courses offered in the fields of research, knowledge exchange and research quality.

During her studies, Luca Lil Wirth also worked as a tutor. Through the exchange and feedback she received from the people she mentored, she learned a lot more than she expected. The experience is part of why, even as a student, she wanted to stay in contact with the lecturers from her courses. “Students want to be taken seriously,” she said. They want to help shape the culture of teaching and learning.