Resonance Pedagogy

When students don’t care, ask yourself: do you?  

I’ve heard a colleague describe their students as ‘wilted parsley.’ If we want to get the juices flowing again, we have to find out what our students are actually interested in.  

When colleagues describe a tired classroom, they tend to paint a picture of physical confrontation: students staring at me, and shrugs and sighs when I direct a question at them. One colleague even said a low-energy class is like looking at “wilted parsley.” Let’s face it: this is a situation that we find ourselves in too often. So how do we tackle indifference?  

I have conducted six in-depth interviews with educational practitioners in recent weeks, and here’s one thing they all agree on: We need to choose topics that we are passionate about, and we need to show that we are passionate, but even that is not enough. What matters is that we give students a stake in designing their enquiry into the area we have chosen. “Didactic empowerment” is the term used by Frank Mehnert, a teacher from Hamburg who specialises in the design of educational spaces. He is adamant that we can only battle indifference and create resonant learning experiences if we allow for some degree of student autonomy in the classroom.  

To find out what this looks like in practice, I asked Jens Beljan to describe how he structures a course. Beljan is one of the fathers of Resonance Pedagogy, and I called him because I thought I should hear it from the horse’s mouth!  

“At the beginning of a new course, students may not yet have a fully-fledged question that they can share, but they will have some associations with the topic. So start from there – ask not about their ‘expectations,’ which will put all the burden on you to work through what is in effect a wish list, but about their associations. Offer a substantial response to each student – a bit of information to contextualise what they said, a personal story that shows your history with the topic, recommend an article or a book that the student could read, or even say that you’d love to know more about the issue as well.”  

What’s the point of that, and doesn’t it take forever? “The point is that I want each student to feel responsible for part of the intellectual journey of the unit. And I say this to them: we’re going to give you a chance to contribute insights on this aspect throughout the course! And, yes, this initial bit does take quite a bit of time, but you want the foundations to be solid. You want people to have a stake in the unit.” This is one thing that, again, all of my interview partners have emphasised: amazing learning experiences will not come about in a rush.  

And how do you make sure that student interest and expertise is actually coming into play? “I pair up students, and each pair is put in charge of one session. At the start of their session they can do a short presentation – give us a bit of input. But that’s not what it’s about. I want them to stimulate classroom interactions, effectively designing little in-class workshops.”  

This sounds like a tall order to me. I remember the first time I walked into a classroom, and I was terrified of being in charge. It’s not an easy challenge to rise to, isn’t it? “Yes,” says Beljan, “but there’s two things you can do: first, meet up with the student team in your contact hour and talk through their plan. This doesn’t need to take ages – you get a sense fairly quickly of what might or might not work. Secondly, when they are running their session, don’t sit back and let things wash over you.” (Translation for my colleague: don’t turn into wilted parsley!) “I interrupt students quite often. I will show throughout the session that I care, and I’ll contribute some of my own expertise. Never in order to correct what they have said, but to enhance the points they are makign.”  

What strikes me in conversations with resonance pedagogy fans is how they constantly build bridges between really big questions and their practice on the ground. Take Martin Auferbauer, who is a sociologist involved in teacher training at a university of applied science in Graz. His focus is on diversity and inclusion. On the issue of specific student expertise, he says that “you have to really care about every specific student’s interests, and then harness these interests for your course. The point is to not proceed on the basis of lazy assumptions, like ‘Oh, you’re black, you must feel that …’ We need to approach people with an open mind and genuine curiosity, and a willingness to hand over some of our power to them.”  

Does it work? “Of course it does,” says Auferbauer. “Sharing responsibility can start with little things like which texts or resources you choose for discussion, and which questions you ask first. This kind of thing can have big effects. Students can succeed against all the odds. Look at social mobility, at first-in-family university students, for example. What they all say is that there was a specific teacher and often even a specific classroom moment that made a big difference to them, and it tends to be a moment where the teacher expressed their faith in them: you can do it. And they can.”  

Colleagues at Bristol have explored similar kinds of set-ups already, even in large classes, where students engage in work that is both individual and collaborative.  

The upshot, for me, is that I cannot simply tell students to be more energetic; I have to grant them opportunities to be involved. Paradoxically, handing over some responsibility to them will require quite a bit of effort on my part. But look at all those fresh herbs!  

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