Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Mutual respect: important for learning spaces

Despite delivering more than eight papers, seminars, symposia and conference presentations a year to a range of international and domestic students for more than a decade, from year one under-graduate to post-graduate level, I have never really been challenged with poor behaviour from attendees in those learning spaces.

However, I was recently reading a LinkedIn post from a fellow lecturer who had so much trouble, she ended up writing an open letter to students, outlining how her class should work.

Perhaps I have been lucky, but a couple of things occurred to me that may have prevented me from having difficulty.

Firstly, I have observed that people handle what they consider to be challenges to their authority differently.  A challenge for someone who is new to teaching may be as simple as a question. As I run my lectures as workshops, I have a strategy of deliberately welcoming questions. Regardless of how obvious the answer may be, I answer all questions, or let the student know where they can find the answer. I answer each question with respect for the asker.

In return, I think I get respect from the students. I think the respectful relationship has to start with me, be modelled by me, and be continuously, consciously maintained by me.

To maintain that respect though, I need to not be the big "I am" in the room. To stay 'human', I aim to use three statements: "Great question: I don't know. I will find out"; "Sorry, I was wrong"; and "Wow: I didn't think of that". They are levelling, and let us all share the learning.

Secondly, in each paper's first lecture, we talk about how we will all be quiet when each other is talking. I am quiet when they speak: in return, they are quiet when I speak. If students are talking while I am, I stop speaking and stand quietly until they become quiet. It is amazing how powerful a minute's silence is, and how others in the room who cue in quickly will pass the silence to those who are slower to note the change. It sets the tone.

In addition, I aim to consistently raise my left hand, with a soft palm out, whenever I want us to all quieten down (say for reporting back after discussion). Over just a couple of weeks student cue into that signal, and I hardly have to say anything.




  1. Since I am the author of the text you mention, you've triggered a lot of buttons here but I can't quite respond in clear, organized terms. All that I can say for now is that I don't think I have failed in the first "rule" you explained. As to the second, I admit I did not address the matter of respect in the first lecture, as I did not think it was necessary (given my 20 years of previous experience). What I am failing to do, I realize, is to stop talking when they start talking. I tend to speak over their voice, pretending that I don't notice it. That's my biggest mistake, probably. Thanks for making me think further into this issue!

  2. Thanks for your feedback: it is always hard to work out what is going on in a room, and we cannot stand in each other's shoes. I am glad that, like your post did for me, that this has sparked more thought for you :-)