By Professor Karen Coats, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
As we are all in the process of shifting from face-to-face to (mostly) online teaching and learning, I thought I’d share some of the tips I’ve learned from over 30+ years of trying various methods, as well as how these might translate (or not) into online learning here at Cambridge. As I think this through, I find myself remembering a professional development seminar from the 1980s on learning styles by Bernice McCarthy. At the time, I was struggling to love some of the 13-year-olds I was teaching. I was delivering lessons that were highly visual and interactive, and encouraging multimodal, arts-based responses to the novels we were reading. I was giving students wide latitude for creativity and the autonomy to engage with things they cared about, so I was disappointed when many were resistant and, frankly, whinge-y about having to come up with their own ideas. ‘Can’t I just write a regular book report?’ one very bright girl complained as she arrived in class early to straighten the desks into orderly rows. ‘No!’ I replied as I guarded my own desk against her repeated attempts to tidy it. Scowls were exchanged and I could hear the ‘Ennio whistle’ in the background as our standoff continued.
Fortunately, McCarthy’s 4mat system, which offers a model of different preferences for taking in and processing information, gave me a framework for understanding how and why some of my students, especially those who had a history of underperforming in school, were engaged, thriving, and producing wildly creative artifacts, while those who were considered the ‘best and brightest’ hated the lack of structured assignments to which they could respond with right answers. What I saw as an opportunity, the latter saw as frivolous at best, a threat at worst. McCarthy’s presentation also helped me understand the chronic talkers in my classes as something other than disruptive or domineering, and the quiet ones as something other than disengaged or ‘off with the fairies’. It seemed as though every time I introduced an assignment, a third of my students would start talking to their neighbors or passing notes (this was the 80s, folks), another third would be writing down everything I said, and the remaining third would look out the windows. According to the 4mat model, I was dealing with learners who fell into four categories: Type 1s, who are expressive and interpersonal, and want to know how knowledge connects to their lives and understand its social relevance; Type 2s, who are analytical, fact-based, and crave expert knowledge and right answers; Type 3s who are hands-on makers, and need to be able to do something with what they are learning; and Type 4s, who are dynamic and like to stretch what they’ve learned in a new direction. But as a Type 4 myself, I was really only teaching to the 3s and 4s.
Still, I couldn’t offer an apology for this lacuna, because traditional schooling and styles of teaching, and indeed most universities, tend to favor Type 2 learning and teaching. Although it may go by different names, we ultimately seek to create experts in analysis and we test knowledge acquisition through language-or-number-based channels. So my further revelation was that the 4mat system isn’t just about identifying types of people by their preferences. Instead, it presents an optimal learning cycle that takes all students through different ways of perceiving, conceptualising, and operationalizing their learning. McCarthy visualizes this as quadrants of a circle that correspond to the learning preference types. Her presentation gave me a metalanguage for defending my preferred methods as well as a challenge to ensure that I was offering opportunities for all types of perceiving and processing in an intentional way. I started to ensure that each semester featured multimodal inputs (books and articles in various genres, films, games, small and large group discussions) and outputs (annotated bibliographies, group projects, process drama and dramatic recitation, blog creation, and arts projects). I moved away from tests and the long-form essay, though the latter remained an option and shorter papers were still required. My goal was to give students opportunities to work within their preferred modes, but also to require them to extend beyond their preferences and try new ways of perceiving and processing. To hold students accountable while lowering the risk was key, so each assignment was equally weighted and incorporated a lot of choice within parameters. Over the course of a semester, then, students were required to research and then participate in or create and reflect upon products that relied on, respectively, interpersonal communication; integrated multimodal expression; and traditional verbal expression. They could choose to work alone, in pairs, or in small groups for each assignment, but had to engage in each method at least once. To give a few examples:
- a student who hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since primary school created a gorgeous abstract painting of her depression after we read a YA dystopia set in a world in which all mental health issues had been solved and as a result, there was no great art being produced anymore
- a student led a semester-long book group at a community center with young teenage girls that discussed each of the short stories in Sharon Flake’s Who am I without Him?
- students in a poetry class created ‘Cornell boxes’ (shadow boxes that juxtapose found objects to evoke complex memories, themes, and emotions) and mood boards for selected poems
- a group whose only brief was to create a project based on ‘The Quest’ led the entire class around the campus to traverse all the steps of the ‘hero’s journey’, aided by fellow students and members of staff acting in various roles
- a nontraditional student who worked as a cleaning lady engaged her elderly clients in what was supposed to be a single storytelling workshop; at their insistence, it continues to meet once a week and has grown in numbers. Participants asked to come to her presentation for the class and brought snacks and stories to share.
As a large group, then, we engaged in respectful ‘critical space’ discussions to further understand how and what we learned through doing and viewing these collaborative, arts-based projects.
4Mating a Cambridge education (mostly) online
So can such arts- and project-based teaching techniques be adapted to the Cambridge system wherein the courses are team-taught and now largely online? There are challenges. I’ve taught online courses before, but without the accountability afforded by deadlines and grades for daily work, it’s going to be difficult to keep students engaged. I also had the advantage of students choosing to learn online, so they had the expectation that they would have to create their deliverables in electronic formats. I’ve gotten some terrific multimodal projects in my online courses—blogs, videos of original compositions, hypertext-enabled essays, puppet shows, even games. But unless I can convince the entire team of assessors and examiners to accept and learn to assess such outputs, that’s probably an unrealistic expectation for me to place on my Cambridge students. #futuregoals…
Faced with starting over in a way, then, I go back to McCarthy’s 4mat system. She envisions learning as a cycle that starts with motivation through connection with personal experience, interesting artifacts and objects, and other students—in other words, all Quadrant 1 stuff about why students should care about the material. So far, so good. The Moodle offers options for this through forums, chats, and blogs. I can imagine using Zoom as well, especially the break-out rooms, to encourage personal sharing and debriefing in small groups. As we cycle to Quadrant 2 learning—the delivery of information or the what of content—the system affords this as well, as long as that cool scanner that I ordered through Indiegogo before the lockdown shows up…still waiting… Even if I must use my phone, though, I can scan images from picturebooks and pages for close reading. The key here is to use engaging visuals, keep the delivery relatively short, and provide opportunities for questions and feedback. If I deliver my lecture synchronously, I will also need to find some way to ensure that students are with me—either through a polling feature, asking them to tick a check box or reaction randomly throughout the lecture, or using the live chat function, depending on which platform I decide to use.
But here’s where it gets tricky for me to adapt my ways to the Cambridge way: As we move around the wheel toward Quadrants 3 and 4—the application and creation portions of the show, or the hows and what ifs?—responsibility for the learning shifts to the students in cooperation with their supervisors, who will act as their coaches as they develop their knowledge of the subject. In fact, this is one of the great things about Cambridge; students learn more quickly here than in other places that they are responsible for their own learning. But if I haven’t done a fantastic job in my two-hour lecture (!) of convincing them that they should care about what I’ve taught them, set it in contexts and demonstrated how it might be experienced and conceptualised, and directed them to artifacts and resources through which to explore it further, I run the risk of having lost them. I overheard a student leaving Homerton College saying to a friend, ‘I don’t care about it, I’m not going to be tested on it, so why should I learn it?’ Clearly, a Quadrant 1 fail. But all may not be lost if I can work more closely with the supervisors, helping them to see the whys and imagine with me the possible hows and what ifs of my particular whats. So even as I engage in Quadrant 3 and 4 thinking to figure out how to move teaching online, I find myself cycling back toward Quadrant 1, needing greater connection with those who will help our students prosper in this new endeavor.
In the end, then, McCarthy’s 4mat learning cycle isn’t just for students; it’s taught me a lot about myself and is helping me navigate the Cambridge way and understand what I can and can’t do as I take it online. If you’re feeling a bit lost yourself, I’d encourage you to check it out.
Karen Coats is a Professor of Children’s Literature and the Director of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. Her most recent publication, which she co-edited with Mike Cadden and Roberta Seelinger Trites, is “Teaching Young Adult Literature”, a volume in MLA’s Options for Teaching series.