Talking Teaching

April 2, 2012

in the lecture theatre – but definitely not giving a lecture!

Today’s class was a real experiment for me, & although I try lots of different things in my classes, it was also a step outside my normal comfort zone. (But hey! life would be a bit boring if we always stayed safely inside that zone!) Why? Because I put into practice an idea I stole from my friend & colleague Kevin Gould (who also very kindly let me use the resources he’d developed): today was ‘design-a-plant’ day, & probably to anyone looking into the lecture theatre during the first 30 minutes or so it would have looked as if chaos definitely ruled.

Last Friday I gave everyone an information sheet: descriptions of the features of leaf, stem & root that you might see in plants adapted to different environments. Today I trotted off to the lecture room with a box full of overhead transparency sheets, overhead pens, & printed scenarios (descriptions of a particular environment). The lecture theatre was already full – everyone had come ahead of time! This definitely wasn’t usual (it’s not that they normally trickle in late, but we’re talking seriously early) – obviously they were expecting something special. Gulp.

So I put up these slides:

then once they’d sorted out their groups I dished out pens, transparencies, scenario sheets (& copies of the info sheet for those who’d forgotten them), & away we went on a mutual journey of discovery. After all, this wasn’t my idea & I had no idea how it would really work out.

Well! The class erupted into happy, productive noise. I know it was productive because while they talked, argued, explained & persuaded, I circulated, listened in, & answered the occasional question. Those with computers had them open – looking up information related to their scenario. (Next time someone asks a question that I can’t answer on the spot, I’m jolly well going to get someone else to google it for me!) They drew, & altered their drawings, & drew some more. The original 20 minutes stretched towards 30, & still they were focused on what they were doing. I was almost sorry to interrupt :-)

Then, I called for volunteers. A hand went up almost immediately, & its owner came down to the overhead projector, not looking too nervous. She picked up the microphone, described her group’s scenario, & showed – & explained – their response. The next speakers followed just as quickly, and each speaker received a round of applause as they finished.

But the proof’s in the pudding – just what sort of plant had they designed? Well, they didn’t necessarily look like plants that my botanical colleagues could have put a name to, but nonetheless, the explanations each group gave for their particular design were sound, & science-based. They’d obviously taken on board not only the info on that fact sheet, but also the material we’d been looking at in lectures & that they’d found on line. And they’d had fun doing it. (I particularly liked the Nepalese Death Vine – the eerie noise of the wind passing through its herbivore-deterring spines apparently puts the locals off harvesting it, lol – and the Serengeti ‘cactus’ that traps water in basin-like leaves, but when there’s a fire the plant’s transpirative water loss is such that its tissues become flaccid and it wilts, spilling that water onto the ground where the dampness keeps the worst of the fire at bay.) Plus – so far, the feedback for this exercise on our Moodle page is all positive: students felt it definitely helped their learning about plants.

Thanks, Kevin – your design-a-plant lesson got an A+ from all of us today!


  1. Awesome stuff, Ali – hope you inspire some other Bio teachers out there!

    Comment by Bruce Ferguson (@DBF98) — April 3, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

    • I hope so – but all credit to Kevin, it was his idea!

      Comment by alison — April 3, 2012 @ 2:24 pm

  2. […] is a post I first wrote for Talking Teaching – but hey! it’s about teaching […]

    Pingback by in the lecture theatre – but definitely not giving a lecture! | BioBlog — April 15, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  3. Go Ali! Sounds like my classroom. Especially the chaos bit! Clinton Golding (thinker extraordinaire) taught me “the person doing the talking is the person doing the thinking” so teachers talking less and students talking through their ideas more is definitely a way forward. Do it again Ali!!

    Comment by cindywynn — April 17, 2012 @ 11:47 am

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Cindy :-) I will definitely be doing it again – this semester, even. I asked the class for feedback (via anonymous postings on Moodle); of the roughly 20% of the class who responded, all but a handful felt that ‘design-a-plant’ helped their understanding of the subject, & the handful were neutral ie no negative responses. And because there were several requests that I repeat the process, we’ll be doing ‘design-an-animal’ in a couple of weeks, as a means of a) consolidating what they’ll be covering with me & b) priming them for what my colleague Nick will be talking about.
      I’m rather looking forward to it – I had such a huge buzz after the plants session!

      Comment by alison — April 17, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

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  6. […] we finished with a quick look at the ‘design-an-organism’ class that I’ve previously blogged […]

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  7. […] we finished with a quick look at the ‘design-an-organism’ class that I’ve previously blogged […]

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  8. […] teaching, where a lecturer can prepare a short recording for students to watch ahead of class, and the actual classroom time is used for group discussions and problem-solving. For a couple of years now I’ve been running ‘Design-an-animal/Design-a-plant’ […]

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