TDP Portfolio Narrative

Introduction

My specialist background is landscape architecture. I have a Bachelor in Architectural Studies and a Masters in Landscape Architecture (UCT). I have been working in private practice and completed my SACLAP exams to become a registered professional landscape architect. While studying I particularly enjoyed the academic environment and was taught by some of the top researchers in their fields – Barrie Gasson, Fabio Todeschini, Dave Dewar and Bernard Oberholzer to name a few. These older (or should I say experienced) multi-published lecturers expounded their knowledge and wisdom with great enthusiasm! It was quite a privilege to have access to a lifetime of research and ponderings and experience that one could not as easily gain from books. Our practical design courses were taught by professional landscape architects (such as Adam Niewenhuizen, Tarna Klitzner, Clare Burgess, David Gibbs) who maintained landscape practices while teaching part-time. This meant that not only were we receiving excellent theoretical instruction but we also received added input from contemporary professionals currently working in practice. Even at the time I realised the importance of lecturers who were currently engaged in practice – without their input our education would not have been as relevant or up-to-date. I left the academic environment for the professional world with these observations at the back of my mind. When I discovered an opportunity to gain some experience as a lecturer in my field, I was quite excited to revisit the world of academics.

First impressions

My first realisation at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) was what a rare, privileged academic opportunity I had at UCT – and definitely not the norm for the average South African. (In the course of some research for a lecture I discovered the percentage of adult South Africans who have tertiary qualification. The national average is less than one percent. One percent. Reference.) My impressions before lecturers even began was that CPUT students in landscape technology were mostly from the Eastern Cape and were attracted to landscape technology because it falls into the Applied Sciences category. Most of the students, I suspect, did not intentionally choose landscape technology as a career. The entry requirements for the programme are the lowest in the faculty – requiring only a 3 (40-49%) in Mathematics, English and Science – meaning that student who has technically failed a NSC subject can be admitted into the programme. National benchmark testing indicates that the majority of students are poorly equipped for tertiary education.

Before lectures began I attended an orientation course for first-time lecturers. This included general induction to the institution but also gave an overview of good teaching practices and the facilities and support available to lecturers, such as Fundani (language support, academic literacy, technology-enhance teaching). This was extremely beneficial as I had three courses to prepare, for which I had inherited very little in the way of lecture notes, slides, tutorials etc.

I began to prepare for my first classes but it was difficult as I didn’t have any experience of the students to draw from. Once I started to have an idea of students’ capabilities, I could start adjusting my lectures. There were some surprising lessons, for instance: the Site Planning course I was lecturing required students to learn how to use a scale ruler and how to draw a plan to scale. I had thought this would involve a process of explaining what scale is but in fact I discovered that some students had no concept of standard measurements such as 1000mm = 1m without trying to convert that into a scale. Drawing in plan was a tricky concept to some students who had never thought about what objects and people looked like from the top – and would quickly revert to drawing objects and people in elevation. (How did I resolve this? Luckily I had inadvertently set up a tutorial that easily indicated where students were having trouble and through a series of individual feedback, tutorials and multiple exercises I think we got there! Drawing a plan to scale was one of the best answered questions in the June exam.) See my lesson plan and lesson attachments on how I planned to teach students about contours.

Learning to swim in the deep-end

I would say initially my biggest difficulty in teaching was the large class sizes. Two of my classes each comprised 120 students in a venue that could only seat 100 students. I am a quiet person, and although I have no qualms about speaking in front of a large group (I was prepared by years of church group plays, public speaking competitions and high-school drama classes) I am definitely lacking in presence and volume. (My drama teacher would be quite disappointed that her classes on intercostal diaphragmatic breathing still don’t help!) Managing such a big class was quite challenging but Lorraine (our TDP instructor) taught us some excellent methods of classroom management and I started developing my secret weapon: learning the students’ names. (I’m convinced that individualism is the kryptonite of crowd mentality – it’s difficult to be mischievous when someone knows your name.)

I found it quite difficult to interact with such large classes – they tend to act as one multi-celled organism: ask it a question and 240 eyes silently blink back at you. I found this quote the other day: (here on Pinterest – imagine referencing that!)

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

I think it best explains one of the lessons that I am (still) learning – the aim of effective lecturing is not only to stand at the front of the lecture venue and talk at the students. Yes, sometimes it is necessary, but one of my favourite and most memorable classes in the first semester was when I lectured very little and when the students discussed a lot. (Read more about it here.) At the end of the lesson I took in the students’ work and marked it to include in their class mark. I was impressed by how much the students had learned and how well they had managed to articulate their ideas, in spite of the fact that I had contributed very little in the way of traditional lecturing.

One of our TDP homework tasks was to design a learning contract for one of our classes. Discipline, as I mentioned, was a challenge for me. I set up a learning contract for my Supervisory Management class (read about it here) and I think it was quite well set out in terms of covering all aspects of classroom behaviour from attendance to participation. For every item I included what was expected of the student and what was expected of the lecturer and I passed it around the class and (mostly) everyone signed it. What I didn’t do however, was consult with the students about their learning contract and as a result it had very little meaning to them other than some bureaucratic nonsense their daft lecturer dreamed up. I don’t think that the ideas in the contract were incorrect but I’m not convinced that a formal learning contract is necessary. Every student in the class is unique and has different needs – their approach and attitude to their education will therefore be different from their peers. I do believe that it would be highly beneficial to discuss the learning environment with students and I hope to revisit some of these ideas in my Management 2 classes in the second semester.

Language

Lately I have been contemplating my personal heritage: my maternal grandmother is Polish and although that possibly has the largest impact on my heritage, I speak no Polish. I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and while we learnt isiZulu at school the most I can remember is “Ngiya eskoleni” and “Ngithanda izimvemvane” (which my Zulu friends didn’t even understand and said I should rather say “Ngithanda amabutterfly”). Both my parents grew up in British Rhodesia and only emigrated to South Africa the year I was born – understandably therefore my understanding of Afrikaans comes mainly from school-days. I love living in Cape Town and I am proud to live in Africa. Despite only speaking one language I feel part of a multi-cultural generation that is sprouting up all over the world as a result of cosmopolitan cities and better acceptance of multi-cultural society. I believe that as a society we are all connected, if only imperceptibly, in that we are all affected and influenced by those with whom we interact. I am aware that our currently university model is a particular Western education system and I am looking forward to investigating the subtle changes that are inevitable as this Western education interacts with South African students – changes both in the student and the education system.

Language is for me, an enigma: I cannot imagine the struggles of thinking in one language and having to study in another, I cannot imagine translating a lecture while trying to understand the concepts presented in it. My hope is not to resort to a Tower of Babel-style lecturing style but to determine a method of lecturing that accommodates language, culture, level of understanding, confidence and academic ability. I’m not yet sure what form this will be, but I am convinced that my awareness of language and culture will lead to inclusive and democratic lectures in my future.

Technology

I love technology. I love learning new computer programmes and finding creative technological solutions to problems. I therefore very eagerly take on the challenge of integrating technology into lectures:

Blackboard: This is the official CPUT learning system for students. I post all my lecture notes, tasks and lecture slides on Blackboard for students to download. I must admit I mostly use Blackboard for my own benefit – with 120 students in a class it’s easier to say “It’s on Blackboard” than to provide students who have missed class with spare notes.

I did however, set a class test on Blackboard. I set up a pool of 150 questions in 30 categories so that each student would receive a unique test of 30 questions. Unfortunately our computer venue was not large enough to accommodate a controlled environment so students had all day to complete the test and I suspect that there was a lot of copying group-work! It took a significant amount of time to set up, but because the test was marked instantly my only job was to check for irregularities.

Clickers: I have used clickers on several occasions and these are always a positive experience. Firstly every student has an opportunity to have a “voice” and to interact in the lecture; and secondly clickers are anonymous and allow students to give an answer without fear of embarrassment. The use of clickers also provides general data for both the lecturer and the student to gauge their progress or understanding. Clickers are especially useful for after-lunch lectures as I have found students to use them very enthusiastically (probably because they are becoming involved in the lecture and are not mere witnesses to it). (To see an example of a clicker question, click here.)

Facebook: Students often use Facebook and have easy access to it on their cellphones. Johan van Rooyen, Head of Programme for Landscape Technology has set up a Facebook group (here) for all the students and each student is encouraged to post weekly on their personal Facebook blogs which are constantly monitored. Although I cannot claim to have set it up, I have administrative rights to this group and use it to post notices and other useful information.

General: I have access to a data projector so I mostly make use of Powerpoint to display lecture content (for example). (I can use Prezi but I find its transition motion too fast.) On occasion I have used the overhead projector/transparency method for step-by-step drawing work as I find I can face the class while I lecture – writing on a conventional blackboard and lecturing at the same time is impossible.

Wherever possible I show students short video clips and movies to supplement the lecture content and I find students relate well to these videos. One particularly successful example was a video clip of a young entrepreneur from Mpumalanga who presented a TED talk about his product invention. Seeing and hearing a person of their own age and background speak about entrepreneurship probably resounded more with the students than if I tried to explain it to them.

I recently attended a workshop on concept maps and so I am interested to set up a lecture using CMAP.

My dream goal in terms of technology is to develop a series of videos for the Site Planning course. The intention is to create short, narrated and subtitled videos showing methods of setting up sections and elevations etc. The videos will be subtitled in English so that students can become acquainted with vocabulary and also see it written down. (Watch this space.)

Assessment

The assessment module of TDP was extremely valuable. I experienced two “light bulb” moments:

1. Rubrics and SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes): I had previously struggled with understanding how to quantify marks, particularly with essays or design tasks that were not obviously either correct or incorrect. The idea that I could set a standard and award e.g. 80% above to students who exceeded this standard was great – I suspect my assessment before this understanding was very unrealistic. My understanding and use of Rubrics and SOLO have helped me feel confident that my assessments can be fair, transparent and consistent.

2. Formative assessment: In a lecture by Chris Winberg she reminded us that “formative assessment is not remarking multiple drafts of something” and this had a profound effect on my understanding of formative assessment. I feel quite strongly that it is important for each student to receive constant formative assessment but that this is not entirely my responsibility to provide that feedback. I am eagerly looking forward to the second semester as I intend to practice additional methods of formative assessment such as peer-reviews. Most importantly I would like to learn to demonstrate to students how to review their own work and not to constantly rely on external reviews (particularly with regard to design crits). For more on formative assessment, please click here.

Metacognitive knowledge

For the majority of students they have inadequate secondary education, are therefore unprepared for tertiary education; are mostly studying in a language that is not their mother tongue; have huge social and emotional adjustments to make as they are often far from home and family; and culturally have little experience in the tertiary education system. As much as I understand all of this, I have read several articles that dismiss these issues. This is not to say that these issues are not important factors, but I am beginning to become aware that metacognitive knowledge is a significant aspect of a student’s learning and success. Metacognitive knowledge can be gained by all students and is not affected by nationality, culture, language or socio-economic status. As James Lang points out in this article even American Idol participants have poor metacognition skills. This very interesting article also shed some light on a typical teaching experience: students often don’t have any questions at the end of lecture because their undeveloped metacognition has led them to believe that they have understood everything. The article also provides good strategies for lecturing such as formative assessment, think-pair-share activities, clicker questions, minute papers and Eric Mazur’s ConcepTests. I am hoping to include some or all of these strategies in my second semester courses.

Reflections on TDP

I have enjoyed and appreciated the TDP course and when I look through my notes and see how much I have been exposed to it is incredible. My expectations were that the TDP course was going to be a dry this-is-how-we-have-been-teaching-for-1000s-of-years but instead it was relevant, insightful, stimulating and most importantly touched on the latest theories and thinking with regard to teaching. Without any previous experience in education, I feel that the TDP has allowed me to grasp fairly complex concepts without needing to wade through bookshelves (or Kindles) of literature. TDP has provided me with the knowledge and concepts I need to empower myself to discover additional sources and research. The theory sections of the TDP sessions were well-presented by experts in the field of education, academic literacy, PBL, linguistics etc. These sessions often included group discussions or debates amongst my peers and these were invaluable.

The One-Man Band (Also the Conclusion)

In my opinion, and from my experience of lecturing to date, lecturers are required to be a type of one-man band trying to play a constant tune not just of lecturing but of interactive learning,  promoting transparent and fair assessment techniques (constructively aligned of course), modelling good academic writing and behaviour, ensuring students are engaged and exposed to all knowledge dimensions from factual to metacognitive, are using student-relevant technologies, inspiring students to take ownership of their education, promoting academic literacy, ensuring content has real-life application, de-compartmentalising and integrating knowledge, providing opportunities for self-assessment and zonal proximal development, mentoring and defending an environment of stimulated learning. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten to mention a few things!) It sounds exhausting and at times it is, but mostly I am enjoying it whole-heartedly and despite being a lecturer I am possibly learning more than I could have possibly imagined!

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