Bear pit pedagogy

In our digital literacy teacher training programme at Plymouth University we create environments that encourage critical thinking. My colleague Peter Yeomans (AKA @ethinking on Twitter) says we create the 'bear pits' for our students. In other words, we enable digital and physical learning spaces in which they can freely explore ideas, argue with each other (and us) over concepts and theories and in so doing, develop their reasoning and thinking skills.

In order to develop key critical thinking skills, learners need to be able to argue effectively. They need to be aware that there are alternative perspectives and they need to be able to defend a position from attack. They must also investigate theories critically, because if they simply accept a theory as 'truth', they may be leading their entire classroom down a blind alley. Too much bad theory has crept into the classroom in recent years, as I have previously commented, and we want to ensure that our trainee teachers are aware of flaws, counter-arguments and alternatives to all theories. That's why we encourage our students to critically engage with course material, and then to extend their knowledge by creating their own additional content around it.

We encourage them to develop their own Personal/Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) so they can lock into and exploit the vast communities of practice that already exist out there in the rapidly expanding Blogosphere and Twitterverse. They are quite adept at using the tools at their disposal to create these connections, but first they need to be convinced. Once they realise the benefits of blogging or tweeting, and can see how much they learn as a result of engaging with remote peers, they engage with it enthusiastically. When students are given projects to complete, blogs, videos, podcasts, they are expected to organise their ideas, form their argument and present them in seminar or digital format - and then they must defend them. You see, when students are required to present something they have learnt to an audience, they need to know it well before they can present it convincingly. It's not the easiest route for learning, but it invariably turns out to be deep learning. The bear pit approach is more akin to dropping them in the deep end, and it can be a little uncomfortable at times.

One final point: We also give students the license to challenge us, and sometimes, if we feel it necessary, tutors may even debate each other in front of the students. Academics don't (and can't) always agree on everything, so why not model critical discussion for the benefit of the students? I would be interested to hear from other teacher educators about what approaches you use and whether you see any value in what we are doing with our bear pits.

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Bear pit pedagogy by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Gladys said…
Thanks for sharing Steve. Great experience!!
I coordinate 1 @ 1 workshops for teachers, the topic: technology integration but I like to think ICT is an excuse to challenge what they have been doing up to now and show them different possibilities, approaches, methods. We present the tools and promote open ended questions & actities, propose changing roles, (we are all teachers and learners), bring in ideas for problem solving situations, so that they feel confident in this new role and feel confident about replicating in their own environments. I believe we (teachers) need a space where we feel "safe" and can try out new perspectives.
They also work on their PLE´s and experience working together, building knowledge and content from their different perspectives to enrich the project. Maybe that is one of the hardest aspects; working together across subjects.
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Pat Parslow said…
Thanks Steve,

This is the approach I take with students - show them that there are alternative views. The seminars I run for 1st years doing software engineering are a particular case in point; I emphasise that there are many angles to view the subject from, and I am quite open about the fact I don't necessarily agree with the 'subject as taught' (i.e. received wisdom).

It gets some lively conversation, definitely some deep learning and provokes interest in other subject areas too. Sometimes I think colleagues might be a little less keen on the approach, though... ;-)
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your contribution Gladys. Confidence is half the battle, and open ended discussion within a blame free culture of mutual understanding must be the way ahead if we are to develop 'free' thinking, critical and self aware professionals. Thanks for sharing your link with us.
Steve Wheeler said…
Sounds like you and I are singing from the same songsheet Pat. We will get scepticism and even resistance from colleagues, but often it's out of a sense of threat they perceive. It's sometimes hard for teachers and lecturers to break out of the mind set that they are the authority in the classroom.
Tony P said…

I shared your post with colleagues in my (Education) Faculty this morning and have received a range of responses, from the wildly enthusiastic to the downright sceptical. We are embarking on writing modules for a new degree programme at the moment, so I thought it was apposite. One theme that recurred in comments was the difficulty of adopting this approach within a 'compliance culture' in both ITT and in schools. Also, the retention issues that might result from a 'throwing in at the deep end' approach - Yr 1 straight-from-school undergraduates, who have been used to the support networks offered by sixth form, often struggle within a less supported environment and this type of approach was seen by some colleagues as too much too soon.

Thanks for the post, however - it got us talking about issues and pedagogy in ways I hadn't expected!
Tony P said…
Oh, I forgot the best comment a colleague made - he likened the 'bear pit' approach in a compliance-conscious environment as being 'teddy bear pit pedagogy'.

Thanks again
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Tony. Still smiling at your last comment about the Teddy Bear Pit! :)

One thing I should clarify is that this is an approach we facilitate incrementally. All students in our modules are expected to develop their critical skills, and many have later remarked that as they progress through their studies they feel better prepared than peers in other modules/subject specialisms to tackle their third and fourth year B.Ed projects. Their second year module examining psychological issues in learning is particularly infused with critical learning and has become something they call on in their final years to apply to their studies.

As they progress through the (currently) 4 year programme, students are expected to progressively develop their critical and reflective skills - but we tend to go a little easier on them in their first year :)
simfin said…
Thanks for this and on reflection my own teacher training was sadly lacking. As a trainee English and Drama teacher both tutors were engaging and committed to the oblique approach, which I embraced with enthusiasm. However it was left to me during my years of teaching to almost randomly and certainly unaided, work out that there must be a range of approaches if I were to serve the needs of all my learners. Rather wish I could start again and study at Plymouth.
JanieT said…
Started a self-regulated learning format in B.Ed 2 where students are given research questions the week before and a group will lead the seminar. All groups undertake the research therefore each group is knowledgeable about the topic. This approach means that students can take the topic and direct their own learning along paths that they were interested in. When a group lead the tutorial, it leads to fierce debate at times as different paths are taken and different understandings are reached. As the tutor, this is far more stimulating for me and keeps me on my toes. It's a bear pit for both students and me! I hope this more active approach will transfer to the school classroom and pupils will be allowed the same autonomy and voice.

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