By Paul Christesen, Professor, of Ancient Greek History & Chair, Department of Classics
Note: Professor Paul Christesen has been one of the faculty teaching in the Berry Innovation Classroom (Carson 61), an active learning incubator space at Dartmouth.
Carson 61 has turned out to be a literally transformative teaching space. I have to confess that I began the semester with the expectation that the room and its capabilities would be quite helpful but I didn’t harbor larger hopes. However, as I was watching the students work today I fully realized for the first time just how great an impact the room has had on both the students and on me, and not just in the way we work, but also in the way we think.
First, the students sat and worked together in small groups the entire semester, in a space that facilitated face-to-face interaction among the group (while also enabling them to easily focus on another person or place outside their group as and when that was necessary).
Carson 61 made it possible for me to make small-group, active-learning exercises a fundamental part of the course. Furthermore, the students in each group got to know one another on an intellectual and personal level, and by the end of the semester had formed groups that worked very effectively and also had meaningful personal connections with each other.
Second, the easy access to equipment, in the form of both projectors and whiteboards, facilitated presentation and visualization of information, on both a small-group and whole-group basis. This equipment made working collaboratively more efficient and effective than I ever seen it happen before, and made sharing the results of collaborative work across the entire group much more feasible than in other previous classroom configurations.
Moreover, in the fifth or sixth week of the term, without planning it or really thinking about it, I started creating on-the-spot visual representations (in the form of flow charts) of the chains of historical cause-and-effect with which we were wrestling (specifically with respect to the reasons why the Persian War of 480-479 BCE and the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE ended as they did). I had not previously done this, in nearly 20 years of teaching this material, but it proved to be tremendously helpful in helping the students think clearly and carefully about the complex issues they were confronting through their readings of Herodotus and Thucydides. The students picked this up immediately and without any encouragement from me, and, leveraging the projectors and whiteboards, began using it to very good effect in the active-learning, problem-solving exercises that they were carrying out on a small-group basis.
For our last class session, I asked each group to generate one complete cause-and-effect chain that ended with Spartan victory/Athenian defeat in 404. Every group, without any prompting from me, used their whiteboard and, over the course of 30 minutes of very active and productive discussion amongst the members of the group, created elaborate flow charts that beautifully visualized the hundreds of pages of text they had read and their analysis of that text. As I watched that unfold, it struck me that both the students and I had found a new, different, and better way of approaching texts that I’ve read literally dozens of times, and that they would certainly carry that approach to textual analysis with them going forward. It was a remarkable instance of a facilities-specific capability making itself felt in important ways even in the absence of any conscious planning.
Everything that is possible in a “normal” classroom is possible in an active learning classroom space such as this, and many things that are not possible otherwise suddenly become feasible.