Tag Archives: CHESS/iEarth Summer School

Co-creating learning and teaching (Bovill, 2020)

Maybe it was because of the contexts in which I encountered it, but I always perceived “co-creation” as an empty buzzword without any actionable substance to it. I have only really started seeing the huge potential and getting excited about it since I met Catherine Bovill. Cathy and I are colleagues in the Center for Excellence in Education iEarth, and I have attended two of her workshops on “students as partners” and now recently read her book (Bovill, 2020). And here are my main takeaways:

Speaking about students as partners can mean very many, very different things. The partnership between students and teachers is “a collaborative, reciprocal process through which all participants have the opportunity to contribute equally, although not necessarily in the same ways, to curricular or pedagogical conceptualizations, decision-making, implementation, investigation, or analysis” (Cook-Sather et al., 2014). Fo me, understanding the part about contributing equally, although not necessarily in the same ways really helped to get over objections like “but I am responsible for what goes on in my course and that students have the best possible environment for their learning. How can I put part of that responsibility on students? And can they even contribute in a meaningful way when they are not experts yet?” and the key is that they are contributing as equals, but that does not mean that we are sharing responsibility or tasks (or anything necessarily!) 50/50.

Including students as partners to co-create their learning and teaching leads to many advantages: the forms of teaching and learning that are created in such a process are more engaging to students and more human in general. Since it feels more relevant to students, learning is enhanced, and becomes more inclusive. The student also experience new roles which helps them in becoming more independent, secure, and responsible. And it seems to be a lot of fun for the teacher, too, because a lot of new opportunities for positive interactions are created.

“Students as partners” does not mean that one necessarily has to jump into the pool at the deep end and re-design the whole curriculum from scratch. There is a whole continuum of increasing student participation where a teacher only gradually shares more and more control, and every small move towards more participation is a step in the right direction. This includes many smaller steps I’ve implemented in my teaching already, without even realising that that could be counted as working towards “students as partners”!

Some of those small steps suggested in the book and that can already have a positive impact include

  • Reserving one or two lessons at the end of the semester for perspectives or topics that students would like included (which I personally have really good experiences with!).
  • Giving student questions back into the group with the question “what do you think? and why?”, sharing the power to answer questions rather than claiming it solely for the teacher.
  • Doing a “note-taking relay”: at regular intervals, the teacher stops and gives time for students to take notes. Students do take notes and then pass them on to their neighbour. At the next note-taking break, they take notes on that piece of paper in front of them, and then pass it on to the next neighbour. They are thus creating a documentation of the class with and for each other.
  • Invite students to create study guides or resources for next year’s students.
  • Invite them to design infographics, slides, diagrams on important topics, or present their own role plays of different theories in fictitious situations, which then are used in teaching of their own class.

Especially this last point I think I might have underestimated until now. When I saw my name mentioned in the newsletters of my two favourite podcasts this week, it made me feel super proud! If students only feel a fraction of that pride when their work is featured in a course as something that other people can learn from, it is something we should be doing MUCH MORE!

Other things that come to my mind that share responsibility in small ways or strengthen relationships:

If you (and they!) so choose, students could also become partners on bigger parts of the course, and especially on designing their own assessment, and in evaluating the class. Here are some examples described in the book:

  • In one of her own courses on the topic of educational research (which probably included how to gather data in order to evaluate teaching and learning), Cathy invited students to pick aspects of her course which they wanted to evaluate, and then work with her to design an evaluation, analyse the data and present their findings.
  • She also describes how she invited Master students to co-design dissertation learning outcomes, and that it was possible to include it in the official university regulations: In addition to the ones that are prescribed for all students, each student gets to design one individually in collaboration with their supervisor.
  • Another idea she presents is to give students key words and let them create their own essay titles including those keywords. They have the freedom to choose what question they find most interesting related to a certain topic, while the teacher can make sure the important keywords from their point of view are included. But it is then important that students and teacher work together to make sure the scope is right and there is enough literature to answer that question!
  • And it is possible to let students vote on the weighting of different assessment components towards their final grade. This could even be done with boundary conditions that, e.g., each assignment will have to count for at least a certain percentage. Apparently the outcomes of such votes do not vary much from year to year, but still it is increasing student buy-in a lot!

Or, going further along that continuum of students as partners, students can get involved in the whole process of designing, conducting, evaluating and reporting on a course.

  • Cathy presents an example of a business course where student groups come up with business ideas in the beginning and then everybody discusses what students would need to learn in order to make those ideas become reality. Those topics are then presented to each other by different student groups.
  • The point above reminds me of something I heard on a podcast, where the students also got involved in presenting materials and the teacher gave them the choice of which topics they wanted to present themselves and which topics they would prefer taught by the teacher. This sounds like a great idea to give the students the opportunity to pick the topics they are really interested in and at the same time leave the seemingly less attractive topics (or those where they would really value the teacher’s experience in teaching them) to the teacher.
  • A project I am currently working on with Kjersti and Elin, where we bring together students that took a class the previous year with students who are taking it this year in order for them to do some tank experiments together, but working towards different learning outcomes depending on their level. Here the older students help the younger ones by engaging in dialogue with them and acting as role models, while also “learning through teaching”. We are working on engaging the students in designing the learning environment, and it is super exciting!
  • In a recent iEarth Digital Learning Forum, Mattias and Guro described the process of completely re-designing a course in dialogue between the teacher and a team of students. And not only did they co-design the course, they also presented it together (which is a step that is really easy to forget when the partnership isn’t fully internalized yet!).

I really like the framework of “students as partners” as a reminder to think about including students in a different way, and especially to think about it as a continuum where it’s ok — and even encouraged! — to start small, and then gradually build on it. And I am excited about trying more radical forms of “students as partners” in the future!


Bovill, C. (2020). Co-creating learning and teaching: Towards relational pedagogy in higher education. Critical Publishing.

Cook-Sather, A., Bovill, C., & Felten, P. (2014). Engaging students as partners in learning and teaching: A guide for faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

“Wonder questions” and geoscience misconceptions.

Recently, as part of the CHESS/iEarth Summer School, Kikki Kleiven lead a workshop on geoscience teaching. She gave a great overview over how to approach teaching and presented many engaging methods (like, for example, concept cartoons and role plays), but two things especially sparked my interest, so that I read up on them a little more: “wonder questions” and misconceptions in geosciences.

“Wonder questions”

The first topic that prompted a little literature search were “wonder questions”, and I found a recent article by Lindstrøm (2021) on the topic that describes the three ways in which “wonder questions” are a powerful pedagogical tool:

  1. they support and stimulate student learning: When students are asked to come up with  “wonder questions”, they need to consider what they just learned and how it fits (or doesn’t fit) with what they already knew before. They need to think new thoughts and actively look for connections, both helping them learn.
  2. they models scientists’ behavior: Asking good questions is a skill that needs practice!
  3. they can be a powerful motivator for students and teachers alike: As a teacher, it’s great to see what questions students come up with and it helps tailor the teaching to what’s really relevant to the students. Seeing their questions taken up in teaching, on the other hand, is giving students agency and makes them feel heard.

Lindstrøm distinguishes four types of wonder questions that she typically encounters, and which are useful in different ways:

  • Questions where students rephrase a concept and want confirmation that they understood something correctly are helping them make sure they are on the right track, but also confirm it to the teacher. Those questions can also be used in future teaching to paraphrase the material in the students’ own words.
  • Questions that are very close to course content and bring in real-world examples are great to make sure the examples used in (future) classes are actually relevant to students’ lives.
  • Questions that go beyond the course content are also useful to clarify what is going to be taught in this specific course and what other courses will build on it. They can also open up doors for future (student) research projects.
  • Questions that reveal misconceptions are great because we can only address misconceptions if we know about them in the first place.

Which brings us to the next topic Kikki inspired me to revisit:

Geoscience misconceptions

Kikki mentioned the article “A compilation and review of over 500 geoscience misconceptions” by Francek (2013). I’m familiar with misconceptions in physics (especially the ones related to hydrostatics and rotating systems & Coriolis force that I’ve worked with), and within iEarth there has been a lot of talk about how students don’t understand geological time (which I don’t have a good grasp of, either). But reading the “500” in the title was enough to make me want to check out the article to get an idea of what other misconceptions might be relevant for my own teaching. And it turns out there are plenty to choose from!

Many of the misconceptions that are particularly relevant for my own interests were originally collected by Kent Kirkby (2008) as “easier to address” misconceptions, for example on science, ocean systems, glaciers, climate:

  • “Upwelling occurs as deeper water layers warm and rise ([…] tied to students’ knowledge of how air masses are affected by temperature).”
  • “Upwelling occurs as deeper water layers lose their salinity and rise (students like symmetry!).”
  • “Glacial ice moves backwards during glacial ‘retreats’ (like everything that retreats in real life)”
  • “Glacial ice is stationary during times when front is neither advancing or retreating.”
  • “Earth’s climate is controlled primarily by the atmosphere circulation, rather than ocean circulation (real life experiences as a terrestrial animal, TV weather reports)”

Reading through that list is really interesting and a good reminder that there are a lot of things that we take for granted but that are really not as obvious as we have might come to believe over the years. And the misconceptions are only “easy to address” (and one way of addressing them is through “elicit, confront, resolve“) when we are aware of them in the first place.

Francek, M. (2013). A compilation and review of over 500 geoscience misconceptions. International Journal of Science Education, 35(1), 31-64.

Lindstrøm, C. (2021). The pedagogical power of Wonder Questions. The Physics Teacher, 59(4), 275-277.

Metaphors of learning (after Ivar Nordmo and the article by Sfard, 1998)

On Thursday, I attended a workshop by Ivar Nordmo, in which he talked about two metaphors of learning: “learning as acquisition” and “learning as participation”. He referred to an article by Sfard (1998), and here is my take-away from the combination of both.

When we talk about new (or new-to-us) concepts, we often describe them with words that have previously been used in other contexts. As we bring the words into a new domain, their meaning might change a little, but the first assumption will be that the new concept we describe by those old words is, indeed, described by those words carrying the same old, familiar meaning.

When concepts are described by metaphors that developed in a different context, or are commonly used in different contexts, an easy assumption is that all their properties are transferrable between contexts. On the one hand that makes it easy to quickly grasp new contexts, on the other hand that easy assumption is most likely not entirely correct, which can lead us to misunderstanding the new concept if we don’t examine our implicit assumptions. And usually we don’t stop to consider whether the words we are using that were borrowed from a different context, are actually leading our thinking on a separate context without us realizing that this might not be appropriate.

The way we think about learning, for example, depends on the language we use to conceptualize it, and there are two metaphores who lead to substantially different ways of understanding learning, with far-reaching consequences.

Learning as acquisition

Learning is commonly defined as “gaining knowledge”. Facts or concepts are building blocks of knowledge that we acquire, accumulate, and construct meaning from. We can test whether people posess knowledge or skills (we might even be able to assess someone’s potential based on their performance). Someone might have a wealth of knowledge. They might be providing teaching and knowledge to someone else, who is receiving instruction and might share it with others. We can transfer knowledge to different applications. We might be academically gifted. In all these cases, we gain posession of something.

We think of knowledge as something we posess, intellectual property rights clearly assign ownership to ideas, and stealing ideas is a serious offence. As any other expression of wealth, knowledge is guarded and passed on from parents to children, or maybe shared as a special favor, making access to those from less knowledge-affluent circles difficult. It is perfectly fine to admit to wanting to accumulate knowledge just for the fun of it, without intending to use it for anything, same as it is socially accepted to get rich without considering what that money could and maybe should be used for.

Learning as participation

Changing the language we use to talk about things might also change how we think about the things themselves.

An alternative metaphor to “learning as aquisition” is “learning as participation”. In that metaphor, learning is described as a process that happens in specific contexts and without a clear end point. The focus then is on communicating in the language that a community communicates in, in taking part in the community’s rituals, but simultaneously influencing the community’s language and rituals in a shared negotiation with the goal of building community.

When learning is about participation, it is not a private property but a shared activity. This means that the status that, in the acquisition metaphor, comes with being knowledge-rich, is now gone. Actions can be successful or failures, but that does not make the actors inherently smart or stupid. They can act one way in one context on a given day, and could act differently at any time.

While the participation metaphor brings up all the positive associations of a growth mindsets on the individual level and equal access to learning in society, it is hard to imagine it without preserving parts of the acquisition metaphor. If knowledge is not something we possess within us, how can we even bring it from one situation into the next? How do individual learning biographies contribute to the shared activities? Can someone still be a teacher and someone else a learner?

I find considering these two metaphors really eye-opening as to how much the language we use shapes how we think about the world. Which I was aware of for example in the debate on how to use gender-neutral language, but which I never applied to learning before.

The recommendation by Sfard (1998) is not to choose one metaphor, but to carefully consider what is inadvertently implied by the language we use. Meaning transported in metaphors between domains might be buried so deeply that we are unaware of it, yet it can lead us to think about one domain wrongly and unknowingly assuming properties or causalities from a completely different domain, and to making sense in that second domain based on a faulty, assumed understanding. So awareness of the metaphors we use, and reflexion on what that does to our thinking, is not only useful but neccessary.

I don’t claim to have gotten far with these thoughts yet, but it was definitely eye-opening!

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational researcher, 27(2), 4-13.