Conversational Teaching at the African Leadership College (ALC) Mauritius. Guest Post by Dr. Emmanuel Nuesiri
The five keys to making conversational teaching work in the classroom
I joined the African Leadership College (ALC) Mauritius in August 2018; this is the sister campus of the African Leadership University (ALU) Rwanda. I came to the ALC with almost 20 years of teaching experience behind me. I brought a teaching experience gained from Nigeria, Cameroon, England, and the United States.
Starting with personal experience
As a student, my teachers primarily adopted the ‘teacher-as-expert’ style, and when I started teaching this was what I knew, so it was what I did. However, I realized that as a student, I enjoyed learning and learnt better when my teachers adopted a more conversation-based style, which was sometimes the case when I studied for my masters’ degree. So, I attempted to follow a conversation style in a limited manner when I was teaching in the United States. I was moving from the ‘teacher-as-expert’ to the ‘teacher-as-facilitator’ in Anthony Grasha’s five teaching styles framework. According to Anthony Grasha, the teacher as facilitator:
“Emphasizes the personal nature of teacher student interactions. Guides students by asking questions, exploring options, suggesting alternatives, and encouraging them to develop criteria to make informed choices. Overall goal is to develop in students the capacity for independent action and responsibility. Works with students on projects in a consultative fashion and provides much support and encouragement.”
Pre-work allows entry points
It was, however, when I joined the ALC Mauritius that I fully went for a conversation style teaching in the classroom. This was partly because the institution encouraged innovation and experimentation in teaching and learning. ALC Mauritius is a transnational institution in partnership with the Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) Scotland. The learning model required students to do pre-work by studying the weekly module slides provided online by the GCU lecturers before attending classes facilitated by ALC lecturers. Thus, the pre-work slides provided entry points for me to engage the students in conversation about the subject matter for the week before presenting my learning slides to the students.
Co-learning and co-sharing classroom
When I started doing this in my first term at ALC, the students were unsure about how to react, especially the second-year students who were just transitioning into their degree program. The fourth and final year students loved my approach, while the third-year students were not sure what to expect but loved the idea of experiencing something different. While I let the students know that my classroom was a co-learning and co-sharing space, the second-year students were not confident that they had knowledge worth sharing. However, after a lot of encouragement, misunderstandings, heated conversations, and success in their end of term exams, they became more accepting of conversational teaching.
Developing a teaching style
As I reflect on my experience, I believe that the following factors accounted for the successful use of conversations as a teaching style in my classroom at the ALC:
Institutional culture – the ALC promoted innovation and experimentation in the classroom, this gave me the courage to use conversation in the classroom and stay with it even when there was misunderstandings and heated moments in the classroom.
Knowledge capacity – I went all out to do this at ALC after trying this out in a limited way when I taught at a previous university in the United States. I had tried it out and learnt some valuable lessons along the way. I was also at a point in my career where my knowledge base and my experience were such that I knew the subject matter I was teaching very deeply. Thus, I was always able to show the students the connections between their seemingly different positions and how it all connected with the course material.
Values – I am convinced that University students not just at graduate levels but also at undergraduate level have knowledge that the lecturer can learn from. Thus, I believe that the University classroom at all levels is a co-learning, co-sharing, and a knowledge co-creating space. I therefore encourage all my students to speak up in the classroom.
Trust – gaining the trust of the students happened after my first term at ALC when they saw that the conversation style did not adversely affect their performance in their exams. Instead, they saw that they were able to engage with the course materials better because our conversations made the subject matter more relevant to their lived reality. Once, I had gained the trust of the students in my first year at ALC, it was paying dividends in other years as the new degree students were excited to join my class.
Capacity to manage conversations – conversations in the classroom could open participants to embarrassing ridicule from other participants. It could also open the lecturer to a certain “taken-for-granted” attitude from students. Conversations could also be heated, go astray and fail to achieve the learning objectives for the class. When there is ridicule the lecturer in their role as “talk-show host” should have the ability and confidence to call it out and cut it out; when there is a “taken-for-granted” attitude from students who may sometimes be rude or want to seize leadership from the lecturer, the lecturer should have the ability not to allow this happen without alienating the student(s). My students once said to me that no matter what they threw at me in the classroom, I always forgave them.
Conversations don’t end in the classroom
More could be said about this, but I will end here. Often the conversations do not end in the classroom, I often end it prematurely to keep to time; however, we would sometimes pick things up during breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the cafeteria where both faculty and students had their meals. Having a close-knit community at ALC Mauritius (before COVID), helped in a big way in my deployment of conversation-based teaching at ALC Mauritius. I encourage you to give a try in your classroom, start with small classes, start with humility, best wishes!
About the author - Dr Emmanuel Nuesiri:
Dr. Emmanuel Nuesiri is the Program Leader for the Social Sciences at the African Leadership College (ALC) Mauritius, where he teaches courses in Feminist Economics, Environmental Politics, and Research Methods. He holds a PhD from St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford, UK. He has teaching and research experience from Africa, Europe, and the United States. He has been a scholar at various higher education institutions including the Pan-African Institute for Development Buea, Cameroon; Cornell University, USA; University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, USA; and the University of Potsdam, Germany. His teaching philosophy is that his classroom is a co-learning, co-sharing, and knowledge co-creation space between and among faculty and students. Dr. Nuesiri has also consulted for international organizations including the United Nations and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
 See Anthony F. Grasha (1994) A Matter of Style: The Teacher as Expert, Formal Authority, Personal Model, Facilitator, and Delegator, College Teaching, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Fall, 1994), pp. 142-149
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