For two years in a row, I've hit a sweet spot of engagement, discussion, and really invigorating student interaction with one particular exercise in my web design course. I sit with a web browser console open, and just ask students to go through this cycle:
- Make a prediction of what's going to appear when I hit enter.
- See what actually appears.
- Adjust your model and repeat.
I say almost nothing aside from "here's another one". The amount of laughter, head slapping, and students talking through their attempts to understand is a beautiful thing to witness. The fact that no student blurts out the answer speaks to the respect my students have for each other and for this model.
This is a simple type of activity that I do from time to time, and only from time to time, because I don't want it to lose its novelty. There's no engagement from a real world context. There's no lecture beforehand about what I'm about to do, and how I want them to respond. (Ok, I do ask that they not blurt out the answer or how it works once they know, but that's about it.)
I hope to establish an unspoken agreement with my students that goes something like this:
- There is a pattern, and I am confident that you'll be able to figure it out.
- If you can't get it right away, that's fine. You probably aren't the only one.
- If you are the only one, then you have a lot of people around to nudge you in the right direction.
- If you're wrong, you'll get another chance to be right in just a minute.
- Once you know how it works, you might not care anymore. Enjoy the journey.
Getting this agreement across takes time and trust and is really difficult to force. It's remarkably satisfying when it happens. The important part is the consistent commitment to failure: Everyone will fail at least once. Everyone will also likely be wrong at least once after they are right.