Alternative learning

Photos and story by MICHELA WILSON

Eugene Trester has a message for teachers everywhere: Stop lecturing. Your students are bored, and they don’t remember what you say, anyway.

Trester, who has a Ph.D. in adult learning theory and cultural anthropology, advocates a different approach to teaching that’s nothing short of a revolution.

“We’re ready for a new day,” Trester said. “The overwhelming bulk of research evidence indicates that any form of active learning on the part of students is much more effective in terms of learning, understanding and retention than is lecturing.”

In the only class Trester currently teaches, Anthropology 112, Exploring Non-Western Cultures, the roles are reversed. Students are the teachers.

There’s a rhythm and a structure to the weekly class. Pairs of students who will be giving that day’s presentations are listed on the whiteboard, and each presentation is assigned a facilitator. The facilitator stands up and raises one arm. The students see their cue to quiet, and the facilitator introduces the first presentation. Based on the Japanese presentation style PechaKucha, the slideshow is 6 minutes, 40 seconds.

“It gets you involved right from the get-go,” student Paz Davila said. “It evokes a lot of critical thinking.”

After the presentation, there’s a palpable energy in the room with students happily chatting in groups of four or five. It’s clear they’re engaged. Each group is responsible for coming up with a question for the presenters and sends a representative to the front to ask it.

When the questions are answered, the groups reconvene and come up with a compliment for the presenters. Throughout the process, the facilitator helps move things along smoothly. Trester sits at the front of the classroom, quietly observing.

“He creates a safe space,” Davila said. “It gives everyone a voice.”

During the course of a class, there’s usually six to eight presentations. Every student stands up to speak at least once, often several times. The presentations encompass a wide range of topics, including self-driving cars, the evolution of religion and the science of happiness.

“He treats us with a tremendous amount of respect,” student Ben Pressley said. “It’s my best class; I really do look forward to it.”

So, are there any negatives to this method of teaching?

After thinking carefully, Pressley said the only downside is that there’s not enough time to really discuss everything, to which the rest of his group agreed. The class is three hours long.

Enculturation

Trester’s methodology combines neuroscience, anthropology and genuine respect for his students.

He calls his approach enculturation, a term he discovered in a 1992 Harvard research paper called “Teaching Thinking Dispositions: From Transmission to Enculturation.” He defines it as “the process of social interaction through which people learn and acquire their culture.”

In that paper, the authors wrote: “Whereas the transmission model only asks teachers to prepare and transmit messages about what students are required to learn, the enculturation model asks teachers to create a culture of thinking in the classroom.”

Trester’s goal is to create a classroom that’s not competitive and that has a positive effect on people.

“The amygdala can be overactive,” Trester said. “It tends to suspect anything new as a danger. By taking time, we can calm the amygdala, allow the frontal lobe to take charge and make more rational decisions.”

Trester says this methodology is working against the dominant individualistic, competitive culture, instead reviving our tribal instincts to care for one another. He and his wife, Fran, who attends Trester’s classes, are quick to wax poetic about the potential of this methodology.

“You learn from your peers, they can help emphasize your strengths,” Fran said.

Trester nodded in agreement, adding, “If we accentuate our gifts, we make the world a better place.”

According to educational research, Trester believes there’s a reason we don’t remember lectures, and it’s because we aren’t wired to. Research has proven sitting passively and listening to someone talk is rarely the best way to impart information. Trester believes students do much better as active learners.

“Changes in neural connections, which are fundamental for learning to take place in the brain, do not occur when learning experiences are not active. Not surprisingly, just listening to a presentation, or lecture, will not lead to learning,” wrote Nick van Dam in his 2013 article “Inside the Learning Brain” from the journal Talent Development.

A new day

Trester only teaches one class now because he’s busy spreading his message of collaborative learning. And Pima is listening.

In any given class that Trester is teaching, there are usually a few observers. On Oct. 6, there was a University of Arizona student, two PCC instructors and myself.

The educators are adamant that it’s time for higher education in America to evolve.

In the 2016 book “The Neuroscience of Learning and Development,” Marilee J. Bresciani Ludvik wrote, “Our current linear, course-based education practices are frequently at odds with how neurological systems facilitate learning and personal development. … We need to refocus our attention and place it on the outcomes of what graduates can actually do and who they have become.”

Lisa MacDonald, who teaches writing, said that in this learning environment, the students are learning leadership skills.

“If higher ed is going to survive, we need to give skills that are relevant to the workplace,” MacDonald said.

That is another one of Trester’s selling points. Chancellor Lee Lambert has stresses the importance of workplace readiness skills, and Trester has emphasized them in his class. Each student picks out three from a list of skills. The classmates assess their mastery of each skill at the end of the semester.

MacDonald also appreciates that students can engage at any level.

“They’re all able to learn,” she said. “Whereas lecturing, you’re going to cater to the lowest or highest.”

Pat Griesel, who teaches introductory reading, completed an apprenticeship with Trester two years ago and now uses the enculturation methodology in her own class. She says it’s advantageous to teach this way because it’s interactive and uses multiple pathways to the brain.

Trester has presented his philosophy to other instructors at All College Day at PCC, where he has his students talk about their experiences in his classroom.

“The voices of students are one way you can get into the heart of staff,” he said.

He has the support of the chancellor and provost. In fact, Lambert and Trester presented a talk, “Creating Climates for Learning in 21st Century College Classrooms,” at a 2014 speaker series at PCC.

These days, Trester is putting together an interactive learning session for administrators in the hopes that their support will encourage the faculty. Trester also visits classrooms to support instructors moving toward enculturation.

He’s not underestimating the resistance that is sure to come up as a response to challenging the status quo. But he’s confident that the testimonies from students will speak for themselves.

Trester has been teaching at Pima Community College for 15 years, and he’s planning on staying as long as he can.

“This is really needed,” he said. “When I see the faculty moving toward this, it’s really heartening.”

Students of Eugene Trester, Madison O’Brien, Paz Davila and Stephen Marquez recently sit in a group during one of Trester’s discussions on a theory. The presentation was titled “A Now Axial Age.”

Fran and Eugene Trester

 

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