Sometimes leaving the room is the best way to teach

Not going to your own classroom when you have a class is wrong, right? Students kind of expect us to be there, it’s part of the deal. Our bosses probably expect us to be there too. It’s what you do when your timetable says you should.


I’m not going to my classroom today, despite what my timetable says


This time last year I was at a conference in Hamburg and unavailable for teaching. As a result I wrote a lesson plan for my third years around my absence. I don’t mean I simply said “here’s an exercise for you to do, turn to page 10 of the text book and do as much as you can”; my absence was explained in the narrative of the module, and I was able to construct a solid plan of learning for them with clear outcomes. It worked so well that I’ve retained the exercise this year, even though I’m here in the same building as my students.


I’m currently sat 15 feet up and 40 feet across from students, and not talking to them during my timetabled class


The module is designed to deepen the students sense of their own practice and direction, to encourage them to plan for lifelong learning and development, and to foster some ideas around professional practice with a particular focus on operating a business. Learning is broadly problem based or project based, meaning that a lot of emphasis is placed on group and individual research as well as critical reflection. Problem based learning puts this emphasis on student activity with tutor facilitation. Tutor facilitation, within the literature on teaching, is quite open to interpretation but I think we generally understand that as “being in the room to answer questions”. It can also be interpreted as “checking up on the students every five minutes”. For some exercises that’s useful, for my exercise this week it’s not.


If I go into my classroom, I will inhibit learning not facilitate it


Here’s what I need students to do:


1.     Set up a package of work and deliver to a deadline;
2.     Judge personal skills and align these with tasks;
3.     Describe and reflect upon the working processes in a design studio.



And here’s their brief:


B225 Studio has just completed the take over of a small design agency, hipsterdesign. We’ve inherited a bit of a mess. As a result, incubation work has been cancelled for one week only and we need you to help us clear the backlog –  after all we pay your rent and overheads!


Unfortunately our MD,  Jon Hickman, has been called away to lay off staff in Hipster’s office in East London and can’t be with us this week. You’re on your own. We’ve allocated you a pile of work from Hipster’s client roster. Your challenge for the week is as follows:


1.     Read through and understand the project briefs;
2.     Organise yourselves so that you can respond to as many of them as possible;
3.     Complete the projects ahead of next session.


Remember: you have class time today to organise yourselves and begin work, and then eight hours of directed study time. You will need to work efficiently and effectively, and ensure that all the work is divided up in an appropriate manner.


There’s very little that I can do in the classroom that will facilitate this project – in fact by being in the room I undermine the task. I do not want students to defer any of the decision making to me. The learning happens at the end of the activity, when they reflect on their own response to a challenge – if I do too much to mediate that then I am obstructing their learning.


Facilitation has happened through the design of the lesson plan and it’s relationship to the curriculum, it’s not about being in the room.

By Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research: