I usually say I became a journalist by accident. I needed money to get me through art school so I started writing art reviews for a friend on a local paper.
Suddenly writing became more important than painting, so I dropped out of art school and began an even more precarious life as a freelance journalist. As it turned out I had a series of lucky breaks and quickly found myself editor of a national monthly for gay men. Having made the jump from novice writer to editor in under-eighteen-months, I learned a lot very quickly – learning through immersion, pressure and instinct.
Ten years later, mid-career ennui led me to the UTS Masters in Journalism. After being an editor of both a monthly magazine and a weekly newspaper it wasn’t practical skills I was after, I wanted a space to think about what I was doing. I found it: a space for thinking and doing, I ended up staying to work on a PhD and teach young journalists.
That story sums up my philosophy of teaching and learning: we learn by doing and thinking and good teaching assists both thinking through doing and doing through thinking. And around the circle goes. It’s what the literature calls reflective practice.
It also sums up my attitude to the tired practice versus theory, industry-based versus university-based training debates that still plague journalism education. I believe the most successful courses integrate theory and practice.
So how do I do that?
My approach to teaching starts with setting up a conversation and good conversation has both ideas and examples.
My basic goal as a teacher is to provide the scaffolding students need to climb and explore new subject towers safely and adventurously. The practical ways I do this are familiar: participating in discussions, listening and asking questions, offering suggestions, pointing to resources, being available for consultation and critically: completing the feedback loop in carefully planned formative assessments. Case studies bring theory alive and theoretical readings provide a framework for discussion of journalism practice.
One model of learning that has been influential for me has been the idea of learning through Authentic Tasks developed by Jan Herrington and colleagues. An authentic task have a range of important dimensions but the first three defined by Herrington are critical:
Authentic tasks have real-world relevance Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualised or classroom-based tasks.
Authentic tasks are ill-defined, requiring students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity Problems inherent in the tasks are ill-defined and open to multiple interpretations rather than easily solved by the application of existing algorithms. Learners must identify their own unique tasks and sub-tasks in order to complete the major task.
Authentic tasks comprise complex tasks to be investigated by students over a sustained period of time Tasks are completed in days, weeks and months rather than minutes or hours, requiring significant investment of time and intellectual resources.
Commitment to this open ended model of learning and assessment means working hard to support students through the various stages of its development. Although the tasks need to be open-ended or “ill-defined” to allow for personal/multiple interpretations it is also critical that students know exactly what is being asked of them. So very specific and detailed assignment outlines, assessment criteria and additional resources and examples are also important in modeling the multiple possible outcomes of any given task.
In many of our lab-based classes at UOW, assignments are modular or portfolio based, ensuring tasks gradually build towards the submission of a key piece of work, or collection of stories after drafts have been discussed and students have had a chance to learn from feedback and discussion. This models the professional environment of journalist editor interaction. In other classes work-in-progress seminar presentations that focus on the development and improvement of the major assignment throughout the semester. Students are thus encouraged to do their best possible work over time, integrating feedback from their classmates and myself as tutor, rather than just aiming for a make or break end of semester deadline.
Journalism and many of the creative professions are industries in upheaval and transition so a key outcome of our teaching and learning programs must be building resilience, and equipping our students for the long haul of constant reflection, learning and innovation. Developing students ability to reflect on their learning process is a key skill and I encourage this through an ongoing process called The Philosophy of Journalism Statement.
So what does all this say about my take on the way students learn?
- I believe students learn when they are given a broad canvas on which to play.
- I believe they learn best when they are given a framework or overview and then enabled to specialise in areas that most interest them.
- I believe students need to be both supported and challenged.
- I believe being clear about expectations, learning goals and assessment criteria help students to feel safe in their explorations.
- I believe talking about learning processes as well as course content encourages students to be reflective learners.
- I believe that learning occurs through groups and individuals building associations, exploring patterns and making meanings.
Two other things are critical: colleagues and research. Good teaching can only happen in a supportive academic environment and at both UTS and UOW I have been lucky to become part of passionate academic communities.
I’ve made quite a few career changes in my life: from youth worker, to adult educator, to artist, to journalist, to editor, to manager, to teacher and academic. Through all of that I have in one way or another also been an activist. I believe in helping to bring about change both at the macro and the micro level. I believe both journalism and education matter profoundly in this larger process of change. In the end I hope that my teaching facilitates students becoming more aware of their role in that change process.
November 2005 – revised 2013