Why not be kind? The pedagogy of kindness in our classrooms

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Living through a global event in which we haven’t experienced the likes of before, there is no better time to focus on the fantastic and innovative work our colleagues continue to do in their online classrooms. Since the University’s shift to online teaching on March 23, there have been different approaches to how best utilise resources for student engagement and cohort building.

I spoke with Dr Hollie Pich from the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI), about her experiences teaching through this time. This is her story.

In her History Honours seminar in Semester 1, 2020, Hollie noticed that there was a sense that the ‘intellectual community’ was somehow, missing. ‘The Honours year is an opportunity for history students to “nerd out” with each other. It’s not that they weren’t getting the work done, but they weren’t motivated, and they felt isolated,’ Hollie explained. ‘I spoke to students a lot. I had an open dialogue with them, and I asked them what was missing, and they wanted’.

In response to the student feedback, Hollie set up small writing groups. ‘I divided my 8 students into 3 small groups, which were organised around research interests and methodological approach. Students met via Zoom for 2 hours each week. It was up to them to decide when they had these meetings. I sent out weekly prompts to give some structure – for example, “this week, share a section of your intro with your team, or this week, you should workshop an area you find difficult, etc.” We did this over the course of the semester, until they submitted their essays’.

Hollie received positive feedback, and noted that the students enjoyed having a space to chat outside the seminar—and without teacher supervision. ‘It created a relaxed environment, and replicated the kinds of exchanges students might have discussing an assignment while running into each on a lunch/coffee break’.

Hollie is now in the process of setting up a program for the entire Honours cohort by using writing groups to engaging students, to build a sense of community that keeps students connected online.

The key principle that underpins Hollie’s teaching is the ‘pedagogy of kindness.’ This pedagogy essentially boils down to two things: we should believe students, and we should believe in students.

What is the pedagogy of kindness?

‘It’s believing students, and it means that you believe what they say – so if they tell you they’re sick and they can’t complete an assessment on time – you believe them and you work with them to find a solution.

This level of trust is essential if you want to build relationships based in mutual respect with students – and I believe that without these relationships it isn’t possible to create effective environments for teaching and learning.

‘Belief in students means believing that students are capable of leading their own learning experience. Rather than thinking of students as passive participants in their own degrees, it’s important to think of them as collaborators – who have valuable insights into what does and doesn’t work (particularly in the era of online teaching and learning!)

‘The pedagogy of kindness underpins Hollie’s approach to teaching. ‘I am student-focused, and adapt my teaching for each cohort by actively listening and talking to students. This approach is fundamentally based in scholarly research. Students are the very best part of teaching. I believe we should all work to ensure students are empowered and centered in their own learning experiences.’

Have there been any barriers you have faced implementing this pedagogical value?

‘Not personally, but I can imagine existing university governance gets in the way; for example, if a student needs an extension, there’s a policy to follow. If you’re a tutor, navigating through this process is more difficult, as you have less control over how the unit and its assessments are designed to meet governance rules.

‘When it comes to believing in students, and believing in what they say, I would rather one or two students take advantage of this system, rather than acting as a barrier to building a relationship of mutual respect and trust with them as a collective.

‘Kindness is always a practice you can implement.’

To learn more about the pedagogy of kindness, please read about it here. You can also contact Hollie directly at hollie.pich@sydney.edu.au.

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