Review of ‘Archaeology to Delight and Instruct: Active Learning in the University Classroom’ edited by Heather Burke and Claire Smith

01st December 2009

archaeology-to-delight-and-instruct book coverArchaeology to Delight and Instruct: Active Learning in the University Classroom edited by Heather Burke and Claire Smith. One World Archaeology 49, LeftCoast Press, Walnut Creek CA 2007, 288 pp., ISBN 978-1-59874-257-2.

Martin Gibbs

Department of Archaeology, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, University of Sydney NSW 2006, Australia

It is hardly a closely guarded secret that most of the class-based practical exercises used for undergraduate students have been passed down through a mysterious process of osmosis and/or appropriation. The lessons learned as an undergraduate are likely to make an appearance in your own classes for the very good reason that they worked for you and almost certainly will work for another generation as well. This isn’t to say that classroom exercises are not adapted, reconsidered or updated, or that new exercises aren’t devised, but that a successful educational tool isn’t one to be discarded lightly. Consequently, the opportunity to read about other people’s successful teaching strategies is always welcome, especially when there are clear instructions on the what, why and how. There are several volumes available which provide examples of classroom activities for the weary-minded educator to pilfer, although Burke and Smith’s volume is different in that they have forced the contributors to be explicit about the underlying theoretical constructs and messages which they feel underpin each exercise.

This volume explores the notion of ‘active learning’ which, when you strip away the verbiage, means that students learn better when they participate. As arguably the most hands-on of the Arts disciplines (which is where most archaeology departments sit in the university spectrum), we already tend to take it as a given that students will often learn more through practical engagement in activities and discussions than by suffering through hours of lectures. Despite traditional lectures still being a vital component of what we do, as we shift into a primarily Generation Y student body there is also a real expectation on their part for these sorts of participatory educational experiences. The exercises presented in this volume are meant to complement other forms of information delivery such as lectures by keeping the students feeling involved, stimulating their thought processes, and often by challenging their preconceptions. Some are lengthy and could run over weeks, while others could quite easily be broken into smaller sessions or even mini-breaks within lecture themselves.

The introductory essay by Burke and/or Smith explains the four main types of active learning: cooperative (group tasks), collaborative (teacher and student work together), problem-based (students address complex real-world issues without absolute answers), and guided discovery (students discover answers for themselves). Overall the idea is to emphasise the processes rather than products. On top of this the introduction explains that there are eight ‘instructional strategies’: role play, simulations, games, hands-on learning, narrative, creative construction, performance and critical reflection. My first reaction was to dismiss this as the bleeding obvious and wander off to do something which involved less navel gazing (the word ‘pedagogy’ has a Pavlovian effect on me – whenever I hear it I have an irresistible urge to find a cup of tea in a different room). However, eventually I had to confess that I quite enjoyed this critique of the structure of how we teach, with a particular focus on the instructional strategies used by archaeologists. One thing that did strike me is that for a volume in a WAC series, the authors are only drawn from the US (the majority) and the UK, with a sprinkle of Australians, with no obvious representation from beyond the English-speaking world. While the Western European cultural orientation (which also probably defines the market for this book) does not negate the value of the exercises in addressing archaeological theories and concepts you would suspect that there are other perspectives and approaches out there, or that given the editors’ other interests this might have been addressed in the discussions. This is more an observation rather than a criticism.

Each chapter has a contributor presenting an example of a learning activity they personally use. I say ‘use’ rather than ‘developed’ or ‘invented’ as none of the authors claim complete originality and several of the exercises are very familiar (see my comment on osmosis, above). To paraphrase the editors (p.16), each chapter opens with a contextual piece which focuses on the aims of the teacher and the theoretical concepts which they hoped to address. Next is the exercise as presented to the students, also detailing any materials and preparations required. Finally, each author provides a reflection on the exercise, any problems or issues that arose, and ways to expand, adapt or improve. Understanding the intention behind each exercise is interesting and often something which teachers don’t make explicit, although I felt this was the area which was the most laboured and made me want to ask the editors who, exactly, these dialogues were meant to be aimed at. Since I can’t see this volume being of great interest to the wider archaeological readership, I would have to guess from the title that the intended audience is primarily university level academic educators. Some of the contextual pieces are brief and pragmatic, explaining the reasoning and need for the exercise. Others are more complex and theoretical, while a couple verge on the condescending, given the likely intended audience.

In terms of the actual exercises, most are oriented towards encouraging students to engage with the theoretical concepts and structures by which we approach interpretation, with the editors and authors stressing the notion of making the exercises ‘fun’. The six sections reflect the educational strategies employed. Under ‘Role Play’ students adopt personas in order to debate or interpret data (Burke and Smith), or engage in debates about situations such as the repatriation of the Parthenon friezes (Kersel). The ‘Games’ section includes card and dice games tying quotes or images to theoretical structures (Higginbotham), and exploring social complexity by passing lollies through a kin network (Burke and Smith). ‘Simulations’ includes the analysis of datasets to examine the development of archaeological sequences (Carman) and the sampling and statistical analysis of burials (Orton). Far more elaborate is the simulated excavation exercise familiar to many of us, although in many ways it seems a little out of place here (Bowman and Dean).

The ‘Hands-On Exercises’ approach the interpretation of rock images and pottery (Diplock and Stein, Leach), various ways to employ toilets and toilet paper in teaching (Wobst), and analysis of the contents of the lecturer’s desk draw and wastebasket (Zimmerman). There is also that perennial favourite; having students observing (ethnographic) discard behaviour in and around a rubbish bin and then analysing the (archaeological) spatial patterning and contents (Stottman, Miller and Henderson). Sadly, the last time I attempted to run a version of this exercise the edifice of university occupational health and safety and ethics requirements meant that unless the students were wearing something akin to full body armour (goodness knows what nasties are in a bin) and had signed waivers from the people discarding the material (i.e. they should be aware that half a dozen students are not only watching them but also poised to deconstruct/read/analyse their refuse), meant that it simply couldn’t happen. Finally, the ‘Creative Construction and Performance’ section includes students drawing a typical archaeologist as a way of addressing stereotypes (Renoe), using archaeological data in a short story fictional format (Berg), scenario play (Allen), and compiling thematically organised scrapbooks of articles relevant to their course (Rubertone).

Do these exercises work? Are the activities ‘fun’? Do they achieve the intended goals? Can these people actually teach? The authors are clearly earnest in their belief that these are effective educational devices, although I have seen any number of lecturers convinced of their superior teaching skills and laden with awards (often self-nominated and based on their ability to write about pedagogy rather than educate) who are held in contempt by their students. That said, many of the authors provide honest reflections about the effectiveness of their exercise at the end of their chapter, and most of the activities feel like they could be applied with success, sometimes with only minimal modification. A few (such as Higginbotham’s ‘Trivial Pursuit’-style game) require quite a lot of preparation which unless it was a significant component of the course and recycled annually, I suspect I wouldn’t have the time or energy to attempt, although it is an interesting idea nonetheless. Some also suit only small classes, probably at senior level, or particular courses and educational contexts. However, this was clearly not intended to be an off-the-shelf book of activities, so it is up to the individual teacher to find what is appropriate and modify as necessary.

Who should buy this volume? In truth, I can see this only being of interest to those already teaching archaeology in university, museum or other formal contexts and interested in thinking about what and how we do what we do. Despite my reservations about theorised teaching, simply saying ‘I produce archaeology graduates’ really doesn’t cut it any more. Attaching the ‘active learning’ discussion to real examples is not just an interesting idea, but in this era of increasing scrutiny of pedagogy (yuck) and practice it also appears to offer us a way of organising our approach to archaeological teaching within a legitimate framework.

Martin Gibbs
Review of ‘Archaeology to Delight and Instruct: Active Learning in the University Classroom’ edited by Heather Burke and Claire Smith
December 2009
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