The call for students to desert from AgroParisTech or the recent forum for students from the Écoles Normales Supérieures demonstrate this forcefully: the new generations are less and less satisfied with current scientific courses. They do not necessarily find them up to the challenge.
Young people need to understand why learning science can help them to truly face the crises to come, starting with the ecological crisis. It is no longer enough to teach them the art of equations, even if it remains necessary. They must also be taught to work in groups, to create, to put formal knowledge into context and, even more difficult, to feel that they are actors in the changes to come, not just observers.
Many colleagues are already developing lessons in this direction. But individual initiatives are no longer enough, we have to rethink all of our courses, draw inspiration from innovations that have already been tested, the results of research in educational science, think about the level of establishments and disciplinary departments, in short, community to take up this crucial issue, and quickly.
There remains, however, a technical problem. When we meet with colleagues to discuss pedagogical innovation, we paradoxically favor classic formats. How many times have I given presentations on the art of teaching in an innovative and active way, while I myself was in front of a PowerPoint on a stage in front of a silent room?
How many working groups called upon to innovate have I taken part in, where we were all seated around a large table, in meeting format, each one discreetly consulting his emails? When the form is opposed to this point to the substance, these high masses of innovation generally do not lead to much new.
This is the dilemma we had to face when we wanted, with colleagues from the University of Paris-Saclay, to organize a workshop to rethink our teaching of physics. What framework should we offer our participants so that they can imagine other pedagogies together?
To build a device that escapes the defects of the usual conferences, we have chosen to collaborate with designers, as we already do for our popularization and teaching activities . Design is not just for embellishment. It makes it possible to think about the very construction of an event in all its dimensions. For this workshop, two designers helped us build the program and imagine the activities. They also designed a whole coherent graphic universe for the visuals. Then they helped us host and film the event, which they then transformed into a website to ensure its sustainability.
To find the right format, we took the opposite view of traditional conferences. The American Physical Society’s annual conference is a good example of what we wanted to escape. Each year, it brings together nearly ten thousand physicists for five days in a large congress centre. The sessions follow one another at a military pace, 12 minutes per intervention, ten interventions per session, sixty sessions in parallel. It has adapted in recent years to hybrid modalities. But this format goes against what we were trying to promote. So we built its opposite, point by point.
Instead of opening the participation to a large number of participants, we limited ourselves to thirty speakers. Instead of chaining orals or posters all day, we restricted ourselves to a single presentation per day. Instead of choosing a large conference center, we were lucky enough to benefit from the premises of the Institut Pascal , a place specially designed to accommodate researchers in collaborative mode, with work and discussion spaces, rather than a simple series of classrooms and amphitheatres.
Instead of inviting the big names in education to inspire participants during charismatic “keynotes”, we invited colleagues in the field who innovate on their own scale without necessarily aiming to change the world. Denis Terwagne, a researcher from Brussels, imagines for example lessons inspired by fab labs, by bringing together students in physics and architecture. Claire Mâche, a researcher from the University of Paris-Saclay, offers a course on climate issues where she has her students take concrete measurements directly on the building. Giovanni Organtini, from the University of Rome, uses very low cost tools such as smartphones or Arduino boards to teach experimental physics. Fun-Man Fung, a Singaporean chemist, does not hesitate to film himself with a 360° camera to show live from the bench to his students how to conduct an experiment. Rebecca Vieyra helps broadcast interactive simulations around the world.
Instead of a conference of a few days in hybrid mode, we asked participants to come for two whole weeks in person. This duration can be discouraging and pose practical problems. But it allows for active engagement over the duration of the entire workshop. Moreover, at the time of the climate crisis, it is becoming more and more difficult to justify express round trips by plane for only one or two days. Finally, such a duration allowed us to imagine a program in two stages.
Create a collective
During the first week, a series of creative and intense activities were offered. We wanted to help participants get to know each other, show them that they could work and build together in a good mood.
To do this, we gave them fun and immersive experiences related to physics. For example, they were immersed in a fiction in a world of spies where they had to invent a device that protects an egg and makes the most noise when falling from 5 meters high. We also wanted colleagues to discuss their practices. Instead of a series of presentations, we offered them new methods of exchange.
For example, in the “snowball” workshop, everyone tells another about their innovation, who takes notes on a dedicated sheet. Then each pair meets with another pair to summarize their exchanges. Then they get together with two other pairs, and so on. Finally, all the files are displayed in the form of a small thematic exhibition, which can be visited freely. Ultimately, everyone has heard of all the innovations, and the sheets serve as raw material for other more forward-looking workshops. We also tested theatre/mime, brainstorming that ended in a prospective video, etc.
This very dense first part made it possible to build a form of small human and professional community in confidence, ready to innovate in the rest of the workshop.
Build and invent together
The rest, precisely, we had voluntarily decided not to foresee it. At the beginning of the second week, the participants built the program themselves. Ideas flowed. “Let’s imagine together a lesson in the nearby forest”. “Let’s have an Alcoholics Anonymous-style session where everyone shares their problems as teachers and asks others for help.” “Let’s have a ‘teach me something’ morning where everyone can teach the others a practice.” “Let’s imagine an international network to support training and innovation”.
So we all had a wonderfully free and creative week. Now confident and uninhibited, we were able to build together, research together, think together, and even have fun together. We spent a morning in the forest imagining an immersive education for our first-year students. We attended a cello concert linking physics and music. We learned to use mime for educational breaks in lecture halls. We explored new course modalities. All in all, we had the feeling of innovating, or at least of exchanging in a fertile way.
All in all, we succeeded in giving around thirty teacher-researchers an inspiring and fertile workshop. But is this enough to reinvent education? Certainly not, because the other colleagues are lacking, the time to test, evaluate, consolidate, the institutions and a more political point of view are lacking.
In the end, this small conference was rather an opportunity to test a new, more participatory workshop format. This is why the website associated with the event brings together not only the productions but above all all the recipes to animate such a format. Even over shorter periods of time, certain ideas or workshops can be taken up and adapted to various contexts. In summary, if you expect a collective to innovate in pedagogical matters, do not settle for a meeting or brainstorming with post-its.
Take the time to build the right format. Provide a creative framework for your colleagues, and they will be more creative. Behind this truism perhaps hides one of the key challenges of the transformations to come.
Author Bio: Julien Bobroff is a Physicist, University Professor at Paris-Saclay University
The author would like to thank the other organizers of the workshop described above: Frédéric Bouquet (Faculty of Sciences, Univ. Paris-Saclay), Jeanne Parmentier (Institut Villebon-Georges Charpak), Fabienne Bernard (Institut d’Optique Graduate School) and designers Lou-Andreas Etienne and Adèle Nyitrai