Ashley Burgess, from the Griffith Film School, received a 2018 Griffith Award for Excellence in Teaching and a Griffith Learning and Teaching Citation for creating an immersive experiential learning environment that is transformative for students, shifting their world view.
We asked Ashley to tell us a bit more about his teaching practice and how immersive learning experiences enhance student learning outcomes.
What motivates and inspires you in your teaching?
I love the moments when I see my students come alive and get amongst it. Most of my teaching takes place in the outback or overseas and I’m generally asking the students to make films under very tight time constraints, in unfamiliar environments and with people they don’t know. They are usually intimidated at first, especially when making a film in a remote village in a different language, but there is almost always a point where they get so caught up in creating their film that their fears melt away. When they get to the end they are often very surprised by what they’ve managed to achieve. Seeing someone realise that they are capable of so much more than they thought possible are the moments I cherish the most in my teaching and those are the moments that motivate me to try something new and create new ways of engaging my students.
How have teaching practices in your discipline changed with the introduction of new technologies, and how has technology changed the way you interact and engage with your students?
Technology has made filmmaking much more accessible. Anyone with a phone can now make incredible content very easily. Filmmaking has always been about connecting people through stories and today’s technology puts the world at our fingertips. Our students can shoot a film in Vanuatu and have friends comment on it in Australia minutes later. Every industry now depends on video to communicate and this puts our graduates in the very enviable position of being in high demand no matter what sector they choose to work in. We spend a considerable amount of time in the film degree using technology to make collaboration and production more efficient but we are also increasingly mindful of the need to differentiate the mastery of film craft from the mastery of technology. Film craft is about connecting people and helping us to understand what it means to be human. The best technology helps us to do that without drawing attention to itself or distracting us.
How can immersive learning experiences enhance student learning outcomes?
I’m a big believer in immersive learning. When I first started teaching I thought it was all about the content I taught. I would agonise over every slide and fret over every detail. I would then be devastated the following semester when students had forgotten half of what I’d taught. Consequently, I try not to ‘teach’ anymore. I put all my energy into constructing immersive learning opportunities for students where they ‘discover’ for themselves the principles I want them to understand.
In our Outback Filmmaking Bootcamp, for example, students have to make a film in a week and screen it as part of the film festival in front of their peers and industry professionals. They attempt to make films that are very ambitious to wow the audience. A crisis naturally occurs when their ambition exceeds their capacity and the film is on the brink of failure. It is at this point that students are most eager to learn and we can work together to find a creative solution and save the film.
Such a mini crisis has an amazing capacity to focus the students’ attention on creative problem solving and collaboration. They become highly motivated to succeed and when they finally see their film up on the big screen and hear that applause those key learnings become deeply significant and are rarely forgotten. I find students learn best when the course learning outcomes are very closely aligned with the students’ own personal goals. Our job as educators is to engineer that alignment.
What have you learnt throughout your academic career about creating an engaging learning experience for students, and what have you gained from experimenting with new approaches that didn’t quite work out?
I used to think that as the teacher it was my job to have all the answers, but that approach just made me increasingly insecure, as the older I got the more I realised how little I actually knew. Now I spend as much time with students talking about why we are approaching something the way we are in a course as I do about the content itself. We often spend quite a bit of time discussing the course designs.
As a filmmaker, I would always do this on set with the crew and with audiences after screenings. It was a great way of seeing my practice through fresh eyes. Now I find myself increasingly doing the same thing with students.
Students are often surprised at how quickly I’ll adapt a course based on their feedback and I think that dynamism changes something in the way they engage with a course. I think it’s because we become co-creators and co-learners and that is empowering for everybody and shifts the course outcomes from passive or receptive to active and creative. When students see me experiment with a course, for example, they feel like it is a safe place to experiment with their own creations, such as their films. They realise it is good to take risks, play with new ideas and even fail. I sometimes joke with students that I want them to try and fail, but that they must fail spectacularly, for it seems to me that many revolutionary creative breakthroughs could also be interpreted as spectacular failures, and the difference is sometimes very slight and only a matter of perspective. It’s exciting for students to play in that space.
Given it isn’t always easy to innovate within a learning and teaching context, what advice do you have for colleagues looking to try something new in their teaching?
For me, a journal was the key. I started observing how I actually learnt, rather than assuming how I learnt. I realised very quickly that being told something or reading it very rarely resulted in me understanding something sufficiently to be able to put it into practice or communicate it to someone else with confidence. Rather, I found I learnt by having a pressing problem I couldn’t avoid and have to figure a way out of it. My research was then active and the time pressure helped focus my attention. I then applied these principles to my teaching and it’s been better for everyone. I believe journaling your own learning process could help refine teaching in other contexts besides film.
What is something new you are looking forward to trying in your learning and teaching practice over the next year or so?
I’m trying to focus on the students as the custodians of their own learning and working with them to co-create the learning scenarios that I normally engineer for them. I’ve dabbled with it and I find it enables students to be able to stand back, even in a ‘crisis’, and critically evaluate the situation and then think rationally about how best to proceed. I’ve found that when students consciously create problems for themselves, they are much less inclined to be victims or protest at the difficulty of the challenge but rather double down and achieve remarkable results.
What advice do you have for educators looking to enhance their teaching practice?
This may sound counter-intuitive, but I think the best way to improve teaching practice is to teach less and facilitate learning more.