Hospitality in the Learning Experience

When we talk about improving teaching and learning, the focus is often on moving beyond the content-is-king approach to consider more deeply who our learners are and which methods will most effectively facilitate learning. Widening the lens on teaching to include these elements is often the work of instructional designers and faculty developers. Our tool kits contain tips about learning styles, adaptive technology, age appropriateness, session objectives and everything in between. But there is one thing we rarely discuss, something so simple on the surface that it’s often an oversight but can, I think, make or break a learning experience. It’s teaching as an act of hospitality.

I’m not talking about concierge education or luxury service. I mean hospitality in the sense of generous reception and attentive hosting. I’m talking about the way we treat our friends and family when they arrive in our homes, with acknowledgement of their needs, orientation to their surroundings and information about what to expect.

In the classroom or learning space, what might this look like? I take my cues here from my own experiences as a student in both hospitable and inhospitable learning spaces. I remember a final math exam during winter term in high school in a room without heat, and a teacher’s irritation in fifth grade when I interrupted her lesson by needing a tissue. I remember a grad school professor who always wrote the day’s plan on the board, and the first time a college prof asked us all to introduce ourselves. These moments stick with me not for their significance in my life but for the way they made me feel as a person. We forget, I think, amidst the demands and challenges of teaching, that our students are first and foremost human beings.

A little refresher:

While Maslow defined this basic hierarchy of needs to understand human motivation, I’m interested in how the stages of the pyramid inform, facilitate or hinder learning. How well can we take in new information when we are hungry, freezing, or overwhelmed? How creative can we be if we’re feeling unsafe? How does our ability to learn expand and contract in response to social cues? Eric Jensen’s book, Teaching With the Brain in Mind, is an excellent resource in this regard and covers everything from basic biological needs like food and water to the importance of rest and reflection, the impact of fluorescent lightning and the need for movement at different ages.

From my own tool kit as a learning experience designer, here are some simple things we can do as educators to take human needs into account:

Physiology: Orient yourself and your students to the physical space and their physical needs.

  • Where are the bathrooms and water fountain? When can they use them?
  • Is the room too hot or too cold?
  • Is there natural light and air flow? Is someone being blinded by the sun?
  • Is there enough space for the size of the group?
  • Is eating in class allowed?
  • Is standing, stretching and movement during class encouraged? Are the seats/desks/tables comfortable and ergonomic?

Psychology: Communicate (and co-develop) group norms with your students. What can they expect from you? What do you expect from them?

  • Raising hands or open discussion?
  • Right on time or wiggle room?
  • What’s going to happen today?
  • When can they ask questions?
  • Are there rules? Are they non-negotiable?
  • How will you handle discrimination, disrespect or hostility?
  • Where can they go for help?

More plainly: invite your students in. Be hospitable.

In my work with colleagues at Dartmouth to identify what it takes to be an effective teacher, we’ve explored knowledge and skills that can be learned, but also values and qualities which seem more innate: curiosity, empathy, social ease. There is intersectionality between and among all these things–skills and values overlap, qualities and knowledge are mutually supporting. Teaching as an act of hospitality is another element that I think falls somewhere in between.

There are a hundred other things we can do to acknowledge and meet the needs of our learners. What would you add to the list?

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