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Kill your Powerpoints and teach like a pirate

Despite my university title, I’ve always thought that someone, one day, will discover that I’m not a “real” academic. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that when it comes to teaching, I’m by no means…

Academics need to trying new teaching methods in introductory classes if they’re to engage students. Pirate image from

Despite my university title, I’ve always thought that someone, one day, will discover that I’m not a “real” academic. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that when it comes to teaching, I’m by no means a traditionalist.

Over the years, colleagues within my institution and beyond have accused me of everything from dumbing down what I teach to being more of a talk show host than an academic. They insist that students read the “sociological classics” – and if one in five fails as a result of this approach, so be it.

But last month, I found a way to tell these critics to, in Bart Simpson’s words, eat my shorts.

At a ceremony in Canberra, I was surprised to be named the Prime Minister’s University Teacher of the Year Award.

While the Prime Minister’s Award is a significant public recognition, even more important is what it represents – that trying new and unconventional teaching methods is not just a nice idea but a real way to engage students and help them learn.

Trying something new

I spend much time reflecting on how to get the best out of my students – even if it means dancing at the front of the class. And I have found that unconventional teaching methods work far better for first year students than many old techniques.

The safe option is to put together a bunch of PowerPoint slides with quotes from thinkers like David Harvey, David Held and Jean Baudrillard. These are inspiring and insightful authors that have a lot to offer.

But while I find these authors interesting, they can also be dense, and for first year students their discussions and examples can seem remote and often irrelevant.

As a lecturer, it is hard work to keep the students engaged, and the success rates are dependent on the cohort, time of semester, the assessment requirements of other subjects and even bad weather.

Chaos in the classroom

Five years ago, I began trying a radically different way to teach the concepts of chaos theory.

Instead of just talking, I start the lecture with a number of body percussion exercises – 400 students loudly clap and strike their bodies in time with each other. I explain how much like a 4/4 beat followed by a ¾ beat, certain processes in our globalised world are actually in-sync, and can be relatively easy to identify.

The next stage is to then perform a “flash mob” with about 100 students at the front of the lecture theatre.

After briefing the students on what to do, they come to the front of the lecture and perform an exercise that requires them to stand equally distant from two people within the “mob” – with those two people having no idea they are about to be mimicked.

The effect is amazing: as one person moves, the various people that are mimicking this individual also move, and the waves of action spread through the group as the ripple effect multiples.

It is a demonstration of how we are connected in a ways that we often do not see, how such relations are often not obvious and are impossible to foresee.

Once this knowledge has been established, it is possible to introduce the work of theorists like Harvey, Held and Baudrillard in ways that the student cohort can relate to.

I follow such lectures up with a specifically made YouTube video, written materials, newspaper articles, Facebook interactions and, of course, scholarly readings.

The bigger picture

It is a teaching method that can be used when discussing everything from gender and race, to technology, class and social movements.

Though some detail is sacrificed, what is more important is that the concepts are grasped.

In this way, I may not delve into the intricacies of Marx or Hegel, but instead find ways to show how class and class relations are real, alive, shape both our agency and structures in society, and will affect our life chances.

My position is that those who want to study the detail will have ample chance later in their degree; rather, the aim is to ensure that the majority of the 400 to 1,000 students in the cohort will see concepts such as “class” as something existing around them and relevant to their lives.

Getting results

The response has been overwhelming from the students.

In addition to their feedback and unsolicited emails, I have found their results as well as attendance improve as I have introduced such practices.

In fact, for the first year subject I have come to focus much of my work on, I have seen the fail and absent fail rate drop from over 20% to below 5%.

Just as important has been the response from colleagues who teach my former students in second, third and fourth year.

These colleagues have informed me that they know when a student has been through my introductory subject because, while the students may not recall all the details, they have always grasped the concepts.

Pillars of knowledge

My teaching approach is made up of three pillars, which I vary depending on the student cohort.

My starting point is to see students as engaged in their community, rather than seeing them as being in deficit (or citizens in waiting).

Secondly, I work to decipher the world with living theories. I begin with examples and case studies that are both relevant and contemporary before I introduce theory.

Finally, I encourage students to see themselves as agents of change on an ongoing journey.

Using case studies to highlight the power relationships and structures around us, I advance a sense of active agency amongst the students, highlighting how they can make change happen.

Academic pirates

Once, a student told me that I was an “academic pirate”. His explanation was that at a university established to serve the lower-socioeconomic population of greater western Sydney, rather than the wealthier students of a sandstone institution, I had adapted my language and approach to work for the students.

He said he considered me a pirate because “pirates were resourceful… they learnt to use their environment.”

The critics of my approach remain unconvinced. But as long as the students that I have been lucky enough to teach continue succeed in their various endeavours, then such criticisms can be kept in perspective.

Join the conversation

16 Comments sorted by

  1. Carol Daly


    Yes! Thank you for doing things better and winning the prize, pirate.
    For many years a growing body of knowledge called pedagogy on how people learn has been available. It has been researched, used and best practice developed. Usually by that group of people to whom we entrust our children during the day, teachers. Because teachers are not well respected in our community as a profession, their knowledge and insights are overlooked.
    When I returned to university study recently, the teaching method had not changed since I left in 1977. Imagine if the subject content had not included any research or developments since 1977!
    When universities get so much of their funding from teaching undergraduates why don't they teach the lecturers how to teach? Just go down to your local infant or primary school to see how people are helped to learn; those teachers know how to do it even without PhDs because they teach as their profession.

  2. Julie Leslie

    GIS Coordinator

    Thank you! I never had you as a lecturer, but I wish I had.

    I had some of the worst learning experiences at uni. Teaching is a skill - not something you magically pick up because you have a degree. It is beyond crazy that we don't require uni lecturers to have even a Cert IV in Training and Assessment, but they teach some of most complex ideas that people will ever learn.

    Those critics are just lazy.

  3. Cat Mack

    logged in via Facebook

    Actually, universities do typically require lecturing staff to undergo teacher training and while teaching staff do have an obligation to engage and offer effective pedagogical practice, students also have obligations in regard to their own learning. Indeed, it was once a significant part of undertaking a university degree that one took ultimate responsibility for one's own education. There is just a touch of the 'education as entertainment' here. - I don't think the comparison with infant school…

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  4. Cat Mack

    logged in via Facebook

    Also see article on this site.
    Education in the information age: is technology making us stupid?
    It is easy to entertain - its actually much harder to teach.

  5. Madeleine Rowland

    logged in via Facebook

    Awesome stuff! I hope you can inspire others to think outside the box with their teaching methods.

  6. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Congratulations James! I interpolate from "My position is that those who want to study the detail will have ample chance later in their degree; rather, the aim is to ensure that the majority of the 400 to 1,000 students in the cohort will see concepts such as “class” as something existing around them and relevant to their lives." that the learning outcomes you teach to are expressed in terms of mastery of concepts rather than mastery of theorists. Especially in an introductory course, this is important…

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  7. Comment removed by moderator.

  8. Sue Ieraci

    Public hospital clinician

    There are great exemplars in Pirate Education methods. My personal favourite is Capt Abdul's Pirate School by Colin McNaughton.

    The curriculum includes "such essential pirate topics as treasure, how to make cannon balls and the correct way to say, "Ooh arrgh!"

  9. Daryl Adair

    Associate Professor of Sport Management at University of Technology, Sydney

    Hi James, I wish you well. The student engagement strategies are interesting, so too the use of video with you featuring. In my experience, it does not matter too much what resources or techniques you bring to the class room. Instead, what is fundamentally required are passion for the topic, energy in delivery, capacity to communicate effectively, a commitment to be interactive, a willingness to provoke (not just explain), and a determination to ensure that students leave the lecture or tutorial space talking to each other about what they have just experienced. If a teacher can tick those boxes, whatever strategy they use, then they'd doing a great job. I personally like to mix and match with audio clips, videos, role plays, and so on, but sometimes the subject matter - such as terrorism or suicide - requires a different ambience. Best wishes with your classes and well done with the teaching award.

  10. Jim KABLE


    Bravo James! Those who can - TEACH! Those who can't - pooh-pooh!

    Teaching is to engage; to enliven; to motivate: it is to open doorways into deeper understanding - from which the students may soar to whatever heights.

  11. Peter Sommerville

    Scientist & Technologist

    What a refreshingly different article James. What's more it INTERESTING as well. Thank you.

    One of my favourite lecturers at University was actually able to engage her students in what is to many a very dry topic, by using chalk and a blackboard. Some teachers really do know how to teach.

    Well done.

  12. Sabrina Achilles

    Academic at University of Western Sydney

    Hi James,
    Congrats on the award! I too teach with a variety of tactics that enhance accessibility, as I know many of our fellow academics do. I haven’t ventured into the social media realm with students as yet; a bit of an ethical mind field I haven’t had the time to ponder):
    But I did want to relate to you a recent teaching experience that I think raises issues with the distinction you make between theory and practice. When I asked a group of 200 students to each choose just one concept only from their readings to relate to the film text of study I found the majority of students did not know what a concept was! This was a level 3 unit. And so, I don’t think the question is one of doing either or, the maco/micro or abstracted/enacted-embodied-embedded thing with the students, but of showing the students the relationship between the enacted and the abstract/concept.
    Very Best,
    Sabrina Achilles.

  13. Clare Hall

    Lecturer - Performing Arts

    Bravo James. What strikes me about your teaching approach is your wonderful fusion of the ARTS and research-led teaching. I'd love to see you and your students in full flight one day. Us arts-based educators dream of the day when dancing and singing in a lecture is not seen by our students as 'piracy' ;)

    Please keep writing about your (mis)adventures.

  14. Michael Boezi

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I have a ton of respect for those who respect teaching. As a Real Teacher, you might enjoy this, about the course materials you (may or may not) use: Ethics Matter to Real Teachers

  15. Maggie Hall

    logged in via email

    It's great that you're a dedicated, courageous teacher, that students find meaningful learning with you, and that they grasp concepts rather than rote facts. It's great that students who are not from traditional university backgrounds find a home in your classroom.

    Your claims are very thin though. On what measure are your students succeeding? Aren't you the one that marks their work and sets up the grading scheme? (You speak on behalf of your students, and select ones at that. That is the one…

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