Sitting Down, Side by Side

Come on, sit down. There’s space here beside me. Where ever you’ve been or whenever you need to go, that’s OK. You’re here right now. Take some time to sit beside me and let’s talk.

matthew-bennett-425573I’ve recently travelled, with lots of time spent in planes, trains, buses and boats. When we travel, in most forms of transportation, we are seated beside someone. The focus is not face to face. Our seats are adjacent, so we are close. While we are seated elbow to elbow, we look toward something else – the direction we’re travelling, the vista view through the window, the screen embedded on the seat in front of us, or the tech gadget we may be holding. Our conversations are shaped by our positions in this space. Our relationship to each other is altered by this positioning. We talk about things while we focus on something other than each other, and sometimes our conversations go quite deep.

The deepest conversations I have with my children happen in the enclosed space of the car, while driving from place to place. I will quickly offer to drive them anywhere just so we can have ‘car-talk-time’. When sitting side-by-side with my husband, focusing on a campfire, our conversations evolve into deeply reflective, problem solving discussions. While our eyes face forward, looking at the road or the fire, our voices become less about US as individuals, and more about US as partners, collaborators, or even co-conspirators. Thinking about online learning and talking in digital spaces, I wonder how this positioning of sitting side-by-side can be accomplished. How can a shared focus on the learning enhance instructor/student conversations and reflective practice? Rather than sharing in face-to-face conversations, can we focus the camera and our eyes onto the subject of the learning?

These thoughts are shaping my personal examination of assessment practices in online learning spaces. If the term ‘assessment’ comes from the Latin word assessus “a sitting by,” past participle of assidere/adsidere “to sit beside” (Online Etymology Dictionary), how can I create the feeling that I am sitting beside a student as they share their learning? If the focus could be on the ‘artifact’ created and the process of production as a representation of their learning, it may be easier to sit beside a student (virtually or in the same room) to ponder this ‘thing’ they’ve created. Screen share in a video chat can provide the illusion of sitting beside, but it’s a mindset over ethereal space that needs to shift. It’s an ‘imagine if’ scenario with me keeping the student’s face in my mind’s eye as we talk about the craft of learning and the object they’ve crafted as they’ve learned.

This also links to reflection. How can this focus on an object, idea, vista view, frame engage our internal voice or bring understanding with external voices? How can talking out loud, to ourselves or with others, enhance our thinking? How can audio recordings promote deeper listening. I’ve had an opportunity to do a podcast where I am able to re-listen to my words and re-frame my thinking on topics that are important to me. I’d like to build this activity into my teaching. This could be done in any course where students record their voice in reflection on topics, content or assignments to reframe their notions of learning. 

So, I’ll continue to invite students to sit down beside me, talk about their work and learning, even if we’re separated by space or even time. It’s an intricate evolution of the campfire conversations that continue to be great places to talk.


Siemens, George. (2017, September 14). Learning as artifact creation. retrieved from

Image: Photo by Matthew Bennett on Unsplash

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3 Responses to Sitting Down, Side by Side

  1. Pingback: This Week in Ontario Edublogs – doug — off the record

  2. lisamnoble says:

    Helen, this is beautiful. I’ve noticed how happy I am t drive teenaged boys anywhere for exactly this reason. We traveled as a family of 4 over the holiday and greatly enjoyed the chance to share 4 seats facing on the train. Made for good euchre playing, and good conversations.

    It really does make a difference to “frame” the assessment conversation with students as a side-by-side look at a process/product. I think for many students it makes for an easier, less intense, conversation.

    I, too, am very fond of sitting beside my life’s companion by the fire. I also find that paddling together is another good way to have conversations,

    • HJ.DeWaard says:

      Lisa, Thanks for adding these to the conversation. Such great memories and moments spent in the canoe and beside the fire. Focusing on something other than each other does help open spaces for silence, which sometimes leads to insights. Helen

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