CTIE Workshop with Bryan Alexander (March 13)

Bryan-AlexanderWe are fortunate to have Bryan Alexander join us at Oberlin College on March 13 (4:30-6:30 PM at CTIE). He is one of the country’s leading proponents of creative and connective technology in education. More a conversation than a workshop, we want to take advantage of Alexander’s expertise to explore how technology can enhance, rather than undermine, what we do at 4-year, residential liberal arts colleges. Those of us who teach and work at these institutions (around 2% of all institutions of higher education) are being pummeled from all sides, continually asked to do more with less. When technology is offered as a “solution,” it often comes in less-than-appealing ways because they undercut what we do and who we are. A truly unique soul, Alexander knows and respects the teaching and learning core of liberal arts colleges. He received his doctorate in English literature from the University of Michigan, focusing on the Gothic, and taught at the college level for many years. Until recently, he was senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), helping colleges develop technology to serve and extend their educational purposes. We expect the conversation to be not just informative, but extremely useful in helping us think about the future of the liberal arts institution and how technology can keep us true to our mission.

Here are some of Alexander’s writings you can peruse in preparation of the meeting:

“Has Higher Ed Peaked?” in Inside Higher Education, April 7, 2014.
“Higher Education in 2024: Glimpsing the Future,” in Educause Review, Sept. 15, 2014
“Open Education in the Liberal Arts: A NITLE Working Paper,” with Lisa Spiro, April 12, 2012
“Web 2.0 Storytelling: Emergence of a New Genre,” with Alan Levine, in Educause Review, Nov-Dec. 2008

You might also be interested in his book, The New Digital Storytelling: Creating Narratives with New Media (Santa Monica: Praeger, 2011), available through the library in print and digital version.




Throw out the textbook! Or: How I learned to stop worrying and let my students write their own textbooks instead

Lola Thompson, February 22, 2015
(Department of Mathematics, Oberlin College)

 Bruce Stokes, Perche Yes!. CC (Perche no!, Florence, Italy)

Bruce Stokes, Perche Yes!. CC (Perche no!, Florence, Italy)

I have always had a complicated relationship with textbooks. As an undergraduate, I read my mathematics textbooks meticulously in order to justify my class-skipping tendencies. It all started when I realized that one of my professors was copying his lectures verbatim from a different textbook. Feeling clever, I purchased the textbook that he was using and spent the rest of the semester reading it at a gelato shop during our regular class period. In subsequent semesters, I ate a lot of gelato and learned a great deal of math, but only set foot in the classroom on rare occasions.

As a graduate student instructor, I began to see things from the opposite perspective. I was determined not to have my students share my former attitude towards class attendance. I wanted my classes to be an indispensable component of my students’ learning. I would pepper each class period with a mix of worksheets, hands-on demonstrations, and highly interactive lectures, all of which built upon the basic assumption that the students had completed the assigned reading beforehand. I slowly had to resign myself to the reality that the vast majority of my students would never get into the habit of reading the text before class. Various attempts at training my students to read mathematics seemed to fail; too many of them struggled with parsing the dense symbol-filled paragraphs and came to class hoping that my lecture would cover exactly what they missed in the textbook. As textbook prices climbed, fewer of my students bothered to purchase the book in the first place. Over time, out of necessity, my lectures started to imitate the textbook sections. I began to seriously question the purpose of textbooks (and, to be honest, my role as an educator).

Adam Mulligan , Math - CC

Adam Mulligan , Math – CC

After some reflection, I decided to ban textbooks in some of my courses at Oberlin. I have also stopped lecturing in those courses. Instead, students are expected to discover the bulk of the course material for themselves and disseminate this newfound knowledge by presenting at the blackboard in front of their peers. During each class period, the students are given carefully-scaffolded lists of problems which encourage them to test examples, formulate conjectures based on the examples, and then try to prove their conjectures. The students work on these problems in assigned groups of 3-4. The groups are re-shuffled every two weeks, with the goal of exposing students to the benefits (and challenges) of working with different collaborators.

Divine Harvester, Nothing says FUN like Math 'n' Stuff - CC

Divine Harvester, Nothing says FUN like Math ‘n’ Stuff – CC

A typical lesson plan is divided into three components:

  • Before Class: Students have two days to read a 1-2 page “Pre-Class Reading,” which consists mainly of definitions and reading comprehension questions (questions designed to test their understanding of the definitions and foreshadow the ideas that will be discussed during the following class period). The goal of the Pre-Class Reading is to introduce a new topic without giving too much away. The Pre-Class Readings are intentionally extremely short so that no one has an excuse to skip them.
  • During Class: At the beginning of each class, I select a few students to present the reading comprehension problems in front of their classmates. This provides the students with an opportunity to hone their oral presentation skills. It also ensures that everyone is on the same page before we split into groups. I try to interject as little as possible during the student presentations because I want the students to look to one another for ideas (rather than seeking my approval or viewing me as the sole expert in the room). This usually takes about 15 minutes. The students spend the remainder of the class period working on In-Class Problems in their assigned groups. During this time, the course’s OWLS Leader[*] and I will walk around the room and dole out hints (once we feel that the students have struggled an appropriate amount). We also probe the students to explain their ideas to us and we try to mediate the group dynamics.
  • After Class: After the class period ends, each group is expected to carefully write up a single set of solutions for all of the In-Class Problems. There are an additional 1-3 problems assigned at the end of each class period that are designated as Homework Problems. These problems tie in with the daily content but they’re less foundational. For example, a Homework Problem might take a concept from the In-Class Problems and present it in a new context. Each individual student has to write up their own solutions to the Homework Problems. The students seem to appreciate this mix of individual assessment and group assessment opportunities.

As one might imagine, my students generate large volumes of written work over the course of the semester. All of this written work is collected on a weekly basis and “rewarded” with generous amounts of extremely nit-picky comments. This provides the students with an incentive to revise their work. At the end of the semester, each student will compile all of their written work into their very own textbook. The textbooks are graded on a number of criteria, which include: clarity of exposition, organization of subject matter into chapters, and correctness of their solutions. The main purpose of the textbook is to provide an outlet for students to learn from their mistakes. I once watched in horror as a student retrieved his graded homework, glancing casually at his numerical score before depositing it in a nearby trashcan without even reading the comments that I had laboriously written on the back of the page!

Spiked Math , The Laplace Transformer - CC spikedmath.com

Spiked Math , The Laplace Transformer – CC

Now that my students have to revise their work for the textbook project, they show up in my office, graded homework in hand, eager to decipher all of the red ink. In order to streamline the editing process, I require that all of my students type up their homework using LaTeX, a mathematical typesetting language. For collaborative assignments, they use an online LaTeX editor called ShareLaTeX, which allows the students in a given group to edit the same document simultaneously and coordinate their plans using the accompanying chat window.

I can’t claim most of these pedagogical innovations as my own original ideas. I have received a great deal of inspiration through attending conferences and workshops on Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL), a variant of active learning that is currently gaining traction in the mathematics community.[†] The idea of structuring each lesson with specific pre-class, in-class, and post-class tasks came from a talk given by David Pengelley at the Legacy of R. L. Moore Conference. The carefully-scaffolded worksheets that I have designed were initially conceived at the NSF-sponsored IBL Workshop that I attended at Kenyon College last summer. I have been fortunate to receive a great deal of mentoring from the IBL community throughout the process of developing and running these courses. I have also had amazing support from my colleagues in the Mathematics Department while I have experimented with these new teaching methods.

I still have a complicated relationship with textbooks. Now, they clutter the Desktop on my iMac and fill several drawers of filing cabinet space in my office. Some include elaborate anime-themed illustrations or cryptic dedications to family and friends. One was written entirely in 180-character tweets, complete with hashtags like #1amMathLibrary2daysstraight #MinimalRegrets. Each textbook is special to me. When I read them, I hear my students’ voices in their writing, and I remember their joy at finally figuring out the solution to a particular problem.

If you have any questions or are interested in brainstorming ways to use textbook projects in your own courses, please don’t hesitate to contact me (Lola.Thompson@Oberlin.edu).

[*] The Oberlin Workshop and Learning Sessions (OWLS) program is based on the Supplemental Instruction (SI) model for coursework support. Sessions are specific for a class, and are facilitated by a student (an OWLS Leader) who has taken the class and attends the class again along with the current students. The OWLS sessions integrate both “what to learn” and “how to learn”, that is, the content of the course as well as learning skills, in a fun, active and collaborative fashion that has been proved to work effectively for students to master coursework content.

[†] See, for example, Peggy Brickman, Cara Gormally, Norris Armstrong, and Brittan Hallar, “Effects of Inquiry-based Learning on Students’ Science Literacy Skills and Confidence,” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 3:2 (July 2009), and John R. Savery, “Overview of Problem-Based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions,” in Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem Based Learning 1:1 (Spring 2006): 9-20.

Can We Remove the Risk from Adopting New Teaching Approaches?

Steve Volk, February 15, 2015

Last week I wrote about preparing students for active learning. This week I wanted to present one recommendation for helping interested faculty prepare more active learning teaching designs for their classrooms. I should start by saying that faculty assuredly don’t need advice from me on how to construct remarkable, active learning environments since this kind of approach happens in classrooms around the campus on a daily basis. I plan to showcase some examples as “Articles of the Week” entries very soon. Rather, my worry is that some faculty will hesitate to adopt such approaches out of concern for how they might be received by students.

Roger, Risk Management James Hotel Lobby Picture NYC NY (CC)

Roger, Risk Management James Hotel Lobby Picture NYC NY (CC)

And that’s not an idle concern. The literature seems to suggest that faculty might be evaluated more negatively in active learning contexts than in more traditional lecture courses. The Center for Teaching Excellence at Cornell cautions, in a rather understated fashion, that “Some students may not accept new learning activities with complete ease.” A 2011 study by Amy E. Covill [“College Students’ Perceptions of the Traditional Lecture Method,” College Student Journal 45:1 (March 2011)] goes further, finding that “many students may resist, and even be hostile toward, teachers’ attempts to use active learning methods.” Eric Mazur, the Harvard physics professor who has become something of a celebrity in the field of peer instruction and active learning, commented that his approach draws “a lot of student resistance.” He adds, “You should see some of the vitriolic e-mails I get. The generic complaint is that they have to do all the learning themselves. Rather than lecturing, I’m making them prepare themselves for class—and in class, rather than telling them things, I’m asking them questions. They’d much rather sit there and listen and take notes.”

While there is not a lot of reliable research on the subject, in one careful study of a large, introductory biology course (“A Delicate Balance: Integrating Active Learning into a Large Lecture Course”), the authors found that when comparing “traditional” (mostly lecture) courses with more active courses, “student evaluations of the instructors (on items such as overall teaching ability, knowledge of subject, respect and concern for students, how much learned, the course overall) were significantly and substantially higher in the traditional than in the active section” (my emphasis).

CBE Life Sciences Education

CBE Life Sciences Education

Junior Faculty, Risk-Taking, and Pedagogy

For junior faculty in particular, the risks associated with adopting more active learning techniques and moving away from standard lectures can be considerable. Many, perhaps most, will move ahead with such pedagogies regardless, because they feel comfortable with them and have found that they produce the deepest learning for their students. Some may not want to go there because they simply don’t feel comfortable using such teaching approaches. A few might be cautioned by their departments to “go slow,” waiting until after a tenure decision before shaking their students’ apple carts too forcefully. And some are sufficiently worried about their students’ reactions that they will choose to wait the 7 years until they feel less vulnerable.

Whatever the situation, it seems that a case can be made for creating a “risk-free” zone for junior faculty who are interested in introducing more active learning techniques into the mix of their teaching. This is not to say that such faculty will no longer be responsible for what goes on in their classes, a free pass of sorts equivalent to the student demand that no one should fail the course. In fact, if anything, faculty will be required to be more intentional about their pedagogic choices and to assess the results of their methods. What it will mean is that evaluation of the course will be untethered from the traditional Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs).

risk Free

Here’s how such a proposal could work. I encourage others to chime in to clarify and improve it.

The Proposal

  1. Each semester or year (the choice between them depending on available resources), pre-tenure faculty will be allowed to designate one course as an “innovative pedagogy” class. Instructors would prepare a brief (2-3 page) prospectus of the basic pedagogic innovations they plan to employ in the course, what informs their approach (citing some of the literature that supports the approach), some examples of how this pedagogy would look in action (perhaps a description of one week of classes), and how they intend to assess the impact of their approach on student learning in the class. Interested faculty would be able to get advice and feedback at regularly scheduled workshops organized by CTIE.
  1. Proposals would be approved by department/program chairs, who, in turn, would send their approval to the dean’s office and to the director of CTIE to allow further consultation and formative observation if requested.
  1. Instructors would be expected to consult with CTIE (or other faculty recommended by CTIE) over the course of the semester.
  1. At the end of the semester, faculty would assess their courses along the lines traced out in their original (or revised) proposal and would also distribute standard SET forms to their students. These would be collected and stored in the stipulated fashion, and would go to the faculty member when grades were turned in. But they would only be sent to the College Faculty Council if so requested by the faculty member.
  1. In lieu of, or together with, the standard SET forms, the faculty member would prepare a short narrative evaluation of the course including the original design proposal, any changes made, the instructor’s evaluation of student learning and engagement in the course based on their own assessment materials, and any recommendations for changes to the course design in the future.

There are, no doubt, many issues with the proposal and many ways it could be strengthened. But encouraging junior faculty to experiment with their teaching approaches in an informed, but not unduly risky, fashion seems worth exploring further.

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning

Steven Volk, February 8, 2015

David Gooblar had a good column on “Why Students Resist Active Learning” in a recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That led me to all sorts of similar posts such as “Hang in There! Dealing with Student Resistance to Learning-Centered Teaching” by Rick Reis at Stanford, or “’What if Students Revolt?’ – Considering Student Resistance: Origins, Options, and Opportunities for Investigation,” by Shannon Seidel and Kimberly Tanner for CBE Life Sciences Education. When the articles began to sound more like counterinsurgency techniques than pedagogy, I stopped looking. But why look elsewhere when we have lots of examples in our own classrooms. Probably from this past week.

Here are a few things to think about when considering active learning techniques that have worked for many of us. There are a number of reasons why faculty are wary of active learning approaches, and I’ll address one of them, and propose a solution, in next week’s “Article of the Week.” But for now, we’ll stick with the students.

Olle Svenson, Learning to ride a bike, Vasaparken, Stockholm (CC)

Olle Svenson, Learning to ride a bike, Vasaparken, Stockholm (CC)

Start at the start: what is active learning? Quite simply, active learning proposes shifting pedagogy from teacher centered to learner centered, from a teaching practice based on the supposition that the best approach to learning is for teachers to pass their knowledge on to students, to a learning theory that is focused on how the learner integrates, constructs and creates understanding and knowledge. Active learning approaches also shift the context of teaching and learning from thinking about learning as a process whereby the teacher imparts knowledge to a classroom full of students, to a perspective that values the teacher’s ability to creates a learning environment that is attends to psychological, pedagogical, technological, cultural, historical, and pragmatic elements; a perspective that requires that we be aware of the different experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds of each of our students.

The learning theory that supports such an approach has been developing for at least a century, through the work of cognitive science, educational psychologists, educational philosophers, and classroom practitioners, people such as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Barbara Rogoff, Maxine Greene, and many others. Active learning argues that we achieve mastery by doing, not (only) by listening or reading. “Learning is not about passivity and order,” Peter Johnston writes in Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning (Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers, 2004, p. xxii), “it is about the messy process of discovery and construction of knowledge.” Or, as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger wrote in what has become one of my (and my students) favorite quotes: “the purpose is not to learn from talk…it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate…participation” [Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp. 108-09]

Components of Wenger's social theory of learning

Components of Wenger’s social theory of learning

Learning is actively constructed and, therefore, we need to think of it as a relationship between people, taking place in communities, and as intimately connected to activity. If this is an accurate way of understanding how significant learning occurs and mastery is achieved, and there is a large body of research on the topic, see here and here for two meta-analyses, then it means we have to rethink pedagogies that only or largely focus on student listening.

I can already see at least two objections coming my way, so let me address them off the bat. The first I heard from a student in a class I taught last Wednesday. After spending a good part of the class asking students how they thought about their own process of learning and then introducing some literature on learning theory (this is a class on Latin American history, by the way), a student said, “But I learn best when I’m reading, alone in my room.” The second objection will come from my faculty colleagues: “Are you saying that we never should lecture? That we should just stand back and let the students talk about whatever’s on their minds?”

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

In answer to the student comment, I told him that reading is not just important, but essential. Achieving significant learning does not occur in some abstract space; it is always rooted in the subject that one engages, whether Latin American history, in my case, or any other subject. To engage in this learning requires a foundation of information gained through reading or by other means. But the literature also argues that students will only gain mastery over the information, they will only make it their own, through a process of reflection and, often, socialization.

Similarly, answering faculty concerns, adopting active learning approaches doesn’t mean that we stop lecturing, no longer guide our students’ learning, neglect to provide them with a framework for learning, or deprive them of our own narratives. It means fundamentally that lecturing should be one part of a larger repertoire of approaches and that we have a unique opportunity in each class to structure a learning environment in which students can reflect, defend, talk, and explore with each other because, well, there they are, all…together. Actively engaged learning is not a revelation for any scientist who teaches lab, or to any humanist or social scientist who organizes discussion sections for her students. But there are great benefits to student learning when we include active learning techniques into all of our classes.

But let’s return to student concerns about active learning approaches. We have all heard students say that they signed up for the course to hear what we, their professors and experts on the subject, have to say; that they don’t like to talk in class or may actually be intensely uncomfortable when asked to “perform” in class. Students will complain on their evaluations (we’ll get to that next week!) that class discussions were a waste of time; that their peers weren’t prepared, and therefore the discussions were aimless, uninformed and uninformative, and far from the subject of the class. “We didn’t sign up for this class to hear what Kayla has to say about the reading when it’s totally clear that she hasn’t done it,” they will complain. “We came to hear you!”

So, let’s begin by admitting that a lot of what students grumble about is often right on the mark. When students haven’t prepared for a discussion, we can be fairly sure that it will be a huge waste of everyone’s time. Further, discussions which are poorly set up by the faculty (“Your task is to discuss the readings”), will usually not yield the results you’re looking for. It is true that some students are deeply uncomfortable speaking in class for a number of reasons, some good and some not so much so. (See the “Article of the Week” from September 9, 2013: “The Sounds of Silence” for more on this. When I wrote above that we need to be aware of the different experiences, learning styles, and backgrounds of each of our students, attending to this kind of situation is an example of what I meant.)

Clearly, then, active learning environments work best when students are prepared and when faculty structure the discussions well. (Students will often think that we turn to discussion because it’s a lot easier than preparing a lecture, when just the opposite is the case. It takes a lot of time, and produces untold anxiety, to “unscript” a class.)

Given all this, here are a few things to think about in terms of preparing students for an active learning environment.

  • I usually spend time at the start of the semester talking about learning theory, what the research tell us about how students learn, and what that means in terms of my own pedagogy and teaching design. It’s kind of funny (or maybe sad), but when I asked my class of 50 students if they had been in any class, from kindergarten to the present, where the teacher asked them if they thought about how learning occurred (as opposed to, say, whether they learned best when studying in the library vs. their dorm room), not one raised a hand. Maybe they were shy, but if we’re in the business of teaching and learning, engaging the question of learning is not a bad way of introducing students to why you make the pedagogical choices you do.
  • I also have them read and discuss some articles, particularly that of Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, on “communities of practice,” which not only introduces them to constructivist learning theory, but raises the question of their participation in their own learning, and how they move from legitimate “peripheral” learners to “core” participants. This suggests not only that I, but that they, too, are responsible for the learning that goes on in the class, for their own learning as well as that of their classmates.
  • Since they are responsible for the learning that happens in the class, two things follow: (1) they have to come to class prepared to participate, and (2) they have to take seriously the contributions of their peers in discussions, not just what I am saying.
  • I know full well that what we talked about in the first week of class will vanish as quickly as the first blooms on my magnolia tree (will I even see them this year!). So I revisit the theme quite often. Remember when we talked about…?
TEAL Classroom (University of Texas), Roberta Baker (CC)

TEAL Classroom (University of Texas), Roberta Baker (CC)

Of course, this and $3.25 will get you a medium skim latte at the Slow Train. More is needed from us; there are ways we can structure our classes to help encourage the learning that is supposed to come from a student-centered environment. Here are a few ideas:

  • If discussions depend on the students having done the reading or other preparation, give them quizzes or establish other mechanisms to make sure they are prepared (reading responses, a Blackboard discussion group, posting questions, etc.). A flurry of recent research reports suggest, in fact, that frequent quizzes are one of the best ways to solidify student learning, and quizzes are actually a part of active student learning. (I’ll turn to this research in a future “Article of the Week.”)
  • Structure discussions appropriately: What are your goals for the discussion? How have you set up your prompts? How will you know if the students have reached the goals you have set? Have you varied the composition of the discussion groups so that they are with different students and not just their friends?
  • Help students be more responsible for learning in discussions: you can have them take notes in the discussions, generate a set of questions from their conversation, write group conclusions on the board, to a Google Doc, or in some other way. Have a 2-3 minute “think-pair-share” where each student summarizes the most important points to come out of his/her group and shares it with someone from a different group.
  • Use active learning techniques all the time, not just on the day devoted to discussion sections. If students know that they will be in lecture mode for two days a week (even if they are encouraged to ask questions for clarification), they will be less practiced at discussing when the day devoted to discussion or lab comes around.

Try different approaches so that students who really are uncomfortable talking have other opportunities to share their learning. Free writing exercises are one way to help those students. And don’t be afraid to lecture. Shorter lectures (less than the full 50 or 75 minutes of the class) are important ways to establish central themes, provide critical background, or, importantly, to summarize and synthesize at the end of class. This can be particularly important in a class where the activities are varied and would benefit from some pulling together at the end.

Finally, stick with it and ask advice of colleagues if this approach doesn’t seem to be working well. For students who are more accustomed to classes in which they are mostly listening to a lecture and taking notes, the learning curve can be steep. Don’t give up because your attempt to get student discussions going seems to crash and burn after you try it once. Again, talk to colleagues and think about having them sit in on a class to give you advice. It will pay off for the students, and for you, in the end.

Preparing Your Class: Listening to Understand

Steve Volk, February 1, 2015

Unless you have spent the past few months living in a cave on an island off Maine (as, indeed, one of my students did some years ago as a winter term project), you will know that we in academia, and particularly those of us who teach at selective liberal arts institutions, are in a challenging moment regarding how we talk about difficult issues in the classroom and in the broader college community. At issue is the question of “civility.” The quotes are not ironic but rather indicate that whether there ever was a consensus on what that meant, it no longer operates. Nicholas Dirks, the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, addressed the topic in an email to students and faculty on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement. And got a lot of pushback.


The heroic Charlotte la Cordé upon her trial…1793

You have probably read Jonathan Chait’s recent article in New York Magazine and followed up with any number of critiques, including those of Gene Demby, Amanda Taub, Alex Pareene, Michelle Goldberg, Lindsay Beyerstein, Jessica Valenti, and well as those who wrote in support. The questions raised by Dirks and Chait as well as their critics are generating a lot of discussion because they are fundamental ones about how we talk, who gets to talk, and what we say to each other when we talk. They are generating discussion because they demand that we think deeply about issues that are hard and messy, questions of power and privilege, the First Amendment, Charlie Hebdo.

We live in a world in which these discussions (and their very real effects) are happening on a daily basis; it is a world inhabited by our students as well as ourselves – they don’t just enter the “real world” when they graduate. But the primary arena in which we, as teachers, engage these topics is the classroom. And so this “Article of the Week” is about listening and what it means to create a classroom in which listening is an important part of learning.

One of the central challenges we face in the classroom is how we create an environment in which all of our students (and we) can learn: both from us and from each other. Each of us has different comfort levels that determine how, where, and when we incorporate our students not just as learners, but as co-creators of learning in our classes, and I’ll leave discussion of that topic for another time. Similarly, we will all respond differently to the question of how much tension, discord, or “messiness” we can live with in our classes. That will often depend on experience as well as positionality: tenured/untenured, visiting/permanent, male/female/trans, faculty of color/white/biracial, and so on. But we are all interested in constructing our classes in ways that best support significant learning.

I don't want to listen to this. NomiZ25

I don’t want to listen to this. NomiZ25

Some years ago, L. Lee Knefelkamp, now emerita professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, wrote a short article for Liberal Education titled “Listening to Understand” (Spring 2006, pp. 34-35). I went to it again when thinking about how to prepare my classes this semester for the work that lies ahead. Not prepare them in terms of getting the readings selected, thinking about the assignments, or finishing the syllabus. Prepare them for discussing difficult issues that are likely to arise both because of course content and because of the concerns that are on the minds of many students. Preparing them in terms of creating the social contract that would remind them, should discussions get heated, lines crossed, or eyes rolled, about why we are here and how we should interact to promote learning. Rule setting is important preparation, and the only rules for rule setting are that you, the instructor, have to be comfortable with them (you have to understand the degree of discomfort you are willing to work with), your students have to be clear about the rules and take ownership over them, and (at different times for different courses), you will need to revisit them more than once.

Knefelkamp’s rules are about listening. She was trained as a counseling psychologist and taught courses, among other subjects, in counseling theory and practice, intercultural communication, college student development (with emphasis on intellectual, interpersonal, moral, and spiritual development), and theories of identity formation (especially with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality). “On the first day of class,” she wrote in this article, “students are asked to read and reflect upon ‘Listening to Understand,’ which I include as an addendum to all my syllabi. They are then asked to discuss their responses in small groups. We then have a large group discussion, and at the end both the students and I sign a form stating our intentions to abide by the expectations set forth” in that document.”

Here are her points.

Dan bull / Tim Dobson / CC BY-SA

Dan bull / Tim Dobson / CC BY-SA

In addition to the texts in this class, each participant is, in effect, a co-text. Your background and life experiences make up an important part of the class. Your instructor holds the perspective that all classes are essentially intercultural encounters—among individuals in the class, between the readers and any given author, among the authors and the students and the professor. We are all learning how to most effectively learn from one another. Such a classroom requires particular capacities and commitments on our part. It also requires a mutual effort in helping each other both understand the course material and the differing interpretative positions we may bring to a more complex understanding of the material. While each of us seeks to advance our own knowledge, we are also a community in which we are each responsible to help the other members of the community learn effectively. In addition to seeking to understand the context and concepts of the course, we:

  • seek to acquire intellectual skills and capacities that will enable us to work effectively with the complexities of the course material;
  • seek understanding of multiple modes of inquiry and approaches to knowledge and the ability to judge adequate and appropriate approaches from those that are not adequate or appropriate;
  • seek to develop increased self-knowledge and knowledge of others;
  • seek to understand how the material we are studying relates to our own previous learning, backgrounds, and experiences, and how we can use and apply our new knowledge effectively;
  • seek to develop the ability to critique material in a mature manner using our own previous learning and experiences as part of the critique when appropriate;
  • seek to develop the communication skills that facilitate our learning and our ability to listen, read, reflect, and study to understand.

In order to accomplish our goals, we need to develop the capacity of listening for understanding.

(Of course, listening for understanding can also be applied to how we read and observe as well as listen and communicate.)

Listening for understanding involves

  • listening for the meaning/standpoint/positionality of both others and the self;
  • listening for the affect that results from the standpoint(s);
  • staying in communication even when one is confused or fearful or unsure;
  • searching for the appropriate response;
  • acknowledging that understanding does not imply agreement;
  • taking responsibility for one’s own perspectives, stances, and actions;
  • seeking to expand one’s complexity, personal integration, and skills so that one can respond in appropriate ways to a wide variety of complex situations.

We will be working with these concepts as we conduct an assessment of student learning preferences and needs during the first weeks of the course.

Each of us will think about what we would add to this list, what we would leave out, whether we would frame it around listening, or whether we are comfortable with having our students themselves generate the rules. But setting this kind of framework for learning is important preparation that shouldn’t be neglected.

Designing Assignments for the New Semester

Steve Volk, January 25, 2015

(Creative Commons; Amorparamipatria)

(Creative Commons; Amorparamipatria)

As we prepare to return to classes (speaking to my own institution), I’ve been putting some final thoughts into my syllabi, and particularly to the design of my assignments. I will admit that more than once over the years, I have “place-held” my assignments on the syllabus with a vague notation (e.g. “Midterm essay due on March 13”) and left the actual work of figuring out what it would consist of until, well, pretty late in the game.

For those who follow the good advice of backward design, assignments are a critical early step for overall course design: if we begin with the kind of learning outcomes we want to achieve in the course (and want to make those transparent to our students), than assignments are the necessary assessment tools by which we can determine whether they are achieving some mastery of those goals. (I’ll not address grading here, other than to say that there has been some interesting discussion lately generated by Linda B. Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Sterling, VA: Stylus , 2015). See, for example, here and here.)

What, then, should we be thinking about when designing our assignments. Here I am drawing from the excellent resources provided by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and the comments from a terrific set of panelists at the recent meetings of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U): Pat Hutchings, Natasha Jankowski, George Kuh, and David Marshall. What follows is drawn both from NILOA’s “Features of Excellent Assignments” which they have pulled together from faculty working on a specific assignment design project, from comments made at the panel, and from my own experiences as well as those of colleagues at other teaching and learning centers.

Here are some characteristics to keep in mind when designing assignments:

Queensland Classroom, 1940. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland (Creative Commons)

Queensland Classroom, 1940. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland (Creative Commons)

How the assignment’s fit into your overall course:

  • How is the assignment related to course goals?
  • How is it related to larger program goals (learning outcomes of your major, or in gen ed)?
  • Does it try to do too much (hit too many goals) or too little (essentially require student work on issues which are tangential to your goals)?
  • What will the students be learning from doing the assignment? If assignments are opportunities for learning and not just regurgitation, than we need to be clear about what our students will be learning? Think about this in relation to Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy and use the appropriate verbs in the assignment.

Assignment design:

  • Is the assignment clear to students? Think about the number of times you have written a question and gotten back responses that were not what you wanted because, strangely, your students couldn’t read your mind! Think about sharing your questions with a colleague: ask them what they think you’re asking for before sending out the assignment to your students.
  • Does it engage their interest? Will it motivate good work? Is there a way to link your assignment to some real-world application? Assignments that have a wider circulation than the student and the instructor almost always bring out better work.
  • Identify the audience for the assignment
  • Does it allow for originality and creativity (when called for)?
  • Is it unbiased in terms of student backgrounds and circumstances?
  • Can it allow for partial victories within the overall assignment, a sense of progress rather than only success or failure?
  • Does the assignment provide opportunities for feedback and correction?
  • Pay attention to the length of the assignment description. Cryptic one-line descriptions can leave students guessing, while assignment hand-outs that are longer than what they are expected to produce can overwhelm them.
  • Specify the criteria you will use in evaluating their writing. Try connecting the criteria with the assignment’s overall purpose. State the criteria at the outset, reinforce them through activities, and then grade on that basis.
  • Will you actually want to read it? Often we are our own worst enemies, designing assignments that we don’t particularly want to read, and certainly not 50 of them! How can you construct an assignment that can keep your as well as the students’ interest?
Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg (Creative Commons)

Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg (Creative Commons)

Level of challenge:

  • Is the assignment pitched at the right level, given students’ preparation and experience?
  • Does it ask more of your students (cognitively speaking) than the last assignment? Referring back to Bloom, are you making your assignments reflect higher orders of thinking as you move through your course?

As part of the DQP (Degree Qualifications Profile), the good folks at NILOA have been developing an interactive library of assignments that align with their Degree Qualifications Profile work, a set of broad learning outcomes. You can get to their library on line and, following a simple registration process, access assignments organized by content field and assignment type (e.g. History, Health Sciences, Group Projects, Capstone, etc.), DQP proficiencies (e.g., Use of information resources, intellectual skills, applied and collaborative learning), and by degree levels.

For other advice on assignment design, see Oberlin’s Library on Research Assignments, DePaul’s Teaching Commons, Yale’s Writing Center, and Minnesota’s Center for Writing.

Let me know if you have other advice for assignment design.

“Teaching as Possibility”: Lessons for Teachers

Steven Volk, December 7, 2014

Semesters can feel like ocean journeys. Sometimes the seas are choppy, sometimes calm. Sometimes you’re relaxing on an ocean liner, sometimes pulling the oars of a rowboat. And when land is once again in sight, it often feels that it’s you, your teeth gripping a tow-rope, who hauls the ship into port. I was reading something the other day, don’t even ask me what, that called attention to the words we use to talk about what it is we do as faculty. When asked about our “load,” we understand the question to be: How many courses do you have to teach each semester? When asked if we’ve had a chance to get to our “work,” we know we’re being queried about our research, writing, or creative production. Outsiders could ask why we have developed that vocabulary to talk about what we do, but we know the answer, so I won’t bore you.

Wellcome Library, London. "A large mule carrying a heavy load," Etching by J. E. Ridinger. Creative Commons License.

Wellcome Library, London. “A large mule carrying a heavy load,” Etching by J. E. Ridinger. Creative Commons License.

Teaching, of course, is far more than a load, an 80-pound pack that we hump up endless hills, and the end of the semester is always a good time to remind ourselves what we can and should be about. Teaching, as Maxine Greene once put it, is possibility. My wife, a professor of early childhood education, turned me on to Greene a short while ago, amazed that I didn’t know her writing. As much a force of nature as a human being, Greene, who died a few months ago at the age of 96, taught for nearly 50 years at Teachers College (Columbia University). TC proudly claimed her as their “Philosopher Queen,” and a rightful heir to John Dewey.

In a 1978 essay, Greene observed that too many people in modern society feel dominated and powerless. But rather than become pessimistic,  she suggested that “such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life.” She called this sense, “Wide-Awakedness.”

So this is my end-of-semester, caffeinated-edition of the “Article of the Week,” some words designed to keep us wide awake as we pull into port after a semester on the open waters of teaching and learning.

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello, http://www.jarodrosello.com

Cartoon by Jarod Rossello, http://www.jarodrosello.com

Maxine Greene inaugurated the Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice in 1997 with an article titled, “Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times.” She opened the piece with a quote from Hannah Arendt (Men in Dark Times), who observed that even in the darkest times, we still “have the right to expect some illumination,” although it will likely come less from theory “than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under all circumstances…” (p. ix). Greene described those dark times (times that we still share) as follows: “I view our times as shadowed by violations and erosions taking place around us: the harm being done to children; the eating away of social support systems; the ‘savage inequalities’ in our schools; the spread of violence; the intergroup hatreds; the power of media; the undermining of arts in the lives of the young.” We could, of course, add to the list. But she also observed that she “thinks of the ‘light that some men and women will kindle under almost all circumstances,’ and that makes me ponder (and sometimes wonder at) the work that is and might be done by teachers at this problematic moment in our history.” To reference what we do in this fashion is to talk of teaching as possibility, not load.

Teaching, for Greene, means imagining “not what is necessarily probable or predictable, but what may be conceived as possible. All of those who have parented children or taught the young may resonate to this on some level, particularly when they recall the diverse, often unexpected shapes of children’s growing and becoming. Many may find a truth in Emily Dickinson’s saying that ‘The Possible’s slow fuse is lit/ By the Imagination.’ Imagination, after all, allows people to think of things as if they could be otherwise; it is the capacity that allows a looking through the windows of the actual towards alternative realities.”

Luiz Carlos Cappellano, detail, "Painel Paulo Freire" Creative Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Painel_ Paulo_Freire,_detalhe_4.jpg

Luiz Carlos Cappellano, detail, “Painel Paulo Freire” Creative Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/ wiki/File:Painel_Paulo_Freire,_detalhe_4.jpg

All fine and good, Greene would add, but poetry and possibility can’t do their “persuasive work” in “what strikes many of us as a backward leaning, inhumane tendency in our society today…Yes, there are distinctive moments made possible by the poetic imagination; but the social and ethical imagination is concerned for using ideas and aspirations to reorganize the environment or the lived situation.” This is what Paulo Freire meant when he wrote that “Imagination and conjecture about a different world than the one of oppression are as necessary to the praxis of historical ‘subjects’ (agents in the process of transforming reality) as it necessarily belongs to human toil that the worker or artisan first have in his or her head a design a ‘conjecture,’ of what he or she is about to make.” For Freire, Greene notes, a democratic education “required enabling ordinary people to develop their own language, derived from their readings of their own social realities, their own namings, their own anticipations of a better state of things.”

If the only things we are teaching are technical efficiency, abstract skills, or knowledge without context, even if we pride ourselves at having met “world-class standards,” we will not be teaching as we should. “Teachers,” Greene reminds us, “may well be among the few in a position to kindle the light that might illuminate the spaces of discourse and events in which young newcomers have some day to find their ways.”

Great Day in Harlem-Kane

“A Great Day in Harlem,” 1958 photograph by Art Kane, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Great_Day_in_Harlem_%28photograph%29

“…Teachers concerned about illumination and possibility,” she continued, “know well that there is some profound sense in which a curriculum in the making is very much a part of a community in the making…The common world we are trying to create may be thought of as a fabric of interpretations of many texts, many images, many sounds…In a classroom, this would mean acknowledgment of and recognition of the different biographical histories that affect the shaping of perspectives. More than in previous times, teachers are asked to confront and honor the differences even as they work for a free and responsible acceptance of the norms marking whatever community is in the making: concrete responsibility for one another; respect for the rights of others; solidarity; regard for reflective habits of thought. At once, there are the ways of thinking and seeing that enable various young persons to decode and interpret what is made available: the ability to distinguish among the discourses in use, to have regard for evidence and experience, to be critically conscious of what is read and heard, to construct meanings in the diverse domains of their lives.”

hooksIn Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (Routledge 2003), bell hooks warns that “One of the dangers we face in our educational systems is the loss of a feeling of community, not just the loss of closeness among those with whom we work and with our students, but also the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy. Progressive education, education as the practice of freedom, enables us to confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connection. It teaches us how to create community” (p. xv).

Greene concluded similarly: “…teaching as possibility in dark and constraining times… is a matter of awakening and empowering today’s young people to name, to reflect, to imagine, and to act with more and more concrete responsibility in an increasingly multifarious world. At once, it is a matter of enabling them to remain in touch with dread and desire, with the smell of lilacs and the taste of a peach. The light may be uncertain and flickering; but teachers in their lives and works have the remarkable capacity to make it shine in all sorts of corners and, perhaps, to move newcomers to join with others and transform.”

How we do this, how we transform “load” to “possibility” is a question we face in every semester and every class. It is about community, hope, democracy, empowerment, illumination. It is about affirming, with Walt Whitman, that “By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” It is about, as Toni Morrison wrote of the child Claudia in The Bluest Eye, asking our students what they want to feel, not what they want to possess.

Jane Tompkins, in her memoir, A Life in School (Addison-Wesley, 1996), reminds us, ultimately, that it is about what we share with our students: “What I would like to see emerge in this country,” she writes, “is a more holistic way of conceiving education – by which I mean a way of teaching and learning that is not just task-oriented but always looking over its shoulder at everything that is going on around. Such a method would never fail to take into account that students and teachers have bodies that are mortal, hearts that can be broken, spirits that need to be fed” (xiii).

Teaching Ferguson

Steven Volk (November 29, 2014)

“How should academics respond to the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of his killer,” David Perry, a history professor at Dominican University asked in a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education? “If you teach critical race theory, criminology, modern American history, African-American studies, or any number of other subjects explicitly linked to Brown’s death, then I suspect you already have a plan. But what about the rest of us?”

Street Art, Ferguson:  Sebastiano Tomada (http://www.sebastianotomada.com/)

Street Art, Ferguson: Sebastiano Tomada (http://www.sebastianotomada.com/)

In previous “Articles of the Week,” I have discussed the challenges of bringing contemporary events into the classroom, particularly if their lessons don’t easily “fit” into your subject matter. [Among others, see March 11, 2013 (“One Big Motrin”), Nov. 12, 2012 (“Personal Convictions and Teaching”), and Sept. 27, 2010 (“Rove and Responsibility”).]

As I thought of Perry’s question, two contradictory approaches sparred in my brain. On the one hand, we know our classes – and ourselves – the best. What if it feels uncomfortable to raise issues that (seemingly) have little to do with the subjects we are teaching? And what if we feel completely unprepared to speak to the issues raised by Ferguson? Should we continue as if nothing happened? On the other, we are not only teaching our students macroeconomics, discrete mathematics, intermediate Spanish, or Chinese history. We are teaching them to engage in the world in a broadly positive fashion, to be the citizens who will not ignore what Ferguson has to teach us.

That means, at the very least, acknowledging that these events are shaking their world and ours, that they are occupying our thoughts, even if we don’t have time to fully pursue them in class. It means helping our students find resources if we can’t provide them ourselves. Even admitting that we are uncomfortable raising the topic can signal to students that learning often springs from a place of discomfort –  and that we are willing to go there with them.

Ferguson Protest (http://www.elle.com/news/culture/what-ferguson-means-for-black-women)

Ferguson Protest (http://www.elle.com/news/culture/what-ferguson-means-for-black-women)

“Ferguson” – now a signifier not only of police violence against unarmed African American young men, but of a legal system that allows impunity for such actions – is one such event.  “Ferguson,” Chaedria Labouvier wrote, “is a wake up call. Black mothers are being told to prepare their sons for second class citizenship. We cannot do that. We cannot go quietly into the night on this one. And we need other mothers, other women that love their families and have the privilege to know that their sons, if stopped by the police, will make it home, to stand with us. Because we have been left no choice but to stand.” Nor can we, as teachers, be quiet.

As Roy Sanchez made clear in a piece that appeared on CNN, “The rage echoing across the nation after a grand jury’s conclusion in Ferguson, Missouri, goes far beyond the decision not to indict white police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.”

For us at Oberlin, the refusal of the grand jury to indict comes only a few days after 12-year old Tamir Rice, was shot and killed by Cleveland police literally two seconds after they arrived at the scene, having been alerted to a “black male with a gun” by a local resident. (The added information that it was probably a “fake gun” was never passed on to the police.) Reportedly upwards of 75 Oberlin students joined a large protest in Cleveland after the Ferguson grand jury’s decision and Rice’s death.

Cleveland Protest (morningjournal.com)

Cleveland Protest (morningjournal.com)

The question, then, is how to use this moment to “teach Ferguson.” Probably the best starting point is a Twitter feed #FergusonSyllabus, which has a substantial number of links and resource suggestions for all grade levels, including college students.

Dan Krutka of the Texas Woman’s University Department of Teacher Education has developed a document of instructional resources on Ferguson submitted by teachers, many of whom included a description of how they used (or plan to use) the material.

The Graduate Center at the City University of New York has compiled a number of discipline-specific resources for teachers that look at how the events in Ferguson can be related to criminology, art history, literature, and more.

Here are a few other sites that I found particularly helpful:

Demonstrators display signs during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson (Reuters)

Demonstrators display signs during a protest on West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson (Reuters)

Finally, four more articles that appeared recently, each of which eloquently points to the conversations we need to be having.

Monday morning, we will be in our classes once again after the long Thanksgiving break. We have two weeks until the end of the semester and way too much to get done. But if we don’t stop and acknowledge this moment of great pain and anger that so many of our students, and we, are feeling, we will not be the teachers that we need to be. And if we don’t address how we, as a college, are preparing our students and ourselves to address the broad issues raised by Ferguson, we will not be the college that we must be.

Thinking and Doing: Going with the Flow

Steven Volk, November 23, 2014

“Sometimes you just want them to do what you ask them to do and not question it.”

This was one of many comments that emerged from a conversation when nearly 30 coaches and faculty sat down last Friday to break bread (actually, pita) and talk about how we think about student learning on our different ends of the campus. I had never been in this kind of a discussion in nearly 30 years at Oberlin. And I don’t think that anyone else who was there had, either. The hour-long conversation was not only truly pleasurable; it opened a window on the benefits of bringing all parts of our residential, liberal arts campus together in dialogue while also helping me think differently about what we do as teachers.

Peasants breaking bread. ''Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio'', 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

Peasants breaking bread. ”Livre du roi Modus et de la reine Ratio”, 14th century. Paris, Biblioteque nationale, Département des manuscrits, Français 22545 fol. 72.

The coach’s comment, which initially sounded so jarring to me, sunk in quickly among faculty who teach in performance areas of the curriculum: music and dance, as well as among the coaches. It soon opened two different conversational paths. One related to a challenge we face as instructors in liberal arts settings. Our bread and butter is helping our students question perceived wisdom, to “display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others,” as Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University recently put it. “For many students today,” he continued, “being smart means being critical,” always asking questions. But there are limitation to that, not just (as Roth pointed out) that our students in being too “critical” can become unwilling to engage with material they might otherwise ignore or find problematic.

To reference a seemingly mundane point, I have also found that moments arise when I just want students “to do and not question” further. I can, and do, tell my students how historians cite sources, why it’s different from the way that biologists cite their evidence and what the intellectual rationale is that helps explain our particular format. (For those interested, Anthony Grafton has written a marvelous book on the “curious history” of the footnote.) But, at a certain point, they need to stop questioning and just use the proper style. But I’ll leave that particular path for another posting.


I’d rather focus on a second aspect of the coach’s statement, the notion that when athletes are “doing” they will only succeed when they stop “asking questions,” stop second-guessing themselves. This moment of engagement is what is meant by being “in the zone,” it happens when you are fully present in the moment, when the little voices in your head stop telling you that you need to pick up the broccoli for dinner or that your book review is now six-weeks late.

Creative Commons public domain

Creative Commons public domain

Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee, for those, like myself, who have stumbled over it for years), calls it “flow.” He describes “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Csíkszentmihályi explored this concept in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (reissued in 2008 by Harper Perennial Modern Classics).

He became interested in the topic when he read of artists who would get lost in their work, so absorbed were they that they didn’t eat and barely slept. There is good evidence that Michelangelo, when working in the Sistine Chapel, would paint for days on end without stopping.

Csíkszentmihályi and his colleague, Jeanne Nakamura, identified six factors characteristic of flow:

  1. intense concentration on the moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. feeling that one has control over the situation or activity
  5. temporal distortion, an alteration of one’s experience of time
  6. feeling that the experience is intrinsically rewarding.

[Jeanne Nakamura and Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow Theory and Research,” in C. R. Snyder, Erik Wright, and Shane J. Lopez, eds., Handbook of Positive Psychology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 195–206.]

My knees no longer allow me to run, but I still vividly remember those outings when I was in “flow.” I ran miles past my previous barrier and came back exhilarated, almost as if I had been…OK, we’re not going to go there.

So, when the coach said that he just wanted his players to “do” and not question, it made sense. Athletes and other performers are operating at a point when skills and training have become so engrained, and the challenge or opportunity so immediate, that they don’t think of how they will bring the ball down from chest to foot and then drive it into the net. They just do. When you listen to John Coltrane or McCoy Tyner so deeply absorbed in “A Love Supreme”, you will know what “flow” is.

Neff Connor, "Sunday Spins" - https://www.flickr.com/photos/nffcnnr/14163381924/

Neff Connor, “Sunday Spins” – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nffcnnr/14163381924/

Flow and Intellectual Work

Does flow only gush forth from the North or South ends of campus, only among our student athletes, conservatory, dance or theater performers? Even more, does flow mean that the brain is turned off while when one is removed from the question-asking mode? Scroll up to  the six indicators of flow. They point, above all, to moments of intense concentration, a merging of “action and awareness,” not to mindlessness but to mindfulness. You probably recognize similar feelings of flow when you are deeply engaged in your work, writing an article or working through a problem. It’s not the deadline that drives you, it’s the intrinsic engagement. (OK, so it’s also the deadline!) I tend to think that the absent-minded professor shtick originates with this perception of teachers who are so fully absorbed in their thinking that they walk right by you with nary a sign of recognition. Or we might just have a abundance of rude instructors.

In any case, the question is how can we bring our all our students, and not just those who perform before audiences, into “flow”? People who design video games, and certainly the best among them, know all about this. See here and here, for example. Game designers, if they’re on their game, are always trying to design flow into their products by avoiding boredom (too easy) and frustration (too hard). They, like many of us, are looking for Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” where engagement occurs, and engagement is a path into learning.

John Ingham serves the ball vs. Wittenberg University. Photo: Oberlin Review.

How do we move students into a “flow” state? We probably try to do the same things that our coaching/performance colleagues have been doing, whether in tennis or piano. Students have to have a high level of both knowledge and skills before they can reach flow. What that means concretely will be different in physics and history, but we are all working to structure our classes, homework, and assignments to provide students with the skill sets they need to succeed: knowledge, procedure and inquiry. Once there, what can we do to get them into flow, to move motivations from extrinsic (it’s all about the grade) to intrinsic (it’s all about the learning)?

Csíkszentmihályi argues that three conditions have to be met to achieve a flow state:

  1. The activity you design must have clear goals and allow students to see their own progress. The task must have direction and structure.
  2. There must be an opportunity for clear and immediate feedback, so students can negotiate changing demands and adjust their performance.
  3. And there must be a balance between what students see as the challenges of the task and how they understand their own skills. In other words, they need to be confident that they can complete the task. (This brings us back to “mindsets” and “mindfulness.”)

(Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, Sami Abuhamdeh, and Jeanne Nakamura, (2005), “Flow,” in A. Elliot, ed., Handbook of Competence and Motivation (New York: The Guilford Press, 2005), 598–698.)

Challenge vs. skills. Public domain.

Challenge vs. skills. Public domain.

As the graphic (left) suggests, flow can happen where skill levels and challenges are both high, which is why performance, with its test of acting before a “real” audience, can most often lead to flow. But some of our colleagues have also designed assignments that can bring students into “flow” types of engagement. Taylor Allen (Biology) and Liliana Milkova (academic curator at the Allen Memorial Art Museum), describe a set of activities in Allen’s first-year seminar (The Body in Health and Disease) and upper-level physiology class (Animal Physiology) which focus on understanding the biology of love. A central part of learning in the class involved bringing students to the AMAM where they explored a set of prints and paintings (and created their own mini-exhibitions) in order to decide 1) whether portrayals of love in art align with the growing understanding of the biology of love and 2) whether the bodily experience of love was universal or culturally influenced.

(Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles, and Taylor Allen. “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 12 (2013): 687-700.)

When students evaluated the assignment in a well-designed end-of-semester survey, the words they used to describe their experiences (engaging, stimulating, original, welcome, refreshing, fun, enjoyable, longing for more) were “reminiscent of those associated with the experience of flow in a creative endeavor” (p. 697). Flow in the art museum and biology.

Do you think about how to calibrate skills and challenges to bring students into “flow-like” contexts? Are there other ways that we can consider how to adapt approaches to learning in one part of campus to strengthen student learning in other parts?

Athletics & Academics: Building a Co-Curricular Future

Steven Volk, November 16, 2014

Division I Athletics have experienced a particularly thorough (and well deserved, in my opinion) thrashing of late. From bogus courses for athletes at the University of North Carolina, to the involvement of high profile athletes in (unpenalized) sexual assaults, to the NCAA’s recent granting of de facto autonomy to sports teams in the “Super Five” conferences, athletics as practiced in the most powerful Division I conferences continue to raise questions about why they are housed in institutions of (one hopes) higher education. If I don’t get upset by these revelations (and often I do), it’s only because I find it nearly impossible to draw comparisons between, say, the Ohio State football players just two hours down I-71 and the students in my classes. No criticism intended of particular Ohio State players, but we don’t seem to inhabit the same world of undergraduate education. And yet, of course, we do. So, what’s different about athletics and student athletes at Oberlin and other Division III, liberal arts colleges? And, more importantly, are we taking advantage of the differences?

Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Oberlin College Archives)

Oberlin College Football Team, 1892 (Oberlin College Archives)

Two books published by Princeton University Press in the early 2000’s brought the subject of athletics and academics at selective colleges and universities into wider discussion. The first was William G. Bowen and James L. Shulman’s The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values (2001), and the second Bowen and Sarah A. Levin’s Reclaiming the Game (2003). Both considered the role and place of intercollegiate athletics, the latter’s relationship to liberal arts colleges’ educational mission, and the importance of evaluating athletes’ overall educational experience and contributions on our campuses. To be sure, these studies received their share of criticism. But what I see as the basic question raised by Reclaiming the Game, in particular, is whether we are showcasing athletics (and our student athletes) as one of the best examples of the kind of cross-domain, expansive learning that can happen at residential liberal arts colleges? (And here I’ll consider only the question of organized sports, both varsity and club, not necessarily the much larger question of wellness.)

I revisited that question when I came across an article by Craig Owens (“Bringing the Locker Room into the Classroom”), published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on April 7, 2014 which, in turn, led me to a September 9, 2014 interview on Iowa Public Radio with Owens and Sandy Hatfield Clubb. Clubb is the Athletics Director at Drake University and Owens a Professor of English there. It’s well worth the 20-minute listen.

John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States

John Henry Wise, Oberlin College 1892, the first Hawaiian to play college football in the United States (Oberlin College Archives).

Quite briefly, Clubb considers the importance of creating an environment in which student athletes are getting more out of their sports than (only) an athletic experience, coaches are teaching to the whole person, not just the skill set needed in the sport or activity, and faculty are taking advantage of the skills and dispositions learned on the playing fields within their own classrooms.

Let me develop this last point a bit more. Intrigued by the question of how coaches approach teaching (an issue, by the way, developed brilliantly by Atul Gawande in a 2011 New Yorker article, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?”), Owens began to sit in on locker-room sessions and to talk with coaches and student athletes, something I’ve also tried, to great benefit. I think I understood more about my own learning in a one-hour coaching session with Constantine Ananiadis, our women’s tennis coach, than in reading countless books on the topic.

But, back to Owens. What he saw in the locker room were students who took responsibility for developing strategy and for determining how the game would be played. They were vocal and active learners, listening closely to critiques from their teammates and willing to share their comments in ways they felt could be heard most productively by other students. He found that the student athletes were taking the lead in directing themselves and one another. In particular, he came to the conclusion that student athletes were extremely skilled at dealing with critiques because they got a lot of them and, at least for a majority, they had learned how to build productively from the critiques. (The same skills are undoubtedly deeply engrained in the creative arts on campus: performance in music and theater, studio art, media production, and creative writing, and are also present in those areas such as game design in computer science which are “tested” in real time via the internet.) In short, what he found were the kinds of approaches and dispositions that he was looking to develop in all his students, approaches that were developed in these high-impact learning situations.

Creative Commons. Francisco Osorio:  http://blog.calicospanish.com/2013/08/20/target-language-from-day-1-how-to-keep-high-levels-of-tl-in-your-classroom.html

Creative Commons. Francisco Osorio: http://blog.calicospanish.com/2013/08/20/target-language-from-day-1-how-to-keep-high-levels-of-tl-in-your-classroom.html

For her part, Clubb addressed the importance of coaches who were able to integrate leadership learning into their sports in an intentional and intensive way. She spoke of how sports teams that travel abroad to compete in “friendlies” used their leadership skills while abroad, and outside of the competitions, and how they could be transferred back to campus.

The word that came up the most in these interviews was intentionality, which I’ve used many times myself. At the end of the day, while our world of learning and athletics occupies a different universe from Division I, “Super Five” campuses, we can hardly claim a high ground if we don’t act in intentional ways to build a co-curricular approach to all aspects of learning on campus. Our students are continually integrating lessons from the various domains that they traverse on campus, from the classroom to the residential halls to the athletic fields. We need to provide the structures and conversations that can allow this to become more intentional and visible.