Putting the “O” Back in MOOC: Collaborating to Solve Problems

Steven Volk, March 15, 2015

This past Thursday, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Horn, the co-founder and Executive Director of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation who was speaking at Oberlin on “Disruptive Innovation and Higher Education.” The following day, I was privileged to moderate a discussion between Horn and Bryan Alexander. Alexander was, for many years, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and a leading advocate for education-driven, liberal-arts focused technology. He describes himself as a “futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education.”

Gus Gordon, Herman and Rosie (Roaring Book Press, 2013)

Gus Gordon, Herman and Rosie (Roaring Book Press, 2013)

Finally, I hosted Alexander at a CTIE workshop where we enjoyed a wide-ranging conversation on how technology, particularly the ubiquitous use of digital platforms and media might be impacting how our students learn, what that means for teaching strategies, and whether the structure of emerging labor markets (including the fact that our students will be occupying a multitude of jobs in the future suggests that we need to be preparing them in different ways than we have in the past. (Our students are entering what many call the “gig economy”. The “gig economy” is about many, temporary, part-time jobs. It implies not only that we have moved past what I would call long-term employment monogamy, where people hold one or two jobs for their whole lives, but that we have also moved past serial employment monogamy, where individuals spend 1-2 years at a job and then move to another. Instead, it seems, we have moved to employment bigamy (my terms, blame me), where people will find multiple part-time and temporary jobs out of which they will attempt to put together a living wage – think Uber or Alfred).

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There are aspects of the “disruptive innovation” paradigm that, quite frankly, curl my toenails, particularly when applied to education, whether K-12 or higher education. In a moment in which the concept of education as a public good is under concerted attack in statehouses around the nation, the “disruptors,” in my humble opinion, not only seem uninterested in speaking to the larger purposes of education in a democratic society, but have adopted an instrumental approach to “solving” the “problems” of education which largely caters to the same market forces which are devouring public education systems across the country and beginning to nibble away at private liberal arts colleges. I wonder why legislators who have shown an increasing unwillingness to invest state funds in education, and governors who have disparaged the notion that education is for anything other than preparing students for entry-level jobs (viz. Wisconsin and Florida) will be interested in investing in “disrupted” classrooms that promise to produce critical thinkers, independent minds, and an inquisitive and informed citizenry – even if it promises to save costs by increasing classroom size?

So, while I’m not a fan of disruptive innovation, these folks do get some things right. (We can, by the way, trace the intellectual roots of “disruptive innovation” to the economist Joseph Schumpeter who theorized about the “creative destruction” inherent in a capitalist economy in his 1942 book, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. For his part, Schumpeter drew heavily upon the first two volumes of Marx’s Kapital.) There is plenty to criticize about education in the United States today. College degrees cost way too much; the size of the debt load that students carry should be a source of national shame. We know all too well that the kind of education we can (and most often do) provide at liberal arts colleges is not available for the great majority of students at community colleges or many larger state institutions, not to speak of the for-profit sector. And while a considerable amount of the reported failure of the public K-12 system seems intentionally designed to provide cover for the shift of funds from public to private charter schools, there is abundant evidence that the public K-12 system fails all too many poor or marginalized children and their families.

Average Debt per Borrower in Each Year's Graduating Class

Average Debt per Borrower in Each Year’s Graduating Class

The problem, of course, is that to the extent that the disruptors focus on what is creating these failures, they most often get it wrong. Problems in the educational system are not rooted in teachers who don’t care or union rules. Public school instructors at all levels swim against currents that would drive most of us back on shore in a second. (Thank you for your service!!) K-12 and higher ed are in trouble for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the U.S. has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among nations that we commonly compare ourselves with; that we live in a society of “Gilded Age” inequality where the rich have a better chance of succeeding without a college degree than the poor with a college degree; that state legislators, particularly in “red” states, have drastically cut support for higher education (Arizona has recently decided to zero-out support for many of its community colleges), etc, etc. One central factor underlying the increasing inability of parents to pay for their children’s college education is that wages have been essentially flat since 1979. These are factors not normally identified by disruptors, and so the solutions they propose at least insofar as there is a reference to the economic and political system in which educational delivery unfolds, are unlikely to work to the advantage of those who have been marginalized by this same system.

Chicago school closing - "Success is..." Nitram 242 (CC)

Chicago school closing – “Success is…” Nitram 242 (CC)

We won’t fix what needs fixing in K-12 and higher ed by ignoring the real issues that are undermining education in this country, but we can pay attention to some of the innovations that “disruptors” have encouraged, and in some cases sponsored, particularly in the field of educational technology. “Online education,” Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn recently wrote, “can effect the transformation not only of curriculum but also of learning itself.” I agree, but we need to get one thing straight before can happily march on.

Throughout the educational spectrum, from early childhood to adult education, one can find technology that supports the learning process in a remarkable fashion, providing stimulation, appropriate scaffolding, culturally relevant instruction, and dynamism. It can be used to foster collaborative learning and critical literacies, and it can under-gird creative pedagogy when in the hands of skilled and caring teachers. At the same time, certainly not all, and probably not most educational software does this. Most is based on older models of content delivery and as such is often more about revenues than learning.

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MOOCs are one example of both sides of this. MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses), promise content delivery and free access to anyone with a digital device and connectivity. It foretold, David Brooks breathlessly announced in 2012, a coming “campus tsunami” which would sweep away all of traditional higher education. “Online learning,” he wrote, would “give millions of students access to the world’s best teachers. Already, hundreds of thousands of students have taken accounting classes from Norman Nemrow of Brigham Young University, robotics classes from Sebastian Thrun of Stanford and physics from Walter Lewin of M.I.T.” The fact that Sebastian Thrun, who left Stanford to found the online education firm Udacity, recently admitted that “we have a lousy product,” suggests that delivering content is not necessarily the best way to think about technology in education, particularly on a mass scale where the main people drawn into these courses are what Tressie McMillan Cottom calls, “roaming auto-didacts,” “self-motivated, able learners that are simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, culture, history, and markets.”

In the rush to provide online content, many overlooked what is probably the more important “O” in the MOOC acronym – “Open.” What if, instead of thinking about one very smart and successful person providing content to millions, you have millions – well, let’s start with hundreds or thousands – developing knowledge and solving problems collaboratively? That’s the premise behind the “Inverse MOOC” which Allison Dulin Salisbury wrote about recently in Inside Higher Education. Salisbury, who works in the President’s Office at Davidson College on partnerships and initiatives around entrepreneurship, K12 education, and education technology, wrote of one project linking Davidson, Middlebury College, and OpenIDEO, a collaborative online platform which brings people together to address pressing issues. OpenIDEO’s projects always ask “how might we…” as in: how might we make urban areas safer and more empowering for girls and women? How might we gather information from hard-to-access areas to prevent mass violence against civilians? How might we equip young people with the skills, information, and opportunities needed to succeed in the world of work?

Design Thinking/Human Centered Design

Design Thinking/Human Centered Design

Davidson piloted a 10-week human-centered design curriculum in conjunction with an OpenIDEO Challenge. The question: How might parents in low income communities ensure children thrive in their first five years? A small group of Davidson students — the Davidson Design Fellows — worked through three phases, including Research, Ideas and Refinement, with a focus on the City of Charlotte, North Carolina. (The information below is a slightly edited version of Salisbury’s post.)

  1. In the Research phase, students got out of the classroom to talk to people, learning to conduct interviews and focus groups, shadowing organizations working with parents from low-resourced communities, developing global contexts through formal, peer-reviewed research, and, through weekly workshops, reflected on how to develop empathy — how to listen without judgment and avoid assumptions based on intuition. Throughout the process, students shared insights, case studies and success stories on the OpenIDEO platform where the global community could comment, applaud and upvote the most useful posts. Meanwhile, thousands of participants from around the world were doing the same in their communities. Collectively, the community created — and curated — a collection of empathy building stories and resources to be leveraged by both the local and global community.
  1. In the Ideas phase, the students generated specific questions unique to the opportunity areas they discovered in Charlotte, such as: How might we use community spaces to connect parents to pre-existing resources?
  2. During the Refinement phase, the students broke down their big ideas into bite-sized pieces that could be quickly prototyped for feedback. They built physical models and created digital mockups to uncover insights. Students then facilitated sessions with end users for feedback, focusing on testing assumptions and generating insights to inform future iterations of prototypes. They learned to fail safely, receive (and facilitate!) criticism for their ideas and value iteration as a prerequisite for innovation. One student noted that failure is only failure if it’s an end point, but as part of the process, failure is a tool for testing assumptions and building greater empathy for an end user. The prototyping provided an opportunity for students to celebrate their creative works in action. They also learned to bypass traditional metrics of success— how much content you know, for instance—and instead measure success by their ability to co-create a solution that solves a real problem. And, again, they were engaging in the giving and receiving of feedback within a global community of participants online.

Salisbury concludes by observing: “In our globalized world, the community that constitutes the object of study may be increasingly as important — or more important — than the dissemination of information about the object itself. MOOCs could be a democratizing force still by facilitating this participation.”

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In Experience and Education John Dewey wrote, “What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worthwhile, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”

It strikes me that the “disruptors” and most MOOC enthusiasts are most interested in winning “prescribed amounts of information about geography and history.” But the real innovators, the “inverted MOOC-ers,” those who care about a democratic future, are much more concerned with our students’ values, their ability to appreciate “things worthwhile,” and a worry about what exactly they will carry with them into the future. We now have the opportunity to use technology to connect us and our students to a larger world in which collaborative, open platforms can help us take advantage of everything we are privileged to enjoy at face-to-face liberal arts colleges to answer the burning questions which many of us share.

So, my question is:  why exactly is it that we aren’t piloting these “inverted MOOCs” with our students?

The Empathy Gap (and can we address it?)

Steven Volk, March 8, 2015

Some years ago (April 25, 2011) I wrote an “Article of the Week” on empathy in response to the research findings of Sara H. Konrath, Edward H. O’Brien, and Courtney Hsing suggesting that college students are becoming less empathic, and significantly so. [“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis,” in Personality and Social Psychology Review 15.2 (2011): 180-198] In a meta-analysis of 72 samples of American college students, the researchers studied four aspects of “interpersonal sensitivity” including empathic concern (EC), or sympathy, over the misfortunes of others and perspective taking (PT), the capacity to imagine other people’s points of view. (The other two aspects were the tendency to identify imaginatively with fictional characters in books or movies and personal distress, the anguish one feels during others’ misfortunes.) The study found that EC scores declined by 48% when comparing students from the late 1970s/early 1980s and those in 2009; PT scores went down by 34%. For both, the sharpest decline came after 2000.
EC-scorePT-scoreFirst, what are these characteristics and why should these declines be concerning? Psychologists debate exactly what “empathy” is. Some argue that it is a cognitive mechanism by which we can imagine the internal state of others. Other contend that it is an affective construct and question whether people’s emotions are matched directly to another’s affective state, whether empathy is primarily a manifestation of sympathy, or whether people empathize to reduce their own stress about another person’s situation, i.e., more about self-concern than other-concern.

Primatologists and neuroscientists have also entered the discussion, speculating (to on-going challengers) that mirror neurons may be partially responsible for the ability to understand the behaviors and feelings of other people. In other words, our neurons can actually help us experience what another is feeling without language. Primatologist Frans de Waal’s research suggests that primates are biologically driven to behave in ways similar to those nearby (a kind of “contagion” effect) whether they think about it or not. (Here’s an example: take a look at the picture below and tell me what it makes you do.) But, simply put, when researchers talk of “dispositional empathy” they are talking about the tendency to react to other people’s observed experiences.

Day 55 Yawn. Michael Shane (cc)

Day 55 Yawn. Michael Shane (cc)

People who have higher “EC” scores tend to exhibit more prosocial behaviors, including volunteering, letting people into line ahead of them, donating to charities, etc. (Other factors are also involved. Paul Piff, a psychologist at Berkeley, recently reported on a series of studies that found that people driving luxury cars like BMW’s and Audi’s were 3- to 4-times less likely to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks than those driving less expensive cars. Just saying.) Similarly, higher Perspective Taking scores are related to prosocial outcomes including low social dysfunction (e.g. social anxiety, boasting, verbal aggression), and more other-oriented sensitivity.

So, when the research suggests a highly significant decline in EC and PT scores between 1979 and 2009, and a sharp fall after 200, there is reason to be concerned.

 What does this have to do with us?

I know I’m not alone in observing student behavior (both at Oberlin and elsewhere) and wondering: seriously? They can seem so fine tuned, so hyper-sensitive to the (very-often-only-imagined) concerns of others that they will carry out public acts of self-flagellation and self-shaming. At the same time they can also be utterly ruthless as they take down, call out, and verbally eviscerate others whom they accuse of similar (?) acts of insensitivity or perhaps have actually made a mistake. No mercy will be shown. What is notable, at least for me, is the lack of carry over between admitting one’s own short-comings (even if they are imagined) and skewering others for theirs. It’s enough to remind me of “Bye Bye Birdie” where the parents lament, “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way. What’s the matter with kids today?” Is this the empathy-gap that the research has disclosed?

Before we go too much farther, we should probably remind ourselves that, at one level, we weren’t any different. Our students are late adolescents and as many developmental psychologists remind us, their concepts of moral reasoning are still emerging. I can’t adequately represent this argument here (and I’m not a psychologist), but from the perspective of moral cognition, college students are moving from a dualistic worldview that sees absolute right and wrong, toward a recognition of multiple and potentially valid perspectives, and, ultimately, to a contextually relative approach to judging the adequacy of moral stances. If we accept the moral cognition approach, we must also accept that one of our primary tasks as teachers is not just developing our students’ content mastery, but engaging our students with content in meaningful ways that facilitates their ability to make complex moral judgments. In other words, rather than looking the other way when we see examples of moral reasoning (and ethical behavior) that make us want to hold our heads and cry, we want to be thinking of how to address these issues in class or with students outside of class.

way-too-many-f-sBut if we return to the research, maybe we are correct in saying that today’s students are different. Affective theorists say that emotions, rather than cognition, are at the base of moral development. Martin Hoffman, for example, argues that empathy is the primary moral emotion, and that empathic capacities – “psychological processes that make a person have feelings that are more congruent with another’s situation than with his own” (30) are at the base of developmental change. Thus we are back to considering the impact of the three-decade drop in students’ empathic concern and perspective taking – and we’re also back to considering the importance for late adolescents of college as a place where such developments can occur… or not.

Why now?

I’m even less competent to throw out sociological answers for why this decline is happening than I am in understanding the psychological factors that determine moral and ethical development. But, if it hasn’t stopped me before, why should it now?

We can look at a number of factors, none of which you will find too surprising. Personal behaviors mirror societal behaviors, and we (and our students) ping-pong back and forth between righteous fury and faux indignation, between Ferguson and “Viet Cong.” As Julia Turner’s “Outrage Project” in Slate put it, “Over the past decade or so, outrage has become the default mode for politicians, pundits, critics, and, with the rise of social media, the rest of us.” We move from outrage to outrage, and can often hardly recall what it was that produced so much stomach acid just last week.

Beyond a doubt, social media has had a dramatic and negative impact on empathic concern. Not only has it led to the development of a “call-out” culture, but its echo-chamber tendencies takes what might have been resolved, or at least defused, by a face-to-face chat and amplifies them into an example of moral outrage that requires that everyone chimes in and spills a bit of their own bile.

I’m also quite sure (although I lack the research evidence) that the replacement of actual political organizing – door-to-door canvassing, workplace organizing, street-corner leafleting – by on-line petitions has had a strong impact on the decline of our students’ (and our own) empathic concern. Those “older” forms of organizing require you to actually speak with people with whom you might disagree, and therefore teach you to do so in a way that can be heard.

Nor is it just about outrage. Surveys of in-coming first year students at colleges and universities report an increasing percentage of those whose “most important goal” is getting rich, and a declining percentage who would chose “helping others in time of need” as an important goal. Which takes us back to BMW’s in the crosswalks.

And what about us at liberal arts colleges?

The world of higher education is now deeply immersed in conversations about the benefits to be gained through a greater use of online resources in teaching and learning, or of a fully online education. Strong advocates of online learning point to the “student-centric” value of instruction that can be highly tailored to individual learning needs or to the fact that online learning can be more engaging than sitting in a lecture hall with 600 other students listening to a professor drone on in a barely incomprehensible manner. My concern here, however, is not the larger discussion of online vs face-to-face education (other than to observe that negative learning experiences can come in many different modes). Rather what does the research on empathy suggest about online learning?

In a recent article in Liberal Education, William Major suggests that the classroom is an extremely important social experience in which empathy can develop, something that cannot not happen online in the same fashion, and something that might help explain why empathic concern has been declining among college students. “Just as irony is virtually impossible over e-mail,” he writes, “the technological interface is the receding horizon of empathic learning.” Referencing the work of de Waal and others, Major suggests that face-to-face contacts trigger neuronal mirroring that is a fundamental part of learning and empathy, something that cannot happen when looking at others on a screen.

Neuron Fractal 1 - amattox mattox (cc)

Neuron Fractal 1 – amattox mattox (cc)

“Remembering, for instance, that mirror neurons are for sharing—transforming private action into ‘social experience to be shared with our fellow humans through language,’ according to neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni [Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others], we can think of the classroom as a system in which each student and instructor has the capacity to alter the whole at the neuronal level.” He suggests that we can liken the classroom to the “brain-as-web” in that it constantly reorganizes itself to create new pathways for learning. “Our ability to learn from each other… creates an infinite number of pathways when we are present to each other.” He suggests that when a class is really working – with everyone contributing, listening, engaging – what might actually be happening is a “curious intersection of biology and learning,” where students are in a sense nourishing each other. (Of course, the same thing can happen in reverse when things go badly.)

I really liked that image. When classes are going well, something happens that allows what we’ve always tended to call “its chemistry” to work. Maybe we were just looking in the wrong discipline – we should be thinking as neuroscientists instead! The bottom line here is that it is in these face-to-face, highly interactional moments that our students are not just learning about French or calculus or philosophy; they are developing their capacity for empathic concern. And that’s a concern for us all. Our question should be how we use all the advantages we have at a liberal arts college to help our students become more empathic, more morally engaged. (And when they’re not looking, we can also put our heads in our hands while we hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Birdie.”)

Size (Still) Matters: The Technologies of Reading and tl;dr

Steven Volk, March 1, 2015

Some years ago for another “Article of the Week” (Sept. 24, 2012, to be exact), I wrote about the challenge we face deciding how much reading to assign. I thought about it again in light of an eye-opening article by Naomi S. Baron in the Chronicle of Higher Education (February 13, 2015). It was mysteriously titled, “The Plague of tl;dr.”  Obviously, I had to read it since I had no idea what it was about. [If you don’t subscribe to the Chronicle, the link might not work and you’ll need to go through the library’s website or that of your own institution.] Guesses? According the Urban Dictionary, “tl;dr” means “too long; didn’t read.” It’s used in snarky riposte to someone who, according to the grumbler, has gone on too long in a blog post. As in: “tl;dr…why dont you give up on your unabridged edition of War and Peace or at least stop posting it here?” Zing.

"Reading," Lucas absent pour le moment mais reviens bientôt (CC)

“Reading,” Lucas absent pour le moment mais reviens bientôt (CC)

When I posted my own (way tl;dr) article in 2012, it was in response to the hand-wringing that accompanied the publication of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). The authors argued, briefly, that student aren’t learning what they should in college and much of this is due to the fact that they aren’t writing enough, thinking enough, or reading enough. As an example, the authors found that 32% of students do not take any course in a semester with more than 40 pages of assigned reading per week. Academically Adrift does raise a lot of concerns, but one question I still have is what, exactly, to make of their evidence. Should we be happy that nearly 70% of the students are taking courses with more reading? Are the 32% of the “light-reading” courses in the sciences, math, poetry, creative writing, studio art, etc? And finally, for the purpose of this discussion, do we have any research to suggest that more is better?

"Into the Reading," http://www.postcardsfrominside.com/ (CC)

“Into the Reading,” http://www.postcardsfrominside.com/ (CC)

My own recommendations for how much reading one should assign came with a set of questions to answer before selecting readings for the syllabus:

(1) What do you want the reading to do? Is reading assigned as a background that will inform the week’s lectures but won’t be directly discussed in class? Is it expected to generate class discussion? Should students be reading for detail or for narrative argument? The amount of reading you assign needs to be associated with what you want it to accomplish.

(2) What role does reading itself play in your course? Is the production of effective reading strategies one of the learning goals in your course?

(3) Does the amount of reading we assign bear any resemblance to the sort of reading we do for pleasure or for our own work, or are we loading it on for other purposes? Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore historian, observed that we often assign more than anyone, let alone an undergraduate, could possibly read in any “normal” fashion. Could less be more?

(4) Do we expect novices to be experts when we assign reading? Our students have had a lot of practice reading, but not necessarily in our disciplinary fields, and not necessarily good practice. They often don’t know how to read appropriately what we have assigned them. One of the reasons we have made it to where we are is because we learned to how skim when we can and dig in when we need to. Novice readers in our fields often don’t know how to skim, or rather, they think that skimming means making sure their eyes “touch” each word but at a quicker rate than regular reading.

(5) How can we help students be better readers? In “Deep Reading, Cost/Benefit, and the Construction of Meaning: Enhancing Reading Comprehension and Deep Learning in Sociology Courses” [Teaching Sociology 36:2 (April 2008)], Judith C. and Keith A. Roberts offer a number of suggestions:

  • Connecting to the text—Underlining key ideas and making marks and comments in the margins. Students are encouraged to go back through the reading and write five “big” questions on key concepts in the chapter. They can then answer some of those questions or write a commentary on why they think these are the core issues in the reading.
  • Summarizing the readings and visualizing the key ideas—Summarizing the reading by using visual or graphic approaches, charts, lists, etc.
  • Reading response journal—Each portion of the reading assignment is responded to with a question or comment.
  • Studying as a group—Two or three students discuss the readings, focusing on key concepts. Ideas are recorded and then written up.

6) Are we aware of the academic calendar when we assign readings? Longer readings that most students will complete when assigned in the first few weeks of class or right after spring break will remain (largely) unread as mid-terms or finals approach.

Main Reading Room, NY Public Library.  Wally Gobetz (CC)

Main Reading Room, NY Public Library. Wally Gobetz (CC)


But what if technology is interfering with how (and how much) our students are reading? Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics and executive director of the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning at American University, questions how students’ digital reading habits impact their overall (non-digital as well as digital) reading strategies. As she writes, “When reading on-screen, we can rapidly click or scroll our way from page to page within a document. We are able to connect with the outside world, to hop from site to site, to multitask. Sustained concentration, analysis, and rereading are not encouraged.” The screen is great for searching, skimming, and for shorter pieces not necessarily meant for deep thinking. But digital reading might be getting in the way of the kinds of reading we assign to our students.

Baron summarizes research that suggests, on average, readers in the U.S. spend about 72 seconds on a web page, but almost half just spent 12 seconds or less. The point is not whether one should be spending more time deciding whether the dress was white and gold or blue and black. The point is that students (actually, all of us) are re-learning how to read because of these practices.

Digital reading is not the same as other reading: it doesn’t occur on a (slower) word-by-word fashion or even a (faster) skimming approach where experts know how to jump over sections. Digital reading is reading by scanning. Eye-tracking studies by Jakob Nielsen of on-line reading habits have found that web-reading takes place in an F pattern. Readers start in the upper left-hand corner and move across to the end of the first line. As they go down, their eyes soon only alight on the left-hand side. Our students are learning to “power browse” on-line, something quite different than either deep reading or informed skimming. (And content providers are learning to place their content right smack in those “F” areas.)

F-Shaped On-Line Reading Pattern

F-Shaped On-Line Reading Pattern

Baron argues further that “reading on-screen is encouraging a ‘snippet’ approach to the written word,” fostering what she calls “reading on the prowl.” Digital marketers are now catering to this by producing shorter-and-shorter versions of books. This is not the Reduced Shakespeare Company offering (as comedy) the complete works of Shakespeare in 97 minutes, or even Sparknotes or other (ahem) “study guides.” This is Blinklist which advertises itself as “Your personal reading assistant. We read over 1,000 books per year for you and provide you with the most important facts – so you can do more, earn more and be more. All by spending less time reading…Get key insights from the world’s best business books in 15-minute, made-for-mobile reads. Available for iOS, Android, and the web.” Now there’s a lesson for our students: earn more by spending less time reading!

(Baron also suggests the various ways that new reading styles and economic pressures on scholarly publishers are pushing down the length of manuscripts that academic presses will even consider, but that’s worth another article.)

It’s worth citing Baron’s conclusion at length: “Settling into a book affords us opportunities to contemplate, compare perspectives, wander the lives of others, and to wonder. If in our courses we condone replacing full-fledged texts with shorter versions, what message are we sending students about what there is to know or what it means to imagine? And if in our research we increasingly reduce the scope of our source materials, what assumptions are we ourselves making as professors about how much reading and attendant thinking are needed to create new knowledge?”

This is not intended as a Luddite rant against the digital world, nor (as I suggested above), that more is necessarily better. Our students have grown up in a digital world and those of us who didn’t have become quite accustomed to it as well. This world shapes us as well as our students. The point is: knowing what we do about how students develop their technologies of reading, it becomes even more important to assign and scaffold reading in ways that intentionally foster deeper reading, closer reading, more reflective reading. That might mean shorter assignments or not – but it does mean that teaching reading is every bit as important as teaching writing.

What have you found in your courses? Did you even make it through this article? Tl;dr?

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).