Tag Archives: classroom

Reflections from Some Colleagues’ Classrooms

Steve Volk, March 12, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

All images from Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts (1887) by Louisa S. Cook, which details Benjamin Bett’s attempts to model the evolution of human consciousness through geometric forms. Full book, to see how it’s done, here.

Last week offered me the opportunity to sit in on some colleagues’ classes as part of “Open Classroom Week.” Rarely, if ever, do I get a chance to attend someone’s class unless it’s part of a formal evaluation process, either as requested by the faculty member (formative) or as part of a larger, departmental, evaluation (summative). We don’t sit in on colleagues’ classes simply to learn from what they do as teachers. Other than those who are visiting to pass judgment on our teaching, the only guests we have in our classrooms are prospective students and their parents, some Kendal residents, or the occasional emeriti who, having forgotten that they no longer teach in that room, wandered in. it’s not surprising that we remain wary about having “outsiders” in attendance. Which probably explains the brief flash of panic that crossed the face of one colleague who, after setting up in the front of the class, looked up to see me happily installed in the back row!

My take-away after attending five classes during Open Classroom Week? Absolutely fantastic!

In this “Article of the Week,” I’ll provide some feedback on my experience, which I know was shared by many of you who took part in the program and wrote me. I will also braid in some insights provided by the always-inspired Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach. My observations are far from original, but might serve some purpose even if you’ve heard them many times. My schedule allowed me only five visits; I wish I could have attended the classes of all 17 instructors who participated in the program; I know most of you had even less time available. I picked classes from the College and the Conservatory, and from all three divisions in the College.

Some years ago, Ken Bain wrote What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004), a frequently cited text. Well, here’s what I observed our best teachers doing, and I have no doubt that I  witnessed only a tiny sample of the kind of teaching taking place across the campus every week, teaching that highlights the same quality, intensity, and deep level of student engagement as that which I observed.

Teaching in Your Own Skin

In the first place, there is no one way to teach. All the instructors brought their own style of teaching to the classroom. You could say, “well, duh” (I did warn that nothing I say will be particularly original), but one of the hardest things to figure out when one is beginning as a teacher is what will be your teacherly style, how will you be able to teach in your own skin? We come into the profession greatly influenced (for better and for worse) by those who have taught us, by our mentors. We may even spend our early years trying to imitate our mentors, a process that can easily go south. We know what they did that worked for us, but when you come right down to it, we’re kind of weird. Many of us were already deeply engrossed in our fields and could already picture ourselves standing where our teachers stood. On the other hand, relatively few of our students will follow our path into the professoriate – the times they are a- changin’ – so understanding what will make them engaged and excited about their learning is not the same as recreating what our grad school mentors did, what turned us on.

And it’s not that easy to find your own teaching persona. We hear a colleague lecture and we say, “I want to be like her.” Of course, the question is who will we be as teachers? Teaching “in your own skin” is not quite as straightforward as “being yourself,” since teaching is a performance: who we are as teachers is not always the same thing as who we are outside of the class in our “civilian” lives. Those teachers whose classes I had the pleasure to visit had all figured this out to the great benefit of their students.

The classes I visited were all taught by experienced faculty, and they shared a comfort in what they were doing which was expressed in their very different styles. Parker Palmer advises that “we teach who we are.” Teaching, he writes, “like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.” In the end, he concludes, “knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.” So, good teaching, at some basic level, requires self-knowledge. I can’t comment on what “self-knowledge” those I watched brought to their teaching, but I can say that each brought something different, and that all had different ways of engaging their students that demonstrated their great comfort and ability to teach who they are. Funny or serious, in motion or stationary, talking or listening, prodding or standing back: each had a different approach, and all demonstrated how deeply they were paying attention to the rhythms of their class and their students.

In Love with the Subject

Spanish, biology, psychology… In each class that I attended the deep affection (I think the word is appropriate) that all held for their subject was completely evident. They wore it on their sleeves, pinned to their clothes like so many badges. You, students, are not being introduced to secondary dominants in music theory because you “have to” know them (ok, you have to know them), but because they are fascinating. “Saccadic eye movement velocity” is not a term that’s thrown out to impress or to be memorized. It’s offered as a fascinating way to begin to identify panic disorders experimentally. De rerum natura? Who knew Lucretius could be so enchanting.

We are all drawn to our subjects, or, as Parker Palmer would say, our subjects chose us. Palmer found meaning by reading C. Wright Mills who taught him to view the world through the lenses of social theory, since “by putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible.” Falling in love with our subjects is often about coming to understand our own place in the world and what it is about our particular discipline that helps us comprehend what we were aching to understand. Some of us, like Palmer, come to it through books, others through experiences. I think I came to my own subject when, as a 15-year old high school exchange student in Chile, I took a night-long trip south from Santiago. We pulled into a small town at about 3:00 AM to use the bathroom and, as I stumbled out of the bus, I saw three kids, probably 6-8 years old, sleeping on the sidewalk. Trying to answer the question of why they were there was probably what drove me to study history.

However one comes to it, in every class I sat in on, the instructors were clearly in love with their subjects and communicated that affection with their students. To be sure: this won’t happen all the time. Sometimes we are in intense dislike of our disciplines because they fail us, they resist providing us the answers we demand. And, frankly, sometimes we’re too tired to manifest passion of any kind; that’s how life is. But bringing students into a discipline, i.e., into a “disciplined” way of looking at the world, is something the best teachers do with much love, not because their chosen way of understanding the world is the only one available, but because it is the one that chose them and they are eager to pass that along to their students.

Accessing Deeper Understandings

It seems a little gratuitous to say that our faculty know what they are teaching. (Another “duh” moment.) What impressed me was how they shared that knowledge with their students. Let me explain. Part of the process of coming to know a subject is to understand its complexities, intricacies, and uncertainties. To “know” history is to know more than what happened when. To “know” chemistry is to know more than the chemical notation for potassium. Knowing how complex our subjects are, we are cautious about simplifying them because we know how easily the simple can become simplistic. (It’s easier to do with fields that aren’t our “own,” and I’m quite aware that It’s something I do all the time in these articles, probably much to the annoyance of the cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists among us.) I think this is probably one of the reasons that popular science writing is so challenging: those who write or explain science for a broader public (Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday: I’m looking at you!) are doubly careful about maintaining the integrity and intricacy of their subjects while helping a non-specialist audience understand what they are talking about.

That said, what I saw in all the teachers I observed was an ability to present complex ideas in a manner that helped students grab on to them at the level they are at without sacrificing complexity. There are certainly many ways to do this, often subject dependent, but, in the classes I observed the faculty usually did it by deploying a repertoire of thoughtful and appropriate analogies and carefully chosen metaphors. Some of these probably occurred to them on the spur of the moment, in response to a specific question. Others have likely been developed over time and are held in the ready, like arrows in a quiver, to use a metaphor.

Both figures of speech are extremely helpful in bringing students into complex subjects. Think about what a metaphor does. If we go with Artistotle’s definition, and why not, we read that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics (1457b). Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor (1978), writes: “Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry, and the spawning ground of most kinds of understanding, including scientific understanding, and expressiveness.” Metaphor and analogy take something from one domain and place it in another. Teaching with metaphors and analogies allows the best teachers to replace the complex items in their subject with appropriate examples in a domain that is more familiar to students. Each of the teachers I observed had his or her own way to use these devices to make their subjects accessible and interesting.

Connecting to Students

Metaphor and analogy are means by which effective teachers map their domain of knowledge onto a student’s domain of interest. Like much of what we do, its success depends on context and appropriate usage. Sports metaphors can become truly obnoxious if the idea behind them is that everyone loves football. But thinking about Cortez’s encounter with Moctezuema II on a causeway into Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519 as the equivalent of two athletes taking the field but playing completely different games and by fundamentally different rules, can bring some students to a deeper understanding of what their momentous encounter was like because it taps into their set of interests.

A lot of literature on successful pedagogical approaches emphasizes the importance of being able to connect to student interests. And yet, such an approach often smacks of the purely transactional and, frankly, is very close to pandering: We’ll show students we care if we play their music, dress like them, or learn the latest slang. Maybe we should only teach to their interests? Goodbye to most of our subjects!

Connecting with our students is no more about imitating them than being a good teacher is about imitating our mentors. This doesn’t mean that one can’t explore their “vernacular” as a way into deeper understandings. Hip-hop, to take just one example, can and has been used as an important pedagogical approach (see, for example, Hill and Petchauer, Chang, or Akom).  But helping students find fascination in a subject doesn’t require becoming an 18-year old. As often is the case, Palmer explains this best. “What we teach,” he writes, “will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teachers.” What he means by this, I think, is at the heart of what we value so highly in a liberal arts education. It means turning extrinsic motivation (the external, the transactional, learning for the job) into intrinsic motivation (internal, meaningful, learning beyond the job). It is what we mean in our quest to shape “live-long learners” rather than adopting a singular focus on seeing that our students can land their first job after college. This doesn’t separate learning from career – anything but (and stay tuned for more on this). But it does speak to the importance of connecting to our students’ “inward teachers.”

Again, what I experienced in the classes I visited were a variety of ways, some profound, some whimsical, that faculty connected to their students’ lives and interests. They connected through their subject matter: An upper-level genetics course examined the marketing of BiDil, which Arbor Pharmaceuticals calls “the only heart failure medicine specifically indicated for self-identified African American patients,” generating a discussion about race and genetics. A history course explored how medieval writers connected ideas of sex differences with how they configured the world. Others brought the esoteric into a more common resonance through little “factoids” thrown out like bonbons: Do you know what “appoggiatura” means? Probably not. Did you know that it proved to be the winning word in the 78th Annual National Scripps Spelling Bee? Others brought in popular culture to teach particular points, listening to a YouTube video to hear how a pop singer from southern Spain aspirated her “T’s”.

Finding Our Authority

I’ve talked in the past about challenges to our authority in the classroom, challenges that are often socially determined and rooted in the ways that students (and we) perceive power. Let me close by returning to the notion of authority, once again by way of Parker Palmer. For Palmer, the ability to cultivate our “inner teacher” is a question of finding a comfortable way into our authority as teachers, into our “capacity to stand [our] ground in the midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and [our] own” lives. Authority, he points out, is not meant in the external sense of power, working from the outside in – the authority we bring to a classroom that is expressed by the fact that it is we who will determine our students’ grades. Rather, he references authority as “coming from a teacher’s inner life…as people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives… Authority comes,” he argues, when one reclaims one’s own “identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and sense of vocation.”

What I saw in my visits were the many ways that these teachers brought their authority into the classroom. I know that the teachers whose classrooms I visited are just a few of the many here who teach with similar truth, conviction, and authority. So, my final take-away is to hope that we will continue to allow ourselves to be inspired and instructed by the many wonderful teachers who surround us and who, by authoring their lessons in the classroom, are helping our students to author their own lives.

Digital Distractions? Technology, Teaching and Learning in the Contemporary Classroom

Steve Volk, February 12, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

In my current day job, leading Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am frequently asked to observe colleagues’ classes to offer some “formative” feedback, remarks that go to them alone, not to department chairs or deans. (Let me know if you would like me to sit in on one of your classes, by the way.) Many of these classes are relatively large, and I park myself in the back of the class where I have a clear view of the class, including the students’ laptops and phones. Oh, the things I have seen! Chats and texts, Amazon purchases, sporting events and Netflix movies, emails and emoticons.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the disruption and distraction that digital devices introduce into the classroom, adding to the potential for a wandering attention that was already present in a pre-internet age. Reporting on the dangers of digital distraction is no longer confined to academic journals or the education press. Articles in Forbes (“Students spend nearly 21% of class time using a digital device for an unrelated activity like email or social media…They also check a digital device 10.5 times per class day on average”), the New York Times (“A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures”), Fortune (“Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show”), and myriad other sources have reported on the research findings (usually citing the same research study).

While I’ll go over some of these research findings in this article, let me summarize them here for those who are just about to stop reading so they can look at that text that just came in…

Digital technologies (cell phones, tablets, and laptops) have been shown to have a negative impact on a student’s ability to concentrate in class. They can prove almost irresistible both for the user and for those sitting nearby – a “second-hand smoke” effect. On top of this, some persuasive research suggests that even “legitimate” technology use, taking notes on a laptop, for example, can impede learning when compared with taking notes by hand. All of this provides a cogent argument for banning (with some exceptions) digital devices in the class room. My point in this article is to encourage you to think twice before adopting such bans.

In this article – which is based on the research literature and a recent CTIE workshop on the topic – I’ll  summarize some of the research about the impact of digital technology in the classroom, suggest some unintended consequences of outright digital bans, encourage you to consider policies that stop short of banning all devices, and, above all, suggest that encouraging your students to design a technology policy for the class, based on an informed discussion, may be the best approach of all.

What is Distraction?

Henriette Browne ( pseudonym for Mme Jules de Saux, née Sophie Boutellier), “A Girl Writing” (1870), (c) V&A Museum

Let’s begin by addressing the question of what is distraction. (Much of this is drawn from James Lang’s review in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Adam Gazzaley (neuroscientist) and Larry D. Rosen’s (psychologist), The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016). Lang recommends the book as “required reading for every teacher today.”) Distractions, the authors suggest, are about something blocking our efforts to achieve a goal that matters. Multitasking (texting, listening to music, watching a video, making a cup of coffee, reading email, etc.) on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not a distraction. Doing the same when studying for a calculus exam is.

Distraction, Gazzaley and Rosen argue, is the result of a conflict between our brain’s ability to conceive and plan long-term goals and our ability to control our minds and our environment as we work to complete those goals. To understand distraction, picture a huge wave (our goals) crashing into a sea-wall represented by the limitations to our cognitive control which “diminish our ability to direct and sustain our attention, to remember things, and to switch back and forth between tasks.” Barriers to sustained attention will always be there, but they don’t always defeat the pursuit of our goals. Further, what these barriers (limitations) are change over the course of our lives: they were different when we were children, are different for our students, and are different for us now.

OK, hold on to that thought (if you can!), as we’ll come back to it when talking about how to develop new approaches to digital distractions in the classroom that focus on helping our students (and ourselves) set and pursue goals.

When Digital Is Distracting: Cell Phones

It’s so annoying when I’m giving a lecture and half the students are talking on their mobiles! Well, duh! No one (at least no one I know) permits students to talk on their phones in class. And we don’t allow students to check their phones for texts, email, or interact with social media while in class. Of course, the fact that we don’t allow this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. (I’m always amused by student who are convinced of their own superpower: invisibility. They don’t think that we can see them looking down toward their laps while we’re talking away at the front of the class.) A study in 2012 found that 53% of undergraduate students at one university reported texting during class; a 2014 examination of 99 college students during a 20-minute lecture found that the average amount of texts sent and received among each student was 26.29 (14.10 sent, 12.69 received). Let me say that again: a 20-minute lecture, so, for each minute of class, students were sending or receiving more than one text.

According to a recently released survey conducted by Top Hat, 94% of students said they “wanted to use their cell phones in class for academic purposes,” and 75% believe using personal devices in the classroom improved their ability to learn and retain information even though more than half reported using their cell phones to text friends or browse social media. And these are among the more “optimistic” numbers. Other studies report 86% of students sending text messages in class, or 94% of students using their cell phones for non-academic purposes in class, or 125% of students using their cell phones to play Candy Crush in class. (OK, I made up that last one just to see if you were still paying attention.) But you get the idea.

Is this distracting? Of course, particularly when it comes to the ability of students to do well in their classes. Researchers at Kent State University surveyed more than 500 students, controlling for demographics and high-school GPA, among other factors. They found that more daily cell phone use (including smartphones) correlated with lower overall GPAs. (Correlation is not causation, but the findings are concerning in any case.) A number of other studies have also reported on correlations between cell phone usage and test scores (as usage goes up, scores go down).

Research also suggests that cell phone use has a differential impact on students. A recent study on student phone access and the achievement gap by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy for the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, found that banning mobile phones “improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

In short, we likely have enough data to suggest, at the very least, that instructors need to show some concern about cell phone use in class for other than allowable uses (e.g., taking photos of white boards or PowerPoint slides, looking up facts when requested, etc.)

When Digital Is Distracting: Laptops

The impact of laptops on student learning (or, to keep it accurate, on student grades) was equally troubling. In an experiment conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, faculty teaching multiple sections of an introductory economics course found that when they took away computers and tablets in the classroom, student grades rose. The difference wasn’t monumental, but enough to tip students into higher or lower grades. Similar research, using experimental, semi-experimental, and anecdotal data, yields the same results (see here, here, and here, for example).

zakiakhmad, Flickr cc

Researchers have also studied the impact of taking notes on a laptop versus taking notes by hand. The most frequently cited study was conducted at UCLA and Princeton where students using laptops to take notes were compared with students who took notes by hand. The researchers found that laptop note-takers performed worse on conceptual questions than longhand note-takers. The thought behind this is fairly evident: students taking notes on their laptops are essentially transcribing the lecture, whereas longhand note-takers, since they can’t write at the speed of the talker, must do some mental processing to isolate those parts of the lecture that seemed most relevant. (Of course, it is also possible that students can capture the less pertinent points rather than the most important ones, or that the laptop note-taker will go over her “transcription” to pull out the more relevant points, but we’ll let the observations represented in the study stand as the most likely outcomes.)

Equally troubling, researchers have found that, in the words of one article on the topic, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” Psychologists at two Canadian universities discovered not only that “participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but also that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.” Their results, in fact, indicated that the consequences, in terms of comprehending a lecture, were even worse for nearby students than for laptop multitaskers themselves. In other words, the impact of “second-hand smoke,” so to speak, was greater than the impact on the smoker.

Finally, studies of both workers and students have found that the impact of breaking away from a main task lingers even if you only spend a few seconds “away,” to check email, a text, or responses to the latest Tweet from the WH. One study cited by Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind, found that it took research subjects almost 30 minutes to refocus and fully engage with the original task.

When Digital is Distracting: Challenges to Authority

I have taught more than one class where a student asked a factual question for which I didn’t have an answer. Look it up, I suggested, and they always did. Smart phones can give us immediate answers, provide needed information, and allow discussions to advance where the lack of information might have been stymied an important line of inquiry. But in-the-moment access to information can also raise issues that we need to be aware of. Two examples.

(1) Two years ago I was teaching a summer course for high school students on morality and decision making. I had posed, as a purely hypothetical, what was an actual British case from the 19th century (R v Dudley and Stephens) dealing with a shipwreck, cannibalism, and eventual charges of murder when the survivors were rescued. As the students were discussing whether the (still hypothetical) survivors should be charged with murder for the death of a young crew member who had, after many days without food, lapsed into a coma, one student was busy on his cell phone. He finally raised his hand and reported that my example wasn’t hypothetical at all, and he informed the class of the results of the actual trial of the surviving seamen. I didn’t feel undercut, since it didn’t matter if the case were an actual one or purely hypothetical. But the student’s Googling set the discussion off in an unwanted direction as students now wanted to know the outcome of the trial rather than putting themselves in the place of the jurors.

(2) A faculty participant at a recent workshop (female, fairly new to campus) reported that a student had looked up something she said and noted that it was incorrect. While her response, as reported to us, was welcoming and non-defensive, I have little doubt the student would never have challenged a senior (male) faculty member in the same way. In other words, in the context in which newer, female, or under-represented faculty need to be more concerned with establishing their authority in the classroom than more senior, male, or white faculty, access to information via classroom digital technologies can be a means not just of distributing classroom knowledge and participation (something I would see as positive), but of challenging the authority of specific categories of faculty.

Pedrik_BioModLat-2012. Flickr cc

Hold On; Wait a Minute!

Enough, you’re probably begging by now. Ban laptops, confiscate cell phones, turn tablets into cafeteria trays and get them out of the class. There is a lot of evidence that more and more faculty are doing just that, minus the cafeteria tray suggestion. But there are reasons to think again about the unintended consequences of a total digital ban, and there are reasons to turn the conversation around and think of potentially more productive approaches to digital distractions in the classroom.

In terms of unintended consequences, the issue of note-taking accommodations is an important consideration. Students with the proper documentation can apply to Office of Disability Resources either for a note-taker, or for permission to use a laptop in a “no-laptops” class as an accommodation. The problem with this should already be evident: if you’re the only student in class who has a laptop open in a no-laptop class, you have just been outed. Other possible options: Assign note-takers for the class, to rotate among students for credit or extra credit. The note-takers can take notes by hand or laptop, but if the latter, they should be encouraged to go over their “transcriptions” to prepare a summary of the class, not a textual recording. Note-takers would have one day to post their notes to Blackboard.

If you have been to a professional conference in the last decade, you’ll have noticed the large number of audience members who pull out phones and tablets to take pictures of the PowerPoint slides, particularly the ones that contain way too much textual information. Other possible options: Put less on your slides, allow each slide more time, or, better yet, make your slides available after the lecture. And allow cell phones for students to photograph white boards, the blackboard, or sheets of paper that have been put up, so that that can capture some of the discussion that occurred. (Or you can take a photo and post it to Blackboard.)

And, finally, we have been encouraging our students to read articles we have posted to Blackboard, rather than printing them out. But if they can’t use their laptops to access the readings during a class discussion, it forces them to print out the articles or not to bring them in. Without laptops, you can’t ask your students to quickly find the reading from two weeks ago and compare Hobbes to Locke. Other possible options: Allow laptops for discussions of readings, having gained an understanding from students that the pdf’s will be the only tabs open.

But beyond potential fixes to specific issues, there are many other reasons why we should think twice about an absolute ban on laptops or other digital technology use in the classroom. Obviously, technology, when used well, can add a lot to classroom learning, engagement, and interaction. I’ll just mention one way I have used laptops in the class to very productive ends. I’m sure that you have many others. I’ve found that one of the trickiest aspects of conducting small group discussions in class occurs when the groups are asked to report back on the insights they have gained or the questions that have been raised. If there are many such small groups, student report-backs can grow tedious and time consuming. I began to use laptops to solve this problem. I would split the class into smaller (5-7) groups, making sure that one student in each group had a laptop. Before class, I set up a Google doc, and I would give the laptop students access to it. Then, as the discussion in each group occurred, I would have the student with the laptop to record their answers to questions I had posed directly into the Google doc. This document would be projected onto a screen at the front of the class. I got a sense of what was going on in each group by simply looking at the unfolding Google doc. When I called the discussions to a close, I already knew what points they shared, where the differences were, and how to direct my remarks or questions. Finally, I would preserve the document and make it available to the whole class. (I did a “how-to” video on this which you can find here.)

The Bigger Issues

Let’s return to some larger issues before we join the rush to ban digital technology in the classroom.  We can start with perhaps the most important issue: our students’ ability to succeed in the future will depend to a significant degree on their ability to use contemporary technology responsibly and to their advantage, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. In that sense, it is better to encourage a conscious, targeted use of technology in the classroom than to banish it altogether.

One of our standard approaches to the issue of technology in the classroom is to wonder about why students don’t (can’t?) seem to control their behavior around its use. While many students report that they think that multitasking can improve their ability to learn, results of a study by Tassone et al (2017) indicate that a majority of students were aware that multitasking was detrimental to their grades. So, it’s not like they don’t know of the consequences of disruptive technology use.

New research points to the fact that students are increasingly anxious when away from their cell phones. A University of Illinois study found that high engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. A review of 23 studies of the impact of cell phone use, anxiety and depression, confirmed this finding, although noting that the impact of increase cell phone use was weak to moderate. A psychology professor who wrote an “autoethnographic reflection” on his students’ cell phone “addiction in the classroom,” quoted one student, who observed that, “For just about everybody, their phone is their life. That is how they keep in contact with everyone; that is where all their pictures are, and so on… I do not think one could imagine life without technology and social media.”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reading-between-the-headlines/201307/smartphone-addiction

We could benefit from more research on what appears to be a correlation between the amount of cell phone use and student anxiety (again, correlation is not causation). But the take-away for me when thinking about technology use in the classroom, is this: if, as the emerging research suggests, some students are tied to their cell phones in a way that is not beneficial for their mental health, simply banning them in class won’t address the underlying issues. Perhaps we should engage, as teachers, in a different way?

Which brings me back Gazzaley and Rosen’s The Distracted Mind as reported on by Lang. Gazzaley and Rosen, you will remember if you weren’t playing on your phones, suggested the conflict in our brains which goes on between two separate neural processes: the first directing our attention to goal-related activities, and the second blocking out irrelevant distractions. (Gazzaley’s experiments have also suggested that, as we age, we don’t lose the ability to focus our attention, but we do have a harder time blocking out distractions, which could be why older adults have a harder time focusing on conversations in a noisy restaurant.).

If this is the case, the challenge  – which Lang raises in his review – should not focus on modifying this second neural process, banning digital devices in order to block out distractions, but on the first, i.e., by helping students focus on goals.  As Lang put it, when thinking about one of his students who was a cell-phone-offender: “What goal had I established for Kate’s learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important — assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her — did she know about it?”

Can Democracy in the Classroom Remove Digital Distractions?

No. We should be about what we can do. But the creation of transparent, student-centered classrooms can go some way to threading the needle between outright technology bans and an anything-goes approach. Again, we start with the assumption that students, to succeed, will need to know how to manage their technology use, and that just telling them to turn off their phones won’t give them practice, direction, or motivation for how to act when they are outside of class, studying, writing a paper, or doing their reading.

So, some suggestions:

(1) A technology use policy in the classroom is, in my mind, like any other policy one creates for a class: it can serve as an opening for a discussion as to why such a policy has been adopted (note the passive tense). Better yet, it can serve as a springboard for a discussion in which you would invite your students to come up with their own policies governing technology use in the classroom. Students may or may not think that a glance at a text in the midst of a lecture is distracting, but they likely don’t know the research that concludes just how problematic it can be. They probably don’t know that their watching of a music video on their laptops will negatively impact nearby peers even more than it will impact them. In other words, use this discussion to provide information (you’ve got all you need just in this article!) and help students develop their own classroom technology policy. And don’t expect that such policies will immediately solve the problem or that everyone will obey the class rules that they have established for themselves. Public health experts know very well that telling young people that smoking is bad for them doesn’t do the trick (nor have students stopped smoking on campus now that we have banned it). But, in the context of digital uses in the classroom, the rules have the potential of constructing a new social contract that might give students pause before they text in class.

(2) To the extent that you can, create an active classroom. Long lectures without breaks of any kind will make digital distractions much more likely as attention begins to flag. Cut down the time between the lecture and a task that engages students directly: asking questions, polling them, breaking them into group discussions. Digital distractions decline when students shuttle between short lecture segments and discussion groups or think-pair-share activities.

(3) Help students focus on the goals for that class, and remind them to stay focused on the goals. To rephrase Lang’s question, do students know what your goals are for the day? Distractions will win the game if the only goal a student has is making it to the end of the class.

The literature on the impact of that new technology is having on our brains, or better said, our students’ brains, is already large and will continue to grow, particularly with the advent of high quality virtual reality. Probably the most honest thing to say is that we don’t actually know how digital intrusions are shaping the lives of our students. But we do know that one of our greatest responsibilities as teachers, regardless subject matter, is to help students develop the capacity for deep and undivided attention as a means of problem solving, reflection, sustained engagement, and mental calm. Inviting our students into a discussion about digital distractions, and giving them the shared authority to establish policies, is at least a beginning.  

Your experiences in this regard? Please share!

Deliberative Pedagogy: Practicing Democracy in the Classroom

Steve Volk, October 23, 2017
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

Michel-Vincent Brandoin, Le magasin pittoreseque, Vol. 5 (Paris, 1837).

You don’t need me to tell you that it feels like the wheels are coming off the bus. Not to mention the windows, doors, and crankshaft. White supremacist blowhards wrap themselves in First Amendment flannels while forcing universities to cough up serious cash in security costs to defend their rights (money that, you can be sure, could have gone to more beneficial ends). Leftists at the College of William and Mary disrupt an ACLU speaker for defending the First Amendment rights of obnoxious organizations, while,  at Reed, they berate a mixed-race lesbian lecturing on Sappho, branding her as a “race traitor” for participating in a Eurocentric introductory Humanities course. Pro-Trump students at Whittier College drowned out  California Attorney General Xavier Becerra with chants of “Lock him up!” and “Build the Wall!” Meanwhile, state legislators in Wisconsin, North Carolina and six other states pass legislation silencing student activists in the name of — what else? — free speech. Faculty are placed on leave to “protect” them after exercising free speech rights on social media. And all this is taking place during the watch of a “president” who uses his free speech rights to deliver falsehoods, fabrications, and fictions that would make Charles Ponzi gasp.

Sigh. One only wishes there were some space where these complex challenges, these “wicked problems,” could be discussed, if not dispassionately, than at least with evidence, insight, and the goal of reaching greater understandings as we move to address them. Wait! There is! It’s called “the college.” But if colleges and universities have become the grinding stone on which “speech” issues are milled, to what island do we retreat in order to hold these conversations? No retreat, and no island, I’d argue, but to the classroom itself, the space where democracy should be practiced and not just studied.

Democracy and Higher Education

The connection between democracy and education, in the United States at least, has long been regarded as self-evident. Modern democracies can’t exist without a well-informed electorate, citizens who are able to separate truth from lies, humanists from hucksters. Maybe. But we also know full well that educated people are fully capable of electing hucksters and liars, and that advanced degrees don’t inoculate one from anti-democratic tendencies. (According to exit polls Trump won white men by a 63-31% margin over Clinton; among college-educated whites, he won by 61-39%.) Education can produce engineers whose applications are capable of transporting us across town in the shortest time in rush hour traffic; they can also design algorithms that, in the hands of party operatives, will shave unwanted voters from a toss-up district and pack them into a guaranteed-loss district thereby making a mockery of democratic promises of “one person one vote.”

Is education, then, irrelevant to democracy? Not at all, but, lest we give into outright cynicism, we must push harder to identify what are the crucial interactions between education and democracy that can make a difference in the direction of producing more democracy.

Tony Beltrand, L’Image, Paris, 1897.

We would do well to turn here to those who have written so persuasively about this association: John Dewey and Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and Silvia Hurtado. Instead, I’ll round up a less likely suspect, Harry Truman – or, at least, the “Commission on Higher Education” that he appointed in 1947 to study the “principle goals” for higher education. Of the three that the Commission singled out, the first was that education should serve to bring about “a fuller realization of democracy in every phase of living.”

Now, there are endless ways to think about what exactly this means and how those of us in higher education can help bring about a “fuller realization of democracy.” Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, recently implored “the nation’s colleges [to] join in preparing students to become active and informed citizens,” by providing them with a curriculum in civic education. For Bok, whose thoughts on higher education I have long admired, the issue is both one of instilling students with a sense of responsibility and equipping them to perform their civic functions more effectively. (“If a democracy is to function well, citizens need to be willing to express their preferences by voting…[and to] be reasonably informed and cognizant of arguments for and against important policy questions.”) This, he continues, is best done by offering a modest core of courses in U.S. government, history, and politics, basic economics, political theory, and “Great Books.”

The American Association of Colleges & Universities’ 2012 “National Call to Action” (A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future), also urged institutions of higher learning to “reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education.” But their call went further than Bok’s, and, to my mind, got closer to the crux of the matter.

In addition to designing curricular pathways through general education and through a student’s major or technical specialized field of study, how civic issues are taught and in what venues delineate yet another arena for enhancing civic literacy, inquiry, and collective action (p. 55, emphasis added).

To those who argue that the bus is about to hurtle off the cliff because we have failed to provide our students with a proper civics education, I would counter that you don’t learn to play the piano by reading a book about it; you don’t learn to practice democracy by taking a course on it.

George Du Maurier, Tribly, a Novel (NY: 1895)

This is not an argument against reading books on piano playing (start with Tim Page’s The Glen Gould Reader, Knopf 1984) or against taking courses that explore U.S. history or politics. I am arguing that if the link between education and democracy is to have a more consequential end than informing students how a bill gets to be a law or motivating citizens to vote (where they are as capable of electing scoundrels as saints), than what colleges need to provide is a pedagogy of democratic practice. For, in the end, it is the practice of democracy in our essential laboratories of learning, the classroom, that can best help us reroute the wayward bus.

Deliberative Pedagogy

The AAC&U’s Crucible Moment calls attention to three “civic pedagogies” that research has found to be particularly effective: (1) intergroup and deliberative dialogue, (2) service learning, and (3) collective civic problem solving. The “Article of the Week” has examined service learning (more appropriately termed community-based learning) previously. Oberlin has an outstanding set of community-based learning opportunities convened through the Bonner Center, and I would recommend anyone who is interested in serious, effective community-based learning and research to contact them.

Here, however, I want to focus on the AAC&U’s first point, addressing a specific approach known as “deliberative pedagogy.” My understanding of this pedagogy was informed by a recently published volume on the topic, Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017), edited by Timothy J. Shaffer, Nicholas V. Longo, Idit Manosevitch, and Maxine S. Thomas.

Deliberative pedagogy – the editors begin – is a democratic educational process and a way of thinking that encourages students to encounter and consider multiple perspectives, weigh trade-offs and tensions, and move toward action through informed judgment. It is simultaneously a way of teaching that is itself deliberative and a process for developing the skills, behaviors, and values that support deliberative practice. Perhaps most important, the work of deliberative pedagogy is about space-making: creating and holding space for authentic and productive dialogue, conversations that can ultimately be not only educational but also transformative (xxi).

When reading about the approach, I identified what I think are its three central theoretical and practical roots. The first derives from the tradition of deliberative theory, an approach that discards both adversarial and expert models of decision making in the context of highly complex (“wicked”) problems. Both approaches are critiqued as being “overly focused on certainty, and both clearly avoid the necessary engagement with values and value dilemmas.”  Instead, deliberative theory supports arriving at decisions through a social process of deliberation characterized by reason giving in which careful consideration of all options and their trade-offs is undertaken in a context in which all are given an equal opportunity to speak and be heard in an environment defined by the mutual respect given all participants.

Adon, “Lays of Modern Oxford” (London: Chapman and Hall, 1874).

The next two origins of the process speak quite specifically to its utility within a higher education setting. Deliberative pedagogy involves engaging students as partners in the process of learning and teaching, creating a context in which authority in the classroom is shared and in which both teachers and learners come to a deeper understanding of ways to “make our practice more engaging, effective, and rigorous” [See Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (Jossey-Bass 2014)]. These are the principles that underpin our Faculty-Student Partnership program.  Finally, the concept of deliberative pedagogy is closely aligned with theories of “high-impact educational practices” examined by George Kuh and others. These are educational approaches that have been shown to produce significant learning in students (e.g., first-year seminars, undergraduate research, community-based learning, internships, etc.) [see, for example, Five High-Impact Practices (AAC&U 2010)].

What ties these three elements together and generates the distinctively democratic quality of deliberative pedagogy is the importance given to group communication and social interactions. The process of addressing highly complex problems can engage students in the act of investigating, deliberating, and deciding, a process whose success depends on the students ability to communicate with one another across difference and in a context where decisions often require trade-offs between competing sets of goods. As such, it is an approach that is designed to address questions that raise competing values or benefits, and not one where available evidence only points in one direction. For example, the deliberative pedagogy methodology wouldn’t be useful when addressing the question: Is climate change happening? This is a question which has largely been answered, and deliberative pedagogy is not an invitation to introduce false equivalences or to pose adversarial approaches “for the sake of argument.” Rather, the approach is ideally situated to approach complex questions where positive values can be in play, for example: How should public policy address the challenges of a changing climate?

Michael Briand put it this way in Practical Politics (University of Illinois Press 1999, p. 42):

Because the things human beings consider good are various and qualitatively distinct; because conflicts between such good things have no absolute, predetermined solution; and because to know what is best requires considering the views of others, we need to engage each other in the sort of exchange that will enable us to form sound personal and public judgments. This process of coming to a public judgment and choosing – together, as a public – is the essence of democratic politics.

Methodology: A Brief Overview

There are three stages to deliberative pedagogy (stay with me, now: don’t let their names turn on your cynicism switch): divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. The best step-by-step introduction to the deliberative pedagogy is in Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Jossey-Bass 2014), which is available as an E-book on OBIS or Ohio-link.)

From Sam Kaner, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, p. 13.

  1. Divergent thinking: The process begins by having students generate a wide variety of alternatives to the proposed question (or in the selection of the question to be examined in the first place) based on research, reading, interviews, surveys, and small-scale discussions. Students are cautioned to avoid “false certainties,” practices that lead us to avoid challenges to our way of thinking (selective thinking, confirmation bias, egotism) while questioning and disputing assumptions. Divergent thinking processes require that we become aware of competing sets of values, encourage dissent and question dominant perspectives. To engage this approach in a classroom means insuring that those who are still at a more tentative stage in their reasoning process are given the space to come forward and speak, and that the process not be directed at an early point of its deliberations by those who can command attention and express more certainty in their views.

 

  1. Working through the “groan zone”: So, now you’ve got a bunch of different propositions, approaches, suggestions, alternatives. How do you develop a meaningful way to pick through the “messiness of multiple competing positions” without either coming to a conclusion quickly or throwing up your hands in frustration, worrying that you’ll never come to any conclusion? The process requires much more than simply setting out positions and then voting to determine the most popular. Working through a set of ideas to come to a decision point requires considering “all the potential consequences to action, whether they are positive or negative, intended or unintended… [it] requires genuine interaction and discussion across perspectives,” which takes time and is, well, messy. The process is best undertaken by framing issues in a way that can foreground central tensions and trade-offs among perspectives, developing viewpoints clearly, and providing space and time for deliberation. Consider some of the major issues dividing U.S. society today: Should there be restrictions on gun sales? What should immigration reform look like? How should free speech issues be handled in educational settings? Imagine each of these debates as they have been carried out in the public sphere (in social media, pubic meetings, on television), and then think about how you would set them up for discussion in the classroom where your goal is understanding the competing perspectives and values involved rather than scoring points.

 

  1. Convergent thinking: This is where the conversation begins to move towards a decision point, and it involves “clarifying, consolidating, refining, innovating, prioritizing, judging, and choosing among opinions.” You won’t be surprised to hear that this is really hard. Students (as well as instructors) can become “paralyzed by analysis.” When faced with too many choices and a desire to remain open to unexplored possibilities, the easiest action could be no action at all, no decision, stasis. Engaged in a process whose main methodology is an openness to competing values, students may be unwilling to accept that decisions emphasize the “ultimate inequality of ideas and potential actions.” But this is also where thinking about deliberative pedagogy in terms of democratic praxis can help. Democracy can be best understood as an ongoing conversation rather than, fundamentally, a way to make decisions, as John Dewey (The Quest for Certainty, 1929) argued. Engagement with civic education can encourage students to vote. Not a bad thing. Deliberative pedagogy and similar methods of democratizing the classroom can help students learn to practice democracy in their lives. Probably better in the long run.

Deliberative Pedagogy on Campus

Martín Carcasson raises some interesting perspectives about the functioning of deliberative pedagogy in liberal arts colleges in his chapter, “Deliberative Pedagogy as Critical Connective: Building Democratic Mind-Sets and Skill Sets for Addressing Wicked Problems” (pp. 3-20). Colleges, he offers, seem to be “doing a nice job of providing opportunities for divergent thinking.”  But he suggests that in many ways they aren’t, as they are often hobbled by two factors. In the first place, “dominant epistemological perspectives” usually favor the search for certainty through scientific methods. It’s not that scientific approaches don’t provide valuable input, but a recourse to “scientific certainty” can close down exploration of different value propositions before different approaches are raised. I would add that they can also sideline other epistemological approaches that retain cultural and historical value. Secondly, he suggests that what is a strength of the liberal arts approach – introducing students to a variety of disciplines, epistemologies, and ways of asking and answering questions – occurs in different classes and departments. The problem, he suggests, is that “divergent perspectives [are] often [only manifest] between classes rather than within them, leaving students disconnected and ill equipped” to understand how to evaluate competing approaches. Biologists may foreground empirical methodologies which don’t take account of the values and histories introduced by critical race theory; artists can define community in a way that frustrates economists.

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

The good news is that we are beginning to develop integrative approaches to address the challenge of epistemological divergence: cluster courses, first-year seminars, community-based learning, and other pedagogical innovations that help students assess divergent values while still understanding the importance of drawing conclusions and taking action. Investigating deliberative pedagogical approaches in our classrooms, thinking about “deliberation across the curriculum,” as some have suggested, and integrating on-going community practices such as those provided by the “Dialogue Center”, add important layers to addressing the challenge of divergence.

Deliberative pedagogical practices, like other educational approaches which emphasize the creation of democratic classroom environments in which students are invited to become co-creators of their own learning, can offer some paths out of the current impasse on college campuses. The potential of these practices rests not on the belief that what is needed is a return to a time when all propositions were rigorously examined in the classroom. We know quite well who was excluded from even entering those classroom, particularly at elite universities, let alone who could participate in the discussions that took place in them during in those so-called “golden” years. Rather, the potential of deliberative pedagogy lies in its ability to create a new democratic praxis in our classes that both responds to current challenges, including the rise of intolerance and bigotry at the national level, and takes advantage of new possibilities created by increased inclusion and a deeper belief in the importance of equity for the future of higher education.

 

 

 

Stand and Deliver

Steve Volk, March 6, 2017

Anonymous, 'Le voeu du faisan,' Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

Anonymous, ‘Le voeu du faisan,’ Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

We went to hear Tafelmusik in concert at Finney on Tuesday night. We arrived early, but ran into so many friends that we didn’t get a chance to glance at the program before the musicians took to the stage, all 17 or so of them. Which partly explains how surprised I was when the ensemble (except for the cellists, double bass player, and harpsichordist) started to play while still very much upright. They moved around the stage, forming into and retreating from small clusters, bending in to the counterpoint, musically conversing with each other by their body language. At one point, a violinist bowed her way from the entrance doors of Finney to the stage. And boy, did they deliver! The music, which highlighted J.S. Bach’s time in Leipzig, was marvelous, even more so as it was complemented by an intriguing slide show projected behind them and a well-voiced narrator who put Bach’s music into context. The narration not only illuminated Leipzig as a central crossroads of early 18th century Europe, but explored everything that went into a Bach composition: how the paper he wrote on, the ink he wrote with, the instruments his players used were crafted into existence; what clothing he and his fellow Leipzigers (is that the term?) were permitted to wear, sumptuary laws being what they were; where his musicians performed, and on and on. It was wonderful. And having the ensemble on their feet and in motion seemed to elevate their music making to an even higher level.

And so I wondered: To what extent did the kinetic performance enhance its overall musical quality? (I should add that there was one violinist who remained seated. My guess is that she was stationary because of a mobility issue and that Tafelmusik had nonetheless been able to make her a full participant in the concert, neither excluding her nor drawing attention her way.) The concert made me think about movement and learning and the fact that, unlike these Tafelmusicians, in most of our classrooms, students enter, find a chair, and remain seated for 50 or 75 minutes at a stretch.

Mind and Body

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division,New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

There is a large body of literature on the relationship between mind and body, cognition and movement, generally finding that people of all ages learn better when they have been or are active. The research is quite clear that activity is essential in early childhood education, which is why it’s appalling that teachers, under legislative burdens to make their 5- and 6-year olds “college and career ready,” are taking away recess time in favor of paper-and-pencil tasks at a desk. And what’s the punishment meted out to fidgety kids: no recess for you!

I reported earlier on an elementary school in Owensboro, KY, where the kindergarten teacher won a grant to purchase “pedal-desks.” Because motion increases learning and there’s no time for recess, why not have students pedal at their desks while they are learning math! I’m waiting until they figure a way to connect the desks to the school’s power grid and use kid-power to reduce their utility bills. Think of the possibilities!

More seriously, the problem here is not that it’s silly to consider the impact of motion on learning, but that what needs to be studied is the way that motion itself can be a part of pedagogy rather than a mindless, hamster-on-a-treadmill activity. Of course, the dancers and theater people among us have argued this point forever, but do we listen? Rarely. My guess (raise your hand if I’m wrong) is that the vast majority of instructors operate in traditional classrooms where students come in, sit down and remain seated for the whole period, excepting their move to a new seat when discussion groups are formed. Science labs would be different, as would studio art, and, certainly, theater and dance classes and all athletics. But most of us engage in teaching and learning with our students firmly planted on their bums. And yet, as Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, argued in How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015): “Moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own. People use their body all the time when problem solving, without even knowing it” (p. 69). These movements literally can be as slight as moving our eyes or as large as moving our limbs. Perhaps that is why, I would guess, that most of us are up and about when we teach, either standing at a lectern or, more likely, wandering. (Beilock jokes that one of the best things about becoming a faculty member is that faculty don’t have to remain in their seats during class.)

The Neuroscience of it All

Here’s a bit of the neuroscience behind this (although, caveat emptor, this is not my field so colleagues who actually know what they’re talking about should correct anything that is flat-out wrong or misleading). So, the brain passes information from one part to another, while eliminating unnecessary data and storing valuable data, via neurons (See, for example, Colcombe et al., 2006). Say you’re reading a book: your brain’s frontal lobe is figuring out if the material is new or old, something it can dispose of or information that needs to be stored. If new, the brain encodes the data for storage which will then allow it to be retrieved when necessary (Medina, 2008). How much is absorbed and stored depends on a lot of factors including whether there is a proper balance of neurochemicals and growth factors to bind the neurons together long enough for them to communicate.

Something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps neurons “converse” with one another while building and maintaining cell circuitry, i.e. the kind of system of interconnections that allows the brain to function. So, and hopefully I haven’t made too much of a hash of it, the more BDNF, the greater the amount brains exchange and retain information. And this gets to the crux of the matter: BDNF is elevated with neural activity which then enhances signal capabilities with synaptic transmissions; this causes an increase in protein synthesis promoting structural integrity, all of which is essential for the long-term storage of information. And what elevates neural activity and, hence, BDNF? Would you guess, movement? Probably, if you’re a dancer or a tennis coach.

Study from Motion #27. ScottEaton.com

Study from Motion #27. ScottEaton.com

As I noted before, researchers have carried out substantial research on the relationship between exercise and cognition. To cite just two examples, a small-scale 2007 study by German researchers found that “people learn[ed] vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise” [J.J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008), p. 45]. And, at the other end, a comprehensive review by Tomporowski, Davis, Miller and Naglieri published in 2008 reported that “gains in children’s mental functioning due to exercise training are seen most clearly on tasks that involve executive functions. Executive functions are involved in performing goal-directed actions in complex stimulus environments, especially novel ones, in which elements are constantly changing. Behaviors such as these have long been seen as important for children’s adaptive functioning.”

Of course, this is hardly new: Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. The question is not necessarily whether a regular exercise regimen is good for the mind as well as the heart, but whether movement undertaken as part of the act of learning is valuable. Or, to turn it inside out: are students losing something by remaining seated during most of their class time? As John Medina, a development molecular biologist affiliated with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, cautioned, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”

Well, what if someone actually studied whether intentional physical activity carried out during a college lecture class could increase a student’s achievement level? We’re in luck, because Michala Paige Patterson did just that for her dissertation at the University of Missouri’s School of Education (“Movement and Learning in Lecture Classrooms,” 2011). I’ll only briefly describe this study since I’m not competent to judge the reliability of its design. And even though her conclusions were modest, the research is important to consider when we think about how to scaffold student learning and when we take into consideration the remarkable fact that students have bodies as well as minds.

Patterson worked with four faculty members who offered standard lecture classes. During class, the “treatment” group of students would activate their circulatory systems by performing a “low-impact and/or low intensity movement activity.” Patterson reported mixed findings among the 4 professors whose classes she used in her study. Two showed a statistically significant gain in student achievement when exercises were interspersed in a lecture class; two showed no difference. I was most interested in her conclusions: “By combining the data and different attributes of the professors, there appears to be a manner of incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome. Therefore, this researcher encourages and recommends further development and use of the techniques used in this project.” While she thought that something in the research protocol itself was limiting the impact of the activity, I would argue that the key is in “incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome.”

We already know that students have a limited attention span (some say as low as 7 minutes, others as high as 20 minutes), but they’re not going to make it through a 50-minute lecture without losing attention. So scheduling some movement with a break in the delivery is not a bad way to go. Is it time for the pedal-desks? Noooooooo!

Movement in Service of Learning

SpringerParker, "After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997

SpringerParker, “After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997: http://www.springerparker.com/works_muybridge.html

Let’s go back to the Tafelmusik concert: what if we were to use movement to further content learning or pedagogic approaches the way that movement improved the musicians understanding (and performance) of Bach? Leaving all this neurosciency stuff behind, I’m pretty sure that the players on stage understood Bach’s use of counterpoint and harmony more deeply by physically moving as they interacted with the other musicians. So how can we use movement in class to further specific learning goals? Here are two examples.

The first comes from Naomi Roswell, a junior environmental studies major who is currently participating in the Student-Faculty Partnership program and brought up this example during a recent meeting.

Movement, stasis, independence, dependence

Everyone stands in a circle. Ask each person to select two others (without telling them) to use as reference points. Each person’s task is to remain equidistant from the two others (i.e., in an equilateral triangle) as everyone moves around the room without anyone knowing who has chosen them as reference points. What happens if you move quickly? Slowly? As some point, and this often happens quickly, the room reaches stasis. Then the facilitator, who is observing rather than moving, can ask one person to take three steps, and watch as everyone else adjusts to maintain an equidistant posture.

Can you tell if someone is dependent on you? Much of the time, people are so focused on their own reference points that they don’t realize they are are a reference point for someone else. The lessons derived from this movement exercise can increase understanding about how one’s actions impact others without our even being aware of it. This is a theme that can easily fit into many social science and humanities courses, from sociology to environmental science.

Run it a second time: now each person picks two reference points, but one of them must have two specific qualities (e.g. be wearing glasses and have a striped shirt). Does the room come to stasis more quickly, or more slowly? The facilitator can again ask one person to move and see what changes that action brings about. This time the underlying lesson is that there are two independent systems at play. The exercise can be about an ecosystem with the glasses/stripes individual as a “keystone species” a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically; or the facilitator (generally no one picks them as a reference point) is an insect that occupies such a small niche that if it moves, it hardly impacts the habitat.

Or the lesson can be about relationships and dependency. What does it feel like to always be responding to the movements (requirements/demands) of others and have no autonomy yourself? So, for example: Your child can’t enroll in school without proof of vaccination, but you will lose your job if you take time out to bring her to a clinic which is a 2-hour trip because you have no car? And what if you are able to take the time out to go to the clinic only to find that it’s closed on Tuesdays, the day you arrived, because its funding was reduced and you don’t have a phone to confirm the opening hours? All these “movements” impact you, but you have little ability to respond effectively. What would “stasis” look like in this context? Comprehensive care?

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Slowing it Down

I’ve written before about “slow pedagogy,” the importance of helping students develop an ability to engage in tasks that require “deep attention” by slowing down the pace. This is increasingly important as students (and we, ourselves) are constantly involved in activity that requires very short, little attention bursts: hyper-attention. Checking texts, answering the phone, listening to a snatch of music. In contrast, close readings of texts, deliberate time spent observing art in the museum, extended research projects are all ways to build capacity for deeper levels of attention that are an essential part of learning.

With this in mind, are there ways to help a class “slow down” in order to better engage?  I’ve thought of using a meditation (clear-your-mind) approach, but since it rarely works for me during my yoga practice (when I’m either thinking about what I’ll have for lunch, some article I’m working on, or whether I’ll go to Drug Mart right after class or later in the week), I don’t imagine that it will work on 30 students sitting at their desks and thinking many other thoughts. But physical activity can serve this purpose, and here’s one exercise developed by a colleague at Oberlin. How this is carried out depends on the configuration of the classroom, where desks and chairs are located. Have students line up at the beginning of class in order to walk as slowly as possible from one end of the room to the other. While there can be a bit of silliness involved the first time the exercise is carried out,  the physical act of moving slowly can make a difference in how students approach the class. The exercise can work as a kind of border crossing movement: we are leaving the outside world behind and entering a new space of engagement and learning; as a tempo regulator: we are going to slow down and focus; or as an opportunity to break up a class in which students have been sitting for a long time and just need a change of pace to clear their heads.

In these exercises or others that you develop, you’ll want to think about how they will impact students with mobility issues, visual limitations, or other conditions that might impair their ability to participate, and plan accordingly. But whether or not you have differently abled students in your class, you can increase everyone’s learning by asking your students how they would redesign the exercise with such students in mind.

Movement increases our brain’s ability to “learn”; intentional movement can help students learn what it is we are teaching. Do you have physical exercises, movements that you use in class? Care to share them?

 

The First Day: Inviting Students into the Shared Community

Steven Volk, August 29, 2016

Suzuki Shōnen, "Butterflies," ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Suzuki Shōnen, “Butterflies,” ca 1910 (Color woodblock print). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Whether it’s your first year of teaching or your 30th, butterflies will likely take up residence in your stomach, kidneys, or any other organ of their choosing as the first day of classes draws near. Students often seem surprised when I admit to a massive case of the nerves at the start of the semester (and even more surprised when I tell them I get jumpy before every class during the semester). As much as nerves can rob one of much needed sleep, there’s also something wonderful about the preparation for the start of classes that I’ve long appreciated (and often commented on).

We may celebrate the New Year on January first or according to the demands of our liturgical calendars, but our real new year, complete with resolutions but probably absent the champagne, begins in late August, and with it comes the promise that this time we will “get it right,” for goodness sake! As much as we remain ourselves year after year, we also have the opportunity of re-invention each fall, of learning from past practice and reflecting on ways that this time, for sure, we will finally address our most serious challenges and take advantage of overlooked opportunities.

It’s not an easy time in higher education, or in the country, but we are remarkably privileged to be where we are, doing what we love to do, and working with students who may have overcome any number of obstacles and challenges to be here with us.

Tell Them What They (Really) Want to Know

So here’s some advice for the first day/week of classes. You’ve heard some (maybe all) of it before, but, repetition never hurts. (Already the first piece of advice: you’ll need to repeat the information you give to students on the first day of class. Don’t expect them to have “heard” it, and the more important the information, the more the need for replication).

The syllabus is a strange mixture of legal contract and teaching document. While it needs to signal to students what we expect of them (as well as what they should require of us), it can be particularly off-putting if the main thing students encounter is a list of and restrictions and injunctions. So it is for the first day of class: to greet students with a catalog of prohibitions (no laptops, put away your smart phones, don’t come in late) is not much of a welcome, and, anyway, there will be time to get to that.

Prohibitions

Certainly, students will want to know what the course they have signed up for is about, but since the content of most of our courses is largely self-evident, I would suggest that students really want to know something else. They want to know what is it you have found so exciting, intriguing, or challenging about your field to keep you with it for years – if not decades. Your students will explore the field with you for the next 15 weeks. Maybe they have already discovered the questions that have brought them to your classroom, but letting your students know why you came to study economics or neuroscience or dance is a way of signaling that you once sat where they now sit, with more questions than answers. What they want to know is how you got from that first class to where you are today. What were the questions you encountered you felt compelled to answer? Who helped you answer them? Who gave you support when you needed it?

You’re not going to answer all of those question on the first day, but just by raising them you can bring students to your enthusiasm for your subject while letting them know that you, the expert, understand what it means to be on the other side of the desk, to be a novice. You will find time later to unpack assignments and readings, and in any case you might want to give them the syllabus as the first reading assignment in the course before discussing it. But for the first class: tell them why what you do is important to you and how you hope it will matter to them as well.

Thinking as Educators

In an earlier posting (“Classroom Communities and College Communities,” March 4, 2013), I proposed that colleges contain two kinds of communities, one that we build within our individual classrooms, and one that, collectively, we attempt to create across the college as a whole. I want to borrow a bit from that article to discuss the first kind of community, the one we generate in our classrooms, and how to think about that in the context of the start of the semester.

If we do our jobs well, over the course of the semester we will construct an authentic community in each of our classes where, on the first day of the semester, we probably found a group of individuals who shared little in common other than being in the same place at the same time. What we want is to create a community where students not only come to share a interest in the subject matter, but also feel a sense of kinship such that each is eager to support the learning of the others.

How do we get from here to there?

A good way to start is to engage students with the challenge of building that community. What do they think will lend the greatest support to the creation of the kind of learning community they (and you) have in mind?

As teachers, we are aware of the standards to which we hold students: we expect them to be respectful of each other and of us, to challenge but not disrupt the class, to be aware of the ways that words (and actions) have histories and carry consequences, as well as being cognizant that as learners we all make mistakes and should/must be able to learn from them.

Each of us likely negotiates differently the fine line between risk and comfort, challenge and disruption. But it is always good practice to engage students in a discussion of the kind of community they want to see in their classroom. In particular, you can ask them to develop the rules they think would most support and sustain productive learning. One benefit of asking students to develop their own rules of classroom engagement is that they become responsible for maintaining the rules (and can be reminded of them later in the course). Obviously, there is no guarantee that a set of rules alone will prevent behaviors that can eat away at classroom community, but establishing a shared starting point can be helpful.

Photo: Steve Volk

LA Graffiti: Photo: Steve Volk

Some years ago, I came across some advice that Audrey Thompson, a professor of education studies at the University of Utah, put in her syllabus, and it helped me think about the kind of community I wanted to create in my own classroom. Here’s some of what she wrote,

I will be asking everyone in the class to think like educators: if you feel that you have a better understanding of particular materials than do other students, ask yourselves what you have had to learn to get to this point, and see if you can make that understanding available to others (without lecturing them).

Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. What Thompson argues in this regard, and what I have found to be useful in my own classroom practice, is that students should be reminded that they are not only students but also teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.

Thompson continues:

If you feel threatened by particular people in the class, think about how to address them so as to get past the impasse: how can you teach them how you would like to learn from them? Thinking as educators means attending to the conditions of learning as well as to whether everyone is learning.

When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility. As student-learners, they do not want faculty or other students to disrespect or abuse them; as student-educators, they need to be aware when their actions have the same effect on their peers or on us.

Thompson concludes as follows:

Thinking as educators…doesn’t mean that no one can ever get angry or that everyone should always be ‘nice,’ but it does mean that you have to show respect for others. ‘Difficult’ behavior – and indeed ‘nice’ behavior as well – becomes an issue when 1) not everyone has the chance to speak; 2) not everyone is listened to; 3) someone is abusive, patronizing, or disrespectful; 4) opposing stances are not acknowledged and addressed when people have questions about them; and/or 5) people expect other people to understand their position when they have not explained their position.

We can create positive classroom communities in a variety of ways: via the knowledge that is generated, the relationships that are supported, the challenges that are addressed and overcome. But as Vincent Tino argued in “Classrooms as Communities,” student engagement will always play a central role in what happens for the simple reason that if students aren’t engaged, learning will not occur to the full extent it should. (A future workshop will explore the ways that implicit bias and what has been called the “stereotype threat” can make it harder for certain students, because of race, gender, religion, sexuality or disability, to feel that they are legitimate members of the academic community we are working to create on campus.)

The start of the semester is a spectacular time to engage students in the excitement we feel about the subjects we teach, and to invite them into a classroom community that will thrive to the extent that all take responsibility for both teaching and learning.

Inksheds and Eggshells

Steven Volk, April 11, 2016

Bored-in-the-Classroom-Vintage-How-To-Learn-Danish-When-Youve-Got-Other-Shit-To-Do-Scandinavia-StandardAs the semester drags itself into the last month of classes, it sometimes feels that we are walking against the tide in a heavy surf. Each step seems painfully slow, the distance gained so small. Classroom patterns are now deeply embedded and it’s hard to change or challenge them. This is particularly obvious in discussions where, by now, everyone in class expects the same hands to be raised when we ask for comments or toss out a question. To be sure, we are grateful that, at least, we can count on those students to say something, otherwise we’d all drown in sea of silence.

At this point, most of us will just wait out the semester, promising ourselves that next semester will be better – that we’ll get them all talking, and they will always be on point, and will be eager to dig into the most serious topics, and….

But maybe it isn’t too late to try something new, even at the tail-end of the semester. Enter “inkshedding.” Inkshedding is a writing-discussion practice begun in the early 1980s that Russ Hunt and Jim Reither of St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) designed to link classroom writing and discussion. While “inkshedding” sounds like a contemporary neologism, it actually dates to the 17th century when some writer substituted “ink” for “blood.” It meant the consumption or waste of ink in writing, according to the OED. Thomas Carlyle’s employment of the term in mid-19th century is eerily apposite of the current political moment:

Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. (Latter Day Pamphlets, III)

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshed: http://www.inkshed.ca/blog/

Inkshedding, as described by Hunt, grew out of freewriting exercises developed by Peter Elbow, exercises in which students are asked to write in response to a reading, a comment, or some shared experience. Hunt and Reither were concerned that writing should be more social and that freewriting which doesn’t go to somebody is lacking. Even Elbow later admitted that the stakes might be too “low” in freewriting.

So Hunt and Reither would have the students pass their freewriting texts around the class, and they would then mark with a vertical line the passages in the texts they were given that they found most “striking.” From this beginning, the exercise developed in a number of ways. Dan Cleary, who taught English at Lorain County Community College, came up with one of the most common, a practice which James Lang summarized in On Course (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Students begin by freewriting for 5 minutes on a topic of shared experience (a reading, event, comment in class, etc.). Then they pass their notebooks to another student who reads what has been written, and then spends 5 minutes freewriting in response to the first writer. This continues for 20-25 minutes, with students in written dialogue with each other. Only at that point does the discussion become an actual, out-loud discussion. Encouragingly, as Dan Cleary remarked, “I’ve never had a dead-end discussion after an exercise like this…”

Some Theory behind Inkshedding

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK: http://www.inkshedpress.co.uk/

There are some immediately obvious advantages to the Inkshedding practice. As many who have used it explain, the practice draws everybody into the process, even the non-talkers, since everyone has to write, read, and write again. And it’s not hard to imagine that, once the discussion moves from the written/silent phase to the oral/open phase, not only will it be more informed, but the teacher will have a greater opportunity to intervene to call on those whose voices are often not heard in class. (Note: we often see these as “shy” students, but I’m less willing to employ that term – more on this another week.)

Inkshedding is also informed by learning theory. Here’s a summary of some of Hunt’s main points:

  • When discussion takes place in a written form, it “broadens the bandwidth,” allowing everyone in the room to “talk” at once. Even in the best of discussions in a relatively small (12-15 student) classroom, students can be frustrated because the point they had wanted to address already left the dock five minutes earlier, and to return the discussion to that place would be counterproductive. Writing allows everyone to comment. But, as Hunt observes, what is even more important is that every idea or response has a chance not only to be formed in the first place, but also to be “heard” (i.e. read by a number of other people).
  • Hunt notes that we often overlook the importance of reading to the writing process. Inkshedding differs from (simple) freewriting because the text is read both in a social and a dialogic way. It is read for what it says, not to evaluate it or give the writer advice for how it could be “improved.”
  • The “transactional” nature of this reading process, particularly in the sense defined by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (Knowing and the Known), is critical in that it “reminds us that no component of the process can be understood or characterized outside the process.” The reader is influenced by the writer, the writer by the reader, and the whole event is tied to preceding and subsequent events. As Anthony Paré, the head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, observed, “Texts are located in an intertextual web. This is something students don’t (can’t) get, since their texts are not linked to other texts. Students eavesdrop on the disciplinary conversation and report what they’ve heard; they don’t join the conversation. They are intellectual voyeurs. Inkshedding gets them into the action.”

From Writing/Reading to Class Discussion

There are a number of ways that the written discussion can move from its initial phase into a full-blown, out-loud class discussion. In the early phase of Inkshedding, Hunt and Reither would form a small group of volunteer editors who would collect the notebooks, read them all, and mark the passages they found to be most “striking.” Those with the most marks would be transcribed, copied and distributed for a subsequent meeting of class, to start off an oral discussion. That practice drew a fair amount of criticism as it meant that not everyone’s comments would be read. In response, students suggested posting all the comments on the class walls so that students could circulate and read them. But this could prove unwieldy, not just because it wouldn’t work in a large class, but because students probably would only read those comments employing the best handwriting.

1962 "Hi-o-Hi" (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

1962 “Hi-o-Hi” (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

Another response was to continue the discussion at a silent level, a period when anyone could read any other comment and note what she felt to be the most “striking” passages for transcription. As Hunt noted, “These ‘reading times’ often bec[a]me one of the most powerful moments in my own teaching and conference participation, as people silently exchange[d] sheets of paper and a “discussion” occur[ed] in almost complete silence, punctuated by sotto voce expressions of agreement or outrage, or laughter. There is something particularly powerful about the fact that the reading and selection is being done immediately, or as one anonymous commentator on an early version of this text put it, ‘in real time.’”

A further possibility, particularly if the intent is to move to oral discussion quickly, is to ask students to find one passage from someone else’s inkshed to read aloud. As Hunt observed,

One of the most important educational aspects of inkshedding, for me, is the way it foregrounds and dramatizes the transactional nature of text. For almost all students (and this is especially important for those who have difficulties, or limited experience, with writing and reading), text has never been the basis of an authentic social transaction — beyond, perhaps, a thank you note to a distant grandmother or, more recently, e-mail exchanges with friends. The process of creating an identity and a role in a group through written text, as they do every day through oral utterance, is one in which they have only rarely engaged. And it is my belief that this process is the defining mark of the fully literate person.

Enter the Eggshells

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Discussions can stall, or never properly start, for a myriad of reasons: students haven’t done the reading, a few voices (almost always the same ones) set the tone and (consciously or inadvertently) dissuade others from joining in, the “quiet” students feel overly cautious about entering the discussion, students are tired or have other things on their minds. But there are other reasons as well, and we are all quite aware of them. Sadly, I can’t tell you the number of times when students, in private discussions, have said that they didn’t take part in a discussion because they were worried about how other students would react to their comments. They were concerned that what they said might be “taken the wrong way,” “misunderstood,” or that, lacking specific theoretical or linguistic chops, they feared tripping some word-choice detonator. They felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells worried that, as they put it, what they said would “be held against them” outside of class.

This is a massive area of concern that requires many posts and much more discussion, but it is one area where inkshedding can be helpful. We can think about this from two different directions. The first relates to the nature of the classroom discussion as it usually occurs. As we know (and as I noted above), when you raise an issue for discussion in class only one person at a time can respond. So you ask the question, wait a few seconds, and call on the first student whose hand is raised. If your classes are anything like mine, the first ones to raise their hands will likely be the same ones every time. Fine – at least this can begin a discussion and others will join in, which is what often happens.

But what we are probably not as aware of is that the first comments tend, in Hunt’s words, “to determine and focus the range of discussion, and effectively determine the kinds of questions or issues which will be raised.” If the discussion has already been framed in a certain direction, students with other perspectives, particularly if they worry that they may be challenging existing orthodoxies (what ever the particular classroom orthodoxy may be) or that they may not be able to state their view in a carefully articulated fashion, are much less likely to engage in the discussion, and therefore the discussion is less likely to open new, suggestive, or controversial, areas. Inkshedding, with its write/read/write/read/discuss structure can allow more “initial” voices into the discussion before it heads down a particular track.

The second point can, itself, be controversial: When employing inkshedding methods, some faculty don’t require that students put their names on their inkshed writing, allowing them to remain anonymous (at least to the extent that students aren’t familiar with each other’s handwriting and only if the paper on which they write is passed a number of times before it halts and is read and commented upon). There is, of course, no anonymity when the discussion is oral, and there is much to the argument that students (as well as faculty) should take responsibility for what they/we say or write, particularly when technology and social media allows individuals an anonymous cover to say the most vile things without any sense of responsibility or any thought to the consequences of such utterances.

And yet, precisely because I worry that the pressures of conformity are preventing students from testing out emerging ideas or putting forward thoughts that could be considered controversial in the classroom, I now assign work that is anonymous to all but me – and have done so with highly positive effects. Certainly, if inkspilling became a surrogate classroom YikYak, the practice of unsigned writing should be halted (and discussed!). But because that seems unlikely and because anonymity might actually promote more cautious voices to emerge, inkshedding should be considered as an approach to more robust classroom discussions that includes a wider diversity of voices and positions.

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Drawbacks?

A number of faculty who have written about their inkshedding experiences have found it too cumbersome to be effective as designed. They support its theoretical basis – the importance of social, dialogic and transactional writing – but they have concerns about the actual implementation of the exercise. Doug Brent of the University of Calgary discussed the most obvious limitation, handwriting. “Handwriting, especially handwriting that is clear enough for other people to be able to read it, is slow. Equally slow is the practice of passing the inksheds around and marking particularly interesting passages. And, since the point of inkshedding is that it should be seen by more than two or three people, somebody needs to collect them, transcribe the marked-up passages, and circulate them later.”

Technology to the rescue. Brent moved the exercise to an in-class Google Doc (he was teaching in a classroom where all the students had computers – the same can be arranged if students are asked to bring in their laptops or are provided with laptops), creating an empty shared document and asking students to read each other’s inksheds and copy interesting passages into the Google Doc. As he noted, “A collaboratively constructed document beg[an] to unfold in real time.”

When Brent questioned his students (via Survey Monkey) about their experiences with inkshedding, 14 of 20 responded, mostly positive:

  • Inkshedding ‘forces’ us to provide our thoughts and ideas, in a way that pretty much 100% engages us.
  • I think it is more beneficial, because I personally do not like speaking aloud.
  • This gives me and other students like me a chance to get their point across without feeling pressured.

The students were particularly positive about the experience in its digital format:

  • I like Google Drive because of how instant everything is. Collaborating and commenting are the most useful parts, I think. Instead of having to send a file or give a physical copy of a paper to a classmate or professor for review, you can just share it on Drive and see the comments as they are being created.
  • Google Drive made it easier to communicate and more efficient. If everyone wrote on a piece of paper and passed it around chances are only one or two people would see it, but with Drive it is available for everyone to view, which is amazing!

To Use or Not to Use

So what are the pros and cons of inkshedding? Brent asked colleagues who are active in the “inkshed community” for their opinions. (Yes, there is a community with its own blog, and associations – the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning.) Here is the list he generated:

Pros:

  • as a writing-to-learn tool;
  • as an exploration tool;
  • as a way to understand text(s), assignment(s), difficult concept(s), etc.;
  • as a safe place where students can ask questions and express confusion;
  • as a place of sharing experience and knowledge;
  • as a tool that triggers further thinking about topics, texts, assignments;
  • as a reflection tool (after an assignment or a task has been completed);
  • as a crossroad (making connections between what is in class and what is outside of class or how knowledge gained in class can be applied elsewhere);
  • as a meditation tool (on a difficult day, to get students to centre themselves);
  • To build relationships: I tell my students that I will have a conversation in the margins with them over the semester.  This also happens between the students themselves, but as an instructor what I love best about inksheds is the way it allows me to reach students;
  • To provide a method of writing that everyone can succeed with; inkshedding is diplomatic and the fact that it isn’t about punctuation, grammar and structure means that it opens up spaces of possibility for students who have been previously silenced by anxieties about those things;
  • To bring the voices of quiet students onto the floor; e.g., I pull an insightful quote from a quiet student’s inkshed and just before class, ask them if I can call on them to share their excellent point with the class;
  • To get students can take risks (e.g., test something a little edgier, or feel safe about saying that they dislike or disagree with someone/something);
  • To help students find paper topics;
  • It allows students to read each other’s writing, which not only exposes them to different interpretations and understandings of the readings, but also allows them to see the range of student writing out there. They get to see “real” student writing. This has a variety of benefits, addressed below;
  • Writing for a real audience allows them to develop a sense of audience–they replicate the strategies they find worked for their readers and want to achieve greater clarity for their readers. Their peer readers are often more important than their instructor reader;
  • They get stylistic and organizational ideas from each other. Frequently a student will report that she liked the way so-and-so did this or wrote in a particular way, and they experiment with it the next time around;
  • Reading each other’s writing, especially this informal writing, is immensely reassuring in letting them know they are not the only one who thinks a certain way or struggles with an issue (writing or a difficult article);
  • Conversely, reading each other’s writing exposes them to a variety of experiences and ideas that may be different from their own. Seeing their peers twice a week and having to comment on their writing brings about a certain cultural sensitivity that may not develop otherwise;
  • The pointing and the inkshed reporting, which calls attention to positive aspects of inksheds builds students’ confidence because they are not used to having readers point out what they like or say that their words are eloquent, humorous, powerful, etc. That little smile on a student’s face when someone calls attention to something they wrote is great to see;
  • Often their understanding of a concept is enhanced or increased by reading someone else’s summary or interpretation of it.

And the Cons:

  •  International students sometimes don’t see inksheds as helping them improve their Standard Written English;
  • Students need a certain level of language proficiency before they can inkshed in English;
  • Students can get the false impression that grammar doesn’t matter in their writing–or some lesser order errors can get fossilized– if this is the only or main genre of writing in a class. This can be ameliorated in various ways; i.e. dialogue, ‘soft’ expectations for gradual improvement, etc.
  • If not carefully coached on how to give worthwhile content feedback, students can get lazy in doing so OR actually hurt each other. Feedback needs to be monitored–at least early on.
  • Inkshedding can be stressful, especially the first one or two. Instructors can reduce stress on the first few inksheds by making them about easy topics rather than about a particular reading.
  • Students can reject or de-value inkshedding (especially early on) if they don’t understand why we are asking them to it. Instructors can spend time on rationale (and engage their ideas too) to help with this. Also, writing along with students models its value for all–and also messy writing!

Inkshedding may not be for everyone, but maybe it will offer just the way into a broader class discussion that you were looking for, some way to shake up the class in the latter part of the semester.

(And, by the way, many use inkshedding at conferences as well, as a way to open up a discussion after a presentation.)