Tag Archives: pedagogy

Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching

Elizabeth Hamilton, October 10, 2016


Elizabeth Hamilton is Associate Professor of German Language and Literatures at Oberlin College. She specializes in Twentieth-century West German literature and film, East German cinema, Postwar narratives of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and Disability Studies. She is the Section 504/ADA Coordinator at Oberlin. (Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability.)


Universal Design for Learning is not yet well known, yet a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that some educators are already casting doubt on its merit. Its very name suggests something too good to be true, as though “universal design” really meant “one size fits all.” Knowing that one size will never fit all, I grasp the need for caution. Still I favor this approach that asks me to know my students better.

Let me first underscore that universal design is not a teaching method. It is an approach to planning and to creating methods and materials by which teachers consider the widest possible range of learners from the outset.

Borrowing from architecture, universal design is a set of principles that enables us to plan for the greatest possible inclusion from the start of a project, as opposed to costly retrofitting to meet an overlooked need. Have you ever seen an unsightly ramp outside of a beautiful building? Or a sign directing wheelchair users to the back entrance?

finney-cropI mean not to disparage those measures, as access is better than no access, even as an afterthought. But it’s the process of design that interests me here. Why didn’t the architects think that a wheelchair user might use the front door every day, as a regular customer of this business or student in this campus facility—or as its director, or office-holder, or president? The ramp and the elevator are moreover just the most visible accommodations. Many adaptive or assistive devices are retrofitted onto communication services, programs, and policies. Again, this is honorable, but I think it is time to take the next step. Retrofitting is costly and the narrow thinking that preceded it is clear: the atypical user was not really on our minds when we built this institution.

We now know more than ever about systemic barriers and stereotype threat. We are beginning to grasp the real benefits of diversity and the costs of exclusion.

Universal design asks us, the architects of our curriculum, to respect diversity as an asset. In my view, this is the set of principles that will best allow us to translate our aspirations for diversity into an actual framework of accessibility. Because while universal design is often evoked in conversations about disability, its great gift is in the welcome it affords to all students who, for any reason (or in defiance of reason) are not in the center of the room or the center of our attention when we plan. I’m thinking here of first-generation students, international students, students of color, and students whose first language or gender identity or class or heritage give them frames of reference that can make access to our curriculum an uphill climb. Their perceived differences are too often cast as deficits and our responses cast as “providing for special needs.”

geschiedenis-van-de-gemeenten-der-provincie-oost-vlaanderen

Frans de Potter, Geschiedenis van de Gemeenten der Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 1864

Universal design offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.

Universal design doesn’t wait for documentation of a disability before taking action, just as no curb cut requires a wheelchair user—or pedestrian carrying a heavy load, or parent pushing a stroller, or musician wheeling a double bass—to present a license before entering the sidewalk. Like the philosophy behind the curb cut, universal design presumes a range of users, and—this is important—it presumes competence on the part of all students, no matter their learning style.

curbcutBuilding Pedagogical Curb Cuts details practical accessibility innovations that teachers can incorporate in a range of disciplines. I contributed a short essay for this book when it was published in 2005. I share it now as a springboard for conversation even as I see how much has changed in the intervening decade.

Today’s classrooms already incorporate an array of universally designed features. This is as much a response to the changing demographics of our student body as it is a response to the shifts in critical inquiry that scholars are making in every field of study. These trends are merging, and well they should. We as teachers no longer restrict ourselves to formal lectures and traditional seminar papers any more than we as scholars rely solely on the monograph or conference paper to share our research. In addition to those still-valuable practices, we also use a variety of media; we engage more senses in class; we teach and test in a range of formats and settings; we use rubrics to evaluate student learning; we encourage collaboration; and we promote community-based learning. Whether we name them as such or not, universal design principles underpin the efforts we make to create multifaceted courses. We help our students engage with material when we open up new vantage points.

I have found that engaging my students in the process of enhancing access is the most instructive of all—both for students and for me. Here are just two examples of projects that you might consider and improve upon.

music-and-disabilityMy First Year Seminar students created Disability-Awareness-Month displays in each of our campus’s four libraries. Their task included thinking about how to make the displays accessible to a range of library patrons, including those who might have low vision. The students working in the Conservatory library included QR codes in their display to access apps with narration and musical selections. You can see it here and visit in person through the month of October. [Note: A fuller description of this project is included at the end of the post.]

Another class last spring studied works exhibited in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripon Gallery. This lovely second-floor space is unfortunately not accessible if a person cannot use stairs. My students each selected an artwork to describe in detail for someone who cannot see it, no matter whether the barrier results from limited vision or lack of an elevator or any other reason. They drew upon visual description guidelines in Art Beyond Sight to prepare for this project. Here is Anna Rose Greenberg’s vivid description of “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement” by Charles-Émile Jacque:

Charles-Émile Jacque, "Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement," Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Charles-Émile Jacque, “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement,” Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What is “universally designed” in these activities? There are multiple entry points into the activities themselves and they function in tandem with other activities to form the whole of a universally-designed course.

  • They engage a variety of senses.
  • They draw attention to the medium in which knowledge is contained, and ask students to examine that very frame.
  • They constitute a portion of the students’ overall grades, valuing the learning acquired in means other than timed tests or traditional essays.
  • Timed tests and traditional essays accompany these activities because those practices have value, too.

As a teacher, my role is to explain the value and purpose of the activities I require, provide accommodations where necessary, and say clearly what I want students to get out of a given task. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. The tone of my courses changes significantly and for the better when I emphasize the purposes behind the assignments, the time limits, due dates, and participation requirements. The structures of my course then take on intrinsic meaning and don’t appear to students as arbitrary or exclusionary gates.

I close with a video of Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, as he sings “Auf dem Flusse” from Schubert’s Winterreise. Mr. Quasthoff has performed around the world, including with the Cleveland Orchestra and in master classes at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. As a so-called “child of Thalidomide,” Mr. Quasthoff’s physical growth was impeded, leaving his arms too short to reach piano keys. Nonetheless, he was required to play the piano in order to pass an entrance exam for the Hannover Konservatorium. The test would not be waived and no alternative method was offered for him to demonstrate his musical skills and knowledge. Denied admission, he turned to private study with Sebastian Peschko and is now recognized as one of the great interpreters of the Lied. How glad I am that his teacher was willing to think in alternatives.

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by timelock.in (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff's rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by timelock.in (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff’s rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)


Assignment from Elizabeth Hamilton’s First Year Seminar Program 093: Disability (Fall 2016):

3. Library Display Assignment (10%): This assignment introduces you to Oberlin’s
campus libraries. You will gain an overview of research materials and the steps you need
to take to gain access to them. You will explore the range of published scholarship on
disability. You will meet our professional library staff members and develop good
research and communication skills. You will collaborate with your classmates on
designing four library displays for October’s Disability Awareness month. You will also
gain research skills for pursuing your individual projects, due at the end of the semester.
First meeting: full class on Monday, September 19th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd Library’s
main-floor classroom.
Second meeting: small groups on Monday, September 26th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd
library, the Conservatory library, the Science library, or the Art library.

1. Decide how many works to display.
2. Decide which kind(s) of works to display: are you choosing works in which
disability is regarded as a problem to be solved, a perspective from which a
person experiences life, the product of created (and potentially removable)
barriers, or a little bit of all of these?
3. Decide which works to display: works could be by creative authors, natural or
social scientists, composers, or performers with disabilities, or works could be
ones in which disability is a major theme, artistic device, or perspective of a
significant character.
4. Choose a visual style for the display. Select, as appropriate, illustrations, props,
colors or borders.
5. Choose a way to alert viewers to the displays in other libraries.

After the displays are created, each student is required to fill out a self-evaluation rubric
on one’s own participation in the group project AND submit a one-page (250-300 word)
personal reflection essay on the process of creating the display. What did you contribute?
What did you learn?

Self-evaluation rubrics (found at the end of this syllabus) and personal reflection essays
are due on Monday, October 3rd.

Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.

Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try.

Crisis and Pedagogy

One question we face, it seems to me, is whether crisis can produce more than anguish and bitterness, whether it can produce learning. Writing in a remarkable collection of essays [1], Shoshana Felman raises the provocative question of whether there is “a relation between crisis and the very enterprise of education?” Or, “to put the question even more audaciously and sharply: Is there a relation between trauma and pedagogy?… Can trauma instruct pedagogy, and can pedagogy shed light on the mystery of trauma” (p. 13)? For Felman, the Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, the question was forced on her as she reflected on a course she taught at Yale in 1984, a course she later described as an “uncanny pedagogical experience.” The experience spurred her to further research on the topic, resulting in much work on testimony and witnessing.

Felman’s course explored literature, psychoanalysis, and history to investigate the genre of “testimony.” She recounts how, after deep and engaged discussions on Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky, Freud, and the poets Mallarmé and Paul Celan, the students watched two videos from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, after which point, she writes, the class “broke out into a crisis.” The material was so difficult, so deeply emotional and disturbing, so traumatizing, that the students’ collective response was to become silent in class and to talk about it compulsively outside of class. The students, she wrote, “apparently could talk of nothing else no matter where they were…They were set apart and set themselves apart from others who had not gone through the same [classroom] experience. They were obsessed. They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each other and yet felt they could not reach each other…They felt alone, suddenly deprived of their bonding to the world and to one another. As I listened to their outpour [of private phone calls, visits, and emails],” she continued, “I realized the class was entirely at a loss, disoriented and uprooted.”

I can’t imagine what I would have done in such a situation, but with considerable thought and discussion with colleagues, Felman reeled the course back in from the brink, through conversation, reflection, writing and testimony, turning what could have been an emotional and intellectual train wreck into an immensely valuable lesson for students and teacher alike. As she put it, one “possible response to the answerlessness through which the class is passing now, can be given in the context of our thought about the significance of testimony… The narrator [in the first videotape, a woman who was improbably reunited with her husband after the war] herself does not know any longer who she was, except through her testimony. This knowledge or self-knowledge is neither a given before the testimony nor a residual substantial knowledge consequential to it. In itself, this knowledge does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony: it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the process of testifying, but it can never become a substance that can be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside of this dialogic process. In its performative aspect, the testimony, in this way, can be thought of as a sort of signature.”

It is Felman’s conclusion that I want to engage today, perhaps as a way of thinking about where we are and the crisis that appears to be defining our community.

divider

An article in Inside Higher Education on April 12 discloses, in its lead paragraph, that:

“The majority of the faculty of Oberlin College have signed a statement condemning anti-Semitic statements made by a colleague on social media, though a vocal minority have refused to lend their names.” The statement reads, in part, ““Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere).”

The petition arose out of a perceived lack of (public) action from administrative or faculty bodies regarding what IHE terms “a series of anti-Semitic and, in some cases, factually inaccurate anti-Israel posts” that a faculty colleague, Joy Karega, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, had posed on her Facebook page in 2014-15.

For those not following events on our Ohio campus – and even for some who have been following the issues – eyebrows must have been raised. How can you put out a statement that is so obvious in its construction and not get everybody to sign? Who supports bigotry, for goodness sake? Debates on the issue are usually generated in terms of what constitutes bigotry, not whether people think it is a good thing.

And yet the article makes clear that a “vocal minority” refused to sign, and as it indicates (and as I know from viewing the petition and those who signed it), Oberlin’s Black faculty and well as many other faculty of color, constitute a substantial percentage of the non-signers. From this alone, we know that the issue is not only complex, but that it is “answerless,” to use Felman’s term, without both history and testimony, unless we try to hear the stories of those who chose not to sign, unless, indeed, all stories can be heard. (Full disclosure: I also declined to sign the petition, although I like to think that I unequivocally support the statement that bigotry is abhorrent to everything we do.)

I will not abuse the privilege I have of writing to the Oberlin faculty in the “Article of the Week” by commenting on Prof. Karega’s statements or what should be done in terms of her status other than to insist that, like any faculty member, she has rights that must be both observed and respected. Nor will I comment on the petition other than to note that its circulation, while seemingly intended to break a silence and allow the faculty to state their opposition to what they see as an act of bigotry, has made even more visible a ruinous division. In that light, I want to pick up what Johnny Coleman, professor of Art and Africana Studies, concludes in the IHE article: “Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.” The question for me, as it always is, is whether what we practice in our teaching can help us address what I see as a crisis in our community.

dividerCrisis and Learning

A number of psychologists have argued that children grow and develop on the basis of overcoming specific crises that they encounter. Erik Erickson, for example, argues that the child develops as she successfully resolves social crises involving such issues as establishing a sense of trust in others and developing a sense of identity in society. For Shoshana Felman, as well, contemplating the meltdown of her 1984 class at Yale, crisis offered a way to look at learning far beyond the clichéd notion of “danger and opportunity.”

I would venture to propose — she wrote — that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience – the recipients – can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust [or, we might add, the past and present history of racism] precisely did with the information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use (p. 52).

The work that crisis does, then, is to make something visible that previously might have been seen but was not recognized.

This is not a comforting lesson about teaching. Who the hell wants teaching to be an act of perpetual crisis? To be sure, there are other paths to learning besides crisis, and we know that much of what we do in the classroom involves the more mundane aspects of “passing on information.” Still, as Alice Pitt, the current Academic Vice Provost at York University (Canada), argues, learning is not so much an “accumulation of knowledge but a means for the learner to alter himself or herself…as tensions emerge.” [2]

When crises surface, they can generate significant breakthroughs not just in how we view each other, but in our ability to understand what we didn’t recognize before, if we understand our responsibility to hear one another.

I have found the same issues discussed within museum pedagogy, particularly when dealing with emotions that can arise when visiting “difficult” (sometimes called “conflict”) museums, museums such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center in Chile, Robben Island in South Africa, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The challenge for curators at those museums becomes how to help visitors cope with any traumatic crisis that their visit may occasion by helping the learner to develop deeper relationships to the “historical Others,” those who suffered and resisted at those sites and whose ghostly presence in those spaces can turn museum exhibits into traumatic triggers. And coping, Deborah Britzman argues, can only happen by acknowledging the incommensurability of their pain. [3] What educational outreach staff at such museums must recognize is that, as hard as it is, allowing a retreat into emotional disengagement relieves us from our responsibility to recognize human suffering, thereby encouraging a kind of “passive empathy” that allows us to separate ourselves from the situation and from others.

Learners “need to be faced with the tensions of empathic unsettlement” if they are to learn in difficult situations. [4] Therefore, what we ask of our students, what curators ask of their visitors at “difficult” museums, is to receive the lessons offered, the history provided, with critical awareness, personal responsibility, and a respect towards those who have suffered and resisted.

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We should expect no less of ourselves if we are to learn in a moment of crisis. If we are to take up Coleman’s call to move forward in a “more nuanced and constructive process,” than I would suggest that the beginning of that journey is to leaven the process of intellectual inquiry (clarity, exactness, rigor of argument, familiarity with the current state of scholarship, etc.) with a sense of personal responsibility, a willingness to truly hear the stories of those who have lacked, those who still lack, privilege and power, and an understanding that actions, even well-intentioned, can produce unintended consequences.

I will leave for others a discussion of how intellectual inquiry can precede and suggest that when I speak of responsibility, it is in the sense that philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of it: “Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse. This charge is a supreme dignity of the unique. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible…” [5] Claudia Eppert and Roger Simon explain that the learner who is positioned to receive testimony about an oppressive history, is “under the obligation of response to an embodied singular experience not recognizable as one’s own.” [6]

When I speak of hearing the stories of others, it is in the dialogic sense offered by Felman, a hearing that can transform information that no one could recognize into something that we can “truly learn, read, [and] put to use.” It is a recognition that, when faced with the tensions of “empathic unsettlement,” our only way forward is to hear and understand the incommensurability of each others’ histories and to recognize each others’ pain.

And when I speak of the importance of consequences, it is in the sense of the Spanish term, consequente: being consequential with one’s actions, being able to see how one’s actions (or inactions, for that matter) will impact others, being aware of the way that actions can only be read through history and histories, and we must take that on board.

To close, I return again to Felman’s class and what she learned from it. To live in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, of slavery’s shadow and redlining, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, is to live in what Felman calls the “age of testimony.” And in such an age, teaching (and learning) must go beyond just transmitting information “that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance…” We must be willing to testify, to “make something happen.” We are called on to be performative and not just cognitive, to feel as well as think, to listen, not just talk, and to be heard.

“It is the teacher’s task to recontextualize the crisis,” Felman concludes, “and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning.” As we think about the present moment in our community, we are called upon to be both teachers and learners in this process.


[1] Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Alice Pitt, “Reading Resistance Analytically: On Making the Self in Women’s Studies,” in L.G Roman and L. Eyre, eds., Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education (New York: Routledge, 1997)

[3] Deborah P. Britzman, “If the Story Cannot End: Deferred Action, Ambivalence, and Difficult Knowledge,” in Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert, eds., Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 27-58.

[4] Julia Rose, “Commemorative Museum Pedagogy,” in Brenda Trofanenko and Avner Segall, eds., Beyond Pedagogy: Reconsidering the Public Purpose of Museums (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014):115-133.

[5] Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).

[6] Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education 22 (1997): 175-191.

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”

I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.

Diego Rivera, "Open Air School," lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School,” lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.

The Pedagogy of Equality

As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.

The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).

One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:

Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room.  Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate.  Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.”  These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.

Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:

  • take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
  • demonstrate their own expertise; and
  • embrace their own expertise.

And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?

From "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," by Atul Gawande

From “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande

It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.

But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!

Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.

But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.

No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.

If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:

  • Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
  • Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
  • Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.

Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.

Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.

The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise

We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).

The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization

Steven Volk, February 15, 2016

London is a city of museums, and I have had the good fortune to take my students to quite a few in my (still) short time here. Last week, for example, in class we studied the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89) in England (more on its glories, real or imagined, in another post!). And then on Friday we traveled up river to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see an exhibit on Samuel Pepys, the garrulous diarist who chronicled so much of the second half of the 17th century.

John Michael Wright, "Charles II in His Coronation Robes," c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015)

John Michael Wright, “Charles II in His Coronation Robes,” c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015).

There’s only so much I could say in class about Charles II, the man who restored the monarchy to England after a brief flirt with republicanism, without spiraling my students into a deep slumber. But, on entering the Pepys exhibition, the visitor is almost immediately confronted by a portrait of the monarch in his coronation robes painted by John Michael Wright (c. 1687). What the spectacular painting could say was infinitely more informative (not to mention entertaining) than anything I could cobble together.

Supporting the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand word, we know that images are remarkably generative texts. Perhaps this is because, as John Berger has argued in his hugely popular book, Ways of Seeing, published in 1972, and based on a BBC series of the same name, seeing and recognition come before words. We see, and then explain what we see with words. But, he continues, at the same time what we know or believe affects how we see. Our past knowledge or experience changes the way we see.

Nearly 40 years earlier, John Dewey, in Art as Experience, also considered the relationship between what we see and what we know. Dewey discussed the critical nature of seeing as experience, suggesting that “experience is a product, one might almost say bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world,” adding that this was the “foundation upon which esthetic [sic] theory and criticism can build” (220). For Dewey, the art object was the primary site for the dialectical processes of experience and the unifying occasion for these experiences.

In his 1934 study, Dewey challenged the assumption that art does not have a connection with outside content. Much as Berger will argue later, Dewey suggests that art can concentrate meanings found in the world. The difference between art and science, he argued, is that art expresses meanings, whereas science states them, giving us directions for obtaining the experience, but not supplying us with experience. So, to take a very recent example, Einstein gave us the “directions” for looking for gravitational waves resulting from the collision of black holes colliding, and now that we have “seen” them, it remains for artists (among others) to express the meanings of such an event.

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

This relation between words and images, science and art, and image and understanding was on my mind when I read an article (kindly sent me by Roger Laushman) by Kim Quillin (OC ’93) and Stephen Thomas, titled “Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology,” [CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 14 (Spring 2015): 1-16].

Drawing of Michael Faraday's 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

Drawing of Michael Faraday’s 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

There is little question that visualizations are integral to scientific thinking and the teaching of science. Scientists rely not only on words to explain their findings, but on a host of visual materials: graphs, diagrams, charts, illustrations, etc. And they have long done so.

But visualizations are also, in a more Deweyian sense, a primary way to communicate complex science to the lay reader (and the everyday citizen) as experience, and so their importance in that realm should not be underestimated.

Scholars in the sciences and arts have published a considerable amount on how work to improve visual literacy can be leveraged to scaffold learning in the sciences. [For a good example of this, see Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles and Taylor Allen, “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art,” CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 12 (Winter 2013): 687-700] Two intriguing papers have suggested that encouraging students to draw in science classes will not only improve their ability to understand underlying concepts, but to become engaged and active in their science classes.

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Writing in Science [“Drawing to Learn in Science,” Vol. 333 (Aug. 26, 2011): 1096-97], Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain and Russell Tytler suggested that there are multiple ways that teachers can bolster student (novice) learning in science classes by encouraging students to draw. Drawing, they argue, can do this by: enhancing engagement on the part of students who do poorly at rote learning or might have felt excluded in more traditional science classes; catering to individual learning approaches as different students will generate different visualizations; generating their own representations, through which students will deepen their understanding of the specific conventions of representations and their purposes (e.g., this is how a line graph works and why you want your representation to communicate the most information in the sparest way); helping students learn how to reason in a method other than argumentation (an approach that research has shown to have great success when student generate and refine models supported by their teachers); helping learners overcome limitations in presented material, organize their knowledge more effectively, and integrate new and existing understandings; and, finally, helping students learn how to communicate effectively.

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Quillin and Thomas (“Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology”) apply this model specifically to the biology classroom, lamenting that biology has lagged “behind physics and chemistry in acknowl­edging and explicitly teaching drawing as a skill, especially the drawing of abstract visual models as a tool for reasoning.” They argue that model-based reasoning is “a powerful tool for fostering conceptual change and meaningful learning in students.” Further, they suggest that when model-based learning is applied to science visual representations can be used to generate predictions and explanations. If many (most?) biology teachers use visual representations in their teaching, a much smaller number expect their students to draw or make models. “Drawing-to-Learn” is intended to “to distill the complexity of drawing into a ‘big picture’ framework that can serve as a launching point to facilitate future work in biology.”

Quillin and Thomas break their examination into three separate topics: They set out to: 1) define what they mean by drawing in the biology classroom; 2) articulate clearly the pedagogical goals of drawing-to-learn; and 3) propose a set of teaching interventions that can serve both as prompts for interested instructors and also as testable hypotheses for researchers. Here, I’ll examine only the second and third points while encouraging you to read the article in its entirety. Nevertheless, and to encourage you to dig further, they summarize their main pedagogical goals for assigning drawing exercises in the following chart:

ChartIt is important for faculty to have thought out the pedagogical goals of such a project from the start. Assigning drawing as a way to help students engage more actively in science learning (improve moti­vation) or to help them see more carefully (improve observation skills) are very different pedagogical goals than assigning drawings to help students understand concepts (lower-order cognitive skills) or solve a complex problem (higher-order cognitive skill). But each of these is important. “Like­wise,” the authors continue, “assigning drawings to students to help them learn (stu­dent-centered goal) and assigning drawings so that instruc­tors can assess learning (instructor-centered goal) are very different pedagogical goals, but both can be used to improve student learning. Finally, teaching drawing as a learning tool (such as the use of concept maps to help memorize content or see the big picture) is a different goal than teaching draw­ing as a science process skill (such as drawing models to design an experiment), but both are valid and worthwhile. Overall, the key is for instructors and researchers to artic­ulate goals clearly so that appropriate interventions can be designed and aligned between the formative and summative quadrants to achieve those goals.”

The authors conclude by suggesting various ways to scaffold drawing skills to address specific learning goals. The overall goal of our teaching is to move our students to more expert-like practices, and to do this most effectively we need to understand what can get in the way of learning, including whether we are placing too heavy a cognitive load on students, and therefore exercises can become unproductive (as per the theory of “cognitive capacity”).

In this light, they argue for three different kinds of faculty interventions, one based on improving student motivation and attitudes toward drawing (affect); one designed to teach the skills of translating information to a visual form within the field of biology (visual literacy), and one designed to give students the practice and feedback on the use of models as reasoning tools (model-based reasoning).

Here’s the chart they provide to summarize these points:

Chart2Quillin and Thomas conclude with a series of suggestions for further research on the application of such a model of learning to different students and classrooms. Among their questions:

  • Which types of interventions are most successful in improving students’ ability to draw and reason with their models?
  • What are the barriers that limit the utility of drawing exercises in class?
  • How do gender, ethnicity, background experience, and content knowledge influence student abilities and/or affect regarding drawing-to-learn?

As we answer these questions, it seems to me that the learning theory that informs model-based reasoning in biology can be applied not only in the other sciences, but in the social sciences and humanities as well. If you’re using model-based reasoning in your classes, share your findings with us.

Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques

Marcelo Vinces, October 25, 2015

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), founded in 1989, is a leading advocate for transforming undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching and learning in the United States. A project of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), PKAL is dedicated to empowering STEM faculty, including those from underrepresented groups, to graduate more students in STEM fields who are well trained and liberally educated.

I had the opportunity to attend PKAL’s Ohio conference last May. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington, opened his keynote by projecting an image by Laurentius de Voltolina taken from a 14th century manuscript, Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia.

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

That’s Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088. Besides the obvious differences in garb, student demographics, and technology, the scene is a familiar one to all of us. The lecturer stands at front, and his pupils are seated in rows facing him. Some scribble notes, some listen intently. In the back, two students have checked out altogether and are speaking to each other. And look: there are the students we’re all familiar with: one bent over in ecstasy or agony, but more likely just asleep, as is the one who sleeps through the lecture as well as the chatter of the two students behind her. Maybe it was a late night with some fine Italian wine. More likely, the result of a boring lecture. With that, Freeman asked the audience: How is it that we are still teaching science at universities much the same way it was done in the 1300s?

Two recent opinion pieces have expanded upon this very question, touching on the growing body of published research indicating not only that the venerable tradition of the lecture may be less effective for learning than “active learning” techniques, but that they may produce particularly negative results in the sciences for underrepresented groups: minorities, women, low-income and first-generation students.

In “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science,” Terrance F. Ross, writing in the Atlantic, focused on research carried out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington. The studies concluded that learning techniques that permitted students to become active participants in constructing their own learning rather remaining passive recipients as in traditional lecture courses, consistently resulted in better performance by students. The research, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work,” was conducted by Kelly Hogan, a professor of biology, at the University of North Carolina, and Sarah L. Eddy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington. In particular, the studies examined how differences in race, culture, and a family’s higher-education background can affect the methodologies by which students learn. Ultimately, it questioned whether college courses—specifically STEM-related ones—that use older teaching approaches are the best fit for colleges today, considering the increasingly diverse student populations we are educating.

Hogan and Eddy compared a traditional lecture approach and grading based solely on exams with a model that let the students mold how they learned and were assessed. These approaches included preparatory and review assignments, guided reading questions, and extensive student in-class engagement. As we can see in the graph below, while the new model was effective across the board, it worked particularly well for minorities. The gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts (the two highest performing demographics in the class) shrunk from 5.5 percent under traditional lecture structure, to an average of 2.6 percent in the new setting.

Average Grades by Race

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times (“Are College Lectures Unfair”) Annie Murphy Paul reviewed several studies, including those mentioned in the Atlantic, all of which suggested that the traditional lecture format is “not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.” Paul suggests that there are several possible reasons to explain the difference. One, she notes, is that “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates.” This is not just a problem in the way we might easily imagine but more so since research “has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess. The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.”

Active learning approaches are able to overcome these deficits, according to the research, disproportionately improving the performance of historically underrepresented students in STEM areas. Why? The research suggests that active learning helps limit students’ sense of isolation while fostering communal feeling among classmates. Other research has shown the detrimental effect on learning of being a “solo” in a class context and points out that active learning can be especially effective at reducing the achievement gap of women, low-income, and first-generation students by creating more collaborative, lower-pressure environments that increase a sense of belonging for everyone.

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

So why, given the growing body of data and the demographic trends in the United States, aren’t these approaches embraced more widely? Scott Freeman, the PKAL keynote speaker, went even further, asking us to consider whether not using active learning techniques in STEM courses could even be considered unethical. In his talk, he presented results of a meta-analysis of 642 papers examining the effects of active learning. These broadly demonstrated benefits across disciplines, class size, course level and major or non-major courses. His own studies in an introductory biology course showed enhanced performance in active learning versions of the course, with benefits particularly pronounced among underprepared students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, what are your thoughts on active learning? Why do we tend to stick to the traditional lecture format? What are the real barriers that keep us from using innovative pedagogies and how can we lower them? What have your experiences been with active learning approaches in the classroom?

 

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time

Steven Volk, October 4, 2015

As instructors bring their classes to the glorious Allen Memorial Art Museum, they begin to consider the potential not just for teaching with art, but of teaching through art. Liliana Milkova, the academic curator at the museum, and I have written about the process (“transfer”) whereby the learning that occurs in one domain can be shifted to another. In extended interviews with Oberlin faculty who have brought their students to the museum, we have found that a number of specific skills foregrounded in visits to the Allen are transferring back into the classrooms in a variety of disciplines.

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson '33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

For example, faculty members have observed that the work their students do in the museum often helps them think about the link between evidence and argument in new ways. Some of these realizations originate from the curators’ use of VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) approaches in the museum. VTS fashions a viewer’s engagement with art through three basic prompts: (1) What is going on in this picture; (2) What do you see that makes you say that; and (3) What more can you say about the object? Having the “primary source” (the painting or sculpture) directly at hand strongly grounds the student’s ability to use evidence to support an interpretation: Where in the painting do you find evidence suggesting that the man is angry? Such lessons from the museum can transfer easily to classroom discussions and written work.

Close Readings

Of the many potential elements for transfer from museum to classroom, perhaps the most frequently reported by the faculty are the impact of close observation in the museum on close reading in the classroom. Both processes are supported by holding students figuratively or literally in front of the object (or text) they are studying, giving them the time they need to observe closely. By doing this, we are teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, in the words of Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts. In a widely circulated article on “The Power of Patience,” Roberts wrote, “in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.”

I thought of the importance of “slowing down” as I read Sherry Turkel’s commentary, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Review. (A shorter op-ed, “Stop Googling; Let’s Talk,” appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 26; her book on the topic, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is just out from Penguin.) In her Chronicle article, Turkel, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, recounted what happened in one of her recent seminars, one that was heavily dependent on personal narrative. Midway through the semester, she reported, some students came to talk to her.

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

“They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.”

Let me repeat that: For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. Turkel suggested they try a “device-free class,” and observed how the students seemed more “relaxed and cohesive” in those discussions, how they “finished their thoughts, unrushed” and seemed “more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation.” While I was pleasantly surprised that her students could move from a state of technological high anxiety to unpluged relaxation so quickly, I saw Turkel’s comments as coming from the same place as Robert’s. Indeed, if I was surprised, it was only because I don’t know many instructors who actually allow texting in class. From the comments I hear, it would seem that more and more of my colleagues are going further, either discouraging or prohibiting the use of laptops or other digital devices in class. Maybe that’s just me, or just here. One large survey found that 80% of college students admit to texting during class; 15% say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.”

There is substantial research, some of which has been reported here, recommending the benefits to learning and memory that come when students take notes by hand rather than on a laptop. Even more, as Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law observed, students who are in court-stenographer mode “sometimes seemed annoyed if you called on them because it broke up their transcriptions. If your notes are meant to capture the themes of the class, you remember your participation and you make it part of the story. If you are trying to write a transcript of class, class participation takes you away from your job.”

"The Phone People," Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

“The Phone People,” Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

Nor are devices a problem only in class. I am probably not alone in noticing that as soon as class ends, the phones emerge and large numbers of students are quickly absorbed in what seems to be a dangerous practice of texting-while-descending-the-stairs. Indeed, we seem caught between furiously peddling bicyclists and texting pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings as we tread our increasingly perilous path across campus.

Multitasking

The debate over the value (or dangers) of multi-tasking has gone on for some time. In a 2007 article, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” (Profession, 187–199), Katherine Hayles argued that we are at a moment of “generational divide” between an older cohort that equated learning with the “deep attention” characterized by long focus times and what I would call a “vertical” engagement with a topic, and a younger generation more prone to rapid switching among different tasks, shorter attention times, a low tolerance for “boredom” (i.e., unoccupied time) and a more “horizontal” mode of exploration characteristic of the digital hyperlinks. Hayles’ argument is that whether or not we (i.e., the “older” generation) want this, “The trend toward hyper attention will almost certainly accelerate.”

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention,” she writes, “educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students. At the extreme end of the spectrum represented by ADHD, it may be appropriate to change the young people, but surely the environment needs to change as well” (195).

Hayles defined hyper attention as the capacity to negotiate “rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention” (188). She contrasted this with “multitasking” which significant research has shown to place a substantial burden on learning. A study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, had students mark down once a minute what they were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, and surfing the Web. He noted that their “on-task” behavior began to decline at the two-minute mark. By the end of the 15-minute study, he found that they had spent only 65% of their time on task.

Indeed, evidence of the detrimental impact of multitasking continues to grow. To cite just one example, the majority of a cross-disciplinary survey of 774 students was shown to be engaging in classroom multitasking. Further, this was significantly related to lower GPA and to an increase in risk behaviors including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. As Maryellen Weimer suggested when pondering how to bring such behaviors under control, “I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn.”

A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Generation M : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” found that almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using other media. As Victoria Rideout, the lead author put it:

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside. I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

r8r, "Studying for Finals," Flickr CC

r8r, “Studying for Finals,” Flickr CC

Engaging Our Distracted Students: The Role of Conversation

So, to return to Turkel’s question: how do we teach in an age of (many) distractions? For many teaching in large universities with class sizes in the hundreds, one key was devising a way to return students to conversation, something which Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera (the provider of online courses or MOOCs) thought could be better done online than in class. (This has not necessarily proven to be the case.) But for those of us fortunate enough to teach in a school where 40-50 person classes are considered large, we know that “the most powerful learning takes place in [a context of] relationship,” at times between students and teachers, at times among peers. Turkel’s students tell her that “they want company. They are afraid that they already spend too much time alone and online.”

Turkel defends the lecture as the place where this “company” is to be found on college campuses. “For all its flaws,” she writes, “the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged.” But even as she praises the lecture – indeed, I am far more cautious of its pedagogical limitations – she, too, pivots to the importance of the conversations that can develop in a lecture, not the content that is delivered. She quotes Lee Edelman, a literary theorist at Tufts, who observed that his biggest challenge as a professor was “not teaching his students to think intelligently, but getting them to actually respond to each other thoughtfully in the classroom.” He found that his students were struggling with the give and take of face-to-face conversation.

*k59, "Conversación," Flickr CC

*k59, “Conversación,” Flickr CC

But how can conversations provide students with a steady focus and the ability to steer their way through multitasking temptations in an age of increasing distraction? Only, I would argue, to the extent that we actually think about how we “engineer,” as Roberts put it, “the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” Conversations must necessarily have “empty” spaces built into them, time for thinking before responding, time for boredom. And this is a generation that is boredom-adverse. “If boredom happens in a classroom,” Turkel writes, “rather than competing for student attention with ever-more extravagant technological fireworks, we should encourage students to stay with their moment of silence or distraction.” She cites a chemistry professor who said that he wants students in his class to daydream. “They can go back to the text if they missed a key fact. But if they went off in thought … they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them.” Boredom (in its creative sense), daydreaming (and not about lunch), doodling (while thinking) all require that we allow and encourage the space that is not completely filled; that we slow things down.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker, the writer, talked about how he would read aloud to slow himself down, because when he reads aloud to himself:

“it becomes the only thing there is. I think that a necessary precondition for the appreciation of art is the feeling that the thing that you’re looking at, or reading, or listening to, is all that there is for that moment, and you really have to give yourself to it. So, if you’re in a life where everything is sort of jumping for you and you’re only spending two minutes with anything, you’re not probably going to be able to take anything at the proper speed. So, I think reading things aloud to myself has helped me slow down. I guess, remember, remember the sound of words, the sequence of words…all I have to do, actually, is put on, say, a Debussy piece, or something, and it slows me down. I think that things that take time are useful; paragraphs take time, piano preludes take time.”

Conversations take time. If we are to help our students develop their capacities for deep engagement and build their capacity to cope with the increasing distractions of a hyper-connected environment, we have to consider the pace and tempo of learning as a subject we need to address regardless of our disciplines. It is its own discipline.

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

Steven Volk, March 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Average Debt per Borrower in Each Year's Graduating Class

Average Debt per Borrower in Each Year’s Graduating Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Thinking/Human Centered Design

Design Thinking/Human Centered Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Remove the Risk from Adopting New Teaching Approaches?

Steve Volk, February 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

CBE Life Sciences Education

CBE Life Sciences Education

Junior Faculty, Risk-Taking, and Pedagogy

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

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

risk Free

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

The Proposal

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

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

Preparing the Environment for Active Learning

Steven Volk, February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Components of Wenger's social theory of learning

Components of Wenger’s social theory of learning

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

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

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

Thomas Hawk, Reading Lolita in Teheran (CC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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