Teach Wise: Natural Law and Engagement

CC Max Braun

We’ve all been there. Professor in the front, students sitting passively in seats arranged auditorium style. The sage on the stage (hmm, when he turns that way, he looks kind of like me) drones on following a neat little rabbit trail he just discovered. A few students are taking notes, some are doodling, others are reading for other classes, or a novel, or the news. Laptops are tuned in to Facebook. A young lady in the front asks, “Will this be on the test?” Most ears in the room perk up for a second, checking in to see if the response makes what’s being said valuable enough to shift more attention to this present time and place. What’s wrong with this scene?

Some would say “The prof is wrong, he should be using active learning pedagogy.”

Many of us have been there. We decide to go from Sage on Stage to Professor Facilitator. We shelved our lecture notes (considered trashing, them but then thought twice), spent weeks curating information from the web, wrote a syllabus that laid out each day’s reading in light of a really cool question. We walked into class and scrawled the really cool question on the board, turned to the class and said, “OK, let’s discuss this.” The students stared back blankly. After a week of really uncomfortable classes, we pulled the lecture notes off the shelf, breathed a prayer of thanks that we had not trashed them and then, according to research reported by Stephen Gilbert on his TLT-SWG blog post entitled “Student’s Prefer Anonymous Passivity to Engagement?”, we gave our students what they wanted.

Yes, we did. Adam Smith articulated this law over two hundred years ago. Basically he said, smart people seek to discover how they can get the most benefit through the least amount of effort. Students are people and most of them are smart enough to align themselves to this natural law instinctively. This means that faced with discovering and processing information (mostly free and easily available) for themselves or sitting quietly in a room and allowing the teacher to spoon feed them pre-processed information just in time for the test (itself designed to elicit regurgitation of the professionally pre-processed information), they will tend to opt for passive listening.

In line with Smith’s articulation of economic natural law, the wisdom of human experience, refined to a high state over the past few millennia of civilization, teaches us that when faced with an overwhelming task and given the choice to go it alone or pool resources and skills to tackle it collectively, most humans will collaborate. We have found that collaboration leverages many more resources and skills than are individually available, accomplishes the task utilizing less individual effort, and significantly reduces the risk of catastrophic failure.

So, whereas the active instructor passive student model gives students what they want in the moment, it fails to teach them what they will need to survive in the 21st century. They will need the ability to tackle big projects as a team and work together to get it done creatively.

If we listen to Gilbert, Smith, and others, we instructors need to

1) ensure that we set the challenge in a way that rewards collaboration (big enough that it’s impossible to do alone),

2) provide students with a measure of autonomy regarding how they will contribute to the success of the project, and

3) realize that they are still learning these skills (as we are) and that failure is to be expected. In a learning environment, failure exists as opportunity provided that their is opportunity to recover from it, reflect on it, and try again,

4) keep trying. To have the grit to keep trying and working through the problems is what academia, and perhaps life itself is all about. Be a role model for your students.

I’m curious to hear about your stories of trying something new and different, failing at it, and learning from it. Feel free to tell about it in the comments.

Concept: Course Design Team

If I could reform the way college is done, I’d mandate team teaching. Not, however, by putting a couple of professors together in a class and telling them to get after it. There’s nothing terribly wrong with that. In fact I think it is a good way, in our traditional learning model, to encourage INTEGRATION. I’m not sure that it does much to create great learning experiences though.

I hear that team-taught courses are sometimes fun to watch, as faculty members compete with one another to demonstrate they are smarter, wittier, or more reasonable than their partner. I also hear that they are sometimes confusing for students, often having no explicit outcomes but seemingly many unstated ones in the mind of each professor and uneven approaches to the evaluation of student learning.  I hear that faculty often enjoy working together…they feel like they get to have an engaging conversation in the classroom and they learn a lot from interacting with their colleague.  I hear that they get frustrated with course management, student engagement, and the perception that their students are learning less than expected (perhaps because the faculty are learning so much more).

Nope, that’s not the teaching team I’m looking for (at least today). Instead, I’m interested in a team that consists of a cognitive psychologist, a game designer, a screen writer, a content expert, a web technician, a videographer, an assessor, and a professor who specializes in the facilitative learning.

Together, teams of folks with these skills work to create high quality content that

  • educates effectively (cognitive psychologist and content specialist),
  • captures and holds student interest and engagement (game developer, web tech, screen writer, and videographer),
  • supports, encourages and coaches students through the course by offering sage advice and tutoring (professor-facilitator), and
  • evaluates student learning and course effectiveness in a way that provides both positive feedback for improvement (assessor).

I’m envisioning creative collaborations among these folks that design courses that are effective in on-campus and online courses alike.  The content expert and screen play writer work to create a compelling semester long story capable of leading students down the twisting and intricate paths of the course.  The cognitive psychologist, game developer, and assessor work to design engaging activities that encourage students to engage the content, practice the sought after skills that lead to the creation of meaningful knowledge and create evidence of that achievement.  The screenplay writer, videographer, and content specialist produce the audio, video and other media necessary to capture and engage student attention and convey the knowledge necessary to do the work.  The  web technician, assessor and professor-facilitator work out the practical structure of the course — how the students get at the material, instructions, etc, where they will publicly engage with one another over the course content (discussion forums, Youtube posts, Google+, etc), where and when they will engage the demonstration challenges (tests), and how the students will be assessed and feedback given.

I would love to see that team at work, to be part of that creative process.  The closest thing that I’ve seen to such a thing is Urgent Evoke, designed and facilitated with the help of Jane McGonigal, the World Bank Institute sponsored game promoting world-changing social entrepreneurship.  I’m interested in experimenting specifically with Evoke next fall when I teach World Geography, if it’s still available.  In a way, I’m calling for mashing up the likes of Urgent Evoke, Kahn Academy, Google+, Dreamworks and TED into a powerful world-changing educational force.

Here’s a question for you: Have you seen similar kinds of things?  Where?

Is College like a pub? What do the folks paying for college expect to get?

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky suggests that the reason people make creative amateur media contributions (photos, videos, blog posts and the like) and make them freely available sites like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, twitter and the like has much to do with the convivial social atmosphere created by such amateur media outlets.  To explain this, Shirky uses the analogy of drinking beer in a pub (or one could use eating a meal in a restaurant).  He suggests that drinking beer (or eating) at home is much cheaper.  But people are will to pay double for the social atmosphere and easy access to the object of their consumption.

This analogy started me thinking about why people are willing to pay for the kind of education that colleges can offer, particularly when the availability of information is greater than ever and access to that information is rapidly approaching free?

Like drinking a beer in a pub or eating a meal in a restaurant, people can acquire information much cheaply at home in the networked information age than what people seem to be willing to pay for the experience that earns a college degree.  This suggests to me that people are not really paying for the information that they may or may not acquire in the college setting.

So what are people paying for?

One of the things people are paying for when they buy education from a college is socialization.  People want to experience the college life.  The culture of college life is reputed to be about freedom and friends, which appeals to the prospective student, and learning to behave responsibly and civilly and learning how to work with non-related adults in the knowledge industry, which appeals to parents. Indeed, college is about socializing students into the knowledge economy in an environment where failure and mistakes are acceptable, expected and recoverable. Educators expect students to make mistakes and offer opportunities for them to learn from those mistakes in large part because that’s the way the knowledge economy works.  We disservice our students if we don’t challenge them, support them and hold them accountable for their performance.  After all, that’s a chief reason for paying what it costs to go to college.

Another thing people expect in return for their tuition is curated information and learning processes. I first encountered the idea of curation listening to a presentation by Robert Milliron, formerly a key person at the Gates Foundation and now at Western Governors University.  Milliron explored the idea that in older educational models information was rare and expensive, but in the new information economy information was so readily available and rapidly produced that to consume it was like drinking water from a fire hose.  Milliron’s suggested that a key role for educators is to provide expert curation of the best information for students to learn.  In addition to curating information, which could also be done and has often been done for free online (see the Internet Movie Database for instance), consumers also expect colleges to curate effective learning process.  The professor says, “Here’s the content you should think about and this is the approach to thinking about how to do something with it that will enable you to really learn it and be ready to apply it.”

A third thing for which people in a knowledge economy are willing to pay a premium is the certainty that the teacher is competent.  People expect that because the curation of information and the learning process has been so teacher-centric in the past. However, we must re-envision the role of the professor in the free information knowledge-based economy.  If find ways to properly curate the information and the learning process, the professor’s role becomes much more that of a coach and tutor. To be competent, the professor must understand the learning process, have some degree of mastery of the content, and understand where students get stuck and how to help them get unstuck.  The key purpose of the professor is to serve as a guide to assist the learner in navigating the new and exotic territory of an academic discipline. The student has to do a great deal of work and create him or herself as a curious explorer to learn the new landscape, but the professor must be there to offer technical advice about the learning process, convey and model the particular disciplinary or interdisciplinary ways to think about and work with the material at hand effectively.

It is important to note that in this transitional period, the services people want is often not what they get when they enroll in a course and thus hire a field competent professor. Today’s professor, the academic historian, chemist, literary critic, economist, accountant, biologist, etc. may in fact have no clue about how to curate the learning process or coach the student through it. He or she may know a lot about the field, and if the student and field expert engage in a mentoring relationship then the student can learn a lot by watching and imitating and listening to pick up on point of view, etc.  But that occurs only if there is a significant amount of interaction between professors and students that requires working together with the content under study.

In our new world, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the older educational models may fall short of what the purchasers of a college education want, we must ask: is the professor willing to become a master at androgogy in exchange for employment in a teaching-learning centered college, or should the content expert serve as mentor, advisor, and colleague to the student, leaving course design and academic coaching to others or is the content experts job something else entirely. REMEMBER information is not what people are paying for but rather effective curation and guidance.

The final thing people are willing to pay for is credentialing. Possessing the writ of transcript, the university can confer upon someone certification that they have learned to do and come to be what is expected of a novice in a particular field of knowledge. I use the word novice intentionally. If, as gurus of mastery suggest, it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, and if a college major is about 45 credit hours in duration, and if the student is fully engaged, then the student practices the skills of the discipline for about 2000 hours.

Since there are likely multiple skills embedded in being a historian or chemist, we have at best introduced the basic tools and showed the student how to make simple moves that can be practiced and built upon in the shop of a masterful employer.  Thinking about educational certification in light of the processes used to create mastery in medieval guild systems and the time it takes to achieve it helps clarify thinking about appropriate student learning outcomes and to what point a student be reasonably expected to arrive by he end of a course or a curriculum of study.

Thinking this through carefully and articulating it clearly to all constituents is key to meaningful credentialing and takes a bit of wind out of the sails of the educational critics. Learning must happen in college.  Students must make intellectual progress while in college, but mastery is not something tobe looked for in a freshly minted BA.  What we can reasonably expect is basic awareness of the intellectual forms that shape the view and practices of the discipline, basic skills in standard practices embedded in the discipline, the ability to continue learning and improving, and general skills in problem solving and communication. Start with this and 8000 hours of reflective work later, one may see a master.

All this in mind, we must ask the question, if these are the things that people are paying for, is this what college is PROVIDING? I suggest that in many instances it is not.

Major universities teach with apprentices who neither really understand yet the content nor the androgogy.

Colleges have diminished the importance of androgical competence in favor of terminal degrees and/or faculty productivity. Neither of which are guarantees that a professor trained to a point near mastery in the research problems related to his discipline can curate an educational experience or effectively coach an undergraduate.

Calls for better trained faculty, trained in proper androgogy, are sometimes acknowledged but he vast majority of colleges and universities devote little strategic energy to making a wholesale transformation in faculty culture or in the strategic mission of the university.

In the end, if the traditional college model continues to move hesitantly to address the rapidly changing world and its new information economy, then it deserves to suffer in the face of the disruptions causes by for-profit and on-line colleges.  The time is right to leverage the potential of the brick and mortar campus for the sake of the college experience and empower the student experience in that context with potent intentional educational practices that prepare students to become effective contributors to our knowledge based 21st century economy.