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.

Calling forth the 21st Century Digital Librarian, please…

Take ebook rental to a better price point, say $.99 for 30 days, for all books and this will almost end undergraduate brick/mortar library usage. (See http://bit.ly/oVfowm)

Add completion of Google Books and Google Library…or whatever that has been or will be relabeled, and all but archival manuscripts may soon be fully on the web.

Add to this that many archives are working hard to digitize and make available their collections and…well, my friends, what will we do with that edifice we call the library? There’s lots of square footage in there.

More importantly, what will those librarians be doing?

I love the library and my librarian colleagues. And the days maintaining large collections of paper books, no matter how aesthetically pleasing they are to hold, smell, and caress with hand and eye, are drawing to a close.

But now, I need my librarian colleagues even more than I did before. After all, I could navigate the card catalog, or whatever we started calling it when it went to computer. The real need for me and my students is professional and scholarly digital curation.

I can’t read all the books on a topic that I now find available. I certainly can’t keep up with the best digitally created content on the topic.

I need something smarter than a web aggregator or a search engine search. Twitter is great for getting links to sometimes relevant news from my “friends” but when I get serious about information, I need a to rely on a big head, not a long tail (see Clay Shirky on institutions vs. collaboration | Video on TED.com http://bit.ly/orjyLD).

I need someone smart and academic to curate introductory information sources (create topical bibliographies = books, articles, digital content). When I, a professionally trained historian, get interested in chaos theory and network science, I need something like… “Chaos Theory for the Non-Scientist” that takes me to two accessible, must-read-first books (that I will rent for 30 days for $.99) by notable folks in the field, three solid articles (that I will read on JSTOR), and an active blog site or two. And this needs to be kept relatively up-to-date. Not stale and dated like The American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature (http://bit.ly/pqDjLI), which of course in its day was GREAT.

To such curations, I can also point students.

I can hear the gasps from a stodgy colleage in a Research 1 school now, “What you aren’t keeping up in your field, are you that lazy! You call yourself a scholar?!”

Why yes, thank you, I can curate in my own particular field — mostly — but my awareness of even related fields in my discipline that I once kept up on has gotten so stale that I find myself recommending students to 20 year old “classics” (are they or are they just books I read new and thought were good then?) in those fields. For instance, when some student asks about American economic history and I scan my bookshelves for something to hand her, I know somebody has surely moved past Gabriel Kolko and Robert Wiebe by now (did I say 20 year old classics?).

Add to this that when one teaches broad introductory undergraduate courses, and ask students to write research papers, it would be great to have a wide array of professionally pre-curated collections to point them to once they’ve gotten through their a quarternary overview of the topic via wikipedia.

This I need. For many of my colleagues in library services, I suspect that such work would be more stimulating and fulfilling than making latte’s in the library coffee bar. And I’d really use it and I think my students would to.

I suppose if we can’t pull this off with our information professional workforce here in the States, Google or somebody will likely get some folks in Madras who can.

(Angel Investors interested in putting some millions into such a project can contact me here 🙂 )

Gaming and Learning: An Interview with “Sims” creator

Will Wright, creator of “The Sims” and “Sim City” video games, suggested in a recent interview that video games can help inspire students to learn more, but that they do this best by approaching lessons with abstraction and subtlety.  By focusing on what he calls “strategic thinking,” which we might call “critical thinking” and providing less overtly didactic cases, students learn skills that can lead to later intuitive jumps to apply the logic of the game to real life scenarios.  Supporting the playful and subtle game lesson with links to factual resources (Want to know more about these kinds of things? Go to…) can provide immediate positive feedback to curiosity.

My sense of what he’s suggesting is that faculty can stimulate the desire for deeper learning by encouraging students to play with subtle simulations.  An application of Wright’s ideas could be for a teacher to create simplified case studies (reduced the level of complexity) based on the concept(s) that students should learn. Students are then provided with the opportunity to play around with adjusting the scenarios, taking different points of view, and trying to determine how things would work out if different decisions were made.  This can work out nicely in the exploration of concepts and theories that suggest physical consequences generated in response to particular behaviors.  Which ones don’t?

I think that designing such these kinds of games to support learning theories and concepts might be useful to theorists as well.  To have to work through the process of laying out the rules and their implications provides a great way to quickly test the logic and strength of a particular theory against the universe of possible and plausible actions the players might want to take.  Having students work through this process, to “wargame” scenarios related to particular concepts provides students with opportunities to learn how to think critically, solve problems, and learn actively. Theorists may benefit by having multiple brains work to test the concept using outside the box ways of thinking and with less ego-involvement and politcs on the part of both the investigator and reviewers than may be true of later formal peer review processes.

Overheard…need more real world applications!

Standing in the cafeteria line today, I couldn’t help but overhear the two students behind me discussing the test in some unidentifiable class. One said, “I wish they would ban those simulations from the test, I aced everything else, but couldn’t do the simulation part and so I got a 76.”

I turned around and said something to the effect of “But don’t the simulations demonstrate that you can actually apply what you’ve learned?”

He said, “Yeah, but I knew all the vocabulary, that shows that I learned the material.”

I responded with, “But isn’t that like knowing all the terminology about playing tennis. Just because you know the terms doesn’t mean you can actually play the game when you get on the court, does it?”

He and his friend gave me that, “Quit bothering us, you are an idiot” look.

I think that what I really overheard today was a student saying, “If you really want me to learn something, you’ll have to test more than just the vocabulary.  You have to test whether or not I can do something with it…and I’ll resent it if you do.”

It reminded me, I must design more application exercises, preferably real life kinds of simulationthat that utilize the knowledge I ask students to glean…if I can figure out how to. This little snippet of converation really reinforced for me the notion that educational best practices require intentional focus on active learning, critical thinking and problem solving. This is challenging for everyone at first, but useful and consistent with the real aim of 21st century education.

Wiki-gating Update

I’ve been using the wikigation assignment in two different classes…American West, which is an upper division history class, and World Civ, which is a lower division general education class. I have observed some interesting things.

Thing 1: Students do read the assigned wikipedia pages in preparation for in-class discussions. One student wrote in his learning log:

I really am enjoying the way this class is set up. It’s a really fun and interesting way to learn. These wiki hunts really make you think and you have to pick and choose what you believe is most important within the information then share that information with your group and once you hear what everyone else got out of the hunt you have learned the topic without a 60 minute lecture.

Thing 2: The critical thinking questions designed to help guide student reading toward critical thinking might get in the way of content acquisition. For instance a student wrote in her learning log:

This week, i think i got a hang of the WIKI hunts better and really found those helpful. i focused more on what the articles were saying and what i got from them. rather than on answering those questions we were given to help us. i think some of those questions confused me, therefore it made it harder for me to understand and focus on what i was reading.

This is something to grapple with in light of the intended outcomes for the assignment.  What do I really want the assignment to do…provide an opportunity for students to think critically think or to gather information with which they will later have an opportunity to process (as in during the class discussion).  I’m inclined at this point to think that it should be the latter.  I think this was a case of not clearly thinking through the process necessary to achieve the outcome.

Thing 3: Some students are able to see that Wikipedia is a very uneven source that suffers from credibility issues:

The one thing that I would say that is bad or not effective is the second wikipedia hunt for this week.  The Israel and Judah project is a little too much information and had too much contraversy to be discussed without a professor present to give some feedback.  I would also think that wikipedia is not the source to go to to learn about it either.

Another wrote

Finally, a few more comments about Wikipedia. I still really do not care for it. I never feel prepared after having read the article, even after looking at the history and some of the links. For the Homestead Act which we will talk about on Monday, I went to other sources as well, and I feel like a have a much better grasp. The thing about most Wikipedia articles is that there is often little background information. The article is not contextualized. However, that is what the links are supposed to be for. But those links have no background either, and it’s just a vicious cycle. I mean, I can get the basic information, but I can’t really find out what I deem to be the really important stuff.

This was one of my upper division students.  I encouraged her previously to get in and edit the entry if she found a problem…to be part of the solution rather than just railing against the machine.  She then related:

I did start editing Wikipedia this last week though. I must say it become rather addictive. Once you decide to correct one grammar mistake, it is amazing how many more one can find. I actually ending up completely re-wording most of one article. There was a nice sense of satisfaction, but I wonder how the personal who wrote it originally felt.

She continued this a week later…

Finally, I have to say that making my first major edit to Wikipedia this week has been very rewarding. The article about the Lincoln County War truly was awful when I read it. It made absolutely no sense and, after I looked up information from some more reliable sources, I realized that the article provided no sense at all of the actual story. I’m pretty sure I’ve read freshman fine arts papers that were better than this article. (And that’s really saying something, because those papers are excruciating.) Anyway, the article is still not great. It doesn’t have any flow, because I haven’t yet made any changes to the end of the article. I couldn’t find the information I needed to do some fact checking. Several people on the discussion page had pointed it out. I’m debating if I should bother correcting the grammar there, or just wait until I get a certain book in on inter-library loan to check the facts. And the opening section about the beginning of the Lincoln County War is much too long, but I haven’t yet figured out how to create a new section within the article. There are a lot of buttons and controls that one can press and I haven’t quite figured them all out yet. But I just couldn’t help feeling a perhaps inordinate amount of satisfaction when my fellow class members starting talking about our topic for the in day in the terms that I had chosen to describe it. I had taken something that was confusing and made it understandable… then of course the evil part of my nature rather wondered if I shouldn’t have left it like it was and made those lazy boys figure it out for themselves. But overall it was a nice experience to not just complain about “whoever wrote the article” and then move on.

Something tells me this assignment has real potential.  Here we see the power of wikipedia’s weaknesses to inspire and thus, like the Dao, reveal its strength.

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