Monthly Archives: March 2013











Why teaching and learning have a lot in common with street art

I am a big fan of street art. I like how it subverts traditional conceptions of art, artist and viewer. By creating artistic encounters in unexpected places there is a sense of serendipitous discovery and personal connectedness. Street art wakes us up to the creative possibilities in environments that are taken-for-granted and thus invisible.

But is it really art? What is art?












Is art beauty? Truth? A thought, idea or emotion captured in images or words?

Or is it an experience, an evocation of some reaction (positive or negative), stimulus for thought/reflection?

All of the above and more?

And who gets to decide what constitutes art? The artist? The viewer? The museum curator? The market?

Maybe I’m especially drawn to street art as a form of conceptual/contemporary art because it has so much in common with my philosophy of teaching and learning. Just like great street art:

Real learning happens outside the classroom.

Advances in knowledge question the status quo.

Learning derives from our engagement with our environment.

Deep learning stimulates an emotional response: surprise, delight, outrage, insight.












Teaching and learning are essentially creative enterprises as much (or more?) than cognitive/intellectual processes. Educators are both curators (What will I teach? What sources and strategies will I use?) and artists (What response am I trying to elicit? What experience (curriculum) do I (co-)create to get us to that place?).

The creative imperative is all around – and within – us. We are all artists in our construction of knowledge, experience and expression.



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zen stones water










Blogging can facilitate the convergence of reflection-in AND reflection-on

Reflective practice is a cornerstone for continuous advancement as academic educators and scholars, and we all engage in reflective practice: with our students, with our colleagues, and with ourselves. Donald Schon, in his groundbreaking and influential theory of knowledge generation and learning, posited two reflective processes:



In the moment (reflection-in-practice) we respond and make decisions based on a complex inter-weaving of practice wisdom, experience in classroom teaching, our integrated observation and enactment of what has worked for others, and evidence-based knowledge and skills. In the aftermath (reflection-on-practice) we mull over what worked and what was less effective. We talk things over with colleagues, seek supervision, and/or we journal or otherwise record our reflections.

Traditionally these two processes (reflecting-in and reflecting-on) have been seen to occur as separate but related. Further, the “products” of reflective practice – journaling, goal-setting, dialogue – have been constrained by physical geography and the limits of our professional networks.

Enter social media: thanks to “reflective practice 2.0” reflecting in / on are no longer necessarily distinct. Blogging may well represent a kind of “reflective practice power tool” in its ability to facilitate the convergence of reflection-in and reflection-on.

Digital communication has qualities of speaking and publishing together, and students are part of the conversation. Commenting enables an extended, many-to-many dialogue and blurs the boundaries between in-the-moment (i.e. in-the-classroom) reflection and post hoc reflective discourse. In other words, the act of blogging is itself teaching (in) even as it represents a reflective process (on). The classroom has become porous. Reflective practice is “unboundaried”.

We are all students, and we’re all teachers.

(See an excellent summary of Schon’s work, thinking and contributions at this link).

(Check out the presentation version of this post on Slideshare).










Here’s what the ultimate teaching challenge might look like…and in the future it may be the rule rather than the exception

A new book, Motivational Interviewing in Groups (Wagner and Ingersoll) outlines motivational approaches and strategies in group facilitation. While the book’s emphasis is on clinical practice, the principles and applications are also relevant to education settings.

The book’s authors present a table illustrating different types of group format, structure, composition, size, length and admission arranged along a continuum of difficulty (for facilitators) from easier to harder:












This looks different for educational groups, but the essentials still apply. Here is my modification of Wagner and Ingersoll’s framework calibrated for teaching and learning:











In other words:

Elective courses are easier to teach than mandatory courses. Students generally take electives out of interest, as opposed to being forced to take mandatory courses. Teaching students content that someone else thinks they ought to know is tougher than content in which they’re already interested.

Instructor-led courses presuppose a “script” (i.e. lesson plan), versus collaborative or student-led curricula. Paragogical approaches posit peer-to-peer learning and individual autonomy, and demand a proportionately higher level of finesse and facilitation.

Classes where students share more similarities than differences can be easier to work with than heterogeneous class compositions. For example, students who differ widely in age, ability or pre-existing knowledge and skills present more of a challenge in ensuring that all learning needs are met, and establishing an inclusive, cohesive and positive community of learning. Of course diversity, including culture, sex, gender and lived experience, enriches everyone’s learning exponentially – but demands artful facilitation on our part.

Student engagement and interactivity are more straightforward in classes of 25 or less. As class size increases so does the challenge of promoting opportunities for practice and integration of knowledge and skills.

It’s easier to keep peoples’ interest and attention for a single class of 2 or 3 hours than it is for a whole day or for multiple days. The latter demands both a varied menu of instructional strategies as well as formidable stamina (on the part of the instructor and the students).

Strict and highly competitive admission criteria can yield the “cream of the crop” of high-achieving and highly motivated learners. On the other hand, classes where admission is unrestricted means addressing the needs of the best and the brightest alongside those with academic struggles and other challenges.

Like any framework, this conceptualization tends to oversimplify and blur the many complexities and nuances of artful classroom teaching. Real life is always messier than the manual (if there even is a manual). But in general, teaching a mandatory class using a student-led curriculum, among a highly diverse cohort of 100 students or more, over a multi-day course that is freely open to all could well represent the ultimate teaching challenge.

We haven’t added the layer of classroom-based versus online teaching and learning, but does this scenario represent what may well be future of higher education…MOOC 2.0?










Six surefire ways to lose an hour in the classroom

Each spring 60 minutes evaporate when we set the clocks forward. Daylight Savings Time (DST) signals the start of long days, fresh colour, smell of earth and birdsong. But still, it hurts to lose that precious hour, especially when there are few enough in the weekend to begin with.

Of course we get an hour of DST back again in the fall, so it’s only a temporary loss. But for educators and students, how many precious hours of learning opportunity are lost in the classroom? Hours that add up to days, weeks, months and years over the course of a high school and post-secondary career. We could argue that this is a student issue based on motivation, attention or capacity: after all, learning is volitional and each of us is personally responsible. Still, I see this stance as at least somewhat disingenuous.

Even the most motivated, attentive and able students can find themselves wishing there was such a thing as what I call Classroom Savings Time (CST) during boring, irrelevant or unproductive “learning” activities. Here are a few tried and true instructional strategies to make them want to fast-forward the clock:

1. Give too much information (because “To teach well, we need not say all that we know, only what is useful for the pupil to hear.”)

2. Teach people what they already know

3. Lecture for more than 10 minutes at a time (TED talks might run twice as long, but after all these are some of the world’s most compelling speakers)

4. Permit student presentations in excess of 10 minutes each (see previous point)

5. Play a video for longer than eight minutes (and that’s still probably three minutes too long)

6. At all times stick to your script (textbook and/or lesson plan).

There is truth to the old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” However, you CAN make him thirsty! There may be no getting away from DST, but we can all avoid CST. Students everywhere will be grateful.











The hardest thing about writing is writing (Nora Ephron)


Student plagiarism is a big issue (and apparently an equally big industry) in high school and post-secondary education. It’s never been easier to craft a bricolage of web-based material for a written assignment, and it’s never been easier to detect evidence of academic dishonesty. Tools like Turnitin, iThenticate and online search engines allow for immediate identification of copied source material. Given the high risk and high stakes involved, why do students do it?

The way I see it, a number of interacting factors have created a “perfect storm” kind of context in which student plagiarism can flourish:

1. Stewart Brand, digital social network pioneer, famously said that “information wants to be free”. We’ve seen how intellectual ownership of music and film has been defended vigorously in the courts, yet for every torrent site that gets shut down, a new one pops up. Digital content on the network behaves like water: block one pipeline and it effortlessly reroutes through others. The digital generation has grown up accustomed to immediate access to a gushing flood of “free” content.

2. This leads to the next contributing factor: social media platforms are as much about the flow of content as original content creation. Pinterest, Tumblr, Twitter, and others are about free flow of media and ideas. There is a culture of “content curation”, and the best curators are rewarded by likes, notes, reblogs, retweets, repins etc.

3. Academic databases have traditionally been way less user-friendly than search engines. This is starting to change, but the reality is that if you’re pressed for time, don’t understand Boolean logic, and want easily-digested and accessible information, a quick web search might win out. There have been periodic (and growing) exhortations for researchers to make the products of research more accessible, however we have far to go in realizing this knowledge transfer ideal.

4. I am not sure that students really appreciate the consequences of academic misconduct. It’s a bit like impaired driving: seems worth the risk at the time, but when you find yourself in court, without a license, and facing massive fines, insurance costs and social stigma, the cost of booking a stretch limo is a bargain. Same goes for plagiarism. Universities take it pretty seriously, and that meeting with the Dean is a lot like going before a judge.

5. Finally, writing is hard. Encoding our ideas in abstract alphabetical symbols just doesn’t come naturally for most of us. In fact, sometimes coming up with original ideas to encode doesn’t come too naturally either.

Academic Integrity is the foundation of knowledge generation and production. But somehow there’s a disconnect with digital norms and popular culture/practice. The solution? Still murky, but I think that an ongoing dialogue with students acknowledging and exploring the terrain between these separate realities is a good place to start.


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