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The “Top 4” Preconditions for Learner Engagement

Educators and presenters are rightly concerned with learner engagement. Creating engaging learning environments was the theme for the conference I attended today, and it made me wonder…what are my own “rules of engagement” in classrooms large and small, real and virtual? Here are my top four:

1. Make it fun

People are generally motivated to pursue activities that offer positive reinforcement, and the opposite is true for aversive experiences. That’s why chocolate + Reality TV often trumps time at the gym. By adding laughter, socializing, exploration and discovery to our facilitation we add engagement.

2. Make it personal

While altruism is a lofty ideal, in practice the most salient learning happens when we directly relate to a concept or skill on our own individual level. These personal connections evoke “aha” moments way more powerfully than relating new skills and ideas to abstract or hypothetical scenarios/applications.

3. Make it real

At its very best, presenting to groups more closely resembles a conversation than a performance. When we can be our authentic, playful, idiosyncratic selves in front of hundreds of people, that fosters connectedness (another word for engagement). If the audience sees our real, true self, that gives permission for them to be real too.

4. Make it safe

We’re only learning when we’re struggling. If it’s easy, that’s because we already know! The journey toward mastery involves making ourselves vulnerable; and our deepest instincts tell us that we can only permit our vulnerability when we feel safe. As a facilitator, I can help make it safe by modeling my own willingness to take risks or make mistakes, by creating opportunities for connectedness with other learners, and by fostering a climate of unconditional respect and acceptance.

When I think about what it really means to teach and learn, engagement is everything. Engagement is like oxygen: teaching feels as natural as breathing when it’s present, and teaching is as painful (and scary) as choking when engagement is absent. Nothing happens without it, and everything is possible when it’s there.

Related:

Deep Learning

Who was your favorite teacher?

3 Classroom Essentials: Education, inspiration and fun

Transformative learning in the conceptual age

Education is…

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You know when it’s your first time, but not always when it’s your last

 

This morning I had the pleasure of handing out awards of distinction to about 100 college students. In addition to their regular coursework, each had the option to take it further and demonstrate achievement and competency to the highest standard. This had no bearing on their actual course grade and was totally voluntary. “Winning” this award is not a competition – except with oneself.

 

The fact that such a high proportion of students were motivated to excel in the first place was inspiring. It reminded me that when students are engaged, they will work far beyond our expectations (and the requirements on the course syllabus).

 

What was the secret ingredient that resulted in this level of uptake and motivation? I think the heart of it is that these students felt truly cared for by their teaching faculty. They perceived corrective feedback as having the best of intentions. They kept striving to succeed knowing that someone really believed that they could.

 

After the awards were distributed I was asked to say a few words to the group. These were students from across all academic semesters; some new to the program and some in their final weeks before graduation. I asked them who was attending the ceremony for the first time? And who was there for the last time? And I reflected that we don’t always know when it’s our last time.

 

While first experiences are clear and often memorable, we don’t always know (as this group did) when it’s the last time we have a chance to: learn, do our best, say what we really feel, take a risk, show compassion, dig deep. Or, we figure it out long after that “last time” is past.

 

All of those students did the semester like it was their last time. I bow down to that.

 

 

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Advances in education theory for a digital world

 

This article is abbreviated from:

Herie, M. (2013). Andragogy 2.0? Teaching and Learning in the Global Classroom: Heutagogy and Paragogy. Global Citizen Digest, 2(2): 8-14.

Whether implicit or explicit, everyone has a theory of teaching and learning. This gets expressed and enacted by how we engage with others, whether as instructor or student. Traditional theoretical frameworks can be broadly grouped into four domains: instructivism, critical theory, constructivist approaches and andragogy (or adult learning). However Web 2.0, characterized by many-to-many, decentred and non-linear networking and communication, has given rise to corresponding advances in conceptualizing teaching and learning in the global classroom. Emerging frameworks – heutagogy (learning as self-determined and non-linear) and paragogy (peer-to-peer and decentred learning) – have important implications for practice in the 21st Century.

Education theory has seen a trajectory from teacher-centred (instructivism) to learner-centred approaches (constructivism and andragogy), incorporating broader contextual issues and dynamics of power, privilege and community (critical pedagogy). However, these theories were all developed prior to the rise and ubiquity of Web 2.0 and social media. Integrating emerging models can extend constructivist, critical and andragogical frameworks towards a kind of “andragogy 2.0”.

Heutagogy and paragogy represent potentially useful extensions of constructivist, critical and adult learning theories; that is, androgogy 2.0. Both heutagogy and paragogy offer models of learning that are (1) self-determined, (2) peer-led, (3) decentred and (4) non-linear. These characteristics map onto social media applications and the democratization of knowledge and information. Heutagogical and paragogical approaches also extend traditional andragogical and adult learning frameworks through their emphasis on meta learning, or learning how to learn.

Andragogy, as self-directed learning focused on competency development, is reconceptualized in heutagogy as self-determined learning focused on developing capabilities. As our rapidly-changing occupational terrains continuously advance and expand workforce competency needs, today’s workforce requires lifelong learners who are both competent and capable. No post-secondary program of study can ever really prepare students with all of the knowledge and skills needed (competencies); rather, it is one’s capability in determining what knowledge and skills need continuous development, and how to access/master them (capabilities). The skills associated with locating and interrogating information to inform decision-making, what we might call “knowledge curators”, are paramount in a knowledge economy.

This in turn implies access to knowledge and skills in a non-linear fashion by today’s “hyperlearners” (derived from the hypertextuality of the web, where information is hyperlinked with no beginning-, middle- or end-point). The process of knowledge construction is itself non-linear, and non-linear curricula would mirror real-world knowledge retrieval and construction. Similarly, shifting from instructors and learners collaboratively co-creating curricula, towards a learner-directed approach, may better prepare learners with the skills needed for lifelong learning via personal learning networks (mapping onto autonomous digital communities).

Finally, heutagogy and paragogy address process over content – the “how” as opposed to the “what” – or meta-learning (learning how to learn). Through networked community and crowd-sourcing, “the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts”. This is illustrated by the elegant solutions to complex problems yielded via crowd-sourced distributed networks. For example, in 2011 crowd-sourcing was used to successfully solve a protein structure (retroviral protease of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, the cause of an AIDS-like disease in monkeys) that had puzzled scientists for over a decade (Akst, 2011). The crowd-sourced solution was published in the peer-reviewed, academic journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology (Khatib et al. 2011).

An emphasis on developing capabilities in a learner-directed, non-linear and process-oriented way makes it particularly well suited to today’s digital generation, where connectivity, creativity and reflexivity are foundational to global citizenship and collaboration.

 

These models represent a departure from mainstream structures of higher learning. Just as social media and Web 2.0 turned a “one-to-many”, broadcast model of Web 1.0 on its head, the notion of peer-to-peer, self-determined, decentred learning within the context of a learning community characterized by principles of social justice, equity and inclusion may sound utopian: “It is […] no easy task to adopt a decentralised model, since it will require massive procedural, economic and professional change in higher education” (Weller, 2009, in Corneli and Danoff, 2011). Yet in many ways, heutagogy and paragogy simply extend constructivist and critical frameworks, reimagined for a digital generation and a global community.

A provocative 2003 article by Carol Twigg references higher education as largely a “handicraft industry”, with most courses developed by individual faculty for unique cohorts of students:

Currently in higher education, both on campus and online, we individualize faculty practice (that is, we allow individual faculty members great latitude in course development and delivery) and standardize the student learning experience (that is, we treat all students in a course as if their learning needs, interests, and abilities were the same). Instead, we need to do just the opposite (Twigg, 2003, p.38).

Globalization has led to global classrooms, where difference among learners is the rule rather than the exception, spanning culture, language, gender, sexual orientation, faith, ability, social location, migration history and standpoint. It is unsurprising that educational institutions struggle with students’ accommodation needs and demands: it is hard to reconcile standardized curricula with learner heterogeneity along multiple intersecting dimensions.

An analogous example can be seen in advances in chronic disease management. Like education, medicine has traditionally delivered care via an expert model, where treatment is provided based on clinical diagnoses and evidence-informed interventions. In acute settings this works well, however the highest costs and challenges to health care today relate to chronic disease prevention and management. Unlike acute medical problems, chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are, by definition, ongoing and rely on patients’ own decisions and motivation regarding health behaviour change. New models of medicine are now focusing on patient self-management and enhancing motivation for change, whereby the system of care (both formal and informal) surrounds – and is largely directed by – each patient for him or herself (Frenk et al., 2010).

Similarly, while instructor-led curricula may be effective for brief episodic and “acute” educational needs, programs of study to prepare students for “chronic lifelong learning” demand student self-management and motivational enhancement. Just as chronic disease prevention supports patients in becoming their own health care leaders, our increasingly complex and digitally connected world places a demand on higher education to shift focus towards more effectively helping learners to become their own teachers within formal and informal networks of guidance and support. This does not negate our role as subject matter expert, but it does place the onus – quite rightly – on supporting students’ capacity for nuanced critical reflection, judgment and decision-making.

Radically self-determined and networked learning approaches (like heutagogy and paragogy) affirm individuals as experts in their lives and learning trajectories. As Stuart Brand famously said, “information wants to be free”. So does learning.

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View the June 3, 2013 presentation for the College and Degree Operating Group (CDOG) conference on the topic of “Andragogy 2.0? Introducing emerging frameworks for teaching and learning: Paragogy and Heutagogy” on Slideshare.

Related articles:

Androgy 2.0: Emerging Theories of Teaching and Learning

Wiki-MOOCS

 

Happy Assorted Biscuits

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How well do we integrate all three in our teaching/learning environments?

 

 

On a Porter Airlines flight the other day I read an interview with branding guru Ron Tite in the in-flight magazine, re:porter. In the article, Tite notes that you can add value to consumer and corporate brands in three ways: via education, inspiration or entertainment (ideally combining all three).

 

This got me thinking about teaching and learning tools, and the extent to which we educators successfully integrate each of the elements (education, inspiration, fun) into our classroom delivery and student engagement strategies.

 

The education part implies some form of didactic instruction. Easy enough. Inspiration is harder, and often arises from hands-on practice – whether through student interactions, simulation, critical analysis or collaborative learning. What about fun? How do we build in play, humour, joy, excitement, passion? Attending to the meta-learning environment, fostering a sense of community, safety, risk-taking and engagement would seem to be preconditions for having fun in the classroom. As does the extent to which I’m enjoying myself too. It seems to me that a combination of all of these elements is integral to transformative learning.

 

We talk about scaffolding learning to help engineer success experiences for students. Let’s also consider how to scaffold learning to engineer fun experiences!

 

 

 

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Where does it hurt? That’s the key diagnostic question whether you’re a presenter or a clinician

 

A common clinical dilemma in counselling practice is when the practitioner is more invested in change than the client. This is manifested in clinicians working harder than their clients and caring more than they do about change. How and why does this happen?

 

I think this disproportionate effort stems from two things:

  1. Practitioners are trained to identify issues of concern and have a heightened awareness of the long-term implications and consequences of negative health behaviours.
  2. Because of their training and awareness, practitioners often feel that they know what is best for their clients.

The first point is helpful; the second…not so much.

 

It’s like the quotation:

“Advice is what we ask for when we already know the answer but wish we didn’t.”  In other words, people are the experts in their own lives.

 

So what does all this have to do with presentation secrets?

In a teaching context, the instructor – just like the clinician – is expert in his or her specific knowledge domain and strategies for internalizing and enacting knowledge and skills. It’s when we take the stance of “I know best” that we run into trouble in the classroom. All people (whether patients or students) are in charge of their own lives and actions; learning is volitional and learners will always be self-determining in what and how much is learned.

 

Here’s the secret:

Always start with the problem that the learner identifies as relevant and pressing. Affirm autonomy. Offer solutions in the spirit of collaborative problem-solving. Tailor the content to the real-world needs of the individuals with whom you are engaged.

How do you know if you’re doing it right? Hearing “Yes, but…” is the clue that you’ve gone off track. Figure out the pain point and offer ways to make it better. Then leave it up to the real experts: the people you are entrusted to serve.

 

 

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Five big lessons learned along the way

 

1. How do you feel when you walk out the door?

I’ve always valued the axiom that people don’t remember what you do or say – they remember how you made them feel. Think about your favorite teacher – what do you remember most from that class? The course content? Or is it the passion, inspiration, affirmation, compassion, kindness and care that he or she offered? For the most part, process is way more important than content in teaching and learning.

 

 

2. Transformational learning is about inspiring change, not transmitting information (no matter how “essential”).

Another axiom: “To teach well we need not say all we know, only what is useful for the pupil to hear”. In other words, no course or continuing professional education workshop is ever long enough for all of the didactic content that we regard as essential. Here’s my most important learning objective, no matter what the content:

At the end of this course the learner will…

Be so energized and inspired by the importance and relevance of this topic that he or she will continue to access knowledge and skills development long after the session has ended.

 

3. It’s not my decision.

Learning is 100% volitional. So is change. No matter how urgently I believe that I know what is best, that’s not really the point. Each individual is the expert on his or her life, including the learning goals and activities that may guide growth and development.

 

4. Change is a process, not an event – and so is learning.

Teaching and learning are really about change. By definition, seeing things from a new perspective involves a fundamental shift in standpoint or beliefs. Sometimes a (brief) interaction and connection doesn’t yield any appreciable indication that I have successfully “taught” anything. Then ten years later I randomly see a former student at the airport and am privileged to hear an inspiring story of transformation – initiated by something that I said or did. We plant seeds and only rarely witness the harvest.

 

5. We’re all protagonists (and want to be treated as such).

No matter how ubiquitous the student concerns, complaints, issues, grade appeals, special requests – each of us is at the centre of our own lives. Individual experience is at once singular and universal: all people are “like all others, some others, and no others” (to paraphrase Murray and Kluckhohn, 1953). It’s about listening (on our part) and – more important – feeling heard (on the other person’s part). Which brings us right back to Point #1.

 

 

So…although these are my top five, as Joni Mitchell famously said:

“People will tell you where they’ve gone, they’ll tell you where to go, but till you get there yourself you never really know.”

 

 

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Democratizing education may mean creating a strange and hybridized monster

 

In principle, MOOCs embody the democratization of information and education: open access to leading edge scholarship and learning, facilitated by outstanding leaders in their respective fields. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being described as a great equalizer in higher education (awarded an overall “B” grade in a recent New York Times Sunday Review article). Maybe MOOCs are shaping up to be the “killer app” of higher education?

 

Except…there are a couple of snags.

In her exploration of the Ethics of MOOCs, Nora Dunne questions whether it’s defensible to use institutional resources to create and support MOOCs if this diverts what’s available to tuition-paying students. Unless the money comes from a school’s marketing budget?

Institutions of higher learning care about students. They care about access. They want to make the world a better place by linking students with research, theory, knowledge, skills and applications. They also care about enrollment, to which their funding is inextricably tied. They care about their brand. They are competitive.

Such drivers are not mutually exclusive and are not a bad thing. Visionary thinking drives innovation, and so does competition. But there is a risk if academic institutions start regarding MOOCs as “loss leaders”.

 

Are MOOCs at risk of becoming brand advertisements to drive enrollment?

From an education research and theory perspective, best practices in online learning emphasize the importance of interactivity, both with peers and with faculty. Conversely, the one-to-many model, whether delivered in a massive open lecture hall or in a massive open online course, focuses more on information delivery than knowledge construction.

The ideal would be a customizable and dynamic MOOC that integrates high-quality learning objects, pre-recorded or streamed video of outstanding instructors, asynchronous and synchronous small group discussion, simulations, and individual tutoring. But taking it back to budgets, how is this sustainable from a cost perspective?

Unfortunately it’s just not. And the problem with the one-to-many approach is its fundamental incompatibility with 2.0 anything. But…what if all of the above learning tools/strategies were crowdsourced? Not just across institutions of higher learning but from students themselves (past, present and future)? (Representing an authentically paragogical/heutagogical approach, a.k.a. “Andragogy 2.0“).

 

The Digital Frontier

If we venture into the frontier of digital open-access territory, we need to understand that MOOCs, by their nature, are free, open and out there. Positive institutional branding becomes a by-product of bleeding-edge, innovative curricula co-created by outstanding faculty and students.

And might this mean the creation of a strange and hybridized monster – a WikiMOOC?

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Teaching as effortless action

 

Course evaluations can provide helpful feedback about what we’ve done well and where we can improve. The confusing part is when we see polarities in evaluation data (too much group discussion, not enough group discussion; too much time, not enough time; etc.). But the solution isn’t necessarily working harder at the front of the classroom.

The Eastern notion of “effortless action” implies action aligned with our authentic selves. The harder we try to exert influence and control, the further we get from the fundamental essence of what it is to teach and to learn.

 

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The Tao of teaching is the unity between: 

Thinking and doing 

Speaking and listening

Working and playing 

Teaching and learning.

 

Consider: Each of these contains elements of the other. Thought is itself a form of action, and action embodies elements of thought. As we speak we are responding (to), and we listen to ourselves. As we listen our mind is speaking. Work and play are not distinct from one another. As we teach we learn, and we learn as we teach. 

Effortless action in a Western frame might be conceptualized as the psychology of flow.

 

Whatever name we give to something essentially un-nameable, for me the Tao of Teaching means finding that place inside and then reaching out and connecting with what is true and authentic in others. That’s when magic happens. 

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Disruptive innovations aren’t easy for established institutions

Online learning has been around for over two decades now. Yet institutions – secondary and post-secondary – continue to struggle with its integration and applications. I am still hearing lots of questioning and debate about the suitability and effectiveness of online delivery. What does the research say?

Learning outcomes have been shown to be modestly better for online versus classroom-based courses (Means et al. 2010)

Learning activities can be equally effective across online and face-to-face conditions (Neuhauser, 2002)

Online courses across a variety of theoretical and practical topic areas have been offered successfully (Tallent-Runnels et al. 2006).

Course development (whether face-to-face, mixed mode or online) is resource-intensive. Here is a radical rethink of higher education from a systems perspective, from a provocative 2003 article by Carol Twigg (decribed as a Rock Star in higher education technology and innovation) for Educause:

American higher education remains what Bill Massy and Bob Zemsky have called a “handicraft” industry in which the vast majority of courses are developed and delivered as “one-offs” by individual professors… Currently in higher education, both on campus and online, we individualize faculty practice (that is, we allow individual faculty members great latitude in course development and delivery) and standardize the student learning experience (that is, we treat all students in a course as if their learning needs, interests, and abilities were the same). Instead, we need to do just the opposite.

Full disclosure: I have taught a graduate clinical course focused on addiction treatment for over 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, I love classroom teaching. But feedback I get from students has consistently reinforced three things:

1. There are as many ways of teaching online as there are face-to-face. Just like there can be good and bad classroom courses (and instructors), same goes for online.

2. Online courses can be experienced as equally or more rigorous than their in-class counterparts, in that online students report having to critique, reflect and formulate their ideas more deeply in order to contribute to class discussion and dialogue.

3. Online learning is accessible to students in a way that classroom teaching can’t accomplish.

In any case, the debate may well be moot: Instructional videos on YouTube – for everything from how to change a tire or rig a sailboat, to advanced chemistry – constitute what might well be the world’s biggest and most vibrant online apprenticeship training. Khan Academy (“our mission: to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere”) materials are used by teachers worldwide in their classrooms. (Because the online version teaches it better?) Students today have grown up in a world where the Internet has always existed. Digital communication, networking and collaboration are like talking (or breathing).

So why, twenty years on, aren’t there more online offerings in colleges and universities (especially among those in the top tier)? I think the hesitation comes from a deep place in our collective psyche as educators. We want to believe that our physical presence at the front of the class is a key contributor to meaning-making and learning for our students. From an instructivist theoretical frame, this makes sense. Thing is, the education field has widely adopted constructivist models of teaching and learning, at odds with a “sage on the stage” approach.

Online learning in higher education represents a paradigm shift and a disruptive innovation. Big time.

 

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The world is opening up, and that’s a good thing. (Don Tapscott) 

 

In their 2010 book Wikibrands, Sean Moffett and Mike Dover argue that with the advent of the social web, it’s no longer the purview of a company to articulate and define its brand – it’s what people say about the company that defines the brand. The implications for all organizations and sectors, including education, are huge.

Institutions of higher learning expend considerable resources on branding, but for the most part this follows traditional marketing channels. And where social media is integrated into organizational branding, it tends to be used as more a corporate communication tool than a meaningful way to engage with students or prospective students. Reputation management is a big consideration. How do you control your brand if you open up a “comments” or “review” page on your website?

A recent investigative reporting piece focusing on healthcare invited Canadians to rate hospitals, and while popular among the public (see story), was sharply criticized – by hospital administrators (though not by patients, see story).

Whether we like it or not, there are multiple outlets for review and commentary, and these are more likely to be adopted when the “official” website is perceived as promoting versus informing. When I choose a hotel do I trust a corporate website or visit TripAdvisor for candid ratings and reviews? Why should it be any different in selecting a college or university? The stakes are a lot higher, and information = power, or at least the illusion of such.

The drive towards inside-out organizations is premised on the notion that we – organizations – get more from sharing than we do from secrecy. This is a big culture change for education. It’s radical. Although high-level data about high school and post-secondary outcomes are publicly available, specifics (e.g. course evaluations, students’ comments and reviews) are not.

Here’s the thing: In a very short time frame complete institutional transparency is going to be expected. As a matter of course. If we don’t provide it someone else will be happy to step in and do it for us. And they get to keep the ad revenue from the high click-through rate: RateMyProfessors is only the beginning.

As Don Tapscott puts it: “Institutions are becoming naked, and if you’re going to be naked … fitness is no longer optional. If you’re going to be naked, you better get buff.”

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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:

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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:

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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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Why it’s less about managing the class than joining with the group

Recently overheard in a high school classroom: “F#*%  you…sir!”    Wow: Did I just witness respect + disrespect expressed simultaneously? How does that work exactly?

Teaching is a tough job whatever the age group. Adults may be less “out there” than teenagers, but the group dynamics are the same. Groups tend to behave like unitary entities: they can be your best friend or your worst enemy. But if they fall into the latter category they are a many-headed hydra who cannot be vanquished.

Here’s how I see it: If you have to actually “manage” the class that is not a good sign. Now I am not talking about classroom management in terms of providing guidance or direction with respect to learning content or processes. Every group needs a guide to stay on track. What I mean is that if students act out, tune out or walk out, things have already gone bad. At that point it’s likely not so much a student issue as a group issue.

Here are a few tips to help get things off to a good start, and to keep it that way:

1. Mutual respect is an essential precondition for ANY relationship. If it’s lacking there’s no relating. Regularly affirm your respect for each student and for the class as a whole (the “two clients”: the individual and the group).

2. Make it interesting. Easy to say, but how? Three words: make it relevant. OK, but how? The group will tell you if you ask. What do they care about? Why are they there in the first place? What do they want from you and from each-other?

3. But… what if I am teaching a mandatory course that no one cares about? Here’s the thing: There is no such thing as a topic that’s inherently interesting (have you ever gone to a talk that intrigued you only to be bored out of your mind?). And, conversely, there is no such thing as a topic that’s inherently boring (have you ever gone to a talk you were dreading only to be pleasantly surprised?). Why is the course mandatory? What’s the larger narrative? Why is this essential knowledge and learning? These are the primary questions to address as part of an ongoing group dialogue.

4. Show that you care. Not just about what you’re teaching, and not just about your students as people, but about their experience in the here-and-now. Who’s tired? Who’s bored? How comfortable is the room? What else is happening in the world and how does that impact the tasks at hand? This in-the-moment reflection continuously reestablishes the connection between facilitator and class. In clinical practice it’s called therapeutic use of self – tune in to your own experience to help you tune in to the group.

5. Be generous. Generous with your humour, your time, your interest, yourself. I think of generosity as comprised of curiosity, authenticity, empathy and joy. It’s less a focus on how the group sees you than on who is in the group and what you see in them. And be generous with people when they’re having a bad day. It happens to all of us.

Over the last two days I facilitated a mandatory training for a diverse group of health and social service professionals in Halifax, Nova Scotia. What a pleasure – even if some learners started off the day with ambivalence, we all ended on a high note. And just to add…if you ever find yourself in that beautiful city, be sure to check out Cabin Coffee on Hollis Street for a latte and a killer cinnamon bun!

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