Category Archives: Student culture

Good enough teaching, and trust

I spent most of Wednesday at the 17th annual Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning, put on by my new employer, Grand Valley State University. It was a full day of good ideas and good people, and I really enjoyed engaging with both. One experience from today  has really stuck with me, and it happened during the opening session as Kathleen Bailey, professor in the Criminal Justice department, was speaking about the changing student demographic we are encountering (not just at GVSU but everywhere in higher ed).

Kathleen comes from a fairly unique position as not only a professor of CJ and assistant director of freshman orientation but also as a former parole officer for teenagers. In her talk, she drew some parallels between parenting, being a parole officer, and working with college students. I was pretty uncomfortable with that three-way comparison at first, but the more she spoke, the more I had to admit the similarities were pretty striking. She spoke about three conditions that troubled teens — and indeed all children — need to have if they are to thrive:

  1. Kids need to have a good “holding environment” — that is, they need to be in a place where they have a feeling of safety and attachment, and to some extent basic respect as a human being.
  2. Having found a good holding environment, kids then need to have provision of contrasting or contradicting experiences — what Kathleen called “differentiation” — to develop a defined sense of self. For example, a kid who has violent behavioral tendencies needs to be given experiences where he cares about others and acts in appropriate ways, to be shown that he can be kind and gentle and does not have to always follow his tendencies.
  3. Finally, kids need to have an abiding presence of someone else — a person who “stays put” with them and gives them a safe place to integrate all the personal changes they experience through differentiation.

This process is all about building the substrate of a relationship with a kid upon which a mature, productive person can be built. The building process has to be carried out by the kid — the kid with violent tendencies has to choose to act differently, and nobody else can to that for him — but the change that takes place cannot happen in the absence of that “abiding presence” that creates the environment.

Probably by now the comparison with parenting and teaching should be clear. These, too, are about transforming the lives of young people through the presence and enabling work of another person. Kathleen referenced the notion of good-enough parenting (espoused by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott) as a model for this kind of relationship. It’s not about being perfect or doing the right things all the time, but rather about “attuning” to the child who is in your care — that is, to attempt to respond to the needs of the child/kid/student, especially emotional needs. The ideal result is that the child/kid/student has a sense of being understood, cared for, and valued. (That’s paraphrased from the article linked just above.)

We faculty tend to focus on covering our content and drilling students to ensure they are mastering a skill set. These things aren’t unimportant. But for students, particularly new students entering into college or university, there is a strong emotional component that intermediates the learning process. They tend to be unsure of themselves; they are struggling to make social connections in a new place; they struggle with homesickness; they are inexperienced at managing freedom and end up making poor personal choices. On top of all this, if we faculty are doing our jobs, we’re asking them to stick their necks out and work harder than they ever have, and wrestle with ideas that are just beyond their grasp. So of course there is a lot of emotional stress at play. It behooves us to build this substrate of a relationship where students have those three things they need to thrive.

I am certainly not good at this sort of thing. I am an introvert and a geek, and emotional stuff like this is not my forte. But I take away two profound things from Kathleen’s talk. First, my personal preferences are irrelevant. If students are going to learn in my classes, they must have a sense that they have from me the basic respect afforded to all people, especially those embarking on a journey through a university education. Second, I can take comfort that all I have to be is “good enough”. From the article I linked earlier:

As parents, we all naturally fail at times. But if we are committed to parenting as important work, we will be able to correct our mistakes and learn from the experience. Children do not need “perfect” parents. However children do need parents they can trust to reflect on their actions and attempt to bridge misunderstandings when they occur. This working through is an act of attunement and strengthens the bond between parent and child.

It is essential to remember that our failures can in part create the healthy disappointments that children must work through to gain strength. However, these are the inevitable failures that occur, despite our best and determined efforts to be attuned and to provide the most optimal environment we can for our children. Therefore we will not have to concern ourselves with perfection. Thankfully we can narrow our focus to being the best parent we can along this path of family making we have all chosen, and turn our attention towards a deeper understanding of what it means to be attuned to our children.

That ought to be something all parents and teachers keep in mind every day. (Parole officers too, I suppose.

I suppose all this boils down to the concept of trust. Students need to know that they can trust me. I need to invest trust in my students (even though they, as imperfect people and works-in-progress, will break that trust). On a bigger level, my colleagues and I have to have a mutual sense of trust to work together. My Dean needs to trust me, and I him. In fact the whole fabric of higher education is predicated on trust. No one can learn or teach in a college where the network of trust is not iron-clad. If trust is missing from a college, what you have is a dying college.

On the other hand, where trust flourishes, learning and teaching flourish. That is the kind of environment I want for myself and my students, and so that’s where my work begins.

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Filed under Education, Family, Higher ed, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching, Vocation

A binary notion of “understanding”

Another great insight from Seymour Papert, via The Daily Papert blog. I put it up on my Posterous blog this morning but I thought it could go here too:

Many children who have trouble understanding mathematics also have a hopelessly deficient model of what mathematical understanding is like. Particularly bad are models which expect understanding to come in a flash, all at once, ready made. This binary model is expressed by the fact that the child will admit the existence of only two states of knowledge often expressed by “I get it” and “I don’t get it.” They lack—and even resist—a model of understanding something through a process of additions, refinements, debugging and so on. These children’s way of thinking about learning is clearly disastrously antithetical to learning any concept that cannot be acquired in one bite.

(Papert, S. (1971) Teaching Children Thinking. In Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(3/4), 353-365.)

And on the higher education end of the spectrum, all of the things that really matter are those things that take patience, time, and persistence to acquire. But these are the very things excluded by this binary notion of understanding in which many children are immersed and to which most college freshmen are completely habituated.

This also makes a good argument for insisting that students — particularly those in the STEM disciplines, but I would argue anybody — should learn computer programming as part of their studies. You cannot learn to program without engaging in the non-binary notion of understanding Papert is describing. Papert knows a thing or two about that subject.

(By the way, I must give Gary Stager many thanks for running The Daily Papert. It is a great resource. The month of March is ridiculously busy for me but once it’s over I am going on a massive Papert reading spree.)

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, High school, Life in academia, Math, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Discussion thread: Student responsibilities

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the following statement about responsibilities in college:

In college, it’s the student’s responsibility to initiate requests for help on assignments, and it’s the instructor’s responsibility to respond to those requests in a helpful and timely way.

Do you think this statement is true or false? If false, could you modify it so that it’s true?

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Technology making a distinction but not a difference?

This article is the second one that I’ve done for Education Debate at Online Schools. It first appeared there on Tuesday this week, and now that it’s fermented a little I’m crossposting it here.

The University of South Florida‘s mathematics department has begun a pilot project to redesign its lower-level mathematics courses, like College Algebra, around a large-scale infusion of technology. This “new way of teaching college math” (to use the article’s language) involves clickers, lecture capture, software-based practice tools, and online homework systems. It’s an ambitious attempt to “teach [students] how to teach themselves”, in the words of professor and project participant Fran Hopf.

It’s a pilot project, so it remains to be seen if this approach makes a difference in improving the pass rates for students in lower-level math courses like College Algebra, which have been at around 60 percent. It’s a good idea. But there’s something unsettling about the description of the algebra class from the article:

Hopf stands in front of an auditorium full of students. Several straggle in 10 to 15 minutes late.

She asks a question involving an equation with x’s, h’s and k’s.

Silence. A few murmurs. After a while, a small voice answers from the back.

“What was that?” Hopf asks. “I think I heard the answer.”

Every now and then, Hopf asks the students to answer with their “clickers,” devices they can use to log responses to multiple-choice questions. A bar graph projected onto a screen at the front of the room shows most students are keeping up, though not all.

[…]

As Hopf walks up and down the aisles, she jots equations on a hand-held digital pad that projects whatever she writes on the screen. It allows her to keep an eye on students and talk to them face-to-face throughout the lesson.

Students start drifting out of the 75-minute class about 15 minutes before it ends. But afterward, Hopf is exuberant that a few students were bold enough to raise their hands and call out answers.

To be fair: This is a very tough audience, and the profs involved have their work cut out for them. The USF faculty are trying with the best of intentions to teach students something that almost assuredly none of them really want to learn, and this is exceedingly hard and often unrewarding work. I used to teach remedial algebra (well short of “college algebra”) at a two-year institution, and I know what this is like. I also know that the technology being employed here can, if used properly, make a real difference.

But if there’s one main criticism to make here, it’s that underneath the technology, what I’m seeing — at least in the snapshot in the article — is a class that is really not that different than that of ten or twenty years ago. Sure, there’s technology present, but all it seems to be doing is supporting the kinds of pedagogy that were already being employed before the technology, and yielded 60% pass rates. The professor is using handheld sketching devices — to write on the board, in a 250-student, 75-minute long lecture. The professor is using clickers to get student responses — but also still casting questions out to the crowd and receiving the de rigeur painful silence following the questions, and the clickers are not being used in support of learner-centered pedagogies like peer instruction. The students have the lectures on video — but they also still have to attend the lectures, and class time is still significantly instructor-centered. (Although apparently there’s no penalty for arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early. That behavior in particular should tell USF something about what really needs to change here.)

What USF seems not to have fully apprehended is that something about their remedial math system is fundamentally broken, and technology is neither the culprit nor the panacea. Moving from an instructor-centered model of learning without technology to an instructor-centered model of learning with technology is not going to solve this problem. USF should instead be using this technology to create disruptive change in how it delivers these courses by refocusing to a student-centered model of learning. There are baby steps here — the inclusion of self-paced lab activities is promising — but having 75-minute lectures (on college algebra, no less) with 225 students signals a reluctance to change that USF’s students cannot afford to keep.

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Filed under Clickers, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Math, Peer instruction, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Another thought from Papert

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Like I said yesterday, I’m reading through Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas right now. It is full of potent ideas about education that are reverberating in my brain as I read it. Here’s another quote from the chapter titled “Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning”:

Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are “smart people” and “dumb people.” The social construction of the individual is as a bundle of aptitudes. There are people who are “good at math” and people who “can’t do math.” Everything is set up for children to attribute their first unsuccessful or unpleasant learning experiences to their own disabilities. As a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of “dumb people” or, more often, to a group of people “dumb at x” (where, as we have pointed, x often equals mathematics). Within this framework children will define themselves in terms of their limitations, and this definition will be consolidated and reinforced throughout their lives. Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable.

Haven’t all of us who teach seen this among the people in our classes? The culture in which our students grow up unnaturally, and incorrectly, breaks people into “good at math” or “bad at math”, and students who don’t have consistent, lifelong success will put themselves in the second camp, never to break out unless some “exceptional event” takes place. Surely each person has real limitations — I, for example, will never be on the roster of an NFL team, no matter how much I believe in myself — but when you see what students are capable of doing when put into a rich intellectual environment that provides them with challenges and support to meet them, you can’t help but wonder how many of those “limitations” are self-inflicted and therefore illusory.

It seems to me that we teachers are in the business of crafting and delivering “exceptional events” in Papert’s sense.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Inverted classroom, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

The inverted classroom and student self-image

picture of an e-learning classroom

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This week I’ve been immersed in the inverted classroom idea. First, I gave this talk about an inverted linear algebra classroom at the Joint Meetings in New Orleans and had a number of really good conversations afterwards about it. Then, this really nice writeup of an interview I gave for MIT News came out, highlighting the relationship between my MATLAB course and the MIT OpenCourseware Project. And this week, I’ve been planning out the second iteration of that MATLAB course that’s starting in a few weeks, hopefully with the benefit of a year’s worth of experience and reflection on using the inverted classroom to teach technical computing to novices.

One thing that I didn’t talk much about at the Joint Meetings or in the MIT interview was perhaps the most prominent thing about using the inverted classroom model on a day-to-day basis: how students react to it and change as a result of it. I was actually quite surprised that nobody at my Joint Meetings talk asked me a question about this, because honestly, the inverted classroom sounds great on paper, but when you start to imagine the average college student walking in on the first day of class and having this method of instruction described to him, it becomes clear that a significant amount of work is going to have to be done in order to get students — who are already resistant to any change from their accustomed modes of instruction — on board with the plan.

Students do tend to resist the inverted classroom at first. Some forms of resistance are more benign than others. On the benign end of the spectrum there are students with little experience with the course material or its prerequisites who get bogged down on the basic podcast viewing (which takes the place of in-class lectures in this model) or the accompanying guided practice, and instead of actively seeking a resolution to their question will wait for the instructor to clear it up — in class. On the other end is the student who simply doesn’t believe I’m serious when I say there won’t be any lecturing, who then doesn’t do the work, assuming I’ll bail him out somehow — in class. But in the inverted model, students are held responsible for acquiring basic competencies before class so that the hard stuff — what we refer to as assimilation — is the primary focus of the class time.

I break this distinction down for students, but not everybody buys into it. Those who don’t will have to undergo a learning process that usually looks like shock — shock that I won’t reteach them the material they were supposed to have viewed and worked on, while the lab assignment based on that material is going on. This can get very ugly in ways I probably don’t need to describe. Let’s just say that you had better not use the inverted classroom model if you aren’t prepared to put out a constant P.R. effort to convince students of the positive benefits of the model and constantly to assuage student concerns.

I’ve often wondered why students sometimes react so negatively to the inverted classroom model. I’ve come to believe it’s the result of a invasive, false belief that can arise in students about their ability to learn things independently of others — namely, that they simply cannot do so. I have had students tell me this to my face — “I can’t learn [insert topic] unless you lecture to me about it in class first.” Clearly this is not true. Toddlers learn their native language without formal instruction, just by assimilating (there’s that word again) the language going on naturally in their background. We all learn things every day without sitting in a classroom; we may seek out training data first through printed instructions, worked-out examples, YouTube videos, etc., but it’s almost never in a classroom setting. Learning new things on our own initiative and without formal instruction in a classroom setting is as natural to humans as breathing. Indeed you could say that it’s the capacity to learn in this way that makes us human. But somehow many students think otherwise.

Where does this belief come from? I think that it comes from its own instance of assimilation, namely the assimilation of a culture of programmed classroom instruction that takes place from roughly the first grade through the twelfth grade in this country. Students have so few experiences where they pursue and construct their own knowledge that they simply come to believe that they are incapable of doing so. And this belief is propagated most rapidly in mathematics. I’ve been reading in Seymour Papert‘s book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, and this quote hits this issue right on the head:

Difficulty with school math is often the first step of an invasive intellectual process that leads us all to define ourselves as bundles of aptitudes and ineptitudes, as being “mathematical” or “not mathematical”, “artistic” or “not artistic”, “musical” or “not musical”, “profound” or “superficial”, “intelligent” or “dumb”. Thus deficiency becomes identity and learning is transformed from the early child’s free exploration of the world to a chore beset by insecurities and self-imposed restrictions.

That last sentence (emphasis added) sums it up, doesn’t it? Deficiency becomes identity. Eventually, if a student is robbed of experiences of self-motivated learning, the student eventually adopts a self-image in which she is incapable of self-motivated learning. It is a false self-image that is ultimately dehumanizing.

Which is why I put such stock in the inverted classroom model. I think this method of teaching, along with other learner-centered modes of instruction like problem-based learning, is on the front lines in reversing students’ negative ways of thinking about how they learn. Students may (will?) chafe at the inversion at first. But in the MATLAB course at least, something really cool happened at the end of the semester. I made up a slideshow for students called “Five myths about how you think you learn that CMP 150 has busted”. Among the myths were “I can’t learn unless a professor lectures to me” and “I can’t learn on my own initiative”, and I gave concrete examples of work that the students had done in the class that contradicted these messages. In the end I showed them that through this inverted classroom process they had taken majors strides toward being confident, independent, skill learners and problem-solvers rather than just people who can play the classroom game well. And even the most skeptical students were nodding in agreement. And I think that makes it all worthwhile for everyone.

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Filed under Critical thinking, Education, Inverted classroom, Liberal arts, Linear algebra, Math, MATLAB, Screencasts, Student culture, Teaching, Technology

Better testing through “data forensics”?

The re-drawn chart comparing the various gradi...

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With standardized testing occupying a more and more prominent place in American academic life, it’s only natural that cottage industries of all sorts should spring up around it. For example, there’s Caveon Test Security, which is the subject of this NY Times article. Snippets:

As tests are increasingly important in education — used to determine graduation, graduate school admission and, the latest, merit pay and tenure for teachers — business has been good for Caveon, a company that uses “data forensics” to catch cheats, billing itself as the only independent test security outfit in the country.

[…] Caveon says its analysis of answer sheets is the most sophisticated to date. In addition to looking for copying, its computers, which occupy an office in American Fork, Utah, and can crunch up to one million records, hunt for illogical patterns, like test-takers who did better on harder questions than easy ones. That can be a sign of advance knowledge of part of a test.

The computers also look for unusually large score gains from a previous test by a student or class. They also count the number of erasures on answer sheets, which in some cases can be evidence that teachers or administrators tampered with a test.

If you’re going to have this kind of testing at the kind of significance level we give it, then you have to have some security measures in place to make sure the credentialing that comes from the test is actually meaningful. With that in mind, it’s a little surprising we haven’t heard of more of these private data forensics firms popping up. Who’s been taking care of test security on the big-name tests up to this point? Locally appointed proctors? (Here in Indiana that hasn’t worked so well: this, this, this.) The testing companies themselves? Or nobody? (Related question: Who did the University of South Florida’s data forensics, if indeed the threat of data forensics wasn’t just a bluff?)

Possibly more interesting than the existence of data forensics firms like Caveon are the thoughts of John Fremer, Caveon’s founder, about standardized testing. In the NYT article he states:

Fundamentally…testing is a way of ascertaining what you know and don’t know and developing ranks, and the critics go right to the ranks. Well, it does rank, but on the basis of knowledge of the subject, and if you think that’s not important, there’s something improper about the way you think.

I’m going to assume that Dr. Fremer realizes that “knowledge” is only the bottom-most layer of human cognition, and what he’s saying is that knowing whether this layer is sound or not is important, and that testing is a way (not the way) of determining that soundness — and that he’s not saying that standardized tests are the best way to assess subject mastery. But surely there are those who believe this, and the rise of multimillion-dollar industries to ensure the soundness of a very narrow kind of assessment says something about our collective approach to education as well as the level of trust one can place in these kinds of assessments in the first place. When’s the last time we heard of  private firms being contracted to make sure our assessment of application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation tasks are working well?

 

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