Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kneading, Chewiness and the Smell of Beer: Learning and Three Kinds of Standards

One key part of learning is: internalizing norms, criteria or standards.

If you cannot do something to a certain standard, there is little sense in which you can do that thing at all.

  • Some used to compare free verse to "playing tennis without a net."
  • We may not hold this low opinion of free verse: after all, if it scans, alliterates, etc., it may be 90% poetry, and that may be poetic enough.

Learning as part of education, is a part of the larger process of socialization. We have no problem thinking of socializing as internalizing norms and rules. But we sometimes lose our agility when thinking about how internalizing criteria happens in learning, let alone what kinds of criteria there are and what roles they play. As so often, the single word "criteria" blinds us to the variety that word hides.

In the interest of practical utility, I'd like to identify three kinds of criteria which I don't think are sufficiently differentiated. Each comes at a different moment in the learning process, is expressed in a different kind of language, has a different degree to which it is shared with others, and each plays a different role in the learning process.

Examples from prose-writing, bread-baking and cake-making may provide some assistance in clarifying these admittedly broad notions.

Minimal criteria are concrete. "You must be this tall to get on this ride." They can be expressed in declarative language. A full description may be rather detailed; but it is possible to give one. Minimal criteria are widely shared and shareable. And they are prerequisites to correct performances.

  • The ability to write a grammatically-correct sentence is a pre-requisite for many other activities. It is a minimal standard, a set of entry conditions. It may be complex, but it can be described exhaustively.
    • The longer the sentence, the longer the list of ways it can be grammatically defective. But beginning with a capital letter, having a subject and verb, the subject and verb agreeing, the words being spelled correctly––the compass is not vast.
  • For baking bread, kneading is a basic skill. If you can't knead the bread correctly, all the rising and baking is mostly for naught.
  • Similarly, to bake a cake, you must be able to keep butter chilled, cream sugar into it, probably whip egg whites until they form stiff peaks, etc.

Ideals are another kind of criteria. These are maximal criteria: they represent the highest performance a discipline, art or craft can reach. Their language seems declarative but is actually connotative: clarity, beauty, delicacy, grace are ideals for writing prose, creating art, baking a cake, and dancing, respectively.

The role of such ideals is both guiding and summative. They lead the learner forward, but they also summarize an understanding which must be achieved.

Saying a sentence is "clear" sounds simple enough: clear like glass. But what makes a sentence clear, and whether this sentence is more or less clear than that is a complex judgement. Once you've mastered it, it seems self-evident––which is why teachers have such a hard time teaching these high-level values: the language describing these values seems literal once the complex meanings are internalized; but it is anything but simple to those early in the learning process.

Ideals are public and shared, but not all publics overlap. Hence ideals are often contested. Some bakers believe bread is best when it's chewy and airy; others when soft and finely-textured. Likewise, when it comes to cakes, if you want to start an argument, talk about "crumb" and "lightness."

One of the things disciplines argue about is what their ideals are or mean. Different theories are not simply different in what they hold to be true: they are different in what they consider a theory should be and do. "Theory" is an ideal, and its definition is therefore often contested.

Terms referring to ideals need to be used throughout instruction, even though they're only understood gradually.

Finally, the fuzziest set of criteria are those we give ourselves. These are self-created rules-of-thumb. They encapsulate the learner's emerging understanding, and therefore I call these criteria "emergent." They are complex and simple at the same time. Their language is idiomatic: you may understand them, and I may not, but likely I get a strong feeling from them. It may be useful to share them, but they are not a common parlance. They are a by-product of the process of learning, rather than a pre-requisite or an end-point (as minimal criteria and maximal ideals are).

  • Bakers know when the batter "looks like thick latex paint" that they're in good territory––or in deep trouble.
  • Experienced breadmakers may recognize a certain smell as "yeasty" or "fruity" or "alcohol-y," and based on that they know just what to do.
  • Likewise, prose writers can tell you that they are done drafting when they find themselves polishing sentences excessively.

In many activiites, knowing when you're done, and how to push yourself towards being done, is not so much a matter of deadlines as it is of rules-of-thumb.

Learners can be encouraged to formulate their own emergent rules-of-thumb, and this seems to facilitate the learning process. For in fact, learning is not pure socialization: it's not simply internalizing others' rules. Learning always has a personal dimension. Even if learning is forced on you strictly in the most aggressive and regimented way, you will develop your own internal resistance to it, a sort of ridicule or gallows humor that you use to survive indoctrination––and to resist it.

These three kinds of learning criteria may be summarized in a table:

scope complexity language how widely shared role in learning
minimal concrete declarative shared prerequisite
maximal abstract connotative contested ideal, guiding
emergent mixed idiomatic individual by-product

But then we've made just another set of vocabulary terms––which become disciplinary ideals, hence something to argue about.

Whereas what I really wanted to do was to say:

  1. Put the minimal criteria first to help the learners succeed.
  2. Bring out the disciplinary ideals at regular intervals, but don't expect them to be understood right off the bat.
  3. Encourage the learners to create rules-of-thumb as they go.

Or: know how to knead, whether you like your bread chewy, and what to do when your dough smells like beer.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Anything But Teaching

UF Keene-Flint Classroom Desks Windows

Recently I saw a blog post about how to "gamify" your classroom.

The suggestions ran from giving rewards for good answers to asking students to play learning games.

At first I thought: games aren't really gamification. The idea of gamification is to turn an entire activity into a game-like experience.

And for a moment I stopped there, where I often stop: this isn't really gamification; people don't understand the concept well.

But then I went a step further.

Actually, to gamify your classroom implies that the teacher should stop being a teacher and become instead a game desiger.

First of all, this suggests that becoming a game designer is the easiest thing in the world. Yet there are graduate programs in the subject, and many people fail to become game designers, and many games fail to find a wide audience, and all of these things suggest that designing games isn't even easy for game designers. So why, oh why, should teachers top being teachers and become half-baked game designers?

And yet this kind of appeal--stop teaching and start gamifying--is symptomatic of so much that is said about teaching. For some reason, we want teaching to be anything but teaching.

And no one says why.

What's wrong with teaching? Shouldn't teachers teach? Have we given up on teaching? On teachers teaching well? Do we no longer remember what teaching is or respect it? Have we lost the cultural memory of teaching?

Everywhere you turn in educational circles, teachers get this message: Forget about teaching––learn to do something else.

Become a test coach. There's no point in teaching, only helping your students pass a standardized test. You don't need to help students learn, only to pass the test. So forget about teaching: just become a test coach.

Become an expert in software. You need technology in the classroom. So go to this web site, and learn how to operate software. Learn how to build web sites. Learn how to teach your students to operate software and build web sites. Instead of teaching and learning, everybody should just use software and build web sites.

Become an iPad trainer. We'll buy all the students iPads. And then your job isn't to teach––it's just to help students use their iPads. The iPads apparently will do the teaching. The teacher's job is then just to wrangle the hardware and help the students use the apps.

Become an expert on learning theory, cognitive psychology, the science of the brain, theories of instruction. Then "just apply it." Because distilling large bodies of research and "applying" complex theories is just so easy. And there's apparently an infinite amount of time for teachers to spend with their noses in theories and research––since I suppose the software is grading the students' work on their iPads.

And now we have--

Become a game designer. Forget about teaching. Learn to design games disguised as courses and lessons.

Well, here's a wild suggestion.

Let's talk about teaching. Let's talk about what makes teaching good, what makes it effective and what makes it enjoyable, interesting, challenging and meaningful.

Let's have these conversations not only with teachers and experts but with our students as well. And with parents. And with those who work with us. And the whole community.

Let's identify elements of good teaching, elements of terrific teaching, elements of competent teaching. Let's talk about what doesn't work.

Let's help teachers improve on the good their doing and fix their real problems. Let's not replace the real challenges of teaching with an arbitrary but fashionable set of problems created by trying to ignore teaching.

Let's help teachers learn from other teachers––and from anyone who's a good role model.

Could it really be that easy? All these things sound so simple. But of course they're challenging. And they're already happening. Colleges have brown bag lunch sessions and all manner of events where teaching and learning are discussed.

But there are just as many presentations and in-service's at which obscure new methods are trotted out, and teachers are made to feel that they must master some incomprehensible new system or science in order just to do their jobs well.

I'm not saying there's no room for innovation or new ideas. I'm not saying theories and research have no part to play. I'm not saying technology plays no role. Or that it's not worth the time and effort to use the best and even the easiest tools that everyone enjoys using and incorporating those in a meaningful way in teaching and learning.

I'm just saying this.

We have some great teachers. They do their job very well. And even our just good-enough teachers know what they heck they're doing.

So please, can we try to avoid suggesting that teachers stop doing their jobs, what they know and what they're good at, and master something else.

Please let's have a little respect for teaching.

––Edward O'Neill

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Teaching Freshmen?!


Q. I have a course with 150 freshmen. For the first time in 15 years. Any tips?

Ways of Framing the Problem

Freshmen vary enormously. You might say: some are still high school students, and some are already college students.

  1. They may be completely concrete and unable to deal with abstraction or ambiguity.

    • They may think everything either is a fact or an opinion. They may think all sentences are simply true or false.
    • They may not be able recognize a hypothesis or do hypothesis-generation and -testing.
    • They may not know what a theory is, that it’s bigger than a hypothesis.
    • In short, they may be very good memorizing machines.

  2. They may not know what a discipline is.

    • They may not know that experts see things differently than non-experts.
    • They may think there is one set of facts and ideas about society or international relations or chemistry, and one simply knows it or not.
    • They may not recognize that disciplines frame and approach reality in different ways, and that a sociological approach is different than a political, psychological or chemical approach.
    • They may not understand that disciplines have paradigms, which change over time, that it’s not a question of ‘discovering the truth’ but rather of changing goals and assumptions––or why-ever we think disciplines change.

  3. They may not have any kind of study skills or habits. They may have cruised through high school on sheer brain power.

    • They may only know how to memorize and repeat back. Their study skills may not be well-suited to examining arguments.
    • They may have a very limited repertoire of study skills, which may go out the window in the social environment of college.

Strategies & Tactics

  • Consider how you might lead them from one pole to the other:
    • from facts to arguments;
    • from common sense to disciplinary approaches, methods and tools;
    • from memorizing and cramming to spending their time strategically solving problems.


Consider how you move students from one end of the spectrum to the other.

  • Towards the beginning of the course, you can emphasize the differences between a common sense view seen and hear on the news and in everyday chit-chat vs. what experts in your discipline do. Consider this a kind of physical border that you’re walking them back and forth across––to sensitive them to the issue.
    • You can also demonstrate how different disciplines view the same issues––e.g., that the matters your discipline considers can be considered from other perspectives, but this is how your discipline does it.
  • In the middle of the course, you might focus on methods common to many disciplines: analyzing and supporting arguments with reasoning and evidence; generating and testing hypotheses specific to the discipline.
    • You can also pick out concepts and frameworks that define your field. The students need to recognize how these make sense but that they are also not ‘simply’ common sense.
  • Towards the end of the course, you might reinforce the way the specialized viewpoint of the discipline uniquely illuminates issues students are aware of.
    • If you don’t do this, the students just learned about how specialists act, and they may decide: uninformed common sense is better.

Consider presentations you do on the reading as double-duty presentations on writing.

  • Try to support their ability to do the things you want in their writing. These may be skills you see lacking:
    • Offering a hypothesis rather than a topic.
    • Limiting the scope of their claim.
    • Debating the significance and interpretation of evidence.
    • Making concessions.
    • Or whatnot.

Find out where they are, what their experiences are, what makes sense and is important to them, so you can hook what you’re introducing onto something they recognize.

Online Discussion

  • Online discussion forums, like those in Blackboard, can be a very good way to do this.
    • Pose questions that help you find out where the students are. What information do they have already that’s relevant.
    • Make the first discussion posts due 24 before class. This way you can browse them before lecturing, and you can key some of your lecture points to what the students already know.
    • In the middle of the course, you might shift to asking the students how they understand key concepts, methods or problems.
  • Evaluating online discussions for their scholarly merit can be time-consuming and may not be necessary.
    • In this case, the point is for them to share their experiences, not for them to rehearse course knowledge nor apply theories.
    • Consider giving a part of their grade (perhaps participation) over to online discussions. If it’s optional, it won’t happen. Ungraded ‘points’ can be appealing for students.
    • So you can simply give points for posting on time and on topic. (They may not even need to reply to each other.)
  • You can do something similar for study methods.
    • After each major assignment, ask them to post anonymously about how they studied and the grade they received.
    • The very simplest way to do this is: create a Google Form.
      • Ask three questions.
      • Each question is: “If you got an ‘A’ on the midterm, write a paragraph here about how you studied/prepared.” Then for “B” and “C or below.”
      • Be sure to caution the students not to use any personally identifying information.
      • The form can be set so users can see the results.
  • One freshman told me recently: he did not know how to handle free time between classes. (In high school, you just run right to the next class.)
    • Giving students short study tasks can help them a lot. E.g.,
      • “If you have 15 minutes, flip through the McKelvin reading and look for how he weaves in statistical evidence. Then next time, I’ll ask about it.”
    • Here’s a junior’s blog post about what he wished he had known freshman year.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

You May Be a Truly Terrific Teacher If...

Teacher in action, Rajasthan

In my day job, teachers come to me. I help them use technology in their teaching. And in the process, I see many different, um, teaching styles. (We no longer believe in "learning styles," but maybe we can recycle the concept for teaching.)

I have learned to spot the committed and experienced pedagogue: what I call, "The Truly Terrific Teacher." How can you recognize the Truly Terrific Teacher? You may even be one yourself. (I apologize in advance to Jeff Foxworthy.)

You may be a Truly Terrific Teacher If...

1. care, really care, about the learner.

There was on old saying: the most important thing is authenticity––and if you can fake that, you've got it made.

Truly Terrific Teachers care. It vibrates from every fiber of their being. They're all about the learner. They're curious about the learner. They want to know what the learner thinks and feels. They want to know how the learner is progressing. They want the learner to have a good experience.

When the Truly Terrific Teacher sees a learner fail, a part of her dies inside. It's not just the learner's failure, nor simply the teacher's; the failure is structural: something wasn't there, wasn't done well.

2. have high standards––and you match them with high support.

"High standards plus high support." It's a well-known formula, but the reasoning bears repeating.

  • If you set high standards but you do not support the learner, she gets frustrated, feels betrayed and ultimately gives up.

  • If you do not challenge the learner, she's bored. Without a challenge, why bother? This is the problem with breaking everything down to such small-and-easy steps that no thinking is involved. Students know "busywork" when they see it. They can smell it. Tiny tasks without some larger issue or question are "busywork." No one likes that: not learners, and not teachers either.

3. understand when not to help.

Me helping you is different from me doing the work for you.

This well known by folks in the helping professions. Psychotherapist and counsellors don't magically heal through the magic of cognitive re-framing and uncovering repressed memories; they help the client change by giving moral support, space for reflection, acknowledgment of feelings, and all those other "common factors" underlying of all forms of therapy. (This has been known for (some time)[].)

Many teachers fear helping the student. They believe: it's the student's job to learn, and it surely is. But if the learner does not know help is available, it's discouraging.

The best teachers I know are very clear: the student must try first.

  • The student must do work so the teacher can diagnose the issues.
  • The student may even be given the means to diagnose her own problems––to take on a task, correct the results herself, and identify the trouble spots.

Truly Terrific Teachers sometimes send students away when the student arrives having done nothing. "You have to start so I can help you." The Truly Terrific Teacher may help the student start smaller, may tailor a new, easier task to the learner's needs. But this kind of expert teacher knows that teaching is not injecting knowledge like filling in a Twinkie.

4. plan, plan more and always plan strategically.

Truly Terrific Teachers are always looking at what they're doing and asking themselves questions.

  • Okay, I got them this far, but can I get them further?
  • Where do the learners have problems? Where do they get hung up? How can I help them over these stumbling blocks?
  • What can I do differently?
  • What might the students do differently?
  • Are the teaching materials the best they can be? I may like them, but do the students like them? Do the materials help more than they hinder?
  • Should I provide some more assistance? Or should the students find what they need and then share that information with me and their peers?

Planning for the TTT seems non-stop. She may be revising next year's syllabus even as this year is still going on. Or she may collect notes somewhere to later sit down and revise the course––the syllabus being that planning document which keeps the plan together in one place.

Over- and Under-Teaching.

What's the opposite of the Truly Terrific Teacher?

It's not a question of being bad. It's not a moral issue or a judgment. It's a question of not making the effort, or the right effort, effort directed towards something effective. You can change the air freshener in your car and shine the tires: it won't make you a better driver.

The opposite of the Truly Terrific Teacher is the Over-/Under- Teacher: doing too much, too little––or a bit of both.

The comparisons with the Truly Terrific Teacher are point-for-point contrasts.

You're an Under-Teacher if:

  • you never find out what the students already know;
  • you never find out who the students are;
  • you never ask the students what they need.

One-size fits all teaching is incurious and likely ineffective.

You're an Over-Teacher if:

  • you spend endless amounts of time with the students;
  • you answer all their questions, rewrite all their papers, and help them do all the homework.
  • you could be mistaken for a student's relative.

You may be an Over-/Under-Teacher if...

1. believe that your obligation starts and ends with you giving the students information.

  • You show up.
  • You lecture.
  • You answer one or two questions.
  • And you leave.

It's the student's obligation to learn. (It surely is.)

You show up and deliver the goods. So what's the problem?

The problem is: just delivering information may or may not support learning. It depends on how the information is structured and what the learner needs.

2. have high standards and no support. Or no clear standards, because what you teach is too complex to be oversimplified.

High standards are great. But students may not understand those standards. So just the standards alone are not enough.

And if your subject area is very complex and subtle, it's hard to construct standards. But basic standards can be useful even just as the starting point for a conversation.

3. help so much that you do the students' work for them.

Are students in your office all the time?

Do you take the paper and pen or computer from their hand and show them?

It can be a very effective exercise to ask yourself: "How could I get them to do something to learn this without actually telling them the answer?" Hinting, it used to be called. It's really not a bad idea. If you gave the student a clear goal and lots of hints, that would be better than doing the work for her.

4. one can tell what year it is based on your syllabus.

  • Have you been copying the same syllabus for the last ten years?
  • Is your syllabus a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy?
  • Do you still use White-Out to change a few dates–&ndashand nothing else?

You don't really change the way you teach, because the same number of students get A's, B's and C's each year––so why bother?

Because you could help your students learn better. That's why.

Some Simple Steps Towards Terrific Teaching.

Sometimes people don't teach so terrifically because they don't know what steps to take.

That is: if you don't teach others well, you may not be good at teaching yourself many things––including how to teach well.

It sounds a bit circular, but whatever shape it is, there are some simple concrete steps to take to improve one's results as a teacher.

  1. Find out more about your students. Give a first assignment asking them their interest in the topic, any relevant prior experience. Find out what they liked and didn't about prior courses in your department––not to dig up dirt about colleagues, but to identify possible gaps in your students' knowledge or key misunderstandings about the discipline and departmental expectations.
  2. Ask your students how things are going? Consider starting each class meeting by asking if the students had questions or problems. Could they find the reading? Was it hard to understand? Was it boring or interesting? Show some interest in what students do and don't enjoy. They may become honest with you and see you as an ally in having a good learning experience––which is not the same thing as
  3. Whan a student performs poorly, consider asking yourself what additional support could have been provided. Consider even asking the student how she could have done better. Imagine that the number of students who earn A's, B's and C's are functions of something about the course: deadlines, reminders, previous assignments, triage that helps you find out what the learners' strengths and weaknesses are.
  4. Try to make your standards as explicit as possible without being voluminous. Look at existing stronger and weaker papers and try to develop a holistic description of what those look like. Share those descriptions with the students. Try to build into the syllabus steps and actions students can take to target elements of those holistic descriptions. E.g., if a very good paper is unified, you might ask students to draft outlines, share them with peers and for each outline pick the one element which is the most weakly connected.
  5. For areas where students have problems, invent some support mechanisms. If students don't format their bibliographies well, ask for one to be submitted early so you can give feedback. Or give examples of better and worse bibliographies, with praiseworthy points and faults clearly marked––as you would in handing back work. You may end up saving your own time (and red ink) by helping students avoid problems in advance. And this gives you more time to discuss the subject matter, rather than matters of form.
  6. Emphasize the real-world importance of the tasks. Give a comparison to real work and point to the consequences of not understanding the subject matter. This helps avoid students seeing what they're doing as 'busywork.'
  7. When students ask for help, consider asking them to bring something, however small. This can help the student know: you need something from them in order to help them. It must be a small task, or the student may become overwhelmed and fail to show up.
  8. Help your students understand what effective studying is. After the midterm, ask your students to fill out a survey giving their midterm grade and how they studied. Let them know you'll be sharing their answers but not their names, so ask them not to put in any identifying information. Then sort the results by grade so students can see what A, B and C students do to prepare for an exam. For the final exam, compare the grades by student, and you should see an improvement for the students who earned lower scores on the midterm.
  9. Revise your syllabus. Take notes each year on what doesn't go so well. Then before you teach the course again, drag those notes out and figure out things you might change on your syllabus: extra reading, more time for papers, time to make revisions, etc.

And remember what good learners know: Try something, try anything––but only one thing at a time.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, August 9, 2013

Against Ticky-Tacky Gamification

Trends will be trends. They’re trends because everyone does them. Mindless imitation? Or a really good idea?

Of course, who wants to do something everyone else is doing? It’s like that Yogi Berra saying: “No one goes there any more––it’s too crowded.”

Gamification in education threatens to be another "trend" in the bad sense of that word.

When I was a kid––don’t ask when that was––there was a song called “Little Boxes.” It was a kind of humorous folk-protest song, and the target was the suburbs: those rows on rows of identical quickly-built houses.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a blue one
And a pink one and a yellow one.
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,
And they all look just the same.

I often think of this song when I see one of those reality shows in which dull people rehab a perfectly nice old house to be a McMansion.

Every “social” web site now seems a bit like this.

  • Every user has a profile page.
  • You can post photos.
  • Users can send each other messages––because of course the one thing everyone wants in life is more email.
  • Blah blah blah.

At this point, you can download software that has all these same tools. But it’s just like the song. Little social sites made of ticky-tacky. And they all look just the same.

Gamification is the new suburban ticky-tacky house/social web site––but for learning.

Most people’s idea of “gamification” is shallow and trivial:

  • Every user has a profile page.
  • You earn points.
  • There’s a leader board.
  • Blah blah blah.

Like the song says: And they all look just the same.

But there are reasons to look to games as we plan learning and help others learn and plan learning. Games are important.

  • Playing is likely primordially human. Games, sports, contests and play are ancient. There is one whole conception of man not as a maker or thinker but as a creature who plays: homo ludens.
  • Games are motivating. People actually enjoy playing games. Different people enjoy different games. But almost everyone enjoys some game or other.
  • Games are learnable. This is often overlooked. If you couldn’t learn a game, you couldn’t play it. So a game itself is a learnable thing. And most games have some kind of pleasure in getting better at them.

So making an activity game-like can mean: making it engaging, motivating and learnable. And that seems good. But we need some notion of what’s involved in that.

If points and leader boards are not the key elements of games we should bring to learning, what are they?

There are five elements of games which seem fundamental and which bring clarity and order to game activities––and which we should consider using when we organize learning activities. They are largely spatial, though some are temporal.

  • Borders. Boundaries. Edges. A field of play. The space where the action is.
    • Games and sports involve some bounded space. Only what happens there truly matters.
    • You can’t play baseball from the locker room. You have to be on the field. You can’t play chess on your lap. You can play tennis on a table, but that’s a different sport, and it’s not just any table (though one could surely improvise).
  • Goals.
    • I mean: a physical place you have to get to to earn something or win. The end zone. Home base. In chess it’s where the king is.
    • The organizing role seems clear––as does the motivating power.
  • Field Markings.
    • In football, you know if you’ve moved the ball ten yards or not. And you know how far from the end zone you are.
    • This is likely more important than points. Points tell you where you stand, who’s ahead. But so do markers which let everyone measure progress.
    • Physical positions in a game do more than show a general progression: they have deep implications for what is happening and what is possible.
      • In baseball, being on first base is quite a bit different than being on third base. Different stakes. Different consequences. Different strategies.
  • Flows and Cycles. What gives what to whom when? How is the entire time of the play broken into segments and units?
    • Many games and sports have turns: your turn, my turn.
    • Innings. Sets. Games. Matches. Rounds. Time figures heavily in sport and play.
    • In baseball, the ball travels from pitcher to catcher, maybe to the bat, then to whomever, then to the player, who’s running to evade the trajectory of the ball towards him.
    • A relay race is all about flow: the baton’s hand-off.
  • Positions. Aka roles. Specialized jobs or functions.
    • The pitcher does something different than the catcher.
    • The king, queen and rook all move differently. They have different potentialities, different strengths and weaknesses.

(I’ve left out rules and strategy, because they’re abstract and conceptual, whereas the five elements I’ve listed are spatio-temporal. We already do too much to make learning abstract and conceptual; so the idea that teaching and learning happen concretely in space and time seems worth emphasizing as a counterweight.)

Learning isn’t just cramming stuff into your head. Nor is it simply being trained like a lab rat. Significant learning involves consciously changing your behavior: being able to observe, plan, control and select your actions with strategic purpose in order to achieve this result rather than that. If the learner doesn’t have these five elements, she likely can’t orient herself towards what she needs to do, nor act purposefully to achieve a specific result.

  • Borders. What separates chemistry from baking? Or alchemy? How are we having a discussion about literature––and not just chatting about life-in-general? What is the specificity of the activity which makes it a discipline?
  • Goals. It’s not just “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” We all make fun of that question, but that question points to a real concern.
    • What counts as success in this discipline? What kinds of performance do I have to give? What’s a better and worse one?
    • These are questions about the contents of the discipline––not just an external concern with grades.
  • Field Markings. Where am I? How am I doing?
    • Am I closer to the end of the course than the beginning?
    • Am I performing well or poorly?
    • Am I inches from achieving a good result? Or did I lose 20 yards and now need to move the ball 30?
  • Flows & Cycles. Where is the locus of control? Who initiates the learning?
    • When is the first paper due? Where do I turn things in? When do I get them back?
    • What are the units and modules? How often should I open the textbook?
  • Positions. Who does what? What am I responsible for?
    • Is the teacher a coach, mentor, and expert? Does she give feedback? Lecture and not grade? Grade and not lecture?
    • What are my responsibilities as a student?
    • If I’m part of a group, am I the editor? The project manager? The facilitator?

Of course, most of these game-like elements can be described using the jargon of learning theory.

  • The field of play is Bloom’s competence: you are basically doing it right, or you’re not. You can add or you can’t. You know your letters and numbers. It’s similar to prerequisite knowledge.
  • Goals are learning objectives. It’s what needs to be accomplished, under what conditions and to what standards.
  • Field markings are formative assessments: testing people and letting them know how they’re progressing.
  • Sociolinguists have concerned themselves with turn-taking in the classroom––who speaks when. Otherwise, questions about how long a class period should be and how often the course topics should change are sometimes seen as ‘merely’ practical concerns.
  • Positions don’t have an exact equivalence. But in psychotherapy there’s something called role preparation––which means ‘Are you ready to be a good patient?’ And in education, we get concerned about cognitive strategies, which means ‘Do you know how to study?’

But truly: is it better to explain something to people in terms that are clear, concrete and familiar? Or in terms of some obscure theories that most people don’t know too well?

The difference between trivial gamification and really learning from how games work is: the player of a game or sport can direct her efforts purposefully towards a successful performance. Learning involves steering and self-orientation, the continuous adjustment of a performance with respect to a standard which is being acquired.

By contrast, trivial gamification just adds bells and whistles. And that kind of ‘keeping up with trends’ could end up leaving us off the field of play entirely.

––Edward R. O’Neill

Sunday, July 28, 2013

How Do We Guide our Students? Teaching as Ritual Change Facilitation.

Try this thought experiment.

Picture yourself somewhere in your home or apartment: lying in bed at night, or sitting on the couch watching TV, or sitting at the table eating.

It's night.

Now suddenly, the lights go out. It's pitch black.

Right now, thinking of that situation, if you close your eyes, you can probably describe exactly what you would need to do.

  • Throw your legs to the left, find the floor, feel with your feet for your slippers, fumble on your left for your phone.
  • Fumble for the remote. Put it on the coffee table in front of you. Stand and walk slowly to the right, feeling your way between the coffee table and the couch.
  • Etc.

It might take a bit of concentration, but you can think of all that now. But how do you feel imagining yourself on the couch and the lights going out? How have you felt in actual circumstances when the lights went out?

Likely you feel and felt: stressed, panicked, even frightened.

Now I want to make a comparison.

You at home is your students before your class starts. They know where they are, what the world around them is like. They're at ease. But whether it's math, philosophy, sociology, chemistry, or whatever, you in the dark is your students upon encountering the complexities of your discipline for the first time.

That is: we tend to forget that every discipline is a tightly organized body of knowledge, and it's not obvious to outsiders. You are an insider.

  • You know what the commutative principle is, what a proposition is, what social solidarity is, what the periodic table of elements is, etc.
  • You know your way around. You know what's there. It's all inside you––like the layout of your home you would know in the dark and could narrate if you needed.

But all these concepts, ideas and principles are highly structured based on assumptions and methods that make up your discipline. To the outsider, they mean nothing. Worse than nothing: they're scary.

The step-by-step instructions we give students are like the inner voice that guides us in the dark and says "stand up and move to the right, but don't bump into the coffee table." Our students may be blindly following our instructions, because they don't really know the space in which they're navigating. They may just trust that if they follow the instructions, the countours of the room will eventually become clear.

Indeed, one successful intellectual remembers asking his undergraduate math professor to explain the idea behind a certain mathematical process. The professor said "don't worry about it––just follow the instructions." That student transferred to a different college.

The fear of the unknown is real. New information and ideas are unknown. And you must deal with this fear as a teacher––if you wish to succeed, that is.

So how do teachers do this? How do we bring the student from where she is to some new place?

Happily, there are some good examples of how people can be brought from what they already know to what they don't yet know. Some are some small and verbal, some are quite a bit larger and not merely verbal. But we can start with the smaller verbal analogies.

How do writers of sentences and paragraphs manage to bring the reader from what's familiar to something new, possibly strange, which the writer wants to introduce?

The same basic phenomenon has been viewed from two, nicely complementary angles.

Consider this simple element of the classic style in prose writing (spotlighted by Francis-Noel Thomas & Mark Turner): the twist. The writer repeats a common phrase, but turns it unexpectedly. Oscar Wilde was quite good at these.

"Her husband died, and her hair turned quite gold from grief."

The traditional image is someone's hair turning white from grief. One's hair only turns 'gold' (aka blond) upon being bleached or dyed. So the inference is: this widow wasn't grieving at all: she was quite a merry widow.

Another fine one is:

"I can resist anything––except temptation."

What, I ask you, is one supposed to resist if not temptation? Not to be able to resist temptation is not to be able to resist much at all.

Here the writer builds his meaning by changing something familiar. If you simply repeat what's already known, that's what Thomas and Turner call the plain style:

"When I was a child I spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

  • The plain style pretends to do nothing other than: to say what everyone knows, the assumption being that what is known by all is true.
  • The classic style, by contrast, allows the writer to express a meaning which is not familiar and traditional. And so the classic style emerges with the Enlightenment, in which individuals can create new knowledge by building on, criticizing or departing from what's already known.

What's good advice for addressing an audience of strangers is also good advice for teaching--as I've argued before.

Sadly, most professors almost never write for an audience of strangers: they write for professional colleagues. They write in what Thomas and Turner call the practical style: a discussion among professionals of how to solve a professional problem. This is almost meaningless to an outsider. Which is why most scholarship cannot be understood by the average intelligent lay reader, and why many terrific scholars cannot lecture terribly well: they're insiders who spend most of their professional lives debating with other insiders.

What in the classic style we might call "what's twisted" and "the twist" can also be identified as:

the familiar and the unfamiliar,
the old and the new,
or, in a more linguistic frame: topic and comment.

Another excellent writing guide suggests ordering your writing so that you start from the former and move to the latter: in sentences, paragraphs, sections, and whole essays. Compare the immediacy and impact of:

"Your car is on fire."


"There's a fire burning right now––in your car."

It's easier to process the first sentence, because you know the topic first; whereas the second sentence has a weird effect of suprise and delay: you can't quite process that the important bit––that it's your car that's burning––comes at the end.

The rule-of-thumb is:

  • Start with the topic, then add the comment.
  • Start from what's known, and add the as-yet-unknown.
  • Start from the old and move to what's new.

These two pieces of writing advice, taken together, suggest that the introduction of new or unfamiliar information requires careful management. These experts on writing suggest strategies for managing the transition at the level of prose––right down to the level of the sentence.

So sentences can manage the movement from the familiar to the strange. And something very similar is needed for learning.

Learning means changing: a more or less conscious change in dispositions, habits, or abilities, as one common formulation runs. In teaching, you are asking your students to change.

  • You may be asking them to master entirely new skills or to change very old habits.
  • You may be asking them to criticize or give up on cherished beliefs and assumptions.
  • You may be asking them to shift from concrete to abstract thinking.
  • You are effectively (we are told) asking them to rewire their brains.

Like it or not, as teachers, we facilitate change. Change has a psychological and emotional dimension, and these things are intimate, and in public settings we tend to shy away from intimate matters. But we do this at our peril.

At some point those of us involved in teaching and learning must recognize the elements of the psychological processes of growth and change, and we must come to terms with the ways we have of managing and helping learners manage those processes.

Naturally, there are disciplines and frameworks for thinking about the personal, psychological, social and emotional dimensions of change.

  • Psychologists, social workers, counselors and other helping professionals have models and frameworks for how change happens and how to facilitate it.
  • Social scientists in a variety of fields concerned with changing behaviors––quitting drinking or drugging, eating differently to lower your cholesterol, and the like--have a transtheoretical model for the stages of change, and they even know that you talk to someone differently if he is ready to change or not ready to change.
  • And anthropologists consider rituals as mechanisms which help to manage how individuals change their role or status.

I've already written a little about some similarities between teaching and psychotherapy. But here I'd like to consider the last topic––rituals as symbolic structures which facilitate change. In many societys rituals help manage changes such as:

  • a young person becomes an adult;
  • a man and woman become husband and wife;
  • someone gets a new job--notably a leadership role.

This is the rite of passage. It's well-studied, and I won't rehearse many details here. You can look it up and make your own connections to learning. Suffice it to say that most cultures use symbols to manage changes in status, and these symbolic things called rituals also help organize the psychological experience of changing.

Some see folk tales as mirroring these rituals. Joseph Campbell's famous analysis of the "hero's journey" does just that. Campbell sees certain mythic narratives, folk tales and popular culture as symbolizing a specific ritual movement and its attendant psychological changes:

  • a violation of expected norms;
  • a disturbing movement from the familiar to the strange;
  • a reassuring guide who gives new skills, new tools;
  • a challenge, trial or test;
  • followed by a return in a new form, ready to take on new challenges, sometimes with a new status.

If learning really is a stressful experience which needs to be managed and faciliated, then each lecture, each class meeting, each course might take the shape of this kind of ritual or journey:

  • We take learners from where they are.
  • We rupture their world view with a paradox or an anomoly.
  • We give them the tools to make sense of something strange.
  • And
  • And they return to life different, their spirits enlarged, better prepared to meet a wider array of challenges.

In short, when we teach, we are helping people to grow. If we are not mindful of the contours of this journey, we will be poor guides. And if we are not aware of the journey's stresses, we will fail to take many all the way to the journey's end––which is where most really want and need to be.

At a certain level, we must begin to think of teaching as a cultural ritual or work done with symbols which helps learners to manage the psychological stress and disorientation of learning––which is a form of change.

It was once an insult to refer to mental health professionals as "witch doctors." But Jerome Frank suggested that belief played a key role in psychotherapy, and "expectancy effects" have now been accepted as part of psychotherapy's efficacy. And perhaps now we are ready to accept that how we approach teaching may have a beneficial effect on learning which goes beyond "cognition."

In higher education, professional teachers often see themselves as professional something-else's first. Professionalization is the social and psychological process by which people who earn money in the same way come to identify with their mode of making a living and to act in certain ways in order to protect and promote that group identity. It's not a bad thing. But as professors are professional x's, y's or z's––mathematicians or philosophers or sociologists––they get wrapped up in professional communication, and their ability to communicate to those non-experts called students suffers.

If we are to be a society that cares about learninge, professionals who teach must also see themselves as professional teachers––and therefore also to care deeply about the way we help learners manage the stress of becoming someone new.

Verbal models can point the way. So can rituals and stories. But eventually, we must understand better the broader symbolic mechanisms which help us to facilitate the enormously important personal growth called "learning."

––Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Courses and Lessons Are Like Projects.

There's no doubt: one the one hand, teaching and learning are complex phenomenon. And we tend to think them as governed by occult rules and principles which experts study: cognitive psychology, instructional design, etc.

Here "learning" is the object of various disciplines: it's a concept; something abstract which lies behind behaviors we can see.

At the same time, teaching and learning are also: concrete things that happen in specific places and times which we hope to observe or at least to measure. From this angle, teaching and learning are not disciplinary objects: teaching and learning are practical activities: things we (purposefully) do.

  • Students and teachers need to show up in the same place.
  • They all need to know where to buy the textbook.
  • Students need to know if papers will be typed, submitted electronically or written with crayon.
  • Professors need enough hours in the day to grade the students' work.
  • Etc.

The first angle is theoretical: it's part of an intellectual activity of making and testing hypotheses and theories with an eye towards on prediction and control, understanding and explanation. Theoretical matters are very interesting to scholars and intellectuals.

By contrast, practical matters can seem trivial to intellectuals––at least when they're not internal to the discipline: "How can I design an experiment which will determine if there is a correlation between cognitive motivation and who shows up to instructor office hours? And who's going to fund such a study?"

Practical matters have elements like: partners, goals, resources, limitations, materials, people, skills, deadlines.

  • As a young man, I was already a pretty good cook. But it took me years to be able to get all the food done and on the table at the same time.
  • I had most of the skills, but I couldn't turn the resources into a finished product all having a single deadline.

A number of methods for arranging practical matters are bundled into the techniques of project management.

As practical matters, teaching and learning bear strong similarities to project management. The following is a list of standard definitions of a project. But notice how they could also apply to a course or a lessons.

  • It's limited in time: it has a beginning and an ending.
  • It requires planning, monitoring and control--adjustments as you go.
  • It has a goal: something that needs to be accomplished.
  • It has a definite size and shape: it isn't doing everything; the scope is limited.
  • It must meet definite standards: not just any results will do.
  • Resources are required.
  • There are not only resources that are available, there are limitations: resources that are not available or whose quanitity is limited.
  • It must be accomplished using specific skills, and the skills must be matched to the desired results.
  • There are risks and benefits: things can go wrong, and specific good things may emerge and are likely desired.

Not every course or lesson is like a project; but many need at least some of these kinds of features. Lacking these, a project is not do-able, and a course or lesson is not 'learnable.' We're not even talking about cognition or motivation: it's just not practically possible for the participants to work together effectively if these things remain unknown.

Hence clever teachers and learners ask themselves and each other certain questions.

Questions Teachers & Learners Can Ask Themselves--About Courses and Lessons

  • When does it begin and end?
  • What has been planned? What kinds of things should I be watching out for? What kinds of adjustments might we need to make as we go?
  • What's the goal? What will be made or accomplished by the end?
  • How big is this? How much time will it take? What is too much work and what too little?
  • What standards must be met? What does an acceptable result look like--also a moderately good, superior and exceptional result?
  • What kind of stuff do I need to finish this? Paper and pencils? A computer? A textbook? Library access?
  • Is there something we must not do? Use a calculator? Use Wikipedia? Perhaps I'm doing some research, and I need to consult at least four resources but not more than twelve.
  • What kinds of skills do I need? How can I determine if we have the skills needed to succeed?
  • What bad can happen? Can I be harmed by this process? The answer here should be 'no' under almost all circumstances. And what is the tangible benefit? How will we all be better of once the course or lesson is done? How will I personally be better off? And how might the world even be a better place?

When we hear these questions, some of them are familiar. They sound like "learning objectives." Others are completely practical: "Do I need a pencil? Should it be gray? Or may I use magenta?"

As a codification of ways of planning, initiating, monitoring and controlling processes, project management probably resembles metacognition: project management is an instance of the brain's executive functions--but formalized. So "practical" matters in fact engage what are likely to be the same aspects of thinking which do other kinds of planning and control. We may want to teach something abstract like "metacognition"; but to teach anything whatever requires answering these practical questions. So if you want to improve students' metacognition, organizing and executing a project, or even a lesson shaped like a project, may be a very good pathway.

Even though we are greatly concerned with what learning is and how it happens, if we don't help students with the practical details of planning and executing work, that mysterious thing called learning can't happen. And this is one obstacle we face in facilitating learning--aka "teaching." We may know all the theories of learning, but a theory of learning is not ipso facto a method of teaching.

I'm not arguing against have theories about things like learning and teaching. But we need to remember what theories are.

  • Theories bear on ideal objects: "social solidarity" and "social class" are fundmental sociological concepts. But you can't locate them on a map.
  • "Self-efficacy" is an important psychological concept, but you can't show it in a photograph.
  • Until quite recently, you couldn't photograph an atom.

All these concepts are very important to their respective disciplines: and they allow us to predict, control, explain and understand. But the ideas may not correspond to simple physical things we can see or directly control.

We face this problem every time we try to take our theories of learning and apply them. We can't see "cognitive engagement" or "self-efficacy" or "motivation" with the naked eye.

Teaching and learning may rest on processes invisible to the naked eye; but lessons and courses are spatiotemporal things: activities with extension and duration, leaving traces, demanding behaviors. And in order to get a hold of teaching and learning, at some point we need to move from the abstractions to the concrete activities.

Teaching a course or a lesson, and taking a course or a lesson: these are concrete physical activities. And project management gives us a good analogy for what the dimension of learning which is not theoretical but is absolutely necessary.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What If Being a Good Scholar Bore No Relation to Being a Good Teacher?

A Plea for Understanding Teaching as a Practice: The First Part in a Continuing Series.

Very good scholars are amazing. They have sophisticated, high-level skills. They generate new knowledge, discover facts we didn't know before, challenge our assumptions, and re-frame the things we already knew.

But as I think we all know, scholars are often not so good at communicating with the general public. And by extension, scholars are not always so good at making themselves understood to undergraduates.

On the cognitive level, it's not hard to explain. Disciplinary knowledge is expert knowledge, and expert knowledge involves highly-facilitated neural pathways. (Or so we're told.) Experts can do things they can no longer explain, because those tasks have become second nature to them. A lot of an expert's knowledge is tacit, not explicit: experts just can't state a lot of what they know.

All of which suggests that very good scholars may not make the best teachers.

There I said it.

Indeed, a couple of large-scale studies have concluded that there is zero correlation between research productivity* (which isn't even scholarly talent) and teaching effectiveness: at least one study even finds a negative correlation. (Interestingly, those who make strong claims that scholars should be active teachers do not make any claims that scholars are effective teachers.)

That surprised me. I thought the correlation of scholarship and teaching would actually be negative: the better the scholar, the less effective the teaching. I suspect the zero correlation masks a negative correlation because effective scholars are at least good at organizing things, and this cuts against the other feature of scholarship: that you are immersed in a discipline which is its own universe, and it's very hard for you to explain it to non-experts.

But we don't want to consider that a good scholar is not necessarily an effective teacher. We don't want to think about this, since the whole idea of higher ed as we know it today largely rests on the assumption that good scholars are at least capable of teaching, if not proficient at it.

This a fine assumption--if you're training students to be scholars, to become disciplinary experts. Then you're using an apprenticeship model, which fits well with the medieval university-as-guild system.

But our colleges produce graduates who largely do not become professionals in the disciplines they study. So an undergraduate experience cannot be an apprenticeship in a discipline. Rather, the undergraduate experience is an apprenticeship in learning--learning how to learn, learning how to work with experts whose knowledge is tacit but who must have their immense knowledge accessed to be useful to non-experts. Students don't just learn how to access library resources: they learn how to access the knowledge locked up in experts' brains.

The successful college graduates departs towards an adventure of lifelong learning, faring on a sea of changing industries and practices, new tools, new ways of living, and ever-new ways of making a living. But that graduate is not a disciplinary expert, not a scholar, except in the most general sense.

Hence an apprenticeship in scholarship is not really what the university should offer undergraduates.

Scholarship is wonderful, but it is largely a closed system.

  • Scholars pursue highly refined, often abstract knowledge: theories, methods, correlations, etc.
  • Scholars develop theories which allow them to interpret, explain and control. Scholars seek correlations amongst variables.
  • The scholarly enterprise involves controlling elements of a process--whereas practical matters are almost always defined by things that cannot be controlled: given's, requirements, limitations.

What's more, teaching does not mesh well with scholarship, because teaching is a practical matter, and scholarship is highly abstract and theoretical. Yes, you may be teaching theories, concepts and abstractions; but neither teaching nor learning are primarily sets of theories and abstractions. Teaching and learning are concrete processes.

Sure, there are many theories of teaching and learning. But most scholars are not experts at theories of teaching, learning, educational psychology, pedagogy, instruction, etc.

Further, all those theories then need to be "applied," and the relation of theory to practice is itself a vexed theoretical topic. This is typical of scholars: to treat practice as an extension of what they do (which is to say: theory), rather than as its own domain.

Teaching is a practical art: something you can do at a basic level or very, very expertly. Other practical arts include: cooking; crafts like sewing; sports and games, which must be learned a bit at a time and mastered slowly; and artistic activities--like playing a musical instrument, painting, dancing, acting or writing a screenplay.

All of these practical arts are learned in stages, starting with simple skills and tasks, and leading in some cases to lifelong study and outstanding levels of achievement.

  • Beginners in practical arts master simple tasks: baking a genoise cake, sauteing without burning, throwing and catching, keeping a beat, drawing a head with the correct proportions.
  • Experts in the practical arts can do complex things: make a Tiramisu or cook a perfect steak; pitch a no-hitter or play chess with and beat or draw ten chess masters at once; play a Beethoven sonata, represent a complex scene with paint.

Expert practitioners also do the simplest tasks well.

  • An expert omelet is leagues above some tough, rolled-up scramblings.
  • A line drawing by Picasso or Manet is superb in its grace and simplicity.
  • A top notch shortstop is as good at catching a simple pop fly as he is at fielding the fastest wildest grounder.
  • A great actress may pack a lifetime of meaning into the line "I'd like a glass of water."

By contrast, the expert scholar's knowledge is mostly opaque and incomprehensible to the non-expert.

We should think of teaching and learning this way, too: as skills which are developed over time and can reach very high levels of refinement, but whose products are always accessible to non-experts.

What we should not do is think of practical arts, including teaching and learning, as "the application of a theory."

  • Cooking is not "applying a theory of chemistry."
  • Sewing is not "applying a theory of tensile strength."
  • Baseball and chess are not "applying the rules of the game."
  • Dancing is not "applying a theory of gravity."
  • Playing the piano is not "applying a theory of harmony."
  • Acting is not "applying a theory of drama."
  • And teaching is not "applying a theory of learning."

In none of these cases can you teach people the theory and then have them go "just apply it." Imagine saying to someone "Here's what yeast and gluten are--now go and bake me some bread."

Hence the contradiction built into higher education: even though you may be teaching the most abstruse ideas, the activity of teaching is still practical. Students need to own the book before they open it, know the room number before they can show up, know where the test is being given before they can pass it. You may counter: but those are trivial pre-requisites, not the "core of learning." And I say: trivial things matter when you do them poorly, and further, there are aspects of practice which are non-trivial and which the theoretically-minded tend not to notice.

Thus, somewhat paradoxically, teaching has more in common with cooking, playing the piano or drawing than with sociology, chemistry, literature, philosophy--or whatever subject is being taught. This is why you often get further in teaching if you think about how you learned to sew, play tennis, or strum the guitar.

So with all due respect for scholars and scholarship, teaching is something else again. And we need to respect this fact.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Getting Started with iPads: A Cheat Sheet for Teachers & Students


Some Standard Apps & What You Can Do with Them.

  • Safari: Browse the web.
  • iBooks: Read pdf’s.
  • iTunes U: Download free educational content, including audio, video & courses.
  • FaceTime: Video chat with other iOS device owners.
  • Maps: Explore the world’s geography.
  • Camera:
    • Take photos, email & share them.
    • Shoot videos & uploads to Youtube, etc.
  • There is no native voice recorder app on the iPad, but several free options can be downloaded from the App Store.

Some Useful Apps Which May Cost Money ($) or May Not.

  • Blackboard Mobile Learn: use Blackboard resources, discuss, blog & comment.
  • office/productivity
    • Pages($): Word processing.
    • Numbers($): Spreadsheets.
    • Keynote($): Presentation software (like Powerpoint).
  • Notability($): handwritten note-taking.
  • Goodreader($): reading and annotating pdf’s; draws from Google Drive, Dropbox.
  • Edit the video you’ve captured on the device:
    • iMovie($)
    • Filmic Pro($)
    • Pinnacle Studio($)
  • Dropbox: Upload files to the cloud or download them to the iPad.
  • Evernote: Save web pages for editing & sharing.

Sample Assignments & Activities

  • Using Safari, students search the web for relevant topics then share the results orally with the group.
    • Students may capture the page to Evernote for later editing, sharing & discussion.
  • Using the Maps application, students explore the relevant geography, pursuing a specific question and sharing the results.
    • E.g., “Can I visit the Arche de Triomphe, the Louvre and the Tour Eiffel within the same morning?”
  • Students use the Camera app to interview experts or native speakers.
    • They record video, then show it in class or upload it to Youtube and post a link in a Blackboard discussion or blog.
      • Youtube videos can be set to “Share by link” so they won’t be found by others.
  • Students respond to Blackboard Discussion topics or post to Blackboard Blogs using Blackboard Mobile Learn.
  • Using Keynote, students develop and deliver presentations.
    • Be sure the instructor has an adapter so the student’s device can be connected to the projector/display.

Of Interest

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Teaching as a Helping Alliance: An Analogy

The Start and Finish Line of the "Inishowen 100" Scenic Drive

I wrote earlier about how we frame learning in higher ed.

  • Is it a question of the teacher ladling out knowledge into the students’ heads, like soup into bowls? Is the teacher not accountable when the students fail to learn? Is the point of teaching to separate the sheep from the goats?
  • Or is teaching a kind of helping? Can we not help students to learn better––and thereby to know themselves (and vice-versa)?

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that teaching is a kind of helping, and that the latter framework is preferable to the former––in conceptual, moral and practical terms.

What then? How do we do it? Aren’t there a few hundred theories and methods of teaching and learning out there? Are some more suited than others to our shift in frames?

Here an analogy is helpful.

For a long time, those who have studied psychotherapy and counseling have recognized that whatever differences amongst schools and techniques, much of the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic helping comes down to what are called “common factors”––elements common to all forms of psychotherapy, counseling, intervention, and psychoanalysis.

Of course, teaching is not therapy: students are not sick, and teachers are not healers. But if teaching is a form of helping, then the analogy with therapy can form a useful comparison.

Each scholar analyzing these “common factors” takes a different approach, but a few elements crop up again and again.

  1. Alliance. The therapist and client are able to form an alliance based on the client’s belief that the therapist is a caring, genuine person who is able to help. (This includes cultural beliefs that the therapist is a qualified professional, that hallowed medical procedures are efficacious, etc.)
  2. Goals. Together, the therapist and client are able to agree upon worthy goals. Without goals, it’s difficult to take any steps, and without agreement, there is no meaningful alliance.
  3. Tasks. Together, the therapist and the client find do-able tasks which the client undertakes.
    • Failure can be just as meaningful as success. The goal is not perfection or 100% success but rather: finding out what is possible and making progress.
    • Choosing which tasks requires some theory and method of treatment, but there must be tasks, and so whatever the variety, the common factor is the task, not the type.
  4. Feedback and Progress. The client is able to measure progress by clear indicators.

These factors suggest some underlying hypothesis about why people get therapy. One such hypothesis is demoralization.

  • The client suffers from low morale. He has lost hope. He doesn’t have the confidence that he can master the problems the faces.
  • He may need information or new skills. The skills may require training––hence something akin to teaching.
  • The demoralization hypothesis resembles Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, though Frank’s work seems to have somewhat preceded Bandura’s.

In this framework, therapy is a kind of remoralization.

  • The client feels he is getting help. There is a therapist or counselor, who has no other agenda but to help and support, and who seems genuine in her interactions. The client is no longer alone. There is support and partnership.
  • From not knowing what to do, where to go, from being overwhelmed, the client is able to form a goal––with help. Life is amorphous and chaotic. If you can’t identify any goals or buy into them, you will likely become demoralized and immobilized.
  • Immediate tasks give focus. If you are able to master or even attempt a single concrete task, you will get a better sense of self-efficacy, of your own ability to get things done, to move forward. (Some studies show that a small percentage of patients improve before their first therapeutic visit. The simple act of making an appointment gives some people a greater sense of self-efficacy.)
  • When you see that you are making progress, when you have benchmarks of change and growth, you can become persuaded that you can master at least some of your problems. It may be slow. It may only be with help and support. But you can get a better sense of the kind of support, goals and information you need to give yourself.

Not to be obvious, but don’t all of these things have some relevance to teaching?

  • What if the teacher were a partner, a helper? An authentic person whom the student genuinely believed was there to help the student succeed? Not an obstacle, a gatekeeper, someone trying to force students to fail so they will go seek other majors.
  • What if the teacher helped orient you to a goal? Helped you to find your own goal? Formed a partnership with you to achieve something meaningful to you? Not someone who holds obscure standards for occult goals, who’s trying to trip the student up to prove who’s in charge. Not someone who throws down a gauntlet and leaves, offers no support or hope, only a Rubik’s cube the student has no help of solving.
  • Doesn’t a good teacher provide tasks which enable success? “If you can do this, you will be better prepared to take the next step towards your goal.” This is very different than “If you fail this quiz, you have no hope of passing this course.” That’s quite a different message. It may be a difference in emphasis, but surely it matters.
  • Shouldn’t good teaching involve helping students see and understand their progress? Shouldn’t good teaching give meaningful and timely feedback, so students can make changes and adjustments? Doesn’t the feeling of progress improve the student’s sense of self-efficacy, of “yes, I can do this.” This is quite different than the grade that appears with no comments, or comments more obscure than the original assignment.

Now ask yourself: How often did you experience this kind of helping relationship in your education? Chances are, where the education felt good and was excellent, you did in fact feel these things.

But then consider also the times a teacher did something to demoralize and discourage you, failed to help you understand what you were supposed to do, gave you inscrutible feedback on your work. Perhaps it drove you to work harder. Or perhaps it made you up & leave, decide you were no good, that you didn’t have what it took. And did that help your education?

And here’s the even tougher part: if you are a teacher, ask yourself Are you doing this in your teaching?

In short: Are you helping your students to succeed? Or are setting up a series of obstacles to force them to fail? And are you then giving them the message that failing is their responsibility alone?

Of course, a teacher is not a shrink. Nor a nursemaid. Nor a babysitter.

But surely at least a part of the teacher’s job should be: coaching, leading, guiding, encouraging, helping. How to learn should not be off the table. And a sense of authenticity is surely preferable to a stiff mask of obscure authority which sets us apart and tells the student “you will never be in my shoes.”

Unless we think that helping others and helping others to learn is beneath us.

In which case, it’s higher ed itself that needs the shrink.

–Edward R. O’Neill

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

What If Teaching Were a Kind of Helping?

Teaching scouts about HIV/AIDS 01

I fear that in higher education, we often have the wrong framework around teaching. Three frames in particular seems ineffective.

  1. The Radial Model. The professor is the sun, and the students are flowers, soaking up the sun-professor’s knowledge ray’s.
    • This isn’t just a metaphor: it’s a structure. The professor is the hub, and each student is at the end of one spoke. The professor speaks to all students, and each student carries on a dialogue only with the professor. (No “passing notes” in class!)
  2. The Cognitive Frame. Learning is amassing knowledge. It’s all about information and the brain. The head matters more than the heart or the guts. Learners pile in information, and then, as an afterthought, solve problems, invent new solutions & new problems.
  3. The Moral Frame. Since the professor delivers information, it’s the student’s responsibility to learn it. The professor bears no responsibility for how the students learn, nor whether. The student’s performance reflects entirely on his character: his brainpower, his stick-to-it-iveness, his ability to work hard.
  4. The Winnowing Frame. The professor separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad.
    • Pre-major courses winnow majors from non-majors, those who have the goods from those who don’t.
    • Major courses separate those who can continue on to grad school from those who should not.

These models fit together to make the professor a person who stands and delivers information, which the students soak up, write down, and spit back. It’s fine if students fail or perform poorly, because it’s all part of the professor’s job: separating the mini-me’s from the not-our-kind-dears.

There are other ways to think about teaching. Three seem richly needed. They are moral frames, but they are humanistic and skill-based.

A. Teaching is a kind of helping. No matter what the subject matter, the teacher is a kind of coach who helps students improve their skills at learning.

  • While the professor may be a subject-matter expert, most of her students are not going to become similar experts. When only a small percent of undergraduates are going to become professionals in a discipline, there’s little excuse for treating all students as if they are future professionals.
    • (Indeed, the main thing a student learns from most courses is: how to immerse yourself quickly in a speciality, talk the talk, and walk away with something of value.)

B. Learning is a skill: you can get better at it. Studies bear this out: teaching study skills makes a difference. General executive skills, such as time-management, form a crucial part of learning. It’s only shameful to help students succeed if you think your authority arises from your ability to cause others to fail.

  • If we help students get better at learning, then they will not only learn about our discipline, they’ll be better at learning what comes next.
  • Something new is always coming next because innovation is central in our economy. To teach a fixed body of facts and rules is basically to mire students in the past: it also makes students dependent upon an expert, when we should be helping them to think for themselves.

C. ‘Know thyself’ is still a good directive for undergraduates (not to mention grad students). What are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? How can you overcome your weaknesses and build on your strengths?

  • Answering these questions involves not just finding out where you are on the curve; it involves self-knowledge.
  • Self-knowledge, self-awareness, the ability to introspect and observe oneself: these are core humanist values. Helping prepare students for the future, including the job market, depends crucially upon values the humanities have long held dear.

Moving away from the first set of frames and putting into place the second will not be easy. But if we care about our students as self-directing human beings who need to master their own potential, then the challenges are worth it.

–Edward R. O’Neill

Friday, May 24, 2013

Scaffolding Video Instruction

Hubert Nguyen video editing tools

Certainly we can teach students some video skills. But which skills?

  • How do we rationally choose which video skills to teach?
  • In what order do we teach them?
  • And how do we combine video instruction with the rest of our instruction–so it’s not just “you read and studied, now go and make a video.”

The answer in a single word is: scaffolding. We start simple. We begin with more basic or lower-order skills. And we match the task to the relevant criteria, so students can go from success to success, succeeding first at simpler tasks and mastering them before advancing to greater challenges.

How do we do that? We use video technology the same way we use all instructional technologies.

And thereby we stumble into a hornet’s nest.

Is there a more abused phrase than “instructional technology” or “educational technology”? If you’re like me, you remember when that meant: an overhead projector or a VCR. Never: chalk or a map. And yet aren’t those “tools” as well?

But if you think about some very familiar “instructional technologies,” they actually give us a very good image of the purposes or functions we need to perform in the classroom–and beyond.

  • The instructor writes on a blackboard or whiteboard. By doing this, the instructor’s message becomes easier to see in the back row. And it’s easier for students to reflect on and perhaps take down something that endures for several minutes–as opposed to the disappearing stream of oral discourse.
  • A student takes notes with a pencil and paper–or records a lecture with a voice recorder. This is also very practical. Even if it didn’t help the student commit information to memory, the act of writing leaves a concrete record to which the student can return later.
  • A map or a microscope slides provide evidence the students explore, analyze and use. Here the evidence depends on the discipline. Geography has need of maps. Biology has need of tissue samples. Language classes have recorded examples of native speakers.
  • A poem or painting serves as an exemplary of an art form: students unpack its many meanings and analyze its devices. To understand what a work of art is you’ve got to encounter one. However you define “art,” you’re usually looking at something complex and multilayered whose meanings must be extracted through interpretation and by reference to the history of the medium, its most expert practitioners.

In short, instruction uses tools that serve different purposes or functions–each with its own kind of criteria. (And we can infer the functions by looking at many instances of the tools in order to derive the general type for the particular instances.)

  • Utilitarian: in one very common case, making information more legible or audible. Here the criteria are generally pragmatic: cost, effectiveness, etc.
  • Documentary: recording or capturing to make a message enduring and accessible. Here the criteria involve fidelity: does the tool capture enough information with a high enough degree of clarity. More is not necessarily better: often, little benefit is gained from additional fidelity.
  • Evidentiary: bearing evidence or information specific to the objects and practices of a discipline. Each discipline decides what facets of information are more and less pertinent: one lung x-ray may be better for one diagnostic purpose, while another is better for examining some other aspect of lung structure or function.
  • Aesthetic: compact, complex, layered information. Here also, each discipline decides which medium and instance carries this information the best–a color slide or jpeg of a certain size, a VHS, DVD or Blu-Ray all vary by the amount and quality of information.

Video can serve exactly the same kinds of functions. Indeed, this is true of instructional technologies in general: they serve some particular function–and if they don’t, they aren’t worth a damn–and these four functions seem fundamental.

What’s more, when students and teachers start using video, they most likely proceed through these functions in pretty much this order. A few examples can convey this idea.

  • Students interview each other or capture video reflections in a diaristic or reflective way. Instead of writing on pieces of paper or an online discussion board, students can use video to capture thoughts and ideas, to discuss. Video is simply capturing, storing and relaying information. Pragmatic criteria apply: the technology simply needs to be reliable and easy enough.
  • Students observe and use video to capture details of a thing, place or process. This could be an ethnographic study of how people use a certain cooking implement. It could be the way a certain animal behaves. It could capture small group dynamics during a discussion. Fidelity is the key criteria: the viewer needs to be able to see and hear well enough, and so students will learn how to place the camera, capture adequate sound, and find lighting that is adequate to the task. There is little sense that a more artful recording is better.
  • Students collect and edit video footage to focus on that evidence which is most relevant to their discipline, topic or argument. This is part of the editing process. Perhaps the original observations are good enough, and now editing selects the most relevant material. What’s being studied and said determines which pieces of video are more interesting.
  • Students combine their evidence in subtle and complex arrangements which condense much meaning into a small space. One way we talk about works of art is to point out how: if any small detail were changed, that would change the whole. When students continue to edit their footage, their message becomes more minutely organized, the impact more powerful, and the message more nuanced. While students may not make “a work of art,” their work becomes more artful–and thus more impactful.

In short, we expect tools to meet our needs. When we are clear about what those needs are, we can better pick the tool. I once worked with a programmer who used the wonderful phrase “gold-plated wrench”–meaning a tool that is a costly work of art but is no more useful for it.

If we help students simply capture footage first, they can move on to capturing good-enough footage, then relevant footage, and finally merging that footage into a complex whole. The last part requires the most sophistication, but by keying our expectations to where students are in the learning process, we help them progress in an order whose logic is dictated by increasing complexity.

--Edward R. O'Neill