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.