Here we go, it is the second day of the semester, so I have met both my MW and TR class once so far. This is a new and interesting semester for me. We are teaching in our brand new academic building that has all of the latest technology in it. As well, I am teaching a completely redesigned course. If you followed my blog last semester, I talked about the push for redesign, and I have jumped in with both feet here. This is a fully hybrid class that takes on the “flipped” model of moving the lectures outside of class and reserving class time for applying the material.
I am teaching two sections of this newly redesigned class and four sections of my more traditional online class. So, I will have a direct comparison between the new class and one of my old models to see how it goes between them.
For the first day of class, it was largely a presentation of the class, ie. going through the syllabus and such. However, I talked mostly about why this class exists as it does and how my changes are intended to improve the learning process. Some of the big points I hit are:
- what is a hybrid class and what does it mean to meet only one day a week?
- what is a “flipped” classroom and what is the student responsibility that goes with that?
- what does active learning mean as opposed to passive learning?
- what does it mean to have a class graded on weekly participation?
- how is the new emphasis on research and sources going to play out in the class?
- and, of course, what is history and why is this a good method for studying it?
I was also very clear to the students that this is brand new. In fact, in one of my classes, I called it the beta version of the class. This is going to be an experiment on my part, and I told them to bear with me as we work through it, just as I will bear with them as they try to learn in a new way. I also explained the high hopes I have for them in the course and how we realistically might reach them. Finally, I told them that if they wanted a traditional, passive learning, lecture class, that they could go to most other history classes here.
I will try to update at least every week on this blog, as I have split the class in half, with each group meeting on only one day. Thus, every four days, I will go through the same set of assignments with each group. I will probably blog more, but this type of update will be at least weekly.
I promised that I would return to this article, and so I will here. I had read it earlier and just revisited it now. I was quite impressed with the thought that went into the article, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said. I especially liked these ideas here:
- “Instructors walk to the front of rooms, large and small, assuming that their charges have come to class “prepared,” i.e. having done the reading that’s been assigned to them — occasionally online, but usually in hard copy of some kind. Some may actually have done that reading. And some may actually do it, after a fashion, before the next paper or exam (even though, as often as not, they will attempt to get by without having done so fully or at all). But the majority? On any given day?”
- “We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.”
- “We think it’s our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don’t really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it’s the choicewe made. Big mistake.”
- “For one thing, there’s too much “material” to “cover” (as if history must — can — be taught sequentially, or as if what’s covered in a lecture or a night’s reading is likely to be remembered beyond those eight magic words a student always longs to to be told: “what we need to know for the test”). For another, few teachers are trained and/or given time to develop curriculum beyond a specific departmental, school, or government mandate. The idea that educators would break with a core model of information delivery that dates back beyond the time of Horace Mann, and that the stuff of history would consist of improvisation, group work, and telling stories with sounds or pictures: we’ve entered a realm of fantasy (or, as far as some traditionalists may be concerned, a nightmare). College teachers in particular may well think of such an approach as beneath them: they’re scholars, not performers.”
- “Already, so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions.”
- “Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can’t get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books — broadly construed — as a means toward preventing their disappearance.”
OK, so if you’ve stuck with me this far, you are looking for more than just a bland repeating of what someone else said. So, here are my own thoughts on the matter. I think this is spot on with regard to the assumptions that we make in teaching history. I have long since given up on the idea that my students actually do the reading that I assign, although I do my damnedest to get them to. I put together more and more complex quizzes that the students have to complete on each chapter, with the hope that they will not be able to complete them without reading the chapters. Actually, I won’t even say I do that, as more of the approach I make is that it will be much easier and faster for the students to complete the assignments they are required to do if they have actually done the reading. What is funny, and really a failing on my part, is that I still run the class as if they are doing the reading, even though I know they don’t. This is exactly the fault at which this article is aimed.
I also fall victim to the idea of coverage. I feel that, as long as I am lecturing, then I am expected to fully cover the material for the course, telling the students everything that they are supposed to know. I adopt that “sage on the stage” persona so easily that it is scary. All it takes is for me to stand up in front of the class, and I can talk for 75-minutes on the subject, never asking questions, never stopping for clarifications, and just going, going, going. I do that day after day without really trying. Despite my best intentions, I have the standard lecture class down pat, so much so that it takes very little preparation on my part these days to be able to walk in and deliver that lecture. I wish this wasn’t so, but I feel that I’ve actually gotten lazy with my teaching, just delivering the same old series of lectures, which are now on their 4th year since the last set of revisions. I’m no better than that joke that we all laugh about of the old professor going in with his old hand-written notes on a legal pad that he did 20 years earlier and delivering the same lecture. I have fallen into that trap. Instead of innovating in the place where it matters most, I am stagnating. I have innovated everywhere else, but day in and day out, I do the same old thing.
So, what can I do? Well, I have already been planning it out in this blog, and the more I read things like this article, the more I am convinced that it is time for a radical change. I don’t mean incremental change with some modifications to the lecture and so forth. I mean radical change. Blowing up the lecture class. Flipping the classroom. Whatever you want to call it. I need to approach the students and deliver to them, not do what I and my colleagues have always done. And when I step down from my teaching high each day, I look around at the students, and what do I see? They are gazing off into the distance, texting on their phones, watching me, surfing the internet, taking notes, dozing, and all sorts of things. Yet, all of those things are passive. Sitting there. Letting themselves either be entertained or annoyed at having to be there (as if I’m forcing them to get a college education). I want an active classroom. I want the students to be engaged. I want to teach history, historical thinking, critical thinking, and so much more. I don’t want to just lecture, deliver. To do that, I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone. I’m going to have to stop going in with my pre-made lecture and talk for 75 minutes. I will have to do it all differently. I will have to change. It will be hard. It will be a lot of work. It will be uncertain. But I hope it will also be valuable to my students and to me.
I’ve taken some time off as we begin Spring Break here to get some of my own stuff done. We are doing a big clean out around the apartment, as we are probably going to move out of out apartment when our lease is up, and it would be nice to move a lot less stuff. I also sat down to start our taxes this weekend. Other than that, I’ve been trying to do “other” things, such as catching up on magazine/free reading, going through paperwork, and such things like that.
On my plate also is catching up on some of the articles I’ve been saving up. I’m trying to group them into themes, and today’s theme is articles that talk about what’s wrong with higher education today. I’m going to hold off on my own opinion here to open this post, as that will come out as we move along here.
The first article I came across is this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education. At its center is a YouTube video that talks about why students think that the lecture is a failing model for education. Three big points that come out of it, I think:
- First, they talk about lectures being boring, especially those where the professor simply reads off of the PowerPoint. This is undeniably true, and not just for students. I have been to enough conferences and presentations where this same thing was done to have experienced it myself many times. Solution? Well, we certainly could use some training for how to teach/lecture. Also, professors just need to care more. If that’s what they are doing, then it’s hard to call that really teaching. I imagine, however, that a lot of this is exaggeration on the part of students as well, as I know there are many students who would be dissatisfied/bored with anything that they were told they had to do, which would include listen to a lecture.
- Second, a comment that resonates with me is the one about attention spans and the 90-minute class. While we don’t have 90-minute classes at my community college, we certainly have mostly 75-minute classes. When the average human attention span is 20-25 minutes at the outside, we are asking even the best and most dedicated students to do something unreasonable if we expect them to sit and pay attention to a lecture for 75 minutes at a time. Yet, I do that very thing every day I’m in class.
- Third, and really the comment that stood out to me the most, one students said that they are told over and over to think outside the box, yet the ones who never seem to innovate are their own professors in their teaching styles. Yup. Can’t say anything more than that is spot on.
A second interesting article also addresses these concerns. In “Why School Should be Funnier,” Mark Phillips discusses the uses of humor in the classroom. I think that we do too often take the view that classes and college are serious, important things. As he says in the article, he’s not talking about throwing in a few jokes but about really seeing the absurdity of the situation we are put in. I address this regularly with my class, as I am very open about the failures of the lecture model and how the fact that they are expected to sit here and pay attention for all this time through the semester is, to a certain extent, absurd. My students (I hope!) appreciate it when I give the sly asides, the knowing winks, the “real reason you need to know this,” and all of the other things that I try to do to keep them engaged and going in a format that encourages torpor and boredom.
A third article focuses on the problems of who is driving educational reform. In this case, the experts are pulling us forward to the future. Educational reformers rely on educational experts to tell them what they should do to fix things. Usually, these experts are located outside of schools, connected with specific political ideas, and intent on fixing one part of the system at a time. In each of these cases, we end up with a failure of reform. I have not been asked much about what I think works or not, that’s for sure. In fact, the one group that usually does ask me what works or not are the textbook publishers. I hear from multiple publishers all the time who want me to tell them what is working and what doesn’t. Yet, as you move up the chain of administration or outside of my college completely, I have yet to have any input on the reforms coming down to me. It does always blow my mind every time I see the next thing coming through, and I have to wonder who thought that up. Perhaps we need a revolution from below to fix things.
To close today (yeah, I know, not a long one today, but I am on vacation . . .) is an article about the path of college from The Huffington Post. In it, the author brings together multiple different studies to talk about something very important when considering what is broken in higher education. At the heart of it, we still have an assumption that college works as a straight line, where you graduate from high school, pick a college, go to it, and graduate in four years. Even at a community college, we look at that same thing as the norm, with just the detour of a community college first. I must admit, that is exactly what I assume still as well, despite the evidence in front of my face every day. The reality is that students start, stop, transfer around, switch degrees, leave for 15 years, have kids, hold multiple jobs, get sick, take care of sick family members, join the military, drop out, etc. To shove everyone into that little box of four-year completers is just stupid, when you get right down to it. And, our funding at the college level is dependent on that completely. We fail a student if we can’t get them out in 2 years for community college and 4 years for college. Yet, how many people really do that? How many want to do that? Our funding levels depend on a myth of college completion. Our assumptions about how to teach and advise students works on this myth. Our assumptions on who a student is and what he or she should do in our classes rests on this myth. What is broken is the way we do things. What needs to be fixed is the way we do things. While it is easy to blame the students for that whole list of things that I said up there, the reality is that the students are going to be that no matter what. We have to figure out how to adapt to it. And the people who give us the money to be able to do this had better get it in their heads that just because we can’t say that 100% of our students graduated from our community college in 2 years, that does not mean that we are failing.