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 haven’t had much time to sit down and think about education since Thursday. It’s funny how the weekends slip away from you. I do have a big backlog of articles after having not done them on either Thursday or Friday, so I’m going to stick with more reviews today. I haven’t quite figured out what’s a good mix here, more of my own stuff or more article reviews. Of course, even in the article reviews, I am including a lot of my own thoughts as well. Right now, I’m doing article reviews when I get 4-5 articles I want to look at. However, I do look at so many places for information through the week, that it is honestly quite hard not to have that many articles to examine.
OK, so to start, just ignore the large Jessica Simpson lookalike on the page there, as distracting as her stare is there. I was interested in the article from the title, which is what gets me to save most of them for review later. So, often as I’m sitting down here to write about them, I am reading them for the first time as well. Sometimes they are so irrelevant or don’t do what I want that I simply don’t do anything with them at all, such as this one today. This one almost got a delete as well, but the concept is at least interesting, even if it links up to an older style of learning that I don’t want to encourage in my own classroom — flash cards. The article profiles a company that is digitizing flash cards and remaking them to encourage better retention and more honest use of flash cards. The more compelling idea is the creation of a schedule and the push for accountability to the students to complete their work. As the article notes, this is really an attempt to reduce the unproductive cramming before an exam and open up a broader studying schedule. However, the ultimate limitation here is the students. They are the ones who have to make the decision not to cram at the last minute, and I have a feeling that the students who would do this with this program would be the same ones who would be least likely to put off all of their learning to the last minute anyway. Still, I’m all for accountability, especially if it could be integrated with that idea from yesterday on using Google Docs to gauge student progress. So, maybe as a tool that an instructor could put together and release to the student, this could work.
“Today, students are expected to pay attention and learn in an environment that is completely foreign to them. In their personal time they are active participants with the information they consume; whether it be video games or working on their Facebook profile, students spend their free time contributing to, and feeling engaged by, a larger system. Yet in the classroom setting, the majority of teachers will still expect students to sit there and listen attentively, occasionally answering a question after quietly raising their hand. Is it any wonder that students don’t feel engaged by their classwork?”
This, again, goes back to the issues I’ve talked about in several other posts, especially the last one. If we are talking about student engagement, then I think we are failing with the lecture model, especially to the most current generation of students, which is who this article series concerns. I just have to look out at my own classes on lecture days to see the problems, with maybe 1/3 paying active attention, 1/3 paying occasional attention, and 1/3 completely disengaged from the material. Of course, is gamification the answer? Of course not. But can we learn something from this educational trend? Very likely. Perhaps it can bring in greater engagement and even foster creativity rather than rote learning.
The role of technology can both help and hinder learning. The article refers to a number of ways that technology can help engagement, through having the students involved in project based learning and higher levels of engagement, using both apps and clickers. What is interesting is what the author sees as one way that technology is reducing that engagement as well, the smartboard. I’ve not seen that criticism before, as the smartboard is often held up as one of the prime ways to engage students. “Unfortunately, our classroom is often filled with technology that only exists to better enable old styles of teaching, the biggest culprit being the smartboard. Though it has a veneer of interactivity, smartboards serve only as a conduit for lecture based learning. They sit in front of an entire classroom and allow a teacher to present un-differentiated material to the entire group. Even their “interactive” capabilities serve only the student called upon to represent the class at the board.” I have been suspicious of smartboards as a save-all, but I had never really been able to figure out why I didn’t like them. I find this argument compelling. From my own point of view, they seem to just be a new version of the chalk board, offering nothing more than you can find with the method.
“In schools, our students should be using technology to collaborate together on projects, present their ideas to their peers, research information quickly, or to hone the countless other skills that they will need in the 21st century workplace–regardless of the hardware they will be using in the future. If we’re just using tech to teach them the same old lessons. . . we’re wasting its potential. Students are already using these skills when they blog, post a video to YouTube, or edit a wiki about their favorite video game. They already have these skills; we have to show them how to use them productively and not just for entertainment. This is where Gamification comes in. Games are an important piece of the puzzle–they are how we get students interested in using these tools in the classroom environment.” I agree. Ha! What I always tell my students not to do, present a big quotation and say they agree, but I guess I’ll hold myself to a lower standard than them. Still, I think this is an insightful look at the problems with just throwing technology at the problem. You can’t just hand teachers technology and expect them to transform everything. Technology is not the solution, although effective teaching with effective technology could be part of the solution.
The last two Parts of the series deal with how this might take place in practice. I’m not going to go through all of that here, as the information is diverse and hard to summarize. So, check it out if you’re interested. I think what is most interesting is the push for self-pacing and self-motivation for students. Tying completion to rewards beyond simple grades and pushing the students to do more. This is an interesting idea, but I do wonder if our students are ready for this. That is always the problem with these articles, that they project these things into an ideal world where students are not motivated because we aren’t motivating them. Yet, the real problem is often much more complex. Our students are as varied as can be, and the reasons for motivation or lack of motivation are varied in the same way. How do you motivate students who are working two jobs, taking care of kids, sick, taking care of sick family members, in school only because their parents think they should, in school only because they think the should, and so forth. In other words, when students aren’t required to be there, such as at college, how does this push differ? Something to think about.
And, I’ll close for today with an opposite view. Here, the author is warning against the push for project-centered education, one where we emphasize interaction and group work over individual absorption of material. She makes the case that education is inherently a solitary process, where we engage with and absorb difficult material until we learn it. As she says, the emphasis on group work and interaction produces students that “become dependent on small-group activity and intolerant of extended presentations, quiet work, or whole-class discussions.” In other words, they forget how to learn on their own.
She also notes that the push away from the “sage on the stage” can be just as damaging for students. “Students need their sages; they need teachers who actually teach, and they need something to take in. A teacher who knows the subject and presents it well can give students something to carry in their minds.” I have never done much with small group work, so I can’t say one way or another how this works. I have generally done either lecture or discussions. I don’t know how to evaluate small group work, and so I have not done it. Perhaps this is short-sighted of me, but I just don’t know how to give a grade for group work that is not just on the end project. In other words, how do you hold everyone accountable? I know, from talking with my wife and remembering my own experiences, that group work is inherently unequal and very frustrating for those who want to do a good job, as they generally end up doing most of it. I don’t want to put students in that position, and have never been much for this idea. I could be convinced otherwise, but I am skeptical on the idea of small group work. I know that many of the changes I’m looking at making involve small group work, but I just don’t know what to do with it.
Anyway, enough for today. Please let me know what you think or if you have any responses to the ideas I’m presenting, as I don’t want to be working in a vacuum on this.
Just try to find any actual news on educational topics on Super Bowl Sunday. I dare you. There’s not much out there, so I really don’t have any articles to bring forward here. Today, I will just put in a brief word on what I’m thinking about these days.
I am unsatisfied with the status quo in education. I seek change. The problem that I have is getting to that change. I have so many ideas but I do not know what will work and what won’t. I have taught in many different ways over the time that I’ve been teaching, and the one constant has been change. I do something different every semester just about, trying things out and seeing what works. If it works, I keep it. If it works sort of, I make changes. If it doesn’t work, I drop it.
I started my teaching career in the most traditional way, working with discussion sections as a graduate student. I did that for five years, working under numerous different professors. My first was a several-hundred-person section under Jackson Spielvogel doing a Nazism and Fascism class. That one was great, as we also had undergrad TAs in the mix, so we were all being taught how to be an effective TA. After finishing up my comprehensive exams, I was put out there as a graduate lecturer. What is interesting about that is that the only guidance I was given for how to teach my own sections was what I had done as a TA. I don’t think the first teaching experiences went badly, but it was certainly a case of learning on the job. And, as my only real model was teaching through lecture, that’s what I did. Lecture and overhead projector images to start, with a move to PowerPoint not too long after that. I taught multiple different classes at grad school, eventually leaving to get a job teaching at the community college where I am now.
Since being here, I have tried to adapt and change. I became an online teacher as that was a requirement of the job. I have moved to other things because I want to reach the students. You know, “engagement” and all of that. I just am not satisfied with passive delivery of information to the students, but finding other options are hard to work with and find. I always feel like I’m on my own with this process. So, I try something, test it out, see how it works, and move on in one way or another. I have slowly moved to a greater online presence, regardless of the delivery format. I now have an extensive online class and supplemental classroom for my in-class students. In fact, I am mostly hybrid now, with all of the quizzing, homework and exams taking place outside of the classroom. The only thing that’s left in class right now are the lectures, and, if you’ve been reading my other blogs here, you know how interested I am in the idea of “flipping” the classroom. I would like to stop being the so-called “sage on the stage” and turn into the class into a more interactive experience for the students, where they learn real skills rather than memorize the material.
The problems with this are many. For one, I still feel like I’m going to be doing this largely on my own. Second, how do you hold the students responsible for doing the work outside of class that has them ready to discuss or work on more specific topics in class? Third, when you are moving away from the traditional ways of assessment, how do you hold to the state standards at that point? These are all things I’m going to be thinking about as time goes by here. I can’t promise I’ll come to solutions, but that’s what’s on my mind.
Now, as I am distracted by the Super Bowl streaming in the window next to me here, I will close for today.