OK. So, the topic for today is not actually about reviewing a textbook, although that is what I am doing right now. For those of you not in the academic business, we are often approached to review textbooks and materials, and I am reviewing one right now. In doing so, they often have you write up something about your own approach to teaching, and I thought this was a good opportunity to share what I wrote with everyone else. So, my apologies to the textbook company that put the questions together for using them here, but here is what they asked about my own teaching and what I had to say about it:
What are the main goals of your course? What should students understand and retain after taking the course?
My course is about teaching my students the skills that they need to be successful in college, using the field of American history as the background material for that purpose. I focus on three primary skills in my course: critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing, and I use the course material to emphasize and further the development of those skills. I use a lot of primary source documents, as well as a department writing assignment that has the students use historical evidence to relate an aspect of the past to the modern day.
I also emphasize the idea of what I call the “American mythology,” the simplistic history that students are often taught in their K-12 education, and especially in K-8 education. There is an element of Lies My Teacher Told Mein my course, where I show them how what they have been taught in the past is not the full truth or sometimes even the truth at all.
From this, I hope that my students will come out of the course with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I hope they will have an appreciation of what history can tell us about who we are and where we came from. I also want them to be successful students from this point forward, as I am typically teaching first-semester college students, many of who are first generation or nontraditional students. I shape the course in such a way as to emphasize the skills they will need both in my course and in future courses and help them to gain or improve those skills in my course.
Your Course Today
Are you currently emphasizing any new topics, themes, or skills in this course that you were not covering or emphasizing in the past few years? If so, what are they?
Most of what I am doing now is different than what I was doing 5-6 years ago. I teach online and hybrid, and I use the flipped classroom model for my hybrid courses. I do not lecture in the traditional sense, and I have largely abandoned the idea of teaching the narrative of what happened in my courses. Instead, I am emphasizing what I said above, mainly in the use of the history that we do cover in teaching them broader skills that will make them better students and more informed citizens.
My hybrid course takes a largely case-study approach to history, using the method of a deep dive in to a few topics to illustrate the broader trends of American history. As well, I helped design and devise our common writing assignment in the department, with its emphasis on using historical evidence to make an argument and in relating the past to the present. I have turned my hybrid teaching from a traditional lecture class with traditional assessments into an active learning classroom that works to engage the students with historical skills, many of them aligned with the AHA’s Tuning Project.
My online course is more in development in its changeover to this new mindset. I have spent years getting the hybrid course together, and It is the turn of the online course now. I am also going to be moving it away from the narrative lecture and into a more case-study approach. I am also introducing things like the Crash Course Digital Literacy material into the course, both to help the students in their own lives and to provide them with a questioning framework for understanding history and its evidence. I am also going to be including more interaction, especially with more self-assessments and inter-group cooperation.
What are your teaching challenges and your students’ learning challenges in this course?
The biggest challenge remains the lack of the skills that I am trying to teach. As I stated above, the students at my community college are heavily nontraditional and first generation. We have our share of the traditional studnets just out of high school as well, but, at an open-enrollment institution, even those students often come to us because we are relatively inexpensive and close. Even the traditional students often lack college-level skills, which is one reason why I have been transforming my courses. I got tired of sitting and complaining each year that my students could not do the work and blaming them for it and decided that it was time I started working toward helping them with the skills gap. The gaps that I see are:
- Lack of understanding/ability to read a college-level textbook
- This is because they often have never had to do it before and have not been taught how to do it. Seeing my own children go through in high school (I have one in high school and two entering college right now), I know that reading is a small part of the overall curriculum these days, as my kids rarely have had reading assigned outside of class and are not provided with any textbooks to bring home at all. So, for many, my own requirements that they read and understand a college textbook or primary sources more generally simply is a skill they have had little practice at.
- Poor understanding of how to think critically in an age of multiple-choice tests
- The increasing reliance on multiple-choice assessments here in Texas means that most of my students have an understanding of history and academics in general as a curriculum of memorization for the text. There is not as much emphasis on the higher thinking and reasoning skills, especially in the non-AP classes. When presented with history as a field of study without concrete answers and where the questioning of sources, interpretations, and understandings comes out as a key aspect, they have a lot of trouble with it.
- Lack of effective study skills and academic skills
- Again, to use my own children as an example, I rarely have seen them ever study outside of school for anything, and my twins entering college now (one coming out of AP in high school and one who pursued the International Baccalaureate plan) seldom did homework, even in relatively rigorous high school course work. The students I generally see have little idea of how to do homework, how to plan out an academic semester to get work done on time, how to study for a test, how to write a paper, and just in general how to navigate a college environment.
- Poor writing skills
- The students I see have trouble creating an argument/thesis, understanding evidence as it applies to a paper, using evidence to support an argument, drafting and editing a paper, and effectively using citations and a Works Cited. I cannot rely on my students gaining those skills through our English classes, as there is no requirement they take English before my class, and so I have to create assignments that help them with this process.
Notice what I have not said here, which is that I do not have any problem with their knowledge of historical facts and figures. While they often do not know very much that is not in the very broad canon of US history, my approach allows them to gain what they need along the way, as the teaching of the skills along the way are based upon using the knowledge that is necessary to succeed. In an era of smartphones, the memorization of history is no longer a necessity, and the broader skills will allow them to understand the history much more than just knowing what happened in the traditional narrative. As well, a focus on understanding the American mythology as it is generally taught will make them more critical thinkers in evaluating evidence and using it to prove an argument.
I’m going to try and get back to some of the education issues that have been coming through my Evernote lately. I’ve got quite a backlog over the last couple of weeks while I have been grading, so I should have plenty to write about over the next week or so. Today, I want to concentrate in on the general category of technology in the classroom, as I have been accumulating quite a bit on that recently. Of course, the recent Apple announcements and developments are relevant to this as well.
I’m going to start here, with a general article about what teachers think in general about the use of technology. As the article itself says, the results are not particularly surprising, but I will put up the general infographic here, as it illustrates what I think is not too far off from what I see, especially among the younger faculty.
I hope that you can click on that to make it bigger, but the basic message here is that the majority of teachers surveyed thought that technology in the classroom would help both the learning of the students and their engagement with the material. In fact, the two questions that refer back to the older “technology,” namely textbooks, got the lowest Agree responses and the highest Disagree responses. Again, I don’t think there is anything surprising at all about this, but I wanted to start here.
In a similar vein is this article from The Washington Post, which discusses how textbooks are failing to engage our students and help them learn. He notes that textbooks are not effective at engaging students because that is not what sells textbooks. We don’t choose a textbook (me included) because I think it is going to be some sort of magical panacea to solve all of the problems for my students. Instead, at least in history, we look at them primarily in terms of coverage. Which textbook covers the material we want to cover is more important than which textbook students will like. In fact, I have often found that if you talk to a group of instructors about choosing textbooks, the textbook that is most likely to be appealing to students is often dismissed out of hand as not being what works for us as instructors. So, there is a fundamental disconnect there. My feeling about this is echoed in the article as well, where one teacher is quoted as saying, “Even when adoption committees include content specialists, these people typically evaluate the accuracy of the content, rather than whether the instructional strategies are effective.” In fact, the author quotes another educational administrator, who noted, “The educational community was quick to respond to the (legitimate) criticism of textbooks but quicker still to adopt their horrific replacements: excessive use of lecture, worksheets, movies, poster making, and pointless group work.” We are flailing around as far as I can see. I feel like that myself, where I am just trying so many different things all the time without ever knowing what I’m doing. That’s why I’m doing this, so that instead of trying new things at random, I am trying to plan things out. Anyway, there’s a lot more to this article, and I do recommend it as very interesting reading when we think about how the old technology options are failing us.
And, when I read this article from the Chronicle, I saw myself and how I use technology a lot of times. Unfortunately, I don’t mean that in a good way. As it says, in online courses, especially at the community college level, “the professors are relying on static course materials that aren’t likely to motivate students or encourage them to interact with each other.” While I get a lot of compliments from students about the way my course is organized, I know that I use few real tools, and I certainly do not effectively encourage interaction in my classes. The article goes on to talk about a study where the results came from. That study concluded: “It found that most professors relied on text-based assignments and materials. In the instances when professors did decide to use interactive tools like online video, many of those technologies were not connected to learning objectives, the study found.” I certainly would say mine fits this completely. My course, is completely text-based. There is little to no video or interaction in my own materials. I have adopted some from McGraw-Hill that I use in conjunction with my textbook, but that is actually in a completely separate classroom from my own in Moodle. While the article does note that technology is again not a panacea to solve all of these problems, I think that in the online environment, a failure to be innovative in technology will cause the students to treat the course as a chore to get through. Of course, I may just be thinking some fairy-tale thoughts here that a student could really feel completely engaged by an online course, but I think I could do better.
As we think about the future of technology in the classroom, there are a lot of directions it could go. I’ve been exploring some of those in this blog as I have gone on here. I am trying to keep current on what’s going on out there, and trying to see what ideas might work for me. This article from Mind/Shift talks about the future of technology in the classroom. The article considers the near, medium, and long term forecast for technology. In the near term they consider mobile apps and tablet computing as the center piece of where we are going. We certainly are thinking about that at my community college. The faculty work group that I’m on has been given iPads to explore and the task of finding apps that can be used in the classroom to enhance learning. As well, we will be buying classroom sets of iPads to use. So, nothing new there based on what I have seen. The mid term is going to be gamification and the use of data to influence education. I have also been exploring gamification in this blog, so I guess I’m right on top of that topic as well. As to the use of data, if the big assessment push we all seem to be on is any indication, I think we’re already on this path. I don’t know how far it will go, but it is certainly a trend that we are involved in. The longer term is going to include gesture-based computing and increasingly ubiquitous connections to everything. I certainly agree that those are both technologies that could come into play. What is interesting about the article though is that the so-called future of technology in education includes little that I’m not already engaged with. I guess that means that instead of looking to these things to come out in the future, I need to figure out how to use them now and just get on with it.
So, where am I going with this. Still thinking, but moving along. I want to incorporate technology, and I want relevant change. I don’t want change for the sake of change, as I feel like that is what I have been doing for quite a while here. I think that more is needed, which is why I keep working on this blog. I need real change that comes with solid thought and evidence behind it. It will still be an experiment, of course, but I would like it to be an experiment that is directed in a productive manner. So, I shall keep thinking and planning. It’s hard to do more in the middle of the semester. Let me know what you think? Those of you who teach, what are you thinking of doing? Are you looking to change something? Those of you who do not teach, what would you like to see?