Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh My!

photo credit: ЯL via photo pin cc

My last post really got me thinking about what kind of learning environment I’d like to design for my next hybrid First-Year Composition course, especially after one of my former students responded to the question that I posed at the end of the post:

…do we want to challenge our students or do we want them to challenge themselves?

The answer to this question, according to my student, is that what we should try to achieve is a balance between the two. Sometimes you need someone else pushing and challenging you to challenge yourself and to meet those challenges. I think it’s a valid point. But how do we find that balance? And how do we know at what level we can safely challenge students without overwhelming, frustrating, and alienating them?

These are the questions that I’m grappling with as I begin designing my upcoming Hybrid FYC class.

Yesterday, I happened to read the article “Why Flip the Classroom When We Can Make It Do Cartwheels?” by Cathy Davidson. The article focuses on Duke’s Haiti Lab, an interdisciplinary experience that places students in a global research and learning laboratory in which their work has an impact beyond the classroom. This is exactly the type of challenge that I would like to present to my students. But how do I do so with very limited resources, just myself to make it happen, and a group of freshly-minted high school students, many of whom haven’t decided on a major and have no clue what they are good at or passionate about?

The central focus of the Haiti Lab is a problem. All of the students focus on this problem, just in different ways, using different methods, and while viewing the problem through different disciplinary lenses. So, the Haiti Lab presents the same kind of immersion and autonomy that I managed to establish in my first hybrid FYC class, just on a grander scale and in a way that flattens the classroom walls and makes the world the classroom. I’m not sure that I want to tackle the world just yet, especially on my own. So, I’ve decided to settle for making the university my students’ classroom for now.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a member of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative committee. We meet once a month and, in between meetings, individual members and specialized groups research issues related to the 21st century classroom and visit other campuses to look at models of 21st century classrooms. We post our research findings to a database and discuss the results and our own university’s progress each month during our face-to-face meetings. It’s an exciting committee to be on and it really has become an interdisciplinary effort. There are representatives from each college, various departments, and administrators and staff who are all focused on turning our university into a 21st century learning environment. The only group not represented on the committee is the students themselves. So, I’ve decided that maybe I should change that.

What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university? What if I allowed them to decide, with no financial restrictions, what their ideal university would look and sound like? How would classrooms look? How would classes be taught? What would be going on in the classrooms? What would be going on in other spaces? What other spaces would there be? What would they look like?

What if I asked my students to use their own passions and interests to research and create solutions for an outdated mode of education? Solutions that would impact their own education? What if I asked them to present their findings to the committee that is in charge of deciding which solutions to consider and adopt?

Would my freshman be ready to meet such a challenge? Would they be willing to do it?

At this point, I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I wonder how many questions the designers of the Haiti Lab had when they first began to think about creating an immersive, interdisciplinary, real-world learning experience? And I wonder if they waited until they had answers to all of those questions before they decided to go ahead with their vision?

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5 thoughts on “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh My!”

  1. Q. – But how do we find that balance?
    A. – At Freshman orientation, give students an iPad; sign them up with a twitter account; and start a Lore (formerly Coursekit) course. Give the students some basic instructions; time; and the freedom to explore, play, and get to know the technology & one another. The educator can observe to see who tweets, asks questions, blogs, etc. Next, find out why those individuals are not participating, and figure out how to get them more involved. Put the people that do participate on one side of the class. The students that do not participate should go on the opposite side of the class. The focus of the class should be to get everyone, at a minimum, motivated enough to send a few tweets in a day; comment on another student’s lecture; or blog about something. Once everybody is on board, the class can move forward as one; easy to say, but difficult to do.

    Q. – What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?
    A. – Some will be excited about it. Others will not be excited at all. The rest, well, they won’t care either way. Personally, I think it is a good idea!

    Q. – What if I allowed them to decide, with no financial restrictions, what their ideal university would look and sound like?
    A. – They are going to come up with the best university ever conceived (because there are no financial restrictions)!

    Q. – How would classrooms look? 
    A. – Each classroom should be unique.

    Q. – How would classes be taught? 
    A. – hybrid with tailored tutoring 

    Q. – What would be going on in the classrooms? 
    A. – advanced oral communication & solving real world problems

    Q. – What would be going on in other spaces? 
    A. – Arts, Crafts, Food, Music, Reading, 

    Q. – What other spaces would there be? 
    A. – The entire college campus, not just the same classroom over and over again (if possible).

    Q. – What would they look like?
    A. – library, drama dept. stage, outdoor pavilion, amphitheater, computer labs in different buildings 

    Q. – What if I asked my students to use their own passions and interests to research and create solutions for an outdated mode of education? 
    A. – This is an excellent idea!

    Q. – Solutions that would impact their own education? 
    A. – I think once they start investigating these solutions, that is where the real learning takes place. 

    Q. – What if I asked them to present their findings to the committee that is in charge of deciding which solutions to consider and adopt?
    A. – Not immediately, but definitely after a mock presentation.

    Q. – Would my freshman be ready to meet such a challenge? 
    A. – Some, but not all.

    Q. – Would they be willing to do it?
    A. – Some, but not all. 

    Q. – I wonder how many questions the designers of the Haiti Lab had when they first began to think about creating an immersive, interdisciplinary, real-world learning experience?
    A. – No idea

    Q. – And I wonder if they waited until they had answers to all of those questions before they decided to go ahead with their vision?
    A. – No. So, don’t worry about not having all the answers at the start of your journey; some are meant to be picked up along the way.

    Also, reading your blog post made me think of Thomas Jefferson devising a plan for his daughter’s education: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/jeffersonadvice.htm
    (Thomas Jefferson’s Advice to His Eleven-Year-Old Daughter, 1783)

    1. Thanks for the comment and the encouragement. The fear that all instructors face when designing a new classroom experience is that the number of students who will be willing and able to meet the challenges that you give them will be far less than the number who won’t. Perhaps this is why so many play it safe?

  2. My experience is that when students can write about what is relevant to them, and thus interests them, they rise to the challenge because they are more willing to fully and sincerely engage in the topic. I always see a significant difference in the quality of my students’ writing when the topic has true meaning for them. Who better to address the issues of education than those who are “suffering” (maybe that word shouldn’t be in quotation marks) from its problems? I say go for it!

    1. I agree. I think this is why my first iteration of the hybrid FYC course worked so well; the students were addressing issues that had immediate relevance to them. But I also don’t want to limit them to things they are naturally interested in; most of them are, at their ages, self-centered and have very narrow world views (a total generalization, I know). I think one function of a college education is to broaden their points of view and help them to realize that they are not the center of the universe. A few semesters ago, I had my FYC students read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Many of my colleagues said I was crazy for doing so, that there was no way that students would relate to it or even care about Middle Eastern issues. I don’t know if it was the fact that, in a wonderful case of serendipity, the Egyptian revolution broke out in the middle of us reading the book, or not, but my students proved the naysayers wrong. Despite their lack of prior knowledge or even concern for issues surrounding women in Iran, they read, discussed, and debated the book and the issues in it and all of them chose to do their capstone research projects on those issues. I think sometimes they may not be aware of just how relevant some issues are to them until they are exposed to them.

      I think that “suffering” is a good way to qualify how many college (and K12) students experience education. Many of them don’t have a reason to be in college, other than because someone told them that’s what they should do. Perhaps before asking them to research and design a 21st century university, I should first have them decide why they are in university and what a university education is (good) for.

      1. Exposing students to issues outside of their experiences is definitely necessary, which is why not all the topics I assign are of immediate relevance to my students. I find it interesting to see how class participation, engagement, and quality of work change from one topic to another.

        Congratulations on what must have been an awesome teaching experience! Isn’t it satisfying when students discover relevance in issues seemingly irrelevant to their own worlds?

        I think your ideas concerning 21st century learning are broad enough to cover your concern about needing to expose your students to issues outside of their experiences. Education involves different cultures and different ways of viewing the importance of education and what it means to be an educated citizen. It’s a very worldly topic! Your idea to have your students first determine the relevance and role of education should prove a beneficial foundation for this project.

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