Making Some STEAM: Learning by Making, Not Testing

photo credit: thaumazin via photopin cc
photo credit: thaumazin via photopin cc

In my last blog post, I discussed the classroom as makerspace. The maker movement takes its cue directly from John Dewey’s theory of learning by doing:

The school must represent present life–life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.

While Dewey is still a common read for students of education, many of today’s classrooms are a far cry from Dewey’s vision. As the publisher of Make magazine, Dale Dougherty, points out: “Schools seem to have forgotten that students learn best when they are engaged; in fact, the biggest problem in schools is boredom. Students sit passively, expected to absorb all the content that is thrown at them without much context. The context that’s missing is the real world.” One of the driving forces behind this contextless content vacuum is the centralization and standardization of education, which developed in tandem with the Industrial Revolution. As a result, according to Steve Wheeler, today’s schools specialize in what he terms a “manufactured education:”synchronization of behavior, compartmentalization of content and skills, and centralization of power and knowledge (in the form of the teacher). This kind of education mirrors the processes inherent in the factory model and is, Wheeler contends, still viewed as “the most efficient, cost-effective way to train the workforce for the future.” One example that Sir Ken Robinson provides of how the factory model shaped our education practices is that of educating children in batches by age (or, as Robinson terms it, “date of manufacture”). Both Wheeler and Robinson argue that we should be educating children based on their abilities and not their date of birth.

Another component of education born out of the industrial age is standardization. Factory workers needed to be docile and subservient to their superiors in order to maintain both efficiency and quality standards (out-of-the-box thinkers need not have applied). To this end, the classroom was modeled upon military standards of orderliness, routine, and conformity. In “Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy,” Henry A. Giroux contends that “pedagogy is now subordinated to the narrow regime of teaching to the test coupled with an often harsh system of disciplinary control, both of which mutually reinforce each other. . . . Too many classrooms at all levels of schooling now resemble a ‘dead zone,’ where any vestige of critical thinking, self-reflection and imagination quickly migrate to sites outside of the school.” Such ways of thinking not only threaten the order and routine but are also hard to quantify and standardize. Our current assessment models mirror this need for military-like precision, with everything reduced to one correct answer (Dougherty). In this system, Dougherty points out, “the test has become a substitute for direct experience,” and, as a result, “many kids have come to see school as isolated and artificial, disconnected from the community.” In other words, the complete opposite of Dewey’s theory of what education should be.

The major problem with this focus on a factory model of education–aside from the student boredom and apathy that it engenders–is that we are no longer an industrial society. Instead, we have transitioned into what Alvin Toffler describes as the third wave of civilization; this civilization has written “a new code of behavior for us and carries us beyond standardization, synchonisation and centralization, beyond the concentration of energy, money and power.” This civilization values the imagination and innovative thinking of Steve Jobs over the docile, routinized behavior of the factory worker. But most classroom environments do not reflect these values and deny students the kind of education advocated by Paulo Freire, who “rejected regimes of educational degradation organized around the demands of market, instrumentalized knowledge and the priority of training over the pursuit of imagination, critical thinking and the teaching of freedom and social responsibility” (Giroux). But imagination, critical thinking, and the ability to lead a self-managed life are the very abilities necessary for success and active participation in the new civilization.

The current need to measure and standardize narrows our focus on what teachers and students can do in the classroom and what qualifies as “learning.” Learning must be something we can see and measure and weigh and scale and stamp with a degree of correctness. But critical thinking and imagination are not easily quantified and are therefore suspect and resisted. This is where the maker movement can be essential to bridging the gap between the need to assess and the need to reinvigorate the kinds of thinking and doing we ask of our students. As Dougherty argues, “‘Making creates evidence of learning.’ The thing you make . . . is evidence that you did something, and there is also an entire process behind making that can be talked about and shared with others.” These processes and the thinking behind them are the very things that I am now trying to focus my students on by integrating such practices as the research slam, challenge-based learning, and the kinds of in-class maker activities discussed in my last post. And the real beauty of challenging students to make something is that doing so requires more than just one discipline or one way of thinking about the world. Rather than compartmentalizing learning and abilities, making allows students to use any and every discipline that will allow them to create something that reflects their thinking and, more often than not, requires them to combine those disciplines in a critical way. It can be a challenge for students who have been inculcated in the standardized, compartmentalized factory model of learning for twelve or more years, but the challenge and struggle is, I have found, well worth the end result.

Embracing the Messiness: Lessons from a 21st Century Classroom

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of presenting at a workshop for regional 7-12th grade teachers. The workshop was sponsored by CoRE, which stands for Collaborative Regional Education, a program my university is developing that will create a partnership between it and regional P-12 schools, other universities, and national organizations and businesses (including Apple) with the goal of improving students’ college- and work-readiness. I was asked to share my experiences with integrating Challenge-Based Learning into my classes.

Because my audience was teachers from all disciplines, all secondary grades, and school systems that run the socioeconomic gamut, I chose to focus on some of the core (pardon the pun) lessons I learned from my experiences, rather than trying to preach or push any one particular method or technology. You can view the presentation slideshow with my notes at HaikuDeck.

 

It doesn’t do too much good to learn something if we then don’t apply it. Here’s a few ways I’m integrating the lessons I highlighted in my talk into my classes this semester:

Trust your students

This semester, my FYC I students have taken over the responsibility of providing both formative feedback and summative assessments for each others’ work. I’m also allowing them free reign when it comes to their blogs, both in terms of subject matter and genres/modes.

My FYC II students are currently busy roleplaying in Second Life (sometimes with me there, sometimes not) and writing the course’s secondary textbook–a guide to roleplaying the roles they are taking on.

My Survey of English Literature students are responsible for teaching each other (and me) about the texts and authors we’re studying this term. They’re also collaboratively writing the final exam.

I’ve pretty much made all of my classes student-centered and given them the responsibility to both guide the entire class’s learning and their own.

De-stigmatize failure

This term, all of my classes are using contract grading. The criteria for each potential grade are directly tied to how much the student wishes to participate and how hard they are willing to work. Want to go full tilt and then some? Contract for an A. Determined to do everything I ask? Contract for a B. Want to pick and choose between learning opportunities? Contract for a C. Both of my composition classes and my speech and debate classes are all using portfolios to demonstrate their work, rather than letter grades on individual performances. The only failure students experience is their failure to live up to the responsibilities and goals they decide to take on.

Peer models

I’m putting extra emphasis on having students identify peers whom they can use as models and indicate  exemplary work using social media (by giving the work a +1, liking it on Facebook, or sharing it with others via Twitter or other sm) and, more explicitly, through nominating them for an A in the course.

Students as co-teachers

As I mentioned, my English literature students are serving as experts on the texts and authors we’re studying this semester. The history major is doing an excellent job of filling us in on the political, cultural, and socioeconomic events that took place and how they might bear on what we’re reading. The women’s studies student is giving us insight into women’s issues of the times and how various texts were responding to them. Others have shared connections between our readings and current texts (such as music by Sublime and Regina Spektor) and issues (such as women in the military).

And it seems like every day a student or two will school me on technology or a new interpretation of a short story I’ve read a hundred times or what the world is like for them and how different their lives and college experiences are from my own. But rather than making me feel even more ignorant of or alienated from them, it brings me closer to understanding and sympathizing with them. And makes it easier to communicate with and guide them. And teach them.

Some Thoughts on Open Access and MOOC-ifying an Online Course

photo credit: dsearls via photopin cc
photo credit: dsearls via photopin cc

I was deeply saddened to hear of the suicide of Aaron Swartz. He stood for something that I believe in very deeply–open access and a creative commons. As a tribute to Swartz, academics have been encouraged to publish their work openly and share it using the hashtag #pdftribute. Since all of my academic work is already open access–published either here or at other websites–as tribute, I wanted to post about some of the issues concerning open access that I’ve been contemplating lately. I did participate in #pdftribute by creating a page on this blog where I will be listing links to the other work that I do, all of which will always be openly accessible.

For the past few years I have completely boycotted Blackboard, my university’s LMS. Instead, I create websites or blogs for my classes, usually on WordPress or Weebly, and I pay out-of-pocket in order to have access to a Pro version of the latter (which also gives up to 40 of my students Pro accounts). I also have my students create blogs, where they publish almost all of their work for the class. In the case of my Oral Communication class, students create an entire website that features their work over the course of the term. My hybrid FYC students also use Google+ as a virtual classroom and, while our interactions on the class circle are not necessarily public, students can and often do share those interactions with other circles and/or publicly. My reasons for making as much of a class as possible openly available is twofold: 1) I think that an essential part of educating our students involves teaching them how to be responsible digital citizens; 2) I believe that education should truly be “public” in every sense of the word and I want as much as what happens in my  classes as possible to be accessible to anyone who wishes to take part in it or discover/return to it whenever and wherever they desire.

For the first time I am teaching a completely online course, Survey of English Literature II. I was given the course on the third day of Spring classes, half-way through the first week of the term. I suppose I should have panicked (and at first I did a little), but it just so happens that I was recently a vicarious observer and occasional participant in #MOOCMOOC, so I had a few tricks up my sleeve to help get an initial course–or anti-course–out there for students to start participating in. I also kept in mind the arguments made in Jesse Stommel’s recent Hybrid Pedagogy article “Online Learning: A User’s Guide to Forking Education.”  I especially wanted to avoid the kinds of structures that typically characterize and constrain online courses:

Draconian learning management systems, hierarchical discussion forum tools, and automated grading systems replace the playful work of teachers and students with overly simplified algorithms that interface with far too few of the dynamic variables that make learning so visceral and lively.

Rather than struggle to throw together such an instructor-driven, top-down experience, I did just enough to get an environment established which the students can take over and make their own, collaborating to do the “work” of teaching each other (and me) about the authors, texts, and time periods covered by the course description. There are no video lectures, no discussion boards (in the traditional sense), no rubrics, a syllabus and schedule that students have been invited to help create and revise, a final exam that will be created by the class, and an assessment format that is based on how much participation the student is willing to dedicate. There’s a list of suggested readings but I have neither tied those readings to any kind of points system nor instituted any punishments for not completing any particular reading. If a student wishes to read a text, they may; if they don’t want to read it, they are free to not do so without compromising their success in the course. You can view the syllabus and schedule on the course website, Survey of English Literature. We will be using a Google+ class circle for our discussion forum, but anyone is invited to join this circle; just let me know and I will be happy to share the circle with you.

I have written about my reservations regarding MOOC’s and those reservations are still at the forefront of my resistance to the idea of trying to scale a class. However, the idea of an open, online learning environment that allows for and encourages connections beyond a specific physical, or even virtual, space and invites students to map, create, and share their own learning path is, for me, the most promising and important one embedded within the MOOC concept. And I think it is an idea that correlates with and supports Swartz’s vision for an open culture. Below is Swartz’s Open Access Manifesto. May it be yours, too.

Tomorrow Never Knows: Theory into Praxis in the Composition Class

photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc
photo credit: innoxiuss via photopin cc

In my last post I looked backward at some of the radical pedagogical practices that worked for my students and me this past term. In this post I look forward to the some of the radical pedagogical theories I’m putting into practice.

In my recent Hybrid Pedagogy post “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” I outline a radical (for me and my department) new theory of First-Year Composition.

My recent post here, “Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition,” outlined how I initially planned to put that theory into praxis.

My most recent vision for the organic, rhizomatic FYC course can be found in the syllabus that I created for my FYC 1 class using
Thinglink.

I also recently blogged about my ideas regarding incorporating immersive role-play into the second-semester FYC course I’ll be teaching this term. Those initial questions and ideas coalesced into an experimental class that I hope will both engage the students and encourage them to adopt some of the practices and beliefs inherent in my new theory of the rhizomatic FYC class. As I point out to students:

In many ways, role-play gaming has a lot in common with writing. Just like dedicated gamers become immersed in the game, good writers become immersed in their writing and research. As Colby & Colby point out:

Immersion occurs because gamers learn as they play: solving puzzles, learning strategies, and meeting the challenges of the game while staying within the constraints of the game world.

Replace, if you will, the words “gamers” and “game” with “writers” and “writing” and you’ll have an accurate description of the act of writing. Gamers don’t listen to lectures on how to play the game; they learn to play the game by playing it, making mistakes, learning from their mistakes, trying again, and sharing tricks and cheats with fellow players. Similarly, as Joseph Epstein argues, “[W]riting cannot be taught, though it can be learned.” No writer ever learned to write by listening to someone lecture about how to write. Instead, they immerse themselves in the role of writer, learning how to listen, think, take notes, research, and write like a writer by trying, failing, learning from their failures, trying again, and studying other writers. Andrea Lunsford has argued that all writing is performance. If so, then writing is just another kind of role-playing game.

I am both alive with hope and plagued by doubt.

How will students respond to these classes? Will they revel in the open-endedness, the autonomy, the experimentation? Or will they balk and resist?

What risks am I taking by putting theory into praxis? It’s a scary prospect, considering how important many stakeholders (including myself) view the FYC class to be.

Drew Loewe recently tweeted:

Am I just tinkering with FYC and ignoring the underlying problems? What underlying problems does my theory ignore? How can my praxis address them?

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner