Remixing Learning Spaces: Two Resources and Some Thoughts

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In making the classroom analogous to a skatepark, I’ve mainly focused on designing the learning opportunities that await students within the skatepark. This is because, at this point, this is the only aspect of the skatepark that I have control over. Just as important is the architecture of the skatepark itself, but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that can easily be controlled within the college classroom. Unlike K12 teachers, we aren’t assigned to a permanent room across multiple semesters nor are our assigned rooms only used by us (they’re likely to also be in active use by as many as 5-6 other instructors during a given day). We don’t have a way to create displays of student work nor are we able to create distinct spaces within our rooms, such as reading areas, group and quiet study, or technology stations. In fact, our existing spaces are distinctly adverse to anything other than factory-style instruction, with students lined up in rows of individual desks facing the instructor and their podium and whiteboard (and the only electrical outlet).

While I don’t bemoan having to come up with new bulletin board ideas every month, there are certain aspects of the K12 classroom that would be nice to have in the college classroom. This is especially true once we begin to transform our spaces into 21st century learning environments. Our existing environments are often 30 years old (if not older), in the case of my building, and even newer “smart” buildings were designed and equipped for the type of lecture-focused instruction that was still dominant in the late-20th century, with projectors and an instructor computer station to add the veneer of being grounded in pedagogically-relevant technological innovations. Since I’m a member of a committee whose goal is to identify the necessary characteristics, criteria, and components of a 21st century university, this disconnect between what needs to go on within our classrooms and what our classrooms are designed to allow to go on is an important one for me. But it’s also important to me because I struggle daily with the limitations that these spaces place on what goes on in my learning skatepark.

In looking at resources dealing with what kinds of spaces are needed for students’ current learning needs, I’ve found two that have been especially thought-provoking. The first is this infographic by Aimée Knight:

For me, what stands out about Knight’s argument is the focus on the students’ needs, rather than on the requirements of technology:

The focus of classroom design needs to be on people, not technology. When the focus is placed on active, social, experiential learning, technologies move into the background.

This seems to be a focus that is missing from many other studies of 21st century classroom design (see, for example, the 21st century classroom design guru David Jakes’s website). In addition to the infographic, Knight and Mark Sample have published a Google Doc from a brainstorming session on Hacking Campus Spaces that took place at THATCamp Piedmont 2012. Along with a summary of the brainstorming session, the Doc contains several links to various resources on how others are re-thinking and remixing university spaces.

What the infographic does for me is to solidify my own thinking about how best to re-design the physical space within which I create learning opportunities for my students. Much more vital than any accommodations made to my technology needs is the ability for my students to have access to the spaces and resources that they need, technological and otherwise. At various times during a class meeting, my students may need to work as a group, work as individuals, access the internet and word processing or presentation software, brainstorm, collaborate on various types of writing and media, conference with me, present, and instruct one another (and even me on occasion). For me, one product from the early days of factory education that still holds value for the 21st century classroom is the individual writing tablet (I’m a big fan of the method known as whiteboarding). Of course, we have the electronic equivalent, but right now the large majority of my students don’t have iPads and many don’t have laptops. Even once my university institutes its iPad initiative and gives all incoming freshman their own electronic slate, that will still not cover all of my students. But if all of the walls of my classrooms were equipped with a whiteboard (or chalkboard, which is more environmentally friendly), then all of my students would have the ability to write, brainstorm, and collaborate on a canvas that could be shared or reserved for personal use, immediately erased or recorded for posterity (I’ve considered creating the $2 interactive whiteboard, but haven’t figured out the logistics of adapting the technique to the college classroom).

Thoreau, the genius of simplicity, said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” The transition to a 21st century learning environment is not quick, easy, or inexpensive and requires clear priorities. Obviously, re-designing classroom spaces is not at the top of the priority list and will entail a large financial expenditure at the same time that universities are facing a reduction in federal and state funding and a rise in operating costs. But there are simple and low-cost ways that we can make our existing spaces more user-friendly for our students. I would rather my students be able to view themselves as the focus of the classroom, with tools as simple as electrical outlets, whiteboards, and modular, multi-purpose seating (or even a few tables to supplement the existing seating) at their disposal than to have all of the technological bells and whistles out there at the front of the room for me to use.

So, how am I currently dealing with the limitations of my classroom spaces? As best I can. My students are often movers and shakers, rearranging desks into groups or semicircles, contorting their bodies in order to view various areas of the room and to look at their classmates as they talk, traveling en masse from our classroom to the computer lab or as individuals to a study carrel in the hallway. The front of the classroom is still the hot spot because it’s where the projector is aimed, the only whiteboard is located, and the electrical outlet offers the ability to plug in gadgets when batteries wane. My hybrid classes, which depend much more heavily on students’ ability to use mobile internet devices, collaborate, and have small group discussions, currently meet in the library because it affords class, group, and individual seating arrangements and access to raw materials, such as reliable wi-fi, plugs, laptops that can be checked out, and coffee (thanks to our newly-installed coffee bar).

So, before we begin advocating for a wholesale overhaul of our spaces and risk the failure that is inevitable when demanding a huge financial output for uncertain results and questionable reasons (after all, our administrators might well argue, haven’t the existing spaces functioned for hundreds of years?), lets take a step back and ask whose needs are we advocating for. It does make my job infinitely easier when I have the ability to switch my students’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video or to project a student’s blog so that the entire class can see it. But in my ideal learning environment, it’s the students who turn each others’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video and students are often working together to revise a peer’s blog post in situ. While my technological needs often overlap those of my students, it’s their learning needs that have been ignored for far longer and that are in more immediate need of attention.

Or am I totally off my pumpkin?

When We Build Obstacles Instead of Opportunities

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I’m lucky. I work at a university that both supports and encourages innovative instruction. Right now, I represent my department on the 21st Century Classroom Initiative, a committee whose goal is to encourage faculty to integrate more progressive and cutting-edge pedagogical strategies into their courses. My department, thankfully, is embracing this push. Well, I don’t know if the majority of the faculty are embracing it so much as admitting defeat in the face of the unavoidable encroachment of the 21st century. But there are a handful of us who see this not so much as inevitable, as transformative–for us as teachers, for our discipline (which is not exactly the most appealing for today’s students), and for our students (who are forced to take our classes, which are their least favorite and most dreaded, i.e., writing, speech, and literature). One way in which we are transforming these classes is to offer hybrid versions and I was selected to create the hybrid version of the first-semester First-Year Composition course (the first half of a year-long course, which focuses on the basics of academic writing).

I’ve taught this course for two semesters and I will be teaching it again this Fall. And I’ll admit that my initial excitement at the chance to pilot an innovative (for my department) course has turned to trepidation.

This has much to do with the less-than-successful version of the class that I led this past term (and a little to do with the trepidation that I always experience at the thought of the unlimited possibilities of what to read and what kinds of writing I can ask my students to do). By the end of the term, the majority of the students in both sections had either dropped the class or stopped coming. Admittedly, those students who were left were saying it had transformed them as students and writers and many of them signed up for my summer short-term, second-semester (non-hybrid) FYC course. But they were a very small handful of the students who started the course, and I had struggled desperately with the large majority of the students (including a few of those who finished and embraced the class at the end). These struggles centered around several aspects of my design and vision for the class. I was trying out some ideas that I thought the students would see as relevant and real-world (I don’t really like these terms now because I have changed my beliefs about the validity of such terms as applied to higher ed. for reasons that are not related to my experiences in this class). For example, one assignment required first revising a Wikipedia article on the book we were reading and then authoring their own Wikipedia article on a blog of their choice (as part of the Blogs WikiProject). (If you’re interested in the rationale behind my decision to have my students write for Wikipedia, see “The Hows and Whys of Wikipedia in the Classroom,” “Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?”, “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing,” and “The Tenets of Composition Go Public”). As preparation for these assignments, I required them to work and write collaboratively to create a wiki on how to write for Wikipedia (as a way for them to both learn how to do so and to practice writing within a wiki).

At midterm, I was forced to abandon my design for the course because the resistance from students was overwhelming. I tried to clear the tension and find a new direction by asking the students to complete a midterm course assessment via a Google spreadsheet. I monitored the feedback in real-time and used it to establish a master list of the most common issues cited by students, which we then discussed in class. It became obvious that my vision for the class was not shared by the majority of the students. Left with no back-up plan and exhausted from the resistance I had been fighting for seven weeks, I contacted Jim Groom and asked permission for my class to participate in his DS106 MOOC. He invited us into the course with open arms, piping my students’ blogs into the DS106 site that week. I then turned them lose in DS106 with only two requirements: they had to complete at least one DS106 assignment each week and they had to read and comment on each others’ work. The rest of the term was smooth sailing, every student met my two requirements, and there were no more complaints or resistance (by this point, though, I only had a handful of students left in both sections). While the classes ended on a high note, this had much to do with Jim’s DS106 course.

The class was not a total disaster. Midterm feedback revealed that blogging and the self-assessments that I required students to complete for each blog post had positively impacted the students (even those who hated the class) in several ways, from changing their feelings about writing to inspiring them to keep blogging after the class ended. What makes my experiences so disappointing is the contrast with those I had with my first hybrid FYC class the previous Fall, which had been, in my opinion, fairly successful. Almost all of the students who began that class finished it, the majority who finished had made significant gains in their writing skills, and the students had embraced everything that I asked them to do (or at least they didn’t actively resist). The course had the same basic outline–blogging and working together in personal learning networks–but different reading assignments and writing topics (and no Wikipedia assignments). So, in preparing to design my Fall 2012 sections of the class, I’m considering why one worked and the other so miserably failed (because I don’t think Wikipedia has that much to do with it).

I’ve been thinking about these contrasting experiences for a couple of weeks now and the two main differences that keep coming into view are the different levels of immersion and student autonomy.

In my Fall course, I asked students to immerse themselves in our topic (the first-year experience). Everything that they read, discussed, and wrote focused on some aspect of this topic. We began the term by reading My Freshman Year by Rebecca Nathan, which gave us a good set of issues to begin exploring, everything from dorm living to freshman attrition to student apathy/isolation. Throughout the semester, the students researched and blogged about these issues and, as a capstone project, synthesized their research in a multimedia class presentation. The presentation took the place of the big research paper that my department’s syllabus for the course requires. This is an assignment that I have a lot of issues with for various reasons and students traditionally struggle with it for all of the reasons that I don’t like it (it often feels like an add-on tacked to the end of the course and asks students to deal with some complex skills, such as learning how to locate and effectively integrate scholarly sources and cite them using MLA, when many of them are still struggling with sentence construction, paragraph organization, and thesis statements). But my hybrid students’ presentations were quite well done and some could have easily been developed and presented at our university’s annual student research symposium (I encouraged some to do so, but freshman are rarely confident enough to submit and present their work); it was obvious that they really cared about their topics and had invested a good deal of effort into teaching their peers about them. I think the quality was directly correlated with the fact that the students had been immersed in researching, thinking, and writing about their topic for several months, rather than the 2-3 weeks normally allocated to the research paper, much as academics and researchers immerse themselves in their topics for months or years.

But these are teenagers, not professional academics and researchers. When planning the course, I was concerned that the students would become bored with reading and writing about the same topic for fourteen weeks, so I built a large amount of autonomy into the assignments. Students were free to address any issues related or relevant to college freshman, including those not addressed in Nathan’s book, and they could deal with as many of the issues as they wished, so that if they lost interest in one topic, they could explore another, and they could also develop a broad knowledge of the issues surrounding the freshman experience and, hopefully, identify the connections between some of them. The students focused on a wide range of phenomena, including the freshman fifteen; the lack of preparation that many freshman feel, in terms of both academic and life skills; social and communal life; the benefits of campus organizations and services; the clash of home values with those encountered in college; the benefits of diversity on college campuses; and why freshman don’t participate in class, just to name a few. Some of the students even voluntarily performed primary research, creating Facebook and Twitter polls and conducting the kinds of interviews and observations that Nathan had during her ethnographic study.

So, the key elements of the Fall course that I failed to carry over into the Spring course were the intense immersion in a topic and student autonomy in directing their own learning about the topic. Instead, I set up a series of loosely-related learning tasks with the idea that I was scaffolding the skills I wanted students to master. I thought that I was doing the pedagogically responsible thing–challenging, scaffolding, making relevant, working my way up Bloom’s pyramid. But in spending so much time planning and micro-managing the class and what the students would be doing in it, I was turning their skatepark into an obstacle course.

Learning isn’t a pyramid. And we shouldn’t be making our students build it or climb it or whatever else we try to make them do to it in the name of teaching. This is why my students enjoyed the DS106 class so much more than the class I had designed for them; there are no pyramids in DS106, just options between learning opportunities and even, if none of the existing opportunities are appealing enough, the option to design your own learning opportunity.

After reflecting on the mistakes that I made this past Spring, I have a better idea of how to avoid those mistakes again this Fall. I’m terribly bummed that my Spring students had to suffer through those mistakes. And I’m bummed that those who gave up on me missed out on experiencing DS106. And I’m thankful to Jim Groom for allowing us to visit with his learning community for a while. It reminded me about the magic of learning for learning’s sake. And I hope that someday I will build the kind of learning skatepark that he has. I’m trying.

The point that I hope others take away from my mistakes with my hybrid FYC class and my self-assessment is that sometimes being innovative can get in the way of learning, both your students’ and your own. My first hybrid FYC students taught me a lot about what students are capable of if we give them the space and the freedom to play. My Spring students also taught me a lot about the difference between challenging students and forcing them to jump through hoops. We need common goals for a course; but there is more than one way to meet them. Obstacle courses may make getting there more challenging, but do we want to challenge our students or do we want them to challenge themselves?

Creating a Learning Skatepark, Step 1: Deliberate Practice

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In my last post, I shared a video that compared learning to skateboarding; while this video has had a major positive impact on my teaching philosophy, I mentioned the negative impact that it has had on the control that I feel I have over the learning that takes place in my classroom:

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).

I thought that I would write a series of posts that address how I have remixed my classroom as a result of these realities. I now see myself less as a sage on the stage or even a guide on the side, and more of an architect. As Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” The first thing that is necessary for creating conditions for learning is allowing students the freedom, space, and time to practice (and failure needs to be both expected and acceptable, but that’s a topic for another post). It does no good to create the conditions for learning–a skatepark, to use Dr. Tae’s analogy–and then try to tell your students what they need to do and how to do it. And then tell them they get one chance to try it and if they fail then, not only will they be penalized with a bad grade that stays with them for the rest of their time at the skatepark, but they won’t get any further opportunities to try to master the trick (unless it’s by re-taking the class again next term) and they’ll have to move on to the next trick on the list of tricks they must learn, whether they’ve mastered the first trick or not. And guess what? The next trick is even harder and requires mastery of the first trick. This is no more of an effective way of helping students learn as it is to put your kid on a bicycle with no training wheels, tell them they’ve got one chance to get it right, and then give them a big push.

But just any old practice is not going to do. One of the characteristics of learning to skateboard is working at a skill or trick until you get it right, not half-way or almost there, but right. This requires a type of practice called deliberate practice, which requires both a focused and concerted effort on mastery of a skill and reflection on what worked and what didn’t work during each practice session. I often have my students read this article from Time on the role of deliberate practice in becoming a great musician and we discuss the similarities between learning to play an instrument (or learning to perform a skateboard trick) and writing. What the studies on deliberate practice make clear is that the most important thing about practice is not how long or how much you practice; it’s about being able to recognize what you did wrong and making a commitment to figuring out how to do it right.

And this is what I require my students to do with each of their writing assignments (which I now call opportunities because, at the skatepark, every session is an opportunity to practice with and learn from other skaters). Firstly, I use a portfolio system. This allows students some freedom from the pressures of being graded on each writing performance. It also means that I’ve removed the sticks and carrots from my classroom. If students do anything in my classroom, they have to do it because they want to. I refuse to bribe them into being there and doing anything they don’t truly want to do. Only hardcore skaters are allowed at my park. And, yes, that means that some students drop or opt out. That’s their choice.

The second way I have integrated deliberate practice into my writing classes is by requiring students to self-assess each of their writing “practice sessions.” I’ll discuss my method in depth in a future post, but basically each student has to answer a set of questions about their final draft that addresses what they think is working and not working in the piece. They also have to set goals for themselves for their next “practice session,” selecting at least one weakness in the current piece they will work at weeding out of their next draft (and, if necessary, the next one and the next one, etc.). I then focus my feedback around their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their writing and where they need to focus their deliberate practice efforts.

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But what I really wanted to focus on in this post is allowing my writing students to have some deliberate practice with engaging in the academic conversation–the type of dialogue that I want them to have with the sources that they are integrating into their blog posts. By far the most effective method for teaching students the type of summary and response that all academic writing engages in that I’ve used is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s “The say/I say/So what?” method. But even with providing them with the templates from the book, my freshmen still struggle with how to effectively agree with someone (and disagreeing they won’t touch with a thirty-nine and half foot pole). So I designed a couple of different spaces  that allow them some deliberate practice with agreeing and disagreeing with their peers in preparation for agreeing and disagreeing with their sources.

We begin with a safe zone–the physical classroom–and a buddy system–peer groups–for testing the academic conversation waters. Students are grouped from the very first class meeting with 3-4 peers with whom they will stay for the whole term (I’ve considered the idea of rotating group members, as some instructors do, but once students become comfortable with each other, I think fear of failure decreases dramatically, so right now I’m opting for building a layer of protection with the peer groups). Their groups are where they will test out their ideas, bounce around arguments, and receive feedback during the entire process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and publishing a piece of writing. I’ve spent quite a few semesters eavesdropping on the conversations that go on during these group sessions and am always surprised at how honest students will be with a small group of peers, especially once they have connected with each other and realize that everyone else is just as lost as they are when it comes to this academic writing thing.

Once students are pretty secure about their ideas and how best to communicate them, they publish their piece on their blog. I won’t spend time here discussing the benefits of having students blog. There are pros and cons and I have weighed them both and tried various methods and have had overwhelming success with public student blogs, both in terms of the quality of the students’ ideas and their writing and in terms of the feedback from the students on the positive impact of blogging on their feelings about writing. Among the many reasons why I require my students to blog, one is the dialogue that it creates around the students’ own writing. That’s the whole purpose of a public blog–to generate a discussion about an issue or topic. How much more exciting do you think students find it that their writing will be read and discussed by their peers rather than unceremoniously tossed in the trash after a cursory once-over by their profs? Just ask your students this question and see what happens. And if it doesn’t excite them, then you need to find something that does and that may not involve blogging (but that’s okay, there’s other ways to skin a cat).

The point of publishing their writing on their blog is so that the entire class has an opportunity to read what they have to say and respond to it in some way. So I require students to read and respond to at least three peers’ blog posts each week (I’m currently trying out a system of rotating students between the roles of bloggers and readers/commenters; I’ll let you know how that turns out and whether I’ll make it a regular practice or not). I give them some guidelines on how to comment on a blog post using a handout on commenting in online discussions that I found online and remixed to focus on blog comments. And then I let them practice–deliberatively. And I model effective blog commenting by commenting myself (more on the importance of role models in the skatepark later). One thing I’m trying out this summer is having students use Storify to create annotated bibliographies for their research, embed their “stories” in their blog, and then read and comment on each others’ bibliographies. So far, I think it’s working. Here’s a snippet from the comments on a student’s annotated bibliography post:

There are a couple of things going on here (all good, I think). Students are practicing agreeing and disagreeing with each other and they are providing feedback on the reliability and relevancy of research sources. The hope is that they will internalize these assessment skills and learn to apply them to their own research and writing practice.

That’s my hope, anyway. I don’t expect these kinds of comments from every student with every blog post. Some will get it faster than others. Some will not get it until the very end. Some may never get it (but hopefully will down the road if they get another instructor who’s willing to provide them the chance to try). And that’s okay. I’ve provided them with the space to practice in, some guidelines on how to know when they’ve got it right, and the freedom to try and fail as many times as they need to to get it right. If they learn anything, I hope it’s that it’s okay to suck at something when you try it the first time and that it doesn’t mean you can’t get better at it, and maybe even great at it, with a little deliberate practice.

I’m interested in how others are integrating deliberate practice into their classrooms and which methods you’ve found effective and ineffective. So, please share your ideas, stories, and questions. After all, students aren’t the only ones who benefit from deliberate practice.