Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Teaching Naked (a review)

The biggest lesson to draw from Jose Bowen's Teaching Naked is that it's time to flip the classroom: use podcasts and other technologies out of class and devote class time for more lofty pursuits. While Massive Open Online Courses threaten traditional models of higher education, many students have also come to know and appreciate the flexibility online delivery can offer. If a faculty member can record a good lecture once, perhaps with careful editing, then sharing that recording is easier and better than doing it even a second time. Students can watch it out of class and that leaves class time for collaboration, debate, developing curiosity, evaluation, synthesis, reflection, oral and written work, discovering information sources, making interdisciplinary connections, creative expression, speculation, and so on. It may be possible even to use someone else's lectures, if they are good enough (and many are).

There's no escaping the fact that the Internet has changed everything. There is so much information available on line that the role of the faculty member is no longer to offer content, but to filter the content and package it. People will pay for apps, he pointed out, which package and deliver selected bits of information which is already available for free. The roll of the faculty member therefore is like a good app - they helping students find, filter, sort, focus, assess, critique and process information that they already have access to.

Bowen, a professor and Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, is savvy and enthusiastic - A game he created asks students to assemble a band using tracks of famous artists, each playing the same song in different styles. Educators often disparage games, he says, simply because of the content they often deliver. But there is much to learn from the games; good ones tend to be "pleasantly frustrating," or moderately challenging. Players progress at their own pace and there are small rewards along the way.  Knowledge and skills are accumulated, and they are highly motivating.

He offers a lot of good advice, and much of it goes deep. There are tips and examples for what to do in and out of class. For example, he says communication with students becomes more important with the new model of learning, and (surprise) it is often best done remotely with virtual office hours and any combination of twitter, facebook, google groups, screen sharing, email, skype, dropbox, podcasts, and so on.  Choose one or two communication modes, he advised. Make the contact dependable, brief, and transparent. And archive it.

He injects some theory on cognitive development: 1. practice and emotion are associated with learning, 2. There are six levels of cognitive skill: Remembering, Understanding, Applying, Analyzing, Evaluating, and Creating (based on Bloom's taxonomy), 3. There are three categories of thinking: critical, creative, and practical. 4. The developing mind moves through stages: everything the teacher says is true, then every opinion is equally valid, and finally some conclusions are better than others. It's not a book on the human mind, but this background is useful for the discussion and it does suggest that his methods may be valuable.

The writing style is very conversational.  I like his analogies and summary thoughts, I've plucked a few quotes to demonstrate his wit and insight:

"Universities have been like gas stations; we are all pretty similar but we survive because we have a local advantage and have not had much competition." 283

"While tenure has done its job by protecting research agendas, it has not fostered innovation in teaching, which we need now if we are to prosper." 284

"If your institution has a campus then you're a little like Borders. You might want to get into the online book sales business, but Amazon is already there and has lower overhead." 234
"If employers start not only valuing ... certifications but also requiring them, the traditional degree could be in trouble." 258

"Learning requires more than just new facts; it is motivated by forcing students to confront, analyze and articulate compelling discrepancies that require change in the way they believe." 80

"College teachers in general have no formal preparation for teaching, so they teach as they were taught, going back in an unbroken chain to the founding of Bologna, Paris, and Oxford universities in the 11th and 12th centuries." 20-21

Yet, in his zeal he probably makes some overstatements: "Listening to a lecture and taking notes is no longer an important skill." (127) "We need to make college more like a video game." (71) "It is hard to argue that doing well on closed-book tests prepares you for anything except more testing." (183) He even recommends not wasting time commenting on graded projects, because once students see their grade they won't read the comments anyway. And generally speaking, he doesn't seem to care much for reading at all. He's referring to podcasts when he writes "When classroom discussions or activities make it clear that success occurs only by doing the preparatory activity, students prepare." But why not just require students to read the textbook, like we used to do? His answer seems to be it's futile, they will not. But why would they watch the podcasts? And why can't  or maybe better, why shouldn't we require reading?  Is it no longer necessary?

He lost a point for those excesses, and for not having a better editor: It's rambling and often disorganized, many passages are repetitive and then there's the exaggeration. Even so, it's a valuable popular treatment of an important effort more universities are talking about, thinking about, and starting to do.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Generation neXt

I went to the Higher Learning Commission’s annual meeting in Chicago last week along with 4,200 educators from across the country.  It was held in a hotel not far from a red line, so I took the el down and finished Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked while I rode.  Bowen had been a superstar evening speaker at the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Atlanta a few months ago -- the kind that spends most of the year on the road, he's so popular.  He told us how to flip a classroom by putting the lectures on podcasts and spending valuable class time on projects.   At HLC Mark Taylor was Bowen’s counterpart.  Taylor is from Arkansas State University. He’s charismatic, lays on his southern accent with humor, and tells it exactly as he sees it.  His session was called “Teaching Generation NeXt: Innovating College Instruction.”

The lecture sort of hinged around a graph tracing the same trend I show here with Total Fertility Rate.  The TFR is the number of children a woman would have if she were to live her entire life at once, with the population's average age-specific fertility rates for that year. It captures child-per-woman at a single point in time and Gapminder.org let me track this measure from 1800 to the present; and the size of the circle is the total population.  Just look at how family size dropped steadily through the industrial revolution just as incomes were rising (inset).  Then came the “Post-War Baby Boom,” a burp, from 1945 or so to 1960.  This was my generation, to be honest; I was right at the top of it, and being a third child consider myself well timed.  And it was a different time.  I had to chuckle at what Taylor said about my cohort because so much of it rang true.  He called us “feral kids.” We were “free range kids.” You’d meet your pals on the street and say “what do you want to do today?” 

I never thought about it this way but yes, I was feral   My parents gave me a hatchet for my fourth birthday, because  we were a camping family, they trusted me, and I didn't have one yet.  They trusted me.  My friends and I practically lived in the forest preserve:- LaBaugh Woods, which we called Sherwood Forest.  It was right across the street from my house in Chicago, and neighborhood kids literally poured into our kitchen from one door and out the other, weekends and evenings. Playing kick the can was as organized as we got.  In Lima Peru, where I lived for a year, I was “home schooled” for half of it; that took about an hour a day and the rest of the time we explored.  We found that if we went from our roof to the neighbor’s we could look down two floors to see eggs frying in a pan (once we dropped a crushed leaf to see what would happen).  Another day we were minding our own business, just collecting scorpions in jars when a rock fight started. Some older kids started pelting us over a brick wall, so naturally we threw rocks back.  At the time that seemed like the obvious response.  We didn't want to hurt anyone, but this went on, exciting and almost fun until one the size of a golf ball hit me in the face.  I was 8.  I remember climbing into the belly of a cement truck to see what it was like inside one, and lining up empty flower pots from the cemetery, to watch the freight train mow them down.  Seat belts were not invented; my family drove from Chicago to California with some of us in the back of a pickup truck.  Kids smoked in High School -- I mean, in the building.  This was just the way things were done back then.  Free range child.  Indeed.

It wasn't all  fun and games.  At home we had a rule that anyone who didn’t make the dinner cleaned up; so I washed dishes every day,.  I also vacuumed, mowed, and did my own laundry and worked on the farm we lived on at the time.  Besides nearly dying (or worse) more than once, what did this do for me?  I learned to figure things out myself.  So at 17 I figured I’d like to spend Christmas in Florida so with $20 in my pocket and a backpack half full of granola I did, for two wonderful weeks. I liked it so much I did it the next year too and then traveled all over the U.S. that way.  At 20 I needed a car so I bought one that didn’t run and rebuilt the engine.  I started a pottery studio with two friends, built a kiln and we sold our stuff at art fairs.  Later in life, when I got my first house I'd never done drywall before, laid tile, sanded or finished wood floors, moved walls and doors, combined and added rooms, replaced windows, blown insulation.  I hadn't done much plumbing, or electrical wiring or that sort of thing, but I'm pretty good at all that now and I think I'm not done learning yet.  I think my feral childhood (while it did set me back in other ways, no doubt) worked out ok for me in some ways, too.  

Then, on the time line, came the baby bust: Generation X, a dip in the graph above when (as Taylor could put it) “we all took a semester off” from child rearing.  Three children went back to two which is just enough for a stable population.   When we returned to parenting about a decade later things were very different.  And again, I can relate because my own children are Generation neXt.   This generation includes those born today (they are the most  neXt, he said) all the way to kids entering college now.

Taylor doesn’t think much of the neXt generation, it seems -- he says they’ve been spoiled and he called them the “wanted, privileged, protected children of child-centric households.”  They are trophy kids, and not because they are set on a shelf to be admired.  It’s because they got trophies “for everything.”  This kid got a trophy for showing up, he said, displaying a photo of a beaming boy in a soccer jersey, trophy in hand.  “Look at his fat little arms, you know he can’t run,” he said.  But he thinks he’s a real soccer player!

Ouch.  But maybe he has a point in there.  When I look at my boys I usually conclude that we did OK as parents.  They seemed to enjoy their childhood, and they learned more in K-12 than I ever could have hoped for.  They play instruments – piano and drums -- one has been in a rock band and the other leads a hip-hop dance crew.  Both are good people with good friends.  One’s a seasoned gymnast and diver and they speak Japanese and Chinese.  And of course they also have excellent hand-eye coordination; they can operate two joy sticks and 16 buttons simultaneously under heavy fire.  They're multitaskers.  They know the Internet like I only knew Sherlock Forest and their casual social networks are huge.  If I were to choose a childhood, I’d very possibly choose something like theirs. 
But honestly, I'm not sure they both know how to fry an egg.  They've never ironed, and don't make their bed, and they'd have a hard time in a grocery store.  I could go on.  Yet they have very little down time and more pressure than I knew -- in some ways they're children and in other ways they have always been adults.  

The impact on higher education is interesting; according to Mark Taylor the kids hitting college are often focused on affirming talent rather than putting in effort – they are more interested in getting good grades than in the hard work of learning.  Just like the trophy they may have gotten for showing up, a good grade for weak effort only makes them feel they’re learning.  And faculty are complicit. The dominant pedagogy is based on teaching -- the faculty member does the work, sets the curriculum, delivers the material.  Yet literature shows that the more effective model is based on learning, in which the hard work is done by the student and not so much the instructor.  The instructor should facilitate learning, not just teach.  And we must find good ways to actually measure learning rather than simply evaluating instruction and assuming that learning is happening, on faith.

This is just what is recommended in the books and literature I have been reading. Some of my favorites: 1. Flipping the classroom (delivering the lecture material on podcast, and working on “homework” in the classroom), 2. inverting the curriculum (starting by studying a capacious problem, and then digging into the disciplines to solve it), 3. community involvement (messy, real-world engagement).  4. And students can develop e-portfolios in which they demonstrate their own learning, in their own ways, clearly and succinctly.   With training, peers can even help with the assessment, and the portfolios can be a professional tool of self-expression all through life. 5. Then there is the emphasis on assessment of learning.  That is, evidence-based models of learning, rather than faith-based models.

For two and a half decades I've worked very hard to organize and deliver my course material in ways to make it easy to understand, and I’ll continue to do that as best I can.  But I might take a lesson from the mistakes I probably made in parenting and do less for others that they can do for themselves.  I'm certainly guilty of driving my sons to events when they could have taken the el, biked, or called a friend.   I take out the trash, mow the lawn, fix the leaking toilet; my teenagers have been almost exempt from household chores their entire lives.  I never wake them up when they're sleeping, I even boil the raman noodles while he’s standing right there in the kitchen.  Why do I do this?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, these guys work hard, they really do.  They need time to relax, so I'll do the drudgery so they can chill a bit.  Second, I like doing it.  I love them and I love helping them.  It’s self-indulgent, I admit, and I think it may be holding them back in ways that I hadn't considered.  

It's quite possible that in the classroom I may be making similar choices for similar reasons.  I'm thinking about this a little differently now and when I go back to teaching I'll try to mix it up a bit.  It won't be easy!  But I want to do less, and ask others to do more.