Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Tribal Leadership

Reading this book because it was recommended by a higher up at the college who wanted to lead a book group on it, and the book group is this week.  I am slow to recommend books like this, but I found it helpful.  It took me a while to get into it, and it’s pretty anecdotal and of course, like all these books presents its ideas as the salvation of the organizational world. 
Essentially, it posits five levels for organizations.
Stage 1 – Members say, “Life sucks.”
Stage 2 – Members say, “My life sucks.”
Stage 3 – Some members say, “My life is great.”  Here we have people performing well but only for themselves.
Stage 4 – Members say, “We are great,” which is an us-them mentality but is preferable to Stage 3, where everyone is about themselves and their own success.  At this stage the leaders have had epiphanies that show them the organization is bigger than individual members, etc.  Sort of a Jack Mezirow transformative learning thing.
Stage  5 – We don’t have to worry about being great because we are not about ourselves or beating the competition, but about serving the greater good, the globe, etc.  Sort of like Maslow’s self-actualization level. 
Since I recently read Carol Dweck’ Mindset, I couldn’t help seeing the connections with that book, which I do recommend although I wish she had put more scholarship into it.   

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Academic Freedom

I take a very conservative view of Academic Freedom.  By that I mean that as far as free speech for the faculty member in the classroom, the less the better.  This is odd for me because I am libertarian in regard to free speech, but I also know the issues of power in the classroom and that the classroom has one goal, and that is not to allow the professor to spout off and pontificate.

The goal of the classroom is student learning, not indocrination into a faculty member's viewpoints.   There is too much to do in a classroom to spend time on your own tangents. 

Does this mean the faculty member is a blank slate, with not opportunities for self-expression?  Of course not.  We should be and are free to state our opinions, as long as we present them as such.  And we all know faculty who state their opinions as facts and as the sum total of the issue.  Admit it.  Just because you agree with someone's viewpoint doesn't mean it isn't their viewpoint.

Likewise, self-disclosure must be minimal, and that includes the use of foul language.  While some students will think a faculty member who uses profanity is "cool," more or many will think it unwise, intemperate, or unnecessary. And of course, some won't even notice.   Some might, reasonably, find the use of the f word sexist and violating.  

I will probably make some mad with this, but too many college professors treat the classroom as a floorshow about themselves or their ideas rather than engaging the students in real learning, and then we complain when the students don't meet the learning outcomes.

Am I a hypocrite in this regard?  My only violation might be to tell personal stories that have a point in the content, and I imagine some of those stories work and others don't.  It was hard during this last election not to say both candidates were horrendous.  Actually, I probably did.  So,yes, I am human and probably hypocritical, but I don't think academic freedom protects me. 

Reflective Practice as a High Impact Practice

The following is an excerpt from a guidebook I am co-authoring with colleagues on implementing High Impact Practices in a classroom.  I wrote this part so I think it's ok to post; our final book is going to be an open resource anyway and under Creative Commons.  This section is under the part on one of the quality matrices, "Periodic and structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning."

 One of the examples of this essential element, provided by the AAC&U literature, is “A capstone course in which students submit a portfolio and explain the relative contributions of the artifacts contained therein that represent the knowledge and proficiencies attained at various points during their program of study.”  Although this is one way to use reflection in a significant way, there are many ways that reflection can be used.  Unfortunately, reflection is a word more talked about than understood and done, as Shakespeare would say, “a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance.

Reflection is a buzz word today but little is said about how to facilitate reflection.  If we are to follow David Kolb’s model of learning, based on Dewey’s, there must first be something to reflect upon, specifically, an experience.  (see Image 2). Reflection does not exist for its own sake, but for future experience and use of the learning. 

Students should also be educated to use reflection that is critical, in the sense that the student should be using the reflective episode to question prior assumptions he/she held about the content of learning, about him/herself, and about the discipline and knowledge construction (learning).   Reflection is a method that can aid the student not only to assimilate the knowledge into existing frameworks of understand but also to accommodate or transform existing frameworks to the new knowledge (as per Piaget’s theory of assimilation and accommodation in learning).  Reflection can therefore aid the student in moving up the hierarchy of Bloom’s/Krathwohl’s taxonomy of learning.

The Western practice of and belief in the power of reflection is based in the Socratic advice to know oneself and that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  It is a way of helping students find their places in and response to the world.  Reflection has a strong subjective component, and unfortunately the student often interprets the task of “reflection” as focusing mainly or totally on the subjective, personal experience and not the objective, corporate experience.  In other words, the emphasis is “I,” not “it” or “we” or “others.”  The personal is part of reflection, but not all.  Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning should not be interpreted as an expectation that the students should wallow in or privilege their own opinions, but that they should think deeply and critically about various facets of an experience, not just their immediate emotional, ethical, or cultural reaction.

Students, especially college students in their first two years, are usually unaware of methods for reflecting.  Sometimes their “reflections” are skeletal and superficial, although in my experiences some students who are more verbal or more introverted will produce more in-depth or at least verbose reflections. Some students mistake “giving my opinion or personal response to something” as reflection on an experience or classroom event.  It is common practice to use prefabricated prompts from a textbook or other sources to instigate the reflection.  It might be a valuable long-term project to instill in students a taxonomy of reflection, or methodology, so that when they are told to “reflect” they have the tools to do so.

Such taxonomies exist.  A good grounding in Bloom’s taxonomy and Krathwohl’s and Anderson’s revision of it is a basis. Peter Pappas takes Bloom’s as his inspiration for his taxonomy of reflection (Image 3).  Although Pappas works mostly with public secondary students and teachers, the model gives a sense of how reflection could be structured, and therefore more assessable.

The word “assessable” brings us to the real gist of the matter and the essential element.  What does the faculty member do with the reflection? How is it “graded?” It is not unusual for faculty to read reflections, make a few comments as needed, give a check mark, and move on.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it should not be the goal, especially in upper division courses.  A reflection paper of any length should be expected to follow a structure that examines various aspects and is graded with a rubric and sufficiently weighted in terms of grades, since the writing and revision task itself is iterative, reflective, and basic to critical thinking. 

And of course, not all reflective tasks are equal.  If an instructor shows a controversial video in class wherein a filmmaker or speaker makes an argument, the reflective task there might focus on rhetorical elements.  On the other hand, if in a psychology course the instructor enacts a role play of a famous experiment, that reflective task may look different.  However, in referring to Pappas and Kolb, the first step would be to get students to clearly, nonjudgmentally review what really happened and the facets of its meaning before moving on to the validity of the claims, the biases of the speaker or the audience, and the connection or application to reality.  Image 4 gives an example of a taxonomy that might be useful for a rhetorical video.

Question 1
Question 3
What is being said (and not?) (understanding)
What does it mean? (interpretation)
What can I do with this information or insight? (application)
Why is this important? (value)
Why should I accept his position? (logic of his arguments)
Why would I be biased against this position? (questioning my assumptions)
How did the speaker get to this position/idea/view? (is he/she honest about it?)
Could the speaker be leaving out something? (his/her biases)
How does the speaker support his/her ideas? (persuade us?)

Another, element of reflection is the communication mode.  Is it best for the student to do reflection in written form for only the instructor and him/herself, in written form only for self, in written form for others, in oral mode to the whole class or to just a small group, or simply internal?  This is a difficult question, related to the level of the controversy involved, perceived threat of retaliation in a grade, perception of the subjective nature of reflection, introversion-extroversion of the student, cultural experiences of the students, and diversity in processing modes or learning styles.  Being asked to reflect doesn’t mean that the student will come to fully formed conclusions in a few minutes.  It might make more sense to focus on the process of reflection than the outcomes or conclusions.

Writing or stating something publicly in our culture is seen as a commitment one is held to and judged by.  A student expected to reflect out loud or in a public way might still be processing and unready to commit to a viewpoint; it’s still tentative, nascent, and undeveloped. At the same time, we could argue that telling students to reflect without a permanent record of it is truly as waste of time. They might as well be told to plan what they are going to eat for lunch or what Netflix show they will watch that evening.  Writing, even for the self, involves the brain actively far more than just speaking or keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.  The weight of the assignment and relationship to the course’s student learning outcomes also enter into the communication mode chosen.  

Related to this question is whether the instructor himself or herself is willing to engage in the same type of reflection and honesty and to recognize his/her assumptions that might need testing.  If the instructor’s goal in reflective assignments is to get the students ultimately to agree with his/her viewpoints, then there is a problem.  Students often perceive the reflective task this way and decide that the best method is to give the instructor what is wanted for a grade rather than be honest.

In conclusion, reflection has many values and should be an integral part of whatever High Impact Practice utilized in the course; however, its use should be strategic, intentional, assessable, and facilitated with training students with ways to reflect. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A few thoughts on college teaching: Lecturing and Academic Freedom

I was reading an interesting (although in need of proofreading) article called "Lecture is Not a Dirty Word."  One of the big reasons faculty don't like faculty or educational development is that they feel that lecturing is characterized as a horrible method in favor of "active learning strategies."  As a colleague says, it's a straw man because presenters often show the hilarious clips of Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (it is quite funny, but in no means the reality of lecturing for most professors I know).

One of the thoughts in this article is that students don't want to waste time in class on activities, discussions, etc. that do not help them learn directly and get a good grade.  Oh, woe is us, these writers say--the students should not be so extrinsic and should want to learn for the sake of learning, should be socially constructing knowledge and not just passing a test.

To that I say, get real.  None of the faculty members wanted to waste time on activities that would not get them grades in college.  I wouldn't. Time is precious.  If an active learning strategy is just a trendy thing to do and doesn't help the student get a better grade, there are two problems:  the assessment methods are not good and probably there are learning outcomes problems in the class design; a good grade should only prove the student learned, and therefore the point of the class was met.

Now, that is not to say I am in favor of 75-minute lectures, 2 times a week for 15 weeks.  I am in favor of short lectures with breaks (both physical and mental; students should have to get up and move during that period).  Some things in classes just need to be explained in lectures, which should be at most 20 minutes long followed by something to apply or reflect or discuss or write about or practice the knowledge.  A college teacher should be a good lecturer in the sense of (a) a clear explainer of concepts (b) having a loud and energetic enough voice, and (c) being able to add some entertaining examples and rhetorical variety. A good lecturer needs to be organized (organization goes a long way).  PowerPoint is a very good organizational tool, but busy notes on the slides is generally not that good because it discourages note-taking.

Obviously lecturing can have a number of bad characteristics, but other than poor rhetorical and nonverbal aspects, the worst is lecturing that gets the students off the hook for reading the material and working outside of class.  That is where students take responsibility for their own learning.  If a student can pass a class based on the PowerPoints and lectures, then a book should not be assigned (or bought).  But this is not an advisable strategy, since the classroom time limits who much material can be explained.  In my opinion, the textbook should cover the basics and the lectures the more advanced or specialized knowledge.

Another point in the article is that students don't like class discussions as much as instructors think they do.  This is a tough point.  What is the point of the discussion?  To let students express their opinions?  Why?  Seriously, why?  So the others can hear other points of view?  Why?  Do the students really think their peers know anything worth listening to?  If what matters is the content of the course and learning the concepts to pass the class, why would Joe Doe's opinion matter?

Before you get excited, there is a value in the students having to hear a diversity of viewpoints in some contexts (such as interpretation of an art work) and there is also value in their learning to listen in a civil and respectful manner.  But I would encourage the discussion to be directed to facts and experience rather than opinion.  Not that I am the expert on this (who is?), but yesterday I wanted students to talk about their experiences in job interviews as a way to draw out how their experiences were typical of today's workforce climate, how they responded to it and how they could have, what they learned from it, etc.  

This post has gone on too long so I'll get to academic freedom next time.