I always seem like a depressed pessimist when writing these blogs… 🙁 At any rate, as usual, these readings and videos seem wonderful in theory, but they just gloss over the problems. Perhaps the issue is that those who go into pedagogy enjoy their work too much… To be fair, most people who stick through a PhD and build a career, enjoy their work. But for those in pedagogy, their work is guided learning, teaching itself, and they can’t seem to grasp the idea that some student’s don’t want to be a part of it.
This does not apply at the graduate level, because presumably all of us actually enjoy what we do and wouldn’t be here otherwise. But most of our readings seem to cover all schooling at all ages. And I am certain I have encountered more than a few undergrads who simply didn’t want to be there. And of all the students, these are the ones most resistant to “fun” and active learning. They are also the ones most in need of being reached.
Thomas and Brown suggest that learning is inexorably tied with play and fun, and when combined properly, people are happy to learn. Which I would agree with, though their example of middle-school kids learning about Harry Potter lore is borderline absurd. First and foremost, the Harry Potter books are fun, for most students, spatial statistics and antebellum US history are not. You can certainly improve upon dry boring lectures, but you’ll never make it exciting unless you have the talent of someone like VT’s John Boyer or Youtube’s Dan Carlin.
Second of all, aren’t we ignoring the fact that high school age and younger kids have a psychological need to rebel against authority? (Again, this is not applicable to graduate students.) I’d wager that if you took a class of 8th graders, and required them to read Harry Potter, and assigned homework on the subject, and tested them, and then said that their futures depend on their ability to recall mundane details, they would hate it as much as they hate earth science or algebra. To those students, the teacher is the authority they are supposed to rebel against.
I hate to sound so negative, but the fact is that there isn’t enough flexibility for undergrads to exclusively take interesting courses. Sometimes they have to take required courses they despise. I certainly don’t blame them for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that some of them really don’t want to be sitting in your class.
The single most difficult moment in my short teaching experience was for a summer program introducing STEM fields to 8th graders. All of them were bright, and some of them wanted to be there, but a few very clearly didn’t. Who knows if their parents forced them to be there, or if they misjudged how interested they were in the program… Either way it seemed like torture for them. We tried to make our session as active as possible, running a real-time epidemic simulation and infect an imaginary population with some horrific pandemic influenza virus to see how many survived. Most of the students were happier playing the game than listening to our PowerPoint intro, but the more we tried to engage the disinterested ones, the less interested they were. I honestly think they’d have preferred to sleep through a lecture than be bothered by us. As soon as they structure of the rigid lecture (we teach, you listen) disappeared, they were free to completely disconnect. They certainly didn’t like the lecture either, but the game certainly didn’t help. Honestly it completely prevented me from reaching the other students. I felt like I was hurting these poor kids (because I remember being in their shoes in 8th grade myself). In fact, the only time they paid any attention was at the end when they got to control the learning entirely (asking questions about famous epidemics).
TL;DR: All of the methods we’ve read about so far are wonderful for interested students, but they make the fatal assumption that all the students want to be a part of this experience. If I get one thing out of this class, I hope I learn how to deal with these ones who don’t.
Unrelated side-note: One of the readings talks about the transition from black and white to color TV. Ever wonder what it looked like?