In Retrospect

I have to confess that I was skeptical of “learner-centered” teaching when I began the semester. I imagined unproductive classrooms where nothing was really learned. I heard rumors that the over-arching philosophy of the class was “the student is ALWAYS right.”

It seems that I was wrong.

First, I’ve come to see the hypocrisy of my orignal position. My wife and I have long planned to homeschool our children. Why? We’ve seen the inability of the current mainstream education system – public or private – to reach many kids. Teaching to tests. Standardization. One-size-fits-all. All are aspects of industrialized education rather than true learning. We want our children to be allowed to explore in their interests, as they are ready, without the artificial constraint of the school system. We want them to take responsibility for learning from an early age. We want them to experience learning by doing and service. I somehow separated these beliefs about primary and secondary education from my thinking on higher ed. As the semester progressed, it became obvious that my philosophy of education must be coherent. Similar problems exist at all levels of education. I have the responsibility to address these problems in the university and change my practices just as I have responsibility to provide my children with an education tailored to their needs.

Second, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the tone of GRAD 5114. The needs, cares, and thoughts of the student are held in higher regard by the methods presented in this class compared to those in many traditional pedagogies. At the same time, the students’ responsibility for their learning and actions are also emphasized more.  Rather than regarding students as automatons in which to ‘download’ knowledge, we must help our students grow as intelligent agents of their own education.  Learner-centered teaching is not about pandering to spoiled brats and making everybody feeling warm and fuzzy.  It is rather a journey toward teaching our students to be responsible and capable adults of the next generation.

Wise Use of Technology

In last week’s reading The Myth of the Disconnected Life, Farman highlights growing trends to disconnect from technology and reconnect with people.  Interestingly, he too argues from history, just like Nicholas Carr, that people have always been afraid of new technology and the disconnection it supposedly breeds in society.  Both claim via these arguments that the technology was not bad, or at least more good than bad.  They are implicitly assuming first that the all of the previous historical technological breakthroughs listed are obviously good things for society.  Thus it must follow that the current technology really isn’t as bad as we are making it out to be.  While I don’t want to argue every point, I don’t think that this assumption can be made blindly or without consideration.  Remember that much is lost as well as gained through technology.

While I don’t purport to know much about the Digital Sabbath movement, Farman exaggerates the claims of the Digital Sabbath proponents while making his argument against them.  Saying that we need to take breaks from digital media – pick your reason – is not equivalent to calling all media evil.  So the mere presence and usefulness of cool technologies like [murmur] and the Museum of London app does not disprove the need to rest our minds and lives from the digital blur around us.

Electronic technology used wisely and in moderation is an amazingly powerful tool but used wrongly is a horrible master.  Just read E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops.  We can stay in touch with friends, explore the world, learn new things, etc.  On the other hand, we can abuse it or worse yet disrespect other people or ourselves through it.  The key is distinguishing between the two.  Maybe the concept of disrespect is a more appropriate way of differentiating wise use of technology than disconnectedness.  The latter is hard to judge, when we can interact and connect with people all over the world in productive ways through our electronics.  In contrast when electronic interaction leads to isolation or neglect of responsibilities, we are disrespecting ourselves. When we ignore or interrupt others for the latest text or Twitter, we belittle the importance of the people who are present with us.  As technology mushrooms around us, we must make a concerted effort to avoid disrespect and must learn to exercise the self-control to use technology appropriately without abusing it.

Industrialized Learning??

I was struck by the comments Nicholas Carr made in Is Google Making Us Stupid? about F.W. Taylor’s industrial philosophy.  While I obviously benefit from the countless ‘cheap’ goods produced by an economy operating under this framework, in principle I do not agree that such an economy is a good thing.  I agree with the grumbling Midvale employees that industrialization tends to create a demeaning and dehumanizing philosophy of work.

The idea that Google wants to apply Taylor’s concepts of “one best method” and “systematizing everything” to the search for knowledge is incredibly scary.  Humans do not thrive on systematized tasks, no matter how efficient the results are.  As an example, consider the fate of farming over the past century as it has been hijacked by the same industrial philosophy.  Already in 1939, Steinbeck aptly critiqued this travesty in chapter 11 of The Grapes of Wrath

And this is easy and efficient.  So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and of working it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.  And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.

Because of ‘easy and efficient’ thinking, we live in a land where it is very difficult to thrive as a farmer who truly wonders, understands, and relates to the land.  We have a precarious food-system that survives on fossil fuel and is controlled by a few huge, bullying corporations.

If aims of Google (as characterized by Carr) – not to mention those of our mechanized, standardization-driven, fast-food style education system – come to fruition, we could easily replace three words in the preceding quote and end up with the following truth about the state of ‘learning’ in the 21st century

And this is easy and efficient.  So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the knowledge and of learning it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.  And in the student there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.

I, for one, don’t want to go there.

Geotechnical Engineering – Assignment 1

Why is my course important?  We’re asked to explain this “to” our students or “for” our students in our syllabus.  Not that I can’t do this, but should I?  Is explaining the “importance” of our class just another example of exerting power over our students, right from the beginning?

Maybe this is another question that we can help and encourage our students to explore for themselves.  I’m envisioning a syllabus and first assignment in an introduction to geotechnical engineering course (a junior-level class) that goes something like this.

Syllabus Intro:  Throw out half a dozen intriguing facts about soil mechanics that will pique the interests of these young civil engineers.  Try to touch on all the major branches of the discipline; cast the net large.  Brief entry-level papers could even be provided as background for the facts for students who want to explore further.  For example:

  • Did you know that expansive soils cause an estimated $13 billion damage to buildings in the US annually, more than the effects of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes combined (Rendon-Herrero, 2011)?

Assignment #1:  Brainstorm and record the reasons why a knowledge of geotechnical engineering and soil mechanics will be important to you (aside from passing the FE exam).  Use the facts/questions in the beginning of the syllabus as a jumping off point, if necessary.  Also consider the following:

  • If you plan to concentrate in geotechnical engineering, explain why.  What attracts you to the field?  What makes you interested in it?
  • If not, how do you think that your concentration (structural, transportation, etc.) interacts with geotechnical engineers in practice?  How will the content of this course help you with those interactions?
  • Think of this assignment like a journal entry, not a paper.  It will be graded based on the thoughtfulness of the response, rather than the elegance of the prose or the conclusiveness of your argument.

I think an assignment along these lines could really help students think through the purpose of the class and semester before them.  It would be helpful to compile, distribute, and discuss the results with the class and share the student’s various insights with everyone.

 

Student choices in assignments

Been musing about student choices within assignments, specifically in my field of geotechnical engineering.  How to do this?

Consider an assignment calculating seepage below a dam or levee resting on layered soil, for example.  The designer must have values of permeability for each soil layer.  Rather than the more traditional approach in which students are given these parameters, why not give the students an abundance of test results for the soils and let them choose the parameters from the results as they would in practice.

The assignment would then be evaluated as follows:

  • Say 80% of grade is assigned based on the design analysis (the primary learning objective of the assignment).
  • The remaining 20% would be assessed based on HOW the parameters for the analysis were chosen (secondary objective).

Students would be allowed to use all, some, or none of the provided test results to determine the parameters for their analysis.  If few or none of the tests are used, the students must justify this and explain the judgment calls that they have made.  If more or all of the tests are used, the students will see that getting more technical data is “expensive,” and does not necessarily result in more accurate analyses.  This approach would “cost” the students more study hours just like it would cost their clients more in the future.

 

Teaching and parenting

Reading Chapter 5 of Weimer reminds me of a book on parenting.  But why shouldn’t it?  Some have already commented that thinking of students in a familial sense may help with the dynamic of the classroom, provided of course that we have a healthly and/or helpful concept of family.

Specifically it recalls books such as Making children mind without losing yours (Lehman, 2000) and the Love and Logic series.  Both advocate a family dynamic where parents are neither authoritarian nor permissive.  Authoritarian parents center the the authority on themselves and make all the decisions themselves.  This is exactly the sort of position that Weimer dissuades us from as teachers.  On the other hand, the permissive parent allows their kids to run rampant, doing whatever they please and having no discipline.  This appears to be the mental perception of many educators when they hear the term “learner-centered.”  These books suggest that the family functions best when parents treat their kids more like adults, giving them as much responsibility and decision making power as possible.  Appropriate choices abound in the home.  Consequences are real and logically tied to actions.  Parents must follow through cool-headedly on their rules and practice what they preach.  These things aren’t always easy to do but in my experience are excellent parenting principles.  They also apply to teaching as evidenced by the overlap in Weimer’s book.

Yet Weimer argues that we shouldn’t treat our students like children.  But I argue that it depends on how you treat your children.  If one takes an authoritarian approach and gives ones children no responsibility, I whole-heartedly agree.  However, if we treat our students (and children) as responsible people who are able to answer for and bear the consequences of their decisions, I think we can treat our students like “children.”

Interestingly, as I was getting the hyperlink for the Love and Logic site, I noticed that they have a whole section of their website devoted to education.  Maybe the topic of another post?

Parkour and how we learn

Thought 1:  Intrigued by the video we watched in GEDI, I asked my wife when I got home on Wednesday night if she knew about “parkour.”  Getting a negative reply, I explained the sport based on my brief exposure to it, and she replied “Isn’t that what little boys do naturally?”  That got me thinking.  Yes my son does naturally seem to climb over and bounce off from the obstacles (furniture, walls, etc.) in front of him.  He often prefers to take the long and difficult route to get somewhere.  He doesn’t see these things as roadblocks but a playground.  So maybe that’s part of how he’s made, how his body and mind were designed to work.

Thought 2:  Also related to family, my three-year-old daughter has been in one of those “Why…?” phases lately. In the moment, it can be extremely frustrating.  However, the teacher in me has to sit back and say to myself, “This curiousity and wonder at the world is great!”  Sure, sometimes it is just stalling because she doesn’t want to eat her dinner or go to bed.  But much of the time, she is really trying to learn and understand things.  How do we keep that sense of awe and wonder in our children?

Thought 3:  The state of primary and secondary education was lamented by many on Wednesday night.  Aside from changes to the system itself, how do we as teachers deal effectively with the students produced by our current education morass.

Bright students often come to college beat up and no longer able to tackle the educational obstacles put before them.  They no longer want anything to do with parkour anymore, at least when it comes to education.  Instead they have been trained to opt for the easiest path around the educational hurdles before them, or at least to only jump over the lowest hurdle, if they have a choice.  The joy of learning has been beat out of them by the system.  Our job is to show them that not only is what they are learning significant, but facing that challenge can also be enjoyable and thrilling.  The parkour metaphor not only works for us as teachers facing a challenging university system in which we must work.  It also provides a good context in which to think of how to engage less than enthused students.

We also need to remember that much of the “How do I learn?” question comes by asking “Why…?” just like my three-year-old.  Maybe we need to insert that question more often in our teaching and lectures to remind our students the importance of that little word.  Better yet, when we’re facing a Why question in our research, bring it to the class and ask it there.  It may not lead to any new insights.  But then again, who knows?

A lesson from the farm

Wendell Berry writes in Andy Catlett about a young boy of the same name spending time with his grandparents on their farm.  The youth is gently forced outside on a cold winter morning to help his Granddaddy and a family friend, Burley, work in the barns.  Reluctantly at first, he helps them as they “kept finding ways for me to help” and “let me belong there at work with them.”  As the morning and the work progresses, Andy finds that “I went from reluctance and dread to interest in what we were doing, and then to pleasure in it.  I got warm.”  He realized thankfully that “the men were letting me help sometimes even when I could see I was slowing them down.”

What a beautiful picture of the learning and growing process!  In this case, it’s not “school learning” but more practical work or trade learning on the farm.  Nonetheless, the old men, as teachers, gently led Andy from reticence to pleasure in the task before them.  I believe that is part of our role as teachers.  Our students often come to us forced to take our particular class by the university or their department.  They arrive reluctant and reserved, like Andy in the barn on a cold winter’s morning.  We succeed as teachers when we help our students move from cold indifference to interest and pleasure in the work at hand, whether it be farm chores or calculus or history.

Granddady and Burley wisely chose to simply involve Andy in their own work.  They didn’t sit him down on a bale of hay and lecture to him about the intricacies of building sheep pens.  They didn’t make him muster false exuberance about the work before making him help with it.  The men knew that learning often comes through doing, and pleasure in work/learning often comes through accomplishing a task with an appropriate amount of help.  Even though Andy slowed down their work and made them less efficient (They couldn’t cover as much material??), he was not cast aside as too inexperienced to be involved in the work.

Maybe we need to learn some lessons about teaching from this simple story from the farm.

 

Reflections on the Function of Content

Some reflections on the points raised by Weimer on the Function of Content in the classroom:

  • It seems that the goal of teaching especially at the higher education level must find its limit developing self-learners.  This especially must be true for graduate programs.  As students pursue graduate degrees, they are inherently moving toward positions of no longer being taught, but rather being the teachers.  They must be developing the skills to learn themselves or they will fail at this.  We can’t expect a switch to be flipped in people’s brains after they get their degree at which point they suddenly stop needing to be taught.  It seems obvious that self-learning should be the ultimate goal of our teaching methods.
  • I was struck by the tension between removing “content” from its pedestal in the university and facing the practical implications of “less” content.  Incremental change is needed but the next generation of professors (us) must start thinking about these things for the change to start at all.  We can’t go in like a bull in a china shop oblivious to the “political consequences” of our decisions regarding course content.
  • Reminded again of the learning center concept.  Do these exist at Virginia Tech?  I worked at a chemistry learning center as an undergraduate and found it a formative experience for me as a learner, in addition to helping many students.  Think about the power of engineering learning centers manned by volunteer (or paid?) upperclassmen or graduate students, helping answer questions for engineering courses.  Departments could set aside a dedicated study space with a desk for the learning center coach(es) on duty.  If no one has questions, so be it.  My guess is that this type of a set up would be well-used.  The chemistry centers at MTU surely were.
  • I really liked the idea of capturing the waning minutes of a class period by using a learner-centered exercise.  Individual or group summaries of the class content sound good to me.  With the ubiquity of smart phones and laptops, students could be regularly asked to email the professor their summaries in the last few minutes of class.  It would be a good assessment tool to see what may need to be covered in more detail or reviewed the next period.  One of my favorite professors here at VT keeps a detailed summary of key points, which he reviews briefly the next period.  This is a very helpful review and study tool for students.  I could see these two strategies pairing well together.

The power of a crumpled piece of paper

My office mate, who is teaching for the first time this semester asks, “How can I explain the concept of specific surface area (SSA) to my students and the difference between sands and clays?”

For those uninitiated to soil mechanics, the SSA of a soil is the ratio of particle surface area to mass.  Sand particles are roughly spherical and have a small amount of surface area relative to their mass.  Clay particles on the other hand are extremely thin plates with many times more surface are than those in a sand.  For example, a 100 g (4 oz) of some clay may have enough surface area to cover a football field.

We discussed the matter for a few minutes and devised the following demonstration, which my office mate could perform off-the-cuff during class:

  1. Take two pieces of plain paper.  Same paper = same mass.
  2. Crumple one up into the smallest ball possible.  Ask the class to imagine there is no air left inside the ball.
  3. Compare the surface area of the balled up paper (think – sand particle) and the flat sheet of paper (think – clay particle).  The clay obviously has much greater surface area because of its platy shape.  The class could quickly calculate the surface area of each, if desired.
  4. Optional: Throw balled up paper into the class.  Try not to hit anyone in the head.

My office mate’s post-class assessment of the demonstration was positive.  The class was jolted out of “take notes” mode into “something different is happening” mode.  They appeared to pay more attention and really grasp the concept more fully than if a blackboard description had been used.  Score one for the Crumpled Paper.

Bonus demonstration to explain hydrometer analysis and Stokes Law.  Prior to Step 4 above:

  1. Hold the ball and sheet the same distance above the ground.
  2. Drop both at the same time.  The ball will fall to the ground while the sheet floats back and forth, impeded by drag forces that are large in comparison to particle weight.
  3. Ask what is different about this demonstration and the assumptions of Stokes’ Law.
  4. Repeat Step 4 above.