Trying to change in a static culture

I really like the idea of connected learning and I think it is a powerful and necessary one. It would be the height of foolishness, if we have this incredibly useful tool  (the internet) for research and information and collaboration and discussion, to not use it and to confine ourselves to a single classroom at a single time, not opening ideas up to the world at large. And certainly, as time has gone on, it has become increasingly necessary to rethink not just what we teach, but how we teach and why.

There has indeed been a lot of discussion and debate about how to rethink what we’re doing and how to incorporate this technology into our experiences. Even in fields that very often welcome new ideas (usually the humanities), it isn’t always easy to introduce new methods.

To me it seems like even more of a struggle to make it work in STEM classes. While STEM fields will often readily accept new technology, there’s a pervasive idea that there’s a certain “correct” way of teaching things, particularly in Engineering.

As both a student and a (new) teacher in an engineering discipline, I want (and need) to rethink my ideas about how to teach, because I don’t want to just teach the way I’ve been taught–that was the aforementioned set way of doing things and it was very formulaic. Predictability can be good, but often at the expense of creativity.

Now, when I see all these ideas being thrown around about online meetings, blogs, discussion, outside collaboration, students running the show, etc., I get immediately disheartened that I’m teaching in the field I am.

This semester, I’m teaching a course on the design and computer modeling of metal castings. I think there are definitely opportunities for collaboration and discussion, because even after all sorts of equations and calculations, Design never has a single, clear-cut, “correct” answer. That being said, I think I would struggle mightily to incorporate many of the other elements of Connected Learning into my class. Not just because I can’t necessarily see a use for them, but because of the students themselves.

Metal casting, as it exists at Tech, is one of the least academic fields we have. Virtually everyone (if not actually everyone) in the undergrad casting program is interested in one thing: a job. They’re taking casting classes so that they have a better resume and can give better interviews and be better at their future jobs, and they’re taking all their non-casting classes simply because they’re requirements and the students just want a good enough grade to graduate. They don’t seem to care very much about how they’re being taught or learning for the sake of learning–they just want jobs.

I can’t blame them, but it gets frustrating when your students are only there to get better jobs, rather than thinking about why they’re being taught and why they’re learning.

I know these kids; I’ve worked with them for at least a semester already, if not a year or two. I know they don’t give a rat’s ass about what pedagogy or praxes their professors are using. Hell, last year I saw one of my professors try something completely new in one of his classes (I was a TA, not a student), and it failed miserably. The students didn’t keep up with it, the professor couldn’t enforce it, and everyone was back to business as usual after a few weeks.

And most of those students are the ones I’m teaching now.

So, I definitely want to rethink my preconceived notions about teaching and to do my best to create a dynamic, engaging classroom that isn’t just the “sage on a stage” lecturing for an hour (as so many of the classes I’ve taken have gone), but it will certainly be a struggle to do so in the environment where I work.

8 thoughts on “Trying to change in a static culture”

  1. I agree with your assessment that the attitudes of the students are critical to new pedagogy methods being successful, and in many situations, current attitudes are not conducive to the new methods. If we really are undergoing a shift in how we teach, then we are probably in a transition period where the students are used to learning one way and are not yet comfortable with the new techniques. Perhaps this is solved by implementing them in K-12 so they are used to them when they get to college. I have no idea to what extent this is happening, but I suspect it’s not widespread.

  2. How could you invite your students to integrate and collaborate more in your class? I think this is an issue that all of us should think about it since generally students are reluctant to talk in class. How could you stimulate connected learning method in your class?

  3. As a fellow engineer, whether or not it was intended, I appreciate the pun in the title of this post. When you were describing the dynamics of your class, as well as the classes of your past, I was having flashbacks of my own Statics course.

    I forsee a similar struggle in the courses I hope to teach in the future: how to engage students and utilize new technologies for courses that seem to require the “sage on stage” approach, as you so eloquently put it. In thinking about how I would like to engage my students, the best I’ve been able to come up with is the incorporation of real world problems at the edge of current knowledge–challenging students to apply the tools and knowledge they are learning to industry or research problems that have yet to be solved. In addition, I think putting the skills/knowledge into “big picture” context (i.e. current events or engineering disasters) may also pique some interest. This may not be exactly connected learning, but at least it may help put a fresh spin on the traditional engineering lectures. Good luck!

  4. Hi Erin,

    I am curious to know what new element did the teacher bring and why you and the professor thought it failed? Ws it too hard to follow, to large a leap from the status quo? I wonder also if the class could have been invited to vote on aspects of it or how to proceed, some sort of empowering interaction that also serves to inform the process and execution? I’d love to know what was tried and what you think could have been done differently.

    1. The element itself wasn’t too radical. In classes past, we’ve had problems with students not staying on track with their projects, so the professor wanted to introduce weekly status reports, where each student would send a 25-word blurb updating him on where they were with each project. After a stretch where students were just incrementally updating their projects without having “real” updates to give, they didn’t much see the point in keeping up with the reports. The professor was also not a big fan of having to collect and read through 15-20 reports every single week, even if they were short. Another, larger, issue was that in past years, there was always a mix of experienced and novice students in the class (and small class sizes–5-6), so the more experienced students could help teach the novices basic techniques and equipment use. Starting last year, we had classes of 10 students, all of whom were completely new. Suffice to say we were unprepared for how difficult it would be to supervise and instruct 10 students in a lab class, when each student simultaneously needed individual attention. The old teaching style of “just go out there and start making things” didn’t work so well, because none of the students knew what they were doing or had any sort of background in the subject. This year, I’ve made efforts to give more formal instruction in the class before we go to the lab portion, but for my professor, old habits die hard. It also doesn’t help that the foundry is generally open for most of the day, so students will come in to work on projects an hour or two before class starts, so we would have to go and round them all up and bring them in the classroom to formally teach them something.
      It’s still a work in progress and I’m working on ways to streamline and improve the flow of the class.

  5. Can you use the “I just want to get a job” mentality to your advantage? Teamwork looks good on a resume too. Maybe look up if there are hands on interviews or technical assessments are used in your field and play up the importance. Is it really true that you have to convince students they want something different then what they want now, or could you even use what they want now as a spring board to challenge your student in new ways? I don’t think it is at all a bad thing to recognize your students’ goals and take those into account, even as you challenge their perception of what that entails.

    1. Here is a little summary framework that I pulled into my blog post from the Connected Learning Research Network. I thought I would post it, since I wonder if it might give you ideas working with your own students.

      The contexts
      3.Academically oriented

      The properties
      2.Shared purpose
      3.Openly networked

      The design principles
      1.Enable everyone to participate
      2.Make learning experiential
      3.Provide constant challenges
      4.Allow for reflection, planning, and connecting the two

      And holding all of these characteristics together, is the idea that media magnifies.

    2. I’m embarrassed to say that I hadn’t thought of using their mentality “against them” to promote Connected Learning. Employers absolutely love hearing about group dynamics and teamwork, people who can give/follow directions well. And that’s particularly true for these students–they’re on tracks to be design engineers, quality managers, product development, etc. They’re headed for positions that require a great deal of communication and interpersonal skills. Many of the companies they’re looking to work for have many different facilities scattered across the country, so being able to showcase their talents at group collaboration in an electronic medium sounds like it would have a very strong appeal for them. Thank you!

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