Posts tagged student

Posted 2 years ago

Getting Students to Read - Ideas from Teachers for Teachers

The Research Academy held its first Teaching Circle meeting last Wednesday. I decided to start the semester with a topic that repeatedly comes up in teaching consultations and faculty discussion groups: getting students to do the reading and/or out-of-class work. I observed a class a year ago in which the new young instructor, finishing up the 90 minute class, asked who had done the assigned reading. Not one hand went up. She rather desperately searched her student’s faces: “No one did the reading?” she asked incredulously. No response. I knew this felt awkward for her; she was being observed (at her request) by her colleagues and she didn’t know how to handle the situation. Carry on? Cover the material anyway? Her plan had been to lead a discussion around the concepts in the reading; if no one read it, she would essentially just be teaching the material. She decided to skip the reading altogether and finish up with some group work on a different topic.

This is hardly a singular experience. Nearly every (every?) teacher has faced a class of students who are unprepared. They didn’t read, they didn’t watch the video, or do the review. Luckily, there are definite ways to handle this. First, why don’t students do the reading? Our group, squeezed into a library classroom, brainstormed the following reasons behind the student-didn’t-read phenom:

  1. There is no pay-off. Students are very strategic about their work load. When assigned readings are not tied to any evaluation (grades) or when the teacher covers the material anyway, they know that they can get away with not reading with no penalty.
  2. The reading isn’t connected to course material in an obvious way, or the teacher has not helped them make the connection. When assignments seem to be arbitrary, that is, not tied to course work in an appreciable way, students lose motivation to complete it. They do not see the reading as an extension of the course work or core to disciplinary understanding, so they shrug it off.
  3. Students don’t know how to read academic texts. This, unfortunately, prevents them from contributing to a discussion even if they did TRY to do the reading. They may not have understood what they read, did not know what was important (highlighted EVERYTHING ON THE PAGE), and are afraid to sound “dumb” if they discuss what they read. Students receive very little training on how to read academic texts. They don’t know the jargon, they don’t know how to identify what’s important, they don’t know how to summarize the text. This level of reading can be intimidating.

These are some of the primary reasons that students don’t complete assigned reading. It is important to know why they aren’t reading because this directly informs how you can make some alterations to instruction in order to address these issues.

The participants offered some ideas on what they are doing to counter the no-reading issue:

  1. Mini-quizzes on the reading at the beginning (or before the beginning) of each class. These are conducted online, through Blackboard, and take about 10 minutes. Quiz grades count towards overall course grade.
  2. Guided reading - questions to answer as they read, using Socrative, an online student response system. Socrative allows teachers to set up exercises and questions, multiple choice or open-ended, graded or not graded, that the students can answer from any connected device (phone, laptop, tablet). They can see each others responses if the teacher deems it important, or the answers can be anonymous.
  3. Model good reading strategies, especially for research-oriented or academic level text. One professor has them highlight only the portions of the text where they felt lost or began to lose track of what the text was saying. These points of confusion can guide class discussion, provide fodder for small-group work (students work together to grapple with meaning), and can let the teacher know what students struggle with the most.

As you may have guessed, there is a lot of research and expertise available that supports our group’s ideas of how to get students to read, as well as provides some additional ideas. What the experts say:

From Karl Wirth, Malacaster College (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html):

Reading Reflection

After completing the reading assignment, write brief responses (i.e., at least several sentences) to 2 out of 3 questions:

  1. What is the main point of this reading?
  2. What information did you find surprising?  Why?
  3. What did you find confusing?  Why?

Too often, when we read the words on a page we do not fully integrate that new information into our existing knowledge structure, and so we fail to gain new understanding of the world around us.  Research in cognitive science and learning tells us that “deep learning” requires that the learner reflect on new knowledge and create personal meaning from it.

To help us reflect more deeply on readings in this course, we will use reading reflections.  These reading reflections are designed to help the reader engage with the material in a deeper way, and to construct new meaning from it.  The reflections also have the advantage of providing the instructor with detailed information about your learning in the course.  This not only helps guide the daily preparation of course activities, but also helps connect us as a community of learners.

Your response need not be long, but must clearly indicate careful reading and thoughtful reflection.  You must respond to two of the questions.

What is the Main Point?
Reading assignments often contain a lot of information.  What is the main concept that the author is trying to get across?  This may, or may not, have been explicitly stated in the reading.  Why did the author choose to emphasize this point, and not some other?  Your response is not a summary of the chapter, but an analysis of it in a way that creates new meaning for you.

What is Surprising?
Your response to this question should be reflective.  Did you learn something that is in conflict with your previous notions of the world?  Did you learn something that fascinates you in a way that you didn’t expect?  How does this new knowledge connect with material in other courses, or with other parts of your life?  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

What is Confusing?
Responses to this question require careful reading and reflection; it is only though the process of reconciling new information with our existing knowledge structure that we become aware of inconsistencies, or “gaps” in our understanding.  Responses to this question should be specific and actionable – that is they should outline a clear path to understanding.  Responses must also clearly explain “why.”

Rubric for Evaluation
10 points         Responses to both questions are labeled and clearly indicate careful reading and deep reflection.  Responses submitted before class meeting.

5 points           Responses are not specific, do not clearly indicate reflection, or are submitted soon after deadline.

0 points           No response, or response submitted more than one class period late.

From the IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40 - Getting Students to Read: 14 Tips, by Eric H. Hobson, Georgia State University (http://www.theideacenter.org/research-and-papers/idea-papers/idea-paper-no-40)

1)   Using appropriate texts:

  • Why am I using this particular text?
  • How does it help me meet my course goals/educational outcomes?
  • What do I mean by “required”? How does it contribute to students’ success in the course? “Nist and Kirby (1989) wrote that documented reading assignment compliance rates among college students (20 to 30%) “could be partly due to the fact that students quickly discovered that they did not need to read and study their texts in order to do well in the class. Perhaps attending class and studying lecture notes were sufficient for acceptable performance” (p. 327).”

2)   Rate your reading material: (e.g. absolutely essential, good supporting material, exotic, appealing to experts, or idiosyncratic choice). Only material that is essential should be labeled “required” and students will be held accountable for reading (such as graded reading assignments or readiness quizzes). Consider not using a text if no text can be categorized as essential; instead, build a course reading packet that supplements and complements the course. Any additional texts can fall under Recommended Reading.

3)   Course readings should show up as part of in-class presentations (yours or the students), factor into course projects, or appear on exams. Connections between the course and the reading should be obvious.

4)   Scaffold your reading assignments. Aim most assignments at “marginally skilled” readers, slowly build up the difficulty level of the readings, have students identify concepts or terms they struggled with for group/class discussion. Develop necessary reading skills and interpretative/inter-relational analysis skills. Preview the readings; relate them to course activities; practice reading skills in class (marking text and understanding why certain things are marked, summarizing concepts, identifying confusing or unclear ideas, forming questions).

5)   Use the syllabus as a teaching tool: “Effective syllabi do more than identify required reading materials; they provide background about the materials so that students understand why the reading assignments contribute to learning and how they relate to other course content and course activities (Grunert, 1997; Maleki & Heerman, 1992).”

Source: Turn to Your Neighbor (Peer Instruction Blog): http://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/

Peer Instruction (at least concerning homework and reading assignments) emphasizes effort over getting it right. So, in class, students would compare answers and work together towards a correct answer.

1)   Questions associated with the reading.

  • What did you find difficult or confusing in the reading? What attracted your attention, or you found most interesting? What questions do you have?
  • Content-specific questions where students must justify their answers.

2)   Students will be prepared to be called on to lead discussions on the reading. Assignment is random (cold-calling). Set up communication climate to establish trust and openness for ideas in the classroom.

3)   Make the reading MEAN something. Reading should ALWAYS be separate but related to the class material, else what’s the motivation to read it?

4)   Credit (grade) for Reading Assignments.

Works Cited

Grunert, Judith. The Course Syllabus: A Learning-Centered Approach. Bolton, MA: Anker, 1997. Print.

Hobson, Eric H. “Getting Students to Do the Reading: 14 Tips.” IDEA Center, Idea Paper #40, (2004), 1-10. Print.

Maleki, R.B. & Heerman, C.E. “Improving student reading.” IDEA Paper No. 26, Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University, Center for Faculty Evaluation and Development, 1992.

Nist, S.L. & Kirby, K. The text marking patterns of college students. Reading Psychology: An International Quarterly, 10 (1989), 321-338.

Schell, Julie. “How One Professor Motivated to Read Before a Flipped Class, and Measured Their Effort.” Turn to Your Neighbor, Peer Instruction Blog. 4 Sept 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <http://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/>

Wirth, Karl. “Reading Reflections.” Carlton College, Science Education Resource Center. 29 May 2012. Web. 2 Oct 2012. <http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/metacognition/activities/27560.html>

Posted 2 years ago

Learning How to Learn: A Mandate for Change in Today’s College Classroom

Learning How to Learn: A Mandate for Change in Today’s College Classroom

 “It is not the subject per se that is educative or conducive to growth…There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract.”
– John Dewey, “Criteria of Experience,” in Experience & Education, 1938.

“Students’ long-term success does not depend upon short-term business cycles or the technical demands of the latest ‘hot’ industry.”
– Carol Geary Schneider, President, American Association of Colleges and Universities, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2011.

I. What kind of essay this is; and to whom addressed.  Author Neil Baldwin

Learning How to Learn is a wake-up call directed at those who care about the perplexing challenges involved with educating today’s college youth in our interconnected world: Where is the common ground? How should we be talking to — and with — these mercurial young people? And how can we convince them that learning how to learn should be their ultimate goal?

This essay avoids the debilitating ideological “war” between utilitarian education for a job (vocational), and general education for well-rounded citizenship (liberal arts) fueling the crisis mentality that pervades media conversations, blogs, and articles about American higher education.  The time has come to focus the scatter-shot, overheated debate about what is “wrong” with college and “the system,” and to bear down instead upon the most intimate arena in which education actually occurs: the classroom.

Learning How to Learn encourages teachers to draw upon what they know, with confidence — their expertise — then take a crucial step beyond, making use of common sense pedagogy that recognizes the unique mind-set of their generational audience, aged 17-22.

This is not a utopian dream about what could happen if we had all the money in the world.  We must work with what we have been given. The American public higher education landscape is commonly portrayed as impoverished and out of balance financially and intellectually. Therefore, what can the everyday classroom teacher be expected, supported — and inspired — to do, without sacrificing standards and ideals?

Let me also say at the outset that Learning How to Learn is not predicated upon any authoritative, longitudinal studies. It is documented with a rich and varied bibliography of current literature on American higher education that I have been tracking down, reading, writing about, and commenting upon from the web-based vantage point of the virtual Creative Research Center at Montclair State University.

As a tenured full professor and classroom teacher with a “3-3” curricular load of undergraduate introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses as well as graduate seminars, I have given deep thought to what should be going on “on the ground;” why, and toward what desired ends.

II. The Current Crisis. 

My simmering contemplation of the current crisis was crystallized by two chance readings that, on the surface, seemed unrelated. The first began as a conversation about teaching I was enjoying with a friend in the Philosophy Department who glancingly referred to “the only essay on education that Hannah Arendt ever wrote – and it’s all about the American educational system” — did I know of it?  I raced home and pulled Arendt’s classic collection, Between Past and Future, from my shelves.

Arendt’s major concern in her essay “The Crisis in Education” (1954) was that our much-vaunted school system, at all levels, was “helpless before the individual child,” that we were in danger of forsaking the “obligation that the existence of children – human beings in the process of becoming — entails for every human society…One cannot educate without at the same time teaching,” she wrote, but “an education without learning is empty.” The ultimate iteration of freedom as action — in Hannah Arendt’s hopeful words — would be only through education to inspire and encourage “care for a world that can survive us, and remain a place fit to live in, for those who come after us.”

Soon thereafter, I was rushing through Newark Airport when a headline on the cover of The Atlantic caught my eye – Scenes from the Class Struggle, by Joel Klein, recently retired chancellor of the New York City public school system.  I grabbed the magazine and read the piece on the plane. “President Obama was on to something in 2008,” Klein wrote, “when he said, ‘The single most important factor in determining student achievement is not the color of their skin or where they came from. It is not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.’ ”  Klein warned that, “Time is running out. Without a citizenry willing to insist upon reform, our schools will continue to decline…Shocking as it may sound, the cost in human terms, to our nation, and to the kind of people we aspire to become, will be even greater.”

Fifty-seven years apart…and yet, both Arendt and Klein are saying the same thing: Our educational system, designed in another time for other purposes, is in a state of emergency; and something needs to be done right away, or we will suffer the loss of future human capital.

The urgency of the language in both cases emanates from fear on the most personal level that we as teachers and parents are in danger of literally losing our youth – abandoning them – by not serving them as well as we should; and that we, as a society, on the largest level, are neglecting our mission as adults, forsaking our obligations to the young, chastising ourselves for being unresponsive to what Arendt calls “The New Ones,” the newest generation — new at whatever stage they may be, from pre-school toddlers to college freshmen.

A powerful element at the core of the current cultural crisis is the intensified pressure upon higher education professors as “content-deliverers” who must justify and quantify the ultimate applications and uses of the information and knowledge acquired (or not) by their students.

But remember: Information is not knowledge.

My vigilant classroom anthropological “fieldwork” has led me to try to come up with new ways to elicit and legitimize the affect of college students, encouraging them to take enduring values and morals to heart that originate in content and subject-based arenas, and extend beyond them.

III. The American Idealist Tradition and Its Pedagogical Legacy. 

As an historian and biographer steeped in American culture (works on William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford) my current teaching behavior and beliefs grow out of decades of writing books that identify and elucidate redemptive qualities in our native imagination, most recently The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War. 

This American chronicle [see  http://www.neilbaldwinbooks.com], combined with immersion in teaching, inspired me to revisit — with rejuvenated appreciation — our mainstream pragmatist pioneer, John Dewey (1859-1952). No self-respecting examination of American higher education can be complete without (re)encountering Dewey – prolific public intellectual, exemplar of progressivism, hailed by The New York Times as “America’s philosopher.” As Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental elementary school and launched his quest to “define democracy in all its phases – political, economic, social, and cultural.”

The pragmatic philosopher celebrated what makes us most human. Dewey encouraged every American student to explore his literal and figurative neighborhood, “just local, just human, just where we live.”  Indeed, the original name for pragmatism, as coined in 1898 by Dewey’s faithful correspondent and friend, William James, was “practicalism.”

Henry Steele Commager praised Dewey as “the guide, mentor, and conscience of the American people.” Here was a teacher who predicated his life’s work upon empiricism, the supreme value of experience in all domains of life, spanning from primary education to the imperative social contract that connects every one of us to each other.

My affinities as a classroom teacher resonate with Dewey’s lifelong intention to “reach beyond the academy and speak to a wide range of citizens…[in] the general march of events…outleadings into the wide world of nature and man… of knowledge and of social interests…”

I am impelled forward by John Dewey’s endorsement of ways of knowing that carry across the boundaries between disciplines; his melding of the ethical and the practical; his conceptualization of teacher-as-learner (particularly pertinent today); his faith in process before product; his view of the institution of the school as the proper spawning-ground for moral sensibility and the development of role models; his healthy opinion of the child’s affection for the teacher as a suitable foundation for learning; his belief in the organic relationship of disparate subjects to each other; his conviction that art is a form of praxis and that the quality of the thing made far outweighs quantity; his insistence that the “machinery of thought” must be kept moving for reflection to exercise its greatest influence; and that the teacher demonstrate correct learning through daily behavior – not only through what he says, but what he does.

John Dewey’s greatest follower, Jane Addams (1860-1935), declared, “The sphere of knowledge is the sphere of action.” In that same spirit, I endorse converting pedagogical thought into purposeful action.  Dewey’s vintage writings have much to tell us now about remedying systemic problems in higher education. America’s philosopher is due for a vigorous revival.  His prescient and seminal studies including Experience & Education and Art as Experience provide timely reading for today’s teachers, parents — and millennials.

Social MediaIV.  The Challenge of Social Media.

College professors are constantly reminded of our obligation to teach – to be “exposed to” — the many (as expressed through calculation of Student Semester Hours, or, colloquially, “butts in seats”).

I am constantly asking, “how I can get to know my students as individuals?”

The administrative/economic-productivity mandate to reach more college undergraduates is at odds with a constant succession of observed behaviors in our students – resentment of high school and the legacy of No Child Left Behind of teaching to the test; individual and quirky cognitive gaps and lapses; continuous partial attention; vicissitudes and inconsistencies over the course of a semester, during which time a teacher occasionally finds himself wondering why some of his students are even there in the first place.

We read nowadays about how teachers are trying to incorporate social media into the classroom instead of heading in the other direction, which is to outlaw it.  Every teacher needs to ask himself, when in front of the class, how he honestly feels about looking out over the students and seeing them on their laptops, wondering if they are texting, tweeting, or Facebooking.

One short year ago, the girls used to hide their phones inside their purses on their desks, and text with one hand; and guys in the back of the room leaned against the wall, baseball cap brim pulled down, and cradled the phone just below the edge of their desks.  Now, they are unabashedly overt, nestling the phone in their laps or laying it in plain view on the top of the desk and texting “unobtrusively.”

What does this behavior signify? Insouciance? Rebellion? Habituation? Ignorance? Instinct? How are teachers supposed to interpret and act upon such behavior? Are students conscious of what they are doing when they do it? Do they understand (or care) that their habituated mediations infringe upon the pedagogical atmosphere? What does it mean if, in fact, they are not conscious and/or do not see anything wrong with incessant electronic chat?

The virtual is real to this distracted and (self-characterized) omniscient generation (i.e., “It’s all on the Web whenever we need anything).  The great danger for the teacher is automatically reading such multi-tasked immersion as indicating that students are not paying attention. Could it be that their mode of situated cognition has conjured up an utterly different definition than mine of what it actually means to “pay attention?”

To what degree should teachers be willing to accommodate the technology? To what degree should we resist or (even) criticize it? When I start to call them out I feel a twinge, as if I am acting like a high school teacher or disciplinary monitor. When I tell the class how awkward I feel, they may tone it down for a day, but texting and surfing invariably return.

When the investment of the teacher and the mental disengagement of the student are at odds, my going-around-in-circles with the dilemma is compounded by reluctance to downgrade my status at the front of the room, which is, after all, where I belong. Each disciplinary comment I put out there is one more incremental departure from the reasons we are supposed to be in the room.

My inner monologue goes something like this: They are in my class, well-aware that they, or their parents, are paying to be there; they are experiencing first-hand contact with a noted author, and making a choice to do what they do. If it is impossible for students to stay off their phones for an hour and fifteen minutes, or to sit in the seat without getting up, eating, drinking Starbucks, going to the bathroom, dropping their highlighters and hand-held devices, and other random gestures, then what is to be gained by my trying to stop them coercively, as opposed to permitting them to behave in customary ways?

This past year marked Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. His dictum that “the medium is the message” applies to this pedagogical dilemma. Case in point: To discuss my ideas — and assuage my apprehensions — about the format of an online graduate course I agreed to teach, I met with a well-meaning instructional designer.  It was self-evident to him that anything I taught face to face could be accomplished and executed equally well through technology. It was going to be a matter of my providing learning objectives for the course and the structure of the syllabus; then he would work with me to devise the technology that would “best convey the desired content.”

He used a container-analogy, explaining that teaching a class online was just like choosing between a “truck or a van or a car” to “deliver” a package. I countered that this translation did not hold up.  Learning is a cognitive process of uncertain duration that transpires between the time a concept or idea is launched and whether (or not) it lands in the student’s mind in a way that will be sustained beyond the moment.

V. The teacher as mentor.

Arthur Levine’s trenchant observation in The Chronicle of Higher Education strikes a responsive chord: “Graduate-level teacher training programs created by schools and school districts tend to emphasize practice over theory, clinical education over academic instruction, pedagogy over content, and faculties of expert teachers over university professors.”

Rather than legislate abstract, over-arching national curricular standards for the common core, the best way to improve our educational system is to start at the classroom level, with teacher preparation that bridges the metaphorical “widest street in the world” between colleges of education and colleges of arts and sciences. Classroom teachers should be singled out and trained based upon their commitment to developing a positive classroom ambience and emotional climate; at the same time, the affective quality of classroom life must be enhanced in support of the teacher’s level of expertise in a specialist subject area.

Teachers need to reallocate their energies, draw upon empathy rather than cultivate resistance, and re-evaluate how subject matter is conveyed.  In the classroom, at that point where the expert meets the novice, there needs to be an unforced lamination of subject matter onto meaningful engagement.

Students expect the classroom teacher to place greater demands upon himself.  This is a message many professors do not like to hear. The contrarian dimension of my manifesto is an appeal to change our ways, as difficult as that may be for those of us further along in years.

Today’s college teacher needs to be a guide and a coach — not a judge. He must learn a new cognitive language when he steps into the classroom. He must muster up the energy to leap over the generation gap; possess behavior-modification strategies of other-directedness, empathy, patience; understand the students’ brains and accept that they operate differently than ours.

In the ideal classroom environment, students will notice and emulate thoughtful, well-considered, authentic modeling behaviors. The fact is that until teachers are committed to adaptive behavior (as distinguished from the dangerous pitfalls of trying to act “cool” or to talk like the students; and not unlike insisting upon speaking English in Paris) we will never be able to convey any “major” or subject matter successfully.

More importantly, again invoking the precedent of John Dewey, any useful praxis must continue beyond the limits of a semester. We must pay more attention to the definition, cultivation and reinforcement of lasting epistemic virtues that cross subject boundaries – attentiveness, benevolence, creativity, compassion, curiosity, inclusion, objectivity, tenacity, and wisdom.

Today’s college teacher, whatever his specialty, must inculcate and encourage in his students an inquisitive, associational, imaginative mentality through habits of mind dedicated to – yes, even obsessed with — the continuous pursuit of knowledge, linked to the positive implications of that pursuit for the greater society.

This broad path supercedes particular courses for which students have willingly and/or unwillingly registered. As I tell my (required) Play Script Interpretation class on the first day of the term, “It doesn’t matter to me what subject I teach.”

The student needs to understand that memorizing is not learning. Neither, for that matter, is abstract intellectualizing. Giving a quiz to make sure that everybody has at least read the assignment works on the reductive, essential level.  The only way for a teacher to find out if students are learning is to ask them to apply principles or themes or ideas from a wide range of perspectives to creatively devised hypothetical situations, challenges and prompts.

Unless students feel emotionally comfortable with the teacher, they will not learn in a sustained fashion; they will only acquire information expediently and transiently. They must be reminded by the strategically self-conscious teacher about the ongoing narrative/through-line of the course, where they are located within it, and how the course will eventually pertain to their lives in the day to day larger society.

Students need to trust from the first class meeting that the teacher knows the syllabus-as-narrative best of all, because he has conceived of it and written it, and will keep writing it as it goes along. The teacher must remain confident of this classroom “story,” welcoming the students in on it from time to time, so that they begin to think of themselves as co-conspirators.

Hence, what I call…

VI. …the Existential Curriculum.

When I reference “existential” I am drawing upon aspects of the empathic theory of Hannah Arendt’s student, Maxine Greene. I envision a curriculum created with the understanding that, although it is purported to be and presented as a plan, it will still be in a state of continuous formation. The existential curriculum exists to be modified, elaborated and clarified as you forge ahead through the term.

The decisive, adaptable, aware, questing/questioning and observant teacher — active observation being among the desired attributes for any nimble teacher of young people – will be the most effective bearer of any subject embedded in the fluid, evolving situation of the classroom that he/she must be mindful of and control.

Once the plan is in place, teacher and students, together, construct and make the course.

The teacher’s performative cues must be presented openly so the class will perceive what they value (in their words) as the teacher’s “passion” and “caring about / respecting the students.”  The reciprocal degree to which students feel the passion and trust the teacher’s feelings as being sincere will have a salutary influence upon the depth and extent to which the subject-matter is learned.

John Dewey distinguishes illuminatingly between content-value and form-value. Students in the throes of an existential curriculum must be made aware that their sentient teacher has not only a pedagogical methodology but also a moral stance. The behavioral medium is one in which the teacher projects confidence that the students have the capacity to take on and learn difficult concepts. In such an environment, the subject matter will have the optimal chance to traverse the distance from the teacher.

The existential curriculum coalesced in my imagination when I was trying to arrive at a more methodical, “not-rushing,” self-regulating, better-paced way to move through the syllabus as a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The existential curriculum had roots in the realization that, as is my nature, I had been pushing through recent semesters at a high metabolic level, putting forth one intense idea after another without respite.  I became anxious that, even though my intention was to challenge them, the students were having trouble keeping up.  Conceding that it sounded somewhat “hokey,” I told them, “We are all on the same journey.”  This was a metaphor I had actually learned from them; they approved of my epiphany and began to relax somewhat.

My personal strategies of behavioral self-modification include, for example, but not definitively:  “show and tell,” talking the class out loud through whatever I am doing — even something as simple as using chalk to write on the blackboard; conscientious avoidance of flashy media in the classroom, such as Powerpoint (of which students are quite critical); handing out questionnaires halfway through the term to get their feedback and establish mid-course corrections; encouraging legitimized confusion by trying out new questions, experimenting, and readily admitting when they do not work; pointedly acknowledging my mistakes; using constant interrogation as a primary mode of discourse; accepting all student answers as valid perceptual and learning moments; collapsing the readings syllabus into fewer required works in order to spend more time on each one; impromptu elimination of an exam or exams; shifting emphasis to reading aloud; and establishing a final, collective project embracing contributions from the entire class, such as http://www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch/studentcenter/index.html

VII. Pure epistemology.

Transitioning from the existential curriculum that advocates intellectual and affective development in the college classroom, I propose initiating a conversation about learning at the outset of every class, every semester.

The subject matter of the conversation is heightened awareness of the nature of learning itself – “pure epistemology.”

Start a course – any course — by reading and talking about how learning occurs, and what it means.  Use the discussion of the actual meaning of learning as the common denominator, the obligatory entrée.

This initial conversation requires an accompanying assessment of the students’ “knowledge base.”  Take informational inventory, coming to terms with their prior knowledge of whatever book or subject you are discussing, without placing a value-judgment on the discrepancies different students bring to class from varied high school days and real-life experiences.

Through this collective exercise in metacognition, the teacher helps the students confront the meaning of learning and draw out its connotations.

I frame learning – it should be obvious by now – as an inherent asset, something desirable. The incoming student often needs to be convinced of this value.  Maybe you “have to take” this course, I say to the class, because it is required (as so many general education courses are). Instead of resisting, I continue, you might think about looking at the class as an opportunity to develop your learning skills beyond what the catalog says the course is about. You may end up discovering that there are classes you have to take that you actually end up liking. With more than one-half of the typical college curriculum made up of general education classes, shouldn’t all such classes embody some useful meaning?

In the process of teaching students to learn how to learn, we must revisit the unresolved debate about Liberal Arts education – the oft-invoked canon: what belongs, what doesn’t, according to whom, and how this gatekeeping stricture can be adjusted – not sacrificed, not jettisoned — to reflect the times in which we live and the fragmented mentalities of our students.   In the enlightened future I want for my students, and never stop trying to articulate, there will be skills, attributes, and qualities they will always need out in the world.

It is also a fallacy to decide that a teacher absolutely must cover everything laid out in the proposed curricular terrain. The millennial mind finds it tedious to bear the pedagogical burden of an over-regulated syllabus. Up-front, we should be wary of the oversold or pre-packaged promise of a course because, by the end of the term, what we really want to generate is the realization that.

VIII. …Pedagogy is for Life. 

The college professor and his students face pressures to show documented, measurable outcomes. I am not discounting these out of hand; however, we must also seek to get beyond the hermetic idea that when a course runs, it de facto serves its purpose when it is over.  We must demonstrate greater permeability between the higher education world and the rest of the students’ worlds.

We must guide today’s students toward the understanding that their college education is an opportunity for them to develop and to become indoctrinated to new, better, humanistic, more valuable and sustained mentalities — beyond utilitarianism, choice of majors, getting that piece of paper, and the need for a job.

By the time they graduate, students’ self-centered attentions and energies should be applied outward and forward, to a sense of social responsibility for the collective and common weal, an understanding of the democratic experiment — engagement with their society, their Zeitgeist – because it will be theirs to inhabit, survive, and ameliorate.

“I do not wish to close, however,” John Dewey emphasized in the final pages of Experience & Education, “without recording my firm belief that the fundamental issue is not of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ education, nor of ‘progressive’ against ‘traditional’ education, but a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.”

As Hannah Arendt wrote so movingly, “School is not the world, but it represents the world for the child when he is there.”

The “existentials” need to find better ways to aim for and reach the moving target of the “millennials.” Abandonment of authority will not help teach anybody anything. Nor will free-floating theory divorced from grounded real-life application. From where I stand as a classroom teacher, detached abstraction is of little interest to the average college student.

Rather, learning how to learn is the most urgent higher education challenge in the twenty-first century.

IX. Selected Bibliography.

Arendt, Hannah. The Crisis in Education (1954)

Dewey, John. “A College Course: What Should I Expect from It?” (1890).  In The Early Works, (Vol.3, pp.51-55). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

—-. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books, 1934, 2005.

—-. Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone Books, 1938, 1997.

Greene, Maxine. The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Klein, Joel. Scenes from the Class Struggle. The Atlantic, June, 2011.

Levine, Arthur. The New Normal of Teacher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2011.

Mirel, Jeffrey. “Bridging the ‘Widest Street in the World’: Reflections on the History of Teacher Education.” American Educator, 35.2, Summer 2011.

Webster, Scott. “Existentialism: Providing an ideal framework for educational research in times of uncertainty.” In AARE 2002: Problematic Futures. Coldstream, Victoria, NSW, pp.1-15.

[Note: The central theme of this essay originated in my Keynote Speech presented at the Montclair State University Student Research Symposium, April 16, 2011. I express grateful appreciation to my first readers, Susan Albertine, Vice-President for Engagement, Inclusion, and Success, and Karen Kalla, Director, Network for Academic Renewal, Association of American Colleges and Universities; and for their generous critique and editorial commentary through successive drafts of Learning How to Learn over the past twelve months, I would like to thank Ada Beth Cutler, Dean, College of Education and Human Services; Jennifer Robinson, Executive Director, Center of Pedagogy;  Linda Davidson, Associate Dean, College of the Arts; Erhard Rom, Professor, Department of Theatre & Dance, College of the Arts; Cigdem Talgar, Acting Director, Research Academy for University Learning and Julie R. Dalley, Assistant Director, Research Academy for University Learning — all of Montclair State University.]

Neil Baldwin, a widely-published cultural historian and critic, is a Professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance, and Director of the Creative Research Center http://www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch in the College of the Arts. Prior to joining the faculty of Montclair State University, he was the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation, sponsor of The National Book Awards. His teaching interests cover the span from dramaturgy and danceaturgy at the undergraduate level to arts management at the graduate level. His current areas of research include interdisciplinarity, the history of the imagination, Web-based modern dance documentation and archival practice, and the pedagogical centrality of the arts in American liberal education.  Dr. Baldwin also serves as co-chair of the NYU Biography Seminar. His Web site is http://www.neilbaldwinbooks.com

Posted 2 years ago

Is your child an Innovator?

cmrubinworld:

“There is no competitive advantage today to knowing more than the person sitting next to you.” — Tony Wagner

By C. M. Rubin with Harry Rubin and Michael Freeborn

How do you train an Innovator?

We are born curious. We are born with imagination. The first challenge is to ensure that these very human qualities are not schooled out of us, as Sir Ken Robinson says. Beyond that, in my research, I identified five essential education and parenting practices that develop young people’s capacities to innovate:

1. Learning to work collaboratively (innovation is a team sport!).

2. Learning to understand problems from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

3. Learning to take risks and learn from mistakes.

4. Focusing on creating versus consuming.

5. Reinforcing the intrinsic motivations of play, passion, and purpose versus the extrinsic carrots and sticks.

Posted 2 years ago

Student Failure: The New Old Way of Teaching

Last week at our first Teaching Circle meeting of the semester, we focused on student expectations and failure. There are many sub-categories that fit these inter-connected topics: grading, attendance/absenteeism, why students don’t try harder, school policy versus individual instructor policy, why students resist change/innovation, and much more. We talked for nearly two hours about these central issues, and how they might be addressed in the classroom.

The biggest issue, and one coming under increasing public scrutiny, is student failure. This is a landmine issue for teachers, because, while we want to set high standards and clear expectations for our students, we also don’t want them to fail and some of us even dread the fallout emotional battle that comes with student failure. John Rosemond would say that we are experiencing the products of the “psychological parenting revolution” (which bled into our teaching methods) of the 1970’s and 80’s. This makes us afraid of hurting the feelings of our students, and by extension, afraid to let them fail. For related articles, read the below:

Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Mickey-goodman/are-we-raising-a-generati_b_1249706.html

Teaching Students to Fail Better: http://www.iste.org/learn/publications/learning-and-leading/issues/Feature_Teach_Your_Students_to_Fail_Better.aspx

Tales of Spectacular Failure: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/06/146880518/try-and-try-again-3-tales-of-spectacular-failure?sc=tw

Married to this idea of failure are grading policies and student absenteeism/attendance policies. Nostalgically we discussed our undergrad and graduate days, when attendance was not a requirement or only loosely monitored. Back then, if we wanted a good grade we had to make it to class, make sure we had the notes, or meet with our professor to get/turn in assignments, which were always set ahead of time by the syllabus. That is, our success or failure was totally in our hands. Now, student attendance has become connected with performance: just by showing up, to some instructors (and certainly in the minds of many students) counts as “effort.” Should we grade participation? In addition, the focus on engagement and group work requires that students be present to actually engage. Or does it? How might we engage students in and out of the classroom? Finally, university policies have changed such that they are more and more requiring that attendance be mandatory and that instructors revise their individual policies to reflect university mandates on attendance.

So we have many dynamics at play here: effort, attendance, student failure, and the various methods of considering all these factors when planning our courses. This, in addition to considering how we foster a creative, active, and engaging learning environment and address these, among myriad other, teaching and learning issues. Phew. Enough for you?

We turned our discussion to requiring attendance versus engaging students. Several instructors offered their personal policies on attendance: some don’t even take attendance and give it no reward or punishment, some have very strict attendance policies, some use a middle ground of points, percentages, and grade scales tied to attendance and participation. There is no perfect way, though we discussed how we might create a learning environment that students want to be part of, are compelled (intrinsically) to be there and thus help us put less emphasis on attendance and more on engagement. None of us wants to be the attendance police and spend class time checking off a list of names. We want our students to be there because they realize they need to know what we have to teach them. But we are frustrated and timid about not setting a specific policy for students to follow (what happens if they aren’t compelled to show up? Few of us have the confidence in ourselves and our students to be so hands-off concerning attendance).

There is no one way of doing this, but one professor talked about tying in-class assignments and scaffolding foundational content and concepts with performance expectations. He sets up assignments so that a student cannot move on to the next level without completing the prior level, and to do that, they must come to class. He gives them the defined milestones and a calendar to achieve them, assignments that move them through these levels of knowledge, assessed by conceptual tests, essays, and final projects. Though in some cases a student may try to “catch up” near the end of a unit and thus rush through material, in general he finds that students move through the material in concert and with enthusiasm. I speculated that in some cases it is the relationship with the instructor (trust, respect) that allows for looser “policies”; what works for one instructor may not work for another without building trust and respect.


We spent some time discussing innovation, ways we try to implement new scholarship on teaching practice and student learning, and of course, technology that can help us do that. We acknowledged that ofttimes students display a distrust of, and at times outright dislike, new ways of learning. This may be because they are used to performing and succeeding in a defined way - the lecture, taking Powerpoint notes, working in groups to complete a project - and when we ask them to think or learn in new ways, they are skeptical or resistant. I think this may be, as most teaching methods are and as I noted above, because of their trust in their instructor; we all know instructors that experiment all the time in their courses and are enthusiastically engaging their students, so why can’t we? So we segued to building trust in students: demonstrating that we know what we’re doing, setting expectations to that emphasize that it is okay to try something and have it bomb (even us teachers have failures!), that ultimately, we all want to continue learning. We talked about building in small successes and achievements that lead to bigger successes and investment of the student in reaching those goals. Ultimately, we were intrigued by the idea that we let our students experience failure in order to give success a more genuine sense of achievement on their part.

Posted 3 years ago

Being a Student

by Steve Markoff

Assistant Professor,

Accounting, Law, and Taxation

Montclair State University

As a good friend of mine (and excellent teacher) Joe Hoyle of University of Richmond says, “If you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.”  Sometimes it is oh so easy for us to forget what it’s like to be sitting in one of those chairs facing the front of the room, listening to someone spout knowledge about a topic that he or she has been an expert in for perhaps 30 years or more.  Being in charge is a very comfortable feeling.   Sometimes, the only way to understand what it’s like is to literally walk a mile in their moccasins.  So, that’s what I did, and I made some very interesting observations not just about my students, but about my own teaching that I feel are worth sharing.

I’ve always loved learning as much as teaching.  I rarely read a book or watch a TV show unless there is something I can learn.  So, one thing I did to segue into full-time university teaching, was to go back to school and take a college course or two.  Of course, I first chose something that I always loved and wanted to learn more about – astronomy.  I took this course for credit and for a grade, not auditing.  Of course, it did not take much in the way of teacher motivation to get me to tear into the textbook as I was super interested.  Yet I found it kind of odd to be sitting on the other side.  I would wonder “why did the professor say this or skip that?”  I felt some degree of anxiety about raising my hand to ask a question if I wanted to engage in some additional learning.  Oh, and let’s not forget the stress of studying for and taking the two midterms!   I was so nervous to walk up to the front of the lecture hall to get my Scantron card in front of all the students when the professor called my name.  And the heartbreak of getting a 98% and immediately turning to the question I got wrong to see if it was a mistake!  I was determined to get 100% on the next midterm and the final.  And while it was interesting to emotionally and physically get back into what the undergraduate students are facing, something was missing, and I knew what it was – I was taking a course in a subject that I really loved and had wanted to learn even more about for decades!  Preparing for lectures and reading every single word in the textbook, along with the optional software, was an absolute joy.  I figured that, in order to get a real picture of what a typical student goes through, I was going to do what they have to do -  take a course in a subject that I had no background in, had little working knowledge of and which I really didn’t find interesting in the least.  So I chose a physics course. Accounting and physics, what a combo!

The joy I had felt opening up my textbook to do the assigned readings suddenly became laborious work.  I kept asking myself “why was I even doing this?”.  Instead of being prepared ahead of time, I rushed at the last moment to do the assigned work for class.  In fact, I even showed up once without having done it.  I considered not going to class that day. 

I became easily confused as the textbook presented what seemed to be a never-ending group of formulas.  The lectures didn’t help either.  The professor proceeded to turn the lights down as we listened and watched the PowerPoint.  Oh my, staying awake was very hard.  If I had some popcorn, I would be all set!  When I raised my hand to ask a question, I felt almost silly.  Was I the only one with this question?  Why did others seem to understand this and not me?  The professor’s explanation rarely helped, but I didn’t want to hold up the class. I remember being so confused that I wouldn’t even ask a question.

When it came to the test, I wasn’t wondering if I got 100% either.  Finding time to study seemed difficult – everything else seemed more important.  It’s amazing how many other things there are to do when the alternative is studying for a class in a subject that isn’t interesting and that you don’t really want to learn.

If all this kind of sounds familiar, but from the other side of the podium, take heart.  From this exercise – by being a student – the one without the knowledge – I came away with some very important things that have improved my teaching:

  1.  Respecting my students for what they are, rather than being frustrated that they aren’t what I think they should be.  It’s very easy when I am the expert in the classroom.  Things that are obvious to me might be total mysteries to my students.  Sometimes, they might appear to be unable to make what seems to be the simplest connections.
  2.  The importance of creating a big enough “WHY”.  The big difference between the astronomy and the physics was my personal “WHY” – in the first case I understood at a very deep level why I wanted to learn the material in the course.  In the physics course, I wasn’t there to really learn it.  From this, I’ve discovered that, as the leader of the group, I have tremendous power over how my students perceive the material.  Getting them to become engaged and really WANT TO soak up the knowledge is my most important task from day one.
  3.  The importance of stepping stones and sequencing.  In the physics course, I noticed a definite pattern in the class.  When the pace moved too slow, more people seemed bored – even me!  Sometimes though, it seemed like things were moving too fast, and then it became frustrating.  Furthermore, I noticed quite a few times that I couldn’t follow something, only to find the missing link a little while later.  As an expert in my own area, it’s often difficult to know what the proper spacing of the key learning points is for the students, and what the proper sequence should be.

I now look at my students with much more awareness.  I learned a bit more patience if they don’t grasp the concepts immediately, and that I have to be flexible in this area.  I learned to respect them for what they ARE, and see them as they CAN BE.   And I’m a lot more careful about putting together the learning steps and trying to be aware about how far apart they are, and what order they are in.