Friday, March 2, 2012

Is there an upside of failure?

One of my desires in creating the CATAL blog was for it to serve as an avenue for discussion within our faculty. The post for today is one of those times when I seek comments about a question that I pose.

The question: Should we be talking about teaching failures? Maybe failure is too pejorative. Should we report on something that did not work so well in teaching?

No one is perfect and sooner or later something will go wrong in the classroom or on the practice site. There seem to be some, however, who will continue to do things the way that they have always been done because of the belief that they are working well (see How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?).

Why do some not try something different as part of their pedagogical practice? There certainly is risk with innovation. Maybe we always do what we have always done because academia is too much about competition and we don’t want to be seen differently from the person who never fails. Admitting that something did not work is hard. I suspect that part of it also is the general fear of failure we all have.

Failure is a common human experience. We shouldn’t consider it to be unusual or untoward. In fact, maybe we should plan for failure.

I think those who are the best teachers are the ones who are willing to take risks and open themselves up to sometimes fail. I agree with Dean Matthews who has said that we should not wait to do something different or innovative until we think that everything is in place. If we use this as a mechanism to guard against failure, then we may never do anything.

I believe that an advantage of discussing our failures in public is that we can get help and suggestions from others. Through these interactions, we should actually learn some things about ourselves and about our teaching. Additionally, struggling with talking about a teaching failure may help us to better understand the challenge for a student when we ask them to write or reflect on an experience, especially one that did not go so well for them.

Finally, opening ourselves up through public discussion of a failure may help us with our PR. How many times have you heard about the academic in the ivory tower who doesn’t seem human. Anything that helps us to look a little more human has got to be good. And isn’t the human experience what lies at the heart of the university?

I welcome your thoughts. Should we openly admit failure in teaching?

Friday, January 27, 2012

How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?

How many academics does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Change!? I also heard someone say that they believe it is easier to change the course of history than to change a history course.

No one likes change. It never seems to be convenient to go through change. If one looks at education, however, many things are done the same as they may have been a hundred years ago (think lecture) even when we have had so many advances in technology. When in graduate school, I was told that the reason there was a requirement for all graduate students to take a non-credit, one-semester foreign language course was because “that is the way we have always done that.” Too often, I fear, this is the way academia works.

Take a look at the article entitled What You (Really) Need to Know written by Lawrence H. Summers in the January 20, 2012 Education section of The New York Times. Summers is the former president of Harvard University and a former Secretary of the Treasury. In the article, Summers wonders how university education might change in light of today’s world. He states:
Nonetheless, it is interesting to speculate: Suppose the educational system is drastically altered to reflect the structure of society and what we now understand about how people learn. How will what universities teach be different? Here are some guesses and hopes.
He outlines six possible transformations in the way people learn in the university.

  • Focus will be more on how to process and use information and less about imparting it.
  • Because of the knowledge explosion, tasks will be conducted with more collaboration.
  • New technologies will significantly change the way knowledge is transmitted.
  • Technology and collaborative experiences will be used to promote dynamic or active learning.
  • It will be essential that the educational experience become more cosmopolitan; that students have international experiences and see examples from around the world.
  • Much more emphasis will be placed on the analysis of data.

I believe that we in COPHS are doing some of these things now. What are your thoughts on Summers’ suggestions? How could we incorporate his ideas to increase our commitment to helping our students in their careers and their ability to contribute to society?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Teaching Tip for December 5, 2011

As we begin to reflect at the end of a semester and think about what we will do differently when we are again with students, it may be helpful to read these two quotes from the book The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer.
Reduce teaching to intellect and it becomes a cold abstraction; reduce it to emotions and it becomes narcissistic; reduce it to the spiritual and it loses its anchor to the world. Intellect, emotion, and spirit depend on each other for wholeness. They are interwoven in the human self and in education at its best. – p. 4
[Here is] a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. – p. 10

Monday, November 21, 2011

Teaching Tip for November 21, 2011

Creating a climate for learning is very important. This includes not only the physical setting but also the psychosocial and cultural climate. Knowles described several characteristics of climate that he believed were conducive to learning:

  •  A climate of the physical environment
  •  A climate of mutual respect
  •  A climate of collaboration
  •  A climate of mutual trust
  •  A climate of supportiveness
  •  A climate of openness and authenticity
  •  A climate of pleasure
  •  A climate of humanness

These ideas are summed up in the following quote:

Learning  is  a  very  human  activity.  The  more people  feel  they  are  being  treated  as  human beings – that  their  human  needs  are  being  taken into  account – the  more  they  are  likely  to  learn and learn to learn.    –    Knowles  MS.  The  Adult  Learner:  A  Neglected Species. 4th  ed.  Houston,  TX: Gulf Publishing Co. 1990:129.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Teaching Tip for November 7, 2011

Two times a month, the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning will provide a Teaching Tip.

We begin with the classic work of Chickering and Gamson from their publication entitled The Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. This work came from a review of 50 years of research on the way teachers teach and students learn. Although published in 1987, these principles have been widely accepted and are still very much valid today. Much research has been conducted to support the principles.

Good practice in education:
  • encourages contact between students and faculty,
  • develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  • encourages active learning,
  • gives prompt feedback,
  • emphasizes time on task,
  • communicates high expectations, and
  • respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

The citation for the original article is:  Chickering AW, Gamson ZF.  Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.  AAHE Bulletin. 1987; 39(7): 3-7.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why? Why? Why? Why?

Daniel Pink has written several books about how work is changing. His latest, entitled Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is one I highly recommend to everyone. The book is based on over 40 years of scientific research on human motivation. His conclusion is that there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business (and education) does.

In Pink’s article in the January 29, 2011 issue of the British newspaper, The Telegraph, he begins by describing his first day of his first class in journalism. He said that the instructor told the class that the job of the journalist was to explain to readers who, what, where, when, why, and how - the Five Ws and an H. He goes on to state that he thinks that the “why” is conspicuously absent from most businesses today. Based on research by Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, he posits that omitting the “why” may be a major mistake.

Pink describes several of the studies done by Grant. One study was conducted at a large US university call center where telephone calls were made nightly to alumni to raise scholarship funds. Grant divided the call center representatives into three groups.

For several days before making calls, the first group read brief stories from previous employees about the personal benefits of working in the job. The stories were about developing communication and sales skills that later helped them in their careers.

The second group also read stories before making calls. These stories were from people who had received scholarships from the funds raised and who described how the money had improved their lives. The aim of these stories was to remind workers of the purpose of their efforts.

The third group served as a control and read nothing before making calls. A month later, Grant measured the performance of the three groups.

The first group and the control group received about the same number of weekly pledges and raised the same amount of money as they had in the weeks before the experiment. The people in the second group, however, raised more than twice as much money and obtained twice as many pledges as they had in previous weeks. This was significantly more than the workers in the other two groups.

Remember, the second group spent time considering the significance of their work and the effect on the lives of others. It seems that reminding the workers about the “why” resulted in a doubling of their performance. Grant has shown similar results in studies.

I wonder if this also is a message for us in the classroom. Shouldn’t we be helping students to understand the “why” of the course or the curriculum? Could knowing why help to motivate students and lead to better learning experiences? Would finding meaning (the why) in course and at work eventually guide students toward meaning in life?

I suspect that understanding the “why” will help students to become more competent and committed. One thing I believe we need to hear is that we as faculty have a responsibility to help students understand the “why.” It probably is even more important to do this with the current Millennial student. And we must remember that the parental “because I said so” is probably the worst “why” we could give students.

One take home message for me from this research is that reminding people why they are doing what they are doing, even in vary small ways, can lead to in a very significant effect.

What do you think about this and the potential use to us in education? What suggestions do you have as ways to help students see and understand the “why” in the classroom? I look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Friday, January 7, 2011

I Watched a Great Movie on My VCR Last Night

“We don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be e-mail” says Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook and Time Magazine Person of the Year. In 2008, I heard a talk by Lee Rainie, the founder and director of the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project. One of his comments based on a recently conducted survey was that 15-20 year olds thought that e-mail was for “old people”. I am not sure what the fact that I have 3 different e-mail accounts says about me.

From my observations, it does indeed seem that students are moving away from email as their main method of written communication. What does that mean for us as faculty? Take a look at this news report from the January 6, 2011 edition of Inside Higher Ed.

I think that one thing we can learn is that we may need to use a variety of technologies to communicate with our students. There are probably many different student preferences in a class for linking with others or receiving information. This is really no different than a class filled with students with different learning styles, is it.

How we need to communicate also probably depends on our objective. If it involves reflection, then e-mail or a wiki or a blog may best serve the need. If the goal is to rapidly get information to the entire class, maybe a Facebook page is the best way to do that.

We need to assess what we are trying to do and then select the best technology to do that. Always remember, however, to use the technology that is effective and that assists in the learning process. Don’t use technology just because you can.

I look forward to your comments.