Resistance or experience?

I had the pleasure of spending some time recently with the engineering academic staff from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) at their end of academic year senior staff retreat (dean, associate deans, heads of school). My role was novel in that I was the first outsider to have ever been invited to these executive retreats.

Quarantine Beach, Sydney Harbour, Manlyetreats. Either this was going to open up such possibilities for the future of forever close them down. Time will be the judge.

The topic was two fold. Talk about the emerging learning environments that are being built around the world in response to the growing recognition that didactic lecture is often misaligned with learning objectives. The corollary conversation that inevitably accompanies this discussion is about the technologies that enable or inhibit the learning processes for which they are intended.

Secondly, what are the learning activities that academic staff want their students to experience? In reality this should precede the discussion of learning spaces as they ought to serve as their design guidelines. Sadly this happens all too infrequently. It usually is the case that the design, technology, and related affordances of new spaces triggers rather than follows discussions about learning activities as the unrest rises with the unveiling of new teaching environments. “We have theses new collaboration rooms. But what do we really do with them?”

What followed was an active discussion, rather than 90 minutes of ‘death by PowerPoint’. What struck me through the course of this discussion is something that I’ve experienced before but it seems to be occurring with both greater frequency of late and certainly with greater emphasis & depth of feeling. That is, the forceful “knowing conviction” that introductory courses need, indeed must be designed to provide the experienced academic the opportunity to explain and, in the framework of this argument, motivate the young (naive?) students to appreciate why they are going to have several semesters of maths, chemistry physics, and discipline specific engineering courses in the coming years. Only by virtue of this careful and well orchestrated overview by the knowledgable and experienced academic will the student have the context to appreciate the connection between the foundation courses and the engineering challenges that lie ahead. They need to be prepared to confront the development and production difficulties that, for example, the chemical process engineer will encounter and have to solve.

This sounds like the voice of experience from someone who’s “been there and done that”, and wants to offer their guidance and scaffolded insights to these impressionable young minds. It certainly comes from a deep conviction that it is necessary and really irresponsible to take another path. A gentle question asking if perhaps the student needs to encounter these issues on their one terms to build this framework themselves is quickly countered with the certainty from years in the field dealing with unprepared and otherwise unequipped students who simply wouldn’t understand what to do or think without this scaffolding hammered home. How would they ask the right questions? Why would they ask anything at all from their foundation-free, construct thin frame of reference? These aren’t MIT students, after all. Don’t think that what works at such an elite institution will work here.

And this may be right – for vast majority of students who find themselves in middle of the class distribution, and who are just following along in their career path that is as much laid out for them as it is chosen by them.

But it resonates with the same discussion and arguments that emerged during the development and piloting of MIT’s Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) redesign of first year physics. As Yogi was want to say, “it’s deja vu all over again.”

TEAL classroom (Stata Bldg) at MIT

Lori Breslow, the Director of the MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory wrote a recent article in Change magazine (Breslow, L.. (2010). WRESTLING WITH PEDAGOGICAL CHANGE: THE TEAL INITIATIVE AT MIT. Change, 42(5), 23-29.  Retrieved November 12, 2010, from Academic Research Library. (Document ID: 2140404421))describing the history of educational innovation in a research intensive university through the lens of TEAL In it she wrote, “While TEAL had its supporters among the faculty, it also had its detractors who sought-with various degrees of effort-to undermine it. Some faculty simply believed TEAL was bad pedagogy. One well-respected faculty member who had extensive experience teaching Physics I wrote a long critique of TEAL that began, “What I don’t like about the TEAL format is that it seems to be effectively based on the premise that lectures are obsolete.”

She went on to write something that sounded like it had come directly from the conversations I’d just had over the past few days in discussing alternatives to broadcasting content through lecturing in search of more valuable uses of the precious “face time” between students and academic staff. Breslow wrote “Lecturing, in this faculty member’s view, allowed the instructor to “lay out the logic of physics -the beautiful way in which just about everything that we teach in the freshman year can be seen as the logical consequence of a few fundamentally simple ideas.” Deja vu all over again, again.

The conversations are separated by years, tens of thousands of miles and vast differences in cultural history. But the story they tell about the difficulties of accomplishing major changes in teaching in higher education are remarkably similar. This speaks to the very heart of the challenge that confronts the institution of higher education around the world. As Breslow noted, everything was aligned to support a major change in pedagogy represented by the development and introduction of TEAL at MIT:

– the reform was centered in the department
– external pressure existed to make changes in the first year physics program because of perceived higher than appropriate failure rates
– support was strong from the department head, associate dean for education, the dean for undergraduate education and the provost. When th times were tough, they defended the reform and committed to ‘stay the course’.
– it had a faculty champion with an established record of research (that matters more than data or video evidence of merit)
– finally, the reform took place in the midst of a major investment in pedagogical change and technology development for teaching ($35 million dollars from a donor alum and Microsoft Research).

It’s now nearly eight years on and the reform continues, but it remains a work in progress. And therein is a message about how difficult it is to achieve substantive reform even when everything is in place. That is an important recognition and at the same time deeply worrying. Breslow ends with this unsettling question:

“What TEAL demonstrates is that successful educational innovation requires an enormous amount of effort and a good deal of luck. For TEAL, the stars were in alignment-the ingredients required for major pedagogical reform were there. But the question that higher education needs to ask itself is, why does this have to be so hard?”

Seymour Papert wrote decades ago about how it is essentially impossible to reform or make fundamental changes in organisational structures as complex as schools. The complexity of forces all pushing to sustain homeostasis is overpowering. Perhaps that’s both the realisation and the pathway out of the dilemma. John Maeda’s Laws of Simplicity, transformed by MobiusView’s to “simplify, learn, connect”, and channeled by my colleague Tim Kastelle into “aggregate, filter, and connect”. The bottom line: simplicity has a more value that we acknowledge.

— pdl —

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Manly Beach Q-Station

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About longpd

I'm a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
This entry was posted in active_learning, co-learning, curriculum_redesign, learning_spaces, lecture. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Resistance or experience?

  1. Alan says:

    It’s reassuring that discussions like this are going on, Phil. I know we’ve talked this over before, but a huge gap in the DIY learning proponents is the missing foundations of learning basic core knowledge before one is ready to DIY.

    I wonder though, it sounds like the expectation again is the experience professor to provide the scaffolding, when it seems like there could be a network of peer scaffolding (3rd and 4th years students, former students) to play some of the role described. It’d going to be a challenging message to communicate beyond, “trust me I have years of experience that says you need to learn how to do X”

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