Doing New Things in Teaching (with more words added later)

(Explained using only the ten hundred words people use the most often, just like at that one not-real place I found with my computer. I wrote this using a thing the guy who makes that not-real place made to help people to write more simply.)

I work at a big college (the kind that has a lot of little colleges in it). This week I went to a meeting where some of the top leaders of my big college talked about how they want a lot of us in my big college to do new things in teaching.

They said a lot of stuff about how teaching is good and how teaching matters a lot to people and how important it is to do new things in teaching . . . and especially how important it is that people in my big college do the new things before anyone else does them.

What they did not say, but I thought I heard anyway, is how they do not really know what teaching is.

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Scaffolding: The Utility Template

As previously noted, scaffolding is an important element in problem-based learning:

it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside

For drawing students’ attention to various kinds of basic values, I found the template for utility values the easiest to develop. I don’t want to go too far, just now, in speculating about why that should be the case, but I think it has something to do with the fact that utilitarianism is the product of an empiricist outlook, according to which the marks and measures of value are observable and the connections from action to its ethical implications largely a matter of empirical causality.

Here is the basic template:

Utility TemplateFor this template, focus on the action as something that happens in the world that has consequences that ripple out from it, affecting other people. This is largely a matter of material causality: my action causes x, which causes y, which causes z, and so on. Continue reading

Scaffolding: The Virtue Template, revised

Some months ago, I posted a template I provided to students in my engineering ethics class, to assist them in thinking about virtues and vices in considering various options for responding to a complex problem situation. This, I explained, is an example of scaffolding, which is a crucial element in problem-based learning: it is an external and somewhat artificial version of a thinking process that is usually carried out internally. The idea is to direct students’ attention from the outside until they learn to direct their own attention themselves, from the inside.

In using the template during the Spring and Summer terms, I learned a great deal about its meaning and its limits, on the basis of which I have revised the template itself and refined the instruction I give for using it.

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Why I Don’t Want to Get STEAMed

STEM education is all the rage: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the collection of disciplines regarded as the most desirable, the most likely to lead to financial success for individuals and economic growth for nations, the obsession of universities and policy makers alike.

I don’t know who was the first to consider the possibility of making a concession to the older and richer tradition of liberal-arts education in the United States, but I’ve also come across the acronym, STEAM, in which the ‘A’ stands for Arts.

That’s nice. Continue reading

The Aims of Education

My approach to teaching could be described as “outcome-based education,” given the emphasis of my courses on helping students to develop particular skills of moral cognition.

For me, this narrower, short-term aim has always been tied to a broader vision of the humanities, or of liberal education, or of human life in the world. It has taken be by surprise, then, that on several occasions colleagues have asked something like the following critical questions:

In focusing so much on skills and measurable outcomes, are you not selling out to the corporate model of higher education as mere job-training? Are you not betraying the spirit of liberal education by capitulating to the increasingly corporate or consumerist approach to higher education, which reduces the whole enterprise to the provision of “credentials”?

This is a fair question, one made perhaps more urgent by the fact that the vast majority of my students are professionals-in-training, and much of what I do, particularly in engineering education, is to prepare them to work well and responsibly in their professional roles.

My first reply to the question of whether I am betraying the liberal arts is simply, “I hope not!”  I think I can do better though, in that I can draw a distinction between outcomes-based education of the kind I am developing from the job-skills-training model that seems more and more prevalent in higher education today.

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Being on the Same Side

I use a rubric in assessing my students work, set out in tabular form: each row is one of the criteria from the learning outcomes, while the columns indicated degree of mastery, with stronger performance on the left.

When a student comes to see me about an assignment, usually concerned about the final grade – GPA rules all! – I immediately turn to the rubric and discuss specific ways they can improve their performance on the assignment.

Talking to one student, this semester just past, I said, “My goal is to get everyone to move to the left.”

I was taken aback when the student asked, in reply, “My left or yours?”

Beat.

“We’re on the same side, looking at it the same way,” I replied.

After a moment’s silence, the student said, in wonder, “I’ve never heard a professor say that before.”

It makes me wonder what my colleagues are doing in their own classes, or what students think we are doing, that it never occurred to this particular student that an instructor could be on the same side, with the same goals.

It makes me wonder how many of my colleagues, and how many of my students, think of education instead as an adversarial process?

What can we do to tear down that wall?

Design Flaws

As I’ve noted before, I adopted a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to my practical ethics classes in Fall 2012: after a summer of planning and preparation, I jumped in to the deep end with two courses structured entirely around groups working on messy, practical problems.

(I’m looking back over my history with PBL in preparation both for a paper I’m writing about it and for a workshop I’ll be conducting later this month.)

By the midpoint of the term, I recognized a serious structural flaw in my design, one that threatened to undermine all learning in my classroom: the two “practical exams” that made up much of each student’s final grade were given equal weight in the gradebook.

I should not have been surprised that students struggled so much with the first exam, but it became clear enough that they were still far from mastering the basics of ethical inquiry. In short, scores on the first exam were quite low, across the board.

Student despair and panic over their already-beleaguered GPAs is not altogether conducive to student engagement and cognitive development.

So, I introduced my first mid-course correction. Continue reading