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

Integrity Test

I take ‘integrity’ to mean a kind of wholeness or consistency of character: someone with integrity can be counted on to behave with the same kind of self-control or courage or respect or honesty or fairness in any circumstances, even if no one is looking.

An old test of integrity is the Ring of Gyges, from Plato’s Republic: a shepherd finds a ring that makes him invisible, which enables him to get away with all sorts of bad behavior. In the story, it could be said the shepherd lacked integrity: he was one person in one circumstance but, as soon as those circumstances changed, his behavior changed abruptly.

The challenge of the Ring of Gyges is this: If you had the ring, would you follow the shepherds example and become someone else when you cannot be seen? Or would you remain constant in whatever degree of virtue you happen to have?

It occurred to me this morning that it might be possible to develop a new integrity test that might appeal to the current generation of students.

You are posting anonymously to an online discussion, and you disagree strongly with a comment someone else has posted. You quickly type another comment in reply. Before you click on the button to post it, consider: All else being equal, would you post the same comment under your own name?

If there are things you would post anonymously – insults and threats, for example – that you would be ashamed to have connected with you by name, does this suggest a division or inconsistency in your character?

I say “all else being equal” because I understand that there are many circumstances in which people have good reason to post anonymously – when there’s a power imbalance, for example.

As I write this, I have some doubts about the usefulness of this test. It may introduce too many extraneous factors.

How about it, though? Could this be a useful way of getting at the idea of integrity? Is the analogy with the Ring of Gyges – the possibility of getting away with conduct one would never consider under other circumstances – sufficiently strong?

I’d be interested in a discussion of the idea.

Thinking about Virtue: A Bit of Scaffolding

I have been reading back in some literature on problem-based learning (PBL), and related matters, in preparation for writing a paper on my ongoing course-design process. Along the way, I made a discovery – or a re-discovery – that was immediately and urgently useful in the classes I’m teaching this semester.

One of the basic ideas behind PBL is that teaching and learning can be modeled as a cognitive apprenticeship (Collins 1987, Newstetter 2005). The challenge of course design is to create a learning environment in which students, working on their own but with guidance, develop a particular set of cognitive capacities.

Part of the knack of course design is to make a realistic assessment of how far students will be able to go in this development within the limits of a semester; another part of it is providing just those kinds of support students need to go that far.

(I could get into some of the theory behind this, some of which is derived from Vygotsky’s work on human cognition, especially his notion of the “zone of proximal development” . . . but I’ll leave that deeper dive for another time.)

What I want to get at in this post is the idea of scaffolding, an artificial structure provided to students that can allow them to operate at a higher cognitive level than they could otherwise reach. The hope and the aim is for students to be less dependent on the scaffolding as they go, until they can work at that higher level on their own.

The key, and the thing I was missing, is that scaffolding can and should have a physical component to it, or at least a spatial and even tactile way of arranging cognitive elements that directs the students to make distinctions and connections among those elements. Continue reading

Knowing By Heart

I’m just back from a regular practice session with the Atlanta Open Band, a community contra-dance band of which I am the chief instigator and organizer. We ran later than usual because, just about the time we’d usually wrap up, I fell into teaching the band a new tune by ear.

After practice, one of the musicians said to me: “The only tunes I know by heart are the ones I learned by ear,” with the implication that she might have to re-teach herself by ear all the tunes she usually reads from the page.

Mulling that over, just now, it struck me that it might be another connection between music and ethics: I hope for my students that they might know ethics “by heart” in a sense precisely analogous to knowing a tune by heart.

To know a tune by heart is to be able to play it, and vary it, and improvise on it, and dig into the structure of it, and play counterpoint against it without having to read it off a page or follow someone else’s lead.

On the side of ethics, I was thinking particular of theory. It’s one thing to read the Categorical Imperative off a page, for example, and to memorize it in order to copy it down later; it’s something else altogether to learn to notice and respond to the autonomy and dignity of human beings by experiencing them in real time, in their concrete immediacy, in the pulsing ebb and flow of social life.

The question is how best to create an environment and to structure a set of activities that might guide students to such experiences, and to help them to understand what they are experiencing.