More on Electronics in the Classroom

Following up on my post from last week, I discussed the use of electronics in the classroom with each of my two classes, today.

I told students that I used to ban electronic devices, and why I thought I needed to do so, but noted that I lifted that ban when I switched to problem-based learning: the internet can be a valuable resource for groups grappling with practical problems . . . though the trick is to know when and where to look.

I told them they should make sure to bring some kind of internet-capable device with them to class, so it’s available if they need it. I added that we would try out and reflect on various ways of using electronic devices for collaborative work, since some are likely to be more fruitful than others.

I went on to say that there might be particular activities and assignments for which I would ask them to put away their electronics, but that there would be a good pedagogical reason for it. For example, I might want them to see what they can make of a particular problem using only the resources of their own minds and bodies, and perhaps of a paper book. Continue reading

What I Ask My Students to Write

In my first year of developing and implementing a problem-based learning approach in my ethics courses, I spotted and moved to correct any number of design flaws, small and large. By the end of that year, though, I realized that a well established feature of my courses would have to change.

I had to do something about essays.

At their very best, essays are an excellent form in which to explore and develop ideas. When I used to assign essays, I would hope that students would catch on to the spirit of the enterprise and really try things out, consider possibilities, and generally learn something in the process of writing.

For my students, though, the essay form was too often based on the old five-paragraph plug-and-chug they’d learn in high school, a form that has established itself as one of the most effective thinking-avoidance tools available. Continue reading

What Students May Expect of Me

I’ve already posted the learning outcomes from the latest version of my course syllabus. I aim to make those outcomes as clear and complete as possible, as it seems only fair to let students know up front what will be expected of them.

With this new revision of my course design, though, it occurred to me that it would also be only fair to let students know up front, in a clear and complete statement, what they may expect of me.

The following now appears in the syllabi of my courses for Spring 2015: Continue reading

Dreaming of Failure

I’m not sure when I first started having them but it was fairly early in my career: at least twice a year, at the start of a new term, I could expect the arrival of what I soon began to call teaching-anxiety dreams.

At first, they were fairly mundane. I don’t recall any dreams in which I show up to class without any clothes, but perhaps I have suppressed the memory of them.

One of my all-time favorites was one I had when I was teaching at the University of New Hampshire, in which I had been scheduled to teach two classes on different topics at the same time, in adjacent rooms. I coped, in the dream, by scrambling back and forth between the rooms.

I began to look forward to those dreams, as they would help me to focus on the work of the coming term.

I also took them as something of a sign: I thought and I said that, if I ever stop having teaching-anxiety dreams, it would indicate that I should get out of the profession, as it would mean that I just didn’t care enough about my students or my work as a teacher to be anxious about them.

It would also mean that I was not taking enough risks in the design of my courses, that I was becoming too safely conventional.

Then, three or four years ago, I stopped having such dreams. Continue reading

It’s Not Them . . .

It sometimes happens that things I learn in my private life have a profound impact on some aspect of my professional life, usually to the benefit of those I work with.

In particular, I have been involved in the American traditional dance scene since I was a graduate student: contra dance, English country dance, and a select few varieties of couples dance. I now play fiddle in a couple of contra dance bands, and my wife is making a name for herself as a caller and choreographer.

I may have things to say, later on, about what I’ve learned from being a musician and playing for dances. My experience organizing the Atlanta Open Band has given me some insight into the conditions under which large, transformative projects might succeed or fail, for example, and I’m convinced that there is some deep, metaphorical connection between musical improvisation and ethical living.

As I was thinking about yesterday’s post on electronics in the classroom, though, and on some of the attitudes evinced by contributors to the discussion on The Daily Nous, I was reminded of one of the principles my wife learned when she was first learning to call dances: It’s always the caller’s fault. Continue reading

On Banning Electronics from the Classroom

A post appeared on The Daily Nous, today, taking up a question raised by an editorial in The Washington Post: Should an instructor at the university level, as a matter of explicit policy, forbid students to have or use their own electronic devices in the classroom?

I used to have such a policy, as I was tired of seeing students absorbed in social media or online videos while I was trying so desperately to engage them.

It did not go over very well with students and, in any case, left me feeling uneasy. As some of my students protested, the policy comes across as condescending, patronizing.

When I switched to problem-based learning (PBL), though, I dropped the policy: the internet can be a resource for students working in groups in the classroom, though I do try to help them reflect on their use of the internet and the relative value of various sources they may find there.

Here is the comment I contributed to the thread following the post on The Daily Nous: Continue reading

Ethics Lesson

A new term begins next week. I’ll be spending some time today going over my syllabi, making sure my new course design is as ready as I can make it.

I’ll have more to say about the new design in the coming weeks, especially as I begin to see its various failure modes, and so begin the next round of revisions and mid-course corrections.

In honor of the new term, I thought I’d post something I wrote over the summer.

I found myself alone at home for a few weeks, while my wife and daughters were traveling. One Sunday evening, I decided to attend a spoken-word open-mic at a nearby coffee shop.

The next Sunday, I put my name on the list and, when called, stood up to do my bit. Continue reading

A Field Guide: A First Sketch

This blog grew out of an idea I had, sometime last year, to write a Field Guide to Basic Values for use in my ethics courses, building on the idea of attuned awareness to which I referred in my previous post.

I once used this analogy with students:

There are no doubt some people who can walk outside on a morning in spring and simply not notice that birds are singing. Others might notice, but it might seem to them an undifferentiated sound to be filed under the general heading, “bird song.” A few, if they have any practice at all in birding – observing and identifying birds – will pick out the songs of individual birds, identify them by species, or even by variant, and note the ones they can’t identify just now. When I hear the call or the song of an unfamiliar bird, I immediately long for my binoculars and field guide.

I suggested that, as a matter of lived experience, ethics is much the same. Continue reading

What’s Science Got to Do With It?

One of the last things I read online, yesterday evening, was a new column in The New York Times online, under the irresistible title, “Where Does Moral Courage Come From?

(The Times has been an unusually rich source for ethical inquiry and reflection, and not only because of the news reported in its pages.)

The author, David Bornstein, relates a number of moving stories of people standing up in the face of injustice, regardless of consequences to themselves.

In second paragraph, though, is a single sentence that, to me, seemed out of place. Continue reading

Object Lessons

My post about the cyclotron case – “The Other End of the Beam” – has made me wonder whether I could build a course in practical ethics, or perhaps just the introductory segment of a course, around a single, physical object.

I’d come across a brief account of the idea of an object lesson, which is attributed to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century educational theorist Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in a recent overview of the philosophy of education by Nel Noddings.

I’ll need to go back and look at her account, and I’ll need to dig into the history of it, but the basic idea is to allow students to learn from interacting directly with a particular object. Especially notable is that the technique was often used for moral instruction, often in a religious context.

That original meaning of the term, object lesson, has been obscured: in common usage, it refers generally to an experience from which someone learns something.

I’d like to restore the core idea of interacting with an object, in imagination if not in direct experience, to give students practical experience using one or another skill of ethical inquiry. Continue reading