Is Active Learning the Solution to Improving Higher Education? Or are Students the Problem?

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz around active learning and the flipped classroom and the push is on at the university level (and at the high school/elementary levels) for reforming how we teach.  At the same time, it seems like there are a vast number of alternative pedagogical tools from which to choose and different institutions are grappling with what to adopt (as well, much like other policy areas, it seems like these reform pushes go through phases).

I am all for finding ways to improve our ability as instructors to help students learn. But what tends to get lost in all of the “reform” buzz is the importance of students who are interested and engaged learners.

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Recently, a colleague of mine told a story about how she tried to use a group activity in her class only to have several students walk out.

I’ve also heard second hand that some students in my class don’t like the “learning catatlyics” or any other active learning activity: instead they prefer the “sage on the stage” model.

Many months ago, when I was talking about active learning with some colleagues, they wondered about whether all students would be engaged or attend and if not, then any new pedagogy was a failure.

I raise these anecdotes because they all point to the same thing: there’s only so much an instructor can do if students simply don’t want to learn.

I think many university instructors have stories about students that aren’t interested in learning; instead, these students simply want “the grade” and don’t care about the “learning”.  I can recall countless examples, for instance, of writing detailed comments on essays only to hand them back, with some students flipping to the last page to see the grade and then tossing the paper into the garbage!

To what extent do students really want to learn? I really don’t know.  I know there’s students that really want to learn and others that don’t.  But the proportion of learners vs. non-learners is unclear to me.

What is clear to me, and what I haven’t done a good job pointing out in my posts on the flipped classroom, is the importance of incentives.  Given that some (many?) students don’t want to engage and participate in activities, an important component of getting students to buy in is to create incentives in the form of grades.

Anecdotally, incentives are crucial.  All of my flipped classroom activities, including the videos and activities, involve some sort of grade (either an online quiz or participation grade).  Without those incentives, I have a feeling the videos and activities would not be effective.

The Irrationality of Teaching Kids the ABC Song

Why is it that we teach our kids the ABC song? You know, the song with ABC lyrics set to the tune, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?

We teach our kids this song, and then we spend pre-school and Kindergarten teaching kids that LMNOP are in fact separate letters and not just one word!

It seems to me that someone dropped the ball. I think a better tune would be Three Blind Mice. For instance:

“Three blind mice” would be “A – B – C”; Three blind mice (D – E – F); See how they run (G – H – I); See how they run (J – K – L)’; They all run after the farmer’s wife (M – N – O – P); who cut off their heads with a carving knife (Q – R – S – T), Did you ever see such a thing in your life (U – V – double – U), as three blind mice (X – Y – Z).

With three blind mice, you don’t need to add that silly “now I know my ABCs, next time won’t you sing with me” at the end to complete the tune.  This is an old educational practice we need to break!

E-Textbooks

The Globe and Mail reports:

“The California senator is the author of a bill that promises to make required textbooks free online to thousands of students. His bill, which was signed by the governor and becomes law in January, asks the state and private sponsors to finance 50 digital textbooks that first- and second-year students generally use. …. “We always think of new technology being more expensive. But in the case of college textbooks, the highest cost is actually attached to the centuries-old technology of a printed book,” he said.”

In principle, this is a great idea.  But there are all sorts of potential problems with this particular scheme, mainly because its a top-down approach to digitizing textbooks.  Instead, what needs to happen is for university professors to start writing open source, e-textbooks, which are cost-effective, easy to update, and open to students and the general public.   That way, you avoid a variety of problems that stem from the top-down approach, such as how to choose which textbooks to fund, and to avoid the kind of rent-seeking that is common to these types of bills.

Diversity and Disagreement

A popular question in Canada, among both scholars and pundits: cultural diversity and deep disagreement… good? bad? some of both? What to do in the face of deep disputes over big questions of religion, cultural practices, and moral values?

McGill’s Carlos Fraenkel took a stab at this over the weekend at the New York Times, in an opinion piece provocatively titled “In Praise of the Clash of Cultures.”

Here is the argument in a nutshell.

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People disagree over fundamental Truths about religion, morality, and metaphysics. Let’s call these capital-T truths. The philosopher John Rawls called them “comphrehensive doctrines”. Some philosophers (and more than a few scientists) would call them “mostly bullshit.” But you get the idea: these are the Gauguin, Kant, and Bladerunner questions.

We may be reasonably confident in our considered views about the Truth. Still, it’s plausible that we might have come to very different views if we’d been born and raised in a different time or place. At the very least we might admit, upon reflection, that these deep, subtle questions admit of several plausible answers. While I might be very certain about my answers, how could I justify imposing my truths on others, without at the very least some careful argument that tries to find shared evidence and some common terms of reference?

Frankel cites al-Ghazâlî on “taqlîd”, and suggests we need to recognize and interrogate conformity to received authority. Rawls would instead cite “the burdens of judgement” (the ideas are not really the same, but we’re roughly on the same page here).

Now, if you value the truth, but admit fallibility, then deep disagreements are good, Fraenkel suggests, because, in Millian fashion, they force us to argue our position against committed assaults on our core assumptions and inferences.

What we need, Frankel argues, is a culture that allows these kinds of encounters without them spiraling into mutual contempt and even violence. In high school, then, we should teach our children to respect other people and try to understand where they’re coming from, even as they hammer away at our cherished beliefs, and we at theirs.

To be sure, there’s mounting evidence that people don’t like these sorts of situations: most people don’t want to be forced to reflect critically on their most cherished convictions, and they don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy arguing with people who fundamentally disagree with them.

Still, you might think that it’s good for us to engage across deep divisions, at least in some important contexts: jury rooms, the ballot box, when thinking about what’s best for our children, our planet—that sort of thing. So why not teach our children, explicitly and carefully, how to engage with other assumptions and arguments in civil, respectful, and constructive ways?

In short, why not make a point of teaching citizens, early and often, how to seek the truth and argue their positions, but without being assholes?

As we watch the train wreck that is (post-Citizens United) presidential campaigning to the south of us, there’s certainly something to this idea: truthfulness instead of truthiness, high-minded and informed civility instead of angry evidence-free sanctimony.

So far so good, then. Unfortunately this is where things start to come off the rails. Here are two problems with the argument that strike me as serious.

First, on the feasibility of fostering “a culture of debate” Fraenkel writes:

“The high school curriculum already includes subjects such as evolution, which are much more controversial than the skills required for engaging difference and disagreement in a constructive way.”

 

I cannot make sense of this in a way that is positive for Fraenkel.

Is he saying that evolution is controversial (it isn’t), but that teaching critical thinking and the “virtues of debate” (“loving the truth more than winning an argument, and trying one’s best to understand the viewpoint of the opponent”) is less so? That seems just wrong to me, even if evolution were remotely controversial.

It is after all, really, really hard to teach people consistently to think like a philosopher when pondering the things that matter most to them, and yet to do so while maintaining high-minded virtues of truth-loving, paired with both civility and a deep desire to understand other viewpoints. It’s certainly tough going here at universities, and I cannot imagine the task would be any easier in our high schools. So, while this curriculum proposal isn’t necessarily controversial in the sense of fostering substantive disagreement (“No! don’t teach my child to think clearly and respect others!” … although on this possibility more shortly), it may well stir controversy in the same way as tax dollars spent on any other aspirational-but-unrealistic curriculum initiative.

Or, more likely, is Fraenkel saying that evolution isn’t especially controversial, and that teaching these skills and virtues is even less so? As much as I’d like to believe this, we have the same problem here: not only is it hard to teach critical reasoning and civic and philosophical virtues (let alone to encourage their consistent application to our most cherished beliefs) but I suspect that the kinds of parents who don’t want their kids learning about evolution are also not going to be especially keen on classes in philosophical analysis and associated virtues! They have, after all, complained about weirder things: who’d have thought that some fundamentalists might have strong views on mathematical set theory?

Second, Fraenkel makes a strange case for his core claim that, “when we can transform the disagreements arising from diversity into a culture of debate, they cease to be a threat to social peace.” That’s nice work if you can get it, but here is how he follows up on this statement of hope:

“I now live in Montréal, one of the world’s most multicultural cities. When a couple of years ago I had to see a doctor, the receptionist was from China, in the waiting room I sat between a Hasidic Jew and a secular Québécois couple, the doctor who attended me was from Iran, and the nurse from Haiti. This was an impressive example of how Canadians, despite their deep moral, religious, and philosophical differences, can work together to provide the basic goods and services that we all need irrespective of our way of life and worldview.”

Non sequitur, alas: the fact that major urban regions are often characterized by this sort of ethnic, cultural, and class mixing in public and commercial spaces doesn’t suggest that a culture of debate will somehow make this the norm!

Indeed, I’m assuming that Fraenkel thinks of Canada and the United States as not characterized by a widespread culture of debate, so the fact that major cities show us how to muddle along, in spite of deep differences, seems to suggest that we should be far more concerned with the civic and spatial forms of cities (a topic dear to my heart), not with getting people into more debates about their deepest convictions!

Rawls, it seems to me, was thinking along the right lines when he suggests that the point isn’t to get us arguing more about our deepest convictions, but to take from fallibility the lesson that capital-T Truth is a nonstarter for justifying political authority. However certain you are that my convictions are wrong-headed, you won’t convince me to support a constitution, or even a specific policy, if your argument in favour requires that I simply accept your beliefs as authoritative. Instead, and at the very least, you’ll need to give me reasons I can accept, from within my worldview.

Fraenkel is correct to dismiss two popular but philosophically suspect approaches to diversity and disagreement. Any superficial celebration of diversity for its own sake smacks of either effete cosmopolitan condescension (“I wouldn’t live anywhere without a good Moroccan restaurant! How can people stand it in the suburbs?or worse, the prairies!?”), or flirts with problematic moral relativism. The alternative approach, popular among some French commentators and legislators, but also evident in Quebec, tries to keep deep disagreements out of the public square. Fraenkel summarizes the approach nicely: “you are a citoyen in public and a Jew, Christian, or Muslim at home”. But this too seems problematic, or at best ridiculously hopeful: when did hiding disagreements ever resolve them?

Fraenkel’s solution seems to me to miss the mark, however, for the reasons I’ve given, but in a way that Rawls’s approach thankfully does not. Rawls’s appeal to public reason has the great virtue not of hiding disagreements, but of providing plausible criteria for inclusion of beliefs and claims in public debates. Further, unlike Fraenkel’s proposal, Rawls’s approach doesn’t make heroic assumptions about widespread abilities and inclinations to argue widely and rigorously about our most cherished beliefs. Instead, we frame our arguments as citizens, asking how we might justify our public claims on others when we disagree about so much.

Hayek and School Closures

In a recent post, Loren provides an excellent analysis of the silly decision making process that is being used to decide school closures in Hamilton.  Among many cool tidbits, he writes:

“What is troubling, however, is the uniform obsession with closures. There are a range of creative and cost-effective ways we might reconfigure and reimagine existing facilities: partial decommisions, mixed uses, or a range of potential public-private partnerships. Most boards take none of these seriously.”

To me, this is a Hayekian story about expert information, its location (either dispersed throughout or concentrated within a particular segment of society), and how some politicians and policymakers sometimes make bad decisions because they assume they have a monopoly on expert information. Continue reading

According to Loren’s post, these politicians and civil servants seem to believe they have a monopoly on expert information regarding how to assess and solve issues relating to school building use and maintenance.  They made their decisions based on their own knowledge and then took those decisions to the public for “consultations.”’ In the case of Loren’s neighbourhood, which is a location filled with university professors and professionals, they encountered a variety of citizens who had access to their own expert (and local) knowledge that was relevant to the school closure decisions. Rather than consider and incorporate this new expert knowledge, the policymakers and civil servants ignored them, probably because they were in positions of authority and as such assumed that they had a monopoly over the expert knowledge on these issues. The result was bad public policy.

Hayek may have been wrong about a number of things but it’s examples like these that show his continued relevance.  If policymakers and civil servants simply realize that it is possible that expert knowledge is (at least sometimes) dispersed throughout society, then perhaps we’d have better policy outcomes.

Hiring Teachers

Over the last several years, social science research on educational success has been coalescing around one indisputable fact.  If you control for socio-economic factors, the most important influence on student success is the quality of the teacher.

Recently, a friend of mine, who is a vice-principal at a middle school in downtown Toronto, mentioned that although a majority of new teachers they hire every year succeed in the classroom, a significant number do not.

Part of the problem, apparently, is the interview process.  Continue reading

Typically, a teacher interview tends to last somewhere between 15 to 20 minutes and usually involves the candidate answering a list of questions posed by two or three interviewees, usually some combination of the principal, vice-principals, and/or departmental head.  Most of the time, the newly hired teachers live up to the interview answers they gave.  Sometimes, however, they don’t.

When I interviewed at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2008, my interview was a day-long affair, beginning first thing in the morning with a meeting with the Chair of the Department, and ending with an interview-dinner with two political science professors in the department.  In between, there were countless other meetings and interviews with other faculty members in the department, graduate and undergraduate students, senior administration personnel, and university staff.

The two most important parts of my day-long interview, however, were the job talk and the teaching demonstration.  The job talk was a one and a half hour session attended by departmental faculty members and graduate students in which I had to deliver a 35-minute presentation on my research.  For the remainder of the time, I was subject to a variety of challenging questions from the audience about my presentation.

The second main element of my interview was the teaching demonstration.  Prior to my interview, I was told that I would have to teach a 50-minute lecture on the courts in Canadian politics to a second year class of about 100 students.  And that’s what I did, except in addition to the 100 or so students in the class, my future colleagues were also in attendance to assess my performance.

Admittedly, this process is not perfect.  But it does have the advantage of allowing the interviewers to assess candidates more comprehensively, moving beyond the typical interview conversation by adding a real-time assessment of the candidate’s skills and teaching philosophy.

The second round of hiring for elementary and high school teachers will soon be commencing in Ontario.  School administrators should consider adding a live teaching demonstration to the interview process to ensure that interview rhetoric is backed up with performance.