Tinkering and Learning

Annie Murphy Paul has a short piece on her blog about “The Joy of Making Things,” and it argues for a more hands-on, experimental approach to learning than one typically finds in school:

Research in the science of learning shows that hands-on building projects help young people conceptualize ideas and understand issues in greater depth. In an experiment described in the International Journal of Engineering Education in 2009, for example, one group of eighth-graders was taught about water resources in the traditional way: classroom lectures, handouts and worksheets. Meanwhile, a group of their classmates explored the same subject by designing and constructing a water purification device. The students in the second group learned the material better: they knew more about the importance of clean drinking water and how it is produced, and they engaged in deeper and more complex thinking in response to open-ended questions on water resources and water quality.

I haven’t read the study being referenced here, but it sounds like the intervention employed a kind of inquiry-based, learning-through-design approach. I would add that one possible advantage to this method, aside from the question of which way helps students “learn the material better,” is the affective dimension: How do students feel about the subject? What attitudes toward water resource management (or science more generally) were formed as a result?

Some of my own work (such as this) suggests that approaching a subject from an attitude of play and experimentation can profoundly affect later perceptions of (and practices within) that subject. Unfortunately, school isn’t typically set up to allow students much room to experiment, especially in this age of increasingly high-stakes standardized testing.

De-Professionalizing Teachers

According to this piece in today’s Inside Higher Ed, both the US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and one-time maker of crappy-but-ubiquitous software Bill Gates have recently argued that school districts shouldn’t base teacher pay on whether those teachers have masters degrees or not. This whole thing, of course, is tied up in larger arguments about “merit pay,” by which folks like Duncan seem to mean something like “basing teacher pay on how their students perform on bullshit standardized assessments of their performance.” (Alright, that “bullshit” is all mine, but the rest is a pretty accurate representation.)

All of this is also a not-so-subtle attack on the very idea of teacher education. As I discussed in two earlier posts (here and here), it has become fashionable to claim that teacher education is pointless, that learning about how people learn doesn’t make someone a (potentially) better teacher. Following this logic, medical schools should stop teaching courses in anatomy, law schools courses in jurisprudence, and business schools, well, whatever the hell it is they purportedly teach. Surgeons just need on-the-job training and a stack of pre-approved procedures: cut here, snip this off, sew this up, repeat. Why bother thinking about why you’re doing any of it?

Duncan has been using this rhetoric of wanting to “professionalize” teachers. That’s as egregious a piece of double-speak as I’ve heard since the Bush administration. What Duncan really wants is to de-professionalize teaching, to make it into an assembly line on which student test scores are the widgets being produced. Wikipedia, on the other hand, defines “profession” as “a vocation founded upon specialised educational training”. Lest you think Wikipedia is off on this one, here’s the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition:

An occupation in which a professed knowledge of some subject, field, or science is applied; a vocation or career, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

Hmm…sounds like the sort of thing one might do after getting a graduate degree. Duncan doesn’t want teachers to be professionals; he wants them to be factory workers.

Now, perhaps there is room to debate the question of whether a masters degree should automatically earn a teacher higher pay. There apparently isn’t much research about the impact a degree has. But I do know that a teacher who earns a masters degree (beyond the baseline credentials needed to teach) is at the very least demonstrating a desire to become more of a professional. And those who earn advanced degrees often return to their schools not only re-invigorated themselves, but with lots of ideas to share with their colleagues. Isn’t that worth rewarding?


PBS’s News Hour had a report yesterday about a Vanderbilt university study focused on whether tying teacher bonuses to student scores on standardized tests had any effect. According to the report, the researcher, Matt Springer, “offered 143 Nashville teachers bonuses of up to $15,000 if they could substantially raise test scores. Then he compared those teachers’ performance to a group of teachers offered nothing.” The result?

The conclusion of the report is that opportunities to earn a large financial incentive didn’t increase student performance. It didn’t change teacher behavior overwhelmingly.

In other words, the students of teachers offered this incentive didn’t do any better on standardized tests than students of other teachers. It seems you can’t buy better test scores.

Why does this matter? There are profound implications for the kinds of national education policies being pursued right now by the Obama administration. The President’s “Race to the Top” program, which basically has states competing for stimulus funding for education reform, has shown a clear preference for states that are willing to implement some form of “pay-for-performance.” According to the News Hour report, 11 out of the 12 states that have “won” this funding competition have agreed to tie teacher pay to things like student test scores. The idea here (besides busting teacher unions, which is, of course, also part of the point) is to create economic incentives for teachers to increase student test scores. Continue reading

Another Response to Stanley Fish

Fish is at it again, in a third installment of his “What Colleges Should Teach” series. And here is another response:

Once again, Dr. Fish, you ignore the fact that writing — real writing — is always writing *for* and writing *about*. I agreed with your first post’s implication that college writing courses often focus too much on “content”, in the form of literature, or cultural studies, or whatever. I also agree that there were certain excesses associated with the whole “Students’ Rights to Their Own Language” thing, although I would point out that learning a “new language” isn’t a value-neutral exercise. Teaching students to write academically changes them in profound ways.

But I have trouble believing that what you describe here is actually all you do in your writing courses, nor do I believe that if that’s the case, your students are learning anything worthwhile. You have described a setting in which students have no motivation to write, no content to wrestle with, and no audience to persuade or enlighten. You seem to assume that students must first work on *how* to write something, before they can move on to the *what* and *why*. In other words, you have reduced the entire rhetorical situation to stylistic exercises.

I suspect that much of your posturing here is the result of a self-manufactured literacy crisis. That is, I think you have become appalled by what you consider to be student writing that lacks the stylistic niceties you associate with good prose, and you’ve decided that it’s the job of college writing courses to fix the problem. I’m sorry that I can’t oblige you. I’m too busy trying to give my students reasons to write and guiding them toward more and more academic ways of framing their ideas in writing. If you’ll forgive the expression, I’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Response to Stanley Fish

The following is a comment I made on Stanley Fish’s recent New York Times blog posts, which can be found here and here. This won’t make much sense if you haven’t read both his posts first.

Okay, here’s my exercise, Dr. Fish: Neither this sentence nor the next one will be particularly meaningful, because they aren’t situated in any kind of context. See?

But seriously, I thank you for clarifying (or perhaps backpedaling on) your position. I agreed with one of the premises of the first post, which was that writing courses ought not be literature or cultural studies courses in disguise, with a thin veneer of writing instruction layered over the top. I, too, have seen too many courses like that, and I think it comes from the fact that many composition instructors are/were literature grad students who didn’t find jobs teaching literature, so they use comp. courses as a surrogate. I think this does a disservice to students. Actual writing instruction is a good thing.

However, I’m not sure I agree with you about what actual writing instruction involves. Your neither/nor exercise gets at style, but does little in terms of other canons of rhetoric, like invention or arrangement. Students cannot practice discovering the available means of persuasion if they don’t a) have some topic they are treating (we might call this “content”) or b) have some audience they are aiming to persuade. Learning how to write shouldn’t be disconnected from having something to say.

I teach freshman composition as a course in ethnographic writing, not because I think learning how to do fieldwork is all that important (although observing and interviewing are useful skills), but because it provides a definable context for learning how to describe and analyze cultural behaviors and artifacts. That is, it gives students a motive to write. Even a literature-based composition course could use a poem or a novel as an occasion to write. I think it is not a question of either/or — either content or form, literature (or cultural studies) or writing. Instead, it is a matter of foregrounding the appropriate activities, which in the case of a composition course would be the writing.

Not That Kind of Doctor

There’s an obnoxious piece in today’s LA Times about Jill Biden’s use of the honorific “doctor,” and it’s gotten me thinking about what the term means, and when it can legitimately be applied. The article is obnoxious, in my opinion, because it trades in both misogyny and anti-intellectualism, implying that it’s somehow worthy of ridicule for the nation’s “second lady” to call herself “doctor,” since she’s not a physician. There’s even a quote from an “authority” on the issue:

“My feeling is if you can’t heal the sick, we don’t call you doctor,” said Bill Walsh, copy desk chief for the Washington Post’s A section and the author of two language books.

Wow. A copy desk chief. For a newspaper. (You know, that thing you don’t read any more.) Well, the truth is that Jill Biden isn’t a physician; she has a PhD in Education from the University of Maryland. And in my book, if she wants to be called “doctor,” then that’s what we should call her.

This idea that “doctor” refers only to medical professionals is a relatively new development in the history of our language. The word itself derives from the Latin docere, meaning “to teach,” and therefore “doctor” essentially means “teacher.” Its first applications were to the “church fathers,” such as Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory, but also spread in the Middle Ages to refer to scholars more generally. Physicians also came be referred to as “doctor” (Chaucer calls one of his pilgrims a “Doctur of Phesike”), but I would hazard to guess that the use of “doctor” in such cases was meant to index a physician’s advanced learning, and not the practice of healing. You have to get fairly deep into the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition to find this meaning:

6. a. spec. A doctor of medicine; in popular current use, applied to any medical practitioner. Also, a wizard or medicine-man in a primitive tribe.

I have to admit, that second sentence makes me smile. Jill Biden’s use of “doctor,” I imagine, derives from the fourth definition listed in the OED:

4. a. One who, in any faculty or branch of learning, has attained to the highest degree conferred by a University; a title originally implying competency to teach such subject or subjects, but now merely regarded as a certificate of the highest proficiency therein.

That “highest degree” in our educational system is the PhD, and we’ve already established that Dr. Biden has one.

With that all said, I have to admit that I’ve got one, too. A PhD, that is. However, I’m not all that interested in having anybody call me “doctor,” but I consider this a personal choice. For starters, I’m a Quaker, and we’ve historically eschewed honorifics that imply superiority/inferiority in human interaction (the practice of removing hats in certain company has likewise been rejected). I also associate the use of “doctor” for PhDs with certain regions, like the east coast or the south, neither of which is where I’m from.* I used to ask students to just call me “Kory,” but I’ve come to appreciate how uncomfortable some students are with addressing teachers by first name. So now I just ask students to use whatever seems appropriate to them: “Kory” or “Professor Ching” or just “Professor.” (I prefer “professor” to “doctor,” I guess, because that refers to my job, and not to my educational status.)

But Dr. Biden is in a very different situation. She’s married to the VPOTUS, and appears to be the first “second lady” to continue her own career while her spouse is in office. She’s also associated with an administration that promises to undo much of the denigration of knowledge and expertise wrought over the last eight years. As Obama said in his inaugural speech, “we will restore science to its rightful place.” It may be only symbolic, but I think having the spouse of the Vice President admit to being knowledgable and accomplished is a good thing.

* I also don’t want people in restaurants or airplanes looking to me if someone has a heart attack, just because I used the “doctor” title while making my reservation.

universal design for learning as lever

Last week I went to (most of) my school’s new faculty orientation. Much of it focused on stuff like benefits and tenure, but I was intrigued by the morning devoted to what the organizers called “Universal Design for Learning” (or UDL). In architecture and engineering, the term “universal design” refers to a set of principles for accessibility that result in things like wheelchair ramps and large, flat light switches. UDL, by metaphorical extension, is ostensibly concerned with providing accessible learning environments, so that students with disabilities have equal opportunities to learn.

I say “ostensibly,” because it’s pretty clear that part of the UDL agenda is not just about addressing the needs of students with disabilities, but also about changing core pedagogies of teachers. According to the website linked above, there are three key principles of UDL:

  • Faculty can offer various ways to REPRESENT essential course concepts
  • Faculty can offer various ways to encourage student ENGAGEMENT
  • Faculty can offer students various formats for EXPRESSION of what they have learned

With a little tweaking, these principles could pass as a distillation of Chickering and Gamson’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.” And the examples of good UDL solutions (which can be viewed in an online tutorial) looked a lot like the kinds of active, experiential pedagogy that college teaching centers tend to espouse.

So, UDL isn’t just about addressing disability; it’s also about reforming teachers. I’m okay with this, but I also think it’s an uphill climb. In the Q&A session at the end of our workshop, there was a concern that experiential activities are all well and good, but that instructors in some disciplines can’t spend valuable class time on stuff like that when there is so much material to be covered. This propensity to think of teaching in terms of content coverage is more prevalent, perhaps, than you’d think. I saw it all the time when I worked for a teaching center, especially (but not exclusively) when talking to instructors in the hard sciences. As one of the workshop presenters pointed out, this model of learning posits students as empty vessels into which a teacher pours knowledge.

I believe (along with many others) that deep learning is the result of active engagement and participation, not passive reception. If UDL principles can encourage teachers to rethink their teaching in these terms, then all of their students stand to benefit–not just the ones living with disabilities.