Thursday, February 07, 2008

Teach the students (faculty) you have

Yesterday, I read an article in the Chronicle by James Lang where he urges teachers to dispel the myth that freshmen will be transformed by their first year of college. Faculty tend to believe that students will have their minds opened and change their worldviews (usually in response to their own classes). He says this idea comes mainly from the fact that most faculty actually did have their minds opened during the first year of college and so they expect their students to do the same. However, Lang argues (based primarily on a book by Tim Clydesdale) that most students just learn to manage their lives during that first year and they hold their views fairly sacrosanct.

I also finished watching and listening to Michael Wesch's ELI presentation where he, too, talks about the 21st century student and how we're not reaching them or providing them with meaningful learning experiences. He says that we need to provide not just content but make that content significant by personalizing the content. We need to help students understand where they fit in the world and why the material their studying matters to them personally. He then describes how he does that in his own class. And it's really amazing.

So, I got to thinking about these two pieces together and it occurred to me that I might apply these ideas to faculty. First, it's true that I want faculty to appreciate and care about learning with technology with the same passion I do. I found using technology in my classes so rewarding for my students that I pursued a career in helping others work with technology. However, faculty mostly just manage their lives the same way the students do. (I wonder if students don't mimic some of the behaviors of their faculty.) They manage prepping for classes, working toward tenure, writing articles and books, serving on committees, and of course, juggling the rest of their lives. So, like students, their questions are bad. Students ask (as Wesch points out), "Will this be on the test?" Faculty ask, "Can you put these readings up for me?"

Both Wesch and Lang offer ways to teach students given where they are, and they're actually pretty similar. Lang explains that Clydesdale has changed the way he teaches to deal with the reality that students are not in his class to have their minds changed:
[Clydesdale] has shifted his learning objectives away from content retention and toward skill development. "Little of the content of liberal-arts courses will be used in the careers of our graduates," he said, "but the thinking, writing, speaking, and analytical skills these courses hone have enormous utility for the careers and the lives in general of our students."
He doesn't lecture and instead students discuss issues in class and work on semester-long projects. Wesch, too, limits lecturing and has his students work on semester-long projects through which they do learn content, but probably learn more valuable skills along the lines of the ones Clydesdale mentions. For Wesch, technology is a key component of helping students gain those skills.

What does this mean for me and my faculty? Well, if I follow Lang and Wesch, I shouldn't teach content. For me, that means I shouldn't give them the recipe for how to do something. I shouldn't hold workshops where all I do is walk them through the steps for how to use software. I should ask them why they want to do that something and engage them in discussion, hopefully moving them toward thinking critically about the technology they're using. I should let them explore the technology on their own rather than giving them all the answers. (For an example of someone not providing all the answers to their students, see Garnder's latest post.)

Another thing I might think about is the issue of personalization that Wesch raises. How do I make this stuff meaningful to them in a personal way? I'm not sure yet. Unlike Wesch and Lang, I don't have a captive audience. I can't create semester-long projects for them (though I am doing something similar with a few faculty). When people show up for workshops, it's by choice and there's often not a critical mass of people in the room to begin a discussion about the whys of using technology. So, I'm going to have to think about how to do this on a one-on-one basis, which is where I have most of my interactions. As least thinking this way gives me a different way to react other than by being frustrated. I'll keep you posted on my progress.