Monday, March 14, 2005

Discordant Views

Because of my interest in getting students involved as mentors/instructors, I did a little searching on "Learning by Teaching" and found a book of articles by Donald M. Murray that date back to the 60's and 70's. They really are more on writing than on teaching - that is fine with me. I've now read a couple of these and there are two themes evident: (1) writing is discovery, the writer doesn't know what she will be writing as she begins to compose but learns through the construction of the sentences what is in her mind, and (2) writing is a solitary activity, the writer is fundamentally alone at the time of composition. The notion of writing as discovery is almost magical. Where do those ideas come from? Murray says its from inward search and that is a hard, perhaps awkward and uncomfortable process. Nevertheless, it has to be solitary, even if the core ideas have already been written about by a host of others. Those ideas are still novel for the writer and it is that invention that gives freshness to the writing.

Because I'm eclectic in what I read and do bounce from one area to the next, it is perhaps not surprising to find opposing viewpoints to Murray, but I confess that I'm troubled because each view resonates with me somewhat, yet I can't find a way to reconcile the differences.

In the current issue of Educause Quarterly, there is a brief article by Diane Oblinger on planning for learning spaces. In that piece she states a "Learning Principle" - learning is social, the consequence of which is that learning spaces be designed to accomodate group work. Of course I agree with the conclusion. I'm just not sure about the principle. I would rather it said "some learning is social" specifically the type of learning we campuses are trying to engender in the spaces we design for learning. This would accomodate the Murray view - some (other) learning is individualistic; we recognize that but don't design space for it because individuals will do such work in their own private spaces. Oblinger could have stated it this way, but didn't. I'm not sure why, but I've got this feeling that 5 years from now we in ed tech will be asking why we stopped advocating for intropection and deep individual thinking. We need that and group learning, in my opinion. But we don't seem able to articulate that. Instead we seem to take sides.

Here is another example. I am just beginning to get my feet wet learning about accreditation in the disciplines. Last week I met with a faculty member in engineering who was preparing for ABET accreditation and who wanted to know if he could use Illinois Compass for that purpose. (I held up my end of the conversation, because I have use knowledge of the Compass environment.) He had a pile of materials from ABET and I asked whether I could borrow some of them. When I started to look through the biggest manual, it because apparent that this faculty member had gone through ABET training as an accreditor, because this was a manual for such training. In it they described particular training sessions and the descriptions made it clear that at the outset trainees were given the objectives of the session and what they would learn as a consequence of having attended the session.

Perhpas there is a leap in assuming that the way ABET conducts its training dictates what it views as good pedgagogy for engineering courses, but it seemed natural to me to assume that ABET would like to see engineering classes which had clear goals and an articulation of learning outcomes. (And to the extent that the reality of the classes didn't match that, the discrepancy would be the basis of modficiations either in goals or the approach - the continuous improvement model flourishes in this environment.) I am more than sympathetic with the idea that instructors and departments should make overt to students what is expected to happen within specific courses. But if all the learning outcomes are pre-specified, where is the discovery, the learning by exploration? The ABET approach might be compatible with Murray (the writer can discover what others have already learned beforehand) but knowing the results in advance sure would seem to hamper the discovery process. Here I think you can have one or the other but not both. So which do we choose, and why? I know in my own teaching, especially in teaching a small class, I'd choose to emphasize the discovery part and deliberately be vague about what students are supposed to learn beforehand, because I wouldn't want to predjudice the discovery. But I'm far from convinced that should be the approach across the board and I'm well aware of courses that students take where afterwards they report they got nothing out of it. That is horrible and we shouldn't allow it. The ABET approach clearly would be an improvement over that.

One of the obvious things about the discovery approach is that it admits failure. The writer might have block, permanently, and become a writer no more. The ABET approach purports to universal learning - the specified outcomes are for everyone in the class. I believe this is where the real tension lies and after all this time thinking about teaching and learning I'm still not sure which side I come down on.

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