Saturday, February 11, 2006

Comparing the Teacher and the Student to the Writer and the Reader

Yesterday my campus held its annual Active Learning Retreat, sponsored by our Center for Teaching Excellence. The featured speaker was Ken Bain of NYU. He gave a good talk. I was one of about half the audience who had not yet read his book, What the Best College Teachers Do. So it may be surprising for me to say that I learned nothing fundamentally new from his presentation. I already understood the issues he was addressing from my other reading, my interactions with knowledgeable teachers, and my own experience with teaching. But he did provide a very nice framework on which to hang these ideas and to bring it all together. And he was quite engaging while doing that. I’ll get back to his key points in a bit.

His session started out, almost immediately, with an “active learning” exercise. On the one hand this was nice in that I met a faculty member in Animal Biology whom I did not know and we got along well. She lectures in our very large auditorium (Foellinger) and uses the campus Learning Management System (WebCT Vista) and seemed to be doing well with these, which was good to hear. And she is the product of public Higher Education, having been an undergrad at the University of Michigan, though she grew up in Illinois. We shared experiences about a teacher who really shaped us in our thinking (that was what we were tasked to do) and in the process I learned that she knew her career path as a scientist early on in her college career, certainly by the time she took organic chemistry as a sophomore. I wouldn’t have noted that except that I asked my own students this same question earlier in the week and they too seemed locked into a career path and most of them were freshmen. Ironically, the only student who expressed uncertainty on this point is a junior.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with active learning. I can see the benefit as a “warm up” activity to get those in the audience ready for what the presenter has to say. And I will concede that in the context of the Retreat, where the presenter had not addressed the audience before, it was a way to level the playing field in terms of audience expectations, getting those in attendance more in tune with what the presenter had to say. But because I still believe in and cherish the necessity of “head scratching” to come to a deeper understanding of what is going on and because that reflection typically needs to occur outside of class when the student is alone and able to concentrate and follow the flow of his own ideas and because nobody seems to be promoting head scratching nowadays as a necessary component to learning, somehow conveying instead that either it is all quick hitter in getting the ideas out or if not that then group brain storming suffices, so instructors should fix their attention on promoting either the quick hitter or the brain storming and God forbid they ask something really hard that won’t be able to be addressed these other ways, I feel we’ve been leading faculty down the wrong path. The hard problems have to be there. Learning depth of understanding and how to penetrate from the surface has to be there. And getting stuck while working on hard problems definitely has to be there. Learning not to abandon ship but rather to develop persistence and that ultimately this produces invention and alternative ways to approach the issue, this is the key.

I’m off my soapbox now and want to get to the title of this post. It is curious to me that the metaphors we use in teaching, in particular “learner centric” or “teacher centric” are so unlike the metaphors we use in writing, good or bad, when the two activities seem to have so much in common. Let me first make the case for invoking that parallel and then draw the lesson from that argument.

Consider this book review of Stephen Jay Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus. The author of the review, John Noble Wilford, quotes Gould in the prologue of the book on Gould’s approach to writing.
Mr. Gould acknowledges that his favorite method of writing is "beginning with something small and curious and then working outward and onward by a network of lateral connections."
The striking part of this quote is that in this single phrase Gould embraces two of the three pillars that Bain argued are the keys to good teaching; first, that knowledge must be constructed, Gould clearly does that via working outward and onward form his initial curious observations and, second, that the learner must be motivated and have passion for the learning, which is why that Gould starts with the small and curious, to make the learning personal and to invoke the interest of the reader.

Bain’s third pillar (it was the first one he introduced to us) is not in this quote from Gould but it infuses his writing and to a large extent provides his raison d’etre for the writing itself – the learner (reader) must be confronted with evidence that his current world view is inadequate to address certain observations or, better still, that the current world view evokes predictions that directly contradicts what is being observed. Gould, in other words, understands his readers. They read on because they want a more mature and complete understanding of reality and they are motivated because their current views are inadequate in this, creating either dead ends or contradictions. Gould as a writer is precisely at the same point where Bain says good teachers are. They understand learning deeply, at this fundamental level.

Good writers (and in my opinion Gould was a wonderful writer) are teachers and their craft as exercised in their writing is exactly what we’d like to see in our teachers; their teaching should reflect the same insight and the same attention to detail to produce the learning in the students. Lest the reader of this blog post think that I’m exaggerating the point, after all Gould was a professor of biology at Harvard, all he was really doing in his writing was professing to a general audience who wanted to be touched by the great professor but couldn’t get admitted to Harvard to take his classes, try reading some short story fiction by a good writer. I’ve recently read some of Melville’s classics. Of course, he writes to entertain the reader. He was in the business of selling his stories to periodicals that published for a general, if enlightened, readership. But his stories also clearly educate – they serve as a political commentary, as ethical lessons, as exemplars of how to tell a story well, all tied together in a way that makes it seem so natural and flowing. This is teaching excellence at its highest mark.

We've reached the juncture where we can turn to the metaphor, “learner centric.” For a while I think it was useful to me and helped me think through the fundamental critique of the lecture – you can’t show the learner where to cast his gaze if he’s not ready to look. So lecturing that amounts to pointing the (non) learner in the direction of where to look but does nothing about getting the learner ready is not good teaching and needs to be criticized and rightfully so. But some of what I’ve been hearing from the learner centric crowd – the learner needs to be in control of the learning – is both wrong and wrong headed. I hope by focusing in on the issue we can agree where he problem lies and then move past it.

If the learner operates from an immature frame of view and is comfortable in that, the learner is apt to defend that view rather than to abandon it for something more mature that can account for what is being observed. Bain said this in his presentation. It jives with my experience and is explained by observing that it is unsettling to be forced to abandon one’s world view. Consequently, the students need to be confronted and shocked into the realization that their immature view will not suffice. They will not engage in this confrontation willingly on their own. It is not comfortable. It is only the unusual student who will seek it out. For the rest, the teacher must initiate it. But for the teacher to be able to do that, the student can’t be in control.

This sounds like a power play but it really shouldn’t turn out that way. The relationship between a good writer and her readers is not about power. Both writer and reader want the other to play their role as actively and effectively as possible. And writers most certainly want to hear from their readers and learn how those readers react to the writing. This is hugely important for the writer to keep up with the writing. The reader reaction and in particular the reader explaining his personal growth as a consequence of the reading is fodder for the writer in working on the next piece of writing and making sure it is on the mark.

We in the learning technology arena who have until now embraced the “learner centric” mantra uncritically should move to abandon it and replace it with something else. My vote is for “good teaching as good writing.”

No comments: