And we’re off! (Maybe.)

Well, the semester is now underway, and I’m fairly certain that my students think I’ve lost my mind.  Nevertheless, here is the briefest sketch of part of my plan:

In all of my courses, I am using an entirely new model.  One goes like this: each class day, the students have assigned reading.  I asked them to find something in the reading of interest (I wrote and distributed two full pages on how to identify a spark of interest, and how to become interested when there is no clear spark.)  It can be anything: a word, a sentence, an idea, an argument, etc.  I ask only that they identify their spark, and that they use it do something else – to move beyond their personal reaction.  I don’t care, or at least I think I don’t, where they go with it, only that there is movement.  Then they write a few paragraphs describing their spark and their movement.  They end their writing with a discussion question of some kind – anything open, as long as they can trace it back to their spark.  I spend a few minutes in class glancing at the writings, and choose a few to start.  Then we talk.  

That’s it.  That’s the class.  Their final grades depend, as entirely as I can politically manage, on their engagement in this process. It seems to me that in order to do what I’m asking, they have to do a fair amount of what I remain committed to calling “thinking.” 

I don’t yet know whether this is sheer pedagogical brilliance, or evidence that my standards have sunk to an all-time low.  It starts this week.  I’ll keep you posted. 

In the meantime, if you’re reading this…any thoughts?

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Inspired, as always, by Sir Ken Robinson…

If you’re reading this blog, you may know who Ken Robinson is.  If not, though, you should.  Everyone should.  In fact, before you read the rest of this post, you should watch at least this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY&feature=player_embedded#!

I am, of course, a tremendous fan of his work.  In my head (where, as he rightly points out, I live), I struggle with how to incorporate what he is calling for – the very reasons we unschool – into my classrooms.  I strive to value and reward creativity and risk-taking in my classes, rather than “right” answers.  I try to provide different ways of expressing one’s ideas and account for different ways of learning.  I am never entirely successful. I never struggle long or hard enough.  In the end, the students who can write well do better than the students who cannot, and the students who have read books in their lives fare better than the students who have not.  I continue, mostly wittingly, to privilege literacy above all other forms of knowledge and ways of self-representation.

I am partially constrained by my role in the university, of course.  But I can do more.  And this semester I am going to try to do more.  This semester, with one course in which I have more leeway than the others, I am going to struggle more aggressively toward these goals.  I am going to try to conduct my class as much like an unschooler as is possible, within the parameters set by the school and my colleagues.  Details to follow!

Another semester looms…

I’m rewriting my courses for next semester.  I’ve never been one of those people who can teach the same thing, year in and year out. Part of this is because it really is about the journey, from my perspective, and I like to illustrate that as much as I can.  The other part of it is because I’m easily bored.

So here I am, thinking again about what books to read with my students, and convincing myself that if I just think long and hard enough, I will figure out the magic solution to How To Get Them To Do The Reading.

I’ve tried pop quizzes.  I hated them more than the students did.

I’ve tried devoting class time to everything *but* the reading, and holding them responsible for the reading in the papers.  That does a disservice to students who do the reading but could use help thinking about it, and it leaves me in the position of basing classwork on readings that no one does.  In short, most of my students would fail, were I to stick to my guns with this approach.

I’ve tried building classes around one central requirement: very-clearly-based-on-the-reading class participation.  This actually works well, as long as a handful of students are in the game.  If there are only one or two, though, the entire thing falls apart, the semester is a nightmare, and all of us dread coming to class.

What I have not tried…what I hope to never, ever try…is to assign the reading and then come to class and explain the reading.  I suspect I would give up teaching from books before I resorted to that.  (See above line regarding being easily bored.)

But there’s much more to it than avoiding my own ennui.  It’s about the very purpose of the university classroom.  At its best, at what I believe was once the ideal for most professors, it is a place of exchange: a place where one of two different approaches justify the professoriate (and thereby, to some extent, the cost of college) and distinguish us from everyone else in who stands in front of a classroom.

In the first, we think out loud, picking up steam as we do, finding new directions and new inspirations, modeling passion for our disciplines and for critical thinking and demonstrating how to follow an intellectual lead, deconstruct an idea, arrive at a position or insight.

In the second, we deliver the results of our latest, freshest thinking, in the fervent hopes that it will inspire our students, to say or write or think something new and exciting – and sometimes in the more ambitious hope that what they generate will, in turn, hone our own thinking and inspire us anew.

What we – professors – do not do, is stand there and deliver the results of other people’s thinking, without critique or augmentation or challenge from our own minds.

Increasingly, I suspect that many people at the front of college classrooms do exactly that.  I try to remember this when my students don’t read.  I remind myself that they do not expect us to “do” anything interesting with the reading in class.  They do not view reading as holding up their end of a bargain they have struck with me: my thoughts on this work in exchange for  yours.  My thoughts on the work hold very little value for them – and, tragically, theirs hold even less.

Lately, I have resorted to choosing “sexy” books, things that at least some of the students will actually want to read.  This troubles me.  As far as I can tell, however, my options appear to be:

1. Require actual reading of the actual books I want to teach.  This means that students who do not read will fail the course.  This means that most students will fail.

2. Assign books that I think  more students are likely to read.  This means that more students will pass, but I am pandering and lowering my standards and failing to challenge and develop my strongest students.

3. Assign reading and then spend class time telling them what the reading said.  This makes my salary a waste of money, undermines the role of the professor and is deeply uninteresting for me – because I did the reading, and I want to do something interesting with it.

4. Give up on books and use textbooks instead.

Even writing that one breaks my heart.  I know that there are plenty of excellent professors who use textbooks.  (Hey, some of my best friends use textbooks…)  In some fields, I imagine that they are indispensable. I’ve tried them myself, a time or two over the course of my career.  More often than not, though, they are the enemy of critical thinking.  No matter how critical the textbook, no matter how brilliant the author, regardless of how many “active learning” exercises they contain, textbooks exist for one purpose: to make it easier for students to glean “what they need to know.”

That is exactly the opposite of my mission.  I do not help students become better thinkers when I make it easier for them to glean anything.  Education is the process of gleaning.  Everything else is information.   “What they need to know” is precisely what they should be there to discover.  Education is not supposed to be a “greatest hits” album of what people need to know.  It should be a process of exploration and discovery…an adventure of trial-and-error…an archaeological expedition, unearthing thought that came before and deciding what to toss, what to keep, and how to use it.

If our elementary and our secondary educational system didn’t function this way, our college students would not expect this four-year “packet of information.”  If our children grew up viewing learning as play, viewing education as an adventure, with the freedom to decide what to read and what to think about – and what not to think about – then I firmly believe that the students in my classroom would be engaged.  They would be interested.  They would read what I assign, or they would say, “I don’t want to read that.  I would much rather read *this* instead, which is also relevant to the course.”

How I would love it if a student said that to me.  In the meantime, I’m still working on finding that magic solution.