Category Archives: pedagogy

Objectives, importance of, in teaching

(Photo credit: skydive_upload12 by MikeyDotCom on Flickr)

Borderland has an interesting post up called Ground Rush. Great story! Skydiving for school credit, wow! Wish I could have done that.

His WordPress spam police fried my comment, and as this could be crucial to the future of education on this planet, I’m posting it here.

Turning the main point of his entry, about planning for classes, I was reminded of the following:
1) “Plan the class AFTER the class” (Caleb Gattegno, inventor of The Silent Way of language teaching)

2) An anti-objectives anti-objectives point of view from educationalist heterodox, James Atherton (slightly less subjectively here here ; but see also here for a more thorough treatment of the subject.)

3) And this blog entry (Atherton again, sorry!): I got a course outline (two sides of A4) which specified a “syllabus” with “aims” and “content” but no “objectives”…. He had a white-board, on which he wrote basic propositions, about three times. There were no handouts. There were no transparencies. There was no PowerPoint. It was brilliant.
(Admittedly, he’s writing about teaching teaching adults, not children).

4) I also recalled this PDF from NALD, which refers to Pratt’s model of Direction and Support (thanks to Harold Jarche for the link).

I realize now that I relate objectives closely to direction and support for students. I think my students require greater direction from me than I have realized, and working on providing clearer instructional objectives has been my way to provide greater direction.

Not seeing the wood for the trees, and other complaints

Today I attended an “IT in Education” conference in Tokyo.

I’ve been reading James Atherton’s site, and came across these pages on technology (in education) in general and handouts in particular. A couple of points:

  1. technology is not neutral, and
  2. Do you want students to take notes? Would it help them to understand the material for themselves? Then don’t use handouts.

I was reminded of these 2 points in today’s presentations. Everyone talked about using technology to do things we already do, only more efficiently. No-one talked about how the technology impacts the process of learning. Only one gentleman touched on this briefly. In a presentation on an Excel application used to teach large classes Accounting, the presenter pointed out the advantage: previously calculations were written out by laboriously by hand on the blackboard and this took a lot of time. Now it can all be done much more quickly using this software and a large projector and screen. In the Q&A time, a member of the audience pointed out that, while writing on the blackboard may take time, it also allowed students time to take notes. Now with these Excel spreadsheets on screen and the caculations being entered automatically before your very eyes, there’s no time.

So “saving time” is an advantage purely from the teacher’s point of view; the point of view of class management, of delivery of content.

This is a point also made by Atherton (altho he is writing about handouts):

Copying from the board is no longer necessary, and even note-taking from verbal presentations diminishes in importance. … To a certain extent, the teacher’s position is restored. But the handout tends to be used less for the individual teacher’s distinctive angle on the material, as to pare (or even dumb) down the material simply to what you need to know for the purposes of this particular course.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that all the presentations referred to the present situation of university teaching in Japan, which means a continual moaning about the falling academic standards of entering students, so perhaps dumbing down is a quite deliberate attempt by teaching staff, to desperately reach those students that regular teaching cannot reach. Back to Atherton.

After all, what is being done with the time which is being saved? Students no longer have to copy from the board, or even take notes….this is not merely about the teacher transmitting knowledge: it is also about ownership of it. (my emphasis)

Another complaint I had was one I frequently feel when attending Japanese academic conferences: the heavy focus on unique, specific case studies or examples, with little or no attempt to draw general conclusions which might apply elsewhere (and so be of some value to the audience).

One example: one presenter described an attempt in a computing class to improve students’ understanding and motivation by requiring them to create quiz items on the subject of the day’s lecture (in fact, 4-item, multiple-choice quiz problems). The presenter made no attempt to draw some general conclusions or principles from his success. He might have mentioned the old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. He might also have mentioned the *Socratic Method. So, to replicate this success we would need to…. assign 4-item, multiple-choice quiz problems on computer networks? Or come up with activities that require students to reformulate in some manner what they have just heard/read/seen, or perhaps to compare and contrast or apply their knowledge to solve a problem?

This presenter was typical.

And while I’m at it, I lost count of the number of times a presenter said “Erm, sorry, the text is a little small…” None of them have read Seth Godin, or Guy Kawasaki. Text, all text, WHICH THEY THEN READ. At breakneck speed because they only had 13 minutes!!

The smarter ones highlighted the key text on each slide in red. The other used laser pointers, so if you blinked, you missed where the key part was. And when they did use graphics, it was something like the plan for Buckingham Palace on 1 slide. To fit, everything had to be kinda small…. When they actually brought these images up, it became obvious that they would be hard to see by the people further back than the front 5 rows…. AARRRGGGHGG!!

*The first schools in Western cultural tradition were those of classical and early post classical Greece. Those schools were not for the purpose of benefiting students–and even to promulgate a particular “school of thought” was secondary. Their main purpose was to provide quality audiences to whom the leading thinkers and perceivers could describe their perceptions, in order to develop further those perceptions. Some of the “nicer guys” among these, the Sophists especially and Socrates in particular, would return the favor and draw out their listeners in turn. Their doing so, and the various ways they did so, became known as “Socratic Method.”(Win Wenger)

(Photo credit: dnel83 on Flickr)

Personal Construct Psychology

I (think I) first came across the ideas of Kelly and his Personal Construct Pscyhology in a paper or two or three, written by in-Japan-teacher Gregory Hadley.

Well, I’ve just spent a happy hour lost in the maze of James Atherton’s Doceo site, and came across this page on Kelly and Personal Construct Psychology.

Atherton also included a link to Phil Race’s website, in particular to this Powerpoint presentation on a further theory of learning, Ripples.

(Atherton teaches (taught?) teachers for many years. His writings are aimed at college teachers, but some of the theory of learning stuff would apply to learners of many (all?) ages.

"They just want to be taught"

In a previous, long-winded post, I blathered rather incoherently about teacher-led classes versus student-led or some form of negotiated curriculum.

I have one language class where for part of the time, students work in pairs or threes, each group with their own CD player, textbook and text CDs. They practise a combination of listen-and-repeat exercises, listening only, and speaking only exericses. We started in April, but it is only recently that I have felt students are ready for the responsibility of working on their own. I was recently telling another teacher about this class, and how students seem slow to adjust to the idea that learning English is largely a matter of practice. She said, “Yeah, they just want to be taught.”

Taken out of context, this sounds like praise, not censure. “They just want to be taught.” Great! Wonderful! What’s wrong with that??!? “I’ll swap them for my kids any day! Go ahead and teach them, then!”

I can do that, no problem. But at some stage, they need to go away and practice, then come back and show me what they can do. That’s the part they won’t really do. They are happy being passive, but balk when it’s their turn to actually produce. And to be fair, in what other of their classes are they required to produce anything? Again and again, students ask “How many times have I been absent?” Clearly, the frequency of attendance, not some product or performance, is, in their minds, the criterion for passing the course.

Cede control to students? Revisited

Dan asks how I’d respond to this solution:

Cede instructional control to the student. Let her direct her own learning. Curriculum and student desire will align.

I teach university students, not high school; uni students are less easy to convince that they absolutely need what I’m teaching; they are IN (the uni) – the major extrinsic motivator for learning English previously.

I tend towards a negotiated syllabus. Here’s why.

In the post that prompted Dan’s question, I wrote about a mismatch between curriculum and student desires.

Pissed Off (Teacher)‘s comment offers one approach to this dilemma, but to work it requires wielding a degree of fear:
if you don’t learn this stuff, you’ll be

  • out on the street
  • unemployable
  • a leech on society
  • one step from prostitution and/or gang membership
  • all of the above

What if students don’t buy that? What if they don’t believe that the consequences will be as terrible as you imply, OR they don’t believe that even if they do learn this stuff, that the world will open to them?

In my situation, the hard part is getting in to university (“hard” is relative, and it’s getting easier all the time, due to demographics). Once they are in, students pretty much sit back and take it easy, indulging in (what they are frequently told is) their last period of freedom before the penal servitude/military service of life in a Japanese company.

Therefore, there is not much incentive for students to work hard. Even getting better grades will not greatly affect the kinds of jobs they will get. What jobs they get depends a lot on the rank or name of the university they graduate from. As this ranking is outside their control or influence, there is not much incentive to work hard and get better grades.

Assuming that you believe what you are teaching is vital (or important) for students’ future well-being, then a possible solution is to negotiate with students to find out what they are interested in, what topics they would willingly (or less unwillingly, at least) read about, talk about, write about.

Another reason for negotiating syllabus might be if the curriculum provided is quite obviously inappropriate, or if it’s appropriacy is challengeable or open to debate. Perhaps students’ reluctance is not so much a matter of “attitude” as that they do not consider the syllabus relevant or suitable. OK, then what would be suitable or relevant?

Dan’s point about the importance of being engaging could be considered a form of negotiated syllabus. Otherwise, why bother?

Finally, I think that ceding complete control of learning content and direction to a student would work well in a one-to-one, tutorial situation, the ideal learning/teaching method. But I haven’t made it work yet in an institutional setting, and I don’t think it is either practical or effective, though I continue to be amazed by and admiring of people who try it, especially those who seem to succeed with it.

Slicing teaching

I didn’t think a great deal at first about Dan Meyer’s idea of teaching being an art/science that can be sliced into very (infinitesimally thin) slices, but as time went by I found myself using the concept more and more.
Here’s one thin slice that immediately helped me understand what Dan was on about:

In my first year, I realized I often phrased my instructions as questions, tossing out weak mandates like “Would you guys please get down to work now?” because I wanted to be liked. I worked at balancing kindness and firmness (“I need you guys to work quietly now.”) so that we could work and learn more.

After reading Other People’s Children, I reflected on the possible differences between Japanese pedagogical rhetoric (teacher-talk) and that of a white, Western, middle-class male. I reflected on this some more when a colleague returned me a short piece of Japanese I’d written and which he’d proof-read for me, saying, “Use the short form of the verb, not the long form. It makes you sound kinda feminine.” Hmmm. So I started implement that change in my teacher-talk right away. It seems to be working. At least, I notice when I lapse and don’t use it, I get these looks like “Does he seriously expect us to do this?” When I use it, there’s no debate.

Another “slice” is telling students at the outset of each class exactly what that session’s objective is. I did this last semester. I haven’t done it this semester yet. It’s easy for me to dream up good ideas like this; it’s harder to gather the data to then assess whether it’s a strategy worth keeping or not. Would a strategy like this translate into actual immediately measurable results? I didn’t gather any data (other than the usual semi-annual student evaluations which were no worse and no better than previous years), which in turn did not inspire me to continue this practice.

I’ll have to re-think my lesson plan so that it includes more regular assessments of teaching/learning objectives. The only trouble is… that’s hard work! (Damn!).

The Education Debate

Dan Meyer posted a thoughtful piece after watching Freedom Writers, an(other) inspirational school movie. I’m unable to post comments on Dan’s blog for some reason, so I’m posting my comment here.

Quick update: IMDB offers quotes from the movie, including this:

Andre: It’s the dumb class cuz. It means you too dumb.
Jamal: Man, say it to my face cuz.
Andre: I just did. See what I mean? Dumb?

The dumb class.

a pervasive complex of martyrdom. Hmm, food for thought. I disagree mostly with JD Hirsch’s push for a unified curriculum, “What every child should know” etc, but his analysis of the romanticisation of teaching philosophy, the rosy glasses thru which otherwise rational people allow their vision to be distorted, I think is accurate and could usefully be read and considered by every teacher who favours “hands-on, project-based, student-centred learning”. Not that I don’t believe in those approaches; it’s just that it’s easy to get behind ideas, as Hirsch puts it, that sound good, and fail to check if they actually work or not.

That said, I think everyone involved in this debate needs to be real careful. The issue of education is one that people feel passionately about, and have deep-rooted, what I can only call ideologies about this, making reasoned debate extremely difficult and rare. I hope this blog can be one of the rare places it happens. (A great (or terrifying) example of ideologies at work is described in Doc: the story of Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.)

Setting up straw men is a dishonest debating tactic, loved by ideologues and politicians – people who aim at persuasion, not revealing the truth – and the writing on education is full of this tactic, on both the liberal and conservative sides. Caring ? sadly ? is how the majority of my co-workers and co-bloggers have framed the objectives of our job. Really? I know and have read many who point out the importance of the emotional state in learning, but that is only in order to promote better teaching, not as an aim in itself.

And on which “side” should we place someone like Pissed Off (Teacher)? Does it sound like the administration and supervisors she works with care about the kids? Is she a wimp, trying to avoid responsibility and wriggle away from accountability, just because she cares about her students?

It’s not black or white, and it’s not a 2-sided issue, “caring vs professionalism”. It’s a lot more involved and complex than that.

Martyrdom has an interesting younger sibling: playing the victim. The Republicans have pretty much had things all their own way in public affairs for the past 7-8 years and before that under the elder Bush and Reagan. Yet many of them play the victim, whining about how the entire US (the media, the schools, the universities, the courts (!) even) is run by rabid left-wing nutcases who make them feel intimidated and afraid or even unable to speak out freely about their conservative views. I couldn’t believe my ears when I listened to actual Republicans. Is this (mis)perception manipulated and exploited by some for political and personal gain? Is the Pope Catholic?

(I only know that it’s corrosive … on a day-to-day, post-to-post basis…to teach while feeling like the harmlessly insane…. no one seems to be listening to this side closely enough. Now that isn’t martyr talk or victim talk is it? No! Of course not.)

Another point where one needs to tread very, very carefully, is in avoiding being conned. Cons use people, usually enthusiastic people, to further their own, hidden, agendas, not yours, and not the ones they sound like they are promoting. They are masters of rhetoric and sophistry. I worked with a guy for several years before I realized that he had approached me only so that I would give his enterprise a veneer of professionalism and solidity; he loved it when I pointed out how “our” approach was solidly supported by pedagogical theory, but he himself didn’t believe any of that shit and he couldn’t have cared less, just as long as people bought the product.

I’m not a big fan of the “inspiring teacher” film genre. A friend once gave me Dangerous Minds to watch, but was taken aback when I told him I was more impressed with the apparent bankruptcy of a “system” that allowed such decrepit schools and dangerous environments to develop in the first place.

(Curiously, while many of these movies depict outstanding, strong-minded individuals [would you call Louanne Johnson a wilting bleeding-heart-liberal violet?], the kind of pedagogical approach many of the protagonists use kinda goes against the “student-centred, project-based, free expression” approach many enthusiasts seem to favour.)

Finally, here’s a quote from Tom Englehardt which kinda sums up my position on this debate. If you’re still here, thanks for reading:

Every now and then, I go to some event — I covered the demonstrations in front of the 2004 Republican Convention and then the Republican delegates on the convention floor — and essentially ask people why they’re there. In our media, we almost never hear people speak in more than little snippets…
So we seldom hear their real voices or how they actually think, and they almost invariably turn out to be more eloquent and complicated than we expect.

(My emphasis).

(Related comment on Borderland)

Can critical thinking be taught?

Having fun reading the brain-teasing posts of Artichoke,
especially this one with a ton of interesting links. This one (RTF file) in particular is relevant to autonomy, altho the title is “critical thinking”. In fact, it is one of the first articles I can remember reading which links autonomy and critical thinking; an obvious connection, but I hadn’t thought about it deeply before.

The article essentially asks, Is it possible to teach critical thinking skills? Basing himself on Lamm’s “Cognitive Map of Instuction”, the author Harpaz posits there are essentially 3 theories (or “logics”)  of instruction, and that these logics conflict “in the realm of their practical results. The patterns of instruction neutralize one another in terms of their educational effect.”

The three logics of instruction are “a necessary product of the three components of the human condition: society, culture, and the individual.” The three patterns are therefore imitation derived from the “super-goal” of socialization; molding derived from the “super-goal” of acculturation, and development derived from the “super-goal” of individuation.

Harpaz then examines the teaching of critical thinking in the 3 patterns. Do the patterns of imitation suit the goals of teaching critical thinking skills? He basically says, No: there are too many contradictions. He therefore suggests a fourth pattern of instruction for which he borrows a term from Lamm, “the undermining didactic.”

Here are some bits I underlined:

A more crucial contradiction appearing in instruction for critical thinking in the pattern of imitation is a result of the “hidden curriculum” of this pattern – the covert messages sent by the practice of teaching, of which the teachers and students are unaware….Anyone learning critical thinking through imitation has also learned, in addition to the skills of critical thinking, that his or her opinions and motivations are of no importance; that to know is to remember; to think is dangerous, since thinking can disrupt the precise replication of the teacher’s words; authorities must be obeyed, because they know; knowledge is objective, cumulative and unequivocal; problems are well-defined; every problem has a clear-cut solution; one’s worth is dependent on others’ opinions of him/her; learning involves futile suffering….[my emphasis, my favourite!]  In short [someone] proficient in the skills of critical thinking…but [not] a critical thinker…

The pattern of imitation is driven by the principle of “visible results”, meaning that behaviors acquired in the pattern of imitation are public behaviors. They may therefore be easily modeled, exercised and evaluated. They also suit the school framework (which is not coincidental, for schools were originally created for the purpose of socialization, and are therefore governed by the pattern of imitation)….

Any content, including philosophy, can be taught through the use of the three patterns of instruction. Though it is perhaps more pertinent to teach philosophy in the “commuity of inquiry”, it is not obligatory to do so. Philosophy can be taught in a lecture designed to cover the “material” in order to succeed at an exam, which determines the extent of memorization of the “material” – in other words, the pattern of imitation. (In most places where philosophy has been taught, this has been the method.) The pattern of imitation is dominant in the average school, and other patterns of instruction introduced in schools tend to disappear under its shadow.

…in the average school… open and critical discussion will come to an end when the teacher, principal or supervisor thinks that he is not “keeping up pace” or “covering” the chapters of the “traditions of the great cultures” indluded in the curriculum. In other words, in the contexty of school learning , instruction to critical thinking tends to be ritualized…

It is questionable whether dispositions of critical thinking can and should be molded by the pattern of molding. By its very nature, the pattern of molding cannot develop a critical attitude to the beliefs it is attempting to instil, thereby contradicting the idea of critical thinking. The essence of this idea is that no belief is protected from critical thinking, including the belief in critical thinking itself. Ultimately, it is quite possible that unexamined lives are worth living.

Conceptions that reduce the term “critical thinking” to autonomous or authentic personality, and claim that it is possible to develop such a personality through the use of “negative education” – meaning education that avoids forcing any “extrinsic aims” upon the students (including critical thinking) – are a version of the pattern of development… No approach to critical thinking is suited to the pattern of development. This is surprising, considering the fact that critical thinking is an essential and declared goal of this pattern….Non-critical “true believers” [does this have the same overtones as the phrase used by John Gatto, I wonder?] are bound to the belief (or “meta-belief”) that their beliefs are derived from some foundation in the world, that they are forced upon them. Experiencing choice through freedom undermines a person’s propensity to attribute a deeper essence to the world than to  himself, in other words to be non-critical.

Charles Silberman noted in his once popular book Crisis in the Classroom
that the decisive mistake of teachers is that they think students learn what they teach [Silberman, 1971, p.181]. The analysis proposed here adds another decisive error: that teachers think they are teaching what they teach. Teachers teach content; but the students learn primarily from the pattern of instruction the teachers use and from the messages inherent within it.)

A hierarchy seems to exist in the three primary categories, “skills”, “dispositions” (or internalized values and principles) and “personality,” which comprise the “ideal types” of education to critical thinking. The “personality” category is broader than that of “dispositions,” for (autonomous or authentic) personality is likely to supervise or criticize its own dispositions; while “dispositions” precede skills, which they guide and actualize. Since we [“we”? Only one author is in the byline!]  claim  that education to critical thinking must adopt only one pattern of instruction, it is fitting that it employe the pattern centered upon the most basic category. This is the pattern of development, whose goal is to develop autonomous personality, recognizable by its critical relationship to its beliefs.

[What is needed] is a process necessitating a pattern of instruction not easily plotted on Lamm’s “Cognitive Map of Instruction”. However, it suits a pattern of instruction described by Lamm elsewhere: the pattern of the “undermining didactic” (Lamm, 1972).

…pedagogical tact is always needed, especially in this undermining pattern of instruction. This educational process aims to develop the personality’s flexibility, openness and autonomy. It does not educate directly to critical thinking, because it is impossible to do so.

…The seed of the “fourth pattern” exists in all of the approaches discussed above. Its roots lie in the Socratic dialogue, as well as in Dewey’s and Piaget’s concepts of thinking and learning.

A Google search on  “Cognitive map of instruction” brought up this article which I will peruse later.

Am back to Blogjet, as once again Firefox’s Performancing extension is letting me down. Is it a problem?