Sunday, July 28, 2013

How Do We Guide our Students? Teaching as Ritual Change Facilitation.

Try this thought experiment.

Picture yourself somewhere in your home or apartment: lying in bed at night, or sitting on the couch watching TV, or sitting at the table eating.

It's night.

Now suddenly, the lights go out. It's pitch black.

Right now, thinking of that situation, if you close your eyes, you can probably describe exactly what you would need to do.

  • Throw your legs to the left, find the floor, feel with your feet for your slippers, fumble on your left for your phone.
  • Fumble for the remote. Put it on the coffee table in front of you. Stand and walk slowly to the right, feeling your way between the coffee table and the couch.
  • Etc.

It might take a bit of concentration, but you can think of all that now. But how do you feel imagining yourself on the couch and the lights going out? How have you felt in actual circumstances when the lights went out?

Likely you feel and felt: stressed, panicked, even frightened.

Now I want to make a comparison.

You at home is your students before your class starts. They know where they are, what the world around them is like. They're at ease. But whether it's math, philosophy, sociology, chemistry, or whatever, you in the dark is your students upon encountering the complexities of your discipline for the first time.

That is: we tend to forget that every discipline is a tightly organized body of knowledge, and it's not obvious to outsiders. You are an insider.

  • You know what the commutative principle is, what a proposition is, what social solidarity is, what the periodic table of elements is, etc.
  • You know your way around. You know what's there. It's all inside you––like the layout of your home you would know in the dark and could narrate if you needed.

But all these concepts, ideas and principles are highly structured based on assumptions and methods that make up your discipline. To the outsider, they mean nothing. Worse than nothing: they're scary.

The step-by-step instructions we give students are like the inner voice that guides us in the dark and says "stand up and move to the right, but don't bump into the coffee table." Our students may be blindly following our instructions, because they don't really know the space in which they're navigating. They may just trust that if they follow the instructions, the countours of the room will eventually become clear.

Indeed, one successful intellectual remembers asking his undergraduate math professor to explain the idea behind a certain mathematical process. The professor said "don't worry about it––just follow the instructions." That student transferred to a different college.

The fear of the unknown is real. New information and ideas are unknown. And you must deal with this fear as a teacher––if you wish to succeed, that is.

So how do teachers do this? How do we bring the student from where she is to some new place?

Happily, there are some good examples of how people can be brought from what they already know to what they don't yet know. Some are some small and verbal, some are quite a bit larger and not merely verbal. But we can start with the smaller verbal analogies.

How do writers of sentences and paragraphs manage to bring the reader from what's familiar to something new, possibly strange, which the writer wants to introduce?

The same basic phenomenon has been viewed from two, nicely complementary angles.

Consider this simple element of the classic style in prose writing (spotlighted by Francis-Noel Thomas & Mark Turner): the twist. The writer repeats a common phrase, but turns it unexpectedly. Oscar Wilde was quite good at these.

"Her husband died, and her hair turned quite gold from grief."

The traditional image is someone's hair turning white from grief. One's hair only turns 'gold' (aka blond) upon being bleached or dyed. So the inference is: this widow wasn't grieving at all: she was quite a merry widow.

Another fine one is:

"I can resist anything––except temptation."

What, I ask you, is one supposed to resist if not temptation? Not to be able to resist temptation is not to be able to resist much at all.

Here the writer builds his meaning by changing something familiar. If you simply repeat what's already known, that's what Thomas and Turner call the plain style:

"When I was a child I spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

  • The plain style pretends to do nothing other than: to say what everyone knows, the assumption being that what is known by all is true.
  • The classic style, by contrast, allows the writer to express a meaning which is not familiar and traditional. And so the classic style emerges with the Enlightenment, in which individuals can create new knowledge by building on, criticizing or departing from what's already known.

What's good advice for addressing an audience of strangers is also good advice for teaching--as I've argued before.

Sadly, most professors almost never write for an audience of strangers: they write for professional colleagues. They write in what Thomas and Turner call the practical style: a discussion among professionals of how to solve a professional problem. This is almost meaningless to an outsider. Which is why most scholarship cannot be understood by the average intelligent lay reader, and why many terrific scholars cannot lecture terribly well: they're insiders who spend most of their professional lives debating with other insiders.

What in the classic style we might call "what's twisted" and "the twist" can also be identified as:

the familiar and the unfamiliar,
the old and the new,
or, in a more linguistic frame: topic and comment.

Another excellent writing guide suggests ordering your writing so that you start from the former and move to the latter: in sentences, paragraphs, sections, and whole essays. Compare the immediacy and impact of:

"Your car is on fire."


"There's a fire burning right now––in your car."

It's easier to process the first sentence, because you know the topic first; whereas the second sentence has a weird effect of suprise and delay: you can't quite process that the important bit––that it's your car that's burning––comes at the end.

The rule-of-thumb is:

  • Start with the topic, then add the comment.
  • Start from what's known, and add the as-yet-unknown.
  • Start from the old and move to what's new.

These two pieces of writing advice, taken together, suggest that the introduction of new or unfamiliar information requires careful management. These experts on writing suggest strategies for managing the transition at the level of prose––right down to the level of the sentence.

So sentences can manage the movement from the familiar to the strange. And something very similar is needed for learning.

Learning means changing: a more or less conscious change in dispositions, habits, or abilities, as one common formulation runs. In teaching, you are asking your students to change.

  • You may be asking them to master entirely new skills or to change very old habits.
  • You may be asking them to criticize or give up on cherished beliefs and assumptions.
  • You may be asking them to shift from concrete to abstract thinking.
  • You are effectively (we are told) asking them to rewire their brains.

Like it or not, as teachers, we facilitate change. Change has a psychological and emotional dimension, and these things are intimate, and in public settings we tend to shy away from intimate matters. But we do this at our peril.

At some point those of us involved in teaching and learning must recognize the elements of the psychological processes of growth and change, and we must come to terms with the ways we have of managing and helping learners manage those processes.

Naturally, there are disciplines and frameworks for thinking about the personal, psychological, social and emotional dimensions of change.

  • Psychologists, social workers, counselors and other helping professionals have models and frameworks for how change happens and how to facilitate it.
  • Social scientists in a variety of fields concerned with changing behaviors––quitting drinking or drugging, eating differently to lower your cholesterol, and the like--have a transtheoretical model for the stages of change, and they even know that you talk to someone differently if he is ready to change or not ready to change.
  • And anthropologists consider rituals as mechanisms which help to manage how individuals change their role or status.

I've already written a little about some similarities between teaching and psychotherapy. But here I'd like to consider the last topic––rituals as symbolic structures which facilitate change. In many societys rituals help manage changes such as:

  • a young person becomes an adult;
  • a man and woman become husband and wife;
  • someone gets a new job--notably a leadership role.

This is the rite of passage. It's well-studied, and I won't rehearse many details here. You can look it up and make your own connections to learning. Suffice it to say that most cultures use symbols to manage changes in status, and these symbolic things called rituals also help organize the psychological experience of changing.

Some see folk tales as mirroring these rituals. Joseph Campbell's famous analysis of the "hero's journey" does just that. Campbell sees certain mythic narratives, folk tales and popular culture as symbolizing a specific ritual movement and its attendant psychological changes:

  • a violation of expected norms;
  • a disturbing movement from the familiar to the strange;
  • a reassuring guide who gives new skills, new tools;
  • a challenge, trial or test;
  • followed by a return in a new form, ready to take on new challenges, sometimes with a new status.

If learning really is a stressful experience which needs to be managed and faciliated, then each lecture, each class meeting, each course might take the shape of this kind of ritual or journey:

  • We take learners from where they are.
  • We rupture their world view with a paradox or an anomoly.
  • We give them the tools to make sense of something strange.
  • And
  • And they return to life different, their spirits enlarged, better prepared to meet a wider array of challenges.

In short, when we teach, we are helping people to grow. If we are not mindful of the contours of this journey, we will be poor guides. And if we are not aware of the journey's stresses, we will fail to take many all the way to the journey's end––which is where most really want and need to be.

At a certain level, we must begin to think of teaching as a cultural ritual or work done with symbols which helps learners to manage the psychological stress and disorientation of learning––which is a form of change.

It was once an insult to refer to mental health professionals as "witch doctors." But Jerome Frank suggested that belief played a key role in psychotherapy, and "expectancy effects" have now been accepted as part of psychotherapy's efficacy. And perhaps now we are ready to accept that how we approach teaching may have a beneficial effect on learning which goes beyond "cognition."

In higher education, professional teachers often see themselves as professional something-else's first. Professionalization is the social and psychological process by which people who earn money in the same way come to identify with their mode of making a living and to act in certain ways in order to protect and promote that group identity. It's not a bad thing. But as professors are professional x's, y's or z's––mathematicians or philosophers or sociologists––they get wrapped up in professional communication, and their ability to communicate to those non-experts called students suffers.

If we are to be a society that cares about learninge, professionals who teach must also see themselves as professional teachers––and therefore also to care deeply about the way we help learners manage the stress of becoming someone new.

Verbal models can point the way. So can rituals and stories. But eventually, we must understand better the broader symbolic mechanisms which help us to facilitate the enormously important personal growth called "learning."

––Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Courses and Lessons Are Like Projects.

There's no doubt: one the one hand, teaching and learning are complex phenomenon. And we tend to think them as governed by occult rules and principles which experts study: cognitive psychology, instructional design, etc.

Here "learning" is the object of various disciplines: it's a concept; something abstract which lies behind behaviors we can see.

At the same time, teaching and learning are also: concrete things that happen in specific places and times which we hope to observe or at least to measure. From this angle, teaching and learning are not disciplinary objects: teaching and learning are practical activities: things we (purposefully) do.

  • Students and teachers need to show up in the same place.
  • They all need to know where to buy the textbook.
  • Students need to know if papers will be typed, submitted electronically or written with crayon.
  • Professors need enough hours in the day to grade the students' work.
  • Etc.

The first angle is theoretical: it's part of an intellectual activity of making and testing hypotheses and theories with an eye towards on prediction and control, understanding and explanation. Theoretical matters are very interesting to scholars and intellectuals.

By contrast, practical matters can seem trivial to intellectuals––at least when they're not internal to the discipline: "How can I design an experiment which will determine if there is a correlation between cognitive motivation and who shows up to instructor office hours? And who's going to fund such a study?"

Practical matters have elements like: partners, goals, resources, limitations, materials, people, skills, deadlines.

  • As a young man, I was already a pretty good cook. But it took me years to be able to get all the food done and on the table at the same time.
  • I had most of the skills, but I couldn't turn the resources into a finished product all having a single deadline.

A number of methods for arranging practical matters are bundled into the techniques of project management.

As practical matters, teaching and learning bear strong similarities to project management. The following is a list of standard definitions of a project. But notice how they could also apply to a course or a lessons.

  • It's limited in time: it has a beginning and an ending.
  • It requires planning, monitoring and control--adjustments as you go.
  • It has a goal: something that needs to be accomplished.
  • It has a definite size and shape: it isn't doing everything; the scope is limited.
  • It must meet definite standards: not just any results will do.
  • Resources are required.
  • There are not only resources that are available, there are limitations: resources that are not available or whose quanitity is limited.
  • It must be accomplished using specific skills, and the skills must be matched to the desired results.
  • There are risks and benefits: things can go wrong, and specific good things may emerge and are likely desired.

Not every course or lesson is like a project; but many need at least some of these kinds of features. Lacking these, a project is not do-able, and a course or lesson is not 'learnable.' We're not even talking about cognition or motivation: it's just not practically possible for the participants to work together effectively if these things remain unknown.

Hence clever teachers and learners ask themselves and each other certain questions.

Questions Teachers & Learners Can Ask Themselves--About Courses and Lessons

  • When does it begin and end?
  • What has been planned? What kinds of things should I be watching out for? What kinds of adjustments might we need to make as we go?
  • What's the goal? What will be made or accomplished by the end?
  • How big is this? How much time will it take? What is too much work and what too little?
  • What standards must be met? What does an acceptable result look like--also a moderately good, superior and exceptional result?
  • What kind of stuff do I need to finish this? Paper and pencils? A computer? A textbook? Library access?
  • Is there something we must not do? Use a calculator? Use Wikipedia? Perhaps I'm doing some research, and I need to consult at least four resources but not more than twelve.
  • What kinds of skills do I need? How can I determine if we have the skills needed to succeed?
  • What bad can happen? Can I be harmed by this process? The answer here should be 'no' under almost all circumstances. And what is the tangible benefit? How will we all be better of once the course or lesson is done? How will I personally be better off? And how might the world even be a better place?

When we hear these questions, some of them are familiar. They sound like "learning objectives." Others are completely practical: "Do I need a pencil? Should it be gray? Or may I use magenta?"

As a codification of ways of planning, initiating, monitoring and controlling processes, project management probably resembles metacognition: project management is an instance of the brain's executive functions--but formalized. So "practical" matters in fact engage what are likely to be the same aspects of thinking which do other kinds of planning and control. We may want to teach something abstract like "metacognition"; but to teach anything whatever requires answering these practical questions. So if you want to improve students' metacognition, organizing and executing a project, or even a lesson shaped like a project, may be a very good pathway.

Even though we are greatly concerned with what learning is and how it happens, if we don't help students with the practical details of planning and executing work, that mysterious thing called learning can't happen. And this is one obstacle we face in facilitating learning--aka "teaching." We may know all the theories of learning, but a theory of learning is not ipso facto a method of teaching.

I'm not arguing against have theories about things like learning and teaching. But we need to remember what theories are.

  • Theories bear on ideal objects: "social solidarity" and "social class" are fundmental sociological concepts. But you can't locate them on a map.
  • "Self-efficacy" is an important psychological concept, but you can't show it in a photograph.
  • Until quite recently, you couldn't photograph an atom.

All these concepts are very important to their respective disciplines: and they allow us to predict, control, explain and understand. But the ideas may not correspond to simple physical things we can see or directly control.

We face this problem every time we try to take our theories of learning and apply them. We can't see "cognitive engagement" or "self-efficacy" or "motivation" with the naked eye.

Teaching and learning may rest on processes invisible to the naked eye; but lessons and courses are spatiotemporal things: activities with extension and duration, leaving traces, demanding behaviors. And in order to get a hold of teaching and learning, at some point we need to move from the abstractions to the concrete activities.

Teaching a course or a lesson, and taking a course or a lesson: these are concrete physical activities. And project management gives us a good analogy for what the dimension of learning which is not theoretical but is absolutely necessary.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What If Being a Good Scholar Bore No Relation to Being a Good Teacher?

A Plea for Understanding Teaching as a Practice: The First Part in a Continuing Series.

Very good scholars are amazing. They have sophisticated, high-level skills. They generate new knowledge, discover facts we didn't know before, challenge our assumptions, and re-frame the things we already knew.

But as I think we all know, scholars are often not so good at communicating with the general public. And by extension, scholars are not always so good at making themselves understood to undergraduates.

On the cognitive level, it's not hard to explain. Disciplinary knowledge is expert knowledge, and expert knowledge involves highly-facilitated neural pathways. (Or so we're told.) Experts can do things they can no longer explain, because those tasks have become second nature to them. A lot of an expert's knowledge is tacit, not explicit: experts just can't state a lot of what they know.

All of which suggests that very good scholars may not make the best teachers.

There I said it.

Indeed, a couple of large-scale studies have concluded that there is zero correlation between research productivity* (which isn't even scholarly talent) and teaching effectiveness: at least one study even finds a negative correlation. (Interestingly, those who make strong claims that scholars should be active teachers do not make any claims that scholars are effective teachers.)

That surprised me. I thought the correlation of scholarship and teaching would actually be negative: the better the scholar, the less effective the teaching. I suspect the zero correlation masks a negative correlation because effective scholars are at least good at organizing things, and this cuts against the other feature of scholarship: that you are immersed in a discipline which is its own universe, and it's very hard for you to explain it to non-experts.

But we don't want to consider that a good scholar is not necessarily an effective teacher. We don't want to think about this, since the whole idea of higher ed as we know it today largely rests on the assumption that good scholars are at least capable of teaching, if not proficient at it.

This a fine assumption--if you're training students to be scholars, to become disciplinary experts. Then you're using an apprenticeship model, which fits well with the medieval university-as-guild system.

But our colleges produce graduates who largely do not become professionals in the disciplines they study. So an undergraduate experience cannot be an apprenticeship in a discipline. Rather, the undergraduate experience is an apprenticeship in learning--learning how to learn, learning how to work with experts whose knowledge is tacit but who must have their immense knowledge accessed to be useful to non-experts. Students don't just learn how to access library resources: they learn how to access the knowledge locked up in experts' brains.

The successful college graduates departs towards an adventure of lifelong learning, faring on a sea of changing industries and practices, new tools, new ways of living, and ever-new ways of making a living. But that graduate is not a disciplinary expert, not a scholar, except in the most general sense.

Hence an apprenticeship in scholarship is not really what the university should offer undergraduates.

Scholarship is wonderful, but it is largely a closed system.

  • Scholars pursue highly refined, often abstract knowledge: theories, methods, correlations, etc.
  • Scholars develop theories which allow them to interpret, explain and control. Scholars seek correlations amongst variables.
  • The scholarly enterprise involves controlling elements of a process--whereas practical matters are almost always defined by things that cannot be controlled: given's, requirements, limitations.

What's more, teaching does not mesh well with scholarship, because teaching is a practical matter, and scholarship is highly abstract and theoretical. Yes, you may be teaching theories, concepts and abstractions; but neither teaching nor learning are primarily sets of theories and abstractions. Teaching and learning are concrete processes.

Sure, there are many theories of teaching and learning. But most scholars are not experts at theories of teaching, learning, educational psychology, pedagogy, instruction, etc.

Further, all those theories then need to be "applied," and the relation of theory to practice is itself a vexed theoretical topic. This is typical of scholars: to treat practice as an extension of what they do (which is to say: theory), rather than as its own domain.

Teaching is a practical art: something you can do at a basic level or very, very expertly. Other practical arts include: cooking; crafts like sewing; sports and games, which must be learned a bit at a time and mastered slowly; and artistic activities--like playing a musical instrument, painting, dancing, acting or writing a screenplay.

All of these practical arts are learned in stages, starting with simple skills and tasks, and leading in some cases to lifelong study and outstanding levels of achievement.

  • Beginners in practical arts master simple tasks: baking a genoise cake, sauteing without burning, throwing and catching, keeping a beat, drawing a head with the correct proportions.
  • Experts in the practical arts can do complex things: make a Tiramisu or cook a perfect steak; pitch a no-hitter or play chess with and beat or draw ten chess masters at once; play a Beethoven sonata, represent a complex scene with paint.

Expert practitioners also do the simplest tasks well.

  • An expert omelet is leagues above some tough, rolled-up scramblings.
  • A line drawing by Picasso or Manet is superb in its grace and simplicity.
  • A top notch shortstop is as good at catching a simple pop fly as he is at fielding the fastest wildest grounder.
  • A great actress may pack a lifetime of meaning into the line "I'd like a glass of water."

By contrast, the expert scholar's knowledge is mostly opaque and incomprehensible to the non-expert.

We should think of teaching and learning this way, too: as skills which are developed over time and can reach very high levels of refinement, but whose products are always accessible to non-experts.

What we should not do is think of practical arts, including teaching and learning, as "the application of a theory."

  • Cooking is not "applying a theory of chemistry."
  • Sewing is not "applying a theory of tensile strength."
  • Baseball and chess are not "applying the rules of the game."
  • Dancing is not "applying a theory of gravity."
  • Playing the piano is not "applying a theory of harmony."
  • Acting is not "applying a theory of drama."
  • And teaching is not "applying a theory of learning."

In none of these cases can you teach people the theory and then have them go "just apply it." Imagine saying to someone "Here's what yeast and gluten are--now go and bake me some bread."

Hence the contradiction built into higher education: even though you may be teaching the most abstruse ideas, the activity of teaching is still practical. Students need to own the book before they open it, know the room number before they can show up, know where the test is being given before they can pass it. You may counter: but those are trivial pre-requisites, not the "core of learning." And I say: trivial things matter when you do them poorly, and further, there are aspects of practice which are non-trivial and which the theoretically-minded tend not to notice.

Thus, somewhat paradoxically, teaching has more in common with cooking, playing the piano or drawing than with sociology, chemistry, literature, philosophy--or whatever subject is being taught. This is why you often get further in teaching if you think about how you learned to sew, play tennis, or strum the guitar.

So with all due respect for scholars and scholarship, teaching is something else again. And we need to respect this fact.

––Edward R. O'Neill