January 31, 2011

Why Teach?

Category: Educational Practice
colorful graffiti of word teach  on building

There are as many reasons to teach as there are reasons to learn.  One reason item-response testing (the twentieth-century’s dominant method of testing) is so deficient is that it tends to reduce what we teach to content (especially in the human, social, and natural sciences) or calculation (in the computational sciences).  Think of the myriad ways of knowing, making, playing, imagining, and thinking that are not encompassed by content or calculation.  This semester, I’ve moved over to highly experimental, collaborative, peer-led methods in my two undergraduate classes, “This Is Your Brain on the Internet,” comprised largely of students in the natural and social sciences, and “Twenty-First Century Literacies,” made up mostly of students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.

I’m using a combination of contract grading and peer-grading to assess their learning (see here and here).  Each class is also peer-led by two students who select topics, choose texts, make assignments, and then give their fellow students feedback on their completed work until those other students succeed—or fail.  Then the next class, those two peer leaders are back in the class again, with two other students taking charge of choosing the topic, the assignments, giving the feedback and doing the grading. 

Teacher = Chief Scout and Inspirer 

NB:  Anyone who thinks this kind of teaching is easy has never done it.  It’s not easy.  It takes an enormous amount of planning.  But my role is different than in a lecture class, for example.  In these two seminars, my role is less as the purveyor of all knowledge than as the manager, events planner, intellectual backstop, challenger, inspirer,  working to ensure that students contribute their best work in areas where they excel and know far more than any of the rest of us.  Their goal as peer leaders is to explain and translate that expertise to those who do not share it as well as to compel their classmates to aspire to that level, including in areas where they might be weak.  My inspiration for this kind of learning is open web peer-development, founded on the faith that you get the best result by including as many diverse and even divergent streams of expertise as possible.  It is a challenging and inspiring way to co-develop and co-create by learning and working together.

The Goal? Unscripted Discovery

But why?  If neither “content” nor “calculation” is the goal in either class, what is?  That is a difficult question, one I think about a lot.  The range of content varies from scientific papers on attention and visits to labs and museums (this week we go to a show at the Nasher Museum of Art called “The Record” where artists respond to the Jurassic technology known as the LP) to novels, memoirs, movies, social networking and other websites, and video games.  In both classes, we’ll be having three (shared) visitors this year:  Kathleen Fitzpatrick (who works on new digital modes of publishing, reading, and writing),  Vittorio Gallese (a neurophysiologist in the famous lab in Parma, Italy, where mirror neurons were first identified), and Michael Chorost (a science writer and computer scientist who has programmed his own cochlear implants and who writes knowledgeably and personally on human-computer interactions now and in the future).  That’s already an unexpected guest list:  an English professor, a neuroscientist, an expert in Human-Computer interaction.

What field is that?  What discipline?  What category of knowledge?  Is there any one student who is likely to be an expert across all of them?  Additionally, almost every class entails doing as well as talking.  The walls of the classroom are to be violated.  Get us out of here!  Get us away!  The final exams are collaborative, multimedia works.  What is the pedagogical goal in such mixed and merged classes?

The goal is to explore.  We hear a lot about the value of failure and giving students the confidence to fail, but I’m increasingly thinking that is one of those taboo words that gives and takes away at the same time.  “It’s okay to fail” is almost always said in a voice that implies defensiveness, caution, bravado.  What if we aim lower and higher and switch that:  “It’s okay to explore.”  There is no negative valence built into the word “explore.”  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word goes back to the Renaissance, and medieval French,  and means to investigate and examine, to search out.  It was apparently a hunters’ term originally, meaning to “set up a loud cry” (Eureka!) and with a conjoined second meaning: “to make to flow,” from the word pluere “to flow.”  It was in the 1610s that it was extended to the colonial practice of going to a new country and place with the quest of discovering what might be there.  Nice.  I don’t know how you test it, but I want to be along for that journey!

Classrooms Without Walls

At a competitive, top-ranked research university like the one at which I teach, students don’t have a lot of time for going to places they don’t know, to find things they can’t anticipate.  They don’t do a lot of flowing and shouting out in their intellectual lives.  On the contrary, they don’t get to an university like this unless they have dedicated a lot of their intellectual lives to focus, attention, to setting specific goals and achieving those goals.  They have learned how to master content and calculation.  They have aced a lot of tests.  At Duke in particular, there are so many requirements for majors, minors, interdisciplinary general skills and areas of expertise that students rarely have the opportunity to explore some new avenue of thinking, some new and unscripted idea or method or way.  They do that a lot in their extracurricular lives, but those are typically in subjects where they already excel (several of my students are in singing groups) or have well-formed personal and social commitments (such as those who volunteer in HIV clinics or in the local public schools).  Crying out with the excitement of the new?  Going with the flow or making the flow?  Traveling somewhere else for the sole purpose of discovering what’s there?  Not so much.

Needed: Experiments in Uncertainty

What I hope for in “Twenty-First Century Literacies” and “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” is that, because students lead the assignments and the leaders alternate with each unit, everyone has a chance to explore a topic, method, or idea that they have not tried before.  Because of the combination of the open-ended nature of the syllabi and the deliberately vague disciplinary focus of both courses, but the predetermined nature of the official assessment (the contract grading),  the students feel confident to explore.  I don’t know what they will find.  They don’t know what they will find.  That’s the point.  Even if there is no pot of gold at the end of this pedagogical rainbow, I hope that, for one course in one semester, they experience the intellectual license to flow in this or that direction where the map doesn’t exist yet.  I hope that, whatever they find, they understand that the real goal, as with all profound journeys, is not the destination (the content or the correct calculation) but the confidence they gain by going.  It is not a trivial lesson, in fact it is one that most of us, in our busy lives, tend to forget.  When was the last time you explored? 

That’s why I teach these days.  The goal is no more nor less than to champion the value of exploration.  In a world dominated by punditry, opinion, dubious facts, and passionate certainties, I teach to underscore the power of uncertainty, of unknowing.  It’s an incredible tool, if one grasps it, because it means that, wherever we go in the future, we can find something rich, compelling, powerful, and instructive even when—especially when—we do not know, in advance, what we’re looking for.

Image credit: brookenovak http://www.flickr.com/photos/brookenovak/111627615/