In a recent blog post, Doug Mckee addresses three issues in how he should teach this fall.
1. Should I ban laptops in lecture?
2. Should I make discussion sections mandatory?
3. Should I cold-call students during lecture?
Basically: no, no and no–all for the same reasons.
1. Should you “ban” anything in lecture?
Or rather: were you to try, what would be the justification?
In teaching we do things for very few reasons.
a. Because they are inherent in the discipline and academic life. ”We’re reading Durkheim because he helped to found the discipline.” “We’ll use APA style because that’s what professionals do.” “You must offer arguments, not opinions, because in our domain, opinions have no value.”
b. Because they are convenient. “We need to get all your papers at once so we can compare them and grade them before the next work is due.”
c. Because they adhere to university policies and laws. “No smoking in the back row.” “Grades are due on the 11th.” “No sexual harassment.”
d. Because they embody our values about human freedom and responsibility. “You must take up your own argumentative position.” “You may turn in the work late, but it will be marked down.” “Write about the one topic on the list that interests you most.” Pursue your freedom. Experiment. Explore. Fail. But take on the responsibility of existing and choosing.
(I can’t think of many other justifications for why we do this, that or the other in teaching.)
And all of these questions are opened to reasoned debate–because that is one of our values.
Once you say “You will not open your laptops,” you are dictating. And you have lost. Now you are a cop, not a teacher.
Practically speaking, I know professors who have had good luck with the “three states”: put your laptops away and focus on this (discuss with a peer, whatever); open your laptops and do this specific task; leave your laptop open or put it away–I don’t care, just don’t distract your neighbor.
You can also play with the sequence. If you ask them to use it, then to close it, the act of opening it may be more self-aware.
2. See “1″ above.
a. What does “mandatory” mean? Again, from my perspective this is the wrong relation to the student.
We can mandate little in teaching. Rather, we reward and we punish. (Behavioral economics and game theory surely apply here–though I fear that those theories have no moral code embedded in them, and therefore they may be useful tools but they are not arbiters.)
Extrinsic rewards don’t motivate learning very well. So you can reward and punish for attending or not. But neither will help students learn.
Why not go the other way? “Go to section, don’t. No points for it. Go if you value it. And we’ll try to make it valuable.” Ask every week how section could be better. Make it a discussion topic in the web site. When you can’t decide in advance, make it a learning experience.
b. One good principle in planning teaching is: treat all questions about teaching as something to be proven experimentally by teaching.
Reframe the issue as: What could I learn about making the section worth going to?
Survey students weekly–did you go or not, why? Ask the section leaders to experiment, to explore how best to meet the students’ needs. Maybe the first few weeks the sections would have different specific activities that students rated, and thereafter, students chose “which activity should we do today?” Make it their section. Meet their needs.
Or just put super-important things in section. Sell how great section will be, and then say “of course it’s totally optional.”
3. See “1″ above.
a. They are coming to lecture to learn. Would you pick on someone for not having understood the material as well as someone else? That person needs more help, not public shaming.
b. I tried this once. I would never do it again.
I once put the students’ names on index cards. I shuffled them and picked one at random.
Once the index cards came out, students sat up straight in their chairs.
I called a name, and the student stammered and hemmed and hawed. Other students tried to rescue those I called on–defended them.
One student shot his hand up later, after not having known the answer to an earlier question, and after class explained to me: “I knew the answer, I just couldn’t think of it, and so I had to show you that I’d done the reading.”
And I thought: who am I? To make someone prove a point to me?
After that I brought out the index cards and put them on the desk. They were radioactive. Students would stare at them. If no one answered a question, I moved towards the cards, and a voice would ring out with something to say.
It wasn’t motivated by something good. But I got good discussions. Not because of randomly calling on students all the time, as a policy. But by making a point that we needed to discuss and that I would do what it took to make that happen. They didn’t want that.
But I would never teach that way again.
4. Learning devolves on human agency.
Agency is the center of learning. Through learning, I become more capable, and I feel myself to be more and more of an agent, less and less of a passive, receptive entity and more and more myself.
Humans become more capable by overcoming meaningful challenges in an increasing order of difficulty, a difficulty matched to their abilities. (It’s tragedy when someone is outstripped by the task he faces; tragedy defines common humanity by contrast.)
Anything that takes away from the agency of the learner is bad for learning.
Yes, we need rules and limits.
But when possible, all meaningful choices should be passed to the student.
To experience one’s humanity through the responsibility of choice, to embrace the possibility of failure, and to own’s one’s successes: this is the heart of education.
–Edward R. O’Neill, Ph.D.