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Faculty Learning Community: Agenda and Notes (November 16, 2009)

Anne Dalke's picture

Click on “VoD” to the right of “2. Lessons From Thin Air.

Lunch served in Dorothy Vernon Room of Haffner Dining Hall

Agenda (from Steve Lindell):
Discussion of new techniques that people have explored to restructure any aspect of their teaching. This could include but is not limited to how lectures are delivered, how assignments are structured, new ways to handle discussion sections, and alternatives to the traditional methods of assessment like examinations.

For our discussion, it would be helpful if each person could bring to the table one (or more) new method(s) that you’ve tried in your classes that have been beneficial (or perhaps not), and one (or more) new method(s) that you’ve considered trying, but haven’t yet (for whatever reason).

Comparing and contrasting different peoples approaches and ideas could lead to a useful discussion.

Instead of a reading, look at the following video:

Click on “VoD” to the right of “2. Lessons From Thin Air” and watch from 3:13 until 6:22.

Although the video focuses on an example from the life sciences, it should be a powerful lesson for any discipline.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Education as inquiry: new directions?

I'm intrigued, of course, by our movement towards thinking of the educational challenge in broader "inquiry" terms, where the issue isn't so much how to teach particular things more effectively but rather how help people become more effective participants in the ongoing process of making sense of the world and the place of themselves and other humans in it.  For some further thinking along these lines in a different conversational context, see "Replacing blame with generosity in classrooms, inquiry, and culture."

There are intriguing parallels between this trajectory in thinking about education and recent history of research on the brain that might be useful to explore further (cf Parallel Changes in Thinking about the Brain and about Education) that it might be useful to explore further.  I'm also struck by the degree to which some of the switch in context for thinking about classrooms was anticipated by William James, as per his Talks to Teachers (1899), which also might be worth exploring further

"Teachers, of course, will miss the minute divisions, subdivisions, and definitions, the lettered and numbered headings, the variations of type, and all the other mechanical artifices on which they are accustomed to prop their minds. But my main desire has been to make them conceive, and, if possible, reproduce sympathetically in their imagination, the mental life of their pupil as the sort of active unity which he himself feels it to be."

Paul Grobstein's picture

Fac Learning Community 16 Nov meeting summary

Steven introduced the session with the thought that we might, among other things, serve as a mechanism for dissemination of diverse methods for improving educational practice, and with the challenge of a video illustrating that many college students do well on examinations but don't actually understand the material they have studied and are being examined on. 

This led to an initial discussion about how to think about persistant student "misconceptions."  Students seem to have "models" of the world from very early ages that don't affect their ability to answer exam questions but do "get in the way of what we're teaching."  It was suggested that these models aren't actually "misconceptions" but rather the products of efforts to make sense of the world acquired through experiences and from interpersonal sharing.  And that they are best dealt with not by ignoring them or trying to wipe them out but rather by building on them.  Students should be put in educational contexts that challenge their existing understandings so that they themselves are encouraged to recognize the limitations of existing understandings and construct new ones.  One needs to create "cognitive dissonance"  To do this, educators need to give up two presumptions:

  • That there is a particular right answer/way/understanding that needs to be immediately conveyed.
  • That students begin their education in particular subjects as a blank slate. 

JD summarized some of his own experiences along these lines in terms of "treating students as scientists."  Steven added the importance for himself of  discovering the value of letting students see the teacher actually wrestling with problems in class and of  "letting students make their own mistakes."  Bill mentioned the use of pre and post tests and of using videotape to teach teachers, a method that produces results by giving people the wherewithal to "see themselves from another point of view."

With some prodding from Alice, the conversation added consideration of social dimensions, of interpersonal and classroom dynamics.  The notion here was that students may successfully challenge and hence modify their existing understandings not only by acting in teacher defined ways but also by interacting with each other and by working with the teacher on shared tasks. 

As the conversation continued, there emerged a sense that there is a third presumption that needs to rethought, the idea

  • that the primary responsibility of teachers is to a particular subject (physics, computer science, biology, etc)

Perhaps  instead teachers should focus on the development of sophistication in inquiry, organizing whatever content is being used in ways that facilitate this more general objective, one common to all subjects.   From this perspective, the question is less what are optimal methods for teaching "skills," "mastery," etc within particular disciplines and more what is needed to enhance inquiry sophistication generally.  Among the things called attention to were how to help students become "life long learners," how to help students see "mistakes" as building blocks, how to encourage "trying things out," ie risk-taking,  and how to help students develop "judgement," an ability to pick among alternatives not the "right" one but one that is most likely to open productive new lines of inquiry.  An intriguing feature of this alternative perspective is that it suggests an approach across all levels of the educational system, one that would make of education "one gigantic inquiry."


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