I’m one of the few professors that I know who has a degree in education.
In 1994 I earned my B.A. in Communication Education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. What made that program so interesting for me was its grounding in the science of learning and the application of that science in practical settings.
Certainly studying how to teach doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher. Still I found my classes fueled what was then (and continues to be) a lifelong fascination with the factors that help us learn and the factors that work against us.
In my senior year, Dr. Alan Frager led a seminar that made students responsible for understanding the science learning, applying that knowledge in real world situations, and sharing that knowledge with my fellow classmates. Each week we would work one-on-one with students at area secondary schools. We would diagnose their reading problems, search for answers in the scientific literature, and participate in weekly roundtable presentations about those students.
I don’t remember a class in which I was more committed. While my secondary teaching career lasted only two semesters — one as student-teacher at Western Hills High School, and one as an English teacher at Winton Woods Middle School — I used the methodologies from Dr. Frager’s practicum in every one of my classes.
While I left the teaching profession in 1996 and took an 11-year detour as a writer before returning to the classroom full time in 2006, I never stopped reading about how we learn. Along the way I’ve come across some amazing ideas in books such as Academically Adrift, How Learning Works, The Paradox of Choice, The Wisdom of Crowds, and The Invisible Gorilla.
One fact stands out as I’ve read: the formula for learning I experienced in Dr. Frager’s class is one that I’ve seen discussed in various formats in all those works: Science + practical application + sharing = learning.
Constructivism + the learning environment
As such there are a few hallmarks to my classroom:
- Students are given very little instruction about how to complete an assignment
- Once those assignments are turned in, we spend a good deal of time reverse-engineering some of the best and some of the worst assignments through the Socratic method. (Sometimes teacher led; sometimes student led.)
- Students are able to re-do their assignments several times until they are satisfied
Constructivism puts the student at the center of the learning experience, and turns the teacher in a facilitator of thinking. My goal through the Socratic methodology is to model for students the internal questions you ask yourself while trying to complete a task (and then how to self-edit that task).
Theoretically speaking, I believe this the best methodology for teaching as it places the burden on learning on the students, thus empowering them to decided how much or how little they will learn.
This methodology only works, though, if I have constructed the learning environment in the proper way. Each year I find myself tinkering with, changing, and fixing my courses so that they run more smoothly. This year I decided to do a self-audit of all the courses I teach, analyzing the notes I’d taken throughout the years, and trying to understand the larger thematic problems I have in all my classes.
While I’ve done this, one idea has repeated:
I spend too much time trying to cram too many conflicting ideas into too few classes so that we can satisfy antiquated systems that require specific courses and legislatures that demand specific degree paths.
Some of this is a failure of the system, but more of this is a failure on my part to apply the science of learning within the frameworks available to me.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped constructing valuable learning environments within my classroom. I’ve spent more time putting together very rigid structures that allow me to cover material in 16 weeks, but I haven’t spent as much time giving the students the opportunity to take time with the material.
I stopped thinking about the formula for learning: science + practical application + sharing.
Writing: a case study in constructivism
Three years ago, I launched a project called The Invictus Writers, in which I chose the most promising writers from my pool of classes and work with them for a year as they write a book of essays that is published.
I started that project exactly because I found the traditional classroom — no matter how much you flip it, turn it, shake it, or manhandle it — is an awful way for students to learn to write.
You learn to write by reading, by writing, and by getting critiqued. It’s science (reading the literature), it’s practical application (original work), and it’s writing groups (sharing).
The first two years I ran the group without any connection to my university. The structure for the projects was loosely this:
Students met at my house on Saturdays. My only role was to kick off the meeting (generally by telling them to get started) while I made breakfast for everyone. The students would spend time sharing their work, discussing problems they were having, sharing interesting pieces they’d read, and making a plan for editing and writing sessions.
In the weeks between meetings, I’d have sporadic contact with each of the writers. I’d edit some work when they asked. I would meet them for group writing sessions if I was invited. Mostly I pushed the idea of writing and editing to the edges, forcing them to work with each other. Every few months, I would give each work a massive story or line edit as a balance to the student work.
Throughout the year, the first two students groups coalesced around the writing. They grew comfortable with sharing. They opened about their fears and frustrations about the process. They blogged the highs and the lows for everyone to see.
The third group was turned into a class. The structure of class undermined us from the beginning. Several students weren’t committed to the project, and before the end of the semester the group’s cohesion had fallen apart.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is a scientific sampling generalizable to all classrooms, nor do I lay the blame for the third group’s failure only at the fault of the students.
Instead, this third failure prompted me to re-consider what I had and hadn’t done to create the proper learning environment, and to re-consider how the structure of the science + application + sharing environment might look.
Transmedia + the learning environment
Along with The Invictus Writers, I’ve also run 4 interdisciplinary, immersive learning projects that are the hallmark of Ball State University education.
The structure of our university encourages professors to develop coursework that helps solve a real-world problem with a community partner, and it enables professors to build the types of environments the facilitate learning.
The most high-profile of my projects was Transmedia Indiana, a year-long course that brought together 2 professors, 26 students (and 54 outside participants), and several community partners to build an interactive story told in various media. (Think The DaVinci Code meets The History Channel.)
It’s nearly impossible to explain the project in a snippet. If you’re interested in the project description or the number of people we worked with, it’s better to spend some time reading. If you don’t want to take the time to read and watch how the project was developed, you can at least get a sense of what we did:
Without question, this was the most successful class I’ve taught to date in terms of what the students accomplished and the skills they acquired along the way. There is also no doubt that I did a poor job of helping students transfer what in-class skills to their work once they leave the university.
While we are still sifting through the ethnographic data conducted by two different researchers, our informal findings on the matter have pointed to a few thoughts about this salon approach to learning:
- We didn’t structure the learning well enough so that students could replicate what we did in class. Some of this was because my co-teacher and I didn’t properly plan out what we wanted to accomplish;
- The students were extremely committed to their portion of the project, and thus spent far more time on this class than others; and
- Despite our failures at structure, the students still managed to conceptualize and build an amazing project that touched thousands of people.
The notion that hands-on, collaborative learning works better than a lecture (in many cases) isn’t groundbreaking, and I don’t meant to suggest that it is. Coupled with The Invictus Writers, it’s become abundantly clear that I need to sacrifice the structure of the 16-week classroom in favor of the unstructured learning environment.
Constructivism + the classroom
I’ve argued that learning is best accomplished within an environment that removes created barriers such as semester, uses science to inform application, and uses external validation as a grading criteria. Add to that my argument that Big Group Learning trumps small group learning activities, and the idea of a learning environment begins to come into focus.
All of these come together to form the idea that we must find a way to create an environment of creativity for our students that is based in science but pushes them towards self-creation.
In the coming months:
- I’m going to explore the projects that I’ve done — both with students and professionally — to try to find the moments when a project morphed from the dreaded “classroom assignment” into a project of passion; and
- I want to understand how the external factors of sharing impacted the internal factors of the creations that come from the classroom.
My goal is to build a “creative environment and studio” classroom that can be run within the context of an already-existing curriculum. (In other words: How can I build a non-traditional learning environment without disrupting the flow of education in my department?)
Some elements of this environment we know:
- Create unstructured, ungraded environments that are wholly the students
- Find ways to give students meaningful control of the classroom, and their learning
- Build strong ties to external reviewers that allow students to maintain some control over the direction of projects
In the end, I want to understand the framework for building a creative studio classroom that takes into account the science of how we learn so that I can build better learning environments for my students.
Education doesn’t need to re-envisioned. We know quite well how people acquire new knowledge. What we need to begin to consider is how we can unshackle our classrooms from the rigid, top-down, quantitative-only measurements that work against the science of learning.
A modest proposal
I know amazing professors who are working on this problem. I’d love to hear about those projects. If you know somebody (or if you’re doing something yourself), please send me an email or post a comment.