Sunday, March 11, 2007

(Re)start your engines...

All righty, then.

Tomorrow we recommence, revving up for the straightaway dash to the end of the semester.

This is as good a time as any to take stock of where we are in the semester, content-wise. Accordingly, I'm going to ask folks in each of my three classes to spend around half of their respective class periods tomorrow in reviewing what we've done so far: what have we learned? What techniques have we developed? How does it all fit together?

I've been doing a good deal of reading on pedagogy over the break, from the text for this semester's Learning Circle, Maryellen Weimer's Learner-centered teaching: five key changes to practice (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2002), and Alife Kohn's No contest: the case against competition (Houghton-Mifflin Company, Boston, 1986). The latter does not deal strictly with pedagogical theory, but I came to it through Weimer's text, and I've found its insights useful in designing new classroom concepts.

A digest of ideas:

1. "Our classrooms are now rule-bound economies that set the parameters and conditions for virtually everything that happens there" (Weimer, p. 96; emphasis mine). A page later: "our classrooms are now token economies where nobody does anything if there are not some points proffered" (p. 97, again my emphasis). This economic image is an oft-used and apt metaphor for the give-and-take between the student and the professor, and I've come across it in one text after another. Surely some such variety of exchange is inherent in whatever classroom structure one could imagine, but my question is: must the classroom economy always be a capitalist one?

Given the research that Kohn lays out (suggesting that competition in the classroom and elsewhere is generally detrimental to both group and individual achievement), doesn't it make more sense that the classroom economy be one in which cooperative values serve as the "gold standard" for the course's currency? To carry the metaphor one step further, what if we redesign the economy so that it takes on a more "communist" hue?

For instance, I can envision, in a sufficiently small course (no more than, say 7 or 8 students), an untimed, class exam. Either in lieu of or in addition to a stand-alone individual exam, the entire class would be asked to complete a few problems as a unit, the professor sitting by as an observer and as a "clarifier," roles she or he typically already plays in proctoring an ordinary final exam. All students participate in generating solutions, offering ideas, helping to synthesize ideas already put forth. At the outset of the exercise, a single student could be chosen as a scribe in order to create a single solution to the problems presented, and perhaps no solution could be submitted which had not been "ratified" by every person present.

Yes, yes: there are problems with this idea. For instance, there would almost inevitably be "slackers," those who would get the same grade as everyone else without having participated at all, whether out of lack of knowledge or out of shyness. The more outgoing students would also have a tendency to monopolize the discussion.

A compromise between this innovation and the "traditional" exam format might look something like Weimer's study group exams, presented on pages 89-90 of her text. I think Weimer may have turned me off of this idea with her heavy-handed treatment of the "best" students who chose not to participate in the group exam (p. 90).

2. An idea transversing both Chapters 2 and 5 of Weimer ("The balance of power" and "The responsibility for learning") is the following: grant the students the opportunity at the semester's outset to, within reason, decide the distribution of point values for various types of assignments. This student-led distribution could occur on the first day of class, students breaking into small groups to meet one another and discuss the pros and cons of weighting this sort of assignment that much, and so forth. After giving each small group the change to come up with some rough guidelines, the class could be reconvened as a whole, and ideas shared. A consensus can then be approached: how much will this be worth? Once point values are arrived at, we'd record the result and all stick to the deal.

Obviously there should be some initial parameters outside of which the students would not be allowed to deviate. For instance, in Calc I class, I would ask that each of homework, quizzes, projects, and exams count for some percentage of the class's points, and I would likely set some minimum values (HW must be worth at least 10%, quizzes at least 10%, and so forth). But from there, the students would be on their own. I'd even let them throw in extra requirements, like attendance, if they saw fit to include them.

This arrangement has the benefit of providing students a chance to take control of the grading system to some extent, and thus while it gives them greater power (and less excuse for complaining should they not keep up!), it also invests them with commensurate responsibility.

3. Through Kohn's text I've found some interesting tidbits on pedagogical competition, from other sources: Morton Deutsch, in Education and distributive justice: a social-psychological perspective, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1985, writes: "If educational measurement is not mainly in the form of a contest, why are students often asked to reveal their knowledge and skills in carefully regulated test situations designed to be as uniform as possible in time, atmosphere and conditions for all students?" (p. 394, from Note 48, Chapter 2 of Kohn). Good question. As a fairly non-competitive soul myself, I hate in-class exams and see little purpose to them in the long run. It was this line, in part, that made me think up the class exam scheme in (2) above.

Also, Kohn says on one of the works of the brothers David and Roger Johnson ("The socialization and achievement crisis: are cooperative learning experiences the solution?," Applied Social Psychology Annual 4, L. Bickman ed., Sage, Beverly Hills, 1983): "In fact, even the widely held assumption that 'students learn more or better in homogeneous simply not true.' A review of hundreds of studies fails to support this assumption even with respect to higher-level students" (Note 28, Chapter 3 of Kohn). There's some ammo for the folks who take flak for "making the smart students work with the dumber ones."

All in all, I'm enjoying both books. Weimer, though I'm not always agreeing with her and I find her tone a bit condescending at times, has given me a good deal of practical ideas, while Kohn's work has been a great fount of references to other authors who purport to prove claims I've heard bandied about before but have never been able to track to the source.

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