Rethinking my digital ban

I’ve long been a diehard “laptop ban” advocate. Basing this decision first on intuition and later Startup Stock Photoson empirical evidence, it was rarely an issue beyond the initial student grumbling. Among hundreds of student evaluations, a very small handful (less than 5) mentioned it as an issue. Although I included the caveat of “if this is problem for you, please talk to me,” no one ever did. Case closed, or so I thought.

As I’m getting ready for a new term, I read with interest this piece in the Chronicle on starting the semester. Basically, I read the whole piece, nodding along until he got to his critique of the laptop ban. I didn’t think too much of it at first; I have always stated that I’m willing to make accommodations, just no student ever asked. But then I read the piece from Digital Pedagogy Lab he linked to and I’m already singing a different tune.
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Talking at cross-purposes

Muddy hell

One of the most frustrating things in teaching environments is when people end up talking at cross-purposes. Often, this ends up as two people strongly disagreeing with other each, even though it looks – to an external observer – like they’re agreeing, but are coming to it from different directions.

I had a mild example of this at a recent event, where I was challenged because of the terms/language I was using. “Why do you keep on calling it ‘democracy’ when it’s not?”, was the basic thrust. I countered that the issue wasn’t the terms, but what one might do with the situation. The person suggested what one might do was… change the terms. Et cetera.


I mention this a) because it’s strangely annoying, b) because it was odd, in this case, that one of the parties was aware it was happening and c) because when it happens in a class, you need to deal with it.

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So, that went well

ummmm_by_msslasher-d6uw3ttAfter a referendum-induced hiatus, I’m back. Sort of. Let’s just say that my plans for a ‘quiet’ second half of 2016 are not the ones I originally envisaged.

In a very graphic way, last Thursday’s decision that the UK should leave the EU is a demonstration of the importance of having a fall-back plan. I might have one, but I appear to be about the only one in the country who does.

Let’s work on the basis that your classes don’t involve instances where actions result in the complete upheaval of a country’s and a continent’s political, economic and social order. If then do, then welcome and please could you write an endorsement for our website.

Instead, our lives tend to be more mundane, as do our problems. But contingencies still matter, particularly when we use active learning.

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Already Closed Minds

CrybabyTaking Simon’s recent post about encouraging student feedback in a different direction:

Yes, students often perceive and understand differently than I do, and I agree that removing barriers to their acquisition of knowledge as an important part of my job. But in many cases students are as different from one another as they are from me, and some of them are simply not interested in learning.

For example, I’m still using the Quality of Failure essay in all my courses as an end-of-semester exercise in meta-cognitive reflection. Compare these quotes from essays written by two students in a course that just ended:

When I realized that we only really went over the homework in class, I mentally decided that I didn’t really want to participate because I had already written my response and it had already been graded.”

While I feel that I have achieved my goal of learning about new populations, I also feel that this was achieved for other reasons than what I previously mentioned. For instance, the one thing that I never really took into consideration was the fact that discussions with my peers would end up being the most influential factor in learning what I did this semester.”

The first student decided early on that she would learn nothing from hearing about the perspectives of her peers during classroom discussions, while the second student was surprised to find that this aspect of the course was by far the most valuable.

The pedagogical “experts” might say that I should meet all students where they are and adjust to all the ways in which students define their interests. But I refuse to accommodate those who are too close-minded to try something that challenges their own view of themselves.

How joined-up is your curriculum?

6318258412_b0209b8fa7_bWe’re rolling around to the end of our teaching here at Surrey. That means several things. First, that students are now focusing more on their final exams than on classes, since they don’t heed our advice that the latter will help an awful lot with the former. Second, that we’re trying to join the dots (again) between what we’ve joined over the past weeks. And third, that it’s nearly time for the amazing L&T new pedagogies workshop we’re running here (yes, since you ask, you can still book here).

But back to the second point, connectedness.

In my first year class yesterday, we ended up covering a bunch of concepts that I’d thought had been covered elsewhere, but which seemed not to have been. I did that because I needed them to explain some points that I knew weren’t being covered by anyone else. I could give you more specifics, but I’m guessing you know what I mean, because it’s something that happens pretty much every lesson; even if only in its mildly form of “you remember how you learnt about X in that other class? well, here’s an application.”

This is a real issue for social sciences like ours. Unlike physical sciences, where there is a much more graduated progress from core concepts to advanced application, we tend to find ourselves plunging into assorted deep ends from the get-go. The reasons are simply that we have a lay experience of politics that we don’t with quantum mechanics, and that the former is something that sits well within our reflective practice and is indeed a key part of our engagement with our environment. Put differently, you can have a conversation about power and agency with a 6-yr old and quickly get into very profound considerations.

The problem that this creates is that the degree to which we can make assumptions about prior knowledge and understanding (being two distinct things here) is highly uncertain. While we try to plan curricula for our programmes of study, we do so on the basis of implicit understandings of what an average student might know about beforehand. And of course, average students don’t really exist.

All of which makes it very hard to work towards a solution. The classic approach would have been to just give students what you, the teacher, think is important, whether they’ve had it before or not. The more modern approach would be to map out all the key points of learning and ensure that they are covered in some way.

Perhaps we need another approach, that it is more student-centric.

If we adopt an active learning approach then we work out from the students’ experience, to address problems as they find them, rather than presenting pre-packaged ‘solutions’. In endeavouring to solve the problems they find, students can draw in new knowledge, into frameworks of understanding , in ways that make sense to them. As that process continues, so the elements become joined up and the gaps reduce.

However, we have to acknowledge that this doesn’t mean that gaps disappear automatically. One of the beauties of political science is precisely that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat, working from fundamentally different premises. Organic, student-led growth of understanding doesn’t necessarily capture that.

Two partial solutions offer themselves here. One is to continue with the thing of activity that I opened with – making connections in sessions. But the other is to create learning environments where there are incentives to seek out new connections and paradigms of understandings. Simulations would be just that sort of environment, where you can take students out of themselves and ‘be’ someone else.

And yes, if that sounds interesting, there is a workshop about that.

Encouraging student feedback

Durdle_Door_OverviewAs my American colleagues know, the UK is a socialist paradise and it’s one of the reasons they’re all coming over later this month (the other is our workshop, which you can book a space at here).

One of the many great consequences of our enlightened political choices is the notion of ‘bank holidays’, days especially chosen to have poor weather, so that us Brits can really indulge in moaning about rain. We love it.

This weekend past was, unfortunately, a very poor example, as the sun shone for a full three days, but I braved it all, to go on a short family break on the South Coast. This included a Sunday lunch in a small pub, where (it turned out) a recent graduate of my fine university was one of the people serving us. Continue reading