Outside the Classroom

The previous post hints at the applicability of learner-centered education to students’ experiences outside of the classroom. This post develops that idea a bit further.

For many students, the college experience is multifaceted. Students may live in residence halls, join student organizations, work on campus, complete organized service projects, and participate in the myriad of events and activities designed to enrich academic life. Further, students may spend considerable time in these areas relative to the amount of time spent on course-related activities. This reality begs the question: to what extent are other areas of the college experience learner-centered? I would argue in order to realize the full benefits described in Doyle’s text the principles of learner-centered education should be integrated throughout the academic experience—from matriculation to graduation. I recognize the ambition in this statement and ask for the reader’s patience as I toy in the ideal.

While system-level integration may appear inconceivable, integration at a level broader than the classroom should not. Let’s consider a few of the experiences named above for a moment. At first glance, leadership roles in student organizations, working on campus, and participating in community service projects align nicely with several traits of learner-centered activities as defined by Doyle in chapter 3. These traits include:

  • having real-world relevance
  • providing the opportunity to collaborate
  • providing the opportunity to reflect
  • creating polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else
  • allowing competing solutions and diversity of outcomes

Each of the example activities under examination seems to have real-world relevance—the first trait in Doyle’s list. In addition, each could easily include opportunities to collaborate and reflect. Depending on the context, each could also allow for the creation of valuable products and provide opportunities to manage competing solutions. Of course, program coordinators would have a large role in ensuring that these activities embody these traits—a point to which I will return momentarily.

We can apply this logic more thoroughly to one of the examples to see how these traits might manifest practically. Let’s examine community service. Imagine that a student life department on campus organizes a community service project at a local food bank. This department manages all aspects of the project, from advertising to transportation to work assignments. This activity hardly appears learner-centered. Now imagine the same unit recruits students to organize a community service project for themselves and their peers. In this scenario, the students are responsible for identifying a community need, locating the appropriate service organization to address that need, advertising the service opportunity to other students, arranging for transportation, and making work assignments based on the strengths and interests of group members. In this example, the unit has fully empowered the students to manage the community service project, and, as a result the activity would have greater real-world relevance, require higher levels of collaboration, generate a more diverse set of outcomes, while still providing a valuable product for the community. In addition, at the conclusion of the service project administrators could ask students to reflect on the experience through a written essay, a concept map, a blog, or eportfolio.

The latter example demonstrates how a program coordinator in a student life unit might infuse an experience outside of the classroom with the principles of learner-centered education. Of course, the example assumes the program coordinator maintains the requisite knowledge and skills to organize a service project of this nature, which brings me to an important point. It is paramount that universities and colleges extend the conversation about learner-centered education beyond classroom instructors to the other members of the community who organize learning activities for students. Only in this way can universities and colleges more fully integrate learner-centered education throughout the academic experience.


The Stakeholders

     We have met to discuss the last chapters of Learner-Centered Teaching.  In chapter 12 of Terry Doyle’s book, he lists three groups who may need to be convinced that learner-centered teaching (LCT) is beneficial to students.  Briefly, these groups are administrators who evaluate teaching, colleagues who may withhold tenure, and students who may complain.  Doyle suggests that their concerns could be based on a lack of information or a resistance to change.  Our discussion began here but went in the direction of a fourth group of educators, namely administrators outside of academics.  They provide many learner-centered opportunities such as spring break trips, student government, and leadership in student organizations.  Perhaps what is missing is the integration of these experiences into classroom discussions which will enrich both learning environments.

     There was also much discussion about congruence between teaching methods and assessment.  In many cases, educators have adopted LCT methods, but their assessment has remained unchanged.  Do the new learner-centered teaching methods lend themselves to students doing well on the old assessments?  Students themselves sometimes prefer a lecture.  Why?  They may think it is their best opportunity to find out what will be on the multiple choice test. 


Fun and Games

We are nearly finished discussing Terry Doyle’s book, “Learner Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning into Practice.” The last time we met, teaching with games was one of the topics that was most interesting to me. A group of students in my class on teaching with technology had just given a presentation about online games, so I was primed for our discussion.

Doyle cites a statistic from 2006 regarding how many people play video games, but I was interested in an updated number. According to a report by the Entertainment Software Association (2013), 58% of Americans play video games, and 32% of game players are 18-35 years old. Additionally, 62% of gamers play games with others, either in-person or online. In the same report, Constance Steinkuehler Squire, associate professor in digital media and co-director of the Games+Learning+Society Center at the University of Wisconsin said this:

You create these communities around the game that do an incredible amount of intellectual work, and when they’re done with the work, they will leave the game and go on to another game that’s more challenging. Can you imagine if we had that kind of environment in classrooms?

Indeed! My students shared a few games that they had found, including one to teach students about their carbon footprint, one on forest resource management, and Minecraft, a common game that can be used in many disciplines. The so-called “serious games” encourage students to collaborate, solve problems, and think. They may be developed for the PC, but more and more games are being developed for mobile devices. This may make games more usable in classrooms. I look forward to following this movement!

A few examples…

Forestia – http://www.gameforscience.com/forestia/bin/forestia.php
CyberCIEGE – http://cisr.nps.edu/cyberciege
oldit – http://fold.it/portal/info/science

Entertainment Software Association. (2013). The 2013 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry. Retrieved March 28, 2014 from http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/esa_ef_2013.pdf.

Mindsets, authentic learning, ceding control to students

We met earlier this week to discuss chapters 3-6. The topics of each chapter were:
Chapter 3: The power of authentic learning
Chapter 4: From lecturer to facilitator
Chapter 5: Who are our learners and how do we get to know them better?
Chapter 6: Sharing control and giving choices

One of the big topics of conversation from this meeting was Carol Dweck’s work on the learning mindsets of our students. Carrie mentioned this in an earlier post (it was discussed briefly in an earlier chapter) but we got much further into it this time. It’s so easy to imagine how a fixed or growth mindset can really affect a student’s willingness to take risks.

In a nutshell, students with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is a constant, inborn trait that some have and some don’t. They believe that learning comes easy to those who are “smart”; effort equals low intelligence. Thus, the “smart” ones avoid challenging situations that could make them appear less smart. The ones who don’t identify themselves as smart will excuse themselves with, “I’m just not a math person.” These folks avoid failure at all costs.

On the other hand, those with growth mindsets value hard work, challenges, and see failure as a learning opportunity. They feel that learning is a process, are willing to take risks, and feel that their abilities can improve.

(Dweck mentions that mindsets are contextual; we may have a fixed mindset when it comes to math, but a growth mindset when it comes to playing guitar).

I read Dweck’s work years ago and really took it to heart. I try hard to praise the effort of my children rather than their “smarts.” They are constantly hearing me say things like, “Wow. That was really challenging but you stuck with it and figured it out. That must feel really good!” I try to make them see themselves as problem-solvers who enjoy a challenge. Of course, these words tend to come out of my mouth most when I see them frustrated and about to give up. (Enter Vygotsky and some scaffolding).

The night after we met to discuss the chapters was Science Night at my girls’ elementary school. Scores of children come back to school voluntarily to play with science! It’s a wonderful event, but THREE times I heard a teacher tell my first grader, “Good job! You’re really smart!” (Followed by Mama saying, “Wow, that was good problem-solving.”)

To boil down Dweck’s work, it is important to know that this type of mindset can be changed by teaching students that our brains can grow (Grow your brain). And drilling this into their heads I suppose. Dweck’s research is worth a look.

Some resources:
Stanford Magazine article about Dweck
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Dweck, 2007)

We talked about a lot more. We tossed around some different ideas about how to give more control to students (making use of the list that Doyle gave us on p. 79, Figure 6.1). Collectively, we have tried different things: letting students chose percentage of grade weights for different assignments (particularly individual vs group test scores with team-based learning classrooms); letting students help set classroom behavior expectations; giving students a say on the actual content of the course; and co-constructing rubrics with the students.

We also had a thought-provoking discussion about authentic learning, and how this relates to relevancy, but also if it might promote a vo-tech way of thinking about institutions of higher learning. A tension between learning for the sake of learning (why do we always have to make it explicitly relevant to them? Why can’t we just enjoy learning for the sake of knowledge?), versus the motivation that should come from relevant, authentic tasks.

Next time, Chapters 7-9!

November 4: Intro, Chapters 1 and 2.

We met for the second time to start discussing our first book, Learner-Centered Teaching by Terry Doyle, and it was a lively discussion. We covered many different topics in our brief time together!

Doyle uses the first few chapters to explain why he is writing about learner-centered teaching, and his message is that he is simply following the research. We talked about how refreshing it is to hear this – not just sticking to an old plan, but actually changing what one does based on what the research really says. Of course, this also raised a good question: research changes frequently, so how do you know when to follow the research, and when to wait and see if something is just a current trend? We didn’t come up with an answer, but several people did share success stories from their own classes when they tried some of the techniques that Doyle advocates (including students contributing to a wiki, having students move around while working in groups, and think-pair-share).

Another interesting point from chapters 1 and 2 is how the research shows that taking a break after learning something new can really help us process what we’re learning. In chapter 1, Doyle specifically talks about zoning out and how it “may be the most fruitful type of mind wandering” (p.13). When Doyle came and spoke at UGA, I remember him also talking about how students really shouldn’t schedule their classes back to back – it’s better for learning if you take a break after class to let your brain process the information. It seems like this is quite the opposite of what many undergraduates do – I remember wanting to schedule all of my classes together so I could get them finished!

We also had a long discussion about mindfulness in the classroom. Doyle mentions that there are three things that are known to improve cognition: exercise, meditation, and video games. Several people shared examples of instructors incorporating mindfulness in their courses,  and some (negative) student reactions to it. Kyle shared a book that he’s been interested in reading called Search Inside Yourself – it’s about the corporate world, but focuses on similar ideas of being mindful in life and work. We seemed to agree that mindfulness might be a difficult concept to introduce into a class but it could well be worth it.

One final idea that really stuck with me from our discussion was the idea of a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset. This blog post does a good job of explaining the difference, and we talked about how (or if), as teachers, we can encourage our students to have growth mindsets.

The first few chapters of the book definitely sparked some great conversation! I especially enjoyed hearing examples of how the principles of learner-centered teaching are already being practiced here on campus. We’re meeting again in December and we’ll be discussing Chapters 3-6.


We’ve selected a book!

Welcome to the Books About Teaching blog! We’re looking forward to a great semester of conversation about books and teaching.

We had our first meeting today, and after much discussion, we selected our first book: Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning Into Practice, by Terry Doyle.  If you’d like to read along with us, we’re going to read the introduction and first two chapters in the next three weeks.