Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Blogging: Teaching Naked

This semester, I'm part of a reading group at UT Austin focusing on pedagogy, starting with José Antonio Bowen's Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. My plan is to use this blog for short synopses of the text with critical reflections of my own.

I'll get things started with the book description and some general comments on pedagogy.

Flipping the Classroom
The book marketing copy reads,
You've heard about "flipping your classroom"—now find out how to do it! Introducing a new way to think about higher education, learning, and technology that prioritizes the benefits of the human dimension. José Bowen recognizes that technology is profoundly changing education and that if students are going to continue to pay enormous sums for campus classes, colleges will need to provide more than what can be found online and maximize "naked" face-to-face contact with faculty. Here, he illustrates how technology is most powerfully used outside the classroom, and, when used effectively, how it can ensure that students arrive to class more prepared for meaningful interaction with faculty. Bowen offers practical advice for faculty and administrators on how to engage students with new technology while restructuring classes into more active learning environments.
Anyone minimally familiar with the ever-changing jargon of higher education will recognize the catchphrase "flipping your classroom." It's a hot topic, making it to coverage by mainstream education writers like Rebecca Schuman in Slate.com. The basic idea is the displacement of the "traditional" lecture with hands-on projects or doing what is usually "homework." (Of course, what counts as "traditional" depends on where, and how far back in time, one explores the history of education.)

Resistance to the concept centers on its having a heavy workload for instructors, who are expected to create video lectures, podcasts, and other digitally available material, as well as the decentralization of the classroom, which is frequently characterized as part of the increasingly "consumer"-focused model of higher education. Too, the practice in its current form is still young, and empirical studies are not sufficient to tell us what the results (if anything) are of flipping a classroom.

Teaching Naked: Chapter Four

In the context of this discussion, the title of the chapter our reading group began with (Chapter Four) might be off-putting to teachers: "Designing College More Like a Video Game." This image sets off warning bells for conservative professors who think that the short attention span created in students by video games is the problem, not a solution. Why should we emulate that in education? The point of Bowen's simile is that video games are carefully designed to increase in difficulty in a way that keeps people at them. Further, they involve motivations that hit our physiology in just the right manner that we don't want to put down our phone/iPad/XBox. (A Star Trek: The Next Generation episode captured this phenomenon in the the 90s in "The Game.")


Bowen's point is that we now know that emotions are involved in the brain's ability to learn, and that "somatic markers" (the sense of joy we get when we learn, or frustration when something is hard) are involved in developing neural networks. In addition to practice, having a positive emotional response helps secure connections.

An additional element Bowen emphasizes is "high standards, low stakes." Just like well-designed video games allow us to have additional lives, give chances to practice new skills before moving on to additional levels, a well-designed course will give students the ability to fail without significant repercussions, so they can practice. If students have only a midterm and a final exam, with no practice throughout the semester in that kind of test-taking, the stakes are high--and high stakes increase anxiety. Bowen isn't saying that we should remove anxiety from the classroom, but just that we should consider how we are motivating students.

Video games are, Bowen notes, intrinsically motivating. Those of us who have chosen graduate school and the teaching profession are outliers in terms of how we relate to our chosen subject matter. I find philosophy intrinsically motivating, and as a student, I enjoyed reading for its own sake. I found the challenges pleasant (although I struggled with significant test anxiety, so I have some insight into that aspect of the undergraduate experience). I think we can teach our students to find such intrinsic motivation in our chosen fields, but we shouldn't expect it to come naturally to everyone. He concludes the chapter (which also discusses Fink's integrated course design at some length) by saying,
The best course designs motivate change (like a video game) with a combination of high standards and an environment that supports risk and failure. Traditional courses support only the accumulation of knowledge, but 21st-century courses need to provide a scaffold for the experiences (including both technology and in-class interaction) that enable change (102).
He hasn't yet given an argument for why the flipped classroom per se is the answer, nor why technology is so crucial. That will come in the next chapters.

Some Remarks
I'm largely on board with the scaffolded, high-standards/low-stakes model Bowen is endorsing. (Whether it requires a flipped classroom is a different question.) I personally learned in a very traditional lecture setting, where it was my job to make connections over the course of a semester, and then to demonstrate that I had through a final exam. The fact is, that most students do not flourish in that situation (whatever judgment one might make about the source of this phenomenon). So if I want my students to learn, I need to find a way for them to stick with it when things get tough. I also want them to learn in a way that doesn't stop at mastering facts or even the particular philosophical subject matter I'm teaching. I want them to learn how to think.

Right now, I'm a teaching assistant for a course on Ancient Greek Philosophy that is taught in a very traditional way. The professor assigns a large chunk of reading to the students, they come in each day and he lectures, while asking them to answer his questions. They're graded by way of three tests, all essay-based. However, there is no chance during the class for them to practice essay-writing. And the amount of reading could quickly become overwhelming and discouraging, with each evaluation being high-stakes. With Bowen's book in mind, I've decided to try to give them some low-stakes, high-standard assignments.

In a recent discussion section meeting, I had them, individually, write answers to two questions: "What is justice, according to the Sophists and Socrates? Which view is right and why?" They were able to use their books, and I gave them two passages to start with, but encouraged them to look elsewhere. I gave them 7 minutes to write and then they exchanged papers. They read each other's work and were to (1) talk about whether they agreed/disagreed with the other, and why, and (2) find one good thing the other did that they want to emulate for essay-writing on tests.

Then we had a class discussion about the topic, interpretation of the texts, and their own views about justice. We managed to cover Antiphon, Critias, and talk about connections between the Euthyphro, the Apology, and Crito, as well as whether civil disobedience is justified, and why. Along the way, we pointed out ways in which they could effectively what we discussed on a test (specific examples, not just listing what you know, but drawing connections, etc.). The groupwork took about 15 minutes, and the discussion was 30 minutes. However, if we hadn't done the groupwork at the beginning, the discussion would have been less directed. Further, I collected their short paragraphs to give them a bit more feedback (this was voluntary).

This gave them a low-stakes situation to practice a skill they need: essay-writing under pressure. They had the books, were being "evaluated" by a peer, but also had a time-constraint and hadn't seen the question before. Hopefully it also gave them a chance to reflect on where they are capable, so that they get some encouragement to continue working on a difficult topic. I'll give them more specific comments on their essays and then we'll do this again a few times before their tests.

The next blog post on the book will take up Chapters Five and Six, "Technology for Information Delivery" and "Technology for Engagement."