Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Dan Pratt Lecture

I started writing these down as thoughts for my P&T binder (one of the big messages I got this last review was a better documentation of my teaching practices). Then I thought (as all semi-neurotic partly narcissistic assistant professors are prone to do--I know I know, the labels are a bit redundant) that maybe others would like to read this as well:

Dan started off by acknowledging a certain tacit fear of examining problems in our own teaching. I thought this was dead on. He did lose me a bit when he discussed our inverse excitement about discussing problems in our areas of research. In research, problems have to do with a line of inquiry—we get excited about them because they are an opportunity for work, grants, articles, etc . . . In that respect he's right, but I don't think he was talking about a parallel thing. Problems in a line of inquiry are different than problems with a line of inquiry. I would classify the later as more of an analogous problem to problems with our teaching. If you've ever challenged a person's line of inquiry as a whole, then you'll see the similar white knuckled response as you tend to get when you ask them fundamental questions about their teaching. Ask a biologist doing basic research about the practical application of finding a genetic connection to fin length and you'll get a sense for what I'm on about. And don't mistake that for a rant against basic research. I'm a fan of basic research, applied research, research to practice, and practice to research.

He went on to illuminate a couple of models for teaching with component parts of teacher, student, content, and context. One was an apprenticeship model--and he specifically cited what is now one of my favorite books (Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Lave & Wenger)--note this came after years of labeling it as "foo foo situated" and much later than members of a doctoral cohort that was much smarter than me (including people like Erin Brewer) came to that realization--although I still reserve the right to call it "foo foo situated." I like to think that I align with what Dan would call an apprenticeship model of teaching but I noticed several large departures--some of which I'll do my best to address and some of which may be much more difficult to address.

One thought is that in an apprenticeship model (and this is certainly backed up by Lave & Wenger) learning happens in the context and in the physical place of work. While there are models for this in graduate education they are not all that common. A case that comes to mind because of recency is the Master's degree at George Mason University. Brenda Bannan-Ritland was recently explaining to us an immersion program for their program that involved teams taking on actual projects from actual organizations that covered their actual tuition. I would love to do that with something like my Flash course but have thus far chickened out--in large part because every time I hear someone talk about something similar, they describe how much work it is--and how it was a programmatic effort, etc . . .

Note this is a bit easier to do in the context of doctoral students but you have to mix and match. We were asked by our NSF program officer to due a literature review of online communities for teacher professional development (just a small request). I encouraged Yan Ma, the RA assigned the task to add in a small component on Problem-Based Learning (which plays a small roll in the grant) which would then enable her to use the work she's getting paid for as a final paper in the PBL class I'm currently teaching. Actual learning tied to actual work--not instantly an apprenticeship model by any means but congruence at a high level.

Another thought I had was the level of congruence between assessment in my classes and assessment in real life. I've posted before about maybe grading students on an accept, accept with major revisions, reject scale (see far far below) as a nod towards this idea but I'm not convinced that I currently do this in my Flash course.

In the real world, assessment seems to be about the surface features of a project rather than the underlying mechanics. You can get rewarded a bit even for putting something together quickly that may not be easily changed, adapted, or extended--but the exact opposite is true for my class. I reward for minimizing instances, for writing code that doesn't include magic numbers, etc . . . I'll want to take a look through some of my rubrics and seriously think about what it is that I value and more importantly how that matches up with what practitioners value.

Other ideas that stood out to me were asking students to write a reflection of what they've learned over the course of the semester. Or promoting a culture of practice. Right now, students come in on Thursdays to talk to me about problem they're having with their assignments. Everything happens in isolation. What if they presented problems they were having with their assignments or their projects to the class as a whole? In thinking more about Lave & Wenger, their examples were all about groups working collaboratively. They may have been focused on different stages of production, but they were all producing, all engaging in norming behaviors, etc . . . Right now the only one most of my students are engaged with is me.