Getting from Here to There, Part Two: The Right Scaffolding

In Michael Wesch’s latest blog post, “Why Good Classes Fail,” he argues that in the absence of empathy for one’s students, even the best teaching techniques often fail to interest and engage students in learning. He offers this argument because, as he writes, “I have become painfully aware that my own presentations are often taken as demonstrations of method and technique.” This statement is at least a partial confirmation of the argument I made in my blog post earlier this week, “Getting from Here to There.” In that post, I claimed that wildly innovative teachers like Wesch can make poor models for other college and university instructors to follow because the principles of learning that make them so effective as teachers can be lost in the presentation of the amazing techniques they use. Most instructors are likely to have a difficult time getting from “here” (their current teaching practices) to “there” (employing teaching practices like those of innovators like Wesch) without understanding those principles.

And so, I’m glad to see Wesch trying to explain the conceptual foundations of his teaching practices. And I agree that empathy for one’s students, as Wesch describes it in terms of attempting to understand and relate to one’s students, is an important ingredient in effective teaching. And I see value in the “generative” method of teaching that Wesch proposes, “one in which we ‘generate’ the appropriate method that takes into consideration the broadest range of factors that we can manage to accommodate.” What still bothers me about Wesch’s “unpacking” of his teaching methods is the lack of acknowledgment of the research on teaching and learning. This research, particularly the cognitive science research summarized in How People Learn, is incredibly informative for those interested in “generating” teaching methods that are responsive to their particular teaching contexts.

I’m guilty, too, of failing to acknowledge this research. When I mentioned the use of classroom response systems (“clickers”) in my earlier post on this topic, I argued that the technical and conceptual thresholds needed to use clickers are much lower than with many other teaching methods. I didn’t say, however, that teaching with clickers leverages much of what we know from cognitive science about effective learning environments. Consider how teaching with clickers fits in the How People Learn framework:

Effective learning environments are learner-centered. Our students come to us with existing mental models of how the world works. Often these mental models are insufficient for the kinds of analysis and critical thinking that we want from our students, either because the models involve misconceptions or because they are not nuanced enough to help students deal with complexity. When our students encounter new information, they try to make sense of it in light of their existing mental models, which doesn’t always work and is rarely easy. Effective teaching, according to the cognitive scientists, involves understanding our students’ existing mental models (a component of what Wesch calls empathy) and helping them improve or refine those models. This is often accomplished by demonstrating to students ways in which their mental models are insufficient, then helping them construct new, better mental models.

Well-written multiple-choice questions can reveal to an instructor aspects of students’ existing mental models, particularly misconceptions embedded in those models. When students find out that they’ve answered such a question incorrectly, they learn that their existing understanding of the topic is incomplete, putting them in a better  position to improve or refine that understanding, often by discussing the question with peers or the instructor. And using clickers to ask these kinds of model-building multiple-choice questions enables an instructor to engage all students in a classroom in these valuable learning activities. When done for these purposes, teaching with clickers is a learner-centered activity.*

Effective learning environments are knowledge-centered. Cognitive scientists have identified significant and specific differences between experts and novices in a domain. Experts possesses knowledge that is well-organized, rapidly accessible, and useful for solving novel problems. Novices, on the other hand, lack this kind of organization, access to knowledge, and adaptive expertise. Effective teaching involves acknowledging these differences and working to help students (novices) develop the kind of “big picture” understanding of a discipline that makes organizing their knowledge possible and efficient. Often this requires a great deal of scaffolding, helping students expand their understanding in a domain by building in small, achievable ways on what they already know–and doing so again and again until students have developed expert knowledge. “Knowledge-centeredness” is tightly coupled with “learner-centeredness.” The latter focuses on what students bring to the learning experience; the latter on where students are in their understanding within a domain compared to where they can go.

Asking students questions that require them to step slightly outside their existing expertise, into what Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development,” is an effective way to practice knowledge-centered teaching. Teaching with clickers means teaching with questions, and so this kind of practice can be supported with clickers–and scaled to an entire class of students, thanks to the technology. I suspect that Michael Wesch routinely creates effective scaffolding experiences for his students, but this principle of learning isn’t evident in his essay on empathy.

Effective learning environments are assessment-centered. Here, the How People Learn focus isn’t on summative assessment (the evaluation that students receive on their work at the end of a learning experience) but on formative assessment, the along-the-way feedback on student learning that is incredibly valuable to students and instructors. As students develop and refine their mental models of understanding in a domain, they need feedback, and meaningful formative assessment provides that feedback. Likewise, as instructors work with groups of students, formative assessment provides instructors with aggregate information that can help instructors make teaching decisions that are more responsive to student learning needs.

Clicker questions provide this kind of feedback, both to students and to instructors, and they can provide it in frequent and granular ways. When the results of a clicker question appear on screen, students  find out if they understand a concept or not–and how well they understand that concept in relation to their peers. And instructors find out which on which concepts and skills students need more work. In what I know of Michael Wesch’s teaching practices, there are strong formative assessment components, but his essay on empathy, at least, doesn’t highlight these essential ingredients in his teaching.

Effective learning environments are community-centered. I’ll admit that this is the part of the How People Learn framework that I understand the least. But my recent reading and reflecting on social motivations has helped me wrap my head around “community-centeredness” a little. We humans like to feel that we belong to communities, and we like to share with the communities to which we belong. These are social motivations that can be leveraged in the classroom, independent of personal motivations students might have, such as intrinsic interest in the subject or extrinsic motivators like grades. Effective teaching involve acknowledging that learning takes place in a social context, and using aspects of that social context productively to help students learn.

Teaching with clickers taps into this idea in a couple of ways. One, if you practice “classic” peer instruction by having students discuss clicker questions in pairs prior to voting, you’re utilizing the fact that students often learn socially, that is, from each other. Two, by engaging all students in a class in a shared experience, one in which everyone gets a vote and everyone can see themselves on the screen in the resulting bar chart, you help to turn your class into a learning community. When students listen to a lecture, that’s a shared experience, too, but without the student-to-student sharing and interaction, you don’t get the same sense of community. I think Michael Wesch’s teaching is incredibly community-centered, and, moreover, this is an aspect of his teaching that he makes clear in his presentations. And the instructor-student relationship that Wesch describes in his essay on empathy is clearly a part of this community-centeredness.

My belief that teaching with clickers enables one to practice teaching that is learner-, knowledge-, assessment-, and community-centered is one of the primary reasons I share this teaching practice with other instructors. It helps that instructors who want to get started teaching with clickers can do so in ways that don’t require great changes to their existing teaching practices, that is, clickers often lie in instructors’ “zones of proximal development.” But I wouldn’t recommend the practice if it wasn’t well-supported by cognitive science.

My hope is that wildly innovative and effective teachers like Michael Wesch will explore the existing research on learning (the surface of which I’ve only skimmed here in this post) and identify the ways that their teaching practices implement these principles of learning. Particular teaching techniques aren’t always transferable to other teaching contexts, but these principles of learning are. The more that college and university instructors understand these principles and incorporate them in their teaching practices, the more effective higher education will be in its teaching mission.

Footnote: In a comment on that Chronicle piece, Michael Wesch writes of his physics colleague: “I’ll also note here that what makes Chris Sorensen so effective is the way that he seems to deeply understand who his students are, and where they are at in their understanding, so as he is lecturing he is able to trigger the right kinds of questions and thinking patterns that allow them to reach an understanding of physics.” My read on this is that Sorensen’s teaching is highly learner-centered, which is what makes it seemingly effective.

Image: “Construction,” hoveringdog, Flickr (CC)

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