Highlights from #NAIRTL11 (Part 3)

Here’s the long-delayed part three of my report from the the NAIRTL 5th Annual Conference & Galway Symposium on Higher Education, hosted at the National University of Ireland at Galway, June 9-10, 2011. (See also parts one and two of my report.) As you’ll see below, the backchannel heated up during the last part of the conference.

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Guy Claxton of the University of Winchester delivered a very different keynote from the one Mike Neary delivered the day before. (In fact, all the keynotes were incredibly diverse, which made for a great conference.) More on those differences in a minute. Claxton shared some useful frameworks for thinking about student engagement. For instance:

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Back in the late 70s, Harvard University received much attention for its then-new Core Curriculum, a general education requirement that emphasized “modes of inquiry” rather than content knowledge. When Harvard makes a change to its undergraduate education, many other universities and colleges in the States pay attention, so this shift to what Claxton calls “developing habits of mind” is one that’s been part of the American higher education landscape for a few decades now.

Personally, I like the paradigm. When planning courses, I think it’s useful to ask oneself, “How can I teach my students to think like a [mathematician / historian / engineer / sociologist / whatever]?” Developing those “habits of mind” allow students to better understand the world and bring different ways of thinking to the problems they encounter. Specific, disciplinary content is perhaps less useful to students, since (a) they forget much of it once the course is over and (b) that content changes over time as knowledge is produced.

Here’s another framework Claxton shared:

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The “legitimate peripheral participation” (LPP) model comes from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s 1991 book, Situated Learning. The idea is that expertise is gained over time by novices as they participate in the work of the community of practice. Initially, the novice’s participation is minimal (think washing bottles in a chemistry lab) since the novice’s skills are limited, but the participation is still “legitimate,” in that it is work that contributes to the community of practice and that will inform later, more complex work by the novice. Over time, the novice’s work moves from the periphery of the community of practice to the core, becoming more substantial and drawing on greater and greater skills and knowledge.

When I heard about this model several years ago, what struck me is that much of the work that we have our students do is often not legitimate as Lave and Wenger use that term. Consider the typical freshman chemistry course in which students memorize information and work chemistry equations. Although those tasks are required of those in the community of chemists, the work the students do engaging in these tasks doesn’t actually contribute anything to the community. As a result, the students don’t see themselves as part of that community.

By way of contrast, consider the students blogging at “Bears in the SEA,” the biology course blog I mentioned yesterday. They’re actually contributing to a bacteriophage genomics project, and not by doing the equivalent of washing bottles. That’s legitimate peripheral participation, and it’s likely to move these students along the novice-to-expert continuum much faster than a traditional memorization-based biology course.

Two useful models references by Claxton, but something about the way Claxton described these models rubbed me a little wrong. First, a tweet I wrote about his use of the LPP model:

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The day before, Mike Neary argued that students shouldn’t be the passive recipients of education (something done to them) but instead agents of their own education (something they do themselves, as producers of knowledge). After hearing that argument, Claxton’s description of student participation in a community of practice becoming “more legitimate” sounded… wrong. I’m fine with saying a student’s participation becomes “less peripheral” over time, but saying that participation becomes “more legitimate” seems to imply that it wasn’t really legitimate to begin with. That’s an attitude that I don’t think students would find empowering.

As Claxton continued his talk, his comments about “scholarly habits of mind” started to worry me a bit, too, in light of Mike Neary’s talk:

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Might we sometimes invite students into our communities of practice in ways that encourage students to put aside their own ideas, perspectives, and agency in order to blend in with their new communities? Iain MacLaren of NUI Galway had a similar concern:

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Might our attempts at developing scholarly habits of mind in our students result in some students “faking” those habits just to conform to expectations? Paul Bartholomew asked the associated assessment question:

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Great, worrisome questions! And ones that Guy Claxton wasn’t raising in his talk, as far as I could tell. In fact, Claxton used the metaphor of a mother bird training a baby bird to fly to talk about developing scholarly habits of mind in our students. That metaphor didn’t really work for me, however, in light of these tweets about student agency:

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Catherine Cronin of NUI Galway also seemed a little worried about the language Claxton used:

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What came of all this backchannel discussion? I’m afraid to say that I don’t recall anyone asking Claxton the paternalism question during the Q&A. I know that I didn’t, opting instead to ask a question about evaluating aspects of learning that aren’t visible in students’ final papers and projects. That was a question I felt comfortable asking. I don’t think I understood the ideas emerging in the backchannel well enough at the time to craft a question for Claxton about them. Now that I sit here writing this blog post, reflecting on the backchannel discussion, I think I could pose such a question, but in the moment, I just wasn’t ready.

One thing I know is that the backchannel conversation during Claxton’s talk made the keynote a much more valuable experience for me. Often, those who tweet at conferences simply share highlights from the talks they attend. In this case, backchannel participants raised insightful and important questions about the ideas expressed in the keynote. When people ask me why I tweet at conferences, I point to discussions such as these as evidence that the backchannel can provide a platform for meaningful engagement.

Image: “Twisty Twisty” by me, Flickr (CC)

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