Posts Tagged ‘ classroom ’

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

This month the Creative Research Center at Montclair State University filmed a one-hour virtual webcast, The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?” as part of its Second Annual CRC Symposium.

The video, available here, presents a panel discussion on creativity and imagination, discussed among scientist educators working at MSU, to foster innovation, creative learning, and adaptive expertise in research and in the classroom. The discussion is moderated by Dr. Neil Baldwin, professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance in the College of the Arts and director of the CRC. He interviews Dr. Jennifer Adams Krumins, assistant professor, Department of Biology and Molecular Biology; Dr. Cigdem Talgar, director of Research and Programs and acting director of the Research Academy for University Learning (RAUL); Dr. William Thomas, director, New Jersey School of Conservation; Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, assistant professor of Physics in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; and Dr. Meiyin Wu, associate professor, Biology and Molecular Biology and director of the Passaic River Institute.

For educators, an essential struggle in any discipline lies in exciting our students’ imagination, getting them to think creatively about a problem or concept, and asking them to adapt to new knowledge and variable information in order to think more critically and deeply. This video highlights ways in which this is being done in the classroom, what role models and sources of inspiration have served our educators, how important engaging students in world views and creative thinking is to change, innovation, and adaptability, and much more. The conversation takes us into the specific profiles of each scientist educator, leads us into their world of development and experimentation, and models how they integrate their passion into their research and teaching.

I highly recommend that you watch this video, and share with your colleagues and students. There are numerous ways to approach creative thinking and imaginative learning; here are several of them packaged into an active and informative discussion.

The Scientific Imagination – Where Do Ideas Come From?

 

Advertisements

Our Best Teaching Moments – Writing our Teaching Philosophy

Courtesy of DiscoverySchool.com. Copyright © 1998 Mark A. Hicks. Originally published by Mark A. Hicks. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Our Best Teaching Moments

by Julie Dalley

Our last Teaching Circles meeting of the semester was April 24, a Tuesday. There were only four of us present physically, one virtually, through email. The discussion began with our “best” teaching moment, when we knew we had kicked ass and taken names when delivering our lesson – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and I choose to close out our meetings this semester with some positive stories and experiences because, of course we want to end on a good note, and because, good – and bad – experiences are what form us as educators and turn us into teachers.

Surprisingly, it was much harder to think of a “best” moment – that is, a moment that stood out. I can remember feeling great about a class, remember wonderful conversations, but it was harder to fill in the details than when I thought of my worst moments as a teacher. Classes gone amok were much clearer, which makes me part of a 2.6% who find positive memories harder to recall, or I could be mildly depressed? Perhaps I was more emotional, and stressed, by the bad classes, which is most likely. Either way, remembering these classes became important to my development as a teacher, and is a crucial way to build our teaching philosophy. My goal was to share these stories, tap into our memories – good and bad – and use this material as fodder for crafting our teaching philosophies.

As my post, Our Worst Teaching Moments, detailed, we have all failed spectacularly in front of a classroom of judgmental and amused students. Mostly though, after the judging and laughter wore off, students felt sympathetic to our struggles, and this show of humanity – we all fail sometimes – helped to ultimately create stronger bonds with our students. We became better because we fell on our faces.

When it comes to our best moments, often they are connected to true engagement with you, the instructor. Yes, you! Not just the material, the content, but how you deliver it, how you invite them to challenge, explore, experiment, or even be shocked by, the lesson is what made that day, that class, special. Our first story came from a professor in Classics & General Humanities. He talked about how he asked students to compare the United States Constitution with the ancient Greek Athenian constitution. Their surprise on how similar the two documents were resulted in a lively debate about the roots of our country’s ideas about democracy borrowed from the ideals perpetuated in ancient societies.

Our next speaker talked about her experience teaching Music Theory. This topic – rich in dense vocabulary and foundational knowledge – became personally viable to her students when she invited them to bring in their own music which they then connected to the theory or practices they were learning at the time. This made the class more engaged and personally connected to what was otherwise dry instruction.

Our computer science faculty member shared that his best classes came when students could engage in hands-on application of knowledge. Once past the point of introduction or theory, applying what they knew and trying out concepts, building programs, really became the nexus of pedagogy and student engagement.

My best moment teaching came during a discussion about the roots of racial inequality in the United States. I was teaching an American History junior high school class, and we were role playing the Civil War. When the conversation turned from then to now, a student made the statement that race “wasn’t a big deal anymore” because “I have lots of black friends who I don’t view in any different way.” She was shocked when several of my black students spoke up and quickly rebutted her statement with “just because we hang out with you, doesn’t mean we’re friends or equal.” I let the conversation roll, despite my internal fear that it may get out of hand and it was a topic I wasn’t sure I was capable of moderating with poise, but it turned out to be one of the best learning moments I’d ever had in my classroom – for me and my students. We really talked, without anger or recriminations, and we discussed perspective – personal, biographical, historical perspective. Everyone was respectful while connecting the issue at hand – racial inequality in the United States and its historical roots – with their own personal experience.

The four stories above share a common element: engagement with the personal. We surprised our students with knowledge they didn’t expect (finding similarities between the old and the new, always a shocker to the young, who invented everything!), we went off plan in our lessons, and we invited them to engage personally and emotionally (sharing their personal taste in music).

This post is related to my post of Worst Teaching Moments because these are rich stories that make for a wonderfully personal orientation when developing our teaching philosophy. For faculty hoping for tenure or re-appointment, or for new graduates looking for a full-time appointment, teaching philosophies are critically important in articulating our experience, our goals, and our understanding of what it means to teach and learn in our disciplines. By reflecting on our experience with both success and failure in the classroom we are conveying that we paid attention to what worked, what didn’t, and what we learned from it. It needn’t only be limited to our teaching experience either; new graduates may have limited teaching experience, but as this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, we’ve all been students. We know what we liked as students, what we didn’t, and why we chose to become educators.

These two meetings were meant to be exercises to help us frame our teaching philosophies. In the Fall, we will hold a formal workshop with hands-on writing exercises to polish and get feedback on writing our teaching philosophies. I hope these ideas of reflecting on what worked and what didn’t were helpful in at least getting you thinking about your teaching experiences, and to perhaps write a few sentences on what you considered a success, and what you thought failed, and what you learned from each. Every stand-out teaching philosophy has, at minimum, those three elements. For more resources on writing your teaching philosophy, please check out the following resources. Have a wonderful summer!

“How to Write a Statement of Teaching Philosophy” by Gabriela Montell, retrieved from the Chronicle of Higher Education, May 11, 2012: http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Write-a-Statement-of/45133/

“Writing the Teaching Statement” by Rachel Narehood Austin, retrieved from Science Careers, from the Journal of Science, May 11, 2012: http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2006_04_14/noDOI.14633728089694563528

University of Minnesota, Background and Contexts for Teaching Philosophies: http://www1.umn.edu/ohr/teachlearn/tutorials/philosophy/background/index.html

The Ohio State University, University Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Writing a Philosophy of Teaching Statement: http://ucat.osu.edu/teaching_portfolio/philosophy/philosophy2.html

 

Silence at a Teaching Tool: Meditation in the Classroom

Silence as a Teaching Tool: Meditation in the Classroom

Silence as a teaching tool

Teachers fill their classes with sound. A lecture or assignment that excites a lively class discussion is deemed successful. It is also productive to fill them occasionally with silence. There is no exercise that my students enjoy more than silent meditation. They say they are under a lot of pressure, and a few minutes of quiet with the lights low is refreshing, calming, and settles their minds.

My pedagogic specialty is the application of the principles of linguistics to the writing classroom, and one area of linguistics concerns how ideas are created before they are voiced or written down. Ideas come as plentifully from silence as they do from discussion.

The three meditation-based exercises below give students a creative tool which most of them have never used before.

I.    Meditation Before Writing.

Meditation is a sophisticated practice which requires a long time to master. The better title for this exercise may be “quiet concentration” or “pure thinking.”

Exercise: Provide an in-class assignment; it could be a simple description (“What would the ideal classroom look like?”), or a more philosophical question (“What is the right way to discipline young children?”). It could also be a memory question (“What is your earliest memory?”). The question can be tailored to current class work.

Turn the lights off, ask them to silence their electronic devices, tell them to get comfortable, and announce that the meditation will last five minutes.

When the five minutes are up, give them time to write a paragraph on the assigned subject. You could then ask them to read the paragraphs aloud, but that is not required. Ask them to share their reactions to the meditation process.

The payoff would be that the process results in a better final paper, but there is no good method to test that.

It’s a simple exercise, but provides a memorable and often empowering experience for the students.

II.  Guided Meditation.

One of the pitfalls of learning is the frequent assumption by students that their view of the world is universally held.  In my classes recent statements have ranged from “Everyone serves lasagna on Christmas,” to “Everyone loves their parents,” to “There were no abortions before Roe v. Wade.”

Exercise: Ask students to close their eyes.  Ask them to breathe comfortably in and out, and then instruct them to relax their feet, ankles, knees, hips, stomach, throat, eyes, etc.  Then guide them in a meditation.  This has as many permutations as there are people, but I often use this one:

Imagine you are walking along and you come upon a gate in a fence.

You walk through the gate, and across a wide field. 

You come to a body of water, where you stay for a while. 

Now turn around and come back to where you started.

You can also use this one:

Imagine you stop your car by the side of the road and walk to a lake 100 yards away

What is on the surface of the lake?

Descend lower into the water. What do you see there?

Descend to the bottom of the lake. What do you see there?

Now rise back to the top and walk to your car.

This part of the exercise should take 5-10 minutes. It takes time for images and impressions to develop, so leave plenty of time between each phase of the imagined experience.

After it is over, ask the students to tell the rest of the class what their fence/field/body of water looked like, what they did while they were walking.

Some students are alone, some with others. For some the field is full of flowers, which they pick, others play soccer with their team. Some go swimming in the water; others dip their toe in, and some just look at it. On their return, some lock the gate behind them; others walk through and leave it open. Some have friends awaiting them on the other side of the gate; others are alone. The imagined experiences are utterly different from one another, and students are amused, amazed, and delighted at the variety.

(As an aside, Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to demonstrate similar diversity on a more practical level. In the first class after the break, I ask each student write down what they ate on Thanksgiving. I have done this three years in a row and there is no single food that “everyone” has served, not even turkey and pumpkin pie. One such real-life example of natural diversity is worth any number of lectures on the subject.)

This is a counter-linguistic exercise in that it involves no language at all until the class reviews what they have imagined – the experience takes place on another level. It is a good opportunity to question where ideas come from, how creativity works, and what our “minds” are.

The dazzling array of different experiences speaks for itself in demonstrating that no two minds think alike. The point can be underlined by noting that their imaginings proceeded from different experiences and expectations, and that this diversity should be assumed in every area of the human experience.

III. Talking Stick:

This exercise is based on tribal ceremonies to resolve differences and hash through issues. It can be used in any discipline to dig deep into a specific area of inquiry. It is nonthreatening, egalitarian, and always interesting. I participate too when the Talking Stick comes into my hand.

Example: In my writing class this semester, the essays are based on the Ages of Man, beginning with “before birth, childbirth, and early childhood.”  We are reading poetry, essays, and fictional works which portray or discuss this period in life, and inspiration can be gleaned from these readings, but it is still a daunting challenge to narrow the focus to a specific claim. This semi-meditative exercise provides a rich lode of issues and experiences to enrich the thinking of all members of the class.

Exercise:  The teacher must find a “talking stick” of some sort, which is simply an interesting stick. You can tie a ribbon around an ordinary stick from your yard, or use, as I have, a colorful carved walking cane. Some stick-like object decorated by your imagination suffices.

The role of the teacher is to guide the discussion and regulate the timing.  The students should understand clearly the issue they are to address. Instruct them to give complete attention to the person holding the Talking Stick – no laughter, no commentary, no questions. Students self-regulate the length of their comments so each participant has time to speak, but the teacher should be ready to cut off a time-hog. The teacher will also judge how long the sharing should go on, giving each student a chance to speak the same number of times. In a class of 18 students, two times around with the Talking Stick took 40 minutes.

The class sits in a circle and the Talking Stick is placed in the middle.  The group sits in silence until someone is moved to pick up the stick and share a thought about the subject at hand. He or she speaks for as long as necessary to express his or her thought and then passes the stick to the left. The next person speaks, and passes it to the left, and so on. Students who can’t think of anything to say can pass it without speaking, but the teacher should come back to them later.

The Talking Stick is powerful. As each participant sees it coming closer and closer, a sense of excitement grows, and often the thoughts expressed when the Talking Stick arrives are freighted with deep commitment. It is a cathartic and informative experience for everyone involved.

This exercise works for both introverted and extroverted students. There is plenty of time to compose a thought, and a flexible amount of time to present it.

Ann Evans is an Adjunct Professor in the award-winning First Year Writing Program at Montclair State University.  She has an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Montclair State, and an M.A. in English from New York University.  She writes a monthly column, Language Bits, in The Sussex Newspaper and her blog, “Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” (http://www.linguisticsintheclassroom.com) is read around the world. An article, “Beyond Grammar: Linguistics in the Writing Classroom” was published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Duke University journal, Pedagogy.

Learning How to Learn: A Mandate for Change in Today’s College Classroom

 “It is not the subject per se that is educative or conducive to growth…There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract.”
– John Dewey, “Criteria of Experience,” in Experience & Education, 1938.

“Students’ long-term success does not depend upon short-term business cycles or the technical demands of the latest ‘hot’ industry.”
– Carol Geary Schneider, President, American Association of Colleges and Universities, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2011.

Author and Professor Neil Baldwin

Author Neil Baldwin

Author and Professor Neil Baldwin

I. What kind of essay this is; and to whom addressed. 

Learning How to Learn is a wake-up call directed at those who care about the perplexing challenges involved with educating today’s college youth in our interconnected world: Where is the common ground? How should we be talking to — and with — these mercurial young people? And how can we convince them that learning how to learn should be their ultimate goal?

This essay avoids the debilitating ideological “war” between utilitarian education for a job (vocational), and general education for well-rounded citizenship (liberal arts) fueling the crisis mentality that pervades media conversations, blogs, and articles about American higher education.  The time has come to focus the scatter-shot, overheated debate about what is “wrong” with college and “the system,” and to bear down instead upon the most intimate arena in which education actually occurs: the classroom.

Learning How to Learn encourages teachers to draw upon what they know, with confidence — their expertise — then take a crucial step beyond, making use of common sense pedagogy that recognizes the unique mind-set of their generational audience, aged 17-22.

This is not a utopian dream about what could happen if we had all the money in the world.  We must work with what we have been given. The American public higher education landscape is commonly portrayed as impoverished and out of balance financially and intellectually. Therefore, what can the everyday classroom teacher be expected, supported — and inspired — to do, without sacrificing standards and ideals?

Let me also say at the outset that Learning How to Learn is not predicated upon any authoritative, longitudinal studies. It is documented with a rich and varied bibliography of current literature on American higher education that I have been tracking down, reading, writing about, and commenting upon from the web-based vantage point of the virtual Creative Research Center at Montclair State University.

As a tenured full professor and classroom teacher with a “3-3” curricular load of undergraduate introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses as well as graduate seminars, I have given deep thought to what should be going on “on the ground;” why, and toward what desired ends.

II. The Current Crisis. 

My simmering contemplation of the current crisis was crystallized by two chance readings that, on the surface, seemed unrelated. The first began as a conversation about teaching I was enjoying with a friend in the Philosophy Department who glancingly referred to “the only essay on education that Hannah Arendt ever wrote – and it’s all about the American educational system” — did I know of it?  I raced home and pulled Arendt’s classic collection, Between Past and Future, from my shelves.

Arendt’s major concern in her essay “The Crisis in Education” (1954) was that our much-vaunted school system, at all levels, was “helpless before the individual child,” that we were in danger of forsaking the “obligation that the existence of children –  human beings in the process of becoming — entails for every human society…One cannot educate without at the same time teaching,” she wrote, but “an education without learning is empty.” The ultimate iteration of freedom as action — in Hannah Arendt’s hopeful words — would be only through education to inspire and encourage “care for a world that can survive us, and remain a place fit to live in, for those who come after us.”

Soon thereafter, I was rushing through Newark Airport when a headline on the cover of The Atlantic caught my eye – Scenes from the Class Struggle, by Joel Klein, recently retired chancellor of the New York City public school system.  I grabbed the magazine and read the piece on the plane. “President Obama was on to something in 2008,” Klein wrote, “when he said, ‘The single most important factor in determining student achievement is not the color of their skin or where they came from. It is not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is.’ ”  Klein warned that, “Time is running out. Without a citizenry willing to insist upon reform, our schools will continue to decline…Shocking as it may sound, the cost in human terms, to our nation, and to the kind of people we aspire to become, will be even greater.”

Fifty-seven years apart…and yet, both Arendt and Klein are saying the same thing: Our educational system, designed in another time for other purposes, is in a state of emergency; and something needs to be done right away, or we will suffer the loss of future human capital.

The urgency of the language in both cases emanates from fear on the most personal level that we as teachers and parents are in danger of literally losing our youth – abandoning them – by not serving them as well as we should; and that we, as a society, on the largest level, are neglecting our mission as adults, forsaking our obligations to the young, chastising ourselves for being unresponsive to what Arendt calls “The New Ones,” the newest generation — new at whatever stage they may be, from pre-school toddlers to college freshmen.

A powerful element at the core of the current cultural crisis is the intensified pressure upon higher education professors as “content-deliverers” who must justify and quantify the ultimate applications and uses of the information and knowledge acquired (or not) by their students.

But remember: Information is not knowledge.

My vigilant classroom anthropological “fieldwork” has led me to try to come up with new ways to elicit and legitimize the affect of college students, encouraging them to take enduring values and morals to heart that originate in content and subject-based arenas, and extend beyond them.

III. The American Idealist Tradition and Its Pedagogical Legacy. 

As an historian and biographer steeped in American culture (works on William Carlos Williams, Man Ray, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford) my current teaching behavior and beliefs grow out of decades of writing books that identify and elucidate redemptive qualities in our native imagination, most recently The American Revelation: Ten Ideals That Shaped Our Country from the Puritans to the Cold War. 

This American chronicle [see  http://www.neilbaldwinbooks.com], combined with immersion in teaching, inspired me to revisit — with rejuvenated appreciation — our mainstream pragmatist pioneer, John Dewey (1859-1952). No self-respecting examination of American higher education can be complete without (re)encountering Dewey – prolific public intellectual, exemplar of progressivism, hailed by The New York Times as “America’s philosopher.” As Chairman of the Philosophy Department at the University of Chicago, Dewey founded an experimental elementary school and launched his quest to “define democracy in all its phases – political, economic, social, and cultural.”

The pragmatic philosopher celebrated what makes us most human. Dewey encouraged every American student to explore his literal and figurative neighborhood, “just local, just human, just where we live.”  Indeed, the original name for pragmatism, as coined in 1898 by Dewey’s faithful correspondent and friend, William James, was “practicalism.”

Henry Steele Commager praised Dewey as “the guide, mentor, and conscience of the American people.” Here was a teacher who predicated his life’s work upon empiricism, the supreme value of experience in all domains of life, spanning from primary education to the imperative social contract that connects every one of us to each other.

My affinities as a classroom teacher resonate with Dewey’s lifelong intention to “reach beyond the academy and speak to a wide range of citizens…[in] the general march of events…outleadings into the wide world of nature and man… of knowledge and of social interests…”

I am impelled forward by John Dewey’s endorsement of ways of knowing that carry across the boundaries between disciplines; his melding of the ethical and the practical; his conceptualization of teacher-as-learner (particularly pertinent today); his faith in process before product; his view of the institution of the school as the proper spawning-ground for moral sensibility and the development of role models; his healthy opinion of the child’s affection for the teacher as a suitable foundation for learning; his belief in the organic relationship of disparate subjects to each other; his conviction that art is a form of praxis and that the quality of the thing made far outweighs quantity; his insistence that the “machinery of thought” must be kept moving for reflection to exercise its greatest influence; and that the teacher demonstrate correct learning through daily behavior – not only through what he says, but what he does.

John Dewey’s greatest follower, Jane Addams (1860-1935), declared, “The sphere of knowledge is the sphere of action.” In that same spirit, I endorse converting pedagogical thought into purposeful action.  Dewey’s vintage writings have much to tell us now about remedying systemic problems in higher education. America’s philosopher is due for a vigorous revival.  His prescient and seminal studies including Experience & Education and Art as Experience provide timely reading for today’s teachers, parents — and millennials.

Social MediaIV.  The Challenge of Social Media.

College professors are constantly reminded of our obligation to teach – to be “exposed to” — the many (as expressed through calculation of Student Semester Hours, or, colloquially, “butts in seats”).

I am constantly asking, “how I can get to know my students as individuals?”

The administrative/economic-productivity mandate to reach more college undergraduates is at odds with a constant succession of observed behaviors in our students – resentment of high school and the legacy of No Child Left Behind of teaching to the test; individual and quirky cognitive gaps and lapses; continuous partial attention; vicissitudes and inconsistencies over the course of a semester, during which time a teacher occasionally finds himself wondering why some of his students are even there in the first place.

We read nowadays about how teachers are trying to incorporate social media into the classroom instead of heading in the other direction, which is to outlaw it.  Every teacher needs to ask himself, when in front of the class, how he honestly feels about looking out over the students and seeing them on their laptops, wondering if they are texting, tweeting, or Facebooking.

One short year ago, the girls used to hide their phones inside their purses on their desks, and text with one hand; and guys in the back of the room leaned against the wall, baseball cap brim pulled down, and cradled the phone just below the edge of their desks.  Now, they are unabashedly overt, nestling the phone in their laps or laying it in plain view on the top of the desk and texting “unobtrusively.”

What does this behavior signify? Insouciance? Rebellion? Habituation? Ignorance? Instinct? How are teachers supposed to interpret and act upon such behavior? Are students conscious of what they are doing when they do it? Do they understand (or care) that their habituated mediations infringe upon the pedagogical atmosphere? What does it mean if, in fact, they are not conscious and/or do not see anything wrong with incessant electronic chat?

The virtual is real to this distracted and (self-characterized) omniscient generation (i.e., “It’s all on the Web whenever we need anything).  The great danger for the teacher is automatically reading such multi-tasked immersion as indicating that students are not paying attention. Could it be that their mode of situated cognition has conjured up an utterly different definition than mine of what it actually means to “pay attention?”

To what degree should teachers be willing to accommodate the technology? To what degree should we resist or (even) criticize it? When I start to call them out I feel a twinge, as if I am acting like a high school teacher or disciplinary monitor. When I tell the class how awkward I feel, they may tone it down for a day, but texting and surfing invariably return.

When the investment of the teacher and the mental disengagement of the student are at odds, my going-around-in-circles with the dilemma is compounded by reluctance to downgrade my status at the front of the room, which is, after all, where I belong. Each disciplinary comment I put out there is one more incremental departure from the reasons we are supposed to be in the room.

My inner monologue goes something like this: They are in my class, well-aware that they, or their parents, are paying to be there; they are experiencing first-hand contact with a noted author, and making a choice to do what they do. If it is impossible for students to stay off their phones for an hour and fifteen minutes, or to sit in the seat without getting up, eating, drinking Starbucks, going to the bathroom, dropping their highlighters and hand-held devices, and other random gestures, then what is to be gained by my trying to stop them coercively, as opposed to permitting them to behave in customary ways?

This past year marked Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. His dictum that “the medium is the message” applies to this pedagogical dilemma. Case in point: To discuss my ideas — and assuage my apprehensions — about the format of an online graduate course I agreed to teach, I met with a well-meaning instructional designer.  It was self-evident to him that anything I taught face to face could be accomplished and executed equally well through technology. It was going to be a matter of my providing learning objectives for the course and the structure of the syllabus; then he would work with me to devise the technology that would “best convey the desired content.”

He used a container-analogy, explaining that teaching a class online was just like choosing between a “truck or a van or a car” to “deliver” a package. I countered that this translation did not hold up.  Learning is a cognitive process of uncertain duration that transpires between the time a concept or idea is launched and whether (or not) it lands in the student’s mind in a way that will be sustained beyond the moment.

V. The teacher as mentor.

Arthur Levine’s trenchant observation in The Chronicle of Higher Education strikes a responsive chord: “Graduate-level teacher training programs created by schools and school districts tend to emphasize practice over theory, clinical education over academic instruction, pedagogy over content, and faculties of expert teachers over university professors.”

Rather than legislate abstract, over-arching national curricular standards for the common core, the best way to improve our educational system is to start at the classroom level, with teacher preparation that bridges the metaphorical “widest street in the world” between colleges of education and colleges of arts and sciences. Classroom teachers should be singled out and trained based upon their commitment to developing a positive classroom ambience and emotional climate; at the same time, the affective quality of classroom life must be enhanced in support of the teacher’s level of expertise in a specialist subject area.

Teachers need to reallocate their energies, draw upon empathy rather than cultivate resistance, and re-evaluate how subject matter is conveyed.  In the classroom, at that point where the expert meets the novice, there needs to be an unforced lamination of subject matter onto meaningful engagement.

Students expect the classroom teacher to place greater demands upon himself.  This is a message many professors do not like to hear. The contrarian dimension of my manifesto is an appeal to change our ways, as difficult as that may be for those of us further along in years.

Today’s college teacher needs to be a guide and a coach — not a judge. He must learn a new cognitive language when he steps into the classroom. He must muster up the energy to leap over the generation gap; possess behavior-modification strategies of other-directedness, empathy, patience; understand the students’ brains and accept that they operate differently than ours.

In the ideal classroom environment, students will notice and emulate thoughtful, well-considered, authentic modeling behaviors. The fact is that until teachers are committed to adaptive behavior (as distinguished from the dangerous pitfalls of trying to act “cool” or to talk like the students; and not unlike insisting upon speaking English in Paris) we will never be able to convey any “major” or subject matter successfully.

More importantly, again invoking the precedent of John Dewey, any useful praxis must continue beyond the limits of a semester. We must pay more attention to the definition, cultivation and reinforcement of lasting epistemic virtues that cross subject boundaries – attentiveness, benevolence, creativity, compassion, curiosity, inclusion, objectivity, tenacity, and wisdom.

Today’s college teacher, whatever his specialty, must inculcate and encourage in his students an inquisitive, associational, imaginative mentality through habits of mind dedicated to – yes, even obsessed with — the continuous pursuit of knowledge, linked to the positive implications of that pursuit for the greater society.

This broad path supercedes particular courses for which students have willingly and/or unwillingly registered. As I tell my (required) Play Script Interpretation class on the first day of the term, “It doesn’t matter to me what subject I teach.”

The student needs to understand that memorizing is not learning. Neither, for that matter, is abstract intellectualizing. Giving a quiz to make sure that everybody has at least read the assignment works on the reductive, essential level.  The only way for a teacher to find out if students are learning is to ask them to apply principles or themes or ideas from a wide range of perspectives to creatively devised hypothetical situations, challenges and prompts.

Unless students feel emotionally comfortable with the teacher, they will not learn in a sustained fashion; they will only acquire information expediently and transiently. They must be reminded by the strategically self-conscious teacher about the ongoing narrative/through-line of the course, where they are located within it, and how the course will eventually pertain to their lives in the day to day larger society.

Students need to trust from the first class meeting that the teacher knows the syllabus-as-narrative best of all, because he has conceived of it and written it, and will keep writing it as it goes along. The teacher must remain confident of this classroom “story,” welcoming the students in on it from time to time, so that they begin to think of themselves as co-conspirators.

Hence, what I call…

VI. …the Existential Curriculum.

When I reference “existential” I am drawing upon aspects of the empathic theory of Hannah Arendt’s student, Maxine Greene. I envision a curriculum created with the understanding that, although it is purported to be and presented as a plan, it will still be in a state of continuous formation. The existential curriculum exists to be modified, elaborated and clarified as you forge ahead through the term.

The decisive, adaptable, aware, questing/questioning and observant teacher — active observation being among the desired attributes for any nimble teacher of young people – will be the most effective bearer of any subject embedded in the fluid, evolving situation of the classroom that he/she must be mindful of and control.

Once the plan is in place, teacher and students, together, construct and make the course.

The teacher’s performative cues must be presented openly so the class will perceive what they value (in their words) as the teacher’s “passion” and “caring about / respecting the students.”  The reciprocal degree to which students feel the passion and trust the teacher’s feelings as being sincere will have a salutary influence upon the depth and extent to which the subject-matter is learned.

John Dewey distinguishes illuminatingly between content-value and form-value. Students in the throes of an existential curriculum must be made aware that their sentient teacher has not only a pedagogical methodology but also a moral stance. The behavioral medium is one in which the teacher projects confidence that the students have the capacity to take on and learn difficult concepts. In such an environment, the subject matter will have the optimal chance to traverse the distance from the teacher.

The existential curriculum coalesced in my imagination when I was trying to arrive at a more methodical, “not-rushing,” self-regulating, better-paced way to move through the syllabus as a coherent narrative with a beginning, middle and end. The existential curriculum had roots in the realization that, as is my nature, I had been pushing through recent semesters at a high metabolic level, putting forth one intense idea after another without respite.  I became anxious that, even though my intention was to challenge them, the students were having trouble keeping up.  Conceding that it sounded somewhat “hokey,” I told them, “We are all on the same journey.”  This was a metaphor I had actually learned from them; they approved of my epiphany and began to relax somewhat.

My personal strategies of behavioral self-modification include, for example, but not definitively:  “show and tell,” talking the class out loud through whatever I am doing — even something as simple as using chalk to write on the blackboard; conscientious avoidance of flashy media in the classroom, such as Powerpoint (of which students are quite critical); handing out questionnaires halfway through the term to get their feedback and establish mid-course corrections; encouraging legitimized confusion by trying out new questions, experimenting, and readily admitting when they do not work; pointedly acknowledging my mistakes; using constant interrogation as a primary mode of discourse; accepting all student answers as valid perceptual and learning moments; collapsing the readings syllabus into fewer required works in order to spend more time on each one; impromptu elimination of an exam or exams; shifting emphasis to reading aloud; and establishing a final, collective project embracing contributions from the entire class, such as http://www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch/studentcenter/index.html

VII. Pure epistemology.

Transitioning from the existential curriculum that advocates intellectual and affective development in the college classroom, I propose initiating a conversation about learning at the outset of every class, every semester.

The subject matter of the conversation is heightened awareness of the nature of learning itself – “pure epistemology.”

Start a course – any course — by reading and talking about how learning occurs, and what it means.  Use the discussion of the actual meaning of learning as the common denominator, the obligatory entrée.

This initial conversation requires an accompanying assessment of the students’ “knowledge base.”  Take informational inventory, coming to terms with their prior knowledge of whatever book or subject you are discussing, without placing a value-judgment on the discrepancies different students bring to class from varied high school days and real-life experiences.

Through this collective exercise in metacognition, the teacher helps the students confront the meaning of learning and draw out its connotations.

I frame learning – it should be obvious by now – as an inherent asset, something desirable. The incoming student often needs to be convinced of this value.  Maybe you “have to take” this course, I say to the class, because it is required (as so many general education courses are). Instead of resisting, I continue, you might think about looking at the class as an opportunity to develop your learning skills beyond what the catalog says the course is about. You may end up discovering that there are classes you have to take that you actually end up liking. With more than one-half of the typical college curriculum made up of general education classes, shouldn’t all such classes embody some useful meaning?

In the process of teaching students to learn how to learn, we must revisit the unresolved debate about Liberal Arts education – the oft-invoked canon: what belongs, what doesn’t, according to whom, and how this gatekeeping stricture can be adjusted – not sacrificed, not jettisoned — to reflect the times in which we live and the fragmented mentalities of our students.   In the enlightened future I want for my students, and never stop trying to articulate, there will be skills, attributes, and qualities they will always need out in the world.

It is also a fallacy to decide that a teacher absolutely must cover everything laid out in the proposed curricular terrain. The millennial mind finds it tedious to bear the pedagogical burden of an over-regulated syllabus. Up-front, we should be wary of the oversold or pre-packaged promise of a course because, by the end of the term, what we really want to generate is the realization that.

VIII. …Pedagogy is for Life. 

The college professor and his students face pressures to show documented, measurable outcomes. I am not discounting these out of hand; however, we must also seek to get beyond the hermetic idea that when a course runs, it de facto serves its purpose when it is over.  We must demonstrate greater permeability between the higher education world and the rest of the students’ worlds.

We must guide today’s students toward the understanding that their college education is an opportunity for them to develop and to become indoctrinated to new, better, humanistic, more valuable and sustained mentalities — beyond utilitarianism, choice of majors, getting that piece of paper, and the need for a job.

By the time they graduate, students’ self-centered attentions and energies should be applied outward and forward, to a sense of social responsibility for the collective and common weal, an understanding of the democratic experiment — engagement with their society, their Zeitgeist – because it will be theirs to inhabit, survive, and ameliorate.

“I do not wish to close, however,” John Dewey emphasized in the final pages of Experience & Education, “without recording my firm belief that the fundamental issue is not of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ education, nor of ‘progressive’ against ‘traditional’ education, but a question of what anything whatever must be to be worthy of the name education.”

As Hannah Arendt wrote so movingly, “School is not the world, but it represents the world for the child when he is there.”

The “existentials” need to find better ways to aim for and reach the moving target of the “millennials.” Abandonment of authority will not help teach anybody anything. Nor will free-floating theory divorced from grounded real-life application. From where I stand as a classroom teacher, detached abstraction is of little interest to the average college student.

Rather, learning how to learn is the most urgent higher education challenge in the twenty-first century.

IX. Selected Bibliography.

Arendt, Hannah. The Crisis in Education (1954)

Dewey, John. “A College Course: What Should I Expect from It?” (1890).  In The Early Works, (Vol.3, pp.51-55). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969.

—-. Art as Experience. New York: Perigee Books, 1934, 2005.

—-. Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone Books, 1938, 1997.

Greene, Maxine. The Dialectic of Freedom. New York: Teachers College Press, 1988.

Hickman, Larry A., ed. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Klein, Joel. Scenes from the Class Struggle. The Atlantic, June, 2011.

Levine, Arthur. The New Normal of Teacher Education. Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2011.

Mirel, Jeffrey. “Bridging the ‘Widest Street in the World’: Reflections on the History of Teacher Education.” American Educator, 35.2, Summer 2011.

Webster, Scott. “Existentialism: Providing an ideal framework for educational research in times of uncertainty.” In AARE 2002: Problematic Futures. Coldstream, Victoria, NSW, pp.1-15.

[Note: The central theme of this essay originated in my Keynote Speech presented at the Montclair State University Student Research Symposium, April 16, 2011. I express grateful appreciation to my first readers, Susan Albertine, Vice-President for Engagement, Inclusion, and Success, and Karen Kalla, Director, Network for Academic Renewal, Association of American Colleges and Universities; and for their generous critique and editorial commentary through successive drafts of Learning How to Learn over the past twelve months, I would like to thank Ada Beth Cutler, Dean, College of Education and Human Services; Jennifer Robinson, Executive Director, Center of Pedagogy;  Linda Davidson, Associate Dean, College of the Arts; Erhard Rom, Professor, Department of Theatre & Dance, College of the Arts; Cigdem Talgar, Acting Director, Research Academy for University Learning and Julie R. Dalley, Assistant Director, Research Academy for University Learning — all of Montclair State University.]

Neil Baldwin, a widely-published cultural historian and critic, is a Professor in the Department of Theatre & Dance, and Director of the Creative Research Center http://www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch in the College of the Arts. Prior to joining the faculty of Montclair State University, he was the Founding Executive Director of The National Book Foundation, sponsor of The National Book Awards. His teaching interests cover the span from dramaturgy and danceaturgy at the undergraduate level to arts management at the graduate level. His current areas of research include interdisciplinarity, the history of the imagination, Web-based modern dance documentation and archival practice, and the pedagogical centrality of the arts in American liberal education.  Dr. Baldwin also serves as co-chair of the NYU Biography Seminar. His Web site is http://www.neilbaldwinbooks.com

 

Our Worst Teaching Moment

Siddhartha Bautama by Suta Sila Dham. Courtesy of Fotopedia.

Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:

  • Build community through stories;
  • Identify our weaknesses as teachers and how they’ve made (or can make us) better.

The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.

Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.

Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?

Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS!  We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.

We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.

For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin-  our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.

We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!

%d bloggers like this: