A Tale of Two Chapters…well, one

Way back in the distant past (2007), I was asked to write a couple of chapters in a forthcoming book about digital learning in the humanities. I agreed, and wrote one on Course Management Systems (duh) and one called “Learning With Style”. They were well-documented, yet informational, designed for the new online college instructor.

The second chapter focused on learning styles. I was big into learning styles then, the idea of catering our teaching to hit as many learning styles as possible, based on Gardner’s multiple intelligences. I had even given presentations on the subject, including one at San Diego City College, which I was asked to reprise in 2008.

The chapters disppeared into the void for a couple of years. Then this fall, the editor contacted me. A new editor had been assigned at the publisher, and would I be willing to update the sources and do a little editing in response to her suggestions? Why, sure.

Trouble was (isn’t there always a problem?), I no longer believe what I wrote in 2007 about learning styles. I have, quite simply, changed my mind. (As the saying goes, if you can’t change your mind, how do you know you have one?)

I was conversing with a colleague at San Elijo, and we were discussing how students on campus have been using their challenges and difficulties in life as justification for not completing their work. My response was, “This is college. They’re here to overcome those things, not wallow in them.” Then I started thinking about learning styles, and how I’d changed what my students do in class in a way that clearly emphasizes writing: gathering evidence and developing a thesis. And how this semester, not for the first time, I had a student say to me, “Well, I’m no good at taking notes from lecture. I’m a visual learner.” But he wasn’t a genuine visual learner — he just liked pictures. He didn’t analyze visuals any better than he did text.

A number of my students have been told that they have a particular learning style already, before they get to me. They are beginning to figure it’s my job to cater to it. But I need them to write, too — we’re doing historical inquiry here. Is it good teaching to let them wallow in their “preferred” learning style?

So I decided to rewrite the chapter. First I wanted “Teaching the Students We Have”, with an emphasis on how students really are today, what they need, how we should teach them. My editor said OK. Then I changed it to “Reducing the Distance in Online Classes”, which involved less rewriting, but reducing the learning styles thing to a small section and bringing in some current research. My editor said OK (he’s quite amiable).

Then I found it. A great new study saying (ta dah!) that there is no evidence that catering to learning styles increases their learning, linked from this post at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Vindicated!

Referencing Rhizomes

In a sense, this is the first post I’ve been “asked” to write, since Dave Cormier invited all those attending his online session today to blog about the ideas.

In his recent article in Innovate Journal (also at his blog), Cormier described his rhizome metaphor. According to the abstract:

In place of the expert-centered pedagogical planning and publishing cycle, Cormier suggests a rhizomatic model of learning. In the rhizomatic model, knowledge is negotiated, and the learning experience is a social as well as a personal knowledge creation process with mutable goals and constantly negotiated premises. The rhizome metaphor, which represents a critical leap in coping with the loss of a canon against which to compare, judge, and value knowledge, may be particularly apt as a model for disciplines on the bleeding edge where the canon is fluid and knowledge is a moving target.

During the backchannel conversation, I realized I am becoming somewhat critical of collaboration as a source of knowledge, of constructivism, of the foundations of this rhizomatic concept. I do believe in the democratization and construction of knowledge. I do not believe that “experts” know all the answers. I know that the role of instructor can shift from an expert who relays her/his knowledge to a guide or (as we discussed in the session) a mapmaker. We draw the maps that can lead students through our subject. I have no problem with educators as facilitators rather than lecturers, though I strongly believe that pedagogical planning is what faculty should be doing.

Cormier is clearly not fond of the current system of knowledge dissemination; his words imply it is static and petrified. The rhizomatic alternative is more dynamic. But surely the new model already exists at the advanced level of our disciplines? “Fluid” canons aren’t canons at all, unless it’s in their application, and “knowledge” moves whenever a paradigm shifts. We all know that knowledge is not the core facts, but the absorption of concepts for analysis. History is hardly a discipline on the “bleeding edge”, yet doing history is conceptual and fluid — only the sources may be considered canonical. I do not see in my own field the petrification implied by the traditional model, although sometimes the changes move more slowly than I would like.

I get a little worried about weeds, those invasive rhizomes that can threaten native growth. The issue seems to be social constructivism. The question I raised, and which I still don’t really have an answer to, is whether knowledge must be social. To an extent, as was pointed out by a colleague, all knowledge obtained by the individual is, in a sense, social. Even if I’m reading a book written 250 years ago, I am “communicating” with the author, or s/he is communicating to me. As I read, I apply ideas from others that I have adapted to my own purposes over the years. Thus my knowledge could be seen as socially constructed.

At the same time, my own learning style is not social. I score high in “interpersonal/self” on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. I prefer to read and be left alone to analyze scholarly material, not discuss it with others. I despised group work as a student and don’t much enjoy committees.

But none of this is true when it comes to the web. I am thrilled at all I learn from Twitter and finding out what others are thinking and learning online, and I enjoy contributing (obviously — this is my blog!). But the enjoyment and usefulness of my social network is limited to online issues, instructional technology, geeky teaching stuff. Could it be that the field of instructional technology is in itself the “bleeding edge”, and thus the most suited to the social construction of knowledge? Given my own predilections when I am learning about, say, history, I much prefer to be on my own with the hard-earned context inside my head.

If mostly geeky teachers like me, ed tech professionals, and webheads are lauding social constructivism, then is the rhizomatic idea self-referential? Does it grow best in the environment which gave it life (web-based IT) and struggle for a toehold beyond that area? I have witnessed many a chat session where teachers and ed tech folks bemoan the fact that this collaborative internet learning stuff just isn’t catching on as much as we would hope. Most Twitterers and Ningers are educators and techy trendsetters. Our students respond when activities are engaging, but we aren’t even sure that engagement means learning.

It is tempting to visualize an anti-social networking movement. (And no, I do not mean the sites snubbing people.) Here we would admit we’re not very social, there would be no emoticons, and we’d read what others have written without feeling an obligation to respond. We would not reject Wikipedia like the Middlebury folks, but we wouldn’t wax rhapsodic about socially constructed knowledge either. We could tell who the experts are in our fields by how well they communicate and how well vetted their contributions are. Current traditions of peer-reviewed and scientific-objective oriented work would continue, albeit available in a handy web-based format. We could contact each other personally or join social networks as clubs to hang out, echo chambers for our egos, and places to find like-minded individuals with whom to communicate. But we don’t have to construct knowledge together. Perhaps we’d use a bulb analogy instead, where we come back every year after resting in the winter, having stored our own individual energy inside. Our smaller prodigy bulbs will spring up beside us. A more domesticated form of nature, rather than rhizomatic wildness. Surely our ability to weed out junk would be appreciated in the long run?

Cats and Dogs

I’ve spent much time discussing Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles, and I usually offer Gardner’s model as demonstrated through the website at LiteracyWorks.org. It’s an easy-to-use site, and has a multiple intelligences survey that produces immediate results. I ask students to take it first thing in the semester, and post their results and reactions.

The other day I was driving past one of those places where they train dogs in classes. I noticed one instructor and about a dozen dogs in this fenced area, and I thought, “to need training, that must be a pretty unruly bunch of dogs”. But they weren’t really. They seemed to be looking around to see what the other dogs were doing, and adjusting their behavior because dogs are, after all, pack animals. And I thought of my students.

I’m thinking I can reduce learning styles to two: Cat Learners and Dog Learners.

Leave Cat Learners alone with a book in a sunny window, keep it quiet, and they learn just fine. Cat Learners are independent, and are thus either self-motivated or not interested in having anyone motivate them. They shun social learning and avoid group work. Their judgement of the value of their work is internal. They tend to fit into Gardner’s logic, language and self learning models.
Dog learners are social, learn best in a group, and need active learning exercises. They require external verification and enforcement (“good doggy! have a biscuit”), and tend to fit into Gardner’s social and body movement styles. Dogs run with the pack, and aren’t comfortable doing anything by themselves.

Yeah, it’s a massive oversimplification. And certainly there are variations in individuals, just as some cats like company and some dogs are very smart and independent. But it’s helped me distill all my problems with teaching into one image: me the Cat trying to teach classes full of Dogs. Think I’ll break out the biscuits.

Multiple intelligences and online participation

For their first discussion forum of the semester, I ask students to participate in a Multiple Intelligences Survey, and post their results as they introduce themselves. Last year I thought about tracking things a bit. Instead I filed it away in my brain, and now I’m seeing things more clearly.

I went into discussion for my four online classes today. In classes where there is a high percentage of math/logic learners, the entries are short and stilted. Many do not really introduce themselves or respond to other students. In classes where the language and social learners dominate, a real conversation and connections have already begun. There are responses to individuals and friendships forming.

I do not think that it is necessary to BE a language or social learner to be successful in an online class, and I’ve told them that. But I think it’s helpful to everyone to have so many of them in the class. It gives a completely different feel to the class, and I’ve noticed this the past few semesters. I suspect retention will be higher. I really need to keep some numbers on this, but . . . I’m not a math learner.

Folks who shouldn’t teach online

Yeah, I know, it’s been awhile. I took a break without announcing it, because I didn’t realize I was doing it. I was actually working a lot on presenting/organizing a number of workshops for the Program for Online Teaching last week, then dealing with incoming students all weekend since classes began yesterday.

This evening I presented an “Online Interactivity and Learning Styles” workshop at San Diego City College. As often happens at these things, one challenging participant made me think hard about what I’m trying to do.

I didn’t come in as an evangelist for online teaching. After giving an assessment (based on literacyworks‘) and going around the room with everyone’s results, I discussed students’ various learning styles according to Gardner’s multiple intelligences. My goal was to introduce attendees to this concept, then move into the results of EDUCAUSE’s 2005 book “Educating the Net Generation“, talking about how our younger students think and how we can create greater interactivity online through the many tools the web has to offer. We’d then have fun looking at cool tools. Well, that was the idea.

One participant was there, he said, because he was unsuccessful teaching online. I assumed he wanted to improve, but as I continued my presentation (and responses to his ongoing comments) it became apparent that he did not think anything he did online would ever be as good as what he does in the classroom, that I was there to convince him otherwise and that I was failing. After arguing about it and taking up a lot of my workshop for his (admittedly very important) issues, I was left with a few premises:

  • Some people shouldn’t be teaching online.

  • These people might not know who they are.
  • People who don’t want to teach online shouldn’t do it.
  • The topic of a workshop doesn’t very much matter if someone really wants to discuss something else.

To ease my mind, I have devised a quick survey, which is by no means finalized, and I’m not happy that the Javascript I stole makes the answer window too narrow, but there you are.

My main point, as always, was that the pedagogy comes first, and the technology second. I got the feeling, as I often do at workshops, that the attendees felt a bit overwhelmed by the variety of methods and tools I was showing them. At one point it became apparent that they thought I was telling them to do more, when I was trying to tell them to think differently. The tools were just to be selected based on their own needs.

Next time, I’ll be framing this differently. And learning to say much sooner, “if you don’t enjoy teaching online, perhaps you shouldn’t do it”.

That Damned Affective Domain

AOL gives us The Most-Praised Generation Goes to Work from the Wall Street Journal that is helping me understand our younger students. Although I’ve done a lot of research on the Educating the Net Generation, I have also noticed certain behaviors (in class and online) that have caused me to change my classroom management techniques.For example, over the last several years, I’ve noticed that more and more of my on-site students refuse to take notes, come and go from the classroom, have their cell phones on (and often out on their desks), stare at me with blank faces, and otherwise exhibit behaviors saying they are not really engaged in the class. They are very tied up in their “affective domain” (how they feel about an issue), which makes intellectual discussion and topical analysis difficult. It becomes obvious that they do not enjoy learning for its own sake if I start by, say, trying to teach them history.

Such distancing behaviors have, of course, always been frustrating. When I was a younger teacher, I used to get angry, threaten to lock them out of the room, roll my eyes when they walked in front of me while I was lecturing, and talked to many individuals after class about their behavior. Then instead I began putting in the syllabus those behaviors I considered unacceptable, and giving instructions (turn off your cell phone, etc.) I would arrange group work to increase their participation and then get frustrated when they chatted about anything except the assignment.

Well, now it’s different. I already noted in my post on Student Intelligences that many of my on-site students are Body/Movement learners. It’s a maxim of mine (and of the Classroom Assessment Technique crowd) that there is no point surveying students unless you bring the results back to them. I reported the results to them shortly after they took the survey. I told them that, given the fact that so many of them need movement to learn, they should feel free to come and go from the room as they pleased, just try to avoid walking in front of me while I’m talking. The first few weeks, a number left the room a lot. When they realized it was really no problem, they tapered off. Only the ones who really needed it were still doing it by mid-term.

Was I praising them? No. Was I indicating that they were special? Yes. I never said a word about the cell phones, except to one student who played with his all through class. During the final exam last week, a student’s phone rang loudly. She absent-mindedly stopped the ringer. Two minutes later it rang again, and she apologized, not to me, but to the class as a whole. That’s the type of behavior I want to engender.

In the online environment, I make recommendations about their learning style (body learners should put their laptop on a kitchen counter and move around between tasks). But because of the distance, they can’t see that I am willing to work with them as individuals. So I use lots of emoticons and a very easy tone, designed to cater to their self-centeredness in such a way as to engender an open mind on their part. I rewrite a lot of responses. I don’t hit “Send” if I’m upset. And I’m using a discussion technique that validates their affective tendencies (see my last post, below).

I figure it this way. If their minds close when they are not treated as special, I cannot teach them history. If I can respect their affective domain just enough to open their brain, I can teach them. Though I am an intellectual, and do not access my affective domain when undertaking mental activity, I have come to understand that they do. They do not separate their feelings (about me, history, the classroom, the campus, their colleagues) from their thinking. Gold star, anyone?