The Disconnected 2022 Edition

brain connectIt's 2022 and I am reading an article in The Chronicle by Beth McMurtrie about how the pandemic forced disconnections in early 2020. On the other hand, we also became more connected to friends, offices, campuses, and stores through technology and media.

The article took me back to a keynote presentation I did back in January 2016. I titled that talk "The Disconnected." The talk grew out of the many references I had been seeing to people who seemed disconnected from many aspects of society.

There was the observation that there was a re-emergence of people who wanted to learn on their own rather than in schools. These autodidacts were a new group of learners that I felt might be reshaping school, especially in higher education which is a choice rather than a requirement.

In 2015, the sharing economy, the maker movement, the DIY do-it-yourself movement, and open-source coding were all topics of interest.

These trends were not limited to young people or students. Many people were “cord cutting” from traditional media. But the trend was especially evident in young adults. Even broader was a “rent rather than buy” mindset that was affecting purchases of media (music, movies, books, magazines), cars (lease or use a car service rather than own a car), rent an apartment or home and avoid the self-maintenance, mortgage and taxes.

In 2015, the “disconnected” comprised about 25 percent of Americans, according to Forrester Research. They estimated that number would double by 2025. Has it?

That new article is about students who seem to have disconnected during the pandemic and are not reconnecting now. Maybe they will never reconnect. 

According to McMurtie's article, fewer students are going to classes. Her interviews with faculty show that those who do attend avoid speaking if possible. They are disconnected from the professor and their classmates. They don't do the assigned reading or homework and so they have trouble with tests. They are disconnected from the course content.

The Chronicle had more than 100 people tell them about their disconnected students. Some called them “exhausted,” “defeated,” or “overwhelmed.” This came from faculty at a range of institutions.

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Why are they disconnected?

Reasons given by professors include pandemic-related items. Many students lost their connection with their college or their purpose in attending. Hours of online learning that they had not chosen and which may have been sub-par added to those things.

The students who seemed to have the most trouble with learning were the freshmen who seemed unprepared. But the observations that these new students seemed underprepared, both academically and in their sense of responsibility. One example was that students don’t fully grasp the consequence of missing classes. I was teaching long before the pandemic and all of those things were true of students back then too. 

So my question is whether or not those disconnected students of 2015 have become even more disconnected in the subsequent seven years, and if they have is it because of the pandemic or just a trend that started well before the pandemic.

McMurtrie also gives some things from the perspective of students. One student said that when she returned to the classroom after virtual learning many professors relied more on technology than they had before the pandemic. Ironically, that was something that many schools had hoped would happen; that faculty would be greater tech users when they returned to their in-person classes. Professors who never used virtual conferencing or flipped the classroom using a learning management system. That student may have seen her college experience as "fake" but the professors (and possibly their department chairs and deans) saw the experience as "enhanced."

I don't explain the disconnecting as only the result of social anxiety and stress or what psychologists describe as “allostatic load.”  I don't think this problem is temporary. I agree with some of the faculty whose responses are in the article who think the entire structure of college needs to change and that this is not a new problem.

None of us know what the solution might be.

The Science of Learning

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Professor Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921

Albert Einstein was definitely a subject matter expert, but he is not regarded as a good professor. Einstein first taught at the University of Bern but did not attract students, and when he pursued a position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the president raised concerns about his lackluster teaching skills. Biographer Walter Isaacson summarized, “Einstein was never an inspired teacher, and his lectures tended to be regarded as disorganized.” It's a bit unfair to say that "Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics" - though by today's standards he would not be considered qualified. It probably is fair to say that "Although it’s often said that those who can’t do teach, the reality is that the best doers are often the worst teachers."

Beth McMurtrie wrote a piece in The Chronicle called "What Would Bring the Science of Learning Into the Classroom?" and her overall question was: Why doesn't the scholarship on teaching have as much impact as it could have in higher education classroom practices?

It is not the first article to show and question why higher education appears not to value teaching as much as it could or should. Is it that quality instruction isn't valued as much in higher education as it is in the lower grades? Other articles show that colleges and most faculty believe the quality of instruction is a reason why students select a school.

Having moved from several decades in K-12 teaching to higher education, I noticed a number of things related to this topic. First of all, K-12 teachers were likely to have had at least a minor as undergraduates in education and would have taken courses in pedagogy. For licensing in all states, there are requirements to do "practice" or "student teaching" with monitoring and guidance from education professors and cooperating teachers in the schools.

When I moved from K-12 to higher education at NJIT in 2001, I was told that one reason I was hired to head the instructional technology department was that I had a background in pedagogy and had been running professional development workshops for teachers. It was seen as a gap in the university's offerings. The Chronicle article also points to "professional development focused on becoming a better teacher, from graduate school onward, is rarely built into the job."

As I developed a series of workshops for faculty on using technology, I also developed workshops on better teaching methods. I remember being surprised (but shouldn't have been) that professors had never heard of things like Bloom's taxonomy, alternative assessment, and most of the learning science that had been common for the past 30 years.

K-12 teachers generally have required professional development. In higher education, professional development is generally voluntary. I quickly discovered that enticements were necessary to bring in many faculty. We offered free software, hardware, prize drawings and, of course, breakfasts, lunches and lots of coffee. Professional development in higher ed is not likely to count for much when it comes to promotion and tenure track. Research and grants far outweigh teaching, particularly at a science university like NJIT.

But we did eventually fill our workshops. We had a lot of repeat customers. There was no way we could handle the approximately 600 full-time faculty and the almost 300 adjunct instructors, so we tried to bring in "champions" from different colleges and departments who might later get colleagues to attend.

I recall more than one professor who told me that they basically "try to do the thing my best professors did and avoid doing what the bad ones did." It was rare to meet faculty outside of an education department who did any research on teaching. We did find some. We brought in faculty from other schools who were researching things like methods in engineering education. I spent a lot of time creating online courses and improving online instruction since NJIT was an early leader in that area and had been doing "distance education" pre-Internet.

Discipline-based pedagogy was definitely an issue we explored, even offering specialized workshops for departments and programs. Teaching the humanities and teaching the humanities in a STEM-focused university is different. Teaching chemistry online is not the same as teaching a management course online.

Some of the best parts of the workshops were the conversations amongst the heterogeneous faculty groups. We created less formal sessions with names that gathered professors around a topic like grading, plagiarism and academic integrity, applying for grants, writing in the disciplines, and even topics like admissions and recruiting. These were sessions where I and my department often stepped back and instead offered resources to go further after the session ended.

It is not that K-12 educators have mastered teaching, but they are better prepared for the classroom from the perspective of discipline, psychology, pedagogy, and the numbers of students and hours they spend in face-to-face teaching. College faculty are reasonably expected to be subject matter experts and at a higher level of expertise than K-12 teachers who are expected to be excellent teachers. This doesn't mean that K-12 teachers aren't subject matter experts or that professors can't be excellent teachers. But the preparations for teaching in higher and the recognition for teaching excellence aren't balanced in the two worlds.

Supporting Faculty for the Fall 2021 Semester

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Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

 

I recently read the teaching newsletter at chronicle.com/newsletter/teaching/ that covered several topics around the question of what support faculty members will most need this fall. Without reading the newsletter, I would have guessed that much of the support needed in fall 2020 due to the pandemic will still be needed this fall. The news this summer is full of stories about how we are returning to some version of "normal." I would also predict that schools K-20 are expecting to not need some of that support. We expect to see students back in classrooms. We expect that there will be fewer online versions of courses.   

The author, Beckie Supiano, reached out to some directors of teaching centers and other faculty developers and asked that question about instructor support. Here are a few takeaways in brief.

We can expect that faculty will now be more likely to mix modalities in their teaching. This is more complex than just teaching in-person versus online. We also have asynchronous versus synchronous formats and hybrid settings. This is due to some teachers having been introduced to new modalities and technologies and discovering that some of it is good and applicable. I would also factor in students who were learning online for the first time who found some positives to learning in that way.

I know of teachers who used threaded discussions, video conferencing (Zoom et al) and simple tools such as polls and breakout room for group work for the first time and plan to continue using them even though they will be back in a physical classroom.

Some courses will not be officially labeled as hybrid or blended in the course catalog, but they will be a blend of in-person and online more than in the past.

The technology that allows this to happen will need IT support and, hopefully, pedagogical support towards its best application. Supiano quotes the director for teaching excellence at George Mason University who says that "We’ve been working this summer to support faculty through our Mixed Modalities Course Design project, but we need ways to reach more faculty with that kind of learning opportunity.”

This question seems to ignore what support students will need this fall. Teachers are often the "first responders" to questions students have about using course technology. The article suggests that instructors will need "a grounding in trauma-informed pedagogy." At apu.edu, a Trauma Informed Pedagogy Series was created this summer to educate and equip professors.

One director suggests that faculty will need opportunities for more conversations about what is happening in other classrooms and online, including "fewer readings and speakers and just more workshops with each other."

I do like the idea presented that faculty who have gone beyond the normal in this beyond-normal period need to be rewarded for their efforts. Presidents, provosts, deans, chairs, and teaching and promotion and tenure committees are most likely not equipped to consider some of the changes and efforts that were made in 2020 and so far in 2021. And full-time, non-tenure-track faculty and adjuncts also made extraordinary efforts that may have been assumed or overlooked. Moving an in-person course online even with a semester to prepare is difficult to do well. Doing it almost overnight in spring 2020 was a big ask.

I would say that the support need for fall 2021 is much the same that was needed for fall 2019, but the biggest change is the increased number of faculty and students who will need that support.

Read the article and if you want to share your own preparations or missing support, email the author at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

Didactic Learning

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When I was in a doctoral program in pedagogy, I recall didactics being a subject of discussion. I saw it mentioned recently and tried to recall what we had said about it years ago in that program.

If you just look in a dictionary, you'll find that didactic is defined as something intended to teach. It is often concerned with having moral instruction as an ulterior motive. For example, a didactic novel could be one that tries to expose social injustice.

We spoke about didactics as a discipline concerned with the science of teaching and instruction for any given field of study. Didactics is a theory of teaching, and in a wider sense, a theory and practical application of teaching and learning. That also sounds like pedagogy.

Pedagogy is more focused more on the strategies, methods and techniques associated with teaching and instruction. In our study of pedagogy, we spoke about the ability of a teacher to match the theoretical foundations or concepts that we studied with practical methods using them in a classroom. We also wanted teachers to be able to respond and adapt to the learning strategies of their students.

Didactics is teacher-centered. Pedagogy is learner-centered since teaching must be adapted to respond to student needs.

The didactic method of teaching follows a consistent scientific approach or educational style to engage the student’s mind. It is often contrasted (or confused) with dialectics and also with the Socratic method.

Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and then to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of these seemingly contradictory things. A dialectic is when two seemingly conflicting things are true at the same time. For example, “It's snowing and it is spring.”

The Socratic method is simplified as "asking questions" but is a three-part method: Give an initial definition or opinion. Ask a question that raises an exception to that definition or opinion. Then, give a better definition or opinion. Teachers and learners employ this method even if they have never been trained to do so. It is a natural way to learn, though it is more effective when done intentionally.

Did I become a proponent of didactic teaching? No. I took it as another tool in the toolbox. I continued to think of pedagogy as the art of teaching and didactics as the science of teaching. I became most interested in andragogy - the method and practice of teaching adult learners. I was teaching graduate students who all adults.

There was so much theory. At that time, open learning, also known as experiential learning, was the new kid on the block and posited that people can learn by themselves, in an unstructured manner, on topics of interest. Learner-centered approaches were much in vogue at that time and didactic learning wasn't very popular with my learning cohorts. They found the focus on outcomes and an overall goal of knowledge with a teacher as an authoritative figure more than as a guide and resource for students to be old-fashioned.

By the time I left my Ed.D program, I had so many theories in my head that the labels fell away and I was following mostly those that overlapped. I thought that some of the basics of andragogy also applied to younger students. I prefer it when learning is self-directed, experiential, utilizes previous and background knowledge, is relevant to current roles and is mostly problem-centered. And one of the principles of adult learning that Malcolm Knowles presented still makes me smile: That students are motivated to learn. That is probably the key principle in any method of learning.

 

Not Active Versus Passive

There is no shortage of models of learning. If you study pedagogy, you learn about Behaviorism (Pavlov), Cognitivism (Paget), Meaningful Learning Theory (Ausubel), Social Learning Theory (Bandura), Social Constructivism (Vygotsky) and Multiple Intelligences (Gardner) - and that list in incomplete.

There are also a good number of visual representations of learning that appear as a pyramid, steps, roadmap or the cone shown here.

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The Cone of Learning shown here is based on the theory that true "learning" means that we remember what was learned. But looking at it, you would say that reading is a method from which little is retained or learned. If you tested me on a book I read last year, I would probably fail. And yet, I would maintain that what I do remember may well be the most important learning that I personally needed from the book.

Many interpretations of this model of learning would stress that after reading moving up the cone to talk about the reading and giving a presentation about it would make the content far better learned. Personally, it is true that the novels I know best are those I have taught to others.

This movement up the cone of learning can be viewed as moving from passive to active learning.

Passive learning is broadly defined as a method of learning or instruction where students receive information from the instructor and internalize it. Without much or any feedback from the instructor or source of information, this learning may require memorization, rote learning, direct instruction and lecture. Passive learning is frequently passive listening. It is often teacher-centered.

Criticism of passive listening has been strong saying that students retain information only until they are assessed and the learning does not stay with them. Active learning is promoted as a teaching method aimed at solving this problem.

Unfortunately, sometimes passive learning is seen as bad while active is good. It becomes active versus passive when really one doesn't really succeed without the other.

In looking at the advantages of passive learning, you would include how it exposes us to new material. It gives a teacher greater control over the students. It can be and should be prepared in advance via lecture notes, handouts, audiovisual media and the concepts and content can be organized and structured in a meaningful manner;. It is effective for large audiences.

Passive learning dangerously needs to make the assumption that students will receive the subject matter with open minds. They can be - also dangerously - as empty vessels that need to be filled with a dump of knowledge, or that they are dry sponges hungry to absorb the learning.

It can be difficult to assess how well students are learning content. What would be a passive way to confirm learning from a student who has read a chapter? A test? Ineffective. Repeating or remembering information without reflecting or demonstrating an understanding seems like a poor model of learning.


Nigel Nisbet describes the differences between active learning and passive learning to an audience of school superintendents.

Active learning is defined in different ways:
"anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing" (Bonwell & Eison, 1991)
"anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening and taking notes" (Felder & Brent, 2009).

Active learning strategies can be mixed with passive activities. Activities can be as short as a few minutes that are integrated into a lecture. Reading and writing can be passive but when combined with discussion, problem solving, or cooperative learning they can become active.

Active learning puts the responsibility on both the teacher and the students. Teachers using an active learning style are responsible for knowing the subject they teach, but also the best methods of assessing, starting discussions and providing activities for reflection and continued learning outside of class. Students need to be prepared to discuss each day’s topic, write down their thoughts on the subject, participate in group study outside of class, and work cooperatively inside and outside of the classroom.

Most assessment in passive learning is fairly strict with one right answer, while in active learning there is more flexibility. As shown on the cone diagram, passively watch a film might be evaluated with a test or essay assignment - also passive. Evaluating the understanding of reading about the Golden Ratio and Fibonacci numbers in a math class might be evaluated with an outdoors search for the ratio in nature.

Neither passive nor active is best. Active learning requires some passive learning. As Benjamin Bloom showed, knowledge is a basis for higher-level thinking. That might be the learning in primary grades or the 101 level course in college. The danger is learning that is all passive with any higher-level and active learning experiences. It is also dangerous to leap to active learning without a foundation of knowledge and the ability of students to learn on-their-own passively sometimes.

Lateral Thinking

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Thinking by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

With all the concern about the pandemic this year, moving courses online and making plans for reopening, I'm afraid that what has been set aside is pedagogy. I did graduate work on a doctorate in pedagogy that I never completed, but it exposed me to a lot of ideas on how we might improve our teaching.

One of the things I learned about some decades ago is lateral thinking developed by Edward de Bono in the 1960s. Lateral thinking fosters unexpected solutions to problems. De Bono believed that we tend to go for the straightforward, and obvious solutions to problems. He encouraged seeking out more oblique, innovative answers.

Lateral thinking is sometimes called “horizontal thinking” as contrasted with vertical thinking. The latter might be defined as going for the first good solution that comes to mind and launch into the details.

Lateral thinking encourages a longer brainstorming session in order to enhance creativity and come up with the most innovative solutions.

There are several lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

For de Bono, we need to cultivate an awareness of how our minds process information. That is a skill that is very rarely part of any curriculum, and yet moving away from established patterns leads to greater innovation.

Random stimulation is something I have been employing during this pandemic year - and I suspect many readers of this have also - probably unconsciously - done it. Normally, we try to shut out all distractions in order to focus on a task. In lateral thinking, problem-solving improves with some "random" input which often includes information - taking a walk, talking with a colleague or stranger, listening to a podcast, journaling.

At the heart of de Bono's approach is to deliberately consider alternative solutions. That has been described is many ways, including "thinking out of the box." Doing this is not easy for many people. His term, "alteration," can mean using several techniques. You might reverse the relationship between parts of a problem. You might deliberately go in the opposite direction of what’s implied as the correct approach. Sometimes breaking a problem or obvious solution into smaller parts can lead to an alternate mindset about individual parts.

It didn't help the spread of de Bono's theories in academia that he was not a fan of extensive research. He had called research “artificial.” For example, he claimed that “nobody has been able to prove that literature, history or mathematics classes have prepared people for society” - though I think we all believe that they have helped prepare people.

Lateral thinking has its critics, but the basics are sound and I have always thought that incorporating them into classroom activities is a good thing. I have never "taught" de Bono to students, preferring to embed it in activities.