Lateral Thinking

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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. 

 

 

Might Your Fall 2020 Courses Be HyFlex?

The HyFlex model is one that is being considered by schools for this fall semester. In this model, teachers teach simultaneously to students in their classroom and other students connect synchronously to the class. It can be labeled in other ways - hybrid, flex, blended - but all of them provide options for students who can’t come to class for health or logistical reasons. For this fall semester, this can also allow for socially distant classrooms because students can rotate through classroom spaces on alternating days.

At my university, NJIT, one model is called converged learning and offers a third option for students to view a class recording asynchronously later. By reducing the number of in-classroom students, they plan to use large spaces to socially distance students in courses that require face-to-face teaching, such as labs and studio courses. For a science and technology university, using physical spaces is essential for many courses.

Some faculty feel it will be very difficult to engage students in multiple locations. HyFlex also pushes faculty back to the "sage on the stage" lecture format that we have been trying to move away from the past two decades in order to increase engagement. many faculty at all grade levels still do not feel comfortable with the online technology even after the emergency switch over to it this past spring.

As an instructional designer, I feel that you need to design a course as a fully online one and consider the in-person portion (if it does occur this fall) as the enhancement. Don't expect the in-person portion to carry more than half of the teaching and learning.

Some things are better done in the classroom. Lecture probably isn't one of those things. Teachers and designers need to consider the differences based on the course, the space, and the instructor. In a FLEXible course, group might be best in-person or easier with more time put online. You wouldn't want to waste any lab or studio time lecturing.

In "Active Learning in Hybrid and Physically Distanced Classrooms," Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, posted about using the technology. He suggests that you might forego classroom discussion and have students respond to questions using live polling and web conferencing platforms.

For any of the flex models to work, all the class materials, assignments, group work, and other activities need to be ina a learning-management system so that they can be accessed no matter where they are learning. Bruff thinks it's a misconception that flex courses require two versions of a course for the classroom and for online.

If you want to know more about HyFlex, look into Brian Beatty's open-source book, Hybrid-Flexible Course Design.  

Kevin Kelly wrote a guest post, "COVID-19 Planning for Fall 2020: A Closer Look at Hybrid-Flexible Course Design" with examples of how a HyFlex class session might work. 

Views and Reviews on the Elements of Good (Online) Courses

online learnerThe second half of the 2019-2020 school year was abnormal. It's hard to imagine a grade level where teaching and learning will return to what it was a year ago. The most obvious change has been around using online learning. This summer there have been many stories about schools K-20 making plans for this fall. Some of them announced that they will be primarily online. It's a hedge bet that the situation with COVID-19 will be improved and that there will be some classroom face time.

The three approaches schools have considered are 1) start the fall semester fully online  2) go back to "normal" physical classrooms with social distancing, masks and disinfecting 3) some hybrid of those two approaches.  

But schools also need to consider the "reviews" that are being made formally and informally about the online learning that happened in March through June 2020. Those reviews are coming formally by journalists and educators and informally by students and the parents of K-12 students.

K-12 parents have found themselves spending more time working with their children on schoolwork. That might make them appreciate how hard teachers work - or they might decide that online education is a waste of time. When you hear non-educators talk about the qualities of a good online course, they are often talking about the qualities of any good course.

College students' parents don't usually figure into the equation, but now I'm hearing parents say that they are reluctant to have their child go into a classroom and unwilling to pay $25-50,000 for an online curriculum. When parents are paying for school directly (rather than through taxes), they are more likely to feel they should have some control on how their money is being used.

Those qualities mentioned include:

  • The course is engaging and challenging.
  • It invites students to participate, motivates them to contribute and captures their interest and attention.
  • Open educational resources are prioritized over expensive textbooks
  • It is interactive - teacher to students and also student to student.
  • It is not just an information dump, but it does provide meaningful readings, lecture videos, and resources.
  • Students receive personalized feedback, support and guidance.
  • Students feel they are part of a learning community. 
  • It involves students in “doing” — not just watching, reading and writing papers.
  • And finally, this high-level combination of qualities - a course is informed by issues of equity and justice and takes into account social, political and cultural issues, including students’ backgrounds and socioeconomic circumstances.

Looking at that list nothing jumps out as being ONLINE. If you do break out the responses teachers, students and parents gave that are online-specific, they fall under two categories: the availability of the technology; the preparation to use the technology.

The Chronicle did an article titled "In Their Own Words: Here’s What Professors, Chairs, and Deans Learned From Remote Courses This Spring." They looked for words that were most often used in the responses to their survey. One keyword they found in their responses was "flexible." Here are 3 of those responses:

“Be extremely flexible. Don’t expect complete guidance from the administrators; make your best guess as to what is going to be. Most importantly: By adopting many online-learning concepts and best practices in advance, I was prepared to go online at a moment’s notice. This helped immensely.

“Flexibility was key in the transition. I chose to be more lenient with students than I am in a traditional classroom. If we stay online I will once again become more rigid, but I feel this semester was exceptional for everyone, and it was critical to be understanding.”

“You have to be willing to learn to teach virtually and have compassion and empathy with your students. Learn to be flexible and challenge your teaching skills. Covid-19 has changed how we will teach in the future.”

They also found - unsurprisingly - that faculty need a lot more support to teach online than expected.

“Many faculty have resisted true development in pedagogy, but that’s unavoidable now.”

“As a faculty, we should have been more proficient in distance education before the move to online. This was a wake-up call for all of our faculty that we did not make this a priority.”

“Some faculty were really unprepared to work with technology."

“I was very impressed that our faculty who already teach online were willing to step up and help their colleagues who were unfamiliar with this modality.”

 

The Long Summer Slide of 2020

It is known as "summer slide" - the learning loss many students experience during the summer break from school. The topic is often associated with younger students in K-12 but if you have ever taught college students or adult learners (especially in sequential courses) you have also seen it occur.

In 2020, the typical two-month recess became six months for some students because of COVID-19 class cancellations and possibly less-than-ideal attempts at online learning.

Will we see a greater slide this fall than in other years? Will a high school student whose second half of French II, Algebra, or another course be really prepared for the next course this fall? I have friends who teach in secondary schools who fully expect in the fall to have to spend the early weeks (months?) reviewing and catching students up on work before moving forward. They did this in past years, but expect a greater need for remedial instruction for fall 2020. 

When students are not engaged in learning for an extended time, they slide. It would be true if they skipped a semester of took a gap year or were ill for several months. From what I have read, this is particularly true with math, science, language, reading, and any sequential course that builds on a prerequisite.

There has been a lot of research on summer loss the past century which shows young people can lose up to several months’ worth of school-year learning over the summer break, and some studies also show that older students have greater gaps. It is particularly concerning that summer loss seems to be greatest for low-income students for a number of reasons.

There are those who question the whole idea of summer slide, but in my 45 years in classrooms (secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels) I have seen that loss when students returned in September, even in their work and study habits. 

What is the solution? The standard answer is to keep students engaged in reading and educational activities. But every parent will tell you when school ends motivating students to do things that closely resemble schoolwork is very difficult. Plus, this year many parents were doing more schoolwork support the past few months than ever before and also want a break.

College students might be wise to use some free MOOC offerings to supplement courses from this past semester or to prepare for fall. But again, after a semester fully online, more online learning may not be very appealing.

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