Nine Rules for the Education Apocalypse

1. Don’t fear the Apocalypse. Emily Dickinson knew she was in the presence of poetry when she could feel physically the top of her head coming off. This was not a metaphor. It was a mystical experience. Incidentally, the word “apocalypse” (from the Greek apokaluptein) means “revelation,” and more specifically “to uncover,” as in lifting the top of a box. Surprise! It’s a present! Let’s not fear the apocalypse, but instead prepare our education system for transformation. Instead of exams, let’s assess them on whether or not the tops of their heads come off. Education should be about running a more complex, subtle operating system.

2. Suck less. There is this guy with a tug-boat who hauls icebergs from the North Pole to the Middle East to provide fresh water for billions. His job is easier than getting students to learn and getting teachers to teach. You can tug an iceberg to a desert and everyone will drink, but you can’t lead anyone to learning. I have yet to see a so-called education reformer address the fundamental problem with the education system, which is, put succinctly: school sucks. Boredom is the main currency of education, exchanged fluidly between teachers and pupils.

3. Create a new center. Where is the Andy Warhol of education reform, charging way out in front of the generals, the avant-garde? It was Warhol who created a new center out in the margins. He built a new camp that at first looked foolish, laughable, but soon became the new center. Prophecy. Then, after some time, his work became the status quo, until…look…here comes another Andy!

4. Be Useless. In The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman creates a distinction between useful and useless knowledge, and then sides mainly with the latter. The Liberal Arts are the useless arts and, therefore, supremely useful. The merely useful fields of study are definitely useful, make no mistake, but they are not nearly useless enough. Chuang Tzu knew this, and so favored the disabled and crooked trees, and generally preferred to drag his tail in the mud rather than coming to court with sage advice for the king. Too few sages make the difficult decision to be useless. Too many decide to be useful, to claim a role in the established drama. Watch out for anyone chasing his destiny, submitting to fate, or following his dreams! Too often people dream of being useful. What’s the use in that? The earth, to pick one example, is completely useless. It doesn’t do anything. It plays a non-zero-sum game, and, even better, it’s totally unaware of itself, or at least can’t be bothered to submit the proper reports. The earth doesn’t care. It treats humanity like a straw dog. It does nothing, endlessly. See that oh-so-exquisite school of fish circling the coral? It dissipates, and then reconstitutes itself into various, ever-changing patterns. Constant adjustment, constant beauty, constant change. This is what we should be teaching our children: how to make beautiful schools. Of course, this requires rules and hard work. But mostly it means being useless and doing nothing.

5. End grades. If we treat students like rubrics, don’t be surprised if all they care about is grades, or, worse yet, don’t care about grades at all. The best students and the worst students are the ones who don’t care about grades. Students are not percentages, points, letters; they are not dollar signs, checked or unchecked boxes on rubrics. They are whole people and will respond as such if you treat them accordingly. A rubric is for a mechanic. This is what’s wrong with your car. This checks out okay. Transaction complete. Let me top off your fluid. If creating life-long learners is what we’re after, then why do we care so much if they get it right at the end of each three-month block? Let’s measure them in thirty years. See how well we did. Assess this: Dharma burning through Karma. Or, “We’ll change your brain, or your money back!” MRI instead of final exam. Replace the scantron with the brain scan.There are no grades in reality. There is only practice. The world is practice. God is practicing right damn now. Hey, Shakespeare, you forgot to finish that subplot with Polonius spying on Laertes in Paris. Minus 10 points on your little Hamlet play. Also, your main character has too many contradictions. Was he insane? Was he faking? It’s really unclear. Plus, I’m pretty sure you plagiarized, Shakespeare. I saw you looking over little Thomas Kyd’s shoulder.

6. Destroy Departments; Kill Majors. The new schools should soften all boundaries between genres, subjects, majors, departments, and degrees and instead orient student energy around direct action, creation, and experiment. The only reform necessary is a release and redistribution of energy. (Education reform! Ha! Was it ever formed to begin with?) The ever-shrinking art, music, physical education problem solved: do them all at once: climb and swing from ropes to splatter paint while listening to music and recording audio and video to edit into a film later. Or else we do all school work while walking 2.2. miles-per-hour on treadmills, ala Brain Rules by John Medina. Walking and writing. Perfect. Word art! Large scale installation art work made of language, maybe heavy-lifting in there, too. Let’s throw all subjects together! Science and Home Economics and History, study the chemical composition of food and the history and culture of dishes and cuisines. History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Astrobiology, Evolution….these are not separate subjects. Never could be. The inventor of the concept of “bits” thought of himself as neither physicist nor engineer. The writings of Emerson are neither essays, sermons, or in line with normative categories of literature we might use to partition a syllabus: poem, play, fiction, non-fiction. What was Teilhard deChardin writing? You might find him in the bookstore under philosophy, religion, paleontology? Joseph Campbell? Marshall McLuhan? Bucky Fuller? There is nothing liberal about partitioning knowledge into categories or majors. The globe cannot be divided into majors and minors, so neither can its consciousness. The university is the globe’s consciousness. Not, “What’s your major?” but what are you working on, thinking about, advocating, becoming? Not, “Where are you from?” but “Who are you now?” In order to change schools, you would have to change yourself, and no one wants that. Socrates, at the beginning of Western Education, said, “Know Thyself!” and still, we do not listen.

7. No classrooms! Learning is the goal. Who cares the vehicle? As soon as you set the times for a class period, you kill learning, which does not occur in 50 minutes chunks at the appointed time. In school, out of school. In class, after class. Such ridiculous boundaries. Education has a design problem. Create whole learning environments, entire learning communities (not just like two classes jammed together for 6 credits.) I mean a whole learning world. Does the Internet exist? I mean, if the internet is everywhere, it is nowhere. It just is. If it’s in our cars, phones, brains, then it is an extension of life as we know it. Same for education, same then doubly of online education. It should be called just education, and then, not even that. There is no classroom, never was—don’t go to class—you are the classroom, the pupil, the teacher, the world, the universe, basic human consciousness is the university. The university is nowhere and everywhere or else its center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. I forget which one.

8. No more hoops and papers! Jump through the hoop! Get the piece of paper! No, let’s paper over the hoop and at least make them crash through it. Or shrink the hoop! Maybe expand its circumference beyond detection. Make the center of the hoop everywhere, the circumference nowhere! If you get your piece of paper, you will be prepared, at least, for the coming fascist onslaught. (Show me your papers!) If the paper is what matters, than the trappings of education matter. The book itself matters more than the content, more than the act of reading. Book as bludgeoning device. There is no teachable moment, only one continuous mistake. Shikanza, shikanza. Your assignment for next time: Build a new planet from scratch with your hands.

9. Charter for a New University (Based on Mirra Alfassa’s Auroville Charter)

—The university belongs to nobody in particular. It belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in the University, one must be the willing servitor of the Global Consciousness.

—The university will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages.

—The university wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, the University will boldly spring toward the future realization.

—The University will be a site of material and spiritual research for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 3: Solving the Paradox)

Brief summary of Parts 1 and 2:

In Part 1, I revisited a puzzling 1968 study (supported by follow-up articles) that concluded teaching method has no impact on final exam performance. In Part 2, I explored a possible conclusion of these results: we should focus on learning, not teaching, and we should accept student effort and study time as the main difference makers in exam performance. This doesn’t mean that teachers do not matter. Instead, it means that pedagogy is less important than whether or not learning is actually happening. And, as I suggest in Part 2, cognitive research may help us learn how to learn.

Solving the Teaching-Learning Paradox

In some respects, the results of The Teaching-Learning Paradox are a miracle. Regardless of teaching method, despite the circumstances before them, no matter the quality of teacher or program, the students learned, and they demonstrated their learning consistently across time. On one level, the results of “No Difference” seem nihilistic. Nothing we do will matter! On another level, it reveals the power of student effort and learning. No matter what constraint, strategy, or limitation thrown at them, the students learned! And they performed the same each time. The students who wanted to put forth the effort and earn their “A’s” did so, in each study, regardless of method. No matter what you do to stop them, learning will happen! As Dr. Malcolm in Jurassic Park proclaims, “Life finds a way.”

So how can teachers teach in support of learning? In Jurassic Park, scientists alter DNA in order to breed females exclusively and restrict natural reproduction. Life finds a way (via mutations or some rare gender-jumping frog DNA) around these limitations, and natural reproduction goes on. Once we start to look at the results of The Teaching-Learning Paradox this way, we should see the results as positive. Student learning will not be stopped.

However, instead of designing classrooms as obstacles to learning, we should find a way to support the learning that wants to occur naturally.

Attention, Memory, Intensity

I do not have too many answers here, but I will introduce three interrelated terms as a start: Attention, Memory, and Intensity.

Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? provides a useful model for how the mind retains factual information. He’s careful to point out that factual information is not sufficient for learning, but is often the basis for real learning, since in order to apply concepts and make creative evaluations, we must have a database of knowledge from which to pull and make connections. His simple model of how memory works presents educators with an opportunity to figure out where the bad connections might be in teacher-student communication:

Willingham argues that in order for data from the environment to make the transition from temporary working memory into (somewhat) permanent long-term memory two things need to happen: 1) said data must be subject to an intense level of attention while it is readily available in working memory, and 2) content previously stored in long-term memory must be pulled up and matched with the new data in order for it to permanently “stick.”

I would then couple this model with John Medina’s argument in Brain Rules that we most effectively store information in our memory when it is organized in a “top-down” manner. That is, instead of imagining a long list of vocabulary terms to be crammed into the brain like a scroll of paper inserted into a shredder, we should group and “chunk” information into concept-category that are big enough to hold a lot of related knowledge. Think of the mind as a series of drawers (I like the phrase “junk drawer”). One drawer might be “Romanticism.” (I have a drawer like that.) Once that drawer has been established and the key concepts and terms defined, you can open it up whenever you want and dump more stuff in. Then, when you want to remember something related to it, you don’t have to go rifling through all of your junk. Just pull out the Romanticism drawer. Items in that drawer tend to stick together and have interrelated functions.

Both Willingham and Medina stress the importance of getting students to pay attention, not simply to be nodding and following along, but to pay attention in a particular kind of way. Willingham thinks the most effective kind of attention is when students are thinking about particular and important meaning. This echoes the “Why” study I discussed in Part 2, but also Medina’s concept-containers. I think all of this connects back to intensity. Ideas and meaning matter. They also require more thought (again, as in the “why” study in Part 2), force the brain to construct its own connections, and to “turn on.”

So much of teaching comes back to the construction of analogies. When you’re trying to make a new concept “stick” you should look for some piece of knowledge already stored in the students’ long-term memories and compare the new concept to it. They need some sort of connection. This is also an opportunity for them to construct their own analogies, thereby activating their brains. Similar to asking “Why do you suppose that is?” You can ask, “Does this idea sound like anything you’ve heard before?”

One final note on “intensity.” Students do not pay attention when they’re bored. Sometimes this can’t be helped. As your mother used to say, “Only boring people get bored.” Some students would be bored watching live footage of an alien invasion on CNN. Don’t worry about it. Also, we should avoid thinking of education as entertainment, and we should avoid trying to be too “current” and “hip” in an effort to relate to what we think the students are into. Usually we’re wrong anyway, and then we come across as condescending ninnies.

However, we should not underestimate how tired and distracted and typically underwhelmed students can be. Sometimes this is their fault, and sometimes it’s not. I think students are desperate for reasons to pay attention. Be intense. Be interesting. Be funny, if possible, but be all of those things in service of learning. Many students just need to see that what you’re teaching is worth getting excited about.

The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 2)

If the conclusions in Part 1 are correct, it does not really matter which teaching method instructors use. Lecture? Small-group? Discussion? Tutorials? Online? Some combination of these? It makes no difference. Student outcomes on final examinations will be the same.

Perhaps this conclusion is way too obvious. Why should something as superficial as the physical arrangement of the room and the shuffling around of its human components have any meaningful impact on learning?

If I’m being honest, small-group work has always struck me as a gimmick hashed-out during some administrative retreat, and whenever I employ it, I always feel like I’m appealing to some newfangled rule book in order to check an activity off of a list.

It’s pedagogical hokey-pokey.

But this is too harsh. And I’m ignoring my own conclusions from Part 1. It is not the teaching method, per say, that affects learning. If small-group work is a gimmick, then so is lecturing.

The reason that The Teaching-Learning Paradox concluded that teaching method has no impact on learning is simple:  only learning has an impact on learning.

Cue the sound of a million minds being blown.

Here it is again, in case you missed it:  Only learning has an impact on learning.

(I know it sounds like a poorly edited bumper sticker, but stay with me.)

We like to think of learning as social, as shared, as something that happens together in collective spaces and that can be facilitated by arrangements supporting a diversity of human interactions, and we tend to preference intimate, close-knit combos in which we assume the exchange of ideas and reflections will be more fluid and will lead to comprehensive understandings that far exceed what one individual could think up alone sitting in a cold lecture hall listening to someone drone on about stagflation.

But there isn’t anything magical about these arrangements in-and-of themselves. And I suspect that they are just as likely to reinforce bad learning as they are to support it. I hate to use this cliché, but it seems appropriate: if the classroom is not centered on authentic learning, shifting into small group discussion is merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

So what is authentic learning? I don’t know, but I would like to suggest some conclusions reached by cognitive science, in particular the research that centers on how we learn. Ultimately, learning must take place in the brain, whether that brain is sitting in a lecture hall, in a small group, or in front of a computer screen. We have more knowledge now of how the brain learns, and instructors and students should take advantage of this knowledge to increase learning.

It seems that, because it was published in 1968, the conclusions of The Teaching-Learning Paradox could not take cognitive strategies into account. Furthermore, since their focus was on various teaching arrangements (and not on styles, strategies, and tactics*), they were unable to analyze the actual infrastructure of learning. This supports the criticism put forth by Ten Cate and others (see Part 1) that Dubin and Taveggia are not really measuring a dependent variable by comparing final exam scores. Also, what is the true effect on the student? Certainly, one key component of learning is the demonstration of content acquisition, but are the studies in The Teaching-Learning Paradox merely testing for how efficiently the knowledge provided by the instructor slid from his mouth and onto the final exam page? Seen in that light, every study that Dubin and Taveggia analyzed was a success. The knowledge did transfer, and all at the same rate.

But what about the students? Did they learn? Really, how would you expect to measure learning if you’re merely testing how the classroom is structured. You are not testing learning or learning strategies. You are, instead, testing physical arrangements. And if the instructor and the students are not employing strategies that facilitate learning, then what is the value of the study?

Fortunately, a lot of work has been done with authentic learning strategies based on cognitive research. And in order to test these strategies, you can look at studies that are not too dissimilar from the ones Dubin and Taveggia analyzed in The Teaching-Learning Paradox. Do classrooms that employ cognitive strategies result in greater learning on final examinations? (Later we’ll address the shortcomings of solely focusing on content knowledge and memorization, but, as many cognitive scientists note, memorization is a critical component to learning, though not sufficient in-and-of itself).

This new focus on learning strategies will be a true student-centered approach, since the goal will be to figure out how students actually learn** (how the brain actually works) and to design curricula, lectures, assignments, and study sessions with this knowledge in mind. And since, as Dubin and Taveggia point out, studying is a measureable difference-maker, teachers should find ways to facilitate student learning by teaching effective strategies, delivering content with the cognitive “tricks” in mind, and motivating students to take their learning into their own hands, hearts, and minds. (Is that a Girl Scout motto?)

What are these cognitive “tricks?”

Well, let’s take one. It doesn’t matter if you’re tutoring someone one-on-one, standing in front of a lecture hall filled with 500 students, or sitting in a circle with 15 students, if you’re not asking “Why?” your students aren’t learning.

Dunlosky, et al. present ten learning techniques based on cognitive research in a 2013 article titled “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Each technique is summarized and bolstered with supporting studies. The first, “elaborative interrogation” is essentially a fancy way of asking students “Why?” and encouraging them to construct their own answers. You might present some content on (drawing from my own experience) the correlation between the increase in sophisticated literature during the so-called American Renaissance period  and the rise of American printing companies. “Why do you suppose literature became more sophisticated as more printing companies arose?” Or, in a Mythology course, you could have students read creation myths from several different cultures and ask them “Why do so many of these cultures portray female goddesses as earthbound and male gods as living in the sky?” The idea is that learners must now actively construct new knowledge in response to the question, and in doing so, retrieve existing knowledge in order to fill in the gaps: “The prevailing theoretical account of elaborative-interrogation effects is that elaborative interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge” leading to insights that are “self-generated rather than provided” (8). More learning is actually occurring in the learner’s brain as they struggle to develop an answer, and not just as part of a transfer from the instructor to the pages of the final exam. The authors cite one study where “Why” questions were integrated into a biology text, resulting in higher exam scores compared to a control group.

This is true learner-centered, active learning, not the kind that is staged by simply rearranging the classroom. The interesting thing about the above study is that the vast majority of their strategies are student studying strategies, some involving annotation of texts, pacing of study sessions, and mnemonic devices. The idea is to empower students to turn their own brains on to better learning strategies. We want lifelong learners who learn to do things for themselves. We want more of the learning to be happening in their own brains.

I will discuss more examples of cognitive strategies in futures posts, but I’d like to close with a few words from education theorist Bill McKeachie who discussed the “learning” approach to teaching in a 2008 interview in Teaching of Psychology:

We also found that when students thought more about the material, they were likely to become more intrinsically motivated and interested in the material for its own sake rather than just to pass the test. That shift in focus makes a big difference. If teachers are interested in helping students learn for the rest of their lives, then they should want their students to develop intrinsic motivation for learning and not just learn when they are told to learn because they are going to be tested on it.

A couple of things here: First, next time I’ll discuss the work of Daniel Willingham (who is also one of the authors of the study I cite above) who echoes McKeachie’s deceptively simple call for getting students to think about the material. It sounds obvious. However, if you want to make something stick in the brain, you first need to figure out how to make it sticky.

Second, McKeachie’s emphasis on intrinsic motivation could not be more important. And this is exactly what Dubin and Taveggia’s The Teaching-Learning Paradox cannot measure. In fact, I don’t think intrinsic motivation can be measured quantitatively. This is what prompted B.F. Skinner to disagree with cognitive research, since it could not be observed as behavior could. (McKeachie recounts their disagreement in the interview.)

Dubin and Taveggia could, however, (in limited samples) measure the effect of studying, and found it to be positive for test results. If we can help students become intrinsically motivated, get them to pay closer and deeper attention (to think about the material, in Willingham’s and McKeachie’s formulation, which means to take advantages of cognitive tricks that line up with how the brain actually learns), arm them with proven study skills, and structure class sessions with the cognitive research in mind, measurable improvements might be recorded. If students need to learn how to learn, then teachers need to teach them how to learn.

In short: if you want learning, you have to teach learning.

*In Part 1, I suggested a difference between method and style. I’m going to alter this. I like the word “arrangements” better to describe Dubin and Taveggia’s focus on comparing lectures, discussion, one-on-one sessions and other such organizational methods. For now, at least, “styles, strategies, and tactics” will be a stand-in for a discussion of approaches to authentic learning that can occur irrespective of classroom arrangements.

**Next time I’ll cover Daniel Willingham’s claim that learning styles, as they have been propagated, do not exist.

The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 1)

A simple syllogism to begin:

1. All people are ideologues*.

2. Teachers are people.

3. You know what goes here.

If you reject the premise, you probably want to stop reading. You are the problem.

If you accept the premise, you also probably want to stop reading. Some unpleasantness flows from it.

There is a secret that snakes through the history of education research. In fact, it’s not even a snake. A snake could easily slip into the rushes and go unnoticed. What I’m writing about looks more like a roaring springtime river bloated with snowmelt. Don’t fall in.

NO DIFFERENCE

In their 1968 study The Teaching-Learning Paradox: A Comparative Analysis of College Teaching Methods, Robert Dubin and Thomas C. Taveggia analyze 40 years of research comparing the effectiveness of a range of college teaching methods, including lecture, discussion, tutorials, independent study, small group work, and TV courses (1968′s equivalent of online education). Their book can be summarized in two words: “No Difference.”

Dubin and Taveggia poured over the data of nearly 100 studies that compare teaching methods by using final examinations as dependent variables (a potential weakness I’ll discuss later). What they found should be disturbing to any instructor who has ever flown the flag for a particular teaching method, for example, favoring small group work over lectures.**

They repeat their conclusions frequently throughout the 86-page study, anticipating, rightly, that no one would listen:

In the foregoing paragraphs we have reported the results of a reanalysis of the data from 91 comparative studies of college teaching technologies conducted between 1924 and 1965. These data demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that there is no measurable difference among truly distinctive methods of college instruction when evaluated by student performance on final examinations. (35)

Lecture? Lecture plus discussion? Small group work? One-one-one tutorials? Self-directed independent study.

No difference. Regardless of method, students will earn the same grade on the final examination.

Rubin and Taveggia also compared small classes with large classes, as well as so-called instructor-centered vs. student-centered classrooms (a bizarre, Orwellian construct if I’ve ever heard one. More on that in future installments.)

No difference.

Just to repeat: When measuring the performance on college final examinations, lecturing is no worse or better than other methods (despite the lecture’s oh-so authoritarian overtones). In fact, it does not matter one whit which teaching method is employed.

Sure, 1968 is a long time ago, but The Teaching-Learning Paradox has been cited over 200 times since then, and there is widespread agreement on its conclusions. Medical educators seem particularly drawn to (and perhaps repulsed by) its conclusions. This is unsurprising given the importance of final exams in medical school, and the heavy content-knowledge required to become a medical professional (again, Rubin and Taveggia are measuring the kind of end-of-semester knowledge acquisition that many of us may find limiting).

Olle Ten Cate, a medical school professor and former president of the Netherlands Association for Medical Education, published an article in 2001 called “What Happens to the Student? The Neglected Variable in Educational Outcome Research” that is largely a response to the problem presented by Rubin and Taveggia. Ten Cate summarizes the problem (and the accompanying feeling of frustration). He also, however, begins searching for a way around the paradox:

Yet, is it conceivable that there really is no difference in the effects of such different treatments in education? How can we sustain the idea that systematically different educational approaches, not during one hour, not a day, or a week, but during four or six full years and thousands of hours of ‘experimental treatment’, will show hardly any measurable differential effect other than student opinion? (83)

He also points to the money that is being wasted on such studies, since it has been clear for decades that the overall conclusion is “No Difference.”

If we put so much money, time and energy in such huge curriculum experiments, some day the community might not remain satisfied with the consistent finding of ‘no difference’.

You could easily connect the conclusions of The Teaching-Learning Paradox to today’s hot teaching technology, online education. A 2009 meta-analysis of online education by the U.S. Department of Education showed no significant differences in the learning outcomes of three different teaching “mediums” (online, web-blended, and face-to-face). The study’s conclusions claim that blended students performed “modestly better,” but if you dig into the study a bit more, it stipulates that “the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium,” only that many of these course required more from students and instructors and “It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages.”

This lines up nicely with Dubin and Taveggia’s conclusions. If I can take some liberties here and subvert Marshall McLuhan, it’s the message, not the medium.

In fact, as Dubin and Taveggia note, there are only two factors that are consistent in all 91 studies they analyzed: students enrolled in a course, and each course featured a textbook. Lecture at them. Make them watch you on TV. Make them do the work on their own. Make them log into a website. Tutor them.

As long as they are enrolled in your course and reading a textbook……

You guessed it:  No Difference!

HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Are you drowning yet? Rethinking your teaching method? Wondering whether or not this huge push for more interactive, student-centered learning environments (think ice-breakers, small group work, group projects, student agency, one-one-sessions) has been a complete waste of time?

Well, yes. Yes it has.

That is, if your central goal is to deliver content. The evidence seems clear. At the end of the semester, students will know about the same amount of stuff regardless of teaching method***. Read The Teaching-Learning Paradox and then sit through some faculty training on how to engage students. If you’re not furious, you can’t do math. Dubin and Taveggia’s work is lucid and straightforward, and seems to be supported with each new study on teaching methods. If your goal is for your students to obtain content knowledge by the end of the semester, you should be in open revolt against anyone who suggests that one teaching method is superior to another. It simply isn’t true.

But…

What if content delivery isn’t your ultimate goal? And what might Rubin and Taveggia be leaving out? In future posts, I will consider other studies and books that present the issue from a slightly different angle. For now, let me return to Ten Cate’s paper for some possible solutions. First, he provides a potentially depressing anecdote that (after some reflection) presents a way forward from The Teaching-Learning Morass:

Some call it the VanderBlij Effect, after the Dutch math professor who delivered remarkably clear lectures. However, students attending his lectures usually received lower grades at the test than those who had not attended his teaching. The latter were forced to study so hard to master the material that they really grasped it. But the effect we are discussing may affect students in both groups.

Oh my. Even skilled teachers are wasting their time? This story actually offers an important (and hopeful) truth: authentic student-centered environments (and student effort and study time) can have an impact. In fact, this was the only thing that Rubin and Taveggia found that did make a difference:

We found two studies in, the literature which compared some form of study with no study and evaluated their respective outcomes on examinations covering ability to recall or prove knowledge of course content.These studies had a total of six comparisons between groups of students who studied and those who did not, all of which were independent comparisons. The results are significantly in favor of study. (26)

The grand irony of many so-called student-centered learning strategies is that they are just more instructor-centered strategies in disguise. It’s the soft authoritarianism of ceding control.  Above, we find that if students actually take their learning into their own hands, it can make a difference. It seems to be the only thing that does. As one of my colleagues says, “I don’t teach no one nothing.”

The lesson of The Teaching-Learning Paradox is that if instructors apply their own methods (whether instructor-centered or student-centered) it will not make a difference. Hence, Ten Cate’s question, “What Happens to the Student?” He claims that the studies Rubin and Taveggia analyzed (and almost all subsequent studies that support their conclusions) have three massive flaws: First, they confuse an independent variable for a dependent variable. That is, the results of a final examination are not really the result of the teaching method, they are an extension of it. This is why, potentially, all of the final exam results do not vary. Second, these studies are not truly blind, and can never be. If they students know they are being taught, they will act differently. Third, the effects on the student are not being measured. Is education simply about inputs and outputs? Is it merely about transferring knowledge? Shouldn’t we be looking for models that measure the effects on student behavior, which is, ultimately the one factor that can make a difference, if we extrapolate from the above mentioned studies on “studying,” and on the true meaning of the VanderBlij Effect?

Maybe The Teaching-Learning Paradox does not present a paradox after all. It might simply be an infinite regress. When the twin mirrors of content delivery and final examination are made to face one another, you get a perfect, endless, pointless reflection.

END OF PART 1

*Perhaps I’m abusing this term. I simply mean that everyone operates from within a particular perspective or set of perspectives, and that we often, consciously or not, make judgments about the world based on assumptions that our perspectives are superior to others. I’m doing it right now. One purpose of this blog post is to point out that educators often charge forth into the classroom under the assumption that their methods of instruction (whether cutting edge or traditional) are the most effective ones available. Evidence to support such claims does not exist.

**The results of the study hold true for different mixtures of methods, such as combing lecture, discussion, and small group work.

*** Later, I hope to discuss the difference between “teaching method” and “teaching style.” I will also discuss some more recent cognitive research. It may well be that “style” is another “method,” and that style will also make “no difference.” I hope not.

Oral Literature (Part 1)

I made another video attempting to follower the “vlogger” approach (see my previous two posts). This is the first part of a two-part series on Oral Literature as it applies to my Mythology course.

Vlog Your Children Well

Below is my attempt to create an online lecture based on the advice given by Tad Suiter in the video I posted here. Essentially, by learning from the style of effective vloggers, Suiter recommends to create short videos (3-7 minutes) characterized by a style of fast-talking, high energy, and jump cuts to eliminate wasted time and space.

Basically, get in their face and engage them.

I’ve also included pictures, visuals, and some text. It’s a little long at 9:42, but as the opening lecture, I had some key definitions and concepts to cover. I think I can break it down some more.

Also, I’m still not comfortable editing in Camtasia yet, and some pictures move around a bit. I have a lot to improve (including higher energy levels, quicker cuts, more succinct delivery and outlining), but feel I’m heading in the right direction. Thanks, Tad!

Watch “Re-inventing the Lecture (Or, Why Online Lectures Don’t Work, and What We Can Do About It)” on YouTube

Should Only Rock Stars Make Online Lectures?

After reading David Byrne’s recent ode to Iowa (in which he recounts the state’s socialist utopian roots and observes that Iowa “may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction”), I went looking for more wisdom from the former Talking Heads musician and found his TED talk (which was thankfully decidedly un-TED. By that I mean it wasn’t a breathless, triumphant paean to the coming salvation of our digital overlords).

In fact, Bryne’s presentation is quite understated. He only makes one simple point: the evolution of music can be tied to architecture of performance venues.

This sound obvious, but it carries immense implications, essentially undermining the Romantic notion of creativity’s emergence from individual emotion and intuition. In other words, creativity isn’t the product of inner-magic. It is shaped by the external environment. In fact, Byrne argues that the external form might precede creativity, or, as he writes elsewhere:

So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.

He is writing about music, but I instantly thought of online lectures, and of the classroom in general.

Today, I read an anti-MOOC article in Slate by Jonathan Rees which, among other complaints, trashes the lecture format that appears in some MOOCs:

But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now.

I know exactly what’s he talking about, but I think he’s missing the point. You simply can’t teach the same way online that you can in the classroom. Had he told his tenure committee that he recorded and uploaded a live 80-minute lecture and discussion session onto Blackboard, he would not have pleased them either. Online instructors who use the 5-minute-and-quiz format are not trying to dumb their product down (that might be the unintentional result). Instead, they’re trying to adapt to a new environment.

I write differently on a blog than I do with my pen and notebook. I teach differently in a lecture hall than in an oval-shaped seminar room. I have some classrooms that I’m still trying to figure out. Exactly how do I teach in here?

The online classroom is one of those. We are all struggling to adapt.

Perhaps I was enamored by Byrne’s star power or his recent praise of Iowa, but I was able to pay attention to his lecture, in part, because of environmental or technological factors (it helped that I was intrigued by his argument as well).

That is, he used pictures, which he changed frequently. Also, the camera angles changed often. I don’t have a crew to replicate the latter, but the former is quite simple to do in an online lecture.

The video below is my relatively recent attempt to make a lecture that suits the online format, minus the camera (I have a hard time making this look natural or finding the right setting. I wish, like Byrne’s TED talk I could be recorded in a hall packed with people). Still, I use ten slides in less than 10 minutes, not MTV fast, but enough perhaps to keep attention.

In this respect, I should probably follow more of Pecha Kucha format, which is 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. Here is author Dan Pink explaining and demonstrating:

Finally, here is a recent video I did using a webcam and a few pictures and text on PowerPoint. Someone told me it looked like I was talking in a closet. Again, I’m not sure how to make the video appealing without either having the camera pointed up my nostrils or projecting me in the background like a specter:

A regular classroom is just a regular classroom. No one is expecting Literature 101 at 8:00 in the morning to be a Hollywood production. But, once you create a video and upload it to YouTube you are, in a way, competing with the pros.

What is someone with no training in media and performance supposed to do? I guess become famous and let the TED folks film you.

I’ll get right on that.

What is Mythology? (Part 10: A New Myth for an Old Planet)

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I ended Part 9 by calling for a transdisciplinary approach to mythology, which begs two questions:

1) What the hell does transdisciplinary mean?

Big word, simple meaning: going beyond the limitations of fields of study, majors, programs, departments, genres, etc., in order to search for a more holistic approach to education that can adapt to the creative complexity of the world. This doesn’t simply mean buffet-style education, taking a little of this and a little of that, but actually putting some of the pieces together to form a bigger, more functional picture of reality.

2) Isn’t it a contradiction to continue to use the term “mythology” while pursuing a transdisciplinary approach, since mythology is itself such a narrow sliver, confined to the dustbin of the dustiest department: Literature?

No. And please stop asking me questions. Simply behold.

But actually, you’re right. It’s just that I’m convinced mythology isn’t really a discipline in the way the sociology is. Well, mythology may be a discipline, but “myth” is not. Furthermore, many myths (as we’ve been discussing in connection with “myth-as-fugue.” See Parts 2 and 3) were composed during a time of limited literacy and less division among fields of study. They tend to serve multiple functions, containing their respective civilizations’ political, historical, spiritual, religious, psychology, and literary aspirations. In that sense, myths are pre-disciplinary. They can teach us quite a bit about how poetic narratives tie things together.

Which brings me to this point: I want a new myth.

Cue Huey Lewis and the News: (WARNING: Please don’t watch this video unless you are prepared for unmitigated awesomeness!)

This video raises several points: First, that red suit should be back in style shortly. Two, Huey Lewis is really bad at lip syncing. Three, why hasn’t this song been used by a pharmaceutical company yet? (Call me if you’re interested in some freelance ad work!) Four, how could this band have had an actual fan base? Who were they? Nerdy frat boys from Indiana?

Sorry.

Huey Lewis is a bad example of taking multiple traditions (blues, rock, soul, doo-wop, funk) hitting puree, and serving a palatable, yet tasteless product. When searching for a new global myth, we want to avoid this. The transdisciplinary movement has also been criticized for churning out endless new majors that sounds like word salad. Here’s a chart that shows how one of pop psychology’s more annoying trends may have emerged:

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I’m all in favor of this kind of work and believe that whatever insights we are learning about the brain should be disseminated. However, the downside is that it leads to a lot of shallow analysis, especially considering we’re still in the early stages of research, which has not prevented the proliferation of dozens of books with titles like “Left Brain, Right Brain, Fight, Fight, Fight: How the Latest Neuroscience can Make You a Better Cheerleader.” (I made that up, but if you want to discuss the possibilities here after we nail our Huey Lewis/Heart Disease pitch, I’m all ears.)

Brain is the new black. And writers and publishers are jumping in with both feet before the ink on Neuroscience Quarterly is even dry in a desperate attempt to to coin the newest buzzword (Neurogrilling: how understanding your mind can improve the tang in your tangy barbecue sauce.)

It doesn’t stop there. Many of the fastest growing college majors are spliced together from old ones: cyber security, biomedical engineering, health management, computer game design, and so on. These majors merely reflect changes in the marketplace, and no one should be blamed for heading to where the jobs are.

However, this sort of hyper-specialization presents obvious problems, especially since the biggest issues facing our planet seem to be global in scope. Where are the big thinkers?

The above majors are inter-disciplinary, but not transdisciplinary. They are pieced together from narrow slivers within preexisting disciplines, but don’t strive for a more complete pictures beyond their narrow focus. And that’s probably okay for them.

Let’s look at one example of a new major, however, that strikes me as potentially transdisciplinary, and then look at how it might contribute to a new global myth.

Take environmental studies, for example. From the start, one is forced to consider complex systems. It’s not sustainable (pun intended) to isolate particular elements in an ecosystem and expect the health of the entire system to be maintained. Certainly, an environmental studies major would be expected to know chemistry and biology, to get right down into the muck of matter, but when you start making a list of all the factors that contribute to the well-being or ill-health of an ecosystem, you will never stop: water regulations, the local economy, local diet, religious and philosophical ideologies, and, certainly, the fundamental story humanity has written to reflect our relationship to the planet.

But there is no story. Only stories. Only mythologies.

In a post titled Toward a Humanities of Global Consciousness at Evolutionary Landscapes, I advocated for Chief Seattle’s idea that we belong to the planet, not the other way around. This is short enough to fit on t-shirt, but deep enough to challenge certain understandings of Christianity and market-based capitalism to the core. At this stage in the game, it doesn’t matter the source of the myth or even whether or not it’s true: all that matters is how we would be served by it, and if it is beautiful, elegant, and inspiring enough to help save our planet.

And of course we will need more than one.

Unless we re-imagine our relationship to the planet, we will almost certainly initiate a catastrophe. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have recently reached 400 ppm, and may be at their highest in 2 million years. Water supplies are projected to continue their precipitous decline. The mining of minerals and fossil fuels will eventually deplete the raw materials of our economy and way of life. We may not be walking around consciously planning our day around a collective myth, but we are certainly acting in compliance with a few assumptions: 1) Whatever is here is here for our taking, and 2) Technology will eventually fix this for us. (I’ve written about the theme of technological utopianism before, and I believe it is a myth that explains much of contemporary behavior.)

I believe exploring myths can force us to question the implicit or explicit stories we use to navigate existence. It is perhaps time for us to examine these stories and their effects, and consider reorienting ourselves. I not sure where to begin with such a task, but I will just end by presenting a few thinkers who are cosmological in nature, and whose work points toward this kind of reorientation. There are all, in my view, accomplishing this through story-telling. Their myths are different, but, I believe, improvements over the two assumptions I’ve listed above.

Buckminster Fuller’s notion of “Spaceship Earth” suggests that we are at the helm and must take responsibility for understanding how this ship works and how to engineer it properly. His most famous invention, the geodesic dome, was the result of deep insights into mathematics and a quest to create the best possible structure with the least amount of material. His writing and talks often strive for a comprehensive take on human affairs that incorporate math, science, architecture, design, and economics. He is perhaps one of the earliest prominent systems thinkers:

Carl Sagan’s description of humanity living “on the shores of the cosmic ocean” is a sweeping attempt to reorient our perceptions, both humbling and elevating. His writing is often poetic, mythopoetic perhaps, and seeks to induce awe and respect in the face of the vastness of the universe:

James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis forces us to consider the earth as something of a living, self-regulating organism (this can be taken literally or as a metaphor, and it borrows, of course, from Greek Mythology). If the Earth is trying to balance itself, and we are of Earth, maintaining this balance must be our duty:

 

What is Mythology? (Part 9: The Trouble with Poetry)

I enjoy the anthology I have been assigning for my Mythology course, World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics. It covers myths from across the globe and is filled with wonderfully informative historical glosses and highly readable translations.

This last feature is also a bug.

You see, the entire book is written in prose even though almost all myths were composed in poetry. Prose translations are pretty standard fare for textbooks, and I understand why. It is difficult enough enticing students to read obscure works that are thousands of years old. Poetry adds one more layer of complexity.

However, something critical is lost when myths appear in prose. I first discussed the concept of oral tradition in Part 2, and it is likely to be a recurring theme in these posts. It is, like most academic terms, invented after the fact. No one reciting The Odyssey to a crowd in Athens would have stopped and said, “Thank you for supporting the oral tradition! I’ll be here all week!”

This is exactly the reason we need to keep reintroducing this term. It is foreign to us. Without understanding how the oral tradition informs mythology, a central point is lost, perhaps the central point if we consider how myths were often ritualized. Myths are performances, and poetry is the preferred medium for this. In fact, “song” is probably a better word to use than poetry. (The difference between poetry and song is less defined the farther back you go in history.)

Watch this brief excerpt from a performance of Beowulf, featuring a furiously intense performer with a stringed instrument:

These events would have been nothing like the timid and moribund poetry readings you might have stumbled upon at a local bookstore with the poet meekly reading poems directly from his book.  In the time of Beowulf, the “scop” (pronounced “SHOWp) sang and recited the epic poem accompanied to music. Anglo-Saxon poetry was highly alliterative and based on a set number of accents per line, and in the video you can hear him repeating consonant sounds at the beginning of words.

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The best contemporary translation of this text is by Nobel-Prize-winner Seamus Heaney, who retains much of the alliteration in his English version, which is, of course, sold as a book meant to be read silently. Performances of poetry like the above video are rare in our culture. Perhaps the best contemporary equivalent is a rock concert. This scop would have been performing Beowulf to a large, enthralled crowd hanging on his every word. The music, meter, and alliteration would have helped with this, but also the story itself, its violent action and how it reflected their cultural values.

The world of contemporary poetry and rock-and-roll, however, have little to do with one another at the moment. Poetry is largely confined to classrooms and independent bookstores. There are exceptions. In many ways, poetry slams carry on something of the oral tradition. There are also outliers from the contemporary poetry scene, such as Robert Bly, whose readings often feature music and his trademark didactic style. He is also the one contemporary poet most in touch with Joseph Campbell’s work and the role of mythology in poetry. In fact, his book Iron John is an imaginative (in Karen Armstrong’s sense of the word. See Part 6.) application of mythology to address the psychological journeys of men. It’s a book that would not have existed without Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which, Bly could retort, would not have existed without poetry. Here is Bly reading the work of the Indian poet Kabir:

The tendency to translate mythology into prose makes sense for another reason: unlike most contemporary poetry, myths of the ancient and classical world are narrative-driven, performing more of the function that  novels do today. Probably the epic poem met its demise when Cervantes wrote Don Quioxte. Novels could start telling the long stories. Cervantes published his novel in 1605. Incidentally (or maybe not) the important epic poems begin to trail off at this point. We get Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), several insane William Blake epics in the early 19th century, Byron’s mock-epic Don Juan (1824), a few by Keats and Shelley in between, and Goethe’s Faust (finished 1831). It’s not that poets stopped writing epics ( Nobel-winner Derek Walcott’s Omeros, for example), but they have either taken on the interior spaces as opposed to the external heroic journeys, effectively become more subtle, psychological, and, well, contemporary, or they have launched off into meta spaces and become self-aware parodies. By the time James Joyce published Ulysses in 1922 (patterned after Homer’s The Odyssey) the novel had become to the vehicle of choice for epics, and for longer literary narratives period. Poems are now confined to a much smaller space.

Although narrative-driven, the old myths were also poetry. (We keep returning to the concept of myth-as-fugue from Parts 2 and 3. You see, myths are impossible to dissect, pin down, classify. Poem, novel, song, ritual, history, esoteric spiritual manual, etc.) In the textbook for my course, Gilgamesh is in sentences and paragraphs, appearing as some surreal short story out of South American magical realism (though set in Southern Iraq, of course). In reality, it would have looked and sounded more like this, from the first page of David Ferry’s translation:

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Translators of this epic usually attempt to replicate the rhythmic structure of the originals, and here it seems Ferry uses anywhere from 4 to 6 beats per line. Stephen Mitchell’s translation uses 5 in some sections and 4 in others. In any event, the rhythm and repetition (in particular of the word “who”) create a sense of immediacy and tension (as repetition often does in performance). This of course gets flattened out or just plain removed in prose translations.

Here’s a related passage from the textbook I’ve been mentioning:

Who as the Gilgamesh who built these walls of lasting fame? Who was the Gilgamesh who built this most majestic temple? Gilgamesh was the renowned king of the city of Uruk. To his people, Gilgamesh was a tyrant who became a great hero. Gilgamesh left his city to learn how to avoid death, and he returned having learned how to live.

Cue the “The More You Know” music from those NBC commercials. Certainly this is more readable than Ferry’s poetry translation, if you define readable as instantly palatable. Much has been lost, of course. Reading Ferry’s version, I can almost hear a pounding drum and see people gathering close to the poet to listen and be reminded of the lore of their civilization.

I just keeping thinking that mythology is poorly served by quiet textbooks and desks arranged in neat rows. This is a bigger problem than I can tackle here (or likely in my lifetime), but I’ve written in the past about the need for a more transdisciplinary approach to education. Studying Mythology in the English Department (or in any one department at all, given the whole myth-as-fugue situation) is as myopic an approach as studying the environmental crisis entirely in the Biology Department. To do a proper job of this, we need Chemistry, Political Science, Marketing, Education, and so on.

A Mythology course should include, at least, the following departments:  English (Literature and Creative Writing), Foreign Languages, History, Anthropology, Music, Theater, Speech, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science, and so on. Sure, Culinary, too. We’ll get hungry doing all of this.

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