Walking the walk instead of talking the talk

I’ve just finished teaching my latest crop of ed school students, and I’ve been puzzling over two trends in education. These trends aren’t exactly new, but, for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me until now the degree to which they’re in hopeless contradiction. Think irresistible force hitting immovable object. The one: most instructors spend most of their time being guides on the side rather than sages on stages. The other: most students no longer get through most of the assigned readings.

So, unless you give up on students learning specialized knowledge—of the sort that comes from instructors or readings—how do you run a student-centered classroom that addresses the course material?

Let’s say, for example, you’re teaching a class on the cognitive idiosyncrasies of autism, and you want to draw your material from experts like Uta Frith, Nancy Minshew, and Yvonne Groen. And let’s say, hypothetically, that no one does all the reading, and that some students do no reading at all.

To the rescue come four additional edworld trends: trends that suggest ways for you to avoid being a stage sage while still appearing to cover the course material. The trends in question? Real-world “relevance,” personal connections, group work, and hands-on activities.

Option 1: shift class activities from specialized knowledge to related topics that are accessible to people whether or not they’ve done the reading. Instead of focusing on, say, what experts have concluded from experiments measuring perceptual processing or complex task performance in autism, students could share their anecdotal experiences and current opinions. They might discuss their impressions of the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of whichever individuals with autism they happen to have interacted with personally. Or they might share their opinions on whether society should be pathologizing, accommodating, and/or celebrating these cognitive differences.

Option 2: shift class activities away from whole-class discussion towards group activities. Make sure each group contains at least one student likely to have done at least some of the reading. Have each group discuss a question (based, at least loosely, on the readings) and then present their responses to the rest of the class. Recent incarnations of this increasingly popular protocol–Chalk Talk and Gallery Walk— factor in poster boards, markers, post-it notes, and students walking around the classroom-turned-poster-gallery, thus lending the process the kind of hands-on, active-learning “feel” that appeals, at least theoretically, to the millennial and post-millennial mindsets.


Option 3: drastically reduce the reading assignments and have students read during class time. (J recently had a history class like this that he had to drop because of what comes next…). Once the 10-20 minutes allotted for reading is over, have students write responses. Though this disfavors slow readers and poor comprehenders, Option 3 serves an additional purpose: making sure students aren’t plagiarizing or having parents or college writing center “tutors” write their reading responses for them.

Option 4: a variant on Option #3 in which the solitary writing activity is replaced by Option 2.

There’s one remaining option, of course—brazenly defiant though it is of the many sages on educational stages who tell the rest of us we shouldn’t be sages on stages. If students haven’t read about perceptual processing and complex task performance in individuals with autism… then perhaps they should spend most of class time listening to the instructor present this material to them.

Active marketing for active learning

From my faculty inbox:

Dear Katharine,

The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to impart knowledge to students. With Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops providing an endless supply of distractions, savvy educators must rely on new teaching methods for classroom engagement.

Our new Active Learning Handbook highlights how using active learning techniques can result in higher student engagement, improved grades and a lower dropout rate.

“Active learning techniques,” apparently, do not include active banning of smartphones and laptops, nor do they include old methods like active calling on students, active class discussions, and active writing assignments that require active listening to lectures.