Tag Archives: constructivism

Is Arts Education Ripe for Disruption?

In my companion post (ahem) a few weeks ago, I mused  about the potential for higher education to be vulnerable to the kinds of disruptive innovations occurring in other industries, like newspapers, music, and movies.  This time, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. Although it’s sometimes easy to miss, Arts education is much more than attending lectures, writing essays and acquiring transferable and marketable skills.  Indeed, as this recent survey indicates, Arts educators would be remiss not to respond to the demands of their ‘clients’ for a greater and more meaningful experience animated by passion, curiosity, and depth.

It’s this complexity that makes Arts education less, rather than more, vulnerable to ‘MOOC-ification’.  The study of Humanities and Social Sciences requires an immersive and sometimes life-changing configuration of influences.  The expression of complex ideas in simple language, the organization and prioritization of research, and the exploration of the human experience from a range of viewpoints requires a commitment much larger than a given delivery system.  Arts education is larger than the acquisition of skills, indeed, referring to the complex processes of critical and creative thought as ‘skill acquisition’ devalues it, and is in many ways beside the point.

None of this is to deny that the institutional mechanisms of Arts education haven’t done some damage to the cultivation of critical and creative thinking.  Large lecture-style classes, cookie-cutter tests and formulaic essay-writing are convenient for educators concerned with conveying mass credentials, and have played their part in the past in reducing costs.  To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.  However, new means of conveyance cannot yet accomplish the kinds of personal, individualized experience that Arts education aspires to (see the Culture lab as an example of this changing philosophy).

 To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.

Protest Signs
Political Science emerged from turbulent times.

In addition, it matters that learners experience different Arts subjects in a manner that allows comparisons of their content. Most Arts undergrads take a few different subjects each term, offering the opportunity for cross-fertilization and meta-learning that can’t be accomplished by taking each subject in isolation, or ‘mixing’ and ‘matching’.  For example, my subject of Political Science emerged from a time when the arrival of mass warfare, revolutionary movements, totalitarian governments, and economic dislocations prompted an interest in cultivating citizens capable of making critical judgements based on historical knowledge.  This contextual knowledge of the origins of one’s society was believed to be a social good as well as an individual good.

Can Arts education evolve to meet the challenge of new technologies and disruptive innovations?  There is alot of synergy between the distributed model of online learning, and the more concentrated model of the classroom.  These two learning settings can be complementary.  With individual practice, testing and writing done in a distributed or individual setting, blended learning means making more time for group discussion, interactive question and answer sessions, and customized coaching in a personal or group setting.  Technologies can aid this process by enabling more time for intensive learning experiences when they are most effective, leaving educators the ability to collaborate and customize courses of study to suit their learners.  This can shorten the time necessary to learn.  However, making the most of disruptive innovation for the Arts means rejecting the temptation to reduce and narrow the purposes of Arts education to a specific and transferable set of measurable criteria.  Self-development and intellectual growth do take time, and for many, these experiences should not be rushed. Blended learning, coupled with open educational resources, can also improve accessibility and bring experiences to new learners who may not otherwise have the opportunity, by reducing the price without compromising the value of the experience.

Advertisements

“Old School Makes a Comeback”? Round Two

dictideaThis is (finally!) my second post in this series.  My goal remains to advocate a dialogue between conservatives and reformers, and in my first post I noted the continuing relevance of ‘old school’ teaching methods and philosophies.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of other interventions along the same lines.  This study based on student preferences sparked a storm by suggesting that students preferred good lectures over the latest technology, and led to not a few qualifications on the part of the authors.  This rejoinder reminded us all of the body of literature showing the ineffectiveness of lecturing under any circumstances.  And This one in the Atlantic takes an eminently reasonable middle ground in its agnostic advocacy of ‘lecturing’ as one tool in the kit of varied methods, that is most successful when used purposefully and skillfully.

Some of this healthy debate arises from the ongoing backlash against MOOCs and the Silicon Valley startup philosophy that underwrote the idea of online mass education.  This backlash was facilitated by Sebastian Thrun’s about face and his public confessions of over-optimism for technology.  I want to reiterate that it’s important to separate out the question of technology from the question of teaching techniques.  Neither side of the debate should be reduced to ‘either-or’ options.

As an advocate of learner-centred teaching, I think it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.   In some ways, it’s unfortunate that ‘lecturing’ has become emblematic of conservatism, since I would argue that conservatism is actually much bigger than lecturing.  Conservatism is a whole approach to teaching and learning, and so it encompasses lecturing, but it also encompasses ‘tried and true’ methods like Socratic questioning, drills and memorization.  So, the focus should be on conservatism as a teaching philosophy and less on any particular teaching technique or strategy.

it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.

What is the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from 5 main premises.  In my previous post, I discussed two of those premises: 1) the focus on standards and 2) the need for mastery.  In this post, I’ll turn to the 3 remaining premises of conservatism:

3. Self-discipline is a necessary goal of education.  Joanne Lipman’s article notes the work of Anders Ericsson, whose work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  She quotes: “true expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback”‘.

4. Failure is instructive.  A strict teacher will enable students to fail, to try again, and to learn ‘grit’ and persistence pay off.  Studies show that students with more persistence are more likely to succeed.

5. Rote learning and drills can be a means to enhance creativity, improve performance in basic skills, and encourage independence.  Therefore learning must be somewhat stressful and even uncomfortable and boring, to be effective.99951157

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:

3. On self-discipline: I am still waiting for the evidence that externally-imposed punishment is a more effective way to learn.  Much depends on determining what students know, what they are able to know, and what they can know with supports.  This means knowing the learner well, and committing to their learning, not to the teachers’ idea of an acceptable standard. I suspect that the ‘toughest’ teachers also know their learners extremely well, and know how far they can push successfully.  Self-discipline is cultured by offering supports and timely corrections when needed.  It means paying attention to what learners need and not necessarily what they want.

IMG_04264. Failure is instructive.  A recent study by Viktor Venkatesh sparked a storm by suggesting that ‘productive failure’ leads to deeper and more meaningful learning.  I would venture that a distinction be made between ‘punishment’ and the ‘natural’ consequences of failure.   Punishment, or failure for failure’s sake, is not the way that we get the best performance.  Imagine if we coached our Olympic athletes only using strict punishments for failure.  Athletes know the stakes, and they therefore seek out coaches who encourage them and support them through those failures and trials. This usually does not mean blanket praise, but a judicious use of supports to get the most out of one’s failure.  Failure without supports is like throwing someone into a river and expecting them to learn how to swim.  Such an experience may indeed make one persistent in the moment, but will that help them learn better, and will that persistence carry over to other tasks?

4. On rote learning: Lipman states of reformers: “Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as “drill and kill”—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.”  Indeed, there is a certain hostility to lecturing and to ‘drilling’ among advocates of constructivist techniques.  However, this unease is well-founded in the scientific literature, which in comparative studies has found that lecturing is relatively ineffective on a variety of measures of learning, including recall as well as understanding.  On this question, I would argue that there is a place for rote learning and memorization in education, and this place will likely remain for some time to come. As the Atlantic points out, lecturing has the upper hand in institutions of higher learning around the world.  However, if the goals of learning are deeper, if they involve mastery, the development of thinking, and the ability to problem-solve, then lecturing and drilling are less likely to achieve their stated goals on their own, when compared with alternative strategies. Learning outcomes should be the measure of effectiveness, rather than whether the process is stressful or difficult.

‘Old School’ Makes a Comeback? Opening a Dialogue Between Conservatives and Reformers

Science Teacher Writing on Black BoardRecently I’ve come across a couple of posts in support of ‘old school’ teaching styles.  This one presents the ‘latest findings’ of recent studies that tend to support ‘tough’ teaching methods.  This one, written by a prominent political scientist, laments the ‘demise’ of traditional education.  It’s worth noting that these traditional voices are still relevant and in fact the arguments are becoming more prominent as educational technology upends the traditional teaching model in unexpected ways.  It is completely understandable that educators might long for a more comfortable past, where authority was intrinsically respected (at least in our minds’s memory) and the power of the educator could be more easily leveraged to convey a universally recognized canon. One could also point to the ‘generation gap’ between ‘digital natives’ and others.  However, I feel the heart of this debate is less technological than it is philosophical.

I’d like to use the next two posts to analyze this phenomenon. I’ll state from the outset that I remain an advocate of learner-centred teaching, which I understand to draw from constructivist and connectivist learning philosophies that contend: 1) that learners be held responsible for their learning process and goals; and 2) that teaching be attentive to the specific needs of learners.

I’ve noticed that considerable misunderstanding arises when learner-centred teaching is counterposed with ‘traditional’ teaching methods.

Do we need to choose between ‘the guide on the side’ instead of the ‘sage on the stage’?

Learner-centred teaching is not the ‘opposite of’ traditional teaching.  Learner-centred teaching does not mean upending the relationship of respect between the learner and the teacher. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how instruction could be at all effective in the absence of mutual regard.

The defenses of those advocating ‘old school’ methods are therefore founded on a mistaken impression of what the ‘reformist’ alternative philosophies and methods are fundamentally about.  It is, appropriately, the job of those who advocate changes to make their case.  With the goal of opening a dialogue, let’s examine the arguments of the conservatives and some of the possible responses.  What is precisely the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from several main premises, which I will extract from the two blogs posts described above.  In this post I will address 2 of these, and in the next post I will talk about the last few.

‘Old School’ Arguments

  1. Standards matter.  Grades represent a real measure of accomplishment and effort.  High levels of accomplishment deserve reward, and lower levels send an important signal to the student about their degree of learning, which can either motivate more effort or help the student realize they are unsuited. Standards are best determined by the experts in a field, who are best-placed to judge what skills and knowledge are necessary to succeed.  To fudge on or de-emphasize grades is to rob students of the opportunity to excel or fail, both are necessary in the process of learning, and both will help students to advance.
  2. A well-rounded education based on mastery should be the goal of learning. It is clear that a ‘well-rounded’ education for Barry Cooper (see his blog in the Calgary Herald) does not include things like anti-discrimination training or sustainability education, or explicit attention to soft goals like ‘well-being’. But what might a well-rounded education include?

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:stick_figure_book_pile_800_clr_9092

  1. With respect to standards, learner-centred teaching emphasizes that the expectations of teachers must be high.  There is no real disagreement on that. The disconnect arises I think when the emphasis is solely on meeting the standards set by teachers and other authorities.  The assumption is that students will always set their own standards too low, and require the teachers’ intervention to achieve.

Students will choose high standards for themselves very often if given the chance, and will benefit from a learning environment in which the material is advanced, sometimes very advanced.

When students do choose high standards, requiring a teachers’ intervention actually robs students of the ability to be more conscious, and yes, more self-disciplined and persistent. This is because these external standards give the message that teachers are their sole source of feedback.  Lipman mentions an interesting example: music students who chose teachers that would be tough on them.  The point is that the students chose those standards and were therefore more self-motivated to learn as a result.  Here I would cite work done by Ken Bain and other educators and psychologists who emphasize that an intrinsic interest in learning can be compromised when the focus is on extrinsic rewards and punishments.  The result of ‘learning for the grade’ is that learners will do just enough to earn the grade and no more.  If part of the goal of education is to learn self-reliance, why compromise that goal by removing any chance to be accountable to oneself.

2. With respect to ‘mastery’, there is again not really a disagreement here about the goal.  For Cooper, though, mastery means a specific thing: the ability to be conversant in a specific culture.   While one may argue about the content of that culture, I think we can agree that certain habits of mind underlie all forms of learning: the ability to be open-minded, critically-minded, curious, thorough, persistent, detailed, even-handed, thoughtful and reflective, a problem-solver, expressive, and/or skeptical.  How we acquire these habits is still a question in hot debate in educational circles.  It is far from resolved, but there is no reason yet to believe that mastery is any less likely to occur in a constructivist than in a traditional setting.  There is also really no reason to believe that tolerance, commitment to community, or even self-development are incompatible with mastery learning.  If we uncover the conservatives’ focus on a ‘well-rounded’ education, I think we will see something that very closely resembles ‘character-building’ or ‘service to the community’ as well as the acquisition of skills.  These values underlie a lot of the ‘old school’ philosophy and are implicit values of education.

In my next post, I’ll look ahead to other components of the ‘old school’ argument: discipline, stress, and failure.  Just what we look for in a well-educated individual.