Engaging students (c/p w/ Dead Voles)

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (but perhaps the larger discussion will be at Dead Voles).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with the Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?



  1. Hayek/Marx would work well in Steven Johnson’s view of “peer progressives”. I’m surprised how surprised some people are by the connections between Marx and Hayek.
    Had skimmed the Wired piece as it’s been making the rounds. A few things raised red flags so I pushed it down my list. Maybe I should actually spend time with it. Are we finally going beyond MOOCs and “Waiting for ‘Superman’”? Maybe Rolin Moe can chirp in?

    A project I have in mind, for learners’ engagement, has to do with something similar as the points you’re making here, I think. It’s about open play as opposed to gamification. I think playfulness can help a great deal, in the right context. Much of it has to do with well-known ideas about low-stakes assignments and the “rehearsal” part of Performance Theory. It’s difficult to learn how to use a hammer when you perceive it as a loaded machinegun.

  2. One of the things I do all the time is take a key term, like “satire” in a course on Swift, and tell students in the first class that it is complex and open-ended. We’re not working with a prior definition, but it’s their job to help me define the parameters. So what are they? What am I missing? etc. etc. So we brainstorm definitions, examples, applications as a group, and those group-generated concepts, sub-concepts and examples become the foundation for subsequent discussion. Once you’ve begun with those, you can start to integrate and refine with the published scholarship (“this is what X says about satire”)

    I’ve done these kinds of pedagogy talks, and the one thing I’d observe is that whatever general concept you’re discussing, you’re much more likely to gain their interest if you or someone in a particular discipline can ask them to verbalize it within their own disciplinary frameworks and key concepts. So ask them, what would engagement look like from the perspective of math? anthropology? philosophy? etc. So like any other engagement scenario, much better to ask the questions in ways that interest them, that relate it to their lives and work, and invite them to regard it as a mutual inquiry and dialogue.

  3. Boy, I’ve just been a terrible blogeur of late, but I’ve been drawing sustenance like a camel from these comments.

    The point about playfulness is so well taken, I feel like I should get it tattooed inside my eyelids. No wait, that doesn’t sound very playful. “The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous,” as Suzuki says.

    And I love the ground-up approach to concepts, Dave, assembling a sort of family-resemblance analysis out of recursive questioning. If I get another chance at this kind of talk, that’s how I’ll do it.

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