Last night, at the Rare Book Room of Perkins Library, I gave the first lecture of my forty-stop tour for Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. It was a marvelous, generous standing room only audience, and our Dean of Academic Affairs, Lee Baker, made a most complimentary introduction. When I took the lectern, though, I turned it: I said he must have a migraine once a semester when we wakes up, turns on his computer, and has an email from me with the subject line: "HEAD'S UP!" I am a very early riser, I blog before dawn, and, more than once, I've had some radical idea for how to turn the classroom upside down, blogged about it, and had the call from Inside Higher Ed or the Duke Chronicle or some other newspaper even before our lovely Dean has had his morning cup of coffee. Soon he's having to reassure some reporter in those measured words he's gotten very good at: "Yes, this is a radical way of teaching but Professor Davidson is one of our best and most responsible teachers and she wouldn't be undertaking this . . . " You know the rest of that administrative sound bite! It's not easy being @catinstack's dean!
Well, the conversation was so good last night, and the interactive exercise with the audience so energetic that, alas, I woke up this morning with yet another experiment that will probably get our good dean out of bed again. I'm on leave this year for the book tour so I have a year to hone and polish this. The one thing I didn't like about my crowdsourced, peer-evaluated grading last year was the paperwork. The software for collaborative, peer-evaluative work is so clumsy that the RA in the class had to be a human tabulating machine, spending most of her time collecting information on the feedback each student gave each week to every other student--and to the students teaching the unit that week. The pedagogy worked brilliantly. We learned about learning and teaching and the fruitfulness of evaluation in a profound way. But the evaluating itself was, quite frankly, a pain in the butt.
So what if we adapted the lessons of "endeavor-based work" (IBM, of all places, uses this: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/08/how_ibm_is_changing_its_hr_gam.html) to the "innovation challenge" of Mozilla that I used last year as my midterm exam (the toughest exercise I have given in my entire career and unforgettable:http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/midterm-exam-open-innovation-chal...). But here's the kicker: what if this happened before the class began. I'm sure there are rules against this so, with all due respect Dean Baker, you will probably be apologizing for me again. But I think this would be an amazing experiment, worth the effort and the controversy.
Here's what I'm thinking. Next year, I want my class itself to produce a fantastically interactive online course called "21st Century Literacies." I want us to produce an episode per week and the students producing each episode will be responsible for beta testing it to the general public, so that the public's interactions are actually the feedback the students are receiving as they both offer a "lesson" to the public and receive lessons from the public to make the online course--free, and open to anyone--even better. Their final project is to deliver a finished version of their interactive lesson unit. It will be a phenomenal experience, I know that. (As Dean Baker will tell you, I'm a serious and responsible teacher with a lot of experience. This is a winner, for everyone.) But I don't want to trivialize this kind of creative interactive learning with grades. I don't want to trust this kind of content to anyone but a superlative student. I don't mean superlative in a predictable sense, but meaning creative, smart, determined, risk-taking, innovative, collaborative. My kinda student, my kinda person.
So what if I said students had to earn their A before they came in the class? What if I posted a tentative list of "21st Century Literacies" and invited any team--they would have to have selected team members who compliment their skills, a group of two or three per "literacy"--to create a beta-beta version of their unit before the class began, as their application to the class. If it was A material, they would be in. If not, they would have learned something from doing the project that would serve them well in the rest of their lives--but no admission. To earn the A in the class itself, all the students would have to do is turn their beta version, and then into their final version, improving their presentation, their content, their ideas, their functionality, all of that in the course of the course. If they didn't deliver a completed project? If they didn't post their beta version? If they didn't do everything to draw peer-students from the general public to their course? If they didn't respond seriously to every inquiry? What grade would they get? Failure. Of course. Pass/fail. A or F. Earned in advance. Delivered at the end. No grade book in between. Done.
I don't know if this will work. But I know we will all learn from the experiment. To my mind, that is what great inspired teaching/learning--what Howard Rheingold calls "co-learning" is all about.
NOW YOU SEE IT
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011). below.
A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes: "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.
In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . . One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."