Last week, a group of graduate students and postdocs at NC State met for a book discussion of Cathy Davidson's Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. This discussion was part of the Fundamentals in Teaching workshop series at the Graduate School at NC State and facilitated by yours truly. For this discussion, we focused on chapter 3, "Project Classroom Makeover," where Davidson discussed the iPod experiment at Duke, and how it transformed learning across the campus.
In this workshop, we decided to do an experiment of our own. If any of you have been fortunate enough to read Now You See It or attend one of Cathy Davidson's talks, she'll tell you how we are doing a great job of training students for the 20th century. That is, for an industrial society where work is highly task-oriented, demanding highly focused, undivided attention. Students are not being trained for the highly interconnected and networked world in which we currently live and work that demands attention in many directions all at once. I have heard Davidson give the example of the school bell as the symbol of this 20th century classroom. The school operates by the bell in the same way factories operate by the bell. In our experiment, we decided to brainstorm a list of other "symbols" of the 20th century university classroom, and imagine how we could completely transform these symbols for our classroom. Here's what we came up with.
The 20th Century Symbols:
- Scantron/multiple choice tests
- ABCD grading scale
- Lecture halls with a blackboard or powerpoint at the focus
- Teacher centered classrooms
- Row seating
- Science fair poster presentations
- Handwriting and note-taking
- Syllabai and lectures that are divided by disctinct topics
- A discreet sense of time (e.g. meeting MWF 9-10am, a year being divided into semesters, and courses into hours of credit)
[Disclaimer: I do not intend to give the impression that I, or any of the participants in this workshop, think that these "symbols" are bad and should be thrown out of the classroom. Handwriting is certainly a great skill that everyone should practice! The point of this exercise was to reimagine the university for the 21st century--Its not a question of what artifacts we include and exclude in our university, its a question of how they are used.]
After we created a master list of our 20th century symbols, we broke into small groups to pick one of these symbols, and re-create it for a 21st centruy classroom. Some groups focused on one symbol, others picked a group of related symbols. Here's what we created:
- Course-flipping: A teacher-centered lecture hall became a collaborative laboratory where students listened to lectures or read the textbook before class, and attended class to collaborate on problems with the instructors assistance
- Worksheets were re-designed to function more as guides rather than fill-in-the-blank, showing relevance of learning with big picture questions. (Yes! They can still be printed on paper!)
- Courses were re-designed to have a looser sense of time. This involved creating hybrid courses (both online and in-person meetings). One or the other may be optional, or students can facilitate informal meet-ups.
- Other ideas: using technology to generate problems and provide feedback; collaborative groups; group projects and group presentations
The blog format is a very difficult medium to recreate this dynamic discussion we had in this workshop. If any of the participants read this and see I left something out, please add a comment! Here are some other issues we discussed that we, as TAs and as future faculty, could take baby steps towards changing: evaluation and grading mechanisms, testing mechanisms, physical classroom layout, student-centered learning, diversity in the classroom, and group collaboration.
Now I'll end with a question I recently learned at a workshop on collaboration (at Duke, led by Fiona Barnett and Cathy Davidson):
What are we missing?