Blog Post

May You Live in Interesting Times

Students have been warned:  I plan to explode the boundaries of traditional classroom experiences and will adopt student centered strategies that are appropriate for the 21st century.  Even if they have previously taken a class from me, Winter 2012 classes will not be taught like any course they have ever taken.

After I explained my vision for the Ocelot Scholars Project to her, one of my colleagues commented, "You are really taking on the role of project manager." She is correct. I will not be teaching the class so much as I will be facilitating the work that will lead to a successful project outcome. While completing the project, my students will not only learn the required course concepts, but they will also develop skills that will allow them to succeed in the 21st century; skills such as critical thinking, synthesizing information, creativity, team work, and flexibility.

In addition to setting up the framework for the Ocelot Scholars Project, there are other ways I plan to challenge more traditional forms of education. For example, I have invited my early American history students to help design the syllabus we will use and I have asked my early modern world students for help in picking a theme for the course. Although this is not the first time I have co-designed syllabi with students, I suspect that these students have not been previously given the opportunity to have such an opportunity to influence a course they are about to take.

Earlier this week, one of my history students sent me a link to Sir Ken Robinson's Changing Education Paradigms. As Sir Robinson rightly points out, traditional educational practices prepare students from an agricultural background to successfully advance during the industrial revolution. I am not sure that any of my current students live on farms and none need higher education to succeed in an industrial revolution that reached its zenith in 1908 when Henry Ford began to mass produce the Model T.

During the industrial revolution and the years immediately following it, teaching students how to work in an organization where employees hired into entry level positions, moved up through the ranks, and then retired from the only company for whom they had ever been employed might have been a reasonable educational goal. However, such a career path is not the case for a skilled 21st century workforce. Therefore, if students are to have a transformative educational experience, I need to teach as if the world has advanced since Henry Ford developed the production line.

In order to allow students to develop 21st century skills in my classroom, I need to be willing to advance my own skills. When Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, the author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work , and Learn, was directing my graduate work at Michigan State University, she taught me impeccable research skills. But the world has changed since the 1980s and those skills that initially made me an effective scholar are no longer effective.

Under Dr. Davidson's direction as well as others, I became an effective teacher who won the Excellence in Teaching Citation. Because only six were given out each year, this citation was the most prestigious award that Michigan State presented to a graduate teaching assistant. Yet if I were to try to teach my classes today as I did then, I would be a very poor professor who does not serve his students well. Again, the world has changed and I have had to change with it.

While adapting to a quickly changing world is scary, it is manageable because, even in the 1980s, Dr. Davidson was taking a student centered approach to education which allowed me to develop what we now call 21st century skills.

Whether we take it as curse or challenge, we are living in interesting times. My students have been warned and so have I. As I look to the future, I am reminded of the scene where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid  jump off the cliff and free fall into the gorge below. I appreciate their fear.

Recently, I shared my fear of stepping into the abyss with a current student who plans to take another class with me during Winter 2012. I told him that we would have a great success or we would crash and burn. His response was enlightening: "Either way, we are going to learn something." And learning something as part of our education is not so bad.


This entry has been cross posted on my teaching blog:  Etena Sacca-vajjena.


1 comment

I look forward to this class; An outward thinker myself, I always try to encourage others to do a bit of 'unlearning' themselves- learning by doing. You dont need strict guidelines to come to your own conclusions, and a little brainstorming to figure out different ways to solve a given situation never hurt anybody.