Newstok on ‘Close Learning’
In this recent article, Scott L. Newstok eloquently defends the face-to-face interaction that serves as the basis of the student’s learning experience. While I may not agree with every conclusion here, Newstok’s interest in student learning as the end that technology–and any other classroom practice–must serve is important. Newstok reminds us that these debates aren’t new and relate closely to our understanding of what education should be or should become.
What’s new and significant here is Newstok’s argument for “close learning” as something valuable in itself and something closely linked to the purposes of education more generally. We need educators that can articulate the purposes of education and the value that students bring to shared learning experiences, whether in the classroom or through emerging technologies.
One pedagogical experiment that I’m taking on this semester is an attempt to draw students into the lecture/discussion more fully by using exploratory questions to invite students to work on a common problem with the instructor. While it is admittedly somewhat Socratic, beginning with a shared question can help to articulate the purpose of the class session and motivate students to think about the underlying intellectual issues that this problem engages. For classes that tend to be relatively pragmatic, this kind of starting point seems to provide a more concrete analog for discussion at a more theoretical level.
Teachers can pose these initial, exploratory questions to the class directly, or they might pose them rhetorically and articulate the stakes before inviting student input. According to What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (Harvard UP, 2004), these questions “confront students with a common problem (of understanding, application, analysis, or synthesis)” and help to explain its broader significance. In a larger class, however, this can lead to a few students frequently dominating the conversation if other students feel less comfortable speaking publicly about new ideas. I’ve tried a number of strategies to try to invite more of the class into the conversation.
The first strategy is requiring that students complete a course journal or discussion board question on the topics to be discussed in class. Gathering these responses before class allows me to see what students throughout the class are thinking, and calling on students based on their ‘published’ written work does not put them on the spot in the same way that asking them to respond to a question or idea for the first time might do. A second option, which I’m trying this semester for the first time, is to use in-class polling. Many campuses still have “clickers” for this purpose, and smaller classes can use the resources at PollEverywhere to have students answer with their phones or computers. Students can see the breakdown of results immediately, and the distribution of responses (particularly to more open-ended questions) can be provocative. In a sense, students can see how many other students in the class share their opinion in real time, which might inspire confidence in students less likely to speak on their own or might encourage students with different opinions challenge the prevailing assumptions.
Towards the end of last year, one of my colleagues (also an ABD literature student) pointed me towards the ‘pomodoro’ method of increasing productivity. The time management idea apparently comes from a book by Francesco Cirillo, and the idea is that you take about five minutes off for every 25 that you work on the task in order to keep your mind and focus fresh for the task at hand. Part of what made this stand out to me is my interest in trying to avoid a repetitive stress injury while writing my dissertation since the effects of the injury would be present for years to come. Coupled with concentrated efforts to reduce multitasking and distractions, the benefits of this kind of time management have become almost cliché among graduate students trying to finish their dissertations or theses. Having found it to be useful in my own work, I have begun to question why our time management goals differ so dramatically from the way in which we ordinarily structure classroom time.
Given this fact, what does this knowledge and these practices imply about the way in which teachers traditionally order their classrooms? From my experience, the conventional knowledge in many institutions of higher education is that variety and changing teaching methods (group and individual work, lecture and discussion, reflection and recall) can help students maintain focus, but is there too little room for downtime or breaks? Are students in 3-hour evening classes, for instance, better served by an intricate and wholly uninterrupted class that allows them to cover the maximum amount of material, or would they be able to engage with the material more with structured time that permits them to relax or pause their focus during the class period? Perhaps it is this need for this kind of structuring that makes integrating downtime in the classroom so difficult, as it is easy for students to ‘lose focus’ when instructors provide down time or early dismissals without the structure needed to make the downtime productive in the long run. How might one assess downtime and its purpose, student focus in a way that permits a variety of learning styles and differences?