Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Learning through repair

Last weekend I spent several hours figuring out how to replace a valve and solenoid on the 32 year old sprinkler system at my house.  The week before I finished reading Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.  The two events together got me thinking about the power of learning by fixing things that are broken.

Crawford's book is made up of a story and two arguments.  The story is autobiography.  Crawford grew up fixing things on a commune, worked construction while in high school, learned to fix motorcycles, got a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, ran a Washington DC think tank, and after a period of great doubt, abandoned the think tank to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, VA.  The arguments are these: that by devaluing craft work, trade skills, and production, the educational system alienates all sorts of people and demeans meaningful work; and that the United States is desperately in need of building the sort of values associated with repair work: thrift, creativity, humility, self-reliance, and learning through labor.

These arguments are of course nothing new.  There is a long history of advocacy for production over consumption (and "knowledge work") best told in Christopher Lasch's The True and Only Heaven. And we are in a craft moment in American history, with "alternative crafts' springing up everywhere, and televisions replete with series focusing on re-use or repair: American Pickers, Pawn Stars, Extreme Home Makeover, etc.

I can't say whether it is possible to remake society around production, repair, and re-use.  But I can say that you learn some things by fixing broken sprinkler systems that you wouldn't necessarily learn elsewhere.  Here are the three lessons of my as-yet-unfinished repair of my sprinkler system:

1. Even the right tools don't mean you can do the work.  There is a lot of tool-focused education speak.  WE buy "tools" for assessment, or for teaching.  Students develop the tools they need to succeed in the real world, etc.  I own all of the right tools to replace a valve in a sprinkler system.  But it is still a damn hard thing to do when you have never done it before.  (BTW, instructions don't help a lot either.  they describe the ideal way to fix things, not the real experience of repair.)

2. Always dig the hole deeper and wider than you think you will need it.  Inevitably fixing something means fitting something meant to be assembled in a new system into an old system.  Which means you lack the clearance, the vision, the access to make the switch.  Too much of education still assumes students are learning new things rather than clearing space in a world view for new approaches to the truth.  I'm not sure the "deep, wide hole" rule holds in neuro-cognition, but without that space new ideas just don't fit.

3. In theory, doing the same thing again hoping for a different outcome is folly.  In practice, it is the way you repair.  Replacing a part means tugging on it, cleaning it, tugging on it again, catching your breath, looking at the piece again, tugging, getting it loose, tightening the tool, tugging again, doubting and so pushing a different direction, then tugging again.  Similarly, the learning of crafts requires the same perseverance, endurance, and obstinacy. Playing a musical instrument, writing research papers, nearly every task asks that you repeat the same steps again and again until your body is tuned to the problem.  Only science imagines that you can tune the world to your work.  For the rest of us we learn by coming up against our current weaknesses and then getting stronger by repeating our failed actions.

Tonight I buy the final correct coupling for the sprinkler system.  More learning ahead.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What if we learned from the decline in studying outside of class?

I heard a presentation today from Charles Blaich of Wabash College.  He leads the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, an effort to determine which practices lead students to develop the skills and orientations traditionally associated with a liberal arts education.

In his presentation Blaich pointed out a fact that we all recognize--students rarely spend 2 or 3 hours studying for every hour they spend in class.  At best it is 1 to 1; in many instances less.

We all have our favorite explanations for this fact.  Students just aren't committed to learning, or the rigor of higher education has declined, or student's lives are more complicated so they don't have as much time to spend outside of class, etc. etc. Whatever the explanation, though, we treat this fact as something to be denied or railed against.  I know of no effort in higher ed to reflect the fact of declining outside-of-class studying in the practices or curriculum of a school.

This is interesting in part because there is a healthy backlash against homework in the K-12 system.  Parents and educators argue that students spend enough time in school during the day, and that for ambitious students their homework routinely stretches into the wee hours of the morning, all with little evidence for improved learning.

So if it is the case that homework does not radically improve learning in K-12, and if it is the case that students spend less time doing it in college than we expect, perhaps we ought to begin to redesign learning with that fact in mind.  Such a redesign might in fact support some of the things we know lead to better student engagement and improved learning.  The critical change would be to have students spend more time in class than they currently do, while expecting that they spend less time outside of class studying. (This is by the way one of the side effects of the extended school day concept at many high achieving  schools.) 

What would be the result of this move?

1. Students could graduate more quickly because they could enroll in a larger number of classes (or preferably in the same number of classes but which bear more credits each).  If the minimum number of credits to be considered full-time shifted from 12 to 15 hours, students would complete a 120-hour degree in 8 rather than 10 semesters.  Where there is quicker graduation there is less cost to the student.

2. Students and faculty would spend more time together.  It is clear that student/faculty interaction is an important determinant of student learning and retention, though its impact varies across race, class, and SES.  It is also clear, though, that students are less likely to engage with faculty outside of the classroom than they are inside.

3. There would be more time for facilitated learning.  Many faculty turn towards lectures not because they are the best way of teaching but because they feel that lectures are the most efficient way of imparting information.  More can be said in 50 minutes than can be learned, the thinking goes. So instead we move some difficult ways of learning outside of the classroom, ensuring that students have to do them on their own time. More time in the classroom means more time for time-intensive and facilitation-needy pedagogies--reflection, group projects, student peer criticism, service-learning, mentoring, etc--in the classroom.

4. Learning might improve.  Time on task is a key predictor of learning.  How might faculty ensure that students spend quality time on task?  By having them learn in front of or with the faculty member.

5. A greater portion of faculty educational time would be spent leading learning rather than preparing to teach.  Let's stipulate that a shift to more time in the classroom does not mean more hours at work for faculty (just as it does not mean more hours "doing school" than is already expected of students).  Currently faculty spend a tremendous amount of time preparing for class, and grading outside of class.  In a more class time model, faculty would devote more of their attention to the relationships and interactions that lead to learning, rather than in the before and after of learning.

I know it is not a panacea, but if it is a given that students will not spend the time outside of class studying in a way that leads to learning, then spending more time in the classroom is a reasonable response. 

Perhaps an experiment is in order--give two groups of students the same schedule.  Have one group spend 12 hours a week in the classroom and try to get them to spend an additional 18 outside of class studying.  Have the second spend 18 hours a week in class and 12 outside studying.  Give both groups the same test at the beginning and end of the semester. Hold the faculty constant.  Which group of students will learn more? Which group is more likely to come back the next semester?

Black Swans and Blue Grasshoppers

By now the term “Black Swan” is part of common parlance, gaining a toehold in American English with the financial crisis and subsequent publication of Nassim Taleb's book of that title. A black swan is an event that no one predicted, but after its occurrence seems to have been inevitable. Tagging something as a black swan seems to serve two purposes: to indicate how complex the recent past has been, and to embark on an effort to turn that complexity into something understandable by explaining how the black swan appeared. So Black swan-ing is everywhere it seems—in the effort to explain the meltdown of the derivative markets and block its re-occurrance, in the explanation of the Gulf Oil spill and our response, in any event where someone in power vows “never again.”

Blue grasshopper events are less noted in the culture at large. I’m taking the term from Lewis Richmond’s book, Work as a Spiritual Practice. In its first chapter he tells the story of a blue grasshopper that arrived in the middle of a sesshin, and proceeded to slowly make its way across the zendo. It eventually encountered a statue of the Buddha, climbed its body, alighting on the head of the Enlightened One. The grasshopper seemed to change things, to portend something, though the change and the meaning were complex, unsettled, and thus worthy of repeated reflection.

I’ve been wondering about the roles of Black Swans and Blue Grasshoppers in learning. Black Swans change curricula. Business schools across the world are scrambling to respond to the lessons of the financial crisis—beefing up ethics programs, improving the quantitative skills of students, retraining executives in hard-to-grasp corners of the economy. Colleges and universities will ramp up immediately to respond to the Gulf Crisis. The unexpected success of Sputnik spurred the growth of engineering in the 1960s, a decade before the Cold War did the same for mathematics, physics, and language instruction.

But while Black Swans change curriculum they preserve the fundamental mindset of higher education. They suggest that all big things are understandable and need to be understood—in other words they seek to make inevitability become predictability.

It seems like Blue Grasshoppers—the unexpected, fraught, small, meaningful stories that make the world seem strange—ought to have a similar place in learning. If you talk to anyone about how they came to their current point in life they will almost always point to a Blue Grasshopper event. One day something happened that made life to that point strange. And since they have been pursuing the meaning, for them, in that strangeness.

But the impulse to make sense of Black Swans seems to overwhelm Blue Grasshoppers. They get explained away as coincidences, or spirituality, and therefore recede into the private parts of people’s lives. And so schools go ahead overlooking this key part of human life and with it the richness that comes out of musing on the strangeness of being alive.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Festivals and learning on the margins

Last weekend my family and I attended the Scottish Festival and Highland Games at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, UT.  We have been four years in a row, each time standing in the rain for several hours to watch musicians, dancers, and the other assorted groups that congregate at events like this.  My brother-in-law plays in a pipe and drum band; my daughter danced with an Irish dance team this year.

Though Scottish Festivals are everywhere, they are at the margins of the mainstream culture.  You never see one featured on television; no cultural icon has emerged from the Scottish Fest circuit; they shape no political movement; they make no dent on the economy.  And the festival at Thanksgiving Point (and its little sister in Payson, UT held every July) are on the margins of the margins—small towns, small festivals, no massive clustering of Scots in the surrounding district.

But the festival is evidence of the power of learning on the margins.  While a few of the people there may make some money from their participation in the event (small merchants, for example, who deal in henna tattoos, kilts, swords, and Celtic memorabilia), all of the participants are dedicated experts in their fields.  My guess is that most are self-taught, or that they learned their skills in a self-organized setting.  My brother-in-law’s band, for example, has no paid staff or instructor.  More-skilled pipers and drummers teach their less-skilled counterparts.  My daughter’s Irish dance troupe is the sort of endeavor that exists everywhere—a few teachers leading a passel of young kids in a skill that they themselves picked up from another teacher years ago.   Representatives from various Scottish clans trade genealogical wisdom. And the participants in the Highland Games who toss bales, or throw capers learn that skill by practicing in parks and competing week after week in festivals.

Festivals like this one play three roles in marginal learning.  First, they unite the subcultures that otherwise exist apart from each other, showing them that their efforts add up to something big (I would guess 3,000 people attended, paying $12/ticket to enter the festival).  Second, they create new cultures, as fans of genealogy brush up against partisans of Celtic music who rub shoulders with a gothic/new age group who sees some convergence in paganism, environmentalism, Asian art, and heavy black make-up.  That is to say that Scottish festivals are building new cultural understandings between people who otherwise don’t talk.  And third, they are public proofs of learning.  When dancers dance for prizes, or pipe and drum bands compete, or sheaf tossers break records they are demonstrating learning as surely as students do when they take a test.

If learning outside of the system of schooling is essential for the well-being of communities and humans, and if that learning will be largely self-organized, then the festival takes the place of the school building.  It is the infrastructure for learning on the margins, the place without which learning remains simply an individual pursuit.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

How do students learn the language of prestige?

I have another daughter who is beginning to look at colleges.  She will be a senior next year, has taken the ACT, and is looking to applying for college in a few months.

As with her older sister, a big part of her thinking has been tied up with the prestige of the schools to which she will apply.  Both her mother and I attended BYU as undergraduates.  My wife's MBA is from BYU also; my PhD is from the University of Delaware.  Good schools both, but neither at the top of anyone's list of the most prestigious schools in America.  Neither of us have focused on prestige in talking with our kids about college.  In fact, I have argued again and again that fit is more important than reputation, and that learning has a lot more to do with student and faculty engagement than with the size of a school's endowment.  Nor have my kids learned to seek prestige from their high school counselors or peers.  They attend a public high school which encourages its graduates to go to college.  Only about half do, and of those last year, only two left the state for college.

This situation--that both of my college-age daughters have been highly concerned about prestige without any direct discussion of it--intrigues me for three reasons.  First, I wonder where strong students come to link their futures with the prestige of the institutions they will attend.  After all, short of a few very famous universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) discussion of prestigious schools isn't part of the broader American culture.  Surely universities with famous football teams (Penn State, Florida, Oklahoma, USC) are better known than excellent liberal arts colleges (Middlebury, Williams, Grinnell), even among the well-educated.

Second, I wonder how prestige has come to be a stand-in for quality, and how that stand-in role is perpetuated among young people.  That prestige stands for quality is, of course, a commonplace, and the basis for most of the many college rankings.  But top students ought to be the least likely to be fooled by the argument that a huge endowment means great learning, or that world-class research faculty mean that freshman composition will be a life-changing experience.

Third, youth culture is undergoing a huge shift in the ways that reputation works.  Nearly every aspect of culture--music, movies, clothing, food--bears a reputational ranking with it now, and young people are happy to rate everything, including college teachers once they enroll.  Somehow, though, student views of institutions of higher education are currently impervious to the reputation revolution going on elsewhere.

So what is it that makes prestige endure?  I suppose there are several answers.  Parent perceptions might be one, since nearly every parent gets some vicarious educational experience through their childrens' schooling.

If I had to bet, based on my daughter's experiences, I would say that prestige is a proxy for opportunity, and that it is the expectation of access to educational opportunities that most shapes a student's views of prestige.  This is an interesting variant of the prestige = quality equation.  Opportunity is sometimes linked to quality, but it is more powerfully linked to access--to travel, to friends, to relationships with faculty, to employment prospects.

What does the research on prestige suggest?  Are there schools that have successfully used reputational rankings to raise their visibility and desirability?  What else does prestige mean to students?