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    The Importance of Community

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:39 pm

    I never really thought about the importance of community within the undergraduate classroom until I experienced its absence in my first year seminar, Human Dilemmas.  It was the first time I had taught in the College’s three-year old First Year Experience program.  Coincidentally or perhaps causally, it was also the first time I deliberately tried to implement social pedagogy into a course for first year students, an approach I’ve used very effectively for years in the senior capstone course for the sociology major.  

    Since one of the key features of social pedagogy is representing knowledge for others, I decided to ask my seminar of 13 students to work with me to prepare a presentation which would be given to the seven other first year seminars that were part of the Human Dilemmas cluster.  The topic focused on a complex core concept–enculturation.  I invited my students to work together to come up with a plan for teaching their peers about how culture shapes what humans know and understand.

    This assignment fit the social pedagogy design elements:  it asked the students to engage with a difficult authentic task, to represent knowledge for others, to engage in open ended exploration, to work together as an intellectual community, and to connect the affective to the cognitive.  Once a week a faculty member lectures to the approximately 100 students enrolled in the seven Human Dilemmas sections.  I told my students that I did not want to lecture, that I wanted to involve students directly in the presentation, and that I needed their help to find examples that would enable first year students to grasp this very difficult threshold concept of the social construction of knowledge.  The students read the assigned readings for that presentation the first week of the semester.  The class, then, worked on this project once a week for approximately six weeks.  

    In the end, the students were unsuccessful in coming up with a workable plan for the presentation.  While I incorporated a few of their ideas into it, for example a clip from Friends, and I also asked the larger group of students questions that my specific students were primed to answer when needed, I ultimately designed and delivered the presentation.

    Why did my students fail to come up with a workable plan for representing their knowledge about culture to their peers?  Initially, I thought it was because they were first year students in their first month of college and they simply didn’t have the expertise to design the presentation.  If seniors are capable of representing knowledge for others and first year students aren’t, it must be because novice learners need to know something before they can represent it for others.  

    Then I read their midterm exams and compared them to those from one of the other Human Dilemmas sections and saw that my students had indeed achieved a stronger grasp of this complex core concept than the other students who had only done the readings, heard my presentation, and discussed both in their seminar.   So the social pedagogy had produced a stronger grasp of this core concept.

    Next, I attributed the failure to my students’ inability to get along with each other.  The first week I had the class work as a group as a whole.  When they didn’t get any where, I decided 13 was too large a number to work together effectively and I broke them up randomly into four smaller groups the next week.  When that didn’t work, I decided to break them up into three groups randomly in the third week.  When that didn’t work, I decided to divide them into two groups:  the talkative students and the quiet students.  As I was assigning the groups, one of the talkative students demanded to know who had chosen the groups.  

    Three weeks into the semester, perhaps because of their inability to work together successfully on this project, it became painfully obvious to me that some of my students did not like each other, that they did not want to work with each other, and that they even had trouble being civil to each other in class discussions.  

    What I had failed to do was to create an intellectual community in my classroom, something I have always managed to do with my seniors.  I worked hard for the rest of the semester trying to get the students to behave civilly towards each other at least while in class.  I even had the peer mentor, a sophomore, facilitate half hour sessions with them when I was not present to try to clear the air as well as to encourage appropriate classroom behavior first at midterm and then a month later.  While the situation improved, the problem never went away, perhaps because the problem may not have originated in my classroom but in the dorms.  The new first year experience program includes housing students in first year seminars in the same dorms.  I will never again take for granted the presence of community in the classroom.

    I will teach the first year seminar for the second time this fall.  My first goal will be to create an intellectual community in the classroom.  The students do not have to be best friends but they do need to support each other as co-learners.


    Intellectual Community and more

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:14 pm

    Note: This Posting originally started out as a discussion of “Intellectual Communities.”   But as often happens in writing, as I wrote about “Intellectual Communities” and especially when I typed up the student comments, I was led to see connections to the “Situated Feedback” and “A Sense of Purpose” petals.   The interconnectedness is an important dimension of the Social Pedagogies schema.

    Community
    The Literature for the North Woods Project is only one dimension of the course in addition to reading and discussion of texts, writing literary explications (close readings) and analyses of the readings.   Students in the class also maintain their own blogs, in which they write regularly in response to the readings and class discussions.  I also require students to read each other’s blogs and comment on the entries.   This activity, along with the North Woods Project, is a central design element for creating and sustaining an intellectual community among the students.   For the project, that sense of community comes from the shared process of developing their projects as well as from the presentation of their projects to each other and other audiences at the end of the course.   Throughout the semester, students create three “snapshots” that invite them to begin to think about their own experiences and relationships to the campus Woods, connections they see among the class readings, and, ultimately, potential projects they might do and designs for these projects.   As students complete the snapshot, they post them on a class discussion forum and then read and respond to each other’s plans.  Some comments about benefits of the collaborative nature of the project:
    •    [About a joint project]  “E. and I spent a lot of them talking about our own impressions of nature.  Often, our interpretations overlapped; we both found ourselves focusing in on the smaller plants, light-play, and motion.  But there were several instances when we were able to enhance our project because we each observed something that the other person overlooked.”
    •    “Working with S. as a partner made the experience much less stressful and more enjoyable.  Meeting a few times before actually beginning the project allowed us to combine our ideas and make sure we were both envisioning the same final project.”
    •    “The best part though, was when J. and I went to put our two parts together.  We discovered that, despite working from different contexts, using different mediums, and contriving our ideas completely independently, we had arrived at basically the same conclusion about nature.”
    •    Throughout putting our North Woods Project together, Z. and I shared some remarkable moments of synchronicity.  At times it was almost too surreal; I can only compare it to when musical improvisation between two players sounds like a well-rehearsed and orchestrated composition.”
    •    “At various stages throughout the process of choosing and then developing my animation, I contemplated changing to a different type of project.  However, there were two things that kept me committed to making a claymation film.   The first was the encouragement from my peers on the discussion board.  From the responses posted, all who read my keep toolkit felt that it was an original and fun idea.”
    •    “Talking to classmates about the project seemed to help a lot in shaping the project.  Students had told us that while a presentation would be adequate, it would not be enough to engage the class and show off our creativity . . . . Spending a little time with classmates allowed us to realize that we could draw ideas from not only the historical readings, but from The Green Man myths and other folklore stories we read in class.”

    These passages are from the reflective essays that the students wrote at the conclusion of their projects.    In typing them up, I am struck by a clear sense of a community that doing the project seemed to create for the students.   As the Social Pedagogies flower suggests, “community” on the Course Design Elements side did correlate to “Situated Feedback” on the Student Experience Consequences side.   But I also have to wonder whether the project achieved a sense of an intellectual community among the students (or between the students and their nonstudent audiences).     On the one hand, I can see the intellectual community in the discussion of the creative process and presentation form in the students’ comments.   On the other hand, though, I don’t have evidence that the students were talking about the ideas of the course (see core concepts) among themselves (although this did come out a bit in the comments during the presentations).

    These passages also seemed to demonstrate the Student Experience Consequences of  “A Sense of Purpose,” in the way the Working Group has been unpacking this “petal”: work that matters to the students, work that they have something at stake in, work that is meaningful to them.


    A problem of practice

    May 2nd, 2009, 4:06 pm

    Our Connecting Students/Connecting Classrooms seminar was designed to help faculty confront a challenging problem:  how to use ePortfolio more effectively as a tool for connection.

    The process was challenging in part because the core issues of connection and integration are fundamentally difficult.  There is a reason that integrative learning remains one of the great unaddressed needs of higher education — as faculty, we are trained to focus on the curriculum of our individual courses.  Shifting to a focus on the whole undergraduate experience could be said to require a paradigm shift.

    Other factors also contributed to the challenge.  The technology used added a degree of difficulty, in that our ePortfolio platform does not currently integrate web 2.0 functionality, which would have facilitated connection.  Our faculty’s 9 course-per-year teaching load adds stress and fatigue to the equation.  And anytime one asks faculty to change their teaching practices, one is asking them to put in extra time and add to the risk of failure.

    Faculty who applied to participate took part in a series of monthly meetings, focused on practice.  We started with what faculty were already doing with ePortfolio in their classrooms.  We raised the possibility of new approaches, connecting where possible to the practices that were already underway, but persistently prompting faculty to consider ways that they could do more with ePortfolio and help students get more out of the process.  Month by month, we moved from considering possibilties to asking faculty to design new classroom activities, to actually testing those activities with their students, and returning to discuss what transpired.

    The persistent focus was on pedagogy, the craft of teaching.  We asked faculty to focus on a shared issue of practice, and to undertake a process of considering the problem, learning from the literature, developing solutions, testing those solutions, and reporting on the results.  The approach or strategy we used was the recursive dialectic between seminar and classroom.

    This dialectical approach is common to many of our semiars, and while it takes time, it generally works well.  In this seminar, we added an additional element — having faculty bring in and present examples of their students’ portfolios.  We did not want to stop at faculty talking about what THEY did.  We wanted to put the spotlight on what their STUDENTS were doing.  How their students were using ePortfolios, throughout the course.  And we didn’t want only finished ePortfolios — we asked to see ePortfolios repeatedly through the semester, beginning, middle and end.  We asked faculty to share and discuss their students’ portfolios in pairs and small groups.  And we asked them to present them to the seminar as a whole.  Again and again,  we asked them to highlight in their sharing and presentation, the evidence of different forms of connection and integration.