Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How Uncomfortable Can I Make This?

I was sitting with college freshman today and at the end of our class I sat down and posed the
question - if I gave you a topic and said, learn about it in a week - what would you do?

It is a writing class so many of them said, I would write a response.

You don't have to write a response response. 

You are free to explore any place where data is available. 

Some say they would start with a map.

Some say they would start at the beginning. (Where is the beginning).

How do we tell you what we know?

I am not sure. 

What do you want us to know?

I want you to know everything and or whatever is important to you. 

But it will be different from person to person.


Yes, every single answer will be different.

Why is that a problem?

Because there is no right or wrong.

But you all learned abut the topic in your own way. Isn't that experience designed to fit what you want? Isn't that better learning?

Why can't you just tell us what you want?

Because I am not learning this - you are. 

(A silence sits over the room. Someone shifts awkwardly in their seat.)


Part of this exchange was to see if this approach was even comprehensible. Learning for students has always been objective - purpose driven. The hard part of posing this kind of inquiry to them is that they have to define a process or a purpose while they figure out where they are going. It is similar to writing a novel - you have to have a good story, but you have to define narrative point of view, voice, form, and other form based thinking. The students don't want to think about how they will walk this unique path, they just want to get there - to some objective.

What I want to know was how do I measure the steps taken, how do I measure the quality of those steps, and what does the path reveal about the ideas they moved through? Is that what I can assess? I don't know.

I mentioned that teachers don't like this either because it takes away their authority, their purpose. If I am merely a resource, a director of your journey, I don't have a significant value. I am no longer the guru, I am merely a fellow traveler. That doesn't sound like a resume builder, but we know sometimes those connections can change more of your life than sitting in a lecture hall. How do we talk about that?


  1. Replies
    1. I asked them about learning new things outside traditional classrooms, and who will grade them? I asked them to think on that for the week.

    2. Please post their responses as a follow-up blog. Very interested in what they will conclude.

  2. The question of what you can assess is a great one to ask, and a nearly impossible one to answer. The process students go through is, as you’re suggesting, the whole purpose of a journey of learning.

    You’re suggesting here that the students are best positioned to take charge of that learning process. If they’re in charge of it, then don’t they have to be the ones to determine the quality/success of that process? Is the path they moved through the thing you assess? Yes. How do you assess it? You ask them. Can’t students share with you the path they took, the learning they did, the “ideas they moved through”? All you have to do is set the right expectations: Something like, “Show you moved through a process.”

    I find that this line of thinking inevitably leads me to want to assess effort. Because if students consistently expend significant effort on a self-directed journey of learning, they can’t help but arrive at a destination that is significant to them. Measure the effort, not the destination. (See the work of Lee Skallerup Bessettee and Asao B. Inoue for more explanation.)

    I’ve spent some time thinking about the issues of assessing the path. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about issues of talking about the benefits of self-directed learning to students who are accustomed to what you call “objective” learning. I don’t yet have a clue how to have that conversation with those students, and it’s something I see I need to have with the students at my institution. I’d love to hear what you come up with, because it’s a fantastic question to ask.

    1. Thanks Chris for your excellent comment. Teaching writing is subjective in its nature and I think I feel more comfortable assessing effort and growth than a math teacher. I am close to that concept of measuring effort and improvement based on suggesting new ways to walk and act as a writer on paper.

      My students want objectives - they want to be pointed to a purposeful reason to learn. That is the system that we've created. There is no instinct left in upcoming students and young adults that suppose you can think on your own, learn and achieve on your own. No one has even suggested that to them.

      I suggested to some students that they learn about the Vietnam War for a week. And I asked them what would they do? One student said, I would watch every Vietnam film I could find, review them all on a blog and find connections that they share. I almost fell over. Something clicked. And he realized that he could take what he wanted - to watch movies, and turn it into something he could show me. And then we move into the area that you suggested, measuring effort, measuring accountability of the process, and perhaps reflecting on how the learning process worked - (watching so many movie took too much time, creating a blog was difficult, next time I would use twitter). I would value this process - but my institution would not. Be well, and thank you for the comments. Thought provoking.

  3. I love this story. I've run into the same sort of thing when I ask adult upgrading students what they want to learn. They look at me with a puzzled expression and finally respond "everything". They find the question difficult to answer because they are not sure what I expect them to say. Their entire school experience has convinced them that their own opinions are irrelevant to the "right" answer.

    I read your story to my wife. She said, "What? No one suggested to ask SIRI?"

  4. Ron,
    Timely post. Precisely the point at which many teachers would baulk and revert back to tradition. It is for both teachers and students to co-create the learning. One thought is to build online presence in communities and then simply facilitate student entry into those spaces...after all if learning is through networks, we should be sharing them rather than just sharing content, right?

    1. I really like this idea of connected students into networks of learning. That is something that sounds so simple, but makes such an impact. For some, teaching as co-creators is a threat to their hierarchy - but devalues the ability and the potential of the student. Great comments. Thank you.

  5. this is so great - we need more people with expertise in the "most uncomfortable moments" of learning where we create opportunities for people to clarify their own goals and methods. i'm finding a couple of things interesting when we do things like this in training, and one is to change the space - get people to physically move their chairs or at least themselves and to meet each other or at least put down their pens.... any kind of other-than-expected physicality seems to lead to increased open-ness to a new idea.

    i hit this moment a few years ago working with a bunch of community centre workers around disability training. maybe i'll write about it... thanks so much for this posting - made my day :)