Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Geeky Mom's work and the literature on teaching

Geeky Mom has a good post on teaching with social software, including blogging. She begins with a very important point about teaching research skills: really what one is teaching students is how to evaluate sources and information. Often lip service is given to this idea, but little thought is given to what it really means or how best to do it. You would think, for instance, that evaluating sources of information would be taught in critical thinking texts. But the most the typical critical thinking texts give you is a paragraph discussion on the fallacy of the appeal to inappropriate authority (oh yes, and a test question where you have to see that an electrical engineer is not a legitimate authority on evolutionary theory). Geeky Mom at least offers up a nice exercise for actually teaching how to work with sources
So, the activity I have in mind is to have students search using the same keywords in about 5 different places. The keywords need to be unique enough not to generate millions of results, but general enough to have some results to choose from. I envision that they would search a library database that they think (based on the information given on the library web site) is most appropriate, a search engine, google scholar, technorati, and perhaps a social bookmarking site like CiteULike or furl. They will blog this whole process. ... I can envision setting students loose like this, blogging their experience of reading a book, attending a lecture, participating in an online discussion, reporting it on their blog.
One of the things I have been doing this summer is looking into the scholarship on teaching. Basically, I've become much more serious about using ethics and critical thinking courses to make students more ethical and better thinkers. The main things I am looking for are techniques for teaching that can be proven to impart skills that students will transfer to other environments. As a part of this, I have been studying community based learning; Michael Scriven's work on evaluation, both as a skill we impart to students and as something we have to do to students (Scriven 1991); and the research on critical thinking (mostly Scriven and Fisher 1997 and Fisher 2001). I'm very interested in exercises like GM's. I'm even more interested in learning if they work.

The problem is most educational research is overpoliticized shit. And for once both left and right manage to dumb things down by bringing out the political dimension. What isn't infected with simplistic politics is infected (infected, I say) with the language of managers. Here is a rough approximation of a slide I saw in a power point demonstration recently. (Click through to flickr to see the bigger version.)


Honestly, I have no idea how you can expect to teach reasoning and language skills unless you have some respect for reasoning and language yourself.

As I was writing this, I thought, "I'd like to see some evidence-based education, along the lines of evidence based medicine." Turns out there is such a thing, but if this site is any indicator, "evidence based" is just being used as a term to bash Dewey-style progressive education. In other words, it is a political slogan, and has as much to do with evidence as the "sound science" approach to environmental precaution has to do with science. The most telling thing is that there isn't much discussion of actual evidence on the web site. (This is, however, merely the first site on evidence based education I came upon.)

The thing is, before we could have evidence based education, we need to agree on what will count as good evidence. This is an epistimological discussion that needs philosophers, but has mostly been given over to psychologists who design standardized tests.

Philosophically, I am inclined towards teaching approaches like GM's. I like the idea of turning over a lot of control to students, at least at the college level, and I think social software is a good way to do this. Another of the books I'm reading this summer is Fink (2003), which definitely reflects how I am thinking about course design now, although it, too, is *infected* with the language of managers. So I'm hoping GM will post more on her research, because I need to learn more, and the summer is waning.


Fink, L. Dee. 2003. Creating significant learning experiences: an integrated approach to designing college courses. 1st ed, Jossey-Bass higher and adult education series. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Fisher, Alec. 2001. Critical thinking: an introduction. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Scriven, Michael. 1991. Evaluation thesaurus. 4th ed. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Scriven, Michael, and Alec Fisher. 1997. Critical Thinking: Its Definition and Assessment. Norwich, UK: Center for Research in Critical Thinking.

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