The Education Pond Throw in an observation and see if it ripples…


The New Progressivism in College Teaching and “Old School” Expectations

JoAnn Lipman describes the educational significance of "tough, demanding" teachers in a column that appeared in the Wall Street Journal online:

Lipman provides a research-based defense of teachers who maintain very high performance expectations and are not particularly forgiving of those students who fail to meet their standards. We live in an age of progressive pedagogy in higher education.  The emphasis is on increasing participation, adding project-based learning opportunities, student-centered learning, and kindness.   In this environment, Lipman is undoubtedly right that a partial corrective would be desirable; the importance of high expectations and challenging standards should not get lost in the mix.

Unfortunately, journalists thrive on contrasts, and Lipman, being a journalist, adopts a provocative but, in my view, utterly wrong “either-or” approach.  For her, it’s either traditionalism or progressivism, whereas teachers who do especially well adopt the features from both traditions, because features from both traditions are important for student learning.  On the side of educational progressivism, research in many fields has found that well-structured student-to-student and student-to-faculty interaction shows measurable and significant effects on student learning.  On the side of educational traditionalism, there is no doubt that students' time on task is also strongly correlated to learning.

It’s too bad that Lipman draws on borderline sadistic experiments to make some of her points; that will play into the cool feelings of many about traditional instructional practices.  But the underlying message is not entirely wrong, and it deserves a hearing.



The Outcomes of Reading Literary Fiction

Two researchers from the New School for Social Research, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, have recently provided empirical evidence for outcomes that literature professors have long assumed (but perhaps have sometimes doubted) - namely, that those who read literary fiction may have greater capacity to empathize and understand others and therefore to become skillful navigators of social relations.  Comer and Castano exposed subjects to works of literary fiction, by authors such as Anton Chekov and Don Delillo, and other subjects to popular fiction and "serious non-fiction."   The excerpts from popular fiction included passages from books such as Gillian Flynn's Go Girl and Danielle Steele's Sins of the Mother.  They drew excerpts of serious non-fiction from the Smithsonian magazine.  In five experiments, they found consistently positive (though small) differences between those exposed to literary fiction as compared to those exposed to popular fiction and non-fiction on well-validated tests of empathy, including the ability to read correctly the underlying emotions and attitudes in actor's facial representations.   Kidd and Castano observe that the difference between literary and popular fiction is that the former includes more ambiguity than the latter and requires readers to engage in more effort to understand characters' motives, actions, and interactions.   As the authors' write, "Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration."  Popular fiction leaves less to the imagination. In Kidd's words, it "takes you on a ride" and everyone goes on the same ride.  Characterization is thin and motives are obvious.  For more about the study, which appeared in Science earlier this month, click on the following link:

One wonders whether something similar might be true in other fields in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.  Perhaps art that requires close interpretive attention helps students see more in others types of composition than art that lacks such complexity.  Or that  "non-obvious" social science helps students to see unexpected patterns in social life more clearly than social science findings that fit widely shared stereotypical understandings of social relationships and social structures.


An Experimental Course on Leadership

I have had the opportunity over the last two years to teach an experimental course on leadership.  I have borrowed many ideas from the privates in constructing this course.  We usually do not have the opportunity in large research universities to teach experimental courses, but some departments do have research intensive undergraduate seminars.

Students must apply to be admitted.  I accept between 15 and 20.  In their applications, students must write about their leadership experiences, their strengths and weaknesses, and their expected commitment to the course.  GPA figures prominently as a selection criterion, because it is a very good indicator of conscientiousness and commitment.

Students are required to write 5 five-page memos on the readings.  They are required to work together on a group project that will improve the campus and can be completed in 10 weeks.  They are required to help lead class discussion once in the term.  They are also required to host a special visitor in a formal dinner setting during the term. And they must meet with me at least once during the term for no less than a half hour to discuss their performance and what I see as their strengths and areas in need of improvement.

The main idea is to expose students to the literature on leadership -- from Sun Tzu to James McGregor Burns to Jim Collins and the GLOBE study.  I define leadership as the combination of knowledge, skills and judgment that allows individuals to motivate and direct others for the accomplishment of desirable group ends.  We have some students on campus with huge potential in this area, but little chance to reflect or develop this potential.  But more than providing the opportunity to reflect we work on five key skill areas that are important for all aspiring leaders: oral presentation, analytical and critical thinking, written expression, project accomplishment, and interaction in formal settings.  The latter might not seem essential, but future leaders need to be able to handle themselves in both informal and formal settings.  And to interact with people who can help them accomplish their projects.  Students have many opportunities to present their ideas and progress on the group projects, and they are required to do so.

A small class means that everyone feels responsible to participate -- no free riders.  Unfortunately, in classes of more than 15 or 16 some students will not participate.

Here are the characteristics I've borrowed from the privates: selectivity, small classes, the requirement to perform at a high level, the requirement to receive straight personal feedback, the opportunity to interact with successful people.  In particular, the opportunity to interact with successful people is commonplace in private colleges and universities, but students in public institutions need that opportunity as much or more.   They need to be able to "see the possibilities for themselves" in others who have succeeded at a high level.

We can't offer frequent experiences of this type at large public research universities, but, if we want to do it, we can offer these types of experiences more freqently than we currently do.




Learning from Stand Out Majors

We see quite a bit of variation between majors in terms of academically beneficial outcomes.   In a recent study using UCUES 2008 data, my co-authors, Allison Cantwell and Preeta Saxena, and I looked at three outcomes: study time, academic conscientiousness, and analytical and critical thinking experiences.  We found that the arts majors stood out on study time (including out of class preparation), economics stood out on conscientiousness, and three disciplines (philosophy, political science, and history) stood out on analytical and critical thinking experiences.

The disciplines can learn from one another by borrowing practices that are effective (and, of course, tailoring them to their own subject matter and methods).   Why do the arts majors stand out on study time?  One reason may be the public accountability characteristic of the arts' exmphasis on in-class critiques and preparation for performances.  When students are required to present their work for the scrutiny of others, their preparation time tends to jump.  No one wants to be embarrassed in front of peers or audiences.  Why do economics majors stand out on measures of conscientiousness (such as working together to understand material, explaining materials to other students, and increasing effort to meet instructors' expectations)?  Like professors in the natural sciences, economics professors typically demand that students master relatively complex analytical and quantitative understandings -- and many require homework to demonstrate that they have done so.   Finally, why do philosophy, political science, and history majors stand out on analytical and critical thinking experiences (such as critically evaluating methods, and comparing different explanations for phenomena)?   This must stem from the way facts and interpretations, logical relations, methods of analysis, and competing perspectives are examined in many classrooms in these disciplines.

The point is not that the majors should just like one another in how they approach undergraduate education -- there's no chance of that, thankfully.  But we probably can learn from the good practices that we find in neighboring disciplines and apply them in our own ways to improve the quality of the undergraduate experience for our students. 


Building More Classroom Participation into Lectures (and Sections)

A long line of literature has shown that classroom participation is strongly associated with beneficial academic outcomes (such as longer study time, greater academic conscientiousness, and more frequent analytical and critical thinking experiences).  We can't solve the chicken and egg problem: Does participation lead to good outcomes or do good outcomes lead to more participation?  It doesn't really matter; We should use what we know to build more participation into classrooms.

Even in large lecture classes, professors can engage students with a steady stream of questions (mainly easy to answer factual questions to allow the opportunity for all students to contribute).  They can also ask students to perform what they are learning through presentations of key concepts or background reports, debates about issues raise by course materials, presentations of group research projects, and in-class problem solving.  Increasing participation slows down the amount of material that can be covered in lecture, but in most courses this is well worth trade-off.  The difference it makes to students is that impressive.

We used to think that sections were the antidote to large lectures, because the discussion missing in lectures would occur in sections.  But, increasingly, sections are becoming second lectures.  (They are even called "second lectures" in introductory math courses.)  It's true that it is very difficult to pull shy students and students who have not read the material into discussion, and it is not surprising that section leaders resort to lecturing under the circumstances.  But starting with simple factual questions, and working up to more complex concepts and applications, can help to break the ice.  Sadder even than lecture classes that lack interaction are sections that emulate lectures.