Thursday, April 29, 2010

What Are You Learning? How Are You Reacting To It? And What Are You Going to Do with it?: Teaching for Reflection

These are three of the most important questions I learned early in my professorial career that I should be asking my students in every single class period. I didn’t originally ask these questions when I started teaching. In fact, I had been teaching at the college level for six years before I was a participant in the University of South Carolina’s first “faculty training” or the University 101 first-year seminar. And that “training” was transformative for me as a young professor. And that “transformation” is precisely why so many colleges and universities have been offering such “training” since ours began in 1972.

It would be a subject for multiple blogs for me to recite all I learned in that training. But two basic ideas were to focus on what students were learning—or what you wanted to teach them—on both the cognitive level (i.e what did you learn?) and on the affective level (i.e. how are you reacting to it?). I had never considered before how I learned, our students learn, at both levels and how the two interact and influence each other.

I had also not thought about taking those questions to the next level. Why of course after asking students to think and draw some conclusions about what they are learning and their reactions thereto, it was now important to ask them: and what are you going to do with what you learned? I realize this suggests a utilitarian, potentially practical view of learning. But I don’t mean to overemphasize that view. It could certainly be just a matter of a student deciding that something he/she learned was intellectually curious and should be filed away and remembered as such.

It was about 20 years later that I was serving on the board of directors for AAHE, the former American Association for Higher Education. And in that important service I met the father of the service learning movement, Professor Edward Zlotkowski, a Professor of English at Bentley College in Waltham, MA, and the editor of AAHE’s series of 25 volumes on “Service Learning in the Disciplines.” And it was Edward who gave me new language for this process of what we had been asking students to do in the first-year seminar: “reflection.” Edward argued, persuasively, that some of the most powerful learning that takes place is when we ask our students to “reflect” on what they are learning, its meaning to them, and what they are going to do with it.

I have maintained ever since that we should, most importantly then, be teaching for reflection. Once I started practicing this pedagogy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

-John Gardner

Monday, April 26, 2010

What Will Our Students Remember?

This weekend there was a thrilling, memorable, event going on in the city near where I live, Asheville, N.C.: our President, and First Lady Michelle, were in town for a vacation. No matter what your political persuasion, most Americans get a real kick out of getting even near a sitting President. And this evokes for me my memory of the first Presidential candidate I saw, when I was a senior in college.

And this makes me think about the larger subject of just what does stick with our students? What are they likely to remember, in this case referenced above, 46 years later? And is what they remember connected to anything we did intentionally for our students in either the curriculum or co-curriculum?

It was early fall, 1964 and US Senator Barry Goldwater was running against sitting President Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater was making a mid western “whistle stop” campaign tour which in itself was sufficient to invoke all kinds of nostalgia. And he made a stop in Marietta, Ohio, a rural community in Appalachia. It was a thrill.

He stood on the back of the very last car of the train, surrounded in tri-color patriotic bunting. And there in the heart of Appalachian coal country, he railed against Social Security—mind you some 31 years after that legislation had been enacted (with plenty of Social Security recipients in his audience). And he quoted his running mate, a retired Air Force general, Curtis LeMay, who threatened to “bomb the North Vietnamese back into the stone age!” In light of all that happened over the decade, and upon my reflection on those events, this was really an incredible appearance. He spoke, quite appropriately, beside an old, run down flop house hotel, which proudly proclaimed that it offered “since 1897-- the best hospitality in Marietta.”

This sets me to wondering if it would be a worthwhile exercise to ask your students, perhaps in first-year seminar, what have they experienced as a focused event in time, during college so far, that they think they will remember one, two, three decades out or further. Was this something that happened “in class” or out of class? Was it something that a faculty member or professional staff member planned specifically and hence was under institutional direction? Or were the majority of these experiences unplanned, serendipitous, beyond the control of the institution.

Perhaps if we/you thought about what the students tell us stays with them, we might be able to more intentionally plan some of these events in advance, and hence become true “facilitators” of student learning. Let me know if you try something like this.

-John Gardner