Thoughts on Current ED Trends

These comments are based on a series of articles recently perused.  The comments aren’t meant as crtiiques of the articles, which are very well done and thoughtful, especially the Iwamoto, D., J. Hargis & K. Vyong 2016 “The Effect of Project-Based Learning on Student Performance: An Action Research Study” in IJSTEL v.1 #1; and B.Wildavsky’s “The Open University at 45: What can we learn from Britain’s distance education pioneer?” in blogs 2.1.16.

Everyone seems to agree that the lecture is dead.  Replacement becomes tricky however, as one quickly shifts into ideology rather than data-supported replacements.  Key among these ideological-driven agendas is the dominance of group=based learning, frequently blended with a Piaget-based constructivist philosophy.

I have several issues with this ‘replacement therapy’ approach.  Bad lectures (200+ students, large hall, taught by TA’s / 30-60 students taught by professor who is more engaged in their personal-political agendas of academia, such as publishing, managing graduate students…) have always been failures, and will remain so.  By contrast engaging lectures, thought-provoking ones, such as frequently seen on TED talks (which ironically are touted as very creative/engaging yet are traditional lecture format) still work.  Likewise badly designed or bad-fit group-based/collective courses will be just as bad as the bad lecture.  Pedagogy isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ process.  As more research shows up, especially based on online curricula, it seems that the basic reality that course content and learning goals should drive pedagogy has been lost.

The argument that group-based learning is inherently more effective I disagree with.  While it collective learning engages students at some level, learning by definition is always going to be an individual pursuit, autonomously-based, within one’s brain.  Cynically, at some level members of a group are liable to be competing against each other, either for grades, jobs, etc.  Building a dependence on the group as a sole-source learning strategy is not doing our students any favors.

I would suggest that going back to a more Socratic approach, difficult though it is to design, would be more beneficial in the long run.  This would involve intellectual puzzles/mysteries/koan that require critical thinking to both define, operationalize, and then come up with options (rather than solutions).

This could work as follows:

A mystery/puzzle is viewed as a group (2-3 students per group), with a clearly defined goal laid out (explain and analyze the puzzle…);

the group then talks over what they have just viewed; throw out interpretations, ideas, hypotheses;

THEN they watch the mystery/puzzle again, but this time as individuals, no post-viewing discussion

Everyone then writes their personal analysis–they can use any materials collected during the process, including the opinions of others, but it is their own expression of critical thinking and analysis that they present.  A constant theme in the course would be the need to develop a “Personal Voice”, their own sense of who they are, how they see the world, based on self-discovery and introspection driven by critical thinking exercises like the mystery.

I feel this would resonate with contemporary students who deeply desire to personalize their world.  Personalizing their intellectual world would be a way to engage them in critical thinking and introspection that will serve them well in the future.



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