Saturday, June 25, 2011

How Little Girls Learn...Just Like Big Girls Do

When I first started to teach fifth grade in a Seattle suburban school district I would go around the room and asked...." what each child wanted to be when they grow up?"  Since the school was close to the Boeing aircraft facility many of my boys wanted to be pilots or engineers or "build planes" like their dads.  A few of the guys wanted to go into the military in some way and only one ever wanted to be a doctor.  Most of the boys had some goal as to what they thought they wanted to be as they became adults.

Not so my girls.  When I ask the girls in my class what they wanted to be, a few said they wanted to be airline stewardesses, a good number wanted to be nurses and an equally number of girls said they were going to be mothers (like their mothers).  When I asked the to-be stewardesses why they didn't want to be pilots they looked at me in confusion. "Girls aren't pilots, Mr. Blackwell."  I got the same response from the nurses to-be when I confronted them as to why not a doctor?   I found this lack of goals in the girls disturbing and troubling. 

I then went down to the school library to seek a book that had a girl as the lead character and I found only one book in the entire library in which the girl is the hero. It is "A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeline L'Eagle, published in 1962.   From that moment I started to look for books with girls in a leading role. "A Wrinkle" went on to win a number of publishing awards.

My next book that I read to my fifth grade class was about Elizabeth Blackwell, First Woman Doctor.  It was the perfect book for my needs (and my girls needs) as Elizabeth had to fight and struggle to become a doctor.  She was stubborn to a fault so I am sure she was part of my early family (subsequent research appears to show this to be correct).  I finally was beginning to see some results in the girls thinking of what they might become in later life.  This was in the early 1960s.

This was my first epiphany--that girls had different goals then boys.  I could understand that they might not want to play football but that women (they were becoming women) could still use their brains.  I loved all my kids in those fifth grades and I wanted ALL to be their very best in whatever they wanted to do.  I didn't want their lives controlled by societal norms whatever that might be.  

I still find it upsetting that the Hardy Boys stories were allowed in our elementary library but not the Nancy Drew stories.  Apparently it had been deemed that the Nancy Drew stories were not good enough literature.  We soon changed that policy.  In searching for that early science fiction book that I read to my class I queried Amazon and Google and find that today there are many more books for girls then when I first started to teach.  Thank heavens (for little girls--sorry, but that is a song in a movie--had to put it in.  "Gigi," I think).

Why this missive about books for girls?  What I found as I learned how to teach was that girls and boys learn differently.  Girls like to work together with other girls (and like to talk--oh my do they like to talk which is part of the process).  Boys like to work mostly on their own.  Many boys want to compete.

But for the past year I have been looking for an old book of min on how women learn.  I've written about it in these blogs from time to time.  But I could not identify it or the author.  It became an obsession.  Either where was my book or where could I buy another one?  I tried Google Scholar--no luck.  I tried out of print books and again no luck.  It was important to me when I was teaching so why couldn't I find it?

I did find Carol Gilligan's book on women, "In A Different Voice."  No, that was  not it although it was an instrumental book in my development.

It turns out that my memory is faulty--which is what I already knew.  However, I was sure I had the title correct.  Wrong.  Just recently I stumbled upon the book that i was looking for.  Women's Ways of Knowing:  The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind.  Published in 1986 AND in 1997.  Finally I found it!  Yeessss!  It was written by Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger and Jill Tarule.  No, I have never met these women--I wish I had.

My mistake was that I was looking for a book on how women learn.  The one I wanted was on how women know.  This is a big difference.  Learning is one thing but knowing is a damn site more important.  Boys want to "own" what they learn and girls want to "establish a communication with what they are trying to understand."

I can't remember where it was that I found what I was looking for.  I think I was perusing through an index of a book when I spotted it.  But the even better part of this finding is that I was able to buy the latest edition (with added information) for my Kindle.  I now have John Dewey's Democracy and Education next to Women's Ways of Knowing.  Important books for teachers.  It gives us a philosophical bases for our methods of teaching.

Thank you to the four authors for teaching me much.  I hope you've thanked a teacher in the past week.  They need it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Designing a Class...or a course of study.

How are courses in a university designed?  Can you buy courses from a university store?  Or do college courses just follow the book?

Some years ago I was asked to teach a course in beginning (basic) instructional media at a university's college of education.  It had been taught previously by the head of the department however the dean was trying to get some time for this professor to be able to do some research hence I was asked to teach the course.  Not only teach the course but redesign it and "bring it up to date."  

The first thing to do was to ascertain the parameters--those things which could not be changed.  For instance, this course was in the catalog, 3 quarter credits (which meant that it met for three hours a week for a quarter or twelve weeks of instruction.  That meant for this scheduled course it would meet on Thursdays from 4 pm to 7 pm.  The classroom was a controlled classroom, meaning that only the department of Instructional media had access to it.  It was a long room with an aisle up the middle, a small stage in front and projection equipment already installed in the classroom.  This was before microcomputers were established so I didn't have to teach computers.  The class would have access to a "Self-Instructional Learning Laboratory," a room of equipment set up with special designed instructions to help the student learn how to operate different types of media.

An important task is to review who the student will be in this course.  In this case, being that it was an afternoon/evening course, I could expect a number of experienced teachers wanting to learn more about technology as well as picking up 3 credits for fifth year or master's work.  I could also expect to have a number of upper grade underclass students completing their educational requirements.  The register's office said I might expect forty to fifty students.  While the majority of the students would be in education I might also get a couple of undergraduate Forestry students and some Library Science students.

My next task was to list the equipment that I wanted to demonstrate and to rough out the amount of time I thought I needed for each medium.  I also added an introduction and a summary to the course for time purposes.  At this point I set up the objectives for each medium, not only wanting the student to be able to operate the equipment, but know why it was to be used and what characteristics it brought to the learning, i.e., film brought motion, overhead transparencies brought visual clarity and 35 mm slides brought visual acuity. 

Now the hard work started.  First I wrote out what I thought might be the final exam.  I find testing to be the biggest chore for me--it takes time to write a decent question that will reveal a student's knowledge of that objective.  However, if I start at this juncture, the rest of the course is easier to design.  I received permission from the department to not use a textbook for this course.  My reasoning (which I have reviewed over the years) was that I wanted to students to know the machines through their actions, not through readings.  I'm still not sure what is the best way for the learners.

The next step is to plan the instruction for each objective.  Introduction, presentation of the medium along with demonstration of different materials that can be used at different grade levels (K-12).  For each medium taught I listed capabilities that I wanted each student to acquire from making different types of overheads to previewing film to use in their classrooms.  I wanted them to discover some of their own learning with the equipment and with that discovery some increased positive feelings with the use of instructional media (affective domain).  

Once I had the media objective's instructions outlined, tasks assigned to each objective, I compare it to my final examination.  In some cases I changed the instructional material and in some cases I changed the final exam questions.

I then scheduled the self-instructional learning lab for specific evenings so that students from off campus would have time to participate in the learning laboratory.  Let me digress here for a moment.  Shortly after World War II, Penn State University college of education did some interesting research on how to teach technology.  During WW II soldiers were taught by expository method with the warning that if they didn't learn "it" they would probably be killed.  High internal motivation resulted.  But after the war, how does one motivate the learning of technology without that threat?  Interesting thought.  So Penn State designed a course in media with different approaches in methodology....1) pure lecture (traditional at that time), 2) supervised hands on (one on one), 3) self-instructional laboratory with instructions written on cards or slides), 4) during student teaching and 5) no instructions at all (control group). 

These methods were used for a year and during the following year most of the subjects had gotten teaching jobs and were evaluated by the principal as to their use of instructional materials in their classroom.  There was no difference between the groups including the control group.  Holy cow!  The researchers could think of no reason why this was happening.  However on the second year the control group was significantly lower in evaluation scores by the principals.  But on the third year it was the teachers who had learned in the self-instructional laboratories that seemed to stand out.  Seemed because they were the ones that were now being singled out as "excellent teachers" by the principals.  Not just in using the media but in all aspects of teaching.  

Why?  How come?  The eventual surmise was that these teachers (to be) were learning on their own how to use technology.  That might have been the cognitive and the psycho-motor objectives but they also acquired some affective learning on how to learn by oneself.  So as these teachers went on to teach their classroom, the continued to try different things out in the classroom.  One of these teachers reported that soon after getting her own classroom, the school brought in new technology and she figured that if she learned the other machines she could learn this as well.  Interesting thought here. students would have to go through the self-instruction learning lab and learn how to operate each piece of equipment and demonstrate that learning to a lab instructor.  Hands on testing.

I now had the course designed and the final was once again reviewed.  Because I elected not to use a textbook, I had to write up a course syllabus as well as a number of class handouts.  Because I had a large number of professional teachers in the class I needed to have make up times for those that had to miss class (only a few did), evening office hours for those teaching all day, office hours for those on campus, and a schedule date for the final examination.  

I can report that the class went well.  My notes suggest that I needed more time for student comments--those that went back to their classrooms and tried some of the material I had presented.  "Success breeds success" and you have to let the students brag a bit about what they had done.  Many reported they didn't like the self-instructional lab at the beginning but they all agreed that after some rough starts it was fun "learning the new equipment."  They seem to reinforce the findings of Penn State's learning lab.  One negative that I still haven't quite got over--because of the class time (4 to 7), many of the students came to class eating a fast food dinner.  For an instructor who would not get his dinner until later that night, those fast food dinners sure smelled good.

I didn't follow up on the students after they finished the course.  On hind sight I think I might have done that to see what was valuable to them in their teaching.

Today if I were to design an Instructional Technology course, I would go through some of the same procedures but I probably would have the use of Smart Boards for expository use, computers for sure in laboratories, and I would mandate the use of "Blackboard" instead of handouts.  Student responses would be done on Blackboard, a course management system to facilitate exchange between student and instructor.  

Have you ever thanked a college instructor for the course?  It would be a nice surprise.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Birth of the University...

Present day universities and colleges are an odd duck in sheep's clothing.  Faculty actually work for ........ themselves.  And you thought they worked for their university.  Not so.    So let's take it from the beginning. 

An early group of teachers were the Sophists in ancient Greece.  They taught young  upperclass men for a fee, unheard of in those days, and would only teach those that could afford it.  And they taught philosophy and reason although their statements were quite often not true.   Hence, in today's world, the term sophist means to deceive by specious statements.  In the philosophical world, the Sophists professed skepticism.   But the key word here is not 'skepticism' but rather, 'professed' which means to state publicly.  So a Professor is someone who states something publicly.  

The next body (although they existed alongside the Sophists) of teachers were learned men who studied on their own.  Most of these learned men had patrons who sponsored them, Kings, Popes, Titled persons and rich men, who in some cases, kept the learned men like pets.  "My learned man is better than your learned man..."  The learned ones could teach what they had learned by sometimes only if the knowledge was approved by the sponsor.  A good example can be found a book entitled: "Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love."  Based upon a series of letters between daughter and father, one can see that Galileo's learnings had to be brought before church at that time for approval.  And yet, Galileo strongly held to what he had found--that the earth was not the center of the universe.  

Interestingly enough the church sponsored the next category of teachers indirectly, monks from several different disciplines.  These pious Monks would pray, study, write in cloisters for years interacting between the groups at times.  It is said in some history books that the long sleeves of the Monks provided a good place to steal bread and food while walking through the market place while the hoods protected their identity.  

There is an interesting story about these groups that I delight in telling.  The Monks would meet from time to time to report on what they were studying and it is said that if the report was not done well, those in attendance would throw stones.  I've had the same feeling at some of my own department meetings at my university.  But that is not the story I want to relate.  In the same report, it was said that the body of monks would elect the "least" among them to find a room for them to meet, to start the fire to warm the room and to send out notices of the meeting time and place.  And this person was called a "Dean."  You could get out from being a dean by making a "good" report.  A delightful bit of information I think...... 

So...through the efforts of these monks we have the beginnings of colleges and universities.  "A collection of learned men [and women when you add Galileo's daughter]."  So who "owns" the knowledge that these scholars gleamed from the world around them?  Does the King, Patron or Pope own that knowledge?  Or the person who discovered it, teased it from the environment, developed it?  Interesting question.  This debate still rages today in Idaho where the president wants to change the configuration of the university and the faculty (monks?) will have none of it.  See: Stanley Fish's article, "Faculty Governance In Idaho" in the June 6th, New York Times,  We live in interesting times.

Let us clarify some terms before we continue too far down this road.  At a present day university there are a number of different levels of instructors or faculty.  The lowest level (meaning they get the least money for their work) is the Graduate Assistant.  Neither fish nor fowl, the graduate assistant is a student and a worker.  He/She assists some professor in the research, teaching, or administrative details like running labs or doing library research.  A graduate assistant working on their doctoral studies might even be ask to teach a class.  Rare but it is done.

From graduate assistants we go to the Instructor.  This is a wide category--ranging from someone who teaches a lower level class over and over to someone who is invited to join the faculty after they have had a successful career in the real world but may not have the degree.  

Next we enter the professorial world.  Beware, ye who dare to enter here!  What a quagmire!  Before I explain the levels be it known that the old monks had some standards for their rock throwing.  A professor has to do three things well, teach, service, and research.  In many universities, the latter takes the form of writing--either books or articles in learned journals (journals are Magazines controlled by other monks).  But these three characteristics are not viewed equally by all universities.  Teaching by and large is the least of the three.  Service is the second of the three-- that is being an officer in a learned organization or in charge of a major national committee to study something is considered service.  The top tier is research which is evaluated by what is written.  

But politics also takes its toll.  A faculty member who is in the "pure" sciences will receive ratings that are higher then a faculty member in education or the social sciences.  Different politics for different universities.  I visited an Ivy league college some years ago to research their student teaching methods.  They had NO educational professors, in fact, NO education department.  Anyone that taught education courses was in the Department of Psychology.  Interestingly enough, they also had no one supervising student teaching.  A student had to find their own position and get the teacher to agree to having a student teacher in his/her classroom.  This an Ivy League college program.  Quite frankly I would have at that time put any of our education students against any of theres except they were Ivy League and would only admit the most capable students in their program.

Now that we have the evaluation scheme outlined, the results of ones research, teaching and service give us the different levels of professorialship.  The lowest level is the Assistant Professor.  Normally the youngest of the department, these are the new professors starting out in their career of inquiry.  After a period of time and good marks in those three areas of concern, an Assistant Professor can be elevated to Associate Professor.  This position has more freedom to study and sometimes are given the harder courses to teach.  Definitely more is expected in the area of service both on campus and nationwide.  The highest level is the "Professor," sometimes called "Full Professor" or in private conversations amoung the younger, "the old Bulls."  This phrase I believe is dying out as we get more full professors that are female.  A good thing!  

Now let get to a major point for this blog, that of college teachers and teaching.  So who owns the knowledge that professors acquire and write about from their research--the professor him/herself?  The Department?  The University?  It is a delicate matter.  I've always held that the material I wrote was the property of the public, i.e., I would not copyright my material.  Anyone can use it--the same holds for this blog.  I think John Dewey and I and a host of other philosophers more learned then I would agree that ideas and facts belong to the world.  But not all professors think that way.  Some professors discover some new thing that can be marketed outside the perimeters of the university and make millions.  Who owns that knowledge?  

But here is a fact that troubles me--most professors are not taught to teach.  Perhaps this is why teaching is the lowest category in the evaluation of a professor.  The field of education is the exception.  Most education professors have taught in the public schools for at least three or more years.  Many taught classes while working on their doctoral degrees.  "How to Teach" is their field of interest.  I can say that at my college of education that were a number of excellent teachers, all of which I would have enjoyed to sit in and take their course.  

Do faculty members get evaluated or "graded" on their teaching.  By and large the answer is "no".   Some universities have an evaluation procedure that has the students in that class rate the professor in a number of categories from "being available at office hours," to "explains things after class."  It is not scientific and the evaluation form fits all classes even though it does not.  How does one compare a philosophy course which deals with ideas to one of my Instructional Technology course which deals with mechanics and software.  

As you can see, this subject of college teachers and teaching is a quagmire.  And there is much more that needs to be addressed.  Next time we need to look at how all this new material is acquired and transmitted to the student.  Then the question becomes how to see if the student "learned" the material and how well. What! we're going to talk about grading?  That is beyond the quagmire--that is a mess.

Did you ever thank your college instructor?  I had a number who thanked me and who have become my friends.  They too study how people learn.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Distance Learning

While I do not think of myself as an expert in distance learning or distance education I have had a lot of experiences with this concept of education.  Let's generalize and clarify some terms first so that all of us are on the same page.  There is a teacher and that teacher has a subject to teach.  Then there is a medium, some form that the instructions and information are carried to the student or receiver.  This could be television, a book, audio or a host of other types of media.  Then there is the student or the receiver of the message.....someplace, sometime, somewhere.

We've always had distance learning if you consider the book as a medium of instruction. The author writes the book, the book then is transported somewhere and someone picks the book and reads it and learns something.  What seems to be missing here for the more purest of the distance learning camp is somehow testing the learner so see what they retained from the book.  However, for centuries we have had libraries (mostly privately owned) and learners who have had internal motivation to gain some information or learning(s).

If you can agree with my generalization that we need a teacher, a message and a learner who are not in the same room I think then we have some agreement on distance learning.

My first exposure to this form of education came when I was doing my "September Experience" in 1953, a procedure that I had to accomplish to be admitted to the School of Education at my undergraduate university.  It was to be a two week observation of a school getting underway for the year's classes.  I was fortunate to have had the privilege of doing this exercise at the Rye High School in Rye, New York.  A prestigious school, it is consistently in the lists of outstanding high schools in the United States.  It was then as well.

I was warmly welcomed and asked if I would help out for the first week or two by carrying a small box from classroom to classroom.  It was a two way speaker box that would allow a bed-ridden student at home to attend classes.  "Hey, no problem."  I would pick up the box at the office in the morning, plugging it in at selected classrooms and then return it to the office in the afternoon.  Generally when I got to the first classroom, I'd plug in the RCA jack and then ask, "Ellen, can you hear me?"  And Ellen would say, "Good morning, Mr. Blackwell.  Thank you for bringing me to class."  We did this all day long.  Much too soon the high school kids knew which room Ellen was supposed to be in and took over my job.  But I remember Ellen saying, "Mr. Blackwell."  No one had called me that before--I was becoming a teacher.  Distance learning--at its best.

My second experience with distance learning was in the US Army when I signed up for a course on Abnormal Psychology from the University of Wisconsin.  Someone had written a book detailing different types of Abnormal Personalities and at the end of each chapter were a series of questions and a designed paper to write detailing learnings from that chapter.  I remember doing about half of the book before I had to put it aside because of our work load at the base.  But I learned and I remember the professor writing on one of my papers that he was pleased with my work.  He didn't realize that I had more then one example in my unit in each chapter.  

My next exposure to distance learning was when I was teaching a course on Instructional Technology at my university and powers to be wanted me to do on a local television station.  Interesting problem.  Today we would call it reality television.  I had a class of educational students and once a week we taped two one hour shows on how to use instructional technology in the classroom. A product of the late 1970s, it covered film, overheads, transparencies 35 mm slide projectors and a host of things that are not available to today's classroom teacher.  

Once the tapes were made the local station then ran them at strange times throughout the week.  At that time KCTS, a television station on the campus of the University of Washington was also doing educational shows that were well done.  Their shows were beamed to school districts and teachers could turn on a television set and have the children watch the presentation.  It was well done.

Did I learn anything from doing the sixteen classroom presentation for the local television class?  Quite a bit.  There are a few people up at four in the morning who do watch.  We received two letters, both complementary but each had a complaint about something I had done.  I can't remember what they were.  I think I have mention before in this blog that this one class was the lowest ranking class in my evaluations that I had ever gotten.  The students hated the class.  Almost to a person they said they would never take a class like this again.  But this wasn't distance learning for these educational students--it was direct instruction and every time I ask a student a question a large camera would zoom in on them to record the answer.  They hated that.  And hated me for asking them.  But I was interested to see that the dress of the students improved from hippy style to pretty normal by the end of the class.  They were aware they were on television.  

I've already written in a previous blog about my experiences of teaching on a phone line.  Multiple phone lines to be exact.  The state of Washington in order to try to save time and money set up phone stations around the state, some at universities, some a community schools, one in the top floor of a department store.  People could gather at these sites and talk to each other without holding a phone to their ear.  Multiple sites could interact with relative ease.

Could we teach using audio only?  That was the test so I taught a class for experienced teachers across the state--about fifty students.  I think a lot of good came out of this experiment.  Although we couldn't SEE each other, we did get to "learn" each other's voices.  And I found that many of the students actually would call on regular phones to help each other after the class was done for the day. I was very impressed with the amount and the quality of work that was accomplished in that class over the telephone lines.

But let's clarify at this point some of the variables in distance learning.  As I have mentioned, you need a teacher and a subject to be learned.  Then you need a medium to communicate the objectives, the instructions, the nuances of that learning to the student.  Next we need the student--or students.  You could have one like the preverbal teacher on one end of the log and the student on the other end of the log or you can have a teacher in a medical school with students at hospitals all over this country.  

BUT....there is an important part here for the student component.  There has to be either internal motivation or external motivation or both.  What prompts a person to pick up a book and learn something?  There needs to be internal motivation for that to accrue. I once saw a wonderful example of external motivation at Boeings. The instructor stood up and said to a group of thirty students/workers, "You have two weeks to learn the following or you will be given pink slips."  

One thing that puzzles me in distance learning.  Do we need some form of a test to "prove" that the student has learned?  Indeed, does a student need some sort of a test to put that learning into some form of a recall?  It is a little like mixing a cake but you don't have the real thing until it comes out of the oven.  I suspect the answer to this lies within the internal and external ramifications.

In today's magical world of technology, the web, and all the magnifications of this phenomenon, we have the ability to do distance learning much easier then what I experienced earlier on.  But the quality of learning depends upon the learner.  Let me repeat myself, the quality of learning depends upon the learner.  As an example go to the Kahn Academy.  Over two thousand courses are available.  Some dealing with simple objectives, others are advanced courses.  But I suspect all of them are good--I haven't completed many of them yet.  But it is available and all those courses need is a motivated student.  See:

Given all this, I am a proponent of distance learning.  But all the pieces have to fit--the instructor, the message and the student.

If you've had a distance learning course and learned from it (notice I didn't ask if you enjoyed it), write a comment for the rest of us to learn from.  And for some of you who have taken a distance learning course, have you thanked your teacher?  I wish I had thanked that Wisconsin professor of Abnormal Psychology. He helped me get through the Army.