The Limits of Sensemaking

As I pondered this week’s task on design elements, I was drawn back to a post Jenny Mackness made last week on the science of teaching, or perhaps that should have been the science of teaching science.

Rather than my trying to summarize her summary of a conference presentation, I’ll give the x sentence tl;dr

  • Presenting/demonstrating is ineffective, especially when dealing with complex concepts.
  • Class time should instead be used for sense-making, where students are presented with situations and collaboratively create and discuss hypotheses about what will happen next.
  • Confusion is actually a good thing.

Eric Mazur, the Harvard physicist in question, describes the whole process as “teaching by questioning rather than by telling.” As I mentioned previously. I very much like the idea of a questioning centered classroom. However, Mazur’s work, which is centered around teaching science, raises another question. In a science lab (and here I’m talking about the lab component of an intro course as opposed to a research lab) what happens should be predictable. Whan you set up a scenario and ask a question, there is a right answer.

When you teach human systems (languages, arts, economics, etc.) you can create suce certainty by using very carefully chosen examples that “follow all the rules”. How well does that prepare students for the much less tidy real world?

On the other hand…..

Lisa linked to an Atlantic article, that served as the start point for a debate about teaching writing, contrasting the writer’s workshop approach with one that makes grammar and mechanics more explicit. My most interesting takeaway from this was a reminder of the importance of background knowledge. The students at New Dorp had internalized fewer rules of high-level language structure than had their peers, and teachers found more success when those rules were taught explicitly.

This is an issue that many of us who teach at community colleges face every day. Students don’t come to us with the background knowledge we hope they will have. If we are teaching a subject like art history or physics, which they may have never studied formally before, the gap between what they know and hat we wish they knew may be even larger. If these students are left to do much of their own sensemaking, they can become confused to a fault, not knowing what to do and suffering intellectual paralysis as they wait for someone to tell them. Sometimes they wait without asking or telling us they are lost.

Do we then go back to an instructional model full of explicit knowledge presentation? After all, it’s what many of our students are quite used to. How does that interface with the need for them to develop their own sense making skills, a goal which is probably more important that the material we strive to cover in our survey classes? Also, how does that sensemaking take place when the patterns you are trying to uncover are arbitrary by definition?

Week 2 – Gorgias via email?

 

flickr user Endemoniada CC

I worked through the survey and questionnaire this week, but the item that, for me, really framed things, was Robert Maxwell’s post, How do I Like to Teach?  It’s been quite a few years since I had a non-online class, but my recollection is that my preferred face to face teaching style is very Socratic.   I find this keeps the whole class engaged.  You never know when I might call on you.  More importantly, it helps both me  and the students understand their thought process, even though the multiple rounds of back and forth are initially off-putting (Is this class or am I being cross-examined?  Yes.)

Unfortunately this way of doing class is terribly unsuited to asynchronous online learning.  A chain of questions that might happen in the classroom in five minutes would take five days in an online discussion board.  So in some ways it was teaching online that nudged me towards a more student centered approach.  In the classroom it takes quite a bit of juggling to have different students doing different things at the same time — not so online.  In my online classes, I’ve moved towards giving students tasks to complete and a whole set of resources from which to choose as they figure out how to complete said tasks.

Moving to this way of thinking about my courses has opened up many new possibilities (contract grading and mastery learning, for example) However, many of the students I teach are unused to this level of autonomy.

 

Learner Agency and (non) MOOCs

The recent “division” of POTCERT reminded me of something. When I signed up for notifications about MechanicalMOOC,  I was asked, after I provided my email address, whether I was a learner who planned carefully, one whose first step was to seek help from others, or one who just plunged in and learned by trial and error.  It felt like a new kind of learning styles inventory. At the time, I pondered the question for a good minute before hesitantly declaring myself an experimenter.  Thinking back on how I edited my blog theme last night (lots of fits and starts, all in full public view) , I’m now much more certain that I answered the question accurately.

It occurs to me that the MOOCs I’ve participated in have very much been designed with the experimenter in mind.  This focus is perhaps most succinctly expressed by ds106’s tag line. “Make art, dammit.” It aligns well with current notions of formative assessment, and for people who don’t mind proclaiming (and often demonstrating– witness some of the bizarre font ,color, and background images that appeared on this blog last night) their lack of knowledge to the world, it works.

On the proverbial other hand,  I don’t want the nurse at the doctor’s office to learn how to safely give injections primarily by live trial and error.  Some learners who are more reserved may need a less public space in order to feel safe to try things.  Especially in large open classes, balancing the learning needs of the planners, the askers, and the experimenters may be a great as yet unmet challenge.

POTCERT12 is, to my knowledge,  the first attempt at this sort of subdivision. .  I’m particularly interested to see if both groups feel like they are part of a shared learning experience, or whether this ends up feeling more like two separate classes that happen to be using the same text and syllabus.

Where is POTCERT, exactly?

A discussion sprung up in the POTCERT pre-group on Facebook this morning. Since people often cross post notifications to Facebook or Twitter, where is the conversation actually supposed to happen?

The earliest MOOCs were intentionally centerless. CCK08 even had a cohort in Second Life. There was a blog roll but no aggregator, and it was a given that, even with google reader searches and the like, nobody, including the facilitators, would see everything. The existence of The Daily added a strong curation component to the conversation. On the other hand, since, apart from a handful of for credit participants (I remember Lisa Lane being one of them) there was no standard to meet or not meet, so if something was missed, it wasn’t a big deal.

Starting with I think, ds106, we got near real time aggregation of posts at a central site, which, to a significant extent replaced the active curation of the CCK08 Daily. This, I believe, created a cultural norm of posting to one’s blog notice of artifacts elsewhere. Things became “real” and “official” by being linked to in posts picked up by the aggregator.

There’s also the issue of audience (there’s that word again). Let me use myself as an example.

I use different social networks for different purposes. Until I joined the POTCERT Facebook group. I used Facebook to connect to those I knew socially and Twitter to connect with professional colleagues. My Facebook friends are unlikely to have much interest in what I post for POTCERT. My twitter followers, even those who aren’t participating in POTCERT , might. I imagine I will post to Twitter links to at least some of my POTCERT posts.

Would it be simpler to ask participants to post links to their aggregated blogs/tags for anything they do elsewhere? At least then everything would be discoverable via the aggregator.

One Way to Name a Blog

My name is Jason Green,  and I’m Director of Distance Learning at Pulaski Technical College in Arkansas.  I’ve been teaching French and music courses online since 2002. My primary reason for plunging into POTCERT  is that I’m on a team just starting to develop a similar program at Pulaski Tech.

And now for the really important question,  “What is that weird thing in the blog title?” Anyone reading the post on the POT aggregator will need to click through to the original site to see it.

While I’ve blogged on and off for a year or two,  POTCERT prodded me to move things to my own domain.  This brought me back to the first great challenge of blogging….choosing a name for your blog.

I had decided that this new blog would be general purpose, instead of specifically about POTCERT or online learning, so that meant no cute puns with ed- or -learn.

As I mentioned in Wednesday’s session, I prefer to think of a blog as what Cory Doctorow called an “outboard brain“.  However , the default word association with “outboard” is “motor” , and I was stuck with a vivid image of grey matter dangling over the stern of a speedboat.  It was time to try something else.

Over the last couple of years, several commentators have noticed the similarity between blogs and the commonplace books of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  The problem with this is that the meaning of  commonplace has shifted to something like a synonym for ordinary or frequently encountered, so new readers might misconstrue the title.

I wondered if there were other terms for similar collections of information. Wikipedia mentioned Greek Hypomnemata  (ὑπομνήματα),  which   sounds cool, but has been used to death in blog titles .  Harvard University Libraries has a page which referenced commonplace books in several languages , none of which were especially catchy.  There was even one in Icelandic,  which reminded me of something.

Icelandic uses þ and ð .  While I’ve never studied Icelandic , I did take a semester of Old English, which uses those characters.  One of the texts for that Old English  class was titled Word Hoard.

While word-hord didn’t mean dictionary, it is attested  in the Old English corpus, along with beah-hord “ring hoard” and wyrmhord “dragon hoard”.  That got me to thinking how a blog is sort of a thought hoard (þoht-hord) . Technically that should probably be þoht-hord* since it’s not attested. Hordcofa (treasure-chamber, used metaphorically to refer to the heart/mind) is found in the Wanderer.

What have I learned from the process?

* þ is ALT 0254 or rt alt-t
* The feed listing system alphabetizes þ last.
* It will be an interesting experiment to have a blog title which may be google unique, but which nobody will likely ever type.

Greetings to all, and away we go.