Friday, February 12, 2016

Experiments in Teaching, Part 1

Last week I wrote about how the schedule and format of classes constrains teachers to a limited palette of instructional methods, resulting primarily in lectures. This week, I'm going to write about how I broke those constraints to introduce some innovations. Be warned, though, that what I am about to relate will probably mark me as a 'bad' teacher.

In the past six years I have taught both IT and creative writing classes. While I've constantly been experimenting in both, it's been with my creative writing classes that I've been boldest. For one thing, those classes have usually been small -- except once, I never had more than ten students -- and so it's been easier to, er, connive with my charges on activities.

My creative nonfiction classes usually feature a lunch out as an official class activity. It started the first year I taught the course. My mostly-made-up-on-the-fly lesson plan had led us to writing food reviews. I talked about all the good places to eat in Davao (discovered through my wife) and I was met with blank stares.

"You mean you've never eaten at ---?" I asked incredulously.

"It looks expensive! We can't afford it!"

"Well, save up for it! I'm taking you there. It'll be worth it." To the lone guy in class, I said: "You'll have some place classy to take your dates." And to the rest of his classmates: "And you'll have some place to ask your dates to take you to."

To be safe, I did ask the program chair if I needed any permits and such. The chair considered, probably thought about the waivers, and said: "oh, they're practically adults, just go!"

At the restaurant, I recommended enough variety among the starters and entrees so we would have a passably diverse choices, subtly nudging them towards the slightly less expensive dishes. It seems they had their own minds about what to order, though, displaying just enough prudence and daring. We all split the bill, of course, I offered to pay for the paella for all, the priciest item on our combined order. After the meal, we asked to speak with owner, and that became an interview of sorts.

As they say, a good time was had by all. But I saw the impact of that activity through that lone male student -- in subsequent pieces, he wrote about bringing his date to that restaurant (and, I hope, to other fine dining places). I wonder if the girls also took my advice.

A short field trip is fine if the class is small. But what if the class is bigger? Well, you just tell half of them not to show up. But that's a story for another time.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Stuck With the Way We Teach

Isagani Cruz linked to an article that asked, "Why are we so slow to change the way we teach?". In answer to his own question, the author gave three reasons: that change is harder than we think, that faculty underestimate the complexity in changing teaching, and that change is harder when attempted alone. The answers are kind of disappointing in their lack of specificity. It almost seems like it belongs to a self-help screed.

My own thesis is simpler. We find it hard to change the way we teach because the structures under which we are supposed to teach have not changed. As teachers, we are supposed to render a required number of contact hours with our students. That usually means three times a week, one hour each time, for 18 weeks. And this is to a class of 40 to 45 students. Think about it: you have one hour each session, and you have to deal with some forty students, each with varying degrees of capability and interest. How do you best make use of the time? Under that structure, the lecture becomes the safe and sensible approach.

Now what if we didn't have to meet the forty students all at once? What if we broke it down to meet with them, say, only ten at a time? Or what if we didn't have to fit a session into an hour? What if we could take as long as -- or as short as -- the time we needed to cover the topic? What if students didn't have to contend with so many courses in a semester? What if we didn't have to meet in a classroom at all? Changing these parameters opens up more possibilities for experimentation.

But the thing is: we're stuck with the model that we have. Why? For administrative reasons. It's easier to account for teacher time if you have them on a schedule. Easier, too, to account for student attendance. The one hour block makes it easier to schedule a class against the seven or eight other classes that the students have to take for the week. Meet outside the class? You'll need to have the students' guardians sign waivers for their participation. Only meet ten students at a time? But what about their required contact hours for the class? What about their attendance?

These reasons aren't entirely bad. What constrains a good teacher from experimentation is also what keeps a bad teacher from going delinguent in their class. But these structures don't offer a lot of freedom or incentive to change the way we teach.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Startups and Universities

Local startup activities and competitions are targeted towards universities. In some ways it makes sense. Startup methodologies can enrich course contents, startup successes can inspire students, and overall, students have more time to partake in these activities. It makes nice copy when a student team wins. But in other ways, this approach is also ineffective and wasted.

Remember one of the definitions of a startup: "a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty." Uncertainty entails risk. Our system of education, unfortunately, is all about certainty and security. Teachers ingrain in students the importance of producing the right answer on tap. MIstakes and deviations from teacher expectations are penalized.

A startup is more than simply an enterprise and undertaking. A startup is also a culture, a way of thinking. That thinking ventures into uncertainty and embraces risk. To latch on startup thinking, teachers will have to provide the space for their students to make mistakes.

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Startups are also often aimed at the wrong segment of the university. Often the preferred audience are undergraduates for the reasons already mentioned above.

The problem with undergraduates, though, is that in general, they lack experience, depth, and commitment. These are the same students who may have difficulty at first looking for work...and yet we expect them to set up their own companies? This is not a statement on their intelligence but on their maturity.

Well, then, how about at the graduate level? Graduate students are older and therefore expected to exhibit more maturity. Graduate programs are supposed to be research intensive, some running up to two years or more. These researches are supposed to be the fuel for innovation in startups. Supposed to be.

The reality, though, is that graduate programs are geared towards producing teachers. Majority of students attending graduate school are actually teachers. They seek master's degrees in order to gain regularization at their own educational instititions, whose own primary goals are instruction. Research and innovation are not the primary motivations. Neither does this culture embrace risk and uncertainty.

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There might well be a prodigy that defies these odds, touched by the vision and gifted with the drive to build their own company. Startup activity organizers can argue that it is this nugget that they are looking for in the university. But that's a poor strategy, akin to playing the lottery.

A more reasonable strategy is to seek out centers of innovation. This is the role that universities are supposed to play. The criteria ought to be the research being done in the university. Students are just the cheap labor that comes with it.