If in my last entry I gave a too pessimistic view of students today, let me now swing the other way and point to some signs of life. While it does take time and perseverance to uncover these bright spots, the rewards can be well worth the effort.
What's key to meeting the challenge is an effective classroom dynamic. Simply, it means finding the right hook with which to bait the students. It could either be points of interest, or new delivery tactics, or even just a change of pace.
For instance, my Information Security laboratory class now runs without any close supervision. I merely set the general objectives at the start of the session (or some days before, via email); how they meet the goals is up to them. I tell them which tools to use and what tests to run; I only pipe in from time to time with contextual information, or when they've wandered off far afield.
Today, for example, they managed to demonstrate intrusion detection with Snort. We've been building up to this point over the past few weeks with forays into scanning tools like Nessus and Nmap; and now they're seeing it for themselves. What's most significant to me is that they're demonstrating it to themselves, not to me.
Getting to this point took a bit of planning -- and quite a bit of luck. The foundation for all this was Ubuntu. Once I showed them how to install and configure software in this flavor of Linux, most of my heavy work was done. From then on, I would then just plan out the general activities for each session, building on the sessions that had come before. What really drives them now are the results they see.
As for my New Journalism class, I've adopted mind maps as a teaching tool, and it's showing good results. All those difficulties with grammar were symptomatic of a deeper problem: mental organization. The mind maps help them focus on the core concepts of their subject, and more importantly, paints the big picture of what they're trying to say.
Storytelling is another tool I'm trying out Today I had them tell a story in class, as naturally as they could. (From time to time, I would point out highlights of the story or move it along to the next point; but the stories were all theirs.) Then I had them compare their oral accounts with their written accounts -- differences starkly apparent now, I hope they learn to adopt a more relaxed approach to their narrative technique.
These won't solve the problems with basic composition, I know. Eventually we will have to go back to those; but if I can just help them tell a cohesive and engaging story, the class will have been a success.
In both cases, their small class sizes were a great help to my flexibility. My Information Security class only has thirteen students; my New Journalism class, only five. I can't say the same of my Open Source class, which has close to 40; it's as unwieldy and unruly as ever. A breakthrough will take longer because the approach cannot be as personal as I would like.
More updates to follow soon.