The Archaeology of Classrooms
I learned Physics along side 299 other biology first year students. We sat in a tiered auditorium with a mezzanine as a Professor of Physics demonstrated the Doppler effect, the speed of light, momentum, force, speed and acceleration on a stage full of speakers on wheels, strobe lights and various flying and falling objects. There wasn't a bad seat in the house as this master teacher-performer kept all of us engaged.
This large dynamic learning environment has stayed with me through my forty years as a professor and dean. Time and again I have thought about this formative learning experience during discussions (and arguments) about the assumed negative relationship between class-size and learning.
Despite this assumption, most educators would agree that good teaching can and does happen in a variety of settings. My first anthropology teaching assignments were in 52 seat “discussion” classeswhere students sat facing me listening to some version of a lecture/presentation, taking an occasional note and answering a question now and then. The magic number 52 was simply the number of tablet chairs that could fit into the assigned classroom. Architecture rather than pedagogy determined class size. I have since taught Anthropology in large Irish lecture Halls of 250 students as well as small seminars, archaeological field settings, labs and even in Irish Pubs. The challenge has always been to fit the learning to the setting.
I have been thinking about my teaching experiences as part of assessing my return to the classroom after 20 plus years of studying classroom learning and observing educators across most disciplines as a liberal arts dean. As part of this evaluation I have developed an archaeological perspective of the classroom to contribute to understanding how classrooms work.
The Archaeology of Classrooms?
When I teach archaeology I ask students to imagine our classroom as a 4 dimensional archaeological site. We envision the classroom asa cube that passes through time as classes proceed through daily, weekly, semester and annual schedules. The beginning of each class is a snapshot that reveals the 3 dimensional spatial relationships between me and the students within the bounds of the classroom. The use of the classroom changes during the class-time. Artifacts (e.g. pens, books, backpacks, and chalk) as well as site furniture such as chairs and tables move. Relatively permanent features such as worn out spots on the floors, walls, and black boards change from repeated use.
This behavioral archaeology methodology helps me to understand the learning flow of a class. My thesis is that while the size and spatial set-up of a classroom may set up constraints, its dynamics can also contributes opportunities for learning: Therefore, it does not prescribe or predict the effectiveness of the learning that will occur. This may appear obvious as most educators understand that classroom pedagogy is the most determinant factor for student engagement and learning. However, archaeology teaches us that it is the relationship between the physical and social environment of a site and the use of these environments that determines what actually happens at a site. An archaeological approach helps us test this thesis. For example, in my experience (anectdotal but extensive), the best learning experiences have been at the two ends of the class-size spectrum. Let’s look at the behavioral archaeology of the three main types of classrooms (leaving field sites, labs and pubs aside for another time) to explore this thesis,
Lecture Halls are set up for performances. I began this piece by describing my physics professor’s outstanding performing skills. I could also cite an art history professor who took to standing on tables and shouting to the mezzanine when he wanted to make a provocative point. I also attended lecture hall performances that werelimited to reading from scripts projected on screens and pre-fabricated power-point presentations created by the textbook publisher. In between these extremes were classes that interspersed films and videos and a few that used feedback clickers where students answer short questions during the course of the lecture to provide the instructor with ongoing feedback. Here, Often bar graphs or pie charts of correct and incorrect answers reveal a running measure of how much students are ‘understanding’. I have also seen demonstrated the Harvard Assessment Model of dividing a class of 300 into study groups of 4 within a large lecture hall, so that students could interact during and between classes.
Seminars and labs are meant to provide intimate settings for learning. They are set up for conversations. I have usually taught research andmethod and theory courses in these settings where 10-15 students intensively read and discuss materials and write within a weekly schedule of edit-revise-edit. Sitting around a table may be necessary to have a conversation, but it is not sufficient to guarantee one. I have been a part of and witnessed seminars that resembled lectures within a conference room. A basis for the expected conversation has to be explicitly developed and maintained short termto spark a conversation for a particular class as well as longer term to meet course goals. We have all been at ‘deadly’ meetings where interaction was not even expected around a conference table.
Discussion rooms of 30-50 students seem to present the most difficult physical setting for an interactive learning environment. These classes are usually set up with rows of seats or tables facing an instructor. When students are asked to participate they look at and speak to each other's backs. To add insult to injury, linear discussion classes often suffer from the use of tablet chairs, perhaps the most uncomfortable piece of furniture ever invented. ( Lecture Halls and seminar rooms usually offer upholstered furniture).
The dynamics of my classroom was in my mind each week during a recent seminar on archaeological research methods. The assigned classroom was filled with long but moveable tables. Each week my class arrived to an arrangement of three rows of tables that stretched across the classroom. Each week we rearranged these into a seminar setting of one conference table that accommodated our seminar. When they arrived for their first class, the students were happy to sit in back-to-back rows. I have to admit that I was somewhat annoyed when I first had to ask the students to move the tables and chairs in this so-called seminar room before that first class. Interestingly, there was a note on the blackboard after the second week that asked us to rearrange the tables and chairs to their normal positions. This continued for another week or so after which one student questioned, what in fact was the normal arrangement of the classroom. By this time, the physical re-arranging of the classroom-site had become a part of our seminar and as such helped shape the behavior of the students into a seminar. The students automatically rearranged to tables as they arrived, settled in and conversed with each other. It was, to me, similar to setting up a campsite where the placement of ‘things’ were contingent upon their anticipated use. In my archaeological eye, I could imagine the classroom as a prehistoric Irish fishing camp that was re-inhabited over time by various groups, who perhaps, had different ideas of how a fishing-camp should look and function.
Archaeologists traditionally re-create sites from material remains. In order to do so, they have to infer the behavior of sites from the spatial arrangement of artifacts, furniture and non-moveable features. Archaeologists are now using the techniques of virtual reality to re-recreate sites so that visitors can virtually imagine walking through an historic or prehistoric house or village to ‘see’ how people behaved in that place at a particular time. At the core of this interpretation is an understanding that behaviour is dynamic and therefore that its remains are a summation of the varying ways the site was used. I would offer that we can use this same ‘archaeological’ approach as we design our classrooms in ways that maximize the flow of conversation and learning.
THIS IS PART TWO OF MY EXAMINATION ON MY FIRST YEAR TEACHING AFTER 22 YEARS AS DEAN OF LIBERAL ARTS. PART ONE ASSESSED AN UNDERGRADUATE INTRODUCTION TO ARCHAEOLOGY COURSE.
The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb "to claim" is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. - Adrienne Rich
I approached my first graduate class in over twenty years, Archaeological Methods, with an open mind and an open syllabus. The class included first and second year students, all of whom were ultimately aiming to write a thesis to complete their MA.
I have long experience in graduate teaching and I have created two MA programs. However I did not know these new students. So I relied heavily on my prior experience, which has taught me the primacy of mentoring students to think like an archaeologist in order to do archaeology. To me this translates into learning how to design research, the hardest part of which is formulating well-defined and answerable questions.
I was also guided by the practical concern of helping these students begin their careers. The Masters degree can be a highly marketable degree. I have dozens of students who have had highly successful professional careers (some of whom have actually retired, while I still teach!). I assume and totally respect the personal and financial commitment graduate anthropology students have to make to become professional anthropologists. The key to a successful professional graduate program is a curriculum that prepares students:
To think originally
To apply disciplinary and interdisciplinary methodologies
To write professionally and accessibly
To present one's findings in dynamic and accessible ways.
The syllabusfollowed a research design template that required students to:
Define a topic of interest
Create an original question that speaks to their interest
Set out hypotheses (i.e. hypothetical and testable answers to their questions)
Define the type of information they would need to answer the question(s)
Design a methodology to collect and organize an appropriate sample of data to provide the needed information
Choose the appropriate qualitative and/or quantitative analytic techniques necessary to test their hypotheses
Interpret their analytical results
Write-up and present their results
Most of the students had not been asked to do original research. They knew how to write term papers that summarized and synthesized what other people knew about a topic. A few had had experience excavation, survey and basic data collection, and some had analyzed artifacts or databases. But they hadn't been asked to do something original with this information. I viewed this class as their opportunity to claim their own education.
The class met once a week for three hours usually broken into 3 segments. We held this seminar around a conference table that we had to re-configure from a lecture classroom of smaller tables every week. (In a sense this physically primed the students for discussion). The first 3-4 weeks of the class concentrated on having students work on their research questions. This resulted in a lot of conversation among the students, which of course I encouraged. For my part, I 'shadowed' student progress reports and their ensuing conversations with stories of my research, that of my previous students and classic archaeological projects and the readings. I also used our excellent multimedia classroom to bring in the internet. In some cases, I planned particular videos, while in others I was able to queue up a video spontaneously in response to a question brought up in class. I relied mostly on Ted Talks and Khan Academy lessons. The Ted talks provided outstanding illustrations of original research through accessible and dynamic presentations.
The Khan Academy lessons on probability and statistics proved invaluable for discussions on methodology. Most students had the universal fear of statistics. They had little experience in sampling either quantitative or qualitative data and what experience they had seemed to yield more fear than understanding. All of the students needed to understand the concept of randomness as the foundation of sampling whether they were interested in measuring bifaces or interpreting interviews of children's interest in museums. They also needed to be exposed to some of the most widespread statistical concepts such as correlation, association and inference without being strangled by their formulas and calculations. The Khan academy provided a series of excellent illustrations that I built upon to help students to apply sampling and statistics to their own projects. As students refined their sampling and analytical methodology they in turn revisited their specific questions they were asking.
Student reading revolved around Joan Gero's recently published archaeological case study "Yutopian." Gero deconstructs the way archaeologists build knowledge through discussion of her Argentinian field research. The monograph provided students with a detailed reflective account of original research from its conception to its completion. Students also read, "A Very Short Introduction to Archaeology" by Paul Bahn, which offers an historic context of the field. Since all of the students were focussed on Public Anthropology, they read a beautiful little monograph, "Anguti's Amulet". This illustrated booklet beautifully portrays the prehistory of an Inuit community through a folk story as it relates to an indigenous archaeology community project undertaken with the support of the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Program. Finally, Peter Haggett's iconic "Locational Analysis" was assigned as a reference on spatial analysis.
Students were required to write and re-write outside the classroom almost every week. The writing assignments were kept short and focussed on each student's progress on their research design. I intensively edited the writing for its argument and its formal written structure. The students quickly grasped my assertion that "there is no such thing as a good paper that is poorly written." Students learned to take responsibility for their writing and above all else understand that writing and thinking are creatively linked.
I found critique in two areas to have the greatest positive impact on student writing. The first was voice. Most students wrote in passive voice. I explained (until they were tired of hearing it) that in most cases passive voice buried their arguments. I closely edited much of their writing into active voice. Second, most students had great difficulty in keeping antecedents clear. I emphasized that it was their responsibility to clearly reference pronouns. Writing, editing and re-writing was a continuous semester long process.
I used the final to pull the class together by having students write a cover letter application to a real job advertisement. I asked them to describe their professional capabilities in terms of the job requirements. I distributed a list of 15 job openings that were published on the internet for which they would be qualified after completing the program. The jobs ranged from project director to tribal anthropologist (both of which were selected). They had a week to to write a cover letter (maximum 500 words) to apply for one of these jobs. Student presented their letters during our our final class, where we had a freewheeling discussion on the intellectual and practical aspects of being a professional anthropologist.
Did the Class Work?
I can say this: I learned a lot from this class and greatly enjoyed mentoring the students and being kept on my toes by them.
I would make the following observations on the effectiveness of this class for students. First, I believe the course gave the students a safe environment to learn how to think originally. Their confidence grew as they began to understand that they were capable of doing original research and becoming a professional. Their (final exam) job application letters clearly demonstrated a growing belief in the abilities.
Second, I think that requiring students to develop their own research interests helped them grow in confidence. Some students began afraid to air their interests. Many of them questioned the importance of their potential contributions. And all were pretty shy about their ability to tangibly approach original research. By the end of the semester, all of the students had at least a clear topic of interest and set of research questions, which they wrote in the form of a research design and presented to their classmates.
Finally, I was pleased with the improvement of each of the student's writing. Most of them struggled indicating to me the centrality of writing and close editing in graduate education.
How well did the class work? When asked if he was a good teacher, Confucius responded: "How are my students doing?" Time will tell. Next semester: cultural anthropology.
Grades are nearly complete (save the "Incompletes") and I have decompressed after my semester back teaching Anthropology after 22 years as a dean. My previous blog post noted some apprehensions and expectations and some goals. So, how did it go, you might ask.
My first impression of my students was that they hadn't changed all that much in 20 years. Sure, I was now the age of their grandparents, but their behavior seemed consistent with what I remember, especially for the undergraduates.
The Introduction to Archaeology students were mostly first year. They were basically doe-eyed, not really knowing what to expect and carrying on the educational culture in which they had been immersed the previous 12 years. They were passive. This showed up in politeness and deference, but of course as we all know, it also kept them from stepping forward to speak for themselves even when prompted. I pledged to keep an active classroom, and for the most part I did. I rarely stayed on one topic for more than 20 minutes (of an 80 minute class), and always gave them a break of 5 minutes to do whatever they liked. As you might guess, they mostly turned to their smartphones and laptops.
The issue of keeping them responsive to me and away from their screens became a force of wills. I understand the addiction to smart phones and the derivative need to stay in touch with friends and even parents continuously. I began the class by telling them that this kind of behavior was not allowed and that the 5 minute break would allow them to fulfill this need (although I suggested that they get up an walk out of the classroom for 5 minutes). For the most part my strategy worked with regard to cell phones. However, I then began to see an increase in laptops, which were flipped open during class. Several students indicated that they used these for taking notes. Each class I had to ask students to close their laptops; some held out and insisted that it was for note-taking at which time, I told them to write notes. I have to admit that I was frustrated about having to do this each class, and I intend to be be more forceful next semester.
As for active teaching, I found that the new multi-media capabilities of the classroom were extremely helpful in enhancing the didactic, conversational and group work parts of the classroom. I often planned possible videos (youtube, Ted talks, Khan academy) but I also found that I could bring one up within a minute if something came to me. Most classes therefore had some sort of multimedia component, many times spontaneous.
Perhaps the most effective technique I developed had to do with encouraging students to speak to the class.
For this I yielded to extra credit, indicating that any student who wanted to present a news article related to archaeology and write a short (250 word max) report on it would receive points toward their grade. About 1/4 of the two clases (which totalled about 60 students) took advantage of this and the results I think were quite successful and even enlightening. First, the range of articles chosen showed a great diversity of interests among students. They also proved that they generally used the internet well by drawing on peer-reviewed articles (which I had explained to them). Their talks ranged from biblical archaeology to zoo-archaeology. And the appeared sincerely interested in their topic. Finally no one asked to present an article on dinosaurs!
I then improvised off of these talks. After the talks for that day were completed, I gave the students a break, and dug up some video clip or imagery that related to each of the student talks. They had all developed some visual with their presentations (usually a powerpoint), so I found something else on the web concerning their exact issue, or something related. I then presented these drawing out the connections between each student's interest and topic and the class at hand. I engaged most to the presenting students in some conversation with regard to their topic, thereby reinforcing their ownership and knowledge of the subject.
The other interactive aspect of the class involved software developed by ThinkingStrings.com in an e-text called Revealing Archaeology. This comprehensive 'text' was the students' main reading and included short but rigorous exercises after each of 8 modules. For example, after a module on how to excavate a site, students were asked to 'dig' a virtual site and then describe and interpret the archaeological remains they recovered. They had to do this within a budget so they could not just excavate the entire site, thereby learning about sampling. Students were responsible to meet the due dates of the module completion, a record of which was available to them and to me. I assigned 5 points for modules completed on time, and 2.5 credits for late submissions. The e-text offers an interactive grade book that automatically records their submissions and award points based on the due dates I choose. This e-text allowed me to flip the classroom, so each of the classes was about the topics in the modules, but focussed on the conceptual bases, with many examples from my experience in the field of archaeology.
For example, one of the modules was on the dating of artifacts. The question of how old something is, of course, key to understanding its cultural and historical context. The modules discussed the two main ways to date things, relative (e.g stratigraphy) and absolute (e.g. radiocarbon). My classroom discussion could then focus on the concept of time. My idea was to get them to think reflectively on what time means to western society; the various ways we conceptualize it and measure it. I pressed them to think "Einsteinian" by introducing the space-time continuum and the measurement of time in terms of the spatial movement of the earth and moon and how this underlies our daily rhythms and activities. We talked about seasonal time (the semester), linear time (the solar revolution) and daily time (the analog clock on the wall). We then related this to excavating back in time and interpreting seasonal archaeological sites.
The midterm and final were also somewhat out of the box (if I may say so), although I borrowed the concept from an Art History at the University of South Carolina. Students were handed out a series of questions (6 for the midterm, 8 for the final) about a week before the in-class exams. The questions focussed on conceptual (e.g. time and space), methodological (e,g. excavation, dating) and 'real life' issues (e.g. explaining to their parents why taking an anthropology course was not a waste of time and money). The students were divided into groups, where they discussed one of the questions, and presented their thoughts to the class as a whole. The midterm was subsequently comprised of 2 of the handed-out questions, and the final 3 questions, which were announced at the time of the exam. The goal here of course was to have the students study the cumulative course material as an integrated whole. I am still assessing this method, but my preliminary thoughts are that this technique not only encouraged students to pay attention to the reading and class materials, but it also allowed them to process it so that their essays for the most part were coherent and even well spelled despite the fact that they were timed and in class.
So that is a first draft of my return to the undergraduate classroom. Stay tuned to part II: the Graduate (M.A.) students.
In two days, I will return to teaching after over twenty years as a liberal arts dean. This has spurred some serious thinking and to be honest, rigorous assessment of the educational outlook I have developed over the past 20 plus years. In other words, I need to hold myself accountable - i.e. practice what I preach.
My teaching in archaeology spanned almost 20 years at the University of South Carolina. I taught at BA and MA levels in Anthropology and Archaeology. I taught in the classroom, the lab and the field. The latter was by far the most intensive learning environment as I spent 24/7 with undergraduates and graduates in South Carolina and in Ireland. Most of this 'teaching' involved students in my research, where I directed major archaeological projects in South Carolina and then Waterford County, Ireland.
I had honestly not aspired to (or expected to) return the classroom, but circumstances have indeed made this necessary. So my first hurdle was to get used to this turn in professional career beginning in my 41st year in higher education.
My apprehension soon turned to trying to prepare for a new generation of students and a seriously evolved classroom technological environment. I spent a good part this past year thinking about this and conceptualising how I would approach the class. I rehearsed syllabi for undergraduate and graduate courses, and in fact found my anticipatory mood shift between apprehensive to excited.
But the really interesting part of this period was my coping with the accountability I had in fact created, through my years as an academic administrator. During the past 20 years or so I have reviewed college programs, general education, Honors programs and faculty teaching. Through out this all, I have developed an educational outlook that focusses on engaging students in their own learning. Archaeological field schools have greatly flavored this outlook, as my projects have always required students to take responsibility for some aspect of the field project and its laboratory components. In addition, teamwork and work delegation is central to archaeological research. In my classroom teaching I attempted to avoid lecture and content presentation, as I have always argued against this type of passive education.
So now, in Fall 2016 (my first semester teaching was Fall 1976) I find myself creating an Introduction to Archaeology class for undergraduates, and theory and method seminar for graduate students with the challenge of putting these together as active learning environments.
In response, I have just submitted syllabi for these courses that require classroom and outside classroom interaction and active learning. The undergraduate class has as its reference a cloud based interactive text. It is the students’ responsibility to complete this reference on their own while bringing questions to class as needed. My role in the classroom will be to lead discussion on the weekly topics in ways that brings my experiences to them in an engaging way. Many of you will recognize this as a flipped-classroom approach.
The graduate course is even more interactive and active. The class will spend its first class developing a syllabus with me that speaks to Archaeological Method and Theory in ways that meets their diverse interests and professional aspirations. I have provided them with a Course Plan that lists goals and a general list of topics that we need to cover. Woven into these goals will be career mentoring, and writing critiques that will prepare them to move in the professional world of archaeology with an MA, a credential that gains them entrance to many areas of environmental and archaeological professional employment.
I want to work with them, not teach them. Their first writing assignment, for example, requires a short piece (100 words) on the personal significance aspects of their own material culture. What would they carry with them if they had to evacuate their home? This assignment, as I explain to them in the Course Plan (which of course is on-line), both speaks to their interest in Archaeology. and gives me a chance to see their writing and allows them to see w my expectations In other words, to get used to each other.
Throughout the semester, I will update my blog to share my experiences, but also a way of holding myself accountable. Wish me luck!
Over the past 3 decades I have had the pleasure and privilege of visiting Ireland many times. where my wife and I developed and implemented a 15 year archaeological project in Waterford County.
What soon became clear to us was how much we liked being Ireland; how much we liked the Irish people. It is true that there are special connections between the Irish and Americans founded in the immigration of many Irish to Chicago, New York and Boston beginning the middle of the 19th century. And or course many the Irish citizen's revere John Fitzgerald Kennedy. But there was something deeper that was reaching us and making us feel at home; making us feel that people cared about us even though we were just visiting their communities. As anthropological observers we began to see the roots of this empathic basis of Irish culture in the simple fact that Irish people often talked with each other and in so doing maintained an oral culture. In addition to this, they continue to proactively tie modern day culture with its historical precedents and very importantly tie history strongly to the literary traditions of the of Irish society.
My wife and I just felt more relaxed and more at home when we touched Irish soil. And this is despite the fact that neither of us has any historic Irish ancestry. (When asked if I have Irish ancestry, I often note that may grandparents came from central Europe and in so doing I might have Celtic bronze age links that date a few thousand years ago).
But all kidding aside, the oral culture, historical awareness and literacy of the people we met every year convinced us that Ireland is a special place.
And this past summer 2016 made this clear under some pretty terrible circumstances when I had a major spinal disc herniation and ended spending almost 2 weeks in two Irish hospitals. The stress of this time played out quite differently for Claudia and me, but the empathy of the Irish caretakers and others who helped us showed us again a special cultural attitude that got us through this situation.
The Irish approach to our continuous emergency was simple, yet profound. At all levels of medical care, each sequential problem by focused on us as people first. They were not focused on the situation, but rather on what would help us most. Irish empathy and their reliance on face to face culture was the basis of prioritizing our comfort as the key to solving the situational problem.
There are many examples. At one point, Claudia drove me across country to the Shannon Airport Hotel to see if we could work out getting me on a flight home. When we arrived at the hotel, she spoke to hotel manager to describe the situation. "I can't move my husband out of the car,' she explained. Can you help me?" "Of course," responded the hotelier, but before we move to that, I want you to sit at that table, and I will bring you a cup of tea." She then came to see me, and called the EMT, who again had a humane response to my predicament. "Not to worry, Mr. Green" we will get you out of the car." To do this they offered me an inhaler of nitrous dioxide to relax me and then moved onto the logistics of moving me.
When I was subsequently moved to the University of Limerick Hospital, I noted the communal nature of the wards. I was among about 8 people within a large room, that was attended to by nurses and other caregivers, who regularly walked through asking if anyone needed anything. The caregivers worked together, sharing duties. There was not much need for the emergency nurse call button (although there was one), because the nurses and their assistants were generally among us. The nurses station was at the far end of the ward.
Meals were served communally as well. Every meal was prefaced by the delivery of tea with biscuits. The tea cups were ceramic and the silverware metal. The main course came in a steam table rolled into the center of the ward. We were asked our entree preferences, but most meals came with the required 3 scoops of mashed potatoes and root vegetables. Dessert was served in the same manner, and again with tea.
In all of these interactions, nurses cared for the person as the key to solving a problem. I have always felt that nurses and other caregivers that serve doctors, are the key to healthcare. But there is something different in the Irish way of doing things and again this stems from a continued oral, face to face culture and the empathy that rides along with this cultural proclivity.
So this was my hypothesis when I arrived in NYC for back surgery straight from my flight home: The empathy built into the Irish culture results in improved healthcare. And I had the immediate test situation when I was ambulanced from JFK airport to an NYC Hospital for spinal surgery.
Everything went well in the hospital and the surgery was successful. But the difference in the way I was spoken to, responded to, and in general cared for was based on solving particular situations rather than caring for me. Where I never had to use the nurses call bell in Limerick, this was the only way I was able to get someone to help me. People were in general polite, but their connection to me was cursory.
The point I want to make, is not that Irish health care in better than the US (or vice versa); but rather Irish Culture is special because it is built upon people interacting with each other. This interactive empathy is indeed what many people are now calling for in such books as Putnam's "Bowling Alone." where he points out the human cost of social fragmentation. DharmaPunx (Josh Korda) recent podcast (DharmaPunx, Brooklyn) describes the biological need for social connections to fulfil the right side of the brain's need for mammalian gregariousness. The need for people to connect, indeed, appears to be brain science.
Count me in as one of the skeptics when it comes to critical thinking. Notification of conferences on this topic seem to come about as often as Pottery Barn catalogs and most definitions of critical thinking seem vague and nonoperational. Despite this few educators would argue against the idea that critical thinking is central to education.
I was thinking about these conflicting thoughts (suffering from some cognitive dissonance) as I was reading Reza Aslan's Zealot and Colm Toibin's Testament of Mary two books that present very different descriptions of the same historical time period - first century Palestine. Though both accounts were gripping, it was not really the subject matter that I found most provocative. Rather it was the vastly different literary perspectives the authors took to write their stories. Aslan's Zealot re-creates an ethnography of the first century from historical sources. He intentionally ignores the biblical and apostle accounts as evangelical stories and looks to primarily historic accounts to synthesize his narrative. Colm Toibin creates a fictional narrative of Mary's perspective of her son's execution. He re-imagines her perspective from an understanding of both myths and history and his literary artistic ability (he is an incredible writer) to paint a humanistic picture of what Mary 'must' have been thinking and feeling.
The sequential reading of these books made me think about the space between author and reader and the task authors take on to bring the reader into their story. In the non-fictional account, Aslan set out to convince the reader that his historic description is a fair interpretation of reliable sources. My critical reading of Zealot, therefore, required me to consider Aslan's story through his sources. Aslan engaged me through a gripping detailed description of the extreme social inequality and physical brutality of the era. Toibin's fictional account required no citations (and he had none). He required me to empathize with Mary and her heartbreaking story of a mother's loss. His tools as a fiction writer were metaphor and analogy and his task to engage my feelings.
Both Aslan and Toibin present stories the success of which depend upon filling the space between the author and the reader. The historical space they attempt to fill is the same. Their goals are very different. Aslan's is an ethnography of a society while Toibin's is the story of a person. So despite the fact that they present their understanding of first century Palestine, they literarily fill the space between author and reader in very different ways. Readers are asked to critically read their stories in different modes and to learn about first century Palestine in very different ways.
I think it is helpful to consider this space between author and reader as analogous to that between teacher and student. Our success as educators depends on our ability to create provocative spaces for students to critically fill-in. We try to do this by forming well articulated questions that require students to creatively formulate answers. We can create these spaces and present these questions in many different ways, such as discussion prompts, lab exercises, projects, and even exams. The goal is to provoke students to think in ways that inspire them to interpret and synthesize information to fill the learning space we have presented. Their syntheses we hope will turn into their own knowledge.
Here is another way to think about this. As educators we tell stories to teach students how to critically connect what we know and what we want them to know. These stories come in different forms depending upon the learning environment and content of the class. Sometimes our stories are in the form of arguments, where we may ask questions about a particular subject that require students to answer. We ask them to answer these questions through a variety of pedagogies in classrooms, labs, studios, projects and seminar discussions. The space between the stories we present, and the arguments we ask the students to consider are analogous to the space between author and reader. Just as a successful story requires a critically engaged reader, so to a successful classroom requires a critically engaged student.
Good writing engages a reader to critically read. Good teaching engages a student to critically learn. When educators provide a well articulated argument (be it an historical account or a description of a biological process) students engage because they understand why they are being asked to think about it. The responsibility to think critically and 'learn' then becomes theirs (just as a book becomes a reader's).
Critical thinking then can be thought of as the process that allows students to bridge the gap between a teacher's question and a student's answer. This space between teacher and student represents potential learning. If a writer is successful in creating a well-formed and well-informed story, readers will read their book (or essay or poem). Going back to my two examples, Aslan filled the space through the synthesis of historical sources. Toibin filled this learning space with a literary picture (a painting made of words) of a mother's intimate feelings for her son. Both books inspire learning.
This literary analogy, I think, can help educators consider teaching and learning as mutual and creative processes and critical thinking as the link that connects them. Our tasks as educators is to inspire students to cross the learning spaces we create so that they can enhance their critical thinking skills and begin to learn on their own.
Today I would like to talk about the critical differences between data, information and knowledge. This speaks to a pet peeve of mine: As educators we spend too much time passing on disciplinary content and too little on why we need to know such content and how we actually have come about to know it.
Data is sensory. Humans have five inputs - sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. We oftentimes supplement these senses through technology (microscopes, microphones, telescopes and telephones, for example.) The packets of sensory data we collect have to be made sense of. First we organize sensory data into patterns. Visual data, for example, is put together from the perception of such things as color, brightness and contrast to form visual patterned information. This allows us to conceptualize or give meaning to these visual patterns, which we call knowledge. We 're-cognize' our material surroundings. Our brains combine the new perceptions with what we have previously recognized (what we know) to allow us to perceive our environment.
So what does this have to do with education? Well, I think everything. Most generally education is the method by which we use to pass on cultural knowledge between generations. in order for successive generations to be culturally literate and thereby adaptive and successful, educators must pass on relevant traditional knowledge from previous generations and the rationale and method underlying the creation of this knowledge. if we see education as a means of primarily passing on cultural content in the form of data and information, then we are short-circuiting the education process. In my over 3 decades as an educator, content driven coursework continues to dominate higher education. Content driven 'learning' provides our generation's answers without revealing the questions that we posed and methods that were used to arrive at these answers. Answers in themselves are relatively meaningless without their methodological context. Knowing requires the ability to sense, organize and create, This is why many students only want to know facts that will be 'on the test.' They are looking for answers without knowing the questions.
Let me approach my argument from a different direction by citing Farmer/Philosopher/Educator Wendell Berry's "Paragraph's from a Notebook" in his 2015 book of Essays "Our Only World." He laments our educational propensity to overemphasize breaking things down in order to know things. In his terms, we analyze sensory perceptions to study their anatomy. He astutely notes that "(n)either (analysis or anatomy) suggests a respect for formal integrity and that this distracts us from 'learning or teaching a competent concern for the way parts are joined." Understanding the formal integrity of our environments is an essential aspect of knowing about them. We need to understand ecosystems not just eco-facts.
Berry concludes that we should turn to the Greek term for creating 'poeisis' (from the same root as poetry) as a way for understanding formal integrity and completing the educational cycle. Knowledge requires building and building requires creativity. In this way, all learners are poets.
Education to be complete must include a mix of passing on content (what we know) and building (why and how we know it). It requires an understanding that knowledge and its endgame cultural literacy is a creative process that requires moving from data to information to knowledge.
The world of higher education is experiencing white water change. Students approach college with perspectives and aspirations that challenge the fundamentals of higher learning.
This blog will discuss the myriad aspects of contemporary higher education through my anthropological eye and over 30 years of experience in university teaching and administration.
To start off consider this simple scenario that was proposed by Margaret Mead 40 years ago in her treatise on what was then known as the Generation Gap (Mead 1971, Culture and Commitment).
Imagine yourself as a young adult in a pre-industrial society. What would be your educational goal? Put more generally, who would be your model of an adult? Mead proposes that to be successful in such a society, a young person's goal would be to 'become' their grandmother or grandfather.
Now imagine yourself in early 20th century America. Perhaps a first generation child in an immigrant family? Ask yourself the same questions? To become your grandparent (if you even knew who they were) would ill-prepare you for your future in America. Might your goal be to become your father or mother?
Now consider yourself a high school baby boomer, like myself. Would you imagine yourself well prepared for the late 20th century with your parent's education? My father graduated New York Printer's High School in the 1940's. He was well educated to utilize a linotype machine that printed lead 'slugs' of words and phrases that were used to print the NY Times. He assimilated into American society as an upwardly mobile middle class adult, who eventually owned his home on the Long Island suburbs. He worked until the 1970's when he was re-trained to use computers to create text and headlines. As a baby boomer, the computer became a part of my life at that same time in the 1970's when I was a graduate student in Anthropology. It has of course since become central to my professional life, and not without its costs, my personal life.
Now consider today's students. Their world revolves around hand-held smart phones that combine the power of personal computers with an increasing variety of virtual communication media that connect them to an increasingly comprehensive and in some cases dangerous internet. Their face-face world is increasingly encapsulated in a world of virtual communication. The professional world they are facing is really unknowable, although its direction will include robotic manufacturing, 3 dimensional printing, and driverless electric cars. Technology is probably the easier part to predict. The real unknowable is the kind of society and culture they will be building and living in, and their learning needs to be able to work and adapt to this new world.
In the classroom, it is again not so much technology that is changing our students' learning environment, as much as the information explosion, both in terms of amount and the way it is disseminated. Content driven education, that is learning what happened and when, can be obsolete by the time it reaches the student notebook (be it electronic or composition). Higher learning has evolved into a seemingly ever-challenging process of learning how build knowledge in a world of changing media and an explosion of information.
To an anthropologist education is a medium for passing on culture. Going back to Mead's scenario, pre-industrial society relied on the passing of traditional knowledge face to face, often through inter-generational conversations and rites of passage that included poems, songs and rituals. Industrial society conformed education into formal content driven and technical learning. Students learned to be their fathers and mothers something that was already disappearing by the time my generation, the baby-boomers came along.
The big question that I will approach in subsequent postings is: "How do we educate today's and tomorrow's students, with a future that is basically unknowable?" The way we as individuals and groups interact and communicate is transforming us individually and collectively; psychologically and culturally. And this means our students have different learning tasks than we did.
In forthcoming posts, I will continue to explore culture change and its implications for higher learning. I intend to weave in a little anthropology and theory, but I will do so in order to lay a foundation for more practical recommendations, some big and some small, for the university and college classroom.