February 9, 2012

Is There a Place for Progressive Teaching in Higher Ed.?

Is there a place for "new," progressive teaching approaches and in higher education - PBL, collaboration, self-directed learning, no grades, no "homework," face-to-face feedback, technology integration, professional use of social media? I use these instructional strategies in my courses, but my students are pushing back against these approaches in favor of what is most familiar to them from high school and other college courses.

They would rather have lectures and worksheet homework assignments than do authentic learning projects. They would rather use textbooks than use ubiquitous and equally informative (and FREE) online resources. They would rather remain disconnected professionally than explore use social media for professional growth and development (in fact, many were vehemently opposed being required to setup and use Twitter for one of my courses). They would rather their learning be highly prescriptive, with a clear focus on what is necessary to get a specific grade,than be responsible for their own learning and achievement. 

I attempt at the beginning of each semester to explain the rationale behind my instructional approach. Project work requires students to think critically, to work collaboratively, to apply knowledge in an authentic task, and to self-assess. Further, PBL assignments require student to be self-directed in their learning, which promotes better knowledge retention, information synthesis, authentic application of their learning, and fosters skills necessary for life-long learning.

Collaborative learning is a principle component in my classes. Collaborative learning requires students to communicate effectively with others, promotes tolerance of alternate viewpoints, and also promotes critical thinking as challenges arise and are resolved. These are skills that will be required in their profession as educators.

I do not assign grades for individual projects, but rather I give descriptive feedback to each student individually, during and after project completion. I believe descriptive feedback is the best approach toward helping students grow and learn, with grades not offering students adequate feedback they can use to develop and achieve and increasingly higher levels. I do not want students to concentrating on achieving a specific grade for assignments (if I do X,Y, and Z I will get an "A"), but rather that they focus on their learning. I am required by the university to give a letter grade for each student at the end of the course, however. I ask each student to assign and justify a final grade for his/herself based on what they have learning and the quality of their work. Often, students's self-assigned grades are on-par or below those I eventually assign.

I require extensive use of technology in generral, and web-based resources, in particular, in my courses for various reasons: 1) The cost of textbooks (and specialized software) is quite high, and the value of the content usually does not justify the cost because 2) Similar content can be found on the Internet without cos;  3) Exploring Internet resources requires students to assess the quality of the content found on each site visited - a valuable skill for anyone using the web, 4) web-based content often offers a richer experience through multimedia, linked content, and commentary, 5) using web resources in the classroom offer collaborative opportunities that are not available in classrooms - Google Docs, collaborative mind maps, wikis, blogs, websites etc., and 6) web-based blogs and social media offer the opportunity to learn from others outside the classroom and openly share personal learning with others. Technology is not going away, so it is important that students learn to use it to their advantage.

Clearly, I must do a better job of explaining this rationale to students. Clearly, I must do a better job of explaining project processes and procedures, and better communicate why each project is relevant. 

I believe that the more "progressive" approach in my classroom is in the best interest of my students. Any return to giving worksheet homework, administering exams for grades, participating in a one-way flow of information from teacher to students, and closing the door on learning opportunities offered through technology would be a very large step backward.

I can relate better now to what K-12 educators in high-stakes testing environment must experience every day, trading student achievement on standardized tests for job security. In my evaluation process, students directly rate each faculty member, and this contributes significantly to a faculty member's final evaluation. I feel pressure to capitulate on my principles, and what I believe is in the best interest of the students, to gain students "positive" evaluations so that I can better argue my success and value as a teacher.

The situation reminds me of trying to give my children medicine. I know and they know it tastes bad, but I know it is in their best interest to take the medicine. It is explained to them that they must take their medicine if they hope to get well. They get it, but they still don't want to do it. So, I suffer through the stubborn pursed lips, the loud cries of agony and disgust, and the "mean" moniker until the medicine is is taken. It's worth it, though. They get well, over time, and I see the smiles return to their faces as the return to their normal, happy selves.

But, the medicine never gets easier to swallow, and it usually takes a long time to work.