Choral Explanations as a way of opening the conversation

I’m working on several courses this fall and one of my areas of focus is trying to come up with some models of looking at building knowledge as a collaborative inside a given course. I was jamming around with my colleagues, sifting through various ideas and I remembered a post by Michael Caulfield. In this section of his post ‘Choral Explanations and OER: A summary of thinking to date’ from 2016, he describes how the choral explanation is a way of allowing for a wider number of voices to contribute to a discussion and avoid the transactional nature of a simple question and answer scenario.

I’m still trying to think my way through how to set this up for the courses I’m designing, but its always useful for my planning if i take some time to think about WHY i might want to do this. This keeps me from wandering off and letting the idea get ahead of me. And, clearly, I can’t think quietly 🙂

For the purposes of this conversation, I’m proposing taking a given concept per week and trying to support a choral explanation by participants. They will be encouraged to ‘add’ to the explanation by providing an example, by offering a citation (with an explanation) or a counter position to existing positions as a ‘YES AND’. The idea is to create a broad image of what a concept means to different people in different contexts, rather than trying to limit ourselves to a simple definition that is by its nature exclusionary of other points of view. If you have a model for doing this, I’d love to see it.

Think about defining learning. Or student success.

Supporting Uncertainty

In a recent Twitter conversation a colleague asked (responding to this interview I did on Teaching in Higher Ed) about how to bring uncertainty into the ‘current container of higher education’. The question stuck with me. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently writing about how the way we frame questions to support uncertainty. This approach focuses more about how students actually engage with those questions.

The hope here is to create space for participants to include multiple perspectives and voices to a conversation without them cancelling each other out. There will be no space for searching for the ‘right’ answer, as it depends on what you’re trying to say. It also, like any real conversation, will depend on when you come to the conversation. I’m going to need to figure out how to encourage participants to add something new to the conversation without making that annoying. (groups of five might work)

Novices vs. experts

I keep returning to the literature (a couple of links below) distinguishing between novice and expert learners. There is a fair amount of research out there talking about how they should be treated differently. A novice learner needs to ‘get a sense of the basic concepts’. A novice needs to learn the definitions so that they can know what’s going on. The problem, though, is that we often have to simplify a definition in order to explain it to someone who is not part of the field. That definition often leaves out critical voices or gives the illusion that complex concepts can be easily explained.

The idea of a choral explanation allows for a novice (whatever that is to you) to engage in a conversation with nuance and multiple perspectives, without necessarily ‘learning the words first’.

Community as curriculum

One of the reasons i’m super excited to try this is that it encourages participants to turn to each other to understand something. It also allows participants to bring perspectives beyond my own understanding (could be gender, background, race etc…) to our understanding of things. The community of participants becomes the curriculum that they are learning.

Internet as Platform

Maybe most importantly, it allows us to deal with knowledge the way it is actually created. This is certainly true for the way many people come to know things using the internet. But I think I mean it more broadly than that. We have been taught for decades now to cite where our thoughts about something come from. To situate our work in the literature. We have always been in a choral process for making knowledge… with only so many people being allowed to be part of the choir. Mike’s approach will maybe allow me to keep the conversations about concepts open, collaborative and, ideally, choral.

Tabatabai, D., & Shore, B. M. (2005). How experts and novices search the Web. Library & Information Science Research, 27(2), 222–248.
Hmelo-Silver, C. E., & Pfeffer, M. G. (2004). Comparing expert and novice understanding of a complex system from the perspective of structures, behaviors, and functions. Cognitive Science, 28(1), 127–138.

A tentative guide for new student employees

For you long suffering readers of this blog (this is year 17) you know that my blog is often just where I keep my notes. This one is going to be my ‘working with dave’ notes for new student employees.

I have been fortunate to work with a fair number of excellent students on a number of different projects over the years. At UPEI I worked with the student union for a number of years to introduce some basic project planning and management. I led New Student Orientation for a couple of years, and had some students working for me full in a number of previous roles. In the last two years (’cause Covid) that number has shot through the roof as I’ve had about 80 CoOp students working with me in the Office of Open Learning.

It’s an interesting group to work with. I’ve only got them for four months and, for many of them, this is the first job where they are expected to do things beyond simply repeating a pattern they’ve been given. This term I have three students, two of them are returning from previous CoOp terms. It means that instead of allowing the ‘this is how we do stuff’ to come naturally through conversations, I’m going to do some one on one training with the new students to avoid forcing the returning students to hear all my introductory advice again. In preparation for that, I thought I’d jot down some notes.

Would love some feedback on this so I can turn it into a long term document.

Choosing to be interested

One of the challenges for CoOp students who are working with us in the department, is that they would not have (with a few exceptions) ever have imagined working in education. They are predominantly engineering students who have been unable to find in-field CoOp placements because of the pandemic. Many students (and not just engineers) have been sold the fantasy that they can go to school to get a job that is going to be easy to love.

I mean, that can happen, I guess. But it probably wont. Liking the work you do is mostly about mindset. It’s something I was fortunate to learn in my house when I grew up. My mother can have fun peeling apples. Or raking the lawn. She turns things into a game for herself (and others), tries to get better at it. Tries to do it more efficiently. That mindset is a critical one to develop for people to live happy lives. Most of us have to work. Most of us will never have jobs that are ‘fun all the time’. Learning to find things to like in your job is critical. Even if that thing you like is playing cards at lunch with coworkers (I learned to play 5-way cribbage working at a lead-silver refinery)

I approach this in a number of ways. I try to bring a positivity and enthusiasm to our staff meetings. Try to model it. More importantly, I talk to students about finding a project during the term that they can invest in. Something that they can find interesting that they are responsible for. That they can take pride in doing well.

You need to choose to be interested.

(but not all tasks are going to be interesting)

Being prepared

Such an easy thing to do. Such an obvious oversight if you don’t do it. If someone says “read this over” then read it. Yes. But read it to the point that you have an opinion about it. Come to our meetings with thoughts about the work that you’ve been given.

You could even read around it. A 2 minute google search where you’ve looked at what other people have done or checked the meaning of an industry term can make all the difference to you enjoying the next meeting.

Be prepared

(it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just think about the work BEFORE the meeting)

Handling multiple tasks

I have consistently seen students struggle managing multiple tasks. If I forget (early on in the term) to say “hey, when i give you a new thing to do it doesn’t mean you stop doing the other one” I will have at least one project totally fall off the radar. Students have had their lives jammed into 60 minute sections (classes) for basically all of their lives. They are accustomed to being TOLD when to work on things, and when to change tasks.

This is super easy to fix. You just have to say “look, segment out your day so you can keep working on different projects.”

Be conscious in managing your work day.

(this might take a while to get used to)

Learning to prioritize

“Wasn’t it obvious that this was more important? The VP asked for this!”

This is something I once found coming out of my mouth before I stopped and realized that, obviously, if my employee didn’t understand the priorities, it’s because I never explained them. A big part of working with student employees is to pass along these cultural norms, but you need to say them out loud. These are very different based on cultural backgrounds.

I like to think of it in terms of ‘right now’, ‘next 24 hours’ or ‘next two weeks’. YMMV. But a big part of the job is to get students thinking about how they are prioritizing their multiple projects. Talking it through… “hey, i know you’re working on three things right now, how have you got them mapped out?” really helps.

Some things are going to be more important than others

(You don’t have to do everything at once, you just have to keep track)

Managing up

This might be the most important piece. We often hire students to do projects that we don’t want to do. We also hire them to do things we don’t necessarily know HOW to do. So many students end up working for people with very little management experience or, worse, for people who think management is some kind of guessing game where they say ‘go do stuff’ with some expectation that students know what’s hidden in your brain.

I talk to my students about how to manage me. I can get a little scattered, so I tell them it’s perfectly ok to remind me that I said I would send them something or to answer their questions. You can ask me questions about what I’m asking you to do, but I’d like it if you read everything first and get a sense of what’s happening before you ask.

That’s the way I like to work. But one of the biggest jobs of any employee is to figure out how your boss ticks. I mean, some of them are just jerks, BUT we all have to work. Learning to manage your boss in a way that allows you to find out what success looks like is going to make you happier and make your boss happier.

You need to manage your boss, as much as they need to manage you

(figure out what success looks like, it’s almost never obvious)

The project charter

I love me a project charter. It’s just a document that lays out what a project is and keeps track of high level issues. The beauty of your average project charter is it gives you a place to put decisions, to clarify outcomes and timelines and to keep track of risks and scope creep.

It becomes the official record of the project and gives you something to go back to. To make sure everyone’s on the same page. I use various versions of this one, which you are free to steal.

Filling out a project charter is also a great way to frame your questions for your boss (see managing up). “hey i was just going through my notes and realized I don’t think you ever told me when you needed this finished”

Keep track of what you’ve been told to do

(and everything else that’s been said about your project)

Dealing with uncertainty

This is the hardest. When I ask a student to do something or I ask them for their opinion, they almost always assume that I already know the answer. 15 years of school has told them that it’s what adults do. They ask questions to test you.

It takes a lot of convincing from me to get students to realize that when I ask them a questions it’s because I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER. It’s one of the things that slows down the work the most. Students think they are trying to figure out what I’m withholding and I’m waiting for the work to get done. It’s bad for everybody.

There is not a ‘right way’ to do most things. There are local customs at different places of employment that you need to follow, but a lot of the time you just have to make choices AND learn to be ok with being wrong sometimes. It can take a while before a student gets their mind around that. It requires patience.

Face uncertainty, make decisions

(just not decisions that can get you into too much trouble 🙂 )

Learning to be wrong and to fix it

Today I showed the edit that my own supervisor did on a grant application I wrote. It was GLOWING it had so many edits. Students have been trained to believe that they get one chance to submit something and that if there’s anything ‘wrong’ with it, that they have failed somehow.

Real life is mostly not like that. You need to get used to the fact that your supervisor is going to ask you to change things… sometimes in ways that you wont like. You can certainly talk about why you made those decisions, but being open to critique is a necessity.

Be open to critique

(just bring it back better next time)

Talk about what you don’t know

This is a touchy one. I want students to tell me when they don’t know how to do something, but I also want them to try and figure it out. It’s a delicate balance. If you ask me a simple question you could have easily found the answer to, I’m just going to send you a lmgtfy. So, as a student, you need to try something first. Asking questions without trying just leads to bad questions.

But. If you don’t know how to do something, or you don’t understand the scope of something… your work is going to suck. And people are mostly bad at telling students what to do. That means that students need to advocate for themselves. They also need to make an effort to learn the stuff they don’t know on their own.

Working is all about learning.

(sometimes that learning is your job, sometime’s it’s your boss’ job to help you)


Working is hard. You’re going to find, a lot of the time, that you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to be doing or how to do it well. Figuring out the job is a big part of getting good at it.

In Search of Creativity in Education

I’ve been asked by the folks at OECD’s CERI (Center for Educational Research and Innovation) to develop a teacher training curriculum for… let’s call it integrating creativity into the online classroom. I’ve been picking away at it all summer and have come up with a list of critical discussion that I ‘think’ should be included in this kind of course. I’ve been designing activities and such for them, and I kind of want to pin them to the wall in this blog post, and see how much of it still rings true in October when the project needs to be delivered.

What’s the deliverable?

It’s pretty straightforward actually. They are looking for a ‘teacher syllabus’ and about 30 minutes of video addressing some of the key concepts. The idea is that these could be taken, presumably as a whole or in part, and used to train in-service or pre-service teachers to include ‘creativity’ in the classroom.

So… creativity?

The word creativity, for me, fits way more in with words like ‘fun’ and ‘love’ and ‘friendly’ than it does with words like ‘slope’ or ‘equilateral’ or ‘cat’. Imagine for a second what it would be like to have a specific definition of fun that you applied to everyone. In order to not make the process ridiculous you end up having to append ‘for the individual or group’ to the definition making it meaningless in practical application. I can, however, talk about what fun probably isn’t, and I can talk about what it looks like when different people talk to me about it. I think our working definitions of creativity are going to look like this.

Potentially more importantly to the process, I think a teacher is going to struggle trying to implement someone else’s idea of creativity in the classroom. I am, for instance, not a very arty person, neither through talent nor through inclination. When I think of creativity I think of a novel approach to a given idea, a new perspective for that individual. Am I wrong about that being creativity? Students are going to be better served, i think, by getting different versions of creativity from different teachers than by some centralized concept.

Pretty sure we’re going to have to spend some time talking about our own feelings about creativity and the kinds of things that it means to other people – both inside and outside the classroom community.

Another critical question here is how to balance different teachers attempts to encourage their own kind of creativity and the space for students to perform THEIR own kind of creativity. I think this just underlines how important the public discussion of different people’s views of creativity are going to be in the course…

Well-defined problems and compliance

Friends of this blog will know that I am constantly on about ill-defined/ill-structured/complex challenges and what they mean in terms of making space for learning. A well-defined challenge (one where the teacher knows the input, the process and the outcome) can certainly be a good way to develop certain kinds of skills, but they are mostly about compliance. Success for a student given a well-defined problem is to figure out what the teacher wants and give it to the teacher.

This relationship between compliance and creativity is going to be a tough one I think. For one, so much of our systems of education are about compliance. Teacher’s set a standard, choose (or have chosen for them by their systems) the things a student ‘needs to know’ and then reward those students with grades for performing appropriately.

And yeah, about grades. It’s a whole other post, but I don’t really think you can put a number grade on the creative part of creativity. It opens you up to so many problems.

Ill-defined problems and engagement

It is my belief (i don’t really have another word for it) that there is a fundamental relationship between ill-defined problems and student engagement. I mean… there’s lots of research that supports it, but there’s just as much research that says it’s nonsense, that you need to offer clear learning objectives, clear processes and defined outcomes for students to learn. Given this contradiction, I choose the word belief rather than just choosing a faction in the literature and ignoring the ‘other side’.

I’ve been using Schlechty’s distinction between compliance and engagement for the last six months or so, and am finding it really useful.

The argument, I guess, goes like this. In order to support students to be creative, they need to be personally engaged in an activity and not simply compliant IF our desired outcome is for students to genuinely create and not just deliver on a well-defined outcome.

That means as a teacher you’re going to be asking students to do something without a clear sense of what you’re going to be getting back. Tricky. Not enough scaffolding? Students will panic and not be able to do anything. You’ll also be open to things that are wildly out of scope (students working too much, ritually compliant students working to the letter and not the spirit of an activity). Too much structure and you’ll only be encouraging compliance in students and you’ll get 27 copies of the same ‘creative product’.

Being creative online

The course is meant to be about doing this online, or at least with access to the internet, necessitating me to talk about abundance and scarcity again :). Imagine a simple task like “draw me an interesting circle”. Without touching your computer, take out a pen and, in 60 seconds or so, go ahead and complete that task. Now, after you’re done, do a google image search for ‘interesting circle’ and contemplate doing the task again. It’s different. Very, very different.

You can take two different perspectives on this.

You can try and recreate that scarcity environment, where I only have my own brain to work with, for your students to be creative in. You can ‘try’ and do this. This is what teachers all over the world are doing now, and they are fighting a losing battle against students who are ‘cheating’ by using any number of online resources to help them with their work.


You can give in to the abundance of the Internet and you can get students to cite where their inspirations came from. All of our creativity, one could argue, comes from bits we’ve seen and done combined together in a novel way. Or, put another way…

the writer’s fictive illusion is made up of bits of true autobiographical and factual detail but the whole thing is a lie

O. S. Mitchell on W. O. Mitchell’s writing strategy

The lie, in this case, is our own creative insertion. The way in which we’ve combined a thing. Our own spin. Our interpretation. The difference between the scarcity model (all the things i can remember) and the abundance model (all the things i can find that other people remembered) is both an acceptance of where our bits of true came from and the quantity of bits we have to work with.

I mean… we can also make the workforce readiness argument here, but lets take it as read.

Thoughts going forward

This seems like three big enough issues for go forward with for now.

  • The nature of creativity and the balance between a teacher’s sense of creativity and different sense of it in different students
  • The relationship between ill-defined problems and the kind of engagement that leads to the fostering of creativity
  • The challenges and opportunities of doing creativity with access to such an abundance of influences.

Thoughts for other big issues that need to be addressed? Comments on these gratefully accepted.

Two stories 27 years apart. A boat flipped over. A memorial.

My dad died five days ago. I wrote a dedication for my father (appended at the end of this post) the day that he died… and then remembered this old short story, which I eventually found.

This is a mostly true story I wrote about my Father and I when I was about 19 y/o. I’m not sure that the coast was actually ‘nightmarish’ or that we were quite that ‘wind-torn’ but I’ve resisted the urge to give this an edit for adjectives and posted it like it was submitted to a writing contest 27 years ago. All the boat/fishing stuff is true. The laughter part is definitely true. I may have exaggerated about the… well… I was trying to be ‘real’ at the time. I’m so happy about it now. 

He would have been just a few years older than I am now when this was written. 

@@@@@ THE BOAT

“Nice night,” I offered easily as I opened the passenger side door of his truck to get in out of the downpour. I was met by the familiar smells of sea salt and outboard motor exhaust that always surrounded the man when he was fishing. We sat there together for a short while in a silence broken only by his heavy breathing and the soft hum of the engine. We never did talk much when we were together like this, and even if we did talk, it was usually only after careful thought. He seemed to think that the ‘conversation’ was the awkward part of any relationship, not the silence. I think that’s one of the things about him that I appreciate more and more every year.

“I should have known this storm would…” he started and then stopped, shaking his head, “…no I shouldn’t have – and I know better than to talk like that – I’ve let it go through storms like this before; I just didn’t think that it would flip over.” I never heard any fisherman I know call their boats ‘she’ or use words like ‘capsize’; I really don’t know why.

I’d seen the ageing fisherman every summer when I came home from university in Halifax to work at the local refinery. I’d help him in and around his boat, and he’d let me make my own mistakes. He always treated me like a real person that way. He’d work at the refinery and haul lobster traps all spring on next to no sleep, and never seemed to miss a step. He’d changed this time though; the first change I’d seen in him since I could remember. He had the same wind-weathered face, red and wrinkled. He had the same strong squat body, the same lumbering walk; he always moved better when he was on the water. I remember seeing him play old timers hockey when I was younger. The old timers teams were always understaffed and he used to play sixty minutes a game on defence. He tried his best, worked hard for all sixty minutes, but he was clumsy; he’d panic in a tight situation. Put him on the outboard in a storm on the other hand, and the man was an artist, every movement smooth and efficient. It always mystified me the way he seemed to be two different athletic entities. Looking back at it now, it doesn’t really seem that strange. Everything he did was driven by practicality; if he needed to be able to do something, he did it.

He motioned his hand in the direction of the boat. I followed his pointing finger, and I could just make out a whitish lump through the sheering rain. My face twisted in sickened fascination as I realised that, yes, the boat had flipped over. And, what’s more, it had drug the anchor about 50 yards.

‘Oopsy…’ I muttered.

‘Yeah… that’s just what I said.’ He returned.

I smiled slightly at the oft mentioned remark and looked out over the rest of the wind-torn water. It foamed and churned more violently than I’d seen in the fifteen or so years that I could remember. It was late, much later than the time when the wind was likely to give that retched boat any rest. The current was going with the wind, slowly pushing the boat toward that nightmare shore. We sat there. Silent. Waiting.

The sun set slowly somewhere behind those dark, grey clouds. We were calculating the drift of the boat again and again in the fading light. If it didn’t grab that little rock bed we both knew it was floating over, or there wasn’t enough of the anchor left to dig into the bottom of the bay, we had two choices: let the boat be beaten to splinters by the crashing waves on the shore, or risk being beaten into splinters ourselves by trying to haul it to safety in the middle of a storm.

I glanced over at him from the passenger seat of his ageing 4X4. There really was a difference in him this year. The dry teasing wit was the same. The solidity from which he spoke about all the things he knew was unshaken. But his drive was failing. Granted he’d had a severe snowmobile accident last year and smashed up his leg; he’d really only started walking right again in January. Sure, the arthritis in his left elbow was getting a little bit worse and his other injuries old and new acted up more and more every year. But it was more than that. This is the man that I had watched stand on one leg – his other one was in a cast – and haul lobster traps into the boat. He didn’t do this because he had to or because he was greedy, he had hired me to haul the traps for him for that spring. It was his will (not that he would call it that) that did not allow him to be stopped by something as insignificant as a broken leg. He seemed different now. He wouldn’t go out on the water if the wind was blowing too hard. If he was tired from working shift at the refinery, he would go down to the beach, check his boat and just got to bed. There was a time when he would have just shrugged and gone out on the water anyway. This is not to say that he’d become lazy. He was still doing more work in a day that I do in a month. He just seemed to have lost his edge. He started to buy things instead of make them himself, and he would bring his boat motors into the shop instead of fixing them himself in his garage. Little things had changed that would only be noticed by someone who’d watched him with so much fascination for so many years.

“I’ll take the rowboat and go out… ” I began, but was immediately cut off by his stern voice that always carried such a tone of finality. “It’s not worth it.”

It was the indifference that caused me to wonder about how much energy the man still had. True, it was only in the last year or two that I was experienced enough to actually take part in the decision making process. True, I was twenty and he was over fifty. It just seemed to me that five years before we would have tried to save that boat before it made its own decision as to whether or not it was going to smash into the coast of our small village.

I drove up and down the coast of the beach on the three wheeler that evening, recovering the refuse that the Bay had spit out all over the shore. We recovered one of the gas tanks, a couple of tubs, and a few other odds and ends all tangled in the seaweed that had been torn off the bottom of the bay. The boat had already been safely hauled on shore the few other times that I’d done the floating equipment run. It was just one more thing that felt out of place that night.

“I think it caught,” he said, as I got back into the truck after putting the gear I’d found on the beach in his fishing shed. “You’re all wet. You might as well go to the house, take a shower, and call it a night. There’s nothing else we can do here until the wind dies down.”

I went to bed that night with mixed feelings. I had the same rush that I always had after being so close to the pounding sea and being trusted as a compatriot by the man I’ve always admired so much. I was troubled though; the man had been so calm, so dispassionate. I could not understand how, in the face of such a beautiful challenge, he could simply tell me to go to bed. I realise now how romanticism comes quite naturally to a twenty-year-old who is not forced into a situation where his own living – or someone’s life – depends on the outcome.

“Wake up…” he whispered at five the next morning, accompanied by a strong gentle shove, ” the wind’s calmed down.” The memory of the night before blew through me, and I jumped in the air and into an old pair of jeans. I charged down the hall pulling my T-shirt over my head. “Better put on something warm,” he said, “it’s cool out.” I glanced at the old thermometer that has always been outside the side window; five meager Coastal Canadian degrees. shit. That is cold.

I reached the side of the bay, rubber boots on, and my rugby jacket pulled over my shoulders. The sight that greeted me was possibly the most forlorn of my life. I saw a figure outlined in the Bay, standing alone on the seaweed strewn beach, shaking its head. I turned my eyes in the direction of the shoal that we had hoped the boat had caught on the night before. The boat was there all right. It was floating alone, upside down, with nothing else visible in the wide bay that was post-fury green, pale and dirty. The waves were rolling long and high, the aftershocks of the night’s violence continuing their slow deliberate journey to crash to peace on the rocky shore.

“What the hell can we do with that mess?” I whispered half to myself. “’Don’t know”, he replied in his unstudied monotone. I watched him as he glanced around first at the sky, then at the water, and finally at his mistreated boat. The sky was flat grey. Ugly. The boat was bobbing upside down like a dead whale, its white belly turned up to the sky and being slowly eaten by the barnacles, being tugged to and fro’ by the careless current. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I saw the old fisherman’s shoulders straighten. He turned and he began stomping toward the shed.

He hauled out about fifty feet of black rope – the thickness of my wrist – and threw it on the ground. We both glanced at it, and mechanically moved together to drag the rowboat into the water so I could go out and at least get hold of his much abused boat. It was a completely different challenge than we faced when the boat had sunk the year before. When a boat sinks right-side up, all you have to do to bring it safely to shore is to attach one end of a rope to the ring at the front of the boat and the other to the truck, and drive like hell. Now, with the boat belly up, we had to somehow flip it over before it reached shallow water. A boat upside down on the beach isn’t such a bad thing, but if we hauled it in with the outboard attached it would rip the motor to pieces.

I rowed out over the huge long waves, moving in slow motion, timing to the beat of the tired bay. I grabbed on to the end of the massive rope that I had taken with me and attached it to the ring at the front of the boat, which was now underwater. I then grabbed on to the boat’s anchor rope, which had, incidentally, hooked on to that rock bed the night before. It was the small spare anchor that I found at the end of the thin nylon rope, the one that was used when we made quick stops mackerel fishing in the current. The three massive anchors that are supposed to hold the boat in a storm we found later, pretzled: Isn’t irony beautiful.

The old fisherman started to haul in the boat with the truck and stopped when it was about twenty feet from shore. “Hold it there, I’ll be right back.” He ‘sprinted’ up the beach hill to the house and came back about five minutes later pulling a familiar black wetsuit over his head. The wetsuit was torn and partially rotted with age, his once firmly muscled body seeping out in places. He waded out into the cold bay, hardly wincing as the icy water made its way through to his body that was covered in silver hair so thick it looked like a rug. He swam over, grabbed hold of the boat and said, ‘go take the truck.”

I rowed back the short way to the sea littered beach, jumped on shore, and started to haul in the rowboat. I then heard the last thing I had expected; the old fisherman had started to laugh. I turned back to one of the most remarkable sights I’ve ever seen, and indeed that I’m ever likely to see. My father perched cat-like on the bottom of a boat that was floating upside down, in the middle of the bay, in an old bedraggled wet suit, red faced and laughing. It had started to snow. I turned my back on him and started to walk to the truck, shaking my head and smiling.

We tried every way we could think of to turn that boat over, ripping off the motor in the process. All in all, it went rather badly. After the motor fiasco, we just hauled the boat into shore and flipped it over by hand. We had absolutely no idea we could even do that. I was smiling the whole time. It appears I was wrong about my old man. He may not have been as reckless as he used to be, just a little slower and maybe more stoic because of the obstacles life has thrown in his way. But the strength of character that I had always admired in him hadn’t changed a bit. I still smile now every time I think about him that day. I’d like to remember my father exactly like that. Crouched on the bottom of his boat in his wetsuit, laughing at the snow.

Rene Cormier – a dedication

This is the post from Facebook the day dad died, which i wanted to have my own copy of it on the blog. I haven’t edited it… though I clearly didn’t quite have all my marbles rolling when I wrote it. I’ll leave it as is.

My father died today.

It was sudden, though he hasn’t been particularly well. It’s a shock, though not an incredible surprise, with his first cancer scare over 20 years behind him. It’s a kind of slow, creeping emptiness as the person who has been the ‘adult in the room’ in so many of the things I’ve done is no longer in the room. “hey dad, does this sound like a good idea to you?” He’d probably say no about this blog post… as unlike his son, he was never particularly interested in attention.

Attention is Mom’s job. We like to tease her about it, but she gave him his space for almost 55 years. Allowing to be who he was. More on this in a future post.Bonnie scanned through our pictures of him today and in most of them he was making something with the kids, watching them kiss fish (a long story for another time) or standing in front of cake. It says something about when we take pictures, in a sense, because while it does say a great deal about the man, it doesn’t tell the whole story. I mean. He was super handy. And he did know a great deal about fish. Also. Lover of cake. All true. What I’ll miss the most though is something that escapes the camera.

In the conversations I’m having in the background with people who knew him… it’s his wisdom that keeps coming up. Bits of advice, a kind quiet look, a short talk stolen on the sidelines of a gathering. Quiet moments watching the sun rise over the water in a fishing boat. Watching the flick of his fishing rod in a brook that never seemed to catch a branch. The way his voice could cut through (and often end) a conversation with one comment. I learned so much watching that man go through the world.

He was THERE. He was very, very honest. If you asked for that wisdom, you got it. Unvarnished. When he engaged, you got all of him. When you needed helping, he helped. If you were figuring something… you couldn’t find a better partner to figure with you. Needed someone to tell you what’s what? He had a 100 year old expression for you. He was so present.

Smart man. So many things i learned how to do from the way that man approaches a challenge. “Why do we need to do it that way?” “if any idiot can do something you can be that idiot, you can do it”. He approached everything like he could, given enough time, given enough staring at it, actually do something about it. I loved watching him discover youtube. A lifelong fisher, the first time he ever did a proper rope splice was at, like 65 after watching a youtube video. He also read almost everything I ever wrote… as ridiculously pedantic as my language gets, with a grade 9 education, he followed along.

A good man my father. Something I’ve said hundreds of times. He was proud that his kids were leading lives they were happy with. He was endlessly amazed that he had four grandkids who he was fascinated by, who he was proud of each in different ways. He wanted to make a difference for his family. To leave them more secure than he started. To give them the skills he’d learned and help them be ready for the world they were in.

A job well done old man. We thank you. Rest.

A Short Course on Engaging Students Online

I start teaching a one week short course with some friends at the Office of Open Learning @ UWindsor tomorrow on student engagement. Can’t think of another topic that has come up more in the last year or so, nor one that is more pervasively ignored in our general discussion about education. It’s right up there with “what is learning” for topics that will basically end your conversation about the system.

And yet. Here we are. I want to get some thoughts clear in my head before tomorrow and, well, that’s what this blog is for :). For someone who randomly lands on this blog, then, please understand that this is a collection of thoughts and not meant to be a fully coherent narrative.

Engagement: What do we mean by engagement?

I’ve decided to use this handy framework put together my Phillip Schlechty about the various levels of student engagement. The elaborations are, of course, mine.

  1. Engaged – Intrinsically motivated
  2. Strategic Compliance – Grade motivated for achievement
  3. Ritual Compliance – Grade motivated for ‘just enough’
  4. Retreatism – Passively resistant
  5. Rebellion – Actively resistant

The key here is separating conversations about motivation and compliance. I want to have people think about whether they are, in effect, only interested in compliance or if they are willing to reach for engagement. You could almost put a hard line between the 1 and 2 on that list, as they are almost totally different visions for what education is for or what learning is. (note: we have returned to ‘what is learning’ again. Sorry.)

Engagement is way harder. It involves trying to design an environment that allows for genuine curiosity. For failure. For student investment. This also requires that you meet those students where they are currently and help them walk towards that goal. A good curriculum design is not enough.

Students: What do students look like now?

This has been a point of emphasis for me for the last year. I’ve had an incredible opportunity to work with a few dozen CoOp students on education projects and we’ve gotten lots of time to work on thinking about learning. They’ve been good to share their thoughts with me… and I kind of feel like we’re not always taking their current status into account.

According to StatsCan, full-time participation in university in 1950 was about 6%. We’ve increased from 19% to 30% since 1995. I keep moving through this data, and its really not clear to me how many of those are international students… the statscan data is take from the Labour Force Survey etc… One way or the other we have WAY more people in higher education than we used to. Lots of people (statistically) who can afford to go to a university, can apply to a university, with an expectation that they will get in. We still have too many barriers for entry, but there are definitely fewer than there used to be.

Broadly speaking, students go to university because students go to university. When I used to do recruitment, someone once explained to me how they had watched the decisions of the high school hockey captain impacting post-k12 decisions more than anything else. I’ve worked with hundreds (upon hundreds) of new students at university, a LARGE percentage of them are taking a degree because they were told to, because they picked what their friend picked or almost at random. That’s not to say there aren’t focused students who come to do exactly one thing, there are, but given that 30% number, we’re looking at a large number of people who don’t have an intrinsic motivation to do their studies. They aren’t starting ‘for a love of biology’ but because their mom told them to do sciences so they could get a job (not true) and they liked their high school biology teacher (a story i’ve heard, weirdly, several times).

Those students are also coming out of an increasingly (my belief, a thing i also keep hearing) structured high school system that is focused on strategic compliance. That strategy, often, is the attainment of high enough grades to get a guaranteed scholarship.

They are not coming to university with an intrinsic motivation to learn.

These kids are also working paid jobs more than their predecessors, are currently living through a pandemic and live in a world of information abundance… leading us to…

Online: The internet changes things too right?

Well… it does and it doesn’t. I don’t think the existence of the Internet changes what it means to be engaged in your learning. I’ve written extensively on this blog about the impact of the internet on what might be important to learn. I think the biggest difference with engagement is on the tools of compliance.

Our face 2 face schools are very effective tools for compliance.

  • It provides distraction (interest) free environment.
  • It allows for effective surveillance
  • It allows for controlled (content) inputs
  • It’s easy to do stuff like put people into groups

It’s also, frankly, a lot easier to keep people’s attention. If I’m stuck in a room with nothing else to do and you see me peek at my phone, I’m probably just going to pay attention to you. That doesn’t necessarily mean you were doing a GOOD job of engaging me, it’s that, given the environment, there wasn’t really anything else for me to do.

What online learning forces us to do is come to terms with our f2f tools of compliance and convenience. Does it make it harder to keep students engaged? I mean… maybe. What it does is force us to think about what we’re trying to get done.

So… are they kids or adults?

I got a pretty serious negative response on twitter when i suggested that I was going to make this separation in the course. I was only going to make it to try and prove the point that teaching is teaching, regardless of how old a student is. We have things to learn from the k12 research and things to learn from the adult-ed research, and, frankly, they should probably be combined. If we take the Malcolm Knowles description of good andragogy [sic – that means ‘man learning’], i’m probably good with it.

  1. There is a need to explain why specific things are being taught (e.g., certain commands, functions, operations, etc.)
  2. Instruction should be task-oriented instead of memorization — learning activities should be in the context of common tasks to be performed.
  3. Instruction should take into account the wide range of different backgrounds of learners; learning materials and activities should allow for different levels/types of previous experience with computers.
  4. Since adults are self-directed, instruction should allow learners to discover things for themselves, providing guidance and help when mistakes are made.

You can just go ahead and swap in ‘learners’ instead of adults and that’s probably most of what I want to say about designing for engagement.

Designing for engagement NEEDS to include lots of thoughts about the learners. Not some imaginary group of elites who have been filtered by interest and socio-economic privilege into your class, but your real actual students. This article, sent to me on twitter by @doctorkayleigh does a nice job of talking about it.

Students are way happier when they are intrinsically motivated

I totally think it’s possible. Not all students. Not all the time. But I think we can have an effective education system based on intrinsic motivation. The problem, for many, is that you can’t MAKE people intrinsically motivated. You have to encourage it.

Changing school from solving problems to dealing with problems – A way forward (part 2)

I’ve spent the last 6 weeks shopping around the ideas in this post, trying to find language that both expressed what I was trying to say and resonated with others. Special thanks to our CoOp students Madicyn, Aidan, Lakshdeep, Rana, Trevor, Collin, Steven and Sawyer for helping me so much with the perspective of the current student. This is still a work in progress. Feedback mightily appreciated.

The Purpose of Education?

Almost 10 years ago to the day, I joined a group of dozens of bloggers who were addressing “the purpose of education.” Looking back at my post now, I note that it wasn’t particularly hopeful in terms of what I thought that purpose was. I also note that my children were quite tiny.

While I think we need to keep talking about why we teach, ‘THE PURPOSE OF EDUCATION’ is not something we can answer as a whole question. We can’t ‘solve’ for education. It’s too big, we have too many different assumptions and there are too many people involved to give it a single answer. What we can do is take one idea of what it means, one part of what it might mean, and ask ourselves what that says about the whole. For the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to suggest one thing that our education system might be for. I would ask you to come along with me, with this premise, as least to the end of this post.

Our education system should, at least in part, be designed to help students learn to deal with problems.

Why dealing with problems might be important

We’re going to pull the concept of ‘a problem’ apart here in a little bit, but let’s start at the goal level. We are confronted with problems all the time in our lives. It might be whether or not we should let the kids have ice cream, it might be whether to buy local or buy organic, it could be about voting on the location of a park. Dealing with problems is something you get better at the more you do it. You ‘learn things’ by dealing with problems, but you also learn those habits and practices that carry forward into your next challenge. You learn to deal with uncertainty.

I am purposefully not saying ‘solving problems’, though i do think that sometimes you can deal with a problem by actually solving it. There are certain kinds of problems that can be solved, though the older I get, the fewer real world problems ever seem to get ‘solved’. When I think of my work as a professional, my life as a partner, a friend or a parent… I’m mostly not solving problems. My problems don’t ‘just go away because i have the right answer’. I sometimes am strong or lucky or privileged enough to make a decision about my problems, but i usually have to live with the consequences, good and bad, of those decisions.

What I’m suggesting, then, is that our school system might want to be helping students learn to deal with their problems (current and future).

Ok. How do we deal with problems then?

A problem is an unknown, an uncertainty, an obstacle that needs to be addressed. We give them to students to encourage the learning process. “Subtract 1/2 from 1/4,” “How many Watts of power are used in your house,” “Change my mind about whether you can chew gum in class,” “How you feel about your relationship to fossil fuels”.

Herbert Simon is a HUGELY influential thinker in the history of problem solving. In his 1970 paper with Newell he describes their desire to show the simple, underlying structure of human thought. Their goal was to break down any difficult problem into a series of steps that could be used as input into a computer program they refer to as a problem solving machine. For them, AS FOR SO MANY, they saw chess as the highest bar for of human problem solving. Partially because lots of people researched it, because there was a measurement for success and, i guess, because they thought it was awesome. (See Ensmenger, 2011 on this) So much of our current AI research is premised in chess being the best representative of human thought. Chess is easy to research, let’s use it as the foundation for problem solving.

If we try hard enough, any problem can be solved by breaking it into pieces. Got it.

Chess, however, is a game. It has rules. It has a clear way to win. While there are many options for moving on a chess board, there are only so many. The chess program on my phone can tell me when each of my moves was good or bad… based on the math. Surely using this as the model for dealing with problems is going to limit our ability to deal in the real world. Even Simon admitted that there were some problems that just didn’t fit into his neat little box, and he called them ‘ill-structured’ or ‘ill-defined’ problems. His 2001 definition is my favourite

Problems are called well-structured if the situations, operators and goal tests are all sharply defined; ill-structured, to the extent that they are vaguely defined.

It might just be me, but i can’t help but feel the judgement in that statement… like the ill-structured problems just couldn’t be bothered to work hard enough. Too vague. Not rigorous. And that, my friends, is a huge point. If we have not defined the situations, the operator or the goals tests ‘sharply’ we’re not being rigorous enough. Put the word ‘objective’ or ‘learning outcome’ in that sentence and ask yourself if it resonates.

Ok. Most problems can be solved, but some problems are vague and therefore not as interesting. Also, vague problems, you’re lazy!

So what do we often do when we design problems for students in classrooms? We give them ‘solvable’ problems with clear situations, clear operators and a clear rubric and we ask them to solve the problems. That’s what we call being responsible. Nice clear learning objective. Nice clear outcome. Chi and Glasser (1985) break down problems into three types: puzzles, classroom (well structured or solvable) problems and real life (ill defined or ill structured) problems (pp. 229-231).

Wait. Classroom problems aren’t real life problems? Shouldn’t our classrooms be preparing students for real life?

Reed, (2016) (a Simon disciple) references Rittel & Webber and their amazeballs 1973 paper ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning’ as they describe some of those real problems, which they call ‘wicked problems’. “Wicked problems, in contrast, have neither of these clarifying traits; and they include nearly all public policy issues–whether the question concerns the location of a freeway, the adjustment of a tax rate, the modification of school curricula, or the confrontation of crime.” (p. 160) I quote Reed here, because if you check out the paper, he compares Simon’s work to Rittel and Webber.

Let’s just talk about public policy here for a minute. If our schools are meant to prepare students to be good citizens, they should be able to address the public policy issues they are confronted with as citizens. Do we spend money on that cute park by the water, or do we spend it on solar panels for city hall? If we approach this as a ‘solvable problem’ we get two factions that ‘believe’ that they are right and, mostly likely, yell at each other. If it’s a problem to deal with, we have to make a decision… with consequences.

When i look around my current political landscape, I see our school system as preparing us for the yelling.

Ok. These kinds of problems seem like they’re too hard for students. Lets just give them solvable problems for now, and we’ll get to these vague problems later.

Enter Abundance

In the first part of this series of posts we talked about how the advent of ‘student help sites’ were having a profound impact on how students participate in our education system and how our solutions to this change were not helping. Chegg, ‘cheating’ and the other homework sites are not really the issue here, they are a symptom of a change that has been coming for a long time. We have more information than we did when the education system we work in developed. It’s that simple. We actually have way more information. WAY WAY more information. Our education system was designed to solve the problem of a ‘scarcity of information.’ It did that rather well. We… no longer have this scarcity.

Eye (1974), Barlo (1975) and Sizer (1984) all gave us some kind of warning regarding the burgeoning abundance of information available to humans (dave note: who could afford it) and how we needed to shift from remembering things to handling all of this information. So this abundance is not a new problem. What’s happened is that the technology has caught up with it. We were looking at an abundance of information in the 1970s… but most of it was still filtered through formal publishing system, be that print, radio or TV.

These handy-dandy computers we got now give us access that kind of abundance… and much more. The students have found this technology, and they are now making use of it. And its not just answers to questions they are finding, whole copies of textbooks, people in other countries who are writing their papers… there’s an abundance of… well… pretty much everything.

Putting it simply, your solvable problems will no longer work as a way to practice dealing with problems. Anything you give them that was ever published? They’ve got the answer. All we need to do is look at something like photomath. Scan (almost) any math problem, it solves the math problem for you. Give students a bunch of solvable problems for homework? They might do the work at home… they might use photomath. You will never know. I mean, you could try and trick them… but is that what you want to be as a teacher?

So many discussions in the last 12 months about students cheating by using the internet to solve problems.

A move to dealing with problems…

So you can move towards real life problems because you think that we should be preparing kids for those… or you can do it because your solvable problems don’t work to get students to ‘practice things’.

It’s not easy to teach real-life problems in class. If the problems we give students don’t have clear answers… how can we grade them? How do I teach large classes? How do I… continue to do what I’m doing now?

The answers to these problems aren’t new. We guide. We structure environments where students are encouraged to find things they WANT to learn. The point of this piece is not to answer those questions directly, but to go to part of the core question about what education is FOR.

If we (because we want to or because we have to) are going to say that the goal of education is at least, partially, to help students deal with problems, then our classrooms are no longer places with ‘right’ answers. That changes the power situation we work in. If we choose what the right answer is, we teach students to believe in ‘an answer’ and teach them to believe that those answers are found in the most powerful person in the room. How do they go from that to dealing with real life? Do they just listen to the powerful or do they learn to deal?

If we don’t have answers in our classrooms… how much education research is still valid? “Clear learning objectives lead to higher grades.” How much of our existing educational research is just measure of students ability to solve solvable problems? Does the skill set of solving a solvable problem translate to dealing with real-life problems? People have VERY different feelings about the answer to this question. I’d be super curious about yours.

P.S. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t facts or ‘solvable problems’ that still need to happen in a classroom or in real life. I’m saying that the ‘facts’ aren’t the point of the learning. “How many watts of power does your apartment use” becomes “What is the best way to reduce the number of watts your apartment uses”.

Part 3 – Novice and Expert

A big question left over from this conversation… shouldn’t we start teaching solvable problems before we move onto the more complex ones? Isn’t that what we do with novices? Tune in next blog post when we address this question.


Chi, M. T. H., & Glasser, R. (1985). Problem solving ability. In Human abilities: An information-processing approach (pp. 227–257). W. H. Freeman & Co.

Ensmenger, N. (2011). Is chess the drosophila of artificial intelligence? A social history of an algorithm: Social Studies of Science.

Eye, G. G. (1974). As Far as Eye can See: Knowledge Abundance in an Environment of Scarcity. The Journal of Educational Research, 67(10), 445–447.

Reed, S. K. (2016). The Structure of Ill-Structured (and Well-Structured) Problems Revisited. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 691–716.

Simon, H. A. (1973). The Structure of Ill Structured Problems. Artificial Intelligence, 21.

Simon, H. A., & Newell, A. (1970). Human problem solving: The state of the theory in 1970. American Psychologist, 26(2), 145.

Simon, H. (2001). Problem Solving. In The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS) | MIT CogNet. The MIT press.

After Cheggification – A way forward (Part 1)

In 2015 I had a random conversation with a representative of the ‘school help’ site Brainly at a conference. The company had 50 or so million (now 350 million) registrations and I was told that any student could go on the website and ‘exchange answers’ to questions.

You could call it cheating. Students going online, pasting their questions into a search bar and finding an answer from another student, somewhere else in the world. Or you can see it as part of a broader systemic challenge that comes with the Internet. (or both) One way or the other, they were getting answers to classroom assignments from the Internet.

This week, Michael Feldstein wrote an excellent piece about how Chegg, another version of this answer exchange, has not only setup ways for people to find answers together, they actually bought some of those answers from the textbook companies.

The students not only (literally it seems) have the teacher’s copy of the textbook they have the means of getting answers to anything else you throw at them. My students tell me that the answers to questions on exams can sometimes be posted on services like Chegg minutes after the exam has started. These sites aren’t magical. You can get ‘wrong’ answers on Chegg. There are also times when getting answers to those questions take a little longer, some posted questions from students go unanswered… it’s not a perfect system. But it does work. If a student is working with access to a computer, and your question has a correct answer, they can find it.

So I’ve been asking students and faculty what the implications are…

The faculty response

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve trained and worked with 60 or so students who were hired to support faculty and students. It’s been a few years since I worked with University students in this way and I’d forgotten how straightforward and honest the relationship is. We’ve talked about how they are living through the pandemic, about how their friends are doing and, increasing as their grasp of education design increases, how education has been changing in the last 12 months. Interestingly, their perspectives match up almost perfectly with the conversations I’ve been having with clients and colleagues from around the world – except for the students, it’s more personal.

You see, faculty know that Chegg & friends are out there. Moving their courses online (thereby removing in class exams) has removed the only secure check or balance they had that could guarantee that Chegg wasn’t doing assignments for their students. They are responding, and it’s not making things better for anyone. I’m going to leave virtual proctoring out of these responses as that is primarily a school based response, and is a terrible solution.

Response 1 – Make the exams harder

The most common response that I’ve heard is to make the assignments and exams themselves harder. Whether by asking more questions, giving less time to answer the questions, making the questions themselves more difficult, or some combination of the three, the idea is to try to make the event of the test so challenging that students wont have time to cheat. It does make one wonder… if last year’s exam was fair, and this year’s exam is harder… doesn’t that make this year’s exam unfair?

Response 2 – Entrapment

There are a variety of ways this plays out. Some faculty are lurking on Chegg trying to see when their assignments/tests get posted. Some are making very small changes in their questions from pervious years and calling out the students using previous years answers. Lots of ways to do this. Doesn’t necessarily make for friendly feelings all around.

Response 3 – open/take home exams and assignments replacing high stakes exams

Some faculty are taking a different route. They are saying ‘hey, i know you have the exams answers, I’m going to create these really involved exams and give you 24 hours to do them.’ Alternately, they are throwing the exams out the window entirely and giving students assignments and projects to replace those exams.

So what’s the problem?

Well. The first problem is that each of these solutions makes the course experience more difficult for the student. The student experience of education is not, usually, a one course experience. It is a cumulative experience from across 4-6 courses. Options 1 (make exams harder) and 3 (make more assignments) increase the stress and workload on students, leaving them with less time to do all their work. Less time leads them to, you guessed it, look for help from places like Chegg. Faculty are creating a scenario that is pushing students towards the very solution that they are trying to design themselves out of. Cheggification leads to more cheggification.

I’m also worried about how combative the whole thing seems to be getting. Faculty feel like the core social contract of the education system is being betrayed by students. I’ve spoken to long-tenured, student loving faculty members who are getting really frustrated. I’ve also spoken to students who I firmly believe to be students who are trying to do the right thing who suggest the ONLY way to get the grade in the current situation is to get answers from Chegg. It’s not healthy all around.

Well-structured/ill-structured problems

Underlying this conversation is the idea of there being a right answer to a question. In order for Chegg to work as a cheating tool (rather than, say, a tutoring tool) the assignment that the students is looking up has to have an answer that is ‘correct’ that they can ‘find’. And you might say ‘yes, dave, that’s what a test is’. Ok. I hear you. But it doesn’t ‘need’ to be that way. There’s a distinction in cognitive education research between a well-structured problem and an ill-structured (or ill-defined) problem that tells a story that I think is interesting. (for long tenured readers of this blog, it is similar to Cynefin’s complicated/complex)

A well-structured problem is what Chi and Glasser call a classroom problem. That’s a problem with a clearly defined question, clear inputs and a well-defined answer. Think of any math problem, any definition you’ve ever been asked to remember, or even a writing piece with a super-well defined rubric. They are problems that have been created with the express intent of teaching someone something. They are, necessarily, artificial.

An ill-structured problem is what Spiro might call a real-world problem. I kind of like Herbert Simon’s definition of an ill-structured problem, “all the things that aren’t well-structured”. If it’s hard to formulate the question, or the inputs could be different for different people, or there isn’t only one answer (or maybe it doesn’t even make sense for there to be an answer) you’ve got yourself an ill-structured problem. If it helps, read the excellent 1973 Dilemmas in a general theory of planning by Rittel and Webber… they know an ill-structured problem when they see one.

Why do we want well-structured questions?

So, if you have well-structured questions, students are going to use Chegg (or something like it) to find a way to answer those questions without ‘doing the work’ that you want them to do. If you try and fight against it, you make the situation worse. So. That seems easy. Lets just get rid of them. Ill-structured questions For The Win.

Well… maybe not so fast. Maybe it was William Farish who started this whole ‘lets assign a grade for right answers’ business, and maybe it wasn’t, but we’ve sure been doing it for a long time. We might want to consider what we’d be losing by getting rid of well-structured problems. I mean. They’re also called classroom problems. What do we lose if we get rid of them?

A certain kind of equalness

I didn’t say equity and I didn’t say fairness, because i don’t think it’s either, but at least with a well-structured question it’s easy to grade. You either chose (b) or you didn’t. You either did this thing that i specifically laid out in the rubric or you didn’t. It ends a lot of arguments. I know I’ve talked to a ton of high school teachers and even some university professors over the years who’ve moved to this approach just to settle arguments with parents calling for higher grades for little Johnny.

Maybe it’s better for novices?

The research I’ve seen on this is mixed (like all educational research). There are some suggestions that giving people simple answers to things like ‘how is that cell constructed or how do you write a good essay’ is a good way to start people on the learning journey. Novice learners tend to look to the superficial answer, and maybe this helps them develop some basic language or something, that makes it easier for them to dig in later on? (more on this in a future post) I have also seen it argued that it sets people on the wrong path to believing that there ARE simple answers to questions… something they need to break as they move towards being experts.

It’s easier for grading

I mean. Obviously. grading for multiple choice or with a clear rubric is way faster.

Why should we be using ill-structured problems?

Well. that’s going to be the next post. They are ‘real-life’ problems, and, well, it does seem like learning how to deal with real-life might be useful. The big issue though, is that our entire educational design and planning system is designed to work on well-structured problems. There are HUGE implications to change it. Lots more to discuss.

Coupla citations.

Chi, M. T. H., & Glasser, R. (1985). Problem solving ability. In Human abilities: An information-processing approach (pp. 227–257). W. H. Freeman & Co.
Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169.
Simon, H. A. (1973). The Structure of Ill Structured Problems. Artificial Intelligence, 21.
Spiro, R. J., Feltovich, P. J., Feltovich, P. L., Jacobson, M. J., & Coulson, R. L. (1991). Cognitive Flexibility, Constructivism, and Hypertext: Random Access Instruction for Advanced Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains. Educational Technology, 31(5), 24–33.

What do I actually want from my PhD?

In all the 2020ishness (i don’t have another word for it) of the last 12 months i’ve not really put a lot of thought into this question. I finally decided to jump into a PhD program after several attempts because, well, this was the easiest way to do it. Foreign residency at faraway institutions sounded great, but the logistics of kids and jobs and whatever just never really made them possible. And the cost. The cost of this particular run is mostly covered by my institution. So, the answer to the first and easiest part of this question “why now?” is answered -> because it was easy.

But that is not really an answer to the question that my supervisors are interested in. My relationship with them has been excellent so far while I’ve taken the first two mandatory courses of the program. They’ve been supportive and hands off. Encouraging, but not in such a way that would complicate my position in the courses I was actually taking. So far so good. But we’re getting into the meat of the thing now. The place where we actually have to come to some kind of agreement about where this thing is going. And, given that they are committing their time to this process, i don’t think it’s an unfair question. What do I want to get out of the PhD?

As my supervisors are going to read this: you guys have been great. This post is not directed ‘at’ either of you. It’s just me thinking about what I want (and occasionally, don’t want).

A little preamble

A little preamble here, in case people coming across this post are not long-time (read: patient) readers. I’ve had some opportunities to participate in the conversation about education in a few different contexts. I had a string of a couple of years where I was very fortunate as to the time and place where I showed up, and managed to do a few things that gathered a little notoriety (like, in edtech circles, not like, in regular places). Through the people I met and the communities I worked in I managed to learn how to write articles, to do research and participate in the conversations about education that I thought were important.

I’ve also had some jobs (both job-type-jobs and as a consultant) in community colleges, k12 and university that have given me access to the other side of education. The planning, the policy and the strategy side of education have been a particular study of mine. As I am fond of telling my students (i’m not sure they’re fond of hearing it, but I do like the sound of my own voice) I have made mistakes all over education.

So. I’ve done some speaking. Lots of teaching. Some writing. Some admining. I am, as it were, a ‘mature student’. I am coming to a PhD exactly like dozens of those people I met all over the web talking about education. And. Well. They mostly hated their PhD. Not all of them. But most of them. So I came into the PhD with a certain amount of caution.

Research methods

I have things I could learn about different research approaches and the way they can be applied to different situations. Being an alt-academic for so many years, i have played to my strengths in any number of situations. I LOVE progressive coding for instance, and have stuck to it, taught it to other people and fallen back on it time and time again. I realize it’s not the only way to code data… but I like it.

Having switched into the cognition stream of the PhD program (note: i STRONGLY distrust the impact of cognition research on education), I have been opened to a pile of new ways of looking at research. I didn’t like all of it, but I did like some of it. I also enjoyed learning about the stuff I didn’t like. So that’s good.

But, i mean, I don’t REALLY want to learn LOTS about research methods. Everyone else in Higher Education chooses methods they like and stick to them, and I’m pretty much going to do the same. I’ve got a quant course this summer. Am I suddenly going to love quant instead of a 15 year commitment to the value of story in changing education. I mean… probably not. Doing the quant course will improve my anti-quant rants… which I’m looking forward to. It’s not that I don’t believe in quantitative research… I just think some of it is bad for education. Not all of it. But people like to count things, and I don’t think that learning is a counting noun.

So. Research methods… I’m probably good. I’m going to do some kind of story based research in my thesis or go back to it as soon as its done. I like story. I trust it. I want to pick one story based research method, nail it for the thesis, and wander off into the sunset. You could say “hey, you should get out of your comfort zone” and i would reply “really, how many researchers actually do that? Why wouldn’t I use the approach I believe in?”

I would love support on nailing that research method and doing it well.


I’m never really ever working on my own. People who’ve worked with me will tell you that I basically can’t think with my mouth shut. I have been fortunate in finding smart and patient learning friends.

And I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the people in my courses last summer and this fall. They are, some of them, new nodes in my broader community of learning and knowing, and new nodes are always good for learning. While excellent to meet new people, I did not come to a PhD to ‘find’ a community. I am lucky to have several that are willing to have me.

Learning about ‘being an academic’

This is a bit more of a touchy issue. The experience of my colleagues entering the PhD process has often included a couple of myths about higher education that seem mostly reserved for the PhD process (speaking mostly for North American PhDs). I’ve certainly heard it from some faculty over the years, and during a very long meeting over the summer, heard it from an instructor who told me I would never get published if I didn’t start ‘thinking more like an academic’. Whatever that means.

The pure beauty of higher education and, I would say, its strongest strength, is the diversity of approaches that it contains. We could use lots more diversity, that’s for sure (and WAY more acceptance of it), but even as it is, it’s kind of amazing that all those people work in the same location. You can go to two consecutive classes and have one person claim, with absolute certainty, that if you can’t count something, it’s not worth researching. Or, as i heard it once put by a Stanford Researcher -> it will be in the quadrant that the NSF wont fund. You can then cross the hall and be in a room where someone (say me) tells you that learning is mostly about people, and people being different, you can really only learn about people.

I mean. That’s amazing. But it also means that there aren’t any ‘rules’ about how to ‘be’ an academic. There are rules about getting tenure… but not like… rules… about what is the right way to do it. It’s like the myth of the sanctity of blind peer review. I once left a peer review journal committee where someone said something like “well, we all know who really wrote that, so we’re pretty much going to have to publish it.” If I get sent a rhizomatic learning paper to review, there’s a 50% chance I know who wrote it after skimming it. I’ve been asked to review stuff I totally don’t understand (and thereby given the authority to judge it). So… yeah.

I’m not saying I have a better system. I love the chaos of it. To me it represents what knowledge is… a big mishmash of differing beliefs.

I don’t want any nonsense about purity in higher education research. It’s a simulacra. Doesn’t exist. Never existed.

I mean, I might want a job in an academic department someday, but I’m not really sure about it. I’ve worked with enough departments to understand how they work. I currently have an ancillary faculty position. I like it. I might go in for an admin job. I dunno. But what I need for those jobs is a credential. So that’s something I want too.

What am I willing to do?

I totally get that this is someone else’s process. I chose to sign up for this gig, and I knew what i was getting into. I’m going to have to do the lit review, and the comps and the whole writing and defence business. I’m wary of putting my existing work into it (rhizomy stuff), because i’m not crazy about putting it in for a ‘yes/no’ judgement. I can just imagine the struggle around “defining rhizomatic learning” something I’ve happily refused to do for 15 years.

Happy to do the work though.

What do I really want?

I’d like to complete the research that I’ve started in the PhD so far. I want to attach the cognition literature on ill-structured domains to how faculty learn to teach online. I think there’s a really interesting pattern there, and it seems to answer some questions I’ve had for years. I think there’s a story to be told that could help people see how the digital has changed whatever relationship they could have had to information and knowledge. Maybe it has made it clearer? I want to tell that story.

And maybe do a little future of higher ed strategy. But that’s probably a bridge too far, and I can always do that in my spare time anyway.

I’d like to work with peeps (you guys) and my supervisors to make that research project as good as it can be. I want to tell a story with more than my voice. I mean, I’m probably going to try and recruit half of the 12 people who read this post. One of the suggestions that my supervisors made was to do some blogging to get feedback from the community on the process. This… is a start.

I’d like to figure out a good way to do it (three paper, interpretive dance… i’m open to it) that will make the research useful for people. Useful. For people.

That’s what I want my PhD to be. Useful.

Designing school when students have the Teacher’s Copy

I’m presenting at the Plymouth State University Open Collab Jump Start session tomorrow and the fine folks there asked for a one pager to accompany the talk. 

We have reached a point in our society where anyone with access to the internet is in the midst of the transition between information scarcity and information abundance. For some that transition looks like the ability to find song lyrics or just-the-right-recipe, but for anyone working in their area of expertise, it has had a huge impact on what it means to be someone who ‘knows’. There’s more to know that anyone legitimately could. There are new ways to look at things coming at us all the time. There are often several legitimate, opposing ways to see the same problem in the same field. 

Covid19 didn’t create any of this, but it has accelerated many people’s perception of it. Access to this knowledge and information comes at a huge cost. We can no longer find an answer and be comforted that our search is finished. We are instead confronted with hundreds of answers and need to choose what to do, choose this one or that one or, more likely, pick bits and pieces from them to build our own answer. Our world is harder.

These changes were already underway before the pandemic, and they have already had a fundamental impact on the way that our students approach learning. The generation currently attending our universities may not be proficient with these new technologies, but they are fundamentally aware of their implication. They know they can google something. They know they can find a great explanation of a concept online. They know they can reach out to a dozen friends with the flick of the thumb and get help with something. They know that all the answers are already online. They already have the teacher’s copy of every textbook. It’s called the Internet.

What is not so clear is what we are going to do about it.

If you give any question to a student that has a clear, definitive answer, you are tempting them to cheat. Every time you hand out a question from a textbook, an assignment you created last year or give someone a multiple choice test you are performing the equivalent of leaving candy on the table next to a hungry teen and saying ‘don’t eat it’. Over and over again. It used to take effort to cheat. It is now very, very difficult for a student to NOT cheat. Two quotes in the last few weeks from students sum this up for me. 

“The people who aren’t cheating simply aren’t getting the better marks”

“I don’t cheat because I don’t care what my final grade is”

There is no topic that has taken up more of my time during the pandemic than the idea of students cheating. From the terrible things that are being done by proctoring companies to both students and to their critics, to honest and sad conversations with faculty who are frustrated that students aren’t doing the work that was assigned. From companies like Chegg and Course Hero (that both have ‘cheating’ resources but also do tutoring etc…) to full-on contract cheating where students are paying outside organizations to do their work taylor-made to the assignments assigned in class. 

We could make those things illegal. Like, in the courts. Some countries have tried… but even some of the researchers looking at legal ways of addressing this issue don’t think it will work “it is not clear that a legal approach would be effective, or that we would even know, or that it would address the demand for contract cheating services.” Trying to stop this kind of cheating is basically fighting a war we will not win. Plus, let’s face it, it’s exhausting. I know faculty that are constantly monitoring for cheating. And they hate it. It’s wasted effort. 

Plus what are we legislating against. We’re creating laws that stop students from looking for information. How does that make sense? The knowledge landscape (abundance) and the audience landscape (our students) have fundamentally changed. And now, because of Covid19, we can all talk about it. As soon as I’m going to say “we can design our way out of this” there are going to be a vocal group of people who say we can’t. Shrug. The other way doesn’t work. We need to try and design our way out of it. 

I’m left with questions…

How do we design for trust?

What are the actual important things we need students to learn in our class?

Are any of us really qualified to say what anyone else ‘needs to know’ about a given field?

If we are only delivering content to our students, what is the value add we are providing as instructors? 

What does it mean to put our relationship with our students at the forefront of our design process? 

What does it mean for our students to be ‘informed’ after they leave our classes?

How much of our system was designed to solve the problem of information scarcity?

If we take out all the parts of our system that were designed for information scarcity… what’s left?

How do we move our focus away from stopping students from cheating and encouraging them to want to do the work?

Is this even possible to make these changes in large classes?

So what do we do for now?

I’m afraid the answer is the same as it was a few months ago. Design with care. Imagine activities that your students will enjoy. Build trust where you can. Be present, even in your assignments. Do longer term-style assignments where your formative feedback applies to their work. Talk to them about why you love what you know. Try to encourage them to care about what you know. Hold on.


Just found this tweet from the summer… on trust and care from Simon Thomson. Feels like it might have influenced this post.

How much ‘work’ should my online course be for me and my students?

How much work is too much (or too little) work for my students? How much work is too much work for my TAs or for me? How do I design an online course? A post where i propose ‘Total Work Hours‘ as a replacement for the Course/Credit Hour.

As we leave behind the emergency teaching processes that have spurred the development of online courses for end-of-term winter and OMG-summer courses the questions I’m hearing are changing. Fall course start in the Northern Hemisphere is still (only) 10 weeks away and I’ve talked to piles of people who are thinking about how they can revamp their f2f courses to create a fair and equitable learning experience for their students and for themselves.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave aside the section of the teaching population that is resisting this move. I would also like to firmly state that NO SESSIONAL/part-time teacher should be moving a course online for free. PAY THEM. The focus of this post is directed at those educators who are doing the hard work of trying to balance the needs of their department, the needs of their students and their own need to not overwork themselves in the fall.

Total Work Hours (TWH)

My recommendation for people planning their courses, is to stop thinking about ‘contact hours’. A contact hour is a constraint that is applied to the learning process because of the organizational need to have people share a space in a building. Also called a credit hour, (particularly for American universities) this has meant, from a workload perspective, that for every in class hour a student is meant to do at least 2 (in some cases 3) hours of study outside of class. Even Cliff Notes agrees with me. So… for a full load, that 30 to 45 Total Work Hours for students per course that you are designing.

But now we’re teaching online. Maybe we’re not even doing synchronous classes. How do we decide how much work to give students? 3 hours of videos plus 6 hours of readings?

I’m not suggesting you need to give students 9 hours of work a week. I’m saying that this is the current system. If you have two 90 minute f2f classes a week, you must have some expectation that students were reading something, working on a paper, or doing something else outside of class. Your first job is to figure out what you want that number to be. For the rest of this post we’re going to pick 6TWHs. It’s a nice number.

Who says we’re even allowed to do that?

The online guidelines from that same US government standards document linked above are interesting…

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.

And then…

“in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, utilize direct assessment of student learning, or recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment and with the provisions of §668.10.”

So, according to this, basically you can do whatever you want… unless you have specific accreditation guidelines, then you have to follow those.

But even if you do have those guidelines, you still have to translate them to your course. At the end of the day, you are the arbiter of what happens in your classroom, and the expression “recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others” gives you a fair amount of latitude. Let’s go with 6 Total Work Hours.

Scaffolding to 6 TWHs – Activity Method

Those 6 total work hours are going to work out to 90 hours of work over an average term of 15 weeks. (please note, the Carnegie unit wants that to be 120 hours, but we’re going to ignore that). We have 90 hours to work with over the term for a course. How do you want to break that down? It’s going to be drastically different for different courses and styles. But whatever you’re teaching, keep trying to think about it from the perspective of what a student is actually going TO DO.

Simple break down (not quite 90, yes i know)

Watch 3 hours of video* – 5 hours
Read stuff – 20 hours
Listen to me talk – 15 hours
Talk with other students in a group – 15 hours
Write reflections about group chat – 7.5 hours
Respond to other people’s reflections – 7.5 hours
Work on a term paper – 10 hours
Do weekly quiz – 3 hours
Write take home mid-term – 3 hours
Write take home final – 3 hours

A thousand variations of this might be imagined, and there are certainly some of these activities that are going to take less/more time depending on the contexts of each individual student. But imagine being a student (particularly a first year student) and getting a breakdown like this to help you see what you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t like that? Too easy for students? Meh. Don’t give it to them.

note: I haven’t given a mid-term or a final exam in about 10 years, I include them here for reference 🙂

A word on ordering this work in a given week

If you’re using anything that looks like this, a possible structure recommended by one of the faculty we were talking to was – read/watch, quiz, lecture, student group discussion, reflection. The reasoning here is that if you give learners (particularly new learners) a reading without some form of accountability (a quiz) they are much less likely to do it. I know that for me, when I’ve done the readings, I’m far more likely to attend class. Putting the student group discussion after the lecture gives students who can’t attend a synchronous session a chance to review the recording.

Or, i mean, you could just not lecture at all. YMMV.

But what about learning objectives?!?

The history of higher education is replete with successive models designed to improve ‘accountability’ and ‘standardization’ in the classroom. I’m not a big fan to be honest. I recognize that many of you are probably tied down by accreditation standards and may have mandatory targets that you need to reach in your 1st year course so that students can have what they need for their second year course. I get that. For those of you in this situation, I would ask you to imagine what students are actually retaining when they start that second year course. The fact that they ‘need to know it’ doesn’t make it possible for them to do it. Short of curriculum reform (DAVE WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THAT NOW), try to stay focus on what it is possible to do, not what we ‘need’ to do.

For those with a bit more freedom, there are a pile of ways to pass that freedom along to your students. The standardization police have been telling us for years that each student must learn the same things. Poppycock. Scaffolding doesn’t mean taking away student choice. There are numerous approaches to allowing a little or a lot of choice into your classes (learner contracts come to mind). Just remember, most students don’t want choice – at first. 12-16 years of training has told them that you the faculty member have something you want them to do and they need to find the trick of it. It will take a while until those students actually believe you want their actual opinion.

You can have a goal like – get them acculturated to the field – and work through your activities to get there. It’s harder, they will need your patience, but once they get their minds around it, it makes things much more interesting.

Teacher workload

I have not found any real standard for how much work a faculty member is supposed to be doing. Putting aside the time it takes to redesign your course, exactly how many hours can you be expected to put into your course every week? How much of that work can you expect from your TAs.

That second question is easy, if your TA is being paid for 45 hours, that’s as many as they are supposed to work. If your design means they run out of hours, you are uh… going to have to do the rest of the grading.

But what do you need to grade? A short weekly quiz should grade itself online if you set it up properly. So that’s taken care of. That term paper above you’re going to have to read. That’s going to take a pile of time if you have 200 students.

My suggestion is simple. Choose the amount of time you are willing to commit to your teaching, and work through your assessments and interactions. Discussions can be peer reviewed or be participation marks. Term papers can be 3 or 30 pages long. What about those office hours?

If you’re teaching four courses for 15 weeks… and you put in 10 hours on each course, how does that break down to each discussion post your respond to? (ten hours is not a formal suggestion btw, it just divides easily by 4) Be honest about the time it will take to do all the things in your plan, a little bit of thinking now will make for a much better December.

Total Work Hours

I’m talking to many folks who are using this crisis moment as an opportunity to consider what we are doing in our classrooms. Our f2f courses have imposed a variety of structures on us (credit hours) that have shaped our teaching. Moving towards the fall, think about the work you think it’s fair for your students to do, think about how much work you can reasonably do – and design accordingly.

Edit: thought i would add this tweet. Notional learning hours. Just got this link from Simon as well

* suggestion that 3 hours of video actually takes 5 hours to actually do suggested by my good buddy Ashlyne O’Neil.
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