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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lisr.2005.01.005
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. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15516709cog2801_7

Future of Education Speaker Series Episode 1 – Students thinking about future skills

As I’ve mentioned various times on this blog, I have had the good fortune of working with about 70 Co-op students throughout the pandemic. They were students who would mostly have gone out to their engineering or kinesiology placements, but could not due to the pandemic. They’ve been wonderful to work with. The students I’ve worked with in the past had mostly self-selected into the work that we were doing. These students had not. They were doing their best (like so many of us) to make the best of a Covid situation. I learned a lot from them…

One of the things we’ve worked on extensively… is about what it means to be ‘prepared’ for the world that we have in front of us.

This Friday at noon EST (April 29th, 2022) my students will be presenting the results of their Futures thinking activity. They have been tasked to consider what skills they might need to succeed in the future. They started with the trends that are part of the SSHRC future challenges and built from there. It is capstone presentation at the end of their four month work term in the Office of Open Learning at UWindsor. Join us. We’d love to hear from you.

Why are we doing this?

I do my best to have my student employees do meaningful work. I also try and do the kind of training that might make the experience worthwhile to them. One of the key focuses of that training in the last two years has been the gap between their expectations of what it means to work and what I am actually asking them to do. I have found that I need to spend significant time making students believe that I am actually looking for their ‘opinion’ and not ‘the right answer’. They struggle (at first) confronting things that are uncertain. They want a clear question with a clear answer.

This experience led me to take a closer look at the ‘future preparation of students’ conversation. Whether we are talking about 21st century skills, or preparing people for future jobs or whatever… what are we preparing them for? Is confronting uncertainty a 21st century skill? Are other people in my field seeing the same things from students? What other things should I be trying to prepare them for that haven’t occurred to me that I’ve overlooked? How many of those are the results of my own embodiment and privilege? What, eventually, does this mean we should be doing to change what and how we teach?

I don’t know. I know that I care about the work I’ve done with my students and I believe that there is some kind of disconnect. Over the next ten months I’m going to be hosting a series of conversation to talk about it. I’m planning an open course for the fall. I’m also currently applying for funding for a conference in February of 2023. Stay tuned.

A few thoughts going forward.

Uncertainty

You might believe that uncertainty is the product of our current times (pandemic, war in Europe, housing and oil prices, climate change etc…). You could see the next 20 years as a time of potentially unprecedented uncertainty. You might also believe that the abundance of access to voices and information have unveiled the uncertainty that has always lain underneath the veneer of the post WWII ‘clear objectives’ global north west. Either way. I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that many of the new challenges our OOL students will be facing in the next 20 years don’t have ‘answers’ and, frankly, the ones we’re handing on (eg. poverty) don’t have ‘answers’ either.

I think that preparing people for uncertainty is different than preparing them for certainty. I was talking about uncertainty a few weeks ago and was told that we need to ‘teach the basics‘ so that people can even enter the conversation. We need to teach the certainties before we teach the uncertainties. I hear it. We were making the same criticisms of whole language learning in the 80s. I just have this feeling that this conversation about uncertainty and what we can do for it is important.

Futures thinking

Futures thinking is a method of examining current trends through the lens of the future. It is NOT prediction. Take your time machine back 5 years and make some guesses… your predictions were probably wrong. If they were right… no one listened to you.

Futures thinking is about creating ‘possible futures’ that give us a chance to discuss our current trends outside of the current disagreements we may have about them. We combine trends and think about what would happen if they became a dominant trend in our culture. What if, 20 years from now, housing prices went up by 500%? What if advances in cyborginess gave us all unlimited mental storage?

The possibilities are endless, but the future is not the thing. The real advantage of taking a futures approach is the chance to think about the trend. The outcome is a better understanding of what we should be doing in our world right now.

What do I hope to get from this?

Well. I have this conversation that I want to be in. I can’t find it… so I’m hoping to start one version of it and find the others that are already ongoing.

I’m also hoping to pull together the wisdom we come across. We’ll see how things develop, how many voices decide to join. It’d be great if that October open course actually became a MOOC. I’d like that. We’ll see.

Interested?

For sure come to the presentation on Friday. For now drop a comment on this post if you’re interested. I haven’t quite settled on the platform for communications (what with the recent unpleasantness in the social mediasphere).

Teaching for uncertainty vs. teaching the basics

I had a really great time at the #DLsymp22 conference this week. It was my first time back face 2 face, and while i had a few butterflies before I walked up on stage, it all felt pretty natural. I had forgotten how much fun it was to be with a few hundred passionate educators where the things that I care about are the things that they care about. Good times.

Uncertainty

The talk I gave was the first run of the stuff I’ve been working on for the last two years. I started writing a book in the summer of 2019 that became, eventually, about uncertainty and its relationship to learning. A book, that, frankly, needed to get rewritten a few times considering how the people’s sense of ‘uncertainty’ was impacted by the last few years.

I framed the talk around the needs of the young people coming out of our education system. What do they need to learn ‘for’. I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time around 20ish year olds the past couple of years (I’ve had 70 Co-op students work with me) And their plight, and the way I believe they’ve been misunderstood has become a real focus of my time. What are they facing and what do we need to do to help them face it? What does our education system need to ‘be’ to get them there?

The first question I asked the crowd was what they thought students were learning for…

Q1. What do you think our students are learning for? What should they be good at when they’re done school?

It’s a great chart, with lots of words that I think are super-important in the process of helping students get ready for what they are going to be facing going forward.

The middle part of the talk was about how I have this suspicion that our education system contributes to a particular ‘syndrome’ that is quite the opposite of what you see in that wonderful list of things to learn. Quaintly named, I’ll admit. But I’m calling a hat a hat on this one… to avoid confusion.

I have consistently struggled with student employees, early on in their work term, with assuming that any problem I give them – or questions I ask them -has a clear answer. That they can get their job ‘right’. Maybe more importantly, many (most?) seem to believe that I actually already know the answer to any question I ask them… like I’m playing some kind of game by not telling them the answer.

Like they are still playing the game of school. The game where a teacher has something they want you to do, they know what the ‘answer’ is, but they just won’t tell you. Good, compliant, high achieving students, are the ones who figure out what the teacher wants and gives it to them. They are rewarded for learning compliance. (note: compliance is not on the list of things we say we want them to learn, and yet it is often what we reward most.)

The next question (further into the talk) that I asked was about what they thought students would be facing. This was not the cheeriest part of the talk. We are living through a time right now where at least 4 things I would have considered black swans (war in Europe, oil prices, climate change, pandemic) in 2010 are happening at the same time. If you include things like housing prices, that number goes up.

I asked the ‘future of our learners’ question through the lens of uncertainty. I defined uncertainty through the lens of the ‘ill-structured problems’ or, kind of, the lens of wicked problems. A problem where one some or all of the question, the process for addressing the question or the solution are unknown or unknowable. The list is pretty scary.

What are some real world problems without clear answers?

So many of these real world issues are and will remain uncertain. There’s no ‘solution’ to poverty. There’s only hard work on pieces of the problem, a problem that gets super messy to define if you start to think about it.

The disconnect

If the world our students are facing is full of uncertain problems, can we prepare them for that with right answers? Obviously I don’t think so. And it’s not even about leaving room for ‘failure’. In order to fail at something, someone else has to know what success is… and sure, I can’t fail to fix my water tap, because it’s still leaking when I’m done. Sure. There are definitely problems we can fix. A lot of the big ones, though, are not things that ‘fix’.

But we need to teach them the basics

People were really nice to me about the presentation. Many, clearly, were just happy to be together in a big group again. Some people pointed out some very important equity issues with including more ‘uncertainty’ in our teaching. One teacher asked if adding more uncertainty would lead to more anxiety in students or less, because they’d have more practice with uncertainty. Awesome question.

One gentlemen (quite jovially) accosted me later that day and said “but, obviously, we have to teach the basics! They can’t be involved in this if we don’t teach the basics first!”

I should be better prepared for this objection… I’ve been hearing it for 15 years. At least. But it always sets me back a bit. I’m not suggesting that students should have to learn to identify letters or colours. But i don’t really think the ‘basics’ should be the ‘point’ of learning in most cases.

I think of my journey through carpentry… is hammering a basic? Is it drilling? What about joinery?

I’m not saying any of those things aren’t important, but I’ve learned them in the context of building things, of understanding what they’re useful for, not by hammering 1000 nails into a board so the nail head was perfectly flat.

I’m sure my hammering would be BETTER if i did the 1000 nails thing. But there’s more to hammering a nail than getting the nail flat. Safety. wood grain. wood type. time. So many things that bring context to it. Most importantly I’M NOT A CARPENTER. Most of our students will never need to be ‘amazing’ at anything we’re teaching them.

I don’t wish for a world full of super-scientists, I wish for citizens who understand enough about science and statistics to respond ethically to a pandemic. I wish for citizens who can handle uncertainty and still make good decisions.

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)

Overall…

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.

Open Scholarship: We need to make peer review valuable

A conversation with Mita Williams

For my second discussion I reached out to Leddy Library librarian and long time open thinker Mita Williams to get a different perspective on open scholarship. Mita was kind enough to listen to the conversation I had with Lenandlar Singh so we continued that conversation right where we left off.

One of the key conversations that has come up in my exploration so far is that some of the things that I might call open scholarship is that all of it need not be called ‘research’ in order to be recognized by universities. A faculty member is credited for teaching, service and research. Could some of the actions we do in the open be credited as service? Can we think of open scholarship as moving towards research as it moves to artifact and peer review?

Other thoughts and comments from the podcast

  1. I think of open scholarship I think of it as the whole eco-system around open access.
  2. How does your public, open scholarship integrate into the longer term conversation in your field?
  3. Zines!
  4. What counts as ephemera?
  5. Metrics – we don’t just want to ask for numbers
  6. What I keep coming back to is ‘careful readership’. Whatever peer review system we use needs to be valuable.
  7. Lots more!

Open scholarship: Twitter autoethnography? A chat with Lenandlar Singh

On Open Scholarship and how we might demonstrate it

I’ve been in a number of conversations recently where we’ve been talking about how we talk about Open Scholarship outside of our communities. If I talk to someone else who identifies as an open scholar, there’s no problem, I can just talk about my practice. But what if I’m in a tenure and promotion context? What if I’m trying to talk to someone who is considering open scholarship but they are concerned that the time spent will not be recognized.

And so… a series of conversations with people who are thinking about these things. This first conversation is with Lenandlar Singh of the University of Guyana who I have been fortunate to be connected to online for close to 10 years and is currently thinking and researching on the usage of Twitter by early career scholars.

It was a fascinating window into his current thinking. It was, in effect, an open scholarly conversation on open scholarship. Some of the initial questions Lenandlar urged us to consider included:

  • How do we demonstrate open scholarship to people outside our communities?
  • What artifacts might you count/consider to be scholarly contributions?
  • If I’m looking at someone’s scholarship on twitter… what am I looking for?
  • What might be the evidence showing up in their engagement
  • Are they engaging with text and other scholarly work?
  • Are they using it to disseminate their work?
  • Why might they be doing that?
  • Who are they engaging with?
  • Is there any follow up?
  • Is there some kind of intertextual engagement?
  • What communities are they engaging in (hashtag inclusions etc…)
  • Are they running those communities or just echoing them? 
  • What are they ‘not’ engaging in?
  • What might count over some period of time?
  • Are there changes of people’s ways of doing things?

One thing that really stood out to me was the idea of doing a Twitter autoethnography (i mean, doesn’t need to be Twitter, that’s what we were talking about). What would a framework that structured a review of your open scholarship for a year look like? How could you credit the people who influenced you in a way that would support their own reviews? How could we maintain a critical eye on that autoethnography so it could be a locus of growth rather than simply a catalogue of ‘connections’. Lots of people’s work was mentioned during the conversation (both during the recording and before and after) but one person that stood out was the work of Jon Rainford in the UK (unfortunately not open access).

This will hopefully be the first of a few conversations leading to some ideas about how we can translate open scholarship to the rest of the academy. Any resources you have, research that already does what I want (I don’t NEED to recreate it if it exists) or any other thoughts are very welcome.

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.

OR

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.

References

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. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312711424596

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.1974.10884676

Reed, S. K. (2016). The Structure of Ill-Structured (and Well-Structured) Problems Revisited. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), 691–716. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-015-9343-1

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. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030806

Simon, H. (2001). Problem Solving. In The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS) | MIT CogNet. The MIT press. http://cognet.mit.edu/erefs/mit-encyclopedia-of-cognitive-sciences-mitecs

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