Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: The Dynamic Classroom and Win Them Over




Reviewed by:  Trevor Holmes, University of Waterloo

At first I wondered why, with many extant standard works in the areas of active learning and preparation for teaching, we need two more to give us scholarly and practical advice about teaching in higher education. Two recent books from Atwood Publishing prove to be useful additions for our new decade with immediate application to the field of practice, though for different reasons and written in quite different tones.
Riding the wave of “engagement” as a precondition for learning (these days, I often find that people will pin such high hopes on engagement as to make it in fact a PROXY for learning, but that’s another story), The Dynamic Classroom: Engaging Students in Higher Education invites any postsecondary educator to consider how best, from design principles, to support all sorts of students in active and deeper learning. I find that from introduction to conclusion, Catherine Black’s edited collection is welcoming, inclusive, and respects practitioners and students alike. The book’s strengths include its diversity of authors and strategies, as well as its often-seamless movement between theory, principles, and practice. 
Divided into four parts, Black’s collection offers practical advice (some of it research-based) for tertiary educators who are either new or considering teaching in a new way:
  • Preparing the Ground for Engaging Students (Questioning, Universal Design, Mind-Mapping)
  • Engaging Students in a Variety of Settings (Discussion in small and medium classes, teaching large classes, inquiry circles)
  • Engaging Students with New Technologies (Blogs, discussion boards, LiveJournal, Online Teaching, ePortfolios, Personal Response Systems, Podcasting)
  • Assessing Students’ Engagement (Online Participation, Portfolio Assessment)

Within and across sections are a few different approaches. There are course-specific stories of techniques and how they have worked, together with suggestions for how they could work for you. A number of chapters set down principles to improve instruction or guide instructional choices. Some of these and several additional chapters offer specific tools or recommended elements of tools and how to implement them.
The book closes in an innovative manner: authors of five of the chapters provide questions for further reflection and integration. They are of mixed quality as prompts, and perhaps most enlightening for those for whom such thinking isn’t already habitual or instinctive. I would consider moving each back to its own chapter or section as a means of effecting both closure and door-opening at once.
One gem among several excellent articles is T. Haffie’s article on “broadcollecting” using clickers. It is compelling not only because of his nine principles for personal response system use, but also because of his obvious respect for the capacity of professors and students to sustain engaged intellectual inquiry together. He asserts that the proper role for clickers is formative feedback, and acknowledges the vulnerability involved in changing one’s practice. Also, and this is I hope not because I have some deep-seated need for NINE principles, J. Specht’s chapter on engagement and learning disabilities covers important history and explains well the reasons behind Universal Design, Universal Instructional Design, and Universal Design for Learning. Her work will, I hope, find its way into workshops on my own campus.
While separately each of the articles was strong, I would have appreciated a little more alignment between E. Wood’s delineation of questioning modes and K. Cawsey’s later thoughts on pauses, question posing, and discussion. As well, I remain befuddled by the inclusion of the E. Meyer et. al. K-12 ePortfolio chapter (with its examples of parent feedback and comma-abusing teacher feedback). Recommendations for higher education in that chapter seem an afterthought, and there are many tertiary education examples that could have been pressed into service instead for this important emerging tool.
For a text authored by so many Canadians, I noted the North American hegemony of its research base. The majority of cited literature comes from the U.S. paradigms, when a great deal of wisdom exists in international research. This gives us the occasional glimpse of behaviourist and mechanistic underpinnings. Thank goodness there are counterexamples in a few cases; wisely, the editor neither sought in advance nor demanded afterward fidelity to any particular theoretical norm.
At the same time, the volume is unapologetically practical; in fact, it is a (mostly) good example of what Maryellen Weimer might group under “Wisdom of Practice” (1) pedagogical research. Some of it relies on educational research, but some chapters seem to have little added value among the cited assertions from other experts (a conference paper here, a website there, some respected guide unmoored from its original research base). And, ultimately, that is fine. Those of us seeking ways to re-energize or invent anew in our own classrooms or help others do the same will find, for the most part, clear descriptions and principled designs from which to learn. The variance in cited studies need not concern readers who can accept that chapters within each section do different kinds of work.
One nagging sense I have is that the book is more optimistic than it ought to be about the individual teacher’s role in causing engagement and learning; I would almost want to see a companion piece written by the same authors, with the same topics, FOR the learners themselves. Teacher-doing is only part of the equation, and not always the sovereign part; learners (not just “millennials,” natch) need to find their own internal motivation and independence sometimes, not be seduced or tricked into doing so by overscaffolding course designers and deliverers. Disengagement is not something always to leave at the doorstep of course design or delivery; there are multiple reasons why those in the role of “student” may not be participating in their own education, many of which might or might not be mitigated by individual instructor behaviour or design skill. I’d like to see a collective responsibility in a community of learners, so that whole programs share books like this in designing wider curricular approaches in full cooperation with students. Dream on, I guess, especially in light of the second book under review.
In contrast to The Dynamic Classroom (in which learners and teachers are often represented as journeying together),  Patricia Linehan’s Win them Over: Dynamic Techniques for College Adjuncts and New Faculty sets up a less positive tone from the outset. The very title Win Them Over situates learners as resistant beings, difficult and suspicious, perhaps consumers in need of a sales pitch. Higher education comes off as a contest with winners and losers (among the professoriate and among learners). This adversarial construction, while perhaps reflective of some hard truths in our era, rubs me the wrong way, and is part of the book’s larger problem with tone. It is written in one of these wisdom-of-the-trenches, shoot-from-the-hip rhetorical styles to which some will respond favourably, and for those people, its unadorned honesty will be both entertaining and useful. There’s a bit too much of “what could go wrong” fearmongering throughout (in funny illustrations, a few of which could be quite panic-inducing); luckily, there are equal portions of helpful solutions. After something like 16 years of teaching, I have encountered all those things that could go wrong, so it’s not invention on Linehan’s part, but it does set a somewhat negative tone for instructional improvement.
Having said that, on the ground doing consultations with instructors and workshops about course design, I have already found people responding well to the format and content of Linehan’s explanations and tools. Based on experience and some educational literature, she has distilled need-to-know nuggets about every aspect of teaching and learning from basic logistical strategies to complex ideas about motivation, objectives, assessment, and active learning (always written in a humorous way). Sacrificing nuance and deferring divergent theories to a utopian future when you may have the time, Win Them Over’s worksheets, tables, and checklists have already found their way into my own practice as a faculty developer and as a sessional instructor. And although the bibliography is both short and eclectic, weighing in at fifteen texts of different sorts, at least we are invited to make use of these further resources and can get a sense of where some of the advice comes from. 
Generally, then, if you are a graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, sessional instructor or new full-timer beginning to teach within the next few weeks or months, or if you are looking for immediately applicable tips and organizers, Win them Over will oblige happily and honestly. Even as someone with a lot of experience, I found myself picking it up to double check my own approaches during a recent teaching term, and finding it instantly valuable. It is exactly what it aims to be: no-nonsense and practical; I need to cover my ears to avoid some of its pitch and tone, but that is my problem and certainly will not be universally experienced. I would hesitate to give it out without a warning that we don’t all see students as adversaries!  On the other hand, if you have a little bit of time to digest some solid principles or to learn the how and why of a few new techniques, whether you’re an educational developer or you’re are at a relevant stage of a university teaching career, multiple brief or leisurely dips into the warm waters of The Dynamic Classroom will repay effort for the health of your courses. I hope to see another edition of the latter or even a sequel as we find out more about the intersections between engagement, design, assessment, delivery, and learning.
Cited

No comments:

Post a Comment