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Lessons from the toilet II: Captive audience

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

This story has an unusual opening. Upon shutting the bathroom stall door at a college campus I was recently visiting, I was greeted by a framed poster of information and upcoming university events called the Captivated Audience Notice (CAN). I’ve seen this method of communication before, titled the Toilet Tribune, the Potty Press, and other clever monikers. But, this particular version irritated me.

Captivate, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, means to hold the attention of someone by being extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive. Allow me to assure you, none of the information presented on that poster was more than mildly interesting, and it was certainly neither exciting, charming, nor attractive — mainly because it was all irrelevant to me.

In my opinion, a better title for this series of posters would be the “Captive Audience Notice”. While I was not truly a prisoner in the stall, I definitely did not have a choice in whether to use the bathroom, and no real option to escape once I entered the stall. The only choice I had was whether to focus my attention on the poster. My willingness to read the poster stemmed more from the novelty of its placement in the bathroom stall, a location where there was nothing else to capture my attention for the few moments I spent there attending to other matters, than because I was curious about its content. I have absolutely no recollection of what was printed there. It merely served as something to occupy my mind in a situation where I was momentarily held captive by my body’s needs.

This got me thinking. How does the idea of captive versus captivated translate into classrooms? Are our students treated as prisoners prohibited from escaping under the guise of teaching them? Or, are we cultivating experiences that are extremely interesting, exciting, charming, or attractive to hold their attention to facilitate their learning? How often do students attend to something that is irrelevant or uninteresting, simply because they have no choice but to be in the classroom and once there, nothing else for them to do? How often are students’ curiosities piqued by something at school that is so exciting, they can’t help but pay attention? Are they being held captive by teaching or are they being captivated by learning?

A popular meme that appeared on my social media feeds lately shows the Most Interesting Man in the World accompanied by the following text: “I don’t always care about my grade, but when I do it’s at the end of the semester and even though I didn’t do all of the assignments, I’ll ask for extra credit now.”

It’s always presented as a shared experience for teachers to commiserate with one another in a light-hearted manner. But… wait… what if, instead, the meme read, “I don’t always care about learning what my teacher decides is important, but when I do it’s because I’m curious about the topic and decide I want to know more, not because I’m being bribed with points and a grade.”

because i am curious

To me, this seems far more representative of the actual, underlying issue here. And, it certainly paints students in a better light, though not so much the teachers who would prefer to blame them for their lack of attention, motivation, and engagement in assignments that are neither personally relevant nor representative of what is expected of them as modern citizens in our society.

Why do we resort to using points as bribes for compliance? Why do we blame students for not engaging with what we attempt to force them to learn when lessons are designed to fit standards rather than facilitate student growth toward personal learning goals based on individual interests and aptitudes?

As a part of my job, I am required to attend specific professional development opportunities. These are workshops or programs others have chosen for me based on what they believe to be important learning for a person in my role. Some of them are indeed relevant and interesting to me both personally and professionally; many (if not most) are not. Luckily, I also have a few opportunities (though, not many) to select my own options for professional development based on my interests, aptitudes, abilities, and self-assessed needs for growth within my role.

Can you guess which opportunities directly impact my personal growth and professional practice because I engage in and learn from them? Can you guess which opportunities I spend disengaged, either talking with those around me or focused on my laptop, working on activities that are more personally and professionally relevant to me? Can you guess which opportunities I am excited to attend and those I dread?

I theorize that students who are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-centered, unengaging, uninteresting, and irrelevant content deal with their forced captivity in one of three ways: misbehavior, compliance, or a mix of both.

Students who misbehave are disruptive. They talk to each other. They bother other kids. They get up to go to the bathroom when they do not need to go. They sharpen their pencils until all that is left is a tiny, sharp point and an eraser (and then they sharpen the eraser). They doodle. They text their friends. They sing. They tap their pencils as if playing a drum solo in a heavy metal band. They hold a pencil between their thumb and forefinger and wave it up and down so it appears to bend. They make funny noises. They stare out the window. They think about what they plan to do when class is over. They interrupt the teacher. They daydream. They watch the clock. They post on social media. They ask questions that were already addressed. They frustrate the teacher.

I, myself, am guilty of many of these behaviors when faced with being forced to “learn” content someone else has selected for me. How about you?

Conversely, compliant students follow the rules. They stay in their assigned seats. They remain silent during work time. They use their time wisely. They make pretty posters. They diligently take notes. They follow all directions. They listen the first time. They memorize. They copy from the board. They develop flashy slide shows. They repeat facts. They do what they are told.

My hunch is that the these compliant students are mostly comprised of rule-followers who do what they are told because it is how they were taught to “play school.” They may be motivated by praise, points, and grades, but they are not engaged in learning. They likely get very little out of what is being taught; thus, although their behavior may be preferable because it is easier for teachers to manage, their learning is no better than that of their misbehaving peers.

While it may seem like the ideal classroom situation to have rows of dutiful students, silently listening, scribbling down notes, following directions, memorizing information, and repeating facts, in reality, these students are held captive by teaching. The students who comply do so because there is nothing else to attend to.

In my experience, when people are captivated by what they are learning, they behave appropriately (and by this I mean fittingly, according to the learning situation) simply because they are interested in a topic that is of personal relevance. They are excited and motivated to learn more. They identify what is important enough to learn and what is not. They decide the best way to do the learning. They determine their own modes through which to make their learning visible to others. They determine whether to make their learning visible to others. They explore new avenues of learning just to learn more. They seek out new resources. If a prerequisite skill exists that must be attained in order to facilitate their learning, they will master that, too. And, they stop learning about something that is no longer of interest to them and move on to the next topic.

Being truly captivated by learning is hard work! No matter the topic, it requires creativity, reflection, determination, problem solving, collaboration, critical thinking, self-assessment, perseverance, and the transfer and translation of knowledge into new situations.

These are the kinds of skills our students deserve to have as they leave our school systems. These are the kinds of skills their potential employers will be requiring. These are the kinds of skills people need to succeed, no matter the path they choose. And, as educators, it is our job to provide them with opportunities to develop these skills.

How do we really want to educate? Do we want compliant students who either do what they are told or misbehave because they are held captive by teacher-driven, teacher-focused instruction? Or, are we willing to facilitate students’ captivation in their own learning?

As teachers, we often do not have control over what we must teach. But, we do have some control over how students engage in learning.

If we want our students to leave school with the requisite skills necessary for success along any path they choose, we must provide them with opportunities to think for themselves and make decisions about what is important to learn and when and how to do the learning. Only then will students truly be captivated by their learning and not held captive by our teaching.

The future of academic libraries: An interview with Steven J Bell

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Steven J. Bell, the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction at Temple University, and current Vice President and President Elect of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Steven received his Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Steven’s most recent book, coauthored with John Shank, Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques lays out a new vision for designing the future of academic libraries enabling librarians to become indispensable partners in the college teaching endeavor by integrating themselves into the instructional process.

“What can we do as academic librarians to better prepare ourselves for what is certainly an uncertain future? We just have to think more entrepreneurially and look for these opportunities.”

I first met Steven a few years ago when I contacted him after reading his excellent Inside Higher Ed article on design thinking and higher education leadership.  Steven is a thoughtful leader who constantly experiments with new ways to improve Temple’s Libraries and the profession of academic librarianship.  Our conversation focused on the future and emerging roles of academic libraries, specifically: Blended Librarians, collections, user experience, Massive Open Online Courses, the ARL 2030 Scenarios Report, and change leadership.  Below I’ve summarized some of the projects and articles Steven mentioned during our interview.

Unbundling of Higher Education

Steven thinks new learning initiatives like MITx and Udacity’s massive open online courses are an opportunity for academic libraries to serve non-traditional, potentially unaffiliated students, who he refers to as higher education’s new majority learners. In a recent article from his From the Bell Tower Library Journal column he suggested two possible scenarios for academic libraries within this emerging unbundled higher education landscape.

Scenario 1: “It seems likely that the providers of unbundled degrees, whether primarily OER like MITx or profit-driven like StraighterLine, would have little need for physical libraries. For one thing, no library means significant cost saving which helps keep tuition low or non-existent. These organizations have no research agendas nor do they seek grants, so there would be no faculty needing huge book and journal collections. Just as the case is now with some online higher education providers, library services, if available, are marginal. They can always purchase access to a set of resources that would adequately qualify for whatever passes as accreditation. They might even go to the trouble to pay a librarian to look after all of it for them.”

Scenario 2: “Another scenario might involve unbundled academic libraries that would offer different types of resources and services. A student might connect with one library for help with a question on ancient Rome, but contact another depending on the subject matter or the service needed. This might involve some extended version of resource sharing where academic libraries would serve more than their own local community. We do that now, but think of it on a much larger scale and for much more than just content sharing. Who pays for it? Perhaps the students, who might pay a fee to access the services and content on a per-use basis, or they might get “library credits” from the institution providing their unbundled course that could be used to obtain service at a participating library. An unbundled system of higher education might require academic librarians to think more entrepreneurially about how they operate.”

Some in the press have suggested these initiatives will topple the ivory tower, knock down campus walls, crumble higher education’s monopoly, and start an Arab Spring of free online learning.

Steven has a more nuanced prediction:

Am I painting a scenario in which traditional higher education and their academic libraries have no future? If it reads that way that’s certainly not the intent. I believe many traditional colleges and universities will continue to thrive and provide the type of experience that many students still want, although the number of families who can afford the tuition is likely to decline. Just anticipate fewer traditional institutions,  and fewer academic libraries supporting them.

Rising costs are a major factor forcing change in academic libraries.  Steven is working to address these issues directly through a new textbook project at Temple University.

Alt-Textbook Project

College students are spending on average $1,100 a year on books and supplies. Temple’s new Alt-Textbook Project is trying to change that. The initiative provides faculty members with a $1,000 grant to create new original digital learning materials with the goal of creating free, timely, high-quality resources for students. Steven recently spoke to Temple’s student radio WHIP about the project. Steven discusses the Alt-Textbook project as part of a larger Alt-Higher Education movement.

Blended Librarians

Steven, with his colleague John D. Shank, developed the concept of the Blended Librarian, a new form of academic librarianship that integrates instructional design and technology skills into the traditional librarian skill set. The goal is to better serve faculty and students through deeper engagement in teaching and learning.

Idea Book

The “Capture an Idea” project encouraged Temple University Library staff to record their ideas to improve the library’s user experience.  Photo Credit: Steven J. Bell 

User Experience

Steven’s recent work has focused on improving the user experience at the Temple University Libraries through researching the needs of students, and by gathering ideas from Library staff. Using the Study of Great Retail Shopping Experiences in North America Steven surveyed students on their expectations to “gain insight into what would comprise a “WOW” experience for student members of the academic library’s user community, and better understand in what ways and which areas academic librarians are succeeding or failing to provide the WOW experience”. In 2011, Steven presented his findings at ACRL’s national conference in this recorded presentation, “Delivering a WOW User Experience: Do Academic Libraries Measure Up?”.

Steven also launched a staff initiative called Capture an Idea and gave every staff member a notebook to carry with them suggesting they record community member’s user behavior, things that are broken, complaints and compliments, and general ideas about the library. The notebook’s cover read “Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements”. After several months of collecting ideas the staff discussed them at a retreat and implemented a few their suggestions including a Fix-It Team to address broken things quickly.

Academic Library Roles

In a previous post I discussed ARL’s 2030 Scenarios Project and ACRL’s “Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025″ report. Drawing on those projects, and my conversation with Steven Bell, I created this chart to summarize my current thoughts on the historical, emerging, and future roles of academic libraries across several topics. I’d appreciate your feedback in the comments section below. View a larger version of the image.

The Roles of Academic Libraries

For more information on Steven’s work please see his From the Bell Tower column, Designing Better Libraries blog, and Learning Times Blended Librarian Community.  You can also find him on Twitter.

Owatonna's model for the 21st century

At yesterday’s Horizon Forum meeting at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Steve O’Conner, Director of Instructional Services for Owatonna Public Schools, presented an overview of an initiative in a classroom in Washington Elementary School where a fifth grade classroom has gone mostly paperless. Desks are replaced with medicine balls and music stands, and textbooks, papers and pens are replaced with laptop computers. We then connected to the classroom by videoconference, and spoke with the students and their teacher, Matt McCartney.

What do the kids think? They love it!

Jeff Cagle from Owatonna People’s Press joined the conversation in Owatonna, and wrote:

Megan Andrist said she found the laptops helpful because she was able to access a number of kid-friendly Web sites for research.

Cam Muchow enjoyed using technology and adding other elements such as digital photography to his assignments.

By removing desks from the classroom, the students are able to instantly reconfigure their learning and work settings. In theory, the instant physical reorganization and software-enhanced environment allows for more individualized instruction. One kinesiologist at the University of Minnesota wondered if the medicine balls could help reduce the need to medicate children diagnosed with neurobehavioral development disorders (i.e., ADHD). Others saw instant potential in the cost savings that can be realized by eliminating traditional desks. Again, we asked: what do the kids think? They love the medicine balls. Cagle wrote:

Most students, including Brady Steinhorst, enjoyed sitting on the therapy balls.

“Usually when you’re sitting in a chair, you have nothing to do,” he said, “and then you talk to a friend.”

Despite the excitement and hope the classroom is generating, a troubling question looms: What will happen to these kids when they graduate from the 5th grade and enter a middle school with desks, and where computers and other resources are restricted to tightly-controlled laboratories?

Special thanks goes to Superintendent Dr. Tom Tapper, principal Mary Baier, and Matt McCartney for their collaboration on this event.

Fifth grade for the 21st century

You are invited to join us for the final Horizon Forum meeting for this school year!

Fifth Grade for the 21st Century

Hosted by Dr. Tom Tapper, Superintendent, Owatonna Public Schools

Thursday, April 24

11:15am – 1:00pm

Conference Room 325, Education Sciences Building (University of Minnesota East Bank)

Dr. Tom Tapper (Superintendent, Owatonna Public Schools), Dr. Steve O’Connor (Director of Instructional Services), Mary Baier (Principal, Washington Elementary School) and Matt McCartney (Teacher, Washington Elementary School) will lead a discussion on their experiences in purposively adopting technologies in Owatonna Public Schools. During this session, Mr. McCartney’s fifth grade class will join us by videoconference for student presentations on how they’re using technology in innovative, Leapfrog-oriented ways that better connect them with their future participation in the workforce.

Lunch and validated parking will be provided. Please RSVP your attendance to Carole MacLean at cmaclean@umn.edu or call 612-625-5060.

free-reading.net

Buzz is starting to appear regarding the MediaWiki-powered free-reading.net. Free-Reading is…

an “open source” instructional program that helps teachers teach early reading. Because it’s open source, it represents the collective wisdom of a wide community of teachers and researchers. It’s designed to contain a scope and sequence of activities that can support and supplement a typical “core” or “basal” program.

Tom Hoffman notes that despite free-reading.net’s quiet launch,

this demonstrates that Wireless Generation is making a serious play. It also underscores a good reason why, as Doug Noon points out, the curriculum hews to the post-NCLB status quo on reading pedagogy.

I agree that the research base on the site is perhaps too centered on behaviorist and education psychology tradition. The curricula, however narrow, remains open –and could serve as another signal of a shift in curricula and textbooks toward open formats…

Games in the Classroom 7–game mechanics for creating learning

slide3.JPGOne of the big ideas from 6.0 was that kids are not naturally good at complex games. They often have the time, resources, but they do not always have the guidance of a mentor. Many kids are playing games designed by adults for adults. This is good and bad. Good in that the adult games have some complex problems and require some really deep thinking; bad in that they may just be provocative on their content without having very good game play. The point is, kids learn through play and our games are often cultural tools to transfer knowledge, develop skills, and get them ready to become adults. What we try to do as educators is pretty much the same. So why have we stepped away from using games?

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