Lessons Learned Five Weeks In

The semester is five weeks old and my experiment with open pedagogy in Plymouth State University’s First Year Seminar has been an up and down experience so far. I have had some of the most rewarding moments of teaching when students say things like, “I’m starting to understand what we’re trying to do in the class.” But I have also had some of the worst moments of teaching when one entire section of the class and I were all frustrated about our lack of forward progress. In fact, at the end of week 3, I was ready to start completely over with one of the sections. But instead, we keep trying to move forward. So here are some things I’ve learned that I want to remember for the next time I teach the class.

The two sections that I’m teaching have diverged in their activities. We’re using the design thinking process to work on the wicked problem of fake news. There are five phases in the design thinking process and each section decided to start in a different phase. Once they learned a little bit about how to distinguish fake news from real news, my first section decided that they wanted to prototype some projects to see whether they could make a difference in the problem of people believing fake news stories. They broke into groups of 3-6 students and designed flyers, videos, and news stories. They then figured out a variety of ways to disseminate their prototypes and collect information about their effectiveness. The groups are in the process of collecting the results and presenting them to the class. So far, none of the prototypes have been effective but it seems that the students have learned quite a bit from this process. The second section decided to start in the empathy phase by trying to learn more about why people believe fake news. They decided to work as a large group of 25 students to design a survey that they then would disseminate and collect results. This is the section that has felt stuck and created frustration both in the students and in me. But the group finalized the survey on Friday and are disseminating it this weekend to their friends and families. They will bring their results to class on Wednesday and we will figure out what those results tell us and what we will do next.

I’ve learned a few lessons just from comparing the two sections to each other. First, although I want students to make the decisions about how the class is going to run, I think I need to push harder to get them to break into smaller groups and not work on things as a group of 25 students. It is simply too difficult to make decisions in groups that large. Actually, I should instead say that I am not very effective in facilitating decision-making in such a large group. Second, in both sections, students had difficulty explaining WHY they would do a particular project or ask a particular question. But creating a coherent small prototype of a project seems to be easier than creating a coherent large survey so that students creating the projects were ready to put their work out into the world more quickly than the students creating the survey. Getting work out is satisfying and alleviates frustration. Finally, students working on projects in class seem to be able to stay more focused on the task than students who are trying to create surveys in class. Of course, this may again be due to my lack of ability to facilitate the large group effectively. But even when I had them work in small groups on the large survey, the students had trouble staying on task.

Another lesson that I learned from both sections is that first year students are unlikely to assign themselves challenging work without some guidelines. I had hoped that after a few weeks of me assigning work (reading, watching videos, answering questions, engaging in various activities) that would help to structure our discussions in class, the students would become so interested in particular sub-topics that they would assign themselves similar kinds of work to further their learning. I designed a weekly reflection/planning exercise (called a 7-7–reflect on the past 7 days and plan the next 7 days) to encourage this kind of assignment. I also gathered lots of fun and interesting (to me) resources that the students could choose to use in their planning. But so far, I haven’t been able to develop a version of the 7-7 exercise to encourage significant new learning. I’m still working on that. I think next time I teach the class, I should put my own structure in place for a longer period of time and remove it only when I know the students have a goal in mind (like a particular project) for assigning themselves work.

I also think I will need to have a clearer conversation with the students about the purpose of “daily homework.” Both sections decided that they wanted me to keep track of some sort of artifact to determine whether they are doing the work that is assigned for each class. In other words, they want me to ask a set of questions about the daily work that they need to answer and submit before each class and then I record whether they have answered the questions or not. I spent a lot of time in the Moodle grade book creating a system for doing this. (I’m still working a lot in Moodle–next time I teach the course, I’ll look at moving more into the open even for this behind-the-scenes work.) I’m finding that there is a group of students who answer the questions in such a way as to indicate that they really aren’t “doing” the work. In other words, they’re seeing the daily homework and/or the answering of these questions as busy work, even though both sections asked for the course to be structured this way. Of course, they might have asked for the course to be structured like this because this is the structure they know from high school. And that may be why some students aren’t taking it seriously. So I’m not sure what I’ll do about that for the rest of this semester or for the next time I teach the class. But I don’t want to assign busy work so I’ll need to do something differently here.

My final lesson so far is that students need to be shown some ideas for what they might do that would “touch the outside world in some way.” The reason to teach First Year Seminar focused on wicked problems is to get students to see that the work they’re doing in their classes is meaningful in some way. In fact, my reason for teaching using open pedagogy is to help change students’ relationship to knowledge. I think they mostly feel that they are passive consumers of knowledge, that they should simply memorize some facts for an exam and after doing that enough times, get a piece of paper that allows them to move to the next phase of their lives. There are so many problems with this vision of education. First, knowledge is expanding at such a rate that no one person can know everything about a particular field. Instead, students need to learn how to learn what they need to know at a particular moment in time. Second, when students memorize things, they often forget it quickly and are not able to talk about why they memorized it in the first place. We want our students to be able to talk about what they learned, why it is important, and what they can do with what they have learned. It would be ideal if students understood themselves to be active contributors to the knowledge that comprises their field of study rather than just passive consumers of it. That’s what I mean when I say I want to change students’ relationship to knowledge. My first year students don’t yet see themselves as active participants in the world. So mostly, they don’t think they can do anything to address any part of the problem of fake news. So I need to provide them with some examples of ways in which they can indeed make a difference. I’m working on those examples now and am excited to hear what the students think about them.

Teaching First Year Seminar with a focus on wicked problems and design thinking using open pedagogy is the most difficult teaching I’ve ever engaged in. But I am learning a ton and I’m confident that the impact on students will be significant no matter what we end up doing.

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