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The Nostos of Facebook

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I had a great uncle by marriage who once self-published a book of observations, one of which has always stuck with me.  He noted that for most of his life he had an unvoiced and unexamined assumption that he and his brothers would all be together again, living under the same roof and in each others' lives on a daily basis.

It made sense, he wrote.  After all, they had at one time spent so much time together.  Clearly this was the natural, fundamental state of their lives.  And everything that came later--adulthood, leaving home, distance, years spent without seeing each other--was just a provisional arrangement.  Someday, in some unspecified future, he just assumed they would be together again.  It wasn't until he was in his 50s that my uncle inspected this notion. When he did, it suddenly and painfully struck him that it was a baseless assumption.  This was never going to happen.

Of course today we can overview the dendrochronology of our relationships via Facebook. They are…

Towards thee I roll...

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Here are six facts.  Now imagine that you are a reporter for the college's student newspaper.   Your task is to write a news lead that places the most important information first. Okay, so evaluate the facts below to determine what piece of information needs to go first in the lead.
Who: the entire faculty of this college.What: attend an "Excellence in Education" conference.Where: Iowa City, IA.When: Thursday.Why: to improve undergraduate instruction.How: the faculty will board buses at 6:00 am and return at 6:00 pm. What is the most important information here?
The above exercise has been given during the first week to every class I teach for the last decade. It's one of several exercises I use to demonstrate the kind of thinking I look for in student work.  Unfortunately, a grand total of one student in 10 years has ever gotten the correct answer.  
To be fair, I didn't get the right answer the first time I faced this task.  Most people don't due to somethin…

Cue the nous

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Getting students to cue recently learned material with self-generated questions is a useful form of elaboration (i.e., a way of re-running information through their meat computers).  It's essentially the method used by the Cornell note taking strategy: take some notes and then re-engineer this new information into study questions: What is confirmation bias?What are the five rights guaranteed by the first amendment?What is the difference between a chromatid and a chromosome? These kinds of questions spark recall or in some cases understanding, the two lowest rungs of Bloom's taxonomy of higher-order critical thinking skills.  But with some prompting and modeling, it's possible to bump students up the taxonomy by getting them to formulate questions that seek analysis, application, connection or contrast.  To be sure, a lot of these questions will be weak or ill formed, but success with this method isn't simply about the answers generated.  There's some value in the a…

Picking Up Your Cues

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One of the differences between experts and novices is the ability to self-cue relevant knowledge. Experts--consciously or unconsciously--are more likely to sense how the situation or problem before them connects to other things they know.  Students often struggle with this.  Indeed, anyone who has taught for a while has had the experience of teaching an idea or theory and having the class spit it back to you chapter and verse. So you toss out a problem or situation to which the idea or theory clearly applies and the result...
Eye blinks, crickets.  


Students just don't automatically make the connection because they know something.  So is there a way to jump start connections?   I don't know, but in my own teaching I've sure been trying the last several years.  For what it's worth, here's what I've been up to.

First, I try to drive home the first week of class that recall and an ability to demonstrate understanding are the the lowest levels of critical ability.  Wh…

The questions we want versus the questions we get.

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Why don't students ask more questions in class?   I asked for hypotheses on this from approximately 90 college and university professors at The Teaching Professor Conference in June 2016.  The results, while not a scientific sampling, were interesting.  The number one theory for why students don't ask more questions was fear of embarrassment (or some variant like shyness or lack of confidence).

I've posed this same question to my students and they offer similar ideas for why they and their classmates don't ask more questions.  But what if all of these hypotheses are wrong?  What if our students aren't holding back due to fear of saying something embarrassing?  Maybe there is an even more prosaic answer. They simply don't know how or where to begin.

Consider the images of superheroes below and ask yourself into what logical categories they might be sorted. 


If you have background knowledge of superheroes and comics, you probably sorted these figures using info…

You mean there's a name for that?

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One of the gimmicks I have been messing with over the years is student-generated questions.  I often have the class quiz me during the first five minutes of the period over what we talked about last time or the assigned reading.  Note: they don't have to answer any questions. They just have to formulate them. 

The ground rules for this exercise are to ask questions that make different kinds of thinking demands upon the person who has to answer them. I've broken these demands into three levels and I've given students "question stems" on which to build their own queries.  Level one questions, for example, concern context, definitions and clarifications:
What is the Copernican system?What's a specific example of 'conspicuous consumption?'Who wrote Satyricon and when?  What was going on at the time?What does the first full paragraph on page 217 mean?Level Two questions deal with applications, contrasts and connections. How do the traits praised in Matthew 5-…

The Opposite of Algorithm

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The late Harvard Prof Timothy Leary once advised students to "tune in, turn on and drop out."  I never made much of that remark except to view it as wanna-be transgressive marketing slogan, but it occurs to me that (setting aside the drop out part) it does capture two schools of thought about teaching.

Some of us try to tune in by making our subjects relevant to students' lives or interests: the semiotics of emojis, Zombie Economics, Philosophy, Death and Mortal Kombat. Anytime I've taken this approach it's been a wince-inducing failure.  A 56-year old white man whose interests include ancient literature, Northern Irish poetry, urban planning and fly fishing has little that's relevant to the 18-year old mind in the second decade of the 21rst Century.  

All I can do is try to turn on students to subjects and ideas that they usually aren't interested in or don't know exist.  It's a heavy lift because we live in a tune-in era.   Amazon, Netflix, I-Tune…