Why do we teach our students how to reference? Mendeley, EndNote, Refworks, etc. all do it for you. In my experience the emphasis for students in higher education is almost always on what the citation looks like and not on the work the citation does. When it comes to learning about referencing for students, the focus is almost always on:
Plagiarism: If you don’t reference, you’re stealing.
Format: If it doesn’t conform to [insert style guide], it’s wrong.
This is problematic. The first point begins with the assumption that our students are cheats and frauds. I prefer not to go into the relationship with that as a starting frame of reference. The second point is irrelevant because style guides explain exactly how to format the citation and software formats it for us.
What matters is that students understand the underlying rationale of attribution and of building on the ideas of others. I’m way more interested in talking about ideas with my students, than on where the comma goes. Instead of talking about the importance of referencing maybe we should aim to instil in students a love of ideas. Sometimes those ideas originated from someone else (citation required) and sometimes those ideas are your own. What does the world look like when we use ideas – some our own and some from others – to think differently? That seems like a more interesting conversation to have.
My university has a policy where the marks for each assessment task are posted – anonymously – on the departmental notice board. I think it goes back to a time when students were not automatically notified by email and individual notifications of grades would have been too time consuming. Now that our students get their marks as soon as they are captured in the system, I asked myself why we still bother to post the marks publicly.
I can’t think of a single reason why we should. What is the benefit of posting a list of marks where students are ranked against how others performed in the assessment? It has no value – as far as I can tell – for learning. No value for self-esteem (unless you’re performing in the higher percentile). No value for the institution or teacher. So why do we still do it?
I conducted a short poll among my final year ethics students asking them if they wanted me to continue posting their marks in public. See below for their responses.
Moving forward, I will no longer post my students marks in public nor will I publish class averages, unless specifically requested to do so. If I’m going to say that I’m assessing students against a set of criteria rather than against each other, I need to have my practice mirror this. How are students supposed to develop empathy when we constantly remind them that they’re in competition with each other?
I’ve spent the last 2 weeks or so trying to get my head around what a new curriculum might look like in practical terms, largely to the detriment of everything else that I’m supposed to be doing. It seems to be a harder problem than I anticipated (or maybe I’m just missing something). One of the main issues I’m struggling with is how to describe the new curriculum if we abandon the idea of discrete collections of facts (i.e. modules) that encourage students to compartmentalise their learning. Consider the following:
If you break the concepts down into very small, granular pieces (making it easy to link concepts and to generally describe the curriculum), it’s hard to create a structure that allows for independent pathways through the concepts. You’re more inclined to provide a structured, linear path through what (the lecturer decides) should be known. While this approach does provide security for students navigating unfamiliar territory and also makes it easier to administrate the curriculum, it encourages students to split their thinking too. This is a “neuro” test, this is a “resp patient”, this is a “paeds block”, etc. This is pretty much how our current curricula are represented i.e. by grouping related concepts into collections called modules / papers.
If you go the other direction and organise the curriculum into large, complex, relatively undefined projects that allow students the space to create their own learning pathways, you lose the ability to accurately describe what concepts are presented in those relatively undefined projects. While this approach has a greater chance of leading to self-directed and lifelong learning, critical and creative thinking, and comfort with ambiguity, it also means that the curriculum becomes harder to describe. It’s not like in the first approach where you can be certain that “informed” consent” is included in the “Ethics” module. What project explicitly includes the concept of consent? It’s hard to tell from the name of the project alone.
A module (or paper) describes – in it’s name – what related concepts can reasonably be expected to arise in that module. You know what ideas are going to come up when you’re thinking about the Neuro module. A project – in it’s name – might describe at some high level what to expect but it cannot describe with any accuracy everything that can reasonably be expected to emerge in the project. The one thing that gives me some solace is knowing that in actual fact, we struggle to describe our own curriculum anyway, even with our very granular, silo’d structure. For example, the concept of CVA comes up in so many places and in so many contexts that it’s really hard to say “where” it exists in the curriculum.
The only solution I can think of is to take the approach that, once designed – with all major concepts included in the projects – you trust the curriculum to run it’s course and don’t spent too much time worrying where a certain concept is embedded. You know that consent is included somewhere in some project and when someone asks where exactly it is, you simply search for it?
Note: I’m assuming that the content of the curriculum would stay the same. In other words I’m still trying to teach the same “stuff”, I’m just trying to find a way to package it differently. Dave Nicholls has suggested a different approach where we begin with a question around what the curriculum is for. What is it for? This would naturally lead us to think about the curriculum in a very different – and far more interesting – way. I need to spend some time with this idea.
On a side note, I came across this paper while looking into the challenges of describing alternative curriculum approaches: Moore, A. & House, P. (1973). The open access curriculum—an approach to individualization and student involvement. Science Education, 57(2):215-218. Ironically the paper is not available with an open access license so I couldn’t get the full text. The paper – from 1973 – articulates what I think are some pretty important approaches that a new physiotherapy curriculum should include:
Multiple entry points to each large body of content, usually beginning at the exploratory level and proceeding toward in-depth facts (I really love this idea and will be looking into it in some depth for the course)
Guidelines for student study that facilitate a self-commitment to fully personalised projects (Obviously I’m a fan of the project approach to learning, so this resonates with me as well)
Students assuming direct responsibility for a significant part of their own education
Differentiated teacher roles
Both the teachers and the students helping to define and implement the meaning of the concept of open access
Making the assumption that all students will succeed
Foucault said that the ideas we think are benign are often the most dangerous. If students accept and believe that the constraints we build around them (i.e. the curriculum) are beneficial for scaffolding their learning they will always be passive. Freire might say that we are oppressing – as opposed to liberating – them by providing this structure.
The structured system convinces students that the structure is “right” and that they have a place within it. Success is determined by the student’s ability to navigate through the structure. However, this doesn’t lead to questioning of the system, or even questioning within the system. For example, we build a course that “supports self-directed learning” but we structure the course so that all engagement happens within an LMS. When we say “self-directed” we actually mean “the content is here for students to browse independently”.
If we really mean to liberate students by enabling self-directed learning we would remove the constraints entirely and encourage students to find their own content by asking their own questions.
I have a strange-looking, handmade bust of Yoda sitting atop my desk at school. I made this statue in a high-school art class because the teacher asked us to create a life-like bust of a human face. While molding my sculpture, I was exploring a little and pulled the ears into a point. I laughed to myself because it looked just like Yoda. Suddenly, the task transformed from a school assignment to a fun experiment. When I finished, I proudly presented my art to my teacher, who promptly failed me for not following instructions.
We are encouraged to help our students develop 21st century skills – including creativity – but often aren’t given the space to do it. If you want to add something to the curriculum then something else has to go. I know that I’d start by removing about 25% of the content in each module. What would you take out?
My 4th year students have recently completed the first writing task in the IEP course pilot project. I thought I’d post a quick update on the process using screenshots to illustrate how the course is being run. We’re using a free version of WordPress which has certain limitations. For example it’s hard to manage different cohorts of students, but there are many more advantages, which I’ll write about in another post.
My students will keep writing for their portfolios using the course website, which I’ll keep updating and refining based on our experiences. The idea is that by the end of the year we’ll have figured out how to use the site most effectively for students to work through the course for the project.
We tend to focus our attention on the things that students got right. This seems perfectly appropriate at first glance because we want to celebrate what they know. Their grades are reported in such a way as to highlight the number of questions answered correctly. The cut score (pass mark) is set based on what we (often arbitrarily) decide a reasonably competent student should know (there is no basis for setting 50% as the cut score, but that’s for another post). The emphasis is always on what is known rather than what is not known.
But if you think about it getting the right answer is a bit of a dead end as far as learning is concerned. There’s nowhere to go from there. But the wrong answer opens up a whole world of possibility. If the capacity to learn and move forward sits in the spaces taken up by faulty reasoning shouldn’t we pay more attention to the errors that students make? The mistakes give us a starting point from which to proceed with learning.
What if we changed our emphasis in the curriculum to focus attention on the things that students don’t understand? Instead of celebrating the points they scored for getting the right answer could we pay closer attention to the areas where they lost marks? And not in a negative way that makes students feel inferior or stupid. I’m talking about actually celebrating the wrong answers because it gives us a starting point and a direction to move. “You got that wrong. Great! Let’s talk about it. What was the first thing you thought when you read the question? Why did you say that? Did you consider this other option? What is the logical end point of the reasoning you used? Do you see now how your answer can’t be correct?” Imagine a conversation going like that. Imagine what it would mean for students’ ability to reflect on their thinking and practice.
We might end up with some powerful shared learning experiences as we get into students’ heads as we try to understand what and how they think. The faulty reasoning that got them to the wrong answer is way more interesting than the correct reasoning that got them to the right answer. A focus on the mistakes that they make would actually help improve students ability to learn in the future because you’d be helping to correct their faulty reasoning.
But we don’t do this. We focus on counting up the the right answers and celebrating them, which means that we deflect attention from the wrong answers. We make implicit the idea that getting the right answer is important and the getting the wrong answers are bad. But learning only happens when we interrogate the faulty reasoning that got us to the wrong answer.
CAPS is the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement that describes the South African national curriculum for Grades R – 12. I don’t work in the basic education sector but I have friends who do and this is something they talk about all the time. You could probably say the same thing about many (most?) higher education curricula.
It it too content heavy. Because we think that covering content is the same thing as teaching.
There is no time for consolidation. Because there is so much content to cover.
It is too rigid. Because teachers can’t possible be trusted to take students where they need to go at the pace they need to go.
Children are over assessed. Because we think that assessment is evidence of learning.
We are not producing thinkers. Because a curriculum that emphasises assessment of content has no space for developing creativity.