Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching

A recent article appearing in the Chronicle of Higher Education explored the apparent reluctance of college and university professors to embrace the growing body of research about how students learn and what teaching methods work best. While many faculty simply cling to what has worked for them in the past, others feel overworked and unable the consider changing. In the meantime, an increasingly diverse student population experiences increasing inequity as a result.

Beth McMurtrie’s “Why the Science of Teaching is Often Ignored” opens with a discussion of a recent study by five Harvard University researchers who published some novel research. The group was trying to figure out why active learning, a form of teaching that has had measurable success, often dies a slow death in the classroom. They compared the effects of a traditional lecture with active learning, where students solve problems in small groups.

The results were not surprising; students who were taught in an active method performed better on standardized tests. The academic press praised the study for its clever design and its resonance with professors who had trouble with active learning. Yet despite being praised in some quarters, the study was criticized in others.

This mixed reaction reveals a central paradox of higher education, according to McMurtrie. Teaching and learning research has grown dramatically over the decades, encompassing thousands of experiments, journals, books, and programs to bring learning science  into classrooms. But a lot of faculty members haven’t read it, aren’t sure what to do with it, or are skeptical. Continue reading “Why Professors Ignore the Science of Teaching”

Inclusive Pedagogy

The pandemic years have been rough on college students everywhere, with record levels of academic stress and losses in student learning.  While occurring throughout higher education, these problems haven’t affected all groups the same way. Students from privileged backgrounds have fared better than the under-resourced, with disparities in network access, income, and external responsibilities exacerbating inequities. As I saw these dynamics play out in the large undergraduate general education courses I teach, I began wondering if instructional methods might be partly to blame and if changes might improve matters going forward. Working with UC Irvine’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation (DTEI) helped me to rethink my own teaching by searching out ways that I unconsciously had been putting up roadblocks

Usually when educators speak of “inclusion” they are thinking of course content and ways to incorporate diverse perspectives or voices previously excluded. While this approach remains a central tenant of inclusive teaching, a deeper look at the issue can reveal biases or barriers built into the teaching of even the most progressive educators. Practices of exclusion can be the result of habits or structures that have become so routinized in instruction that they seem natural or neutral approaches. Costly books, rigid deadlines, and high-stakes exams are among practices that privilege students with money, time flexibility, and testing skills, for example.

Faculty attitudes also can get in the way of inclusion. This often is manifest in principles of “rigor” intended to elevate worthy over unworthy students. Such attitudes create a scarcity mentality toward success rather than one that makes high achievement possible for all students. Decades of educational research has shown the deleterious effects of such practices in conflating grades with knowledge acquisition. The grade pressure that frequently drives “rigor” has been shown to affect some students more than others, while creating an atmosphere of anxiety and an emphasis on types of learning easily that can be easily tested. Not only does this create learning inequities, but it also tends to discourage collaboration, questioning, and diverse opinion. Continue reading “Inclusive Pedagogy”

Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

No one could have predicted the radical changes in education of the early 2020s. Besides making the once-obscure Zoom into a household name, the pandemic accelerated an already fast-moving takeover of everyday life by the internet. The economic consequences were profound, with revenues exploding for companies like Netflix and Amazon while brick-and-mortal retail outlets and restaurants disappeared by the thousands. Of course nothing about the upheaval was especially surprising in historical terms. Cataclysmic events like disasters and wars often leave places quite different than they were before, as systemic restraints give way to radical reorganization. Emergency measures accepted in the moment have a habit of leaving remnants in place, much as occurred with online learning. Not that this is always is a bad thing. Urgent situations can trigger remarkable innovation and creativity, seen in the hundreds of ways that educators found ways to keep instruction going. But just as often people get hurt in the rush, as short-term solutions make for long-term problems.

Seen in retrospect, the rapid transition to online learning certainly falls into this latter category, evidenced in the huge numbers of students who failed or dropped out of classes, with those affected overwhelmingly the historically underserved. Changes occurred and learning was disrupted. But the convenience and efficiencies of virtual classroom were too good to let go. “Online Learning is Here to Stay” read a feature in New York Times, citing a study from the Rand Corporation saying that 20 percent of schools were choosing to continue portions of their online offerings. “Families have come to prefer stand-alone virtual schools and districts are rushing to accommodate, but questions still linger.”[i] Questions indeed. Before the pandemic less than one percent of K-12 schooling took place online. Educational reasons notwithstanding, this also had to do with the function of school as childcare for working families. The idea of a twenty-fold increase in home learning raises the question of what parent demographics are driving this shift. Or more to the point, who has gained from the online shift and who lost out? Continue reading “Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner”

Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects

It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.

Inherent school power inequities  have aggravated  antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.

This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.

These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used.  Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii] Continue reading “Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects”

When School is a Factory

For 20 years, I have been teaching large arts and humanities general education courses at the University of California, Irvine. These 400-student classes are part of the undergraduate “breadth requirements” common in most colleges and universities, and hence draw enrollments from across the academic disciplines. At UC Irvine, this means that most of the class comprises science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors. Aside from an orientation to more practical fields, I’ve noticed a clear shift in student attitudes in recent years –– a heightened preoccupation with grades and rankings, combined with growing anxieties about future earnings. Many of my colleagues see this as well, often disparaging students more concerned with GPA metrics than learning itself, while increasingly behaving more like consumers of educational commodities. I take a more sanguine view.

Bear in mind that many of today’s college students grew up during the Great Recession, when families of all incomes had money worries. With scant knowledge of a world before 9/11, it’s little wonder that polls show millennials expecting lower earnings than their parents, seeing the United States on a downward spiral, and believing the two-party system as fatally flawed.[i] Rising income inequality doesn’t help matters, especially at UC Irvine where 6 in 10 students get financial aid and half are the first in their families earning a college degree.[ii] Because of this, Irvine has been cited by the New York Times as the country’s leading “upward mobility engine” –– making the campus a national model of what public higher education can do.[iii] But it’s still not a cake-walk for degree seekers. As at most public universities in America, the majority of Irvine’s full-time students also work at jobs to make ends meet.[iv] Continue reading “When School is a Factory”

Creativity During Crisis: Do We have What it Takes?

History has shown that crisis brings out creativity, as people find themselves facing unexpected challenges and innovating out of necessity. Countless innovations and scientific breakthroughs have come from disasters and wars – penicillin, jet engines, and the internet to name but a few. Can we muster this same energy in these stay-at-home days of coronavirus?

I’ve been getting this question from University of California undergraduates in a creativity class I teach (now online, of course). Many are looking to creativity to feel better, but say they don’t know how. I reply that we are all acting creatively in countless ways, but rarely recognize our actions as such.

There is nothing unusual in this creative disconnect. Recent surveys show 80% of the American public seeing creativity as essential to their lives and work, but that 70% think they just don’t have it in them. Much of this comes from misguide views about creativity, often coming from stereotypes about natural talent, inherent genius, and artistic originality.

The problem has structural roots. For years researchers have reported a “creativity crisis” in American schools and business, generally due to risk-avoidance owing to economic anxiety. Students are obsessed with grades and future earnings, while companies stick with what already works. This results in a climate of lingering anxiety, only amplified by a fear-driven formulas of much news and entertainment.

With nowhere to turn, a stressed-out America now runs to the now-booming self-help industry, which promises salvation in finding one’s “inner artist” or regaining the “magic” of childhood. The coronavirus epidemic has pushed this trend to new heights, as consumers search for answers from external sources.

The result is a growing panic as people scramble to find, build, or otherwise maximize their creative profiles – often blaming themselves when they fail. And of course failure is inevitable, since recognized forms of creative success place it out of reach for ordinary citizens. An entrenched culture of media celebrity props up this view.

It’s time to view creativity as the universal quality it really is.  All of us have it, just like we have intelligence.  But like the failures of I.Q. testing long ago revealed, the problem lies in valuing only certain types of ability. This not only leaves out anyone who isn’t an “artist,” but it’s often loaded with biases against those lacking the time or resources to gain conventionally-recognized skills.

Especially in this moment of crisis, we need to embrace the “everyday creativity” in the typical things we do in solving simple problems, improvising around the house, or making a meal from leftovers. The online popularity of DIY mask-making is a great example of this, although, once again, few see this activity as a “creative” pursuit. Ditto for postings on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter –– all so ubiquitous that their creativity seems inconsequential.

This dismissal of everyday creativity also comes in part from beliefs that “creative” always means something “new” or “original.”  The truth is that most famous creatives borrowed from the past or built of work by others. Michelangelo copied classical sculpture, much as Shakespeare did with ancient myths. And no, Steve Jobs did not invent the iPhone by himself.

Cognitive science says that mimicry is an essential part of human learning and communication. Researchers explain that most creativity is “combinational” in that we put together already known or found elements to create something else (like decorating a room). This can lead to “exploratory” creativity when combinations produce unpredicted outcomes (making up a new recipe).  Creativity never comes from a vacuum.

Generosity is another important part of creativity. This is because nearly all creative acts are done with someone or with some recipient in mind. Psychology long has recognized that doing for others returns self-esteem to the giver. In everyday creativity this comes from that satisfaction of begin appreciated, needed, or simply connected to others.

One joyful example of this of such social creativity is the global “clap-for-carers” phenomenon happening daily all around the world. Usually at 7 or 8 pm, homebound people go to their windows and doorways, and start clapping, hooting, or banging pans to recognize health care workers who are risking themselves to save lives.

It’s a spontaneous creativity much like that seen at rock concerts, now transformed as a collective affirmation. The beauty of these ordinary forms of creativity lies in their availability to everyone. We all can be creative if we realize that we indeed to have it in us, use it all the time, and need to give ourselves credit.

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails

Just released: Creativity is getting new attention in today’s America –– along the way revealing fault lines in U.S. culture. Surveys show people overwhelming seeing creativity as both a desirable trait and a work enhancement, yet most say they just aren’t creative.

Like beauty and wealth, creativity seems universally desired but insufficiently possessed. Businesses likewise see innovation as essential to productivity and growth, but can’t bring themselves to risk new ideas. Even as one’s “inner artist” is hyped by a booming self-help industry, creative education dwindles in U.S. schools.

Anxious Creativity: When Imagination Fails examines this conceptual mess, while focusing on how America’s current edginess dampens creativity in everyone. Written in an engaging and accessible style, Anxious Creativity draws on current ideas in the social sciences, economics, and the arts. Discussion centers on the knotty problem of reconciling the expressive potential in all people with the nation’s tendency to reward only a few. Fortunately, there is some good news, as scientists, economists, and creative professionals have begun advocating new ways of sharing and collaboration. Building on these prospects, the book argues that America’s innovation crisis demands a rethinking of individualism, competition, and the ways creativity is rewarded.

Available from all major booksellers. More info at: https://www.routledge.com/Anxious-Creativity-When-Imagination-Fails-1st-Edition/Trend/p/book/9780367275068

Teaching Robots to Imagine

Can robots be taught to imagine? Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence group is doing just that –– developing computer versions of what many consider humanity’s quintessential trait. The software world long has pursued sentient consciousness as its holy grail. But until now, it’s only been found in science fiction movies like A.I., Ex Machina, and Transcendence. DeepMind engineers say they have cracked the code by combining two kinds of machine-learning. The first is linear, which is nothing new, with the computer applying a predefined algorithm over-and-over till it finds answers and then remembering them. In the second more radical approach, the computer tries many algorithms to find which work best, and then changes the very way it approaches problems. Combining the purely linear with a more systemic approach, DeepMind’s “Imagination-Augmented Agent” mimics intuitive learning in a way prior software hasn’t. It’s not exactlythe same as human imagination, but it comes closer than ever before to what neuroscientists say the brain does.

While robotic imagination may be improving, human thought isn’t faring as well. Most people feel uncreative and without inspiration, as discussed in earlier chapters. Corporations say innovation is withering as well. Novelist Ursula Le Guin recently observed that, “In America today imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work.”[i]Beyond the abandonment of a creative genre or two, American society also is undergoing a wholesale commodification of imagination itself. Disney is most famous for this, its “Imagineering” (imagination + engineering) brand one of the most viciously protected anywhere. But hundreds of companies evoke imagination to conjure an aura of specialness ––seen in promotions like Bombay Safire’s “Infused with Imagination,” GE’s “Imagination at Work,” Electrolux’s “Power to Capture Imagination,” Lego’s “Imagine,” Microsoft’s “Imagine Academy,” Nestle’s “Feed your Imagination,” Samsung’s “Imagine,” and Sony’s “Made of Imagination.”

The connection of imagination to commercial products reflects the powerful linkage of purchasing to consumer self-image. Expressing oneself through buying brings a passing feeling of agency, maybe even of accomplishment. Some critics say that shopping is more meaningful than voting for many Americans. Henry A. Giroux speaks of “disimagination” in describing how public consciousness is overwritten in this process, as people lose abilities to imagine on their own. To Giroux “The power to reimagine, doubt, and think critically no longer seems possible in a society in which self-interest has become the ‘only mode of force in human life and competition’ and ‘the most efficient and socially beneficial way for that force to express itself.’” Going even further, Giroux links disimagination to a rising collective amnesia, stating “What I have called the violence of organized forgetting signals how contemporary politics are those in which emotion triumphs over reason, and spectacle over truth, thereby erasing history by producing an endless flow of fragmented and disingenuous knowledge.”

Imagination can be seen positively, of course. With this in mind, much of this chapter exploresways people can envision a better and more just world. Obviously this might take a little encouragement in an age of disimagination. But it’s far from impossible. Most definitions describe imagination as the mental process behind creativity, as seen in the Oxford Dictionary: “Imagination: The faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.” Put another way, creativity is imagination actualized for a purpose –– generally assumed a positive one. As stated by a leading expert in the field, “Creativity is putting your imagination to work. It’s applied imagination.” Dig a little deeper into this lexicon, and one finds that very problem that worries Le Guin and Giroux. A quick look at Roget’s Thesauruslists such synonyms for “imaginative” as “dreamy,” “fanciful,” “fantastic,” “quixotic,” “romantic, and “whimsical.” Nice as these sound, such vaporous associations equate imagination with the same romantic idealism and inconsequentiality dogging creativity. This explains why advertisers seem so keen on imagination. As one marketing firm put it, “We don’t see imagining as a real task. It’s an enjoyable game. By asking a prospect to imagine something, you bypass that critical part that throws up objections, and sneak into their mind through the back door of the imagination.”

How about seeing imagination differently? Maybe as a roadmap for one’s life or future?  Or a way to imagine important people in one’s life? Perhaps even a vision for community, country, and the larger world? After all, isn’t society itself an imaginary construct? Doesn’t everyone want to make it better? To Le Guin, “To train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.” She concludes that “Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.”

Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else

By David Trend:

Heard about Generation Z?  The demographic growing up in the 2000s? It’s a bigger group than Boomers or Millennials–––and it has one further distinction. “Members of Generation Z are ‘digital natives’ who cannot remember what it was like not to have access to the Internet –– no matter when, no matter what, no matter where,” according to Forbes Magazine. This is a group raised on networked “connecting” with others, sharing, and buying things. It’s second nature to Gen-Zers to upload their favorite music on YouTube, post images on Facebook, and sell things on Etsy or eBay. Much is being made in creative economy talk of how networks now blur traditional producer/ consumer roles, manifest in the new figure of the “prosumer.” In Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything authors Don Prescott and Anthony D. Williams effused over the democratization inherent in the new “Openness, Peering, Sharing and Acting Globally.”  Of course, there is nothing really new about home-made items, crafts, and people’s willingness to share. What’s different today is the ability to copy digitized materials and circulate them via electronic networks. Digitization also has made Generation Z the first demographic to be completely tracked by “big data” analytics.

Some creativity industry experts argue that this is nothing short of a revolution, driven by ongoing change more than any clear future. Evolutionary economist Jason Potts and collaborators have proposed what they term “Social Network Markets” unlike the top-down models of industrial capitalism.  Characterized by fluidity and exchange through complex fields of actors, the new social network markets are less governed by competition and profit than by communication and preference. Participants are “Not ‘buying’ the property, but buying into the social space.”  Moreover, the dynamics of these new markets are highly interactive. As the Potts group put it, “a social network is defined as a connected group of individual agents who make production and consumptions decisions based on the actions (signals) of other agents on the social network: a definition that gives primacy to communicative actions rather than connectivity alone.”  Almost by definition, this process rules out conventional manufacturing or professional services. Instead, the networks generate value through production and consumption of network-valorized choices.”

The beauty is that much of what is online now is free––seeming to arrive just in time in a tight economy. While a lot of the “free” stuff available online is user-generated (selfies, birthday announcements, anecdotal postings, etc.), a huge volume of material comes from other sources (news outlets, filmmakers, commercial music producers, artists). On the surface it looks like old Marxist doctrines are being reversed as items seem to be “decommodified” in the sharing economy. This idea has become an anthem of resistance in some circles. The Burning Man Festival, to take one example, has stated: “When we commodify we seek to make others, and ourselves, more like things, and less like human beings.  ‘Decommodification,’ then, is to reverse this process.  To make the world and the people in it more unique, more priceless, more human.”  This may be all well-and-good in the real-life sharing of food and weed at Burning Man. But when things get virtual, it’s usually a large corporation that owns the websites, servers, and networks that make sharing possible. Continue reading “Big Data vs Artists and Everyone Else”