Tuesday, June 5, 2012

We Are Not Content...

In January 2012 I attended a conference on Using Techonology to Promote Active Learning, which featured Keynote Speaker Curtis J. Bonk (from Indiana University).  At the end of the workshop, he presented "I am Not Content: The Future of Education Must Come Today."  I assumed, before the presentation, that the title meant we instructional professionals are not the "containers of information and knowledge of our disciplines" that we transmit to our students.  It turned out, though, that a paraphrase of his topic was actually "we are not satisfied" and his surprising reversal was there there are a lot of positive changes technology has brought to education, especially global access, which he enumerated and explained in his presentation.  

Yet, at the end of the conference, I could not get the homograph of "content" out of my mind, precisely because, if the world is open, available, and essentially going to be changed by the role of technology in sharing information, as Dr. Bonk explained so well in his presentation, we can no longer afford to think of ourselves as "Authorities" who possess knowledge and pass it on to our students.  And we can no longer think of courses or curriculum or even the degrees offered by our institutions as information at all when information itself is available ubiquitously--I could not stop thinking that we need to rethink our role as professors and educational professionals.

Increasingly, I see attention to this in various ways: the Chronicle and other publications have published  articles on the idea of lecture failflipping the classroom, and other ways in which technology and our students' familiarity with it should inform new approaches to teaching.  And recently Inside Higher Ed featured an essay imagining the future of academe in some very interesting ways.

It's fair to say that the world has changed; I don't disagree with Dr. Bonk.  But have we, the instructional professionals, changed?  How many of us are still teaching in the ways that we were taught, without any assessment or knowledge of whether those are the best ways to achieve student learning?  And should we?  If we are not content, what are we?  Is there a better metaphor for thinking about our roles as educators?  What ways of teaching, classtime, and skills should we be using?  How should we shift our course outcomes and curricular proficiencies to reflect ways of thinking, concepts, critical reflection, and skills instead of content or information? And, can we change in time to revolutionize the role of education in the not so distant future?

Many of the answers to my questions started forming at Faculty College, an annual program offered by the University of Wisconsin System's Office of Professional and Instructional Development, which I had the privilege of attending last week.

My still-forming answers come from what we know about how learning works.

The keynote speaker, Robert A. Duke (The University of Texas at Austin) called for what he calls "intentional muddling," which is not altogether different from some of the above concepts that have been getting attention in the SoTL world.  Among the many great points that he made was one about content with the following challenge he issued to his audience.  I paraphrase:

Think of the spring semester of your sophomore year of college.  
Choose one class.  
Name two things you learned.  

Can you do it?  I confess I cannot.  I cannot specify content knowledge from a particular class from so long ago.  Does that mean I didn't learn anything?  If not, what did I learn?  The more I thought about this, the more I realized that it was not the content that was important, but the habits of mind, the ways of thinking, and the processes I engaged in at that point in time in my education.

This new way of thinking about content followed me to another workshop at Faculty College put on by Dr. Greg Valde, Director of the LEARN Center at UW Whitewater.

Three principles of learning (derived from Cognitive Psychology) that Dr. Valde shared helped me rethink the content of my courses yet again (If you were a member of the 2012 Reading Circle on How Learning Works, these will look familiar to you):

  1. Information that is learned over a short period of time (cramming for a test, for example) is not retained.
  2. Information that is learned over a longer period of time (distributed over a semester and coordinated into the curriculum) is recalled much better.
  3. Information that is processed deeply (made meaningful, connected to prior experience, practiced, or applied) is recalled the best.  

Before Faculty College, I had been worrying about what novels (in other words, content) I should assign for a new course prep on Narrative Literature this fall. Both my ongoing questions about content as well as the workshops at Faculty College have shifted my concern to what I actually want students to be able to do when they have completed my course:

  • What skills do I want students to have after taking this course?  
  • What kinds of questions should they be able to answer?  
  • What kinds of problems should they be able to solve?  
  • What ways of thinking do they need to learn in order to perform these tasks?  
  • What "content" do they need to know?  
  • How can the knowledge outcomes inform course design?  
  • How can I increase the "deep processing" of  in-class activities and assignments?   

I'm going to spend my summer challenging my prior assumptions about content and shifting the emphasis to student learning using these three principles.  So my questions have, as they so often do, led me to more questions, but I feel much more content about content now.

With this first summertime post, I invite you to reflect on these questions and share your responses and answers.


  1. Jen,
    I agree with you that information needs to be meaningful in order to be processed deeply. Perhaps, experiential learning is the deepest level of learning.
    Richard Gustin - UWFDL CTA

  2. Great post. I also liked Bob Duke's injunction that when we design learning experiences that we start with "a vision of students as accomplished learners." Maybe that phrase captures the meaning of your list? --David Voelker