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Summary of 2/17/06 Discussion
with Peter Brodfuehrer

"A Case Study of Teaching/Learning at Bryn Mawr:
"Biology 321 - Neuroethology"

One in a series of Stories of Teaching and Learning

Participants: Peter Brodfuehrer (Biology), Linda Caruso-Haviland (Dance), Jody Cohen (Education), Anne Dalke (English/Gender&Sexuality), Paul Grobstein (Biology, Center for Science in Society), Gail Hemmeter (English/Writing Center), Kimberley Knudson (Biology), Orah Minder (English), Mary Riggio (Clinical Psychology), Angad Singh (Biology @ HC).

"I am increasingly bored with lecturing. I bore myself, so I know the students are bored..."

"When I lecture, one of the people I learn from is myself. I'm amazed with what I come up. What I present kicks off all sorts of things."

Attending a workshop last summer in problem-based learning, Peter realized that his own learning about the neural basis of behavior had been "in problem-based mode," and decided to design a new 300-level course in neuroethology. There was "some neuorobackground, but not much" required of students taking the course; twelve junior and senior biology majors enrolled.

Aiming to get his students to think and write about neuroethological problems, Peter divided them into pairs, to review chapters in a textbook on neuroethology, and then present that material to the class. Weekly writing assignments involved short papers tying together the different systems they were studying. Assignments included essays on the order of "Ask Doctor Neuroethnology" (for example, write an article for the Bi-Co News, explaining to someone on your hall, in your own words, how bats see in the dark). Some of the essays were "more scientific" position papers, more directly related to what students had read and talked about, tracing what evidence supported what claims. There were three longer essays, trying to assimilate the material. The final goal was to "come up with an ethological problem" (for example, how do honeybees divide up the tasks necessary for a hive to function, without a director telling them what to do? Or how to explain the "jam-avoidance response"--i.e., how do certain fish use an electric field to determine their surroundings, and so prevent jamming up with one another? Students found these problems in scientific journals, and from web pages). The last assignment was "to write the next chapter in the book," a college-level text. The students were interested in reading one another's papers, but there were technological obstacles to doing so (to posting them, for instance, on the web).

What Peter found most interesting in the class were the moments when he was asked a question he didn't know the answer to, had to go research it and report back on what he learned in the next session. "That is why I really enjoyed the class." He reported that this was "the best class I had in ages: I had fun. I hadn't looked at some of these areas in a long time. I learned a lot--and brought back up a lot I used to know." The biggest problem in the course was student resistence to group work. Some reported repeated difficulties in getting in touch with their partners; others simply announced that they "didn't work in pairs." This phenomenon became one of the central topics of our workshop. American students today begin to be assigned group projects in middle school, but they are "never taught how to work in a group": how to address personality conflicts, for instance, or how to recognize that a "rotation" into a new group is needed. (The summer workshop Peter attended included a session on group dynamics--acting out the resolution to a problem on video.)

But is it a problem, that education is going in that direction? "Everyone starts out in a playgroup, and more and more education is trying to get students back to those playgroups." A student reported that, although she was frequently assigned group work in high school, "I never actually worked in a group. I just did all the work for the group. It always ended up with me doing all the work." Coming to Bryn Mawr--where most students work very hard--changed this dynamic. But what are teachers trying to teach their students, in requiring group work? "I see the benefit of playgrounds for elementary school kids: they need to learn social skills. But at this point in my intellectual development, I don't need to learn to think with another person. When I go to graduate school in the humanities, I will be working alone."

Faculty members reported that collaborative work--always the norm in the sciences--is becoming increasingly common in the humanities as well; this is the way more and more papers are published. More generally, working with others is "a valuable way to get another perspective" on a problem, to "get another head thinking about it." Many faculty members enjoy learning from the interaction of team-teaching, for instance. Working with someone else is a means of "learning how to communicate information to another person," to "synthesize a story." (The most valuable aspect of the process, from Peter's perspective, was that his students "went over the essays together.") The basic activity of getting feedback or criticism from another reader, by writing a paper and showing it to them, is certainly useful. But mightn't the process of co-writing a paper involve "dumbing it down"? A discussion doesn't always improve on the ideas one goes in with. Conversing with others doesn't necessarily enhance your thinking and allow you to be more creative. Having multiple perspectives on a problem does not always lead to richer interpretations; hammering out a common story does not always lead to a better one; it might it lead to something more "non-cohesive." Is it really possible for different thinkers to come up with a shared argument that includes all their multiple hypothesis?

Even if the "product is poor" (i.e., when the class presentations were not very good), students find the process beneficial. Irrespective of product, the process of thinking collaboratively is valuable in itself. Whether or not the students are able to "create high quality pieces of work," they grow and develop from working together. One student reported that it was "easier to write with some one else," because they could divide the work in half. If the work is divvied up that way, then time needs to be spent, at the end of the process, to make the writing style cohesive. There are of course lots of different ways of writing collaboratively, not all of it involving so much independent work. For instance, two people might have a discussion. One starts a draft, then hands it off to be continued by the other. The presentations that work best become models for others (and one hopes that the good groups go first; they set a level of competition that others will try to match). Is it really the case that bi-co students engage in martyrdom (that is, competitive challenges about who has the most work to do) because they are not allowed to compete, openly and explicitly, for grades? Or is this less a matter of competition, more about setting a level of expectation that one needs to meet? One can see from others' work, for instance, what oneself might strive for. But perhaps we shouldn't stress this element; performances are always unpredictable.

Unevenness in student presentations will, in part, be the result of their past educational experiences. (Powerpoints, for example, which are "the prettiest" presentations, "privilege the privileged"; some students suffer because they do not have the necessary background on preparing such slides.) How can we create a "more level playing field" for students who come to class "without web capacities"? Teaching such skills take a lot of time: how much of class will be spent on teaching students how to make powerpoints, much less how on to manage group dynamics? Part of the trick, here, is to mesh such instruction with the subject matter. If group work begins in introductory biology, for instance, and begins to be offered throughout the curriculum, then students will get used to doing it.

The issue is actually not whether students are in competition, or have the necessary preparation to prepare pointpoint slides. Those matters simply highlight the real problem, which is that U.S. education has not been generally and deliberately transactional. Students who have been treated as independent consumers of a product being delivered by teachers will find it disconcerting to suddenly be thrown into the pervasive expectation that they will themselves be both teachers and students. "Inquiry-based education" is "not broad enough." What we actually need to offer is "open-ended inquiry-based transactional education." The "technical skills will come along for the ride," as students "learn how to say things that are useful to other people."

It is troubling when students can't even articulate what their expectations are for a course; sometimes they seem "incredibly passive," as though they "will take it, whatever way it is given." But "I don't know if I really know how I learn. I've been going to school for twelve years, and it's all been the same. If I haven't been exposed to an alternative, I don't know what it is." Perhaps "not knowing your own learning style" is the result of a certain progression in natural science classes, where lectures predominate in the introductory courses, and students are not exposed to other methods of learning until they reach higher level work. Peter is enthusiastic about changing pedagogies in introductory courses as well as at the upper levels. This is part of a national trend, with more and more K-16 classes moving in that direction.

The claim was challenged that "everybody would love" to teach in this way, but find themselves restrained from doing so by financial obstacles. "It can look like that and not be like that"; there are highly visible national trends "in the other direction." Government rules and policies are not moving towards transactional teaching, but rather towards increased testing. (There is even discussion about requiring tests certifying that students have met college graduation requirements.) In the midst of this conflict, we should be a stronghold, contributing to the marked trend among college science educators to be more interactive. The mode in high schools may still be to "learn a body of material," but realistically, there is now "just too much information" to offer it all in the course of a semester, or even in the course of a college major program.

A large portion of the education of kids with learning differences is to be advocates for themselves. Is a student who refuses to work with others being an "advocate for herself"? To really make education "transactional" means altering students' expectations for a course, so that the "performance aspect isn't still bothersome." Instead, they will come to think of themselves as partners, with shared responsibilities for each another's education, including that of the teacher. Understanding transactional education in those terms automatically takes care of the problem of being one's own advocate. One isn't advocating for oneself, independent of everyone else, but participating rather in an interactive process, out of which emerges a pedagogical style that works for the whole classroom. One contributes one's own learning style to the process in which the larger group is involved. In negotiating with others, one both advocates for oneself, and acquires experiences and understandings of other styles.

We do not do any favors to shy students, or to those who prefer to work alone (because they "want to be in charge"), by failing to insist that they learn to become more transactional. Students may come to the conclusion later in life that they are more effective working alone. But given the current state of the world, the skill of being able to work with others is so critically important that we can't afford to let our students make that the entire basis of their education. We need to show them the benefits and possibilities of collaborative labor.

On the other hand, it is "not bad for students to learn to sit for an hour and get something" from a lecture. There are a whole range of learning skills to be mastered, and "the only reason we are here now is that we've gone through many of them, and are still experimenting with others." Students in earlier discussions about teaching and learning at Bryn Mawr have reported how discouraging it is, to attempt to explain such matters to their professors, and be treated as if they were posing a threat. We are talking now about making a "cultural shift," about "creating pockets" that will alter "something big and institutional." (Perhaps some of us will cease to sit in faculty meetings, knowing that the format isn't a productive one, without acting to change it.) If our students are expecting a non-transactional experience, the problem is with the educational system that brought them to us. We might start our classes by telling our students that we expect them to--and will ourselves--be wrong twice a week. "Whatever their expectations, I expect them to play transactional." A student reported that such an expectation, on the part of her teacher, "would make me more focused. It would be inspiring, if my professor expected me to be more insightful."

There is, however, a matter of teacher education involved here. Many professors think that they are getting paid to demonstrate their hard-won expertise in the classroom, and are deeply ambivalent about learning from their students. The educational experience of many professors has involved "fighting for their lives to not be wrong." All of their training has been "to know everything," learning "to defend themselves against everyone else, who was out to kill them," to "show that they were wrong." "The ghosts of these combatants still look over the shoulders of professors at Bryn Mawr." When professors subject their students to "that same kind of mood," it gives rise to problems in the classroom.

It can be frustrating for students, when professors offer a classes in which they don't have an established expertise in the subject area (although that would be one way of assuring oneself of learning something new in each class session!) But someone with decades of expertise, greater than that of any student in the room, can still walk into the classroom expecting to change the way he looks at things. Professors should come to teaching with an ambition to see something new. They can't possibly be in a transactional classroom and not learn. This of course involves a certain expectation about how knowledge is formed, which has to do with multiple perspectives. Any class in which a teacher doesn't have an expectation of learning something is going to be less effective than one operating under that assumption--largely because the professor will not be modeling the learning process. We can set up inquiry-based learning, and explain it. (Peter began his class, for instance, by encouraging students to discuss "what makes a good group, and what doesn't; what makes a good class, and doesn't"; the conversation, predictably, went nowhere.) What works is teachers and students being open to interacting with one another.

But what about the student who is in class because "my dad says I need to be here"? What about the "quantifying attitude: 'I paid for it, and therefore I will get it'"? What about the need to meet the expectations of others--medical school admissions, graduate school requirements? "They are going to expect me to know a certain amount of material. I don't get that information, I'm going to be behind." What about pre-K teachers who worry that, if they engage in transactional learning with their students, they won't be prepared for middle school? We took a broader perspective on this concern also. Teachers at any level, who are defaulting their pedagogy to the admission requirements of some subsequent stage in the process, are defaulting their own responsibilities. It's irresponsible to set up a college biology course (for instance) to prepare one's students to go to medical school. (If that is students' primary task, they should take an MCAT prep course.) The responsibility of college biology professors is to help their students develop a set of skills, by taking them through certain content. Because of outside forces, this is a difficult idea to let go of.

There was some debate about whether it's "easier" to fall back into the mode of coverage, and a "lot harder" to be interactive. "Harder" is a relative term; some of us find it "impossible to give a lecture"--that is, to "hold forth at great length, watching the blank faces as I stand up there and deliver." In contrast, "being transactional is not so hard. It's more risky to 'go off script,' to develop a lesson plan that will be responsive to what will happen with the students in the classroom--but it's also more fun." "It's taken me a long time to pause in the classroom, to be comfortable with nothing coming back." Students aren't the only ones who have expectations that the professor will fill all those voids. If the professor isn't speaking, students may find the classroom "awkward," or feel that they "should get their money back." But we "just have to stick with it."

The discussion ended with the advice that we allow ourselves to "relax and do what we know perfectly naturally how to do" in other contexts (like walking into a bar--do any professors ever walk into bars?): focus on a topic, change the thread of a discussion--and learn from what emerges in the exchange.

This conversation continues in the on-line forum for "Stories of Teaching and Learning, and will resume in person in Thomas Library 223, @ 2:30-4 on April 21, when Kelly Strunk and several students will lead us in workshopping some Praxis III classes.


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