In August, I was invited to come do a quick (about 15 minutes!) talk for new faculty about using blogging as part of teaching. Apparently the feedback was good, so I was invited to come back and do a longer piece on it. There are 40 people signed up, and the talk is today.
Normally talks don’t scare me particularly, because I do love to natter on about topics I’m interested in. (And really, a talk is very much like a blog post…I talk for a while, and then it’s open for others to comment, right?) But for some reason I’m anxious about this talk. Maybe because people signed up for it. They will be expecting things. Can I live up to their expectations? I don’t know.
I have things to say. I think they’re somewhat important things. Somewhat. I even have powerpoint! (Some cited CC flickr images and some power statements, but it’s in ppt!) But still.
The main gist of what I want to get across is something like…well first of, you have to match your tools to your content, your expectations, and your personality. There is no magic bullet technology that will work for everyone, and there’s no point using blogging if you’re not going to use it in a way that suits both the content, the syllabus, and your own style. A given?
I think the other thing I want to get across is the difference between formality and informality. If you want students to do more formal writing, I’m not sure this is the way to do it. Mostly because, in the case of undergrads, formal writing is not a comfortable form. It’s a way of distancing themselves from the material. It’s not honest for them. As they learn to use the tool of formal essay-writing better, it can become more honest, but…for most, not so much. If you want real thinking, really interest and passion and engagement, you have to toss formal essay-writing in blog form out the window. It’s too easy to plagiarize. And writing is good, and you can think of this writing as creating a portfolio of primary sources that can be drawn on later to create formal writing. I’ve been thinking of it in terms of honesty; allow students to be honest. If they don’t understand something and mention it, that will help them later, because they’ll be able to show how they come to understand something in a formal report.
Which leads me to something that bonked me on the head yesterday while reviewing for Learning Inquiry. I read this fantastic article that used some extremely bang-on terminology: productive failure, and unproductive success.
Here’s what I’m currently considering: we tend to reward unproductive success more than anything. If a student walks into a class knowing the subject material, that student will probably do extremely well. If a student spends 3/4ths of the class struggling with the material and getting things wrong, not understanding, struggling with concepts, and then really gets it, that student will probably not do as well. But that student is actually learning, and demonstrating learning. We don’t have an effective way of rewarding real learning.
Which is the key reason why I object to switching out the word “student” with the word “learner”, though I know it’s trying to get at the same idea. We don’t know whether we have “learners” or not, on a grand scale. Often we have a group of already-knowledgeable students who will unproductively get As and we feel good about it the learning experience. How do we measure learning? Real learning? Going from confusion to understanding? How do we even see it when undergrads often don’t even open their mouths in class? Do we really have a “Learning Management System”? Really? How do we really support and reward learning rather than merely unproductive success?
So I think blogging done well, set up with good expectations and with a fostered honesty, can reveal the actual learning going on, and can give students the option of displaying the learning they’re doing. And we can reward it that way. If a student struggles for the first half of the course and demonstrates that struggle, and then suddenly GETS IT, you’ll have evidence of their learning. You can reward that, you can grade them according to how they learned and how articulate they can be about the way in which they learned and why. At the moment we grade them based on whether or not they get it fast enough, for the most part. So you can use these tools to support and encourage productive failure as a means toward productive success. I’m not saying it’s enough to just try. Unproductive failure isn’t the goal either. Failure that builds into understanding is productive.
But the key part, it seems to me, is finding a way to get through to a class about how to use a blog. I’ve been thinking about this. I’m getting better at giving motivational speeches, and this one would be a challenge. I think you have to drop the formality, and encourage honesty. Perhaps a discussion about the wonders of productive failure is important. Or even to explain that formal writing isn’t objective, it’s just a tool for people to channel their confusion and passion in a culturally acceptable way. So let’s screw with what’s culturally expectable. Tell us what you really think. Have you ever heard of these ideas or concepts before? If so, where? Do you think it’s relevant? Why do you think you’re learning this? Do you understand the article? Was it too difficult to understand, the sentences too long and filled with jargon? Say so. Do you find this subject boring? Why? (Do you think political history is boring? Why? Because it seems too distant and filled with names and numbers, and not enough about juicy things like the real details of people’s lives? Valid comment!)
Undergraduate students are doing two things at university (among others): 1) learning content, and 2) learning to speak to faculty in the “right” way through their work, ie, learning formal scholarly communication methods. The second one is the harder one. Students sort of put on a voice they think faculty want to hear (which is where that dreaded word “utilize” comes in; it makes the student sound more formal, more serious; hahaha no it doesn’t). Students are often avoiding the learning part by trying to put on a show with the formal structure and language. So for get it for a second, for the blog part; let them just be honest about what they think. They can shape that into formal communication later.
As I’ve been writing this, Jeremy sent me this article about how students expect a better grade because they “tried really hard”. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying: let productive failure be okay in your class. Trying really hard and getting nowhere doesn’t deserve a better grade. You need to succeed to get a good grade, definitely. You have to end up at point B from point A. But how you get there might be different. I’m just saying: let students have a shot at getting there in their own way.
Using blogging to track productive failure isn’t changing the whole structure, after all. It’s just giving students one assignment, just one, where being confused about the subject is okay. If they can build on their failures and come to understand, to turn it into a productive success, just for one assignment, isn’t that a valid part of a well-rounded education?