Friday, June 12, 2015

Really Smart Classrooms

I like to think that my institution is blessed with a student-centered ethos.  In other words, most of us here believe that active student learning is the most important thing in a classroom. 

We've even spent a bit of money leading workshops and bringing in guest speakers to help faculty move away from a professor-centered model in which the most important thing is students' passive absorption of the prof's content knowledge.  Making this change in pedagogy isn't easy.  Old models of what's supposed to happen in a university classroom die hard.

But what about our model of the classroom itself?

The last time we built a new classroom building on campus the architect met with the university community.  The only comment I made was that it was frustrating as an instructor to spend five minutes at the beginning of each class laboriously redesigning the room so it better facilitates teaching and learning, and then another five minutes at the end of class changing the room back to the old 19th century industrial-design model of row after row oriented toward the board and the lectern.

The architect's response was to drone on about all of the Smartboard tech we could expect.  "Besides," he said, "the tables and chairs will have wheels."
 
Aaaargh.  A Smartboard and some casters does not a smart classroom make. 

What I wanted was a more thorough examination of good design for good learning.  After all, a lot of really innovative design has gone into making work spaces that facilitate collaboration in professional settings.  Yet when we  build a classroom, all we get is the old "sage on the stage" model.  Sure we add in some high-tech doo-dads and smarten up the wall-coverings, but that's not much of a changed paradigm. 

To be sure, architects have contemporized their designs for art studios, rehearsal spaces, science labs, etc.  But the default model for the generic classroom remains the lecture hall.  And the rhetoric of a lecture hall is clear: what matters most in this room is the person standing upfront at the controls.  You students out there are to sit passively and soak up the wisdom.  You aren't the locus or the focus of what really matters here.

Good grief, nothing is more ripe for a thoughtful redesign than the general-purpose classroom, whose "cells with bells" design philosophy comes straight out of Frederick Taylor's early 20th century efficiency studies, which in turn created the industrial assembly-line.  Such an approach may have made sense when we were training people to do isolated tasks within fixed corporate systems, but they don't make sense today (a fact made evident by abandoned rust-belt manufacturing plants across the nation).

So I was happy to run across some architects and designers who are taking on this problem.  Prakash Nair in San Antonio has been doing work along these lines.  Indeed, his book Blueprint for Tomorrow collects and codifies some good design principles that have been shown to promote student learning.

If I were a paying client, here's what I'd ask from my architect:
  • I want to be able to transition from being in all-class mode to group work quickly and with as little effort as possible (360 degree swiveling chairs perhaps)?
  • I want to use nearly all the wall space for presentation of student work (not just the whiteboard, projector screen, etc., at the front).  Brainstorming notes, concept maps, in-class created work should be easy to post and dispose of.  I shouldn't have to spend my limited budget on giant sticky Post-It notes (or damage the drywall with masking tape and thumb tacks). 
  • Some natural light, please.
  • A usable, out of the way place to store backpacks, heavy coats, etc., one that allows students to keep their stuff nearby but out of the way (built-in under the chair storage perhaps?).
  • While we're at it, let's have a few small storage lockers where instructors could securely leave a few items in the classroom: some fresh dry-erase markers, a box of paper clips or a stapler (sweet heavens, a stapler!) a few pens, an extra copy of the text, some Kleenex, a bottle of Tylenol...  There's nothing worse than needing these things and not having them at hand.
  • Also, can we think up a way to eliminate the need for stumble-inducing extension or laptop cords?
  • Along the same lines, how about trash receptacles that are inset into the wall?
  • Padded seating (the mind can only absorb what the butt can endure).
  • And what about a way to quickly subdivide the room into even tinier spaces?  Some classrooms have retractable walls that allow two rooms to become one large room.  But what if I could make my normal one room into four little seminar rooms?  I'm thinking of retractable Japanese screens that are rolled up and ready to be pulled out from the center of each of the four walls.
  • I like to get students out of their seats to stake out positions physically on questions or issues:  "Those of you who agree with Freud go to this side of the room, those with Hume the other side.  Those who are unsure can stay in the middle.  Now start talking to those who agree with you.  What's the group consensus on why you are where you are?"  But how about  making the carpet color-coded into distinct areas that could mark off group positions?  What if the flooring contained a continuum of gradations that allowed students to arrange themselves by degrees of acceptance or rejection of an idea? 
  • Or what about work stations or long tables that could drop from the sidewalls like a Murphy bed when extra desktop area was needed and be quickly stowed away when more space was needed?
  • Here's an idea: lots of individual square or rectangular tables with flip-up curved wings that can be combined into a single oval seminar table.
  • Okay, let's get really radical.  I'm in seminar mode with students seated in a circle or around a big table and I want to show a brief video clip for discussion.  What if the chairs could lie back like car seats and we could see the clip on the ceiling?  That way the students with backs to the screen don't have to relocate or crane their necks.  Plus, let's use every surface in the room.  I know, I know.  Crazy idea.  People would go to sleep.  Still, it's a new idea.
Put simply, I want a general-purpose classroom that doesn't assume a single teaching style is the only purpose there is.   I want a room that can be transformed for lots of learning approaches, one that gives me options.  I'm no architect, of course, but I'd love to see what a good one could do working with educators on a redesign.

 Anything that blows up the lecture hall would be okay by me.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hunting the house through


I spent five years working construction as a union painter many years ago (IBPAT, Local 246, should anyone care to know).  Even so, it was my milkman grandfather who had the greatest insight about the chore of painting a house.  He remarked once that it was important to paint your house with a good brush every so often (and never to spray it).  The extra work involved allows you to get to know your house more intimately and it lets the house know how much you love it.

I've been painting our house this week, a couple of bedrooms.  They were the last rooms I had yet to get personal with after a decade and a half of living here.  Learned a few things, too.  The walls in this place (built in 1926) are still wonderfully straight and in good shape.  I also ran across some curious choices that were made when someone before my time remodeled and enlarged the closets.  Inspecting empty closets will tell you a lot about a house because people don't worry too much about the quality of their work in them.  As with judging old furniture, the story of how well something was made is often in the parts people don't see.

After I finished painting this morning, I went out on the porch to have a cup of coffee and read for a few minutes before cleaning up.  Grabbed some Robert Browning, a poet whom I've long meant to give some serious attention.  I serendipitously happened across this lovely piece:

Room after room,
I hunt the house through
We inhabit together.
Heart, fear nothing, for heart, though shalt find her--
Next time, herself!--not the trouble behind her
Left in the curtain, the couch's perfume!
As she brushed it, the cornice wreath blossomed anew:
Yon looking-glass at the wave of her feather.

Yet the day wears,
And door succeeds door;
I try the fresh fortune--
Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.
Still the same chance! she goes out as I enter. 
Spend my whole day in the quest,--who cares?
But is twilight, you see,--with such suites to explore,
Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune!

It's worth paying attention to simple techniques in poetry.  Like an empty closet or the wood at the back of a drawer, it too betokens quality.  Browning's alliteration here is wonderful: the dreamy "Rs" and "Hs" that ease us into the poem, the nice balance of alliteration in individual lines (Range the wide house from the wing to the centre).  This is to say nothing of his well-thought out use of dashes and line endings.  Alliteration is easy to botch, but done right it can really evoke a scene or state of mind. 

A house, of course, is just an association of a place with memory or the memories of the people you know who have inhabited it.  Take everything from a room and all that's left is memory.  Strangely that emptiness makes the memory more sharply felt.  It's not in the room, but where it's always been, in you alone.  Yet still you search for it in the room. 

I also need to paint the outside of the house this summer.  Figured I should brush one more coat on the place before I eventually succumb to siding.  I had planned to do this next week, but I noticed this morning that there are still two little wrens nesting in the eave.  I think I'll wait for them move on before I disturb their home.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Media Memes about Higher Ed vs. Some Actual Numbers


A popular idea floating around in the public consciousness is that we send far too many kids to college these days and not all of them benefit from the experience.  You can add to this idea any number of variant themes.  Here are a few of the more popular ones:
  • College isn't needed because, hey, Bill Gates and those guys who founded Tumblr, Spotify and Pinterest were all college drop outs.
  • The high cost saddles students with so much debt that a college degree has become a bad deal.
  • College just isn't for everyone.
There is some truth to all of these ideas.  If you happen to be a tech genius, insanely lucky and driven, then you probably don't need a college degree.  After all, there are 41 tech companies currently listed in Forbes Fortune 500 and last year there were between 21 and 22 million students enrolled in higher education of some form.  That means our anecdotal dropout has a .000186 percent shot at becoming the next big-time high-tech jillionaire.  So go ahead.  Drop out.  Who knows?  You could be the next lucky winner.

Setting aside anecdotal nonsense, there's the cost/benefit argument.  According to the most recent data, the average American college student walks across the stage with around $25,000 in debt.  That's nothing to sneeze at, but the data also shows that this grad is still economically better off over the long haul.  At left is Pew Center data from 2012.   As you can see, the prospects for a college grad are still better--indeed, significantly better--than they are for those entering the workforce with only a high school diploma. 

According to the Pew study, too, a college graduate in 1965 earned $7,500 more than someone with a high school diploma. That gap has grown steadily larger, and today it's doubled to $17,500 among those aged 25 to 32.

The lower unemployment rate for college grads is particularly striking, but so is the correlation between escaping poverty and a college education.  Despite all our hand-wringing, college is still a way to improve one's economic lot.  Sadly, though, people on the bottom rungs are far less likely to enter college, even though they would realize the greatest benefits from earning a degree. 

To be sure, we should be alarmed about the debt load our graduates face, but that average of 25K factors in the enormous sums run up by students in the for-profit sector.  About 10-13 percent of all college students are enrolled at for-profit institutions, and 96 percent of them have taken out loans to cover costs (compared to 57 percent at private non-profits and 49 percent at public non-profits).  As you might imagine, the debt load at for-profits is 30 percent higher than it is at public and private institutions. 

But here's a telling stat: the small number of students enrolled at for-profits account for half of the loan defaults.   Indeed, there are very few numbers that look good for the for-profit sector (grad rates, retention, job placement...).   Yet these numbers are often blended into the over all averages when taking the measure of the health and viability of higher education.  But if you avoid the for-profit sector, choose wisely and think of college as an investment that yields its benefits over time, a degree remains an awfully good deal.  Caveats apply to any investment, of course, but the average 20-year return-on-investment on even a low-paying professional degree still outperforms most mutual funds.

But let's take seriously the last bullet point: college isn't for everybody and we're just turning out too damn many grads these days.  The point-man for this argument seems to be the American Enterprise Institute's Charles Murray, who argues that two-year voc. tech. programs would be better for a whole bunch of students who have been wrongfully pushed into college.   In other words, more certificates and fewer diplomas.  There's some truth to this, although I can't stomach Murray's racist rationales (he thinks disadvantaged groups can't compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior, so most minorities would be better served with vocational training). 

In other words, college is for the sons of privilege.  The rest of you lot can be shipped off to trade schools where you'll be taught some useful skills that will benefit the knowledge-worker plantation class. "A bit less slagging and a bit more cacao, my boy!"

Indeed, Murray argues minorities today are over-represented in higher education and get “a large edge in the admissions process and often in scholarship assistance."  Many, he argues. ‘don’t belong’ academically. 

Over-represented?  Hardly. 

Yes, the percentage of minority enrollment in college has steadily increased over the last 40 years.  Even so, these increases are at best modest and under-reflect the demographic changes in American society.  From 1976 to 2012, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 4 percent to 15 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from two percent to six percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of Native American /Alaskan Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.9 percent (National Center for Education Statistics). 

So are there too many college grads and is there too much emphasis on sending everyone to college? 

Maybe.  But consider this.  Two-thirds of all future jobs will require a college degree.  There's a reason so many (and perhaps too many) kids are headed to college these days.  They get it.  Good paying jobs in manufacturing or the skilled trades don't exist anymore.  If they are going to have any kind of shot, they have to get a college degree.  That's truer than ever for poor and working class kids. 

Here's the truth: unless we seriously rethink our economic and public spending priorities, market forces will continue to push more and more kids into higher ed.  Maybe it shouldn't be this way.  Maybe there ought to be other opportunities and choices for high school grads.  But right now (unless you're the next Gates or a Zuckerberg), getting a college degree remains the best statistical bet for bettering your lot in life. 

That's not a meme that plays into our suspicion and cynicism about higher education these days.  It doesn't even make for a sexy, click-baiting headline.  It's just what the numbers say. 

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...