Engaging students

by Carl Dyke

…is not recommended until they’re not your students any more. Haha. So anyway, I might have mentioned that my Dean tapped me along with several colleagues to do a workshop on ‘student engagement’ at this year’s opening faculty meeting. He was interested in me showing off my ’roundtable’ schtick, loosely based on Steve Allen’s old “Meeting of Minds” tv show. But I think of that as more of a gimmick, that only works as engaging pedagogy if it’s embedded in a more comprehensive project of student-centered learning that disposes (at least some of) the students to take it seriously and do justice to their characters. So I couldn’t think of a good way to convey all of that in the 10 minutes I would have had, and my colleagues agreed about the stuff they were doing.

We decided to pool our time, about 50 minutes, and engage the faculty about engaging the students. So we preambled by remarking on how ‘best practices’ of student engagement were likely to vary in important ways for different disciplines; wondered what those might be; and set them the task of doing some quick research, school by school (using their laptops, smartphones, etc.) on student engagement in their fields. We showed rather than told, in other words.

Of course the faculty, themselves used to being talked at by ‘experts’, did not shift immediately into this more ‘engaged’ mode, and had trouble staying on task when they did, mostly wanting to say what they already thought they knew rather than doing new research. But that’s fine and that’s the point – it’s a culture shift and it’s a process; harder in fact with faculty, who are deeply invested in their expertise and a teaching / learning mode that has worked for them, than with students. So thinking of it as a process, but one that I’m thankfully involved in only as a colleague and not an official change agent, I just sent out a couple of links to the fac/staff listserv. I’d be interested in discussing them here (I’ll crosspost at Attention Surplus, but that’s more of a journal and the commentariat here is larger and more diverse).

The first is from Wired, a report on the use of new technologies to engage students’ natural curiosity and enable self-teaching.

The other is from NPR, on physicists’ discovery that most students don’t learn how to work with concepts very well from lecture. (I may have linked this one before. It’s part of a series they did, which is linked at the bottom of this one.) Incidentally, I think of concepts as tools, and that metaphor works pretty well here – most people don’t learn how to use a hammer from being talked at about hammers, either.

So I think it’s likely we won’t get much traction from a discussion about whether these articles are ‘right’; most of us are already on board with the project. But I would enjoy thinking through what they mean, in various ways, and whether they’re something that could, and/or should be generalized, and if so, how. For example, I just remarked to Duncan Law on a g+ thread that the gist of these pieces looks a lot like the emergent self-organization that Marx had in mind as ‘communism’. But they may also be consistent with Hayek’s spontaneous order. In both cases, a very different model than centralization and hierarchy, something much more like ‘freedom’. (I do realize that depending on the audience, either Marx or Hayek aren’t going to work as selling points….) Anyway, if that’s the model, it would seem contradictory to impose it from the top down, and we have all those nasty experiments to support this intuition. So how to encourage this leap to freedom without mandating it?


6 Comments to “Engaging students”

  1. Ah! I thought your NPR physicist non-lecture article was the exact same one I referenced in the paper I’m writing about engaging students with archival material (instead of lecturing them about what archives are). It turns out it’s the same exact topic, but a different article about it; the one I reference is from American RadioWorks called “Rethinking the Way College Students are Taught.”

    A bit of a tangent, but have you heard about Sugata Mitra’s experiments with children in India? They are “engaging students’ natural curiosity” to the extreme: http://www.npr.org/2013/06/21/179015266/how-much-can-children-teach-themselves

  2. Yeah, the NPR articles are part of a series which is linked at the bottom of the piece. It’s a good one. Mitra is referenced in the Wired piece, which is actually very good once you wade through the obligatory freak-show (“look how even these insert-prejudicially-unteachables-here can learn!”) at the beginning.

    I love your work on all this – hope you’ll share your paper?

  3. Are either of you familiar with the work of the British anthropologist Tim Ingold? His book _Making_, about a course he teaches in Aberdeen on “the four A’s” (Art, Architecture, Anthropology, and Archeology) has a lot of stuff in it that you will, I think, find interesting.

  4. Carl, yeah, the framing of Mirtra’s talks is always a bit problematic (the full TED talks do this too), but I looked past that for the end point of self-learning and curiosity.

    And, sure, I’ll share it when I finally get my ass in gear and write it. The paper’s experienced some serious procrastination on two fronts (me and the prof). Originally the prof and I were going to write it together, but when I sent him my lit review section, he said he’s caught up with other papers/presentations so I need to decide whether to do it on my lonesome or wait for him. Since one of my points is about the collaboration between archivists and professors, I was kinda into the idea of a co-written paper. Then again, this is a bit of a mental trick on my part because I could just write the damn thing and include his perspective through quotes.

    John, thanks for the suggestion! I hadn’t heard of the book, but my library has it, so I’ll check it out.

  5. Thanks John, I shot copies to DtE and Rachel and I’ll read over Rachel’s shoulder.

  6. For your amusement, here is a comment from a currently hot thread on OAC in which I refer to Ingold.


    Mark writes,

    “Formal Cause” is alive and well in China, even if most of us have no idea what this might be. It is the “Propensity of Things” that Francois Julien talks about.

    This remark occurs at a happy intersection for me. I have read and admired Francois Julien’s_ The Propensity of Things_ and am thus in a better position to ask Mark to elaborate a bit on the relationship he sees between formal cause and the Chinese concept that Julien labels propensity.

    My own understanding of formal cause is consistent with the description in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

    The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.

    From this perspective, the formal cause appears to be a fixed shape realized more or less imperfectly in the material in which we discover it. I underline the “fixed” because, if this reading is correct, formal cause is static where the propensity that Julien talks about is dynamic. Both can be described as constellations of elements, but where formal cause is an end state at which movement ceases or repeats itself in an endless loop, the propensity that Julien talks about is an ongoing process of which any static representation captures only a moment.

    Thus, for example, when examining Chinese calligraphy, the we from the West are likely to see only forms, hung up on scrolls in museums, and presented as if they were finished works. We wonder what is so special about those forms. The Chinese who has held a brush and practices calligraphy feels the movement of the brush and the way it interacts with the texture of the paper and the pressure exerted by the artist’s hand. (I borrow this description from Ishikawa Kyuyoh’s Taction:The Drama of the Stylus in Oriental Calligraphy. The Free Dictionary defines “faction” as follows,


    The act of touching; contact.
    [Latin tcti, tctin-, from tctus, past participle of tangere, to touch; see tact.])

    I am reminded here of Tim Ingold’s weaving baskets on a beach in northern Scotland with his students, where the stiffness of the willow, the shiftiness of the sand in which the struts are embedded, the wind blowing off the sea, and the diversity of talents and musculature of the individuals that do the weaving combine to ensure that no basket ever perfectly embodies a pre-defined form.

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