Thoughts on Teaching History in a Scale Up Classroom (Part IV)
January 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Last night was my second “real” class in the Scale-Up classroom. I am certainly still in the learning stage in the Scale-Up environment, but felt more at ease this class than I did last week. I have come to have a better sense for how long it’ll take pods (groups of three students) and tables (groups of nine students) to complete an assignment. I also was slightly more ambitious with my assignments asking the pods and tables to accomplish slightly different, if interrelated tasks.
As readers of this blog know, I am working to do more than just “flip the classroom“. I am working to “flip the textbook” by getting my students to produce a Western Civilization textbook over the course a semester.
Last week, I assigned to each table a chapter for the textbook that the class is writing and got them taking the first steps in thinking about how they might approach the challenge of marshaling information. We discussed the difference between primary and secondary sources and I asked each pod to compile a list of primary sources relevant to their chapter with basic information on authorship, location, date, and genre. In the second half of class, I asked the tables to compile a list of the best primary sources and to explain how provide evidence for events, people, and institutions that they might include in their chapter and the major themes that we introduced last week to the course. Finally, at the end of class, I asked each student to evaluate the list of sources that their table prepared and to identify the most and least useful source for understanding their period.
This exercise encountered some predictable and some novel issues:
1. Directions and Definitions. In a class of 150+ students, it is not necessarily remarkable that some do not pay attention to the directions or definitions provided at the start of class. The Scale-Up room, however, provides some additional challenges. First, bad understandings and good understanding seem to battle on a more equal playing field. As a result, some groups that were unclear concerning the difference between primary and secondary sources got into a rut and wasted time collecting useless information. The idea that students who understood the difference between primary and secondary sources would influence students who struggled with the distinction did not seem to result in a room that understood the distinction, but a patchwork of students who understood and those who did not.
2. Time. I am still struggling with what to do when some groups finish early and some take longer. In some ways, this is an inevitable product of asking students to perform different tasks. Since each group has a different topic and each period and topic presents a unique set of challenges, each group could reasonably take a different length of time to finish their work.
3. Revising. The first in class, group writing assignments were well considered, but rather poorly executed. Part of the promise of the Scale-Up room is that it creates an environment better suited to active collaboration than the passive reception of knowledge. So some of the work that we might expect a student to do at home, happens in the classroom. This provides a great opportunity to observe the learning process, but a bustling classroom of 150 students is not necessarily the best environment for careful writing. So we tweaked the system a bit to allow for tables to revise their writing up until the weekend, while still requiring them to turn in their work at the end of the class time.
4. Logistics. My class has some moving parts to it. The most vexing at present in the requirement that each student get a different textbook. Since there was no way to arrange for this before the first day of class (this is a 100 level history course), the students signed up for textbooks on the first day and I urged them to order them as soon as possible. Predictably, two weeks later, about half the class has the book and the other half seem flummoxed. The issue (as always) is that flummoxed half who did not sort out how to get a textbook in two weeks is also the least adept at finding ways around this issue. Because so few students have textbooks and some groups had a disproportionate number of students without textbooks, the results were uneven.
5. Difficulty and Ability. One the most remarkable things to observe is how the difficulty of the chapter failed to correlate with the performance of the group. Some tables had chapters for which primary sources were quite scarce, disparate, or difficult. For example, one table is working on a chapter on the Aegean Bronze Age and the only textual primary sources are Linear B tablets. This group was great. They found transcribed Linear B tablets on the internets and began to analyze them and consider their value as historical sources. Another group worked on a chapter on Archaic and Classical Greece, a relatively well-documented period, and they struggled to find sources.
For those of you who are keeping track at home, I lectured for about 25 minutes last night (night including basic housekeeping tasks) over the course of a 2 hours class.
I am chronicling my success and failures adapting a History 101: Western Civilization course to the Scale-Up Classroom at the University of North Dakota each Wednesday here.