Teaching Thursday: Teaching Naked and New Class Design

Over the past few weeks I’ve worked my way deliberately through Jose Antonio Bowen’s Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning. (Jossey-Bass 2012). It is a nice, single volume, highly accessible summary of the last decade of thinking on how technology has changed teaching. Nothing in this book is revolutionary or even counter-intuitive (despite the provocative title), but it was the perfect read as I began to think about designing a new class over my sabbatiquol

My course will be a mid-level survey of the ancient world. The course has a few strategical goals within our curriculum. First, it is designed as a more in-depth treatment of Greek and Roman antiquity than I offer in a 100 level “Western Civilization” survey course. The hope is for it to provide a more solid foundation for both majors and non-majors who want to take upper division courses on the ancient world. Second, I am anticipating the time when the department will no longer support the teaching of 100-level Western Civilization courses. This year, we have begun to offer World History, and it is clear that old-heads like me who cling to their Western Civilization courses will soon lose the battle. Since Western Civilization classes make up 40% of my teaching load and I’m not qualified (in particular) to teach World History, I need to find a new course to teach each semester. My hope is that this ancient history course will be my bread and butter. 

The book is pretty rich with ideas, but I found four compelling take-aways as I move forward in my course design.

1. Bloom’s Taxonomy. My colleague, Eric Burin, has been using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a road map for a series of assignments in his upper level history courses. Bloom sees learning (to simplify radically) moving from simple forms of thinking, like remembering, to more complex, creative tasks. Bowen, too, likes the way that Bloom thinks about learning, but supplements it with the work of L. Dee Fink. Fink stresses the institutional and personal context for engaging Bloom’s taxonomy. Collaborative learning – like what I’ve done in the Scale-Up classroom – creates a learning experience that could help facilitate or even accelerate the moving from one point in Bloom’s taxonomy to the next in our effort to produce more sophisticated reasoning. (Even if you don’t buy Bloom’s whole deal, most teachers recognize the value of moving from simple tasks to more complex tasks over the course of a semester long class.)

2. Commenting without Grades. I was heartened to see that Bowen advocated making comments on work without providing grades. I’ve started to do this more and more and used it as key part of how I guide students in the Scale-Up class. In this class, students work in 9-student teams to write a chapter for a Western Civilization textbook. I only provide comments on the first few drafts of their chapters and only (very reluctantly) offer a tentative grade on the penultimate draft (after succumbing to student pressure to tell them “what they would get if they turned it in like it is now.” Generally, I give them 2 letter grades lower than I think it deserves since these grades are meant for guidance). In general, commenting without grades has worked to encourage more attention among students (and myself, frankly) to the process and less on the product (i.e. the grade). Students will still complain that I comment too harshly, but they much more frequently ask how to fix the problem in their paper rather than asking me to reconsider my comments.

3. Low Stakes Work. The past few years, I’ve had a genuinely ambivalent relationship with low stakes work. In my Scale-Up class I used weekly quizzes that were not worth many points to keep students focused on tasks. While students generally found these annoying, they found it annoying mostly because they did not want to stay on task rather than finding difficult or annoying the little exercises worth a small number of points. The downside of low-stakes work is most students still value grades over learning and it requires me as a faculty member to dedicate more energy to work that is not worth much in terms of grades while still keeping a high level of consistency and attention on graded work. In other words, student culture means that an attention to learning has to exist alongside their own interest in grades, not in addition to it. 

4. Role of Lectures. My original design for the class involved dividing the semester into 5, 5-class modules. Each of these modules will include two lectures, two guided, primary source discussions, and a short project that is begun in class. This makes time in class for lectures, but the balance remains shifted toward discussion and creative work. While I’ve slowly moved away from traditional lectures in classes, this past fall, I tried a lecture based upper level course with the hope that student interest in the topic and a more flexible “conversational” lecture style would make students excited about the topic. In general, this approach was a failure despite having pulled it off successfully in past years. Students today don’t have much time for in class lecturing. 

So, I am thinking about preparing the 10 lectures that I’d give over the course of the semester as podcasts and give them to the student to listen to outside of class. This would then free up 10 class meetings per semester. As Bowen has noted, lectures can easily be moved outside the classroom opening up class time to discussing narrative and content, exploring sources more carefully, and more complex and possible collaborative in-class “active” learning activities. 

Now getting students to listen to podcasts is another matter entirely…

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