Friday, September 27, 2013

(Mis)Education and Experience: Two examples grounded in the work of John Dewey

Recently, I've been re-reading John Dewey's seminal work Experience and Education.  It's not an easy read (though it's short), but it's a must-read for anyone who believes that education is about more than transmitting information.  The core of Dewey's argument is that all genuine learning comes about through experience; however, not all experience is equally educative.  He differentiates between educative experience, which expands a learners opportunities for learning and growth in the future; and miseducative experience, which stops or distorts future growth and learning.

I came across two cases this week that are great examples of each of these categories of experience.

First, the miseducative experience from the German school system.  There are 4 million muslims living in Germany, which has led German government and school officials to look for ways to integrate German-Muslims into communities, while still respecting their religious beliefs.  The most recent case has centered on required swimming lessons in German schools and has received a fair amount of international media attention.  At the heart of the buzz is a German court's ruling that Muslim girls must take part in co-educational swimming lessons as part of their educational experience, but will be allowed to wear burqinis.  There are two issues associated with the case--modesty and male-female interactions.  The modesty issue has largely been addressed through allowing Muslim girls to wear burqinis.  However, the plaintiff in the case, a Muslim teenage girl and her parents, claim that requiring her to participate in swim classes with other young men runs counter to their religious beliefs and practices.

German schools clearly believe that swimming is a fundamental skill that all German students should master.  This seems sound and, at some level, the court's ruling makes sense.  If they were to grant exemptions to this requirement for particular students, they would be neglecting their obligation to educate all students.  However, this is faulty logic, and here's why.

The ultimate goal of educational experience is to facilitate and encourage future experience (see Dewey's definition of educative experience).  It's probably safe to assume that the basic swimming instruction German student's receive isn't enough to make them master swimmers.  Instead, it's purpose is to equip students with basic levels of competence and also encourage them to participate in recreational swimming outside of school.  It's a sound approach (and one educators apply in all sorts of other disciplines).  But, the German court's decision is likely to have the opposite effect.  By forcing Muslim girls to swim, they will ensure that these girls will swim for the few hours a week they are required (during the few months when they are in the class).  But, this forced participation is also likely to turn Muslim girls off to swimming in the future.  And, in that way, this will become a miseducative experience  because it is likely to inhibit these students' learning and growth as future swimmers.  In this case, the court has forgotten that the swimming lessons offered in schools are the means to an end.

Now, the educative experience from a pretty unlikely source--a grassroots movement to end street harassment toward women.  Essentially, +Emily May and the Hollaback movement she started invites women to use their smartphones to document, map, and share incidents of street harassment with a worldwide internet community.  It's a really clever idea that uses technology, social networks, and social pressure to fight back agains a pretty ugly trend.  And, it invites and empowers women to participate in an experience that meets both Dewey's requirements for educative experience.  First, it attends to the criterion of continuity because it positively impacts the future experience of both the women who participate as well as the men they are "hollabacking" at.  Women who share or read stories of fighting back against street harassment are likely to be more empowered and skilled in doing so in the future (which would then provide additional experiences and learning opportunities)
.  And, the men who they are responding to are likely to think twice before making similar comments in the future.  Second, Hollaback has provided meaningful opportunities for interaction through its platform because it allows women to share and hear one another's stories in ways that lead to learning.  So, in addition to Hollaback being termed a "movement," it might also be characterized as an educative experience.  From this standpoint, Hollaback is fulfilling the role of an educator to provide, design, order, or facilitate an experience that leads to long-term and meaningful growth.

My point here is that, when it comes to issues of learning and the types of experiences educators should provide, it's important to consider long-term outcomes and how educational experiences and environments can be designed to not only ensure that learners "do what they're supposed to" in the short term (the German example), but that the experience we've provided has the potential to lead to additional learning and growth in the future.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Legitimate Peripheral Participation: A new lens for viewing the first year of higher education

At the outset, let me say that I'm a theoretical and philosophical nerd.  I like to read about theory and educational philosophies because they're just plain interesting and they lead me to see educational experiences differently, which I enjoy.  That said, my strong stance is that, without a theoretical foundation, those who design and order educational experiences (whether that is in a classroom, a home, a playing field, or music hall) aren't nearly as intentional and impactful as they can be when they are operating from a clear set of theoretical or philosophical principles.  Steve Yanchar, a faculty member in the Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology at BYU, has written very eloquently and persuasively about this idea here.

So, with that roundabout disclaimer for any theory-averse readers, here goes.

One of the most interesting theoretical frameworks for describing and understanding learning that I've come across is Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).  To really understand the theory, you'll need to read their book.  But, for the sake of this post and your time, here are the main ideas.

  • Learning isn't merely knowledge or skill acquisition; rather, learning is the process of becoming increasingly skilled in the practices and discourses of a particular community of practice.  This means that "learning" is situated in particular contexts, activities, and social groups.  For example, learning to be a nurse isn't just understanding what to call particular body parts or how to give an injection (though this knowledge and skill is part of the process).  Instead, learning to be a nurse involves learning to think, act, and talk like expert nurses do.  Ultimately, it is a way of being that subsumes a whole constellation of knowledge, skill, and values.  So, learning is the process of becoming like the experts or "old-timers" that are part of an already existing community.
  • In order to learn or become in these ways, a novice or newcomer needs to have access to the practices of the community.  So, that means being around old-timers, hearing the stories they tell, the way they describe problems, and seeing the way they do their work (whether that's making hamburgers at McDonald's, working on stopped up toilets, or writing academic articles).
  • Learners also need opportunities to participate in legitimate and peripheral activities within the community and with other community members.  Lave and Wenger use the example of apprentice Vai and Gola Tailors in West Africa, who learn to be master tailors, first by hemming cuffs and attaching buttons to already finished articles.  From there they move on to increasingly complex tasks, all of which are integral to the overall process of tailoring an entire piece of clothing.  By participating in these practices, they don't just learn how to tailor, but learn what it means to be a tailor, with all of the complexities that come with that craft.  All three principles (participation, legitimacy, and peripherality) are key here because if any of these conditions isn't met, learning isn't likely to occur.  For example, if a tailor isn't performing a legitimate aspect of the tailoring process (e.g. distributing handbills in a public square to generate more business) or one that is peripheral (e.g. working in a setting completely disconnected or isolated from the master tailors), he or she isn't likely to master the knowledge, skills, discourse, or tools necessary to be a good tailor.  Rather, the "learning" will be fragmented and artificial.
There's much more that could be said about LPP, but that should be enough to provide a basic overview of the theory.  

Given the work I do with first-year students on my campus, my question is how LPP might inform the way we welcome, orient, and "teach" students during their first year.  Here are a few thoughts:

1.  First-Year Experience programs should be built around meaningful tasks.  Although there are certainly things that we want first-year students to know and be able to do by the time they finish their initial year on campus, talking at students about these things (whether it is in new student orientation, in a freshman seminar course, or any other formal setting) isn't likely to lead to any real learning or growth.  Instead, we should be identifying a series of developmental tasks that students can be invited (or better yet, expected or required) to participate in during their first two semesters.  And, no, I don't just mean coming up with a list of courses.  Thoughtful FYE administrators will consider what the practices and behaviours of "expert students" are and structure FYE tasks/objectives around these things.

2.   First-year students should be provided with a comprehensive view of the mission and purposes of their particular mission from the very beginning of their experience.  In West African tailor shops this happens through the early tasks novice tailors are asked to complete.  It's very simple, by working with finished garments that have been tailored by master's, newcomers develop a good sense very early on of what a quality finished garment should look and feel like.  And, having that comprehensive understanding helps guide and focus their learning as they move through other tasks.  For a first-year experience program this can and should happen at New Student Orientation.  I've written before about how this could happen during an Orientation Convocation, but there are other, more active ways to give students this perspective as well.  One that was suggested on my campus by one of the administrators involved in orientation was to invite second semester students to serve as orientation leaders.  At first this seems risky, after all, how much can a second semester student really know about campus or about what new students need to know.  But, there is an intriguing idea here in that expecting second semester students to convey institutional messages and model effective student habits for their peers might speed up their development.  By expecting nearly new students to help to orient and support even newer students, we provide them with a meaningful opportunity to embrace and internalize a set of beliefs and practices that are important for their success.  And, by involving them in these ways, we involve them in an important aspect of our work (legitimate peripheral participation).  Similarly, any opportunities for new students to mentor, tutor, or advise their peers (even if that is in a simple setting like a study group) can move forward their growth, again, because they are participating in the work of the institution in meaningful ways.

3.  First-year students should have access to "old-timers."  This could mean anything from experienced students, to faculty members, to administrators or staff members.  The key idea is to structure the first-year in ways that provide opportunities for these interactions.  As a non-example, consider the practice of packing new students into large lecture halls for "survey" or "intro" classes.  Not only is this generally a poor way to learn, it provides little to no opportunities for students to have meaningful interactions with a faculty member.  In contrast, small seminars, employment and research opportunities, and mandatory advising facilitate these types of interactions where new students can learn by watching, talking, and participating with more seasoned members of the campus community.

Ultimately, the goal of the first-year experience should be to invite new students to become full participants in the campus community by structuring their experiences and interactions in ways that allow them to actually participate in those practices.  And that can extend well beyond the realm of traditional academics, to the arts, meaningful service, and anything else that a particular campus might value.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Democracy & Education: What is the role of "experts?" What is the role of ordinary citizens?

In his book First Democracy, +Paul Woodruff argues for a set of seven democratic ideals (i.e. freedom, harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and education) and their value for communities and institutions.  Using ancient Athens as a model, he describes each of these principles and then asserts that they still have relevance and value for contemporary political systems.

I'm only one chapter into the book, so I won't say any more about Woodruff's argument, but I am particularly interested in his chapter on citizen wisdom, because it seems to address a question that I've written about in a past post, specifically, the role of "non-experts" in making decisions about public education.  Woodruff uses the term "ordinary citizen" in reference to this group who have no formal training or expertise in particular aspects of government.

In the 2011 post that I linked to above, I raised the question of when we should involve ordinary citizens and when to tap into "expertise" when addressing educational problems or challenges.  I can't say that I am any more clear about that question as I write this post more than two years later.  However, Woodruff's introductory chapter has made me wonder about this question again in light of what he asserts about democracy.

First and foremost, he points out that voting, majority rule, and elected representation do not constitute democracy.  So, my previous argument that ordinary citizens are democratically involved in making educational decisions because they vote for elected representatives is flawed and I readily admit that.  For Woodruff, a "true democracy" is one where all adults are free to have a voice, join the conversation about key issues, and play a role in the decision-making process.

This sounds great on paper.  How could someone disagree that all members of a community should have their voices heard and be involved in the workings of government?  At the risk of being labeled un-democratic or anti-American (which is a particular risk where I live) I'll admit that, when it comes to decisions about public education, this idea scares me.  Quite frankly, I'm not sure that everyone in Provo or Utah County, or Utah, has the experience and knowledge necessary to make informed decisions about our schools.  It's not lost on me that, in saying that, I sound incredibly arrogant.

It's important to understand where my biases lie and where they come from.  I have taught in public schools in two districts in Utah, I work in an educational setting now (higher education), and I consider myself somewhat of a "scholar" when it comes to educational issues because of my graduate training.  So, naturally, I view education and learning as complex and nuanced ideas that are easily misunderstood.  Accordingly, I'm leery of letting just anyone have a strong voice when it comes to decisions about these issues.

At the same time, I also acknowledge that educational expertise (like any form of expertise) has the potential to lead to blindness and catastrophic mistakes.  So, I'm interested in exploring ways that both experts and ordinary citizens can productively participate together in making decisions about public education.  So, how do we do it?

I don't yet have any good answers.  Instead, I have a related question that might help to extend this discussion:  How should ordinary citizens prepare themselves to participate in this process?

I wrote out a really incoherent response to that question but the longer I wrote, the more uncertain I became.  So, I'll spare readers from the pain of reading those ramblings.  Instead, I'll finish with a final assertion and a plea for help.

Ultimately, democracy requires a lot of those who participate in it. So, for those of us who want to participate in making decisions about schools, we need to be willing to do more work than we've done in the past to be prepared to participate in meaningful and informed ways.

So, here's the plea, what should ordinary citizens be doing to prepare themselves to participate in decision-making about schools?  And, how can "experts" assist and support citizens in those efforts?

Again, I've struggled to know how to answer this question. In fact, because these are all such complex questions, this has been one of the most difficult posts I've ever written because I don't have any good answers.

Please help.