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The inverted classroom and student self-image

January 11, 2011, 10:14 pm

picture of an e-learning classroom

Image via Wikipedia

This week I’ve been immersed in the inverted classroom idea. First, I gave this talk about an inverted linear algebra classroom at the Joint Meetings in New Orleans and had a number of really good conversations afterwards about it. Then, this really nice writeup of an interview I gave for MIT News came out, highlighting the relationship between my MATLAB course and the MIT OpenCourseware Project. And this week, I’ve been planning out the second iteration of that MATLAB course that’s starting in a few weeks, hopefully with the benefit of a year’s worth of experience and reflection on using the inverted classroom to teach technical computing to novices.

One thing that I didn’t talk much about at the Joint Meetings or in the MIT interview was perhaps the most prominent thing about using the inverted classroom model on a day-to-day basis: how students react to it and change as a result of it. I was actually quite surprised that nobody at my Joint Meetings talk asked me a question about this, because honestly, the inverted classroom sounds great on paper, but when you start to imagine the average college student walking in on the first day of class and having this method of instruction described to him, it becomes clear that a significant amount of work is going to have to be done in order to get students — who are already resistant to any change from their accustomed modes of instruction — on board with the plan.

Students do tend to resist the inverted classroom at first. Some forms of resistance are more benign than others. On the benign end of the spectrum there are students with little experience with the course material or its prerequisites who get bogged down on the basic podcast viewing (which takes the place of in-class lectures in this model) or the accompanying guided practice, and instead of actively seeking a resolution to their question will wait for the instructor to clear it up — in class. On the other end is the student who simply doesn’t believe I’m serious when I say there won’t be any lecturing, who then doesn’t do the work, assuming I’ll bail him out somehow — in class. But in the inverted model, students are held responsible for acquiring basic competencies before class so that the hard stuff — what we refer to as assimilation — is the primary focus of the class time.

I break this distinction down for students, but not everybody buys into it. Those who don’t will have to undergo a learning process that usually looks like shock — shock that I won’t reteach them the material they were supposed to have viewed and worked on, while the lab assignment based on that material is going on. This can get very ugly in ways I probably don’t need to describe. Let’s just say that you had better not use the inverted classroom model if you aren’t prepared to put out a constant P.R. effort to convince students of the positive benefits of the model and constantly to assuage student concerns.

I’ve often wondered why students sometimes react so negatively to the inverted classroom model. I’ve come to believe it’s the result of a invasive, false belief that can arise in students about their ability to learn things independently of others — namely, that they simply cannot do so. I have had students tell me this to my face — “I can’t learn [insert topic] unless you lecture to me about it in class first.” Clearly this is not true. Toddlers learn their native language without formal instruction, just by assimilating (there’s that word again) the language going on naturally in their background. We all learn things every day without sitting in a classroom; we may seek out training data first through printed instructions, worked-out examples, YouTube videos, etc., but it’s almost never in a classroom setting. Learning new things on our own initiative and without formal instruction in a classroom setting is as natural to humans as breathing. Indeed you could say that it’s the capacity to learn in this way that makes us human. But somehow many students think otherwise.

Where does this belief come from? I think that it comes from its own instance of assimilation, namely the assimilation of a culture of programmed classroom instruction that takes place from roughly the first grade through the twelfth grade in this country. Students have so few experiences where they pursue and construct their own knowledge that they simply come to believe that they are incapable of doing so. And this belief is propagated most rapidly in mathematics. I’ve been reading in Seymour Papert‘s book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, and this quote hits this issue right on the head:

Difficulty with school math is often the first step of an invasive intellectual process that leads us all to define ourselves as bundles of aptitudes and ineptitudes, as being “mathematical” or “not mathematical”, “artistic” or “not artistic”, “musical” or “not musical”, “profound” or “superficial”, “intelligent” or “dumb”. Thus deficiency becomes identity and learning is transformed from the early child’s free exploration of the world to a chore beset by insecurities and self-imposed restrictions.

That last sentence (emphasis added) sums it up, doesn’t it? Deficiency becomes identity. Eventually, if a student is robbed of experiences of self-motivated learning, the student eventually adopts a self-image in which she is incapable of self-motivated learning. It is a false self-image that is ultimately dehumanizing.

Which is why I put such stock in the inverted classroom model. I think this method of teaching, along with other learner-centered modes of instruction like problem-based learning, is on the front lines in reversing students’ negative ways of thinking about how they learn. Students may (will?) chafe at the inversion at first. But in the MATLAB course at least, something really cool happened at the end of the semester. I made up a slideshow for students called “Five myths about how you think you learn that CMP 150 has busted”. Among the myths were “I can’t learn unless a professor lectures to me” and “I can’t learn on my own initiative”, and I gave concrete examples of work that the students had done in the class that contradicted these messages. In the end I showed them that through this inverted classroom process they had taken majors strides toward being confident, independent, skill learners and problem-solvers rather than just people who can play the classroom game well. And even the most skeptical students were nodding in agreement. And I think that makes it all worthwhile for everyone.

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