Friday, March 30, 2012

As I have written here before, my classes this semester have been impacted by two things: 1) classroom structure of tables that seat 5-6 students rather than individual desks that can be moved around from the usual rows or fixed lecture center / auditorium style; and 2) smart phones (a steadily growing problem over the past several years).

I expect the lower division class to start out a little rough and gradually get better over the course of the semester, until by now the class is really good. That's happened this semester, and the smart phone / immaturity issue is not a problem at this point. It never was a problem in the day section of foundations, but in the evening section -- usually the strongest -- although the majority of students are very strong (maybe stronger than the day class in general), the unusually large number of disengaged students has been an irritation. So I've spent a lot of time trying to reel them in. It has worked for about half; unfortunately there is still one group that has been troublesome.

A class discussion was on the agenda this week, Normally I would just go with what was on the syllabus and they would have luck of the draw on that night in terms of which of the four or five readings they would get, but instead I selected readings from recent weeks that I thought they would find most interesting. I emailed them a couple days before class and told each group  on which of the readings they would be presenting. Then I tweaked the discussion prompts to demonstrate more intense understanding.

We've been covering sociology and economics of education. For the evening class, there are four groups. The articles I chose were about Privatization, Single Gender Education, Merit Pay, and the one I linked here  (at the bottom of the post), School Reform. (Each topic is a set of two readings, one pro- and one con.) For the day class, I did the same thing, but there are five groups, so the topics I chose were Vouchers, Redefining Public Education, Privatization, School Reform, and Merit Pay.

I have done this in the past, but it has been a few semesters. It is hard to motivate students to do the reading, but in recent years I have been lucky -- I have had foundations classes where most of the students come prepared on the class discussion days, and most have refrained from continuously texting. Naturally, there are always slackers but their numbers have not been high enough to impact class.

So this is taking a lot more control -- but at the same time it is letting them off the hook from some of the reading, and it is placing greater responsibility on them for a small piece of the reading. It always works well, in terms of getting a larger number of students to have done some of the reading. (It probably also reduces the number of students who do all or most of the reading to zero or close to it.)

It worked well this week too. In the evening class, the weakest group still had the weakest performance (because one member didn't come to class and one bailed at the break) but it was better than usual. I'd hoped giving them my favorite issue of the four would work wonders, but my expectations were probably too high. It often happens when you start to really make an effort to reach out to problem students that they don't show up to class and the time spent was wasted. In this case, it wasn't really wasted -- the three remaining students did fine. One thing they brought up from the Epstein/Botstein article was the criticism of college faculty (perhaps directed at me? -- LOL).

The other group that had been troublesome but has since straightened up did great. And of course, the two groups that were strong already continued on their excellent pathways. I'd say overall the class discussion was better than in the day section.

In the day section,there were no problems,  as usual -- but the good vibe from the evening class made me notice that in general the class discussion was not as lively. We had a good discussion, don't get me wrong. My classes are pretty active in that regard. But I noticed a reluctance to respond from the majority at times -- and wondered if targeting a specific issue for each group was a bad idea because then they had little knowledge of the other readings and so were not confident enough to speak up.

Anyway, the group that had the Epstein/Botstein piece in the day class did an outstanding job. They did not have consensus on whether they agreed about abolishing high school and it produced some good debate. It's very hard to get anyone, including students, to think outside the box, to consider that maybe they are not comfortable with the idea of certain reforms or philosophies because they have been acculturated by the system to perpetuate status quo. That giving adolescents more ownership and responsibility in their education would have to start very early, and we'd have to adapt structures to accommodate the change. We couldn't just take a tenth grader right now and throw them into college or the workforce. Of course that would be a disaster except in a tiny minority of cases.

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