Tom Haymes has taken a leap of faith -- he's abandoned textbooks, thrown away the traditional syllabus, and is encouraging students in his American Government class to design their own educational paths. Inspiring? Yes! Easy? Not even close.
In the final installment of the "Unbound" series, Haymes offers his reflections on what he has accomplished breaking the educational paradigm at Houston Community College.
While you may get the impression from my earlier posts that I am a big fan of radical experimentation, it may surprise you that in many ways I am deeply conservative when it comes to business of education. I am very concerned that our students come out of their educational experience deeply changed in the way that they view and interact with the world. I believe that discipline means rigor and a method of thinking rather than simply a subject matter. Most of all, I want students to become creative problem solvers. The final installment of this series focuses on whether or not I achieved these deep-learning objectives in the classroom experiments I carried out during the Spring 2013 semester.
Fundamentally, I judge the success or failure of my efforts through the lens of whether or not my students are better questioners at the end of the semester than at the beginning. I firmly believe that the real shortcoming of most of my students has nothing to do with their intellectual capacities but rather with their learning skills. Our secondary institutions, by and large, do a lousy job with this part of the educational process. There are people who take to learning naturally and approach knowledge with a deep intellectual curiousity, There are those, on the other hand, who struggle to understand the purpose of learning. For the latter population, it’s essential to establish what motives drive learning and the pursuit of knowledge at the very beginning of the course.
Therefore, the first thing I always do with my community college students is to open a discussion about purpose. I ask them “Why are you here?” and we have a wide-ranging conversation over the utility of a college degree. It was surprising at first how few of them had actually considered these questions before. Many of them were simply on autopilot: “Now I do college.” No one really tells them what the point of college is, in part, because so many of us have lost sight of what that is.
This is, in part, because so many in the educational community have bought into the notion that the primary purpose of higher education is to get a job. While this is true (to an extent), the line between getting a degree and a successful career is often less clear than is spelled out in the media, our promotional literature, or, most of all, in our students’ expectations.
My own story is one I like to relate to my students to illustrate this point. I graduated with degrees in political science and within a year found myself working for Apple Computer in a support role and then transitioned to a system administrator position with Motorola. I ask my students to imagine how my liberal arts education helped me in those positions. Simply put, I was prepared to think critically and ask questions. That is, the same methods of questioning and problem-solving used to explore the political notion of Ethnonationalism can also be employed to figure out why a Mac IIsi would not connect to the network.
It should also be pointed out that I seek these kinds of problem solving skills in my role as an employer. During interviews, I prompt applicants to figure out a troubleshooting issue. The truth is, I am not really interested in whether they get the technical details right. All I want to know is how they attack problems they do not immediately understand. The wrong starting point is to say, “I pull out the manual.” The vast majority of problems are not contained within the manual. Of the 20 or so applicants I interviewed last year, less than four were able to deal with that question effectively.
The ability to do creative problem solving is what marks an effective college graduate from someone who has merely absorbed a large quantity of data from lecture and readings. Without a doubt, students need foundations of knowledge, but what they do with that information once they have it is far more important than remembering every last detail. After all, once the skills are intact, the information can always be referenced. I think this is the critical factor in separating those who can get a job and those who are successful at sustaining a career. College should aim for the latter, but this is a lofty goal that is often hard to explain in concrete detail to my students.
Therefore, a primary focus of my redesigned class, as well as most of the classes I have taught for the last decade, has been on developing relevant skills rather than an undue focus on content mastery. This focus creates at least three serious challenges. First, that measuring skills is far more difficult than measuring content mastery. Second, students are trained to focus on content thanks to K-12’s regimen of standardized testing. Finally, skills mastery at this level is an inherently slow process and, within the context of a traditional semester-long class, is hard to measure.
As I discussed in my last post, I attempted to evaluate my students on three criteria: communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. From the grader’s perspective, I would argue that I got to 80% of where I wanted to get in terms of accurately evaluating them based on these criteria. In other words, the actions that they exhibited in terms of how well they communicated with me and with their fellow students, how well they collaborated, and their display of critical thinking skills were fairly accurately reflected in the final grades in the class.
Critical thinking points were the hardest to get. It’s fairly easy to do the quantitative work necessary to demonstrate communication (posting frequently is a good start); it’s a little bit harder to demonstrate that you effectively work with others; and it seems to be a lot harder for students to display deep thought when engaging in these other two activities. On the flip side, as I discussed in “Grader’s Dilemma”, it was an entirely different challenge to make sure that distinctions between the C’s were understood by the students.
For all of the aforementioned reasons, teaching critical thinking (and questioning) has always been my greatest challenge as a teacher, but it is also the Holy Grail of what I am after in my classes. I therefore made this particular “C” a focus of my class redesign.
The highly interactive nature of the in-person portion of my course was one of the key methods I used to generate critical thought. Debates and simulations are a good way of working through these skills in the classroom. I learned that presentations were less effective, especially at the beginning, because direct criticism of poor critical thinking is often counter productive and can easily embarrass presenters in front of the rest of the class. I may have to rethink this strategy the next time around. Debates fared a little better, but this class, in particular, was not passionate about the topics. This was at odds with my experience doing exactly the same exercise with earlier classes where the debates sparked lively competition and discussion. Again, this could be a matter of class chemistry. While reshuffling groups, which I did, can mitigate the chemistry problem somewhat, in this class that issue was never really overcome. The purpose of these exercises, however, was to exercise critical thinking and questioning skills with my immediate feedback.
I was hoping that the demonstration of these skills would come out more in the Google+ postings, but these were largely disappointing in their results. Online discussion points for critical thinking represented on average less than 8 points per student which translates into less than 5% of their total earned points. Although I was gratified to see that the web pages that were the final portfolio assignment demonstrated far better mastery of critical thinking skills than the preceding exercises in the class (average of 37 points or 31% of the average grade for the assignment). Perhaps the greater latitude for reflection in the assignment, as opposed to the posting (which was ongoing), resulted in a better thought through product. Alternatively, it could have been a reflection of the cumulative nature of learning on Google+ that resulted in better work on the web pages. In order to assess what is creating this level of critical thinking, I plan on adding a second web page project to future iterations of the class to see if I can rule out one of these two possibilities.
If it isn’t clear by this point, I am firmly convinced that if higher education is in the business of selling “scarce” content in an age of Google, MOOCs, and Wikipedia, institutions of higher learning will become obsolete. If our students’ ability is confined to memorized mastery of a subject whose currency is out of date the day they graduate, they are equally doomed. I am also not naïve. I know that 99.5% of the content I provide in my class is forgotten the day after the final exam. Since it is clear that providing the answers is not really a viable option any more, we need to instead focus on teaching questioning and our effectiveness should be measured as such.
As educators, we should always strive to teach a love for learning. If students are not self-motivated in their efforts to understand the problems around them, they will never be able to the do the higher-level work demanded of college graduates. A quote from Patrick Rothfuss seems to articulate my point concisely: “It’s the questions we can’t answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think. If you give a man an answer, all he gains is a little fact. But give him a question and he’ll look for his own answers.”
As a teacher, I cannot predict the future but I can predict with high confidence that it will be very different from the present. In a rapidly shifting world, teaching our students to question effectively should be our ultimate goal as educators. I only hope that in some small measure I’ve been able do that with my students. One of these days I hope to figure out if I’ve succeeded.
About Tom Haymes
I have taught at HCC since 2001. In 2006, I became Instructional Design Coordinator at Northwest College and subsequently Director of College Educational Technology Services. Prior to working at HCC, I worked for several Internet startups in Austin, Texas where I filled roles as diverse as Project Manager, Business Intelligence Analyst, and Director of Marketing. My technical experience extends to 2 ½ years working for Apple and Motorola in a technical support and systems analyst role. My academic background is in political science where I have two Master’s Degrees from Georgetown University. I have published widely in technical and non-technical areas including, most recently, my article entitled “The Three-E Strategy for Technology Adoption,” which appeared in the December 2008 issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly. I have incorporated my political science background with an interest in military history to study the societal and cultural barriers to the adoption of technology.
I have a keen interest in photography which I have been seriously pursuing since 1981, which was also coincidentally the year I got my first computer (Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, yeah!). My photography website is at http://www.haymesimages.com.
Current and ongoing projects include:
1. The New Media Seminar at both Northwest College and our district offices.
2. Developing a Learning Analytics system for HCC.
Thumbnail by Marcus Ramburg; photos by Tom Haymes
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