Monday, April 14, 2014

The lost arts of listening and learning

In this week’s New York Times Education Section, we see a continuation of the love affair between education journalists and “interactive” classrooms that minimize extended reading and listening. In Ten Courses with a Twist Laura Pappano characterizes such instruction as “inventive,” explaining that it treats students not just as “sponges soaking up content,” and citing an expert to elaborate further:

They apply lessons to life, says C. Edward Watson, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Georgia. He adds that “faculty are trying to be more engaging in the classroom” because, for one, “competition is greater than it used to be.”
Why are these changes occurring now? Usually people cite “21st century skills,” claiming that today’s world requires “real-life” skills rather than the core knowledge and academic skills that, for centuries, have formed the basis for intelligent thought and effective communication. But Pappano instead cites the rise of online courses and the decline in listening skills:
The proliferation of online content means in-person courses must offer more than just another lecture “video.” Professors also face challenges in getting and keeping the attention of students raised on quick takes. Some weave in ways for students to use restless fingers and splintered focus; every few minutes during Prof. Perry Samson’s “Extreme Weather” lecture at the University of Michigan, students must respond to questions by phone or laptop. Others design courses with gaming features.
The less experience people have attending to real-live lectures, the worse their listening skills become, and the more they tend to assume, as Pappano does, that listening is passive, that live lectures are as canned as canned lectures are, and that lecturing precludes q & a and other interactions between lecturers and audiences. As I noted earlier:
Each year that a teacher opts out of exerting the energy needed to hold students’ attention for major chunks of class time, whoever teaches these students the next year will find this even harder.
These concerns aren’t shared by writers at the Education Times, who shift their focus elsewhere:
We looked around the nation for courses with buzz, according to campus newspapers, higher education experts and enrollment numbers. Students still file into lecture halls and classrooms, but once they’re seated, it’s clear that these courses are different. They mess with the old models. And they give students an experience that might change how they think, what they care about or even how they spend their lives.
Thus, in the Introduction to Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University:
The … class is broken into groups of indigenous peoples and colonizers. They get bins of limited supplies and must trade for other items to make weapons, following rules they devise in advance. Colonizers typically get blowgun-like tools to launch marshmallow-tipped straws while indigenous peoples may only use rubber bands.
Jordan Thomas, who took the course in 2012 and is now a teaching assistant, felt the impact of being colonized and made to string marshmallows on rubber bands. When you get “taken over and are forced to sit around and assemble and manufacture a necklace for the entire hour, you engage in the emotions that come with that,” he says, adding that this was something he never would have gotten from a book.
But what drove the professor to teach this way wasn’t the desire for students to experience emotions that they “never would have gotten from a book,” but frustration with their attitudes:
Dr. Wesch started the simulations in 2004 after growing frustrated that most student questions were about grades and how much something was worth on a test. “Those are terrible questions,” he says. “I realized I needed to change everything.” Yes, there is a final exam, but it’s only one question: Why are you here? (He’s expecting you to tell the 12,000-year history of mankind and what you plan to do for the planet.)
One finds a similar de-emphasis of core content knowledge in another of the Times’ picks: Professor Samson’s Extreme Weather class at the University of Michigan. Here, anecdotes about extreme weather prevail (a car being bounced across a highway when to close to a F4 tornado), and all exams are “open book, open computer, call a friend.”

Another of the Times’ pics is Professor Monger’s Introduction to Oceanography at Cornell, where:
a third of the course is activism. Dr. Monger keeps a website for the course, (sample post: “Why you should avoid eating shrimp”), and a listserve of 1,700. “I want to stimulate these guys to raise their voices,” he says. “I tell them, ‘That ocean is as much yours as anybody else’s.’ ” The final assignment is to write Congress, though students are not required to mail the letters.
And no, I’m not worried about indoctrination; I’m worried about how much students are actually learning and retaining.

Relatedly, in his World Regions class at Virginia Tech:
Mr. Boyer wants students to “get excited about the world” and lets them choose how they engage. Students participate through Twitter, in-class smartphone surveys and old-fashioned microphones. They earn a course grade by doing assignments with point values; collect 1,100 points for an A, 1,000 will get you a B. They also decide what class will cover (this spring, it’s the Middle East, Russia and China), and Skype with international figures.
When he put up a map to talk about Egypt and the Arab Spring, someone said, “How come Jordan doesn’t have anything going on?” His reply: “Maybe we should ask someone from Jordan.” Less than six hours after a YouTube appeal to King Abdullah II of Jordan, the king’s office responded.
In another of the Times’ Top Ten, the Global Jam Forum at the Berklee College of Music:
Students jam with [prison] inmates, put inmate poems to music and respond musically to art, poetry and even health issues like malaria in Africa. Caili O’Doherty, a pianist, says the class “changed the way I think about music,” adding: “I think about playing for those different audiences. We are playing for them, not for ourselves. The music isn’t about me.”

Then there’s The Art of Walking at Centre College:
Wear comfortable shoes because this environmental studies class covers serious mileage. Walks take several hours and typically cover 15 to 25 miles. Readings include philosophers like Martin Heidegger and are discussed during nonwalk days. Dr. Keffer, who began teaching the course in 2002, has offered it on campus in Danville, Ky., and as part of Centre’s study abroad program.
Last January, in Strasburg, Germany, students walked 17 miles between two villages in the Black Forest, what he calls “Heidegger’s office.” There is nothing goal-oriented or prescribed in the walks; students don’t phone or text (it’s not banned, they just don’t). Covering distance by foot, Dr. Keffer says, opens “a temporal branch of environmental studies.”
Meanwhile, in courses in Philanthropy at Princeton and the University of Virginia:
Having real money, and a deadline for giving it away, lets students feel both the power and the challenge of charitable donations. Since 2011, the Once Upon a Time Foundation has provided some $2.5 million for hands-on learning at 13 campuses, including the University of Virginia and Princeton. Fueling the trend, Warren Buffett’s sister Doris began an online course last year through her Sunshine Lady Foundation in which participants give away $100,000.
At Princeton, Dr. Katz’s freshman seminar is as much about learning to reach a consensus with 14 others as it is about tackling big questions. “Some of the disagreements are quite profound,” says Dr. Katz, whose students research charities and must persuade classmates to align with them. “Some students feel it makes no sense to give a gift in the United States,” while others find value only in “giving gifts close to home.” Last fall’s class had $25,000 to give away.
Last but not least in Self-Theories at Stanford:
Prepare to take on your demons in this freshman psychology seminar. Dr. Dweck’s groundbreaking research has helped shape current wisdom about success and achievement — that failure and recovering from it are more valuable than sticking with what you already know how to do. Dr. Dweck tells students to tackle something “they have never had the guts to try.”
A student belted out “The Phantom of the Opera” on a public bus; another struck up conversations with strangers in San Francisco. Ricardo Flores, a self-described introvert, challenged himself to run for dorm co-president and, though filled with anxiety, give a campaign speech. He spoke, and won the election. For his next task, Mr. Flores is honing his salsa skills in hopes of performing with Los Salseros de Stanford.
When it comes to the lost art of listening in education, Diana Senechal has posted some wonderful comments on Joanne Jacobs' recent post  about an OILF post:
The people who aggressively disparage the “sage on the stage” don’t realize what a mess they are causing. Students, too, are getting the message that they shouldn’t have to listen to the teacher (or, for that matter, to anything or anyone). Sometimes the message is subtle, sometimes direct–but it’s there.
The “achievement gap” is in many ways a listening gap. The kids who will fly off the handle if they aren’t given something concrete to do every minute–these tend to be the ones who do poorly. (There are exceptions: students who focus and listen but don’t do well, and students who seem perennially distracted but somehow ace their courses and tests.)
Guess who’s more likely, overall, to get into a good college and do well there? The student who can listen. Not because this student is “docile” or “passive”–but because he or she has developed the discipline of focus and attention, which are essential for most intellectual fields.
It’s inadvisable for a K-12 teacher to teach by lecture exclusively. Even in college, lectures are complemented by discussion sections, labs, etc. But the campaign against “teacher talk” is misguided and destructive. Not only does the teacher have something to convey, but the student benefits from learning to take it in.
Senechal adds:
What worries me is the “turn and talk” impulse–the tendency of many students to start talking to their neighbors at random moments (about anything at all). Students who do that are rarely focused on the subject, in my experience; they’re more concerned about what’s going on socially in the room.
I don’t see this as their fault entirely; they are receiving many messages that the classroom is a place for socializing.
If it were established that students should listen in class, then much of the problem would disappear (not all, but a lot). Unfortunately, teachers are told over and over to avoid talking and to have students constantly “turn and talk.” That feeds the problem, unless the discipline of listening is already established.
Sadly, the dying art of listening applies to adults as well: if only more people would listen to Diana Senechal!


Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder how much of the problem we see growing in our public schools is a result of multiple negative spirals.

The rich are getting richer and the poor aren't. As the best jobs get more and more demanding and pay more and more, the gap between outcomes for those who have the best jobs and those who can never get the best jobs grows. People who work these jobs have no reason to send their kids to public school or be terribly concerned about the decay there, in the absence of our kids. Private schools and colleges get even more ridiculously expensive, but it's still not a patch on the income of the best jobs. If you make a half-million a year or upwards, you can just write a check for 20K half-day preschool or 40K full-day kindergarten, or homeschool him with all the tutors and coaches he wants, and not sweat the expense. That check will be part of the different opportunities and culture you bring to your kid's life, making it more likely that he will grow up to have one of the best jobs in his generation.

Kids pay attention to less and less for a long duration, resulting in school programming being geared towards kids who won't pay attention. Parents have less and less time with their kids that's not occupied by screen time, and don't buck the trend.

More and earlier group childcare leads to damaged empathic bonds with parents, and children who are more violent and difficult in the early grades. Incoming classes have bigger problems with bullying and impulsive behavior, impairing their ability to serve all their children. The children who have options leave.

Panic about test scores causes schools to push academics lower down into preschool. This doesn't produce meaningful gains, as four year olds aren't all ready to do seven year old work, and the response is to push 'academic readiness' as far down as three years old. Consequent lack of play leaves kids socially inept and unready for first grade.

Auntie Ann said...

I remember reading a story years ago about one of the differences between China and the US. In China, schools made an effort to increase children's short attention spans. In the US schools seek to accommodate them.

It seems to me that working to expand kids' attention spans should be a goal of school, and simple things like reading a couple picture books or a chapter or two in a chapter book would do a lot.

momof4 said...

I definitely agree that schools do not seem to be interested in increasing kids' attention spans, either for listening closely or for doing their own work independently. Quite the opposite; the expectation now seems to be that kids should either be entertained (preferably in hi-tech or gimmicky ways) or talking to each other (aka pooling their ignorance or -more likely- talking about non-academic matters). Also, I've also wondered, since the early days of ADHD, if video games and other fast-paced, instant-response activities) do not aggravate the distraction/lack of focus factor - at least in susceptible kids. All of my kids' contemporaties with ADHD were seriously into gaming; significantly more than their non-ADHD counterparts.

I also think that reading to preschoolers not only increases their vocab, which is a proxy for their knowledge about the world, but increases their ability to listen and pay attention. Years of this makes a huge difference when kids enter school The Core Knowledge curriculum has a heavy focus on high-quality teacher read-alouds, across the disciplines, but kids need to listen and pay attention if they are to maximize the benefit of such readings.

Diana Senechal said...

Thank you for this piece and for the shout-out! I am honored.

Cynthia812 said...

Even TV is apparently not interesting enough to hold attention anymore. I was watching a "documentary" about crazy events in nature. We're talking really spectacular volcanic explosions, tornados, animals doing crazy things, etc. And the filmmaker WOULD NOT let you just watch the amazing thing happening. They bounced the imaged around, showed you two seconds at a time, and used so many pop up cartoon bubbles it looked like an old Batman movie. I was so frustrated, because the videos were pretty amazing, and I didn't get to see them or take them in.