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For the Love of Learning: Innovations from Outstanding University Teachers
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2015
For the Love of Learning: Innovations from Outstanding University Teachers is a compendium of thirty-six essays which describe various aspects of innovative pedagogy. The essays were submitted by educators who have received recognition by the United Kingdom’s prestigious National Teaching Fellowship Scheme (NTFS), that is designed to recognize excellence in learning and teaching in higher education. Many of the essays describe the results of projects funded by NTFS grants. As Bilham makes clear in the introduction, the collection is an attempt at inspiring fresh and creative approaches to the challenge of shaping students through education.
In many ways, this is a collection of case studies as much as a collection of essays. The contributions focus on the description of pedagogical tools which the author has used successfully. None of the specific examples elicited apply directly to the disciplines of theological and religious studies, but the educational theory and the spirit of innovation which lay behind these specific practices are readily transferable.
There is a consistent call to engage students, which rests on the supposition that an engaged student learns better, and is retained. Several strategies for this type of engagement are presented. Essays 1 and 9 advocate for the involvement of students in the production and presentation of new content. Essays 11 and 27 suggest the employment of problem-based learning models, in which students seek out their own answers to real-world problems often with limited interference from the instructor. Essay 15 argues that humor in teaching can boost engagement when treating particular difficult or confusing topics.
Several of the essays advocate refining the nature of assessments. For example, essay 13 argues that if constructed well, assessments can be an important educational tool serving to teach not just to assess learning. Essay 17 identifies several problems with current models of assessment: they often do not measure the types of thinking that the course requires, or reflect the ability the students develop as thinkers through the course, or consider the fact that all students are different. Essay 18 discusses the benefit of formative assessment, which seeks to encourage deeper thinking and correct misunderstanding early in the educational process, rather than penalizing students at the end of the course, as summative assessment often does. Essay 33 argues that assessment can be viewed as a means for enhancing the employability of students. While none of these essays provide answers to the problem they do provide important conceptual steps forward to aid faculty in thinking through the design of learning experiences and strategies for assessing what has been learned.
Finally, the impetus to spend time developing the employability of students is a point well taken (see Essays 4, 24, 27, and 31-26). In many American universities there is an increasing emphasis on the acquisition of job skills – making sure college and university courses contribute to student employability. This trend directly impacts the teaching of theology and religion.
In conclusion, this volume is a tremendous resource for someone looking to enliven their teaching. It is not a roadmap to an innovative religious studies course, but it highlights proven pedagogical approaches which are shaping the lives of students in the United Kindgom, and are worth considering for anyone who takes the task of education seriously.
From Entitlement to Engagement: Affirming Millennial Students' Egos in the Higher Education Classroom (New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Number 135)
Date Reviewed: February 19, 2015
“How bad has it gotten in your class?” the first article’s author asks. “Students eating steaming plate lunches, kissing passionately, conducting loud phone conversations, playing video poker?. . . Asking to be excused from class to barbecue chicken at the go-kart track for a radio station where the student interned last summer?” (7). If these examples sound even remotely familiar, you may find this issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning helpful. This volume addresses the challenge of teaching millennial students, born between 1982 and 2001, who are often labeled as coming to higher education with an attitude of entitlement that can frustrate professors.
The first three chapters explore the theory behind this volume. The first two chapters reframe the concept of entitlement by reflecting on the structure of higher education classrooms (chapter 1) and seeing the psychological vulnerability of students (chapter 2) as an opportunity for ego engagement – a process that the editors describe as “productively affirming student’s egos” to offer “new opportunities for deep learning and ever-strengthening intellectual rigor” (2). The third chapter is an empirical study that explores how students feel they deserve entitled treatment in higher education.
The second cluster of articles explore practice and application of reframing entitlement into ego engagement in specific areas. Chapter 4 explores ways to construct a syllabus that invite student engagement proactively, and chapter 5 lays out several practical suggestions professors can utilize to conceptualize their pedagogies. Chapters 6 and 7 provide case studies of actual classroom assignments that engage millennial students’ egos successfully: chapter 6 describes an assignment that immersed millennial students in discipline-based political activities to foster positive ego engagement and chapter 7 describes an assignment that engaged students in narrative pedagogy through digital storytelling. Chapters 8 and 9 explore ways to engage students through already existing classroom practices. For example, chapter 8 provides specific insights about engaging students through technological gadgets and provides practical suggestions for teaching. Chapter 9 explores ways to engage students before and after class periods to affirm their egos. The rest of the three chapters explore ways to engage the moral sense of millennial students by involving them in social justice issues and student-directed goal setting. The author invites faculty to consider their own reactions to student incivility as possibly a response to a professor’s bruised ego ? an over-dependence on official authority based on position rather than on their ability to help students learn effectively.
While graduate level professors may experience students’ sense of entitlement less bluntly than is described in some of the articles, I have sensed in my own teaching that the vocation of religious leadership tends to attract people with a sense of self-importance that poses challenges similar to those described in this volume. What the authors conceptualize as ego engagement is a model for empowering students who appear to be aloof to the subject matter but who are seeking meaningful engagement that leads them to deeper growth. From Entitlement to Engagement offers practical advice for fostering creative teaching that meets students’ psychological needs and motivates them to find growth through their own learning tasks.
What Did You Learn In The Real World Today?: The Case of Practicum In University Educations
Date Reviewed: February 19, 2015
Henriksen’s edited volume, What Did You Learn in the Real World Today, is a collection of sophisticated and philosophically-grounded essays that shift pedagogical foci from how we teach to “what is learned” and “how is it learned” (18). The dense essays are divided into three sections. First is knowledge, learning and practice; next is the role a student’s body plays in learning and constructing new knowledge; finally, there is problem-based learning (PBL) and practicum. The Danish Aalborg University Press funded and published the project and the specific case studies (five of the eleven chapters) do reflect a public Norwegian graduate engineering program. That said, the essays, particularly in the first and second sections, have much wider relevance for re-thinking teaching practices in any discipline from the perspective of learning. They convincingly argue that applied understanding “in the real world” generates new knowledge that beneficially challenges and reshapes the theory and tradition we teach in our classrooms.
It seems odd that a book promoting practicums and problem based learning is so thoroughly steeped in philosophical theory. But this is precisely the point. The essays here challenge the presumed “theory-practice dichotomy” (for example 23, 35, 53-4) by engaging the philosophical discussions of Aristotle, Dewey, Gadamer, Freire, and Bourdieu with case studies on practicums. The discussions of “techne, epistemi, poiein,” and so forth, break open the categories of “knowledge” and “learning” in fruitful ways (28-9). Student activity thus mediates thinking and being (40). The authors advocate for problem-based learning (53) that engages each student in a dialectic of dynamic knowing and doing rather than a direct transfer of static knowledge (what my students call “regurgitation”) through the “banking model” (54). This is a post-modern, and even a post-rationalist (chapter 4), exploration of learning. By challenging the primacy of theory over practice, of thinking over doing, these essays seek to integrate the whole student into the learning process (such as “Embodiment as the Existential Soil of Practice” by Thøgersen, 69-80). Indeed, the concept of learning as transformation is palpable across all of the essays (5, 23) and includes aesthetic and ethical dimensions of learning (58-8). This is helpful thinking for Liberal Arts institutions that will appreciate the argument for how and what students learn as grounded in the moral aspects of techne and phronesis rather than the more abstracted (from “real life”) episteme (60-1).
Henriksen introduces the project in chapter 1 and alternates between philosophical theory in one chapter and concrete case studies in the next. Chapters 2 (on “epistemology, learning, and practice” and 3 (“the logic of practice”) are the philosophical grounding for Henriksen’s case study on an engineering practicum in chapter 4. Learning is not absorption and “reproduction,” but is instead the “production” of knowledge that comes through the engaged learning of the practicum (19). Chapter 5 then lays the next philosophical groundwork (what is the role of the physical body in learning) for the case study in chapter 6 that examines body language and spatial relationships in medical consultations to evaluate the use of electronic health records in Danish hospitals. More technology renders the physical presence of the patient irrelevant. Chapter 7, perhaps the weakest chapter, connects Dewey’s “process of inquiry” with Gadamer’s “hermeneutics” to describe how a student locates herself in a professional (“swampy”) context and negotiates solutions using both practical and theoretical tools. Chapter 8 offers support for this solution in the “real-world-on-campus” case study from the Aalborg Problem Based Learning model. Chapters 9 and 10 respectively evaluate PBL by analyzing student “employability,” the role of the university engaged in the world, and the success of Aalborg’s PBL model in multiple European contexts. Further integration and incorporation of the practicum into university curricula demands a dialectical conversation between case studies in the field, classrooms, and campuses so that theory and practice are mutually reshaping one another.
In the final analysis, What Did You Learn in the Real World requires effort, not only to appreciate the threads of the philosophical conversations, or the (mostly) northern European educational contexts, but also because the English phrasing is rough and not intuitive for native speakers. That said, although Scandinavian engineering programs are quite remote from U.S. seminaries or even undergraduate Liberal Arts institutions, the bulk of these essays open fascinating conversations about learning, knowledge, and engagement of the whole person – student and teacher (à la Freire) – in both study and practice. In other words, the deep wrestling with antecedent philosophers and pedagogues to articulate what students learn in practicum and how students learn it has much to offer our collective thinking about engaged learning in diverse institutional contexts. It becomes quite clear that “how we learn” does and will have consequences for what we learn, and especially for how we construct knowledge.
Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Beginner's Guide
Date Reviewed: December 23, 2014
In her Teaching Theology & Religion review of Nicola Whitton’s Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education, Rachel Wagner observed that the book “offers general advice for those brave enough to write their own games for educational use, but the book is not, nor does it claim to be, a handbook on how to produce video games” (Teaching Theology & Religion 15, no. 1: 91). Whitton’s newer co-edited collection with Alex Moseley, presumably, is intended to be that handbook, though many of its initial chapters seem to replicate Witton’s original call for more educators to take an interest in game pedagogy and put some investment in games for the secondary and post-secondary classroom. From there, the book offers the fundamentals, from the rudimentary to the quite advanced, but breaks it into such discrete units that a certain degree of disconnect forms between the separately useful entries.
Whereas an entire chapter, co-written by Whitton and Dave White, did not need to be dedicated to “Narrative” (such as explaining what conflict or plot is), other sections, like “Mapping Games to Curricula” by Moseley and Rosie Jones, could have been given more page space to explore their complexities. In fact, the collection does offer real-life case studies of games developed for and attempted in the classroom, but their lack of variety in terms of academic disciplines disappoints; [in]visible Belfast and ViolaQuest are marvelous examples of games-based education promoting the literary exploration of a city and the social orientation of students to the wider campus community, respectively, but, in as much as they document successes in this form, they do not suggest how to replicate it in other fields.
Perhaps the most useful portions of the collection for instructors of religion or theology come from two altogether different approaches within its covers. The chapter with the clearest ready-made step-by-step process or blueprint for game development is Simon Brookes and Moseley’s primer on constructing authentic learning activities (ALA) across what they term “the reality gap” of the game and the classroom (94, 96). Though editors Whitton and Moseley have their own chapter on design considerations, Brookes and Moseley’s discussion includes and exceeds the editors’ clear preference for Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) where a blend of real-world technologies lead students through a semi-fictional narrative toward the game’s learning objectives. While the thrill of an ARG can be contagious, chapters like Brookes and Moseley’s will still benefit the instructor-reader who is not yet ready to take such an intensive, immersive plunge.
Sarah Smith-Robbins delivers the other superlative chapter, a highly theoretical but ultimately rewarding consideration of virtual worlds’ utility for learning. True to Whitton’s early warnings to “scaffold” games so that they move from easy to harder to then still-harder tasks, Smith-Robbin’s chapter is reserved until close to the end, a quantum leap into Activity Theory and Game Ecology Models from the rudimentary material on quantified competition (such as “pointsification”) or multimedia options that form the initial foundation of the book. It seems highly unlikely, however, that the reader who began with those would “level up” to Smith Robbins’s discourse.
Using Games to Enhance Learning and Teaching is an impassioned, valuable book, entirely worthy of educators’ consideration, as are games for educational purposes overall. The collection can easily be likened to some of the most popular games available, with many playing them simply to complete them and not to uncover their every secret. Likewise, most educators will find the book more valuable for its constituent pieces rather than its entire whole.
For several years now, I have experimented with using social media to improve student learning. I began with an exercise using Twitter to teach reader-oriented biblical interpretation (see my recent article in Teaching Theology & Religion). As the Gospel of Mark was read aloud in class, I asked students to ...