Staged learning 1

April 23, 2009

I teach English Composition at Rutgers-Newark. I enjoy it a great deal but I didn’t always. In fact, in my first semester last year, I can honestly say I taught my students nothing.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for new instructors tends to be where students are in the Perry cognitive development scheme. This is true especially as they arrive via the New Jersey public school system, where for some strange reason, students are taught how to summarize an argument they don’t agree with without calling into question why they don’t agree.

How can you personally support racial profiling while at the same time, write a paper opposing it simply because it was asked (as some of my students did)? Of course, these papers weren’t ever any good, which could be because of the dissonance set up between what they were asked to do and their own unquestioned beliefs. Grading these papers were hard for me as well. My students couldn’t articulate why the author chose an opposing position so they summarized the reading but not before letting some of their prior beliefs reduce the effectiveness of the analytical portion of the paper. My students did good work. I can’t fault them too much. They read. They followed instructions. They didn’t care though.

I had to wonder if my students were really so blase and unaffected by a non-fiction reading that takes an opposing point of view. I questioned them afterwards about this. I asked them if their point of view had shifted at all after writing an argumentative paper against racial profiling. They said no. Clearly, something was wrong. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was because of some allegiance to a heirarchy of authority.

The answer, of course, seems fairly obvious now: Students compartmentalize schoolwork and moral development/ethics/politics etc. in such a way that academic work does not impact their selves to any significant degree. They are socialized with certain values that they hold as the ultimate authority. While they’re kind enough to listen to opposition, they are able to easily dismiss these because the “Authority” isn’t the opposition but whoever impressed the viewpoint upon them. Furthermore, the expectation students bring to any question seems to be “either you agree with me, or disagree.”

What those two traits in combination do is prevent students from breaking up an idea into its constituent parts which can then be analyzed. I’m not claiming there isn’t objective right and wrong or objective morality (non-theistic). Nor am I claiming that issues don’t usually have two sides. Issues have component parts that have rights and wrongs. What priority you place on each component ought to determine the big-picture moral/cognitive standpoint. New Jersey undergraduates haven’t got that yet. That’s not to say they can’t, or don’t.

In the fall, I will be conducting an experiment to investigate my primary claim: Does a change in student empathy (based on an empathy scale administered three times a semester) correspond to a change in learning? This semester, my students, on average, showed a growth of 9% over the semster, which means they’re learning how to write better papers. Does this mean they’ve learned how to be better thinkers/people?

Dualism of the sort outlined earlier, and its cousin, multiplicity, are difficult patterns to undo in students. And I daresay in ourselves. But it’s not impossible.

Staged learning breaks down the cognitive process into its constituent parts and helps the instructor guide the student’s thinking. By design, it encourages a change from the initial position to a final considered position.

My favorite technique is as follows:

1) A question is given to the students before class. They come to class having written out a thesis responding to that question based on the reading.
2) Two random theses are written on the board. They serve as a backdrop for a pointed discussion.
3) Students rewrite their thesis.
4) Their peers critique their thesis against a thesis characteristics checklist and their own thesis. What has she got that I haven’t figured out? And vice versa? Peers are encouraged to make revisions and add on their points.
5) Theses are returned and rewritten to incorporate new information. Student theses must incorporate not just their own ideas but their peers. This integration is incredibly interesting to watch.
6) Random two are put up on the board and students critique the revisions. Valid criticisms earn a .25% extra credit. Eventually, a class consensus is reached. Sometimes, people present their polished work.
7) For homework, they rework their thesis to incorporate their peers’ ideas. If they’ve done a good job on (5), then they don’t have to do homework, which they love.

I am fairly certain one of the major stumbling blocks students face is that they take authority very seriously. Once an authority is established, that’s who they’re going with. Their parents, their communities, their churches, their friends, whoever. They cannot take dissent from this authority seriously enough simply because they don’t see that dissent has consequences. They don’t believe their own views matter much in the larger scheme of things aside from being “right.” They do not see their peers as useful resources.

However, once students realize that they can impact their peers’ scores (revising, critiquing, gaining extra credit), they are much more willing to accept that not only do they have agency and wisdom but their peers do too. Once they accept that other points of view are valid, then they have a tougher time compartmentalizing learning, schoolwork and political/ethical/moral issues. A dissipation of prior authority is seen. Summary then becomes harder because what they’re asked to integrate into their work is other people’s analysis. Often times, their partners disagree with their understanding of the same reading.

How do they square that with what they already think? They begin to ask “Does my idea have enough room for the other person’s idea?” When they start asking that, I feel like some progress is made.

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