Saturday, May 22, 2010

Babies' moral life, and who created us

My letter to the NY Times Magazine, responding to Paul Bloom's argument, in his fascinating article demonstrating that babies have morality, that the parochial character of their moral life casts doubt on the argument for divine creation (I say it doesn't):
But no, I'm not a creationist (though I do think it's hard to understand where the whole universe comes from, if there isn't some sort of a creator).

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Law school classes with Twitter (!)

A scientist friend, Jonathan Art, tells me that when he lectures in class, there’s a simultaneous Twitter feed on which students can discuss what he’s saying. A teaching assistant also adds commentary, e.g., “The three main points the professor is making are ….” Would this work with a class built around the professor’s questions to the students, as law school classes normally are (under the title of the “Socratic method”)?

First we’d need teaching assistants (TA’s). We don’t have graduate students in the same way as arts & sciences departments do, but we certainly have upper-level students who have already taken the courses we are giving. Would these upper-level students make mistakes? Well, probably, but the chances are they’d usually get things about right, and that their doing so would be helpful to the students currently taking the course, who might be reluctant to ask about the kinds of fundamental points the TA's would reiterate.

Would the Twitter feed interfere with the students’ focus on the dialogue with the professor? Possibly the effect would be the reverse – to increase students’ otherwise flagging attention. (What's on those laptops now?) The use of the laptop and Twitter for an online discussion paralleling the in-class dialogue might reach them partly because they like these media. The chance to speak via Twitter to their peers (and semi-peers, the TA’s) might also operate to draw them in more immediately than the large-class Socratic discussion, in which only a small number of people can participate in any given period. Maybe the students would as a result follow and understand the dialogue led by the professor better, and be more engaged in it as well. Or maybe they'd be more involved in the Twitter discussion than in the professor's dialogue, but still with the net result that they are more engaged in the overall learning process (Twitter included) than they otherwise would have been.

At the least, it seems worth a try.

Feedback, nondirectiveness, and learners' autonomy

At the very enjoyable clinical teachers’ conference in Baltimore this past week, an education theorist named Grant Wiggins spoke about design by understanding, a theory of teaching that calls for identification of objectives, and then “backward design” to shape the actual class plans so as to demonstrably meet those objectives. He and the other panelists applied this general approach to clinical supervision, and along the way surfaced a real difference in what Wiggins sees as educationally essential and the nondirective approach that clinicians have often endorsed.

He said (among other startling and interesting points) that “feedback” was important to effective supervision. Now everyone would agree with that, but not so many would agree with his definition of feedback. For Wiggins, feedback is like what a baseball coach does, when he tells a player, “You’re pulling your head back when you swing.” Notably, the coach does not say, “So what do you think led to your missing the ball?” The idea seems to be that there are aspects of performance which the performer/actor/law student cannot perceive for himself or herself. The coach sees them and names them.

Moreover, in the baseball example, there’s no doubt that what the coach has named is a mistake; batters shouldn’t move their heads when they swing, presumably because doing so makes it harder to connect with the ball. The supervision analogy would be something like, “Your client was very upset, and your response didn’t show empathy.”

Wiggins is, I think, ultimately committed to learners’ autonomy – but not to the idea that they can exercise it on their own. To enable them to be autonomous, Wiggins wants feedback that is, pretty unmistakably, instruction. He may well be correct. Certainly he's right to say, in effect, that our commitment to learners' autonomy doesn't automatically translate into an effacing of the teacher's expertise and responsibility to convey it. One more thing for teachers to think about!