Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Never Enough Time

For my History and Philosophy of Engineering Education class, we read a lot. It's also the last class of the week, and the one that is likely to be skimmed and not as deeply prepared for as the others. This is actually a really sad state of affairs; this is the most consistently interesting and insightful class this semester, where deep thoughts are not only encouraged but required. By the time I have to reflect on the reading for the week, I'm usually up late Wednesday night or trying to synthesize a reasonable response before my 10:30 AM class. Once or twice I've even been frantically trying to skim the last paper or two as class is starting in order to be able to talk about all of them. I hate that.

Available at Tower Books
We've been reading Philosophy of Education by Nel Noddings. If you're interested in philosophy and education this is a great introductory book. Every week I tell myself I will sit down either on the couch with a mug of tea or in the tub with a glass of wine and really enjoy the book. I want to read it slowly to savor the ideas, roll them around in my mind so I can fit them in with what I already know and believe, question my own understanding and beliefs, modify some, reject others, and build more of my personal philosophy of what education is, was, could be, and should be. I want to understand how the idea of what education means philosophically, politically, and socially has changed throughout the years, where the major themes originated, and what radical notions have been thrown out the window. I want to luxuriate in the glorious writing, my first real introduction to philosophy, something I'm learning that I love, rather than skimming the chapter in the hours before it's due. This is week four of making that promise.

I was skimming back through the book, trying to find what it was that Dewey said exactly about groups for a post I'm working on, when my eye caught a line that I'm shocked I hadn't picked up on before. In my essays for entrance to Purdue, to be eligible for certain types of aid I had to write a Teaching Statement. In that Statement, I wrote:

"The instructor’s job is to guide learning, not to lecture. If a student retains nothing, there has been no learning, so the teacher has not taught effectively"

John Dewey wrote similar things, with the idea that if learning has not happened, neither has teaching. Apparently, the teaching and learning I've been doing all my life has led me to a mostly Deweyan way of thinking about education. To me, you don't need to be a teacher to teach, and even if you're a teacher, you may not be teaching. This tends to be a learner-centered idea, the idea that it doesn't matter what the teacher is doing, what matters is what the student is gaining. I still wrestle with that idea, whether or not it's a personal truth. Sometimes, no matter your best try, no matter what teaching methods you use, you just cannot get through to your students, either because they aren't ready to hear what you have to say or they have no intrinsic motivation to learn what you're trying to teach. I think most teachers who are involved in those common "First Year Enrichment" seminar-type classes that introduce students to what they should be doing in college can agree. Many students don't realize how important a lot of the information they're getting is in those classes, for many who were like me, not because they're bad students, but because they were good students in high school and don't yet realize the leap from high school level work to college level work is much, much greater than they thought. Are those professors not teaching? Well, they're trying their best, but as a freshmen who was in the top 10% of her high school class without doing much work, I couldn't see the value in what they were presenting. That doesn't mean they weren't using the best methods they knew to try to transfer information - so were they teaching?

Going back to graduate school, especially in this History and Philosophy class, I'm being introduced to so many interesting ways of thinking and doing and introspective looks at engineering, things that fit in well with my life and personal goals and ideas. In the first few weeks of this class, we were introduced to the idea that engineers are trained to think and do in certain ways and see their reality from an engineering perspective. For myself and many engineers I know, that means seeing the world as problems to solve, algorithms to optimize, solutions to design, and everything has possibilities1. For introspective engineers like me, I noticed the differences and was interested in how I changed. Everyone in my group in that class is at a similar point cognitively; that's why we're pursuing Doctor of Philosophy degrees in this area. We all agree that having this information, understanding how engineers act and the idea of engineering epistemology (way of knowing/thinking) and ontology (way of perceiving reality and being), are useful and important to engineers, however as undergraduate students and for some of us, even at the Master's level, we may not have been open to these ideas. We'd love to have engineering students, maybe as a part of their final capstone project, be introduced to these ideas, but recognize that not everyone would be receptive or even cognitively capable of thinking and understanding in these ways. We'd like to teach these ideas, but again, would it be teaching if no one learns or grows as a result?

My definition of teaching, that it is one part of the learning equation and without learning, there is no teaching, is rooted in my engineering mindset. I like the idea of outcomes-based education and applying engineering problem solving methods to teaching. What methods work best to increase learning for students? To know what your students have learned, you need to study the outcomes. I understand that the Outcomes-Based Education movement in 1990s has been highly criticized and rejected by many, and that outcomes-based instruction on a national level generally leads to standardized testing, however I still believe that if you are not measuring the effect you are having on students, you cannot be sure they are learning. As an engineer, it is not the effort you put in to the design or solution, the bottom line is whether the product meets specifications. Therefore, as a teacher, it does not matter how much time you spent preparing for class, how many hours you spend grading or lecturing, but whether the students have met the desired learning goals or not.

As an instructor, I believed my success or failure resided with how well my students performed in the various assessments I set for them. I believe that the assessment should fit the learning outcomes and that the assessment portion of outcomes-based learning is the most difficult to implement. As a personal philosophy, and for college-level educators, I believe that designing assessments to measure outcomes well to gauge teaching effectiveness should be required. At a national or state level, the percentage of students who manage to pass standardized tests is not an effective gauge of teaching. I believe we do need to be measuring the learning that happens. Fourth graders learn so much more than reading and math, or at least, they should; they should have learned how to socialize with their peers, how to work together, how to be polite in class, how to get their homework done, how to play at recess, how to be creative in art classes, how to tell a basic historical story, how to solve basic problems, simple spelling and writing, in many schools, how to use a computer, and a whole host of other things that are not on standardized tests. Just because a student in fourth grade tests at a second grade level does not mean they did not learn, it may mean that they came in at a first grade level, or that the majority of the learning they did was in the second language they're now taking classes in.

To sum up, I suppose I do agree with Dewey. I also very much enjoy thinking about things from a philosophical perspective and would like to learn more in this area. It's interesting to see how my thoughts and ideas change as I continue my education.

1 As an aside, while writing that sentence, I had a small epiphany about my life - I am the first college graduate and to be perfectly honest have had some really amazing opportunities and thus far in my life, I've been really, really successful. More successful than I'd thought I could be (this sometimes leads to Impostor Syndrome), and I think that my engineering mindset, "...everything has possibilities" is a major part of how I've gotten where I am. I'm always taking the interesting opportunity, working to better myself and/or my situation where I can, and in the overall scheme of things, not having a defeatist attitude because everything can be viewed as "...problems to solve, algorithms to optimize, solutions to design..." This reinforces my belief that engineering thinking, or at least some level of the engineering mindset of solving problems and optimizing what you've got should be taught to everyone, and taught early. For some time, my political views swung toward the 'bad' kind of libertarian. I came from a less-than-perfect situation and made something of it, why can't everyone? I've long since recognized that personal responsibility isn't the problem (or the solution), but many engineers I know are conservative/libertarian/Randian in political beliefs and I think I now have a better understanding of why, articulated in a way that makes sense to me. The engineering mindset does predispose one to thinking that everyone should be able to think in optimizations and solve their problems. Maybe all engineering programs should have an ethics/personal responsibility/sociology(?)/psychology(?)/I-have-no-idea-what-department class in understanding other mindsets and social factors, i.e., Why Everyone Else Isn't an Engineer, Doesn't Think Like You, and That Doesn't Mean You're Better Than They Are Class. It would be interesting to see where that would fit into a curriculum in the sense of when students are ready for it - end of second/beginning of third year when everything is difficult but they're still likely to remain an engineer? Final course, or seminar as part of a capstone, when they've almost got the degree and likely have been indoctrinated into engineering as a way of thinking and being? Not immediately, when they probably don't have the engineering sense of self (and often sense of superiority) yet. I think that may be full post for another day.

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