This keynote opened IPL 2018: New Learning Horizons: Digital and Hybrid Pedagogy / Nye lærinshorisonter — digital og hybrid pedagogikk on 31 May 2018 at NTNU, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

This talk grew out of a question: “How can the use of technology contribute to support student agency and voice?” Along the way to addressing that question, I hope to pose a few more — and explain why that’s better than an answer.

But I want to start in an unexpected place. First, I want to encourage us all not to teach.

Many of the things we expect teachers to do succeed only in establishing hierarchy … with students at the bottom. Traditionally, we expect teachers to give students the information they need to succeed, to tell them what they need to know. The arrangement of furniture in most lecture halls reflects that mindset. From this perspective, we position teachers as know-it-alls, people who not only know the answers students should know but who also select what information is worth knowing in the first place. Teachers, in this model, assign the texts, assign discussion topics, assign the questions to answer, assign the essays and projects and exams, and the students? Well, they follow orders. Teachers do all the decision-making.

Students, for their part, are expected to comply. Think of the verbs we use for the processes of school. Students attend class. They follow instructions. They submit assignments. Do we really want to spend our energy teaching students to submit to us? Wouldn’t verbs like shine or revolutionize or even invent better reflect what we want students to do?

A learning management system of one form or another seems ubiquitous in today’s universities. We’ve grown so accustomed to them that we expect to use one even in our face-to-face classes. But their ubiquity brings with it their ability to change the way we see learning. What exists in an LMS becomes the way we see our classes. What if inside that LMS, the button students clicked when they finished a project read, “share my creation” rather than “submit”? How would that small change influence students’ relationships to their own work, much less the class they are a part of? These small reminders of authority structures appear throughout our environments. In my school’s LMS, I work with “users” in an “org unit”, not students in a class. Every time I see the words “org unit” I question how we view our institution and whether we really think we work in the best interests of students.

Such hierarchies exist at the heart of our professional identity. The origins of the word “teacher” mean “to show” or “to instruct”. If we show students something, that means we already know about that thing. They don’t create it for themselves. If we instruct students, that means we know theprocess to use, and they don’t discover one for themselves. What is learning without creation or discovery? Where does passion fit in? Or excitement?

I don’t recall ever feeling a sense of excitement over something I was told to do. As a child, cleaning my room never excited me. As an adult, paying bills and taxes never thrills me. But a playground, with its lack of instructions and open structure, can. The blank canvas of a playground demands creation in order to give it sense and purpose. A playground’s inherent lack of guidelines holds its great appeal.

Here’s another example. I still remember my first visit to Norway, back in the summer of 2010. I spent a delightful day in Oslo, doing what any good tourist would do: I climbed the roof of the opera house and walked through the Vigeland sculpture garden. Don’t get me wrong — I admire the architecture of the opera house, with its formidable design evoking thoughts of a glacier. Evoking? Perhaps implanting thoughts of a glacier is more accurate. There’s really little room for reinterpretation there.

wide-angle shot of modern building with white stone surfaces sloping into the sea
Chris Friend; CC BY-NC 3.0

But then that sculpture garden. I had a visceral reaction to statues in that park that I haven’t experienced with sculpted art before or since. When looking into the stone face of a child, I couldn’t resist looking over my shoulder to see what that statue found so exciting. I knew it was stone. I knew the artist’s point was to evoke the longing, the wonder, the enthusiasm shown in that face. But still I couldn’t help wonder what the granite child sought after…and so I turned around and looked. I saw full, healthy trees and a gorgeous, clear sky. And I smiled at my reaction to stone.

granite carvings of youths looking with hope up to their right; what’s going on up there?
Chris Friend; CC BY-NC 3.0

We are too often expected to create classes like the opera house, where a “successful” course gets all students, no matter where they come from or what they care about, to think “glacier” when given the right stimulus. To give the correct answer on a test given a specific predetermined question. But what would our classes look like if they instead replicated the experience of a sculpture garden, with that evocative face, filling me with a sense of wonder, compelling me to physically turn around despite myself and investigate a question I developed on my own?

We shouldn’t teach students. We should inspire them. And then we should get out of their way.

• • •

Paulo Freire talks of “problem-posing education,” in which learners identify and/or construct the problems they see as pressing and worthy of attention or study. They don’t respond to the questions asked of them by teachers; they create the questions and ask them of world. In problem-posing education, learning becomes real, essential—I dare say life-giving. Learners are compelled to seek answers because they want to know. Not because it’s been assigned. Not because they’re submitting.

This is the heart of liberatory education — and should be our goal when using technology in classes: Get students learning on their own terms, following their own interests, seeking their own satisfaction.

I teach writing and rhetoric classes, often a two-semester sequence of introductory writing courses designed to prepare students for all the writing they have to do at the university. Yes, it’s as crazy and impossible as it sounds.

As a rhetorician, I find I spend a good bit of time sharing with students the kinds of questions writing scholars typically ask of the world, because most students have never heard them before. Questions like:

  • How does the ability to add hyperlinks to text enrich the meaning of what we write? How does restricting that ability (like social-media platforms do) restrict the thinking of writers?
  • How do authors, protesters, or movements use language to construct their identity?
  • How does the idea of publishing a document online, and therefore giving it a unique URL, change a writer’s sense of contribution…or empowerment?
  • What counts as credibility on Twitter?
  • How can we trace the history, distribution, or effectiveness of a meme…or a hashtag?

To me, these questions reflect the sorts of thinking valued in writing and rhetoric circles. And I share them with students in the hopes that they’ll find these sorts of questions compelling and develop their own questions along these lines that they’d like to investigate. My job in these classes is to show students the kinds of questions asked in my field, then step back while students ask their own … then run along find their own answers.

And you know the best part of that approach? The students themselves know when they’ve succeeded. They don’t need me there to tell them. But they do ask for help along the way as they work to figure things out. Sometimes, that process doesn’t work as expected.

I imagine that everyone reading this has at some point posed an academic or research question, investigated it, and failed to find a compelling answer. That’s the nature of research. Heck, it’s the nature of curiosity. False starts and dead ends are inevitable. But let’s talk about good failure for a second. What does failure look like when it’s productive or beneficial? For an example, I turn to what for many people amounts to their second-favorite mode of transportation: bicycles.

When children learn to ride a bike, we don’t start with a lecture on the conservation of angular momentum, follow up with a worksheet asking children to label force vectors, then conclude with an exam for which they write a research paper on the history and development of bicycle models, 1800 to present, citing at least five print sources and never Wikipedia.

Instead, in order to teach children to ride a bike, we give them a bike, and we have them ride it. See how easy that sounds? The curiosity and determination of a child compels them to figure out how the thing works, and they’ll keep at it until they get it. They don’t need us (the expert bike-riders, right?) to tell them they’ve done it. We simply keep a supply of adhesive bandages nearby because we know to expect bloody knees.

When a child does inevitably topple on the bike and scrape knees on the pavement, do they earn an F? Do they withdraw? Do they lose financial aid? (“I’m sorry, but your performance today did not qualify you for dinner this evening. Perhaps you’d like to take out a loan?”) No. We again give them a bike and we again have them ride it, trusting that they learned something from their experience and will continue to improve. I’ll bet that in the process they even learn something about the conservation of angular momentum. Not the facts of it, but how it works in context.

Bicycle training relies on the innate curiosity of humans and the benefits of trial and error in skill acquisition. Reducing the effort required to teach someone to ride a bike means it’s simpler and less stressful to manage (except for enduring the crying that comes from skinned knees).

You don’t really teach bicycle riding. Why do we not take a similar approach with our subjects? Surely we find our disciplines inherently curious facets of life. Could we not share our enthusiasm with students and uncover what we find so fascinating about our fields, allowing their curiosity to take hold, and sending them off with training wheels of their own? Schools provide a rare and remarkable opportunity for learning: to fail and keep going.

Think of how we train nurses. They are here practicing at school first so that they don’t make mistakes out there on the job. But here, mistakes teach more than any lecture. I recently listened to a podcast episode about the doctor who developed the SPIKES method of delivering bad news to patients. It’s an unfortunate acronym, but the method it inspires holds empathy at its core. Think about training doctors to give patients bad news. Should we just line up a bunch of newly diagnosed cancer patients, pair them with a line student trainees, mix them together, and hope for the best? Of course not. But in schools, we can pair doctors in training with actors, volunteers, community members and give them an opportunity to gain experience we know they need by breaking the news to someone who only pretends to have cancer. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t even pretend to tell someone they have terminal cancer without becoming emotionally involved. It would feel real to me. Anyway, in these mock doctor/patient scenarios, if the students screw up? They get feedback — from themselves, their instructors, and the actor-patient — and learn what to do better on their next try.

That sort of failure-prone practice really only happens in schools. We should more openly embrace failure opportunities in all our subjects.

I think next of engineering classes, where I’d much rather have a digital or wooden model of a high-rise or bridge collapse in a classroom than have the steel, glass, and concrete version collapse in the real world. But show me a student who, after watching their model collapse, could resist learning what went wrong and how to prevent that failure in the future. Notice how I said that? “Show me a student who…could resist learning.” That sounds like a dream world. All it takes is finding genuine questions or problems.

We should each be qualified to highlight the curiosities our discipline investigates and the questions generally asked in our fields. If we share those issues with our students, we can invite them to ask similar questions and begin to see the world around them through the lens of our academic area.

Notice how this changes our goal as educators: We want students to ask good questions, not have correct answers. In my classes, I work to get students to ask the kinds of questions that rhetoricians ask; to attune them to how fascinating writing and the representational, signified movement of ideas can be, especially in a digital environment.

Or here, with this talk, where I hope to have you see your world through the eyes of a critical pedagogue. To ask questions about that world which can lead to greater independence for students and a desire to build classes that students help shape and direct.

At first, such challenges sound like a loss of control. If you give up your lecture, how do students get accurate information? If students create their assignments, how can we ensure rigor and accuracy? How can we assess students if they manage their own learning? What standards can we set? I propose reframing the problem.

As Seymour Papert says, “Progressive educators do not see themselves as offering an alternative way for students to learn the same list of items of knowledge. They value a different kind of knowledge.” Papert calls it “knowledge-in-use”. In other words, knowledge needs context and reason to be valuable. Context becomes supremely important in education — as it is in life.

The trend of ever-growing universities means institutions occasionally absorb other campuses or expand into new spaces. In this difficult process, concerns of consistency — or standardization — inevitably come up. How can we ensure all students get the same education? That all students leave with the same knowledge or the same skill sets? But really, when was the last time you had a room full of students who were all the same? The more we attempt to standardize the output of our classes, the more we’ll need standardized input, and that leads to real problems. The communities surrounding every college campus — their contexts — provide different concerns, challenges, and problems to work through; the communities from which our students come are even more diverse. We cannot and should not expect students to be all the same any more than we should expect everyone in this room to be like everyone else. Each of us brings our own perspectives and expertise to discussions of pedagogy.

Our classrooms, it seems to me, should work the same way. Student diversity allows for richer discussions and broader perspectives than would otherwise be possible. And if we give students the opportunity to explore their own interests, we grant them the respect of being seen as individuals with their own inherent value. Their peers become an intrinsically interested audience as they learn to care about the distinctive contributions of each person in the room.

But, you might ask, how can we assess our students if each one is different? I’ve spoken before about my abhorrence of standardized testing — it pushes my buttons like nothing else and gets me really riled up. I’ll spare you a review of my anxiety- and frustration-driven rants about assessment. But I will say this: We must always remember that our industry does not manufacture widgets or objects or mass-produced things. Our industry “manufactures” thoughtful, conscientious adults. When we do our jobs well, we provide society with people who spend more time thinking critically about their work and the world around them. Students, we instinctively know but often overlook, are not standardized, and to treat them as such is to commit an act of social violence upon them, ignoring their identities and their potential.

Instead, we need assessments that respect the individuality of students and that give students the opportunity to take pride in their work and their contribution to the field. (Yes, I mean this for first-year undergraduates, too. They, too, should join a conversation to which they can meaningfully and genuinely contribute.)

My favorite way to assess students? Ask them. Ask them to show what they’ve done for a class. Ask them to show how they know they’ve achieved the course outcomes or standards or learning goals or whatnot. In an engineering class, ask them how they know they’ve solved a particular design challenge. In a science class, ask them how they know they performed a viable experiment and can trust their results. In a music class, ask them how they know whether their performance of a piece accurately or creatively interpreted the intentions of the composer.

I love these questions because responding to them can be challenging, but the looks on students’ faces as they work on their answers show more determination and confidence than I see out of them the rest of the semester. Students thrive when we ask these questions because they provide opportunities.

I’ll say it again: We shouldn’t teach. We should provide opportunities — with or without technology — to build competence and confidence through experience and perhaps failure. And then we should help students see what they’ve accomplished.

So what can we offer in our classes, if students should ask the questions that compel their learning? Well, we’ve been working in our fields longer than they have, right? We probably don’t ask the same questions they will, but we probably have an idea where and how to look for answers. More than information, which can be gleaned from texts or even videos online, we offer things rooted in our humanity:  Experience. Insight. Enthusiasm. Share those with students.

Our experience sometimes lets us look like fortune-tellers. Maybe we look at a question or problem a student poses and think we know where it’ll end up because we’ve seen that kind of thing before. Sharing our experience by adding reassurance or perspective can help add insight to their scenario, but we must allow students to build their own experience. Warn them about problem spots your experience grants you the foresight to see, and prompt them to think their own way out of the problem. If we instead give them the answer and supplant their experience with ours, we not only deny them the opportunity to learn Papert’s “knowledge-in-use” but we also reject their own experience and perspective.

• • •

We teach really smart people. Every student in every one of your classes knows lots more about their specific interests than you do, and the breadth of those experiences combine to create a wealth of knowledge we rarely think to tap into in our classes. That’s often because schools think they offer students knowledge, but that’s not right. We often say that students could go look things up in the library or online, but that’s information, not knowledge. The difference comes from processing, conceptualizing, and making sense of information — connecting it to what we already know. But that’s not something we can do for students. They need to reach their own conclusions and build their own connections based on what they already think and believe.

So as we go our separate ways and head toward the myriad new horizons we have in front of us, keep students foremost in your mind. Respect the individual contributions they can make — to your class, to your field, to their own learning. Give them space, the tools, and the opportunity to present their whole selves and share their ideas, their questions. And resist the urge to teach. Instead, find ways to inspire, help, and guide students toward their own horizons as they explore the world around them with new perspectives and a renewed sense of genuine, innate curiosity.