What I Should Have Said...

I just returned from the Big 12 Teaching & Learning conference and I'm excited to share something that happened in Texas.  I’m not going to tell you about my Uber driver who shared a mournful tale of military service, PTSD, police duty, bodyguard service for various Dallas sports clubs, and finally moving solely to Uber so he could work diligently on campaigning for President Trump.  I think that’s another blog entirely, don’t you?

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No, I want to tell you about one of those “pivotal” moments in a day of real fun.  What an honor and a privilege speaking to a large group of people who are very interesting in improving the teaching and learning experience!  But I had a real moment of growth, at least from my perspective, that I want to share.

I had the pleasure of attending day one as a participant, but then giving the opening keynote on day 2, followed by a workshop specific to the keynote.  It was one of those days when everything just clicked.  The 90 minute keynote went really well – the audience was totally tracking.  I was getting a lot of participation while walking throughout the crowd during the session which seemed to provide a nice, connective experience.  I talked about “connection” and its importance for higher ed.  I talked about how hard it still proves to be to overcome our historical underpinnings, I showcased the difficulty of siloed administrations which plagues colleges and universities, and I also talked about the importance of non-lecture based instruction being the only way to promote real learning.  It was this last point that brought out something really important.

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By the time we got to the workshop, which was designed as a Q&A, 95% of the audience returned.   (Sorry to my other workshop presenters!!!!)  So we had a nice, robust conversation.  And the questions were solid!  We talked about Dweck’s mindset and how that can be practically leveraged.  We discussed what note-taking based on neuroscience likely should look like (at least based on what we know today, thanks to Dr. Stephen Carroll).  And we talked about the power of education technology, specifically noting that if we don’t give it the proper amount of time to transform an organization we are doing damage to our bottom line and any potential experiences we hope to create.

But it was when we started talking about lecturing that people really leaned in.  This room of mostly faculty wanted to know HOW to change a practice which, for most of them, was exactly how they were taught and likely the go-to method used to instruct students today.  We walked through Dan Meyer’s brilliant teaching strategies, discussed “Make it Stick”, and I even brought out the big guns with a fantastic quote I heard George Siemens use at the SEEDS conference a month ago: “I wonder when it will become illegal to teach by lecture.  No longer worthy of the placebo effect in experiments, the mounting evidence is so clear that active learning strategies are better in every measurable way, I wonder when Do-No-Harm will be invoked in the classroom?”

It was after showing some do-first learning techniques and illustrating active learning across multiple disciplines that a professor, brow furrowed, asked an extremely serious question.  It was this question that allowed me to really demonstrate some growth, again from my perspective, as a facilitator.  The question was sincere while also dripping with context.  She said, “How can we do all of these active learning strategies when we have so much to get through?  We have to teach so many things per term that we don’t have time for all of that activity, no matter how clever.”

You could see and hear the yearning in her voice.  She was absolutely stifled with any way, outside of lecturing, by which to convey volumes of information to students.  She had never seen it, never experienced it, nor had she ever even read about examples of it being done in any way that mattered to her.  And there was an audible grunt from others in the group. They wanted to know the same thing. 

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Before I tell you how I reacted, I want to explain how I would have reacted, even a few years ago.  As a younger, less seasoned presenter, consultant, or administrator, I would have folded.  Not completely, mind you, but somewhat.  I would have said something like, “Well, you can’t do active learning all of the time and you have to do what you have to do in order to get things across…fumble, fumble, fumble, play with microphone uncomfortably, etc.”  I have always been so afraid of scaring people away that I diluted the importance of the message whenever confronted by someone who simply didn’t understand and especially if I didn’t have the time to explain it completely.  In fact, I told the following true story as an example:

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When I got to Saint Leo, I was (literally) in day 2 of my new job.  I was sitting alone in my office experiencing that moment when you wonder exactly what you have gotten yourself into, when there was a knock on the door.  An upbeat and very nice professor appeared in my doorway.  “So you’re the new guy?  The innovation guy who talks about all the new teaching models?”  He was referring to a keynote address I had given about 18 months before that.  I had presented at the all-university attended “Community Day” where I showcased how teaching and learning could / should look to a standing ovation.  So I said I was indeed “that” guy.  He then asked what I thought of Flipped learning?  I responded for about 10 seconds saying it was a movement that had a lot of promise.  Then he launched into a genuine rant.  I think he had been waiting for me to get to campus so he could go off.  “I tried to flip my classroom last semester and my students HATED it.  In fact, I explained it on day 1 and on day 2 they came in, saying they had voted that our class would NOT be flipped.  They just wanted me to tell them what to study for the test so they could pass it and go.  I will never try flipped learning again.”  (His actual rant was significantly longer, but you get the idea.)

It was a moment like many I had experienced during hundreds of keynote / workshop presentations.  People explain how they can’t get some strategy or idea to work, therefore making it a bad idea or strategy.  Their N of 1, added to their years of sole-experience made it clear that the strategy (whatever that strategy may be) is a bad one. 

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Sigh.

I let him rant, not really knowing what to say.  I was new after all.  Was this guy a Chair or a Dean?  Would we work together over the years?  I asked a few follow ups along the way, but he was still angling toward the only, obvious answer that Flipped learning is stupid.  So… I caved.  I let him off the hook, saying something like, “well, you can only do what you can do.  If your students genuinely don’t want it, what can you do?…”

What bad advice. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I couldn’t do what my mind was screaming to do which was to yell through the rant explaining that of COURSE it hadn’t worked!  The way he went about implementing it was ludicrous!  He had coupled poor classroom management skills with a half-baked attempt at a learning model he didn’t even fully understand, so obviously it hadn’t worked!  No, I couldn’t say any of that. 

But what I should have said then, is exactly what I said to this participant at the workshop.  It’s the response that most consultants, most peers, and especially anyone who has no authority over the questioner avoids when asked.  We’re all so afraid of losing an audience because of the “tough love” this approach requires, that most of us look for common ground, thereby bastardizing the entire message.  So, after telling the above “Flipped Learning” story, I said this to the audience: 

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“I know how hard it is.  Most of us were not taught this way and we can’t imagine that there could be other ways to both promote real learning AND cover loads of materials.  But just because we don’t understand it or can’t imagine it, doesn’t mean it’s not out there.  It actually is out there.  But if we’re not reading books that help us to become better pedagogues (I love that word from my Australian colleagues…), instead only reading development materials related to our subject, then these better teaching concepts will remain foreign to us forever.  If we’re only attending workshops that discuss subject matter and not active learning, it will be to the detriment of our students and our schools.   It’s not about finding ALL of the active learning strategies, it’s about finding a few that work in your context, with your subject matter, and for your student population.  After you find them, you need to commit to them.  You’ll screw them up.  You’ll get them wrong.  You’ll struggle.  But eventually, you’ll find that they are working better.  Soon after that, you’ll start to find ways to improve on them.  You’ll enjoy them (as will your students).  Then, after they become norms for you, you’ll start to find ways to make them really shine.”

I feel badly.  I do.  I feel badly that I have to tell so many instructors out there that they are doing harm to their students via lecturing.  The numbers don’t lie.  About 50% the student experience in all of higher ed is still lecture.  That’s according to student polls, faculty polls, behavioral analytics, etc.  Add another 25% of the time students are being assessed (mostly for summative reasons, almost never for formative or pure learning purposes…) and that leaves a whopping ¼ of the time for active learning.  Then add this to your analysis.  There are a handful of professors at every university who perform active learning exclusively.  So, it’s not like we can say that all profs use active learning 25% of the time.  No way.  There are plenty of faculty who use active learning strategies 0% of the time.  (In fact, one of my most jaw-dropping surveys was the HERI survey reported by AAC&U whereby 20% of faculty surveyed say there is NO talking allowed in their classrooms…)

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So to my peers and colleagues out there trying to push the needle, keep it up.  But I want to urge you to reconsider the softness of the message, so as not to offend.  I know it’s hard.  I know you don’t want to lose a faculty member who walks off in a huff of disgust, saying they just won’t do anything  then…  But stand firm.  It’s important and it’s worth it for students.   They NEED our intervention and our conviction.  The data is on your side!  The studies are in agreement.  Lectures need to be used only with surgical precision, giving way to a classroom that is active learning 95% of the time.  Might that mean cutting back on the volumes of information we are to deliver?  Possibly.  But that’s another blog.  For now, let’s just stick with the notion that it’s in our students very best interest to engage in active learning strategies throughout their entire experience. 

Good luck and good learning.

(PS - Want to learn real, practical, hands-on ways to avoid lecturing?  Or, do you want to help support others at your school who need the help?  Join us in Denver this July for 2 days of professional development like you've never seen!  https://www.iceinstitute.org/keeping-your-enemies-close