Thursday, April 17, 2014

Teaching Naked: A Review

“The new classroom,” declares Jose Antonio Bowen, “ is a flat screen.”  Provocative statements like these, and plenty of research and arguments to support them, fill the pages of his 2012 book Teaching Naked:How Moving Technology out of Your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning (Jossey-Bass).  I have been meaning to read this book for quite some time, and finally got around to it on the plane ride back and forth from giving a lecture and faculty workshop at North Carolina State University earlier this week.

The book’s title make Bowen sound like a cranky Luddite, a chalk-and-talk professor who wants the kids to put away their smart phones and get their noses back into the books, and then sit up straight and listen to the professor in class.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Bowen actually celebrates the ability of technology to move much of our traditional teaching work out of the classroom, and wholeheartedly embraces a wide range of educational technologies as capable of doing the work of teaching content more effectively than professors.

The flip side to that argument, though, is that once we actually get students to interact with those technologies outside of the classroom, we should be spending our time in the classroom engaging in more frequent face-to-face interaction with them. Bowen sees the classroom as the space where we prove our value as educators to students, and argues that we should not be wasting that valuable space by lecturing students on basic content.  Let them gain first exposure to that content through podcasts, videos, e-mails, Google searches, and so on.  Then let them deepen the exposure in the classroom through human interaction.

This of course is the basic argument for the flipped classroom, although Bowen has gone beyond the usual calls for that educational strategy by immersing himself in the range of technologies available to us today, and thinking smartly about how they can be used to teach a wide variety of subjects and topics. 

He also frames his argument in an interesting way by asking us to see higher education as on the cusp of changes that have occurred in other industries, such as music sales and journalism.  The underlying analogy is a simple one:  changes in technology made consumers realize that the packaging offered by the industry was distinct from the product they wanted.  What people want are songs, not records (or CDs, etc.).  Likewise, he argues, what students want is learning, not necessarily the fancy packaging of the conventional college campus.

I found much of the book provocative and convincing.  Bowen is an excellent writer, a creative thinker, and a passionate advocate for his subject.  It’s hard to argue too much with statements like this one, which are big and visionary: “We need to adjust our classrooms to focus less on content and more on application of material to new contexts, development of intellectual curiosity, investment in the material, evaluation, synthesis, challenging personal beliefs, development of higher-level cognitive processing, oral and written communication skills, construction and negotiation of meaning, information literacy, connection of information across disciplines, teamwork, and reflection on the significance of content.”  Absolutely.

I picked up some excellent ideas for my own classroom along the way.  This semester I know the students in my British Literature Survey class have been struggling with many of my readings, like the short stories of James Joyce of essays of Virginia Woolf.  I usually begin class, then, by going over some of the basics with them, providing context that will help them understand the course readings more effectively.  This takes away much of the time I would like to have reserved for discussion. But why not, as Bowen suggests, send them an e-mail the day before the reading is due in which I provide that context in advance of their reading?  Doing so will ensure they can understand the reading more easily, and will enable us to jump into discussion more quickly.  I’ll be doing this for the final two weeks of the semester, and am grateful to Bowen for encouraging me to think more deeply about the use of my class time.

Mixed in with excellent suggestions like this one, though, are another set of claims and recommendations that I find much less convincing. 

A consistent thread throughout the book suggests that faculty can spend a lot less of their time teaching students basic content.  But Bowen goes beyond that to argue that knowing content will become less and less important in the digital age.  Here are two representative quotes, both on the folly of asking students to take tests that require memorization of content:

“Why bother?  The real world is ‘open book.’ Instead of asking directly for the information—what is the difference between British parliamentary democracy and American republican democracy, which can be easily Googled—ask instead why the information matters.” (155)

“Today, it is hard to argue that doing well on closed-book tests prepares you for anything except more testing.” (183)

Here is where I part company with Bowen—and where I believe most of the scientists who study human learning would part ways with him as well.  There are three problems with Bowen’s way of thinking here.

First, you can’t think creatively about information unless you have information in your head to think about.  We have to know things in order to think critically about them.  Without any information readily available to you in your brain, you will see new facts (from your Google search) in isolated, non-contextual ways that lead to shallow thinking.  Facts are related to other facts, and the more of those relationships we can see, the more we will prove capable of critical analysis and creative thinking.  Students who don’t bother to memorize anything will never get much beyond skating over the surface of a topic.

Second, when we learn new facts, we are building up mental structures that enable us to process and organize the next set of new facts more effectively.  Knowledge is foundational; we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge (although there is evidence to suggest that we can do both of those things at the same time). 

Finally, a large body of evidence suggests that taking closed-book tests on things we are trying to remember is an incredibly effective way of sealing up knowledge in our long-term memories, and having it available to us when we need it for critical and creative thinking.  Bowen makes no acknowledgment of this well-documented phenomenon, known as either the” testing effect” or the “retrieval effect.” 

For more information on this cognitive gap in Bowen’s thinking, see either Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School  (2009) or Make it Stick (2014) by Henry Roediger et al.  These books have a grounding in the learning sciences that I think is missing from Bowen’s argument.  (You can read a little bit about the "testing effect" in a Chronicle column of mine here, and in another one coming out on April 24th.)

With that said, I found Bowen’s book an enlightening and pleasurable read. It made me think, even if I didn’t always agree, and I am confident that it will have a positive impact on my teaching in the coming semesters.  I’m not sure I’m ready to go completely naked in the classroom, but I’m convinced enough to start shedding some technology and focus more frequently on the kind of substantive interaction that he advocates.