Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Teaching Like Aristotle


I count myself as an amateur enthusiast of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, which makes me fun to hang around with at parties.  This particular interest of mine began when I took a course in Aristotle's thought as an undergraduate philosophy major, and I have since returned to his work at various points over the course of my life for reflection and guidance.  In the wake of the recent presidential election, amidst the swirling storm of negative emotions and overheated arguments that flew around my social media accounts, I took refuge in his work once more, and re-read both the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  


Image result for aristotleThis was my first sustained re-reading of these works since I began writing books about teaching and learning almost a decade ago.  As a result, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the ways in which Aristotle's philosophy can provide us with some insightful reminders about how we can best help students learn, now almost 2400 years after it was first presented to his students.  It adds an interesting layer of complexity to this enterprise when we note that all of Aristotle's works come to us essentially in the form of rough drafts or notes from his students; although he was apparently a prolific writer on almost every subject imaginable, from biology to metaphysics, none of his finished works have survived.

The concluding section of the Politics actually directly addresses education, but I found that material less compelling than three more general principles of his thinking which strike me as still relevant for our pedagogical conversations today.

1) Learning from frequent practice. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle addressed the question of how people become virtuous or vicious.  He was responding in part to arguments from Plato, and to more general theories about the source of human ethics.  He argues, for example, against at least two different theories: that people are born virtuous or vicious, or that one can be a virtuous person while still doing occasionally vicious things.  Instead, he suggests, virtues develop in us slowly and gradually as we make the conscious decision to perform virtuous acts:

"We . . . take on the virtues by first being at work in them, just as also in other things, namely the arts; the things that one who has learned them needs to do, we learn by doing; and people become, say, housebuilders by building houses or harpists by playing the harp. So too, we become just by doing things that are just, temperate by doing things that are temperate, and courageous by doing things that are courageous."

In other words, a person who performs courageous actions gradually becomes a courageous person, and his slowly developing courageous character makes each new act of courage easier and more likely for him.  Later commentators on Aristotle’s work have referred to this as the virtuous cycle: the more we perform virtuous acts, the easier it becomes to perform virtuous acts.  Our actions develop our character, and our character then gives birth to our actions.

This sounds to me a whole like what we know today about the virtue of frequent practice for learning.  If we want students to learn how to think like philosophers, we can't stand at the front of the room and philosophize for them. We have to create the context in which they can practice thinking like philosophers. The same holds true for any cognitive skill we want students to develop. Would Aristotle have been an advocate for the flipped classroom?  Perhaps he might not have gone that far, but he certainly represents an early advocate for the modern principle that we "learn by doing."

2) Listening to our learners.  Aristotle's Ethics begins with the argument that human beings are meant for happiness, and so sets out to inquire what makes us happy.  But instead of simply trying to logic this out from first principles, he recounts what people say about the subject.  This happens over and over again in both the Ethics and the Politics. Aristotle always begins his inquiries by considering what people have had to say about the subject in the past, and he searches for bits of truth and good ideas in these surveys of popular opinion.  In Book One of the Ethics, for example, he concludes an overview of different theories of happiness with this sentence:

"Some of these things are said by many people and from ancient times, others by a few well-reputed men, and it is reasonable that neither of these groups would be wholly mistaken, and that they would be right in some one point at least or even in most of them."

It seems likely to me that, in his actual lectures, Aristotle solicited these opinions from his students, in some form of a dialogue or discussion, but we can't know that for sure.  In any case, Aristotle reminds us that we can view the knowledge that students bring into our classes as harmful and mistaken, ready for our correcting--or we can view it as the starting point for our inquires together.  When we view the prior knowledge of our students in this light, the classroom becomes a community of learners working together to increase all of our understanding, rather than a forum in which one person imparts knowledge to the many.

In the Politics Aristotle refers explicitly to the idea of a community of learners, and the power of their collective knowledge, with the metaphor of a banquet: "And as a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better judge of many things than an individual."

One of the most important principles I have learned from the literature of teaching and learning in higher education has been to listen to what learners bring into our classrooms.  Rather than simply starting a new lesson by offering students a box of content, we should take a few minutes to address the fact that our students always bring folk theories about our subject matter into the room, and that their prior knowledge can provide us with building blocks for what we want them to learn.

3) Remembering context.  Over and over again, in both the Ethics and the Politics, Aristotle reminds us that general principles always fail to account for the particulars.  General principles must be put into practice in specific contexts, and those contexts require further reflection, modification, or even rejection of the general principle.  He addresses this specifically with respect to education in the final book of the Ethics:

"And further, educations tailored to teach person are better than those that are given in common, just as in the case of medical treatment, for in general rest and fasting are beneficial for someone with a fever, but perhaps not for some particular person, and a boxing instructor probably does not impose the same way of fighting on all people."

Most of us don't have the time to tailor an individual education to every student we encounter, but this principle should remind us of two important things.  First, the general principles that helped us (i.e., faculty members) learn might not work with our students.  Just because we learned best from reading and listening to lectures (as I did, and I loved it), that does not mean that all students learn best from those methods. So we have to continue to reflect on our methods, and vary them in order to ensure that we are providing educations that make sense with the particular contexts of our students, and not the students we used to be.

Second, educational research that works in one context might not work in every other context. If you spend enough time reading and analyzing the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, you will eventually realize that no magic solution of any kind exists for student learning.  The particular contexts of our individual classrooms contain so many confounding elements for any one teaching technique, however well-researched, that we have to remain continuously reflective about our practice, and continuously alive to the possibility of change.  That can be frustrating, but it can also be intellectually stimulating, and keep us thinking and evolving through a whole teaching career.

Note: all quotations from the Ethics come from this edition, translated by Joe Sachs; quotations from the Politics from this edition, translated by Richard McKeon.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Teaching in Budapest: A Photo Essay

Monday class session with graduate students.
Yesterday I returned from a fantastic visit to Central European University in Budapest, where I was hosted by Sally Schwager of the Center for Teaching and Learning.  The CTL runs a course  on university teaching for doctoral students, and Sally invited me to work with those students in a class period on creating successful openings for a new course; she also arranged a separate wine and cheese event on launching a faculty career.

During my visit I met as well with three different faculty groups, over lunch or receptions, to present the core ideas from my books Cheating Lessons and Small Teaching, and engage in conversations more generally about teaching and learning in higher education.  These were all small, seminar-style conversations, which was a welcome change from the usual keynotes or workshops I am giving when I visit other campuses.  My future work will definitely be enriched by my time in Budapest.

Monday class session with graduate students.
What follows are some images from the events, as well as from some of my travels around Budapest.  Sally engineered a wonderful schedule that enabled me to have plenty of time to take in the sights of this extraordinary city.  I was especially grateful for this because I have Hungarian blood; I am a quarter Hungarian on my mother's side.  The trip presented me with a welcome opportunity to learn more about this part of my family history

Many thanks to her, her colleagues in the CTL, and the many graduate students and faculty with whom I engaged in lively conversations.  All seminar photos credited to CEU/Peter Rakossy. All travel photos are mine.
My host, Sally Schwager, introducing our session for doctoral students on "Launching a Successful Faculty Career."




I can assure you, I am just about to say something really interesting.

The students had excellent questions about how both to launch and manage their future faculty careers.

Friday faculty discussion on Cheating Lessons.

Friday faculty discussion on Cheating Lessons.

On Saturday evening I was able to see a concert at the Franz Liszt Concert Centre in Budapest. The highlight of the performance was Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony.

A detail from St. Matthias Church.  Beautiful, subtle architectural flourishes adorn almost every building you look at in the city.  It's a pleasure just to walk around and see them everywhere.

The Buda Hills from Fisherman's Bastion.

At the art museum I discovered the work of 19th-century Hungarian painter Mihaly Munkacsy. This painting in particular astonished me with its beauty and emotion.

On the morning of my last day in Budapest, in the wake of the US election, a melancholy walk along the Danube River to the site of this Holocaust memorial. 

The massive wall of victims featured in the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to documenting the Nazi and communist eras in Hungary.

A Hungarian flag with the hammer and sickle cut from the center, a gesture of defiance during the 1956 Uprising.

Parliament building from the Buda side of the river.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Best Teachers Summer Institute: Summer 2017

Twenty years ago I began my academic career as the Assistant Director of the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern University.  I was hired by then-director Ken Bain, who at that time was finishing up the research for his now best-selling classic, What the Best College Teachers Do, and getting ready to write. My three years at the Center launched my interest in teaching and learning in higher education, and have continued to inspire my thinking and writing to this day.  That happened in large part because of the work of Ken, who taught me what a fascinating and complex challenge it was to help human beings learn, and whose approach has resonated with so many faculty members around the world.  Ken also taught me that it was possible to write clearly and elegantly about higher education--something I didn't see very much of in the work I was reading at the time.

During those years at the Center, I had the opportunity to assist Ken with a summer institute that he was developing based on his research on effective college teachers.  It was still in its infancy at that time, but essentially it invited faculty members to spend three days taking a deep dive into their approach to teaching, and emerging with a new understanding of their work.  The institute encouraged people, for example, to re-capture what they found so fascinating about their disciplines, and determine how best to stir up that fascination in their students.  It invited them to think deeply about everyday teaching practices that we take for granted, such as lecturing or grading or policies on late work.  The institute did not champion any one approach over another; it brought interested colleagues together into a room, presented them with ideas and research and models, and encouraged them to think creatively and work with each other to build dynamic new learning experiences for their students.  It was an intellectually invigorating experience, one that I looked forward to every year.

I left Northwestern in 2000 in order to pursue my tenure-track dreams, and Ken brought the summer institute with him through his various position changes over the next dozen years. In 2012 I was able to join him and a handful of award-winning institute faculty for the first time in many years, and found the institute much evolved and improved, but still the same in the most essential way: it brought committed faculty from around the world together into a room, introduced them to new research and ideas and models, and let them get to work. It remained a profoundly fascinating and invigorating experience for this college teacher.

For a variety of reasons the summer institute has been on hiatus for the past couple of years, but I am so pleased that it will be happening again this summer, and especially pleased that Ken has invited me to help him re-launch it.  The 20th Annual International Best Teachers Institute will take place from June 20-22, 2017 at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in New Jersey, just a few miles from Manhattan.  Registration is now open, and you are cordially invited to join us.  We welcome both individual faculty members and faculty groups from the same institution, and we welcome participants from anywhere in the world. I think faculty have an especially rich experience at the institute when they can grab a colleague or two or four from their own campus and have this experience together--and then take their new ideas back to campus and spread them to their colleagues.

What I can promise you about your experience in this institute is that you will emerge from it with a new understanding of how to build an effective learning environment for your students, a new or renewed commitment to the craft of teaching, and plenty of practical new ideas for how to pursue that craft most effectively. The plentiful opportunities you have to work on your own courses in conversation with your peers ensures that you will also leave the institute with a host of new friendships and contacts in higher education. We hope that you will join us this summer, and spread the word to your colleagues. We do limit the number of participants each year, and most years in the past have had a waiting list. Sign up as early as you can.

Don't hesitate to contact me or Ken with questions about the institute. See you this summer in Jersey.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Small Teaching in Colombia: A Photo Essay

Last year I was contacted by the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla, Colombia, about the prospect of giving some faculty workshops on teaching and learning at their annual summer event.  I was thrilled at the prospect, and eventually we agreed that I would spend a day and a half working with interested faculty on the ideas from Small Teaching, as well as provide a keynote on my book Cheating Lessons for a conference they were hosting. I spent a very busy and enjoyable week in Barranquilla, hosting these events and meeting with other faculty and staff from their teaching center, after which my wife and a friend joined me for a few days of relaxation in Cartagena.

Here are a few photos from that trip (the first seven of which are credited to Universidad del Norte), which concluded a couple of weeks ago.  I will be returning to Barranquilla and making my first visit to Bogota in September, where I will be working with three universities on a Fulbright Specialist grant to help create a MOOC on teaching and learning for Latin American faculty. Very happy and excited to return to Colombia next month!

Opening presentation on the theory and practice of small teaching.

The morning session had more than one hundred faculty in fixed auditorium seating--not ideal for interactive workshops, but we did our best!

Second day, with a little bit of discussion of Carol Dweck's theory of the growth mindset.

Final session of the second day, focused on theories of motivation that lend themselves to small teaching approaches.

Pausing for some green tea--an activity which will strike readers of Small Teaching as a familiar one for me.

The keynote on Cheating Lessons on Friday morning--another very crowded room.

Boy, do I seem to love to gesticulate.



Work all done, enjoying dinner with my wife at Carmen's in Cartagena.


An inspiring visit to the church of St. Peter Claver, the saint of the slaves.

Farewell from my scuba diving trip to the Rosario Islands off the coast of Cartagena.





Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Small Teaching Update

Last week I finished my final campus visit for the spring semester, with the opportunity to give a keynote speech and a workshop on my new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning, at Columbus State Community College in Ohio.  This represented a nice almost-homecoming for me, as I was able to be in my home state of Ohio (I grew up in Cleveland) during the final games of the NBA championships series.  I'm not much of an NBA fan, but it was a pleasure to see the Cavaliers give to so many Clevelanders the championship they thought they might never live to see.

Since the publication of Small Teaching, I have been very humbled and pleased to receive many such invitations to give keynote speeches, lectures, or workshops on the book to faculty on college campuses around the world--close to three dozen invitations in the past three months.  I count travel as one of my great pleasures in life, and so I relish the opportunity both to speak about the book and see new places. The next few months include trips to Colombia and Budapest, both of which I am incredibly excited about.  The docket also includes much-anticipated visits to Salt Lake City, Santa Monica, Baton Rouge, and more.

Giving the keynote at St. Joseph's University's
conference on teaching and learning in June 2016
One of the reasons that these events have been so enjoyable to me has been the opportunity to observe faculty brainstorming ways to put the small teaching strategies in action in their own courses.  This happens especially when we have time to settle in and let people collaborate in an interactive workshop environment.  I have heard people express many good ideas that made me think immediately: "I wish I could go back and put that one in the book!"  And it has been especially joyful to see when the small teaching model empowers people to make a positive change to their teaching.

But I still work full-time at my own institution, both directing our center and teaching courses in British literature, and this fall will be spending a month in Colombia on a Fulbright Specialist grant to help three universities there create a MOOC on teaching and learning in higher education for Latin American faculty.  All of these obligations mean that I have, at this point, accepted as many speaking invitations as are feasible for me throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, right through May of 2017. My own students and institution have to take priority in my life--not to mention my family, who seem to like to have me around at least some of the time.

So my apologies in advance to folks who were thinking about inquiring about a Small Teaching workshop or keynote next year--please keep me in mind for the 2017-2018 year. I am still very open and available for local events (within a 2-3 hour drive of Worcester), but nothing that involves an overnight stay.  I'm also very open and available to meet with faculty reading groups via Skype (or whatever video conferencing software you might use).  I had an opportunity to do this with the faculty at Indiana State in late May, and I very much enjoyed it.

I hope folks continue to enjoy Small Teaching.  If you see me out and about in the world, please come up and introduce yourself--I am always happy to talk teaching with faculty.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

A St. Patrick's Day History Lesson: The Irish Potato Famine

Last week I had the opportunity to tour a group of college students around Ireland during our spring break, helping them understand the complex history of this small nation that so many Americans claim as part of our heritage.  The country was in full pre-party mode, as we saw signs of the coming celebrations of St. Patrick’s day throughout our time in Galway, Cork, and Dublin.  But despite the generally celebratory air that pervaded Ireland last week, the hard lessons of Irish history never seemed far from reach. 
Famine memorial in St. Stephen's Green in Dublin

You can’t dig very deeply into Ireland’s past without encountering the effects of the potato famine that struck the island in 1845, and continued for several years afterward.  The Irish people had become heavily dependent on the potato as their primary food source in the first half of the 19th century; when a blight struck the potato crop, destroying whole fields literally overnight, it had devastating consequences.  A million Irish people died as a result of that famine; another million emigrated to England, Canada, and the US.  The Irish population peaked at eight million on the eve of the famine; fifty years later, with the country still reeling from the effects of starvation and emigration, the population had dropped to four million.

More than 150 years later, the famine still lives very close to the surface of Irish consciousness.  We spent time with at least a half-dozen tour guides at different sites throughout our stay, and every single one of them discussed the way the famine has shaped Irish political history, Irish music and literature, and even Irish awareness of hunger and famine around the globe.  We saw famine memorials everywhere we turned: a plaque on a beach boulder in Galway, a moving tribute near the small town of Lahinch, skeletal sculptures of famine victims slouching along the river Liffey or crouched in the corner of St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

St. Patrick’s Day provides an opportunity for Americans, like the Irish, to celebrate the many contributions that the Irish have made to our western cultural heritage.  But we should take the time during this celebratory week, especially during a presidential election season, to remember that the Irish potato famine was more than just an unfortunate botanical event: it was a natural disaster that was deeply intensified by a blind and unwavering commitment to unregulated, free-market capitalism.

When the famine struck, Ireland was in political union with England.  England thus should have born the responsibility for providing relief to its own citizens in the face of the starvation that the Irish people experienced during the especially intense famine years of 1845-1848.  They had the ability to do so, as many historians have pointed out.  Ireland had plenty of food in the country throughout the famine years, in the form of grains that were grown on large farms and exported to other countries. 

The English government attempted famine relief in fits and starts, using a combination of soup kitchens, public works programs, and imported maize to be sold to the people at very low cost.  More simple and effective solutions to the starvation of millions of people would have been to allow the Irish people to eat the grain they were farming for export or for the English government to purchase food from abroad and distribute it to the starving Irish peasants.  England, however, refused either of these courses of action—and we have ample evidence for their reasons.

The English politician who was in charge of the relief efforts, Charles Edward Trevelyan, believed that giving out food to the Irish people would constitute an example of unwise interference in the free market.  After the English government made some initial experiments with public works programs and food donations, Trevelyan ordered those measures stopped in late 1846, citing his fear that doing so would prevent free market innovation from taking its course: “The only way to prevent the people from becoming habitually dependent on government is to bring the operation to a close . . . these things should be stopped now or we run the risk of paralysing all private enterprise.”
Plaque in Galway


Trevelyan believed that if the government gave away food to the Irish people, it would unfairly punish the merchants who sold food.  Such interference in the free market, he argued, was never warranted.  When government officials in Ireland sent to Trevelyan accounts of Irish children starving to death in the streets, and asked him for food that they could dispense to the people, Trevelyan responded by sending them copies of Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on Scarcity, an economic tract that argued against a previous government scheme to provide an early version of a minimum wage to agricultural workers.

Laced throughout Trevelyan’s belief system was the judgment that providing government assistance to people in economic distress would lead them to become dependent upon government: “If the Irish once find out there are any circumstances in which they can get free government grants, we shall have a system of mendacity such as the world has never seen.”  Instead, Trevelyan believed, the government should encourage the Irish people to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps and the problem would solve itself.

And solve itself it did, but not in the way they expected.  While the English government sat back and waited for free-market capitalism to rescue Ireland from its famine, a million people died of starvation, typhus, cholera, and a host of related medical problems.  Families laid in their cabins and died together, children in the arms of their parents. Landlords evicted tenants who could not afford their rents, and left them to die in ditches.  Dogs dined on corpses in the streets.  The toll of suffering was indescribable. 

The names of Charles Edward Trevelyan and the other English politicians who allowed this famine to occur live in infamy in Irish history.  But I would contend that the real culprit in the famine was less any single individual and instead a blind adherence to the tenets of free-market capitalism—a shortsighted conviction that still infects our political discourse today.  Too many Americans believe that the government should get out of the business of interfering in markets or providing relief to its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.  Many of those Americans are the same ones whose ancestors suffered through the famine years as the result of those exact same sentiments.

The free market has many blessings to bestow upon us. But when we treat it as an untouchable idol, we lose sight of the fact that markets don’t care for individuals; they have no obligation to help the most vulnerable among us.  We also cannot count on private charity to bear the burden of caring for those who live on the margins of the market. The English government hoped that Irish landowners would step up to save their fellow citizens with their charity; instead, those landowners took advantage of the famine to clear starving tenants from their farms and make room for those who could afford to pay their rents.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-Americans owe it their heritage to remember the lessons that their history has bequeathed to us.  When we hear politicians arguing that the government should get out of the way of the markets, or that we should quit giving handouts to the poor and let them fend for themselves, we should hear in those words the echoes of Trevelyan and his contemporaries.  We should be careful, in our language and in our actions at the polls, not to repeat the mistakes of the past.  

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Minute Thesis

Welcome to readers from The Chronicle of Higher Education, who are visiting this page to check out some samples of the teaching activity of the Minute Thesis. (If you have arrived here without reading that article, go check it out first and then come back!) The Minute Thesis, a learning activity which I use in class whenever we have material to review or when students are ready to brainstorm project or presentation ideas, helps give students a quick preview of lots of possible ways to create new combinations and connections within the course material we have been studying, as well as to develop their own creative new approaches to what can sometimes seem like well-worn paths through ancient territories. It essentially involves creating category lists of course material, asking students to draw lines connecting items from different categories, and then giving them a minute (or more) to brainstorm a thesis that connects those items together. In a typical version of the game, we might end up thinking our way through five or six different new connections.

This first image, to the right, comes from a course I have been teaching on a regular basis in recent years, and which I love, in spite of its less-than-thrilling title: "British Literature Survey II."  This course helps prepare our majors for the upper-level literature courses they will be taking, offers a general education literature course to non-majors, and gives all students an opportunity to see how British and Irish literature from 1800 to the present can help inform our understanding of the relationship between literature and history, as well as the richness of the British and Irish literary traditions.  The particular version of the Minute Thesis represented on this board is designed to create connections between the various authors we have read during the Romantic period and the subject matter and themes that dominated our readings and the time period. In this case, the student with the marker has the task of circling a single theme and connecting it to two authors. The students then come up with a thesis for how those two authors might have both addressed or reflected that theme in their works, and also how they might have dealt with that theme in different ways.  You can see one line, for example, which connects William Blake and William Wordsworth to the subject of the "Natural World."  It shouldn't require much creative thinking to see how the natural world played a critical role in the thinking of both of these authors; it does require some thinking to establish how the natural world might have played a slightly different role in their thought and poetry.  In this class I sometime will swap out the themes for historical events, and leave the themes open.  So in that case the second column would have included instead things like: 1789--French Revolution; 1798--United Irishmen Rebellion; 1811-1812: Luddite Rebellions, etc.

The second board depicted here, to the left, represents an attempt to use the Minute Thesis to encourage faculty to consider how they can use a handful of learning principles to create small and positive changes to their teaching.  The items in the column on the left are a partial list of learning principles from my new book, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2016); the column on the right presents moments of a course or a class period which we often don't use as productively or effectively as we could: the first five minutes of class, the last five minutes of class, first day of the semester, last day of the semester, etc.  In this case I ask faculty workshop participants to consider a course they are teaching as a third item on the list, so the arc of one line essentially might ask them to consider: "How can I use retrieval in the first five minutes of British Literature Survey II next week?" Even just running through three or four possibilities with a group of faculty, and asking them to work in pairs or small groups to generate their course-specific theses, enables everyone to walk out of the session with one or two new ideas, all grounded solidly in the research on teaching and learning in higher education.

As I said in the Chronicle article, you can vary the categories, the time, the means of creating the connections, and almost everything about this exercise in a thousand different ways.  If you come up with a variation that works really well, and you would like to share it with others, please post it in the comments on the original article or on this blog post.  And if you are looking for lots more small ways to create continuous engagement from students in your courses, keep an eye out for Small Teaching, out on March 14, 2016.