Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Challenging faculty assumptions (and your own)

I was recently asked for ideas for a workshop for faculty who believe strongly in the power of lectures and textbooks alone to educate their students. This is what I wrote in reply:

"You might try showing all of (or clips from) "Minds of our Own," an amazing video series (3 hours in all) from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center (producers of the earlier, brilliant "A Private Universe." Both MOOO and PU are available in streaming form, free, at Or you can buy the DVDs, I believe.

"In these videos, there are many sequences of graduating Harvard and MIT seniors, in graduation robes (and some of them graduating with majors in science or engineering) confidently misunderstanding fundamental ideas in science that are taught in junior high. The sequence on using a battery and a piece of wire to light a light bulb is particularly rich. It begins by showing the misconceptions of graduating seniors (one mechanical engineering grad from MIT who thinks she can light the bulb and then fails laughs and attributes the problem to "operator error." The scene then shifts to a public school. A bright girl is defeated by her misconceptions, even after a very clear lecture and what looks like a very good, thorough lab on batteries and bulbs. In fact, even when an interviewer later puts her in a situation when she can reason her way to the correct answer (which she then draws on an easel), she refuses to believe her reasoning over her preconception. Not until her easel solution lights the bulb does she see it. And hen she immediately flips to recommending that other students be taught in a way that we recognize as the way that she was taught in the first place: the way that failed.

"Several faculty have told me over the years that they have shown clips like these to their students (in one case, a course in classical music) and found that they triggered valuable discussions about the nature of teaching and learning. And I use them in workshops with faculty.

"Having said that, note that any teacher (including me) has strong preconceptions about how things work in a course or workshops, just like that girl had her preconceptions about how to light a bulb. Watch the whole three hours, and "A Private Universe" (22 minutes), thinking about those faculty you want to teach as the 'students.' The single most important lesson of both videos: if you don't know what your students already believe, and why they believe it, you're already 3/4 of the way down the toilet. And your 'students' almost certainly don't all believe the same things."

What do you think? Would you agree to lead such a workshop to help faculty become conscious of, and question, assumptions that have provided a foundation for their teaching? How would you organize it?

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