Flipped Learning: Just another teaching template

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Task 1: Before reading this article, search for The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the first video entitled Rethinking Space and Time. Answer the following questions:

What is meant by “space”? What is meant by “time”? (Suggested answers are at the end of this entry.)

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In this article, the Flipped Learning pedagogical approach will be clarified and evaluated for its advantages and limitations according to available empirical evidence and through critical reflection upon its underlying assumptions. The author aims to show that Flipped Learning is neither revolutionary nor a universal remedy for under-performance in study environments. It does not constitute a method or approach but merely a template or framework for arranging work before and during face-to-face lessons. However, Flipped Learning does have several strengths and, in combination with more recently available learning technologies and complimentary approaches, represents one of many legitimate options for well-informed educators. This blog entry then goes on to provide examples of good practice and practical suggestions for educators who opt to experiment with Flipped Learning in their school or university.

“school work at home, homework at school”

What is Flipped Learning?   

This has been explained elsewhere so I will be concise. The simple definition provided above is memorable but a more precise one has been provided by the Flipped Learning Network, an online association of Flipped Learning practitioners:

“Flipped learning is a pedagogical approach in which direct instruction moves from the group learning space to the individual learning space, and the resulting group space is transformed into a dynamic, interactive learning environment where the educator guides [my emphasis] students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.”

In many descriptions of this approach, a caricature contrast is drawn between the ‘Traditional Classroom’ where the teacher acts as a ‘Sage on the Stage’ and the ‘Flipped Classroom’ where the teacher is a ‘Guide on the Side”. The sage is associated with transmission of knowledge, passive learning and content-coverage, in other words direct instruction. The guide is associated with learner collaboration, active learning and learning by discovery. The guide’s teaching style is underpinned by constructivist learning theory.

For such a major role shift to occur, homework tasks, which traditionally have been employed to consolidate knowledge acquired during face-to-face lessons, become the main classroom activity. Conversely, the input of new knowledge, instead of being the major focus of lessons, is designated for pre-class study.

However, students are not left to pre-study in isolation without support. For this pre-class phase, the teacher supplies a package of self-study materials to learners, typically short video presentations of key concepts. Students watch these videos at home and complete self-checking quizzes until they believe they comprehend. This means that valuable face-to-face time with the teacher can be devoted to a variety of activities that allow pupils to apply the ideas and extend their knowledge through, for example, case studies, interactive labs, project work or collaborative problem-solving. The teacher is present to monitor, provide guidance and feedback on tasks that activate higher order thinking skills.

Below are two illustrations of Flipped Learning, the first portraying the process and the second showing how it relates to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

flippedflowmodel

Source: http://blog.wepresentwifi.com/the-flipped-classroom

flippedclassroom

Source: Williams, B. (2013). How I flipped my classroom. NNNC Conference, Norfolk, NE.

Flipped Learning is thus intended to be a sub-category of blended learning, i.e. partially face-to-face and partially online. With the advent of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, learners may complete their pre-class work at a time and location that is convenient for them, and will hopefully begin to adopt a more opportunistic learning habit as a consequence.

Origins of Flipped Learning

Some educators react that Flipped Learning is nothing new. For instance, a literature teacher once commented to this author that he routinely asks his students to prepare for class by reading a chapter of the set text and answering surface level comprehension questions. Preliminary homework is also a feature of the method called ‘Team-based Learning’ (TBL) that was devised by Michaelsen, Knight and Fink (2004). (However, TBL in my view is unethical in that students are tested and graded on their preparatory studies with insufficient input and support from their teachers.)

Perhaps though, Mastery Learning is the true precursor of Flipped Learning.  Diagnostic pre-assessment and high quality group-based instruction are also features of this method devised by Bloom (1971). Mastery Learning was researched more rigorously than many other educational methods and results in terms of impact on learning were impressive. However, in the 1970s and 1980s there were practical hurdles to overcome when it came to implementing Mastery Learning. At the time it was criticized for being labour-intensive for teachers and unworkable with large classes of students.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took a revolutionary step in 2001 by opening its huge archive of online lecture recordings to the general public. This spurred interest in free online learning and has led to the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which are accessible through gateway websites such as Udacity, Coursera, edX and FutureLearn.

In 2007, Bergmann and Sams reported on their pedagogical experimentation in a US high school environment and have since become the authors of two popular books about Flipped Learning (see references). They have described their experiences in detail, focusing on the impact on individual learners. Their view of Flipped Learning is interesting in that they regard it as a catalyst for shifting from a teacher-centred to a student-centred pedagogical paradigm. I would argue that there is a time and place when teacher-centredness is advantageous and that the real goal is learning-centredness. (Please see my tongue-in-cheek entry on Learning-Based Learning for more about my perspective.)

At the time of writing, Flipped Learning remains a popular topic in education. There is particularly strong interest in Flipped Learning in the university sector, where educators are more likely to be required to deliver lengthy lectures and feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the format. Instead of making lectures interactive though, which is a perfectly viable option, they have decided to switch to a method that relegates lectures to homework.

Advantages and disadvantages of Flipped Learning

 

Pros Cons
1.       Students are able to watch short preparatory video lectures at their own pace and convenience. 1.       Video presentations lack the fidelity and subtleties of face-to-face lessons. Also, some learners will not watch the videos before lessons. The traditional lecture format and transmission model of learning are likely to be maintained.
2.       Teachers are present when students attempt to apply concepts, and can monitor and intervene as and when necessary to support learners. 2. Teachers are not present when students attempt to understand concepts and they cannot immediately react to students’ misconceptions.
3.       Short video lectures can be accompanied by self-checking quizzes. Students can attempt the quizzes as frequently as they wish. 3. If students give incorrect answers to self-checking quizzes, they may not understand why they are wrong.
4.       Students may work at their own pace through the video lectures and accompanying self-checking exercises. This is differentiation according to learning rates. 4. Students are typically provided with only one path to learning the key concepts, i.e. via the short video lectures. This is not differentiation according to modalities.*
5.       In Flipped Learning, there is a logical progression from the comprehension of concepts and rules to their application. 5. Flipped Learning assumes that learning should be deductive in nature. Sometimes, however, it is valuable for learners to discover concepts and rules by looking for patterns in examples.
6.       In order to create video lectures, there are many simple-to-use applications available nowadays. 6. IT skills and facilities vary considerably according to different learning environments. Teachers must ensure that all students have access to the video lectures outside the classroom.
7.       In this method, there is a strong emphasis on mastering content knowledge. 7. It is not as convincing that this method could help learners to master procedural knowledge, i.e. skills.
8.       Lectures are replaced by self-study so that students come to class armed with pre-requisite knowledge to explore concepts more deeply. 8. The role of seminars, tutorials and lab classes to explore concepts more fully and apply knowledge seems
to have been forgotten.

 

*Of course, teachers do not need to limit the type of pre-lesson study materials to video lectures. They could also indicate relevant pages of textbooks or provide links to pertinent websites.

 

Compensating for the disadvantages of Flipped Learning

The Flipped Learning Network (http://flippedlearning.org/domain/46)  claims that adherence to four principles is conducive to the quality of instruction.

  1. Flexible learning environment
  • Spaces and time frames that permit students to interact and reflect on their learning
  • Continual monitoring of students to make adjustments as appropriate
  • Provision of alternative ways to learn content and demonstrate mastery
  1. Learning culture
  • Opportunities to engage in meaningful, student-centred activities
  • Activities that are accessible to all learners thanks to scaffolding, differentiation and feedback
  1. Intentional content
  • Highlighting of key concepts in direct instruction
  • Creation and/or curation of relevant content, e.g. videos
  • Differentiation to make content accessible to all learners
  1. Professional educator
  • Availability to all students
  • Conductor of formative assessment
  • Collaboration with other educators in the spirit of ongoing development

The author considers these as general principles of good teaching and not specific to Flipped Learning. A more advisable approach would be an eclectic one, utilising methods as and when they are appropriate to the learning situation. There is no need to place Flipped Learning on a pedestal and use it whatever learning situation is encountered.

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Task 2: Go back The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the second video entitled Overcoming Common Hurdles and complete the following task:

List three solutions to problems implementing Flipped Learning. (Answers are at the end of this guide.)

Resources for Flipped Learning

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Task 3: Return to The Flipped Learning Toolkit on YouTube. Watch the fifth video entitled Which Tech Tools Are Right for You? and complete the following task:

List three types of technology that are needed for Flipped Learning. (Answers are at the end of this guide.)

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Learning Management Systems (LMSs) aka Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are secure, help teachers to organise content, provide numerous tools including online quiz creation and have the capability to track student progress. Universities usually subscribe to an LMS but there are also open-source options. Here are three suggestions:

Software applications to produce videos are plentiful but here are three unusual and interesting ones:

Teachers will need somewhere to store videos. Of course, YouTube is an option but here are three alternative free online hosting depositories:

Final thoughts on Flipped Learning

I am going to be so bold as to make an analogy, and I hope it is a close one, between Flipped Learning and a template for writing a cover letter. If I adhered to a recommended cover letter template and were shortlisted for interview, I would not conclude that it was the cover letter template alone that had brought me success. There was also the content, the paragraphing, the skillful use of language, application of accurate and complex grammatical structures, appropriate vocabulary, etc. So, why, in judging the outcomes of Flipped Learning, is it just this “template” that is considered the sole factor. Teaching skills and content, the ability of the instructor to motivate learners, positive interactions with and between learners, these are factors that make the real difference between successful and not-so-successful courses. Flipped Learning is just a template or framework to be used or discarded at the discretion of well-informed and trained teachers.

References

Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2012). Flip your classroom: Reach every student in every class every day. International Society for Technology in Education.

Bergmann, J. & Sams, A. (2014). Flipped learning: Gateway to student engagement. International Society for Technology in Education.

Bloom, B. S. (1971). Mastery learning. In J. H. Block (Ed.), Mastery learning: Theory and practice (pp. 47–63). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Bretzmann, J. (2013). Flipping 2.0: Practical strategies for flipping your class. Bretzmann Group LLC.

Michaelsen, L. K., Knight, A.B., & Fink, L.D. (2004). Team-based-learning: A transformative use of small groups in college teaching. Stylus Publishing.

 

Suggested answers to tasks

Task 1: “Space” = classroom layout that is suitable for interactive group work ; “Time” = best use of face-to-face classroom time if concepts have already been learnt before the lesson.

Task 2: i) Provide flashdrives or DVDs to students who do not have Internet access at home;

  1. ii) Keep videos short so that students can concentrate optimally;

iii) Do not worry about creating perfect videos.

Task 3: i) Video cameras (even a smartphone’s)

  1. ii) Screencasting programmes

iii) Whiteboarding apps for tablets

Hong Kong secondary curriculum renewal: Challenges and successes

Since the handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong has revised its school curricula (with a knock-on effect on universities as well).

I was present during the process from 2007 onwards. From 2013 to 2015, I was working in a university and was therefore in a good position to follow the progress of students from secondary to tertiary education.

In the Prezi below, I report reactions of school principals to the processes of introducing the New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum, the perceived challenges and successes.

http://prezi.com/xyul9fqz4yjz/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

To clarify the last part of the presentation, which refers to the connectivity between secondary and tertiary education, I have observed that Hong Kong universities do not really value students’ portfolios of other learning experiences, they are much more concerned about academic results. Secondly, the learning objectives of first-year foundation programmes at universities in terms of the development of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, too closely resemble those of the core NSS subject Liberal Studies. Also, IELTS seems to be supplanting NSS English because the latter is not yet firmly established.

Key research findings about Differentiated Instruction

A model of differentiation like Carol Ann Tomlinson’s (click here for more information) contains numerous instructional strategies which may be employed independently or in concert and in many possible combinations. This makes such a model very difficult to research and evaluate. Saying that, below are some fairly recent findings that I found interesting, and I hope you will, too.

Tiered ability grouping combined with differentiated learning materials increases the gap in achievement between lower and higher ability students.

Lower ability students’ achievement is enhanced through collaboration with higher ability classmates.

Schofield, J.W. (2010). International evidence on ability grouping with curriculum differentiation and the achievement gap in secondary schools. Teachers College Record, 112(5), 1492 – 1528.

The concept of ‘learning styles’ is insufficiently clear or evidenced, and therefore should not be a deciding factor when differentiating instruction.

Landrum, T.J., & McDuffie, K.A. (2010). Learning styles in the age of differentiated instruction. Exceptionality, 18(1), 6 – 17.

Differentiated Instruction has a positive effect on student engagement and motivation.

Konstantinou-Katzi, P., Tsolaki, E., Maletiou-Mavrotheris, M., & Koutselini, M. (2012). Differentiation of teaching and learning mathematics: an action research study in tertiary education. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 44(3), 332 – 349.

Educational technology shows promise as a means to make the differentiation of instruction and provision of individualised formative feedback more feasible and practical.

Scalise, K. et al. (2007). Adaptive technology for e-learning: principles and case studies of an emerging field. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58 (14), 2295 – 2309.

Many teachers report that they lack “the time, the skill and the will” to utilise DI strategies. This situation could be ameliorated through support from curriculum developers and publishers of educational materials.

Hertberg-Davis, H. (2009). Myth 7: Differentiation in the regular classroom is equivalent to gifted programs and is sufficient: Classroom teachers have the time, the skill, and the will to differentiate adequately. Gifted Child Quarterly, 53, 251-253.

 

 

Apps for self-directed learning

There are several kinds of apps that can assist you with your learning and help you to develop effective learning habits. Below are 21 recommended apps in 7 categories, and suggestions on how to exploit them.

Many are free to download, but for those which are not, e.g. iStudiezPro, there is usually a free version with restricted functionality. You can experiment with the free version to see whether you like the app enough to invest in the full version. Actually, there are hundreds of such apps on iTunes and Google Play, so why not try others, too.

When evaluating an app, one thing to take note of is its integration with other software and hardware. For instance, Evernote and StudyBlue accounts can be connected, making it easy to create revision flashcards based on notes that you have taken. Mindjet files sync from your smartphone or tablet to your desktop computer via Dropbox.

It is also worthwhile exploring the user guides, video tutorials and case studies that makers of the apps often provide. These can help you realize the full potential of the apps and consider alternative ways to use them.

Study planner apps

Using this kind of app can help get you into the habit of managing your time effectively. Besides keeping track of lectures and tutorials, study planner apps allow you to organize study tasks, assignments and projects according to course schedules, and to set your study priorities. These apps can also provide timely reminders to complete tasks and keep a record of your course grades.

IStudyPlan

istudiez-pro-review

 

My Study Life

Flashcard apps

These apps can be powerful revision aids. After identifying key terminology in your courses, you can create flashcards for important concepts and later be tested on your retention through a variety of quizzes. Progress is tracked and incorrect answers will be retested. Besides your own flashcards, you can browse and use millions of flashcards made by other learners.

  • StudyBlue (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)
  • Quizlet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • gFlash+ (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Blackberry)

study_blue

quizlet_logo_large

gflash

Dictionary apps

Dictionary apps contain a wealth of information to assist you with academic reading and writing. Besides checking the meanings of words, you can see example sentences and find out common collocations. The thesaurus component in the apps can help you select precisely the right words for written assignments, and hearing the pronunciation of words can assist you with academic listening and speaking.

dictionary

merriam

wordweb

Mind mapping apps

You can utilize these apps in a number of ways. For instance, mind maps are great tools to capture and organize ideas for assignments and projects. They may also be used to rework lecture notes into a more visual format. Some learners employ mind maps as revision aids. These apps work very well on tablets, and the mind maps may be co-created online.

  • Freemind (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Mindjet (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • iMindMapHD (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)

Freemind_logo

Mindjet

iMindMap

Bibliography apps

For higher education students, these apps can speed up the process of generating citations and compiling reference lists. With them you can scan or capture metadata and then they will automatically generate references in several styles, e.g. APA, MLA and Chicago. Whereas EasyBib is a free mobile app, Zotero and Mendeley are extensions for web browsers such as Firefox and Chrome.

  • EasyBib (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Zotero (Chrome, Safari, IE, Firefox, iPad/iPhone [Zotpad])
  • Mendeley (Any Web browser, Mac, iPad, iPhone,Windows phone, Kindle Fire)

easybibvectorlogo

zotero

Mendeley

Note-making apps

These powerful apps can do more for you than providing a convenient notepad. They enable you to collect information on an academic topic from anywhere into a single place. This information can be in many forms, e.g. images, text, web pages, audio/video clips.  The information can then be edited, annotated, filed, and even shared with other students.

  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • OneNote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)
  • GoodReader (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Kindle Fire)

evernote

one-note-logo

GoodReader_Logo

Scanner Apps

This kind of app can boost efficiency when working with text in several ways. Many kinds of text can be scanned as JPEG or PDF files, including handwritten notes and text embedded in images. Once scanned, you have the options to straighten, crop and combine pages. Those with Optical Character Recognition (OCR) enable export of PDFs to Word, Excel or Text files. PDFs may also be shared or printed wirelessly.

  • Genius Scan (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows)
  • Evernote (Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows, Safari, Chrome)
  • CamScanner (iPad, iPhone, Android, Windows Phone 8)

Genius-Scan-icon

evernote

CamScanner

I hope that you have found this list useful. If you discover better apps, or new categories of learning apps, or new ways to use them, I’m all ears…

 

 

Reasons why teaching in higher education could be better

In this entry, I would like to give reasons why it appears to me that the quality of university teaching, overall, is not high enough. Let me qualify that I only have experience at higher education institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK.

Reason #1: The design of professional development programmes for university teachers

The goals of such programmes are (a) to familiarize them with the learning environment, with which I heartily agree, and (b) to develop them as teachers, about which I am skeptical.

The problem as I see it is not so much the scope, duration or content of these programmes. It is the design. The programmes consist of interactive workshops on relevant topics, plus various other activities such as a single lesson observation by a more experienced teacher, or reflective writing about their teaching.

This programme design is not suitable for either pre-service teacher training or in-service teacher development. For the former, it is not substantial enough and the connection between theory and practice is too weak. One would need multiple lesson observations combined with multiple opportunities for reflection and multiple instances of expert feedback to really see development. For the latter, the workshops are too basic and the other activities redundant when the teachers in question already have a teaching qualification.

Another issue is the pedigree of those who lead such programmes. Frequently, they have no teaching qualifications themselves. For me, this means that the main focus becomes talking about teaching rather than teaching itself. They are academic programmes rather than professional ones.

Personally, I would recommend that all university teachers  go through a pre-service teaching practicum as do school teachers. They are paid for teaching and therefore owe it to their students to be skillful in the classroom and sensitive to their learners. Adult learners may be different in nature than children, but they still deserve consistently capable teachers, even though those teachers may adopt different roles than a school teacher. By skills, I am not suggesting anything elaborate. I mean, for example, the skills of setting up learning activities clearly, of checking instructions, of making learning goals explicit, of monitoring students’ progress, etc. I am aware that “quality teaching” is a debated concept and may vary according to context, but the classroom skills I refer to are, I contest, uncontroversial.

If university teachers were professionally trained in this manner, I think it would be highly beneficial, not only for its immediate impact on learning, but also for its impact on the quality of educational research. With more consistency in classroom management practices, for instance, a significant variable would be removed. Then, whatever teaching intervention the research was focused upon, the less of a distraction would be the differences between teachers in this respect.

Reason #2: The ways in which student feedback is administered and utilised

Student feedback on teaching does have it purposes. When I look at feedback from students, for example, I am very interested in what they have to say about certain aspects, e.g. whether I managed to establish an atmosphere conducive to learning, whether the pace of learning was appropriate, whether the content was relevant and specific, or whether my presentations were sufficiently clear to them. However, I must qualify this by explaining that I seek feedback during a course.

In universities it is more common for written feedback to be elicited formally at the conclusion of courses, and, because it can also have an impact on the performance appraisal of teachers, it therefore becomes summative in nature. It simply serves to certify whether that teacher and the course met the students’ expectations. Sincere teachers may proceed dutifully to incorporate student feedback into adjustments to the design and delivery of the next run of the course. However, this will not benefit the students who had provided the feedback.

My view is that it would be more useful if the feedback was sought at an early stage of the course so that the teacher would have time and opportunity to make adjustments. This would be formative feedback, i.e. no grading involved and no repercussions for the teacher. Its purpose would be to inform what the teacher does next to enhance the teaching and learning experience. Formal written feedback could still be sought at the conclusion, too, but for a different purpose.

Unfortunately, this does not entirely solve the problems with student feedback. It can also be argued that, in responding positively to student feedback, the teacher is merely satisfying the learning preferences of the majority of students in that cohort. This can become confusing for teachers, for example when they have attended professional development workshops extolling the virtues of a constructivist approach and have done their best to make their course student-centred, interactive, collaborative, reflective and experiential in nature, yet the response from the majority of students on that course reveals that they would have preferred a traditional, didactic approach. Teachers are thus caught on the horns of the dilemma of either guessing and satisfying perceived learner needs (and hopefully getting more positive rankings on the final feedback form) or resisting this to teach in a principled manner and thereby risking lower overall student appraisals.

Reason #3: The lack of understanding of assessment principles and practice

David Boud (1998) * gave a presentation at the University of Queensland reporting on his observations of university teachers’ assessment misconceptions and malpractice. Even now, in 2014, I encounter examples of assessment “bloopers” in higher education. My sources are students (who come to me for counselling on their learning), hearsay from professional peers taking part-time postgraduate courses, and study of curriculum documents. Let me provide examples to see whether you also conclude that all is not well.

  1. The intended learning outcomes for a course are not properly expressed as outcomes. Instead, they are descriptions of the learning activities in which students will engage, e.g. “You will discuss X and Y.” or “You will examine case studies.”
  2. Norm-referenced assessment is taking place, i.e. students on a course are being ranked, when the published assessment scheme deceptively indicates that the assessment is criterion-referenced.
  3. Language quality is assessed in term papers and oral presentations when there has been no language support or instruction  during the course. Also, the concept of language quality has not been properly defined, and interpretations of “language quality” vary between markers.
  4. The assessment criteria for a course are not accompanied by descriptors and standards.
  5. Students are asked to acquire content knowledge independently and are assessed on their recall of that knowledge before they have received the benefit of expert instruction.
  6. Even on taught master degree courses, a high proportion of marks is awarded for lower-order thinking tasks.
  7. Formative feedback is provided only once, and then there is no further opportunity for students to practise before they are assessed and graded.
  8. First drafts of project work, written assignments, oral presentations, etc. are assessed summatively.
  9. Assessment is used as a threat to motivate students. This is in the context of adult learning, when the learners have freely chosen what to study, are paying for the course, and should have high intrinsic or instrumental motivation.
  10. Intended learning outcomes are written to express positive changes in personal values (towards the desired attributes of university graduates), when such changes are very difficult to measure.
  11. Feedback on learning tasks consists of numerical or alphabetical grades. No information is provided to the learner on how to enhance performance and thereby move closer to the learning goals.
  12. Computerised adaptive language proficiency tests that are designed to inform learning are also employed for summative achievement tests. The tests are administered at the beginning and end of a course, and the improvement recorded. Moreover, students are not prepared specifically for the content/skills of this test during the course.
  13. The belief that comments on student work such as “satisfactory or “very good” are descriptive, qualitative and helpful for development.

* Boud, D. (1998). Presentation to the TEDI Conference: Effective Assessment at University. University of Queensland, 4-5 November 1998.

Reason #4: The lack of excellence of teaching excellence awards

Having award schemes to recognize and honour good teachers in universities would seem to be both positive and uncontroversial. It would also appear to raise the profile of quality teaching. However, I have noticed a few problems with these awards.

Firstly, they appear to contradict a commonly advocated shift in emphasis from teaching to learning. If they were in tune with this shift, wouldn’t they be called awards for promoting learning instead?

Another difficulty is that it is often asserted that teaching quality is hard to define, a debated concept, yet criteria are needed for selection of award winners. How are such criteria identified? Some institutions opt to refer to an external benchmark such as the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme in the UK. But it begs the question how the NTFS criteria were derived. Others conduct internal research to identify best practices of excellent teachers. Of course, the latter approach is circular. How do researchers select excellent teachers in the first place? They are the ones who have been given teaching awards!! It amazes me that there is even a book whose authors employed this research methodology:

Kember, D. and McNaught, C. (2007). Enhancing university teaching: Lessons from research into award-winning teachers. Routledge.

Another significant consideration in deciding who receives such awards is nomination by students. This raises a serious issue. For example, a teacher may be popular because they have, for example, been so supportive that the course became insufficiently challenging. I envision this happening very easily in an enquiry-based mode of learning, where one of the aims is to foster students’ self-direction. Students seek help from their teacher, but it is not always forthcoming, deliberately so. The teacher who provides more help than is optimum may receive praise from students, but has not helped them towards the goal of greater autonomy. In short, implicit criteria that students have for quality teaching are not always aligned with factors identified in educational research that are known to have a positive impact on learning.

Finally, teaching excellence awards have an image problem. I hear snide remarks that, if a professor has won awards for teaching, it must be because he or she is not an able researcher.  It is the case, in Hong Kong at least, that research is viewed as much more important than teaching. Research output raises the status of the institution and attracts funding. Perhaps in some countries university applicants do pay attention to teaching scores in league tables, e.g.,

The Guardian newspaper’s in the UK: http://www.theguardian.com/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013

However, I witness that old attitudes prevail; the status of the university as a research institution matters much more, even though undergraduates in particular may not need top researchers to instruct them, but rather great teachers.

Reason #5: Questionable assumptions about the capacities and support needs of today’s university students

In reaction to negative feedback on the quality of their teaching, I have noticed that some professors defend themselves by claiming that it is not their responsibility to teach well; university students have a responsibility to manage their own learning and should not expect to be spoon-fed as they were at school. After all, when those professors were students themselves, they managed to excel in spite of really awful instruction, or a total absence of instruction. (I am not attempting to present a straw man argument here. I have really heard, and heard tell of, such comments.)

There are a few points that can be made in response to any professors that have this attitude.

Firstly, the situation in higher education has changed drastically since those professors were students themselves. The proportion of the population enjoying the opportunity of higher education has increased markedly. Those professors, at the time they gained entry to universities, were in the top band of academic achievers. This makes it evident that they had, rather wonderfully, developed effective study strategies by themselves. (Well, strategies appropriate for success in that era of education anyway…) However, now that the diversity of learners has increased, a greater variation in learning proficiencies and preferences can be expected. Readiness to study at undergraduate level is not a given, and I believe that one of the roles of university teachers is to scaffold the transition from secondary to tertiary education.

Secondly, with renewed curricula at secondary/high schools, spoon feeding is no longer a viable strategy in that sector of education. School-leaving, or university entrance, exams require much more than regurgitation of subject content to achieve high grades. Higher order thinking skills are tested, which has a backwash effect on the selection of teaching strategies. For example, for the compulsory subject of Liberal Studies in Hong Kong, students have to undertake an independent enquiry study (with teacher support and guidance). Moreover, student-teachers following a BEd programme or PGCE/PGDE learn to design and deliver interactive lessons that promote application, evaluation and synthesis of concepts as well as understanding and recall. In other words, teachers are trained differently nowadays and have a range of teaching strategies. They do not subscribe to the transmission model. Perhaps those professors are remembering their own school education some decades ago and are assuming that nothing has changed.

Lastly, those professors seem not to be aware that even the most autonomous learners can be helped to greater achievements through selective and skillful interventions by a teacher. They would do well to study Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and Bruner’s theory of instructional scaffolding, and make alterations to their teaching practices accordingly.

Reason #6: Issues with the Scholarship of Learning and Teaching (SoTL)

SoTL can be described as a movement to enhance the learning of tertiary students through formal enquiry by lecturers and professors of all disciplines. Many universities have units or centres for the promotion of learning and teaching quality which provide support to academics who engage in small-scale educational research. There is also extrinsic motivation since, in performance appraisal schemes, there is sometimes a category “pedagogical research”. Participation in this kind of research can be significant for contract renewals and promotions.

This all sounds very positive and commendable. However, SoTL is not free of controversy.

One of the issues is that professors who are not in the Social Sciences have to adjust to a research paradigm that is distinct from the one to which they are accustomed. For example, consider the case of a physicist who is used to hardcore, laboratory-based, quantitative research with severely constrained variables. This scientist will have to “unlearn” past assumptions and beliefs about effective research if they are to investigate an aspect of learning & teaching successfully.

Secondly, when university teachers are expected to conduct educational research on top of research in their own disciplines, this can represent an increase in their workload and in my view runs the risk of diluting their overall research output.

Finally, there is the issue of research scale. An individual professor’s investigations may promote quality within the narrow confinements of a particular course, or may for example lead to the development of superior learning materials. Yet this sort of research is not that useful to other educators in other learning environments. Because of this lack of relatability of research findings, I doubt whether those findings are worth disseminating through publication or presentation.

 

 

Learning-based Learning

LBLDuring the years that I have worked in higher education I have witnessed several passing methodological “bandwagons” onto which educators have jumped, and a little later jumped off (or surreptitiously slipped off ). For example, in recent times Flipped Classroom has become very trendy. A few years ago, there were high hopes for Second Life Virtual Learning.

For your reference, here is an A-Z of methods, or “Learnings”:

Action Active Adventure Applied Case-based Challenge-based Collaborative Community-based Competency-based Computer-assisted Concept-based Content-based Context-based Crossover Digital Discovery E-Enquiry/Inquiry-based Experiential Exploratory Flip (or Flipped Classroom) Game-based Hands-on Holistic Humanistic Incidental M-/Mobile Mastery Online Problem-based Programmed Project-based Second Life Virtual Service Situated Skills-based Student-centered Task-based Team-based Technology-based Web-based Work-based

Have I missed any?

I asked myself why such methods could hold attraction for educators and on what bases they should be selected.

One can see the apparent attractions of employing a method for teaching and learning. Both teachers and students should become comfortable with the routines and processes involved. Teachers should feel happy and confident because they know their chosen method was carefully designed to be consistent with à la mode learning theory. Institutions should feel happy because they can advertise their use of modern, scientifically proven, methods. The creators of the methods should be delighted with their influence on the quality of learning (and the royalties from sales of their methodology books).

The problem though is that so far no single method that has been proposed is able to suit all learning environments. Particularly with those methods that are based on something, e.g. problems, cases or skills, by adopting one method the educator is immediately restricting options.

Here however, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, I make the bold claim that my own method – Learning-based Learning or LBL™ * overcomes this difficulty by encompassing all of the other “Learnings”. LBL is amazing because it eliminates the need to think of the other methods as mutually exclusive, rival solutions.

In LBL, teachers are aware of all the above “Learnings” and select elements of them according to their judgment of the needs in particular learning circumstances, and for particular learners.

LBL is complemented by another method – Teaching-based Teaching or TBT™ – in which the capability to adopt LBL by untrained teachers, for example the majority of university professors, is enhanced through the requirement that, besides attending workshops about learning and teaching, they also progress through a substantial and rigorous teaching practicum. Thus, the connection between pedagogical theory and practice is strengthened in their minds through the inculcation of career-long reflective practice. Those teachers gradually become more sensitive to what is going on in their classrooms and better able to teach reactively, to teach in response to learning environments that are in constant flux. Armed also with an encyclopedic knowledge of all the methods, they can pick and choose from them in an informed and effective manner.

*LBL and TBT are not really trademarked

Problem-Based Learning: Scaffolding in problem crafting and at the problem identification stage

My focus in this 2005 investigation was the appropriacy of learner support (scaffolding) incorporated by Problem-Based Learning (PBL) facilitators in their design of problem materials and offered real-time during Stage 2: Problem Identification of the PBL process devised by and utilized at Temasek Polytechnic (TP) in Singapore. For more information, please see TP’s webpages on PBL at http://www.tp.edu.sg/home/pbl.htm

I collected and examined PBL materials from various Subjects/Courses at Temasek Polytechnic for indications of scaffolding, and interviewed facilitators concerning their beliefs about the quality & quantity of learner support that should be purposefully incorporated into the design of the problem materials and/or offered during Stage 2 itself. I strove to understand how the need to assist certain learners in their comprehension of problem scenarios can be balanced with the generally recognized desirability of authenticity in PBL problem crafting.

My conclusion was that, although PBL is a form of self-directed learning, scaffolding remains appropriate before and at Stage 2 in the interest of inclusiveness.

Contextual information

TP Diploma Courses are sub-divided into Subjects sub-divided into Topics.

The TP PBL Process:

Stage 1:  Group setting

Stage 2:  Problem identification

Stage 3:  Idea generation

Stage 4:  Learning issues

Stage 5:  Self-directed Learning

Stage 6:  Synthesis and Application

Stage 7:  Reflection and Feedback

Introduction

I was prompted to examine scaffolding in PBL problem materials and at the problem identification stage by two articles, and by a request to develop an academic staff development workshop on the topic of advanced PBL problem design.

The first article, by Puntambekar and Hübscher (2005) was not specifically related to PBL, yet did focus on ‘complex learning environments’ such as project-based and design-based classrooms. It raised concerns about a perceived current emphasis on the tools of scaffolding rather than the scaffolding process. The authors claim that “…although the new curricula and software tools now described as scaffolds have provided us with novel techniques to support student learning, the important features of scaffolding such as ongoing diagnosis, calibrated support, and fading are being neglected.”

Hence, I decided to investigate whether such concerns were warranted in the context of PBL in Temasek Polytechnic. In order to make the research task more manageable and to concentrate my thinking on PBL problem design issues, I chose to focus only on the crafting of PBL problems and the facilitation of Stage 2 – problem identification. The latter was included for consideration because I consider that the design of the problem and the facilitation of Stage 2 are inextricably linked.

Another significant issue was raised by Greening (1998) who highlighted the “implications of PBL modes for students with a non-English background and from a cultural perspective”, and supplied evidence of the value of scaffolding in this area. About 10% of TP students are non-Singaporean, therefore the researcher considered it relevant for his secondary focus to be the inclusiveness of PBL problem design for international students and for any student with less well-developed English language proficiency.

The notion of scaffolding

What is scaffolding? In its original sense, it “…consists essentially of the adult ‘controlling’ those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence” (Wood, Bruner, and Ross, 1976). As the learner makes progress in gaining mastery of manageable elements, the adult or teacher gradually restores control of the more challenging elements to the learner. The ultimate goal, of course, is independent overall proficiency.

As an everyday example, an adult holds onto a bicycle seat to take control of a child’s balance while the child becomes proficient in keeping her feet on the pedals, holding the handlebars, steering, etc. After some practice, the adult decides to place a hand on the seat and is prepared to grip tightly only if the child loses her balance. Support is reduced and eventually withdrawn. “A good scaffolder looks for the point where a student can go it alone, and allows the individual to proceed on his or her own initiative.” (Hogan, 1997)

Six types of support that can be provided by an adult or expert were identified by Wood, Bruner and Ross:

  • Getting the learner interested
  • Simplifying the task
  • Providing direction
  • Highlighting crucial features of the task
  • Managing frustration
  • Modeling the task

The idea of scaffolding has been connected to the idea of making available a space for growth that matches a learner’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), as defined by Vygotsky (1978). To continually match a learner’s ZPD, an expert follows a process of:

  • Ongoing diagnosis
  • Calibrated support
  • Fading

The scaffolding metaphor was conceived with one-to-one teaching in mind. It is not immediately obvious how to transfer scaffolding to a classroom situation where the facilitator is outnumbered by the learners, or how scaffolding may be integrated into the learning materials that are used in a class of students.

Scaffolding in PBL problems

If scaffolding in the sense described above were incorporated into the design of PBL problem scenarios, what form might it take?

To digress slightly, let us first consider what ‘elements’ may need to be scaffolded in PBL. They include domain-specific knowledge & skills, and process skills such as time management, interpersonal skills, communication, critical thinking, etc. Besides these, there are other enabling elements that are essential for success in PBL but which may not be mentioned in syllabus documents.

For example, since PBL problems are frequently presented as quasi-authentic written statements, language proficiencies such as the following are vital:

  • general/academic vocabulary range sufficient to gain understanding of the problem statement
  • reading sub-skills, e.g., an ability to guess meaning from cotext
  • linguistic versatility and agility sufficient to paraphrase and summarise the main (factual) points of a problem statement
  • dictionary skills to research unknown, opaque lexical items
  • awareness of grammatical structures employed in factual statements and opinions

Here is an example of the scaffolding of assumed language elements in problem design:

After pre-assessment of learners’ reading skills and vocabulary range, a facilitator opts to ‘control’ challenging vocabulary in the problem statement in one of the following ways:

  1. by pre-teaching the challenging vocabulary
  2. by grading the text, for instance by using everyday vocabulary rather than technical terms  
  3. by presenting the problem statement online, with challenging vocabulary hyperlinked to a glossary
  4. by being willing to respond to vocabulary questions

Taking control of the vocabulary element leaves learners free to focus on traditional PBL elements such as discriminating between fact and opinion in the text. Then, if there were a second problem on the same topic, learners could go through the same problem identification stage with reduced lexical support, the degree and nature of which is decided by the facilitator in the learning context based on ongoing diagnosis. For instance, fewer lexical items in the problem statement could be hyperlinked to the glossary.

In the above example, the facilitator intervenes to remove a potential barrier to problem identification through informed calibration of the language content of a problem statement. In addition, by choosing technique 3 above instead of technique 2, the facilitator is able to maintain the authenticity of language used in the problem statement. This is important for them to enter the discourse community of their chosen profession. It also supports learners during self-directed learning because they may be able to use relevant terminology as search items.

As a second example, consider a problem statement in which there is an exophoric reference, i.e. the significance of the reference is not explicit from the text itself, but is obvious to those in a particular situation or culture. For instance, a problem crafter makes reference to consumer behaviour as ‘kiasu’. Singaporeans understand the implications instantly but this is not the case for many international students who have recently arrived in the country. In this situation, the provision of cultural notes could support international students in their comprehension. This technique to provide support can be reduced and withdrawn as the international students become more familiar with Singapore culture, but they need such support in the short-term to give them an equal chance of succeeding in meeting the learning outcomes associated with PBL.

Scaffolding in PBL problem design at TP

Are the above examples of the scaffolding of problem statements characteristic of scaffolding in PBL problem design at TP?

The sample problem statements (and supporting materials) that I scrutinized showed evidence of various forms of cognitive and affective learner support:

  • a ‘hook’ to engage learners
  • some means to activate learners’ schemata
  • sufficient contextualisation
  • relevance to future careers
  • steadily increasing complexity of problems over time and with multiple exposures to the PBL process
  • division of very large problems into smaller, more manageable problems
  • logical sequencing of a series of connected problems
  • multimodal and/or multisensory presentation of information, e.g. memos, live interviews with clients, statistics, etc.

There was faithful application of common principles for effective problem design distilled from the work of Savin-Baden and Howell-Major (2004), Dolmans and Snellen-Balendong (1997), and Barrows (1994) and recommended to facilitators by TP academic staff developers.

Problems should:

–      require the learning of new core knowledge

–      align with learning outcomes of the programme of study

–      adapt to learner’s prior knowledge

–      be presented in a context that is relevant and authentic* to the current or future profession of the learner

–      stimulate learners to elaborate through cues in the problem

–      encourage integration of knowledge

–      stimulate self-directed learning by encouraging generation of learning issues and research

–      encourage discussion and exploration in the subject matter

It was difficult for me to judge the authenticity of the contexts, but I accepted the assurances of the facilitators of these problems. As a linguist I was able to see that there was some substitution of language in problem statements; a layperson’s vocabulary was being used when in real life there would be terminology specific to the professions.

Learning support was purposefully incorporated into PBL problem design but could not be said to adhere to the original notion of scaffolding because of a lack of dynamism and adaptability in the learning materials.

Scaffolding at Stage 2 of the TP PBL Process

PBL facilitators at TP reported scaffolding at Stage 2 through selective and discerning use of:

–      questioning strategies

–      paraphrasing and probing strategies

–      summarizing to refocus

In their training, TP PBL facilitators are made conscious of the need to “Model, support, observe & fade” (Barrows, 1988). It can be argued that scaffolding during problem identification can compensate for the static nature of learner support in problem statements.

One might also contest that learners scaffold for each other during Stage 2 because they work in collaborative groups and each have different strengths. Perhaps, for example, in a PBL group there is a learner who has the necessary linguistic ability or cultural insight that the others lack. This learner can scaffold for the others. However, Puntambekar and Hübscher (2005) provide evidence for their opinion that learners are unlikely to be applying principles of instructional scaffolding.

Discussion

If learners struggle with comprehension of the problem statement because of English as a Second Language (ESL) or cultural issues, facilitators have the option either to incorporate scaffolding into PBL problem design or to scaffold comprehension during Stage 2.

I suggest that it is inefficient and distracting to deal with ESL and cultural issues at Stage 2 when learners really need to focus on the challenge of identifying facts, and the facilitator needs to focus on the scaffolding of that skill.

Moreover, it has become a practical option to incorporate scaffolding into problem design because of the emergence of educational technologies that can reduce the burden on PBL problem crafters in terms of the authoring of dynamic, adaptive problem materials, and diagnostic tests.

Scaffolding in problem design may also be more realisable in a PBL setting where students experience the PBL process frequently. There will then be opportunities, to use Bruner’s terminology, for multiple ‘routines’ in the same ‘format’.

Conclusion

TP PBL facilitators have designed problems that are true to the principles of PBL problem design sourced from seminal works. There is learner support in the problems that were analysed, but it is not characteristic of the original notion of scaffolding. However, TP PBL facilitators do report scaffolding during Stage 2 of the TP PBL process.

To remove barriers to meeting PBL learning outcomes and for more inclusive learning, scaffolding of the assumed elements of language proficiency and cultural awareness is vital, and can be built into the design of problems. Incorporating scaffolding at this stage has the added advantage of making feasible more authentic language use in problem statements which in turn can support learners in their self-directed learning.

Questions for teachers

Do you facilitate Problem-Based Learning or Enquiry-Based Learning? How do you support learners through the process? Is this scaffolding dynamic? Please provide examples from your experience. Thanks!

References

Barrows, H. S. (1988). The Tutorial Process. Springfield, Illinois: Southern IllinoisUniversitySchool of Medicine.

Barrows, H. S. (1994). Practice-based Learning. Problem-based learning applied to medical education.Illinois: Southern IllinoisUniversitySchool of Medicine.

Dolmans, D.H.J.M. & Snellen-Balendong, H. (1997). Seven Principles of Effective Case Design for a Problem-based Curriculum. Medical Teacher, Sep97, Vol. 19, Issue 3.

Hogan, K. (1997) Introduction. In: Hogan, K. and Pressley, M. (eds.) Scaffolding Student Learning: Instructional Approaches & Issues, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Brookline Books, p. 2.

Puntambekar, S. and Hübscher, R. (2005). Tools for Scaffolding Students in a Complex Learning Environment: What Have We Gained and What Have We Missed? Educational Psychologist, 40(1), 1 – 12.

Savin-Baden, M. and Howell Major, C. (2004). Foundations of Problem-based Learning. Maidenhead, Berks: Open University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. HarvardUniversity Press.

Wood, D.J., Bruner, J.S., & Ross, G. (1976) The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89-100.