Friday, August 23, 2013

Engaging Learning

Changing Paradigms: Engaging Students in New Learning Spaces & Contemporary Contexts
In our presentation at GVSU's Faculty Teaching and Learning Center's 19th Annual Fall Conference on Teaching and Learning, David Coffey and I explore the idea of engaging students in learning. Because engagement is an essential element for learning, we focus on three key questions:

What does engagement look like in our classes?
How do we support learners in engaging with our discipline?
What factors might interfere with learners' ability to engage?

Dave's part of the presentation addressed the first two key questions. Since he has blogged a number of times on engagement, I direct you to his previous blog posts, which can be accessed by clicking on this link.

I addressed the third key question, What factors might interfere with learners' ability to engage? You can find our PowerPoint presentation here, and also on FTLC Scholar Works website. I will provide links to resources throughout this post.

During fall semester 2012, I was teaching at GVSU as a visiting professor. I was teaching two math for elementary teachers courses (MTH 221 & MTH 222) and one remedial course, MTH 097, elementary algebra, for incoming freshman. The course for my doctoral program that semester, on diversity and social justice, started several weeks into the semester. Let me just say, I believe in serendipity.

I was surprised at the number of pre-service teachers in the math for elementary teachers classes who expressed their dislike for math, in fact some clearly had math anxiety. Even though I was challenging their paradigm for what it means to do, learn, and teach math, many were trying to engage with the learning. The students in the remedial algebra class, however, were down right hostile. Thankfully, in my grad class, I learned about several factors that were most likely contributing to what I was witnessing in my classes: stages of cognitive development, stereotype threat, and mindset.

The stages of cognitive development established by Piaget typically leave off at about age 12. In his seminal work during the 1960s, William Perry looked at the cognitive development of college students and identified additional stages that begin to develop around age 18. His stages distinguish students' attitudes toward knowledge (epistemology). The first stage in his scheme is defined as Dualism/Received Knowledge. Students in this stage exhibit dichotomous thinking, i.e., right or wrong, black or white, and are authority dependent.  Marcia Baxter Magolda (and others) have further refined Perry's work. This gave me some insight into my 097 students, but it was not sufficient.

Claude Steele's research on stereotype threat provided further insight. Stereotype threat is defined as the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. He documents his research and experience in his recent book, Whistling Vivaldi (you can also listen to an NPR podcast here). Anyone that is a member of a group for which negative stereotypes exist can be effected by stereotype threat. For example, minorities in all subject areas, women in math, and white men in sports. Minority women in math often experience double stereotype threat. My insights were expanding; my 097 class was predominantly minority women. Now I was really wishing I had known about these issues before the semester started.

That led me to the work of Carol Dweck on what she calls "mindset". People with a "fixed"mindset believe that their basic qualities, such as intelligence, are fixed and not malleable. On the other hand, people with a "growth" mindset, believe that those basic qualities, including intelligence, can be developed. Fortunately, a growth mindset can be taught and developed. Click here for an excellent graphic summarizing Dweck's mindset theory. Developing a growth mindset can help students (and adults) progress through the stages of cognitive development and significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the effects of stereotype threat. Carol Dweck's book Mindset is a must-read resource. You can listen to a brief interview of Carol Dweck here. and are excellent resources for those interested in learning more about these subjects.

I welcome your comments, shared experience, and suggestions. I will be writing more about all three of these topics in the next few weeks, so please check back for more.

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