showing not telling

I’ve been working today on a presentation for next week – not a typical conference or workshop presentation, but a presentation for a class I’m teaching. I thought I was thinking of it more like a presentation than like teaching because the environment I’m teaching in here is so different than the environment I’m used to – 100 students, lecture-style classroom – very different than the 20 students/ hands-on workshop that I’m more familiar with.

Today, though, I’ve been realizing that I’m thinking of it more like a presentation as much because of the content I have to cover as anything else. AND – because I’m thinking in terms of ‘coverage’ – which is not only something I don’t usually have to do, but also a focus I usually find myself arguing against. So I had to think about it – why am I thinking about coverage now?  Why am I thinking about the stuff I want to introduce more than the stuff I want students to be able to do when they’re done?

On Monday, I need to talk about college student development theory.  Part of this is to supplement their textbook’s super-brief description of Chickering’s seven vectors of college student development, because all of the 700 students (our section + six others) are supposed to apply that model their midterm paper. Part of this is to introduce the concept of theories and models, what they means for academic discourse, and what it means to use theory critically. The following Monday, I need to talk about critical thinking. For fifteen minutes.

So, the thing is, there really isn’t anything concrete that I want them to be able to do – or, there’s nothing specific that I want them all to be able to do. I don’t really want to break down critical thinking, or what theory is, and have them take the first step in this class – which is the only way I can think about active learning in this case.  That might be a limitation on my part, but there it is.

Because a huge piece of these topics, a huge issue that I actually do want to communicate to the students, is that no one can make these students (or anyone) take theory seriously and apply it to practice.  No one can make them think critically – even if they have all of the skills and understandings necessary to do those things they can still choose not to do them and there is nothing that I, or anyone else, can do to change that.

Take this paper assignment.  Yes, we can require them to read about Chickering’s seven vectors, we can require them to understand them well enough to write about them.  We can even require them to write a paper about their own connection to that theory — but we can’t make them do it for real.  We can’t force them to reflect.  We can’t require them to be honest in their analysis and application.  They can make up every specific example from their own lives and there is truly nothing that we can do about it.  And, to be sure, doing so successfully would exhibit some high-level critical thinking and creativity skills, but it wouldn’t get at everything we want to get at here.

On at least one level, this is what the content itself is all about.  College student development theory is, in a very real way, describing the process by which students get to the point where they can do those things not just because they can, but because they want to.

So, what I’m thinking is that the issue isn’t how to figure out active learning exercises for teaching these topics.  On some level, the papers and projects in the class are the active learning experiences – and they are active learning experiences that give the students a lot of freedom to do these things in a way that makes sense for them.

No, what I’m thinking is that the best thing to do is to acknowledge up front that no one can make them use this stuff.  Correction – no one can make them meaningfully use this stuff.  Acknowledge that up front, and keep the focus of the presentation on why it’s useful to me.  Why I like it, how I use it, how other scholars use it and why it’s useful.  After all, if we’re going to ask them to be honest and reflective, it seems only fair to provide them with a little of that in my own presentation.

Oddly, I’m fairly comfortable with this focus, even though it means I’ll be talking for quite a while on Monday.  Of course, I have plenty of places where I can ask them questions and check in with them, but still it’ll be a lot of me-talking.  And I’m sure part of the class will never engage with what I say, no matter how many cool pictures and analogies I use to supplement.

All of this has me thinking as well about library instruction.  In a lot of cases, we do teach the stuff that we can (kind of) require people to do – we can require people to find articles using databases.  No matter how resistant they are, if they go through the steps and the exercises, they’ll learn something about how to do that.  It’s easy to come up with concrete, “what I want them to be able to do,” learning outcomes for that stuff.

But there are also these bigger picture questions we would like them to start thinking about, and start applying to their own lives, their own practice, and their own world view about how knowledge is communicated and valued.  And I realized, in those segments I do the same thing I’m doing here – I’ve stopped telling students that the quality of the information they’ll find in databases is inherently better, for example.  Or that the quality of peer-reviewed articles is inherently better.  Generally, I approach the “why you should use databases” piece as a demonstration, and from the perspective of “here some reasons why I use these tools or sources.  Here’s why I think they’re cool.”  It seems to work.  I’m certainly more comfortable with that approach, and they seem to be open to hearing the message in this way.

Which gets me rethinking some of these ideas about coverage.  Certainly, there are lots of situations where we value coverage over learning.  The whole idea that if I mention 10 topics in an hour, they’ll somehow learn about 10 topics in an hour is bad and has to go.  But maybe the flip side is also unbalanced – if we try too hard to make everything about active meaning-making for them, do we leave ourselves out of the equation too much?  If learning is social, and I think that it is, constructing meaning together is a crucial part of that.  We know that when it comes to group work, and to peer groups.   But maybe showing why and how we care, why and how we really use the stuff we want them to use – isn’t the same as telling so much as another way of constructing meaning together?