[EAS]Ways of Learning

pjk peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Thu Jan 18 18:48:03 EST 2001

Subject:   Ways of Learning

Dear Colleagues -

Two items today, one a reminder of the vapidity that often passes for
learning in our secondary schools, the other good food for thought for
encouraging discussion in our college classes. 

Regarding the latter, I do not accept the premise that classes in
engineering or science are so preordained in their daily agenda that
they should be exercises in facilitated textbook reading. Those are
the courses destined to become adrift in a world where good texts and
the WWW can deliver a fixed agenda well. Discussion is the soul of
what brings teacher and students together in person, and the only
value by which the live class can survive economically.

    --Peter Kindlmann

(from NewsScan Daily,  18 January 2001)

      Richard Mitchell, known as "the Underground Grammarian," takes
our  schools to task:
      "If you want to predict the future of our land, go to school and
look  around. Schools do not fail. They succeed. Children always learn
in school.  Always and every day. When their rare and tiny
compositions are 'rated  holistically' without regard for separate
'aspects' like spelling,  punctuation, capitalization, or even
organization, they learn. They learn  that mistakes bring no
consequences. They learn that their teachers were  only pretending in
all those lessons on spelling and punctuation. They  learn that there
are no rewards for good work, and that they who run the  race all win.
They learn that what they win is a rubber-stamped smiling  face,
exactly as valuable as what they might lose, which is nothing, 
nothing at all. They learn that the demands of life are easily
satisfied  with little labor, if any, and that a show of effort is
what really counts.  They learn to pay attention to themselves, their
wishes and fears, their  likes and dislikes, their idle whims and
temperamental tendencies, all of  which, idolized as 'values' and
personological variables, are far more  important than 'mere
achievement' in subject matter. The 'whole child'  comes first, and no
one learns that lesson better than the children. Just  as you can
predict the future by going to school, you can decipher the past  by
looking around. All those thoughtless, unskilled, unproductive, 
self-indulgent, and eminently dupable Americans -- where have they
been and  what did they learn there?
      "What is done to children in schools is not inconsequential. It
is  not even the 'fun and games' that might be deplored for its own
sake. It is  permanent and deadly serious. Some times, it is simply

See http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1888173920/newsscancom/ for
 Richard Mitchell's "The Graves of Academe." (We donate all revenue
from our  book recommendations to adult literacy action programs.)


       "desk-top faculty development, one hundred times a year"



The article below describes an ingenious and quite simple approach to
increasing student participation in class discussions.  It is the
eighth posting in a series of  selected articles from the National
Teaching and Learning Forum  newsletter reproduced here as part of our
"Shared Mission Partnership."  NT&LF has a wealth of information on
all aspects of teaching and  learning. If you are not already a
subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line
edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers
insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students
reach the highest levels of learning.  National Teaching and Learning
Forum Newsletter, Oct. 2000 Vol. 9 No. 6 © Copyright 1996-2000.
Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with James Rhem & Associates,
Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880)  All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with

Rick Reis
reis at stanford.edu
UP NEXT: Learning Through Research

                 Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

             --------------- 1,465 words ------------

            From Seminar to Town Meeting via 'Post-it's

Chad M. Hanson, Ph.D.
Northcentral Tech
Wausau, WI

Like most, I started out teaching the way I was taught. My first
inclination as a faculty member was to reproduce the format of the
graduate course. I wanted my students to share the same feeling of
excitement I had known as a student. I wanted their minds to sharpen
and their pulses to quicken just as mine had in those vital forums.

Sociology is my subject so it's probably no surprise that I started
teaching by selecting a textbook and several readings from within the
field. Mindful of my students' level of preparation, I chose
well-respected articles written for a general audience, and I assigned
only four of them in my Introduction to Sociology classes. I explained
to students early on in the semester that the articles would serve as
a basis for in-class discussions.

When the first discussion date rolled around I walked into class with
genuine enthusiasm. I welcomed the students, reminded them about the
discussion, then I followed in the footsteps of one of my fondest
mentors by issuing a familiar challenge. "OK," I said, "who would like
to begin?" No one began. There were no hands in the air. I did not
hear the cacophony of voices I had come to know so well in graduate
school--everyone anxious to support or refute the claims of the author
now up for discussion. Instead there was silence. This wasn't graduate
school. Twenty-nine pairs of eyes pointed in my direction. So I began.

I continued, and eventually I finished the discussion myself.
Meanwhile, students wrote in their tablets. They took what looked like
detailed notes while I talked, and that was gratifying, but not part
of my plan. Unfortunately, I repeated roughly the same series of
events four more times the same week. By Friday afternoon, I had
decided the approach that worked so well for my professors was not
going to work for me.

The Pendulum Swings: Structured Cooperative Learning Activities

The first step in any process of redemption involves admitting you
have a problem, which, obviously, I did. I needed help and I sought it
out. The first place I found guidance was the literature on
cooperative learning. Years before, I ran across a copy of Ken
Bruffee's Collaborative Learning (1993). I revisited Bruffee first,
because I remembered that he outlines a theoretical foundation for
collaboration in the college classroom. For anyone experimenting with
discussion leading or the grouping of students for educational
purposes, I recommend Bruffee's work.

For the nuts and bolts of getting students involved in conversation, I
relied on the work of David and Roger Johnson, namely Active Learning
(Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991). Over the last several years I
have had a great deal of success using the procedures described by
these authors. Success with the cooperative learning approach
described by Johnson and Johnson hinges on having a clear set of
guidelines for students. In the Johnsons' model, each student must
have a clearly defined role in the class. The instructor's job is to
ensure that the students' roles and the objectives of the class are
both well defined. I have found that when I take that initiative, the
procedures outlined in Active Learning provide a formal structure for
ensuring that students stay engaged with course material, and with one
another, during the class periods I set aside for cooperative work.

Although I quickly became comfortable with the Active Learning
techniques, I found that I still had a longing to create the
excitement and spontaneity of the unstructured and free-ranging
discussions that took place in my graduate courses. At the same time,
I also began to feel a responsibility to create an environment where
students could interact with one another in an exchange that would
mirror that of a discussion held outside of the classroom in places
where our democratic traditions are strongest (Beckman, 1990). I had
in mind the New England town meeting as an ideal (Bellah, et al.,
1985). Consequently, I set out to create a forum where I did not
personally determine the nature of each student's contribution to
in-class discussions. I did not want to prohibit the discussions from
unfolding on their own, as they would in a town meeting or similarly
democratic forum.

As I began to conceive the new format for my in-class discussions, I
realized that citizens who attend town meetings are a self-selected
group. The attendees are there because they have something to say. My
students are also a self-selected group, but the primary reason for
selecting one of my courses is that it fulfills a requirement for the
degrees that they seek. Given the lack of inherent motivation, I
needed a strategy that would ensure everyone's participation. The
solution to my problem was as near as the pad of Post-it notes lying
next to my office telephone.

Finding the Middle Ground: Required Participation

Today, I use a particular format to create an environment in the
classroom that approximates a town hall meeting. The first step I take
is to allow the students to decide the topics to be discussed. I begin
by having students brainstorm a list of potential topics in small
groups. After each group generates its own list, we compile all the
topics on a chalkboard and hold a vote to determine the top ten to be

Once the topics are determined I select groups of two to four
students, at random, to lead the discussions. I require discussion
leaders to find at least two articles on their topic and I give them a
list of things to consider when they analyze the articles, including a
set of guidelines on how to prepare a set of talking points to use
during the town hall meetings.

However, in the town hall format, the most important step is to ensure
that all of the students have both the opportunity and the incentive
to participate. In order to create that incentive I make each
discussion worth two points. To earn the points, people have to take

I begin town hall meetings by giving two Post-it notes to every
student in class. The Post-its are worth a point each, so I have them
write their name on each note. After the discussion leaders are given
the floor, all of the students are free to raise questions or to
comment. Each time they add to the discussion, students stick one of
their Post-it notes on the front of their desk for everyone to see.
Once a person has participated twice and placed both Post-its on the
front of their desk, they can no longer earn points but they may still
contribute to the discussion.

I have found that Post-it notes, visible to all, serve two important
roles in class. First, for students who might otherwise dominate
discussions, the notes are visual reminders that they have already
said their piece. I have found this to be a subtle, but important
reminder in those cases. Second, the notes are a less than subtle
reminder to those less likely to participate. In this case the notes
serve as a reminder that you do not earn points if you do not
contribute to the discussion. I realize that may seem like undue
pressure to place on students who may not wish to participate.
However, during the last three semesters I have found that students
who participate quickly and place their notes out in front right away
often go on to create opportunities for other students to answer
questions or to comment. One of the most rewarding observations I have
made during town hall meetings has been the tendency of outspoken
members of class to encourage others to add their voices to the
conversations. Each semester I watch students take steps to ensure
that everyone has a chance to contribute.


During the time I've spent using Post-it notes and town hall meetings,
I have felt very close to the format of the graduate seminar I enjoyed
so much as a student. The discussions flow freely, they are full of
excitement and they serve as a model for democratic participation. As
an unintended consequence, I have also been pleased to find that
Post-its have had the effect of producing an environment where
students consistently demonstrate that they value each other's
thoughts. When I use the notes in class I am guaranteed not to face
the silence that vexed me as a beginning teacher. At the same time,
they provide a structure that is subtle enough to allow the freedom
necessary for students to determine the nature of their own
contribution to class. Today I can say that the unassuming stack of
Post-its that sits next to my phone provides the means to create
balance, equity and a model for democracy in the classroom.


* Beckman, M. 1990. "Collaborative Learning: Preparation for the
Workplace and Democracy?" College Teaching 38/4: 128-133.
* Bellah, R., et al. 1985. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and
Commitment in American Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California
* Bruffee, K. 1993. Collaborative Learning: Higher Education,
Interdependence and the Authority of Knowledge. Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press.
* Johnson, D., Johnson, R., and Smith, K. 1991. Active Learning:
Cooperation in the College Classroom. Edina, MN: Interaction Book

Chad M. Hanson, Ph.D.
Faculty, Social Science Department
Northcentral Tech
1000 W. Campus Drive
Wausau, WI 54401
Telephone: (715) 675-3331 #4802
E-mail: hanson at northcentral.tec.wi.us

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