Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 08 (Round III) "In the trenches" (watershed edition)

Nice day to be teaching an American music class. Today's was early psalmody in the New England colonies--Bay Psalm Book, various regional psalters, setting up the First New England School of Billings, Read, et al. Still working on unlocking the key to that class--need to move more toward discussion of readings, as eliciting more student interaction.

Undergrad (sophomore) 20th century survey class (4th semester of 4-semester sequence) is pretty well-locked in: I've taught that class in its current permutation enough times that there's not much advance writing to do: lectures, PPT, repertoire lists, sequence and timing of assignments, means of assessment, etc, already exist, and so most of the day-to-day maintenance is just that: maintenance. Don't have to author too much new material.

It's been especially helpful to get that class moved entirely into the digital realm: PPT slides, audio files, video excerpts, images, etc are all available, labeled, and most of them have been slotted-in to the materials. This means that the class can be taught in a relatively free-wheeling, relatively off-the-cuff fashion. Because of having taught it annually for 8 years, I've had lots of opportunity not only to memorize the content but also to assemble the multi-media materials (which, as I've blogged before, are absolutely essential for teaching the 21st century population) to deliver that content, and to chunk-out the coverage in workable increments. This last is equally essential: operating from more traditional text-based lecture-out/notes-in models tends to mean much more raw data (you can get through an awful lot of factual data if you're lecturing and they're scribbling furiously), so much more that the modern audience can't take it all in.

And, more to the point, it drastically narrows the range of interactions in the classroom. When the professor talks non-stop for 50 minutes, some small percentage of the group will scribble furiously, equally non-stop, but a much larger majority will freak out, fog out, or give up after 10-15 minutes. They get bored, and they don't retain stuff, except in the short-term teaching-to-the-test memory which does them almost no longer-term good.

In contrast, if you are seeking any wider range of interaction, if you want them to talk, think, listen, hypothesize, follow-up on thoughts, communicate with each other, you have to ramp-down the volume of raw data. There simply isn't as much time for raw data if you want to prioritize their response--especially if there are 100 kids in the room.

So that's what we do--we ramp down the volume of data in favor of a higher range of interaction. We opt for less total data--which they can much more readily find using modern digital search methods--in favor of developing in them more ability to read, write, listen, and speak critically, and to perform the mental synthesis that in turns lead to original thinking. What greases the skids of that, and lets us keep moving swiftly, and (most important) helps them retain the material long-term, is a complementary range of inputs (speech, reading, iconography, scores, critical listening, etc) all integrated, as much as possible, into a regular, dynamic, interactive, contrasted stream. That's how they take in data in every other environment, and so--in a more focused, diligent, rigorous fashion--that's what we use in the classroom.

Fortunately, after eight years of teaching the class, and four of using the multi-media stream as described, the materials all exist: I don't have to spend much time scanning score excerpts, or ripping audio files, or searching public-domain sites for usable images. I have most of what I need in those media, somewhere on a computer or external hard-drive. Because I have (unfortunately) a very bad memory for aural text (terrible with names, verbal instructions, directions, etc) but (fortunately) a very good memory for visual material (texts, images, faces, etc)--and although that is the exact opposite of the aptitudes I'd prefer as a musician--I can almost always remember having seen, scanned, saved, or filenamed something. Which means that, with digital filing and searching capacities, I can almost always find the files again, and remember where, in what context, and in what sequence I want to use them. That work is pretty much done.

In the teaching situation, that requires a reasonably facile ability on my part, or that of my technology TA, to switch from Powerpoint to the course WebCT site to digital video to the course wiki (where the kids post team projects and responses) to iTunes and back again, but it also provides a huge amount of fluidity in jumping between them in the course of a relatively free-wheeling lecture/discussion. It even means we can go out, find additional material, write stuff in real-time, etc.

It's a bit of a hire-wire act but it's worth it for the flexible choice. We can also get away with this because the course is essentially meeting-by-meeting linear: if we get ahead of ourselves, we can take more time; if (as is more common) we lag behind, we can defer a deadline or quiz until its relevant material has been adequately addressed. In the large-enrollment classes of 400-500, where the timetable has to be followed with virtual minute-to-minute rigor, such free-wheeling improvisation isn't really possible.

On the other hand, the other day we ran an in-class listening quiz, for which I created a Breeze flash file, so that the mystery examples could be played from within the one program, without their track names appearing on-screen as they would if we toggled to iTunes, and is in fact very helpful, in the course of a lecture, for retention purposes. Afterward, the Tech TA said "jeez, that was so much easier than toggling between all the different programs!" And, of course, she was right: it's far more streamlined, elegant, straightforward, and "finished."

But, as I said to her, "I know--but that means we're locked-in each day, right?" The toggling back-and-forth method, though cumbersome, lets us work the material in whatever is the best sequence for that particular meeting. Then, immediately after that particular meeting, I can sit down, do a comprehensive edit and restructuring, pull in the audio and video we either referenced (or, often, which I decide I want to add to further reinforce class discussion), and only then publish the final slideshow and upload for the students' study. It's a more complex juggling task, less linear, more complicated, and far less predictable--but it provides a range of flexibility and of dynamic interaction with the students' input that I think is valuable.

I believe in an integrated life. That means employing the multifarious data streams (and the non-linear modes of assimilation) that are most familiar to the kids, manifesting in class the values I think are important outside class, working with the skill-set I have and the skill-set the students have, modeling a way to be that's truthful (including the flaws and failures), acknowledging error, holding the team together, rising to occasions, standing up and speaking truth to power. That's an integrated life. I hope.

Kind of--I hope---like our new Chief Executive.

Toby Ziegler: If our job teaches us anything, it's that we don't know what the next President's gonna face. And if we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas, who's connected to other people's lives, and cares about making them better... if we choose someone to inspire us, then we'll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things... we can't imagine yet. Instead of telling people who's the most qualified, instead of telling people who's got the better ideas, let's make it obvious.
I think we just did.

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