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Nanowrimo: Day 11

November 12, 2014

lisa hammershaimb

Yesterday I passed the very momentous moment of turning in my second assignment and being almost halfway finished with my 803 course. As I’ve written about previously, this course has been the odd ball, chaotic outlier in my doctoral journey thus far. It sounds overly idyllic and like I am going all Pollyanna, but my first full year in the program was difficult but not breaking and personally stretching but not exhausting. When each class ended, I will confess, I was totally happy to have survived but also a little sad to have it end as I could see tangibly that what I’d learned over the course of the 15-16 ish weeks really did change me and expand my mind for the better. Reaching the end of them was like reaching the summit of a little mountain…exhilarating even though you’d lost feeling in your toes.

803, though neither particularly difficult nor stretching has–due to a somewhat Bermuda Triangle of events– the dubious honor of feeling like the first course that upon finishing I’ll feel almost nothing about because even as I am engaged in the course itself, I am feeling very little. The assignments are interesting, the readings are thought provoking but the overall course and it’s lack of discussions and formalized sessions is somewhat more exciting than going to a library and somewhat less exciting than going to a museum….the content seems not so approachable I can essentially see if from my front doorstep but not so engaging that I actually have to physically move and make connections to find new and fabled frontiers of knowledge. I would love to say that because I am not feeling super challenged, I have taken it on myself to explore and learn and be an autodidact. Sadly, not so much. More that because I am not feeling super challenged I am transferring the part of my brain formerly devoted to school to serve my job, which is good for my job but does make me feel a little guilty.

Last week when I was working on my discovery based instruction paper (and consequently seeing everything through a discovery based lens) I was telling my parents about what I was writing and the ideas/philosophy behind the discovery based instruction model. In addition, like a well balanced academic, I was also telling them how, ideally, a discovery based classroom might look and also some caveats and what can happen when everyone is n0t quite on the same page. When I got to the part about all the things that can go wrong, my mom said, “Wow! That sounds like all the things that are going on with your course this term! Do you think you’re in a discovery based instruction course but the instructor has yet to discover it??”

We both laughed about her epiphany but it did make me think a lot about all the shortcomings we have been experiencing and even more how those may or may not bleed over into a discovery based style of learning.

Just as a recap, read the excellent piece of academic writing I have recently churned out on the topic, to be found here.

Just kidding. Even I do not want to read that again for at least several months.

Here is the spark notes on the whole thing: The title, “Discovery Based Instruction” is a bit misleading. It is an instructional method where student “discover” knowledge but not in an “Oh my goodness!! I stubbed my toe but look at the knowledge I just happened to stumble upon!” type manner, rather they discover knowledge in a very very carefully instructor-curated learning space. Basically, the instructor provides students with a set of raw materials, bits and pieces, etc. and then facilitates the students own exploration and engagement with the topic. The student herself asks questions, makes a hypothesis, tests data, analyzes variables, etc. In addition, the student actively draws on their own past personal narrative to influence their explorations. The discovery happens as learning unfolds not in a linear, transmission model rather in an iterative, constructed manner.

It is legit a fascinating way to think about knowledge transmission and after researching it, I suddenly find myself wishing I had a pack of small children on which to experiment and see if it can really work. Granted, that would probably not be so ethical to experiment on children and pack of them would seriously cramp the rest of my life but still…it is interesting stuff when you think about it in an ideal sense and as a learner I cannot help but think just how much fun it would be to learn in that sort of environment because it would be filled with so much care, safety, and creativity.

That said, things tend to go downhill quickly and degrade into chaos when the learners have no “big picture” structure in which to understand what they are doing or the instructor herself has not adequately curated the learning space. Though the name “discovery based instruction” sounds like it’s about two clicks off from a Woodstock hippie fest of anything goes and all you need is love…in reality the instructor overseeing has to be a complete and utter control freak, overseeing everything about the space in which the learner is engaging, the materials they’re interacting with, even the structure itself.

If there are any sort of instructor shortcomings or system level issues, discovery based instruction fizzles, all the spinning plates shatter, and the learners are left trying to find order amongst pieces that were never meant to fit together in the first place.

Hmm…can’t imagine what that must feel like!

Which brings me to my mom’s comment that perhaps the cohort is just stuck in a discovery based instruction course but no one has yet “discovered” it…like the movies where everyone but the main character knows it’s all a dream sequence. So, as someone who is “in the matrix” of 803….do I think it is all a discovery based instructional experiment gone awry? No. Sadly. I think it would be amazing if it was true and I think that, with the proposed flow of assignments, the teaching internship/practicum, and the heavy emphasis placed on the reflective journal at the end of the course it is poised to jump on the discovery based instruction train. It seems that in an ideal course flow, we as the learners would have been given a sandbox of new theories and instructional design principles. In the early weeks we would have been presented with the big picture which would have something to do with us learning about how to design courses that truly engage learners in an online atmosphere and also something to do with the importance of deeper philosophies in learning and the tie between what you think and how you think with what comes out in the programs you develop. Then, we would have done some activities that build trust amongst ourselves and the instructor….these don’t have to be huge or risky rather just small stuff so that we get over the idea that the world will collapse if we try an idea and fail…that us failing does not mean that we are inherently unworthy and the voices of shame win…it just means the idea did not work and it is time to try something else.

Next we would spend several weeks really digging into the content as a cohort, all the while the instructor’s presence was felt but not in a scary stalker way, rather as a silent reassurance that is watchful and helpful should any of our fires get too large for us—should any of our ideas turn into idols.

Our internship/practicum would be another extension of the ideas we have already been iterating over and would give us a chance to test the variables we have constructed–test our hypothesis and see if it does hold water. It would be scary but not in an all or nothing manner because we would all know that it’s iterative anyways and if it does not work it is not the end of the world…it’s just the end of one line of thinking.

Finally, at the end of the course we would have all learned a new way to make sense of the world and integrate/assimilate the ideas from 803 into not only our lives as teachers but our lives as humans. We have the usual artifacts like papers and presentations and grades but even more we have new knowledge pathways and a newfound sense of how things actually connect together….or at least connect for now.

So, here I am at the very momentous moment of turning in my second assignment and being almost halfway finished with my 803 course. It is not a discovery based instruction course but in some bizarre and somewhat redemptive ways, it has helped me discovery a bit more about how I hope to structure my own courses…the world I hope to help my own learners discover. And that in itself has good.

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