As I hunker down to focus on more elemental things such as stuffing and sweet potatoes with pecans & clementines, I thought I would share a few odds and ends that are related in some way to school reform and the season.

I just returned from Oxford, Ohio where I was a plenary speaker at the annual Lilly Conference on teaching in higher education held at Miami University. Not only was I well received – what a pleasure to deal with 600 professors who really want to improve their pedagogy! – but I learned a lot more about the extraordinary effort underway at the college to completely overhaul large lecture courses.

When President Hodges was inaugurated a few years ago, he challenged faculty to focus in all courses (especially introductory ones) on the idea of student as scholar – i.e. active construct-er of knowledge, not mere recipient of it:

I want to be clear here, that adopting the “student as scholar” model is not just about actual research experiences, although it bears noting that such experiences are important and that Miami has some absolutely terrific research opportunities for students. Rather, I am emphasizing that “student as scholar” is a frame of mind that should motivate all of our teaching and learning, from large introductory classes to the special opportunities to work on a scholarly project with a faculty member. In fact, I would argue that it is particularly important to adopt this approach to introductory level courses because it is in those classes that we have the unique opportunity to introduce students to the expectations of the University and to the habits of mind of a scholar. Even in a large class it is possible to effectively create a course that is inquiry-driven and active, the hallmarks of a learning-centered education that engages students.

As an outgrowth of the Hodge initial and later challenge; and faculty research into student engagement, the President and Provost developed a project, ongoing, called the Top 25 project. The task? Look at the 25 top-enrolled courses – by and large the typical huge freshman lecture courses like Econ and Psych 101 – and revitalize them to ensure optimal student engagement and immersion in the doing of the subject:

As an initial step in building a state-of-the-art learning environment at Miami, the project focuses on our highest enrollment courses. The project calls for innovative approaches that move learning away from, as the President says, “too much time telling students what we think they need to know, and not enough time using their curiosity to drive their learning.” Instead, the TOP 25 Project aims to develop learning models that are inquiry driven, call for active learning, and place the student at the very center of the learning experience. Through redesign of high enrollment courses that are departmentally owned and operated, the project aims to create systemic change in undergraduate learning at Miami.

Teams of faculty from departments that teach our highest enrollment courses are invited to submit pre-proposals and if selected, full proposals for building new learning models. Maximum awards are for $35,000 over a two-year period. Six or seven projects will be funded for phase III.

The project is now 5 years in and the results have been highly positive and informative about how to cause reforms in a level of schooling that typically resists them. I also learned from insiders that the President has put considerable pressure on laggard departments. You can read more here and here.

In a related piece in Sunday’s New York Times, Tom Friedman quotes an employer on the challenge of finding adequately-skilled welders in her high-tech manufacturing company:

 “I was in the market looking for 10 welders. I had lots and lots of applicants, but they did not have enough skill to meet the standard for armoring Humvees. Many years ago, people learned to weld in a high school shop class or in a family business or farm, and they came up through the ranks and capped out at a certain skill level. They did not know the science behind welding,” so could not meet the new standards of the U.S. military and aerospace industry.

“They could make beautiful welds,” she said, “but they did not understand metallurgy, modern cleaning and brushing techniques” and how different metals and gases, pressures and temperatures had to be combined.”

 “I can’t think of any job in my sheet metal fabrication company where math is not important. If you work in a manufacturing facility, you use math every day; you need to compute angles and understand what happens to a piece of metal when it’s bent to a certain angle.” Who knew? Welding is now a STEM job — that is, a job that requires knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math.

Finally, in a NY Times story that is superficially unrelated to these trends but connected in terms of underlying psychology, Phillip Roth (the great American novelist) is calling it quits. He is tapped out of ideas, he says. But more telling is what he has to say about writing and its demands:

“I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over,’ ” he said. “I gave myself a dose of fictional juice by rereading writers I hadn’t read in 50 years and who had meant quite a lot when I read them. I read Dostoevsky, I read Conrad — two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘First Love’ and ‘The Torrents of Spring.’ ” He also reread Faulkner and Hemingway.

“And then I decided to reread my own books,” Mr. Roth went on, “and I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’ But when I got to ‘Portnoy’ ” — “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969 — “I had lost interest, and I didn’t read the first four books.”

“So I read all that great stuff,” he added, “and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.”

“I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

Boy, can I relate as both a writer and as a reformer. Frustration and humiliation; also, endless resistance from others while enduring the greater sting of self-questioning. Yet, it must be this way. If it were easy, it would have been done already (regardless of the ‘it’). Further, as the earlier anecdotes tell us, in the larger world you need more than just a really good idea and courage: there have to be strong leaders with a vision, effective incentives, a healthy culture, and a willingness to look at the brutal facts of reality (in Jim Collins’ great phrase) such as needless student boredom due to poor pedagogy – in addition to the self-discipline and persistence in the face of failure that Roth refers to. That series of enabling conditions should not be cause for throwing up our hands in despair but as a call to the realistic optimists such as myself that the work is challenging, ongoing, and not likely to be completed in our lifetimes.

For now, I, too, will retire – to the kitchen. Where results, happily, come with less pain and more joy; and arrive tangibly, in the near term. I say this not to mope but to re-charge for the next round. I say it to give thanks to those in our midst who never gave up, in spite of the fact that they had every reason to – whether ‘they’ were Pilgrims, our parents and teachers, or current educators properly dissatisfied with where we are in general in honoring our aims in this profession.

Have a happy, restful, and rejuvenating Thanksgiving.

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