Monday, December 15, 2014

Pedagogical Styles 4: Cognitive Demands and Interpersonal Dynamics

I figure this will be my last post before wrapping the series, writing an introduction, and putting them all together in a PDF.

The important point is that I’ve changed my sense of what pedagogical parameters are. I started out thinking that they would be affordances or demands of subject matter that constrain how that subject matter can be packaged into courses. That’s what I had my attention on in the three posts on pedagogical styles:
Thus, whether or not co-teaching is a practical pedagogical regime depends on the nature of the subject matter. And to some extent that’s certainly true. But in thinking these things through I’ve realized that we have to treat the interpersonal dynamics to students and teacher as an independent source of variation.

So the situation is more complex than I had imagined it to be. Surprise, surprise!

Dependent and Independent Variables

Let’s put this in terms of social science research design. Courses are being taught and you have some theory about how that goes. To test that theory you need to identify independent variables and dependent variables. Your theory then tells you that, given a certain configuration of one or more independent variables you’ll find a certain configuration of one or more dependent variables.

What that means is that, if the subject matter has certain affordances X1 and Y3 that it will be taught, say, as a lecture course. Correspondingly, if the subject matter has affordances X2 and Y1 then it will be taught, say, as a one-on-one tutorial. You then examine an appropriate selection of actual courses and see if that’s how things fall out.

What I’ve realized, though, is that cognitive affordances and interpersonal dynamics are, to some extent, independent of one another. This means that whatever the cognitive demands of a particular subject matter may be, one can independently have different conceptions of the proper relationship between teacher and student and student and student.

This independence was there in that initial post on coaching and midwifery. Learning how to play a musical instrument is very different from learning philosophy. Both can be taught one-on-one through coaching. But both can be taught one-to-many through lecture.

It should be obvious that philosophy can be taught one-to-many through lecture, because, after all, that’s how many philosophy courses are in fact taught. Very few philosophy students have their own personal Socrates, though advanced graduate training at its best may be a bit like that. Similarly, instrumental learning can be taught one-to-many through lecture, though this may not be so obvious. I’ve never actually attended a lecture of that sort. But I’ve watched master classes, where a hand full of students and one teacher when through their paces on stage. And the mass of music lessons online at, for example, YouTube operates like this.

So, it can be done. Still, the one-on-one philosophy tutorial is very different from a one-to-many philosophy lecture, and the same with learning a musical instrument. I note further that lecture courses in philosophy are generally accompanied by smaller discussion sections and also have the option of individual tutoring during office hours. Thus the actual instruction given is mixed-mode.

What this means is that I’m not going to be able to write a nice neat “wrap-up” post. Nor, for that matter, had I intended to do so. But I had intended to argue something like, “well, we’ve got this three or four distinct affordances and florg and wrap seem amenable to co-learning while krink and slam resist it.

I’m not going to be able to do that. But, having stated the issue, I will play around just a bit more.

Some two-by-two tables

Let’s take two pedagogical features and create a simple matrix:

One-to-one One-to-many


What goes in the cells? Here’s what I suggest:

One-to-one One-to-many
Student-centered tutorial lecture

I’ll get to those bottom two cells in a second. I take it that entering tutorial into the cell for student-centered one-to-one courses is obvious enough. That’s what we examined in the post on coaching and midwifery.

Characterizing lectures, though, as student centered, seems distinctly odd. Think of the medieval university that had to function before the invention of mechanical printing. Books were expensive artisanal products and few students could afford them. The lecturer wasn’t up there declaiming for his own benefit (beyond, that is, student fees paid to him). He was doing that to benefit students. That is, given the need to teach many students – if only because that’s the only way the teacher could generate enough fees to ad up to a livable income – delivering lectures was the way to go. There is, of course, another way to think about it, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Now, let’s think about the bottom two cells of the previous table. What would an instructor-centered one-to-one teaching situation be? The first thing that comes to mind is sexual exploitation, which certainly happens, but it has little to do with pedagogy. Perhaps some lab assistantships or research assistantships tend toward that. That is, graduate students do take such positions in return for fellowship money. And while there is some nominal educational benefit to the student, the emphasis is on the services the student provides to the school.

But what, pray tell, would an instructor centered one-to-many situation be? There’s where we get a vanity prof looking for student worshippers. I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered such a creature in the academic world, though they no doubt exist. Wherever you find it, though, it’s an abuse of the instructional situation, as is sexual exploitation.

Let’s look at a third table:

One-to-one One-to-many
Student-centered tutorial

I’ve replaced “instructor-centered” with “subject-centered” on the bottom row and shifted “lecture” accordingly. That, it seems to me, is how we ordinarily think about lecture courses. At the same time, I’ve left the other two cells empty, implying that there is no such thing as a student-centered one-to-many instructional situation. That contradicts the previous table, but it does seem a more natural way of thinking about the situation.

Similarly, I’ve left the subject-centered one-to-one cell blank. I just can’t think of what would go there. Well, yes I can. David Hays and I had many such sessions. But by that time I was no longer his student. We had become colleagues and the focus of our many such discussions was the subject at hand.

I note that, in this kind of exercise, we don't necessarily expect all cells to be filled.

At last, some cognitive demands

Where does this leave us with the courses I mentioned in that third post: 1) freshman comp, 2) technical communication, 3) the contemporary novel, and 4) symbolic logic? I don’t quite know. And I think working through them is likely to prove a bit tricky, but also interesting. As a practical matter, it seems to me that the first three lend themselves to co-learning more readily than the last.

The subject matter of symbolic logic is simply more “rigid” than in the other three. Is “rigidity” a subject-matter demand or affordance? Let’s say that it is, and that it can range in value from -3, very loose, to +3, very rigid. How do we rate those four courses on that one parameter?

In the annoying manner of mathematics texts, I leave that as an exercise for the reader. I note, however, that if we were to ask 100 instructors to do that, we would now be engaging in social science research.

What other parameters can we imagine? While I think that freshman comp is looser than technical communication, is that an adequate characterization of the difference? Perhaps it is. What about the difference between freshman comp and the contemporary novel? Given that the choice of texts in the novel course is rather open, it’s not at all obvious to me that the loose-rigid parameter provides a meaningful differentiation between them. But what would?

Maybe a build-analyze parameter is what we need. In the writing courses students are learning how to build things, that is, texts, but also presentations (in the case of technical communication). But that’s not what a contemporary novel course is about. You may write papers as part of the coursework, but in those texts you’re analyzing the texts and drawing conclusions. Let’s say, then, that we have an analyze-build parameter. That would also differentiate between a course in entrepreneurship, where the final project is a business plan, and a course in microeconomics, where you learn about firms and markets and whatever else.

Cognitive Demands and Interpersonal Dynamics

We’ve now got two subject matter parameters: loose-rigid, and analyze-build. And we’ve got some preliminary categories of course dynamics: one-to-one and one-to-many; student-centered, instructor-centered, and subject-focused.

That’s a start.

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