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Posts Tagged ‘inspiration’

Today, DCAL was pleased to host Barbara Sawhill, Director of the Cooper International Learning Center at Oberlin College, presenting Learning by Letting Go. Sawhill shared her experiences teaching Spanish at Oberlin with an approach that turns much of the syllabus planning, goal setting, and assessment over to the students.

After introductions, and an affirmation of her belief in “Practice what you preach, present what you teach, practice what you teach,” Sawhill immediately turned the presentation over to the twenty-two faculty and staff attendees with an activity designed to identify what everyone hoped to gain from the event as well as an exploration of meaningful learning experiences in each of our pasts.

Attendees examining self-described evidence of "learning"

Attendees examining self-described evidence of "learning"

In discussing the outcomes of the activity, Sawhill pointed out the importance not only of drawing out students’ own learning objectives but also drawing attention to the overlaps and shared objectives which can serve as the basis for collaboration and community building within the classroom.

The challenge facing all of us is coming to understand the general disconnect within the “academy,” from k-12 and all the way up, between what we do and what we say or believe that we do, as often described on course syllabi or in the mission statements of our schools. Sawhill continued with the delineation between “schooling” and “learning” and the misplaced efforts to assess the latter by only evaluating the former. In pursuit of learning, there are barriers that get in the way. The biggest are the top-down institutional structures that are designed to manage institutional time and resources, which end up creating teacher-centric learning. For example, a certain amount of material (a textbook) must be covered over the course of a term with an expectation that Teacher A will deliver to Teacher B students that are “ready” for the next phase. Looking at foreign languages, it is estimated through research that it takes 720 hours to be minimally proficient in a foreign language that is at least somewhat similar to one’s native language (e.g. Spanish for an English speaker). In a class of 20 students, what fraction of that 720 hours can really be delivered or experienced by an individual student over the course of a term or year? The result is that too often faculty will have students “snorkel” through the syllabus, racing through a superficial or shallow covering of the materials. Instead, says Sawhill, we need to encourage more opportunities to “scuba dive” into the content areas, sacrificing some coverage for deeper more meaningful experiences or interactions with the materials.

With that as a framework, Sawhill next described how she has begun teaching her classes, starting with her second year conversational Spanish course for non-majors. Except for administrative information, the class syllabus develops with student input on their learning objectives. Common goals are “structured from the chaos,” as students discover their overlapping and/or complementary interests. The task is not necessarily an easy one, as students so often expect the instructor to define the objectives and the process. But, in such a traditional teacher-centric approach, how are teachers preparing students to become the “lifelong learners” that so many of our mission statements allude to?

Students are asked to identify a short-, medium-, and long-term learning goal for themselves in the course. In clarifying the distance between “where I am now” and “where I want to be, ” Sawhill explains to the students that the process requires “lots & lots of work.” As the syllabus and goals emerge, one of the key tools Sawhill requires students to employ are blogs, both individual ones for students as well as a class blog that is collaboratively constructed. More importantly, the blogs are “open” to the world, inviting and encouraging comments from native speakers from around the globe. Sawhill notes, though, that  it often takes about two weeks for external feedback to begin appearing and requires that students seek out and contribute comments or links to blogs outside of the class. Most of the commentary comes from class peers, who gradually begin to understand more and more that they gain from their contributions and from the feedback they receive, in the spirit of true community and collaboration.

At the end of the course, students are required to submit a short (250-500 words) essay, in English or in Spanish, that evaluates the progress that they made towards their goals, highlighting the factors contributing to or against their achievement. They also submit evidence of their efforts and give themselves a grade. In all cases, no one gave themselves an “A.” And in one case, a student felt she earned only a C, yet provided evidence of over 40 hours of Internet voice chat with native speakers, as well as 55 pages of text chat transcripts. Based on their overall course performance, self evaluation, and evidence, Sawhill assigns the final grade, consulting with the students when she finds her evaluation at odds with their own.

In closing, Sawhill made the following points:

  • Blogging is hard work
  • It’s not about “you.” It’s about “us.”
  • Mark Prensky’s notion of digital natives and digital immigrants is wrong. Our students have as much trepidation about technology as we often do
  • Making the curriculum relevant to the “out there” experience is hard. But, it’s worth it.

For those who are interested Barbara Sawhill, continues to write about her teaching experiences at her blog site Language Lab Unleashed http://www.languagelabunleashed.org/ and there are links to some of her class blogs from the Cooper International Learning Center site at http://languages.oberlin.edu/.

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