Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Model for Student Engagement

I have been reading* a book recently in preparation of a book review for the Journal of Philosophy of Education. The book, by my good friend David Granger, is John Dewey, Robert Pirsig, and the Art of Living. While some of the book gets mired in somewhat arcane issues of interest primarily to scholarls, it is an exceptionally well-written book, with some keen insights into the nature of nature, the arts, and education that might have broader appeal.

I've been paying particular attention to what the book has to say about the dispositions or attitudes of students who are "wholly" engaged in learning. John Dewey describes "aesthetic experience" as experiences with a special quality that marks them off as aesthetic; this special quality often involves some kind of "consummation" in which the various parts and aspects of a situation come together in a satisfying or at least memorable way. People involved in aesthetic experiences often exhibit certain attitudes or dispositions with regard to the experience. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig illustrates these attitudes and dispositions in his description of a "high quality" mechanic at work on motorcycle maintenance. As I was reading Granger's summary of Pirsig's descriptions, I was struck by the similarities between the attitudes and dispositions of high quality mechanics and the Technology in Education students I have worked with who seem particularly engaged in and committed to the quality of what they are working on.

In our TIE program, we often assign our students with projects that require creation of some product such as a web site or hypermedia project. Our projects invariably involve a rubric spelling out the minimal requirements but also require the students to create something that can be used within their particular professional setting, such as their second grade classroom, high school english classes, or school- and district-wide professional development needs. These projects exemplify the kind of authentic tasks and situated inquiry that epitomize the best forms of engaged learning based on constructivist learning theories.

The projects also involve a situation often found in the process of creating art objects: an interative interaction between a medium or media (the "material") and the plans or ideal ends (the "vision") of the artist. Motorcycle mechanics must pay particular attention to the machine sitting in front of them, and of the qualities and affordances of the materials with which parts and systems are constructed. TIE students must come to see the possibilities and limitations afforded by a particular piece of software or digital medium, and work creatively to figure out how to make their plans come to fruition. The back-and-forth between material and vision, or between medium and ideal, is intrinsic to any creative endeavor, and it requires at a minimum that the creator pay attention to the medium and how it responds to attempts to shape it (or make it run better, in the case of the mechanic).

Such attention requires ceratin attitudes and dispositions on the part of the creator, mechanic, or student. First and foremost, is a willingness to care about the quality of the product. Such a willingness implies also a a willingness or make mistakes, and to learn from those mistakes and push forward rather than being discouraged or dissuaded from the ideal end or ends being pursued. This implies an attitude toward the "self" of the creator/mechanic/student--an openness to personal or professional growth in which the present self doesn't "get in the way" of the emergence of a newer, more competent and creative new self.

What I'm saying is that even the most mundane creative endeavor requires a certain kind of "learning attitude" or set of character traits that involves openness to transformation or at least change in the person, as well as in the medium. Thus, even a "technology in education" student, to be successful in learning not only technical skills but curriculum design and development means a kind of moral or spiritual stance with regard to one's self. Students who come to the class expecting to maintain their old selves while "creating" technology projects will either produce mediocre work or will find themselves challenged in the course of their program. Such challenges are intrinsic to learning of all kinds, whether learning to care for someone, learning to maintain a motorcycle, or learning how to build curriculum webs.

*"Reading" should be in quotes: generally, I am listening to my laptop read me this book while I drive to various campuses to teach and attend meetings.


philip said...

A book that you might find interesting if you haven't already "read" it is _Flow_ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

He argues that people are happy when kept on the edge of their "skills/challenge continuum." Help students stay on the edge of that continuum, and you'll never have to force them to work.

This is, I believe, at the heart of Dewey's _Interest and Effort in Education_ written about 90 years earlier...Csikszentmihalyi supports his own contention with thousands of studies.

It's really a fascinating work.


Craig A. Cunningham said...

Thank you for this comment, Philip! I am familiar with Csikzentmihalyi's work, and I agree that "flow" is a psychological condition that attends the kinds of engagement I have written about here. However, I'm trying to get after some of the character traits, attitudes, or dispositions that help students maintain their attention to problems even when the challenges are large. My sense is that "flow" is more helpful as a description of what happens when the right combination of skills, attitude and challenge is present, and that it may help the instructor find an appropriate challenge level (individualization required, of course), but that it doesn't adequately take into account the prerequisite mental "set" of the learner.

desdemona said...

Greetings, Craig,

I am a two year resident of Second life. Within this domain I create visual special effects thought the manipulation of its intrinsic programming language. Mastering this language and the concepts on which it is founded has been an ongoing learning experience.

The phrase "active engagement with the quality of the outcome of work" accurately describes the primary motivation that drives me to learn the most esoteric details of the environment and its control language. For example, a recent need to perform displaced rotations on the secondary components of complex objects led to my systematically re-thinking the mathematics of rotational algebra in multiple in-world frames of reference. Once the concepts were grasped, I could then develop a programming notational methodology that would make the formulation of problems and the implementation of solutions reasonably transparent (at least to me, smiles).

In my experience of working on such problems, having a concern for the ultimate quality of meaningful work that is of interest and use to others is essential to my reaching a comprehensive understanding and facile dexterity with the context and tools used to achieve the outcome.

With regards,

/des/demona of second life.