Pedagogical Underpinnings of Blogs in the Classroom

As I presented my blogs at CET for the Social Software Workshop this morning, midway into my hour-long talk about how I’ve been using blogs over the past four years, I was feeling more scattered than usual, a little off-kilter with the grounding I was providing, which, of course, surprised me given that I have presented at CET numerous times as well as at conferences and workshops all over the place. Certainly there is the reality that every year I have more blogs to show, more assignments and experiences–the choices the choices! And it wasn’t that I didn’t get across the essence of my experience with blogs, because I think I did.

It was the very smart and equally perceptive Sarah Lohnes who helped me put my finger on what’s up. The deeper into this classroom blogging I get, the more I cannot disentangle the pedagogy from the blogging–to talk about blogs means to talk about student-centered learning, collaborative knowledge spaces, constructivist pedagogy FIRST. Teaching with blogs the way I do–which means not applying them piecemeal but integrating them fully in all their messy, flexible, fluid promise– means you have to let go of control of the classroom, give up the stage and create opportunities for learning magic to occur. The trick is to weave the learning and the tool so seamlessly together that the blog is the class and the class finds the blog indispensible.

Of course, all over this blog I go on about pedagogy and classroom blogging and teachers blogging (for example, here in November and here in October). It’s not a new topic at all here, but it is rapidly becoming THE topic. During a phone call yesterday with Cyprien Lomas about the upcoming NCII conference we talked about higher ed situations conducive to social software, and why some in higher ed resist blogs altogether, and we, too, circled back to the role of pedagogical leanings. I think I decided after that conversation to soft-pedal the pedagogy in my talk today, to see if just putting the blogs out there and the assignments and the different ways they can be and are being used would entice and inspire but not scare people off. After all, how many people even understand what we’re up to on the arts writing blog much less want to try it out?

(I’m particularly interested in feedback from anyone attending today’s CET workshop, if you happen to read this posting.)

As Sarah puts it, constructivist pedagogy has not caught on in higher ed the way it has in K-12 (mostly, K-6), and until it does, well, blogs probably won’t catch on in quite the way I’m pushing them. So what does this mean?

It’s time for me to make some decisions about how I want to talk about blogs in the future. Do I do so gently, subtly, hoping that through a gradual acceptance and use of blogs, fellow educators will also embrace the notion of the classroom as a community of practice constructing knowledge collaboratively, aided by the blog? Or do I just come right out there at the beginning of presentations and say, okay, don’t bother with blogs unless you’re ready to step off the stage and into the circle of learning?
Pedagogy first, blogs second–or–blogs as the vehicle to the pedagogy?

I hope we hone in on this topic in tomorrow’s social software users group meeting at CET–I am looking forward to meeting other liberal-arts-college bloggers and hearing what they’re experiencing in their classrooms and on their campuses.


6 Responses

  1. BG, I don’t think it needs to be an “either/or” question. For you the process was just as much, or more, about the constructivist pedagogy and how using technology and multimedia could be a vehicle to support that. For other educators that may not be the case. They like the technology, they like that technology makes it easier to engage their students in the curriculum.The natural progression of students starting to take some ownership may be easier for those educators to incorporate than choosing to let go of that control in the beginning. Not everyone is as courageous as you are.

    So, yes, in all your wonderful enthusiasm you should tell your story, but understand that not everyone has the skills, ability or desire to take on teaching from the circle. It is a scary proposition and teacher change is rare without sustained support, but isn’t it OK if educators try the technology and take the leap from the podium to the circle at their own pace?

  2. CORRECTIONS: “constructivist pedagogy,” a nice name, has not caught on in either K-6 or K-12. Sarah speaks from the priviliged positioning afforded by Teachers College. In reality, “No Child Left Behind” is the pedagogical imperative in K-12–ask around, or spend some time in schools, as I have.

    We do see examples of “constructivist pedagogy,” mind you; however, teachers and curriculum moving full force in this direction–no way. Perfect example is in this past weekend’s NYTimes Education Supplement, an frightening characterization that in the past 20 years, 15 of which have involved technology, we’re still “ah ha’ing” the same things, wondering the same things, and we’ve moved forward NOT a bit, not a bit at all!

    In a sense, we should start talking about “reality pedagogy.”

  3. Yes, I’m speaking from the priviledged position of Teachers College, where I’ve not had one single class that doesn’t talk about – and often demonstrate – the impact of No Child Left Behind on the ability of k-12 teachers to teach, period, much less think about embracing pedagogical change – or new technologies for the classroom, for that matter. No one is denying the reality of the situation, and there are a lot of dedicated teacher practitioners in the ivory towers working towards change.

    And as we’ve all seen from experience, whether our colleges like to admit it or not, there seems to be little incentive for teachers to think about changing the way they teach, even though all the constructivist pedagogy moniker refers to is putting students first in the classroom, a goal that all our colleges purport to embrace. For that matter, it’s even a rare prof at Teachers College that practices what they preach. I fully agree that things haven’t moved forward to the extent wished for and I think we need to keep pointing that out, just as Hector has – particularly in light of the tendency to see technology as a balm for whatever ails and for a lot that doesn’t (something else that hasn’t changed in the last 15 years).

    For me, working in higher ed, the ideal of constructivist pedagogy gives me a way of thinking about the social context of the liberal arts classroom, and where technology can work well to support teaching and learning. I agree with Patti that it’s a sliding scale, and that the entry point and adoption process for faculty working with technology will be different from person to person. But I do think that it’s inspiring – and important – to have models like Barbara, not least because her classroom reminds me that it’s a possible reality, too.

  4. I agree with what you’re saying, Sarah, indeed. The mission or battle or whatever we can call it when working inside the ivy tower is, sometimes, daunting.

    My cynism, then, stems from my own history: you werent’ around 15 years ago when we were saying the exact same things we’re saying here, right now. In fact, here’s a history lesson: Computers and Writing and Kairos were both born from this discussion; the very early work of George Landow, Jay David Bolter, Mike Joyce–15 years ago–spoke this language. In fact, Storyspace came out of this pedagogy, as did the now defunct Common Space, which I was a part of. Hell x-Media (remember?) came out of this too.

    Closer to home, Clara Y brought me to CET because I was doing what you’re now noticing–and after all this time! I thought then, actually, that the CET “would change things.” In some ways it has, of course; however, what we’re seeking and looking for, when put up against cost, has not happened, not in the classroom, not by a long margin.

    In fact, look where I sit now! We can say, too, though, that Middlebury College is therefore moving to some sort of “enlightened” approach–I’m back on the faculty, I’m teaching in ways no one else is–and I do mean no one. I’m working with teachers and faculty, etc. But the big HOWEVER is important for professionals: I have none of the rights and privileges afforded a full “tenure track” PhD. Also, as it was 15 years ago, who do I work with? Easy: the marginalized programs, i.e. Writing, Teacher Ed, and so on. What I know and what I can do is still marginalized, though seemingly embraced.

    And so it goes–history repeating itself.

    Only now–here’s my new theory–it’s different: approximately 5 years ago I said to Clara: “We have a small window of opportunity now. We can capitalize on the technology because the IT world has slowed, for now, and faculty and students are ready to re-examine their relationship with technology.” She agreed. But it didn’t happen, not on a wide scale. And technology is now speeding up again, particularly because of war! Computing, in all its power, is indeed ubiquitous.

    Here’s the future: the ivy tower will take another 15 years to change–it’s an ancient institution. But technology has jumped way ahead, i.e. the conversations–idiotic as they are–about CMS and blogs is case in point. The marketplace, I venture to suggest, will take care of the rest: more and more I see students that have not taken a single computing course, but they’re expert programmers, movie makers, dig image specialists, and so on; this is because the materials are easily gotten and they are able to master certain things and then move ahead.

    So the old cliché applies here: they’ll learn regardless…Teachers like Barbara, you, me, and others will exist; we can’t help ourselves, I guess. But the rate of knowledge acquired outside our towers is greater! It outsteps our systematic approaches.

    The only way to work within this is to start to think of “the course” as something other than what we have now. For instance: given what technology can do, it’s now possible to have an entire (traditional) 4 year experience launched from a single course and, from this course, address ALL the essential knowledge fields–math, science, languages, etc.; the teacher, the school, and the student, then, working on a contractual basis and designing together the course of study. I’ll even venture to say that this approach would be cheaper–definitely more exciting!

    But the problems still remains: the cache afforded one who says they graduated from Middlebury, say, is huge; its huge because of tradition, not innovation. If innovation is anywhere–as again Clara and I discussed years ago–it’s in the fact that an antidote to the knowledge age–it’s speed and anxiety–is a small liberal arts institutions, nestled in the Gr. Mountains where students, say 15 of them, talk to a single “expert.” This is reality. It’s an expensive reality, elitist, perhaps, but reality nevertheless–look at admissions numbers. Can deny the numbers.

    Thanks, Sarah, always a pleasure listening and learning from you!


  5. Three years ago this month, President Bush signed the most far-reaching education legislation in half a century, felicitously titled the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. Not since Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society has there been a vision of the federal role so sweeping or bold.

    Indeed, it is easy to make the case that NCLB is even more daring than Johnson’s original Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which at least paid lip service to local control.

    NCLB makes no concessions: If you want Uncle Sam’s money, you must play by Uncle Sam’s rules. With NCLB, you can run, but you can’t hide.

    The reality that NCLB is here to stay is doubly ironic. The first irony is that it is brought to you compliments of the conservative ascendancy. The second irony is that most people like it — which might help explain the first irony. Indeed, how can anyone oppose so high-minded an idea as leaving no child behind?

    So what are the results? Three years into NCLB, are fewer children being left behind?

    Although critics are numerous, according to one study done by the Education Trust (“Measured Progress: Achievement Rises and Gaps Narrow, But Too Slowly,” October 2004) an honest assessment is that “in an overwhelming majority of states … gaps are narrowing while performance is up for all groups of students.” That’s ed-speak for good news.

    The Education Trust studied math and reading results in 24 states and found 23 showing improvement in math and 15 in reading. However, 24,000 schools (or 25 percent of the total) did not meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in 2004. Even setting aside debates about the quality of tests or whether a value-added metric would be a better indicator. that is a very large number of schools needing improvement.

    That said, something phenomenal is happening in the background. We are witnessing a sweeping cultural change in the business of education.

    The growth of information technology (IT) in K-12 education is permitting schools to move from anecdotes and hunches to evidence-based decision-making. This cultural shift has even brought about changes in district leadership.

    Eduventures, an education market research firm, estimates that 65 percent of large school districts now have CIOs, formerly a business-only role, which is becoming vital to effective education. Armed with data warehousing and instructional management solutions, these CIOs are changing the face of accountability and diagnostics from a personality-driven art to a data-driven enterprise.

    Armed with detailed student performance information at the district and campus levels, superintendents and principals can allocate resources more effectively. Armed at the classroom level, teachers can use detailed student portfolios to deliver individualized instruction.

    With modern IT, data is no longer a club with which to humiliate schools, teachers and students. Instead, it is a tool to improve performance through measurement.

    Measuring student performance is the hot-button issue of NCLB. But there are tests, and there are tests. The best tests are “embedded” in instruction, giving both teacher and student instantaneous, useful and accurate feedback.

    Philadelphia is a case in point. Using regular benchmark tests to gauge student achievement, teachers there have raised test scores across the board and are closing the achievement gap. Of Philadelphia’s 265 schools, 160 met AYP standards this year vs. only 58 schools the year before.

    In school districts large and small, IT is a necessary, if not sufficient, precondition for school improvement.

    Although testing is the bane of teachers and students, a “good test” is one that measures what it purports to measure accurately, unobtrusively and rapidly. As every teacher and student knows, there is no better “teachable moment” than the epiphany experienced when a misunderstanding is instantly corrected. Eureka!

    Ambitious, radical and visionary it may be, but NCLB is here to stay. Although fine-tuning is inevitable in the next few years, NCLB will not go away.

    The challenge — and opportunity — that our schools and students face is making it work. The final jury may still be out, but the trend lines are moving in the right direction.

  6. Using Weblogs in Educaiton – Presentation

    James Farmer just published his presentation entitled, Using Weblogs in Education , for the Learning Technologies User Group Workshop .

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