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Monday, October 13, 2014

The Doing of Learning

This has been gnawing at me for about two weeks. In a webinar for UCGIS Alex Klippel of Penn State discussed his hybrid course on spatial analysis. I'd have called it a flipped class: students learned R online via Lynda and came to class to … well, not have a lecture. One of the biggest challenges for Klippel, and I appreciate his candor, was finding things for students to while they were in the classroom together! He knew he didn't want to lecture, but what sorts of exercises and activities would move the learning forward? How would they be implemented? I'm not aware of a repository of hands on spatial analysis activities for college students. If educators are moving toward flipping/hybrid geography and GIS courses (see also Peter August's work), perhaps we need one.

Klippel may be typical of today's college educators. We learned and taught using the old lecture method. The "sage on the stage" speaks, students listen, students read and perhaps do homework problems, and then there's a test. The good news is that the best of the K-12 and college educators are fighting that trend. They preach active learning, group learning, problem, project and inquiry based learning, genius hours and other techniques to have students "do" rater than passively sit (see this scary real life story of high school students).

I think geography and GIS education (among other areas) are at a turning point. We need to look even harder at this "doing" part of geography. We need to think through the best use of the time educators  spend face to face with students and the time students spend face to face with one another.

This was driven home to me in the past year or two by a guest conductor of the Concord Band. I wish I recall who it was, and I'm sure I've heard the idea before, but somehow it hit home that evening as I sat in the third clarinet section.

The two hours my band rehearses together each week, he noted, is short and very special. It's probably far shorter than the time most of us practice during the week. And, it means it must be used to its highest potential. We need to use it to be better as a group. Thus, we should not be learning our individual parts during rehearsal, but rather, learning how our individual parts integrate with the other parts. We shouldn't be working on our individual intonation (playing in tune) but rather adjusting our intonation to match our section and the entire ensemble.

I'd realized some time ago that the best part of band rehearsal (and the subsequent concert) was when I finally fit my bit in with the rest of the ensemble. The only time I could even try it was at rehearsal. So, I'd often work up just a few tough measures with the goal of attempting to fit them in at the next rehearsal. Sometimes it took a few tries across a few rehearsals. I secretly hoped the director would run that part a few times and I sometimes requested just that.  No matter how long it took, it was so exciting to "get it." I have been known to trust my arm in the air and say "Yes!"

Back to the classroom. A classroom experience should be just like band rehearsal. Each student would be preparing their homework (watching a video, building a data table, learning a skill) with the idea that they'd put it to work during that special time with their peers and instructor. While they might not have a "Yes!" moment at each meeting, they should know that was the goal toward which to strive.

Creating experiences that prompt that kind of cooperative learning is tough. There are many hands on exercises for younger students in geography. There are the classic puzzles that fit the shapes of the states together, the huge maps that lay on the floor, and the like. I even took a paper and pencil college exercise from PSU's Geography 20 (thanks Roger) about bus routing to a group of middle schoolers with great success. But now we need to bring the fun (and learning) of those techniques to high school and college, and frankly, to our (super dull PowerPoint driven) conferences.

My challenge to educators and those creating content for geography and GIS courses and conference presentations:

- Make fewer videos of how to run a buffer in ArcGIS and instead think about how to best use time in class when students and instructors are together

- Don't do a PowerPoint or give a demo at the next conference; have the attendees DO something to learn what you hope to teach. If you want to do a PowerPoint or a demo, put it out on the Web, you'll have a larger audience.

- Think hard about what can only (or best) be done face to face and save that for class. Everything else can be (and perhaps should be?) done in some form via the Internet.