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Asking (Even Stupid) Questions

I read Pat’s blog post ‘Interesting Conversations’ and started making a comment. But I soon realised my comment was longer than his post, so I should just put it here.

Before this gets too serious, I would also like to comment about his post, as a previous student, that VLE timetabling can in fact be VERY frustrating. These technologies are only as good as the people who use them, and it is in fact not very fun when the department moves/reschedules your lecture with only 2 hours notice- and you HAVE to look at your email each day before lectures to make sure you are in the right place. This process is, in fact more stressful than showing up to see the sign on the door- which would be appreciated by those of us who don’t check our email every five minutes, but never happened because someone ASSUMED we would know via email.

The rest of this post I should qualify is more coming from me with the ‘recent student’ hat on than anything else- although I argue that that is a very important hat.

I think like with everything the more humble you are about what you actually do and don’t know, the more likely you are to gain knowledge/wisdom, because you aren’t putting resources into LOOKING like you know it already…And we should set up a culture that means that we don’t feel pressured to LOOK like we know everything- my gosh, why do you go to university anyways- I thought it was to learn- why would you be there if you had nothing to learn? This applies to everything, but it might even more so apply to digital technologies, as they can often be duanting and complex, and as with so many things, digital skills often build on each other so that you need to know how to make a Word document before you can then turn that document into a web-page.

In regards to this, I would like to bring in my personal life. For my undergraduate education, I attended 2 universities (I also went to a thing called a community college of which there isn’t exactly a UK equivalent). One of the universities, The Evergreen State College, where I studied for 3 years total (in the US a BA/BSc is 4+ year) , is a very unique place- there are not disciplines in the traditional sense (and in the US we are not so focused in disciplines anyway). You take an academic *program* which replaces multiple courses- instead, there is one overarching theme- for example ‘Water’, and the program is co-taught by faculty with varied experiences- for example, someone with a policy background, an environmental chemist, someone with an international environmental studies background. This puts you into a learning community that is tight knit, and allows for depth in study- week long field trips, etc, with the focus maintained. What’s more unique is there are no point based grades. There’s no A, B, C, D, no distinction, merit…instead, your lecturer(s) write a page about you and your learning, addressing specific learning challenges and compliments, and you must reflect and write your own page about yourself and your learning. Of course, you can FAIL by not doing enough, but there is no sense of better or worse, it’s more about your personal learning development.

The second university I went to is the ‘best’ in my state, and very well regarded nationally and internationally. It is a BIG university, with everything you might imagine from the movies about university life in America. It is a wonderful institution and I am thankful for my time there. I had access to amazing academics, and the quality of teaching was great.

I don’t think either of these learning environments are really inherently better or worse. However, after experiencing them (and now Exeter Uni) I have to say my appreciation of Evergreen (the non-traditional university) has only grown exponentially. I learned so much more in my time there, because of the learning atmosphere, than I did even in master’s course here. Part of it has to do with the quality of the teaching- it’s a liberal arts college, not a university (I call it university because in UK parlance it’s the best way to communicate that it’s a place where you can get a BA/BSc/MA/MSc…), which means that the focus is not on research, but on teaching. I am not saying this does not have it’s draw backs, you definitely do not have access to as much in terms of advanced research, and I think for a master’s or PhD (they can’t even give PhDs) it might be better to look at a big university.

Part of why I value Evergreen so much has to do with the teaching, and part of it is the program structure, but I think that a very big impact is the grading system. People might think that without a grading system there is going to be less commitment from students. I think the opposite. After 3 years studying there, I was shocked when I sat in lecture at the University of Washington at how competitive things were. At Evergreen there is just such an emphasis on cooperation, on team-learning, collaboration…your classmates are not competing against you, they are there on the journey with you, and you are there together to learn, discover, ask questions.

This affects the whole way the process of learning happens. I was never afraid to ask stupid questions at Evergreen. I was never afraid to go for help to classmates. We spent hours outside of class doing group projects, trying to really understand the issues. I never remember conversations being about grades, they were always about getting it right, seeing more perspectives- asking questions about how climate change affects planning for protected areas and trying to see different answers- not trying to get a good grade on a test. I was shocked when I went to the University of Washington and sat in a first year geology class (I had always wanted to take a geology class) and I found that people were withholding the answers from each other because they were worried that the class was graded on a curve…in group excercises, we seemed to fill in the forms without asking about the reasons why, just because there was this 100% possible and we wanted as much of it as possible. In one group excercise in lab, one girl looked incredulously at the random mix she had been assigned to, and then turned to her friend and said something like ‘I hope these people aren’t as stupid as they look-I want an A’!!! I was so amazed, that in university this was the way learning was being seen! Even in the master’s class I took, the PhD students sitting in had this attitude that I had never experienced before- in environmental archaeology, we had to put posts online about our learning- about the readings. We had to go on and make comments on each others comments, etc. One day, the lecturer, who is a very very lovely man and I am fortunate to know him, put up some questions people had posted. One of them was from a girl who was sick that day. The question was NOT a stupid question. It illustrated that she had read the assigned reading, and addressed it. But it showed ignorance, it showed that it was from someone who was not a PhD in Archaeology….in my mind, it was great, because it meant that the PhD students- or anyone else, could answer her- and she would be able to gain something more- isn’t that the POINT of the online forum?! Instead what happened was one of the PhD students said ‘that’s a stupid question’. And then the other one, unbelievably, said, ‘a stupid question from a stupid person’! I couldn’t believe it, my jaw dropped. How can we learn when we are in this environment where people call us stupid for asking a question we don’t know! You have to start from somewhere, don’t you! No question (based on having done your assigned reading-or at least trying to do your assigned reading) is EVER a stupid question!

When I came to the UK, I found things perhaps not as bad as the above examples…but I did find that this idea that it’s each man for himself pervades. The learning experience is about ME and MY learning. I think there is a lot that Evergreen does right, that other institutions could really learn from (I am not saying it doesn’t have it’s flaws) and I think I am lucky that I experienced this other way of learning and that it shaped me, because most people don’t even imagine that learning could look differently.

I just read a recent article in the Guardian ‘Universities Must Rethink their Approach to Student Digital Literacy’, in it the author argues:

“We need to stop digital literacy training that uses the internet and social media to achieve pre-defined outcomes. For example, working backwards from goals such as finding a job or setting up a business. This might address immediate student anxieties but it is a short-term solution.

Based on my experiences of working with students and academics, I would make a case for digital literacy to be much more than the mechanical operation of tools and technology. It should enable us to use the social digital landscape for reflection and conversations. And in our ability to enter into dialogue on the basis of shared values, we become individual agents of change”

I think this is all well and good. But maybe the reason we aren’t using internet and social media to achieve something other than job applications is not because we are not being taught well how to use the social media, but because we aren’t being taught well…? I mean you can give someone a stone and teach them how to grind maize, or stone someone to death…it’s just a tool, really isn’t it, after all? With technology it’s much the same, but I also think that technology is so prevalent in our lives that we CAN in fact set it up in a way that encourages certain forms of social activity- I mean, the infrastructure of our social lives are increasingly digital. In order to create the infrastructure to support certain things though- we need to have the values in mind to produce such an infrastructure…The Guardian author says:

“Digital literacy training should enable students to use social media as a platform for critical reflection so that they can share their values. Once students can articulate their skills and aspirations online, they can initiate conversation with a new audience who might engage with them in unexpected ways. This is when the engineering student realises that his analytical skills can be applied in a variety of contexts and the music graduate gains confidence in his creative problem-solving capabilities. These positive experiences can create a culture of interdisciplinary collaboration that becomes a key driver of enterprise and innovation”

But, I argue, training students to use social media as the above quote suggests isn’t as simple as saying ‘here’s the technology, and here is how you are going to use it’, students need to be trained offline as well, in engaging in critical reflection and collaborating across disciplines. I think both are productive, but I think that if this is the desired outcome from technology use, you are better applying effort in teaching students how to think reflectively and work collaboratively and then letting them do that naturally when they get to the technology than training them to use the technology without a previous focus on being reflective and collaborative. To me it just doesn’t add up. If you give a group of basketball players a football, they will probably go on trying to play basketball because that’s what they know how to do. If you want them to play football, teach them the rules of football and once the ball is in their hands they won’t need technical training.

2 comments to Asking (Even Stupid) Questions

  • Fiona Harvey

    That was a really interesting post and I really think that there is something in what you say – its a culture thing, the culture of learning must change in order for the practices you talk about to happen. League tables here, just don’t encourage learning in the way you describe. It starts at the beginning of the education lifecycle and the cynical side of me would say that when a student completes Uni then the boxes can be ticked. Job done.

    I like the analogy you used about the football and the basketball players – good luck to you and hope you do well in your studies!

  • Thank you Fiona, and I agree with you- but I don’t know how to change anything!

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