Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Couple of Thoughts About Teaching

A couple of electronic communications yesterday seemed to come together in my mind.

A student from last semester asked my opinion about her summer project to study ICT and "Africanization" of higher education in Africa. "Africanization" once meant decolonization of higher education, when half a century ago African universities often had curricula designed to be compatible with those in their European colonial powers (so that the African students could study in Europe without problems, and Europeans could run and teach in African universities). Now it seems to me the issue is simply good teaching.

It seems to me that when you teach you should try to:
  • build new educational experiences on the existing skill and knowledge base of the student,
  • choose materials that interest the students by linking to their experience and interests,
  • meet the demands and needs of the students for skills, knowledge and understanding for their future lives.
I guess one should also seek to motivate students to learn and to continue learning, and to profess the importance of responsible scholarship through example.

If African colleges and universities do these these things then I suppose they will be Africanized in the same sense that American universities are Americanized when they do these same things.

Of course, it is easier to develop a relevant educational curriculum in the United States than Africa because here there are so many more examples of relevant curricula on which to draw, educators who themselves enjoyed "Americanized" curricula, lots of materials available for the students and faculty embodying relevant content, faculty with more time and facilities to localize content, and students with more resources to do so for themselves.

I have been involved in a dialog with Anne-Marie Deitering through postings on this blog and on her blog, Info-Fetishist on information literacy. Most recently she wrote:
I want to give these beginner academics the grounding in the idea that knowledge is constructed - while focusing on the skills they need to do well on the paper they have in front of them - and do it in a way that will let them build their knowledge of what scholarly and expert information can do for them when they get there in their own work. And so they can choose the doctor that gives them good info. And so they can parse out what's wrong with the diet-of-the-month article in their local paper.

I'd love to hear your perspective on what those first steps should be !
I am willing to try a response, although I have not thought as much about this question as I should have. (But of course a blog is a way of thinking through issues publicly, with the help of online friends.)

Teaching Social Construction

Students here are aware of television, and probably have seen courtroom dramas. So you can get them to discuss how knowledge is constructed in the courtroom. They know there will be advocates for the prosecution and the defense, presenting evidence through testimony of witnesses, with rules of evidence enforced by a judge, and a jury deliberating to reach a verdict. They will probably understand that sometimes juries reach the wrong verdict, convicting an innocent defendant, or failing to convict a defendant whose guilt had been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. They should also understand that some lawyers get a lot of money because they are very skilled advocates, and some witnesses are better at presenting evidence than others. They should know that there is a jury selection process which in principle avoids bias in the jurors, and in practice gives the advocates the opportunity to seek jurors with views that favor their clients, or at least avoid jurors who are likely not to favor those clients. Thus one can enter into a discussion of the quality of the process by which legal knowledge is constructed, and thus the link between quality of the process and validity of the outcome.

Students will have similar personal experience with knowledge construction processes in other institutions. As we are in a national election, perhaps one could use the construction of an opinion by the electoral process of the better candidate for public office. Alternatively, one could consider the process by which the Congress construes the knowledge it uses to draft and approve legislation. It should not be hard to get students to explicitly recognize that these processes can come to poor conclusions, and to see the link between the quality of the process and its protagonists and the validity of the outcome.

With a few examples of the social construction of knowledge in other institutions which are better known to the student, one might be better able to teach information literacy for published information, either coming out of the popular media or out of the scholarly media. In this context, the academic qualifications of authors, the prestige of the journal and its effect on the quality of submissions, the quality of the editors and editorial process, and the quality of the peer review could all be adduced as criteria for the process of the construction of knowledge by the journal, and thus for the reader's evaluation of the credibility of its content. Indeed, one could also consider the criteria used by editors and peer reviewers to evaluate the credibility of submissions that they are asked to judge.

The individual's construction of knowledge

It occurs to me that students tend to understand betting, so that you might develop a lesson in which the students bet on whether information from a specific article is credible. Students might be asked to specify the odds that they would require to make a bet based on the information that they got from an article. They might also be asked how much they would be willing to bet given the right odds. If they would a bet giving 100 to one odds, then they would think the evidence very credible. If they would bet their house at those odds, they would be very confident of their judgment of the quality of that judgment.

One could then go into a discussion of the criteria that a student might use in making such a bet.

If you wanted to go further, you might then ask how students who made such a bet might go about adjudicating its outcome. What authority would they trust to decide which bettor won? How would they structure a process for that decision.

I think an important element in teaching information literacy is to get the students to do meta-thinking. Get them to think not only about the accuracy and the validity of the assertions made in a source, but also about the processes by which one legitimately warrants such assertions.

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