Category Archives: Learning Spaces

The Future of Faculty Development & Possible Framework


The discourse, and emerging field, of faculty development continues to rapidly expand as those commissioned and concerned with improving teaching and learning opportunities, practices and programs continue to refine their craft.

A recent call for proposals challenged potential authors to explore questions like:

  • What do you envision pd looking like in ten years?
  • What best practices for Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTLs) will continue to be best practices?
  • What best practices might emerge?
  • If busy faculty are reluctant to come to CTLs, how might the CTL go to faculty?
  • How might CTLs incorporate creativity and creative approaches in their plans and programming?

I find these questions to be at the heart of what those of us in faculty development need to seriously consider if the field is to thrive into the future. However, I am driven to figure out what “thrive” means.

Support, Collaborate, Challenge


A way to approach this challenge is explore the current range of roles and responsibilities of CTLs in higher education and consider further avenues and opportunities for development. Moreover, we have to explicate and embrace the conceptions, preconceptions and expectations projected on CTLs by faculty, administrators and other relevant stakeholders. So, I begin with the questions:

  • What are the existing practices that support faculty?
  • To what extent do assumptions of what CTLs do act as obstacles to cultivating transformative and innovative development practices and products?

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan is the oldest faculty development center in the United States. It is a valued and established unit within the university and is honored and admired by many other CTLs that see it as a model of success in higher education. A survey of its programs capture what might be considered a canon of best practices in faculty development. It serves faculty, graduate students, chairs and deans, targets individual faculty and departments and schools, not to mention providing grants and awards and their famous CRLT players, which I’ve seen and they are awesome! This is just the CRLT at this institution. Many other CTLs in higher education mirror this truly vetted approach.

The Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University, for example, offers many similar programs as Michigan’s CRLT, but also offers programs like their CATL scholar program and faculty writing residency that help further development of innovative practices and advance the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  Similarly, the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University offers much of the same support programs, but also helps interested graduate students and post-docs pursue a certificate in college teaching.

Another best support practice is to provide resources for faculty (here, here and here are a few additional examples). I believe the work of CTLs is extremely valuable, which is one reason I am part of one. When I started my teaching career, a mentor of mine said: “A good teacher is an excellent thief.” His point was to do my research so that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel so to speak. This advice resonated with me. I spend quite a bit of time mining the work of other CTLs. I also reached out to centers to help me do my job better (more efficiently and more effectively). The programs I have seen and have been a part of are best practices in the field and will continue, but is it all?

Support oriented programs are the bread and butter of faculty development. This is valuable and very important, but What’s beyond providing faculty support? 


It was expressed at my institution that one of the challenges facing our center, prior to re-organization, is the attitude that faculty come to us or, worse, get sent to us to “get fixed.” This orientation is problematic for many reasons. First, it assumes that CTLs have simple answers to what are often complex and systemic problems. Second, it exposes a power dynamic that can get in the way constructive work. For example, I have met many early career professors who are directed to us by their department chairs to “get fixed” so that their promotion or tenure is not compromised. That’s a tough position to be in as a consultant. Third, this attitude over-simplifies the robust nature of the programs CTLs offer. What may be considered by the CTL as a multi-layered and integrated process can be reduced to mere support services if the CTL is not proactive in defining the conversation, of which support is one part. In other words, viewing the center as only a service provider, although important, limits what CTLs can do as drivers of innovative practice.

I provide support where it is requested and needed. I also want to collaborate. As a collaborator, I enter into an equal professional relationship with faculty where we join minds, expertise and experience to collectively do something: identify and solve problems, innovate, research, explore, etc. Seeing myself as a partner has opened the door to more exciting opportunities than I had experienced providing mere support. Of course, I have been proactive in searching out collaborations. I have also worked hard to demonstrate that I have some expertise to contribute. I am just now getting to the point where others are seeking me out for collaborations. That has taken time and is very exciting. Nonetheless, I’m left to ponder: Are support and collaborative efforts enough for the future of faculty development? 


Ultimately, faculty development is as much about my development as an instructional consultant as it is about assisting others. I develop when I am challenged, and I know my students do too…and so do faculty. Pages taken from adult learning theory support this claim. I want to take it as a given that support and collaborative efforts are challenging because we are all trying to figure something out. Challenge is present when we are doing something significant. I am, however, speaking of crafting significant learning experiences: experiences that surface, critique and possibly re-frame the  assumptions we have about what is possible in our course design and execution. What might this look like?

Challenging others is possible when we have created a safe learning environment and we have made clear that we have a trusting professional relationship. That said, I want to make it clear that the challenges I put forth apply to me as much as they apply to those I work with (my identity, my experiences, my hopes, my strengths, and my short-comings). Here are a few ways I have sought to challenge faculty on their terms.

(1) Key Point: Challenge faculty (and ourselves) to explicate the history of their intellectual development and to assess the extent to which it can be used as a resource for students to cultivate their intellects.  To capture this point, I recently wrote in an earlier blog post:

For the last five years or so, I have challenged faculty from across the disciplines and around the world to think about their intellectual growth rings. I’ve done this specifically to explore the questions:

  • If you were to write the story of how you have come to command your intellect (used robustly here to include the whole person), would it be a valuable resource to guide your pedagogy?
  • Would your narrative be a valuable resource for students to use to develop their own intellects?

tree rings 3

I think of all the metaphorical fires, droughts, periods of plenty, those times of sickness and health as our minds grow and mature, and I have to ask: How much of our development can be attributed to schooling? If a lot, then can I mine those experiences for clues to help students have similar learning opportunities? If little, then what can I do differently? So…

What’s the history of your intellectual development?


I wrote an earlier post entitled: What adult learning theory can teach us about faculty development. In it I argued that it is important that our interactions with faculty come from a place of humility where their experiences that have lead to their expertise can organically emerge and, thus, inform action. Doing so helps us surface the implicit and make it explicit as a guide to crafting meaningful and enjoyable learning experiences for students.

(2) Key Point: Hold each other accountable for articulating value added. I was working with a cross-disciplinary group of faculty talking about crafting an engaged lecture. I was attempting to model one iteration. People were fully expecting me to lecture didactically. Instead, I put up three websites (3 of many I could have used): Open courses at MIT, Yale University, and Stanford University. I merely chose a course and topic and immediately accessed the syllabus, course notes, resources, additional versions of the same class, videos, podcasts, and in the case of Stanford, I could participate. I then asked:

If I can access all this information online for free from some of the best thinkers in their fields at some of the most highly ranked institutions….why should I take your class? What do you have to offer? 

The real question gets to the value that I, as the instructor, bring to the content. If I merely deliver content, well…the Internet has more than I need. If that is my approach, then I must entertain the hypothesis that my role as an instructor is one of mere institutional efficiency. That makes me sad.  If that is my job, then it’s pretty easy: “Here is the course docs. My office hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays 12-2. I’ll see you at the midterm and final.” Just own it. However, that’s not what we mean when we “educate.” So, we need to follow the implications of an education robustly and significantly conceived. This begins with finding our personal value and contribution to the organization and interpretation of the content. We then begin to problem solve, and, as a faculty learning experience, it’s a lot of fun because it’s significant and challenging.

(3) Key Point: Challenge faculty by targeting assumptions, especially our concepts and those pesky prescriptive assumptions. This is a tough one because it gets at the heart of our sense of self, our sense of understanding, and our sense of what’s possible. I’ve blogged about this before, but here is a tool I created to promote deep reflection about our lives and identities as instructors. It is a discussion starter if nothing else. I’ll let the questions speak for challenge put forth here.

(4) Key Point: Challenge faculty to network for the world. One of the purposes teaching that really hits home for me is to give back. We consume a lot. The web is massive in this regard. There are, however, those places where people genuinely decide to share and to help. Wikipedia is built on this philosophical approach, and YouTube has its fair share of good examples. I am intrigued with the idea that a purpose of education is to give back. Is teaching enough?  Maybe, but I would also like to challenge instructors, as I am challenged to seek out those places where I can publicly put my expertise to the service of others. ALT Lab’s Online Learning Experience for faculty who want to design an online course and is built on the idea that we can network and think for the world rather than merely being in it. Is it perfect? Nope, but it’s an attempt to open and invites others.

Please note: all this is approached with love, compassion and respect. The importance of facilitating meaningful and healthy relationships cannot be overstated. So, please don’t overgeneralize the above suggestions at the risk of improper contextualization.

So, what is the future of faculty development? I believe in education. Faculty development is an important part of education and its future. I question programs and processes that, despite best intentions, perpetuate the same didactic paradigm that they seek to reform. This paradigm is reinforced when CTLs are viewed by institutions and faculty as mere service providers.  Moreover, this paradigm continues when CTLs employ the same didactic methods they criticize (“I will give you a lecture on why not to lecture”).

The new paradigm in faculty development is one that embraces the cultivation of relationships that are built on mutual respect. In this way, collaborations can drive change and innovation. I think that a mindful and strategic approach to our roles as support providers and collaborators opens the door for meaningful dialogue that values challenge for change and for the world.

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What’s your ideal teaching habitat?


This question emerged from a conversation. The Moth podcast canvassed a story told by Molly Ringwald, the famous 80’s actress. She was talking about the difficulties with her young daughter that emerged when schools (and school environments) changed. The punchline came toward the end of her narrative when she realized that her daughter was having difficulties (emerging bullying behavior) at the new school because she was not in her ideal learning habitat. The story was beautifully told recounting how this insight came when she and her daughter were listening to a different podcast hosted by Radio Lab. It was a story about zoos and the first time an adult gorilla named Kiki went outside. gorillaPowerful account of human ignorance, nature and behavior, and the power of natural habitats. It made me give further consideration to the question of teaching and learning habitats.

I began to wonder: What is the ideal (natural) habitat for my kids? Does one fit both? To what extent do we force a particular way of thinking, of learning, of interacting on students who may have different needs and desires? To what extent are the artificial learning habitats we create conducive to the types of thinking and behaviors (e.g. skills, abilities, dispositions, knowledge) necessary to survive and thrive in the world outside the classroom walls?

Britt Watwood has an April 2014 post that addressed the new nomadic learner in the modern era of online and networked learning pondering: How can I cultivate knowledge nomads who learn rhizomatically and create their own knowledge domains? This question places the focus on the student. Learning and living habitats are changing, so what do students need to know and be able to do to adapt to those changes? In a March 2014 post by Jeff Nugent takes a different approach exploring the question: What might it mean to teach like an octopus? Nugent places the focus on the instructor and acknowledges that intellectual flexibility is a desirable quality given the variation in students we encounter.


Today, I want to take a slightly different approach to the question and ask: What is my natural (ideal) teaching habitat? In other words, under what conditions do I thrive as an instructor? What makes me, or would make me, happy and excited? I am driven to ponder these questions because without a clear understanding of the ideal, then I question the extent I can sufficiently manage the realities of the instructional contexts to which I am assigned. In logic and conceptual analysis, this thinking move is termed: Identifying the paradigm cases on either extreme of an issue or idea (see John Wilson’s Thinking with Concepts). Illustratively, I might frame it this way:

The Ideal                              The Real (If I’m lucky)


We are all very familiar with the realities of our teaching habitats. All too often they feel like a zoo: walls, regulations, schedules, and artificial experiences. How, then, might I move toward the ideal….for me? I believe that my happiness as an instructor has direct and maybe even proportional consequences for students. I want to explore ways I can pragmatically move toward the ideal. If that means less grading, then I am going to figure out ways to make that happen while maintaining intellectual rigor.

If we don’t ask, we can’t imagine.

From Critical Reflection to Critical Refraction

Think metaphorically. I was discussing student portfolios, metacognition and transfer with my friend and colleague, Joe Cates, when this idea surfaced. This post has two purposes. First, I’m trying to clarify the conceptual differences for myself. Second, I want to see if this distinction is a useful lens to help faculty think about the intellectual work they craft and facilitate with students.

As some may know, one of my approaches to working with students and faculty is to provoke deep reflection with small nudges. Posing provocative questions and crafting learning experiences that probe our assumptions about teaching and learning is one of my favorite methods.

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Another method I use is to challenge students and faculty (I teach and I work in faculty development) to probe their conceptions and use of those junctions between content, pedagogy, technology and space. Here is a link to emerging work.  We hope to put out some research on our work soon (I said it, so I have to do it!).

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In my last post, I briefly discussed one of my frameworks for thinking about and prompting change in teaching and learning: Lenses, Levers & Intellectual Litheness.  Change is a key concept and goal. Another key idea is consciously and systematically changing our points of view or orientations, which often requires a degree of flexibility, willingness to experiment, curiosity and open-mindedness. These are at the heart of today’s title.

What is critical reflection? There are some excellent resources on this concept alone, so I will not go into them here. At its core, though, is the idea that we mindfully and systematically use transparent and clearly defined criteria to investigate things we’ve done and the thinking that informed the action(s). When done well, it helps us make meaning of our experiences. In the process, we work to expose assumptions and evaluate them; we look for limitations and evaluate them; we are explicit about giving voice to alternative perspectives and evaluate them and our own. These are but a few moves of the mind each of which represent different investigative lenses when consciously employed. A goal is to learn as a guide to belief and action. When done poorly, well… it’s not critical then is it?

What is critical refraction? Although I am still fleshing this concept out, the gist of it is like that of a light in a prism. The results show us things that were there all along, but we could not initially see and to which we may not have been privy.


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Similar to critical reflection, we can expose our assumptions, preconceptions, and even misconceptions, and we can use this new found knowledge as a guide to belief and action. We look back systematically to learn from our past and give meaning to our experiences. Where I am making the distinction (which is admittedly metaphorical) is to emphasize looking forward rather than backward.

Part of critically reflecting is to entertain the implications of our thinking and behavior. Critical refraction would be an intentional focus on unpacking those implications. It would involve being intentionally playful to see what comes of our thinking without fear of failure or ridicule. How often do we try to bend things to see if we can create something new?

What does this look like in the classroom? It may involve flipping our course, but it’s more than that also. I want to put the (e)portfolio through the prism. I want to put grading and assessment through the prism. I want students to put their questions through the prism. Once we see was the new possibilities are, then we have new avenues for critical investigation, which can lead to eventually looking back on our experiences.

What if we though in terms of critical refraction as well as reflection?

Faculty Development 101 – Challenge with Love and Plan with Conviction


Each week ALT Lab holds open hours we call the Agora. It’s a time where anyone who is interested in something new, building something, or exploring ideas can come, drink coffee, and figure things out. (I wanted to write: “and change the world,” but that may be just my dream) It’s fun and always different. I really enjoy the general atmosphere that moves beyond “let’s fix it” and toward “let’s build something new!” It’s groovy.


Last week a faculty member who has labeled himself a “frequent flyer” wanted to talk to me. I’ve seen Professor X a lot. We have had many conversations over the last year and a half, so I wasn’t surprised to see him. Now this guy has been around a long time. He is respected and established. He has a light teaching load and teaches those difficult 150 + student classes. Most importantly, he likes teaching. I accurately guessed the question he asked: “How do I get my students to ask questions in class? Questions that demonstrate they can think critically?” We’ve been over it many, many, many times.


For those reading some of my posts on faculty development, you know that my thinking has shifted away from the concept of “faculty development” and toward the idea of “faculty learning experiences.” Professor X and I have met a crazy number of times and he has met with others even more, but little has changed despite his best intentions. Why? After all, he’s the one framing the problems, the challenges, the desire for something different. Why the lack of movement? I argued in an earlier post that I don’t think that most of our deepest beliefs (and the assumptions that inform them) and our behaviors are largely a product of making well thought out decisions that are based on sound evidence and good arguments. Rather, I believe that what we learn to do well (including changes) we learn by doing it. We must experience it in dynamic and personal ways. Faculty are no exception. In fact, it might be more important for faculty given the numerous challenges they must navigate in their professional (let alone personal) lives.

The challenge I placed on myself was (and is) this: How can I construct a learning experience within a 30 minute time frame that challenges this instructor’s assumptions about teaching and learning, have him commit to one particular thing he will do differently in light of the conclusions he draws, and plan out exactly what he will do in the next class that is innovative and feasible?  OK, of course there is a lot we can break down here, but I’m trying to keep it fairly short. Please comment or email me ( if you want my entire thinking and approach. I’ll gladly share it.


1) Create a disorienting, but safe, dilemma: I told this instructor that his question is so far beyond what he can facilitate and what his students can do well that we need to find a different, a more realistic approach to engaging students. I was honest, and there was immediate surprise. I told him that we have discussed at least fifty ways to get students to ask questions, but not one had been implemented; so, we needed to change the focus. He agreed to play along.

2) Walk the instructor through they type of thinking s/he wants her/his students to do….without being explicit about it. Once I had figured out the key insight he wanted his students to take away from the next lecture, I merely took one of the suggestions I would have normally offered up and put it to him. I took a very Socratic approach. I said: “Since I don’t know anything about your field, can you explain this key insight to me in the form of a metaphor or an analogy? Or, draw me a picture. I don’t care. I need you to translate it for me!” …… Stumped. Big time.

3) Offer a way out that saves face and points to classroom application. Ok I’m sounding a bit arrogant now, but it is not my intention. I truly believe that my role in faculty development is more about cultivating safe and healthy relationships and using my skills to craft meaningful learning experiences so that innovative practice becomes a reality. What’s the other option? Hope? Not good enough for me at least. I apply the same principle to my undergraduate courses as well. On with it…what did I do?

Professor X was stumped. So, I offered up a metaphor. I don’t know anything about his subject, but I do know that even a bad example can be a good stimulator. It’s kind of like fly fishing. Anyway, I threw out an analogy and he actually liked it. So much so, that he went on to elaborate in ways I had, of course, not considered. Lucky? Nope. Serendipitous.

4) Translate the experience into an plan of action. This is where much of my skill set lies. TOGETHER, we took his experience explaining a key insight in his next lecture in the form of an analogy and crafted a learning experience for students that fit within his context. Meaning, it wasn’t such a large step that fear prevented action. Rather, we framed the experience within the concept of an engaged lecture. He did NOT have to give up his existing powerpoint lecture. He did NOT make students move their seats. He did NOT have to think on his feet. He did NOT have to take a huge risk. We worked within his context and comfort zone, but pushed the boundaries of what his past experience said was possible.

5) Commit. Don’t back out. I made Professor X verbally say he would do what he claimed he would do. I, in turn, said I would help by being there physically. I would even facilitate the activity if he so desired. We laid out a plan on google docs and followed up via email.


In the 1.5 years I’ve known this guy, this is the first time he has done anything outside of the status quo despite his desire to do so: didactic lecture. Moreover, he said it was the first time he had acted differently in many years. There was a technological component using google docs recording in real time student thoughts, group collaboration, and large group discussion (remember that it is in a class of 150+ students). I was actually a little surprised at how well the students engaged because they were used to passively listening, and their feedback on this one little change was overwhelmingly positive. So… he did it again, but from a different perspective.

I saw movement from didactic to engaged. He saw movement from “boredom” to “excited” (to use his words) with his students. We both saw movement within ourselves.

I love my job.

If you change the context, do you change the behavior?

The more data that is collected on prison recidivism rates the more we come to learn that those who are released from prison and return to their old neighborhoods (which is required by law in many states) have higher rates of returning to prison.  Here is one story by NPR that begins to address part of this issue.

Here is an article from the Urban Institute that argues a similar point.

Why do I bring this up? What does it have to do with my normal focus on teaching and learning?  Well, at the heart of the issue is context.  Although not a silver bullet, there is a very real dimension to human behavior that falls under the idea: If you change the context, then you change the behavior.

Recognize this?

Lecture Hall


Just another lecture hall.  My question is: What types of behavior (intellectual and physical) would you expect to see in this context?  Moreover, what are the limits?

This lecture hall is designed to deliver information. Engagement tends to be varied, often subjective, and highly didactic.  The intellectual behavior tends to lean toward rote regurgitation, passive listening and isolation.  The physical behaviors are often motionless fixation on one point (projector/lecturer), quiet, and in the worst cases (I’ve observed) sleeping or even watching movies on their computers.  This isn’t to say that some instructors do amazing things in such spaces that point to deep intellectual and social engagement; and there are a lot of excellent story tellers out there that keep student attention.  But is this what education should be?  As instructors and most say “NO,” but they do it anyway.

Just as we inherit contexts (cultural ecology’s), so too do we inherit our learning spaces.  Many institutions are combating the style space and its passive learning tendencies with innovative learning spaces that challenge our understanding (and comfort at times) of the intersection between space, technology, pedagogy and choice.

VCU’s ALT Lab is doing this as well.  I am honored to be a part of a team that is experimenting and researching the potential of what is possible with and in an dynamic learning space.

So, what does these contexts suggest about what types of thinking and doing students are up to?  Tom Woodward has an excellent flickr page capturing some of what we’re up to.

I’m excited to explore what’s next.


Gaming, Thinking & New Horizons

Now that students have played video games as an exercise in metacognition, critical reflection and transfer of insights, what do we do next?

I’m going to try to do two things in this post. First, I want to highlight what we (students and instructor) are going to do to further the gaming exercise in our class Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. Second, I want to attempt to express the first by capturing the voices of those in the VCU ALT Lab who have thoughts to share on the topic. I’d like to include student voices, but I hesitate in overloading them. I’ll throw out the invitation anyway.

In two earlier posts, I have attempted to explain how students in my sophomore level Inquiry & the Craft of Argument class here at VCU are using video games to make their thinking visible for the purposes of metacognition, critical reflection, transfer of insights and community building. Specifically, they were challenged with the task to narrate their thinking as they played video games and explain how their play parallels the types of thinking moves in the course. They were faced with making explicit what is implicit, communicating their thinking moves clearly so that other students could see the thinking, generalize and draw connections to the types of thinking embedded in the discipline (course), and explain how these moves can help them think with greater sophistication in other parts of their personal and academic lives. It was a tough challenge, but my last post reported what I saw as encouraging and inspiring results. Tom Woodward took a photo of the class in action. What next?

I originally waited for students to bring ideas for next steps to the class, to me, to Tom who is helping with the course, but little happened. I immediately inferred (maybe erroneously) that the exercise, although very valuable for some, might have fallen victim to the curse of compartmentalization (silos).


Oh the efficiency of human thinking! It’s the same type of thinking that prevents one from seeing that Thursday’s class actually follows from Tuesday’s work (for a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule) or that week one is actually connected and necessary for meaningful work in week eleven. That is where my thinking jumped, but I don’t want to sucumb to the same fallacious ways of thinking that I’m critiquing, so I suspended judgment.

The deeper inference is that it is just as much an issue of understanding and practice. Scaffold dummy, scaffold.


So, I organized a class session to revisit the big picture of the class: the fundamental structures that are necessary conditions for deep understanding, meaningful engagement, and insight development.

I put a list of the key / core dimensions of the course on a google doc and had students individually identify the areas they believed they understood and commanded the most. They then got into like groups. For example, those who understand the logic and uses of The Backpack got into one group. Those who get the Grade Profiles in another, and so on. They then had to collectively figure out how to teach it to others. The idea is: If you can’t teach it, then you don’t own it. (You don’t know it deeply enough). Using the resources in the class, they had to figure out how to help others develop deep understanding of their content. Mere presentation was not sufficient. They had to help others figure it out for themselves, which involved engaging them emotionally and helping them make important connections. After a certain amount of time, I arranged them into mixed groups and the teaching began. It was a good exercise because it was intellectually and inter-personally engaging.

But what about the gaming project? I’m curious how my colleagues viewed what was going on based on what they observed and what I informally explained during our ALT Lab Agora’s or in passing. I am curious how others deal with the challenge of transfer. One of my colleagues, David Croteau, developed a class blog space for his class that had students apply theories and concepts in the field of Sociology with concrete issues and examples. Check out the sociological autobiographies and the imagination gallery. Awesome! It is along the lines of what Robert Frank does with his economics class at Cornell University. The fundamental goals: to ground abstractions in concrete experiences and examples characterized by curiosity and driven toward transferring insights into other related contexts so that deep insights, meaningful skills and valuable attitudes emerge and are practiced. These, I see, are major goals and challenges of education; particularly general education.

Observations / Thoughts / Comments / Connections / Oppositions – VCU Colleagues

Here is the link to the google doc where I asked a select group to comment. For some, I asked for specific analytic and evaluative thoughts, and for others open.

Here is brief email conversation where a colleague, David Croteau, asked: “What do you mean by contextualization?” (sorry it’s so blurry)

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Another comment from Joyce Kincannon pointing the discussion to some resources – see sidebar:

Here’s an email comment from one of my colleagues, Joe Cates, in the Focus Inquiry department here at VCU.

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Gaming: Next Steps, New Horizons

I approached two of my self-identified “gamers” last week. I challenged them to develop the project. A few questions always help: What are we going to do next? How can the work you started be used to develop or augment your final project? If you could do anything with what we have done, what would it be? I threw out a few ideas, but I want them to do the mental work. I want to encourage their imaginations. I want them to take ownership of the project. I just want to help guide and facilitate

Nonetheless, what would it look like if these students created a game that attempted to make the implicit explicit? James Paul Gee outlines five “learning principles” that are embedded within video game play and, he argues, can be generalized across domains. I wonder what my students could do with these principles? What could they do for others?

I’d love to teach a class where these questions were explored and actual games were created. Move beyond badges and tokens toward deep critical reflection and transfer. Hmmm??? I’d teach that class for free if students could get academic credit!

Implications for Faculty Development?

Teaching is at my core, and teaching faculty is a passion of mine. I am presenting this week at the 39th Annual POD Conference (Professional Organizational Development). The title of my presentation reflects by my general perspective of faculty development and my frustrations: “Practicing What We Preach: Leveraging Workshops to Foster Faculty Innovation.” My general perspective is that what we learn to do well, we learn by doing it. I design all my faculty development interactions around this idea. They do what we want to see in our classrooms. My frustration is in how so many faculty encounters actually function: didactic lecture telling people that they need to engage students. So odd, but understandable.

What we are trying to do with the video games is based on the idea that students take ownership of content and their thinking when they (1) directly translate, contextualize and practice the work of the discipline in real, meaningful problems, and (2) critically reflect on the intellectual work with a mind to transfer insights to other domains and contexts. This is what I want faculty development to be.

As I reflect on this class and my work, I still cannot escape what has become a mantra of mine: “There is an extent to which thought not applied is useless.” — for better or worse. If we can’t see it, we can’t evaluate it, and we can’t avoid, correct or use it deeply. I started blogging by challenging myself to a 30 Question Challenge. My organizing idea and goal was to pose 30 totally out of the box questions that I would blog about. It was a game that had meaning for me.

  • It was relevant to my context as a teacher and a faculty development coach.
  • It was challenging, but I could figure out how to have emerging success.
  • It forced me to identify and question my assumptions.
  • It forced me to examine things from different lenses and perspectives.
  • I called upon background knowledge and schemas to make connections.
  • I had to reframe my misunderstandings, knowledge inaccuracies and expectations.
  • I had to take action and produce something.
  • I had to check my thinking; assess it for quality.
  • I had to reach out to others (resource identification and use).
  • I wanted to contribute to others involved.
  • I had broader goals beyond myself.
  • I failed, regrouped and tried again writing multiple drafts at times.
  • I made a commitment to learn, explore, fail, succeed, and share.

These are just a few of the ideas embedded in deep learning whether it be gaming, writing, researching, or coaching. This blog post represents another attempt to practice what I believe in: learning with and from others to collectively address the many challenges we have in our teaching and in our lives.

Thanks for all those who contributed. Not bad for three days 31 discussions.


Below are twp screenshots of the google doc to show how much dialogue was going on.

Screenshot (9)

Screenshot (10)

Gaming, Thinking & Ownership

Serendipitous Connections

I was on my way to a meeting and had a couple minutes to burn. I took that time to interrupt our Vice Provost of Learning Innovation and Student Success (Gardner Campbell) to let him know about our gaming and learning experiment in the general ed class I’m teaching (Inquiry and the Craft of Argument). I did this without regard to what he was busy with, but I knew he would find the project at least somewhat interesting. His next move has come to open my mind up to new ways of thinking about video games, gaming, and gaming culture: he handed me a book. The book is entitled What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee (2007).

As I confessed in my previous post, I know almost nothing about video games and gaming culture, and … until recently I didn’t care. I am, however, VERY interested in thinking and learning. Gee’s book is the bridge. It has given me language, lenses, frameworks, theories, and new perspectives that are built around the THINKING and LEARNING embedded in video game design, play and community. So, I’m struggling through this discourse and also struggling through video games. I actually am surprised at how uncoordinated I am with a controller. I can play a guitar and a trumpet. I can fletch an arrow and manipulate very small components in a car engine, but these game controllers are challenging my motor-skills. Funny.

As I continue to read Gee’s book, I am making multiple connections with other theories, frameworks, and activities embedded in my existing thinking. Some are very explicit and others are present, but emerging. For example, I wrote a note linking Gee’s comments on the situated and social nature of gaming to the seminal work of Lave and Wenger (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Of course, Gee references these authors.

An emergent understanding is captured in the following quote: “We can learn a lot from those young people who play games, if only we take them and their games seriously” (Gee, p.10). I have to ask myself: Whom and what else do I fail to take seriously? This is an example of a reflective jugular question.

Learning Together

I originally started this post intending to write about my most recent experience with students and gaming. I’ll spare you the details about what it is we’re attempting to do and encourage you to read my previous post. The gist of it is that I wanted to see if video games could act as a catalyst for making thinking visible as a guide to learning in our classroom. Thus far, I continue to be surprised and encouraged by the clarity, depth and sophistication of what participating students are doing and saying. I’m excited!

Last week I had four students playing. All are self-labeled “gamers.” One, however, is very serious. Listening to him coach, challenge and encourage others without giving them answers to problems made me realize that gaming is his discipline just as education and pedagogy are mine. I also realized that the all of them did not want answers, just clues. This included reading any pop-up directions or instructions. They wanted to solve problems for themselves. They enjoyed figuring things out. The satisfaction gained from solving a challenge trumped failure and death. Of course, it was part of my role there to stop the play and ask them the what and why of it all.

I challenged all of them to explicate their thinking as they were playing. I challenged them to extrapolate general rules or principles informing their play. I challenged them to generalize their intellectual work while gaming to the classroom. They resisted! Moreover, my prompts were not the kind of challenge they wanted no matter how rewarding it may be for their class thinking and performance. Why? The obvious answer is that reading about argument can be quite boring. The not so obvious answer is that they had never sought out the beauty and challenge (the game) of the course content. That’s the link I wanted them to make… in part.

So there we were, game paused, a question floating in the air, and silent. I changed the question, “The Backpack in our course is a metaphor I created because it reflects my world view. It’s my thinking, my system. What is the backpack in this game (Portal)?” That was it. Why? I don’t know exactly, but broadly speaking it gave them license to look at the course from a different lens. The answer came quickly and vocally by multiple players: “It’s the portal gun!” Tell me more I said and they began describing the gun as the lifeline, the key resource, the tool, the transportable key to success that without it you die. This discussion led to further metaphorical connections centered on the idea of “RESOURCES”! I was seriously getting excited. They took the discussion in a place that almost made me cry. The serious gamer argued that the frameworks and rules one learns throughout the game are what make the portal gun useful, so The Backpack is a repository of resources that one can use to help navigate the curriculum and can be, when appropriate, transferred to other domains/situations. I may have actually cried.

I told them to take notes on their thinking and conclusions, discuss and plan to communicate their insights to the rest of the class by modeling their thinking during game play exhibitions. What happened a couple days later actually made me cry. The serious gamer in the group wrote an email to me and is as follows:

(student’s email printed below)

“Also, I’ve been thinking about how to make the Backpack more… relatable (it says I spelled that wrong). Like I said before about how the students see backpacks as a big heavy thing that holds a bunch of boring things for our boring classes (at-least that’s what I am assuming here). We don’t see the backpack in the same light because we don’t understand how you relate to the idea. Like you said, for you, a backpack means life or death when you’re out in the woods, it holds all your tools that help you survive. I feel as though it would be best that people realize this difference and make their own version (something they would “LITERALLY” (figuratively) die without)…just so that one: they will know where it is, and two: when they go to their version, they realize what it means because of how they relate. now most people are gonna hate me for that, because it means more work, but I think it still would make it more… mentally accessible.”

The conversation that followed was encouraging because this student had moved from a vague understanding of what I was asking the class to do toward an understanding that made intuitive sense. Moreover, he saw its relevance and importance to others and his role in helping others making course content meaningful.


Had I not entertained the possibility that gaming can be a vehicle for deeper metacognitive understanding as it relates to the work we are doing in an argument class, then I would not have interrupted Gardner and found Gee. I would also have failed to provide students (and one in particular) with opportunities to make important connections of their own.

My point: “find new ways to get frustrated.” Or, as Gee says find contexts that are “pleasantly frustrating.”


See Minute 2:02 Sharon Lee, GMU History Instructor

Games, Thinking & Thinking about Thinking

I stepped out of my comfort zone this week: I played a video game. I did. The last time I played a video game was Galaga in a bar.


My discomfort was mainly due to my lack of familiarity with gaming. I spend much of my free time in the woods. I don’t play video games. I don’t dislike them; they are just not part of my life. However, many of my students identify themselves as “gamers.” Playing video games for these gamers is not mere entertainment; it’s a part of their identity. Playing games influences how they see the world, and it reflects their thinking about the world. What does this have to do with teaching and learning? As far as my class is concerned, just imagine a collision of world views!

I generally believe it is unrealistic to “connect” with students by virtue of seeking out common pop culture examples. Mentioned in an earlier post that I had students articulate and outline “The teachers job is…” on the first day of class. One idea the surfaced was that it is the instructor’s responsibility to reach out and “connect” with students citing examples that were mainly found in generation relevant pop-culture. Students stated that it may help with motivation. I argued that it’s unrealistic for me to find such connections a because it assumes that many, if not most, of the students share the experience in a meaningful way. It also assumes that I can relate to a chosen example in a way that points to shared experience. Rather, I believe that it’s safe to assume that my life and world experience is very different from most of my students, so any meaningful connection has to come from a deeper intellectual and emotional place (a human place). This is not to say commonalities cannot be found; established might be a better term.

For those who read my blog, you know that my “thing” (orientation) is to put the thinking first (the focus) by making it visible (explicit). It is in the thinking that meaningful connections are made. Expose the thinking moves that inform our behaviors and beliefs. It is important to note that I only separate the “thinking” from “feeling” for intellectual exercises only. I believe that they are intimately connected; in fact, I don’t think they can be separated fully and doing so often leads to misconceptions and over-simplifications.

So, how do I help establish meaningful connections with students so that we can advance our content specific investigations and create a culture of thinking and co-learning in the classroom? Of course, there are many paths. My most recent experiment (of sorts) involves video games since all my students play them. Yes, all of them. However, only 4 of the 22 label themselves “gamers.” So, there is common ground although not similarly interpreted and experienced.

Gaming Center

This is the location of the developing experiment. It is the ALT Lab gaming center. It has multiple game systems, web access, stadium seating, surround sound and a huge screen that can be sectioned out into four quadrants. What you see here is an orientation to the gaming area by a VCU student who is demonstrating various games.

As I sat there, watching this student play games I wondered how we could substantively integrate this space in our classroom instruction. A question emerged: Why not have the “gamers” in my class narrate their thinking as they play the game? We could then use these narratives as examples to better understand, develop and interface with The Backpack in our course. That’s the goal: to make the use of our class constructed visible thinking journal more meaningful by creating a more intuitive connection through direct and shared experiences. The games provide a fun and fairly intuitive means for practicing visible thinking.

I will elaborate on my method and the results in a later post, but let me say that the first student that participated in a trial run exceeded my expectations. We have some very exciting results emerging to this informal experiment.  My hope is that we can develop a more intuitive and meaningful understanding of the Grade profiles necessary for their end of the term arguments for a final mark.

So, what started as feelings of discomfort and small levels of anxiety have morphed into excitement, anticipation, and curiosity. What were some consequences? Let’s just say that I started playing some simple video games and watching youtube videos of gamers. Here is one of my favorites, which is very popular (beware there is profanity, but it’s understandable due to the investment):  World of Warcraft and the now famous Leroy Jenkins video.

I’d love to break down the thinking embedded in this video, but this post is getting rather long. Notice how the players have distributed power, authority, and responsibilities, how they strategize, and how they have learned from past mistakes/trials. Notice the range of emotions when Leroy doesn’t follow the group’s plan. These people are playing remotely from various locations, so the coordination alone explains the frustrations. In any case, this isn’t a model of what we’re trying to do in class, but it is an example of a way students can begin to think about their thinking.