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What adult learning theory can teach us about faculty development.

Personalize. What is your purpose and role as an educator? Is your class merely one in a checklist? Or, is your class the manifestation of your unique contribution to the field/course topic? To what extent do your students see you as human? Do you see them as human? If so, what are the pedagogical (andragogical) implications? Adult learning theory tells us that the more human we are to our students, the more successful learning is. This a brief welcome to a course for faculty in course design: OLE. Just a little way to be more human on the web.

Mine Authentic & Significant Experiences. Respect live experience and knowledge. This includes values, opinions and beliefs even if you, as the instructor, disagree. The road to change is built on respect.

Craft Authentic & Significant Learning Experiences. Take any activity, assignment or assessment and ask yourself: What is the intellectual product that will result from this? By “product” I simply mean insight, skill, disposition, feeling, etc. By “intellectual” I mean to include the whole person from the cognitive to the visceral to our skin. If I cannot articulate this with a sufficient degree of clarity, to what extent should I expect that it will happen? To what extent will students be explicit about what they are experiencing and, therefore, learning? Authentic and significant mean that the learning experiences we design resonate with the individual and in important ways. It is a necessary condition for transformative learning. What would Jack Mezirow say? Don’t take my word for it.

Make it real. Adults tend to be problem centered and goal oriented, so course topics and tasks need to be relevant to the problems or challenges in their lives. In the case of faculty development, those problems involve the classroom. Seem like a no-brainer? Well, put your work to the test. How does my lecture, lesson, assignment, or activity help my students build something? After a lecture (lesson, etc), can students cite multiple examples of how the material manifests itself in daily life?

Give up “total” & “complete” control.  Adults tend to value a higher degree of choice in their learning experiences than younger students. They tend to be more self-directed. However, I have to ask how many times I have sought to dictate the what, why and how of learning? I know that many (if not most) of my students want to give up choice, but adults tend to embrace it. I must still know the direction I want to lead the group, but the paths may vary.

Faculty development studies how professional educators learn. It’s a complex undertaking. I’ve blogged about it here, here, and here to connect to a few.  Adult learning theory and practices can help in meaningful ways.


Lenses, Levers and Intellectual Litheness

I’d like to share a story. Recently, I was facilitating a brown bag lunch workshop within a particular department here at VCU. We’ve been working together for over a semester now, once a month, every month. It’s been great, and this group of instructors are not only receptive, but energetic and willing. I wanted to take our work to the next level; specifically, I wanted to help faculty enter into an intellectual place where we could imagine and experiment; a place where we would consciously and systematically look for new ways to approach instruction. Moreover, I wanted the playfulness to challenge our assumptions about teaching and learning so that we could see and seriously consider our limitations. How do we facilitate such an experience?


I take an integrated approach that usually starts with a provocative question in a large group, short discussion – leading to a small group activity that produces something – back to the large group discussion – ending with planning for what we will commit ourselves to actually doing. The whole process mirrors one way to facilitate learning in our daily classrooms, so it’s about an hour.

Back to the story, the question I asked is: Have you ever felt that what you say doesn’t matter? Of course, we’re talking about teaching, and we’re talking about relevance. What is interesting about this question is that we don’t want to say yes. Our egos want to shield us from the possibility that much of what we tell students is irrelevant to them, it doesn’t impact them, it doesn’t transform them. Things got really interesting when, as a group, we started to unpack this question with specific examples.

Abstractly we could answer “yes” because it’s safe and doesn’t hurt too much, but when we start citing specific examples, there is a tendency to rationalize. (Now, I’m only talking about this context, but I’m curious if there is a general application) “Oh, students just don’t care enough, so they can’t see the relevance.” “They’re so young. We’re just giving them the information and when they go to work they’ll see it’s relevance.” Just because we can see or argue for relevance, doesn’t mean that it is communicated meaningfully to students. We all face this, and it really isn’t a surprise. Nonetheless, the bigger and more significant point is one of relevance. Are there things we teach by virtue of tradition, or habit, convenience, training or even ignorance that are actually irrelevant?

David Perkins from Harvard and one of my favorite authors on pedagogy makes the point here. I particularly like his discussion of the quadratic equation.  Challenging faculty, and myself, to delve deeper into the logic that drives our content organization, our communication, and our pedagogy requires that we have a broader goal or problem to address, that it is addressable, and we can figure out a way to address it.



I am always looking to take an organic approach to faculty development. By this, I mean help faculty (individually and at scale) figure out and clarify their most pressing needs and even dreams as it relates to teaching and learning, and then move toward practical complexity: What can we do next? What can we do that really moves toward deep learning? What assumptions can we challenge or even destroy?! It’s fun.


So, in faculty development…. is there space for being playful?

My mind continues to go back to crafting collaborative learning experiences. Time constraints demand so much of our attention and dictate so many of our actions in life and pedagogically. Carving away time to delve deeply into the assumptions, methods, hopes, and fears that drive our instruction can be considered a luxury. Nonetheless, I continually try.

I try to cultivate relationships. I try to reduce the feeling that time is the master. I try to inspire, to motivate, and to challenge. I try to maximize options. I try to help hope feel real.

The tag line of this blog (Lenses, Levers and Intellectual Litheness) is a framework. It’s my framework for faculty development and I’ve found it practical and powerful. As with my undergraduate students, I don’t get everyone, but I do have fun. Having fun has proven to be a really healthy way for me to approach and work with faculty.

New Challenges & New Course Idea

It’s almost cliche to talk about new directions, new commitments, and new hopes this time of year, but there is a reason so many do that. I’d like to say that the new year has sparked new passion, but I’d be misleading myself and you. The truth is, I’m always looking for new directions, new challenges and new ideas. It is kind of my M.O. Here’s my latest where a little reflection took me from home project to course idea to brainstorming with colleagues. Let’s tentatively call it: “YouTube Challenge Course.”

From Home Project…

I spent the the better part of a week trying to install a wood stove in my old farm house.  Seems simple enough. After all, professional contractors do it all the time. Well…I’m not a contractor or a professional builder of any kind. I always say, “I can make it and make it strong, but it won’t look pretty.” That wouldn’t fly this time around. Here are a list of challenges that I had to address:

  1. Stabilize the floor: 6″ (yes that’s inches) of crawl space. Imagine a hand trowel, a hand hydraulic jack, cement block, sled, deer bones, dead rats, dust mask, and a trench.
  2. Build base for the hearth on a floor that isn’t level and three walls that are not square. Oh yeah, it has to be as non-obtrusive as possible. In other words, it can’t stick out too much into the dining room.
  3. Build a fire wall for the hearth (once again working with non-level and non-square dimensions and has to have a 1″ air gap built with non-combustible materials.)
  4. Access and secure the existing brick chimney (this is post inspection).
  5. Learn to lay brick to rebuild exterior portion of existing chimney.
  6. Put a 6″ round insert pipe into the existing 7″ square chimney.
  7. Join the insert pipe to the stove pipe through a brick chimney where it is safe.
  8. How do you get a 400+lb stove into the house which has stairs by yourself?
  9. Agree on tile!!!!?????
  10. Understand and meet building code (this should be number one).
  11. Manufacture / fabricate a chimney cap because my chimney is a non-standard size (of course it had to be non-standard).
  12. Insulate, insulate, insulate.
  13. Did you know that the width of a board changes when it is to join with another board where the joining angle is more or less than 45 degrees? I didn’t. I wish my geometry class was taught through the lens of building stuff. Figuring out angles is much more difficult than what I routinely did in the abstract world of 10th grade geometry, and I got an A+. Turns out that I don’t know much about applied (real?) geometry, and I can’t think like a mathematician.
  14. Kids (enough said because there are too many challenges to list).
  15. Meet all of the above as cheaply as possible.

Here’s the finished product. I’m happy with it and a little proud. We’re also warm now.


How did I manage these challenges? How did I learn to do things (not necessarily well)? My main resource was YouTube. I then followed links to articles and read. Finally, I practiced. I was blown away at how many videos there are. Not one had everything I needed, and my goal wasn’t to find THE ONE. My goal was to find as many as possible that (1) highlighted specific parts or dimensions of the overall project not necessarily the whole enchilada, (2) were fairly short (less than 10 minutes) meaning that the author sought be concise, and (3) linked out to additional resources like webpages and articles and comment lines with different perspectives/links. I couldn’t help but think what teaching a class using YouTube as the main (if not only) resource.

To Course Concept… 

Here is the basic idea behind the tentatively titled YouTube Challenge Course: What if we were to design a course where the only resource students could initially consult is YouTube? What if that course required students to create videos to fill YouTube gaps? Hmmmm.

Some of the core macro skill sets might include:

  • identifying and clearly articulating problems
  • bridging abstractions with concrete applications and examples
  • identifying, evaluating, and organizing resources
  • designing and creating resources / tools for dissemination
  • exercising discernible judgement in the selection and evaluation of resources
  • leveraging the affordances of the media

I’m using YouTube as a mere example, but other platforms could be used as well.  If you have a good one, please post it. Even the Khan Academy uses YouTube. Awesome, but kind of scary.

Future of Faculty Development: Cultivating Meaningful Experiences

What is the future of faculty development? Or, maybe we’re in the future because it’s always been this way and it won’t change?

Much of my thought is consumed with the question: How do faculty learn? By this I mean that faculty development is very complex because faculty bring to the learning context much more than students: more knowledge, more insight, more skills, and more baggage; or at least they think they do. For better or worse, students come to the learning context with a fairly engrained set of expectations, rules, structures, and understanding of long established power relationships. “I’ll do what I’m told” kind of attitude. Faculty also come to the faculty development context with expectations that are filtered through their existing roles, responsibilities, desires and perceived rights and capabilities. So, I enter all faculty development engagements with the idea that first we must expose and manage expectations.

Stephen Brookfield’s book, “Teaching for Critical Thinking: Tools and Techniques to Help Students Question their Assumptions,” argues that one key dimension to thinking critically is identifying and evaluating our assumptions. This isn’t, of course, a new idea within teaching and learning contexts. John Bean’s book, “Engaging Ideas,” describes an approach to exposing assumptions about teaching and learning roles and responsibilities offering up a strategy where students write an essay beginning with the prompt: “The teacher’s job is…” They continue with a second prompt that reads: “The student’s job is…” For many years now, I have started a new semester with variations of this activity. For example, this semester my students worked in small groups of 2-3 and responded to the prompts on white boards. After we analyzed the concepts and assumptions embedded within their lists, I said: “Now, I want you to take all the responsibilities in the ‘teacher’s job’ column and put it on the student’s job. How does this shift your thinking and perceptions of teaching and learning now?”


The activity was designed to challenge student assumptions about what teaching and learning means. I wanted to begin to question the power and responsibility roles. I wanted them to begin to see that I want them to do the intellectual work that I do when designing courses, lessons, assignments, tests, etc. I have learned more teaching than I have ever learning sitting in a classroom desk. Why? Because I am the one doing all the intellectual work: lit reviews, questions, finding examples, organizing experiences, designing assessments, etc. Why not shift that to them? Not easy, I admit, but that’s my goal. What we learn well, we learn by doing! To reference Eduard Lindeman: Education as experience!

How does this relate to faculty development? Well, in the last ten years I’ve facilitated over 160 faculty development workshops, seminars, & courses. I like to think of them as facilitating experiences because we (all humans) learn by doing. To do this well, I have to help faculty identify, evaluate and possibly re-frame their expectations of what the day will hold. Last week I was working a cross-disciplinary group of college faculty in Texas. How can I craft experiences that helps all of them regardless of their discipline? The topic addressed practical methods for fostering critical thought on a typical day of class…and align it with their Quality Enhancement Plan for accreditation purposes. I’ve done this type of thing many times across this nation and internationally. What I did differently, though, was I asked them to complete the “Teacher’s job…/Student’s job…” activity. Interesting results.

I found that, like students, many of the words used for the instructor’s job were broad and relatively vague. For example, the teacher’s job is to inspire, motivate, and assess. Others were somewhat more specific: organize, provide examples, design assignments, develop rubrics. For the student’s job, words tended to be much more concrete on the whole. Descriptors like: come prepared, read, complete homework, come to class, submit work on time dominated the lists. A few floating concepts were consistent like study and communicate effectively. I challenged instructors to do the same thing I challenged my students to do: What would the classroom look like if your responsibilities were shifted to the students? What would you do differently? How would the classroom culture shift if at all? The reaction? If you’re still reading, then I suspect you’re interested.

For my students, they began to see that the class would be more challenging and engaged than other didactic environments. No real protests, but a few groans. The instructors, however, immediately began vocally providing numerous reasons why such a shift is impossible; not improbably, but impossible. Their comments were full of emotion, which I interpreted as ranging from anger to dismissal. My goal, then, was to make shift happen.

shift happens

Image source:

How do you make shift happen? Well, you can’t force it. I argue that you have to provide experiences. Experiences to discover, challenge, explore, analyze, critique, contextualize, and feel. I can provide examples and hope that they can be generalized to one’s personal context. This is a common approach in faculty development and has merit. For example, Ken Bain published a book that sought out faculty stars, and I really like that book. Numerous universities position their faculty stars for greatest visibility particularly on open course sights. Do these professors show us a way? Do they chart us a path? Gardner Campbell terms them “faculty by which we can navigate.” Consequently, should we focus a bulk of our efforts on finding promising faculty who want to play and work with them? What’s the alternative? Do we continue to beat the same drum and the same tune for a limited audience?

It’s kind of funny. Even though I think faculty generally bring a more robust set of challenges to the learning context than do undergraduate students, I also think that the fundamental mechanisms for deep learning are the similar to students as well as the fundamental obstacles of poor motivation.

Show case and paradigm examples are necessary to help faculty see and imagine new possibilities to make shift happen. This isn’t enough though. I want to create challenging experiences based on exposing and assessing our assumptions about teaching and learning; experiences that provide challenging problems to solve; experiences that put us in a place to contextualize the pedagogical suggestions within our unique disciplines; experiences that promote connections and associative trails; and experiences that deeply engage our emotions.

So, what’s the future of faculty development? I think that we should practice what we preach: Move away from didacticism and toward cultivating deep learning through direct experiences. After all, I learned how to ride a bicycle by trying it, not listening to lecture about it first.

Visualizing Our Intellectual Journies

For those following my latest line of thought, I want to share the newest development. My last few posts have captured my frustrations and reflections on assessment as well as outlined how I’m approaching this complex topic in the undergraduate class I’m teaching here at VCU. My last post attempted to put it all together: Put the thinking first, make it visible (The Backpack), embed it in everything students do, have them account for their intellectual development throughout the course, and finish up with an argument for a final mark based on grade profiles that we created together; profiles that capture the thinking that informs a mark rather than mere product performance, which I argued tends to favor the privileged (whatever that may mean).  So, their course work (participation to papers) represent mere examples of the intellectual skills and attitudes they have practiced and have come to develop to some degree.  What’s the next step?

Well I should say there are many, but today I used timeline js to create visualization tool for the class to track the thinking moves we organically construct in class and  that individuals can use to develop their own visualization tacking their intellectual growth. As the class progresses, I will populate the thinking moves with student examples. Their individual timelines will cite examples of thinking moves as represented by recordings, projects, papers, reflections, etc.

The wordpress host won’t display the timeline, but you can see it here.  Here’s a screen shot.

Screenshot (3)
The organizing idea is to make our thinking visible so that we can practice, reproduce, refine and correct. As noted in an earlier post, I want to shift the power dynamic of portfolios to students and away from the authority figure (instructor, institution, boss). Of course, the experts have insights that bring important insight and value to the process, but ultimately I want students to take command of the conversation and tell the reader HOW to read the portfolio by focusing on the skills and dispositions, on the process of intellectual development, rather than the cherry-picked products, which can be fabricated and superficial. One’s work becomes examples of thinking, rather than the thinking itself.

All too often students do not find value in the portfolios they create. I had a conversation with a student (senior in psychology) who ranks high in her class who told me that portfolios are a waste of time. How unfortunate! All too often students are unclear of the criteria by which their work will be evaluated. All too often the criteria are not clearly articulated; particularly as they relate to micro skills. All too often the evaluating body (person or people) do not have explicitly clear conceptions of the criteria by which they assess the body of student work; particularly in the micro skills and thinking moves. It’s even worse when the criteria are unspoken criteria are implied or implicitly understood. “I’ll recognize good thinking when I see it!” Not satisfactory in my book.

I would like to see a student hand me a portfolio that orients my thinking (thus evaluation) by explicitly placing first the thinking moves s/he has come to command and those that are developing, then citing examples from her/his work that capture the evolution of one’s understanding generally and within a particular field of study. Moreover, I’d like a student portfolio to project their thinking moves into other contexts: TRANSFER!!! Finally, I’d like to see a narrative that captures those thinking moves that are missing and in need of development. That is a powerful portfolio because it is meaningful and useful.

My students (they don’t know it yet) will be constructing these visual timelines. However, I’m open for alternative constructions if a student can convince me (and the class) of its merit as a sufficient alternative. I’m open.

Imagine the power that such a visualization, where the thinking is first, can have on institutional portfolio systems. For example, departments can list specific competencies or skill sets that students take ownership of and explicitly exemplify. Personally, I’d like to see students have a hand in creating and articulating the competencies, but I understand the pragmatics of time and resource allocation.

Let’s challenge students to track their intellectual journeys in clear, explicit and visual ways: then, now and into the future.


Random Path to a Defined End? or MOOCS, Mapping and Madness?…You Decide

This post (and future series of posts) is an attempt to figure out what I’m observing. It’s a reflection, so “abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

I was asked to join in on a conversation centered on VCU’s summer 2014 MOOC entitled Inquiry and the Craft of Argument (UNIV 200). Let me be the first to say that I have no specialized knowledge of MOOCS. I do know quite a bit about argument, but so do all the instructors. I’m there to listen and think about how I can contribute to the conversation. It must be noted, that I’ve only attended 1.5 meetings, so I’m new with all its implications.

With all this said, I couldn’t help but think about the ever present PCK challenge: What are we going to teach, and How are we going to teach it? This is interesting to the extent that we, as instructors, inherit the what and especially the how rather than investigate them for ourselves. I cannot begin to estimate the number of faculty I’ve worked with that inherited syllabi and reproduce the pedagogy they came up under as students. No blame here, but not necessarily paradigms of scholarly thinking. I’m just as guilty as the next. Nonetheless, we try and try again learning by trial and error until something feels right and seemingly works from time to time. These impressions accompanied me to my MOOC meetings, but I pride myself of suspending judgment and being open-minded, so I largely observed and asked questions. Something struck me though, something big, complex and very interesting.

This is a MOOC on inquiry and argument. On the surface, one can assume that students will be instructed in the craft of identifying and constructing arguments as well as possibly asking questions that help them find problems that can be argued and analyzed later. A foundational stepping stone to scholarly thinking. One can go so far as to say the first major step to thinking within any particular discipline: a canon of scholarship. It gets interesting when one looks at the seemingly unique approach for this MOOC.

This cohort of instructors, led by Gardner Campbell, Jon Becker and Tom Woodward, is attempting to guide students to a deeper understanding of argumentation and inquiry systems using collective associative thinking trails and the pedagogical mode and method! What?! How can students learn logic following an unpredictable method of inquiry? Is this the antithesis of the logical positivist approach? It’s almost like a twilight zone episode or a weird experiment. An outsider might even ask if it’s a critique of logical positivism and long held theoretical and applied traditions for teaching argument and inquiry? What are the implications for the LSAT? I wonder what Andrew Brody from the Princeton LSAT in everyday life podcast would say?

To make this even more complex, there is a major faculty development dimension to all of this. That’s what I’ve been observing. To what extent will faculty re-think traditional approaches to teaching inquiry and argument by virtue of actively designing instruction around collective associative thought trails? Will collective knowledge lead students to the same conclusions (rules, axioms, best practices) that they would have been exposed to under traditional didactic and linear/directed models? Moreover, what will instructors do if the collective consensus leads to different conclusions and/or approaches to argument construction? How will faculty think about learning objectives in a world where the learning direction is intentionally defined and redefined by the real time…throughout the term…and possibly not defined? It’s the students’ will after all as Campbell pointed out. Or is the students’ will just an illusion because of academic context (topic and instructor training)? Throw on new technological tools that imply OPEN (e.g. word press instead of blackboard) and tools and artifacts that are designed to randomly stimulate new thought vectors (e.g. gifs, self-broadcasts, hyperlinks, etc.) and instructors have a real challenge ahead. What will students do with the new found freedom? Will they embrace it, or will traditions of passive learning and gamesmanship take over?

I can’t help but smile and think if this is really an experiment looking at how instructors think, learn and adjust? Talk about intellectual flexibility training!

This is a total mind trip. But…it gets better when we think of the meta-cognitive implications. Think about students tracking their thought trails/vectors in order to (1) explore any new directions and gaps that emerge as well as to (2) generalize andy rules or best practices for constructing sound arguments and inquiry. Now think about instructors helping students do this, modeling it and holding their suggestions up for transparent critique in the digital open. This takes us back to the “What did we learn, and How did we learn it” question. Furthermore, the meta-cognitive implications can take us further down the hole as we chase after the rabbit of transfer! How can we generalize what we learned about how to learn in and with collective consciousness and associative trails that we can transfer to other domains of our academic and personal lives so that insight emerges, deep thinking develops, and flexibility is a habit of mind? After all, this is a general education course.

I’m curious to learn more about what instructors in this MOOC cohort are feeling and how these feelings influence their perspectives regarding this animal. To what extent do uncertainty and anxiety act as barriers to intellectual imagination and flexibility? To what extent are excitement and curiosity driving experimentation and motivation?

I attempted to draw a map of all this, but I needed 3D (preferably 4D with time being the 4th dimension) capabilities.

The layers of complexity are really exciting. This is not a critique, but just questions. Madness or brilliance?! A little of both? That’s what had me up at 5 am thinking about this morning, and it’s still fuzzy…but really fun!


Can we create serendipitous learning opportunities?

Serendipity… can you create it? If so, how? Stated differently (or more relevant to teaching and learning):

  • How do you maximize opportunities for serendipitous discovery in higher education?
  • How do you create opportunities for serendipity and synergy in the workplace?

I don’t have the answers to these questions although I have tried for years in both contexts.  I think the key lies in the concept “opportunities.” Serendipitous discoveries are accidental. That’s the nature of the concept. Since I don’t put a lot of energy into thinking about fate or destiny, I tend to look for opportunities.

Although many opportunities reveal themselves by mere chance, some involve a conscious positioning to allow chance discoveries, chance encounters, chance illuminations to emerge from the data overload of our daily lives. The classroom is no exception and the work place doesn’t have to be either.

In an attempt to create an opportunity for serendipitous experiences and ideas in the workplace, I brought in my guitar. I merely placed it in the common area and put up a sign to treat it like “your baby.” It was and is an experiment of sorts. I wanted to see if it could act as a catalyst for fun, conversation, new relationships, new knowledge, and possibly new ideas. So far, it has been somewhat successful. I only have one guitar, otherwise I’d bring in other instruments as well or a painting easel; anything to help build community.

Since the emergence of the guitar (my first guitar by the way), I found out that one of my colleagues is a trained classical guitarist. Another hadn’t picked up the guitar since 1974 and proceeded to play “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (shows the power of a catchy song). A third divulged her piano playing talent, and the fourth and fifth (not together) were surprise performances. The talent is pervasive! However, the best so far (not in musical talent per se, but in awesomeness) was a VCU building contractor who saw the guitar and couldn’t help but pick it up. I was in my office and heard a soft “Stairway to Heaven” by the great band Led Zeppelin. I stepped out and asked him to turn it up! He balked wanting to be respectful of the work space, and I said that the guitar is here to be played. He then broke out into a beautiful performance that gathered a crowed. The thing is, I would have never known this person or his talent had that guitar not been in the room. When he enters there is now a smile on his face, and conversation flows between us and others in the office. Power structures seem to dissolve. It’s beautiful.

Since then, I’ve put out a challenge for those interested to write a jingle or a short song with the word “innovation” in it. I’m taking a folky country approach.

What about the classroom (virtual or otherwise)? How can I maximize opportunities for serendipity? This is particularly challenging in higher education because of logistics (meeting times and frequency, type of classroom, space arrangement, digital engagement, etc.). There is no one way. I know that, but how do I craft opportunities for students to not only see things from a different point of view and walk away with deeper insight, new perspectives, and new ideas, but also craft these opportunities so that students can showcase their existing skills, insights, and perspectives? One layer deeper?…Can a similar approach be used for faculty development? My view is YES!

Just as our disciplines represent different lenses by which to investigate phenomena, just as we work to help students view content (e.g. the subject, the learning environment, themselves) through different lenses (perspectives), so too can faculty learn to think more deeply about teaching and learning by consciously and systematically using lenses to analyze and evaluate their practices. Let me provide merely one activity that I have used with students and faculty alike.

(Disclaimer: despite my attempts to find the source that gave me the original idea beyond that of Howard Gardner, I cannot find the article. Of course, when I find it I will edit this post. Nonetheless, I’ve developed it beyond the original idea in the process of contextualizing it as a broad pedagogical practice).


Key Idea: learners process a central/threshold content concept through different perspectives filtered through multiple modalities. To ‘process’ means to build understanding by thinking through the content from different perspectives characterized by different intellectual tasks.

Process: (1) Divide learners into heterogeneous groups of five. (2) Present the modalities and directions. All groups will work through each modality as listed below. (3) Present the content concept to the entire class. (4) Groups have 10 -15 minutes to complete the activity which means they have to come to a consensus on the sufficiency, completeness, accuracy and clarity of their work. Groups can decide to process each modality collectively, or they can divide responsibilities. In either case, learners must evaluate their work and present their best products.


Spatial: create a chart, cartoon, graph, diagram, or other illustrative visual expression.

Linguistic: articulate alternative concepts, construct a poem, think of a metaphor or simile.

Logical: create an analogy or general rule.

Musical: write a jingle or song.

Intra-personal: write a reflection drawing on your personal experiences, beliefs, or values.

I’ve seen some amazing constructs. Just last week I had faculty who teach English as a second language (ELP) process a foundational concept they identified. What emerged? The lenses exposed a professional opera singer, seven different analogies and pictures. Not only were we provided with the opportunity to think through content from different perspectives (and layered at that), we were building community! Serendipity emerged due to a context that was conducive to out-of-the-box thinking opportunities and sharing those insights and interpretations. We learned new things about each other. We thought through content in ways we might never have experienced. A key to this second point involves the disciplined, but fair, evaluation of the work.

Is there a formula? Ouch! The very idea makes me pause, but as an exercise, here it goes.

  • Make an intuitive connection;
  • Engage with a process and/or challenge that introduces elements of creativity and fun;
  • Evaluate the product as a community;
  • Promote transfer to different contexts.

Here is my claim: We can construct opportunities that maximize the probability that serendipitous insights and relationships can emerge. How? Well, it involves finding multiple ways to interface and challenge learners to view content (broadly conceived) deeply from a wide variety of lenses.

So far, my personal experience is my guide; however, I’m working to develop a study that test my claims. In the meantime, try it out. It’s fun.

Reality Check

I was teaching a class the other night focusing on the question: What is scholarly teaching? (GRAD 602) The student population consisted of graduate students and a couple post-docs who are embedded in a wide range of disciplines; for example, psychology, education, pharmacy, environmental ecology, accounting, and nursing are those that come to my mind immediately. To the outside observer, a lot happens in a classroom. To be more precise, there is a lot of intellectual work that takes place, which is put into motion through a wide variety of tasks and covering a wide range of intellectual moves. I have seen myself as a facilitator of learning (of self-discovery, of transformation) commissioned with the responsibility to maximize opportunities for students to engage a content idea, problem, method or paradigm from different lenses or vantage points. This orientation can be contrasted, in my mind, with a teacher as a mere purveyor of information. I want to ignite curiosity, emotions, motivation, and personalization. Of course these dimensions blend and there are layers to intellectual engagement. So for today’s post, I want to reflect on one particular dimension and activity that gave me pause. I really want to ask the question: Did one of the questioning methods I used have the potential to be misinterpreted and, thus, cause students emotional and intellectual harm?

This is an interesting dilemma. I think harm is a strong word in this case. Furthermore, there is often a potential to offend someone due to the varied perspectives, informed by assumptions and expectations, that we each bring to any group context. I think a deeper question may be: To what extent am I aware of alternative ways of helping students engage in challenging intellectual work and how fluent am I in adjusting methods to fit changing needs and perspectives? Once again a loaded question. So, I let’s get to the concrete and unpack my dilemma with an example.

What happened?
I was modeling a questioning routine in an attempt to model the importance and practice of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). I’ll give an abbreviated description of the technique, but feel free to contact me for an elaboration.

The technique involves an organizing question or challenge and randomly calling on students to make different intellectual moves. The rules are being respectful and responsible to the instructor and one’s peers. Respectful in that we only address ideas and claims, but do not attack or criticize the person. We also give others our attention, our time, our thoughts. Responsible in that we are intellectually required to enter critically into all comments and questions regardless of how trivial they may appear.

Keeping in mind that this is a dynamic process, here is a general structure. I begin with a question. For example, “What is PCK?” I randomly chose one student (I use name cards) and solicit a reply. I then ask a second student (randomly chosen) to put in her own words what the first student said. I chose a third student and ask: “Is that an accurate interpretation of the first definition, why or why not?” I may ask for a second definition, or even ask a fourth student to construct a question of clarification directed toward the first speaker. I could ask students to unpack concepts embedded within the initial definition. I could ask students to compare the first and second (third and fourth) definitions, etc. There are multiple intellectual moves that can be made. One pedagogical purpose is to challenge students to critically listen to each other; to empathize; to engage. Another pedagogical purpose is to attack the teacher-centered modes of instruction and the serial-monologue paradigm.

What were my intentions?
In this context, my intentions were two fold. Primarily, I wanted to model an approach to facilitating in-class dialogue that challenged students to critically listen and respond to each other; rather than merely directing all comments toward the instructor, and projecting their own perspectives on the topic without serious consideration of other points of view. Secondly, I wanted to use this technique to delve more deeply into the analysis and evaluation of a piece of course content; in this case we were discussing PCK.

What did I do well?
At the risk of sounding arrogant, I am very skilled in facilitating this type of discussion technique. It is rooted in Socratic inquiry and developing an intellectual community. I have practiced it for years, and I am clear as to my purposes and the skills and insights I wish to target. This approach is pedagogically sound, and I’m confident that students are intellectually engaged.

What could have I done differently?
Time for exposure. The greatest weakness of my execution, on this day, was in timing. The rate of my questions was too quick. It wasn’t so quick that most students had difficulty following the intellectual trajectory. However, there is always a population of students that need more time to construct their answers. This is particularly true for second language learners. Imagine attempting to translate unfamiliar ideas from one language to another and back again in an attempt to build understanding. Imagine feeling the pressure of making their thinking public. Language fluency is complex. I asked a student to pose a question to another student focused on clarifying concepts or claims.

The student immediately said, “My perspective is…” I interrupted and said that although her point of view is important, it is not the task at hand. The task is to enter into another perspective and question its clarity. I then gave some time and said that I’d come back to her.

Admirably, this student contacted me the next day and said that I failed to recognize that some students, particularly second language learners, may come to a question by talking through their own point of view. Good point, but also difficult to manage given my pedagogical purpose at the time.

What will I do differently in the future?
I think that students need time to construct questions, to formulate their ideas, to practice critically entering into alternative perspectives. Thinking well takes time. Often all that is needed is a silent or collaborative minute or two. In the future I will make a better effort to provide time to formulate clear thoughts, adjust my pacing, and recognize the challenge of engaging in unfamiliar intellectual territory. I will also, more regularly, provide a meta-reflection on the process. In doing so, I hope to model life-long learning.

Meta-blog: I’m dedicating this section to briefly reflect on the act of blogging. I have found it difficult to blog due to my academic training. I think in terms of preparing a draft for journal publication. I understand my blogging purpose is to reflect and explore. However, my other perspective tends to get in the way and disrupts the composition process. So, this is a good exercise in letting go. I pride myself on being one who is intellectually flexible and open-minded. I like to think that my longing for adventure would translate into blogging. I’m amazed at how established ways of thinking challenge my sense of self. I’m working on it.