About fifteen minutes into the first class
of the semester, I usually remember to stop, occasionally prompted to do
so by looks of puzzlement, in order to give (something like) the following
Like most professors of my generation who were schooled in North America in the 1940s, '50s and '60s (my last class as a Ph.D. candidate having been in winter 1965), what little I knew about teaching was principally what had been modeled for me over a 20 year period from K-Ph.D. What I had overwhelmingly observed was (to the best of my recollection) full-frontal teaching, broken only by those instances where the instructor continued to speak while writing on the blackboard.
Even within what was essentially a uniform approach, there were differences. Manners of delivery, like fingerprints or DNA samples, are unique. Our diverse humanity inevitably, ineluctably imposes itself. Some professors emphasized mastery; some emphasized doubt and questioning; some gave well-ordered systematic lectures; some rambled about their life experiences and/or current issues; others gave us the opportunity to express our own interpretations. Nonetheless, barely a word about pedagogy was ever uttered, except for the counsel offered before I met the first introductory economics class that I was to teach as a graduate student. I was told to lecture for the first two-thirds of the class, then to ask questions about the material. The predicted outcome of this questioning was to be the realization that little of what was taught would have registered, i.e., "transmission" would have been highly imperfect.
No doubt, like most of my generation, I began my teaching career by simply doing to my students what had been done to me: lecturing and more lecturing. I was starting my fourth year of full-time teaching and my third year at McGill when, with great fanfare, McGill launched its Centre for Learning and Development (CLD) in fall 1969. I immediately became a CLD groupie, just as 20 years later I was to return to become a fixture at the Centre for University Teaching and Learning (CUTL) workshops and seminars. I still have a letter from Marcel Goldschmid, the CLD director, welcoming me to their very first workshop ("On the Instructional Process") in January 1970. In the materials for the Workshop was a list of 12 participants and 6 staff members. Of those, one staff member (Gary Anderson) and three faculty (Arthur Grosser, David Harpp and I) are still at McGill. 1
The materials for that first CLD workshop
are a source of wonderment as I look at them now for the first time in
close to three decades. Included was an excerpt of a 1969 paper by Charles
Pascal on pass-fail grading, which contains the following:
Marcel's covering letter included our pre-workshop first assignment: we were to list at least five objectives for one of our courses. What I answered then was unbelievably close to what I would probably answer today: 1) promote self-learning, 2) assist in development of analytical faculties, 3) promote a questioning attitude, 4) enable students to bring to bear tools of economics on material in question and 5) break down preconceptions.
I had entered an asterisk next to the first item. Promoting self-learning remains my primary objective, still worthy of a star. Clearly, my formation as a student must have been more diverse than I realized. Moreover, it is neither necessary nor sufficient to have formal instruction in pedagogical methods to arrive at an essentially constructivist view of learning. 4 Continual learning had blended my experiences as a student, as teacher and as a sentient being responding to a host of daily stimuli, including the printed and the spoken word. Continual learning as used here refers to the conscious and subconscious reshaping of one's perspectives by the action of seemingly quiescent ideas that have caught one's fancy at some earlier time. This is not the same as life-long learning, a cliché often invoked to keep classrooms filled with paying customers.
Had I emphasized the objectives on my 1970 list in a consistent and effective manner since the completion of that workshop? When I began my sabbatical leave in 1988, I would have said partly and might (in retrospect) have assigned myself perhaps 6 or 7 out of 10. I had introduced various changes in my courses, but they didn't amount to an integrated whole. There was little institutional support or encouragement in the period between the demise of the CLD and the full flowering of its successor, the CUTL, to give the extra push that might have made a difference to a somewhat hesitant, harried and perplexed innovator. Demands of research and, for a time, chairing my department tended to reduce the extent of my own pedagogical experimentation.
As the end of my sabbatical drew near, in
the manner of William James' tennis player, I found that while I had been
hard at work on writing articles my subconscious had been busy integrating
my courses. One day in August 1989, I turned up in the CUTL office of Cheryl
Amundsen for her comments on the revised new syllabus. From that day forward,
most of the following components have been consistent features in my courses:
extensive use of e-mail (either electronic discussion lists or conferencing),
group work, including groups organizing one week or more of class activities,
research papers, case studies and/or data exercises and, since September
1994, a course web page. Research papers replaced exams and the end of
semester grading harvest became a time of joy rather than drudgery, as
works of creation replaced regurgitation. From the strongest student to
the weakest, their research output is immensely more pleasant to read than
an exam. Rather than being depressed at how my words and those in the readings
were reflected back as if by a distorting mirror, I was elated when the
April grading came to an end. On May 1, 1990 I wrote a poem reflecting
my new-found ecstasy over the teaching-learning process. The poem was titled
"Teaching Rewards" -- with the two words intended to be a declarative sentence
and not merely a phrase -- and celebrated the changed quality of the learning
The original course outline I brought for
Cheryl's scrutiny has evolved somewhat. A fixture on every one of my syllabi
since 1991 is a page of "Words on Learning" -- a set of quotes to try to
convey to the students the purpose of the experience on which they are
about to embark. The first set contained only two quotes, both of which
have been on almost every one of my course outlines since 1991. One is
from Paulo Freire and contrasted the production of knowledge with the "mere
transference" of knowledge. For Freire, the qualities of "action, critical
reflection, curiosity, demanding inquiry, uneasiness, uncertainty" which
are indispensable to the person who learns are far more likely to be associated
with a process which stresses the production of knowledge (Freire &
Shor, 1987). The other quote is from Peter Drucker (1989):
In the spirit of both quotes, I have tried to structure the learning experience (as I also advise my students on each syllabus) to be a "celebration of openness and of the values of a democratic society. This is a consideration which will enter into both our discussion . . . and the conduct of the course."
The focus on openness -- to divergent viewpoints,
to perspectives from other disciplines, to intellectual risk-taking and
to creative initiatives -- had as its logical complement an open-ended
approach to learning. I began assigning data exercises in my courses in
Economic Development and International Trade. Students are asked to pick
a country of interest to them and are then to search the library (today
the web as well) for relevant primary data to answer generally open-ended
questions. On their research papers, I also left open the choice of topics
as I wished them to pursue course-related questions of personal interest.
This open-endedness meant that evaluating their work became a highly interpretive,
highly labor-intensive exercise, which often expands my horizons. One corollary
of openness is that both the professor and the students inevitably cross
and re-cross the great divide which too often separates teacher and learners
and join in common cause. As captured (partially) in a poem written after
my last day of class in April 1992:
While my course pages may not have been the very first at McGill, they were the first to be showcased at meetings of the Senate Committee on Computing and of the Computer Users Committee and the first to be as comprehensive in exploiting the potential of the web. The philosophy behind the web page was the same philosophy that guides my approach to learning: an open-ended process which requires the support of diverse materials. Each course page was designed to give my students access from one location to the full range of materials available anywhere in the world through links to other sites, which were mostly still gopher-based at that time. Included was a "virtual reserve" collection which allowed the students in my Data course to have point and click access to external sources of statistics relevant for many of the major topic headings. In 1994 students had to be instructed on the mysteries of navigating; today they are writing their own pages as "handouts" for individual or team class presentations.
As early as my mid-1970s syllabi, I began advising my students that the individual's own creative contribution to an assignment would, other things being equal, be rewarded with a higher grade. That counsel remained unchanged until it explicitly metamorphosed in my winter 1999 final year undergraduate Research Seminar in International Development into the following: "Projects that diverge from the customary academic product are encouraged and will be judged by standards deemed by me to be appropriate to their genre." The additional prompting (initially verbal) has led to submissions in the last two or three years of personal ethnography, a guide to undergraduate field research, a manual for high school level international development education, a manual on iron deficiency for health program designers, audio tapes, video tapes, an epic poem, photo-montages and from Miranda Ortiz de la Cajiga (1998) a wooden chair painted and decorated with symbols and artifacts of the iconography of the peoples of Chiapas (Mexico). In the accompanying explanatory notes, Miranda contrasted the Mexican symbol of justice, the open-eyed tearful Virgin of Guadalupe crying miracles for her people, with the more familiar (to us) blindfolded, white-robed woman bearing a balance in one hand and a sword in the other.
The contrast between the ostensibly objective dispenser of justice and the wide-eyed subjective one conveniently brings me back to the misguided quest for an objective method to evaluate students (as we do) on either a 100 point numerical scale or a nine point letter scale. Once one accepts the interdependence of observer and observed, a basic premise of both modern physics and social science, then the entire edifice requires reexamination. Kierkegaard is absolutely right in regarding the jump from the subjective to the objective as "an infinite leap" (Navarro 1999), once one has mentally crossed the divide there is no intellectually consistent road back. The roads away from the chasm lead to different approaches to teaching and learning. On the objective side pedagogy tends to be exclusively content-centered and it is not uncommon to encounter "objective" tests. On the subjective side, process looms much larger and learning is conceived of in a very distinct manner.
Is learning non-lineal? One of the quotes that I used on my list of "Words on Learning" for the Faculty Orientation in fall 1992 is the following "If the learning process must be visualized, perhaps it is most authentically represented in a Jackson Pollack [sic] canvas -- a canvas whose colors increase in intensity as intellectual power grows (for learning is exponentially cumulative)". Postman & Weingartner (1969). That I do not use this quote on my syllabi once reflected a belief that students might not know Pollock's work; now it reflects a difference in characterization of the learning process: I believe each us to be engaged in the construction of a three-dimensional, open-ended jigsaw puzzle of personal reality, whose parts fit together when and where one believes that they do, fit together more easily the more related pieces are already assembled and which may have to be reconfigured extensively if one's fundamental premises change radically. However, as we learned from Thomas Kuhn (1962), some may either never see the need to reconfigure or be unable or unwilling to undertake the alterations.
An important qualification must not be left unspoken. The increasingly-heard phrase "autonomous learner" should not be construed to mean professors are obsolete and that we can be replaced by a network connection. The "autonomous" learner constructing a personal worldview exists in a social setting and the learner's self definition is related to social interaction. That interaction should be an essential ingredient in education. My firmly held view in this regard forms the basis for my active learning philosophy centered on the autonomous learner and on the class (or other learning environment) as a democratic micro-community.5
It would appear that the individual learning outcome the CLD had hoped for when I signed up for its first workshop in 1970 has finally been realized. The CLD's loftier aspirations to change McGill have been carried on in a more muted manner, but arguably with more success, by the CUTL. The CUTL has been less inclined to openly challenge established teaching practices, but may well have succeeded, by maintaining a lower profile than did the CLD. Through its advise to professors, its workshops, its new faculty orientation sessions, its inputs to the Senate Subcommittee on University Teaching and Learning, its annual Course Design Workshops and its Royal Bank financed Teaching Innovation Fund, it has built and continues to expand a network of faculty who have been sensitized to alternative approaches to learning.
More (always) remains to be done: a university that proclaims itself to be world class in its research profile, should settle for nothing less in its other activities, first of which should be its pedagogical practices. If we expect that the material taught should take cognizance of the latest scholarship in each field, why should the structure of activities designed to foster student learning not reflect scholarly advances in understanding the cognitive process? While McGill, to its credit, conferred an honorary degree on Howard Gardner in June 1999, I am unaware of any serious consideration, past or planned, of the implications of his theory of multiple intelligences (1983) for educational practices at McGill. Earlier (on March 10, 1988) at the initiative of the CUTL, Anthony Bates of the University of British Columbia spoke at McGill on "The University in the 21st Century." In his espousal of shifting learning from an industrial model to an information model, he cautioned that an approach that emphasizes the replacement of labor would likely be accompanied by a large decline in the quality of learning. Our mission at McGill, as embodied in the institution's original name, has always been the "Advancement of Learning." In the light of changes in information technology, in the understanding of how learning occurs and of scientific paradigms emphasizing the unity and interconnected nature of the universe, it is urgent that we address in an informed and creative manner the advancement of learning at McGill in the new century.
Bracewell (1998, November 6) Notes on the Constructivist Approach to Learning.
Christensen, C.R., Garvin, D.A., & Sweet, A., eds. (1991) Education for Judgment. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press).
Clark, C.M. (1998). Hello Learners: Living Social Constructivism. Teaching Education 10 (1), 89-110.
Drucker, P.F. (1989). The New Realities. New York: Harper & Row.
Frankman, M.J., Poems on Learning (and Teaching). http://vm1.mcgill.ca/~inmf/http/poems.html
Freire, P., & Shor, I. (1987). A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. New York: Bergin & Garvey.
Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Navarro, H. (1999, April 6) In Defence of Extremism. Paper submitted to Economic Development (154-313D), McGill University.
Pascal, C.E.(1969) Pass-fail Grading: Some Implications for a More Meaningful Compromise. New Directions in Teaching, 1 (4).
Ortiz de la Cajiga, M. (1998, May 1) Critiquing Development Theory and Practice: The Case of the Miracle Chair. Paper submitted to Research Seminar in International Development (152-497B), McGill University.
Postman, N., & Weingartner, C (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
1. The workshop included a component on computer-assisted instruction using McGill RAX (Remote Access Computer System). It is perhaps no coincidence that the Management Faculty's Computer Lab is named after Peter Sandiford who was another of the participants in the workshop.
2. Christopher M. Clark (1998) has the following to say about our customary evaluation practices: "In the end, all the richness, divergence and complexity of human learning in social context is summarized by a number between zero and four. If the system were not so familiar to us we would think it absurd." Thanks to Alenoush Saroyan for directing my attention to this article.
3. See http://vm1.mcgill.ca/~inmf/http/poems.html for all poem fragments cited.
4. For Bracewell (1998) the constructivist approach embraces learning as a building process in which multiple strategies are used and learners are agents in the creation of knowledge. See also the views of Freire which follow.
5. In support of the notion
of a community, I encourage my students to "think of themselves as enabling
each other's learning" (Richard F. Elmore in Christensen, Garvin &