The ritual dissent method shows great promise

This is a part of some reflections from running a session on
course analysis and design for new academics at CQUniversity last week. This one focuses on the benefits of using the ritual dissent workshop method from Cognitive Edge.

Context

I had a group of 40 or so new academic staff for 6 straight hours. My time started a day and a half into a four day session (just after lunch) and they had a day and a half after my session. Some of these staff were not happy being there and didn’t really see the value of the whole orientation. As an example here’s part of a comment from one of the participants on the blog I used for my sessions.

I keep getting dragged away to pointless and worthless workshops etc.

These are not circumstances created to maximise the possibility of engagement, learning and long term change. So, rather than attempt to get stuck into long detailed explanations of low level tasks I wanted to concentrate on giving them a broad idea and exposing them to different methods, concepts and approaches.

Ritual dissent

In 2008 I had the opportunity to attend a Cognitive Edge workshop run by Dave Snowden. I’ve referenced his ideas in this blog and my publications. I recommend his work.

As part of that workshop we went through a session ritual dissent. We also worked through a number of the other open source methods developed by Cognitive Edge.

Ritual dissent stuck in my mind because it was obviously a fantastic method for harnessing the diverse perspectives of a group to improve some artifact that didn’t suffer some of the cloyingly over-positive group think of some other methods I’ve seen and experienced.

Given that group work is a “good thing” for learning and teaching there is interest in how to do this. Of course, most people who have tried group work have had problems – getting people to interact always raises some issues. Ritual dissent, appeared to me, to provide a simple and effective way that avoided or minimised many of those problems.

Implementation

It wasn’t a perfect implementation. Time was running. Ritual dissent was the last thing we did. It was at the end of a session on planning, i.e. how to actually go about course design. This was the session I’d worked least on and it showed.

The set up for ritual dissent was for the staff to go into groups and develop a plan to modify a course to maximise one of the 7 principles for good practice in education. I further modified this a little into the session to respond to some changes in our local institutional context.

Results

Based on a complete absence of evaluation beyond responses from the participants the results were positive. It was an enjoyable process, lots of laughter and a lot of agreement that it was a very useful way for improving artifacts and proposals.

I followed almost all of the specific steps outlined in the method and I believe they are all necessary. Creating the sense of separation between the proposers, through various means, was an important part of the success. As was explaining how it linked to something realistic int he local context.

I can see a lot of value in this method. I just wish I had the time and opportunity in coming months to explore that value (and the other Cognitive Edge methods) further.

Good teaching is not innate, it can be “learned” – and what’s wrong with academic staff development

The title to this post is included in a quote from Kane, Sandretto and Heath (2004)

The research team, comprising two teacher educators and an academic staff developer, embarked upon this research confident in the belief that good teaching is not innate, it can be learned. With this in mind, the project sought to theorise the attributes of excellent tertiary teachers and the relationships among those attributes, with the long-term goal of assisting novice academics in their development as teachers.

This coincides nicely with my current task and also with an idea I came across on the week-end about deliberate practice and the work of Anders Ericsson.

The combination of these “discoveries” is also providing some intellectual structure and support for the REACT idea about how to improve learning and teaching. However, it’s also highlighting some flaws in that idea. Though the flaws aren’t anywhere near as large as what passes for the majority of academic staff development around learning and teaching.

The following introduces these ideas and how these ideas might be used to improve academic staff development.

Excellent tertiary teaching

Kane et al (2004) close the introduction of their paper with

We propose that purposeful reflection on their teaching plays a key role in assisting our participants to integrate the dimensions of subject knowledge, skill, interpersonal relations, research/teaching nexus and personality into recognised teaching excellence. We conclude with a discussion of the implications of our model for staff development efforts.

Their proposition about the role of reflection in contributing to excellent teaching matches with my long held belief and perception that all of the best university teachers I’ve seen have been those that engage in on-going reflection about their teaching, keep looking for new knowledge and keep trying (and evaluating) innovations based on that knowledge in the hope to improve upon their teaching.

The authors summarise a long history of research into excellent teaching that focused on identifying the attributes of excellent teachers (e.g. well prepared, stimulate interest, show high expectations etc.) but they then suggest a very important distinction.

While these, and other studies, contribute to understanding the perceived attributes of excellent teachers, they have had limited influence on improving the practice of less experienced university teachers. Identifying the elements of “good” university teaching has not shed light on how university teachers develop these attributes.

The model the develop is shown below. The suggest

Reflection lies at the hub of our model and we propose that it is the process through which our participants integrate the various dimensions

Attributes of excellent tertiary teaching

The authors don’t claim this model to have identified any novel sets of attributes. But they do suggest that

the
way in which the participants think about and understand their own practice through purposeful reflection, that has led to their development of excellence

What’s been said about reflection?

The authors have a few paragraphs summarising what’s been said about reflection in connection to tertiary teaching, for example

Day (1999) wrote “it is generally agreed that reflection in, on and about practice is essential to building, maintaining and further developing the capactities of teachers to think and act professionally over the span of their careers”

.

They trace reflection back to Dewey and his definition

“an active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds supporting it and future considerations to which it tends

The also mention a framework of reflection outlined by Hatton and Smith (1995) and use it to provide evidence of reflection from their sample of excellent teachers.

Expertise and deliberate practice

Among the many quotes Kane et al (2004) provide supporting the importance of reflection is this one from Stenberg and Horvath (1995)

in the minds of many, the disposition toward reflection is central to expert teaching

Another good quote (Common 1989, p. 385).

“Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do; by developing the courage to recognize faults, and by struggling to improve”

Related to this view is the question “Was Mozart, and other child prodigies, brilliant because of some innate talent?”. This is a question that this blog post takes up. The answer it gives is no. Instead, it’s the amount and quality of practice they engage in which makes the difference. Nurture wins the “nature versus nurture” battle.

The blog post builds on the work of Anders Ericsson and the concept of “deliberate practice”. The abstract for Ericsson et al (1993) is

The theoretical framework presented in this article explains expert performance as the end result of individuals’ prolonged efforts to improve performance while negotiating motivational and external constraints. In most domains of expertise, individuals begin in their childhood a regimen of effortful activities (deliberate practice) designed to optimize improvement. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years. Analysis of expert performance provides unique evidence on the potential and limits of extreme environmental adaptation and learning.

Implications for academic staff development

If reflection or deliberate practice are key to developing mastery or expertise, then how do approaches to academic staff development and associated policies, processes and structures around university learning and teaching help encourage and enable this practice?

Seminars and presentations probably help those that are keen to become aware of new ideas that may aid their deliberate practice. However, attendance at such events are minimal. Much of existing practice seems to provide some level of support to those, the minority, already engaging in deliberate practice around learning and teaching.

The majority seem to be able to get away without engaging like this. Perhaps there’s something here?

References

Common, D.L. (1989). ‘Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings’, The Review of Higher Education 12(4), 375–387.

Hatton, N. and Smith, D. (1995). ‘Reflection in teacher education: Towards definition and implementation’, Teaching & Teacher Education 11(1), 33–49.

Kane, R., S. Sandretto, et al. (2004). “An investigation into excellent tertiary teaching: Emphasising reflective practice.” Higher Education 47(3): 283-310.

Sternberg, R. and Horvath, J. (1995). ‘A prototype view of expert teaching’, Educational Researcher 24(6), 9–17.

The design of a 6 hour orientation to course analysis and design

It’s that time of year again, next week I get to run a session with 20 or so new CQU academics looking at course analysis and design. The session is part of a four day program entitled Foundations of University Learning and Teaching (FoULT). The session is run twice a year.

The following post gives an overview of some of my thinking behind the session this year. The sessions won’t really be finalised until the sessions are over, so if you have any feedback or suggestions, fire away.

Constraints

The following constraints apply

  • The session lasts 6 hours.
  • I’m told there will be 24 participants, I expect less than that.
  • I’ll be the only facilitator.
  • The participants are required to do this as part of the employment and some may be less than enthusiastic, though there are generally some very keen participants.
  • The sessions will be held in a computer lab. The computers are arranged around the walls of the room and there is a table without computers in the middle of the room.
  • 3 hours after lunch on one day and the 3 hours before lunch the following day.
  • The participants will be a day and a half into the four days by the time they get to this session (information overload kicking in).
  • Earlier on the first day they will have done sessions on “knowledge management” and assessment – moderation and marking.
  • The title of the sessions is “course analysis and design” so should probably do something close to that.
  • I don’t have the time to do a lot of work because of time constraints and other responsibilities.
  • Have done this session a few times before (slides from the last time are Introduction, Implementation, Analysis and design) so that experience will constrain my thinking.
  • Theoretically, I don’t believe that there is much chance of radically changing minds or developing expertise in new skills. The best I can hope for is sparking interest, raising awareness and pointing them in the right direction.

The plan

I’m thinking that the session should aim to

  • Make people aware of the tools and support currently available to help with their teaching.
  • Introduce them to some concepts or ideas that may lead them to re-think the assumptions on which they base their course design.
  • Introduce them to some resources and ideas that may help them design their courses.

Activities during the session will include

  • Some presentation of ideas using video and images.
  • Discussion and sharing of responses and their own ideas via in class discussion but also perhaps through the CDDU wiki and/or perhaps this blog.
  • A small amount of activity aimed at performing some design tasks.
  • A bit of playing around with various systems and resources.

There won’t be any assessment for this one.

The sessions

I’m planning on having 4 sessions over the 6 hours

  1. Introduction
    Set up who I am and what we’re going to be doing. Find out more about the participants – maybe get them to put this on the wiki or perhaps a WordPress blog — that sounds like an idea. Introduce the Trigwell (2001) model of university teaching that I’ll be using as a basic organising concept. Use it to introduce some of the ideas and explain the aim of the sessions. Introduce them to the technology we’ll be using and get them going.
  2. The T&L Context
    Talk about the details of the CQUni T&L context. What tools and resources are available? What do students see when they use various systems (something staff often don’t see)? Who to ask for help? etc. Also include mention of “Web 2.0” tools i.e. that the context and tools for T&L aren’t limited to what is provided by the institution. Provide an opportunity to play and ask questions about this. Aim is to be concrete, active and get folk aware of what tools they can use. Hopefully to keep them awake after lunch.
  3. Teachers’ thinking
    Introduce and “attack” some basic ideas that inform the way people think about learning and teaching. Some ideas about course design, learning and teaching and human cognition.
  4. Teachers’ planning
    Talk about the process of actually doing course design and some of the ideas, resources and tools that can be used during this process.

The plan is that the first two would be on the afternoon of the first day with the last two on the following day.

The Trigwell (2001) model of teaching is shown in the following image and is briefly described on the flickr page for the image. You should see the connection between the names of the sessions and the model

Trigwell's model of teaching

Actually, after posting this I’ve made some changes to expand the use of the Trigwell (2001) model including teachers’ strategies and in particular gathering some of their strategies.

What’s needed? What would be nice?

I want to provide pointers to additional resources and also make use of good resources during the sessions. The list of what I’ve got is available on del.icio.us.

If you know of any additional resources you’d recommend please either add them in the comments of this post or tag them in del.icio.us with foult

Feedback on the above ideas would also be welcome.

References

Trigwell, K. (2001). “Judging university teaching.” The International Journal for Academic Development 6(1): 65-73.