Engagement: Part II

Previously, on Engagement: Concerns about coverage and cultural literacy are based on faulty assumptions and nonexistent mandates; they are merely imaginary obstacles to teaching approaches that employ more “doing history” than “listening to history”–and the “listening to history” approach was called out for being less effective than efficient (if the mention of as many historical tidbits as possible is one’s criterion for efficiency).

The objective, meanwhile, was given some attention: The learning objective of this experimental, theoretical, hypothetical, non-prescriptive example of a practical alternative to the lecture-driven survey course ended up being the recognition of patterns in history, along with the ability to discern whether a pattern was applicable to a new situation or not, and the ability to explain why or why not. Mastery of this learning objective would be demonstrated by each individual student (in a class of 320) through his or her contributions to a student-written, student-edited, multiperspective, hypertext history of the United States. For a working title of this wunder-wiki, I’m currently thinking something like, “Genealogy of the American Present,” in the grand tradition of textbook titles that equate “America” with the “United States of America.”

Our previous discussion introduced a dilemma–breaking away from the instructor-centered lecture approach to teaching US history survey courses to 320 unenthusiastic undergraduates whose chairs are literally bolted to the floor–but, like most heroic epics, found us having to overcome a number of mythological obstacles before getting down to the purpose of the quest itself. This week, armed with a thorough reading of Team-Based Learning in the Social Sciences and Humanities: Group Work That Works to Generate Critical Thinking and Engagement (Sweet & Michaelsen, 2012), we venture deeper into our scenario.

Team-based learning (TBL), as described by Sweet and Michaelsen, is pretty much a package deal. In addition to some basic guidelines for backward design (a la Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), course structure (divide the course into units), and the establishment of permanent, heterogeneous teams of about 6 or 7 students each, TBL’s RAP framework uses 4-S team applications and incorporates iRATs (individual pretests) and tRATS (purposive pretests that teams deliberate over and collaborate on) that are completed on special scratch-off forms called “IF-AT cards.” Warnings and lessons learned are provided by those who have tried to incorporate only some parts of TBL or who implemented TBL without fidelity; only *minor* tweaking as required by the nature of your discipline is recommended–and, depending on the tweaks, results may vary.

There is nothing pedagogically unsound about TBL. It is solidly grounded in theory and has been demonstrated to be very effective in practice. I do not believe, however, that UT Austin is offering “Designing History’s Future” as an experiment to see whether a heterogeneous team of graduate students will arrive at a conclusion that includes scratch-offs. More important, I’ve already invested some time and creativity in coming up with an objective and course product (with a great title) that serves both the content and critical thinking criteria that history professors crave (they ask for it by name), so I will take what is useful to those ends from what I’ve found in TBL and risk the consequences of not having all teams working simultaneously on solutions to the same problem. That seems like a waste of a lot of brainpower when we have the power of 320+ brains to harvest.

Not surprisingly, our own Dr. Restad offers a brilliant solution to the problem that inspired this “Engagement” series in the first place–namely, how to divide a class into heterogeneous groups. On the basis of assumptions that she can safely make (due to experience), she recommends that we

Set out an index card for each team. Print out a numbered roster. Begin by distributing the biggest category of majors among the teams. Last term it was male seniors in natural science, then senior females (science also). . . . Assign first-year students and undeclared majors next. Once you’ve gone through the entire roster, correct the most obvious misplacements. (Sweet & Michaelsen, 2012, p. 167)

And, in the spirit of the democratic classroom, Restad suggests that we explain the team-sorting process to the class: “They will want to know what your system is” (ibid.).

Of course, we added a bit to the pleasant frustration of the task by insisting that students be given [at least the illusion of] some choice in what work they would be so happily engaged in. The difficulty is this: How do we benefit from the simplicity of the plan Dr. Restad has presented us, but still extend [the illusion of] choice to our students? It would be great if we could allow students to select a topic they might find interesting from among the topics we provide on our menu of options, but we also recognize the propensity for students to form teams based on prior relationships, rather than the intellectual affinity groups we’re hoping for. How do we resolve that dilemma? Again, Restad comes to the rescue. Whereas other contributors (in Sweet & Michaelsen) express a willingness to entertain changing the makeup of the “permanent” groups when faced with discord, Restad warns against it, citing the realities of “the professional world” as a rationale for making the group work through differences. Peer assessments play an important role here, too, but I think the key to team success is probably the norms for “How to Succeed as a Team,” which Restad explicitly lists and provides to students.

Given that so much emphasis is placed on the permanence of teams, which provides group cohesiveness, accountability to the group (and, therefore, incentive to come to class every day, to arrive prepared, etc.), and the magical synergy that peers appear best equipped to build around a similar zone of proximal development, we definitely want to adopt this aspect of TBL. An early test of the groups’ ability to arrive at consensus will be the deliberation over the available options and the selection–as a team–of their research focus from our menu.

But I also want to adapt this aspect of TBL: Whereas orthodox TBL would have all teams working on solutions to the same problem, we will have some teams working on certain “mainsprings” of US culture (remember our “warp” strands, which run across time?) while other teams address specific events or individuals or materials (our “weft” narratives–note the plural). The members of each team will likely draw upon the same stack of secondary sources, and some sharing of primary sources would be appropriate as well.

Before wrapping up this week’s installment, I need to address the concern that teams will “divide and conquer” the material rather than actually collaborate–defeating the purpose of permanent teams and negating all those desired benefits. The process by which the class arrives at the final product makes collaboration impossible to avoid. Even if, say, the “States’ Rights” warp team breaks up the topic by time periods, every member will have to be fluent in the full length of that “strand” because they will have to (a) read and revise their entire body of work for internal consistency and mechanics and, later in the semester, (b) consult with weft team members who are writing about specific events and individuals and materials that relate in some way to the “States’ Rights” warp, such as “The Constitutional Convention,” “Thomas Jefferson,” “The Nullification Crisis,” and, of course, “The Civil War,” among others, as well as (c) consult with members of other warp teams that would benefit from their perspective, such as “Political Philosophies,” “Education,” and “Racism,” among others. With all this revising and consulting, there will be more cross-fertilization going on in this course than on Friends and Jersey Shore combined.

We just need to identify our warp and weft topics and, more important, diagram a plan for *most* of that cross-fertilization so that students can return to their “home” groups at the end of consultation periods and have discussions about how to improve their work (to maintain that sense of team unity, yes, but also to encourage the idea that the consultations are two-way dialogs, not impartings of knowledge from a warpie to a weftie, or vice versa).

There’s still plenty of time to figure that out, so be sure to tune in for next week’s installment of Engagement.

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