I’m a 21st Century Education Rip Van Winkle with a twist: I only went to sleep for a single year’s sabbatical, but the changes over that year make 2008 seem like 1808. This post is long, but I hope some of you will plod through it and advise me on what helpful solutions I’ve slept through. I put my pleas along those lines in red.
Feel free to skip to section three for what’s really the meat of this post. I’d love feedback there especially.
I told my students in the just-concluded semester-long Chinese History course that I gave myself a B/B- for the way I taught it this first time out (call it the Beta version). This post will return to my early “teacher think-aloud” habit on this blog to reflect on ways to raise that grade for the second semester
Since a B supposedly signifies “above average” without signifying “excellent,” I’ll justify that grade first by listing what I thought were the course’s strengths and weaknesses. Then I hope I’ll have enough steam left to dump the brainstorm of how to re-figure the course — using Diigo to heighten the academic rigor, and an “in medias res” narrative structure to heighten the engagement and provide the essential purpose for studying Chinese (or any) history at all ((it reminds me of David Warlick’s occasional pitch to “teach history backwards,” though my approach is a little more complicated)) — that’s been brewing in my mind over the last (typically post-midnight) hour.
Strengths, Weaknesses, and Future Improvements
1. Replaced the textbook
Strengths: A week before the course began, the returning teachers arrived to work and I was finally able to see the resources and scope of the course. The textbook, to put it generously, was great for 12-year-olds, but not my 16-year-olds in this supposedly “rigor”-driven school — so I tossed it and replaced it with the China chapters from an introductory Asian History college textbook (Rhoades Murphey’s excellent A History of Asia).
Weaknesses: Murphey’s text led to an embarrassment of riches: there was simply too much information in it for a brief survey course. I was also concerned that its readability level was too challenging for some students, but I did a Poll-Daddy poll and found 33 of 36 responded from “It’s a bit challenging, but I can handle it” (my definition of the Zone of Proximal Development for reading) to “It’s just right for my reading level” to “It’s easy.” Still, for the three who couldn’t handle it, alternate texts or resources were necessary, and I didn’t have them.
Another weakness was in the photocopied packet I made of the Murphey readings. I didn’t include the Index in the copies, so it was surely difficult for students to be able to locate information from the text for review purposes.
A final weakness: It had been four years since I’d used the text, which means I’d forgotten most of it, and spent the semester “two days ahead of the students” in terms of content mastery. (Students seem to think teachers remember everything they’ve ever known, which is interesting, since a brief reflection on their own forgetting of content from courses from prior years should demolish that idea. They seem to think the adult brain is of an entirely different model, some new design inserted in the skull upon college graduation or something. So here’s a dirty teacher secret, kids: Our brains are at least as limited as yours.)
Future Improvements: I’ve ordered The Cambridge Illustrated History of China to be the textbook next year. An Amazon “Reader Reviews” and “Look Inside” perusal satisfied me that this is a reasonably solid high school China history text. (We’re looking at ABC-CLIO database as a possible digital replacement for paper textbooks altogether for next year, when we go 1:1. Anybody know how feasible this is?)
2. Replaced Blackboard with Ning
Strengths: I haven’t written about it yet because I’m waiting for the video to be released, but I gave a keynote speech at the Learning Technologies Conference in Australia last month, and during it I declared a “pox on Blackboard.” I meant it. It made my first month trying to get to know my students’ backgrounds, preferences, and literacy skills utter hell. First I assigned an “About Me” forum that most students put a lot of effort into, apparently….. “Apparently” because I never saw it. Some glitch in Blackboard didn’t save the things, so I never got to read them. That damned me to fogginess about the general skills of my class for the first couple of weeks. Later attempts to use the forums, once the glitches were ironed out, were still clunky due to Blackboard’s horrible user interface (in all fairness, my school is using an old version, and I think later ones have copied enough from Moodle to be more intuitive). Example: answering a forum in Blackboard confused most of my students because of the language of the User Interface. Instead of hitting “reply” after my prompt — no “reply” link existed — they had to somehow just know that to simply reply they had to click on “Start New Thread.” Talk about unintuitive.
Then there was Blackboard’s use of Frames, so cutting-edge in 1995, and its general “why click once when you can click ten times for the same task” workflow. The tool was as schooly as its name. It took way more of my time than necessary on Moodle to deliver a look, feel, and functionality less satisfactory than Moodle’s. A month into the course I’d had it. I left Blackboard for Ning. (I wasn’t about to install and manage my own Moodle. Been there, suffered that. Anybody have solutions along these lines I don’t know about?)
The strengths of Ning: It’s way more straightforward. The Main Page is a one-stop overview and link-list for all necessary tasks and documents for the week. Videos, photo slideshows, forums, blogs, RSS feeds of China News from Google News and from my Diigo China bookmarks in widgets on the sidebars for any advanced student wanting to read more. Hell, even student birthdays announced on the sidebar (it never hurts so sing Happy Birthday in class). So good riddance, Blackboard.
I kept things pretty minimal, as far as assignments went. Rotating groups of four or five students had to blog each week on the prior week’s content — open, whatever idea struck their fancy — and the others had to reply to two that appealed to them (authentic audience response awards students with the best ideas, hopefully stirs those whose posts elicited cricket chirps to reflect on how to do better next time). It was hard for me to participate in the blogs and forums as much as I’d have liked because of the afore-mentioned “two days ahead of the students” reading the textbook.
Weaknesses: Organization. I’m not going to beat myself up for this one, because I had to design the airplane while I was mid-flight in the semester. But I need to set all forums so that replies are threaded under the comments replied to, which isn’t the default, for one thing. Also, having 36 students on a single forum got unwieldy. I didn’t want to use groups because I wanted richer conversations between the two class sections, but this made navigation of forums difficult. I also need to figure out how to instruct students to subscribe to email notifications when somebody replies to their comment or post. I’m not sure this finely-tuned of an option is even available. If not, that means students are getting 40-odd notifications every time somebody replies to the forum they replied to — which means they understandably delete them all, as I do, without looking at them. Clunky. (Help?)
Future Improvements: Frankly, I’m still puzzling over this one. I‘d love to have students use Diigo to comment on other students Ning blogs and forum readings, but since the site is locked and the content is dynamic, I’m not sure Diigo highlights would be visible to other students visiting the pages. Anybody know? [Update: Well that was easy. Diigo told me on Twitter, while I was writing this, that the highlights will indeed show. They also set me up with an Education Account within 20 minutes of my applying for it, which will make class registration much easier. So cool.)
3. Content Organization: From "From the Beginning" to "In Medias Res" (or, "Teaching History Backwards")
Strengths: Covering the 4,000 years of Chinese history from the semi-legendary Xia Dynasty of 2,000 BCE to the present in a semester course was no easy task -- especially since China, unlike Europe, doesn't have any gaping 1,000-year Dark Age through which to conveniently fast-forward, but instead boasts an unbroken string of literate centuries across four millennia. Survey though it was, the students did receive an education in the broad (and with Murphey's text, often impressively deep) flow of Chinese history from the Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and on into the 20th century's Nationalist and Communist regimes -- right up to the present day. (And though I know they couldn't know how skinny their "education" in Chinese history would have been had I just used the old textbook, and thus didn't have the perspective to appreciate just how superior their introduction to that history was in terms of depth and scope, I'm still pouting over the lack of a single expression of appreciation for the bang they got for their semester's buck. I know, I know: Cry me a river. Then send me to a shrink for expecting gratitude from teenagers.)
Weaknesses: The pacing was too fast. Again, I'm not beating myself up on this one because the textbook was new and I'd never used it as the primary text for teaching Chinese history before.
But more importantly, despite the oomph of knowing the highlights of all of China's major dynasties, at a certain point it starts feeling like a stuck record. Most of China's classical dynasties follow very similar "Dynastic Cycle" patterns in which a new dynasty begins, implements some impressive reforms in its first century or so, and over the next century or two becomes complacent and corrupt, and finally loses "the Mandate of Heaven" in the eyes of its subjects, and falls to whichever rebel or neighbor state emerges triumphant in Ye Olde and Verye Predictable Ende-of-Cycle Civille Warre or Forynne Invasionne. It brings to mind the title of an old Bowie song: "Always Crashing in the Same Car."
Most importantly, that almost-never-ending 3,000 years of dynastic cycles becomes, without a purpose for knowing it, an exercise in what Jared Diamond calls "history as one damn fact after another." Diamond insists on what most history buffs would assent to: that there are patterns in history that point towards essential understandings of who and what we are -- and those understandings, of course, separate the naive and ignorant from the educated. More importantly, they separate the citizen who you pray, for the sake of democracy, will not vote, from the one you pray will always vote.
Future Improvements: The course fell into the One Damn Fact Trap because I covered it chronologically: "In the beginning....." Tonight I think I arrived at a better approach.
I'm going to start the next course with the end of the dynastic era in 1911, when the Nationalists threw out the Qing -- more accurately, when the Qing just collapsed due to its own decrepitude -- and went through a painful and practically literal "crash course" in modern governance: nationalism, socialism, dictatorship, fascism, and democracy all in a stew from 1911 until 1949, and then totalitarianism and various shades of communism from 1949 to the present.
But before doing any of that, I'm going to assign the final exam essay questions in the first week of class, and have the students Diigo the hell out of our readings and forums on Ning for the rest of the course in order to arrive at their "answers." Here are the questions:
1. Western Liberal Democracies in Europe and (especially) the USA typically criticize the PRC for its lack of human rights – freedom of speech, religion, and assembly – as well as for its one-party dictatorship. Based on your knowledge of Chinese history in the “long view,” how valid do you think these criticisms are? Give as many specific examples from Chinese history as you can to support your arguments.
2. Mao Zedong waged the Cultural Revolution as a last-ditch attempt to prevent party Moderates (Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and others) from implementing capitalist reforms to China’s economic system; Mao believed instead that a planned economy relying on the social spirit of the people was the path to prosperity and justice for all. Based on your understanding of the effects of the Moderates’ reforms from the rise of Deng Xiaoping around 1980 to the present day, to what degree do you think Mao’s resistance was justified? Use as many specific details from the successes and failures of the planned economy during the ‘50s and early ‘60s (the First Five Year Plan, the Great Leap Forward), and from the successes and failures of the Four Modernizations to the present, to support your argument.
Why Diigo highlights and sticky-notes (online, on-site, on specific segments of text annotations) instead of simple forum and blog responses? A discussion on a Diigo forum last year that Cliff Mims started -- see my highlights on it here -- sold me. Diigo's Maggie Tsai said it most succintly:
Fundamentally there is a difference between Diigo's annotation and traditional blog commenting. Diigo in-situ highlight and sticky note allows fine-grained discussion to specific part of a webpage - which opens up the possibility for more meaningful exchanges...
So in a nutshell, as students read, they'll be highlighting and bookmarking the evidence to answer our semester-long "essential questions" that traditionally I would have sprung on them as "surprise" cram-questions at the end of the course. This will very much raise the "rigor" bar, and provide a similar routine for individual research projects. But uh-oh: what about pdf files? How can students highlight, bookmark, annotate those? Any work-arounds, dear teacher-geeks? (Much of our content is in pdf format.) [Update: Re: highlighting and annotating pdf files: http://a.nnotate.com does with pdf’s what Diigo does for websites. A good find. (They tweeted after I called for help on Twitter.)]
The Beauty of a Real Project: Interpreting Modern “Communist” China, from an Historically-Informed Perspective, to China’s Historically Uninformed Western Critics
Wordy, I know, but that says it. China might not have made the finals for George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” award, but I’ve no doubt it made the short-list. Add to that the endless refrain, from at least the days of Ronald Reagan, of the evils of “godless Communism” and the blessings, historical and contemporary evidence aside (Iraq anyone? Or Afghanistan? or or or?) of one-size-fits-all “Democracy” and “Capitalism,” and you’ve got all sorts of articles of Western ideological faith to complicate with those lovely things called facts.
And please notice I said “complicate.” That’s the beauty of the idea: easy answers to the above essay questions, if pursued across a semester, with all evidence nicely aggregated on a simply-tagged Diigo page, will surely give way very quickly to the type of answers our future adults should have when considering modern China: and I mean nuanced answers.
Now my last two questions:
1. Assuming students will be able to offer valuable evidence and insight into the questions above — questions I’m convinced are relevant enough to the real world to deserve an audience — what’s the best way to present their findings to the world via the web?
2. How can I keep the project alive after its first iteration? Different questions for each successive class?
A million thanks for any who took the time to read and respond. If you see any beautiful ways to extend or enhance the idea further — Skypecast interviews from my students in Singapore with American students about their stereotypes of China and its government, for example? More? — please pitch those in the mix too.