Results of the National Survey of Student Engagement 2008 (pdf) is online. It's a large survey ""based on information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S." (NSSE press release):

The survey—now entering its tenth year—annually provides comparative standards for assessing effective educational practices in higher education. Five key areas of educational performance are measured: 1) Level of Academic Challenge, 2) Active and Collaborative Learning, 3) Student-Faculty Interaction, 4) Enriching Educational Experiences, and 5) Supportive Campus Environment.

Some of the survey's key findings are:

  • Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom-based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.
  • Seniors who entered as transfers lag behind their peers on several measures of engagement. They talked less frequently with faculty about their future plans, were less likely than their peers to work with their classmates on assignments outside of class, and fewer participated in co-curricular activities. On the other hand, they more frequently prepared multiple drafts of assignments.
  • Nearly a quarter of first-year students and one in five seniors reported that they frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.
  • First-year students wrote on average 92 pages and seniors wrote 146 pages during the academic year. Seniors majoring in the social sciences and arts and humanities wrote considerably more than those studying the physical and biological sciences.
  • When courses provided extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from various sources, and they grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. These students also reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development.

The first finding is rather curious. I need to look at the report more closely, but it seems unlikely, at least to me, that online learning per se would create "deep" learning. Perhaps students who sign up for online courses are already the type who enage in "deep" learning. Perhaps online courses are taught by instructors who are not content with the status quo, but continually seek to improve their pedagogy, to improve student learning, to challenge students. And the students responded accordingly, as noted in the fifth finding.

The second finding on transfers is not surprising. It takes time when entering a new environment to know the ropes and to make friends with whom they could collaborate on homework. What's interesting is that a new environment in which one is somewhat alone apparently challenges individuals toward success, or "survival", and thus the "multiple drafts of assignments." Perhaps such a challenge is related to the first finding.

The third and fifth findings remind me of Csikzentmihalyi's research, which shows that challenge is a crucial part of learning and of enjoying that learning. As Csikszentmihalyi states:

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

There may different reasons why students do not wish to learn, such as a belief that school learning is irrelevant to their lives. Still, Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows the relationship of challenge to one's level of skills, and thus to a state of flow:

The NSSE report, in other words, supports Csikszentmihayli's theory of flow. Students who are challenged enjoy learning and learn more. From Csikszentmihaly's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience":

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Writing is not the only activity that can challenge students. But it is an activity that does well at "pushing" and "stretching" our ability to write and, through the corollary skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating, our ability to think. Writing is an activity that lends itself to creating a flow of learning.

Related posts:
Engagement and Flow
Curiosity and Learning

Related links:
online learning, writing, and student engagement (Alex Reid)
Educational Cultures in the "Arts" Faculties (Edu*Rhetor)
Encouraging colleges to look within (Insider HIgher Ed)
Writing leads to deeper learning, study finds (USA Today)
NSSE homepage

Excerpts from the 21st Century Learning: Going Global conference.

A Global Education
Three keynote speakers shared what their organizations were doing with respect to helping young people collaborate across countries in their learning and education.

Milton Chen, Executive Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation (i.e., Edutopia), on "globalizing the curriculum"

"Globalizing the curriculum" is not about inventing new courses or departments but globalizing the curriculum, finding international connections in what you do.

"Learning without borders" is not simply crossing geographical borders, but it's learning about yourselves.

Michael Furdyk, Co-Founder and Director of TakingITGlobal, has a vision of young people "shaping our world," and asks,

If young people were actively engaged in all aspects of society, and thought of themselves as community leaders, problem-solvers, role models, mentors and key 'stakeholders' ... how would the world change?

Ed Gragert, Executive Director of iEARN (International Educators and Resource Network), talked on "Bringing Global Awareness into the Classroom":

Students move from learning about other cultures and languages to ....
Learning through interaction with other cultures.

Their organization helps schools and students in different countries collaborate on projects and produce student videos on a topic because

When students teach other students what they know, they learn better.

And he asked us to imagine,

What if the next Secretary of Education created a policy to enable

Every school in the US to be actively engaged with at least one other school in another country ...

The Digital Generation and Digital Learning
Two more keynote speakers, both from the Rutgers University Writing Center, presented on how education needs to change in this digital age: Paul Hammond, Director of Digital Initiatives, and Richard Miller, the center's Executive Director and Chair of the English Department. Richard Miller, who is known for his seven-minute video, The future is now: Presentation to the RU Board of Governors, noted that an academic monograph typically sold 246 copies, while his video had been viewed more than 9000 times and concluded, "It's the most important intellectual work I've ever published in my life."

We're not interested in the accessed information [on the Internet] ... What we're interested in as compositionists is, How do we get our students to work with this information ... how to make connections with the information they have in order to produce something of their own. ... to make use of this rich, rich media ...

What we're interested in is composing. How do we train people to make meaning in a withering firestorm of information? We need new ways of teaching, new ways of thinking about writing. But what technology allows us to do is, It allows us to dream in new ways.

A panel on "Digital Choices Define a Generation" included Scott Seider, Assistant Professor of Curriculum & Teaching at Boston University, Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, and Jo Hoffman, Associate Professor of Education at Kean University.

Seider looked at identity issues for the digital generation. On the plus side, digital media can have these effects:

boyd (2007): "The need to write one's online idneity into existence can encourage self-reflection" on who you are or how you want to present yourself.

Stern (2007): On-line profiles and blogs push people to articulate what they believe in.

James et al (2008): Young people empowered by ability to tell their stories online and can be encouraged /comforted by feedback.

On the negative side:

James et al (2008): Exploration carried out "in a digital public before a vast and unknowable audience" The internet changes the stakes.

Perceived by many youth as "low stakes" but ...

boyd (2007): Internet and persistence, replicability , searchability, and invisible audience (potentially there forever)

May be difficult for young people to fully grasp potential consequences (reputation), ...

Exploration can more easily cross into 'deception'

Pretending to be someone else while interacting/flirting with peers

Overreliance on feedback (what Turkle (2008) refers to as 'tethering')

Lack of time for autonomous reflection

Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice, talked about having choices was good but how having too many choices has three negative consequences:

  • Too many choices paralyzes one's ability to make a choice.
  • Too many choices negatively affects one's performance and ability to make good decisions.
  • Too many choices leads to regret about the choice you did make or will make.

He gave research examples of (1) how people who had too many choices to make, say in their 401(k) plans, would simply not choose one and lose out on matching funds from their employer, (2) how students who had 25 topics to choose from in order to write an essay wrote worse than those who selected from only 6 choices, and (3) how people who had too many choices tended to regret their choice more than those with fewer choices because as time passed they felt that the alternatives that they had passed up would have been better.

With respect to today's digital generation who have too many choices, he noted the following consequences:

Significant rise in the incidence of depressiona and suicide, both of which are appearing at younger and younger ages

Substantial increase in the rate at which college students are flocking to counseling centers

Palpable unease in the reports of young college graduates, who seem to lack a clear idea of what they are meant to do in their lives. Often this is manifest as anxiety disorder

And finally, in upper-class adolescents, whose family affluence makes anything possible, there are the same levels of drug abuse, anxiety disorder, and depression as there are in the children of the poor.

The solution is what he called "Libertarian Paternalism." That is,

It will become more common that people do nothing. So set it up so that when people do nothing, they get what they want, which is better [psychologically] for them.

He gave the example of organ donors in the U.S. and in Europe. In the U.S., about 98% believe that donating organs at one's death is a good thing to do, but only about 8% do it because they have to opt in on their driver's license to do it, while in Europe, about 90% (?) do it because they have to opt out of the default of donating one's organs at death.

Much to think about!

Diane Ravitch in Good Intentions, Ignorant Elites, and Scoundrels (via Downes), writes,

We live in a dangerous and dark time for schools. In many districts, the gears of power are controlled by non-educators who don't have a clue. They madly embrace testing and data and data-driven instruction because they have not a single idea about how kids learn and how teachers teach and what conditions are necessary to promote teaching and learning. This new breed also populates some of our nation's leading think tanks. Most of them have never taught; have never been in a classroom since they were students; know nothing of the history of education and nothing about research, but they know how to fix the nation's schools.

These assertions are true to some degree. I can certainly compare such non-educators with educators who have never taught ESL students, who have never learned another language, and know nothing of the research on second language acquisition, but they believe that ESL students can become fluent in English in just a few years.

What Works in Teaching?
At the same time, I can also understand why many could care less about the history of education and its research. Just look at the reading wars of "whole language" vs. phonics approaches, the math wars of "whole math" vs. traditional math curricula, and other education wars that pit "progressives" vs. "traditionalists" (see Hirsch's The Roots of the Education Wars). These different camps know educational history and research. Yet, they—just like Ravitch and Meier—disagree on how to educate students. Unlike the scientific consensus on F=ma, which works well in most cases (and in those cases it doesn't, there is a scientific consensus on why it doesn't work), there is no educational consensus on the best approaches to teaching students. Or, if there is, it's torn apart by political and ideological clashes.

Without a consensus among educators on what works and without consistent results, it's quite natural that non-educators will step into the fray with their own ideas of what might work. And that doesn't always mean that they do not consult with educators or "don't have a clue." Within the Gates Foundation, for example, the Program Director of Education in the U.S. is Vicki Phillips, who has been a district superintendent in Oregon, secretary of education and chief state school officer in Pennsylvania, and a middle and high school teacher, and she has a doctorate in education. Instead, it means that the core of what works in teaching may be more a matter of common sense than than the insights of educational research, a common sense that says that the foundation of what works in teaching is a knowledge of subject matter and relationships of trust and respect between teachers and students.

What Works is Subject Matter Knowledge
Ravitch also blasts Teach for America:

[Superintendents] will tell you that they are going to change "the quality" of teachers by recruiting Ivy League graduates and Teach for America folk. They are going to push out all those experienced fogies, so that their newbies have no one to learn from, no one to show them the ropes, no one to help with knotty day-to-day problems.

I posted on this before, but some research shows that Teach for America teachers are better than experienced teachers. In Making a Difference, we read,

The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are particularly strong for math and science classes.

Apparently, the further the subject matter moves away from every day experience, as in the case of math and the sciences, the more important subject matter knowledge becomes in teaching. And apparently, subject matter knowledge is more important than knowing the history of education and its research. (For similar findings, see Teacher Quality.)

Not that TFA teachers have no knowledge of pedagogical practice. Ravitch exaggerates the newbies not having someone to show them the ropes. From the Making a Difference article,

TFA corps members participate in an intensive five-week summer national institute and a two week local orientation/induction program prior to their first teaching assignment.

In recent years, TFA corps members have also engaged in on-going professional development activities provided by TFA and whatever other supports school districts provide new teachers.

Now the average 3-credit semester course takes up 45 hours a semester. The 5+2 weeks of training, assuming a 40-hour training week, comes to 280 hours or a little over 18 credits (or six courses) of practical educational training. That's not insignificant. Regardless of the training they receive, the research is clear on TFA teacher outperforming experienced teachers at the secondary level. It makes one wonder, as Stephen Downes did concerning these results,

What does this say about the efficacy of teacher training?

Or perhaps, we should wonder about the efficacy of teacher training provided by schools of education as compared to that provided by TFA.

What Works is Relationships and Attitude
It would be easy to continue and pick holes in the rest of Ravitch's sound bites, but I'll leave that discussion for the comments already on her article. Instead, note that she says that Meier's success with small schools was due to her "singular passion" (which is also likely a factor in the success of TFA teachers).

Deborah Meiers (In Schools We Trust) wrote:

Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure. (p. 2)

Students need to be around teachers they can trust and teachers who ask questions as learners, too. (p. 14)

These points are not considered often enough. Researchers research methods. Meier practiced relationships of respect and trust, and had the attitude of a learner. Method without such relationships and attitudes will run into walls of resistance to learning.

Relationships and attitudes are also underscored by the book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain, Vice Provost for Instruction and Director of Montclair University’s Teaching and Learning Resource Center. This book reports on outstanding teachers from various disciplines across the university, including medical and law schools. Obviously, these professors did not have a background in educational history or research. Yet they stood out. Here is a list of characteristics of teachers who stand out (excerpts from pages 15-19):

Without exception, outstanding teachers know their subjects extremely well.
Exceptional teachers treat their lectures, discussion sections, problem-based sessions, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.
Simply put, the best teachers expect "more." ... they avoid objectives that are arbitrarily tied to the course and favor those that embody the kind of thinking and acting expected for life.
While methods vary, the best teachers often try to create what we have come to call a "natural critical learning environment. In that environment, people learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assujmptions, and examine their mental models of reality. These are challenging yet supportive conditions in which learners feel a sense of control over their education; work collaboratively with others; believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners in advance of and separate from any summative judgment of their effort."
Highly effective teachers tend to reflect a strong trust in students. ... Above all, they tend to treat students with what can only be called simple decency.
All the teachers we studied have some systematic program—some more elaborate than others—to assess their own efforts and to make appropriate changes.

As the book points out, these characteristics are driven by attitudes towards their research, their teaching, and their students, attitudes of respect, trust, and beliefs that they are still learning and that their students can learn.

What Works in Teaching and in Life
None of this is to say that educational theories of learning belong to the dustbin. They guide my own teaching practices. It would waste time to develop my pedagogy through trial and error alone instead of taking advantage of what others have already learned.

Instead, the point is that although educational theories can build upon a foundation, a foundation must be in place first. And the foundation of what works in teaching—or any other endeavor—is a command of subject matter knowledge, respect for others, and an attitude of learning.