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Casting Out Nines: What we can learn from the trades and professions

I am currently en route to Allentown, PA where tomorrow I will be facilitating a workshop on flipped learning. If it seems like I've been doing this a lot lately... this is the third weekend in a row I've been out for speaking or workshop engagements. This much travel in such a compressed period of time can be tiring (and I won't even mention how far behind I have gotten in prepping and grading for my actual classes). However, I do enjoy meeting new people and talking about flipped learning and technology with groups that I would not ordinarily hang out with.

That's the case this weekend, where the audience will come primarily from two groups of community college faculty: Faculty from nursing, and faculty from welding and diesel engine technology. They are part of a learning community at a cohort of community colleges in eastern Pennsylvania, which in turn is part of a grant to modernize some of the community college programs in eastern PA to better serve its population, especially those in the area who are workers who might have lost their jobs (many have, unfortunately) and are needing to be retrained. They are seeking to blend technology-enhanced learning, evidence-based pedagogical strategies, partnerships with local industries, and competency-based education to produce more qualified job applicants who are badly needed in critical areas in the Pennsylvania economy, particularly in manufacturing and in health care.

As a mathematician stepping into this situation, my biggest fear is that I will come in, start talking in education-ese, and basically be a useless egghead who thinks he's going to swoop down from the ivory tower and be relevant. It's a real danger, because we who work in higher education tend to be fairly closed off from the rest of the world.

I've worked with GVSU's nursing program a lot in the past as they have started flipping their courses, and I happen to have some contact with the blue-collar world, as my wife's stepdad is a welder and her brother is a truck driver. What I find exciting about getting to work with these two disparate sounding groups is that I think they have a lot to teach those of us eggheads with PhD.'s who are in the STEM disciplines or the liberal arts:

  • People in these sectors tend to know instinctively what the research has been screaming at the rest of us for years, namely that active learning is how people learn best. A welder is simply not going to learn how to weld by watching a lecture on welding. A phlebotomist is not going to learn how to stick people with needles well (and God help those of us who get bad phlebotomists in the hospital) by watching videos about needles. These folks know that some initial guidance may or may not be necessary -- imagine trying to learn welding with no expert guidance! -- but this goes only so far, and not really very far. To learn, you have to do.
  • These folks also understand the importance of mistakes and correction in the learning process. Nobody gets a weld right on the first try. The best welders learn from the bad welds and eventually get it right. The same is true for nursing, for dental hygenists, and on and on. Try, fail, try again, and eventually get it right consistently. We in the liberal arts may understand this, but the way we assess students and design courses seems to say otherwise. Nobody in any discipline wants to celebrate failure exactly, but stigmatizing it the way we do sometimes makes me wonder how much we traditional academicians really understand how people learn.
  • People in these sectors also have no illusions about how they themselves learned things. We traditional academicians think sometimes that we learned through listening to great lectures by passionate, expert lecturers. I think this is mainly because those few -- again, few -- great lectures we experienced stand out so much from the rest of our education that we sometimes misapply hindsight and think that they were normative. In fact most lecturers are, most of the time, not brilliant. And the learning that we attribute to lecture is actually the result of the lecture filtering through several layers of active learning that we applied to ourselves: The discussions we had, the problems we worked, the research projects we did. It was our actions that actually caused the learning most of the time. On the other hand, I have never heard a person in the skilled trades say that they learned this way, and only rarely have I heard someone in the health professions say this. They get it: The direct instruction was there to initialize the active learning and to provide some correction as the active learning was happening, but the learning itself was all active, all the time.

One might say that the trades and professions are so procedurally oriented that they are hard to compare in this way to the traditional academic disciplines. I don't think so, for two reasons. One, traditional disciplines have their share of procedural knowledge as well. Two, the trades and professions have to deal with conceptual knowledge just like we do -- general principles, creative work, and so on. Ask a diesel engine technician some time if he or she doesn't think about general, abstracted principles about how engines (should) work when doing his or her job.

So I'm looking forward to working with this group tomorrow because in many ways flipped learning has a natural home in the areas they represent, and because I will be learning a lot from them as well.

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