Balancing Pedagogy, Technology and Geology (or whatever content you teach): Putting Understanding at the Center of Teaching

I’m still working on Part 3 in the series on making Virtual Fieldwork Experiences and on the accompanying VFE, but I found myself wondering about balance.  That third post is coming, but not until some further reflection.

In this post, pondering balance leads into a discussion of what should be at the center of teaching and then back to balance in the form of considering one’s niche.

Thoughts on Balancing Dynamic Entities

I’ve spent a lot of time so far this month immersed in technology and a bit of time immersed in nature (and thinking a lot about geology in the process).  That’s all for the purpose of pedagogy – trying to help teachers and their students understand the Earth system.  I think in the modern Earth science classroom, technology, pedagogy and geology are inseparable.

In fact, this trio has always been inseparable in the classroom, but the technologies used today are far different than they were as recently as ten years ago.  Does that change the balance?   I don’t know.  Maybe in a dynamic equilibrium sort of way?  That is, the scales may be balanced, but the stuff in the balance pans is ever changing.

To teach science well, the triad of content, pedagogy and technology have always been essential, though you might argue that it has been a technology infused duo of content and pedagogy. Be it blackboard, stream table or Google Earth, technology has always been a piece of the pedagogical puzzle.

Some of the struggle here is that not only are we teaching about the complex system that is the Earth system, but we are also teaching within the complex system that is the system of education.  Both systems are composed of a great many (effectively infinite) actors acting across many interrelated levels that dynamically interact.  No easy task.

Both systems are technology rich, too.  And in both systems, we often use technology to maximize.

In the system of schooling, we are often pushed to maximize many, many things:

  • Test scores,
  • Graduation rates,
  • Critical thinking skills,
  • Literacy of many sorts,
  • Politeness,
  • Environmental stewardship,
  • Return on investment, and,
  • Much, much more.

We’re also expected to minimize certain things – budgets and misbehavior are perhaps the top two on that list.

Optimize, don’t maximize.

Maximizing and minimizing are mismatched with balancing.  You cannot, for example, simultaneously maximize learning and minimize cost.  Stretching toward one extreme may mean losing sight of the other.  Good teachers and administrators, of course, already know that and whether they recognize it or not they seek to optimize.

Is technology a tool for optimization?

We should be using technology to support both our pedagogy and our geology.  Some might think that means technology is a tool for that end.  Well, sort of.

We certainly use technological tools (be they rock hammers, pieces of chalk or computer software packages), but technology writ large should only be thought of a tool in the way that we think of language as a tool.  Sure, they’re both tools, but they are oh so much more.

Our work as educators should be to build understanding.

One might argue that optimization is maximization within constraints.  What is it that we want to come out of the practice of schooling?  Well, apparently all that stuff in the bulleted list above, but for me it’s understanding or a specific sort.  Understanding that informs action.

Is that kind of understanding more likely to result from student-centered teaching or teacher-centered teaching?  Here I’m unsure of the answer to my own question because I think it’s the wrong question to ask.   We’re off the mark if we think of ourselves as either content-centered or student-centered.

Teaching should be understanding-driven, or understanding-centered. That’s an idea I picked up from Andy Anderson, while in grad school, now long ago.  All kinds of folks still talk about this false dichotomy between teacher-centered and student-centered teaching.  Understanding-centered teaching isn’t some happy midpoint between teacher- (or content-) centered teaching and student-centered teaching.  It’s something else entirely.

That doesn’t mean that student-centered and content-centered teachers aren’t out there.  When you ask a student-centered teacher what she teaches, she may well answer, “I teach kids.”  Indeed.  And sages on stages who are genuine fonts of knowledge about their content areas are out there too.  There are good teachers in both categories, and maybe some on a line in between those two things we think of as extremes.  But no one would claim that teaching is one dimensional.

We may be able to characterize aspects of teaching on lines, on scales from one to ten (or whatever), but there are so many aspects to effective teaching that we end up not a set of scales or even a matrix, but rather, a multidimensional hypervolume (Hutchinson, 1957).  Zoiks!  How can you balance that?

A multidimensional hypervolume is how Hutchinson classified an ecological niche.  Pedagogy, geology and technology are perhaps three important “niche axes.”  Hutchinson also noted that niches are not simply the jobs of organisms, but also what limits them.  (This definition of niche is richer and more on target than what I remember from high school biology).

Our technologies are not infinitely extendible.  We don’t have an unlimited supply of either cash or time (are those two more niche axes?) to create anything our minds can conceive.  My currently accessible technology exceeds that of some teachers and falls short of many too.  In the work of VFEs, we need to better understand the technological range in classrooms and the range of technological skills.  I need to gain a better understanding of these niche axes.  Again, no easy task.

The project, I think, has the potential to extend the technological niche axes of individual teacher and offer something to the population of teachers (at least that 99+% with Internet access).  In so doing, we can hopefully also extend the geologic axes and the pedagogical axes as well.  And somehow show the National Science Foundation we’ve done so.

I may have wandered away from the questions that started this post, questions may I didn’t state directly enough:

  • How can we help teachers maintain or achieve the “right” balance of pedagogy, geology and technology?
  • How much time can we expect teachers to be able to devote to the creation and use of VFEs?
  • What’s more important — getting a great finished product or getting finished?
  • What’s more important — getting teachers into the field and studying the Earth system or getting polished VFEs?
  • What can we do to optimize understanding in the creation and use of VFEs?
  • Will technologically streamlining the process for VFE creation make that process and its outcomes more didactic?

Those questions arose because I know that most teachers won’t be able to put in the time in a single year that I’ve put in on my still unfinished VFE.  All of these questions have to do with issues of balance.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Balancing Pedagogy, Technology and Geology (or whatever content you teach): Putting Understanding at the Center of Teaching

  1. hey Don I think these are some good questions you are raising. One thing I have learned from my own vfe fun is that the process should be best thought of as a journey, both for the teacher and the students.
    If everyones a little metacognitive, which clearly you are, that’s where the most learning happens. For my students it was about the process. It was their first time doing anything like real field work, there is a learning curve. I highly suggest spending so time on what you really expect from your students. I think it’s just as exciting to see that their field notebooks look like “real” geolgist as having them correctly identify all the rocks. Likewise I am thrilled to see their maps and strat columns even if they are only sort of right. The reason? Several students find vfes and the related field work to be the most fun of the year. Someone always asks “people get paid to do this?” that’s a future geologist that may have never even thought they liked science. That’s why I do it. Others may disagree, but I say try it,try something small and imperfect. See where it takes you and your students. Go on the journey together.

  2. Good suggestions — Would you like to share your field notebook format? Were there any changes between this past year and the year before? This is the kind of piece that’s applicable to any fieldwork and compiling those can make the creation process quicker without making it more didactic — or inappropriately didactic, anyway.

    There’s certainly standard procedures that have a sort of didacticism to them. (I think I just made a new word). This is a bit of standardization that’s needed, but that’s another story.

    I do indeed need to do what it is that I want students to do.

    I also think we agree that getting teachers out there is fundamental — if the project does nothing besides that, it will still have done something worthwhile. And the VFE creation process both documents that they’ve been out there and gives them a vehicle for thinking things through.

  3. Structure in field notebooks is really important, both for students (the geologist working in the field) and for teachers (the geologist’s boss).

    I always have a discussion with my students about what things should go in the field notebook and how they should be organized.

    A great place to start for teachers with limited field experience is the University of Edinburgh http://www.geos.ed.ac.uk/undergraduate/field/fnb/

    This site goes into a lot more detail than you’re likely to use, but it gives a good feel for the field notebooks.

    For my students, I have them set aside a section for the VFE and call it VFE or something else I can recognize. Then I have them write an objective that answers the question, “What are we going to do/look for/learn?” This is pretty uncomfortable for some students and they may need some guidance. Others will immediately feed me back my “why does this place look the way it does?” question. A few will actually do some thinking. Its these students I ask to share with the class. So everyone gets a feel.

    If you’re actually outside its really important to note the weather as rocks can look really different under different conditions (rain vs sun). Some years I have the students look at the first few stops on the VFE and note the weather. If I’m pressed for time, I just mention that I only went out when it wasn’t raining.

    The next thing they write is an overview. This is the big picture. I have them follow the guide. http://www.millerscience.com/vfe

    I suggest a different page for each locality. For each locality, students do the following:
    Location name
    lat/long (from the GPS)
    elevation (from the topo after they’ve plotted lat/long)
    observations (again using the guide, if they need it)
    sketches and labels, labels, labels
    questions they have

    Although it is very structured, there is a certain freedom within the structure. Students always manage to make it their own.

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