My friend Sarah recommended The Journal of Engineering Education to me as a really solid and totally awesome source of pedagogy research. So, I went and looked at the most recent issue (October 2012) and picked the article that called to me the strongest: “The Informed Design Teaching and Learning Matrix.” Authored by David P. Crismond (CUNY, City College) and Robin S. Adams (Purdue University), it is a huge article (40 large pages of single-spaced prose before the 20 pages of citations), incredibly well-grounded in previous research, and meticulously written/organized. It inspired many ideas for my classrooms and I was regularly amazed by the universality a lot of what they recommend: it applies to my own learning, parenting, classroom teaching, one-on-one teaching, mentoring, and probably a number of other things I’m forgetting at the moment.
These authors are focused on how engineering design is taught and learned. By design, they refer to the process of creating an object/solution (such as a parachute) according to given parameters. They present their findings as a matrix (table) that “contains nine engineering design strategies and associated patterns that contrast beginning versus informed design behaviors, with links to learning goals and instructional approaches that aim to support students in developing their engineering design abilities.” (p. 738) This sounds intimidating, but it is very cool. The bulk of the article and –for me– the most thought-provoking is the section “Unpacking the Matrix.” Each of the nine patterns is discussed in two sub-sections: a summary/description and teaching strategies. What a goldmine! Here are three of my three favorite “ah ha!” moments. I have organized them from the most general to the most specific, in terms of “field of study.”
(1) Teaching Teaching. Try replacing the word designers with the word teachers: “Beginning designers design in haphazard ways, working at random on whatever problems emerge, or they treat design as a set of strategies to be done once in linear order. Informed designers do design as an iterative process, while improving ideas and prototypes based on feedback and cycling back to upgrade their understanding of the problem. They manage their time and resources strategically and use design strategies multiple times in any order, as needed, in a systematic way.” (p. 769) Not all of the design teaching strategies map well onto pedagogy teaching strategies, but here are two that I liked: “…simply having undergraduate engineers read a textbook’s description of the design process favorably impacted the quality of students’ design work and resulted in them doing more transitions and using more design strategies.” But, I have yet to locate a textbook on how to write a good aural skills assignment, lesson plan, module, course, or curriculum. I imagine this textbook contribution would be highly useful… Second: “Some students can be overly cautious when designing and need support in taking risks with their design ideas.” (emphasis mine, p. 772) I love taking risks with my teaching. I call it experimenting. And lots of my experiments flop; but I always learn from them. I often feel a little bit alone in my risk-taking. I imagine there are others doing it, but no one talks about it. As I mentor newer teachers, I think I can use the lingo in this section of the article to help me better express my ideas. I also think that I can continue to work to create a climate where risk-taking (and reflecting on that risk-taking) is supported.
(2) Teaching Writing. There were many little nuggets echoing difficulties I have wrestled with when preparing, assigning, and mentoring students on their formal papers. Every professor seems to have slightly different priorities for these papers, which complicates matters from the students’ perspectives. In general, I am most interested in the questions students try to answer in their papers. I strongly prefer papers that go beyond data collection and labeling, even when the the labeling draws on considerable evaluation skills. The papers I want use data and labels to answer questions, ideally questions that are interesting, difficult, or complex. This matrix pattern is causing me to rethink how I set up a paper for my students (replace the word designers with writers):
“Beginning designers feel that understanding the design challenge is straightforward, and a matter of comprehending the basic task and its requirements. By perceiving the design task as a well-structured problem and believing there is a single correct answer, they can act prematurely and attempt to solve it immediately. Informed designers seek initially to understand the challenge as best they can, but then delay making design decisions in order to explore and comprehend the design challenge more fully. They set out to learn through research, brainstorming, and doing technological investigations what the critical issues are in order to frame the problem effectively. They will later return to assess this framing after attempting to solve the challenge.” (p. 747)
I do a good job making sure that my students understand that the process of writing a passing (and eventually a good) paper is not straightforward, and that there isn’t a single correct answer. My students, however, are beginning writers, not informed (a.k.a. experienced) writers (there are always notable exceptions). In a way, I’m asking them to skip the entire process in which they learn to be an experienced writer. I need to better scaffold the thinking and process that goes into writing the kind of paper I want. I do a good job providing practice on asking good questions, but a lousy job of turning those questions into essays/papers. Some of the activities I could do to create a learning curve for my students include building in reflections on what makes a good question, modeling how I write a good essay, writing essays in small groups, and enabling peer feedback on rough drafts.
(3) Teaching Dictation. Throughout the article, I found that design became a metaphor for thought process. Thinking about thought process often brought to mind the wide range of strategies students use to complete a transcription or dictation. Rhythm first? pitch first? Bar lines first? What clef, what time signature? This abbreviated list of questions starts to approximate the mental panic a lot of students have when approaching a dictation. In one-on-one sessions, we experiment with different orderings of the questions. For example, voice majors tend to work best when they write out scale degrees first, then feel and mark where the barlines go, and then figure out the rhythms. In the teaching strategy called explanation-based designing (p. 762), “teachers scaffold students’ thinking about the benefits and trade-offs of different design options by regularly asking them to provide explanations for their design decisions, including description of both the positives and negatives of different choices.” This strategy builds in reflection, a powerful learning tool that I have found very effective for our students. I can imagine shortening some of the take-home assignments to build in time and space for reflection on their process. Students will not get much for this assignment if the problem is too easy, so I would need to have several choices of excerpts so that those who don’t struggle will find something to reflect upon.
I’m glad I have a pdf copy of this article on my computer. It is a wonderful place to turn to for inspiration when I feel stuck. I may print out the matrix and tack it up next to my list of Bloom’s Taxonomy verbs and nouns.