Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When it comes to feedback about faculty or courses, one size does not fit all

Considering the Design of Evaluations of Faculty or Courses

I saw yet another item in the POD listserv whether and how to ‘grade’ teaching, student feedback.  Obviously, any such system requires collecting best evidence and in several different ways, "triangulating" from them to get a more valid, reliable sense of what's been going on. 

The fallacy I see in most such discussions is the assumption that one procedure must fit all kinds of courses and faculty.  (The IDEA Center is a noteworthy exception to 'one size fits all.')

Before getting to judging faculty, let's be clear: the most important target for intensive evaluation is the performance of academic programs (e.g., degree programs, general education, writing or other essential learning outcomes as they are mastered across the curriculum).

  • What should students have learned by the time they leave (not just in content and capabilities but also in motivation and perspectives)? 
  • What did students learn by the time they left? Compared with the goals? compared with students graduating five years earlier?
  • Have equity gaps increased or decreased for students who have been in the program?  
  • Has the program made responsible, effective uses of its resources including students' time and money?

Now, let's talk about making judgments about faculty. We can learn more, and waste less time and money, by having different inquiries for different situations

Purpose -Formative
Purpose - Summative
Sample criteria
The top educators  (or courses) (~5%)
Cross-fertilization among most engaged innovators, SoTL practitioners. Forge direction and leadership cadre for future programmatic improvements
Rewards of distinction
In what ways has your work benefited the practice of other faculty and staff, here and at other institutions?
Broad middle
Provide feedback useful for faculty growth and course improvement
Use evidence of growth or no growth over the years as one of many inputs into personnel decisions
Use highly engaging practices? With desired effects?
Bottom of the scale (~5%)
Identify and then fix problematic teachers/courses if possible
Identify teachers/courses performing at unacceptably low levels, term after term.
Is instructor showing up? Providing feedback in a timely fashion?

The "broad middle" is the most important group because they do most of the teaching and have far more impact, collectively, on students. Because so many faculty are in this group, any central committee or office will be able to spend comparatively little time with each instructor, teaching assistant, and learning assistant.  So these kinds of feedback need to come from standardized processes (e.g., standard data about course performance; standard review from peers who have been educated about what's worth noticing and how to coach).

The bottom of the scale is the most important for a "high touch" approach because of the risks that the intervention might make things worse.  Each case requires sensitivity and a unique approach.

The top of the scale is also worth high touch, to harvest, interpret and disseminate important lessons and new challenges arising from the work done in these very best courses.

Does your institution have a faculty/course improvement program that treats the worst performers differently than the others -uses different criteria to judge them, gathers different data about them?

The Book in Progress

As you might know, I'm working on a book tentatively titled, Quality, Access, and Affordability: Pursuing 3Fold Gains in Higher Education.  About 2/3 of the planned book is in at least first draft shape.  The book describes 5-6 institutions that have been working for years to enhance how well students learn, to make access more equitable, and to control affordability in time and money, for the students, the institutions, and their benefactors. Even more important, these institutions have all been trying to accomplish such gains in ways that are scalable (engage more than boutique numbers of students) and sustainable for many years to come.

If you'd like to hear more, write a comment below or email me (ehrmannsteve gmail).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Progress on quality, access, and affordability in higher education

For much of the last two years I've been researching and writing a book: 
  1. To describe how some colleges and universities have been (re)shaping themselves in order to make sustainable gains in educational quality, access, and affordability at scale, and 
  2. From their experiences, to suggest a conceptual framework and implementation principles that can be used to pursue such 3fold gains more effectively and efficiently.
There's a lot of research and writing still to do. The book probably won't be published until late 2018 or early 2019.

Recently, the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group invited me to give a webinar on some of the most important findings and suggestions emerging from the book.  A video of the event is on YouTube at  My talk begins at 6:37 into the video, pauses for 20 minutes at 50:16, picks up again at 1:10:48 and concludes at 1:22:15.  In the talk itself lasts less than an hour.  The book analyzes a number of case histories; some points about Georgia State University's recent history and achievements are included in the talk.

Some Tentative Findings:

  1. Pursuing three gains (in quality, access, and affordability) as three independent agendas is probably not the best way to actually achieve such improvements in institutional and program outcomes.  
  2. Instead create a single constellation of changes over the years that, as a group, cumulatively improves elements of quality, access, and affordability. ("pursuing 3fold gains")
  3. There are three major ways to conceive of how how learning should be organized.  Each suggests a different, incompatible way to pursue 3fold gains. 
  4. Institutional case histories also suggest that, for 3fold gains to be sustained at scale, the constellation of changes needs to include targeted improvements aligned across: 
    • Educational strategies, 
    • Organizational foundations (including culture), to better sustain those strategies at scale, and 
    • Interactions with the wider world that also influence the sustainability of the institution's educational strategies. 
I hope you'll take a look at my talk.  Post your reactions here or contact me at ehrmannsteve at gmail.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Improving Course Outcomes - Uses of Undergraduate Learning Assistants

Trained “undergraduate learning assistants” (ULAs) can provide invaluable support for faculty seeking to redesign or enhance their courses.  In 2006-2014, the USM redesigned 57 courses spread across eleven of its universities.  About two-thirds of those courses used prepared ULAs in a variety of ways to improve learning outcomes, including:
  • Making it more practical for faculty to use research-informed teaching and learning strategies, such as more active and collaborative learning in the classroom;
  • Monitoring computer labs where students used interactive courseware;
  • Coaching particular students who were having trouble in the course;
  • Helping grade quizzes and online participation;
  • Providing indirect ways of saving faculty time; and
  • Advising the instructors on how to improve the course.
ULA-enabled course redesigns appear to have been more successful in lowering DFW rates than were redesigned courses that did not take advantage of ULAs.  Redesigned courses using ULAs cut DFW rates by an average of 8 percentage points as compared to only 2 percentage points on average for courses that did not make use of ULAs.

For the full report, written while I was with Kirwan Center for Academic Innovation at the University System of Maryland, click here

Thursday, December 22, 2016

"Flipped Classrooms" versus "Blended Courses" versus "Hybrid Courses"

Many faculty and staff take“flipping the classroom” to mean that they should make recordings of  lectures, assign them as homework, and use the vacated lecture time to more interactive work in the classroom.  

Will that work? What if students aren't investing enough time in homework now? Will it help or hurt to add video lectures to that load?  And if students continue to come to class unprepared, won't the instructor feel compelled to drop the interactive work in class and lecture instead? The more things change, the more they may stay the same.

Improving learning outcomes requires more than swapping the same activities into different contexts.

And using the term "classroom" as a synonym for "course" tends to divert attention from what goes on outside the classroom. That's not good. Think of typical classroom lectures as exercise videos. How strong do people become from watching exercise videos? Their new strength comes from the practice they do after watching the video: the homework.

"Flipped classroom" has displaced an earlier, more suggestive term: "hybrid courses."  By hybrid, I mean a course whose design gets its educational power by making the most of what's possible in and out of classrooms. Drawing on those two sources, hybrids can be different and more effective than either of those sources.

[It's true that many hybrids also adjust the amount of time students spend in and out of classrooms as part of their design. But in my view a well-implemented hybrid gets the most value from its way of multiplying what can be done in and outside classrooms.]
For this blog post, let's just focus on interpersonal interaction in hybrid courses.  Many research-based practices for effective education rely on heavy doses of interpersonal interaction, far more interaction than in most lecture-based courses.  When designing a hybrid course, what kinds of interpersonal interaction are best done online? face-to-face?,

Interaction better done face-to-face

  • The virtually instantaneous judgment needed for some kinds of coaching (think of using prepared learning assistants to help facilitate student discussion and collaboration in the classroom);
  • The quick back-and-forth that can resolve some misunderstandings (think of using clickers to support peer instruction);
  • The sharing of emotional responses that can help further motivate students and introduce them to different ways of perceiving and valuing. ("The equation of simple harmonic motion" is an earlier blog post on that potential.)
  • (add your own suggestions)

Interaction better done online:

  • More thoughtfully paced interaction that’s important for novices just learning to think and communicate in the terms of the field they’re studying (see Smith citation below);
  • More options for students to study and discuss different things, according to their interests  (ditto about Smith)
  • Greater ease of communication, especially for students who’d rather not interrupt, students (and instructors) whose native language is not English
  • More visual forms of peer-to-peer communication (e.g., students using video clips to help explain a point)
  • (add your own suggestions)
For online discussion to work well, instructors had better coach the students in how to make constructive contributions. Then instructors ought to use simple rubrics to give students simple feedback (and fractional points toward their grades) – this week have you shown evidence understanding the contributions of others? Are your contributions helping to move the discussion and the work forward? When I taught an online course a couple years ago, I was staggered by how the intelligence of student contributions improved when I took those two steps.

Here's an research report from Karen Smith  on the importance of asynchronous discussion to learning a new language. The language is Spanish. However, if you think about it, deep learning of any content involves entering a new community and mastering at least the rudiments of a new language. The study of literature, of social work, and of mathematics all have their own ways of thinking and communicating.   The sample size in Smith's study is small (different sections of one class at one university) but the findings ring true to me.

  • Smith, Karen L. (1990)  Collaborative and Interactive Writing for Increasing Communication Skills, Hispania, LXXIII:1, pp. 77-87.

To sum up: let's take a fresh look at how the best use of out-of-classroom work can enrich learning done within classrooms, and vice versa. And let's call the results "hybrid courses."

PS. No, I haven't forgotten "blended courses." For me, the word "blended" suggests that faculty mix some face-to-face with some online, shake the result, and serve. Yug.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Barrier assumptions

While working on my book on academic transformation, I've been looking back over a 40-year career engaged with innovation.  The news isn't all bad.  Islands of improvement have multiplied and some have grown to be quite large, even though great swaths of academic practice remain unchanged.

For the book, I've been noting assumptions that hold many of us back, especially when these assumptions reinforce barrier practices. Here are a few of the most important of these barrier assumptions:

1. Relying mainly on experts explaining things to students (for example, lectures, demonstrations, textbooks) works well enough.  Learning can't be improved by altering teaching. Students learn more or less because of their talents and problems.  Attempts to increase grades are almost always illusory and result in watering down the curriculum.
  • Counter-assumption: the vast weight of evidence supports the finding that  relying primarily on explaining things is not very effective, not an equal playing field for students, and not a very good use of anyone's time.  Changes in teaching can result in improvements in learning.
2. Faculty jobs are about working alone, especially where teaching is concerned. Reward systems reinforce working alone, with each instructor working alone to teach a course or section, having his or her own advisees, etc.
  •  Counter-assumption: Learning that results in lasting changes in student capabilities, perspectives and direction emerges from a constellation of experiences in many courses and experiences. In order to intentionally improve those graduation, faculty need to invest significant time and effort in working together, as a regular part of their responsibilities as teachers.
 3.  Any inquiry into how time, money and facilities are used by students, faculty and programs is a disguised and illegitimate ploy by the administration to restrict academic freedom and to fire people.
  • Counter-assumption: To improve learning requires rethinking the organization of academic work in smaller or larger ways (rather than adding new practices and expenses alongside the status quo).  This rethinking involves how people spend time and how the institution allocates resources.  Assuming that the starting point is that people can keep spending time and money as they have guarantees that the status quo remains the norm. (See myth #1)
4. Innovations are a completely new beginning (and a leap into the dark), especially technology-based innovations.  For example, research on libraries has no bearing on using the Web as a library.  Research done on the instructional software of the 1980s can't possibly suggest any useful insights in dealing with this year's adaptive tutoring systems. 
  • Counter-assumption: the most important determinants of student learning are what students do. Technologies - whether they are textbooks, computer software, classrooms, or learning management systems - exist to make it easier for students (and instructors) to do certain things.  Lecturing, textbooks, and streaming videos from the Khan Academy all offer students explanations of content. Therefore their potential and their limitations are likely to be similar.

In your experience, what barrier myths hinder our efforts to keep improving access, quality and affordability? 

Friday, April 15, 2016

What is "academic transformation?" (no, really...)

I need your help.

Like some others, I define "academic transformation" as making  gains in selected facets of access, quality and affordability in higher education.
  • Access: How many people can learn? what kinds of people can learn?
  • Quality: What are the outcomes? how effective are the practices aimed at fostering that learning?
  • Affordability: Is a particular type of stakeholder willing and able to invest a particular resource over the long term?  Stakeholders include students, faculty, units such as academic departments and teaching centers, institutions, and benefactors.  Relevant resources include time, money, and facilities.
These three goals have been called an "iron triangle" because of the widespread perception that to make progress in one or two of these goals, one must make sacrifices in another.  For example, if budgets remain constant (affordability), people may assume that all efforts to extend access pose a threat to quality and all efforts to improve quality must be limited to a subset of students, unfairly penalizing other current or potential students.

In practice that triangle can be stretched.  For example, the shift from hand-copied manuscripts to printed books in higher learning enabled gains in certain aspects of all three goals.  More recently the growth of the Internet offers a wider range of more affordable resources to a larger number of learners.  Flipped courses offer potential gains in all three spheres.

A lot of people are talking about this kind of threefold transformation.  I am beginning to study:
  • Who's trying to do it? 
  • How? 
  • How's it going?  
  • Are there lessons to be learned from their experiences about how to conceptualize and implement academic transformation?  
I'm looking for real-world cases of attempted academic transformation.  Can you suggest any efforts that I should study?
  • Perhaps people at an institution are trying to transform a crucial teaching/learning activity such as coaching,  assessment of higher order learning, or capstone courses. 
  • You might know of an effort to energize students, get them to take personal responsibility for assessing their own learning, or to become more resilient so that they can get more value from their academic programs;
  • Perhaps a college or degree program has taken on a form that makes it more effective in all three areas than many of its competitors.  
  • You might recall a particular course with an unusual design that happens to have strengths in all three of these areas. 
  • The work that occurs to you might focus mostly one of the three goals but potentially have benefits in the other two as well.  For example efforts to make education more affordable might potentially have implications for both access and quality.
  • Maybe you know of an effort to make gains on a scale beyond that of single institutions - a new policy, or consortium, or mediating institution helping sustain relationships between distant learners and distant institutions.
  • You might be aware of an effort to help programs judge how well they're doing in one, two or all three of these goal areas.
Whatever the particulars, I'm looking for cases where people are:
  • Making a serious effort to be strong in some aspects of each of these three goal area;
  • Paying attention to what's actually happening in each area, so that the goal doesn't devolve into a marketing tagline ("We're a quality program!!!!"
Notice I'm not insisting on success.  We can learn at least as much from efforts that flopped or withered.  You don't need to have any connection to the instance you're suggesting.  Just point me in the right direction and I'll take it from there.

Please email your suggestions to ehrmannsteve at

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

For teaching and learning, what feels best may actually be worst.

Everyday experience makes it obvious: experts should explain something clearly so that students can understand the point effortlessly.  For students, reviewing their notes and materials, or practicing bits of knowledge or skill until they feel locked in - that's the most efficient, successful way to study.

However, research summarized in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) demonstrates that these obvious facts about learning are destructively misleading. (Some other good volumes summarize overlapping bodies of research and make similar points.)

I cringed as I read, remembering how counter-productive my own approach to college work had been:
  • When I could follow a lecture, point by point, I assumed that my preparation was adequate and that I'd learned what I needed .  (Taking a quiz even a day later would have shown me and the instructor that I really hadn't learned anything lasting.)
  • Drilling on a certain type of problem and getting it right each time once again misled me into thinking I had learned something that would last.  My delusion was reinforced by quizzes that typically covered only recent material; in that context, cramming seemed efficient.  
  • Partly as a result, I got average grades in my MIT engineering courses yet my bachelor's didn't prepare me to actually be an engineer. And by the end of my first year of doctoral work in management at MIT, I had again gotten B's and A's in six courses in economics (undergraduate and graduate) yet could recall almost none of it.
Research suggests that my faculty should have taught me differently, and I should have studied differently. For example:
  • When students have to work to recall something (e.g., on a quiz) they are much more likely to remember it than if they spend the same amount of time reviewing that material. (see p. 34 for some relevant research on this point) Working to answer the test questions helps students learn.
  • A variety of practice is important.  College baseball players who were thrown a mix of fast balls, curve balls and sliders didn't feel like their hitting was progressing. In contrast, another set of players was "studying hitting" by being thrown fast balls until they could hit them, then curve balls, then sliders; they could see their progress quite vividly. Yet, in game situations, those frustrated players who had practiced hitting a random mix of pitches had better batting averages. (pp. 79-82 in Making It Stick)
  • When students have to make predictions and then test them, the learning is more likely to last. For a vivid example of the failure of a hands-on lab that didn't take the time for students to learn through  predict-try-observe-repeat, watch the video, "Can We Believe Our Eyes?" It is part 1 of the series, Minds of Our Own. The videos are an excellent illustration of ineffective and effective approaches to teaching.  And each sequence begins with interviews with graduating MIT and Harvard seniors who still misunderstand ideas that they were supposed taught, often more than once, in middle school and onward.
  1. The kinds of teaching and study that intuitively feel most efficient and effective can easily result in an illusion of learning.
  2. The kinds of teaching and study that are best at producing lasting, usable learning may feel to the student, in the moment, to be difficult, time-consuming, and non-productive. Complaints may ensue.  (Make It Stick and several other equally good volumes are packed with examples of "desirable difficult" ways of teaching and studying, and the research that has demonstrated their effectiveness.
  3. Therefore, one important preparation for both faculty and students is to help them anticipate these difficulties and, where possible, to see early signs that really usable, lasting learning is beginning to develop. 
I'll be writing a second post on this material soon.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Confusors - Derailing Discussions about Teaching, Technology, and Reform

I've written a couple times in this blog about confusors, but my 2009 essay on the topic was on a web site that has now disappeared. I've resurrected it here and updated it.

We can't improve teaching, our uses of technology and the ways we organize academic work unless we can talk about it.  But such conversations often become more like bull-rings when participants don't notice they're using a common word or phrase to mean different things.

"Teaching," "learning," "assessment," "campus," "liberal education," "general education," "learning goals," "cost-savings," "MOOC," "course redesign," "competence-based education," "online learning," "flipped classes," and "adaptive learning" are just a few examples of the linguistic traps, that I've termed confusors      
For example, two people might get into a bitter argument about regional accreditation of institutions. But the argument turns out to be a waste of energy because they don't actually disagree about anything substantive; they've each been unwittingly using a different definition for "assessment."
I’ve been in a couple pointless arguments about lectures and active learning. One discussion turned out to be a waste of time because, while we actually agreed, we hadn’t noticed our conflicting definition of "lecture." The other wasted quite a few minutes of our lives because we hadn’t noticed our clashing definitions of “active learning.”  
Click here to see a column in the Chronicle of Higher Education charting multiple definitions of some widely used ed-tech terms.  
Any confusor has two defining characteristics:
  1. A term has more than one widely used definition (e.g., "teaching" can mean that an expert is explaining something, or it can refer more broadly to any action of an expert that is designed to help someone else learn). During the moments when a professor is silently watching students discuss an issue, is the professor teaching? The first definition says 'no,' while the second says, 'yes.'
  2. When people fail to notice that they are each using different definitions for the same term, unnecessary arguments or confusion can easily result.  Perhaps just as dangerous in the long term is when participants are lulled into thinking they agree on a point on which they actually clash.  Many people might agree that continual improvement of teaching is important, but when a faculty development program is at issue, they might realize for the first time how dangerously they differed on what "continual improvement of teaching" means.

Click here to see a list of confusors with their conflicting definitions.

To have more productive conversations about teaching and its improvement, what terms and definitions do we need to add to this list? Please add comments below or email me at ehrmannsteve at 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What is Liberal Learning? (No, really...)

This is the third in a series of posts about my own deepening understanding of liberal learning.   The first summarized a talk by Michael Roth on the values of liberal education and the second speculated about why it had taken me so long to learn to see the beauty in an equation

Eric Liu, author of A Chinaman’s Chance, opened a door for me in his recent keynote at AAC&U when he talked about a "virus" that's loose in the world. Liu described the virus as a passionate belief that there is only one correct, virtuous way to see and to act in the world. Folks with this virus believe that something is inferior or wrong about people with any other view. This virus can be a belief in the primacy of one's country of birth, one's skin color, religion, or ideology (for example, the passionate belief that the world can be totally understood and improved by paying attention only to market forces).

Liberal learning, asserted Liu, is the antidote to this virus. Liberally educated people:
  • Understand their worlds from varied and conflicting perspectives, as economics and as ecology, as a balance of power and also as the sum of its accidents and also as the result of individual decisions.
  • Realize that all their options are, to some extent, imperfect and subject to criticism and opposition. Nonetheless, they are intellectually and emotionally prepared to use evidence, to act, and to live with the consequences.
  • Can use evidence and reason to question accepted truth. I know from a variety of perspectives and from many sources of evidence that this way of seeing the world, and acting in the world, doesn't come quickly or easily. 

In fact, liberal learning is the toughest and most time-consuming part:
  1. of effective education for work,
  2. of education to be an effective citizen, and
  3. of education that enables you to transform yourself.

All three of those goals are important.

But my caution light goes on whenever I hear people who simply advocate higher education for work. Period. Without a liberating education, those employed graduates will only be able to do the job the way others do it. They won't have the ability to question accepted wisdom, to bring others around to their novel point of view, and to change what's done, or how it's done. And they won't be prepared to change jobs or careers (without going back to school for a different form of training).

That was Liu's point: training people for a specific job is not enough to assure a healthy democracy because effective citizens need to question their way past slogans and opinion leaders. It's not enough in a society that values innovation. It's not enough to help someone become (perhaps somewhat to their surprise) into a different person (I entered college at 18 with life-long desire to be an engineer and graduated as someone who looks a lot more like the me of today, not just in career aspirations but in perceptions and capability).

Liberal learning ought to be the toughest and most valuable feature of education for jobs and professions. It needs to be the toughest and most valuable part of learning to be an effective citizen. And it is certainly the toughest and most valuable part of a college education whose graduates habitually question their own comfortable beliefs and perceptions.

Perhaps the most important challenge to champions of higher education is to figure out more affordable ways of strengthening the heart of liberal learning.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

To love the beauty of an equation, what do you need to learn? (Some Observations about a Liberal Education, and Three Roles for Technology)

My last post, summarizing a talk by Michael Roth on the values of liberal education, was the first in a series that are part of my own redefined, re-energized sense of the goals of a college or university education. The post that follows was originally written in 2006.

In 1967, when I was first-year student in engineering, I took physics. To derive a mathematical equation to describe how a pendulum sways back and forth, the professor began with Newton's Laws. Then he write line of line of algebra, crawling down the blackboard, each line representing a step in the reasoning. The climax at the bottom of the board: a surprisingly short equation which, the professor told us, was called the Equation of Simple Harmonic Motion. T is the time it takes the pendulum to swing, L is the length of the pendulum, and g represents the strength of gravity. One implication: the time it takes a pendulum to swing doesn't depend on how hard you push it, just on how long the pendulum is.

The professor then pointed out that this equation doesn't just describe the swinging of a pendulum. The same equation, he said, also describes the vibration of a weight suspended between two springs. And it also describes the flow of electricity in a simple electrical circuit that consists of a battery and three elementary components (a resistor, a capacitor, and an inductance, as I recall) linked together with wire. Then the professor leaned forward over the lectern and asked passionately, "Isn't that beautiful?" I was in the second row and I wrote it all down, concluding my notes with the word 'beautiful,' just in case "beautiful" turned up on the next quiz.

Several months later I learned the same equation again, this time in a calculus course, and the lecturer said the same thing. And "beautiful!" I wrote once again in my notes. And I heard "beautiful" down a third time, two years later, in an introduction to electrical engineering.

Two years later, I had become a doctoral student in management at that same university. I shared an office with Lew Erwin, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. We had been undergraduates together and were good friends.

"So why did you leave engineering?" Lew asked me one day. I was already enough of a manager to answer a question with a question, so I retorted, "Why did you stay in engineering?"

He thought for a moment and then responded, "Well, take something like the Equation of Simple Harmonic Motion. It describes the motion of a pendulum, and a mass vibrating between two springs, and electricity flowing through a simple RLC circuit, and I think that's beautiful!" What happened to me at that moment has happened again every time I've told the story. And it's happening as I write these words. My eyes teared up, my jaw dropped, and I said in awe, "My god, it is beautiful."

Almost twenty years later, I was listening to a couple of physicists at the University of Maryland, Joe Redish and Jack Wilson, talk with one another. By this time I was a program officer with responsibilities to find and then support innovative work in higher education. I'm afraid my attention wandered after awhile as they talked with one another. One of them said something like, "Yahda yahda yahda equation of simple harmonic motion." And suddenly all of those things that happened in college came up back to me and for the first time I wondered, "Why was it that three excellent instructors worked so hard to teach me something, and failed completely, when a couple years later a simple remark did the trick?"

So I wrote a little paper for myself, comparing two quite different notions about why this might be so.
  1. Maybe I'd matured, in the way that William Perry once described college students maturing. Perry's research suggested that younger students tend to see the world in black and white terms, with the professors the sources of truth and knowledge. After a couple of years of development, they can conceive that there might be more than one truth but, at this point, they have only themselves as a point of reference. "Everyone has a right to his own opinion," is a comment that's a hall of this stage. Only later, often not until after graduation, can students use evidence and their own values to choose among several 'truths,' using evidence reason to take a stand and to act.
  2. Or perhaps I'd seen the beauty so easily because, by this time, I'd done research myself and had learned how hard it is to describing something complicated and real in a simple, useful way, and how much harder it is to come up with such a simple, useful conceptual description that would 'work' for three different situations that, on the surface, looked completely different. (By that argument, the way to help freshmen see the beauty is to make sure they do this kind of research when in high school).
I finished the paper unsure of which explanation was more persuasive. It seemed a good agenda for future research.

I sent a copy to Lew Erwin, by now a professor himself at our old university. Next time I saw him, I asked "So which of these two theories is right?"

"You're wrong," he laughed. "Both your theories are wrong. You learned about the beauty of the equation from me because it was me who told you. I'm your friend. That's certainly how I learned it. At nights sometimes, I would sit on the roof of our fraternity with my friend Phil Abbot, looking at the stars and talking about things like this."

Lew went on, "I've been teaching for a while now and I've figured out that a teacher may be able to teach what to think. But only a friend can teach you how to feel about it."

I think there's some truth in all three explanations. College does help some students develop through a very complex process of reorganizing the ways they understand the world. And research -- research that encourages students to develop explanations and then test those explanations -- can help. But Lew was right, too. Our relations and conversations with friends, often outside classrooms, can change how we feel about things

Lew died young. It was the most horrible of ironies: late one night, as he lay sleeping with his wife, his wonderful heart just stopped beating. I told this story about him, me, and the equation of simple harmonic motion at his memorial service. Ever since, I've told it to others, to let them know what Lew taught me. Please pass it on.

PS. Want to learn about the Equation of Simple Harmonic Motion? Here's one of many sources on the Web.

PPS. What does all this have to do with educational uses of technology?   We know that technology, whether that technology is a computer or a piece of chalk, doesn't cause learning.  However, technology can serve the cause of learning by enabling people to learn in ways that might otherwise be difficult or impossible. 

  1. So, if you believe the Perry explanation, technology can give students more choices in how to learn, choices that stretch but don't go beyond the student's stage of understanding. That's a strategy that Perry scholars have recommended.
  2.  If you think that research experience was the key, computers and the Internet have vastly widened the scope of meaningful research open to undergraduates and students in K-12 schools.
  3. And if you think that being with friends is key, consider how to use modern technology to increase the ways in which people can bump into one another, and commune. 
To repeat, none of these uses of technology would compel all students to learn the beauty of that equation. But aren't they three interesting ways to water the seeds we plant?