There are a number of major teaching and learning challenges with a small seminar course that is multi/interdisciplinary, discussion/activity-based, centered on ongoing controversy, and investigative in nature. Over the last 30 years, I have devised a large set of pedagogical practices that I deploy in this course.
The most salient aspects of the seminar format and pedagogy are broken into these thematic areas:
- Investigative Controversy
- Role of Concept Mapping
- Interdisciplinary Arc: From Investigative Description to Critical Issues to Comparative Analysis
- Science of Complex Systems
- Design and Capture of Classroom Activities
- Supporting Sophisticated Student Questions
- Support for Writing with Feedback and Revision
- Role of Student Choice
- Managing a Multi-Day Field Trip
Investigative Controversy. Copper and diamond mining have been around for a long time. Yet, the idea for this course is to situate student learning in the messy controversies of today. Selecting a book for each of the copper and diamond mining portions of the course is relatively easy – and the book can vary year to year. The hard part is staying on top of the latest news around the world and in northern Minnesota.
The overall purpose of teaching around a timely controversy is to begin to provide students with a roadmap and tools for dealing with real-world problems that are complex, interdisciplinary, ill-structured and controversial. The goal here is not to get “an answer” about whether to build a copper mine or not, but rather to swim smartly in the problem for a term. The goal is to develop practice with tools for inquiry, argument and analysis that are generalizable.
For the instructor, this requires an openness to move with the current events, the interest of the students and what emerges as the seminar develops. It also requires one to view the instructor role as “head investigator” – expert in some, but not most areas of inquiry. The instructor stance is often best captured by thinking about what the next layer of inquiry should look like, and then designing class activities and assignments to take students there. Teaching is a live and creative project that is emergent on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis. This kind of learning mirrors what occurs with groups of citizens working on a local community problem or a group of colleagues working on a professional problem. It is messy, rich, creative and nonlinear, tugs on multiple perspectives, and can be unpredictable. It is smart for the instructor to articulate the goals for this type of learning and how it proceeds directly to the students. Many colleges courses have a simpler and better-defined structure, so setting expectations early is critical.
Role of Concept Mapping. For younger college students especially, visual mapping helps articulate and connect an array of interconnected ideas common to complex problems and systems. As one of the habitual seminar activities, skills are built up over time. Concept maps, or network maps, are great descriptive and analytical tools for interdisciplinary learning. They can be used to first digest the daily reading, and then in stepping back to probe questions, patterns and processes. I thought carefully about when and how I used this tool to advance our learning and inquiry.
Interdisciplinary Arc: From Investigative Description to Critical Issues to Comparative Analysis. I have devised an intellectual arc through the inquiry that is naturalistic. It begins with an “immersive learning” phase coupled with descriptive writing assignments.
Once a great deal of learning has been done, students can begin to gently synthesize – identifying “critical issues” that are the most salient to the problem at hand. After moving through these two phases of learning for both copper and diamond mining, students develop the ability to compare. Class discussions start to naturally include comparison. I talk with students explicitly about this arc, its natural flow, and the importance of stepping back periodically to synthesize the critical issues or locate themes for comparison. In other words, we aim to go well beyond the texts as we focus our inquiry.
Science of Complex Systems. Threaded over the term, I help students understand and apply a number of concepts for complex systems which apply directly to the mining problems we consider – and the linked human and natural systems involved. We start with a class activity using the classic “Tip-It” game which students play for 30 minutes, taking notes on their keen observations about the behavior of this system.
Though this system is one of the simplest complex systems (with two pivot points, like a coupled pendulum), it displays many of the essential behavioral features of complex systems. The class Wiki, a compilation of all the student observations from this activity, is included as a resource.
The major concepts explored include: thresholds and tipping points, feedbacks (positive and negative), interdependent interactions, networks, resilience, stabilizing forces in persistent cycles, sensitive dependence on initial conditions, short vs. long-term risks, system “noise,” hysteresis (one-way processes), and inherent uncertainty.
After we play the “Tip-It” game, I encourage students to identity these concepts in action and application over the rest of the course. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it is quite difficult. I help facilitate the connection of concept to example in class discussions. Eventually, many of these ideas pervade class discussion and student writing.
Design and Capture of Classroom Activities. As an instructor, living this course in real time is challenging but highly stimulating. It feels like inquiry to everyone. To prepare for class, I first do the assigned reading and take notes, synthesize several themes, and attempt to pose draft discussion questions or themes. Then I step back and ask “where have we been, where are we going, what kind of inquiry are we doing now, and how can I support it?”
I often then ditch or modify my first draft of discussion questions and quickly invent a class activity that gets students to work in teams on various aspects of a multifaceted approach to the reading themes. This forms the basis of that day’s class activity. When I feel highly creative and as we move more deeply through the course, I think about how I can nudge students to synthesize their class reports from the small team activities to a larger more holistic understanding. I often finish each class with a five- to 20-minute “debrief” period.
As students work and I lead the debriefing section, all of our work is captured on the board (students draw/write there often, as I do) with a smartphone or in shared Google docs created by student teams or the instructor. At particular times, we return to these docs and images – and use them to advance our investigation or for a writing assignment.
Supporting Sophisticated Student Questions. Questions and inquiry filled everything that we did. I used several regular methods to help students practice their ability to pose more fruitful, sophisticated, detailed and integrative questions. Student had to pose four to six questions in each daily prep sheet. Early on, I provided students with Bloom’s Taxonomy as a general way to think about knowledge and how it advances. I use this scheme to classify their questions, urging them to move beyond description to analysis and synthesis as the term unfolds. I also use this classification scheme and its terminology as I give feedback on daily prep sheets and on questions that emerge over the rest of the term.
The creation of the question list for the Ely field trip involves question posing by individual students, followed by the categorizing, grouping and honing of this big pile of questions to a much smaller list we could use in real discussion with people in Ely. This refinement process is done by a student team and in class. The multi-stage activity of posing and honing these questions is also good intellectual preparation and review of what we have learned prior to Ely.
Finally, as we attempt to identify “critical issues,” we are typically trying to articulate the big unresolved questions. Thus, work on “critical issues” helps us find the most compelling and contentious questions in a debate.
Support for Writing with Feedback and Revision. I operate in two feedback modes with student writing. First, I read their work and provide holistic and customized feedback on a range of issues from organization to clarity to voice to integrity of content…and much more. I read their work and respond as an experienced editor of writing. See the Assessment Section below for more on how I did this.
I have a special list of goals for feedback for the daily prep sheets (see above). For formal writing, I provide a more structured frame for feedback on clarity, organization, flow, grammar/punctuation, quality of thesis statement, quality of evidence base, good use of visuals, and proper use and citing of sources. For example, I have attached as a resource a rubric that I have students use in their own peer review of each other’s descriptive writing on copper.
Because this was a first-year seminar with a focus on adjusting to college writing expectations, I also make an attempt to deal one-on-one with students on writing. Most of my students write pretty well; providing feedback is not difficult and they respond well to that feedback. However, three to four students have faced major challenges with their writing. I meet with them, offer to articulate and prioritize their challenges, and then we make a plan to address them. They then use the college writing center, personalized and more regular feedback with me, and working appointments with me.
This course also involves revision of nearly every writing assignment. Sometimes I provide feedback in Google docs on an entire piece of writing. Other times, I ask them to submit only a thesis statement for a developing paper plus the list of evidence they intend to use to support that statement. This vetting of thesis statements and evidence turns out to be critical – most students have little idea about how to craft a good thesis statement and gather high-quality evidence (without cherry picking or bias) in its support. I do this kind of targeted feedback on the copper “critical issues” paper and on the final comparative paper.
The Role of Student Choice. Throughout all of this, I attempt to provide multiple points where students can make a choice – about a subtheme in early descriptive writing, a critical issue for their writing, or a comparative theme for the final paper. This allows students to work from a place of interest and passion. Some students choose to move around themes during the seminar, creating an experience of breadth over the mining issues. Others choose to specialize in a self-defined and recurrent theme, allowing for deeper development in that particular area. I find that the level of engagement and quality of student work is higher if I provide these kinds of choices.
For this type of collective team inquiry, student choice also sends the message that “it takes a village to manage a complex problem,” and everyone has a role to play. Some students choose to chase science; others focus on environmental justice issues, rhetorical arguments, international politics, or US government regulatory structures and agencies.
Over time, most students take on a persona that we all recognize and appreciate due to their course work on a special interest. This is a wonderful way to build effective teams over time. It is also a way to value the diversity of student experience and interest in a seminar of students who come from very different backgrounds and may eventually declare over a dozen different college majors. It also serves to support inquiry on a complex problem that requires the taking of multiple perspectives plus some degree of specialization.
Managing a Multi-Day Field Trip. The logistics for setting up this trip are quite time-consuming. My advice is to start nine months ahead, expect surprises and cancellations, and plan for how you will be flexible if surprises occur.
I’ve had to raise trip funds, organize lodging for three nights, find transportation, plan and buy trip food (grocery shopping, cooking before departure and at lodge, some reservations for eating out), hire two student trip TAs and define their duties, coordinate with all parties on our itinerary, and do paperwork related to college liability, trip policies and more. The three-day trip costs about $5,000 for 19 people. I lead the trip with two trip TAs.
I also bring along my partner to help with various tasks and when I get tired; this way I can sustain my energy for leading the trip and spontaneous teaching. The funding has come from three sources: $1,100 from our Center for Community & Civic Engagement and (CCCE) for transportation costs, $2,200 from our Environmental Studies program, and the balance from the Dean of the College Office. Our trip itinerary is included as a resource. I would be happy to provide those considering a trip like this with more planning information. As I did, you can learn much and get sample forms from others at your college who have done a trip like this.