Engaging the Imaginations of Digital Learners: “Setting Student’s Minds on Fire”, Mark C. Carnes

Mark C. Carne, author of “Setting Student’s Minds on Fire” opens by addressing the national deficiency in higher education access.  Why are enrollment numbers so low in the United States? Carne claims that the reason isn’t insufficient funding alone. He goes on to emphasize that the true reason that more people don’t have degrees is lack of interest and motivation.

Right away, I have to take issue with these assertions.  In my social circles, everyone seems to understand that you eventually need to acquire a degree to access to the security of high-paying jobs. In truth, the most common obstacle I hear referenced by friends applying to grad school is finding adequate funding because they are already crippled with a mountain of student debt.  It seems to me throwing money at the issue, as President Obama suggests, would actually be a tremendous help in widening access to higher ed.

Carne states that today’s classroom environment is too boring, and face-to-face education may no longer be the most effective form of teaching. Are online courses actually the future of higher education? From my limited experience of learning calculus in the Math Emporium as a freshman at VT, I know that this mode of education does not work for everyone. The author suggests stepping away from lecturing to a passive audience, and focus more on delivering and active, learner-centered process. I’ve heard this argument a lot in this class, as well as in Dean Depauw’s Future Professoriate course I’m taking this semester. I have always been dubious of this perspective, since I prefer the traditional lecture structure and learn best by taking and reviewing notes. This article inspired me to ask a bunch of fellow grad students in my department their opinion on the lecturing structure we most commonly see at VT.  Surprisingly, the response was evenly split. Many students said that lecture halls promoted disinterest and a lack of motivation.  These same students said their learning styles didn’t compliment this teaching style, and they would benefit from a more active classroom environment.  However, just as many students said they prefer lecture environment we currently have and listed the same reasons I did. In fact, many of these same students said they disliked being forced to interact in group activities and preferred a more individual experience.

Discovering your authentic self: “Finding My Teaching Voice”, Sarah E. Deel

My first experience in a formal teaching environment was as a substitute teach for Loudoun County Public Schools.  I was a freshman at the time, and my teaching experience was limited to swimming lessons and babysitting. I had to eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge with the AP History teacher I had the year before. I had failed his class. It was awkward.  I struggled with maintaining authority in a classroom of students that were a year younger than me, students who were friends with my brother and were often at my parent’s house on weekends. I was nervous, soft spoken, generally a stumbling mess. Memories of these growing pains are visceral and embarrassing.  The sort of things you think about when you’re trying to fall asleep at night.  In the end though I wouldn’t change a thing.  In fact, I would not be the teacher I am today without them.  Learning from these obstacles shaped my teaching voice, and most importantly gave me confidence as an authority figure.

These experiences prepared me extremely well when it came time for me to teach my first college-level course Forest Entomology & Pest Management this semester. I had already experienced the struggles and doubts the author Sarah E. Deel described in her essay Finding My Teaching Voice. I was confident in presenting my true self in front of the class, and could relate to the students while still maintaining my power as an authority figure. This confidence allowed me to spend more time learning the material and planning how to effectively communicate the key concepts, instead of wasting brain power worrying about whether I have the capacity to  be an effective teacher.  I am extremely grateful for starting my career as an educator early in my life, even though I complained endlessly about the early morning commutes.

Deel provided a vivid description of her struggles as an inexperienced educator.  I appreciated the depth and honesty she applied to each account, and identified with many of the same insecurities. I found that many of the take-away lessons from her early teaching days were the same as my own. Needless to say this was an enjoyable read. Some of the obstacles I thoughts were especially important to note are listed below:

1.) How do you maintain a professional relationship with your students?

2.) What is the appropriate tone to use as an authority figure? How do I keep my tone in check in tough situations?

3.) How do I keep the students engaged and interested? How do I encourage them to think creatively?

4.) How do I preserve my authority as a female educator?

When learning how to be an effective teacher, Deel stated that the most important education she received came from the act of teaching. No one told what to do, or how to manage a large number of students in a fair and respectful manner. She too, did not find her teaching voice until she had experienced the difficulties that inevitably surface during those first years of teaching.   Some of the take away lessons that resonated with me are listed below:

1.)  It is important to maintain a mutual respect in your teacher/student relationship. Be mindful of your tone, take time to explain your evaluation methods and Teaching Philosophy.

2.) There is no one true teaching method.  Staying true to your unique style is most effective.  Be intentional about developing a toolbox of techniques and strategies.

3.) Acknowledge your student’s individuality. Students respond to different learning styles and have unique needs.

4.) Teaching is flexible, not static.

While I didn’t learn anything new in this article, Deel’s writing helped me organize my own techniques and strategies in the classroom.  This thought process helped me develop my Teaching Philosophy, which will be beneficial in my upcoming job search.

Cultivating Curiosity

The author W. Gardner Campbell seems to be critiquing the arcane strategies our education uses to “cut costs and increase access”.  He disparages “click-counts” and login tracking for being impersonal means for measuring student involvement and comprehension.  In a larger classroom environment, these can be efficient tools for preventing students from slipping under the radar.  In a 400 person class, sites like Scholar can be a great way to require interaction from students when it is impossible for teacher and student to meet individually on a routine basis.

This author seems to ironically take a close-minded approach when unpacking the traditional assessment of learning outcomes. It is easy to say that standardized testing leads to uncreative, robotic students. However, I would argue that the ‘depth and vision’ a particular student develops during their education largely depends on the character of the individual. It seems to me that education (especially higher education) should still be viewed as a privilege. It is therefor the student’s responsibility to provide quality input for a satisfactory educational outcome. Of course, we all have different learning styles. Of course, some students excel in humanities while others are better at math and science. We should acknowledge the agency of students who have made it to higher education, and understand that an engaged student has learned strategies to manage his/her academic shortcomings.

Furthermore, shouldn’t we be concerned with increasing access as educators? The socio-economic rift that is propagated by that cost of higher education is already criminal, and an issue many developed countries have long addressed. Too much of the population hasn’t had adequate preliminary education, or are too poor to even consider applying to college. Higher enrollment numbers should be celebrated, we should be focusing on how to best teach large classrooms of students for the intelligent, invested individuals as they are.  W. Gardner Campbell’s attitude seems too coddling, and doesn’t recognize today’s students as already curious and capable adults.

The trouble with autopilot: The separation between conscious and subconscious

In this segment, Shankar Vendantam, author of “The Hidden Brain” discusses the role the human subconscious plays in cultural stereotypes. Vendantam suggests that negative associations with certain races, genders and sexual preferences begin when we are very young.  Not surprisingly, this is thought to be a result of parenting or upbringing, not genetic predisposition.

Our subconscious makes snap judgements about our surroundings constantly. These decisions are based upon repetition, at our most basal learning level.  Because the subconscious is our “dumb” brain, repetition is associated with normativity, without the use of logic, empathy or reason. These instincts or reflexes are what keep us alive, but are also the root of cultural categorization.

The author acknowledges that it is human nature to make judgements about other people with different backgrounds, especially under high pressure. Because these judgements are often made subconsciously, people form unfair or uninformed biases without even knowing they’re doing so.

So how can we correct a behavior we aren’t even aware of?  Shankar Vendantam suggests speaking to children directly, while they are still early in their development. If we unpack common associations children have in relation to race, gender and sexual preference, we can understand why stereotypical categorizations are formed. If we better understand the associations of children’s learning, we can better shape these unconscious associations to mitigate prejudice in their lives.

We rely on our subconscious, we need it to stay alive.  We must still be mindful of giving it too much power. The author states the propagation of prejudice is like the autopilot function flying the plane without the pilot being aware of it.  I have great hope for this and future generations. In a decade, we have made greater strides towards universal equality than our predecessors made in the last century.  Therefor, it is our responsibility as conscious, deliberate, logical creatures to “take back the controls” from our hidden brain, and tackle damaging prejudices through direct conversation.


In Riley’s article “What’s wrong with evidence?”, she unpacks the origin and long-term effects of “evidence-based practice” in STEM education. The author begins by describing how the idea of “evidence” is problematic, specifically in engineering education. Riley first presents the semantic difficulty of separating evidence from opinions or beliefs, and questions the qualifications of those making these distinctions.

Riley argues the practicality of standardized education, and questions whether evidence-based education is truly learner-centered. Perhaps too often the curricula are designed around the desired outcomes in the classroom, and lose focus of useful and necessary skills. The author warns that such programs as “No Child Left Behind” are dangerous, and limit knowledge collaboration and production overall.  I also believe she wrote this with a thesaurus in her lap; her vocabulary is absurd.

Our friendly neighborhood TA, Homero, encouraged me to share my experiences with this topic. I cannot speak for engineering-related disciplines, as my focus is in Entomology.  However, for the duration of my collegiate career, it felt as though achieving the perfect “bell curve” was a much higher priority then our learning process. For example, I can’t remember a single compound structure from organic chemistry, and routinely received 70’s on my exams, but still left the class with an “A”. The professor would graph out the test average on the blackboard after each exam, and show us how he manipulated the grades to achieve the bell shape. In the end, he received good ratings for having a tidy class average, and I received the grade I desired, but did either of us truly benefit from the experience? I would argue the whole ordeal was a waste of time and money.

I feel that focusing strictly on the outcomes of the educational experience undercuts the importance of the student’s journey.  Discussion, communication and creative thinking aren’t encouraged… tenants that are the very backbone of scientific advancement. Like many, I don’t have any easy solutions to this issue. Facilitating such an environment is particularly hard in a larger classroom setting.  However, I feel present day higher education can’t see the forest for the trees.  Results and statistics are too highly valued, and the student’s experience as a whole is easily overlooked.

Anti-teaching vs. Traditional Teaching: Could students benefit from both?

Wesch begins his article by stating “Students are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.”  Gauged by involvement and engagement. Specifically, Wesch’s students complained about buying textbooks they never open, and feeling apathetic about assigned readings. These are certainly sentiments that are commonly expressed by students in higher education, I have often felt this way myself.

Wesch refers to this disconnect between students and educators as a “crisis of significance”. The “significance problem” addresses the feeling of displacement students face in the classroom.  Students are unsure of their “significance” or “purpose” in the grand narrative of their discipline. Today’s education system places emphasis on the memorization of facts and class ranking. It is easy to see why students would lose site of where they fit in the “big picture”, and stay motivated on a personal level, when they are often treated like cogs in a machine.

Successful classes I have taken encourage me to find an aspect of the class that I connect with and expand on that aspect.  I personally felt no ownership or attachment to the material I was taught in the 400 person gen-ed classes that were compulsory in undergrad. This was partially due to the subject matter, but also had a lot to do with the general feeling that I was nothing more than a number…a small fish in a very big school.  I could completely disappear and the major professor would have no idea.  I realize self-motivation on the level of higher education is largely the responsibility of the student. However, the teacher should make an effort to connect with the pupil on an individual basis, and make them think about what they originally wanted to gain from higher ed.

Unlike the author, I believe there is still a place for the lecture hall in higher education.  In undergrad and graduate courses, I never felt that I couldn’t question what was being taught to me by this “higher authority” and demand further clarification.  “Anti-teaching” seems like an aggressive approach to me, as myself and many students like me benefitted greatly from the traditional educational setting.  While some students would benefit from a more intimate experience in a smaller classroom setting, this is not a reality for most in larger land-grant universities and technological schools.  I don’t think one form of education is better than the other, but a diversity of approaches would benefit the diversity of learning styles represented by students today.

The role of Blogging and Twitter in Academic Research and the Broader Scientific Community

In his article, Tim Hitchcock discusses the importance of twitter and blogging in today’s academic research setting.  Hitchcock claims these platforms act to facilitate academic collaboration, teaching and public engagement. Furthermore, the content or “output” that is generated on these platforms can be a very powerful tool with the right audience.

Hitchcock hits on an important point early in the article, concerning the value of the “broader social discourse”. The idea of universal discussion resonates greatly with me, as I have always held a strong belief in the importance of citizen science. As educators and as professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure our area of expertise can be easily understood by the layperson. What is the point of our research if only a few key experts can understand the broader implications?

Hitchcock believes there is a lack of academic collaboration and communication on the universal scale, and academic professionals are “loosing our place in the broader social dialog”. Hitchcock offers such social media platforms as twitter and blogging as a potential solution to this problem. He explains publishing your research in a universally accessible setting can reach a much larger community of like-minded individuals. This larger audience can propagate the sharing of ideas, and build on our global knowledge base.

Indeed, the translation of complex ideas into bite-size social media excerpts has the potential to be problematic. However, I believe the benefits of facilitating public conversation in the scientific arena means we must persevere to adapt to these novel technological platforms.