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What I think of group projects

I’ve always reserved a special place in my heart for group projects. It’s the same place that I reserve for pickles, cats, people who talk on their cell phone in quiet places, laptops with no battery life, small talk, and anything that needs to be described as “avant-garde.”

It’s a dark place.

Why is that? According to many educational experts, group projects are excellent teaching tools that help students learn in community and develop the skills they’ll need in the “real” world. According to most students, group projects are special form of hell created by sadistic professors who probably also pluck the wings off butterflies in their spare time.

Obviously there’s a disconnect somewhere.

What’s the problem? Working together and learning in community sounds great. But, in my experience, group projects look better on paper than they work in reality.

So, help me out here. What has your experience been? Have your group project experiences been like mine, or have you been a part of a few that actually worked well and were good learning experiences? If so, What makes for a good group project? (I can’t believe I just used the words “good,” “group,” and “project” in the same sentence. That has to violate some fundamental rule of English grammar.) Why did it work and what made it different from other, less effective, group projects?

I’m always trying to be careful not to allow my personality and preferences to limit my teaching techniques. Everyone should learn just like me. But, sadly, they don’t. So, I should be open to the possibility that some students might benefit from a teaching tool or methodology that has never held much value for me personally. If group projects have been good learning experiences for you, let me know. I may need to reconsider my long-standing resistance to such assignments.

Should we read less in seminary?

Jon Bloom posted a quote from John Piper today, which argued that seminaries produce bad, superficial readers because we’re simply requiring too much reading. Here’s the quote from Piper’s book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

I [do not] want to give the impression that I think there is virtue in reading many books. In fact one of my greatest complaints in seminary was that professors trained students in bad habits of superficial reading because they assigned too many books. I agree with Spurgeon: “A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed, lapping at them.” God save us from the allurement of “keeping up with Pastor Jones” by superficial skimming. Forget about “keeping up.” It only feeds pride and breeds spiritual barrenness. Instead devote yourself to boring in and going deep. There is so much soul-refreshing, heart-deepening, mind-enlarging truth to be had from great books!

What do you think? Do you think that the amount of reading required in Bible schools and seminaries detracts from or contributes to quality learning?

I have been so helped by John Piper’s recommendation in his book, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals:

Testing your techno depravity

The New York Times post an article yesterday, “Your Brain on Computers,”  summarizing the debate about whether our constant use of technology is affecting in mostly positive or negative ways. I commented on this a while back, suggesting that anyone involved in any kind of education/formation needed to be keeping an eye on this discussion. So, if you’re looking for a primer on the debate, this should be helpful.

Although the article is well written and worth reading, I mostly wanted to point out that the article also links to a couple of games designed to test how much you have already been twisted and corrupted by the neurological affects of technological overexposure. (Technically, they just test how much of a multitasker you are; but I like my version better.) One game tests your ability to concentrate  in the face of distractions, and another your ability to switch between tasks quickly. According to both tests, my current level of techno depravity is actually rather low (i.e. I don’t distract easily and I switch easily between tasks). Apparently I still spend too much time doing old school things like reading books and talking to people.

Wired for distraction?

Nicholas Carr recent wrote a piece for Wired Magazine on the way that the internet is literally rewiring our brains. The article reports on a 2007 study demonstrating that browsing the internet for as little as five hours actually causes significant changes in the brain’s neural pathways. Given that our brains are constantly adjusting to sensory input, this really isn’t surprising. As Carr points out,

The real revelation was how quickly and extensively Internet use reroutes people’s neural pathways. “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate,” Small concluded, “but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”

So, Carr rightly notes that the real question is, “What kind of brain is the web giving us?” And, he thinks that the answer might be a little troubling.

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

The rest of the article goes on to point out concerns raised in several studies about the quality of learning in an internet environment – particularly the impact that hyperlinks have on reading comprehension.

Of course, this isn’t a new discussion. In a now famous Atlantic Monthly article, Carr asked the question “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” Others have sounded a similarly negative tone, warning us about the cognitive dangers of constant web browsing (see esp. Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation). But, many disagree. Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital is a great resource for arguments suggesting that the rewiring of the modern brain is actually increasing our cognitive abilities in some very important ways. And Curtis Bonk’s The World Is Open argues that web technology can and should revolutionize the way that we teach. So, like most debates, there are voices on both sides. And, it probably isn’t an either/or. I’m sure our changing cognitive context affects us both positively and negatively.

I’m highlighting all of this because most of the people who read this blog are either already involved in teaching  (whether in a church or a classroom) or hope to in the future. If that’s the case, this is a debate you definitely need to be following. Most experts are now convinced that the way people learn is changing, regardless of whether they agree about whether this is good or bad. The question, then, is how (or whether) this should affect the way that we teach. Many schools have taken the posture that the changes may be negative, but they’re inevitable. So, we should alter our teaching to be as effective as possible in the new environment. Other schools are resisting the changes entirely, arguing that one of the tasks of any educational institution is to resist developments that negatively impact people’s ability to learn. And, of course, some schools just think this is all great, and they’re excited to embrace the new opportunities.

I have not come to any easy conclusions on this issue yet. You can probably tell from this blog that I like the internet. I think it’s a tremendous resource. And I think it has great potential to facilitate learning. But, I’m also aware that it can change the way that people read and think in potentially negative ways. I’ve even seen this in myself. I notice that the more time I spend online, the more inclined I am to skim articles and draw conclusions very quickly. Indeed, I find that after an extended period online, it’s difficult for me to really dig into a challenging book. It takes awhile for my brain to switch gears and become effective in this different cognitive environment. And, apparently I’m not alone. The challenge for anyone teaching today, then, is how to tap into the strengths of the internet while avoiding or minimizing its learning pitfalls.

So, no easy answers here. The debate continues. I just wanted to make sure that you were paying attention to it.