Iowa colleges bending boundaries to reach students
Flipping the classroom script
IOWA CITY — With a setting sun shooting rays through ominous clouds while chickens scurried across the lawn on a picturesque homestead west of town, 30 University of Iowa honors students scooted up to a long table and broke bread.
Class was in session.
Before diving into barbecue pork and roasted chicken, plucked from the yard near where they sat, the students huddled for a presentation from Cedar Rapids native Kathy Eldon. Educator, journalist and film producer, Eldon in 1997 launched a global support organization for “creative activists” after her son was stoned to death in 1993 while on assignment for Reuters News Agency in Somalia.
She’s making a film about Dan Eldon because, she told the students during a their class earlier this month, “I wanted to ignite the movement of young people and the young at heart to believe they had a role to play in changing the world around them.”
“And what’s happening in this class is indicative of the power of that movement,” she said.
What’s happening in the class is an experiment, according to its leader — David Gould, lecturer and associate director for student development in the UI College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. And it’s one of many underway across the nation in which professors and instructors are challenging the collegiate status quo by upending classroom norms in hopes of breaking through to students.
“I have spent my entire adult life on a college campus and recognize it as sacred ground,” Gould wrote in the syllabus for the class called The Green Room. “But I have also come to the conclusion that our institutions of higher education are increasingly asking the wrong questions.”
Most colleges and universities work to prepare students for specific careers — although fewer than 20 percent a decade later end up in jobs related to their majors, according to Gould.
The Green Room, he said, aims to help students prototype meaningful lives by identifying questions they should be asking and designing a classroom experience to support their quests.
“The Green Room is a new University of Iowa course — an experiment of sorts — that hopes to explore not only these questions, but also what higher education in the 21st century could look like,” the syllabus says.
The class, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Wednesdays, is structured around the notion of building community and fostering lively and enriched discussion by breaking bread together.
It convenes in the Adler Journalism and Mass Communication Building some weeks and off campus — like at the Walker Homestead west of Iowa City earlier this month — on other weeks.
Students often bring their own dinner or, occasionally, a potluck dish to share with others.
“If I were to ask you your favorite meal, my guess is that it wasn’t alone. My guess is that it was with somebody very special that you had this conversation and moment with,” said Gould, who has tried classroom experiments before.
“I call them experiments because, by the nature of experiment, that means that anything is possible,” he said. “It’s an interesting idea and if it works, then I think this is where magic happens. If it doesn’t, then it was an experiment and we learn from it.”
But this Green Room experiment seems to be working, considering the classroom was packed not just with students but with friends and guests, including UI President Bruce Harreld.
“I thought it was fascinating,” Harreld said after the class, which included a presentation from local magician Nate Staniforth, host of “Breaking Magic” on the Discovery Channel.
Harreld said he leaves teaching to the faculty.
But, he said, “If you try to over-teach, you end up not being very engaging. This is quite engaging.”
'We have to make adjustments'
Other methods of stretching the collegiate norm include “flipping the classroom,” where students are exposed to new material outside of class and then use their class time to “do the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, perhaps through problem-solving, discussion, or debates,” according to Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching.
Brian Lukoff, a statistics instructor at the University of Texas-Austin, said he uses a quasi-flipped-classroom model by having students read material and submit questions before class so he can use his time with them to cover issues that confused them.
The model, he said, allows time for in-class work and peer instruction, in which students who understand a concept help those who don’t yet get it.
Doing so is crucial, Lukoff said, referencing a 2010 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study showing student minds can be as inactive during a lecture as they are while watching TV.“The traditional model was to come to class, listen for an hour and then go home and write a paper or do some other homework,” he said, noting that after-class is when the real learning occurs. “Increasingly, there are efforts to bring that actual learning back into the classroom.”
Other course styles involve field trips, community engagement or even fantasy.
One Iowa State University course, “The parable of prophecy: understanding today’s issues by examining the past,” has students create a “survival guide for any potential realizations of science fiction’s prophecy, i.e. zombie apocalypse.”
“I am basing my objective of the class on how to view science fiction and (writer) Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ and address some of the real-world environmental changes we are seeing now that potentially could come to be,” said course instructor Brenda Tyrrell.
The students, through the class, are plopped in a post-apocalyptic society challenged by lack of water, among other things. Aligning with Butler’s theme of community, Tyrrell’s class will hold a pseudo-town hall meeting to determine each student’s role in rebuilding.
Tyrrell said she’s not the only one in her department engaging students through unusual teaching models. Everyone is looking for new ways to make a difference — to get through.
“We have to make adjustments to keep students interested,” Tyrrell said. “To keep them learning.”
'I want you to inspire us'
As UI students settled into their desks in the Adler Building for last week’s installment of The Green Room — diving into sushi, spooning soup or sipping coffee — some wore costumes. One woman rode her bike there in a skeleton bodysuit. Another wore a cape and wizard’s hat.
The idea was to embrace childlike wonder, setting the atmosphere for tricks magician Staniforth would dole out.
“Stand up,” Staniforth said, asking everyone to move in. “The problem with magic is that unless you get the context just right, it’s not entertaining. It’s just terrifying.”
Still, as Staniforth made rubber bands defy physical boundaries and cards seemingly evaporate, students seemed — if not a little scared — astounded.
“What are you?” one girl exclaimed. “What is happening? You’re a literal wizard.”
But the conversation quickly jumped from magic to passion to hard work to support systems and motivation.
“Here 30 of us sit, kind of teetering between dependence and adulthood, enlightened exploration and this kind of dull reality, with — whether or not we admit it or they admit it — our professors and fellow students being the greatest influences on us,” UI honors student Laura Schwager said to Staniforth. “I want you to inspire us by revisiting a moment that you stopped and considered, ‘Am I really pursuing this in my life?’”
Gould said that type of conversation should be central to learning.
“I believe our students want to be engaged,” he said. “I think they want to be inspired, I think they want to get their hands dirty.”
The Green Room, Gould said, is kind of “making it up as we go” by allowing students in some way to shape the projects and discussion.
“But I do believe that’s what they want,” he said. “And I believe that’s the future of what education should be.”