“I spent a whole year learning about all the different kinds of clouds. I still refer to them as ‘puffy clouds’, ‘rain clouds’, ‘snow clouds’, ‘hazy clouds’. If I was some master of knowledge or learning like the school system tells me I am, wouldn’t I remember these things?”
~ Miranda Dean, undergraduate student, “What an Open Pedagogy Course Taught Me About Myself”
In “A Call for Critical Instructional Design”, Sean Michael Morris explains why he doesn’t use traditional rubrics or learning objectives when he teaches. He argues that “participation is an individual choice”; “learner contributions are meaningful content in the course”; and “there are no ‘right’ answers to the questions I’m bound to ask.” Many who teach in the ‘hard’ or ‘natural’ sciences might say: “That is just great for those of you who teach in the humanities, but you can’t do that in a STEM class!” While I consider the work that I’ve been doing with my biology courses a pilot study on a pathway towards more deeply engaged experiments, my experiences using open pedagogy strategies suggests that yes, yes you can.
When I was a biology undergraduate years ago, nearly all of my science classes were in large lecture halls. Content was delivered by lecturers, and students spit back answers on multiple choice exams primarily graded by Scantron. We’ve come a long way since then, with many science teachers incorporating more active learning in their courses, developing powerful case studies (check out the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science), and using jigsaw strategy, discussion groups, peer review, open-ended research projects, co-ops, service-learning, and more.
But these active learning strategies, while adding a great deal to the teaching of science, can often still fall short of what I consider to be the most salient and powerful features of open pedagogy. Inspired by the ideas of Robin DeRosa (see “Open Pedagogy at the Program Level: The #PlymouthIDS case study” and Open Pedagogy Notebook), for me, this includes 1) student agency, and 2) a commons-oriented approach to education — both of which encapsulate the ideals of equity, access, connection, and sharing. When we blend the best of what we have learned from those who have labored to transform education with ideas integral to feminist pedagogy, engaged pedagogy, constructivist pedagogy, and critical digital pedagogy, and then embed them in a larger commons paradigm, open pedagogy emerges.
Student agency is ultimately about how we share power in our classrooms and work collaboratively with students. It has historical feminist roots from Adrienne Rich’s plea for women students to claim their own education to bell hooks questioning the power and authority in the teacher/student relationship where she asserts that the classroom should be “a place that is life-sustaining and mind-expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership” (Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope). And viewing pedagogy through the lens of the commons (the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society) situates student agency in the praxis of equitable and inclusive access to learning, learning structure design, knowledge, sharing knowledge, creating knowledge and community participation (see diagram). The open license and the 5R permissions provide a tangible way for the knowledge commons to be manifested and for us to participate in its ongoing construction.
But what does this all mean on the ground? Can giving more power and control over to students really be effective for teaching in the natural sciences? Can students create scientific knowledge? How does sharing do anything for student learning?
Agency and Course Content
I often hear a version of the following objection to giving content control to students: “But… there are right answers, many of them — these are called facts. And many scientific facts simply need to be memorized.” Of course there are many known facts, and especially in this brave new world where the phrase “alternative facts” is used regularly and dangerously, it is important to acknowledge that. And some questions do have right answers (although Sean probably isn’t bound to ask simple scientific questions). But many scientific questions don’t have right answers, or at least don’t have them yet. So while facts are very important, the ways that we have come to know them as facts are even more important for students to learn, which is why we emphasize the steps of the ‘scientific method’ and teach that scientific knowledge is produced through observation, analysis, and experimentation. We also end up committing many facts to memory. But which facts need to be memorized? And which processes of memorization should we use? The premise that there are important facts to learn, does not automatically imply that one should rely on a stack of flash cards (whether paper or digital). In my experiences teaching biology, stimulating student interest and motivation have been far more effective than rote memorization. I think this gets to the heart of student agency in the ethos of open pedagogy. Thanks to Bryan Alexander’s interview of Gardner Campbell, the primary learning outcome I have for my students is to increase their depth and breadth of interest.
Now ask me about the one connecting factor between murder, violence, and loneliness. It’s dopamine. Come back in ten years and ask me again and I’ll still know the answer. Why? because it’s not information that was dumped on me. It’s not information that I was forced to regurgitate. It’s information that I voluntarily sought out and connect with my personal interests.
~ Miranda Dean, undergraduate student, In ‘What an Open Pedagogy Course Taught Me About Myself’
“But… students in STEM courses can’t just choose what they want to learn, there is important content to cover that can’t be missed.” So much has already been written that challenges the idea of ‘content as king’ in teaching and learning. For example, in “Through the Open Door: Open Courses as Research, Learning, and Engagement,” David Cormier and George Siemens argue that “the true benefit of the academy is the interaction, the access to the debate, to the negotiation of knowledge — not to the stale cataloging of content.” But it’s not usually instructors of STEM courses that challenge the importance of content. The position for content as king in STEM often comes down to the argument that there is an appropriate order in which material must be learned. The way that concepts incrementally build on one another is the reason why instructors must control the order in which they are presented, usually in a step-by-step method that builds from simple to complex ideas. You can’t understand a complex molecule if you don’t even know what an atom is, the argument goes.
So it’s really ‘foundational content as king’. “But… there are basic foundational ideas and terms that need to be understood first, without those basics and scaffolding the concepts, students will be lost.” This objection brings to mind a non-scientist friend of mine who had spent months and months researching information about her illness and said to me, “Have you heard of these things called oxidation-reduction reactions? Fascinating how they work!” My friend’s enthusiasm and passion intrigued me. Anyone who teaches basic chemistry and has experience with saying something like, “OK class, today we are going to cover oxidation-reduction reactions” can say that, in most cases, glazed over eyes are more likely than fascination as your equations and electrons begin filling the board.
Is it really true that memorizing all the basics must come before tackling more complex questions, such as “What is the nature of a cancerous cell?” Does one need to learn all of the details of atomic structure, bonding, molecules, chemical properties, macromolecules like DNA, RNA, protein structure and function, cell structure and function, DNA replication, transcription, translation, cell cycle, etc., in (or close to) that order? Ask someone who has been diagnosed with cancer (or is close to someone who has) what they know of these foundational topics. The answer might surprise you. You can research quite a bit, starting at the end and working your way back down, or in the middle and jumping around. What is that? How does that work? Yeah, but what does that mean? Yeah, but what does THAT mean? It is all driven by interest, motivation, a passion to learn or even a burning necessity to learn. Our primary role as teacher can be simply to create the best culture chambers for students to flourish. They will find the content. Examples from my tropical-marine biology course are students who chose to learn about the Effects of Plastic on Marine Life and Ocean Acidification. These led to a need to understand ocean gyres, the corioliseffect, amplification of chemicals via food chains, the chemistry of ocean carbonic acid formation from atmospheric carbon dioxide, and more. My instruction: explore some environmental threats to coral reefs.
Agency and Course Design
“But… science students can’t design courses; they need to be provided with a clear syllabus, assignments and a grading structure from experts who know best.” Recently, when reading my students’ final self-assessments, I was struck by the different ways in which each student approached the course. The more nebulous I was about my expectations, the more they had to work to find their own way. They had to figure out how much time to put into the labs, which labs to work on more deeply, how many blog posts to write, whether to cover a broad range of groups or focus on a few, how to structure their websites, and so on. Essentially, what they were grappling with was determining the pieces that were motivating enough for them to spend their precious time.
A student taking a journey into discovery, who is encouraged to pursue their own interests and take any pathway using any tools, assignments, practices, and policies that they want, may end up stumped or confused — but also intrigued. The desire to know more is the genesis of learning. And a wonderful synergy happens as a student figures out both what they are trying to learn and how they learn best. As instructor, knowing just when to strategically intervene is challenging, but letting go of control can have powerful effects on student learning. Students will only be frustrated by “not knowing what you want” as long as you take the fear of grades away and communicate as clearly as you can that what you most want as a teacher is for them to find their own way to uncover their passions. When we stop judging students they stop judging and censoring themselves. They begin to actually learn. Even in a STEM class.
As open pedagogy instructors in science classes, we can ignite the spark for the search that leads to foundations, and facilitate (not direct) the process along the way. Then students make their own connections and find the social contexts in which science needs to be understood. When my tropical-marine biology class arrived to our field trip destination, they stated: “We are not drinking water from disposable plastic bottles.” The whole class felt united in this, not just the one student who wrote the post about ocean plastic, because they were reading, sharing and talking about their openly licensed work. This is where writing in the open, sharing ideas, connecting to others (including professionals in social media spaces like Twitter), and deciding what you want to pursue next results in real and significant learning, and continues beyond the course itself. At the time of this writing, one year after the course ended, these students are still tweeting about marine biology and issues in ocean conservation.
Open Licenses, Sharing, Connection and Open Science
“But… students can’t create scientific content, they aren’t yet capable.” Scientific practice and undergraduate pedagogy would suggest otherwise. For science educators have led the way in facilitating student contribution to academic content via the incorporation of undergraduates into faculty research programs. Even including first and second year students in the PI research lab has been the norm for decades. While for some this has meant more peripheral participation such as data collection only, others have had their students participate in all stages of research — from hypothesis formation, experimental design, data analysis and scientific writing. Outside of the PI lab, many students complete self-designed research projects. Such projects don’t usually result in original data or publishable findings; but the remixing and recombining of materials in posts or articles that summarize, synthesize, and shape information so that the work is more accessible and relevant to other students is its own kind of originality. And sometimes, just the fact that another student wrote it makes it more enticing or interesting to them and sparks ideas and confidence for new investigations. As students share their experimental designs, data and analyses with an open license, they contribute to the open science commons and can benefit from constructive criticism and feedback from a much broader audience than their instructor and peers.
Undergraduate scientific research conferences and journals have been around for decades, and students have been contributing valuable content. But only a few privileged students are able to attend conferences or get their work published in conventional journals. We can increase the value and reach of student work by teaching students how to engage in the global learning networks of scientists who are using open platforms and social media in academic and effective ways. If we model ways for students to be transparent about all of the stages of the research process — encouraging them to publicly post and openly license their methodology and data long before it is polished into a final paper, they can receive broad and sometimes expert feedback on their work. Our role should be to indoctrinate students into those processes that emphasize collaboration and communication, and how to work as an authentic scientific community.
The growing Open Science movement, and what I am calling the Pedagogy of Open Science, has the potential to revolutionize both the teaching of science and scientific practice itself. The open science and open data communities envision a future where, according to the Center for Open Science, “the process, content, and outcomes of research are openly accessible by default.” When every step of the scientific process is transparent, all students can have greater capacity to distinguish “alternative facts” or “fake news” from actual scientific knowledge. As science undergraduate educators, we need to teach and model these values and practices to our students now — before they are in graduate school, before they have lab or corporate jobs, before they are publishing their work, before they are writing grants, before they are worrying about promotion and tenure guidelines and before they are shaping those guidelines for the future.
Agency, curiosity, questioning, creativity, design, experimentation, collaboration, contribution, connection, communication and discovery: These activities are embedded in the processes of both scientific investigation and open pedagogy. Not only can you “do that” in science courses, but the assertion that one ‘learns science by doing science’ (an idea widely championed in the science educator community) is manifested by adopting open pedagogical practices in STEM.
I am greatly indebted to Mark Long, Jenny Darrow, and Robin DeRosa for their comments and suggestions on several earlier drafts of this article.