Summer Conference Recap: Zen of Teaching

By Victoria Estrada

Introductions—Antonio Vantaggiato, an Italian-Puerto Rican, teaches computer science at La Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and he is 80+ pages into his first book. Among the 12 session attendees were a number of teachers and instructors from an array of disciplines including graphic design, the fine arts, instructional technology and business.

Presentation—Vantaggiato’s entire slide show focuses on solving the problems that arise with traditional thinking about pedagogy wherein the teacher, as the content holder, “delivers” knowledge (as if it were a pizza) while the student sits passively on the receiving end of the transmission. This standing educational framework clashes has come to blows with technology and the web, tools that offer almost limitless possibilities for creativity and inquiry. Moreover, the traditional means by which students are assessed does not truly represent their understanding of the material.  Vantaggiato maintains that standardized testing has nothing to do with what students have learned, but of what they have memorized from their teachers. In other words, the ability to think critically is trumped by the demands of a content-driven curriculum, which leaves little wiggle room for students to develop the skills to ask questions and solve problems.

Exchange—Even though Vantaggiato has originally accounted for every minute, his session quickly took a life of its own when the participants dove head first into an animated discussion that seemed to anticipate Vantaggiato’s insights about the confrontation between education and technology.

How do schools confront tech-obsessed students? Attendee Clarita Fajutag, an art teacher working with high school students in south Texas, noted that her ISD took measures to block students from using certain websites while at school, namely Facebook, though students always find a way around it. Yet this blanket of prohibition denies an opportunity for integration; a session participant who teaches art at Drake college mentioned that her students have used Facebook productively, as a format for sharing ideas and comments about academic topics. It would, however, be difficult to maintain personal and professional boundaries if a teacher chooses to utilize a social networking site as an academic forum Fajutag commented. Vantaggiato, an unyielding supporter of integrating technology, said that Facebook is fair game for an educator but that “we have to set the territory, if we want it to flourish.

What are the consequences of a content-directed curriculum? “Students are afraid to take risks,” noted attendee Gloria Hofer, who has been teaching instructional technology for 12 years at Santa Clara University in California. Students have become so accustomed to consuming content during lecture that they find themselves unmotivated to develop inquiries of their own. Recalling a similar observation, Maria Marshall, an assistant professor who teaches graphic design described how she experimented with her students when she designated one of her classes for questions only. The result: “Nothing happened. Then it struck me that they were coming in and waiting for something to happen. They weren’t coming in expecting to make something happen.”

How come we don’t talk about copyright in schools? Moving the focus away from textbook learning gives students new perspective about the integrity of their ideas. Vantaggiato is partial to blogs because they open up a publishing environment which allows young people to appropriate content. For each of his courses, Vantaggiato leads his students through the basics of Creative Commons, so as soon as they begin creating, they can take ownership of their ideas and share them with others.

Wrap-up—The three hour session flew right by and Vantaggiato, already two minutes over his time, briefly expressed his enthusiasm about his most recent goal — to transform the most hated course at his university into the best loved—Calculus. He and his colleagues are currently looking at the capabilities offered by iPad devices to engage students.

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