Common Core frustration and ignorance

March 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

I read in Yahoo a comment on a Facebook posting going viral. The title: ” Read Parent’s Facebook Response to ‘Ridiculous’ Common Core Math Homework.

What this tells me is that Yahoo is siding against CC. Not only the title but also reading the text of the article confirms that. What I see in the assignment and the comment is a profound disrespect on the part of the parent for the teacher and for knowledge, as well as bewildering arrogance in imagining that a bachelor degree in Engineering establishes  authority beyond discussing the actual content of the assignment.

Even without knowing the full idea behind this assignment, it seems to me that the question goes further than learning how to solve a simple subtraction, for which most people today would sadly turn to a calculator, or repeat a simple formula or technique (which the parent does). It offers the possibility of using a visual approach to allow students to dive into more abstract mathematical concepts.

One key difference between undergraduate and graduate education, is that in college (and before) students have been taught what we know about all kinds of things. Graduate school is about creative solutions to what we don’t know. This assignment seems to prepare students better for life-long learning and advanced intellectual inquiry than the traditional approach which conversely has resulted in the US lagging behind the industrialized countries of the OECD in many instances, and math in particular.

I can see how a person who dismisses being challenged to think through a new approach would be a technology user and information consumer, while the one who trains his or her brain to go deeper, could be a technology and knowledge maker.

Whether this precise approach should or not be part of CC is a discussion worth having, but it does not undermine the concept of CC in its entirety. It is crucial to realize that CC is not only an instrument of accountability. Specifying what one particular course or level has to cover, enables advanced classes to build on previous ones and frees them from having to re-teach again core concepts that not every student in the class has mastery of. It frees classes from being remedial, reduces the chances of students being bored to death when they have to review fractions for the seventh time throughout their k-12 years, and also allows them to get to more complex and sophisticated levels of intellectual practice. The fallacy of freedom for one program or teacher to teach only whatever he or she feels like, dooms the system to stay remedial and US k-12 and undergraduate education to be locked within the superficial.

This does not imply either that CC is all students have to learn. CC as I see it is a minimum not a maximum. Setting the minimum at preparing students to enter a non-selective community college is certainly too low, but inferring that kids in general are not prepared to enter college because of CC is such not only a fallacy, it seems to be an intentional strategy to mislead and deceive, which is much worse.

Stating the importance of a common core does not pretend to imply of course that extensive standardized testing, and linking teacher’s pay to student’s performance is not wrong. It does not mean either that CC solves the central problem of pervasive inequality in the distribution of resources in education and how the system reproduces class and socioeconomic differences across generations. It only means that common standards are indispensable to achieve higher levels of education for the nation.

My kids will be starting kindergarten soon and I find disheartening that ignorance finds so many pundits who rally behind such poor and arrogant attitudes. I really hope the parents in my kids classrooms will be more respectful of the teaching profession,  curious intellectually and willing to accept that the first principle of learning is to recognize there is something we don’t know.



The last day of class

November 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just as the first day sets the tone for the rest of the course, the last day of class creates the student’s last impression of the class.

The last day can serve as a reflection and round-up of the course that makes the connection between individual session to students who are often too busy preparing for next day, to take a step back and figure out how all ties-up together. It can include a review of the syllabus and what was accomplished as a class stressing contents but also class engagement and student’s motivations to learn and use the material. It can stress how students can use that material in life, in other courses, their major or their college experience in general. A concept map can be a good exercise to give a visual representation of the course and how all ties in together.

The last day of class can also include a review for the final exam, which could nicely connect with the syllabus review and concept map. Students can be asked to write questions they think should be part of the final exam, some of which may actually be used. One question I include in midterms and finals is what important concept of the section was not covered by the exam. Students need to explain through a structured argument what the concept is, what it means and why they think it is relevant.

The last day of class can also include student evaluations, which the two prior exercises would help get more focused and with a better perspective of the whole course. Do not bring cookies, or candies that day if you don’t want to read that students perceive you are trying to influence their comments.

The last day of class can also help students imagine future learning. Students can be asked to write anonymous letters advising future students on how to succeed in the course, giving them tips of does and don’ts. Students can be asked to share their most significant experience in the course and what they are going to remember the most of it. They can be asked to fill the blanks in “Before this course I_____________ and now I_____.

The last day of class should be relaxed, include time for Q&A, give students an overview connecting all elements of the class and reminding them of its objectives, while making their knowledge visible. It can present sample exam questions and tell them how to prepare but above all it is a time for the instructor to praise students for their efforts and achievements and give them a chance to say goodby.

Intercultural Communication: an introduction

November 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Edward Hall’s book The Silent Language (1959) is often cited as the starting point of the field of Intercultural Communication in the United States. During WWII and at the beginning of the Cold War between 1946 and 1956, the U.S. Foreign Service Institute and the Department of State hired some of the best linguists and anthropologists to train members of the Foreign Service. Rather than traditional broad topics taught to college students, the task was to focus on small elements of culture, and on the role of non-verbal communication in social interaction. It has been argued that this prompted Hall’s book and the institutionalization of the discipline (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2014).

There are today a vast number of intercultural communication institutions, journals, book collections and conferences. A simple Google search shows the following amongst others:  the International Communication Association, the International Academy for Intercultural Research, the International Association for Intercultural Communication Studies, or the Intercultural Communication Institute; the Journal of Intercultural Communication, the Journal of International Communication Research, the International Journal of Intercultural Relations, and Cultus: the Journal of intercultural mediation and communication.

The introductory course on Intercultural Communication for advanced undergraduates and graduates in U.S. Universities has also been subject to a relatively rich academic inquiry. A number of scholarly articles have dissected how it has been taught, with which goals, contents and methods. Some of these relfections are: Gudykunst, Ting-Toomey & Wiseman (1991), Milhouse (1997), Kalfadelis (2005) and some recent book reviews of textbooks, anthologies, readers and handbooks.

A multidimensional approach

Reviewing such a vast material can be daunting and requires at some point to commit to one or a few distinctive approaches. However, most articles coincide in that the most effective course design integrates multidimensional goals –cognitive, affective and behavioral—, combines culture-general and culture-specific content, and uses both intellectual and experiential learning processes.

Cognitive, affective and behavioral components

The cognitive component is developed through lectures, readings, class discussions, critical incidents, and small group interactions. It is tested through traditional research papers, for example comparing and contrasting intercultural and cross-cultural interactions between two or more cultures, individual and group presentations and structured exercises. The Affective component is developed through structured exercises, role-play, simulations and exercises involving interaction logs or identity-construction cards. The skill or experienced-based component is developed through simulations, observations, experience-based contacts and case studies.

Textbook selection

Classes are structured from a textbook or a reader, either off-the shelve or made ad hoc by the professor for the course. Most widely used textbooks in introductory courses are:

  • Samovar, Porter & McDaniel. Communication between cultures. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 8th. ed. 2012.
  • Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, eds. Intercultural communication: A reader. Cengage Learning. and Martin, 14th ed. 2014.
  • Martin, J. and T. Nakayama. Intercultural communication in contexts. (2004).
  • Martin, J. and T. Nakayama, eds. Experiencing intercultural communication. McGraw-Hill Higher Education,  5th ed. 2013.

Some of these textbooks were originally published in the 1980s and have been tweaked and updated ever since to reflect the change of times. Most of their theoretical approach has aged well, although they have been criticized  for focusing on cognitive aspects with too little or nothing on affective and behavioral, and for having a too phalocentric WASP and Eurocentric perspective stressing culture-specific content and communication between national cultures as opposed to interpresonal and  intercultural communication within national borders or in multicultural environments. Some of these criticisms have been addressed in the later editions, and it is important to note that these textbooks printed in the 1980s, have been successful in sufficiently keeping up with time, while others have not. The last one of the list, Experiencing intercultural communication is different first because it was first published in 1994, and also because it focuses on a more pragmatic and behavioral approach. The first one, Communication Between Cultures includes chapters on the importance of history and religion  which no other textbook I have seen addresses.

I am leaving out some interesting textbooks of course, such as Ting-Toomey Communicating Across Cultures (1999) for example, only becasue they have not been updated or do not have all the supporting materials of the ones I have mentioned earlier.

The introductory course on Intercultural Communication is usually targeted at junior or senior college students. Advanced undergraduates and master students would benefit from the more structured textbook-based approach as it contributes to the clarity of the goals, methods and contents, but would require additional reading materials. A number of other readers and handbooks cover other aspects that may complement those textbooks. For example:

  • Holliday, Hyde & Kullman Intercultural Communication: an advanced resource book for students 2nd. Ed. (2010) provides a more schematic approach emphasizing non-specific cultural approach, and both affective and behavioral exercises based on a simple model of identity-otherness-representation and the deconstruction of short fragments of text.
  • Piller Intercultural Communication: A critical introduction (2011) Edinburgh UP on another hand focuses on multicultural individuals who may have a variety of cultural affiliations and proficiently interact in a diverse and multicultural environment. It is a comprehensive critical introduction to the field from a discourse analysis, social and anthropological linguistic perspective and illuminates differential prestige of languages and language varieties.
  • Ting-Toomey and Oetzel, Managing intercultural conflict effectively (2001) is well grounded  in the concepts and theories of both conflict management and intercultural communication, and is unique in the author’s use of system theory.
  • Darla Deardorff’s Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2009) seeks to answer the question of «What is intercultural competence.» Her book is intended to be used in advanced Intercultural Communication courses.

Since no single book addresses the specific needs of an introductory intercultural communication class at a professional master’s level a good combination might be:

  1. Samovar, Porter & McDaniel. Communication between cultures. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 8th. ed. 2012. ($29-$123) ISBN-10: 111134910X | ISBN-13: 978-1111349103)
  2. Samovar, Porter & McDaniel, eds. Intercultural communication: A reader. Cengage Learning. and Martin, 14th ed. 2014. ($89 ISBN-10: 1285077393 | ISBN-13: 978-1285077390)
  3. Holliday, Hyde & Kullman Intercultural Communication: an advanced resource book for students 2nd. ed. (2010) ($47,  ISBN-10: 0415489423 | ISBN-13: 978-0415489423)
  4. Plus complementary texts supplied by the instructor both from the other books mentioned, as well as key texts to cover intercultural mass-media communication, framing, intercultural conflict management and resolution and intercultural communication strategizing.

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