Saturday, August 24, 2013

What I Learned about Teaching from River Tubing

View from Observation Point on the East Rim

Part of my preparation for a new academic year involves an annual August pilgrimage to Utah, where several of my family members reside and where I can indulge my love of all things outdoors.  I always spend a few days hiking in Zion National Park, including The Narrows hike back in the Virgin River (a hike that was especially awesome this year because the river was running lower and slower than usual and so we were able to go back for several miles before it became pretty challenging).  The spectacular majesty of Zion, the fact that so much remains the same yet it is ever evolving, provide a great background for re-centering myself and preparing for the inevitable insanity of a new academic year.  It's also nice to get out in the fresh air and enjoy some spectacular views.

This year, my mom proposed a family river trip that would include the two of us, my sister, brother-in-law, and their two children (12 and 15).  We've done several of these in the past and it sounded like fun.  I agreed and left the arrangements up to my mom and sister.  A few days before the "river trip" I found out that it was, in fact, not a rafting trip but a tubing trip; and that it was going to be unguided.  I was a little nervous about this.  We were going to be tubing an unfamiliar river; none of us had gone tubing in a very long time; and our group had both young people and an older person.  The company that ran the trips had a short video on their website showing happy people tubing; they also included a warning that "This isn't the Lazy River at the Waterpark." No other instructions or words of warning.

We met the company van in Park City.  Our group ended up being my family and another young married couple.  As we drove to the drop off point, the driver was completely silent.  Upon arrival, we were all handed a tube and a life jacket.  He suggested in an off-hand way that we might want to leave any valuable behind in the van.  At the last minute, I decided to leave my phone.  None of the instructions had suggested water shoes and most people were wearing flip flops.  My mom had real water shoes and my shoes were somewhere between water shoes and flip flops.  The driver suggested that people might want to leave their shoes and all the flip-flop wearers did so (to their everlasting regret).

Before he sent us down the river, the driver spent about 3 minutes giving a rapid-fire lecture on how to navigate the different parts of the river and rapids.  Unfortunately, none of us could follow or even remember much past the first obstacle since a. he was speaking so quickly; and b. we had no pre-existing map to connect his descriptions to.  As I looked around, I could see that everyone had tuned out at about the 90 second mark.  Oddly, we were given no instructions on how to manage if we lost our tube (beyond "be sure you get your tube back").  For instance, the standard advice is to float on your back with your feet pointing downstream to protect your head from being slammed into boulders.  We were given no tips for getting into our tubes; we were not instructed on technique for paddling/steering the tube nor were we warned that we would be doing a lot of this.  We were told nothing about how the river was running (pretty fast, with a very complex current that required a lot of active paddling).  Helmets probably would have been useful.  Instead, the driver sent us off and told us he'd see us at the bottom in a few hours.

Within five minutes of setting off down the river, we came up to the first set of rapids.  The current was fast and pulled us towards an area where, if we tried to go down that way, our tube would get stuck and we would flip out and get sucked down into the rapid.  The only way to avoid this outcome was to know that this was coming and start paddling away from it as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, because none of us had any experience on this river; and our driver had done little to prepare us for what we would encounter, the first few people ended up getting flipped (including me and my mom).  Without a tube and sucked into a swift current, I instinctively turned on my back and looked for a place where I could stop and find a way to get a tube.  I also needed to help my almost-70 year old mom, who had lost her glasses.  The scene at the bottom of the rapid was total chaos, with people struggling to get their balance, find tubes, get back into them, etc.  I had to float without a tube for about ten minutes, ricocheting from boulder to boulder and getting scratched up by the bushes and trees along the banks.  Fun times.

This scene repeated itself frequently as we made our way down the river.  It was always the same story: a rapid that needed to be navigated in a particular way in order to emerge unscathed; yet these rapids appeared suddenly and it was very challenging to figure out what to do--and have the time to do it--before the current took hold of the tube and dragged us down the wrong way.  I had expected a calm, two hour floating trip.  Instead, after the first 20 minutes, I was just hoping we'd all get to the bottom in one piece.  It was especially nerve-wracking because our group had my young (and small) nephew and older mom.  It was certainly an opportunity for family bonding, but not quite the kind that my mom imagined.

Fortunately, there were a few calmer stretches.  During one of these, while firmly settled in my tube,  I found myself thinking about how crazy it was that this driver just sent us off with little more than a life jacket and a tube.  We were left to catapult down this river, fingers crossed that everyone made it to the bottom without major injuries. All of us were shocked at what was happening.  We'd all taken river rafting trips where we were lectured intensively about what to do if we ended up in the water; where we were warned (excessively) about the dangers we were undertaking.  Yet, in this case, where there were real dangers, we hadn't been warned at all!  Every time I ended up going down a rapid the wrong way, I would realize this was going to happen--but too late to do anything about it.  I found myself thinking that it would have been extremely helpful for the company to put some signs in the river banks with errors, signaling an approaching rapid and which way we should be padding to avoid disaster.  Instead, we were left completely on our own--and at several points during the two hour trip, all of us ended up in the river, slamming into boulders, cutting our feet on rocks, getting scratches and scrapes from the trees on the banks.

As I was struggling to make it down this river in one piece, it occurred to me that this experience offered some great insights for teachers.  As I told my mom at the bottom, my class is NOT an unguided tubing trip!  That is to say, the pedagogical analog of this trip is the professor who walks into class, hands out a bare bones syllabus with a list of reading assignments and test dates, and then starts to lecture.  There is no attention to the fact that many of the students won't have experience with the subject matter, won't intuitively know how to learn the material.  It's the Darwinian "sink or swim" approach to teaching.  In that situation, the student only figures out what they should have done after the fact, when it's too late and they have lost their tube and are slamming into boulders.  No matter how hard they try to paddle away from obstacles, they find themselves getting smacked in the face with unforgiving tree branches.  It's a horrible, frustrating experience.

I have changed my tune on a number of things about teaching, perhaps most importantly the role of formative assessment vs summative assessment.  But another big change is my attitude towards structure (or what some might see as "hand-holding).  What I am finding is that many of my students will make good learning choices if given the opportunity; but that many of them--like me on this tubing trip--don't have the experience or content knowledge to know what those choices should be unless they get some guidance from me.  I had about 20% more students earn some form of an A in my blended class in Spring 2013 than in previous semesters.  In large part, this was because the path away from the rapids was much more clear to more of them than usual.  They were better able to see those rapids in advance and put their backs into steering away from them.  This is a really important point, I think.  It's not hand-holding to do a better job of helping our students see and understand exactly what is required to avoid getting flipped out of their tubes and slammed into rocks.  Sometimes, without this help, they underestimate the effort that is required to avoid the shoals.

As the first day of my Rome 3.0 class rapidly approaches, I am thinking a lot about what I am going to say.  I am also putting a lot of energy into carefully planning the students' orientation to the class and the different parts of it.  I roll out these different parts (watching Echo360 videos, i>clickers, discussion board, practice quizzes on Blackboard, etc) slowly, one at a time.  I let them get somewhat comfortable with one thing, then add another.  I explain why I am using each tool and I carefully outline what my expectations are for them/what they need to do.  I repeat this several times during the semester, but especially during the first month.  The course is structured to take account of the fact that most of them have little experience with how to learn, engage with, and critically analyze historical narratives.  I don't just throw them in the deep end and see who can swim.

We all survived the tubing trip, to the extent that we made it to the bottom alive.  But every one of us had injuries.  My elbows were rubbed raw from frenetic paddling and I'll likely have a scar on one forever.  I was sore for days from being tossed around.  My mom lost her glasses and was covered with bruises and scrapes and raw elbows.  My brother-in-law lost his wedding ring and was scraped raw on his belly from saving my nephew at several points.  Feet were cut and bloody from the rocks.  The trip has made for some great stories, and we've all had fun texting each other pictures of our wounds (ok, my family is kind of weird!).  But we all agree that we won't be doing that trip again--and that it would have been a lot better if we'd either had a guide; or the company had done a better job of preparing us and marking the course on the river.

For me, it's been a great opportunity to think about what I do as an instructor, especially in a large class; and how important it is that I sign post dangers and clearly mark the paths that will lead to a pleasant trip.  Some people will ignore my warnings and hurtle over the rapids.  Many, however, will make the effort to stay in calmer waters and, consequently, will reach the end of the semester having made gains in their learning; but also, having had a pleasant experience.  They might even sign up for another trip.


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