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Conversation #61: Joan Middendorf on Learning Bottlenecks

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A conversation with Joan Middendorf of Indiana University on student learning bottlenecks.

Joan’s specialty lies in leading faculty groups to make disciplinary ways of thinking available to students. With David Pace she developed the “Decoding the Disciplines” approach to define crucial bottlenecks to learning, dissect and model expert thinking, and assess student performance. Joan and the History Learning Project (Pace and Professors Arlene Diaz and Leah Shopkow) were awarded the Menges Research Award from the Professional Development Network in Higher Education and the Maryellen Weimer Scholarly Work on Teaching and Learning Award.

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Bart Everson: This is Bart Everson, and welcome to the podcast. I’m speaking today with Joan Middendorf, who is an instructional consultant at the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Indiana University, my alma mater. Welcome to the program.

Joan Middendorf: Thanks Bart. Thanks for having me here.

BE: I’m so glad to have you with us. I was wondering if you could take a moment just to explain for those who are listening what is an instructional consultant and what is it that you do.

JM: At Indiana University, the thing I do most is lead groups of faculty to develop new ways to think about their teaching. I like to do it in groups because I find that the cross-disciplinary practice- it’s hard to think about your own thinking if you’re a chemist or a computer scientist or an English professor, so you’re so used to thinking the way that you do when you’re so good at it that you have to explain, you know as an English professor, to a chemist, to a computer science professor. Then, you can see that they’re doing very different things as they explain to you and it helps you make clear to them what you’re about just by having to work it. So I really do almost all my work in teams and in cross-disciplinary faculties.

BE: So you’re associating with something I’ve been hearing about, which is this “decoding the disciplines” thing, and I’m wondering if you could explain what that is. Is it a movement? Is it a philosophy? Is it a theory? Is it a culture? What is it exactly?

JM: Yeah. About 20 years ago, when I started leading these faculty summer groups, we found there was a lack in theories about college teaching, and unintentionally we developed this theory to fill in the hole in the theories. So this is a theory about the gap between experts and the way they think and the wa novices think. So, it’s a theory about how to prioritize what to teach and which methods to use. Experts can do a lot of things at once, but when they go to teach somebody else what they do, those things they can do all at once are hard for them to explain. So that’s what this is: a theory about teaching and it’s looking for the places where students get stuck, which signals where the experts are doing their critical thinking, and signals to the expert to try and break that down for the students.  

BE: Alright. Well that sounds like it might be useful. You’ve got a new book coming out very soon through Stylus Publishing. It’s called Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks. I’m wondering if you could tell us why did you write this book, what’s it about, what is a “learning bottleneck?”

JM: When I find myself saying the same thing or something very similar more than 5 times, I typically start writing it down. So that’s how this book started: I started writing down this process that I was using with faculty. The thing about this book is that our implicit and intellectual skills are really honored in academia. We really like when people are really, really smart: they can make analytic leaps that other people can’t follow, sometimes even their colleagues. Faculty- I like to say- are often the smarty pants in the room. People with great academic skills and understanding were not born that way and learned how to do it, and then what they’ve learned has become pretty natural to them- implicit- all these habits of minds and discussions and conventions of academic work. So we’re learning a way to break that down so they can teach it to somebody else. It’s a little like when you are teaching somebody to drive a car. You usually want two lines there because there’s a lot of things to do: you’ve got to press on the gas and the brake pedal, you have to turn the wheel, you’re trying to keep this 2,000 pound killing machine from running over anybody, and then you’ve got to get to the right place. But after a while- pretty soon- a lot of those things go away, they become natural, they become hidden to you. Really you basically have to think about “what’s the shortest way to get from point A to point B,” and “what is that nut in my rear-view mirror doing,” and the rest you don’t pay attention to. That’s the same in our disciplinary thinking. At first in our discipline, we have to think about a lot of things, but then a lot of it becomes natural, and we just become interested in a little edge where we’re just learning things. But then that makes it hard when you go to teach somebody how to drive a car- it’s hard- and when you go to teach somebody how to do things in our discipline it’s very hard. So, we put people in cross-disciplinary team so they can start helping each other notice what is hard about what they’re doing so they can explain it to each other.

BE: And that dialogue needs to happen across disciplines?

JM: Yes, yes. This one professor that I interviewed recently said he was really surprised about how much of his own knowledge he was just skipping over in telling it to his students, and the people in his team kept asking. So he was talking to his students about making prological proofs in computing, and most of the people he would talk to about that would be theoretical computer scientist or mathematicians, and they would be like “yes, students are really bad at this”- that’s kind of student-bashing, and we don’t want student-bashing. But when he’d talk to these people from different fields, instead of saying “yes, that’s really hard and students are doing it,” they would say “yes, how do you do that? What do you do?” And he’d start explaining it, and he’d struggle explaining it, so then he would have to break it down a little more and they could follow parts of it. Because PhDs- you know, people in these groups- are very smart, as long as they keep staying with not letting things just gloss over, not letting just their eyes glaze over when they cannot understand, then they can keep asking the person for more and more explanations. And the person is really unpaking their own knowledge for the other people, and they all do that for each other and they all kind of have these aha moments like “wow, I see these big parts I haven’t been explaining to students. Then that helps all the regular other parts of teaching- how do you model for students, how do you provide practice for students, how do you assess students- become more easy to decide because you know what we call the “mental move” or the “mental action”- we’ve got that onto the table.

BE: You’ve been- obviously- taking this to faculty for a while now. Are faculty generally receptive to this approach?

JM: Yes. I think faculty are very interested in it. One faculty member told us that she thought it was really useful because with this bottleneck viewpoint- you know, looking for the places students get stuck, not being mad about it, but looking for it- instead of getting frustrated or student-bashing or figure the students aren’t trying hard or the students aren’t smart enough, she could actually realize there is something truly difficult about what it is that she wanted them to do, and she could try to uncover what it is that’s making this difficult and then help them move forward. And she said that for her that was like switching a mentality from a more pessimistic view of the students towards a more optimistic view that they can actually break through this together. So that’s the kind of thing faculty say after they’ve been through it. Then we also have some research that the method works. There’s a new volume of new directions for teaching and learning that shows a whole volume is about cross-disciplinary groups at Mount Royal University and they’re interviewing each other and what they learn from that, they got ideas for what kind of thinking they were doing. But they also got better ideas for service learning, for curriculum, for professional programs. Psychologists have used this process to identify the main places students are getting stuck in studying psychology, and I think one of the most interesting areas people have been publishing research on this is in student partnerships- you know, the new idea of when you’re doing work at teaching centers, doing research on teaching and learning- we should not just study students as objects, but include them in the research. Some people at Elon University- some undergrads and Peter Felton- did a study of the bottlenecks involved in writing a literature review for political science. So that was very interesting, that the students could help uncover where what the professors say they were doing when they did a literature review was different from hat they were teaching.

BE: Wow, sounds like there’s quite a bit of data that’s been accumulating around this approach. All this talk about disciplines and so forth reminds me that here at Xavier, there’s been a lot of talk lately about promoting interdisciplinarity. It seems like there might be some opportunities in this approach to promote interdisciplinarity. Is that how you see it?

JM: Yes,and sometimes- you know, maybe- we’re just at a certain point we’re writing our first book and we had to give a title to the process. Sometimes the title Decoding the Disciplines puts people off. Really what we’re talking about is each field has kind of an underlying set of mental moves that they use for creating knowledge, and we call that epistemology. It’s an epistemic community- a group of scholars- who share common methods. A discipline has a set of those that they tend to use- though they’ll be people on the edges that are using different things- and you kind of have a stack of those for each discipline kind of in a silo, and some are really surprising. We’ve done this work for so long, in some fields that seem very far away, those stack of mental moves that they use are common, like visualization. Visualization is really important in some of the sciences, like biology: you have to visualize the biological processes. And then in sculpture, when you’re creating sculptures, people do a lot of visualization. So it’s interesting two fields, seemingly very different, have a lot of similarities. Or like generating hypotheses: in the sciences, that’s very important, but it’s not that different from in history, where people have to generate explanations for what happened historically. The mental move is not totally different. So interdisciplinarity- to me- is to just take a certain set of mental moves from certain fields and put them in a new stack and call them something different.

BE: That sounds like it could be kind of fun.

JM: It is. For me, thinking about the mental move we want students to learn by noticing from where they got stuck, then that tells us where we- the experts- are doing a lot of things at once and need to break it down. What are our mental moves, they’re often a bunch of things all at once, so there’s several mental moves once we can figure out what those are. For me, that is like putting the horse before the cart: you don’t pick the teaching method until you know what kind of mental move is this and what kind of teaching methods match.

BE: Well, let’s assume somebody listening to this might be intrigued and want to learn more. Of course they can look for your book Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks, but I believe there’s also some online resources that might be available. Is that something we could link to?

JM: Yes. We have a listserv, Decoding the Disciplines listserv, it’s a Google group. We have a website: We have a YouTube channel- we only have two videos right now but I’ll put a third one up pretty soon and maybe a fourth one up pretty soon, so that’s the YouTube channel- Decoding the Disciplines. One of these days I’ll get myself a Twitter handle, just have to decide what it’s going to be, so I’ll do one then, too, and maybe we’ll be called bottleneck, I’m not sure. Yes, there are some other places you can find information. I think it’s really fun to think about what the bottlenecks are across fields. It makes it so faculty- and this isn’t like a teaching method, everybody has to do the same thing- can pick where your students get stuck in your class. Like in an African American studies course, students don’t really understand the significance of a person, or a place, or an event, and why things are important to the black people or to the wider community. And that’s really different from a bottleneck in Physics, where people have a lot of preconceived notions just from the way their bodies interact with phenomena, and that gets in the way with experiencing physics the way physicist make everything so abstract. You kind of have to give up your own intuition from the real world to go into the world of physics. And so each field has very interesting- sometimes similar, often very different- bottlenecks that are kind of predictable, but everybody gets to pick the bottleneck that bothers them and then work on it and learn how to teach really well through that bottleneck. We find once you’ve got students really good on that one bottleneck, it kind of opens up your whole field to them because they don’t have to learn everything about the field, but getting really grounded in one part of the thinking of your field makes the rest of the field more available.

BE: It seems like this might be a good time to mention, I believe you’re going to be down here in New Orleans in December. So we’re hoping to get you on campus to share some of these ideas with our Xavier faculty there during finals week.

JM: Yes, yes.

BE: For the rest of the world, for anybody else who’s listening to this anywhere, we’ll have those online resources linked. Is there any final things we should touch on before we say goodbye?

JM: I think if you’re interested in trying to make students get unstuck in your class, if you’re interested in learning to get the viewpoint that’s student-learning oriented, and if you’re interested in putting the thinking you want students to learn- the critical thinking of your field at the heart of what you’re doing- you might be interested to come to one of the sessions I’m leading at Xavier in December, or lots of the other places that I lead workshops from. Or go look at our videos, because people are finding this a powerful, unifying theory for college teaching.

BE: Fantastic. Thank you so much for speaking with me today Joan. Once again, this is Teaching, Learning, and Everything Else, and it’s really been a pleasure.

JM: Thank you so much.

Transcribed by Raye’ Tabor

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