The National Teaching & Learning Forum

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Online ISSN: 2166-3327

Editor's Note, Volume 23 Number 1

A word cloud of Lee Shulman’s keynote address to the 2013 ISSOTL conference last month would show “particular” dominating. That’s because, reduced to a slogan, “generalizations decay” formed the message of Shulman’s speech. Any reduction of a Shulman speech savages a thing of beauty, for in what I once described as his “neo-rabbinical style” Shulman models, persuades, and invites into the community of serious, humane scholarship all who hear him speak. On this occasion he sought to assure the gathering of over 600 that the SOTL research they were doing was important and not to be apologized for even when it was not quantitative and did not result in universal findings. Like a wise father counseling nervous children, he began by turning a skeptical eye on a study by a tenured professor of messy versus neat desks that made sweeping, speculative conclusions from very small and suspect data. In comparison, Shulman described a Harvard dissertation, an ethnographic, qualitative study he’d been sent that the author felt compelled to apologize for since it wasn’t “hard data” from double-blind, controlled experiments. Shulman’s judgment would have been enough for this audience, but a wise father knows the importance of lineage, and so Shulman placed his skepticism about the relative value of the two in the context of respected thinking by Lee J. Cronbach, educational psychologist from a generation earlier. Cronbach coined the phrase “generalizations decay,” telling Shulman that, followed to the end of the questions posed, the variables present, every experiment becomes a case study.

There had been anti-science murmurings all through the conference as participants groused that their qualitative research often encountered a disparaging comparison with even shabby quantitative studies, and Shulman’s defense of looking to particulars, observing and describing contexts carefully soothed ruffled spirits. But, again, wise fathers understand the value of multiple perspectives, and so Shulman concluded his speech underlining the value to knowledge and to understanding from a dialogue between the general and the particular. In case study work, he emphasized, discussions need always return to the question “What is this a case of?” The general question reframes the inquiry, throwing the discussion back to deeper and deeper levels of understanding.

In that same spirit, this issue offers two articles on metacognition stemming from the ISSOTL conference: the first by Lean Savion and Carol Hostetter on the general principles of metacognition and some particular practices for developing it in students, and the second by Matt Fisher on an approach to developing discipline-specific metacognitive awareness.

Our last issue looked at Critical Pedagogy in some detail, but Critical Pedagogy is a big and somewhat controversial topic, and so we follow up in this issue with two contrasting views. We give more space to Gerald Graff’s alternative notion of “teaching the conflicts,” as well as a snapshot of Rico Gutstein’s use of Critical Pedagogy in teaching pre-college math.

Among the dialectics afoot in the current conversation about teaching, the important one between the general and the particular may be temporarily overshadowed by talk of online versus face to face teaching. This issue’s TECHPED by Mike Rodgers and Mary Harriet Talbut offers an encouraging twist to that conversation. Their work suggests that working on designing and implementing an online course can substantially improve a faculty member’s face to face teaching.

Finally, conversations about teaching and learning aren’t parades for faculty to watch from the sidelines. Marilla Svinicki’s AD REM . . . makes a plea to busy colleagues to remember that their input into research into teaching is vital to deepening our understanding. We can’t get away from the particulars. As Shulman reminded the ISSOTL audience: “Most of the knowledge we have is not general, but particular.”

—James Rhem

Access the full issue of National Teaching & Learning Forum, December 2013 here.