Direct vs. indirect pathways of learning

My graduate courses use simple but unfamiliar requirements and processes, which leads to a period of getting adjusted and sometimes hesitation or resistance. This post reflects on that.

As an example of “simple but unfamiliar requirements and processes”

The written assignments are commented on but not graded. The assignment is recorded as completed after you revise thoughtfully and resubmit in response to comments received on the initial submission from your peers and one or both instructors. You keep track of your submissions and revisions on your own copy of the assignment checklist. This system keeps the focus on interaction around written work and the presentations that emerge from participation in the unfolding dynamics of the course.

One way of thinking about needing to help students get adjusted or overcome resistance speaks to a tension that is at play in many of my courses, a tension that is more interesting pedagogically and intellectually. Let me explain.
I see a tension between direct and indirect approaches to learning. Consider the following story. I once knew a boy in first grade who was not a good speller. He could not yet read. The teacher tested the students regularly on spelling and he did not do well. However, a teacher’s aide, a woman who was actually a high school math teacher but had asked to be assigned to the primary school as an aide for reasons I’m not sure of, would work with this child. Her method was to take him out to her truck where she had her dog, spend time petting the dog, then walking and talking and eventually including some spelling practice. He responded very well to this indirect approach to learning to spell. This said, as an adult he still needs to use spell check and could have benefited from more direct instruction at various points in his schooling.
Another story. In the middle 1980s, when I was teaching at the New School in New York, I sat in on a course by Rayner Rapp on the anthropology of gender. A little more than an decade earlier, when she was a graduate student, she and other women had pored through the literature to find articles in anthropology about women. By the time I took the course, the syllabus was packed. Yet in the discussions it was clear that it needed to be expanded still further, as students of color wanted readings to be clear about which women in which situations. Rayna Rapp understood their misgivings about the limitations of the body of work that she had assembled into the standard syllabus, one which required us to read four or five articles each week. It was clear that more than one semester would be needed to cover the material.
Two decades later I inherited a course on the politics of science and technology, and had a similar experience as I tried to bring it up to date. The material could not be covered in 14 weeks of one course. Moreover, students drew issues and insights from them readings that went behind the topic under which the readings were assigned. This led me to experiment with project-based learning, with PBL, and make a virtue of students taking readings in directions that specifically interested in them.
I enjoy teaching students using PBL, because I am able to connect them with people and readings, and they are able to find many more sources on the Internet than I was aware of. But I also see that they miss out on the sense that they have the key terms and key readings under their belts. If my students were going on to become assistant professors in political science, or going on the market for such jobs, or equivalent jobs in STS, I would be worried about how well prepared they were. But students in my courses are very interdisciplinary, they are usually already working in non-academic jobs and many will continue in such careers. That gives me the freedom to teach in the indirect spirit, more like the teacher’s aide for the boy in first grade. The students may sometimes hanker for a course with the more familiar structure of sets of readings each week, introducing and developing the key terms, making sure to cover the key readings and key names in the fields in question. Such a structure would also make it easier to get back in the mix if a student missed a week. It would also make it easier to let the instructors show how the ideas connect, rather than having to build the road by walking.
Question to students in my courses: What combination or balance between direct and indirect approaches to learning will serve you best in your educational careers and wider social engagements?

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

One Response to Direct vs. indirect pathways of learning

  1. Teryl Cartwright says:

    Today is International Women’s Day so I used your post on PBL to do my Freewrite.

    My normal answers–how cool to present your problem as a PBL scenario to ask students to solve this PBL about direct v. indirect. It is in a sense solving the problem while inside the problem–and so the solutions would self-affirm the value of PBL and even use those key terms and ideas from direct pathways to make new PBL tools and structures, integrating and blending the two forms, active learning and lecture, even more. It would be easy to make that creation of new PBL tools from a lecture one of the PBL projects–instead of using jigsaw methods as becoming an information expert, use jigsaw methods to create PBL activities and tools.

    Yet I wanted to give more, because, of course, you would have already envisioned these alternatives, you would have looked at ways to embed content so that the key terms and ideas would be there even if students didn’t need them for their particular chosen focus…yet. You would be looking for ways to inspire learning and coming back to a class or topic beyond our own interests and problems. You would already have cleverly created some of those solutions.

    So, I looked at the problem from the backside. Who are the lecturers who are looking for what you do, but don’t quite integrate this fully well into their classes yet? You probably already collaborate with Eric Mazur and Kevin Kit Parker of Harvard, but they are coming at the problem from their perspective, so there might be some interesting dialogue or innovation in the middle. Maybe you want to work with those who don’t know as much CCT to be able to enrich CCT from the outside. They have some different disciplines too in the academic world and a lot of contacts outside of yours.

    I looked at the main problem with students choosing their own projects and what to take away and learn using PBL. The problem to me is that their focus is potentially self-absorbed and not building a wider foundation to continue. They would have such a small piece of the puzzle because of this wonderful personalization and will remember more of their small piece than those in lectures given the larger knowledge base and not the application side. But this is akin to the YouTube culture of looking up how to do one specific thing and then not learning more from there. It is the curse of “self-directed learning,” to only be motivated by our own narrow interests and comfort zone.

    Those who are in the lectures are given more of the knowledge puzzle pieces, but no picture on the puzzle box of what they could do. Or, if they do know with such a broad base, are they motivated to risk and to try something of their very own rather than merely imitating what examples were in the lecture and reading? They lack too, but a different thing, for they are learning for the test and then dumping knowledge. Is it worse to have forgotten most of all you learned with a few random pieces left or worse to have only learned the certain pieces you need for yourself at a certain time for a certain problem?

    I know that it may ask much to have someone help solve a problem of another in the midst of his/her own problem solving, but having something there to pay forward to the next class or community is not such a bad thing to ask. Making something to give back should be voluntary, yet if we don’t ask at all, would people think to do it? Asking PBLers to do something to exchange with the one other person working on that PBLer’s specific problem in return is also a possible tradeoff and addition to the personal project emphasis of using PBL.

    We are confident and equipped by the processes in CCT but what is our ripple effect? What is our future? How are the people we help or interact with taught CCT and how are we learning to bring something more back to CCT?

    If we are looking at the indirect and direct method and even the idea of both in one class, then what of the generative method that brings something more and unexpected to each and both kind of teaching and learning? How does teaching and learning become like skipping stones across the water so that not only are there ripples, but these interact and come back in more than one way and time, cycle and wave?

    Your post reminds me that direct and indirect methods have their effect and need. I have at times used both for people have different ways to be reached. I just hope that somehow everyone learns to reach back. To teach back. Indirect or direct are multi-directional, more than two ways. When we don’t settle and only want the best, we care enough to question and do what’s best for the time and the person we reached out to teach to and to learn from. There is more than direct and indirect, I look forward to seeing what that is too! Glad you are on the case of this PBL puzzle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: