I have been thinking a lot lately about how the modern pedagogy movement has been focused almost solely on what have traditionally been indoor lecture courses. I won’t claim to be an expert on the literature in modern pedagogy, but I haven’t seen anything and couldn’t find anything with some quick Googling that applies modern university pedagogy theory to field courses (recommendations welcome in the comments) .
I have commented in the past that while I am annoyed by the unthinking group-think around the modern pedagogy movement involving active/flipped/inquiry-based/peer-instructed/just-in-time/etc classrooms, and wonder if we aren’t missing some elephants in the room by our recent focus on this area, it seems pretty clear that it is a good thing we are now having conversations about classroom pedagogy and have a good toolkit emerging.
So what exactly would the modern pedagogy movement think about undergraduate field courses in ecology? Are they already doing the right thing? Or are they as much in need of innovation as lectures?
I think the answer depends. As both a student and a teacher, I have been involved in two very different types of field courses.
The first type is often attached to an ecology class or a stand alone field course (OTS being a canonical example). It involves going outside and conducting experiments or observations. I think such courses have already naturally tapped into the best of modern pedagogy. They are inquiry based – they have students working on their own to answer a question. With students working in small teams a fair amount of peer instruction happens. Since students do their own measurements, analysis and write-up it is active learning. They’re certainly hands-on and real-world relevant. If the students do reading at home to prepare for the field trip you could argue they are flipped, although I don’t think too many ecology labs have this structure, and I don’t think its essential to tick off every possible box of modern pedagogy.
The second type of field class I have been part of are those usually attached to an -ology class (ornithology, entomology, mammalogy or plantology (aka botany🙂 ). These classes often have a focus on memorizing specialized vocabulary for describing the anatomy and physiology of the group of interest (this often coming from lab dissections) and then applying these terms to memorize and spot identify dozens of taxonomic groups. These are really memorization-focused classes. Which means they fall really low on the Bloom hierarchy (recapped in my earlier post). And they have a lot in common with lectures, at least as traditionally taught – the expert stands and pontificates while the students look on – really just a lecture with a live specimen in hand and no walls around the classroom. Now that last fact of a live specimen and no walls around the classroom is pretty darn cool. In fact its great. Its why I became an ecologist. But does it really change whether its a lecture? And does it really change how much students learn? And how much they retain?
I personally am in the process of thinking through what what this second type of class would look like in a modern pedagogy style. How high up the Bloom taxonomy would you aim? What general principles/concepts would you even try to teach in say a botany or entomology class? Would peer-instruction work when none of the students have seen the organism before?
So far the things I have thought are:
- How would you replace those outdoor lectures. The best alternative I’ve thought of is turning students loose in small groups with a key or field guide trying to figure out on their own what they’ve found. You will get through a lot less species (like maybe only 1/4 as many), but I think they will be retained better and they will learn the process of identification instead of memorization.
- In a weird sort of flipping, I think you may need to spend a good chunk of lecture preparing students for the time outside. EG – put up a picture of leaves from five different maple species and have the students spend time in small groups developing a key to distinguish these species.
- Beyond species ID, emphasize things students can observe with their own eyes (e.g. growing in wet vs dry soils, associations with other species, elevational and successional gradients) rather than more abstract but cool things like allelopathy, nitrogen fixation.
- Deemphasize terminology. You’re not going to be able to ID trees without knowing alternate vs opposite, simple vs compound leaves. But do you need to know cordate vs lanceolate leaves or is a field guide (or key) with pictures good enough? And can’t we just say heart-shaped and grass-leaf-shaped?
Some of this probably differs drastically between undergraduates and graduates as well. A graduate student doing vegetation analysis probably does need to know what cordate means to be able to use keys. And they probably do need to know all the species, not just learn the process of keying out.
Or maybe we should just abandon -ology classes. Perhaps everything should be an OTS-like class centered around inquiry and experiments, and they will learn some species along the way? This seems extreme, even antithetical, to me but if I am honest, it might be the full logical application of modern pedagogy to field courses. IE that -ology courses as currently structured should go away?
Those are my thoughts at the moment. What do you think? What do you think a modern pedagogy -ology class would look like. Or should they continue to exist? Would you try to move up Bloom’s hierarchy? What are the higher level principles you would try to teach? Which techniques out of active/inquiry-based/peer/just-in-time/flipped would you apply? What would the class look like? Would you do a graduate course differently?