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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2018)

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Book Review: Testing Teaching and Learning Assumptions with “The Contrarian Instructor”

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University 

The Contrarian Instructor:  Leading College Students to Ask and Answer their own Questions
By John Wm. Folkins
New York:  Nova Science Publishers, Inc.  
2017   193 pp.  

One core question guides John Wm. Folkins’ The Contrarian Instructor: Leading College Students to Ask and Answer their own Questions (2017):  

What are ways to improve the teaching and learning experience by thinking differently about current approaches, so that learners may discover their own intrinsic motivations for learning, so they can get the most out of higher education?  

To explore some ways forward, Folkins draws from a wide range of academic research and his own experiences as a researcher, professor, associate provost, and provost.  He draws from a cartoon strip in which a valedictorian’s claim to fame is being “a great test-taker” who has inadvertently made himself / herself a drone to the system and not someone who contributes something original and lasting to society (p. xii).  This person has mistaken school for life.  Also, Folkins cites Steven Sample’s “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership” as an inspiration; Sample was the president of the University of Southern California.  The book is written in an informal writing style and from a personal and reflective point-of-view, supported by a light review of the literature.  

Practicing the “10th Man” Rule

A generic “contrarian” is a person who goes against current practices.   For group work, an individual may be assigned to be the “10th man” (person) to be a purposive contrarian—to broaden the thinking of the group.  There is a lot of research that such a non-consensual “odd person out” role raises the performance of the individuals in the group and the group in general.  Consensus and complacency are dangerous states to be in, and unthinking educational habits can be damaging to generations of learners.  

Here, Folkins takes on the role of the 10th person.  In Folkins’ work, a “contrarian instructor” is one who questions conventional wisdoms and practices in teaching and learning and works to find ways to improve their work, and they are heroes—who help learners achieve “deep learning” instead of mere “surface learning” or “strategic learning”  (Marton & Säljö, 1976, as cited in Folkins, 2017, p. 19).  “Surface learning” is typified by rote memorization, and “strategic learning” is “still entirely directed by what is required by instructors to look good, to get good grades, and to graduate with the highest honors” (p. 20). By contrast, “deep learning” engages the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create) (pp. 20 – 21).  For learners, they are starting to ask their own questions about the material and are “challenging the veridicality of what they are told or what they read” (p. 20).  Importantly, they are motivated by intrinsic curiosities and high engagement; they are not using their time to pursue distracting extrinsic rewards and transient ego stroking.  Folkins describes the long-term benefits of intrinsic pursuits (vs. extrinsic rewards):  

Extrinsic rewards are public, at least at first. Then later, like a child’s gold star, they are forgotten. Intrinsic rewards are not very obvious in the nascent stages of learning.  That changes.  When one learns a skill, even a skill like becoming a good learner, the rewards are much more obvious when one becomes adroit.  When the talent is significant, the rewards come from the joy of using the talent.  Extrinsic rewards then become secondary, if not dismissed as a vestige of the past.  (p. 23) 

In the contrarian view, higher education is learner centered.  It is a waypoint on learners’ varied paths to answer questions “about life and the world” (p. 20).  Universities are places “built on creativity, innovation, and experimentation” (p. ix).  

And “the contrarian instructor” of the title is the reader, who engages this “self-reflexive” book that encourages contrarian thinking.  

What this Means for Higher Education?

The counterfactual vision of higher education that Folkins imagines is one that develops learners to know how to learn and adapt instead of having them focus on “the specifics of what they are learning” (p. xi), given how easy it is to access information about a wide range of topics online.  That sense of method trumps the conveyance of particular contents in certain disciplines.  

Content may be somewhat important, but one should give primary attention to how the unit and the course are organized to foster deep learning.  Where will the students be applying their critical thinking skills? What are their questions?  How does critical thinking about one topic early in the lecture foster critical thinking about another topic considered later?  Has the necessary information been included and organized to guide that critical inquiry? Beyond that, are there topics or other material that can be omitted, thus allowing more opportunity for student reflection and deep learning with the expectation that the deep learner can approach the omitted topics later in a more meaningful way? (pp. 99 – 100) 

This approach requires that instructors restrain their own egos (and self-importance) that may lead them to showcase their own research work and to create learners who are similar to themselves (social reproduction) but to adjust to their learners and their needs.  Folkins explains the importance of self-awareness of instructors that they do not subvert their own teaching by excess self-interest:  

Faculty members can be passionate about their teaching. They love to inspire students. Yet, they love to promote their disciplines and the special insights of their own lines of scholarship even more.  A subrosa purpose in many lectures is to get students to think like the lecturer does. (p. 9) 

What is preferable is to have lectures spark unique and original thinking in learners.  

Some Contrarian Points

Learning in right-sized groups has been a part of the academic discussions for years.  This author argues counterintuitively:  “The contrarian concludes if one has a choice between a large lecture class and a small lecture class, it is often better to take the large one.” (p. 96) This assumes that the large lecture learning is supported by small group work in other contexts.  

Folkins does not believe that technologies have changed fundamentals in teaching and learning and that their role may be somewhat hyped (p. 98).  Technology does not obviate the need for sufficient human contact and instructor presence to enable learning.   While online videos have enabled the flipping of classrooms, other advancements were not addressed.  

Introductory courses should not be survey ones that fit large amounts of updated information in the learning sequence (p. 106) but may do better by starting with reflective practice in the field.  He writes:  

Instead of trying to cover a lot of material, one can focus less on surveying the latest findings and more on introducing a discipline’s scholarly processes of inquiry.  Instructors can demonstrate how scholars in their discipline approach problems and then get students to work on similar problems. They can show the type of reflective practice and critical thinking unique to their area of scholarly inquiry.  Instructors can give just enough disciplinary content to provide a foundation to stimulate students to formulate questions of their own” (p. 107).  

Instead of promoting one modality of teaching and learning over others, Folkins generally suggests a variety of modalities to challenge learner thinking, regardless of their learning preferences.  

Connecting with Learners

One hurdle in teaching and learning involves getting past student skepticism.  He argues that learners’ built-in confirmation bias is not best addressed by the presentation of countervailing facts and logical arguments but is better addressed by working with learners to define shared values.  He writes:  

The literature on the confirmation bias shows that one should not begin with a logical argument.  Doing so provokes skeptics to dig in.  Instead, one connects with shared values, takes a personal rather than entirely research-based approach, develops concern for a problem, identifies a shared vision for solving the problem, and gives readers ideas for how they can contribute. (p. x) 

Teachers also connect with learners based on their own personal style and personalities.  While each style has its pros and cons, teachers need to connect with learners even as they change generation over generation.  The author suggests that instructors need to meet learners where they are and help them transition to a scholarly mindset:  

It is easy for instructors to be critical of students for not having an attitude that makes them hungry to learn. However, our students reflect our society.  Instructors should strive to understand student motivations and purposes for being in class, rather than being critical of them for not having a scholarly attitude. Students have yet to learn to be scholarly—it is our challenge to get them to want to learn and to learn to learn.  Then they will love to learn. (p. 17) 

If teachers have to decide on whether to use active learning or to engage theory first, Folkins suggests the first.  Here, learners experientially engage with the subject matter, reflect on that experience, and draw conclusions in a guided and / or self-discovery way.  They build their own mental models and schemas to understand disciplines.  Some analogical learning may be in how those studying music performance begin by learning instruments and then being introduced to and absorbing music theory.  Or there may be apprentice-based learning and internships.   
For lab sessions to be engaging, they need to be related to real-world problem-solving.  Having contrasting ideas helps promote “examination, evaluation, interpretation, and discussion about the pros and cons of different approaches and different behaviors” (p. 4).   If learners are insufficiently engaged, they will not be able to maintain continuing learning in the discipline.  One critical example is in science-based fields:  

Many students are turned off by their undergraduate experiences in the physical sciences. This happens even though the science curriculum has much going for it:  1) content that is intriguing and powerful in its implications, 2) significant relevance to our daily lives, 3) great potential for future developments; 4) and, of most importance to students given their strategic attitude, lucrative and prestigious vocational options.  In spite of these motivators, it is often only a few students who develop the desire to learn more science on their own because undergraduate courses have piqued the curiosity and the drive for deep learning. (Folkins, 2017, p. 26) 

The author write unequivocally that the theory-first approach is “not good at moving students from surface or strategic learning to deep learning” (p. 26).   Theory itself is important to learn, but it is captured through student reflection on their active learning experiences—which enables “far transfer” in the learning (p. 27).  While some conceptualize higher education in the U.S. as socialistic, Folkins suggests that they are more capitalistic, which explains “the juxtaposition of research and teaching in the same environment” (p. 9).  Traditionally, only seniors created high-risk honors theses, which included some research.  In the present era, even undergraduates take part in research and even publishing.   A contrarian view is that research should be scattered throughout the learning experience and mitigate some of the pressures from such work that may frustrate and discourage learners (p. 125).  Research should be broken down into more manageable pieces for learners.  Other ways to bring in more applied learning may be through professional internships, clinical activities, fieldwork, and study abroad opportunities. 

Identifying the Pedagogies in a Discipline

To aspire to be a contrarian instructor, it is important to first define a baseline.  A “signature pedagogy” reflects the “types of teaching that organize the fundamental ways in which future practitioners are educated for their new professions” in respective disciplines (Shulman, 2005, p. 52, as cited in Folkins, 2017, p. 25).  This pedagogy defines how individuals are shaped for the profession, which theories are introduces and how, what is considered evidence, how reasoning is conducted, how terms are defined, and how human susceptibilities for false beliefs are overcome.  The author suggests that any topic may be made appealing depending on how it is presented, “with the right sequence of challenging puzzles for the reflective practitioner to solve” (p. 66).  The responsibility falls on the teacher.  He explains:   “Instructors have difficulty grappling with the idea that the material is there not so much for the students to understand, but primarily to stimulate the students to ask and seek their own questions” (pp. 67 – 68).  

Folkins decries an over-focus in some cases for excessive practice, which he sees as effective for “near transfer” (p. 68) but not far.  “Massed practice” in a short period of time is less effective than “spaced practice” which “forces one to recall and refresh skills…for long-term learning” (p. 68).  For many, massed practice may be a de-motivator for learning.  In some cases, over-learning and targeted practice may be highly effective for some human capabilities involving so-called muscle memory (but which is actually brain training).   

Using Game Design

Video games are personally meaningful, experiential, and social.  At their core, video games are based on reflective practice.”  (Folkins, 2017, p. 85) 

Another design element that John Wm. Folkins prefers proposes is the harnessing of game design, including six principles:  “1) the essential-experience principle, 2) the discovery principle, 3) the risk-taking principle, 4) the generalization principle, 5) the reward-system principle, and 6) the identity principle” (p. 76).  Instructors design learning experiences for learners in selective ways, to encourage them to ask their own questions and pursue their own answers.  In learning, as in games, the individual receives relevant and regular feedback.  Formative feedback tends to be more private and particular to the learner, and summative feedback tends to play a public role, with the results used to show learner capabilities (pp. 23 – 24).  

In game design as in learning, the individual engages in risk-taking (which must be mitigated).  In the same way that people’s brain centers enjoy positive surprise, these reward systems in the human brain may be triggered by positive surprises in learning.  Videogames encourage users to reuse skills once learned, and learners can benefit from this.  Learning may be designed to affirm learner identities as practitioners in a field, in the same way that gamers are affirmed in their gaming identities.  

Testing for Deep Learning

Not only is formative assessment seen as part of the learning assessment, but so, too, summative assessment.  Folkins suggests testing as “a learning tool” (p. 69) and as a way to “encourage deep learning and to provide the intrinsic rewards to the students for engaging in deep learning” (p. 108) and to enable learners “to perform skills necessary to practice the discipline under pressure” (p. 111).  But what does testing for deep learning look like?  And if precious class time is not used for testing, how can this be done practicably while enforcing student honesty?  (pp. 108-109)  The author wraps up the chapter with the following playful quip:  

Traditionally, instructors do not wish to take too much time away from instruction for testing students.  I posit that examinations that involve reflective practice are some of the best learning experiences instructors can provide.  One cannot have too many examinations.  (p. 111) 

Beyond the Classroom

The author encourages readers to think of learning occurring in other parts of the college experience and not just in the classroom.  For example, “reflective groups” may be organized to support mutual learning and to encourage distributed informal leadership.  He provides examples of student groups and Faculty Learning Communities.   He describes the uses of hallways prior to and after scheduled classes as spaces for important social and learning interactions (pp. 144-145).  He offers some light points on physical space design of classrooms.  One example involves his observations of windows:  “Windows are not the enemy.  Windows can add interest, character, and style to classroom spaces. Interior windows can often add to the classroom appeal as well as minimizing interruptions when windows are next to or in the door” (p. 154).  


John Wm. Folkins’ “The Contrarian Instructor” reads like a grab bag of author-based insights on how to improve teaching and learning, written at a high level of abstraction.  The principle of being contrarian makes a lot of sense because it can open up novel possibilities.  And being contrarian does not necessarily mean being adversarial nor disagreeable.  

The gap between the contrarian instructor and the so-called traditional one is practically bridgeable here, but there are extant questions.  For example, how can instructors tell whether or not learners are engaging in “deep learning” and inspired intrinsically and motivated to learn in the long term?  The assessment piece is not described here.  In environments of complexity and uncertainty—such as those in higher education teaching, research, and learning, Folkins is open to a wide range of different expressions of contrarian teaching and learning.  How contrarian learning may be instantiated is another factor that may be more effectively defined.  Is it possible to have deep learning without concomitant high GPAs?  After all, there are many fields that require high GPAs, and even a .1 or .2 difference on a 4.0 scale is enough to disqualify learners from important career paths.  And given the limited time, resource, and energy constraints in building learning and designing classrooms, where should contrarian instructors start?  What does an effective teaching and learning rethinking and redesign look like? 

Readers may recognize some parts of themselves as contrarian and other parts as traditional, and depending on experiences, they may take exception to some assertions.  For example, those who are sticklers for facts and accuracy may not agree with the following assertion:  “Students should learn to be confident in their own answers. Being right is not as important as learning to justify ones (sic) answers.”  (p. 5)  

Folkins’ conversational and somewhat meandering style makes what might be an intimidating topic approachable.  This book is not without typos, though:   “land-grand” (sic) universities,
“principle (sic) rationale,” and “Benjamin Franklin’s wise council (sic),” and others.   

Still, the core ideas come through:  make sure you're seeing the current context accurately, doubt the defaults, assess the teaching and learning with fresh eyes, and strive to improve the work.  

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer at Kansas State University.  Her email is 

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