Who to Follow: Derek Bruff

Derek Bruff

Derek Bruff maintains a blog entitled “Agile Learning” and can also be found on Twitter. He has a PhD in mathematics from Vanderbilt University, taught at Harvard University, published a book on active learning, and currently teaches at Vanderbilt and is the director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. In addition to all of those impressive accomplishments, Bruff is currently part of a group that’s creating two MOOCs on best practices in STEM teaching, using a National Science Foundation grant.

Agile Learning

Bruff explains that he entitled his blog “agile learning” to “describe a certain kind of on-the-fly responsiveness to student learning needs in the classroom.” From reading through his posts, it’s clear that he does “practice what he preaches”– he’s an “agile learner” himself. In his current position, he teaches teachers, and as he says, “I find that I need a similar kind of agility. I never know what resources, ideas, or experiences I’ll be called upon to share with a colleague as we talk about teaching. As a result, I find myself learning about all sorts of things that might come in handy in a consultation or workshop one day.”

In part, I chose to highlight Derek Bruff in my “Who to Follow” assignment because I found his mathematics background intriguing. I’ve always been a right-brained, social science-type of person, and so I know I can learn from someone who has such a unique perspective to education and who is naturally predisposed to be mathematical and analytical (he teaches classes on cryptography, linear algebra, and statistics). Reading through a few of his posts and skimming over the topics of his other posts, it’s apparent that he writes on all kinds of interesting issues: he talks about social pedagogies, MOOCs, visual thinking, how to motivate students, etc. He also actually says that his blog represents what Gardner Campbell would call his “own personal cyberinfrastucture,” so it was neat to explore a fully developed personal cyberinfrastructure.

Recent Post: Flipped Literature Classrooms

His most recent post was entitled, “Class Time Reconsidered: Flipping the Literature Class.” In this post, he acknowledges that he used to think it was silly to consider flipping a class like literature. He explains, “I used to joke that flipping a literature class would be a terrible idea. Students would read silently together in class, then discuss the reading online later. Who would do that?” But, he goes on to describe some of the approaches two literature professors have used to successfully “flip” their literature classrooms. Professor Helen Shin used an entire class session to have students perform an in-class reading of a short text, so the reading would be completed in a “more holistic and organic fashion” as compared to the “piecemeal” approach to close reading usually used for longer works. Similarly, Professor Humerto Garcia asked students to use class time to read and comment on each other’s blog posts. In both instances, a significant part of the class time was spent on silent reading/writing time (followed by robust discussion).

Bruff explains that through the approach of each of these professors, the learning activities were “collaborative” and “communal” and consequently, effective. He explains that “close reading of a text and responding to another writer’s argument are both important skills in a literature course. Why not have students practice those skills during class, when they can receive feedback on that practice from both their instructor and their peers? … The flipped classroom is about moving the hard parts of learning into the classroom, where they can benefit from what Helen Shin calls “shared temporal, spatial, and cognitive presence.”

Even though this post was short, it was well-written, easy to understand, and evidence-based. I expect that Bruff’s other posts would be just as useful, which is why I recommend Derek Bruff as someone to follow.


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