Different disciplines, different teaching? 

Nothing frustrates me more than the claim that “what I teach is too difficult (or different) for [good teaching] to work”. First, the claim assumes that one set of ideas is somehow inherently more difficult to teach/learn than another set of ideas. Second, the claim is dismissive of the tremendous amount of research we have in support of effective teaching generally. Indeed, if what we know about effective teaching doesn’t apply across content areas, then I’d argue we don’t know very much at all. 

Students bring their prior experiences, their misconceptions, and their various developmental levels to any learning situation. Whether I am trying to teach students about white privilege, about the cause of the seasons, or what Moby Dick means, they (and we) will be confronted with similar issues: resistance, disbelief, emotional unease, etc. Given these similar student responses, why would similar strategies not be effective?  

Does this mean we should all look the same or teach the same way? Yes & no. Of course differences across content areas will be apparent, but at a deep level some commonality must exist because learning (from a mechanistic/biological perspective) does not happen differently just because the stuff to be learned changed. So, find a great teacher in a different content area, watch them and ask, “what does this look like in my content area?”  

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Questioning privilege. 

Here’s a little somthing from Facebook. I’m sorry if this seems to be mansplaining. The context is several people of tremendous privilege (one of them me) discussing a problematic Facebook post. I also apologize if the logic jumps around as I am trying to address several lines of questions at once. 

So, a “friend” posted a picture essentially claiming that everyone just need to work harder. The message was being put forth by a white man. I commented, others commented and it got heated. One person asked if I grade the papers of students who reflect minority groups easier than white students. Another asked why I talk about these issues on Facebook. As I composed my response, I was unfriended & the content was removed. So, here is my response:

Clearly not. Your question exudes ignorance. This is not about making things easier for people, it’s about making access equitable. Therefore, I do constantly question why 95% of my college students are white. Our department evaluates what barriers might be keeping non-majority students out of our program and work to remove them. There is systematic racism & sexism in this country. To think that I, as a white male, have had the same road as those who don’t have my privilege is ludicrous. To say to a woman who was denied a promotion because she is female (yes, that happens) “well, you should have worked harder” is just wrong. 

The issue of racism & sexism isn’t about making things easier for some groups, it’s about making them equitable so that all people can achieve the same with the same effort. But you seem to think this guy has the same opportunities as everyone else. Let’s take race out of it and maybe you’ll understand.

Imagine a kid is born to a homeless family. Why might they have a hard time finding that 70 hour a week work? Why might they not even get into college? Why might they not even be able to apply? All of these have nothing to do with the child’s work ethic. 

Similar constraints apply to minority groups and women. Imagine being a high school-aged female sitting in your high school guidance counselors office and he suggests modeling instead of college (despite your having exceptional grades). Imagine walking into stores and always followed because of your race. Imagine having teachers who don’t expect as much out of you because of your gender or race. Imagine not being able to find the 70 hour a week job because those same business owners that follow you in their store sure as hell aren’t going to give you a job. 

Why Facebook? Because people should be called on their bullshit no matter where they spread it. This matters for real people. The bootstrapping mentality continues to keep oppressed people oppressed while you get to say they are just lazy. You get to clear your conscience, while others get to struggle. I’ve been to protests, I’ve written letters to my representatives, I address these issues in my classes, but working for a more just world doesn’t magically stop when I get online.

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Stop Blaming Technology

My flight was canceled, I’m booked on a later flight, I’m not going to get home when I was planning to (by 15 hours). Here’s a blogpost.

I’m returning from a conference about improving STEM education at the college level. At this conference, I attended an interesting session in which they collected data about changes made in a relatively large lecture course (157 students). This data seemed to support that the intervention improved outcomes (don’t ask me the details). The talk focused on the technology used to improve the course. For example, the students worked in small groups during lecture to solve problems that were delivered to them via a web app. Then, there were sessions that students attended (one every two weeks) in which 20 of the students wrestled with course concepts in a TILE classroom. Of course the improvement of the course outcomes was due to technology!

No one questioned it.

Improvements in this course likely have nothing to do with the technology. Instead, notice how the lecture time is being used to engage students in small groups rather than talking at them. Notice the built in time for smaller groups of students to engage in problem-solving activities.  Neither of these task requires digital technology. You could hand out pieces of paper with problems rather than an app, you could have students collaborate with a white board instead of a TILE classroom. The learning didn’t improve because the technology improved.

The learning improved because the teaching improved.

This does not mean we should not use technology in our courses, but we have to stop blaming crediting technology for our successes. We should recognize the way we restructure the learning activities to promote more thinking. Furthermore, giving undue credit to technology provides ready-made excuses for not teaching better (e.g. I don’t have access to that technology). While technology sometimes restructures learning activities for the better, most often the technology attempts to streamline an inherently inefficient process: learning.

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10 Ways to Change Classroom Culture

I’m sitting in a professional development session about culturally responsive teaching. One of the things we’ve discussed is how to create a classroom culture that is more welcoming to more students. One phrase I’ve heard repeatedly is that we need to make a “safe space” for our learners.  However, I’m not convinced we’ve explored the implications of the statement.  So below I’m brainstorming some ways we can subtly (or not so subtly) shift our classroom culture.

  1. Avoid lecturing unless necessary (i.e. number 2 is not going to work).
  2. Ask open-ended questions. You can guide student thinking a lot more than you might think and still ask open-ended questions. For example, “In what way do lists of how to improve your teaching not fully acknowledge the complexities of teaching?” (See what I did there). 
  3. Acknowledge student responses. If you are asking open-ended questions and actually want students to keep answering, avoid rejecting and confirming what students say. Sometimes you implicitly confirm or reject based on your voice intonation when you repeat students’ comments, so…
  4. Avoid repeating students’ responses. Repeating their comments for them keeps you at the center of instruction.
  5. Rather than comment on students’ ideas, ask the rest of the students what they think about what was just said.
  6. Use open-ended assessments. Give students enough freedom to show their knowledge in a way that makes sense to them.
  7. Stop using rubrics. Leave feedback that addresses students’ individual needs instead of trying to fit them into a box.
  8. Move among the students. Try to not to stay at the front of the room. Hang white boards in the back and sides ofthe room. During group time, work with small groups at their level. Pull up a chair.
  9. Ask students to give you feedback on your teaching and the class more often. After two or three weeks, ask students to anonymously write what they like and what they don’t like about your teaching and class. 
  10. Explicitly ask the students to reflect on their learning. For example, ask students “Why do you think simply reading about this would not have been as useful for your learning?”

Ten is a nice round number, so I’ll stop there.  What other ideas would you add?

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Learning to teach is like a religious conversion?

I’m reading Rob Bell’s “Velvet Elvis” for a third or fourth time. As he’s explaining his trampoline metaphor in which the doctrines of faith are flexible & necessary, but not the point (as opposed to a brick wall in which one doctrine, or brick, can bring it all down), I found myself thinking about my experiences learning to teach & the experiences of the preservice teachers with which I work. 

In one section, Bell notes that joining a religion is too often about knowing the right things. These pieces of knowledge are used to construct your wall. Yet, we can know/say all the right things with little impact on our hearts. However, in his trampoline model, the point is to jump. To jump into the unknown. To live. 

So, as new teachers develop, I wonder if we give them bricks (in the form of templates & must do strategies) instead of springs. I wonder if we try to keep them behind the wall instead of encouraging them to jump. 

What does it look like to encourage a new (or a veteran teacher) teacher to jump? What do they need to know about the springs in order to jump? 

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Do students want to be educated?

We’ve taught our kids to be pragmatists. In true technocratic fashion, an education is no longer a way to expand or refine your thinking. Instead, education is simply a means to an end. Kids don’t want to be educated, they want to be credentialed.

This phenomenon is nothing new. As a high school and college student, I simply existed as education was done to me. I rarely engaged, often slept, and still got A’s. As a middle and high school teacher, my students actively resisted my efforts to make them think. They wanted (expected) me to simply hand out answers and gold stars when they could adequately regurgitate. Now, as a teacher of teachers, I see how future teachers struggle to implement divergent questioning. I suspect some of my students would love for me to simply prescribe teaching method X so they might rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, the K-12 schools and curriculum are happy to oblige.

I still believe that students at all levels want to be educated (as opposed to trained). After breaking down their resistance, I see legitimate joy in the frustration that is characteristic of real learning. I just wish I didn’t have to bang my head against the wall so long to get there. I hope that one day our society will change its expectations of education. Until then, please pass the aspirin.

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What worked for you…

We often here that the old/traditional/lecture-based/age-promoted system of education is antiquated and untenable for the future. When someone defends the the old system, the “disruptive” crowds refrain, “what worked for you might not work for all students!” Needless to say, dialogue doesn’t exactly happen much on social media (megaphones are a poor medium for nuance).

I noticed today that most of what the “revolutionaries” are suggesting for educational change are simply things they have come to recently enjoy as learners.  Does the refrain not apply to them?

Perhaps it’s time to get past our focus on what we or our students “like” and base our pedagogical decisions on the tremendous psychological and educational research out there.  Just for clarity, TED talks and flipped classrooms (the original*) simply do not align with what we know about learning. 
*If you’re talking about the “new and improved” flipped classroom, then your just talking about good teaching, and we don’t need another name for that.

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