Vulnerability in Teaching & Leading

Stepping off the pedestal

I think teachers and leaders have trouble with vulnerability. Traditionally, these roles are supposed to have all the answers. However, embracing humility and vulnerability is probably more honest and even more productive in both teaching and leading. A vulnerable stance invites critique and sharing of ideas and this can only improve learning and decision-making. 

I know taking a vulnerable stance is something with which I struggle. Admitting that I don’t know something or that someone else’s idea might be better than mine is unnatural for me. I think it’s unnatural for most of us. However, when I try to take a more vulnerable stance, I am usually left in awe of my students and/or colleagues.  So, below I’ve tried to identify a few strategies I’ve used to take a more vulnerable position.

1) Ask questions rather than make statements. As a teacher/leader I think making proclamations about how things should be is easy. Asking questions leaves room for the voice of other people to enter the discussion. Rather than privileging our own perspectives, I think good teachers and leaders privilege the ideas of others.

2) Stop talking. Related to number one, if we want to reduce the emphasis on our thinking, we have to stop talking from time to time. When we create space for others, they are likely to fill it. Unfortunately, most classes and meetings are dominated by a single voice. It’s vulnerable to create space for others because other people are unpredictable, but it certainly makes things more interesting.

3) Share doubts about our own thinking. I think sometimes teachers and leaders either purposefully or inadvertently create a space where their ideas are beyond critique. Even if the leader/teacher hasn’t created this environment, a lot of our past experiences keep us from critiquing teachers/leaders. So, to encourage critique, I think the teacher/leader should model the critical stance. Perhaps after sharing an idea the teacher/leader can explicitly say, “…but I’m not sure about this approach so need you all to tell me what I’m missing.”

4) Ask for feedback. I remember when I was a first year teacher, I asked my students to do “teacher evaluations” about every 4 weeks or so. I had one student write on the form, “I wish you would stop making Mr. Kruse do these evaluations, he’s a great teacher and you should leave him alone”. She assumed the administration was making me give all the evaluations and was sticking up for me. I am still nearly brought to tears when thinking of that. Yet, I learned a lot about how my students were reacting to my teaching and I got a lot of ideas to refine my approach. I imagine leaders would find similar utility if they asked for feedback from their organization. 

Of course, I don’t always take a vulnerable stance. Like all strategies, there are contextual factors that determine when something is appropriate. However, I have a hunch that the more vulnerable we are, the better our teaching and leading will be. 

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Punctuated Equilibrium: Life, scientists, students

I’m not an evolutionary biologist so forgive me if I get this wrong. I believe that some evolutionary biologists either currently or at one time believed that evolution progressed with spurts of activity in which certain events caused a higher level of evolutionary pressure causing an increased rate of appearance of new organisms. I’m quite certain this is not completely correct, but I’m using this thinking in a different context anyway.

I’ve been teaching a course in which we are exploring the history and philosophy of science and in rereading some of the course materials, I’ve wondered if science itself might experience episodes of rapid evolution and new idea generation. For example, in the time after a paradigm shift I suspect a flurry of activity is created as the new paradigm is explored. Then, after some time, the flurry of new ideas slows as the questions are answers and normal science sets in. 

Of course, given the connection between paradigm shifts and learning, I wonder if students might experience a flurry of insight soon after a conceptual change event. For example, if students believe moon phases are cause by the Earth’s shadow, but through dissonance generating activities and development of more accurate views, might the students suddenly have multiple insights (e.g. eclipses, day/night, light on the Earth, etc) if guided in that direction?

Of course science is a community and the learning load is spread amongst the community. For students, they may run into a cognitive load issue. I suspect teachers can capitalize on conceptual change events to make connections to multiple ideas, but we may want to think carefully about the order we engage students in these ideas in an effort to reduce the cognitive load. Of course, there is no magic bullet, but maybe I can better leverage individual cognitive shifts with some more advanced planning around what other insights might be related to the initial shift in thinking. 

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I’m done with busy.

I don’t think I often wear the busy-ness badge of honor or complain about how busy I am, but I think a list of my recent commitments might help you see why I’m trying to get away from busy. So, here’s what I’ve had going on in the last year that I would consider beyond my minimum job duties:

  • Chair of my department
  • PI of a $525,000 grant
  • PI of a $50,000 grant
  • Co-PI of a $5,000 grant
  • Chair of my church’s Board of Christian Social Action
  • Member of my church’s Council
  • Teaching two overload courses
  • Co-Chair of an international conference
  • Secretary of an international organization’s board
  • Overseeing the work of 7 doctoral students
  • Overseeing the work of 4 undergrad researchers
  • Helped create/launch 2 new Master degree programs
  • Member of faculty senate
  • Member of faculty senate executive committee
  • Vice chair of IRB
  • Member of an ad hoc university curriculum revision committee
  • Presented 10 research papers at national conferences
  • Had 4 papers accepted for publication
  • Reviewed 4 manuscripts for journals

I’m sure I missed something, but you get the point.  These things are all on top of my main job: teaching. I am on a few other committees, but at least some service is part of the expectations for the job. I’m quite certain there are others out there with longer lists, so I am not looking for sympathy. Indeed, I enjoy doing almost every one of these things.

And that might be the problem.

When we enjoy things, we just might be willing to give too much to them. So I’ve started doing some soul searching and trying to not prioritize based on what I like to do, or even what I’m good at. Instead, I’m trying hard to reflect more about what I see my as my purpose. I think I’ve always had a pretty good notion of purpose, but I think it is easily clouded over by things I enjoy or even things I’m capable of doing. Going forward, I’m trying harder to worry less about whether I’ll enjoy something or whether I might be good at something. Instead, I’m asking if that thing helps me achieve my purpose.

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One Way to Improve Your Teaching

Sometimes I am asked what is the most important part of teaching effectively or what is the one thing that I’d recommend for people to try. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the question can be answered. There is no single thing that can be done. The more I think about teaching, the more I see it as a complex interaction of many different strategies and ways of thinking. In short, teaching is too complex to answer the question. Therefore, please don’t misinterpret the title or what follows as overly reductionist.

However, as I was considering what to write about today, I thought about what has been most useful for me as a teacher. First my mind went to the importance of concrete representations. Then I thought about the importance of asking question rather than explaining, but then I thought about all the non-verbals and management needed to make questioning work. After some thought I realized that most of the things I do in my teaching are in support of one question: “How do I get the students thinking about the thing I want them to think about?”

This feels somewhat intuitive, but I have (and have witnessed countless others) taught lessons in which the students did a lot of thinking, but were never asked to think about what the teacher wanted them to think about. This insight shows up most prominently in the literature as Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman’s “explicit & reflective” framework for teaching the nature of science. For example, a teacher might set out to help their students understand that science is creative. Throughout the lesson the students are encouraged to be creative, but the teacher never asks the students to think about how science is creative. The students leave that lesson and have NOT learned that science is creative.  This finding is extremely well supported. I’ve even applied the notion of explicit & reflective instruction to other content areas and found similar results. Kids can’t just do (even if the doing requires thought), they must also reflect on what they are doing. (This is a problem with the NGSS, they can easily be interpreted as things for students to do rather than things for students to understand, but that is for another post.)

One thing I’ve notice when working with teachers on implementing this idea is that they tend to stay very general. For example, they might ask, “How is what we did today like what scientists do?”  This is a reasonable starting point, but doesn’t target anything more specific.  Below are some general questions with related specific questions to try with your students. 

General Question: How what we did today like what scientists do?

Related Specific Questions: We were creative today, why do think scientists have to creative? Why do you think scientists work together like you did? I notice you didn’t follow a specific set of steps, why can we say the scientific method is a myth?

General Question: What can we say about technology after today’s lesson?

Related Specific Questions: Why is equating technology with digital not accurate? How did the technology change the way we thought today? In what way was technology both a good thing and bad thing in class today? 

General Question: What does it mean to learn?

Related Specific Questions: Why does knowing vocabulary not necessarily mean you understand something? Why is learning not usually a quick process? Why is the notion of “right” answers sometimes problematic?

General Question: How are systems of oppression constructed?

Related Specific Questions: In what way does language mediate access to education? How might media portrayals of marginalized groups reinforce inequity? What does a bootstrapping mentality miss about the role of safety nets? 

Even though these questions are more specific, they are still open-ended and I work hard to respond to students appropriately. Of course simply asking these questions is not enough. We have to provide a concrete experience on which to draw, ensure our questions are developmentally appropriate, use inviting non-verbals, create an expectation for participation, provide reasonable scaffolding, and many other pieces of effective teaching.  Yet, thinking is learning. If we want our students to learn something, we have to encourage them to think about that something. 

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Ego and Learning

I was watching a good friend teach recently and they had the students talk in small groups. In one group I noticed that a single student seemed to dominate the conversation. At one point during the small group discussion, another student started talking and the dominant student immediately began a side conversation and paid zero attention to the direction the overall group was moving. Interestingly, the group continued to move forward and the dominant student’s thinking stalled. While the rest of the class (over the course of the lesson) came to a more accurate understanding, the dominant student struggled to make the same connections their peers were making.

I thought for a while about why the dominant student – who was clearly engaged and sharing their thinking – did not learn. Then, social learning theory came flooding back. This student was so focus on their own thinking that they refused to engage with others’ ideas. When we refuse to hear others, we cannot learn from them.

My preservice teachers often ask me how to keep some students from talking too much. I agree with their instincts, but after watching the episode above unfold, I’ve got a new concern. While I think we are often concerned that dominant students prevent the rest of the students from sharing their thinking, I now realize that dominant students might be hindering their own learning! While we want to encourage more students to participate, we also want to encourage our dominant students to hear others.

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4 Ways I Use Chalk/White Boards

I love chalk boards. I never have to worry about whether the lines are dark enough or if any given piece of chalk will be dried out. Chalk just works. Unfortunately, whiteboards replaced chalkboards in most classrooms long ago and all too often smart boards are replacing whiteboards. I don’t think the old school chalk and white boards get enough credit. So, here are four ways I think old-fashioned boards are still really useful for teaching and learning. 

1) Documenting student ideas. When we ask better questions we should expect students to provide multiple answers. Yet, keeping track of the diversity of student answers requires a lot of mental effort. I try to offload some of this mental effort by writing the students’ thinking on the board. When I do write the ideas on the board, I try really hard to write exactly what they say. Some students are long-winded, so I sometimes ask, “How can we simplify what you said to write it on the board?” I’d argue that this act of having to simplify their own thinking is a useful process all by itself, but it also saves me a lot of writing! I also try really hard to write all of the students’ ideas – even if they are not accurate. When we are brainstorming, I am simply documenting ideas and I can come back to the ideas later so don’t have to address misconceptions immediately.  This gives me some time to think about how to help students move away from their misconceptions. 

2) Comparing ideas. Once we have the student ideas documented, I can draw attention to two (or more) ideas and ask them to compare. For example, I might ask, “How are this idea (point) and this idea (point) different?” This might be when I help students become dissatisfied with certain ideas as well. While we don’t want to reject students’ ideas, we don’t want them to walk around thinking their misconceptions are correct. However, if I ask students to rethink an idea 5 after we’ve generated a 10-idea list, most of the students have forgotten who said what so we can discuss the idea divorced from the person who held the idea. 

3) Drawing pictures. I am not a talented artist, but I am a careful drawer of diagrams. I’ve honed this craft over may years of trying to convey accurate thinking through pictures. While I could simply show students a pre-made diagram from a text book, I believe their is value in drawing the picture with them. When we watch someone draw, we get insight into their thinking and we can use the process as a teaching moment.  For example, after drawing a certain feature I might ask the class, “Why do you think I drew that part the way I did?”

4) Modeling problem-solving. Similar to drawing pictures to demonstrate thinking, I think the board can be used to model problem-solving in a purposefully less efficient way. Rather than having a worked example ready to go, I might ask the students to propose a situation related to some content we just learned (e.g. A new situation in which to draw force diagrams or a new set of numbers to try a mathematical approach). In these situations I might ask the students to tackle the new situation/problem on their own or in groups first, but when we come together as a whole class, the board is a useful tool. I might draw the situation/problem and then ask the students what I should do next. The board becomes our common vantage point, but I have to encourage students to think about what we are doing. Rather than simply working the problem or completing the scenario, I ask them what to do next or why what we did seemed to work.

Clearly, we don’t often think of the board as cutting-edge educational technology. However, because boards are so versatile we can use them to react to changing conditions in the classroom in some ways better than digital technologies. However, just like all technologies, boards have pros and cons and how we use them matters. 

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Taking Things Personally

So, this post was spurred by a somewhat random thought and came out very stream of consciousness, but ended up in kind of an interesting place. Enjoy!

Early in my teaching career (ok, even now), I let student misbehavior or pushback really get to me. I would hang on to their disrespect or disdain for days and even weeks. I wanted students to like me, and I was really bothered when they didn’t. Over time, I have been able to shift away from taking things personally and am able to let go of student perceptions and not see their misbehavior as a direct attack on my character. 

I think I see some of my early thinking play out in many new teachers’ unwillingness to intervene when students are causing a distraction. Unfortunately, the distraction takes mental energy and the rest of the lesson suffers. I suspect that at least in some cases, we as teachers are holding onto a very common desire to be liked. Rocking the boat is scary. I wish I could remember the first time I asked a student to stick around after class to discuss their distracting actions, but I don’t. I do know that my approach has evolved over the years. Instead of telling the students what is wrong, I try really hard to ask questions – something like, “I noticed you were having trouble paying attention today, what can I do to help?” While I am drawing the students’ attention to the fact that I noticed, I’m also trying to help, not give an ultimatum. Ultimatums might work with some kids, but those are probably the kids that aren’t all that distracting in the first place. Maybe I’ve been able to take things less personally because I’m taking things more personally. Rather than creating an adversarial relationship, I can now see how we are in it together. Instead of projecting my own sense of inadequacy, I’m accepting my own responsibility for helping them learn.

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