On Burnout

The Foo Fighters have been one of my favorite bands for quite some time, so when they came to Des Moines for the first time ever, I went. Our seats were not great, but it’s the Foo Fighters, so even bad seats were worth the ticket price. However, in the first few moments of their opening song it became very apparent that Dave Grohl’s voice was thrashed. This, of course, is not surprising given the nature of his singing and I do not think the show suffered very much because of his weakened voice.

While I admired Dave’s (cause we are on a first name basis) dedication and determination to power through, I found myself wishing he would take it a little easy to save a little bit for the next night and the next group of fans. This led me to thinking about teaching (as one does during a rock concert). I thought of all the teachers who burn out. The statistic that gets thrown around is that 50% of new teachers are no longer teachers within 5 years.

For some teachers that burn out, the job simply isn’t a good fit and preservice education needs to continue to ensure folks know what they are getting into. For other burnouts, the job is too good of a fit. They give so much to every student every year that at some point they have nothing left to give. Their voice is thrashed.

Here’s to the Dave Grohl teachers of the world. You give and then you give some more. When your voice is thrashed, you press on. Yet, don’t forget that the tour is long and you’ve got a lot of students ahead of you.

Take care of yourselves, we need you more than we need rock stars.

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Do less for learners

A few days ago, my oldest drew a two square court on our driveway. Given that my dad-game is strong, I told him to get a ball if he wants to get beat. He retrieved the ball, but it was flat. So I said, go get the bike pump. He brought the ball, and the pump over to me and waited. However, I was home for only a little while before I had to leave to teach an evening class. Therefore, my hands were full with left over pizza I was scarfing before having to go teach. So, he and I stood their looking at each other.

Silence is a wonderful thing.

He waited patiently for me to finish eating for all of 30 seconds and then started investigating the bike pump and the ball. He had observed me pumping up a ball before so he had some idea what to do. A few moments later, he had inserted the ball needle into the pump end and squeezed the needle in to the ball. He pumped the ball up, removed the needle, rewrapped the pump hosing and put everything away just in time for me to finish my pizza and we had a fun game of two square….that I like totally won.

He didn’t need me for that particular task anymore.

And that’s the point.

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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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