The moment of need

Prospective teachers too often assume that teaching is easy.  After all, they’ve been watching teaching for more than 13 years and believe they have a pretty good handle on what it takes to teach.  Unfortunatley, their “apprenticeship of observation” has typically not served them well.

This past Friday, my methods students visited our practicum placement for the first time this semester. The teacher we visit is a tremendous teacher and I’m proud to say she is a former student of mine. When confronted by her instructional prowess I see in many of my students’ eyes the immediate recognition that they simply cannot do what she is doing with kids (yet). Some of them even admit to me as much.

Now, we are ready to learn. 

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Can Leadership be Learned?

The more I read about leadership, the more unique characteristics come to the forefront. Good leaders are rarely equated with those who can effectively draft a strategic plan, create a vision statement, or can balance a budget. Instead, good leaders are consistently described as humble, enthusiastic, caring, etc.

I’m not convinced that such characteristics can be learned in a leadership program. Instead, these characteristics are cultivated over a very long period of time. Perhaps leadership development should be less about strategy and more about philosophy, less about praxis and more about meditation.

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Make it unfamiliar

Learning requires mental effort. Yet, we are constantly told ways to make learning easier.  Perhaps we should be trying to make learning harder.

We know from psychology that when situations seem to fit easily into our past experiences that subconscious processes take over. However, because subconscious processes are based on generalizations, such subconscious processes are prone to error.  That is, when walking up to a door that has a handle, our immediate reaction is to pull (even if the door says “push”).

If our subconscious mental processes are prone to error, we should be trying to steer learners out of subconscious processes and into more conscious processes (usually associated with working and short-term memory). Although these conscious processes are slower, they are the processes needed for learning new material.

Perhaps our routines should not be so routine. One in particular comes to mind. Maybe we shouldn’t display our objectives on the board.  Instead, maybe the kids should tell us what the objective was at the end of the lesson. This might prevent the objective being mindlessly (subconsciously) written down never to be considered again.

What other routines should we be questioning? In what other ways should we be purposefully making things more difficult so that kids might actually learn?

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Peer Observation

We’ve considered the following idea in my department, but it hasn’t gotten much traction. However, after looking at accreditation requirements & a recent Twitter conversation, I hope that we’ll try it. 

Effective teaching is one of the things my university values above all else. Well, at least we claim to and I think many of us in the university do. However, the monitoring of the extent our teaching is effective is almost non-existent. We are expected to have some peer evaluations for our P&T portfolios, but even that is not systematized (but we’re working on it). I know other departments have chair evaluations once a semester or year, but as chair of a very large (for our school) department, that’s more work than I think I can do. Furthermore, as chair of a department of Teaching & Learning, I know that there is expertise in our faculty that I don’t have. 

Therefore, I am hoping to institute a peer evaluation observation system this year. This system will create peer observation pairings and provide a possible template for writing about the observation. I am going to suggest the following: 

  • That we each are observed by & observe 3 of our colleagues this year,
  • That we are observed by a mix of junior & senior faculty peers,
  • That observations are of at least 20 minutes of teaching,
  • Write ups include at least one thing the observer would like the observed to consider, and 
  • Write ups include at least one thing the observer observed that they will consider using in their teaching. 

I believe these write ups will make excellent portfolio artifacts. I hope even more that they will become conversation starters. 

What would you add to this system? What would you hate about this system? What am I not thinking about? 

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You are not a Liberal Arts Institution

I’m currently reading “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz. I highly recommend it for my university-teaching colleagues and for any student deciding where to spend four years (and a whole lot of money). The book lays a convincing case for the value of a liberal arts education, making no connection to achieving a breadth of knowledge. Instead, Deresiewicz makes clear that a liberal arts education ought to develop students’ thinking abilities, most notably their ability to engage with and critique others’ arguments (as well as create your own). Although not explicitly stated, his end goal is to create subversive thinkers. I applaud this goal.

Deresiewicz defines the outcomes of the liberal arts as learning how knowledge is created, debating ideas, and that “there is no ‘information,’ strictly speaking; there are only arguments” (p. 150). Given these outcomes, I am uncertain any liberal arts institutions exist anymore (I suspect Deresiewicz would agree). Having completed my undergraduate degree at a supposed liberal arts institution and currently working for an institution that supposes to integrate the liberal arts with professional studies, I suspect the liberal arts have eroded under the guise of choice.

The supposed long-tail of the internet appeared long before in college catalogs. No longer are faculty trusted to make educational decisions for students. Instead, students must be offered choices in their education. While a system of choice appears on its face to be positive, the system (like all technologies) is not without trade-offs.

The choices students make are within a system that requires checking off certain boxes (e.g. history, science, arts, etc). This checkbox mentality results in seeking the path of least resistance and the path of most convenience. Sure, students get to take courses on topics that might interest them, but what guarantees are in place that students are required to engage with new ideas, to critique argument and to learn how to think. Too often, the checkbox courses are content focused (rather than thinking focused) and unlikely to engage students with worldviews they don’t already have.

Certainly, some courses on college campuses are deeply steeped in the liberal arts. However, what connections do these isolated experiences (if students actually take those notoriously difficult courses) have to students’ broader education? Bloated major programs and professional schools end up demanding so much of students’ attention, that little of what a college education is comprised of counts as education.

So, to those of use teaching in those checkbox courses, to what extent is your course truly designed with the liberal arts in mind? To those of us on curriculum committees, what are the supposed roadblocks to reinstating a liberal arts curriculum and how do we get around them?

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Planning vs reacting

I have a three-week, four-hours-a-day physical science course starting Monday. With the tight timeline, I’ve found myself trying to plan very carefully and much further in advance than I normally do. I’ve found the approach unsettling & this has me thinking.

Preservice programs are good at getting future teachers to plan lessons & units. We ask future teachers to create activities, scripts & alternative/differentiated activities & scripts. Yet, great teachers are able to react to students in the moment of teaching.

Planning is important, but how do we help new teachers learn to react? I’m not willing to simply say they figure it out in the first few years because many of them don’t.

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How I spend my Fridays

For most of each semester, for a little over a year, I have spent every Friday in a 6th grade classroom. I miss teaching children & I greatly value the opportunity to work with these students, but my main focus while in this classroom is my own students (preservice teachers). My students accompany me to this classroom (all 40 of them this semester) so they can work with the 6th graders as they learn to teach science.

I spend the entire day in the 6th grade room on Fridays, but my students come in for one period of the day. On average, there are 6 of my students in each class period of the 6th grade science class we visit. During class, my students interact with the sixth graders & get to see a great teacher in action. Later in the semester, the preservice teachers start planning their own lessons & delivering them to small groups of 6th grade students.

My role during these times has been to model instruction, draw my students attention to particular aspects of instruction, & provide feedback to my students about their instruction. My students get to see me teach 6th graders & I get to see them teach 6th graders. “Powerful” does not begin to describe the resulting interactions.

So, to those who say schools of education are “out of touch”, to those who think teacher education can be done in 6 weeks, and to those who think a methods course can be done online, I invite you to join me on Fridays.

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