Mimicry … Crime or Flattery?

As humans, we mimic each other. We mimic the behaviors we see, the way we hear people talk, and the way we interact with others. Therefore, it is not a far leap to say that whom we become as teachers is likely based (at least somewhat) on whom the teachers we have had are/were. Ideally, we only mimic the behaviors, actions, nuisances, etc that we deem positive; yet, I know for a fact that mimicry is much more complicated than that. Unfortunately, while we may pick up some positive traits from others, we also pick up negative traits. Even worse, we can lose sight of whom we are by trying to be someone else.

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They say that mimicry is the greatest form of flattery. And, to an extent, I understand that. If someone likes what you are doing enough to attempt copying it, it is gratifying. That said, however, our teachers should not teach us to be like them. They should teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves. Sarah Deel points this out in “Finding My Teaching Voice” where she discusses how important it is to be genuine as a teacher. Students will not respect you if they realize you are being fake – thus, if you are not funny, don’t try to be. If you are not super animated and extroverted, don’t pretend that you are. Deel further states that teachers are not entertainers … yes, teachers need to hold the attention of their students, but it is not their job to act. It is important that teachers be themselves. Your teaching voice should not be worlds-away different than your every-day (professional) voice.

That said, teachers should still be trained (cough, taught) to teach. While to some, teaching comes naturally, to others, it does not. This is one thing that baffles me about our higher education system. When I was an undergraduate, I assumed that all of my TAs were experts in the fields they were teaching. While at times I suspected otherwise (we all have had a TA or two who made us question this), I didn’t fully comprehend the fallacy behind this until I became a TA myself. I attended a brief 2 day seminar that discussed teaching and tested me to see if I could talk in front of others and relay information. But, I was not tested on my knowledge of the material to be presented in the class to which I was assigned. I was fortunate in that I have taken numerous Biology courses and thus felt relatively comfortable giving biology lectures 3 days a week. However, I still had to brush up on the basics. Since then, I have heard of many people who are assigned to TA or teach classes they have never taken before. To me, this is crazy. Students pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for a college education, and we give them people who have never even learned about the topic they are teaching? Even professors, who hopefully are experts in their fields, do not have to have teaching experience. And, sadly, this often shows. Many don’t even like teaching, and, as the saying goes:

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So, what is the solution? How can we teach people to teach without them just mimicking others? Personally, I believe that the answers starts with encouraging creativity and fostering the ideal of self-confidence. People who are confident in themselves are less likely to feel the need to copy others. What are others’ thoughts?

Assessing Assessments: How We Discourage Learning by Trampling Imagination

We are assessed everyday of our lives, whether we realize it or not, on pretty much everything we do. Obviously, we are assessed in school on how well we can remember what is taught to us and are given a grade that reflects the teacher’s opinion of our performances. We are assessed when playing sports based on how well we run, throw, shoot a basket, etc and are assessed by either making the team or not and then by either starting or bench-warming. Outside of these more obvious examples of being assessed, we are assessed based on what we wear, how we look, what car we drive, what food we buy, etc. And, sadly, I admit that I am guilty of assessing people (typically subconsciously) on all of these accounts. I think it is probably pretty fair to say that all of us do this, unintentionally. For example, when I go grocery shopping, if I see someone with a cart full of soda, cookies, chips, etc with no fresh fruit and veggies, I typically think that this person is really unhealthy and/or poorly informed on nutritional guidelines (even though they could just being buying a bunch of food for their Super Bowl party, and that particular shopping cart is not at all indicative of their overall eating habits). This is a perfect example of why grading students on everything is not ideal. That person at the store would have received an “F” in Health Ed based on that day’s shopping cart … but maybe overall, he/she/they would get an “A+. Grades are snapshots … not the big picture.

Assessment is a part of life, whether we like it or not. But, there are so many approaches we can take towards assessing others. In regards to our education system, grades are king, despite the evidence showing that grading students reduces their interest in what is being taught and encourages students to take the path of least resistance in order to get good grades (Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”). Kohn discusses how some schools have found success in replacing letter/number grades with “narrative assessments” or to have students assign themselves grades and then have the teacher and student discuss the reasons behind this assessment. The teacher, of course, has the final say – but I like that this enables kids to think critically about how they perform and gives them a voice. However, this seems like it would be a huge amount of work for the teachers – and therefore, likely not possible in large college classes. That said, this form of assessment is commonly used in “the real world” through our annual reviews where we self-assess, get assessed, and discuss with our superiors. Since a major point of going to school is preparation for “the real world,” shouldn’t we assess students in a way that directly translates to how they will be assessed later in life? Giving grades on everything would be the equivalent to my advisor micromanaging me every day and critiquing everything I do constantly (rather than look at the bigger picture of my strengths, weaknesses, etc). Our assessment should be part of our learning adventure – not an evaluation of how we “perform” every step along the way. If I were to run a marathon, I might trip at mile 15 but still get a PR.

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In my opinion, the biggest problem with grades is that it can discourage imagination, creativity, and risk-taking. Students are encouraged to follow the path of least resistance, which minimizes the creation of novel ideas. Liu & Noppe-Brandon (in Imagination First) discuss how Einstein is the picture of intelligence not because he was necessarily significantly smarter than the average person (though he very well may have been), but because he was not afraid to imagine, create, and fail. Failure is such an important learning tool, but in school we are taught that failing is bad, and it means we aren’t learning and succeeding. Most people will admit that they learn more from their failures than their successes, so why do we make “failure” such a bad thing? At the end of the day, qualitative feedback is much more beneficial than a letter or numeric grade. When grades are assigned, even if teachers provide qualitative feedback, most students ignore the feedback if they are happy with the letter/number grade (or if they just don’t care). Students would learn more if they were actually asked to read and absorb the feedback and make the corrections.

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At the end of the day, assessments will never go away. And I don’t think that they should. Being assessed encourages us to grow. It is HOW we are assessed that matters.

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Why are we taught to be sheep?

Although I study animals, I do not study domesticated animals. Despite this, I know that sheep like to remain in flocks (or is it herds?), as they take the evolutionary approach of survival based upon the power of numbers. They follow each other around and do not stray far from others. They do not seek alone time; they do not follow a butterfly to greener pastures; and they do not question their version of authority. Because of this (and because they have no sharp teeth or claws to defend themselves with), sheep are considered meek. We even define the word sheepish as lacking self-confidence. Yet, our education system “trains” us to be just like sheep. We are taught that certain things are facts, and that is just the way it is. We are typically not taught to question, to ask “why”, or to contradict what authority says is true. In fact, it is commonly stated that once you get to graduate school you have to “learn to think for yourself.” So, let me get this straight – we spend 20+ years learning to think like others before it is ubiquitously expected for us to think individually!?!?

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Reading Ellen Langer’s article “Mindful Learning” really hit this home for me. She discusses how we are taught the basics until the basics become second nature. We automatically drive on the right side of the road (in the US); we put forks on the left side of the plate when setting the table; and we don’t question “why.” Now, I am not suggesting that you got out tomorrow and see how you feel about driving on the left side of the road around here – some things we are taught should be followed. However, if you travel to England, you have to ditch your learned “second-nature” of driving on the right to be safe. I particularly liked the example about how we set the table. I had never thought about why we put the fork on the left side of the plate and the knife on the right. It really doesn’t make sense for the majority of the population, as right-handed folk typically hold their forks in their right hands and knives in the left. As a child, I was just taught that “this is how it is done,” and so, I accepted it.

As I got older, I was rewarded in school for blindly accepting what I was taught. I got A’s if I memorized what my teachers told me and did not do well when I didn’t. But what if the teachers are wrong (and having taught in the past, I can assure you that I was wrong sometimes)? Every day, research is showing us how things that were historically considered “common knowledge” are now incorrect (e.g., the world is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; smoking doesn’t cause cancer). Every day, people prove that pushing the boundaries and not listening to what everyone told them furthers our understanding of the world. If everyone stayed a sheep, there would be no change. We need to start teaching children to think for themselves – it is as simple as saying “this COULD BE the answer to that question” vs “this IS the answer to that question”. In part, graduate school is so challenging because it is the first time we are truly and consistently evaluated on how well we can think for ourselves. Maybe, graduate school would be less daunting, less stressful, and less likely to cause or contribute to mental health concerns if we were “taught” how to think for ourselves.

I could go on and on about this topic. But I leave you with this: it’s good to be the “black” sheep (even though we are taught it is not). It’s even better to be a rainbow-colored lion. So go out there and ROAR!

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Let’s talk WITH our students – not AT them

How do we, as educators, compete with the increasing number of distractions around our students? How can we get students to learn when their attentions are split among several things or are elsewhere all together? The answers to these questions are simple: we can’t compete, and we can’t get students to learn when their heads are somewhere else. But, what we can do is learn to teach in a way that engages students, so that their minds don’t have time drift away. So, how do we do this?

In my opinion, to do this, we must move away from the dominant lecture-style teaching format. Cellphones, laptops, iPads, Apple watches, etc all provide students with constant access not only to their friends and family but to the entire world via the internet. There is no way that they can listen to our voices droning on and on while they read the latest tweets and status updates. Don’t get me wrong, lecturing has its place in the classroom and can be an important teaching tool. For example, Robert Talbert discusses how lectures can be used in a beneficial manner in “Four Things Lecture is Good For” (2012) by stating that lectures are bad for transferring information from teacher to student but are good for covering a lot of material. He also states that people who are good at lecturing incorporate big-picture views about the topic being lectured. That is – lectures should not just spew fact after fact about one topic – they need to explain why the facts are important and relate the topic being lectured to other topics.

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However, standing in front of a group of people talking AT them for an hour plus doesn’t accomplish what we want it to. Instead of talking AT our students we need to talk WITH them. We should not be the only voices being heard in the classroom. Our students should express their thoughts, their ideas, their opinions, and their experiences in class (when appropriate and asked for, of course). Everybody has a different set of knowledge and skills that make his/her/their voices have something unique to say. And just because we are educators, does not mean we should not be educated every day as well. Even if our students don’t know more about the topic being discussed than we do, they may ask a question that sparks an engaging conversation. Or they may have a comment that insights feelings in other students that prompt them to speak up. Even the statements of “I don’t understand” or “can someone explain this in a different way” are extremely valuable to us as teachers. This lets us know that we need to LEARN to express something in a different manner. As Marc Carnes states in “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire” (2011), students are dropping out of college not because they cannot afford it (though that does play some role) but because they are not interested! Why spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on “not learning” something you’re not interested in?

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We cannot (or should not) forbid technology in the classroom without major pushback (see “Laptops and Phones in the Classroom: Yea, Nay Or a Third Way?” by Anna Kamenetz,2018). So, we need to get students to engage in their classes so that they are not bored and want to read that “Bob just got his hair cut and is feeling fresh” more than listen to us talk. Just as we are taught as children to earn the respect of others, as teachers we need to earn the attention (which can translate into respect) from our students. Making them feel talked at and unheard won’t accomplish this. I realize I am not providing any answers here on how to engage students, particularly while incorporating technology – that is up to us to discuss WITH our teachers and peers!

Higher Education Isn’t Child’s Play

When we are little, we learn every day. And it is fun! We learn to count, talk, tie our shoes, feed ourselves, etc … and each and every time we learn something new, it is the best thing that has ever happened! As baby George demonstrated, we even had fun when we failed ~ because failing is also learning, and learning is fun! As we age, learning becomes more tedious, likely because we are judged based how “well” we learn. When we are little, every time we fall or say the alphabet incorrectly, it is cute, we are encouraged to try again by smiling faces, and learning is an adventure (as Kuh states). But later, grades, report cards, and awards make children think of learning as a chore. Something that they have to do in order to succeed. Unfortunately, most of the times when students “fail” at something in a class, there isn’t a smiling face and the reassurance of another chance to try again.

Many argue that we learn everyday even as adults. But how often do adults think that learning is fun? For example, if someone says “Hey – Erin! Let’s do something fun today! What would you like to do?” Even as someone who likes school, my standard responses to this question include “go see a movie,” “go bowling” or “go out to a nice restaurant.” Although I do thoroughly enjoy learning, it often seems to me that me, and presumably the rest of us in academia, are the minority because learning goes from:

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To:

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In my opinion, using social media and blogging is a way to make learning fun again. It allows people to express themselves in often a less formal manner than typical “academic” writing. This, at least for me, takes off a lot of the stress involved with writing. Additionally, posting writing online via Facebook, blogging, Twitter etc encourages people to write well – as nobody wants to appear “stupid” to the masses. Overall, I believe that using tools such as blogging is increasingly important in today’s working world. It is not just for the youngest generation either – people of all ages are blogging and using social media to communicate with others. It will be really interesting to see how online networking continues to grow over the next decade and how it may bring fun back into education!