Between a rock and a hard place: are authenticity and control contradicting factors in a class ?

Reading Shelli Fowler’s  “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills“, I think of the complex nature of two teaching dilemmas: There is a performance element to teaching, where “acting” skills –vocal training and effective use of movement and gesture — are encouraged to help engage with students. On the other hand, “posturing” and “edu-tainment” are discouraged as distractions from the ultimate goal of a classroom:  facilitating learning. These are reasonable cautions in my opinion. We keep the form in check to let the substance flow.

Another challenging conundrum is being in control of the classroom without being controlling. To assert enough authority to shape a learning environment, weeding out distractions and making sure progress is made towards course goals. At the same time, the power relations should allow the audience to keep their individuality, their actively engaging inquisitive selves. This is to make sure the students are not treated as recording devices needing to be filled with information.

The challenge, however, is to keeping the authority in balance, without falling into the realm of hypocrisy.‌ Here is an idea: As educators, whenever we are in charge of a class, it is better to publicly acknowledge it. It is helpful to point out to the structure that gives meaning to our relations as teachers and students, the one that has placed us in a physical or digital space envisioned for learning. In other words, let us recognize the fact that we are working on a local level, hoping to reform a set of educational practices, from within the system.

The relevant metaphor here is a building. A building, through its existence, defines and enforces meaning to entities such as rooms, hallways, stairs and so on. When we talk about spaciousness, coziness, dullness or joyfulness of a place we are implicitly acknowledging the existence of a building. When I am developing my teaching philosophy and practicing new pedagogical ideas, I will strive to remember the building.

Otherwise, I  could be acting as if we are subverting the whole education system, but as the students leave for their next class, they will undoubtedly notice the disparity between their reality and mine. In simple words, it is better to play it straight, consciously acknowledge that we are motivated by our authentic selves as well as a paycheck, and that we ( the student-teacher collective) are bound, by time and contract. And finally, to keep one eye on every possible improvement and another one on the limitations inherent to structure of the system.

Lets Get Real

I thought the readings this week were great.  This was really the kind of things I was hoping to read and discuss as part of Contemporary Pedagogy: the nuts and bolts and ways we can improve our teaching.  I think most of us have our idea of what a “good” teacher is from our experience as an undergrad and grad student.  I think there are great things we can learn from the teachers we’ve had, but the danger is that we end up thinking those techniques define what makes a good teacher instead of a symptom of being a good teacher.

I like the idea of being our authentic self when teaching.  A couple semesters ago i had a teacher who was filling in for the semester for the regular professor.  He was very knowledgeable on the subject, but he chose to use the exact class notes the normal professor had used for years.  It was quite evident that the class notes did not match up with how he would have taught the class.  You could see him fighting with himself at times and also getting lost.  I remember one day, though, where he kind of stopped and decided “I’m going to teach this the way I would like to teach it” and the difference was palpable.  He clearly was more enthusiastic about what he was saying and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us and was motivation to pay more attention.  I think it’s important to remember that there are lots of ways to be an effective teacher, but they will only be effective if they suit us as teachers.

I was going to end there, but I was thinking of things that were a little out there but helped me be more engaged in class. One I thought of was a professor who had “80s movie trivia” every Friday or so.  It was awesome, even though I knew almost none of them 🙂  Just a small, 1 minute-long something to break up an hour-long class session and get people re-engaged.  I might have to switch to “2010s movie trivia” for my students, but maybe it’s worth a try.

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?

The style of authenticity

This article is interesting and inspiring. I think all new teachers perhaps feel lost when given their first course assignment or in discovering that class content did not initiate the learning process as planned. I do not have extensive knowledge or experience managing classrooms, though anticipate that in the future this role will be more prominent. And I found the author’s description of finding their voice as an educator a relief.

I say this because instead of focusing on all the ways in which teaching needs to be conducted in order to be effective – the message as I interpreted it was that trial and error are important and inevitable in developing your teaching methodology.  Additionally and importantly, this happens over time! You will not always be successful but instead it is beneficial to focus on staying true to your personality and style as a teacher and to include transparency (with regard to the ‘why are we doing this’ looks and voices of students) in all learning objectives to (ideally) enhance student ‘buy in’.

Teaching is a hugely important job and quite intimidating. There are so many variables of importance – from body language and the sound of one’s voice when conveying information in the classroom in addition to the actual course content – that it is refreshing to know that you do not have to have your style ‘figured out’ when you first begin. Rather this comes through experience and applying various tools and methods by student context. Teaching is a learning process.

 

Are our assessments making the grade?

Grading and assessment isn’t going away.  Whether it’s qualitative or quantitative or whether we call it feedback or evaluation or anything else, we need ways to assess how students are doing, what they are learning, and how they are progressing so we can inform our students and help them improve, inform parents so they can support their children, and, if grades are used properly, improve our teaching.  I believe that assessment helps us improve.  So we need them, but like Alfie Kohn said, that can’t be an excuse for not changing or improving the way we do things.  And needing them doesn’t mean we need to make assessments miserable or meaningless.

I liked the different articles and videos we were given because they offer so many suggestions on ways to do assessments.  And that’s an important point, there really is no singularly perfect or best way to assess and evaluate students.  We’ve done the grade-based thing for a LONG time and, to be honest, it’s produced some pretty incredible successes as far as educating people goes.  I find it ironic that people who survived and thrived in a grade-based system take such gratification from slamming that system.  Just a thought.  But that’s kind of the point, really, isn’t it?  There are students who will succeed in any system and, despite Kohn’s comments, I am sure there are some students who will thrive better in a graded system than an ungraded system.  I imagine I fall in that category sometime.  I’m lazy as anything a lot of times but I have just enough of a competitor or perfectionist in me that I find grades do motivate me to push myself.  But do I recognize the benefit of alternate assessment styles?  Of course.  Not just from the perspective of trying to come up with assessment that appeal or work for a broader range of students, but because it just makes practical sense if we want to direct education towards actually preparing people for their future professions.  Like the articles said, we rarely are given a list of True/False or multiple choice questions by our boss or client and told to fill them out with facts they could look up online (although I’ll admit I have actually had similar things happen – bosses and clients are lazy).  More often we are given open-ended problems to solve where we need to think and reason and come up with AN answer, not necessarily THE answer.  Because, of course, there is no THE answer.  If there was one thing I wish that assessments, exercises, and lessons in college taught, it would be that.  We don’t want graduates to find out AFTER graduation that they won’t always be able to check the back of the book or ask the professor to find out what the “actual” answer is.  We need to teach students before they leave school to think critically and with an open-mind and to have the confidence to back up their answer without the authority of a grader to support them.  Better to find that out in school than in the real world.  So yea, I think we should try different methods of assessment.  We should experiment with and incorporate different things to see what works.  I believe that what actually works will change by discipline, subject, course, and class, so we may need to adjust our thinking from time to time.  Is that hard?  Uncomfortable?  Not likely to always be well-received?  Of course, but most things are.  Still worth it though if we want to actually make a difference.

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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Mindful Teaching

I really enjoyed the articles and videos from this week’s topic.  There were some great articles and comments on how we can improve both teaching and learning.  One of my favorite comments was from Ellen Langer in the intro to her Mindful Learning book (the one on Canvas).  In discussing myths that inhibit mindful learning, she states, “The ideas offered here to loosen the grip of these debilitating myths are very simple. Their fundamental simplicity points to yet another inhibiting myth: that only a massive overhaul can give us a more effective educational system.”  What a great point.  We have thrown so much money and manpower at our educational system and often the results are minimal improvements (if that) in the quality of our education and student success.  While I do think that increased funding and, particularly, increased parent involvement, as well a host of other activities and actions can help improve learning, it’s often small changes in our mindsets and behaviors that make the most difference.

I thought Langer’s discussion about teaching in conditionals was interesting.  I’d be interested in seeing more studies done, but from the ones presented, it seemed like simply changing the language used in teaching and explaining a concept from an absolute (i.e. – this is how this done) to a conditional (i.e. – it can be done this way), students were better prepared to think creatively and adapt learning.  I think about my experiences and I can see how that could be.  We are often taught and trained to do things the right way to the exclusion of all others, even when there are other ways that are equally suitable or better to accomplishing a task.  When we teach our students in absolutes, we may unknowingly be implying that the methods and concepts we are teaching are the only way to do things, which discourages adaption, innovation, and creativity.  Interesting that something so simple could make such a huge difference.  I think that as teachers, we fall into the same mindset as our students in thinking that there is one right way to do things or one right way to teach things.   Like Langer mentions, we get so ingrained in our teaching routine that we forget about the need to adapt or change what we’re doing to fit a specific class/student/topic.  We end up focusing more on the teaching than on learning to the detriment of our students.  And why is it so easy to do that?  Because it’s a lot easier to recite lesson plans than to actually teach mindfully.  Adaptation is hard and engaging students in a customized way can be difficult.  Beyond that, we just don’t change our mindset to one where we are open to adaptation and change or to adaptation or creativity in our students.

Funny the things that stick with you, but when I thought about mindful learning I was reminded of an experience I had in pre-calculus in high school.  We had a test which involved something like calculating the rate at which water level rose in a pyramidal pool for a given inflow or something thrilling like that.  I remember finishing my test and turning it in to the teacher, apparently a lot faster than she expected us to finish.  She looked over my test and then asked me to redo it.  I asked her why and she explained that I hadn’t done the problem the right way.  I asked if I had found the right answer and she said yes, but not in the right way.  The test hadn’t specified what method to use or anything like that, but since I had found a faster method than what we had been taught in class, I was asked to redo it.  So, I took my test back, redid the problem a different way, and turned it back in after having gotten the same final answer.  She looked it over and AGAIN said I had done it the wrong way and I needed to do it again.  I took back my test and had to figure out what way she wanted me to do it, then redo the problem again (reaching the same, correct final answer), and turn it in.  Thankfully the third time she was okay with what I had done.  The experience wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t hold any hateful grudges against my teacher (haha, except I apparently still remember it 17 years later), but it is illustrative to consider the effect that kind of teaching has on students.  I doubt I was quite as eager to innovate or look for new and better ways to solve problems after that experience.   I do believe that my teacher had good intentions.  She wanted me to learn principles in doing that problem “the right way” that would be foundational for later work in the class, and that’s probably true.  That’s why we teach basic principles and encourage students to learn them down pat.  I think there’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to learn those things because we are teaching basics so we can someday teach more advanced topics.  But maybe the focus should be internalizing basic principles instead of memorizing them.  Teach concepts and ideas instead of methods and we may be surprised at how much more our students learns and how creative they can be.  And, frankly, how much more they might enjoy learning.

 

Mindful Learning + Teaching

I found the readings and video for this week to be quite interesting. Particularly I love the concept of providing factual information to students in a way that suggests there is some allowance for differences in interpretation or differentiation based on context (as that is what we scientists are accustomed to (Langer, 2000)). In my experience, especially in dietetics, students have difficulty grasping theory or accepting that what we know within the field is not all ‘black and white.’ Mindful learning may be able to assist in expanding thought processes for those who do struggle in this way.

The ideas provided for inspiring mindful learning I think will be quite helpful to me in future class design. I like the idea of asking students to ‘notice’ a number of things about a topic, rather than prompting them with what should be known. To clarify, I do believe there are core ideas specific to fields that any professional within them should know. Just the process of realizing this is so much more fun if arrived through debate and thoughtfulness.

I much prefer research to teaching. However, the mindful learning concept has inspired me to think outside of the box in class and curriculum design. Teaching does not have to be dreadful and learning does not have to be cumbersome (specifically at the undergraduate level as learning historically has been more structured and dictated). I am interested to hear more examples of how mindful learning has been applied and evaluated in different classroom experiences.

 

Ellen J. Langer. Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 9, No. 6 (Dec., 2000), pp. 220-223.

 

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!

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