You Have to Start Somewhere

Throughout my masters program, I wrestled with this idea of presenting my authentic self in a professional setting. I am a marriage and family therapist, so during my training and education on how to be a therapist, it was easy to want to emulate the pioneers in the field that were clearly amazing at what they did. We would watch several videos of these family therapy gods (all male), and all of us would want to be just like them. We would go off to our clients trying to do the exact same thing. Then we would leave a session more than likely feeling defeated that it wasn’t successful.

Our supervisors were constantly telling us to stop trying to be Salvador Minuchin, Jay Haley, Murray Bowen, etc. Because, the fact is….we weren’t those men. We were our own selves, and we needed to be our own therapists. The more we can be genuine within our therapeutic approaches and use them in a way that honors our person-as-therapist, the better we are able to connect to our clients and thus help them in their change process.

The same is true for teaching.

Most of us know teachers that we admire and love. It is a natural thought process to try to copy what they do, obviously because we liked what they did and it spoke to us. But the reality is that we are not all alike. We can implement the same approaches, policies, and activities in the classroom, but these will likely not be received in the same way. Sarah Deel highlighted this very phenomenon when she tried to tell jokes during her lectures that were met with blank stares.

While the end goal is to reach your authentic teaching self at some point during your teaching career, I believe that sometimes it can be good to start the journey with those teachers that have reached you in some way. If you aren’t sure what you want to do in your classes, try something on for size. See what fits your style and what doesn’t. Teaching authentically and effectively is a process that needs to start somewhere.

I have grown into my authentic teaching self through this very trial and error process. It is overwhelming to start from scratch. So, I took syllabi from various faculty and took what I liked, tweaked what I somewhat liked, and tossed what I didn’t. And I continue to do this every new class I teach because things change. This process has allowed me to critically think about and own what kind of teacher I really want to be: caring, flexible, humorous, passionate.

 

 

Do they care about all this time I spend giving feedback?

Every semester I have taught, I have a conversation with my spouse that goes something like this:

Me: Ugh. I hate grading
Spouse: Don’t you want to teach for a living?
Me: Yes! But, it takes forever because I give so much feedback. I want students to know that I care and how to improve for next time.
Spouse: That’s cute. Your students don’t care. They want the grade so they can move on with their lives. Just give them the grade so you can move on with yours.

Every single semester. Am I delusional? Narcissistic perhaps? Do they genuinely care about my random comments about the content or how to demonstrate critical thinking further? Or do they just want to know why they got points off?

Kohn (2011) makes a case against grades, as students’ interest in learning is diminished and reinforces the desire to complete the easiest task. Further, quality of thinking is reduced when grades are given. Dan Pink (2009) reiterates this phenomenon in businesses that provide monetary incentives for completion of tasks. In several studies outlined by Pink, providing incentives for tasks involving anything above mechanical skill (simple if-then tasks) leads to poorer performance. This is completely contrary to everything economists have always hypothesized. Indeed, my fear of removing individual grades would lead to students never turning in their assignments. I know I’ve been there myself as a student. With so many balls in the air, why would I try to juggle one more thing that I won’t get any credit for?

Instead of motivating through incentives, Pink argues that we need to be thinking about how to motivate through autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I completely agree with this line of thinking. The “volunteer” work I’ve done throughout my time as a graduate student has fit into one of these three ideas. If I have control over my own actions, I can increase my skills, or I feel that I am making the world a better place, I am motivated to use my precious “extra” time to do these tasks.

This does help me conceptualize the reduction of grades in my classes. But only to a small degree. There is a very real tension between a teaching philosophy that minimizes grades and a university that demands them. As an instructor of record, I am expected to administer exams of some sort. In an online class, that historically equates to multiple choice exams. I HATE multiple choice exams. They don’t test for learning. Instead, I prefer to place more emphasis on the discussion boards and application assignments that I assign. But these have rubrics that are assessing for specific competencies, like critical thinking and attention to context. Lombardi (2008) offers excellent suggestions for rubrics that include such competencies, so I believe I am on the right track.

But I am still left wondering…..Do my students care about my feedback? Or just the grade at the end of the day? What if they do? What if they don’t? How do we, as instructors, foster motivation through autonomy, mastery, and purpose? What would this look like?

I hope I don’t have to tell my spouse she’s right….I hate it when that happens.

 

References

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Retrieved from https://www.alfiekohn.org/article/case-grades/

Lombardi, M. (2008). Making the grade: The role of assessment in authentic learning. Retrieved from https://library.educause.edu/~/media/files/library/2008/1/eli3019-pdf.pdf

Pink, D. (2009, August 25). The puzzle of motivation [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y&feature=youtu.be

Super Bowl Teams are the Best Mindful Football Players

The irony is not lost on me that I am reading about mindful learning, and attempting to blog on the topic while also watching Super Bowl LII. Although, Ellen J. Langer (2000) suggests the idea of constant focus on something does not equate to paying attention to it. Indeed, paying attention while playing football requires mindful learning.

In the past decade or so, mindfulness as a meditative practice has become an increasingly popular trend. When practiced appropriately (a topic for another time), mindfulness has incredible health and relational benefits. It is no surprise that mindfulness has now been connected to teaching and learning.

Langer (1997; 2000) discusses several myths regarding our ideas of traditional learning. Traditional learning, or mindless learning, she posits, is a focus on old categories, one perspective, and automatic behavior. The myths she discusses that I found the most interesting are:

  1. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.
  2. Rote memorization is necessary in education.
  3. Forgetting is a problem.
  4. There are right and wrong answers.

Each of these myths connect to me either personally or professionally. The automatic responses we have as learners to memorize facts as they are given to us, without question, is clearly problematic. We do not learn through this process- more specifically we do not learn how the facts present in “real” life and across all contexts. Personally, I am thankful that forgetting is not really a problem after all!

As I was reading Langer discuss mindful learning, I realized that it is similar to, or perhaps the same, as critical thinking. In the online class I teach on Family Relationships, I heavily stress the importance of students demonstrating critical thinking and attention to context in their discussion posts. In fact, critical thinking is a large portion of the grading rubric. I have found that many of my students struggle with this aspect of the discussion posts and often repeat the facts that are presented in the textbook, even with scaffolding. I realize now, that these students are on auto-pilot in their learning. They are mindlessly learning, even though the topics are so close to home for them.

I am beginning to think about the idea of transparency in my teaching. How might students respond if I told them what my approach is and why I believe it is important for their learning? Would this impact their ability to engage in critical thinking? In attending to contextual issues? In learning in my class and beyond? I am interested in giving this a try in the future.

Investing in the New Culture of Learning

 

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown talk of a new culture of learning: one focused on process and engaging within our environments, and using digital media as a tool to enhance the experience. The various schools highlighted in the video Digital Media- New Learners of the 21st Century are living this new culture of learning. The stories shared in this documentary are compelling. Students are using various forms of digital media to showcase their knowledge of traditional K-12 topics in engaging ways. Seemingly, quite successfully at that.

I am sold. I have been sold for some time. My personal philosophy of teaching and learning follows this new culture of learning. I believe in this approach wholeheartedly and live it as congruently as I am able. I am invested.

Are educational institutions invested? I’m not very sold on that one. And here is where I digress a bit.

I want to believe that such all educational institutions, primary through higher, would be invested in adjusting their approach to something more meaningful…and dare I say, effective. I am continuously frustrated by what I see in classrooms closest to me. In higher education, greater value is placed on bringing in substantial funding for research. Faculty are hired, especially in Research-1 schools, to conduct research. I am certainly not downplaying this essential activity. Research must continue to happen. It should be valued. But at the expense of our students’ learning?

In my experiences, personally and professionally, I have found that value is not placed on quality teaching in higher education. Faculty who conduct phenomenal and incredibly important research are not always the best teachers. Even if they are devoted to providing a learning environment in line with this new culture of learning, their time is precious and inflexible. How can they put in the time and effort to cultivate this culture when they barely have time to eat lunch some days? How can they foster the process and learning within environments with 100+ students in a class? Hence, lectures become the easiest way to get through.

Despite my somewhat negative statements thus far, I fully believe that the vast majority  of educators want their students to actually learn something in their courses. Unfortunately, we do not have the support and tools to fully implement the new culture of learning Thomas and Brown speak of. How do we convince the powers above to invest in this culture with us to provide us what we need? I am encouraged by a growing movement of Collegiate Professors- faculty primarily hired for their pedagogical practices. Virginia Tech has recently joined this trend. I only hope that other colleges and universities will follow suit, and begin to equally value teaching alongside research.

 

References

American Association of University Professors- Virginia Tech Chapter. (2016, April 15). Comments on collegiate professor series. Retrieved from https://vtaaup.org/chapter-actions/comments-on-collegiate-professor-series/

Public Broadcasting Service. (2011). Digital media: New learners of the 21st century [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/20018135

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Retrieved from http://www.newcultureoflearning.com/newcultureoflearning.pdf

 

 

 

The Time Has Come to Blog

I must admit, I am incredibly apprehensive about blogging. I have tried it before, with little investment in the outcome. Doing something for class credit without fully understanding the scope and importance of the task makes it difficult to immerse yourself into the activity. This is without a doubt my own experience with my first blog. It felt forced. As if I needed to check the boxes and just “get it over with”. Despite my lack of desire to engage in the blogging assignment, I attempted to at least passionately write my thoughts about the topic at hand. It became easier as time went on, and I did enjoy having a space to share these thoughts.

My thoughts on random topics, however, felt akin to the times when LiveJournal was popular. A digital space to share your thoughts, it became more like a diary that was shared with the whole world. Clearly, professional blogging is much different than the LiveJournal diary spelling out the details of a scorned relationship. This is where I struggle with the benefits of blogging. Tom Peters, author and management visionary, raves about blogging, claiming nothing  has been important in his life than blogging. Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex, similarly encourages professionals to engage in blogging. In academia, this practice seems to be an opportunity to take part in a larger public discussion on the topics at hand.

Still, despite the growing trend of blogging professionals, I am not sold on the benefit for me. Sure, there are many in my field (marriage and family therapy) that participate in regular blogging. And certainly many academics participate in various digital ways via Twitter and Facebook. But, what do I have to say? Who would listen? Who would care? Is this yet another sign indicative of my imposter syndrome?

Do the answers to any of these questions really matter in the long run? Seth Godin has said that it doesn’t matter if anyone reads your posts. Instead, what matters is the process- engaging in humility and metacognition of your ideas. I certainly would benefit from strengthening these skills in order to better communication my thoughts (and writing) on my research and profession. Perhaps the time has come to finally invest in an official blog- outside of the classroom.

 

References:

Hitchcock, T. (2014, July 28). Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/07/28/twitter-and-blogs-academic-public-sphere/

[innerpreneur]. (2009, April 18). Seth Godin & Tom Peters on blogging [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=livzJTIWlmY&feature=youtu.be