Week 7: Everything I learned about inclusivity, I learned from Uncle Sam

This week’s readings on inclusivity in the class room and hidden biases made me think about my time in the Navy. Much like the university setting the Navy brings together people from all walks of life. All races, all genders, all sexualities and all religions were represented in the Navy. From day one we were taking good ol’ boys from Alabama and black kids from Detroit and saying that not only are you going to sleep in the rack above this guy, but you are going shower with him, eat with him, work with him and depend upon him doing his job to keep you alive when things get bad. The situation that these young men and women were put in seemed unlikely to work– people from such different backgrounds obviously couldn’t come together to create a cohesive team, and yet overwhelmingly the Navy has been successful in bringing people together.

I think Uncle Sam has developed some skills which might be applicable in the college classroom.

  1. There is ongoing training that sailors are exposed to on dealing with people from a different background. Whether that is a sailor of a different race gender or sexuality, the Navy gives lots and lots of training about the importance of inclusivity.
  2. There is a clear point to the training and inclusive behavior. Sailors learned that hidden biases or bigoted behavior made them less safe, affected the quality of their work and the work of their shipmates, and created an environment where the Navy couldn’t fully take advantage of everyone’s strengths and talents. Nobody was expected to do participate in these programs just for the sake of doing them.
  3. Finally, I think that sailors were given a new identity that became more important that their backgrounds. We became sailors, we became members of a specific community, we joined a 200 year old fraternity of men and women. I think the esprit de corps that developed, helped people not discount the differences between themselves but realize that the similarities were more important.
The Navy like the University is certainly not perfect and there is a lot of work left to do in creating more inclusive communities. But whether it is giving students more training, letting them know the practical benefits of the training, or creating a Hokie identity that unites all of our students, the lessons created to keep men and women safe at sea can be used to keep our community safe in Blacksburg.


Discovering my authentic teaching voice

Finding my authentic teaching voice is I think easier said than done. I have had a number of instructor positions in my life. Each one has in some way contributed to my actions and behaviors in the classroom. And yet I do not believe that I have truly found my voice in the classroom yet.

The questions in the reading forced me to rethink how I am in the classroom. Specifically “how can I be genuine, sincere, and fully present in the classroom”? Today I was in the classroom and I had roughly ten minutes of non-stop lecture. I had the thought that I had been rather robotically talking, and I looked at the students and noticed that they were rather robotically taking notes. Without getting to metaphysical, I felt like I wasn’t present in the classroom.

I immediately started to ask the students questions and try to engage them in discourse. The shift in tactics seemed to refocus the class and reengage them. I think that as much as I admired my professors who would give these great lectures, their voice is not mine. I had a Professor Saladino who would lecture for two hours with no powerpoints and no notes and the students would sit spellbound listening. I think that the longer I am in the classroom the more I realize that my real strength lies in facilitating a discussion.

I am excited to see the evolution of this process. As I gain more confidence and experience, I hope that my voice becomes more natural and authentic in the classroom.

Week 5 prompt: The why and how of imagination

One of the things that we have discussed this semester is the value of unquantifiable learning. Before this class, I just assumed that all the things that fall into that category such as, motivation for life long learning, creativity, and imagination, were just the product of “good teachers”. What I mean is that they were things that you could not formulaically develop in students, they were just fostered in students who just intuitively knew how to do it.

Non-quantifiable learning, like we learned about in class, was the domain of superior teachers. As we delved deeper into these topics I’m not entirely sure this is not true. Maybe it really takes a special person to stir up a students imagination and that is a skill that can not be taught.

What I am sure about at this point is, that we can very formulaically and systematically dampen a students imagination and creativity. The type of factory school that the general public is cycled through appears to have just that effect. Students overwhelmingly have more trouble connecting to the creative and imaginative pieces of their brain after a public education, than before.

While I keep working on trying  to find that elusive magic to inspire the students I teach, I realize that sometimes on the tough days the best I can do is to not diminish the passion that they already have within them.

Third Prompt: Assessing the problems with Assessments.

I should confess from the beginning of this post that I am not an engineer. I have never taken an engineering class, I don’t even have any engineers in my family. But when reading Donna Riley’s  paper about engineering assessments I new exactly what she was talking about. She argues “that this immediate crisis in engineering education is the logical result of an outcomes-based approach if what we value is assessable outcomes, then anything that appears difficult to assess (whether or not it is actually difficult to assess) will be devalued, and will ultimately drop off our list of educational goals”. This is certainly true in my field of political science as well.

A study a few years back asked graduates students in the political science department to create a political utopia. They were supposed to be unhindered by any material considerations. This hypothetical exercise was meant was supposed to leverage the creativity and innovative spirit of young scholars. The results were dismal. Not one of them was able to even hypothetically propose a system that differed from the one in which they lived. Their answers instead described minor tweaks in areas like healthcare, welfare programs, and education. This example highlights that overwhelmingly student’s creativity is hindered by something much more foundational. They’re natural problem solving abilities are being crippled by a system which is weighted too much on an “outcome-based approach”. Assessments are changing what we value in the academic world and creating students with a fear of failure. Assessments are an educational tool– a tool that now dictates how we educate students. This is a ludicrous as a hammer that informs the carpenter what he can and cannot build.

Second Prompt: Breaking out of the factory school

Ken Robinson’s video on the state of the US education system was inspiring and terrifying. He takes a cold, hard look at a system where children are diagnosed with mental diseases, when they are actually only suffering from “childhood”. The prognosis for these children is not good. They are the raw material being inserted into a factory system, meant to produce consistent, subdued workers. It is impossible to know the exact motives of the people who designed this system, since it has been a gradual progression over forty years. But if we try to glean the end product from what they’re doing to the raw material, it seems like they are looking for a group of young men and women who can sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, disconnected from their peers or the world around them and not go crazy.

Thinking back to my experience in grade school I realize how poorly I turned out relative to these standards. I certainly went crazy. I was labeled a class clown, a bad student and a troublemaker. The only label I wasn’t given, because it had not become so fashionable, was ADHD. I have no doubt that if I had been 5 or 10 years younger, I would have been heavily medicated because of my behavior.

The greatest irony of this horrible joke, is that I love to learn. I have been a reader and explorer my entire life. There are actually few subjects which don’t interest me, at least a little. I went to college, traveled the world with the Navy, and then came back because I missed the constant ability to learn new ideas that college provides. Luckily, the US grade school system didn’t totally ruin my relationship to education, but I think the students that are being churned out today will have a much tougher time protecting their academic curiosity. It is time for a massive break out of the factory school!

First Blog Prompt: Connected Learning

I am hoping to enter a career in Academia, so the idea of more connected learning is not only an abstract theory, but a practical tool to better educate students. In the readings this week, the author described the need for new models of learning. Models where learning is “powerful, relevant and engaging”. In some ways these three things have always been the hallmarks of effective learning, I think the renewed emphasis on them reflects the challenges instructors face when trying to overcome student’s conditioning to only learning for a standardized test. The “cram and dump” style of learning is really not learning at all (at least not in any classical meaning of the word).

Besides this systemic conditioning of students in grade school, instructors at the college level also have to contend with all the other technological distractions that are bombarding their classrooms. Students in my class, with only their smart phones, have access to almost all of the media, knowledge and online social networks in the world. That is pretty stiff competition to fight for their attention and focus.

Connected learning really resonated with me as a way that I could leverage this enormous technical ability to overcome the disconnectedness in the classroom. It is a way to connect students to “academics, a learner’s interest, inspiring mentors and peers”.

I recently changed my first written assignment from an essay on the material to a policy paper that will be sent to the student’s representative. This is a direct result of trying to connect the material we’re learning about to the real world in which they live. Because this is my first time doing this I’m not sure how it will work, but here’s hoping for a more connected world!