Archive for September, 2015

postheadericon Seeking a voice for the end of the world.

Catchy title, right?

Before I started teaching classes, instructor-of-record here at VT, I had never thought about teaching. Never gave it serious consideration, never gave thought to a teaching philosophy, making connections with students, creating an environment conducive to learning. As I stumbled through my first semester, I figured it might just be a good idea to do so. One of the reasons I wanted to take a pedagogy course was to do just that.

Over the last year and, well, however long into this year we are, I find myself making, or attempting to make, more productive connections with my students than when I began. When students began meeting with me during office hours, hanging after class to ask questions on the material or an assignment, I found those interactions improved those students’ understanding of the material and their perceptions of the class itself. During those interactions I allowed my personality to come through, allowed for humor, was able to build on their understanding of a concept or assignment by responding, creating a dialogue, offered suggestions based on those students’ individual interests. This was something I had been trying to foster in the classroom – to decrease the number of blank stares during class and replace them with attentive, involved students.

Seeing how students reacted to that sort of thing, I began peppering in-class lectures and activities wit similar interactions. I began revealing elements of my personality to the class, integrated humor, sarcasm, had a little fun with the material, fun with the students – at least, the ones that actually involve themselves in class. That helped alleviate some of the tension in the room – since then my experience (and hopefully theirs) has significantly improved.

I began thinking of teachers I’ve had throughout my education – in public school, the ones I remember and remember positively were those I connected with on an individual level, ones I interacted with on that individual level – even if those interactions weren’t pleasant.

I don’t know everything about the subject I am teaching. When I began teaching, it was important to me to exude competence, to be perceived by my students as someone that knows a thing or two, someone they fell they can learn from.



The further in I went, however, the more I realized that did not matter. I did not have to be the expert. Infallible. It was very much as much a learning experience for me as it was them, and that was an illuminating realization.

Discovering what went wrong, discovering what, exactly, I don’t like, don’t want to do, isn’t exactly finding an authentic voice through which to teach. But it is a starting point.

Have I found a teaching voice?


But I am certainly invested in looking.

postheadericon The game.

The idea of teaching history, actively involving students in a game that fosters interest, excitement, active participation inside and outside the classroom is pretty rad.

I readMark Carnes’ ‘Setting students’ minds on fire’, found here:

Carnes points out the average graduation rate for students that enroll in higher education is just below 50 percent, although he does not disclose where he came up with that particular statistic. He also points out while finance is certainly an issue for potential and enrolled higher education students, the dropout statistics bridge socioeconomic class. He argues low motivation, low interest in the classes being offered, is at the issue’s root.

Inspiration may be able to help, he states, and that inspiration came in the form of a month(s)-long, heavy involvement learning game.

As I started reading it, I was looking for an outline of the game, what was involved, how it was played, who developed the rules, how they were developed, the game’s purpose.

Beyond that, how were the students assessed for the course? Was any level of participation enough to pass the course?

These things aside, I am certainly interested in learning more about this concept.

I can see how playing a game based on historical events/actors can be useful in learning about those historical actors and events. I can also see how active learning challenges of similar nature could help students understand, say, how to construct a stone-covered arch walkway bridge correctly the first time around, engineering. Puzzles and challenges that involve investing time into a concept, into an area of study, into a group of people with whom you are playing, is something I’d be interested in taking part in, learning about through participation, and ultimately, depending on the situation, run such a game.

I have never participated in such a learning environment, and wouldn’t be against the idea. We could develop one for, say, a graduate pedagogy course. Any takers?

Further, James Paul Gee writes about connectionism – human beings as pattern-recognizers. It argues humans don’t work best when reasoning via logic and general abstract experiences, but without the presence of experience. I could agree with that – learning abstract principles without the opportunity for application is much of what our discussions in class end up heading toward (testing aside). Active learning, getting students involved, fostering a stake in their own educations, piquing their interests in a class. Video games, much like the active learning role-playing game described by Carnes, attempt to bridge that gap, giving students, through games (real or virtual), that chance to apply those principles, gain that experience. I’d be interested to check out more research on this concept, perhaps design an experiment around it, measure its results, effects on cognitive development, engagement.


postheadericon Defying behavioral physics – the carrot and the stick?

I am sure any number of individuals in this class will tackle the testing, the GPA, the grading – I much prefer to watch that particular battle play out among those more committed to a side than I. I will sneak in with my commentary and cry havoc, Sith style, and slip away undetected.

In the video lecture “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us,” the speaker points out a compelling, and counterintuitive, set of repeatable experiment/research results that indicate the metaphoric carrot at the end of the stick, the reward for the completion of a task, the incentive for doing a job, is only effective in jobs, tasks, sticks, that do not require high levels of thought.

Incentives (carrots) work, he states, as long as whatever task that leads to the acquisition of the carrot only requires mechanical skill, or low levels of cognition. The surprising part, at least, to me (and likely others, as I have never heard of these experiments or results and tend to think, however erroneously, I have my finger close to the pulse of such things) is that the more one has to think about a task or job, the more cognitive skill required for its completion, the incentive or carrot actually detracts from performance level.

Mechanical skill + financial incentive = better performance.

Cognitive skill + financial incentive = decreased performance.

The speaker rightly says these results defy laws of behavioral physics. Doesn’t make sense on the surface. But then I began to think about all the examples of products, items, programs, things I integrate into my everyday life, that I readily identify with, that people create because they can and not for the sake of an incentive. An example: Open-source software. VLC. Linux. Tons of little applications created, hacked open, released on the Internet for anyone and everyone to integrate, use, exploit. I personally never learned Linux, but know programmers that swear by it, and its numerous modifications from users that just want to make a decent, free access workable operating system that doesn’t require corporate backing. I do not use Linux, but I do, however, regularly utilize a plethora of fantastic open-source programs for a variety of tasks. I’d always questioned the motivations behind creating and maintaining those programs – they are not simple constructs, and are constantly updated to remain useful, secure. Why do these people create these things for free and give them away? Are they motivated solely by the satisfaction of knowing their products are in use? There is no carrot here.

The speaker suggests taking the carrot out of the equation altogether. In terms of corporate or technological innovation, pay idea people, innovators, everyone capable and willing to employ high cognitive skill to solve a problem, take on a research project, seek definitive answers, enough money to where the money itself is not a factor. Offer these individuals the autonomy to direct their own lives, seek satisfaction not in carrots but in cognitive engagement.

The mastery of cognitive engagement and control for the sake of personal satisfaction. I think that’s a stellar idea.

Non sequitur observation addendum – what’s with this trend in videos we watch and the disembodied hand drawing pictures relative to the narrator?

postheadericon Mindfulness? Teaching and learning? What is our role?

How does one learn? How do we all learn? In an exercise in class, we were instructed to come up with six words to indicate how we feel we best learn. “Learn” is not a simple prospect, and each group of six words, while exhibiting patterns or trends, were different. One student may not learn in the same manner as others in a class.

(Inapplicable side note) Standardized testing, SOLs, SATs, GREs, whatever the acronym, represent a measurable base-level of concept understanding and (in some cases) application. But do they measure learning? Learning material, or learning how to take a standardized test? If standardized testing is an example of “teaching to the test,” what does that mean for students that fail those tests? Do they not understand the subject matter? Do they not understand the test? I’m sure we can all rant on this one for some time. Math, hard science, medicine, engineering – fact-based subjects, where either you know or understand it or you don’t, can be more easily measured through testing than, say, an understanding of poetry, or a presidential State of the Union address. Yet they are each subject to similar measurements and held to similar standards in public education… I do look forward to this ideological and pedagogical argument in class (end inapplicable side note).

As an instructor of any subject or any type at any level, one wants one’s students to have the best chance of taking whatever it is they’re hearing, seeing, and hopefully learning about and coming away with the knowledge and the ability to apply that learning in meaningful ways. But as we all know, that does not always happen. Instead, we have a handful of earnest students that fulfill that ideal, and the rest fall short somewhere along the way. Why is this? Is it a shortcoming on our parts as instructors? Is it a shortcoming or lack of effort on the part of the student? Are they staring at you vacantly during class because they’re bored? Unengaged? Unentertained? Apathetic? Overwhelmed? Is it the established system? A lot of different fingers point in a lot of different directions.

Are we broadcasters? Are we educators? Are we connected-learning moderators? What is our role, how should that role evolve with technological trends? Should education be trendy? Should we snapchat notes to students instead of using hi-def screens, or PowerPoint slides?

Educator vs moderator according to Merriam-Webster:

Educator: : a person (such as a teacher or a school administrator) who works in the field of education; one skilled in teaching; a :  a student of the theory and practice of education.

Moderator: someone who leads a discussion in a group and tells each person when to speak : someone who moderates a meeting or discussion

Where do we stand?