Teaching and parenting

Reading Chapter 5 of Weimer reminds me of a book on parenting.  But why shouldn’t it?  Some have already commented that thinking of students in a familial sense may help with the dynamic of the classroom, provided of course that we have a healthly and/or helpful concept of family.

Specifically it recalls books such as Making children mind without losing yours (Lehman, 2000) and the Love and Logic series.  Both advocate a family dynamic where parents are neither authoritarian nor permissive.  Authoritarian parents center the the authority on themselves and make all the decisions themselves.  This is exactly the sort of position that Weimer dissuades us from as teachers.  On the other hand, the permissive parent allows their kids to run rampant, doing whatever they please and having no discipline.  This appears to be the mental perception of many educators when they hear the term “learner-centered.”  These books suggest that the family functions best when parents treat their kids more like adults, giving them as much responsibility and decision making power as possible.  Appropriate choices abound in the home.  Consequences are real and logically tied to actions.  Parents must follow through cool-headedly on their rules and practice what they preach.  These things aren’t always easy to do but in my experience are excellent parenting principles.  They also apply to teaching as evidenced by the overlap in Weimer’s book.

Yet Weimer argues that we shouldn’t treat our students like children.  But I argue that it depends on how you treat your children.  If one takes an authoritarian approach and gives ones children no responsibility, I whole-heartedly agree.  However, if we treat our students (and children) as responsible people who are able to answer for and bear the consequences of their decisions, I think we can treat our students like “children.”

Interestingly, as I was getting the hyperlink for the Love and Logic site, I noticed that they have a whole section of their website devoted to education.  Maybe the topic of another post?

Parkour and how we learn

Thought 1:  Intrigued by the video we watched in GEDI, I asked my wife when I got home on Wednesday night if she knew about “parkour.”  Getting a negative reply, I explained the sport based on my brief exposure to it, and she replied “Isn’t that what little boys do naturally?”  That got me thinking.  Yes my son does naturally seem to climb over and bounce off from the obstacles (furniture, walls, etc.) in front of him.  He often prefers to take the long and difficult route to get somewhere.  He doesn’t see these things as roadblocks but a playground.  So maybe that’s part of how he’s made, how his body and mind were designed to work.

Thought 2:  Also related to family, my three-year-old daughter has been in one of those “Why…?” phases lately. In the moment, it can be extremely frustrating.  However, the teacher in me has to sit back and say to myself, “This curiousity and wonder at the world is great!”  Sure, sometimes it is just stalling because she doesn’t want to eat her dinner or go to bed.  But much of the time, she is really trying to learn and understand things.  How do we keep that sense of awe and wonder in our children?

Thought 3:  The state of primary and secondary education was lamented by many on Wednesday night.  Aside from changes to the system itself, how do we as teachers deal effectively with the students produced by our current education morass.

Bright students often come to college beat up and no longer able to tackle the educational obstacles put before them.  They no longer want anything to do with parkour anymore, at least when it comes to education.  Instead they have been trained to opt for the easiest path around the educational hurdles before them, or at least to only jump over the lowest hurdle, if they have a choice.  The joy of learning has been beat out of them by the system.  Our job is to show them that not only is what they are learning significant, but facing that challenge can also be enjoyable and thrilling.  The parkour metaphor not only works for us as teachers facing a challenging university system in which we must work.  It also provides a good context in which to think of how to engage less than enthused students.

We also need to remember that much of the “How do I learn?” question comes by asking “Why…?” just like my three-year-old.  Maybe we need to insert that question more often in our teaching and lectures to remind our students the importance of that little word.  Better yet, when we’re facing a Why question in our research, bring it to the class and ask it there.  It may not lead to any new insights.  But then again, who knows?

A lesson from the farm

Wendell Berry writes in Andy Catlett about a young boy of the same name spending time with his grandparents on their farm.  The youth is gently forced outside on a cold winter morning to help his Granddaddy and a family friend, Burley, work in the barns.  Reluctantly at first, he helps them as they “kept finding ways for me to help” and “let me belong there at work with them.”  As the morning and the work progresses, Andy finds that “I went from reluctance and dread to interest in what we were doing, and then to pleasure in it.  I got warm.”  He realized thankfully that “the men were letting me help sometimes even when I could see I was slowing them down.”

What a beautiful picture of the learning and growing process!  In this case, it’s not “school learning” but more practical work or trade learning on the farm.  Nonetheless, the old men, as teachers, gently led Andy from reticence to pleasure in the task before them.  I believe that is part of our role as teachers.  Our students often come to us forced to take our particular class by the university or their department.  They arrive reluctant and reserved, like Andy in the barn on a cold winter’s morning.  We succeed as teachers when we help our students move from cold indifference to interest and pleasure in the work at hand, whether it be farm chores or calculus or history.

Granddady and Burley wisely chose to simply involve Andy in their own work.  They didn’t sit him down on a bale of hay and lecture to him about the intricacies of building sheep pens.  They didn’t make him muster false exuberance about the work before making him help with it.  The men knew that learning often comes through doing, and pleasure in work/learning often comes through accomplishing a task with an appropriate amount of help.  Even though Andy slowed down their work and made them less efficient (They couldn’t cover as much material??), he was not cast aside as too inexperienced to be involved in the work.

Maybe we need to learn some lessons about teaching from this simple story from the farm.


Reflections on the Function of Content

Some reflections on the points raised by Weimer on the Function of Content in the classroom:

  • It seems that the goal of teaching especially at the higher education level must find its limit developing self-learners.  This especially must be true for graduate programs.  As students pursue graduate degrees, they are inherently moving toward positions of no longer being taught, but rather being the teachers.  They must be developing the skills to learn themselves or they will fail at this.  We can’t expect a switch to be flipped in people’s brains after they get their degree at which point they suddenly stop needing to be taught.  It seems obvious that self-learning should be the ultimate goal of our teaching methods.
  • I was struck by the tension between removing “content” from its pedestal in the university and facing the practical implications of “less” content.  Incremental change is needed but the next generation of professors (us) must start thinking about these things for the change to start at all.  We can’t go in like a bull in a china shop oblivious to the “political consequences” of our decisions regarding course content.
  • Reminded again of the learning center concept.  Do these exist at Virginia Tech?  I worked at a chemistry learning center as an undergraduate and found it a formative experience for me as a learner, in addition to helping many students.  Think about the power of engineering learning centers manned by volunteer (or paid?) upperclassmen or graduate students, helping answer questions for engineering courses.  Departments could set aside a dedicated study space with a desk for the learning center coach(es) on duty.  If no one has questions, so be it.  My guess is that this type of a set up would be well-used.  The chemistry centers at MTU surely were.
  • I really liked the idea of capturing the waning minutes of a class period by using a learner-centered exercise.  Individual or group summaries of the class content sound good to me.  With the ubiquity of smart phones and laptops, students could be regularly asked to email the professor their summaries in the last few minutes of class.  It would be a good assessment tool to see what may need to be covered in more detail or reviewed the next period.  One of my favorite professors here at VT keeps a detailed summary of key points, which he reviews briefly the next period.  This is a very helpful review and study tool for students.  I could see these two strategies pairing well together.

The power of a crumpled piece of paper

My office mate, who is teaching for the first time this semester asks, “How can I explain the concept of specific surface area (SSA) to my students and the difference between sands and clays?”

For those uninitiated to soil mechanics, the SSA of a soil is the ratio of particle surface area to mass.  Sand particles are roughly spherical and have a small amount of surface area relative to their mass.  Clay particles on the other hand are extremely thin plates with many times more surface are than those in a sand.  For example, a 100 g (4 oz) of some clay may have enough surface area to cover a football field.

We discussed the matter for a few minutes and devised the following demonstration, which my office mate could perform off-the-cuff during class:

  1. Take two pieces of plain paper.  Same paper = same mass.
  2. Crumple one up into the smallest ball possible.  Ask the class to imagine there is no air left inside the ball.
  3. Compare the surface area of the balled up paper (think – sand particle) and the flat sheet of paper (think – clay particle).  The clay obviously has much greater surface area because of its platy shape.  The class could quickly calculate the surface area of each, if desired.
  4. Optional: Throw balled up paper into the class.  Try not to hit anyone in the head.

My office mate’s post-class assessment of the demonstration was positive.  The class was jolted out of “take notes” mode into “something different is happening” mode.  They appeared to pay more attention and really grasp the concept more fully than if a blackboard description had been used.  Score one for the Crumpled Paper.

Bonus demonstration to explain hydrometer analysis and Stokes Law.  Prior to Step 4 above:

  1. Hold the ball and sheet the same distance above the ground.
  2. Drop both at the same time.  The ball will fall to the ground while the sheet floats back and forth, impeded by drag forces that are large in comparison to particle weight.
  3. Ask what is different about this demonstration and the assumptions of Stokes’ Law.
  4. Repeat Step 4 above.

Why Digging Deeper?

To the geotechnical engineer in me, it’s obvious.  The nature of my work is to “dig” into the ground, into the earth, into the world around me.  I work with things we can’t just see.  I have to dig simply to get the information that I need to even begin a project.  So from an eminently practical standpoint, the moniker is perfectly obvious.

But maybe I should dig a little deeper than that??  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)

I’ve liked to dig and play in the sand since I was really little.  What little boy doesn’t?  I remember digging and filling and redigging holes in my backyard sandbox for hours on end.  I suppose I was laying the groundwork for an exciting career in some sense, but mostly I just enjoyed exploring this world and learning how things worked.  But in the sandbox, you can only go so deep before you reach the bottom and the sand runs out.  Then I got a little older and began to excavate bigger and bigger holes at the beach.  Still every hole had to stop when I couldn’t reach any farther or the water made the whole mess collapse.

When it comes to my academic pursuit of “playing in the sand,” I’m not sure where the bottom is.  Maybe there isn’t one.  Can I keep digging deeper into geotechnical engineering, soil mechanics, shear strength, slope stability?  Can I keep learning more about these fascinating topics?  I certainly hope so.  What about my teaching career – will I  keep digging deeper there or fall quickly into a rut?  What will that look like?

These and many other questions are what I hope to explore, discover, unearth – so to speak – as I write.