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?

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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