Significance and Montessori in Higher Education

This week as we were discussing mindfull learning and anti-teaching I came across this blog post from an instructional designer at Rice University that discusses some cognitive research on children and how they are being taught and what they do with what they are taught. Even though I found the post a few days ago and tweeted about it then, it has still been playing on my mind. What the research boiled down to is that the children who were explained exactly how the toy worked then proceeded to spend less time playing with it. The children/students were not interested in figuring out other ways that it may work or other things that it may do. In the end the direct instruction limited creativity.

The study reminded me of the readings from this week that discussed practicing lessons to the point of overlearning it and mindlessly accepting information. This allows for when individuals come across a challenge, they do not know how to work around it and come up with a solution without repeating the formula they already learned and had repeated dozens of times. When we force students to learn our way of how things work we are limiting their own creativity. We are also limiting how students will find significance and how they may use the information in the future.

These are ideas and conversations that are not only on-going within Virginia Tech and higher education as a whole, they are also ideas that are constantly floating around in my head. As I have mentioned before (or if you dug deep enough in my blog site) I was involved in a MOOC last semester in which Mike Wesch led the discussion about “Why we need a Why”, in which the discussion brought up the idea of significance. At the time I was a few weeks into teaching a new course to me, and blogged about my student’s view of the significance of the course. This semester, now my second semester teaching this course, my students have found other significance in the course. In particular, they see how knowing and understanding how children and adolescents develop will make them better able to understand human processes as they enter into their careers of hospitality management, education, counseling, physical therapy, computer science, etc. My students are finding significance in the course far outside of the significance I would have gotten from it, which is wonderful and potentially one of the benefits of teaching a social science.

Another way that I try and guide them to find significance in the course that can translate outside of this one class is by guiding them on a semester long research paper. Yes, it is relatively structured in that they have certain portions they have to do within a certain time frame, and they are some-what limited to their topics. However, their topics are broad enough, where they can make it their own, such as bullying and gender. Some choose topics because they were already meaningful to them while others choose them based on what they know the least about, and others have chosen some based on what they think will be most useful to them to know about in the future. This paper allows them to read through the research that is out there on these topics, figure out what is most meaningful, and write a coherent paper. I hope that along the way they learn the skills to repeat the process again and be able to read the literature out there on the topic of child and adolescent development.

One of the topic choices that I give my students is on Montessori method of education. For those of you who have never heard of this approach, here is a short history of it. Maria Montessori was an Italian physician in the late 19th/early 20th century, who spent her career researching childhood education up to age 12 (the last age she studied before dying with plans to go further). Within her educational method, children are able to move about the classroom as they wish and choose the work that will be most meaningful to them at the time. The teacher is a facilitator to their learning. The Montessori method is constantly playing on my mind as to how it can relate to higher education. I would love to develop my thoughts on it more as I continue down the path of teaching in higher education. In part, I think it goes back to not limiting the creativity of students, allowing them to find answers for themselves, working on what speaks to them, and finding significance in the work that they are doing.

Conveyer Belt Teaching

I found this while exploring some of the previous semester’s GEDI blogs: I loved reading about someone’s experience as an outsider visiting my alma mater. I love Hollins and to this day I will occasionally go to Roanoke just to knock on the Dean of Student’s door to chat with her about something. I am also one of the alums who provides a lot of volunteer support to the institution.

It is my experience at Hollins that has led me to where I am today. It also is an added challenge for me as an instructor at a school so different from Hollins. As a graduate student who is also an instructor of record, I do not have an office entirely my own to meet with students. All graduate students who teach share a space. Being more physically accessible for students is something I wish I could do. There are so many ways in which I wish I had the chance to connect with students more. I want to see them grow even past the one semester that I have them in my course. I want to be one of the instructors that is accessible to my students, like I had as an undergrad. I am just not completely sure how to do so when I have a new group of 80 students each semester and am teaching online.

I feel like I am not truly getting to know them. I can see their work, but they are staying anonymous. I feel like all I am doing is helping them check off these CLE classes so they can graduate. I am seeing some growth and development throughout the semester, which is good, but I do wonder how much is sticking with them. If they are struggling with something outside of class, or even something that affects their schoolwork, I often have no idea and very little way of helping them once they leave my class. I guess one way to look at it is I am trying to reconcile some of my small, liberal arts school ideals in such a large university. There is the question posed to students as they are looking for which college to attend about whether they want to be relatively anonymous in a large school with large classes or known fully in small classes and even as an instructor I would love to know my students more fully. I am trying to find ways to do so in these large online classes, but am definitely not satisfied with how I am doing with it and probably never will be.

I found this article as I was thinking about a lot of this recently: I also tweeted about this article. The article discusses how students desire instructors, faculty, and administrators to notice them. To have a human connection with them. The author, James Lang, talks about providing plates of knowledge without truly looking at those we are handing the plates to. In some ways, that is the way I feel. But the analogy that I see is more like a conveyer belt. I deliver the goods to the students and help them check this requirement off of their to-do list. But am I actually reaching them? Is what I do and what I require of them making a difference? How am I to know when I never see or hear from them again?

Last semester I participated in Connected Courses, where in conjunction with the international MOOC, a group here at Virginia Tech met regularly to discuss what was being taught and talked about in the bigger MOOC. It was a group of graduate students and faculty who had a special interest in connected courses. It opened my eyes to a lot of pedagogical discussions I had not previously known about. It also allowed me to begin developing a network of other budding professors who share some of the same values in teaching that I do. I left knowing so much more and having so many ideas, yet not completely sure my what next step with these ideas should be. One thing that I am struggling with is how to use technologies for classes that I am not entirely comfortable with. I think that is something that will be slowly developed over the course of my career.

Something that I did come away with, however, is the acknowledgement of how amazing blogs can be to connect you with people far outside your institution and your discipline. I received a response to one of my blog posts ( that I have really taken to heart. I believe the person was from CSU-Chico, so approximately 3000 miles away from my institution. She said that every time she meets with a student she asks them how they are doing. It’s simple, but it can be so powerful. I am not always great at remembering to do that, but in a similar fashion, I think something that we can do is be more mindful in our interactions with students. One thing that I have been trying to do this semester is thanking the students when they e-mail me a question. I am also being a bit more thorough in explaining why I am asking them to do something. How it benefits them, their classmates, and sometimes, how it benefits me. Those two things have already helped to develop connections with students and we are only a week into the semester. I hope that as things become busier in the semester, I can maintain that, as I see the benefit.

Diversity Courses

This week the Diversity in a Global Perspective course I am in at Virginia Tech and the Connected Course have complimented each other quite nicely. One thing on Tuesday in Diversity that we were discussing was how to bring diversity discussions and ideas to undergraduate students. This came up in part due to UCLA College of Letters and Science’s decision on Monday to require a diversity course for undergraduates. You can read more about this decision here. One aspect of this is to challenge students to be exposed to ideas, beliefs, and backgrounds that are different from their own.

One challenge we were discussing with a requirement like this is how to get students engaged in the material if they are required to take it. If students do not want to be challenged to think outside of their world view. We are seeing this challenge currently in the Graduate School with the Ethics requirement. Even with graduate students who have to take an ethics component in different ways, including a one-time seminar, we can see the tuning out and lack of interest. People are not willing to be challenged on ethical behavior for themselves or their future students. So, how do we have undergraduate students take a diversity course seriously and see the benefits of it? Sometimes when we teach courses like this and students opt in to them, it turns into a case of constantly preaching to the choir about the importance. In many ways that is the way it is in my graduate level Diversity course.

A peer who is also in both my Diversity course and the Connected Course suggested that we incorporate diversity into every course. This yet again can be challenging depending on the discipline. For example, how can an instructor in engineering introduce diversity into the classroom? Also, are there ways to do it without hitting students over the head with the information, where it feels to them like we are preaching? That might be part of where we are losing them. I typically teach Child and Adolescent Development and Human Sexuality and these courses allow for a lot of diversity to be incorporated in the discourse without students feeling like that is the entire purpose. Yet, there are still a few who resist the discourse of experiences different than their own.

As I was still processing the discussion on Tuesday from the Diversity course, I was watching the webinar from the Connected Course, Making Teaching with Technology Fair and Open. Around the 34 minute mark, my ears perked up because Dr. Nakamura mentioned including diversity into courses. Part of her argument was that we should not design courses where diversity is only covered one day because students will see it as B.S. and will not take the instructor seriously as being important. I thought that was an important point and stemmed well with my peer’s comment from the Diversity course. Maybe we do need to find more and more ways, no matter what our discipline is, to incorporate diverse views and experiences in engaging ways.

Mentorship and Connection

This semester as I am a part of the Connected Courses series at the international level as well as our group at Virginia Tech, best practices and transformative education has been on my mind even more. Additionally, I frequently read Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle. Today on Inside Higher Ed this was posted, which then led to this and this. I am sure I saw the studies findings when they were first published last spring but it did not really resonate with me until today. This is due in part to the conversation we had this week within our group at Tech.

These articles and findings discuss what is important for students to be engaged in the workplace post-graduation. What Gallup found was that students who had support and experiential learning had the most engagement in the workplace. Support can be shown through having a professor who made them excited about learning; professors caring about the student as a person; and a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams. Experiential was shown by working on a project that took a semester or more to complete; an internship or job that allowed students to apply what they were learning; and being extremely active in extracurricular activities and organizations while attending the college. Looking back, I believe I had all six experiences, which I am eternally grateful for.

We had been discussing projects for students and how the most beneficial ones may not be the short-term projects that we frequently see and assign in classes. How might undergraduate research or undergraduate theses actually benefit students in the long-term?

Then again, when we have 80-500 students in a class at a time, how do we show that we care about each student individually? Especially when they do not seek us out? This is something as someone fairly new to teaching is still grappling with.

Overall, how do we work towards being able to provide these sorts of transformative educational experiences for all students, not just the 3% that said they had all six experiences during their undergraduate career that led to support and experiential and deep learning?

The Why

So, the big question that we are discussing in the Connected Course, that I am participating in, is the Why of teaching and the Why of your course.  This is a bit of a complicated question on many fronts.

First, why do I teach? I am not 100% sure why I teach. It is something that I have always felt a calling to do. Teaching in higher education was not always what I had in mind but the fact that I love research and learning as much as I do, higher education is the best fit. Plus, I love undergraduate students, especially first years. There is an excitement there that is unmatched. I don’t have a more philosophical reason behind why I teach other than I love it. Maybe one day I will realize what it is but right now I know I love it and that I want to do the best job that I can do.

Second, the why of the course. Something to keep in mind about this is the fact that I am a graduate student instructor. I am the instructor of record for a course on child and adolescent development, which at my institution is a course that covers a general education (known here as CLE) requirement. It is also a course that is required of majors in my discipline. So, I am responsible for ~80 students from all four class years and from across campus. In fact, I have a surprising number of engineers in my section. Given these facts, I have limited control over the why of the course. The course description and outcomes are dictated to me.

However, the why of the course means something different to every person. During The End of Higher Education video chat, there was a lot of discussion about the purpose of education and the purpose of certain courses. Finding the purpose and finding the why in many ways are the same thing. I was told going into my current course (my first time teaching this particular course) that many students would be taking it as first-years to get their requirement out of the way. And yes, I have many taking the course to get the requirement finished (though very few first-years). However, many have said that the reason they are taking the course over others offered that would count is to become better parents when the time comes. Even in assignments they have turned in so far the students are making connections to their own lives from the material covered. Time and time again I am seeing these students looking for the purpose and the why of this course outside of the direction I would think they would.

Connected Courses

Trying this out to make sure it works. Excited about this!