Lets Get Real

I thought the readings this week were great.  This was really the kind of things I was hoping to read and discuss as part of Contemporary Pedagogy: the nuts and bolts and ways we can improve our teaching.  I think most of us have our idea of what a “good” teacher is from our experience as an undergrad and grad student.  I think there are great things we can learn from the teachers we’ve had, but the danger is that we end up thinking those techniques define what makes a good teacher instead of a symptom of being a good teacher.

I like the idea of being our authentic self when teaching.  A couple semesters ago i had a teacher who was filling in for the semester for the regular professor.  He was very knowledgeable on the subject, but he chose to use the exact class notes the normal professor had used for years.  It was quite evident that the class notes did not match up with how he would have taught the class.  You could see him fighting with himself at times and also getting lost.  I remember one day, though, where he kind of stopped and decided “I’m going to teach this the way I would like to teach it” and the difference was palpable.  He clearly was more enthusiastic about what he was saying and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us and was motivation to pay more attention.  I think it’s important to remember that there are lots of ways to be an effective teacher, but they will only be effective if they suit us as teachers.

I was going to end there, but I was thinking of things that were a little out there but helped me be more engaged in class. One I thought of was a professor who had “80s movie trivia” every Friday or so.  It was awesome, even though I knew almost none of them 🙂  Just a small, 1 minute-long something to break up an hour-long class session and get people re-engaged.  I might have to switch to “2010s movie trivia” for my students, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Are our assessments making the grade?

Grading and assessment isn’t going away.  Whether it’s qualitative or quantitative or whether we call it feedback or evaluation or anything else, we need ways to assess how students are doing, what they are learning, and how they are progressing so we can inform our students and help them improve, inform parents so they can support their children, and, if grades are used properly, improve our teaching.  I believe that assessment helps us improve.  So we need them, but like Alfie Kohn said, that can’t be an excuse for not changing or improving the way we do things.  And needing them doesn’t mean we need to make assessments miserable or meaningless.

I liked the different articles and videos we were given because they offer so many suggestions on ways to do assessments.  And that’s an important point, there really is no singularly perfect or best way to assess and evaluate students.  We’ve done the grade-based thing for a LONG time and, to be honest, it’s produced some pretty incredible successes as far as educating people goes.  I find it ironic that people who survived and thrived in a grade-based system take such gratification from slamming that system.  Just a thought.  But that’s kind of the point, really, isn’t it?  There are students who will succeed in any system and, despite Kohn’s comments, I am sure there are some students who will thrive better in a graded system than an ungraded system.  I imagine I fall in that category sometime.  I’m lazy as anything a lot of times but I have just enough of a competitor or perfectionist in me that I find grades do motivate me to push myself.  But do I recognize the benefit of alternate assessment styles?  Of course.  Not just from the perspective of trying to come up with assessment that appeal or work for a broader range of students, but because it just makes practical sense if we want to direct education towards actually preparing people for their future professions.  Like the articles said, we rarely are given a list of True/False or multiple choice questions by our boss or client and told to fill them out with facts they could look up online (although I’ll admit I have actually had similar things happen – bosses and clients are lazy).  More often we are given open-ended problems to solve where we need to think and reason and come up with AN answer, not necessarily THE answer.  Because, of course, there is no THE answer.  If there was one thing I wish that assessments, exercises, and lessons in college taught, it would be that.  We don’t want graduates to find out AFTER graduation that they won’t always be able to check the back of the book or ask the professor to find out what the “actual” answer is.  We need to teach students before they leave school to think critically and with an open-mind and to have the confidence to back up their answer without the authority of a grader to support them.  Better to find that out in school than in the real world.  So yea, I think we should try different methods of assessment.  We should experiment with and incorporate different things to see what works.  I believe that what actually works will change by discipline, subject, course, and class, so we may need to adjust our thinking from time to time.  Is that hard?  Uncomfortable?  Not likely to always be well-received?  Of course, but most things are.  Still worth it though if we want to actually make a difference.

Mindful Teaching

I really enjoyed the articles and videos from this week’s topic.  There were some great articles and comments on how we can improve both teaching and learning.  One of my favorite comments was from Ellen Langer in the intro to her Mindful Learning book (the one on Canvas).  In discussing myths that inhibit mindful learning, she states, “The ideas offered here to loosen the grip of these debilitating myths are very simple. Their fundamental simplicity points to yet another inhibiting myth: that only a massive overhaul can give us a more effective educational system.”  What a great point.  We have thrown so much money and manpower at our educational system and often the results are minimal improvements (if that) in the quality of our education and student success.  While I do think that increased funding and, particularly, increased parent involvement, as well a host of other activities and actions can help improve learning, it’s often small changes in our mindsets and behaviors that make the most difference.

I thought Langer’s discussion about teaching in conditionals was interesting.  I’d be interested in seeing more studies done, but from the ones presented, it seemed like simply changing the language used in teaching and explaining a concept from an absolute (i.e. – this is how this done) to a conditional (i.e. – it can be done this way), students were better prepared to think creatively and adapt learning.  I think about my experiences and I can see how that could be.  We are often taught and trained to do things the right way to the exclusion of all others, even when there are other ways that are equally suitable or better to accomplishing a task.  When we teach our students in absolutes, we may unknowingly be implying that the methods and concepts we are teaching are the only way to do things, which discourages adaption, innovation, and creativity.  Interesting that something so simple could make such a huge difference.  I think that as teachers, we fall into the same mindset as our students in thinking that there is one right way to do things or one right way to teach things.   Like Langer mentions, we get so ingrained in our teaching routine that we forget about the need to adapt or change what we’re doing to fit a specific class/student/topic.  We end up focusing more on the teaching than on learning to the detriment of our students.  And why is it so easy to do that?  Because it’s a lot easier to recite lesson plans than to actually teach mindfully.  Adaptation is hard and engaging students in a customized way can be difficult.  Beyond that, we just don’t change our mindset to one where we are open to adaptation and change or to adaptation or creativity in our students.

Funny the things that stick with you, but when I thought about mindful learning I was reminded of an experience I had in pre-calculus in high school.  We had a test which involved something like calculating the rate at which water level rose in a pyramidal pool for a given inflow or something thrilling like that.  I remember finishing my test and turning it in to the teacher, apparently a lot faster than she expected us to finish.  She looked over my test and then asked me to redo it.  I asked her why and she explained that I hadn’t done the problem the right way.  I asked if I had found the right answer and she said yes, but not in the right way.  The test hadn’t specified what method to use or anything like that, but since I had found a faster method than what we had been taught in class, I was asked to redo it.  So, I took my test back, redid the problem a different way, and turned it back in after having gotten the same final answer.  She looked it over and AGAIN said I had done it the wrong way and I needed to do it again.  I took back my test and had to figure out what way she wanted me to do it, then redo the problem again (reaching the same, correct final answer), and turn it in.  Thankfully the third time she was okay with what I had done.  The experience wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t hold any hateful grudges against my teacher (haha, except I apparently still remember it 17 years later), but it is illustrative to consider the effect that kind of teaching has on students.  I doubt I was quite as eager to innovate or look for new and better ways to solve problems after that experience.   I do believe that my teacher had good intentions.  She wanted me to learn principles in doing that problem “the right way” that would be foundational for later work in the class, and that’s probably true.  That’s why we teach basic principles and encourage students to learn them down pat.  I think there’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to learn those things because we are teaching basics so we can someday teach more advanced topics.  But maybe the focus should be internalizing basic principles instead of memorizing them.  Teach concepts and ideas instead of methods and we may be surprised at how much more our students learns and how creative they can be.  And, frankly, how much more they might enjoy learning.