On the Way to Riva

On the way to Riva from Basel. Saying goodbye to the German part of Switzerland and on to the Italian. I am interested to see how different they are. We have some definite regional differences in the US but nothing quite so official as the divisions in Switzerland.  Even within the regions we have visited so far, there have been distinct differences culturally and institutionally between cities/schools.

Anyway, it has certainly been an interesting and fulfilling trip so far. We have seen some interesting aspects of Swiss and Frnech education (I am pretty sure half the class is currently tweeting about how low tuition is). I was thinking of the most distinct differences I have noticed and one of them that comes to mind is just a difference in culture surrounding graduate studies and PhDs in particular. I feel like, in the US, we treat graduate studies as much more an extension of the undergrade experience or at least the collegiate experience. We call PhD students students and we have fairly structured graduate programs that somewhat mirror the undergrad programs. In contrast to this, the PhD system in Switzerland is very much more one of PhD as professional. They apply to a PhD “position” and have contracts. Discussions with faculty from Zurich included comments about how there has been major pushback to the relabelling of PhD employees as “candidates” or “students” which has come along with an Americanization, if you will, of the Swiss graduate experience.

So what are the practical effects? A contract and a salary is a major benefit. This provides security for students who in the US can have finding pulled on short notice. Strasbourg mentioned benefits and social security accrual/pension for students. There also appear to be much more in the way of spelled out responsibility. Students are on contract for a specific number of hours or teaching obligations or the like rather than the more vague requirements of a US PhD. Phd students here appear to be expected to be employees rather than studbets though, which also appears to have other effects. Students are not coddled or coached along as much. It appears that students are expected to work and fulfill their contract. We have a much more flexible system that appears more concerned with personal growth or adaptation than the Swiss model. Things like mental health or student services appear to just be the emerging stages at a lot of schools. One related comment was that students are typically hired for specific PhD positions and projects whereas it is often the case in the US that people start a PhD program without an actual advisor or project. This gives us more flexibility but also means we can’t have the same security going in as Swiss student/employees.

It has been interesting to see the tradeoffs of different educational models. Even between the schools we have seen, the different institutions have found very different ways to function within the same Swiss system. There really is no “best” way to do it but there are certainly things I’ve seen that could make a positive differences. Also things that make me grateful for the US system. I am excited to see what schools are like in the South and compare methods with what we have already been exposed to.

For the next few hours though i am just excited to see the Alps 🙂


Remembering why we do what we do

Some interesting reads this week.  I thought the article on the new professional was really good.  They made some good points about making sure we connect the things we learn and produce in academia and professional practice to the people around us and recognize the need to keep a human perspective in the things we do.

I think it’s easy for professionals and academics alike to look at things too scientifically and in too sterile an environment.  We start reducing people to statistics and numbers and words and we lose focus on the lives behind the numbers and behind the words.  This leads us to forget the why behind what we do and sometimes leads us to miss opportunities to do things that will actually benefit the world at large.  I liked the comment that knowing isn’t enough.  If we can’t have a soul behind the knowledge and actually use it to the benefit of someone else, we are really missing the boat.  As someone mentioned in class a month or so ago, we also put ourselves in danger of getting so caught up in progress and innovation that we don’t always recognize the full consequences of what we’re doing and may end up doing more harm than good.

I think we have a responsibility as people in positions of power/privilege/education/potential/you-name-it, which we certainly are given we have the opportunity to be attending school and getting advanced degrees, to actually make a positive change in the world and to recognize that we can and should do more.  That starts with taking more time to think about the people affected by our research, our teaching, and our practice, and then making changes based upon the things we discover.  I had the opportunity to visit the Oso Washington landslide which killed 43 people.  Although I didn’t have anything to do with the poor engineering and public policy that led to the disaster, that experience certainly shaped the way I continued in engineering practice.  It’s moments like that that serve to wake you up to the realities of what we are actually called to achieve in academia and practice.  I hope most of us don’t need wake up calls that dramatic, but I do hope we take more time to stop and look at the world around us and remember what it is we’re working for.  And then do something about it.

Teachers and Learners – Critical Pedagogy

So many topics covered in the reading this week from Freire and hooks.  Some interesting ideas and concepts.  One that stood out to me was the concept of teachers as learners.  This is something I’ve thought a lot about during my time teaching.  We focus a lot on helping students to develop open minds and to think critically but we don’t talk as often about how to help teachers keep and open mind.  We often fall into the “banking concept” discussed by Freire where teachers are simply trying to fill the minds of students like an empty receptacle rather than actually teaching them.  Teachers can fall into the trap of thinking they know everything because that’s kind of how the banking concept is set up.  This ends up restricting learning and discouraging critical thinking because analytical questions from students are seen as a challenge to a teacher’s authority and traditional pedagogy.  Or they can be viewed as distractions from the syllabus that the teacher has worked so hard to stick to.  As teachers, we need to work to overcome that mentality.  As we view ourselves as facilitators of learning rather than just someone filling a bucket with facts, I think we open ourselves and our students to more meaningful learning experiences.  And a more enjoyable experience as well.

I have been amazed at how many times I’ve been explaining a concept to someone, even a concept that I’m pretty familiar with, when suddenly a lightbulb goes off and I understand something totally new about the concept.  Sometimes that’s triggered by a question from the person I’m teaching and sometimes it’s simply triggered by the process of explaining what I think I know to someone else and having to vocalize those thoughts.  Either way, I find it incredible how much we can learn while teaching.  This is why group work and group discussions are so useful.  I have been impressed by professors who have been willing to learn while they teach.  We’ll be having discussion in class and someone will pose a question that they may not know the answer to.  Rather than taking this as a challenge to their authority, we have been able to turn these questions into interesting discussions and learn together.  Seeing a professor be open to questions and discussion, I believe, encourages students to engage and think critically and to become more involved in the learning process.  Perhaps we can do a better job encouraging our students to be teachers and our teachers to be learners and maybe we’ll all learn something from each other.


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.


Distracted enough without adding more

Some great reads this week on the schedule.  I thought the article about setting student’s minds on fire through active learning (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Setting-Students-Minds-on/126592) was a great reminder that sitting in a chair while someone lectures is not really learning.  I’m grateful most of my teachers have gotten us more involved than that.

I also found the article about phones and laptops in the classroom to be interesting (https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/01/24/578437957/laptops-and-phones-in-the-classroom-yea-nay-or-a-third-way).  Although I see benefits to technology in learning, I definitely find myself siding with people who want cellphones out of the classroom.  Kids (and I include myself and my collegiate associates) are distracted enough without adding more distractions.  I would hate to count the number of times I check my cell phone to see if I have new messages, even when I’m not waiting for anything in particular.  (In case you were wondering, there are plenty of apps to help you track how many times you check your phone – see https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/05/apps-smartphone-use-_n_6096748.html.  Of course, the irony of an app to see how often you use apps is not lost on me.  But it can be an interesting reality check to realize how much of your life you waste on a phone) I think it’s a sad state of affairs that we have gotten to a point where we find it shocking that teachers wouldn’t want kids to have phones in their classrooms.  Class should be a time for learning, discussion, interaction, and respect, and I can’t think of too many cases where having a phone actually helps that.  When screens of any sort are out, you’re ability to engage in a meaningful discussion is compromised, even if you’re eyes are on the teacher or classmate, your mind is elsewhere.  Aside from that, have we really gotten to a point where we ignore how disrespectful it is to be on a phone while someone else is talking?

This may be a shock to everyone, but students will not die without their phones.  In fact, few things are probably healthier for young and growing (or old and stagnating) minds than to disconnect from our phones for a while.  We live in a world where we can’t go more than a few minutes without being fed another piece of click bait or a message or a post or something.  I think that has hampered our ability to focus and learn and communicate.  We are not doing our students any favors by fostering that behavior.  We are addicted to technology.  If you want to read an excellent case study, check here https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/14/google-glass-user-treated-addiction-withdrawal-symptoms.

Maybe one of the most convincing arguments to me AGAINST phones in a classroom is watching people try to justify the need to have them in a classroom.  I thought Jesse Stommel’s argument was weak when he said that we shouldn’t put limits on phones in classroom simply because those would be a “form of control,” and that would be bad?  Learning, conversation, social interaction, literally everything we do is subject to controls of some sort.  And that isn’t bad.  Again, this may be shocking, but it is okay to have rules of engagement for our classrooms.  Are there bad ways to set those up?  Of course! I don’t think you have to be authoritarian to set guidelines for your class.  Setting rules controlling when phones can’t be used also allows you to set rules for when phones, media, etc. CAN be used in your class.  To go back to Stommel’s point about having a discussion with your students about attention and what works for them, I have no doubt most of the kids missed that discussion because they were on their phones.

I see benefits to involving phones or computers in useful ways in class if we use them productivly.  “Asking the oracle” through google is a great way to learn, search, and discover. But if we and are students can’t handle disconnecting when the searching is done, our phones are no longer a tool for learning.  They’re just one more flashy distraction.  I love that my kids’ teachers have carts with laptops they can wheel in and out of class.  When the computers are out, they’re using them for something beneficial, and when they are back on the cart, they are back to engaging with the teacher and each other.  We can’t do that with our phones (although it’d be funny to see someone try), but I think the principle is a sound one.

I taught high school students for 2 years and, as you’d expect, ran headlong into the phone issue.  It gave me an opportunity to experience both sides because we had two semesters where we didn’t use phones and 2 where we did.  The discussions we had in our phone-free semesters were orders of magnitude better than those where we allowed phones.  Students who slept or read their phones the whole class were suddenly more engaged and actually appeared interested.  Turns out, shockingly enough, that if there isn’t a phone to occupy your attention, you have to fill it with something, and, if you happen to be sitting in a classroom, you might as well fill your attention with that.  Which brings us to the point about teachers just being boring which is why students use their phone.  Although teachers are often boring, that may be the worst argument of all.  Anyone who thinks a teacher can compete day in and day out against a flashing phone screen, games, and YouTube for all their students is naive or ignorant.  Obviously, if we ask our students to disconnect and remove distractions from their lives, we better have something worthwhile to fill the void, which is why I like the article about active teaching and getting students involved.  If we remove distractions and then use the newly discovered phone-free time to actually engage students, I think we will be amazed what we can accomplish.

Sorry for the long rant.  I love my phone and my computer….and my tv…..and on an on.  That’s probably exactly why I’m so sensitive to this topic.  I think I’ve zone out of entire classes just because my laptop was more open than my mind, and, based on what you see daily in our classes, I’m not the only one.  There is an argument that, if we, as college students, want to miss lecture by being on our phone, that’s our choice as adults, but, I don’t think that applies to K-12 where people are still learning how to be responsible with media.  I think the analogy of giving kids unlimited candy while they are trying to learn to eat a well-balanced diet was a good one.  Kids are learning and one of the things to learn is how to be responsible with media.  Even in college though, I think our phone/computer use doesn’t just affect us.  It’s distracting to everyone around you and I know, from observation and personal experience, that it makes things harder for the teacher.  It’s much harder to guide a meaningful class discussion when a sizeable part of the class is tuned out, often visibly so.  At least when you zone out without a phone, it isn’t quite so distracting to everyone else.  As a society, we need to recognize the benefits of disconnecting from media and connecting to each other, and I think that is definitely true in education.

Throwing Yourself Out There in a Networked World

Interesting reads this week for our blog post.  One of the comments I thought most interesting was taken from Tim Hitchcock’s article about twitter and blogs (http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2014/07/28/twitter-and-blogs-academic-public-sphere/).  He said:

“One of my favourite blogging experiences involves embedding blogs in undergraduate assessment.  By forcing students to write ‘publicly’, their writing rapidly improves.  From being characterized by the worst kind of bad academic prose – all passive voice pomposity – undergraduate writing in blogs is frequently transformed in to something more engaging, simply written, and to the point.  From writing for the eyes of an academic or two,  students are forced to imagine (or actually confront) a real audience.  Blogging has the same effect on more professional academic writers – many of whom assume that if the content is good, the writing somehow doesn’t matter.”

I thought that was an interesting comment on the how and why of involving students in networked learning and public discussion.  We teach students to work on homework assignments, tests, essays, etc. that will only be seen by the students themselves, their teacher, and maybe by a limited handful of classmates.  Particularly given the public nature of professional practice, teaching students to effectively communicate to broader and more diverse audiences can’t help but have a positive effect on their future success.  I think too, as he mentioned, that blogging can be beneficial to us as well because it forces us to evaluate our confidence in our own findings, practices, and approaches and determine how to represent those to others.  I worked in engineering practice for several years before coming back to school and I saw the positive impact that community of practice forums could have on my practice and on the community in general.  When we practice, study, research, or otherwise act in a vacuum, we often find (or don’t) ourselves re-treading wrong paths or stagnating in our development.  When we become more comfortable tossing ideas out there and bouncing them off others, I think, in spite of the potential for exposing our mistakes or maybe looking foolish on occasion, we end up learning far more and improving our work far more quickly than working in more secure, isolated conditions.

Sharing Blame for the Grad Student Tax

I was happy to see that the current Senate version of the tax reform bill left the tuition waiver in place for both undergrads and grads, and I am REALLY hoping that that doesn’t change during mediation while they hash out the final bill.  Taxing students on tuition waivers seems like a cheap shot at people who don’t have all that much income to begin with.  And, from a political standpoint, seems like a pretty dumb idea since it will tick off a large percentage of an entire population demographic.  I’m hoping it was just bluster by the House knowing the Senate would take it out.  Anyway, enough on that.

I have mentioned in a couple previous blog posts that I am frustrated with where we are as far as the cost of higher ed goes.  I think we keep throwing money at the system in an attempt to help students and we really just end up inflating costs without a commensurate increase in education received.  We add more paperwork and overhead and the like and in the end, we’re not all that farther than we were before.  Anyway, interesting article that ties that in a little bit with the current tax situation:


Worth a read if you’ve been following the tax reform bill.  I’m glad it doesn’t try to remove blame from congress for the removing the waiver but I thought they made some excellent points about what higher ed has done to exacerbate the problem.  Some of the more interesting comments are:

“Like grants, tuition is another way the university makes money from science. While tuition looks mainly like an artifact of accounting for most graduate students in the humanities and social sciences (where the university just pays itself for tuition), in the natural and applied sciences, tuition is a way for the university administration to get more money out of the public. As the university bulletin explains, “for a standard [research assistant] appointment in addition to the salary, the grant pays half of the tuition.” In other words, the government — through the National Science Foundation, NIH, NASA and other agencies — is transferring $20,500 per year per research assistant into Yale’s accounts, at a time when the university endowment is at an all-time high above $27 billion. This tuition transfer certainly totals in the millions every year for Yale alone, and must add up to a mind-boggling sum across the country. Again, this is money that the public pays universities for granting graduate students the privilege of working for them to create more wealth for those same universities.”

“The most self-serving reason university administrators continue to charge tuition, though, is to use the fact that they waive payment of it as propaganda. To oppose our unionization, the administration here has repeatedly cited this money that we never see as evidence of our privileged status, suggesting that our income is much higher than it actually is (the exact argument they now want us to deter Congress from making).

Adding all these facts up leads to a disturbing conclusion. Yale doesn’t want the Republican bill to pass, and neither do I. But it would appear that Yale and most other elite universities would rather maintain a steady income stream from the public and their ability to disavow our value to the institutions — even at the cost of our potential individual financial insolvency. Increasingly corporate university administrations have helped create the situation where the Republicans could try something like this. They could still change course in a way that would moot the tax bill: They could recognize that graduate student workers add value and stop charging tuition.”

Yes, it’s lazy of me to just copy and past so much but I thought the article made some good points and I didn’t want to summarize.  I mostly found it interesting when they mention that institutions talk all the time about how much they have to pay for our tuition and how we are privileged that they pay it for us and so our income is higher than we actually see.  And yet, when congress uses the same rationale, they don’t want it to fly.  I am totally aware that there are costs to administering the paperwork for us to graduate and there are overhead costs for equipment (which we still often pay for from project funds), but if we aren’t taking classes, lets drop tuition or lower it to a reasonable level commensurate with the services the university actually provides (ignoring the fact that we are actually bring money into the university for cheap labor).  Turns out Yale actually only charges fourth-year PhD students to $600 per term, likely recognizing that these students aren’t taking classes and are just low-wage employees of the university.  If universities could take a similar approach to grad students everywhere, we would have more money for actual research and the tax waiver would be almost moot because our “additional income” from getting the waiver would be a lot smaller and unlikely to push anyone into a higher tax bracket.  Would it be annoying to pay taxes on that $600, of course!  But we’d be a lot better off that paying taxes on tuition rates (and out-of-state fees) that we now have.

Haha, so that was a longer rant that expected.  I really hope the whole discussion becomes meaningless when the final tax bill comes out, but either way, it’s probably still worth revisiting how we bill grad students when it comes to tuition and other fees by recognizing we are employees of the university and probably shouldn’t be paying so much for the opportunity to be an employee.  Not likely to happen (especially not before we graduate), but one can hope.