Archive for December, 2008

I was fascinated by Gladwell’s article in the New Yorker, despite his drawing parallels with two fields I am not expert in: football and finance. This Clutter Museum postdoes a nice job capturing some of the responses to the article, but I was interested to see that my own reactions weren’t represented there. So I would like to add a few points.
First, the part of Gladwell’s article that most fascinated me was the description of the successful teacher in action. Pianta at the Curry School studied videos of teachers teaching and interacting with little children. Even just reading about the teachers actions, the difference between the successful and the unsuccessful was obvious. But teasing out what elements make that true can be tricky. One thing they identified was respect for the learners:

Pianta’s team has developed a system for evaluating various competencies relating to student-teacher interaction. Among them is “regard for student perspective”; that is, a teacher’s knack for allowing students some flexibility in how they become engaged in the classroom.

Is this an inborn trait, or is it something that a teacher can learn?

You can see how hard it is to teach new teachers this idea, because the minute you teach them to have regard for the student’s perspective, they think you have to give up control of the classroom.”

There are some people who learn to do this on their own, or are born knowing how to do it. But I also think it is part skill, part attitude. Successful teachers believe their students can learn, and that their students want to learn. They know how to manage a group of people to create an atmosphere that optimizes every student’s opportunity to get excited about learning. In addition, successful teachers give a lot of feedback to students individually so that learning is active and experimental, as demonstrated by the math teacher in Gladwell’s article.

One question not thoroughly explored in the article is: can these skills and attitudes be taught? Or, let me make this distinction: can they be learned, but not taught? Gladwell asserts that the different mechanisms (degrees and certifications) we have now for teacher education do not guarantee successful teachers. This seems to indicate that the most important elements for successful teaching can’t be taught. But that is not true: it indicates that the system now doesn’t teach them, but not that it can’t be done. But it also seems to be true that these elements can be learned, that it is not true that if you are not a fantastically effective teacher your first year, you never will be. In fact, all the teachers I know developed into more effective teachers after experience in the classroom. This is a point that Gladwell also makes. But I want to go one step further: what are the circumstances that allow ineffective teachers to develop into effective teachers?

As a person working with faculty to improve their teaching, I have seen the importance of the institution’s message to the teachers about developing. We need to be clear that excellent teachers work at their teaching skills, not just their content knowledge. We also need to respect each faculty member as a learner, in the same way that good teachers respect students as individual learners. This does not mean that we allow people to hide behind “individual academic freedom” so that they never have to develop. It means that we encourage them to be “reflective practitioners” analyzing their successes and failures. I also think that having a community of other teachers to talk to and share ideas with makes a big difference, and that joining the larger community of scholars who study how people learn, by reading journals, attending conferences, etc. This is the ideal; is it happening? If we wanted to make sure that teachers could be successful, we would focus on helping them learn the process of critical reflection, as well as introducing them to the community of teacher/scholars.

Some studies seem to show that having a deep knowledge of the content is crucial for making an effective teacher. I would love to see more research done to tease out the reality of this. Is it a “necessary but not sufficient” precondition? What about the importance of being able to understand your audience of beginners well enough to get them started? I am quite sure that my high school chemistry teacher understood her chemistry well; but the fact that she made us all miserable in that class guaranteed that none of us developed a desire to learn more about chemistry. In fact, I think I feel hives breaking out just thinking of it.

Successful teaching is complicated and wonderful, worth studying and worth advocating. I am happy Gladwell is encouraging the conversation.


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I have figured out what my old job and my new job have in common: expanding our understanding of where learning happens, breaking open the classroom. Technology allows us to do this even when we may look like we are still sitting in a traditional classroom. Community-based learning gets us moving our real live bodies out into the world.
Will Richardson had an interesting article in Edutopia and the subtitle is “How to Teach When Learning is Everywhere.”

One of the challenges of community-based learning is that the instructor is not in control of all of the learning. In a way,the students’ experiences become another text for the class, and it is a text that the teacher can not possibly have read before the beginning of the semester. Just like the way technology can encourage teachers to be guides for students when the “expert in everything” role is closed to them, CBL has the same effect. And yet, technology helps to minimize the problems of dispersed learning, allowing us to maximize the reflection and community building. A few examples:
1. One of the hardest things about group work for students is scheduling time in their busy schedules to meet. A simple free tool like Doodle can make a huge difference in saving them from wasting time to schedule time. Giving them access to wikis and group blogs can also help them work collaboratively, and can give the instructor the opportunity to see when groups are having problems and intervene when necessary.
2. I suggest that all my faculty who have students in the community at service sites require students to post to a blog within 24 hours of their work each week. That way the students are forced to reflect while the experience is still fresh, and they never have to lose time handing in their journal to be graded–they get constant real-time feedback from professor and peers. When everyone in a class community is reading about each others’ experiences, it is much more likely that the experience will be a part of the face to face time as well. One of the keys to successful CBL is weaving the experiences into the very fabric of the class.
3. Another challenge of having students work in the community is that sometimes they aren’t doing a kind of service that will meet the academic needs of the class. If students are writing about their experiences, the faculty (or, in my case, members of the CBL support team) can intervene with site supervisors to make sure that both the needs of the site AND the needs of the class members are being well served.
3. Students can produce work for classes that can be useful when they can use technology tools. A good example is a project we have in mind for next semester. A professor wants students to create something audio visual that creates a kind of snapshot of a neighborhood they are studying. I have suggested she might have them use something like the movie created using Google Maps Street View that you can see here or here. When a project uses interesting technology tools, it can multiply the learning. But when they use interesting tools to create something real people will use to do good things, the learning becomes even more profound and their motivation goes through the roof. Whatever this class decides to create, we will be using it to support our Build It Initiativeand our new website (coming soon).

Raising the roof and blowing out the walls of the classroom appeals to me. Does it appeal to you?

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One of my favorite professors at UR is Joe Hoyle. He is a wise guyman and he says that to be a better teacher one should take a class every semester, preferably in something you aren’t good at!

So, for fun, I took a class in Middle Eastern Dancing. Okay, yes, “bellydancing.” My sons were mortified, and that fact alone made me enjoy it. But, actually, it was a lot of fun. The teacher was fantastic, and I have been reflecting on what made her so effective. Here is what I have come up with:
she understood her audience. She was very clear with us that Americans don’t walk or move at all like women in the middle east, and our dance style is also very different. I had to learn to move my center to the back of my heels and off of my toes, and to isolate my top half from my lower half–and move both. Here my Irish heritage was not much help (if you think Riverdance, I am sure you will see the problem–slinging flinging legs are not the goal here).

And here is the genius of our teacher: for every new move, she would demonstrate the move, describe how to do it, and then show us what the move was NOT. When I watched her, I would think–okay, I can do that, but then when I tried the move, it would never look right. But then she would say to all of us: now, you will want to do this wrong like this (and then demo a goofy, stiffer version of the move that usually involved forgetting the basics and going all western again.) She spent as much time showing us what each move was NOT as she did showing us what it was. And her kind manner allowed us to laugh at ourselves, which was crucial. We could see ourselves in the stilted wrong poses, and then we would try again, listening to further instructions and metaphors.
Her metaphors were also incredibly helpful, for instance: “your arms are moving like snakes between a ceiling and floor.” And then she would break the movement down into the physical parts (“wrists up, then fingers; wrist down, then fingers; ceiling, floor…)

This seems an interesting model. Shifting back and forth between the wrong way and the right way…shifting back and forth between metaphor and literal… and always trying to think and to do. She told us often that when learning movements that are literally foreign, a person has to unlearn the movements she is most familiar with and keep practicing the new movements while the body learns and the brain lays down new pathways.

I would have thought that bringing the “wrong way” to mind would reinforce error, and I would have thought that using metaphor right along side of the literal might confuse people. Neither was true. I found myself moving in whole different ways (though I still can’t do that tricky camel-thing fast enough) and enjoying learning. I wonder how I will translate these insights into my own teaching?

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