Do We Just Fire All the Teachers?

[843 words]

Short answer: Absolutely not. We need teachers. We also need autonomous learning.

I have observed ambivalence in my successive enthusiasms and in my seemingly self-contradictory declarations in this blog and elsewhere. On the one hand, as a teacher, I am totally enthusiastic about teaching, pedagogy, learning theories, imagining new and better ways of promoting learning. I talk about what teachers need to do or think about to improve their work with learners. But then I also talk about how learners deserve autonomy and freedom to direct their own learning. I critique the ways in which many, if not most, educational systems and processes fail to align with how learners’ brains work, how many curricula fail to help learners thrive, and how teachers often fail to discern or provide the support and the opportunities that learners most need. My fluctuating attitudes seem to embrace incompatible sets of ideas and values. It makes me wonder about the intellectual soundness and good judgment of the person who continually flips between those broad points of view.

Clearly, as a teacher, I value my work with learners. I  believe that my skill and my labor doing so is of value to my institution of higher education and to learners enrolled there. Then I switch hats and find that as a learner, I value learner autonomy and believe that schools and curricula and teachers actually discourage  or impede learning in many cases or, at best, fall short of optimally supporting good, durable, resonant, meaningful learning. So… which one is it? Do I think that we need teachers, or not? Do I think that learners ought to have absolute freedom without undue interference from teachers and regulations, or not?

I am pretty sure that I’m not an intellectual hypocrite or the victim of cognitive dysfunction when I flip between these positions. What I mean is that my ideas about teaching and my ideas about learning are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are more like positions along a continuum, with some distance between them, without being fully separated from each other. To put it another way… not only do I think that it is possible to have autonomous learning AND teachers, but I think that it is necessary. Indeed, I would say that it is unthinkable not to have teachers. So, just to be clear, even as I advocate for more autonomy for learners and for a full and proper place for self-directed learning across educational systems, I am not talking about “firing the teachers.”

I am talking about a radical change. In my emerging vision of education, many teachers will need to learn a very different way of proceeding. Institutions will be forced to rethink the ways in which they manage education, curricular rules, teachers and learners. And to be quite frank, I worry about whether or not it is possible to make a majority of these changes fully, in one fell swoop, on a large scale. I have my doubts about the feasibility of doing it across a single institution, much less across an entire citywide, region-wide or nationwide system. However, my very real concerns and doubts do not convince me that we ought to abandon the idea. Indeed, I think that it is worthwhile to try. In this, I am not alone.

There is, to borrow a theme from a recent conference at which I spoke, a certain urgency behind this questioning and this desire to rethink and to change how we approach teaching, learning and education. It has become increasingly clear to many that the metaphors and paradigms of majority-view Western European and American education are inefficient for learning in general and horrendously dysfunctional for many learners. Most of all, they are ill-adapted to the task of enacting the cultural and intellectual shifts that are needed in this time of crisis and transition, the Anthropocene.

Of course, if we think that everything is just great and that we ought to continue doing things exactly as we are — overexploiting natural resources, creating social and environmental catastrophes on a huge scale, blithely ignoring poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment, plastic-filled oceans and other extreme kinds of pollution, mass habitat destruction, mass extinction, deforestation, uncontrolled addiction in some communities, global warming, antibiotic-resistant microbes; or acknowledging but spectacularly failing to solve most problems in any sustainable way, continually building systems and social environments that leave the vast majority of human beings feeling dissatisfied, unfulfilled, sick, exploited or victimized (or all of the above) — then, by all means, we ought to stick with the educational systems and the modalities of thinking and doing that undergird Western industrial societies’ ways of doing things.

On the other hand, if we are going to address the underlying problems of the Anthropocene and create a society more in line with the possibility of sustainable thriving for the human race as a whole, we must change how we educate, how we learn and how we solve problems. Radically.

Teachers have an important role to play…

Even if it means that they must operate outside their comfort zone.

It’s important.

 

 

 

Reflections on Personalized Learning, Self-Directed Learning, and “Teaching”

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This entry extends my thinking about different forms of customized learning. I originally began articulating my ideas in an approximately 2000-word post in the eLearning Ecologies MOOC community update stream on Common Ground Scholar. (To read that post click the following title: “Teacher/Learner Agency and ‘Customized’ Learning”). The Scholar website comprises community pages (including my post) that are linked to a Coursera MOOC, e-Learning Ecologies. I am in the process of completing my work in the final module. (To earn a certificat for the course, we post four 300-word-minimum “updates” on concepts in the course, posted on either Coursera or Scholar and we must must peer-review similar posts by three other MOOC participants in each each of four units.) I chose to do all of my updates on Scholar because it’s a bit more flexible. I must also admit that was particularly enthusiastic about the idea of “community” on Scholar, although I can’t say that I’ve found it to be as vibrant or helpful as I had anticipated. There are a couple of folks with whom I’ve exchanged comments and agreed to connect as a “peer.” As it turns out, the “peer” status is, in fact, little more than facilitated communication through the website, and it does not provide a good mechanism for the connected co-creation of knowledge. At any rate, eLearning Ecologies is is definitely an xMOOC, not a cMOOC. To be expected, I guess.

At any rate, my Common Ground Scholar update (link above) is on the seventh of seven “affordances” that the teachers, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, lay out in the course. They say that these affordances are important for “e-Learning Ecologies” and that they will shape the future of education. The particular affordance that is the general subject of my post is “differentiated learning,” a term that I find to be somewhat problematic. It corresponds to a designation used in Special Education regarding students with particular cognitive or physical needs, for whom a teacher is obligated to devise a “personalized learning plan.” I understand that Cope and Kalantizis are using the term “differentiated” in a more abstract or general way, without specific regulatory implications. Their intention is to evoke an approach where learners are not all treated the same. However, by employing a label that has precise technical, legal and educational denotations, they obscure that general meaning.

That’s why, in my Scholar post, I speak in some detail to distinguish between four kinds of “customized learning.” (Differentiated learning is one of those terms; the others are adaptive learning, individualized learning and personalized learning. ) The idea that I end the Scholar update is personalized learning, which I then proceed to assimilate to self-directed learning and autonomous learning, as if those labels are approximately the same thing. While it is true that all of these terms suggest a degree of learner agency and a focus on addressing learners’ needs, there are nuances and distinctions to draw among personalized, self-directed and autonomous learning. This ISTE webpage is helpful for drawing some of those distinctions:  “Personalized vs. differentiated vs. individualized learning.”

As one thinks about personalized learning when grouped together with individualized and differentiated learning, what jumps out about those terms? It’s the adjective in the form of a past participle. That linguistic construction suggests the passivity of the learner. It’s like the passive voice, where the agent is not, grammatically speaking, the actor in the sentence. That is, it’s not tantamount to saying “the learner personalized his or her own learning.” Rather, it’s: “The learning was personalized.” By whom? We don’t know. Yet what seems abundantly clear is that the learner is not in a leading role. It is implied the the personalization was done by someone else for the learner. In this, it is analogous to “differentiated learning” and “individualized learning.” Who does the differentiating or the individualizing? In the case of the former, it is clearly the teacher who discerns and adapts instructional planning according to the needs of the learner. In the case of the latter, even if the learner has some control, particularly of pacing, she or he is not really striking out on a unique, individual, path that she or he decides on. The teacher (or corporations of teachers) will draw up the map and plot the navigational charts, determining the learning trajectory, including each and every stop along the way. For that matter, even the fourth form of learning  that I mentioned, adaptive learning, agency belongs largely to those who create the learning content (activities, tasks, tests, standards of assessment, etc.) and to those who create the algorithms that manage the adaptive system.

Now, it’s true that there are other ways of thinking about it, for example when personalized learning is part of, say, a personal learning environment (PLE) or similar setup. There, it is the learner who is largely in control of the learning pathways and modalities. Sure, some parameters and functionalities of the personal learning environment are determined by the institution that hosts and facilitates it. Yet, the learner can still choose which lines of research to pursue, which connections to make, which artifacts to display as a demonstration of learning. The learner chooses with whom to collaborate and how to communicate.

Despite the availability of a plethora of personalized tools and approaches, it seems to me that most formal learning in the early 21st century remains almost completely under the control of folks other than the learner. In one sense, such has always been the case, whether in the pedagogy of the Ancient World (tutors who guided the development of individual young men in families of a certain status) or Church-dominated schooling and university education in the late Middle Ages in Europe, which dictated a certain ordered curriculum for all souls in their care, or the nineteenth- and twentieth-century models of production-line education, ostensibly constructed following scientific principles to produce large-scale optimal efficacy in learning. In these earlier learning models, the learner — who is, after all, the one best suited to say whether or not the concepts and information being presented make sense or the skills acquired seem firmly seated and have “stuck” (to echo a recent book on learning) — is treated more as a passive consumer or as a creature to be shaped and conditioned by others than she or he is considered an active agent doing what makes sense to her or him.

Here, then, is why I think that self-directed learning or autonomous learning is a better option in general. First, it is obvious to me that when the learning is meaningful and relevant, it is more likely to be effective and have lasting impact. (A situation that stands in contrast to imposed, obligatory learning that has little direct relevance to the learner’s life and connects in no way with her or his interests.) We learn most effectively and enduringly by connecting new learning to what we already know. Most human beings learn best by allowing our curiosity to draw us into a dialogue of inquiry and investigation, where we explore or uncover new aspects of topics that we are to focus on, which we then investigate or figure out, in order to make them comprehensible and meaningful for ourselves. My credo: Intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation. Self-regulation is better and more effective than arbitrary standards and pressure from others. Enthusiastic engagement stimulates and supports exciting, resonant, durable, meaningful learning more effectively than do fear or anxiety or grades.

Secondly, I believe that learners have a certain insight, a certain wisdom, if you will, about what learning they need to do. A 20-year-old intending to enter into the digital job market is likely to have at least as good an insight into what skills are most important for her or him to develop as a 50-year-old teacher who may not fully understand the implications of the digital economy. At the very least, the real learning needs probably need to take into account the learner’s insights and perceptions and weigh them appropriately and consider them in context. Teachers ought to be guides and coaches who support learning, not drill instructors moving learners through a restrictive, pre-defined obstacle course. Forcing all learners to follow approximately the same trajectory, leading to the same exit ramp seems foolish.

This is even clearer when we have the honesty to admit that the curriculum, that obstacle course that learners must pass through, is generally developed and modified in a haphazard and, frankly, slapdash manner, pushed here by one discipline’s standards and twisted there by some trustee’s personal priorities. In most cases, this process happens without teachers, faculty (whether tenure-track or contingent), psychologists, theoreticians of education, politicians or anyone else actually talking to each other and committing to an overarching design that serves learners first and foremost. Curricula are thrown together in a kind of free-for-all jostle for influence and discipline-focused, obsessive-compulsive insistence on certain processes, canonical sets of knowledge content and bits and pieces of standards and criteria. It is very rare that major curricular elements, courses, graduation requirements, educational frameworks, or teaching philosophies take a long-term, learner-centered, holistic view of learning. Rather, faculty in different disciplines compete for resources and prestige, keeping one eye on their discipline (usually very narrowly defined) and the other on their power and influence in academic governance. In all honesty, this is not a dynamic that makes for optimal learning plans or platforms.

The outcome of the crashing and grinding of these pressures, these tidal movements, all enacted by right-thinking, well-intentioned folks, leads to a mishmash that sometimes works for learners, sometimes motivates and transforms learners, but more often does not. Sometimes they produce life-sustaining toolkits, but more often they do not. Sometimes, they promote real engagement with the real world, with high levels of critical thinking and solution-producing skills. Mostly, though, it’s a muddle that serves a small number of learners very well. I submit to my fellow faculty and fellow teachers that we ought to be more focused on learners’ need for self-determination and self-fashioning than on our own need to affirm our authority or to control the classroom, the curriculum, or the Academy. After all, many teachers’ only real authority is based on disciplinary competence, but not on a deep and committed understanding of the complex process of learning. Teachers teach. They don’t necessarily foster learning. On the other hand, learners need help developing their learning. They need support, succor, encouragement, guidance. But not diktats.

The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot force learning. Whether we are aware of the fact or not, whether we admit it or not, we can’t really teach students. At most, we can inspire learners to follow the learning paths that we propose, to do the activities that we organize, to engage with the ideas, theories, values, frameworks and information that we present. In the end, though, it is the students who do the cognitive work of learning, of knowledge creation, of skills practice. Most of the ones who teach — including me — are not better equipped than our students to manage, assess or quantify their deep and durable learning. Most of us don’t know how learning, memory, or cognitive processing works. We don’t really understand what learning means to our students or what it feels like to the individuals we teach. Heck, most of us can’t even offer them very good advice for overcoming learning challenges. And since in the real cognitive work of learning, learners must forge meaningful connections for themselves, “teaching” is little more than the context in which our students do their cognitive work. If we are honest, we will recognize that our classroom context, our performance as teachers,  is far from optimal for supporting resonant, meaningful, deep-seated and durable learning. We can’t do the cognitive work for them, so why do we put ourselves in the driver’s seat and tell our passengers to shut up and enjoy the ride, whether it makes sense to them or not, whether it proves useful to them or not, whether it takes them along a road they want or need to explore or not, whether it seems worthwhile and interesting to them or not?

I acknowledge that education (whether primary, secondary or, in my case, postsecondary) is not only about personalized learning or self-directed learning. I know that there are other values that must enter into the process, including economic utility, disciplinary standards of truth-finding and truth-telling, specific skillsets for certain kinds of endeavors, and a contribution to the broad social good. I know that nation-states and potential employers have needs that must be met. I recognize that institutions have a moral obligation to obey laws, to follow rules and to heed the advice of state or federal departments of education, accrediting agencies and so forth. But the simple fact of the matter that all of those layers of obligation and rules, institutional imperatives and prescribed processes… are far removed and, in many cases, unconcerned about what ought to be at the center of the enterprise: learning. When we talk about assessment, are we truly thinking first and foremost about how meaningful and impactful learning is for students? When we devise general education requirements and lists of courses required for completing a particular major, are we really thinking about helping students engage in the process of knowledge creation? Are we truly, in our heart of hearts, motivated by a desire to create a love of learning, a desire to inquire, investigate and critique? When we talk about “promoting critical thinking,” do we really know what we are talking about? Are we truly willing to allow learners to exercise their critical judgments? Do we take seriously their questioning of our authority to dictate curricula?

I think that we (teachers at my own and other universities, scholars who lecture in the classroom and grade students, teachers in high schools, members of boards of education, the Secretary of Education and the plethora of undersecretaries) …we have a long way to go before we can honestly say that “learning” is at the heart of what we do. Whatever our rhetoric or our marketing message, most of us truly do not taken the autonomy and the intellectual merit of learners seriously. We believe that we are more qualified than they are to judge the effectiveness and the value of their learning, when it’s just untrue. Yes, we are qualified as disciplinary specialists. We are qualified as organizers and presenters of information. We are highly qualified as experts who can create testing artifacts that give us a sense of control over the learning experience. But are we truly, sincerely, honestly and effectively focused on learning per se? Not so much. If we were, we would give learners a hell of a lot more say in their own learning. We’d figure how to be truly effective as the “guide on the side,” supporting learners, advising them, and guiding them. But lecturing? Meh. Giving short-answer or multiple-choice or essay tests based on what *we* think they should know? Bof. That’s not learning. That’s “teaching.”

I simply don’t want to “teach” any more.

 

The Cognitive Underpinnings of Active Multimodal Learning

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This is a somewhat atypical blog post. It follows the pattern I’ve set up, to wit: being inspired by a task in (yet another!) MOOC that I’m taking. The course in question is “e-Learning Ecologies: Innovative Approaches to Teaching and Learning for the Digital Age,” taught by William (Bill) Cope and Mary Kalantzis, of U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. It is atypical in the sense that I’m not just musing or thinking through the issue posed. Instead, I’m taking a position, making an argument. So… what I’m going to say here amounts to an evidence-based reaffirmation of some of the propositions that Cope and Kalantzis set forth in the course and elsewhere, specifically, their insistence on the importance and the real value of multimodal learning. In what follows, I’ll talk a bit about multimodality per se, then talk about a cognitive-science-informed understanding of learning, with arguments and evidence in favor of active multimodal learning. Finally, I’ll offer links to additional information and perspectives, research and websites. In short, I will argue that using multiple modes during active learning is more effective than limiting modalities during the learning process. NB: The following is an revised/adapted version of the post that I made to the Common Ground Scholar site that is associated with the MOOC. The original post may be seen here:

https://cgscholar.com/community/community_profiles/e-learning-ecologies-mooc/community_updates/50323

 

Multimodality

One of the first things that one notices on investigating the notions of multimodality or multimodal learning is that there is a plethora of groupings of “modalities.” For Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis (e-Learning Ecologies MOOC, week 2, second video, affordance 3B, https://www.coursera.org/learn/elearning/lecture/SwQUq/multimodal-meaning-part-3b-multiliteracies-and-synesthesia), there are six (or seven) modalities facilitated by digital learning: textual, spoken, sound, visual, tactile/spatial and gestural. For others, though, the modalities that enter into learning can vary. For the folks behind the VARK packaging of pedagogy and “learning styles”, there are four modalities (visual, auditory, read/write and kinesthetic). For Kate O’Halloran, in this scholarly article on “multimodal discourse analysis”, the modes are essentially textual and visual. In this other discussion of the application of Michael Halliday’s Systemic Functional theory of language to multimodality, the range is somewhat broader, since it mentions language (presumably both spoken and written), gesture, proxemics, image, and layout. In a writing textbook that purports to guide students toward effectively expressing themselves multimodally, the authors lay out exactly five “modes of communication”: visual, aural, linguistic, spatial and gestural (Arola, Ball and Sheppard 2014, 4), even though the book itself focuses primarily on writing combined with visual elements (image, layout). Different lines of research in psychology or linguistics point toward yet other sets of modalities, like this lab focusing on “multimodal language” (which includes both gestures and sign language), or this paper, which summarizes research on “Cognition, multimodal interaction and new media,” including gestures, gazing, interpreting visual cues, forming mental images, writing, and so forth. In short, there are a number of different ways of define the sensory channels, dimensions of meaning or genres of expression that the term “multimodal” refers to. In short, a “mode” amounts to any socially recognized channel through which meaning can be expressed or interpreted. Multimodality, then, is any combination of two or more distinct channels of communication.

Learning, from a Cognitive Science Perspective

What we are beginning to learn, as we explore the functioning of the brain using increasingly precise tools and techniques, like the functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), is that the dynamic human brain is extremely complex. Many distinct neural circuits are implicated in a complex and coordinated way to perform what seem like simple or unitary functions. Reading, for example, seems like it is just one kind of cognitive activity. However, it involves a multitude of interconnecting functions that use different neural circuits, including those that transmit stimuli to the brain, that transform such input into perception of marks on the page, that recognize the patterns of marks as meaningful, that assign particular meanings to particular sets of marks (words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, blank spaces), and still other circuits that then juggle a multiplicity of meanings to form a coherent internalized version of the textual message, then connect it to other textual or paratextual messages, and/or to previous learning and/or to current understandings and perceptions of the world. Reading, in and of itself, is a highly complex and multimodal activity. So are activities like conversing with a fellow student, viewing a video, listening to a song, drawing, laughing, navigating a crowded street, or simply walking, etc. Our brain constantly manages — and harmonizes — a multitude of neural modalities: sensory inputs, channels of perception, interpretation, emotion, volition and action. And we are able to manage all of these complex neuro-somatic activities, which we do continuously, because we do them largely without thinking about it. The brain is working hard, constantly, just to sustain life, bodily functioning, cognition and consciousness.

When it comes to learning, what we mean by “multimodality” is a bit different from what I called neural modalities. In learning, the “modes” of meaning or modes of communication are the complex groupings of cognitive functions that our brain can do while on autopilot. Generally speaking, we do not have to consciously recall a large set of rules about writing before we mark symbols or words on a page or begin typing at a keyboard. We do not need to consciously recall all of the rules of long narrative genres as we navigate each sentence of Pride and Prejudice or Gravity’s Rainbow. Much of the intellectual work that we do as thinkers, writers or learners draws on our previous learning, our previous training and our previous habitual conditioning. In short, we depend on what have become ingrained patterns of behavior or knowledge.

On the other hand, new learning is the setting up and reinforcing of a new neural pattern. It is the creation of a novel set of interrelated brain processes that trace preliminary synaptic connections. For learning to be effective in the long term, those connections must be reinforced until they “stick.” That is, the new earning must happen largely outside of “autopilot mode” and it must be consciously rehearsed. Indeed, as it turns out, one of the conditions that makes for effective long-term learning is a high level of cognitive effort, or to put it another way, learning in a way that requires struggle. The more conscious effort we put into the process of inscribing the new neural patterns of our learning, the more likely it is that such learning will remain retrievable to our conscious mind. This is one of the fundamental ideas in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roedinger & McDaniel 2014). Now, one way to make new learning — and the subsequent rehearsal of what we have learned — far more challenging is to disrupt the “autopilot” pattern (easy-to-use, unconscious single communication modalities) when we approach new material, when we seek to comprehend or master it, then note, recap, recall and explain what we have learned. By using multiple modalities during new learning, during rehearsal of that learning and during production of artifacts based on new learning, one does two things. First, one makes the processes involved in learning (and reinforcing and recalling learning) more cognitively challenging because it forces the brain to juggle or switch among modalities. Second, it helps assure retrieval of learning because that new pattern is inscribed in the brain in multiple interconnected but slightly different ways. Rehearsing what one has learned via one of the modalities helps support and reinforce its recall via other modalities. That is, using multiple modalities can mutually reinforce and strengthen multiple paths for retrieving what was learned. To be clear, there is significant evidence in cognitive scientists’ emerging views of learning that support the use of multiple modalities in learning.

(Side Note about “Learning Styles”)

Much has been made in the past of so-called “learning styles.” Cognitive science research does not support this framework for learning because there is no evidence to suggest that it is effective to customize learning activities or modalities to fit a particular student’s ostensible “learning style”. While it is true that some students may have a preference for hearing information and others for reading it, research strongly suggests that, absent particular disabilities or neurocognitive anomalies, students can learn equally effectively using a variety of modalities. Rather than focusing on a single learning modality in the case of any particular student, it is better to encourage use of a variety of modalities, preferably in multimodal ways, to increase cognitive load and to necessitate greater care and attention in attending to the learning tasks. What is more, learning is more effective when learning and recall are meaningful. For that reason, I would suggest, first, that it is appropriate to allow students to choose their own — meaningful — modalities for learning, for memory reinforcement and for communication of learning and, second, that multimodal learning practices are effective in ways that mono-modal learning-style-focused learning practices are not (see Brown, Roediger & McDaniel 2014, particularly chapter 6, “Get Beyond Learning Styles”).

Multimodal Learning (theory, sources, research, further reading)

All of this is intended primarily to offer support for Cope’s and Kalantzis’ model that focuses on the virtues of multimodal learning, while adding some nuance to the notion, drawing on my own (admittedly sketchy) understanding of cognitive science perspectives on learning. I also note that many other learning theorists and education visionaries have their own takes on multimodal learning. Here, I’ll add some links to a few additional resources:

Click the following link for an explanation of “multimodal literacy” on a WordPress site for the “Multimodal Literacy Learning Community” created by Victor Lim Fei, Deputy Director, Technologies for Learning, Educational Technology Division, Ministry of Education, Singapore:

https://multimodalstudies.wordpress.com/what-is-multimodal-literacy/

A 2007 paper on computer-mediated multimodality in the classroom:

http://ccl.northwestern.edu/~michelle/Multimodal.pdf

An entry on Guenther Kress, another proponent of taking multimodalities into account in pedagogy and learning theories:

https://www.learning-theories.com/multimodality-kress.html

A downloadable dissertation by Kevin R. Cassell, “A Phenomenology of Mimetic Learning and Multimodal Cognition” (2014):

http://digitalcommons.mtu.edu/etds/810/

A recent workshop position paper by Anne Marie Piper about the pedagogical affordances of multimodal tabletop displays:

http://inclusive.northwestern.edu/shared interfaces workshop_ampiper.pdf

And, finally, of course, the wiki page on “multimodality”:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multimodality

My apologies for the length of this update. I guess my cognitive enthusiasm was more powerful than my sense of proportion and restraint! -Robert

PRINT REFERENCES

Arola, Kristin L., Ball, Cheryl E., & Sheppard, Jennifer. (2014). Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Projects. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Brown, Peter C., Roediger, Henry L., & McDaniel, Mark A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Boston, MA: Belknap Press.

Education for competence, creativity, autonomy, thriving

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Again, this entry is a reflection for “What Future for Education?” in response to the following prompts:

  • In an ideal world, how do you think education should be organised?

  • What priorities do you think it should reflect? and who should be responsible for ensuring that it is of a good quality?

  • Is there anything from the padlet wall that has informed your position?

While I recognize the need of nations, governments and societies to pay attention to the prerogatives of the modern nation-state and while I know that education is one of the important parameters for developing a proper, well-informed, functional citizenry, I also believe that it is now time to focus on other objectives in education. Indeed, for decades now we have needed to shift fundamental models of learning. Some elements certainly need to remain. I generally agree, for example, that a measure of civic education is necessary. All citizens and resident aliens ought to understand (and, in general, subscribe to) the fundamental values and modalities of a society. It is productive and contributes to the common good to assure that everyone has a minimal level of certain competencies: literacy, numeracy, a grasp of basic ideas, information and functional principles of modern science, an understanding of the nation’s history, and so forth. (One can argue about just which competencies and understandings are necessary.)

However, there are two fundamental objectives nation-states’ development of education in the 19th century and that have been maintained throughout the 20th, objectives that I believe need to be discarded outright. First, is the somewhat underhanded intention of making citizens docile and easy to control. This objective is part of a nineteenth-century paternalistic and colonialist worldview, that ought no longer have currency. It is inappropriate and morally wrong. Indeed, education ought to teach citizens to be discerning, to be critical, to be skeptical, to ask probing questions and to press governments and authorities to be responsible and to work for the greater good. Citizens ought to have a grounding in how to demand transparency and accountability. Citizens ought to be taught to detect, to critique and reject (I’m echoing Harry G. Frankfurt here) bullshit claims. With a greater resistance to bullshit, to extreme bias, to deliberately propagated falsehoods, a democratic society or a nation is less susceptible to manipulation by ideologies or demagogues or extremist populist movements. Secondly, education ought NEVER to have as its primary goal the mass production of obedient workers. Yes, compulsory education ought to prepare everyone to do useful work. But it ought not to be aimed almost exclusively at stimulating economic production by preparing young persons to be mere cogs in an economic machine.

In an ideal world, I think that primary and secondary education ought to be about helping each person thrive, initially by developing fundamental competencies, but also by uncovering or discerning one’s capabilities, one’s capacities and propensities. It ought to be, in part, about self-actualization. It ought to be about developing creativity and critical thinking. It ought to be about engaging in an enthusiastic investigation of the world, learning how to use a variety of tools to learn, to explore, to detect and address problems, to develop solutions, to make meaning for oneself, to master oneself, to develop to one’s fullest potential. And for that reason, I believe that secondary and post-secondary education probably ought to be largely self-directed. Not in the sense of simply doing whatever one wants, but in the sense that each student will have a significant hand in planning her or his own education, deciding on what research or which investigations to pursue, which skills to hone, which problems to address, which questions to pose. By the final phases of secondary education, teachers will no longer be “the teacher” standing in front of a classroom, talking. Rather, they will be mentors, guides and models. They will support students by advising and encouraging them, by helping them to frame and pursue their own learning projects, standing ready to aid students who need further assistance or additional guidance. And for that, we need to rethink teacher education, so that teachers themselves are more polyvalent, interdisciplinary, autonomous and well prepared to mentor and, most of all, so that they are able and willing to co-investigate and co-learn in collaboration with students.

I truly believe that a move in the direction of promoting self-actualization and self-directed learning will make education more effective, more durable, more meaningful, with greater impact and it will, over the long term, contribute more effectively to the general good of a society than either market-oriented and job-focused education or expedient forms of education that look more like indoctrination into neoliberal consumerism (or other political philosophy), or a other way of “zombifying” children and making them less critical, less engaged, more compliant and less intellectually independent. In an ideal world, all educational systems ought to start with fundamental competencies (literacy, math, civic understanding, and so forth), move through teaching good collaboration and communication skills and end with autonomy, critical engagement, self-actualization, creativity and student engagement in the world beyond the classroom. Digital technologies and other technical infrastructures make these possibilities feasible in the 21st century. So, please, let’s leave the 19th century behind. We can develop a model of education that retains some elements of the past, starting with competencies and skills that are useful for taking part in meaningful work and social life, but let’s not end there. Let’s develop educational frameworks, structures and processes that culminate in critical thinking, self-understanding, self-actualization, expansive views of the world and learner autonomy. Let’s educate for the 21st century now, rather than in a century or two.

Finally, I note that there is no single Padlet entry that had a particularly strong influence on my thinking, except maybe one entry that referred to a Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, “Why Pragmatic Liberal Education Matters Now More than Ever.” What most contributed to the thinking in this entry is my own experience of learning, further shaped by Stephen Ball’s comments in MOOC videos, in a lecture on YouTube, and in his book, Global Education, Inc., along with a TED Talk by Pasi Sahlberg, “GERMs that kills schools.”

What Ambitious Literacy Instruction Is.

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At this point, I’m now engaged in another MOOC, through edX (the University of Michigan is the organizing and teaching institution in this case). The title of the course: “Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning.” Here is the link for information about the course as a whole:  https://courses.edx.org/courses/course-v1:MichiganX+LeadEd501x+1T2017/info.

Here is my reflection in response to the prompt, which asks students to thinking about what “ambitious literacy instruction is.”

Ambitious implies high expectations of students. So it is not simply instruction that “settles” for achievements or effort that are “good enough,” but that shoots for something somewhat beyond that level. Ambitious literacy instruction pushes students or asks more of students than they are comfortable with. It seeks to exceed minimal standards in literacy, in reading and understanding and being able to respond to texts.

In short, in my view, it is instruction that — in the realm of literacy, of reading, understanding and responding to texts — asks students to stretch beyond minimal goals, that asks students to move somewhat beyond their comfort zone, to confront and to wrestle with texts that are difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable to process. It is literacy instruction that asks students to engage with the texts, that forces them to ask questions of the text, that expects them to do more than attain a superficial or facile understanding of the surface of the text. It is instruction that challenges them to go beyond the apparent meaning of the text, that seeks to understand — or that succeeds at nearly fully or fully comprehending — implications and consequences of the text’s ideas and arguments.

It is instruction that prepares students to read a particular text, but that also prepares them to delve into the depths of meaning, the implications of that text. It is instruction that engages with the main ideas of texts or that elicits many questions that one may ask of it. To be honest, it is “instruction,” that is teacher-generated frameworks or teacher-suggested questions that guide students to discern the principal ideas or the principal themes of the text in question, yet that leaves the bulk of the work of deciphering and interpretation and meaning-making to the students. In my view, excellent instruction is not just “ambitious,” but it is learner-centered, as well as ambitious.

In brief, that’s what I understand in the expression “Ambitious Literacy Instruction.”

Me, Today, as a Result of My Schooling

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Here is the prompt for the end-of-week-4 reflection exercise in the “What Future for Education?” MOOC on Coursera:

Create an entry in your reflective blog or journal.

  • How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult?

  • In what ways do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?

  • Your entry should be a minimum of 200 words.

Starting with the last bullet point, I would say that it is highly likely for me to meet the minimum of 200 words, since the first eleven posts in this blog averaged slightly over 1000 words each. That’s because I’m a bit verbose, I know, but also because I have a lot to say. So now, in all seriousness, I’ll turn to the first two bullet points above.

My experience as a learner is not some uniform, consistent or monolithic phenomenon. There is not a single broad “experience,” but a panoply of experiences of schooling and learning, ranging from formal to informal, from closed-ended to radically open-ended, from disagreeable and counterproductive to wildly positive, fertile and creative, from rigidly imposed to fully autonomous and self-directed. If I had to generalize, what I would say is that in schools, particularly before the age of 13 or 14, I generally refused to conform to rigid learning schemes. But by high school, I had realized that it was going to be necessary to compromise with the inflexible, obligatory educational systems and to “play by the rules” so that I would be able to succeed academically, no matter how uninterested I was in the system itself or in much of the content that it foisted on me. In the end, after some starts and stops, I finished my undergraduate education and received an undergraduate degree in English, which interested me greatly, and Communications, a field that interested me only slightly (although it was “practical” and allowed me to get a job immediately after finishing my university studies). To make a long story short, I completed my undergraduate diploma approximately two years later than my peers, in part because I suspended my postsecondary education a few times to work full-time while reflecting on what I truly wanted to do. Ultimately, somewhat late, I completed my studies, received my diploma, got a job and worked for about one year in two different jobs that I did not particularly like and in which I could hardly imagine a productive and happy future life. After considerable thought, I abandoned my very short career in radio and changed directions completely, applying to graduate school in a completely different field, French, which I had only begun to study as a beginner about three years earlier. But… it was what I wanted to study. It was meaningful to me. Fast forward by a few decades to find me working as a tenured Assistant Professor in that field. Today, I pursue interdisciplinary research and teach both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary classes.

My general experience of school was rife with difficulty and my academic performance was problematic at best. It’s not that I had cognitive problems. It’s that I did not want to do what teachers required of me in many cases. Sometimes I did the obligatory work and earned good grades. Sometimes I simply refused to do what was asked of me. I neglected to do homework, performed poorly on some tests, etc. The underlying reason for my erratic performance was lack of interest and lack of motivation. In those years when I had a teacher or two who appealed to me or excited my curiosity or inspired me, I enjoyed learning. When I found most of my teachers “boring” (as I thought of it then) or when they condescended or lacked enthusiasm for their teaching, I disengaged and received poor grades as a result.

That formal experience diverged significant from another category of life experiences. In part, because both of my parents were medical doctors and valued learning and because they provide a large variety of learning tools and experiences at home, I had an exciting, vibrant and highly productive life as a self-directed learner. My family possessed had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and other reference works, and I used them regularly to learn on my own. I read a great deal and used a dictionary constantly. I wrote poetry and fiction and used the encyclopedia to add detail and texture to my stories. I took part in a rocketry club and learned telemetry. I consumed documentaries (being secretly in love with Jane Goodall) and watched Sesame Street and Electric Company. I developed the habit of reading newsmagazines, particularly Time and U.S. New & World Report, around the age of 10 or 11 and I sometimes asked my parents to explain current events, like the Vietnam war, Nixonian politics or the Apollo missions. I had a lot of tools for autonomous learning, like anatomical models of the human body, self-quizzing tools in a range of disciplines, and math puzzles. I had chemistry sets, electronics kits, science magazines. In short, as a kid, I had a lot of rich and satisfying learning experiences outside of school.

The contrast between unsatisfying school life and heady, joyful self-directed study on my own or with my siblings and friends at home formed my tastes and preferences in learning. To this day, I like to learn on my own. My graduate work included a lot of autonomous, self-directed learning, as does my work as a tenure-track faculty member. Indeed, even now, I love to do research and “library detective work.” I take MOOCs and read a great deal. I prefer autonomous learning to highly structured learning activities, especially those where I am asked to do activities in lockstep with others. I do enjoy collaboration, although a teacher- or leader-directed activity that leaves me little discretion or freedom to manage my own learning turns me off. I am certain that it is because of this background and this experience that I am a “distributed individual” learner who enjoys takings MOOCs like “Leaders of Learning” or “What Future for Education?” Connected learning, which can combine autonomous and self-directed learning with digitally-mediated collaboration, generally engages me and captures my interest, particularly if the learning project piques my curiosity or resonates in meaningful ways with questions that I believe are good to ask. Even in my own teaching, I tend to make my lessons learner-centered and collaborative. I allow learners to share in the selection of readings or development of activities. I have learners develop discussion questions or co-manage online discussion forums in collaboration with me. I try to make my learners active. I try to foster autonomy and self-responsibility. I show my enthusiasm and passion. I try to model the best of what I’ve picked up from self-directed learning, but also the best parts of my school experience with engaging, inspiring teachers.

How could schooling be improved for learners like me?  Allow and empower greater autonomy; support self-directed learning. Get rid of drab, rigid, square classrooms. Offer bright, airy, cheerful spaces with flexible and mobile furniture. Enable collaboration. Make learners responsible for their learning, but don’t impose impose structures or timetables for every step. Set high expectations, but then empower learners to learn at their own pace to meet those expectations.

In short, based on my experience, I would like to introduce an informal character into formal education. I developed into a serious intellectual and a committed lifelong learner largely in opposition to formal educational systems and processes, rather than in harmony with them or supported by them. Given that background, it is understandable, I think, that I would like for education to allow greater learner autonomy. The educational system(s) ought to teach teachers to motivate, guide, mentor and accompany learners, instead of directing or commanding them. Institutions and schools ought to figure ways to provide digital tools and resources, then let the learners pursue their interests in a way that meets learning goals, as part of the curriculum if not as its whole substance. Generally speaking, those kinds of innovations would be the major elements in my plan to improve education. I think that it’s important to focus on learner autonomy and self-responsibility, with high expectations, but flexible pathways for meeting learning goals.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Have I Experienced Good Schools? Yes and No.

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In the fourth week of the “What Future for Education?” MOOC, participants are invited to reflect on “good” schools that they have encountered and to reflect on what about them was valuable. Here is the exact prompt:

Reflect on:

  • your own schooling, did you go to a “good” school? What “residuals” did you take away from your schooling, and how has it helped you subsequently.

  • Finish the sentence: “A good school …” and post your idea to the AnswerGarden here.

I can honestly say that I have seen examples of what seems to me to be good schools, but I cannot endorse any of the schools that I actually attended or declare one or more of them as “extremely good.” Most of them seem to have had competent staffing, sufficient resourcing, facilities that were in line with expectations of their times and a generally appropriate process for managing the number and diversity of children in their charge. However, to say that they were “very good,” at least in my experience of them, would be an overstatement. There are some aspects of schooling that did appeal to the learner in me.  I remember, for example a public school in Evanston, Illinois, on Main Street, where I first experienced rocketry, which sparked my interest in math, science and technology. At the same school, I remember enjoying mathematics lessons. At the same time, I did not feel safe at the school, since I was bullied and mocked by some of my peers. So, all things considered, it was not a very good learning environment for me. At Andalusia High School, in Covington County, Alabama, I had learned how to fend for myself, which made it a bit easier, and I even took on some bullies who mistreated other kids. I earned respect and had a stable and enjoyable circle of friends. I learned a useful skill (typing, which came in handy since personal computers were emerging around this time). I further developed my taste for science, particularly biology and chemistry, along with creative writing and, in my final year, I was “turned on” to American history. All in all, it was a decent learning experience, even though the school was not particularly well endowed and some of my teachers were relatively poor performers. I would say that it was more the teachers than the school that gave me the most positive learning experiences. And I’d say that in most cases it was because they set the bar high, then helped me figure how to meet those expectations. One other school, Roycemore, a private, independent K-12 school in Evanston, was quite good. It was small and it had fairly talented teachers, including one of my favorites of all, a science teacher who had a great sense of humor and continually told jokes, even during his lessons. (He did not remain in teaching very long and, ultimately, he had a long career as a writer and standup comic.) Still, he really stoked my enthusiasm for the life sciences and it was at Roycemore that I began doing serious reading and research in what was called “ecology” at the time. It was also at Roycemore that I had an English teacher who recognized that I needed a different kind of teaching or instructional supervision. She allowed me to pursue independent learning/reading/writing projects, where I am certain that I accomplished more than I would have if she had forced me to “get with the program.” I believe that Roycemore, more than the other schools I attended, allowed teachers to exercise discretion in the way that they worked with learners to attain “growth” learning goals, rather than sticking to a rigid curriculum where all students march in lock-step. For that reason, it may have been the best school for me.

About two years ago, when I took a MOOC on edX.org titled “Leaders of Learning,” I saw many examples of schools and learning environments that I wish had been part of my experience and that, I’m pretty sure would have been very good schools for me. Nearly all of the schools that I actually went to were characterized by rigid, squared-off learning spaces, with desks neatly aligned. They were not particularly comfortable or welcoming environments. Collaboration and informal exchange during class were not particularly encouraged. Nearly all lessons were teacher-centered and ignored learning differences. In other words, pretty much everything about my formal schooling (except maybe typing classes, art classes, chorus) tended to be boring, one-size-fits-all and disheartening. In only a few cases did certain teachers help me forget the oppression of the “classroom,”  (both the dreary, constrained physical space and the “classroom” modality of a desks aligned to face the teacher, who was the center of attention). In science classes, we often had “hands on” and collaborative activities in the “lab.”

I think that a lot of schools do things differently today (vibrant colors, open spaces, mobile and adaptable furniture, opportunities to work collaboratively), but when I was in school, it was mostly a grind and a bore — both the process and the environment. So to say that any of my schools was truly outstanding would be dishonest. At best, I’d say that Roycemore was good and Andalusia High School was slightly better than mediocre.

Teachers Who Inspired Me

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If you have been reading this blog, you know by now that I distinguish between “education” and “learning,” valuing the latter more than the former. It’s not that I dismiss the necessity of education for the good of society. Rather, it is because I have been disappointed in the systems and curricula that made up the greatest part of my own “education.” In many ways, except for my work in graduate school, a significant portion of which was self-directed (an M. A. thesis that became a book, a doctoral dissertation that I’m mining for articles), my self-directed learning has been more productive and helpful than the learning I did within the educational systems that I progressed through. If you have read a number of blog posts, you will also know that I focus more on teaching than on teachers and I truly focus on teaching as a complex process of fostering learning, not on teaching as the “transfer of knowledge” from teacher to student. In other words, I focus on learning, more than on teachers and teaching.

Still, during my long years of formal education, I encountered a few teachers who had a particularly significant impact on me and I would like to talk about them collectively. I am not talking about larger-than-life or miracle-working teachers. I generally do not believe in the sustainable reality of “magically effective” or “superhero” teachers, no matter how inspiring they might be in movies. (I’m thinking of Louanne Johnson, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in Dangerous Minds or John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, Glenn Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in Mr. Holland’s Opus, François Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, in Entre les murs, Arthur Chipping, played by Peter O’Toole, in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Clément Mathieu, played by Gérard Jugnot, in Les Choristes, Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, in Stand and Deliver, and so forth.) There do exist fabulously great teachers who can change lives, yes, but most of those who have a real impact on real learners tend to be modest, down-to-earth, human beings struggling to do a good job, not epically charismatic, bigger-than-life, almost supernatural figures. Please note that that’s not to say that extraordinary teachers do not exist. It’s just that I don’t think that the “superhero teacher” a workable model for most folks who decide to teach.

The folks I am talking were extraordinary in some very humble and ordinary ways. They were conscientious and attentive. They were attuned to the body language and the needs of their students. They had genuine enthusiasm for their subject matter. They used humor, empathy and compassion to reach their students. And they focused as much on actual student learning as they did on complying with the prescribed curriculum. In short, they were teachers, yes, but they were also mentors, guides and, in an almost etymological sense, pedagogues. The accompanied learners and taught them more than just facts or specific skills. They helped them to develop as learners. Their attentions where not just on the books, the activities and the syllabi, but also on the learners themselves. They sought to foster learning by helping the students understand how to forge meaningful and lasting connections to bodies of knowledge, how to make their own meaning, discern complexities, uncover patterns, accomplish deeds. And in my case, that meant giving me the freedom to learn my way, instead of forcing me to kowtow to the curriculum.

A small handful ofe teachers, encountered in schools, colleges and universities between the ages of 11 and 20, truly “turned me on” to learning in a number of different areas (science, particularly ecology and entomology, literature, creative writing, history, philosophy, geology, media studies, communications, law). In most cases, it was because the were willing to depart from the “production line” model of moving learners through the system and, instead, engaged me on a human level, helped me understand why some subjects are worth studying, mentored me on ways to succeed within a relatively inflexible educational system and helped me pursue my own interests while doing so. For me, the great teachers who made me want to be a teacher myself were folks who modeled several fundamental human traits. Curiosity. Engagement. Seeing the big picture. A propensity for explaining well and, more importantly, giving good examples. Interest in connecting disparate ideas and data. Empathy with others. Compassion. Flexibility. Enthusiasm. Personal charm. And a willingness to guide and support learners, rather than dictate to them.

Even though I sometimes fall back to the “assembly line” model of teaching, I mostly try to emulate these good folks who helped me so much and inspired me to learn.

What is a “Good Teacher”?

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The question in my title truly masks a pair of inquiries. I will try to address both of them in this post. First, and most importantly, it focuses on the nature of teaching as an act, and on a range of specific elements that comprise the normal or typical praxis, outlook and character of someone who claims to be a “teacher.” Secondly, and just as richly, it ponders the nature of the elements that define the highest level of effectiveness and quality in the elements of practice, outlook and character constituting and animating the dynamic ensemble that we would recognize as a “good teacher.”

I say that the first question is more important, although it might have been more fitting to say that it is more intriguing, more complex and, perhaps, more problematic. What I mean to suggest is that “teaching” is not necessarily “something” that one “does.” Or to put it another way, teaching is, or can be, or ought to be  about “fostering learning,” more than it is an act in and of itself. The colloquial way of talking about the paradigm shift that I am referencing is to say that a teacher is no longer a “sage on the stage,” but is now a “guide on the side.” Those who want to inculcate and sustain the best and most effective kinds of learning probably need to stop thinking of themselves as folks who do this thing called “teaching,” and focus instead on being subject matter experts and “resource persons,” who are also mentors, advanced organizers of learning activities and exemplars who inspire and support learners. Teaching truly is not just one thing, but a whole panoply of practices and roles and manners and modes of attention and focus. It is about understanding learners and understanding and promoting learning. It is about effective monitoring of learning practices and careful attention to each and every learner. It is about organizing learning activities and assuring that students have the motivation, knowledge, strategies and resources that they need to complete the learning work. It is about supporting learners and facilitating good, resonant and durable learning. It is about fostering metacognition and resilience and curiosity.

Teaching that arcs toward what I am calling, with hope in my heart and mind, the “future of learning” is a complex and difficult enterprise. It is not to be undertaken by the faint of heart or by the uninspired or the lazy. It is hard work. Being a teacher in its best incarnation means fulfilling a multitude of roles simultaneously, with wit, and grace, and care.

And that leads us to the second question. What is “good teaching”? It is about focusing on learning and assuring that students know how to learn, assuring that they are prepared to do the activities that they need to accomplish for good learning to take place. It means assuring that they adopt and use learning practices that maximize learning for all involved in the activities. A good teacher inspires learners and helps them develop strategies and mindsets that support their learning, or that helps the learner improve his or her ability to learn effectively alone or collectively and knows how to apply new knowledge and skills impactfully. A good teacher has a sense of the attitudes and levels of engagement, and intellectual strengths or weaknesses,  of each of the learners that she or he is working with. In other words, in my view, for an effective future of learning, it will be necessary to redefine teaching in a universal way to embrace this dynamic, complex, difficult set of interwoven competencies, propensities and potentialities. That kind of “teaching for learning” can be extremely difficult — because the challenge of it is continually renewed, moment to moment —  and it requires interweaving many roles, juggling many priorities and managing many sets of information, with an eye turned toward the target of effective and durable learning for every single learner in one’s class, course, room or purview.

In subsequent blog posts, I expect to unpack at least the most salient of the multitude of skills and roles that teaching for optimal learning seems to demand.(To understand and master teaching skills for fostering learning, it is necessary to understand how human brains work, how lasting memories are formed and how to motivate and guide learners. Those are a few aspects of learning (and teaching) that we will focus on in future posts, along with investigations of kinds of learning, and appropriate modalities for administering and managing the complex processes of education. Unpacking these ideas will require talking about cognitive science and models of learning. It will touch on assessment. It will touch on questions about what education is for. So… it’s a vast and complex agenda that I had packed into a single — or was that a double? — question.

“Academia, Love Me Back” by TM

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Here, I am doing something a bit different. I am re-blogging an entry by Tiffany Martínez in her online journal. It is about a learning experience that was impactful in a negative way, but that also offers us, all of us, an opportunity to learn. There are multiple layers of potential learning here, thanks to Tiffany’s blogging about her experience. I encourage you to read “Tiffany Martínez: a journal,” particularly the entry linked below. Here are my own initial thoughts.

As I think about my own education (where I had immense benefit as a valued and supported and loved member of an economically and socially privileged family) and as I think about ways to foster and sustain teaching that encourages learners and helps them uncover and affirm their own cognitive strengths, their passions, their own version of critical engagement with the world at large and with the work of the academic enterprise, teaching that offers learners tools and strategies and resources, that helps them develop character and courage for wrestling with challenging new ideas, for making sense of intimidating quantities and patterns of information, for socializing into new intellectual practices… my hope is that teachers will NEVER proceed as Tiffany Martínez’s professor did with her. Jumping to conclusions and shaming, particularly in ways that further marginalize and undercut folks whose backgrounds and circumstances may not offer them needed support or encouragement, folks who face disproportionate obstacles in the academic world, is abhorrent. It’s just plain wrong. Dispassionately and properly reporting suspicion of plagiarism is one thing. Public shaming is quite another. Especially for “hence.” Hence! Really?

I would like to think that I would never treat a learner in my own class in this manner. However, it would be more honest for me to recognize that, as a teacher, I, too, have jumped to erroneous conclusions. I’ve always tried to discern and address my own misapprehensions and unfair behaviors, but I know that I have also failed on occasion to repair or address some of my hurtful and unjust acts. In spite of my self-professed flaws, there is one truth that and can affirm absolutely:  It is always counterproductive and unjustified to humiliate or ridicule a learner. In. All. Circumstances. Always.

One or two more things. I’m so sorry that this incident happened to you, Tiffany. I hope that you will please take strength in the following. I find your courage in talking about this incident — with equanimity and grace (in spite of your hurt) — an admirable and inspiring act. Thank you for offering us an opportunity to reflect and learn. Thank you for this demonstration of character and courage.

“Academia needs work.” Indeed.

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TIFFANY MARTÍNEZ

My name is Tiffany Martínez. As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced…

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