Thursday, November 18, 2010

What I Learned Today

Currently I'm attending the Lilly Conference on teaching at Miami University in Oxford, OH. This is my second time, and I find it to be filled with smart teachers who have great ideas on engaging students in the class room and ways to think about student learning outcomes. This is the first year Twitter is being used to contribute to the backchannel (search for #lilly10).

I attended a half day conference on various ways besides student ratings to evaluate teaching, conducted by Ron Berk. Here are his 4 take away points: 1. give explicit criteria to define what behaviors indicate effective teaching, 2. use multiple sources of evidence (peer evals, student evals, student interviews, video, etc.), 3. develop and or use best quality scales to provide the evidence, 4. create guidelines to interpret the data.

Also, linking student outcomes to teaching effectiveness is bad form. It's difficult to infer one thing (effective teaching) from another (student outcomes).

Monday, September 27, 2010

What I Learned Today: Study Habits

A 9/6/10 article in the NYT talked about new research on study habits and retention of material.  One is related to not using the same space to study.  By moving locations (we think) the brain creates associations between background information and the information studied, thereby making it easier to recall the information.

Anecdotally, I've known this to be true for me, as I am often more focused and retain more info when I am away from my offices (home and work), on a plane or in an out of town hotel.

The 2nd retention notion is to vary the material that is studied in one sitting.  If studying a foreign language, read, study vocabulary, practice speaking out loud.  Apparently musicians have known this for years.

I have a couple of students right now who show me the notes they've taken on the chapter, and then when it comes to taking the quiz, their minds go blank.  I may talk more with them about how they are studying the material.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What I Learned Today: Planet Narnia

Over the past few days I've been pondering the Chronicles of Narnia and the latest finding about them from Dr. Michael Ward.  He is a C.S. Lewis scholar and in his new book Planet Narnia, he "...argues that Lewis secretly constructed the Chronicles of Narnia out of the imagery associated with the seven heavens of the medieval cosmos." 

This is interesting enough to me, but what's really intriguing to me is that for years I recall reading that J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis' good friend, didn't think much of the Narnia books.  He thought they were dashed off too quickly and not well written (probably from Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings).  So, for all these years, I too thought similar things about the books.  

I'm not suggesting that I would have found the seven heavens motif if I had thought on my own, but I am saying that I allowed someone, other than the author, to influence my thinking in such a way that I never even remotely considered other possibilities.

Gulp: what other unknown unknowns am I unaware I should be aware of?

Monday, August 30, 2010

What I Learned Today: Thinking, Part Deux

More from William Deresiewicz's article on leadership and solitude, focusing again on thinking:

"I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. 

By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing."

My favorite book on Critical Thinking is by Gerald Nosich: Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, because it includes this simple definition of critical thinking, something like "Critical thinking is thinking about our thinking in order to improve it."  It has very clear and understandable chapters on the elements and standards of critical thinking, thinking like your discipline, and how to realize that what you learn in school is not just "school stuff."

What Deresiewicz is writing about, seems to me, are some of the things we must do in order to start the process of critical thinking.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

What I Learned Today: Thinking

From a recent lecture at West Point given by William Deresiewicz via my friend Sally:

"Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube."

Seems like I've got something to say in class this coming week about the busy lives of students and how for brief moment in time, they now have the chance to slow down and think.  I know they don't think they have the time, but I will challenge them just the same.  Just as I challenge myself.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What I Learned Today: Unlearning

I like the list on What Ed Said regarding what teachers should unlearn.  Here's a couple that I found interesting:

1. Teachers know all the answers
3. Teachers are responsible for the learning.

Regarding #1:  I already know I don't know all the answers, so I'm comfortable saying "I don't know," or "I think this is it," or "I'll get back to you," or even "What do you think the answer is?"

Regarding #3: I think bear some responsibility for creating an environment for learning, and I think I'm responsible to be prepared for the class as much as I can be.  I used to think I was the "Sage on the Stage," but the pressure to make sure students learn was overwhelming, and I never felt ready for class.  I think I'm responsible for coming up with opportunities for students to learn, whether it be in the classroom, in the readings, in papers or projects.

These days, I'm much more living into being the "Guide on the Side."  More about that later.

Monday, August 09, 2010

What I Learned Today: What Makes a Great Teacher?

Here are some characteristics that students (I'm assuming middle school and high school?, but I think this would hold true with adults as well) say make a great teacher.  A great teacher:

  • Knows us personally, our interests and strengths
  • Lets us know who they are as individuals
  • Smiles at us
  • Encourages us to participate in school activities
  • Spends time beyond class time to help us be successful in their class
  • Gives us descriptive feedback on assignments
  • Tells us why
  • Shares how what we learn is connected to real life
  • Apologizes when they make mistakes
  • Gives meaningful work
  • Are energetic, enthusiastic and enjoy their job

Something to keep striving toward.

Monday, August 02, 2010

What I Learned Today: Life Paths

Last week I was interviewed by a former student for a communications class she was currently taking.  I have had an easy going rapport with her, so the interview quickly shifted to a conversation between 2 people.

One of the things she asked me about was how I became interested in social work and in working with others and I remembered going to the nursing home once a month on a Sunday night, how one church we helped start worked with homeless men and women as well as men and women with mental illness.

She made the point that there are different routes people take to work in service to others, because several of her classmates were in social work because they had similar life experiences to many of their clients and they wanted to give back to others, and I became involved because of the example set by my parents.

It was a lot to think about as I headed home that night.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I Learned Today: Failure

Kevin Kelly at recently interviewed Fred Brooks, the author of The Mythical Man-Month.  During their conversation, Brooks answers a question from Kelly about being "frank" with himself:

"You can learn more from failure than success.  In failure you're forced to find out what part did not work. But in success you can believe that everything you did was great, when in fact some parts may not have worked at all.  Failure forces you to face reality."

I think a powerful reason why intelligent people don't succeed is the fear of failure, when failure can really teach us how to succeed.

I often see students fear failure because they are more focused on the "A," the symbol of learning, than the learning itself.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What I learned Today: Poetry

A Poem by Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes, 
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, 
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting  
over and over announcing your place 
in the family of things.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What I Learned Today: What if Intelligence is not Fixed?

Many of us grew up with the notion that intelligence, being smart, is a set thing in our brains.  We're either smart or we're not.  We look around us and see some people are smarter, some can do math easier than us, some seem to do well in all subjects.  We had the notion that if we had to work harder, then we weren't as smart as someone who didn't need to work like we did.

But what if this is wrong; what if we can get smarter?  What if I helped my students see that if they get something wrong, it isn't because they are stupid, it simply means they need to work harder, ask for help, practice more.  If students accept this notion of intelligence, then getting smarter is under their control.  Intelligence as a set characteristic is a tendency of the West, while intelligence as pliable is an Eastern tendency (Japan, China, Korea, etc.).

Here's how I've adapted Willlingham's cognitive principle: [Students] do differ in intelligence, but intelligence can be changed through sustained hard work (p. 170).  Willingham blends both Eastern and Western notions of intelligence.

Why do intelligent people not succeed? (lack of motivation is one reason....).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

What I Learned Today: Rubrics

I'm about to co-teach a class on critical thinking and I've been reflecting on what I will be doing differently in the class this year.  One thing I do more of is create rubrics.

1. I am co-teaching this class with a colleague because there are nearly 40 students.
2. I've learned a lot about how to use a rubric to give students guidance as they figure out the assignment, and give me a grading guide post.

Rubrics can be complex (with columns for Beyond Expectations, Meets Expectations, Below Expectations), to simple:  (this assignment has the following expectations: Uses APA formatting: is typed, double-spaced, has a cover page, 12 point font), includes a minimum of 5 days, includes at least 4 paragraphs (a paragraph has at least 4 sentences)).

This is more of a guidance than a grading rubric, but my department has settled on a standardized writing rubric for grading papers.

The book I've used that has helped me create my own rubrics is Introduction to Rubrics by Stevens and Levi.

I had to laugh when I was working with my colleague on the expectations rubric for  I told her that I couldn't believe we had to describe the number of paragraphs and what how many sentences were in a paragraph.  "Back when I was in school, I would have known what a paragraph was," I grumped.  "We shouldn't have to do this."

Maybe we shouldn't have to but it's amazing what gets turned in when I'm not that specific.  Last year for a reflective log that was titled Daily Exercise, I was amazed to get several assignments that were not done DAILY.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

What I Learned Today: How to be a Better Teacher

From Willingham's Why Student's Don't Like School:

To be a better teacher, one must: (1) Increase space in working memory (chunking, making process more routine, so that other things can be thought, i.e. once we've learned how to drive, we don't pay as much attention in working memory as we did when we first were learning), (2) Increase our relevant factual knowledge about teaching, and about our subject area, (3) Increase our relevant procedural knowledge.

To be a better teacher you must practice (some teachers level off in practice and skill after 5 years or so...

Practice means:  getting feedback from a peer, doing things not related to the task (exercising, eating well), watch teaching tapes of others, comment on tapes (yours and others), bring one new thing back into the classroom.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

What I Learned Today: Why Intelligent People Fail

Among a list created by Sternberg, R. (1994). In Search of the Human Mind. New York: Harcourt Brace:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Fear of failure
  • Procrastination
  • Wallowing in personal difficulties
  • Misattribution of blame (when it goes well, it's due to our actions, when it doesn't go well, someone or someone else is to blame)
I claim ownership to all of these reasons, in my personal life and as a teacher.  How about you?  Add to the list?

More info can be found here

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

What I Learned Today: Unknown Unknowns

I've been reading Errol Morris' 5-part essay on not knowing what we don't know.  The technical term is the Dunning-Kruger effect: our own stupidity hides our ability to know we're stupid.  The classic example they site is of bank robber McArthur Wheeler, who thought that putting lemon juice on his face would make his face invisible from video cameras...

We say that one mark of an intelligent person is that they know what they don't know, but how is this possible?

Perhaps the smartest thing Donald Rumsfeld said was "There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns.  These are the things we do not know we don’t know."

Morris decides: "Using the expressions “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions and answers.  A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown answer.  I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium?  I may not know the answer, but I can look it up.  I can do some research.  It may even be a question which no one knows the answer to.  With an “unknown unknown,” I don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions."

How can students recognize the differences between known unknowns and unknown unknowns?

Monday, July 05, 2010

What I Learned Today: Opinions vs Facts

"You are entitled to your own opinion.  You're not entitled to your own facts."  Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or James R. Schlesinger.  This is often flung about when debating matters of faith versus matters of science.

What are facts?  Can science provide us with facts? (a bee beats its wings 200 times per second). What about history?  (Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743).  Do facts change?  Are somethings we think are fact later found out to be not facts? What if a fact is false?  Is it no longer a fact?  Does fact imply truth?

To say that "human beings are complex creatures" is that a fact or an opinion?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

What I Learned Today: What do You Want?

Henry Ford's quotation: "If I'd have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse,'" means that people have trouble envisioning what they really want and have trouble recognizing the importance of new things and how they can make a difference.

I wonder what the implications are for the classroom? Students may need some examples or guidance before they can really answer what they want from the class or their educational experiences.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I Learned Today: External Storage for the Brain

More from Scott Adams: as humans we're very good at adjusting our environments to create external storage for our brains.  Take a look at the walls of our houses: paintings and photographs that connect us to our past. We keep journals to remember events.  Now we have digital and analog devices.

When I was at the Library of Congress recently, there were kiosks that allowed me to create a LOC account and "store" exhibits of the day that I could then go online at my leisure and examine more fully.

We try this with nature, but nature often obscures our brain storage.  Search for Fidelity, KY on Google Maps for example.

Saturday, June 26, 2010