On teaching and learning, part 2

I may have mentioned that I’m teaching a “blended” course this summer.  It meets for fifteen weeks, with seven face-to-face sessions broken up by an array of online weeks (not even online synchronous class sessions; just online assignments).

I’m pretty unhappy about this.

You see, I believe that good teaching can happen in all kinds of ways.  And I believe that there is much good to be gained from online teaching and learning, in some forms, for some people.  But the folks I know who are really gung-ho about online learning believe that the problems of education are, at bottom, problems of access, whereas I believe that they are, at bottom, problems of motivation.

I’ll use myself as an example, though it’s totally not just me.  I’ve set up assignments that are clear as day, and at least a third of the class doesn’t do them.  Not the SAME third all the time — so I know people can access the assignments and understand how to do them — but lacking (I posit) the motivation of feeling ashamed in class, they are simply willing to eat the lower grade.  That disappoints me mightily.

There are any number of factors that make the proverbial horse thirsty: desire for good grades; tendency toward people-pleasing; intellectual curiosity; fascination with the subject matter; desire to make a difference through the work; ambition for mastery; avoidance of embarrassment; refusal to rock the boat…but most of these depend in some way upon a present community of peers and authority.  If the space of the course shrinks to a faceless, mediated exchange of edited sentences, we’ve lost a great deal of the human drama that constitutes and contrives learning.  Online learning SOUNDS like it expands the dimensions of our classroom, but for me, when you take the course away from the seminar table and toss it into the ether, you’re actually shrinking the possibilities for meaningful interaction.  (With some exceptions, I’m sure…but this is a senior thesis seminar, which is a deeply traditional, scholarly exercise, and I’m just not seeing good methods for meeting these goals with these tools.)

Embedded in this complaint is another: teaching, at its best, invites transformational learning.  In a “traditional” classroom, a conversation can be pushed and pulled, ideas can be stretched and shaped, students can be challenged, comforted, confronted as need be.  They learn from each other through the whole range of interactions they participate in and witness.  I had a student nearly break down once in class because he finally realized that an argument didn’t have to mean winning and losing or shouting someone down: it could mean quietly and logically framing a position of justice and reason.  He was so relieved his whole body dropped back into his chair at the end of his tirade, and he picked up his pen, a little ashamed of his passion but eager to get back to the work that would now be transformed.  HE was transformed, as a scholar and a person. I’m just not seeing that, nor seeing how that might happen, in the online environment.

But what do you think?  What are your stories?

On various forms of training

It’s always strange when things that are supposed to line up don’t: when the brilliant, highly verbal, well-adapted child refuses to potty-train until three-and-a-half; when the ten weeks of gradual and successful getting-back-into-running suddenly collapse in a new and constant bilateral knee pain; when remarkable patience and empathy in the face of all kinds of difficulty suddenly vanishes, leaving you astonished you ever behaved reasonably at all.  But that seems to be the bear of this thing called life: nothing is linear.  “Progress” is only ever incremental and more or less impossible to chart.  We can’t move forward efficiently unless we pause at every point where someone needs a hug or an ice pack or a listening ear.  It makes sense that we are this way; the part that doesn’t make sense is that we keep imagining our world works differently.  We maintain hopes and expectations that have nothing to do with reality, and, still worse, that we KNOW have nothing to do with reality.

And so, we are advised, we try to let those go.  We try to be here and now, accepting whatever is going on.  And I love that approach, I really do.  It opens me to all kinds of possibilities that I wouldn’t even NOTICE, otherwise.  But somewhere deep inside me is always that other set of voices, asking “really?  You’ve pooped on the potty before: you can do it again, no?”  I hear those voices, I try to nod to them and thank them for their good intentions in supporting our boy’s efforts, and then I ask them to please keep it down for a little while.  There’s someone else I need to listen to right now.  And I wrap him up tight in my arms and try to hear.

The grand irony here, of course, is that many of these myths of progress find their homes in various kinds of training: to use the potty; to follow a physical therapy regimen; to keep a household manageable; to build a career.  But those training arenas, those places of learning, are precisely where the myth of linear progress is most powerful and most damaging.  What we need is training in mindfulness, training in training, if you will: the kind of training that will enable us to see where we fall down and give ourselves a gentle hand back up.  We need to be reminded that we are always practicing and never perfect, that we all have accidents and make mistakes and that the trick is learning to accept it with grace.  So as much as supporting a potty-learner can be a hassle (yes, I was the recipient of a full stream of urine down the center of my back today), it’s also a good chance to say out loud to someone else these most vital lessons: we listen to our selves and then try to do what seems best.  We have courage if we are afraid.  We understand that everyone tries new things, that this is a big part of what life is about.  Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we don’t.  But we keep on trying and that is what makes us who we are.  Like the lambeosaurus in Jane Yolen’s “How do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food” — we try things. Like the deal I make with my students in every class I teach: you trust me enough to give the work your all and I will trust you enough to really hear what you desire and are capable of.  This kind of testing, this exploration of trust, is one way we live out our faith in the world and in each other.

On teaching and learning, part 1

I say “part 1” because I assume there are going to be a bunch of these.  Yes, I’ve started teaching again — just one course, for senior-level university students, in which they study issues of sustainability and write a thesis on it.  I have always loved teaching, especially the part about getting to design awesome new courses myself, so this is very satisfying.  But this is the first time my time (and income) have been so incredibly constrained, so there have been some challenges on those fronts.  Raising babies, as they say, is really a full-time job.  But here’s what I’m learning so far:

1. Adult learners rock.  The average age at the public institution where I’m teaching is 32; the student body is 80% women; sounds like everyone has kids or jobs or both, and often several of each.  These people are not interested in wasting time or money, and they bring their whole selves to the course.  Keeps me on my toes.

2. Online teaching (the course is “blended,” so we meet face-to-face for just under half the weeks of the course) takes a lot of preparation but is no different, in essence, from other forms of thoughtful and effective pedagogies.  There are lots of cool new tools to learn and lot of time necessary to get things up and running, but it’s all premised on the same basics: start where people are; be clear about goals and processes; provide space, time, and encouragement for exploration.  Whenever possible, engage people’s whole selves — we know from research as well as from common sense that people learn about what they care about.

3. And go meta.  It’s always worthwhile to teach ABOUT what we are doing: reading and writing ABOUT research help us think more intentionally and more effectively about what our goals and methods are when we do our research.  Especially for adult learners, the largest obstacles often have nothing to do with the reading, research, or writing itself: they have to do with the mystification of the process and the apparent inaccessibility of the culture.  (Because of sentences like that one.)  But it’s not a closed club, and it’s not rocket science.  We are already scholars.

For those of you who don’t know me, it might be relevant that I’ve taught at three very different kinds of institutions before that, some of them very prestigious and all of them full of very interesting and engaged students…as well as a variety of folks who are there because of parental or cultural expectations.  Much of the energy you bring to the classroom (and course design, and responding to writing, and all the other places and activities of teaching) has to go toward motivating students and capturing their elusive (and often partial) attention.  As I’ve always said: you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink…good teaching, then, is about finding ways to make the horse thirsty.  I’ve typically done that through community engagement, which works powerfully for these purposes and often has the beautiful side effects of waking students up to vital issues of (in)difference, (in)justice, and the inextricability of our various lives.  But these students, this summer, already KNOW a lot of that stuff — they’ve lived it.  And I’m thrilled for the chance to support them in their deepening scholarly work.

On the day after I taught my first class this week, I was home reading with my younger son.  He does not like reading, or has not.  This has troubled me mightily, as I adore books and so does my older son.  I’ve noticed that there are a few books Chi likes, and they all have baby-pictures in them, or songs, or overt rhythms, or moving parts.  I’ve been waiting and waiting for the time when he begins to like STORIES for their own sake, when the characters and plot-lines take on importance.  But on that morning, I learned something essential: maybe he won’t ever like stories for the same reasons I do.  Maybe he is simply motivated in different ways.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t also be a reader.  He recently fell in love with Grandma’s dog when they brought her here on a visit, and after they went home again we actually called Grandma and Grandpa to Facetime…with the dog.  Chi could not contain his excitement, and he bounced and shouted and tried to grab the phone.  Afterward, I remembered a book he had rejected before, a collection of dog “portraits” in pictures and poems that the rest of us had loved.  Well, my heavens.  Now it’s Chi’s favorite book ever.  And I was reminded, for the nine-hundred-and-eighty-first time: what we do as teachers is NOT to make people into us, or even assume that we might want to.  What we do as teachers is try to figure out what moves them and work from there.  We try to give them the tools, the know-how, and perhaps even the inclination to understand and move purposefully in the world.  Because a sense of caring, just as much as a set of competencies, is what we need to try and fix what we see is broken.