Perhaps it’s not a question of what we teach, but rather what we learn from our teaching. Teaching has taught me great lessons, not only about my students, but about myself. I’m always amazed what occurs in the classroom, for it’s the students who allow me to think in ways that sometimes even surprise myself, like taking a journey and having some idea as to what direction I may be travelling, but really unsure of the final destination. This has become the excitement for me, the sharing of the journey and the discovery of the destination. So, I have become a traveler with a book bag slung over my shoulder and the knowledge that when that journey comes to an end and class is over, I will have discovered a new land that challenges what I thought I knew but also begs me to know more. Do we teach what we need to learn? I hope so. If we stop learning, what’s left? So to my students; may our journeys together bring us closer in our understanding of ourselves and our fellow travelers.
“The school has always been the most important means of transferring the wealth of tradition from one generation to the next. This applies today in an even higher degree than in former times, for through modern development of the economic life, the family as bearer of tradition and education has been weakened. The continuance and health of human society is therefore in a still higher degree dependent on the school than formerly.
Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that is not right. Knowledge is dead; the school however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those qualities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.
To me the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity, and the self-confidence of the pupil. It produces the submissive subject. It is no wonder that such schools are the rule in Germany and Russia.
…the desire for the approval of one’s fellow-man certainly is one of the most important binding powers of society. In this complex of feelings, constructive and destructive forces lie closely together. Desire for approval and recognition is a healthy motive; but the desire to be acknowledged as better, stronger, or more intelligent than a fellow being or scholar easily leads to an excessively egoistic psychological adjustment, which may become injurious for the individual and for the community. Therefore the school and the teacher must guard against employing the easy method of creating individual ambition, in order to induce the pupils to diligent work”. (Einstein)
My real education began for me at the age of 11 years old. It came unexpectedly and was delivered to our home in 2 large boxes filled with beautifully leather bound books. It was a complete set of the 1960 new edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia. My father had purchased the set, which was at the time a very expensive item, to add to the family room’s bookshelf. I spent many hours propped up with my legs hanging over one of the oversized worn chair in the family room, turning each page in every volume learning something that fed my curiosity about the world I lived in.
I was an average student in school, did lots of daydreaming in the classroom and was more interested in cars and girls during this time than my studies. I found that many of the things taught in school didn’t spark any interest and was presented in such a way that daydreaming was a more productive way of spending time in the classroom. I would think about some of the things I learned reading the encyclopedia that was in our family room. It’s interesting now to think that my lazy afternoons or evenings spent going through random volumes of the encyclopedia gave me more pleasure in learning than sitting all day in a classroom, being told what to read and then quizzed on my ability to retain the information. My father was a self-taught man. He attended school up the age of 11 years, but then had to quit school to work to help support his family. He worked in a bakery and in addition to his meager pay was allowed to bring home each day a loaf of bread, which was needed for daily meals in his home. It’s interesting to think that the purchase of the encyclopedia occurred when I was 11, the same age my father had to quit school to help support his family. Perhaps it was his way of having some completion of his own education or provide some insurance to his family that learning will always be available no matter what. My father was a steelworker for 25 years and moved up the ranks as a metallurgist for the largest steel plant west of the Mississippi. Not bad for someone with only a 5th grade education. He would make jokes about how he was training new employees with college degrees how to do his job.
Perhaps, Einstein was on to something when he wrote: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” The notion of learning should be seen from various perspectives, the ability to use critical thinking skills for determining a “truth” within ourselves as well as a responsibility of giving back what we learn in bettering the society in which we live.
My father would frequently ask me two questions when he came home from work; what did you learn today and how are you going to use what you learned? Our teaching should incorporate these 2 questions. Information can be useless unless it’s applied to something. Perhaps this should be a given in making sure each course objective should always include the ability to apply what we learn and use it in bettering our lives as well as bettering the world we live in. Thanks Dad for providing me with that direction.
I love stories; stories about life, our personal experiences, the happy and the sad. Stories teach us about how the world sometimes works and how we relate to it. When I was young, I use to love to hear my parents talk about their experiences when they were young. Their stories gave me the opportunity to learn not only about their lives but also gave me a better understanding of my culture, the traditions of my family and its history. In a sense, these stories gave me a better understanding of myself. Stories put into context information that would otherwise remain fragmented, pieces of this and that, thrown into a catchall closet in which items are tossed and usually hopelessly lost. Our students also love stories. They catch their attention and can set the mood for your class. We like stories because our brains operate in the same fashion. Stories allow our brain to use information in the most effective way. Our brains need the opportunity to classify and file information that is in relationship to each other. It doesn’t like that catchall closet of miscellaneous bits of information, it likes order and continuity. Stories not only allow the beginning and the end but give us how we came to the end, what brought us there.
I try to start each class with a story. It could be a personal experience, a myth, a historical event, anything that relates to that day’s lesson. Stories grab students’ attention. They become interested in not only what the story is about, but how the story relates to them. Stories in many ways touch the core of who we are and that thing that makes us human. If you think back when you were a child and having a story read to you, didn’t you find yourself becoming that person or at least thinking how you would react if you were the character in the story? Philosopher James Stevens once wrote, “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow.” The things that we learn and remember, usually stick with us because on some level we can relate to them personally. If we use stories in our teaching, it may give our students a better opportunity to connect to a more personal kind of learning. Stories affect he heart, we relate to them because we find bits of ourselves in every story that’s ever been told.
Stories in the classroom can be the most fundamental way of making meaning and sense of your discussions. Interjecting that human component, that part of us that we can relate to and assimilating ideas based upon our own personal experiences, not only allow students to begin to connect all the dots but may aid in making students feel more confident in their understanding of the subject matter.
Author and scholar Kieren Egan wrote this about teaching and storytelling:
“Thinking of teaching as storytelling…encourages us to think of curriculum as a collection of great stories of our culture. If we begin to think in these terms, instead of seeing the curriculum as a huge mass of material to be conveyed to students, we can begin to think of teachers in our society as an ancient and honored role. Teachers are the tellers of our cultures role.”
It’s always interesting to me when at the beginning of class, I start with the words, “I’d like to share a story with you,“ how the attention in the class changes. Students seem to put their focus not only on you but themselves as well. It’s almost magical in some way. It may be one of those few times where technology cannot replace the power of one person telling a story to another person. There is actual evidence that speaks to how we become almost in a trance when we become involved in listening to an interesting or powerful story.
So in using this notion, stories in our classroom can have many advantages:
- Getting the students attention, as well as, focusing on the lesson at hand.
- Setting a platform for students to interact and comment on their thoughts about the story.
- Providing a stronger connection in the classroom with you and your students.
- Stories can bring out those students who normally do not participate in class, giving them the opportunity to share their own personal experiences in relation to the stories shared.
Storytelling may be the oldest form of education. Stories throw that human component into the aspect of learning. If I can in some way relate to what is being taught to me, then my learning becomes more personal and becoming more personal, it has the opportunity to become a part of who I am. Our brains make sense of the world with its ability to arrange and re-arrange itself in story format. Our ability to retain information is affected by how our brains can make sense of the information in relation to other information. To create a lesson in which a story is part of the lesson, give students the opportunity to become personally involved in the story and you may find your students discovering a different opinion of not only the subject matter but the joy of learning itself.
If you never taught an ITV (Instructional Television) class, imagine teaching a face to face class, long distance, teaching from one location, to students who are in the same room as you and to students who are in an ITV classroom at another location. Barring any technical hiccups, it actually goes pretty well and has its advantages such as; students are able to take classes without having to commute long distances, the classroom media control uses high quality audio and video make adding to presentations much easier, and classes can be easily recorded, archived and accessed online later for students to review or for students who missed the class. But it also has it challenges, even for the experienced instructor teaching in the ITV format.
Yet, here are some common challenges I found using this classroom approach:
1. Students at the remote sites may feel disconnected form the instructor and the students at the host classroom.
2. It becomes much harder for students to remain focused when watching a class over a TV monitor.
3. It difficult for instructors and students to see the faces of other students and become more aware of the non-verbal expressions at other sites.
4. Technical difficulties at one site usually leaves the other site somewhat “stranded” until the problem is solved.
5. Instructors can’t circulate around the class and intermingle in class discussions (movement is extremely limited due to camera location in class).
6. Usually the larger screens are located in the front of the classroom and the smaller screens are in the back of the classroom. This usually poises a problem for the instructor since it becomes more difficult to see the students in the distant classroom depending on the depth of the classroom and the eyesight of the instructor.
Since I have taught classes in the ITV format and I found some things helpful in preparing my approach to this format.
It is very important to spend time at the start of any ITV class to teach students how to participate in the class in hopes of creating a consensus in how the class operates. For example, having students identify themselves if contributing to a discussion or just asking a question.
While most ITV classes run well technically, there are on occasions problems throughout the year, stuff does happen, so always have a backup plan. If there is a technical glitch, students should know how long to wait in the classroom and any information pertinent to that days lecture should be available for students on the Blackboard class site. All assignments would be submitted in the site as well.
Don’t forget to switch presentation modes during class. Changing up the students’ field of vision helps them stay focused. For example, if your using a PowerPoint presentation, you may become some disembodied voice if you don’t switch back to the instructor mode occasionally, to reassure your students your there in real time and not just a recorded lecturer, a voice without a face. I usually try to cut back to my face every three to five slides and ask questions for feedback before continuing back to the PowerPoint presentation.
And if possible, switch campuses when teaching from different locations. I teach an ITV class which meets twice a week, so on Monday I teach in my host campus and my Wednesday class I teach my ITV class on my sister campus. Students seem to really appreciate meeting you face to face and making the effort in alternating classrooms.
All of the above suggestions I found extremely important in my approach to ITV teaching, but depending on individualistic styles, approaches will vary. Challenges in the ITV classroom not only are faced by the instructor, but with the students as well, but keeping a honest discussion with your students regarding their needs as well as their frustrations in this format can be most useful in developing an effective ITV classroom experience.
How do we know that the online student is really grasping the subject matter, I mean really grasping it? We can assess and grade the assignments submitted in Blackboard, or monitor the quiz results. This gives us a sense of their understanding of the material, but how about that investment in the learning or that enthusiasm in participating in the class. At the end of each semester, I send out class evaluations to my online students. I’m curious about their online class experience and ask questions that focus more on their sense of connection to the class. I ask students to rate their answers from 1 (very poor) to 5 (Excellent).
A few examples are;
How would you rate your feeling of being connected to the class?
Did you feel safe in expressing your views on the discussion board?
Did you feel the subject material presented was relevant and interesting?
Rate your overall online class experience.
At the end of the survey, I ask students to make any comments they would like to make regarding their personal online experience. Comments have varied; a few comments seem common with students such as;
Discussions that are relevant to the student in their everyday lives are really appreciated by the students.
Keeping the discussions open-ended so students can keep discussions ongoing an allow students to not only explore the topic but learn other opinions and attitudes of others students.
Making students feel safe in the online environment. Maintaining an open honest environment.
So I have maintained a format for all my online classes. All discussion board post, as well as any written assignments, should relate more to the personal experiences and attitudes of the student. Discussions are not based on the textbook, but rather personal life experiences related to the questions that are up for discussion. This does require monitoring and setting the tone from the beginning of the class. This can be done by setting the example of how we respond and perhaps challenge our students in the way we ask additional questions. The quickest way to shut down a discussion is to make a student fell put down or feel attacked. Students need to feel safe in any online discussion.
All questions should be presented in such a way that each student should be able to relate to each question and how it may relate to their current lives or how they would see it relating to their future lives. What makes a question interesting is relevancy. If I can relate to it, then I have something to say about it. Personalizing the online experience in the discussion board seems to allow the students investment in the class and brings the students closer to each other. I tell students from the beginning of class that there is no right or wrong answer in these online discussions, but students always need to explain their thinking in justifying their opinions and comments.
So what have I learned about online discussions, especially in keeping the online class energized and engaged?
- Create a safe environment
- Make your topic relevant to the student
- Keep the questions open-ended to encourage a more open dialogue
- Make expectations clear to students from the beginning
- Make your presence known to students by posting announcements, reminders, and providing feedback to comments and assignments.
The best way to learning what is working in your class and what’s not working is to ask your students for feedback. I sometimes ask students questions about the questions I present on the discussion board. Did they feel it helped in their understanding of the chapter that is being reviewed that week? Asking students for feedback could be the best possible way of better understanding the question we always ask ourselves; are my students understanding the information as well as having a positive online experience?
A student shares this information with me which I thought it was fascinating. It deals with information overload.
The internet is almost 25 years old and already every 60 seconds:
160 million emails are sent.
1500 Blog entries are made.
98,000 tweets are shared on Twitter.
694,445 Google searches are completed.
695,000 Facebook status updates are posted.
6,600 photos are uploaded to Flickr.
600 videos are uploaded to YouTube.
The sheer volume of information which is available to us is truly amazing, but perhaps our technology has surpassed our ability to effectively consume so much information. Researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information that is the problem; it’s our inability to organize and process it all without experiencing “information overload, or what neuroscientists like to call “cognitive overload. In recent years, technology strategists have even compared information overload to physical obesity, dubbing it “infobesity. Just as our eyes are sometimes larger than our stomachs, our interest can be significantly greater than our brain capacity.
I teach both online and FTF classes and utilize Blackboard for all my classes. Students submit all their work on Blackboard and receive responses from me on Blackboard as well. We have students who chose sometimes not to attended regular FTF lectures but continue to turn in assignments or submit any other work required in Blackboard. Levels of understanding of the subject matter will obviously vary and logic should show the FTF students benefit from having a fuller educational experience.
So how can we help prevent students from becoming victims of this notion of infobesity? How do we help students remained focused without getting through college learning the art of “skimming”, you know, that’s when you just learn enough about what your instructor wants you to know. We skim the textbook, skim the information found on the internet, like the proverbial husband who always is being accused of not reading the instructions on a home project, he’ll just “skim it” because he doesn’t need all that other stuff until he realizes he missed something.
We are so easily distracted these days with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube videos, and the list goes on and on. Based on research pertaining to distraction and learning, it was stated that today’s students have shorter attention spans than previous years. This recent PEW study found that a majority of teachers (87%) agree with the assertion that “today’s digital technologies are creating a generation of short attention spans.”
So the dilemma continues because we as educators rely on those digital technologies. We contribute to this notion of information overload. Presentations become better, more visually interesting. Students stay more interested if there are visuals, especially incorporated in your lecture presentations. It’s about keeping your audience interested and engaging and technology allows for this to happen, but let’s not forget the role of the instructor, the captain of the ship, the headliner of the show, where the buck really stops in regards to teaching. Spending an entire class and having the opportunity to look into your students’ eyes and speak to them face to face is the ultimate kind of technology, the human kind.
I find that breaking up my class with one lecture using PowerPoint presentations and then alternating the next class, talking about the subject matter in a much less formal approach with no use of any technology, just an old fashion “chat and share” about the subject matter. This usually turns into more of a forum for questions, because as we all know, no “proper” student would interrupt the professor in the middle of a visual/technological presentation, now would they? Obviously, I’m kidding about the proper student thing but does shed more truth than not.
The above model works for me and I think for the students as well. There is no getting around technology, but how we effectively use it to enhance learning is the real challenge and perhaps provides the solution as well.
At the beginning of a lecture on the effects of stress, I told this story to my class:
One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally, he decided the animal was old, and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth it to retrieve the donkey.
He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey realized what was happening and cried horribly. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he quieted down.
A few shovel loads later, the farmer finally looked down the well. He was astonished at what he saw. With each shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing. He would shake it off and take a step up.
As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and happily trotted off!
So what’s the moral of the story?
Life is going to shovel dirt on you, all kinds of dirt. The trick to getting out of the well is to shake it off and take a step up. Each of our troubles is a steppingstone. We can get out of the deepest wells just by not stopping, never giving up! Shake it off and take a step up.
One student raised his hand and said, “That was great story professor, but being a student in college today has its own set of stressors.”
Ahh, the perfect opportunity for a discussion that relates to the topic and has meaning to the class. Dare I take the challenge and meet this potentially hot topic head on?
OK, I’ll bite, I asked the student if he would share with us the stressors he was referring to.
“Well to start, feeling intense pressure to obtain high grades, especially if you’re in a program that may connect with career opportunities, taking final exams, trying to establish some kind of social life and dealing with the costs of college.”
More hands rose to the occasion, single parents balancing work, school, and family, how layoffs forced career changes and with those changes meant going back to school, and what about after graduation, will I be able to find a job in my field of interest?, and don’t even start me on the topic of student loans. The class was beginning to sound more like an AA meeting, with individuals sharing their fears and concerns about the stressors of being a student.
It was stress in action and needless to say the discussion became how these stressors affected the students personally.
Following up on our discussion in class, I came up with some interesting facts about stress and college students.
- Associated Press conducted a survey in 2008 on college student stress at many colleges throughout the United States. The survey found that four out of ten college students report they feel stressed often. One out of five says they feel stressed most of the time. One out of four students reports experiencing daily stress and one in ten report thoughts of suicide.
- The American Freshman Norms report from Fall 2010 was revealing in terms of trends in college student attitudes, health, and stressors. Looking at the trends in the last two and a half decades, students’ perception of their own mental health has been on a steady decline. In 2010, males and females’ perception of their own emotional health hit the lowest marks in twenty-five years, decreasing approximately 13% for both males and females from 2009 to 2010.
- The Spring 2013 edition of the National College Health Assessment, where the average age of those survey was 21 years, reported that almost half (46.3%) of all undergraduate students surveyed felt trauma or overwhelmed in regards to their academic responsibilities. Almost half of the students surveyed reported they have more than average or extreme stress.
We live in interesting times, the rapid acceleration of technology and social change. The emergence of the internet, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter and other social media technologies have fundamentally altered the social fabric and the ways we relate. Our students live in a hyper-connected world which gives them even more access to an endless array of choices and information that can be overwhelming and confusing. Psychological research on choices shows that in many cases, more choices lead to more anxiety. In addition, we now have endless access to information that might be psychologically disturbing, via constant news of troubling stories.
Yes, college can be extremely stressful. It is, in many ways, a rite of passage, but with that comes much adjustment difficulty.
This student’s response given in a Blackboard assignment seemed to really encompass the fears and the concerns that many of our students have.
“There is an enormous pressure to know what you are going to do with the rest of your life when you leave school. People say that it is okay to not know what you want to do, but there is this unspoken expectation. You are expected to have university lined up, or an internship, or a job. I just can’t imagine what I want to do with the rest of my life. That in itself makes me feel unsure and helpless.”
When I was a practicing therapist, I would often get asked “what’s your theoretical orientation?” I always felt awkward answering that question since I feel one approach could never apply to everyone. Now as an educator, I’m sometimes asked about my philosophy on education. Are you more teacher-centered or student-centered? Do I favor more being the “guide on the side” or “sage on the stage?” I guess it depends. I learned to do both, use what I need based on the needs of the class. I teach eclectically, I never did like prescribing to a particular group, be it political, religious, or anything too trendy,(OK, I own an I Phone).
Eclectic, as the name implies is an approach that incorporates a variety of principles and philosophies in order to create a program to meet the needs of our students. Instead of insisting a strict adherence to one particular approach of school of thought, being electric allows us to employ elements from a range of techniques with the goal of establishing a course that is personally tailored to the needs of the class. The primary benefit is not only allowing the classroom experience to become more personalized, but it encourages the instructor to be more creative is class design and delivery.
At one time, most therapists rigidly adhered to a single style, but eclectic therapy today is the most common style used by practicing therapists. It is a more flexible approach that allows the therapist to adapt to each client’s individual needs. Perhaps I adopted my personal teaching style from my experiences being a therapist, but there seems to be a common tie to this approach.
What is best for the student? And how to we as educators not only identify what is best for our students, but how do we approach those needs in our instruction? It is so much easier to teach every class the same and put the responsibility on the student to adjust to the needs of the instructor, but I found in my 27 years practicing as a therapist, this approach will surely guarantee a lack of investment in outcomes in the learning process.
I’ve known many therapists who were reluctant to call themselves “eclectic” in fear of sounding too wishy-washy or being insufficiently focused. In the early stages of my training, I was told by my supervisor, “Never say you are electric, for you will lose credibility with your peers.” The truth is that most therapists practiced electric therapy, but never admitted it.
So perhaps the question we should all be asking ourselves is not what our teaching style is, but rather, how do we adapt our teaching to our students? Every class is different. No matter how many PSY 101 classes I have taught, they are never the same. The subject material remains the same, but the students will always be different and so should our approach to how we deliver that subject matter. Perhaps like in therapy, unless we our willing to constantly re-create our teaching and thinking, we set ourselves up for boredom and even burnout.