Let’s Talk about Learning

This semester, I’m teaching a class on Emergent Technologies and Innovative Practices for students in our new Educational Leadership doctoral program.  All of the students are leaders in area schools.  Some are principals.  A few are assistant superintendents.  One is a business manager for a local district.  They’re a really smart group who are going to engage in some really heady discourse over how we integrate technology in schools.

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester and I think some of the students are seeing a disconnect.  While the class is titled “emergent technology,” we’ve actually spent very little time so far talking about technology at all.  While we’ll be digging deeper into technologies later in the semester, we’ve spent most of the class discussing learning theory and broader theoretical constructs like TPACK. So, what gives?  Why would I organize the class in such a way?  I think my instructional decisions for this class are best captured in a Tweet I came across this weekend.

“We can’t have conversations around technology until we are ready to have conversations around learning.” @justintarte

I don’t know Dr. Tarte but I think we’re kindred spirits. The education community spends a lot of time talking about devices and apps and learning management systems but very little time discussing learning.  The larger challenge, however, is that educators, school leaders, parents and other stakeholders hold very different beliefs about learning and we don’t spend a lot of time hashing these beliefs out in public forums.  One of the books my doctoral students are reading is Teaching Crowds by Dron and Anderson (2014).  In the book, the authors discuss different pedagogical generations and how beliefs of learning changed during these time periods.  In the behavioral/cognitive era, pedagogy was focused on teaching the individual. The behavioral/cognitive tradition assumes that “there is a body of material or specified measurable skill to be learned that may be transmitted to the learner.” The focal point of this pedagogical generation is the instructor and the one-to-one or one-to-many delivery system.

The social constructivist era, however, changes this focus.  In this generation, social interactions and constructing understanding through experience are the central vehicles for learning.  Few people learn in isolation, social constructivists would argue.  We learn by interacting with one another and by experience the world around us.  These social constructivist beliefs helped to usher in the next pedagogical generation: the connectivist era.  In this generation, the focus isn’t solely on the individual but also on the larger community in which one participates.  In the connectivist era, learning occurs in groups and is demonstrated in and distributed across people’s ability to participate.  Connectivist pedagogy recognizes that “knowledge exists in a social and physical context as well as a personal one.”

These are very short synopses of the larger pedagogical generation described in Dron and Anderson’s text.  The larger takeaway, however, is that different people that are involved in decision-making in schools can hold wildly different beliefs on how people learn.  Not just because of the influence of these pedagogical eras but also from their own experiences as learners and as educators.  These beliefs, however, inform technological decisions, whether through explicit or tacit means.  Someone who believes in instructive forms of learning would select and use very different technologies than someone who believes in more social and collaborative processes of learning.

And that’s why I’m spending a large portion of my doctoral class examining learning theories and the research-base behind each.  As educators, we need to recognize that technology decisions should not just be based on availability, cost or efficiency but should also reflect our beliefs about learning.

Curving Grades vs. Fostering Collaboration

An article in the New York Times struck me recently.  Titled Why We Should Stop Grading On A Curve, I was expecting an impassioned plea for teachers at all academic levels to stop inflating grades.  And that’s where the article initially starts.  In the article, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses how some universities are combating grade inflation by forcing a curve to limit the number of As that are awarded in a class.  In his argument against this practice, however, Grant introduces research showing how forced curves can serve as a disincentive to studying.  While forced curves help create a wider distribution of grades, it also creates

an atmosphere that’s toxic by pitting students against one another. At best, it creates a hypercompetitive culture, and at worst, it sends students the message that the world is a zero-sum game: Your success means my failure.

Instead of adopting a forced curve grading system, Grant decided to try something different.  First, he introduced a simple grading philosophy in his class.

No student will ever be hurt by another student’s grade.

Think about that for a second. At first glance, it makes absolute sense. Individual students should only be affected by their own performance and not by the performance of their peers.  But some grading systems do just that. They pit students against each other and students who excel are looked at negatively. In Grant’s class, however, grade curving would be used only when it benefited students.  For instance, the student who got the highest overall grade would get a 100% and everyone’s grade would be adjusted upward. If the highest overall grade was a 90%, everyone would get 10% added to their score.

While we can argue the benefits and downsides about curving grades, Grant’s other grading strategy is what I’d like to celebrate mostly. On his exams, students mostly struggle with multiple choice questions. Because of their challenging nature, Grant decided to employ a “phone a friend” strategy. Rather than actually calling up peers for assistance, if a student felt unsure about their answer on one multiple-choice question on their exam, they could identify another member of the class for help. If that student answered the question correctly, they’d get the question right too.

Some readers may be wondering why this strategy would even be considered.  In its simplest terms, the strategy rewards students for NOT knowing answers.  While there are actually lots of educational benefits for this policy, I’d like to focus on the collaborative aspects that this strategy engenders.  For a student to benefit in any way, they have to know their peers and have a strong understanding of what their strengths are.  A student couldn’t just write “the girl with the dark hair who sits up front.” They’d actually have to identify a person by name and be confident that the student knew the answer. That only happens when students study together and collaborate for each other’s benefit.

And that’s what Grant found. While the policy was initially met with some student hesitation, after a few semesters, the students started to develop better study system to support one another.  Students developed study guides and shared them with one another.  Some students developed practice quizzes.  Others organized study sessions. As one student wrote to Grant, “your class has changed the way students work together. I’ve never seen a group of students so willing to help one another succeed.”

And isn’t that what we should be fostering as educators. Few people work (or learn) in isolation anymore.  Shouldn’t the processes of grading support and reward collaborative endeavors?  At the risk of echoing one of the presidential candidates, aren’t we stronger together?

Podcasts for Educators

I drive a lot. With a total daily commute of over an hour and a half, I spend a lot of time in my car. Rather than filling the time with mind-numbing pop music or politically charged talk radio, I choose to listen to podcasts.  Podcasts offer free, on-demand programming from the comfort of my smartphone.  Over the last year or so, I’ve listened to a bunch of popular podcasts including Serial, RadioLab and This American Life.  With the multitude of podcasts available, there are programs tailored to almost everyone’s tastes and interests.  Besides the entertainment value, howpodcast-circular-button-iconever, podcasts can also offer powerful opportunities for personal and professional growth.  This week, I thought I’d feature some popular podcasts that focus on teaching and learning.

Edutopia’s Best Educational Podcasts: This post from the Edutopia website lists seven different podcasts that span a variety of educational topics.  Interested in educational technology? Check out Wesley Fryer’s podcast called Moving at the Speed of Creativity.  Want some instructional ideas from other teachers?  Download Every Classroom Matters which features interviews with teachers on innovative practices they’ve used to support student learning.

Teaching in Higher Education:  While the Edutopia list covers a lot of territory, many of the podcasts are focused on K12 instruction. Teaching in Higher Education, however, focuses solely on teaching and learning in collegiate environments.  Produced by Bonni Stachowiak, the podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders from across the educational spectrum.  Want to explore the research on teaching evaluations?  Check out the episode where Bonni talks with Betsy Barre, Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice University.

Re:Learning Podcast: Developed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, this podcast advertises itself as the place to meet “the renegade teachers, ed-tech entrepreneurs, longtime educators, and others shaping the future of college.” While the podcast series just started earlier this year, it has already featured such heavy hitters as Michael Wesch, Carol Dweck and Sal Khan.

Cult of Pedagogy: This podcast was the inspiration for this post.  Jennifer Gonzalez is a former middle school teacher who now works at a college as a teacher educator. Each Cult of Pedagogy podcast explores a topic in-depth and offers practical solutions for educators by interviewing students, administrators and anyone else who can provide an insightful perspective.

The Professional Adjunct:  This is a relatively new podcast but I’m really excited about its focus. Produced and hosted by Jim and Beth Harger, the program offers tips and strategies for educators who are navigating online, blended and face-to-face teaching environments.  In full disclosure, I was recently interviewed by the Hargers for a program on the upcoming Teaching Professor Technology Conference which I chair.  That podcast should appear online in the next week or so.

What’s your teaching metaphor?

I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors lately and how they help faculty describe their instructional roles. While we refer to ourselves as “teachers” or “instructors,” those titles encompass a wide pedagogical landscape. The term “teaching” can invoke images of the chalk and talk instructors who lecture to their students.  The term can also be applied to those individuals who foster student-centered classrooms where active learning strategies are employed.  To avoid the confusion, many faculty members use metaphors to better capture their roles.  Some faculty members use terms like “guide” or “coach” when they see their roles as cultivators of learning.  Others may describe their roles as being the “spark” for learning.  Either way, the use of metaphors helps to clarify what we do as teachers.

While these metaphors can be helpful in describing one’s instructional role, they also can offer others a window into an individual’s beliefs about teaching and learning. The Annenberg Foundation website Metaphorically Speaking offers a series of metaphors commonly used to describe the act of teaching.  Metaphors are important, they write, because teaching is “very complex. Metaphors offer a great way to provide images for others of what teaching means to you.”   More than describing one’s role, however, Northcote & Fetherston (2006) write that the metaphors individuals offer also identify how they see the interrelationship between the teacher and the learner. Building on this work, Badley and Hollabaugh (2012) identify three clusters of metaphors that people use to describe teaching: teaching as transmission, teaching as facilitation and teaching as catalyst. For instance, those instructors who typically use “transmission” metaphors see knowledge and information as the main commodity to be shared in the teacher/student relationship.  Faculty who gravitate to “facilitation” metaphors see the teacher’s role as “creating opportunities for the student to learn.” (Badley and Hollabaugh, 2012).  For facilitators, knowledge and learning comes from guiding students along an educational journey.  Lastly, catalysts see themselves as creating dissonant moments that spark deeper inquiry and questioning by the learners.

I’ve been reflecting on metaphors after a doctoral class I had this weekend.  Two students offered teaching metaphors that deviated from the traditional ones I’ve encountered.  After the class read the Horizons Reports published by the New Media Council, I asked them to consider what schools would look like twenty years from now.  I prompted the students to consider what the schools of the future would look like and how students would learn.  During the discussion, many of the doctoral students agreed that “personalized learning” was an emergent field in education and would be more widespread in schools twenty years from now.  The class wonder what the teacher’s role would look like when students are learning in more personalized ways. This created the larger discussion about teachers’ roles and the descriptions we use.

One of my doctoral students offered the metaphor of “broker.” While building on the “facilitation” metaphor, the term broker also captures how teachers can help individual students develop.  It also reflects an “investment” on part of the student and the growth incurred through expert guidance.  Another student described teaching as “stewardship.” In his description, teachers help students develop to their individual potential.  While the term has some religious undertones, stewardship connotes the “caretaking” role that teachers play with regard to student learning.  I’m still mulling these new (for me) metaphors and how they reflect my views of teaching and learning in my classroom.

What metaphors do you use to describe your teaching role? I don’t know if you’ve ever consciously considered this but take a moment and attend to the words you’d use to describe your role.  What does this say about how you view student learning? While this may seem like a simple activity, it may be an helpful way to reflect on your instructional role and possibly even foster change in your classroom.


Badley, K. and Hollabaugh, J, (2012). Metaphors for Teaching and Learning. Faculty P
ublications – School of Education. Paper 49. http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/soe_faculty/49
Northcote, M. and Fetherston, T, (2006). New Metaphors for Teaching and Learning in a University Context Education Conference Papers. Paper 18. http://research.avondale.edu.au/edu_conferences/18

What about “Learning Presence?”

In science, researchers see theories and ideas as being tentative.  New information can be introduced that prompts reflection and re-examination.  For example, Copernicus’ work forced astronomers to re-evaluate whether the Earth was the center of the solar system and it helped to set up the work done by Kepler and Galileo. By looking at things a little differently and introducing research to back up his claims, Copernicus opened the scientific doorway for all of modern astronomy.

I thought about Copernicus this weekend as I read a study conducted by Peter Shea and Temi Bidjerano. In an article that appeared in Computers and Education in 2010, Shea and Bidjerano examined whether online students’ self-efficacy impacted their perceptions of the quality of the virtual learning environments in which they participated. The researchers surveyed over 3000 students in 42 different institutions of higher education to see whether behavioral and motivational elements correlated with aspects of the Community of Inquiry framework (COI).   When Garrison, Archer and Anderson (2001) first introduced the COI framework, they presented it as model to describe a “worthwhile educational experience” for online students. The framework involves three intersecting “presences” which help to describe the overall learning activities with which students and instructors must engage. The framework includes: social presence, cognitive presence and teaching presence.  Describing COI holistically, successful online classes depend upon instructors fostering the development of a social environment where students interact cognitively with one another and with the teacher.  While thousands of research articles have validated the COI framework from a variety of perspectives, few have examined the role that a student’s beliefs in self play in online educational experiences.

In Shea and Bidjerano’s work, they concluded “that a positive relationship exists between elements of the COI framework and between elements of a nascent theoretical construct that we label “learning presence”. We suggest that learning presence represents elements such as self-efficacy as well as other cognitive, behavioral, and motivational constructs supportive of online learner self-regulation.”  For those new to the concept of self-efficacy, Bandura (1986) defined it as an individual’s beliefs in their “capabilities to organize and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performance.” Self-efficacy is a well-researched area that has been shown to have an impact on individuals’ job satisfaction, academic success, and so much more.  The surprising part about self-efficacy is that it focuses more on individuals’ beliefs in self rather than their actual abilities.  And that’s the important connection to Shea and Bidjerano’s work.  Students who feel that they are more able to be successful in an online class find the class worthwhile.  Shea and Bidjerano also found relationships between the elements of their proposed “learning presence” and the teaching, social and cognitive presences in the original COI framework.  This, I feel, is the most powerful part of the research and the most motivating for instructors.  The online environments that instructors construct and facilitate need to help students attend to their own learning.  While we can build learning environments that support social and cognitive development, we must also thoughtful construct spaces where students feel they can be successful and are motivated to learn.

As I read Shea and Bidjerano’s research, other studies kept coming to mind and making sense in a new light.  The one that stands out a study I wrote about earlier this year.  Titled The Magic Pill of Online Learning, the post described the importance of including orientation videos in online classes.  In classes with high dropout and failure rates, researchers added short videos that helped students understand how to navigate the online environment and complete important tasks like check grades, access content and participate in discussion forums.  By adding the orientation videos, students were more successful and dropout and failure rates decreased.  Viewed from Shea and Bidjerano’s work, the orientation videos helped to motivate students and foster confidence in their ability to be successful.

Hopefully, Shea and Bidjerano’s work will usher in a re-examination of the current COI framework.  Despite being almost six years old, the research hasn’t raised widespread awareness of the socio-cognitive aspects that students bring to online learning environments.  Navigating the Community of Inquiry website that is maintained by Garrison and others, however, I came across a blog post authored by Terry Anderson (one of the original COI researchers) that outlined the potential of a fourth presence.  The post references Shea and Bidjerano and other researchers who are examining the impact that students have on online learning environments.  While this research will not force a complete redesign of the Solar System (like Copernicus), it may prompt re-configuration of current models that describe online learning.


Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of distance education, 15(1), 7-23.

Shea, P., & Bidjerano, T. (2010). Learning presence: Towards a theory of self-efficacy, self-regulation, and the development of a communities of inquiry in online and blended learning environments. Computers & Education, 55(4), 1721-1731.


Beginning teaching? Some advice to help.

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from a few years ago.  This post was originally shared in August 2014.  Since I’m leading new faculty orientation on campus again this week, I thought it would be a good post to review.  Enjoy.

This week, our campus kicks off its new faculty orientation.  With four and a half days of meetings and professional development sessions, the orientation is intended to be an entryway for faculty new to the university and, in some cases, new to teaching.  As I’ve been working to plan the orientation, I thought I’d use this week’s post to offer some advice to those educators who may be just starting out their career.

1.  Shoot for being effective.    Creating syllabi and planning lessons are daunting tasks.  They can also be humbling and a little scary.  When I first started teaching, I worried about creating perfect lessons and error-proof syllabi.  In practice, however, these are targets that may be unattainable for someone new to the profession.  Instead of focusing on perfection, start with being effective.  Create lessons that effectively help students learn and syllabi that effectively communicate class expectations.  After reaching that goal, you can start working becoming perfect.

2.  Expect to make mistakes.  While you’re developing those effective syllabi and lessons, you’re going to make mistakes.  Maybe you’ll be in the middle of some lesson and forget how to do long division.  Or maybe you’ll arrive at 10 AM for your 9 AM class.  Or maybe you’ll misgrade a whole set of exams.  The important thing is what you do next.  I’d suggest embracing your infallibility and discuss how important it is to learn from your mistakes.

3.  Teach students.  While you’ve probably been hired because of your content expertise, you also have to remember the other aspects of the job.  You don’t just teach your content.  You teach students and their learning requires more than a “stand and deliver” approach.  In his book “Naked Teaching,” Jose Antonio Bowen discusses the importance of face-to-face interaction in a highly technological world.  In an article in Liberal Education recently, Bowen writes:

As faculty, if we are primarily concerned with transmitting content, then our value will only decrease. The Internet contains a much broader selection of lectures, demonstrations, animations, and examples on more subjects, in more languages, and with a greater variety of approaches, methods, and pedagogies than any professor, department, or even entire university can provide. If, however, we are more concerned with faculty-student interaction; the design and sequence of learning experiences; the application, analysis, and synthesis of information; the motivation of students; and, especially, the increasing complexity of students’ mental models, then the value of what we do will increase.”

These processes require that we focus on students’ needs and interact with them on a personal level.  Our value as educators isn’t based solely on the amount of knowledge in our heads but on our ability to foster a positive learning environment in our classrooms.

4.  Take care of yourself.  I hate to break it to you, but you’ll have bad teaching days.  My hope is that you have more good ones than bad ones this year.  At the end of the day, however, it’s important that you remember to take care of yourself.  I have a colleague who identifies a point on his commute home where he drops the emotional and mental baggage of the day.  Other colleagues relax by exercising, gardening and cooking.   Whatever activity you choose, identify something that you do for your own well-being.  Teaching is hard work and requires dedication.  But it also requires that you attend to your mental health and spiritual well-being as much as you do to planning lessons and grading papers.

Teach Like Batman!

I’ve been seeing a lot of “timehops” in my Facebook and Twitter feeds lately.  I guess folks are interested in seeing what they were doing and posting a few years ago to get a sense of how much change has occurred.  With this spirit in mind, I thought I’d do a “timehop” today and repost a blog post from last year.  This post was originally shared in August 2015 and discussed some of the research on instructors use of flipped classrooms.  Enjoy.

I’m a huge comic book fan.  As a child, I remember distinctly stopping by the comic book store every Wednesday to pick up new releases and anxiously thumbing through the pages to see if my favorite super heroes survived their latest battles with some menacing villain.  As I read the issues, I often thought about the special powers the heroes had and which ones I wished I possessed.  It would be great to fly like Superman or have super speed like the Flash.  Maybe I could be super stretchy like Mr. Fantastic or turn into a muscular monster like the Hulk when I became angry.  With so many super powers available in the comic book universe, it’s hard to settle on a single one.

Growing up, my favorite hero was Batman.  I liked the costume and the Bat Mobile.  Batman was a brooding, complex character who fought in the shadows and used his mind to solve the crimes of Gotham City. I especially liked the fact that Batman didn’t have a super power.  He was just a guy who trained hard to become a crime fighter.  He wasn’t born on some other planet.  He didn’t get his powers by putting on a special ring or by being bombarded by cosmic radiation.  He just worked hard and was committed to his craft.  This mindset really resonates with me.  Looking at the numerous movies, books and television series that have been dedicated to the character, it seems that Batman’s mindset must resonate with others as well.

As the semester starts at my institution, I’m hoping to channel Batman’s mindset and work hard to be the best teacher I can be.  Good teaching is hard work and to be a good teacher requires that we adopt a Batman-like dedication to the craft.  While it would be great to have some teaching super power, the reality is that there are no short cuts to becoming a good instructor.  I’m reminded of this as I read a recent report on Flipped Classrooms that was compiled by Faculty Focus.  While many instructors have tried flipping their classrooms, many instructors report that it’s hard work and requires a lot of time to do it well.  As I’ve written before, I think flipping classrooms is a novel teaching strategy that utilizes classroom time differently.  It helps foster more collaboration in classroom and dedicates more time to group problem solving and authentic application of classroom content.  But it’s not a super power that instructors can develop overnight.  No instructor is going to suddenly become a better teacher by assigning some videos for students to watch outside of class.   Like Batman, instructors are going to need to work hard and dedicate time and energy to becoming better at flipping.  While flipping may be hard work, the Faculty Focus study also shows it’s benefits.  Instructors who utilized the flipped classroom model saw greater student engagement and increased student learning in their classes.  I’m sure even the Caped Crusader would be proud of those outcomes!