Collegiality and Crossover

This semester, I’m participating in a faculty learning communities on campus which is centered on reading the book The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Berg & Seeber, 2016). Our group has met regularly through the course of the semester to discuss different chapters and examine how the authors’ observations and calls to action resonate with the culture and practice of our campus.  The basic premise of the book is that the increased corporatization and standardization of higher education is undermining the joy of teaching and the quality of the product we offer.  While the book examines time management, pedagogy and research, it also looks at the inter-relational aspects of our work and how the “culture of speed” is impacting our relationships with our students and colleagues. In the chapter on Collegiality and Community, Berg and Seeber write:

“In academic culture, it’s mind over matter; we are expected to ‘rise above’ whatever is ailing us; and rather than help each other, we’re taught to compete with each other.” (p. 71)

Ask any college professor and they’ll identify how competitive grants, publishing and tenure and promotion processes can be. Building on this, Berg and Seeber recognize how that this competitive culture is also isolating which can contribute to a sense of “workplace loneliness.” Writing about the isolating impact of competition, they write:

“It is vitally important that we recognize that workplace loneliness affects our well-being, interferes with professional development and makes us more vulnerable to burnout.” (p. 83)

While these are definitely concerning impacts of the culture of competition, I’d like to situate the conversation in a slightly different way.  Recently, I started reading The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion by Sarah Rose Cavanagh.  The book was suggested as a possible faculty learning community in the spring and I thought I’d preview it.  In the book, Cavanagh examines how important emotions are to the learning process and details the critical connections between the affective and cognitive domains of learning. In the book, Cavanagh introduces the concept of “crossover” and how a teacher’s emotions can act as an emotional contagion in the classroom environment.  Cavanagh writes:

“One of the strongest contributors to crossover is a process by which instructor emotions lead to changes in instructional behavior which then leads to changes in students’ feelings of value and control and that this significantly impacts learning.” (p. 49)

While Berg and Seeber examine the impacts that the competitive culture has on our well-being, it’s clear that it can also impact student learning as well.  Cavanagh drives this point home.

“Research demonstrates that teachers who reported more positive emotions are more likely to provide adequate examples, to give more clear and comprehensible explanations, to make more connections between the subject matter and the real world and to teach with greater enthusiasm. Conversely, teachers who experience more negative emotions such as anger or anxiety are less likely to show beneficial instructional behaviors… teachers with better emotions may use better methods, which translates into better control and value appraisals and thus better learning.” (p. 49)

While some argue that competitive environments help people be more productive or helps to elevate the quality of work being done, it’s clear that there are larger impacts potentially at stake.  The negative emotions from stress, anxiety and professional loneliness that can emerge from an isolating competitive culture can negatively impact our teaching which can result in reduced student learning.  While I doubt this line of thinking will cause any great change in the academy, it’s important to recognize the larger pedagogical effects that culture can have.

Don’t be a denier!

On Facebook and Twitter lately, my friends have been sharing their concerns about “deniers.” Deniers are people who despite overwhelming evidence opposing their opinion refuse to change their views.  Most commonly, the term is used to describe climate change deniers.  The scientific community has presented tons of evidence in support of global climate change.  Despite this evidence, there are still some people who choose to ignore or discredit the available evidence and continue believing that human beings have little impact on the environment.

While the term “climate change denier” is in our common vernacular these days, the term “denier” has been used to describe others as well.  Following World War II, some people doubted that the Holocaust happened and that Germany had interned and killed millions of Jews.  The movie Denial details a real legal battle that occurred in England between Deborah Lipstadt, a historian, and David Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier.  Despite evidence that showed that mass genocide had occurred during World War II in Germany, Irving continued to hold steadfast publicly.  Examining Irving’s position, Lipstadt writes:

“(Irving) demands “absolute documentary proof” when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving’s tactics, but of those of deniers in general.”

I don’t want to go too far down the Holocaust or climate change rabbit holes here but I think the term “denier” deserves a little attention educationally.  In a discussion with a colleague last week, we lamented the resistance of some faculty to adopt active learning strategies.  The educational evidence is overwhelming (which I’ve shared that evidence on this blog over the years). Despite this evidence, some educators choose to employ lecture-based strategies.  These “active learning deniers” are also pretty willing to share their voices in opposition to student-centered strategies.  Take this Chronicle article titled “Active Learning Is Found to Foster Higher Pass Rates in STEM Courses.”  In the comments section, one instructor wrote:

For all we know the pass rates are higher but the knowledge communicated, level of intellectual effort, and retention of knowledge are lower. So-called “success” by one meta-analysis outcome alone is poor measurement of anything.”

The commenter isn’t alone in denying active learning evidence, however.  Take the following Guardian article titled In Praise of the University Lecture.  The author, Frank Furedi, a sociology professor at the University of Kent, dismisses outright “all the buzzwords – innovative teaching, active learning, student engagement” and stands beside the practices of lecturing.  The lecture, Furedi writes, is:

the fundamental ritual of academic life. It is the one experience that has the most potential of forging a community of learners. It creates a common intellectual experience for students and allows otherwise solitary undergraduates to become part of a continuous conversation.

In another article, Furedi dismisses active learning evidence and instructors who choose to use the pedagogical approach to support student learning.

“One of the reasons why people use active learning is because they’re worried about losing students, boring students. If you’re simply interested in keeping bums in seats, it rewards people for time served. Active learning may get good results in terms of retention, but it may be an illusory outcome.”

While it’s hard to take Holocaust and climate change deniers seriously, active learning deniers may find greater support among their colleagues.  Some still see teaching and learning as an individual craft that is subject to our own experiences and beliefs.  Teaching this way, however, denies the mounting body of evidence to the contrary.

Being Thankful

As autumn descends on the Northeastern United States and the holiday season nears, I thought I’d offer a list of some areas to which I’m thankful.

  1.  My friends and family.  I usually focus on professional aspects on this blog. During this time of the year, however, I’m reminded how important it is to have thoughtful, supportive people in my life. I love each of you more than written words can ever express. Thanks!
  2. My colleagues. Despite being in education for over twenty years, I find that I still learn something new everyday.  I try to surround myself with intelligent individuals who think deeply about teaching and learning and push me to consider new ways to reach my students and to approach my work.  I especially appreciate those colleagues who email me with articles to read on Mondays and Tuesdays knowing that I’ll be thinking of something to share on this blog. Even though I know you’re secretly (or not so secretly) trying to seed my writing here, I really appreciate your support.  Thanks!
  3. My job.  Teaching is hard work. Teaching others to teach can be even harder. At times, I’m humbled by the difficulty of teacher education and professional development. But when I see a new teacher who really gets it or a colleague who implements some new teaching strategies, I forget about the challenges and focus only on the success.  At the end of the day, It’s rewarding to realize that I’m at a great institution doing work that really matters.  Finding a home professionally is so important. Thanks!
  4. This blog.  I know this sounds kind silly but this blog has been such a huge influence on my professional life. This week marks the seventh anniversary for the 8 Blog.  Over the last seven years, over 78,000 people have visited on of the 374 posts I’ve written.  Visitors have left over 448 comments and 1200 people have chosen to follow my musings regularly.  When I started this blog, I really never thought that it would have that sort of reach. I wanted a vehicle to force me to write more regularly so I could hone my writing skills. I never expected that it would have any widespread readership or that visitors would choose to share my work.  This has been tremendously inspiring. Thank you.
  5. You.  If you’ve chosen to read until this point in this post, please realize that I’m thankful for you being here.  I don’t make any advertising revenue from this blog and my writings do not emerge from any corporate influences.  These are simply my thoughts, ideas and wonderings offered free of charge.  Thanks for being here and I hope to catch you back here reading another post down the road.  Thanks.

The Future of Assessment

I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment lately.  On campus, departments have been preparing their annual assessment reports that demonstrate how student learning outcomes are being assessed programmatically.  I’m also helping to plan an assessment workshop for colleagues to broaden the strategies they use to assess their students’ learning.  Across my different roles and activities, it seems a little like I’ve landed in “Assessment Land.”

Assessment Land isn’t a horrible place. In fact, assessment is a really critical aspect of what we do as educators.  We need to successfully assess student learning so we can provide feedback that leads to improvement.  Our assessments are also important because they can help communicate to outside accrediting bodies that our students have developed the competencies required for their desired fields.  During these assessment discussions, however, I’ve been wondering what the future of assessment is going to look like. While there will undoubtedly be a shift from traditional paper and pencil measures, with what will they be replaced? It’s easy to say that future assessments will involve technology in some way.  But I worry about what that will look like.  For instance, my ten year-old son came home last week and complained about a new assessment system his elementary school was using.  After doing a little research, I found that the system involves answering multiple-choice “diagnostic” questions that would help to inform how his teacher would plan individualized instruction.  While individualized instruction is a respectable goal, when I spoke with his teacher recently, she said sometimes “it feels like we’re assessing more than we’re teaching.” If that’s the future of assessment, there are difficult days ahead.

Thankfully, there are other voices that are helping to offer other visions of the future.  Take the 2016 National Education Technology Plan (NETP) developed by the US Office of Educational Technology.   The plan outlines some characteristics of “next generation assessments.”  Next gen assessments would leverage technology to enable more “flexibility, responsiveness and contextualization.”  Instead of occurring after learning, next gen assessments would be embedded throughout the learning process and offer feedback in real time.  The assessment would also be designed universally so that all students could participate on an equal footing.  Rather than simple multiple choice questions, next gen assessments could leverage video and audio tools to tap into more complex means of demonstrating learning.  Lastly, next gen assessments will be adaptive and respond and evolve depending on students’ knowledge base and learning needs.

While the NETP offers a great vision for the future of assessments, I’d like to share another voice.  Recently I reread Karl Kapp’s 2012 book The Gamification of Learning Instruction.  While I’ve read the book several times, I find that different parts resonate with me each time.  This reading, his section on the game element of feedback stood out.  Since assessment and feedback are so closely link pedagogically, I kept envisioning how his view of feedback could inform future assessment design.  In the book, Kapp discusses game designer Robin Hunicke’s construct of “juicy feedback.” I honestly love the term “juicy feedback” but I love the characteristics that juicy feedback involves even more.  Twisting this a bit, I offer “juicy assessment” as a possible future.  Like juicy feedback, juicy assessment would be a sensory experience that coherently captures the outcomes and objectives it’s intended to assess.  It would be a continuous process that emerged from students’ work and involve provide balanced feedback that was actionable.  Most importantly, juicy assessment would be inviting and fresh, offering means and metrics that motivated and engaged.

While we’re presented with glimpses of the future of assessment, the visions couldn’t be more different. One sees technology as a means of efficiently measuring large numbers of students in an almost industrial way.  The other leverages technology to expand when and how we assess individual students, tailoring strategies to students’ needs and broadening what counts as evidence of student learning.  I honestly don’t know which future will come to fruition but I’m hopeful that Assessment Land will continue to be a place that I enjoy visiting.


Kapp, K. M. (2012). The gamification of learning and instruction: game-based methods and strategies for training and education. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

Office of Educational Technology. (2016). National Education Technology Plan – Future Ready Learning: Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Education.

Making Learning Significant

Over the course of a semester, I’ll attend a number of webinars.  Since the quality of webinars can differ greatly in quality and value, I’ve adopted a simple metric to gauge whether my attendance and participation was worthwhile.

Did I learn something new?

While it may sound like a pretty low bar for attending a professional development session, it’s surprising the number of webinars that don’t meet this standard.  Take a webinar I attended last week.  To avoid publicly criticizing the session, I won’t identify the subject or the presenter here but it clearly didn’t meet my “something new” standard. At several points, the presenter stopped the session to poll the group on our collective prior knowledge.  For almost every question the presenter asked, more than 95% of the attendees answered correctly.  While the polling demonstrated that the vast majority of the attendees already knew the topic in depth, the presenter went on to explain the concepts that most of us already knew.  Was the session worthwhile?  Hardly.

Earlier in the semester, however, I attended a webinar that still has me thinking.  The webinar, organized by Faculty Focus, discussed how Learning Assessment Techniques (LATs) could be used to gauge and promote student learning.  During the session, the presenter, Dr. Elizabeth Barkley, showed real examples from her class that demonstrated how LATs could be incorporated in face-to-face and online classes.  While the presentation and content was interesting, it was the framework that she used to organize the LATs that made really stop and ponder.

In my teaching, I typically draw on Bloom’s Taxonomy to examine the levels of learning I’m targeting with my students. Dr. Barkley, however, introduced a different taxonomy with which my colleagues in attendance and I were not familiar. The Taxonomy for Significant Learning was developed be Dee Fink and targets learning at the collegiate level.  Since this was a new framework for me, I did some research so I could offer a short overview here.  Like Bloom’s Taxonomy, Fink’s taxonomy has six different levels of learning. These include:

1. Foundational Knowledge:  Similar to Bloom’s Knowledge and Comprehension levels, Foundational Knowledge involves remembering and understanding information and important concepts and ideas.

2. Application:  This level is also represented in Bloom’s Taxonomy.  This represents learning where students are required to problem solve, think critically and manage complex projects.

3. Integration:  This is the first major departure from Bloom.  Here, students are expected to connect ideas, people and realms of life.  Students attempt to recognize similarities and connections across subjects to look for patterns and interactions.

4. Human Dimension: Here, students learn about themselves and others and develop an understanding of interpersonal dimensions at play in the world around them.

5. Caring:  At this level, students develop new interests, values and feelings through classroom interactions.  By participating in lesson and discussions, students change the way they emotionally connect to something.

6. Learning How to Learn: Here, Fink introduces a metacognitive level.  At this level, students develop new ways to learn and may identify better ways to self-direct their learning.

By introducing several socio-emotional levels, it’s clear that Fink takes a broader view to the learning process than Bloom’s cognitive-based taxonomy does.  It’s also important to recognize that Fink identifies “significant learning” as processes where the different levels interact with one another. Think of those rich activities and lessons where students make connections beyond the content and learn about themselves and the world in the process. That’s significant learning in Fink’s view.

While Barkley’s webinar didn’t prompt me to incorporate Learning Assessment Techniques, it introduced me to the Taxonomy of Significant Learning.  At this point, I’m still mentally working through Fink’s taxonomy but I’m considering retooling some lessons and activities to better target additional levels of learning. I doubt that any webinar would be identified as being significant according to Fink’s taxonomy. Since I learned something new in Barkley’s LAT webinar, however, I definitely consider the session “worthwhile.”




Promoting a Pedagogy of Pleasure

This semester, I’m leading a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) built upon the book The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber. Modeled after the “slow food” movement, the book is intended to “challenge the culture of speed in the academy” and offers suggestions on how faculty can slow down and enjoy their work in higher education.

Our FLC meets regularly to discuss chapters we’ve read and examine ways we can make changes at our institution.  This week, we read a chapter titled “Pedagogy and Pleasure” where the authors discuss ways to discuss the importance of the affective aspects of teaching and learning. “Students,” Berg and Seeber write, “make no distinction between how they felt in a course and how they thought; their emotions – whether positive or negative – were integral to how they learned” (p. 36). The authors also cite an “affective learning manifesto” produced by the MIT Media Lab where they discuss the connection between affective and cognitive functions.  “A slight mood does not just make you feel a little better but also induces a different kind of thinking, characterized by a tendency toward greater creativity and flexibility in problem solving.”

After reading the chapter, it’s clear that positive learning environments can have an impact on student learning and that instructors play a large role with the affective dimensions fostered in our classrooms. It’s important for instructors to not just facilitate learning but to develop relationships with their students.  These teacher/student relationships can foster a sense of belonging and affiliation in the class and help to motivate and engage the students to learn. Although I agree with the need to promote a “pedagogy of pleasure,” I disagree with one of the challenges that the authors identify as undermining the “pleasure of teaching.”  Early in the chapter, Berg and Seeber write that “the current emphasis on ‘evidence-based practices’ and ‘processes to measure impact’ in teaching and learning entirely overlooks pleasure” (p. 34). While I think the authors are really responding to the corporatization of higher education and the explosion of buzz words in the field, their attack of “evidence-based practices” is misplaced.  I’ve written before about the power of active learning strategies and the mounting evidence to show its effectiveness in collegiate classrooms.  But I would also argue that active learning strategies aren’t devoid of pleasure.  In fact, active learning employs some of the same techniques that the authors identify as promoting a pedagogy of pleasure. For instance, Berg and Seeber discuss the need for instructors’ to actively listen to their students during class.  “Listening,” the authors write, “is an important inducement to learning.”   The traditional lecture environment, however, offers few opportunities for instructors to listen or for student voices to be heard.  Active learning, on the other hand, puts student activity at the center of the learning process. By having students sharing their voices and ideas in the classroom, active learning strategies foster the type of pleasurable, student-centered learning environments that Berg and Seeber promote.

Overall, however, the Slow Professor draws attention to an aspect of teaching that is often ignored.  Teaching (and learning) should be a pleasurable endeavor. This doesn’t mean that it should be devoid of rigor or high expectations. But the work should be enjoyable.  Any “pedagogy of pleasure,” however, must recognize active learning not as a buzzword to be avoided but as an evidence-based strategy to be employed.

Diffusing Innovation

Regular readers of the 8 Blog know that I spend a fair amount of time focusing on innovations in educational environments.  I work to promote innovative instructional practices and focus on emergent technologies of promise.  By communicating these areas, I hope to help to spread innovations.

I came across some research recently that estimated the “innovativeness” of individuals within a social system.  In his work titled Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers (2003) categorized five different groups based on the degree to which they would adopt new ideas.  The groups included: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.  In Rogers’ conceptualization, innovators were the risk takers and the ones most willing to test uncharted waters. Despite representing only 2.5% of the population of a social system, innovators play a critical role in spreading new ideas. Innovators bring new ideas from the outside and serve as the gatekeepers and prophets for change.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, laggards are the ones most resistant to change.  They are skeptical of innovations and need proof that a new idea works before they try it themselves.  In Rogers’ estimation, 16% of any social system could be categorized as a laggard.  “What about the other 81%?” you may be wondering.  Roughly, 13.5% would be categorized as “early adopters.” Early adopters are similar to innovators in that they are open to experimentation and change.  One key difference, however, is that early adopters are more likely to hold leadership positions and can help to spread innovations by dedicating resources to fuel the diffusion.  The other 68% of the social system are evenly distributed among the early majority and late majority groups.

While categorizing people into different groups may help leaders identify some of the challenges with diffusing innovations, I think it might be more helpful to look at some of the other factors that influence the spread of new ideas.  While Rogers identifies several elements that impact the spread of new ideas, I thought I’d focus on the one element where we may have the most impact: the social system.  In her recent blog post on Edutopia, Alyssa Tormala identifies several strategies that school leaders should employ to create a “culture of innovation.”  School leaders, Tormala writes, need to model innovation by communicating “when we’re taking a risk, asking for feedback, sharing any data that we gather, and then visibly self-assessing and reflecting on the results.”  Additionally, school leaders need to empathize with the challenges that educators face when they encounter new ideas and celebrate whenever educators are willing to take risks.  In his work with establishing the “innovator mindset,” George Couros identifies five characteristics of innovative organizations.  While some of the characteristics are reflected in Tormala’s post, I think two characteristics stand out.  Couros writes that innovations spread through relationships and in environments where sharing of ideas is supported.  Innovations don’t spread if individuals don’t know (or trust) their colleagues or if they aren’t comfortable sharing their successes and failures.  While I agree that leaders need to model this, they also need to create environments where supportive, collaborative relationships are developed.