Want to cause change? Be a trim tab!

I apologize for the rerun this week, but this one is somewhat intentional. I’m giving a keynote today at a virtual conference on online teaching in K-12 schools and I draw on the concept of “being a trim tab” at the end of the presentation. The “trim tab” concept remains as one my favorite metaphors for modeling the behavior we want to see in others and in our institutions. Enjoy!

It’s hard to turn an ocean liner. By anyone’s definition, an ocean liner isn’t a particularly agile vessel. Displacing millions and millions of gallons of water, ocean liners are massive and awkward. They lumber through the water, barreling along on their predetermined paths undeterred by slight fluctuations in the ocean. But ocean liners do turn. They navigate successfully to dock at ports and to dodge the occasional iceberg. While they aren’t as agile as a speed boat, ocean liners change directions. It takes more time but ocean liners can be turned.

Most people would credit an ocean liner’s ability to change direction to the ship’s rudder. Not surprisingly, the rudder of an ocean is itself a massive object, standing stories and stories tall for larger vessels. But what turns the rudder? The easy explanation is that a steering wheel turns the rudder and the rudder changes the direction of the ship. Closer examination, however, reveals the structure and function of a much smaller and less well-known object: the trim tab. Simply put, a trim tab is small rudder connected to the larger rudder. Turning the steering wheel turns the trim tab, which builds the pressure to make the larger rudder move. It’s the trim tab that does the work. Though tiny in comparison to the larger rudder and to the ocean liner as a whole, the trim tab is the one that’s doing all of the work. The tiny trim tab deserves much of the credit in the changes in direction that an ocean liner experiences.

Lately, many people have come to expect big changes and disruptions organizationally and societally. They want to see programs and systems quickly and easily changed. But not every organization is a speed boat. Some are ocean liners and require trim tabs to help them change. Some organizations need pockets of innovators who work to make changes that will help the larger system change. They need people to act as trim tabs and help the larger organization change path.

Buckminster Fuller is one of the 20th Century’s greatest architects, inventors and innovators. Among his many achievements, Fuller is credited with the design of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion map. Fuller passed away in 1983 and had the following simple phrase written on his headstone:

“Call me Trim Tab”

Fuller believed in the power of individuals and how the actions of a few could make great changes in larger systems and society. In an interview, Fuller explained his viewpoint:

Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.”

While it’s important for organizations to discuss becoming more agile and to examine weighty systems and processes, we also need to recognize the great changes that a few committed innovators can have to any larger organization. Acting as a trim tab, each of us can have an effect on the larger direction of our respective institutions. While the impact may not be apparent immediately, there’s power in the work of the individual.

My Summer Reading List

This is always one of my favorite posts of the year. Usually some time during the early summer months, I create a list of the books that I’m going to read that are going to help me grow as an educator, as a leader and as a person. Over the last few summers, I’ve tried to select a diverse list of books on a variety of topics to grow in a bunch of areas. This summer, however, I’m going to focus my energies on a single, critical topic facing our schools and our society.

1. How to Be an Antiracist (Kendi, 2019): While I listened to the audio version of this book a few months ago, I feel like I need to reread the book to help digest the strategies a little more so I can put them into practice in my classroom and in my life.

2. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism (DiAngelo, 2018) I saw Robin DiAngelo speak in February at a conference in Atlanta. At the time, DiAngelo directly challenged the audience to confront our roles as educators in the larger society. Interestingly, that presentation was a few weeks before the worldwide shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a few months before the protests in response to the George Floyd killing. I wonder how different her presentation would be today.

3. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Tatum, 2017) Tatum, a psychology scholar, was president of Spelman College until 2015 and revised this book to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its original publication in 1997. In an interview in Inside Higher Education, Tatum discussed how she tries to be optimistic in the face of so many societal challenges. “I work at maintaining my optimism because I believe that in times of darkness, we all need to generate more light. The epilogue is titled “Signs of Hope, Sites of Progress,” because we all need to remember that each of us can exercise the kind of inclusive leadership we need to interrupt the cycle of racism. With the collective hard work and effort of many, I still believe positive social change is possible.”

4. The History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools (DeFresne, 2018). I’m previewing this book as a possible text for a class I’ll be teaching this fall. While the book discusses some difficult topics that will challenge some of my students, I think the unique presentation may make some of the content more accessible. The author, Susan DuFresne, mixes art and research to educate the reader on the history of racism in schools.

5. Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States (Spring, 2016). This is another preview for my fall classes, but I’m excited to read this text. In the book, the author discusses different school polices imposed on marginalized groups in the United States and how those policies strip away family languages and cultures.

Summer Reading List 2019
Summer Reading List 2018
Summer Reading List 2017
Summer Reading List 2016
Summer Reading List 2015
Summer Reading List 2014

Fragility and Change

I love when I find other people who can capture what I’m thinking and feeling so much more eloquently than I ever could. Take Dr. Mark Denison, a researcher at the Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation. In a recent Radiolab podcast, Dr. Denison discussed how the coronavirus functioned and how his research was instrumental in developing the drug Remdesivir. Beyond the health impacts of the virus, however, Denison also discussed the pandemic’s overall influence on our society and how it’s forcing us to reevaluate our systems.

Outside of the virology, it’s telling us about the fragility of the global organism of human beings and our political, economic and social, financial, cultural systems and habits. Those are being probed by the virus as well. And we’re learning about how we’re all interweaved and interleaved, because its breaking each of those apart and making us view them individually.

That’s some pretty eloquent stuff there. And I think it’s pretty accurate. As we navigate this pandemic, we’re being forced to view our systems individually and we’re seeing how different aspects are lacking. In some cases, that has led to social upheaval and political unrest. As we view our systems, we’re learning about what matters as human beings. And that’s hopefully promoting action and initiating change.

While we see this playing out in political and economic ways, I also see it happening in education, too. I saw this firsthand in a class I’m currently teaching. The course is an online graduate class that examines the pedagogical implications of blended learning and one of the main readings is Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Horn and Staker (2015). I’ve taught this course two or three times over the last few summers and one of the early discussions in the class involves examining some of the benefits of blended learning. In the text, Horn and Staker outline four areas that can be positively impacted by blended learning: deeper learning, safe care, wraparound services and fun with friends and extracurricular activities. To get my students to apply these concepts a bit, I ask them to rank these four areas as to which they feel would be the most important in their schools and defend their position in a discussion board post. Over the last few iterations of the course, deeper learning was the consensus top choice among the students in the class. While they saw the other factors as being important too, the vast majority of students wanted to use blended learning as way to get students to dig deeper into the content.

But that was prior to COVID-19. This summer, the responses are much different. While a student or two has identified “deeper learning” as the most important factor for incorporating blended learning in their classes, the rest are seeing the other factors as being more important. Looking across most of my students’ lists, “safe care” appears at the top two of the rankings and they’re offering in depth explanations about the importance of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. More than one has written about embracing “Maslow before Bloom.” After decades of the educational pendulum swinging to higher standards and more standardized tests, the coronavirus has exposed the fragility of our educational systems and forced us to recalibrate our lenses. We’re learning (remembering?) that students can’t learn if their basic needs aren’t being met first.

I know this a small, anecdotal window into the larger educational system, but it shows how the broader conversation is shifting after the pandemic. Now we just have to find the will to promote action to initiate broader change.

Bias in Online Classes

It seems like a great time to run this post from a few years ago. This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in March 2018. 

A few years ago, I came across an article in the New York Times Magazine that examined the avatars that individuals select when playing online games. Across the series of photos included with the article, different players are shown alongside their digital selves. For some, the likeness is amazingly similar. A man has digitally recreated himself down to his black suit and sunglasses. One woman has created an almost identical digital copy of herself down to the flowered pattern of her dress. For others, however, there’s a stark contrast. A middle-aged man portrays himself as teenage girl. Another represents himself as a robot. When I initially read the article, I thought about the power of the digital world and how we could craft our online identities. We could choose to be seen as we were or as we hoped to be. The online world could be a powerful equalizing and democratizing arena, allowing new voices to be heard and new people to participate. But I also worried how others interact to these digital representations. Does discrimination translate to a world of avatars and digital identities?

I was reminded of this article last week as I read a new study conducted by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. Looking across 124 different online classes, researchers examined the student and instructor responses to discussion board posts based on the gender and race of the student initially posting. To conduct the study, the researchers created eight student profiles with names that were “connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Chinese and Indian by gender).” In each of the online classes, researchers used each student profile to contribute a single discussion board post and monitored the responses from instructors and other students. Across all of the 992 posts that the researchers contributed (8 posts across 124 courses), instructors responded 7.0% of the time. Examining the instructor responses based on the racial and gender profiles of the students showed that instructors were more likely to respond to the “White male” students than others. Across the 124 classes, instructors responded to “White males” 12% of the time. Instructor responses were far lower for every other gender/race combination. Compared to the other student profiles, White males were 94% more likely to receive an instructor response than other students.

While these findings are troubling, the study also includes some promising signs too. Looking at the student responses, at least one student replied to 69.8% of the researchers’ posts and each post received an average of 3.2 student replies. While white female students were more likely to receive replies from other white female students, no other statistically significant findings could be made. Regardless of the gender and race of the student profile contributing the post, their online peers responded at similar rates.

As an online instructor, the research provides an important lens for me to view my own practice. Am I interacting with students in unbiased manners? Am I responding to my students’ posts in similar fashion? I spent a couple hours a few days ago looking at some recent online classes to see if I could find some trends in how I interacted with students and responded to their posts. Casually looking across the discussion forums, I didn’t see any clear trends but I’ve been devising a few ways to dig a little deeper into the data. Regardless of what I find, this research study has opened my eyes a great deal to the biases that can happen online. And maybe being aware of these biases is the first step to intentionally overcoming them.

Baker, R., Dee, T., Evans, B., & John, J. (2018). Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment.

Endings are Hard

Over my teaching career, one of the parts of lesson planning that I’ve consistently struggled with is closure. While it primarily serves to end the lesson, it also should help students organize the lesson’s concepts in some meaningful way. Done well, a lesson’s closure can act as a bridge to the next day’s lesson and provide critical information to the teacher about what students have learned.

Over 28 years of teaching, I have consistently struggled with planning closures. Sure, I can come up with great lessons that incorporate all sorts of active learning strategies that engage my students. I can foster rich discussions that get students to wrestle with difficult concepts. But, ending the lesson? Not so much.

I’m learning that this isn’t just a lesson planning problem for me but permeates to other areas of my life. Take my writing. I can easily come up with topics for blog posts or articles. I’ll jot down a few ideas in an outline and then write. When I come to the ending, however, I draw a blank. Sometimes when I reread an old blog post, I’ll look at the ending and just wonder what I was thinking. Often, I feel like the post just ends. No summary. No closure. No conclusion. The post just ends. And I’ve come to realize something really important.

Endings are hard.

My difficulty with endings is also true with my professional life. Over my teaching career, I’ve resigned from two teaching positions. The first time, I resigned to move across the state with my wife-to-be. We were hoping to find an area where we could both find positions in schools and we made the decision in the middle of summer. There was little fanfare. I submitted a letter to the district office and cleaned out my classroom.

My second resignation came before accepting my current university position. I knew I was leaving before the school year ended. I quietly finished up the year and submitted my letter of resignation days after the last day of school. In hindsight, I know it was the wrong way to handle the situation. While I wanted to avoid any emotional gathering, I didn’t give my colleagues the chance to say goodbye. Again, I just submitted a letter and emptied my classroom.

Endings are hard.

I wish I could say I learned my lesson after these resignations. But I didn’t. Two weeks ago, I stepped down as the director of our university’s teaching and learning center. I’ve held the role for the last seven years and I loved the job. It was a real honor to serve in the position and to get to work with so many awesome colleagues. While my role will change next year, I’m excited to still be working at an institution I love.

My decision to step down from the director position came after a lot of personal deliberation and soul searching. Reflecting on my tenure as the director, I was proud of the things I helped to accomplish across campus, but I also realized that it was probably time to let some new leaders step up and take the center in new directions.

But true to form, I quietly submitted a letter to the administration. There was no fanfare and I didn’t communicate my decision widely to my colleagues. File it once more under the “endings are hard” category.

It was mistake. Rumors spread. Feelings were hurt. After all of my hard work over the last seven years, I didn’t honor my colleagues by communicating with them. While I sent a belated email to faculty last week, I know that more than a few colleagues are upset with how I handled things.

Endings are hard.

So, here we are at the end of this post and I need to wrap things up. I know there are some readers who follow my blog pretty regularly and some who subscribe to my posts. At some point, this blog will come to an end. Today is not that day. I promise that when I eventually stop writing this blog, I will do a better job of honoring the ending.

Because endings are hard enough without honoring them.