Questioning Questions

When my children were younger, I’d sit with them and watch hours of Sesame Street. One of the recurring themes throughout the hundreds of episodes of Sesame Street we watched together was the importance of asking good questions. Or as Big Bird would say: “Asking questions is a good way of finding things out!” That sentiment has resonated throughout a book I’ve been reading. Titled Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, the book explores the art of rethinking. Written by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania, the book challenges its readers to question their opinions and assumptions and to use questions as a way to open other people’s minds. Especially people with whom we may not agree.

Throughout the book, Grant argues that we need to approach life more like scientists. He’s not saying that we need to wear lab coats or start carrying around beakers. Instead, he says that scientists take inquisitive stances and question the world (and information) in which they encounter. Scientists also take tentative positions on topics, always awaiting more information that could challenge their beliefs or understandings. Grant compares the scientist mode to the ones that people typically take when they confront information or ideas that don’t conform to their beliefs or opinions. Rather than acting as a scientist, they take on the role of a preacher, a politician, or a prosecutor. In preacher mode, people enthusiastically espouse their beliefs despite the conflicting opinion or information. In politician mode, people campaign and lobby to win over the person sharing the dissenting view. In prosecutor mode, people lob arguments to prove the dissenter wrong and win our case. Being a scientist means adopting a different stance.

“When we’re in scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We don’t start with answers or solutions; we lead with questions and puzzles. We don’t preach from intuition; we teach from evidence. We don’t just healthy skepticism about other people’s arguments; we dare to disagree with our own arguments.”

And that’s the novel part of Adam Grant’s “be a scientist” position. He’s not just saying that we need to ask better questions of others. He’s arguing that we need to ask better questions of ourselves. We need to question our positions. We need to doubt our beliefs. We need to recognize that we may not know what we think we know.

And that requires some intellectual humility, which is something that our society doesn’t always seem to celebrate. In a recent episode of Against the Rules, Michael Lewis explored how the COVID-19 pandemic was communicated in the media. Lewis interviewed a researcher who explained that “journalists were looking for people who would say either that this is the flu or that it’s Ebola. And those were the only people you’d hear from, even though the majority of the scientific community were like ‘it’s someplace in this range’ and there’s a lot of uncertainty here. But the people who were getting platformed were the ones making the most sensational and certain claims.”

And that’s the challenge. Asking questions is a good way of finding things out, but it doesn’t always lead to compelling television. Or provide comfort during a crisis. In challenging times (like global pandemics), we want a right answer, even though the data (and the questions we need to ask) are constantly changing.

The Paradox of Flexibility

The summer semester started this week and I’m teaching two graduate classes online this semester. I’ve spent the last week or two preparing to get the courses ready for the first day of class. This preparation process usually involves copying and revising materials from previous iterations of the courses. I’ll move around modules, change deadlines, and retool different assignments. I try to get most of the course built before the first day of class so that I can focus on facilitation once the class has begun. I’ve used this metaphor before, but I view online teacher like planning to host a party. If you prepare a lot of the stuff in advance, you can enjoy the party once it’s happening. The same goes for online teaching. When an online teacher prepares a lot of their course in advance, they can focus more on the facilitation aspects once the course has begun. Online teaching as party planning. Or at least that’s the metaphor I’ve used in the past.

But I came across a term recently that has me re-evaluating that metaphor. A student’s paper referenced “the paradox of flexibility” of asynchronous class and I felt the need to find the original paper where the phrase was used. After some quick Google searching, I found a 2018 study by Janine Delahunty in Linguistics and Education. Delahunty uses the phrase early in the paper when she explains the challenges with asynchronous discussion boards. Delahunty writes:

“While the ‘anywhere, anytime’ mode of delivery can attract interest from prospective students, this may have implications for the sociality of ‘learning to connect’, or the opportunities to develop a sense of belonging to a learning community through quality in relationships between group members who may never (physically) meet.” (pg. 12).

Delahunty elaborates by saying that the flexibility of asynchronous delivery “provides just as many opportunities not to engage with others as it does to engage.” Which is where the “paradox of flexibility” emerges. While students can choose to participate whenever is best for them, that flexibility can inhibit the formation of a cohesive learning community where social interaction is fostered. If you believe (as I do) that learning is dependent on social interaction, the flexibility of asynchronous classes can also impact the overall learning experience. Hence the paradox.

So, while I like to describe my online class preparation as planning for a party, I’ve planned “a party” where students attend and participate flexibly and on their own schedules. Which doesn’t make it seem like much of a party at all. Or at least not one where everyone is gathered and interacting at once. That’s not to mean that asynchronous classes can’t be valuable learning experiences for students. I feel that they are. It’s just that I have to more fully accept that how I describe and visualize them may be a far way removed from how they actually are.

Citations:

Delahunty, J. (2018). Connecting to learn, learning to connect: Thinking together in asynchronous forum discussion. Linguistics and Education, 46, 12-22.

On Appreciation

Note: It’s another busy week and I’m offering this rerun from May 2021. It’s Teacher Appreciation Week again, so the content (while recycled) still applies. Enjoy.

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States and I’m seeing my social media feeds filled with reminders to let teachers know how much they’re appreciated. I’ve also seen a number of my teacher friends change their profile pictures to include specialized “Teacher Appreciation” frames and banners. Additionally, a bunch of businesses are offering special discounts for teachers as a way to show their appreciation. For example, a teacher can could a free McFlurry from McDonalds on Tuesday May 4, 2021. While the day may be “Star Wars Day” to some, it’s National Teachers Day to those of us in the education world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “appreciation” lately. In a conversation recently, a friend said that the word “appreciation” has taken on more of an amorous tone with teenagers. I don’t know adolescents have co-opted or repurposed the word, but saying “I appreciate you” now means “I REALLY like you.” As in “like you like you.” So, I did some digging. While I couldn’t find any confirmation on Urban Dictionary, I did find numerous definitions on Dictionary.com.

Appreciation (noun)

*gratitude; thankful recognition: They showed their appreciation by giving him a gold watch.
*the act of estimating the qualities of things and giving them their proper value.
*clear perception or recognition, especially of aesthetic quality: a course in art appreciation.
*an increase or rise in the value of property, goods, etc.
*critical notice; evaluation; opinion, as of a situation, person, etc.
*a critique or written evaluation, especially when favorable.

Mixed in with really important words like “gratitude” and “thankful” are words like “critique” and “evaluation.” I don’t want to speak for all teachers, but if I’m guessing that receiving a critical email from a parent wouldn’t be the ideal way to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week. So, I thought I’d offer a better option to clarify what teachers need right now. And then I realized that I already had.

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled Practice Gratitude. In that post, I wrote:

“I’m going to urge you to do something even more important: Practice gratitude. Think about all of those amazing teachers who have influenced you and helped you become the person you are today. Maybe you remember that fourth grade teacher who helped you practice your multiplication tables or that high school English teacher who gave such detailed feedback that you blossomed as a writer. Or maybe you remember that coach who spent hours throwing pitch after pitch so you could master your swing. Or maybe you’re thinking about the Biology teacher who helped you with that science fair project or the social studies teacher who fostered your love of history. Whoever you remember, now is the time to let them know. Practice gratitude. Say thanks. Let them know the impact they made in your life.

Here’s one of the toughest parts about the “ethos of care” aspect of the teaching profession. Care is not a tangible entity. We can’t capture care in a bottle or detect it with any scientific instrument. So, while teachers are tapping into their deepest reserves of care to help their students (and others) through this pandemic, the impacts of care may be felt but they are not easily observed, even by the teachers offering it. And that’s why practicing gratitude is so important right now. It lets teachers know the impact of their work. Gratitude can make the invisible visible. It uncovers what is felt but cannot be seen. Gratitude can reify care.

The trick with gratitude is that it benefits the one offering gratitude as much as the one receiving it. So, while your words may be helping a favorite teacher get through a difficult time, you’ll also reap the benefits. At least that’s what the research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley says. So, even if you’re having a tough time navigating the pandemic yourself, practicing gratitude may help you, too.”

So, while businesses are offering discounted memberships or free tacos or complimentary milkshakes as a way to show teachers how much they’re appreciated, the most meaningful way to show a teacher they’re appreciated is just to say “Thanks!”

Beginnings and Endings

Note: With the end of the semester nearing, I thought I’d share this post from December 2014 which discusses different ways to end a class. Enjoy.

It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.

-Herman Melville

Most people probably don’t recognize that line but it’s the last sentence from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I’ve included the sentence to demonstrate a point. While many people can recite the beginning to that book, few recognize the ending.  I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings and endings over the last few weeks.  We’re nearing the end of another semester at the institution in which I teach.  Since my institution also has a winter term, like me, many instructors are also thinking about starting a new class in just a few days.  This overlap creates an interesting confluence of emotions and provides fodder for reflection.  In many cases, students enter the last day of class to take a final exam and then leave expressionless and withdrawn after rehearsing and rehashing a semester’s worth of content.  I wonder how memorable these moments will be for students.  Like the ending of Melville’s tome, I wonder whether those moments will be as easily forgotten.

In this week’s post, I thought I’d share some of the ways I’ve ended some of my classes.  While I often struggle to create effective closures to manuscripts, lessons and activities, I thought these might provide some ideas for people who are considering how to end the semester.

1.  Celebrate!  In quite a few classes, I’ve held a semester-end celebration.  While these are often paired with some curricular activity that wraps up the content from the course, I find that the celebration acts to provide a distinct closure to the semester and a way to effectively rejoice from the semester long journey.

2.  I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter.  In some classes, I have brought paper and envelopes and asked the students to write letters to their future selves. I directed the students to consider how the content from the course would translate to their future careers.  In one of the first graduate classes I taught, I held onto the letters for almost a year before sending them out.  Quite a few students contacted me after receiving their letters to explain how meaningful the experience was.

3.  Share the stage.  I’m not a big believer of final exams as closing activities.  Often, I’ll build a culminating student presentation as the last activity in the course.  For instance, in one of final classes tomorrow, the students will be giving formal presentations to teachers from a neighboring district to report on the collaborative projects we completed in their classrooms.  A final presentation can serve as an effective celebration and academic closure without all the fanfare.

4. Collect data. I try to be evidence-based with my decision-making as I plan new iterations for courses.  To do this, I’ll use the last class to administer a survey to examine how the course content and instruction impacts student learning.  For instance, in my instructional technology courses, I’ll use a short survey based on a larger TPACK survey.  I’ll give the survey at the start of the semester and again at the end of the semester.  After a class ends, I’ll review the anonymous scores from the students and examine how the course impacted their development.  While student evaluation data can be useful, using a survey that examines other developmental areas can be tremendously insightful.

5.  Post a reflection.  In my online classes, I typically post a long rambling reflection that reviews some of the highlights from the course.  I identify specific posts from students that were memorable or things I learned from some of the projects that students had created.   In addition to reviewing the course activities, I invite students to reach out in the future if they need assistance.

A Side of Home Fries

To share this post well, I need to describe the setting a bit. In almost every large college town, there is some diner or restaurant that’s an institution on campus. It’s the place where folks gather on weekend mornings to get a cup of coffee to clear the cloudiness from the night before. If you’re new to town, look for the line of people outside who are waiting to be seated. There’s always one, but don’t fear. The line usually moves pretty quickly. Once inside, you’ll be hastily ushered to a table inches away from a neighboring one. If you’re looking for a restaurant to have a private, quiet, leisurely breakfast, you’re in the wrong place. Coming here for breakfast means two things. One, you’re prepared to order quickly and, two, you’re willing to give up some of your personal space. Institutions like this survive on volume and diners are crammed together “butts to elbows,” as my mom used to say. At places like this, the food is always hot, always delicious, and always the perfect remedy for whatever ails you.

I visited one of these institutions recently. I was traveling with my family, and we stopped for breakfast in a university town hours away from where we live. We waited about 30 minutes before being seated at a table next to a group of college students. We place our orders and, minutes later, were greeted with plates of piping hot food. As my family and I sat and ate our pancakes and omelets, I could hear the buzz of conversation from the next table. I tried not to be an eavesdropper, but my “teacher hearing” kicked in when one of them used the terms “digital literacy” and “discourse community.” I stealthily listened as the student described a project she was completing for one of her education classes. Despite this being early on a Friday morning, the students were clearly excited about the assignment and the data they were collecting. One even talked at length about how it was going to impact her future as a teacher. Even though I felt uncomfortable listening in on their conversation, I was impressed by the students’ discussion. They were engaged in a thoughtful, intelligent conversation that drew on a clear understanding of their course content. All while eating scrambled eggs and toast.

A little while later, my family finished our meals and I stood in line to pay our check. As I waited, the students gathered behind me to pay for their meals, too. I wanted to turn around and praise them for demonstrating their expertise so gracefully, but I decided that would be pretty creepy. As I left, I also wondered whether I could do some internet searching to figure out who their professor was. I thought maybe they’d want to know that the project they had assigned had inspired their students so much that it became their sole conversation at breakfast. I decided that was a little creepy, too.

But I also wondered whether at some breakfast table somewhere in place and time, my students were engaging in a conversation about a project I had assigned. That’s my hope, at least. I also hope the folks at the neighboring table were as entertained and impressed as I was.