Making the Visible Invisible

There are a few books I’ve read and reread over the course of my life. I’ve probably read Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury five times. I’ve read Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman at least four times. I can’t really remember how many times I’ve read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I’m sure it’s more than six. Just thinking about that book makes me want to reread it again. I’ll have to add it to my summer reading list.

Some people reading that last paragraph may wonder why anyone would want to read a book more than once. To me, I find that the circumstances of my life influences how I read and interpret the text. Some parts that stood out to me decades ago don’t resonate the same way. As I navigate my sixth decade on this planet (!), I’m realizing that I don’t read or see things the same way as when I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure my reading and literacy colleagues would say that’s how it’s supposed to work. Something like “the reader makes meaning of the text.” And while I’m reading the same text over and over, I’m making different meaning because I’m a different person and a different reader. But I’m diverging a good bit from the point of this post.

So, I reread Situated Cognition: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger last week. My colleague, Scott McDonald, and I are doing a series of learning theory discussions on our podcast (Science in Between) and we both agreed to reread the book prior to our discussion. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s where the concept of “communities of practice” took root. The authors present an in-depth look at how people are apprenticed into different communities of practices in different cultures. To solidify their perspectives, they share ethnographic studies of Yucatec midwives and Vai and Gola tailors. They draw on research studying naval quartermasters, butchers, and nondrinking alcoholics. While the book is small, it is dense with examples and thought-provoking ideas.

I first read the book almost twenty years ago. At the time, I was a high school science teacher and I remember reflecting on the types of practices I was structuring in my classes. While the authors intentionally avoid discussing formal classroom education, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but think about my teaching strategies and their “legitimacy.” Since then, I’ve read the book at least three more times prior to reading it last week.

Rather than drive to campus to grab my dog-eared and annotated copy, I downloaded a digital copy of the text and read it on a tablet. In a way, this was a fresh view of the text since I couldn’t see my notes from previous reads. As expected, different things stood out to me this time. Since I now do a lot more work with mentoring new faculty, parts from the text that address supporting newcomers and enculturating them into the community definitely stood out. But a section late in the book was the part that really made me think, especially about this online learning world that we’ve all navigated for the last fifteen months. On page 103, Lave and Wenger write:

A window’s invisibility is what makes it a window, that is, an object through which the world outside becomes visible. The very fact, however, that so many things can be seen through it makes the window itself highly visible, that is, very salient in a room, when compared to, say, a solid wall. Invisibility of mediating technologies is necessary for allowing focus on, and thus supporting visibility of, the sub­ject matter. Conversely, visibility of the significance of the technology is necessary for allowing its unproblematic – in­visible – use.”

I know that might be pretty esoteric stuff, so let me provide some context. We’ve had a lot of students who have struggled with online learning this year for a lot of different reasons. While larger societal issues are definitely at play, I think some of the student struggles can also be attributed to the technologies we use and how we use them. As teachers, we’ve navigated this pandemic by using “mediating technologies” like learning management systems (Canvas, D2L, Schoology, etc.) and synchronous tools (Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc.). But did those tools always allow for “unproblematic, invisible use” for students to access content? Or did the tools unintentionally act more like a “solid wall” and limit the “visibility of the subject matter?” It’s hard to know for sure.

I’m reminded of a post I wrote in February 2020, almost a month before the pandemic hit. In the post, I discussed “the worst video game ever” and how it offered us a lens to inform the design of our online spaces. At the time, I wrote that we needed to “reduce that entropy” that may disorient online students. But I think Lave and Wenger offers us a better target for which we should strive: invisibility. Let’s work to design and use our “mediating technologies” so that act as invisible windows, helping students see without themselves being seen.

References:

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

Stories Stay. Lessons Leave.

Last week, I blogged about some research I came across in The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019). A colleague and I are using the book as part of a summer learning community for untenured faculty that we’re facilitating and the group met for the first time last week. Prior to our first meeting, my colleague and I met to plan the first session. And that’s what this post is really about. But let me take a sidestep for a moment or two.

Not to get too meta and blog about blogging, but if you’ve been a regular reader, you know I don’t often refer to my colleagues by their names. Instead, I’ll identify them simply as a “colleague.” It was an editorial decision I made early in this blog’s life (almost twelve years ago now!) and I’ve stuck with it. It’s not that I don’t value my colleagues’ work or respect their knowledge base. I just didn’t want to leave a digital trail of my colleagues’ words and actions without their approval. I worried that people would be hesitant to talk openly with me if they knew I would be putting their names out here for others to see.

But I’m also realizing that this practice doesn’t honor the influence and impact that my colleagues have on my growth. I’m still working through this and honestly don’t know what practice I’ll implement moving forward. But I wanted to discuss this openly before digging further into this week’s post.

So, my colleague and I…

….scratch that…

So, my colleague, Dr. Leslie Gates, and I met to plan the first session for our learning community. Leslie is an artist and art teacher educator and contributed to this blog a few months ago. For the last year or so, Leslie and I have been leading a faculty mentoring program at our institution and have been working to create a mentoring culture across campus. This summer learning community is one of our efforts to support our new faculty and offer some mentoring support.

When Leslie and I met to plan the first session with the group, we discussed establishing ground rules for the discussions the group would have. Since the participants were all relatively new faculty members on campus, we felt that establishing some norms of practices and guidelines might help to create a safe space for open and reflective conversations. As a starting point, I offered the Las Vegas-themed “What is said here, stays here” as a potential ground rule for discussions. When I outlined my motivation behind this ground rule, Leslie explained that she “had better words for that.” And she did.

In 2017, Leslie attended a presentation by Keonna Hendrick and Melissa Crum at the National Art Education Association Convention. Titled Self-Reflection for Culturally Inclusive Learning Spaces, the presentation offered the following as an inclusive ground rule:

“Stories stay. Lessons leave.”

In addition to the elegant alliteration, this ground rule better captures what we want to establish in open classroom discussions. We want to challenge our students (and colleagues) to be brave and discuss difficult topics, but we don’t want those conversations spilling outside of the group and being retold. But if the discussion is effective, it will lead to some individual learning that extends far beyond the confines of the group. At least, that’s the hope.

We offered the ground rule (and some others) to the group when we met last week and had a great conversation around student engagement and student ownership. The group will meet regularly over the next few weeks to discuss other chapters of the book and other topics, but my hope is that we’ll foster an environment where they feel supported and challenged.

And safe for stories to be shared and for lessons to be learned.

Reference:
Hendrick, K. & Crum, M. (2017, March). Self-Reflection for Culturally Inclusive Learning Spaces. National Art Education Association Convention, New York, NY.

The Cold Call

Of all of the educational experiences in my life, the one class whose memory still creates some anxiety for me is a History of Physics course I took in my sophomore year in college. The course was built around reading seminal works in physics and discussing them as a class. We read Millikan’s paper on the oil drop experiment which established the charge of the electron. We read Einstein’s paper explaining the photoelectric effect which detailed a connection between the energy of light and electron emission. We read parts of Newton’s Principia which outlined the laws of motion and formed the basis for all of calculus. The semester was a wild ride through primary physics works.

I’m sure that in itself sounds stressful to a lot of readers, but the content wasn’t the anxiety-inducing part for me. I thought it was cool to dig into old research articles and see how they set the foundation to our understandings hundreds of years later. For me, the stressful part was how the class discussions were led by the instructor, Dr. Wofford (not his real name).

Dr. Wofford was a physicist. If you were to close your eyes and imagine what a physicist working in the late 80s would look like, I’m sure your vision would be pretty close. Each day, Dr. Wofford would arrive precisely at the start of class, remove a chewed cigar from his mouth, and place it in the pocket of his brown tweed jacket. He sat down at the desk and got to work. No pleasantries. No greetings. Just physics.

While Dr. Wofford was intimidating in his demeanor, the structure of his class was also stressful. For each research paper that would we read, Dr. Wofford would hand out a series of questions that each of us needed to be prepared to answer during class. Some of the questions could easily be obtained from reading the article. Others were really complex and required a great deal of application and analysis to answer. During class, Dr. Wofford would sit behind his desk and cold call students to answer the assigned questions. He referred to everyone as Mr. or Ms. so each class went something like:

“Mr. Lewis, what is your answer to question number five?”

And the student would try his best to answer the question. If the answer was satisfactory, Dr. Wofford would move further down his class list and address another student.

“Ms. Smith, what is your answer to question number six?”

And the class would continue until all of Dr. Wofford’s questions were satisfactorily answered.

The real challenge came when his questions that weren’t satisfactorily answered. Dr. Wofford would berate and embarrass any student who didn’t answer his questions correctly. Even today, I clearly remember the first time this happened. I stared down at my desk as Dr. Wofford called a classmate “ill-prepared” for the demanding work in the field and advised him to choose another course of study. Thinking back, it could easily be labeled as pedagogical malpractice.

But a strange thing happened as the semester continued. Our class would gather early to make sure we all had answers to the assigned questions. We knew that Dr. Wofford would sometimes ask impromptu follow-up questions so we tried our best to make sure each of us clearly understood the articles. Because none of us wanted to feel the burning pain of Dr. Wofford’s public humiliation, we worked together to help each other learn. We also tried to hijack his discussion methods. While Dr. Wofford typically worked alphabetically down his class roster after starting randomly on the list, we began raising our hands to answer questions. At first, he seemed surprised to see our hands raised before ignoring them and returning to his roster. With time, however, he began calling on us. While our volunteering to answer questions didn’t completely diminish the berating or the humiliation, it gave us a little more control over a really stressful learning environment.

You may be wondering what prompted this walk down memory lane. A colleague and I are facilitating a reading group focused on the book The Missing Course: Everything They Never Taught You About College Teaching (Gooblar, 2019). Chapter 1 discusses the benefits of active learning and includes some research on the impact of “cold calling.” As a teacher, I rarely call on students who don’t volunteer. Mostly, I want to avoid creating an environment like the one in Dr. Wofford’s class. But the research by Dallimore and her colleagues has me re-evaluating that decision. In the paper, the authors examined sixteen sections of an accounting class and studied the impact on cold calling on students who hadn’t volunteered. Discussing their findings, the authors write:

The results demonstrate that significantly more students answer questions voluntarily in classes with high cold-calling, and that the number of students voluntarily answering questions in high cold-calling classes increases over time. Furthermore, students in classes with high cold-calling answer more voluntary questions than those in classes with low cold-calling; this also increases over time. Finally, in classes with high cold-calling, students’ comfort participating in class discussions increases while in classes with low cold-calling, students’ comfort participating does not change.” (Dallimore et al, 2013, p. 305).

While I’m not equating this thoughtful research with my experiences in Dr. Wofford’s class, it is causing me to re-examine my use of cold calling. Thankfully, the authors provide some great suggestions for building a warm and supportive classroom environment which should help me avoid creating painful memories that my students would blog about thirty years from now. One can hope.

References:

Dallimore, E. J., Hertenstein, J. H., & Platt, M. B. (2013). Impact of cold-calling on student voluntary participation. Journal of Management Education, 37(3), 305-341.

Gooblar, D. (2019). The missing course: Everything they never taught you about college teaching. Harvard University Press.

Pass the Test?

One of my favorite shopping ventures with my children is our semi-regular visit to the local comic bookstore. In addition to picking up the issues and series that the store owner holds for us, we wander around the store and look at newly released books, graphic novels and other comic-related merchandise. My son will inevitably check out the Marvel action figures and shirts. My daughter, who will soon be in her early twenties, has moved on to looking at graphic novels almost exclusively. With her interests in civil rights and crime stories, she always picks up something interesting.

She recently purchased Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, which encompasses my daughter’s interests perfectly. The book focuses on Bechdel’s own life and how she confronts her sexuality (and her father’s) after growing up in a funeral home. In addition to the subject matter of the book, my daughter was drawn to this graphic novel because she had learned about the “Bechdel Test” in one of her college classes last semester. If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel Test, it was introduced in one of Bechdel’s earlier works. In a scene, two characters discuss female representation in movies and literature and offer three simple criteria for identifying whether women are actively present or not. These criteria include:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something other than a man

While these seem like pretty simple criteria that would be easy to meet, many people would be surprised to learn that a lot of movies don’t pass this test. Star Wars? It doesn’t pass. The Avengers? It doesn’t pass. Even the Disney class Ratatouille doesn’t pass. If you’re interested in checking out which movies “pass the test,” visit: https://bechdeltest.com/

My conversation with my daughter about Alison Bechdel and the Bechdel Test got me thinking about what a similar assessment would look like for active learning environments. To be clear, I’m not equating the societal need for the Bechdel Test with the educational need for an “active learning” test. Instead, I’m using the Bechdel Test as inspiration to consider how we can easily assess how educators use learning environments and whether they’re putting students in active roles of socially constructing their understanding with classmates.

Without much fanfare, here’s my first attempt.

  1. A teacher plans a lesson,
  2. where at least two students talk to each other,
  3. to investigate something that Google can’t answer

Without running the risk of stating the obvious, let me unpack my rationale with each of these criteria. The first aspect of the test focuses on instructional planning. It requires some intentionality on the part of the educator. Active learning doesn’t just happen but results from carefully planning by the teacher.

The second aspect focuses on the social nature of learning. In active learning environments, students need to interact with their classmates to build their understanding and challenge the ideas of one another.

The third aspect outlines the types of topics that warrant discussion. In active learning environments, we want students to focus on higher order topics, which is what lead to the inclusion of the “Google criterion.” I felt it would make it a little easier to assess than including something like Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge or something.

So, that’s my first attempt at an “active learning test.” I welcome your thoughts. Feel free to comment on this post or reach out to me.

A Bittersweet Endeavor

With the end of this challenging academic year approaching, I thought I’d replay a blog post from December 2018. While it echoes back to a time and place before the pandemic, some of the sentiments still apply today.

The semester ended last week and my Facebook feed has been filled with colleagues who are posting requests from students who are asking for grade adjustments, deadline leniency and emotional support. Finals week is always an interesting and challenging time of the semester and I see my colleagues expressing their frustrations, stresses and joys online. Since I know these colleagues offline too, I know that many share posts that don’t really reflect their inner philosophies about teaching. For example, one colleague presents himself as a hardened curmudgeon but I know his students see him as being much warmer and supportive than his online persona would suggest. It’s a stressful time of the year for teachers and students and I’m learning that we all handle that stress differently. Some use social media to work through their emotions by sharing snarky retorts. I guess it’s the 21st Century way of letting off some steam.

Interestingly, it’s also a time of celebration. In addition to being the holiday season, this is the time of year when many college campuses hold their fall commencement ceremonies. After years of support and advisement, college faculty get to see their students walk across the stage, receive their diplomas and move on to their next phase of life. I’m sure every educator has a story of some student who faced adversity and persevered. Commencement ceremonies offer a distinct endpoint for that journey and an opportunity for all of us to celebrate our work. Not surprisingly, some of the same colleagues who are sharing their teaching frustrations online are also posting photos of themselves standing proudly with students in commencement robes. It’s a curious mix.

In the midst of the stress of finals week and the joys of commencement, however, I received an email from The Chronicle of Higher Education publicizing a research brief that examined how faculty view their work, their profession and the leadership at their institutions. I won’t dig into the leadership part here but I’m excited about the findings with regard to teaching. After surveying nearly 1,000 collegiate faculty from across the country, the Chronicle found that almost 91% report “being satisfied with teaching students” and over 98% believe that their teaching “benefits students and their lives.” The data also show that 68% of faculty see teaching as being harder work than it used to be.

In a lot of ways, I see the Chronicle research represented in my colleagues’ posts. Teaching is hard. And stressful. And time consuming. And emotionally draining. And I see all of that captured on my Facebook feed.

But teaching is also satisfying. And rewarding. And impactful. And I see that conveyed through my colleagues’ posts, too.

Teaching can be a bittersweet endeavor. I think Parker Palmer captures this the best in his book Courage to Teach. Citing a Hasidic tale, Palmer writes:

We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.”

I’m sure there are lots of ways to interpret this quote, but Palmer wisely connects it to our work as teachers. In my mind, I see the “dust and gold” as reminders of the difficult and joyful duality of our roles. But maybe you don’t need a coat with two pockets to visualize this. Maybe you just need a Facebook account.