Be Critically Reflective

In preparation for a professional development workshop I’m doing later this week, I’ve reread the book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield. I remember reading the Brookfield book years ago when I first started teaching. A second edition was (finally) released in 2017 and I’ve been finding so much in the text that still resonates with me after teaching for 20+ years. For instance, early in the new version, Brookfield writes:

“One of the hardest lessons to learn as a teacher is that the sincerity of your actions has little or no correlation with students’ perceptions of your effectiveness. The cultural, psychological, cognitive, and political complexities of learning mean that teaching is never innocent. By that I mean that you never be sure of the effect you’re having on students or the meanings people take from your words and actions. Things are always more complicated than they at first appear.” (p. 2)

That’s powerful stuff. I’ve written about these concepts over the years on this blog, especially with how I’ve transitioned from focusing on my actions as instructors to focusing more on my interactions with my students. But Brookfield adds another aspect to this. Our effectiveness as teachers has little to do with our intentions and sincerity and more to do with how our teaching is perceived by the students we serve. If you read further in the book, however, Brookfield offers additional lenses that are important for assessing our effectiveness as teachers.  I thought I’d spend a little time unpacking all of these lenses with the hope of fostering more “critically reflective” practice and encouraging us to explore additional data to inform our roles as teachers.

  1. Students Eyes: Earlier this year, I advised readers to conduct regular student evaluations so they could monitor fluctuations in students’ perceptions. But student evaluations aren’t the only way to assess students’ perceptions of our teaching. Seeking formative feedback from students during the course of the semester is much more proactive than trying to address evaluations after the semester has ended.  Asking critical questions like “At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?” or “At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?” can provide much more valuable insight into our teaching than asking “Do you have any questions?” or “How is it going?”
  2. Colleagues Perceptions:  Our colleagues can offer a powerful lens for us as teachers. In a way, they can serve as an ethnographer to detail the social and cultural aspects of our classrooms. The challenge, however, is that the real impact of these functions occurs through trust, collegiality and a shared mission for becoming more effective.
  3. Personal Experience: Teaching is a highly personal activity. It is informed by our own experiences as learners and our experiences as instructors. The challenge with this lens, however, is that we assume our experiences are the same as those of our students. While our personal experiences can inform our roles as teachers, we have to be careful that those experiences don’t create blinders to limit our field of vision on our teaching.
  4. Theory and Research: This is the lens that I’ve drawn upon a great deal while writing this blog. Our teaching should be guided by what research and theory says about learning and learners. Whether it’s examining “high impact practices” or ways to support our diverse learners, our actions and instructional decisions should be informed by the growing body of educational research.

I know this is a short overview of Brookfield’s work but my hope is that it gives you some ideas on how to adopt additional lenses to view your teaching. Critically reflective teaching involves having multiple sources of data on our teaching. These complimentary lenses give us a fuller picture of what we’re doing and how effective we are.


Shine a light

If you work in higher education, you’ve likely heard the story of Brian McNaughton, a chemistry professor from Colorado State University. To leverage a raise and increased lab funding, Dr. McNaughton met with his department chair and dean to discuss a job offer he had received from another institution. As it is described in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education story, many professors use job offers from other schools to negotiate better professional arrangements at their current institutions. The challenge with McNaughton’s case was that the job offer wasn’t real.  McNaughton had made it up.

Anxious to keep McNaughton and his research at the institution, however, Colorado State administrators expanded his research budget and gave Dr. McNaughton a raise. From McNaughton’s perspective, the ploy worked. McNaughton had forged a job offer that forced the institution to evaluate how much he was worth to them. And Colorado State officials had responded positively.

McNaughton’s deceit, however, eventually came to light and he is now out of work. In the Chronicle story, the authors detail how a failed marriage and an online social media campaign led to McNaughton’s ouster from Colorado State which ultimately ended his research career.  At the end of the article, the authors write:

Hardly any scientist will ever win a major prize or successfully develop a cancer drug. The odds of that are even more daunting for one who toils away at a midtier public research university. So the focus shifts to smaller wins: a congratulatory email from the dean, a steady stream of pipette tips, a few extra square feet of lab space. Maybe, if everything goes just right, there’s a new interdisciplinary program or an article in a major journal. These tiny battles for resources and validation can consume a professor, but they do little to answer what became for McNaughton an essential question: What am I worth?” (Stripling & Zahneis, 2018)

I’ve been thinking a lot about McNaughton and his search for “smaller wins.” He didn’t know what he was worth, so he sought out ways to measure that. While McNaughton’s method bore poison fruit, I know the ground from which it grew. To be clear, I don’t agree with his unethical decisions, but I totally understand his motivations. Far too many of us work in environments where we plod away without knowing that we’re valued by our colleagues, our students or our administrators. So, instead, we look for ways to find that validation.

So, here’s my charge to you. I’ve heard from quite a few people lately that there are actually people who read this blog. If you’ve made it this far into this post, I want you to take a moment and offer that validation to someone you value. Maybe it’s a colleague that shares a lab with you. Maybe it’s a former mentor who you haven’t spoken to in years. Maybe it’s an administrator who did something helpful and made your job a little easier.

Send them an email. Or better yet, write them a card.

Shine a light on their work and validate what they do. Offer them a small win. Let them know you value them. Let them know how much they’re worth.



An Inverse Relationship

It’s strange how my brain works sometimes. I’ll read something that I thought would send my brain spinning and it just lands with a dud. Or I’ll listen to an interview that should be really compelling and I won’t even remember it after the interview has ended. Other times, however, someone will say something in casual conversation and I’ll ruminate on it for weeks. This post is about the latter.

In my role on campus, I help to facilitate new faculty orientation. One of my favorite parts of this job is moderating a panel discussion with second year faculty members. I enjoy this event because it’s a great time for me to reconnect with some newer colleagues at the end of their first year on campus and help them reflect on their ups and downs.

During this year’s panel discussion, one of the second year faculty members was reflecting on his first year as a teacher. This faculty member (I’ll call him Sam) was trained to be a researcher and came to our institution without a whole lot of teaching experience. Since our university places a great deal of weight on teaching, Sam has dedicated time over the last year honing his teaching abilities. He regularly attends professional development sessions and participated in the weeklong online teaching training that we offer. Over the course of the last year, Sam has become a really reflective teacher, which I would argue is one of the necessary traits to becoming a great teacher.

Returning to the panel discussion, I asked the group of second year teachers to share something they had learned from their teaching this past year. Sam thought about the question a bit and answered:

I’ve found that there is an inverse relationship between the amount of time it takes me to create an assignment for students and for me to grade an assignment.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve thought about Sam’s response a lot. At first, I really liked Sam’s scientific and mathematical response. With my physics background, I always appreciate when someone who drops “inverse relationship” into casual conversation.

But the main reason Sam’s comment has resonated with me is that his comment recognizes the importance of instructional planning. During a follow-up question, I asked Sam to elaborate on his observation of this “inverse relationship.” Sam explained that when he would collect his quickly created assignments from students he would realize that some students would think he was asking about one thing when he was really asking another. Sam would then have to spend a lot more time deciding how to assess these students’ responses fairly. Spending a little more time creating the assignment, Sam explained, would have saved him time with grading.

It’s clear that even though he’s early in his tenure as a teacher, Sam has learned an important lesson: well-planned activities and assessments don’t just happen. They take time to develop and tweak and revise. In a way, Sam has arrived at the instructional equivalent of an old adage: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.


Are you a wizard? Or a prophet?

I heard an interview recently with Charles C. Mann, the author of the book The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet. In the book and the interview, Mann discusses the competing views of our environmental challenges. Faced with the threats like overpopulation and global climate change, Mann observes, people who offer solutions can be classified as prophets or as wizards. Prophets see the upcoming challenges and promote conservation and reduction in personal consumption. Prophets see that the world has natural limits and the only way to solve our environmental problems is to return to basics. We survive, a prophet would argue, by hunkering down and obeying natural rules.

Wizards, on the other hand, see technology and innovation as offering solutions. Rather than reducing consumption, wizards promote being creative and making more. We survive, a wizard would argue, by being smart and by innovating.

I’m not an environmental scientist so it’s hard for me to weigh in on Mann’s argument from a scientific perspective. Looking in popular culture, though, you can see the environmental prophets and wizards in the media. If we expand the lens a bit, however, I’m sure we can also see prophets and wizards in our own institutions. Maybe they’re not focused on environmental issues but they offer the same types of solutions to the challenges they face. Some argue for a return to tradition while others promote innovation.

Take higher education. If you ask any professor or administrator to solve the problems facing their institutions, they’re likely to offer competing perspectives. Some are prophets who promote solutions rooted in returning their universities and colleges to some imagined past. You may have heard the arguments. We need to raise standards. Or increase rigor. Or make the entrance requirements higher. They see the past as offering the solution to the future. A higher education prophet would argue that institutions of higher education were great once. Let’s make them great again by buckling down and getting back to what made education great.

Wizards, on the other hand, promote solutions rooted in innovation. Wizards argue that we improve schools by changing schooling. They work to create new supports for students and new pathways for learning. One “wizard” who comes to mind is a colleague named Dr. Brent Horton. Dr. Horton created the Biology Mentoring Program (BMP) at Millersville University to help underrepresented students persist in their major. By focusing on social mentorship, building community and celebrating achievements, the BMP has increased underrepresented students involvement in STEM-related fields on campus. The program was recently named as a recipient of INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine’s 2018 Inspiring Programs in STEM Award. That’s how a “wizard” approaches things.

The interesting part of Mann’s book is that it’s not titled the Wizard versus the Prophet. Instead, I think most problems are solved through an interplay between wizards AND prophets. We need to consider innovative solutions as we examine ways to maintain tradition. It’s easy to write about how wizards and prophets see the world differently. It’s much harder to present a shared vision for how they work together to solve problems. Maybe that’s an idea for another post. Any suggestions?

How to be a rebel?

During some traveling recently, I got caught up on a bunch of podcasts and my brain was swirling with different applications to our roles as educators. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I listen to podcasts a lot and that I often make all sorts of disparate connections across content areas to inform how we support student learning in our classrooms. One of my favorite podcasts is Hidden Brain with Shankar Vedantam. Each week, Vedantam outlines some psychological research and discusses how it applies to our daily lives. In a recent podcast, Vedantam focused on the concept of “being a rebel” professionally. Rebel talent, Vedantam outlines, isn’t based on a desire to buck the system or fight bureaucratic structures. Instead, rebel talent requires a fearless curiosity to try new things, to identify new processes, and to break free from traditions. Digging deeper into the heart of fearless curiosity, the podcast explored the competing tensions of expertise and experimentation and how true rebel talents build expertise while maintaining a desire and flexibility to try new things. These tensions, however, don’t always breed rebels. Sometimes, people with a lot of expertise resist the urge to try something new. They may feel that they already know what’s effective and miss an innovative approach or a new, more effective method. In a way, expertise can provide foundational insight to help us solve new problems or find new solutions.  But it can also create blinders that limit our innovative field of vision.

How does this relate to our work as educators? The podcast reminded me of a concept called “adaptive expertise” that was shared in Preparing Teachers for a Changing World: What Teachers Should Learn and Be Able To Do (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). To be an effective teacher, Darling-Hammond and Bransford write, individuals must be prepared for “effective lifelong learning” and be willing to “continuously add to their knowledge and skills” (pg. 3).  Like the true rebel, the adaptive expert draws on their knowledge and experience but is not stifled by it. Instead, they carefully balance the tensions of innovation and efficiency by constantly adapting to new situations and environments. The adaptive expert, Holyoak (1991) writes, is “capable of drawing on their knowledge to invent new procedures for solving unique or fresh problems, rather than simply applying already mastered procedures.” To the adaptive expert, experience doesn’t lead to routine processes but to innovation and experimentation.

As many of us gear up to start a new academic year in the United States, resolve to become an “adaptive expert” or that “true rebel.” Embrace your expertise but do not be limited by it. Avoid the routine processes that can develop from experience and, instead, use your expertise as a springboard to try something new.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (Eds.). (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. John Wiley & Sons.

Holyoak, K. J. (1991) Symbolic Connectionism: Toward third-generation theories of expertise In K. A. Ericsson & J. Smith (Eds.) Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits 301-335. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


Building Rapport Online

Last week, I attended the Distance Teaching and Learning (DT&L) conference in Madison, WI. I have to admit that even though I’ve been working in online education as a teacher and a researcher for over a decade, this was the first time I’ve attended the DT&L conference. It was great. I personally enjoy going to conferences that offer a balance of research and practice. While I want to pick up instructional strategies that I can include in my online classes, I also want to learn about the growing research base for online education. With the variety of sessions and presenters at the DT&L conference, my expectations were met and exceeded.

One of the best sessions I attended was led by Christine DeCarolis from Rutgers University-Camden. In the presentation, DeCarolis discussed the research behind building student rapport and outlined specific ways that she addressed these aspects in her online classes. While I’ve focused on ways to build teacher presence in my online classes, I’ve never really thought about specific strategies that could help build rapport. DeCarolis’s presentation motivated me to do a little more digging into the concept of rapport and to consider ways to foster rapport with my online students.

In a Faculty Focus article a few years ago, Maryellen Weimer outlined five factors that build student rapport. These include:

  1. Respect. Teachers and students must show respect for each other, for the learning process, and for the institution where it is occurring.
  2. Approachability. Students have to feel comfortable coming to faculty and faculty must be willing to speak with students, after class, during office hours, via email, on campus.
  3. Open communication. Faculty must be honest. There needs to be consistency between what faculty say and what they do.
  4. Caring. Faculty must care about students; they must see and respond to them as individuals. They also need to care about learning and show that they want students to learn the material.
  5. Positive attitude. Faculty should have a sense of humor and be open to points of view other than their own. (Weimer, 2010)

So, how do we address these factors in our online classes? Here are some ideas.

  1. Record faculty introductions. Video can be a powerful way for instructors communicate with students. Beyond communicating instructional content, videos can help instructors convey a positive attitude and share their personalities.
  2. Be available. In some online classes, students can feel isolated and confused. Instructors who offer regular online office hours communicate to students that they’re approachable. In some of my online classes, I schedule individual one-on-one meetings with students so that each student has the opportunity to meet with me.
  3. Provide regular feedback. In my online classes, I work to provide timely feedback on submitted material. As I provide due dates for students so they complete work on a regular schedule, I also have to respectfully model an attention to timeliness. When students go weeks and weeks without receiving feedback, they don’t feel that instructors are respecting their work or their commitment to learning.
  4. Address students by name. When you’re providing feedback to students, use their name. This sounds like a simple strategy but it helps to build a respectful and caring environment with students.

The Ostrich and Student Evaluations

A few months ago, I shared a post promoting the practice of administering student evaluations every semester. For many faculty, this is one of the most humbling (and angering) experiences of their professional careers. Weeks or months after the semester has ended, faculty receive a print out of numbers and comments that detail how students viewed their teaching. We all know how flawed the evaluation process can be but it doesn’t change the emotional toll that negative student evaluations can create.

At some institutions (like mine), faculty who have obtained tenure can opt to administer student evaluation intermittently.  I know many of my colleagues who simply stop collecting student evaluations regularly after they receive tenure.  In my post, I argued that this wasn’t a practice to embrace. By administering student evaluations every semester, faculty can see the fluctuations in their teaching and address disconnects that may arise in their work with students. I compared the student evaluation process to dieting and losing weight. One common suggestion for people struggling to lose weight is that they should weigh themselves daily. By standing on the scale every day, they can see the fluctuations in their weight and use it as a motivation to do better that day.

But standing on the scale doesn’t always bring good news. Just like our student evaluations, sometimes we look down and see numbers that we don’t like. And maybe that’s one of the reasons many people avoid standing on the scale or avoid administering student evaluations. It’s like that old adage that “no news is better than bad news.”

I was reminded of this recently while listening to the Hidden Brain podcast. In the podcast, the host outlined something called the Ostrich Effect. Technically, it’s called “information aversion” and it emerges from the field of economics. Researchers find that people check their stock portfolios less when the stock market is down. Researchers explain that people would rather avoid receiving news about their finances than confront the potential of receiving bad news. But this phenomenon isn’t limited to our interactions with financial information. People also avoid hearing information about their health. I’m sure we all know somebody who’s struggled with some ailment for a while without going to see a doctor. That’s the Ostrich Effect in action! People would rather avoid going to see a doctor completely than run the risk of hearing that something is really wrong.

And maybe that is what’s at play with faculty who avoid collecting student evaluations. They’d rather avoid hearing any information about their teaching than confront the potential of receiving negative evaluations. They stick their heads in the proverbial sand and pretend that everything is okay.

To confront the Ostrich Effect, Joshua Tasoff, an associate professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University shared some simple advice in the podcast.

A person should never avoid information because information can never hurt a decision.

While Tasoff directs this advice to people who want avoid hearing news about the financial or medical status, I think it also applies to administering student evaluations. Information is just information. We’re the ones who add the emotional context to the evaluation scores and student comments. We have to remember that information is needed to help guide our decision-making. Whether it’s with our health, our financial success, our weight or our teaching evaluations, we can’t avoid information just because it may not be pleasant. Information guides our actions and decision-making. While student evaluations are just one piece of data, they can inform our instructional practices and foster changes in our teaching. While avoiding the process may spare us some negative emotions, we’d be missing out on some important information.