The Elephant in the Room

There’s a parable that’s been shared in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts that goes something like this:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.” So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake.” For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall.” Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.” – Wikipedia

While the story is about perceptions and perspectives, it’s also a lesson about how each of our viewpoints may be limited in scope, even through our best intentions. While we may see something one way, another person may it very differently. Based on our limited perspectives and the information we have, our descriptions may be accurate. But truth can be a complicated animal.

I was reminded of the elephant story recently. I was attending a presentation led by an administrator from another institution. In the presentation, the speaker discussed the pressing challenges facing education today. While he spoke broadly about K-12 education, he also outlined the significant issues facing colleges and universities in the coming years. He talked about how higher education as an industry needed to be aware of “consumers’ return on investment” and be conscious of the experiences of “the end user.” He discussed making sure that our “credentialing” reflected “workplace-ready skills” and that institutions of higher education needed to provide the “highest quality for the lowest cost.”

I have to admit my initial reactions to this speaker’s take on education was mostly one of disdain. Not that I didn’t agree with his perspectives or anything. It was just so foreign to how I viewed this awesome, communal enterprise of teaching and learning. While I tend to focus more on the interactions and transformations that happen through our educational efforts, this administrator was viewing education as a business transaction. From his point of view, education was an industry where a consumer purchases a product. And while I tend to focus on concepts like building learning communities or fostering critical thinking, he was talking about education strictly as a commercial venture. To him, higher education is a transactional experience, like a person buying a toaster. And our job as educators was to make the best and most affordable toaster we can.

I realize that I may be overly cynical with his perspective. Administrators deal with the day-to-day financial aspects of our institutions and have to see things from a much more comprehensive point of view. While educators are working with students in their classes, administrators are charged with sustaining the long-term economic viability of our institutions. And while our work may be different, they are interconnected. Like the elephant’s tail is connected to its body which is connected to its head, the magical stuff that happens inside the classroom is inextricably connected to the work being done by administrators who focus on the economics of our institutions. Returning to the elephant parable, it’s like I’m the blind man feeling the head of the elephant while they’re the ones holding on to a much different part. And though our perceptions may be very different, they’re both accurate.

I’m just glad that I’m holding on to the part I am. Some of the other parts stink.

Practice Gratitude

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but things are still pretty stressful. Sure, some of us are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel as friends and family members are getting vaccinated. But the day-to-day anxiety and stress still exists. While everyone is being hit hard with this pandemic, I think our teacher friends are being especially challenged. The teaching profession is predominantly guided by an “ethos of care” and that ethos is being tested daily. Teachers are working in new settings that seem to be constantly evolving. Their students and colleagues are getting ill. Their family members need attention. And they’re dedicating long hours trying to prepare lessons that simultaneously engage “the Roomers and the Zoomers.” It’s a stressful time, to say the least.

And I can see the impacts of the stress with my teacher friends. I see their posts on social media. I read the texts they send me and the Instagram photos they’ve posted. Like a boxer who has survived ten brutal rounds of a twelve-round fight, they may be standing but they’re on the ropes. They’re exhausted and they’re struggling to stay on their feet. And I’m sure a few are considering throwing in the towel.

And that’s where YOU come in. I know last week I invited you to write a blog post detailing what you’ve learned from the pandemic, but this week, 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.

You don’t need to send a long email or a hand-written note or anything. Sending a simple email where you say “Thank you” will go a long way. Just to be clear. I’m not naive enough to believe that a single email will wipe away all of stress and anxiety from eleven months of teaching during a pandemic. But returning to my boxer metaphor, that “Thank you!” may act like a shot of adrenaline to get them through the next round or two.

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.

To steal a line that Ross Gay offers in his poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” I want you to “Bellow forth.” Express your gratitude unabashedly. Send that email. Offer your thanks.

It won’t change the world. But it may make a teacher’s day.

An Invitation: What the Pandemic has Taught You

As we approach the one year anniversary of the educational disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the last year and the lessons this crisis has taught me. The pandemic has taught me about the power of relationships, the importance of family, the need for connection, and… well, I could go on. But beyond the personal lessons I’ve learned from the pandemic, I’ve been thinking about what it has taught me about teaching and learning. As I’ve mentioned before, this academic year marks my 29th year of teaching and I would argue that I’ve learned a lot about this profession in the last year as I navigated these unprecedented times. As I’ve pondered these lessons, a single question has become a regular motif of puzzlement resonating through my brain for the last month or so. It has joined me on walks. It has taken showers with me. It has kept me company as I stare at the ceiling at 3 AM.

“What has the pandemic taught you about teaching and learning?”

And originally, I was prepared to use this space to answer the question. But I’m not going to do that. At least not today. Instead, I thought I’d offer it to all of you. If you’re reading this blog, you probably work in education in some way. You might be a college professor or a kindergarten teacher. You may be a college administrator or a high school principal. Maybe you’re someone who I’ve had the privilege of working with as a student or someone I’ve been grateful to have as a teacher. Regardless of your role, this pandemic has been rough on all of us. It has profoundly impacted our work and changed us in the process. So, let’s embrace it and reflect on it.

So, here’s my invitation. I invite you to answer the question and email it to me. I’ll share the responses on this space starting in mid-March to coincide with the anniversary of the pandemic disruption. My posts usually top out around 500 – 1000 words, so that’s the only direction I’ll provide. Otherwise, the posts can be as personal as you like. In my eleven years of blogging here, I’ve never had a “guest author” before, so this new territory for me. But I trust you, my educational friends.

If you’d like to participate, email your response to me at oliver.dreon@millersville.edu and use the subject line “What I Learned” so I know your email is not some crazy spy bot or anything.

Submissions are due by February 28, 2021.

Thanks for considering this. And thank you for the work you do.

The Coin of the Realm

I’ve been working in the Educational Technology field for the last fifteen years or so. To me, the EdTech field is a pretty broad umbrella, encompassing online learning, classroom technologies, emergent areas of innovation and all sorts of cool devices. As someone who used to teach a subject (high school physics) that didn’t change substantively in 200 years, it’s wild to work in a field that is constantly undergoing change and development.

While the EdTech field is constantly changing, the primary voices and leaders also seems to change. Figures who seemed to play a critical role a decade ago now have been replaced by new voices with new ideas. As I’ve navigated the field, however, I’ve noticed some interesting (and concerning) aspects of these leading voices. Often they’re gifted writers and presenters who can inspire people to try new things. I won’t list specific people or anything, but if you’ve attended an EdTech conference and been inspired by the presenter, chances are, I’m talking about him or her. Or if you know some cool acronym or catchy term that some EdTech leader developed, I’m probably talking about that person, too.

To be clear, I’m not against the fact that these leaders inspire educators to try new things. As teachers, we should constantly examine our practices and look for new ways to reach our students and help them learn. My concern doesn’t come from the inspirations that these EdTech leaders offer, but the evidence (or lack of evidence) that they provide in support of their innovations. If you work in the EdTech field, go to your bookshelf and pull down one of the books written by those inspiring leaders. Check out the references and citations they provide. I know there are a number of these popular EdTech books that don’t offer a single citation or reference in support of the innovation they’re promoting. That’s the same for some well-known technology integration frameworks and some new pedagogical approaches. They’re promoting these new technologies and innovations without any solid supporting evidence. To me, that’s troubling.

When I point this out to some of my EdTech colleagues, their response is typically “But it makes sense.” While this may be true, whether an instructional technique or educational technology “makes sense” or not shouldn’t influence our decision making. Instead of looking for explanations and innovations that fit our worldview, we should look for evidence to inform our choices. I recognize that may be tough for some innovations since the technology typically outpaces the research by several years. That shouldn’t deter us from trying to make evidence-based instructional decisions, however. It should be our charge as educators and it should be the practice that we model to our students.

As educators, we argue for the importance for critical thinking skills and push our students to make evidence-based arguments. Evidence should be the coin of the realm in education, not just for our students but us as well. And that means challenging EdTech leaders to do a better job of providing it for the innovations they promote. To me, that just makes sense.

A Time to Every Purpose

For last year or so, I’ve been getting back into vinyl records. My wife and I dug out our old albums, dusted off our old record player and have been playing some of the classics from our youth. My kids have also caught the bug and have started buying records when we go shopping at vintage stores. While our house has always been full of music, it’s now alive with songs from the Smiths, the Velvet Underground, and the Violent Femmes. Oddly, my children have also taken to some of the classic albums from the 1960’s. They’re playing the Beatles, the Beach Boys and even the Mamas and the Papas. It’s definitely an eclectic musical mix at our house.

One song that has been in heavy rotation recently is Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds. If you don’t know the song, it was originally written by Pete Seeger, but he pulled most of the lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The song starts out:

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

If you’re a music lover, you may be humming the song in your head right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “a time to every purpose” lately. It’s the first week of the semester on campus and new classes have begun. It’s the season of introductions and syllabi and book lists. It’s the time when faculty outline their expectations and their assignments. And it’s the season for students trying to figure out how they can meet those expectations considering their other classes, their jobs, and their other life commitments.

To everything. (turn, turn, turn)

Even though it’s early in the semester, I’ve already provided some feedback on the first set of assignments. When providing feedback, I try to remember the work of Grant Wiggins who offers Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. These include:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

The challenge is that since it’s the first week of the semester, students (and maybe some faculty) are feeling their way through a new set of classes. While it’s the season for faculty outlining their expectations, it’s also a time when students may not fully understand those expectations. While we all try to make our expectations tangible and transparent, students come to our classes with experiences with other professors, other courses and other assignments. These experiences may cloud how they interpret our expectations and assignments.

Which makes effective feedback so critical at this stage of the semester. While some may be inclined to go a little easy this early on, providing consistent feedback early in the semester is more important than ever. Drawing back to Pete Seeger’s lyrics, there’s “a time to plant, a time to reap.”

And what we plant in week 1 of the semester, we can reap later on.

(turn, turn, turn)