Learning about Learning

I came across an article recently that outlined the number of words that different societies have for “snow.” I’m not a linguist or anything, but I guess it’s a pretty hotly debated topic. According to Richard Brooks, a blogger on The Language Blog, there are 40-50 different Inuit/Yupik words for snow. If that sounds like a lot, consider the Scots who have over 400 different words about snow. In his post, Brooks quotes Dr. Susan Rennie, a Scots language researcher, who explained the linguistic heritage of snow-related terms. In an interview with The Telegraph, Dr. Rennie explained,

“The words are all sorts of things to do with snow – the way that snow moves, the types of snow, types of snowflake, types of thaw, clothing you might wear in snow, the way that snow affects animals – we have even got a category for snow and the supernatural.”

While the diversity in snow-related terminology might seem surprising, I would argue that the field of education has a lot of different terms for learning. Maybe there aren’t 400, but there are a bunch. Consider the following:

service learning, cooperative learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning, situated learning, collaborative learning, distance learning, active learning, experiential learning, discovery-based learning, hands-on learning, blended learning, flex learning

You get the idea. There are a lot of different terms for learning. Like the Scots who have different words for snow, these descriptors help us better categorize the type of learning that is occurring. If you are involved in education in some way, you probably recognize most of those terms for learning. Maybe you couldn’t provide a textbook definition for any of them, but I’d argue that you could do a decent job of describing the root elements or features for most of them.

You may be wondering where I am heading with all of this. As someone who works in education as a teacher, researcher, and leader, I’m really familiar with all of those terms. It’s my work. So, it surprises me when I come across a term for learning that I haven’t heard before. But it happened yesterday.

agentic learning

My colleague and podcasting partner, Scott McDonald, dropped the term in an episode we were recording recently, and I had to pause to google the term. A quick search sent me to a bunch of different sites that describe the importance of giving students more agency over their learning. Agentic learning means allowing students to take more ownership over their learning, which can lead to greater motivation. At its core, agentic learning means putting the student in the driver’s seat by giving them more control over their learning. I’m still working through what that looks like from a teacher’s perspective, but I can definitely see intersections with other types of learning (like personalized learning and blended learning). More than anything, I’m writing this from the perspective that despite working in education for a while, I’m still learning. I’m still finding new terminology and working to grasp new ideas. And while that might not be as cool (pun intended) as having 400 different words for snow, it’s not a bad gig, either.

Goldfish and Clean Slates

A student emailed me over the weekend. He’s a beginning teacher working in a local middle school and his students are challenging him. After several run-ins with a few students, he emailed me for some advice on how to work with middle school kids and how to be an authority figure in the classroom. If you don’t work in teacher education, you may be surprised to learn that many new teachers struggle with classroom management. In some teacher education programs, there are entire courses dedicated to how to “manage a classroom.” I honestly hate that term. So, I probably didn’t give the advice that my student expected to hear.

I explained that for most of the students I’ve worked with in my career, I’ve been able to be successful through a combination of building relationships and modeling respect. When I’d encounter a challenging student, I’d pull them aside before or after class and I’d ask them how they were doing. I’d explain that I was on their side and that I wanted to help them be successful. If I saw them in the hallway or in the cafeteria, I’d say hello and ask them about their day. Sometimes, I’d show up at an event or a sports match. In my interactions, I’d do my best to communicate respectfully and work to build a relationship. That’s it. No magical superpowers. No fancy “classroom management” techniques.

I’m not naive enough to believe that this strategy works for all students. I’ve worked with some really challenging students who have tested my patience and my resolve. I’d be in the middle of teaching a lesson and they’d start to push my buttons. I’d work to keep my composure, but then I’d lose my cool. It didn’t happen often. But enough that I still can remember the instances in which it did.

The interesting part is that some of those students would come in the next day acting like nothing happened. I’d struggle with the interaction from the previous day and they’d almost be a different person. But that leads to some of the best advice I received from my mentor teacher many years ago. “If you’re going to work with kids,” she said, “you better have a short memory. The student you work with one day may be very different the next one.”

I’ve tried to remember that throughout my career and I included it in my email advice to this beginning teacher. I framed it a little differently, though. I’ve been watching Ted Lasso, a show on Apple TV+ about an American football coach who is hired to coach an English premier team. Early in the first episode, the coach shares some advice to a struggling player.

“You know what the happiest animal in the world is?” Ted Lasso asks the player. “It’s a goldfish. It’s got a 10 second memory. Be a goldfish.”

In offering the advice, Ted is asking the player to put aside the mistake he had just made and work on improving things. Have a short memory.

And that might be the best way to think about the challenging students with whom we work. Try to be a goldfish. Do your best to foster positive relationships and model respect, but when students misstep, offer some grace to let them start tomorrow with a clean slate.

The Question

It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten “the question” but it happened a few weeks ago. I was working with a group of preservice teachers, and we were examining the ISTE Standards for Students and discussing how they could be used as a guide for instructional planning. From the back of the room, a student raised her hand and asked the dreaded question.

“When are we ever going to use this?”

I call it “the question” when in truth there’s a whole family of questions like it. Will this be on the test? Is this important? Should I write this down? Will anyone ask about this in a job interview?

If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably been asked the question (or one of its variations) hundreds of times. The question has even been memorialized through social media. A few weeks ago, someone shared a tweet that simply stated “Another day has passed without using the Pythagorean Theorem.” I did a quick search online and found dozens of similar tweets. A few have been turned into humorous memes.

At their heart, the questions, the tweets, and the memes reflect a larger, more existential wondering. Why do we learn?

As someone who taught high school physics for fifteen years, I have always found the question challenging. For many of my former physics students, they were taking their terminal physics course. After graduating and pursuing their careers or collegiate degrees, they were most likely never going to interact with those concepts again. So, while the tweet declared about days without using the Pythagorean Theorem, it could have as easily been replaced with Newton’s Laws or Conservation of Momentum or Ohm’s Law or any of the other concepts present in my high school physics course.

Or with the ISTE Standards for Students that I was teaching when the question was asked more recently.

I’d like to say I offered that student a credible answer when responding to her question about the ISTE Standards. But I don’t know. I remember stumbling through a response about the aspirational nature of the standards and how it could offer a lens for new forms of student participation and engagement in their future classroom. I don’t know if the student bought it or not.

I thought about that question again recently as I read through the Elements of Teaching book that found in a used bookstore. In a chapter on Learning, the authors (Banner & Cannon) attack the question straight on. “Learning justifies learning,” they write, before turning their attention to teachers.

“A teacher’s confidence in the intrinsic worth of knowledge is fundamental to all instruction. Such deep-rooted belief makes a teacher able to relate knowledge to life, to all human experience… (T)he teacher with deep learning answers with conviction and authority more pertinently: ‘Because acquiring this knowledge is difficult. Because you will feel triumphant when it no longer confuses you. Because you will enjoy what you can do with it. Because in learning it you may discover new perspectives on life, new ways of thinking. Because its possession will make you more alive than its alternative, which is ignorance.'” (Banner & Cannon, 1997, p. 15)

I’m confident that is a better response than I have ever been able to offer when asked the question. But there’s always next time.

Banner, J. M., & Cannon, H. C. (1997). The elements of teaching. Yale University Press.

Start with Thanks

As we celebrate the Thanksgiving season in the United States, I thought I’d repeat this post about gratitude from October 2019. It discusses the importance of being thankful and remembering those who have helped us along the way.

“Call me Ishmael.”

This may surprise some people but those aren’t the first words to Moby Dick. If you were to find a copy of the book, you’d see written on the first pages the following “Thank you:”

“In Token Of My Admiration for his Genius,
This Book is Inscribed To

I share this because I’ve been doing some introspection and reflection over the last few days. Since this blog is where I usually turn to work through my thoughts, I’m here again. Thinking and writing. And starting with Melville’s less-than-famous “Thank you!”

Let me take a step back. All of this introspection comes from a huge misstep I made recently. Last week, I helped lead a presentation on educator ethics for about a hundred students. Since the presentation involved students from various programs across campus, a group of faculty came together weeks earlier to plan the whole event. We wanted to use video cases to drive the presentation so our group reviewed a bunch of different examples to situate the overall discussion in authentic, thought-provoking situations. It was truly a collaborative planning venture and the presentation was well received by students.

With all of the collaboration and positive response, you may be wondering “Where’s the misstep?” On the evening of the presentation, my co-presenter and I just jumped right in. Sure, we took a few minutes to introduce ourselves. But, we didn’t acknowledge the important contributions from the other faculty who had played a critical role in getting the whole event off the ground. To add further insult to this whole affair, our collaborators’ names weren’t included on any of the slides either. It’s like my co-presenter and I had rendered our collaborators absolutely invisible.

After the event, I realized my mistake, but by then, it was too late. Sure, I can send out an email thanking the collaborators or send “Thank You” notes. But when I had the opportunity to thank them publicly, I didn’t. When I had the chance to practice gratitude, I forgot. So, instead of saying “thank you,” I went around apologizing for the oversight.

But my misstep isn’t entirely the point of this post. Buried within this mea culpa is a larger plea, one that can help us create a more collaborative and supportive environment.

Start with thanks.

“Start with thanks” means we recognize the collaboration and the collegial support at the onset of any venture. “Start with thanks” means we acknowledge those who have helped us along the way. It means we make the invisible more visible.

Reflecting on this some more, I thought back to a podcast I heard a few months ago. David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride, appeared on the NPR show On Point to discuss the “science of gratitude.” In the episode, DeSteno discussed the importance of saying “Thank You.”

In the short-term, you can kind of be selfish and be a bit of a jerk and you can profit. But over time, people are going to realize that you’re not a good partner to work with, you’re not someone they want to have around. And what beautiful evolutionary models have shown is that over time, people who show gratitude, who cooperate, who are trustworthy, who are generous have the best outcomes. Feeling this emotion helps ensure that we do the right thing.

Just like Herman Melville took a page from his epic tome to thank Nathaniel Hawthorne, we need to do the same with our colleagues and coworkers. But the results will have greater magnitude than just words on a page.  When we start with thanks, we can ensure that our colleagues and their work are more visible.

Back in Zoom

This semester, I am teaching a shortened, seven-week class for undergraduates that started in mid-October. Over the last month or so, I’ve found the class to be highly interactive and engaged. They’re a group of teacher candidates and, due to the cohort nature of our program, they spend a lot of time together as a group. By the time my course started, the group had already coalesced into a community. They knew each other and seemed to have their own inside jokes and back stories. During our first class together, I felt a little like an outsider who was late to a party that started weeks ago. But those feelings have subsided as the students have made space for me in their learning community.

When I say this class is highly interactive and engaged, I mean that there are times when I feel like I’m surfing a wave of conversation and discourse and I don’t always have complete control over where things will go. They’re a lively group with a lot to say. They’re working through their identities as beginning teachers and I’m grateful that they feel comfortable enough to use our classroom space to talk through their successes, their wonderings, and their challenges. Despite our short time together so far, I feel like I’ve really gotten to know this group of students and connect with them.

This week, I had to move our class online. After an entire academic year of teaching through Zoom, I wasn’t really that excited about teaching a synchronous class again. But I was interested to see how this class would interact in the Zoom space. For most of my classes last year, I didn’t have any prior experiences with the students. I met them through Zoom and relied on the Zoom space to support our communication and interaction. This experience would be different, though. I had already worked with this group for several weeks in a face-to-face environment. The students also knew each other well. I was hopeful that our online class would reflect the engaged classes we had during our face-to-face interactions.

I’d love to say that the class was as equally engaged and interactive, but that would be overstating reality. While the students were definitely involved, there were several times when I waited in silence for students to answer a question. I started the class with an ice breaker and with my regular Rose/Thorn/Bud check in. In our face-to-face class, these would prompt all sorts of conversations. Today, only a few students regularly contributed. Some students didn’t share their voices at all.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming the students or myself. They’re a great group of students and I worked to engage them as much as possible. Even though I’m a proponent for online teaching, I believe we need to recognize that fostering community and engagement online is hard. We also can’t be confident that the rich and deep relationships we have with our students, colleagues, friends, and family will easily translate to other modes of interaction. That’s a harsh reality, but one of which I’m sure many teachers are becoming acutely aware.