Living in My Head

A few years ago, I visited a chiropractor because of some vertigo I had been experiencing. I originally saw my primary care physician who diagnosed me with an ear infection, despite not being able to detect any real infection. “It’s probably clearing up,” he explained. But the vertigo continued for weeks. After a friend recommended that a chiropractor could help, I made an appointment.

During my first visit, the chiropractor asked a lot of questions about my physical health, my mental well-being and my family background. She then asked a question that no one had ever asked before. “Do you live in your head or in your body?”

While the question caught me off guard initially, I answered without any reflection, “I live in my head.”

As I explained to the chiropractor, I’ve always had a strange disconnection from my body. It has basically served as a vehicle to get my head places. While this brain/body disconnect doesn’t cause any significant challenges for my work as an academic or as an educator, it isn’t ideal for learning to play sports or mastering other physical activities. I lumber through most sports without any real success.

While the vertigo subsided after several visits, the chiropractor’s question has become an ongoing joke at my house. The brain/body disconnect so aptly described how I navigate the world that my wife would regularly ask how many meetings I took my brain to that day. While the disconnect is kind of amusing, it can also be challenging. And that’s really the point of this post.

For Christmas 2019, our family decided to give experiences to one another rather than tangible gifts like a sweater or a pair of socks. For example, I bought my son tickets to see one of his favorite bands. My wife bought my daughter tickets to see an art exhibit. Each gift was an experience we planned to share as a family through 2020. But then a global pandemic hit and most of those experiences have gone unexperienced.

Jump ahead to this past weekend. I’m happy to report that my wife and I are fully vaccinated and that we’re trying to wade our way back into the regular world again. We’re still socially distancing and wearing our masks, but we’re trying to catch up on some experiences we had hoped to have last year, including the gift I gave my wife for Christmas 2019: dance lessons.

So, this past Sunday, my wife and I took a beginner class on “West Coast Swing.” While we were beginners, it was clear that some of the other people in the class had a bit more experience than my wife or me. They already knew basic moves like the “sugar push” or the “left hand pass” or the “left hand under turn.” While the teacher reviewed these beginner moves for us, I found myself struggling to keep up with even the basic steps or the count. My brain was rattling off “one, two, three and four, five and six” and my body was just doing its own thing. My brain/body disconnect was on full display.

At the end of the class, the teacher came over to my wife and me and asked how we thought it went. With everyone masked, I’m sure it was difficult to read our facial expressions. We explained that while we had taken dance lessons 25 years ago prior to our wedding, it had been some time since either of us had been on a dance floor. He thanked us for joining the class and said that he hoped we’d return next class. He then offered some words of encouragement.

“It’s important for us to get out of our comfort zone sometimes,” he said. “That’s where learning happens.”

So, while I doubt I’ll become a proficient dancer any time soon, my hope is that these dance lessons will help my body and brain learn to better communicate with one another.

I can live in my head. But I need my body to dance.

Everyone is Successful in the End

I can remember the moment vividly. I was in a meeting several years ago that was examining campus retention trends. An administrator was sharing data that showed that number of the students who had left the university. While some had transferred to other institutions, other students had quit pursuing a degree entirely. The data were pretty eye opening and sparked a great deal of discussion.

One of my colleagues was aghast. “How could so many students just simply quit?” he asked. We discussed the challenges that some of our students face.  Some are working multiple jobs. Others are single parents. Maybe a few are caring for loved ones or experiencing financial difficulties. As a public university, our students often need to navigate a whole host of challenges in order to succeed.

My colleague still couldn’t believe it. “Why would they just quit?” he asked. Before we go too far down this story, my colleague grew up in Africa and, from what he’s shared in this meeting and in other discussions I’ve had with him, it’s clear he understands challenges intimately and personally. Yet, he couldn’t comprehend why any student would give up. And that’s when he said something that created a fair amount of cognitive dissonance for me.

“In my culture,” he explained, “everyone is successful in the end.”

I have to admit. At first, I didn’t understand what he was saying. So, I pushed back a little. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“We don’t have the luxury of failure. Only success.  Everyone is successful in the end.”

Still, I struggled with his message.  “I don’t get it. Everyone is successful? How can that be? Everyone is successful?” I said, stressing the word “everyone.

My colleague smiled. “Everyone is successful in the end,” he reiterated. “If someone isn’t successful, it’s just not the end.”

That’s when the light went off. It wasn’t a cultural mantra about success or some message about the exceptional native abilities of his country mates. It was a mantra about work ethic and effort and persistence. The motto communicated that things are always going to be tough and challenges will always present themselves. But don’t give up. Keep working and you’ll be successful. You only stop when you’ve achieved success.

What I like about this story is the clash of cultures represented by my colleague and me. While I believe in the power of the growth mindset and grit, my colleague has lived it and embraces it as a cultural standard. And maybe that’s what should be happening more. While we communicate the need for persistence and perseverance in our classrooms, large portions of society still celebrate the savants, natural athletes and child geniuses. We need a cultural shift, one that communicates that success isn’t a gift for a few but a struggle achievable by all.

Teaching for Growth

Last week, I introduced transmission, transaction and transformation as different modes of teaching. As I got more to thinking about teaching as transformation, I decided to re-read James Lang’s chapter on “growing” in his book Small Teaching (2016). The chapter outlines three principles for teaching for growth that I thought would be a good way to build on the concept of “teaching as transformation.”

Design for Growth. When we develop our courses, it’s important to think about how we structure the semester to foster growth. One place to start is to examine your grading structure. Some instructors may think that offering equal weighting throughout the semester would benefit students. When you design a grading system for growth, however, you want to provide a time period to allow students to understand the structures, processes and ways of knowing that you as an instructor view as important. Offering low stakes assignments at the start of the class provides time for students to wade into the class and get acquainted with the content and with your teaching. I’m also a big believer in allowing students to resubmit assignments or retake exams to improve their performance. If a student wants to dedicate extra time to rewrite a paper or study the concepts more to do better on an exam, why would I stop them? I’m trying to get the best from my students. While I know that this may not be practical in every classroom environment or with every content area, embracing growth recognizes that students learn at different rates. One student may learn a concept in a day while another student may take a few weeks.

Communicate for Growth. In his book, Lang encourages us to examine how we communicate with our students and to consider how our language fosters students’ growth and development rather than focuses on their fixed abilities and talents. Think about that student who does really well on an exam. Should we praise them for their hard work or for their intellect? The difference presents a stark contrast in communicating with a growth mindset or a fixed onAnother place to examine how we communicate with students is our course syllabi. In many cases, it is students’ first impression of who we are as teachers and what we value about them as learners. I know that many of us are told to treat our syllabi as contracts and to communicate clear expectations in an almost legalistic way. As your preparing for the upcoming semester, however, consider how you communicate your expectations and how your language motivates students. Use your syllabus to encourage hard work and persistence.

Feedback for Growth. Providing constructive feedback on student work is one of the most time consuming task in our teaching roles. It’s also one of the most important. Our feedback can support growth and development or demotivate students. I remember taking an English class in my undergraduate program and receiving a “B” on a paper I had submitted. The professor didn’t include any comments and didn’t provide feedback so I could improve my writing. I visited the professor during office hours to discuss the paper, my grade and ways to improve. He said simply that my writing wasn’t “A” material and that I just needed to become a better writer. While both of these statements were probably accurate, neither helped me improve my writing or motivated me to do better. I left the office feeling frustrated and doubting my academic ability.

Looking back, that meeting could have gone very differently. If he had embraced the growth mindset in his teaching, the professor would have outlined areas of strength and targeted the problem spots upon which to focus. He could have pointed out some reference materials that I could read or shared some resources to help me practice. But he didn’t. I ended up getting a B in that class and still wonder how well I could have performed had I received better feedback from the instructor.

Lang, J. M. (2016). Small teaching: everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons.

Teaching: Transmission, transaction or transformation

I was having a conversation recently with some colleagues. One posed an interesting question to the group about how we see our work as teachers at our respective institutions. Here’s what she asked:

How would you describe your teaching role with your students? Is it a transmission, a transaction or a transformation?

I have to admit. I love these types of questions. When posed with an inquiry like this, I’m forced to reflect on my teaching and to consider how I interact with my students. The easy answer would be “all of the above” but I don’t know if that would make for an interesting blog post. Instead, I thought I’d unpack the possibilities a bit and discuss how I see these three views of teaching.

Teaching as transmission:
In any class, there is information to be learned and content to be mastered. The larger question, however, is “how are these processes being accomplished?” Teaching as transmission puts the instructor at the center of the learning process. The instructor delivers information and the student receives it. In this view of teaching, a well-worded explanation is seen as having the most impact on student learning. While this mode of teaching is still highly regarded by both students and instructors, there is growing evidence that questions its effectiveness. After sharing posts like Long Live the Lecture? and More evidence for Active Learning, it would be difficult for me to describe my teaching as transmission.  While I’m certainly guilty of leading my share of lectures over the years, I try to actively avoid straight transmission modes of instruction and work to build more collaboration with and amongst my students.

Teaching as transaction:
In a transactional learning environment, learning happens through interactions with people and experiences. While teaching as transmission reflects more behaviorist learning theories, teaching as transaction is rooted in more constructivist perspectives. Here, learners build their understanding of content by interacting with activities and through social meaning-making processes with their peers and their instructors. Instead of delivering information, instructors work to plan experiences that can help their students learn and work with them to foster their understanding. Reflecting on my own teaching, I definitely see aspects of “transaction” in the way I plan my classes, both online and face-to-face.  I see the power of social learning environments and believe that transactions (and interactions) cultivate learning.

Teaching as transformation:
Over the last few years, I’ve been really trying to focus a lot on growth in my classroom. Instead of just helping my students learn the content of my class, I also want to help them grow as learners and as individuals. I think this broader perspective emerged after reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. While I’ve incorporated aspects of mindset as content in a few of my classes, the larger shift has occurred through a change in how my class is organized and how I communicate with students. I allow my students to revise and resubmit graded assignments and provide feedback that helps them improve their work. To foster a larger growth mindset in my class, I avoid praising students on fixed traits (like intelligence or innate talent) and focus more persistence, practice and hard work. To increase the impact of these efforts, I explain the motivations behind my instructional decisions and how they’re born from an evidence base on how people learn and develop.

Looking across the dimensions of teaching, it’s clear that I see myself as leaning more heavily to the transformation and transaction rather than transmission. The question, however, is how these self-assessments align with my students’ assessments on my practices.  Maybe this post will encourage a comment or two from former students or maybe one will volunteer to write a guest post in response.  Any takers?