Specks of Fish Spawn

I’ve been blogging for the last seven years and I’m always on the lookout for ideas for posts. Not to go too far down the blogging rabbit hole, but when I find inspiration for a potential post, I add it to a note on my phone that is titled Blog Ideas. Since I never really know when inspiration will strike me, Blog Ideas often collects all sorts of half-baked thoughts. When I look back at the notes later, I’ll see a remnant of some quote that I quickly typed at the gym or some phrase or statement that I added while sitting at a red light. Sometimes when I look back at my notes, they’ll make complete sense. Other times, they don’t.  I’ll encounter some hastily written, cryptic sentence and wonder “What in the world was I thinking when I wrote this?” The seeds of inspiration!

One of the ideas that’s been in the notes page for a while is a quote from Alvar Aalto.  Alvar Aalto was a Finnish architect who was featured in a podcast on skateboarding in empty swimming pools. Aalto originally designed the pea-shaped pools that became popular on the West Coast as makeshift skate parks. Discussing his ideas and inspirations, Aalto writes:

“Perhaps they are, for instance, like some big salmon or trout. They are not born fully grown; they are not even born in the sea or water where they normally live. They are born hundreds of miles away from their home grounds, where the rivers narrow to tiny streams. Just as it takes time for a speck of fish spawn to mature into a fully-grown fish, so we need time for everything that develops and crystallizes in our world of ideas.

In the spirit of Alvar Aalto and the fish that are not fully matured, this week, I’m going to deviate a bit.  Rather than present “big salmon,” I’m just going to pull a few “specks of fish spawn” from my notes page and share them in their half-baked state. If I can recall, I’ll share the point of inspiration and what I was thinking at the time. Maybe some of my adventurous readers can help these ideas mature into more “fully-grown fish.”

“The Reasonable Man”
I heard this phrase in a podcast. It’s a legal standard used in court cases to decide what a reasonable person would do in a situation. At the time, I thought about what a parallel standard called “The Reasonable Educator” would look like. What practices, responsibilities and beliefs could we expect from the Reasonable Educator? What about a Reasonable Student? That’s about as far as I got with the concept.

“The T-shaped Professional”
This a recent addition to my notes page but I thought I’d share it. This comes from a recent report from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education that discussed the need for developing “T-shaped professionals” who have a broad liberal arts background and a knowledge of soft skills (the T-top) and a deep knowledge of a specialty area (the T-stem).  I still may develop this idea into a post but I found the “T” reference interesting and novel.

“Tyranny of the Urgent”
I actually don’t remember where I heard this phrase but I think it would be a good mantra for new educators. The phrase was coined by Charles E. Hummel and he is quoted as saying “Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important.” Good stuff to consider as we move into the holiday season.

“GPS Mapping/Christopher Columbus/online teaching”
Really, that’s exactly what the note says. Despite my efforts to remember where it came from or what I meant at the time, I still have no idea. I do remember reading an article about people who blindly follow their GPS directions and end up driving into lakes and buildings. Maybe I wanted to draw a comparison to the way Christopher Columbus was able to cross the Atlantic without those tools because of his ability to navigate. There could be some parallels to online educators who ignore pedagogy and rely on their LMS too heavily. I know it’s a bit of a reach but that’s the best I could come up with.

“Chasing signal vs. Chasing noise”
This phrase came from a podcast on stereotype threat. Without digging too deeply into the research, stereotype threat refers to the risk of confirming negative stereotypes about an individual’s racial, ethnic, gender, or cultural group. The podcast took a critical look at the evidence for stereotype and I thought the phrases “chasing signal” and “chasing noise” could be interesting lenses to use when viewing classroom environments. I still need time to develop this further but what are the “signals” and “noise” of learning? How can we learn to focus on the important stuff (the signal) and ignore the stuff that isn’t (the noise)?

Returning to Alvar Aalto, you may see some of the ideas return in the weeks or months ahead. This post simply showcases the specks of fish spawn that may eventually grow and mature and crystallize into a world of ideas.  Only time can tell.


Glows and Grows

It’s nearing the end of the semester and I’m knee-deep in grading papers and projects. I’m also preparing for a faculty learning community (FLC) that I’m leading on the book Spark of Learning by Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2016). I know I’ve mentioned the book a bunch of times over the last year or so on this blog but I’m rereading it again in preparation for our FLC meeting later this week. It’s funny how different things about a text resonate upon rereading. Since I’m so focused on grading right now, a section on feedback really stood out to me.

Cavanagh discusses two types of feedback that are important to enhance student competence: progress feedback and discrepancy feedback. Progress feedback involves “giving feedback to students about what they’ve done right, particularly if it is a skill that they were previously lacking” (p. 132). Discrepancy feedback involves “providing information to students about what they’ve done wrong and areas performance that are lacking” (p. 131). To keep students engaged and motivated, Cavanagh suggests using both progress and discrepancy feedback when assessing student work. Surprisingly, however, educators tend to focus more on discrepancy feedback. Cavanagh cites work by Voerman, Korthagen, Meijer and Simons (2014) that studied seventy-eight secondary teachers and found that only 6.4% provided progress feedback when assessing student work. Cavanagh argues that by providing the balance between progress and discrepancy feedback will support students’ feeling of competency and the overall emotional tone of the classroom.

After reading this section, I thought about a system that I use when assessing students work. I wish I could take credit for developing it but it’s one of those processes that one acquires from working with so many smart and creative colleagues. It’s called Glows and Grows. For many assignments, I’ll focus my attention on what the student has done well (the Glows) and the areas of which student still needs to work (Grows). Since it’s so simple to understand and implement, it can be used with a variety of assignments. I’ve used it with student presentations, performances and papers. The strategy is also really easy to use with peer-assessments when paired with explicit assignment expectations. By focusing on just the glows and grows, students can provide informal feedback to their peers without worrying scoring rubrics or letter grades.

Returning to Cavanagh’s discussion of progress and discrepancy feedback, it’s clear that a strategy like Glows and Grows provides a more balanced approach to providing feedback. While it’s a simplistic strategy, Glows and Grows offers students a clear picture of what they’ve done right while still identifying areas that they need to improve. I have to admit that I shared this strategy with a colleague yesterday and was playfully admonished for the way that “education people” talk. Sure, the rhyming and alliteration in the Glows and Grows name makes it seem elementary, but that’s part of its charm (from my perspective). The simplistic title makes it more accessible to students and helps them let their guard down and be more open and responsive to feedback.


Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia University Press.

Voerman, L., Korthagen, F. A., Meijer, P. C., & Simons, R. J. (2014). Feedback revisited: Adding perspectives based on positive psychology. Implications for theory and classroom practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 43, 91-98.


Giving Thanks

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us in the United States, it’s traditional for people to give thanks for their blessings.  Rather than outline my gratitude for the joys I’ve experienced, I thought I’d use this week’s post to give thanks for some of the lessons I’ve learned recently.

1.  Never underestimate the power of smart people working together.  As 2017 winds to a close, I’m reminded of the numerous opportunities I’ve had to work with brilliant, dedicated colleagues this year.  I want to celebrate those magical, productive moments when everyone involved left their egos at the door, rolled up their sleeves and got to work.  Thank you for your hard work, your motivation, and your creative spirits.  And thank you for teaching me once more about the power of collaboration.

2.  Listen.  You’ll learn a lot.  While I’ve been involved with a number of collaborative efforts this year, a recent meeting with a diverse group of stakeholders still resonates with me.  While we assembled the group to get feedback on a program we’re developing, we left with something very different.  In the words of the great philosophers Jagger and Richards, “you can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find that you get what you need.”  While I’m sure that the Rolling Stones weren’t specifically singing about the power of listening more and talking less, the lesson still applies. To quote a lesser known proverb, “He who speaks, sows.  He who listens, reaps.”

3.  Credit the air in between.  When working with innovative, collaborative people, great ideas are bound to emerge.  For some, the natural tendency is trying to determine exactly from whom the idea emerged and assigning credit.  Most times, however, these ideas don’t belong to a single person but have emerged from the air in between the assembled.  Celebrate the magical energy that allowed the idea to emerge and get to work on making the idea happen.  Move past assigning credit and rejoice in the collaborative electricity that served as the catalyst for innovation to be born.

While this post has mostly focused on the lessons I’ve learned this year from working in collaborative communities, I also want to specifically thank those colleagues who have shared their expertise, their creativity and their time.   Each one of you has taught me lessons too numerous to mention here and your willingness to collaborate (and teach) is appreciated.  Thank you.

Zipper Merges and Evidence-Based Practice

I drive a lot.

I’ve mentioned this in previous blog posts but I feel the need to mention it again. I drive a lot.

Driving a lot means that I get to experience certain driver behaviors more regularly than many others. Almost daily, I’ll encounter the people who drive in the left lane without passing. I’ll see the people who drive for miles and miles with a blinking turn signal. I’ll also see those people who weave in and out of traffic and try to gain whatever minuscule advantage they can.

Across all of the different driver behaviors, there is one that I have taken on as my own personal mission: the zipper merge. If you’re not familiar with the term, the zipper merge relates to lane closings on a highway. You probably know the situation. You’re driving along and you see a sign that says, “Right lane closed in two miles.” This usually starts the countdown. Another mile down the road, you’ll see another sign that says, “Right lane closed in one mile.” In case you missed the previous two signs, you’ll be alerted again a half-mile, quarter mile and 1000 feet before the lane closure. For obvious safety reasons, departments of transportation are excessively vigilant about communicating pending lane closures.

The challenge, however, is what you as the driver do as you encounter the numerous signs. For many drivers, almost inexplicably, they choose to merge when they see the first sign. Maybe they don’t want to be rude and wait until the last minute to merge.  Or maybe they were taught to merge when they see the first sign. Or maybe they just follow the actions of the majority of the other drivers on the road. Regardless of their rationale, they merge early, usually a mile or more before the lane closure.

But, here’s the bigger challenge. Research shows that traffic will move more quickly if drivers wait until the merge point. Many departments of transportation officially recommend the “zipper merge.” In practice, this means drivers should wait until the lane closure and take turns merging. The name actually comes from how the merging traffic would look like the teeth of a zipper coming together if viewed from above. In a study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, they found that the practice reduces the overall length of a backup by 40-50%.  Research also suggests the practice makes merging safer for everyone.

I’ve been advocate of the zipper merge for a while. For some reason, however, the practice is viewed as rude, aggressive and ineffective. Despite numerous states advocating for the zipper merge as a driving practice, many people still merge early and cast an angry eye at those of us who wait until the lane closure to merge. I’ve gotten in my fair share of social media debates with friends and colleagues who look down on us zipper mergers. I’ve also received quite a few offensive hand gestures, honks and curses from neighboring drivers who chose to merge early.

This brings me to the larger point of this post. The zipper merge is but one example of how data and evidence don’t always align with practice. Despite research showing it to be safer and more efficient, the zipper merge is not widely used. But that’s the same result for a host of other evidence-based practices. As humans, we don’t always do the “right” thing.

Bringing this back to teaching and learning, we have to be sure that the practices we choose align with data and evidence. Give prompt feedback for growth. Incorporate active learning instead of lecturing. Provide explicit learning objectives and outline clear expectations. While I don’t know if any of these rise to the cultural dissonance created by the “zipper merge,” there’s a lot of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of these teaching practices. We just need to get instructors to merge into the “right” lane.

Humanity and UDL

In my role as the director of my campus’s teaching and learning center, I asked a colleague to lead a workshop on Universal Design for Learning last week. Around fifty college instructors, administrators and staff attended the workshop, which should help to provide a strong tailwind for our institution to re-examine our curriculum and the instructional approaches we use with our students.

While I’ve written about UDL principles before, I still learned so much through the session. While the workshop facilitator was great, it was also interesting to hear my colleagues’ reactions to UDL. Midway through the first hour of the workshop, another faculty member asked, “aren’t you really just asking us to embrace our humanity?” It was a surprising comment but it definitely gets at the heart of what UDL promotes.

In a lot of ways, UDL isn’t about design at all. It’s about planning for the human experience and providing opportunities for our students to navigate their learning journeys as individuals. Sure, as educators, we have to provide the instructional materials for our students to learn. We need to mindful, however, that there are multiple pathways for students to engage with content and demonstrate their learning. While this type of instruction may seem foreign to some, it’s definitely in line with the human experience.

Walk around any college campus on a sunny day and you’ll see numerous modes of transportation being used. You’ll see people walking and jogging. You’ll see a few students hectically sprinting to class while others leisurely walk hand-in-hand with a loved one. You’ll also see students and faculty using bicycles, skateboards and wheelchairs. Each of these modes of transportation help the individual more easily navigate the college grounds and get from place to place. The great part is that the sidewalks are there to provide common lanes despite the variety of means of navigation.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see areas where pathways are formed off of the designed routes. Despite paved sidewalks crisscrossing the collegiate landscape, some people choose to create a route that’s better for them. Architects call these pathways “desire paths” and they’re part of the human experience. As we have skateboarders, bicyclists, joggers and walkers using the designed routes, we also have those people who get off the beaten path and take a “road less traveled.”

In the process of writing this post, I received an email from a faculty member who attended last week’s workshop.  She wrote about a student in one of her classes who struggled with reading and was falling behind with the assigned content for each class.  Because of the workshop, however, she taught the student how to use text-to-speech technology to convert some of the readings to audio. “It was a real light bulb moment” for the student.

And that’s the promise of UDL. In a lot of ways, we’re the architects of our students’ learning experiences. Like the designers of our collegiate grounds, we have to provide the space for our students to choose their own modes of transportation or develop those “desire paths” in our classrooms. UDL doesn’t mean we should decrease rigor or lower expectations. It just means that we have to “embrace our humanity” and be open to all of the possible ways to navigate our course content.

Handle with Care

Regular readers of this blog will probably remember that I’m a comic book geek. Over the life of this blog, I’ve written about teaching like Batman, searching for rare comics and creating comic books online. This week, I’m going to channel my inner Uncle Ben.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

If you’re a comic book reader, you’ll recognize this quote from the Spider-Man series. Peter Parker’s uncle explains to him that being in a powerful position requires him to use that power responsibly. At the time, Uncle Ben doesn’t know that Peter is actually Spider-Man. He’s more providing some sage advice to the teenager. And then Uncle Ben is tragically killed by someone that Peter Parker/Spider-Man could have stopped earlier in the issue had he only intervened.

I share this quote this week because of the powerful roles we have as teachers. A few years ago, Inside Higher Education featured a study where 100 students were interviewed at an unnamed institution.   Undergraduates were more likely to major in a field if they had an inspiring and caring faculty member in an introductory course.  Students were also equally likely to write off an entire field if they had a single negative experience with a professor.  How we interact with our students can change the course of their academic careers.  That’s powerful stuff.

While I’ve shared this research before, the power of our roles has been really apparent to me recently. I’m on “special assignment” this semester as our College of Education adopts new assessments for our teacher candidates. One of the roles of this position is to oversee formal reviews with teacher candidates who have received unsatisfactory assessments. Depending on the nature of the assessment and the circumstances involved, a formal review can result in a teacher candidate being removed from the program. With the serious outcomes at play, a formal review can be a difficult process for teacher candidates.

But it can also be difficult for faculty too. Deciding a student’s academic fate is a harrowing experience and the situations are rarely clear-cut. As we navigate these decisions, we’re faced with the power and the responsibility of our roles. And that brings us to the title of this post. In many cases, we’re still dealing with developing adults. My cognitive science friends like to remind me that a person’s amygdala continues to develop until age 25 or so. The amygdala is the section of the brain that is believed to control risk management and rational decision-making. As we interact with students and influence their futures, we have to handle them with care.

My Biggest Mistake

A colleague shared an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on whether university teachers should take attendance. The author, Kelli Marshall, draws on an essay from Murray Sperber and argues that, despite the mixed research on mandatory attendance policies, university faculty should forget about taking attendance. Marshall’s argument boils down to the three larger themes.

1. As instructors, we work with developing adults who need to take responsibility for the decisions.
2. Without an attendance policy, potentially disruptive students will choose not to attend.
3. Students choosing to attend can be viewed as an informal assessment of the class and the instructor.

While Marshall’s article offers some thought provoking fodder, it also reminded me of an attendance-related decision that I made over a decade ago. As I enter my 25th year of teaching, I count this decision as one of the biggest instructional mistakes I’ve made in my career.

I was teaching high school physics at the time and I had the privilege of teaching in a classroom that was the farthest point from the cafeteria. This always presented challenges, especially when teaching classes immediately after a lunch period. Because of the distance and the number of students walking in mass from the cafeteria, a few students would come to class late. One year, the occasional tardiness became a little more routine. Several students showed up late everyday, which I began to look as a complete affront to my power and legitimacy as a teacher. I had to do something.

I decided to institute a daily 10-point quiz that students completed when they walked into the room. If students were late, they wouldn’t get to take the quiz and their grade was impacted. After a few days, I had completely lost the class. They lost respect for me and many of the students who once enjoyed the class now saw it as a police state. As I created a policy to punish the students who were a few minutes late, I ended up punishing the whole class. I think some of the students never saw me the same way after instituting that policy.  That decision and the class’s reaction taught me two important lessons:

Pick your battles. Looking across the research the Marshall includes in her article, there are mixed results of instituting a mandatory attendance policy. One study, however, found that stressing over requiring attendance improved students’ rate of attendance, their academic performance and their attitudes about the class. I created a punitive policy that didn’t improve student tardiness but negatively impacted their perception of the class. Rather than instituting a punitive attendance policy, I should have just focused my attention on student learning and examined whether students’ tardiness had any impact on their academic performance.

Weigh the costs. In every instructional decision we make, there are larger impacts and costs. We may choose to spend more time on one subject, which causes us to spend less time on another. In this situation, I didn’t consider the larger cultural impacts of the decision and how it would affect students’ perception and attitude towards the class. And that’s the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from “my biggest mistake.” Classrooms are complex ecosystems that we as instructors need to manage with care. While some policies may seem to offer simple solutions, the resulting impacts are rarely simple.