Saturday, August 17, 2013

You May Be a Truly Terrific Teacher If...

Teacher in action, Rajasthan

In my day job, teachers come to me. I help them use technology in their teaching. And in the process, I see many different, um, teaching styles. (We no longer believe in "learning styles," but maybe we can recycle the concept for teaching.)

I have learned to spot the committed and experienced pedagogue: what I call, "The Truly Terrific Teacher." How can you recognize the Truly Terrific Teacher? You may even be one yourself. (I apologize in advance to Jeff Foxworthy.)

You may be a Truly Terrific Teacher If...

1. care, really care, about the learner.

There was on old saying: the most important thing is authenticity––and if you can fake that, you've got it made.

Truly Terrific Teachers care. It vibrates from every fiber of their being. They're all about the learner. They're curious about the learner. They want to know what the learner thinks and feels. They want to know how the learner is progressing. They want the learner to have a good experience.

When the Truly Terrific Teacher sees a learner fail, a part of her dies inside. It's not just the learner's failure, nor simply the teacher's; the failure is structural: something wasn't there, wasn't done well.

2. have high standards––and you match them with high support.

"High standards plus high support." It's a well-known formula, but the reasoning bears repeating.

  • If you set high standards but you do not support the learner, she gets frustrated, feels betrayed and ultimately gives up.

  • If you do not challenge the learner, she's bored. Without a challenge, why bother? This is the problem with breaking everything down to such small-and-easy steps that no thinking is involved. Students know "busywork" when they see it. They can smell it. Tiny tasks without some larger issue or question are "busywork." No one likes that: not learners, and not teachers either.

3. understand when not to help.

Me helping you is different from me doing the work for you.

This well known by folks in the helping professions. Psychotherapist and counsellors don't magically heal through the magic of cognitive re-framing and uncovering repressed memories; they help the client change by giving moral support, space for reflection, acknowledgment of feelings, and all those other "common factors" underlying of all forms of therapy. (This has been known for (some time)[].)

Many teachers fear helping the student. They believe: it's the student's job to learn, and it surely is. But if the learner does not know help is available, it's discouraging.

The best teachers I know are very clear: the student must try first.

  • The student must do work so the teacher can diagnose the issues.
  • The student may even be given the means to diagnose her own problems––to take on a task, correct the results herself, and identify the trouble spots.

Truly Terrific Teachers sometimes send students away when the student arrives having done nothing. "You have to start so I can help you." The Truly Terrific Teacher may help the student start smaller, may tailor a new, easier task to the learner's needs. But this kind of expert teacher knows that teaching is not injecting knowledge like filling in a Twinkie.

4. plan, plan more and always plan strategically.

Truly Terrific Teachers are always looking at what they're doing and asking themselves questions.

  • Okay, I got them this far, but can I get them further?
  • Where do the learners have problems? Where do they get hung up? How can I help them over these stumbling blocks?
  • What can I do differently?
  • What might the students do differently?
  • Are the teaching materials the best they can be? I may like them, but do the students like them? Do the materials help more than they hinder?
  • Should I provide some more assistance? Or should the students find what they need and then share that information with me and their peers?

Planning for the TTT seems non-stop. She may be revising next year's syllabus even as this year is still going on. Or she may collect notes somewhere to later sit down and revise the course––the syllabus being that planning document which keeps the plan together in one place.

Over- and Under-Teaching.

What's the opposite of the Truly Terrific Teacher?

It's not a question of being bad. It's not a moral issue or a judgment. It's a question of not making the effort, or the right effort, effort directed towards something effective. You can change the air freshener in your car and shine the tires: it won't make you a better driver.

The opposite of the Truly Terrific Teacher is the Over-/Under- Teacher: doing too much, too little––or a bit of both.

The comparisons with the Truly Terrific Teacher are point-for-point contrasts.

You're an Under-Teacher if:

  • you never find out what the students already know;
  • you never find out who the students are;
  • you never ask the students what they need.

One-size fits all teaching is incurious and likely ineffective.

You're an Over-Teacher if:

  • you spend endless amounts of time with the students;
  • you answer all their questions, rewrite all their papers, and help them do all the homework.
  • you could be mistaken for a student's relative.

You may be an Over-/Under-Teacher if...

1. believe that your obligation starts and ends with you giving the students information.

  • You show up.
  • You lecture.
  • You answer one or two questions.
  • And you leave.

It's the student's obligation to learn. (It surely is.)

You show up and deliver the goods. So what's the problem?

The problem is: just delivering information may or may not support learning. It depends on how the information is structured and what the learner needs.

2. have high standards and no support. Or no clear standards, because what you teach is too complex to be oversimplified.

High standards are great. But students may not understand those standards. So just the standards alone are not enough.

And if your subject area is very complex and subtle, it's hard to construct standards. But basic standards can be useful even just as the starting point for a conversation.

3. help so much that you do the students' work for them.

Are students in your office all the time?

Do you take the paper and pen or computer from their hand and show them?

It can be a very effective exercise to ask yourself: "How could I get them to do something to learn this without actually telling them the answer?" Hinting, it used to be called. It's really not a bad idea. If you gave the student a clear goal and lots of hints, that would be better than doing the work for her.

4. one can tell what year it is based on your syllabus.

  • Have you been copying the same syllabus for the last ten years?
  • Is your syllabus a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy?
  • Do you still use White-Out to change a few dates–&ndashand nothing else?

You don't really change the way you teach, because the same number of students get A's, B's and C's each year––so why bother?

Because you could help your students learn better. That's why.

Some Simple Steps Towards Terrific Teaching.

Sometimes people don't teach so terrifically because they don't know what steps to take.

That is: if you don't teach others well, you may not be good at teaching yourself many things––including how to teach well.

It sounds a bit circular, but whatever shape it is, there are some simple concrete steps to take to improve one's results as a teacher.

  1. Find out more about your students. Give a first assignment asking them their interest in the topic, any relevant prior experience. Find out what they liked and didn't about prior courses in your department––not to dig up dirt about colleagues, but to identify possible gaps in your students' knowledge or key misunderstandings about the discipline and departmental expectations.
  2. Ask your students how things are going? Consider starting each class meeting by asking if the students had questions or problems. Could they find the reading? Was it hard to understand? Was it boring or interesting? Show some interest in what students do and don't enjoy. They may become honest with you and see you as an ally in having a good learning experience––which is not the same thing as
  3. Whan a student performs poorly, consider asking yourself what additional support could have been provided. Consider even asking the student how she could have done better. Imagine that the number of students who earn A's, B's and C's are functions of something about the course: deadlines, reminders, previous assignments, triage that helps you find out what the learners' strengths and weaknesses are.
  4. Try to make your standards as explicit as possible without being voluminous. Look at existing stronger and weaker papers and try to develop a holistic description of what those look like. Share those descriptions with the students. Try to build into the syllabus steps and actions students can take to target elements of those holistic descriptions. E.g., if a very good paper is unified, you might ask students to draft outlines, share them with peers and for each outline pick the one element which is the most weakly connected.
  5. For areas where students have problems, invent some support mechanisms. If students don't format their bibliographies well, ask for one to be submitted early so you can give feedback. Or give examples of better and worse bibliographies, with praiseworthy points and faults clearly marked––as you would in handing back work. You may end up saving your own time (and red ink) by helping students avoid problems in advance. And this gives you more time to discuss the subject matter, rather than matters of form.
  6. Emphasize the real-world importance of the tasks. Give a comparison to real work and point to the consequences of not understanding the subject matter. This helps avoid students seeing what they're doing as 'busywork.'
  7. When students ask for help, consider asking them to bring something, however small. This can help the student know: you need something from them in order to help them. It must be a small task, or the student may become overwhelmed and fail to show up.
  8. Help your students understand what effective studying is. After the midterm, ask your students to fill out a survey giving their midterm grade and how they studied. Let them know you'll be sharing their answers but not their names, so ask them not to put in any identifying information. Then sort the results by grade so students can see what A, B and C students do to prepare for an exam. For the final exam, compare the grades by student, and you should see an improvement for the students who earned lower scores on the midterm.
  9. Revise your syllabus. Take notes each year on what doesn't go so well. Then before you teach the course again, drag those notes out and figure out things you might change on your syllabus: extra reading, more time for papers, time to make revisions, etc.

And remember what good learners know: Try something, try anything––but only one thing at a time.

––Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, August 9, 2013

Against Ticky-Tacky Gamification

Trends will be trends. They’re trends because everyone does them. Mindless imitation? Or a really good idea?

Of course, who wants to do something everyone else is doing? It’s like that Yogi Berra saying: “No one goes there any more––it’s too crowded.”

Gamification in education threatens to be another "trend" in the bad sense of that word.

When I was a kid––don’t ask when that was––there was a song called “Little Boxes.” It was a kind of humorous folk-protest song, and the target was the suburbs: those rows on rows of identical quickly-built houses.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.

There’s a green one and a blue one
And a pink one and a yellow one.
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,
And they all look just the same.

I often think of this song when I see one of those reality shows in which dull people rehab a perfectly nice old house to be a McMansion.

Every “social” web site now seems a bit like this.

  • Every user has a profile page.
  • You can post photos.
  • Users can send each other messages––because of course the one thing everyone wants in life is more email.
  • Blah blah blah.

At this point, you can download software that has all these same tools. But it’s just like the song. Little social sites made of ticky-tacky. And they all look just the same.

Gamification is the new suburban ticky-tacky house/social web site––but for learning.

Most people’s idea of “gamification” is shallow and trivial:

  • Every user has a profile page.
  • You earn points.
  • There’s a leader board.
  • Blah blah blah.

Like the song says: And they all look just the same.

But there are reasons to look to games as we plan learning and help others learn and plan learning. Games are important.

  • Playing is likely primordially human. Games, sports, contests and play are ancient. There is one whole conception of man not as a maker or thinker but as a creature who plays: homo ludens.
  • Games are motivating. People actually enjoy playing games. Different people enjoy different games. But almost everyone enjoys some game or other.
  • Games are learnable. This is often overlooked. If you couldn’t learn a game, you couldn’t play it. So a game itself is a learnable thing. And most games have some kind of pleasure in getting better at them.

So making an activity game-like can mean: making it engaging, motivating and learnable. And that seems good. But we need some notion of what’s involved in that.

If points and leader boards are not the key elements of games we should bring to learning, what are they?

There are five elements of games which seem fundamental and which bring clarity and order to game activities––and which we should consider using when we organize learning activities. They are largely spatial, though some are temporal.

  • Borders. Boundaries. Edges. A field of play. The space where the action is.
    • Games and sports involve some bounded space. Only what happens there truly matters.
    • You can’t play baseball from the locker room. You have to be on the field. You can’t play chess on your lap. You can play tennis on a table, but that’s a different sport, and it’s not just any table (though one could surely improvise).
  • Goals.
    • I mean: a physical place you have to get to to earn something or win. The end zone. Home base. In chess it’s where the king is.
    • The organizing role seems clear––as does the motivating power.
  • Field Markings.
    • In football, you know if you’ve moved the ball ten yards or not. And you know how far from the end zone you are.
    • This is likely more important than points. Points tell you where you stand, who’s ahead. But so do markers which let everyone measure progress.
    • Physical positions in a game do more than show a general progression: they have deep implications for what is happening and what is possible.
      • In baseball, being on first base is quite a bit different than being on third base. Different stakes. Different consequences. Different strategies.
  • Flows and Cycles. What gives what to whom when? How is the entire time of the play broken into segments and units?
    • Many games and sports have turns: your turn, my turn.
    • Innings. Sets. Games. Matches. Rounds. Time figures heavily in sport and play.
    • In baseball, the ball travels from pitcher to catcher, maybe to the bat, then to whomever, then to the player, who’s running to evade the trajectory of the ball towards him.
    • A relay race is all about flow: the baton’s hand-off.
  • Positions. Aka roles. Specialized jobs or functions.
    • The pitcher does something different than the catcher.
    • The king, queen and rook all move differently. They have different potentialities, different strengths and weaknesses.

(I’ve left out rules and strategy, because they’re abstract and conceptual, whereas the five elements I’ve listed are spatio-temporal. We already do too much to make learning abstract and conceptual; so the idea that teaching and learning happen concretely in space and time seems worth emphasizing as a counterweight.)

Learning isn’t just cramming stuff into your head. Nor is it simply being trained like a lab rat. Significant learning involves consciously changing your behavior: being able to observe, plan, control and select your actions with strategic purpose in order to achieve this result rather than that. If the learner doesn’t have these five elements, she likely can’t orient herself towards what she needs to do, nor act purposefully to achieve a specific result.

  • Borders. What separates chemistry from baking? Or alchemy? How are we having a discussion about literature––and not just chatting about life-in-general? What is the specificity of the activity which makes it a discipline?
  • Goals. It’s not just “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” We all make fun of that question, but that question points to a real concern.
    • What counts as success in this discipline? What kinds of performance do I have to give? What’s a better and worse one?
    • These are questions about the contents of the discipline––not just an external concern with grades.
  • Field Markings. Where am I? How am I doing?
    • Am I closer to the end of the course than the beginning?
    • Am I performing well or poorly?
    • Am I inches from achieving a good result? Or did I lose 20 yards and now need to move the ball 30?
  • Flows & Cycles. Where is the locus of control? Who initiates the learning?
    • When is the first paper due? Where do I turn things in? When do I get them back?
    • What are the units and modules? How often should I open the textbook?
  • Positions. Who does what? What am I responsible for?
    • Is the teacher a coach, mentor, and expert? Does she give feedback? Lecture and not grade? Grade and not lecture?
    • What are my responsibilities as a student?
    • If I’m part of a group, am I the editor? The project manager? The facilitator?

Of course, most of these game-like elements can be described using the jargon of learning theory.

  • The field of play is Bloom’s competence: you are basically doing it right, or you’re not. You can add or you can’t. You know your letters and numbers. It’s similar to prerequisite knowledge.
  • Goals are learning objectives. It’s what needs to be accomplished, under what conditions and to what standards.
  • Field markings are formative assessments: testing people and letting them know how they’re progressing.
  • Sociolinguists have concerned themselves with turn-taking in the classroom––who speaks when. Otherwise, questions about how long a class period should be and how often the course topics should change are sometimes seen as ‘merely’ practical concerns.
  • Positions don’t have an exact equivalence. But in psychotherapy there’s something called role preparation––which means ‘Are you ready to be a good patient?’ And in education, we get concerned about cognitive strategies, which means ‘Do you know how to study?’

But truly: is it better to explain something to people in terms that are clear, concrete and familiar? Or in terms of some obscure theories that most people don’t know too well?

The difference between trivial gamification and really learning from how games work is: the player of a game or sport can direct her efforts purposefully towards a successful performance. Learning involves steering and self-orientation, the continuous adjustment of a performance with respect to a standard which is being acquired.

By contrast, trivial gamification just adds bells and whistles. And that kind of ‘keeping up with trends’ could end up leaving us off the field of play entirely.

––Edward R. O’Neill