The more I think about learning and students and the direction that education seems to be headed, the more I think we are about to wander off the map.
Education trends are beginning to focus more and more heavily on course content.
“We have to make content available to as many people as possible.”
“What content do we need them to know?”
“How do we assess the content that they know?”
And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that content isn’t important. Students, people, need to learn a lot of information just to be generally knowledgeable about the world, let alone how to specialize in a field.
But content isn’t going to help us.
Accessible content is not the answer for our education problems.
Standardized testing of content is not the answer to our education problems.
Because the experience a student has with a teacher must be more than packaged content delivery.
It is the job of the teacher to teach their students how to think. How to think for themselves. The teacher teaches the students to tackle problems that have no clear answer. The teacher teaches the students that more often than not, there is no right answer.
However, as we drive the focus toward content and away from the synergistic experience in the interactive classroom, we cripple teachers ability to take advantage of the kind of deep learning that happens when we pause the lesson plan and delve.
That kind of curiosity that must be fostered, encouraged, fueled. And every person has it, some just need a little more kindling than others.
The problem is that a lot of people struggle with their own self identity. A teacher has an enormous amount of power over the outlook of a student. If I tell a student, “I want you to challenge yourself here, because you’re intelligent and I know you can handle it.” More often than not, they rise to the challenge.
Because if you are a teacher, you must be right.
Such a simple thing, to speak some encouraging words. To cheerlead them through the fifth revision. To hold them accountable to high standards and then show them how to meet them. How to rely on themselves. To celebrate with them when the meet their goals. To see them off at graduation.
So that education has been and should be a series of increasingly difficult problems. The teacher provides the tools, the students use the tools to process the problems. And the more real to life the problems the more the students engage and deliver. And grow.
And so do the teachers.
This is the vital core of the education process. But because it cannot be measured in any quantifiable way, it is slowly being marginalized and even myth-ified by people who have never been teachers.
I do not say that in an accusing or angry way. Because from outside the classroom, classes seem like they should be about the content. That makes sense. But we can deliver all of the content in the world in perfect packages and that will not help the majority of our students.
Because they don’t know what to do with it.
Let’s add to that that the current answer is for them to use that content to apply to standardized, multiple choice tests, which do not really simulate the world in any real way.
Let’s add to that that pressure to focus on testing and content that is coming down from above (so many aboves) that the time that teachers WERE taking to focus on the process thinking component of the class is now taken up by testing and test prep.
Yes. I’m talking about K-12.
So why is that a problem for me. Because we are starting to get the wave of students who have had less time to work on process and all on content. And an alarming number of them are intellectually crippled.
They have content in their heads and no context of what to do with it. They have reduced problem solving skills.
Fortunately for all of us, a mind can be opened rather quickly and deftly by an attuned professor.
But none of this has to do with content.
Content is the meal.
We have to teach our students to grow the food. We have to let them get hungry. We have to model that behavior ourselves and help them, and each other, grow, at every opportunity.
And we do that within the context of our content. So that they are learning what they need to know AS they are learning to become deep thinkers (or even adequate problem solvers).
And let me be clear, this is not the fault of K-12 faculty. I haven’t met a single one that feels like primary/secondary education is headed in a good direction.
But until we are able to collectively acknowledge that education is not content delivery, that education is not a business, that education is a dynamic process between people, we are going to continue to shoot ourselves in the foot.
This post is just the beginning of my thoughts on the direction of ed and higher ed. On professional development. On the common core. On testing testing testing. There is so much to do. So much to say. So much to reflect on.
Be well as the semester closes. Go outside. Eat too much. Go see a movie.
We’re all in this together.
In February, I gave a Faculty Academy session about the Students Say twitter account. It revealed more than I ever thought it might about the relationship between students and teachers. The 30 minute session explains all of my findings and the easy things we can do to enhance those relationships. It’s worth the 30 minutes, if I do say so myself.
PD . . . PLN . . . LMNOP . . . EIEIO.
The term “professional development” has become trendy lately. Faculty demand it. Administration pushes it. Few understand it.
Help! I need to be professionally developed!
Get some professional development already!
What the hell is it?
No seriously. We seem to want to find a way to make it an event. Can I get a certificate? Is there a way I can line-item this on my CV? Sometimes? Sure. Conferences, workshops. Those things are all great. But it barely scratches the surface.
So what does that do?
Maybe it’s like a video game. You start off as a Level 1 Professor and work your way up. Collecting achievements and gear as you go. Your own office! Tenure! Fruit-scented dry erase markers. Then we’d know, I guess, who had been professionally developed by how many patches there were on the elbows of his/her suit jacket.
Professional development, however, is just a fancy term for learning. Learning more. Because when you learn, you grow.
The confusion comes, I guess, with this new desire to define it.
“How are you being professionally developed?”
The problem with this is that professional development is like a buffet. At one table you’ve got small groups in hallways talking about the latest chronicle article or the newest medical study. In another area people are chatting across the country and with other types of teachers. There’s a section of conferences, subscriptions to publications. Emails with mentors. Time pursuing personal interests in the field. Tutorials. Trainings. Class.
The other thing about this buffet . . . . most people in the room cannot see every table. They hover around one, unaware that the others exist. It isn’t until one faculty says to another, “Hey, come look at our table!” that branching out begins.
The problem is that we often mistakenly label those who hover in one spot for the whole meal as ones who are not open to being more “developed.” Truly though, most faculty aren’t aware. Most faculty are curious to know more. Most faculty never stop learning. Most faculty are somewhat afraid of looking stupid. Most faculty don’t want others to know, if they didn’t know something that was important.
Most faculty are just sort of regular folk who have a passion for their subject, a passion for teaching, and it is still my insistence, most faculty are deeply passionate and devoted to the world in general, to the future.
But here’s the thing. Not all faculty like shrimp scampi and some are gluten intolerant. Some just really want ice cream sundaes today.
But here’s the thing. Not all faculty like conferences. Some faculty are introverted and do better working on their own or through online discussion. Some faculty just really want to be left alone to read that book they finally have time to read about Directing and Dramaturgy.
That’s the art of it. Creating a space where people go willingly, choosing the types of things they are hungry for, having fellowship with peers both in teaching and in subject matter as well as peers from other disciplines. Provide a space where faculty is free to sample from the offerings without commitment. Without pressure.
The problem comes when professional development becomes an obligation. There is no second when a faculty member who is actually in the process of a PD activity should think “I’m professionally developing myself.”
The obligation then, to education communities and their faculty leaders is to provide the spaces where all of those elements of professional development are there. To stay in touch and active. To encourage others to do so. Not because they should feel obligated, but because of the rewards that they have gotten.
I will provide to you one of my examples.
On Saturday mornings at 8 CST I join a chat on twitter. #rechat to be specific. It is a mix of college and secondary teachers talking about a different subject each week. Always related to students. The first one I participated in sort of by accident but then began coming back weekly. Then I started scheduling grading time after the #rechat because I was always so energized and inspired after those chats. Now I pop in almost every saturday morning and find familiar faces as we discuss each new topic. I meet new people too and add them to my twitter clan.
You can find older chats by going to twitter and searching for the hashtag #rechat.
This type of professional development might not be for everyone. That’s ok. Because it works great for me doesn’t mean it would work great for everyone. But it’s important that everyone knows it is out there. An option. A choice at the buffet today.
Today’s #rechat topic is “Creating Cultures for Change.” I’m excited to hear what my twitter colleagues have to say.
I feel as though I’ve been caught in an endless loop.
As my institution begins to align with the needs of our accrediting body.
As we initiate discussions about data and whether or not collectible data can be the measure of good teaching.
As we tread the delicate waters of discussion between administration and faculty concerning the vast middle ground between classrooms and spreadsheets.
But chairing the committee that is working to do just that, has landed me in an awkward position. And there is nothing about this position that is unique to my institution. From what I gather, we’re pretty normal.
Here’s the problem.
We have excellent teachers. We have good teachers. We have mediocre teachers. We have poor teachers.
We have teachers that have been teaching for decades. We have teachers from different countries. We have teachers who just got out of college. We have teachers who are about to retire.
We do not have a mechanism in place to evaluate the quality of our professors.
Once a professor has tenure, there is almost no evaluation process for their quality as a teacher.
That’s a bad spot to be in when you’re a crappy professor. Or a good spot.
But most professors I know are pretty good. I guess. I don’t know how good. I’ve never seen them teach. In fact, I’ve been at this institution for 7 years and I don’t think that I’ve ever seen any of my colleagues teach. Not unless it was for a tenure evaluation.
So I don’t know if they are good teachers or not. And truthfully, I don’t know if I am or not. I think I have some pretty good ideas. But my ideas are usually inspired by something. Something I see or hear.
Some of the most valuable help I received was in my first year at Richland. Other faculty gave me hints and suggestions. That time ended six years ago. I’m on my own. We are all, on our own.
But that’s not the end of it.
I have very few methods of getting better. My peers agree. This sort of improvement is difficult alone. Worse, there’s a vast middle ground of faculty who don’t seem to care.
This has nothing to do with the relationship between administration and faculty.
This is more important than that. When you are part of an institution of higher learning you own part of it. So that when faculty struggle, and we do nothing but suggest that student go and complain to the dean, we are part of the problem.
There are good arguments about protecting faculty from administrators who might have ill intentions. But there is nothing that says that faculty alone cannot do more.
Demand more from each other. From ourselves.
We insist upon our students best efforts and we grade them accordingly. We passionately discuss how important it is to revise, improve, revisit. Check sources, use the latest content.
Do we do this ourselves? Do we work to improve? Do we ask for feedback?
Not from our students. Not from our deans. But from each other.
It IS scary. Believe me, I’m right there with you.
We have a newly formed faculty senate. It is small but it is growing and its early works has been promising. But I think that as a governing body for faculty this should become a major focus. Administration should not be evaluating teaching. We should be soliciting evaluation from our peers and helping each other be better. With the same rigor we expect from our students.
As a governing body. Standing as representatives of a strong faculty.
But unless the faculty is strong, those are only words.
When the spine of an institution does not work as one, it does not support the body and it does not work as it should.
It does not run.
I’m tired of reading the debates about whether MOOCs are or aren’t good for education. It’s clear that they are not. It’s a no-brainer. There is nothing this offers anyone beyond a lot of cash. The end.
You will argue that it gives self-motivated learners an avenue for excelling.
A self-motivated learner is good at finding those avenues on their own.
You will argue that it provides large scale access to students who might not otherwise be able to learn.
It won’t be enough.
An education is not a simple thing. A person may make a choice that they want to “go to school” or “go back to school” but the complexity of that simple choice ripples through everything that they do.
And that’s just the quantitative stuff. Raw data, debt, time, knowledge.
An education is more. People moving through their education learn from the all of people they encounter. The relationship of the student and the teacher is intertwined. Teachers become a team of mentors, tutoring not just in a subject but in the world around them.
As children we sit down in classrooms. We sit for hours every day. Learning about the world around us. Learning about the world within us. [Welcome to Earth, the orientation starts promptly at birth. Groups sessions starting in year five.] Discovering our talents. Shaping our futures. The teacher. The professor. The people chosen to train the new humans for adulthood.
And not just to get them ready, but to try to make them more ready than when we were there. To take lifetimes of knowledge and distill it down to the most essential information that they will need to survive and also to light the fire of their own passion, so that they might attack the wide world and learn from it, and love it.
Love it so much that they understand the gravity of the task they have. To prepare the newer humans to become the stewards of this place that we all share. To examine the flaws of the human race and try to do better. And to show them why they must want to be better. Always better. Always more.
But to do this, the mentor and the student must communicate. Respecting the identity and the agency of both. When a student is diminished to one of hundreds, in every class that they take, they have no identity. Their education lacks the urgency. It is not alive and active.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Last week I posted a blog which described some of my frustrations and concerns about Canvas. Specifically I spoke about wanting to know more about how the Instructure team made decisions, researched and received feedback. I would be remiss if I didn’t come back and say that a few hours after my post Mitch Macfarlane, the VP of Product at Instructure had commented on my blog. The next day I was asked if I would be willing to have a phone conversation with him.
Heck yes I would, I had a lot of questions.
Mitch and I talked on Tuesday and we have emailed a bit since then. I would say that he seemed to very genuinely listen to and understand what I was saying. We talked about everything from the philosophy of purpose for an LMS to specific concerns I had about the Canvas UI.
What probably made me the most hopeful was the earnestness that Mitch approached talking with me and problem solving. We talked about generalities and specifics. Now I will wait to see if the specifics pan out. I expect they will and as that happens trust is built for the generalities.
I’m hoping to make it to the Canvas conference this summer. It will be nice to attend a LMS conference and meet with other Canvas high end users. I’ve got my hands on it, now it’s time to see what it can do.
I am optimistic though. Instructure is actively pursuing feedback. Their philosophy of feedback/improvement seems to be shifting. And from there we wait and see what the feedback leads to.
In the mean time, I have classes to build and grading to do. And from that I will probably have blogs to write.
Professional Development is a weird sort of thing. I like it though. It creates an atmosphere of continual improvement. It is the college saying “Keep getting better at what you do.” Which is cool because teachers are usually pretty excited about learning things. It’s difficult though, to find outlets for professional development for some of us. I can’t exactly enroll in classes at my local university. I’m qualified to be teaching those classes. Not that I can’t get value from them but I really would like to go and sit with a guru and have my head exploded with awesomeness for 16 weeks. The universities and residencies that I’d love to be a part of are just too far away.
And distance learning doesn’t touch directing and performance. They barely speak the same language.
Thankfully there is another way. The best classroom for theatre folk is on the stage and in the audience. I had made a half-hearted effort to see more shows last year but that collapsed under the weight of too many of my own productions.
This year, however, is so very very brand new. Filled with possibility and potential like a peanut butter and nutella sandwich.
So it has been decided that this will be the year of less output and more input. A great inhale. A year of giving less and accepting more. Feeding the monster. A great hard reset.
I have no idea if this is going to work or if in two weeks you’ll find me hip deep in some rogue production. But just because I’m not sure it will work doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a try.
My goal is to see 52 plays this year and write something about each of them. I’m not going to put any parameters on what that something is. Process rather than output.
It took me an hour to assemble a good starter list to get me through the end of May. Most seasons are only announced that far ahead. There are 26 plays on the list. Which is good, because summer can be a dry time for theatre.
So if you are going to theatre ANYWHERE and want a companion, hit me up. I’m probably going and if I haven’t heard of it, I’m probably going to go.
I’m excited. And a little scared.
Here’s the list of productions I plan to see through May. A Professional Development Agenda, so to speak. Let’s see if I can make it to May.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Legacy Theatre
The Fantasticks - Hoogland
Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson – Station Theatre
Leaving Iowa – Theatre 7
Art - Hoogland
No Child . . . – UIUC
Time Stands Still - Heartland
You Can’t Take It With You - Parkland
Sons of the Prophet - Station Theatre
JB – ISU
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown – Hoogland
Machinal – Millikin
Marrying Terry – Theatre 7
Or - Station Theatre
Tales of the Lost Formicans – ISU
The Normal Heart - UIUC
Awake and Sing – UIS
The Adding Machine - ISU
Trailer Park Musical – Pipe Dreams
Midsummer Night’s Dream - ISU
Spring Awakening – Millikin
Middletown – Heartland
The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Parkland
Next to Normal – Station Theatre
Proof – Hoogland
Cracker – Pipe Dreams
I’m on an LMS adventure. Learning Management System. An LMS is a learning management system. I’m telling you that because people always ask. A system where we try to manage learning. Online learning. As opposed to . . . regular learning. Traditional learning? Conventional learning? Face-to-face? F2F? We allow these terms into our teaching and learning space with little to no scrutiny. It makes for an interesting reflection.
But that’s not why I have taken to the blog. I have taken to the blog today because I have started teaching with Instructure’s Canvas LMS. Learning Management System. I am one of the pilot teachers. That is exciting because I love new stuff. That is tricky because I’m on the front lines. All of my problems are bound to be new.
So I find myself in the following situation a lot.
I want this thing to behave in this way. Does my inability to make it happen mean that I have not figured out how to do it. OR, does it mean that the feature is not possible in Canvas?
This slows things down. But it’s pretty normal for piloting and the bonus is that by the time the rest of the faculty are getting their feet wet we’ve managed to suss out most of the idiosyncrasies. However sometimes the issue at hand doesn’t make any sense.
THAT is where I am today.
I was grading one of my class discussions. About half way down the page I run across the following sentence.
“This entry has been deleted.”
That’s it. No little cog wheel in the corner to give me menu options or anything.
Menu options like “History” “Report”. Even just having the text of the deleted message grayed out so that only I can see it. But no, nothing.
I check my settings. It is not possible to disable a student’s ability to delete.
I email Online Learning. Administrators also do not have this option.
Whatever the poster had posted was gone. I don’t even know who it was that posted and then deleted it.
And it was at that time that I began to wonder what the Instructure people were thinking. Where did this option seem like something that needed to be preserved? Was it for the student’s ability to rewrite their thoughts?
I went to the Canvas website to find out just that, but I couldn’t log onto their feature request forum. Fortunately I carry my soap box with me.
This wasn’t the first time that an Instructure decision left my head a little muddy. The first time was when I realized that we could not hide content from students. There was no way to make things invisible.
The original answer was troubling. This was back in the pre-canvas days. When they knew we were still shopping for an LMS.
“We try really hard to make sure everyone has an accurate depiction of the scope of the course through the whole semester. You can lock a module, which means all the content inside of the module will be inaccessible to students, but we don’t allow teachers to hide the existence of content within the module.” -Brian Whitmer
We were told later that this was a feature that was coming. We’ve been told since that “meh, maybe not”, then we were told it was part of a rad new set of features, we were told it was really complex to do so it was taking longer, then we were told “meh, maybe not.”
What does this prove? Well it says to me a couple of things.
Canvas creators think more like students than like faculty. Gut response answers seem to say, “If we don’t understand why you want it, it is probably a devious professor thing and in the spirit of openness, you are denied.”
Canvas developers aren’t pulling their weight. (Canvas sometimes states that things are really hard. Even when other LMSs have them already.) Who wants to play dumb old Nintendo when we have Sega? Am I right? Am I right?
That’s really all I’ve got. I’d love to hear more of an answer from Canvas but I can’t log onto their site right now. As far as the whole “This entry has been deleted.” Well there is a nightmare and a half that has in no way been thought out from the side of the professor. I can hear a litany of excuses now.
1. Discussion are time stamped so you would know if they changed something.
2. You could take screenshots if something were questionable.
3. What if a student just wanted to take another stab at it and do better . . . for you?!
4. Why are you such a hater, Michelle?
Because I sit as the Chair of the Judicial Board. This has Grade Appeal written all over it. As well as harassment when that delightful troll of a student starts posting and deleting things. What a wonderful excuse? “How did that get deleted? I swear it was an 800 page discussion about the pros and cons of extemporaneous speaking and active metaphors! Can I have two extra days to rewrite it?”
How about this? Don’t let them delete things. It isn’t hard. It’s a feature that had to be written into the LMS in the first place. It doesn’t make any sort of sense from a teacher OR an administrator perspective.
So I guess I build my case. Don’t get me wrong, I love Canvas. I am the one that brought it to our team two years ago. I love the underdog. But underdog is a twilight time. And Canvas is growing fast. That’s a difficult transitional time and a dangerous one to be pushing back so hard against the drivers of your system.
As much as it is a disservice for teachers to ignore the feedback of their students, it is a disservice to both faculty AND students to serve the faculty who are the stewards of online education such a cold dish.
Demonize Blackboard all you want (and rightly so), but Blackboard was once a young upstart, fresh and hip thing and all the cool kids were doing it. Be careful Canvas. Stay far away from the dark side.
A doctor is always his worst patient. Isn’t that what they say? I am always quick to stress how important it is to stop and reflect and yet, I almost never do it.
But I found myself in a funk. Our last show was poorly attended.
Now, I know it’s a good show and we did great in Springfield, but the turn-out here in town was so dismal by Sunday we were praying for double digits. And we got them! Just.
So that sort of ended the season with a whimper. More like a lie-on-the-couch-and-wonder-where-it-all-went wrong” weekend. Until this morning, when I decided to tally up the taking this year for me and theatre.
The Laramie Project
This production won for me on so many levels. The social justice side of it was incredibly rewarding. The NOH8 campaign that was so embraced by faculty, students, and staff, being able to initiate real and candid discussion between people of different viewpoints. Taking the show to Springfield for PRIDE and for the Diversity Conference. Then receiving the award for diversity. Though I may not have said much at the time (have I ever mentioned that I get embarrassed easily?) that award means a great deal to me. A public acknowledgement that that sort of activity is looked upon positively, encouraged, recommended. That is a good place to be in.
Artistically, Laramie was all that I ever thought it could be and more. With this production more than any other I completely trusted the director-engineer in my head. The one that swirls the pictures around and materializes them. The one who talks with her hands, not with her words. It feels safer to keep one hand on the rail but I can say for Laramie I managed to go into it arms up and screaming and was rewarded for that faith in myself.
And we turned the theatre into a black box with success! My heart sped up when I saw it. That intimate space is here and ours after all. So many shows back on the roster!
In addition to those two already amazing things, I was actually IN the Laramie Project. Like IN, in it. What a terrifying nightmare that turned out to be. And exciting and exhilarating. How much you forget, when you are not on stage, how different that world can be on the other side of the proscenium. It’s important to go to the other side once in awhile. We forget. We shouldn’t, but we do.
Fairytales of the Future
This was like summer camp for grown ups. I basically got to work with some amazing kids and actors creating a play that revolved around the conflicting world of super heroes and princesses. The kids wrote it and we staged it and it was completely amazing. I never thought I would like working with kids. I’m not sure when that began to turn. Maybe when I realized that you don’t have to treat them like kids. And they like it better when you don’t. And then they get to learn that adults don’t always have to be serious. And they like you better when you aren’t.
Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)
This show is like an old friend. So funny and the process is so easy and fun. It’s almost cheating to do this show and call it work. Loved my guys, loved the show, being silly for money is literally my dream job.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Do you hear that ominous music playing. I still have very mixed feelings about this play. I don’t know that I have truly processed it. Though I love it dearly I can’t help but feel that it tried to kill me a couple of times. Me and several of my friends. It’s a huge beast and deep deep deep. It gets its clutches in you and you struggle to pull yourself out of the muck of it every night. But I did say “tried.” We are alive. And in the end we did win the day. I was very pleased with the production. Even though we may bear the wounds awhile longer.
The Santaland Diaries
I love this show. I love the script. I love our little set. I love the lights. I adore the message and the crass bits of the story. I love the people I work with. We took the show to Springfield and they adored it. So there’s that. At least I know that the show is as good as I believe it to be. And that is something.
Sooooo. All in all it looks like I had a crappy weekend, but when you total up the wins for the year it’s not much of a competition. I had a landslide of HUGE wins this year. So I guess I’ll stop moping and go make some cookies. I’ve got to figure out how to top this next year.
Oh, and spoiler alert-
Fall 2013 – Sam Shepard’s Buried Child
There we were-demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance-and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin, unpopulated air. We ransomed our dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened. Don’t you see? We’re actors-we’re the opposite of people!
We’re actors…. We pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was. We were caught, high and dry. It was not until the murderer’s long soliloquy that we were able to look around; frozen as we were in profile, our eyes searched you out, first confidently, then hesitantly, then desperately as each patch of turf, each log, every exposed corner in every direction proved uninhabited, and all the while the murderous King addressed the horizon in his dreary, interminable guilt…. Our heads began to move, wary as lizards, the corpse of unsullied Rosalinda peeped through his fingers, and the King faltered. Even then, habit and a stubborn trust that our audience spied on us from behind the nearest bush, forced our bodies to blunder on long after they had emptied of meaning, until like runaway carts they dragged to a halt. No one came forward. No one shouted at us. The silence was unbreakable, it imposed itself on us, it was obscene. We took off our crowns and swords and cloth of gold and moved silent on the road to Elsinore.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Thank you, Mr. Stoppard