Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Concerns About the Future of American Education: Betsy DeVos

Senate confirmation proceedings for Betsy DeVos--the nominee for Secretary of Education--are underway. DeVos is a polarizing figure, it seems. I have talked with a few people who think she is an amazing choice for Secretary of Education. But, from others, I have also heard grave concerns about her potential to lead the U.S. Department of Education. Honestly, the hearing has left me with little to be excited about. I see so much political theater in the questioning, and too little substance in her responses to questions, and some of them were downright troubling to me. One example (I'm paraphrasing): "Guns might be needed in schools in case of grizzly bear attacks." (No, I'm not kidding.)

Betsy DeVos
Image by Keith A. Almli [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The trouble is that it's pretty easy to push a video clip of an outrageous statement (like the one I've linked above) through social media, and that is likely to get people chattering. And, WOW is there a lot of chatter, in response to the bears comment, and quite a few others she made in the hearing.

I am not sure what to think about DeVos yet, actually. And so it's with great interest over the past day that I've been following some of my fellow tweeting-teachers whom I deeply respect. I have seen a lot of comments along the lines of, "She's never taught in public schools. She's never taught at all! And her kids went to private schools, and she went to private schools--how can she possibly understand public schools?" I want to tread lightly here; I think that these are real concerns, and these are questions that should be asked. 

But...I also want to push back, ever-so-gently on one point.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Science as a Story: Promoting Cognitive Dissonance

I have to confess, I really like messing with my students. I mean, I really enjoy getting them to think about things in a new way, to reframe their previous thinking, to not just think-outside-the-box but knock-it-to-pieces-and-build-a-new-box.

I had one of those moments in my science methods class today, which was a joy this early in the semester. We are right at the beginning; today was our second class meeting. Science methods is a course for future teachers where they learn about how to teach science in the elementary or middle school classrooms they are preparing to enter in the near future. We are at the part of the course where we are thinking about foundational questions, such as, "What is science?" and "Who is a scientist?" and "Why do so many elementary teachers fear (or at least dislike) teaching science?" and "Why does Professor Mulder ask us to do so many weird things in this class?" (Okay, maybe not that last least, not yet. They will be asking that in a couple weeks...)

As part of today's lesson, I asked them to start thinking about the story of science.

Here was part of my presentation, the part where I challenged them to remember what "science class" was like, and gave them a different way of thinking about what "science" could be.

Science Stories? - Created with Haiku Deck, presentation software that inspires

At the point in the presentation where I asked them to think about science as a story (the third slide here,) I had them turn to a partner and take a minute to discuss how "science as a story" fit with their experience with science in school.

It was interesting to see them turn to their partners and sort of shrug as if to say, " as a story..." I wandered around the room to eavesdrop a bit, and one pair caught my attention when they said something like, "You got us, Mulder. There's no "story" in science."

And that was the moment when I knew I had them. They were trying to find the connection, trying and failing. But I could tell from their expressions and body english that they wanted to believe it was true, even if just because I was bringing this idea up.

After their minute to discuss was up, I called the class back together, and we talked about how the idea of science as a story would change the experience of science class. What would the students' role become? How would the teacher's role shift? Would the content be experienced in the same way? What would be the same? What would look different?

From there, we turned the corner to their first major assignment for the course: writing a science autobiography--telling their own science story, or perhaps finding themselves in the story for the first time.


It was a great class meeting, from my perspective at least. I was able to promote some cognitive dissonance for my students. Cognitive dissonance is just what it sounds like: a "clash" between two ideas in need of resolution, because they can't be held simultaneously. Sort of like playing a white key and a the adjacent black key on a keyboard simultaneously: the sound is dissonant, not harmonious, and is in need of resolution. In my students' case, some of them have negative views of science as a subject--for a variety of reasons--but after our first two class meetings, they are already starting to see that science can be playful, and intriguing, and engaging, and--dare I say it--even fun. This is a conflicting pair of ideas for them. And the idea that "science" can be explored as a story...well, let's just say that I think we are going have to keep working on resolving these ideas, because they are still clashing a bit for some students.

I'm hopeful though, seeing how my students were learning into the playful, hands-on investigations in class, and their level of discussion, and their willingness to explore new ideas--even ones that conflict with their previous experiences--gives me a lot of hope that this is going to be a semester full of learning for us all.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Ending Up Where I Need to Be

I recently saw this quote on Twitter. It's a good one from science fiction writer, Douglas Adams:

This resonated with me. The quote comes from Adams' book, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul. (I'll warn you off of reading it, unless you like quirky, British sci-fi.)

This captures my current state as a professor pretty neatly.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

It's About the Outcome

One of the fantastic future teachers I have had the privilege of teaching this past fall tweeted this to me just after Christmas...

I love this so much, because this is just the kind of stuff we talk about in Intro to Ed. My often-stated comment that students often wind up quoting back to me is, "Teaching is not for the faint of heart." We talk about how the teaching profession is simultaneously elevated and denigrated in our society. We talk about how hard it is to be a teacher today, but what an incredible opportunity it provides for those called to work with kids, shaping the next generation.

It gives me great joy when they get it.

I often make a New Year's resolution, and since I'm at the end of New Year's Day as I write this, I'm thinking about what I should resolve to do this year. So often my resolutions end up being about things I think I should change, like "I should get more exercise," or "I should read the Bible more," or "I should take my wife out more often," things like that. And, I probably should do those things.

But is it weird if I want to resolve to keep doing something this year too?

I resolve to (continue to) keep focusing "on the outcome" with the pre-service teachers I serve.

I resolve to (continue to) make my classroom practice a model for them of what an engaged, enthusiastic teacher looks like.

I resolve to (continue to) have those challenging conversations with my students who are struggling to discern their calling--should they become teachers, or should they look for something else?

I resolve to passionately live out my calling as an educator, because it's about the outcome, not the income.

Image by Dave Mulder [CC BY-SA 2.0]

Friday, December 30, 2016

Stifling Genius?

I read this article from Scientific American today, entitled "How to Raise a Genius: Lessons from a 45-Year Study of Supersmart Children." The article begins with the story of Julian Stanley, a psychometrician and professor at Johns Hopkins who began a study of gifted kids in the 1960s, and through a series of vignettes explains what this long-term research study indicates about how we should parent and teach gifted children. It's a l-o-n-g article, but if you work with kids in any way--and in particular if you are a teacher--please, please take the time to read it.

I've been thinking for a couple years now about how we teach gifted kids in K-12 schools. I recognize how badly I did this when I was a middle school teacher, so I'm pointing the finger at myself first. I would like to say that I didn't always know whether the kids I was teaching were identified as gifted or not. I have learned a lot in the past few years about what actually makes for gifted learners. One of the biggest misconceptions people have about gifted learners: "high achieving" learners are the same thing as "academically gifted" learners. They. Are. Not. Synonymous. Nope. We have to get over this. One of the problems for the truly gifted learners in school is that they often see the reality of the "game" of school for what it is--not a very good game for the gifted kids either. And, because they understand that school is a game--and a pretty bad game at that--they might refuse to play. Which is why they are not always high achievers.

While I don't know for sure which of my former students were (are) talented and gifted learners, I have some suspicions based on what I've learned about gifted learners. And oh, how I would like to be able to go back and apologize to them!

Number one on my list of apologies: I'm sorry for stifling your genius by requiring the same work of you as everyone else.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Liturgical Christmas

A (belated) merry Christmas to you! I hope it was a happy time of celebrating for you.

I have not always loved the Christmas season. There have been years where the commercialization I see this time of year entirely overshadowed my joy of celebrating Christ's first coming. There have been years when I feel anything-but-joyful during the month of December. There have been years when I dreaded the busyness and stress that all-to-often permeate the American Christmas. But this year? Not so much. I have felt wonderfully joyful and peaceful, and my heart is full to the brim with hope and love, despite the challenges of the time since we last celebrated the Nativity. It's not that everything is perfect, but rather that I am able to see a bigger picture somehow, that I am able to rest in the security of being loved by an infinite God.

I had a tangible reminder of that on Christmas Eve night/early Christmas morning. My brother-in-law and I attended the Christmas vigil service at a nearby Episcopalian monastery. I am not Episcopalian by creed, so it was interesting to note the similarities and differences to other Christmas services I have attended in years past. I enjoyed gathering with seven monks and about a dozen other worshippers to celebrate Christ's coming.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Learning to Be Uncomfortable

My friend, the amazing Alice Keeler, dropped this great quote in an online conversation today.

Alice was talking about the way things sometimes change in a software update; the developers move buttons or menu items to new places, and it causes us to have to rethink, to relearn. But I love the twist here: those small moments of a little discomfort might be avenues to new learning.

I turned it into a graphic, because we should take this to heart, teachers. We should keep learning new things. We should keep striving to get better.

But we also need to recognize that learning new things can be a challenge. Learning new things can be hard.

There is always a learning curve; and a little discomfort in the process of learning should be expected.