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Posts Tagged ‘teaching

Today I reflect on how my distaste for dinners in public clarified a personal approach on educating teachers.

I dislike going out for dinners with extended family for two reasons. 

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First, the din at eateries here is unbearable because locals do not seem to know how to talk in hushed tones. I recently “enjoyed” a stereo effect of the piercing screeches of a toddler on the left, and the complaints of parents (in English and Hokkien) about their son’s academic struggles on the right. 

Second, the conversations at my own table can often be superficial or insincere. I particularly “enjoy” having to answer questions where the asker has already made up their minds or is more interested in giving their uninformed opinions.

At a recent dinner, a former student of mine walked up to say hello. After we chatted about the now and 30+ years ago, someone at my table asked me what I teach. 

I did not have a heart to point out that WHAT I taught was less important than WHO I taught. Nor did I have the bandwidth provide a sermon on how I preferred to educate and facilitate instead of teach. 

So I said that I teach teachers. When pushed about content, I mentioned educational technology.

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I would have liked to say that I try to educate teachers about humility and honesty in our profession. 

If we are truly humble, we would acknowledge that we still do not know much about how different people learn. Teaching is as much an art as it is a science. 

If we are honest, we would admit that we are quite ignorant, perhaps to the point of being stupid. How stupid can we get? We think we know a lot and that we are smarter than we actually are.

I wish more of us started from a foundation of humility and honesty. We might build conduct better conversations and design better learning experiences that way.

For this the humour in this tweet to work, you have to stand by its false dichotomy.

A teacher is just as likely to get a silent group in a “normal” class as online. An online educator might also get a group of chatterboxes.

The mode of teaching and learning, i.e., in-person or online, is not the only factor that influences discourse. A teacher might prefer to lecture in each mode and students learn to keep mum. It is the method that sets expectations and shapes behaviour.

So laugh if you acknowledge that the tweet reflects some reality. But it also oversimplifies teaching and learning for a chuckle and that is no laughing matter.

About twice a year, there is an almost clockwork response to the university practice of student evaluations/feedback on teaching (SETs/SFTs). Why twice a year? These coincide with the end of university semesters.

What is wrong with SETs/SFTs? Some universities mandate SETs/SFTs by withholding student results until they complete them. Worse still, such SETs/SFTs might get a failing grade based on research.

Berend Van Der Kolk recently highlighted the futility and invalidity of such tools for measuring the effectiveness of university teaching. He cited a 26-year old paper, How to Improve Your Teaching Evaluations without Improving Your Teaching, and a more recent one, Meta-analysis of faculty’s teaching effectiveness: Student evaluation of teaching ratings and student learning are not related.

Among the highlights of the newer paper were: 

  • Re-analyses of previous meta-analyses of multi-section studies indicate that SET ratings explain at most 1% of variability in measures of student learning.
  • New meta-analyses of multi-section studies show that SET ratings are unrelated to student learning.

And yet, most universities persist with SETs/SFTs because they are easier to implement and administratively convenient. As Van Der Kolk put it:

Why are such quantified ‘performance indicators’ still used if this is the case? Likely because they help to simplify the complex classroom reality. Quantification can reformulate something as complex and multidimensional as teaching into a one-dimensional score. And such a score gives the possessor a sense of control and understanding.

They might find ways to polish this, er, low-hanging fruit, but those who are honest with themselves and think critically with research know what lies at the core. 

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I borrow Van Der Kolk’s wisdom with his conclusion:

What we need to address is our understanding and use of ‘performance’ measures such as SETs. We should not be naïve about their limitations, ideally complement quantified measures with richer qualitative information and use them to initiate dialogues about what matters. Because not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.

This tweet thread and the ensuing conversation needs to be a blog post.

Distilling the wisdom from the tweets, effective online design and implementation could result from:

  • Sufficient time to practice (≈ two years)
  • The intrinsic desire to improve by learning from successes and failures
  • Getting academic qualifications for instructional design (ID) of online courses
  • Providing online facilitators with the resources they need (not what administrators or vendors want them to use)

The two-year tinkering and improving period sounds reasonable if the online educator is new to teaching. After all, we would not expect a beginning classroom teacher be exemplary from the start.

Getting a Masters in ID (mentioned in one conversation) might be too much to ask of faculty who already have their research, service, and content focus. But I do not think that it is unreasonable for leaders to enable professional development opportunities so that their teaching staff are better at facilitating learning online.

The final bullet point is about support from management and leadership. Instead of planning with spreadsheets and increasing class sizes, they could find out what teaching staff actually need.

I argue that they do not need clunky LMS designed by programmers and bean counters. The Apples and Googles of the world listen to and work with educators, and provide simple and intuitive tools, e.g., Google Sites, Google Classroom.

The point is not to reward vendors for feature bloat or pedagogical incompetence. Listen to your educators and partner with those who also listen to them.

Don’t paint online learning as bad and with the brush you used when you were a student and there was no pandemic. Try the broad strategies outlined above and then evaluate the quality of your online courses.

The statistics claimed in this tweet and embedded video are stark. They seemed to indicate that there has been an acceptance of remote work (colloquially known as work from home or WFH here). The video interview also illustrated how much better WFH was.

Much of my work has been remote since going independent in 2014. I have been open with its pluses AND minuses. The video anecdote in the tweet only highlighted the best case of multiple revenue streams, flexible and efficient hours, and lifestyle alignment.

The tweeted narrative is selective because large swings grab eyeballs more than nuanced views. The statistic and anecdote provide an important story element, but it does not tell the whole story. A tweeted story does not have to, of course, but this stance misrepresents WFH.

That said, the statistic was remarkable (assuming it was accurate). It showed how an external pressure like the current pandemic pushes the levers of change. What might start as a necessity and evolved to be independent and effective work might eventually be adopted by employers as a norm.

Sadly, the same might not be said about online learning in school and universities. Why? I would argue that stakeholders still conflate emergency remote teaching with online learning. The tweet below highlights a general distinction between the two.

Emergency remote teaching is often a rushed and desperate attempt to recreate a physical classroom experience online. Well-designed online learning, on the other hand, factors in limitations and affordances of reduced social presence.

Neither the second tweet nor my short reflection tells the story of effective online learning. But every educator who has tried something online has a paragraph or chapter worth sharing. For example, I have shared my design plans with, use of, and reflections on Zoom.

These are stories of lessons from failures and successes during the pandemic pivot. The stories are worth telling not just because they are instructive, they also provide a counter narrative to the sensational swings presented by those making judgements from the outside.

This Instagram post succinctly stated why peer teaching is an excellent strategy to help students learn. According to a study: 

…students who prepared to teach outperformed their counterparts in both duration and depth of learning, scoring 9 percent higher on factual recall a week after the lessons concluded, and 24 percent higher on their ability to make inferences. The research suggests that asking students to prepare to teach something—or encouraging them to think “could I teach this to someone else?”—can significantly alter their learning trajectories.

But the post did not include a link to the study. It was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology. The abstract at the journal site also claims that learning was effective as measured by a test shortly after peer teaching and “even at a delay”.

I wanted to know how long that delay was but was unable to because the manuscript will only be publicly available on 15 February 2022. That said, the study adds to the pool of knowledge about peer teaching.

One of my favourite sayings about peer teaching is this: 

To teach is the learn twice.

Whitman, N.A. & Fife, J.D. (1988). Peer Teaching: To Teach Is To Learn Twice. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

This was based on a much older paper title in 1988. Students might learn something the first time round when they read, watch, listen, etc. But they learn a second time when they prepare to teach it to their peers — they identify gaps, use their own examples, relate with peer language.

It was World Teacher’s Day on 5 October, so EthicsInBricks shared this:

The late Feynman’s quote was a masterful way of saying that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. This wisdom applies not just to teachers but to students as well.

Some teachers might know this strategy as peer teaching. It is a step above group discussion because it is a structured method of getting students to teach each other. But teachers may not understand why this strategy works.

Before a student can teach something they have to get the basics right. In trying to teach something, they might discover what they do not know or understand. This is called identifying gaps.

As they teach one another, learners will likely use language and examples that are more relatable. These might not be professionally or pedagogically sound, but they get the message across.

Then there is the transfer of the locus of control. When teaching a peer, each student has the pressure or responsibility to share information accurately.

But a facilitator of learning should not leave the process there. Peer teaching can also include the evaluation of learning. Here a facilitator finds out if students can apply what they think they know, so s/he might issue a performative challenge, e.g., provide problem scenarios that are solved by role play. 

The same facilitator should also consolidate learning. This is an effort to see it learners are in the same place and pace, i.e., have they attempted and attained a particular outcome or standard. The facilitator might conduct round-robin discussions or a whole class discussion to determine this.

One of the best ways to learn is to peer teach it. But only if peer teaching is conducted fully and professionally. 

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I could not have said this any better, so I am sharing what a fellow educator said about the pointless dichotomy of in-person vs online lessons.

The misplaced argument misses the larger point — the design of lessons and how they are facilitated. The debate also distracts from an opportunity to rethink what online teaching entails.

Teaching online might not look like you are teaching IN-PERSON, you are still teaching A PERSON. Very likely a lot of persons. And by this I do not mean mass lectures.

No, teaching online is reaching learners where they are and taking advantage of the contexts they are in. This means courses that are not only pedagogically sound, but also driven by empathy. And that starts with learning to teach a person.

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Earlier this week, I stayed back after a Zoom-based lesson so that my students — pre- and in-service teachers — could ask questions or discuss ideas. 

The Q&A session lasted almost as long as our synchronous meeting (1.5h). Near the end of that session, I floated one idea for redesigning the next run of lessons.

My current design divided each 3h class into two parts: A 1.5h asynchronous and scaffolded-independent learning session followed by a 1.5h synchronous meeting. I was toying with the idea of switching to a 1h asynchronous and 2h synchronous design. My rationale: To provide more synchronous time for peer teaching and discussion.

The learners who stayed behind surprised me. They said that they would not mind doing the asynchronous work and follow that up with a full 3h synchronous meeting. 

I was against going beyond the 3h-per-lesson design. Why?

The syllabus is a contract and each class is supposed to last 3h. I am not ignoring the fact that there is much preparation and follow-up for each class for both my learners and me. But if I take liberties to extend class time, be it asynchronous preparation, synchronous interaction, or both, where does it end?

Keeping to agreed upon class durations is a discipline. It might have developed in conventional teaching, but it should also extend online particularly for synchronous sessions.

Extending lesson times beyond what is agreed upon upsets the work-life balance for pre- and in-service teachers. It establishes a wrong habit and expectation, i.e., teachers should just put their heads down and bear with it. This is like how teachers already sacrifice weekends to grade work and plan lessons.

I am also a firm believer that work expands to fit the time given. Within reasonable conditions, I can facilitate the learning of, say, three key practices, within either 1h or 3h. If I can do this in 1h, why do it in 3h?

Finally, I wish to model better expectations and lesson designs. One expectation is that learners need to be more independent and not rely on spoon-feeding or face time. This is why I set tasks to be attempted asynchronously. These tasks are designed to help learners identify knowledge gaps so they can fill them in when we meet synchronously. They must learn to invest in more independent study while managing their time-on-task.

My overall lesson design is particularly relevant to adult learners. This is even more important if the learners are teachers because teachers tend to teach the way they are taught. If they are not exposed to alternative ways of teaching, they will rely on uncritical or outdated approaches. I need to model other viable, relevant, and effective strategies.

One critical practice of facilitating online learning is monitoring learners and learning. If online facilitators do not know where their students are, how are they supposed to meet them there?

I use Padlet and Google Docs as staples. Both provide me with alerts so that I can take actions if necessary.

Screenshot of Padlet banner alerts in macOS.

In the case of Padlet, I get pop-up banner alerts in the macOS Notification Centre (see image above). This is because I have given Google Chrome permission to monitor Padlet updates and send me alerts.

In the case of Google Docs, I refrain from getting alerts every time someone accesses or edits their document. There would be too many notifications I went this way. 

Screenshot of Google Docs list in GDrive. The "last modified" dates indicate if students have opened and edited their assigned documents.

Instead, I visit the folder which holds the documents of individuals or groups, and I look for changes to the “last modified” date/time. The arrows in the screenshot above indicate students whose documents have not been opened by them. This is how I know who has attempted the assigned work.

Both these forms of coarse monitoring give me a sense of the effort that my students are putting into their work. In a normal classroom, I can gauge this by observing them. I can also do the same during a synchronous online session.

But these online tools allow me to monitor behaviours outside a ‘live’ session. It might help to think of this as knowing who is doing their homework or who is putting in the effort to learn. Such monitoring is not oppressive to my students nor does it take a disproportionate amount of effort from me. What is not good about that?


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