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Posts Tagged ‘teaching

This is a reflection on instructional design and teaching.

I have been working on a project for the last week or so in which I critique lesson packages. One of my comments was about not blindly following the textbook model.
 

 
I noticed that several learning packages had their content and experiences sequenced like textbooks. They were providing answers before asking questions.

Why do textbooks do this?

They are written from an expert’s point of view and try to present information efficiently. This approach seems legitimate because readers do not necessarily want to know what mistakes or life experiences that expert had. The readers demand is: Tell me what you know. Hence the providing of answers even if there are no questions.

This results in a textbook being as concise as it can be. It is also non-interactive — turning pages and wiping drool from boredom-induced sleep do not count. However, the design of textbooks should not be the model to follow when teaching.

The logical-social model of teaching is to put questions before answers. Answers devoid of questions make no sense and serve no purpose. The questions might serve as a hook for learning, activate prior knowledge, identify gaps in knowledge, or otherwise drive learning.

This is my way of saying that every lesson needs to be led by pedagogical design, not textbook design. If a lesson simply lifts from a textbook, the students might as well just read a textbook without the teacher.

Remote teaching is not the same as online learning or distance learning.

Remote teaching is what many teachers had to resort to doing due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines. Those in the more connected world resorted to video conferencing to try to recreate what worked in classrooms.

Teachers complained that such teaching was inferior to teaching face-to-face. They probably do not realise that online teaching is not the same as online learning.

A J Juliani explained the differences as did Hodges et al at EduCause. Lisa Lane reflected on why comparisons are not legitimate and cited a review of literature by Alison Witherspoon on the efficacy of online learning.
 

 
I borrow ideas from Lane and elaborate on why complaints about online or remote teaching are misplaced. Classroom teaching is like being a train driver while online facilitation is like piloting a plane.

Moving a few hundred people on a train and a plane are similar in that both have passengers, fuel, refreshments, rules, and destinations. In educational terms, these could be equivalent to the learners, professional development, resources, standards, and outcomes respectively.

Both typically have set paths (instructional strategies), but a train travels in two dimensions while a plane operates in three dimensions. The latter is more complex. While content and pedagogical boundaries are clearer in a classroom, they can be more open online. Consider how learners have greater access to other resources online (Google, YouTube, WhatApp) than in a more regulated classroom. This makes teaching content more challenging online.

Online learners also need operate asynchronously and not see each other as much (or even at all). Navigating this lack of social presence is like flying a plane blind. An online facilitator has to learn how to create social presence or hyper develop other senses to compensate.

Juliani reflected on how much design effort goes into online learning modules. I can relate. Classroom performance might look like 10% preparation and 90% teaching. Online work is often the other way around — 90% preparation and 10% facilitation.

Teaching online is not the same as online learning. As much as teachers might have learnt from making mistakes during remote teaching, they do not have preparation to be online designers and facilitators. They might transfer some ideas and practices as classroom teachers into online environments, but that is like blindly pushing train engineers into plane cockpits and telling them to fly.

What does this fleeting form of art have to do with teaching?


Video source

The artist, David Zinn, creates street art that washes away with the rain. A simple way to answer my question is to reply that teaching is also an art.

I am not one for singular and simple answers. For example, why bother if the art is ephermal? That question reveals a mindset that focuses on the product and not the process. Teaching is not just about getting students to show products of learning; it is also about processes of learning.

Another way teaching is like Zinn’s disappearing art is how superficial learning disappears after the test. There is an initialism for that, GIGO, which is short for garbage in, garbage out. This is what happens if we teach only to the test.

If you are a teacher who had to conduct remote teaching during lockdown, you might relate to the song featured in the video below.


Video source

I have the same reaction to those who confuse and conflate distance education and online learning with remote teaching. There are overlaps, but they are not the same things.

Recreating the face-to-face classroom in an online environment is not logical nor sustainable. It does not take into account the lack of immediacy and physicality. A teacher cannot use physical distancing to manage a class for instance. Constantly being on-call for synchronous video conferencing — student consultations, staff meetings — is draining.

Two recent articles have addressed both issues. The first was on emergency remote teaching and the second was about why Zoom meetings are tiring. The articles and my reflections offer design considerations for stepping around the pitfalls.

What is a person to do but watch YouTube videos for a laugh during a COVID-19 lockdown?

I rediscovered videos from Georgia Caney, a Brit living in Singapore, who shares her trials and tributes of living here as an expatriate.


Video source

This might be a sweeping statement to make, but here is my claim: No one living here for at least a year is immune to picking up some Singlish.

As I laughed through the video, I was also impressed with with how Georgia and her now husband, Justin, have adopted the language and mannerisms. This is likely a result of being immersed in our environment.

A few of the couple’s Singlish expressions might seem awkward to a more practiced person. But that same person might also appreciate their effort to explore and learn.


Video source

Occasionally the Singlish padawan surprises a master. Take how Georgia corrected a Singaporean about how we lazily say “very” as an example [jump to that video segment].

These two videos illustrate lessons about change. The conditions for such change are that the experience is immersive and the learning is authentic (principles are applied immediately and regularly), insidious (you do not know or care that change is happening), and sustained (it erodes old mindsets and behaviours).

If we think that home-based learning (currently our version of emergency remote teaching) will persist as long as SARS-CoV-2, then we might consider what changes we make to shift norms.

If we insist on recreating classroom practices online instead of embracing different opportunities, we stick to a language and practice that is out of place. We need to embrace the circumstances or at least get used to them. We need to immerse ourselves in that change before we change ourselves.

This is a reflection on yesterday’s reflection about doing less but better.

I took this photo in the restroom of a London eatery in 2015. It includes an oft cited quote that “less is more”.

Quote on the mirror at Zizzi, Little Venice (London, 2015).

I studied under two notable distance and online educators. One of them liked to say this: Less is less, more is more. It was his way of saying that preparing and conducting online courses was a lot more work than people bargained for.

I agree. I experienced that myself as a designer and creator of online content and as a facilitator of online professional development and courses. The more is more principle was true whether I was operating in the USA or in Singapore.

A low estimate for how long it takes to simply convert an hour-long face-to-face session is about 20 hours. So converting one university in-person class that is three hours long might take about 60 hours of preparatory, facilitative, and follow up work.

Is this 1:20 ratio realistic? Just consider the preparatory work: Planning, re-reading existing material and/or reading new material for relevance, learning new technical skills, creating new artefacts like audio, animations, or video, etc. If you do not do this by yourself, you need to include the time invested by those you work with. The 1:20 ratio might start to look unrealistic only because you need more than 20 hours!

The ratio is just for converting a course so that it is suitable for basic online consumption. Imagine if you want to design and implement something transformative. For example, you might decide that information delivery is not sufficient for adult learners and that leveraging on their experiences matters. Simply finding out what matters to such learners is an investment of time and effort. Now factor in the design and implementation of learning experiences that require sharing, peer teaching, critiquing, etc.

So trying to redesign for simplified remote teaching — doing less but better — takes more work. But the opposite can also happen. Someone who puts in little design effort might create busy work for learners. Busy work is the equivalent of checking off tasks in chores or shopping list instead of participating in meaningful learning and reflective thinking.

The sad fact is that it is easier to do less but worse. And even if you put in a lot of effort, your rewards are not guaranteed. The tweet below illustrates that pictorially.

If there is anything we might learn from emergency remote teaching it is this: We will realise who we are, what we value, and how we respond in a crisis. Some will choose to do as little as possible to the detriment of their stakeholders. Others will put in earnest effort in redesigning and implementing emergency remote lessons, while little actually pans out as expected. Even fewer will learn from those failures or succeed at first try.

That last group will do more in their bid to do less but better or to learn from their mistakes. They are the ones we should appreciate and learn from. Will we?

I was inspired to reflect on this thanks to a tweet by George Couros.

Individuals and organisations have shared useful ideas and frameworks for planning and implementing what amounts to emergency remote teaching. One of the best is this table from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

I share a screenshot of it here with the CC-BY attribution because that is the right thing to do.

Source: https://dese.mo.gov/sites/default/files/curr-c19-support-for-district-leaders.pdf

Consider the practices under the orange header in column 1. Just like how we might approach a traffic light on amber, we need to be cautious on conducting the same classroom practices under different learning circumstances. Driving on stubbornly does not model critical and creative thinking, and it does not put learning and care for learners at the core.

The green column is for going ahead. It focuses on being flexible, purposeful, and authentic. I love these approaches and present them in a different way.

Principle 1: Simplify. To paraphrase Couros, do less but better.
For example, now is not the time to get hung up on administrative processes like roll calls. While attendance is important, doing this online is not the same as doing it in person. Simplify this by delegating students to monitor each other or use conference tools like gestures to see that everyone is on board.

Focus on what matters. If there is a thinking skill that students need to master, what is the shortest way there? What is the best way under the circumstances for students to show that they have internalised this skill — writing, speaking, performing, etc.? If everything needs to be done online, what are students already doing — using Tik Tok, sharing photos, planning parties — that you can leverage on?

Principle 2: Contextualise. Do not recreate the classroom.
In a classroom, playing a video or grouping students for cooperative work are no brainers. Depending on your conferencing tool and bandwidth, you might not be able to do this in real time. If this is the case, design for asynchronous work, e.g., get students to watch a video individually, record their thoughts with a scaffold, and co-create/critique content on a shared online document.

If you do this, do not set the asynchronous tasks as “homework”. The students are already at home and they have invested time and effort in what is actually classroom work. If the asynchronous work takes 30 minutes and your class is an hour long, then remove that 30 minutes by conducting a 30-minute synchronous session as follow up. If you do not factor student work as class time, you are creating more teacher talk time at their expense. Your students might choose not to put in as much effort the next time you give them work to complete.

Another aspect on contextualising learning is to use the home environment. The table above mentioned helping out at home as tasks for learning. Now consider how meal preparation might not just be a lesson on home economics but also on chemistry, visual design, resource management, and procedural thinking.

Then consider how taking advantage of household chores might ease home tensions by getting students to “Kondo” their rooms. We are all learning to live with less now and embracing what brings us joy, are we not? Now consider how donating our excesses might help those of us who are less privileged.

Principle 3: Ask. Learn about and from the learner.
Video conferencing gives teachers limited but useful insights into what their students lives are like at home. How about creating simple polls with honest questions like:

  • How are you doing?
  • What are you worried about?
  • What ideas do you have for our lessons?

Staying cooped up at home can be stressful because students cannot socialise in-person with their friends. Some students might not have home environments that are not conducive for learning, e.g., fighting parents, abuse, needing to take care of others, etc.

We will not know what difficulties they are facing or get inspiring ideas if we do not ask. If we do not first reach our students, we cannot teach them because they are not receptive.

But above all, I say we learn to do less, focus on what matters, and do these well. If we learn to do this, we will be better teachers and educators on the other side of the COVID-19 curve.

If you had to deliver a COVID-19 message to the masses so that they move in the right direction, how might you do it?

If you were a minister in government, you would take a formal tone and craft something that newspapers would like to publish. For example, keeping kids at home instead of school might be met with: [source]

This is part of our psychological unity – students, teachers, parents all being part of it – and we all rise to the call as one united people in tackling this crisis

If you were a humour-based group with a presence on Twitter, you might leverage on an informal tone and embed a video featuring an angry comic. For example: [source]

The strategies could not contrast more, but they are about the same principle: If we stand together by being physically apart, we have a good chance of beating the coronavirus.

But the second method is more direct and relatable. The fact that is it laced with humour and marinated in Singlish is a bonus.

For me, the second method is like peer teaching. After a high-sounding introduction by a teacher, a concept should be retaught by students in pairs or small groups. This allows them to test their understanding, identify gaps, and learn it twice.

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. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED305016.pdf

As students try to teach one another, they realise how much they know and how much they do not. They will use language and examples that are familiar to them. They are more likely to internalise something new.

Peer teaching does not ensure learning though. Students might not identify gaps or they might perpetuate misconceptions. The point of peer teaching is to get students to process information immediately, directly, and in a relatable way so that the processes of learning are visible.

 
Many resources and opinion pieces emerged since schools and education institutes urgently went online in response to COVID-19. But I think this one is the most important.

Edubloggers, teachers, and other experts have shared tips, ideas, and strategies for home-based learning. That is good for the immediate need even though this also creates a lot of noise. However, relatively few rise above and look at the bigger picture, e.g., how is urgent home-based learning different from e-learning or distance education?

Facilitating online learning is not the same as face-to-face instruction. Certainly there are overlaps, but facilitating online learning is much more difficult. There are entire programmes of study that are dedicated in part or in whole to learn how to begin doing this. So the rush to “convert” face-to-face and classroom-based teaching to online and home-based learning is bound to suffer in quality.

The article I highlighted described how emergency remote learning compromises on learning:

“These hurried moves online by so many institutions at once could seal the perception of online learning as a weak option, when in truth nobody making the transition to online teaching under these circumstances will truly be designing to take full advantage of the affordances and possibilities of the online format.”

Why might the quality of courses, instruction, and learning suffer?

Typical planning, preparation, and development time for a fully online university course is six to nine months before the course is delivered. Faculty are usually more comfortable teaching online by the second or third iteration of their online courses.

In his reflection of the same article, A J Juliani said that he was still making errors despite years of experience facilitating online learning. What of teachers forced to do something they have not been prepared to do?

We can rationalise the need to rush teachers towards emergency remote teaching. By the same token, we should also recognise the effects it might have on teachers, e.g., increased stress, lowered morale, poorer impressions of e-learning, all because of the forced circumstance of emergency remote teaching.

So how might we respond logically and prudently when we have time to catch our collective breaths? I say we agree to compromise:

The need to “just get it online” is in direct contradiction to the time and effort normally dedicated to developing a quality course. Online courses created in this way should not be mistaken for long-term solutions but accepted as a temporary solution to an immediate problem.

I anticipate that the collective breath will be accompanied by a sigh of relief and the return to the previous normal. We need that compromise to explain why the temporary solution to an urgent problem did not provide valuable lessons on how to operate outside the timetable, classroom, and curricula.

Call me humourless, but I agree with the sentiment below.

I can see why the “joke” works — it is the juxtaposition of bad grammar with what a teacher stands for. At the root of the insult is the oft cited: Those who can, do; those who can’t teach.

Just because lay folk have been in classrooms in their childhoods does not make them knowledgeable about what it is like to be on the opposite site of the desk. I challenge any non-teacher who thinks that teaching is easy to teach and facilitate for an extended period.

Teaching is a science and an art. As a science, its elements can be theorised, studied, experimented on, and tested. It is a social science that combines assorted fields of study like psychology, philosophy, cognition, planning, management, and evaluation. As an art, it needs to be practiced, modelled, and changed based on reflection, feedback, and empathy for learners.

Are there bad teachers? Of course there are. No job or profession has a perfect population. But teaching tends to attract individuals who are nurturing and passionate about learners and learning. Where is the pithy mug quote for that?


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