What’s in a name?

When reading the materials for class this week, I began to ask myself “what sort of teacher am I”? Now, this isn’t a question I’ve ever sat and reflected upon before. I struggled to related the writings of Sarah Deel, Seymour Papert, and Shelli Fowler to my personal teaching persona because I never considered myself to have much experience teaching. By that, I mean I haven’t done much “traditional” teaching. The only “traditional” course I’ve ever taught  was a wines course just this past fall, and even then I wasn’t the main instructor. During my master’s program I taught  the odd lecture or seminars (related to extension activities) vs. regularly scheduled courses in a classroom. Additionally, I managed a lab where I taught undergraduate lab workers how to perform all lab activities and testing.

I guess I have yet to find my “teaching voice”. I do recognize that my “non-traditional” experiences are valuable, and there is much I can learn about myself from them. In fact, reflecting upon them has shed some light onto qualities I possess that will define my future teaching self. I think these qualities are best summed up by the fitting acronym E.L.I.Z.A.B.E.T.H. (aka my first name).

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Earnest– I’m not distracted by things unrelated to my goals. If my goal is to educated my students, you can guarantee it’ll happen.
Laudable– This applies not to myself, but how I respond to those I teach. I’m great at providing feedback, and praise those who show they are making progress and/or an effort.
Imperfect– I will never claim to be perfect, so I don’t expect my students to be perfect either. I readily admit when I make mistakes or don’t understand something, and would like for my students to feel comfortable doing the same.
Zealous– I’m very enthusiastic and passionate about food science. That passion shines though when I’m instructing, and hopefully will inspire my students to take interest in the subject.
Attentive– I put a lot of thought and attention into everything I do, which I like to think will translate into the attention I will give to helping my students learn.
Bold– Fearless and daring. That’s how I’ve been in pursuit of an education and that’s how I want my students to be in my class. I want them to step out of their comfort zone, and take on challenges to better themselves.
Empowered– The support I’ve had from several key educators throughout my career has given me the confidence to succeed academically. I will strive to help my students feel empowered so they will have the opportunity to  achieve their full potential just as I have.
Tenacious– To achieve your goals, academic or otherwise, you have to be tenacious. I have always exhibited determination in pursuit of my academic goals, even when faced with adversity. I hope my experiences enable me to relate to my students’ struggles, and assist me in helping them overcome any adversity they may face.
Harmonious– Years of life in academia have taught me one thing: you need to have balance in your life or you’re going to be miserable and never succeed. I want my teaching to be harmonious, offering options that balance the needs of my students with the goals of the course. I want them to feel they are learning something valuable from my teaching just as I hope I can learn something valuable from them. If mutual learning is happening, I’ll consider my teaching voice to be in perfect sync.

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Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure

If you ask any educator to define their teaching style, you’re bound to receive a plethora of responses. It’s likely they will categorize their style as “traditional” or “contemporary”, and then proceed define it by the practices employed to engage students. There will be mention of in-person lectures, virtual classrooms, interactive modules or labs, and much, much more. The one commonality among all the elaborate explanations is that they will conclude the the exact same claim- that this particular method is the BEST. But for whom is it the best: the educator or the student? Would all students in a class agree with the educator’s teaching method?

The answer is no, they likely would not.

Just as there are a multitude of teaching methods, many learning styles have also been recognized. I did a little research, and found there are at least seven learning styles (visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social, solitary) that comprise an individual’s learning profile.  An individual’s preferred styles guide the way they learn, internally represent experiences, and how information is recalled. It seems logical to assume that no single teaching style can successfully or effectively engage every student to learn. So if there isn’t a “blanket” method, how is one educator expected to effectively engage a whole classroom!?

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Personally, I think educators will be able to engage more students with a hybrid style I like to call “Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure”. The inspiration for this style comes from a game-book series I read during my youth titled Choose Your Own Adventure. Each adventure-based story was written in second-person, allowing the reader to assume control of decisions that impact the plot’s outcome. I believe that learning should be presented in a similar manner. Instead of the educator dictating a singular learning path, they should provide a variety of options and allow the student to dictate their own learning adventure. Educators can do this by providing materials/experiences geared towards engaging each of the seven learning styles. By doing so, students can select control their learning experience and dictate the own unique learning path.

choose3Now, do I believe the “Choose Your Own [Learning] Adventure” method will result in the success of every student? Absolutely not. Similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books, not all learning paths lead to a “happy ending”. There is always risk involved when one assumes responsibility for their own outcomes. The path to learning is riddled with unforeseen pitfalls and booby traps that can fell many an adventurer. Still, I think such a method is an intriguing alternative that may provide [student] adventurers with the opportunity to actively engage in the learning experience. However, there will always exist a select group of adventurers who prefer to have a “guide” outline their path for them.

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Academic Responsibility-Who’s To Blame?

What exactly is academic responsibility and who does it pertain to? 

Every night when I get home from campus, I call my boyfriend (who lives in Miami, FL) to talk about how our respective days went. Now on Monday and Wednesday nights, this call occurs around 9pm when I get out of either my “Contemporary Pedagogy” (GEDI) or “Future Professoriate” class. Naturally, my side of the conversation always drifts towards the discussions that take place these nights. On one particular night, while working on a blog post for the GEDI course, I started asking him what he thought about academic responsibility.

Unlike myself, he is an undergraduate student (studying Sports Medicine at Florida International University), so I was curious to hear how his opinion  compared to my own as a graduate student. In his opinion, academic responsibility is “blown out of proportion” because “teachers are supposed teach material and students are supposed to learn it. It’s as simple as that”. Is academic responsibility really so simple?

Is the responsibility of an educator solely to disseminate information? Is it their job to ensure students are learning? Most of my elementary and high school classes involved teachers guiding us through material in our textbooks, writing key information on the chalkboard, asking us lots of questions we would raise our hands to answer, and administering homework/projects to ingrain the knowledge being taught into our brains. The university-level courses were similar, but involved much fewer assignments, more lecture, and a ton of power point presentations. At all these levels of education, knowledge was being disseminated. However, the level of effort elementary-level educators put into ensuring learning is vastly different than that of university educators. To me, this makes perfect sense-young children need more guidance and assistance while developing academic proficiency. Yet day after day I hear undergraduate complain that their professor “doesn’t do enough to help them learn”. When does the responsibility for learning transfer from the educator to the student? Is it ever shared? In my opinion, the academic responsibility of learning should fall directly on the student-especially when that student is an adult in college. Yes, the educator is responsible, but only for disseminating the appropriate knowledge. It’s up to the student to absorb and commit it to long-term memory.

What about academic institutions? What is there responsibility in all this? If you ask today’s generation of undergraduates about their grades, most will either

A) Attribute good grades to the personal blood, sweat, and tears they put into succeeding in the class.

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B) Blame bad grades on their professor…and then on the academic institution for hiring such an unqualified person in the first place.

Are bad grades the fault of the educator or the university who hired them? To be honest, grades are awful. Sometimes they motivate students, and sometimes they discourage them. Personally, I feel the responsibility of grades is not directly the fault of the academic institution. If all students are doing terribly in a particular professor’s course, then yes, it is the institution’s responsibility to evaluate the efficacy of that professors teaching practices.  Ultimately, I think students (especially those in university studies) and educators share the responsibility for grades. The grading system, like most scales, is merely meant to be a tool to assess where an individual is “at” on a particular spectrum. Similar to the pain scales in hospital, grading can be useful in determining how well a student is learning. Unlike a hammer, these tools [scales] are meant to assess rather than fix. It is the students responsibility to recognize that bad grades indicate they need to do a better job learning and, if necessary, seek additional help. So…what’s the educators responsibility? Well, every tool is only as good as the quality of materials it is comprised of. If a tool is poorly constructed, how can we expect it to do it’s job properly? If the grading scale is a tool, then homework, quizzes, and tests are the components it’s comprised of. It is the responsibility of the educator to properly design their class so it consists of components that effectively represent the quality of learning that should be occurring.

Overall, I believe academic responsibility is shared between academic institutions, educators, and students. However, it is very complex and continually evolves along with the academic proficiency of the student. By the time that student is enrolling in university-level courses, they need to take responsibility for their own academic success.

Assessment: Providing Answers or Just More Questions?

Assessment has always and continues to play such an integral role in education. To educate is to not only disseminate information, but to ascertain if that knowledge has been absorbed and understood. I mean…what’s the point of teaching anything if it isn’t retained and used later? The present assessment system in place is the traditional grading scale. Students are given grades based off of their ability to “jump” through academic hoops (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.). Is this system truly effective? Does it give educators a full picture of that students academic comprehension?

In Alfie Kohn’s The Case Against Grades, the argument is made that grading is inherently problematic. Rather than motivating students to learn, it tends to have the opposite effect and can be rather discouraging. Kohn furthur argues that grading accurately quantify the quality of a student’s learning, nor does it reflect their true ability to achieve. To some extent, I agree with this. Not all students are the same, and the educational methods used to teach them aren’t equally effective for everyone. Some students will naturally do worse than other, which will be reflected in their grading assessment. Receiving a bad grade can prove very discouraging to students, especially for those whom this becomes a “norm”. However, a poor grade should not be treated as a point of shame. Rather, it can be a useful tool serving as a signal to educators that their teaching methods aren’t reaching particular students; educators can then reassess their approach and attempt to reach the student. Additionally, I will agree that grades are not reflective of achievement. Plenty of students are intelligent enough and capable of learning, but often that isn’t reflected by their grades. I recently went through a battery of tests to substantiate my ADHD diagnosis, and many of them were designed to assess my ability to achieve in certain areas (math, reading & language comprehension, writing, etc.). These tests revealed I was more than capable of achieving well in these areas, but by actual performance ability didn’t always match up.  I believe grades are the same way, a useful measurement of performance but a poor reflection of  achievement.

I want to go back to discussing  the topic of motivation. I loved the animated video The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink and how it illustrated motivation. The part I found most fascinating from this video was the depiction of the traditional motivational system- the tiered system where the largest rewards go to the top performers and the the lowest performers are not or minimally rewarded. Though studies have shown this system works when solely mechanical skills were involved in performance, it had the exact opposite effect when rudimentary cognitive skills were involved. Academic performance consists of the combination of mechanical and cognitive abilities. Based off Pink’s logic, a traditional tiered motivational system where the highest performers are rewarded and the lowest are not (i.e. grading) is not a wholly effective motivational system for student academic performance. Academic performance is not a simple straight-forward task; it’s incredibly complex and high-stakes rewards don’t effectively motivate the highest level of performance.

Now, do I have an answer on how to best motivate students to perform better academically? No, I do not. Will there ever be a conclusive answer to my previous question? I highly doubt it. What can we do to better assess academic performance and motivation to learn? My best guess would be to constantly investigate and reassess motivation as it evolves with the evolution of studentkind.

Mindful Learning: A Path Out of the Educational Death Valley

What does it mean to be a mindful learner? If you’d asked me this as a child, I’d have told you it meant listening very intently to what my teacher was saying then being able to recall what what said at a later date . My teachers would likely argue this wasn’t something I practiced, but that’s something I’ll touch on a little later on in this post. As I progressed on my academic journey, I came to believe mindful learning meant taking what was being taught and applying it contextually to solve problems in the world around me vs. just being able to  regurgitate the information when prompted. Now, as an aspiring educator taking this GEDI course, the definition of mindful learning is becoming increasingly more complex than what my younger self could even conceive.

A great visual of "mindfulness" Source: https://mindfullearningandliving.wordpress.com/tag/mindfulness-definition/

Source: https://mindfullearningandliving. wordpress.com/tag/mindfulness-definition/

First, I want to touch on what I learned about mindful learning this week. According to Ellen Langer in Mindful Learning,  mindfulness is defined as “as a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things, and sensitive to context”. Similarly, in her book on mindful learning, Langer lists three characteristics to mindfulness: the continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective”. These three characteristics all seem to support the “new method” of teaching proposed by Langer, whom suggests teaching should be based on “…an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty”.

This new method of teaching really resonates with me. Whether it’s due to my INTJ personality, the sign I was born under (Pisces), or the fact I’m a scientist, I have always described my perceptions of the world as “fluid”. To me, pretty much everything is a shade of grey-there are very few things I consider black or white. As knowledge evolves, so do my opinions. To me, it seems only natural that learning should follow a similar pattern. With new knowledge should come new ideas, new context, and new approaches to how things were done previously. Personally, it seems that being a mindful learner means being actively aware of knowledge as it becomes available while critically evaluating its potential to be applied in a variety of present and future contexts.

Remember when I said I’d touch on my (perceived) lack of ability to mindfully learn? Well Ken Robinson’s How To Escape Education’s Death Valley is the perfect “segway” into that topic. In Robinson’s video, he briefly mentioned Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder(ADHD), how a growing number of people are being diagnosed with it, and how he believes it is a symptom of our educational system. Now, I’m not going to delve into whether or not ADHD is a manifestation of the education system. However, I am going to discuss my experience with ADHD as it pertains to mindful learning.

Though bright, I was a considered an average student. I didn’t perform well on tests, homework, or anything that our current educational system uses as a measure of a students’ learning capacity. I will say I excelled in reading and English classes where I found myself incredibly engaged by the material, but I did poorly in mathematics-a class I found horribly boring. As it turns out, I was diagnosed with ADHD midway through my master’s program. In order to validate the diagnosis, I was required to go through a full battery of psychological, intelligence, and achievement testing. Going into the testing, I was under the impression these tests would be similar to those I took in school-they’d be used to see if I met a benchmark for my capacity to learn. In this context, however, the tests were used diagnostically to assess where I was at rather than tell me I didn’t meet a certain “bench mark”. Robinson discussed this subject and how our present educational system uses tests as a benchmark rather than as a diagnostic tool. He made a very valid point about education: it is not a mechanical system, it’s a human system. Testing appears to be one of the many paths leading to the “Educational Death Valley”. Unfortunately, our current educational system seems to be riddled with paths that lead students to this valley-a place where effective learning no longer occurs.

To this day, I firmly believe my educational experience would have been drastically improved had I 1) been diagnosed with ADHD earlier and 2) had a path out of the Educational Death Valley. I think that if we, as educators, can be more cognizant of the pitfalls within the educational system, then we will better recognize when students journey down the path into “Death Valley” and we can be ready to engage them in mindful learning to show them the path out.

Mission Statements: Just a Mantra?

As a doctoral student who has only ever attended public universities, I have always been curious what my experiences would have been like had I attended a private university. So, when deciding on mission statements to look up and reflect on, I decided to investigate statements from both a private and public university. I figured the two institutions would provide valuable insights into what public vs. private universities seek to provide their students and communities.

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The private university I chose was Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Their mission statement is as follows:

“Cornell is a private, Ivy League university and the land-grant university for New York State. Cornell’s mission is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; produce creative work; and promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Cornell also aims, through public service, to enhance the lives and livelihoods of our students, the people of New York, and others around the world.”

The first thing I found interesting about this statement was the fact that Cornell is both a private as well as a land-grant university. From what I thought I understood about land-grant institutions, I was under the impression they were exclusively public universities since they received money from the state. However, a little internet research revealed that a land-grant institution is one that receives benefits from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The Morrill Acts funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to the states for them to sell, raise funds, establish and endow “land-grant” colleges. The mission of these land-grant colleges was to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering (without excluding “classical studies”). The remainder of their mission statement reflected that of any land-grant university by promising to provided education and disseminate knowledge. I liked the additional statement about Cornell providing pubic service aiming to enhance the lives of the people of New York and around the world.

mission3The public university I chose was my alma mater Kansas State University (KSU) located in Manhattan, Kansas. Their mission statement is as follows:

The mission of Kansas State University is to foster excellent teaching, research, and service that develop a highly skilled and educated citizenry necessary to advancing the well-being of Kansas, the nation, and the international community. The university embraces diversity, encourages engagement and is committed to the discovery of knowledge, the education of undergraduate and graduate students, and improvement in the quality of life and standard of living of those we serve.

Though it isn’t explicitly stated in their mission statement, KSU is also a land-grant university. Their promise to foster teaching, research, and service are all making good on their role as a land-grant college. Like Cornell, they promise to advance the well-being of their state as well as the world. A significant different between KSU’s mission statement and Cornell’s is that KSU mentions embracing diversity, where as Cornell mentioned it was a “private, Ivy League” institution. Just from their mission statements, I would gather that KSU is a more inclusive institution for students and staff.

Overall, the mission statements of these institutions share several similarities. I believe this may be due to their “land-grant” nature, and I would be interested to see if other non land-grant universities (both private and public) reflect the commonalities in KSU’s and Cornell’s missions. However, I find it incredibly interesting that one university includes diversity, and by default inclusivity, in its mission while the other does not. I guess my final thought on the subject would be: I wonder how the promises within these missions manifest in the learning environment of their respective universities?

Navigating Networked Learning

Prior to beginning this course last week, I had no idea what the word ‘pedagogy’ meant; I honestly had no notion that such a word existed in the English vocabulary. However, I did recognize it must have something to do with education, since I was required to take this pedagogy-focused course as a requirement for the Virginia Tech Graduate Schools’s “Future Professoriate Certificate”. A long-term goal of mine is to make a career as a college professor, which is why I am enrolled in the Future Professoriate Certificate. In my field [food science], the role of a professor is divided into three main functions: research, extension, and teaching. Since 2/3 (extension & teaching) of my aspired-to career involved education in some form,  I am intrigued to learn more about pedagogy and all it encompasses. So, as a first step in my quest to understand concept of pedagogy, I took to Wikipedia- despite the protests of my inner academician .

According to Wikipedia, pedagogy is “the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of education” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedagogy). The term ‘pedagogy’ comes from the Greek word pedagogue – a slave who escorted Greek children to school.  In the present day, pedagogue refers to a practitioner of pedagogy (i.e. someone who imparts or teaches knowledge to another).  From what I gather, knowledge does not solely refer to technical or vocational skills but extends to encompass social skills as well as an understanding of concepts and theories. When thinking about the GEDIS17 course, I wonder what aspects of contemporary pedagogy we will touch upon. One thing is for certain- I’m going to come out of this course with far more pedagogy-related knowledge than I came in with!

According to our course schedule, the first topic we will discuss is Networked Learning. Again, I have no clue what networked learning is, so I turned to Wikipedia once again. Networked Learning is defined as “the process of developing and maintaining connections, with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another’s learning” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Networked_learning). A key phrase I honed in on within this definition was “…connections, with people and information…”. I can’t think of a better phrase to describe modern society. Today’s world is defined by readily-available technology and the dependency we have on it to live our everyday lives. Not only does this technology connect us to vast amounts of information with the click of a button, but it just as easily connects us with our fellow man. After thinking about it, networked learning seemed like a fitting subject to begin with in the context of contemporary pedagogy.

This thought process lead me to a few “AH HA!” moments:

-Blogging is a form of communication.

-Writing and responding to my classmates’ blogs is a form of networked learning.

-I am actually learning stuff while sitting here writing this post…..cool!

 

In pursuit of more knowledge (and possibly more “AH HA” moments), I began reading the class material pertaining to networked learning. I first watched Seth Goodwin and Tom Peters on Blogging (2009), and really liked what was being said. Tom’s statement “No single thing in the last fifteen years, professionally, has been more important to my life than blogging” especially resonated with me. My first blogging experience was for my professional organization The Institute of Food Technologists on their blog Science Meets Food (which I presently manage for the organization). It started as a way to build my resume, and quickly became one of the most professionally-influential experiences of my career to date. I not only developed my ability to communicate science with a broad, non-scientific audience but became connected with individuals who would come to make a monumental impact on my career. I would never have guesses that this networked learning-environment, inherent to the nature this and other blogs, would so greatly impact my life.

The second article Twitter and Blogs are Not Just Add-ons to Academic Research (2014), by Tim Hitchcock, was an equally interesting read that I could relate to. As I previously stated, I started blogging to enhance my resume. However, as I wrote more and more content for the blog, I discovered I had a true passion for communicating my passion for food science. The freedom to write about subjects that inspired me allowed me to investigate and gain knowledge about topics I never would have pursued for academic purposes. I also agree with the author’s statement that “They [social media] are where the conversation is happening”. Even in my food science courses, among peers who are knowledgeable about my field, I fail to have the stimulating, passionate-fueled conversations I have while blogging. There is just something about blogging that allows you to open up, be yourself, and communicate freely.

The third article Working Openly On The Web (2014), by Doug Belshaw, provided some interesting perspective and support for (what I believe) the reasoning behind why blogging allows one to engage more actively in networked learning. His first reason is probably one of blogging’s largest appeals: you control everything. Literally. The content, how often you post, what you say, who you say it to, etc. The is no one peering over your shoulder telling you what to do or how to do it. Personally, I know I learn better when I’m not being forced to do so. As an introvert, I also experience a certain level of social anxiety when asked to express my opinion in front of others. The ability to say what I want, when I want, while being veiled  in anonymity (provided by communicating from behind a computer screen) creates an environment where I can I comfortably express myself. This may not hold true for everyone, but I believe learning is best accomplished in an online environment.

Finally, I believe the last article Networked Learning as An Experiential Learning, by Gardner Campbell, was a fantastic piece that sums up how networked learning applies to contemporary pedagogy and supports my overall feelings towards the subject of blogging. In the words of Campbell, “Offering students the possibility of experiential learning in personal, interactive, networked computing—in all its gloriously messy varieties—provides the richest opportunity yet for integrative thinking within and beyond ‘schooling’ “. Allowing students to learn and connect in an online space creates opportunities for learning engagement that are not present within the class room. If one is to teach successfully in this contemporary age, then one must utilize blogs and other forms of online media to engage students in learning.