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The stages of group development can help us see where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re heading

 

Why are some classes a pleasure to teach, while others test every skill and fragment of an instructor’s patience and fortitude? How can things seem to start off so well, and then proceed rapidly downhill? I have found it helpful to remind myself of the stages of group development as a rough heuristic for making sense of the classroom climate over the course of a semester.

 

Having a “big picture” sense of the terrain I am navigating with students gives me a general road map and guide. Where did we start, where are we now, and where do we want to go? These are the questions I am asking in reflecting on my teaching practice. The principles of group dynamics state that groups tend to progress through five specific stages in the process of developing cohesion and productive functioning:

 

  1. Forming: Getting to know each other, as people determine the degree to which there is safety in risk-taking. Groups that get stuck at this stage tend to remain at a superficial level, and there is minimal group cohesion and community. Keep challenging their assumptions and encourage students to step beyond their comfort zone in engaging with one another and with the course material.
  2. Storming: Characterized by interpersonal conflict, as group members test implicit and explicit norms and boundaries. This stage can really stretch our skills as we help the class navigate through rough waters. Hold steady. You (and they) will get through it. And pat yourself on the back for successfully supporting the class’s progress past Phase 1 – that’s not easy to do.
  3. Norming: Developing positive group norms, values and behaviours is the reward for getting through the conflict and challenges of the storming phase. As a community of learners, what values do we stand for? How do we enact them in the classroom? Guiding students to examine and internalize positive group norms shifts some of the heavy work from the instructor to the class.
  4. Performing: This is when it’s easy to remember why you are passionate about teaching. High functioning classrooms happen when students are committed to their own and others’ learning, and are willing to dig deep and make mistakes. Here is the laboratory where transformative learning happens. Congratulations, you earned it.
  5. Adjourning: Saying goodbye can be tough, and guiding the class through this transition means honouring and celebrating their collective experience and acknowledging that this is ending.

And then you get to start all over again!

 

 

 

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The third type of digital divide and why mobile devices should remain on

 

Much has been written about the digital divide. And we are now seeing research and publications focused on the “second-level digital divide” as mobile devices become increasingly ubiquitous. Now we’re talking about the structural inequities among not just who has digital access, but rather, the kinds of access and digital access skills.

 

In addition, the pervasiveness of mobile computing means that North American post-secondary classrooms are increasingly a site for a third kind of digital divide: between instructors struggling to wrest students’ attention away from their mobile devices, and students as tied to said devices as day traders to the Nasdaq. Maybe it doesn’t have to be one or the other: mobile computing can add value to any classroom.

 

 

Here are seven ways to leverage mobile capacity from the very first class.

 

1. Ice Breaker: App Show and Tell

People love apps (estimates for 2013 range from somewhere between 54 – 86 billion downloads). Ask students to stand up, mingle around, and query someone they haven’t met “What’s your favourite app and why?” What are the most popular apps represented in your class? What does this say about commonalities and differences?

2. Course Playlist

Playlists are the contemporary equivalent of mixtapes. What song(s) symbolize the themes of this course? Put together a collaborative playlist. Play a song at the beginning and end of every class.

3. In-ClassTwitterchat

Individual reflective activities are regarded as productive and constructive. Why not take 10 minutes and move the conversation into the social-digital realm? #yourcoursename

 

4. Open-search-engine pre-test

Mobile devices are banished from final exams – rightly so. Yet the skill of locating credible information efficiently is essential in any profession. Invite students to preview a modified final exam at the beginning of the course using their mobile devices to access information (they can work in pairs if not everyone has an Internet-enabled search engine on their phone). Extra points for the instructor if the pre-test is designed more for critical understanding/analysis than fact-memorization. Optimally, students will directly experience why attending class is a value-add over just reading the text.

 

5. Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Collectively develop an innovative idea based on the course content, or identify a community project or cause, and work with them to secure funding. Try to fund development using crowd-sourced micro finance (such as Kickstarter).

 

6. Social Justice

Identify a cause and create an online petition. Or locate, critique, endorse petitions. Reflect on the challenge of consensus building, ethics, values, decision-making.

 

7. Collaborative Learning Assessment

Invite students to collaboratively co-create the final exam throughout the course using a mobile test-maker application.

 

 

All of the above strategies are aimed at addressing classroom engagement and leveraging the reality that students will bring and access their mobile devices, whether sanctioned or not. But most important, these strategies can address the skills gaps identified in the concept of second-level digital divide. And do so in the spirit of new and emerging teaching and learning frameworks:

Paragogy and heutagogy.

(Also on Slideshare)

 

 

 

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Don’t judge me for liking Reality TV – it’s not my fault

 

Just over a year ago I wrote an article for educators and presenters titled 5 Reasons why Reality TV is not a waste of time (describing 5 lessons learned from Reality TV shows).

Since then, I’ve noticed that “Reality TV Waste of Time” comes up again and again in peoples’ web browser search terms. This makes me wonder, why is Reality TV so strangely compelling to so many?

Let’s face it. “Reality” TV is a bit of a misnomer since there is little “real” about the story arc portrayed over the course of a season. Out of hundreds of hours of video, a post hoc narrative is assembled to reference traditional literary/cinematic tropes. What we see is merely an illusion of the unscripted and imperfect.

 

Nonetheless, these shows tap into some deeply human essentials:

First, we all seek social connectedness and community and are reflexively interested in one-anothers’ lives. If you live in a small town everybody knows your business, but populations are increasingly centred in urban environments within which it’s not uncommon to have limited (or no) interaction with our geographically proximate neighbours. Enter Reality TV:

Television occupies our most intimate spaces offering a simulacrum of community and connectedness (Allen & Hill, 2004).

Furthermore, we think in narrative structures – the human brain is hard-wired for story-telling. Reality television simultaneously represents and distorts powerful human stories. (Roche & Sadowsky, 2003).

The modern “quests” described by Reality TV represent a contemporary re-imagining of centuries-old themes: innocence, villainy, betrayal, honour, valour, (in)justice, victory and defeat (Ibrahim, 2007).

 

So, from a mortifying wealth of choices, here are a few illustrative examples:

The epic journey: Amazing Race, Survivor, Ice Road Truckers

The Combat Myth: Hell’s Kitchen, America’s Got Talent, The Apprentice

The search for the “Holy Grail”: Storage Wars, American Pickers, Pawn Stars

Love and betrayal (and sometimes betrothal): The Bachelor/Bachelorette, Four Weddings, Real Housewives

A window into the lives of others: LA Ink, 19 Kids and Counting, Breaking Amish.

 

I am not saying that any time watching any TV is time well spent. There are lots of better things to do. But…all things in moderation, that’s the key.

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Democratizing education may mean creating a strange and hybridized monster

 

In principle, MOOCs embody the democratization of information and education: open access to leading edge scholarship and learning, facilitated by outstanding leaders in their respective fields. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are being described as a great equalizer in higher education (awarded an overall “B” grade in a recent New York Times Sunday Review article). Maybe MOOCs are shaping up to be the “killer app” of higher education?

 

Except…there are a couple of snags.

In her exploration of the Ethics of MOOCs, Nora Dunne questions whether it’s defensible to use institutional resources to create and support MOOCs if this diverts what’s available to tuition-paying students. Unless the money comes from a school’s marketing budget?

Institutions of higher learning care about students. They care about access. They want to make the world a better place by linking students with research, theory, knowledge, skills and applications. They also care about enrollment, to which their funding is inextricably tied. They care about their brand. They are competitive.

Such drivers are not mutually exclusive and are not a bad thing. Visionary thinking drives innovation, and so does competition. But there is a risk if academic institutions start regarding MOOCs as “loss leaders”.

 

Are MOOCs at risk of becoming brand advertisements to drive enrollment?

From an education research and theory perspective, best practices in online learning emphasize the importance of interactivity, both with peers and with faculty. Conversely, the one-to-many model, whether delivered in a massive open lecture hall or in a massive open online course, focuses more on information delivery than knowledge construction.

The ideal would be a customizable and dynamic MOOC that integrates high-quality learning objects, pre-recorded or streamed video of outstanding instructors, asynchronous and synchronous small group discussion, simulations, and individual tutoring. But taking it back to budgets, how is this sustainable from a cost perspective?

Unfortunately it’s just not. And the problem with the one-to-many approach is its fundamental incompatibility with 2.0 anything. But…what if all of the above learning tools/strategies were crowdsourced? Not just across institutions of higher learning but from students themselves (past, present and future)? (Representing an authentically paragogical/heutagogical approach, a.k.a. “Andragogy 2.0“).

 

The Digital Frontier

If we venture into the frontier of digital open-access territory, we need to understand that MOOCs, by their nature, are free, open and out there. Positive institutional branding becomes a by-product of bleeding-edge, innovative curricula co-created by outstanding faculty and students.

And might this mean the creation of a strange and hybridized monster – a WikiMOOC?

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Teaching as effortless action

 

Course evaluations can provide helpful feedback about what we’ve done well and where we can improve. The confusing part is when we see polarities in evaluation data (too much group discussion, not enough group discussion; too much time, not enough time; etc.). But the solution isn’t necessarily working harder at the front of the classroom.

The Eastern notion of “effortless action” implies action aligned with our authentic selves. The harder we try to exert influence and control, the further we get from the fundamental essence of what it is to teach and to learn.

 

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The Tao of teaching is the unity between: 

Thinking and doing 

Speaking and listening

Working and playing 

Teaching and learning.

 

Consider: Each of these contains elements of the other. Thought is itself a form of action, and action embodies elements of thought. As we speak we are responding (to), and we listen to ourselves. As we listen our mind is speaking. Work and play are not distinct from one another. As we teach we learn, and we learn as we teach. 

Effortless action in a Western frame might be conceptualized as the psychology of flow.

 

Whatever name we give to something essentially un-nameable, for me the Tao of Teaching means finding that place inside and then reaching out and connecting with what is true and authentic in others. That’s when magic happens. 

Manufactured Landscape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is blogging the digital equivalent of tree-planting?

In his famous series of large-scale photographs capturing the impacts of industry Edward Burtynsky highlights massive reconstructions of our natural world. I watched the award-winning 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes on a long-haul flight a few years ago, juxtaposing mountains of discarded computer monitors (on the screen in front of me), with pristine polar ice (out the airplane window).

Burtynsky shows us debris fields in real environments. What are some of the by-products and reconfigured terrains of the knowledge construction industry?  Here are three manifestations:

1. Degree inflation: Just like 50 is the new 40, Masters are the new Bachelors. Is this because today’s world is infinitely more complex and new hires need additional time and preparation for job readiness? Or are we seeing the equivalent of monetary inflation? I once served on a selection committee for a prestigious lectureship, where the candidate we chose had the credentials PhD, PhD. Let’s leave it at that.

2. Manufactured authenticity: Knowledge workers tend to spend a lot of time indoors. We all crave the experience of real-world adventure but fear of the attendant risks can be a deterrent. That’s what simulations are for: in teaching, learning and recreation. Google Glass represents the first wave of integrated mobile computing. Will this be the next television?

3. Digital nostalgia: The internet is a social construction and was once (in the words of Howard Rheingold) an electronic frontier. Consider the contrast between the WELL and Facebook with respect to discourse and advertising presence. Burtynsky catalogued the manufactured landscapes of the industrial world – what will 2020’s documentary on the manufactured landscapes of the information economy look like?

The post-industrial wastelands of the digisphere weren’t always there. Maybe blogging is the digital equivalent of tree-planting?

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Blogging can facilitate the convergence of reflection-in AND reflection-on

Reflective practice is a cornerstone for continuous advancement as academic educators and scholars, and we all engage in reflective practice: with our students, with our colleagues, and with ourselves. Donald Schon, in his groundbreaking and influential theory of knowledge generation and learning, posited two reflective processes:

Reflection-in-practice

Reflection-on-practice.

In the moment (reflection-in-practice) we respond and make decisions based on a complex inter-weaving of practice wisdom, experience in classroom teaching, our integrated observation and enactment of what has worked for others, and evidence-based knowledge and skills. In the aftermath (reflection-on-practice) we mull over what worked and what was less effective. We talk things over with colleagues, seek supervision, and/or we journal or otherwise record our reflections.

Traditionally these two processes (reflecting-in and reflecting-on) have been seen to occur as separate but related. Further, the “products” of reflective practice – journaling, goal-setting, dialogue – have been constrained by physical geography and the limits of our professional networks.

Enter social media: thanks to “reflective practice 2.0” reflecting in / on are no longer necessarily distinct. Blogging may well represent a kind of “reflective practice power tool” in its ability to facilitate the convergence of reflection-in and reflection-on.

Digital communication has qualities of speaking and publishing together, and students are part of the conversation. Commenting enables an extended, many-to-many dialogue and blurs the boundaries between in-the-moment (i.e. in-the-classroom) reflection and post hoc reflective discourse. In other words, the act of blogging is itself teaching (in) even as it represents a reflective process (on). The classroom has become porous. Reflective practice is “unboundaried”.

We are all students, and we’re all teachers.

(See an excellent summary of Schon’s work, thinking and contributions at this link).

(Check out the presentation version of this post on Slideshare).

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Here’s what the ultimate teaching challenge might look like…and in the future it may be the rule rather than the exception

A new book, Motivational Interviewing in Groups (Wagner and Ingersoll) outlines motivational approaches and strategies in group facilitation. While the book’s emphasis is on clinical practice, the principles and applications are also relevant to education settings.

The book’s authors present a table illustrating different types of group format, structure, composition, size, length and admission arranged along a continuum of difficulty (for facilitators) from easier to harder:

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This looks different for educational groups, but the essentials still apply. Here is my modification of Wagner and Ingersoll’s framework calibrated for teaching and learning:

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In other words:

Elective courses are easier to teach than mandatory courses. Students generally take electives out of interest, as opposed to being forced to take mandatory courses. Teaching students content that someone else thinks they ought to know is tougher than content in which they’re already interested.

Instructor-led courses presuppose a “script” (i.e. lesson plan), versus collaborative or student-led curricula. Paragogical approaches posit peer-to-peer learning and individual autonomy, and demand a proportionately higher level of finesse and facilitation.

Classes where students share more similarities than differences can be easier to work with than heterogeneous class compositions. For example, students who differ widely in age, ability or pre-existing knowledge and skills present more of a challenge in ensuring that all learning needs are met, and establishing an inclusive, cohesive and positive community of learning. Of course diversity, including culture, sex, gender and lived experience, enriches everyone’s learning exponentially – but demands artful facilitation on our part.

Student engagement and interactivity are more straightforward in classes of 25 or less. As class size increases so does the challenge of promoting opportunities for practice and integration of knowledge and skills.

It’s easier to keep peoples’ interest and attention for a single class of 2 or 3 hours than it is for a whole day or for multiple days. The latter demands both a varied menu of instructional strategies as well as formidable stamina (on the part of the instructor and the students).

Strict and highly competitive admission criteria can yield the “cream of the crop” of high-achieving and highly motivated learners. On the other hand, classes where admission is unrestricted means addressing the needs of the best and the brightest alongside those with academic struggles and other challenges.

Like any framework, this conceptualization tends to oversimplify and blur the many complexities and nuances of artful classroom teaching. Real life is always messier than the manual (if there even is a manual). But in general, teaching a mandatory class using a student-led curriculum, among a highly diverse cohort of 100 students or more, over a multi-day course that is freely open to all could well represent the ultimate teaching challenge.

We haven’t added the layer of classroom-based versus online teaching and learning, but does this scenario represent what may well be future of higher education…MOOC 2.0?

 

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Wise words from a school principal

Grade 8 graduation – lots of speeches, uncomfortable chairs and a few fleeting moments when my own grade 8 grad is on stage for the bestowing of the diploma. Who knew that a few thoughtful words by the school principal at the end of the ceremony would capture with absolutely perfect clarity the essence of what it is to teach (and learn)?

This principal was moving on to a position at a new school, so it was his final address and farewell. I don’t remember much of that final speech, with the exception of the last sentence:

“Most of all, I want to thank you students; you gave me so much more than I ever gave to you.”

I was struck by those words as a container for everything that’s important in teaching and learning. The stance of attention, humility, curiosity, openness, collaboration, gratitude and honouring the other.

Those words were a gift and an affirmation of the truest meaning of “teacher”.

So in the spirit of the holiday season I’m passing the gift along. Thanks Mr. Beatty.

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