Teaching “Nekid” – Jose Bowen Guest at ATU

A colleague and I were getting coffee before a pre-semester professional development seminar by Dr. José Bowen, a renowned teaching scholar and speaker, and we were discussing our worries about how much information reaches us and our students. Not like in the Luddite/anti-technology way with our fists in the air (Man seen shaking fists at cloud, like in the Simpson’s). We were affirming what we were beginning to realize – the obsolescence of our teaching profession with the growth of technological mechanisms for learning online. However, not all lost, my colleague remarked that if we were to unleash students to the online world, we would be able to have meaningful discussions in class. It would reward deep learning, risk-taking in teaching, but those conditions could lead to some weird and unanticipated stuff. “In essence, my colleague said in his Southern accent, it’s like Bowen’s ‘teaching ne-kid’.”

Dr. Bowen is the author of Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your Classroom Will Improve Your Teaching. First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed the session, and I am grateful that ATU and our teaching excellence center (CETL: https://www.atu.edu/cetl/) provided this development opportunity. Full disclosure though is that I am a bit of a geek with this pedagogy improvement stuff since grad school. It’s like my new guilty pleasure. So, I am coming from a full positivity bias to anything that signals how to be a great teacher.

Bowen’s argument is that higher-ed needs to be mapping the technological component of learning to the classroom in a way that is not letting technology take the place of instruction, but letting it facilitate the flow of a course with the flow of new information. Turn new generation students loose on something they are good at finding or is relatable to them within the life they have literally built online, and then guide them back to your teaching, your intellectual positions, and your critical thinking. We teachers want students to engage when they are in the class, but the lecture, Powerpoint you to death, Ben Stein (Anybody? Anybody?) approach is not holding water today. It’s “flipping” the classroom, but it’s also getting students to put the language of their experiences in life to the language of the discipline they are taking (many times without them realizing it).

Bowen’s ideas are also backed up by much research, and many ideas he presents are in agreement with neuroscience, cognitive science of learning, and design implementation (these fields are heavily invested in working on effective applications to learning). Bowen’s ideas actually also come from some similar authors, Doyle and Zakrajsek (2013), who give this wonderful, digestible version of years of research on learning to the student in a short reader. The central ideas are that we need to put the responsibility of the learning on the learner; “the one who does the work, does the learning”.

I don’t think any educator with an iota of experience in the classroom will disagree with that elegant statement. There in lies the trick, however, that teaching is deceptively difficult. As soon as that statement leaves your lips, you will find yourself in the midst of all the questions of how to get that statement to come true in your class.

The questions, however, are really where you devote your time as an educator. I tell my students that I am not here to supply answers, but here to supply problems. My profession as a psychologist is built upon questions and hypothesis testing. While I do answer their questions, it’s not the information that keeps the course and my teaching going. It’s a complex, multi-faceted problem that lives and breathes.

I appreciate Bowen’s perspective, yet I must say that one caveat (especially for a young prof like me). I think of the argument like a Pascal’s wager – IF people like Bowen are right, then higher ed is in bad shape to do what it is designed to do. You can quickly realize that structure of higher ed needs to make some tweaks in order to reward problem-solving, flipped, naked, whatever you want to buzzword it, meaningful and risky teaching.

Here are a few teeny problems.

  1. Relying on student evaluations that change if you give your students cookies (I am not kidding.)
  2. Making tenure/promotion decisions contingent on those cookie-dependent evaluation scores that always slant negatively toward minority/international/female faculty
  3. Having dubious questions on said evaluations. Our student evaluations in Arkansas require the question “Is the teacher proficient in English?”, to which the student rates the faculty on a FIVE … POINT … SCALE!!)
  4. Putting “killer courses” up front and center to weed out students in a major.
  5. Pigeon-holing faculty with type-cast course offerings (Do you think students salivate at a required course called Research Methods? Honestly!)
  6. Conscripting grades through textbooks and learning management systems that are many times outdated, wrong, or flat out scam.
  7. So, when you look at the above 6 reasons, it’s more that the nakedness showing (to flip the metaphor on its head) is on higher-ed, not the teacher in the classroom.

Yet, I and other faculty are co-participants in the process. So, I am going to go to my place where I think about how to implement these ideas. I am going to step away from my endless revising and adding cosmetic changes to my syllabi, and I am going to look at my courses as living and breathing experiences facilitated by the use of today’s technological resources.

In closing, I said to my colleague, “I know this is happening. I am not the carrier of all information. BUT, I am still the judger of competence in my students.”

So, I do need to make my self obsolete for the sake of not being a talking head up in front of my class. I need to be by my students’ side to say, “You’re getting it, you’re learning, and I think you can do great things with what you’ve taken away from this course.”

We’re naked together – oh … oh god, terrible metaphor.

Belonging, Gains, and Losses in College: A Lifespan Perspective

A student donning a “First Generation” stole. Arkansas Tech University has a First Generation Student Programming and institute under way since 2018. Photo Credit to Liz Chrisman, a fantastic photographer (http://www.lizchrisman.com/)

Many aspects of life hinge upon gains and losses. There is a phrase, however, I have used with my developmental psychology classes, and as I give it to my students, I hear them turning it over in their minds:

“There is no gain without a loss, and no loss without a gain.”

This simplistic idea comes from the work of developmental psychologist and big-thinker Paul Baltes (1939-2006) who had a “theory of theories” paper on what he called Selective Optimization Compensation. The theory states that development is lifelong and distinctly changing at different periods of time. Opposed to earlier views of development at the time (Freud and Piaget for example), Baltes proposed that all stages of development are worthy of attention, not just infancy, and not just the period of “internalizing” in childhood. The field has made great strides because of this theory, and we have some new concepts such as “emerging adulthood”.

The reason for my post on this quote is not to make an analysis of it, but a stipulation must be made. I called it simplistic, because it is dangerous to interpret it as having acceptable validity, and therefore truer than other claims. It is, in fact, more a truism than a truth. I want to point out that my students often are sensitive to its meaning, because they are going through some distinct gains and losses themselves. Many of them are losing friendships, losing tight structures of reward and punishment at home, and maybe losing a sense of perfect clarity with their destiny.

At this juncture, my students will reach out to their future or current college institution to gain something from it. They will likely attempt to belong.

Belongingness is defined by researchers as having a strong tie to a community, finding a fit between the self and the institution, and at a minimum, feeling respected by the members of a group associated with the place the person seeks to belong to. As Carol Goodenow, belongingness pioneer puts it,

“Psychological membership is […] neither a purely personal intrapsychic phenomenon nor as entirely the function of the school environment, but rather as arising from the person within a particular school environment.” (Goodenow, 1993, p. 87)

Why is belongingness more valuable at the point in time of college than others? Why is belongingness more important than other aspects of student life?

To answer the first question: It’s not that it is more important, it’s that it is a necessary pre-requiste to learning and participating academically. To answer the second question, it is a nebulous experience that predicts a pretty certain set of adult outcomes. Low levels of belongingness, particularly belonging to family as the student leaves for college, can predict a significant increase in reported suicide intentions (Plosonka et al., 2015, Journal of American College Health). Major reviews of the literature also point to this conclusion: Low belongingness predicts lowered functioning, not just academics, but lowered health in lifestyle. The emerging adult now has the choice between drawing toward or withdrawing from society, and the consequences could be that no one goes looking to where they disappear.

Now, I hear you saying “Well, that’s probably because some people just don’t want to fit in.” And you’d be right: There are a number of adults entering the next phase with a tendency to avoid belonging experiences (e.g., personality, limits with physical ability). However, it is likely that a major driver of the effect of belonging on behavioral intentions and good choices is the fit between the person and the institution. Most students are not looking for a “place to belong”, but they are looking for people like them. Most students are not searching for “an intrapsychic phenomenon”, but are looking for signals, purposivelly and inadvertently, that tell them, “this must be the place” (Talking Heads, anyone?). They are looking to gain friendships and experiences they have lost by leaving something else behind.

Many students including first-generation college students are at a greater risk of experiencing loss, because they do not yet know how to gain in terms of college transactions. Many first-generation students, such as the ones I teach, stay at home. Many first-gens do not know who are the others like them, because first-gen-ness is not something you can wear outwardly. This is why the first year counts. As an anecdote, I was a non-first gen (my dad had a college degree, but my mom did not), and I decided to stay home, be around family and friends. It turned out to be a great boost to my college GPA. When many of my peers were dropping out, I was gaining new experiences, and a spark came on that I had not felt in high school. I now have some research (in review) examining belongingness in first generation students. Our work currently shows that at a small college with over half of the student body being first-gen (ATU), the level of belonging and intrinsic motivation for learning in first-generation students is not statistically different from non-first gens.

My co-authors and I are examining factors at large (i.e., meta-analyses) that may add some predictive value to the question of belongingness in first-gens. It turns out that much research is missing, and where it is there, it’s typically case study or exploratory-style methods.

To return to my aphoristic quote, I think it will become increasingly important to examine gains and losses in first-gens, because Baltes’ conceptualization of development was that the person should experience “relatively greater gains than losses”. Currently, we are experiencing enrollment losses. While the trends are generally down across the country, we need to examine these questions to determine whether students are looking at college as a major loss, and will go looking for opportunity elsewhere. Dare I say, we may need to completely revamp college to cause students to feel they are around their people and they are in the right place?

Baltes could offer some insight into this problem, perhaps first academically, but also practically. It is practical to think about belonging in college as a transformative experience in adulthood. It could cause us to reconceptualize what college means, and perhaps take a “theory of theories” approach to redefining the college experience.

Arkansas Governor’s School: A summer of humanity in the time of machines

This summer, I had the privilege of teaching 375 bright, gifted, and talented rising Seniors. They came from all corners of Arkansas, the large metropolitan Little Rock (pop. 193, 524) to the smaller Dumas and Greenwood (pop. between 8,500-9,000).

The four week period of AGS, held on the campus of Arkansas Tech University, was a platform for the students to express their talents and to cultivate their interests in academics. The AGS model is to largely align academic specialties in different areas with critical thinking and project-based learning.

Enough with the preamble: Let me tell you about my experience.

If these students had one talent they excelled at, they had 10. I met students who could outstrip me intellectually, analytically, and artistically, though I will say the last point does not take much effort. I saw brilliant displays of art performance, music, and theatre. I also participated, as was my teaching duty, in very intriguing discussions on philosophy, psychology, and various applied topics.

The four week period was tightly packed so much, it felt like 4 months. However, I did not grow weary of the students, and I hope I did not grow stale in their minds. It was so easy for me to do my job. Of course, I had to prepare as I always do, but I had an open sandbox of teaching approaches and techniques. We largely engaged in the Socratic method, but sometimes we engaged with subjects in silent reflection. After class, I had students stay behind to discuss more, at the expense of missing lunch, and when afternoon and evening events were held, I looked down at my watch only to realize I had been in deep discussion with students into the late hours of the night. All I had to do was show up and contribute.

That word, contribute, is missing from much of the classroom today. Education has somewhat created a paradox where it is attempting to become increasingly relevant through the use of technology, online courses, platforms, and devices that make things run so smoothly. Yet, the smoothness of tech has come at a cost. The cost is surely financial, but what is harder to pin down is the human cost. The human cost is the student as consumer rather than contributor, gulper of information rather than co-participator in the construction of knowledge. One reading at AGS came from a curmudgeonly but honest intellectual, Neil Postman, who has been raising questions about this issue since the dawn of the Internet!

Pending more ranting on this topic, I will focus on what I saw at AGS that gave me hope that the paradox does not mean case closed. This 2019 AGS was designed around a theme of technology, wave of the future, AI, VR, etc. However, I did not see a consumption of this message as anticipated by the premise I set up in the prior paragraph. Students started to fight back at this idea. They were not all passive consumers, but rather a multitude questioning the value of the argument that “all sectors of work will be automated in the next 25 years”, and they were raising questions like, “What does it mean to be human?” This reaction is actually in line with much automation research (see work by the late Raja Parasuraman, whom I had the pleasure of being taught by) showing that people do not take lightly to AI that mimics a real person. There are conditional acceptances for trusting automation including norms, etiquette, and anthropomorphic qualities. The AGS students exemplified this tension – we are beings, situated in a cultural context, and with our own cultural frame of reference, we can challenge a techno-centric cultural milieu as somewhat artificial itself.

In my class, I tried to foist the technology idea on to the students, and specifically used virtual reality (Google Cardboard, so hardly high-tech). We examined the lives of Syrian refugees (https://www.rescue.org/four-walls) after reading the short story, “The Ones Who Left Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin. I asked the students to compare the experiences, and they immediately shot back with a preference for Omelas. The reason I did it was because of research I have been looking into on the role of empathy and VR experiences (see NPR story on topic here). Two students keenly distinguished that Omelas made them think “What could I do?”, while the VR told them what they should do. They felt empathy for the refugees, but they felt constrained by the experience. If there is one thing teens are tired of, it is a droning Charlie Brown’s parent telling them how they should use technology. Perhaps we need to monitor youth and teach responsibility, but I took away something else. Here is my summary reflection:

Let’s be careful about projecting our ideas and issues with technological fashion onto others. The subject matter is certainly important, but people need the opportunity to think about their lives in relation to changes. They need space to reflect on how they adapt to change, how they use, and how they make the change part of their routine. Perhaps we have unquestioningly embraced technology, made it part of our daily routine, or worse become addicted and automated ourselves. Yet, when given the time to reflect (or as in AGS for about 9 days, when the technology is taken away), we combat, we say “I have a choice!”, and we perhaps believe more in our humanity than in automation.

PYD, Mastery, and Motivation (Another AGS post!)

Had I known the first post I made about AGS was literally on the heels of a local publication, I would have waited! However, it appears to be perfectly timed with my thoughts on a topic I am quite familiar with: youth motivation.

Here is the full Arkansas Tech News article. I will also refer to it as a qualitative evidence feature of this post.

Before I examine the article, here are some interesting points about the science of youth motivation, specifically growth mindset and positive youth development in academic contexts.

  1. Research on youth motivation under this umbrella is not in fashion now, but has been in the academy since the early 1980s. Some of the first papers on this topic were by Carole Ames and Carol Dweck (author of Mindset). Dweck and Ames have been writing about this topic for many years, and it is a testament to their tenacity and direction that much of what we know now began as basic research.
  2. The area of research concerns primarily academic motivation, but this motivation can extend to non-academic and extracurricular contexts. The research on this area is relatively newer, and typically involves examining the effect of contexts such as 4-H, sport programs, and interventions for at-risk youth. Positive youth development work by Rich Lerner and Peter Benson has brought about an explosion of literature on youth leadership characteristics. However, what these scholars are saying started from some simple observations of schools looking for student leadership.
  3. The two areas of PYD and growth mindset research, combining forces, have shown simple, but non-intuitive, motivators in child and adolescent development.
    • Youth are motivated more by mastery (challenge of the process) than by ego (challenge of performing better than others).
    • Youth are motivated by process praise (That’s a great piece of art!) rather than person praise (You’re so smart!).
    • Mastery motivation does not necessarily mean proficiency – it typically means effort sustained for long and difficult tasks.
    • Mastery motivation does not mean always highly motivated, but rather it deals more with qualities like tenacity, grit, and persistence.
    • Motivation is a function of the person and the context. Dweck’s early work, in which children were given an impossible puzzle, has identified that some children are more inclined to be mastery-focused than others, some more “fixed” than others. However, it is unreasonable to put it all on the child, or to expect a child with low resources in their school to be “gritty” about their education. Provided basic needs are met, Dweck’s later work has shown in conjunction with other labs, a child’s mastery orientation and growth mindset is a skill which can be taught, and a skill which can interact with their “fluid” intelligence.
    • As children reach adolescence, they need to build motivation along several assets. PYD researchers call this the “5 Cs”, which are competence, confidence, character, compassion, and contribution (sometimes the Cs are interchangeable). The “assets” of motivation are indeed more efficacious when instilled at a programmatic level. This is a lesson learned in terms of applied research on youth development. Many of the early programs that went into effect in the 90s (Just Say No, Dare) were ineffective because instead of cultivating assets of motivation, they were about problem-finding and deviance reduction.
    • PYD can be used in all contexts, but is very helpful where resources are lacking. So, the combination of a PYD program with growth mindset cannot lead students astray.
  4. These points seem obvious, but it is important to remember that there are many approaches in schools which do not use empirically-based methods of increasing motivation in students, or some that are poorly adapted to the school context. Not all programs are “out of the box” ready. They must be adapted to fit a culture and the logistics of a place.

Evidence from AGS Students

So, here is the evidence, as excerpted from the Arkansas Tech News article, that AGS works toward the goal of instilling mastery and PYD. From this year, these quotes embody the ideas outlined:

“It’s all about the manifestation of the curious side of yourself that you sometimes don’t get to express at school because of the restrictions that are put on you for grades and what not.”

This quote first of all acknowledges a goal, which is a structure that can guide a student’s learning from the get-go. Then, it moves on to the very-real pressure that grades can dissuade curiosity. A caveat: The absence of grades at AGS limits generalizability, but what is also unlikely that schools can instill growth mindset in students with conflicting messages from external standards. Dweck referred to this problem as the “pseudo growth mindset effect” – just saying growth mindset things is not going to result in motivation if the structural barriers are still present.

“It’s really stressful to have to worry about always being your best,” […] “Here, you can know nothing and still come and learn something without that pressure. It’s a lot easier for me because I like to learn. I loved coming and learning more deeply about something I love.”

As I mentioned, the quote above suggests a mastery/growth mindset does not always mean a high level of motivation. Motivation of a mastery orientation depends on level and quality.

“Surrounding myself with everyone (at AGS) has shown me my leadership potential,” […] “What I learned here is going to change the way approach the future. I’ve become a lot more confident in myself academically. It makes me strive to want to learn more. It’s for your own personal growth. Everyone in the class wants to learn, and that makes me want to learn more. When everyone is engaged, it makes me want to engage more. (AGS) changed my life.”

Positive youth contexts do not happen immediately, but take time to develop. The perception of a context as supportive depends on a climate where youth feel their opinions matter, they are respected, and feel a sense of autonomy to choose their path. Autonomy becomes increasingly important as youth transition to adolescence and beyond.

” […] It’s such a confidence booster that you keep wanting to participate and work with it. I’d rather sit in a room for an hour and 30 minutes talking about these topics as opposed to sitting down and writing out of a book. We are all individuals and have our unique personalities. All of us learn differently, and that’s what AGS works with. It attunes to all learning styles. I feel like being here has taught me more about what I’m actually interested in.”

This final quote I like, because while it is idealistic in nature, it is not wrong. How we structure the classroom can either provide a platform for learning via motivational mechanisms or it can thwart it via motivational mechanisms. The diversity of learning is met by the teacher and students acknowledging differences exist, and then working collaboratively to ensure that all types of students are present from the introverted listener to the extroverted talker. From my side as a teacher, it is a constant balance of looking at what is effective in terms of evidence in practice with what is useful to the many diverse students in my class. It requires thinking about every little thing in your class with intention.

Whether AGS is always doing these best practices with reference to scholarship in motivation is up for discussion. Nonetheless, I witnessed AGS is effective as a tradition in Arkansas, because of the perceived value going in; a perceived value that has been instilled for over 30 years. I think that this program needs more research on its own practices to continue ensuring success, but also to drill down into why the program meets the students’ needs, the students come to bring their best, and the interaction between the two factors.

Below, I have included talks by two of the researchers I mentioned, Carol Dweck and Peter Benson.

My 10 Commandments of Class

Ten Commandments of Class*

Jordan Thibodeaux

  1. Thou shalt be present and attentive with no other idols besides learning.

The best way to do well in class is to be there. No devices have ever delivered on the promise of enhancing your ability to learn, and so you must learn to not depend on them. When in class, rid yourself of obsessing and compulsory checking for text messages, emails, Facebook notifications, Instagram posts, Snapchats, Tinder requests, or tweets.

  1. Thou shalt respect thy peer as thyself.

Understand that you and your peers have a varied history, culture, motivation, and orientation toward life. Opinions may change, but respect of differences remain.

  1. Thou shalt not steal or covet thy neighbor’s work or intellectual contributions.

Collaborating on coursework notes, groups (especially), and other general and particular information is expected. Get to know your peers, because you may need them one day. However, plagiarism and collusion on an exam are not permitted. Honor code violations are taken seriously. Think honorably of your classmate’s work and the work of others, and you shall not fail lest you dash your foot against a stone.

  1. Thou shalt engage with the course content; be it slides, lecture, or text, so as to make it thine own.

Come to the course with an open mind, but also come with hope that you can take the material once foreign to you in order to gain knowledge for your journey. Your brain knows how to make maps. All it needs to do is go on more journeys.

  1. Thou shalt devise a system of note taking.

If you do not take notes in class and are just a “visual” learner, then class will be terrible for you, because this course only appeals to the other senses. Do something different, or your passive listening in class could be cast into the fiery pit of low GPAs!

  1. Thou shalt consult the syllabus for all needs, and ask questions for needs unanticipated.

It’s in the syllabus, and if it isn’t yet, it will be. However, it is good to ask the instructor about clarifying course expectations and requirements.

  1. Thou shalt learn to learn.

Learning happens by knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know (Make sense?). There are no dumb questions. Saying a question is dumb is making a logical impossibility that would result in the collapse of the universe as we know it. If you don’t ask questions, you will remain forever ignorant. Your question may end up helping others wondering the same thing.

  1. Thou shalt assume the best intentions of thy peers and thy instructor.

Your instructors like students and teaching. Thus, they do not appreciate gossip, slander, and unfounded criticism of any person at this university institution. Go and post your negative Rate My Professor reviews if you must, but know that many people read them and consider the reviews to be cyberbullying.

  1. Thou shalt speak up, not too little or too much, in order to participate in the classroom community.

We are all imperfect beings, but together we make up a whole greater than the sum of its parts. You can only make class better by contributing, but be tactful, respectful, and mindful that you are only one part of the culture and community of learners in the classroom.

  1. Thou shalt learn to adore the course and major which thou didst choose.

No one forced you or took away your inalienable rights to be a college student. You chose to go to college, chose your major, and chose this schedule. Blessed are those who take every course, required or elective, with vigor and without withdrawal. In the end, their reward will be great!

*11th commandment: Thou shalt earn credit, not extra credit.

Ideas (and some phrasing) appropriated from:

Ratzman, E. (2015, January). 10 commandments (Blog). Retrieved from: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2015/01/20/essay-10-commandments-professor-his-students