How Long Will We Slight The Social-Emotional Costs Of On-Line Learning?

Thursday, First Year Writing, The Morken Building 131, the first in-person class of the academic year. Students take turns summarizing their first papers about whether one needs, as a Stoic philosopher we read argues, a coherent philosophy of life and a “grand goal of living” to avoid squandering one’s life. They’re smart, so they push back at the suggestion one can neatly plan their life. They talk about some things being outside of our control, like viruses.

If not a coherent philosophy of life, what about guiding principles I wonder. And if so, which ones? They’re not quite ready for subtly, nuance, ambiguity, complexity. That’s why college is four years long. For now at least, I keep those thoughts to myself and just listen.

One student says her mother died in February. Not expecting that, I loose track of what follows, wondering how she died and what would it be like to lose your mom at 17 or 18. She says doing well in school doesn’t matter as much as it did previously.

The students, many who say they struggle with anxiety, have never enjoyed going to class more. Not because of the doofus facilitating things, because they’re famished for friendship. Flat out famished. They linger afterwards, partly to disinfect the tables, but mostly to extend our shared sense of normalcy as long as possible.

The student whose mother died walks up to the front to talk to me. Through my mask I thank her for having the courage to share that news and gently inquire about her mother’s passing. She tells me her mother chose “Death With Dignity” after a lifetime of being severely disabled. And she wanted me to know the paper was really challenging to write, but my sense was, not in a bad way, in an important way. I think it caused her to grieve her mother in a way she hadn’t. She ended up writing her mother a letter and using parts of it to begin her paper.

For those few moments, as her classmates slowly filed out of the room in small groups, she and I shared a human connection that superseded our teacher-student identities. I saw her and heard her in a way that’s utterly impossible on-line.

I am all in on the scientific consensus regarding masks, social distancing, maximizing time outdoors, and washing hands. I am comfortable enough returning to the classroom because my university has done an excellent job preparing for as safe as possible a return to in-person classes. I will not help politicize this public health crisis.

What follows is a non-partisan question, my reference point is the social-emotional health of young people.

If we don’t begin implementing “blended” or “hybrid” teaching methods soon, with at least some in-person instruction, what are the social and emotional costs to friendless students who are not being seen or heard in any kind of meaningful way?

“Teaching” On-Line: A Report From The Front Lines

Midway through week 3. In three words, a roller coaster.

Last night the graduate Sociology of Education seminar was a case study of incompetence. When exiting breakout groups I disconnected everyone from everything so we had to scramble to reconnect. For good measure, I added in some pedagogical incompetence by talking too much. One other student saw my blabbing and raised it, and I didn’t know what to do as his classmates, like dominoes, tuned him out one after another.

After class, I retraced my steps and realized the errors of my ways. And so today I was an online teaching rock star, turning off the waiting room, screen sharing, moving between small groups and large with aplomb. I damn well better win the prestigious “Most Improved Zoomer” award, Boomer Division.

I just unplugged from the First Year writers. I forgot to tell them they could jet after they were done peer editing, so they all returned to “office hours”. And they just wanted to hang out, which was cool. They’re a fun subset of the bad luck Covid Class, those 18-19 year olds who missed their high school graduations and have had to start college with electronic teaching hacks like me.

One of them had hilarious background images repeatedly rotating behind him last session. Today, another student did. How long until I lose complete control?

But their daring to be different provided much need levity. They’re not just funny, but resilient, still in good spirits despite “the invisible enemy which no one could’ve seen coming”. After shooting the breeze a bit, I had to tell them it was 72 degrees outside and sunny for one of the last times in a long time. I pleaded with them to “go outside and toss a frisbee.”

Thursday, we’re meeting in-person for the first time. Glory hallelujah.

Thursday Assorted Links

1A. Picture pedaling across the U.S. on a safe, seamless, and scenic pathway.  3,700 miles from swampy Washington in the east to glorious Washington in the west.

1B. The ‘sports car’ of e-bikes. Pricey, but light for an e-bike. But 19 mph, come on maaan, I don’t want to take all summer to traverse the Great American Rail-Trail.

2. COVID-19 Projections Using Machine Learning compliments of Youyang Gu, an independent data scientist.

3. Okay, I feel a little better about public school education.

 

 

 

Reinventing College

There’s lots of talk of radical change as a result of the pandemic. I think a lot of it is premature.

Things may never be the exact same, but that doesn’t mean an era of tele-medicine and working remotely will be ushered in as soon as we receive an “all clear”.

We’re a forgetful people. By 2021, I predict most of the changes, like not shaking hands, will be relatively subtle.

I’m most intrigued by all the talk of higher education disruption. Not just the financial destruction of institutions that were already on the brink, but a major shift to on-line learning. Specifically, some like Scott Galloway predict a Big Tech firm like Google will partner with someone like MIT, or maybe Apple will partner with Stanford or Cal, to offer 2-3 year programs to 50x more students than at present for a fraction of the current costs. Mid-tier and lesser institutions will all suffer greatly; and this shift will be accompanied by major reductions in faculty and staff everywhere; with a few, surviving all-star faculty, making a lot more.

The prognosticators think this could happen in the next five years, which reminds me of all the over-excited driverless car talk from five years ago.

Those types of changes probably will happen, I just wouldn’t bet much money they will happen as fast as many opinion leaders are currently thinking.

The educational status quo is far more resistant to change than even the “education experts” realize. Probably best to measure “disruption” in decades.

Talking About Sexual Stuff On The Phone

We routinely get loose with language. Take “phone sex” for example*. I write a family friendly blog, so it’s not like I have any experience with it, but isn’t it a bit presumptuous to label talking about sexual stuff with another person as “sex”? Granted, “talking about sexual stuff on the phone” is uber-wordy, but far more accurate.

Similarly, as everyone does these days, it’s presumptuous to label “on-line teaching” as teaching. Take Dr. Paige Harden for example:

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.59.06 AM.pngHarden has an informative twitter thread on how to “teach on-line” and you can see her and a colleague in action here:**

Everyone refers to “teaching on-line”, but Harden’s specific phrase “teaching to a camera” highlights the fallacy of the phrase.

You can present to a camera, but you cannot teach to one. “Okay Boomer” alert. . . the word “teaching” should be preserved for IRL settings. The “on-liners” can go as crazy as they want with “presenting”.

Teaching encompasses more layered relationships with students than presenting. Teaching interactions involve direct eye contact, silences, nonverbal communication, occasional emotion, and one-on-one conversations outside of class where each of those are even more integral. Teaching, at least in the humanities and social sciences, entails learning your students’ stories, tweaking your plans according to those stories, and being spontaneous and authentic in ways that are difficult in a separate studio. Teaching is messy for the same reasons all interpersonal relationships are—because everyone enters into the conversation with different worldviews shaped by contrasting gender identities, class backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, and political beliefs. And then, for good measure, add in status and power imbalances.

Teachers have a more immediate sense of how a course is going than presenters because technology-mediated feedback is harder to interpret. When I lecture in an auditorium, I can assess audience engagement based upon several subtleties including eye contact, head nods, facial expressions, and the number (and quality) of questions asked afterwards. The technologist will argue they can do the same sort of thing on-line, but I’m skeptical because teaching entails a dynamism that I don’t believe exists in on-line presenting. My “in real life” students routinely alter my lectures, discussions, and activities with unpredictable questions, or comments directed to me or their classmates, whose responses cannot be anticipated either. Again, technologist will say their presenting is similarly organic, but again, everything is relative.

So let me correct the record. As the nation’s professors and students turn to cameras, microphones, screens, and keyboards, some truth-in-advertising is in order. The country’s colleges are not moving to on-line teaching, they’re moving to on-line presenting.

*since no one talks on phones anymore, “sexting” is probably a more relevant frame of reference, another modern phenom I know nothing about

**Apple thanks you for the commercial

 

 

 

Is There a Loneliness Epidemic?

Sporadic small signs rim the perimeter of our our local high school with the message, “You are not alone.”

Are high schoolers and people more generally lonelier today than than in the past?

From “Is there a loneliness epidemic?”

“Surveys from rich countries do not suggest there has been an increase in loneliness over time. Today’s adolescents in the US do not seem to be more likely to report feeling lonely than adolescents from a couple of decades ago; and similarly, today’s older adults in the US do not report higher loneliness than did adults of their age in the past.

That’s of course not to say we should not pay attention to these topics.

It’s important to provide support to people who suffer from loneliness, just as it is important to pay attention to the policy challenges that come from large societal changes such as the rise of living alone. However, inaccurate, over-simplified narratives are unhelpful to really understand these complex challenges.”

Unless we improve math education, we’ll continue to be susceptible to “inaccurate, over-simplified narratives” of this nature.

I Love It When

A Pressing Pauser, who happens to teach high school, approaches me after church in the narthex and says he doesn’t necessarily agree with me about college professors’ iffy pedagogy. And then thoughtfully explains that the older students are, the more they should adjust to their teachers since employers and the larger world won’t necessarily adapt to their individual learning preferences.

It’s at times like that I wish I had humble blog t-shirts to give away. Solid point. I went on to say, “Iffy Pedagogy—Take 3” was forming in the recesses of my pea brain. The final point in the series being that one other major, overlooked difference between his work and mine is that my students pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend, while some of his are only there because of compulsory attendance laws. More simply, K-12 teachers have to be masters of classroom management, my colleagues and I do not. When I roll into my seminar tomorrow at 11:30a, my students will all be there, having done the reading, ready to follow my lead, listening to and learning from one another.

Upon pointing that out, my friend proceeded to lament some of his ninth grade knuckleheads who it’s super difficult to get through to. Especially when there’s a gaggle in one class.

Of course, which educators deserve the most respect shouldn’t be a zero-sum competition. My primary point is that conventional wisdom, that profs deserve the most respect because they have the most education, is wrong. Elementary, middle, and high school teachers deserve at least the same amount of respect.

Over and out. That is, until hopefully, approached again by another active reader.

 

 

 

College Professors’ Iffy Pedagogy—Take 2

The tendency to assign more academic texts than students can realistically read closely isn’t the only, or even primary difference, between many higher education faculty and the best K-12 teachers.

The single greatest difference is most college professors expect their students to adapt to their teaching methods. In contrast, the most effective K-12 teachers learn early on to adapt their teaching methods to the various ways their students learn. As a result, accomplished K-12 teachers have many more methodological arrows in their quivers.

In elementary, middle, and high schools, the onus of adaptability is on the teachers to “differentiate instruction”. In higher education, the onus of adaptability is almost always on the students.

This is some far-fetched shit*, but imagine if the chairs of academic departments in colleges and universities across the country invited a handful of the most excellent K-12 educators from their communities to talk to their faculty about the myriad, student-centered ways, they promote genuine learning.

University students everywhere would be indebted to those enlightened chairs.

*just trying to sound Presidential

 

Friday Assorted Links

1. Mea Culpa. Kinda Sorta. Or how not to apologize when added to the ever-expanding sexual harassment list.

Why, in the aggregate, is the male gender failing? Young women’s academic achievement greatly exceeds young men’s. And consider these statistics from Wikipedia:

“In the United States, men are much more likely to be incarcerated than women. More than 9 times as many men (5,037,000) as women (581,000) had ever at one time been incarcerated in a State or Federal prison at year end 2001. In 2014, more than 73% of those arrested in the US were males. Men accounted for 80.4 percent of persons arrested for violent crime . . . . In 2011, the United States Department of Justice compiled homicide statistics in the United States between 1980 and 2008. That study showed males were convicted of the vast majority of homicides in the United States, representing 90.5% of the total number of offenders.”

In the aggregate, something is seriously wrong with how young boys are or aren’t parented. Why are some personal attributes, like being kind, cooperative, caring, and nurturing, most commonly associated with females? And being tough, competitive, and independent more commonly thought of as male attributes? Yes, of course there are gender-based biological differences, but they don’t explain why young women, in the aggregate, are so much more successful in school and society. Why aren’t we talking more openly and honestly about the glaring gender gap that the sexual harassment story is one part?

2. Schools and cellphones: In elementary schools? At lunch?

“It used to be that students through fifth grade could carry cellphones only with special permission. But over the years, an increasing number of parents wanted their elementary-age children to take phones to school, often believing kids would be ­safer — walking home or in an emergency — with the device at the ready.”

And:

“. . . a survey of third-graders in five states found that 40 percent had a cellphone in 2017, twice as many as in 2013. Among the third-graders who had a phone, more than 80 percent said they brought them to school daily. . . .”

Violent crime has steadily declined, yet parents are more anxious. Why? What if parents acknowledged that cellphones will never guarantee that bad things sometimes happen to good people. And what if we redesigned our neighborhoods so that people could walk or bicycle to and from school? And made our roads and other public spaces safe enough that parents didn’t feel a need to give their elementary children cellphones? By giving elementary children cellphones, we’re throwing in the towel on safer, healthier, more secure communities.

Lastly, the article is woefully incomplete since there was no consideration of many adult educators’ own painfully obvious dependence upon their cellphones during the workday.

3. On Being Midwestern: The Burden of Normality.

The Humble Blog is big in the Midwest. Especially among intellectuals who will dig this essay. Shout out to Alison; Don; Karen; Bill; Dan and Laura (honorary Midwesterners).

Early Christman:

“If it is to serve as the epitome of America for Americans, and of humanity for the world, the place had better not be too distinctly anything. It has no features worth naming. It’s anywhere, and also nowhere.”

Late Christman:

“Every human is a vast set of unexpressed possibilities. And I never feel this to be truer than when I drive through the Midwest, looking at all the towns that could, on paper, have been my town, all the lives that, on paper, could have been my life. The factories are shuttered, the climate is changing, the towns are dying. My freedom so to drive is afforded, in part, by my whiteness. I know all this, and when I drive, now, and look at those towns, those lives, I try to maintain a kind of double consciousness, or double vision—the Midwest as an America not yet achieved; the Midwest as an America soaked in the same old American sins. But I cannot convince myself that the promise the place still seems to hold, the promise of flatness, of the freedom of anonymity, of being anywhere and nowhere at once, is a lie all the way through. Instead, I find myself daydreaming—there is no sky so conducive to daydreaming—of a Midwest that makes, and keeps, these promises to everybody.”

4. Why Millennials are obsessed with HGTV.

“I guess for millennials, it feels like a fantasy. We love to see the things that we can’t afford, given that we’re crammed into 300-square-foot apartments and have debt.”

5. The best indie books of 2017.

“Most writers make less than £600 a year, and the average literary title sells just 264 copies. . . . I think about one per cent of books break out. The big publishers have not helped the situation. Since the 2007-8 crash, they have retrenched in terms of what they publish, and how they go about it. I was talking to someone at a major publisher the other day and she asked a colleague about a book: “is this one of the ones we’re getting behind?” The point being, of all the thousands of books published every year, publishers only “get behind” a few. That can make the difference between a book you’ll hear about and one you never will. Of course, an author will never be told the publisher is ‘not getting behind their book’.”

Brutal odds.

6. Best new photog blog en todo el mundo.

Why Teach?

When asked why teaching, one recent applicant to the teaching certificate program I coordinate said, “Because I have to REALLY get out of retail.” I wanted to stand up and yell, “STOP dammit! Stop! Thanks for coming and good luck making retail less stultifying.”

Most applicants are pulled, rather than pushed into the profession, but their reasons still routinely speak to ulterior motives.

• “I’m a good story teller and students’ find me engaging.”

• “I love when the light bulb goes off when a student learns something new.”

• “It will be nice to have the same schedule as my children.”

That’s understandable. I recently wrote that everyone cares about compensation, benefits, work-life balance, but I’m waiting longingly for a prospective teacher to say something like this:

“I want to become an educator because I have a hunch that teaching is a continuous exercise in selflessness and I want to learn to lose myself in service of others. I’m an impatient listener and prone to self-centeredness. I want to learn to listen to young people in ways that help them fulfill their potential. I suspect teaching will provide me the opportunity to become not just a positive influence in young people’s lives, but also a better person, friend, partner, and citizen.”

I suppose, if that more Eastern starting point leads one to ask, “Relative to others, how well are you serving others and modeling selflessness?” practicing selfless service to others could turn into a tail chasing, self-regarding exercise. “Too bad others aren’t as selfless as me.” Ego is a perpetual trap.

Despite that conundrum, I’m wondering if I should add this tagline to our Teaching Credential Program’s promotional materials, “People with Buddhist sensibilities are strongly encouraged to apply.”