Skip to content

3Cs for better teaching and learning

A really concise and valuable post on three elements of good teaching that need to work together:

3Cs for better teaching and learning.


The Not-So-Magical Rock Shoes: A Parable of Instructional Technologies

The Magical Rock Shoes, or A Lesson in Gear-Hype

My husband and I are avid rock climbers.  We started out climbing at a gym in South Carolina, but when we moved to Salt Lake City, we went out onto the real rock that is so abundant in the canyons and mountains of this area.  As part of the transition, we joined a (much larger) gym here, where future champions train and where people who climb five days a week come on rainy days.  During training sessions, we would overhear–and later, as we got to know people, we would initiate–conversations about the best kinds of rock shoes to buy for “performance.”

Now, rock shoes are not meant to be comfortable, particularly; they are meant to conform to the feet so that climbers can make the utmost use of the sticky rubber soles.  Good, fitted rock shoes (worn without socks) can provide a stiff sole so that feet don’t slip or bend, while providing rubber-clad purchase on sheer rock and in tiny pockets.

The problem–at least for relative newbies like ourselves–was that there were so many options and so many disagreements about which were the best shoes to buy.  And unlike some climbers, we had limited funds and time: we couldn’t justify buying “slipper” shoes and “crack” shoes and “aggressive” shoes and “all-day” shoes.  So we listened to a lot of good climbers, and what we heard most was an emphasis on size.  Many top-level climbers will tell you that when they bought smaller shoes (shoes as much as four whole sizes smaller than their normal “street” shoes!), they climbed better.  Their toes fit on smaller holds.  They moved up a grade level to harder routes.  They could make moves they hadn’t ever managed before.

Won over by the proselytizing of these small-shoe converts, we went to our local climbing store and purchased the smallest shoes we could smash our feet into.  The fact that we could see our toe knuckles straining against the leather and couldn’t walk from one end of the tiny store to the other weren’t signs that our shoes were too small.  No, we were going to be climbing a grade higher!

Impatient to try them out, we rushed to our gym, pulled on the terrible shoes with painful moans, limped to the wall, and . . .

Well, and proceeded to climb as if we’d had nails driven into our feet.  Because that’s how it felt.

As we writhed up routes a grade lower than our normal level, praying the leather would stretch WAY more than the half-size we’d been promised, we got another lesson, the kicker, as it were.  A few feet down from us, one of the best climbers in the gym was demonstrating to a friend how to do one of the hardest climbs on the wall–in his tennis shoes.  He flowed smoothly up the fake rock, setting each toe in its flimsy, too-big, soft-soled sneaker with precision and accuracy, then moving a long arm to catch the next handhold at is perfect balance point.  We looked down at our throbbing feet and realized we had been taken in by gear hype.

Gear Hype and Learning

Gear hype is rife in any technology-dependent sport (just look at the “shark-skin” suits on the swimmers at the last Olympics).  But it’s also rife in teaching, where the newest social networking site or tablet or other technology always seems to take over lesson plans across campus for the proverbial fifteen minutes.  Class wikis, student blogs, iPads and iPhones for class participation, “smart” whiteboards, and a hundred other technologies that are or were going to revolutionize teaching–they come and go, with a few teachers really making great use of them and most others going on to search for the next, and the next, and the next.

While instructional technologies–like tight climbing shoes–can certainly make the best even better, they can’t take you to the next level magically and without significant extra effort.  Like the tennis-shoe climber, the best teachers can get great results with what they have, with “obsolete” technologies (pen and paper, even!), and with whatever their schools and students can afford.  New technologies only work in the context of precisely the same amount of effort, the same kinds of learner-centered approaches, and the same level of caring about student success that made good chalkboard-based teaching effective.

Like gear-heads swooning over the new “Top Gear 2012” issue of Climbing or Sailing or Runner’s World (name your obsession!), teachers are too often drawn into the hype about new information technologies and the role they can play in learning.  Given the limited time and money most of us have available, though, as well as the limited attention and effort our students can expend on a single class or lesson and the constraints on learning that are based in human capacity and cannot be easily overcome by converting class discussion onto the Facebook platform, we need to flip our technology use to be driven by content, rather than the driver of it.

The key is to first identify the goals of the lesson or meeting or other teaching event, then decide on activities, discussions, and assessments that will ensure that you meet those goals, and then–and only then–decide whether some technology or other might be useful in meeting the goals already determined upon.  If we had done that with our shoes, we would have realized that in fact the shoes were secondary.  If our goal was to climb at the next level of difficulty, we should have been doing more cardio workouts, climbing more times per week, and practicing technique.  We could have saved ourselves nearly 300 dollars . . . and a lot of pain.

Instructional technologies, like the fancy gear available for almost every sport, can take top performers to the next level.  What it can’t do is substitute for planning, training, practice, effort, or time.  When appropriate, in the context of learner-centered teaching, these technologies can let us do things teachers and managers could never do before.  But just because technologies change, that doesn’t mean the human brain changes.  Learning, as a process, is still a human endeavor; technologies must be used to complement that human process, not to attempt to magically render it unnecessary.

Chilling at the Epicenter (or…how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Creative Engineers)

Take a look at InnovationRogue’s post today about innovation and creativity in the teaching of engineering.

Chilling at the Epicenter (or…how I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Creative Engineers).

It’s nice to see creativity driving learning, teaching, and connections between “the academy” and working life.


The Potential Perils of Surface-Level “Engagement” Surveys

Employee Engagement and Motivation is Good; Mere Show is Not

Perhaps it’s obvious to those who either teach or manage human beings, but the lesson from yesterday’s post from Science Daily titled “True Nature of Staff Motivation More Complex than Surveys Reveal” bears repeating.  The story reports on new research from Kingston University and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, with two important findings: that there are two different fundamental types of motivation with very different implications for employers, and that positive responses to staff surveys about motivation and engagement may not be good indicators of true levels of engagement.

As the Science Daily story puts it:

The study found a key difference between types of employees.  Those who are involved only with the task at hand (known as transactionally engaged) tend to respond positively to staff surveys, but are often likely to leave quickly for a better offer.  However, those who are very positive and feel strongly about the organisation’s [sic] mission and values (dubbed emotionally engaged) are more likely to perform at a higher level and remain committed through good times and bad.

What this means for employers and teachers, and anyone in an organization whose job involves assessing employee or student motivation toward and engagement in their work, is that the kinds of surveys generally used for such assessment may be far from accurate.  They may even be suggesting that those who are only “transactionally” engaged have the highest satisfaction and motivation levels–right before they bug out for greener pastures.

What Does This Mean for Teachers and Trainers?

It is certainly very difficult to teach or train unmotivated individuals, and assessing students’ and employees’ levels of engagement is key to successful education.  However, this study reminds us that the easiest ways to do such assessment may well be the least useful.  For teachers, this means we need to go beyond the “Student Evaluations of Course and Instructor,” or whatever your institution calls its end-of-semester student surveys.  Although these can provide us with useful information about what we’re doing well or could work on, the Kingston U study suggests (although it didn’t directly address teachers) that students who respond positively to such surveys may be those who are “transactionally” involved in our courses: there to get an A and possibly some career-related skills so that they can move up.  And now that many such surveys are conducted online and are voluntary, we may only be getting responses from those students.

The same may be true for trainers and employers.  When staff satisfaction surveys, quality of life or work-life balance assessments, and other evaluations of engagement in the company’s mission are sent out, who responds?  If response is mandatory, which individuals are responding positively?  There needs to be longer-term follow-up after such surveys (do positive responders stay longer at the company, or leave sooner? do those who bother to respond show higher or lower levels of commitment in difficult times?).  Don’t let the survey “speak for itself”; surround it with other, longer-term assessments and correlations.  Also, don’t ever underestimate the great value of individual, in-person talk.  Often, we get a better sense of someone’s engagement through their spoken words and nonverbal gestures.

To-Do List

As is typical of many scientific reports, the Kingston U study ends with the statement that the issue of engagement is “much more complex than has been portrayed in the past” but without any suggestions for action.  I’m going to offer three.

First, always model the engagement you want.  If, for example, your job involves assessing employee motivation and engagement, and you send out surveys and leave it at that, you are probably modeling “transactional” engagement, even if that’s not what you feel.  If you have a commitment to the work your university, company, or non-profit is doing, tell others why and how that commitment came about.  What first drew you to the work?  Why do you continue with it even when you’re bummed or tired or frustrated?  You don’t have to be a walking advertisement, but you do need to be engaged yourself, and showing it.

Second, in terms of assessments, make them frequent and allow students or employees to use more of their own words and fewer “fill-in-the-blanks” or multiple choice.  “Transactionally-engaged” employees and students are working to get the most they can out of the situation; they may well feel it’s both easier and has a higher return for them to select “highly agree” on the survey and move on.  If they have to respond in their own words, you get a better sense of how they view their work.

Finally, remember that those who will be your best employees and students–those who will continue to do their best even when it’s hard, those who will not give up when frustrated or confused, those who will not jump ship or do the bare minimum–are those who are “emotionally engaged.”  This means actually making your business or course worth being emotionally engaged in.  It means providing benefits and activities and reasons to stick around that don’t necessarily have to do with money or grades.  It means praising and showing off your best employees and students, not just critiquing those who don’t perform as you’d like.  It means, to come full circle, actually talking to students and employees, one on one, and finding out what really motivates those you would like to continue to see every day for the next 15 weeks, or several years or decades.

Typical engagement surveys may cater more to those who are only “transactionally” engaged in their work, according to a new study; one-on-one talks, modeling of “emotional engagement,” and working to make your course or business a place worth being engaged in are deeper, and more lasting, ways to build true participation.

Teach the Person, Not the Subject

What do Horses Have to do With Anything?

My parents came to horse riding relatively late in life.  Although both had been on horses in their childhoods, they never owned or rode horses regularly until they’d retired.  They decided they needed some training, so they found a series of videos on “Natural Horsemanship” by renowned trainers Pat and Linda Parelli.  What they found surprised them: the videos were much less about training horses than they were about training the people.  In order to create the best system for bringing all levels of humans into the world of horse training–to help each owner become his or her own trainer, as the Parellis say–they needed to bring in an expert not in horsemanship (they already had that) but in adult education and “learning behavior.”  They revamped all their courses to focus on teaching adult riders how to train their horses, not on the finished product or on training the horse itself.

Parelli Training

So what does this have to do with anything?  It tells us that, no matter what the subject–whether it’s creating buy-in among your employees on a new procedure, helping your freshman students understand the characteristics of clear and precise prose, or making your horse back off when you want it to–it’s really all about teaching the people.

I think, in fact, that one of the telling changes that happens between middle school and high school, and even more so in college, is the change in terminology when instructors say what they do.  A second-grade teacher, for example, generally says that they teach “second graders.”  A high school teacher, on the other hand, is just as likely to say that she teaches “math” or “English” (or now “language arts”).  College professors often go even further, saying that they teach microbiology or painting or sociological research methods–often referring as much to what they research as to the subjects of their lectures and lessons.

A Change in Terminology: So What?

The change in the Parelli approach suggests how important this “terminology” change can be–how much more than a change in terms it really is.  They revamped their entire line of videos and other resources to focus on teaching people how to work with horses, revising an already highly-successful program, bringing in outside expertise, and spending a great deal of time and money.  Why was it worth it?  Because a number of wonderful things happen when you teach people, not subjects–humans, not “horsemanship.”

The first wonderful thing that happens is a certain amount of letting-go of expectations.  And along with that comes a change in how you evaluate both the students and the course.  If you are teaching “introductory chemistry,” then you have X amount of material to cover in 15 weeks, so many chapters, so many terms, so many tests and evaluations.  If, on the other hand, you are teaching young college students about chemistry, you have instead of X amount of material, X number of individual students.  Instead of a certain number of concepts or chapters to cover, you have a certain number of people to turn on to the value and meaning of chemistry.  You begin to evaluate the course in terms of how many students are “getting it,” rather than how much of “it” you’re “getting to.”

This is the basis, by the way, of the single most successful education intervention ever: mastery.  This simple shift in thinking simply means that with each student, you don’t move on to B until they’ve got A, and so on–especially when A is necessary to understand B.  Overall, this means that your class or meeting or video lesson becomes an answer to the question “how can I move 20 people who are now at level A to an understanding of B?” instead of “how can I cover all of chapter 17, or all of the new procedures, or all of the aspects of horse behavior” in one lesson, meeting, or video.

The second wonderful thing that happens is that you begin to think, as the Parellis did, that the expertise you need is in learning, not just in your subject.  You begin to study your students, employees, or customers as people–as learners.  What do they already know?  What do they need?  What aren’t they getting and why not?  What would make this easier/more fun/more understandable/more acceptable to them?

This attitude can also counter a great deal of the burn-out that comes with any kind of teaching (“Why aren’t they getting it?  Why don’t they listen?  Why don’t they work?) and replaces it with experimentation.  What about this?  What if we tried that?  I’ve even involved my students in the experimentation, trying out a new activity and then having them evaluate its effect on their learning, their investment in the course, and their expected take-away from the course to the rest of their lives and careers.  And you know what?  They are very perceptive and can become real assets to your teaching rather than impediments to the transmission of your knowledge.

I’ve started rephrasing my “what I do” statement to be about people, not subjects: I teach college students, I work with faculty members, and so on.  What might you change if you thought about what you do primarily as teaching people and only secondarily as teaching a subject, topic, or concept?

A Great Post from “Innovation Excellence”

Through one of the wonderful blogs I follow (Beverly Shares), I came to this concise and useful analysis of the role of “left-brained” types in creative sessions and innovation, and how to bring out their creative sides:

10 Ways to Help Left-Brainers Tap Into Creativity

If your job requires you to lead meetings, brainstorming sessions, or problem solving gatherings of any kind, chances are good that most of the people you come in contact with are left-brain dominant: analytical, logical, linear folks with a passion for results and a huge fear that the meeting you are about to lead will end with a rousing chorus of kumbaya.

Not exactly the kind of mindset conducive to breakthrough thinking.

Do not lose heart, oh facilitators of the creative process. Even if you find yourself in a room full of 10,000 left brainers, there are tons of ways to work with this mindset in service to bringing out the very best of the group’s collective genius:

I like the idea that having to manage “analytical, logical, linear folks” through the creative process will actually make that process work better because it means having to clarify the process, explicitly identify assumptions, and, perhaps most important, identify evaluative criteria for what “counts” as a good or useful idea in what can be a highly open-ended process:
The reason why ideas are usually considered a dime a dozen is because most people are unclear about their process for identifying the priceless ones. That’s why a lot of brainstorming sessions are frustrating. Tons of possibilities are generated, but there is no clear path for winnowing and choosing.
Good ideas are like good writing, in the sense that the best writing comes from throwing a lot of words on the page, writing without editing–and then spending hours or days or weeks poring over every word, cutting until it’s strong and supple.  The author of this innovation blog quotes Linus Pauling as saying that good ideas come from having lots and simply throwing out the bad ones.  That can be the most important–and the most difficult–role for a teacher or manager, knowing not only how to identify the good ideas, but how to teach students or employees or groups to identify on their own what the best ideas are and how to accept the throwing-out of the others.
Students in particular, and also young employees, feel very attached to their ideas, and are often afraid that they simply won’t have enough ideas to fill the word count, complete the project, or what have you.  So when you suggest tossing a sentence, a paragraph, an idea, they get nervous and defensive.

As the “Innovation Excellence” blogger suggests, there are (at least) two roles in any creative group: coming up with ideas is one, but evaluating and eliminating or selecting ideas is another that’s equally important.  Your best bet is to identify those in the group who are good at coming up with lots of ideas versus those who are good at evaluating and culling.  Then use each group to its best advantage, rather than trying to get everyone to work in the same way.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up: A “Daily Affirmation” for Teachers of All Kinds

“I Refuse to Beat Myself Up!”

These are the words of Stuart Smalley in his (really Al Franken’s) I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!  Each time something goes tragi-comically wrong in Stuart’s life, he repeats 12-step mantras to himself, including this gem, “I refuse to beat myself up!”  And that simple message is what I’d like to send out today to all the teachers out there, whatever your job description.

Teaching and learning are difficult.  They are labor-intensive.  Learning–real learning, not test memorization or glib jargon use–takes a long time.  You have to actually change the physical make-up of your brain, to create new habits of mind, to overcome old and powerful ones.  Teaching means overcoming the deep biological and psychological divides between people, a combination of training, cheerleading, quarterbacking, play-devising, and after-game analysis, all in one.

Here’s the thing, though: life is long, and your students, employees, or advisees will have years and years (as well as dozens of other teachers, advisors, and leaders) to learn from.  Learning can’t happen overnight because you will it, or even because you devise the perfect activity or introductory speech or video.

So today’s short-and-sweet reminder for teachers is, take a break.  Let it happen.  Give students some space to learn–and yourself some space to think and plan and dream up what’s next.  And don’t beat yourself up!  Teachers and other kinds of motivators and advisors tend to get emotionally invested in their advisees, so we want to see their successes.  We want to see them succeed now, to get it, to make connections, to light up with the learning we are giving them.  But most of the time, it’s simply a longer and more complex process than that.

Learning are teaching are life-long processes that are extremely rewarding, often not now but later, whether that’s the end of the semester or an “Aha!” moment years from now.  Let it happen.  Don’t beat yourself up.