Hungry Minds

Two questions have plagued me for my entire life.  How and why?

Before curiosity kills it, the cat learned more of the world than a hundred uninquisitive dogs.  ~Tom Robbins

There are two things that I always associate with intelligence:   perception and curiosity.   Awareness of the world is a trait that is undervalued, I think.   Beyond that, the desire to know more is what drives people to learn – not just because it means that they will be more skilled, have better job prospects, or whatnot.   Just the desire to know for the sake of knowing.

“I don’t know” isn’t an admission of weakness, it is a first step towards strength… if you choose to.   Curiosity drives exploration.   The thirst for knowledge will drive a person to find new answers.  And along the way, new questions.  Eventually, if you search long enough and hard enough you either find the answers you are looking for, or you can find out that there aren’t answers.  Yet.

 

Curiosity filled the cat

I like questions in my classes.   A class is supposed to be a safe place to learn… and I know that I’ve had a few challenging students who just wanted to know.   I remember those students far more than those who just wanted to get through to get their degree.

Curiosity isn’t just a first step, it is a bonfire, burning in the leather armchair of the soul.   It doesn’t let you get comfortable.    I know how to ask questions better now than I ever did… but eventually I come back to the basics:  How?   Why?   And I want my students to keep asking questions – I know that it is difficult to keep letting them at times.   Admittedly I also know that students in my developmental math classes may not go on to find the secrets of the universe, but I like to think I can help the overcome their fears about asking the questions they’ve wanted to ask.

I want them to keep asking: How?   Why?

And as for myself… I’ll keep searching for answers.

 

Mental in the Classroom

One of the reasons I love teaching in a community college is that my students want to be there.   The biggest hurdle I think any instructor can face is the indifference of a student.  In order to learn, a person has to want to learn.   Otherwise, there isn’t the motivation to put in the time and effort that is necessary to learn and grow.   People often bring their own obstacles to learning, both inside and outside of the class.   Scheduling, family and work obligations make up a good part of these obstacles, but the subtle problems of mental illness can be more challenging because they are obstacles we can’t directly see.

Accepting mental illness

The first hurdle with dealing with mental illness is bringing it out into the open.   It’s common for a person (not just students) to think that they are stupid, lazy, or incapable of focus when they have a mental illness.  One of the things that I like to emphasize is that brain and body are all one piece, they cannot exist without the other.

Aristotle should have been drowned after proposing mind-body duality.   You aren’t the ghost in the machine, you are the machine.   Get over it.

It makes no sense to tell a person with a broken foot that they “just need to try harder to run” or to call a diabetic lazy for not producing enough insulin.   The brain is a complex organ, and it can malfunction as well.  Our brain creates our sense of self,  so when there is a problem blame can get misplaced on the ‘mind’ rather than on a misfiring brain.   Too often mental illness is a disease that tries to tell you it isn’t a disease.   It is victim blaming at it’s worst, and misunderstanding outsiders will often reenforce that misconception with their own myopic judgements.

To these students:   stop shoulding all over yourself.   It’s messy to experience, and it is awkward to watch.   You can get help.  And to those others who think it is all a matter of willpower, or that they can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I would kindly invite you to piss up a rope.   Be supportive, or get out of the way.

Getting help

I know a lot of folks tend to think of treating mental illness as just taking medications.  Taking medications can feel foreign, like an admission of weakness, or a crutch.   Pharmaceuticals may be a step, but they are only part of a treatment.   Counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists use combinations of mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy and a host of other things to help a person overcome or work with their mental illness.

Medication may be part of ongoing treatment.   Just like a diabetic can’t produce enough insulin, there are times when you can’t produce enough (or produce too much) neurotransmitters or other hormones.   No shame is attached.

real courage

Teaching Needs

Again and again, patience isn’t just a virtue it is a necessity.  Remember that people under stress may act out in different ways.

Many students don’t know what they need in order to learn.   Standard scaffolding and reinforcement may not be enough to help students with special needs, but they also won’t hurt either.   Different students will have different needs… it seems self evident, but I find (some) teachers will keep pushing one tactic without exploring others.   Not all of students in a classroom have the same strengths.

ADD or ADHD and other executive function disorders:  often the instruction of “sit still and listen” is untenable.   One or the other is often the choice for these students.   Having something physical to do is often what is necessary to let them cope in class – this can be anything from chewing gum to tapping their fingers (quietly) against their leg.   Having a class notetaker is also very helpful, because these students especially will have difficulty following a lecture and taking meaningful notes.   If you have a quiet environment for testing, that can be helpful for these students.

Anxiety & Depression:  Combinations of stress, low-self esteem and guilt often send these students into a spiral.  So as much as possible, take the pressure off!   If you can soften deadlines it can remove some time pressure.   Praise is essential for these students.    I like to give them some easy exercises to begin with, to help them get started.   A little bit of forward momentum will really help these students.  Getting students to build their confidence (and over prepare) outside of class can also help during exams.

Dyslexia/Dyscalculia:   Dyslexia is often misunderstood as well as being misdiagnosed.   The classic notion of reversing letters or words isn’t accurate, it simply takes a longer time to process and parse information (and frequently bad behaviors of second guessing themselves is also reenforced).   Trying to take notes and understand what is going on can be incredibly difficult for these students.   If you can, arrange for a note taker, or allow the student to record lectures.     An additional trick is to limit the focus of the student:  too much input can get overwhelming, so while working an expression or equation I will block out all but the current step with a piece of paper.    Finally, where reading and symbolic manipulation may be difficult for students with dyslexia, you may find that they have good kinesthetic or verbal skills so you can show them how to “walk” and “talk” their way through a problem.

Often we see students get frustrated with repeating the same techniques over and over again.   If you have time, talk to them and get them to try different styles of problem solving.   Getting these students to work with their strengths is a win for them, and for the classroom.   It diversifies the problem solving methods that all of your students can use.

Attitude check…

There is a world of difference between the students who need help because of a mental illness and those who are failing because they don’t want to put in the work.   If a student complains that they aren’t getting the material, the first thing I ask is how much time they are putting in per week.   If the student is putting in 15-20 hours per week, then there may be a problem, and the student can get what they need.  Then there are the students who tell me “Oh, I dunno.  I spend an hour or two.”   Then they may complain that they have a learning disability.   ADD, depression and dyslexia can be overcome, but self-indulgent laziness are much harder to  deal with.    My ability to give a fuck is reserved for students who give a fuck about learning.

*grumblemumblelazyentitledgrumble*

So to all of my students:  the ultimate responsibility for learning rests with you.   I will work with you, but you have to be willing to work.

Mental illness is very real, but don’t let that stop you.

Teachable Moments

I’ve heard it said that every moment is a teachable moment.

Yeah, right.   Although one time I convinced a pair of proselytizers to read the Tao Te Ching.

Something that I find harder to deal with than another person’s ignorance is a persons unwillingness to examine their own evidence.   I realize that everyone has their own journey, and we have to make our own tools as we go along.   Teachers, parents, and others try to help smooth the path and offer up some alternate tools, ideas, and strategies for dealing with the world.   What isn’t always clear is whether those tools work for every situation.   Sometimes they are helpful, sometimes they are harmful.

Everyone can use some more tools.  I like the communities that question ideas, because it means that sooner or later bad ideas can be thrown out and replaced with better ones.   Surrounding yourself with like minded people may be comforting, but it doesn’t help with this process.

People are good at recognizing patterns, but they suck at statistics.

When someone hands you an idea (right or wrong) it is really easy for confirmation bias to creep in.   It feels good to have an answer.   This is why people think that horoscopes are true, or think that vaccines cause autism.   Having a bad day?   Mercury may be in retrograde.   Or you may be cursed.   Or fluoride in the water is making you feel sick.

When people spot a pattern, they look at things that confirm their hypotheses and often ignore things that go against their new found pattern.   Critical thinking isn’t easy.   Which is why people feel threatened when you tell them otherwise.

How often to people change their minds?

So… back to teachable moments.  No matter what, you cannot change another person’s mind.   You can only lay the groundwork for them to change their own mind.  Also remember: fear talks louder than reason for most folks.   Acknowledging the fear is good, and it can open the door to reason.

One of the things that is necessary is to get them thinking.  As much as we may want to say “You’re wrong, here is why,” that isn’t productive.   “I’d be happy to talk about that,” is a statement that actually opens people up.   Talking with people can have unintended consequences.   I’ve had to reevaluate some of my own beliefs… and I wouldn’t have if I had talked at people than with people.

 Learning from mistakes

I have an odd juxtaposition.   In private, or in writing I find myself aggressively going after another persons ideas and beliefs.   I’m relentless and sarcastic.    When I’m arguing with the phantom idea, I am loaded with weapons-grade-snark.   In person, manners and civility reign.

It is okay to change what you believe.   No one is immune to bad ideas.   I look on it as weeding my own garden of thoughts… bad ones will choke good ones if you let them.

Every moment is a teachable moment, but sometimes we are the ones who need to learn a lesson.

 

Going Critical: Bias

The hardest thing with encountering bias is forgiving the person who holds it, especially if it is yourself.

It isn’t easy for people to look at their own prejudices.   It also is hard to think of ourselves as believing in something that isn’t true.  This is why folks surround themselves with like-minded people, and before long find that they are living in an echo-chamber of their own ideas.   It feels good to belong, and so people (myself included) will avoid looking at things that clash with our ideas and ideals.

Eventually there comes a point where you may find yourself in a loop of rationalization, twisting facts and memories to better suit you.   At this point, you have an opportunity.   You can do nothing, continue on as you have before, and retreat to your echo-chamber.   Or you can question your own ideas, challenge them and see if they hold up under scrutiny.

There is a thin line between being committed to an idea, and dogma.

The notion of looking at things dispassionately, without outside influences can seem cold and heartless at first.   It can  open your mind to new ideas however, and give you perspectives different from what you are used to.   Intellectual honesty comes with the price of eating a healthy portion of crow from time to time.   It is embarrassing to admit that you have been wrong, or deceived.

Recognizing bias in others

Spotting bias is like spotting a toupee.   There are some really horrible and obvious ones that stick out!   The subtle ones are harder to spot.

So here are some to the ways to spot bias, and how to evaluate their statements.

  • Look for hidden premises.   Facts are easily checked, but often times people will replace or suppositions or hypotheses for other evidence.     These can be as subtle:  “if rich people have more money, they will spend more and make the economy better.”   The premise may sound plausible, but is untested or untestable.   Which brings us to…
  • Unfalsifiable beliefs.   I find that an important question to ask is “what will change this person’s mind?”  If there is nothing that will change a persons mind about a topic, then you are likely dealing with a dogma rather than a rational belief.
  • Controversial ideas.  Is the idea widely accepted?  Does it go against conventional wisdom?    If it does, it doesn’t mean that it is wrong, but people love to play the underdog.   With these, there will likely be an underlying hypothesis that needs to be examined or tested.  In these cases you may find that they have cherry-picked evidence from disreputable sources, and outright ignore what scientific consensus says.  (For example:  anti-vaccination movement trusts Jenny McCarthy rather than the American Medical Association)
  • Underlying investment.   This is a pretty broad category.   Would you trust a study denying cancer cases from a tobacco company?   How about a parent defending the innocence of their child?   Emotional involvement is a tough nut to crack, and you may find that people will reject anything that goes against it.

Overcoming personal bias

Very few people choose what they believe.   Rather, they take what they were handed by their cultures/parents/peers and then they rationalize it to themselves.   It is easy to distort other positions in support of your own ideology. Personally, I don’t think that it is possible to completely strip away bias and look at the world without any expectations.

But.

It is possible to start to strip away some of the bias that is handed to us.  Start with something small, because the more you have invested in something, the harder it will be to change your mind.   Start asking questions, and make sure you look from answers from both sides of the debate.    As you do this longer and longer, you will find that you are starting to spot logical fallacies more easily.    A word of caution:  everyone slips up  from time to time, and you will find bad arguments and evidence on any side of a debate.

We are all moved to protect ourselves.   Try to notice when you are protecting an idea, rather than improving on your understanding.   Changing your mind isn’t easy.   You will end up feeling embarrassed as hell, but making mistakes is part of being human.   You will be a better person for the effort.

Tipping Points

Things don’t always go as planned in a classroom.   It happens when students miss some key piece of understanding and end up falling farther and farther behind.   The atmosphere in the classroom can become tense:  the instructor tries to keep things on track, but the students who are behind feel bad that they aren’t up to speed and the students who are ahead end up resenting them because the instructors need to slow down.

So how can students get back to a happy medium?

I admit, I like to play games with the way people think.   I experiment with different ways of explaining, and different ways of getting people to behave differently.  I rely a great deal on my understanding (and remembering) emotional cycles when I was a student.

Procrastination, Shame and Blame

The beginning can be something innocent.   A late night, a bad lecture, or missing class for some reason.

Whatever the reason, the student finds themselves with a gap:  their work isn’t done and their understanding isn’t up to the task either.    To fill the gap, it will take an extraordinary effort, and being a little behind doesn’t seem that bad.

The gap in skills starts to affect other work.   The other students seem to get the material, but it doesn’t click for the student.   They feel bad, but it is hard to pinpoint where they lost control or how to get it back.    The instructor is ahead and new material doesn’t make sense.   People who try to help may come off as condescending, or frustrated with their slow progress.   The person blames themselves for the problem, or starts to feel like they aren’t “smart enough.”

As frustration mounts, the person tries to make sense out of the situation.    They rationalize that they must not be smart enough to get the concept, or that the instructor isn’t very good.  They start to feel powerless.  They will blame others for their failures, at the same time that they justify their own insecurities.

When someone feels resentful, hurt, ashamed, or angry, it is easy to put off work in lieu of other distractions.  Which reinforces the skill gaps, which reinforces the negative self-image/sense of inadequacy, which ultimately leads to a sense of futility.

To be clear:  it sucks to watch, it sucks to go through, and its hard to clean up after.   But it is a cycle that can be broken.

Breaking the Cycle

The good news is that people can be brought out of a spiral like this, but there is no easy fix.   The hardest thing to combat is the sense of powerlessness that can accompany falling behind.    As students, it is imperative to recognize that it will take sustained effort.   As instructors, we need to recognize that students don’t always have this self-knowledge.

So here is what I find works as a teacher:   (1) Prioritize skills, and cut lossesEnforce deadlines rather than pile on more work.     This basically comes down to identifying the key things that a student needs to work on rather than the complete past assignments.   Nobody likes to lose grades, but the boundaries helps students break out of looking backward and into looking forward.   (2) Praise and patience.  Acknowledging even the smallest of steps as progress is helpful, and helps relieve the sense of shame.   It also helps to acknowledge that struggle is part of the process, but making mistakes is not failure.    (3) Set out a plan with incremental steps.   The hardest part of breaking out of a procrastination cycle is the sense of being overwhelmed, so having simple (minimal) work is a good way of getting going.   Having a few things to do means that once one thing is done, then the next tier or goal can be reached.   Then the next goal will seem easier to reach.

Finally, momentum can carry the day.

…. and the horse you rode in on!

The funny thing about this is that this applies equally to teachers as it does to students.    Teachers get frustrated and will feel like they have lost touch with their class just as much as students may feel lost in the class.    It is easy for teachers to blame lazy students for not doing their work, but there is shared responsibility:  students need to be encouraged if they are going to get engaged.   It is okay to have a bad day teaching from time to time,  and sometimes you won’t be able to give it everything you want.   Focus on the successes, and it will be easier to be patient.

So:   keep up the good work.

Never give up.

I’ll have to put off procrastinating for another day.

No Cell Phones, Calculators, or Shankings in Class

Winter term has finally begun!Weapons of mass instruction

The first day of a class is always interesting.  You hand out your syllabus, and try to get a feel for your students.   I know students shop around for their instructors, but I sometimes wonder what attracts these particular students to my classes.   Inevitably some students will show up for the first day, and I will never see them again that term.     Whether they just found that my classes demanded too much work (possible) or whether they discovered they have important business for the next 11 weeks,  I always wonder what becomes of these students.

Then there are the students who want to negotiate.  This week, one particular student complained that I was asking them to do so much work that it was equivalent to a part-time job.  My response was “Welcome to college.   If you don’t like this amount of work you need to do, imagine needing to do it again next quarter.”   He didn’t look pleased.

Most of the work in the first week of class is getting the students used to the class.   Things in the first week that I think help:

  1.  Establish your position.  Basically, let the students know that you are in charge but they are not powerless.   I’m more apt to be authoritarian in the first week just so people don’t try to push back later in the quarter.
  2. Let them convince themselves that they need the class.  It is impossible to force people to want to learn, but they are already halfway there when they show up in your classroom.    In my class, I have them introduce themselves and tell me what their dream jobs are.   Then I try to link that dream to passing the class later.
  3.  Give structure and tools.  Some classes benefit from being free-form, but I find that most students need to have a clear idea of what is expected of them.   So,  I give it to them:   everything from classroom expectations,  how much work they should expect to put in, to how they can earn the various pieces of their grades.   After that, I give them the extras:  where to find tutoring, counseling, and financial help on campus if they need it.     My syllabus is a dense document.
  4.  Start building class culture.   A classroom culture is something that will come about on it’s own from the personalities inside it, but as the teacher they will follow your lead.   I let people know that the things that are valued are patience with their own process, and hard work.   It isn’t just about work, though.   I also get excited about math (letting them geek out too), as well as being patient with them to encourage them to ask questions.   Having some inside jokes help too.
  5. Get them thinking about excelling, not just passing.  Extra credit is one of the things that is controversial in some classes, because it can artificially elevate mediocre or failing grades.   I do like to offer things to the class to get them thinking about not just how to pass, but how to excel.  If they expect to excel (by doing extra) then they start to value themselves as good students, and become good students in the process.      (Ah it is fun to play with people’s’ brains)

 

I’m pretty happy with how my classes look this term.    I’ll know more about them next term.

The game is afoot!

 

Yes, I’m judging you

Ah!  That magical time of the year.   The air is crisp, and people spend their time hoping and praying.   Some people are dreaming of a better tomorrow, and some try to coast through with as little effort as possible.  The season can be stressful, but promises better things to come.

That time is finals week.

Good students don't end up in shallow graves.In spite of fervently hoping for the grading fairy to arrive, it didn’t.   I was relatively pleased with how my student’s performed on their final exams, with a few notable exceptions.    In a break with my usual grading habits,  I switched from listening to aggressive music to watching the Friday the 13th series of movies.    One thing common to both grading tests and cheesy horror flicks:   stupidity gets punished.    I’m nicer than the Voorhees family, though.   I just mark your questions down.   Although I now have the urge to go camping.

 

Callous remarks aside,  I want all of my students to succeed.   One of my steadfast rules is to give people the grade that they have earned.   Sometimes the greatest service I can do for a student is to fail them.     As much as I know many of them would love to have a teacher who always gives passing grades, they won’t learn from that sort of teacher.   Your students have chosen you to teach them skills, and evaluate how well they perform them.   So:  yes I judge you, but only because you asked me to judge you.

I lose sleep not over the number of students who fail, but what I could have done to help them learn more.

There are also the students who feel that they should be rewarded for effort and for showing up.  Those are the ones that I don’t lose sleep over.   We judge ourselves on our intentions, and others on their actions.   Since my telepathy is broken, I have to rely on the work that a person does.   Or in other words:  I won’t praise mediocrity.   Earn your own self-esteem.

I occasionally need to remind myself that while I can fix ignorance,  I can’t fix stupidity.

Now, I can take a little break.  Which way to Crystal Lake?

Necessary Roughness

We all need a reality check sometimes.    Teachers need it, students need it, politicians  needs it.  (I have to say… seriously voters?   Are we even on the same planet?)    I joke about handing out fast food applications with failing tests, but the sad fact is some folks are already headed that way.    The truth is that not everyone is going to succeed.   As teachers, we want our students to be smart, capable, and competent.

Truth is hard, but it preferable to comforting lies.

One of the reasons that I have adopted the persona of a and villainous math professor is because people like to project their own failures on their instructors.    Learning isn’t an easy proposition for many folks:   it entails a combination of hard work and painful self-honesty which doesn’t come easily to many students.   Since I already had some inclinations in the direction of evil-genius, I just ran with it.   Humor is a great way to both engage tough topics and disarm them at the same time.   You can hide behind your scars, or wear them as a mark of honor.    I prefer the latter course.

When the time comes to talk students about their grades, my best advice is honesty.   Tact is called for, of course.  If you alienate your students, there is no way they will be willing to listen to you.   Some people will take it well, and some won’t.   I’ve had students beg, bargain, and threaten me for telling them that they were failing.    For those willing to listen, I tell them what they will need to do to pass the next time:  whether it is just doing their homework or to re-learn their mis-learned math facts,  or figure out how to follow written directions.

To those students who thanked me for the wake-up call:   thank you.   You have demonstrated self-honesty and strength of character by you willingness to examine your mistakes.   You have learned from your mistakes, and that tells me more than anything that you are worth teaching.

 

 

…   And to the person who recently needed to tell me to “chill out” (and very nicely told me that I was acting like an asshole), thank you.   I know that wasn’t an easy conversation to have.  I value the honest assessment, and I think more of you rather than less because of it.   My sincere apologies for my behavior.

Back to Basics

After a while as a teacher you get comfortable.   You can manage your classroom, you know your talking points, and you are confident in the classroom.    Everything seems to be together, but somehow your students still miss out on key material.

Don’t get too comfortable.   You’re going to need to re-examine your class.

It is easy to mistake our own comfort with the educational experience with our student’s confidence and comfort.     It is a natural mistake to make!   We see in others what is most clearly in ourselves.    It is still imperative to focus on what is important:  don’t lose sight of the teaching for the pedagogy.

One of the hard lessons that I’ve had to learn is that every class is unique, and that no matter how well the previous 4 or 6 classes absorbed the same material,  there is no guarantee that your current class will.   It may even be useful to go back over your catalog of lesson plans.    Maybe even write a few new ones, to cover those intermediate topics that your particular classes may need.     Revisiting some of your original ideas for teaching gives you a chance to better adapt and revamp some of your material.

One thing that I never want to do is to ossify.   Getting comfortable is one thing, becoming sloppy is another.

If you don’t want to consider this going back to your basic teaching principles, how about we just call it “maturing” as a teacher.

 

So for myself, here are my basic rules for teaching:

  1. Don’t cripple your students by going easy on them.
  2. Patience isn’t a virtue, it is an utter necessity.
  3. Have a plan for your class.   If you don’t, they will.
  4. Make it fun.   “Learning while asleep” is science fiction.     At least half of teaching is entertainment.
  5. Don’t waste your time trying to convince a student that they need to learn.   Let them convince themselves that they need to learn.
  6. When the time comes, give your students the grade they’ve earned.
  7. Never give up on a student.   If you do, then they will too.

 

Now go forth and educate, or something.

Syllabi

So I’ve been incommunicado for the last few weeks.    Sorry about that, life happens, and sometimes internet connections are squirrely.   My summer has been a good one:   bungee jumping,  travel, Netflix marathons, playing my way through a few video games, and parties that I can never discuss with my students.    I have to admit that I’m ready to go back to school though.

I’ve been neck deep in writing my syllabi last week.    I like to make certain that everything is in place for the coming term:   planning the lecture schedule, homework, acts of cruelty, classroom policies, and other classroom tweaks.    One of the questions I have to ask:   how evil will it be?   Online homework, or paper?   Do I give bonus points?   What should I make them sing if their cell phone goes off in class?   How much flex time can I build in?

Spelling things out explicitly in the syllabus is a very helpful tool for instructors and for students.   I make sure to spell out everything from classroom expectations, grading scales, and the ever important disclaimer “classroom policies may be changed to suit the needs of the class or the instructor.”

I feel a little like I’m laying traps for my students.

They are waiting for me at school now.

 

Game on.