Learning is Messy

Learning is messy.

I was sent this image a few years ago from a former student, and I think it perfectly portrays the learning process….at least for me.

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Recently I’ve been revisiting the blurriness that the learning process is for various reasons (let’s be real…I’m probably do this more often than not since my research is on the learning process, so I probably don’t need to use the word recently or revisiting 🙂 ). One of the reasons I’ve been spending time reflecting on the learning process is because of what it means as a faculty member, which like other positions (e.g., student affairs professional), is no easy feat. Parker Palmer wrote a book titled: The Courage to Teach, and the title couldn’t be more true.

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Learning takes courage no matter who you are, and spending time each week trying to facilitate learning for and in front of others requires that one learns themselves, so it is at least just as challenging. I could draw connections at this point to the concept of vulnerability that Brene Brown talks about:

or remaining unfinished that Paulo Freire wrote about:

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I’m not interested in doing that, however, because all that would I would be doing, or at least how it would feel to me, is that I would be intellectualizing the complicated process of learning. That don’t fully get at the messiness of learning. So, instead, I thought I would put together my own visual description of the learning process in relation to how I experience it.

Enjoy! 🙂

At the beginning of the process, I’m usually pretty content. Feeling like things are going good.:
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And then something new enters my world and I can’t see where it is going to take me fully, but I’m curious enough to give it a try.:
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I admit that usually in the beginning I try to reject it.:
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And/or worse, I think I already know all about it.:
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Until I start to realize that what was once familiar I now don’t know what to think about?!?:
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And I start to question all sorts of things and how I’m making sense of them???:
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Through that process, I start to see things, but I’m not fully confident in them.:
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And in trying to incorporate what I’ve learned, I stumble, make loads of mistakes,:
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and experiences lots of failures.:
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Until I reach a point where I start to understand it more clearly, which usually results in me feeling so excited and thinking about it all of the time!:
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at which point, somewhere in the process it starts to become habit, or a part of how I see the world around me.:
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Now, while I wrote this whole process as though it happens in a linear fastion, it is in no ways linear (please see the first visual image I included in this post). It is messy, but it is also interconnected.:
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And eventually brings me back to feeling pretty good, but with a slightly different way of viewing the world.:
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Challenging Our Process

“We [student affairs] are overly focused on outcomes and not process” (Jones, 2004, p. 4)

There are a lot of challenge competitions people can participate in going around. All one needs to do is check out Facebook to see a variety of them in diverse forms (pictures, lists, ice buckets, etc.). I’m sure that there is quite a bit of time and energy put into starting such challenges so that they become passed around to a lot of folks. I don’t really have those skills, nor the time to put into figuring that out. Still, though, I have a challenge to put out to the universe (specifically of student affairs) and I look forward to seeing what the universe does with it.

(hint: you could be the universe if you so feel up for the challenge 🙂 ).

Challenge: Spend two weeks focusing on seeing the process of your practice.

I think that if we were to do so, we might be disappointed in ourselves. For example, we might see that often we speak about inclusivity, but we practice including only those most like us…at all levels. Or that we say we value difference, but our approach neutralizes out any difference…or assimilates it, so that the difference becomes something we are more comfortable with. I think that no matter what we do discover, it will include a disconnect between saying and doing (is it really a surprise then when students demonstrate the same disconnect?).

I could be wrong about this.

Taking the challenge could help to discover if I am, and I’m very much open to that.

I’m sure that there are lots of reasons too for such a disconnect. The structure of society, my own desire to idealize things, etc. Rationalizing our practice so that it stays the same is something we might discover that we are also quite good at, even though we talk about the need for change (one of those disconnects). Perhaps this means that we need a rule to go with the challenge:

Rule 1: No rationalizing/explaining away why you follow the process that you do. Just notice it as it is using thick, rich description…who does it include, what value(s) it is enacting, etc.

Oh, and this makes me think of:

Rule 2: No blaming other people or deciding things about/for them as you notice various processes you enact. This is about you looking at your practice.

Although I really do believe that we would discover disconnects, I also think that we would discover opportunities. A chance to find new ways to align our practice with the values we espouse, so that they become the values we enact.

Finally, because it seems like it wouldn’t be a challenge if it didn’t have a social media component. So, post the challenge to someone on FB to take, but when you do, share with them at least one value you are working to better have guide your practice.

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What Kind of Learner Are You?

Two years ago, I read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do after it was recommended to me by a colleague at a Lilly Conference, and last summer I re-read the book as a part of a book club on campus. I should clarify…I read the book in one day.

One day.

Not only was it an easy read, but it felt like Bain was speaking to me…telling me that I am not alone. Please don’t read that to mean that I think I’m one of the best college teachers. Rather, it was more confirmation that the types of learning experiences I try to provide within the classroom are congruent with what the best college teachers do…I just need to keep working at it.

The book was so powerful that last fall I decided to read his next book, What the Best College Students Do, with a student who was exploring the process of learning in the classroom. I completed this book feeling a bit disappointed. It felt as if the book was put together quickly, and that the effort to “discover” the best teachers was not the same effort to “discover” the best students (Bain claims otherwise). Instead, it felt more like he asked his friends/people he knew who he thought were good students to share their story about how they became good students. Let’s just say that I kept thinking that Bain and most of his friends/acquaintances have quite a few more resources for their own personal learning than most of the rest of us (certainly more than I have available).

Still, though, there was “good stuff” that could be found, and I’ve been spending time considering some of it at the beginning of this new school year and thought that it might be helpful for other to consider too. Bain discusses how he wasn’t equating being a “good student” with getting straight A’s. Most of the people he discusses in his book did get good grades, but not always. He spoke a bit about a test called the Force Concept Inventory, which demonstrated that those who received A grades were,

“simply better at memorizing formulas, plugging the right number into the equation, and calculating the correct answer on the exam” (p. 4463–kindle).

The A grade the students received had little to do with how well they understood course concepts. I agree with Ken’s critique of the grading system, and wish there was a way that I could avoid assigning grades. Unfortunately, my experience with various students leads me to believe that if grades were not offered not all students would do the work, and in order to help them discover a greater purpose for the course than simply getting an A, I find that I need them to do the work.

Bain also encourages readers to consider what kind of learner they are, and indicates that a person’s approach to learning is often connected to how they approach their work post graduation. Learning for the sake of learning or to become better by gaining new knowledge/understanding/skills/abilities is not how most students have been socialized to be students. Rather, I’ve experienced students who’ve been socialized to receive an A because they completed the homework and repeated back to me whatever it is that the reading assigned for the day said. My sassy response to these students is that I already know what the authors of the readings said because I assigned the readings. My non-sassy response is more…”okay, that’s a place to start. What do you think about the authors claims?” Psychologists at Goteborg University labeled these students as “surface” learners.

Bain discusses another kind of student that I’ve encountered. These students believe they can tell,

“right away if they are going to be good at something. If they don’t get it immediately, they throw up their hands and say, ‘I can’t do it'” (p. 4463–kindle).

Yet, most of us know that to lastingly learn something it requires time and commitment…progress is slow, and often involves continual struggle. In order to hang in there as one learns to become good at something, it requires internal motivation and knowing how one learns best. Thus, whatever you think right away about your ability to learn something might not be the best indicator of your abilities. Psychologists at Goteborg University label these students as “strategic” learners. These students, “focus almost exclusively on how to find out what the professor wants and how to ace the exam. If they learn something along the way that changes the way they think, act, or feel, that’s largely an accident. They never set out to do that” (p. 4463-kindle).

Bain also discusses characteristics of what he considers to be the “best” students. To Bain these students engage in deeper understanding through reflective questioning of their own mind. They are able to provide empathy to themselves as they acknowledge areas of growth and weakness. They often take it upon themselves to discover connections between their own interests and the assignments they received. “These students tried to comprehend what difference an idea, line of reasoning, or fact made, and how it related to something they had already learned” (p. 4463-kindle). Psychologists at Goteborg University labeled these students as “deep” learners.

Perhaps, like me, you were thinking about what category of student you fit in, and you might find that it has changed over time and due to context. I know that is the case for me. Bain discusses how you are not stuck in only being one type of learner for life, but that become a deep learner is often not what students have learned to become. Just spending time now considering how you approach learning has potential to assist you in becoming a deep learner. The choice is yours to make.

“To take a deep approach means to take control of your own education, to decide that you want to understand, to create something new, to search for the meaning that lies behind the text, to realize that words on a page are mere symbols, and that behind those symbols lies a meaning that has a connection with a thousand other aspects of your life and with your own personal development” (p. 4463-kindle).

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Innovation and Higher Education

Over the past week, I read the book The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. I’d read several other books about what he calls disruptive innovation theory, but not yet this book, so I decided that it was time. I am one of those faculty members (I did this when I was a student affairs professional too) that enjoys reading a book from another field and considering what it means for the field of higher education. The book is worth reading, although the amount of discussion about the disk drive industry and innovations with in it made me feel quite old. For example, I can remember when disk drives served floppy disks that looked like this:
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And now disk drives serve disks that look like this:
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One of the points, I’ve been spending some time with is that the cause of “every successful company’s ultimate demise” is,

“the two principles of good management taught in business schools: that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers, and that you should focus investments on those innovations that promise the highest returns” (p. xxxiv).

Although I am not a fan of likening higher education to a business in the manner that it is often done today (it seems such a narrow way of viewing a complex organization), I’m not one to fully throw out the entire idea. So, I’ve found it worthwhile to consider how these two principles of management are enacted in higher education…at least in relation to the experiences I’ve had.

The first principle, “that you should always listen to and respond to the needs of your best customers” I’ve most certainly heard within higher education. From time to time I also hear it from the students I teach.

“We must meet the students needs!”

The issue, for me, becomes do the students know what they need? For that matter, does anyone really know what they need? I know that I often think that I know what I need in the moment, but when looking back I more often see a much smaller list of necessary items than I originally put together. So, it seems that perhaps what we might be responding to are people’s wants disguised as needs. I also know that, from my experience, I can always need/want more. In fact, I’m not sure that I know too many people, myself included, that are quick to say, “no, no, that’s enough…I only needed that amount” of whatever it is that they are being given (hence my struggles with dieting).

Another issue I have with the principle, but again, one that I see being enacted in higher education has to do with responding “to the needs of your best customers”. I can certainly see how this can cause issues for any organization facing a disruptive innovation. After all, those that are not identified as your best customers, but that are still your customers, are not fully being considered. Thus, while they still might consume your product, they are being taken for granted. It doesn’t seem too far of a stretch to realize that when they find a place that will value their contributions more that they will go there. In a day and age when most institutions are facing retention issues this seems like a more high-risk way to keep students. In a day and age when higher education is being questioned about its purpose, this seems like a sure fire way to produce people who are dissatisfied and frustrated with their experience—especially if all that they have to do is glance around to see that the needs of others are being met.

The second principle, “that you should focus investments on those innovations that promise the highest returns” seems like a formula for stagnancy. After all, how do you know what the return rate of an innovation is if it hasn’t been put out to market? Furthermore, even if it has, and it is not showing a high return, perhaps that is simply because the right market has not been found (which means that it eventually will lead to a high return rate). So, while I can understand how it seems safe to focus on innovations one can anticipate will provide a high return, I can also understand why Christensen warns that,

“Experts’ forecasts will always be wrong” (p. 178).

Furthermore, what does this mean in terms of failure? Is it not okay for institutions of higher education to experience failure, which thus allows learning to occur? Is society okay with institutions of higher education failing? Imagine if such failures were approached primarily as learning opportunities instead of primarily as unacceptable. If it isn’t, I only see such practice teaching others that they must be perfect in all that they do, which seems incongruent with valuing the life-long learning, which is professed to be a purpose of higher education.

Perhaps enacting these principles, as I’ve experienced higher education do, means that a disruptive innovation is on the horizon for higher education.

Considering Social Class in my Classroom Learning Environment

This morning I finished reading Social Class on Campus: Theories and Manifestations by Will Barrett. I purchased the book for several reasons.

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One, social class is an area I want to personally continue learning more about as I find myself noticing it more. I’m also considering incorporating a focus on it in the Internship 2 course that I teach, which currently contains a focus on chaos theory and disruptive innovation theory. I’ve been considering social class a disruptive “innovation” to higher education in my mind for the past few years, but am still wrapping my head around it so have not yet incorporated it into that course.

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Second, the book contains personal narratives in the last chapter, and I’m always looking for such narratives to add to the courses I teach. I am of the belief that learning occurs best when it connects to lived experiences, and providing the lived experiences of others can sometimes help to build those connections. Perhaps not at all surprising is the challenge in actually finding such personal accounts in print. One of the points that the books contains is that valuing narratives of lived experiences is not often something valued by those in a higher social class–hence, a potential reason as to why I am always on the hunt. A final reason I selected the book was due to the structure in which it was written. Each chapter contains suggestions for activities, as well as discussion questions at the end. I value both of these as an educator for myself and others.

I gained a lot to “sit with” from the book, and would recommend it to others working within higher education. Social class isn’t necessarily one of those areas that gets a lot of attention directly, yet as I reflect on all of my experiences and conversations on college campuses (starting with the college search in high school) it is an ever present guiding force. This I’ve known, but continuing to learn more about it allows me to “see” it even more. As an undergraduate student, I recall being told by an administrator that it was refreshing to work with a student wearing flip flops and a ponytail, and similar, yet different, messages continue to be sent to me as a faculty member.

At one point in the book, Barrett discusses how students who are the co-creators of knowledge are more likely to reach self-authorship. Self-authorship in a very reduced definition is a way of making meaning in which an individual determines their own values and beliefs while seeing others’ views as important, separate, and worth considering (Important to note: Separate does not mean disconnected). This internal value and belief system enables individuals to consider experiences from multiple perspectives and make responsible, ethical decisions for the common good. Arguably, this is the goal of higher education.

Barrett draws the connection between types of pedagogy found in courses hosted at various institutions (discussion based, lecture style, etc.) and class. For example, a student who was able to attend a high school where discussion was valued in the classroom might seek out a college experience where the classroom experience is discussion based. He then draws the connection to those students being more likely to be self-authored. This was one point in the book where I found myself thinking two thoughts:

One, simply because something is discussion based does not mean that students are developing toward self-authorship. Baxter Magolda provides several examples of various ways, including lecture style learning environments, that promote self-authorship, and the key, according to her, is the incorporation of all principles and assumptions within in the learning partnerships model (a model designed specifically to promote the development of self-authorship). My own experience in higher education demonstrates that discussion based learning environments to do not inherently promote self-authorship, as it was not until my graduate education that I was asked to “situate learning in my own experience”, as well as experience being “validated as a knower”–the two principles missing from Barrett’s discussion about what is necessary to develop toward self-authorship. I engaged in discussion based classes at my own undergraduate institution, yet, I was rewarded for being able to argue/defend/repeat claims made by others about the field of study–not consider those claims in terms of my own lived experiences, which would have validated that I brought knowledge with me to the classroom.

The second thought I had was not to dismiss quickly the point Barrett was making. This got me thinking about the classroom experience I seek to provide, and the messages that are being sent about class. It is extra complicated when considering that,

“We all have a social class of origin, a current felt social class, and an attributed social class” (p. 7).

I’m still working on exactly where I land with the classroom environment I try to create (I just finished the book this morning!). I do know of at least three ways that I can be more inclusive, so that even if students are being taught cultural capital in a variety of ways throughout all of their experiences (this is a whole other blog post, and is really just one type of capital..it sure is complex stuff), they aren’t being asked to completely reject whatever cultural capital they do bring. So, here are my list of three:

1. Provide on my syllabus information about purchasing any books electronically. Often publishers allow for purchasing of hard copy and electronic copy with the electronic copy being less expensive. I’ve also already done this one, but want to keep doing it…work with the library to make sure that the assigned books for class can be checked out of the library.

2. Discuss class attire on the first day of class. Learning does not require business clothes. I look forward to seeing how this conversation goes this fall.

3. Continue to have library orientation and technology orientation involved in the Intro. class I teach. Continue also assisting students in learning APA style through a continual learning process, rather than provide a workshop and expect that they “get it” after the workshop.

Wouldn’t it be GREAT if Support Could Take Away the Challenge?

In student affairs, one of the “go to” standard responses (especially during the job interview process) when asked how one translates theory to practice is to provide challenge and support. The origin of this phrase in the field comes from Nevitt Sanford’s (1967) theory of challenge and support. I’m not always certain based on my experiences, however, that the theory translates over into the field exactly how it was designed. In fact, the more experiences I’ve had in the field the more I’ve found myself responding by asking the question, “what do you mean by that?” or “what does that look like?” when I hear someone say that they will “challenge and support the student.” I ask these questions because in my experience using challenge and support often looks like this:

Step one: Student finds a student affairs professional and says that they are overwhelmed/stressed/upset/not doing well with something.

Step two: Student affairs professional listens to the student and then helps the student figure out what to do about the problem. The help that is given to the student more often than not involves telling the student what steps they need to take.

Step three: Student follows the steps, or does not, and either the problem is solved or it is not (if it is not, and the student returns to the student affairs professional to discuss it again, or the student affairs professional hears from someone else that the student didn’t follow the steps they were told to follow, and discussion is often had about how it is the student’s fault for not “accepting the help” they were receiving…in other words, not doing what they had been told to do)

Step four: Student affairs professional feels good because the professional helped provide support for the student as the student was experiencing challenge.

I can’t help but wonder, however, if students are learning from such experiences what they should be learning from institutions of higher education. I’m also not sure that using challenge and support in this way is what Sanford intended… as I don’t really believe in the idea of using support to remove the challenge. I also don’t believe it is very helpful to create relationships with students where they are dependent on student affairs professionals to get the answers to their questions. Doing so often results in students repeatedly coming back to student affairs professionals to ask what they should be doing in a variety of situations, and student affairs professionals telling them how to address their issue (although this might make us feel popular/wanted as student affairs professionals, it has potential to result in quite a number of challenges for students upon graduation when they no longer have a student affairs professional to go to for all of the answers to the challenges they are experiencing). I’m not saying that students should be ignored when they seek out help, or be told to “figure it out” for themselves. Rather, I think we want students to learn to consider what they already know and how that might help them navigate through whatever experience they are being challenged by. Doing so, does not mean that students are alone in the process of navigating through whatever challenge they are experiencing, but rather it means that we partner with them. In other words, the support we provide is us being with them as they work through the challenge. I actually experienced such support this morning as I installed a ceiling fan.

Yes, challenge and support is applicable to all learning experiences…including installing ceiling fans. 🙂

This is the finished product:

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Yet, it almost didn’t become a finished product because I had reached a point of maximum frustration and impatience (lots of “this is stupid” and “why did I ever start this?” kinds of thoughts were occurring both in my mind, as well as being muttered under my breath). You see, I have learned just enough about changing out lights/fans/etc. that I am now the family member volunteered for such home improvement projects when visiting relatives. Given that I currently am visiting my sister, I was volunteered (and agruably I volunteeered myself, although I am hesitant to admit it given my most recent Sarah-as-an-electrician fan installation experience) because I wanted to do something nice for her (she is having surgery today, and I thought it would be nice to do something nice for her to experience when she returned home). I had most certainly reached a point where I just wanted to be told what to do by someone else to solve the problem of the switch not working after I thought I had done everything I should have done. So, reached out to my partner, John, and asked him to do just that. I even, in quite a sassy tone, told him that I didn’t know what to do and was done.

“I’m done. I quit. Just tell me what to do.”

Instead of responding by telling me what to do, he asked me to explain what steps I had taken. At first, I will admit, I was quite frustrated by this question. I didn’t want to tell him what I had done, I just wanted the switch to work!!!

Once I told him the steps I had taken, he asked me what I knew about why it might not be working. This led to us determining that perhaps the wiring wasn’t as straight forward as it appeared. In other words (this will make sense if you’ve ever done any electrical work) matching the black wire to the black wire, and the white wire to the white wire no matter how many times I did it was not going to provide different results (indeed, my continual repetitive trials of doing so were already proving this!).

At this point in time, I had calmed down enough that I started to consider again what might be going on. This time, however, John and I problem solved together, and the question of how we could figure it out was raised. This led to me getting on the internet and searching words that explained the experience I was having. At the same time, John thought that perhaps looking at the wire connection of a switch hook up in another room could help. Once we each did that, we discussed what steps we would take next and low and behold we got the switch working. (Hallelujah!)

Funny enough, John providing me with this kind of partnership, instead of just telling me what to do, has actually resulted in me feeling satisfied and motivated to install a second ceiling fan. While I shared this experience as an example of the kind of partnership that reflects a more complex way of providing challenge and support, and not one in which John used support to “solve” my challenge, it also illustrates the motivation and skill development that results from such partnering.

The next fan I will be replacing:

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(Yes, you are correct…that is a baseball fan ;))