It is difficult to believe that six months have elapsed since I first wrote about developing a growth mindset plan. Quite a bit has changed since then, but perhaps most notably has been the selection of my innovation plan. When I initially wrote about a growth mindset plan, I was anticipating that my innovation plan would involve working to implement a maker space, collaborative learning spaces, robotics clubs, or something similar. Indeed, I value all of those things and am working on projects in all of those areas. However, somewhere along the line something changed. In retrospect, I see that if I pursued that course of action, I would have been shortchanging myself by spending my whole time in this program in what Briceño calls the “performance zone” instead of engaging in authentic learning . Working toward arranging learning spaces is something that I have expertise and experience doing; it is a project I feel like I can do–a safe project, one where I know I can succeed. I am not sure it was entirely a conscious decision at the time, but the topic I chose is far from safe for me.
That decision has made my studies much more difficult and much more rewarding. It has also affected my approach to individual courses and assignments. For example, when working on the course design assignments, I was certainly tempted to just say that course design isn’t something I’m good at or something I do. Looking at it from a growth mindset perspective though, that is an opportunity and not a hindrance.
I have had opportunities to put growth mindset principles into practice in my department at work as well. Unfortunately, the public nature of this post forces me to omit details, but I have seen repeatedly that trusting employees and nudging them to tackle challenges rather than relying on others. As a result, those employees have performed amazingly well, surprising even themselves with how much they were capable of learning and accomplishing.
As I work toward addressing the developmental education challenge in my college, I will need to incorporate growth mindset principles to encourage learners to continue pursuing college. Many of these students will have had a fixed mindset drilled into them for years and may not believe they have the capability to learn these concepts, which is all too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I see mindset as the doorway into learning; if the learner believes it is impossible to learn, a constructivist learning philosophy and a significant learning environment will not achieve the results they otherwise could. It is incumbent upon me as the educator, then, to model a growth mindset, seeking new challenges and looking for opportunities to reinforce growth mindset ideas on a regular basis. Changing a mindset takes time, so it is certainly not something that will happen without regular reinforcement and reminders.
Learning is unavoidable. From the moment we are born, we humans take in information and experiences, synthesizing them into our own body of knowledge. The question is not whether we learn but rather what and how we learn. This is the role of teaching–to shape the what and how of learning. Whether the parent teaching a life skill or the formal instruction of a school system, the act of teaching tells the learner, “This is something that I think is important for you to know.” Generally speaking there is consensus as to what should be taught, especially at the elementary level; most people agree that children should be taught to read, write, and do arithmetic.
How to best facilitate learning is the subject of much more debate. The sheer number of learning theories is a strong indication that there is no one-size-fits-all theory. That does not mean that all theories are equally valid, but that it is quite possible for multiple theories to be valid to some extent. For example, the behaviorist learning theories of Skinner and Thorndike are perhaps the most widely criticized, and rightly so. As an explanation for all learning they fall way short as they reduce the human mind to a simplistic stimulus-and-response machine. However, even the methods prescribed by the behaviorist theories have some application; some types of learning are served well by drills and memorization. In mathematics, once the concepts are understood, practice and repetition are excellent ways to reinforce concepts and help the student become faster at solving problems, preparing them for more complex problems. Once a student has learned that 7 x 6 is seven groups of six items, it is beneficial to learn to look at 7 x 6 and know that it is 42 without needing to conceptualize it every time. Even as the cognitive theories were recognizing the shortcomings of behaviorism, they acknowledged that some learning is more concrete and better suited to those measures. While Siemens’ connectivism argues that technology is rewiring our brains to make this type of learning obsolete, it will always be faster an more convenient to have commonly-used facts committed to memory than to pull out our smartphone to look them up.
Many theories help us to better understand learning by applying different perspectives and divisions. Rogers’ experiential learning divides learning into “cognitive” learning that is important to someone else and “experiential” learning that is important to the learner. Gardner’s multiple intelligences look at the learner’s propensity in seven different areas. The humanist theories look at motivation and other human elements of learning. These theories help the teacher understand learning and learners better, giving them more “tools in the toolbox” to help students learn.
If I had to choose just one theory that I think is most complete and helpful though, I would choose Bruner’s constructivism. Bruner asserts that learning builds on prior knowledge and experiences and that curriculum can be arranged in a spiral pattern where topics are studied recursively in more complexity. This also provides an opportunity to involve a variety of different approaches.
With all that in mind, what does the teacher do? It is often said that the modern teacher’s role is not to teach but to facilitate learning. While I understand and generally agree, the statement connotes passivity. I prefer to think of the role of a teacher in learning as that of a curator. In the context of a museum, the curator’s responsibility is to select artifacts that accurately reflect the subject matter and arranges them so they are most effective for the intended audiences. An effective curator will present artifacts using several different media and methods, selecting those most appropriate to the subject matter and most effective to the audiences. A teacher similarly selects the learning artifacts and methods most appropriate to achieve the desired objectives from the learner.
The move from teacher as a lecturer to a curator makes the role of a teacher as important and challenging as ever, perhaps more so. Teachers must be ever adapting to new technologies, environments, and learners.
From the moment we’re born, and even before , we are learning. Why then do so many of our kids learn to hate school? As an educator, I do not believe it has to be this way. I do believe that approaching instruction with a “Theory Y” approach , trusting that students have existing motivations to learn, can make learning environments more effective by making them: Engaging, Challenging, Personal, Available, and Continuing.
Learning Should be Engaging
I use the term “engaging” hesitantly because I fear it is too often associated with gimmicks or strategies to trick the learner into learning. At best, this approach will yield only short-term results.
Many parents have seen the limitations of this approach when feeding a young child. If the child spits out or refuses to eat their peas, what is a parent to do but attempt to hide the pea in the child’s applesauce? If this works, it is easy to think the problem is solved–the child is eating their peas! But what has the child actually learned? For some, just repackaging the pea in with something they like may be enough to get past the initial resistance to change and help them to like–or at least tolerate–peas. However, for others, what the pea-in-applesauce approach teaches is that peas are so gross they need to be hidden. Then, as more vegetables are hidden, the child may learn that in fact all vegetables are gross. Or perhaps the child will learn that applesauce can no longer be trusted. Do we not often see the same with, for instance, math?
Just like all children are motivated to eat–if only what they view as the “good stuff”–so all students are motivated to learn. They’re motivated to learn Minecraft, to ride a bike, to build a go-kart, to bake a cake. Armed with this knowledge, a teacher can use the pea-in-applesauce method and swap in a Minecraft example into a math story problem. For a few, this might help them make the connection between something they love and something they don’t understand. However, for others, it can just further reinforce the perception that math is hard or something they just cannot understand even if it is adapted to them.
I believe it is more effective to look for–or guide the student look for–connections to build on to what they already know . While it can look similar at first glance, finding authentic connections–for example,
pointing out to a student playing Minecraft that they are using a graph,
explaining that how center of gravity makes it possible to ride a bike,
taking measurements and drawing up plans for a go-kart, or
scaling recipe measurements to make twice as much cake–
will build on the student’s existing knowledge to help them gain understanding of the topic. This of course does not replace pedagogy, but it can certainly enhance pedagogy and make it more effective.
Learning Should be Challenging
Just as believing students are motivated to learn leads to making learning engaging, so believing students are capable of learning leads to challenging them. Dweck calls this the growth vs. the fixed mindset . If we know that students are able to learn, we can and should teach so that students are being stretched enough that authentic learning is happening but not so much that it is demoralizing.
Caution must be exercised here, though; challenging the student continually without recognizing and celebrating achievement can also lead toward a fixed mindset. I believe the best outcome is one where the student needs to work hard to succeed, does succeed, and then is empowered and encouraged to continue working hard and succeeding.
Learning Should be Personal
While I would not advocate abolishing all educational goals and standards, our current education practices and systems often seem to be better designed to produce robots than humans . Perhaps the prime example of this, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even increased segregation based on ethnicity and income .
Rather than celebrating diversity in learning styles and bents, our system still has arbitrarily determined standards and labels anyone who dares deviate:
Can’t sit still and focus on school for 6 hours? ADHD
Too focused on one or a few things but not others? Autism
Ethnic minority? Low income? At risk
While I don’t discount that there are real mental health issues–in fact, I am in treatment for some now–many of these classifications are used as ways to separate out segments for treatment rather than changing how we educate. We know more than ever about different learning styles and approaches, yet the overwhelming majority of students are still educated the same way.
It was for this reason primarily that my wife and I chose to home school our children. This allows for learning to be more personal, more effective, and more interactive. Obviously, home schooling is not practical for every family, but we need to reversing the trend for education decisions to be made at higher and higher levels of government will allow instruction to be more tailored to a state’s/community’s/classroom’s/student’s specific needs rather than completing a federal government spreadsheet.
Learning Should be Available
Also, as control has moved more national, opportunities for the most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased . Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). I believe moving control more local will also help decision makers to more easily identify and address problems with educational access.
Further, I believe that technology is changing and will continue to change the paradigms. Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher as a gatekeeper of information may eventually go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information will grow more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.
Learning Should be Continuing
If learning is engaging, challenging, and personal, and available, I believe it follows that learning will be continuing as well. When we assume that students want to learn and focus on removing roadblocks to learning, the result will be a continual cycle of learning; it will just become a way of life because, well, it’s fun!
Last night my son started dragging our old vacuum cleaner up the stairs, asking me to tear it apart so he could see how it works. That way, he could get started inventing his anti-gravity machine with enormous vacuums at the top and bottom. Of course, I was happy to oblige.
It made me think, why do we tend to lose that creativity? How can I, as an educator and father, encourage, protect, and even reinvigorate that spark?
As an information technology administrator and former web site developer for Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois, I have very limited direct contact with students and instruction. I do, however, have significant opportunities to impact learning environments and access for current and potential students.
I have dedicated my career to using technology to improve efficiency and enhance collaboration. While technology does not hold the answers in and of itself, I sincerely believe that the improvements in productivity and collaboration technology affords will allow educational institutions to better face their challenges and find ways to thrive even in the most uncertain of times.
Unequal access to educational resources is certainly not a new problem in education, it is not a lost cause, either. Unfortunately, the trend may be moving in the wrong direction. Opportunities most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased (Dahill-Brown, Witte, & Wolfe, 2016). Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). While many good efforts are in place to provide everyone access to quality education, a great many are still left behind.
A contributing factor to unequal access to education is likely dramatic increases in tuition costs due to decreases in per student public funding. Since the 2008 recession, nine states’ per student funding is down more than 30%, and two states’ funding is down by more than 50%, which has required institutions to radically increase tuition while also reducing services (Mitchell, Leachman, & Masterson, 2016). Even where public per FTE funding has rebounded slightly from its 2011-12 low, it appears that rebound may be due to decreased enrollment as opposed to increased funding (College Board, 2016).
In Illinois, which has been operating without a state budget since 2015, the funding situation is especially dire. Even community colleges, who pride themselves on access and low cost of attendance have had to make draconian cuts coupled with large tuition increases. Decreasing enrollment–due in part to rising tuition costs and uncertainty about the future of colleges–further exacerbates the problem (Rhodes & Thayer, 2016).
Many states, including Illinois, have adopted performance-based funding as an answer to this problem, theorizing that tying funding to completion rates or other metrics will incentivize colleges to improve performance. Studies, however, have repeatedly shown that this approach does not actually improve those metrics (Hillman, 2016). Instead, institutions are essentially forced to “teach to the test,” regardless of whether those tactics are most effective for their context.
High-Stakes Standardized Testing
Again in efforts to ensure that public funding is directed to the most deserving recipients and desired results are being achieved, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even increased segregation based on ethnicity and income (Knoester & Au, 2015). Though some decision making was later moved back to the states (Layton, 2015), standardized testing results still largely dictates the level of funding educational institutions receive.
While standardized testing–and perhaps even government-mandated testing–serves a purpose, it also consumes increasingly valuable administrative and instructive resources and makes it more difficult to adapt the learning experience to local contexts and individual learners. Finding a balance between complying with federal and state regulations while also providing excellent, adaptive learning experiences will become increasingly important and difficult.
As discouraging as the challenges can be, I would not be in the field of education if I did not believe the opportunities were as plentiful as the challenges. We live in an amazing time when technology is proliferating at a rate never seen before. The Internet has made information available to nearly everyone, mobile devices put that information at our fingertips, and social media allows us to broadcast information instantly. I believe technology, properly applied, can help educational institutions adapt and thrive in the face of these and other challenges.
Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher is shifting as a gatekeeper of information may go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information has never been more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.
Information technology also assists the prospective student with access to higher education. Institutions have for many years used their web sites to provide prospective students information about college. More recently, however, large data sets and application programming interfaces (API) allow institutions to provide up-to-date career information, success and completion rates, and more, with relatively little effort. For example, at Sauk Valley, I redesigned our program information pages (e.g. Economics) in 2016 to include related career profiles from careeronestop.org. Our new home page design (to be released in April 2017) will contain a tool allowing users to compare colleges on cost, debt, retention, and earnings with data from College Scorecard.
Technology also plays a vital role of improving efficiency, so responsible application of technology resources will enable institutions to continue to offer excellent educational opportunities even in the face of decreasing funding. Innovation and competition often even make it possible to access new opportunities while reducing expenses. As an example, increased innovation in the phone sector have made new features such as videoconferencing and virtual extensions available at a fraction of the cost. At Sauk Valley, I am exploring systems that can connect our students with faculty and staff in ways never before possible while reducing expenses by 90%.
Finally, collaboration is enabled by technology in many ways as well. Whether in a traditional or virtual classroom, collaboration tools allow students to apply creativity to learning environments and to hear diverse thoughts and experiences. At Sauk, we are exploring turning some lounge and information display areas into collaborative spaces, allowing students a places gather and work together on projects. In addition, we are exploring online meeting software in conjunction with our communication platform and learning management system to allow students to communicate with one another and with instructors for discussion.
While these examples may not seem like the most exciting examples of educational innovation to many, I truly believe that my role on the administrative side of the institution helps enable the institution, instructor, and learner to be successful.
Dahill-Brown, S. E., Witte, J. F., & Wolfe, B. (April 4, 2016). Income and Access to Higher Education: Are High Quality Universities Becoming More or Less Elite? A Longitudinal Case Study of Admissions at UW-Madison. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.rsfjournal.org/doi/abs/10.7758/RSF.2016.2.1.04
Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.
Layton, L. (December 10, 2015). Obama signs new K-12 education law that ends No Child Left Behind. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/obama-signs-new-k-12-education-law-that-ends-no-child-left-behind/2015/12/10/c9e58d7c-9f51-11e5-a3c5-c77f2cc5a43c_story.html?utm_term=.0d0fe5a32cda