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Reflections on Human Development & Teaching April 13, 2011

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The subject of human development, as it relates to learning, is one that has intrigued me throughout my academic career. As a professional in Student Affairs, and more broadly in higher education, I have spent considerable time and energy working with students are varying levels of intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual development and have worked closely with them as they made the difficult transition into independence and out of adolescence. Now that I am transitioning in my professional career to a more adolescent focus, from the standpoint of training other teachers to work with students, I again find cause to reinvestigate my prior knowledge and look for opportunities to expand it as I engage a new population of students.

Among the many concepts and ideas that stand out for me with regard to this topic, I am currently intrigued by three. The first of these is automaticity. “When attention becomes automatic, less cognitive effort is needed in the early stages of information processing, and thus children can put forth effort where it is needed” (Schunk, 2011, p. 460). This idea first allowed me to stop and consider the students I currently work with at the college level. These are adults by legal definition, but children by emotional and intellectual development. As a result, I am left to consider just how automatic their attention truly is when they reach me following high school. Throughout the K-12 system, the structure and regimented scheduling that can take place ends up meaning that children do not automatically decode information as quickly or assign proper meaning to language as quickly when processing concepts or ideas. In the college classroom, professors typically assume a certain level of basic understand, and students often do not possess that because they weren’t required to internalize that knowledge during their high school experience. This no doubt accounts for the myriad of conversations I have with students who do not fully comprehend the vocabulary I am using to speak with them and regularly misuse words, assuming they mean something that they in fact do not. As a result, I have become somewhat of a master translator of “college speak”, but does this skill on my part also eliminate the need for cognitive processing to become more automatic on their part?

Secondly, the notion of developmentally appropriate instruction rises to the forefront in my mind. As a multicultural educator who works with pre-service teachers and attempts to assist them in looking at ways they can infuse their curriculum with multiculturally diverse and appropriate information, this idea is of particular importance. One of the main concerns on the part of pre-service teachers about multicultural education (aside from it not “applying” to their students) is that the concepts of oppression, privilege, racism, sexism, and other –isms are just too complicated for their students. Much of what I try and do with the students I work with is helping them to see how they can match the developmental level of the children they are working with effectively with the multiculturally-inclusive content they are providing. Most often, students are unaware that they can do more or should do more than simply add on a Black History Month unit or a Cinco de Mayo celebration to their classrooms. Additionally, as others have pointed out, students construct knowledge based on their prior experiences and present schemas. I also try and help pre-service teachers understand that all of their students will be coming into their classrooms with different prior experiences and current schemas which may not accurately match up with their own and they need to be mindful of that during the development of their pedagogy.

Lastly, I continue to be fascinated with the role of media on development. Students today are more saturated with a variety of media sources than any other group of students in history. Although the research is inconclusive with regard to a negative relationship between television-viewing and academic achievement, many researchers aptly points out that this research does not take into account the content of the media being consumed. In my own research examining sexuality education, the media plays in integral and often negative role in conveying information and communicating values and beliefs about sexuality that are then replicated in their own personal behavior, regardless of what they may or may receive as education in the classroom. Thus, the media plays a significant role and will continue to do so as access becomes more and more permeated throughout society, while still maintaining a digital divide that impacts the educational experiences of disadvantaged students to an even greater degree.

 

My Musings on Motivation March 27, 2011

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Motivation, as a general topic, has always been one that has interested me on a casual and intellectual level. Having now worked in Higher Education for over a decade, and worked directly with college students, I have see just about every imaginable decision, both positive and negative, and I have had the opportunity to discuss these decisions with students directly. In addition, I have spent considerable time in the classroom, and after teaching both required and elective courses, as well as graded and pass/fail courses, have seen a wide range of motivational levels. These experiences have thus far led me to the conclusion that the topic of motivation is a complicated psychological and sociological process, and it cannot be summed up by a single theory or framework.

Wide arrays of theories have been presented to describe and attempt to explain the nature of motivation in human beings. The need for achievement (achievement motivation theory), a need to preserve the perception of themselves by others (self-worth theory), various types of attributions (attribution theory), goals and expectations (social cognitive theory), goal-setting (goal theory), and various others have all been seen as the basis for motivation and activity. However, I would argue that to a certain extent, no one singular aspect or direction can describe how and why people experience motivation. At various times, and through individual decisions, all of these facets of cognition come into play as individuals decide whether they should or shouldn’t do something, say something, or act on something. Additionally, more often than not, they either lack the ability to logically decode these messages in order to make the seemingly better decision, or they purposely disregard the information they have received and make a bad decision anyway. Do most students purposely fail an exam? Do most students intentionally get so intoxicated that they need medical attention? Do most students logically decide to commit a crime for which the consequences far outweigh the benefits? Although there are exceptions, I would argue that the answer to all of these questions is overwhelmingly no in most instances. Yet, these things do happen (hence, I still have a job helping to manage these bad decisions).

Although I do not adhere to one particular theory of motivation, I do value what they contribute to my understanding of my own teaching and work with students. The shear volume of factors that play into any given decision is staggering, as the wealth of theories demonstrate, and the role of a teacher then becomes that of considering each and every one of them at any given point when working with a student. Research may support and contradict most of these theories, but that is the nature of all research. Ultimately, it is still the role of the teacher to consider them all as possible factors until proven otherwise. Additionally, I am now much more aware that these factors change based on intrinsic and extrinsic properties throughout the decision-making process. A student may begin a project, motivated by a goal he/she set for himself, and after discussing the project with others, may become more motivated by a need to be seen as intelligent and capable by his/her peers, regardless of the actual outcome of the project.

Lastly, this exploration into the nature of motivation has given me pause to consider the pursuit of knowledge. I have become increasingly aware over the years at just how extrinsically motivated most individuals are on a daily basis. Rarely do I encounter other individuals with an outward passion to learn for the shear love of it. I talk to more and more students that no longer read for “fun” or hate reading all-together, have no understanding of what is going on in the world, and are so consumed by their own social circle that they lack the ability to see any sort of a bigger picture. In a capitalist society such as our own, the enlightenment pursuit of knowledge has been replaced by the capitalist pursuit of wealth as it equates to happiness. All that remains to be seen is what the next big golden carrot will be dangling in front of us!

Why Don’t We Form a Committee to Discuss That… March 11, 2011

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I’m a rather decisive person- I am able to weigh my options quickly, make a decision, and act on it. This can be a very beneficial attribute when things need to happen quickly and I need to react to various circumstances or others look to me for leadership.

However, this can also be off-putting to people who prefer to take more time to think about things and process the information they have gathered. As such, I am quite sure that people have, at times, thought that I didn’t care what they thought, when in fact I simply wanted to move forward and not feel like I was wasting time. Over time, however, I think I have adjusted quite well and found a happy medium that has allowed me to be relatively conscious of how others react and respond, and give them the time they need for decisions. In most circumstances, this means I am working on other projects while I wait for a decision, or secretly working ahead, based on the conclusion I am fairly certain people will come to anyway (and I can usually predict pretty well, which is nice). As you can imagine, this makes working on committees challenging at times!

Now, committees have done great things throughout history- write charters and treaties, start and end wars, form countries, establish financial systems, develop economic stimulus plans and solve economic meltdowns, and serve to assist in wide-spread humanitarian aid, to name a few. I don’t do any of these things on a daily basis.

As I’ve spent more time working in Student Affairs, I’m become brutally aware of just how much people like to send decisions to committee, no matter how obvious the answer may be or how easy the task might be to accomplish. I know that folks think they are giving everyone a chance to “weigh in” and make sure everyone’s opinion is going to be heard but more often than not, one of three circumstances exist:

1. Someone in authority has already made a decision but wants it to seem as though they are soliciting constructive feedback.

2. Most individuals involved don’t actually care about the outcome and those that do care have already shared their opinion.

3. Writing “xxx committee” on a resume looks really good, no matter how little work was actually involved.

4. Being able to write “decided on by committee” vs. ” so and so decided” sounds more diplomatic and eliminates complaints from the people you expect to complain, despite not offering their own feedback at the time.

As such, I certainly understand the necessity of committees at times. Certainly, there are instances when large-scale change is being considered or a topic is controversial in nature. However, in all other instances, perhaps more people might consider just making a decision, sharing it with others, and moving on. After all, editing a document, drafting a letter, or allocating a small amount of money doesn’t really require an act of Congress!

Privilege & Free Speech March 7, 2011

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In the past week or so, two separate, but connected lines of inquiry have crossed my path, and given me reason to continue a line of questioning and analysis that will no doubt permeate the majority of my academic life. The intersecting topics of White privilege and free speech have taken center stage in my own personal considerations.

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to Christian Lander (@clander), author of the blog and best selling book Stuff White People Like, give a talk on campus. I was incredibly impressed by his poise, humor, and the down-to-earth nature of his commentary on his rise to fame and the unusual path it took. However, I was even more pleased that he utilized his comedic topic as a segway into a series of very poignant messages about the nature of White privilege and it’s prevalence in society. He provided a very straight-forward discussion that students could connect with, and I am hopeful that the audience, mostly White, took away something that they would have otherwise been able to avoid throughout their entire college career @ Iowa State.

Shortly after his talk, the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Westboro Baptist Church free speech case. The court ruled 8-1 in favor of the church’s right to protest at the funerals of fallen U.S. soldiers, claiming that military deaths are a result of U.S. tolerance for homosexuality and abortion.

Now, I am not going to start a conversation on the nature of free speech in general, nor am I going to launch into a full-on discussion on White privilege but I would be happy to share resources related to both topics should you wish. However, the timing of these two lines of reasoning certainly makes me wonder how much White privilege might have been at play in the Westboro case. This church has a great deal of privilege when it comes to financial means, legal counsel, and support across the country (how anyone can, in good conscious, Christian or not, support this group of lunatics is beyond me!). Not coincidently, the member of this church are predominantly White. If the members of this church were Black or Latino/a, would the Court’s ruling have been the same? Would the general reaction on the part of the country have been as lackluster? I highly doubt it!

I will always defend the free speech of individuals, but when those words so clearly go against common sense and the entire spectrum of rational belief structures, including traditional Christian doctrine, and are so incredibly hateful, bigoted, racist, sexist, and homophobic, do we really have a responsibility to allow their hateful message to remain freely spread? Yes, it might be a slippery slope, and yes, the same could be said about other groups, and yes, it could be argued that it may lead to a more socialist ideology, but seriously? There isn’t a human being on this earth that can justify to me the existence of a group whose URL is http://www.godhatesfags.com.

Dear Iowa, You owe me some time… February 21, 2011

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I’ve always walked fast, talked fast, thought fast, and acted fast in my life. I am fully aware that this is not the case for others, and I certainly respect that everyone has their own way of approaching any given situation. At times, my ability to respond quickly has put others off because they get the impression that I am attempting to monopolize a conversation or avoiding providing others with opportunities. Alas, this is not the case- I just value efficiency and enjoy being task-oriented. I like getting things done, and having to wait on others in order to accomplish something that is asked of me has always driven me nuts. This is probably why I have enjoyed so few group projects during my academic career, and the projects I have enjoyed have been those where I set the direction and led the group myself.

Now, please don’t confuse this desire for efficiency and control with being arrogant (we can leave that topic for another post I suppose). I simply act quickly and with confidence, and don’t typically possess the humility that is indicative of most individuals in the Midwest. In addition, I appreciate direct conversation and confrontation, and am not a fan of passive-aggressive actions. It takes quite a bit to really upset me, so I’d much rather you simply share what is on your mind. These characteristics were not always true, but the past few years of my life have seen my pendulum swing and have allowed me to find a rather pleasant medium between the two extremes.

What has not changed, however, is the quickness and efficiency with which I attempt to live my life. After walking over to the MU last week on a particularly nice day, and finding myself pausing regularly behind numerous individuals whose pace was significantly slower than my own, I got to thinking about how much of my time has been wasted as a result of living in a region of the country with a much slower pace of life (on average). Since it’s in my nature, I did some math:

– I’ve lived in Iowa for almost 6 years

I would estimate that roughly 15 minutes/ day is spent waiting on someone else to do “something”

so….

15 minutes/day x 365 days/year x 6 years = 32, 850 minutes or 547.5 hours or 22.81 or approximately 23 days.

So, it would see as though the state of Iowa owes me almost a month of time! I’ll take a check- just let me know who I should contact 🙂

Synergy Demotivator

Dressing for the Activity February 13, 2011

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The bitterly cold days of winter have recently subsided, even if only for a few days. In addition to meaning I don’t need to wrap myself in additional layers just to walk out to my car, it also means that I am once again joined, however indirectly, on my weekly outdoor runs by a plethora of other would-be healthy Iowans. Having run through the winter yet again this year, I am well aware that such adventures are not for everyone. It’s hard to convince most people that “fun” involves spending hours outdoors in freezing temperatures, and returning home with frost on your covered scalp and ice dangling from your eyebrows. Thus, I don’t blame anyone in the least for not engaging in my preferred winter ritual.

However, it is now beginning to hint at spring, and thus, those individuals who have either spent the last few months in the gym (or on the couch) are now emerging from hibernation to take to the roads and trails of Ames. I, for one, am certainly welcoming the ability to shed the many layers of Under Armor that make up my winter running wardrobe. In fact, I was even able to wear shorts again today, which was quite lovely. As I logged my miles around town this afternoon, I was pleasantly greeted by more fellow runners than I had seen (aside from the group runs I was a part of all winter with those brave enough to join) in quite some time.

As an additional thought, it occurred to me that for some, this was the true beginning of a New Years resolution to start running/get in shape (insert any additional physical fitness-oriented goal you would like). I very much applaud these folks and wish them all the best as they engage in what I have come to know as one of the most rewarding and hassle free activities one can participate in. I have always enjoyed talking with others about their running interests, and I enjoy hearing about their progress- I was in their shoes (literally and metaphorically) and I thus admire the pursuit. However, what I struggle with are the individuals who emerge from home wearing attire clearly not suited for running, but proceed anyway.

Granted, many folks do struggle to dress themselves on a normal day, and if they haven’t run before, it stands to reason that they would stop to question appropriate attire. However, most would probably think logically enough to put on some running shoes, shorts/sweatpants, and a sweatshirt or long sleeve shirt (it’s not quite warm enough for short sleeves yet!). Then there are those who are either blissfully unaware or simply attempting to create the illusion of running.

If today is any indication, this quasi-running syndrome is mostly possessed by women. Now, I don’t say this to be sexist or otherwise exclusionary, but I do say it to judge, because, well, I am judging. So, ladies (and any men who might also possess these items), when you are struck with the divine inspiration to go running, please avoid pulling from the closet the following items:

1. puffy down-filled vests (especially with fur on the collar)

2. giant designer (or knock-off) sun-glasses

3. hiking boots

4. shirts that expose your mid-riff

5. Don’t apply makeup

Now, I will save my critique of these items under normal circumstances for another post, but I mention these items because I saw them all while running today. You don’t need to spend much money to dress for the activity, but you do need to suspend your desire to impress others with your appearance. You are going to sweat, and snot is going to run, and you are going to become out of breath at some point…and the puffy vest and sunglasses falling off of your sweaty face aren’t going to change that.

Midwestern Nice…but no spice! October 16, 2010

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Growing up in Minnesota, you become very familiar with “Minnesota Nice” very quickly, and you learn, mostly through unspoken cultural acclimation that it is your civic duty to smile at everyone, question no-one, and never disagree publicly…we just don’t do that! Now, as I spent my entire life up until the age of 18 in Minnesota, I was blissfully unaware that this also extended to the rest of the Midwest (Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, maybe Illinois…don’t try and throw Indiana, Michigan, or Ohio in there though- if you think they are a part of the Midwest, you were misinformed…you can thank me later for correcting your error). Then I moved to Iowa…I almost wonder if this phenomenon started in Iowa and then spread to the surrounding states like a cultural virus that everyone else was happy to contract. Needless to say, this “Midwestern Nice” is certainly alive and well in the home of corn and pigs. As one astute internet author wrote:

“Midwest Nice means that you don’t ruffle anyone’s feathers, you don’t speak badly to or of other people, you don’t talk about taboo subjects, you speak politely to everyone, but most important you keep your emotions within yourself and remain calm and pleasant no matter what.”

Well, up until just a few years ago, I happily acquiesced to this naive approach to the world- after all, I was fitting in. Mind you, this was despite a hiatus from the midwest in which the East Coast and I fell in love- from that point forward, I was apparently repressing my true self and my true lack of tolerance for illogical stupidity and unaware ignorance.

However, I’m proud to say that somewhere along the way in this Iowa journey that has had more twists and turns than a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I found my emotionally opinionated self. Unfortunately, emotion + opinions + intellect = native discontent. My unwillingness to play by these cultural rules seems to brand me as an outcast of sorts, constantly putting people on edge as they wonder how I will express myself next. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t go overboard at times (give me a little break at least…I’m still getting the hang of this), but seriously…did  it ever occur to anyone that maybe some folks just need to grow a bit of a backbone and stop assuming that people won’t question clearly anti-intellectual statements simply because they don’t want to ruffle feathers. Perhaps if there were more people to hold some individuals accountable for the stupidity of their actions and statements, we would accomplish more, set more realistic goals, and not tollerate as much incompetence as we seem to be comfortable allowing, all in the name of a cultural norm that really only serves to string along the weakest among us.

Perhaps if we had a bit less nice, and a bit more spice, we’d stop pulling people down and start raising ourselves up!

The Dumbest Generation October 1, 2010

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Are We Raising a Generation of Nincompoops?

My previous post about the intent of education and curricular decisions still has me thinking quite a bit about not only what we teach students, but what they learn implicitly, based on what is not taught…the operational curriculum, if you will. I am a huge proponent of technology and the benefits it can have on society, but every once in a while, I find it necessary and important to pause and consider what is being lost in the process. As funds of knowledge shift between intellectual accounts, where are we conserving our intellectual heritage.

Amazon has recently pushed the Kindle even harder than it already had, going as far as to say that e-books are outselling traditional books. Will students, at some point, not need to pick up an actual book because they can gather all of their information through electronic means? Granted, the prevalence of e-readers certainly does not take into account the digital divide and access to information, but the trend is still there. Will future generations not even know what it feels like to hold a book, bend the binding back and feel the paper and ink?

More than that, the simplest tasks in our life are the first to be outsourced and mechanized so we don’t have to worry about them anymore…but was there more to learn from tying your shoe or preparing a meal with your family or doing dishes the “old-fashioned” way? What universal messages are being lost in the process of simplifying our lives? Or, are we just learning those messages in new ways?

We have spend a great deal of time focusing on the power of technology to preserve knowledge…but are we loosing knowledge in the process, or simply making value decisions with regard to knowledge as we have always done?

Damn the Man…Oh wait, that’s me?! September 30, 2010

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The study of curriculum is a messy business and one which continues to be cause for great debate in a variety of different subject areas. More specifically, the debates end up coming down to differences in ideology, however. At the heart of this debate is, in some ways I think, the question of the purpose of education. What do educate? Why do we have schools? Are these similar or different questions?

On a very basic level, I have been thinking a lot lately about the operational curriculum and the messages we send to kids about what is valued and how it is valued. In effective, the desire to help develop critical thinking skills has been supplanted by the rote memorization and the practice and drill techniques necessary for students to meet our expectations and in essence, play the game to get the grade/education/diploma/degree/job.

Now, I have always seen myself falling on the side of critical thinking. Personally, the dialogue and the journey are more more important than the end result academically. I enjoy the intellectual pursuit and the challenges it brings. I also see the importance in getting students to engage in that same dialogue, and in the process, develop an understanding which will enable them to apply their knowledge to a variety of circumstances. Then I started to think about the course I am currently teaching.

This is the 6th time I have taught this academic skills seminar, and I have seen the curriculum undergo quite a bit of change in that time. I have watched as the materials have gone from more theoretical and less structured/practical to a point now where the course is basically formulaic. I have listened to colleagues gripe about amount of time this “extra” aspect of their job takes and watched administrators respond with more and more resources to lessen the “burden”. I have also watched as the class attempted to meet the demands of students by offering more “practical” skills, which has reached a pinnacle with the adoption of a personalized text packet with nothing more than a series of 1-3 page “how-to” articles.

Academic advisors encourage students to take the class and assure them that it will help them to be successful at ISU. The hidden promise within this course is that if you come to class and pay attention, you will be given many of the how-to items necessary to succeed at ISU. If you follow the formulas outlined, you will succeed. Now, I certainly have the opportunity to challenge students and attempt to stimulate more critical thinking. However, the unfortunate reality is that in order to be successful at ISU, these students really do just need a checklist of to-do items…they don’t need to think critically to get a degree, just as they didn’t necessarily need to think critically to get their H.S. diploma.

In my intellectual and academic life, I espouse the virtues of critical thinking and intellectual pursuit for it’s intrinsic value. However, in my professional life, in this course, I perpetuate the idea that all you need to be successful is a set of study and reading strategies…play the game and get the expected prize…a degree.

Personal ideology meets professional reality…I guess I know who has won this round, and it sadly won’t be the last.

Cognitive Surplus September 21, 2010

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TV * Facebook * Twitter * PS3 * Wii * XBOX 360 * Texting * Online Surfing*

How much time do you spend doing these things each week? Have you ever stopped to really add it up? Now add in the hours your friends spend doing similar activities. Maybe they are doing them with you?

Now, think about all college students…..

How about all children in general in the U.S…..

How about everyone in the U.S.? The “1st World” (no, this isn’t a discussion solely of economics, so we can debate the merit of “1st” vs. “3rd” world later)….

“We” spend millions of hours each year dedicated to social entertainment of some sort or another. Now, you could argue that these activities have value  in terms of socialization, engagement, community development, creativity, etc….but hopefully you can also acknowledge that there are quite a few problems in the world which need addressing as well, far more than you need to update your Facebook status. Yes?

Clay Shirky, in a recent TED Talk, discussed the concept of “Cognitive Surplus”. The numbers are staggering, but the question is pretty simple- what could we accomplish if we used all of those hours to help eliminate many of the problems which plague our planet?

Now, I fully admit that I am just as guilty of these uses of time as anyone else. Heck, anyone who knows me fully understands just how “connected” I really am. In fact, one could argue that writing this blog entry could in fact be time better spent addressing some local, regional, national, or global concern. However, my point is pretty simple- we spend quite a bit of time “entertaining” ourselves while problems like hunger, poverty, disease, and war still exist…even in our backyards. So what would happen if we got up off the couch, and plugged in to reality?