Monday, May 23, 2011

There is no replacement for experience.

I just spent all weekend at a teaching conference. The entire weekend focused on meeting our educational goals and objectives as teachers. How can we best approach facilitate learning? What can we do to enhance our connection with students and their connection with the material?
The same keywords continue to surface: active learning, group collaboration, kinesthetic learning, repetition, seeing different perspectives of the same thing, interactive learning, and using multiple modalities.
This morning, while looking for other information on pedagogy, I encountered yet another website that proposes that online (simulated) dissection is better than the real deal (sponsored by, who else, PETA). They provide no evidence to support this contention. I would freely support these amazing virtual experiences as support for the real thing. But, the virtual experience does not replace the real thing. Two-dimensions cannot convey the same information as three. Online, you can't see texture. Online, you can't move things aside, examine connections, feel internal structures, or change your angle.  The online versions don't show individual variation. In a lab, students can wander around and see differences between individuals corresponding to sex, size, age, and just individual quirks.  All of the aspects that the virtual experience misses are informative to understanding morphology, function, development, and cementing the names of the structures in your memory.
Real dissections are multi-modal, active learning, collaborative, student-directed, kinesthetic, three-dimensional, active, and more real, applied, and relevant.
If something is worth doing - it is worth doing right.
That said, I have offered students with objections the opportunity to use virtual dissection as an alternative. I am ok with someone that has real objections not compromising their beliefs. I can say from my teaching experience, assessment, and student performance that this tool is not as effective by itself as the real deal. This has to be a choice students make.
Like all tools, we need to use dissection wisely and where we will get the most learning opportunies. When I teach about a forest - I go outside rather than watch a movie about one. From a teaching and learning perspective, this is the same thing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Losing ourselves in connectivity

I am on a kick now, reading books about nature. Specifically, I have been reading books about man's connection to nature.
We spend so much of our time talking about connections. Connections via phone, email, facebook, skype, and other electronic forms. Connecting to distant other beings that we can communicate with remotely - in our own time, responding at our leisure, and being friends at a distance. We talk about our connections to electricity, electronic media, newspapers, radio, television, and the internet.
We need to spend more time on connections. But not the ones I've already mentioned. We need to spend more time connecting with people we care about. These connections have to occur with the phone turned off, the email disconnected, and not whilst multi-tasking. The people we care for deserve to have some of our real time - without distraction. I spend much of my time carrying people here and there, fixing dinner while helping with homework, working while chatting, eating while perusing facebook, and folding clothes while nagging the kids to put their shoes away. The people we care for (spouses, children, friends, as well as co-workers, students, and acquaintances) deserve to have us really listen when they speak.
We also need to spend more time connecting to the natural world. As a field biologist, of course I consider this a crucial element of life. But, as I read more of the literature on how our exposure to the natural world informs our lifestyle, choices, mental and physical health, and relationships - it reinforces that it is worthwhile to drop everything and spend some time outside - in green space. That is, where the bugs, frogs, birds, grass, flowers, trees, and wild things are. Where the wind blows your hair and you need sunscreen. Connecting with nature grounds us, calms us, and reminds us of what is important and what we can let go. Connecting with nature enhances all of our well-being.
We can take this one step further. We need to go outside with the people we care about (leave the electronics behind). You want your sulky teen to speak with you? Take him or her fishing. It is quiet. You aren't stuck staring at each other grasping for words. The whole pace of your interaction slows down and conversation can flow to what needs to be said. Even more important, the calm and the occupation with fishing (and not confronting one another) can allow us to hear and what we need to and allow us to withhold a response if it won't help. If you've ever been a teenager, you might recall that sometimes parents need to hear about our children and reserve judgment.
If you are fishing, the conversation ebbs and flows around where the fish are active and fits easily around your activity. The self-consciousnes of bringing up embarassing or sensitive topics eases when you are fitting a conversation around the birds, fish, and flow of the water. Nervous around someone? You can't stay that way while you float around a pond or wander through a forest.
Sometimes, it isn't other people that we need to connect with. Feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or down? Take yourself outside. Take a fishing rod, a kayak, a sketchbook, a journal, your lunch, or nothing at all. Take a vigorous hike, an aggressive paddle, an intense fishing trip, a gentle walk, or plop yourself down somewhere. Take in your surroundings. Listen. Sniff the breeze. Shake your hair out. Take it easy on yourself by soaking up the world around you and reserving judgment for some other time.
Mental health, physical health, environmental health - it's out there. You just need to slow down a bit and it will come to you.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

No fun allowed, this is school.

Yesterday, I had the supreme pleasure of helping teach my son's second grade class at our college's field station. I got to teach about macroinvertebrates. This basically means mucking about in a stream, collecting bugs, and playing in mud. Ahem, while talking about stream flow, habitats, stream health (pollution, contaminants, and nutrient spiralling), and about types of macroinvertebrates and the ecological roles they play.

The kids were so excited and loved to be told to "get your hands in there, you're here to get muddy". My son's teacher, as always, scolded kids that got too excited to wait their turn, yelled at the kids that couldn't wait for an invitation and stepped (in their boots) into the stream), and looked generally aggravated. After a few moments, I gently reminded her that she could relax today - this is my classroom. And she did.

But, when the kids were all actively engaged in digging through the net and I stood back for a moment - she leaned over and said - "you know, they're all just having fun now". Apparently, she viewed that as a bad thing. She viewed having fun as being mutually exclusive from learning. She didn't see that by tying their activities back to the opening lesson - tying the message back to the mud-picking (that was giggle inducing)... they could learn and have fun.

And, that, my friends is one of the problems with education today. Learning is fun for kids until they learn it isn't. Kids are like little sponges that love to learn - until we make the process drudgery. Is it always fun? No. But, we can balance the rote exercises with active learning (and mud) to keep more kids engaged.

This, by the way, is the same teacher that blanched when I picked up a spider to share, and goggled as I taught a child how to pick up a crayfish - because I told the kid how to do it. I had the confidence that this seven-year-old could do it. Then, I told the kid that "you can't whine if you get pinched, though, you're picking it up, it's not like it's chasing you". The kid picked up the crayfish (properly), and smiled broadly enough to light up the day. That is a lesson the kid will remember.

The other fun thing - while one day soon, my son will realize that I am old (and by defintion, then) uncool. For one day, my son and his friends thought that I am the coolest mom around, with the coolest job. Even some of the other parents said so.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

I like people, really I do.

But, I find too much time, with too many people, overwhelming. I need time alone to recharge. This is, of course, because I am an introvert. This doesn't mean that I dislike being social (I love being around friends). But, time spend with lots of people needs to be balanced with time to recharge.

Further, although I like the idea of going to a large party... in practice, I find that I feel lost in large social settings. I get overwhelmed and have a difficult time following conversation. My favorite party would be a gathering of four to eight people where we can talk and chat. This is why I love to invite a handful of folks over at a time to shoot pool. We are lousy pool players, but with the distraction of the pool game to follow and a not-overwhelming number of people - I can really have a terrific time.

Similarly, I found a perfect job for my predisposition. As a college professor, I spend 12 hours a week in a classroom, enjoying interacting with students (and, I really enjoy it). But, I enjoy it because I spend most of the rest of my time in my office. In my office, I am either alone or working with one or two people at a time - just right for me. At other times that I can choose, I can socialize with my colleagues over lunch or in the hall, and then return to my office to recharge.

I've always been this way - navigating public school as a child was horrific. If I hadn't been a bit of an outcast already, my inability to cope with the constant flow of people (from a crowded classroom, through crowded, chaotic halls to the next classroom) would have made me one. About 25% of people identify themselves as introverts. This really just means that they find time with people tiring and time alone revitalizing. Imagine, you extroverts out there, how you'd feel if a mandatory part of your upbringing required you to be by yourself in a room for six straight hours every day? Yeah, I thought so.

This is one of many ways that public education fails children. I would surmise (speculation only) that many (if not most) of the 25% of our population that identifies themselves as introverts find the straight six hours of public school exhausting. Like my oldest son, when he was in public school (and me, as a child) - many children get off the schoolbus at the end of the day completely wiped out. Z used to get off the bus to spend the next forty-five minutes in the bathroom. He didn't need the bathroom - he needed a quiet and private place to decompress.

This is one way that homeschooling can accomodate needs that the public school cannot. Z is happy and outgoing when he sees people now. As he no longer faces a barrage of people all day long; when he has time to socialize, he is eager to do so. He can choose to spend times with appropriately sized groups of people (generally small). He can spend time with the people that make him feel better about himself and avoid trying to navigate the complex and strange social world that we call public school. He is happier and does better with his friends in doses than he did when in a classroom all day, every day.

Some might say that lack of socialization is a problem for homeschooled kids. Bah. If the social experiences in school mimicked adult life - that would be a scary thing. In adult life, if you choose your profession well - mean girls, bullies, playground antics, and sophomoric put-downs are not part of being appropriately socialized. Part of the problem with those that believe this myth of homeschool is that teachers and psychologists, therapists and school administrators are almost exclusively extroverted and have a difficult time understanding the challenges that schools present to introverts. Further, they think that all introverts are shy - we are not. All introverts find socializing tiring - but we socialize in different ways: some by trying to control social situations, some by chatting incessantly, some by silence, some by sneering... we are all different. I only wish that I could return to my awkward kid self and reinforce that being introverted and enjoying your own company is perfectly ok. While being popular is commonly expressed as a suitable goal - would make you unhappy. Popularity is partly characterized by (hello, duh) being around other people most of the time, often in large groups.

I will take this one step further and suggest that, at the very least, while it is unrealistic to expect schools to provide private time to introverted kids - they could reinforce that it is ok, normal, and provide some better coping mechanisms for children that don't understand why school leaves them mentally exhausted. If you got here because you need this kind of reassurance - you're ok. There are jobs out there for you that can balance your (everyone's) need for social interaction with time to yourself. There are romantic partners that also can balance your need for companionship and understand your need to have time to yourself.

There are resources that understand you - here is just one, there are many more: