Kudoz / November 27th, 2015 / 0 Comment
I think I said to Sarah a little while ago that I’ve learned more about teaching in the last six months as a “learning specialist” for Kudoz, than I have in my 6+ years doctoral work in Education. It certainly feels true for me but the real question is why?
I have been teaching in a university setting for ten years now and I’d like to think I’m ‘hip’ with content, delivery and presentations. In tutorial settings I’ve experimented with all kinds of participatory learning methods: group work with a problem du jour (e.g. for an education class, working out the pedagogical merits of game-based learning), debate-style presentations, mini-applied projects, building huge visual timelines to organize historical info, pair-share, and reflective writing, among many others. But the truth is, my last experience teaching was rife with frustrations.
While I updated my methods I certainly did not update my expectation of how students should act and be in a university setting, and so I was constantly troubled by their ‘consumerist’ attitude to learning, their waning attention, lack of depth and struggles with critical thinking/writing. My biggest frustration was actually that I could tell my ideas were encrusted in an elitist model of education: one of students as responsive audience and myself as expert knowledge provider. But I just couldn’t find a comfortable starting point to approach teaching in a different way. There is ego here, and that’s important: I felt that after years of intentional and mindful teaching I should ‘have it’ and I didn’t have it.
You never ‘have it’ all figured out
Being immersed in a design project such as Kudoz means having to be comfortable with the messiness of process, of prototyping. Designing a service with so many stakeholders requires balancing the overarching values of the project (meaningful learning experiences for people with disabilities) with logistical and practical concerns (what would actually work and be sustainable). Constant iteration, research and development that continuously informs design means you don’t arrive per se, you prototype, and get better at prototyping. Teaching too is a balancing act – upholding standards of higher learning (what we get paid to do), while offering students useful life and professional skills (what they paid to get), at the same time making sure that our own needs as educators don’t go unmet. This is something we don’t talk about a lot. Yes teachers get paid, but that’s not why they do it. We all need something more than money from our jobs.
Teaching is a vulnerable thing
Designers of innovative social services are certainly trained professionals with ‘expertise’, but they are also human beings. Working for Kudoz has sharply reminded me that feeling like your work is making a difference isn’t just a nice bonus, it’s an absolute requirement in order to continue, to create, to improve. As a teacher, you occupy a role of relative authority that places a huge responsibility on you to actually deliver something. But teaching is a reciprocal process – you need to feel that your effort had an impact. It is a tough emotional exercise to deal with failure or even ambiguity in student reception. The way design approaches this is by meeting users where they are at, not where we think they are supposed to be; starting from needs, pain points and problematics and moving towards bottom-up solutions.
Meeting students where they’re at
The reality of generation M (Millennials or post-Millennials) is they are somewhat of a ‘trophy’ generation. They’ve enjoyed one of the most safe, affluent and well-structured childhoods of the last century. Their k-12 education has included unprecedented amounts of affirmation, creative pursuits and electives (and yes, I know school teachers see a need for way more of that, but we’re talking comparatively), which means that they have had the opportunity to exercise choice in fail-safe environments and get their hands dirty with applied learning and project work. They have the bad rep (and I have been guilty of thinking that myself) for being narcissistic and entitled, which in Ron Alsop’s words is a bit ironic:
After all, the grumbling baby-boomer managers are the same indulgent parents who produced the millennial generation. (Ron Alsop, “Trophy Kids’ Go to Work”)
In many ways, however, success in the workplace in past generations has been defined by concessions and sacrifices to one’s personal life, sacrifices that Millennials don’t wish to make – nor should they! And it is important to note the “Millennial” experience is necessarily intersectional – the experiences of immigrant, minority and lower socio-economic class students is markedly different from those of their Baby boomer offspring peers. Millennials have also grown up in one of the most epistemologically difficult times of the last century, marked by the unease of pluralistic perspectives, a crisis of legitimation, economic uncertainty and an impending environmental crisis. Connectivity and the expanded flow of information have created a situation where troubling news from around the globe are pouring incessantly into the feeds and Inboxes of a helpless, and at-best empathetic generation. Over the last five years of teaching I’ve noticed a marked increase in the levels of stress and anxiety that students routinely experience. I am finally ready to look past the ‘glassy stare’ and heads buried in screens, and truly adopt the belief that my students mean well, that they want to learn and get engaged, make a difference, improve. They just arrive in university barely out of their high school ‘diapers,’ often still living sheltered lives at home, and lack the robust self-management skills needed to succeed in the traditional construct of ‘college’.
Fail again, fail better
This is one of the best lessons in design prototyping that Kudoz has graciously and unceremoniously taught me. Improving is about learning from both success and failure, and since the latter is bound to happen more often, it is that much more important as a learning platform. This is what I’d like, moving forward, to impart in my students at the onset – that this is their time to learn how to fail: how to withstand failure emotionally, how to squeeze every last drop of learning from each instance of failure, dust off and start again. Same is true for me, as a teacher, I need to think of teaching more as an act of prototyping a learning experience and less as a Master craft that I’m supposed to be ‘good at’ just by virtue of my position. Thinking of teaching in this way is finally giving me both the humility and the confidence to move forward. In even more radical terms, to return to Beckett’s ‘fail again, fail better’ motto, it is not success that should be the ultimate goal, it is failure, because failure is a lesson that opens possibilities, while success is an end in itself.
Think of teaching more as an act of prototyping a learning experience and less as a Master craft you’re supposed to be ‘good at’
Moving forward, I would want to create a really different context of learning, a classroom culture organized around inspirational materials and moments. Some of the things that have been amazing as part of the IWF workflow are simple things, such as starting the week with a writing prompt, sharing an inspirational quote or poem, and documenting short-term goals in a creative way (e.g. making short videos with mobile tools of ‘what I’ll do today’). Part of what’s great about those things is that they are fun – they sort of break the aura of work or learning as an unpleasant, intimidating activity. Fun, enjoyment, pleasure, whimsy – those are the things that motivate us to go forward. They certainly motivate me, so why deny it to my students? It’s funny, in my studies in Education I’ve been well aware of research on learning environments and the impacts they can have on learning and classroom dynamics. Yet I’ve always taken a bit of a dismissive stance to that research, thinking instead that a good teacher should be able to engage students in any space. Why?
Something that event planning at Kudoz has really hit home for me is the importance of mindfully creating a space and an atmosphere. Every Kudoz event takes loads of preparation because the space is meticulously covered in posters, creative signs, colors, funky materials, tables with crafts, good flow. A lot of intention and rehearsal is put into appropriate ‘messaging’ to the respective audience. As a teacher I don’t have the luxury of decorating a space, however, there are elements that can be changed and other ways of creating space – through sound for instance. I have, for years, started classes by playing a bit of music, usually music that I like to help me de-stress before teaching, and over time I’ve started inviting students to share music that they like and find inspiring. In the same way I want to encourage students to think of their own learning and assignments in terms of collecting inspiration, surrounding themselves with motivational, beautiful, meaningful examples of good work in order to find personal relevance in what they’re learning, e.g. creating online (and offline) mood boards, curating their own learning and project work.
But how do you really feel?
It’s funny / not funny to me that when I started at Kudoz with the aim of designing learning experiences for folks with intellectual disabilities, one of the first things that came to mind was establishing an emotional context. Educators know this, and there is lots of evidence to support the idea that attention and our capacity to learn is strongly influenced by the kind of state we’re in. Hungry or stressed out kids don’t learn well. Awareness of one’s emotional context seemed to me a no-brainer for designing the Kudoz learning experience, yet it’s never occurred to me to take the time to have students in university do self check-ins. Prototyping reflection activities for people with cognitive disabilities resulted in a number of excellent pedagogical ideas that can be directly applied to a teaching context that stimulates self-awareness to establish emotional context: the before and after check-in; filling out a progress development dashboard, creating a journey map of a learning experience, identifying higher-level reflection patterns, and of course, iterating all of these over the term so that students can tangibly see their progress.
(Re)flexing the muscle
One of the ‘pivot points’ of the long and arduous process of designing reflection for Kudoz (borrowing theory from Dewey and others) has been the idea that there isn’t a magic bullet solution, that reflection is generative (the more we do it, the better we get at it and the more we can get out of our own experiences); it is interactional (we make discoveries in conversation with others and with ourselves, not in a vacuum); irregular in shape (some things become instant moments of significance, other insights take years to puzzle out); and it is in-the-body (we don’t just reflect with our brains, we feel challenges and successes of reflective moments with our whole bodies and our senses). Some of the approaches that apply here are both part of the IWF workflow and part of the Kudoz learning design: regular writing prompts, journalling, making space for mindful conversation, reflection prompt cards. Patience, to let insights float to the surface of our consciousness, rather than trying to force insta-wisdoms. This is patience and faith in the process that I don’t think I had before – so how could I possibly have conveyed it to students!
We need patience to let insights float to the surface of our consciousness rather than try and force insta-wisdoms
Doing it for reals
Probably the single most inspirational thing for me working with a social enterprise that at the very least benefits a number of people and at best can shift ways in which life-long learning is considered for people with cognitive disabilities, has been exactly that – its real-world-ness. I got to use my hard and long-earned Aca-skills to benefit real people. I had to really think about what would work and what might not. I had to think about how to ‘do no harm’. And at the same time I got the freedom to do rapid prototyping, to let learning be a work in progress. After all, it isn’t about me. It’s about accountability. University just feels like ‘pretend’ life a lot of the time, and I can see how it would be difficult for most students (let alone us, teachers and researchers) to generate the kind of motivation that can really spark creativity and innovative thinking. Knowing first-hand how wonderful it is to feel part of a real movement in the world, I want this experience for all my students. I am more convinced than ever that community engagement is and should be a core aspect of our curricula. Not just using the tools of the day to transform ideas from the past, but truly engaging students in some forms of civic accountability. Sidestepping ‘evaluation’ in favour of having students take ownership of the ‘body of work’ they are building in their time in university.
Seeing education as a prototyping process has finally allowed me to have fun, to enjoy, to go on tangents, to push my dubious creativity, and gain confidence in the space between iterations.
Because university is in the real world, and the best part about it is it’s a safe place to fail, it can be an incubator for ideas, a vibrant community in which to bounce insights, an earnest environment where to enjoy the luxury of inspiration without (yet) the crushing demands of a 9-5 job. For most of my life, despite myself, I realize I’ve held the notion that school should be tough, boring, a character-builder, a secret society club one must prove worthy to enter. Seeing education as a prototyping process has finally allowed me (and thus, will create a space for my students) to have fun, to enjoy, to go on tangents, to push my dubious creativity, and gain confidence in the space between iterations.