Archive | October 2013

On teaching and practicing what we preach…

First of all, I need to admit that though I have both academic and professional experience as an early years and elementary school teacher, I have never taken a course on how to teach in higher ed. I think this is a shortcoming of most Masters and Phd programs, because even though there are courses on the subject offered in my department, they have always been optional, and I haven’t taken one yet. So I apologize if you have, or if higher ed is your area of study, and everything I say seems obvious to you. I am in the process of teaching my fourth course, and have also supervised students doing field placements in childcare centres.
Before beginning to teach in cegep (the 2 years between high school and university in Quebec, or 3 year technical courses leading to professional degrees), and at university, I provided professional development/learning workshops to early childhood educators, through a not-for-profit social economy organization. I also need to explain that I have taught two general groups of students: adults who have been early childhood educators (ECEs) for many years without any professional certification, and adults who are making a career switch later in life. I have never taught what I typically imagine as university students (although I have a sense that the demographics have changed, or have always been diverse) – young adults in their late teens/early twenties who are preparing for their first career.
Anyways, I have had good and less good experiences as an instructor. In general, about 10% of my students have loved me, and the rest hated me, or were too confused and insecure to appreciate what I was trying to do. This problem seems common among instructors who are just starting out, as one of my friends told me “I think I was too socio-constructivist for them, so I readjusted”. At least in my circle of friends,  as students we found it hypocritical to be taught to interact with children in a way that respects the children’s knowledge, respects their uniqueness and diversity, and to support their learning in an individualized way, and then to be lectured at by professors who would tell us the one (and only one) right way to do things, both in the classroom and in our assignments, and who would discourage us from thinking any other way (not all my professors have been like this, thankfully).
The thing is, I didn’t want to “readjust” like my friend because I believe that you learn through experience, not through being told. When we give workshops (, we do something that we like to call Aikido – I am sure it has a more theoretical name somewhere, but like I said, I never took those classes. Basically, the idea is that you need to outline very clearly at the beginning of the workshop what the participants can expect to get out of the day. For example, “Based on your responses to the preliminary questionnaires, I know that you are worried about supporting children with special needs, children learning an additional language, and children with chronic health problems. Today we will be focusing on children with special needs. When I come back in a few weeks, we’ll talk about language learning. I won’t be discussing health problems because I’m not a medical specialist.” (This is just an example, in reality there would subtopics, and it would take much longer than a day to cover each of them). In workshops that approach is key (you can read my article about this here), but when you give a workshop you hope the participants are there to learn, and more specifically, to learn something that will help them in practice. They are also happy to be there because someone is paying them to take a break from their very demanding jobs (hopefully, sometimes they are at night, or on Saturdays, but that’s another story). When teaching, the problem is that the students are not always there to learn. Sad, but true. The system is so misaligned that often they are there because they need a piece of paper (the diploma), or because they want good marks so they can get a scholarship to continue studying. Often there is a sense that they are sacrificing their time and money for the course, so they want to make sure they get the education they feel they have a right to, which is of course different for each student.
Back to my aikido metaphor (it’s about preventing resistance, if you don’t know anything about martial arts, and I don’t!). What I decided to do this time round was explain to the students straight off the bat that this course was going to be different from most of the other courses they have taken, and that they should expect to feel insecure a lot because I don’t believe there are right or wrong answers, my goal is to get them to think critically and come up with their own answers. Then I went through the principles of the early childhood curriculum framework (which is the subject of the course), but switched all references from children to students – things like, each student is unique, the student is the primary agent of their own learning, etc. I explained that just like how ECE’s are constrained by an imperfect system (crappy hours, crappy pay, ratios too high, etc.), I have to teach within constraints that I don’t believe in – like a closed-book exam at the end and having to give them number grades, or the fact that I needed to have the course syllabus prepared before I meet them, and have little control over the content. (Have I mentioned I have a BA from Hampshire College where we got a one page narrative evaluation at the end of every class and no grades at all?, it was fantastic, there were also sheep wandering around campus, but that’s another story too!).
 I also can divide my students into 2 groups, those (10 of them) who already have their basic qualifications and are in the process of completing a series of 3 undergraduate certificates which are equivalent to a BA (often because they want to become cegep teachers, or want to go on and do an MA, or get a job as a director or pedagogical advisor), and those who are doing their initial training (30 of them). There are huge differences between the 2 groups and I thought it would be a challenge to not bore the ones who already knew the subject matter. At the end of the 2nd class, I met with the 10 who were already qualified and let them now they had the option of doing an optional assignment that would be more work, but more challenging than the one on the course outline. Also, that I respected their knowledge and experience and that they were welcome to contribute by bringing in examples or (if they spoke to me in advance) by getting more involved by planning activities for their classmates. They unanimously agreed that they didn’t have time to put in any extra work, but that they appreciated the recognition.
Finally, copying my supervisor’s example, I ended the first class by asking them to fill out a questionnaire so I could get to know them and their learning needs. The question that was the most important to me turned out not to be about their previous professional experience or their strengths and needs as a student, but about their personal goals for the class – were they interested in theory? inter-provincial and international comparisons? did they just want to pass or did they really care about their mark? did they want to reflect on their practice? improve their practice? This helped me gear parts of the course to preparing them for the exam, and other parts for solving practical problems, and still others for challenging and re-imagining the content of the curriculum framework that they are learning about. I haven’t received the course evaluations yet, but the classes go really well and I am amazed by the passionate discussions and how much better it seems to be going than my previous classes.
I actually hope that reading this, you say, yeah? so what? that’s not even half as socio-constructivist as the courses I teach! Because I really am working in an imperfect system and my little edge towards critical thinking is a tiny tip-toe. So let me know what you do in class, I would love to know!

The rhythm of a phD

Sometimes I wish I was a musician. Then I would be able to explain in fancy academic language the frantic waiting game that is the PhD. Unfortunately I am an educator with a history of working with very young children, so my metaphor is of a children’s game called Red Light, Green Light, or even better, What time is it Mr. Wolf?, or maybe Mother, May I. These games involves a whole group of kids lined up in a horizontal line, calling out in unison, “What time is it Mr. Wolf?” or “Mother, mother, may I take a step?” The mother one is a good one because the educator, or the child in charge, gets to answer, “yes, one giant step forward” or “10 tiny steps backwards.” At some point all the children rush frantically towards or away from the Mother/wolf/traffic light/whatever, who has to tag one of them, and then it all starts again.
My phD kinda feels like that. I work frantically, I send in a draft. I wait. I breathe. I get feedback. The feedback makes me realize how much work I need to do, when I thought those chapters were almost done. I work frantically. I send it in again. I wait… and so forth. I like the waiting, because the frantic working would be insane without the forced breaks. Actually, all of academia is like this. Submit a paper, wait, revise like mad, submit again, wait again, revise again. Submit a conference proposal. Wait. Get accepted. Write the paper, put together the presentation. Submit the next proposal, wait…Maybe this is why we always end up taking on too much, because we need something to do other than wait. The problem is everything always comes back all at once. Add the teaching, and I want a vacation. And I haven’t even started collecting data yet! 

How to write (read, work…) slower

I recently read a post by the Thesis Whisperer on how to write faster. Now, this particular website is one of the major motivating sources of my doctoral experience, and I have nothing bad to say about this brilliant Australian researcher and all of her great guest posters. I just have a different problem. I do things too fast. I lack the patience to be meticulous. When I began the PhD my partner actually told me that I need to work slower, and that was the best advice I have ever received. So here are some ways I am trying to work slower :

1) Never send a text, or even an email, without walking away for a few hours and then re-reading. This is good advice for everyone, but when I finish something I am usually so excited, or just relieved, that I want to move it along as soon as possible. Then I think about it and realize I forgot something.

2) Because I read and write and think and process ideas all at the same time, I don’t slow down to use a proper reference manager while I am writing, and I end up inputting all my references by hand at the end. A better thing to do would be to collect references, input them into Mendeley or another program before beginning to write, and then use the cite while you write feature. The problem is that I often need to find new references while writing…

3) Read things twice, or three times, away from a computer or other device where you take notes. Sometimes I read in the bath, or in bed, or on the bus. It’s just me and my book. Other times I prop the book open in front of the computer, and take notes as I read. The second method is much more productive, but the first is more enjoyable, and makes for a deeper understanding, and time to reflect and build an argument. The ideal would be to read the book once for pleasure, and a second time to take notes. The problem is that there is always another book to read… Similarly, and this may be a generational thing, I prefer to print out articles and read them with a highlighter in my hand, as opposed to on screen, but I don’t do this very often, because I want to save paper. I guess I just need to develop a closer relationship to the iPad.

4) Work in short bursts. I am a morning person, and I pick up my kids from school at 4:30pm. I drop them off at 8:30, so, when I am not working at one of my many part-time jobs, I work on my own projects from 9am to 3:30pm. Then I lose my ability to concentrate. After school, and on weekends, I play with the kids. I might read after they go to sleep, but it is rare that I will try to write at night. These forced breaks actually help me work faster during shorter periods of time, but then build in the necessary breaks to be able to look at my work with a fresh and critical eye.

5) Surround yourself with people who take the time to do things properly, whether it is the highly organised person who makes beautiful charts in excel or the well-read person who is taking 10 years to complete her phD because she is reading everything, in the original language. Maybe some of their patience will rub off on you.

6) Stop taking shortcuts – reading only the abstract, using someone else’s citations instead of a proper database search, etc… productivity is overrated – my goal is to enjoy the journey, and to challenge myself to be the best academic I can be.

7) And finally, do your PhD in a second language. You will learn things you wouldn’t otherwise, and will have to work harder to choose the correct word and to structure your sentences well. I think that’s one of the best decisions I have made along this journey.

On another note, I read a book that I suspect will change the course of my life, and my academic career. Reconfiguring the Natures of Childhood by Africa Taylor (2013). It is published by Routledge as part of their Contesting Early Childhood Series. For those of you not interested in nature, or childhood, or interdisciplinary work, the use of Latour’s ANT theory is brilliant, and she also introduced me to other theorists and to concepts in geography that she applies to early childhood. It’s a fantastic book, to read again and again, anywhere. I spent a week reading it and being blown away. One of the main ideas is that you can’t separate humans from nature. And then, cycling to school through the park with the kids, my son says somethings about how nature is so calm and peaceful and we need to not pollute (he’s 6), and my 10-year-old daughter turns to him and says, “but we’re part of nature, we’re not outside of it.” I love it when everything comes together like that.