A Topic Worth Returning To: Teachers and Fear

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Over the past year I’ve posted several entries on what student blogging means for the teacher: the actual practice versus the theory of using social software in the classroom and fear’s crippling effect– I’m not talking about the fear factor Will’s been covering (schools shutting blogs down for fear of students abusing one another or being abused by the outside world via the internet) but the fear of change–the fear of free-falling, of moving away from the known, of relinquishing control and of the impact on our time and the resulting pressure on how we train our teachers. It’s one thing to talk about subject-centered, collaborative-centered, connected learning (via blogs or not); it’s another thing altogether to make it truly a reality in classrooms employing blogs in ways many edubloggers write about, including me. And if a teacher/researcher as insightful and open-minded and influential as Jill Walker is pulling away from having her students blog (also see her response to my previous post here) because blogging seems unscalable to large classes when she’s trying to balance the demands on her time (personal life, teaching, research and administrative responsibilities), it makes me stop a moment and wrestle with the topic once again.

First off, the time issue. No teacher ever has enough time. We are asked to cram whole lifetimes of learning into ten-twelve-fifteen weeks, and we wonder why we feel like zombies and our students are increasingly stressed out. Taking on one more thing, one more approach, tool, pedagogy seems like madness when we’re already teetering on the brink of losing any time to ourselves much less time to make it through the course requirements. And on first view, collaborative learning approaches that focus on each student’s ability to contribute to group according to his/her learning style and learning interests seem to demand more time on our part managing, overseeing, leading, planning, and modelling. And that’s the problem–if we only kinda sorta adopt the tools and the approaches, while hanging onto our need to be in control of the learning situation and outcomes, then we’ll surely dive headfirst into the sinkhole of the teacher-as-everything model. I do not believe that classroom blogs are more time-consuming than any other effective teaching approach–once you know what you’re doing with them. And that’s the problem–new approaches take more time initially, and are risky because we’ll make mistakes along the way. We have to look closely at the FEAR factor and find ways to help our co-horts and ourselves dare to move into teaching & learning as a collective intelligence activity.
An interesting article on the terrific Tomorrow’s Professor Blog, a collaboration between MIT and Stanford, Preparing Faculty for Pedagogical Change: Helping Faculty Deal with Fear by Linda Hodges, outlines underlying fears that make shifting to new pedagogies, including collaborative and problem-solving learning, so overwhelming to many teachers. If we want to bring about widespread reform —really do it instead of thinking we are doing it, we must address these teacher fears and help with concrete, non-threatening steps. Dave Cormier’s one-day virtual conference next weekend to fire up “a mass curriculum plan” on “how to use Social Media that uses Social Media as a core part of the teaching.” seems to me a brilliant step in the right direction. Teachers need help! Instead of adopting an attitude of, well, good teachers will get it just as they have always gotten it, and bad teachers will not or can not, I’m determined to take a page from Anne’s blog, and focus as much on ways to move into this work as on the outcomes as experienced by the learning collaboratives in my classrooms.
Conrad’s recent posting about how he has learned to comment on student writing rather than mark it because he has learned to include the student in a conversation (versus the teacher monologue), is a brave post: his transparent reflective practice gives us all a view into the impact a blogging practice can have on the teacher, even away from computers altogether. And there’s Tom Wright’s post on “Blogs and Learning Communities, that points out the difference between commenting and marking. Any teacher who has read Lucy Calkins or Donald Graves or Peter Elbow or Mina Shaunnessey, etc. knows about the conversations that must occur in writing classrooms, that the most important aspect of teaching is, perhaps, listening. The research tells as much: “The Instructional Conversation: Teaching and Learning in Social Activity, by Tharp and Gallimore, in 1991, for example. We talk about Dewey’s “learning as a social activity” but are we really doing more than holding classroom discussions that often look a whole lot like the teacher talking and the students listening, or the teacher asking pointed questions that have the students jumping over one another to deliver THE RIGHT answer? Most teachers believe they give the students a part of the conversation. And yet doing so means giving up control of the conversation and re-envisioning the way time is spent in a course. Giving up control, some believe, means time is being wasted, material isn’t being covered, we are shirking our teacherly responsibilities. And, furthermore, in a classroom that values emergent learning, you never know exactly where you’re going until you get there. With standards to meet and tests to pass, how is it that any teacher would dare bring blogs into the classroom if they mean that students might digress or even meander down the wrong road altogether? Blogs do NOT take more time; they do, however, demand a new view of how we spend our time in the classroom and out. Ah so, we teachers must reorient ourselves to the entire learning process, to our relationship with our teaching, much the way my students have, through writing with images and sound as well as text, recently shaken up their whole sense of who they are as writers and what discoveries lie just below the first outpourings of language onto a page. And that’s scary.

Here are more questions related to the topic of teachers and fear that have surfaced in my blog/email/phone and in-person conversations this week:

What does it take for a teacher to bring blogging into the course in the first place?

What keeps a teacher blogging with her students?

Is blogging scalable to a large class (versus the 15-18 students classes I teach)?

I’ll tackle these questions over the next few posts, but for now I want to point to Francois Lachance’s response to Jill, and how he reminds us that it is NOT blogging per se that is the key, but having our students “network and discuss” and taking responsibility for tracking their own development in whatever form it makes sense to do so according to the learning situation and the learner:

“I wonder if “It’s helping them use their blogs to discuss and network that’s the challenge.”
could not be restated to “help them network and discuss” _tout court_ and thus evidence of blogging experience is but one of the criteria for students to demonstrate that they have indeed networked and discussed. i.e. with a larger number of students, stand back from the process and assess a selection of products that they have submitted in portfolio form to you as prof. The spin off value from such an approach is that students become responsible for their own personal archive (i.e. documenting their own interactions blog and otherwise) and such personal archives are vital for networking and discussion. It might be worth investing a little time in creating a portfolio of examples that students can review as they build their own.

Such an approach doesn’t replace a sense of being there when they actually take those steps in their evolution as social and intellectual beings. But from a phenomenological perspective that was all it was, a sense of being there.

And this is what Dave’s idea for the mass-generated curriculum is, I think, and what I hope we all do on our blogs–begin to compile the resources and to articulate clearly the reasons for time-stressed, anxious teachers to step into this work fostering strong learning collaboratives within their classrooms.

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2 Responses

  1. Dear Barbara, I cannot remember whose blog led me to yours but I’m really happy to have found you. I spent hours now reading your posts and enjoying your point of view, as well as insights into your successful practice. I really like the diversity and richness of your three blogs. Thanks for giving so much to your readers. I am a young EFL teacher and new to blogging, just about to start it with my students, so I am hungry for articles like yours 🙂 I quoted you in my blog.
    Thanks again.

  2. The Future of Blogs

    That’s the title of one of four, count ’em, four different presentations I’ll be giving at MACUL on Friday.

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