Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Contextual Growth

Growth mindset is a concept coined by Carole S. Dweck of Standford University's Psychology department. Essentially, it's the idea that a mind is capable of developing new skills or improving old ones without limitation. This stands in contrast to a fixed mindset that believes the mind has finite limitations for learning.

Dweck argues that a growth mindset is essential to deep learning. When a student has decided, they are just not capable, but they lose motivation to learn. On the flip side, when a student believes they have learned everything about a subject, they also stop learning.

Of course, that is the simplified explanation-- not everyone has the fixed or growth mindset all the time and the growth mindset can be developed. Context is important.

The concept is appealing to educators because it means, in the right conditions, students can flourish. They can become learners.

Unfortunately, some educators bought into the "cliff notes" version of the growth mindset, focusing their energies on praising effort. In an interview with Christine Gross-Loh, Dweck explains:
Yes, another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying “Wow, you tried really hard!” But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.
The mindset ideas were developed as a counter to the self-esteem movement of blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not. To find out that teachers were using it in the same way was of great concern to me. The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success. 

Writing my dissertation about student engagement, I've definitely been interested in what Dweck has to say about mindsets. I also think back to my own education as a "terrible math student."

Math + Me = X

I wasn't particularly bad at math until 10th grade. I had suffered through two years of the same teacher whose teaching methods were dry and difficult to follow. Sometimes, she even incorrectly solved problems on the board. By the time I got to my junior year Algebra II class, I was convinced I was just bad at Math-- the fixed mindset. I was pulling in Cs on my report card, and on my mid-term, I got an F. I had never seen an F on my report card in my life, and it was startling.

My math teacher gave me some tough love. She would start swinging by my desk and asking me about what I was doing, not just seeing if I had any questions (students never want to ask questions). She walked me through complex equations step-by-step. She encouraged me to just practice lots of problems, saying that would be the only thing that would help me learn it. She didn't falsely praise me or make a big deal out when I did get things right. She didn't coddle me. The week before the final exam, I crammed. I did pages and pages of practice problems on my own.

Last day of school, final grades were posted outside the classroom. I got a 96! I gave her a hug and teared up a little. She didn't take any credit. She said I worked for it and praised my process.

The next year, I opted out of math. They put me in Pre-Calculus anyway. I was saddled up with another "lecture while staring at the board" teacher. I didn't understand anything she was explaining. I told her I hadn't expected to be put in the class. After a few days, she told me to "go down to the guidance office and change classes because you're wasting both of our time." And I did. I took one semester of simple math in college, and that was the last of my formal education in mathematics.

I still don't particularly like doing complex math. I often get answers wrong. But thanks to Mrs. Lenihan, I know it's not because I'm just "bad at math," but because I'm out of practice and because I chose to stop learning more.

As an educator, I also now know that those teachers need to improve their practice if they want to engage students, but they were operating from a fixed mindset:

  • Some students will get it; some students are just not cut out for it
  • This is my method, and it either works for you or it doesn't

Despite this, I also realize that sometimes, I have a fixed mindset. It's not something that just magically disappears all together. I can be stubborn at work. I get fixated on specific ways of doing things that work for me. I am afraid to try new challenges, so I do the same things over and over again (rereading the same introductory paragraph and rewrite it 16 times instead of finishing the chapter).

Some simple ways to foster growth mindset

Through leading professional development and teaching, I've stumbled upon some methods of teaching that foster growth mindset. They're not perfect, and they don't work for every one in every context, but here they are anyway:

  • Feedback that focuses on specific actions rather than "good" or "bad." EX: Instead of "Much better!" explain, "You included a lot of specific detail in your description that helps me to understand the character's motivations."
  • Low-stakes assignments and time for practice. Imagine if professional teams only ever played in big games and never had time to practice their skills?! That's what it's like when students only get to demonstrate their abilities on exams or large end-of-term papers.
  • Talk to students about their process. Ask a lot of "how did you come to that conclusion?" and "why did you make that decision?" Too many students are afraid of asking questions in front of their peers. This will help you understand their process and help them adjust as needed.
  • Make action plans for working on their weaknesses. Many times students/employees know they're bad at something, but don't have a real idea or any guidance on how to fix it. Having actionable goals, and checking them off, is incredibly rewarding. It enables the feeling of accomplishment and shows that improvement is possible.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Good Bad Kids

This week, I had the pleasure of volunteering as a facilitator of a creative writing workshop for a group of young men. They wanted to work on spoken word and rap (a post for another day). I haven't worked with that age group in a few years, and even when I had, it had mostly been kids from somewhat affluent families. Needless to say, I was anxious about my performance.

When I got to the classroom, I learned that the program was actually an attempt to provide more constructive uses of detention time. In essence, these were the "bad kids."

I was always a "good kid" in school. With the exception of my high school chemistry class, I never got in trouble for being disruptive. In all my years of school, I had only one lunch detention because I forgot to do my homework, and my teacher made me sit through my lunch break and do it. The funny thing is that some of my closest friends were the "bad kids." Several of my friends were familiar faces in the office, some even with the school-based law enforcement. I didn't know them as "bad kids," though. Actually, they protected me from bad influence (wouldn't let other kids pressure me into smoking pot when they knew I didn't want to try it, that kinda thing). All I knew of them was that they had good hearts and were good friends.

The kids in the creative writing group reminded me of those friends. It was a small group, so it was easy to get to know their personalities quickly. One faked being apathetic, one was engaged, and one wanted to participate but was self-deprecating.

By the end of class, it was easy for me to understand why they had been single out as potentially "bad kids." They were active and unfocused. Getting them to write more than two sentences was challenging.

It wasn't because they didn't want to be involved, though. It was because they were restless from sitting in school all day, and they were hungry, legitimately hungry, not "I want a snack" hungry. It was clear to me how they could be hard to manage in a classroom environment with limited resources, but they were nice kids who tried. I gave them a spoken word poem that was college-level reading, and they were able to make sense of it and have a conversation about the meaning and techniques used. At the end of class, I told them they could keep their pens and notebooks. They were surprised and excited. It really made me appreciate the challenges they must face.

I'm not sure I have anything groundbreaking to add here. Since I've been invited back to work with a new group, this is more of an attempt to remember and unpack my experience. Here's a few quick takeaways that I've gathered about working on writing with what I'll call a more "active" group of students:

  • One-on-one attention and patience goes a long way.
  • Ask questions to individuals, not just the group, and not in a "caught ya not paying attention" way either. Whether they're itching to get moving or hoping to detach from the lesson, it will keep them involved.
  • I'd say that gamification and hands-on learning would also be useful since they didn't want to sit still, but at the same time, they were most focused when they were just talking.
  • Giving a writing task and walking away did not work with this group. I think it would have been more effective if I sat down and led them to physically write before moving on to working with the next student. This would definitely be difficult to replicate in a large classroom setting.
Since I'll be returning, I'd love to hear from colleagues and students about what works best for students who may be frustrated with writing because of the formal school experience so that I can continue improving the workshop experience for future groups.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

LinkedIn to the Job

I started my doctoral program at the ripe age of 22. I was only 2 years out of college. Because of my writing center experience, I was fast-tracked to act as a senior consultant and to teach an English class immediately. Needless to say, I was nervous.
The only picture from teaching ever,
and it's awful, but I loved this class.

I was especially nervous about being respected by my students. They were not that much younger than me, and I knew I would have to earn their trust. I was worried about being labeled a "novice" and being excluded from professional conversations and opportunities.

I also had some skeletons in my closet. Facebook came out my freshman year of college for college students only. I was a freshman learning to use a new technology, and the ramifications of this technology were still years away from really being considered. Not to say that I ever really did anything that bad during my college years, but I didn't want my students or colleagues to see my personal life and judge me. I didn't want them to assume I did drugs because they saw pictures of me at nightclubs and raves (I don't do them and never have, by the way). I didn't want them to assume I was unintelligent-- or worse-- because I enjoy mini-skirts and makeup. I didn't want them to assume I was wealthy because I was on the Equestrian team. I wanted to be able to develop my own persona and for their judgement to be based on my actions in a professional environment.

Luckily, I realized that social networking profiles could be more about who you wanted to be than who you actually were. Even more so, that who you showed you wanted to be on social media attracted like-minded people. I wanted to be a well-educated professional and a competitive scholar.

Case Study # 1 

I went to work. I made sure that when you Googled "Nicole Papaioannou" my history of horseback riding and college parties didn't come up. Instead, you'd find a slew of academic-related profiles and my work (and perhaps a few articles about the other Nicole Papaioannou, over in Cyprus-- she's a ballroom dancer). Go ahead, try it!

I saw how my online presence shaped my offline life. My students read my profiles and saw a professor, rather than a grad student.

Colleagues thought I had something worth saying. They asked to work on research with me. They extended learning opportunities to me.

And years later, a professor in the department read my blog, reached out to me, and eventually became my dissertation chair, despite not ever having a class together.

Then I decided to go to California. Before I made the move, I snagged a well-paying job in a month (pretty unusual for LA, I hear) mostly based on what they read in my LinkedIn profile, as well as looking at my instructional design philosophy via my course website. It was what set me apart at the starting gate.

Social media is important to becoming a professional. I know this beyond a doubt. 

Case Study # 2

My (then) boyfriend and I made the move out West together. He left a full-time job to try to create a better life out here, including finishing college. Without a degree, though, in a city full of actors and part-timers, it was really a challenge for him to find work. Eventually, he turned to me for help.

The first thing I told him was to create a really good LinkedIn profile and a professional portfolio.

It took a little, but he landed his ideal job. He works alongside like-minded individuals at a company committed to continuing education for its staff. It's a place he is proud to work.

The funny thing is... he NEVER APPLIED for the job.

During his first interview, he learned that the hiring manager reached out to him based on what she saw on his LinkedIn profile.

Pointers for Professionalizing Online

Here are some things I learned about developing an online presence along the way:

1. Make as many profiles as you can... keep up with. It's great to have an all-encompassing social media presence, but it doesn't serve you well if information becomes outdated. It makes you look uninterested. 

2. Have great taglines! We all have short attention spans. If you can capture your essence in 40 characters, you have a competitive advantage. 

3. Show don't tell-- build an ePortfolio. Whether it's a formal online portfolio, a website, or links to work that you've done, people want to see what you can do, not just what you say you can do.

4. Engage in the right conversations. Share and discuss issues relevant to that image you want to create. If you like photography, post resources for other photographers, comment on photography blogs, and show your pictures. Engaging in the right conversations might also mean you have to apply self-censorship. For example, fact-checking when you want to post something that seem too crazy to be real is important to maintaining credibility. If you post that Tupac was sighted, you better be ready to provide legitimate resources to back up that claim. Think of all the internet hoaxes that get spread by people who are too lazy to do a quick internet search on"giant squid hoax."

Ultimately, this doesn't have to be about a job. It could be about entering any community that you want to be a part of.

Your social media presence is a self-portrait, a piece of art. It's like the lighting in a painting. It can make an object attractive and beautiful or cast it into the shadows. You are the painter, here.

Choose what you want to highlight and what you want to hide in the dark.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Problematizing Problematizing

The last time I wrote a post was almost 9 months ago. Since then, a lot has happened.
  • I moved from the suburbs of NJ to the city of Los Angeles. 
  • I left my job as an adjunct and writing center consultant and took a job as an Instructional Designer at a startup EdTech company.
  • I developed courses about automobiles, medical compliance, and all things aviation (aircraft systems, aviation regulation, inflight service, etc.). 
  • I got promoted from Instructional Designer to Content Manager and now oversee a team of Instructional Designers and Subject Matter Experts. I also interface with executives from the client company.

So what's the biggest thing I've learned during this transition?

There's a problem with problematizing. 

From the time I took my first graduate Writing Studies course until I taught my last writing course, problematizing became a central focus of my life. Authority was demonstrated by the ability to find flaws in others' ideas, to be able to "make an argument." It transitioned from academic analysis to social analysis to picking apart every little facet of my life. To be smart, it seemed, I had to see the loopholes and the weaknesses in every theory, practice, and action, and to be socially just, I had to make sure to bring up the problems I saw in every space. I had to spread awareness.

Things could never be simple, and you could never take them at surface value.

When I became an Instructional Designer at a startup, there wasn't too much to problematize. I was given the content. I turned it into instructional materials, and I moved forward. I wasn't an expert in the content, and I didn't have enough authority to poke holes. I could learn without trying to be an authority on the subject matter. I was also too much of an authority on pedagogy for my colleagues in video production and animation to challenge. It was freeing.

When I was promoted to manager, however, I was given new authority. As I transitioned into the management role, I found myself problematizing everything. I'd essentially complain to the Director of Curriculum Development about everything that "wasn't working" and tell her why it wasn't working. On some level, I thought that showing her I saw that our system was flawed was demonstrating authority, intelligence, showing her I was smart enough to be a good manager. Now, I'm sure it was just irritating. It definitely wasn't good management.

Good management requires making decisions, taking action, and ultimately risking being wrong. These are not skills that are advocated in the current educational climate, where we are pushed to always be right, to make "arguments," and to strike at the weaknesses in other's theories in order to bolster our own, where we are taught that we need to make people more aware of their misconceptions.

Spreading awareness used to be difficult. It used to require action. Now, it's mostly kids whining from behind a keyboard, claiming that you "just need to like or share" to save the world or expressing offense over non-PC language (I've done this myself-- totally guilty).

What I've learned is that outside of academia there is little place for problematizing without action. There is only a need for solutions. Someone who can analyze then think beyond the form of the problem is valuable.

While I know the idea of using knowledge to take action was built somewhere into my education--  mostly in relationships with mentors-- it became buried in the layers of problematizing and reestablishing the hierarchy of experts and novices. It became the reason I left academia. I felt that everyone always needed to leave a mark on an idea and only did so by deconstructing it, by finding what needed to be improved, rarely by an act of support.

To take action is to take a risk, a risk that you might be wrong, a risk that someone else might exercise their "authority" by exposing your action as imperfect or faulty. Theory is, after all, built on ideal circumstance. Action is based in complex reality.

What I've learned from crossing the boundary is that it is much harder, but also much more necessary to become an authority through action rather than argument alone. That is true leadership, and I hope to be a true leader some day.

As of this week, I also traded in the car I drove across the country. It started to "problematize."