No man is an island…anymore

The days of rugged individualism are over. Being a maverick and going your own way are outdated. We are entering an age where success is measured by how well you are able to collaborate and draw on the strengths of groups.

students collaborating

From alist on Flickr

The main reason for this is the lack of barriers for people to connect, share ideas, and mash up other peoples’ ideas.  Things like wikis, cloud computing, social-networking, etc. are making it possible, unlike ever before to work collaboratively.

We used to have to worry about coordinating everyone’s schedule. Now it’s possible to not even have to know what your co-collaborators even look like. People can work on projects in their own way and on their own time.  They use their own strengths and interests to contribute to the whole.

An example of this is Wikipedia.  Not many people care or even know about the Penny Red.  But enough people do so that you can now know what it is.  In this way very successful products are created.  In the case of Wikipedia the product is a great storehouse of shared knowledge, and a place to go for quick answers.

In the academic world it should be no different. Professors should be assigning more group work, not only the traditional research paper. We do hold that up as a standard of scholarship, but at least at our institution, we are not trying to create scholars.  We are trying to create successful citizens of this country and this world.  We are trying to prepare them for careers where they will need to be easily adaptable and be able to work as a group.

Research papers are worthwhile and fine in small doses. But we should be getting more creative with assignments.  How about one where they research and add successful edits to a Wikipedia entry?  How about creating a Common Craft like video explaining their topic in an easy to understand way?

A research paper is so personal and often only the student and professor see it.  Editing Wikipedia is beneficial for everyone and teaches collaborative, 21st century skills.


Keeping it Real

To my relief am finally finished teaching for the semester.  Teaching is more stressful than other parts of my job.  But, as both a professional and as a person, I think that I grow the most through teaching.

I have heard that you never really know something until you teach it. There is a lot of truth in this. I think I am gaining a much better understanding of what information literacy is and how it influences our daily lives.

Teaching the same session over and over can become pretty dull, but it also helps you to polish the session and find your groove.  Every first-year session I did went well, but I think that I really found my groove in the last one. I knew what I wanted to get across and even kept it interesting by telling related anecdotes from my own life or even stupid jokes. This makes a session more personal and less robotic.  By bringing your real self into the classroom you are able to connect better with students.

One example was when I was talking about finding information.  I told them that they were not just looking for stuff but the right stuff.  Like the New Kids on the Block. Then I sang the “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh” part of the chorus.  It was super lame, but I got a few pity laughs.  And the students knew I wasn’t some phony preaching to them. I was just a dude having a discussion with them about information.

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the script or lesson plan and just go through the motions, but if you can personalize it and actually put yourself into your teaching, you will serve the students much better.

I am looking forward to the holidays and a little break from teaching though.  I need to recharge for next semester.


Geeking Out

geek is the new black

from STML on flickr

Mark Edmundson in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, had a great article called Geek Lessons about why one cannot be “cool” and a good teacher.  I think there are a number of good insights in this article.  Parts of it hit somewhat close to home.

The most common way to become a hip teacher now — there have been other ways; there will be more — is to go wild for computers. Students love computers; you get points for loving them more. I’ve heard tell of a professor — whose energy and ingenuity I have to admire — who provides his students with hand-held wireless gizmos that have a dozen buttons on them. (I understand they look like TV remotes — not a good sign.) Every 10 minutes or so, the professor stops and checks the kids by polling them on the clicker to confirm that they have understood him. Many other teachers have turned their classes into light and laser shows. Three-D glasses are around the corner.

I have actually used those clickers in the past in sessions at UW-Madison.  I thought they were kinda neat and they brought some variety to the same old song and dance.  But the situations they were used in often felt contrived.  Questions were made up for students to answer without much real visible benefit to them or me.  I think it is very important to never let the technology drive your teaching.

The most important point I take away from this though is not just for teaching–it is for life.

Uncoolness can be a state that anyone slides into, a state in which we’re more open, vulnerable and susceptible to being surprised than when we’ve got the cold, deflective armor on. Teachers live for the moments when their students — and they themselves — cast off the breastplates and iron masks and open up.

Showing more of yourself, being curious, and not pretending to know it all is when you gain some of the best insights and make real connections to people.  Especially in teaching, when it is really important, don’t worry about being cool.  Worry about if your students are learning.  Worry about if they are connecting with the ideas and information that you are discussing.  And in life, try to take off your armor sometimes.  You can afford to be a geek every once in a while.  You will learn a lot more about yourself, and maybe even take up D&D.