It’s all in the details

Going back to my home university has been a bit of a shock over the last few days. I finally figured a contributing reason: Last year I got used to an environment in which decisions didn’t seem to be made with a lot of careful thought. Administration and teachers (me included) just did the best we could and we didn’t sweat the small stuff. Lots of things and students fell through the cracks. So, the level of detail that goes into decisions made at our university seemed a bit overwhelming when I first stepped back on campus.

Example: Our school is small so one of our associate deans manually matches first-year students with faculty based on their personalities, interests and other things that they might have in common. This associate dean briefed me on some facts about my advisees and what kind of advising might need. A lovely thing to do, and completely worthwhile. But, this feels totally foreign to me right now given my experience over the past year. I immediately thought about a girl in my Geometry class who I discovered was enrolled in a second Geometry class by mistake. I discovered this about two months into the semester.

Student: “Oh Mister, I did this already in my other Geometry class.”

Me: “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA??????”

Another example: Today I talked with two other colleagues who are co-teaching a course. We talked about common themes between the different topics that we are planning on teaching and how to make more connections to bring these themes out. Awesome awesome awesome. I missed this kind of conversation. Made me sad that I never got to talk about such things at that level with my colleagues last year. And it’s not like that took a huge amount of time to have that conversation…

4 thoughts on “It’s all in the details

  1. A lot of what you are seeing is a size phenomenon, not a high-school/college one. Small schools can do more individualized handling of students. I’ve seen advising get more generic and less useful to students over the past 20 years as my campus has grown from 5000 to 15000 students—faculty are no longer involved in advising students before they select their majors, which means a *lot* of students are falling through the cracks and selecting “default” majors that do not match their interests and strengths.

    I do still have curricular discussions with colleagues, and we do put a lot of time into figuring out what gets taught in which classes, and whether those classes are achieving what they are supposed to. But I understand that discussions like that tend to be most frequent among engineering faculty, less frequent but still common in the sciences, and quite rare in humanities and social sciences.

    • I disagree with the point about the difference being due to size. The high school I taught at last year had fewer students in its small learning community than my university does. Size is a factor (as you mention at your institution), but not the one that is in play here.

    • I’m currently a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and am in the secondary education teacher program under the concentration of math. I do feel the sense of the problem with size like you do. It seems that I don’t get a lot of personal attention. I’m sure if I sought it out, it would be there, but the idea that the University can just provide it, similar to how Darryl Yong’s university automatically provides him with people to assist him is awesome.
      Something that frustrates me that doesn’t necessarily have to do with size is I feel that there’s a disconnect between faculty. Even in the secondary education program that’s very structured and relatively small compared to other programs, there’s so much overlap between courses, instructors will assign huge assignments due on the same day, and they all want a buy in in us doing assignments involving our current observation placements which prevents us from focusing on what we want to focus. It’s really frustrating and I wish there was a quick way to fix!

  2. “And it’s not like that took a huge amount of time to have that conversation…”

    No. But it *did* take a schedule that had time available for you to have that conversation. And most K12 schools don’t have that.

    I used to teach at a K-9 school and do their scheduling – the schedule is the beating heart of the school, and most people have no concept of how it works or how much it matters. People know that their schedule dictates their quality of life, but they don’t get what that *means* on the big picture, how it all fits together.

    My kid used to do Montessori, and it was really striking to me how much time they spent on teaching kids to regulate their own behavior. In a traditional setting the teacher is responsible for regulating everyone’s behavior (which, as you know, is a staggering cognitive load). And then the teacher sets all the agendas. If you’re going to have a more student-led variety of learning, though, you have to have students who can regulate their own behavior.

    And once you’ve got that – once you’ve made that tremendous cultural investment, and/or if you’re teaching much older students – then you can have schedules with a lot of breathing room. You can give a lot of the responsibility of regulating time to the students, who can then be responsible for parts of their own learning, for making sure they learn things they need to learn, for finding an appropriate pace for it.

    But if you haven’t done that, you need to put the whole burden of complexity on the scheduler. You need to have classes to meet as many types of needs as possible, and structure time in such a way that they all fit. And once they do, *nothing else does*.

    Teaching college, you teach students who are old enough they are expected to be responsible for a much larger fraction of structuring their own time – although I note this remains one of the most challenging aspects of college for a lot of people! (And perhaps in particular for Mudders, most of whom never had to learn a single solitary study skill beforehand; certainly I structured my time at Mudd chiefly on deadline-driven panic, the knowledge that if I wasn’t working constantly it wouldn’t get done – there were better alternatives, but I didn’t learn any of them until I taught middle school…)

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