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Tinking & Frogging

Colorful frog in terrarium

Knitters will recognize those terms. To “tink” is to knit backwards, as in undoing the work, stitch by stitch when a mistake has been caught early. Tinking is analogous to erasing a misspelled word, or restarting a short math problem. No big deal.

In contrast, frogging is much larger in scope. The word comes from the “rip it, rip it” sound of yarn pulling out stitches across a long section of fabric. Sometimes only a section is frogged. In other cases, a knitter chooses to frog an entire project.

My non-knitting family can’t quite wrap their heads around the concept of frogging. They see hours of time invested in a project and then-poof!- it’s gone. But that’s where they’re mistaken. The knitter has learned something from the experience, be it how to execute a stitch properly, pair yarn and pattern better, structure color schemes, etc. Veteran knitters view frogging as a natural part of the creative process. Indeed, knowing that a project can be frogged frees the knitter to be bolder, take more chances, and explore possibilities.

I didn’t always feel this way about frogging. In fact, the first time my dear friend and mentor told me my “lovely” wrap could not be salvaged and should be frogged so the yarn could become something worthy of it, I was horrified. Begrudgingly, I frogged. I started a different project with the same yarn and made a different kind of mistake. That project was frogged too. The more I knit, the more I frog. What’s changed is how I feel about it.

I came to accept frogging by

  • Recognizing my teacher/mentor is a wonderful knitter. If she frogs, it must be OK.
  • Reading forum posts and project descriptions/commentaries on Ravelry (a website devoted to all fiber-related crafts). It’s filled with crafters sharing how many times they started a project over, changed course, repeated segments, etc.
  • Realizing that frogging helps me produced better quality, more aesthetically pleasing finished objects.

I can help my students feel better about mistakes by making it safe to muck it up. Teachers do that when we

  • ESTABLISH A SAFE CLIMATE. I’ve purchased a stuffed frog. He’s going to be the class mascot. We’re going to start the term talking about mistakes in learning and we’re going to look for opportunities to make them, learn from them, and feel safe doing so. One strategy that drives this point is when some assignments or classwork is not graded.
  • FOSTER REFLECTION. I’m going to ask students to think about other contexts for learning. How long did it take them to become proficient? What did success require? What can they take from those experiences and apply it to academic learning?
  • LEAD BY EXAMPLE. I’m going to frog a cowl in class. I learned a new stitch over the break (brioche, for the knitters out there). Mostly it’s terrific. But there are mistakes, and the more I look at them the worse I feel about the project. I’ve got to start over. I think it’s important for students to see us struggle a bit, to see that we are mistake-prone humans.

Of course students expect and need us to be experts. But the problem with experts is that we make the work look so easy! As you prepare for the new term, keep in mind how hard it is to learn and how much students compare themselves to the teacher’s and their peers’ skill level. Consider ways you could provide low stakes opportunities for practice, where mistakes are embraced in order to promote learners who are bolder and take more chances in learning.

Best Tweets of 2016 Teaching Professor Conference

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Click here to check out the best tweets from the conference.

Next time, we’ll resume our exploration of classroom interaction strategies!

Stuff they should already know

In May 2015, Anya Kamenetz wrote an NPR Online piece titled “Nonacademic Skills Are Key To Success. But What Should We Call Them?” She suggests the following terms and phrases are often used imprecisely and interchangeably:

  • 21st Century Skills
  • Character Education
  • Grit
  • Growth Mindset
  • Non-cognitive Traits & Habits
  • Social & Emotional Skills
  • Soft Skills

The article discusses the pros and cons of alternative definitions, interrelationships, and overlaps. The terms and phrases lack clarity making it difficult to teach, research, and assess these skills. Inconsistent usage and intent also promote disagreement about what is most important for students.

softskills

Photo credit: LA Johnson, NPR

Additional terms and phrases were suggested in the comments: life skills; coping skills; emotional intelligence; social-emotional learning; Achievement Behavioral Skills; educating the whole person. “Life skills” was widely endorsed and generally preferred over the seven phrases discussed in the article.

A number of respondents (primarily elementary and high school teachers) questioned when and where life skills should be learned. Many suggested these skills are “stuff your parents should have taught you,” implying teachers shouldn’t bear this responsibility.

How does this connect to teaching and learning in higher ed?

I am currently researching informal communication in accounting. Research shows many faculty believe students should already possess these skills. It’s also common to blame students; data suggests accounting programs attract students who are weaker communicators than those in other majors. Students are also blamed for failing to understand the importance of good communication skills. Another popular rationalization is that skills education is vocational and doesn’t belong in higher education. In sum, elementary teachers blame parents. High schools say “life skills,” like interpersonal skills, should have been learned in primary school or taught at home and the academy denies responsibility or blames everyone else.

The buck must stop here. We can lament the circumstances and wish things were different. But since most of us are teaching in places where students possess these skills to limited degrees, it’s time for teachers to ask themselves some hard questions.

If I teach technical content and students develop mastery but they lack “skills” like the ability to communicate informally, have I met my professional responsibility?

Likewise, program leaders should ask:

What barriers inhibit students’ skills development in our courses and programs?

What are the ramifications of teaching skills outside the discipline? For example, what are the implications of teaching writing or speaking in a communications or writing course v. teaching them within technical courses?

It’s also time for institutions to ask: What does an offer of admission imply?

Have you been following the “drowned bunnies” story at Mount Saint Mary’s? Their president suggested the school’s 6-year graduation rate could be strategically improved if high-risk students are “weeded out” during the first few weeks. He is quoted as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Essentially, newly admitted students (not knowing the purpose of the questionnaire) would be asked to respond to questions designed  to identify those at high-risk. They would be encouraged to leave. Those who disagreed with the program publicly, have been relieved of duty (the provost) and fired (two faculty). You can follow the ugly story here and here.

If we don’t think a student can be successful, we should not offer admission. We must also acknowledge that higher education isn’t responsible or able to fill all the skills gaps students have when they arrive. But if we admit them, we have an obligation to provide opportunities to learn content and develop skills. The academy has focused a lot on content, particularly in technical fields. It’s time we do more.