Thursday, December 31, 2015

Learning, empathy, and authenticity

Yesterday I wrote a post about learning and behavior. My post was prompted by an article in Harvard Business Review. One of the statements in that article is "[l]earning--by definition--will always feel inauthentic." That rubs me the wrong way.

Educators spend a LOT of time talking about authenticity--authentic learning, authentic feedback, etc. Pretty much anything in eduspeak has had "authentic" tacked in front of it. Just as we're striving for relevance, we're striving for authenticity.

Follow me down my first rabbit trail. So, as I said, we talk a lot about authenticity and relevance but it's pretty clear that many classroom teachers and more than a few administrators don't really know what that means, at least in terms of kid's learning. What are authentic tasks? What is relevant learning?

In some case what's relevant is subjective based on the teacher's expertise and comfort levels. There are plenty of studies that show the implemented curriculum is often different from the designed one. Why? Too many teachers fear teaching something new or different because they fear negative evaluations and negative observations.

Oddly, that brings me back to the surface. Because of those fears, teachers aren't authentic and too much of what they teach isn't authentic nor relevant. Authenticity could get them in trouble as could relevance, but---and here's another hiccup in the planning--what seems relevant and authentic in one school or in one classroom might not in another and for bunches of reasons of which "kids' parents" is only one.

Now let's meander a bit about empathy. Another HBR article suggests we've entered the age of empathy. Based on many recent headlines I'm guessing that hasn't been made too clear to most everyone, especially Donald Trump. There is an entire organization geared towards teaching kids empathy. What's a little troublesome is that we have to have an organization that promotes empathy and believes that most children don't learn or know how to be empathetic. That would explain somet things.

I reflected on my Christmas/New Year's letter in which I mentioned my hope to be kinder and more thoughtful. Yep, more empathetic. More understanding. A better listener in that I listen to hear and not to respond.

I've been working on some content for formative assessment and one of the books I read included a reference to listening and how we notice--what they say and how they say it, what they don't say, what they do as they approach a task. For example, I may see students charge into working on a task and others moving stuff around but not "getting to work." It may the students just moving stuff around are thinking, trying to envision something, processing. They work differently.

As for how kids respond to a question, am I listening for a "correct" answer or am I listening for how they've processed the question and the information they have as they find their way to an answer? Does the student answer without hesitation and offer what the student thinks is the right answer? If so, what questions might I ask to make sure that student really knows what he or she is talking about? And--here's where the empathy comes in--am I listening to learn more about that student and his or her learning? For example, the student who speaks quietly and hesitantly may be a processor, may be an introvert, may be horrified by talking in public. So then I have to ask what I do to find out more about that student or do I just jump to conclusions?

The majority of teachers do what they do because they love learning. They love the interaction with kids; they love seeing that "Aha!" moment when a kid gets something or discovers something. Teachers want to be authentic and want to be empathetic, but they have reasonable fears about student, parent, and administrator responses.

If parents and administrators were empathetic and authentic when they talk to a teacher about kids, perhaps that conversation would sound and feel different for everyone. And that might allow a teacher to be authentically empathetic with his or her students, and more authentic in his or her teaching. And that might allow students to be authentic about their learning because they, too, would be less fearful about teacher or parent reprisals.

It occurs to me that my favorite teachers exemplified those characteristics and those teachers I've seen who have the easiest manner with their students and who seem to be the most respected and most loved are those who are authentic and empathetic. Tells us something, doesn't it?

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