30-Day Challenge – Day 21 – Crazy Teaching Practices

trust your crazy ideasIlya Pozin, founder of Open Me and Ciplex, and a columnist for Inc, Forbes and LinkedIn, had an article  in LinkedIn called “15 Crazy Best Practices That Really Work.”

Ilya noted that for entrepreneurs, conventional wisdom does not always work, especially in the disruptive market today.  He posted 15 “crazy ideas” from fellow entrepreneurs who “….dared to blaze their own path.”

I thought it might be interesting for today’s 30-Day Challenge question to look at his ideas through the lens of teaching.  After all, our students are leaving higher education and graduating into a world where yesterday’s conventional wisdom would be suspect.

Day 21 – What “crazy” teaching practices might actually better prepare our students for the digital world in which they will live and work?

Ilya’s Crazy Ideas:

1.  Being Messy With Our Employees

Seth Talbott suggested that being involved with employees is messy but worth it.  By involved, he meant building relationships with meaningful connections.  In today’s digital environment, we need to stop being afraid of building social network connections with our students…and facilitate their building of their own learning and professional networks.  See number 2.

2.  Valuing Our Network

Darrah Brustein said that “your network is your net worth.”  My comments to number 1 apply here as well…our role as faculty now involves helping our students cultivate their networks.  One way to do that is modelling networked behavior ourselves.

3.  Making Friends, Not Clients

Vinny Antonio noted that the clear driving factor for success was word-of-mouth advertising, so it was necessary to actually create a relationship with clients and work towards their success.  “Clients” is a loaded word in education…but the intent is spot on.  Parker Palmer, in The Courage To Teach, discussed how teaching is as much about the heart as it is about the content.  Palmer states that:

“…teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal – or keep them from learning much at all.  Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions, and good teaching requires that we understand the inner sources of both the intent and the act.”

4. Obsessing Over Data Analysis

Danny Boice discussed data-driven decisions.  We are just entering the age of learning analytics … yet few of us take advantage of the limited data we now have.  Do you check the analytics in your learning management system to see if any students are not engaged?  What do you do with the data when you have it?  We need to obsess more ourselves!

5.  Being Unforgettable

Dustin Lee’s company takes online learning in a unique direction, offering, in his words, well-crafted courses that are “…insanely fun as well.”  It is a great lesson for those of us in pubic education…and one we take seriously at VCU.  Online@VCU notes:

Focused on distinctiveness, high engagement, and deeper learning, VCU offers quality online programs and courses available wherever you are.

6.  Asking Provocative Questions

Erica Dhawan suggested that tough conversations and productive inquiry lead to success.  That is equally true in the classroom…doubly so if the students are asking the questions!  Enoch Hale’s 30-Day Challenge has this premise at its core.

7.  Building a Culture around Hiring

Matt Mickiewicz noted that recruiting talent can determine success or failure for a company.  We do not “recruit” our students…but a few “crazy” course trailers might attract talent to your courses.

8.  Doing One Thing Well

Ryan Buckley’s company focuses on medium-length blog posts…and that focus has made them successful.  This one is difficult to translate into teaching (other than doing teaching well…but that is a cop out).  So I might spin this to suggest that each course have an opportunity for students to do one thing well…as a capstone project for the course.  After all, is it not our job to help students finish each course with success?

9.  Drinking Our Own Kool-Aid

John Hall is in the influence business…and they leverage their own service to grow their business.  We are in the learning business, and our passion for learning should be evident to our students…and contagious.

10.  Controlling Every Step

Joshua Waldron suggested that one of the keys to his company’s success was to manufacture everything in house.  “…Be lean, be nimble, and don’t let outside vendors influence your bottom line.”  In teaching and learning, I am not for “controlling”…but I am for “scaffolding”…being adaptive so that you can support every student in their learning journey.

11. Documenting the Process

Joe Apfelbaum noted that “…It’s vital to know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and the step-by-step recipe you’re working with on any project.”  Many of us are in research, so applying the scientific method to our teaching for improvement should be natural.  Given the changes occurring in higher education, the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning is a growing opportunity.  So is the journaling that can occur through blogs.  We each have so much we can offer so that we can learn from each other.

12.  Employing Energy and Persistence

Kayvon Olomi suggested that you can do anything you put your mind to.  Are our courses designed to employ (and build) energy and scaffolded to build time on task (persistence) into the learning processes?

13.  Minimizing Distracting Conversations

Jordan Fliegel noted that focus is critical to success.  I think it is an outdated concept for faculty to complain about the use of digital devices in classes “because students will just be on Facebook.”  If students are bored and on Facebook, that may be a problem of motivation and focus rather than distraction.  Get students excited about learning…and the Facebook “problem” becomes less of a problem!

14.  Split-Testing Ideas

Nicolas Gremion suggested that rather than debating what will work, take the top ideas and split-test them.  What comes to mind in a classroom is the Think-Pair-Share technique to promote higher level thinking.  This adds engagement and focus to class sessions…and potentially surfaces misconceptions.

Gone crazy15.  Valuing the Customer

Wade Foster noted that: “Above all, we serve the customer, and we do our best to give them the tools they need to get their jobs done.”  One can debate whether students are our customers or whether our customers are employees or society itself … but in any case, we need to equip our students for success in a digital world.  We also can value what they bring to the class or program.

Crazy, right?  Thoughts?

{Graphic: Jessica Harvey, A.J. Aalto}

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Courage to Teach Online

After finishing Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age by Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe, that I discussed in my last post, I have moved to a book I have meant to read for years – The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer.

Self confession time.  I do read a lot, but not all my books have to do with teaching or elearning.


My summer reading

I read a lot of fiction – L’Amour westerns, science fiction, and mysteries … and particularly like old mysteries that I pick up at Goodwill for $3.  So between Beetham and Palmer, I read a great little 1997 thriller by Paul Lindsey called Freedom to Kill.  It involves the FBI chasing a terrorist (a pre-Nine-Eleven kind of terrorist).  Nineteen-Ninety-Seven was only 16 years ago, so the FBI agents did have a laptop, but no WiFi.  In fact, tracking emails sent through dial-up modems contributed to cracking the case.  When they went on stakeout, they checked out a cellphone so that they would not have to find a payphone.  Sixteen years, and how things have changed!!!  Maybe that is why I like the old books.  I was just starting my educational career in the Nineties…and it was not until my third college that I began carrying a cellphone.  So I lived that change!


But back to Palmer and The Courage to Teach.  I have been wanting to read Palmer’s book for awhile.  Many of my colleagues over the past decade have mentioned it.  Given that it was originally published in 1997, then updated in 2008, I was interested in how relevant it might now be (or not be) in this digital landscape in which I teach.

I enjoyed this book, but it is quite spiritual in its message.  It is about the heart as much as it is about the head.  Given that, I like the underlying message.  Palmer notes:

“…teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal – or keep them from learning much at all.  Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions, and good teaching requires that we understand the inner sources of both the intent and the act.”

He goes on to note that his book is built on the premise:

“Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”


It sounds to me as if Palmer is writing a book about teaching online!  Is not “creating conditions for learning” what we do?

In my work with faculty around teaching online, I continually make the point that teaching online is about making connections – connections with students, connections between students, and connections between students and the content – not using tools (though some tools help in making these connections).  For a dozen years, I have discussed how I have gotten to know my students’ souls through my online teaching – and “souls” hits the same spiritual notes that Palmer makes.

Palmer states early in the book that we as teachers commonly address “what” we are teaching and “how” we are teaching, but less often address “why” we are teaching and “who” we are and how we relate to our students.  Good questions for classrooms…whether they are on campus or online.  He states that bad teachers distance themselves from their students while good teachers “join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.”  This really resonates with me!  Online teaching has little to do with distance and everything to do with connections.

After discussing teaching from within and these connections, Palmer spends a couple of chapters discussing the culture of fear that he feels permeates higher education and can lead to disconnections.  Fear is a common perspective that I have heard expressed by faculty moving online.  There is the fear of loss of control, the fear of looking stupid, the fear of new technology, and the fear of failure.  Palmer does not suggest that we not be afraid, but rather that we not let fear be us.  A bit Zen…but I like his suggestion that we view the fears as opportunities.  He suggests that we work in a world of paradoxes and our courses should reflect that.  Some paradoxes that can contribute to pedagogical design:

  • The learning space should be bounded and open.
  • The learning space should be hospitable and “charged”.
  • The learning space should invite the voice of the individual and the voice of the group.
  • The learning space should honor the “little” stories of the individual and the “big” stories of the disciplines and tradition.
  • The learning space should support solitude and surround it with the resources of the community.
  • The learning space should welcome both silence and speech.

His paradoxes have obvious online interpretations.  By bounded, he is not suggesting four walls, but rather good questions that keep us focused…but open to multiple paths for discovery.  Our online “space” – be it Blackboard or WordPress or Canvas or whatever – should feel safe and open to trusted discourse.  Every individual should have the freedom to voice ideas, but collective wisdom should emerge.  Our online facilitation should guide the discourse so that themes emerge that paint the big pictures.  And a combination of asynchronous and synchronous engagements as well as reflective activities allow for both silence and speech.

Palmer makes the case that good teaching is essentially communal.  And while he does not go there, this to me suggests the Community of Inquiry model and Garrison’s work (and of course, that was the earlier book I read in June).  As I noted in my Rethinking Fundamentals post, I believe that community is still a core concept to good teaching online.

So, I am glad I read this book and would recommend it to others.  Moving instruction online is disrupting higher education and some faculty find that fearful.  We need faculty with the courage to teach online, and in Palmer’s words:

“…the courage to teach from the most truthful places in the landscape of self and world, the courage to invite students to discover, explore, and inhabit those places in the living of their own lives.”

It is what good teachers have done for ages … and doing it online is a natural evolution of what we do.


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