Author Archives: choessler

(un)Guided Transitions: Why our students are unprepared

The complaint that high schools poorly prepare students for university rings frequently in the halls each fall, with students perhaps knowing the content and having gotten A’s seem unable to read a syllabus, to complete readings, take notes and engage in classrooms appropriately. Scoffed at in comparison is the equivalent complaint that our graduates enter workplaces perhaps knowing the terms and theories and having gotten at least B’s seem unable to attend meetings, prepare relevant documents, engage in workplace meetings and with clients appropriately.

What’s going on? The content knowledge and skills are there. Initiative and being “good”, however looks profoundly different as the expectations and norms shift.

To be a good student in high school, one must be within appropriate pace within the class working with and completing the tasks assigned by the (flexible perhaps) deadline, participation in class is to say relatively little and to be a team player among peers.

To succeed in university is more individualistic in many courses, to exceed in the pace of reading and learning, to speak when opportunity exists, to demonstrate one’s keenness within social norms that privilege quick and connection-laden answers. Even something seemingly tangible like expectations for good essays and sufficient citations are different.

To succeed in the workplace is to place group before self, yet leverage group interactions to show one’s capability as a team player. To paradoxically either shine to be mundane: To excel when in the appropriate seat or with supervisor-identified problems, and to blend in when seen as one of many workers. Unique edges or common middle that must be in sync. To seek to be unique in the middle is perceived as discordant and outside one’s role.

So the transition path from guided growth to individualistic intelligence to context-attuned shining mundaneness, speaks to an unspoken set of norms and cultures that our students are ill-informed and prepared for.

At the crux is that to develop to succeed at one game leads to ill-success at the next game. To be dutiful in waiting for the teacher succeeds in high school but fails in university. To predict where the teacher is going fails in high school but succeeds in university. To be able to work in teams but privilege individual growth succeeds in university but fails in many workplaces. To blend in allows for comfortable success in workplaces but risks potential lost opportunity in university, particularly where accessing graduate degrees or reference letters matter.

How do we already strive to scaffold this transition of expectations and norms? What do we already explain, and what remains hidden and without words? What strategies, examples, cases, rubrics, senior peer mentors, informational interviews and more do you use?


Why what we call our work & ourselves matter!

In educational development, evaluation, research coaching, and consulting, we face the challenge of describing the work we do, even though it seems deceptively simple while we are in the midst of bringing our knowledge and skills in order for others to achieve their dreams and mitigate concerns.

For years, I have wrestled with what do we call our work, and in a time of local and national discussion about our work, it is, for me, a time of deep reflection on how we position the work we do.

3 Questions:

  1. Position: Do we see ourselves as offering from a place of expertise, position ourselves as equals and partners, or helping like a helper (guiding and carrying a load) for others to achieve?
  2. Goal: Are we focused on transformative change to their ways of being and doing, or simply helping them make another year and easing their troubles?

what-do-we-call-our-work Throughout our work, we may advertise and prescribe one focus or position, or we might tailor our communication and cycle through the three positions and two foci throughout a professional relationship with the client, instructor, student, or researcher.

The final question is perhaps the most challenging: 3. Power: Who really gets to choose? Do we? or even more messily, do those we seek to work on, work with, and work for get to choose?

What concerns me about descriptions that speak of equal partners, is the third question, who is that decides that we are equal.

In our work, I can call declare that a researcher, colleague, faculty member, instructor, community leader, organization leader… is my equal, but only they can declare that I’m their equal. If I declare that we are equals, I am assuming a superior right and status from which to make this declaration.

To use an analogy: In the German language and culture, one must be granted permission to address someone with “Du”, the informal and personal version of “you”, for to do so is to declare that someone is my equal. I can only offer that someone else is my equal, and only they can declare that I’m their equal. To unilaterally declare (i.e. addressing someone with “du”) presumes that the person so declaring is unarguably the person of higher status (e.g., boss, grandfather).

Similar to the wise consideration required as we walk the tightrope of celebrating our work without claiming the work of others, we to need to be respectful when we declare our position and focus. Unilaterally labelling ourselves as another’s equal raises the concern that in doing so we are assuming a superior status, particularly when communicating to new contacts and starting work together. And when we label ourselves part of transformative change, we risk excluding those with ameliorative concerns or being seen as pushing for change faster or broader than what is being sought.

It is a struggle, no doubt about it, in trying to figure out where we are in the paradigms when we are flexible and each person we work with pulls us to where their perspective is. There is a risk that in providing what they want, they may lose out on what they need. The question becomes who chooses the focus and our position! I believe we can no more abdicate that choice than we can dictate it, and that makes things most challenging each time we describe what we do or sort out our role.

For all those in research, teams, educational development, university life, community organizations, consulting, and evaluating, I look forward to hearing the words you choose, the adaptive balances you strike!

Faith, Assumptions & Details: Why Statistics & Data Don’t Lie but We Might

Another day, another conversation about the missing nuanced view of stats and data. Despite the saying, statistics is not all lies but neither does it magically produce nuggets of Truth.

Stats is a mathematical box that takes what we give it and crunches the numbers to produce a single set of summary numbers (t(3) = 2.54, p < .05). What we sometimes forget, or never really knew, was that the numbers are related to our decision as researchers & interpretations as readers. The same dataset will always produce t(3) = 2.54,  but p < .05 only occurs if we assume “one-tailed” but would get p > .05 if assuming “two-tailed” (handy calculator). The meaningfulness & usefulness of the difference requires yet another layer of interpretation and decision-making.

For a quick summary of what stats can do, can’t say, and should be questioned about:

The numbers produced by statistics are very tempting. They are consistently produced by a process created by smart people, they are mysterious and are given weighty titles of being empirical, statistically proven, and accurate. And when interpreted as being about what is specifically measured and specifically tested they are true.

The devil, or in this case, the truth is in the details. What exactly is being measured? Which analysis is used? What variables are or are not included in the analysis? How are they positioned, weighted, and ordered? What level of difference or relationship do we set as enough? So many choices must be made in good statistical analysis, and it is these choices that you can judge.

The leap to declaring “Truths” about life’s problems, other contexts and the future is indeed a leap of faith. We can make good decisions, bolster our arguments for why others need to believe us, and in the end there is simply trust and the judgement of reasonableness.

Measurement of Skills – what do we actually want to know?

Raising key questions, yesterday’s published quote of HECQO recommended testing of “soft” / “essential” skills (math, communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork…) upon entry and graduation to PSE. (Read news article at

The question or measurement is an important issue in Canadian PSE. So I ask two questions of the individuals within the PSE community whom I greatly respect: What do we really want to know? What would it mean to get measurement right?

First, Why would we measure? 

I can think of two reasons:

  1. Learners period. Regardless of who sets the goals and processes of their learning, students care, educators care, and society cares. We may see success differently, but generally there is a continuation of learning, of growth in knowing and seeing, and a contribution to society through their gained ability to wrestle with big (and small) issues and tough (and daily) problems.
  2. Contributing our understanding of teaching concerns and successes is an important role of measurement. Do students really know “less math” now than 10 years ago when they arrive? Is there a shift in language and conception that mismatches with expectations? For those who like numbers, quantitative measurements can provide a more comfortable ground for addressing and celebrating. For those who like narrative but talk with those who like numbers, conversations become more possible.

Second, What are we measuring?

  1. Knowledge or Expertise: I may know a formula or close reading, and still not be able to apply it to a public debate about water sovereignty or creation of a new innovation. Knowledge (especially at the recall or near-application level) that might be tested is not a substitute for assessing thinking process, reasoning & decision-making based on knowledge, and the nuanced application of knowledge to a complex situation that requires recognition of deep features rather than superficial ones.
  2. Specificity: Are we sufficiently measuring the relevant breadth of knowledge when we measure numeracy, literacy, writing…(informational literacy…statistical literacy…)?
  3. Building on the work of others: How might the VALUE rubrics of AACU be adapted? What are the limits of measurement and the tensions of measurements identified in the UK, Europe, Australia, USA? What can we learn from colleagues coast to coast to coast?

“Knowledge” like measuring foot size for running speed

Fundamentally I think the question of measuring “knowledge” is misnamed and in the misnaming there is a risk of mismeasurement. “Application” is insufficient too, as is “job-readiness” for I don’t think we could be prepared for every task or job all of us do. Knowledge is likely related and likely necessary but is not sufficient for what we are seeking for our learners.

Instead, I think we are seeking the foundational concept of expertise in its many forms. We want learners to go from superficial snap trial by error that leads to incomplete or inappropriate answers -> to seeing the real (deep) features of an issue, to thinking through the process, making decisions about what matters and what to do, and then creating and applying in nuanced ways the ideas, facts, processes and capabilities of their disciplines. Whether it is to HR decisions, communication rhetoric, bridge spans, server backups, policy creations or critiques, society needs more from our students and us than simply knowledge.

When are we teaching at our best? And why not?

The challenging question offered to me this week is what do I do when I am at my best (Thanks Lorraine!). As I considered what best means and looks like in my personal and professional life, I also got to pondering what does being at my best look like when teaching…

Cat leaping upward

Leap! by Mikelemmon Flickr. Used with Creative Common’s license with identification

My best is when I  shouting with joy about the topic, bursting with curiousity as to what my students already know, dashing to keep up with their online explorations, and dancing when the conversation among them flows so naturally and forcefully it is like a spring river tracing new course.  

As part of this morning’s discussion the ideas of flow and reckless/freedom arose. Also the question of what holds us back?

The short answer for me is fear…fear of being judged as foolish or insane* (* term used with all the societal implications and stereotypes carefully weigh and judged appropriate) – a hit to competence; fear of being pushed socially and professionally aside – a hit to sense of belonging.

But in this fear I also harshly judge others. I judge my collegial relationship with them to be too fragile, I judge their appreciation of good teaching as too narrow, and I judge them incapable of valuing and recognizing good teaching.

Yet, there is still a risk…do I leap up and take enthusiastic flight into online, active, student-directed pedagogy or stay grounded in the known traditional approach.

And if I leap, will you critique? Will you celebrate? Will you leap too?

(…and if I post a cat picture will you forgive me? for the leaping or perhaps the cat picture)

Riding waves of change

The journey of teaching is one of evolution. Shifts in content, growth in expectations of student engagement and tranformations of technology including the arrivals of “new” technologies such as power point and twitter (each new at one point int time as John Boyer noted in his Intro to Learning Technologies (#ILT) talk).

As educators, we try to surf on or before the crest of this every moving wave, but what powerful forces drive it forward?

Surfer with large wave

Photo by Jeff Rowley Big Wave Surfer. Creative commons license, some rights reserved.

Necessity is the mother of all innovation – in John’s case it was growing class sizes necessitating being able to interact with 5000 students, and evolving based on observation of students’ beahviour including signs of them becoming disengaged that lead to twitter, live streaming with chatrooms and recorded lectures with students remotely watching. What is weighing on you that might just be the couterweight to a really great slingshot?

Possibility raises temptation to try and the potential to succeed – We can be inspired to fly, given wings by a critical mass of students (such as John’s big class where there is enough students that enough get behind any technology), or even get pushed enough to the edge where anything is better than status quo. What would such air under our wings feel like and where could we go?

Support for we all get along with a little help from our friends – John introduced us to his tech wizard sitting just off screen (Katie)He also suggested we check out what is available at one’s university (including for those of us at the UofS the talents of #ILT instructor Heather Ross). What support exists to lift you up or could exist to help you float?

In education, just as the seas waves have and will aways be. And as we fling, fly and float among the waves, how differently will the courses we teach today will look in the future in content, form, purpose, and functioning!

Eternal Learner

After over a decade being a university student and three degrees later, I still enjoy a good class. Currently I am learning about blogs, tweets, online presence… in Heather Ross’s (@mctoonish) exciting Introduction to Learning Technologies at the University of Saskatchewan.

Why? My Four Reasons:

      1. Because I don’t have time: Kind of counterintuitive but taking a course allows me to carve out time to learn. When in the Cult of Busy, it can be hard to “justify” taking 30 minutes to read about copyright and creative commons despite working everyday with materials. Now I can break free & focus on what I want to learn…or failing the escape I have an excuse that my readings are “due”.
      2. To respect my colleagues more: We all have our specialities, our own domains of knowledge and skills. Mine are assessment and baking with chocolate. While I like learning what other people find exciting, sometimes all I have is only what I need-to-know including who knows how to book rooms, who has great resources about large classrooms, who can get Blackboard Learn to work…Heather in MHO (my humble opinion) knows lots about anything online (and she is in the office next to where I work) and even managed to teach me to blog. This course offers a chance to see her in her element and to be amazed!2plus2equals_LifetimeOfLearning
      3. Good to feel like a novice on occasion: Sometimes it is too easy to forget what it was like to be unsure, confused, and unsettled. After years involved in tutoring, TAing and otherwise teaching basic math and statistics, I truly believe that every person can “do math” with feedback, clarification and practice. In other words noone is “bad at math” they are just struggling right now. Mid-PhD I was challenged to lived those words – I was invited to a recreational choir in our Faculty led by a choir director/graduate student. My first response was “not me. I can’t sing…” – sound familiar (just replace “sing” with “do math”). But I joined, watched what others did, tried to figure out terminology and when that all failed I just plain asked. In the end I could sing, not an undiscovered virtuoso but a learner. So this time I and my ITL classmates are in many ways tackling the myth “It is impossible to keep up with technology” and cross-training together.
      4. Flexibility: Being a student means doing the learner – somehow somewhere. It started as a bit of a joke that I learned quickly to write a blog well because I followed a rubric (created by Heather) due to many years as a “good” student. While it is true that through countless courses I eventually honed an ability to identify what will be recognized and rewarded, I  also came to recognize my own intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and adapt my learning accordingly. I can choose to read some pieces quickly (or play videos at 1.5 speed) when the material is peripheral or already familiar, yet savour other pieces. In an open course such flexibility is built in – you can learn anywhere including on a beach…know any close by without snow?

In short, I want to learn as a novice about online teaching from a respected colleague on my own timeline (with the excuse of a deadline). How about you?

What does Baking have to do with Research or Educational Development?

Baking, educational development and research are about transformation and possibility.
Transformation from an initial state of questions, flour & eggs…, and usual ways of teaching and assessing into something new that transforms how we see those pieces and what we can do.

There are lots of possibilities to consider, explore, select from and then post-transformation another whole set to uncover. In baking, for example, eggs, sugar and vanilla can become creme brulee (with cream), meringues, cakes (with flour etc.), icing, muffins, cookies and more. Once baked, the selected goodies can be birthday celebrations, a gift, an excuse to visit with friends, a treat to celebrate…or anything else one can dream up.

I’m curious to find new possibilities, and to journey with others in discovering and transforming.