positive classroom

Thinking about thinking…

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I’m not a ‘navel gazer‘, in fact I would probably get my back up against the wall if anyone accused me of being one. For many people, spending time doing various assessments to learn more about oneself falls into this category; I get that. We can get so fixated on taking self discovery assessment after assessment, after assessment in pursuit of self discovery…but to what end?
renderedimageSo where am I going with this, especially with a blog title of ‘Thinking about thinking’? In my lifetime I have completed many assessments: True Colours, What Color is Your Parachute?, Anchors, StrengthsFinder, MBTI, Values-Based-Indicators, DISC to name a few. Each one of them have contributed to my self-understanding, but to what end? In college, we use various assessments to help students learn who they are, how they perform, what matters to them, what they should do with their lives…again, to what end?

Ok, so this is sounding like a gloom and doom reflection…bear with me, that’s not where I’m going.

Lately I have been passionately curious about the whole idea of diversity, and loving every moment of it. In fact, in my previous few blogs I focused on diversity in the classroom, which really served as the impetus to keep digging into this intriguing area of thought. The intent of my attention to this matter was for the purpose of bringing students from multiple cultural backgrounds together, and through appreciating each one’s unique contribution, greatly enhance their own learning and that of their classmates. I left the semester feeling enriched, as did many of the students.

However, through conversations with my son, Nathan, we began considering the fact that the practice of many organizations is to design diverse teams based on such things as culture, gender, religion, ability, or age. The theory is that bringing individuals from diverse people groups together will result in heightened creativity which would then lead to greater innovation, which would lead to greater productivity and profit. Logical, and supported by research. But…is it accurate? Not necessarily…in fact, other research is showing that while much good can be generated from such diversity, there are challenges that can block the desired results. In an article entitled Diversity in Teams: a Two Edged Sword the authors remind us that there is more to receiving creative and innovative outcomes than simply putting together a diverse team.

The question then arises…If diversity truly is the key element in creating diversity of thought, how do we harness and grow it? And…how do we define diversity?

Here’s where I’m going with this. When most of us think of diversity, we think about the visible…the things we see that make us different: race, color, age, ability/disability, gender… But what about “Invisible diversity”? Bersin by Deloitte  defines this as… ‘the traits or characteristics of a person that may not be obvious, such as diversity of thought, perspectives, and life experiences (which may include education, family status, values and beliefs, working-style preferences, and socioeconomic status).’

Is it possible that the best path to creativity and innovation doesn’t lie in visibly diverse teams, but in teams that also strive for invisibly diverse teams?

Closing the loop…if I want to successfully work with an invisibly diverse team, one that embraces differenct ways of thinking based on such things as values, beliefs, experiences, perspectives…I need to understand where I’m coming from; I need to first be a student of myself before I can understand those unique individuals I will be privileged to work with.

Thus starts the journey into re-learning about, and appreciating, my own uniqueness, FOR THE PURPOSE of learning about, and appreciating others, so that together we can innovate and create amazing things.

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The Appreciative Classroom.

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It is amazing how quickly 6 weeks goes by when you’re having fun…at least for the professor! I think the best way to sum up this recent teaching experience was that of appreciation; appreciation for the students, appreciation for the diversity they brought to the classroom, appreciation for the support they demonstrated towards one another, and appreciation for their appreciation!

Let me recap somewhat. I began this summer session with the desire to bring an appreciative environment and attitude into the classroom. In my previous blogs, Appreciating and Learning and  The Learning Continues , I expressed the challenges I was facing with an increase of international students in my class. In fact, I ended a previous semester rather discouraged and overwhelmed. In the process of researching appreciative inquiry, I made a commitment to not only change my attitude toward teaching, but to create a classroom environment where each student would feel valued and appreciated for who they are and for how they have contributed to the great moments in their learning journeys. Well, the semester is finished and I am excited about their feedback as well as my own learning.

Let me share just a few of the feedback comments shared with me by a few students:

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Results of a team activity.

* ‘I felt accepted, I was able to share my opinions without fear of judgement.’
* ‘Males from my own culture actually encouraged me to share my opinion…this is not the way it is at home.’
* ‘Students from different nations come here…professors respect this by not making the environment awkward for the foreigner.’
* ‘Our class culture is that of trust and acceptance; these are the foundations for establishing an environment in which students are empowered and comfortable. Because of this, students provide feedback to improve the classroom teaching and learning environment, which helps students to learn from their mistakes and gain achievements. Another element of the class culture was innovation; more ideas come from each students as we worked in a groups to solve the problems and teach each other.’

As already stated, I began this semester with the desire to experiment with appreciate inquiry in the classroom and it truly was impactful. Besides the incredibly positive manner in which the students responded, I learned some valuable lessons regarding cultural diversity in the classroom. Here are some highlights…

* Remember that our ‘North American’ approach to classroom facilitation can be both unfamiliar and uncomfortable for some cultures.
* Don’t make assumptions about everyone’s technical ability, no matter what generation they represent.
* Resistance to speak out in class, especially in front of the whole class, does not indicate lack of engagement…it can be an indicator of great lack of self-confidence. This lesson coming from strongly male dominated cultures.`
* Based on the previous point, small group discussion is appreciated by students and provides great opportunity to share from their own unique experiences.
* Provide opportunities for culturally diverse small groups…heterogeneous vs homogeneous.
* For many cultures, living in the moment overtakes the desire to get the work done…if a friend is in need, that overrides any other commitment, even to the point of personal failure.
* Making time to meet one on one with each student is time well spent! The time taken greatly enhances the ability to make the learning relevant…and builds trust between student and teacher.
* Speak openly about diversity…intentionally invite the sharing of opinions from various perspectives; and listen with respect creating a safe, enriched environment
* Don’t ever stop checking our own assumptions and stereotyping; don’t be afraid to ask students for clarity and understanding regarding cultural differences.

Each one of these lessons call for deeper reflection, in fact they compel me to imageruminate, to probe, to ponder, and to enter into meaningful dialogue to further explore the ramifications of each.

As I work through each, I then need to consider how these learnings will impact other aspects of classroom facilitation…evaluation being one area that comes to mind. In the past, team evaluations have taken the stance of deducting marks from those who did not equally contribute to an assignment…in other words, finding a practical way to deal with social loafing. What would a team evaluation look like if marks were awarded from the perspective of the great contribution each team member made to the outcome of an assignment? Would this appreciative approach help group members to focus on the strengths of their team mates rather than their lack of effort? Worth investigating!

This semester provided the platform for me to learn and experiment with one class made up of 21 students, representing 5 diverse cultures. Is it possible, or even realistic, to replicate and build on this with 4 different classes of 30-40 students each? I intend to find out and continue my learning journey. I love the idea of starting from a place of what works and building on that…appreciative classroom facilitation!

The learning continues…

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I am committed to taking a positive approach to teaching and learning…join me in the journey?

5 classes are now finished, and I am very much enjoying getting to know my students individually, and applying what I’m learning to deliver a more effective learning experience for them.

As mentioned in my previous post, we began the first class with a discussion around positive learning experiences, and how they personally contributed to that learning.

The follow up to that activity was one on one meetings between the students and myself. The stories they shared were humorous, inspiring, emotional, and insightful; it was wonderful to see how positive their body language was, and how animated and excited they were as they reflected on the joy of those experiences.  I can’t stress enough how eye opening those 15 minute ‘chats’ were. Using the questions on the hand-outs as a foundation, the students shared information from their lives in their home countries, and how life has changed since they came to Canada (70% of this specific class are from countries other than Canada). Without exception, they love this ‘new world’ (this in no way minimizes how much they miss their families back home).

One topic we discussed this week was values…a potentially hot topic when dealing with cultural diversity; having 5 different cultures represented in the class it was inevitable that there would be varying opinions regarding what each holds close as a value or guiding principle. I’m happy to report that, once again, the class discussions were rich with mutual learning and respect. The class started with an exercise that dealt with one of my values…punctuality. Based on the various student arrival times to class, I was fairly certain that this was not a shared classroom value. Here is a brief overview of that activity.

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  1. As students arrive pass out coloured mini clothes pegs (one colour to those arriving early, another for those arriving just on time, another for those arriving late)
  2. Introduce the topic of values and the importance of understanding and respecting the values of those we work with (the context is a class of business students).
  3. Let them know that I have a high value of punctuality, but that I realize it may not be a shared classroom value.
  4. Explain the meaning of the different colours of clothes pegs, and have student divide into those groups.
  5. Stage one discussion is to dialogue around whether or not punctuality was a shared value, and how their opinion was reflected in their actions.
  6. Stage two, mix the groups up so that each group has representation from the ‘early arrivers’, ‘on timers’, and ‘late arrivers’. In these groups they are to discuss how they feel about the actions of others, and how they are impacted by other’s actions.
  7. The final instruction…I would not be in the room to facilitate the discussion. I explained that I didn’t want my presence to in anyway influence the discussion.
  8. After what I thought was an acceptable amount of time I came back in the classroom, but was immediately told that they needed more time! I was thrilled that the self-directed discussion was so energy filled.

The activity went well, I could hear laughter, the murmur of discussion, and also silence. The ah-ha learning? It appears that I was the only one that was really bothered by people coming in late. The collective opinion was that if you come in late and miss some of the learning, it’s your choice and the responsibility is on your own shoulders. The tension came when I asked how they feel when someone shows up late for a meeting or event that they have planned…would they be OK with that? At first I was faced with shrugged shoulders and comments such as, ‘it depends on the situation’. However, as small group discussion continued, they did agree that this would not be so favourable.

So, how are those perspective reconciled? I would suggest that the outcome is indicative of how truly values based we all are. In organizational behaviour we talked about stated values and actual values; perhaps this is an example of that being played out individually. It also made me consider how my values are lived out…in this situation, I needed to be willing to accept tardiness if I truly want the classroom to be about my students, and about shared values. I need to be true to my value of punctuality by showing up on time (in this case, early), prepared, and ready for whenever the students show up. I also need to honour those students who are punctual and start class on time…even if only 3 students are there! I think it’s also important to add that from experience, the cultural mix has an impact on the outcome of such a discussion. Students in other classes I have facilitated included punctuality in their classroom agreement (or code of conduct).  The learning for me? A reminder that every class is different and unique. What works for one will not necessarily work for another…even if the subject material is the same.

And so the learning continues…for me, and for my students.