Quarantining our Learning Needs

I’ve had incredibly good luck meeting the people I’ve met at Foothill College, SJSU, and at OpenStax – but having a good experience with higher education shouldn’t be a matter of luck.

“There are students so afraid of what the emancipatory practices are, so afraid of being able to live freely, so afraid of having a voice, so afraid of pursuing agency – that they would rather be normalized into a system of oppression”

Chris Emdin, at Teachers College of Columbia.

I am currently integrating teaching praxis, a year’s worth of research – without meriting my 8 years of hospitality work experience – in productivity, learning science, and critical race theory in my embedded learning assistant role with 30 students of the TechCORE Science Learning Institute program at Foothill College. I am helping my students feel like they belong, cultivate motivation, develop learning habits, exercise study skills, and most importantly, leave them feeling like computer science is learnable – even though our 3 week long summer crash course is quite demanding as the timeline suggests. In times of disequilibrium and unrest, the challenges to learning what we’re being asked to learn in college are perpetuated and magnified. 

My STEM instructors, particularly in an online learning setting, often assume that students have both the content-specific prerequisites and the necessary general learning skills “handled.” There are massive consequences to these assumptions, especially when professors do not have policies or practices in place to guide students to address any apertures in their knowledge and motivation. This kind of college culture is oppressive in its very nature. It’s sort of like throwing someone who’s never swam before into a body of water where their toes don’t touch the bottom. In order to “swim” – to learn the information the professor is delivering – students need effective & efficient learning habits and skills – so they witness how to learn what they are being asked to learn. But what about the students who might not have the same foundation of learning skills as those with college-educated parents, or those who went to rigorous well-funded high schools? Many students who’ve struggled with finding their academic identity have negative emotions when learning what they are being asked to learn.

The “just go figure it out” attitude is unrealistic and unendurable. Only ~20% of San Jose State University’s 1st generation STEM students graduate in 5 years. Some people in positions of power act like these achievement gaps are okay, are the norm – but I refuse to allow myself and my peers to be a part of this manufactured reality. The reality and narrative we work towards producing here at The Learning Code is that anything is learnable, and we’re going to empower students so they can articulate for themselves: what they are learning, why they are doing so, and how to go about that studying process – step by step. No flawed assumptions that ultimately turn into dehumanizing assertions onto a students’ belief, hope, and faith in the future.

Movements can change how we think and how we see the world, creating more evolved social norms. What was once accepted and thought to be normal may become unthinkable. What was marginalized or dismissed becomes honored and respected. What was suppressed becomes recognized as a principle.” Paul Hawkin from Drawdown.

Think about a time when you had to learn how to do something new, and you felt lost – maybe because the pace was too fast, there wasn’t a psychologically safe space for genuine inquiry to happen, or there simply was not enough feedback. When I started working at In-n-Out burger (and my 7 other jobs throughout the years) as an associate, there were times I certainly felt like this. I felt like there were principles to obey that were hidden and never explained thoroughly to me, so I was just to put my head down and work. That type of culture and environment is okay, but it’s really just that – okay. And at In-n-Out, the managers are paying me. This is not the case in college. When I’m paying my leader to teach, but there’s so little guidance and feedback, namely in the STEM fields, I sometimes feel cheated out of this education. I’ll be writing posts in the future on the assumptions and assertions by my professors, which lead to self imposed oppression on the students. 

In-n-out.JPG

Working at In-n-Out before COVID

When STEM leaders in academia teach theory so abstractly that only the most advanced learners and the most privileged get to understand that theory, it feels dehumanizing. The few students who are excelling in TechCore this summer all have either a large amount of prior programming experience, spend a ton of time outside our 10am-5pm days, 5 days a week self-learning because they are genuinely curious, or a parent who does their assignments for them. When professors assign so much to students who do not have strong learning skills (the how) and understand why they’re asked to do this work (the why) this leads to students just keeping their heads down and trying to get through the course, without ever even defining what they are solving or learning. It’s no wonder so many students lose faith in themselves; this is by perceptive design – unconscious incompetence: you don’t know, what you don’t know. Many of those students will think that this style of taking classes –  where we disregard the learning process (of ourselves and our peers) in the pursuit of grades –  is the norm. Then, students leave with the mindset that learning is something that people should just figure out on their own. And no, telling students to form study groups when you grade on a curve and give a limited amount of A’s, is not enough to address students’ learning needs. 

We maintain inequalities and inequities if we assume that all students must have skills we never explicitly teach. Just think about any time you had to learn something you ultimately felt really proud of. There was most likely some resource along the way that guided you in that process. Right now, those resources in an institution are office hours, tutoring, classmates, and study skill workshops; all of which are great, but fall short in meeting the students who need the most help where they are at. Teaching and learning must be considered as a legitimate science if we really want to empower more students; pedagogy must be considered an art form and skill just as much as content knowledge. Think about the art and skill of asking good questions. When the majority of students ask questions that make you facepalm yourself, this is not a coincidence. It is because we never taught many students how to ask critical questions.

As we invest and experiment with more distant & online learning, we need to think about how to make students truly feel like they can learn what they are being presented, by teaching learning habits and study skills, to level out the playing field with the advanced motivated learners in the class. When students are paying to inhabit a new space – higher education – we should help them learn the requisite skills and mindsets instead of telling them to “just go figure it out.” This advice only serves the most privileged in the system.

We have to ask: what are the essential skills that students of varying backgrounds are deficient in? Should they just figure it out, should I just point them to resources, or could I find ways to do better, such as making transparent the process of learning lectured material, and the long term value of getting grades, all while rewarding the peculiar curious head and heart developed along the way. This is not hand-holding – this is literally how learning works. There’s mountains of scientific literature published on this idea, if you would like me to point you to some. Susan Ambrose introduces her principles from her book How Learning Works here. Learning is demanding, as we all know; we have to rewrite the code of our subconscious and our beliefs all while healing from the trauma we all have due to an educational experience. However, what if we were to incentivize and motivate students to get work done outside of class so in class it becomes an active review session (assuming the professor is using a traditional lecture content delivery model). This is what I’ve found advanced learners in my classroom do for themselves, so we might actually want to teach that process and learning skill! 

I have the utmost respect and empathy for my instructors, but when instructors have the beliefs & attitude that “prereq is not my problem – learning how to learn is not my problem – scheduling is not my problem – motivation is not my problem – making the material engaging is not my problem,” students will believe that they are “not enough”. This is a travesty in the short term, and a source of major eminent societal problems in the long term. This type of leadership in the business world has led to problems like rank and yank, shareholder supremacy, hitting arbitrary quarterly projects while sacrificing the community, and mass layoffs.

A goal of my advocacy work with The Learning Code is to train embedded tutors and learning assistants to meet students where they are, and bring about some transparency behind what learning means, why we need to help students cultivate motivation and understand context, and how learning works. The work I’ve done in helping students cultivate motivation, learning habits, and study skills has become even more relevant in this time of disequilibrium and unrest, when challenges to learning are perpetuated and magnified.

If we cannot incentivize overworked and under-appreciated professors to think about pedagogy more critically, I know we can train fellow students as embedded tutors and place them in the classrooms to address the challenges that inevitably arise. Then and only then will we have more equitable classrooms – when learning in college can feel like learning how to ride a bike. With our safety pads on and our training wheels in place, we’ll be willing to make the investments we’ll need to make, to learn complex high-stakes content – all while beginning to experience the relevance and joy behind the process of learning, because we’ll see how to go about that journey. As Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist from Stanford said here, “urgency and focus must converge for deep work and flow to happen, so we must accept the periods of high stress and agitation in these high focus states.” So we might actually want to teach students how to accept those challenging times, to give them the agency they need be able to navigate out of them. 

I’ve worked in hospitality long enough to see the commonalities between shady business practices and what I’m experiencing in the education system. Students are being taught to be grade-centered, AKA product-driven.

“This similarity may be surprising to those with a vested interest in education systems remaining as they currently are, but it is one that powerfully exposes the role that business models, neoliberalism, and capitalism play in structuring what count as normative relationships, pedagogies, assessments, and learning outcomes in education. And when we dig deeper, as many students and faculty inevitably begin to do during budget crisis, we’ll quickly begin to unpack just how invested higher education systems are in predatory banking and lending practices, the accumulation of personal wealth at the expense of community wealth/resources, etc. Especially as is the case in the UC system where many of the regents are quite literally millionaire bankers, investors, etc.” – K. Lee, my academic mentor.

This gets to an idea that is larger than grades and funding. It’s an idea of who gets to construct truth. Right now in college we are not always taught how to seek truth, and it is difficult to speak out about how we feel when we are in these classes. But if we’ve learned anything from the recent events in 2020, it’s never been a more important time to reimagine and reinvest in communities. In our academy, that means the community of each and every class. Tutoring centers, success centers, and office hours are transformational spaces for the students who know how to navigate them, but they’re not so friendly to the students who haven’t yet been taught how to decode the what, why, and how of learning.

“These days I find myself filled with a strange dark kind of hope. When times grow dark the eyes adjust, what I see stirring in the shadows is people realizing that they neglected their communities, in an age of magic and lost. All around I see people awakening to citizenship. For decades we imagine democracy to be a supermarket where you went in whenever you needed something, however now we remember Democracy is a farm… where we reap what we sow.”

— Anand Giridharadas

The sooner we can guide students to refocus their attention and behavior on the process of learning by leading them how to do so, the closer we will be to fulfilling our mission and equity statements. Helping students learn is not too touchy feeling, artificially incentivizing, or coddling if done properly. Students need tailored, individual guidance, and an embedded tutor learning assistant who is trained with the skills and mindsets while working symbiotically with the professor can act as that untapped asset which rewards everyone involved with deep pockets of humanity and generosity. Students are looking for a learning roadmap that is understandable and transparent. Before we can help students master the discipline, we must engage and inspire them to do so. As so often in teaching and learning, we may end up having to pick up the lock (motivate students) before we understand how the key (student) fits into it (the discipline).

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