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Jenny Baker
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Max. Classroom Capacity: What I Learned by Failing Homeschool

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Perhaps you’ve noticed that we are living in remarkable times. This realization may have been prompted by several related observations, as it was for me: maybe the tipping point was your hands, chapped from frequent washing and sanitizing; maybe it was the credit card statement with 15 purchases from “Amazon.com,” 10 from “AMZN Mktp,” and nothing from anywhere else; maybe it was the fact that you haven’t hugged your parents, grandparents, siblings, and so on, for too long. I sincerely hope it’s not because you lost your job or because a friend or family member got sick or died.

In terror management theory (TMT) terms, most of earth’s population has received a giant mortality salience induction (read Goldenberg et al., 1999, for example, to understand what TMT theorists might predict as a result—I watched Chernobyl on HBO…). However, despite (or maybe because of) the challenges we face as individuals and as a global community, this crisis presents a great opportunity to reflect on what is important to us and why we are here, and to strengthen our commitment to our values and personal missions—a “Big Reset Button.” For the readers of this column, that probably involves our identities and roles as teachers.

Nothing has made me question my identity as a teacher more than my bumbling attempts to homeschool my own children. It’s incredible how much more difficult it is to be an elementary school teacher of my own kids than to be a university professor to adults who I barely know! This experience has reinforced for me three insights about teaching that are applicable to teaching under/graduate I-O psychology. But first, some context: I have three kids, two of whom are home from elementary school but are still participating in Zoom class meetings several times per week. My third child is home from daycare. My wife (who is also an academic) and I trade off work and kid time, so when she’s working, I’m watching the kids alone and vice versa. We consider ourselves to be extremely fortunate to have two stable jobs and to be living in a safe location.

  1. Support autonomy

As any parent knows, there’s almost nothing more difficult than trying to make a young child do something that they don’t want to do. You might “win” that battle (e.g., “Brush your teeth or no more dessert!”), but there’s a price to pay, and kids usually find creative ways to even the score (at least mine do)! My early insistence on my kids completing their schoolwork in an order and manner that happened to be convenient to ME resulted in angry protests, threats, counterthreats, frustration, hurt feelings, and ultimately very little actual schoolwork completed. Then I realized that my approach was a complete failure, and we started having morning meetings in which the kids would map out what they were going to work on each morning and in what order. I’d be lying if I said it’s been smooth sailing ever since, but this nonetheless represented a massive improvement.

Although the consequences are perhaps less visible in a university classroom, I think there’s always a price to pay for undermining a person’s autonomy. A pessimist might say that the students we see in our university classes arrive after having been subjected to an entire primary and secondary education system that has eroded their desire and/or expectations for autonomy, and that may have “weeded out” the students with the strongest need for autonomy. I’m not that pessimistic. I think that our students do want autonomy, and therefore we should try to support that need. We know from research in I-O psychology that increased job autonomy generally has many benefits for workers (e.g., Humphrey et al., 2007),and there seem to be many benefits of instructor autonomy support including student academic success and well-being (e.g., Gutierrez & Tomás, 2019). There are many ways that we can increase student autonomy (or at least, to minimize how much we undermine it). For example, we can provide students with choices for topics of their assignments. Yes, this might make grading student assignments more challenging, but, arguably, the primary purpose of education is to educate, not simply to differentiate students by assigning grades. We can encourage students to participate in class discussions in which they can raise issues or questions that are important to them. More extreme options include involving students in curriculum decisions—for example, reserving the last weeks of class for topics of students’ choosing based on their interests. We can also try to avoid course design decisions and communication strategies that result in a punitive or competitive classroom environment. For example, it’s much more difficult for students to feel that they are autonomously pursuing their educational goals when their instructors emphasize how hard the class is, how poorly the class is performing, how most students will fail the upcoming exam, and so forth. In other words, it’s harder for students to focus on their own learning when the instructor emphasizes normative standards for performance and the dire consequences of poor performance. Especially in a time when many people feel that their lives are out of control due to Covid-19, providing our students a modicum of autonomy seems like an easy thing to do. 

  1. Be flexible

My 6-year-old was required to watch YouTube videos of teachers who were very slowly and carefully reading books that he was able to read easily. He was bored—it was torture for him! He figured out how to skip ahead in the video, but in doing so, he would miss some helpful tips on how to read (i.e., how to use pictures to understand the story). I went through a whole cycle of encouraging, cajoling, arguing, (deep breath, deep breath…), distracting, reopening, before my wife had the brilliant idea of simply showing him how to watch videos at faster speeds. Problem solved! Of course, that kind of individual accommodation is easier when you have only three students to worry about, but I think there’s tremendous value in trying to put ourselves in the shoes of our students and reflecting on how we may reasonably accommodate their requests. Our students are facing a lot of the same adjustment issues that we are, but they face additional challenging circumstances with which most professors don’t have to deal. For example, some students were forced to leave their friends and move back home with their parents—the horror! Some few were left isolated in their otherwise deserted dorms. The less fortunate ones were rendered homeless. Many of my students have lost the jobs they need to support themselves financially. They may be struggling with mental illness without access to the on-campus resources that help them cope. On the academic side, many student research projects, theses, and dissertations are in limbo due to suspended research subject pools or other disruptions. Remember the excitement and uncertainty that surrounded your college graduation and having to decide what to do with the rest of your life? How much worse must it be to graduate into a massive global recession/depression? As discussed earlier, unlike their professors, students generally don’t get to choose how their classes are structured or what work is required of them. They do have to follow the rules that are imposed on them or accept lower grades, risk losing their financial aid, risk failing to graduate, and so on.

Most universities moved to a virtual learning modality in which many classes required interaction via video conference. But, depending on their circumstances, students may not have easy access to the computers, webcams, and high-speed Internet necessary for video conferencing. They may not have a quiet room in which to attend online meetings. They may have family circumstances that make them leery of turning on their webcams out of embarrassment of their living conditions or for other privacy reasons. They may have financial burdens that have forced them to work more hours, making it increasingly difficult to attend scheduled classes. I think it’s more important than ever to be as flexible as possible with our students. For example, when a couple of my students recently expressed discomfort at the prospect of taking part in an exercise in which small groups of students would practice engaging in certain leadership behaviors in a Zoom meeting, which they would record and submit, I created an alternative assignment for those students which didn’t require them to be recorded. Yes, it was a bit more work for me, but it didn’t fundamentally change the educational outcome and probably made a huge difference to those students. I didn’t understand exactly why they felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t ask, but I trusted that students would not ask for such accommodations frivolously.

  1. Make it relevant

Teaching a 4-year-old the abstract principle of subtraction is close to impossible. Asking the same 4-year-old “if we gave you five chocolate covered berries, and you ate one, how many would you have left?” is relevant, salient, and fun! This kid can’t tell you anything about subtraction, but he probably could prove Fermat’s last theorem if we could figure out how to express it in terms of chocolate covered berries. Similarly, asking my middle child to practice his handwriting was like pulling teeth. Suggesting that he and I coauthor our own Star Wars choose your own adventure book was the greatest idea ever!  A final example: Fractions are boring for my 9-year-old. Deciding on which water-to-flour ratio to use for the baguettes that we bake weekly and how to apply that ratio to figure out how many grams of each ingredient we need—sooo interesting!

Given how applied our field is, I-O psychologists certainly aren’t new to the concept of incorporating “real-world” examples in our classes. However, not all of our undergraduate students have significant work experiences to fall back on to understand workplace examples. In contrast, all of our lives have rapidly and radically changed as a result of Covid-19. You couldn’t ask for a more universally salient work-related issue to talk about in class right now. On top of that, as I-O psychologists, we have so much to offer to our students at this moment! Here are just a few examples off the top of my head of aspects of Covid-19 that are potential discussion topics in I-O classes:

  • Leadership: What principles of effective leadership do you see being enacted or ignored by prominent national and local leaders in their efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19?
  • Decision making: What biases and heuristics may underly individuals’ decisions to follow or ignore social-distancing directives?
  • Communication/persuasion: In what ways are principles of effective persuasion evident in communications about social-distancing guidelines in your state, and in what ways might they be improved?
  • Work–family balance: What are the likely effects of forcing most of the workforce to work from home on spillover and well-being? Do I edit out of my video lecture my 4-year-old busting into my home office and telling me I HAVE to see the caterpillar he just found or keep it in as an illustration of just how blurred the lines between family and life have become?  
  • Selection: Will we see wide-ranging changes to selection practices if large segments of the workforce continue to work from home? Will organizations reconsider their selection criteria given the changing nature of the work environment?
  • Remote work and virtual teams: What are some key best practices in remote work? What adjustments do teams need to make to the virtual modality? How many times should someone be allowed to loudly answer their cell phone during a Zoom meeting before the meeting host mutes them? (Answer: zero times! Get on the ball, meeting hosts!)
  • Workplace safety: What responsibilities do employers have to ensure the safety of their workplaces during a pandemic and what actions can they take to do so?
  • Careers: What issues should our undergraduate and graduate students consider when contemplating entering the workforce after graduation?

By the way, SIOP has a really nice web page with links to white papers by I-O psychologists on practical advice for adjusting to Covid-19. If the decision of my employer, the California State University system, is any indication of future decisions by other universities, many of us will be working from home for the rest of 2020. I have written Max. Classroom Capacity columns on preparing to teach online, April 2016, and teaching hybrid and online classes, April 2017. I hope you consider reading those in preparing for your next virtual class.

A special thanks goes to my wife and three children for inspiring, contributing to, and editing this column!

In the meantime, dear readers, please send me your comments, questions, and feedback. Stay safe and healthy! Loren.Naidoo@CSUN.edu

References

Goldenberg, J. L., Pyszczynski, T., Johnson, K. D., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (1999). The appeal of tragedy: A terror management perspective. Media Psychology, 1(4), 313.

Gutiérrez, M., & Tomás, J. M. (2019). The role of perceived autonomy support in predicting university students’ academic success mediated by academic self-efficacy and school engagement. Educational Psychology, 39(6), 729–748. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01443410.2019.1566519

 Humphrey, S. E., Nahrgang, J. D., & Morgeson, F. P. (2007). Integrating motivational, social, and contextual work design features: A meta-analytic summary and theoretical extension of the work design literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(5), 1332–1356.

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