Reflections from Behavioral Psychology with Jonathan Tugman
This summer, I spent ~5 weeks living in Lake Village, Arkansas, teaching at the J. Austin White Cultural Center in Eudora. These are two towns of a little over 2,000 people each, 17 miles (and about 17 minutes!) apart in (very) southeast Arkansas, part of the Mississippi River Delta and very close to Louisiana. This was quite a new experience for me – I’ve never taught formally in a classroom setting nor spent time in this part of the country before. In that light, a month or so later I wanted to capture in writing some reflections, as social science suggests we internalize learning from experiences by incorporating them into a coherent story.
I should explain – this reference is particularly germane since I taught Behavioral Psychology. Through Freedom Summer Collegiate the students got to sample from several college-type courses, including Africa in the World with Darryl Jones, Searching for Extraterrestrial Life with Marjorie Cantine, and the 14th Amendment with Andy Donnelly. (And I got to learn from them, too!)
In Behavioral Psychology, my students bid over $30 on a $10 bill, but later refused to take a free $1 bill I offered. They missed seeing a gorilla while counting basketball passes and failed to hire the best CFO. They tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to figure out why I kept showing clips from an obscure old show, something about the office workers at a regional paper supply company. And as my colleague Marjorie highlighted earlier this summer, in a case study our students saw the same data and made the same fateful decision as NASA scientists in 1986 that led to the Challenger explosion.
These were some of most memorable things I did too when I took a version of this course in college. All helped my course operate on two levels – both illustrating core concepts from Behavioral Psychology as well as providing students with real-life practice and application of these skills. In the first half of the course, we learned about how human decision-making is anything but rational and how a series of heuristics and biases keep us from following through on our intentions and plans. In the second half of the course we then talked about how to avoid these pitfalls and improve our decision-making and behavior, covering motivation, goal-setting, personality, grit, gratitude, and growth mindset. We dug through challenging psychology texts (some by Nobel Prize winners!), chatted with award-winning professors, and finished the course by using what we had learned to build a plan to work toward a goal of each student’s choosing.
So now, as I’m back at work in Atlanta, here’s what I left with:
I was really impressed by my students – with their engagement, what they brought to the course, and what they taught me while I was supposed to be teaching them. I remembered that students actually know quite a bit about how they want to learn. I asked for – and received – feedback from them throughout the course that led me to use more relevant examples and to adjust my pacing at times. They taught me how to adapt what I was teaching, thinking through different ways to get content across. I asked open-ended questions to try to understand their thought process and why they answered in certain ways. They pushed me to articulate why the content was valuable. They illustrated for me, in ways I might have intellectually known but not experienced, that you earn students’ respect when you show you care and work actively to engage them.
In a good lesson for someone who works in education, I got to ask them about their experiences in school and hear about both what they liked and what they would change. One practice that resonated is discipline policies that embed a deep understanding of the student. (I’ll spare everyone a rant on suspensions, as that has been well-documented elsewhere, e.g., here, here, here, and here, among many others.) They also reminded me how much I really enjoy this content (behavioral psychology) and how valuable – even life-changing – I think it is. Getting to share it with them was both a blessing and a ton of fun.
I learned a lot of things about teaching that I knew intellectually but experienced firsthand – notably, that teaching is really hard. This will come as no shock to anyone who teaches or even works in schools, and wasn’t really a surprise to me, but it was healthy for me to see it for myself. I got to appreciate the number of moving pieces in daily lesson plans and the value of (and real challenge in finding) collaborative planning time. I was at times unsure how to make sure that the main takeaways from my lesson really landed, reinforcing the value of formative assessments and exit tickets as checks for understanding followed by re-teaching as needed – while not neglecting the students who got it originally. Differentiation started making more sense to me when I thought about approaching working with my students more like I would people on my team at work, with an iterative process of responding to feedback on a project until it meets a high standard.
Teaching is, at its core, a very individualistic activity where you feel very much on your own (as Dan Lortie’s work many years ago asserted). I appreciated things that broke down that individualism, whether getting feedback from my co-teachers or even from the students (to me reinforcing the importance of observations, coaching, professional learning communities, etc.). I found my daily mindset to be really important – and not just in reinforcing a growth mindset for students, but being in a healthy and stable emotional state myself (this FuelEd article describes this well). My actions, as driven by my own emotions and mood, had a direct influence on students.
Beyond managing all of these “micro” components, the teacher still has to maintain a focus on the big picture (or what I’ll call “strategy”) of teaching – pulling individual pieces of a course together in a coherent manner, ensuring lessons from each day and unit work together to collectively and individually lead to mastery of standards.
What’s scary to me is that I did this in a fairly forgiving environment, with small class sizes and kids choosing to be there. I can only imagine with a larger class or in a turnaround environment how much more challenging it is.
I witnessed both the richness and paucity of rural education. My parents are from the mountains of North Carolina, from what I thought was (and still think is) a small town, but despite that I had never been in a place quite like this before. Eudora didn’t seem to have a stoplight, at least not that I could find; Lake Village might have had two. Many things I was used to weren’t there – fully stocked grocery stores, chain establishments (Lake Village had a McDonald’s and a Days Inn – and that’s it), stable Wi-Fi and cell service (both completely went down for a few hours one day).
I actually found a tremendous amount of majesty and peace in the vast, flat countryside (and have several good sunset pictures from behind Trudy’s Cabin at the back of Pecan Grove RV Park). This is a place that is home to people; many of my students wanted to stay close to this area for their postsecondary pursuits. And sometimes there were resources where you might not expect them, including in elements of the schools.
But all that said, it seemed like for every popular establishment that existed (Exhibit A: Eudora Grill and Chill), there were two or three abandoned or empty storefronts. Based on the last Census, the population seemed to be further declining. The high school had just 250 students total, and it’s really hard to run a full course slate with such low enrollment. I imagine it’s also hard to find a ton of teachers itching to move or commute to Lake Village. Students were very aware of all of this, and wanted more opportunities. But when I think about the challenges facing rural education, many of them not dissimilar from urban education, in some ways I’m stumped for solutions in ways that I’m not even with urban education. (For more, see this and this.) It’s something I plan to continue reflecting on and, at a minimum, trying to lend my voice to support.
So in the interest of modeling a growth mindset, as I taught my students, what would I do differently next time? I do think I got better at teaching as the summer went on; I did my best to adopt a growth mindset and embrace challenges, try new things, and learn and adapt even when something didn’t go as I had hoped. In retrospect, I think I would have tried to more sufficiently land fewer points versus at times feeling like I was rushing to get through more content. I would try to distill takeaways more concretely, with less psychological language, more tie-ins to concrete applications, and more relevant examples. I would certainly better scaffold activities; there’s not enough that can be said for the value of that, as well as in frequent checks for understanding to ensure students learn what’s intended.
I truly hope my students learned something from this summer, and moreover are able to apply some of the concepts in their own lives. I know that I did. And while measuring impact is hard in this profession, I have to think the students got a lot out of it, too.