Decision Fatigue EDU

I just finished the book Micro-Resilience by Bonnie St. John. From the beginning just the title caught my attention and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks reflecting on her work. She explains that micro-resilience is how you get back to you after the small challenges that happen every day. Macro-resilience is the resilience that’s necessary when a major challenge takes place like a death in the family or sickness. At a time of the year when I really didn’t have time to be reading ANYTHING extra, this book caught my attention because I’ve been caught in situations where several irritations had happened in rapid-fire succession and I had no time to reflect and process before the next one happened leaving me feeling like I’m drowning. When I happened to end up in a session by Bonnie St. John, the book and concept of Micro-resilience spoke to me.

Sometimes I hear people refer to resilience as the way and how quickly you “bounce back” from something difficult that happens. I disagree with this. I don’t think that after a major challenge you can ever get back to where you were before. The goal of resilience is to be as good with the change or better, depending on the situation. You will be a different person and that’s ok. Resilience helps you be okay with it.

There were many concepts that resonated with me in the book, but one of them that resonated the most was decision fatigue which is something that has been shown in studies to create the situation where you are more likely to choose the easy choice because you’ve already made so many decisions that you are tired. For example, St. John cites research that showed that if you’re going to court it’s best to have your court time in the morning and after lunch break when the judges are rested and fed. As the day goes on and they listen to more cases, they are more likely to uphold the former conviction than they are to change it because they are tired and have made so many decisions.

In considering the concept of decision fatigue, I started to reflect on my interactions with people throughout a day. Someone rarely speaks to me without starting the conversation asking me a question that I need to seriously consider the answer. I know I’m not alone in this. Especially in education, so many of our conversations throughout the day begin with questions. By the time I get home, I don’t want anymore questions which is part of what makes me so crabby with my family. It’s more than just being tired. It’s being exhausted with making decisions.

Even with our kids in personalized learning and our educators in personalized professional learning, we are asking them to constantly make choices. I am not saying I am against personalized learning, not at all. But, I do think that we need to have an awareness of decision fatigue when we are asking people (little and big) to make choices over and over and understanding how exhausting it is.

I often tell a story of a student that I had in my Educational Technology course when I was teaching at a university. I was trying to model giving voice and choice in assessment by allowing for students to show their learning in a variety of ways. One of the students, a high-achieving college student, approached me after class and asked me to tell her what to do. She cried when I told her she could choose anything. At the time, I thought to myself holy cow, I’m sending this girl out in the world to teach students voice and choice and she can’t even do it herself. She doesn’t know how to choose.

I realize now that it could have been a poor assumption. What if she was just exhausted in a class that went from 6pm-9pm at night? How many times does decision fatigue play a major part in the decisions we make? How many times have I made a semi-major decision that was easier just because I was too exhausted to think any harder. How many times has this affected student learning? Relationships with other people? My department? My family?

St. John gives several simple recommendations for trying to cut down on decision fatigue. Two that resonated with me were because they were so simple:

Create To Do Lists
I think in general teachers love to-do lists. For me, there is nothing more satisfying than checking things off. However, from the standpoint of decision fatigue, to-do lists allow you to take stuff out of your head and create brainspace. You don’t need to remember everything you need to do because you are putting it down on paper. Put it in priority order and you have even less decisions to make as you work your way down the list.

Create Checklists
Checklists are different as they are things that need to be done all the time in the same way. This takes the effort out of remembering next steps. As a mom, I hung a five step checklist for my kids when they were little. There was a little laminated sheet attached to the bathroom mirror that had things like “Brush your teeth” and “Brush your hair”. While at the time I thought I was trying to make them more dependent, it also allowed me to just ask them, “Did you do the list?” instead of asking each thing on the list for four kids. These little practices can help with the decision fatigue.

One of the most important takeaways from the book is that the changes that we make to be more micro-resilient don’t need to be huge changes in our lives. They can be little things like checklists and to do lists, but the important thing is actually changing the way that we think about using them and their purpose. The micro-resilience idea reminds me of the idea of working smarter not harder except your living smarter not harder and building your resilience in the process.

We Underestimate our Students

I always felt like one of my strengths as a teacher was that I always had high expectations for my students. I never lowered expectations based on a specific class or student. I expected them to grow and make progress (at their level), to enjoy learning (most of the time-we all have our days), and that each of them had strengths that made our class the community it was. Students would rise to the expectations. There was never a reason to lower them. I tried hard not to underestimate what my students could accomplish.

Yesterday, I was shopping with my daughter and I ran into one of my former pre-service teacher students from the university. She’s a super girl, appropriately candid and always asked great questions. She will be a fantastic teacher. She was in one of my first classes I taught, and we all know as teachers how first classes have the ability to create a special imprint. When I asked her how her semester was going, she replied with “It’s a joke”. Immediately, I jumped to the conclusion that it was a lot of work, that she was swamped and struggling to keep up, therefore: a joke. When I asked her some clarifying questions, I found that by “joke” she meant that her classes were too easy. She said she was able to get all her work done at her job, hence the reason she was out shopping instead of studying like a college student should. She said that she thought her classes would be more rigorous. Instead, she barely has any work to do at all.

I’m not going to lie, I was a little shocked, but my pre-service students always continue to amaze me. It’s one of the reasons that I love teaching those classes. Then I realized that I had totally underestimated her because she is a “college student” and I had fixed her with a get-out-of-as-much-work-as-possible stamp, which was wrong of me to do. In this case, she WANTS to learn. She WANTS to be a great teacher. Her classes are not providing her with enough to keep her learning, and it’s irritating to her. IRRITATING TO HER that she can’t get the learning she needs to be awesome (which she will be anyway because she will make it happen on her own – she’ll be awesome in spite of school).

I feel like we find that same thing with teachers in the field. They have a window where they are excited and want to do what’s best for their students but are not provided with the training and tools they need to move forward, so some burn out and some become cranky, but they don’t start out that way.

As for the high expectations for students part, it was a good gut check for me. I was discussing this with a teacher at the beginning of school. He’s a great guy, came into the teaching field from the private sector and is doing his absolute best while not yet having his teaching degree (he’s working on that). When I asked him how it was going (he was first-year teacher exhausted, we can all relate) he said, “I don’t know. I think I just need to lower my expectations for how my students should act”. I told him absolutely not, if anything, raise them. Have faith that your students will rise to the occasion and will probably surprise you by bypassing your expectations and coming in with ideas and behaviors that are better than expected. Yet, I did the same thing with one of my students, underestimated her because she is a college student.

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Change is an Opportunity to Do Something Amazing…All Around #IMMOOC

I have taught and read the Innovator’s Mindset several times. I read it the first time for me, the second time for a book study for my school district’s Innovation Teams, a third time through the lens of a pre-service teacher when I assigned it to my University of WI – Oshkosh students, and now again for the #IMMOOC book study. I have reflected on it repeatedly, blogged about it quite a few times, and have had/participated in multiple book studies on it, recommended it to hundreds of people. In all these discussions, the quote that seems to resonate with the most people is always:
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It’s easy to apply this quote to education. Our world in EDU is constantly changing. New roles are created, new curriculum is adopted, new technologies are being introduced all the time. Our world is practically fluid, rarely do things stay the same. For some, these changes in education are expected and while not always embraced, they are at least accepted. For others, change is a difficult and stressful time. The quote resonates with people because it takes the constantly fluidity of education and puts a positive spin on it. We are perpetually changing, and with that change, you can either fight it or take it as an opportunity and run with it. In that case, it’s hard to imagine anyone not choosing to be amazing.
As another semester of my UWO students started and we were discussing the beginning of the book, and one student said, “I like this quote because I think it doesn’t only apply to education and our jobs, but applies to our whole lives. We are in college. We’ve experienced big changes in our lives when we came here, and we can choose to do something amazing with our experience.” I have been reflecting on what she said since that class, and it’s true. Students in college are expected to make big decisions that will affect their lives forever. I remember George telling a story in one of his keynotes about a student who said she was expected to go out and change the world when she left for college, but shortly before that she had to raise her hand to go to the bathroom when she was in high school. It’s a big change when you go from the constraints of high school to the openness of college, and the change is definitely a choice and an opportunity to do something amazing.
I’ve experienced this myself recently with taking my new position as Director of Innovation & Technology. And as much as I love my new position, there have absolutely been moments when I’ve felt like the amazing part of the change might not come, or “Who am I to think that I can do something amazing at all?”. Change in any form is hard, and to convince yourself to do something amazing with that change can be even harder. I think about friends who are going through tough times personally: job changes, divorce, financial trouble, and it’s possible that this quote might be able to be applied to all of that. In any of these cases, including in the classroom, the work related changes, the college student, the job change, the personal issues…the amazing part of the change is going to take some work.  It’s probably not going to be a lightbulb moment or some epiphany where you think, “Ahhhh…there’s the amazing!” but rather something that takes diligence and commitment, hard work and motivation, which can be the hardest to muster during difficult times. I think that remembering great quotes like these help us work through those changes in order to find the amazing, which brings me back to another one of my favorite quotes, and I think these two go hand-in-hand:
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Adjunct Teaching

Sometime last December an opportunity to teach at the University of Oshkosh literally fell into my lap. The professor for the one and only instructional technology course for students in the college of education was going on sabbatical, and the school was looking for adjuncts to pick up her classes. I applied. I interviewed. I was offered two sections on the spot. It was truly something I had wanted to do since entering into the field of education, so I was beyond excited for the opportunity.

I began planning immediately. I tried to think of what my professors had done that I really liked when I was in college. They:

  • made me feel as though they cared and formed relationships
  • gave me practical knowledge as well as theory
  • remembered that we all had lives outside of school (I happened to have 3 kids while finishing my bachelors)
  • made me laugh
  • told me stories
  • challenged me to think differently
And I tried to remember what I didn’t like:
  • when they were super unorganized (I had a prof that wore her button-up shirt inside out once)
  • the work seemed like it was designed only to keep me busy
  • they lectured – all. the. time
  • there was no “give” to their methods (due dates were due dates no matter what, how I showed my learning was nonnegotiable, etc)
  • they clearly didn’t care
I also thought about my experiences in the professional development that I provide to teachers, and how I have been working toward providing PD that is more personalized and that has voice, choice and pacing options. I wanted that for my students as well because I wanted to model that type of classroom environment and learning. I wanted to model innovative thinking. I wanted to show the importance of making connections.
In true “first year teacher fashion”, I’m not sure how much of this I did. My good intentions were definitely there. We read the Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros (clearly I have an affinity for this book). I tried to come up with innovative ways for students to do their weekly reflections/discussions on the chapters. We did EDUin30 videos, group discussions, a Twitter chat, used Padlet…I wracked my brain trying to think of different ways. We connected with Jen Hegna and her Innovation Cohort of grad students twice during the semester to grow our PLN and learn the importance of being connected. I gave choice in their assessments and modeled using rubrics to allow for that choice. Once they figured out that they could actually be creative in their assessments, mainly in our very last Innovator’s Mindset reflection, what they turned in was amazing. Certainly beyond my expectations. Every. Single. One. 
Still, I feel like I could have done more.
Now that it’s the last two weeks of the semester, it has really hit me that the two classes I had this semester are the equivalent of the first class that I ever taught in middle school and then again in the first class I taught in elementary, I am going to MISS them. Every single Monday and Wednesday I laughed, had moments of teacher pride and saw many of them grow in their thinking. Sometimes I caught them rolling their eyes at me, but hey, there are times I’d roll my eyes at myself, too. One of the reasons I love being a technology coach is because I feel like I can reach so many more students by working with their teachers, even if I don’t do it directly. I feel the same way about teaching students who will one day be teachers, and on the way I also figured out that college students are phenomenal people. When you allow them, they love to laugh and have fun while they learn. They still can have a creative side when you allow them. They will challenge themselves as evidenced by some of their EDUin30 videos and how they posted them on Twitter (SO proud of them for that-see examples here). Sometimes I think we spend so much time labeling people with their generation and focusing on what they don’t do that we forget to remember the awesome people that they are and focus on their strengths. In the past, I have been guilty of this as well. Overall, I have learned that it is possible to love students after 14 weeks, and teaching these courses might be one of the most important jobs of my career.
 

I highly recommend, if given the chance, to give being an adjunct a try. It is a truly rewarding experience. When you do, I hope you have someone like my friend Brian Bartel, who is a tech integrator like me by day and an adjunct by night, who answered every one of my questions. All 1001 of them. At least twice (I suspect he’s just copying and pasting answers to me now). Thanks Brian! 🙂