Your phone # is?… Your birthday is?… checking my “smart” phone

There was a time, many many years ago, when I knew the phone numbers of my immediate family and my best friends…those days are pretty much over. Today, I often have to check my “smart” phone’s directory, or just do so to avoid typing the number (for the few cases that I actually know it). The same goes with birthdays, I was very good at knowing my relatives and good friends, of course I still know those that I memorized a while ago. But in the case of my new friends, I don’t know. I have these dates written in a wall calendar, YES I USE ONE OF THOSE, and of course Facebook and Outlook would send me reminders.

Clive Thompson mentions in his book “Smarter Than You Think…How technology is changing our minds for better”, among other interesting points, technology (new digital tools) has/have enable humans to expand their memory. Yes, this is true from the perspective of external memory and all the data that can be stored, and information that we can get access to. But hasn’t this resulted in a shrinkage of our internal memory? Like Mr. Thompson, I don’t believe neuroscience is ready to analyze what is happening to our brains as a result of continuous interaction with technological devices. Or maybe now it is, don’t really know. The point I want to make is: we have definitely change our habits. The need that we had before to memorize appears to no longer be there. Yet in the event of an emergency, and the fatal circumstance of no “smart” phone to check, the perspective would be different. Seems like now we focus more on short term memory, and rely on the technology surrounding us to take charge of the long term memory.

As in most cases, the use of advanced technology in classrooms environments has pros and cons. I have seen situations like those expresed by Darren Rosenblum in “Leave your laptops at the Door to My Classroom“, where students would focus in their computers or cellphones, rather than the class activities. One would think that at graduate level classes this would not be a problem, because “graduate students are more mature than undergraduate students, and they really want to be there” (in quotation marks because I am sure someone else has already said this). But that is not the reality, I have sit in several graduate courses where this happens. So it is not a matter of education level….

I CONFESS: I HAVE DONE IT… I think it is a total disrespect to the professor and classmates (my apologies for past and future events). Yet it is not the laptop’s or phone’s fault, it is the individual. I could easily get distracted with a piece of paper and pen, making a drawing (or attempting to do so) or writing my plan for the next day, or whatever. So the problem is not the how? or the what? but the why? Why do I check my phone while in class? or anything else for that matter? or at almost any moment? The answer should be pretty obvious, lack of concentration, mindfulness, not being able to focus in the moment. For more on this, I invite you to read Sharon Salzberg’s “Three Simple Ways to Pay Attention”, CONCENTRATION, MINDFULNESS and COMPASSION. Perhaps it is the teacher’s fault too (respectful comment, not really applicable to GEDI classes), because sometimes class topics are boring or the class is boring even if the topic is interesting. I am planning to ask students to use their cellphones/laptops in my classes, for educational purposes, the how is another topic.

So, to finish this post before I lose you, and your interest goes somewhere else, let me finish with the following: it is up to you how to embrace technology in your everyday life (not that you needed to read it, but sometimes a reminder that you are owner of your decisions is not bad). If you want to keep checking your phone every five minutes, do it, but better not in class. If you want to continue taking notes in paper, do it. If you like taking notes in a laptop/tablet, keep doing it. If you like to write the birthdays (date) of your relatives and friends in a wall calendar (or any other calendar), YOU ARE AN AWESOME PERSON, keep doing it. If not, YOU ARE AWESOME TOO, but consider doing it :). What matters is how and when you use the technology available for you. “The Myth of the Disconnected Life”, a nice article on the how/when by Jason Farman.

Almost forgot, I purposely wrote “smart” phone, because we are the smart ones, not the phone… sometimes we tend to forget that.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters) … easier said than done. Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out. Let’s create successful teams. Let’s remember that we are unique and have differences, but we have at least one common element among us, perhaps the most important one: we are HUMANS (ambigous term nowadays?). Let’s be smarter than the “smart” technology we have created, let’s use it appropriately…. (I think this paragraph has become a good “super brief” executive summary of my GEDI journey and blog adventure).

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

Let’s erase DIVERSITY and INCLUSION

Hello readers, my apologies for leaving you alone last week, I had the intention to write but it never materialized. I went into autopilot mode, without being mindful about it, and time just kept going. In Shankar Vedantam words: that’s when the problem arises, when our unconscious self takes charge but we are not aware of it (“The Hidden Brain” thinking for us). I could share with you how I ended up in autopilot mode, but that is a story for another moment. Instead, I would like for you to remain with your mind wide open while I attempt to explain why I believe we should erase, destroy, disappear, etc. two very dangerous words: DIVERSITY and INCLUSION.

If you have read my posts before, you might think I am joking, based on my typical sarcastic tone, but NO, I AM NOT. I firmly believe that words such as DIVERSITY and INCLUSION, as well as MINORITY, UNDERREPRESENTED, and similar words that speak of differences and discrimination should be erased from our conscience, from our vocabulary. This might sound controversial, but here is my reasoning for this proposition. All these words have the unattended consequence of “stating, highlighting” the existence of DIFFERENCES, instead of recognizing and giving value to the existence of IDENTITY. I know that for some it might seem a simple matter of interpretation, a matter of linguistics, but words are powerful, as Professor Christine Labuski succeeded to highlight in the description of the Universal Precautions project1. She discussed the great impact that talking about “us” instead of “them” has on discussion of sensitive topics, and the benefit of thinking that the person sitting on your side might have gone through that hard topic situation (e.g. abortion, racism, rape, transgender). When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you are more mindful about the words you use, you are likely to look at a problem from different angles, from another perspective.

Another problem that I have with the words DIVERSITY and INCLUSION, not with the intention of promoting diversity and inclusion. Is that now you see them almost everywhere, and seems like all organizations need to emphasize that they promote an INCLUSIVE environment, even if in reality they don’t. But hey, it looks good to advertise it. “Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male”2.

Let’s go back to the previous idea of recognizing the existence of differences versus identities. Probably this is not the best moment to introduce this question but, what do you think of when you read: “we need to promote diversity and inclusion”. It might be my personality, but to me it brings negativity, I directly associate this phrase with the need to overcome differences between us, instead of valuing what each can bring to the table. Why do we have to highlight that there are differences between us? I acknowledge the importance of recognizing that not everyone is equal, each person is unique in multiple senses. Should we talk more about developing OPEN ACCESS environments instead of promoting DIVERSE and INCLUSIVE environments? Perhaps “open access” is not the best term either, but from my perspective it partially removes the focus around highlighting the differences. The later a word which I admit to associate with negativity and discrimination, a perspective you might not have. But then again, the same word could have a completely DIFFERENT meaning and context, highlighting once again that the problem seems to be in: not being open to other perspectives.

Diversity and inclusion/inclusive, bring the same negative effect that terms like minority and underrepresented create for me. The later speak of someone else being superior, even if that might not be the purpose. That is why I don’t consider myself a minority, nor part of an underrepresented group, I consider myself a human.

Following my thought process in this post might not have been as direct as I wished. But I hope you forgive me. At the end, probably I didn’t succeed to explain why I consider DIVERSITY and INCLUSION to be dangerous words, and perhaps my writing was more on the lines of a “confuse the masses and you will be king” speech type. But I hope your mind continues to be wide open, to be prepared to carefully listen and read what others have to said, and not going into autopilot mode, ignoring mode, as soon as you hear ideas coming from other perspectives.

You see, at the end, it is not a matter of erasing DIVERSITY and INCLUSION (the words) and replace them with another term, it is a matter of acknowledging the importance of perspectives and what body language, written words, spoken words, etc. could mean to someone else. How messengers can impact the message being delivered. How we should give always our best, no matter who is in front. How there is always more than one story to be told. If you haven’t heard to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talk, please do so: “The Danger of a Single Story”.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters) … easier said than done. Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out. Let’s create successful teams. Let’s remember that we are unique, and the only single common element among us, but the most important one, is that we are HUMANS.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

  1. Christine Labuski, project description for Universal Precautions (not open for public access)
  2. Katherine W. Phillips, “How Diversity Makes us Smarter” (2014 – updated 2017)

Ready! Set! Go!… My Rookie Season

Welcome readers! I hope you like the post that you are about to read. But most importantly, I hope you give me as much feedback as you want. If perhaps you don’t want to make public comments, you are always welcome to e-mail me directly at cfmp01@vt.edu

This story is about a young man, who is getting ready to be an instructor of record for the first time (i.e. he will be in the driver’s seat, and not the co-pilot). Like other rookies, he used to believe that he was ready for the first professional race, and that his previous experiences as a semi-pro driver had been enough to prepare him. But, as in the case of many rookies, he was wrong. He would have probably gone out of the road pretty soon, if not for the mandatory driving certificate that the team leader wanted him to take. As a requisite to be certified, the young driver had to enroll in three preparatory courses. One, in particular, changed his mindset from the very beginning. He realized that although the semi-pro experience had been definitely helpful, getting in the seat of a Formula-1 car, a NASCAR vehicle, a Superbike, or in plain words: being in control of his own class, with all the details of it, was going to be a different story.

              Image Source                                         Image Source

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did you like the analogy between being a driver and a teacher?

A driver has to be aware of his surroundings, as well as the condition of his car. That is how I see a teacher, someone who needs to be confident in fron of the class, with the 5+ senses wide open analyzing the environment, and be ready to adapt for the multiple unexpected situations that could occur. Even if the class content has been well prepared in advanced. I plan to find a strong team of collaborators and trust them, just as professional drivers trust their team. I don’t see my teaching as a one-man journey, although I will certainly have my own teaching voice. I plan to rely in both, “experienced” professors (team leaders) and my students (mechanics and apprentice drivers) to set up a well lubricated learning environment (the car). I am planning to be a risky driver when appropriate (i.e. try not-usual engineering teaching strategies), but also a defensive driver, observing the student’s engagement, progress and evaluating if the objectives are being met. I am aware that incorporating too many changes in the first race, could end in a disaster, reason for which I plan to discuss strategies with the team leaders (glad to have at least two mentors on board).

An important sentence was hanging in the middle of the previous paragraph: “have my own teaching voice”. I enjoyed reading Sarah E. Deel’s journey on this topic. I have gone through several of the questions she makes, and agree with several of her statements. I will admit that currently I already have a teaching style that I want to portray, the Socratic Method. It worked during the laboratory sessions I taught. I like to encourage people to find the answers by themselves, rather than me providing the answers. I like to answer with more questions when possible. I know I will have to be careful and don’t exaggerate, and thanks to Sarah’s article, I will make sure to explain to a certain degree the purpose of my teaching approach. If it ends up not working, then, with the help of the class, I hope to make the necessary twists to reach a beneficial environment.

Readers, here I do need your help, especially if you have taught before. I definitely want to connect with the students, and let them know that I care about their progress in the class. Some sort of boundaries will be definitely there, and I haven’t had a problem keeping those in the past. But besides all the questions about teaching strategies, being super serious or a comedian, the question that is puzzling me a little is: How should students address to me? Mr. Mantilla? Professor (even if I don’t have the official title)? How about Carlos? Other?

My current thought is Carlos, and let me share with you some reasons for it. First because they would probably mispronounce my last name, which actually is Mantilla Peña. Jokes aside (maybe not so much), I don’t feel like Mr. Mantilla, it just sounds too serious to me. If you know me, you might think that it could actually fit my personality, since I appear to be serious all the time, and although that might be true (apparently), I just don’t like Mr. Mantilla, not yet anyways. The second alternative: Professor. Not that I really care to be honest, but not sure if faculty members would dislike the idea of students calling me professor. And Carlos, it just fits me, that is how I have been always called (except family and friends nicknames of course). And I don’t see a reason why it will be a problem, although some have suggested that it might lead to boundaries not being clear.

So I spend two paragraphs in a question that might sound silly, but perhaps it could be the difference between a left foot semester (not so good) and a right foot one (great). Besides that, as I tried to share before. I want to be “fair”, “approachable”, “respected” and a good driver during my rookie season. I want my team of mechanics and apprentice drivers to succeed, to reach the objectives set for the course and to collaborate between them, I want a team victory.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more mindful. Let’s forget about A, B, C, D, E and F (the grades, not the letters). Let’s focus on making sure to help each other out, create a good pipeline for students to be successful, a well lubricated learning environment. Let’s be great drivers and go for a team victory.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

6:30 pm: will you give me an A+?

Today is Sunday, according to the calendar we use to “track” the pass of time, and also based on my current location, because in Europe/Africa, Monday is already starting. Here in Blacksburg, VA, it is 5:15 pm, and I still have some time left to publish this post and make it available to the GEDI community to “make it count”, otherwise my efforts might not receive a corresponding grade. Previously, by this time, I would have already published something, but this weekend was different. For multiple reasons I got derailed from reading and writing, and no, not because I can skip one post (apparently no more than one), simply because I did not feel like doing it, although I always had on mind to write before the deadline, which is why I finally started the readings and now trying to write. What time is it? It is 5:25 pm.

Ten minutes of my life have gone writing the introductory paragraph, and I have the option to erase it and lose the precious time, or leave it as it is and just keep writing, hoping that it was good to keep you reading… But if you decide to leave, then, I guess I am lucky that this post is not being assessed by the number of comments (or is it?), and there is no way to know how many people have read it (or is there a way?), in fact, I have no clue how it is graded at all. But if time spent writing could be a criterion in my grade, then let me share with you, it is 5:34 pm. Which means that I am writing a paragraph every 10 minutes more or less.

It is likely that time spent doing the assignment cannot be used to grade, and that is good, because each person takes different paths to accomplish something. For some it might take a long time, while others are able to convey a clear message really fast. Some might need to erase and erase until the desired product has been achieved, others might have a natural easiness and clear vision from the first time. I could go on and on with examples of how people learn differently or how tasks are done differently, and could potentially site research related to this, and yet, no matter how many situations have been described, all students are typically evaluated the same way: same test, same time limit, same grading scale, etc… is this fair? By the way, it is 5:44 pm.

Alfie Kohn, author of “The Case Against Grades” (2011) and other articles, provides a nice narrative to this case, and is striking that some of what he discusses is not new. Some of the thoughts that caught my attention in respect to the effects of grading are:

  • A danger in grading is that students would not take intellectual risks to avoid failing a class
  • The competition between classmates leading to fear of failure and cheating
  • No desire to learn, rather desire to simply pass…. There is no real motivation towards learning

It is 5:54 pm, and comparatively speaking, the lines immediately above kind of resemble a paragraph, so it seems I am being consistent in my writing speed, perhaps this could be a measure of assessment?

I have no idea what you might think is the reason for me sharing the time after each paragraph is completed, what I do know, is that whatever you think it is, you have a very high chance of being wrong. Therefore, if you were grading this post based on how much non-relevant details were included, you could not (or should not) take any deductions for me sharing the time… and that takes me to reflect how in previous grading that I have done, I used to scratch parts of lab reports written by students, with aside comments like: “this is not necessary”, “you are wasting paper” and even if I didn’t necessarily took points of from their assignment for “excessive” writing, I did truncate in a way their learning process. Likely, I framed future reports to be within certain constraints, and that could have resulted in future poor performance by avoiding key words with the fear of being too much. It is 6:05 pm.

So, to clarify the reason to keep writing the time, in case I could be judged for including non-relevant information: I felt like doing so. Liu and Noppe-Brandon (2009) point out to the value of “imagination first”. I have to admit that while writing this post, I never imagined that it would take me 10 minutes per paragraph, I did however, imagined how I wanted to share my thoughts on Kohn’s article and how I wanted to finish my last paragraph discussing the power of imagination. But, I have run into a problem, it is 6:15 pm, which means that the time I have allotted myself to write this post has come to an end. Will I be penalized for my honesty?

Ok, I didn’t want to just cut today’s journey like that, because I do have some more inquiries to share: Have teachers become “killers” of potential great student’s ideas? Is the education system promoting the assassination of imagination? Is the “job market/world” dictating how learning should occur? Sometimes it seems like that is the reality, and even though I believe that student’s performance, especially in engineering and medicine must be evaluated, to make sure that someone’s life will not be at risk. I do have to admit, that assigning numbers or letters, and ranking students by performance does not sound like the best alternative after all.

Ok, it is 6:25 pm, time to choose a title for this post, publish and move on…

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s continue to be more MINDFUL… give me an A+ 🙂 … and then let’s discuss how to remove grades from the education system… 6:30 pm

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

Should Humans be MINDFUL?… Am I insane for asking this?

If by any chance you are confused about this post’s title, be confident that probably you are not alone. Before reading the next lines, I would be confused too, maybe except for the fact that I chose the title. If you read Langer’s “The Power of Mindful Learning”1 and “Mindful Learning”2, you might be thinking: it seems insane to even ask the question after going through them. If you are in fact thinking this, then respectfully I say to you that perhaps you were mindless while reading about the power of mindfulness. So, why am I asking: “Should Humans be MINDFUL?” The answer is quite simple. No, not to my question, but to why am I asking it: I tried to be mindful while reading.

I truly hope that my introductory paragraph was good enough to encourage you to keep reading. Well, seems the previous sentence was written under the influence of mindlessness. Now that I reflect about it, if you managed to read it, then it means I was successful to engage you, and therefore that sentence is meaningless. On the contrary, had you not read it, then probably I would have failed to gain your attention, or maybe not? But since I kept you interested, which may or may not be measured by you leaving a comment to this post, then travel with me, while I attempt to share with you my answer to the perhaps confusing title of this post.

So, was I mindful while writing the previous two paragraphs? Where you mindful while reading them? Like Langer mentioned, many times we think of being mindful when actually we are not. For instance, an answer to the first question could be that I just wanted to play with your mind, engage you in this reading and then confuse you as much as possible, with the purpose of making you agree with me that I am being mindful about my writing. After all, there is also power in confusing people. But, it is possible that you have another suitable answer to conclude that I was not mindful. And that response, will likely be correct too. Mainly, and this is a fact, because I have no idea of what you think being mindful is, and your definition might be different to mine. Remember, we don’t have the power of reading minds.

Professors must be alert to distinguish if the students are engage and following the topic being discussed, and be open to consider a different approach if needed. Students, will likely maximize their learning experience when their minds are open to process, not just receive, new information. An alert student, will likely be better prepared to apply learned skills under different scenarios, as long as the professor left the door open for such alternate context, in comparison to the student that sits and repeatedly copies what is being told. The previous thoughts that remained with me from Langer’s reflections, probably to some degree, a mere paraphrasing of what being in a mindful state could mean. To continue in the same line of thought, just imagine the infinite possibilities that collaboration between a mindful student and a mindful teacher could potentially bring. A classroom environment where all players are being creative, discovering together, discussing and giving alternatives, rather than, as Langer puts it: taking the facts as the only truth in the absence of context. Certainly, one cannot just 100% agree with the content of Langer’s writing. Otherwise, like I previously expressed, that would mean that we read under a state of mindlessness.

If you have read my previous posts under GEDI F17, I hope you are wondering: where is the personal story? Well, I don’t want to leave you with that uncertainty. Although leaving in uncertainty might be actually better. The post you just read is my personal story about how hard being MINDFUL can be. Writing this post I tried to carefully choose which words to use and what message I wanted to pass. I wanted to try another writing style. I tried to give you options, I tried to transmit a message with confidence, but still leaving you open doors for other possibilities, rather than presenting my thoughts about being MINDFUL as absolute certainties. I tried to explain to you what being MINDFUL is to me, and why humans should be MINDFUL, without directly telling you why. At the end, what I can tell you, as a fact, is that it was not an easy task, but it was an enjoyable one.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s start to be more MINDFUL and less mindlessness about who we are, and alternatives to improve our education system.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

  1. Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning. Book.
  2. Langer, Ellen J. Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 9, No 6 (Dec. 2000), pp. 220-223

 

 

Grandma, why can’t I ask why?

Yes, true story. I used to be one of those kids that was always asking why…apparently so much, that grandma told me to stop asking her “why” about everything. To which I reply: “grandma, why can’t I ask why anymore“. Well at least my mom told me that this happened, and I totally believe her. I do remember, however, a total stranger giving me a popsicle during a soccer game, with the condition that I would stop asking so many questions to my uncle about the game…and yes, I asked my uncle why this stranger was giving me a popsicle…ok maybe the last part of the story did not happen, but it is not the point, what matters is that from the beginning the curiosity has been always there. And even though in multiple times the adults tried to crush it down, I am still asking. “Why”, as Thomas and Brown point out in their book1, it is essential to the creation of knowledge. Asking leads to new discoveries, it allows to those with curious minds to embrace themselves in new adventures, in a new journey, that at the end will likely benefit the entire society. But, if asking is so important, then why so many times are questions being ignored in classes? Why are some students afraid of asking? Why class duration often prohibits for longer discussions? Or is it how classes are designed that really prohibits the discussion? The latter is what Thomas and Brown discussed as the culture of teaching, rather than a culture of learning. The first one being the classic approach of passing “important” information, the later one that of building from community knowledge, flowing with the constant change, rather than staying static with old practices. Thomas’s class experimental approach must have been an incredible journey, especially for Star Wars fans. In case you have no clue what I am talking about, just imagine going to a class where the professor gives you the opportunity to play computer games as part of the class assignment. Weird, right? Well if you don’t like gaming then probably not only weird to you, but also likely to appear as a waste of time. Probably, that is how the parents of the students saw it at the time. If I was the principal/president of that school/college, I would have call that a recipe for disaster, being completely honest. A very risky approach, even if some sort of lecture and discussion was still included within the three-hour class duration. What would have been my reaction to such class approach, A RECIPE FOR DISASTER, tells me that before technology, internet, networked learning, community learning, etc., can fully develop, a cultural shift is required. A new mindset to approach the learning process definitely needs to be cultivated and harvested.

Let’s keep learning, let’s keep educating, let’s keep asking WHY?

– Carlos F. Mantilla P.

1. “A New Culture of Learning – Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change” – Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown