Teaching as acting

Bring Laptops to the class has been controversial since laptops became public affordable. In engineering classes, it becomes common that laptops are needed to help the students to solve problems. Laptops come a part of human’s “extended” brain, especially in the computer-aided design field. Professors start teaching students computer tricks and think these tricks are essential for future engineers. There are other voices believing that laptops in class will do worse than better. They draw the students’ attention away from the lectures. One example from Darren Rosenblum (Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom) shows that forbidding laptops in class improved the students’ engagement.

With new technologies, people tend to seek more efficient ways of doing things. Research papers follow a certain structure so that readers can grasp the information quickly. Authors put graphic abstracts at the beginning of papers. We read blogs on our way to the offices or homes. Still, the producing of blogs is always faster than our capacity of reading. It seems the time that we can spend on the internet is almost infinite. That fact makes people panic. It makes some people panic because they want to grab some time and it seems the queue ahead of them is just endless.

But, why should they wait? They can compete and win the time back.

There are certain things in this world cannot be accelerated, because time, itself, is an important property of those things. One most obvious example is music. You do not fast forward a piece of music because it will just destroy the piece.

I don’t see people clicking on their facebook or twitter in a movie theater, because they spent all their attention on watching the movies. I realized that watching movies is just as tiring as reading books. But they still concentrate, for that one and a half hours. A documentary is as informative as a college-level class, and there are a group of people spend time watching it. I foresee that some excellent educators are also good performers. An eye-catching class can be broadcasted as a movie. And the outsiders exist. They are immune to the class. We should acknowledge the existence of those students. Just like each movie has a target group of audiences.

Practice Makes Perfect

In this modern world, we are expected to be a multi-task person to accomplish different goals efficiently. Take myself as an example, being an PhD student in engineering, I’m expected to supervise three master plus one visiting PhD students, act as a research assistant for two to three research projects annually, write at least three manuscripts per year, and be a reviewer for several journals and conferences. That is only my academic part of PhD life, quite occupied yet full and enjoyable to me. However, being multi-task does not mean you should complete all things at once (e.g. one day), rather at an extended time period (e.g. one semester). You only have one pair of hands, and focusing on too many tasks simultaneously will lead to an overload on your brain. In the end, you probably could fail in all tasks. The wise choice should be focusing on each task one at a time and finishing them successively. For me, I tend to evaluate my current mood and energy and choose a suitable task to start with.

However, things are always easy said than done, especially in a world full of technologies. Advancement of technologies do enhance our efficiency greatly via, as Clive puts it, “infinite memory” in this digital era. Still, we are constantly exposed to excessive data flow and may get lost in between. For example, searching for a suitable topic for scholarly essay can end up as one hour chatting with friends on social media. Even for myself, I may check emails or twitter periodically when confronting a difficult task like writing a manuscript. Distraction is only one side of the evil, and I should say plagiarism has never been so easy with the Internet as well. Searching a similar topic or answer can be completed within a couple of clicks, and nobody is watching when you do “copy and paste”. Clive brings about this challenge on when should we not to use the “digital thinking tools” and just rely on traditional ways of thinking and technologies (e.g. books and paper). I do not have direct answer at this moment, but I believe we should start practicing our next generation to be able to focus on one particular task.

Personally, I benefit a lot from my parents. When I was in elementary school, my mom always asked me to finish all homework before turning on the TV, and my father tended to jog with me in the morning before one day began during summer vacation. I was also told to concentrate on eating the food instead of talking or watching TV to avoid biting my tongue or dropping the food on the table/ground. Gradually, I get better towards different interference when doing tedious work and try to be more efficient. Living in this digital era, we definitely cannot abandon using advanced technologies, and thus we need to evolve our ways when taking best advantage of them. It takes time to master the trick to efficiently harness the power of technologies to deal with a specific task, and success always comes from more practice.

This is earth and I’m not alien

Diversity, especially ethnic diversity, always seems to be a new thing to me considering the majority of the population in China is Chinese. We were taught that China is made of 56 ethnic groups, and together we formed this harmonious society. But before coming to US, I only knew a few people from minority ethnic groups, and they looked exactly like Han people (the major race of Chinese) with similar lifestyle. In this sense,  the only “foreigner” I met in my first 18 years was a native English teacher. So most of the times, we Chinese people believe that we “are non-racist in the sense that most are not aware of our own multiethnic background and care little about it“.

Things changed rapidly the moment I arrived in US. I did not expect to become “nonresident alien” as if I came from outer space with the UFO. This title definitely confused me in the first few days and made me feel that US is not a great “melting pot” as advertised. I started to think about my ethnic background for the first time in my life. Fortunately, I was not treated differently as an “alien” during the first semester in VT. Surely the language and culture differences hit me. But after some adjustments in the following few months, I gradually get used to the new environment and made lots of new friends. As I walked through the campus, I could see faculty, staff, and students coming from different backgrounds and places and forming a robust and welcoming community.  By the end of the first year (2016), building an “inclusive VT” became one of the major goals in our university. The ultimate target of “inclusive VT” is to make sure that “inclusion and diversity is infused throughout Virginia Tech“.

A inclusive VT recognizes our diversified background and washes away any potential labels, “alien” for instance, to bring all members in this community as one. This is extremely important to higher education since we need a diversified and inclusive campus to “makes us smarter“, as Katherine Phillips believes. With different backgrounds, we saw things from various aspects and approach to questions in different ways. New and creative information can be brought into discussion, and potentially it is the key for solving the puzzle. Personally, I benefit a lot from this diversified campus and have multiple projects with all kinds of collaborators. The inclusive environment can help you find the strength as well as weakness of yourself and make best use of your merits. As a result, we can have a harmonious living environment with a enhanced working/research efficiency. I just hope this inclusiveness is not limited in VT or higher education but all over the US. As the most powerful country in the world, US should be famous for its inclusiveness instead of the tragedies, for example the one happened in Charlottesville. I do not want to talk about any politics involved, but treating people with different backgrounds as “aliens” is only isolating yourself.

The unnoticed assumption

I joined an Arabic music club last semester. I did not plan to do so. My original plan was to learn some music stuff. And in the meantime, my advisor was in that club called Itraab. Then I thought, why not? I started to play hand drums with time and learn how to sing Arabic songs. I didn’t expect the Arabic culture is so romantic until I understand those lyrics. I learned Chinese poems as I grow up. I read Jane Eyre when I was in high school. My experience with Arabic culture was limited. Then when I went to Itraab, I finally realized that love is also a great part of Arabic culture. It seems obvious when you think about it. But the thing was that I had not thought about it before this year. This reminds me of the podcast called “How ‘The Hidden Brain’ Does The Thinking For Us.” I live with many assumptions. I don’t even know many of them exist and they are guiding my behavior. They are there like air. I depend on them and I do not feel them.
Internationalization is unstoppable in the current era. Our education should prepare this generation and the following generations for the tide of global communication. When we encounter something that is beyond our understanding, we may want to revisit the basics and figure if we have some assumptions that are obviously wrong.

Does inclusive teaching affect students’ ability to excel?

In her post ‘How diversity makes us smarter’, Katherine Phillips makes a great point on how being in a group of diverse people allows us to produce better work, and the reasons for it being so. Being around individuals who don’t know much about one truly does push us to be at our best selves. When we interact with people who are different from ourselves, we are more conscious of the way we act as we try to portray ourselves in ways that would allow them to get the best impression they possibly could- whether it be about our background, intellect, culture among other aspects that shape who we appear to be (not necessarily who we are). This also involves the efforts made to show that certain negative stereotypes made about the groups of people we identify with are not true.

Although the benefits of being ‘smarter’ in a diverse groups, one needs to be cautious about how they go about communicating with those who are different and should in fact disregard any differences that may make another feel excluded. This can include the interactions students have within an academic setting. Similarly, in a classroom, it is extremely important for teachers to look at every single student the same way. And to go into every class with the intention of doing so without giving any regards to any stereotypical thoughts they may have built up for one reason or another on the background of students. This also includes the intellect level they perceive the student to be at. For instance, if one student appears to perform poorly and another well on a specific assignment or during class discussions, it is not uncommon for teachers to be more responsive and willing to better explain to the student who is doing better believing that he/she will eventually understand the concept.

Teaching like cooking

From my understanding, a good cook must enjoy eating food; from my understanding, a good teacher must have his/her own way to master learning. Today I just realized that teaching is similar to making food.

I think anyone can make good food as long as there is enough care. I remember in one of the episodes in the anime series The best in Chinese (food), the young chef figured out one of the secret ingredients in his mom’s famous dish is love, the care of food and the customers. As is written in Shara Deel’s article, there is no universal method that can be applied by any educators for any situations. Enough care and devotedness can make much more difference than any teaching methods being used carelessly. I see many teachers and have been taught by many of them. I felt surprised when I knew that there are so many theories and techniques in pedagogy. Most of the teachers were professionally trained as teachers and they supposed to know these pedagogies. How Come many of them sucked in teaching? Then I realized that teaching is not like solving an engineering problem where, with enough proficiency, one can solve the problem in an autopilot mode. All great work includes full care. In the real world, not everything needs to be great. Good work in most cases can work fine. To make great food, the cook needs to devote all his/her attention to the food. There is a dish made of tofu. In that dish, a silk tofu was cut into slices and then further cut into shreds. The silk tofu is something that can be broken with a single touch. One can imagine how much effort should be put into making this dish. Are people amazed by the taste of this dish? Or maybe they feel the taste by feeling the care of the cook.

文思豆腐的做法

(source: https://www.xiachufang.com/recipe/102175939/)

Like every cook has his/her own flavor, every educator has his/her own teaching style. It may take a while to figure out what the favorite food is and what the best food the cook can make. I taught a class which was recorded for students reviewing. I watched that video and found out that I did not have a deep voice and sounded like an experienced knowledgeable elder professor. I’m a young man. Why should I act as an elder professor? I gave a lecture last week and I asked one of my friends who was sitting in the class about how I did. He said you looked achievable and seemed knowing what you were talking about so we felt confident in you. It seems the feedback is OK. Maybe I should just reinforce what I am good at and try to fix or avoid what could cause problems.

Pair Up Students for Better Learning

When I was in middle school, my parents told me that being a lecturer at college is the easiest job on earth. You can talk to students freely in 50 min and then leave the classroom to enjoy life. Since then, I have dreamed about becoming a lecturer in university with all the respect, authority, and most importantly an easy and cozy life. Once I was admitted to the university, I found that not every teacher is cool and charming. Instead, boring teachers with unchangeable tone can be the best lullaby. Some teacher’s voice is so low that I cannot hear from the 5th row, whereas another small portion of lecturers speak too fast that I can barely catch up with their pace. That was the first time I felt that being a good teacher is not easy from a student’s perspective.

Going to graduate school gives me more opportunities to get involved in teaching. Last year, I was a teaching assistant for one semester. In this course, the instructor was in another campus, which gave me a rare opportunity to present in every class and act as the mediator in between. The first few class went smoothly, but the situation got tougher as the teaching content became more difficult and complicated. Though the instructor was fully prepared before the class, students still had lots of questions during the class, which greatly hindered the class progress. As a PhD student seating in the classroom, I felt all the knowledge was quite easy and should be understandable, so did the lecturer. Still, as a 4000 level class, students were made up of seniors and master students. The master student tended to be more experienced whereas seniors were struggling for the coursework. In the end, the teacher slowed down the pace for undergrads, and everyone is happy.

Now I cannot help imagine what I should do if this is my class. How to approach to all students at different levels? Like Sarah wrote in the “Finding My Teaching Voice”,

The more I understand of my students, the less important it is to me that I treat them identically. They don’t enter my classroom with identical backgrounds, and they won’t leave it with identical understanding, no matter what I do.

I always believe that no one should be left behind. But simplified the class content or slowing down the class pace is definitely not my preference. But what is the more efficient way to deal with students with diversified background? Back in China, students are categorized into various classes based on their current knowledge level and learning capabilities (e.g. learning speed), especially in high school. Then students with similar background will be taught together with quite good results. However, besides potential discrimination, this approach is still not ideal since one-time exam-based categorization is not accurate. Sometimes, I think about pairing students into two-people small groups, usually with one learning much faster and the other feeling quite miserable in catching up. The class will still be taught at the normal pace, but paired students can help each other after the class. The assessment will be performed on the group basis, as two people will get the average score for their individual homework, quiz, and exam. Through this way, smart students will not feel boring about class content while no one is left behind.

Grades shutting down student interests

The opportunity given students to take electives at college allows them to explore and awaken interests, and to acquire new views on topics. General education classes offered stimulate intellectual interests and offer students a broader understanding of the world through the introduction of material  that they would not necessarily be exposed to within classed associated with their majors. In picking elective classes, students are inclined to classes that are interesting to them, ones taught by professors with excellent teaching reputation, or, unfortunately, ‘easy’ classes to merely complete the requirement.

Current student evaluations of their teachers in higher education are biased and the metric they have are difficult to assess teaching with. In fact, with support implying that expected grades have a positive effect on course evaluations, evaluations in some cases have lead to a negative effect on teaching quality as biases in evaluation provide professors incentives for grade inflation further leading to a misrepresentation of student learning.

Regardless of learning expectations the choice of ‘easy’ classes plays a major role as students pick their classes. This is particularly clear as students recommend classes and professors to other students merely depending on workload and grades. Such classes are commonly known as ‘easy A’ classes that give students more time for other pursuits without risking their grade point average. Hence, factors resulting from detrimental issues of grade inflation impel students to choose easy classes over ones that allow the engagement in genuine intellectual interests and prepare them for their careers.

Face the Sorting Hat Bravely

I still remember in the first Harry Potter movie, the appearance of the Sorting Hat really amazes me. During the opening banquet at the beginning of each school year (or academic year in our case), all freshmen will wait to be seated on a stool. An enchanted and sentient hat, known as the Sorting Hat, will then be placed on their head. The Sorting Hat takes some moments to evaluate each student through “mind-reading”. Based on their personality, capability, and potential, every student will be sorted into one of the four Hogwarts Houses (i.e. the best fit House).

Where would the Sorting Hat place you?

The Sorting Hat provides rapid assessment for young talents and place them in the House that can be most beneficial for their later development. This talking hat plays such an important role in this fantasy world, and I always believe that the implement of Sorting Hat leads to the success and prosperous of Hogwarts. Back to our real world, we “mundanes” are facing all kinds of assessments in this society as well, qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative assessments are everywhere, from an informal “you did quite well in this project/presentation” to a formal written feedback/comment. This type of assessment can be subjective. A teacher may give two different qualitative assessments towards the same homework on two difference times, letting alone several different teachers. Qualitative evaluation is complicated and quite time-consuming since thorough understanding of the content is required. Quantitative assessments, on the other hand, are more standardized and hence much easier to operate. An unanimous grading standard is normally formed to quantify student’s performance and ability. Quantitative assessments end up with a score, level, or a percentage that is clearly to interpret. Since the performance is quantified and even ranked, some students find the quantitative assessment, such as test, quiz, and exam, quite scary, posing adverse effect on their performance due to mental stress. So more and more people start to rethink our current assessment system, and quantitative assessments are more preferred.

(click on the figure to be directed to the original source)

But can we really abandon letters or numbers in assessment? I would say “yes” if we are in Hogwarts with the help of the magical Sorting Hat. To me, I agree with Alfie Kohn that quantitative assessment is not “a particularly useful way to assess student learning”.1 However, the tests and exams do evaluate students’ performance on specific questions or scenarios, and most of these questions are originated from real world under simplification or reasonable assumption. A higher score tends to indicate enhanced capability and potential in solving these issues. If we need one person out of one hundred for a decision-making position, can we really select this person based on qualitative assessment? Qualitative assessment can narrow down the candidate to at least 5 people, all receiving high recommendation from the committee. By the end of the day, we still need to count on “numbers” to choose the best fit. Another example is that consulting company use decision matrix to find the best alternative and propose it to the client. Quantitative assessment happens everyday in our real world.

I know not every assessment can be accurate. Even for the Sorting Hat, it makes few mistakes once a while in categorizing students. However, that is not the excuse for us to abandon the assessment system, both qualitative and quantitative ones. Combination of various assessments can be more effective, and more constructive advice can be rendered for further improvement. Students need to know that our society builds on assessment. We need to face the “Sorting Hat” bravely and embrace it with positive attitude.

 

Reference

  1. The Case Against Grades. Alfie Kohn, 2011.

Instilling better learning in children

As students, we often struggle(d) to make it to class, let alone be mindful of what we are learning, or being taught. Unless, of course, the class is one that is interesting and designed to engage all students. Growing up, children are rarely exposed to experiences that help understand the important of learning and to hold value to it. Instead, learning is associated with difficulty and boredom. This has led to the continuation of mindless learning as adults, even in fields that they develop passion for.

Mindless learning is not an issue that has only come to exist now. Yet the massive fast pace growth in technology (which may lead to distractions) has made it more transparent. To become mindful learners, instilling that value in children is of utmost importance. This is especially essential in elementary and middle school children since it is the age at which the learning experiences children have are a major determinant of the way they perceive education and learning in general.

Although digital learning in today’s world can enhance the learning process through engaging students, educators not interested to incorporate newer technologies should still improve their pedagogical skills in the ‘regular’ classroom setting. A way in which to increase the curiosity of all students and make them more mindful is through establishing the basis that makes the knowledge significant (in the present or to the future). This can be done by relating the theory of concepts to their applications and to how they, in some way or another, resonate with each individual by being part of what is or what shapes the society they live in.

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