Imagination supportive learning environment

There is always a tension between what is and what ought to be. These tension, which mostly arises within individuals, triggers imagination. If we see imagination in this view, then it is not mysterious at all. Imagination does not happen “just like that”. Neither is it present more in a certain group of people and less in others, nor does it require inborn talent.

This also implies that learners can be encouraged to be more imaginative. To do so, we would have to make the learners aware of the currently existing system and provide them the opportunity to use that knowledge to envision something. To make learners aware of the currently existing system may involve pedagogical practices like delivering lectures, group discussions, literature review and research work, technology-enabled information transfer, etc. Depending on the context, different methods could be used.

To encourage students to use their knowledge work on something they have envisioned, we need to support them and allow them the freedom to be imaginative. This support involves allowing autonomy in thinking and deciding their works, designing learning environments that are flexible to the individual needs of the learners, and providing ample opportunities to learn skills and gather information that is necessary to envision the idea. The most important part, in my view, is that larger portion of the learning time should be allocated to playing with the knowledge they have. Playing may involve engaged discussions, projects, write-ups or other modes of expressions, or even thinking alone. Learners should not be bogged down only on information and knowledge gathering process – which we generally enforce by adhering to broad syllabuses. All these resonate with my earlier post where I had highlighted the importance of autonomy and personalization in learning environments.

Imagination is important not just to support creative endeavors, but to ensure meaningful learning experiences. However, there is no one “correct” way to do create an imagination-supportive learning environment.  If you had the opportunity to design such a learning environment, how would you do it?

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Two Limitations for Imagination

Two limitations for imagination are funding resource and the government’s support for research. In this post I want to criticize the current policy in developing countries in the Middle East, then I want to introduce a recent established national institution in Iran. I think this institution may be an appropriate way to support students to improve their imaginations and skills.

Developing countries like many countries in the Middle East are sending their students to European and American countries to study in graduates programs. They support their students completely. They believe that these students will come back and improve the higher education in their countries. But, I believe that these type of activities cannot be enough and they should consider other aspects of higher education systems as well. One of the most important advantages of higher education systems in Europe and America is funding resources for projects. Most developing countries forget this important part of the higher education system. I believe that if the researchers cannot find good resources for their ideas and projects, they are not able to fulfill them. Therefore, higher education systems may not be beneficial for the society without any applied funded projects.

National Elite Foundation (NEF)

NEF was established in 2005 [3]. This institution has some specific rules to identify elite students and faculties. The qualified individuals are supported by NEF completely. NEF supports them by providing stipends as a fellowship. I could not find fellowships in Iran like in the US, but if one person can be a member of NEF, he/she receives awards for all his/her academic education. There are three levels of NEF members. The first level is a great opportunity for Iranian students. Because, NEF supports them completely and provides several facilities for them such as: housing, stipends, funding for their research, loans, and jobs after graduation. NEF also supports the first level to create their own business. Therefore, a lot of students try to be a member of this institution. The manager of this institution is the vice president of the Iranian government. So, he/she has significant authority to create new laws for supporting the NEF’s members.

As a past member of NEF, I should mention that NEF’s laws were variable in the first five years (2005-2010). But, after 10 years, they created stable laws to identify the elite students. For example, the students those were top ten in national entrance exams can be members of NEF.

In conclusion, though there are some progress related to funding resources in Iran, more efforts are required to support scientific projects regularly.

I’m kind of like a prius

Ah, the prius. One of the first truly successful and long-standing hybrid cars. Perfect for in-town and highway driving; tirelessly working to reduce your carbon foot-print (whatever that is) while providing you the reassurance of good old gasoline. With this car, you don’t have to “pick a side” (e.g. 100% electric or gas-powered).

In many ways, I’m kind of like a prius…
As a cusp between “Gen X” and “Gen Y” I find myself with a very mixed view and preference on everything from favorite childhood games (lite brite, anyone?) and cartoons (in case you were wondering TMNT was in my top 3) to music, and even to learning style. I’ve never fully been able to identify with either generation, and instead often find myself with this eclectic mesh of perspectives.

While some my age are entirely Gen Y immersed and consider themselves progressive in all their technologies and “waves of the future,” I find myself clinging tightly and fighting to preserve “old fashioned” sentiments. I find myself annoyed when someone tells me “there’s an app for that;” I hate going through self-checkout at the grocery store; and I loathe when in-person interactions are perpetually disrupted with phone calls, text messages, etc. However, I love that technology has bridged distance with inventions such as facetime, that more and more cars are becoming “hybrid-ized,” and that diversity in all aspects of life is increasing! I really don’t align with one strict point-of-view.

As a student, this really serves me quite well. I think it has made me receptive and compliant to a vast array of teaching methodologies and experimentations.  As an instructor, this has made me receptive to feedback, because, well I didn’t invent the proverbial wheel, did I? However, when teaching it seems student capacity to just sit-and-listen gets shorter with each incoming class… This piqued my interest, last semester actually, and is what inspired me to write my essay in PFP on “how to engage the millenial.” One thing I consistently kept finding, was that of all the generations to-date, the millenial generation has a higher tendency toward boredom and a greater need for variety. I’m excited to hear all the thoughts from the disciplines represented in our class as we progress toward exploring how to engage student imagination in a digitally-based classroom!

Feel free to share insights and comments below!

What are these “note” things anyway?

I should start this by saying that I am all in favor of active learning. I think that lecturing at students is much less likely to result in learning than actively engaging them through discussion or tasks. However, as Robert Talbert says in his blog post “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” sometimes lecturing really is the best way to get the information across. No matter how dynamic and interesting a speaker you are, though, lecturing can cause problems.

I don’t mean problems with attention spans or distractions. Yes, students today have short attention spans, but no shorter than they were ten years ago, or fifty, or a thousand. And yes, students get distracted today, but they’ve always gotten distracted. It’s easier now with constant access to the internet, but it certainly happened before that.

The big problem I notice is with note-taking. Specifically, most students don’t know how to do it. So many times, I’ve seen students write in their notes exactly what the professor wrote on the board, but no more – none of the commentary that makes the subject understandable to them, personally. Or, even worse, I’ve seen students taking no notes at all, saying, “The professor will post the slides later, I don’t need to write anything down.” They’re missing most of the value that note-taking provides. It’s not just a way to remind yourself later what happened in class. It’s also an exercise that forces you to listen to a statement, try to understand it, decide what’s important, and write that down. Note-taking is a good tool to turn passive listening into understanding, memory, and learning. (See here for an interesting study on the value of taking notes with a pen vs. with a computer.)

I don’t remember ever being taught how to take notes, but I went through high school without a lot of the technology that’s ubiquitous today. PowerPoint was used, but not nearly to the same extent, and we were rarely given the slides afterwards. We owned laptops, but almost never brought them to class unless they were specifically needed that day. Note-taking wasn’t optional, and everyone seemed to pick it up themselves and develop their own style. Since that doesn’t seem to happen anymore, maybe note-taking is a skill that should be taught in freshman workshops. If lectures are sometimes inevitable, we need to make sure our students get something out of it, and part of that is knowing how to take good notes.

World of Peacecraft


Junior Achievement BizTown in Georgia simulates a macro-economy 

What if we thought of education as simulating peace, literacy, and innovation the way video games simulate war? As James Paul Gee argues in his book “What Video Games Have to Teach US About Learning and Literacy,” “the theory of human learning [is] built into video games.”  Video games are addicting, right? They are also challenging. How do video games manage to achieve this mix of challenge and appeal? I think this come in a large part from simulation and role play.

In this post I take a look at some examples that different schools and classrooms have used to simulate real-life peace-time (or peace seeking) challenges.

Industry and finance: In Atlanta, 6th graders can visit Junior Achievement BizTown, which is a marketplace in which actual franchises set up a mock store in a mall-like interactive marketplace. Every student is given a job assignment at one of these businesses. Then they go to the Junior Achievement Finance Park and make a personal budget based on the scenario they have been given.

STEM: The Challenger Learning Center has two rooms – one room that simulates a space station, and the other that simulates a base on earth. Astronauts in space collect data that is given to the base for students to analyze. They have to work with “quarantined” agents using a glovebox, catch things like extreme pH in the water, assemble a robot, and check astronaut’s blood pressure. While this requires a visit to a well-established center, started as a living memorial of the Challenger space shuttle, there are science resources for individual classrooms as well. For example, the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College provides scenarios for role play and a mock environmental summit.  The advantage of active learning in science is that there is no reason in many cases that it has to be a “simulation” at all. Students don’t need to “simulate doing science” they can do science. Lab work is very hands on.  And this can also be taken in new directions focused on innovation, such as in International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in which college and high school students build a plasmid (bacteria DNA insert) that give bacteria specific traits.  There are also journals where students (middle and high school) can publish scientific research.

Governance: Simulated court cases are a common educational tool. Moot court cases simulate a court of appeals and mock trials simulate a court of appeals. Model parliament simulates the Westminster parliamentary system. There are also some less formal resources available for setting up a mock congress in a classroom.  On a larger competitive level in the National Model United Nations, college students are assigned to act as diplomats for different countries. They prepare for about 6-8 months to be able to represent the interests of that country (whether or not they agree with those interests).

History: As Mark C. Carnes described for the Chronicle, he developed a simulation of events in history in which students debate the issues of the day and can decide on an alternative history if desired. As the student Maharaha Hari Singh said, “One thing this class has taught me is that it’s very hard to learn history in retrospect.” One thing this class has taught me is that it’s very hard to learn history in retrospect” (Reacting to the Pest: The student Perspective (2012)).

Right now a MIT dean Christine Ortiz is leaving her position at MIT to create a new university that will be centered on project-based learning. The only lectures will be online and the classrooms will be large centralized laboratories.  Maybe this is one step toward thinking of education as simulating a World of Peacecraft?

A Tapas-Based Approach to Learning

Well, there is no argument that lectures are not the best sole teaching method for 21st century learners and leave a lot of students lacking, or even napping! Lectures have their place, but keep the professor center stage in the “chalk and talk” method, where some students will only hear the Charlie Brown teacher sound “wah wah wah”.

Active learning can engage students into learning complex things which can translate into other areas of understanding. Mark Carnes describes this well in his article Setting Students’ Minds on Fire by using games to engage students. But “active learning” can be read as yet another academic buzzword where the impact of the importance has become watered down from overuse.

So where is the balance? If we the teachers/instructors need to utilize the technology as the resource to engage learners, then how do we employ the most current tools to make best use of our assets in current ways?

Upon reading, digesting, and mulling over some literature regarding shifting in pedagogical approaches for the 21st century, I am reminded of the waves of tapas restaurants and bars popping up everywhere several years back. Yes, tapas, the Spanish cuisine at its brevity and finest.

So how am I connecting these two in my mind?

Tapas are basically a wide variety of appetizers and snacks. They can be hot or cold, simple or sophisticated, and combined to make a full meal. Tapas were designed to encourage conversation rather than to be focus on the food as a meal. The focus is on the engagement of the people enjoying the tapas and not solely on the food. The food is only one part of the bigger context.

Possibly we should look at serving education like serving tapas. We can start out simple, move to something more sophisticated, order a little or a lot, or try several different things to find out what is appealing. Tapas can be a great alternative to huge, heavy meals. Maybe our pedagogy needs to move away a huge, heavy approach to something lighter, varied, and tailored to each individual’s need.

In my mind, a tapas based approach to engagement would look like small chunks of learning opportunities peppered through the class time. Rather than talk out a topic for a 90 minute lecture, things would happen a bit differently. For example, in a 90 minute class, a teacher could have a 10 minute lecture, a 15 minute YouTube video, a 10 minute discussion, a 30 minute experiential project, 15 minute writing post to a common location, and 10 minute on-line discussion thread all related to the main topic for the class. This approach may encourage all types of learners to get involved and engaged at varying levels. Also by moving the teacher from the front to the sidelines, they could offer more assistance where needed by the students. It would also empower the students by trusting their ability to learn and engage on their own. The teacher becomes the helper, like the wait staff or chef. The shift of focus goes from the material being learned to the learning of the material.

After all, in a tapas restaurant, each table will not have the same things; nor would people always order the same amounts or types each visit. A tapas approach to teaching could offer variety, customization, and individual design. Creative approaches could foster imagination of the students, give them bite sized chunks of information to absorb the material, and grab their attention with a variety of teaching methods. Finding that balance of technology, just like finding the right balance of tapas to get you full, can be a beautiful and varied experience.

Hmmmm…anyone else hungry now?

Imagination + Inspiration + Opportunity = Visible Creativity

Approximately three years ago I was teaching an Advanced Psychology course for High School Juniors and Seniors as an elective. Being an “elective” we had leeway with what we as course designers thought was important for our students to learn. Through the course of that year I kept thinking, if only I had a better background in Biology my students would have been able to learn more about the intricacies of how our brain and body structures contribute to human behavior. It would be fascinating for them to be able to make connections that I, at that time was unable to facilitate for them. Problem? Not really.

Few months later just like a dream coming true our school provided the opportunity to propose and design interdisciplinary courses of our liking. It was project undertaken by our Director of Teaching and Learning. We proposed one in Neuropsychology – designed to be co-taught year round by two teachers – a biology teacher and a psychology teacher (insert brain explosion here with sound effects). To fulfill the purpose successfully we were provided training by Veronica Boix Mansilla. The first question she asked us was something to the effect of: a year from now what do you imagine your students will be able to do after taking your class that they will not be able to do after taking Psychology or Biology classes separately? And imagine we did.

By the end of the year our students were able to examine any case study about an individual suffering from a mental health problem taking into consideration their physical, medical, social, emotional, behavioral history and symptoms to assess their problem accurately and provide recommendations for both psychological as well as psychotropic interventions. Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” and we saw it, we saw it blossoming and blooming with our own eyes.

Why I am using this as an example? Believe me I had no idea this would happen, we had definitely not imagined it the way it unfolded! That however is key – we had imagined something but this endeavor could not have worked only on imagination. It also needed inspiration and opportunity as well as guidance to create something outside the box. What we as teachers created was nothing compared to what our students learned and created in our class. We had more than a few students, teachers, college counselors and parents come up to us and acknowledge how the course had inspired their students, sons and daughters. It was not a uniform affect – some wanted to take up Neuropsychology in college, others wanted to study Psychology and some wanted to go into Counseling or Medical fields.

This week’s various readings inspired me to share this story with you, an example of visible creativity because this story could just as easily not happened had it not been for the planets being aligned in a certain way. Sometimes we imagine when we have an issue at hand and sometimes we imagine because…well…we can. Human beings are capable of higher order cognition and meta cognition and meta-meta cognition (if that is fathomable! If you step into a counselor role anything is possible). I say we use this amazing talent or capacity and see how much, how far, how steep, how high, how deep we can pan out and create?!

Game Over – Please Play Again

Classes can be boring/repetitive in nature especially if the lecturer develops lesson plans for them to be so. Mark Carnes points out a learner center-process is critical for the student to be more actively involved in their education! However, Robert Talbert definitely makes a good point that we need a mix of traditional lectures along with other styles of teaching. The instructors experience should be shared with the class to provide students with context or provide them with other working knowledge. Society is changing and new technology is being developed every day. How do we make the class room and students more actively involved?
I do not consider myself a “gamer” by any means. The Quest to Learn School discussed in the video seems like they taking learning to a whole new level by incorporating video game design into learning. I most certainly agree video games can be a vehicle for problem based learning. At times, the digital world could potentially create less barriers for learning than the real world. Video games could also have the potential to develop a new forms of learning and thinking. However, do I think kids should sit around all day and play video games to learn? NO! If I had to choice between real vs. virtual worlds, I would hands down chose the real world. I would consider that video games could be a modality to learn and successfully solve problems. However, I would much rather students being engaged with their peers face-to-face or exploring the world around them. Also being an HNFE major in the future I want student’s physical activity to increase and not decrease while sitting in front of a monitor. I don’t want to say I am anti-video game because I am not! I just think there are many ways to achieve the concepts of learning provided by video games. Another point to be made is not all video games are created equal. Some I feel may enhance learning and problem solving skills more than others.


Which one requires more strategy a game of chess or pac-man?

Shopping Lists and Crossword Puzzles: My experiences with lectures

I have spent many class periods in my life doing things other than paying attention and taking notes. I’ve drawn countless doodles, written up dozens of shopping lists, even done some crossword puzzles. And this week’s readings have helped me to understand why, and to think about how I can prevent my future students from feeling the need to do these things in my classes.

Robert Talbert’s short blog post “Four things lecture is good for” was eye opening and, surprisingly, the first thing I ever read that really critiqued the lecture format. I agree deeply that lectures are terrible at information transfer. Most lectures I have attended for classes have done nothing more than give me information that I could have much more effectively learned from reading a book or written notes. The result has always been a strong feeling that my time is being wasted, and my shopping lists getting written up. However, I do also agree and recognize that there are times when lecture is appropriate and I think that blog post does a great job at identifying those instances.

So I’m trying to think- to think of ways that economics (and agricultural economics, which is my actual field) can be taught in a way that “sets students’ minds on fire,” as Mark C. Carnes urges professors to do. How can I incorporate readings, group work, class discussion, and lectures (and other things? videos? songs? art?) in a way that makes students feel passionately about the material and also to think critically? I don’t have the answers right now, but when I teach my class next fall and especially if I become a professor, it will be my goal to figure it out.

I also want to touch upon James Paul Gee’s “Introduction: 36 Ways to Play a Video Game,” because his discussion on video games relates to how we can motivate students to learn. Sometimes, my economics homework problems felt like puzzles, and once I got better at the mechanics of the math that they required, I enjoyed doing them. It made me think of how studying and video games (at least the puzzly ones) can be similar, and how teachers could learn from video games about what motivates people to spend so much mental effort on them while they are not interested in doing school work. Is it the audio-visuals that people like, or the social aspects? Or merely the fact that they are choosing which games to play and when to play them? Or that they don’t have to worry about a grade? Of course, video games are designed to be interesting, while school work is not generally designed to be interesting. Maybe school work could very easily be interesting to more students if that was its motivation. I am interested in learning and thinking about this some more!

Come on! Let’s Play!

What a brilliant idea to use the theory of human learning built into good video games for teaching and learning! Isn’t that just the right way to set students’ minds on fire in the digital era?

Video games are both frustrating and life enhancing. So are and should learning be. But why most of us (at lease for me for sure) love playing video games more than learning? Because the former gives much more fun! Can we make learning more fun than it is now? Yes I think we can.

Check this video out:

It’s a simple program that you can download and compile without warning (according to most comments below) and OMG! Look at how beautiful it is! How diverse it can be! Now think about this: instead of making math, physics and coding the most boring thing in the world, you combine them in a single program and make it so much fun! Now I’m imagining taking the codes, making it incomplete, giving it to the students and asking them to make their own animation on whatever fluid process. Isn’t that a perfect learning game? I would love that!

If we don’t treat learning as such a serious topic, we can actually have fun with it.  We play, and we learn!

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