It’s Not ‘What’ You Do, It’s ‘How’ You Do It

Back when I used to play in my High School’s marching band, my director would say this to us often. Now, whenever I describe the importance of band to others, I always include this saying. Yes, when you’re older, knowing scales, standard step-sizes, or alternate fingerings is not really important (that is, unless that’s you’re job). However, being a part of marching band is so much more than what marching band is on the surface. Younger students  Ironically, if you ask students why they are in marching band, they probably won’t mention marching or music.

Imagine my surprise when this phrase comes up again, this time in reference to learning from Harry Potter. In addition, learning music is an easy environment to observe an example of mindless overlearning. So then, I absolutely found this week’s reading particularly fascinating, especially Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning.

Facts and truth are important, yes, however learning is more than just the information. It also includes how you process information. I think that is something we lack in our education. We shouldn’t stop at “This is true”. That’s where rote memorization stops. We need to expand; think about other questions. “Why is this true?” “Why is this not true?” “Can this be false?” “When is this false?”  You’re learning information, but not learning how to think.

Well, let’s tie this back to mathematics again! One theme of mindful learning is valuing the uncertainty of information. As a mathematician, that’s a bit difficult isn’t it? “2 plus 2 is 4”. “Closed and bounded implies compact.” Mathematics seems to be built upon immovable theorems and unyielding truths. While it’s true when Langer said “one plus one does not equal two in all number systems”, you can’t escape the fact that mathematicians pride themselves with making proofs that are absolute.

As much as I love mathematics, I envy the… “malleable” nature of other fields. If you study Foreign Affairs, a single news story can change the context of a class you’ve been preparing all summer for. There are new interpretations of literary classics that have been around for decades. Last class, I described mathematics as “dead” knowledge to my group. That is, it’s just… there. In contrast, something like history is “alive”. You can debate about different historical perspectives and implications; contrasting ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Mathematics is a blatant culprit of mindless learning. I’m surprised Langer doesn’t bash on us more in the first two chapters.

So can we be mindful when we teach math? Well, YES! Thinking back, I’ve witnessed the effect of mindful & mindless learning when it comes to mathematics. A particularly clear example is teaching integrals at the Math Empo (I worked there for two and a half semesters). There are so many integration rules students learn. They go to the Math Empo and grind away at practice problems, almost to the point of overlearning (!). I often hear “I’ll keep doing them until I don’t see any new integrals”. Color me shocked when I also hear “It’s not fair, the quiz had an integral that wasn’t in the practice problems”. When math teachers focus so much on teaching the rules we lose out on the “thinking process” of the integrals. If we don’t practice mindful learning, of course we will have students fail to apply math skills to new problems.

As math teachers, we should also be expressing the problem solving strategies that we think of as we go through a problem. Why do students have trouble with word problems? Because we aren’t teaching them in a mindful way. We teach the equations, but not how to think between the sentences and the equations. When you write a theorem down, think about how the proof doesn’t work if you are missing a hypothesis. When students ask you a question in office hours, don’t just tell them the answer, lead them there! When people ask tutors at the Math Empo for help, we (the tutors) always ask questions back. People complain all the time. Yet, that’s mindful learning. We are trying to have the student engage with math themselves.

Mathematics is about problem solving, not solved problems. When we focus so much on rote memorization, you lose out on the bigger picture. So again, let’s end with our favorite saying:

It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it. 

Build it, and they will complain

Windy, inspiring messages about change and innovation are abound in many facets of our society. The promise of change prompts voters to select their hopeful candidate. The advent of new technologies will free up time for us to perform less mundane tasks. Change is the answer.

I don’t disagree. An object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an external force. But without proper execution, even a new and improved reaction can be inhibited by unforeseen friction.

The buzz around disruptive education and “anti-teaching” encourages student learning rather than student compliance. The rhetoric surrounding these ideas empowers students and teachers alike. They nod their heads in agreement in regards to subjects with negative connotations, such as tests and grades. A different system is needed, they concur, one that is tailored to students’ individual experiences.

Again, I agree. But all I can think of while reading or listening to TED talks surrounding the subject is the friction. Implement new learning practices, and watch the complaints roll in. Complaints from the students, who are oftentimes so under-socialized that the thought of talking to someone on the phone gives them anxiety; complaints from the teachers, who are sometimes already so overworked that brainstorming and fine-tailoring individualized lesson plans may put them over the edge; complaints from other teachers, who have taught the same lessons and used the same handouts for decades; complaints from parents, who were measured by grades and ACT scores and feel this served them just fine.

The friction is inevitable. It slows progress, but it also serves a purpose. Feeling fuzzy and warm is an important ignitor for change, but genuine concerns are just as important. Before everyone jumps on the change train, they should be sure the track is built, and built well.

 

-J

Mindful Learning: Myths of Learning

This week’s reading focuses on mindful learning. I’ve heard about the concept of mindfulness but never thought about it as it pertains to learning. The introduction of the book The Power of Mindful Learning, states seven myths of learning including:

  1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature.
  2. Paying attention means staying focused on one things at a time
  3. Delaying gratification is important
  4. Rote memorization is necessary in education
  5. Forgetting is a problem
  6. Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there?
  7. There are right and wrong answers

Reading these myths, I thought about how they truly do stifle not just mindful learning but learning in general. As someone who has never been a big proponent of school, I often felt stifled in the classroom. Because my mind didn’t seem to function in the same manner as the other students, I always felt ostracized and left out of intellectual spaces. In the workforce however, I found that I learned concepts quickly an was often able to make meaning for myself of certain tasks and policies. As someone pursuing a higher degree of learning, I understand now that often times, the reason why I felt stifled in the classroom is because my teachers and professors were attempting to fit me into a box that I often rebelled against. The 5 myth, “forgetting is a problem” is a learning myth that resonates highly with me because often, I have been taught to study and learn for the test and not so concepts and ideas make sense to me. I needed to put information on a piece of paper to pass the class, who cares if I learned or not. Because my bachelor’s degree is in kinesiology, I often felt ill-prepared when interning in the field (e.g. with cardiac patients, football and volleyball teams, etc.) because I often forgot what I was learning in the classroom. It wasn’t until one of my professors asked me to come to her office hours and we truly talked through the class material and she asked me how would I go about remembering the material for myself did I finally understand that it wasn’t necessarily my fault that I was forgetting the material. It was because I was not allowed to engage in mindful learning and therefore, I cared less about the material and forgot about it upon leaving the classroom space

I can’t say that I have a solution on how to engage in mindful learning in the classroom, but I would say that professors should open up the floor and allow multiple ways for students to grasp ideas and concepts instead of focusing on  one particular avenue. Learning happens in many different ways and as student demographics continue to shift, college and university professors should also be working to shift the classroom culture of learning.

Teaching Through Children’s Storybooks

“Respect for diversity often creates a dilemma regarding the choice of teaching material. How can teachers find material that will be meaningful to people with such different cultural backgrounds as we find in many of our schools?”

This is a quote that I read towards the end of the Mindful Learning article by Ellen Langer.

It puts me in the mind of a mindful learning practice that I am helping to develop with a few other students in a seminar course. The professor of the course has us thinking of ways to teach a diversity in agriculture undergraduate course.  She came up with the idea to use children’s storybooks that detail experiences in agriculture according to children of various backgrounds. The idea is that the undergraduates will be able to discuss how same, similar, and different cultures represent agriculture.

I like the idea of using storybooks as a teaching material because it places less emphasis on formal, academic literature and allows the students to connect with the content in a different way.

Why are we taught to be sheep?

Although I study animals, I do not study domesticated animals. Despite this, I know that sheep like to remain in flocks (or is it herds?), as they take the evolutionary approach of survival based upon the power of numbers. They follow each other around and do not stray far from others. They do not seek alone time; they do not follow a butterfly to greener pastures; and they do not question their version of authority. Because of this (and because they have no sharp teeth or claws to defend themselves with), sheep are considered meek. We even define the word sheepish as lacking self-confidence. Yet, our education system “trains” us to be just like sheep. We are taught that certain things are facts, and that is just the way it is. We are typically not taught to question, to ask “why”, or to contradict what authority says is true. In fact, it is commonly stated that once you get to graduate school you have to “learn to think for yourself.” So, let me get this straight – we spend 20+ years learning to think like others before it is ubiquitously expected for us to think individually!?!?

Image result for sheep meme wake up sheeple

Reading Ellen Langer’s article “Mindful Learning” really hit this home for me. She discusses how we are taught the basics until the basics become second nature. We automatically drive on the right side of the road (in the US); we put forks on the left side of the plate when setting the table; and we don’t question “why.” Now, I am not suggesting that you got out tomorrow and see how you feel about driving on the left side of the road around here – some things we are taught should be followed. However, if you travel to England, you have to ditch your learned “second-nature” of driving on the right to be safe. I particularly liked the example about how we set the table. I had never thought about why we put the fork on the left side of the plate and the knife on the right. It really doesn’t make sense for the majority of the population, as right-handed folk typically hold their forks in their right hands and knives in the left. As a child, I was just taught that “this is how it is done,” and so, I accepted it.

As I got older, I was rewarded in school for blindly accepting what I was taught. I got A’s if I memorized what my teachers told me and did not do well when I didn’t. But what if the teachers are wrong (and having taught in the past, I can assure you that I was wrong sometimes)? Every day, research is showing us how things that were historically considered “common knowledge” are now incorrect (e.g., the world is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; smoking doesn’t cause cancer). Every day, people prove that pushing the boundaries and not listening to what everyone told them furthers our understanding of the world. If everyone stayed a sheep, there would be no change. We need to start teaching children to think for themselves – it is as simple as saying “this COULD BE the answer to that question” vs “this IS the answer to that question”. In part, graduate school is so challenging because it is the first time we are truly and consistently evaluated on how well we can think for ourselves. Maybe, graduate school would be less daunting, less stressful, and less likely to cause or contribute to mental health concerns if we were “taught” how to think for ourselves.

I could go on and on about this topic. But I leave you with this: it’s good to be the “black” sheep (even though we are taught it is not). It’s even better to be a rainbow-colored lion. So go out there and ROAR!

Image result for sheep individuality meme

Mindful Learning

Before entering grad school, I hadn’t thought too deeply about the current education system and the various flaws it might have. During the first month of grad school I saw a Youtube video by Prince Ea, arguing against the current structure of education in the United States. He includes comments related to how the advancement of technology and how the rest of the world seems to have adapted/changed, except for the education system. After hearing some of the comments Prince Ea included in the video made me want to talk to my sister as she is a 4th grade teacher. It was intriguing talking to her about some of the ways she is required to teach as it has changed drastically from when I was in 4th grade, but almost seem to make it more complicated and more difficult to learn. I asked my sister why this was the case, and she was unable to really give me a reason except for that’s the new direction teaching was moving.

Langer introduced the concept of “what we teach” compared to “how we teach it” as we currently do one, but should focus on the other. Currently we are so focused on the content or “what we teach” (teaching to a test) that we can get distracted by how students are receiving the information and if they are actually learning from it. We have gotten so focused on how we have taught information the last 20 plus years, that we don’t always actively think about new ways to approach teaching. However, we need to focus on “how we teach” the material to students as the new generation is very different and has access to significantly more compared even my generation. I don’t have the answers to how this needs to change exactly, but something has to happen for the next generation of students to be able to fully succeed and reach their potential.

Additionally, in Sir Ken Robinson’s video, he includes information on how it’s not necessarily that we don’t have qualified teachers in schools currently, it’s mainly that the system is the overall issue/problem. He had numerous additional great comments and provided important information that would be beneficial for the education system to listen to and adjust.

Can multi-taking be mindfulness-making?

In Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer outlines four myths that hurt education. Of the four myths, the one that most immediately spoke to my own journey to become a better teacher was myth number two — “Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.”

I’m one of those children of the 1980s who had parents who went to great lengths to raise me away from TV and, later on, the Internet. But practice sitting still and being quiet isn’t a prerequisite for learning. When we worry about our students being distracted in class, it is because we assume they need to focus their attention completely on one thing to be able to learn.

For better or worse — and I think there is room for debate there — that isn’t the background of today’s undergraduates. For the simple reason that the pace of our culture has changed, today’s students are equipped to change topics, mediums and multi-task much better than their parents.

So, breaking this myth helps us to think about teaching in a new way. How can we use our students’ ability to quickly move between mediums and multi-task? I often combine lecture, writing assignment or project, a video/audio piece and discussion in every class. But each of these are done consecutively. I’m left wondering how I could use multiple mediums at one time.

For instance, if students had an essay question that required them to respond to a video, could they record their reactions in real-time and then tidy up the essay afterward?

As a reporter, I live tweeted meetings I’ve attended and use those tweets to help reconstruct my articles. If every student were live-tweeting a lecture, using a hashtag, might they be able to use their collective tweets in lieu of note-taking?

Would having an activity to accomplish during what are typically passive moments in the classroom help them be more mindful learners?

I’m not sure, but I think it would be worth trying. And I think student feedback will be key. I find that students are very honest about what works and doesn’t work when asked. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown summarize this struggle succinctly in “A New Culture of Learning”: “The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” (49). But the first step to creating something new is being willing to try.

On technological distractions

Just last week NPR published an interesting little article discussing educators’ and experts’ views with regards to the role of personal technology within the classroom. The article presented a spectrum of views regarding whether student’s access to cellphones and laptops provided a net-negative effect to the classroom learning environment. It’s easy to scoff at this question as technological conservatism. I personally recall the days when elementary school children were free to bike miles to class unescorted, yet ownership of a beeper or cellphone was an expulsion-worthy sign of poor character. The distractions were still present, those wishing to mentally escape class were free to play a few rounds of Decision on their graphing calculators. Barring access to such technology a couple chapters of young adult fiction from a hidden book could make the days go by. Truly, lacking any comparative experience from the teacher’s side of a K-12 environment, I have great empathy for the distracted students who as of yet have little to no true agency in their lives and educational participation.

Still, as was discussed in Pedagogy lecture, one must also acknowledge the very meaningful difference between such passive time wasters and the realities of the open Internet. A ten dollar burner from the grocery store now yields access to an entire ecosystem of apps optimized to capture one’s eyes as often as possible. As magazines die and consumers cut cable, we’ve grown to accept trading a little kick of digital dopamine here and there for the ad-views which make our world go round. Perhaps this beast of technology is a bit less Mickey Mouse and a bit more Joe Camel? As tempting as it may be to view this once more through a generational lens there’s much to be said here with regards to personal learning objectives. Most specifically, is one most concerned with theory or implementation?

For those theory-minded individuals who are most gifted if not pleased to conceive, recognize, and describe problems, rich contemplation on singular matters is key. While this would run at odds to distraction-prone technologies, it’s also important to consider the roles of discussion and debate. How fully formed may a theory be if it has not been contemplated via outsourced perspectives? Truly, is the classroom a simple knowledge dump where one must optimize transmission rates as one would with their wireless router? Perhaps theory is best served as hors d’oeuvres, offering lots of little tidbits to be more properly merged and ingested hours later as the mind slides into REM sleep.

Those most entertained or gifted by implementation have a much different process for digesting knowledge. They may be alarmingly unconcerned with why, yet adept at the granular nuances of how. For these students I see no reason to limit access to any personal technology within the classroom. Lets start with a few base assumptions here. While technology aids distraction, technology also enables the rapid lookup of knowledge. The Internet of social distractions is also the Internet of tutorials, open troubleshooting, and technogeek forums. Using a series of google queries an implementation-minded student may learn the entire methods behind an artistic or technical process without being bogged down by the theory of why.

This brings up a question of equitability. There’s much debate on the role of gifted-education programs, whether they uplift those admitted or suppress those not. Given access to personal technology, the most invested students may explore points of curiosity 5 steps ahead of a lecture for a far richer experience. However, are the remainder of the students differentially distracted by the open web, and does one make up for the other? Technology will always become faster, better, and cheaper. Therefore, any mainstream technology which is sufficiently workable now (I’m looking at you 2005 Google docs) will almost certainly out-pace its traditional peers later. If technological distractions have reached a robust and stable state, perhaps it’s best we accept their intrusion and await the emergence of more captivating educational technology? As computational power and open source tools grow near disposable, the opportunity for simulation and interaction grows for theory and implementation-minded learners alike.

 

“Inspirational Quote”

– Dead person with above-average SES and a robust social network –

 

References:

Kamenetz, A. (2018, January 24). Laptops And Phones In The Classroom: Yea, Nay Or A Third Way? Retrieved January 29, 2018, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2018/01/24/578437957/laptops-and-phones-in-the-classroom-yea-nay-or-a-third-way

 

 

 

Not another Bruno grammy

I’m writing this while watching the Grammy’s, waiting for Beyoncé to appear on the stage, but my hopes are dwindling with ten minutes left. ?

I wanted to build off of last weeks post, where I talked about specific classes that engaged me most in my educational experience, and shift to educators that I’ve seen that engaged well with students. Specifically, I’m thinking of a professor I TA’d for while working on my masters in paleontology at UT Austin. The professor was, and still is, pretty eccentric in the most endearing way. He’s very sarcastic and is known to cut someone off and ask them to start over if they use, uh, um or really any other meaningless filler word while speaking. This professor taught a course in the spring called, Age of Mammals. Most of the students taking the course were non-majors and the professor aimed to make the material accessible and about the students. He always started the first lecture by sitting on a table in front of a 300 student lecture auditorium asking why the students were there. He wanted to know what they wanted out of the class and would write the syllabus with the students, based on why they chose to enroll in the course. He did his best not to sit in front of the class and lecture, and would always end class by asking, ‘Does anyone have any queries, quandaries, qualms, or concerns?’ Like I said, he’s eccentric.

One of this professors big rules in class was no electronics. No cell phones. No laptops. Nothing. As TA’s we were supposed to sit in the back and go up to any student who was on their phone and ask them to please wait until after class. The main reason this professor was so adamant about no electronics was that he felt it wasn’t fair to any student sitting around the perpetrator, because, he knows mammals are attracted to color and movement and this would distract anyone within eyeshot of the student on their electronic device.

This naturally got me thinking about how I would handle electronics in my classroom down the road. For that reason, I loved reading the NPR article Amy found to include in this weeks reading. I really appreciate Allia Griffin’s take on it, where she thinks they are a distraction, but mainly because they cut off social interaction amongst students. This says a lot about how students are not only learning from the person up front who is being paid to speak, but also from the experiences and backgrounds of their peers. I also appreciated Jesse Stommel’s approach to the matter and that technology in the classroom can be a conversation. I think having an adult conversation about it with the students is necessary and likely pretty effective. I really believe that if students connect with the professor, they won’t want to be distracting themselves and others, because they respect the professor and the learning environment.

Ultimately, I don’t quite know my final stance of technology in the classroom, but I love the idea of engaging students with collaborative documents or anonymous polls. I think there is something to be said for a happy medium and I think that develops naturally from class to class depending on the group of students. It’d be great to hear how others have, or have not, included technology in their teaching. Oh, and if anyone knows what the difference is between record of the year, song of the year, and album of the year, lemme know.

hands-on learning is my favorite

When I think back on courses taken during undergrad and graduate school, the ones that taught me the most were those that involved hands-on learning experiences. During my senior year of college, I took a class called “wildlife monitoring and management” (fall 2012). I could not tell you one tidbit of information that I have […]
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