I have dots to connect before I sleep

If there is one thing that my graduate education has made me realize, it is that I have to un-learn everything I learned in school and in undergrad. I was taught to make decisions with reason and not emotion, and follow instructions without questioning. If you plot my grades over the past 19 years in education, you can see an inverse relationship between my obedience and my grades. Come to graduate school, and I had to think for myself. Think for myself?! It was intimidating at first, but slowly I realized this is what I was destined to do.

This class has made me question my goal to be an educator. I want to continue in academia after my PhD, and I don’t know if I will be a successful professor (or a professor at all), but I will try. I will try to keep pace with the new culture of learning and I will try to listen to students and improve based on feedback. There will be critics, and there will be failures, but I will keep trying to get better.

I am reminded of a quote for moments like these:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Multi-tasking or Multi-task-switching?

This week, reviewing the readings about attention and multitasking, gave me a chance to reflect on my personal experiences with multitasking. I used to be proud of being a multitask-er. In undergrad and first few semesters of my graduate degree, in an attempt to be more “efficient” (which was my code for more time to play video games), I would browse email while listening to news articles via text-to-speech, answer texts while reading books or journal articles, and talk on the phone while cooking or doing chores.  Over time, I began to notice a significant drop in productivity as I would have a hard time focusing on the task at hand. I went from consuming books on a regular, to having trouble finishing a 2-3 page news article. I realized that efficiency was affecting quality of my work. This house of cards came crashing down in the Spring of 2015, when I went on academic probation for not maintaining a satisfactory GPA. Multi-tasking was not the only issue in my life that led to probation, but it played a part.

Lessons learned, drastic changes made.

This was the time I started reading about the research looking into multitasking and concluding that multitasking is actually multi-task-switching, but at the cost of loss in attention spans. I decided to start prioritizing and focusing on one thing at a time rather than multiple things at once. By doing this, and taking regular breaks during the course of the day to calm my obsessive mind, I noticed that I was actually getting more done. Slowing down what you do can help you get more done. This was my ah-ha moment when I read Technology: Myth of Multitasking.

Needless to say, I am no longer (proud of being) a multitask-er.

To fit in or not to fit in… That is the question.

Living in Southwestern Virginia, I am constantly reminded of the fact that I am not from here. Be it a barista misspelling my name or someone having trouble understanding me on the phone. While I haven’t experienced blatant racism in Blacksburg or anywhere else in the US, I have constantly pondered whether I should make more of an effort trying to fit in. Maybe put more effort to acquire the American accent? Maybe a generic anglicised name would help?

I think it depends on how much time and energy you want to devote to either stand out or fit in. For example, is it really worth the effort to get a barista to spell your name right on a cup, while you are late for class and the line is out the door? I guess some would say yes, but in my case, I use my Starbucks name, my super secret alter ego – AJ. I don’t know where the “J” in AJ came from, I picked it once and stuck to it. At that instant, it is not about heritage or diversity, it is about convenience. So much so, that even my very white partner has started to use it instead of her own name. It is just easier and saves the grief of seeing your name misspelled.

Then come the formal settings. I am extremely conscious when meeting new people, especially at conferences, as most of the first interaction is spent repeating my name. How can I meet the big people in my field at a conference and make a good first impression when they can’t even say my name right? I don’t know how to tackle this.

I hope my own experiences with inclusion and diversity helps me create environments in my class that are welcoming to everyone. I want to create an environment where students are not forced to fit in and feel included either way. They have the choice of being Anurag or AJ and the atmosphere of mutual respect encourages them to participate wholeheartedly. I like to think of my classroom as a crate of eggs, where eggs of all color fit in and are free to interact in a welcoming environment shielded from, mindful of, and learning from the world outside.

A tale of two brothers: Inseparable at birth, separated by assessments

There were once two brothers, let’s call them Steve and Harry. They were born into a middle-class Indian family in 1989, separated by 5 minutes. It was a different world back then, exciting times. H.W. had just become President, Exxon Valdez was about to devastate the North Pacific and Alaskan Coastline with an oil spill, and the Berlin Wall was going to come crashing down later in the year, lifting the iron curtain over half of the world. When the brothers were 2 years old, the heavily regulated Indian economy was liberated from the socialist clutches of the Government, bringing unprecedented economic growth to the country. Indian middle-class was about to witness a radical change in the standards of living and the recent events had ensured that the brothers would receive the best possible education and a world of opportunity. All was well.

Steve and Harry went to the same schools, were in the same classes, had the same group of friends and were, in other words, inseparable. By middle school, it is clear that Steve is “better” than Harry, as he is always top of the class and has a near-photographic memory, perfect for memorizing everything and dumping it in the exams. Harry, on the other hand, is barely scraping by in school as he is “stubborn and doesn’t want to study”. Steve gets pampered and has access to everything, while Harry suffers in silence. No one knows that Harry has a genius for pattern recognition and numbers speak to him. He can see trends and relationships where others can’t, but he has nothing to show for it, except for his above-average math scores. Recognizing what Harry is good at, would be asking too much from assessments which assign arbitrary numbers to students based on how well they can memorize.

It is April of 2005. The brothers are now 16 and in the 10th grade. This year is extremely important and could “make or break their careers”, people around them can’t seem to stop reminding them. At the end of the school year, they will take the “Board Exams”, which are administered to millions of students by the central education board. The purpose of this is to sort the students based on their scores in at least 5 3-hour exams and limit their options for the last two years of schooling based on it. The top students can pick from any of the 3 streams – science, commerce, and humanities. Who are we kidding, this is India and if you make the mistake of being good at taking exams, you have to pick science, or your parents will pick it for you. Undergraduate degree eligibility will be limited based on this hierarchical system where students who picked science in high school can pursue any degree, while the peasants in humanities are limited to humanities degrees.

It is May of 2006. Steve and Harry, along with hundreds of thousands of others, await the results of the board exams. Steve, as expected aced the exams achieving 95%, while Harry barely scraped by with 62%. Their parents are elated for how well Steve did, and are worried about what Harry will do in life.

It is June of 2006. There is sort of mad rush to sign up for limited spots in science for 11th grade in most schools. The brothers’ parents are able to get Steve admitted to a top private school to study science and eventually pursue engineering. They have high expectations from Steve. But Steve doesn’t want to study science. He has a passion for English literature. He devours works of the likes of Hemingway, Eliot, Shaw and, Yeats. But he did so well in the board exams. How can his parents let him make the mistake of not picking science? Fights and arguments ensue. The parents win. Steve enrolls to study science. Harry has no choice but to study humanities. No reputable school will allow him to study science or commerce. But he wants to study math. He got a perfect score in math in the board exams. The schools don’t care. Their policy is to look at the percentage score and not individual subjects. Harry’s parents try and finally give up. Harry enrolls to study humanities. The brothers are separated for the first time in 10 years. They go to different schools, take different classes, have different friends. Both brothers are miserable, and the assessments have claimed two more victims.

It is August of 2008. Steve is about to join a private university to study computer engineering. He “wasted” too much time in the last two years reading novels and hasn’t done as well as his parents hoped. He can’t get into the top public universities in India, so an expensive private university is the only option. Harry is getting ready to move to the UK. He has an uncle who wants him to come and work in his restaurant and is willing to help him go to college in London. Harry is determined to find a way to study math. The past two years have been tough, but there is hope now that the brothers are moving out.

It is 2017. A lot has happened in the past 9 years. Harry is now running his uncle’s restaurant in West London, as uncle is ill and can no longer do it on his own. He enrolled in college but had to drop out as it was too expensive and he was in too much debt. He is doing a decent job managing the restaurant and makes enough to lead a mediocre life. His passion for math was long forgotten. Steve is furiously typing his way through a complex piece of python code. He is on a deadline and needs to deliver this module to his client in the US in a few hours. It is the middle of the night, he is in a dimly lit office, in a generic IT company in India. He hates his job, but it pays the bills. His passion for literature was long forgotten. One brother adds to the statistics of Indians who left the country in search of better lives, and the other adds to the statistics of Indians stuck in IT jobs with minimal growth.

There were once two brothers, inseparable at birth, separated by 5,000 miles. What if they were born in a different time, in a different place? What if the assessments were better suited to figure out what they were good at? What if someone had looked beyond their scores and encouraged them? What if there were no scores at all? What if….

Alright, if you are still reading, I will let you in on a secret: I made this story up. I used it as a means to channel my frustration and anger at the education system in India. The sad part is, India has 1.3 billion people and there probably are thousands of Steves and Harrys out there.

Mindlessly reading materials about mindful learning! SAD!

Browsing through social media on Sunday evening, instead of reading for this class, informed me that I had missed the Hokie Half Marathon. It is OK, a half marathon isn’t my kind of a race anyway. If I were to run, it would look something like this:

Click Image to go to the source

I was mindlessly reading the Langer article until I reached the part where the author wrote that the importance of learning delayed gratification is overstated and it is a myth. So instant gratification works well for learning? I guess we need to provide instant gratification to students, but not ourselves, cause the last time I checked, instant gratification leads to procrastination, and that is a daily battle for me.

There is a really interesting TED talk on allowing the “instant gratification monkey” to take control leads to procrastination:

I get the reasoning behind mindful learning, but how could we apply it to learning outside class? How could we use mindful learning to teach an undergrad how to measure chlorine in water on a HACH? This process has set steps that need to be followed in the same order and a typical day can involve repeating those steps dozens of times. This is just one instance of precise vital repetitive tasks that are common in my field. Our group recognizes the risk of becoming mindless, which is why we are reminded to be mentally present even after “mastering” the techniques. This is definitely a point where delayed gratification works. Reminding oneself of the big picture to justify the value of tedious repetitive tasks is vital to be successful in research. I believe these repetitive tasks are the backbone to the good stuff in research – performing experiments, which is where the real learning happens.

So, how should a master procrastinator like me resist self-instant gratification, while providing the same to students in a classroom setting? I hope this is discussed at some point in class.

Training + Education = Educated Trainers OR Trained Educators?

Throughout my school and undergraduate education in India, I was told that education will help me prepare for life and career and that I had to memorize certain facts to be successful. Over grade levels, memorization of principles of PEMDAS and the alphabet turned into memorization of increasingly complex things such as the lanthanide and actinide series, and trigonometric and integral formulae. Yes, you read that right, we had to memorize pages and pages of formulae and facts for each exam and assessments were based not on how well one understood those facts/formulae, but on how well one could memorize and spit them out in the exams. There were no cheat sheets provided in an exam, you had to make your own and sneak them in. Yes, such a memorization heavy atmosphere breeds academic misconduct and cheating is rampant in education in India, but that is a fight for another day.

How was this supposed to prepare me for life?

It is not as if a tax form or a visa application would have a box asking me to write down trigonometric formulae from memory. Needless to say, I identified this critical flaw in my education very early on and my interest and drive to learn was inversely proportional to the amount of memorization in a particular subject. It isn’t surprising then that I did best in English, political science, history, economics and computer science. All of these courses depended on understanding concepts and issues and applying them to create something new for assessment, such as an essay, a report or a piece of code. This lead to a lot of stress in my teenage years, as my parents thought I didn’t want to “study” and “do well in life” and I “sit on the computer all day and am good for nothing”. Note that doing “well in life” meant participating in hyper-competitive Great Indian Engineering Rat Race. I disqualified myself from that race even before it started. All those hours of “sitting on the computer” showed me that there is another world out there, both virtually and literally. It showed me that the education I needed is not easy to get in India and that I had to sail the doctoral seas in another country. I have no regrets for being a below average student, as it helped me understand what I wanted to do in life, which is to be in academia. Since then, I have come to realize that:

Source: Pinterest

Going back to the title for this post and a central theme in readings for this week, if we confuse education with training, are we creating educated trainers or trained educators? My interactions with my peers who entered the workforce in India after undergrad and articles such as 1, 2, and 3, would show that we are creating neither. These articles talk about IT jobs for engineers, but the story is the same in all other engineering disciplines. Don’t get me wrong, both training and education are equally important, but forcing minds to train rather than training minds to think is what brought us to a place where companies have to run massive training programs and re-train graduates before integrating them into their workforce.

The inertia to accept change led to this stagnation in education. The curriculum of most of the programs in India was developed in the 1960s and 1970s, under the assumption that the core curriculum would not change over the years. These programs have expanded to include new areas, but it hasn’t been enough. I hope that as the use of technology increases, students will be able to develop skills outside of class, and instructors will be able to expand their pedagogical toolset. Maybe, one day, India will become a leader in bringing radical change in education.

Until then, I’ll end this post with the following:

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that, he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books.  The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” – Albert Einstein


How did we go from learning from the Cosmos to learning by blogging?

There was once a time, before the invention of any means of immortalizing thoughts (art, writing etc.), when our ancestors learned from looking up at the stars. Over eons, they figured out that patterns in stars in the sky coincided with seasons and passage of time on Earth. Discovery was guided by experience and knowledge was passed from generation to generation via word of mouth. All was well.

And then writing and art was invented and suddenly, our species had a way to preserve knowledge and immortalize it. This ushered in the golden age of discovery and learning and it lead to us being more aware of our place in the Cosmos. I have been re-watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and a theme central to the series is the story of human discovery and knowledge creation.

Over time, our learning became confined within four walls of a classroom and unless you were a Pauli, Tesla, Faraday or Einstien, trailblazing the path of knowledge creation, chances were, you were reading about their accomplishments in books. “Formal education” somehow got confused with a rigid system of portioned dispersal of knowledge rather than encouraging free thinking and creativity. This one-size-fits all approach governed the way people learned for generations.

Then, the internet was born and everything changed. Suddenly, we found all of our collective knowledge in the palm of our hands (barring access restrictions, of course) and technology is continuously changing the way we learn. In my relatively short life, I have seen the internet become as universal as radio and TV and the tools such as blogging become a platform for micro publishing our thoughts and ideas. I have seen course materials transform from monstrous textbooks to pdfs on an LMS such as Canvas. I can’t remember the last time I bought a textbook. It is not surprising that this is the 3rd time I have had to blog as requirements for a class. Although I don’t blog outside class, I understand why instructors choose it as a tool to encourage learning from peers and free thinking. It gives me great hope for the future as technology is increasingly used to supplement the deficiencies of traditional classroom instruction.

I am excited and hopeful about how technology is going to affect pedagogy in the next decade, while I prepare myself to be an academic (whatever that might mean).