Word of the week: mindfulness

Mindful learning. It’s such a powerful concept. As one of the last blog posts going up this week, I had the pleasure of reading the reflections of so many of my classmates before I composed this post. I have to say that was probably the best thing for me as I have been struggling with what mindful learning should/could look like for an educator in the design field. I enjoyed reading my classmate’s stories because I realized that we all have a shared experience of classrooms/learning environments that are not actually designed for student learning. Each story I read was different, some students shared stories of triumph over the obstacles that stood between them and accomplishment; others were sadder: reflections on surviving in an educational system that wasn’t designed to educate but to test.

In the end, I realized it’s not what you teach, but how you teach. Dissecting “how you teach” for me became another series of questions I’m asking myself: what will my lessons be like if I’m going to encourage mindful learning? How do I create a culture and environment in the classroom that can facilitate the learning outcomes I want for my students? What small changes can I begin to incorporate so that I can systematically overhaul my teaching style to reflect the kind of educator I want to be for my students? What can I do to make sure that every student leaves my class feeling like they gained something beneficial?

For any readers that are new to this concept, here is the link to the TED talk given by Sir Ken Robinson “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.” It’s a 19 minutes well-spent.

So here’s the honest truth: there’s a learner in each of us. It’s human nature to be able to grow as learners. To suggest that some people are just incapable or don’t want to–well, to me, that’s just preposterous. To give up on a difficult student is a failure of the educator and the system that the student is in. Sir Robinson is right: “Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system.”

Coming up, I could tell the difference from day 1 in the classroom whether or not the class was going to be fun, exciting, and something to look forward to or if it was going to be difficult in the sense that I was going to have to force myself to survive it until the term was over.  Even today, I can generally tell on the first day of class what my experience is probably going to be like over the upcoming semester. And despite there being all of these awesome resources out there-seminars, TED talks, workshops, and the like–we still seem to have a large population of our educators who either don’t know or just don’t get it. I’m a class right now that I find super-fascinating and I’m excited to be learning the topic–but the lectures—well, they’re fast, full of jargon, and truth be told, after the hour and a half is up, I find myself thinking “what in the hell just happened?” Because I don’t remember a bit of what he just said. Thankfully, I’ve learned to develop an independent reading list from the sources that get cited on the PowerPoint or else I would be completely lost. I’m determined to make it through the course, but it’s proving to be a rough ride. So then I think about it in the context of this course, and I wonder: why isn’t it fun for me? What can I do as the student to make this more fun? I don’t have an answer to those questions yet.

But learning IS fun and exciting (I wouldn’t have chosen to spend my life learning new things if it wasn’t!) And learning IS an adventure (Thank you Dr. Nelson!) So why, if these ideas about changing the way we approach teaching and learning are we still running into educators (and administrators) who don’t appreciate that there is a difference and there is room for they themselves to grow?

Again, I don’t have an answer to this question, but I’m working on a philosophy. In the meantime, I am working hard to change how I choose to think, act, and react in the classroom (and out of it). Bringing mindfulness to every aspect of my life has been a real challenge–I’m having to step outside of myself and learn to view the world with a new perspective. I’m fighting falling into the trap of automatic behavior, thinking, and responses. Just because we were trained in our formative years to be good little students doesn’t mean that we were actually being trained to be good learners and thinkers.

For me, the real challenge is learning how to see the difference and then changing my approach so that I can be a facilitator instead of a road-block in my own classroom and learning environments. I’m grateful for this experience in Contemporary Pedagogy–every week, there are new seeds planted and I am eager to support this personal growth.

I’m late writing my blog this week because we had a family emergency over the weekend. I have a 9-month old who has been very ill the last few weeks. Friday night was pretty difficult. She spiked a fever, so we returned to the doctor Saturday morning and we ended up spending the night in the Pediatric wing at Carilion in Radford for her to undergo some testing and receive IV fluids. Lucky for all of us, she had a positive response to the new medication they placed her on and we were able to return home Sunday to continue her care. After a sleepless weekend I am finally starting to catch up with my academic life (as I put everything on the back burner for a couple of days), but I’m still feeling pretty scatter-brained from the mental and physical exhaustion. The lessons on mindfulness were extremely helpful in coping with the ups and downs of the last few days. Interesting how that works.

Learn from the experience

After the activity we did in the last class, everyone or every group stressed on how experience is a great way to learn. We can all agree that learning is inseparable from doing by arguing that all knowledge is situated in activity bound to social, cultural, and physical contexts. Nonetheless, learning is more likely to occur in authentic contexts where knowledge is gained and applied in everyday situations. As an example, if a child reads every book in the world about how to play soccer, but he/she won’t fully learn how to play until he/she goes and plays soccer at a soccer field with other people who know the game.

By saying so, we must think of how to incorporate learning from experiences and show the student how the may use the content learned in the real world. Teachers and instructors can do that by creating real-world situations or examples, so students can apply the skills they learned. Developing a scenario, case studies, or role plays will increase student interest and involvement. Also, students will have the chance to practice and make choices and receive feedback on them, which will increase the application of the skills they learned in the class.

Automaton or Autonomous?

Those days. Those good old days in elementary school. Sometime during the late 1990s when the rat race was well and truly alive. The objective of learning to me, just like everyone else in class, was to get better grades. My grades did improve over time. I had become the perfect little automaton (not the type that could think for itself). Solving arithmetic problems and spouting out solutions just like I was taught. Never really thinking for myself. Hephaestus would have been proud.

The years passed. I tried to mug up regression equations and likelihood functions but to no avail. Being a machine would not help me anymore I would have to unlearn years of education. I was expected  to function autonomously from now on. To think and learn for myself. I was expected to be able to extend the regression analyses beyond the silly assumptions of normality and homoscedasticity. I realized that years of stagnancy had not dulled the human ability to learn and adapt. I got better at it over time. However to some this was another system, another system that they would try to game. For grades.


Source: http://eli.thegreenplace.net/2014/derivation-of-the-normal-equation-for-linear-regression

P.S. Tune in to the next episode when we talk about grades, to find out who succeeded.

Dragon Ball Z, Time, and How: HOW MANY SUPERSAIYANS DOES


Sorry but I can’t memorize

I have always been very bad at memorizing things, especially equations. However, most of the classes during my undergraduate degree required me to memorize numbers and lots of equations. I still remember the day, when I went home feeling completely devastated after doing terribly bad in my Hydraulics exam. I wasn’t sad because I didn’t know how to solve the problems, in fact I knew the solution to each and every problem very well. However, I couldn’t remember any of the equations associated with solving those problems and hence, I couldn’t write the final answer in numbers. I knew I wasn’t going to get good grades although I wrote the step by step procedure to solve the problems because the examiners only cared about the final answer. Finally, the results came and I got a very poor score which was expected.

This is probably the story for many people like me who have a hard time memorizing equations and thus have failed to get good grades in exams. Our education systems are built in such a way where students are graded and ranked based on their ability to “memorize” things. An example of this is the multiple-choice exams where the students are solely graded based on the number of correct answer choices in the Scranton sheets. This in no way appreciates any of the efforts that the students put on trying to solve the problem. Even if you did everything correctly but messed up while pressing some numbers on the calculator in the final step, you will probably be put in the same category as someone who had absolutely no clue about how to solve the problem.


I think there are issues with both the examining and the grading system which in many ways forces students to “rote learn” and the distinction between a good and a mediocre student is made based on their grades. There has to be definitely a better methodology for teaching and grading where mindful learning is encouraged and the efforts of the students in solving the problem is appreciated.


Weekly pessimism – Anti-Teaching

I always seem like a depressed pessimist when writing these blogs… ? At any rate, as usual, these readings and videos seem wonderful in theory, but they just gloss over the problems. Perhaps the issue is that those who go into pedagogy enjoy their work too much… To be fair, most people who stick through a PhD and build a career, enjoy their work. But for those in pedagogy, their work is guided learning, teaching itself, and they can’t seem to grasp the idea that some student’s don’t want to be a part of it.

This does not apply at the graduate level, because presumably all of us actually enjoy what we do and wouldn’t be here otherwise. But most of our readings seem to cover all schooling at all ages. And I am certain I have encountered more than a few undergrads who simply didn’t want to be there. And of all the students, these are the ones most resistant to “fun” and active learning. They are also the ones most in need of being reached.

Thomas and Brown suggest that learning is inexorably tied with play and fun, and when combined properly, people are happy to learn. Which I would agree with, though their example of middle-school kids learning about Harry Potter lore is borderline absurd. First and foremost, the Harry Potter books are fun, for most students, spatial statistics and antebellum US history are not. You can certainly improve upon dry boring lectures, but you’ll never make it exciting unless you have the talent of someone like VT’s John Boyer or Youtube’s Dan Carlin.

Second of all, aren’t we ignoring the fact that high school age and younger kids have a psychological need to rebel against authority? (Again, this is not applicable to graduate students.) I’d wager that if you took a class of 8th graders, and required them to read Harry Potter, and assigned homework on the subject, and tested them, and then said that their futures depend on their ability to recall mundane details, they would hate it as much as they hate earth science or algebra. To those students, the teacher is the authority they are supposed to rebel against.

I hate to sound so negative, but the fact is that there isn’t enough flexibility for undergrads to exclusively take interesting courses. Sometimes they have to take required courses they despise. I certainly don’t blame them for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that some of them really don’t want to be sitting in your class.

The single most difficult moment in my short teaching experience was for a summer program introducing STEM fields to 8th graders. All of them were bright, and some of them wanted to be there, but a few very clearly didn’t. Who knows if their parents forced them to be there, or if they misjudged how interested they were in the program… Either way it seemed like torture for them. We tried to make our session as active as possible, running a real-time epidemic simulation and infect an imaginary population with some horrific pandemic influenza virus to see how many survived. Most of the students were happier playing the game than listening to our PowerPoint intro, but the more we tried to engage the disinterested ones, the less interested they were. I honestly think they’d have preferred to sleep through a lecture than be bothered by us. As soon as they structure of the rigid lecture (we teach, you listen) disappeared, they were free to completely disconnect. They certainly didn’t like the lecture either, but the game certainly didn’t help. Honestly it completely prevented me from reaching the other students. I felt like I was hurting these poor kids (because I remember being in their shoes in 8th grade myself). In fact, the only time they paid any attention was at the end when they got to control the learning entirely (asking questions about famous epidemics).

TL;DR: All of the methods we’ve read about so far are wonderful for interested students, but they make the fatal assumption that all the students want to be a part of this experience. If I get one thing out of this class, I hope I learn how to deal with these ones who don’t.


Unrelated side-note: One of the readings talks about the transition from black and white to color TV. Ever wonder what it looked like?

The “basics” have saved my life, more than once.

The “basics” are a critical foundation to learning any new subject.  They’ve saved my life on more than one occasion.

For four years of my life, I professionally taught people how to fly airplanes.

L-29 Delfin
The L-29 Delfin was the Soviet jet-trainer of choice during the early Cold War period.

It’s something I’m surprisingly good at.  The regional FAA examiner used to refer to me as “Ace”*, not because of my flying skills, but rather, because of the quality students I sent to him for evaluation.  During those four years, not a single one of my students failed: a nearly unheard of statistic.

* [Simply “Brandon” would have been more to my liking, but it’s not something you get to choose in that line of work.]

While immensely proud of the hard work my students put in to achive that pass-rate, it’s not what I’m most proud of during that period of my life. The high point of me is that two students (and myself) are still alive today because my instructors took the time and care that was needed to ensure I had the best understanding and practice of the “basics” when I was learning how to fly. I’m proud of them — my mentors. I’m a difficult student. It took a lot to put up with me.

Without that I most assuredly would not be around today to write this post.

Some background: Pilots, as a matter of their basic flight worthiness, train for emergencies. One such emergency that is often practiced is the event of an in-flight engine failure. The public is most likely familiar with this idea from the wet landing of US Airways Flight 1549:

(C) NY Daily News / Maria Bailey
(C) NY Daily News / Maria Bailey

One of the most deadly times an in-flight engine failure can occur is immediately after take off when no suitable locations for ditching the airplane (like the middle of the Hudson River) exist directly ahead of the plane.  In this scenario,  the pilot has only one option: attempt a u-turn back towards the airport.

This is such a difficult maneuver that it has earned the nickname “the impossible turn” in piloting circles.  Statistics show that somewhere between 80% and 90% of aircraft that are forced into this maneuver of last resort crash — typically with fatal results for everyone aboard.

Here is a video of a successful attempt:

While acting as a flight instructor, this happened to me twice.

I should stress though that this is an extremely rare event. It occurs in a statistical sense to general aviation type aircraft (“small planes”) once every 50,000 hours of flight.  In both cases the engine failure was a result of easily avoidable, poor maintenance practices — but that’s a story for another time.

On to the basics…. To execute this turn, the pilot must possess a  solid foundational knowledge of the aerodynamics involved and an even better “feel” for the aircraft — after all, this is a kinesthetic exercise. It’s a high standard to begin with, but as an added complication, the pilot must be able to recall these things in a split second and act on them under the stress of an incipient fatal crash.

Not only does the positioning, speed, and orientation of the aircraft in its takeoff configuration give a window of only a few seconds to react successfully to an engine failure at this point, but the execution of the maneuver must be near-perfect. For this to work, the pilot has to push the aircraft to the very edge of its operational envelope and hold it there. Any deviation will  result in one of two things happening:

  • The plane will stall and crash, or
  • The plane will run out of altitude (energy) before making it back to the airport (and crash)

For me, I only was able to perform at this this level thanks to practicing the fundamental skill set that makes up pilotage… the boring stuff… the “rote” movements of flying an airplane… the basics… over and over and over again. And doing so while in the presence of an experienced instructor that cared enough to provide an honest critique of my performance (over and over and over again).  It was frustrating and (at the time) it didn’t seem to have much of a purpose, but looking back on it, I’m grateful my instructors had the wisdom to hold me to a higher standard than most do. I would imagine my two students are grateful as well.

Some activities in life require training to a standard of “right and wrong”. Getting too creative, too early can be dangerous.  That’s not to say we can’t develop or grow past this point with experience, wisdom, and creativity, but as instructors, it’s our duty to know where and when this is advisable for a student.



There is Nothing Permanent Except Change

When I first heard we would be focusing on mindfulness this week, I was pretty stoked. During the CIDER Conference held at Virginia Tech this past year, I was able to attend a “Mindfulness in the Classroom” session. While I thought we would only be learning about how the presenters implemented mindfulness in their classrooms, attendees actually got to participate in a mindfulness activity themselves. It is amazing what closing your eyes, taking a few deep breaths, and refocusing can do. We, especially as graduate students, are continuously in a state of chaos trying to run around and do all of the things that we do. Sometimes it is even stressful just making it to a class on time. You’ve powerwalked carrying multiple textbooks from one side of campus to the next, hustled up multiple flights of stairs, and then weaseled your way through the aisles of students to find a seat. As soon as you sit down, you’re scrambling to dig through your stuff to find a pen and paper to begin taking notes. Its been an ordeal just to get to class, let alone begin to take in all of the material that is being thrown at you at light speed. Its like we’re programmed to go through the motions rather than genuinely think about and dwell on the information coming our way. Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning article describes being mindless as when we are governed by rule and routine. I like how she says that if you are aware that you’re mindless, and then you’re no longer being mindless and instead practicing mindfulness. I appreciate professors who spend the first five minutes of class sort of regrouping; reiterating assignment due dates, recapping previous material, or just talking about what is in the news related to the class. This way, it gives students a few moments to wind down and get themselves focused for what is to come.

A New Culture of Learning made me think about change related to knowledge and technology in a completely different way. I never put thought into the fact that there was a period of time where “stability, continuity, and maintaining the status quo” was what was sought after. Nowadays we almost don’t have a choice but to change continuously. Its sink or swim. This article was both enlightening and inspiring. Just because something doesn’t seem cool or novel right now, doesn’t mean that it can’t be in the future. If you have an idea, you should run with it. I’ve also never recognized just how essential learning communities are. Not everything is black and white and I just loved how the authors went into detail about how in an encyclopedia, we don’t get to see the thought behind why something got chosen and something else didn’t’. My previous PI and I would often talk about how published journal articles are such a small snapshot of the entire process of a study. We don’t get to see the details and sometimes they help to tell a much more thorough story. There are both pros and cons to having open information sites. Although Wikipedia tends to sometimes have a negative reputation, when you compare it to a textbook that may be decades old, it actually becomes a lot more appealing. The statement from the article “Making knowledge stable in a changing world is an unwinnable game” really stood out to me. If the world is continuously changing, then knowledge must do the same.

Photo: https://scontent-sjc2-1.cdninstagram.com/t51.2885-15/s640x640/sh0.08/e35/12677392_127465284320230_1398958675_n .jpg


We have been taught to take notes in the class. Almost everyone does this. But I bet many of us have the experience of not remembering or understanding the notes when checking them after the class. I think that’s because we are just simply copying the notes instead of understanding the contents first and writing it down with our own words.


I have a personal experience that I wasn’t aware it is actually an example of mindful learning until I start to write this Blog. I was learning Erhu, a Chinese instrument similar with violin, when I was in middle school. To produce different pitches, we were taught to press our fingertips on different places on the strings. One day my Erhu teacher taught us how to play a specific bar in the song. In that bar, there was one note that has a higher pitch than others. We were taught to move our left-hand down first to make that pitch and then move the hand back to play the rest. Our teacher played it well probably he had practiced hundreds of times before. But all my classmates, including me, could not play that note well. So we were asked to practice more when we got home. After several trial, I still can not plat with the way I was taught. But I found that instead of moving my left-hand down and up, I can simply use my little finger to reach that place, which will make the play easier. One week later, we played that bar individually before the class to the teacher and I was the only student that was able to play it with perfect tune.


I was not the most talented student in the Erhu class, but because I was mindful I was able to play it well. Actually all I did is try to understand why we need to move the hand down and up and if there is any alternatives to get the goal if what I was taught does not work. As Ellen Langer mentioned in her book, teachers only teach the basis. To make the knowledge and rational more valuable, students need to be mindful and more actively thinking.

Mindful Learning and the Role of Higher Education

The readings about mindful learning reminded me of a class that I took for learning building simulation software. In that class, I learned different kinds of simulation programs which were recently released. Since they were in a new area and many new simulation programs had released every year, the instructor of the class was not knowledgeable about all the programs that we had to learn. He talked about this situation on the first day of the class and emphasized that our class would be a collective learning session rather than a lecture, and he would be learning the programs with us as well.

As the instructor explained, the class did not have much lecture time, and the instructor’s role was more like a coordinator. The assignments were self-learning the software by using the tutorials given by the instructor, and solve the given problem utilizing the self-learned simulation tool. During the class time, students had discussions about useful functions of the software sharing each other’s simulation results. The hour-long discussions made me feel studying at an ancient Greek institution. The paintings that describe the institutions, such as the School of Athens or Aristotle’s School, have different scenes from the classrooms of today, in which students always have discussions.  

Aristotle’s School (source: Wikipedia)

Although I learned a lot from this class that was enjoyable as well, this experience made me question the role of higher education. Today, the development of online communication has facilitated learning a new subject. Questions raised during the learning can be easily addressed in online forums, which also offers similar types of experience to the discussions we have during the class. It seems that taking a class or the presence of an instructor will not be mandatory anymore for learning something. Then, what would be the role of higher education in the future? Would that be guidance on learning, filtering knowledge among the excessive information on the web? Or offering an on-site platform for better discussion, motivation, networking, and certification, like a part of the actual roles? How would the future of higher education be changed?

Mindless vs Mindful Learning – My experience in Australia


My academic/professional training has been shaped by different elements that helped me understand how the environment where you learn enhance either mindless or mindful learning. In this post, I elaborate on the different aspects that lead to one or the other, and the reflections I’ve got from experiencing for two years the Australian Academic system.

Prior to Virginia Tech, I got a bachelor in architecture from USFQ university in Quito, Ecuador; and studied a year abroad in Juniata College, PA. In both liberal arts universities, I experienced two types of classes: the very “technical” ones, and the “social/abstract” ones. The technical ones (such as structures, calculus and statistics) were the type of classes where you would sit in auditorium with 40 other students to learn from a lecture with very limited participation/interaction. The social/abstract ones (design studio, sustainable development, NGO managements) were the ones with all the interesting discussions and a lot of participation. These experiences, led me to the construct that it is difficult to overcome mindless learning in those very technical subjects, and that social/abstract subjects are the ones that usually promote mindfulness learning.

However, it was only until I studied my masters in Australia that I was able to break that paradigm I had mistakenly built. The University of Melbourne, as any other Australian university, has a completely different approach to learning. As a student, you are required to enroll in two different classes per each subject: a lecture and a tutorial. For instance, for a “3 credits” methodological class, I enrolled in a 1-hour lecture and in 2-hours tutorial. Lectures had the classical approach where you would sit in a classroom to receive all the information/material the professor prepared to facilitate your learning. Tutorials (which were usually run by T.A.s) in the other hand, were the space where you were expected to read articles so you can contribute to the class with opinions, arguments and discussions.

This experience helped me realize how achieving mindfulness learning, no matter what the subject is, is very possible when providing the right environment to allow students contribute to the learning process.

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