Embrace Change!

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Last week in class we were discussing that nowadays because everything you can learn from the internet, the traditional class-room type of lecture should be gradually evolving to be in  “discussion” style, rather than giving them information/knowledge that they can simply find online.  In my opinion, teachers are storytellers, who can combine the existing knowledge and correct information to become stories that are interesting to students.  In the past when most of knowledge have to be found in books and publications, these information have been through serious reviewing process and constantly corrected by authors or publishers. In comparison, students can learn almost everything on the internet so easily through Wikipedia, YouTube, Blogs and etc. However, it is necessary for students to be able to evaluate whether those information are correct, and this ability should be cultivated during their college education, so that they will easily become a life-time self-learner. As a result, just like Thomas and Brown’s book said in their book,

“Wikipedia allows us to see all those things, understand
the process, and participate in it. As such, it requires a new kind
of reading practice, an ability to evaluate a contested piece of
knowledge and decide for yourself how you want to interpret
it. And because Wikipedia is a living, changing embodiment of
knowledge, such a reading practice must embrace change.”

On the other hand, how to become a good storyteller in lectures? How to create meaningful  and interesting discussion in class but still can make sure to have enough time to  give them a well-structured knowledge? These are the issues that I need to think about and overcome.

Reference: Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning (2011), pp. 17-38 (“Arc of Life Learning” and “A Tale of Two Cultures”)



On Teaching Katie

Confession: I haven’t taught a course yet. In class, when everyone else telling stories about the ways they teach and how they’ve helped their students, I can only stay quiet because I don’t have this experience. However, during the last class, we spoke about a student’s PI who no longer teaches courses but instead teaches through mentoring his students. It made me think about how I may not have experience as a teaching assistant, but I do have experience mentoring undergraduates in my lab. I thought about one person in particular, Katie, who joined our lab last year and how I got the chance to mentor her in working in our lab.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t particularly enthused to be mentoring undergraduates in Spring 2017. I was taking three classes, doing my own research, dealing with my own personal life, and was now responsible of teaching two people how to work in a lab when I felt I was still learning myself. It was hard because I also didn’t know their level of interest and I just didn’t know how to teach in general. I started off with teaching basics and things I had wished I was taught when I first started working. I tried to make sure I wasn’t talking down to them and treated them with respect, because I knew that when working in a lab, confidence in yourself was key. I wanted to instill this into them. However, I wasn’t a trained teacher. While teaching, I would just spout off random, but imporantant, things they need to know and consider while working in a lab. Not very elegantly and I probably spoke very quickly when talking as well, as I usually do. I was just talking to talk, to be honest. However, I thought it was in one ear, out the other, that no one really cared to listen to what I was saying. However, I soon realized that some one was actually listening to me.

Watching Katie work, I realized she was mindful and actively thinking while working. Mistakes were acknowledged and corrected with input from myself. Little things I had mentioned, such as using water to clean up media spills in the biosafety cabinet, actually got through to her. However, there is one incident that I think about when I think about how far she much she has grown and how much she has learned.

I would watch Katie when I could and would still continue spouting off random things about cell culture. I mentioned once before that there were two different types of flasks: non-treated and treated for adhesive cells. It was a minor comment, one I said pretty casually, thinking she wouldn’t have caught it or paid much attention to it. While this is important to take into consideration when doing cell culture, I just wasn’t sure anyone else cared.

On this particular day, Katie was working by herself. She had gotten to a point where she no longer needed me hovering over her, watching her every move. However, I always made myself available via messaging for any questions. To my surprise, I received a message asking about which flask to use, because she looked on the package of the shelf that we keep our flasks on and realized that the flasks were for adhesive cells. We didn’t work with adhesive cells so she double checked with me to ask where she could get the correct flasks. It was this incident that I realized that she was actively listening to what I was teaching her and was not only working on autopilot, but present in her learning and her work.

While reading Langer’s piece on mindful learning, I realized that is exactly what Katie was doing while I was teaching her. Working with Katie never ceases to amaze me and this piece made me appreciate her all the more. So while I don’t have experience teaching a class, I have experience teaching Katie, who practices mindful learning techniques. I can only hope all of my students will be like Katie.

Mind…. What?

Mindless, Mindlessness, Mindful, Mindfulness… Mind…. What?

I did not know how many words you can create with the word mind. This is the first time that I read all of these at once!!

Over the years, teaching has focused on what professors teach instead of how they teach1. This traditional approach promotes Mindlessness because different perspectives of learning are neglected in the classroom. As Ellen Langer states:

we are stuck in a single drawn distinction from the past

and the reality is that we are in constant change as the philosopher Heraclitus said in his famous quote!

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Memorization and repetition are not the most suitable approaches to learn. I learn best by understanding and thinking instead of repeating (like a robot) something that I do not understand. Unfortunately, oftentimes, we do not apply what we learned in class. At present, everyone can access the internet and find what the professor is teaching. So, the question is,

How do you add value to the class?

As a professor, we have to motivate students to look at the information given from different perspectives or point of views1. Diversity is everywhere, especially in a classroom. We will have students from different disciplines, socio-economic status, countries, etc.. What a better scenario to promote Mindfulness.

Last week, we were asked how we learn. I took the answers and I created this word cloud to see if we are stuck in the past. Judge for yourself. What do you think?

Teaching by fostering Mindfulness should not be only an approach or idea that you can find on a paper. It should be applied on a regular basis in a class. Engaging students in the classroom is not an easy task but it will help them to see things from a different perspective. They will learn and enjoy the process.


Keep Auto Update and Step Out Your Comfort Zone

When I got my first laptop in 2007, I found that every few days a small window popped up telling me that some software or system drivers would be updated during next boot. This was quite annoying since it made the startup period extremely long, and several reboots could occur during the installation process. In the end, I changed the “Auto Update” to “Notify Me When an Update is Available” option and enjoyed a peaceful and undisturbed working environment. Once a while, I would check the update list and only selected those that seemed to be necessary for my laptop. The available updates accumulated over the time, and eventually I gave up checking the list. Luckily, things went on smoothly for the following year, and I gradually forgot about all these update issues.

In 2009, I was dragged into the World of Warcraft by my classmates and became a little abscessed with this fascinating world. However, upon installation, I could not open the game client properly. With the help of my roommate, I finally found out that the problem was my outdated video driver. It required substantial upgrade (about 2 hours) to meet the minimum requirement for this game. I spent the rest of that day updating lots of my software and other patches and thrilled to discover lots of new and easy-to-use functions in my current software. The computer also ran much faster due to some major optimization in operation system.

Computer is a simplified version of our human brain, and it needs our humans to turn on the “Auto Update” function to achieve continuous evolving. Without this major learning process (i.e. installation of various patches), computers will not be compatible with many new software or games and may be abandoned in the end. For our humans, we are lucky enough having direct control to our own brain and can easily embrace all the changes and new knowledge via continuous learning. In order to keep up with this digital era, we should hold an open mind to all the new things. For example, my parents have never used a smartphone before, and in their mind phone should only be used to contact someone. Once I introduced all the fancy new functions on the smartphone, my parents were amazed by the all the convenience this tiny device could bring. Last year when I got back home for Christmas, my parents taught themselves of all the new functions on smartphone. Right now, with the help of a smartphone, they can easily purchase anything with “Alipay” without concerning short of cash or receiving forged note. This is an example of how technology can change our life, but it can only happen when you embrace it positively.

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

I know keep learning new things can be scary to someone, considering this process always start with stepping of your comfort zone. But in higher education, you need to stay on the “same page” with most of the people. For example, our graduate students need to read new research papers every week or even every day to absorb new knowledge. To me, I can keep my mind at its best state and come up with lots of fresh research ideas via timely “upgrade”. So don’t turn off your “Auto Update” function, stay positive, be brave enough to step out of your comfort zone, and embrace changes and new knowledge with passion. This is when the magic can happen in this digital era.

The Mindless Undergrad

My undergraduate engineering education appears blurry at best, and it wasn’t until graduate school that I felt like I was learning and was being mindful about it. Langerdefines mindful learning as being able to “draw novel distinctions” so that we are more sensitive to “context and perspective.” In engineering education, I think we could further specify mindful learning as being aware of context, limitations and implications (of theories, frameworks, systems, designs). As a simple example, when confronted with an equation, a mindful way of learning would be understanding the assumptions and limitations inherent in the math, and the context in which this equation could be suitably applied.

This topic of mindful learning is near and dear to me, because I felt like I wasted four precious, irreversible years not learning as much as I could have. There was a number of reasons for the so called “mindlessness”:

  1. While I agree with Langer  that the term “basics” may not be applicable to everyone, I do think there are fundamental concepts in engineering that should be learned as the necessary prerequisite to more advanced material. Some examples include the equation of motion, static analysis, etc. For this reason, the engineering curriculum was understandably mostly content driven. However, these fundamentals were delivered on a problem-by-problem format that screamed “this is how and where you apply this formula” and often with little relevancy to real life problem solving. Students learned to solve these individual problems by following established procedures, and would do so repeatedly for a number of similar questions, but would they be able to apply these concepts in a foreign setting in which the problem scope was not clearly defined?
  2. It was difficult to be a mindful learner under stress and sleep deprivation. In the Canadian education system where I went through undergraduate, it was normal (mandatory) to have 6 or 7 courses per semester in which lectures, tutorials and labs took up 35-45 hours per week. This did not include the time it took to complete assignments, projects and studying for tests. Under bombardment of course content and time constraint, students often chose the easiest route that would maximize their grades. It became a game of guessing what will be covered on the test, and memorizing key solutions so as to get by. I didn’t think there was enough time (and I didn’t have the energy) to truly absorb the material, let alone to reflect and extrapolate. The mentality was simply “to get things done.” While I might come off as complaining, I honestly did not think that overloading students was truly conducive to learning. What further perplexed me was that the heavy curriculum had to physically take place on campus even though the majority of students commuted an hour or more to school (one way). Was it a wonder that early morning and late evening classes were mostly empty? Perhaps the one thing I did learn from undergraduate studies was time management.
  3. Do we place enough faith in our undergraduate students? I hesitate to answer, because in my own experience, the better learning material had always seemed to be reserved for the graduate students. By “better,” I mean the presentation of material with qualifying statements, with all its uncertainties, and not simplified so that it was only correct…for the time being. (You will learn the real thing in graduate school!) There are of course benefits to simplifying certain concepts in introductory courses, but I think instructors should be responsible for framing the concepts in a way that allows room for discussion, questioning, and exploration of the open ended aspects. I often hear professors say that “it’s too hard” for the undergraduates and that “they won’t get it.” Is it fair to place limitations on the students’ intellectual development without even giving them a chance?

It is impossible to turn back time, and I am pretty sure I would not want to suffer through the same delivery of that curriculum again. I can only hope to draw from my own experiences as a student and move forward as a teacher. If engineering education needs to be content driven, then perhaps it is only logical to explore various methods of content delivery. As I was writing the second point about balancing time, travel and workload, it occurred to me that uploading lectures online, such as in video format, and allowing students to learn the material whenever, wherever, however, might be more suitable for a student population that is geographically dispersed. While this entire post might seem like an angry diatribe (and I apologize!), I am glad at the possibility of transforming an unpleasant experience into a stepping stone for a better educational experience for others.

Create Your Own Life

Nowadays, we spend most of the lifetime in the school and university, no matter the roles we play is a student or an educator. As a student, the main purpose to join the campus life is to gain more information and learning about how to create a bright future. A student who has the goal and curious about everything is more easy to achieve. Human is nature learner. Therefore, the navigates of the educator is more important than others. Especially for the teachers in the art and design areas.

What is art? What is design? Is it the same? Is it important? “A real education has to give equal weight to the art, the humanities, and the physical education.” Many people consider art means understand art history. ok, let’s play a game. Please tell me the name of five artists. If you would answer immediately, which means you are familiar with art history. But “art” is an abstract concept. General speaking, the definition of art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts, expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power.(Defined by Wikipedia) In other words, there is not a standard to judge the good artworks. Creativity is the engine to be an outstanding artist.

It is a challenge for the educator how to organize in the inside class. In the primary step of art class, teachers focus on the training of technical skill and the expressing in the visual art. For example, in the drawing class, the teacher will set a group of still-life objects, and draw as an example. During the process, the teacher will emphasize the key point, like the composition, shadow and sharp, etc. After the longtime training, teachers will organize the practice of observation and imagination. It is the most interesting part for the students display their artworks on the wall. Even the diversity art pieces are all present the same topic, the students will display the personal understanding to express the various traditional and digital methods.

In the higher educational level, students need to connect the campus life to the social life. It depends on the choice for the future life, part of the students will continue study in the institution, while others will work for the industry. Whatever the choice is, in my opinion, the experience is important for the students for the further learning. Attending the internship project. It is a chance for students to narrow down the research direction.

Choosing the language to express the idea and concept is the tough part for both students and educator in art and design. Broden the horizon and enrich the experience are the ways to receive the energy and get the achievement.

Thoughts on Why Lecture is Obsolete: and why gamification may turn education on its head

I think that the cultural relationship we have to ‘school’ and ‘lecture’ are the largest contributing factor to why lectures persist as a teaching method, even though few students believe that they are effective (personally) or significant, in terms of what is actually learned.

I read Robert Talbert’s article: Four Things Lecture is Good For reluctantly, because I, like so many of us, do not feel that lecture is an effective pedagogy most of the time. But I was much more optimistic about the power of lecture after I read it. I agree with Talbert’s assessment that if a lecture is intentionally prepared and delivered for one of the four purposes he states, it could very well be a positive learning method. But I don’t recall any lectures I have attended in a university setting that were intentionally delivered, or framed as being for one of the purposes enumerated by Talbert (modeling thought processes, sharing cognitive structures, providing context, telling stories). I have listened to plenty of TED Talks, attended book introductions, attended presentations of research and study findings, heard people tell stories about their life and experiences and never considered them to be lectures. But I never thought about why.

So, I’ve decided to take a few minutes to do so. To make sure I was operating from a solid foundation, I looked up the Oxford Dictionary definition for the word ‘lecture’. The two listed were what I expected, but then I looked at the etymology which is most interesting:

lecture (n.) Look up lecture at Dictionary.comc. 1300, “written works, literature;” late 14c., “learning from books,” from Medieval Latin lectura “a reading,” from Latin lectus, past participle of legere “to read,” originally “to gather, collect, pick out, choose” (compare elect), from PIE root *leg- (1) “to collect, gather,” with derivatives meaning “to speak (to ‘pick out words’).” To read is, perhaps, etymologically, to “pick out words.”

The sense “a reading aloud, action of reading aloud” (either in divine worship or to students) in English emerged early 15c. That of “a discourse on a given subject before an audience for purposes of instruction” is from 1530s. Meaning “admonitory speech given with a view to reproof or correction” is from c. 1600. Lecture-room is from 1793; lecture-hall from 1832. In Greek the words still had the double senses relating to “to speak” and “to gather” (apologos “a story, tale, fable;” elaiologos “an olive gatherer”)

(link to Online Etymology Dictionary)

As soon as I read it I recalled learning that years ago as I was beginning to teach. Lectures were not originally intended to be centered on what the Lecturer had to say to whoever was listening, their primary intent was to transmit knowledge – which at the time resided largely in books – in a story-like fashion. I envision ancient Greeks going to listen to a teacher or elder reading (lecturing) from a book written by Pythagoras, Socrates or Plato – transmitting their ideas and understanding in a way that was not accessible to every person at the time. Lectures, in that time (and, I would argue, through the beginning of the twentieth century) were one of the only effective means of transmitting knowledge. They may not have been ideal, but they were a step up from what was happening before they made their debut (think: believing myth, story and innuendo/gossip as ‘truth’). They were evolutionarily appropriate and allowed more humans to think reasonably and rationally about truth and accuracy.

I would argue that lectures have held on as ‘acceptable’ pedagogy because of how deeply ingrained they are in the fabric of our existence. We’ve never really known a world without them being used, and we’re not convinced yet (at least not the majority of us humans) that they are not an effective means for transmitting understanding.

But there is hope all around – and plenty of new thinking about pedagogy that should result in more and better learning among people of all ages. My favorite one to think about at the moment is gamification.


Thanks to Jason Callaghan for his post “With a show of hands who wants to be lectured at?” which spurred my further reflection.

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