Don’t bash the basics

So, apparently I enjoy playing the devil’s advocate when it comes to the weekly readings. I agree with some of what both Langer and Wesch write but—in a nice, exciting middle ground position—some of their views on anti-teaching and how to learn most effectively also differ from mine. Langer speaks of the dangers of overlearning, excessive practice, and drilling “the basics” to student creativity and even mastery. One of the hazards of overlearning is the inability to react to new situations, although the examples Langer provides do not exactly lend a sense of urgency to incorporating mindfulness into education (turning on a car blinker on an abandoned road? walking on the left as opposed to the right side of the sidewalk?). However, I absolutely agree that practicing can be done to a fault. My first thought when I read this article was of a book I recently finished (and which I seem to reference in most of my blog posts and comments), Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown et al. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in teaching…very interesting and informative but also enjoyable to read. The authors discuss some of the educational myths that Langer outlines as well as strategies supported by pedagogical research to help students learn. One technique is interleaving (see also Scientific American article) as opposed to the traditional method of practicing a single skill repetitively before moving on to another. Interleaving is mixing up types of problems or drills, so, for example, instead of grouping math problems in a homework assignment by whether they require addition and subtraction or multiplication and division, the problems are jumbled. An example from the book outside of education is with batting practice in baseball. In one study, the pitches were in random order to one group of players and blocked by the type of pitch (twenty curveballs followed by twenty fastballs, etc.) to another. The players in the random, interleaved practice struggled more not knowing what pitch they were going to get but ended up performing better than the other group in future practice and games because they had learned to discriminate different pitches. The topic of overlearning, especially in reference to “the basics,” also reminded me of the “Everything is a Remix” YouTube video series and TED talk by Kirby Ferguson that we watched in the Preparing the Future Professoriate class last semester. Langer warns against mindlessly going through the motions of learning basic skills, whether in tennis or math, without considering individual needs and abilities. Langer also questions the notion that a standard set of basics should exist, because these guidelines may hamper modifications that permit creativity and lead to new insights. Clearly, everyone is different, and what works for one person will not necessarily work for someone else. However, according to Ferguson in Part 3 of his series, “copying is how we learn.” In contrast to Langer, Ferguson seems to identify more with the school of thought that we need to learn some set of established fundamentals before we can go on to achieve greatness. He provides examples, mostly of famous artists, who start out by copying the work of others before they then become creative geniuses themselves. Bob Dylan’s first album consisted mostly of cover songs, and Hunter S. Thompson retyped The Great Gatsby, word for word, to know what it was like to write a novel. There are other examples, but the point is that practicing a skill in a prescriptive manner or according to what someone else did does not necessarily prevent or stifle creativity. Langer is not calling for a complete overhaul of basic skills acquisition, but the goal of individualizing “the basics” for every person is somewhat unrealistic. That being said, small changes can go a long way: for example, offering a few different ways one might hold a tennis racket is easy to do and avoids the mindset of “this is absolutely the only way this will ever work for you.” But I would argue that a general set of basics, fundamentals, or prerequisites are time-saving, but also useful and not in opposition to the goal of individual learning and mastery. So, to tie in with my post title, “yo, don’t bash the basics.” Following our discussion on connected learning, I think we all hope to share our excitement about a subject to students to ignite their curiosity. Better yet, the students can then discover how the topics have meaning in their own lives–maybe beyond tests. While I think most of us want our students to find a passion for learning, Wesch accurately describes how many of us come up short. Students struggle to connect their education to anything meaningful? Yep. Students are more concerned with tests than understanding? Also yes. I am eager to change the climate of higher education to re-awaken a love of learning in students, but I thought Wesch’s views were biased toward a decidedly academic mindset. I believe that most college students are rational human beings, and while many of them do possess the capacity to love learning, they would also very much like a job one day that provides them food, water, shelter, and the ability to pay off student loan debt and procreate in a financially-responsible manner. In order to get this sort of job fifty years ago, a Bachelor’s degree was more than sufficient. Now, a Bachelor’s might not be enough, and applicants must additionally have good grades, internship or research experience, community service, and other resume-building activities. While many college students today are a product of the culture of standardized testing in K-12 education, their preoccupation with grades and tests is also a bit of a survival tactic: the job market is competitive, and, like it or not, grade point averages help determine whether or not you come out on top. Despite the very real pressures students face, instructors can, and should, cultivate a desire to learn. All people are “cut out for learning,” to quote Wesch. However, I disagree with the notion that school, in the sense of colleges and universities, is for everyone. The education system obviously leaves much to be desired, and schools should better facilitate student success and encourage students to get excited about learning. That is to say, school is for many more people than current conditions would suggest, but still not for one hundred percent of individuals…and I think that is okay! I tend to be a big fan of trade and vocational schools. You want to be a raft guide for the rest of your life? Or a massage therapist? Or a welder? That’s awesome, you’ll probably be much happier than most academics that make six-figure salaries. Constant learning also takes place in these other professions. Or what about students that are driven by other, equally worthy passions besides strictly learning? For example, one of my friends studied to be a doctor (so, medical school and not vocational school, but you see where I am going with this), not because she is endlessly curious about disease mutations, but because she wants to help provide medical care to underprivileged people in the rural South. In order to be a good doctor, she will continually learn as well, but a burning desire to know is not what keeps her going; rather, I think her primary goal is to actively help people. The hunger for knowledge Wesch speaks of seems to apply more for Master’s or PhD-bound students interested in research. I feel that, as teachers, our focus should move towards not only fostering an atmosphere of learning but additionally helping students connect with their true interests and curiosities…and realizing that these will not always coincide with the passion for learning in a school setting that Wesch describes.

Learning styles: A problem to the how question in course design!

It was really interesting to me to see this video of Sir Ken Robinson about how to escape the education’s death valley. The main lesson I got out of this video is that we as educators should try to design our courses taking into consideration the individuality of our students. In other words, after putting the syllabus and defining the material and content that should be learned, we should really take the second step which is deciding “how” we will deliver these content with great caution and keep in mind that our students are different. Given this truth that our students are different, do you think that using a single method of course delivery (i.e. lecture based plus assigned readings) will make all of our students engaged in the course? According to sir Robinson the answer is definitely no and I am totally agree with him.

In my research I am working on designing and evaluating new methods of course delivery that will make students engaged in hard computer science topics mainly Data Structures and Algorithms. The main hypothesis in my research is that if abstract text book material is presented more concretely relying on computer animations, students will be more engaged in the topic and their learning gains also will be enhanced. For an example of the difference between the two methods of presentations refer to the figure below.


To this point, do you see the flaw in my hypothesis? Clearly I’ve overlooked the individuality of my students and assumed that all of them will prefer learning through animations over learning through reading textual material. In education, there is something called learning styles which is defined as: an individual’s unique approach to learning based on strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. For example since students are different from each other, some of them may prefer to see the material as videos and photos, others may prefer animations, and others may prefer reading from a text book. When I was interviewing one of the students in my study and I asked him about his opinion if we replace the textual content with animated content, he suggested that the material is better to be presented using both methods and the student is free to use the one he prefers. I believe that this suggestion comes out from and supports the idea of learning styles.

Finally, my advice to all educators is to try to understand the preferences and abilities or in other words the learning styles of their students and work hard to deliver the content based on this. I bet this way we will have lower course drop rates and we will have our students more engaged in our courses.


As Ellen Langer beautifully states: “The simple process of mindful learning, of actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things-seeing the familiar in the novel and the novel in the familiar-is a way to ensure that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present.” 

I definitely think that working my way from undergraduate to graduate school, learning has been a much more pleasant and active experience for me. Being in engineering, I think we have all experienced those professors which just write a bunch of equations on the board and finish the class with some examples which they might provide the answer to right away or during the next session! The main reason that I attended classes like this was to take notes so that I can go home and study from notes after class! This approach is the “top down” approach which relies on discursive lecturing to instruct students. I should say that I find this method beneficial for students who just want to familiarize themselves with the topics which are introduced in a course and maybe take the time themselves to dive deeper in the topics that they find beneficial to their life/work/research. This is the same concept as auditing a course. I definitely think that if we are taking courses for credit we should be very hands on with that course and not just familiarized with some concepts and methods of that topic. This ties well with the “bottom-up” approach which relies on direct experience and repeated practice of the new activity in a systematic way. Some of best courses that I have had in my life shared two common guidelines which I find very useful:

1) The professors always mentioned not to worry about the grade. This semester I noticed that all professors were required to put a grading scale on their syllabus! I do not know if this is very useful! Since it puts extra stress on the students and also all the professors ended up mentioning that they were required to include this grading scale on their syllabus and that they will curve the class to help students focus on learning and not their grade. So why include the grading scale on the syllabus?

2) They always tied the theory with some great life examples. As as example I took a decision theory course last semester and as part of the course requirement we had to learn how to play poker and participate in a poker playing session in class! I mean how much more hands on can we get with decision making?! Everyone had to consider their (and other player’s) probability of winning, and then figure out how much it is worth for them to bet according to their chances of winning in a limited amount of time! Not to mention that at some point emotions will get involved since you want to win so badly, or you have already bet so much that you have “nothing to loose”, or are pressurized by another player! You should also consider that other players might be bluffing! This tied very well with most of the topics that were introduced in the course and helped me adapt the skills that I learned to a real life example which could also be further adapted to trading stocks, important life decisions (i.e. at a personal or job level), etc.

I also think that redesigning your syllabus (which I wrote a blog post about last semester) is a fun and creative way for enhancing the learning process and making the class more active and interactive. Why not look back at our best learning experiences and try to adapt those methods to what we are teaching? Another example in my field (civil engineering) could include some hands on work, preferably in the lab with designing structures and testing them under various types of loads. Yes, I know how to design structures for bridges, houses, etc on a piece of paper. However this is just like another example introduced by Ellen Langer which was someone teaching you methodologically how to perform CPR on infants and adults. Now imagine that you are walking by a pool and you come across  a 7 year old who needs CPR. What do you do? How do you adapt your CPR knowledge to this 7 year old?

As teachers, we should introduce concepts and theories, and design activities and group projects which allow the learners to engage in the content by exploring, debating, creating, practicing, and imitating rather than just receiving! We need to facilitate the learning process so that learners are prepared to adjust and adopt what they have learned to real life scenarios rather then teaching them to be mindlessly sequential.


Let’s not repeat history! Don’t be boring teachers! Be fun,  be creative, be dynamic, be inclusive . . . !








I think therefore I am: critical thinking for mindful learning

Schools tend to follow traditional teaching routes: students show up to class, teachers lecture, students learn (hopefully) something they didn’t know prior to attending class and then they take a test on the subject they learned to ascertain the amount of knowledge that has sunk in.

Early on, we are taught to accept certain facts for their face value, such as maths, sciences and to question other “facts” such as history, philosophy, statistical analyses and such. This method is called critical thinking. Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment. In other words, it is a lens you use to view and interact with the world. Rene Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am” to insist on the power of thought.

Critical thinking automatically invites mindful learning. You seek knowledge because you want to form an objective evaluation of any situation. And you won’t stop learning until you are satisfied with the outcome.

When you get into the habit of forming your own opinions, every opportunity to learn becomes a teachable moment and every teachable moment is an opportunity to learn some more. It all starts with acknowledging your desire to rebel (sometimes) against what is in plain sight.

Striking Truth about Today’s Education

It’s so striking, that the current system all together in education needs some improvisation on it. In Micheal Wesch’s “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance”, he discusses prominent issues in today’s educational system. His article can be found here. There’s a part in today’s education that tends to be overlooked. It is certainly getting students interested in their own education. Awakening their curiosity, making them feel the insatiable desire to learn. This is actually such a truth, and is something that’s often overlooked.

Today’s world, a majority of the people in college want a degree… To get a job… Or to not get disowned by their family… Or to make money. These are the most common motives for a college degree. However, oftentimes students go in and out of college without developing a passion for anything… Or without finding something in their field that truly interests them and inspires them. The description of huge lecture halls, with the professor being in the front is so common to undergraduate studies. Especially on important classes, that are often the basics to any field. Because these classes are taken by many, a lot of times there are a few hundred students in the class. The professor is truly, as Wesch stated, usually standing in the front of the class using a mic. This could be the calculus class that contains a mix of majors. Or the English class the political scientist cares for, and the engineer doesn’t care for. However you look at it, how do students get their passion when beginning college? If students are piled in a huge lecture hall, focused on getting a high GPA… And that’s all…. Often times, students want to figure out What’s on the test, or how to study.

An even harsher reality, is that many times the introductory classes to any major are weed-out classes to the major. They make people’s lives very difficult. I remember, as an Electrical Engineering major, how Digital Signal Processing was the first class we took in EE. That class was hell. We pulled all nighters trying to figure out how to do the labs. The class had a ridiculous load, and the professors and our section TAs weren’t really engaged in teaching the class. The horror stories about the class were ridiculous. I had some friends who were Biomedical Engineering Majors who changed majors, because they just couldn’t pass DSP. These people were really passionate about BME, but just couldn’t hack it. To this day, I feel like I could’ve really loved the class. While I was studying for the final, after all the labs were out of the way,  I realized how useful the material was… But all I was doing at that point was cramming for the final… Because I wanted DSP to be in my past. And it is certainly is in my past. I’ve never done ANY DSP since that day… Even though all my friends who took it at the senior level of college (at other institutions) rather than the sophmore level, said it’s an amazing class… But I always sway away from DSP.. I run a 100 miles away if I can, metaphorically, of course.

At the same time, I believe that we gain passion for what we do in part because of passionate professors in our field who teach us. In addition, it’s a more friendly and less authoritarian environment.  Someone needs to show you the beauty of what you’re learning, so you go out and seek further knowledge.  There needs to be a way to convince incoming students about the beauty of learning… The beauty of research..

When people get specialized, they are often taken by the idea that no matter how much they learn, they don’t know a lot of things. This is a true story. However, people won’t appreciate that, if they don’t appreciate their learning experience. If they only care to make money. If there are further motives, then people will be more engaged to learn, and be hungry to learn more. Those are my 10 cents, on learning today…

Second Blogging Prompt

Once again, everything is on the table as long as it engages the readings for next week and /or the topic of mindfulness in teaching and learning. You might want to respond to the readings in the context of Sir Ken Robinson’s video and discussion we shared this evening. You might want to reflect on your current understanding of pedagogy — connected or otherwise — knowing that this might change.

(This part is back by popular demand): You might want to dive more deeply into some of the material in the first unit of the Connected Courses cmooc, Why We Need a Why. (If you’re interested in how I managed that prompt check this out.) Whatever approach you take, know that it will be fine, and that your colleagues will be attentive, interested readers.

Image: Play-Child-Sidewalk-Chalk by Chraecker

Connected Learning with limited resources?

Although, I like the concept of connected learning I find it hard to wrap my head around how it is possible to accomplish this goal with the limited resources we have? Teachers are not paid nearly enough and the amount of time and effort it would take to individually curate and work with a student’s interest would be monumental. The current system (although severely flawed), seems to work – teachers can disseminate knowledge to all students through a structured curriculum and course outcomes can be used to evaluate whether students fully understood the concepts. Exams also reinforce learning and critical thinking skills. This sort of a system obviously tends to ignore student interests and possibly students that are outliers i.e. those who are having a hard time coping up with the material and/or those that have exceptional talent. In an ideal world a connected learning environment (in school) would be best for every student.

I’ve gone through several different types of learning environments which have all been in stark contrast to each other. Through all of my schooling years we were tested purely on our abilities to memorize (understanding of concepts was of far lower value and marks on the exams were of paramount importance); in contrast the undergraduate years were a little more relaxed – there were some courses (not nearly enough) with project based learning (PBL) that were extremely fun. I can look back and say that I definitely got a lot more out of such PBL courses.

Graduate school on the other hand has been far more liberal (both in terms of course selection and in terms of the curriculum) – I enjoy the format of most graduate level courses which to me is connected learning, based around a structured curriculum. Typical format of such courses have interesting and challenging homework’s based around key concepts discussed in class, followed typically by a mid-semester and/or final project that is fairly open ended. I have come to really like this style of teaching and learning – such a format ensures that I not only learn the key concepts, but also apply them to a project, which reinforces the learning. Graduate school to me is a good model of connected learning – however such an environment is hard to implement in schools and undergraduate institutions, partly due to the large class sizes and partly due to the nature of the curriculum in the courses. Several undergraduate classes (such as Calculus I, II) build on your base knowledge – project based learning would be hard to implement in such courses.

Jedi, year 7, & other drugs.

When I heard the word Gedi /ˈdʒɛd.aɪ/ for the first time, I though directly in Jedi from the Star Wars movie. Then it turned out to be a completely different term which is an abbreviation for “Graduate Education Development Institute”.  Well, does Jedi have anything to do here?, the answer is yes. The Jedi is an individual who uses a special force to fight for peace and justice. The first thing that this individual needs to do is to study the energy of this force. This leads us directly to learning. Specifically, to a type of learning that did not take place in a school.

Learning beyond the school should be seen as normal and essential for every one. A man should keep looking for knowledge all his lifetime and learn from all the situations he faces in his life. Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.”

Being well-known, what else could be said about this type of learning? Well, this type of learning now affects students in school-age. As information becomes available everywhere today, students tend to learn not only from school but also from every source they could get their hands on. Students in school begin to learn about specific topics according to the curriculum. Topics in the curriculum are selected by some experts to suit students’ age and to include indispensable topics for the kids. However, kids should be encouraged to look at other sources of information especially in the topics they like.

In this context, I want to share my experience with my second grader son who began to get involved with this type of learning in his seventh year. My son studied about planets and space among other topics in science. He became very interested in these topics and began asking a lot of questions. The same happened in some topics in social studies. His teacher at the school told us to get him more books  in the topics he likes. This helped him to get deeper in these topics. I also allowed him to use voice-enabled search engines on my tablet, or phone, to get answers for what he wonders about. To get the point from this, I see that kids should not be limited to what there in school books. We should encourage them to learn more and more about what they like or get interested in. Socrates said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”

The next question is, do students need these curricula or they could only learn about what they like? My point of view is that, students still need to learn about essential topics. For example, it is not good to have a scientist who know nothing about the history of his country or about another branch of science. So students need to integrate what they learn in school with their personal interest stimulated by topics studied at school, this type of learning is known as connected learning.

Back to my title, the next half of the title reads “& other drugs”.  Actually, this is a reflection to the movie “Love & other drugs”. In this movie, one company was producing a drug for blood pressure. The drug was not so effective in treating blood pressure but it had other side effects that allowed it to help many men in having successful relations. The company of course developed the drug to serve this, but my point here is they learned from a side, meant to be a bad, effect. This also relates to connected learning, learning from experiences or career relevant sources is a an important aspect of connected learning.

In a nutshell, connected learning is inevitable due to the huge sources of information available these days. It should only be oriented from mentors to the way that helps students.

Connected Learning: The Great Equalizer?

The beauty of connected learning lies in the idea that, because of technology, learning has become even more inclusive. According to the Connected Learning Alliance in “Connected Learning: The Power of Making Learning Relevant,” through the internet, social media, and, of course, schools, gathering information has become easier than ever. Sometimes, learning an entire skill can just be a click away. Since learning and information is becoming even more accessible to the masses, it leaves me to wonder: is connected learning the great equalizer?

Apart from the students who, for one reason or another, have limited access to education or the internet, most students of today are essentially equipped to learn anything their heart desires. Want to learn how to make a basket? You can Google that. Want to learn how to use HTML to build a website, but never took a computer science or graphic design class? There are YouTube tutorials for that. Therefore, in a way, connected learning allows students to become their own expert through the expertise of others. Thanks to the internet, everyone (again, with the exception of some) has the ability to go after exactly what they want and when they want it.

With that being said, do you think there is potential for the internet, social media, and web-based tools to ever become so accessible and powerful that it, in a way, depreciates a formal education? Do you think it could ever get to a point that everyone has enough information at their fingertips that the “standard” education could be replaced?

Learning Process through blogging

This week we are supposed to write a blog post related to connected learning procedure for our GEDI (Graduate Education Development Institute) class. I think about blogging as a learning tool and I’d like to share my idea that how the new social media such as Facebook and Instagram cause a deterioration of knowledge and learning on web. I want to write about my own experience when I was in college in Iran. Back to early of 2000, people started using the internet in Iran gradually and when I entered to college in 2003 young people are the main users of the internet in Iran. At that time writing a blog was very popular among youth and Persian was one of the active languages in blogging space. There was not any other social network and media platform at that time in Iran and people try to connect with each other through blogging. This is a very amazing phenomenon in a society like Iran. Bloggers learned from each other, they became friends virtually and then went out to a coffee shop or park to be familiar better in real world. This phenomenon had a great effect on Iran among youth. Writing a blog helped people to learn more: people had to read more to write better and have more audiences. Even those people who wrote some emotional stuff also need to be up-to-date. In contrast to other media such as Facebook, blogging needs deep thinking, writing effectively and properly with correct dictation and grammar. However, Facebook has much more informal platform: people are connected to each other informally and in a shallow way. On Facebook, you share your feeling or photos and sometimes your idea but the platform is not suited for dialogue. However, on a blog, a blogger thinks about an idea and shares it with his/her audiences and the audiences share their ideas and opinions through comments. This platform is much more suited for dialogue and learning. When I compare the atmosphere of Farsi blogs and Farsi Facebook, it is completely obvious for me how shallow is Facebook and how deeply learning happens in blogs. I think we need to come back to a social network such as blogs as a useful tool for connected learning: It gives us a structure to think deeply, write correctly and reply to our friend in a mutual respectful situation and thus we will have a society which individuals are connected to each other through a learning platform.

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