Coaching for the new professional

Palmer in his article put forward some “immodest proposals” for the new professional. In the article, the author defined new professional as someone who can say, “In the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values of my work, I have found firm ground on which to stand—the ground of personal and professional identity and integrity—and from which I can call myself, my colleagues, and my profession back to our true mission.”

But, given the realities of life, these goal is difficult to achieve for most people. Life happens – priorities shift, opportunity costs seem huge at times, so on and so forth and we slowly give up to the system. In fact, institution is the emergent phenomena where each individual’s behaviors, actions, and relations create that phenomena. So, to ask professionals to take a stance which may not align to the institutions’s flow, if not be against it, would be asking a lot from professionals.

These are lofty dreams without any concrete steps to achieve it. I happen to be an engineer – divide-and-conquer, prototype-and-iterate, agile-and-scrum, etc. earn my daily breads – and was bothered by the missing action plan (or any sort of goal-achieving timeline). And then I came across Atul Gawande’s article emphasizing the need for professionals to have coaches (he got one!). Coaches, as individuals who can observe, judge, and guide professionals towards a goal, could help in achieving Palmer’s proposals.

Individuals may deviate under pressure and may need some support. Coaches who are neutral to the institution and the professional would come in and “share” the pressure. They would nudge, suggest, and provide support to the professionals to be stronger. They may even teach the things that Palmer proposes right at the moment when the teaching seems necessary. For example, although I know that emotional intelligence is important, I would highly appreciate if  someone who understands my profession, supports the emotional feeling that I may have at work. If I get the support right at the moment of need, then it would mean far more to me than being taught beforehand.

Do you feel that you could use a coach in your line of work? Do you feel you could adhere to Palmer’s principles more  easily if you had a coach?

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The Times They Are A-Changin: The age of peer-to-peer lending

The entire Paulo Freire reading was passionate and emotional (just look at this video of how he moves his body when discussing about critical thinking). I can strongly relate to some of the arguments that Freire makes based on my experiences in Nepal and India. However, I also feel that the situation is not as dire now as it probably was during Freire’s time. I discuss both these contradicting perspectives below and conclude with learning/teaching implications that I feel we could learn from Freire’s work.

When I was working in India, there was a growing movement of right-wing Hindu nationalists (the party power) to enforce Hindu teachings in schools. This movement has been termed as saffronisation. Rajasthan, a large state in the western part of India, has decided to change the textbooks from 2016 onwards. These new textbooks has far more content on Hindu movements, and allegedly, downplays on works involving other religions. Likewise, Karnataka state, where Bangalore city – the “Silicon valley of the east” lies, has also decided to change their textbooks from 2017 onwards following the same line as Rajasthan.

If we think about it, these policies assume the “banking model” of education, and unfortunately, they are not wrong. Education system in India and Nepal are mostly follow the banking model especially in public schools. It is fairly common to see teachers as the center of the learning process, and pupils as mere objects whose mind is being filled. The learning practice has been such that students rarely question teachers or argue against the information being provided. This is so prevalent that many students feel that they insult the teacher if they question anything. Critical thinking is not something that is usually taught or discussed within the school boundaries. This makes adding Hinduism-laden content in the textbooks a very effective way to influence young students.

This brings me to the second part – and the relevance of the title. The time in which Freire experienced inequality was quite different – huge economic inequality existed in Brazil, people needed to be literate to vote so that meant the voice of the poor was extremely suppressed, and there were very few alternate sources of information other than formal education. Additionally, until 1960s behaviorist approach to learning was prominent. All this would have culminated in an environment where the privileged teachers who could expound knowledge and influence behavior could so in their interest (or as Freire writes by “changing the consciousness of the oppressed”).

In modern days there are far more free information sources (although it remains highly debatable how “free” each of them are). Particularly, access to Internet, the decentralized repository of a vast range of information, has empowered lots of people. Teachers are no longer center of the learning process. Rather, “peers” who produce information over the internet have become far more influential. Since it is decentralized and enormously connected, a person of influence in one setting may be the influenced one in the other setting.

Although learning has become peer-to-peer and more decentralized, the importance of critical thinking is equally, if not more, important. There are all sorts of information out there and to figure out the relevant ones, and filter out the wrong/misleading/useless ones require a well-rounded understanding of the world. Freire uses the term “consciousness” to highlight the levels of situational awareness – moving upwards from “magical consciousness” to “naive consciousness”, and further towards “critical consciousness” and finally to “political consciousness”. These terms may seem like a hyperbole but the underlying fundamental idea that Freire expresses remains highly relevant. The time may not be of a banking model, but “action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” – which Freire terms as “praxis”- is imperative for our society to progress either be it to ensure justice and equality, or to mitigate oppression (corporate, political, social, emotional) and suffering. Understanding the world through the words and acting upon it is highly important, as Dylan writes:

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again

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Preparing for future learning

As I reflect back on my blog posts to see my stance regarding pedagogy, I realize a common theme underlying those. I will use those ideas to chalk out a vision of a classroom syllabus. Since I am interested in integrated Computer Science in middle school STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) classrooms, I will discuss my points considering a hypothetical middle school science classroom.

Middle school would be the age when children start questioning and exploring their identity, and starting to formulate a strong idea about themselves and the society they live in. Hence, I feel, it becomes imperative that we enable this identity exploration process through a well-formulated syllabus and a well-designed learning environment. Taking the backward design approach, I would like to help my students to prepare themselves for future learning as they start to form their identity around the constantly changing aspects of the society.

There are three facets in my above stated goals that I would individually like to discuss:

  1. Form their identity:
    It is important that students are free to explore and form ideas and beliefs on their own. Much of what we learn arises from our drive to exploration and experiences. Students should have the freedom to seek differing experiences and be able to take charge of certain situations.
    In a classroom, this translates to giving students some control over their learning experiences. At the basic level,  I would let students to develop and implement classroom activities. This could mean planning trips to a nearby science museum, classroom activity that the student(s) choose or develop, and letting students set the policies for classrooms (break times, phone/computer usage, etc.). Not only would this promote autonomy but would also help students to imbibe the idea that they are in-charge of their learning experience.
    Taking this idea further, I would also negotiate learning goals and assessment expectations with the students. Each student is at a different learning levels and would have different goals and as an educator we need to meet each student at the place they are, and thereupon, help them grow further. This class would be project-based wherein students would negotiate and decide the project they want to work on. It would be certainly taxing for each teacher to negotiate but I believe we can design methods (and conduct professional development) to make the negotiation process more efficient and scalable.
  2. Constantly changing aspect of the society:
    The society is constantly changing. Things that were considered extraordinary in the past are commonplace now and may become obsolete in the future. Change is the only thing that remains constant. Within this changing environment, I would like to help my students be able to negotiate and handle such change. Social aspects of learning particularly collaborative and cooperative learning would be a significant focus. Project-based work would involve dealing with “real world” objects  and would be proceeded by related problem-solving activities. Problem-solving activities would help them value the work and their learning experience. The real world project would help in promoting their sense of agency and their potential impact on the world outside. Furthermore, this approach of both problem-solving activity before a project work would also help imbibe the idea of the need to learn and adapt as they progress in their work.
    Assessments would also be formative rather than summative where I would encourage self-assessment and revision. Self-assessments would help students monitor their progress and also would provide intrinsic encouragement to work for further learning. Revision helps in fostering a growth mindset – that one can alway improve and progress further. To support revision, at the basic level, students will be able to re-submit or redo assignments/projects. This would encourage students to focus on learning rather than performance. Furthermore, formative assessment would also help me plan my teaching and design scaffolds according to each students needs.
  3. Future learning
    We cannot possible teach student everything and so, we need to make them become knowledge seekers. For this, students have to be curious and have an intrinsic motivation to learn. By setting classrooms which have problem-solving activities combined with project-based learning environment would help in fostering curiosity in the students. Furthermore, allowing students to negotiate learning goals, set assessment expectation, and self-assess their work would help them decide what and how they want to learn in the future. Formative assessments would also be useful in providing students feedbacks and opportunities to further progress and learn deeper. Making students familiar with the changing trends in the field especially using computers as a literacy tool would also be my priority. All these would help students be better prepared for future learning.

I can sense that this is going to be very exhausting to a teacher especially in large classrooms (that are typical of a middle school). However, I believe that with proper technological interventions and teaching methods, we can solve this problem.


This is a mashup of several learning sciences theories and transferred to a practical classroom implementation. The primary ideas and their corresponding sources are :
1. Problem-based activities before project and formative assessments: Barron, Brigid JS, et al. “Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem-and project-based learning.” Journal of the Learning Sciences7.3-4 (1998): 271-311.
2. The importance of autonomy and self-determination: Deci, Edward L., and Richard M. Ryan. “Self-determination theory.”Handbook of theories of social psychology 1 (2011): 416-433.
3. Future learning: Schwartz, Daniel L., and Taylor Martin. “Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction.” Cognition and Instruction 22.2 (2004): 129-184.

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Society as Knowledge Machine

A lot of knowledge is socially constructed. People learn from interacting with others, reading books where the author has expressed his/her/their thoughts, and learning from the socio-cultural surrounding. One could argue that a child could learn well by interacting with a computer. However, computers and the accompanying application that make learning possible was created by developers who have put their thoughts and ideas into the system. Hence, people are interacting with the developers and constructing knowledge henceforth. Vygotsky puts it beautifully when he says, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological).This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

If we accept this argument then we can further argue that that a knowledge machine need not be a theoretical machine.The idea of the knowledge machine is to provide learners with the opportunity to explore any situation while engaging the learner completely. A well-designed learning environment that allows students to explore their interests while encouraging participation, providing appropriate scaffolding, and creating several opportunities for formative self-assessment would achieve all the goals of the knowledge machine.

Interest-driven learning is an effective way to keep learners motivated. If we allow learners to work on projects that they care about then the learners would be intrinsically motivated to do well in the work. Rather than forcing projects and work because a syllabus requires it to be covered, we should let students explore the project they want to work on. We could try different methods such as using problem-based activities to spark interest in a particular topic. However, we should allow students to determine the project and subsequently negotiate the learning goals.

Constant feedbacks are important so that students can self-assess and progress further. One big advantage of video games arises because of the fast-paced feedback that the players receive – scores increase (or decrease) continuously, progress over a task is known throughout – which creates a compelling and rewarding experience. More importantly, seeing the feedback, the learner can improve their activities/actions and ultimately achieve “epic wins“. These feedbacks could be used as a tool to support students to learn further as argued in my previous post. We can adapt this pattern of continuous formative feedback while designing our learning environment.

When we think of knowledge machine, we are usually bound to think of a computing system of some sort that allows students to learn on their own and be totally immersed in the learning process. I urge us to think beyond the machine. Borrowing from Dr. Fowler’s note, we should keep in mind that students learn with the machine and not from the machine. It is the surrounding socio-cultural structures that supports the sense of agency in the learner, and the subsequent learning behavior, process and goals. Hence, I feel that, the knowledge machine that Papert envisioned is not a typical “machine” but rather a socially-situated, well-designed learning environment.

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Imagination supportive learning environment

There is always a tension between what is and what ought to be. These tension, which mostly arises within individuals, triggers imagination. If we see imagination in this view, then it is not mysterious at all. Imagination does not happen “just like that”. Neither is it present more in a certain group of people and less in others, nor does it require inborn talent.

This also implies that learners can be encouraged to be more imaginative. To do so, we would have to make the learners aware of the currently existing system and provide them the opportunity to use that knowledge to envision something. To make learners aware of the currently existing system may involve pedagogical practices like delivering lectures, group discussions, literature review and research work, technology-enabled information transfer, etc. Depending on the context, different methods could be used.

To encourage students to use their knowledge work on something they have envisioned, we need to support them and allow them the freedom to be imaginative. This support involves allowing autonomy in thinking and deciding their works, designing learning environments that are flexible to the individual needs of the learners, and providing ample opportunities to learn skills and gather information that is necessary to envision the idea. The most important part, in my view, is that larger portion of the learning time should be allocated to playing with the knowledge they have. Playing may involve engaged discussions, projects, write-ups or other modes of expressions, or even thinking alone. Learners should not be bogged down only on information and knowledge gathering process – which we generally enforce by adhering to broad syllabuses. All these resonate with my earlier post where I had highlighted the importance of autonomy and personalization in learning environments.

Imagination is important not just to support creative endeavors, but to ensure meaningful learning experiences. However, there is no one “correct” way to do create an imagination-supportive learning environment.  If you had the opportunity to design such a learning environment, how would you do it?

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Assessing assessments

  • Letter grade: E
  • Textual description: The need and relevance of assessments have been quite extensively discussed over the years. There is a growing consent against the currently existing summative assessment system that we commonly use in schools and colleges. People have also advocated against formative grading systems, standards-based grading, and grading-cum-feedback systems. In short, grading appears, and truly so, to be a hinderance to a meaningful learning experience. Hence, I grade the current quality of assessment to be E (or for those who dislike lettered-grades and want labels: “Execution-lacking”)

Many would find the textual description to be more meaningful than letter grade in the above case. However, it is quite apparent that I tried to justify the grade without adding much information in the description. If “Assessment” were to see the grade and feedback I gave, it would not be able to use it for progress.

We have to go to the root of the issue to find answers to how “Assessment” can improve itself in the coming days. The fundamental question, at least to me, seems to be, “What is the purpose of education?” If it is to be prepared for industrial work where a baseline knowledge is expected and where the work mostly involves low-cognitive effort, meager independent or divergent thinking, or requires only the search for information without much meaning-making then a graded assessment system could be useful. We would put a label on the quality of the individual’s knowledge repository.

However, if the purpose of education is not merely to know more but rather, as Margaret Ammons puts it, “to create a learning society”, then graded assessments would not useful. In fact, with this view about education, all assessments that do not support students in becoming lifelong learners would pointless. On the other hand, a holistic assessment that focuses more on the effort and the process, and which is used as a tool to support students to learn further would be useful.

Moreover, assessments should not be used for conformity – either to conform students to a standard or to an expected performance. As advocated in my previous blog post, autonomy and personalization are important to motivate learners. The design of assessment also affords an opportunity to further enforce the idea of autonomy and personalization. People learn things at different pace, have varied interests, and are motivated for different sets of goals. To wear the same lens to evaluate such diverse range of people, especially by fixating on standards and learning expectations, would be fallacious. An effective assessment would require negotiation between each individual learner and the learning-facilitator whereby the learner decides what they want to learn, how they want to learn, and how will they prove their mastery (of the knowledge body). Based on this negotiation, the facilitator would provide feedbacks to the student. These feedbacks would be presented throughout the learning time and would involve both formal written notes and informal conversational feedback.

However, such change in the way we assess students would require a substantive change in the social structure. Letter (or numbers) make it easy to objectively evaluate people (given that we are willing to overlook the shallowness of the letter). Kohn argues that narrative reports have been useful to evaluate people for admission to colleges. But still, colleges in the United States still depend on additional standardized testing. Moreover, outside the United States, most higher educational institutions especially in Asia depend on numbers/letters to decide admission. Beyond admission, grades are also quite extensively used by potential employers. If we are to move away from grades and pointless assessment systems then our dependence on grades and objective evaluation needs to be removed.

Additionally, teachers need to be willing to let go of the idea of graded assessment and be firm on their approach of a more holistic assessment system. Professional development training for teachers and additional policy changes that supports the removal of grading systems may be needed. Only when anecdotal examples of schools forgoing old-style assessments, such as the story of Jim Drier, becomes commonplace stories would a revolutionary change in education – one that aligns with the current needs of society – take place.

  • Better assessment: “Assessment”, you have a somewhat old mindset of objectively evaluating other people. You need to grow and adapt to the changing needs of the society and the scope of education. As we negotiated earlier, you were supposed to more involved in the process that the learner is situated in and less concerned in the ultimate outcome. You have made some progress over the years but there is still a lot to be desired particularly in your execution. We also had discussed the need for you to be more supportive in the learning process rather than being abstract and decontextualized. In this too, you have made some progress but more needs to be done – you have to move out of letters/grades/rankings and present detailed description of how the learner can do better.
    There are certain things like the society’s structure and school systems’ rigid mindset that is hindering your progress – which you have made it clear to me. Rest assured, that we are working on correcting those problems so that you can become better in the near future. You should keep on transforming yourself and moving forward, if possible, with a greater pace than what you have done so far.

“Oh, that’s so significant!”

Sir Ken Robinson, in this video, mentions that in some parts of United States 60% of children drop out of high school. He was ridiculing the No Child Left Behind Act whose problem stems from its highly decontextualized, one-standardized-test-fits-all approach to education. Like he talks in the video, millions are left behind and those that stay are not learning effectively. This video by Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) could well be used to summarize the effect of such a learning environment: One way to curb such a problem would be to encourage a personalized, autonomous, contextualized, practice-based learning environment somewhat similar to the tenants that I discussed in my previous post. Recently in a Hacker News discussion, I had posted an idea for a similar learning environment:
We should look at how we can improve the ROI for education. Millions across the world, especially in developing countries, drop out of school because they (and/or their guardians) see no benefit from long-term investment in education. Others who somehow manage to stay in formal institutions are exposed to decontextualized education that they cannot realize their full potential. There will be many different solutions to it. One of them could be a large-scale, technology-immersed learning system that teaches a broad range of topics to students through a vocation. The vocation could be decided based on the learner’s interest and the local resources. For example, in northern Nepal, children walk through perilous snow-covered hills and mountains to recover Yarsagumba (“Himalayan viagra”), a fungus with aphrodisiac and medicinal value. Instead, the kids can be educated progressively in details about different aspects surrounding Yarsagumba – mountain climbing, biological systems, business, marketing (where they could sell the collected Yarsagumba), greenhouse and high-tech farming systems, technology, etc. – without disturbing their Yarsamgumba collecting activity. This is a simple example. Since a diverse topics are being taught and practiced, learners would not be restricted in the same vocation.
As conveyed in the above message, for me, an effective learning environment would encompass a highly contextualized learning with active learners actively participating in the learning process and ultimately creating artifacts. Michael Wesch, in his article, mentions that a significant problem in education arises because students struggle to find meaning and significance in their education. The hope is that through a contextualized learning experience, such as the example I mentioned above, we would make learners exclaim, with the joy of new-found knowledge, “Oh, that’s so significant!”

Intrinsic Motivation through Connected Learning

Self-determination theory posits that humans have a natural tendency towards growth and development but it does not happen automatically. A nurturing environment is necessary to help people to grow.

For a student to be able to make the most of the learning environment and opportunity, he/she should be motivated. Intrinsic motivation, in particular, is necessary for sustained effort and deeper learning. Each student is a different individual and their interests may differ widely. To connect the subject content to each of the varied interests of the student is not an easy task. Hence, it may be difficult and require lengthy preparations to foster intrinsic motivation in students.

This is where I felt that connected learning environment could play a vital role. When we let students to work on ideas that they value, allow them to set goal(s) on their own, and provide support to help them achieve those goal(s), we could potentially help them foster a deep sense of motivation to master the skills necessary to achieve their goals. There are three main aspects that needs to be paid attention to:

  1. Personalization: Students should pick up the topic that they are interested in. This should be personal and should not be enforced upon them based on the syllabus/standards. Allowing students to work on projects and ideas that they value will encourage students to learn in a greater depth and will also help them imbibe the idea of learning being a lifelong process.
  2. Autonomy: Studies have found that autonomy leads to greater motivation and hence allowing students to determine goal(s) on their own is highly important. Some learning goals may not be as ambitious as a teacher may want to have, but teachers should not try to change the goals. Instead, they could help students learn more during the process, or encourage them to add goals once the earlier goal is achieved.
  3. Teacher and Peer Involvement: In the digital world, there is a plethora of information available. It is easy to lose ones way within the pile of information. There are also issues with privacy and security in the digital world. Hence, teacher’s support and guidance, is imperative to enhance students’ learning experience.  The guidance should be of the “right amount” – not so much that the student feel being spoon-fed or become heavily dependent but also not so less that students are overwhelmed.
    Additionally, students should be encouraged to collaborate with their peers. Learning from peers, working in collaboration, seeking support and feedback, and providing support and feedback are valuable skills. However, considering student’s autonomic choices, collaborative and peer learning should not be enforced.

If we create such an environment, students will be highly motivated to learn. Connected learning environment, as discussed in this video, if executed well, promotes such an environment.