The bright side of hating your passion




“I hate science.”

I hear this a lot in the hallway.  It’s sort of the default way of saying some experiment or endeavor backfired without getting into details.  I’ve said it enough times too.

Wednesday after our weekly class meeting I am going to watch the second of the two PhD Movies that came out recently (eight thirty in the GLC!).  I paid the $5 on the internet to watch the first with friends.  We had a great time.  There was something almost therapeutic about laughing, realizing you weren’t laughing alone, and hearing friends say “oh so true.”  But I just kept picturing someone who was not in grad school watching us watch the movie.  If I had watched this as an undergrad I would not have skipped a beat.  If I had watched graduate students watch this as an undergrad I might have got a little worried.  It really shouldn’t be that funny.

But I don’t hate science.  Not by a long shot.  That’s really not what we are trying to say.  We wouldn’t say that if we didn’t care so badly.   Having had my fair share (I think we’d all like to say more than that) of frustrating outcomes in the lab, is probably the single most influential experience on my recent thinking about teaching.  Is this what Parker J. Palmer meant when he described “mining” emotions for insights into an institution and a need for change?  I’ve been really grateful for the conversations in this class and the way they have given me resources to use this “insight.”

We have to ask “why my specific branch of science?”  Or come to terms with the idea that our job may be entirely dependent on the existence of a government agency that exists to give out money.  I’ve never been more aware of statistics that say we don’t need more STEM students for the jobs that exist now.  I’ve also never been more convinced of the importance of the role of the teacher-facilitator in science.  We’ve been challenged by Seth Godin to ask “what is school for?”  I don’t agree with everything Seth Goodin said – let’s be honest, sometimes of love the sense of self efficacy that comes with a good textbook.  But I think this question is critical and I think part of the answer for the educator is being able to shift that question to students.  To have students think critically not just about what is education for, but also what is this subject matter for?  To open it up both to criticism and innovation.

Sith Kristen 2016-03-30 14:05:25

Technology Gets in the Zone

Our equipment changes how we process, how we remember, and what we produce.  As Nietzsche said, “our equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”  The trick is to hack the advantages of each, and be ready to shift equipment as one type of equipment or interface is better for the purpose.  And even if we don’t know exactly what we want from each form of equipment, using diverse equipment will diversify the input that goes into our analysis, memory, and output.   In short diversify equipment, expand learning.

If our equipment changes how we analyze, input, and produce information, can we use this to our advantage?  This is exactly how Benjamin Franklin described the way he taught himself how to write.  He took an essay whose style he wanted to emulate, made a sort of an outline.  He gave himself time to forget the original, then fleshed the outline out again.  He also switched between essay and poetry and back.  Could this approach take advantage of different equipment we commonly use to learn and share information?  I could envision giving an assignment in which students are asked to make a PowerPoint presentation of a paper, including all important figures.  Then they could be asked to write a scientific paper from that PowerPoint (it would be tricky to reliably take away access to the original paper for the second part of the assignment, but I’m sure something could be done).  I can imagine paper notes to be used during the lecture-format portion of a class, and laptops to be used for in-class review for example to generate a list of questions about the material in a google document.

Every technology comes with pushback.  They are tools with their own set of advantages and disadvantages.  So what are our goals, the things we want to increase through technology and avoid disrupting?  How do we optimize?

I see three main goals of technology and format which both aid learning and enable learning to be better utilized:

  • To enable communication
  • To enhance productivity, either individually or as a group
  • To complement individual faculty – augmenting skills and opening access to enjoyable challenges

For each of these goals our use of our use of technology, equipment, and medium will affect them.

The point is to optimize the positive effects and utilize a diversity of effects, knowing that there is no form of learning that does not use a medium of some sort.   Does this piece of equipment in this context put you into communication or out of it?  Does more get accomplished in the end because of it – either individually or as a group?  Does it facilitate challenge and interest, or is it leading to worry, to apathy, and distraction?  Is a tool that draws you to be constantly “thinking about the task [you] weren’t doing,” or helps you is it something that helps you do the thing you were doing better?


A number of people have talked about how Plato critiqued writing as a new-fangled technology that would inhibit real learning and thinking.  This is often in the context of making a point like “well we know writing is a critical tool for our individual and societal development, so now we know his critique of this new technology was invalid – a fear of something new.”  I’m not sure this argument holds.  We do know that writing is critical.  But listen to his explanation:

Writing… has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.

Although in other places his criticism is harsher, the point he makes here is that writing can’t replace interpersonal communication, and has weaknesses in that it cannot replicate the accountability and inspiration of interpersonal communication.  To this extant I think his comment is very valid and many modern technologies address exactly this weakness of writing, making written word more interactive.

I’m sure Plato would be happy to know we have not abandoned spoken conversations as a format in education.  Now we chose among many formats and technologies as we need to.  For example, in order to become a PhD candidate, I had to pass an oral exam.   The biggest exam and most formal exam I will probably have to take in my education is actually very Socratic in its structure.  We pick the format we want to use for the purpose at hand.  (Still, I am glad he did not live to see the invention of the scantron….)


Technology is a huge enabler of productivity.  But this is an area that is rife with paradoxes and optimization problems.  As science and technology writer Clive Thompson says we are “social thinkers

and technology that enables communication makes us more able and productive as a whole.  I would argue that productivity (in some form or another) is an almost automatic byproduct efficient communication.  (I don’t argue that this productivity automatically produces something that is necessarily good – effort and wisdom will always be important.)  Technology (whether it’s a bugle, pen and paper, or a super computer) is critical to communication-derived productivity.  I really wish google docs were around when my debate partner and I were writing up case briefs in high school.  I had an online class once in which we each had to post questions to a forum, and we could get credit for answering them as well.  The professor would clarify points we couldn’t.  My lab’s collaborators meet regularly via WebEx, which has options for screen share, document share, and chatting – a Skype for professionals.

When it comes to an individual productivity, the story is more nuanced.  On an individual level, productivity has a lot to do with an ability to focus, not just on topical knowledge, ability, and insight.  Technology certainly effects our focus.  Our technology effects the way we process information as we acquire it, the way we avoid distraction and prioritize information, and how we “get in the zone” really engaging in what we do.  The effect is very individual by person and context.  Sometimes technology streamlines this.  Other times simpler is better.   If I have writer’s block or am trying to jot down a poem without disrupting my flow of thought, you better believe the pen and paper is coming out.

The big productivity risk of technology comes with multitasking.  Since reading about the 2009 study done at Stanford on the disadvantage of multitasking on mental performance, I have been trying to be more conscious about focusing on one thing at a time and not letting myself think or work on something else until it is finished.  What is interesting is that multiprocessors were pulled from a group of people who regularly multi-process via technology.   That said, I found a lot of benefit from tying to make a point to consciously say “this is what I am thinking about for this next minute or so.”  And this helped me while I was doing work on a computer.  I needed the computer to accomplish what I wanted to do.  I also needed to be conscious about how I use it.  I noticed something while I was trying this that goes beyond an increase in productivity.  The increased focus came with clarity and motivation.

Flow – Or being in the zone

If productivity is a sign of equipped social thought, then being “in flow” is a sign of well-quipped individual thought.  Being in flow is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.”   I like to call it being in the zone.  It is essentially the signature of someone who sustainably and intrinsically enjoys what they do.   Flow comes from feeling both challenged and skilled.  It has seven basic features:

  1. Focus, concentration
  2. Ecstasy
  3. Clarity – know what to do
  4. Sense of the challenge being doable, even if hard
  5. Serenity, loss of a sense of self (too focused on something bigger)
  6. Timelessness
  7. Intrinsic motivation

What I noticed when I chose not to multi-process is that a I noticed a number of features of being “in flow” increase in addition to the obvious increase in focus.  Even when I don’t particularly enjoy the things I was doing at that point.  I had more clarity, a sense that I could finish what I was working on, and less of a worry about waiting time or of paying attention to it.  I wouldn’t say that my busywork acquired more ecstasy, but it was more enjoyable.

In other words, we have a significant about of control over how much our work resembles being in flow, even busy work.  We don’t have to reach the frenzied passion of an inspired artist to take advantage of flow by degree as part of the way we are wired as humans.  One of my new goals as a teacher (and as a learner!) is to encourage myself and my students to find as many of these seven features in whatever work we do to whatever extent it is up to us.

Focus.  Skills. And challenge.

And a diversity of technologies to help you do it.


I Cannot Play the Pianoforte
“There was a great emphasis on universal literacy in the early colonial era of the 17th century”

In any effort to promote literacy, there is another question that comes up.  Whose literacy?   Who gets to define it?  As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who first described critical pedagogy said, “Who says that this accent or that this way of thinking is the cultivated one?  If there is one which is cultivated this is because there is one which is not.  Do you see it’s impossible to think of language without thinking of ideology and power?”  Ideology matters when we define literacy.  This hit home for me seeing an extreme example in a recent NPR history article titled “18 Rules of Behavior for young ladies in 1831.”  Charles Varle wrote in 1831 that his list came in part from “the most celebrated books on Ladies education.”   Here are a few: “Consult only your own relations,” “form no friendship with men,” “trust no female acquaintance, i.e, make no confidant of any one,” “Be not too often seen in public,” and “never be afraid of blushing.”  I don’t really think I need to make any commentary of what I think of these “rules.”  (Take a wild guess on that one.)  The open question is would I be considered literate under this system?  I don’t speak Latin or French.  I don’t paint or play “pianoforte.”  I study biology, but I don’t use that much gross anatomy or species identification which would have been the basics in the natural sciences of the day.  And I don’t exactly stay home with no friends either.  Under this ideology would people like me (read women…) be able to prove ourselves?  As Paulo Freire put it, could we “articulate [our] voices and [our] speech in the struggle against injustice”?  I think the answer is, and was, no.  Not really.  Putting it in this oversimplified context helps me tackle it for myself.  What would enable a teacher living under this norm support my voice?   At the heart of critical pedagogy is an idea – give me the power to question this “norm.”  Again to quote Paulo Freire, “No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why?”  The idea is to let people talk and teach who may not be literate by a given standard (like most of us by the 1830s standard), but highly literate in another.  In the case of women in the 1800s, I imagine this began to happen when school became mandatory and more women were hired as teachers in response to the advocacy of Catharine Beecher.

Basically there are two approaches to trying to help people out.  The first to help directly, and the second to ask real and legitimate questions about a person’s priorities and the primary barriers to these.   There are times and places for both of these (For example, I am thinking of the International Justice Mission which works to free modern slaves and prosecute modern human traffickers.  There comes a point where a victim of human trafficking doesn’t need someone to ask them about the barriers to freedom.  Prosecuting a human trafficker is a really good first step.  You can’t stop there, but you do need to start there.)  One group that I think needs a strong support system in the U.S. is ex-prisoners.  I love way the one writing professor, Stephanie Bower at the University of Southern California, lead her class.  Instead of having students get online and research statistics about ex-prisoners, or feed a superiority complex by asking students to write about how they “made a difference” after some three-hour service project, she invited a panel of people recently released from the prison system to come and tell their stories.  I would love to get to sit in on that class.

I can think of times I have tried so hard to do something I forgot to listen.  I’m sure Charles Varle, the man who wrote the “Rules of behavior for young ladies,” thought he was being helpful.  Maybe we shouldn’t to hard on him.  Sometimes we think we are being helpful too.

The numbers say I am racist

How do we recognize when we are flying in autopilot?

Last week I took a version of the Implicit Association Test. The aim of the test is to look at perhaps hidden bias in our own minds by looking at the difference in ability to associate positive terms with or negative terms or positive terms with a given race or identity, in this case not my own. I did quite poorly. I’m not even really sure I want to admit this. How comfortable am I admitting this result with my friends? Is that a conversation I want to have? Would it be hurtful to do so? Or is it only my own ego I would hurt?

So in short the survey was a really a horrible experience. I am grateful for the experience, but to be blunt I found it sickening. Have you ever felt self-conscious around yourself? Have you ever found yourself wondering what you might be thinking? A little tempted to squirm out of your own consciousness, and find some meaningless distraction? Have you ever attempted to eavesdrop on the conversation in your head as though looking for gossip? This week I have found myself questioning myself. I want to know if this is true in my interactions with people. Or at least I want to find out. It’s hard to say if I really want to know.

From the experience, I think there were two kinds of factors playing in on the unconscious mind – the mind on autopilot. The first a bias against another group, and the second a bias toward myself. The first is hard for me to wrap my mind around. The second is easier. What I have never noticed before is how many of my mnemonics are based on some system of ranking, of doling out importance. When I memorize numbers I use tricks like noticing when the digits add to 10, patterns and symmetry, and – conspicuously – a competition between the “good” even numbers and the “bad” odd numbers. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember without ever consciously deciding to do so.

What’s scary is how often I use “likeness to me” as a mnemonic. I’ll use my age, my initials, my favorite color, my “favorite” number, whatever it takes as a tag. And if I am trying to remember an ordered list or associate numbers with terms, I find it easier to remember when the more “me-like” is the greater. For example, potassium is “my” element because it’s abbreviation is “K.” My initial. The concentration of potassium is high inside the cell (I get to be the “insider”), and the Na+/K+-ATPase that maintains this gradient only pumps 2 K+ in for every 3 Na+ out (because I can’t be pushed around like so much sodium…). I use all sorts of mnemonics and the crazier the better. My memory is pretty horrible. Repetition hardly helps. My spelling skills are remedial (if anyone bothered to recognize that there is such a thing). But I don’t think I am off the mark when I say my memorization skills – the conscious ability to memorize what I set out to memorize – are very good. It’s something you practice as a biology major. But I’ve never pieced this together before; good at what cost? Have I trained myself to be quickly and instinctively egocentric?

And then there is the other factor that I have to wrestle with. The idea that with these results there is inherently a bias against. That’s the way this works. What do I do with that? I really like the concept so the hidden brain introduced by Shankar Vedantam. In effect he says that one of the best ways to get back control form the autopilot in my mind is to admit that the autopilot is there. To be aware of it.  That’s what this assassination test did for me.  Kind of like when a real pilot can be tricked into believing they are flying level between two layers of clouds, when if fact the clouds are not level at all.  We need some instrumentation and hard and fast numbers to identify the false horizon.  In the interview with Shankar Vedantam they talked about the idea of which person the autopilot of personal default or the conscious pilot is the “real you.” I really think it depends of which one is flying the plane. David Foster Wallace: “Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Whether his long bout with depression and eventual suicide gives him credibility here or the lack of it could be taken either way; I fundamentally agree with this quote. So I will take it as a good thing: not getting a poor score on the Implicit Assessment Test, but having taken it and gotten a score at all. And I hope that this exercise will build into my arsenal and allow me to help facilitate similar experiences in the classroom and continually in my own life.

World of Peacecraft


Junior Achievement BizTown in Georgia simulates a macro-economy 

What if we thought of education as simulating peace, literacy, and innovation the way video games simulate war? As James Paul Gee argues in his book “What Video Games Have to Teach US About Learning and Literacy,” “the theory of human learning [is] built into video games.”  Video games are addicting, right? They are also challenging. How do video games manage to achieve this mix of challenge and appeal? I think this come in a large part from simulation and role play.

In this post I take a look at some examples that different schools and classrooms have used to simulate real-life peace-time (or peace seeking) challenges.

Industry and finance: In Atlanta, 6th graders can visit Junior Achievement BizTown, which is a marketplace in which actual franchises set up a mock store in a mall-like interactive marketplace. Every student is given a job assignment at one of these businesses. Then they go to the Junior Achievement Finance Park and make a personal budget based on the scenario they have been given.

STEM: The Challenger Learning Center has two rooms – one room that simulates a space station, and the other that simulates a base on earth. Astronauts in space collect data that is given to the base for students to analyze. They have to work with “quarantined” agents using a glovebox, catch things like extreme pH in the water, assemble a robot, and check astronaut’s blood pressure. While this requires a visit to a well-established center, started as a living memorial of the Challenger space shuttle, there are science resources for individual classrooms as well. For example, the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College provides scenarios for role play and a mock environmental summit.  The advantage of active learning in science is that there is no reason in many cases that it has to be a “simulation” at all. Students don’t need to “simulate doing science” they can do science. Lab work is very hands on.  And this can also be taken in new directions focused on innovation, such as in International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in which college and high school students build a plasmid (bacteria DNA insert) that give bacteria specific traits.  There are also journals where students (middle and high school) can publish scientific research.

Governance: Simulated court cases are a common educational tool. Moot court cases simulate a court of appeals and mock trials simulate a court of appeals. Model parliament simulates the Westminster parliamentary system. There are also some less formal resources available for setting up a mock congress in a classroom.  On a larger competitive level in the National Model United Nations, college students are assigned to act as diplomats for different countries. They prepare for about 6-8 months to be able to represent the interests of that country (whether or not they agree with those interests).

History: As Mark C. Carnes described for the Chronicle, he developed a simulation of events in history in which students debate the issues of the day and can decide on an alternative history if desired. As the student Maharaha Hari Singh said, “One thing this class has taught me is that it’s very hard to learn history in retrospect.” One thing this class has taught me is that it’s very hard to learn history in retrospect” (Reacting to the Pest: The student Perspective (2012)).

Right now a MIT dean Christine Ortiz is leaving her position at MIT to create a new university that will be centered on project-based learning. The only lectures will be online and the classrooms will be large centralized laboratories.  Maybe this is one step toward thinking of education as simulating a World of Peacecraft?

Tests: Efficacy on a swing-set

In third grade, letter grades were something I only paid any attention to once a year and the end of the year ceremony when I got my report card. I was a B student. The teacher gave us each a cheesy picture of a bunch of kids playing on a playground and swing set under a big cartoon sun. We had just learned about flash floods with our science teacher – terrible surprising things that catch people off guard. The more I looked at that cheesy (I loved the word cheesy) smilie face of a sun, the more I could picture the footage of flash floods, full of before and after shots. So soon the kids were kayaking over to their neighbors’ houses, designing the new rules of an underwater playground, and going on daring expeditions to retrieve canned goods from their basements, swimming and kayaking around the house. If I had thought more about grades at the time I might have even put some of it on paper. But I doubt I would have crafted a story that excited me enough that I would actually remember it any other way. I don’t think I was as upset about turning in an almost empty page as I was that they hadn’t given me enough time to finish. I was kind of jealous of my friends who had written out their stories, but secretly I still thought my story was the best.

I think there can be a tradeoff between motivation and completion. I never struggled with motivation. I did struggle with completion. I was a bit of a perfectionist.

I designed a desire for grades – I was not forced into one. After third grade I didn’t have grades – a smattering of tests but never course grades – until I was in high school. In high school biology I found I needed tests. I loved biology. A test for me allowed me to say I am finished with a chapter and it was time to move on. It gave me closure. Which is I think, the best and worst part about testing. Testing can lead to an “I’m finished” attitude. If you need to foster curiosity and motivation, this is the counterproductive. But testing was important for me, because I had the opposite problem. I would absorb everything in my biology text, memorize it, read it over and over, and the test was the thing that would convince me it was actually time to move on. It helped progress and gave me a sense of completion.   And even though it is a two-sided coin, a sense of completion – and a deadline for completion – can be a really good thing.

Silly Mama, tables are for eating

As a young kid I was convinced dinner was “supposed” to come directly after lunch, it was just never fully practiced. I had asked my mom once why she seemed to care so much about clearing and washing the table after lunch.  She said, “so it can be ready for dinner.”  Seemed to me like a lot of wasted momentum.  She never did get around to making dinner after she finished clearing the table.  We weren’t really hunger anyways.  Mama’s can be so silly sometimes.

The readings this week talk about how the way we think effects the way we learn.  I want to  look at the way kids think differently than adults, and some of the learning benefits to thinking like a kid.  What we are looking for in the information we receive completely changes the way we learn, what we learn, and how useful the learning is.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has a theory that kids are like “the research and development division of the human species.” She is featured on a recent Freakonomics radio podcast, as well as a professional magician. The magician demonstrated what he says is common knowledge in his profession: that kids are much more likely to figure out how a magic trick was done than adults are. They and others attempted to sort through the ways of thinking that make this the case.

Is there something that we should be learning from kids?  One explanation is that kids are constantly coming up with theories while adults are essentially waiting for the punch line.  I imagine that kids come up with running hypothesis as they go and are not as worried as adults about throwing in some silly ones.   The consequences for giving a “silly” hypothesis a vocal and working chance are greater for an adult than for a child (or at least the perceived consequences, but in certain social and profession settings I think negative feedback can be real). I think adults tend to look for the safest answers. The “grownups” feel duped if they are caught making a guess that turns out to be wrong, whereas kids feel duped if they never make the guess that turns out to be right.

The readings this week were about how to capture a mindset – almost how to capture a child-likeness – that enables learning. Referencing the examples in psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning I would summarize her argument as the idea that learning is undermined and debilitated operate on the mindset that there is such thing as a right or wrong heuristic.  She powerfully argues for the importance of recognizing heuristics for what they are early in the learning process and asking the why behind the habit before over practice and under thinking ingrains the habit itself as some sort of underlying truth.

I used a slightly different vocabulary than Langer does to reflect the point that I take away from her examples. Her original wording says that learning is debilitated by the mindset that “there are right and wrong answers.” I see the idea that “there are right and wrong heuristics” fitting more directly with the her examples. As a scientist I take issue with the idea that the mindset that the word is unknowable and intractable is likely to lead to a more active scientific process. Like kids figuring out a magic trick –  they assume it is knowable, and they look to solve the mystery. Whereas adults are essentially assuming that if it is a good magician the trick will be unknowable (to them). Trying to figure out the mystery could put us in a position of looking the fool. So we don’t. From my perspective we are already too often guilty in science of looking at the world the way with science like a bunch of “grownups” watching a magic show.  I’ll stick with my shifted vocabulary.

I think kids are naturally good at wanting to understand not only how to do something, or what to do, but why to do it.  I like the way the readings illustrate the value of allowing people to rethink patterns we might otherwise have long forgotten need rethinking.

In the meantime it’s getting late. I had better go clear the table for breakfast.

Connected Learning Before the Blog

Credit: Connected Learning Research Network and Digital Media & Learning Research Hub (infographic not properly embedding…)

Connected Learning Before the Blog

I’ll be honest. This infographic makes about as much sense to me as the raw data from an MRI scan.

I pulled up this graphic the way I might a dictionary. I wanted a definition – “what is connected learning?” But in reality, I am rarely ever satisfied looking up just the definition of a word. I never feel that I know a word until I know the history of the word – the roots and the parts of a word. And now pedagogy is treating me a bit like the English language. I am walking into a lingo with which I am not familiar.

I’m catching bits and pieces: Connecting learning is about “how to learn and how to engage and how to be flexible and adaptive and find communities and have ideas about things that [one] want[s] to do now.”  Connected learning is about “how to learn and how to engage and how to be flexible and adaptive and find communities and have ideas about things that [one] want[s] to do now” (  These sound like great things, but I just walked into a room in which everything is strung together, connected to everything else, and I’m not really sure I can tell you at first glance what it is I am actually looking at.

Here is the framework outlined by the Connected Learning Research Network. Here is the framework and terminology they present.

  1. The contexts
    1. Peer-supported
    2. Interest-powered
    3. Academically oriented
  2. The properties
    1. Production-centered
    2. Shared purpose
    3. Openly networked
  3. The design principles
    1. Enable everyone to participate
    2. Make learning experiential
    3. Provide constant challenges
    4. Allow for reflection, planning, and connecting the two

And holding all of these characteristics together, is the idea that media magnifies.

This is still very broad, so I decided if I am going to really understand what we mean when we say “connected learning,” I need to know about the history of this too, not just the definition.

The “connected teaching” model was developed by Mary Field Belenky in 1986 in her book “Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind.”   In 1990, the method was described as an efficient way of engaging a diverse group of students, by Charles S. Claxton in his paper “Learning Styles, Minority Students, and Effective Education.”  While the praxis has changed to include technology at the core of connected learning, the idea has always been to find ways to engage people with diverse backgrounds.