The purpose of school

We are spending almost one fourth or one third of our life being schooled. What is the real purpose of school? To acquire knowledge/information? To be trained for jobs? To be a good person to society? Different people have different answers.

Seth Godin gave several points in his video. One of his points on connecting dots emphasize on thinking instead of memorizing. Students need to be taught how to think and how to solve problems, not what to think and what to memorize. Once they learn the techniques of connecting dots, they will still be able to connect dots although the dots may change. Seth thinks there is no value to memorizing things. But I think memory work is necessary for learning. When students begin to learn a subject, they should first memorize facts, then understand and apply these facts into a creative process. If students are only tested about how much/how well they memorized (my school experience before I went to university), they will lose their interests. Before I went to university, I was taught to memorize things and I was tested about how well I memorized. In order to get a high score and be accepted by a good school, I need to focus on memory works. I often forgot the content after I turned in my tests. I didn’t know much about how to think. This is the wrong direction for education.

GIS: A Useful Tool of Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy suggests that teaching and learning should be contextual and aim at raising critical awareness among students. Critical pedagogy has been used by educators to refer to a broad range of pedagogies that employ critical theory, feminist theory, anti-racist theory, multicultural education, inclusive pedagogies, and so on.

Geographic information systems (GIS) is an useful tool of critical pedagogy becasue it has the potential to help reproduce or transform oppressive conditions in society and it can be used to examine and build contexts that maximize students’ ability to analytically observe, consider, and respond to the world in which they live (Crampton and Krygier’s “An Introduction to Critical Cartography”). Below are two examples to illustrate how GIS can be used for critical educators to engage students in critical thinking.

Veronica Velez, Daniel Solórzano, and Denise Pacheco explore the role of race and racism in shaping the historic, evolving spatial relationship between south Los Angeles high schools near the Alameda “Corridor,” and their surrounding communities. They apply GIS within a critical race methodology to examine geographic and social spaces, identify and challenge racism within these spaces as part of a larger goal of identifying and challenging all forms of subordination. They spatially examines how structural and institutional factors influence and shape racial dynamics and the power associated with those dynamics over time.

Matthew W. Wilson’s Critical & Social Cartography seminar in Harvard Graduate School of Design asked students to think and make pretty maps by their analytical skills. In order to make pretty maps to reflect reality, what information should be included or excluded? How to represent different variables or types of information?  How might a map designed to meet the needs? What would the students be required to do in order to create this map? Through the process of problem-posing, students were encoraged to think critically.

Merging GIS and critical pedagogy requires that we ask how GIS can help students theorize from multiple perspectives about the role that space and spatial relationships play in their immediate lives, local communities, and beyond. As a widely applied tool, GIS can be applied to critical pedagogy.

On the Way of Finding My Teaching Voice

In “Finding My Teaching Voice“, Sarah Deel narrates her journey of developing her teaching style from mimicking other good professor to being herself as a teacher. She faced many questions that I also have when I am finding my own teaching style.

I have being a teaching assistant for more than 6 years and a guest lecturer for several times. My advisor and the professors I worked with think I am ready to teach a class by myself. Thus, I was offered an opportunity to be an instructor for a summer course. I used similar teaching methods like my advisor who teaches this course in spring semester for a long time. Deel gives a slightly negative attitude to using some of your previous professor’s techniques in the classroom, as if it is opposed to finding your own teaching voice. But I think it will help you develop your own teaching voice when you take advantage of  some truly exceptional techniques. I tried to attract students’ attentions with videos, discussions, and various related examples during my lecture sessions (50 min) but I didn’t do well. Many students would do other things after 20-30 min of some lectures. Students thought the lectures were not interesting. That’s my fault. I am very bad at using humor in the classroom. I always use a lot of examples to make concepts/methods interesting to me, but it doesn’t work for students. I can understand many jokes from professors but it is really hard to me to incorporate proper humor in the classroom. I don’t know how to change the situation. How to incorporate humor in the classroom? Is it necessary to be a good teacher?

Games in the classroom

It is very inspiring to learn from this week’s reading materials that games (i.e., video games and role playing games) can contribute to student learning. Games are not only designed for fun. They can motivate and actively engage learners in the learning processs, and kills utilized in games can be translated to the real world. Thus, Game-Based learning and gamification get a lot of attention and are fast becoming used in the classroom (see more information about Game-Based learning from Jessica Trybus’s paper “Game-Based Learning: What it is, Why it Works, and Where it’s Going“). It seems like bringing games to the classroom might be an acceptable, even accredited, alternative strategy to education.

I would also like to share an interesting TED talk by Jane McGonigal: Gaming can make a better world. According to McGonigal, if we can create engaging and fun games based on meaningful real world problems, we can leverage the combined knowledge, energy and enthusiasm to solve the world’s biggest problems and we can change the world.


Integrate Authentic Assessment with Traditional Assessment


In the “Making the Grade: The Role of Assessment in Authentic Learning”, Marilyn Lombardi compared authentic assessment with traditional assessment. According to the information provided in Table 1, traditional assessments seem to have few positive characteristics. Thus, a movement from traditional assessment to authentic assessment improves teaching and learning (see more from Grant Wiggins’s “A True Test: Toward More Authentic and Equitable Assessment” and “The Case for Authentic Assessment“). From my experience, some mix of the two seem to be more appropriate and beneficial.

As an instructor of an introductory Remote Sensing course, I applied traditional assessment tools (multiple-choice quizzes, short-answer exams, and essays) and authentic assessment (hands-on experiments, computer labs, and class projects). The combination of the two improves teaching and learning. Quizzes, which only have five multiple choice questions covering basic concepts and key ideas of a former lecture each time, help me measure students’ acquisition of knowledge and my teaching quality. When students made mistakes, they didn’t acquire the knowledge because of their misunderstanding or my unclear explanation. Then I can find another way to explain the concept clearly. The relationship between the time used to answer each question and accuracy of the question can reflect students’ learning in some way —shorter time with higher accuracy means students are likely acquire the knowledge, longer time with lower or even higher accuracy means students are not familiar with the knowledge, and shorter tiem with lower accuracy means students do not care. Hands-on experiments and computer labs, which are designed to introduce various useful equipments, software, and skills, help students apply the knowledge to solve real-world problems. Then students developed their own class projects related to their interests and I talked more about the topics they focused but not well covered in former classes. Authentic assessment complements traditional assessment but it increases my workload. My advisor is always trying to find a better way to mix the two for a large class.

Better Strategies Needed for Evaluation of Teaching to Foster Critical Thingking

According to National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, critical thinking is “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Everyone endorses the teaching of critical thinking and every teacher try to build their teaching philosophy. But critical thinking taught in what fashion? And how to evaluate teaching effectiveness for critical thinking?

In the field of Geography, there is a growing need for software training, especially for GIS and remote sensing. I think the best way to learn software is a question-driven approach or a project-oriented approach. Most of GIS and remote sensing courses use computer labs and customized class projects to help students to get familiar with software packages, and more importantly, to improve their skills in computer-aided problem-solving. Based on my experience as a teaching assistant and an instructor, two types of strategies are used mostly for computer labs. The first one is providing students with detailed step-by-step lab instructions. Students only need to follow the instructions and click the button even without thinking. There are less simple questions from students because they have all the information. But at the end of the courses, many students still know little about the software techniques. The second one is providing students with problems, goals and plenty of data. Students need to select their methods and data to support their analysis. It encourages students to think critically to solve the problems. Some students will find multiple ways to reach the goals and bring good ideas for their class projects, but many others, especially undergrads, still rely on instructors and teaching assistants to tell them step by step. They complain the second method is too hard and time consuming. They suggest instructors should provide step-by-step instructions from their evaluation. In such cases, evaluation is not effective. How to solve this mismatch problem?


Blogs: essential for education?

Blogging has become a popular and exciting activity in education. Teachers encourage students to write blogs or assignments, read and post comments on each others postings. It is a good way for communication and sharing ideas. Students will improve their writing and narrative skills with this activity. For seminar courses or courses in humanities and social science, blogging, instead of other traditional ways, may enhance students’ learning. However, for courses in natural science such as math or lab courses, I don’t think blogging is necessary or even useful. When teachers consider to use blogging for education purpose, they should think about the reason to use it, not just because it is popular and fancy. W. Gardner Campbell, Scott Rosenberg,  Tim Hitchcock, Seth Godin and Tom Peters who only emphasize on the goodness of blogging are all from humanities and social science, I think people from natural science probably have different voices.

Blogs are also used in middle and high school. Middle and high school blogging is like a web-based course site (blackboard, scholar, instructure canvas, etc) to provide information to students, parents, administration, or other teachers. Their blogs may include announcements, assignments, and discussion forum. Students can use blogs to discuss various topics and to interact with their teachers. Parents can use blogs to understand what is occurring in the class. The idea sounds great but I am not sure whether effective or not. Because the publicity of blogs may contain information from wrong points of view or extreme points of view which are harmful to young learners.

In order to keep pace with the times, teachers should improve their teaching strategies with new technologies, but they need to be careful, especially for teachers of young learners.