People: the more you expect, the more you get

I realize the title statement isn’t always the case. Sometimes the more you expect, the more you get disappointed or the more you expect, the more pressure you apply which could lead to a negative result.

But I am referring to the positive outcomes that result from people who have the fortune to have someone who believes in them and expects them to do better and eventually master a certain skill. Sir Ken Robinson mentions it in his TED talk when he says “there are conditions under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t”. Oftentimes we see students who drop out, as people who are giving up, instead of considering that for them it may be deciding to leave a system that has given up on them. I read an article on how Teacher’s Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform which led me to reevaluate my school years (primary to high school) and the role that my teachers’, classmates’, and my parents’ expectations of me played in my overall performance. I was at the top of my class and I do remember feeling a sense of responsibility to maintain the high level of achievement that was expected of me. In contrast, some of my friends who did not receive this kind of support and expectation from our teachers or their parents, felt very disengaged during classes and were not motivated to do the work assigned for after school either. Fast forward a few years to my move to Virginia to attend graduate school where I was perceived very differently based on my gender and ethnicity and confronted with the idea of whether that has an effect on my capabilities. I am still discovering how or if that kind of questioning affected or affects my performance. While revisiting all this, it also made me question what happens first: does the expectation lead a student to do well? or is a student who performs well early on then expected to continue on the same path? How strong is the impact of external factors such as other people’s perceptions on your capabilities?

In the study mentioned in the article above, they suggest that a change in teachers’ behaviors can also lead to a change in their expectations which in turn affects their students’ performance. This seems to emphasize what Sir Ken Robinson mentioned about the importance of increasing the support and professional development of teachers in the United States if we hope to decrease the drop-out numbers and increase a sense of satisfaction through education and learning. By implementing what Ellen J. Langer calls mindful learning, there seems to be a shift in the focus from the information at hand back to the individual–the person doing the learning as well as the one facilitating it. It all comes back to the people, but people are very diverse. Therefore, too much standardization can leave out great numbers of students to our collective disadvantage where we are all deprived of their individual talents.

Mindful learning: Important but critically and radically insufficient

Perhaps Ken Robinson best captures a common problem that also concerns Wesch and Langer; a dominant culture of education in the U.S. that is targeted toward conformity and compliance. He states that we hold a mechanistic model of education, treating it as an industrial process that can be improved with more data; more data from standardized tests that can accurately measure improvements in student learning. Langer’s version of this is that we’ve bought into the myths of learning that involve memorization, deference to authority, and breaking down a task into discrete elements, each of which can then be practiced and mastered. So things become second nature and automatic; mindless. This leads to a performer of some sort that is technically proficient, but who’s actions have a mechanistic quality to them. The problem Wesch sees is that the structures of higher education classrooms and courses are oblivious to the individuality of students, seeing them as soulless containers that will be filled with facts and information. No wonder, then, that students become bored and unmotivated when we educate them not to genuinely think, but rather for “low grade clerical work.”

Instead, they argue that real learning involves seeing human beings as radically diverse, each with their own questions about “who am I,” and “what am I going to do”? Robinson argues education must involve a culture of creativity, based on the concept of education as an organic system, not mechanistic. Langer argues for teaching that fosters mindfulness; “teaching in a conditional way [that] sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations call for subtle differences in what we bring to them” (16). Wesch gets to this more humanistic model of education by creating learning environments in which a student’s unique “gifts” and talents can be engaged as a source of motivation and learning. He speaks to environments that can recognize the heroic dimensions of each student that also fosters compassion and “to build a life worth living,” resources to get us through the dark night of the soul.

So I think these arguments are all quite important. My primary concern is that they are silent on the broader social and political forces that are institutionalizing industrial forms of education. To be fair, Robinson comes close to this broader problem when he invokes the mechanistic model of education, as an industrial process. He also speaks to the need for a broader curriculum, including the arts and humanities. But beyond this, the solutions they offer seem to be premised on the problem that teachers need better teaching methods. This may be true, but it leaves unchallenged the structures that have perpetuated Langer’s mindless myths, Wesch’s abysmal classrooms, and Robinson’s “culture of compliance.” What about the notion of politicizing their audience? To urge them toward at least some collective action to challenge the corporatization of higher education? Don’t we need to speak at much more loudly to the broader structures and ideologies that are creating a generation of students that are left with small answers to small questions?

I’ve Never Been a Good Student

If you’d have told me ten years ago that I would be pursuing a PhD, I’d have laughed in your face.  I hated school. I graduated high school a semester early to get away from it and went to college immediately as part of a bargain with my parents. I was a “B” student and graduated with an Advanced Regents diploma – meaning that I passed all of the standardized New York state exams. I was a great test-taker but I never did my homework so I was branded lazy by the faculty and my parents. My graduating class size was around 700 students and it was pretty easy to fly under the radar while maintaining good standing with the hall monitors as I’d routinely fetch soft pretzels from the cafeteria for my physics teacher during our labs. I was graduating early and always contributed during the lecture sessions so he didn’t care if I roamed around aimlessly in the halls or visited other teachers on their breaks.

My interests in politics, culture, and philosophy were extra-curricular activities. Wikipedia was up and running by the time I was in junior high and the events following 9/11, including the passage of the Patriot Act, spurred my interest in political theory as I tried to make sense of the world I’d inherited. I’d spend hours surfing through their pages instead of doing my homework. Why bother writing my labs for whatever science class I was taking if I aced the test every time? To me it was meaningless repetition that ultimately wasted my time. Being under the spotlight because I wasn’t turning in my homework was uncomfortable initially. However, with time I assumed my “lazy” identity at school , took the tongue lashings at home and continued my after school activities later supplementing my Wiki sessions with Travel, and Discovery Channel binges – Bourdain was my favorite.

Around the age of 15 I started taking martial arts classes. Ninjutsu and Jujutsu would become my life until I left for college at 18. I was at the dojo every day that I could be. It was a very small branch of very large school spread across Long Island. We had 2,500 students in total but the Port Jefferson branch of which I was a part had four to six adult students attending regularly. I was my sensei’s favorite practice dummy and I advanced quickly because I received so much individual attention. My love of teaching started there and volunteered to help teach the kids classes as sempai. At 16 I was selected along with six other students to train with our grandmaster in Japan for two weeks in August. Our training sessions in Saitama were twice a day for an hour and half each session with a thirty minute bike ride along the rice paddies each way in the Japanese summer heat.

SUNY Brockport was my girlfriend’s choice. She was a year older than me and left Long Island in my senior year of high school. Neither of my parents had gone to college in the US so I didn’t get the college talk or really any guidance concerning what university would be the right fit. Following Julia to upstate New York seemed like an attractive option so I graduated from high school early and enrolled at Brockport in January of 2006. We broke up that March and she exmatriculated two weeks later. I can’t claim that I was the whole reason she left. She’d had a hard time finding her way through the college bureaucracy after being rejected by the dance program. Her brother, Simon, was brilliant but as smart as she was, Julia felt she wasn’t cut out for school and our break up was the final nail in the coffin for SUNY Brockport. I stayed but I didn’t have any close friends because I’d come a semester late and mainly hung out with Julia for the first few months.

Living for the weekend can make the weeks feel very long. Luckily, at a snowy commuter college, the weekend starts on Wednesday. I started going to any party I could find just to socialize and quickly fell into my old high school habits of never doing homework. I was still crushing tests in my introductory courses and didn’t see much point in attending classes. My grades were decent enough my first semester but I was placed on academic probation by my second semester for never attending class. Philosophy and political theory were the only classes I’d show up for. The general education classes didn’t challenge me and I was tutoring (unofficially, of course) some peers in my 3000 level communications course on rhetoric without reading the assignments or attending class. Pounding whiskey, talking politics and playing video games became more attractive options than adhering to someone else’s standards. I could write a B+ essay in under two hours and go research something that I was more interested in or focus on something physical. I had joined the rugby team by that time and rugby soon became my social outlet. It was short lived though because I was kicked out of Brockport after my third semester. I appealed the decision as I had dealt with some nightmare roommates, one of which involved a Title IX violation that the college tried to sweep under the rug and the other involved a roommate who went off her rage and bipolar medication. Funding from home was revoked after three semesters of poor grades anyway and I returned to Long Island to enroll at Suffolk Community College. My parents were not going to fund my educational fuck-ups anymore so I had to take out loans and start working.

I didn’t attend my classes at Suffolk either. My funding was revoked after my first semester as the federal government deemed me too much of a risk to loan money. Suffolk was still affordable even without federal loans and I was able to hide my failure from my parents by getting a credit card with HSBC before the financial crisis. I financed my second semester at community college by working for a local winery at $7.15 an hour which paid the credit card bill and for some books. I continued to hide my grades from my parents even though they were improving. The whole ordeal had convinced me that grades couldn’t measure anything but whether a student is living up to some norm – whether they could regurgitate some “fact” they had been told or whether they regularly maintained a pulse at a specific location at a specific time. Two professors at Suffolk slapped the taste out of my mouth.

My English composition professor graded to the student. I earned a D+ on my first essay. My pride was hurt and I stormed to his desk at my first chance. He calmly explained that he knew I wasn’t putting in any effort and showed me how I could do better. Posner knew that I was coasting and he gave me something to aim for in myself and not in the classroom. Grades suddenly transformed into a reward for self-discipline and not a punishment for not meeting expectations. Competition with myself was more exciting than competing against others. I still remember his lessons…or is it “remember his lessons still?”

One of the most daunting questions anyone can ask a college student is “What are you going to do after school?” Some student have it easier than others and seem to have a map given to them by their majors. Philosophy majors do not. I took two classes with Bill Fink who was adjuncting at Suffolk. His classes were chaos. We never had assigned readings, I never saw him read from a lesson plan but I loved the debates and the topics. Ethics, politics, society, the good life, the Socratic quest for knowledge, these were topics I could get into and I wanted to attend class. There were no “right” answers just better arguments and Bill challenged us to be better every session. I was studying to be a personal trainer my second semester but one day, I woke up. The thought hit me in Bill’s class and I sat straight up in my chair. I wanted to do what he was doing. I wanted to be a philosophy professor.

My pride was still hurt. Brockport had thrown me out not because I wasn’t living up to their academic standards but because they thought I was a bad student. I was determined to prove them wrong and enrolled there again in January. Going to anywhere in the Rochester area during winter is a mistake. I quickly took advantage of Brockport’s study abroad program and left for Scotland in the Fall of 2009. No one cared if you attended class at Stirling University but if you showed up to Peter Sullivan’s seminar on Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, you had better not be dead weight. I had to develop good study habits to pass the exams and I finished second in my class. Stirling had a grading scale that consisted of 21 different gradations as opposed to the 13 at most American colleges. What would have been considered “A” work at any American institution was broken into five subdivisions: 1A-1F. The guy who was top of the class earned a 1F. I earned the grade lower – 2B. Brockport translated this mark as “B.”

I was fighting against the tide. I had been reinstated at Brockport with credits from my first year and a half there. That got me closer to graduation but none of the good grades I had earned at Suffolk would travel to Brockport stating institutional differences even though Suffolk was considered a SUNY school. I couldn’t believe that my grades from Stirling translated back from a society that holds different notions of academic achievement (students can receive 40 points out of 100 and pass a class) but a college within the same state system was suspect in their grading scheme. When I matriculated again, Brockport started me at a 2.0 GPA by cobbling together classes that fulfilled the most general education requirements rather than the best grades. I would try to dig myself out of this hole for the next three years never falling below a 3.8 each semester. I calculated the numbers and realized that I would never make cum laude and this fact became anti-motivational as I realized that the institutional chips were stacked against me. Philosophy, as a discipline, is highly competitive and loves pedigree. I was coming from a small college that no one had heard of with letters from faculty the majority of whom weren’t publishing and my grades looked terrible.

Winter in western New York can be very depressing. A lot of snow, a lot of cold, a lot of dark, no mountains and a school of under 7,000 students can produce a malarial feeling. When you have worked hard for four years after having the wind taken out of your sails more than a few times and you’re not receiving any graduate school acceptances after pouring resources into a perfect coffee shop major, it can make you downright maudlin. And I was. My first acceptance didn’t come until late April after the deadline for acceptances and rejections. I didn’t hear from Virginia Tech until early May due to some administrative SNAFU. Virginia Tech offered one of the best terminal MA degrees in the country and I was blown away by the news. I didn’t care if they couldn’t offer me funding because I didn’t fit their model of a “good student” I was going to get to do what I thought I loved. I came South hoping to use my two years to jump into a top twenty PhD program in philosophy.

I graduated from Virginia Tech with two MA degrees with three years worth of coursework over four years of enrollment. I had to leave school twice because of serious medical issues. It was the second time I left when it dawned on me that the reasons I had loved philosophy and pursued it were nowhere to be found in the rarefied atmosphere of serious analytic philosophy. I had fallen flat on my face again. Years in school were spent pursuing a career dead end. My love for the debates had died and the spark lit at Suffolk had been extinguished by an institution far larger than me or any one school. I don’t regret a moment of the time I spent learning philosophy nor any of the time or money spent pursuing it. It equipped me with something larger than knowledge, larger than a career path or any one skill set. Philosophy helped me understand learning as process and equipped me with a universal skills applicable to any field of study. The jump from a corner stone of the humanities to the social sciences was more of a wide step as I settled into the interdisciplinary waters of the School of Public and International Affairs again with no clear plan for what to do in “the real world.” It wasn’t until my second semester in my Master’s of Public and International Affairs that I got my taste of teaching at the university level. Edward Weisband, in Political Science, placed a tremendous amount of trust in me when he took me on as a TA and left me teach fifty of his students during weekly recitations. I was hooked.

A mentor of mine, Joe Pitt, told me that enlightenment starts from a place of confusion. I took this as teaching advice and regularly asked my students to help un-confuse me. This technique worked for Weisband’s recitations as we moved through text after text looking for clarity rather than just the right answers. I keep this trick in my back pocket as I now begin every one of my classes with “who’s confused by the reading?” Lucky for me I am teaching American politics this semester so I can ask simply “who’s confused,” and I know we’ll get the conversation going.

On Anti-Teaching and Mindful Learning: Keeping an open mind

My first reaction to this week’s topics was not very promising. The term “anti-teaching” elicited an unspoken “What?” in my head. The phrase “mindful learning” was also confusing to me – can one really learn anything mindlessly? Of course I had not done any reading at this point, and I had to remind myself to keep an open mind.

After all was said and done, I have to admit that there were still ideas and pronouncements that I found difficult to wrap my head around, but at the same time, I appreciate the passion and advocacy of Michael Wesch and Ellen Langer, because I share the same commitment to fostering student success. If anything, I found that their heart is in the right place, and their ideas provide great starting points for reflection and discourse.

I agree with Michael Wesch that it is important for students to “find meaning and significance in their education.” As someone who was also a student at one point in time, I can certainly see how it can be easy to fall into a cycle of merely trying to “survive,” of, for example, desperately trying to remember which formulas to use for what type of problem – at least until after the test is done. It is when one finds the “so what?” and sees what role today will play in the future that deep and meaningful learning can occur.

That being said, I found it difficult to relate to the notion that “teaching can be a hindrance to learning.” While I do see where Wesch is coming from, I found myself arguing that maybe there is only a certain context ascribed to teaching that may end up detrimental to student learning. Maybe if we thought of teaching as more of an act of facilitating learning as opposed to talking at students, it would not be such a hindrance to the learning process, at least when hindrance is taken in the context of what Michael Wesch was talking about. For this concept, I find Barr and Tagg’s (1995) article on the shift to the Learning Paradigm particularly interesting and informative.

I also found it hard to read that learning “the basics” so that they become “second nature” as a “myth.” When I read Langer’s Mindful Learning, I began to associate the concept with intentional learning as discussed by Jeanne Ormrod (2012) in her book Human Learning. While I also see where Langer is coming from, I believe that there is value in learning certain things to automaticity, to a point where they become second nature; if anything, it is because we have learned some things to automaticity that we are able to learn in a mindful and intentional manner, because it is at that point where we have the luxury of focusing on what truly matters.

Focused Awareness – Mindfulness in Life & Academia


A Lesson in Mindful Learning

This topic has really opened my eyes not just to how I should be teaching once I become a professor but also how I am currently learning as a student. As I was reading about the difference between mindful learning and mindless learning I realized that I may be more prone to mindless learning which is something that I will now actively try to fix. I feel that my learning and study habits have actually gotten worse since being in grad school. This is most likely because I am so focused on my research projects that I don’t leave enough time to focus on my course work (for example I left writing this blog post until the very last minute again this week). This is something that I will really strive to work on in my last few semesters as a student. I think that if become a mindful learner it will help me to become a better professor, who can hopefully instill the importance of mindful learning onto my students. I definitely think that I have gotten caught in the habit of doing my assignments just to get them done and studying the material that I think will most likely be on an exam rather than trying to really understand and absorb the material. This is a major issue that I didn’t even realize I had and I am really glad that this topic came up so early on in the semester so that I can attempt to change my habits now.


Changing classroom environment changes students’ engagement?

A while ago, I read in Virginia Tech news that to facilitate interactive and technology-driven learning, Virginia Tech spends $42 million to have a brand-new building with state-of-the-art classrooms. These classrooms have moveable furnishings, wall-mounted writing spaces, and multiple screens for sharing students’ work. Besides, some classrooms are specifically designed for team-work and active learning. Although I have not been to any of these classrooms, I hope that these facilities can increase students’ interaction and then learn better.

I think students come to class because they want to learn something. Even with this good goal or motivation, it is not hard to find students, who look bored, disengaged, or even fall asleep in classrooms. Traditional classroom setup (with desks in straight rows facing the front of the classroom where the teacher stands or sits) limits interaction between students and teachers and students with each other, which limits students’ relational involvement and connection, leading to students’ disengagement. Studies showed changing desks in different patterns, decorating the classroom, or changing light and temperature of classrooms could significantly improve the learning environment, therefore the student’s engagement. Luckily, these changes have been seen in many classrooms. I have talked to other students and agreed that students now want more interactions in the classroom environment. Students want a stronger relationship with teachers, with peers; want teachers know their background and learning style; and want their teachers to establish an environment to promote interdependent relationship and a culture of learning. With support of technology, connection and communication are getting easier and faster than ever.

Therefore, I have reasons to believe that the classroom environment plays an important role in students’ learning experiences. A classroom with interactive and technology facilities will support students to learn, apply their learning, and turn it into their knowledge. Of course, a modern classroom is not enough; teaching technique, learning activities, and method of assessment to name a few are also needed.

How do we develop Mindful Learning from very beginning?

People are nature learners. Since they were born, they were exposed to a society that they have not (have not been able to develop) a single idea what is what. They naturally learn from their environment through observing and mimicking. They naturally update their learning through others’ reaction they get from their own action. And while learning, they begin to ask “What is …?” A quick answer is given by their parents. Then, they begin to think “Why is …?” A simple reason is given. As they learn more and more, they begin to figure out “How is …?” Mindful learning is naturally developed through the growing-up.

I can make a bet with you that, parents are always surrounded with children’s questions and questions and questions, just like the famous book “Wonder Why”. Some of the parents are patient. They reply with considerable delicacy as they recognize their children’s cognitive level and they try to mentor their children with a fair mind. Some may not. They reply in a perfunctory manner as they don’t value the important role they are playing in nurturing their children from the very beginning. The attitudes kids have received from their parents either promote their learning, or discourage it. The learning process thus get revised (upgraded or stagnant) based on their family environment.

Without extreme cases (hopefully), parents are always the first educators to get involved in children’s learning process. Then, kids go to school for formal, basic, and higher education. It seems that people are talking more about higher education and how it can change life and society. To be honest, I take more consideration of the parental nurturing and basic education. I do not mean that higher education is not important. What I want to say is basic education is, at least, as important as higher education that should deserve more devotion. I think mindful thinking is an ability of making logical and critical thinking that can be and should be developed from the very beginning of education and it should be strengthened throughout the learning process.

Mindful learning is a process to build up one’s belief of thinking the world in a logical and critical perspective. Belief, on the other hand, is something that once established, can hardly be altered. The establishment of one’s belief is most likely based on one’s family background, personal experience, and societal culture, in which case the preliminary education makes an important role. If we don’t provide an open-minded environment for learning from the very beginning, any higher education based upon that may end up with malfunction as unexpected. If the root deepen inside is not well nourished, it still suffers, even as a tall tree.


Kellyanne Conway & Ellen Langer, They Must Know Each Other

I just finished reading an article by Ellen Langer entitled Mindful Learning.  As I was reading the article, what came to mind was Kellyanne Conway’s mention of “alternative facts” on Meet the Press.  This particular sentence is what made me draw the connection between Langer’s work and Kellyanne’s alternative reality:

“Facts, whether derived from science or not, are not context-free; their meaning and usefulness depend on the situation.“-Langer

This statement illuminates the power that an instructor has over the learning process, and it highlights the importance of grooming students to be mindful.  For example, Langer offers an alternative way of thinking about facts and the learning process.  If an individual typically operates in the mindless track [as described by Langer],  a savvy spin doctor such as Conway—and I’m sure Conway has read Langer’s article–can influence the mindless masses with a well-argued alternative perspective.

Now, shift this example to the classroom.  If a professor’s agenda is to promote a set of specific facts, they could fall into the same colorful bucket as Conway–aliens from the alternative universe.  But if we encourage students to consider multiple perspectives–shift them towards mindfulness–they will be prepared for characters like Conway and have the ability to co-sign alternative facts or detect the intent to manipulate information.

I think mindfulness and critical thinking are pretty much the same, and we definitely need more of it in contemporary learning.

A let’s talk about it note: “Mindfulness coupled with ill-intent = Conway.” -Me

Imaginary death valley

I found Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education quite interesting. He argues that education should take into account two basic traits that all children share. Firstly, each child is different and secondly that children are naturally curious. Education is focused on testing and not teaching, which should facilitate learning. He mentions Finland, which according to him offers more personalized education instead of command and control education, that tops all the scores.

According to the 2015 PISA scores, Finland is not at the top of the rankings, in fact in Math it is not even at the top 10.This does not necessarily negate what Mr. Robinson is arguing for, but it is important to distinguish facts from fiction. Many of the countries that are at the top of the list, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries have a strong command and control system that is focused on rigorous standardized tests.

There have been publications based on research projects, such as the Project STAR (Steps to Achieving Resilience) from 1999 to 2003 with mixed results.

The next issue that is brought forward is Mindful vs. Mindless learning. Based on the paper by Ellen Langer (2000): “Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context”. In addition: “When we are in a state of mindlessness, we act like automatons that have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present”.

Mindful learning seems promising; however we need more examples on how this can be actualized.

Finally, I understand and I agree that each person is different and ideally we should have a more personalized educational system. Perhaps one of the reasons that command and control might be helpful is because it protects students from unqualified teachers. If the teachers are not objective in what they teach, objective as in teaching based on scientific facts, there should be some sort of monitoring and command and control system.

In addition, we should not forget the historical context in which our modern centralized educational school system was established. One of the most important goals was to establish a sense of nationhood and ethnic consciousness among the population. In many cases, the languages had to be “cleaned” from foreign words and school was the most effective way to do it. This has been the experience in most, if not all, European countries.

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