What is school for?

This seems to be a pretty simple question. School is obviously for educating people. But if you ask a further question – what kind of people school wants their students to be, it will become complicated. After reading the manifesto written by Seth Godin (https://hubpages.com/education/stop-stealing-dreams) and his TEDx video – what is school for (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sXpbONjV1Jc), I learnt about the history of modern education and start to think more about this topic: what is school for?

As shown in Godin’s manifesto, the public education started at early 20th century. The aim for creating public school was to train the students to be qualified workers for factories. So the school requires the students to be obedient to the teachers and memorize the knowledge that was taught to him. This is determined by the production efficiency at that time. Obedient and hard-working workers are enough for the economy.

However, today’s economy of US has grown into a giant. Workers who can only do what they are told to do are hard to find jobs with high salary. As the profit of traditional manufacturing goes down, people who are able to create and design products become rich. Therefore, the society is starting to call for the transformation of school from teaching obedient students to teaching creative students. The students should become the center of the learning process. They should know why to learn, how to learn, and how they can make a difference by using what they learn in school.

To educate creative students is not as easy as to educate obedient ones. There are no longer right answers for the questions. The students have to explore and fail again and again to solve a real-world problem. But this is very useful in their future career when they face the complexity situations. Free and independent thinking should be encouraged by the teachers to let the students cognitive conception to the problem. That is why realizing the humanity of individual student is so important in the education today.

Multi-Tasking Has Become A Necessary Skill for A Scholar

When I was a kid, the impressions famous scholars left on me is always quiet and concentrated. I imagine them to sit at a table for the whole afternoon with a book in their hands or wrote a “real” manuscript for hours. After I joined the graduate school, this impression has been gradually disappeared. The professors I have met can rarely spend a whole afternoon on reading or writing. Instead, they are busy in teaching, discussing with students, writing proposals, attending seminars, and replying to tons of emails. It seems to me that the ability for multi-tasking has become a necessary skill for professors. I feel the pressure to speed up too. When I was a master student, my schedule only contains two primary things: taking classes and doing experiments. However, when I have become a senior Ph.D. student, I need to mentor undergraduate students, design research plans for multiple research projects, write several manuscripts, and attend conferences. In addition to the academic jobs, I have to spend time attending job fairs and participating in a variety of service activities in the department.

Accompanied with the improved ability for multi-tasking is the deteriorating ability for focusing. I used to spend a whole evening reading books, writing articles, or watching movies. I really enjoy the time when I can forget everything else and immerse myself in the story of the books or movies. But right now, it is luxurious for spending a whole bunch of time only on one thing. To meet all kinds of deadlines, I need to carefully arrange my time and do multiple work simultaneously. Even so, I frequently cannot find time to sleep. The negative effect it brings is that it is very difficult for me to focus on one thing even when I have plenty of time for it. For example, when I am writing this blog post, I cannot help checking my emails. I suddenly remembered that I need to reserve the instrument for tomorrow’s lab work. Meanwhile, I am also drafting a conference abstract that is due tomorrow. I feel like sitting in a high speed train that never stops.

What changes me? I attribute the reason to appearance of information techniques. If you are a Ph.D. student 30 years ago, the only way that you access to literatures is to go to the libraries. You need to copy these literatures and take them home. Maybe 50 literatures will accompany you for your whole PhD study. However, today we can access and download the newest papers as soon as it come out from the online database subscribed by the university. By this way, the research process significantly accelerates. We have to keep tracking the newly published work and adjust our research plan on a daily basis. In addition to the convenience brought by the technology, it can also be disturbing. Emails allow efficient communications between people. However, hundreds of emails per day can also be a big burden for professors. Many of them are trivial things but also require you to spend a little bit energy dealing with it. The information you get from one email may attract you to a website, which in turn will drag you to another. Thus dealing with hundreds of emails can occupy you a large amount of time. The information bombardment can also shape our minds. Our brains are refreshed anytime that creates opportunities for new ideas.

Teach Less

Before reading the article by Paulo Freire (http://faculty.webster.edu/corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html), I thought a good teacher should teach as much knowledge as he/she can to the students. But I neglected a very important fact that the success of a teaching process not only depends on the teacher’s input but also on the student’s acceptance of the knowledge. Students are not bank account, onto which you can deposit as much money as you want. Students are people who have different background and cognition of the world. So they probably cannot accept (really understand) all the knowledge taught by the teachers.

Effective teaching methodology should treat students as humans not objectives that can memorize all the knowledge given by the teachers. Therefore, the teachers need to communicate frequently with the students and know how they reflect on the contents taught in class. It is important to encourage the students to discuss in class and talk about their ideas on the subjects. This can inspire critical thinking not only for the students but also for the teachers. The teachers should cultivate an atmosphere that the students want to play an active role in class, i.e., they are willing to express their opinions and interact with the others. By this means, the unidirectional teaching-learning process will be transformed into bidirectional teaching-learning process where both the students and teachers teach and learn at the same time.

The bidirectional teaching and learning process not only frees the students from memorizing so much knowledge but also frees the teachers from preparing so many materials. More time can be saved for discussion. The discussion may generate new ideas and questions, thus the learning will not be limited within the teaching materials. Based on the discussions, the teacher can adjust the teaching materials for next class. I think it will be more effective than the traditional lecture-only classes. Overall, what I learned from the article is that a good teacher should teach less and learn more from their students.

Teaching Philosophy is Rooted in A Teacher’s Personality

If you google “teaching philosophy”, there will be thousands of results coming out teaching you how to write a good “teaching philosophy” sample. According to one result, the definition of “teaching philosophy” is “A teaching philosophy is a self-reflective statement of your beliefs about teaching and learning.  It should also discuss how you put your beliefs into practice by including concrete examples of what you do or anticipate doing in the classroom.” (https://cei.umn.edu/support-services/tutorials/writing-teaching-philosophy). After reading this definition, my feeling is “teaching philosophy” should reflect one’s own style for teaching. So how can people establish their “teaching philosophy” by learning from thousands of others’ experiences? Is there anything like best “teaching philosophy” existing in the world?

My answer is no to this question. I believe a teacher should form “teaching philosophy” based on his/her own personalities. Some teachers are very open-minded and like to organize discussions among students in class. They may not prefer to use well-planned materials to teach. Instead, they prefer to adjust their syllabus according to the needs/performance of the students. Some teachers tend to focus on details and always spend a decent amount of time preparing the materials for teaching. They have strict syllabus and know very well what they are going to teach in the whole semester. They tend to use well-designed test to evaluate students’ performance and have clear expectation from the students. Some teachers are good at culturing a vivid class atmosphere by frequently telling jokes. While some teachers are “uncool” but are good at keeping the class well organized. I think all these teaching styles are deeply rooted in the personalities of the teachers.

I do not think there is a best teaching philosophy just as I do not think there is the best personality for a person. It will look awkward for a shy person to mimic a comedian-like teacher in class. So just be yourself! It will make you and your students feel more comfortable. If you are intently simulate others, you will pay much more attention on your own behaviors instead of on your students. But be yourself does not mean that you can do anything you wish in the classroom. You need to follow the common rules such as treat all the students equally and nicely. As long as the teachers exhibit their expertise and enthusiasm in teaching, I think they can be accepted by a vast majority of students.

Intrinsic Incentives Free Great Minds

Whether the existing grading system is problematic has been a debatable topic for decades. Students get scores in a specific class. No matter this score is a number (1-100) or a letter (A-F), this will be used as the sole standard to assess the student’s performance. The score will play an important role in the student’s future life, such as college/graduate school admission, job application, and even the amount of money paid for car insurance. Therefore, the score can be the only thing the students care. In another word, students take a class for getting an A more than acquiring knowledge. For example, when a teacher tells the students that the content he/she is going to say will not show up in the test, most students will not pay attention to it. This situation simply deviates from the motivation where the education system was initially designed.

More and more people have been questioning whether the existing grading system is the best for assessing a student’s performance. No doubt it is to now the most efficient way. When I was in high school, there are more than 70 students in one class. The teacher usually is in charge of two or more classes. So giving a narrative feedback to each student is almost impossible for the teachers. Meanwhile, test scores are the only standard for the college entrance exams in China. So there are no incentives for both teachers and students to develop an alternative assessment tool to the existing grading system. Even in US, it is hard to completely eliminate the grading system. Giving a narrative to a student’s assignment is definitely increases the burden of teachers compared with simply giving out scores. Besides, there are not any promising assessment tools that work even close to the grading system.

Grading system limits the free exploration of knowledge and destroy great minds. With too much energy spent on earning more scores, less energy is left for the creative thinking. Students who get high test scores may not be the most creative ones who can change the world. Many of them devastatingly to pursue the scores in subjects they are not even interested. I personally oppose to any standardized test. The time I mostly regretted to spend on is that for preparing college entrance exam and GRE. I think they are totally a waste of time. The best way for me to learn is to follow my own heart and do the things in which I feel mostly interested. Like what Dan Pink expressed in his TED talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y&feature=youtu.be), the external incentives (rewards or scores) sometimes make detrimental effects on people’s performance on jobs that call for creativity. While the intrinsic incentives (motivation to learn or solve problems) are the keys to create and make a real difference.

Mindful Learning vs Mindless Training

When we say “learning”, we have already put it into a context that this is an open process. The ways to learn new things can be numerous. One needs to choose the one that is mostly fit him/herself. In another word, there is no such a learning methodology that is suitable for everybody. Some people may learn fast by rote while others may feel miserable getting through the strict protocol. Mindful learning is a more flexible learning philosophy than traditional learning that requires the students to follow the instructions step by step. The essence of mindful learning is to let the students think critically on the content they are taught rather than accept all of them mindlessly. Obviously, this learning methodology is good for the students to build up their own learning systems and apply the skills they have learnt in a more intelligent way. For example, in an architecture design class, students are taught how to draw the outline of the buildings based on the classic works of the top designers in the world. Students who perfectly follow all the instructions in the class can definitely be a good architecture designer but cannot surpass the colleagues who they are learning from. However, students who can adjust the designing based on their own understanding or preference exhibit the potential to produce the most creative work. Mindful learning certainly does a lot of good to me while I am doing research. Although I keep the habit to read the latest papers in my research field, I never design my research exactly following somebody’s protocol. Instead, I will integrate my understanding into my research and apply all the approaches I can get in a comprehensive way.

While I agree mindful learning is vitally important in areas that require creativity, I cannot neglect the importance of repetitive training in some areas that require strict skills. One example is gymnastics, the players need to finish a set of extremely difficult movements in a certain period of time to win the gold medal in Olympics. Considering the timescale to finish the movements is very short, the players cannot incorporate their thought into the movements while they are doing it. Therefore, the top gymnastic players need the repetitive training every day to strengthen their ability to finish the movements without thinking, which I call “mindless training” here. Mindless training applies for all the areas that require people to finish sophisticated skills in a short time. That is no wonder why almost all the top sports stars need a large amount of training every day. I have to admit that they are highly talented. However, they cannot be successful without mindless training because every detail need to be strengthened and naturally internalized into their bodies. As a conclusion of this blog, I would say both “mindful learning” and “mindless training” are important. The former works primarily for creative jobs while the latter works primarily for jobs that require perfect details.

Self-Media – An Extension of Academic World

When I was first attending our group meeting in 2013, my advisor asked every group members to introduce our research in one or two sentences that can make your grandparents understand your work. It was not an easy job at all because we needed to get rid of any jargons that were frequently written in our scientific writings. I used two sentences to describe my master’s work and to my surprise, it somehow refreshed my understanding of it. Plain words and vivid expressions can not only effectively convey our ideas to the public, but also reflect our understanding and enthusiasm on our work. For us who would like to be a professor, such training can be extremely useful when you teach undergraduate students what is the meaning of our subject or when you give a talk whose audiences are from outside the academic world.

Among many ways that can demonstrate your work to the public, blogging and twittering are probably the mostly adopted ways here in US. I have a twitter account and have connected to a lot of professors in my field. Although I barely twit anything, I spent several minutes on it every day, from which I can get the information about the new publishes, conference presentations, abstract calls, as well as recruit opportunities. To me, twitter is merely a self-media for scholars. Most contents are relevant to science or science-related policies. People provide insightful comments on “hot topics” in our field and communicate with other experts.

“Self-media” is literately translated from a Chinese word that represents a platform on which people can publish their own stuff. The most famous self-media in China – weibo seems to be almost completely alienated from the academic world. I do observe that more and more Chinese scholars start to establish their academic profiles, such as google scholar and researchgate. However, those profiles can only exhibit their work metrically. “Xiao mu chong” and “Ke xue blog” are two popular platforms for scholars in China. But people seldom post their new work on it. The reason why they are reluctant to do this is probably 1) the culture that does not encourage “show off” and 2) the concern that their ideas may be stolen by others.

With the growing number of Chinese new generations, self-media has become successful in start-up business, sports and entertainment. More and more people are willing to share their opinions and knowledge through it. For example, a famous soccer journalist Lu Dong launched an online broadcast program sharing his experiences and opinions on soccer tactics that has been watched by more than 1 billion people in less than one year. Academia in China may have less fans than soccer. However, the self-media in academic can be the most interactive one because the players in it are perhaps the most smart people in the world. It provides opportunities for academic cooperation and generates new ideas. I believe self-media will play a more and more important role as an extension of academic world in China.