The Sad Buffet: Emotions and the Failure of the Education System

As an engineering student, I have definitely felt pressure to remove my feelings from the work that I do. I have also learned how to resent “the system” as well as taught that there is nothing that I can do as an individual to actually change that system. I think that the constant push to create solutions that are practical and economical directly contradict the lack of consideration for the social, emotional and larger societal effects of decision making in engineering. Parker J. Palmer’s article, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” was a very interesting and profound argument for embracing our feelings in the professional world. Harnessing our emotional power has the potential to create the environments that we believe in and that we want to participate in.

At all levels of education, immense pressure is placed on students to achieve with the best degree, the highest grades, and the strongest portfolio in the fastest possible time. This, supposedly, is for the betterment of the student’s career. Students struggle to balance life responsibilities. Furthermore, education is served at a cookie-cutter pace. Seemingly, students have little control over the orientation to graduation timeframe. Individualized curriculum does not exist; instead, students have a sad buffet with limited direction. We are left overwhelmed. There is no room for failures and no time for feelings. This is a failure of the system not the student.

What Palmer points out is not just that these feelings are justified, but the importance of recognizing these feelings.  As students, we need to stand up and consider if instead there is something wrong with the structure of the system. I was really struck by his idea of how the education system should adjust to create the “new professional” as described in the following paragraph from the article.

“The education of a new professional will reverse the academic notion that we must suppress our emotions in order to become technicians. Students will learn to explore their feelings about themselves, the work they do, the people with whom they work, the institutional settings in which they work, the world in which they live. They will be taught to honor painful emotions such as anxiety, anger, guilt, grief, and burnout. They will be taught that such feelings are neither signs of weakness, nor sources of shame, nor irrelevant to the complex challenges of knowing, working, and living.”

-Parker Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” 

I wish I had been exposed to these ideas early in my college career. Realizing that all of these feelings are completely normal and maybe more importantly that feeling is not a limiting factor in success. The most successful people are just as prone to feeling anxious, angry, burnt-out, etc. The difference is learning how to recognize those emotions and “riding that feeling into action” as Palmer puts it.

Feelings are directly related to passion, and when we are passionate we do better work. Therefore, stifling emotions simply smothers our passion. Now considering the recent tax bill that passed the Senate, graduate students face added financial burden. It is important for us, the students, to recognize the fault in the system, when the system does not have our interest.

If we are even partly responsible for creating institutional dynamics, we also possess the power to alter them. We need to help students understand and take responsibility for all the ways we co-create institutional pathologies.

-Parker Palmer, “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” 

 

Diversity Awareness

Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and attending public schools meant that I was surrounded by a relatively diverse group of peers from a young age. I never realized that this was different from how all children grow up, it just was. This is the case for most children I think, they grow up thinking that their own experiences are shared by all people. This is why educating children about other experiences and teaching them how to be aware of their own perspective is so vital. It is also so important that we all become aware of how our brains work and how to become aware of the “hidden brain” as writer Shankar Vedantam coined it. I thought this quote really summed it up well,

So the problem is not that the plane has a pilot and an autopilot function. The problem is that sometimes without the pilot even being aware of it, it’s the autopilot function that’s flying the plane.

Shankar Vedantam

By learning about how the subconscious sections of our brain function, we can better understand what causes us to react in certain ways and evaluate if we are “piloting the plane” or if we are allowing our automatic reactions to drive our decisions.

Over the years, I have worked as a part of many teams. From my own experiences, I have observed that teams that are comprised of diverse individuals seem to work better. This is also supported by in the article How Diversity Makes Us Smarter from Katherine W. Phillips.

Finally I wanted to address being uncomfortable. In some situations, exposing ourselves to diverse experiences can feel uncomfortable. I think that this is completely normal and actually a good thing. The feeling of being uncomfortable is a sign that we are extending beyond our current levels of knowledge and understanding.

The Secret Sauce

Teaching style can be kind of like a secret sauce. It’s that special thing that makes you unique, a kind of trademark. As a high school student I had certainly thought that I might like to become a teacher at some point, but it wasn’t until years later that I discovered my passion for teaching. My journey through undergraduate education was nontraditional. I took a five year break from classes and worked at Saggio’s Pizzeria in my hometown of Albuquerque. By the time I left, I had performed every job in the restaurant and was working at a new drive-thru store that I helped open. My favorite job during this time was being a pizza maker. It was one of the biggest and busiest restaurants in town and it was really fun to be running around a flour covered kitchen making pizzas and calzones as fast as I could. Another part of this job that I really enjoyed was getting to train the new employees. I was very passionate about the food that I made and I enjoyed teaching new people how to make the most beautiful mediterranean pizza or how to cut the perfect leaf-shaped vent holes in a calzone. When I was reading the material from Professor Fowler, it made me think of my experience in the pizzeria. I enjoyed teaching the material because it was something that I was really passionate about. It also made me recognize that teaching in a classroom requires awareness of so many other important details aside from just being passionate.

I have not yet had the opportunity to teach a class, so it is difficult to say what my teaching style is. I have been a TA for two mechanical engineering labs however, and I think I can say I want to be a teacher who promotes learning above all else. I think I will be able to relate to students who do not succeed in traditional classrooms because I am a student who really struggles in those environments. Becoming a mentor to students is something that really drives me.

Professor Fowler also talks about nerves, how they effect teaching and how they can be leveraged to be, as Fowler says, “positive attributes”. I like this point and I think that learning to harness one’s nervousness is an essential skill even for those who do not “perform” as teachers do, in front of people everyday. I began playing the conga drums when I was 10 years old and began performing in front of crowds soon after. I was incredibly nervous the first time that I walked out onto a stage to perform. It was so scary, but it was also really exciting. I look forward to developing my teaching so that I can get that same excitement after a great lecture.

While I may not know what my teaching style or technique will look like, I do know that like any good pizza you must consider all the ingredients and how they come together to make something truly special. You must take care and have patience with the dough and you have to have good sauce and good cheese but never too much of either! As a teacher you must foster a safe and patient environment and include the right amounts of structure and freedom, without too much of either, to create that special space where learning flourishes.

A Conversation on Grading

The theme of this week is assessment. This is a topic that brings out many diverse viewpoints, but it does seem that the majority of people agree that what we are doing right now is far from ideal. With traditional methods of assessing student performance, teachers promote the competitive culture of the modern education system and actually demotivate students. I can personally say that I am one of those students who was never really motivated by grades, much to the dismay of my mother. I would often get poor grades in classes, even though I would have high test scores. I never really understood why people were so motivated by grades. I enjoyed learning and often would loose points on assignments that I had done, but just never turned in for a grade. I thought I was a misfit in a group of students who all shared some unspoken understanding/level of content with the way that we were evaluated. It wasn’t until college that I really started to appreciate that I was part of the vast majority of students who really don’t perform well within the methods that are traditionally used to motivate students. In reading the article by Alfie Kohn I thought the quote about grades and testing was rather accurate,

Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades.  In fact, students would be a lot better off without either of these relics from a less enlightened age.

Alfie Kohn, “The Case Against Grades”

Furthermore, even if these traditional assessment methods didn’t impede learning, they are also very poor indicators of the skills and competencies that students need in the modern workforce. Right now our education system produces students who are really good at memorizing content and regurgitating it in a a well defined setting. In a modern work setting, people need to be able to think critically and solve problems in settings that are often very loosely defined.

The perspective that Alfie Kohn brings to the table in the article, “The Case Against Grades” is very insightful. I really appreciated the fact that he tackled the issue from a practical perspective, focusing on tools and techniques that educators can use to actively begin to transform their classrooms. Change can often seem difficult and jumping into a new teaching and assessment style can seem like a really big undertaking, but I felt that Kohn did a very good job of providing guidance and examples so that teachers can approach the change confidently, without feeling too overwhelmed. I was amazed at finding out how long research has shown that traditional assessment does not produce desirable results. It is time that we begin to shift away from these outdated and ineffective techniques.

Don’t Go for the Presliced Experience

“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

Promoting mindfulness in learning is a concept that I think is extremely important in providing students with real tools that they can use instead of just checking the boxes of a curriculum. After reading the first chapter in the book, “The Power of Mindful Learning,” by Ellen Langer, I was really struck by how prevalent rote learning really is and how ineffective it can be. I also really enjoyed the many musical examples that she used.

It was very interesting/alarming to see how creativity is stifled when people are taught using traditional techniques. Throughout my educational experience, the majority of the classes I have taken relied primarily on the ideas of memorization and repetitive practice to master concepts. I think that this culture of teaching and learning is especially prevalent in the field of mechanical engineering, which I find ironic because one of the main duties of an engineer will be to solve problems in creative ways. It is essential that engineers can adapt the skills that they learn to novel situations that often do not have well defined constraints. Adopting a mindful approach would be a much better method for educating engineers, and really all students.

I also connected with the idea of “Sideways Learning” and how the methods we use to partition skills actually prevents true mastery of the information.

“Mindfulness creates a rich awareness of discriminatory detail. Theories that suggest that we learn best when we break a task down into discrete parts do not really make possible the sort of learning that is accomplished through mindful awareness of distinctions. Getting our experience presliced undermines the opportunity to reach mindful awareness. Sideways learning, however, involves attending to multiple ways of carving up the same domain.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

It is so important to real understanding that we are not just taking our “presliced” knowledge. To truly understand, you must look at the whole and dissect it for yourself; discovering the different parts and having the freedom to explore it from all points of reference. Learning in a mindful environment promotes this type of thinking.

I also really appreciated the discussion that Langer included about pianists and the idea that a truly amazing performance requires not only mastery of the technical parts of the music, but also the ability to convey the emotion and the performers individual adaptation of the music to create a unique performance. I thought this was a great demonstration of how important mindfulness can be.

“If a pianist is preoccupied with the voluntary, manipulable end of the spectrum of neurological possibilities, this preoccupation resounds in the music. The performance sounds calculated, not shaped from a spontaneous response. Hence critics often comment on virtuosos who, for all their technical brilliance, are unfeeling, or mechanical, or characterless, and so on.”

Ellen Langer, “The Power of Mindful Learning”

Teachers must change their material to be more mindful, but they can also incorporate the lesson of the pianist into their pedagogy by not just being a master of the material but also learning how to convey it in a mindful way.

The best part is that Langer found that students actually liked the experience of mindful learning more than traditional memorization techniques. This makes sense to me. Students want to succeed and they also want to be able to express their creative and unique ideas.

My favorite (digital) things

Engaging the current generation of learners requires that educators understand and make effective use of digital media and technology. In a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, it was reported that 87% of all teens in the United States have or have access to a computer or laptop and 73% have or have access to a smartphone. While smartphones and computers can be a distraction in the classroom, they can also be a powerful tool in helping to interest and capture student’s attention. Utilizing digital resources is becoming a standard tool for teachers and I think it really is a valuable one.

I am a very big user of digital resources for my own learning, including youtube, khanacademy.com, and most recently brilliant.org. I find it very helpful to watch lectures and worked example problems in a video format that lets me pause and rewind so that I can keep up with my notes and actually understand what is being taught instead of just copying notes as fast as I can. I also like that I can take breaks if I am starting to loose my focus. This point was eloquently made in the article, “Four Things Lecture is Good For”

There are serious problems with retention and recall of information given in a lecture even if the lecture is rhetorically solid — and this is to say nothing about the disconnect between the length of the average lecture and the average human being’s attention span.

Robert Talbot, “Four Things Lecture is Good For”

One of my favorite youtube channels is called 3Blue1Brown and is dedicated to making very nice animations to show complicated math problems. Often times the concepts that we teach can be difficult to understand, especially if they are abstract and don’t have intuitive analogies. This channel does a great job of tackling complex math problems and providing animations and perspectives that make them much easier to grasp. I think one of the best parts of this channel, and a common theme throughout successful digital education materials, is that when I am watching these videos, I am actually being entertained. I first found the channel when I was trying to understand some difficult topics in linear algebra, but now I am excited to watch the new videos that the channel creates because it is entertaining.

Who cares about topology? (Inscribed rectangle problem) Click on picture to see the video

I am interested in finding out what digital tools other students and teachers are using. Please share if you have a cool youtube channel or website that you like to use.

A Balanced Serving: networked learning to better equip the student

Networked learning is a concept that I have experienced but never had a formal name for until beginning the first weeks reading for my Contemporary Pedagogy course. As a child of the 80’s, I grew up watching the expanding incorporation of computers and the internet into classrooms and despite some of the challenges that these technologies bring, I firmly believe that they are valuable tools for educators. I personally use many online resources to supplement the material that I learn in the classroom and get different approaches to difficult concepts.

When reading the article by Gardner Campbell about networked learning I really related to one of the first things that he brought up which I have quoted below:

“[…] in 2008, an emphasis on the global economic competitiveness of the United States was framing the value of a college/university degree increasingly in terms of an individual’s potential for lifetime earnings as well as the nation’s human capital available for research, development, and production. Education was becoming more about careers and “competencies” […] and less about inquiry, meaning-making, and a broadly humane view of human capacity.”

Gardner Campbell: Networked Learning as Experiential Learning

This continues to be a problem with how education is advertised and evaluated, especially in the United States. Students choose careers based on potential salaries and universities advertise using the income of their alumni. These are not the motivations that should drive education.

One of the problems is the continually inflating cost of post-secondary education in the US. Students often accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt in pursuit of a college degree and must ensure that they will be able to afford their loan payments upon graduating. We need to invest in education and begin to shift the standards used to appraise the value of higher education.

A very powerful tool for societal change is the use of networked learning. Websites, blogs, tweets, etc. are all freely accessible sources of information that can be accessed by the public and can be easier to digest than an academic paper for example. As members of society, the more that we can engage with our communities and encourage healthy discussions about higher education, the more that people will be aware of the issues that challenge the delivery and positive impact of higher education.

Furthermore, incorporating these technologies into the classroom pedagogy better prepares students to utilize these tools in their own professional lives, becoming more successful and influential members of their fields. Online learning also poses a fantastic opportunity to provide a high-quality education to people at a fraction of the cost of traditional in-class methods. It is up to us, as the next generation of educators, to challenge the current paradigm. Education should serve the students not the institutions and be driven by curiosity and not money.

I am excited to be in the classroom with future educators who are learning how to participate in and incorporate networked learning. I know that I will learn a lot through reading the blog posts of my colleagues and participating in discussions throughout this semester and into the future.