Have I lost my empathy?

I connected so much with the article ‘When do medical students lose their empathy?’ found here – http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2013/10/medical-students-lose-empathy.html- that I thought I’d start writing on empathy and see where my thoughts take me. As I read the article above I realized, once again, that the degree to with I empathize or feel connected to situations is largely determined by my life experiences. Bad tidings from Paris a few weeks ago sent the world into shock. ‘Not again!’  We all screamed, vocally or internally. However, in a period of self-reflection, I realized that I wasn’t really as concerned as I normally would when I was younger. When did I become so cold I reasoned? I kept going back and forth in my mind until I realized that the problem was that I had become used to such news. I’ve constantly heard similar news every week or so from my home country for the past four years. The violence being unleashed by terrorists today is a far cry from my experience growing up in Nigeria, even under tyrannical military dictatorships. Even under the military regime, there was peace as the advent of the military was a response to a turbulent political climate that plunged the country into a brief civil war in the 70s. The once peaceful country that I love has now become a hotbed of religious terrorism. And as my environment changed, so did I. When I got to the US five years ago, one of the first real shocks I had as I traversed Brooklyn, Upper East Side Manhattan and Harlem was the sheer number of homeless folks living in New York City. I thought, ‘surely these people are lazy’. ‘How can one be homeless in the land of opportunities?’. My views had since changed.

Unless we put ourselves in the shoes of those we interact with, we will never fully understand people and extend to them the hand of brotherhood that binds us all as humans. Racism is a big issue in America today and people with polarizing views are finding it more difficult to live with one another. But I think that things will be much better if we put ourselves in the shoes of those different from us. If white, imagine yourself black and if black, imagine yourself white or Native American or Asian. If republican, imagine yourself democrat. If instructor, imagine yourself student. Interact with people different from you. Volunteer at homeless shelters and hear the stories, first hand, of those that have been a little less fortunate that you are. Anyone can be anything and though we’re all different, interpersonal relations (such as in an instructor/student environment) requires that we exhibit a personal interest, connection or, dare I say, empathy with people and we can’t do this effectively unless we put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

“Always put yourself in others’ shoes. If you feel that it hurts you, it probably hurts the other person, too.” ― Rachel Grady

Lazy me!

I certainly identify with the writer’s point of view. I have to admit that reading this article, which was quite brief by the way, took me longer than it should because I got distracted. I got distracted trying to do many things at the same time. Perhaps, it’s not that my attention span is reducing but that technology now affords me the possibility of doing many things at the same time, since things that were difficult before could now be done easily. I remember, early in my undergraduate studies, how I would prepare myself for an all-night study of some material by borrowing as many textbooks on the material as I could from the school library. Now, all I do is open my computer and presto! Am I getting lazy? I may be biased but I don’t think it is a laziness that affects me negatively.  I’m getting inattentive in things I can be lazy about but my functionality has improved. I realize now, that I can put more energy and focus into things I want to learn and be distracted (consciously) when doing things I can afford to not pay too much attention to. In fact, I think that being distracted is a defense mechanism against the internal struggle that comes from boredom or lethargy. I am yet to see a person that struggles for focus in a thing they are genuinely interested in. We may all be getting lazy with respect to some dreary task, but we’re also knowing more about things we love to do and getting more work done in these things.

In the mind of an educator

I love this talk so much since it’s obvious from the start that Paulo Freire is a deep thinker and has spent a lifetime learning and thinking about pedagogy, education, literacy, power etc. He starts off by talking about curiosity. In my opinion, curiosity is an important attitude one must embrace to succeed in life. Curiosity is what makes a person press on in the quest for knowledge when there’s no rational reason to do so. Thinking about the greatest inventors, scientists, educators and sages of our time I can definitely see that they all share a common trait- a bubbling overabundance of curiosity in their respective areas of expertise. Curiosity is a trait we all share as humans albeit in different measures for different things. Curiosity according Mr. Freire is a ‘virtue’ without which one cannot understand others. Paulo Freire’s talk was an eye opener for me because I am now able to connect some important subjects (curiosity, excellence, power, critical thinking, literacy, adult education etc) in ways I haven’t  done before. He connects curiosity to tolerance and explains how a curious mind will have to be a tolerant one. Freire explains that it was through being tolerant that he was able to actively learn (out of curiosity) people, cultures etc. Tolerance according to Freire is an ‘ethical duty, and historical duty, a political duty’. I love how this talk segued into the art of critical thinking which he had to learn as he began to investigate, critically, the art of education and literacy.  He brings to light how people will usually judge others based on some perceived qualities such as speech accent and how that relates to a power structure in the society. An example here in the US will be how some northerners view southerners. Most of the time it’s some people thinking some other people are not well educated, cultivated, or well off based on how they talk. A good educator shouldn’t be that way. Mr Freire explained that there is a critical way of thinking and attaining knowledge that will help the teacher work effectively with students. In other words, the method of obtaining knowledge is just as important as the knowledge and should be done scientifically to achieve the best results when the teacher is doing the teaching. This reminds me of two of my friends during my undergraduate days. They were both exceptional (and I think gifted) students and I asked each of them, at separate times, to explain some problem to me and although both arrived at the correct answer, only one actually helped me understand the solution. I observed that the one that helped me had a methodical and structured way of decomposing complex topics while the other was simply able to ‘magically’ know the right methods to get the right answer. I became aware right then that being smart doesn’t mean much when it comes to being a great teacher. As future instructors, we must stimulate curiosity in ourselves and learn the art of critically thinking through the subject matter. It is only at this level of thinking that we can be ‘available’ to help different kinds of people without being less ‘available’ toward some particular students with thinking and learning processes different from ours. We should also learn to be tolerant of people who are different from us. We don’t need to lose our personality in order to become ‘fair and neutral’ but we should recognize that we could be predisposed to thinking about some people in a certain way. We should, to the best of our ability, not let our predispositions prevent us from the art of scientific and critical thinking well spoken about by Paulo Freire.

Thoughts on the article ‘Principles of Community need to be respected’

Manuel Perez-Quinones’s article on the importance of principles of community is an interesting read mainly because it comes across more as an attack on freedom of speech than on the importance of principles of community. Reading through this article, I realize more than ever that ‘principles of community’ and freedom of speech seem to be opposite in the writer’s mind. They could be but it doesn’t have to be the case always. I believe we should live our lives, as rational and upright human beings, in such a way as to give as little discomfort as possible to people around us. That being said, we should also know the dangers of ‘principles of community’ taken too far. An example (a poor one though) would be something like this – German history Professor, assigns class to read a chapter of Mein Kampf; Jewish students takes offence and petition school authorities; Professor asked to withdraw assignment and apologize. While I understand that principles of community needs to be respected, I also think that thoughts should never be sanctioned. I grew up in a country that was once under military dictatorship and no one could say something remotely offensive to the government without serious consequences. I think freedom of speech should be invoked when there are violations of the principles of community and should not be an excuse to knowingly hurt some people’s feelings. Some people may choose to be jerks, good for them and really, that will never cease to be. Some of the questions that come to my mind as I read this article are as follows: Are ‘principles of community’ enforceable? If so, who enforces it? The author writes ‘I can legally express opinions that are offensive to others or that describe others in ways that rob them of their dignity’. Can dignity be bestowed or taken away? I don’t think so. Human rights can be bestowed or violated, but I think dignity is more about how I see myself than how others see or treat me. I understand that my words and actions can hurt people around me therefore I should be sensitive enough and not be an idiot. However, part of being an adult is also being able to not get offended easily.


Link to article: http://goo.gl/txSPj9

Thoughts on “RSA Animate. Drive – The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us” – Dan Pink

I find this results of the experiments highlighted in this video unexpected.  The conclusion of the experiments shown in the video is as follows: For simple/straightforward tasks involving some manual labor, an incentive/reward for getting the task done works wonderfully well on people but for more complicated tasks involving high cognition or conceptual creative thinking, incentives/reward (e.g. money) lead to the poor performance. This result has been validated with different classes of people in different parts of the world. Also mentioned in the video were three factors which lead to high performance in a work place: Autonomy – desire to be self-directed; Mastery – desire to get better at something; Purpose – human affinity for justifiable tasks.

I think we can apply these results to the learning space. Granted, some students do learn course materials well whether grades are overtly emphasized or not, a lot do not, as they end up focusing on some part of the coursework they believe they will be tested on – which may be less than 20 percent of the total course material. This means that the desire to have a good grade, more often than not, impairs true learning. In my opinion, if the fear of not having a good grade is eliminated, students will actually be open to all the information in the coursework. The challenge will then be how to ensure that this system is not abused by some ‘hardworking’ students.

Link to video: https://goo.gl/bho0dH

 ‘Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley’ – Ted Talk Summary

He fired off by mentioning how ironic the slogan ‘No child left behind’ since this approach is doing the exact opposite by leaving millions of children behind. According to Robinson, the proof of the inefficacy of this approach is the high dropout rates in some parts of America – 60% – and in the Native American community – 80%. He continued that, if these dropout rates were halved, it is estimated that a trillion dollars will be added to the American economy in ten years. Furthermore, it costs more to fix the problems caused by the drop out crises than this potential gain. Robinson pointed out that there are a lot of kids in schools who aren’t going to drop out but are disengaged from and disinterested in learning. The reason being the wrong direction of educational spending and efforts.

According to Robinson, there are three principles on which human life flourishes and these are contradicted by the educational system of America.

First, humans are naturally diverse and different from one another. Under ‘No child left behind’, education is based on conformity rather than diversity. An extension of this conformity is the apparent focus on STEM disciplines. Real education according to Robinson, has to give equal weight to all disciplines – arts, humanities, physical education, etc. He reiterated that kids prosper best by having a broad curriculum that exercises their various talents.

Second, curiosity in kids have to be allowed ready expression. Robinson remarked that this is against the culture of ‘No kid left behind’ which deprofessionalizes the teaching profession. He remarked that teachers don’t just pass on information. They engage, listen to, respond to and stimulate the minds of students while fulfilling the role of a teacher which is to facilitate learning. He commented that under the culture of ‘No kids left behind’, there is an inordinate focus on testing which, though important, should not be the dominant culture of education. He agreed that there is a place for standardized testing, but not to the point where it obstructs rather than support learning.

Third, human life is inherently creative. He asserted that education should encourage creativity and not stifle it. He noted that the culture of standardization stifles creativity and used Finland to support this point. In Finland, there are almost no standardized testing and the teachers are given a lot of latitude and discretion. The results are a non-existent dropout rate and the highest scores in the International student assessment tests. He observed that in Finland, teaching is highly individualize. Also, a high status is attributed to the teaching profession which enables an environment where the best teachers are recruited and trained. Also, the responsibility of teaching and running a school is devolved to the school level rather than a central or state government. Robinson remarked that this allowed Finnish teachers fluidity and discretion in doing their jobs.

Robinson concluded by pointing out that the alternative educational support offered to students who drop out of schools in America are designed to be highly personalized with a diverse curricula and with teachers who have discretionary powers to observe and steer the education of these students as they see fit. He indicated that these students would not have dropped out of school if this system was the primary method of education in American schools.

Some thoughts on connected learning ……

The Last GEDI session was focused on a new paradigm in education suitably called connected learning. From what I learned in this class, connected learning is a new model of scholarship/pedagogy and is a progressive approach to the structure of the flow of knowledge from the source(s) to the recipient(s). In connected learning, there is an emphasis on the learner to discover how he/she works best and leverage this to get the best results. Good? Sure. Easy? Not so easy.

I think utilizing modern technology and teaching methods in learning is the best and perfect as far as the ideal student is concerned. But the world isn’t perfect and really, ideal students are rare. By an ideal student I mean, the student that finds joy in learning and internalizing difficult concepts. I’m an engineering student and when I say difficult concepts, I’m thinking about the tensoral mathematics of multi-fluid turbulence. At the heart of such difficult fields are the methods espoused in connected learning.  Dirac, Lorentz, Planck. Heisenberg, Einstein, Richardson, Langmuir were all ‘connected’ as far as the technology of the day allowed.

Connected learning works best when the student is interested about the subject matter and is willing to make the ‘connection’ work for him. In fact, the self-motivated student would use any methods (connected or not) to understand what he/she wants to learn. I am not the ideal student and I’ve not, beyond high school, been interested in chemistry but I had to take chemistry classes for my undergraduate degree requirement. I really don’t think I would have been willing to go beyond studying chemistry just for tests and exams.

And this brings my thoughts to the challenges of connected learning. First is student motivation. I think there is an implicit assumption, in connected learning, that all students are eager/motivated to learn. There is also the challenge for educators to make sense the abundant modern learning resources and how to combine them to have the best results. There is also the issue of instructor/student interaction which is minimized by the heavy reliance of connected learning on cyber-connection. Overall, I think connected learning should continue to evolve and be robust and fluid enough to adapt itself to any subject matter and, if need be, use traditional learning methods.