Literacy and wisdom…

I have already had the chance to know so many different people in this life, from various social and educational backgrounds. I have met the most brilliant minds and the warmest hearts, but I also met people whose essence I could not ‘smell’… The interesting thing, still not obvious to everyone, is that knowledge is not intrinsically a good thing!!!! In my experience, I’ve seen that literacy does not translate into people’s capacity to properly situate themselves in their lives and their worlds.

Last semester, it was painful to grade some papers. Because the topic demanded a reflection on difference, culture, diversity… I could easily read the human being behind their words… Some papers were absolutely right in terms of form, but I did not approve the moral standards popping up from every well-written paragraph… Should I evaluate them merely as good and bad students (given their analytical thinking skills and their capacity to elaborate their argument)? Should I ignore what their texts tell me about their empty hearts?

As teachers and ‘guides’ in the learning process, is it our responsibility to ‘correct’ them if there is no concrete case of disrespect or ethics violation going on? How much intervention would be appropriate? Being wordy and having read a thousand books alone never made a great human being… that is why I am asking myself: about this literature on critical pedagogy … is it more about the awakening of wisdom than the formation of intelligence? These two words means completely different things… at least in Portuguese. I associate the first with the ability to co-exist, patiently and respectfully…

I understand it inspires the exploration of this concealed relationship between knowledge and power, to help learners to understand the imprisoning potentiality of ignorance or ‘manipulated knowledge’, as well as the destabilizing power of critical thinking… But can we really influence (as teachers) the strength of this sparkle that makes some students so special as human beings?

I was amazed watching this little boy and his thoughts about life and the universe… Where do these insights come from?

Evaluating the evaluator

Every week, the same story… I spend hours reading and preparing the recitations, I am excited to ask them questions and set the class on fire, but when I arrive in the classroom, I find those blank faces sending me the message: ‘ok, whatever you have prepared for us today… deliver!’ In addition to these weekly episodes, there is another issue… which is the issue of not understanding the assignments. There are exams, and the questions are there, clear as water. But they are also asked to write position papers … and some among them are not able to find the questions in the text that introduces a problem… If the question is not there, they cannot find it.

I was perplexed. If they cannot find questions where there are no questions clearly stated, it means they accept a lot of information in their everyday lives as the ultimate truth about the world around them. As Sascha Engel noted in his post, we live in a society where the ability to select, analyze and scrutinize information is crucial.

Well, I was also very pleased to know that some of them have overcome this sense of loss and developed their analytical / critical thinking skills. Fortunatelly, there are always a few students exceeding any expectations… So, what is the rule and what is the exception in this case? Should I focus on successes or failures to evaluate my work and to evaluate them? How many students should be ‘converted’ to make a successful case? What is exactly this ‘learning progress’ that I am evaluating? If it is no longer about content…  things got a little complicated. But at the end, isn’t it still about content?

As a T.A. should I rely in the evaluation of my supervisor who thinks I am delivering excellent material? Should I trust my guts when it tells me there is something wrong if 3 among 25 are sleeping? Should I adapt my teaching style accordingly to the demands I find in the student’s evaluation? Who knows what is best to whom?

Active Listeners

This last Friday and Saturday, we had an amazing Conference organized by ASPECT Department. Listening to so many different and interesting ideas made me realize how much I like to listen. After the presentations, I was not only inspired, but also exhausted. This indicates that listening, at least in this case, was not a passive activity. I was not there only listening to words while they echoed and vanished in the air. I was trying hard to put a lot of thoughts together at the same speed they were thrown at me.

There are a lot of factors that make a good or bad lecture, but I started to rethink the value of lectures once I realized how important they have been for the constitution of my own thoughts. The voice of the professor, or of some professors…

Some people still believe that there are different ways to learn. Some students understand better by listening, others by seeing and others by doing. This is the basic notion behind arguments that there must be a ‘mix’ of them for effectiveness. In this video,  the argument is that learning styles does not really influence our understanding.

I think the argument makes sense, but it oversimplifies the process. For me, not only memorization, but also the understanding of meanings is facilitated by one form or another of teaching. I still think it is fascinating how some professors play nicely with words, transforming the driest texts into the most pleasant songs.

Education for all vs. Quality in Education

Two weeks ago, Latin America lost a leader – Hugo Chávez. I will not defend his regime in this post, neither do I want to discuss his wrongdoings or good deeds here. What I want is to invite you to think about the way our Western liberal societies associate equality to low quality. Take a look at the discussion in this video:

Liberal societies hesitantly accept the idea of equity (the starting point in which everyone has equal opportunities to be whatever they want), but they think equality is evil. Why is equality not desirable? Well, because equality is not the starting point, but the end, and we do not want to be as everyone else ‘at the end’. We want to be rewarded if we work hard, right? We believe that what we are getting out is what we put in, and we want things to be like that. They say that an equal society is one in which people do not have the motivation to work, to think, to produce, (to live?) …

Well, if this is true, our society is then driven by rewards, by the expectation of return at every deed. Every single effort must be compensated. Why would I work 80 hours a week if I knew I would end up like my colleague who works 20h? In this society, it is important to stand out of the crowd, because this seems to be the whole point, to be better than others. I do not go to grad school to worth exactly the same as someone who did not. Right? I do not pay more for a better school for my child for him to have the same chances as other children who go to cheaper schools… The social system is built upon differentiation, but also hierarchization. People worth more or less. The rewards are equivalent to what is arbitrarily defined as a ‘value’.

When we talk about diversity and inclusiveness, we must have this in mind. We have to be a little bit hypocrite to defend diversity within this social system. Discrimination starts with the belief that X is better than Y. People in liberal societies are motivated by the competition. They want to have bigger rewards for doing better work than others. In the educational system, we give students grades and we rank them. Those who studied more receive better grades and better chances in the job market. So, let’s imagine there is no longer race, gender, or nationality, there will be always some people in top positions and people at the bottom, because that is how this system works. I am quite sure other categories would be created to those people at the bottom. If there is no ‘bottom’ , there is no ‘top’. If there is no ‘inferior’, there is no ‘superior’.

Okay. Let’s treat everyone as equals… then we have to ask ourselves: ‘would we be willing to give up our privileges to elevate the other?’ Would we accept to go a step down? Or the condition for the ‘other’ to be elevated is that I can go another step up and keep the distance?

Education of quality for all seems to be an utopia, because people are anxious about the ‘differential’. Nobody wants to be as everyone else. But I feel everybody is completely lost trying to find themselves in the compensations…

Why do we need to be compensated for our efforts? Who are we without the money, the degree, the A’s in our transcripts, the rewards, the compliments and privileges …?

PBL in a disenchanted formal world

      “I would therefore propose, as a very first definition of critique, this general characterization: the art of not being
governed quite so much”. (Foucault – The Politics of Truth, 1997, p.29)

The literature on problem-based learning encourages us to ask ourselves: What do we know about the problem and what we do not know about the problem? How can we know that we do not know what we still do not know? PBL encourages the engagement of the students with case studies and the ‘real’ world. So far, so good. Lectures do not really help students to become active learners. But how does the ‘real’ world enable critical thinking? What is exactly critical thinking?

I have some thoughts about the formality of education and some possible limitations of PBL. How far can we go thinking ‘outside of box’ without the constraints of form and structure? I had a non-traditional education. For 14 years (3 to 17 years old), I was part of the same school in my hometown. We were like a family. We had music classes, artistic design classes, a number of collective work and leisure activities. While I was still in my first grades, we had a little garden in which we planted some vegetables and/or flowers. We had music contests, once in a while we had to write and present plays to the public, we played sports, created dance coreographies, among other interesting things. We had exams, but the homework was rarely some individual task. This school was not the most expensive. It was actually considered a weak school, because it did not really prepared students for standardized tests to get into college.

I had to go for 2 years to a preparation course to successfully take the exams and go to the university. If once I was told to be a smart student, engaged and curious, I suddenly felt I was the most stupid in the world. I made my way to the grad school, but I often hear that though I have great insights, I am still not able to translated them into a coherent and well structured text. I had only one professor, in 2010, who saw beyond the structure of my written work and this definetely made the difference in my decision to insist on the academic carreer. He told me I ask good questions.

What are the good questions? Somehow I feel good questions come from our connection to what we learn. I use the word ‘feel’ because I do not believe reason has taught me much more than feelings. I was able to stand out in that class because he asked us to do reflexive work. I have always learnt through experience. There was never separate subjects and objects in my learning process. This helped to develop what some people call ‘critical thinking’. The problem is that my thinking is constantly  ‘governed’ and permeated by the demands of scholarly work. What are the limits of PBL if you encourage students to think and engage with case studies, but at the same time you establish the tools that they may use to think? For example, some of the texts on PBL defines it as ‘applying the discipline to the real world’. Although I believe a lot of what we traditionally learn remains important to solve problems, we should be aware of the limits of this kind of reasoning.

Another issue I have with PBL is the extent to which they are involved with the problem they are trying to solve. There is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that says that “we are not able to solve a problem with the same mind that created it”. What are the limitations the “real world” imposes upon us? How could we improve PBL by thinking around the problem instead of thinking about it or within it? I developed a critical thinking (I guess), but I was not thinking about any problem specifically while I was having fun as a child in school. Now, what is more important? What I think or the resources and skills I have available to express it?

Tinker Bell   At least at early ages, I believe there are a number of fun ways to make children to develop a critical mind without having necessarily to immerse them in the ‘real’. We need to re-enchant childhood and keep some of the myths and hopes of this fantastic world as we grow up. Higher education can be about the real world, but I would claim for the maintenance of some of the spaces to the creation of a fantastic better world.

My parents will not read my dissertation

“Global citizenship” thus is an appropriate image to frame our aims and goals in educating our students. The set of items reflect all three domains of student development—thinking, seeking a sense of self, and relating to others. It relates to both knowing—how one decides what is important and true—and knowledge about different cultures” (p.2) *.

“Leaders and citizens of tomorrow need an understanding of the world’s cultures, languages, religion, economics, science and technology, and a sensitivity and respect for all cultural traditions” (p.3) *.

The author of this text, Larry A. Braskamp, has a very compelling argument about the need for a broader approach to education that considers the importance of self-knowledge, a deeper understanding of cultural differences, and the preparation of future professionals in an environment that is increasingly ‘global’. My question is: how far do we need to go to broaden our horizons? In my opinion, understanding different languages is one of the most solid bridges to the understanding of other cultures.

I think it is fascinating the way we can have different experiences abroad, amazing encounters with different cultures within and outside our society, but still remain so distant from the ‘other’. How can we develop global citizens if we ignore the barriers imposed by language? How can we share our knowledge and experiences with the world if we do not speak the “world’s language”? English is spoken in a lot of places, by a lot of people, but it is not everywhere. Have you realized the importance of ‘words’ in our society? Even though we have communication beyond the written or spoken language, how do we usually communicate what we know and what we think?

In my family, there is a handful of people (sister and cousins / my generation) who are able to understand English. My parents do not know English, and my grandparents have never learned how to read or write. I will write a dissertation that the most important people in my life will not be able to read. Should they learn on how to understand me? Should I try to make myself understandable? This makes me think about the connection between language and globalization. A book in another language is like a locked trunk. And knowing the foreign language is like the key to all the information that may contain in the book.

– 70% of all the readings I have done since my undergraduate course was in English. In my master course, I had at least 4 courses taught in English by foreign professors. I would not have been able to know what I know if it was not for the English course. There is almost no source in Portuguese in my field of study. I was wondering how this notion of ‘globalization’ suppresses voices, ignores what cannot be understood. Knowing the world while it is translated into English is not like knowing the world and the different ways people have to express themselves in their own languages. For example, I am two different persons, one in English and the other one in Portuguese. I think that in order to develop Global Citizens, we have to take into account the way language shapes people’s identity. How does culture and language impact the kind of questions that are being asked and the answers that have being heard?

Of course, I would not suggest that we all should be polyglots. What I suggest is that we should reflect on the privilege of English in the dissemination of knowledge. We should think about the way English became a ticket to the ‘globe’ (though it is not ‘global’)


* Braskamp, Larry A. (Sept. 2008). Developing Global Citizens. Journal of College & Character. Volume X, n. 1.

Uses and Abuses of knowledge

It is very intriguing the way science and market are so tied together. Is is a bad thing? Not necessarily. It would be silly to suggest that the knowledge produced by scientists and academics in general should be isolated from our daily lives. I think the argument I would make is quite the opposite. Knowledge and education worth to the point they serve life.  Unfortunatelly, we see all the time how knowledge construct and destroy, with its incredible progressive and regressive powers. For me, the role of teachers and professors should also be an ethical one. I know this encounters a lot of resistance. In this contemporary western society, people are afraid to discuss what is right and what is wrong, they are afraid of being too ‘modern’, too ‘totalitarian’. I am not saying that professors and teachers should ‘spread the truth’, but it is crucial that students become aware of the impact of their actions, discoveries, publications etc. Neuroscientist Molly Crockett illustrates in this video the way science may be used today for mass manipulation.

Of course, not only as future professors, but as students, future engineers, biologists, political scientists, … we must know the power we have in our hands to construct or to destroy. There is good and bad use of knowledge. Some people still believe that theory is just theory… We have learnt that theory is practice. We construct the relationships and stuff around us word by word.

Forget Education!

educate (v.) mid-15c., “bring up (children), train,” from Latin educatus, pp. of educare “bring up, rear, educate,” which is related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead”. Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s.

The etymological definition of the verb ‘to educate’ reveals the inadequacy of the concept as traditionally understood to the 21st century. There is an increasing awareness that there is no world out there patiently waiting, statically, for us to understand it while we become trained and educated adults prepared to deal with it. We are constantly facing a disturbing and exciting demand for change and adaptation… What should (or must) we know? When? How? And, of course, why?

WAIT… did I mention ‘adaptation’? Adaptation to what? New trends and needs that requires from us different kinds of skills and behavior. Right? I have a weird feeling about it. It is intriguing that the world ‘educated’ is still often associated with ‘good manners’ (at least in Portuguese). Although the connotation of the word ‘educate’ changed over time, it seems to be always linked to a kind of training that enables the educated to ‘fit’ in his/her own social space in a specific moment in time.

Innovation is the order of our time, but I fear there is too much optimism in the logic: Technology => Education => Better world.

We certainly have to engage in a debate about the new means to access knowledge, while at the same time questioning the notion of valid knowledge in contrast with everyday (ordinary) information. But inspiring students to become active learners and producers (instead of mere consumers) of knowledge (whatever it is) requires more than a methodological change with the inclusion of technological devices.

Common sense is viral!!!

I would have an issue with the notion of ‘change to make things as usual, all over again’. In the video ‘Digital Learners’, Nichole Pinkard suggests that in some decades, people who do not have the ability to deal with the new technology will be probably considered illiterate, as people who do not know how to read were considered illiterate after the advent of the printing press. So, how can we prevent it to become a new form of exclusion? James Gee, from Arizona State University, is aware of the possibility of segregation (poor kids vs. rich kids), as he expresses at the end of the video.

The idea of active learners seems very atractive, but we should think about our responsibility to create human beings able to stand against the replication of the injustices and inequalities that surround us. I am not sure if instigating them to be even more competitive with the creation and use of games is the best idea. By the way, the idea that they want and need to be the ‘best’ … There is hope, though. I notice a sense of community going on there. None of the activities shown in the video were accomplished alone. And those kids who were interviwed, they have something in their eyes.

But let’s forget education?! Let’s forget formalization?! Let’s forget ready-made concepts?! We should rethink the concepts through which we understand / construct the world. Let’s talk about what is important.