Monthly Archives: February 2016

Teaching for Inclusion

I am giving you hand why don’t you accept!
I don’t care about your name, address, color, country, or location
I care for humans including those who are homeless

This was the outro of an Egyptian song entitled “Egyptian Tale”. That’s what I think each teacher should do in his class. The teacher should even stop stereotyping before entering the classroom.  What concerns the teacher is that these are students, every one is here to learn. The teacher should not have any discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

However, with the great diversity in the universities’ community today, it became essential for teachers to learn more about their students’ needs. It is not enough to treat students equally as “Equality is not Equity”. Some students need more from their teachers rather than teaching. To address this problem, I want to mention a great book called “Teaching for Inclusion, Diversity in the College Classroom” written by  the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The book gives great examples and methodologies to deal with different types of students.

I picked up some of these guidelines which I think are very important, I grouped them by category based on my reading:

Gender:

  • Treat students as individuals, not as representatives of their gender.
  • Avoid sexist language in classroom discussions, lectures, and in written materials that you distribute to the class. (Don’t use only masculine words like he/him).

Religion:

  • Don’t assume that all students are from the major religion in this country.
  • Be tentative to student’s religious holidays and be flexible to accommodate students’ needs about changing or shifting deadlines/exams.
  • If you had to critique a religion or belief in your course just show respect for those who hold these beliefs.

Sexual orientation:

  • Assume that not all students in a class are heterosexual, and react firmly to homophobic remarks made in class.
  • Don’t give assignments that force students to reveal their social life.
  • Change some of your terms to be adequate to all student such as “partner” instead of “boyfriend” or “girl friend”, and use “sexual orientation”  rather than “sexual preferences”.

I did not mention physical disabilities, medical needs, and learning disabilities as I think they are well settled by universities and there are always special people to guide these students and to direct teacher in dealing with every case.

Finally, I think as  a teacher you should be easy accessible to your students. All students should feel you as an easygoing person. You should in the begging of each semester email students to feel free to tell you about any special needs they want, like preferring other names as we discussed in class. I think it also would be great if you held some of your office hours in a public place, like a cafe or restaurant at the lunch time. Students can come and discuss whatever they want with you at this time. Meeting in public helps students to say what they feel inadequate in formal offices.

What to learn from Alan Alda

Imagine that you are a good researcher who just got his PhD and made some highly cited publications. You tell yourself “Okay, I am very ready to get a tenure track position in a reputable university”. You apply for such a position and eventually you get the position. Preparing for the semester, you make brochures for the course you will teach, the class is full and many students still want to register the course, every thing seems to be perfect till now. However, after two lectures, the number of students who attend decreases and by the course drop deadline, you find only one fourth of students who registered the course will continue it.

A nightmare scenario for a new professor. What’s happened I believe I can understand multiples of the information I give in class. I avoided tough topics, why students left my class?! A lot of questions hit your mind, but let conclude all these in just one question:

Is a good researcher a good teacher ?

The answer is not always true. One of the pioneer in noticing this was Alan Alda an actor, director and writer, and a six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner.  He has had a lifelong interest in science. In 1990, he began his TV program “Scientific American Frontiers“.  The program continued until 2005 and mainly focused on informing the public about new technologies and discoveries in science and medicine. After interviewing hundreds of scientists, Mr. Alda became convinced that many researchers have wonderful stories to tell, but some need help in telling them.

This gave the idea to Mr. Alda to establish Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. The center aims to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, the media, and others outside their own discipline. The message of Mr. Alda can be concluded in making a good communication with your audience, rehearse on the best way to deliver the same piece of information to different audience. For example, old people, young children, people very far from your field. By doing this, you ensure that you get the simplest way of illustrating something. There is a well known quote that says “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” 

Other advice from Mr. Alda is to be always able to improvise. This comes by a lot of training and practicing. It is not good to memorize every word you will say in your lecture in advance, but you need to arrange your thoughts in a way that makes you cover everything in a timely and effective manner while ensuring that your audience are understanding what you say.

I think this specific way of science communication should be used by professors/ teachers in their classrooms. It is not hard but only requires training and preparation.

The candle problem

In an empty room are a candle, some matches, and a box of thumbtacks. The goal is to have the lit candle about five feet off the ground. You’ve tried melting some of the wax on the bottom of the candle and sticking it to the wall, but that wasn’t effective. How can you get the lit candle to be five feet off the ground without you having to hold it there?

This problem was introduced by Karl Duncker in 1945 as a cognitive performance test, and was used by Daniel T. Willingham in his article “Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind Is Not Designed for Thinking” as an example of how critical thinking is hard. He claimed that the brain is not designed for thinking but designed to save you from having to think, because thinking is slow, effort-full, and uncertain.

In the candle problem, the solution is not tricky (check the solution here). However, if you don’t have enough background from similar problems it might take you a lot of time to come with the solution or you might give up thinking before solving the problem. He said that people mainly rely on memory rather than thinking. Most daily problems are ones we have solved before, so we just do what we’ve successfully done in the past and that’s known as experience. According to him, critical thinking is not a specific skill but it is a process tied to what we already know and stored in our Long-term memory. We relate what is in our Long-term memory to the current working memory to solve the problem.

An important concern he raised about students is that:

Working on problems that are at the right level of difficulty is rewarding, but working on problems that are too easy or too difficult is unpleasant.

If the student routinely gets work that is a bit too difficult, it’s little wonder that he doesn’t care much for school. Teachers should try to understand students’ feelings about problems they face for the first time like the teacher’s feeling when he hear the candle problem for the first time.

Finally, I want to add a conclusion from Jim Askew’s blog “Web-based instruction 4 teachers” the post with the title “Why Critical Thinking is Hard Work!“.

When teachers ask a question, they must WAIT for the answer. Students need time to process information! As students begin to understand, and practice the process, they WILL be able to process faster! 

An idiot who deserved A+

Can a comedy play affect the education in a country? Unfortunately, it already happened. In Egypt, the educational system drastically changed because of “Madrasat Al-Mushaghebeen” (The School of Mischievous) play. The play was released in 1973 and was adopted from the the American movie “To Sir, with Love”. In this play, a group of five rebellious students kept failing and retaking their last year of high school. The students’ constant pranks led all the teachers to a mental breakdown which forced them to quit the school.  The play was first performed on a theater but due to its major success, it was recorded and broadcast on TV . For older people, the play was very funny. However, they did not notice that smaller kids got affected by this play and began mimicking these actions in their classrooms to gain their fellows praise. Alas, today teachers in Egypt are not much respected as in the past. I do not mean they are humiliated in classrooms, but they no more have the previous prestigious look from their students.

I remembered this sad story while I was preparing to write about a movie that discuss a great  educational pedagogy. 3 Idiots is an Indian movie which was released in 2009. In this movie, one of the actors was called “an idiot” by his professors in the university as he did not like the way they were teaching and assessing students. In a famous scene (you can watch by clicking the link), a professor asked him to define “the machine”. He gave a good definition and examples one of which was pants zipper. The professor got angry and asked “Is that what you will write in the exam?!”. The professor asked another student who gave a long definition as memorized from the book. The first student is an example of a creative mind which understands and relates things, and the later is an example of  who studies only for the exam (grade). The movie in other scenes also discussed the teaching philosophy of learning under pressure and learning for exams (grades). Finally, the movie shows what each of these students became in the future. It is needless to say that who was called an idiot became very successful in his life and that he deserved more than A+ in the college.

In his article, “The case Against Grades”, Alfie Kohn discussed the same problem of learning for grades. He mentioned that previous research has discovered that grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.  Students are less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”. The author gave good solutions for the case of grading and suggested that instead of giving letter or number grades to students, it is better to give them narrative reports about their progress. This could be hard at the begging especially for students and teachers who are used to use grades. However, experiments show that these descriptive reports helped student to learn better and not to feel pressure at all.

He also suggested a good way of giving grades, if the system insists on using them. The teacher could grab each student alone and discuss with him, according to the narrative report, the grade this student think he should get with the final word being for the teacher. This type of self assessment is being  used today in some school as a reference for students before getting their actual grades. Therefore, I think it would not be hard to apply the de-graded system using narrative reports while the self assessment could be used as a transition period.

Thinking about college, I think this type of assessment is not hard to apply at some fields like engineering. Many subjects now do not depend on exams as a source for grading. They depend on projects where students use their creativity to apply what they have learned. However, I think in some other fields this type of assessment might still not be applicable where students have to take exams.

From Nokia’s “Connecting people” to Samsung’s “Inspire the world”

What if Sir Ken Robinson was to give the same talk today, would he still mention Finland as a country on the top of the education system, would he still mention “No Child Left Behind” act as a topic for irony? Two and half years have passed since sir Ken gave his talk and the world did not stand still in these years. With the complete assent to sir Ken’s talk, I want to highlight some changes that have occurred with the focus on some related points.

In the past few years, Samsung has outperformed Nokia especially after adopting Google’s Android operating system. Nokia was famous by its slogan “connecting people” however, Samsung came out by a more rigid slogan “Inspire the world”.  Looking at the fact that Nokia is Finnish and Samsung is South Korean, did South Korea outperformed Nokia in any other field than cell phones ? The answer is yes. According to http://www.mbctimes.com/, the Finland’s education system was on the top rank until 2012. However, today we can see that South Korea has snatched the lead from Finland and became on the top of the rank. With many similarities between the two systems especially in the aspects related to respecting teachers and providing exceptional environment to them, and the most important no school’s dropout.

In South Korea about 93% of all students graduate from high school on time compared to 75% in the united states according to abc news.  The country is now 100 percent literate, and at the forefront of international comparative tests of achievement, including tests of critical thinking and analysis. However, having a system without school dropout and that’s ranked on the top of world’s education systems does not mean that the system is perfect. On the contrary to the Finnish system, I can feel that the South Korean system is not applicable every where. The system is mainly successful because of the nation’s culture which traditionally values conformity, order and hard work.

This success comes at a price according to a TED talk. Students are under enormous pressure to perform. Talent is not a consideration because the culture believes in hard work and diligence above all. Andreas Schleicher said that Koreans believe that they have to get through the really tough school period to have a great future. Classes also are larger with about forty students per class with the teacher’s goal is to lead the class as a community and help develop peer relationships.

So, having two successful but different education systems,  the Finnish and the South Korean, which one is better to adopt? Actually, it depends. Some other countries with similar cultures to South Korea have already applied similar techniques and were able to achieve great success in their education systems, speaking about Japan, Singapore  and Hong Kong. These countries also has outperformed Finland in the rank. However, we can see that this type of education, under pressure, is not suitable to other countries like the United States.

The united states education system has gone up in the rank in the past few years but still not in the lead. It was ranked 17th in 2012 and  moved to the 14th in 2015. With many criticism to the No Child Left Behind act, in December 2015 President Barack Obama signed a legislation replacing it, named Every Student Succeeds Act (EESA). The new law modified parts of the previous law but did not eliminate provisions relating to the periodic standardized tests given to students. However, the law makes significant changes to the role of tests in state education systems. For example, it requires states to include a broader set of factors in school accountability systems rather than just test scores. It is aimed that this new law overcomes the drawbacks of the previous one.