“Howard University, a culturally diverse, comprehensive, research intensive and historically Black private university, provides an educational experience of exceptional quality at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels to students of high academic standing and potential, with particular emphasis upon educational opportunities for Black students. Moreover, the University is dedicated to attracting and sustaining a cadre of faculty who are, through their teaching, research and service, committed to the development of distinguished, historically aware, and compassionate graduates and to the discovery of solutions to human problems in the United States and throughout the world. With an abiding interest in both domestic and international affairs, the University is committed to continuing to produce leaders for America and the global community.”
The first distinguishing feature in this statement is about being a prestigious historically black university. The next significant feature for me is how long it is compared to other mission statements (take the Harvard Mission Statement below as an example). It unconsciously makes me wonder why they felt the need to explain themselves so much. Also, I get the feeling of inclusion, diversity, and being open to all (again, more clearly seen when you read the example of Harvard!)
Harvard Mission Statement:
“The mission of Harvard College is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.”
The first thing that stands out for me about the Harvard mission statement is the emphasis on the word citizen, two times in just two sentences! Loud and clear! It makes me wonder if international talents are welcome at Harvard University? The second bold thing in the statement is training leaders. The whole mission statement understandably comes from a position of power and boldness.
Educational system goals are inextricably intertwined with society’s requirements. Seth Godin’s talk in the link below is very insightful in understanding how the training of obedient and passive individuals was incentivized by the industrial revolution. In short, mass-producing companies benefited and preferred such complying individuals who carry their passivity into the workplace.
In contrast, the modern world seeks and cherishes people who can stand out and have innovative and out of the box ideas. Consequently, it only makes sense to update the educational system to reflect modern society and refrain from traditional teaching objectives such as pure obedience, memorization, and standardization. Additionally, contemporary pedagogy should take advantage of the rapid advancements in technology and their increasing adoption rate and usage, especially by the young generation. The new technologies have made people more connected than ever before, providing opportunities for cooperative instead of isolated learning. Many kids are already better familiar with the latest technologies. Given the right mindset and mentorship, they will become the change agents to advance their society instead of staying safe by keeping quiet.
I want to end my blog post with a quote from “A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited” by Parker J. Palmer that resonated the most with me and that shows how powerful and impactful pedagogy is:
“It was long assumed that females failed at math because their brains were structured differently than men’s. Then came a generation of pedagogues who saw the secret hidden in plain sight: Women are told early on that “girls can’t do math,” so they come to class with minds paralyzed by fear. Today, as many math educators pay attention to emotions as well as to the intellect, women succeed in math at rates similar to those of men.”
The traditional style of education termed as the banking concept of education by Freire provides students with a fragmented static view of reality. Students are assumed to know nothing, and their function is limited to receiving and storing the narrations thrown their way. There are two main problems with this style. First, it wrongly assumes the universe is a static distinct list of objects and rules that can be cataloged next to each other and deposited into someone’s mind. On the contrary, one can only understand the universe through experimental interactions and continuously updated assumptions. Second, not considering the student as having a unique point of view or a taste for adventure, and talking about reality as if it were motionless, static, and completely predictable takes a toll on the students’ critical thinking, and gives them a distorted view of reality and a passive role in the society.
Living in a world that is in a state of flux and constant change, the worst thing one could be is overly rigid. Students may eventually discover in their life that their instructed way of thinking has been in play to oppress them and it is irreconcilable with their nature and the nature of constantly transforming things around them. Many such people may find it impossible to continue to live in a society that limits the freedom of expression and opinion. With the brightest minds leaving society, it is going to be left with obedient easily dominated members.
If everybody blindly conforms to some role pushed upon them and adapt to whatever situation is thrown their way, there would not be enough motivation for anyone to push the boundaries of science and reform the current way of thinking. Such a society cannot thrive long-term and will lose its competitive edge.
The surge of digital technologies has changed all aspects of life. As a millennial, I have personally seen the drastic shift from the pre-digital era to the era of digital technologies. The new generation cannot imagine a world free from technology. This necessitates a continuous update to the teaching methods that can catch up with the rate at which the world is changing.
While these new mediums and communication channels open up many new opportunities to make learning more comfortable, they can also cause distraction and disrupt the learning performance. Ancient people would be willing to travel over long distances for days in search of answers. However, people have become much less patient with learning because they can answer every question with a simple Google search. This makes teachers work a lot harder to keep their students interested and earn their trust.
Social media is now providing us with an immediate gratification that makes it increasingly harder to focus and strive for challenging, long term goals. This is incredibly destructive for young children who are in their early stages of building their future. Finding the right balance in using the technologies for our benefit is a pressing priority that parents, teachers, and policymakers need to determine.
My closest experience to a case-based class was a graduate class at Virginia Tech on Decision Analysis. It was more of a flipped course in which we had to prepare for the material and were handed a related challenging problem at the beginning of the class. We formed students’ teams, and the professor had a facilitator role and helped us reach the correct solution. When the problems were more challenging, he would solve them at the end of the class after setting the tone by having us entertaining all possible solutions and scenarios. We were very eager to know the answer at that point, which helped bring home all the key points. Among all the many classes I have been to, this was the most unique that I always remember about. It was the most engaging and inclusive while being team-oriented. I am saying that because I did not use to have good experience with class teamwork. In most traditional classes, in-class team works are a way for the professor to rest and are not very productive more often than not. Defining some group task is not enough for the teamwork to take place. It is critical to peak students’ interests and designs the right structure to do justice to teamwork.
What I think made the Decision Analysis class successful was in a way that it facilitated effective teamwork. For one thing, the topic of decision analysis is very easy to connect with, engaging, and applicable to every aspect of life. At least I was lucky to have this class with people who felt the same way about the topic. While some of the problems sounded trivial at the surface, we were puzzled and had to give it our best. The class’s second influential quality was the professor’s ability to keep enthusiasm and create an environment of friendly competitions. We all wanted to be our best, and this made a lot of difference.
I think classes like this can help bridge the gap between real-world projects or graduate school research with undergraduate education. Teachers adopt the role of facilitators of learning, much more similar to that of graduate advisors. Rather than having a teacher provide hard facts, students are faced with contextualized, ill-structured problems and are asked to investigate and discover meaningful solutions and develop critical thinking. This helps students to learn mindfully and build their unique and creative way of thinking. Besides, when professors give the students the chance to think about the topic for themselves, they don’t risk going overboard and bombarding them with more things than they can grasp.
This blog post is inspired by Mindful Learning, written by Ellen J. Langer. In this article, professor Langer clarifies the myths about learning and how they relate to learning mindlessly. Mindful learning requires active engagement with the subject of study, being critical, and remaining sensitive to context. In contrast, we act the way we have been programmed in the past in the state of mindlessness. Habits and routines often predetermine a mindless state of mind and eliminate the need to be fully aware of the present. People tend to only turn to mindful thinking when they find something new and worth exploring.
What resonated with me the most about this article was how the myths of learning were all successfully practiced in school. We fell into the habit of learning mindlessly for the most part, which did not provide us the required preparation for either graduate school or future job.
One of the myths of learning is “The Basics Should Be Learned So Well That They Become Second Nature.” It was easy to be successful in school by simply taking theories in textbooks as absolute truth and teachers for granted. This solidified the idea that you need to know all the basics by heart to be successful. Unfortunately, this mindset can do more harm than good in making a creative contribution to higher education research. First of all, there is rarely any absolute inviolable truth in science. The decision of what to set as the base is a major challenge. You will find many of the theories learned before failing in practice. Second, you need to look at every possible scenario and solution and have a critical mindful state of mind all the time to be a successful researcher. Because of that, restricting your understanding to a specific way of thinking while rejecting other possibilities can limit your creativity.
What makes research struggling is that you cannot blindly follow any other person anymore, and you are on your own for the most part. This considerable transformation alienates students from research. Feeling frightened to be suddenly left alone, many graduate students feel safer taking more and more courses and postponing their research with the excuse that they need to master all the basics. But this is mostly an evasion to remain in their comfort zone.
Actively connecting study material to our prior knowledge is necessary for deep understanding and looking at material from different perspectives is a catalyst to encourage mindful learning. In this regard, it is beneficial to create an inclusive environment where students are welcome to talk about their way of thinking, new possible approaches to the problems, and unexplored challenges. Promoting mindful learning facilitates students’ learning as well as their sense of belonging and unity in the class. The reason is that sometimes, one might think that he/she is the only one thinking in a particular way, but when the students share their ideas, they might find out that they have more in common than they previously thought. Also, by allowing the students to express their likely different ideas in an environment of respect, we can increase their self-esteem and bravery to have original thoughts and findings in the future.
I discovered early on that teaching is by far the most enjoyable activity for me. My favorite game was to gather children the same age and play the role of their teacher. I was lucky to have a younger sister helping me quench my thirst for teaching! I feel my sister’s ability to write with both hands has to do with my effort to teach her to write with her left hand. My poor sister had to imitate me while she was actually right-handed! So, it goes without saying that my dream future job involves some level of teaching.
From college to Ph.D., I eventually realized that the way professors are evaluated does not do teaching justice. More often than not, teaching is not the priority as professors are mostly assessed based on their research outcome and the amount of funding they can attract. With so many responsibilities a professor has, something has got to give. That is the quality of teaching in most cases. Many copy the same class they have been a student of, or choose a style that keeps the effort from their side at a bare minimum.
Finding your teaching style is time-consuming. But I cannot bring myself to copy others in this matter. I like to set the tone early on that learning and progress are my class’s highest goals. Students come from many different backgrounds and levels of self-confidence. I enjoy giving back their lost self-confidence by acknowledging their good qualities and their efforts. From making complex concepts easy to understand to creating a safe environment for questions and mistakes, I want my students not to worry as much about their grades and instead focus on the actual learning.
There are still challenges I am facing in teaching. I have realized that I move forward too fast. Teaching the undergraduate engineering economy course last summer, my greatest challenge was to fully use class time. I eventually learned how to expand on the material to bring the concepts home and give students a chance to think about them on their own using class exercises.
In summary, I want to be an approachable, flexible, and appreciative teacher. I want to treat my students as individuals and not just a pair of ears. By remembering my students’ names, giving them second chances, and accommodating their special needs, while maintaining my authority, I want to go above and beyond most other teachers my students have encountered.