What is the purpose(s) of education?

Throughout our readings this week, and the prompting of Seth Godin’s TEDxYouth talk, I keep coming back to the question of what purpose should school fill?

It’s an easy enough question, right? Personally, I am not so sure. I feel like the overall objectives of education, for me, are fairly easy to identify: explore and exchange knowledge, stimulate higher levels of thought and consideration, foster connections between learners and their passions. However, how these objectives are realized and what they mean to the individual learner might muddy the waters, so to speak.

Everyone that will read this blog, at some level, is deeply interested in education. Many of us have spent the majority of our lives in the classroom (either learning, teaching, and in some cases daydreaming) and are pursing degrees to stay in the classroom -or the laboratory- with the goal of devoting our lives to the understanding, expansion, and sharing of knowledge. For us, education is our livelihood, our passion, and the lens with which we view the world around us. Obviously, our view of education is influenced by the high value we place in it.

I see education largely as a way of bettering myself and the community around me. Education leads to knowledge, and knowledge (through teaching) leads back to education. The implementation of knowledge with innovation enacts (hopefully positive) change.  The process and purpose is cyclical, fluid, ever changing and rooted in the intersection of learning, thinking, and sharing.

Then again, my purpose for education might be different than yours, and it might be different then someone not pursing a PhD or looking to devote their live to the pursuit of knowledge. For me, I think this is okay, and that the purpose of education (much like many of the concepts we applied in this course) can/should be shaped by the individual, and take on a person-centric purpose.

Maybe I wrong.

I admit I do not have anywhere close to all the answers, but I think the implication Seth Godin’s talk (which I did largely enjoy!) had, that there is a singular correct purpose, is somewhat disingenuous. From some, education can be based more in thinking, for others maybe it is more about learning (a skill, or a trade, or a technique that allows them to pursue a passion), or some combination of both. At early levels maybe it is about developing social skills, and the ability to communicate, interact with, and function in a civilized society. Should school’s purpose be stealing dreams and replacing them with interchangeable archetypes – as see by the industrial worker example? Certainly not, but maybe the impact school has in preparing young people to function in society, and exposing them to various perspectives of thought is just as important now as it has ever been.  My point is, education and school can take on a number of different purposes throughout our lives and there isn’t a singular, objectively correct approach to education and continuing to accept the assumption that there is will only lead to frustration – on the part of the educator, learner, and administrator.

There are certainly better ways to educate (especially on an individual level), and maybe even more noble purposes of education, but if we accept that education can be defined in a number of different ways we have to be willing to accept that other definitions may not perfectly align with our own. I think the goal of teaching should always be centered in creating an environmental that allows individuals to get out of education what they want, especially when the participants are old enough to identify what that is.

Shifting gears a bit…..  If the current model of school/education was designed around the need for interchanged industrial work, as Godin asserts, what does an education system look like designed around a society/economy built on automation and the replacement of ‘unskilled’ labor? How do you teach people to be smarter or more innovative?  When teaching people to be innovative is a notoriously difficult task?

(Lack of Understanding leads to Fear,) Fear leads to Anger, Anger leads to Hate…

Through our class readings (and listenings) this week I must say I really enjoyed some of the perspectives Mahzarin Banaji shared in ‘The Mind Is a Difference-Seeking Machine’. With most things, I often believe people’s thoughts/feelings/predispositions can be explained by better understanding either their experiences or how they look at and interact with the world around them. I think the same can be used, to some degree, to explain why people exhibit racist ideals or fail to practice inclusivity.

I kept finding myself thinking back to a cartoon I saw a few years ago made by Zen pencils illustrating a quote by Mark Twain, see below. Here an individual trades their idealized symbols of hate for momentos after traveling the world and expanding their narrow world-view through experiences and understanding. I think the last part is especially important, as understanding breaks barriers and builds bridges.

I believe Ms. Banaji agrees, as she commonly discusses how a lack of understanding leads to misconceptions and even hate. Taker her example from an Eastern European country where ‘a survey was done where they were given a nonsense name of a group and asked, “How much do you hate them? How much would you like them not to come to our country?” They got large numbers of people saying, “We don’t want them here, we really dislike them, they’re filthy and mean and nasty.” And they didn’t exist. That was a made-up name.’ A lack of understanding and familiarity allowed this made up group to become something to be feared and avoided, even though they didn’t exist.

I think it is human nature, some leftover survival mechanism, to be wary of the things we do not understand or are unfamiliar with. I also do not think it is inherently bad to be hesitant, as danger does exist. The same idea applies to why you don’t get in a car with a stranger, or why some people carry pepper spray with them – not everyone’s intentions are pure. I do not think anyone would disagree that terrorists (whether domestic or foreign) are bad people and are to be despised. The problem is when a minuscule fraction of a group is used to shape an opinion on the whole.

People like to put other people in groups, I think it’s just a rudimentary way of keeping track of things. People I like, people who root for x team, people who drive y make of car, people who like to hike, people who voted for z political party and so on and so on. I do not think the action is necessarily wrong or right, it just is. However, a problem arises when these groupings are used to shape ones larger world view and attach judgements to people who we ‘think’ fit into various categories.  Ms. Banaji pointed out an example of the power of these groupings in how you dissipate fear, stating “we discovered is that fear reduction is deeply based on who that other is. You will reduce your fear towards previously fear-producing others if they are members of your group. For whites, you lose fear to white faster than to black. To black Americans, you lose fear to black more quickly than you would to white.”

To me this circles back to understanding. We are more ready to accept and forgive (and to some extent re-categorize) what we understand than what we do not. Quite simply, most of us fear the unknown and to quote some wisdom from a well-known green master ….

Marry structure and freedom to create something… that works

“The challenge is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new” – Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.

I wanted to start with a quote from our reading in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change that stuck with me and, in my opinion, is fundamental to a lot of the discussions we have had about education and pedagogy. It begs the question where is the ideal line between structure and freedom? For the student? For the teacher? For the administrator?

I agree with a lot of what this article discusses, and it brings up a lot of interesting takes. However, I feel that the emphasis on ‘new’ is a misnomer, at least in a sense. Throughout the history of teaching there has always been a tug and war between freedom and structure so marrying the two isn’t a new concept. In my opinion, the emphasis should be more on finding a balance that ‘works’, especially with the added challenges that educating in modern times bring.

I guess even defining what ‘works’ is a challenge in itself and can mean completely different things depending on what lens you view the question. Does what ‘works’ look the same for a student, administrator, and teacher? I can’t say for sure that it does and maybe that explains why finding that balance is so difficult.

I think for many of us the most ‘obvious’ solution to the systemic issues in education is to place more agency with the teachers – the ones in the classroom on a day to day basis. Allow them to better control their classrooms, lesson plans, and approach to education and give them the latitude to tailor their teaching to their student’s needs. I think there is exceptional merit in this idea, but only when the teacher is a good one. What does a bad teacher do with all of that latitude?

I guess the retort would be to get better teachers, increase their pay, and incentivize more ‘brilliant’ minds to go into teaching in the first place. I doubt many of us would be opposed to this idea, I know I wouldn’t, but sadly there are plenty of people outside of our circles that are.

I guess in the current system you have to ask yourself, what does more damage – creating an environment that prevents the great teachers from reaching their potential or one that gives full reign to a bad teacher? I honestly don’t know the answer, and maybe the best solution is somewhere in between, or maybe that somewhere in between is where we are now and it makes few people happy.

Outside of the above, I think one of the other huge problems with education is how we seem to find ourselves in Death Valley to begin with. Yes, Sir Ken Robinson brilliantly points out that with the correct changes even Death Valley can spring to life, invigorated with wonder, and I do not doubt him that the same can be experienced with young minds. My big question is why does our education system or society, more generally, turn young minds dormant?

When I graduated high school I remember meeting with my old high school math teachers and they convinced me to get my substitute teaching certification to teach while I was home on breaks (apparently finding math/science competent subs is extremely difficult). From my personal experience there were plenty of students who just didn’t care, and had no interest in learning. I remember feeling that somewhere, somehow the system failed and I won’t argue that it hadn’t.

However, the more I think about it, I can’t say it is just the education system that is failing – obviously there is plenty of room for improvement – but I don’t think the social and cultural pressures that students face day to day should be ignored either. I can’t say I was ever bullied for doing well in school, but I do still remember that there were plenty of pressures that didn’t always emphasis the importance of learning. Being passionate about learning didn’t pull the same social clout as being a star athlete did, or being extremely good looking, or being ‘fun’. From where we are now these things may seem small, as we are surrounded by people that very much revere the purists of education, but during grade school they may cause just as much damage as the systemic issues we commonly focus on. A lot of students took some of the same classes I did, with excellent teachers that cared about their pupils and their minds and curiosity were still dormant. Why? Doesn’t this go against the very premise that great teachers will find a way?

Maybe they fell into the immovable camp, or maybe by the time they got to high school they had already given up and that lack of motivation drowned out the attempts of a few good teachers. It’s possible. Or maybe the societal pressures that ‘math isn’t for girls’, or ‘being a nerd isn’t cool’, or failing support structures at home cause just as many problems for cultivating a passion for learning as does standardized testing.

A More Reserved Look at Networked Learning

I want to begin by saying that I think networked learning is largely a good idea. Providing the ability for people to share ideas, knowledge basis, and perspectives is inherently a good premise. Educational materials such as Khan Academy or the blogs identified in in Tim Hitchcook’s piece  have had large, tangible, and positive impact on numbers of people and helps to bridge the gaps that sometimes a more conventional educational system fails to do.

However, giving everyone a platform does bring with it some unique problems that need to be addressed both in concept and in the practical application of a networked leaning based system. The reality is, not all ideas are good ideas. Some reinforce ignorance, spread bias, promote hate, and create division which contributes to the erosion of an inclusive society. Though bringing groups of people together and allowing them to interact with other like-minded individuals can be a good thing, it can also promote protected circles that are hard to penetrate with reason or evidence; if you need an example look no further than the anti-vax or flat-earth movements and how, even in the face of insurmountable evidence that disputes their claims, continue to grow and impact our society, not always for the better.

These networks and connections can be used to spread hate, lies, manipulation the same as they can be used to spread knowledge, inclusivity or the like. The reality is that if someone wants to find reinforcement for an idea they have, regardless of how narrow-minded or destructive, these connections can allow it. I remember back to an interaction I had on Facebook a few years ago where someone shared an inappropriate, shopped photo of President Obama fondling Melania Trump. I remember commenting multiple links to the original video showing very much that interaction never occurred and the only reply that came was “I like my version better”, essentially saying that this individual choose to ignore the truth even when it was right in front of them.  This interaction highlights one of my only hesitations with the greater idea of networked learning and how social media and the World Wide Web are changing how people interact. It gives everyone a podium, regardless of if their idea or thought or take is based in truth or has merit. Jon Udell  acknowledges that everyone should have their own space in the web for themselves to control, and I agree to an extent, but to the average citizen reading something in print (regardless of if it is peer reviewed, supported by fact, or not) carries with it a level of authority that can be leveraged to further a cause – regardless of that cause’s intent.

In the same vein, I admit that the same platform can be used to tear down the walls of ignorance and expose radicalism. I think the key is to recognize networked learning for what it is — a tool. It is not a cure all, and in my opinion shouldn’t always be the correct course of action, but its merits do warrant its implementation into our society, and educational practices. However, much like any tool, its correct application will decide how much value it can add. Recognizing that this type of interaction can be susceptible to manipulation, group-think, and the like brings with it the need to promote the development of critical thinking, (cautious) open mindedness, and the ability to recognize motive/intent throughout our society NOT just in academia. I think the last bit is extremely important, because in my opinion we usually see through the world view that we have and contextualize life in the way that makes sense to us and our experiences, but academia (as Dr. Michael Wesch  points out) is not always representative of the ‘real world’ and the overarching implications the connections that networked learning makes possible may manifest themselves very differently in each environment. Not everyone tapping into the World Wide Web has a primary agenda focused on informing the public of their life’s work in a purely enlightening way, some’s motivations might not be as pure.







Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.



VT Innovation Campus: Blog 10

As I am sure most of you are aware, Virginia Tech recently announced that it is creating a 1 billion dollar innovation campus in Northern Virginia in conjunction with Amazon’s second HQ (article 1, article 2). Personally, I have mixed feelings on the matter and a discussion with some graduate students friends raised some interesting points.

To begin, anything that is going cost one billion dollars immediately raises questions about funding. The Roanoke Times identifies that Virginia Tech and the State of Virginia are bringing 250 million forward, each, and didn’t disclose where the additional 500 million will come from. The article goes on to say “The school said in its announcement that private philanthropy, industry partners and other revenue streams through sharing spaces will fund the project.” If this is true, and VT gets a new one billion campus for 250 million privately funded dollars it seems like a pretty decent deal – though I guess it largely depends on what percent of the campus is higher education driven and what percentage is corporate/“sharing spaces”. For me, questions remain how this type of campus will inevitably impact the cost of attendance at Virginia Tech both in the immediate and distance future.

Generally, I think the connection with Amazon’s HQ2 will largely be seen as a benefit. It allows for the seamless creation of a student to company pipeline with one of the largest corporations in the world, but in doing so it further blurs the lines between higher education and corporate America. I think even without the new Amazon HQ2 the idea of an innovation campus is beneficial and well received, but there has been speculation that the State of Virginia was unlikely to invest in Techs initiative without the HQ2 centers close proximity. Obviously, there are and will continue to be connections between higher education and industry, but how much impact corporate decisions should have on higher education’s development remains to be seen.

Expertise Drift: Blog 9

Our professors and mentors are experts. I wanted to start by pointing out the obvious, and go further to say that I think there are a lot of PIs that are not only great researchers, but are great mentors and teachers, as well. However, there are a number of professors that aren’t. Throughout a lot of the blogs I have read this semester (in addition to conversations I have had with fellow graduate students) a common set of topics seem to persistently come up in graduate student circles…

  • PIs that are great researchers, but leave some things to be desired while teaching
  • PIs that struggle to provide adequate mentorship outside of the laboratory
  • Committee members that fail to adequately grasp the intricacies of their research

Admittedly, I feel like the above can be (in some ways) contributed to the fact that human nature predisposes us to complain – but that doesn’t mean the gripes aren’t real. I think there are a lot of explanations for the above (whether they be related to a lack of time and resources, distractions, pressures, expectations, etc) and I think a lot of their ‘excuses’ for not being the ‘perfect’ PI are somewhat justified.

One concept I want to identify as a potentially contributing factor is the idea of ‘expertise drift’. I put it in quotes because it’s my name for the phenomena and I do not know if this concept is readily acknowledged or not. The basic premise is that once someone works towards and becomes an expert, that real level of expertise can gradually leak or drift into a perceived level of expertise in other fields or areas. I think that once someone becomes used to thinking (intentionally or subconsciously) of themselves as an expert it is easier to blur the lines of where that true expertise resides and where it doesn’t. By becoming a PhD or a PI you do essentially become an expert in your field, but it takes close to a decade (4 years of undergraduate + 4-5 years of graduate school) and is localized to your work. Personally, I think this contributes to the three major qualms above… you can have a PI that is an expert on their research, but never put the same level effort into learning to be a teacher or a mentor or an expert in research that isn’t directly in their wheelhouse. Instead, the feeling of expertise can drift into those realms and fosters a lack of self-awareness needed for further development and improvement.

I would be glad to hear others thoughts about this idea… if it’s good, bad, or idiotic. I tried to find some examples of others talking about similar concepts and surprisingly didn’t find much. It seems it can be an issue in the medical field where doctors who specialized in a particular subfield during their residency get a medical degree to practice all types of medicine and then drift into fields well outside of their expertise (source).

Academia’s Culture of Overwork: Blog 5

I recently came across a tweet that summarizes a problem in academia that I feel needs to change moving forward. Meg Brayshaw, an early career researcher, highlights one of the most pervasive and (in my opinion) harmful institutions of academia – the culture of overwork.

Source: https://twitter.com/MegBrayshaw/status/1060284986685702145?s=19

Meg, in her tweet, identifies something that I think most of us are aware of… that overworking, that pushing yourself and those around you is not only rewarded in academia, but it is glorified. It happens to graduate students, who work ridiculous hours under some less than healthy living conditions, and it happens to professors and administrators.

Take a minute to listen to my advisor’s, Dr. Amy Pruden, TED talk about how ‘Changing the World takes more than Hard Work’.

Pay special attention to around the 3-miniute mark (and beyond) where she identifies what it takes to be a ‘successful’ professor and how the system judges a person’s scientific contribution by a set of numbers.

Dr. Pruden created a ‘system’ to be successful that revolved around limiting social interactions, typing short emails, not answering the phone, and frequently sleeping 3 hours a night while relying on caffeine to stay awake. This is the system that we live and work in, and is the result of academia’s culture of overwork. Dr. Pruden’s wakeup call was almost falling asleep while driving on the interstate with her two children; hopefully academia’s wakeup call doesn’t require a similar experience.

I could sit here and type out example after example of what overworking in academia looks like (and feel free to give your examples in the comments as I feel acknowledging our problem is the first step toward fixing it), but I am curious as to why academia has such a problem with overwork to begin with.

Personally, I think the problem revolves around how willing people in academia (graduate students, professors, etc.) are to overwork. The benefits are obvious – more work is done, more papers published, more grants written, more… more…more – so as the percentage of people in academia willing to overwork goes up, those who are not willing to overwork go from being ‘less successful than their peers’ to being ‘unable to succeed’ as they become replaced by those willing to overwork or are never hired in the first place. Essentially, the number of people willing to overwork has to be less than the job demands before those not willing to overwork become competitive.

Personally I don’t think we are anywhere close to that – as graduate students or faculty. Regardless of what people say or think, academia attracts enough intellectually competitive people that there will always be a willingness to do more for less IF it means they can get ahead of those around them.

Take graduate students for an instance, I sadly think graduate school can often be equated to an arms race where we are all essentially competing against each other. If student A is willing to work 60 hours a week and student B is unwilling to overwork, student A (more times than not) produces more and becomes the standard. Student B then realizes that they are essentially being judged by student A’s bar and either 1) has to overwork to meet that standard or 2) accept not being  as competitive and the consequences that it brings (whether that is longer time to graduate, less publications, advisor resentment, fewer opportunities, inability to become a professor, etc.). Then consider that it’s not two students, but most students and most prospective students – all willing to work 62 hours or maybe 70 hours until the bar required to be even average is unhealthy.

What choice is there? How does a student look around at their peers (all grinding away) and at their advisors (who barely sleeps) and decide ‘I am the one that deserves a break’ when you feel you don’t work as hard as those around you? The system makes it hard to even acknowledge what overwork is, because in academia overwork has become the norm and it has been glorified.

I do imagine this problem is found in other industries, as the pressure to be successful radiates externally and internally in most of us.  I think the difference with academia, and why overwork is so prevalent, can be attributed to the saturation of competitive and driven people in academia vs the typical work place. Like it or not, the vast major of people not willing to do more for less is what sets the bar at what’s typical or average and the vast majority of people in academia are willing to overwork.

I don’t really have many suggestions for how to fix this problem, and admit that it’s one that will be particularly challenging because it goes against what seems to be our basic instincts. Personally, I think wide ranging, systemic changes are the only way to eventually make lasting changes, but it has to begin with understanding that we do have a problem and that an unwillingness to overwork shouldn’t be perceived as laziness.


A Review – Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education: Blog 8

A recent study found that graduate students are “six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general public” (https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089).

In my last blog I talked about how being in a goal driven society that doesn’t adequately acknowledge successes (instead quickly moves toward a new goal) can contribute to the unhealthy mental state that is persisting throughout higher education. When I was looking for background information on the general state of mental health in graduate education I came across a study that was honestly startling. Entitled ‘Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education’, the study was published in Nature’s Biotechnology Journal and identifies a number of concerning statistics related to graduate student’s mental health.

Polling 2,279 students, from 26 countries, 234 institutions, and a wide range of disciplines (biological/physical sciences – 38%, engineering – 2%, humanities/social sciences – 56%, other – 4%) this study found that graduate students are more than 6 times as likely to experience depression or anxiety than the normal population.  Figure 1, shows how major factors (work-life balance, faculty mentor relationship, and gender) can influence a student’s mental health.

The study went on to recommend intervention methods to help alleviate some of the stresses graduate students are experiencing. These include enhancing access to mental health support and making a concerted effort to change the culture that is leading to these stresses in the first place. Personally, I feel that enhancing access to support systems is very important, but until higher education can fix the underlying causes of these mental health issues they will continue to persist. I believe the first step would be to assess the role that faculty mentors take on and contrast it to the role these mentors should be taking. If faculty are expected to help handle quality of life mentorship in addition to their roles in scientific mentorship, then they should be better prepared to handle these responsibilities. If not, some effort should be made to connect students with a mentor that can bridge the gap.

Depression in a Goal Oriented Society: Blog7

A recent study found that graduate students are “six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general public” (https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089).  In other words, graduate students are disproportionally more depressed than the average person. A fact that, though it is disheartening, isn’t extremely difficult to believe. There are a number of reasons why graduate education can lead its students toward depression including, but not limited to, poor work life balance, stress, financial instability, isolation, and the abstract reality of a graduate education. I feel that these factors are extremely influential and are worthy of a blog post themselves, but one concept that is largely unacknowledged is the psychological impact of working in a goal oriented system.

Do not get me wrong, I think there are a lot of benefits from a goal oriented society that strives to work toward major achievements – whether they be personal, professional, societal or so forth. I feel that the issue arises with the implementation of what working in a goal oriented society has become, and how quickly we jump from the accomplishment of our most recent goal to the pursuit of our next, often without even recognizing the switch.

We are almost always working toward a goal on the horizon, focusing on the next project or assignment or checkpoint instead of acknowledging how far we have already come. I think this is especially problematic since we are usually conditioned to associate success, and in a greater sense our happiness, with the accomplishments that we never actually appreciate. Shawn Achor’s TED talk “the happy secret to better work”, see below, outlines the problems with connecting our successes with our happiness and how it can usually leave us unfilled.

Personally, I find the idea of the goal horizon to be ingrained in graduate education. Small successes usually lead to more questions, and in the world of research, more failures. I find that my peers (and myself) are often chasing some abstract goal that is usually just out of reach. Even when we feel that we might be close, a meeting or update can leave us feeling further away than ever. I am sure we have all had these moments, and it can be depressing. I remember talking to a post-doc acquaintance of mine who had recently spent the better part of a hundred hours, in the last two weeks, working in isolation on a novel, particularly challenging analysis.  When they went to explain their progress to their advisors they were met with fairly significant criticism that failed to acknowledge the numerous successes that they had accomplished during that time. I remember them explaining how disheartening it was to have their progress go largely unrecognized and instead be replaced with more hurdles. By itself the psychological impact is likely minimal, something that will drift away in a day or two, but overtime these small (or large) interactions can add up and significantly impact one’s outlook.

Some would likely blame our mentors for these problems – saying they fail to adequate nurture their students – and I would agree to an extent. However, I think the first steps need to be taken by us, the students (or individuals more broadly), and work toward being more cognizant of our goals and be willing to appreciate ourselves for reaching them. By making a concerted effort to find positivity in the present and not attach it to a future horizon maybe we can not only get graduate students close to the average for mental health, but maybe improve the average as well.