Are we all good ol’ racists?

While reading a piece about Shankar Vedantam’s new book “the Hidden Brain” I was thinking “NO! This is wrong! I was not at all racist when I was 3… cause there was no other race in Iran…” To be more precise, we (Iranian students) usually have a hard time understanding what race is when filling out application forms for US universities (I sometimes categorized myself as Asian and sometimes as white)! But after a while pondering about racism, I thought well, we do not have racism in its classic meaning of othering the other ‘races’, BUT we do have many discriminatory behaviors (and policies unfortunately) toward a large number of minority groups in our country namely Afghan Refugees”.

The point is, even if we have not formed the associations between certain groups of people and the concepts about them (simply because we have not had the chance of it), it does not necessarily means we are not bigots, as a Persian proverb says “He doesn’t see any water; otherwise, he is a skilled swimmer.”

I totally agree with Shankar when he emphasizes on taking back the control of our brain by unlearning our mental associations consciously and conscientiously. This would be a difficult process for everyone of us, since as we grow up we lean more and more towards our autopilot brain functions and as Shankar puts it “… the hidden brain is much more in charge of what we do than our conscious mind’s intentions”. This, in my view,  is everyone of us responsibility at individual level.

What I find lacking in this article, is how society as a whole should move towards eradicating racism. The structural inequalities must be addressed in order to give back minorities and the oppressed their voice and power. When world powers, their policies, media and social structures at national and international level are constantly shaping an unequal, prejudice and hateful global culture (e.g. toward Muslims/Jews/Arabs/etc.), do individual efforts suffice? I say NO!

Curiosity as a Learning Outcome…Seriously?

I was thinking about Gradner Cambell’s viewpoint on how increased curiosity must be an important outcome of learning. I totally agree with him that skill mastery and especially successful recall of information are by no means (and have never been in my view) proper measurements nor outcomes of learning. I also share the same (pessimistic maybe!) view about our today’s neoliberal education system which under the name of efficiency is distancing itself from effective meaningful learning!

What I found crude in Cambell’s piece is when he argues that curiosity as an outcome of learning is possible if we invest in our increasing digital environment. To me it really does not sounds coherent with his previous claims. While technology can increase the quantity of interactions, it does not necessarily enhance the quality of those! Many of the statements he mentions as epitomes of increased curiosity among students, are merely achievable in the real-world with intentional (inter)actions. For example, the last phrase saying “I am the kind of person who embraces unfamiliar people, events, and places”, is somehow more achievable in a classroom rather than an online course for example. Since to me it seems very unlikely that in a learning digital environment, people share their personal life/stories as much/consistent as in a classroom where informal talks are usually prevalent and recurring!

In my opinion, here the more important question is not about what medium can encourage curiosity in the students, but rather how in the first place, one can be so engaged in the learning process that he/she feels the “need” of knowing more. While personal interest and preferences in the course content play a part (e.g. you are naturally more curious about your research-related issues), yet I believe teachers’ role, the class ambiance, informal interactions and so many other factors will effect the stimulation of students’ desire to know.

HPR 2154: Introduction to Harry Potter

Why is it that some books are so easy to read/follow while others (many of the text books) are mortally boring; Why can we remember details of a good story (e.g. Harry Potter) even after so many years, but there are tons of information we cannot recall from our last week readings?

Harry Potter and Ron Weasley in Divination class

Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in their book “A New Culture of Learning Cultivating The Imagination For A World Of Constant Change” try to answer these questions by discussing the importance of modern learning processes:

They argue that in today’s ever-changing world, it is rather unproductive (if not impossible) to continue the traditional forms of learning/teaching-i.e. when someone (teacher) transfer the solid knowledge to someone else (the student) in a unilateral direction. while the unchangeable forms of knowledge are shrinking everyday, flexibility towards change and accepting new ways of knowing become more and more quintessential for humans’ learning process.

In spite of the fact that I agree with Thomas and Brown’s idea of making sense of the world through gaming (and internet being the adults’ way of playful sense making), yet I believe engaging solely new technologies in today’s classrooms is not the panacea for our ineffective education system! Many of us “Google” new terms, watch YouTube videos and try to understand the course materials with the help of world wide web, still we do not necessarily develop the vital connections needed for LEARNING process. That means, in most cases, we gain a rough understanding of the issue but we do not ponder enough (e.g. having no time or interest) to process the information into our knowledge.

While the authors believe, Harry Potter books’ success in sticking to readers’ minds (and hearts!) were due to readers’ “experiencing the unfolding of the story with friends, both online and offline”, I think there are other criteria that leads to such memorability!

First of all, the readers “choose” to read Harry Potter in order to “enjoy”. While in many cases, we do not have a “choice” over our course work, therefore having “fun” is less achievable. Second, reading Harry Potter is not an assignment and does not have a deadline to be finished/graded, hence the reader has all the time in the world to savour each line with full concentration (and no fear or pressure of grades and so on). As a result of passion and having the time to reflect on the book’s content, the reader can make sense of Harry’s world by connecting the author’s descriptions to his/her own life experiences-the process in which a co-creation of knowledge between the author and the reader happens!

Mission Possible!

Many of us always want to know how the best becomes the best! Searching for different universities’ mission statements, I focused on two top universities in the United States:

Harvard University

Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, established in 1636, whose history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world’s most prestigious universities.

Mission Statement

“Harvard University (comprising the undergraduate college, the graduate schools, other academic bodies, research centers and affiliated institutions) does not have a formal mission statementThe 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.”

“Beginning in the classroom with exposure to new ideas, new ways of understanding, and new ways of knowing, students embark on a journey of intellectual transformation.  Through a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities, intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created.  From this we hope that students will begin to fashion their lives by gaining a sense of what they want to do with their gifts and talents, assessing their values and interests, and learning how they can best serve the world.”

My Thoughts

What first astonished me was that they mentioned they do not have a formal mission statement! and then they continued with a mission statement! So is this a mission statement which is not formal? a casual mission statement?  I liked the way they took it easy. But more importantly, in their simple semi-short statement, they emphasized the role of liberal arts as a transformative power which in my opinion was brilliant.

Moreover, in the second paragraph, this mission emphasizes the diversity and its role on educational experience and transformation of individuals. Believing in different approaches of knowing and provisioning the impact of the students at a global level, Harvard’s mission statement tries to demonstrate the role and importance of this academic institution in shaping future world leaders instead of relying solely on its academic vigor.

What I found a little bit vague (and to some extent disappointing) is in the first paragraph where they talk about “citizen-leaders for our society”, I could not totally understand whose society they are referring to (Harvard’s? United States’? “our” global society?). Given the diverse population of Harvard’s students I think this is a legitimate question to be answered.

Yale University

Yale University is an American private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1701, it is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine Colonial Colleges chartered before the American Revolution.

Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society. We carry out this mission through the free exchange of ideas in an ethical, interdependent, and diverse community of faculty, staff, students, and alumni.

My Thoughts

What I like the most about Yale’s mission statement is its concise tone! It does not brag about the college which is not a common habit among academic institutions! Again like Harvard’s, here we see that Yale defines a global responsibility for training scholars who can lead and serve the global society. What sounds a bit different about Yale, is the valorizing of preservation and practice. While research, scholarship and education are  inseparable parts of  higher education, “preservation” and “practice”, in my view, need more attention when it comes to defining academic institutions’ mission.

And the last but not least, by considering the faculty, students, alumni and staff as interdependent elements which can carry out the university mission through their free exchange of ideas, Yale dignifies all the people involved in this process and not only the front actors!

Laptops And Phones In The Classroom: YAAAAYYY!

In her article, Anya Kamenetz explores different attitudes towards using electronic devices in the classroom. While some teachers find this habit as “distracting”, “unhealthy”, and useless others see positive points in using laptops and cellphones during classes. After reading this article, I really could not decide whether I am happy with using of laptops or cellphones in the classrooms or not. To be more precise, I am skeptical about the approaches to control how and to what extent students should use these kind of devices.

My concern is about the students’ ability to choose what they want to learn. I believe there is a different between a primary school pupil and a college student. The former does not have the control over the content he/she is going to learn. For the good or bad, all of us have to learn some level of math, literature and sciences by a certain age. This makes me think, if we do not “choose” what to learn then we allow ourselves more freely to be distracted as soon as we lose our interest in the topic/teacher/and etc.

Photo from: https://modernpsykologi.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/istock-175408082.jpg

Therefore, in my view in K-12 education, to the point that students are forced to take and learn a course, “self-governing” sort of policy for using laptops and cellphones not only is not fair but also does not make sense! We have not given them the primary freedom to choose what they want to learn and then we expect to have all their attention in a democratic way!

However, when it comes to college because of the freedom to choose the courses, asking students to use laptops and cellphones upon their will, makes sense and is fair. Although, there might be many other incentives to take a course (getting a certificate, and etc.) rather than pure interest, yet due to the inherent optional characteristics of the university courses, students feel more internal obligation to focus on the course material. In this case, self-governing over technology is in line with the values of higher education!

Of Tools and Goals

Drawing on Kuh’s work, Gardner Campbell in his paper “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” differentiates between learning as a “tool” versus  learning as an “objective” itself. He mentions that even though student-centered learning is the new mantra in the pedagogy arena, yet in most cases “learning” is considered as a tool to achieve certain quantifiable goals and objectives.

Built on Amartya Sen’s human development theory, one can explain Campbell’s perspective regarding education as a tool or as a goal. Sen’s believes that in human development, humans are the final goals of development projects. That means if a person gets educated, although she/he can serve her/his society better (human capital), however, that education will not be considered as a step towards human development, unless it creates new “freedoms”. Sen defines freedom as the capability to choose from different choices, so one can live a dignified life as he/she wishes. This said, the question is what constitute a transformative educational experience which can develop one’s choices and capacities in life.