We have different history textbooks

I was sent to the National Taiwan University in the summer of 2012 as a visiting student for six weeks. I did some cool research on micro fluids in NTU, met some nice friends and had a good time. All in all, I love Taiwan and the time there.

One thing I had wanted to do and did do with my friends there was to go to a book store and check out the history textbooks — sounds crazy and dumb? No. For those who don’t know, here is the thing: there were two Parties in China during and shortly after the Second World War: the Communist Party and Kuomintang. They cooperated with each other during WW2 but started a civil war immediately after the WW2 victory. Then Kuomintang was defeated by the Communist Party and moved to Taiwan. “Legitimacy belongs to the victor”. So in the history textbook in mainland China, the Communist Party is the major force in the war of resistance against Japan. But, I had been hearing the rumor that the history textbook in Taiwan, of which the content is determined by Kuomintang, is different from ours, and said that Kuomintang is actually the leading power to defeat Japan (which, to be honest, I believe is the truth). So, we were curious and went to a bookstore to find out — and it is true! The description tongue and the “facts” written are very different from ours.

Just one simple example in my life of how curriculum is related to power. A more generalized and extreme example can be found in 1984, George O’well’s famous novel. And that’s ONE reason why we need critical pedagogy.

“I feel like arguing with a woman”

Several months ago, on a popular entertainment science show in China called “The Strongest brain”, two people started an argument on whether or not the assessment for an challenger is reasonable. One person is a neuroscientist and a professor from Peking University, one of the top universities in China. He likes to say that “Science is the sole criterion for evaluation”.  The other person is a very famous author/businessman/editor/director/teen idol, but also a controversial person. Some people think he is shallow. And he is often teased by other people for being short and like a girl.

They argued with each other so fiercely, and suddenly the professor said:

“I can’t stand this. I feel like arguing with a woman.”

The writer was so outraged that even if the professor apologized twice, he stormed out of the scene and refused to come back to continue the recording.

This event lit up a nationwide discussion on whether or not this exact sentence is a prejudice against women. So I am a woman, and I don’t like this sentence. I argued with my male friend on this. His claiming is “The professor should not have used this sentence to attack the author. But without any context, this sentence itself is not a prejudice. Men and women are different. Women do prefer arguing and they argue more emotionally than men, who usually argue more rationally. And the sentence is just stating the difference out.”

I can’t argue with him on that because I am an emotional person. I know I don’t like it but deeply inside my heart I do feel that women are more emotional. And not just me, not just my friend, a lot of people in the society feel the same way. They wouldn’t say it out loud and they do have the same stereotype. And I feel that these stereotypes, not just those against women, but all stereotypes will exist more or less unless we enter a utopian world some day in the future. Act it out or not, say it out or not, differences exit. Don’t get me wrong on this, I am 100 percent sure that we should by no means do everything we need to eliminate discrimination, but, stereotypes are hard to eliminate, if even possible.

Now the question comes: should we do positive intervention in our education to make students not feel these stereotypes to improve their academic performance? Claude M. Steele says yes in his book “Whistling Vivaldi: how stereotypes affect us and we can do.” He thinks it is worth the risk of having these students unprepared for real world stereotypes. I like many of his ideas and appreciate his work on this. But I disagree with him on this specific question. Academic performance is only a part of one’s life. Many people will go through some type of stereotypes in his life and he/she should be prepared for this. Tell them the truth, but teach them to fight against the unfair. Knowing the evil does not mean accepting it. I would prefer that if I have a baby girl, she won’t say anything like “I feel like arguing with a woman” in the future, but she won’t be hurt too much to lose her ration by this kind of sentence either, because she is prepared, and then she can fight back.

Is it just a “performance”?

When I was a TA for fluid mechanics, I was given the opportunity to give students weekly recitation. This 45-min class was usually divided into two parts: I will work through some example problems for that week’s topic first, and then followed by some experimental demonstrations that facilitate the students’ understanding of some concepts.

This recitation was optional. And the professor stressed that I won’t get too many of them, you know, just to make me less nervous. However, when I walked into the classroom in the first week, I got more than 30 students! That was two thirds of the class! I was totally taken aback by this for a minute, and then, without choice, I proceeded with caution and finished my first class.

It is amazing how teaching can get you addicted. Well, at least for me. I started to enjoy standing in front of the students and getting their attention. And inevitably, this feeling got me disappointed several weeks later, in fact, exactly the week after spring break, when some students were still in their holiday moods. I got only five students that week. I felt so depressed that I ran to the professor and asked if it was because the way I teach. Was it because I was a bad teacher?

He said:

“No. I don’t think so. Sometimes students got busy or they don’t feel like the need to attend a recitation this week. So you don’t need to be sad. As long as you think you are doing your best. This is like a performance. Your performance. You got prepared, go up stage and perform the teaching. No matter how many audiences you’ve got, it does not affect the way you teach. ”

I was convinced. This made me feel much better and I totally bought the idea of seeing teaching as a performance.

But is it really?

As I learnt recently, no. It’s better if we see ourselves as facilitators for students’ learning than as teachers. Teaching should not be a one-way knowledge indoctrination, but should be an interactive process. I still appreciate the professor’s saying that helped me to rebuild my confidence, but teaching is totally not a performance. We should, from some aspects, be cautious about our gestures, voices, and postures that can affect our communication, but we should never see the teaching podiums as our stages. Teaching is not about us. Teaching is about the students.

Come on! Let’s Play!

What a brilliant idea to use the theory of human learning built into good video games for teaching and learning! Isn’t that just the right way to set students’ minds on fire in the digital era?

Video games are both frustrating and life enhancing. So are and should learning be. But why most of us (at lease for me for sure) love playing video games more than learning? Because the former gives much more fun! Can we make learning more fun than it is now? Yes I think we can.

Check this video out:

It’s a simple program that you can download and compile without warning (according to most comments below) and OMG! Look at how beautiful it is! How diverse it can be! Now think about this: instead of making math, physics and coding the most boring thing in the world, you combine them in a single program and make it so much fun! Now I’m imagining taking the codes, making it incomplete, giving it to the students and asking them to make their own animation on whatever fluid process. Isn’t that a perfect learning game? I would love that!

If we don’t treat learning as such a serious topic, we can actually have fun with it.  We play, and we learn!

The Moon and Sixpence

So many thoughts keep talking to each other after watching Dan Pink’s TED talk on motivation, reading Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” and Liu and Noppe-Brandon’s “Imagination First”, I want to make a simpler but hopefully more interesting post that could help me release some of the tension of thinking, and also perhaps can add some thoughts, too (still being contradictory, can’t stop…).

Well, I am going to tell a story of a Straight A sleepwalker. He was a stockbroker, making good amount of money in London. He had a beautiful and considerate wife, raising two adorable children, a son and a girl. They lived happily together all the time and will live happily ever after…

No. I know you are expecting something different. Here it goes. After a summer vacation with the family, the man wrote a letter to his wife saying that he decided  to abandon them and would never come back. Then he moved to Paris with little money, found a stinky and shabby hotel and started to paint. Well, nobody liked his paintings and he fell prey to hunger and illness every now and then. Yet, he finally, for the first time in life, started to feel real happiness.

You may have caught me. That’s a stolen story from the novel “The Moon and Sixpence” written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1919 and it is believed to be based on the real life story of Gauguin, a great French artist.

While the story is trying to explore the relationship between arts and livelihood and is way more complicated than what I told in the above, I  saw it another way right now:

Sixpence is the grades and the Moon is our intrinsic motivation, our imagination, our urge to direct our own lives and the desire to get better and better at something that ourselves think matters.

Although there is a long way to go to delete the system of grades, and there are still a lot of issues related to this revolution (some of my thoughts are shouting: grading is more efficient; pure subjective comments can lead to corruption; etc.), I am fully supportive of DELETING GRADES or DILUTING GRADES. I believe those issues can be solved eventually.

Finally, to echo my favorite Zen master example in “The Case Against Grades”, where the master says “If you have one eye on how close you are to achieving your goal, that leaves only one eye for your task”, I want to cite Maugham here:

“If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don’t look up, and so miss the moon.”


to Learn, not to be taught

From primary school to middle school, high school and finally to college, getting good grades during tests have been the only goal of my life. I was raised in an environment that grades speak for every child, and I felt lucky that I was so good at this. My talent on taking tests has taken me all the way from a small town to a middle city, and to the biggest city in China: Shanghai.

The more specific the goal is and the stronger the desire is, the easier one can get lost once the goal is achieved. After the most stressful National College Entrance Exam, I got a good score and went to one of the top five universities in China. Suddenly all the pressure was gone and life is much more about tests and grades. I started to skip classes, attending activity associations such as dancing club, debating team, basketball team etc., any thing but paying attention to what was taught in class. But several questions kept haunting my mind:

What do I really like? Why am I studying this major? What is my life about?

Am I being stupid and unrealistic? No. I never had a chance to ask myself these questions. But they are so important for a student to love his or her life, love learning and live happily. And I am not the only one who did not start to think about the question of significance until entering college or later. More than one of my friends realized that their true  interest lies somewhere else in the second or third year of their Ph.D.. Why? Because their life direction has been led by grades, rankings and other people’s opinions, nothing related to their true inner desire.

We’ve been taught for so many years. It’s time to really start to learn.

On the other hand, from the point view of a future teacher, we need to learn to avoid the same thing to happen to the future students. Anti-teaching and mindful learning can be a guideline on this. “Learning is the hallmark of humanity”, and the purpose of teaching is only to invoke the students’ desire to learn. We no longer need to indoctrinate the students with all the knowledge, but some of the basics and the way to learn through connected learning. And basics are not basics either. “Facts, derived from science of not, are not context-free”. “The routine stayed fixed, while the context changed.” We need to insure that the teaching environment can facilitate mindful learning. i.e., encourage the students to think while they learn. Let them enjoy learning.

Is connected learning the efficient way to go?

The emerging impact of the Internet are changing the way we live, work and entertain continuously. And education is no exception. In the past, our learning environment consists only one teacher, one classroom and one textbook. But now the Internet offers much more. We can learn whenever we want, wherever we are, and whatever we want. Connected learning, as I learn from our reading materials this week, is based on this. The idea is to use the Internet to stay connected and keep sharing information by blogging, tweeting and commenting, which is believed by a lot of people to be smart and informative.

However, is this really the efficient way to go? With so many blogs and so many posts that probably contain a large number of repetitive information, are we able to go through most of them within a limited time and get the best out of it? Wouldn’t this cause information explosion in our minds that gets us to lose the focus through the way? Take myself as an example, I always prefer to learn from real books and conduct equation derivations with a pencil and a piece of paper rather than getting on the Internet and get the answer out of it, if possible, since the former will make me focused and help me remember, while the latter can easily gets me extracted. Am I the only one?

After asking myself about these questions, further thoughts come into my mind. Maybe this specific problem is what I need to solve through connected learning, and what can be solved by connected learning. With years of research going on, I should understand by now how important the ability to search and learn is. If I stay too traditional and don’t improve this capability, I can’t take a qualitative leap in improving my efficiency at work. I need to learn more about connected learning to determine what I can get from it.