The Arts of Learning & Teaching

I’ve been in the apprenticeship phase of teaching for the last year, so I’ve largely been gaining experience in how information is conveyed and how to give feedback to students.  While I have given some consideration to course design and what kinds of courses I’d be interested in teaching, my primary focus has been on ensuring the students receive good content and (more importantly) good feedback on performance. Good performance management involves timely and specific feedback to either reinforce good behavioural outcomes, or quickly identifying and redirecting bad performance outcomes. It’s a challenge to ensure that feedback is both timely and useful, but it’s an important step of the process. 

I’m currently working my way through the Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and I’ve started thinking about the process of learning.  While learning and teaching are separate domains, they are interconnected since they share similar goals.  However, being able to translate learning (whether being taught by a teacher or through self-teaching) into teaching to others is something that I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge about.

The first time I taught in-class in the college setting, I quickly became aware that my experiences with formal education (the university style lecture) was not a good mode of delivery to copy. While I am comfortable in the lecture setting, I saw that my students did not excel in that environment. I wish I could say that I had fixed my delivery before the end of the semester, but the reality is that I didn’t fully appreciate the situation until after the course was over and I reflected on the term. An environment where I stood at the front and spoke at length for two-hours was not one which the students could effectively absorb the material.

The problem I found is that how I think and absorb content is different from my students. Rather than teaching them to my style, I need to be more mindful of their talents and experiences. Waitzkin discusses this in his book, where he contrasts two kinds of teachers he’s had. One is the kind that teaches his own strengths and relies on rote memorization of strategies and techniques. In chess, this teacher has you studying opening moves to take early advantage of the board.  The other kind of teacher allows the student to play to their inner style, and teaches by building up concepts atomistically. In chess, this kind of teacher strip the board of all the pieces and focuses on the relationships between pieces at the end of the game. By showing how individual pieces play off each other, the student becomes comfortable across the game and learns not only how pieces fit together, but how to set yourself up for control at the end of the game.

I think my teaching style should embrace this second kind of teacher. Instead of dictating knowledge, I should focus on breaking the knowledge down and building up understanding in ways that make sense to the student. I can’t assume my students will have the prerequisite knowledge to compile the facts together on their own. It’s also the case that if I can’t break ideas down simply, the students might not get it, nor may I truly know what I’m talking about.  Afterall, Einstein and Feynman believed that if you couldn’t explain something simply, you probably don’t understand it very well yourself.

Stay awesome, 

Ryan

Advertisements

November 2017 Sleep Check-in

My stats from the October sleep check-in were below my target, so I was hoping to get things back on track for the month of November.  Let’s see how I did.

Screenshot_2017-12-03-21-40-56
7/30…

Double-ouch!

Not only did I miss my target again, but I did poorer overall than October (8 of 31).  Sadly, this is less an issue of poor quality sleep (you can still see a fair number of nights where I was really close to the target line, suggesting I was in bed for at least 7-hours, but I had disturbed sleep), and more a problem of me not having a solid night-time routine.  This time last year, my problem was that I couldn’t tear myself away from the internet at a reasonable time (remember when I used to shut-off my internet via timer?), whereas this year my problem is that my partner and I don’t get ready for bed at a decent time, and then stay up chatting passed 11pm.

I know that I will be doing better in December since I’ll have time off from work before and after Christmas, which will make up the bulk of the time I hit my sleep target.  Still, I should strive to hit more nights during the work-week, rather than leaving it up to the weekends to catch up on sleep.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Ongoing Education and Solving Problems

There is a general perception that going through the formal education process is sufficient for career success.  If you follow the standard formula of secondary school, followed by some form of post-secondary education, whether through trades, college, or through the university, you should have the necessary tools in order to enter the workforce and perform well in most situations.  While this might be true to some degree, I’m willing to bet that if you were to ask people of their thoughts on this process, you’d be met with a certain level of skepticism.  Yes, there are some critical problems with how we view and use higher education, but on the whole, I think the missing piece is this: the role of higher education should be to give students the ability to think and learn for themselves (often concurrent with learning some kind of job-market skill).

The value of higher education is the exposure to ideas and of ways of thinking about things.  By exposing students to ideas and problems they’ve never encountered, you are giving them experience that they can use to navigate life after the classroom.  I think most people get too hung up on the job-market skills and end up de-emphasizing the other stuff referred to as “the humanities” or “breadth electives.”  What is important is for students to be able to cross over the threshold of their vocational training and learn to navigate in systems of knowledge that they aren’t comfortable with so that they can learn to gather information, define problems, and test solutions for things that are applicable to them.

I have a small example of this in action for myself.  Recently, the provincial college system was brought to a halt during a labour dispute.  Once the teachers came back to work, everyone set to work on figuring out how to carry-on and salvage the remainder of the semester.  One of my tasks was to track student requests for accommodation once it was determined that the holiday break was being scaled back to allow students to complete the fall semester.  If students had made previous plans for travel, asking them to cancel their plans (which often was at a huge financial loss to the students) was something the college did not wish to do.  So, the goal is to see where we can find solutions for students missing class in the revised schedule.  My job is to track the requests from students and track the faculties responses.

I wanted a simple way of tracking the information electronically on spreadsheets, and avoid copying huge numbers of cells worth of information into emails.  My solution was to set up a database.  I’ve never created a database before (only used existing ones), so I turned to resources available for employees at my work to teach myself the skills.  I set up a simple database, laid a form over it to allow for a cleaner user experience, and created standardized Word documents with placeholder values that would automatically call information from the database into the document for me to email out streamlined messages to faculty and students.

I shared this database tool across the college, and have been receiving very positive feedback from people who are using it.  I even recorded a 30-minute tutorial video on how to use the database and manage the information, then hosted the video online for other employees to use at their discretion.

My educational background is in philosophy, which is quite different from data process management.  However, through philosophy I learned skills such as how to self-direct my learning, how to define problems, and how to test solutions.  These skills are what has allowed me to come up with a way of managing all the information coming at me, and how to teach that system to others for their own use.  Being able to help others, and sharing something that they value, makes me feel really good and engaged at work, and I’m happy to be able to help others do their jobs more easily.

I understand that students often don’t have the luxury to think broadly about how their skills fit in with a larger view of pedagogy, but I think it’s important to remember that the specific processes, tools, and systems we learn at school are the micro expressions of overall deeper ways that we live, understand, and view our lives.  Taking a narrow view of the value of education tends to miss the proverbial forest for the trees.  The point of higher education is not just about vocational training and preparing people to enter the economy, but instead it’s main purpose should be viewed as a way of preparing people to become better problem solvers.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (As of November 20th)

I haven’t updated this series since August, so I thought it would be a good time to check-in on what I’ve been reading as of late.

Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett

This book came as a recommendation from Jujimufu (aka. Jon Call) on YouTube.  In addition to putting a greater focus on fitness and health, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of the physical state of my body.  I know that carrying around a lot of extra weight is hard on the joints, but I do a lot of stuff that is also bad for my body, such as poor lifting mechanics, sitting and slouching in my chair at work all day, poor mobility and stretching habits, and not addressing niggling pains in my knees.  I picked this book up to help me be more mindful of good body mechanics, improve both my flexibility and mobility, and to address common pain I feel in my joints.

Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel

I first stumbled across Esther Perel through a TedTalk she gave a few years back, and again through the Audible Original mini-series released about her couples therapy experience.  I heard she recently released a book on infidelity, which got me looking at her other books.  I decided to pick up Mating in Captivity since I am getting married next year and it seemed relevant to future-me (the idea of sustaining passion in a relationship over the long term).  Are there problems with my love life?  No, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from an expert to ensure I’m mindful of my relationship moving forward.  If I want to be the best partner that I can be, then it means I should pick up good practices and insights wherever I go.  Long-term relationships are subjected to a lot of life changes (career, family, children, age, economy, etc.), and I’d rather be aware and exposed to things that threaten to cool the passion over time to better handle them down the road.

The Bookshop on the Corner (A Novel) by Jenny Colgan

This was a splurge purchase through the Bookbub mailing list I joined (they send daily lists of discounted Kindle ebooks on Amazon’s website).  The story is about an ex-librarian who decides to take a chance and buy a large cargo-truck to turn into a mobile bookshop.  I’m about a third of the way through the book and am enjoying the story so far.  It partially takes place in Scotland, which was a happy coincidence for me (I traveled to Scotland in July of 2016).  Truthfully, one fantasy I have is to retire and own a bookstore.  While this might not be an accurate picture of my future, I can still dream, can’t I?

Find Your Why by Simon Sinek, David Mead, and Peter Docker

A burning question for me concerns itself with purpose.  In a broad sense, I’ve been reflecting on purposeful living and articulating my values, but in a narrow sense, I’ve been exploring what gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment at work.  Because I lack that definitive feeling of purpose at work (that I’m working on what I’m meant to do, whatever that means), I’ve been doing some soul searching, working with a career adviser, and reading this book.  I’m not very far into the book, so I can’t provide a lot of comments from it, but I liked Simon Sinek’s previous books, and so I’m looking forward to working may way through this one.

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

This list wouldn’t be complete with an update on which Pratchett Discworld book I’m on.  I just finished Moving Pictures last week, so I’ve just now moved on to Reaper Man.  Death has been a favourite character of mine, so it was nice to return to a Death-centred story.

These aren’t all the books I’ve got on the go (shamefully, there are books on my previous lists that I’m still plugging away at), but it does give a good snapshot of what you’d likely see in my hands.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Ellipticals and Zombies!

In my search to find exercise routines that I can make stick around long enough to build habits from, I am experimenting with a running app and a new piece of home equipment.  My fiancee and I have recently purchased an elliptical machine for our home.  While I was initially hesitant about the cost when I was already paying for my gym membership, I have since come around to the convenience of using the machine at home.

One issue I’ve had with fully embracing exercising at home is my limitations.  Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I drop our dog off for daytime boarding, since both my fiancee and I work during the day (it gives our dog some socializing time and exercise).  This means that I have to be out the door a bit earlier than I otherwise would need to be, which cuts into time I could be at the gym.

I have been going to the gym Tuesday mornings for the last month and a half, but Thursdays are a write-off because I work at the bar Wednesday nights and don’t get to bed until 1am at the earliest.  Outside of weekend, this means that my morning exercises are limited to body-weight work, or the rowing machine that currently serves as a clothes rack.

Enter: the Elliptical

The elliptical, on the other hand, allows me to jump on for 30-45 minutes in the morning, then I can immediately shower and get ready for work and still get out the door in time.

(Note: I realize that these are not good excuses for why a more disciplined approach to my morning wouldn’t fix my problems.  While this is true, I’m trying to address these shortcomings with solutions, rather than relying on a fantasy alternative reality where I am a morning person.)

The elliptical is also good because it’s low impact on my knees.  I’ve recently discovered that 330lbs is the magical number where my knees are starting to hurt by the end of the day.  Ideally, I want to get  back into running, like I had done in undergrad, but I know that my knees and shins wouldn’t hold up to the abuse of trodding at my current weight.  The elliptical provides a good middle-ground to improve my cardio in the interim.

ACK! Zombies! RUN!

The last hurdle is that cardio is pretty boring.  This is where the zombies come in.  I’ve downloaded the Zombies, Run! 5k Training app (this is not a paid sponsorship; I just like the app).  It’s a fun spin on the Couch to 5k (C25K) training systems that gradually build a person’s endurance over a multi-week period to get them from complete novice to a 5km run through weekly drills and timed runs.

I’ve used it for a couple of weeks as of writing, and I’ve been enjoying the experience and sharing my “runs.”

My experience with the app have been good so far.  I like that it allows for external audio to play while the app is running.  I run Spotify in the background for music, then the running app interjects periodically to give me instructions, such as when to run and when to walk.  The app makes these instructions fun by forming them in terms of a story about a town fighting for survival during a zombie outbreak, so when you are running, it is from zombies that you can “hear” behind you.  The training is framed as you learning to be a better runner for the town (runner scavenge for supplies out of town, hence why they need to learn to run faster from zombies).  It adds a sense of purpose to the training, and provides a fun context to help you progress the story along.  At its core, it’s an audiobook laid over a GPS/step tracker.

Because I can complete a mission in under an hour without leaving the house, it fits well with my time restrictions in the morning.  I’m enjoying the experience and I hope to keep this going beyond the 8-week training module.  Combining this with lifting weights at the gym a few days a week (or the occasional YouTube lead yoga session), it provides a sense of novelty to keep me engaged in the process.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

October 2017 Sleep Check-in

After missing my target by one night in September, and doing a quarterly check-in, I was hoping to get things back on track for October in terms of sleeping.  Let’s see how I fared.

Screenshot_2017-10-31-14-55-55
8/31 – Ouch…

Yep, I failed another month.  This was entirely because I was not intentional with my sleep habits.  I didn’t think about going to bed on time, and I didn’t make any effort to structure my evenings around winding down at a reasonable time.  It’s starting to show, too.  I’m finding that as of writing, I generally feel a bit more tired and groggy during the day.

This doesn’t mean it was all bad or completely negligent on my part.  From the above chart, you see many stretches (Oct 4-7, 16-21, etc), where I was consistently not going to bed at a decent time, but you also see instances where I just barely missed the 7-hour bar.

The restless sleeping seems to be an issue for me, and I’m not entirely sure what is causing it.  There are a few issues that could be contributing to it, such as the dog jumping on the bed during the night, or perhaps my weight is giving me some form of undiagnosed sleep apnea.  Whatever the cause, it does have an impact on my sleep targets: I am down for 7-hours or more, but I am logging less than 7-hours of sleep.

However, this is shifting the blame a bit to soften the blow.  The truth is, for every instance where I just barely miss my target, there are at least two nights where I didn’t have a proper shutdown before bed.  Fixing those errors should be my priority, not making excuses.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Skills Worth Developing – Storytelling

A common skill I often hear referenced as either lacking in new grads or in online career development literature is communication.  In the various industry meetings I sit in on, employers observe that soft skills, and communication in particular, is something that needs to be fostered in students.  One problem I have with the idea that we should develop better communication skills is that, on its own, the idea is hard to action.  What does it mean to communicate better?

At its core, communication is the process of taking an idea from one mind and trying to reproduce it in the mind of another person.  When I was exposed to communication theory in undergrad, I was taught the basic mechanics of the transmission model.  The transmitter encodes and sends a message through some medium, and the receiver decodes the message and attempts to understand it.  If you take out considerations of how messages can be disrupted en route (think: playing the telephone game), a frequent problem I encounter with communication is poorly encoding/decoding a message.  When you are trying to send a message, explain an idea, persuade, evoke empathy, etc. in others, how you choose to structure you message becomes critical.  A tool you can use is storytelling.

I was first exposed to storytelling as a serious mode of communication in 2012 through my local Community Foundation.  They had a pilot project called the Centre for Community Knowledge, which helped train local nonprofits and charities to tell their stories better.  The thinking was that if you could effectively tell your story, you could more easily connect with volunteers, donors, and others to champion your cause.  There, the instructors provided workshops for organizations to draft compelling stories, film them, and present them on the Centre’s platform.

Storytelling is hard.  Selecting the right details and presenting them in the right sequence in order to maximize impact is challenging.  I still consider myself an amateur when it comes to the skill of storytelling.  But in the five years since I first learned about telling stories in the nonprofit world, I’ve learn 4 core truths about storytelling on why it’s a skillset worth developing.

 

1.) Effective storytelling is mindful of the audience.

You can’t tell an effective story if you don’t consider who your audience is.  Everything hinges on knowing who you are speaking to – their experiences, their knowledge, their interests and wants, their attitudes, etc.  How you craft a message will differ if you are speaking to children versus conservatives versus students.  Is your audience open to your message, or are they hostile?  Are you trying to convey information, persuade them to change their minds, or entertain them?  You can’t tell a good story if you don’t think through these considerations.

2.) It’s not about wowing or captivating; it’s about connection.

Sometimes, we get bogged down in thinking about storytelling or speeches from the entertainment point of view – how do I captivate my audience?  How do I grab their attention and hold it?  But effective storytelling is not about captivating your audience, but rather it’s about building a connection with them.  It’s about making an idea relatable, in terms your audience understands.  If you can make your audience connect with you as a person, or at least your story, then you are effectively communicating with them.

3.) Theory and data is hard to understand; that’s why stories and metaphors are so important.

If you take a cursory look at the most common scientific theories, you will find an interesting phenomenon: you’ll often see that the theory is communicated through some sort of analogy or metaphor.  That is largely because the concepts being described behind the observations are not immediately accessible to everyone.  People don’t understand what gravity is, or what light is, or what evolution is.  So, science communicates complex models through stories.  Selecting stories to fit data and theory is challenging because you don’t want to leave out important details, but if you can choose the right story to tell, you can open up whole new worlds of understanding for your audience.

 

4.) Stories are often told with a purpose in mind.

Does every story need a point?  No, not really.  We can tell stories simple to entertain one another.  But effective stories are often effective because they are communicating an important message to the audience; a lesson, a purpose, a greater understanding.  In earlier civilizations, we created myths to explain the world and transmit values through the generations.  To borrow a phrase from Simon Sinek, the nonprofits I mentioned above were seeking to communicate their Why to their audience – why they do what they do.  Good stories often tell more than an amusing account of events.  They impart lessons that edify the audience.

 

Storytelling is only one way to effectively communicate.  I don’t mean to say it’s the only form you should use (I doubt the engineers I work with want my reports to them to be parables about data), but it’s worth developing as a skill if you want to be able to connect with others to share your ideas and vision.  Whether you are seeking to entertain your friends, break down a complex idea, or persuade someone to follow you, being able to tell a good story will go a long way in bridging the gap between you and others.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan