Policy vs. Guidance Pedagogy

During an ethics board meeting recently, we discussed ways of providing direction to faculty members who have student-based research in their courses.  For faculty who have research elements built into their courses, it can be a challenge to determine what counts as research, and whether said research is subject to the rules governing conducting research at an institution (specifically in our case, whether an ethics application would need to be submitted to the board).  Not every scholarly activity necessarily counts as research, and not every kind of research requires an approval from the institutional research ethics board.  Since this can be a bit of a murky area, we have been considering ways of providing direction.

The conversation abstracted away from the specifics of this case, and we discussed some of the issues concerning policy and guidance, which applies to education and pedagogy more generally.

The benefit of policy is that it spells out clear expectations of what is expected, what the division of responsibility looks like, and what consequences might be considered in the event of a policy breach.  Policy is designed to protect the institution through due diligence, and it focuses on expressing what rules need to be followed in order to not get into trouble.  Loopholes arise when the policies are not sufficiently rigorous the cover contingency cases and when policies are not harmonized laterally or vertically with other policies.  Policy documents focus on the “ends.”

On the other hand, guidance documents focus on the “means” by providing suggestions and best practices that could be followed.  Guidance documents typically do not include comprehensive rules unless it’s appropriate.  Instead, the purpose of the guidance document is to provide clarity in ambiguity without necessarily spelling things out.  They are deliberately left open because guidance documents are meant to supplement and add to ongoing conversations within a field or system.  While guidance documents also do not provide comprehensive options to contingent situations, the strength of the guidance document is that it’s educational in intent – it provides reasoning that helps the reader understand the position it takes, and paints a vision of what success looks like.

I realized in the meeting that this has a lot of crossover into considerations for teaching.  It’s is better, in my opinion, to teach students frameworks for thinking, rather than rules for success.  In the case of ethics, I would avoid teaching students what rules they need to follow, and what they need to do to avoid getting into trouble.  Instead, I would seek to build good practices and habits into the material I’m teaching so that I can model what success looks like and help them understand why.  This way of conceiving the material is forward-thinking.  It gets the students to envision what the end-step looks like, and allows them to work backwards to figure out how they want to arrive there.  By focusing on the principles you want the students to uphold (as opposed to rules to follow), the students learn to think for themselves and are able to justify the decisions they make.  This also has the benefit of avoiding the problem with prescriptive policies – students are prepared to reason through novel situations based on principles.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

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Reflections on Self-Help and Diminishing Returns

If you were to ask my fiancee, she’d tell you I have a book-buying problem.  I buy books faster than I can read them, and I have a small collection weighing down my shelves at home.  In a month’s time, we will be moving houses and part of the burden is to box the books and be mindful just how heavy books in boxes can actually be.  I prefer printed books, but I also have a steadily growing Kindle library and now an Audible library.

For 2018, the pace of my reading has slowed down significantly since 2016 and 2017.  At present, I have only completed 10 books for the year (with many half-read books strewn around the house).

If you go through the books I’ve read since my first reading list in 2016, you will notice a large proportion of my books fall under the self-help and personal development banners.  While I acknowledge that these books have been helpful in kicking off my attempts to make positive changes at work and in my life, I’m noticing a trend – I’m not really getting as much out of the books as I used to.  I seem to have hit a point of diminishing returns.  I started noticing it in the books I was reading, but it’s also spilled over into the daily lists of articles I get from Quora, Pocket, Medium, etc.

There is an over-saturation of the same studies being cited and a dearth of tips, tricks, tactics, protocols, hacks, systems, routines, mental models, and insights that tend to recycle similar themes.  Especially mental models – those seem to be in vogue right now with the online think-pieces and people creating courses for you to enroll in.

I also noticed that the further out from primary sources you get, the more recycling you find.  There tends to be four broad classes of folks who populate this domain:

  1. the innovators who write reflectively about what they did or the systems they created (the Ramit’s, the Dalio’s, the Covey’s, etc.);
  2. the populizers who interview, report, and connect ideas from the innovators (the Gladwell’s, the Duhigg’s, the Ferriss’s, etc.) ;
  3. the repeaters who recycle from columns one and two (this is typically the people writing Medium and Quora posts and asking you to sign-up for their email lists); and
  4. the folks who spend a year doing a thing then write a book about it, which pairs something they experienced with a study/book/system that is supposed to give insight or explain what happened in case study format (I won’t name names here, but the books are usually structured like those in group 3 above).

I wish the insight above was mine, but in full disclosure I had read this idea from someone and for the life of me I can’t remember where (the irony is not lost on me).  I suppose the only thing I’ve added to the above is item four.

I know it’s not fair to pigeon-hole people into only these four categories.  Some people in the second group produce novel insights that place them in group one, and some who write in group one are also guilty of slipping into group two from time to time.  The point is not to dismiss the books that are coming out, but rather to try and objectively draw circles around them in meaningful categories.

I think the diminishing returns I’m seeing is a result of my desire to find a magic bullet to fix whatever problem is “holding me back” from being in a place I want to be, mixed with one of my greatest flaws – I will read, and read, and read, and never make behavioural changes to take action.  Instead of making progress towards my goals in a meaningful way, I instead stay “productive” by reading.

Will this stop me from reading these kinds of books?  Probably not. Let’s be honest, these books are designed to be appealing.  They are a mix of relatable narratives and the promise of a better tomorrow.  They are my harlequin romance novels, my pulp reads.  They are easy to digest because someone else has done the thinking for you.  It’s my own kind of soma that keeps me peaceful and happy.  I know it’s not really that nutritious, but I enjoy it as a guilty pleasure nonetheless.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

5 Post-Conference Thoughts

I was away in Montreal for the Canadian Association of Research Ethics Boards conference last week, so I didn’t get a chance to write a blog post leading up to today (hence why the post is late).  However, I didn’t want to leave you hanging, so here are some thoughts on attending the conference.

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This was the first conference I attended where work paid for it.  It was nice not needing to pay for the entrance, the flight, or the hotel room (previously, I would billet with conference organizers to cut down on cost).  It was pretty rad to stay at the same hotel that the conference was operating out of, which made life way easier.

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Conferences can actually be a great learning opportunity.  I learned a lot from the experiences of others as we shared stories and case studies, all of which I have brought back with me to bring to my boards.  I took around 11-pages of notes over the three days, so lots of stuff to review and implement.

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Networking is not something I have a lot of experience in.  In general, I’m terrible with schmoozing and making small talk.  On the plane from Toronto to Montreal, I downloaded my copy of Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone and brushed up on some conference networking best practices.  That hour I spent reading on the flight was pretty helpful over the next three days.

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I handed out business cards and collected them while in town.  I’ve already received an email from the President and CEO of an organization out of the US to follow-up on our conversation about receiving accreditation.  This is an example of what you should do with business card swaps – you go in, make a personal connection with the person, and give them a reason to follow-up.  If you give out your card, make sure to follow-up shortly after the conference to keep the connection going.

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Attending the conference put me a little out of my comfort zone.  I could have stayed comfortably in the hotel the entire time and avail myself of the amenities.  However, at various people’s prompting, I did venture out to explore the downtown core.  I made friends with one of the local bartenders as we smack-talked KW, and I was able to enjoy some genuine Montreal poutine.  For my first dinner, I went out alone, but on the second night, I made sure to go out for dinner with a group of people.  Meeting new people is challenging and not a natural thing for me, so I had to intentionally choose to put myself out there.  Having said that, I also respected downtime, and spent the evenings quietly in my hotel room enjoying movies and YouTube to recharge after the day.  I think it’s possible to strike a balance, and it’s good to respect your own personal limit.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I’m glad I went, but I was very happy to return home.  In the end, I felt “conferenced-out” and was looking forward to seeing my fiance after an intense three days of talking about research ethics.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I’ve Been Reading (As of February 25th)

It’s been a while since I have posted a reading update, so let’s fix that and post the first one of 2018.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

This book came as a recommendation from a work colleague.  He’s the one who has gotten me into Terry Prachett, and recently he suggested I would enjoy this book.  I’m only a little ways in, so I can’t comment too deeply, but I’m enjoying the neurological look at what happens when we read that this book provides.  I’m also enjoying the case being made for reading as a tool to grow our cognitive faculties.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos by Jordan Peterson

I am going to get some flack about this from some of my friends.  Jordan Peterson is a divisive figure in Canadian discourse.  While I don’t align with him on some of his political views, I first came across him through his taped YouTube lectures.  It was because of him that I started reading Carl Jung’s work and took an interest in the notion of stories being an important route to deriving meaning in life.  I’ve also enjoyed Peterson’s visits to some of the podcasts I’ve listened to, so it seemed only natural to check out his book.  I’ve been enjoying the book, and I personally feel like I’m getting something out of it.  I don’t think this book is going to be for everyone, but it speaks to me on a level that I find compelling.

Principles by Ray Dalio

Much like the book above and the next entry, Principles is making the rounds through the self-help/business/personal development spheres.  It’s been a bit of a slower read because I need to take time to digest his ideas and insights.  Nevertheless, I’m finding his book interesting and useful as it provides a framework for decision making and business.  I try to be wary of advice dispensed by the rich and successful since it tends to not be very applicable outside of the lucky breaks the author found themselves in, but I find this book to be fairly objective and refreshingly introspective.  I think Dalio’s principles make sense and are a good guide to follow.

Tribe of Mentors by Timothy Ferriss

What can I say?  I enjoyed all of his books so far (including last year’s Tools of Titans), so I naturally pre-ordered this one when it was announced.  Much like how Tools of Titans was a book that piggy-backed off of his podcast guest’s work, Tribe of Mentors follows a similar route by running the same set of questions through various big names in different fields to a.) see what their answers are; and b.) to find what commonalities are found in aggregate.  One side of me rolls my eyes at how simple the idea is (and how little relative effort it would take to make the book), and yet the other side of me appreciates what Ferriss has done in creating the book.  His book intends to give you access to some of the best mentors in the world, and he delivers it in full.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age by David Schwartz

I knew relatively little about Fermi before I started this book.  I knew that he was a physicists, that he was attached to the Manhattan project, that there is a paradox named after him, and that he’s known for a particular kind of method for problem-solving and estimating.  However it was the last tidbit (the Fermi problem) that nudged me to buying this book.  I’m only about a third of my way through the book, but it’s been a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a genius who, when you broke things down, was necessarily all that smarter than everyone else.  Much like Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi had discovered ways of learning more effectively, which made him able to tackle interacted problems from the first principles of a field.   He worked to understand the rules of the system, which in turn allowed him to combine them in new and insightful ways.  I really enjoy reading biographies, and I’m glad I picked this one up.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What I Read in 2017

Another year of reading has finished, so it’s time to take stock of how I did for 2017.  While I’m not an advocate of reading purely for the sake of speed or volume, I do challenge myself to see how many books I can get through during the year, if for nothing else than to ensure I’m carving out time to read.  For my 2016 results, check back to my post on What I read in 2016.

This year, I managed to get through 44 books and almost 14,000 pages, which is on par with my results from last year.  I posted my top list of books I read this year a few posts back, if you want to check it out.

I would say a little more than half of these books are audio books, as I decided to get an Audible subscription, and a friend has been kind enough to supply me with Terry Prachett books.  I have significantly picked up on the amount of fiction I’m reading, which was a deliberate choice since I noticed I consumed a lot of business and self-help books last year.

Title Author Pages
1 Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less Greg McKeown 272
2 The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck Mark Manson 224
3 Leaders Eat Last Simon Sinek 368
4 Awaken the Giant Within Tony Robbins 544
5 $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau 304
6 Tools of Titans Tim Ferriss 736
7 American Gods Neil Gaiman 558
8 The View from the Cheap Seats Neil Gaiman 544
9 The Consolations of Philosophy Alain de Botton 272
10 Catching the Big Fish David Lynch 208
11 The Colour of Magic Terry Pratchett 288
12 The Path to Purpose William Damon 240
13 The Light Fantastic Terry Pratchett 288
14 The 80/20 Pinciple Richard Koch 288
15 The Complacent Class Tyler Cowen 256
16 How Proust Can Change Your Life Alain de Botton 208
17 Equal Rites Terry Pratchett 282
18 No Fears, No Excuses Larry Smith 272
19 Mort Terry Pratchett 272
20 The Death of Expertise Tom Nichols 240
21 Never Split the Difference Chris Voss 288
22 Sourcery Terry Pratchett 336
23 On Writing Stephen King 288
24 The Happiness Project Gretchen Rubin 368
25 Reading the Humanities John Greenwood 156
26 Spark John J. Ratey 304
27 Wyrd Sisters Terry Pratchett 336
28 Managing Oneself Peter F. Drucker 72
29 Pyramids Terry Pratchett 308
30 The Checklist Manifesto Atul Gawande 240
31 Total Recall Arnold Schwarzenegger 656
32 Discipline Equals Freedom Field Manual Jocko Willink 208
33 I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had Tony Danza 272
34 Guards! Guards! Terry Pratchett 416
35 Eric Terry Pratchett 160
36 Side Hustle Chris Guillebeau 272
37 The Productivity Project Chris Bailey 304
38 Moving Pictures Terry Pratchett 400
39 Mating in Captivity Esther Perel 272
40 Finding Ultra Rich Roll 400
41 Reaper Man Terry Pratchett 288
42 The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin 288
43 Machine Man Max Barry 288
44 The Road to Character David Brooks 320
Total: 13904

All in all, I am very happy with the results, and I am looking forward to tackling the growing stack of books I have in my office for 2018.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Top books of 2017

On the internet, December marks the time of year where everyone releases lists of their top favourite things from the past year.  It’s my turn to add to that mighty tradition and announce my top books that I read in 2017.  I will post my total list of books read in 2017 in January.  For those curious, here are the 44 books I read in 2016.

Here are my top books that I read in 2017.

List Criteria:

For this post, I have three criteria notes.

  1. The book didn’t need to be published in 2017.  I’m nowhere near able to keep up with the new material getting pumped out every year, so for my list, I will include anything that I happened to read and complete in 2017.
  2. Having said that, I will only count books that I read for the first time in 2017.  You’ll see in my overall list of books for the year, there were a few books I revisited that I read in 2016.
  3. Finally, the biggest criteria for “best” is books that stuck with me – they gave me knowledge or wisdom that I use, or that has lasting mental/emotional impact.  This is admittedly a wishy-washy criteria, so to summarize, these are books that I found valuable to have read and I will likely re-read in the future.

 

Honourable Mention

The Art of Learning – Josh Waitzkin

This book goes on the honourable mention list because I haven’t finished reading it as of posting.  It’s really good, though, and would have made the list had I finished it in time.  Waitzkin is a bit of a wunderkind, having won chess championships as a child, then becoming a national push-hands championship, and now (post-book publication) has become a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.  I mention this because it gives credit to the idea that he’s given a lot of thought to the learning process, and his book provides many insights that I will use both as a student and as a teacher.

 

Top 5 Books (in no particular order)

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

I read relatively few works of fiction this year, but American Gods stuck out for me.  It’s been a while since I felt engrossed in a work of fiction the way I was for American Gods.  It was my first introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work, and it certainly won’t be my last.  I’m looking forward to checking out the television series.

The 80/20 Principle – Richard Koch

This is a book that I implemented at work with my role in program updating and renewals.  I took the 80/20 principle and started thinking about the relatively few problems that lead to massive delays in the program review process in order to find solutions to the workflow.  I didn’t get a chance to implement many changes before the Ontario College Strike put things on hold, but I’m looking forward to continuing the process when things even out a bit.

Never Split the Difference – Chris Voss

I wish I could say that I implemented the lessons from this book, but truthfully, I found it hard to absorb all the fine details from my first pass in the audiobook.  This book will be a prime candidate for a re-read in the near future, as I will be able to take my time and work through the material to assimilate the useful information in my work.

Discipline Equals Freedom – Jocko Willink

I think this one will end up being one of those books I pick up and thumb to a random page for an aspirational kick in the pants.  Jocko’s main lesson is that, paradoxically, if you want more freedom, you must get more disciplined.  That means doing what you need to do when you need to do it.  As he says, if you want more money, you need more financial discipline.  If you want a body that doesn’t let you down, you need to have discipline in diet and exercise.  As a former US Navy Seal, having this guy telling you to get on it, and why I have no excuses to stop is pretty powerful, even from the written word.

Tie: Mort and Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

This might be a cheat, but I simply couldn’t pick a favourite between these two.  Both have compelling stories, both have memorable characters, and both are awesome.  Mort is a story where Death looks for an apprentice, and Pyramids tells the story of a prince-turned-assassin who is recalled to rule when his father dies in a land resembling ancient Egypt.  Fantastical stories full of charm, and I laughed out loud while listening to them both.  Therefore, they make the list in a shared spot.

Keep an eye out for my complete 2017 list in January.  In the meantime, I really need to get on my Christmas shopping!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan