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

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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 June 19th)

Drawing inspiration from Marginal REVOLUTION, a blog co-maintained by economist and author Tyler Cowan, I think I’ll insert an occasional update of the books I’m reading.  While Cowan and Alex Tabarrok update the site several times each day, and you’ll see these lists from them at least once a week, I do not have plans to update with any regular frequency.  However, I’ve been reading books at a decent pace, and I have enough books on the go that I can make a short list here from time to time.

For all the books I read last year, see My 2016 Reading List.  You can also follow my reading on my instagram account, where I post the covers of books as I finish them.

Here are five books I’m currently reading:

Reading the Humanities: How I Lost My Modernity by John Greenwood

This book was authored by one of my former professors from way back in first year of undergrad.  I still owe him two papers from the class I took with him – it’s the only class I failed at university (surprise, surprise).  I found myself in the university book shop on a recent visit to campus and decided to pick this up and check it out.  It’s exactly what you would want and expect from a professor who teaches literature and meditates on various topics relevant to life.  It reminds me a lot of what you see from The School of Life.

 

Mort by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been taking in the world of Terry Pratchett by audiobooks as of late.  It helps me pass the time on the commute to work, and I enjoy fictional books delivered by audiobook, as listening to the story is easier to absorb than nonfiction.  The titular character Mort is alright enough, but I’m really in this story for Death.  Everything about the character Death is awesome to me, especially his dry humour and the metaphysics that goes into explaining a character who reaps souls.

 

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

This book pops up in a lot of self-improvement and self-reflection blogs and books, so I think it was inevitable that I would read it eventually.  This is doubly so because she name-drops Aristotle on the cover (virtue ethics for the win!).  I actually stole this copy from my fiancee’s mother, so I should finish it and put it back on the bookshelf before anyone notices.  Amusing sidenote – I stole this book from her a couple months before Christmas, then my fiancee received a copy from her mother as a Christmas gift.  Really, I should just read the one we have a home…

 

 The Road to Character by David Brooks

Another book related to my future mother-in-law.  This was actually a book I had mentioned to my fiancee that I was interested in checking out and was planning on swiping from her mother (I really seem to have a problem with theft and books, specifically the books owned by my future mother-in-law…).  Well, my fiancee told her mom  that I was interested in the book, so I received it as a gift for last Christmas.  Funny how things work themselves out.

 

 

Rome’s Last Citizen by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni

I believe I saw this book recommended by Ryan Holiday on one of his monthly reading lists.  Last year, I was on a big stoicism kick, so the life of one of Rome’s most famous stoic practitioners appealed to me.  I am finding the read a little slow as there is a lot of extra history that is included to give context to the events of Cato’s life, but I’m still finding the book interesting and insightful.

 

Feel free to comment below with books that you are reading that I should check out.  I’d love to hear about them and grow my reading list.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan