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

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

 

Skills Worth Developing – A Primer

I have recently made visits to my alma mater’s Career Centre for some career counselling.  Now that I have established myself solidly at work, I want to start planning the next steps for mid-career moves in a few years.  While I can certainly do a lot of work on my own, I find value in speaking with a professional who can help me work through the process from an objective outsider view.

Part of the process involves reflecting on skills and values.  Not only should I look at the skills I currently have, but I should also start looking towards jobs I’m interested in and analyzing the skills I will need.  This process asks a number of important questions:

  • What skills are required to be successful/effective in my desired position?
  • What skills will I need to develop, and what kind of training/experience will that require?  Is there any lateral movement I can make with existing skills or domains?
  • On what timeline do I need to plan for skill development?
  • (And, critically) Of the skills required of a position I’m looking at, do I really care about the skill or acquiring it?

I’m still in the early stages of this work, but it has gotten me thinking about skills more broadly.  If you spend time around the career or personal development blogospheres, there is a lot of lip-service paid to skills that lead to high paying jobs, especially those concerning STEM.  Oftentimes, I find that these skills are specific bits of knowledge, such as programming and design, but you still see some of the generic skills like communication or critical thinking.

While reflecting on this, I was thinking about skills that I don’t see mentioned often that would still be worth developing as they are cross-domain and useful in many contexts.  And so, from time to time, I will reflect on some of these skills here.  Next week, I will share some reflections on the skill of storytelling.

One thing to note here is that I think these skills are important irrespective of whether they are tied to high-paying work.  Yes, it can be important to seek high compensation for work.  However, my introspection on the topic of career moves is motivated less by wanting more money, and more tied to personal fulfillment.

Yes, I want more money – I am hampered by student loans and I look forward to the day when my comfort margins widen sans debt.  The reason, though, that I went to the career adviser in the first place is because I generally don’t feel satisfied by my work.  I want to feel a sense of purpose and intrinsic achievement in my life, both professionally and personally.  There are many aspects of my life that I am happy with, especially at home.  Where I feel an absence of satisfaction is in the intersections of work, production, and craft.  It’s not about being busy or productive.  It’s about making, producing, and working on interesting problems.  That’s what I feel is missing.

It’s what I intend to explore through thinking about skills worth developing.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan