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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Study Strategies #5 – Application

One of the hardest things I find my students struggling with is not grappling with deep philosophical thoughts, or technical jargon (to be fair, they do struggle with these as well), but it’s in the application of course material.  Most often, when my students submit work for me to evaluate, they submit work that is either:

  • straight opinion (read: a submission that is not structured as an argument with evidence and connecting ideas through logic); or
  • an attempt to solve or provide a definitive response for all the problems of this philosophical issue in about a page.

The thing my students don’t realize is that I don’t care whether they “solve” the philosophical problem.  Granted, I don’t expect them to be able to solve the problem in a page, but that’s not the point.

The purpose of the exercise is for me to check the thought-process of whether they are able to understand the material and work with it.

I was recently chatting with a Program Chair about her time teaching engineering courses.  She noted that often she’d give problem sets that lacked defined measurements, and her students would pause to ask what the length or value of the unknowns are.  She was very frank that she didn’t care what number their calculator displayed because it was more important for her to see whether the students could think through the problem, manipulate the equations, and understand how to go about solving a problem.  For her, the solution was extraneous for the purposes of the class – it was a quick and convenient way to mark an answer right or wrong, but not entirely indicative of whether the student was understanding the concepts.

Now, you may say that this is all well and good for engineering, but how does that apply to philosophy (“But, philosophy has no right answers!!!) or any of the other soft sciences or humanities disciplines.

The truth is that the faster you try to apply the concepts, the easier it is to learn and make the concepts stick, and it’s not all that different across disciplines.  If you are trying to learn a concept, the best thing you can do is to try to take what you think you are learning, and apply it to a novel situation.  By focusing less on the details and working with the core concepts, you get a chance to see what makes sense to you and where your gaps in knowledge are.

For the course I teach, the students work their way through the online module materials, which includes extra readings, embedded videos, probing questions, links to additional sources, etc.  Then, after a round of discussion board posts, the students have a weekly essay prompt related to the week’s topic.

Early in the course, my students will often reply strictly to the essay question with what they think the right answer is.  Through my weekly rubric feedback and general emails to the class, I encourage them to go back to the module content and apply the concepts they are learning to the essay prompt.  What would so and so say about this concept?  How does this school of thought define this concept?  Do you agree with how this concept gets framed?

The point of undergraduate philosophy courses is not for students to generate original philosophical thought.  That is an aim, but it shouldn’t be the outcome.  Instead, the instructor should be guiding the students to think better and understand the concepts being covered so that they can then apply it in novel situations.

When studying, a good way to learn the concepts it to try and extract the ideas from how the author framed them and see how you can apply those ideas in new ways.  It reinforces the learning and helps to spot gaps in understanding in a way that straight memorization doesn’t provide.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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

The Silent Mentor

I stumbled across an interesting thought recently while browsing Quora.  Apologies for the morbid nature of this post.

A member of the Quora community asked about what happens to cadavers after medical students are finished with them, to which user Daniel Lim offer this answer regarding medical schools in Taiwan.  You can read his full answer linked here.

“The students spend a year dissecting the body, and at the end replace the organs and sew back the skin. They then conduct a mass remembrance ceremony and funeral for the Silent Mentors.”

The concept of the silent mentor is bound up in the following quote from Li He-zhen:

“I will give you my body to experiment; you can make as many mistakes on me, but never make a mistake on the patient.”

I found this to be a power quote that exemplifies an element of education that is sometimes overlooked in the modern economy.  From my experiences, higher education is often seen as training first, before considerations of growth and development.  When you complete your program, you will have been signed-off as competent in a field.  This competence is granted after a series of lectures and tests; tests that you must not fail.

But failure is almost always viewed negatively.  Bad grades are seen as a sign of deficiency – you are not smart if you are getting bad grades.  Failure is costly to students as it sets them back, which costs time, money, reputation, etc.  Education is cut-throat in the modern economy and everyone is in competition for a scarcity of jobs.  If you fail, you are moved backwards relative to the pack.

Yet, failure can be an opportunity.  It’s a chance to see where you have avenues of growth and development.  Rather than seeing failure as an end-point, failure should be viewed constructively as the points that we need to focus on.  Teachers shouldn’t be seen as punishing students for failing, nor should students be seen as inadequate for failing.  Students should have permission to fail.  School is the best time to fail, because the stakes (tuition notwithstanding) are so low.  It’s a chance to test ideas, try things out and learn from the outcomes.  Making mistakes should be instructive.  Expertise is not just knowing the right answers, but also about having a powerful command of all the mistakes that are possible, too.  Teacher have an obligation to instruct pupils properly, not to attempt to download the contents of their brains into the minds of the students.  Education does not work that way.

If we approach failure this way, and encourage making mistakes in safe environments like school, then students will be better prepared to succeed when something as precious as life is on the line.

You can read further on the topic of the medical education and use of cadavers in Taiwan here and here.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Odysseus’s Wifi

I have terrible self-control in certain areas of my life.  Chief among my vices is the habit of staying up late on the internet (YouTube is my drug of choice).  While I rationally know staying up late is bad for me, I act contrary to my best interests with each rationalization of “just one more video.”  Suddenly, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and my lunch for work still hasn’t been made.

In an effort to combat my akrasia (Greek for “weak will”), I’m taking a leaf out of Odysseus’s book.  In the Odyssey by Homer, Odysseus is faced with sailing past some Sirens.  In antiquity, Sirens were dangerous mythological creatures who would lure sailors to their doom using their song.  Odysseus wanted to hear the Siren’s call, but knew he would be unable to resist their spell.  In a brilliant move, Odysseus had his crew stuff their ears with beeswax to block out the song, and Odysseus had himself lashed to the ships mast to prevent him from leaving the ship.

Odysseus and the Sirens by Herbert James Draper, c. 1909 – jigboxx.com, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9684835

The story of Odysseus is held up in modern behavioural economics and psychology as an exemplar of not only acknowledging that humans are notoriously bad at acting in their own best interest, but also in showing us that we can take steps to overcome our weaknesses.  Odysseus, rather than holding on to illusions that he will make good decisions in the future, instead opts to build systems of accountability that will save him from erroneous beliefs about the strength of his will.

Inspired by his story, I have adopted a new system to resist my own Siren’s call.  I hooked my wifi router up to an indoor vacation timer and set it so that every night at 11:45pm, my internet gets shut off.  The systems stays off while I’m at work and turns back on at 5:00pm as I’m getting home from work.

This is obviously not a fool-proof system.  I can still manually override the unit if I want to reconnect to the internet, and truthfully I have done just that when I wanted to finish creating my slide decks for class and upload them to the e-learning system the college uses.  So far, I have not overridden the system for personal reasons, so on that front, at least, it has been a success.  Another obvious problem is that while my internet is shut off, I can still distract myself with other screens, such as the television, my Gameboy, and most critically my phone.

Nevertheless, I rate this systems as a success in getting me off the computer earlier than normal.  In previous posts I discussed how I am waiting for the term to wind down so that I can begin to focus on other, less pressing tasks.  This is just a first step in getting me to make responsible decisions that are aligned with my goals and values.  Sometimes, we need to lash ourselves to the masthead to stop us from doing stupid stuff.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

My 2016 Reading List

2016 was a fairly productive year for me compared to 2015.  At the end of every year, I reflect on my life and sketch out a rough vision of how I want to tackle the new year.  Last year, I noted that I had read relatively few books (and completed even fewer).  Don’t get me wrong, I was reading a lot, but it was all online and typically blogs and articles.  My shallow reading was going strong, but my slow, in-depth reading with books was waning.

I felt a sense of shame at this realization – I had completed undergraduate and graduate studies in the Humanities, but my commitment to arts and letters was dismal at best.  I decided to use 2016 as a year to focus and develop myself.  Using a combination of physical and audio books I have, as of this post, read 41 books, which amounts to a hair under 13,000 pages of content.

See below for the complete list.  If I finish anything else before the end of 2016, I’ll ensure to issue an update.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Note – eagle-eyed readers will count 42 books on my list.  There is a book on my list that for personal reasons I’m not publicly disclosing.

Title Author Pages
Deep Work Cal Newport 304
The Way of the Superior Man David Deida 207
Intentional Living John C. Maxwell 288
The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg 416
The 4-Hour Work Week Timothy Ferriss 416
The Imperfect Board Member Jim Brown 224
Mate Tucker Max 384
The Art of Asking Amanda Palmer 352
The War of Art Steven Pressfield 190
The Way of Men Jack Donovan 192
Brave New World Aldous Huxley 272
Living in More Than One World Bruce Rosenstein 244
Man’s Search for Meaning Viktor Frankl 168
Start With Why Simon Sinek 256
Antifragile Nassim Taleb 544
Zero to One Peter Thiel 224
Level Up Your Life Steve Kamb 288
Quiet Susan Cain 368
The Willpower Instinct Kelly McGonigal 288
The $100 Startup Chris Guillebeau 304
The 4-Hour Body Timothy Ferriss 592
Leaders Eat Last Simon Sinek 256
A Thousand Naked Strangers Kevin Hazzard 288
Poorcraft: Wish You Were Here Ryan Estrada 132
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey 432
Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology Elaine Marieb 656
Born To Run Christopher McDougall 304
No Fears, No Excuses Larry Smith 272
Doctored Sandeep Jauhar 288
Wisdom Stephen Hall 352
The 48 Laws of Power Robert Greene 496
Awaken the Giant Within Tony Robbins 544
Tribes Seth Godin 160
Smarter Faster Better Charles Duhigg 384
Purple Cow Seth Godin 244
Free Prize Inside Seth Godin 256
Ego Is The Enemy Ryan Holiday 256
I Will Teach You To Be Rich Ramit Sethi 266
Thinking Fast And Slow Daniel Kahnaman 512
Born For This Chris Guillebeau 320
Total Pages Read
13,487 (revised)

Addendum

After this post went up, I added two more books to my list to round out 2016:

Title Author Pages
God is not Great Christopher Hitchens 320
Left of Bang Patrick Van Horne and
Jason Riley
228

Blog – Sound Pedagogy

Happy Labour Day Monday!  I hope you are all enjoying your long weekend.  My weekend has been jam-packed with course prep and dealing with a sudden surge of patrons at the bar as students move back into town to start the new school year.

I’ve learned to embrace the adage that “if you want to learn something, teach it.”  By this, I mean that there is no better way to learn and master a concept as when you must transmit that information to someone else in a way that makes sense to them.  Not only do you need to know the material inside and out, but you must also learn to fill in gaps as they arise.

At present, I’m trying to finish up my instructional plan for my course.  The first lesson is this coming Friday, and I’m both nervous and excited.  I’m nervous because I fear that I’ll be an inadequate teacher for this crop of mostly first-year students; that their introduction to philosophy will be botched by my inexperience and poor planning.  But I’m also excited, because I have some confidence in my skills, and it’s a new and exciting challenge that I want to face.

student

With less than a week to go, I have 27 students enrolled in my class.  When I look into their various programs, I get a wide range of learners, from science, recreation, business, IT, security, etc.  All of these faces are unique individuals who will need to sync with my lecture material.  My challenge is to teach philosophy to a class of college kids who probably are taking my course because it sounds interesting and they need breadth courses to graduate.  In other words, I need to pluck philosophy from the clouds and bring it down to the “real world” in a way that makes sense to them.  I can’t just stand at the front of the room and pontificate in their general direction.  I’ll need to be smarter than that if I have any hope of them passing the learning objectives.

Instead, I’ll need to engage them dialectically.  I’ll need to choose non-academic examples to connect their experience with.  I’ll need to prove to them that these questions and problems are not only relevant to them, but incredibly important to their lives; they need to take the material seriously.  In an age of constant distraction and competing media on their attention, I’ll need to come to class prepared every Friday afternoon to fight and earn their attention.

Talk about a tall order!

Oh, and because a lot of this material is stuff I wasn’t exposed to in school, I also have to teach myself the course material!

Oh well.  Here goes.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan