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, 



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,




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 –, Public Domain,

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,


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,


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)


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

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.


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,


Blog: Writing Tests vs. Mastery

Last week, I did something pretty awesome.  I scored 100% on my second comprehensive test for the biology course I’m taking.  Comprehensive Test 2 covered the five chapters on the nervous system, the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system, special senses, and blood.  Thus far, each of the tests I’ve written follow a predictable pattern, where the first half of the test is some version of true-false, fill in the blank, multiple choice, and matching questions, then the second half of the test is split usually between short answer and labeling a diagram.  Understanding this format allows me to structure my studying to answer these questions.  I know that the bulk of the points will be found in the diagram and short answer, so if I can memorize the structural components (from my diagramming study cards) and their functions (from my development of mental schemas), I can usually work out the rest through context, associations, etc.  With this approach, I don’t have to memorize every tiny bit of information because I can make educated guesses based on available information.  This is the same approach that is coached when you are preparing for intensive exams, like SATs and GREs.  You don’t need to know everything; you just need to know enough to eliminate the impossible and approximate the answer enough to make a choice.

On one level, this has yielded huge dividends for me in studying.  Thus far, I’ve completed two-thirds of the tests, and in 13 tests, I’ve only scored below 90 on three tests (86, 87, and 89).  Everything else has been 90% and above.  It’s a lot like the pareto 80/20 rule – I focus on the smallest batch of material that creates the greatest value.  It’s efficient – I don’t need hours upon hours of work invested into the project.

Yet, I have a huge nagging problem with this approach.  If I’m being honest, the conclusion I wrestle with is that while I’m doing great in this biology course, the only thing I can be sure of is that I’m really good at writing tests.  But, does that mean I’m gaining any level of mastery over my material?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of mastery and apprenticeship.  I intent to read Mastery by Robert Greene over the summer, and I’ve read So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work by Cal Newport, all of which tackle the concept of learning and mastery of material.  I value going beyond superficial understanding and reaching towards mastery.  In paramedicine, I see this as the bridge that allows you to adapt in the field beyond doing first aid.  You connect ideas and have a deeper understanding of the situation.  You are more adept at observation and can digest more details and facts; you can make better diagnoses because you can acquire and process more information.  At least, this is what I believe at this point.  I could be horribly off the mark.

If my goal is to be House but in an ambulance, then I feel like being good at writing tests gives me a false sense of accomplishments.  It’s too early to determine if I’m “getting it,” but it’s something I need to be mindful of.  One problem with my undergraduate and graduate experience is that I lack the discipline to do truly deep thinking and work.  I am very clever, and have thus far skated by on having a good memory for facts and connecting ideas.  But I also feel like a bit of a fraud, or more charitably, a dilettante.  Being clever won’t be enough to help save lives.  To do that, I’ll need something more than wit.

Study Strategies #4 – Diagramming

My study habits have come a long way since I first entered university.  In high school, there was less of a reliance on reading textbooks for information, and instead textbooks helped explain concepts that were duly taught during class.  The most you would often get out of a textbook was the bank of practice questions assigned for homework.

When I entered university, it was the first time I owned my course textbooks.  I could do what I wished with the pages (assuming I had no intention to resell the book after the semester).  Yet, if you thumbed through my textbooks from first and second year, you’ll see the pages are still unmarked and relatively pristine.  And yes, I am a pack rat and still have my textbooks from 10-years ago.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I began to annotate my  textbooks.  It started with encountering words I didn’t know the definition to.  I would underline the word, then copy the dictionary definition at the bottom of the page.  From there, I began underlining key ideas, starring important paragraphs, and eventually I would jot keywords in the margins to allow me to scan a page to understand what was being discussed.  This practice eventually carried over to my personal reading.  Now, if you open books I’ve read over the last five or so years, you’ll see this practice used fairly frequently.

Studying biology is proving to be a special case, because in addition to reading the text book, I am required to explain how certain systems function, fit together, and are structured.  I’m a visual and systems learner: I learn best when I can visualize a concept and understand how the various parts work together.  So, to learn the body, to label diagrams on tests, and to explain physiological processes, I have turned to diagramming when I make my flashcards.

Studies have suggested that students who write notes longhand have better recall than students who take notes on laptops.  It is believed that the act of handwriting information triggers better encoding of the information and better recall both in short-term and long-term follow-ups.  I believe some of the same processes are at work when you are learning materials from a book.  Underlining or highlighting material for retention is passive and requires little cognitive work to process compared to copying information.

This is not to suggest that there is only one way to study.  Many people have many styles of learning.  What we can generalize from this, though, is that forcing yourself to engage with the material actively (i.e. copying information, summarizing the text, creating flashcards) will help with recall in most people over engaging with the material passively (i.e. reading and highlighting the text).


You do not have to be an artist to diagram.  Trust me.  You can still diagram using stick figures so long as the information you are drawing is meaningful to you.  In the example below, I was trying to figure out a way to easily remember all 11 systems of the body.  I broke the systems down into body regions, and memorized the number of systems per region to help me remember which systems were primarily located where.

  • 1 Head – Integumentary (outer skin) System
  • 2 Head – Skeletal System
  • 3 Head – Muscle System
  • 4 Head – Nervous System
  • 1 Neck – Endocrine System
  • 1 Thorax – Lymphatic System
  • 2 Thorax – Cardiovascular System
  • 3 Thorax – Respiratory System
  • 4 Thorax – Digestive System
  • 1 Pelvis – Urinary System
  • 2 Pelvis – Reproductive System

The reason I find diagramming helpful the most is because encoding the information becomes easy when you have to create spacial relationships between parts of the whole.  For biology tests, you often are required to label diagrams.  You can try to brute-force the recall by memorizing the individual parts and what order the fall on the label lines.  When you are forced to draw the parts, you must make sense of how the pieces fit together if you are to get the proportions correct.  For all the parts to fit on your diagram, they must be spaced correctly.  This is incredibly useful when you must go back to label the parts, because you know how each part connects by virtue of your drawing them out.

Diagramming can be a powerful tool to help you learn material quickly and efficiently.  It does take longer than simply underlining or copying out blocks of text, but if you invest the time, it will pay off come test time.

Stay Awesome!



Mueller, P. Oppenheimer, D. The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science June 2014 vol. 25 no. 6