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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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

 

Admin, Prof, and Student? 

In line with my desire to take positive steps for my career, I’ve been exploring options on how to get more experience. One option available to me is to take classes at work. A great benefit of working for a college is that you can have amazing discounts on classes. At my college, support staff can take classes for a flat rate of $20.  How could you not take advantage of that?

When I started this blog, I was taking a biology course to prepare for my entry into paramedicine. Having since abandoned that career path, I haven’t seen the need to enroll in classes. However, when I missed out on some recent career moves, I thought the time has come to see what courses I could take.

Looking through the course offerings, I stumbled across some management courses. One stood out to me:

MGMT1960 – Performance Management
This subject will focus on performance analysis, counselling, constructive feedback, conflict resolution, performance management systems and overall strategies for performance management.

Given my recent job shift towards student advising, it seemed like a good option to pursue. My boss signed-off on it, and now I’m course-loaded for a management class starting on Tuesday. The course is thankfully offered online, so it’ll give me some latitude to fit it into my schedule.

This also means that I am straddling three different areas at the college. I’m continuing my main duties as a administrative support staff, and I’m slated to teach another round of Quest for Wisdom online, and now I’ll also be a student. If nothing, I seem to like things interesting and keeping busy. Let’s see how this goes.

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

 

 

Evolving Job Description

Having lost out on the competition for the new job at work, I’ve been motivated to consider how to position myself for future advancement at the college.  I’m trying to figure out what steps I can take to make myself a more attractive candidate.  One way I’m looking into is to turn back towards education and find a part-time online program I can take to add more credentials to my name.  I won’t dive too deep into what I’ve turned up yet, but I’m exploring a few options that could result in an additional bachelors degree in education, or even have me return for doctorate graduate studies.

Setting those aside for now, another way of improving myself is taking on additional roles and responsibility at work.  This is not to say that I’m looking to make myself busier, or becoming a martyr to work.  Instead, I’m looking at selectively adding roles that require me to learn more about curriculum and post-secondary education delivery.

I just got out of a meeting with my boss, where we discussed some avenues of growth she’s looking to take me in regarding student academic advising and program review process management.  By necessity, these new roles will require me to understand how curriculum fits together, and how students progress through their programs.  This deeper understanding will benefit me in the long-run and expose me to new areas of the college.

Coming out of this meeting, I reflected on my job at the college to date, and how it has evolved over time.  I realized that for each September I have been here (new academic year), my job changed from the previous year.

I started out as a temporary research assistant.

The next year, I was an assistant for the program advisory committees.

Then I added program review support the following year.

At the start of this year, I began teaching and I took on a more significant role with program reviews.  With this increased responsibility, my boss has also added academic advising at the start of 2017 – both to current and prospective students.

At each level, my job description has changed and evolved.  I’ve lost some minor, menial tasks, and I’ve automated others to free up cognitive space.  This is ultimately a good thing for me.  While I’ve been slowly improving my place at work (moving from contract, to part time, to full time permanent, and slowly earning more money along the way), I’ve been turning heads and catching people’s attention.  I may feel stagnant a times during the day-to-day grind, but it’s important to remind myself that I’ve been going nowhere but up since I started here.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

The Motivation of Failure

Last week, I was passed over on a job opportunity for a more qualified candidate.  Such is life, and I don’t bear any ill-thoughts for the results of the job search.  I’m disappointed, but not soured by the experience.  It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, and I find that more important to focus on than to give in to a fixed mindset of self-pity.

After the feelings of sadness ebbed, I found myself experiencing a different feeling – motivation.  This has happened a few times in my life, and it was strange to be reaquainted with it.  There have been a few critical moments in my life where I failed at something important, and that failure created a fire within that motivated me.

It happened when I climbed Mount Kenya in 2007 after I failed my summit in the summer of 2003 of a mountain in Alberta whose name I’ve forgotten.

It happened when I joined the Campus Response Team and became a Coordinator after I failed twice to be a residence don.

And it happened again last week when I wasn’t selected for the job.  The self-critical sadness was overtaken by a motivation to go to the gym.

As I’ve written previously, It’s been a while since I’ve visited the gym.  According to my fitness journal, the last time I was in the gym was around Hallowe’en.  I’ve been rowing this last month a few times a week in the mornings, but I haven’t lifted iron in around five months.

Initially, I stopped going to the gym after my routine was disrupted by travelling to Scotland.  Then I didn’t go out of laziness, and then I didn’t go because I didn’t feel like I could justify going to the gym when I was supposed to be marking assignments and prepping my lectures.  By the time December rolled around I had regained my weight, but I also proposed to my fiancee, and started the planning process for moving out of my apartment.  Along the way, I was tired from a lack of sleep and dissatisfied with what I saw in the mirror.  Yet, it was never enough to overcome my inertia.

Failing to get the job was the final push I needed to hit the gym.  Maybe I needed a physical outlet to vent some frustration.  Maybe it was a form of punishment.  I’d like to think it was something more constructive – I accepted that I failed but I also saw that I could do better next time.  It is within my power to learn from the experience and grow.  The failures seemed to stack until it hit a critical mass; a line was crossed that set off the warning bells that I was heading in a direction I didn’t want to go.

It was time to make the first step and correct my course.

 

I vlog occasionally for my buddy’s YouTube channel, Artpress, and posted this immediately after I got out of the gym.

So, I hit the gym and pumped some iron.  I was nervous to go back as a beginner again, and overcoming inertia was incredibly uncomfortable, but I did it.

Now the trick is to keep it up.  That’s, perhaps, the greater challenge I face.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Blog – The Rewards of Grading

I spent a fair amount of time this weekend grading papers from my class.  It was their first foray into writing a philosophical essay for me, so it was an interesting indictment on whether I was effective in teaching for the first half of the course.  There were the natural ups and downs, but I suspect my grade curve falls in line with what is expected (I have two late papers yet to grade, so the jury is still out).

I jokingly grumbled about the extra work it takes to grade poor performances for me.

This isn’t to say that I look down on students who do poorly, nor do I want to make light of their performance.  For me, marking is an opportunity to help the student learn and develop.  When a student does well, I often feel less compelled to give a lot of feedback because there is little they could have done to do better.  I praise where it’s merited, but I don’t think the students are helped if I don’t offer something constructive to mull over.

Marking poor performance, on the other hand, takes significantly longer to finish for three reasons. First, as in the tweet above, when I’m dealing with plagiarism, I need to do more research to ensure it’s genuine cases of plagiarism versus sloppy citation practices.  I use the TurnItIn service to give a “sniff test” for the paper, but the majority of the cases of flagged plagiarism are merely properly cited references to the text.  Otherwise, I use context clues to determine where students might have plagiarized, such as changes in font, and changes in voice or phrasing the student uses in their writing.

The second biggest reason why it takes me so much longer to grade poor papers (and this will relate partially to my next point) is that I have to sufficiently document my reasons for awarding a poor mark.  This is to not only justify my decision to the student (and avoid seeming arbitrary), but it’s also to protect future me.  My annotations and comments help me in the potential case where a student wishes to talk to me about their mark.  After time has elapsed, I need memory aids to help me understand why I made the decisions I made while grading.

Finally, the most important reason why it takes me so much longer is that I have to identify instances where the student could have done better, and give them direction on how to improve.  It’s not enough to rely on quick notations to tell the student the problem (i.e. Awk or awkward phrasing, SP or spelling error, Citation Needed, Does not follow, etc.).  I have to take the next step to identify the problems and provide guidance for improvement.  This is why the process is so time consuming.  It’s an important process.  I remember how important that direction was when I was in school.  Without the time my profs took to help me through my papers, I doubt I would have won an essay prize in grad school.

Grading has its rewards, though.  Sometimes, you are amazed at the quality of the work that gets turned in, as happened in this tweet below.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan