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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It’s Not Easy Being Chair

I recently took over as Chair of the Board for the non-profit I sit on.  So far, I’ve chaired two meetings and I have to admit I feel out of my element.  I don’t mean that I’m not able to carry out the job – I seem to be doing alright by the feedback I’m receiving from the other board members.

It’s one thing to sit as a board member and evaluate how a meeting is being run, spotting pieces here and there that could be run more efficiently, or structured different, but it’s an entirely different thing to actually run the show.  I think the past Chair did a fantastic job, so when I say there were things that could be more efficient, I don’t mean it as a criticism.  What I mean is, when someone else is putting things into motion, it’s easy to see various areas where something could be done better.  But when you are the one putting things into motion and steering the ship, you spend so much time keeping things going that you don’t have the time or the mental bandwidth to evaluate things in real time and adjust for efficiency.

Before, I would receive the agenda, figure out where I could contribute to the discussion, show up and sit in as part of the group (which sometimes amounted to sitting back and letting others run the discussion).  Now, I make the agenda and set the tone, then I have to be the one to get the discussion rolling.  It falls to me to manage the Board’s caseload, and lead any strategic directions we choose to go.  In time, it’ll also fall to me to work within my mandate from the Board and start the generative process of strengthening the organization and planning for the future.

Based on these last two meetings, it’s going to be a long time before I’m leading in any meaningful sense of the word.  The best way I can describe my performance is managing how much force is getting applied to the flywheel to ensure momentum isn’t lost.  When I reflect on my performance, it feels awkward and a little weak (wishy-washy, as opposed to done with a sense of conviction).

My default state is to excessively talk and look to the body language of others to see if they are receptive to what I’m saying.  If I sense they are not understanding me, I keep talking and hope that if I throw everything at them, they’ll understand what I’m saying.  A friend once likened it to a faucet.  Where I should be dialing things back, I instead open the valve and give them a fire hose of information.   Of course, this is the opposite of what I should be doing as a leader of a group like this.  I should spend less time talking and more time listening to the wisdom of the group.

The good thing is that it’s early in my tenure so there is plenty of time to get more comfortable in the role and learn how to settle into a groove.  Like I said, I’m not doing a bad job.  The rest of the group is fine with how the last two meetings went.  This is merely my critical self-reflection coupled with my desire to do better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Thoughts on Providing Feedback

I had a heartwarming moment this past week where a student provided some positive feedback about my teaching.  I “teach” an online course through the college and have been one of the instructors for the past year.  I find online courses a difficult medium to engage with students because you never get face to face interaction with them, so you need to find other ways to reach out and build a rapport.

One of the methods I choose, and use when I teach in-class as well, is to take time to provide comments and feedback on assignments.  I think of assignments as ways for me to provide real, concrete feedback on student performance (rather than just a grade).  In addition to the marking rubric, I will give three kinds of feedback:

  • comments on how well a student engaged with material according to a certain criteria;
  • areas where the student did not measure up to the criteria and why;
  • (most importantly) guidance on how the student could improve in the future.

That last bullet point is important to me because when I reflect back on my own learning in school, I realize that grades are often a poor way of gauging how well you understand the material.  Instead, the numeric grade stands as a proxy for how many “answers” you got right.  For the purposes of education, I’m concerned of the other side of the grade – the marks that you didn’t get; why you didn’t get 100%.  If I, as an instructor, can fill in the details of what the student missed, I can guide them towards improving in the future.

It takes me a while to grade assignments because I spend the extra time giving constructive feedback to the students.  If I simply told them what they  got wrong, the student won’t have a sense of what steps they could take to do better next time.  I don’t want the students to use trial and error to figure out how to improve skills.  Instead, I will give them explicit feedback on what I want them to do differently in the future.

Perhaps you are thinking that I’m coddling the students too much.  Maybe you are right, but I assume the students are here to learn, that I’m positioned as the expert, and that teaching is more about molding and guiding students, not expecting them to stumble across the correct answers.  I want the students to be mindful of what I expect of them (and it forces me to reflect on what I want to see in the student’s progress, which is significantly harder than a capricious grade you slap on after reading through a paper).

If done right, you should see a general improvement in the quality of the assignments you receive over the semester.  Students who are looking to improve will pay attention to your feedback and will get better over time.

I’ll close off with an excerpt from the student who emailed me:

I struggle with philosophy but I wanted to try out this elective. Your feedback has really helped me to know where I have gone wrong and what to work on for the future assignments. I have never got so much feedback from teacher, so thank you.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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

100th Post!

EXPEDITION

This post marks my 100th entry on this site!

My first post went live on April 21st, 2016 and, if memory serves, I have managed to post at least once every week since then.

The original motivation to start this site was three-fold.  First, I vainly wanted to snag up the domain name in the off-chance that I wanted to use it in the future.  Second, I wanted an excuse to force myself to write regularly.  It had been a few years since I finished my master’s degree, and I found that my writing skills had softened over time, so I wanted a reason to regularly practice those skills to keep them sharp.

The third, and primary reason, was to chronicle and reinforce my path towards becoming a paramedic.  I had intended to document the application process of returning to school, the time spent as a student, and eventually the transition into a career.  I also wanted to use the website to discuss and teach the concepts I was learning because I believe it is a good mode of reinforcing the material I would have learned in class (an effective way of learning is being forced to teach it to others).

While the first two reasons have been honoured, I have since shelved the idea of becoming a paramedic.

The unfortunate result is that I’ve been maintaining this site up to 100 posts without a clear purpose or direction of where I want to go.  This is amusingly also the case with what I want to do career-wise.

I had my performance appraisal at work last week, and my boss said she was “super happy” with my work and contribution (there are a few areas of growth we identified, but otherwise it was a great appraisal).  When we discussed my future avenues of growth, I was hard-pressed to come up with the next steps of where to go next beyond wanting to take on more responsibility in general.  I have a few concrete skill sets that I want to work on, but nothing that lends itself to an obvious career choice.

I suppose this blog is an accurate reflection of my career trajectory.  On the one hand, the status quo looks good, clean, and polished.  On the other hand, it lacks direction and purpose.  However, the blog also affords me the space to stop, reflect, and document things as I go.

I don’t have an answer as to where I’m intending on going next, but at least I can share my muses along the way.

He’s to another 100 posts!

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

Skills Worth Developing – Resisting “That’s Not My Problem”

The job I have at the college is my first full time job after I finished university.  Prior to the position I’m in, I have worked only full-time hours on contracts and a smattering of part time jobs.  I thought, like many others, coming out of university that I knew what it would mean to have a job, be an employee, and work responsibly.  I wouldn’t say I was unprepared to enter the workforce, but it would be charitable to say that I had a lot to learn, and many beliefs to update.

This is, in part, why I decided to occasionally write thoughts in a series of posts loosely connected with the theme “Skills Worth Developing.”  There are many hard skills that employees should pick up over time to help them do their jobs better and advance in their careers.  Organizations like Coursera, Udemy, Lynda, etc. are excellent resources to help one pick up those kinds of skills.  But many other skills (usually dubbed “soft skills”) are usually picked up through experience and self reflection.  This blog serves both to force me to write, but also to force me to make permanent any self-reflections I’ve had, and these reflections might be valuable to others.

The last time I discussed Skills Worth Developing, I discussed the merits of storytelling as a communication tool.  This time, I want to reflect on a phrase I heard a lot when I first started working – “That’s not my problem” or “That’s not my job.”

You might be wondering why I lump this in with the notion of skills, instead of some other attribute, such as attitude.  True, something like this will overlap with one’s “attitude” while on the job, but I view this as a skill because it’s a habit and ability that can be modified over time, practiced, and strategies can be employed to use it in the workplace.  Therefore, I loosely connect it under the skills area that should be developed and practiced over time.

One other observation I want to make is that this skill – avoiding falling into the “That’s not my problem” mentality – is something I exercised as a beginner.  I think this is a fantastic skill to develop early in your career, but I’m not entirely sure of it’s value when you are well-established in your role.  The value of this skill is that it increases your value to the company when you are still differentiating yourself.  The same can not be said for someone who is either well-established in their company or field, where their value is tied directly to their ability to focus on problems that they can uniquely solve.  In those instances, it’s probably a better strategy to limit distractions from your primary role and duties.

And so, we come to the problem of “That’s not my problem.”  I found early on that many employees in a work environment can take on the “not my problem” mentality for a variety of reasons.  Perhaps they were burned in the past and now refuse to extend themselves.  Some feel overworked and overstretched.  Some are lazy.  For whatever reason, they resist helping others in their duties.

I find two issues with this kind of mentality.  First, it goes against the spirit of cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork.  The workplace is a team of employees who are working towards common goals to advance the interests of the organization (while hopefully advancing their own personal interests in parallel).  Any time someone says to a coworker “that’s not my problem,” what they are in fact saying is “your problems aren’t important enough for me to take an interest.”  They end up placing themselves above the interests of their coworkers and the organization.  I’m not saying that this is wrong per se – I am sympathetic to the ideas that this mentality is easy for organizations to exploit, and that there is no moral imperative to place the company’s interests above your own, so you should guard against it taking advantage of you.  What I am saying is that taking this as a default position undermines the team.  Everyone is supposed to work together to solve problems and strive to the company’s mission.  If you don’t want to do that, what’s the point of working at that company?  I would hardly think that it’s just in service of the paycheque.

The second issue I have with this attitude is it closes you off to development.  I directly attribute my success so far to my willingness to learn outside of my prescribed job.  By helping others with their tasks (so long as it does not prevent me from taking care of my own job area), I am able to develop new hard skills and learn about areas laterally and vertically from my position.  I am better able to see how my role fits within the larger context of our department, which continuously exposes you to new opportunities for growth and development.  You become more valuable to the team and you strengthen your ties with your coworkers.  When you are just starting out, this is a valuable way of integrating yourself and setting yourself up for advancement.

When you ignore the impulse to say “that’s not my problem,” you acknowledge that your coworkers are people with their own problems, concerns, hangups and worries, while also setting yourself up as a person of value for the team.  It is a perfect opportunity to step up and be noticed in your workplace.

That is why I think resisting the impulse to say “that’s not my problem” is a skill worth developing.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Zombies, Run! 5K Training App Review

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This blog post is not a paid sponsorship.

On Friday, I completed my last training mission for the Android version of the Zombies, Run!  5K Training app by Six to Start.  While this is supposed to be an 8-week training program, I’ve been at it since mid-October.  Having completed the program, I wanted to give some of my thoughts on the experience.

Overall, I loved it!

Imagine taking an audiobook about a zombie outbreak, and attaching a step-counter/GPS tracker to it.  That’s what the app is at its core.

Story

You play the silent hero, Runner 5.  The adventure opens with you in a helicopter bound for the Town of Able.  While en route, your helicopter is shot out of the sky, and you are forced to make your way to the settlement with the help of Able’s radio operator, Sam.  Once you make it to town, you meet a diverse cast of characters who you “interact” with throughout the 8-week plan.

The bulk of your interactions take place with Sam and Maxine, the town’s doctor, who also serves as your training coach while you build stamina and prepare to take your place as one of the town’s Runners.  The Runners are a group of people who are sent out on missions outside the guarded walls of town to run messages, look for survivors, gather supplies, and occasionally serve as decoy bait to lure zombies away.

While managing a zombie outbreak is bad enough, you still have the lingering question of who would shoot down a helicopter from the middle of the zombie-infested countryside, and more urgently, who is stealing supplies from the town’s quartermaster.

I found the story very immersive.  It brought me back to my old radio drama days from high school, with well-acted characters and sound effects to help you believe that you are being chased by zombies.  The creators took time to ensure the voice acting was well-done as you rely on the characters to help you experience the story.  There is no narrator telling you a story, but instead the story unfolds around you while you run.

Despite the fact that this is a training app, there is a surprising amount of story given to you.  You learn a bit of the backstory of the main players, and there is a lot of world building going on about life and the history of the zombie outbreak.  You learn a little bit about the politics of the various surrounding towns, and you get swept up in the human drama.  Indeed, your final mission is not just a 5k run, but a race against the clock to make a critical delivery to someone you’ll never meet but means the world to a close companion of yours.

The App

I found the app easy to use and well-designed.  As I mentioned above, the app is basically an audiobook and a step-counter.  There is a bit more to it, but those are just extras that help with customization.  The app tracks your progress in one of three ways – a GPS tracker that lays out your run via a Google Maps integration, a step-counter if you want to use a treadmill, and an estimated distance tracker for use on rowing machines and ellipticals (how many minutes it takes you to go 1-kilometre).  I chose to use the step-counter feature despite using an elliptical, which meant my in-app distances were skewed, however I corrected the distances with the tracking done by the elliptical itself.  I also used my Fitbit to track caloric expenditure and heart rate, since they were calibrated to my height and weight.

The best part about the app is that you can choose to use an external audio player when the app isn’t talking to you.  I used both Stitcher and Spotify and found that the integrations were smooth.  This allows you to listen to music on the run.  When the training app needs to deliver information to you, it pauses what you are listening to and continues the story, before switching back to your preferred audio.  Even taking phone calls mid-app worked well.  There was only one time where my music didn’t start back up after I took a phone call.

One note of caution is that the first 3 or so weeks of the app are free to use, but you need to pay a nominal fee ($5.49) to unlock the rest of the missions.  While this might be annoying, or a bit of a barrier for people, I liked it because a.) I’m in favour of companies making money off of users to keep creating good content; and b.) letting you use the app for free lets you test it out.  By the time I was ready for week 4, I wanted to find out what happens next, and I thought a buy-in of around $5 was worth it to continue on the adventure.  The full (non-training) app uses a subscription model, but still allows you to trying things out before you need to unlock the full app.

Training

I found the 8-week program to be a little easy for me, but using an elliptical meant that there was only so much crossover I would experience.  If I were to have tried running, I suspect the app’s difficulty would have been scaled more appropriately to me (and my knees would have taken a beating).  But the main purpose of the training is similar to most other “couch to 5K” training programs – get you moving a couple days per week while the difficulty is slowly ramped up.  I appreciate this approach, as it is enough to challenge you, but easy enough to keep you coming back for more.

To keep the difficulty scaled for me, I would often run through rest breaks, and I ensured that I kept the resistance level at a good place to maintain a heart rate of around 140bpm.  To ensure I was running fast enough, I monitored the elliptical’s RPMs, and used the following markers:

  • 40-50rpm: slow walk/rest
  • 50-60rpm: brisk walk/warm up
  • 60-70rpm: steady running pace
  • 70+: hard exertion/sprint

Before each mission, you can review what the day’s exercise routine will look like.  The training sessions involve a combination of walking and running periods, and some sort of ancillary movement to develop your leg muscles, such as knee-ups, skipping, and body-weight squats.  Some days are straight training, where you get little story development, but learn more about the people you are interacting with.  However, some training days morph into mini missions where you need to divert due to zombies or pick up critical supplies nearby.  One time, you even risk you life to help a downed runner in the field.  This is probably what kept me so engaged.  If it were just a disembodied voice telling me when to walk and run, I doubt I would find it very engaging and would have likely lost interest quickly.  However, because the training prompts are integrated into a narrative, and the characters are cheering your development on (because you are expected to take you place as a member of the community), it breaks the monotony of running up into more interesting chunks.

I’m not entirely sure to what degree I improved my cardiovascular health.  Because I didn’t feel like I struggled with the difficulty, it’s hard to measure my progress.  The best I can estimate is that my running distances did increase over time, even if you were to control for the duration of walking in the training cycles and the differences in run duration from week to week.  Despite having not measured with any amount of accuracy what my abilities were pre-Zombies, I’m fairly confident that I am in a better state of cardiovascular health having completed the training program.

Final Thoughts

If I have one complaint, it’s that the narrative move from the training app to the full app ends up restarting the story a bit.  The first mission in both the training app and the full app is  the same, meaning your story doesn’t really continue after the training app.  I suspect that once you start running the story missions, things will feel more integrated, but I was a little sad to have to “meet” Sam and Maxine for the first time again after having “developed” a relationship with them while I trained.  This is a relatively small nitpick on my part because narrative and story are important to me, but it’s not something that takes away from the experience.

I have already recommended the app to friends of mine, and I officially recommend it here.  I got well more than $5 in value from the app’s minor cost.  This is a well-made app that is easy to use, and integrates well into my exercise routine.  It makes exercise fun and engaging and the story is compelling enough to keep me coming back for more punishment.  If you are looking for a way to help you commit to a cardio routine, but you are starting off from scratch, this is a great option if you don’t mind running from zombies.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan