From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” says Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX and former MIT computer-science professor. “So just imagine, maybe we get Matt Damon to teach Thévenin’s theorem [a concept involving circuits and electronics]. I think students would enjoy that more than taking it from Agarwal.”
Agarwal feels that the professor’s role can be “pulled apart” into different roles, with different people doing the tasks that suit their skills. So Matt Damon, for example, could read the lines, while an experienced professor would write the script, and a T.A. grade the assessments.
"I’d aspired to give people a profound education—to teach them something substantial," Professor Sebastian Thrun tells me when I visit his company, Udacity, in its Mountain View, California, headquarters this past October. "But the data was at odds with this idea."
As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students—1.6 million to date—he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.
"We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product," Thrun tells me. "It was a painful moment." Turns out he doesn’t even like the term MOOC.
"Everyone is born with a natural physical ability to resist nonviolently." –Erica Chenoweth at TEDx Boulder.
When the only way to run a university was to gather all the books and smart people on a fenced-in plot of land, whoever controlled access to the gates was in charge. But we don’t live in that world anymore.
"Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." –Viktor E. Frankl
So what’s all the fuss about mindfulness? It is simply the skill of paying very close attention to what happens in your everyday experience. It builds the skills of focus and concentration by carefully monitoring whatever happens in your mind or any of your senses. And with practice it opens up a gap after any stimulus, where we can choose how we respond, rather than simply reacting.
Science is finding that it has enormous benefit for those who practice it regularly, and can even have marked effects for people with as little as seven minutes of training. It has been a proven tool used in healthcare for decades to manage stress, pain, and emotions, and is becoming increasingly common in the workplace and education. It can be practiced alone or in a group; either sitting, standing, walking, or lying down; for as little as a few moments, or as long a period as you wish; either in a focused practice session or during any other ordinary activity. Mindfulness is not mystical or magical, but simply using the ordinary abilities of your mind to develop greater concentration and self-awareness.
To learn more, just visit your favorite search engine and enter the term “mindfulness.”
Working memory: consider the limits
Working memory is very limited but highly flexible. A good approaching using it is to identify a small number of key elements to “work” with. For example, we need to know the subject, object, and verb for a sentence (three things), or the cause and the effect for an explanation (two things). Success depends on defining small numbers of central elements in any experience, rather than extensive and complex explanations. Brevity and clarity are the virtues.
In school, this suggests that we should arrange students’ experiences in direct and simple ways. This may be the most difficult part for the educator, since that individual must put himself or herself in the place of the learner. With complex situations, the first step would be to identify a small number of very basic elements. That might even be enough for a whole class period (If we even had classes). Taking working memory as our gauge, we might have shorter classes, or they might be a variable length rather than a set time. Deciding when to end a class would not be a matter of watching the clock, but on watching the ideas. The point would be not to have a lot of ideas, but exactly the opposite. I might judge success not by how much information was “covered,” but by the significance and utility of the ideas, and by how much impact the ideas had on students.
We might have an “idea clock” rather than the time clock.
Zull, J.E. (2011). From brain to mind: using neuroscience to guide change in education.
When the teaching brain meets the learning brain
Inevitably the teacher’s response is an effort to move towards a connected social system. The response is about reaching synchrony of action and thought. This is similar to how the learning brain works, but the most significant difference is that teaching, unlike learning, cannot be carried out independently. Teaching requires human interaction and it requires a feedback loop between teacher and student that displays “success” in order for the process to continue. When this works well we have reached a level of synchrony in which teacher and learner have joined in “knowing” and the process begins again, renewing itself.
This cycle of recursive processing is a continuous loop where the student and his or her learning brain respond to the teacher’s actions and alter the sensory input that the teacher receives. This provides critical iterative feedback that the teaching brain processes to adjust responses; for example, it alters the act of teaching. This constant feedback loop is what I suggest is the source of the intangible synchrony that occurs in teaching, between teacher and student. … This give-and-take between teacher and student, this human interaction, creates a “by-product” Of human synchrony that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it or feel it. It is the flow that drives creativity and higher human thought. It is the X factor that makes in person teacher student relationships irreplaceable as this feedback loop is based on the full body of interaction — not simply voice, visual, or textual. The teacher-student interaction is the engine behind the synchronous educational experience that characterizes the best teaching and learning brains.
Rodriguez, V. (2013). The human nervous system: a framework for teaching and the teaching brain. Mind, brain and education, 7(1), 2-12. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mbe.12000/full
Four compelling arguments against the use of learning outcomes in higher education.
Sent in response to my boss’s “Merry Christmas” email
I work online teaching new faculty to teach online for a public college in a part of the Midwest with deep Bible Belt roots. My boss sent a “Merry Christmas” email to all of our online faculty who are scattered across the country, and even a few outside the country. This was my response.
Your cheerful holiday wishes — while undoubtedly well-intentioned — ignore the diversity among our online faculty. I know from personal experience teaching nearly 200 new online faculty at our college that our faculty come from a variety of cultures and perspectives. I have taught many Christians, but I have also taught Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians, Wiccans, humanists, and atheists. While my courses are secular, the people who take these courses are encouraged to be open about themselves to create a genuine human presence in an online setting, and in that process they often reveal part of their cultural background, sometimes including their religious or spiritual affiliations. I am inspired by this, reminded that one of the wonderful things about online education is that it opens us all up to a much wider world of experience than we might otherwise encounter in our everyday lives. This is a valuable thing for us as educators and for students at our college. I am sometimes concerned that the college and its leadership have a blind spot with regard to diversity that prevents them from recognizing its inherent value in education. That’s what crosses my mind when I see holiday wishes expressed that invoke mainstream traditions without also being fully inclusive. At a public college like ours, and especially in an online program such as ours that has a broad reach beyond the immediate geographical and cultural region, it is my hope that we can recognize and encourage diversity through greater sensitivity to the full spectrum of human experience that our faculty represents.
Sincerely wishing you and your family a joyful holiday season.
Poem by Diane Ackerman
from I Praise My Destroyer.
© Vintage Books.
In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,
I will honor all life
—wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell—on Earth my home,
and in the mansions of the stars.
Subsequently, professional development for staff also needed to change drastically. In realizing that counting hours and forcing particular PD sessions was essentially a meaningless and an ineffective use of staff time, the professional development model for QCSD moved from a traditional approach of tracking time to an individualized model where teachers evaluate their own needs and develop goal areas for progress. When the district dropped the required seat hours, teachers gained the freedom to grow where needed. The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in meeting the needs of students, and it certainly doesn’t work for teachers either. Teachers are now focused on growing professionally, not obtaining a certain number of hours to meet contractual obligations; a shift in mindset. Professional development has morphed from certain days per year to an ongoing, continuous process of growth. The expectation is excellence. The roadmap, however, varies from teacher to teacher.
Traditional public schools must change significantly to meet the needs of today’s students. Learning environments must offer “complete versatility” for this generation of kids. Professional development for staff must be differentiated, outcome-based, and success oriented; not based on teacher seat time. Molded together, these needed changes positively impact the quality of our teachers and the achievement of our students. QCSD is one district on the cusp of this movement, and I’m proud to be a part of this student-centered, technology infused learning environment with high expectations for all.
Tom Murray, director of technology and cybereducation for the Quakertown Community School District in Bucks County, Pa.
“Mindful Schools has been in 40-plus schools in the last four years, reaching 11,000 kids. Generally the results we are seeing are increased focus and concentration, so, the ability to pay attention in class — improved self-awareness, the ability of just recognizing how you’re feeling, when you’re feeling it — which leads to impulse control, which I think is probably the most appealing entry-point for education, that mindfulness helps create impulse control — and that self-awareness also leads to empathy, and the way we interact with others.”
Jim Stigler is a psychologist who studies the differences in how Eastern and Western cultures approach learning. After watching a Japanese student try and fail and try again, for a whole period, to draw a geometric shape in front of the entire class, and then enjoy the experience … he knew something was different about the philosophy of struggle in Eastern classrooms. A key bit from the NPR story (emphasis mine):
“I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you’re just not very smart,” Stigler says. “It’s a sign of low ability — people who are smart don’t struggle, they just naturally get it, that’s our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.”
In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it’s just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.
“They’ve taught them that suffering can be a good thing,” Stigler says. “I mean it sounds bad, but I think that’s what they’ve taught them.”
Not all Eastern cultures are identical, of course, but I think it could serve American students nicely to realize that yes, this stuff is hard, struggle is part of learning, and not learning something at the same pace as others doesn’t mean you are stupid … it means you are learning the way that you learn.
That idea should be encouraged. Success in learning and in life comes from the desire to work hard to master the problems before you. Intelligence is not bestowed upon us like magical powers from above.