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This press piece began with this question.

Why is the question not: Why are some people less productive than others when working at work? It is not as if working outside of home automatically makes work better for everyone.

A similar and equally uncritical question could be asked of schooling and education: Why is home-based learning so difficult? We should instead pivot to the question about the difficulties of learning in the classroom.

One direct answer for avoiding the pivot is that refocusing on work and school highlights what we fail to do well and somehow keep ignoring. For example, it is easier to ignore how administrative needs at work or school might be placed higher than working or learning needs.

Another simple answer is that the home is not made for work or school. Often it is a place to get away from both, i.e., to rest, pursue an interest, spend time with family, etc. We can make adjustments to home just like a scuba diver dons a suit and air tank, but such adjustments are temporary. 

So, no, the tweeted question is not a good one. It is an attempt at clickbait. It is not an attempt to actually challenge or develop creative and critical thinking. 

A question that might actually create some dissonance might be: What can we learn from the online pivot at work/school and apply to the workplace/classroom when we return?

Martin Weller recently critiqued how we tend to do the same thing differently:

We decry the tendency to simply replicate lectures online, but then do the same with meetings. We call for educators to use technology to its advantage to realise new pedagogies, and then recreate face to face conferences in Zoom. We stress the need to rethink your teaching approach to ensure learners are not adversely affected and then conduct line management via Teams.

In short, we think almost exclusively inside the work/school box even when circumstances (pandemic) throw us firmly outside it.

Now that we have enforced experiments with telecommuting and remote teaching/learning, why not use these experiences to address the weaknesses of the office and classroom?

If you think about it, there are not many things in life that you can be absolutely sure of. Of that I am certain.

My mind wandered to an experience I had when I was pursuing a Masters twenty years ago. I was the first Singaporean in the program, so everyone seemed to have questions. But a few already had answers.

One of my course mates, a US citizen, insisted that Singapore was a city in China. She claimed that her father travelled a lot and that was how she knew. She was ridiculously sure.

I wanted so say this: Who would you rather get your information from — your traveller-father or a Singaporean born and bred? Instead I gave a simple geopolitical lesson that Singapore was an independent country located about one degree above the equator and definitely part of China. My inquisitor was still not so sure about how sure I was.

Certainty of factual information is also function of confidence, not just cognition. You can be supremely confident while ignorant (check your Facebook feed for evidence) or relatively quiet about your expertise. The former can get more attention and sound more convincing than the latter.

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Case in point? See the video above. The two women in the video, one reportedly a doctor and the other nurse (and both anti-vaxxers) were sure that there are magnetic components in the vaccines and that these are linked to larger and nefarious schemes.

They get a lot of attention in broadcast media because stories like these are good for ratings. Some choose to parody or mock such ignorance (see the end of the clip) to get likes on TikTok or Instagram. Few actually counter these ridiculous claims [example 1] [example 2].

I chose to answer the call to be an educator because we are the grunts in the war against ignorance. When morale is low or the cause fuzzy, this memory and the video are reminders on how sure I need to be in the next battle.

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A person with ALS needed to have his voice box removed. But before that happened, he recorded his voice so that computing devices would help him speak.

He recorded 3000 stock phrases and many of his own favourites so that he could artificially create new speech and call up original recordings. One of his choice phrases (at the 12min 57sec mark) was:

A little knowledge may be a dangerous thing, but it’s not half as bad as a lot of ignorance. 

I agree, and there is more than one way to interpret that statement.

The common way is to cite an example like nuclear fission. When that was discovered, it unlocked a massive potential that was as useful for energy production as it was for weapons of mass destruction. That knowledge was indeed dangerous.

Another way of interpreting the sentence starts with focusing on “little knowledge”. It could mean not enough, e.g., little knowledge of how the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines were developed and how they work. Such knowledge can become the basis of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience, e.g., microchips in vaccines and learning styles, respectively.

We do not have to be experts at everything. We simply cannot. But there is such a state as having too little knowledge. In this state, we fill in the void with our own experiences, biases, and cultural cues. For example, much understanding of AI seems to come from movies made for entertainment and these AI want to dominate or destroy human life.

With enough knowledge from credible and reliable sources, we might understand the opposite. For example, the person whose voice is partly powered by AI is roboticist, Dr Peter B Scott-Morgan. In his 1984 publication, he declared (17min 25sec mark): 

If the path of enhanced human is followed, then it will be possible for mankind and robot to remain on the same evolutionary branch rather than humanity watch the robots split away. In this way, mankind will one day be able to replace its all too vulnerable bodies with more permanent mechanisms and use the supercomputers as intelligence amplifiers.

This philosophy of AI as partner instead of rival flies in the face of popular culture. It stems from deep knowledge and critical practice in the field of AI and robotics. It is nowhere as glamorous or attention-grabbing as dystopian Hollywood fare.

Dr Scott-Morgan’s bit of deep knowledge is worth more than money-spinning loads of ignorance. It offers a hopeful and productive way forward.

Today my reflection revisits an old theme: Say what you mean, mean what you say. It is a reaction to several things — and there are too many to list — that I have read, watched, or listened to.

The words we produce matter because they

  • reveal who we are
  • can be misinterpreted
  • foment action

If we are not careful, even the best intent can result in the worst execution. This applies to anything from a political speech to a curriculum planning document. 

And yet I still meet people who do not care for the craft of writing and speaking simply, clearly, and accurately. I do what I can to correct this mindset, but I push against years of schooling and work that has entrenched bad habits and attitudes.

Words matter. If we do not choose them wisely, they will be our undoing.

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After watching this video, I wondered: Does persistence develop discipline? Or is it the other way around?  

Perhaps we each need a bit of both from the start. But only some learn to grow them to levels as magnificent as those of the 8-year-old in the video.

So how do persistence and discipline develop? There is the adult that cheers the child on and perhaps prods her along when needed. But it ultimately has to come from within.

For me, this is reminder of a core principle for facilitating learning. You can only push (teach) so much. Push too hard (talk too long) and you frustrate the learner. The trick is to find out the optimum amount of teaching and question asking to bring out the best in the learner. The rest of the effort and the evidence of learning is in their performance.

I watched a video that made me think about a fallacy on practice.

There is a saying that “practice makes perfect”. First, it is not any kind of practice. It has to be mindful, focused, and contextual practice. If learners do not know why they are practising, or if they do not care about the practice, then that exercise does not matter.

Second, practice, even if it is mindful, focused, and contextual, does not guarantee perfection. Perfection is rarely, if ever, attainable. Unless, of course, you dumb down what passes for perfection.

What practice can do is nurture persistence.

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The video above is funny because the first featured girl goes through her choreographed moves even though she is upset and crying. If it seems cruel to laugh at her plight, then focus on what she teaches us.

Some might call her actions “muscle memory”. But muscles do not have neurones for storing memory, so this is a misnomer. It is a layperson’s inaccurate way of saying that practice has made the actions automatic. 

There is practically no conscious thought to create the movements. These have been seared by reinforcement into the parts of the brain that do not require conscious thought or heavy lifting.

Such reinforcement practice is typically linked to psychomotor tasks, e.g., dance moves, tennis serve, driving to work. But they might also be linked to cognitive tasks like algorithmic thinking, critical media consumption, and deep reflection.

Such cognition is like physical exercise — it takes effort, it is not always pleasant, and you might not want to do it. But practice wears down resistance. We repeat good habits not because they result in perfection. Instead, this practice helps build a character trait called persistence. And we persist because the show must go on.

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I do not need to go very deep in this reflection. It is appalling how companies and states in the USA resort to extrinsic rewards and motivation to get more people vaccinated.

Cognitively I understand how this is a strategy to push the numbers closer to herd immunity. But I also understand how this rewards those who were hesitant or reluctant earlier. I understand that those who get vaccinated now might do so for the wrong reasons.

I understand the difference between asking “What is in it for me?” vs “What is good for all of us?” I understand that doing one (relying on rewards and self interest) is easier than the other (educating all about the public good). I understand how this shapes a people and defines context. 

I also understand how/why media companies highlight the negative to grab attention. But I also understand there are elements of truth in what they tell and sell. Ultimately, I understand that when you treat people like small children, it is hard to take those people seriously even if they claim to grow up.

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If there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe and they watch YouTube, they might mistake this serious news piece for a comedy show.

What seemed like a ruse by a politician to the journalist turned out be fundamental and easily avoidable mistakes by “educated” people.

The figure on the poster was misrepresented because someone did not realise that “140” was the 140th footnote. The politician was also using a ten-year-old publication to highlight a study that no longer exists.

You cannot claim to be educated today if you cannot smell something fishy. What looks like an attempt to turn a six-figure amount into a nine-figure sum was down to poor information literacy (specifically, citing footnotes). 

What looks like a legitimate claim of wasted money is empty because 1) the study concluded in 2016, and 2) it has legitimate purpose and design [Scientific American]. The basic information literacy skills here: Finding out if the study is still valid and why it was funded in the first place.

Sidenote: The politician also used a sensational image of a quail fed a small mountain of cocaine. Even a person without a science background might realise that is not how doses are given. This was not a frivolous coke party for birds but a study to “look at underlying hormonal and neurobiological changes which may underlie that behavior following cocaine exposure”.

If something smells fishy, follow your nose. But first make sure that your nose has been trained to figure out what the different smells might mean.

The first week of June in Singapore might mark the start of a month-long school vacation for students, but this is rarely the case for teachers.

There are workshops and conferences galore that they get to attend. For some, have to attend.

This CNA piece on one such event gleefully reported how well “blended” learning is happening here.

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There is much to unpack even if you consider just the first example in the video. It is the blending of levels and talents of different students. That is a form of blended learning.

We need to focus on the content co-creation, not e-book or other technologies that remake the book. The news report dangled the shiny and distracting object, but we need to be smarter than that.

Is the use of technology blended? It could be. Does it enable blended learning? Most certainly. But it is what student do with it that matters most.

Today I build on my reflection yesterday on how to encourage systemic thinking by teaching learners to ask “What else?“.

I listened to a podcast interview by Conan O’Brien of former US President Barack Obama. Towards the end of the interview, both explored a theme that started with this quote (54min mark):

…if we are to have another contest in the near future of our national existence, I predict that the dividing line will… be between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ignorance, and ambition on the other.

In the context of the US political system, the quote could have been from a pundit or scholar on a news talk show yesterday. But it was by Ulysses S Grant in 1875.

Obama then described we how tend to pay attention only to what is immediately in front of us. If you asked me, I would say that we deal with the urgent and forget what is important.

Both men were trying to say how important it is to study and learn from history. The problems we face now are not new; they are just different.

So if we are to nurture critical thinkers who think systemically, another powerful question they might ask is: When else?

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