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Posts Tagged ‘mistakes

A quick definition of praxis might be theory enacted in practice or theory-informed practice.

We need praxis in teaching and instructional design. For this to happen, practitioners would have to be aware of theories that undergird practice, stay up to date with changes, and pursue relevant professional development.

But all these are not enough.

As the image embedded in the tweet above illustrates, knowledge of theory does not guarantee effective practice. Even a good model to follow is not sufficient. A recipe does not a cake make.

So a missing element in my superficial definition of praxis might now include the need to learn quickly and effectively from mistakes. This applies as much to facilitating learning as to cake-making.

After reading a press release and two articles about five Singapore schools experimenting with virtual reality (VR) excursions, I had one question: Remember the mistakes people made with Second Life?

This IMDA press release revealed the five Primary schools involved in the VR trial. An STonline article provided three videos and one photo of one such trial.

While I applaud the effort to incorporate technology into lessons, I worry about the short or non-existent memory of those involved in developing VR for schools.

When Second Life rose to prominence, the bold claim then was that you could create any world and do anything in it. While that was true, many people recreated what they could already see and do in real life. Some of the VR efforts are making the same mistake, i.e., recreating field trips that you can take in reality.

To be fair, another article pointed out a benefit of VR.

The solution allows students in a classroom setting to go through an on-site visit experience. Sites which might not be easily accessible to students due to their remote locations or due to students’ health or safety reasons can be explored.

Sites of interest could include landmarks such as the Central Sikh Temple, Chinese Garden and Geylang Serai market for teaching students about the early settlers in Singapore or it could be an offshore fish farm or an organic vegetable farm for learning about agricultural activities in Singapore.

The VR developers can and have heeded a lesson from Second Life mistakes. Both virtual experiences were valuable when they focused on what was very difficult, costly, or impossible to do in real life. For example:

  • Travelling to the same place set at a different time.
  • Embarking on trips that would be very difficult, dangerous, or impossible, e.g., outer space.
  • Enjoying rare experiences, e.g., endangered locations where foot traffic might damage the ecosystem.

Some might argue that a VR field trip saves on time and effort. This is a poor excuse because if something is really worth experiencing, it is worth physically visiting.

While VR might save on time, it does not necessarily save on effort or money. According to the STonline article:

The VR headset’s retail price is about $150, and the price of the accompanying smartphones used with the headsets can cost between $500 and $1,200.

There was no information about bandwidth, platform and content development, and maintenance costs. Those add up.

As with most technologies, the cost of hardware will invariably go down, thus lowering that cost. However, there is still the cost of software development, content updates, teacher professional development, and swopping the virtual for the real.

Other than various costs, other insidious factors are the consumption-based design of current VR experiences and the show-and-tell approach.

This article described the virtual field trips as:

…lesson packages to ensure that it was aligned to the curriculum and the learning outcomes of the Social Studies primary school syllabus

We need to read in between the lines of this statement. While VR companies might work with experts and teachers on content, it is the companies that keep and control the content. (BTW, this is true with just about any paid published work; the rights transfer to the publisher.)

The control of the rights to the content as well as to its revisions and releases helps companies create consumer dependence in order to make money. They are the source of the hardware, software, stories, and experiences, and they want customers to keep coming back for those things.

The same article also described the lessons.

During each one-hour lesson, students experienced 4-5 VR experiences, lasting no more than 5 minutes each.

There is a dashboard through which teachers can control (play, pause and stop) and guide students through the VR experience. Teachers know what the students are looking at through indicators on the teacher’s screen and point out interesting spots in the video.

The message is that students are not free to explore. The system is designed for teacher control only. The pedagogy relies on the show-and-tell model.

If the rhetoric is to have more self-directed learners and nurture independent thinkers, where is the design for exploration, uncovering, analysis, and evaluation? Surely not in worksheets!

Besides using VR headsets, the pupils also completed worksheets and discussed in groups to reinforce what they learnt.

Oh, joy… worksheets!

So I return to the premise of my argument: This VR “initiative” is a new way of making old mistakes.

  1. Some of the experiences may not be necessary if they replicate what is readily experienced in real life more conveniently or meaningfully.
  2. The costs are not just financial. There are also mindset and pedagogical costs (teach the same way, show-and-tell).

If I sound like a squeaky wheel, I remind you of this observation distilled from wry wisdom.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

In the first three parts on novice teaching mistakes by future faculty (FF), I reflected on flaws in implementation, planning, and mindsets.

In this final part, I rise above those reflections.

Why share these thoughts only after three semesters of working with FF?

Part of the reason was the time to interact with FF and evaluate their work. The mistakes repeated themselves and they became more obvious. They also reminded me of what I noticed as an educator of student teachers during their courses and practicum. So I wrote down what came to mind, was most recent, and most repeated.

The most important thing to address when trying to change behaviours is mindsets. A short series of modules cannot change mindsets overnight.

Part of me shrugs and thinks that doing something is better than nothing at all. The other part of me is convinced that we provide powerful and meaningful enough experiences to affect some FF for years to come.

Yet another part of me is saddened by how most universities operate. When I suggested more modules and alternatives to address diversity, I was told that the university did not want to invest in this effort because research output is what matters.

The rationale from a systemic point of view was this: Dedicate more time to developing FF pedagogically and their doctoral studies research will suffer. I can see that. Funding, rankings, and reputation are at stake.

But some FF and I also see that high quality and progressive teaching also matters. Prospective students and parents do not realise that university rankings are not based largely on teaching. Furthermore, the quality of teaching is very hard to measure compared to research output.

To use an analogy, measuring research output is like grading the quantity and quality of factory products. There are few grey areas, but doing this is relatively easy.

On the other hand, trying to gauge the quality of teaching is like trying to measure the factory’s staff morale and their bosses’ leadership abilities. These not only have indefinite shades of grey, they also have rainbow colours.

One of the most important international university ranking systems, QS, relies on proxy measures of teaching, e.g., student satisfaction, student/faculty ratios, course completion rates. These are not measures of pedagogical effectiveness, change, or innovation.

This is why it is important to improve teaching at the university level even though it is not measured precisely. The indicators at an administrative or report level look good, but the reality on the ground paints a different picture. I would rather point out mistakes and make the effort to deal with them than hide behind a ranking or number.

This is Part 3 of my reflections on the teaching mistakes that some novice instructors and future faculty (FF) might make.

In Part 1, I shared three implementation missteps. In Part 2, I highlighted two problems with planning. In this part, I comment on mindsets.

The danger of lectures is that they create the illusion of teaching for teachers, and the illusion of learning for learners.

Calling all lessons lectures. I know of some FF who cannot think outside the lecture box. They label all sessions lectures even if they are tutorials, coaching sessions, workshops, laboratory experiments, field trips, etc.

This is not a matter of semantics, but of mindset. Play a word association game starting with “university” and “lecture” will probably be among the first mentions.

Lectures are the least effective method of promoting deep and meaningful learning and this is one of the first boxes I try to get FF to climb out of. Unfortunately, if you have been in the box for a long time, it can be hard to think outside of it. It could be the pedagogical equivalent Stockholm Syndrome.

Efficiency as the rationale for change. In trying to justify change, I have noted that quite a few FF justify better teaching methods as being more efficient.

Why focus on efficiency? Lectures are very efficient from a teaching and mass processing point of view. Why not dwell on effectiveness? After all, deep learning takes time, e.g., learning-to-be takes longer than simply learning-about.

Not paying attention to WHY or SO WHAT. While evaluating the writing, planning, and teaching of FF, I notice that some individuals put the WHY of the lesson last or do not emphasise it at all.

Why is the lesson important to the learner? So what is it to them if they know something? What if they did not?

These are important questions that need to be addressed before focusing on the what, how, where, and when.

Everything in the room should just work or everyone has a smartphone. This might be true in a well-maintained campus and if there is a population of well-off, well-connected students.

However, tools can occasionally not work and FF need to think of contingencies. Some students might, for whatever reason, also choose to not use technology despite being reminded to bring a computing device. How are they to learn if the tools do not work or if they choose not to use them?

I share these thoughts not to shame new instructors or FF. We have all made mistakes and we should learn from them. However, there is a serious problem if FF do not admit to or realise they are making these basic mistakes. This is why I mention these mistakes explicitly.

In Part 1 of my reflection of teaching mistakes by novice future faculty (FF), I focused on implementation mistakes that might recur.

Today I focus on planning mistakes.

Confusing teaching objectives with learning outcomes. Objectives are what instructors focus on; that is what they plan on doing during a lesson. Outcomes focus on the learners; these are what students need to be able to attempt and achieve after an experience.

I find that many FF still think that their stating or demonstrating something is the same as their students learning it. If only teaching and learning was that easy a matter of transference!

If we focus on learners and learning, we seek evidence of change and only students can provide it because we are not mind-readers. Educators can create numerous opportunities (see the orange and green bands in Bloom’s revised taxonomy below).

Bloom's Revised Taxonomy

[Larger version, CC-BY-NC-SA] [My notes on BT revised]

Bloom’s taxonomy (BT) is taken as a prescriptive framework instead of a descriptive one. The conventional representation of BT (revised version) is a triangle with a broad base of remembering and an apex of creating. FF, and indeed many teachers, assume that they must always proceed from simple to complex.

Some experts take the deductive approach. Having previously struggled with a learning journey, an expert might wish to simplify the journey for someone else. The deductive method might mean sharing general principles and then illustrating with examples (generic to specific).

This is the approach that most textbooks use because authors and publishers try to inform in the absence of an instructor. However, instructors who rely on the textbook might adopt the same deductive strategy.

There are problems with this approach. It does not reflect authentic learning nor does it embrace complexities and subjectivities in the wider world. Problems that require the application of theories are rarely of a textbook nature.

This approach also focuses on learning-about over learning-to-be. The instructor gained expertise and is passionate about the academic subject perhaps because of the struggle while learning. Simplifying and reducing takes this experience away from new learners.

One reason why employers might lament that graduates are not prepared for “the real world” is because students are taught to operate in a textbook, deductive-only, and inauthentic bubble.

Today I have reflected on just two of several novice instructor mistakes in planning for teaching. Tomorrow, I highlight a few mindsets that hold back more effective and innovative teaching.

I was a teacher educator for almost ten years before I left the NIE, Singapore, in 2014. I continue to provide professional development for teachers and educators as a consultant.

For the last three semesters, I have been involved in a programme that tries to prepare future faculty (FF) to teach differently. One broad goal is for FF to not just teach the way they were taught (i.e., lecture) and to adopt more learner-centred approaches like collaborative learning.

As FF try something new, they make mistakes. This is a good thing if they learn from those mistakes. This is bad thing if they think there is nothing wrong with perpetuating mistakes.

I share Part 1 of a small catalogue of strategies that some FF might not think are mistakes.

Playing background music because it seems cool or has words that mention the content. They might be thinking of how they study and listen to music at the same time or they might have heard about the so-called Mozart effect.

FF might not realise that the study music serves as white noise and does not necessarily strengthen cognition. In fact it can distract instead of enable learning. This is particularly true since the listeners do not have a choice whether to listen to the music, and if so, the choice of music.

These FF probably have not heard of the limited effect of the Mozart effect or how it was a commercial push instead of one borne of replicable research or critical practice.

Video source

The mistake here is relying on novelty. This strategy is neither professionally sustainable nor responsible.

Calling on students only randomly. I know of FF who like reaching into a “fishbowl” of numbers that correspond to students and calling on them randomly.

This disempowers students who wish to answer, creates fear in those who do not wish to answer, reinforces that the instructor is the only one in control and bears initiative, and turns active students into passive ones.

I tell FF I coach that this fishbowl method of classroom interaction should be a method of last resort instead of first reach. 

One alternative to prompt and wait for responses. This breaks the cycle of dependency on the instructor. Another alternative is to call on students strategically, e.g., those that have something to say or look certain; those that have doubts or look confused.

Assigning students to groups without consideration. FF do not always know when to create relatively homogenous groups (learners have similar abilities or backgrounds) or heterogenous groups (very different abilities or backgrounds).

Homogenous groups might be useful for differentiating instruction. (Note: The students are not identical; homogenous is not meant to be taken literally.) After learning more about one’s students, FF might divide students into groups that need to be challenged and others that need close tutoring or coaching. The FF might design different challenges and activities for students assigned to these groups.

Heterogenous groups might be useful for peer teaching or project-based work. Learners in each group might possess different academic abilities and character traits so that they complement one another in the learning of new content or in the tackling of complex tasks.

I will share more typical novice mistakes in future entries.

Youth Day fell on a Sunday. This made Monday a school holiday, the roads less congested at peak travel, and everywhere else youthfully crowded.

TODAYonline featured Youth Day wishes by our Prime Minister to not be afraid of making mistakes. This is a good message, but one that is difficult to live up to.


Unlike our evolution-selected fears of snakes and spiders, the fear of making mistakes and failing is learnt.

The most natural way we learn as higher mammals is play. When you unpack play, it has elements of hypothesising or risk-taking, deciding on choice of action, taking action, getting immediate feedback, and dealing with consequence.

Making mistakes is essential to play. Whether joyous in victory or abject in failure, the event is linked to emotions and these cement the lesson in memory. Play might be the quickest and most effective way to learn.

However, the adult human animal devalues play. Play a word association game with “video games” and most adults will say “waste of time” and “fun and games” as if games have no value or are not serious work. The adult learns to fear play as childish, a process to outgrow, or something to not mention if one is to be taken seriously.

This adult way of thinking is taught or caught. Consider a few examples.

A child picks up an insect and a care-giver shrieks and tells the child to let go. There is little or no explanation why and the child learns that discovering, exploring, and making mistakes is dangerous.

Another child travels with a parent in public transport and her parent tells her to avoid certain races of people because of the way they behave, look, or smell. There is no option to find out for herself whether those things are true, but why would she question someone she trusts? The child learns not to question or critique.

Yet another child goes to school and learns processes of enculturation. Some of these processes are good because he learns to socialise. Other processes are bad because they create over-reliance. With the latter, the child learns to not try and to wait for someone else to take action instead.

These lessons entrench themselves in our social norms. Action contrary to social norms is rarely rewarded and is often punished instead. But there will always be a few who will persist and try.

The article concluded with this:

In a more humourous vein, Lionel Chick urged Mr Lee against jumping: “I’m afraid you might sprain your ankle (because you’re) so old already … Do take care.”

That earned the following rebuttal from Mandy Lim Beitler: “That’s the mentality that makes people old long before their time. Thankfully, our PM has a young heart.”

A call to not be afraid to make mistakes is a call to trust our instincts, to take calculated risks, and to try.

Who are you, Lionel (the cowardly lion) or Mandy (who manned up and disagreed)? Will you only talk the talk or also walk that talk by encouraging and even rewarding mistakes?

The trigger for this reflection was a newspaper article that reported Singapore employers’ reactions to embed learners in workplaces for authentic experiences.

One employer, citing support from government subsidies, said this: “The subsidies can also go towards helping us to create self-learning tools such as online learning programmes”.

If you have a decent idea on how “online learning programmes” are practised in industry and even in higher education, you know that they are far from desirable or ideal.

I know because a significant amount of my work life revolved around online and e-learning. Heck, I was in charge of a centre for e-learning not too long ago.

I have seen more bad practices than good ones. When designing or assigning online learning, the worst ones were and still are:

  • Starting with a perspective that there is no difference between online teaching and online learning
  • Attempts to simply but unsuccessfully replicate face-to-face presence
  • Not blending and dedicating face time with co-learners and/or more knowledgeable others
  • Using online learning as a blunt tool to solve all ills
  • Not questioning the one-size-fits-all approach
  • Assuming a fire-and-forget mentality
  • Not connecting the online with the offline or larger purpose

The mistakes are repeated because people do not learn from them. Sometimes they do not learn from them because they do not think that they have made mistakes.

I have listed a few from a host of many mistakes. These are the sort of mistakes that are not worth making because they keep administrators and instructors thinking they have done their jobs while leaving learners frustrated.


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