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Posts Tagged ‘podcast

I watched and listened to the interview of Trevor Noah by Alex Wagner. I processed it twice because Noah is as thoughtful as he is funny.

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I also thought that some of his approaches to comedy in The Daily Show with Trevor Noah had parallels in education.

Noah said that his audience included not just the ones immediately in front of him, but also the people at home. This became even clearer during lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers and school administrators might want nothing more than to return to classrooms, but have they considered how they might disadvantage a subset of learners when they do this?

As a comedian, he had to balance the need to entertain and to inform, but not in an either-or way. The parallel is like teachers who need to prepare students for the test and also ensure meaningful and long term learning. They can do both. Noah informs humorously and the entertainment results. Might teachers enable short term goals by aiming for long term ones?

Noah reflected on the importance of context and perspective. For context, he tried to get to know his audience. For perspective, he listened to his grandmother’s thoughts on issues like apartheid. Teachers can do the same by learning about student contexts and engaging in deep conversations with them.

He shared how he liked covering blindspots with a diversity of opinions and admitted how difficult this was to do. After all, “most things worth doing are going to be harder”. That is an axiom that should guide teachers and students alike.

When pressed on how his team does so much over so many different platforms, Noah had a simple answer: Get people who are passionate about what they are doing. I have no doubt that many teachers consider teaching a calling and not just a job. But it is a taxing one and they need to take the time off to refuel their passion.

As for leveraging different platforms (like TikTok or Facebook), Noah left this to others who were better at it than he was. Teachers do not need to do it all. But they need to recognise that they must first reach their students before they can teach them.

Noah mentioned that the work-life balance was an illusion because the work he did was interesting and integral to his life. He joked that he was not trying to pull a Severance — the dystopian Apple TV show where people would forget about life outside work while at work, and vice versa.

I do not want to see more teachers marking papers on weekends, on train journeys, or in fast food restaurants. But answering the call to educate means sensing, learning, and reflecting all the time. This does not have to be tedious or oppressive. This is one reason why I choose to reflect every day by edu-blogging.

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I enjoyed the latest Conan Needs A Friend podcast episode more than I usually do because the guest was Professor Brian Cox.

In the episode, Cox reminded me of two lessons on science and one principle about systems:

  1. Science is about a way of thinking, not simply the acquisition of knowledge.
  2. It is about developing a skill — the ability to say that you do not know and then seeking reliable sources of knowledge.
  3. Systems take a long time to change and sometimes progress is made by swinging from one extreme to another. While alarming, the return to a less progressive extreme is a reminder why we need the more progressive change.

It took my leaving the profession as a science teacher to really learn the first two principles. I had to pursue a Ph.D. in Instructional Systems Technology to get the basics of systemic thinking. It is no wonder that it is difficult to think and operate this way.

My third takeaway from the Build For Tomorrow podcast about forecasters was preventing false consensus.

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The original context for this was that forecasters need to pool information. They did this by sharing and gaining access. 

Katy Milkman, professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of How to Change, said: 

There’s really great research showing that in general, we think other people have more similar cognitions and knowledge to us than they actually do. So if you, like me live in a city, and think living in a city is the best, you probably think everyone you see must agree with that. So it’s the false consensus effect is a name for it.

I shorten this insight to sailing with a ship of fools instead of leveraging on the wisdom of crowds. To get information of value and meaning, we to fulfil four criteria identified by James Surowiecki: Diversity of opinion, independence, decentralisation, and aggregation. Assuming that everyone else thinks the way you do fails the first criterion.

Milkman provided an example of students approaching her in class for advice on how to do better. When she asked them if they asked their peers who were doing well what worked for them, she got “a lot of blank stares”. Her students did not think others did any different and/or did not ask others for their strategies.

When applied to the instructional design of learning activities, preventing such false consensus might being with a complex problem that has no single correct answer. The design might continue with heterogenous groupings of three to five students. Each group might be given a scaffold that leads them through divergent thought processes before converging on one or more solutions.

I had more than one takeaway from my reflection of a Build For Tomorrow podcast. My two other reminders relevant to teaching and learning were about noise and false consensus. I focus on noise today.

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Near the end of the podcast, one interviewed expert shared how forecasting noise could take the form of too much information and opinion. Both are barriers to asking good questions and getting meaningful answers.

The expert’s suggestion was to write a pros and cons list that you could revisit every week to examine your thinking. That could help in forecasting and a variation might help in education. 

I am thinking of a journal or blog. This is a place where learners can record their thoughts about what they are learning that week and write another entry after revisiting the previous entry.

This is not a new idea. I discovered this when I was writing the literature review of my Ph.D. dissertation 17 years ago. It was popular when students were required to journal regularly and when blogs took off. Thankfully, this is a core practice for an academic subject like Design and Technology where students need to maintain ideation journals or records.

Journalling requires the discipline of slowing down and metacognitive ability to reflect effectively (I have suggested a framework that I call a Reflective Compass). Sadly, reflection as a discipined practice does not seem to be a priority in our schooling system. I wish that more educators would help students reduce noise that interferes with learning.

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The latest Build For Tomorrow podcast episode began with this premise: We are bad at forecasting the future and we know this, but some of us will still try and many others will listen to them.


The short and cynical answer is that we are stupid. A longer and more nuanced answer was explored in the podcast and began with a look back to Nostradamus in the 1500s. His claims were vague but captivating enough or people to reverse engineer what he said. 

For example, if he predicted a famine in 2022, we might say that came true as long as there was a famine somewhere in the world or if the cost of food rose so much that some of us could not afford it.

But sometimes these prophets get it wrong, e.g., Steve Balmer pooh-poohed the iPhone based on its cost and lack of a physical keyboard. So why do people keep listening to people with poor track records?

The interviewed expert, Laura Smolar, suggested that we do not expect even hard science to be right all the time. So we rationalise and offer excuses of their behalf, e.g., there were miscalculations or other unaccounted factors.

And then there are the super forecasters who study data and make projections that come true at a higher rate than chance. What makes them better at predictions than others?

According to another expert, Warren Hatch, these forecasters have excellent pattern recognition, are open-minded, and are reflective. The latter two manifest themselves when the good forecasters realise that they do not have enough information and do not limit themselves to what they already know.

As a pedagogue, my applicative takeaway from that is accepting our ignorance before trying to provide answers (especially for complex issues). In simpler terms, we need to know what we do not know before attempting to fill that knowledge gap. 

Here is one reality bite: People will prefer to be entertained than to be educated because the latter takes openness and effort. So even if you can be educated while being entertained, some folk will spurn the opportunity to learn something new.

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Take this podcast episode from Conan O’Brien Needs A Friend as an example. I chuckled with every joke. But I also groaned when the hosts preferred to stick with schtick and fiction instead of learning from an expert.

The expert was a fan of the podcast who also happened to be a robotics expert. He showcased his robot named CUTIE, enjoyed the banter, and contributed to the laughter. But when he tried to point out misconceptions about robots, his hosts repeated Hollywood tropes, e.g., robots would kill all humans.

I recall fighting a similar battle when I offered a Masters level course on advanced technologies in education. Some participants were misled by movies and television so much that reality bytes on artificial intelligence and robotics seemed like lies to them.

I acknowledge that the podcast is about entertaining listeners with nonsense. It is not an educational podcast about science or technology, so it has a right to focus on being funny. 

But it also illustrates what a non-informed entity does, i.e., frame another’s expertise or knowledge through its own biased lens. While this gets the laughs, it also perpetuates stereotypes and ignorance.

Learning starts with being uncomfortable about your current state. It continues with the willingness to change. Learning becomes more likely if there is effort to make that change. In educational psychology, we might refer to these processes as cognitive dissonance and internalisation. 

One difference between teaching children and teaching adults is that the latter group has more experiences. These can sometimes hold adults back. None of those adults will learn anything if they are not challenged about something they believe or think they already know.

Pedagogically speaking, we might refer to this strategy as creating cognitive dissonance. This battle for headspace can start with an educator providing an external stimulus to learn. But the rest of the battle is internal. Students can reject something new, fit it into existing thought structures or schema (assimilation), or change those schema (accommodation).

Students learn when they assimilate or accommodate new information. The reality bite: Their experiences can make them reject it.

I was a student of undergraduate biology well over 30 years ago. I still remember some of the things I learnt because they caused such dissonance.

One of the things I learnt was that giant pandas were not bears even if they looked like them. I learnt then that classification is messy and depend not just on how things look. 

I learnt from one of my favourite podcasts, No Such Thing As A Fish, that pandas have since been reclassified as bears. If the podcasters have their facts right, there are actually no pandas, not even red ones. That discussion starts at the 40 min 48 sec mark and might be fascinating even to non-biologists. 

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This reminds me how important it is to stay up to date in one’s field. It is not enough to have studied something and hope that is enough to last a lifetime. It is essential to be currently informed.

One reason I did not know about this reclassification is that I no longer study biology actively even though it was my first academic love. I am now married to the fields of education and educational technology.

By reading, watching, and listening, I unlearnt the myth of learning styles. I learnt that cooperation and collaboration are not synonymous. The same could be said of gamification and game-based learning.

To some, taking in the new and unlearning the old might seem like embracing pandemonium. It is not. It gets easier with practice, you develop a BS radar (critical skepticism), and the world around you is always exciting.   

Two content creators that I follow made recent episodes that focused on dopamine.

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The first was a SciShow Psych video led by Hank Green who explained how dopamine was not just a feel good neurotransmitter. Dopamine has multiple functions and works in different parts of the brain. 

The video was a warning that if you hear something often enough, it becomes true. Self-styled experts like to warn that video games and Instagram are “addictive” because they release hits of dopamine. The people who know better do not have as loud or as clear a voice as armchair/online gurus, so they are not heard.

Green outlined how neuroscience has taught us that dopamine helps us “move around, take appropriate risks, and focus”. If the brain is short of dopamine, the person might exhibit symptoms of Parkinson’s. If that person is given a dopamine analogue, Pramipexole, the symptoms reduce.

Dopamine affects parts of brain to prevent depression (nucleus accumbens), stimulate attention (prefrontal cortex), impact memory (hippocampus), and more. Dopamine is a systemic chemical, i.e., it has complex and interconnected functions. It cannot be used in a focused way or be reduced to the label of happy chemical.

The most recent episode of Build For Tomorrow also focused on dopamine. This one was partly about the dopes making claims they do not understand. They arrive at conclusions first, e.g., social media is harmful even though it feels good, and then find supporting “rationale”, e.g., app use feels good because we get hits of dopamine.

Host of the podcast, Jason Feifer, countered such thinking by asking an expert. Consider this bit near the 21min mark of the podcast [see transcript].

Jason Feifer: For example, when technology critics talk about dopamine, they talk about it as a thing directly tied to pleasure and addiction, and only tied to pleasure and addiction. You do something pleasurable, you get dopamine, get enough dopamine, you’re addicted. Period, end of story. But is that actually true? 

Read Montague: Like all things in biology, dopamine doesn’t do one thing. It doesn’t have this monolithic dopamine equals pleasure marque. The fact is dopamine doesn’t equal pleasure. Squirts of dopamine, transient increases and decreases in dopamine, are clearly in certain kinds of brain regions, learning signals. They’re not pleasure signals. 

To label dopamine the happy chemical is simplistic. But it is what we keep reading or hearing in much of popular media because they embrace dumbing things down.

To attribute dopamine to addictive behaviour without understanding how it works or what addiction entails is irresponsible. It makes the speaker feel smart and superior, and it makes listeners worry and fear. It creates dopes of us all. That is, unless we learn to say NO to such disinformation.

Spoiler: One quick takeaway from this Build For Tomorrow podcast episode is that the simplest action you can take is to embrace complexity.

How did podcast host, Jason Feifer, arrive at that conclusion? 

He investigated “the complexity of simple things” by examining what seems like a simple hobby — knitting. In doing so, he uncovered that knitting:

  • likely originated in Africa in the 11th century
  • was a way for women to make a living
  • had guilds where only men could be master knitters
  • was feared by clergy because the sexes could mingle as they knit

What is the relevance of these factoids? They worked against the assumptions that knitting was: 

  • a white or Western thing
  • merely a simple hobby
  • mostly what women did
  • free from controversy

The narrative that linked these concepts was a black woman who became a champion for challenging the assumptions that fuelled sexism and racism. 

The same woman also fought against the idea that politics or other complexities should not be part of the conversations around knitting. Why? In the eyes of those simpletons, knitting was pure and simple.

The fact of the matter is that knitting — for that matter, just about anything else — is not simple.  Whether we are knitting or creating content, we bring our biases and perspectives with us. To ignore that is to wear blinders.

That is why Feifer suggested that the simplest thing we can do is to embrace complexity. It is a fact of life. To ignore that is to blind ourselves to reality.

Here are my takeaways from Jason Feifer’s latest podcast episode, The Not-Boring Truth About Boredom. Being bored is not always a bad thing. It is not always a good thing either. And boredom is not a result of our reliance on today’s technology. 

The root of the complaint that people do not like being bored is technological determinism, i.e., technology makes us crave it all the time so we don’t feel bored. The podcast episode reminds us that this worry is not new and that it is coloured with nostalgia.

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We could instead be informed with critical study. Feifer interviewed two academics who co-authored a book, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid. Amongst other things, they revealed that people in the 1800s also felt bored and sought to fill this void.

I watched their introductory video for their book and was reminded of how we shape our technologies which then shape us. Our technologies reshape our expectations, emotions, and efforts. We need to recognise this recursive process instead of complain about it.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. -- Marshall McLuhan

He then interviewed John Eastwood, a professor who ran the Boredom Lab (Twitter account) at the York University of Toronto. Eastwood revealed two aspects of boredom: Desire bind and the unoccupied mind.

Desire bind is having available options to occupy oneself but not wanting to take any of them, e.g., having lots of videos on different platforms but not wishing to watch any of them. An unoccupied mind is the underutilisation of one’s cognitive abilities. 

Eastwood summed up his thoughts by pointing out that boredom is a crisis of agency: 

…agency refers to our capacity to think about the future, to develop plans, to monitor ourselves and regulate ourselves as we engage in a plan. And so boredom throws down the gauntlet that tells us you’re not being agentic in this moment, and it invites us to address that problem and to regain our sense of agency in the world. And that can be an opportunity to either go in some positive directions or some negative directions.

We have the agency to positively take our options and occupy our minds with meaningful and productive tasks. For example, I subscribe and listen to Feifer’s thought-provoking podcast and then reflect by writing in this blog.

Or we can sit back in our collective philosophy armchairs, complain, and do nothing of worth. That not only judgemental and ignorant, it is also the most boring thing to do!


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