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Posts Tagged ‘teaching

As I age, I can feel curmudgeonly cells coat the fibre of my being. So I was not surprised when I did not think highly of some weather-related tweets of STonline.

Am I becoming an old fart? No. I am one. But I am old enough to think young and season it with some wisdom.

Someone at the news agency probably thought that it would be harmless to let an intern take the helm of weather-related tweets. After all, this was not a breaking headline, serious news, or an editorial opinion. Since weather here is so meh, why not spice things up?

In the grand scheme of things, there was no foul and no harm. There were probably no feelings hurt and no political, religious, or other sensitive lines crossed.

But the weather tweet reports were still part of a larger whole — a serious newspaper. If the paper wanted to take itself less seriously, it should remember that it has a comics section and a humour column. Or at least I am assuming so because I do not actually read a paper newspaper anymore.

Might the newspaper be so out of touch that it did not learn the painful lesson from the @MOEsg attempts at entertaining by asking infantile riddles in 2013? Here is a selection I Storified.

Being funny is not easy.

It is an art.

It is contextual.

It is subjective.

It is a serious business.

The same could be said about those who teach. It might look easy if you think that teaching is standing in front of a classroom and just talking. Some folks do not talk; they still read off scripts.

It is one thing to teach, it is another to educate (what are some differences?). Like humour, educating is also an art.

Educators work with contexts, not just content.

Educators leverage on subjectivity instead of pretending there is only objectivity.

Education is a serious business. Many may be called to teach, but few can educate. Anyone who thinks or tells you otherwise does not understand what it means to be an educator.

The visitations we do every Lunar New Year remind me of one thing I loved and another I hated when I was growing up.

Like most other kids, I loved getting hongbaos (red packets with money inside). Who wouldn’t?

I disliked being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I simply did not know, and when I said so, I was bugged into giving an answer that made an adult happy. And then I got a hongbao.

The question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is still a conversation starter with well-meaning adults. Well-meaning, but disconnected.

I have questions for those adults:

  • Does “be” refer to one thing? Why just one thing?
  • Why wait till you grow up?
  • How grown up is “when you grow up”?

I am pushing 50 and I still cannot answer that question.

The child and learner of today might ask the same questions. They have even more options than their parents and will grow into contexts quite different from them.

The expectations and projections are different. For example:

We teach differently based on whether we still ask the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” versus this collection of questions:

  • What can I do now?
  • How is what I learn now relevant and powerful to me?
  • Why do I need to learn this?
  • Are you preparing me for your past or for my future?

The old question is easy to answer; the new questions are very difficult. It is easy to retreat into our shells and do what is easy. It is more important and our responsibility to tackle what is difficult.

Using Betteridge’s law of headlines, The Guardian published an article titled: Could online tutors and artificial intelligence be the future of teaching?

The short answer to any such headline is no.

The longer answer is that modern online efforts provide educators with lessons on how to teach so that learning happens more optimally and meaningfully.

For example, data from a company called Third Space Learning and University College London revealed this:

An early analysis found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that when tutors speak too quickly, the pupil is more likely to lose interest. Leaving sufficient time for the child to respond or pose their own questions was also found to be a factor in the lesson’s success…

The lesson about teaching that focuses on learning: Give learners opportunities to interrupt and intervene.

The longer answer also focuses on whether such efforts will make humans irrelevant:

Hooper agreed that the aim is not to replace teachers with robots. “There’s a slightly dubious conversation about how AI will make humans irrelevant, but it’s not at all about replacing humans,” he said. “Our whole belief is that for children disengaged with the subject, who are lacking in confidence, people is what matter. An algorithm can’t provide that.”

Even well-meaning teachers sometimes get in the way of learning. Whether you like or realise it or not, it is about focusing on the learner and learning, not the teacher and teaching. The latter are means to the former.

Ambar said that maths used to make her anxious, but since starting the weekly tutorials in Year 5, she has started enjoying it. “When they give you horrible sums, they help you,” she said. “I was scared to do it, but it was actually fun.”

If we focus on the who and how of learning, we will hear more stories that end like this.

I had dinner out with an elderly relative yesterday. He noticed my son was not as good as using chopsticks as the rest of us so he called a server over and asked for a fork. He did not ask my son or us if a fork was warranted, and he got an earful from my wife.

What was the issue? He thought my son was struggling and he sought to help.

The deeper issues were that 1) the help was not needed as my son, while not the best user of chopsticks, was feeding himself just fine, and 2) he was reinforcing old behaviour and an easier way out.

The latter is a lesson for all who see ourselves as educators. We care for our learners and wish to help. Before we do, we should consider if the help treats a symptom or deals with a deeper seated-problem.

We might also determine if our help addresses a short-term problem but creates unnecessary dependence or reinforces old habits, or if not helping immediately and instinctively is actually better help.

If students are to learn from mistakes and struggle, they must be able to make mistakes and struggle. If we step in and help too much, we are not helping at all.

These are judgement calls we might be called upon to make every day. I hope that we do a better job of helping by knowing when and how to not help our learners in 2017.

I returned from an overseas gig last week. Thanks to social media and serendipity, I managed to reconnect with a few contacts there from as far back as three years ago.

One contact in particular was a prime candidate to attend the event, but had no knowledge of it. I highlighted this to one of the organisers, but I was told that it was an invite-only event.

While the organisers had every right to maintain this policy, they lost out on an opportunity to establish one more contact. I would describe this as a close or walled garden approach.

If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.

One of the conclusions of my keynote was that it was important to break down walls that separate. That is one way of reading into my statement: If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.

It is far better to connect learners with new opportunities, ideas, and people than not. You never know what impact you or they might have in the long run. That is one reason why I share my presentations and other resources under Creative Commons licenses.

The person who was not able — not allowed really — to attend the event got to see my slide deck and asked if he could borrow some ideas. I replied that the resource and ideas were open by default under a CC-BY-NC-SA license, so he was welcome to it as long as he created and shared in kind.

I faced about 200 people at the event and had close chats with just a handful. But I might have I reached out more meaningfully to one non-attendee than I did to the people in the room.

This tweet from author John Green highlights one major problem with university textbooks.

Like the prices of the other good and services, the cost of book production has gone down over the last 20 years. However, the cost of textbooks has steadily risen.

I did a bit of digging and found the source of the graph. The same site also had a feature a month later that focused solely on the rising cost of textbooks.

Rising cost of college textbooks (1998-2016).

Textbook publishers have a virtual monopoly and they will fend off alternatives and threats like open educational resources (OER), and paperless or e-resources. Where they also control electronic versions of textbooks, content management systems, or question banks, these publishers might also have a nasty way of holding students’ assignments for ransom.

We might not have as serious a textbook price crisis here in Singapore, but there is a far more insidious cost of textbooks — teaching to the text, the text as truth, and pedagogy based on textbooks.

Most teachers I know today do not teach solely by the textbook nor do they regard what is published as absolutely accurate. However, practically every teacher has been taught the textbook way: From general to specific, from easy to difficult. That is, they have been taught to teach in a deductive manner.

A good example of this internalisation is how teachers mistake the descriptive model of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a prescriptive one.

This is the expert’s view of how to teach. The expert thinks that this is how best to teach a novice because the expert wants to remove as much difficulty and struggle in a bid to be more efficient. However, efficiency does not make for effectiveness; it often removes context, struggle, and thinking skills.

One reason why schooling is accused of not being real-world or authentic is because content is removed from context. The what and official how to solve a problem might persist, but the why is often stripped away. Alternative tools and methods like Googling or using mobile apps to solve the problem are not encouraged, and neither are critical and independent thinking.

The oft cited reasons for the textbook approach to teaching are that the content is complex and that the learner is not mature or experienced enough to handle the problem. My response to this is that life rarely presents textbook problems and solutions. The processes we engage in are more inductive. We are presented with complexity, disorder, and specific scenarios in context. Our human response is the reduce, categorise, and conceptualise.

Teaching requires both deductive and inductive methods. However, textbooks tend to encourage the former because there is no human teacher to discuss with or consult. Teachers, and even teacher educators, unconsciously internalise this insidious method and we do this to the detriment of our learners, perhaps more so than the financial cost of textbooks.

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 better than nothing. 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 and 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. They 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.

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