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Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 2, nudge

In 1999, Sugata Mitra placed a computer in a hole in a wall to confirm a hunch. Mitra felt that the young children of the village could learn to use the computer without any direct supervision or prior experience. Following the success of that experiment, Mitra put other computers in other villages and schools and pushed children to learn more difficult content, and each time the students learned what was asked of them at a rate similar to those who had more experiences and resources.

Photo credit to flickr user TroublePython

Photo credit to flickr user TroublePython

On the website describing Mitra’s work, this approach is called minimally invasive pedagogy, which is defined as “a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher.” As an illustration of what minimally invasive intervention might look like, Mitra offers the “granny cloud,” a group of English grandmothers who Skype with children in India. The grandmothers dote on the children, asking the children to show them what they know how to do and then marveling at their demonstration. Continue reading ‘Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 2, nudge’


Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 1, persistence

Do or do not. There is no try... (Photo credit - Niallkennedy, Flickr)

Do or do not. There is no try… (Photo credit – Niallkennedy, Flickr)

This month marks the end of my fifth year as the Writing Consultant for First-year Students at Cornell College. In my position, I spend the bulk of my time working with students one-on-one, but I also teach in writing classes across the curriculum and consult with faculty who want to include more writing in their first-year classes. That work has pressed me to redesign my teaching style and ultimately made me a better teacher.

I came to Cornell College just out of graduate school. I’d taught and planned my own courses and considered myself a fair to good teacher. Now, when I look back at the mistakes I made during those years, I cringe. My most egregious sin was relying too much on my rapport with students and not enough on planning lessons designed to challenge students.

Now, the circumstances of my class sessions mean that I can’t rely on having a good relationship with the students to cover over shoddy teaching practices. In most courses, I only teach one or two lessons for an hour or two. Having no previous history with students to draw on, I walk in cold and must try to read the room to adjust the tone and level of my presentation on the fly. I consult with professors before hand to figure out what skills to emphasize, but I am generally not an expert in the content taught in the class. Those challenges impelled me to learn more about the habits of good teachers and to research educational psychology. These ventures resulted in making me a more creative, more organized, and more versatile teacher.

During the last half decade, I’ve learned a lot. Those lessons will be organized here into five posts, each centered around one of five words that have come to define my teaching and how I understand what matters in education in general. The first of those words, persistence, is discussed here.

persistence —  College admissions offices ask for proof of an applicant’s readiness to enter college in the form of measurements of a student’s intellect. Research confirms that high school GPA and standardized tests predict fairly accurately who will succeed at the college level.  Intellect is, however, only one part of the equation. Continue reading ‘Five years, five lessons in five words: Word 1, persistence’


Am I doing this right? The troubles with feedback and writing

In the past year, I read a lot about the idea of mindfulness meditation and the long term benefits the practice can have on focus, reduction of stress, and a general state of well being. Needing a bump in all three areas, I signed up for a free online course with guided meditations and exercises. During the first week, I read all the materials and enthusiastically sat on our bedroom floor with my eyes closed. I tried to listen as a guided meditation encouraged me to be present and focus on my breathing, but I kept thinking about my posture, my back pain, arm positions, etc. My internal monologue kept coming back to the same question, “Am I doing this right?”

That question dominates my thoughts whenever I am trying something out for the first time. In some cases, the answer is obvious. When I attempted to fix the pump on my iced tea maker and the water continued to sit placidly in the reservoir, I received immediate feedback, and I could try something else like buying a new iced tea maker. In other cases though, feedback is scarce, and the answer is murkier, sometimes a lot murkier, which causes stress and doubt. During the second week of the mindfulness course, I was less enthusiastic, and that’s partly because I felt more demands were being placed on my time, but I still could not tell if my efforts were being wasted.

Writing is among those activities where feedback is  the murkiest, and that’s a big problem. When I put words down on the page, I have to make an educated guess about whether they’ll have the effect I desire. Often, I’ll have no confirmation of that guess until the writing is out of my hands. Anyone who has a stake in what they are writing, be it a grant proposal, an application essay, term paper, or love letter to a prospective partner, faces the stress of trying to write creatively and accurately express who they are and what they know under a cloud of uncertainty. It’s pretty hard to put full effort and still not know whether or not you are on the right track. When a writer can’t tell, they’ll frequently produce a piece of writing that fall short of their best effort. Continue reading ‘Am I doing this right? The troubles with feedback and writing’


Why I hate learning styles and why you should too

Photo courtesy of Flickr user skpy

If you were a student or teacher in the past 30 years, you’ve likely heard about learning styles. In case you haven’t, here’s the basic theory:

Every brain has different strengths and weaknesses in how it encodes new information. If we map these strengths and weaknesses, we can detect that brain’s bias and learn that person’s particular learning style, the way that his/her brain prefers to learn. Learners can take advantage of knowing their own biases by changing how they study. Because everyone has a different learning style, teachers should present material in diverse ways appealing to many different learning styles to best serve all their students. 

The whole idea that we can somehow learn better by understanding our brain better is appealing, and the concept of learning styles seems so intuitively correct, that many people have made it a central tenant of their teaching philosophies without any further research. That further research suggests that learning styles are a myth. What’s more, we need to be cautious of the unintended consequences the learning style myth. Continue reading ‘Why I hate learning styles and why you should too’


Thinking caps, contemplative pedagogy, and getting started writing

Fifth and sixth graders can’t go directly from running around and playing outside to writing quietly. That should have been obvious to anyone, but nevertheless, I tried and failed at it when teaching my summer creative writing class for the first time. However, that experience taught me a lot about the value of carefully scripting the time right before starting to write.

“Getting started” usually comes pretty high on students’ lists of writing struggles. Many of them say they’re fine once they get into the middle of the paper, but they struggle with getting to that stage. I’m sure a good share of these difficulties have to do with content issues–students often try to write before they have a real idea of the complexity of their topic–but my experiences teaching in the summer make me think there’s something more than just a lack of knowledge that drives this issue for most.

I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to teach a class for the past five summers for Johns Hopkins CTY. It’s a great teaching gig with phenomenal, enthusiastic students in small classes, but during the first week of classes in my first summer, my students seemed to struggle to get anything down on the page. Content shouldn’t have been a real issue because most of the prompts asked students to write about something in their own lives that they should know well. Fifteen minutes into many of the writing exercises though, I’d see more than a few students with only one or two lines. Those that had gotten to writing immediately had by that time exhausted their resources and felt as if they had nothing more to say.

Given that these were gifted students, some of the trouble surely had to do with fear of judgment. The camp situation throws students who have always been the smartest kid in their class in with a bunch of other students who are also the smartest students. That potential threat to pre-teen egos cannot have been too pleasant for them to deal with.

These are the situations where most teachers are inclined to try and fix the students instead of changing the structure and situation to allow students to fix themselves. I fell into that trap here. My first approach was to give students the typical advice given to writers: turn off your internal editors, just write down whatever words come into your mind, even if they are completely unrelated, get the pen moving and don’t let it stop. That is good advice in general, and it had some effect, but some of my students still seemed paralyzed. Something else was missing. Continue reading ‘Thinking caps, contemplative pedagogy, and getting started writing’


Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming

Photo credit: Flickr user KatieTT

Having written about brainstorming and group work in three of the more recent posts here, you can imagine I was alarmed to see the blurb, “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work,” promoting Jonah Lehrer’s article Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth. After reading the article, I see there’s a lot to learn in thinking through setting up effective collaborations.

The blurb in question focuses on a very specific type of brainstorming that has been proven empirically to provide less creative ideas. When groups are told to throw out ideas without criticism, they tend to come up with a lot of ideas, but those ideas are more predictable, less varied, and ultimately less successful than groups that are free to criticize each other’s ideas. The criticism leads to a reconsideration of ideas, which ultimately makes them better.

Lehrer’s asssertion that this type brainstorming doesn’t work does not mean that groups cannot be creative. In fact, he introduces several studies that show that they can be more creative than individuals under the right conditions. The most compelling parts of the article are those that consider what those right conditions look like. Continue reading ‘Encouraging collaboration & effective brainstorming’


The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review

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It takes a bit of hubris to write a history of good ideas. Good ideas are those which separate themselves above those that come before, so to attempt to provide insight into a wide swath of those ideas means you must fancy yourself fairly insightful. That generally yields books like Harold Bloom’s Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Minds, which crafts a complicated kabbalistic schema to organize brief biographies of one hundred great minds from the history of literature. The results read like a well-crafted reference book that leaves the reader with a sense of awe for these authors. What we don’t get is much insight into where these good ideas came from, which I should add Bloom never really promises. He’s just fine with us being in awe.

The difficulty inherent in choosing to write about good ideas is partly what makes Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation such a darn clever book. Instead of focusing on the good ideas themselves, which out of context leave us with a sense of awe, Johnson focuses on the places where good ideas come from, finds patterns in the conditions that foster creativity, and suggests ways we can create those spaces in our own creative endeavors. The results are both insightful, inspiring, and extraordinarily useful for anyone interested in coming up with good ideas themselves. Continue reading ‘The spaces of innovation: Where Good Ideas Come From book review’

Good Writer, Bad Writer

Good writer, bad writer reflects the philosophy behind the first writing lesson I attempt to teach students. Too many of them come into college believing that their writing abilities are set in stone. The bad writers continue to struggle, and the good writers don't take enough risks in their writing, figuring that any misstep will throw them back into the "bad writer" category.

Good writer, bad writer is my attempt to break the power of that dichotomy. On here, I share the lessons and attitudes that I teach, but I also talk about the attitudes I have towards my own writing since many of those have informed my own teaching. Thanks for visiting.

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