The Art of Teaching – A TED Talk

TED talks usually get prefaced with an authoritative stamp, something about the speaker that qualifies him or her to tell us what’s significant about their take on the topic, and why we should listen, and do more than listen, to take up the banner. Conversely, using emotion, we cater to persuade the audience into a view, while logic and reasoning place last in the power to convince. Often, the speaker tells of their experience, which gives us an idea of their closeness to the subject. We tend to feel, in the same vein, what it was through someone else’s eyes. Rarely, plain facts pull us to conclusion, but they do. Comparing prices is enough to outweigh other attributes when it comes to choosing.

Despite my career in teaching and having earned a certificate in higher education leadership, I never rely on things like that to impress. When I talk of teaching, I mean to rely on plain facts, as if they could be called that. They are, after all, what the learner ought to take away, not the display or the speaker. However, people commonly refer to teaching as an art, and it should be so, because it takes great skill to communicate information to others, especially adults in a group setting. I give you a picture in the mind of a rambunctious class of inquisitive, restless people either transfixed or lost by the teacher. The teacher juggles a compendium of responsibilities: keeping the lecture alive, overcoming noise, attending to interruptions by know-it-alls and serious question-askers, and doing it all at length and on time. Before even this, the teacher has prepared the space to bring context, relevance, and immersion. A teacher labors just as hard toward comprehension as a welder, chef, or athlete works toward a finished product or goal.

I once heard it preached about Christ – being called teacher – that the Greek for teach meant, “to cause another to understand”. If true, that’s a high bar, for we frequently think of a cause as a quite mechanical thing, a basic law, such as if you push a glass of milk off the edge of a counter, it will fall, or if you drink alcohol, you become disoriented. But the results of teaching are far from clear, the mind of a student far from merely being caused to understand, so populated not with billiard balls of thought so much as waves or clouds of it. Yet, the teaching profession has only recently gained the benefit of the science of learning. True, pedagogies or methodologies of teaching fill books, yet how tested, like recipes in the kitchen, are they to produce intended results? How likely is a learner to walk away from the session changed in such a way that the information stays with them indefinitely? That would be the test.

If you follow this line of reasoning, the need for preparation, organization, showmanship, dominance, leadership – in a nutshell, managing the total class environment – becomes seemingly clear. When people refer to telling a story, the connotation is that it is dramatic enough to hold listeners rapt. Let us not forget that a well-crafted story turns on information as much as it does the cadence of delivery, context, and the reciprocal reception of listeners. To teach successfully, the information, in my view, should be spare, pared down to necessities, and not dressed up much. People recall details. Let me give an example.

Imagine explaining night and day to a child. For thousands of years, even the sages and ripe old aged assumed the sun went around the Earth, so this is something we could all pay attention to. Take a ball, big or small. An apple will do. Turn on a lamp and take the shade off. That’s the sun. Stand two fingers on the surface of the ball and rotate it from the light to the dark side. Keep doing it, twist and turn if you have to, to reveal the dynamics of the thing. The sun stands still; the Earth doesn’t. That’s the reality of what we see in the sky as night and day. We stand on a ball that goes around.

Now what facts have I used to explain this? Will the child really understand? They see round toys. They naturally desire to know fundamental answers to everyday questions. You’ve made it fun, yet so simple they could do it on their own. Even as you admire the morning sun while sipping your latte, the relationship of it to the planet could be furthest from your mind, though you would never defend the now unorthodox view that it turns around Earth. So, I suggest that teaching should be based on data, but the data should be utterly relatable. Whether demonstrating physical phenomena or fleshing out a concept, the bare bones data should be the skeleton on which it hangs. Introduce nothing, no metaphor or comparison, that takes away from the message.

How close is this to the science of learning? This is field with controversial players, including researcher James Zull, who characterized the human ability to learn by borrowing the different functions of areas in the brain coupled with an interconnected model of how we learn, first posed by David Kolb. Despite wide support, it provides a sensible base. Concrete sources stimulate our senses, which perceive the world. The brain socks this information in neurons, while reflecting on and comparing some with what is already stored. The integrative cortex pieces similar neural memories into a hypothesis which the motor portion of the brain tests, storing the soundest theories in a hierarchy that makes truth in the mind, and discards certain held beliefs due to their lack of a good fit, now that better information arrived. Stephen Colbert challenged Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker to sum up what the brain does in 5 words or less. He said, “Nerve cells fire in patterns.” This model has the benefit of characterizing all sensory input as data, even theatre and asides, authority and earnestness. Armed with a memorable lesson, the brain seeks out supporting information. It attempts to fill gaps. As it learns something new, the brain is abuzz, generating new cells and paths, strengthening and growing its network.

Good explanations do not merely reduce mysteries to game show trivia, nor do they simply enrich lives with profound knowledge. They inspire connected thoughts that cause people to adapt, to change behavior, frequently for the better. With useful, repeatable knowledge, life improves and society progresses. Like paper chugging out of a copy machine, it rapidly grows and moves through the population, sometimes going viral. In the same manner that it piles up landfills and oceanic gyres, it has the power to correct our collective ills. The lesson of how our world turns on an axis may be a simple one, but its inertia overcomes even our being bound to its surface, such that space travel is becoming safer and more commonplace.

Teaching should not be complicated, but we should never wing it. Teachers need to prepare and pare down the lesson in order to impart and solidly plant the idea. If relating an idea takes repeating it three different ways, so be it.

Currently Reading

February tends to be the month when the highest winter bills roll in.  With that in mind, it is time to get lost, hide, and otherwise disappear into a stack of books.  While that won’t make what you owe go away, staying true to a reading list has the benefit of maintaining sanity.  Sure, comfort could be found in other routines, such as washing dishes or walking the dog, but they don’t necessarily transport you elsewhere, or edify.  Yes, it is arguable that walking the dog transports and doing the quotidian dishes allows you to think through a complicated project.  So too, the roofer does his geometry, the bank teller rehearses her rap for when she serves as club DJ, and the lawyer loses herself in sunset photography.  We all have something.

I want to share my 2016 reading list with you, and what I expect to learn from it.  I’ve already socked away a few.  Here’s a quick breakdown:

Signatures of Life by Edward Ashpole.  Don’t laugh at the name.  Alright, you can.  My goal with pursuing books like this is to eliminate the crap surrounding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.  Instead, Ashpole puts himself in it up to his ankles while standing on his head.  A serious reader would put it down after the first chapter.  Now you know I’m not as serious a reader as I’d like to be.  Ashpole could have made his case in a few sentences and left it at that.  But no, he drones on about certainties no exo-planet scientist would commit to.  At any rate, do not read this book.  It really sucked.

Astoria by Peter Stark.  If you liked Stephen Ambrose’s epic about Lewis and Clark entitled Undaunted Courage, this book is in that vein.  Most Americans living today do not realize the struggle it was to pioneer the West, but Stark makes it vivid for us by choosing the marginalized story of John Jacob Astor’s plan to colonize the Columbia River watershed for the fur trade.  An amazing book.

God: The Failed Hypothesis, by Victor Stenger.  Now this is not an apologetic for atheists, but a scientific investigation into the attributes of the Judeo-Christian God, and why scientific tests of that God do not hold water.  Having been a fundamentalist Christian, I now seek to bolster my rationales against belief, simply because I see a gross lack of evidence.  Stenger gives a good 15 rounds in this boxing match, and wins by TKO.  After all, you can’t knock out an opponent that isn’t there.

An Erotic History of Advertising, by Tom Reichert.  I’m a quarter into this book, and it is about what I expected in terms of describing the reasons manufacturers pursue marketing their products with sexual images and verbiage.  Lots of naughty bits, but it’s a little like ‘reading’ Playboy.  But if you want to sell less-than-exciting widgets to people, try sex.

Others on the list:

Light, The Visible Spectrum and Beyond – a bit of a coffee table picture book on electromagnetic radiation.

The Color Revolution – about the 20th century’s discovery of using color as a tool.

Copies in Seconds – the story of Xerography and its inventor Chester Carleson.

Endgame – about chess champion Bobby Fischer

The Asteroid Threat – about near Earth objects and the cosmic shooting gallery that is our solar system

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence – What I hope is a much better book than Signatures of Life!

Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars – What I hope is even better than The Eerie Silence!

The Rational Animal: How Evolution Made Us Smarter Than We Think

Who is Rational? Studies of Individual Differences in Reasoning

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Investigations into the Strange New Science of Self

Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective

A Significant Life: Human Meaning in a Silent Universe

Functional Inefficiency: The Unexpected Benefits of Wasting Time and Money

Then, to spice things up:



Women in Love

Biographies of Roger Daltry, Nicola Tesla, Eugene Shoemaker, and Amy Winehouse

All I Want For Christmas

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 10.22.15 PMI admit to having book lust.  My zeal for reading has me, like most 50 year olds, staring down through lenses propped on the end of my nose.  An eye doctor would say it isn’t due to reading, just the natural progression of age.  But I have a good eye doctor who claims he will never retire.  Any way you slice it, it isn’t healthy: reading too much, aging, not retiring.

Rather than deny my appetite, I’ll publish my reading list here, in case anyone wishes to send me something this holiday.  There are 55 books on my wish list,  however I can only realistically read 20 books this year.  Not many of these are at the library, but a few are, like Helen Keller’s autobiography.  I don’t know why I never got to that one.  It’s a must read for anyone human.

The problem with having a wish list is that it grows as new books are published.  For instance, did you know the best work in 100 years on the subject of suicide just came out?  Yes, it is a morbid subject, but Americans tend to deny themselves introspection anyway.  That’s a joke, son.

Lake Padden Trail

Lake Padden trail 3

We take this trail so infrequently, because the parking lot is used mostly by mountain bikers going up the Galbraith Mountain trails on the opposite side of Samish Road.  We were lucky on this rainy day to get a spot.  I always back in, because it is safer to pull out than back out, because bikers don’t pay attention. That’s a true fact. Besides being a solitary and inward-focused sport, bikers are too exhausted to care about anything at the end of the trail.

Lake Padden trail dog 10This particular day, we decided to let our dog Bella off-leash.  She’s 2 now, and has, with the help of treats, earned this right because we trust she’ll return at least for them, if not us.  But she more than proved herself, going on ahead 20 or 30 feet and looking back to make sure we were in sight.  Even when we encountered hikers with dogs, as was always the case, she played for a bit, and then stayed with us.  Bella has reached a turning point.

Lake Padden trail 16

We also reach our turning point.  The trail has larger loops for people able to go the duration.  This one is just within our reach.  If we were to tally the litany of our aches and injuries, you’d see why.  We’re not out to burn calories.  Nothing like a woods trail recharges.  The hell with mobile devices.  All you need is a camera.Lake Padden trail leaf 20Even though this is the woods, everywhere is evidence of human presence, of human disturbance.  This photo of a cedar trunk still displays the axe-cut where the logger inserted a board to stand on while using a one or two-man bucksaw.  This trail resides between Samish Road and the I-5 corridor, so road noise is never far off, despite the sound dampening effect of fir foliage.

Axe cut in cedar trunk. Signs left over from logging.

Signs left over from logging

To get to this Lake Padden Trail going North on I-5 toward Bellingham, Washington, take the North Lake Samish exit 246, and turn left off the ramp.  The trail head parking lot is less than a half mile up on the left.  From Bellingham, take Lakeway east to the I-5 South, then proceed to the same exit, turning left off the ramp.

College Transcripts in the Consumer Age

As if college debt weren’t enough, the ball and chain still dragged around by students includes their permanent academic record, the transcript.  Long after a student leaves college, that institution holds the keys to obtaining an official transcript.  If a student wants a copy of a transcript, he or she pays that institution for an unofficial copy.  If the student transfers to another college, the onus is on the student to request a transcript from the host or exit institution, frequently paying a fee to have an official, sealed copy sent to the host or receiving institution.  In other cases, a student may request and pay for an official transcript to be sent to an employer to verify the student’s education.  In fact, colleges and universities never release official transcripts to students.  The upshot is this: who owns the student’s academic record? Does the student?  Then why pay for the institution for the right to access it?  Does the institution own it?  Then why the interference of the student in paying for a copy and transmitting this document to other parties? Don’t we live in an age of consumers, an age of ownership, an age of individual responsibility, an age of independence?

The fact is that higher education institutions have operated on an ancient model for far too long.  The doctrine of in loco parentis allowed even postsecondary institutions to behave in the stead of parents, taking custody of resident students and meting out discretionary discipline.  With the massive changes higher education faces as a result of costs rising far faster than inflation, student academic records are one area consumers should be contemplating prying away from the purvue of institutions.

For one, students increasingly are characterized by the term nontraditional, meaning 73% of students stop and restart their education due to family and work obligations. They are no longer simply 18-24 year-olds, but mature adults continuing on the path of occupational readiness.  Because of the brevity of work (approximately 2.4 years per worker at one employer), transition and frequent access to academic records should serve as the primary impetus for freeing the institutional hold over student transcripts.  A great many of these institutions are not public, but private non-profit, or private for-profit.  They have administrative policy, not statutory authority, for maintaining student records.

The question is when will student activists rise up to question the traditional aspect of institutional possession of the student record?  When will people place on the ballot initiatives that free their information from the custody of non-governmental institutions which could fail, merge with others, or change address?

“When Am I Going to Use This?”

Rebecca Eggenschwiler wrote a wonderful point of view recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “When Am I Going to Use This?”, the common refrain of students bored with the current class. The short answer is “I don’t know”, but if clairvoyance were a reality, we wouldn’t need college classes anyway.  Myself, having just completed a post-master’s certificate, and not having the current fortitude to last out a doctoral campaign to its finish, I found Eggenschwiler’s article at first amusing. On reflection, my decidedly non-academic occupation as a service technician has me frequently asking, “Did They Have to Design It This Way?” Like Eggenschwiler’s non-fictional question-asker, every time I begin taking the panels off office equipment, I openly question the rationale of the hardware or software engineer. Even so, I find copy machines, fax machines, letter folders/inserters, and postage meters interesting, even though they are the epitome of dullness to the average office staff (aka knowledge workers).

The problem with my thinking is that some engineer had to work hard under many constraints to create a piece of equipment to do a job.  Any criticism should be tempered.  Some of the constraints have to do with, in the case of postage meters for example, security requirements of the US Postal Service.  The machines are akin to ATMs.  You can’t be allowed to print postage indiscriminately, even though it is your money.  Second, time and space dictate how a mail piece goes through a meter to get sealed, weighed, and imprinted with an indicia (a digital stamp).  Last, it has to be in a marketable package, not bare metal and exposed wires.  So, the same plebeians who cry foul when confronted with Latin, the finer points of Microsoft Excel, or the privacy aspects of HIPAA should inform me (and others like me) to refrain from complaining when a screw drops from the non-magnetic tip of a driver.  We just don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. As for the question “When will I use this information?”, the answer is:  Every single day.

Get Admitted to the College of Your Choice THIS Fall

Get Admitted to the College of Your Choice THIS Fall

Are you STILL wondering whether to attend college this fall? If you’re fresh out of high school, my advice to you is: don’t wait another minute. GO!  But wait, you have to choose.  If you’re a mature learner who wants to go back to get a degree after a few years away from school, my advice is the same, but different. Be choosy (sp)!  Of course, I can help.

The difficulty of choosing a college this late in the year is that many college enrollment seats are full for certain programs of study (See this Chronicle of Higher Education article You as a learner may not have the funds to attend the college of your choice, much less relocate to said college town and exhaust yourself in registering, finding textbooks, an apartment, orienting to the locale, and then actually attending the first class.  It may be that you just want to get into the community college. But without help, navigating these treacherous waters could take every last ounce of energy to the point where you just give up. No one wants that.

Enter the seasoned professional (that’s me). For a small investment of time, I can help you not only feel comfortable with your choice of college, but assist in entrance exams, letters of recommendation, and the multitude of hurdles you must jump – not to mention flaming hoops – in order to be a success in your study discipline. You can do this. With a little guidance, your college experience can be made much less stressful and much more productive. Better yet, you won’t regret your decision. Drop me a note.