Monthly Archives: February 2011

Teaching and learning: Giving confidence

It’s only been a weekend, but it feels like I’m just now getting back to teaching after a long hiatus. It felt good to be in the classroom today, interacting with and guiding my students. I had one student meet me during my office hours that reminded me that part of my role as a teacher is to give confidence to my students. Like so many other students in this class, this student felt overwhelmed with the Introductory Statistics course I’m teaching. It’s a notoriously difficult course, and most students feel like they’re drowning. So, it was time for a little pep talk.

She’s a great student who is doing quite well in the course. The only problem is that she, like almost everyone else in the class, is afraid of falling behind and not getting it all. So we spent about a half hour talking through techniques to give her more efficacy in her learning. She seemed relieved, and then it hit me: “We have to help our students understand that they are capable of learning.” So often, students feel defeated in the classroom and this just makes learning inabilities spiral out of control. To help prevent this, I affirm my students of their capabilities, point out where they are excelling or doing well, give them specific examples of ways they can improve their learning and understanding, remind them of how this learning is building on the future for them, and finally try to make it fun and less intimidating.

I’m slowly learning that good education outcomes are part curriculum, part student capabilities, but a huge part good pedagogy and encouragement.

Technology improving education: New platforms needed

I’ve spent the last couple of days in D.C. learning about technology in higher education at the annual Educause Learning Initiative (ELI) conference. It has been mind blowing. In a good way. At first, I felt really out of my element since my normal work conferences consist of fraternizing with social psychologists. However, I have quickly stepped into this spot with an excited appetite. And I AM ENERGIZED!

This morning, I attended a session given by Diana Rhoten of Startl, a company devoted to helping jumpstart technological education platforms and companies. Diana discussed the growing concern of America’s schools systems as we rapidly fall behind other countries in academic achievement and performance. With references to the popular film, Waiting for Superman, she advocated giving power to the “superheroes” who are using technology effectively to rethink education.

I will quickly drive home to the main point she made that I loved: we need to completely rethink education in order to use technology to improve education effectively. It’s not enough to take old methods and then put them online. Rather, we need to rethink how learning and education work within a technological platform. In short, we need to think of technology as the medium to improve education. However, this will never happen if we don’t encounter technology as what it is: something completely different than what we’ve seen or used before. We’re talking gaming modes of learning, augmented realities, and crowdsourced interfaces.

I could keep talking about this, but I’d rather show you. Here are a few GREAT examples of companies engaging in creative, emerging technologies which help improve learning. These types of ideas, if adopted on a wide scale across disciplines, have the ability to completely change education as it is (failing) today. Comment about your thoughts on these creations! I’m curious to hear them!

1. Project Noah – a tool for collecting field data about the environment, mapping various organisms and habitats, and interacting with your local environment. The nerd scientist in me LOVES this innovation.

2. Mind snacks – mobile learning games that utilize game play to help individuals LEARN. Currently, their platform is for learning Spanish, but other games are expected to come out soon. You can learn Spanish in a fun, engaging environment on the go by downloading these mobile apps to your iPhone or other mobile device.

3. Games for change – this is a website that has a collection of games that teach students by engaging them in role playing games. For instance, you can teach students about the difficulties of poverty by having them live impoverished individuals’ lives! Everything from learning how to survive as an impoverished farmer, to living life as a refugee, or as an impoverished person in Haiti. Other games include (but are definitely not limited to): learning how to budget, experiencing the power and limitations of the three branches of the U.S. government, to, one of my favorites, Breakthroughs to cures: “Breakthroughs to Cures is an online idea-generating game set in a future where a neurological disease is expected to affect over 100 million Americans. The sci-fi scenario is used as a backdrop to encourage players to figure out how to improve the current medical research system and develop new ideas to share with the medical community at large.” Another favorite of mine is Evoke: “Evoke is a 10 week long, online and real world game (played between March 3rd, 2010 to May 12th, 2010). Told through a comic book-like narrative, players were given new missions every week and were encouraged to use ‘powers’ such as collaboration, courage and resourcefulness to solve the most urgent social problems of our day. The game was played globally, with a focus on encouraging young adults in Africa to participate.”

Wow. Education is cool. Come on, people. Let’s get with it.

Holistic education: A thought experiment

I’ve been pondering a lot about education and what it should look like. As I thought about how I would sum up my idea of what education should be in a few words, I instantaneously thought, “holistic education!” Now, despite my attempts, I can’t get the phrase “holistic education” out of my head. To me, it represents so many things that ought to be but aren’t in higher education. Just to give a little peak into the thought that my mind is exploding with, here’s a few technical definitions for you from Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

  • Holistic: relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts <holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body> <holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system>
  • Holism: a theory that the universe and especially living nature is correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes (as of living organisms) that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles

I think these definitions merit a pause, a brief reflection, if you will. Imagine an educational systems where everything is “correctly seen in terms of interacting wholes that are more than the mere sum of elementary particles [parts].” When I talk about interacting wholes I mean everything. I mean courses, ideas, communities! What if undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, librarians, and administration all worked together to form a holistic community of thinkers? What if courses all complemented each other and students didn’t have to learn in boxes? What would that world look like?

I’ll tell you. Well, I’ll tell you in part with a few of my own experiences in getting a glimpse of this. It would be all of the above individuals interacting as equal wholes with different skill sets. The faculty members could move and shape and coach things into being. The graduate students, with their young hungry minds, could implement and create and interact. The undergraduates could react and act again. They would be the huge sounding board for these ideas.  What was once mere ideas would become realities in the student community. Administrative staff would encourage and implement programs that sought out new, effective ways of learning. And librarians, well, they’d be awesome at implementing research and excitement and new tools. It would be glorious.

On the course level, classes would no longer be Statistics 101, Biology 102, this elective here, this specialty there. NO. The university would be a place where constant connections were being made and in which every class could somehow inform and complement others, no matter the field. Students would begin to think holistically. They would think not about how they must memorize this formula or write that term paper, but rather how this formula informs them about the world they live in and that term paper would be about something they are passionate about learning more about and forming thoughts about.

Think I’m delusional? Fair enough. But I’ve seen glimpses of this in my own experience in the university. For instance, when I was an undergraduate, I was part of a program at Baylor University called the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core (BIC). The BIC provides a holistic approach to education. In it, students meet their core requirements by taking a series of courses that are designed to be integrated. Philosophy connecting to art connecting to history to political science to math to science and everything in between. The BIC teaches you how to make connections between the knowledge you are acquiring and forces you to get outside of the classroom to implement that knowledge (quite literally – they take several field trips). In the BIC, my learning came alive! And not only was my curriculum holistic, so was my learning community. At the time I didn’t fully understand the depths of it, but all of the BIC faculty members called us, the students, their colleagues. They did this because they viewed us as intellectual peers who had something valuable to add to the classroom. We MUST stop treating students as if they are only their to glean our wisdom. Rather, we must see them for what they are or at least should be – the life and heartbeat of any campus. Once we do that, we can begin to learn so much from our students.

Let’s take this thought experiment even farther. Universities communities should not be limited to one’s own university. Rather, universities should be connecting to other universities in a way that creates a weblike fusion of connections. Networking. The internet. Connections. These are important to the progression of the educational field. We must learn to collaborate and connect with those in other places so that we can take the most holistic approach to education. I can learn something entirely different from my peers at my university, those from East Asia, those from a liberal campus, those from a conservative campus, those in the Middle East, and even the community colleges in my own city.

I’m entirely aware that my thoughts may seem too idealistic. I would tend to agree with you, especially since I often think of myself as a realist. But I’ve seen this model work effectively in small pockets time and time again, and I think it’s about time we start to bring it to the forefronts of education and the university. So I ask, “Why do we settle for so little in education when we could achieve so much?” Certainly there are several barriers to overcome. I do not mean to downplay those. But we need individuals fighting for a change in the often rigid texture of university life. If my time in BIC taught me anything, it’s that learning is a fun, thrilling adventure when people let you explore. And great change never came from retaining the status quo just because it was already there.

Applied research: Now there’s an idea

Well, I’ve been fairly MIA due to being out of town attending and presenting at a couple of different conferences back to back. Ironically, conferences are the hardest place for me to blog because there is never free Wi-Fi at the conference. I think this is a shame and should change in the future. Conferences are meant for communication, and so communicate we must.

First, I went to the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference and second, the Science of Research on Discrimination and Health conference at the National Institute of Health (NIH). Both were wonderful conferences but very different. SPSP is the big annual conference in my field. I got to see a lot of exciting research going on in my field, including some newer studies examining the effects of priming religious concepts (exposing individuals to religious concept words) on brain activity. Pretty cool stuff. Additionally, it set me up to start collaborations with some researchers I have been dying to work with. Networking win.

The second conference was a little different than my normal pace of life. It was a conference specifically designed to gather together researchers from all different fields (physicians, social psychologists, epidemiologists, sociologists, etc.) to study how discrimination (mostly racial and ethnic) affects various health outcomes and health related variables. It was amazing. I was in the company of a very pleasant crowd of individuals who were passionate about their research. In fact, I was a minority as a white individual at the conference. Many African Americans and Latino/Latina individuals were well-represented as they presented their research on discrimination and health. It was truly encouraging to see.

I missed out on some of it due to some flight delays, but I made it for my poster presentation and for about 50% of the conference. My specific poster focused on how negative attitudes toward African Americans predicts lack of support for universal health care, even when statistically controlling for variables like political ideology, right-wing authoritarianism, race, and gender. The same results replicate in another sample with attitudes toward the poor. My theory: individuals who have negative or more negative attitudes toward historically disadvantaged individuals show less support for universal health care. Now I’m curious as to why this is the case. My guess is that they have different views on what universal health care might look like. Future data hopefully to give insight into this question.

The data were well-received. Several people loved my poster and commented that I needed to get it out to the media (if only!) But one researcher in particular struck me. His name is Wornie Reed, a sociologist at Virginia Tech. He really liked my poster and told me that I was saying what nobody was actually coming out to say. We had a wonderful chat about modern racism and how it often occurs at the institutional level. In other words, systems are set up to discriminate against minorities, even if that is not their intent. Then we had an engaging but challenging talk about intent and its role in racism. Does it matter if you intend to discriminate against minorities, even if that “lack of intent” leaves them with inadequate resources? Tell me your thoughts.

Dr. Reed has been heavily involved in advancing the rights of Black individuals for decades. He was there in the 1970’s, serving as a political activist for black rights. Since then, he has gone on to have a very prolific career. After hearing his stories and experiences, I came to respect him deeply in a short amount of time. I will never forget our chat together, about the rights of black individuals and how research like I’m doing, if the word gets out, could help change the pattern of institutional racism. I rarely think on a given day about how my research could eventually change lives. But it can, and the people at this conference got that.

It was one of those simple moments that brought a big “AH-HA!” with it. I was in the midst of applied research and I thought, “This makes sense.” It was a sudden realization that I have gifts, talents, and abilities, and I must do my best to be actively involved in my community with my research. So that’s my new goal – to make my research count. And to always be passionate, remembering that I study what is associated with and causes discrimination. And by knowing, we can change. It’s crazy how you forget the purpose of your job sometimes, but it’s incredible when you remember.