The Little Bugs

Throughout k-12 we learn about 5-paragraph essays. I understand why this format is used: it’s a simple way to be introduced to academic writing and when frequently writing timed essays throughout high school, there isn’t really enough time to adequately develop ideas past 5-paragraphs.

However, then you get to college and all of a sudden essays go from 600 words to 1500 words to 3500 words, and the 5-paragraph essay format just really doesn’t make sense to use at that point. But when are we expected to learn how to transition away from the 5-paragraph format? As a student it feels like this transition is just kind of thrown on you without much official guidance. It’s not even that you’re told not to use a 5-paragraph format, it’s just that it’s obvious that it doesn’t feel right when using that many words in an essay. So then everything you’ve learned about essay structure becomes warped. With a 5-paragraph essays we’re taught to introduce three main ideas in our introduction and those three ideas become the focus of each paragraph. Well, just because you’re writing more doesn’t it mean it makes sense to all of a sudden have 6 or 7 main points – then it becomes unclear what you’re saying. So how do you transition to writing multiple paragraphs about one key idea? It’s not really discussed, we’re just expected to start doing it based on gut feeling I guess…

Not to mention there is a whole other kind of academic writing that honestly hardly gets touched on at all in high school: reports. We talk about research reports and maybe look at one or two, we maybe even try to write one, but I remember even with the one time I was assigned to write a report in high school for AP Chem, the teacher’s instruction was, “look up examples online and base it on that.” So my peers and I kind of just winged it and I don’t remember getting much feedback on the matter. Yet we when we then were in college chemistry our first semester of freshman year, we’re all of a sudden assigned a research report every week after lab.

To be honest this isn’t a huge issue in the grand scheme of things that need to change with our education system, but sometimes it’s the little things that just really bother me. The little things show just how disconnected our k-12 and high ed programs are from each other. There are things like long essay and report writing that seem to never really get taught, and yet there are things like general US history that seem to be required every two years starting in 2nd grade and all the way into college… (I legitemently have a “US Consistitution requirement” in my online degree portal, and I took this course online and it was one of the easiest classes I’ve ever taken because I learned nothing new.) The little things on their own may seem insignificant, but they can be really bothersome for students especially when those little things start to add up.

Research Papers

I’ve been working on this same research paper for over a year now. Our Engineers Without Borders team has been interested in the use of design thinking in the global WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) sector so we decided to do a literature review on the subject. Last spring we curated resources to review. Then over the summer, we reviewed those resources sorting by what seemed most relevant. Then in the fall, we got together our first full draft of the analysis work. We had experts give us feedback over the winter break, and now this spring we have been working on revisions. This process has taken a lot longer than we thought, but no one on our team has really done anything like this before so there has been a large learning curve. We are hoping to finally publish in the next few months or so even if it has to be an informal white-page kind of publication at first, (We’ve been working on getting funds to actually publish to an academic journal, but at this point, we believe it’s more important to just get the information out there than to wait to have the fundings for a more formal publish),  though I feel like I’ve been saying this for the past 6 months…

To be honest, I’m very ready to be done with this paper. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes feel like I’ve re-read the same thing far too many times and just can’t think about it anymore, but I suppose that’s what the writing process is all about: writing and re-writing. Though the other thing that really bothers me every time I go to work on this project is just the general formatting of research papers.

From my perspective, there is a very small part of our population that really reads formal research reports, and it’s mostly just people actively in academia. Yet, most research studies have information that would be interesting and perhaps even beneficial for a much larger audience to be aware of, but these papers just aren’t in a very user-friendly medium. Research papers are long, use technical language to the point that almost feels like overkill, and are typically formatted in a way that’s uninviting to read (small, close together font with multiple columns all in black and white). When I have to look at research papers for school, I know that I never really want to read them – no matter how interesting the title makes the study sound – because they just look so intimidating. So every time I work on our paper I can’t help but wonder, “Is anyone really going to read this…?”

I just wonder if rather than writing a traditional research paper, if our work would be better received if we considered different modes of sharing our results. And I wonder this for all research. While it’s good to have documentation of the technical aspects of research papers, should a greater amount of time be spent on thinking about how to make that research more accessible rather than more “technically sound”?

Virtual School: Day 1

Today was my first day back to school.

My initial thoughts about online learning: it’s going to be a long 9 weeks…

It’ll be manageable, but it’ll be long.

Surprisingly only one of my teachers opted to do live Zoom lectures. The other four classes are all being taught through pre-recorded video lectures, with optional Q&A Zoom calls. Most of my classes also have a “tutorial session” in addition to our lecture time where we meet with smaller groups to go over examples and have discussions; for the classes that have tutorials, those are also being made optional but are done live on Zoom.

Today I had my one Zoom class and two other “classes” (ie I watched the pre-recorded videos for these two classes during what should’ve been my normal class time). For the Zoom class, being online made the lecture feel a lot longer than normal. I know this is partly because we’re still in this weird trial period of everyone figuring out how things work and getting adjusted, but I think I had a false hope that things would be smoother at this point after having the break time where people theoretically could get more acquainted with online learning structures.

In terms of my pre-recorded classes, I really appreciated how my professors broke down the lectures into chunks of videos that are each only 12-20 minutes long as opposed to trying to do a full lecture in one video. Even though the total length of the lectures is the same, the psychology facts really seem to hold up with the concept that the shorter video chunks make the material feel more digestible and actually makes total time feel shorter. Though I do miss actually being able to see the faces of my lecturers while they present. Plus I feel like now my lecturers really are just reading straight from the slides which is kind of annoying especially when I feel like I’m always being told that’s the number 1 “don’t do” while giving a presentation so it always bothers me when teachers do this.

The whole switch to learning from pre-recorded videos also made me think a lot about Crash Course videos, because some of the videos I had to watch today were really boring… Like my textbook was more interesting and yet the lecture was just re-iterating almost verbatim what the textbook says! Crash Course videos though are super engaging while also being educational; I binge-watched all of the World History Crash Course episodes before the AP World exam way back when, and I definitely think that factored into why this ended up being one of my best AP exams. I actually watched a few of the econ Crash Course episodes today to compare them to the econ videos my professor made for today’s lecture. This made me wonder, wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to have a class based on Crash Course?

Like what if instead of being assigned to read chapters out a textbook we were assigned a Crash Course video to watch and then used class time to just discuss and expand upon ideas. I don’t think this is a super far-fetched idea nor do I think it’s the most learner-centered idea, but maybe that’s why it intrigues me – it kind of feels like a baby step.

The idea makes me think of how people try to do flipped classrooms, but I’d like to imagine this might be better because I’m just suggesting instead of reading a textbook chapter at home, watch a Crash Course video at home. I think flipped classrooms start to fail when kids are asked to do more than just digest information at home – when kids are expected to teach themselves material well enough to then also answer homework problems on the material before ever talking about the info in class, that’s when things get dysfunctional.

(Tangent: I mention this because every experience I’ve had with flipped classrooms has been pretty awful. About half of the class doesn’t understand what’s happening and gets super stressed trying to do the work at home without knowing what’s going on and then they come into class confused and upset and ask a million questions which takes up the entire class period. This then makes all the kids who did figure out the concepts at home feel like they’re being held back because the entire class turns into asking questions about the homework they already finished and understood. I remember being in a class like this and it was so annoying that I ended up just doing the next day’s homework during class, and eventually, it was so bad I asked to go sit in the hallway and do the next day’s work because it felt more disruptive to my learning to actually be in the classroom.)

I’m so intrigued by this idea of using Crash Course instead of a textbook because:

  1.  It seems really simple to implement.
  2. Watching a Crash Course video is way more engaging than reading a textbook chapter and I’d imagine kids would retain the same if not more information afterwords.
  3. The role of the teacher would have to shift.

Currently, in a lot of classes, the teacher gives lectures that are viewed as supplementary material to the textbook or in some cases just a straight-up reiteration of the textbook as a spoken presentation instead of reading the information; either way at the end of the day the textbook is the primary source of information. If a teacher were to use Crash Course instead of a textbook, then class lectures would be expected to be the time for going more in-depth and therefore, become more significant because Crash Courses are designed to be summaries and overviews versus textbooks are designed to be full of details.

Doesn’t it make more sense to look at a summarized amount of information before class and then go into class to learn more details, versus look at a super in-depth version of the information and then go into class and just repeat that information? The information gets repeated because it’s assumed we didn’t learn it the first time, so why are we putting in that extra work anyway if the assumption is most students didn’t do or didn’t understand the work? The reverse of that being, if you were to assume we did read and understand the material, then why go to class to hear the same info? (ie the flipped classroom dilemma: you can’t say “learn on your own at home then have a discussion in class,” because not everyone will successfully learn on their own at home so you will never get to the point of having discussions; the class will just be re-iteration of the “homework.”)

The role of textbooks just really doesn’t make sense to me in this sense and it’s been especially apparent now that learning is online.

To me, I just feel like all of the big things we should know should be what’s talked about during class, and anything we do outside of the classroom should be designed to help us better understand what’s talked about in class. This seems obvious, but I feel like more often what happens is that the textbook is viewed as everything we need to know and then the class is just extra help to understand the textbook. This mindset is why so many college kids don’t go to lectures and instead just read the textbook on their own and take assignments, and I’m sure if they were allowed to, high school kids would do the same – clearly, there is a flaw with the purpose of school if this is the case.

So this brings me back to: the next 9 weeks are going to be long.

But to some extent, I do appreciate being back in classes because it has gotten me thinking more again and I’ve enjoyed the various thoughts of the day that come from working and not just trying to keep from getting bored.

We Are One Planet

Today, as part of my work with the Wellington International Leadership Program, I participated in a webinar hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

Planning for this anniversary was clearly intense with hundreds of people around the world organizing to speak out specifically around the need to take action in regards to climate change. And then the pandemic hit…

Guest speaker and founding Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes expressed his devastation and frustration about two years’ worth of work now being illegal to execute in most countries. But what was most inspiring to me, and my biggest take away from the event, was his hope, despite everything, for what this could mean in terms of how we think about global challenges in the future. Hayes’ said it would make up for all the lost work if we come out of this crisis realizing that global threats need global cooperation and collaborative solutions that actually eliminate threats worldwide, because if only some people, some states, or even some countries take action – if it’s only “some” – then there is always a threat of the issue coming back. “We are one planet,” Hayes’ exclaimed, and so we need to work together cross-culturally to make change happen. This goes for all global threats from pandemics to climate change.

If I’m being honest, I didn’t even remember that it was Earth Day this week before I signed up for the event, let alone know that it was the 50th anniversary. I support Earth Day, but it’s never been a holiday I go out of my way to figure out how I can get involved with. But there are other global threats that I more actively work to find solutions to, like access to education and safe water, sanitation, and hygiene options. That’s why this conversation around global cooperation was so powerful to me because it’s relevant beyond the scope of just Earth Day; there are dozens of global threats out there no matter how directly we notice them impacting our lives.

For obvious reasons, the threat of climate change was compared frequently with the threat of Covid19 on today’s webinar. All of the panelists discussed how the virus is impacting their daily operations now and how they expect it to impact the future. A key idea that came up throughout the session was that even with Covid19 until people saw their neighbors rushed to hospitals, they weren’t taking the threat seriously. So the webinar left me thinking: “How might we get people to take threats like climate change and other global sustainability goals seriously when it’s even harder for the average person to visualize the direct impact these threats have on the world and the individual?”

The answer is unclear. However, from experience, we know that when people are actively involved in the process of planning and creating change, they believe in it more and care about pulling society along with them. So really the question is, “How might we get the average person to actively engage in processes to overcome global threats?” This is still a lofty question, and there could be hours spent on unpacking the meaning of “average person” alone, but it’s encouraging to have heard from several social entrepreneurs today who seem to really be thinking about this question daily.

Furthermore, panelist Molly Morse with Mango Materials suggests that there is already a demand for solutions to some of these sustainability threats like climate change. The key for social entrepreneurs to keep in mind is targeting the right market; markets need to be focused and specific that way every user feels that the issue is truly relevant to them as an individual.

So my take away from Earth Day amidst the Covid19 crisis is that no matter your area of passion, global threats exist, demands for solutions exist, and people tackling the big questions to create solutions exist. Now we just need to put it all together by working in collaboration with each other across sectors, political affiliations, and borders in order for change to actually happen. We are one planet – let’s make it one worth living on.

Little Questions, Big Changes

I don’t even know the last time I watched TV live. Nowadays, everything is either online or recorded. But my aunt was a supporting character in the Law & Order SVU episode that premiered tonight, so I figured out how to watch it live.

I then discovered that USA channel is currently doing a Psych marathon which is one of my favorite shows! I’ve been addicted all day…

It’s funny how we’ve all gotten so used to choosing exactly what we watch and when we want to have it, and not having to deal with commercials. I had forgotten what it’s like to be surprised by not knowing what’s going to come on next and to get annoyed by cliff hangers right before commercials and not spend 30 minutes debating what to watch.

It’s funny because when you think about it, society was hugely altered by seemingly little changes. One day someone said, “What if there weren’t commercials? What if people could choose what they wanted to watch when they wanted to watch it? What if we offered online viewing options?”

Now it’s hard to remember how recently is was that online streaming services became available, and with the current crisis, these services have played a huge role in keeping people amused. It’s amazing how a few simple questions and some minor adjustments can turn into game-changing ideas.

Team Bonding in the Classroom

Today was team bonding day for our gym Zoom call. I’m glad I was even able to make it, especially since I forgot to turn on the outlet that charges my phone last night so my alarm didn’t go off this morning…

I found it funny how you can be on a team with the same people for years, and yet somehow still not know basic information about them. Things like where people were born, when they started the sport, how many siblings they have, favorite x,y,z, etc.

Today’s team bonding session was all about discussing the answers to questions like this and it was really fun. I liked getting to learn more about the kids I coach from a whole-child perspective. You never know when it could come in handy to know someone’s favorite animal is a narwal and they were born in Texas having started gymnastics as soon as they could walk. The more you know about a person, the more you can empathize with them and the better you can work with them.

During the normal season, we hardly do any team bonding and it’s something we’ve always regretted, so I truly appreciate this time for allowing us to start implementing this new norm of taking time to value who we are as individuals and a team beyond just gymnastics.

It’s also made me wonder, what if classrooms considered themselves a team? I mean when you think about it, a class is a group of people working together for a year to hone their skills in order to overcome various challenges related to their discipline. That’s pretty similar to how I’d define any sports team…

And yet, in a classroom we often don’t act like a team. There isn’t typically an emphasis on group norms, bonding, and support for each other’s learning and progress. Even in gymnastics where we compete against our teammates, we still talk about the importance of working together in practice, cheering each other on during competition, and doing non-judged group activities to help encourage unification and love for the sport.

I guess it’s assumed in a class that kids already know each other because they’ve been in school together for years, but even when you’ve known people vaguely for years, each new arrangement of people creates different team dynamics.

What if classes spent more time during the year intentionally bonding as a class and thinking about how they will support each others’ growth throughout the year? The more you know about our classmates, the more we can empathize with them and the better we can work with them – and this goes for teachers too. Some teachers are great about getting to know there students, but what if this was even more intentional at a cultural level for the entire school vs just the occasional teacher that everyone knows really takes an interest in learning about all the students? For example, what if the first week of class was all about “class bonding” and setting the norms for the year and thinking about how everyone can best support each other – teacher included?

I wonder how learning might improve if we took more time to know our “teammates” as whole people outside of just the subject material.

Strengths in Action

How’d you see your strengths in action today? 

One of my strengths is individualization. It means I’m good at identifying the unique strengths in other people, which can be very helpful when creating teams in terms of matching people that will have complementing strengths.

For our team gymnasts, we have decided to start a big sib, little sib program (“Gym Families” as we’re calling it). It’s something we as coaches have discussed on several occasions, but we never had the right time to initially kick off the program. However, since the pandemic forced us online, we decided it was worth having a weekly “team bonding” video chat in addition to our training sessions just to check in with everyone and give them a place to stay connected as a team. Therefore, we thought it would be a great time to finally kick off the Gym Families program.

I was the one in charge of sorting out all of the groups – which I had been brainstorming since last summer… I went through lots of iterations of the groupings, but I feel pretty happy about the end lists. Early this morning we officially announced the groups, and while I know the girls will need a bit more explaining about why we are doing this, I think the kick-off was fairly successful!

Considering I had been planning this for so long, it was nice to finally see my brainwork come to life and nice to see my strength in action with the success of the pairings. It’s nice to feel useful while stuck inside with only so much productivity that can really happen.

Now Is The Time

Today I got to partake in a video meeting with some educators from across the US and it was really great just to hear everyone’s stories about how their schools are dealing with the current changes.

One of the most inspiring parts about the conversation was how optimistic people were in light of everything happening.

This is the greatest disruption to our education system since the great depression. Disruption means there will be long term changes to life as we know it.

There is no question that when we get through this crisis things will be different. Change is inevitable. So the question is, what do we want that change to look like? 

Is this pandemic going to scare us backwards in an effort to make things “easier” or are we going to be inspired to charge forwards into opportunity-filled new beginnings?

Moving to distance learning has lots of challenges. To face these challenges it’s a lot easier for teachers and students both to simply watch some pre-recorded lectures and then take some online multiple-choice tests or write a 5 paragraph essay than it is to try and create opportunities for group discussions and collaborative projects compatible to a virtual environment. And honestly, with all the other stressors in life right now, making one part of life “easy” is really tempting.

But when students are sitting at home on their couch, why are they going to choose to watch a 2-hour lecture on the Pythagorean theorem as opposed to watching Mean Girls on Netflix? What’s going to motivate learners to take multiple-choice quizzes about the French Revolution instead of BuzzFeed quizzes that tell you which Disney character you are? How are we going to convince learners to write essays on Hamlet instead of Instagram posts about missing their friends?

If school isn’t engaging than learners will find something else to do that is.

Traditional schooling is not engaging.

It’s never fun to be “talked at” for hours on end, but it’s especially not fun when you’re sitting at your desk at home all alone in your room and staring at a computer screen. It’s mentally exhausting. And we already know multiple-choices tests are not indicative of actual learning.

Now more than ever, it is essential for education to be learner-centered.

We should teach lessons that are competency-based because while we can’t proctor tests as effectively online we can have virtual presentations that assess actual understanding and mastery of knowledge.

We have to find ways to engage young learners through personalized, relevant, and contextualized lessons or they just won’t log in to class.

We must encourage learner agency as a tool for staying mentally healthy and motivated to learn, explore, and create even while stuck inside.

We have to understand that learning is open-walled because we don’t know how long we will be out of our traditional classroom so we need to convince entire families that the absence of a room doesn’t mean the absence of learning.

And most importantly, while physically we might be social distancing, we need to ensure that mentally we are remaining socially embedded because a learner without a community is lost and we have enough loss in the world right now.

 

The world is changing. Education has to change too. While it might be “easier”, in the sense of having less thought work to do, we can’t rely on traditional methods to teach learners while they are at home with myriad other factors vying for their attention. Kids have to want to “go” to school because, in a way like never before, it’s really easy for them to choose not to. There aren’t many consequences to convince them otherwise so we have to use other methods to keep kids learning.

So how might we convince learners to want to “go” to school?

I propose that one answer is that schools need to be learner-centered. And maybe, just maybe, the greater impacts of learner-centered education will be so evident that we’ll be encouraged to continue teaching in a learner-centered paradigm even when we get to go back to our school buildings. So if you’re not already doing it, now is the time for learner-centered education. Now is the time to make sure we are being competency-based, teaching personalized, relevant, and contextualized lessons, encouraging learner agency, embracing open-walled learning environments, and remaining socially embedded even while distant.

There is no question that when we get through this crisis things will be different. Change is inevitable. So the question is, what do we want that change to look like? 

Glad It’s With Me

“What’s the most random thing in your house that you’re really grateful for having right now? Why?” 

For me I’m super grateful for this dinky little whiteboard I got from a store called “Wonderland” I found while walking back from classes one day. It’s purple, the magnets already broke, and it has the illustrated ABC’s on the back of it and I love it!

I’ve always been a kinesthetic and visual learner. I’m the kid who likes to stand and move around while working and all of my notes include mind maps and lots of arrows. Once, freshman year of high school, I even brought my own giant whiteboard from home into school so I could use it to outline my essay during our world history midterm exam. I find that whiteboards make it easier for me to brainstorm all of my thoughts on a topic and then use lines, arrows, and circles to visually/physically be able to make all sorts of connections. It’s helped my writing tremendously, so now I use whiteboards as a way to start my brainstorm process for pretty much every assignment I do that requires critical and creative thinking.

I love whiteboards so much that at home I now have a whiteboard wall, a whiteboard desk, a giant whiteboard hanging on a wall and a smaller whiteboard on top of my desk. I use them for everything from drawing out gymnastics routines to outlining essays to just a place to do scratch work.

I lasted about a week in New Zealand before deciding I had to buy a whiteboard to use while here. (Though I did have 2 of my “homemade whiteboard” – a sheet of printer paper in a clear sleeve – they just weren’t cutting it alone. ) And now being stuck inside, I’m especially grateful for this dinky little whiteboard as I’ve already gotten so much use out of it while having this time to brainstorm new ideas and get ahead on assignments.

What random thing are you grateful for having around right now?

iNACOL Day 2: Self-Reflection

Today was amazing! From the start of the day hearing from keynote speaker Derek Wenmoth from New Zealand who somehow made me even more excited to study abroad next year in that amazing country all the way to end of the night where I participated in some fantastic networking events, I was just in awe of this wonderful community.

This was a jam-packed day of learning and networking from 7am – 9pm, but I’m not going to go in detail about everything I did and learned. Instead, I’m going to try and consolidate my thoughts down to one key take away. Today that key take away was actually a self-reflection of starting to better visualize the path I’m headed on.

I’ve been passionate about transformative education since high school, but as I get older and closer to graduate I’m starting to get asked a lot more questions about “what’s next? what do you really want to do? where do you want to go with this?” Well, my method to planning for the future tends to go like this: I say yes to lots of things and get involved in lots of projects. Then I like to stand back and look for patterns/trends in the choices I’ve made to help determine what I’ve enjoyed, where I’ve made a difference, and how I would like to proceed in my learning journey.

Today I stood back and considered the choices I’ve been making in terms of sessions I choose to attend at conferences (this one and others included). The trend I’ve noticed is that I have a deep interest in professional development (including the onboarding process in particular) and research in the science of learning and teaching. Amongst all sorts of choices, I keep finding myself drawn to these two areas, so as of right now I believe that’s the direction I’d like to continue with in the future.

I see myself in both a research and practitioner role, so with that in mind, I’d like to continue my studies by doing graduate school work related to the science of learning and teaching but I’d also like to be active in the field growing professional development programs.

Some people question my desire to go into graduate school, often because they think I want to go just because of old cultural norms around needing higher credentials, but that is not the case for me. I want to go to grad school because I like to learn and I am fascinated by certain classes taught and research being conducted at this level of schooling. I am also very accepting of the idea that we learn by doing though, and that is why I also think it would be beneficial to work some after undergrad (perhaps 2 years or so) before going back for a masters degree, this way I could have a more informed view about what is actually needed in the field in terms of research.

I’m not set in stone with this plan, and I tend to be a person that just says yes when opportunities come my way and that is often how my path is most influenced, but getting the chance to think more deeply about this path of mine through self-reflection inspired by my morning sessions and networking practice at tonight’s community events was very helpful today.

Some times takeaways aren’t a particular conversation or quote or new idea, sometimes takeaways are about how the conversations, quotes, and ideas worked together to influence your own self-discovery. That was today for me and I’m grateful for that opportunity to grow as an individual.