Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I'm sure you've all heard of homeschooling. The most extreme version of homeschooling, inspired by the writings of John Holt, who coined the term, is called "unschooling". One practitioner of this radical approach to education is Sandra Dodd, who maintains an excellent collection of articles and resources on this subject. I often browse them using her random page server. 

Not only do unschoolers keep their children out of school, they also don't follow any regular schedule to  teach at home. They give the kids enormous freedom to follow their interests all day so they can learn whatever they wish to or need to on their own, through self-driven activities like playing games, reading, talking, watching tv, listening to music, traveling; in other words, by living rich and fulfilled lives, unrestricted by any externally imposed notion of a curriculum. It should be mentioned that unschooling parents are not completely hands-off in that they do try actively to expose their children to a very wide range of activities and experiences, and are always there to answer their children's questions and help them, but this is all done in a non-interfering, non-controlling manner.

The fundamental premise of unschooling (which I believe because I have experienced it myself) is that children given such freedom do not abuse it, but rather exercise their natural desire to grow and learn autonomously.  But an essential key to its success is something Sandra calls "strewing", which consists of actively and continually exposing the children to a wide array of interesting materials and experiences.

The main goal of an unschooling parent is not to "teach" their children, but to help them "learn" in a very natural setting. In "What Teaching Never Can Be", Sandra Dodd clarifies the essential distinction between learning and teaching:

If I want to teach someone how to use quotation marks, I can talk, show them, make jokes, draw stick figures with speech-balloons, and I could maybe sing songs about it. So IF the person who's in the room "being taught" is thinking about how to file down that one piece of a machine gun that can turn a legal semi-automatic into an illegal automatic, and how to hide that part really well, disguised as something altogether different, what am I doing?
I'm talking, writing, drawing, dancing, and singing. But I'm not teaching. I'm reviewing for myself something I already know. I'm just performing a play of sorts, without any audience. I'm playing with myself. I'm ...well, you know.
So if I'm reading a magazine about machine guns and someone comes and says, "How do I punctuate a quote within a quote?" I can show them. If they don't totally understand, I can draw pictures or give other examples. When I perceive that they have learned the thing they wanted to learn, I should shush up and go back to my magazine, because the action is completed. .
They learned. I helped them learn. I was "the teacher" but I didn't do the work that resulted in learning. The learner did that in his own head. I could put ideas in the air, but only he could hear and process and ask more questions. Without his active work, no teaching can possibly take place.
Sandra writes that it is key for an unschooling parent in the beginning stages to "see learning as a separate process from their own song and dance. In advanced stages there is teaching, but it is compassionately and competently facilitating another's learning." 

I would argue that this is valuable advice to teachers everywhere.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Learning at your own pace, online

I saw this article about Western Governors University (WGU) today in the LA Times (the print version was titled "Nonprofit takes new approach to education" and had essentially the same text as the online version.)  WGU is an online university, in which each student is assigned an individual mentor. The article, appearing in the personal finance section of the newspaper, emphasizes the low cost of this program ($2800 a semester for undergraduate classes). It points out that students can also go through courses at their own pace; in particular, they can finish a course faster if they already know some of the material or can learn it at a quick pace. Apparently, the average WGU graduate earns a BA in 2.5 years, further reducing the overall cost-to-degree.

The article gushes about this online university in glowing terms. It highlights the McGraw Prize in Education received by the President of WGU, Robert Mendenhall, which cited the university's "flexibility, accessibility and affordability"; it notes that Time magazine once called it "the best college you've never heard of" (the original quote was, actually, "the best relatively cheap university you've never heard of"); and it quotes words of praise by the chief executive of the nation's largest education foundation (Lumina Foundation), Jamie Merisotis, who calls WGU  "a 'disruptive innovator' that's likely to push the entire education system to change in positive ways." The article further mentions that the "National Study of Student Engagement, which rates both traditional universities, showed WGU as performing equal to or better than other private, nonprofit universities not directly supported by governmental bodies. The ratings were based on academic challenge, quality of advisors and overall educational experience."

Intrigued by all this positive press, I dug around a little further on my own. From looking at the course offerings described on WGU's own website, it seems to be geared primarily towards working adults looking to complete a bachelor's degree so they can list it on their resume. The offered majors are not very diverse, and what is on offer focuses less on mind-broadening education than on "marketable/market-oriented" subjects, such as business and teacher's education and narrowly defined information technology domains. For example, most closely related to my area of networks is their degree of B.S. in Information Technology - Networks Design and Management. Their description of this degree reads:

Our network design degree will launch your network systems engineering career. The B.S. in Information Technology—Networks Design and Management will give you leading-edge networks design and engineering skills that employers demand along with eight recognized industry certifications including your Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) Enterprise Administrator certification. You will become a better networks designer and network systems engineer.
I also found some online reviews of their program. While there are indeed many positive comments, there are also several very dissatisfied students (with complaints ranging from the degrees not being recognized in their work environment, to lack of serious classes, to arbitrary changes in schedule and content, and so on). In the context of the IT program, in particular, one of the reviewers notes: 
I enrolled in the WGU IT program in September 2008. Unfortunately I wasn't told that there weren't "real" IT classes, but that I would be working on getting certificates... So if you want to attend WGU, take all the certifications on your own, and then transfer them in. You could save over $6000+! Also be aware that you won't get basic CS foundational courses such as OOP, Data Structures, etc. It seems that they don't have any of their own curriculum, and everything is outsourced. ... This can be a good school, but be careful, and ask a lot of questions before you enroll. However, because of the lack of advanced classes (Calculus, etc) I don't think you would be a first pick by an employer.
Based on these, I don't believe WGU's IT programs, though they are certainly much less expensive to complete, and are more market-oriented, offer the same breadth and depth as a B.S. in computer science program at schools you have heard of. Nevertheless, I think the article about WGU raises some good questions about one of the major trends in higher education --- the wider adoption of online learning. 

I should note that USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, where I work, has long had a well-subscribed distance education program (I believe it dates back more than 35 years, to 1972, well before WGU was founded; originally using satellite TV transmissions). I myself have taught many classes in this program, in which my lectures are taped and streamed in real-time on the web, and students are able to do homeworks and even take tests remotely. The opportunities for outside-class interactions with the instructor and TA are not always as good for off-campus students as they are for on-campus students, but in my experience faculty/TA's often do make an effort to respond to off-campus student queries in a timely manner, via email or online discussion forums. 

I very much like the free models exemplified by MIT's open courseware and Stanford's iTunes U courses, which allow anyone to see lectures and materials from courses at these universities. I think they get close to the very heart of education.  But they neither provide a framework for evaluation, nor (understandably) for any degree of direct interaction with faculty or other students.

So, we have an open question: is it possible to design high-quality, interactive, online learning programs, with evaluation, that are also self-paced? 

Such a program could go beyond traditional classrooms by allowing for much more personalized and self-directed learning. But, I think, it can never make the brick and mortars version of the university completely redundant, because real spaces and physical interactions provide a rich sense of community in the context of learning --- an essential, albeit intangible, benefit, that cannot be obtained in the virtual world. 

I myself am most interested in how a well-designed online-learning program can be made to complement live interactive experiences at a university, so that we can combine the best of both worlds.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Teaching kids to speak

I shall certainly be quoting John Holt a lot in these pages. As someone who extensively observed children, his writings are a collection of deep insights about the learning process, though they are sometimes hard to digest given how counter they run to our systems of education. I was reminded of the following passage from his classic "How Children Learn" when I posted yesterday on Paul Lockhart's article, which starts in similar vein.
Bill Hull once said to me, “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” I thought at first he was joking. By now I realize that it was a very important truth. Suppose we decided that we had to “teach” children to speak. How would we go about it? First, some committee of experts would analyze speech and break it down into a number of separate “speech skills.” We would probably say that, since speech is made up of sounds, a child must be taught to make all the sounds of his language before he can be taught to speak the language itself. Doubtless we would list these sounds, easiest and commonest ones first, harder and rarer ones next. Then we would begin to teach infants these words, working our way down the list. Perhaps, in order not to “confuse” the child—“confuse” is an evil word to many educators—we would not let the child hear much ordinary speech, but would only expose him to the sounds we were trying to teach.
Along with our sound list, we would have a syllable list and a word list. 
When the child had learned to make all the sounds on the sound list, we would begin to teach him to combine the sounds into syllables. When he could say all the syllables on the syllable list, we would begin to teach him the words on the word list. At the same time, we would teach him the rules of grammar, by means of which he could combine these newly-learned words into sentences. Everything would be planned with nothing left to chance; there would be plenty of drill, review, and tests, to make sure that he had not forgotten anything.
Suppose we tried to do this; what would happen? What would happen, quite simply, is that most children, before they got very far, would become baffled, discouraged, humiliated, and fearful, and would quit trying to do what we asked them. If, outside of our classes, they lived a normal infant’s life, many of them would probably ignore our “teaching” and learn to speak on their own. If not, if our control of their lives was complete (the dream of too many educators), they would take refuge in deliberate failure and silence, as so many of them do when the subject is reading.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A Mathematician's Lament

This article written by Paul Lockhart in 2002 moved me nearly to tears, amidst laughter. It is humorous, but full of a passionate rage about what's deeply wrong with our approach to technical education:

Just an except:
...on  the other side of town, a painter has just awakened  from a similar nightmare…
I was surprised  to find myself in a regular school classroom— no easels, no  tubes of paint. “Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high  school,” I was told by  the students. “In  seventh grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. “I like painting,” one of them remarked, “they tell me what to do and I do it. It’s easy!”
After class I spoke with  the teacher. “So your students don’t actually do any painting?” Iasked. “Well, next year they  take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they’ll get to use what they’ve learned here and apply it to real-life painting situations— dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that.
Of course we track our students by ability. The really excellent painters— the ones who know their colors and brushes backwards and forwards— they get to the actual painting a little sooner, and  some of them even  take the Advanced  Placement classes for college credit. But mostly we’re just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they  get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don’t make a total mess of it.”
“Um, these high school classes you mentioned…”
“You mean Paint-by-Numbers? We’re seeing much higher enrollments lately. I think  it’s mostly coming  from parents wanting  to make sure their kid gets into a good college. Nothing looks better than Advanced Paint-by-Numbers on a high school transcript.” 
Sadly, our present system of mathematics education  is precisely  this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to  design  a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and  love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done— I simply wouldn’t have the imagination  to  come up with  the kind  of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.
Lockhart identifies as the core problem the "systematized" mathematics curriculum, in which prepackaged facts are presented to the student in an arbitrary order, instead of allowing them to experience the joy of  investigating interesting phenomena through the application of intuition, and trial & error, which is what real mathematics is all about.
“The area of a triangle is equal to one-half its base times its height.” Students are asked to memorize this formula and  then “apply” it over and over in  the “exercises.” Gone is the thrill, the joy, even the pain and frustration of the creative act. There is not even a problem anymore. The question  has been  asked  and  answered  at the same time— there is nothing  left for the student to do.
What brought me close to tears was the recognition that I myself routinely deprive students of experiencing the joy, pain, and frustration of the creative act in my engineering classes, particularly the more mathematically oriented ones, by merely presenting arbitrarily arranged sets of pre-packaged facts and techniques, and testing them on their short-term retention of these facts and techniques. However nicely I package and present these facts, ultimately they do not matter to students who have not sought or found them on their own.

This part cracked me up:
In  practice, the curriculum is not even  so much a sequence of topics, or ideas, as it is a sequence of notations. Apparently mathematics consists of a secret list of mystical symbols and rules for their manipulation. Young  children are given  ‘+’ and  ‘÷.’ Only  later can  they  be entrusted  with  ‘√¯,’ and  then  ‘x’ and  ‘y’ and  the alchemy  of parentheses. Finally, they  are indoctrinated  in  the use of ‘sin,’ ‘log,’ ‘f(x),’ and if they are deemed worthy, ‘d’ and  ‘∫.’ All without having had a single meaningful mathematical experience. 
How true!

If you care at all about education, particularly in areas like mathematics and engineering, I beg you to read this article in its entirety and think about it. We cannot hope to reform our truly broken system of education until revolutionary ideas like Lockhart's become mainstream.


Here's a brief biography of Lockhart:

Paul became interested in mathematics when he was about 14 (outside of the school math class, he points out) and read voraciously, becoming especially interested in analytic number theory. He dropped out of college after one semester to devote himself to math, supporting himself by working as a computer programmer and as an elementary school teacher. Eventually he started working with Ernst Strauss at UCLA, and the two published a few papers together. Strauss introduced him to Paul Erdos, and they somehow arranged it so that he became a graduate student there. He ended up getting a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1990, and went on to be a fellow at MSRI and an assistant professor at Brown. He also taught at UC Santa Cruz. His main research interests were, and are, automorphic forms and Diophantine geometry.
After several years teaching university mathematics, Paul eventually tired of it and decided he wanted to get back to teaching children. He secured a position at Saint Ann's School, where he says "I have happily been subversively teaching mathematics (the real thing) since 2000."
        - Keith Devlin, Devlin's Angle, MAA Online, March 2008

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Empirical evidence for the benefits of child-centered education

Those of us with a scientific training certainly are inclined to ask "so where's the evidence that one form of education is better than another?" Ideally, this should be obtained from a controlled experiment conducted over a sufficiently long period of time. Here is one such long-term study of different approaches to pre-school education for 68 children born into poverty, tracked over 23 years:

[1] Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). Lasting differences: The HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison study through age 23 (Monographs of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation, 12). Ypsilanti, MI: HighScope Press.

(Apparently the full report is a monograph that must be purchased online, but a free summary can be found here: )

Although this study was focused on early-childhood education, the findings seem quite stark. Two quotes from the summary:
  • "Scripted teacher-directed instruction, touted by some as the surest path to school readiness, seems to purchase a temporary improvement in academic performance at the cost of a missed opportunity for long-term improvement in social behavior."
  • "These findings constitute evidence that early childhood education works better to prevent problems when it focuses not on scripted, teacher-directed academic instruction but rather on child-initiated learning activities...These findings suggest that the goals of early childhood education should not be limited to academic preparation for school, but should also include helping children learn to make decisions, solve problems, and get along with others."

There were two other long-term studies started in the 1970's:

[2] Karnes, M. B., Schwedel, A. M., & Williams, M. B. (1983). A comparison of five approaches for educating young children from low-income homes. In Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, As the twig is bent . . . lasting effects of preschool programs (pp. 133-170). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

[3] Miller, L. B., & Bizzell, R. P. (1983). The Louisville experiment: A comparison of four programs. In Consortium for Longitudinal Studies, As the twig is bent . . . lasting effects of preschool programs (pp. 171-199). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

The Karnes et al. study was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, while the MIller and Bizzell study was conducted at Louisville, Kentucky. They are both described along with the Shweinhart and Weikart study in this digest article titled "Child-Initiated Learning Activities for Young Children Living in Poverty" written by L.J. Schweinhart in 1997. Shweinhart writes:
All three included the Direct Instruction model—which offered scripted, teacher-directed academic instruction—and a Nursery School model, in which children initiated their own learning activities with minimal teacher support. The High/Scope study included the High/Scope model, in which children initiated learning activities with substantial teacher support. The Louisville and Illinois studies included several additional teacher-directed models and the Montessori model, which encouraged child-initiated activities with didactic materials.
These three studies found that children in Direct Instruction programs intellectually outperformed children in child-initiated-activities programs during and up to a year after the preschool program, but not thereafter. In the Louisville study, the Nursery School children showed higher verbal-social participation and increased more in ambition and aggressiveness than did the Direct Instruction children, but both groups scored lower than their peers on inventiveness. In the Illinois study, 78% of the Nursery School group, but only 48% of the Direct Instruction group and 47% of the no-program group graduated from high school. 
Finally, a more recently concluded long-term study conducted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is described in:

[4] Dohrmann, K. R. Outcomes for students in a Montessori program: A longitudinal study of the experience in the Milwaukee Public Schools. (2003). Association Montessori Internationale/ USA, 410 Alexander Street, Rochester, New York. 14607-1028. This paper is freely available online at

This study looks at 201 Montessori students who completed fifth grade between 1990-1994, and graduated in 1997-2005, compared with a carefully matched control sample of non-Montessori students. Montessori schools emphasize child-centered education with a strong emphasis on self-directed learning. Dohrmann writes:
A significant finding in this study is the association between a Montessori education and superior performance on the Math and Science scales of the ACT and WKCE. In essence, attending a Montessori program from the approximate ages of three to eleven predicts significantly higher mathematics and science standardized test scores in high school.
These findings are further corroborated by a short-term study published in Science, in 2006, which also finds significant academic/cognitive as well as social/behavioral benefits to a Montessori education:

[5] Lillard A, Else-Quest N (September 2006). "The early years. Evaluating Montessori education". Science 313 (5795): 1893–4.  (See for link to full paper.)

I think that the fact that four long-term studies done on this topic (I am not aware of any other such studies and would welcome pointers) all show positive impacts of starting children on an autonomous and self-directed learning path is pretty compelling. Don't you?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Schools kill creativity

Sir Ken Robinson was knighted in 2003 for his achievements in creativity, education and the arts. He has given two outstanding TED talks, and I strongly recommend seeing at least the first one:

In this talk, he points out, with a lot of humor, that conventional one-size-fits-all schooling kills creativity, and that the main end of our outdated education system, which focuses exclusively on a narrow view of deductive reasoning, seems to be to produce college professors. He argues forcefully that we have to revolutionize education dramatically if we want our kids to grow up to be more creative and self-fulfilled individuals.

Oh, and you simply should not miss the fun animated version of another one of his talks:
Changing Educational Paradigms:

(RSA has other informative talks in this highly entertaining animated format that you might like to see as well.)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Raking geniuses from the rubbish

Our education system is a hierarchy. There are progressive stages,  from school, to two-year colleges, to four year colleges, to the masters degree, to the Ph.D. Schooling in the U.S. is compulsory up to the age of 17-18. Beyond high school, a significant number of students do not move on to the next step for a range of reasons: due to the students' own volition, lack of financial resources, or selective admissions policies.

It is instructive to consider the history of this system we have in place today. The following text is by Thomas Jefferson, written in 1782 in the context of a bill on education in his state:

The bill [on Education in the Revised Code of Virginia] proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters) : and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall choose, at William and Mary College. ... The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the State reading, writing, and common arithmetic; turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek. Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic; turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who. to those branches of learning, shall have added such branches of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to; the further furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools at which their children may be educated at their own expense.
From: Notes On Virginia. viii, 388. Ford Ed., iii, 251. (1782.), as quoted in The Jefferson Cyclopedia, a comprehensive collection of the views of Thomas Jefferson, Ed. John P. Foley, Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York, 1900, page 275. 

Interesting, is it not? I don't know to what extent these ideas were implemented in the form advocated, but the idea of progressive levels of education, with each successive level being increasingly more selective, is certainly still with us.

Jefferson's phrase referring to geniuses "raked from the rubbish" rankles, but it plainly points out an uncomfortable truth about our present system, particularly in the context of higher education: that it is a meritocracy.

It is certainly a point of pride for faculty and for academic institutions that they can identify, recruit, and cultivate "geniuses." But should we not also be mindful of what it really means (both to the individuals in question, and to society as a whole) to discard the rest as "residue"? Even if we are forced to be selective due to resource constraints, could our society be better served if we cultivate a more inclusive perspective in academia?

These are not idle questions. They are at the very root of the debate about increasing diversity in undergraduate and graduate programs, and among the ranks of faculty.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Learning together

I like teaching classes that I haven't taught before. In seven and a half years of teaching at USC, I have taught about ten different courses. This is somewhat unusual in an environment where many faculty prefer to teach a relatively small stable set of courses over time.

I confess I do this mostly because I like the excitement of mastering new material, and gain a lot of value from learning while teaching. But, it struck me today, I also do this in part because it is precisely when I'm teaching material that I'm not deeply familiar with, that I feel closest to students, most sympathetic to how they perceive the material, most understanding about what they may find challenging. And it's a pleasure to feel  thus connected to the student's doubts and uncertainties, because then we're on the same team, learning together.

There is a risk, of course, that I am caught short when explaining some concept that I don't completely grasp myself. At such moments, if I can set aside my ego, and approach the situation with humility instead of trying to hide my ignorance, I find that the honest act of showing students how I deal with what I don't understand (say, by trying to re-derive some mathematical expression from first principles, or by saying out loud what I'm myself confused by, so that potentially a student can help me figure out some simple fact I'm ignoring) is itself of value to them. I've had students tell me after class that they found it helpful to watch me model how to overcome my own uncertainties.

My research group and I often meet to read a technical paper or parts of a book together. The way we organize these sessions, which can last anywhere from two to four hours, none of us, including I, have read the material before. We take turns reading a few paras each, stopping periodically to make sure we all fully understand what we have read (descriptions of algorithms, equations, proofs of theorems, the experimental setup, etc.). We are often puzzled, of course, but because there are usually ten or more of us in the room, one of us is likely to figure out the answer quickly. These sessions are always a pleasurable and rewarding experience, and help my students and me bond with each other, enhancing our sense of shared identity as a group.

One of my Ph.D. students once remarked after such a session, "I wish our classes were more like this!" and it struck a chord in me. It occurred to me that such a reading-based class could indeed offer a refreshing experience of non-authoritarian, communal learning.

In Spring 2006, I taught such a class at the graduate level, with about fifteen students. Because I was starting to move my own research interests more significantly in this direction, I told the students from the very start, we would together learn about different optimization techniques and their application to communication networks. We had a three-hour class in the evening once each week. I specifically asked for and got a small classroom where we could all sit around a table. For the first hour or so I would present a lecture covering requisite background material (such as KKT conditions for solving constrained optimization problems in closed form, linear programming, convex optimization and Lagrange duality), and then we would read a paper which used that theory in the context of a communication or network algorithm/protocol  (e.g., optimal popularity-based replication in P2P networks,  primal-dual techniques for network utility maximization). Beyond this, the students worked on research projects either alone or in pairs where they took the tools we learned and applied them to a networking problem of their own choice.  Looking back over all the courses I've taught to date, this was easily the most enjoyable experience I've had as a teacher (the 5/5 course evaluations I got that semester indicate that the students had found the experience valuable too).

There were many reasons why this class went so well, including the small class size, the balanced mix of theory and applications, a highly motivated set of students, the diverse and interesting material, and the outstanding teaching assistant I had that semester, but I am certain that one of the biggest factors was the fact that we were, in a very real sense, learning together. I have warm memories of us all huddled closely around the table in this small room each week, reading and discussing papers late into the spring evening.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The best thing for being sad

This quote, I think, speaks for itself:
"The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies. You may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins. You may miss your only love. You may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it, then: to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the world can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you."
- T. H. White, The Once and Future King

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Material versus sacred values

I attended a talk this afternoon by Dr. Morteza Dehghani, a research scientist at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies who works on computational cognitive modeling.

He talked about the difference between two approaches to decision making: rational choice based on material/utilitarian values, and irrational choices based on what he refers to as sacred values. To excerpt from his talk abstract:

"In dealing with conflict, two broadly different approaches to modeling the values that drive decisions and choice of behavior have emerged: a consequentialist approach based on instrumental or material values, versus a deontological approach based on moral or sacred values. Sacred values are different from secular values in that they are often associated with violations of the cost-benefit logic of rational choice models... I argue that understanding sacred values and the processes by which they emerge are vital for understanding and modeling decision-making in cultural contexts."
He noted that sacred values are derived from one's cultural upbringing, and are reflected in popular stories, mythologies, scriptures, and the way history is interpreted and told. They are defended on the basis of faith and emotion, not reason. Our cultural background, through the stories we hear and read growing up, significantly impacts how we make moral decisions. Having lived all my life in cross-cultural settings (for many years as a south Indian in north India, and now as an Indian in America married to someone born in China), I found this quite fascinating.

If you think about it a bit, it is clear that sacred values play a key role in many of the most significant aspects of our life, particularly those that relate to our interactions with others: friendship, familial duty, love, religious faith, patriotism, social responsibility. Our views on these are indeed colored greatly by the culture and traditions we are exposed to, and rarely have a purely rational basis.

Dehghani argued that the way the stories that form a culture impact the decision making process is by providing a rich store of analogies that can be applied to a particular context. These analogies allow for case-based reasoning, which could, however, be quite irrational, unlike cost-benefit analysis. He presented his work on a cognitive decision making system called MoralDM, which combines both approaches to better model results obtained via psychological experiments. He also discussed how the emergence of sacred values around Iran's nuclear program may make rational incentive-based negotiations backfire.

An online article I read recently on NYTimes by Robert Sapolsky, This is your Brain on Metaphors, also explores some very related questions. I think the notion of metaphoric reasoning versus literal reasoning described by Sapolsky is essentially the same as the distinction between case-based reasoning and cost-benefit analysis made by Dehghani.

After the talk, I looked up some of Dehghani's other work. In a paper titled "The Role of Cultural Narratives in Moral Decision Making", he and his co-authors describe two experiments where they gave different sets of questions with two choices - one involving rational self-preservation, and another involving irrational self-sacrifice to groups of Iranians and Americans. The questions posed in each experiment were essentially variants of a story familiar to Iranians in which a self-sacrificing choice is made. Their experiments show that familiarity with an analogous story dramatically influences the decision. The authors conclude:
"Our results suggest that a core differentiating factor in moral reasoning between cultures may be familiarity with different collections of cultural narratives. Even if the foundations and the logic of morality were universally present, the different cultural stories would cause differences in the judgment of morality between cultures. We believe some well known findings on moral reasoning might be explained by formal examination of moral narratives present within and across cultures."
A corollary to this, which I have certainly experienced for myself, is that in order to really understand someone from a different cultural background, one needs to become familiar with their particular set of narratives, the stories they grew up with.

The dark side to culturally-determined, emotional, irrational decision making, however, is that it is one reason we must forever experience divisions and conflict in our heterogeneous world. Our only hope lies in greater mindfulness of the possible sources of misunderstandings, and non-violent communication.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Inner Game

I strongly recommend a book called "The Inner Game of Tennis" by W. Timothy Gallwey (1974). The author of this book is a well-known tennis coach whose ideas have been adopted by coaches in many other sports as well.

Gallwey makes the compelling case that there are two kinds of games going on when one plays tennis. One is the outer game, visible to all, in which the two players competing are opponents, each bent on defeating the other to move on to the next round and eventually to win the tournament. The second is the inner game, which is always invisible. This game is played with oneself, and is all about the process of putting in effort to overcome obstacles, and thereby improve oneself towards meeting and growing one's potential, not about the end goal. It is this inner game, he contends, that is the most valuable.

In one passage that I found very insightful, Gallwey writes:
"..Then is your opponent a friend or an enemy? He is a friend to the extent that he does his best to make things difficult for you. Only by playing the role of your enemy does he become your true friend. Only by competing with you does he in fact cooperate! ... In this use of competition it is the duty of your opponent to create the greatest possible difficulties for you, just as it is yours to try and create obstacles for him. Only by doing this do you give each other the opportunity to find out to what heights each can rise... In true competition no person is defeated. Both players benefit by their efforts to overcome the obstacles presented by the other."

So he asserts that the great value of the game of tennis is not in the visible outcome of defeating the other player, it is in the invisible process of having been challenged to improve oneself.

This inner game, of course, has nothing to do tennis per se, but is a game we all play, each day, whether or not we are consciously aware of it.

Here is the most moving passage from the book:
"Many start tennis as a weekend sport in the hope of getting exercise and a needed relief from the pressures of daily life, but they end by setting impossible standards of excellence for themselves and often become more frustrated and tense on the court than off it.... How can the quality of one's tennis assume such importance that it causes anxiety, anger, depression and self-doubt? The answer seems to be deeply rooted in a basic pattern of our culture. We live in an achievement-oriented society where people tend to be measured by their competence in various endeavors. Even before we received praise or blame for or first report card, we were loved or ignored for how well we performed or very first actions. From this pattern, one basic message came across loud, clear and often: you are a good person and worthy of respect only if you do things successfully. Of course, the kind of things needed to be done well to deserve love varies from family to family, but the underlying equation between self-worth and performance has been nearly universal. ... Now that's a pretty heavy equation, for it means that to some extent every achievement-oriented action becomes a criterion for defining one's self-worth. ... it follows that the intelligent, beautiful and competent tend to regard themselves as better people. ... When love and respect depend on winning or doing well in a competitive society, it is inevitable (since every winner requires a loser and every top performance many inferior ones) that there will be many people who feel a lack of love and respect. Of course, these people will try equally hard not to lose
the respect they have won. In this light, it is not difficult to see why playing well has come to mean so much to us... But who said that I am to be measured by how well I do things? In fact, who said that I should be measured at all? Who indeed? What is required to disengage oneself from this trap is a clear knowledge that the value of a human being cannot be measured by performance --- or by any other arbitrary measurement. Do we really think the value of a human being is measurable? It doesn't really make sense to measure ourselves in comparison with other immeasurable beings. In fact, we are what we are; we are not how well we happen to perform at a given moment. The grade on a report card may measure an ability in arithmetic, but it doesn't measure the person's value. Similarly, the score of a tennis match may be an indication of how well I performed or how hard I tried, but it does not define me, nor give me cause to consider myself as something more or less than I was before the match."
Something I liked about this book, written by a western author in the context of a modern game, is how completely it resonates with the ancient eastern philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, to focus on work and duty unmotivated by external rewards, and to be equanimous in the face of praise or criticism.

This is a lesson that is particularly important in the competitive world of academia, where we have a tendency to measure success almost exclusively by external recognitions and marks of achievement in the form of grades, degrees, awards, best-papers, rankings, etc. While these do play a practical role in what is meant to be a meritocratic system, I am certain they also do a lot of invisible damage, because it is hard to maintain a balanced view about them; that they are at best only a partial indicator of personal growth, and not at all a measure of a person's worth/quality as an individual.

When I reflect upon the matter with honesty, I can recognize the significant extent to which such recognitions matter to me personally and professionally, more than they should. I hope it is a positive step to admit to myself at least that these recognitions can, at least if viewed incorrectly, be an obstacle in the way of improving my inner game, the only game that truly matters.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Piaget on child-centered education

The following quote is from a book I'm reading by Jean Piaget, titled "Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child," (1970):

"Is childhood a necessary evil, or have the characteristics of the childish mentality a functional significance that defines a genuine activity? According to the reply given to this fundamental question, the relation between adult society and the child to be educated will be conceived of as either unilateral or reciprocal. In the first case the child is called upon to receive from outside the already perfected products of adult knowledge and morality; the educational relationship consists of pressure on the one side and receptiveness on the other. From such a point of view even the most individual kinds of task performed by the students (writing an essay, making a translation, solving a problem) partake less of the genuine activity of spontaneous and individual research than of the imposed exercise or the act of copying an external model; the student's inmost morality remains fundamentally directed toward obedience rather than autonomy. Whereas, on the other hand, to the degree in which childhood is thought of as endowed with its own genuine form of activity, and the development of mind as being included within that activity's dynamic, the relation between the subjects to be educated and society becomes reciprocal: the child no longer tends to approach the state of adulthood by receiving reason and the rules of right action ready-made, but by achieving them with his own effort and personal experience; in return, society expects more of its new generations than mere imitation: it expects enrichment."
I couldn't agree more.

Jean Piaget
Piaget endorses the view that a child's mind should not to be viewed as an empty vessel into which well-packaged knowledge needs to be poured, but rather as an active and engaged entity, with its own respect-worthy dynamic. Education should not aim merely to train a child towards some preconceived social end, but should rather be a process whereby a child can grow, through "effort and personal experience", to be able to contribute meaningfully to society.

Another phrase in this book that caught my eye, "that authentic process of construction that is the true development of the mind," is also illustrative of Piaget's view of learning as an active, organic process.

This is something to think about not only in the context of children in schools, but also for young adults at the college level. Sadly, even at the college level, (at least in engineering, which I am most familiar with), our education system today is geared primarily towards cultivating "obedience rather than autonomy".

In a chapter called "The Genesis of the New Methods," Piaget provides a brief intellectual history of autonomy-oriented educational methods that are characterized by a) assuming "genuine activity" in the child, and b) the "reciprocal character of the relation they establish between the subjects being educated and the society of which they are destined to form a part." I found this discussion very useful in identifying further authors I myself should read, so I jot down some notes on this chapter below.

Piaget starts by mentioning that the core ideas have existed in some form or another for centuries, including in the words and writings of Socrates, Rabelais, Montaigne, Fenelon, and Locke, but dismisses their views along these lines as being no more than fragmentary.

He views Rousseau as the first to have had a "total conception" of these ideas, particularly as evidenced in Emile, and credits Pestalozzi (a disciple of Rousseau) and Froebel (a disciple of Pestalozzi) for taking the first steps to make these ideas concrete. In particular, Pestalozzi founded a school called Institut d'Yverdon in Switzerland in 1805, where children appear to have had great autonomy, and where the teachers acted more like "older companions and trainers rather than leaders".
Jean Jacques Rousseau

But, at the same time, he finds Rousseau's justifications for educational change, arrived at primarily through intuition and subjective experience, as lacking in rigor, being hardly more than a "sociological belief, or a polemical weapon". Even Pestalozzi and Froebel, he writes, suffered, from not having a solid scientific theory of developmental psychology to guide their efforts.

Piaget writes, "The notions of the functional significance of childhood, of the phases of intellectual and moral development, of true interest and activity, are already there in [Rousseau's] work, but they did not truly provide inspiration for the 'new methods' until the moment they were rediscovered, on the plane of objective observation and experiment, by authors more concerned with unfevered truth and systematic controls."

This is an interesting commentary. As a developmental psychologist himself, Piaget clearly believed that an objective experimental methodology was essential to uncovering "truths" about the learning process in a convincing and coherent fashion. Only such scientific findings could, in his view, impact practice substantially.

He qualifies and clarifies this a bit later:
"Let there be no misunderstanding, however. Modern educational science has not emerged from child psychology in the same way that advances in industrial technique have developed, step by step, from the discoveries of the exact sciences. It is rather the general spirit of psychological research, and often, too, the very methods of observation employed that have energized educational science in their passage from the field of pure science to that of scholastic experimentation."
He describes as more central and significant the contributions of psychologists and experimentally-oriented educationists, in particular, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Ovide Decroly, in the late nineteenth century, who all founded schools based on the new ideas.

He also mentions Kerchensteiner, whose central idea was that the "aim of the school is to develop the student's spontaneity," and Claparede, for being the first to apply the theory by the psychologist Karl Groos that "play is a preparatory exercise and therefore displays a functional significance" to the context of education.

A somewhat more controversial figure he mentions finally in this context is Alfred Binet. Binet is best known for developing the first IQ tests. Piaget himself sees these tests as problematic. He notes "though the tests have not produced all the results expected of them ... either we shall one day find good tests, or else intelligence tests will go into history as an example of a fruitful error". He notes, "Apart from these tests however, Binet also rendered many other services to the new education with his theory of the intelligence and his book Les idees modernes sur les enfants."

I'm looking forward to reading more about these figures who have played a central role in the development of humanistic, learner-centric ideas of education.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Clarification, Commitment, and Courage

"Cheshire Puss," she began, rather timidly, as she did not at all know whether it would like the name: however, it only grinned a little wider. "Come, it's pleased so far," thought Alice, and she went on. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat.
"I don't much care where--" said Alice.
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go," said the Cat.
"--so long as I get SOMEWHERE," Alice added as an explanation.
"Oh, you're sure to do that," said the Cat, "if you only walk long enough."
- Lewis Carol, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This is a deep observation. It's easy to get *somewhere*. We have
only to walk long enough. But if we want to get somewhere
*particular* in life, we have, first of all, to be very clear on
the destination.

But there is more to it. Once we do clarify where we are going,
we have to be committed to getting there, and we must have the
courage to find the path and stick to it.

This gives us a three-part recipe:

1. Think hard and clarify for ourselves what we believe in, what we want to do, what we want to be, what we want to have. These are our principles and our goals. We must make them as explicit as possible to ourselves. Write them out.

2. Resolve and commit, wholly and fully, to achieving our goals, while staying true to our principles. It helps to close one's eyes and visualize oneself as the person who has what we want, who does what we want to do, who is what we want to be.

3. Now, act with courage and stay true to the commitment. This means being patient and willing to put in the time needed to learn. It means being resilient and not backing down or giving up on our dreams when we face setbacks (and we can be sure there will be many!). It means being willing to learn from failure and change to do something new when an old and familiar approach doesn't work. It means recognizing our own freedom and ability to change our environment in myriad fruitful ways, and exercising this freedom to move closer to the achievement of our goals. Above all, it means being fearless and willing to court disappointment often.

There are challenges to be faced at each step.

The challenge on the first step is set goals that help us meet our true potential, and bring joy into our lives. As we learn and grow and are exposed to more opportunities, we can and should revisit and adjust our goals. We may find that some of our earlier goals truly no longer matter to us, and other new goals arise.

Once we get past goal-setting, the second and third steps are still very hard because we are wired evolutionarily to be risk averse, to avoid disappointment, and, when disappointed, to become unhappy, give up readily, and aim lower. Our latent fears make it very difficult for us to believe the significant extent to which we can shape our environment.

We can perhaps view life as a dynamic stochastic optimization problem, a particularly hard one, in that there is a time-varying multi-dimensional objective function that is not predefined! There is no deterministic guarantee that this three-step approach of i) clarifying our goals and principles, ii) committing to them, and iii) maintaining the courage to pursue them through difficult times, will ensure that we get what we want. However, I contend that this policy will maximize the probability of this happening. (The probability thus maximized does depend on factors out of our control, including lack of adequate resources and other socio-economic constraints, but in most cases is a lot higher than we might have imagined). And following such a policy is likely to yield us the satisfaction of leading a principled, meaningful life.


I started this post with a quote related to clarification of goals. Here are two more quotes I like, one about commitment and one about persistence, which is, of course, the essence of courage:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness concerning all acts of initiative and creation. There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen events, meetings and material assistance which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now!”
- W. H. Murray, The Scottish Himalaya Expedition

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing in the world is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."
- Calvin Coolidge

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fundraising in Academia

Although I've often encouraged my students to consider academic careers, it occurred to me recently that I have not talked to them enough of what such a career actually involves. What is often invisible to graduate students thinking about a career in academia, particularly in a research-oriented university, is that a great deal of faculty time and attention is spent on raising funds to support their students, bring in summer salaries, fund travel, equipment, etc.

So I did a two-hour session talking about fundraising in academia for a few students, post-docs and visitors to my group today.

I began with a short back-of-the-envelope calculation suggesting that a faculty member who intends to fully fund five research assistants needs to bring in about $300K a year, a non-trivial amount. (For larger, more resource-hungry research groups that are not uncommon in engineering departments, this amount can be easily as high as a million or more.)

I then talked about the different kinds of funding sources including internal university sources, industry sources and the various government agencies including NSF, various DoD entities and NIH. I talked about how, for industry sources as well as for many DoD-based agencies, much can depend on building relationships with key people. I then focused in on NSF, with its more academic-friendly model of open calls and relatively transparent peer-review process. Finally, I discussed the ingredients of a good proposal and tips and pointers on writing proposals that get funded.

Something I hope I was able to bring out is that while this process of fundraising could be considered "overhead", at least to the extent that it takes away time that should be spent *doing* research, it is also very helpful in many ways. Being forced to convince others to give us money for research gives us a good reason to think deeply about what we want to work on, and the quality and impact of our work.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Self-determination theory

I shared my ASEE talk with a few friends and colleagues and, as expected, received a range of responses from total to cautious agreement to complete skepticism. What was interesting to me, though, was that most of the skepticism centered around the issue of "trust": In a completely free and autonomous environment, how can we trust that all students will be sufficiently self-motivated to learn? Or is the approach to learning I advocate one that can only work for students that are already (somehow, magically, innately) self-driven?

My own intuitive feeling is that if our education process from the very first days of schooling is truly free, then all students (who have not had their self-drive destroyed by conventional one-size-fits-all schooling) will retain their innate self-motivation to learn and grow. But this is only a partial answer. Other environment factors may be important too. What are they?

For deeper insights on this problem, I want to explore the psychology literature, particularly research findings and theories that relate to motivation for growth.

After my talk, someone in the audience came up to me and asked me if I had read about "Self-Determination Theory" develop by the psychologists Deci and Ryan at the University of Rochester. I had not, so he jotted down a pointer for me on a card. I came across that card today, which reminded me to take a look.

I confess I haven't made it past much more than the Wikipedia entry on SDT, and the high level overview of self-determination theory on their website yet, but from what I can tell, it is quite consistent with what Rogers and Maslow (two noted psychologists whose work on related subjects I am more familiar with) have had to say on the subject of autonomy and self-actualization.

This theory posits that there are three innate human needs that must be satisfied for optimal growth: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The Wikipedia entry further notes:

Deci and Vansteenkiste (2003)[7] claim that there are three essential elements of the theory:

  1. Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
  2. Humans have inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
  3. Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically

To actualise their inherent potential they need nurturing from the social environment.

I am looking forward to learning more about this. In particular, the third point is exactly what I want more insights on. What kind of nurturing is needed?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Leaving academia for Industry

This week, Matt Welsh, a faculty member at Harvard Computer Science, who I know well because we have worked in the same area of wireless sensor networks, announced that he was quitting his hard-won tenured position to go to Google. Here's his blog entry about it: .

As I noted in my comment on his post, I think everyone should do what they have passion for. Matt has clearly identified what he finds satisfying and what he does not:

I also admire the professors who flourish in an academic setting, writing books, giving talks, mentoring students, sitting on government advisory boards, all that. I never found most of those things very satisfying, and all of that extra work only takes away from time spent building systems, which is what I really want to be doing.
As someone who most enjoys learning through teaching, and working with students to help them grow, I can't imagine making such a decision to leave academia. But I wish Matt all the best, and know he'll do a great job at Google, just as he did at Harvard.

Matt's announcement did provoke in me some soul-searching about why I sometimes feel a tad disappointed that none of my own Ph.D. students have made it into tenure-track faculty positions (well, so far, anyway). I think it's mostly a sadness that they either don't share the same passion for teaching, mentoring, and basic research, or in the few cases where they do find academia attractive, gave up perhaps too soon. But ultimately, what I do wish for each of my students (indeed, for everyone) is that they find work that matches their passion and does not limit their potential for growth.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Carl Rogers on Teaching and Learning

The following excerpt from an essay by Carl Rogers (the noted humanistic psychologist) struck a very deep chord within me when I first encountered it just a few years ago. It has changed the way I approach teaching. I often share this article with students in my classes.

I wonder how many classroom teachers would come to this point in their thinking if they reflected deeply on their own experiences of learning.

Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning (1952)

I wish to present some very brief remarks, in the hope that if they bring forth any reaction from you, I may get some new light on my own ideas.

a) My experience is that I cannot teach another person how to teach. To attempt it is for me, in the long run, futile.

b) It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior.

c) I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior.

d) I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influence behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.

e) Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.

f) As a consequence of the above, I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.

g) When I try to teach, as I do sometimes, I am appalled by the results, which seems a little more than inconsequential, because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience, and to stifle significant learning. Hence, I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful.

h) When I look back at the results of my past teaching, the real results seem the same - either damage was done - or nothing significant occurred. This is frankly troubling.

i) As a consequence, I realize that I am only interested in being a learner, preferably learning things that matter, that have some significant influence on my own behavior.

j) I find it very rewarding to learn, in groups, in relationships with one person as in therapy, or by myself.

k) I find that one of the best, but most difficult, ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which his experience seems and feels to the other person.

l) I find that another way of learning for me is to state my own uncertainties, to try to clarify my puzzlements, and thus get closer to the meaning that my experience actually seems to have.

m) This whole train of experiencing, and the meanings that I have thus far discovered in it, seem to have launched me on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening. It seems to mean letting my experiences carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward goals that I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing complexity.

I am almost afraid I may seem to have gotten away from any discussion of learning, as well as teaching. Let me again introduce a practical note by saying that by themselves these interpretations of my experience may sound queer and aberrant, but not particularly shocking. It is when I realize the implications that I shudder a bit at the distance I have come from the commonsense world that everyone knows is right. I can best illustrate this by saying that if the experiences of others had been the same as mine, and if 1 had discovered similar meanings in it, many consequences would be implied:
a.) Such experience would imply that we would do away with teaching. People would get together if they wished to learn.

b.) We would do away with examinations. They measure the inconsequential type of learning.

c.) We would do away with grades and credits for the same reason.

d.) We would do away with degrees as a measure of competence partly for the same reason. Another reason is that a degree marks an end or a conclusion of something, and a learner is only interested in the continuing process of learning.

e.) We would do away with the exposition of conclusions, for we would realize that no one learns significantly from conclusions.

I think I had better to stop here. I do not want to become too fantastic. I want to know primarily whether anything in my inward thinking, as I have tried to describe it, speaks to anything in your experience of the classroom as you have lived it, and if so, what the meanings are that exist for you in your experience.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Iron Range Engineering

I'm very much interested in alternative models of engineering education that cede greater autonomy in the learning process to the student, and give them experiences that boost their self-confidence in their ability to learn and do.

I recently found out about a small engineering program in Minnesota has set out to do just this. It's called Iron Range Engineering. The students in this program develop essential skills in a self-driven manner while working on real-world projects.

Here's a video of a talk by the founder, Ron Ulseth, describing the aims of this program when it started just a little over a year ago:

I'm hoping to visit this unique program sometime next year, and see for myself how it works.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paper reading in class

I think one big mistake we make when teaching is to always present facts that are fully digested and neatly packaged. By doing this, we're depriving students of opportunities to learn how to chew on raw "unprocessed" ideas and extract meaning for themselves.

To put these thoughts into action, instead of just telling my wireless networks class how certain wireless routing protocols work through a presentation/lecture, I instead did a joint paper-reading session in class today.

We read through, together, the original papers by the authors of two protocols. The students took turns reading a few paragraphs each, and we took breaks periodically to discuss and consider the meaning of what we had read. I did go to the board to clarify a few points, but overall, it definitely felt like I ceded more control over their own learning to the students today. Very satisfying.

Monday, November 08, 2010

A new place to learn

It is rare to hear of the founding of a new college:

Ralston College sounds like a wonderful enterprise to me, though I can hear the skeptics asking "what kind of jobs will the graduates of this college land?"

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The dangers of classroom teaching

Recently, I had an opportunity to give a speech at the American Society of Engineering Education's 2010 Frontiers in Engineering Conference, titled "The Dangers of Classroom Teaching". I talked about some of the experiences that lead me to pursue a career in academia, and my growing beliefs about how best to learn and share learning.

A transcript of the talk can be found here:

I know it comes across to some as idealistic and utopian, and many are skeptical about the practicality of implementing such ideas. But it is too easy to accept the way things are, and the system we have now is too far from perfect to be so complacent about it.