Friday, August 29, 2014

The mind is not a bottle

I came across an essay called "De Auditu" ("on listening to lectures"), by Plutarch, the Greek Historian and Essayist, who lived nearly 2000 years ago. It's worth a read, if only to recognize how timeless his words are.

In the essay, Plutarch begins by noting that it is just important to consider and learn how to listen as it is to learn how to offer a discourse. He urges the listener to be patient, to focus on substance not style. He recommends moderation in posing questions, including limiting one's questions to the area of the speaker's expertise. He suggests that even errors in lectures offer opportunities for learning, by motivating introspection into one's own ways of thinking:
Where [the speaker] is successful we must reflect that the success is not due to chance or accident, but to care, diligence, and study, and herein we should try to imitate him in a spirit of admiration and emulation; but where there are mistakes, we should direct our intelligence to these, to determine the reasons and origin of the error. For as Xenophon asserts that good householders derive benefit both from their friends and from their enemies, so in the same way do speakers, not only when they succeed, but also when they fail, render a service to hearers who are alert and attentive. 
He describes an ideal listener's demeanor:
Finally, the following matters, even with speakers who make a complete failure, are, as it were, general and common requirements at every lecture: to sit upright without any lounging or sprawling, to look directly at the speaker, to maintain a pose of active attention, and a sedateness of countenance free from any expression, not merely of arrogance or displeasure, but even of other thoughts and preoccupations. Now in every piece of work, beauty is achieved through the congruence of numerous factors, so to speak, brought into union under the rule of a certain due proportion and harmony, whereas ugliness is ready to spring into being if only a single chance element be omitted or added out of place. And so in the particular case of a lecture, not only frowning, a sour face, a roving glance, twisting the body about, and crossing the legs, are unbecoming, but even nodding, whispering to another, smiling, sleepy yawns, bowing down the head, and all like actions, are culpable and need to be carefully avoided.

He urges listeners to apply themselves and think critically about what they hear:
... let us urge them that, when their intelligence has comprehended the main points, they put the rest together by their own efforts, and use their memory as a guide in thinking for themselves, and, taking the discourse of another as a germ and seed, develop and expand it. For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy. 
The oft-quoted phrase "For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling" appears here. (It is often mis-attributed to William Butler Yeats in a modified form: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.")  With these words, he gets to the very heart of what it means to truly learn.  We can only learn when we are motivated and fully engaged in the learning process. Passive listening is not beneficial.

Modern constructivist education models have sought to reduce the role of lectures in the classroom, to move the role of the teacher from being a "sage on the stage" to a "guide on the side", in part because the art of listening is lost in students who are forced to listen to too many lectures, for years and years. But given that there are still many classes that rely on traditional lectures, and even flipped classrooms require listening to taped lectures outside the classroom, it would behoove students to reflect upon Plutarch's advice and ponder the difference between listening as "bottle-filling" and listening as "fire-kindling".

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Give breaks to improve learning

Came across this article titled "What can the American and British education systems learn from classrooms in the developing world?" 

There are some excellent points here (though perhaps also some idealizations and over-generalizations). One I particularly liked was this: "In the United States, there is the expectation that students are supposed to sit still. You’re told not to fidget and to focus. But scientific research shows that brain activity is significantly heightened after 20 minutes of physical activity. There’s significant value in what you see in the developing world—in between classes, kids run in a field, play in a river, climb a mountain."  

Here is an article about a CDC-led study which describes relevant research findings, including: "Short physical activity breaks of about 5 to 20 minutes in the classroom can improve attention span, classroom behavior and achievement test scores." 

Though sitting still (else being diagnosed as having ADHD) is sadly indeed the norm in most US schools, there are fortunately some schools here where kids are not expected to sit still all day. A number of them fall into the category of "democratic schools" (in which the students have a significant voice in what, where, how to learn).

Older kids and adults do have more stamina, but I do think this applies to the college classroom as well. I'm sure many faculty members have seen their students' eyes glaze over after an hour-long lecture. I give a break or two in my longer classes and find it does help students concentrate on the material better. This fall I may tinker with more frequent micro-breaks, allowing students to stretch and move around a bit more. Active learning techniques including hands-on activities and projects for which students must talk to and work with other students in class also help a great deal with improving engagement and excitement in the classroom and I am thinking hard about these as well as I plan my teaching for the semester coming up. 

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Academic Contributions

I imagine that nearly all academics ask themselves this question from time to time: "is my work meaningful?"

It occurs to me that one derives meaning from, fundamentally, by making a contribution to others; here are some of the many ways in which an academic's contributions could be evaluated:

  • Contribution to the literature: Has one's work been read and cited by other researchers? How have peers evaluated one's work in terms of novelty, significance, depth, quality? Is there evidence that one's ideas have positively influenced the work of other researchers?
  • Contributions to aid other researchers in their work: Besides papers, has one contributed other materials such as code, tools, data-sets that others could make use of in their research work? Have these been used by others?
  • Contributions to community-building: Human enterprises thrive when we organize into communities. Has one contributed to building a community of researchers? These contributions could be in the form of organizing meetings and workshops and conferences to increase interactions, editorial efforts, organizing centers.
  • Contributions to education: Has one contributed through new courses, surveys, tutorials, books, talks, demonstrations, popular writing, or other materials to educate students, researchers, practitioners and inform the broader public about new developments and ideas? How many have been influenced by these materials and in what ways?
  • Contributions to mentoring: How well has one mentored students?  Has one aided younger colleagues in their professional development? Mentoring is a valuable activity because it enhances the ability of other individuals to make their own effective contributions.
  • Contribution to practice: Has one's work been translated to practice? How has the translation been carried out? What difference has it made in the real world, in the context of that translation? How significant has the practical contribution been?