Practices over Dichotomies

https://unsplash.com/photos/FACFpJVoMJs

The knowledge vs. skills debate is not new to education. The former refers to the sum of familiarities and understanding of concepts and ideas, whereas the latter focuses on exploiting the former to achieve a desired outcome or purpose. On January 10, 2021, a group of parliamentarians, university vice-chancellors, entrepreneurs, and education thought leaders petitioned the U.K. government, via the Sunday Times, urging a radical reform of their secondary education. Among the lead petitioners is MP and former skills minister, Robert Halfon, who strongly argues for the mission-critical need to re-engineer the current model, where GCSEs should be replaced by an academic and vocational baccalaureate at 18, similar to the French Baccalaureate, colloquially knows as ‘la bac.’ Their collective advocacy is for a broader and balanced education that provides a good mix of academic and vocational components so that pedagogy keeps up with the economic, social, and technological changes in society. This discourse, as intriguing as it might sound, isn’t novel and similar scholarly debates have been going on for years or even decades in other parts of the world.

The focus at hand is not to look at this subject through an ‘either /or’ lens, but ask ourselves what we want for our youngsters after they graduate high school or college. Is it about personal attitudes and attributes, such as good decision-making, problem-solving, social skills, or being upright citizens with tremendous character and deep values? Or is it more on the practical side of things related to gainful employment, creating wealth and increasing one’s stature on the global stage. One simply can’t deny the complementarity of the two. Some scholars argue about striking the right balance between knowledge and skills, which means as students gain knowledge, they should have parallel opportunities, through internships, practicums, to apply their understanding of the subject matter to master a craft, trade, or the basics of a future profession.

The landscape of education being as vast as an ocean, and the MOOCs, the Khan Academies, and Udemies of the world just a click away, what is more critical is developing a deeper awareness about one’s learning paths, which in educational parlance is often referred to as meta-learning. For instance, if I could index my journey towards becoming an ‘independent user’ of a foreign language, say German (far from it currently, though), by gradually learning the 2400 vocabulary terms, understand the heuristics, and become fairly proficient at formal reading and listening, I could revisit this index map to learn Dutch. One could apply the same technique to learn to play an instrument. Meta-learning algorithms are also at the heart of superior performance of artificial intelligence (AI) systems. If meta-learning has to have an impact on learners, approaches to teaching and learning should pivot from instructions obvious to students to reminders that lie dormant in their minds or alien to them. Adam Boxer, Head of Science at a private school in the U.K., encourages his students to question themselves if they have fully met the expectations of a task after its completion. A more passive approach will be just asking students to read the instructions carefully, although there is nothing wrong with the latter. Activating these creative pathways to think and reflect and transitioning from the generics to specific metrics of a discipline will be key to levelling the learning field, both from a knowledge and skills perspective. If schools have to review their pedagogical motto, turning the page from ‘education for all’ to ‘reflection for all,’ or even ‘meta-learning for all’ should bring the attention back to what truly matters in learning.

If nations and schools could fix infrastructure and logistics, increase access to quality educators and resources, how do we streamline the content and make learners’ time at school worthwhile? When external examination boards expect teachers to cover 10 units worth content in a school year spanning 200 days, would it be rather rewarding to focus on a limited, yet genuinely relevant set of lessons where learners could explore the content at greater depth and pursue projects and build materials to test how far their learned theories stretch? Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard University, whom I have had the pleasure of knowing through a professional network, says his students did quite well on textbook-problems, but were puzzled when they encountered simple word problems that demanded an understanding of concepts behind the formulas and equations. He now focuses more on active learning through peer interactions and encouraging students to work on meaningful projects and creating products at the end of each fixed term of teaching so that they could see first-hand the value in their learning and hours spent in the classroom. You can’t ask for a better return on investment or satisfaction.

At the end of the day or year, we need to ask ourselves if we are sending the transformed versions of our students into the working world who can not only flourish in it, but add value without succumbing to professional pressures. If airline pilots have to complete two proficiency checks every year, where they have to show complete fluency of flight manuals, emergency procedures as well as an operational expertise in a simulator replicating seasonal variations in weather, to retain their flying licenses, they can’t polish skills without refilling their knowledge tank. The same applies to educators, surgeons, and a plethora of other professions. My money is on doing a thorough auditing of our educational strategies, both from a content and practice perspective than debating a false dichotomy. Here are three practices that might pave the way to preserving a culture focused on academic learning and maintaining quality control.

a. Curricular Review: Robert Marzano in his seminal work on ‘guaranteed and viable curriculum’ outlines the need for protecting and providing teachers’ with adequate time to prepare, instruct and assess as well as designing a realistic instructional calendar where relevant content is taught to mastery levels. This will mean eliminating redundancies and having clear intervention strategies for learners not meeting the targeted indicators of mastery. This will also require foregoing undesirable clerical work and opting for only a ‘popular’ set of non-academic activities based on students’ interests and resource availability. Also, carrying out an annual pedagogical audit to evaluate the coherence between the goals targeted and outcomes achieved should equip educators with reflective tools to enhance their efficiency.

b. Teachers’ qualifications, experience, and attitudes: A 30-year longitudinal peer-reviewed study conducted by Se Woong Lee and Eun Jung Lee at the Universities of Missouri and Arizona, respectively concluded that students taught, particularly math and science, by multiple highly qualified teachers with in-depth subject matter expertise and experience are more likely to attain higher level education degrees. If teachers’ qualifications play such a significant role, the vetting processes of these folks should be equally rigorous and hiring them will require both a strategic and creative approach as well as a fairly generous commitment of resources. The decision-making process can be improved by asking deeper questions about how they will introduce an ambiguous concept or react to a specific curricular challenge from a gifted student, or even how they seek professional development to both broaden and deepen their knowledge and skills repertoire. An invested educator will not simply opt for the next easy ‘YouTube’ video or simulation, but customise resources to meet student needs with significant original input.

c. Curating ideas and techniques: Schools adapt a range of strategies and interventions to meet the needs of all learners in a given year, where some are effective, others aren’t. Creating a database of workable ideas and a broad spectrum of tools related to task development and overcoming barriers to both academic and behavioural improvements of learners could be curated on a learning management system. As educators, both old and new, undergo orientation before the start of the new school year, they should be reminded and exposed to these systems to streamline their professional outlook as well as fruitfully coordinate among themselves. Obviously, not all variables can be factored in when it comes to a field as complex as student learning. When schools can’t monitor or track disruptors they can’t foresee, they need to reach out to sister schools or like-minded groups to borrow and implement adaptive systems that can systemically enhance learning.

References

Thanks to First Officer and soon-to-be Captain (my former student), Harit Phromphol for sharing his professional insights about aircraft piloting with me.

Lee, Se Woong, and Eunjung Alice Lee. “Teacher Qualification Matters: The Association between Cumulative Teacher Qualification and Students’ Educational Attainment.” International Journal of Educational Development, Pergamon, 25 June 2020, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0738059320303771. 

Marzano, Robert J. What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2003. 

Sian Griffiths, Education Editor. “The Future of Education: School’s Outmoded and It’s Time to Rewrite the Rules.” News Review | The Sunday Times, The Sunday Times, 9 Jan. 2021, http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-future-of-education-schools-outmoded-and-its-time-to-rewrite-the-rules-n5g0zgdqd.

Walberg, Herbert J.|Paik. “Effective Educational Practices. Educational Practices Series–3.” ERIC, International Academy of Education, Palais Des Academies, 1, Rue Ducale, 1000 Brussels, Belgium., 30 Nov. 1999, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED443788. 

Learning from a Distance, again

Students and educators transitioned into 2021 with a sense of déjà vu reminding us all that it’s not over until it’s over. As both groups move into their second consecutive phase of distance learning (or even third for some) with increased confidence, what factors will provide win-win situations for all? Here are four strategies that could be used to take a shot at productivity.

a. Learning Format: Synchronous and asynchronous learning are two formats typically employed by educators to engage students in distance learning. Doug Lemov, author of ‘Teach Like a Champion,’ argues a middle path, semi-synchronous learning, could be more efficient to promote productivity. Teachers could start a lesson with a question or short video to test students’ misconceptions followed by scaffolded explanations relating to the concept. They could then work in 15-minute slots to complete independent and team-based tasks. However, the teacher can act as a referee to promote accountability by moderating discussions and asking questions to check their understanding throughout the lesson. On the other hand, not all learners are comfortable sharing their web cameras, but they should capture their written work for their teacher’s feedback or use the chat function to answer questions.

b. Minimising Distractions: Students can be asked to work in a comfortable setting far from digital distractions, but teachers could create lessons that may not always require sophisticated digital tools. For instance, share a picture and ask learners to explain, on paper, the concept behind the image or phenomenon. Another strategy is to encourage them to create short booklets of recent concepts and core skills they have learned in the past semester. Students can also be paired to verbally demonstrate their understanding and application of the taught content. The idea is not to ban technology, but employ the most appropriate and minimal tools relevant to student learning in a given context.

c. Assessment for Learning: I use a variety diagnostic and formative assessments to evaluate my learners’ misconceptions and understanding. If the goal of an assessment is to enhance learning, these evaluative tasks need to be adapted according to the targeted outcomes in question. Designing meaningful instruments so that learners must show greater creativity in their answers and demonstrate deeper conceptual application and synthesis is crucial. To promote integrity, students could teach a part of the lesson online and answer follow-up questions or solve a problem impromptu, or even analyse a case on camera in a limited timeframe.

d. Leveraging Feedback: The quality of feedback depends on both the content and the language of communication. If a learner struggles with calculations, the prescription should be to identify the missing links or steps of problem-solving that will lead to mastery. For example, asking students to create a two-column table where the first one identifies an incomplete response and the second column shows an exemplary response, thus enabling learners to clearly see the information lacking in the former. Assigning relevant homework based on common mistakes and providing multiple opportunities to evaluate similar content should pave the path towards mastery. Alternatively, students could work on a collaborative activity prior to an assessment where they could comment about things that surprised them about a particular concept or curricular relationship, or even how they play out in the real world.

Reference

Lemov, Doug. Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal . Jossey-Bass, 2020. 

Fortitude, Performance, and Well-Being

Thanks to Ingo Stiller at https://unsplash.com/photos/5vCQdgU2CLI.

“Mountains exist to challenge humans, and humans exist to accept the honor of that challenge.” – Paulo Coelho

I have always had considerable sympathy for goalkeepers in football (soccer) and in a way, just like educators, they are pretty much on their own. A lot rests on the former whether a team wins or loses, be it a league match or World Cup final, although a strong defence could take some weight off their shoulders. Of all the players I watched in my adult life, I find Manuel Neuer, the German goalkeeper and captain of the 120-year-old premier football club, Bayern Munich, impactful and inspirational. In one of his post-match interviews, he succinctly puts it, “As captain you’re always required to spot shifts early and react to them – not just during negative periods, but also when things are going well.  It’s particularly important after wins to draw attention to things which are a danger for the team.” One could argue that academics are a different ballgame as opposed to sport, but both require a certain degree of consistency and focus to meaningfully engage with the task at hand.

In a few weeks’ time, if the current public health situation doesn’t escalate, senior high school students might be taking their mock examinations in many parts of the world. The juniors, on the other hand, will be doing the necessary groundwork for their coursework. Some of them will also be attending virtual interviews to finalise their places at their first-choice universities. What all these groups have in common is that regardless of the outcome of these processes, they will need to develop a game plan to strategically avoid traps and reach their own expectations with a strong mindset.

Although 21st century employment is designed around teamwork, the current academic training still requires students to demonstrate their prowess individually. Learners need an active and reflexive approach to reading and problem-solving. Understanding the individual course content statements and arranging it in ways to make information stick, examining curricular work using checklists, and broadening the scope of the review to cover a larger sample of questions are some creative ways to enhance efficiencies. Similarly, shifting the balance from acquisition of knowledge to its repeated application in varied contexts to derive meaning in an independent capacity is another core skill they will need to thrive in tertiary education, or at work. Of all the people, I asked a former student how he successfully adjusted to the rigorous academic schedule of his engineering school, and he shared a refreshing insight. Every time he completes a problem set, he rearranges the variables and visualises alternate scenarios. He then developed strategies to deal with these agency challenges. This is in line with the ‘decomposition’ stage of computational thinking where one needs to understand the big ideas by breaking them down to their supporting parts and extrapolate the resulting understandings to new scenarios.

The psychological well-being of learners is also dependent on the contributions made by their social support systems (Pretorius & Diedericks, 1994). Research suggests that having a structured environment at home and college-going siblings sharing academic and administrative insights have a positive impact on learners’ achievement. Peer tutors, study groups, and academic advisors are other resources where students could review their work using a different set of eyes and receive feedback for further improvement. Being judgemental is a human trait and there is no escaping it. However, what one could control is not blurting out these judgments in a blink of an eye without fully understanding the story in the background or making references to past mistakes. Learners will need realistic reassurances that are backed by trust and unconditional support to overcome temporary difficulties.

When Chester Bennington, founding member of the hard rock band, Grey Daze (a.k.a., Waterface), who later became the lead vocalist of Linkin Park, was asked how he is going to keep his voice singing his lungs out at both local and global events, he replied saying he trained his throat, so he doesn’t stress it. Learners need intense workouts in short intervals of time, punctuated by appropriate spacing and interleaving, where they can channel all their energies to gain a 360-degree understanding of concepts and ideas. As long as universities screen students based on their grades and performance on entrance exams and interviews, they need to show some evidence of reasonable achievement. Teachers’ are equally accountable to produce good exam results year after year, irrespective of academic variations. This paradigm could lead to friction and learners could be overwhelmed by a heavy load of academic tasks resulting in high levels of stress and frustration. How could they manage these pressures in a healthy manner without looking for unsound options? The Institute for Disaster Mental Health recommends that you list the structure of your worries and then assess the likelihood that these threats will seriously affect you. Learners don’t have to discuss their worries all the time with their support groups, but finding a peer or parent to spend quality time, or discussing a hobby, or even playing board games might offer some soothing comfort. The emotional investments we make into our connections and being intentional about using them on a daily basis might as well be our true vaccine.

References

COVID-19: Managing Stress in This Anxious Time. newpaltz.edu/media/idmh/covid-19/. 

Masley, Ed. “’Raw Talent from Day One’: How Chester Bennington Found His Voice as a Phoenix Teen.” The Arizona Republic, Arizona Republic, 12 July 2020.

“Neuer Interview: That Can Only Be Done with Sensitivity.” FC Bayern Munich, 4 Feb. 2020, fcbayern.com/en/news/2020/02/manuel-neuer-interview-51. 

Rahim, Mohamed Zubair. “Investigating the Relationship between Fortitude and Academic Achievement.” Https://Core.ac.uk/, Dec. 2007, core.ac.uk/download/pdf/58913487.pdf. 

Should Curriculum be Motivating?

Thanks to Sabrina Wendl at https://unsplash.com/photos/h2NlwNkA2h8.

I recently stumbled upon an interview with Amelia Peterson, a founding member of The London Interdisciplinary School (LIS), on the IB Community Blog. LIS offers a multifaceted undergraduate curriculum rooted in ‘Problems’ and ‘Methods.’ Dr. Peterson asserts that all students at LIS start their education with identifying a problem, be it childhood obesity, malaria, knife crime, or palm oil supply chains. They work collectively as well as individually to solve these complex real-world issues by learning basic theories and building models from a variety of disciplines ranging from data science and ethnography to creative writing and visual design. They would then move onto paid internships at established companies, government agencies, and startups to further hone their contemporary skills (Peterson, 2020). The premise of LIS approach is to design curricula that shifts students’ motivation from writing perfect responses to test questions to learning new things without a huge emphasis on assessment and seeking novel intellectual challenges. Well, their USP is different from a conventional liberal arts education in the sense that the former provides significant breadth and exposure to students where they work on over a dozen problems in three years by collaborating with experts and professionals to grapple with the ground realities of academic theories. They also have a flexible admissions policy for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we were to reimagine curricula in K-12 schools, what role do student motivation and self-determination play? How do we train young minds in order to develop systems thinking and society-ready skills?

The first step will be to overcome the narrow siloed approaches to writing course outlines. The broad goals of a high school chemistry curriculum are neither the structure of an atom nor subject-specific practical skills. Although these are important, the overarching goals should be to develop nuanced thinking and fluency in crosscutting concepts that are transferable across disciplines, say identifying trends, establishing and explaining correlations using software, building systems and system models to simulate complex natural phenomena etc. Many of these are already done in schools in individual subjects sparsely, but learners need to be exposed repeatedly to these techniques to achieve mastery so that they could apply them correctly to solve complex problems. Exposure and repetition of basic facts and processes during early learning will be key to developing semantic memories, which will in turn be critical to developing deeper understanding and enhancing creativity (Paulin et al., 2020). In plain English, schools don’t ‘kill’ creativity and you can’t innovate with weak foundational knowledge and poor conceptual understanding. For example, a good measure of any high school diploma would be to ask if the graduates are able to apply their statistical knowledge and understandings to seamlessly manage information by verifying its validity and reliability.

John Keller developed the ARCS (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction) model of instructional design in 1983 and the methodology places a greater emphasis on motivation. I find this approach still relevant today if we could tweak it to meet the current generational and societal needs as discussed below:

a. Attention: One of my Grade 11 IB students, who was a part of the pre-IB chemistry cohort I taught last year, recently inquired whether I will be using case studies to teach HL chemistry content as I did in his previous grades. He found the case analysis approach motivating and stimulating as he enjoyed finding creative and empathetic solutions that might come in handy in a real-world scenario. Imagine each science lesson in schools starts with a discrepant event or a question that creates a disequilibrium in learners minds and the expectation will be to learn the required theories and skills to explain this event. For example, an engaging lesson in energy might be one where students are asked to explain, using a data-driven argument, why 100% ethanol is not used as a fuel in automobiles. To answer this, they will be expected to understand the physics of the internal combustion engine, chemistry of fuel combustion, and the mathematics of mileage. The basic questions in curriculum maps and and the abstract terminology that are permanently understood should make learners produce perceptual phenomena and real events.

b. Relevance: This could be one of the most challenging aspects of curriculum from both the teacher and learner perspective. How do we tell students what they learn matters? Without bringing their yet-to-be-decided career goals into the picture, a narrative focused on self-awareness should be the way forward. How well do they understand themselves and their surroundings? An example of stimulating students’ interest in the second law of thermodynamics will be to ask: why is it that when we wake up, day in and day out, the entropy of human body doesn’t increase? Why don’t our organs and organelles transform into different shapes? Another strategy to promote relevance would be to provide options to prove students’ accomplishments, allowing them to reflect on their conceptual changes or design learning strategies to positively influence students’ efficiency.

c. Confidence: This may be the closest to my heart. The sign of any effective teaching is that students raise their heads and walk out of the classroom, as if they had just conquered the highest mountain in the area. It’s not an easy task if we factor in the attitudes and attributes of diverse learners in schools. Develop a small group of specific learning goals and highlight key learning strategies, and then specify the time frame in which all learners are expected to undertake a series of intermediate challenges. This should set the clock ticking. Praising tactics and assigning compliments under real conditions where they can independently respond to challenges with great autonomy will be another practical way to guide their thinking and work. Once learners show proficiency in a limited set of strategies, exposing them to integrated problems followed by multi-layer challenges should gradually peel off their curricular inhibitions and anxieties.

d. Satisfaction: Educators try their best to let learners experience success early on in their course. After all, a happy soul is willing to learn more. Recently, an acquaintance suggested that I give chocolate to students who are not very enthusiastic about their work. Of course, he was joking, but the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University recommends providing opportunities for students to test their newly learned skills in realistic settings as soon as possible. For instance, if they learned about the working of a dry cell battery in class, they should be investigating the similarities and differences between their laptop and cell phone batteries. Asking them to comment on their efficiency vis-a-vis their recharging time should broaden their scientific horizon about energy transformation. Also, as students transition to complex tasks, the magnitude and frequency of scaffolding should fade away gradually as they gain proficiency. One strategy I use in my chemistry lessons is that I encourage the early finishers to share their problem-solving approaches and related struggles before they arrived at the finish line. The basic principle is to emphasize the role of effort and the hidden dimensions of human vulnerability, and to obscure the IQ factor in the work equation.

In conclusion, the goals of any curriculum should be to augment the efforts of learners in achieving the required competencies, focus on integrated and interdisciplinary problem-solving, and reflect the needs and aspirations of the very learners it serves with a strong undercurrent of positive reinforcement at every step of the way as no civilization can flourish on a foundation of threats and ultimatums.

References

Mcdaniel, Rhett. “Motivating Students.” Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt University, 14 Nov. 2020, cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/motivating-students/. 

Paulin, Tamara, et al. “The Effect of Semantic Memory Degeneration on Creative Thinking: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Analysis.” NeuroImage, Academic Press, 20 June 2020, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811920305590. 

“Redefining What a University Education Looks like: Q&A with Amelia Peterson.” News from around the IB Community, IBO, 14 Nov. 2020, blogs.ibo.org/blog/2020/11/06/redefining-what-a-university-education-looks-like-qa-with-amelia-peterson/?utm_content=bufferf592a. 

Teacher Explanations and Student Confidence

Thanks to Jon Tyson at https://unsplash.com/photos/RUsczRV6ifY.

Good teaching is the most important lever schools have to improve outcomes for disadvantaged pupils.”  – Education Endowment Foundation Guide to Pupil Premium

November 7, 2020 marks my 20th year of foray into international teaching when I quit my maiden job as a young chemist and took a plunge into the world of education at a mid-sized international school in South-East Asia, where I taught GCE Ordinary-Level chemistry and middle school general science (Delayed paperwork and related bureaucracy were the root cause of the late start of the school year). I felt it is appropriate to reflect on the evolution of my explanations to learners during this two-decade journey.

a. Pre-Instructional Conceptions: Diagnostic evaluation of students’ knowledge, understanding, and skills is part and parcel of educators’ toolkit, and they employ a variety of strategies, from paper-based concept-check to more efficient digital strategies. However, the breadth and depth of questions used will be critical to capturing the 30,000-foot picture of students’ preconceived notions. For instance, if you ask middle schoolers what happens when you heat pure magnesium ribbon, some would say it would get hotter as they base their perspective of ‘change’ on their observations of everyday events (say, heating a frying pan made out of an alloy), whereas the intended conceptual change is deeper as in transformation of matter at the submicroscopic level to form magnesium oxide. They also believe that the resulting magnesium oxide is waste, just like the ash obtained from burning paper, which should be simply discarded in the bin, but from a scientific dimension, you could pass an electric current through the liquid ‘ash’ to regain the pure magnesium metal. Using macroscopic models of phenomena and scaffolding the individual stages of change through demonstrations and/or simulations, and repeated exposure to these strategies should enable the desired conceptual change in learners (Treagust et al, 2000). An appropriate reflection where students are asked to explicitly describe the relationships between their everyday conceptions of change, and their curricular experiences in school laboratories or outdoor learning spaces should augment the accuracy of their mental models. The potential of science curricula could be maximised when teaching and learning strategies encourage learners to interpret change from a scientific perspective, not common sense. 

b. Analogies and Metaphors: According to ‘Writer’s Digest,’ an analogy is a comparison of two things to explain an idea or a concept and unlike a metaphor, it is an argument, not a figure of speech. For an early elementary student who may not have enough academic vocabulary to verbalize the particle model in a solid, an unused box of ‘Ferrero Rocher‘ chocolates might come in handy to visualize and make a concrete connection. However, asking learners to differentiate between the arrangement of chocolates and atoms in a solid could avoid the distortion of their mental models. For a Grade 12 student, s/he needs to internalise what a crystalline lattice is, its historic origins in geometry, and its relationship to macroscopic structures in chemistry and physics. Although a simulation model can accomplish this work, meaningful analogies may not always be necessary to influence their conceptual development. On the other hand, a metaphor is a word or phrase that takes on the meaning of something else. The classic Schrodinger box is a glorified metaphor for an atom that is often used to correctly interpret quantum theory. There are many studies on the effectiveness of analogies and metaphors in K-12 education. To maintain the integrity of conceptual understanding and avoid misconceptions, it is critical to explicitly specify the components of an analogy and its limitations (Brown & Salter, 2010). Owing to the sheer evolutionary nature of science, change in instructional strategies, and sophistication of concept development in higher education, one needs to do due diligence to use good analogies.

c. Teachers’ Assumptions: Early on, I used to over-estimate my learners’ breadth and depth of chemical knowledge and understanding and introduced complex explanations and problems a tad early. Today, I realise why robust background knowledge is important to not only make connections between concepts, but understand the relationships between academic events and real-world science. As an ongoing learner of a foreign language, I have experienced first-hand how deceiving vocabulary could be. For example, the word, ‘malleable’ often denotes flexibility and versatility, but the same term in chemistry involves the use of a hammer/machine to transform a piece of metal into a gift-wrapping foil. Correspondingly, words have several meanings in the academic context. The word ‘precipitation’ refers to the formation of an insoluble product in a chemical reaction, whereas the same learner encounters precipitation as air saturated by water vapor which falls back to the ground as hail or rainfall in geography or environmental science class. The former is caused by a chemical change, whereas the latter is a physical process. However, educators have a responsibility to highlight the commonality between the two processes – the separation of a substance from a suspension. In order to cultivate precise scientific imagination, learners need to understand these similarities and differences in academic vocabulary. Abstract concepts need concrete events or phenomena to anchor student engagement and examples from everyday living and environmental systems promote accessibility and inclusive learning.

Rigorous science instruction allows for multiple pathways to address learners’ pre-instructional conceptions, clear distinction between real-world analogies and academic concepts, and value-added curricular examples that will bring them closer to their surroundings to provide an engaging and immersive learning experience.

References

Brewer, Robert Lee. “Analogy vs. Metaphor vs. Simile (Grammar Rules).” Writer’s Digest, 4 Nov. 2019, http://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/analogy-vs-metaphor-vs-simile-grammar-rules. 

Brown, Simon, and Susan Salter. “Analogies in Science and Science Teaching.” Https://Journals.physiology.org/doi/pdf/10.1152/advan.00022.2010, 26 Sept. 2010.

Treagust, David, et al. “Sources of Students Difficulties in Learning Chemistry.” ResearchGate, Jan. 2000, http://www.researchgate.net/publication/285747197_Sources_of_students_difficulties_in_learning_Chemistry. 

Wizadry, Witchcraft, and Chemistry

https://unsplash.com/photos/ouCiZihVMS8

The holiday season beginning in October is more of a treat than a trick for science teachers in general, and chemistry educators in particular. Engaging the community with demonstrations and hands-on stations is a fun way to infuse enthusiasm and excitement into fundamental science concepts. With a slight dose of creativity, chemistry could be made accessible to even the least interested. Here are a few ideas worth trying:

a. Candymonium: Well, the word doesn’t really exist, but asking learners to carry out a paper chromatography to compare the solubilities of different dyes in candy/food colorings in carbon-based solvents will provide students with a unique perspective on mixture separation. Students in higher grades could play Sherlock by separating a mixture of amino acids in fingerprints and bring the separation to life with ninhydrin spray.

b. ‘The Devil’s Milkshake’: With a few pellets of calcium metal added to water in a graduated cylinder, one could create pretty orange-red flame characteristic of calcium. A multitude of concepts, ranging from atomic structure, emission spectra, and chemical properties of elements could be taught using this single demonstration. Even an extension activity asking learners to explain the connection between acid rain and this so called ‘milkshake’ will push to them to think harder about crosscutting concepts.

c. Orange Clock : This is a personal favourite of mine and it’s so convenient that one could try this from the comfort of a living room. In a transparent glass filled with orange juice, and appropriate amounts of hydrogen peroxide, tincture of iodine, and starch solution, you can verify the amount of Vitamin C in your favourite brand of squash. High quality lessons in stoichiometry and redox chemistry could be delivered via this orange juice clock even in a distance learning program.

d. It’s all about Pumpkins: If one wants to take chemistry lessons to the next level, this could be it. Grounding green pumpkin seeds with a pestle and mortar in a dark room and mixing with nail polish remover followed by shining UV light produces a brilliant orange-red light. Protochlorophyllide, the molecule responsible for this festive illumination, is a precursor to chlorophyll and a variety of interdisciplinary lessons can happen around this phenomenon. With some controlled manipulations and varying strength of organic solvents, IB students could even plan a rigorous exploration for their extended essay or internal assessment.

There you have it. Chemistry isn’t as scary as folks imagine and hope your lessons shed some bright light on learners’ pre-instructional conceptions.

Reference

Brandl, Helmut. Chemistry in Pictures, 6 Apr. 2016, cen.chempics.org/post/142318888173/pumpkin-spiced-fluorescence-inside-a-pumpkin. 

Data Science in Education: Revolution or Revelation

Thanks to Emily Morter at https://unsplash.com/photos/8xAA0f9yQnE.

Ambition Institute defines expertise as the ability to consistently and effectively tackle the persistent problems of a role. What new competencies and skills will give schools and colleges a competitive edge? How do we resolve complex problems related to curriculum, schedules, staffing, and provide fair teaching spaces? The answers might lie partly with what Harvard Business Review calls it the ‘Sexiest job of the 21st century,’ whereas for others, they are known as data scientists. Educational data scientists (EDS) employ, among other things, algorithms, probability, statistical analysis, and advanced computing to interpret and evaluate structured and unstructured data in schools through a pedagogical lens. For these folks to interpret data meaningfully and find value, schools need to supply them with reliable and valid primary and secondary data. The former refers to student work in classrooms and teacher evaluations, whereas the latter focuses on student achievement and parents’ responses to feedback surveys. For instance, concept-based learning is one of the recent interventions in schools to improve learner outcomes. To measure the effectiveness of this strategy for its self-worth and relative usefulness, students could be evaluated on their knowledge, understanding, and skills using a series of instruments containing quantitative and qualitative questions. Reliability (statistical) tests should then be carried out to understand the effectiveness of this strategy, via their attitudes and perceptions, on their long term learning.

Adapted with permission from the revised Theoretical Learning Model (Moody & Sindre, 2003)

Data scientists in conjunction with educators and leadership teams design predictive models by analysing historic data resulting from such interventions to build an objective and growth-centric narrative (not hearsay), for which the former might be known as the strongest advocates of social justice on school campuses. Some might argue that schools are much more than data-driven decision-making, but much turbulence and human suffering can be eliminated and valuable person-hours could be saved by employing these tools. Colleges and universities have already made investments in this direction and hopefully, K-12 schools might follow suit.

Here are three realms where an educational data scientist could have a deeper impact on learning communities:

a. Academic Learning: Adaptive or responsive learning refers to employing computer algorithms to track student learning by feeding into the data received from student visits to a smart learning platform where they might read text, or watch concept videos followed by taking practice quizzes and tests online. The data is then processed to create a customised path, highlight areas of struggle and provide a specific course improvement roadmap. Century-Tech, Learning Catalytics, Dexway Learning etc. are a few noteworthy examples that are transforming vast swaths of learner data into actionable insights. Students do not have to wait for days or weeks for their teachers’ comments on formative and summative assessments. Instead, they work during their own time and pace iterating on their learning goals from the comfort of their mobile devices. Learning Catalytics also allows students to take pre-assessments individually and work on post-tests collaboratively with their peers online, thus increasing learner engagement and deepening conceptual understanding. An educational data scientist could then be your ‘Oracle’ offering precise recommendations, which will in turn enable teachers to make specific interventions to clear misconceptions and provide students with options that have historically improved outcomes in local settings. This new knowledge from the EDC could be used to evaluate teaching methodologies as it is quick, holistic, and fairer than conventional models. A futuristic parent-teacher conference will then be one where all parents and guardians will have access to sharper insights of their children’s learning journeys via their smartphones, which will allow them to ask all the right questions in a limited timeframe, be it about well-being, or engagement, which may not be convenient to track by these digital platforms.

b. Social-Emotional Competencies: Can big data solve the long-standing anxiety and stress problems and strengthen character cultivation and self-management of students in learning communities? For a technologist, it would be an ethical or even a GDPR minefield to sift through students’ social media beehive and it is legally invalid. However, clickstream data from learning platforms, teachers’ remarks on student behaviour, student exchanges on academic fora, classroom attendance, frequency of meeting deadlines, participation in extracurriculars etc. are all fair game. With appropriate permission from students and their parents, EDCs could evaluate this non-academic information to create new knowledge about students’ habits and their mental states and share it with appropriate stakeholders, which can in turn support students, teachers, and counsellors to make informed academic and motivational decisions as they transition to higher grades.

c. Organisational Capabilities: Every year, schools collect massive volumes of data relating to student and parent satisfaction, course offerings, test scores, infrastructure, so on and so forth. Faculty recruitment and relocation, among other things, is a major ritual on human resources’s professional calendar in schools and despite having quick access to monumental data in elaborate databases of hiring agencies, resumes aren’t very structured documents as there is huge variation in their content and formatting. Paul Nelson, an Innovation Lead at Accenture Analytics, believes that one can navigate this unstructured complexity by using coding tools to match candidate qualifications, skills, and professional experiences to precise job descriptions to locate the ‘right fit.’ This strategy doesn’t rule out the human element of perusing candidates’ references and scanning their background checks, but develop an intelligent model that brings together prospective faculty who complement each other’s strengths and attributes. Strategic planning is another key area where a data scientist can share deeper insights on goal-setting, resource mobilisation and allocation. Schools can leverage predictive analytics and cloud technology to refine stakeholder surveys based on historic trends as well as gain broader and deeper insights into client satisfaction. These tools could also be used to uncover the unmet needs of learners, say long-term behaviour analysis and support, access to mental health services, accessible physical spaces for students with disabilities etc. Imagine a dynamic dashboard on a school website, where one could showcase the degrees of progress, via a ‘digital barometer,’ made by different sections of the community, say facilities, governance, HR, teaching and learning etc., with a password-protected private forum to collect and address grievances. Testimonials resulting from access to these strategies will be more meaningful in reaching out to current and prospective parents than traditional approaches.

All these measures will only give us more time to focus on creative efforts aimed at promoting student and faculty engagement and well-being. On the other hand, the security and privacy aspects of big data in schools are equally significant and sensitive. Although encryption technology and anti-malware software can provide a reasonable safety net to prevent unnecessary damage and potential leakage, the risks are widespread and the science is constantly evolving. If K-12 schools were to improve efficiency and advocate educational excellence, formulating policies based on deeper insights resulting from the analysis of strong primary and secondary data will be the way forward.

References

Barker, Jen and Tom Rees. “Persistent Problems: Finding the Purpose for Expert School Leadership.” Ambition Institute, http://www.ambition.org.uk/blog/persistent-problems-expert-school-leadership/. 

“Learning Catalytics.” The World’s Learning Company, http://www.pearson.com/us/higher-education/products-services-teaching/learning-engagement-tools/learning-catalytics.html. 

Moody, Daniel L, and Guttorm Sindre. “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Learning Interventions.” CiteSeerX, Jan. 2003, citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.119.8184. 

“Recruiting with Big Data: Finding Your Best Candidates through Statistical Models & Predictive Analytics.” Search Technologies, http://www.searchtechnologies.com/blog/big-data-recruiting-search-match. 

Thomas H. Davenport and D.J. Patil, and Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” Harvard Business Review, 26 May 2017, hbr.org/2012/10/data-scientist-the-sexiest-job-of-the-21st-century. 

A ‘Capability Approach’ to STEM Education

https://pixabay.com/illustrations/man-head-silhouette-color-dirt-3591573/

Traditionally, a nation’s prosperity is measured in terms of macroeconomic metrics, namely, GDP or per capita GDP, but this shouldn’t be the case says Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and legal scholar, in her book, ‘Creating Capabilities.’ Instead, she says, we need to examine the extent to which countries are successful in providing specific life-changing opportunities, such as the ease of gaining admission to a quality primary school, or securing a bank loan to open a small business, or even availability of broader skills-based training opportunities for the unemployed. The prospect of leading a life of dignity, even in a downturn, where all individuals have the means to unlock their potential is a true testament to a country’s economic development (Nussbaum, 2011). The same could be said about education – an individual’s worth is not determined by average measures.

Earlier this month, I had the great fortune of participating in a series of virtual workshops hosted by Eric Mazur, a Professor of Physics at Harvard University, Isaura Gallegos of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), and Krastan Blagoev at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where like-minded educators from Europe and North America spent a week listening and collaborating on ways to strengthen teaching and learning of science and physics education.

The ultimate goal of these ongoing conversations is to build an international network of high school educators and map out strategies that will enable learners to find and solve authentic problems and make decisions like experts, where a premium is placed on the process of thinking. For example, when a student is told that the extreme weather conditions she experienced last year is due to the ongoing climate change, she should be able to verify this statement using a broader framework based on trustworthy science. To build this capability, educators should facilitate deeper analysis and debate where learners justify their claims using explicit vocabulary and reflect on the appropriateness of quantitative methodologies employed. Here are four major themes that captured my imagination:

1. Active engagement is often cited to narrow gaps in student learning and there are several meta-analyses to support this claim. However, to build this capability effectively, educators should have a clear understanding of all the processes associated with this method. Prof. Mazur in his interactive workshop, ‘Promoting Social Interactions,’ asked us to think of one skill we are good at and reflect on how we got better at it over the years. Many of us attribute the finesse acquired more to practice than being constantly lectured about this skill. One of the common questions teachers are asked after a test/exam is, “Did we cover this in class?” To encourage students move beyond their comfort zones, they should be consistently trained in solving authentic scenario-based problems that will allow them to unlearn ways of approaching conceptual questions in a linear manner. Mazur’s dual-strategy of giving concept tests followed by moderating rich peer instruction enhanced both his students’ conceptual understanding and curricular confidence by over 40%, particularly among non-physics majors and pre-med students.

A scenario-based problem (1. FUO: fever of unknown origin; 3. hx: medical history) [Source: Eric Mazur, Harvard University]

2. Decision-Making: Recent advances in cognitive science and machine learning led to the development of evidence-informed practices in education and good decision-making by learners is at the heart of developing critical mindedness. In his presentation titled, “Taking a Scientific Approach to Physics Education,” Carl Wieman, a Professor of Physics and Education at Stanford University and Nobel laureate (2001), encouraged us to employ Cognitive Task Analysis (CTA) to understand the differences in the performance of novices and experts by comparing the development and evolution of mental models in these two groups. He suggested educators should fill class time with questions and problems that call for explicit expert thinking, address novice difficulties, and are challenging, but doable. Providing frequent specific feedback to guide and refine scientific thinking should become the norm as opposed to standard feedback where student work/thinking is simply labelled incorrect and are provided with correct solutions (Wieman, 2020). Research from neurobiology and cognitive psychology suggests that when learners act on the former, it would result in structural changes that are believed to encode the learning in the brain.

Teaching to make decisions like an expert [Source: Carl Wieman, Stanford University]

3. Algorithmic Thinking: To leverage the full power of data, one needs to define the problem at the outset and own it by visualising the key variables and their conceptual connections. This could be done by infusing meaningful technology into collaborative inquiry projects. Algorithmic thinking can be actively promoted among learners by customising activities on digital platforms and manipulating software (Staudt, 2020). For instance, using graphs generated from a simple digital sensor, students could be asked to explicitly explain the methodology behind computing the resulting temperature when equal volumes of cold and hot water are mixed together in a container. The focus is not on what the final temperature is, but how and why one would rearrange the variables in creating an algorithm to compute the final value. The upside of this digital strategy is that educators could develop granular expert-like thinking even in resource-scarce schools. In a three-year Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) conducted by Walden et al in 2014 on a diverse group of over 2000 middle school students showed that incorporating such supportive multimedia strategies led to a deepening of science knowledge and understanding, particularly among second language learners and those with learning disabilities.

4. Integrated Interdisciplinary Learning: We work and reside in spaces designed and driven by synthesis of ideas and constructs and learning happens when students successfully build an internal model of the diverse outside world. Catherine Crouch of Swarthmore College offers a narrative that focuses on taking advantage of student interests in offering a robust interdisciplinary perspective to learning of physical sciences. Concepts, such as energy and entropy are traditionally taught with a restrictive focus without paying heed to their life science or medical science dimensions. One strategy is to amplify physical science topics, such as optics, thermodynamics, radiation-matter interactions etc., that are meaningful to all learners, and reduce time spent on content, say kinematics and induction. Doing so will provide learners with the much-needed justification for their time spent in understanding these topics, particularly to those who may not specialise in physical sciences post-high school. Learners in this instructional cycle should clearly understand why it is important what they are learning, how their new understanding is connected to things they already know, and how they could use their new learning (Crouch & Heller, 2014). For interdisciplinary learning to flourish in schools, external examination boards need to formally embrace this 21st century methodology by reimagining their curricula and assessment practices and offering greater flexibility to learners.

Schematic illustrating the instructional cycle: A topic is introduced with a biological motivation, explored using physics contexts that have been shown to be effective for instruction, and finally the topic is applied to a biological problem (usually the original biological motivation). [Sources: Catherine Crouch, Swarthmore College and Kenneth Heller, University of Minnesota]

From “Advanced Modelling Strategies” to “Uniting Science and Math with Data Science” and “Building an Experiential STEM PD Model,” several meaningful lessons were learned during this five-day workshop. One overarching theme that resonated most is that to create an impact on learners and their thinking processes at scale, global partnerships between educators, administrators, and policymakers need to be forged and sustained. Building robust pedagogical capabilities in STEM or other subject areas is a shared responsibility and tangible activism will be key to influencing and improving learner outcomes. Differentiated professional development models and subject-specific mentoring will be two important first steps in this direction. As Prof. Mazur rightly pointed out in his closing remarks, “We want our students to become better problem-solvers than us and ‘stand’ on our shoulders to see the future.” I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks to Carl Wieman (Stanford University), Catherine Crouch (Swarthmore College), and Eric Mazur (Harvard University) for allowing me to use some imagery from their presentations.

References

Crouch, C. & Heller, K. (2014). Introductory Physics In Biological Context: An Approach To Improve Introductory Physics For Life Science Students. American Journal Of Physics. Volume 82, Issue 5. 378-386.

Mazur, E. (2019). Peer Instruction Method in 4 Steps. Https://Www.Wooclap.Com/En/Blog/Brain-Education/Flip-Your-Classroom-in-4-Steps-with-Eric-Mazur/.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

Staudt, C. (2020). Practical Activities with Digital Sensors. Http://Physicsoflivingsystems.Org/Events/Physicseducation/Talk-Abstracts/. 

Terrazas-Arellanes, F. E., Gallard M., A. J., Strycker, L. A., & Walden, E. D. (2018). Impact of interactive online units on learning science among students with learning disabilities and English learners. International Journal of Science Education40(5), 498–518. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500693.2018.1432915.

Wieman, C. (2020). A Scientific Approach to Physics Education. Retrieved from http://physicsoflivingsystems.org/events/physicseducation/talk-abstracts/.

Wrestling with Social Justice

Thanks to Imran Bangash at https://unsplash.com/photos/3rCHO9yEb5g.

Social justice is an incredibly loaded term and there is a wide range of perspectives and interpretations about its origins and implementation. My initial brushings with fair play, like any school-going kid, were simple arguments over mundane things, such as asserting my turn in a game of marbles, or debating whether the umpire was right in dismissing my team player in a game of cricket on a hot summer day. Growing up, I also had multiple opportunities to listen to my parents’ interpretations of Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, where Lord Krishna in one of his long sermons to Arjuna, the chief protagonist of the epic Mahabharata, equates the ideals of justice to overcoming selfishness, clarity of thought, and genuine impartiality. In high school, I read briefly about Plato’s version of justice as the umbilical cord that connects humans in a society and a prerequisite for happiness.

As a working adult who spent teaching and mentoring youngsters for nearly two decades overseas, my experiences with fairness and objectivity do not fully resonate with my childhood dealings. Obviously, there is a significant disconnect between the written word and practice of just concepts. With the unfolding of recent social tensions across the globe, I began questioning the contributions of educators and policymakers to the narrative and portrayal of social justice at an institutional level. Could provision of equitable learning opportunities and greater assimilation between diverse communities lead to a fairer society? Does increased financing of under-funded schools level the playing field? Should we train employees at all levels in strategies to fight hostile behaviour and microaggressions at work place? Should we impose heavy penalties or even jail time for serious offensive language and actions as measures of last resort? I have always looked up to the city state of Singapore in its constant struggle to maintain racial harmony and I clearly remember Mr. K. Shanmugam, the Minister for Home Affairs and Law, in one of his recent community interactions posing this thoughtful question on human awareness: “How many people would normally know why a muslim woman wears a hijab?” The devil is in the details of transitioning from abstract theories about justice to personal experience-based advocacy.

From an educator perspective, I find a three-pronged strategy appropriate to strengthen the narrative of understanding and celebrating each other’s culture:

  1. Cross-culturalism: Cross-culturalism or multiculturalism is a common thread found in mission statements of schools, colleges, and corporations. We need to enable leaners at a very early age to understand and internalise the meaning and sources of power, privilege, and opportunity. A cross-cultural curriculum uses a multidimensional approach to understand complex issues by painting a holistic picture of events and people associated with them. For example, when a pre-school student complains that his classmate’s lunch has a distinct odour, instead of reprimanding, it should be viewed as a great teachable moment where kids can learn to not only honor diversity in their environs, but appreciate each other’s cultural differences. I’d put all my science teaching aside for a moment or two to walk this extra mile or marathon. The imagery, language, formal and informal interactions between adults, recruitment and marketing practices in schools all should mirror the mission and vision statements if we were to model diversity and inclusion that we showcase, provided we have the same minimum expectations clearly articulated to all our stakeholders.
  2. Critical Pedagogy: The question here is how do we weaponise education to break the shackles of oppression and amplify the voices of the unheard and introverts who might even have a deeper understanding of the subject than the most articulate person in the room? A curriculum that nurtures learners’ both analytical and evaluative skills, where ideologies and claims are challenged and opinions of all learners are registered. For instance, when I choose a chemistry textbook for my young learners, I have to overcome my own implicit bias or preferences for authors from a certain country or background and see what best meets the needs of diverse learners in my classroom? Also, if one of my students’ challenges my convictions about a particular concept or issue, I should be willing to fully listen to his/her perspective resisting the weight of my own knowledge and professional experience. As students’ witness adults modelling best practices day in and day out, without openly subscribing to a given political ideology or ethnicity, their worldview will be shaped by our honest actions.
  3. Citizenship: The other day I asked some of my learners to undertake a collaborative reading and questioning exercise to tackle an interdisciplinary unit in atomic physics. A couple of them questioned the point of this exercise as we have already completed the syllabus and they are done with all the required assessments. In return, I inquired, as rightful inhabitants, if it would be worthwhile for us to reflect on the workings of the universe and how we came to be where we are and what the role of an atom and light is in our existence and being. The point here is to understand the twin concepts of responsibility and morality. For example, if we ask educators to judge two groups of students for their awareness about social responsibility, where one is raising funds to donate to feed hungry refugees in their local area, whereas the other is employing digital tools to teach English and math to disadvantaged high school students in a remote location, some would say the former is standing in solidarity to better their fellow humans’ lives, while the latter is equipping them with the skills and attributes needed to thrive in a knowledge economy. Maxine Greene in her seminal book, Teaching for Social Justice, argues that justice is the output of collective human actions in spaces where we cohabitate and to leverage the potential of a society of unfulfilled promises, each one of us will be the catalyst for increased social consciousness. To build ethically vibrant institutions and societies, we need to engage and empower individuals at a very early age and multiple levels with a broad set of tools and not shy away from debates that might cause potential discomfort in the shorter term.

References:

ERIC – Education Resources Information Center. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ925898.pdf

Journal of Emerging Trends in Educational Research and Policy Studies: Home. https://jeteraps.scholarlinkresearch.com/articles/Education%20as%20a%20Quest%20to%20Freedom.pdfReferences 

I am Justice: Clear, Impartial. (n.d.). Retrieved June 13, 2020, from https://www.poetseers.org/spiritual-and-devotional-poets/india/bhagavad-gita/i-am-justice/

Progress made in forging understanding of race, but issue remains ‘spiky’: Shanmugam. (n.d.). TODAYonline. https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/progress-made-forging-understanding-race-issue-remains-spiky-shanmugam

What is in your Summer Suitcase?

 

suitcase-and-books

http://www.publicdomainpictures.net

As day temperatures hit double digits and the Sun beams brightly through the living room windows in this part of the world, the word ‘summer’ brings a range of positive memories to many and those engaged in education have a lot to cheer for as we come out of an extended ‘winter’ of our lives. However, the upcoming summer might be radically different than anything we have seen in our lifetime.

On a personal note, I will be exchanging an offer to teach an accelerated chemistry course on the U.S. East Coast, which now stands canceled, to a staycation and local travel in Germany interspersed with some professional writing and training, not to mention the long walks in the nearby woods. My gut tells me I’ll be more appreciative of my extended down time than ever before and couldn’t have been more upbeat about the upcoming holiday. As my wife and I become seasoned travellers, packing suitcases is not an ordeal as it was ten years ago where we even carried our oral hygiene kits with us as visits to a dentist’s office in downtown Tokyo wasn’t an inexpensive affair and not all health insurances are created equally.

The reference point to both our lives and travel in the coming months and years is somewhat similar to that of a desktop or bookmarks on a web browser – keep things that truly matter. What do I mean by this? The concept of minimalism, no matter what one’s faith, is based on not just having the most fundamental essentials, but reducing our cravings for unending collectibles, having a greater personal say in choosing people who matter in our lives, be it relatives or friends, and unapologetically divesting oneself from unpleasant relationships, yet proactively replenishing toolkits that promote physical and mental well-being.

Junichiro Tanizaki in his 1933 essay, In Praise of Shadows, argues about the need to savour and embrace sensibility and ephemerality and become comfortable with ambiguity without having to worry about finding continuous alternatives to our current ‘possessions.’ Mr. Tanizaki might as well be one of the pioneering advocates of harmonious and sustainable living long before any formal campaign was initiated on this issue. My mysterious suitcase will be stuffed with the following:

  1. Detox: Opening windows is a daily ritual and the goal is to not only let fresh streams of air in, but exchange unwanted memories with pleasant noises of nature. As a friend tweeted earlier, in tough times, you got to remember the good times. Being extra kind, not judgmental, to a partner, student, or colleague having a rough day or walking extra few meters or a kilometer to make a meaningful difference to someone under our care might as well amplify our own mental well-being.
  2. Evaluate: May be it’s time to become collectively intentional about registering things that will stay or go off our shelves, suitcases, and minds after a thoughtful evaluation. However, there might be new additions to our non-negotiable list, say items that promote personal hygiene, allocation of more time to learn and master new skills, redesigning work and personal spaces in our homes. The educator in me is already reminding me to plan for the supposed learning decline in fall that might be steeper than previous years. My energies should be focused on creating and curating resources that will both help close the gaps and provide momentum to experience high-end meaningful learning.
  3. Stay Dynamic: Come hell or high water, the roles and expectations of our jobs don’t change much, rather we might be asked to step up, or even don multiple hats. Be it tempest winds or scorching heat, the feet need to stay firmly on the ground, with occasional swing to the sides. As Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, inventor, and philosopher said, our dignity lies in our thought and to raise ourselves, we need to make it our task to think well. Our antenna need to be pitched high enough to filter off the unwanted noise and inclined to receive the right signals in order to thrive in the fourth dimension of border-free work.

As we encounter change like never before, our physical and psychological defences will be expected to be on high alert and our willingness to build and maintain new social bridges will be critical to keeping our sanity, order, and long-term happiness.

References:

A quote by Blaise Pascal. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/248961-the-human-being-is-only-a-reed-the-most-feeble

Tanizaki Junichirō. (2019). In praise of shadows. London: Vintage Digital.