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.

 

Next Stop: Hybrid Learning

photo-1518365050014-70fe7232897fhttps://unsplash.com/photos/NVWyN8GamCk

Starting May 4, we’ll enter the ‘next normal’ of re-opening the economy in many parts of the world, including Germany and it’s fair to say some are slowly gaining confidence while others are genuinely anxious. This is very much in line with the ground reality of invisibility and lack of access to concrete data and facts. Schools have a bigger challenge of providing quality education with a constant awareness of health and safety of learners and faculty being at the top of the list. Some parents still aren’t comfortable with sending their kids to school and their reaction is perfectly understandable. Educators have been asked to do the balancing act of providing equitable learning as some students will be calling in from their homes, while others will be in classrooms adjusting to the new distancing rules. A hybrid or blended model refers to a combination of online and face-to-face learning happening simultaneously in real-time. Alternatively, you’d space out the two by recording lessons and sharing them on a Learning Management System (LMS) if the learners are spread over multiple time zones. Here are some approaches that might be worth trying and I’ll discuss using a spaceship analogy:

  1. The Launch: A good ice breaker or discrepant event are phenomena which defy prior knowledge and understandings of learners and create a cognitive disequilibrium. One could do a live or an electrifying demonstration, or even show a video to highlight a concept the students learned earlier in the year followed by cold calling learners, online and offline, to answer a series of questions to explain the episode. Alternatively, they could be asked to tackle a digital misconception probe and explain the nuance behind the occurrence. A deep thinking event that encourages students to evaluate their prior knowledge is comparable to an optimal fuel ratio that provides the initial pedagogical thrust for a successful initiation.
  2. Cruising: To build on the momentum learners just gained, there is a need for gradual building up of challenge and room for substantial practice and application of concepts. The transition from explicit instruction of a concept or topic for 15-20 minutes to providing guidelines for the next set of tasks will be critical to maintaining learner engagement. Students should be encouraged to work in synergy with online learners. This is where technology could be a great equaliser. There is a multitude of possibilities to explore. Online learners could collaborate with their peers in class via Google Drive to solve problems or the instructor could scaffold small group discussions by syncing the whiteboard with conferencing software. Students learning from their homes should be given a slightly wider berth in terms of completing their curricular tasks. They should be encouraged to turn on their cameras to visually engage with their peers and the teacher.
  3. Separation: Learners should work on independent tasks to evaluate their knowledge and understandings. From tackling problem sets to answering conceptual questions, or rehearsing for verbal presentations, this stage should provide opportunities to demonstrate mastery.
  4. In Orbit: Once learners feel comfortable in their learning zone, they could reflect on the lesson by interviewing each other or the instructor all done from a safe distance. A quick survey or exit ticket done using an app should yield key insights into the efficiency of this new model of learning. To further enhance the integrity of tasks, online learners should be asked to share their screens as they recap their learning. Instructors should use this data to do a quick audit of their teaching strategies to make further adjustments to their hybrid approaches.

With the right blend of ideas, infrastructure, and implementation, we should promote meaningful interactions between learners based in class and those at home. The point is to continue working without losing oneself and at the same time use this opportunity to evolve both as a professional and human being. Who knows, we might make new discoveries along the way, hopefully leading to improved outcomes.

Celebrating the Class of 2020

graduation-cap-graduation-cap-education-school-success2Adapted from http://www.wallpaperflare.com [Royalty-free imagery]

Gedenken-Experiment‘ is one of the endearing words in my limited German vocabulary which translates to a thought experiment in English. Being a science educator, I simply can’t resist the urge to hypothesize the various probabilities of mundane things affecting me on a daily basis. Given the current situation, I have been deeply pondering about what is going on in the minds of you, the seniors, who invested a great deal of energy and time to reach the culmination of your secondary/tertiary education and all of a sudden, you have been asked to scale down your milestone experiences, albeit for the greater good.

I have been toying with the idea, what if we all take a ride in our imaginary time machine and join the Class of 2020 for their 20th reunion on the very campus where you had a special graduation. If so, what anecdotes will I hear from you? Have all the high school award winners made it in life? Tasting success in your chosen field may not be as controlled an experiment as getting the top mark on a class test or performance and you are for no reason at fault. In a world full of expectations, it is natural to take actions that lead to predictable and positive outcomes and become risk averse. You might then ask me, what about all those praises I sang about you on your report cards. Well, if you focus on your personal attributes, you can hear me say whether you were consistently enthusiastic, or a risk taker, or even a decisive team player. You broke out of your cocoon to mentor your peers and juniors in academics or a sport. You traveled half-way around the world to share your passions and skills with the disadvantaged. In short, you have been great ambassadors of your mentors and fellow humans. Now the question is, did you continue to seek new adventures post-high school and college? Is your ideological circle as diverse as a tossed salad? How often did you meaningfully disagree in a professional setting? The only good that comes out of a herd setting, at a definite cost of course, is immunity, nothing else.

After we have our healthy share of beverages and ready to part, let’s say some of you might reluctantly ask me if I were to do it all over again, what would I change? Well, I’d still say in a world of complex decision-making, you need to choose the lesser evil. How do you decide you may ask? Facts and data over rhetoric and anecdotes, compassion and empathy over hubris and apathy, deep listening over waiting to respond, reading over watching, movement against inertia, and flexibility over firmness. Of all the things mentioned, I want to discuss two ideas or attributes at length that are increasingly important in a world dominated by social media and political overtones:

Scientific Temper: This idea goes well beyond textbook-based education and classroom explorations. It is a way of life where you not only search for truth but keep an open mind and adjust your sails periodically as you set forth to navigate the uncharted waters of open-ended inquiry. It is also going beyond the world of Internet and search engines to ask questions that don’t exist today. It is a framework that you carefully treasure in your ideological toolkit, whose circumference increases over time by additions from your fellow truth seekers. To evolve as human species, we need to not just question the status quo, but be willing to offer replacement ideas that would remove the protective layers of dogma, or even common sense. You’ll be part of a unique generation that will drive the renewed discourse on building a new future where social capital will be as important as economic gains. The important questions are: How willing are you to experiment to avoid falling into the traps of prejudice and leniency? What will be your contribution to the collective intellectual and equitable growth of humanity?

Adaptability: The moment learning communities switched to distance learning in March 2020, all of you have shown tremendous malleability in learning the ropes of distance education and alternative assessment. You displayed nonchalant attitude and behavior to stay on top of things. As you enter the workforce in a few years from now, the margins of error and course corrections will become increasingly narrow. Do not hesitate to seek counsel from your trusted peers or competent mentors. The uncertainty we experience today may not stop here, but you might encounter, hopefully on a smaller scale, during a different phase of your life. How positively you take things in your stride and how quickly you move on to get work done will significantly influence your happiness quotient. Many of you will be expected to learn new skills at short notice, or even asked to work in areas not directly related to your major. Your emotional well-being will be dependent on how efficiently you respond to these realities.

Hoping we have done our jobs, I wish you well as you explore new realms. Here is a short haiku I penned in your honor. Enjoy all of it!

Your elastic versatility

palpable, inspiring

Balance. Health. Being

The Distance Learning Playbook

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These past two weeks of spring break (couldn’t travel anywhere, though) gave a short respite to mull over the events unfolding on both personal and professional fronts. I did some reading as well as participated in a few webinars to reflect on this new routine of teaching and learning.  A few participants felt they have ‘Zoomed out,’ whereas others shared experiences of  a near-meltdown due to staying in isolation and  listening to several experts advocating a range of coping strategies. However, one theme that resonated with most of us was, how do we come together as communities and make interactions of all stakeholders meaningful?

Andreas Schleicher of OECD in his recent HundrED.org webinar rightly pointed out that the entrepreneurial spirit of teachers will be key to success where they will be expected to become co-creators, facilitators, coaches, and storytellers for students to engage remotely. On the other hand, Priya Parker argues that instead of looking for the best solutions, educators should focus on using content strategies as vehicles to help learners find meaning and gain confidence during these dire times. To do so, we need to understand the academic, emotional, and physical needs of our learners and the purpose behind our endeavors:

a. From an academic perspective, choosing resources that involve play where learners interact with everyday materials or multimedia tools in a group setting to model concepts they are exploring. For instance, middle schoolers could demonstrate the concept of pressure by exposing a PET bottle to varying degrees of cold and warm environments and compare the relative magnitude of depression in the container or its pre- and post-exposure circumference. In breakout teams, they could design collaborative posters to provide sub-microscopic explanations in terms of particle movement and their kinetic energy. To enforce rigor, they should be asked to scale this model by creating miniature indoor skis using cardboard or PVC that result in optimal movement. Assessment is another area that is on many educators’ minds. How do we evaluate learners objectively and yet maintain the integrity of testing? Some of my peers asked learners to sign integrity pledges, while others are employing interactive digital tools, such as ‘Socrative,’ ‘Exam.net‘ that enable locking in where questions are answered in a limited time frame. We simply can’t ‘proctor’ for 100% success here, so creating assignments that require greater input and analysis from learners will be the way forward. A renewed focus on student engagement and viewing assessments as learning tools will be met with greater satisfaction both for the maker and taker.

b. Persistence will be one key emotional skill for educators as well as learners. The number of things that could go wrong on a digital platform, particularly the newer and less explored ones, is an open secret now. ‘Zoom-bombing,’ ‘network raiding’ aren’t titles of video games, but genuine disruptions that can expose learners to inappropriate and unpleasant content. Delivering lessons using robust security settings or switching to time-tested platforms and encouraging learners to seek help as they navigate these tools on a daily basis are some strategies to reinforce mental tenacity. To promote active and explicit communication, teachers should create concise single-page instructions that will allow students to use new software or analyze data, or even navigate a new learning management system (LMS). Similarly, the novelty of online learning might slowly wear off and students may not show the same level of motivation day in and day out. To sustain their engagement, the learning tasks should be manageable and enable learners to make progress and experience success first-hand. They should be given opportunities to share these successes both with their peers and families. As a senior high school teacher, I have been discussing with them how all of this knowledge and skills will be used next year to pursue challenging and worthwhile academic tasks. During these few weeks of distance learning, I discovered that empathy can lead to motivation, too. When our seniors learned  that the May 2020 IB DP exams were cancelled, they took upon themselves to curate their learning by making a series of podcasts and screencasts for their immediate juniors. In the process, they not only revisited their core content and coursework, but created long-lasting resources that could be used by prospective IB learners.

c. The physical environment is another key enabler in distance learning. Finding a quiet, well-lit and relaxing work space far from the noises of tv-watching and phone conversations is critical to success in distance learning. Good posture and a healthy dose of exercise are equally vital to maintain learners’ focus. To avoid unwanted distractions, I have been asking my students to leave their cell phones in another room where they don’t have immediate access.

At some point in the very near future we will be returning to our brick-and-mortar classrooms and when we look back, we should be able to claim we did rise to the challenge and build something meaningful, be it in Cloud or professional relationships, to address the needs of our learning communities, or as some would say, ‘not wasted a crisis.’

 

References:

HundrED Webinar with Andreas Schleicher. (2020, April 14). Retrieved April 16, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOl-E_Vc49k

Parker. (n.d.). How to create meaningful connections while apart. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/priya_parker_how_to_create_meaningful_connections_while_apart

What Makes a Successful Online Learner? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://careerwise.minnstate.edu/education/successonline.html

Iso’lessons’

photo-1534330207526-8e81f10ec6fchttps://unsplash.com/photos/Pv5WeEyxMWU

‘Isolationship’ is the new Facebook status, which means you’re paying back on that abstract overdue mortgage in space-time realm for missing on all the good times with your family, thanks to a relatively unknown, yet stealthy microbe. This new social and physical distance allows us to take risks outside traditional workspaces. People are expanding their knowledge and skills in specific areas to meaningfully engage their customers, overcome boredom, and get rid of the constant distress of interior spaces. Both men and women drive halfway through cities and towns, providing basic supplies to folks they call friends. In short, there is a general sense of  good samaritanship permeating into communities which I haven’t witnessed in my adult life. The question is, why didn’t we see this event coming when we could glimpse the residual water tracks on Mars from eons ago and capture the image of a black hole? Does this mean scientists, who also have their own agenda, can collaborate more effectively than politicians and policymakers?

As an educator by choice, I have been genuinely disheartened by recent happenings in the global institutional sphere. Clearly, the current situation reveals an urgent need for bipartisan legislation and results-oriented actions to respond to emergency crises, both in health and education sectors.  When I were in college, I saw a local movie with an intriguing plot where the protagonist, a journalist, grills the chief minister (the CEO-equivalent) of his state to know first-hand why he is not delivering on his promise and the latter gets so annoyed by the former’s questions that at one point challenges him to step into his shoes to feel the pressures of 24/7 responsibility and run the affairs for a single day.  Hesitant at first, but eventually convinced by his colleagues from the press, this chap completes formalities to become the interim executive and like many movies from the sub-continent, it does obviously end on a happy note with him becoming the de jure leader. It’s highly improbable that I will ever be able to to question decisions made by global agencies, but if creativity is the 21st century hymn or anthem that enabled us to scale new altitudes, how do we channel it to maintain the trust placed in us by the younger generation? How can we quickly supplement our emergency toolkits before disasters, particularly those that do not follow a trend, push us to a critical juncture?

Self-discipline, no matter what generation one is, could be a great accelerator. It’s not just representative of ethical choices, but a tonic for breaking fatigue and exploring new frontiers especially when we fall short on resources and time. To paraphrase Elbert Hubbard, a 19th century philosopher and writer, we need to be brutally proactive in getting things done when we don’t have the slightest inclination. Our faith in institutions grows over time based on their responsible and reliable actions. As Harry S. Truman rightfully points out, the first victory we can claim is when we address our own shortcomings.

Just like schools have accreditation visits to maintain quality control, we need a global distress ombudsman, or a formal SOS organization who can take stock of disaster preparedness of nations in general and institutions in critical areas in particular, especially those in education and health. We need an enforcer who will design and oversee actionable solutions to containment, policy, preparation, resources, and surveillance. One can argue that the current crisis is unprecedented even for the best equipped nations, but how many of those gotten into a war-footing mode to deliver life-saving diagnostic kits and protective equipment or even remodel unoccupied physical spaces as emergency shelters?

These days I wake up with a sense of sluggishness akin to what one experiences after binge-watching a doomsday TV series. Luckily, witnessing how well and responsibly my students carry themselves in these challenging times, reminds me of the Wordsworthian lines which my late father often quoted, “The child is father of the man.” As long as we sustain that youthful enthusiasm and apply the lessons we learn today to shape tomorrow’s world where countries’ will be rated not based on their nuclear stockpile numbers or space successes, but for visionary leadership and trans-national collaboration  resulting in large-scale preparedness both in matters of public health and economic policy that will plug gaps in delivery systems and nurture a law-abiding citizenry.

 

References:

Cohen-Vrignaud, G., Metz, S., Dunville, J., Heath, S., McLeod, J. P., Powell, K., … Haynes, B. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://web.utk.edu/~gerard/romanticpolitics/wordsworth-and-the-child.html

Sullivan, K. (n.d.). Harry S. Truman Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.truman.edu/about/history/our-namesake/truman-quotes

The secret of self-discipline. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://london.ac.uk/news-and-opinion/student-blog/secret-self-discipline

 

Ethics and Trust in Distance Learning

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So much water has flown under the distance learning bridge since the beginning of 2020 and next week, it will be our turn to take over the reins. As we stand on the shoulders and experiences of our educator-counterparts in Asia, there are two key things that will  be vital to this journey- the ethical and trust dimensions of remote learning.

As human beings and citizens of the world, we are all expected to adhere to a set of norms and when we go online, our actions become less succinct. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, how do we hold ourselves and those under our care to the same degree of standards when the other person doesn’t have full access to our doings or non-verbal cues? Since educators are ambassadors of their respective schools, there is a strong need to abide by the policies set by learning communities and when in doubt, seek clarification from their supervisors. To deliver on our moral promise, we’ll be pressed hard to enforce predictable and positive behaviors:

  1. Quality of instructional process: To keep the rigor train on track, one needs to avoid distracting content or examples as well as unpleasant humor. As time progresses, the learning curve should shift from lower order knowledge and understanding-based tasks to personalized complex synthesis and evaluative assignments where deep reflection and research will be needed to make strong conclusions. Doing so should also reinforce the much needed academic honesty from learners. For instance, a summative authentic task that is worth incentivizing in high school chemistry would be to analyze the evolution of battery design from their grand parents time to the present day in their home country. Using anecdotal evidence and data-driven argument, learners should build an original and meaningful narrative explaining the scientific processes behind the evolution of this energy-storage device. The learners should also be evaluated for their metacognitive skills where they need to share the challenges faced in the research and analysis process.
  2. Modeling: Instructors should model good behavior and humility. Honest acknowledgement of mistakes, appreciation, and feedback will go a long way in developing a healthy online learning community. By encouraging students to work in collaborative groups and assigning clear responsibilities, we need to show that we are all genuinely invested in this collective learning initiative. Minor aberrations pertaining to behavior should be aptly handled and major issues should be appropriately dealt with using existing protocols. Educators should promote positivity and demonstrate firm stewardship of learners’ overall well-being.
  3. Self-Management: Distance learning provides us all with a tremendous opportunity to better ourselves in terms of managing our time and resources with little help from the outside. As we now don’t have to supervise kids during homerooms or in the cafeteria, not to mention the mandatory social distancing, we could rather invest this time to find flexible learning spaces and resources. Face-to-face interactions and real-time articulation could be meaningful to many, but also could be equally tense for some learners. Distance learning levels the playing field, thus offering students a more relaxed pace to direct their own learning by strengthening their imagination and reflective skills.

This may not be the last time we might have to board the distance learning plane, but our current experiences might shape our future practices and prospects as career professionals.

References:

Coppola, Nancy W., Hiltz, Starr Roxanne, and Rotter, Naomi G. (2004) Building Trust in Virtual Teams. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, (June), 95-104.

S., Vighnarajah, Ng, Alvin, Chuah, Kee-Man. (2017) Ethical Conduct of E-Learners and E-Teachers in Online Learning Community.

 

 

What is a Sustainable Learning Community?

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It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say no professional meeting or formal get-together concludes these days without mentioning or discussing the term, ‘sustainability.’ The oft-quoted definition from the Brundtland Commission, formerly known as the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), refers to sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The challenge lies in breaking this premise to concrete operational practices so that there is at least some form of ecological equilibrium between the rates of consumption and replenishment. If I may have to use a personal analogy, I should not be using more water to shower than the annual rainfall recorded on my habitation.

Using my educator lens, I’ll discuss three realms where learning communities could become agents of sustainable change:

  1. The Curriculum: I am a big believer in the power of learning framework and systems thinking where students make explicit connections between abstract concepts and their social, economic, and environmental dimensions. An integrated, cross-curricular K-12 approach that enables learners to develop age-appropriate deeper understandings about global environmental issues will be needed to overcome the complexity at hand. Adapting case-study or phenomenon-based learning to examine the pro’s and con’s of human actions for their lasting impact on both the resources and overall health of the planet should be the drivers of everyday-learning.
  2. The Practices: Learners should be actively involved to understand the different parts of a learning community and key aspects of consumption, be it human, material, or financial. Each of these spheres should be examined for their carbon footprint and design multiple solutions to lower waste. For example, does providing financial incentives encourage all stakeholders to spend less on fuel, be it for personal transportation or electricity consumption? Students should dig into real-time data and make projections to understand the viability of such short-term material benefits. Learners should also look at schools as macro-models to identify the less efficient pieces that could be altered or replaced by those with greater efficiency. Another data analysis project students could work on would be undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of schools’ initiatives, say where all members of the learning community go digital with very minimal printing of documents. Results from these analyses should be shared with the wider community or incorporated into annual newsletters to educate them on the benefits and risks associated.
  3. The Blueprint: Not all plans would come to fruition in a month or year. Learning communities should leverage their expertise and past experiences to design future actions by factoring in the views and opinions of a variety of stakeholders. There should be mechanisms to monitor and evaluate data both from old and new projects. Research needs to be carried out before shifting to new strategies or alternatives. An emergency fund will be needed to support short-term projects in the eventuality of large scale system failure. All of these plans should be designed by accounting for the impact of external climatic factors on resource availability.

Schools and Strategy

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Michael E. Porter, a renowned academic at Harvard Business School (HBS) and strategy guru, once quipped that the best CEOs he knows are teachers and strategy is at the core of their practice. In many cultures these words might receive lukewarm response or even provoke laughter as value addition by educators can’t be measured by quarterly revenues or stock value appreciation, not to mention we don’t commute by choppers or chic limos, but what message do Prof. Porter’s words convey? One key idea that comes to my mind is that effective educators are highly agile and have greater clarity about their vocation. They walk into chaotic and struggling classrooms to create something transformational and of value in a year or two and I was fortunate to have a few both in high school and college. They view learners as unique individuals and encourage them to reach their potential even with limited resources and use non-linear paths to improve outcomes for all. The tough choices they make everyday are meant to promote interests of their learners in the long-term. What constitutes sustainable strategy, then?

  1. Choices: Inquiry-based learning is one of the 21st century practices employed by teachers to promote creativity and problem-solving. The question is how do educators navigate and still empower learners even when things don’t go as per the plan. As Chief Strategy Officers, educators should moderate student discussions and actions to not only arrive at the expected goalposts, but create a culture where failures are treated as teachable moments. For example, asking students why this experiment fell flat from its very inception? Could you precisely tell me all the things that could have gone wrong in your investigation? What measures will you adapt to design a better procedure? You could spend an entire 40- or 50-minute session to teach comprehensive reflection skills and this lesson in despair might turn out to be the most attractive learning opportunity which they could reminisce years later and use it to their advantage to make key decisions.
  2. Trade-offs: Teachers’ salary and benefits are key factors influencing recruitment and retention. In a research study conducted by Elfers et al in 2006, non-monetary factors, such as professional development, administrator support, culture, physical infrastructure, class size, curricular autonomy, and student demography are equally critical to lower teacher turnover in K-12 schools. Like a tactical CEO, one needs to look beyond the surface of pay scale and see how many faculty at target schools are experts or instructional leaders in their subject areas? What superior pedagogical practices do they employ so that they are on a path to continuous improvement that might eventually fetch both material and emotional benefits for all in the long term. By offering optimal class sizes, we are also sending a clear message to our learning communities how much we prioritize safe learning spaces and meaningful interactions over bottomline. Similarly, the learners need to be intentional in their trade-offs that they are willing to make to achieve their desired objectives. They should know when to take a break and how to get work done with intense focus. For example, they shouldn’t mind giving up their favorite game on TV to prep for a performance or case presentation. And even after not doing well on the said performance or case analysis, they should have the resilience to pivot and ace it at their next opportunity.
  3. Change and Opportunities: All international schools compete for a similar pool of students. Accordingly, to remain competitive both individually and collectively, change is inevitable. What is the value chain across which educators operate and what is our value proposition? To become operationally effective and go beyond, how willing are we to raise the bar that our customers can discern that we are in a league of our own and are willing to pay a premium for the wide range of unique services on offer. Policies rooted in consensus often have least resistance and are easy to implement thus leading to win-win situations for all. Not all changes may lead to successful outcomes or close gaps. However, there are some broad big-picture indicators. For instance, if you ask high school learners what they have accomplished this year, you can call their teachers’ strategies sustainable when their students could autonomously and comfortably navigate across  a variety of learning platforms to acquire the necessary knowledge, understandings, and skills. They should also have a greater self-awareness about where and how to look for help when they are stuck.
  4. Continuity: Continuity is as critical as change. Good strategy isn’t about throwing away initiatives that are working well to be replaced with glossy and untested ideas, even if the former are low-cost and traditional. For example, low stakes quizzes is a good strategy for retrieval practice. Similarly, self-quizzing is a more effective review technique than revisiting notes periodically. As a colleague wisely put it during a coffee break recently, “to teach 21st century skills, we need to build on 20th century knowledge and understandings.” Also, when expert educators mentor novices and pass on their time-tested skills, they not only model empathy, but leave a rich curricular legacy for the latter to pay it forward.

Good strategy is grounded in solid fundamentals and history will judge us by the lengths we go to pass on our collective wisdom for the advancement of all.

References:

Gielen, U. P., Roopnarine, J. L., & Roopnarine, J. (2016). Childhood and Adolescence Cross-Cultural Perspectives and Applications. Westport: ABC-CLIO.

Porter, M. E. (2019, November 7). What Is Strategy? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1996/11/what-is-strategy

Teacher Retention and Attrition: A Review of the … (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297750188_Teacher_Retention_and_Attrition_A_Review_of_the_Literature