Saturday, January 21, 2012

Tripping through the classroom of life

This semester is my second time to teach a course in innovation and creativity.  Though many things are different about the course this time around (more on that in a subsequent post), Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind remains required reading.  The chapter about story and the power of narrative is one of my favorites.

I do love a good story...and a good story teller.  Often, the good story tellers are writers. Sometimes, though, the good story teller is a comedian, an actor, the guy at the local hardware store or the preacher at the local church.  One of my favorite story tellers, Rachel Remen, is a physician:
Life offers its wisdom generously.  Everything teaches.  Not everyone learns. Life asks of us the same thing we have been asked in every class:  "Stay awake." "Pay attention." But paying attention is no simple matter.  It requires us not to be distracted by expectations, past experiences, labels, and masks. It asks that we not jump to early conclusions and that we remain open to surprise.  Wisdom comes most easily to those who have the courage to embrace life without judgment and are willing to not know, sometimes for a very long time.  It requires us to be more fully and simply alive than we have been taught to be.  

A few lines later (in My Grandfather's Blessings), Rachel uses the metaphor of an entire oak tree contained--at least in essence or as potential--in an acorn and reminds us that "none of us are only the way we seem."   The summation of our life experiences, of which formal education is but one part, is to journey ever closer to our potential.  To become the wisdom we are intended to be.   And I resonate to the reminder that ""(t)his is not usually a graceful or a deliberate process."

I am neither graceful nor particularly deliberate in my journey.  In fact, I often blunder, stumble, and drive backwards in circles.  Perhaps, in that way, we are all more alike than we realize.  And I seem to be a far better teacher, friend, and parent when I focus on the similarities.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Take aim

There's a lot here to absorb, but it's probably worth spending some time to do so...starting with Stowe Boyd, where I first saw it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

True blue?

We waited for the house to open, offered our tickets to gain admission, and found our seats.  We were there to see Blue Man Group.  We came to hear good music, to laugh, to revel in the innovative combination of technology and entertainment.  We came to see a Blue Man (or three) up close.  

As we settled into our seats, I was intrigued by the language projected at the front of the auditorium, so I took a photograph.  Soon thereafter, the show started.  I heard, I laughed, I reveled and I saw a Blue Man (or three) up close; the experience was everything I had expected it to be, capturing my full attention (which is rare) for the duration of the show.

Later in the day, curiosity--that blessed bane--brought me back to the language and to the attribution--to the "International Diplomacy Guidebook."  I searched for it.  I found A Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support (which is, by the way, interesting reading).  I found other references to Blue Man Group.  But I still haven't found an International Diplomacy Guidebook.

And then I wondered whether the Guidebook--offered as the only context, written or spoken, for the show--is a Blue Man creation.  Regardless of the source, it seems about right.  If we cultivate our interests (which, oddly enough, are often the things that bring us the greatest joy), share those interests with others, and are receptive to their interests, it often follows naturally that we are able to collaborate more successfully and build something of value.  Whether parenting, teaching, friendship, or marriage, we are all endeavoring to build lasting connections.  And we start with offering who we are.

Shakespeare wrote a similar version: 
This above all: to thine own self be true, 

And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Perhaps what matters about learning and about wisdom is that we are receptive.  Words of wisdom can, indeed, be true blue, regardless of from whence they came.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Whining trumps change far too often

My patron saint may very well be Our Lady of Perpetual Planning.  I adjust, update, edit, tweak and otherwise "improve" my course materials (syllabus, course calendar, daily plans, teaching notes, resources...pretty much everything) before every semester and right up to the day before classes start.  Classes start tomorrow, so you can pretty well guess what I'm doing.

Incorporating change into our lives is hard, especially if the change involves a learning curve or a risk.  Some of the changes I want to make in my course plan are risky, in the sense that the outcome isn't knowable.  What if the change isn't better?  How will I grade it?  Is the potential outcome worth the effort?  What if the students don't understand the assignment?  Just how hard is this going to be...for me?

As I head back to make those last and final changes (really, they'll be the last ones...absolutely, positively), I'll be going with the encouragement of trusted muses:
  • "Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore." -- Andre Gide
  • "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • "Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."  -- Helen Keller
  • "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover." -- Mark Twain
  • "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."  -- T.S. Eliot
Okay, I'm ready now.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My cup runneth over...

Though it pains me to admit, I have not yet finished The Digital Divide.  I have, however, traveled to visit family, celebrated a holiday or two, knitted on the year-and-counting afghan, celebrated my daughter's birthday, moved to a new office, conducted meetings, continued planning for two courses this semester, read other books and worked on a remodeling project.  In between, I've taken to photographing random cemeteries.  I'm not slacking, just over-committed.

But I have made progress in my reading, slowed somewhat by my long-standing tendency to write in the margins of the book, make connections that compel me to seek other sources ("Now where IS that quote that seems to say this in a different way?"), and allow time for what I'm reading to rumble around in my brain.  It's the rumbling that seems to yield the most benefit, especially when considering conflicting perspectives:
"In geography--which is all but ignored these days--there is no reason that a generation that can memorize over 100 Pokemon character with all their characteristics, history, and evolution can't learn the names, populations, capitals, and relationships of all the 101 nations in the world.  It just depends on how it is presented."
"One of the most interesting challenges and to figure out and invent ways to include reflection and critical thinking in the learning (either built into the instruction or through a process of instructor-led debriefing) but still do it in the Digital Native language."  
"(T)oday's neurobiologists and social psychologists agree that brains can and do change with new input.  And today's educators with the most crucial learning missions --teaching...the military--are already using custom-designed computer and video games as an effective way of reaching Digital Natives.  But the bulk of today's tradition-bound educational establishment seems in no hurry to follow their lead."
"Three unexpected sources can help us negotiate the historical transition we face as we move from one prevailing mode of communication to another:  Socrates, modern cognitive neuroscience, and Proust."
"Teens' poor performance (relative to adults when navigating unfamiliar web sites) is caused by three factors:  insufficient reading skills, less sophisticated research strategies, and a dramatically lower patience level."
"As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional content of a subtle gesture."

When I review the quotes, I am exhilarated, concerned, frustrated, hopeful, and overwhelmed.  On the whole, it's good news that we can understand (as least some of) the impact of technology on learning.  What concerns me, though, is the tendency to divide the world of knowledge into discrete camps, forgetting, for example, that reading narrative text and being forced to reflect upon the meaning is a different skill from rapid identification and absorption of information...and that both are required for success in navigating a complex world.  It's not either-or; it's both-and.

The web of knowledge existed long before it was digitally connected and it was already a lot to absorb.  Perhaps that's been the draw to the cemeteries--a tangible reminder of the finite and the infinite...and what belongs where.  One semester at a time...