Triple Cross Upside Down Post Part 2

Part 2 of the Triple Post – read more here! This chunk is all me, so it might sound familiar. Don’t forget to check out Jenn and Tish!

 

Learning in College

Rob Cobb – KeeponLearning

Feminist theory, public health, statistics, real estate, cooking, current affairs – I have learned lots of things in my time in college. But, although the university offers classes in each of these domains, all I know about these diverse subjects I learned outside of the lecture hall.

I have blogged before about learning outside the normal systems of education – if I were to sum up the point of the blog, it might be ‘a how-to guide for learning in and out of the classroom’. Today I want to take time to focus on the curricular and extracurricular learning that happens in places of “higher learning.”

I have learned in my classes – mostly the learning takes place as I am doing the reading and homework, but sometimes the lectures are good and I learn there too. Nevertheless, in terms of raw learning, the formation of my identity and development of skills and acquisition of knowledge – I have done more of that outside of my classes than in them.

Granted, I have taken advantage of a great number of opportunities for extracurricular development – I studied abroad, I write for the school paper, I volunteer at a crisis hotline and a youth leadership program, I was in an entrepreneurship living and learning program as well as a multidisciplinary program focused on project-based learning, systems, and quality. I also work at a technology summer camp and bought and rented out my house.

Naturally, I have learned in all of those experiences, and it shouldn’t be too surprising that who I am and what I know comes more from those things than it does from listening to professors talk. Colleges are aware that learning about the world goes on outside the classes we take – faculty and administrators do their darndest to get us to do things – internships, contests, research – that enrich our learning.

Despite all that effort, college remains poorly designed for the curious! It is designed for specialization, but hacks like Gen Ed requirements and extracurriculars do not make higher ed good for those who want to generalize. The fourteen or fifteen week course is not my idea of an introduction to a subject, thank you very much, and there is a limit of ~10 or so classes you can take outside your major. (If you are very clever, you can do what Jenn and I did and make your own major out of the courses you want, but even that limits you to 40 or 50 courses total, which isn’t enough for me, at least!).

I am interested in diverse subjects, and want to learn about them. While I believe that I ought to know some subjects in depth, I do not have the chance to do minor exploration with the plentiful experts that surround me. That stinks! Instead, I have to learn about these cool things from wikipedia and talking with my friends. Not that those aren’t great things to do, but why is college designed so that engineers never speak with public health professors who in turn never see business professors who never interact with art students?

Interacting with just one type of professor and one type of student is boring.

Why not have a week or two a year for each professor to give open lectures on their subject? Why not offer short courses that allow for shallower but broader learning, fostering interaction across disciplines?

If we look for an answer, it’s probably not going to make anyone happy. No one in the administration seriously gives thought to changing the way our semester works, or ‘fostering interaction across disciplines.’ Our bureaucracy is too tightly bound to the 14- or 15-week semester and making things run smoothly the way they always have to experiment with different types of teaching and learning.

At least officially. I know from taking classes in many departments that outside perspectives are valued in the classroom. I know from meeting students and professors of many disciplines that each discipline is, without exception, highly interesting, and filled with exciting and interesting people doing great work. While I can’t yet say that the way courses are arranged and administered makes any sense, colleges are still hubs where the smart and the brilliant congregate.

If you can figure out how to talk to lots of those smart people, you might just become smart yourself! Until then, keep using the internet for getting smart. I’ll leave you with a powerful mental tool that I had to pick up outside the classroom, because there are no classes on useful mental tricks.

Fermi estimation lets you make good guesses and back of the envelope type calculations. It’s most useful if you practice with it, so first link is a more detailed explanation of what and why, and the second is a link for practicing!

 

About Fermi Estimates: http://lesswrong.com/lw/h5e/fermi_estimates/

Practice: http://www.fermiquestions.com/

 

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Triple-Cross Upside Down Post Part 1

Hi!

So for class, Jenn(medievaltourist) and Tish(beyondthetour) and I are each writing a post around a shared theme (learning in college) and posting to each other’s blogs! How cool is that?!

I’ll post Jenn’s today and mine later today and Tish’s even later today, or maybe spread them out over today and tomorrow and saturday, depending on how I’m feeling. Check out their cool blogs in the meantime!

On being a Medieval Studies Major:

(Jenn, aka medievaltourist)

As I mention on my About page, I created my Medieval Studies major through the Individual Studies Program (IVSP) at UMDCP. Now, while being the only Medieval Studies at a university of 26.708 full-time undergraduate students is pretty awesome (if I do say so myself), it doesn’t come without its challenges.

Let me start from the beginning.

For anyone to create a major at UMD, they have to come to the IVSP office with some idea. In other words, no, you can’t major in Underwater Basket Weaving (unless, of course, the appropriate classes are offered). From there, you start building your major: you have to decide what kinds of classes you want to take and be able to justify why they are necessary for the major, you have to define your major, you have to think of a Capstone project, etc. etc. After all that, you propose your major to a board and it’s up to them whether you get to declare a major in the degree you built.

My point? You have to be really dedicated to your idea. Of course, if you’re going to IVSP to create a major, then I think it’s pretty safe to say that you’ve made the commitment.

If the board approves your major, you’re set and take the courses you prescribed for your major. For the most part, the majors consist of pretty standard courses in various departments. Mine isn’t an exception. My Medieval Studies major consists of the following concentrations:

  • History

  • Society & Culture

  • Religion & the Foundation of Church Latin

  • Modern Language Study

Now these seem like pretty straightforward concentrations, right? They are for the most part (i.e. anything related to language and basic history), but medieval stuff isn’t really popular at UMD, which means that courses frequently are not offered or get cancelled. This means I sometimes have to get creative with replacing classes. Other times I just have to pray really hard that it works out (like I did for next semester, and, lo and behold, it worked out!).

Despite the difficulties of being the only Medieval Studies major, it’s such a rewarding experience. I get so much great feedback and encouragement from professors and other students, and whenever I get to talk about my major I get a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Not to mention that taking the initiative to build your own major looks pretty great on your CV.

I do have a confession to make, though: I am extremely possessive of my major. I want nothing more than to have a fellow baby-medievalist follow in my footsteps and create a Medieval Studies major, but I cannot stand it when just plain History students claim to be Medieval Studies majors. Just no.

This normally happens at the beginning of the semester when we go around the class and introduce ourselves to our professor and fellow classmates by stating our names, majors, and interesting facts. I feel so accomplished when I introduce myself as a Medieval Studies major. But for some reason there are always a few History students doing concentrations in the Middle Ages who feel that it’s OK for them to copy me and say they’re Medieval Studies majors, too. This usually results in me giving them a half glare that tries to tell them You know nothing.

I think a Game of Thrones reference is pretty appropriate, don’t you? [Via]

So, my tactic has changed, and instead of making my interesting fact that I grew up in a foreign country or have studied seven languages or that I can touch my nose with my tongue, my interesting fact now is that I am the only Medieval Studies major in the history of the University of Maryland. BAM.

lol1387386608503.jpg

[HT to Learning Learning [ed: That’s me!] for finding this gem via]

[Disclaimer: Snark emphasized for dramatic effect. Author is not actually this stuck-up about her major. Usually.]

But if you get as excited as I do about something, please come talk to me about creating your own major! It’s so rewarding and a great experience. Not to mention all the other awesome people you meet along the way!



 

-Rob again –

Pretty cool stuff! I can confirm that IVSP is the way to go. Look out for more cross-posting action soon!

Learning is taking something away

Theorists like to use pictures to describe how learning works. “Not filling a bucket but lighting a flame.” Constructivists are gathering wins in the neuroscience, with their picture of learning as building connections between nodes of ideas.

Adding and connecting ideas? That sounds a lot like the learning I’ve mostly done! You too? Pretty cool stuff.

I don’t know what she’s learning, but she seems very pleased about it. (Creative Commons – From Here)

Today, though, I want to talk about a different picture of learning: Taking something away. The image in my mind is that of the gardener, trimming the dessicated away from the healthy. While it necessarily follows the adding and connecting processes, cutting away nodes is arguably more valuable. To me, the ability to effectively prune mistaken or non-useful concepts sets highly capable critical minds apart from those minds less mature.

What am I talking about? Trimming trees? No! It’s about cutting out mistaken beliefs, misshapen concepts, and false ideas.

Although, if you had mistaken notions about how to trim trees, and then you pruned those ideas from your mind… (CC again, from Here, which is a strangely nice site for an Oregon municipality.) Do NOT cut along C-X.

When I learn, I begin with a set of assumptions. In some few situations, every bit of material is brand new to me; most of the time, I have some background knowledge. If I hear things that fit well with the background knowledge that I had, it is hard to tell what was there before and what was newly added (i.e. learned) from my participation!

However, if I had an idea that new evidence clearly contradicts, and I actually change my mind and how I see the world, THEN I know that I have surely learned. When my old idea is debunked and I see more clearly, I have more power to understand the world around me and predict what will happen.

Where do you find this sort of learning? Yes, you can watch Mythbusters or read popular science myths debunked or what have you. Those give you the instant thrill of changing your mind, if you had actually believed mistakenly and buy into the evidence presented. (Mythbusters is entertaining, sure, but hardly good science.)

In fact, you can learn this way all the time – with the right mindset. Developing a discerning eye means looking critically at your own beliefs. If you could state in sentences what you believe before going into a lecture or reading a chapter, and then explain what changed afterwards, then you are aware of what you learned. I have been trying to practice this, and have found myself frustrated by some classes that do not take anything away, particularly in the social sciences.

Teachers: if you do not find out what your students already know, you might not be adding any new knowledge or taking any misconceptions away.

I find that my mind is sharper when I know what I know and what I don’t, and I learn faster when I am focused on finding and correcting my misconceptions. I hope you can find some of your own false beliefs and learn too!

Learning to listen (part 2)

Communication is hard. We have all of these pictures in our mind, and we try to put them into words. Even when we say what we mean, whoever’s on the other end has other pictures in their head, and the words don’t always match the same pictures. (And sometimes we promise follow up posts in two days and don’t post for two weeks…)

When I wrote about listening in part one, I was talking about the act of listening; the mental process of turning sounds we hear into meaning, especially in conversations. But when people say ‘listening,’ they mean all kinds of things besides that. Today’s post is about some of those other meanings – particularly, what adults mean when they talk to children about listening and what we mean when we talk about listening to a group’s perspective.

‘Good Student’ Listening

When humans sit in rows, there are expectations and norms of behavior. The one at the front is important, those sitting must be silent, attentive (head up, facing forward, perhaps taking notes), obedient. Throughout formative years in western schools, the successful students, the ones in rows, learn to meet these expectations, to listen this way, and they are called ‘good students’. Those who cannot sit still and face forward silently face mounting consequences. They are called ‘bad’ and ‘disruptive’ and made to go to principals offices and their parents have conferences and the letters they take home make them feel inadequate and insecure. This is one mode of listening we learn.

This kind of listening skill is useful to have – those who learn it can attend college and conferences, rise in tax bracket and status, move to nice neighborhoods whose schools have children who sit in their rows and listen.

I’ve said that communication is difficult. Even one-on-one, we all too frequently need to clarify our meaning, restate and reframe our sentences. Teachers in classrooms have a Sisyphean task, to corral the students into their silent, forward-facing rows, and then somehow communicate with them, transfer knowledge to all of them, unilaterally.  If the students are very good, they will appear to hear everything, and perhaps take notes. As is often the case, however, their questions after the fact and their quiz and test results reveal a tragic lack of hearing.

Didn’t I go over that in class? Weren’t you even paying attention? Were you listening?

Some of the difficulties in communicating come from bad estimates of inferential distance. You should click the link to find out more, but in short, we assume that others have a similar frame of understanding that we do, and will therefore understand what we are talking about. More often, those we speak to don’t have our background knowledge or assumptions, so much of what we say falls short in conveying the intended meaning.

Teachers and lecturers run into this problem all the time – they expect students to have read and comprehended more than they have, or know that their students lack prerequisite knowledge and have to reteach. Moreover, those at the front face rows of students with different backgrounds. Whether or not they know the inferential distance between them and their students, juggling the expectations and abilities of a heterogenous group is nigh-on impossible. Some students get left behind, while others are bored with coverage of concepts they already know. Some teaching strategies and assumptions and examples work with some students, but not with others.

What’s the point here? Listening in classes is hard for students and speaking to rows of very different individuals is hard for teachers, but what do we do about it, besides recognize that it is hard?

I wish that I had a way to make all classrooms places of genuine communication and learning, but I am long on problems and short on solutions. I have been a fan of learning models that get away from rows and lectures. You’ve probably heard of Montessori and not heard of Sudbury or Summerhill. For some, rows are a ludicrous proposition for learning, and they are done away with. I don’t know if the free school model would work for everyone; it has its own problems.

Listening to groups

Another meaning of ‘listening’ is giving time, weight, and credence to the perspectives of a group of people. Commentators talk about listening to “the experts,” politicians talk of listening to their constituents, social justice peddlers talk about listening to the downtrodden, education reformers (some education reformers) talk about listening to teachers or, in rare, shining moments, listening to students.

It turns out that in order to help people, the necessary first step is to listen to them. I can’t say it better than people who are very very good at talking about listening, but I can repeat what I’ve heard my experience and send you off to better sources.

You are likely clever and already see where these listenings overlap, and what conclusions I intend for you to draw from reading all this, but bear with me as I spell it out.

The ‘good listening’ we learn as students is not really listening, and it prevents the kind of listening we need in order to help kids learn. If we care about changing things, we have to listen to those in need, not sit them in rows and tell them to shut up and listen. While this group listening concept applies to any sort of world-saving you might want to engage in, I care about education most, and you, reading this, probably care about it at least a little.

There are some signs that students are slowly having a say in the conversation about their education. Not all is bleak. But there is a long, long way to go if we want to get out of the rows.

 

Learning to listen (part 1)

It’s a noisy world. Listening is hard. Listening means lots of things to lots of people, and everyone recognizes that it is pretty important. I am gonna make this a multi-part post, since there is lots to talk about. This is part 1, and I’ll link to part 2 when it goes up! (Edit: here’s part 2!)

Listening is hard and important, which makes it a good candidate for learning and practice. TED talk:

Julian Treasure does a little bit of unsubstantiated fear mongering with an undertone of luddite Gen-Y bashing, sure. BUT, he has mindfulness exercises for listening, and exercises are wonderful, so it probably balances out.

Even if we aren’t losing our listening, we don’t practice the receiving end of communication nearly as much as the broadcasting end, at least not explicitly.  Listening is a skill we ought to think about and work on.

There are lots of things we listen to. Music, the thumping about of roommates, construction noise when we try to work. All kinds of online ed materials: Podcasts, lectures, TED talks. What does it mean to be good at it? How does one become a ‘good listener’?

Just as we mean different things when we talk about listening, doing it ‘well’ has different meanings. Today, I’ll focus on choosing the things you listen to and developing interpersonal listening skills.

Listen intentionally and choose the things you listen to.

If what we learn is who we become, and we learn through our ears, we should be selective about what we listen to, and how closely we listen to it.  I listen to C-SPAN radio as I drive. If I get stuck listening to C-SPAN callersNPR is often good too. I try to process what I am hearing, especially when there is a good interview or speech. I make connections to what I already know, but also consciously note information that is new or did not fit with my previous understanding. I think of questions that I would ask to clarify or delve further into particular issues. I have gotten good at filtering subtle, meaningful insight from what is not. (I might do another post on learning to recognize and learn from experts rather than others, since most people are mostly wrong about most things.)

You don’t have to listen to C-SPAN. That might not be your scene; that’s totally cool. I am me in part because of what I listen to. Maybe you like Ted talks, maybe you just want your Beyoncé playlist. It’s all good, as long as you know that choosing is part of defining who you are. So, choose!

C-SPAN or no,   discerning bull from not-bull is an awesome skill. If you are mentally engaged with what is being said, you will notice more and, consequently, learn more. Don’t tune out talking heads as background noise like you did when you were five – some of them are actually okay. Others are crappy. Telling one from the other is hard, and takes practice, but I believe in you.

[EDIT: Forgot to mention Night Vale, which is super cool. Got any cool podcasts or things you listen to? lemmeknowinthecomments]

Listen to those around you

Another habit or set of habits has to do with interpersonal listening – one on one and in groups, where your role is both listener and speaker. I’ve had the amazing chance to learn a bunch of good listening skills as a counselor at the Help Center, UMD’s peer counseling and crisis intervention hotline. Still, it takes effort and concentration to actually listen to friends and siblings, especially when I have opinions on the subject under discussion.

Some things to focus on:

  • Actually hear the words they are saying. Seems obvious, but there are times when a few words go unheard and we shrug it off, since we got the gist. Instead,
  • Ask clarifying questions. Even if it is “can you say that again?,” asking for clarification works to help us understand what someone is saying.
  • Don’t judge, jump in, or interrupt. Basically, listen instead of talking. This one is especially tough for the extroverts or those with strong opinions. I’m still no pro at this in some settings, but I’ve found that focusing on how much I should be speaking as a fraction of the number of people in a conversation helps. If I am one of three people, I should have one third of the speaking, or thereabouts. If I am one of twenty, a twentieth, and so on. Of course it is a guideline and there are exceptions, but it helps me shut up more.
  • Use nonverbal or monosyllabic cues. Nodding, saying ‘mhm,’ eye contact, generally using active listening skills. It can feel silly to overdo it, but it’s harder than you would think.
  • Summarize and reflect your understanding of what they said. Don’t worry about sounding dumb. If you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean you or your friend are bad people – communicating well is really hard!

Actually, wikihow has a wonderful post about listening well, with illustrations and generally more time and thought put in than I have. It’s worth actually reading.

Like most actual skills, listening takes time and practice for the benefits to show. It’s worth it. Your relationships get better, you retain more information, and the world sounds better. Pretty neat!

Music for now:

Note: Part 1 was about deciding your listening environment and tips for interpersonal listening. Part 2  includes thoughts about inferential distance and the difficulty of communicating, plus the concept of listening to stakeholder groups as a society, plus classrooms and listening to students. 

Blog Changes and A Hint of Things to Come

Hi Reader! Just a quick post this time, since it is late and I have noticed that I get more traction if I publish posts in normal people’s waking hours. I am back from New Brunswick, and have updated the posts I did from the road, in case you wanted to go back and check out the links. I put some time into finding good sources, so the links are usually worth checking out.

You notice, I changed the look of the blog and some of the features – you can hit the bar on the left to search and view tags and follow on email, and the blogs I follow, archives, and such are on the right (as you can see.) I am still experimenting with the design, so if you have comments, lemmeknowinthecomments. Also, notes on the style of writing, the tone, what posts you like and don’t like, general positivity – it’s all helpful, so let me know!

I have started drafting a couple new posts about 1) making my own major, 2) the in media res aspect of starting a blog, 3) Learning to listen, 4) More stuff about overcoming akrasia with habits and developing mental fortitude, and 5) lots more about the many many many online tools and resources for learning.

I can’t write quickly enough to do them all at once or in magnificent depth, but if you let me know what you want to read about, I can write that.