Archive for the ‘Teaching and Learning’ Category

I have been neglecting my blog for so long…and I never posted my published article about HH Dalai Lama’s visit to DC in October. Here it finally is:

On October 8th and 9th, 2009, I attended the Educating World Citizens for the 21st Century conference in Washington D.C. Panelists included neuroscientists, educators, and contemplatives, with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama presiding. For six hours each day, the interdisciplinary dialogue attempted to answer such questions as, “How can our educational system evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century?” and “How will we educate people to be compassionate, competent, ethical, and engaged citizens in an increasingly complex and interconnected world?”

In The Outline of History (1920), H.G. Wells wrote, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” How many of us now feel this every day in the classroom? Most of my current course load is basic writing and reading classes for underprepared alternative learners, and their needs are far beyond what the traditional teaching model has to offer. As educators, we have the responsibility to prepare our students to survive and succeed. In this new, interconnected world, what does it take to do this?

For those interested in educational reform, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum by J. Abner Peddiwell (Harold Benjamin) should be required reading. Published in 1939, and even more relevant today, the book offers a tongue-in-cheek description of a groundbreaking discovery of the Paleolithic school system. According to Peddiwell’s “research,” the original purpose of schooling was to provide basic life skills to young people:

• Saber-tooth tiger scaring
• Fish-grabbing
• Woolly-horse clubbing

The entire educational system was built around developing these core skills.

As the ice age passed, the saber-tooth tigers succumbed to pneumonia, silt from receding glaciers made streams too murky to see fish, and the small horses went east to the dry plains. Yet schools continued to teach the same basic life skills, maintaining that they defined an educated person. Educators who suggested there was no relationship between real life and fish-grabbing were branded as heretics.

While written as a humorous satire, Benjamin’s message is painfully relevant seventy years later. Education must begin adapting to the world of today and tomorrow. Students will need to develop unprecedented levels of intercultural cooperation, and be competent, ethical, and engaged citizens. Education can no longer simply be measured in terms of knowledge and cognitive skills, but must address skills and qualities such as social responsibility, emotional self-regulation, and compassion.

I have found that service-learning projects are an excellent way to teach social responsibility. There’s plenty of research out there to attest to this, but I don’t need the research to prove what I’ve seen first-hand. One of my writing classes is currently involved in a project to assist local non-profits with their websites. Working in small groups, they write a letter to the non-profit to offer their services; analyze the website for spelling and grammatical errors, broken links, and navigation problems; and report on their findings in a formal written presentation. The most interesting part of this project has been the level of engagement. The groups chose their own non-profits and the majority were organizations that worked with violence prevention and extreme poverty. I have watched my bored and somewhat apathetic students becoming passionate advocates for, not only their own project’s organization, but for the other groups’ as well.

But how does one teach emotional self-regulation, empathy, and compassion in a foundational college course? Panelist and developmental psychologist Dr. Nancy Eisenberg gave an excellent overview of emotional self-regulation as it relates to empathy and compassion. In her example, she described a girl named Isabella who watches a boy be rejected by other boys and feels the same emotion as the rejected boy. This is empathy. Her empathy might lead her to feel concern and motivation to help the boy to feel better. This is compassion, which leads naturally to engagement.

Empathy does not always lead to compassion, however, and as Dr. Eisenberg aptly stated, this is where it gets interesting. If Isabella has been rejected in the past and has not developed emotional regulation skills, then when she feels the boy’s rejection (empathy), she begins to remember her own feelings of rejection and becomes focused on her anxiety and personal distress. Isabella now wants to make herself feel better rather than the boy, so instead of experiencing compassion and engagement, she experiences avoidance.

I believe that most of my students experience empathy, but I have seen a clear lack of emotional self-regulation skills and avoidance is increasingly common. If compassion leads to engagement—necessary both for success in the classroom and in life—can we teach it? Mentoring, the panelists agreed, is a well-documented way to encourage these skills and teach compassion, but it can be time-consuming and difficult to get an entire classroom to commit. The Dalai Lama pointed out that in order to experience true compassion, students need to understand that “all beings are equal…both in their desire for happiness and their right to obtain it.” In doing so, they develop feelings of responsibility for others and wish to help them actively overcome their problems.

In trying to foster this sense of community within the classroom, I use a commonalities exercise. It is an excellent (and relatively brief) way to encourage the leap from empathy to compassion, and it helps to build camaraderie in the classroom as well. I usually do it as a first week icebreaker activity. We begin in small groups with the instruction to recognize and list what all members have in common. When the groups come together as a class, they share such commonalities as the basic needs of food, shelter, and love. They also begin to discuss bigger ideas: “Just like me, everyone in my group wants to be happy,” “Just like me, everyone in my group has known sadness and loneliness,” and “Just like me, everyone in my group wants to be liked and belong.” Once students realize that they have so many similarities, and once the foundation for caring relationships is laid, they recognize their own interconnectedness and begin to actively care for each other. I had two students hospitalized early in a semester, and classmates got together care packages and homework assignments—without any suggestions or prompting on my part. They had been strangers to each other prior to the start of the school year, but they made the leap from empathy to compassion in a few short weeks.

There were still many unanswered questions by the close of the conference, but all agreed that compassion is not merely a word, it is an action, and to teach compassion, we must emulate it. Panelist and educator Linda Lantieri shared a story from Gandhi’s autobiography. In this story, a mother comes to Gandhi to ask him if he can tell her son to stop eating sugar. Gandhi tells the mother to bring the child back in two weeks. The mother returns in two weeks with her son and Gandhi lectures him on the dangers of eating sugar. The mother asks, “Why did you want me to wait two weeks?” Gandhi replies, “Because two weeks ago when you asked, I was still eating sugar.” Thus, the only real way to teach social responsibility, emotional self-regulation, and compassion, is to embody them. If we succeed, human history will shift from “a race between education and catastrophe,” to a journey of enriched possibilities.


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Many educators are familiar with Harvard University’s Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences because of its implications that traditional IQ tests, including the SAT, are only measuring a small part of real-world intelligence. Gardner argues that the traditional views of intelligence are too narrow to realistically capture the actual nature of human intelligence.

One of the dimensions of Gardner’s work is the distinction between interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to know and understand yourself, your motivations, and desires. Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to read and relate to the intrapersonal intelligence of others. Donald Goleman redefined this kind of intelligence as Emotional Intelligence (EI), which includes, “self-awareness, impulse control, persistence, zeal, self-motivation, empathy, and social deftness.”

People who excel in life tend to be emotionally intelligent, yet the value of EI traits are rarely recognized in our educational system. Approximately 57% of students who start at an institution of higher learning actually remain to finish their programs of study, Can EI training make a difference in retention? Studies have shown promise, especially when integrated into the first year, since college freshmen have to quickly become more independent, adaptable, socially adept, assertive, self-confident, and self-controlled in order to succeed. Their environment, responsibilities, rights, and challenges change significantly when they enter college, and it takes much more than academic preparedness to succeed under such instability.

Research in brain-based learning suggests that emotional health is fundamental to effective learning, but how can we teach it? First and foremost, it is vital to emulate what we are teaching. As educators and leaders, we must strive to cultivate our own emotional intelligence. EI development is critical for renewal and stability—two things that fail when burnout occurs, and an all-too-common occurrence in our increasingly pressurized world. EI development also enables us to interpret body language and hear the feelings behind words, allowing us to feel deeply and be genuinely moved by what our students express.

One of the most basic emotional skills involves being able to recognize feelings and name them. An important part of EI development is the ability to identify words associated with feelings and emotions, so vocabulary expansion in the classroom is critical. Introduce words and phrases associated with feelings and emotions, then point out the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions. What thought sparked off that feeling? What feeling was behind that action? Provide a safe place for such discussions by setting appropriate classroom guidelines and modeling your expectations. Be aware of what you are saying, avoid passing judgment, and don’t claim to be an expert on others’ feelings and emotions.

Maintain a positive learning environment. Developing quality relationships in the classroom models effective communication skills, empathy, and compassion. Happiness and optimism can be addictive, just as negativity and pessimism can be all-consuming. An inspirational classroom is characterized by hope, respect, and a sense of community, and creates a climate capable of unleashing positive energy, unified spirit, and cooperation. Effective learning is not built on domination but on people working together toward common goals. Recognize the value of your students’ contributions and encourage their participation. When conflict arises, remember that it is often self-perpetuating and the perceived cause for conflict is rarely the issue. Effective conflict resolution requires emotional intelligence skills in the teacher as well, so again, successful self-integration of these skills is of utmost importance.

Education continues to struggle with the fragmentation of the learning process in our current objectivist climate. Encouraging emotional intelligence in the classroom offers the potential to heal this rift because EI acknowledges the emotional influences on learning. When students are better able to express authentic feelings, not just emotional reactions, then real learning can begin. If we challenge the traditional models of pedagogy, a paradigm shift from education as a path to successful accumulation to a path of enriched possibilities will occur.

“We must help students to find the meaning in daily life, to feel connected to
other individuals and to their community—past, present and future; and to feel
responsible for the consequences of their actions. We must help them to achieve
the state of flow—the balance between skills and challenges—which motivates
individuals to return to a pursuit time and again. Plato understood this, 2500 years
ago when he stated, ‘Through education we need to help students find pleasure in
what they have to learn.’”
~Howard Gardner

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As a basic-level writing teacher, I work primarily with students who aren’t pleased to be in my class. Most have received low scores on their Accuplacer tests and come to the first day of class angry at the system that failed them and resentful toward the college that requires a course which, in some cases, won’t even reward them with credits. Many of these students have already labeled themselves as “underachievers” and are resigned to being in low-level courses that teach by rote and never require active engagement. Some have been diagnosed with learning challenges; others simply learned that the bare minimum was the academic path of least resistance. Many of these students were taught English skills using a “segregated-skill” approach, in which the mastering of language skills is separate from that of content learning. This is especially true of ESL students, who may have learned many rules but are unable to understand and express more complex thoughts in a cohesive manner when reading and writing.

It is for these reasons that I have begun using a more integrative approach in my classroom. In its simplest form, a course bearing a single-skill title such as “Basic Writing” would actually involve multiple, integrated skills. For example, I might give oral instruction on a writing assignment, requiring students to use their listening abilities to understand the lesson. Then we might discuss the many ways the assignment could be developed, thus employing speaking and listening skills, as well as group interaction and peer review skills. Finally, I might require students to continue the lesson at home, not only by creating a map, outline, and/or first draft of their writing assignment, but by generating a list of questions the initial assignment has conjured for them. Now the students need to use organizational, analytical, and creative skills to complete the assignment, while the list of questions encourages them to think outside the box, applying metacognition (the act of thinking about thinking) to their writing process.

Some say that all learning is integrative because each new idea must be connected to prior ideas, but when integrative learning becomes the focus of one’s teaching style, it requires larger leaps of imagination. Integrative learning is about linking ideas and concepts that are not easily or typically connected. In content-based instruction, students practice writing skills using the theme-based model (Scarcella & Oxford, 1992). The theme-based model integrates learning into the study of a theme, such as violence in video games, social justice, recycling, the current political climate, or any topic the students find interesting and engaging. The topic must allow a wide variety of skills to be practiced and clearly stick to the idea of communicating about the theme. One simple example of theme-based learning that I’ve successfully used supported an introduction to the school’s library, online research, and citation formats. In an all-female basic composition class, I gave the students a topic: “Women in the 21st Century: Still Paid Less Than Men.” Students were to find one legitimate source to support the topic, quote or paraphrase from the source, and correctly cite their work. The task generated much enthusiasm, encouraged communication and peer interactions, and students learned essential research and writing skills.

The other method of skills integration—task-based learning—is only now beginning to influence the measurement of learning strategies in higher education. (Kavaliauskien, 2005) One of the fundamentals of task-based instruction is group or pair work, which is utilized to increase student interaction and collaboration. At the beginning level, students might introduce and share a particular item of interest learned about each other, or write and edit a class newsletter. More advanced students might bring in another element of integrative learning to their task—civic engagement—by taking a public opinion poll at school or creating a digital film short to promote a service, idea, or political stance. I have had some very positive results with task-based learning using civic engagement. During the 2008 presidential election, as part of their lesson on the rhetorical mode of persuasion, my students worked in groups of four to create multimedia presentations to encourage voter registration. Not only did we achieve near-perfect attendance and participation during those weeks, but registration of first-time voters among my students climbed from a paltry one-third to one hundred percent.

In addition to civic engagement, service-learning is another task-based integrative learning technique that is capable of creating enthusiasm in students and instructors alike. Service-learning links meaningful community service to academic course content, enriching the learning experience while teaching civic responsibility and strengthening community. In a foundational writing course, students can learn how language gets things done in the world by undertaking a community-based writing project. A class might decide to adopt a non-profit such as a local homeless shelter, and write or edit any flyers or brochures needed. Alternately, students could elect to write a series of articles promoting public land use for a community garden space to support the local food bank. Reserving class time for reflection, however, is critical to the success of service-learning. If students are unable to differentiate between service-learning and volunteerism, they may not understand how they will benefit from the exchange. I have had students initially balk at the idea that they would be “doing something for free.” Reminding them that service-learning combines “service” and “learning” in intentional ways—by integrating community service with classroom learning—helps them to appreciate this approach to academic enrichment.

Integrative learning isn’t just for the best-prepared or most-accelerated students. Indeed, it is particularly important for those who are under-prepared for college-level learning, because it helps them to link basic skills with meaningful experiences, both within the course and across disciplines. In a world that is at once interconnected yet fragmented, integrative learning serves to heal this dichotomy by making real-life connections and creating authentic experiences. Even in remedial classes, students will be able to link their coursework to the rest of their lives.

Scarcella, R., & Oxford, R. (1992). The tapestry of language learning: The individual in the communicative classroom. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Hsiao, T., & Oxford, R. (2003). Comparing theories of language learning strategies: A confirmatory factor analysis. The Modern Language Journal, 86 (3), 368-383.

Published: Innovation Abstracts. National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD). 31(3). 2009.

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