166. A massively underprepared teacher

Prime College

Recently, we held a two-day workshop for the faculty members of Prime College. After the usual ice-breaker, I had this slide up, asked the participants to write them down, and share their responses.

While they were writing down their teaching & learning assumptions, I somehow slipped into my past and thought about my early days as an English language teacher in a private school.

 The first two years of my teaching career were a disaster. With shame and regret, I have to admit that I was nothing but an arrogant teacher who would walk into the class with “Hey, I’m from the capital city, educated in a private English medium school, and I’m going to save you from your miserable English competency” attitude. I mocked at students’ pronunciations. I even joked about other teachers’ pronunciations.

I realize that I was massively underprepared to be a teacher. I probably did more harm than anything good to the students. What made me jump into teaching profession then? Probably, the assumptions I was unconsciously carrying into the profession.

  1. My job is to teach, and students’ job is to learn.
  2. My job is to control, and students’ job is to be in discipline.
    (I have to keep the class under control. If I don’t do this, the students will start dancing on my head. When I lose my authority as a teacher, the students will never want to learn.)
  3. My job is to teach and it’s easy.
    Just go to the class. Teach the content. Get out of the class. That’s it.

How did these assumptions grow and bloat in my head? May be I had thought, “Hey, I’ve been in a class for more than 14 years. I know what it takes to be a teacher. I can easily do what my school teachers used to do.”

Well, I had my worst moments.

(About the workshop:

Becoming a 21st Century Educator
Oct 11 and 12
A two-day workshop for the faculty members of Prime College, Kathmandu
on the theme of Designing Positive Learning Experiences in the classroom.
Conducted by Empowerment Academy)


164. To be, or not to be inspired — is not the question


Let me ask you. If you were to secure your physical property (your house) from any fire related damage, electric short circuit or electric appliance malfunction, what would you do as a precaution?

I’m sure, this is what you would do. You’d make sure that everything’ gets designed and fitted 100% accurate while constructing your house. You’d also get some sort of smart alarm system installed. And you’d probably also get insured.

And, you would probably contact us because we have a company called “Safemandu”.

That was an idea we could bank on.

Well, that’s what we thought during the 4-day workshop on “Inspiration, Iteration and Innovation”. And we were so damn wrong.

The workshop, organized as a part of BUCSBIN project, was a super squeezed 4-day version of what happens in a 4-month semester at the Oamk LABS of Oulu University of Applied Sciences, Finland. Two Lab Masters Janne Karjalainen and Ulla‐Maija Seppänen were facilitating the workshop participated by 30 academicians and practitioners from a wide range of faculties.

The main objective of the workshop was to give us (faculty members) a sneak-preview of how students go through a human centric design process in a lab setting and come up with innovative ideas to solve real problems of the society.

Drawing from the philosophies of Design Thinking and Lean StartUp, the program is designed and conducted to make multi-disciplinary groups of students work in teams, align their personal goals with team goals, and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They explore the problems and issues, get validations, design solutions, get validations, test, fail, test, reiterate, test, refine. Go through the loop. Learn through the process. And at the end of the program, they acquire the skills and attitudes to be self-directed and self-motivated professionals ready for the 21st century.


What happened:

On the first day, Janne and Ulma divided us in 10 teams and assigned each team topics like “Healthy sexual behavior among teenagers”, “Retaining talent in the country”, “Security in the Urban area”, “Financial Independence for Elderly People”, “Promoting Gender Equality”. Very vague. Very broad.

We were to discuss in our team, brainstorm as many ideas as possible, and keep our minds open for more perspectives. Janne and Ulma repeatedly reminded us to go deeper and wider. “Your opinions are the best ones. And they don’t mean anything”, Janne emphasized. We had to therefore go out from the venue, find at least 10 people, empathize and interview them. Then get back with more ideas and understanding of their real needs and desires.

On the second day, we had to pitch our ideas in 3 mins. They call this — Gate 1 presentation. Some ideas get through the gate, and some get thrown away.

Safemandu — our team’s idea didn’t get through. We were crushed, emotionally. And, I got depressed for almost 11 minutes.

What did they say?
Identify your users. Go talk with them. Find more perspectives on the issue. Try to understand their needs, wants. Their beliefs. What they say. What they do.

What did we do?
As soon as we got our topic, we quickly switched into our “analytical” heads and started prescribing solutions. Worse, we got into defensive mode.

What happened?
We got kicked out during the Gate presentation. And we had to attend the funeral session of our idea. That was heartbreaking but a humbling experience.

What did we learn?
Don’t jump into pre-conceived solutions without understanding the real needs and desires of the users. (Also, hear the instructions properly.)

The feedback circle after the presentations was sweet yet brutal.

Anyways, I quickly got assigned with one of the remaining teams. The problem focused on creating a platform for teenagers so that they can have meaningful conversations with their parents about sexual abuse and harassment. And we had to go through the same process. Understand the problem. Understand the user. Understand their needs and wants and beliefs and behaviors. Brainstorm — good ideas, bad ideas. Pick one that seems feasible, viable, and desirable. Go out once again and get validated. For the next day, do more research. And finally, come up with a prototype, along with a business plan.


Next morning, we continued working with our prototype and business model. And also prepared a 4-minute presentation for Gate 2. And, surprise surprise, the judges for Gate 2 were four people who had no idea what was happening in the workshop. Two foreigners. Two Nepalis. More pressure on the presenting teams because we had to make sure the judges understood the context, problem, solution, prototype, and the business model — everything in just four minutes.

After the presentations were over, Janne and Ulma made us sit down in a circle. Two minutes of self-evaluation. Two minutes of our evaluation by another team. And, two minutes of evaluation from the two lab masters. And once again, this was a nerve-wracking experience. Feedback sunney baani chaina ni ta 🙂

On the final day, Janne and Ulma unpacked what happened throughout the previous days. They talked about their belief on learning through the process in a team with members from diverse academic backgrounds and interests. They also stressed on trust and accountability — both on individual and team level.


My reflection:

Inherent in the workshop (and in the four-month program back at the Oamk LABs) is the focus on experiential learning. These guys have figured out how people learn. I could see Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle as the structural backbone of the entire workshop. Experience. Reflection. Conceptualization. Application. Feedback. Over and over again.

My whole teaching methodology (and philosophy) is largely guided by Kolb, and seeing these guys mix the essence of experiential learning, design thinking, and lean startup made me realize the limitless possibilities of fulfilling the gaping holes in our teaching approach and education system at large. Specifically, at business colleges. We could do so much.

Back in December 2017, representing BUCSBIN project, we had a great opportunity to visit Oamk Lab and Oulu University of Applied Sciences in Finland. We got a first-hand experience on how the lab masters there are re-defining teaching methodology and curriculum by focusing more on the learning process than on the outcomes/grades. (May be one of the reasons why Finland’s education system is considered the best in the world at the moment.) This 4-day workshop reinforced my learnings from the Finland visit and my belief on experiential process.

The purpose of this workshop was also to enable the faculty members of the BUCSBIN project run our own versions of Oamk Labs at King’s College and KU School of Management. This has given me (and hopefully to all participants) enough confidence to conduct such workshops, idea incubation and development programs.

A huge respect to Janne, Ulma, and also Kimmo Paajanen for your no-nonsense facilitation and amazing support. You guys are the best.

Lastly, to be or not to be inspired — is not the question.

It’s the only answer.

The workshop was organized by Building University Capacity to Support Business Incubation in Nepal (BUCSBIN) partners: King’s College, Kathmandu University, Idea Studio Nepal, Oulu University of Applied Sciences and YoungInnovations. April 24–27. At Summit Hotel, Lalitpur.

163. Unlearning Learning Styles and Personality Types

Unlearning Learning Styles and Personality Types
(and what it means for teaching and learning)


I always believed every one of us had specific learning styles and we all fell under certain types. Like, I am a non-math type. Despite having scored well on both math papers of the SLC exams (thanks to tuition center and guess papers), I have always sucked at math.

But I was completely dumbstruck while watching Tesia Marshik’s Ted videoLearning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection” in which she claims that individual learning styles and types don’t actually exist. She claims the popular belief that learners can be categorized into certain types is a myth. Citing several research, she says, assessing a learner’s style and then matching teaching styles – called the Meshing technique – is simply futile.

The video intrigued me enough to reflect on my learning habits. I prefer to find a meaningful connection between what I learn and what I want to do in my life. If I can imagine the reasons I’m learning a certain skill or subject (or if my teacher helps me visualize the meaning), then I feel motivated and engaged enough to learn. I always need to see a bigger picture. Else, I would just do it for the sake of doing it. And, that was the reason why I never felt connected with math because I didn’t know what it meant for me. I could rattle the theorems of Geometry, but I never knew their purpose. Trigonometry always seemed silly for me. And, Algebra was like running aimlessly in a desert.

As a teacher, I have come across students with different learning approaches. Some want to learn the theories first and then apply them later. They love listening to the concepts, taking notes, analyzing them, and organizing them. And others love to apply first, reflect, and finally deduct theories. They would get restless when they had to listen through long lectures.

In his seminal book Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984), David Kolb wrote that learning is an iterative process within four basic modes: experience, reflection, conceptualization, and experimentation. Highly influenced by the earlier works of educationist John Dewey and psychologist Carl Jung, Kolb stressed that individuals usually have one preferred learning mode but for deeper learning, they must integrate both preferred and less-preferred modes in their learning cycle.

So if your preferred mode is learning by doing, then as Kolb says, you can deepen your learning only when you add reflective practice and improvisations. If you had first learnt the guitar by simply playing it, you can significantly improve your guitar skills by learning the musical theories, experimenting with them, and reflecting upon the experience. Interestingly, Kolb is not the only one who talks about integrating preferences. Lev Vygotsky calls it Zone of Proximal Development, Robert Bjork calls it Desirable Difficulty, Stephen Krashen calls it i+1.

However, the concepts of learning styles, personality traits, and type theories have held a stronghold in education. The most popular one being the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). As a result, the meshing technique is quite prominent in teaching. First, assess a learner’s so called learning style and type, and then label the learner as, for instance, Visual or Auditory or Kinesthetic. Then, match the teaching style for each learner.

But, here’s the big revelation. In a journal of the Association for Psychological Science published in 2008, professor Harold Pashler and his colleagues empathically say that “at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.” Similarly, another researcher Robert Bjork resents over the fact that many educational companies are promoting “the pseudo-science of learning style” as a marketing gimmick purely for profit. Now, Tesia Marshik’s video started to make sense to me.

This made me further probe into the learning theories and models proposed by the likes of David Kolb, Carl Jung, Bernice McCarthy. Besides learning preferences, apparently, they also talk about striking a balance between preferred and less preferred learning modes. Regardless of individual preferences – left brain type or right brain type, extrovert or introvert, visual or auditory or kinesthetic – teachers should create learning environment where students learn through various modes.

Bernice McCarthy, in her book About Learning (1996), also talks about Hemisphericity, which means that both sides of the brain work in complementary for perceiving and processing information and experience. The left side of the brain handles logic, sequence, literalness, and analysis; and the right takes care of meaning, emotion, context, and synthesis. Several research in the field of Mind, Brain, and Education now confirm that when learners are actively engaged to use both sides of their brains, they learn better, and also retain better. For instance, teaching science through stories. Exploring implicit patterns and structures in poems. Learning math through activities.

Similarly, drawing from the works of Carol Dweck on mindset, belief in learning style equates to having a fixed mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence is already set in the DNA and cannot be altered). Like I mentioned, I was trapped in my misguided belief that I suck at math, and as a result, I could never get better at it. Somebody who is convinced that she is an active learner may never understand the power of reflection. Whereas belief in learning preferences equates to having a growth mindset (a belief that one’s intelligence is malleable and can be significantly changed through desirable challenges and persistence.)

So what does this mean for teaching and learning?

This superficial debate over learning styles should not be happening at all. What needs to happen is teachers increase their awareness about these three important concepts related with learning theories:

  1. We learn better when the both sides of our brains are engaged.
  2. Because of our unique brains, we all have different learning preferences, not learning styles.
  3. When we integrate dominant learning preferences with the remaining ones, we feel challenged, motivated, engaged enough to learn better.

When teachers stop jumping into the “matching learning style” bandwagon, they would also stop labeling students into different types. They can then try to incorporate all learning modes into the teaching, and develop frameworks to engage both sides of the brains, and create continuous opportunities for the learners to do, think, feel, learn, reflect, sense, and experiment.

Teachers will be then able to design meaningful learning experiences with high motivation, engagement, and retention. When that happens, they can perhaps help students break the shackle of “I’m an introvert / extrovert” or “I’m not a math-type” or any other subject for that matter.

162. To the student, thank you for the reminder

Thank you.001

“I love coming to your class because you let me be me.”

That single sentence from a student made me realize what I was doing wrong and right in the classroom.

But before I go into this, let me share with you this first.

I just finished watching Chris Emdin’s powerful and thought provoking video titled “Reality Pedagogy” in which he insists teachers to first understand students, their culture and their context, and only then teach them the content.

His argument is pretty simple. Even when teachers do have sufficient content knowledge, many still lack the tools necessary to address the cultural divides that render them ineffective in teaching.

Starting right off the bat by teaching the content, teachers miss the opportunity to foster engagement and relationship with the students who come from divergent background. Teachers miss the opportunity to show the students that classroom is in fact an extension of their lives and their communities. Why should the classroom be anything un-real than their realities?

How many times have I done this in the classroom?
How many times have I ignored about engaging the students, and focused simply on teaching the content?
How many times have I forgotten that students have lives outside the classroom too?

Now coming back to this student and what he told me that day.

He’s usually late for the class. Walks in after 30 mins or even 45 mins sometimes. Doesn’t stay quiet. Doesn’t stay still. Quick to answer. Quick to question.

He was talkative but unless he was being interruptive in the class, I was okay with his behavior. He also seemed like a good team player whenever students had group tasks and presentations. And like other students, he enjoyed tea-break.

So after the last class of the session, when he approached me and told me that he loved coming to my class, initially I assumed that he was referring to the tea-break. But he added, “You let me be me. And even though I come late, I feel welcomed and I’m learning stuffs in this class.”

And in saying so, he reminded me – one more time – that teaching is more than simply teaching the content. Thank you.

161. A reminder to myself


As a teacher, the more I speak in the class, the more I rob the opportunities from the students to interact, discuss, and, co-create knowledge. I know this.

But I tend to forget this and often end up talking (lecturing/presenting/instructing) more than I wanted to.

May be this naani dekhi laageko baani (habit formed since the early days of teaching) is the one that keeps me alert and motivates me to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

(Pic: I was giving the concluding remarks during the Unlearn Mini Conference II, Nov 4 2017)

160. Addressing needs and wants of workshop participants

Mega Bank Butwal

Do you know what the participants need and what they want? And do you cater to their needs and wants? Or, do you stick to your workshop beliefs, that you are there for their needs, not for their wants.

On October 14 2017, I had an opportunity to conduct a workshop in Butwal city for the 30 operation heads of Mega Bank branches. They had asked a day-long session on ways to improve their organizational communication so that they can be more productive at workplace.

For the next eight hours, we had discussions, activities, tea-breaks, individual and group works, lectures, videos, lunch break, presentations, and reflections. And, the written feedback.

A few minutes after the session ended, a participant came up to me, shook my hand and said, “I have fallen asleep in every other trainings, but today I could not. Thank you for this amazing session.”

And right after him, another one came up and said, “It was a good session but you should also provide handouts and materials.”

And a little later, as I flipped through the feedback forms, one particular comment made me really confused and amused at the same time. “Worst presentation ever. There was nothing to note down from the slides.”

I have come across all sorts of workshop participants with different needs, wants, and agendas. Some come in with positive mindset, some with negative, and some with personal issues. Some want to participate, some want to be not seen, some want to confront. All these add variation in the workshop. Motivation and challenge as well.

And, they’ve given all sorts of feedback too. Usually, we at the Empowerment Academy end our sessions with a “321 Reflection”. The participants write and share three things they remember from the session, two things they would want to share with their friends, and one thing they would implement right away. Sometimes, we also ask them to fill out a generic feedback form for workshops commissioned by their organization.

[The credit for 321 Reflection goes to the amazing Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa.]

And in all these years of facilitating workshops, I’ve never seen a comment so intriguing in a WTF way. “Worst presentation ever. There was nothing to note down from the slides.”

Anyways, three general observations that I would like to share:

a. Workshop participants love collecting handouts and lesson materials. I think they would like to have some sort of reference material for the future.

b. They would love to get the presentation files too. In reality, our slides rarely have any bullets points because we use them not as the main content but simply as aid. We still share/email them the pdf version of the slides.

c. A few participants love writing down notes and reflections on their own. But they would want to copy from the slides. Most of them like taking pictures of the slides with their cell phones.

And here I am in a perfect dilemma: should I cater to the needs and wants of the participants, or should I stick to my workshop beliefs. One of such beliefs is participants need to write to remember, and remember to write (Hello, John Medina.) I believe when you give photocopies of the slides and worksheets, participants tend to get rather lazy.

If you are a workshop facilitator or a teacher-trainer, please share your observations about the participants. And, what you generally do about their needs and wants.