Every day a learning day
From feeling nervous to getting excited
From being in the center to stepping on the sidelines
From making it about myself to making it about them
Every day a learning day
From feeling nervous to getting excited
From being in the center to stepping on the sidelines
From making it about myself to making it about them
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 video “Learning 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:
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.
Make your message matter to the audience.
Your message must matter, else stay quiet.
You are on the stage for the audience, not for yourself.
You are not trying to impress the audience.
And when (if) the audience applaudes, accept it with humility. Don’t interrupt. Don’t sound apologetic. Don’t be a jerk.
Learn. Unlearn. Relearn.
If writing is a reflection of our thoughts and attitude, then changing the writing style would probably change our mindset as well.
Take a look at the two sentences below:
a. A teacher should be polite with students.
b. When a teacher is polite with students, students respect the teacher and they love being in the class.
The first one clearly is a preaching. “You should do this… You should do that.” Annoying to read. Also, the writer looks like a whiner.
The second one is a suggestion with a potential positive outcome. It’s an attempt to help, genuinely.
Preaching is easy. Helping is not.
May be, when we start writing in the second style, we’ll be able to contribute rather than just preach.
So this participant, who has been teaching for over 25 years, walked out of the workshop when we were talking about assumptions, beliefs, and practices of teachers which they might need to unlearn.
A few weeks ago, we were in the beautiful city of Butwal to conduct a workshop titled “Unlearning Teaching”. Forty teachers from various colleges had showed up and they were sitting in several small groups of four or five.
After the opening session, we were discussing on the challenges of the 21st century teacher, especially because of large classroom sizes and students with different learning preferences, mindsets, backgrounds, motivations, etc.
“Is there any difference between teaching and facilitation?” I posed this open-ended question to the participants and asked them to come up with their analysis. Each group of teachers dove into discussion and wrote down their opinions. I then asked a participant from each table to share their beliefs to everyone.
The participants then took a small quiz on the differences between traditional teaching (lecture) and facilitation. After another round of healthy discussion, the participants eventually came to a consensus that for our teaching to be effective and meaningful, we need to grow our traditional role of a teacher into a more challenging role of a facilitator. A teacher teaches content, while a facilitator lets students co-create knowledge through interaction. Similarly, teaching means having a teacher-centric approach, while facilitation means having students-focused approach. Understanding these, the participants expressed, also helps teachers better manage the classroom dynamics.
“I want to share my experience on this one,” so this participant stood up. Excited to hear his perspective, I gave him the mic. “For these 25 years, I have used one technique to control the classroom. I use my eye-contact. It doesn’t matter if there are 40 students or 100 students, when I look into their eyes, they keep quiet and never dare to make noise.”
As a workshop facilitator, I usually expect different perspectives, sometimes dissenting ones too. People have strongly held beliefs and our job as facilitators is to simply stir their assumptions. So, while he stated his assertion, I kept actively listening to him.
“If a teacher cannot establish his authority, the students will dance on his head,” he added. “Even my colleagues invite me into their class if they can’t handle the students. When I take their classes, no one dares to give me any trouble.”
The room got silent and I could feel dozens of awkward eyes staring at me. I was caught in a dilemma: should I let the discussion get more intense or, should I acknowledge his views and move on to another agenda? My mind was scrambling for a way out.
“Thank you, sir for being honest and sharing your approach and…” I couldn’t even complete what I was going to say when another participant stood up. “I also want to add something.”
After conducting more than fifty workshop sessions in 2016 alone, I have come to realize that resistance in the participants is normal. And they display their resistance in different forms. Some don’t participate at all. Some look angry. Some get busy with their cell phones. Some seem to be asking question every 60 seconds. Some keep visiting the restroom every 10 minutes. All of these look normal when compared to an aggressive participant who likes to hijack the session. Even worse, when that participant influences others.
So when the other participant asked me for the mic, I could hear my heart screaming in panic. I thought the session was going to derail, and I was going to get grilled real bad. I straddled towards his table and handed over the mic to him.
“I completely disagree with your sir,” directing his gaze towards the previous participant. He spoke with defiance, “You are not controlling the students with your eye-contact, you are terrorizing them.”
I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized I had assumed wrong. “Fear might be a good solution, but it is a temporary one,” he added. “Your students remained silent not because they were learning, but because they were afraid.”
A gentle round of applause followed. Then another participant rose up and said, “What if we start blending the two approaches? From the way I see, sometimes we need to control the class, and sometimes simply facilitate it.” A couple more shared their views along the similar line.
“Great,” I thought. “Now the participants are ready to open up and discuss, debate, share their views.” But before I knew it, the experienced teacher got up from his chair and quietly walked out of the hall.
I had never felt thrilled and dreadful at the same. Thrilled because the participants were willing to reflect and analyze their teaching assumptions. Dreadful because that the one who walked out must have felt challenged, or even embarrassed – and worse, I couldn’t even have a word with him.
Hours after the workshop, the incident kept piercing my mind. It made me question my own beliefs about adult learners. Once my mentor had told me that adults are like babies, only in bigger bodies and bigger egos. Ideally, once we gain their trust, they open up and actively participate. Then they drive the sessions with their enthusiasm and cooperation. But the reality is usually complex and challenging. And that means, we – both facilitators and participants – must keep unlearning our assumptions, and keep relearning how we can learn effectively from each other.
Learning how to teach better – II:
Igniting Curiosity in Learners
As I scrolled through my Facebook wall, a status posted by an MBA student caught my eyes. He wrote, “The main role of a teacher should be to ignite the curiosity. This will drive students to be in a receptive mode. The learning process becomes joyful and intense.”
Since I firmly believe that teachers and students both should feel equally accountable for learning, I replied to his status, “And, the main role of a student should be to come prepared with an open mind and ready to be ignited with curiosity. The teaching process becomes joyful and intense.”
Curious about how learning happens, we are forever tangled in a big puzzle: who should motivate whom. The teacher? Or, the student himself or herself? Or the parents? About this confusion, a colleague of mine usually quips, “I can’t be Tony Robbins. My job is to teach, not to motivate.”
“You cannot motivate other people,” writes Bob Pike, in his book Creative Training Techniques Handbook. Perplexing it may sound, upon reflection, the statement does make sense. We can’t wake up someone pretending to be sleeping. Similarly, we can’t motivate someone who doesn’t want to be. Pike also adds, “People do things for their own reasons, not yours.” Teachers may have reasons to teach, but learners may not have reasons to learn. Sounds rather depressing. But as teachers or trainers or mentors, we keep doing what we have chosen to do. We keep putting in our efforts. Hoping somehow we’ll be able to inspire the learners to be curious and motivated.
Can we untangle this puzzle? Let’s believe we can. But first, let me share you a bitter experience I had as a student.
I had always been a loudmouth back in my school days. And when I didn’t see the point of learning the geometric shapes, I had the nerve of asking my math teacher, “What’s the point of studying Geometry?” Back then, math teachers had a certain reputation. They were to be revered. And feared. Thus, as soon as I blurted out my question, I got a reply in the form of his murderous slap on my cheek. I didn’t dare ask anymore.
He could have said, “Geometry helps us understand the importance of balance.” He could have, he should have. But he didn’t. I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems because my teacher failed to paint the big picture for us. He never cared enough to stir our curiosity.
And that’s what we – a lot of teachers, even the ones with good intentions, do again and again. By focusing too much on the details, we unconsciously neglect the part where we should be enabling students to visualize a bigger picture and connect it to the reality.
“If teachers can make us feel like we are learning a fascinating topic that will have a direct impact on our thinking and/or on our lives,” another student posted a comment on my FB status, “We have the natural instinct to become curious about that topic.” And, that could be the missing piece of the puzzle: enabling learners to realize the significance of the topic and to help them make real life connection.
In his book ‘Brain Rules’, molecular biologist John Medina writes that human brain processes meaning before details; the gist before the core concept; the bigger picture before the components. To put this in a very Marketing language, to grab the consumer’s curiosity, sell the benefit before selling the features.
The insight is: Start with the bigger picture and then logically explain the details. Present a real world example, connect it to the concept, tie the loose ends with details, and finally help the learners imagine endless possibilities. Or, share stories, make a point, lead that into the theory, ask students to reflect, and then help them implement the learnings in real situations.
Let me wrap this up. You may be a teacher trying to inspire students. Or a mentor trying to help a young entrepreneur. A trainer trying to transform an organization. Take the inductive approach. If we want to ignite curiosity in learners, paint the bigger picture in their minds, and then explain the meaning of the concepts, instead of bulldozing them with seemingly disparate data, details, and definitions. When we help them internalize and personalize the purpose, then perhaps, just like the MBA student said, the learning process becomes joyful and intense.
(Also published on The Kathmandu Post, Escalate. May 1, 2017)