Wednesday, December 17, 2008

empowering my father

I've recently started working on a new project, called Sprout. The core idea is it's a community workshop and center where people can come and get the social and technical resources they need to turn their ideas into reality. We're specifically focusing on ideas that support the local community: we want people to both address the issues they see in the community around them, and have a place where they can make their own jobs and become self-employed.

It's exciting! I am sure I will be writing a lot about it. It's marks a shift in my work from empowerment of people ages 6 - 12 to empowerment of people.

I've been working on it intensely for the past few weeks and have been quite satisfied doing so. There's nothing huge to report yet -- the majority of things has been figuring out how to set up a self-governed space and trying to think broadly about what it is that separates someone from having a wonderful idea to making that wonderful thing happen.

Part of this process has been reflection on helping others feel empowered. One interesting story is my father's over the past two years. I initially started writing this up for my friend Alec, who I'm working with on Sprout, but I thought it would be good blog material as well.


A little more than two years ago, my dad was living in Rhode Island. He'd been recuperating from a heart attack he'd had a year and a half prior, and seemed to really feel like he'd hit the end of the road, mentally and physically. I had a hard time going down to visit him: I wanted to see him because I knew he liked spending time with me, but the trip was always rough on me. To keep it succinct, it felt lonely to see him more or less alone.

His situation was something that stayed with me for a few years. Two years ago, I had just moved into a new apartment with a friend and we'd had trouble finding roommates for the other rooms (it was a 4 room apartment.) We ended up renting the rooms out on a 1-month basis to buy time to search for a good roommate for the remainder of the year. Around October (the lease began in Sept.), I had the idea that I should invite Dad up to come live with us. I kept the idea for about a month -- it would be a big shift to be living with my father.

The biggest thing would be that my father rambles. Specifically about the years of his life he'd lived in Europe, usually about London (something like the late '60s - '84, but I don't know if anyone really knows.) My brother and his then-girlfriend had taken to comparing it to the band camp line from American Pie: "This one time, in London ... " The rambling had gotten much more severe in isolation -- it was like all of the thinking and words that one naturally shares were damming up, flooding out upon any listener and usually overwhelming them in the process.

After thinking about for a month and running it by my friend, I figured it was worth a shot and asked my dad about it. The idea would be to somehow connect him to MIT. My dad's a very competent engineer -- well-versed in lots of engineering disciplines and a talented machinist -- and I surmised that there had to be something at MIT for him. MIT was his dream university (I think it's a bigger deal to him that I went to MIT than for me) and I knew it'd be the kind of environment he'd thrive in. So that was my pitch -- come up to Boston, and we'll find something at MIT for you to do.

On the phone he said "Hmmmm, I'll think about it," and then called me back the next day, happily eager to give it a try. We moved his stuff up in December, and adjusted to living together. He was full of an excited, hyper, blissfully unaware of social dynamics energy. I still remember how he completely (completely!) rearranged our kitchen, based off of some manufacturing engineering principle of automation or effeciency, and then would respond to my questions like "So where're the trash bags now?" in a "you-teenager-who-never-cleans-up!" tone of voice, of course you don't know! It came off as equal parts of gratitude and completely bizarre.

Of course, the bound up "let me repay my thanks by rearranging all your stuff!" and the "let me tell you all the stories I have!" energy settled. There was a vision seminar at MIT that I encouraged him to go to. I remember having to verbally push him to go -- I hit a wall which I hadn't expected, which was his confidence. I was surprised by it, but also deeply confident in his talents at an engineer, and so didn't mind convincing him that he ought to go (his fear could be summarized I think as any MIT student's fear: I don't belong here, everyone is so smart/talented, what I could possibly contribute to this community?, etc.) He would be nervous or not want to go and I would tell him it was nonsense and stick to my unwavering opinion that he needed to get out of the apartment and go do stuff at MIT and something would work out, and soon enough he would.

He visited a few programs at MIT before becoming a mentor at Amy Smith's Development Lab (D-Lab). D-Lab is one of the coolest engineering groups I've ever seen. They work with developing communities to engineer solutions for problems they're having, and do this by working with the community. This feedback ensures both the efficacy of the tool (it meets real needs and can be repaired/modified by the community using it) and, as I understand it, creates a perspective of empowerment, rather than charity. Smith founded the lab in part to show students an alternative career to engineering -- using engineering for social change -- and it's the thing that is perfect for my dad.

He grew to learn how to help, to feel his way around the community, and to slowly shake off his fears of people with degrees and doctorates from MIT. My dad became incredibly, undeniably happy during this first year there (he would say frequently, and with such genuineness "Maybe I have died, and I've gone to heaven! I'm not sure!") The profound transformation that the shift had -- from being in Rhode Island to being in MIT working with D-Lab -- has always amazed me. Things that read like intrinsic parts of a personality (no matter how aware you are), like how much Dad rambled, only talked about the past and never the present, or simply how much attention he paid to the person he talked to, all changed to things that felt much more accessible (in being excited by his own, present day life, he seemed much more excited about everyone else's too, and his signature rambling began to stem. I should of course make no claim that the rambling has ceased! That would be the work of majik and demons.)

Since then, my dad has become employed (in a marginal sense -- employed enough to pay the bills, but not enough to get in the way of my father happily spending all of his free time at D-Lab, which, paradoxically, it would) to take care of the shop, which is perfect for him. It's really an amazing transformation to me; I'm always happy about it whenever I reflect on it.

There's a few things I've taken away from this:

* changing someone's environment can be transformative: the big, fundamental difference in my father's life before and after D-Lab is how happy he is. He is productive, is making a meaningful contribution to an organization he finds meaningful, and he's much more content with his day-to-day life.

I don't think any amount of talking alone could have brought this shift about. I'm sure I'd talked to him before about getting back into engineering, or using his skills, or who knows what beforehand, and I'm sure that that sounded simultaneously appealing and empty (it'd be great to be making things again ... but how?) It is one
thing to construct the environment you need, and another to find it.

* When to push, when not to push: I don't know if there are any words to describe this beyond the intuition one develops from a human relationship, but I found that with my father, there were some things I could make happen through pushing him on verbally, and some that I simply had to enact myself. Convincing him to come to Boston, or thinking of clever ways to articulate that 35 years of engineering experience were just as valid as an academic career were all things I could do verbally. He'd have his doubts, I'd have my counterargument (ideally wrapped up in a sentence or two maxim that sounded good and was easy to remember) and he'd agree mentally and give whatever it was I was advocating a try.

Getting him to ask for funding for D-Lab was, however, something I got nowhere with verbally. His first year at D-Lab I helped support him financially, and by the end of the year I had wanted him to ask for funding (for the sake of my own independence and his sustianability.) There were no words, high or low or in the sky, that I could have gotten my father to do this. My father finds money to be a confusing thing, something that gets in the way of getting things done, and I think he also felt too scared to be rejected by this lab that he'd fallen in love with: the possibility that he might ask, they could say no, and we would find another source of funding never seemed to register -- the act of asking with the potential of rejection was, I think, just too much for him. At some point, I asked a friend to ask the head of the lab on his behalf, and everything worked out from there. He was extremely grateful, and I began to realize that just as my father had frustrated me by not acting, I had been frustrating myself by simply not finding another way to ask on his behalf.

* What one can change has its limits: my father isn't in the best of health, and his few semesters at MIT would thoroughly overwork his body, trying to keep pace with the overworked and frenzied students, dashing to finish their work. Any conversations I had with him to the effect of "you know, you don't have to take finals as seriously as the students do" would just be met with looks of utter amazement. It's finals time -- you have to finish! I have to help the student's finish! That's what you do!

At first, seeing the unhealthy patterns that finals creates seep over to my dad frustrated me, but I began to realize that this was beyond my influence. I could explain things as I saw them, but that finals time was needlessly stressful and ought to be taken with a grain of salt was not something that I could simply convince my father of. Over his two years, he's come to prioritize his own body more, and has balanced taking care of himself a bit more with helping students (particularly as he's learned it can take a week or so to feel recovered from such times.) Overall though, it became clear to me that while I could help in broad matters of my father's situation, simple things like these were beyond me. I couldn't just make my father have the perspectives I value and want him to have about academia.


I'm eager to hear what other stories people know of like this one, and what other commonalities or lessons there are to be unearthed from them.

Friday, November 21, 2008

my own experiences learning: part 2, TAing at MIT.

The other big experience that shaped how I view educational systems was being a TA at MIT. On the whole it was a really disheartening experience. I believe that is much harder and more worthwhile to construct a healthy system -- be it educational or otherwise -- than critique an existing, failing one, and so I haven't thought much about TAing at MIT in the past few years. However, I'm currently living at an MIT house (I'm the Resident Advisor at pika!). Watching people struggle with a system they're unaware of has made me think that these observations are still of use.

After coming back to MIT from Germany, I felt completely unwilling to participate in the educational system. My overall feeling was that the whole system could be run so much better and had so little thought put into it, and yet it didn't particularly bother anyone. I had an amazing resistance to taking classes where I felt like the instructor wasn't trying or caring much and consequently dropped nearly all of the classes I signed up for my first term back.

I took 4 classes my last two terms at MIT, and dropped my former plans of becoming a mathematician mid-way through applying for a Ph.D. My interest in math fell apart as I realized that there were many more important things to work on, especially in the worlds of learning and education. Of the four classes I took, was being a teaching assistant (TA) for 18.02 -- multivariable calculus. It satisfied my last graduation requirement and with my rising interest in education it would be a neat thing to do.

For background, 18.02 is a required course at MIT -- all students must take it to graduate. It's the second math class in the introductory one-year calculus sequence. At many universities, this is a two-year sequence. The class itself was about 200-300 students, and I taught a 1-hour recitation twice a week with 20 students and also graded their homework.

1. My own growing perspective on education

I'd started reading John Holt's How Children Fail and How Children Learn that semester, which were really shaping how I thought about teachers, learners, and educational systems. Those books began to give me an articulation for the intuitions I'd developed in Germany, and made me look at grades as unnecessary and something that simply got in the way of people's learning processes. Instead of giving students the message "You haven't fully mastered this concept yet," grades gave students the message "You haven't fully mastered this concept yet and now you're being punished for it." I began to become aware of how grading cuts into someone's natural feedback process when learning -- changing an intuition like "Man! I wish I understood lift better, it's so mysterious and interesting" to "Man, there's no way I can get an A in this class now." Thinking about Holt in terms of my experiences in Germany made me understand how toxic grades and similar judgements are and how one can thrive when rid of them.

I also saw how liberating it was to be free of notions like "I need to work harder" and "I'm not working hard enough" in Germany. I began to recognize that kind of thinking as symptomatic of a poor educational system -- putting the student in a place where despite their natural curiousity, they felt both overwhelmed (I can't get everything done) and unsatisfied (I need to be doing something differently...) Since students fundamentally can't change their learning environment -- they don't have control over their own learning process -- the only place they have to turn is inward. This leads to the very common spiral of plaguing, nagging thoughts of self doubt: "Maybe if I worked harder, I wouldn't be behind," or "Maybe if I slept enough, I wouldn't be so tired," etc. My experience in Germany, suddenly free of my own self-doubt once I was happily learning all day, has led me to view claims like these, or similar ones like "I'm just not good at this" or "I just haven't tried enough" as signs that the system isn't working, not the student.

2. The first exam

The first few weeks of TAing were pretty ordinary. Myself and my students got used to the rhythm of the class, I got used to balancing presenting material and taking questions in recitation, and so on. The first exam we had was the first event that began making me suspicious of the class.

The test grades were what you'd expect -- some students did well, some did ok, and a few failed. TAs were asked to email any student who failed, letting them know how they could make up a test. I remember looking at one student's failed exam and his related homework and seeing clearly that of the three weeks of material covered, he'd understood the first two weeks fine and not the third week. As far as using the test as objective feedback goes, this meant he had a week's more of learning to do for the course.

As far as the metric used by the class though, this meant he'd failed his first test: a deeply demoralizing event. On top of that, he'd have the spectre of that failure for the next two and a half months: there was no way from him to makeup that failed grade and get a high mark in the class now -- his average would be too weighed down. So while the message ought to have been "Ah! You haven't understood cross products yet -- you have these ideas to catch up on!", it becomes a stigmatizing failure that lasts for the whole term: "You could pass this class if you work extra hard."

I emailed my student asking him to meet. I was eager to show him that there were just 2 big ideas he was missing and then he'd be on par with the rest of the course: the looming feeling that not only did you fail a test, but most everyone else in your class didn't makes the event that much more defeating and confusing: why can't I do this but most everyone else can? It took a bit of pushing to get him to meet with me -- I think he politely declined the email, and then after recitation one day I got his attention in the hallway and asked him if he had time to go over the material right then. He did, and a half hour later he was really relieved I'd pulled him aside. As I suspected, he'd viewed the failed test as a sign that he was really far behind, and by the end of our session he was much more relaxed.

The rest of the semester went fine for him and he remained very grateful for that intervention. It's a nice story because it wraps up cleanly, but of course it's not the norm. It got me thinking: why was it such a big deal for him to learn how to handle cross products right here, right now? Beyond the test -- the artificial environment -- he had no need for them. When we'd met, he explained that he'd been busy with his other classes, having had several exams that week, and just hadn't gotten to calculus yet. This seemed reasonable enough to me: he was doing his work as best as he could, and the idea that he hadn't learned how to do cross products by an arbitrary date causing so much stress just seemed preposterous to me. What was the point?

3. Copying

About midway through the term, I began to notice that a lot of the problem sets handed in were duplicates of other problem sets. From my point of a view as a grader, it would be amusing to see the changes people would put in their problem set -- like substituting a "y" instead of an "x" throughout a problem to attempt to mask an otherwise 6 pages of calculus that was line-for-line identical. On one of the weeks almost half of the work was copied. Some of those may have been the originals, but it was still a lot! Another undergrad TA had noticed the same thing; graduate TAs didn't grade their own section's homework, so it was only a few staff that noticed this trend.

I set out to look at copying objectively -- past the usual moral claim that it's a wrong thing to do and to discern what it meant about the class. It first occurred to me that copying was a literal waste of time: instead of spending an hour or two trying to understand the material at hand, one spends it transcribing equations line for line for pages. Beyond that, there's the mental space that someone is in when they're copying. By copying, someone is acknowledging that they can not or do the requested homework or that they don't want to, yet they still feel obliged to appear to have done so. It's like saying "I can't or don't want to do this, but I have to."

The point of homework is to give the student practice with the skills covered in a course, and to give the instructors feedback as to what the students are understanding. What's happening here is that a student who is copying feels that the practice offered is either not doable (the student does not understand, feels too exhausted, or both) or not useful (the practice does not seem worthwhile or the material does not seem worthwhile.) If the material isn't doable, that feedback is of critical importance to the instructor. Whether it's because the student is too exhausted to learn, as is often the case at MIT, or is just lost in the class, the student would benefit from the class slowing down and addressing this.

It's also valuable feedback if the student sees no point in the exercises. Learning German was effortless because there was a natural context for the skill -- communicating in German. Likewise, when there is no natural context for a skill, learning is a struggle. If you don't see a reason to learn a skill, why would you learn it? Again, this is huge feedback for an instructor to have.

In either of these cases, instead of this feedback going to the instructor through a simple conversation or email, the student feels there is no use in being honest about how they feel, so much so that they spend an hour or two doing something pointless in order to appear as if they did indeed do the homework. This feedback gets masked because to give that feedback honestly -- to have a conversation instead of handing in a copied problem set -- would likely be poorly received, and worse, one would be graded harshly for it if the conversation didn't go well.

4. Bibles

Taking this view and applying it to 18.02, where at its peak half or so of the problem sets were copied shows a pretty bleak picture -- almost half of the students are pretending to do the homework and feel bound to do so. And yet this is no quirk particular to this class. I remembering touring fraternities as a freshmen, and one of their perks was their collection of "bibles": collection of all the notes, homework, and tests from previous years. This idea of copying problem sets is such a normal one that it's well established in MIT's residential culture. The idea that a class isn't working for you in some way and yet there's no way to change that is an accepted one.

I came to realize that part of why students' bibles work is because professors also have bibles. The course my professor was teaching was handed to him by the previous professor. It was the complement to the student's bible: the lectures, problem sets, and exams were all in the course package. It felt on one hand ridiculous (the professor hands out problems he hasn't thought about, and the students hand in answers pretending to have thought about them) and on the other offensive. The class was on a rigid track: there were so many set lectures, homeworks, and exams. There was no room for deviating if the class was stuck on one idea, understood another quicker than expected, or if there was an insight as to where the class should go instead. The class was like a train -- steady and immovable. Knowing how much effort students put into accomodating a class' assignments, it bothered me to realize that it was already pre-determined that the class wouldn't respond to the student's needs.

This begins to make sense of common student questions and concerns like "Why do we have to do this problem when we haven't covered it in class yet?" or "I'm not sure what's going to be on the exam since on the last exam there was material we had only just started..." If a class' homework/test structure is predetermined, it's easy for a lecturer to be out of sync with the questions he's assigning because he simply hasn't read them over or thought them through. While I can't tell you how common this in courses at MIT, I would expect it to be the case in the majority of introductory classes.

Another post-doc in the math dept. -- one of my favorite teachers at MIT, Emma Carberry -- told me as she was applying for professorships that she felt quite frustrated with the high-pressure academic system. She was applying to liberal arts colleges to teach at because she wanted to be in an environment where she was rewarded, or at least acknowledged, for putting a lot of time into her teaching. She said that at MIT and in this tier of academia, the only metric was how well your research was going, and so putting time into teaching well was something that you were implicitly punished for professionally. This anecdote still amazes me; I often wonder why MIT bothers having classes when they don't value them.

Students often have a few great classes at MIT. With an instructor who carefully thinks about the interaction between all of the course's components: homework, tests, lectures, and so on,
and integrates feedback as it comes, a lecturer can create a good learning environment for a student at MIT. These professors are unfortunately rare because MIT's professional system selects against this, as was the case with Emma Carberry. The professor I was working for told me that he wanted to be teaching grad students in his field of research, but was assigned the introductory class and could do nothing about it. I thought the professor was doing a decent job too (he did lots of things well -- taking feedback from TAs, worked to create good materials for recitations) and yet at the end of the day, it was clear that this was not a project the professor was interested in. The lack of choice the professor had ("I don't want to teach this class, but I have to") led to the automatic production of the class from the bible, which in turn led to most of the students having the same reaction ("I don't want to take this class, but I have to.")

5. Tests

Midway through the semester, as I began to notice all of the copying, I began to really see the class for more of a charade: both the professor and majority of students were there because it was a required class, not because they thought it was worthwhile. Exam grading only furthered this along.

The professors and the TAs graded the exams, and each staff member got a question to grade for 3 hours or so with a partner. It was a pretty mind-numbing experience, grading 150 or so of the same exam question again and again. On this exam, the question that I graded was one where 2/3rds or so of the students made the same mistake. I remember thinking that I wished I had a stamp for how many times I wrote down "can't used Green's theorem when the line integral isn't closed!" It began to dawn on me as I did this over and over again, that this was a clear sign the class did not understand the concept in any intuitive way. This was great feedback (the course pace should slow down and go over this again, ideally approaching it in a way that develops more intuition), but feedback that had no place in a predetermined class. The results of the tests got turned into numbers, the numbers into a distribution, and that was the feedback that the course received. The details of which concepts had been mastered by the group and which concepts hadn't been understood at all -- the feedback that mattered -- was left behind in the wake of lots and lots of exam scores.

This exam just added on to the feeling that the class was a big, stressful game of pretend. The students didn't know how to do the problem, and the mistake stemmed from trying to match patterns: there are 4 big ideas being tested, 6 questions on the test, and if you match them up right the test will turn out fine. The feedback from the test that students didn't understand Green's Theorem didn't fit into the course's structure and so was ignored. The staff gave tests because they had to, the students took tests because they had to, and the course went on, staying on track.

6. Context

There were about three weeks left of the class at this point, which covered material like Stokes' theorem. Stokes' theorem is something that everyone at MIT recognizes -- having had to take 18.02 -- and hardly anyone knows, including math majors. I myself never had a strong intuition for why Stokes theorem was important, and tried to find a good context to present the theorem in.

I came across Schey's Div, Grad, Curl and all that , which explained vector calculus and the material we were covering oin the context of electricity and magnetism. The book was great -- it was very simple and answered my own personal questions about why this material was valuable.

It didn't help for presenting it well though. I tried once, and realized that I was trying to elucidate one abstract concept -- vector calculus -- by putting in context of another abstract concept -- electricity and magnetism (E&M). This was particularly weak because many of these students were taking E&M at the same time as 18.02 -- there was no guarantee that E&M was something these students had any familiarity with, and furthermore, any intuition for.

I then asked the simple question -- how many of these would actually use this material, based on their declared major? I surmised that of the 20-some majors at MIT, the ones that would use 18.02 extensively (something more than just adding a week's worth of a material to a course to explain a needed mathematical tool) were mathematicians, physicists, and anyone who studied flow (so mechanical and civil engineers,) I was willing to bet another two majors used the material in ways I couldn't think of, but that for the rest of them, beyond those six, their disciplines were not reliant on this material in any way. That quick estimate puts the number of students who would use 18.02 later on to be somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the student body. Yet everyone was taking it!

I also thought about my friends who were physicists -- who in E&M used vector calculus all the time. Most of them told me that the way they'd learned vector calculus was by learning E&M. This made sense to me too: you learn something by using the knowledge, not by preparing to use it. It made perfect sense to me: needing to use vector calculus and would create a much more powerful context for understanding and remembering the material than the artificial one of 18.02. Only 1/4 or 1/3 of the students who actually learned this material, and it seemed clear that they were better off learning it in the context of their discipline anyway. What was the point?

6. Feedback

One of the things that was so powerful in Germany was having complete control over my learning environment: being able to fold in the feedback from each thing I did into my daily process. One of the reasons that 18.02 felt like such an ineffective class to me was that the feedback loop was too large to change quickly and too fragmented to understand what it should change.

I already discussed the example of homework: where students hide their honest feedback in bowing to the system. And the example of testing: where the staff, prioritizing grading, ignores the real feedback generated. Beyond this was just the hierarchical mess of having 1 person responsible for 300 people's learning.

I remember one example where a problem set contained an unusually difficult problem. The TAs had trouble doing it and couldn't figure out how to do it. Some TAs unwittingly gave out false solutions in office hours, not realizing they didn't know how to do it correctly. There were tons of questions that week about the problem, and their was nothing illuminating about solving it. It was supposed to be practice for a calculus idea, but it was really an exasperatingly long geometry problem.

This problem easily added on at least 2 hours of work to each student's problem set or furthered the "I can't do this so I better copy it" mindset. It would've taken the professor or the course admin maybe two hours to do the problem set, find that problem, and throw it out. But, since they were just handing out problem sets handed to them, this problem was kept in and a group of students wastes a good 300 - 600 hours.

Letting one person control 300 people's time is the core structure of this and other lecture-based course. It's pretty tough to give a good hour-long presentation, let alone three on a week on something you don't particularly care about, as was this professor's lot. There's virtually no room for feedback: most students, when confused or stuck, hold in their questions because it's quite difficult to have a conversation in a 300-on-1 environment, proceed to forget their questions, and struggle to follow the rest of the lecture.

There are good lecturers at MIT. However, it seems to be akin to being a good performer: lecturing, or performing, well is a rare skill and one that takes work. Giving a good lecture means having a good command of your voice, your blackboard, and having an intuition for how to present your material in a way that is engaging and not confusing. Looking at feedback from the lecturer's point of view, it is harder to get feedback the larger your class is. A lecture to a 300-person audience has to be one where the instructor is already familiar with most of the pitfalls and confusions. It takes a lot of work to become experienced and knowledgable enough to be a good lecturer. It can be done, but given MIT's stance of prioritizing research in an academic's career, a good lecturer is going to be the outlier and not the norm.

Despite this, the lecture is regarded as the most important part of the course. In my term in 18.02, students attendance was highest in lecture, second highest in recitation (a 1 on 20 environment, where at least one or two questions per student could be fielded), and lowest in office hours (a 1 on 3 conversational environment.) I was fascinated by this; my students knew they could come to my office hours for anything, even a recap of the lectures that they'd decided not to go to. Very few did, despite it being the most active us of their time, the environment where they could ask the most questions and address their own confusions. The worst opportunity in this sense -- lecture, where they had no way to engage but to passively listen and hope they didn't get lost too quickly -- was the best attended. It seemed to me that by putting students, in an environment that prioritizes the lecturer above all, they will unwittingly waste their time trying to make use of the lecture, absorbing 15 - 20 minutes of material for the hour they spend there.

7. Demoralizing students

Midway through the class, one or two female students told me, independently "I used to think I was good at math until I came to MIT." It made me crazy to hear -- I wanted to explain to them, as succinctly as they told me their self-doubts, all of the systemic things I'd been noticing and explain that they should by no means take this class and its grades personally. The impact of struggling in a class is huge -- the take home message is not "I have not understood as much vector calculus as some other people in this class." It's "I'm not good at math." I always wondered if it was just coincedence that the students who told me this were female, or if it was the result of carrying the weight of the stereotype "woman aren't as good at math as men" around, and finally they had an experience which confirmed it.

I remember wondering one weekend why we (the 18.02 staff) were stressing people out so much about things like finding the volumes of arbitrary shapes. I got to a point where the whole class seemed preposterous, and eventually even repulsive. For the final, one student told me that his plan was to get no sleep the night before the test because if he studied, and then slept, he'd forget all the equations he'd just learned at wouldn't be able to use them on the test. Another final came back stained in Pepto-Bismol because the student had brought it with him to the exam, trying to calm his stomach down from pre-test anxiety and vomiting. What was the point of all this? To help people learn how to calculate flows and volumes?

I came to see the course as something that the students didn't need and not designed in their interests. It was taught and it was taken because it was required of both parties. It's main result wasn't to get people excited by these ideas, or even to understand them, but mostly to pretend that they knew what was going on and wait for the class to stop. In the meanwhile, it was a thoroughly demoralizing experience for them, one with repercussions -- making math seem impossible -- that go exactly against the point of having the class in the first place.

As I finish writing this, my great hope is that this analysis will help someone understand, a little more closely, what is happening to them in their own struggles in college. I think that this kind of system is incredibly difficult to see when you are inside of it, and I hope that my different perspective from being a TA, and from thinking about education non-traditionally, are of use. I am really happy to talk more about this if it strikes anyone -- just leave a comment or send me an email.

Monday, November 17, 2008

my own experiences learning: part 1 -- Germany.

Much of my views on learning and education were formed through two powerful learning experiences. They fully changed my mind as how I learn, how quickly I can learn, and how others learn. They helped me value one's own intuition for how the learning process is going above and beyond any system or institution's feedback. Said another way, it is way more important that learning feels fantastic than getting good grades. The first experience was going to Germany my junior year in college, and the second was being a TA at MIT the next year.

Germany: learning how I learn!

1. Getting ready to go.

During my first semester of junior year I was at MIT majoring in theoretical math. I was taking lots of classes and I was putting lots of time into them and yet I was learning very little and retaining even less. I felt like I was never getting enough done and in was in general quite unsatisfied. I'm writing from the personal perspective, but in my experience this has been the perspective of every MIT student, whether or not they're aware of it.

Personally, I knew I was not learning nearly enough for the amount of effort I was putting in, the work felt like work (it was not satisfying), and I began to have the suspicion that not only did I not know why these mathematical tools -- the material I was studying -- were important or worth working on for a lifetime, most of my students and professors didn't know either.

I wanted out pretty badly, and somehow stumbled upon the idea of going abroad for a semester. I talked to my friend and fellow math major Ananda about it at dinner one night, who felt similarly about MIT and was game for trying to go abroad. We chose Germany, for no particular reason beyond an opinion from an advisor that they had good math programs in Germany. We talked to the study abroad officer, who while being puzzled that we didn't know any German and yet still wanted to go to Germany, got things set up for us and we were set to go for the next semester.

We got to work on learning German, starting with Pimsleur's language tapes. Some of the tapes were from the 80's or 90's, and had you repeat sentences like "I love to work on spreadsheets! Do you have the floppy drive?" They were an excellent introduction for us -- with no tongue, ear, or mind for the language -- by using a call and response system that built up a simple vocabulary of tourist-useful phrases ("I don't speak much German"/"I'm from America"/ "Where is the ____?," and so on.)

We got a German tutor who met with us twice a week the month before we went. She gave us a wonderful crash course in all the different cases and tenses, all the rudimentary tools we needed to decipher a sentence, given a German-English dictionary and ample time. She has us read a kids' book, played lots of fun games with us, and was overall really fantastic.

And then we were off!

2. The first weeks in Germany

The first week in Aachen was pretty overwhelming and bleak. Our German was really weak then and we couldn't hold a conversation. We hadn't realized that we were in effect leaving our warm, co-operative home, all the people we knew, and a common language all behind by going to Germany until we got there. This was compounded by the fact that we arrived two and a half months before the school semester started, at the beginning of the inter-semester holiday period. The idea was to give us time to learn German, but it meant the dorm we were staying in was practically deserted , compounding the feelings of being lost and lonely. It felt like we had done something massive and gotten in way over our heads.

Things started to settle as we slowly made sense of the city -- where the supermarket was, how the town was organized, how to use the busses, and so on. The math department at the RWTH, where we were studying in Aachen, gave us an office to use, a kindness Ananda and I were really surprised by and thankful for. We had signed up for an intensive language class that would meet four hours a day, and we'd expected to fall into a rhythm of filling up our days with the class and its homework, building a daily routine around that, and feeling a bit less on edge about not knowing what to do with oneself in a place where you didn't know the language.

We went to the first day of the language class. The beginning of the class was spent with administrative work (the teacher wanted to split the class into beginner and intermediate sections, but no one wanted to leave the faster paced class.) We did a worksheet conjugating strong verbs in the present tense (Ich trete/I kick, er tritt/he kicks, that kind of thing) and took turns individually reading sentences out of a book out loud.

The class felt really ineffective to me afterwards. Watching a Chinese student read out loud, I realized the pronunciations difficulties she was going to have were going to be completely different from mine, which was interesting but not useful for learning German. I had really disliked the worksheet, and while I couldn't articulate why, there was something about it that felt like a trap. I couldn't do all of the exercises in it, but the natural idea that one should therefore do more of it felt wrong to me. The worksheet felt like a mechanical struggle -- there didn't seem to be any path to doing such worksheets other than memorizing and trying again.

The whole experience felt like a really poor use of time, and I told Ananda what I thought. I was really cranky by the end of the class, saying things like "We're not going back!" Ananda and I talked about it and settled on trying it a second day. We both acknowledged that being around classmates who also spoke in broken German was a relief and we tried it a second day. That was our last in the class. I can't even remember if we stayed in the whole class, but it was more of the same and it became clear that this wasn't going to work for us.

3. Learning on our own

The next week I remember being quite nervous. Ananda and I weren't taking the intensive German class, but of course still wanted to learn German. How were we going to do that? My own nervousness was heightened by dragging a friend along with me: while my own dropping out of a class would've been one thing, I had a convinced a friend to do so too and felt responsible for the situation we were in. We wanted to learn German, didn't know how to, and had just jettisoned the plan we'd been relying on to do so.

Gradually, over the week, we found ways to fill our time up with German. Each activity seemed like a stroke of genius, and then quite obvious afterwards. We went to the library and checked out lots of kids books and some audiobooks. We found a few international student groups and would go to pubs to meet up with them: while we couldn't talk to Germans yet beyond the beginner's exchange of pleasantries -- "Es geht mir gut, und dir? / I'm good, and you?" -- international students would happily talk to us at length, despite how slow our German was. We started watching Hollywood-produced movies in German (which was the majority of what played in theatres,) which was a surprisingly immersive experience: without all of the foreshadowing and clues about what's coming next, movies that would have utterly bored me in English were spellbinding in German.

We began to fill our days with these sorts of activities, happily rotating between them. We intermittently had a German tutor for two hours a week who would answer our grammar questions and clear up confusions we'd had but couldn't find the answer to. As our German got stronger we bought a TV and watched the news. We also found tandem partners: native speakers who would practice with us for an hour in German in exchange for an hour in English. As time went on we stopped seeking out tutors and directed all of our questions to the tandem partners.

The days went by quickly and happily. The learning was so fast and clearly palpable -- every week a new skill or a new idea would be mastered, practiced, and in our active usage. With so many different ways of approaching German: reading books, listening to audiobooks, watching TV or movies, speaking to people, and a bit of writing, we were able to round out practicing all the various parts of a language, and never got bored.

The most amazing test of our German knowledge came with taking math classes in German. (though not all of our classes were in German. One prof. lectured in English solely because Ananda and I were in the class. Most Germans have a conversational command of English from their schooling, so it wasn't crippling to his students, but to give an entire course in a foreign lecture just for two guests blew me away. What kindness!) The first month of classes was sluggish -- lecture was often spent writing down new words to look up after class. By the second month we began to understand our classes in German without too much effort. In the last month, I was able to converse with other students about our homework. Understanding lectures on partial differential equations was astonishing to me. It was very empowering!

4. What made it go so well?

This experience has been a personal reference point to me -- comparing how I feel in a given situation to how I felt learning German is a way I check to see if I am learning as best as I can. The whole physical and mental feeling and experience of being there has been an invaluable tool to me over the past 4 years.

This has led me to analyze the experience deeply and to break it down into the individual factors that made the whole situation so effective, so that when a current situation isn't going as well, I can look concretely at what factors are different and what potentially could be changed.

Learning the parts of a skill in an order determined by using the skill itself: I mentioned above not trusting the conjugation worksheet but not being able to put my finger on why. I found that as my German progressed, the order I was learning the language in was quite different, and in some cases inverted, from the order it was traditionally presented in.

For example: the traditional method has one learn how to say a short, simple sentence perfectly, like "I want to borrow books from the library." To say this sentence perfectly, you need to be acquainted with the accusative and dative cases (for direct and indirect objects) and how to decline plural nouns. You'd first have an introduction to the dative and accusative cases and how to decline plural nouns, be presented with charts for memorization, and then do a lot of exercises that amounted to memorization practice.

In real usage -- i.e. talking and understanding German -- we found that the most important thing for being understood was the idea of putting verbs in 2nd position. Basically, this means that the verb needs to be your second grammatical unit in the sentence -- you have one grammatical unit before the verb (like the subject, object, or adverb), then the verb, and then your sentence goes on. Your verb in the second position is what the rest of your sentence pivots around. This is different way of thinking about sentences than in English -- so much so that I had trouble with English for a day or two on my return, still being in this habit.) And, unsurprisingly, if you don't do this, no one can understand anything you say in German. It's like saying "Tomorrow work I late." in English instead of "I work late tomorrow." The word order is one of the first big things that needs to be right in order to communicate successfully.

This rule -- one that is regarded as an intermediate rule in a normal German class' sequence -- was one of the very first things we learned. And there was tremendous feedback from learning it: by constructing sentences this way instead of translating word-for-word from English, people instantly understood us much better. It was a sudden, magical shift. With the feedback being so strong, the idea stuck permanently. I can't imagine lapsing into thinking "was it 2nd or 3rd position that the verb goes in?", though this would be unsurprising had I memorized this rule out of context.

In this same light, learning the details of when to use what case and what gender (German nouns have three genders -- male, female, neuter -- which come up pretty much whenever one uses a noun) was one of the last things that fell into place for us. It actually started happening on its own around our last month in Germany -- Ananda noticed one day that her cases were coming out of her mouth correctly, with no particular effort having gone into cases or declinations beyond the general daily effort of communicating in German.

It made sense instantly in light of looking at how important it was to communicating: Germans could understand us fine when we swapped "den Tisch" for "dem Tisch" (different cases), or even "die Tisch" for "der Tisch" (different gender.) If the rest of the sentence was constructed correctly, the meaning would be clear and it was just a simple sound that was off. On the other hand, without putting verbs in second position, our words were in the wrong order and we were practically incomprehensible.

So looking simply at the rules of German -- we needed to learn the rules that had the largest impact first. Putting words in the right order was much more important to being understood than the details of genders and cases, and so it made sense to learn word order first. This is a completely different sequence from how German is traditionally taught -- where attention is paid to cases and genders first in order to construct perfect simple sentences, before more "advanced" ideas about word order are covered. I think it's because this order is out of sync with what's most important to communication that tables and memorization are used to teach this material. Simply using the skill -- using German -- is a natural way to sort out what's important to learn when.

Having a learning partner: One of the big things I've taken away from being in Germany is the tremendous value of having someone on relatively equal footing to think with. 90% of the time, when Ananda or I couldn't understand a sentence or a grammatical idea, we could figure it out together. The rest of the time we had a tutor or a tandem partner to save the question for.

This meant a few things. One, we would save our own questions for each other -- we had an instant resource whenever we were stuck. Since we had a similar level of language comprehension, understanding each other's mistakes was quite natural. I once asked a tutor why she kept using the verb "to cook" (kochen) all the time -- it seemed to mean something like look, and she used it all the time, like "cook something in the dictionary" or "cook something over there". I figured that this usage was simply a colloquial use of kochen that didn't make sense literally. The tutor had no idea what the hell I was talking about. Through discussion, Ananda and I were able to generate enough examples for her to recognize that I meant "gucken" (which indeed means to look.)

This kind of mistake is easy to puzzle out with someone who has a similar understanding as you do (in this case, a sufficiently untrained ear to hear g's for k's) and find different ways to articulate the question in a way that an expert can understand: without several examples, I think the tutor would have just been baffled. Upon arriving at the answer together, we realized not only that a different verb was being used, but more importantly that we couldn't tell hard g's and k's apart.

In general, questions for native speakers came ready with examples and a clear explanation of what we were confused about. When Ananda and I would get stuck, we would generate examples and clarify the question as we tried to figure it out. This made our use of the expert's time very efficient and receiving the answer for us very exciting -- finally understanding something we'd been wondering about for days. It also helped us remember the answer: it's hard to forget something you've put so much personal effort into.

Finally, there's the structure that two people can create for each other. We informally agreed to work on German from around 8 am to 6 pm every day -- going to our office to do so -- and would occasionally do more in the evening if we felt like it. Having another person really kept me to this structure: while it took getting up a bit earlier than I wanted to, our overall progress was so rewarding that I was eager to keep the going. The human aspect of having a partner -- someone to bounce off of when feeling confused or tired or just out of it -- also makes the whole process much smoother: learning German was more like hanging out with someone than a force of will.

Having lots of time to practice and a high "practice time:instruction time" ratio. This is of course the whole theme of what I'm saying here -- by using German and finding ways to make it work with our skill level, we learned quickly, easily, and happily. In particular though, we had one or two hours of time with an expert (a tutor) for about half of the weeks we were there (we didn't have a steady tutor.) Teacher-student exchanges often fall into the rhythm of "You should learn this skill: let's introduce it" on a first meeting, and then on a second meeting, with the learner having had very little time to practice or use the skill, a repeat of the ideas of the first meeting with some sort of drill-and-practice routine.

In our situation, the lessons were largely spurred by our own questions, and the ratio of hours of practice to hours of instruction was at least 20:1, and usually more like 30 or 40:1. This meant that in the time that we were given a new idea or insight into how the language worked, we'd had time to try it and practice it, often to the point of mastery. Ananda and I would discuss any questions that came up, and usually work on figuring out a new skill. Our next lesson would start with resolving any last questions about the old skill and quickly move on to questions about a new skill we were working on. This kept the instruction from getting stale and made the instruction invigorating for both teacher and learner -- rapid progress is exciting to experience and to work with. It also kept us out of the trap of "I just didn't have time to do this/If only I'd worked harder" of traditional student/teacher interactions. I believe this happens when learners haven't had enough time between instruction to try something out on their own. This can derail a learner's path from making their best efforts on learning something to wondering why they aren't able to do something, taking their attention away from their learning process and into self-doubt.

I have found looking at the ratio of practice time:instruction time to be a valuable one when understanding why classes are working well or not. I believe people need more instruction at the beginning of learning a skill, when they have no foothold from which to practice and to experiment, and less and less as they find more and more to explore and question on their own. This is one reason that I think the Pimsleur tapes were so effective -- they were a self-directed way to get a lot of instruction on listening and speaking, via listening to phrases and repeating them, and could be done on one's own, whenever you wanted. They really helped us get an ear for the basics of the language, which becomes an entry point into deeper activities like listening to audiobooks or movies or having introductory conversations. One of the great things about Pimsleur is that while being able to listen to a phrase, repeat it, and listen to it again is a great way to begin to understand unfamiliar sounds, it's something that would be really tedious for a German speaker to work on with a beginner and a difficult resource to find otherwise. The tapes were an ideal format for that kind of instruction.

Being in control of feedback: We were free to make commitments and break them as far as learning German went. The first example was with our intensive German class that we dropped, but this happened with a number of other things. There was an international students group that hosted day-long outings. The first was fantastic: we were dying to hang out with other people and talk to people that would tolerate our slow, fragmented German, and were absolutely thrilled with the trip and level of conversation. By our third trip -- two months and lots and lots of German later -- we were beginning to feel like the general pace of conversation was excruciatingly slow for us, and so we stopped going.

Here's another example: tandem partners became the heart of how we learned German, once we could comfortably hold a conversation in German. The first few times we met with a tandem partner were like using a muscle you've never used before: we were incredibly drained afterwards and our minds were quiet and exhausted. While there was a value in watching ourselves become more and more comfortable learning German, and that first meeting showed us how difficult speaking in German for an hour was at first, it took us a while to really get into tandem exchanges simply because it took our German a few months to get to the level where it was a useful activity (and not just a taxing one.) By being able to control the frequency of these meetings, we were able to make use of them when were ready to.

The point is that we were in control of all of these interactions. What went well we did more of, what didn't we did less of, and we changed paths as we felt we needed to. By having complete flexibility, we stayed on a path of learning German as well as we could, and were very happy watching our progress unfold so smoothly. We never felt the typical institutional trap of "I have to do this", agreeing with the long-term goal but not the short-term methods. When the short-term methods needed changing, we could change them!

It all felt easy: The first week of learning on our own, and figuring out what to do, was tough. From there on out, things got easier and easier, until it began to feel really natural and almost effortless. It was such a rewarding pattern that it felt satisfying to work on in a long-term sense, and it consisted of doing so many fun things that each day was a joy. Gone were the feelings I had at MIT of "I should be working more" and "I'm not getting enough done." We felt like we were getting tons done and were really content with it.

In my experience, this is how every good learning experience feels. It feels good. Starting camp was like this too -- it had the same hallmarks of intense engagement and intense immersion (too busy doing it and loving it to question whether I'm doing it to the best of my ability), and similar daily bursts of understanding -- in this case about how to excite children about making things.

I'm really grateful for the experience -- I had no idea how powerful it would be. It's been extremely valuable to have this experience as a reference point for how to learn and how to live. It helped me trust myself as a learner and doer, and to trust the systems I was in less instead of trusting myself less when learning and doing wasn't going well.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

quick thoughts on tutoring math

A friend of mine wrote me an email asking about my thoughts on teaching math. Having thought a lot about math (that's what I did in college) and teaching, I've got lots of thoughts!

Below is a simple summary of my broad thoughts on tutoring math. I'm also working on making an instructable of a bunch of the math games I refer to below.

"> hey, so how did u get into teaching math to kids? i'm trying to figure out
> what the heck i should volunteer for while i'm stuck at home, and daniel
> gave me the good idea of teaching math, then i remembered that you did it.
> what are your opinions and experiences?

I did some tutoring in college. I think that tutoring is an excellent way to learn how to get used to the rhythm of explaining an idea, watching the person's feedback, learning how to read signs of confusion, and so on.

I also think it gets boring really quickly, because usually it's a matter of helping a student with a class they're taking. My big thing with teaching math is that it's got to have some inherent value for it to stick with a person, which reduces down to it either needing to be practical or beautiful. Tutoring often feels like showing a person the mechanics of a system when they're not ready for it -- they're asking for
the information not because they need it, and not because they're interested, but because someone else is making them.

I taught some group math classes, and those were a lot more interesting to me. It was with kids ages 6 - 8 and 9 - 12. The goal there wasn't to teach computation/arithmetic, but to get kids excited about doing math. We did lots of puzzles and games, and the guideline for me was how interested the kids were. That was really enjoyable. I started with a big collection of puzzles my friend used, and after a few months made up my own. Making up puzzles that kids liked was a very satisfying experience.

The other good thing about doing group classes (I taught 8 kids, sometimes with an assistant) is that you can charge much less -- $10 - 15 / child is much more affordable than a reasonable tutoring fee, and a lot more affordable for the family. I also think the experience is better for the child -- they have other people to play and think with, and better for the adult: in a 1-on-1 scenario, the adult is
ideally giving the child a lot of time to think on their own, and in a group setting they're not waiting idly for a single child.

Those're my thoughts. I'd be happy to share materials/puzzles with you were you interested.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

transparent projects: making things simple to learn with.

I just got back from Maker Faire Austin. It was so much fun! I had a great time!

Oh man oh man oh man.

One of the highlights of it for me was watching the reaction to an intro electronics kit that I'm working on. Here's a pic someone took of it at Maker Faire:

You can see big LEDs mounted onto foamcore there. The foam is cut-out to look like the part (in this case the LED,) but bigger, and then the part's legs are soldered onto brads (paper fasteners) -- and alligator clips are used to make connections. Also in the picture are a few giant buttons (the kind from arcade machines), a mounted knife switch, and a mounted resistor.

In talking to people at the fair about why I made this first version the way I did, I talked a lot about keeping the design of it obvious. My goal was to not let the electronic component be overshadowed by how it was mounted. I've seen some kits use brightly colored pieces of plastic to mount parts on, and I feel that this visually takes away from connecting what the part looks like to what it does. I think it's hard to look at a part and make associations with it when there's a bright piece of plastic right behind it.

Moreover, I wanted the construction of it to be obvious. There were a few reasons governing this. The first was that I wanted people who were really excited about it to understand they if they want to make their own kit or extend an existing one, all they have to is by some parts (from Radio Shack or wherever), get some foamcore or cardboard, some brads, and a soldering iron and solder and ... voila! They can make it themselves!

The other reason for wanting the construction to be obvious is to make sure that someone who uses the kit, particularly a child, has nothing in their way from connecting the experience of how these pieces work to how actual electronic components work. I think that it's easy for the design of an educational product -- in an effort to make it more attractive, cleanly designed, or robust -- to obscure the relationships between phenomena observed and components in the kit/product.

For example:!

The tornado tube story

When I was a kid (maybe eight or so), my dad got a Tornado Tube Adapter. It was a green piece of plastic and you could screw 2 2-L soda bottles into either end. The bottles were connected like two halves of an hour glass. After putting almost a bottle's worth of water into one of the ends, you could stand up the bottles, swirl them around, and whoosh! The top bottle looked like a tornado!

If you've never seen this before, go google "Tornado Tube." It's pretty neat.

Anyhow, it's really simple -- the connector piece just holds the 2 bottles in place, allowing the top bottle to drain into the bottom as it gets swirled around, creating a tornado shape. As a child, I figured that there was something special in the connector piece that was making all this happen. I never really explored this belief -- it seemed quite apparent that that was how it worked, and I think this belief would have gone unchallenged until I did this project again as an adult.

I did it again at the first year of camp. I quickly discovered that all you have to do to get this is to happen is to connect the two bottles. Duct tape worked well enough. I was shocked! I'd really thought that there was going to be something tricky in the connector piece -- a belief held-over from being a kid -- and it was so surprising to find out that the phenomenon was actually a very simple one. I hadn't actually been aware that I'd had this understanding of how the piece worked as a child until having that belief so plainly contradicted as an adult.

I talked to a friend of mine about this -- a similarly aged, similarly science-inclined college student -- and she had had the same experience with it: it had also surprised her that there was nothing more to making tornado tubes beyond attaching 2 bottles together. With this I suddenly became aware of the effect of the tornado tube adapter being a ready-made, purchased object. As a child I had assumed that in the heart of that green connector there was some mechanism at work responsible for the really cool tornado effect. It seemed really natural to make the association between the green thing and the tornado tubes. There was something about it being made by someone slse, purchased and having come out of a package, that put it beyond my curiosity, beyond my sense that this was an object that I could understand.

How different that experience would have been if I'd taped the bottles together myself! Or connected them in some other way. Constructing the tool being used would have been akin to constructing my own knowledge of how the tornado tubes worked -- somewhere along the way I would have understood the core relationship between connecting the bottles and the tornado shape.

Coming back to why I'm designing my electronics kit to have each piece's construction be clear, I think the more transparent the design, the better. The more obvious the construction of each piece is and the more it suggests that you could make one too, the clearer the connections will between the parts of the kit (electronics components mounted on foam with brads) and the actual components themselves. It's really easy for stylish product design to impede those connections being made. Hence designing for transparency and simplicity!

Back to Maker Faire for a paragraph or two

The kit was really well received. I am going to keep working on it and hopefully turn into something salable, complete with instruction as to how to make your own. I had a really pleasant experience with it where on Sat. (the fair's first day), I spent 2 - 3 hours demoing it with kids. I did lots of explaining of how things worked, noted things that I thought could be improved, and felt a little burnt out by how much explaining I had to do. I wanted this to be a very self-directed kit, and it wasn't quite there yet.

I went off to explore the fair for a few hours. I figured that without myself there, not many people would use the kit -- it had seemed to me too tricky to use. I came back and found a pack of kids all around my table, really into it! It was a particularly neat moment because I just hadn't expected it all. Others at the nublabs/FabLab booth told me that the table had been packed with kids since I'd gone. A few people over the course of the weekend wanted to buy a kit!

That was very exciting to me -- it was a strong affirmation that the kit is going a good direction and that I ought to keep working on it. So I will!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Lightsaber Instructable!

I posted an instructable on making lightsabers:

And I have my favorite picture from camp of lightsaber making to share:

Lightsaber pic goes here

Friday, September 19, 2008

school's biggest failure: taking away our sense of purpose and direction

One of the biggest concerns I have about the traditional school system is how little direction its students graduates with. Upon graduation students are either taking a job to support their new independence and the bills that come with it or in their first year at college. In both of these cases its alarmingly normal for students to have little to no idea about what they to do with themselves -- in both the day-to-day sense and the broader "what do I want to do with my life" sense. College students usually don't know what to major in (but are in college because they're supposed to be) and workers are very much in the same boat. They're usually not in their job because it's the first step towards their true calling, but because they've got rent to pay in less than 30 days.

I interpret this as one of our educational system's most powerful and toxic effects. No matter what educational theory one subscribes to, each and every one is designed for the explicit benefits of the child. In every system, books, teachers, buildings, salaries, and materials are all assembled together, for twelve years, solely for the student's benefit -- usually for the sakes of their own learning, success, happiness and well-being. Despite that students come out of this system without having any ideas as to how to address one of their most important personal questions: What do I want to do with myself, with my life, or even, today?

I believe our current educational system's unwillingness to let a student influence or control his or her own education is responsible for this. When the biggest choices a student gets in one's own education are on the level of whether he can study French or Spanish in high school, it's no surprise that a student has no practice or experience with thinking about what it is that they would truly like to work or work towards as an adult.

It's this line of thinking that has led me to think that students need as much autonomy as they can get. They need to weigh choices, make decisions, and feel their own decisions' consequences. Instead of providing a space where students can do just this, we offer them six regimented classes a day that have been decided for them as in their best interest. But what good is the best teaching if a student doesn't know what to do with it?

Young children are often very emphatically clear as to what they want. So emphatic, often, that it's cute. I think this clarity -- this "I want to know more about *this*!' (or do this, or go to this place, or whatever -- "I want to experience this!") is something that adults very often struggle with recovering once out of schooling. Personally, I have spent and still spend tons of time wondering about what I find fun and what I find meaningful, and relish being a young child and having that internal instinct of being able to recognize these things on sight. (Yes! That's what I want to do! Ah! I'm so glad that's happening!) Adult responsibilities and relationships add new layers of complexity that a child doesn't have to sort out, but I think the bigger problem is that we as adults are out of practice. After going through a schooling system which asks us to pay progressively less and less attention to our own curiosity (to broadly encompass the set of thoughts that include finding some things fascinating and are others to be really, truly important,) it is no surprise that this once loud and clear voice becomes a quiet, meek, hard-to-hear sort of thing.

And while I think it's entirely possible to reclaim that pure sense of direction -- to be fully aware of one's own personal interests and one's own deep concerns for her life, and to begin to find the first steps one can take in addressing each of those things -- that it would be entirely better not to submerge it in the first place.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

July NUBtalk

A few weeks ago (July 27) I gave a NUBtalk about camp and its view on education. I had a lot of fun doing it!

NUBtalks are a lecture series organized by some friends of mine, who recently started a workshop called NUBlabs. They've been inviting people that they think are neat to come talk bi-weekly.

My talk is linked to from their site and here. If you listen to it, tell me what you think!

Some of the anecdotes I tell I've talked about in this blog and some I haven't. They are...

1. Making a robotic spider an example I considered for the Art of Hands-on science article in Education Week.
2. Ben and decompression
3. Kids teaching other kids, in this case through doll-making
4. The example of lightsabers to get kids into the idea that everything can be made and modified. I also use this as a point to explain the role of adults in an environment where kids get so much autonomy -- they seed this idea that kids wouldn't pick up otherwise in our society.
5. Another point about the role of adults -- teaching electronics as an example of showing kids how to do things they want to do but don't know they want to do.
6. Having both men and women lead electronics activities, in order to make the activity equally accesible.
7. I cite the Star Simpson case as an example of society feeling tense about electronics, and highlight the importance of environments existing where people can learn about electronics and thereby feel more comfortable with and less scared of them.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

a wonderful idea at the fountain

In 2007, camp was in Harvard Square, and pretty close to Memorial Drive. There was a park there at JFK with a fountain in it. I remember going there with a group of 5 kids on the first day of the second week. It was the beginning of a new week and so we had a fair number of new kids (that year we had about 50% or so of our campers come for just one week and we thus had lots of new faces every Monday.) It was a fun, small trip and I thought it was a neat way for me to get to know a small group of kids amidst the larger mass of 30 campers.

The park had a fountain in it, and the kids started asking if they could go in it. As camp only has 3 simple rules (1. Don't hurt anybody. 2. If you make a mess, clean it up. 3. Don't go where you're not supposed to go.), lots and lots is left open to what the adult feels is reasonable. Questions come up -- like "Can we go in the fountain" -- which will raise a general feeling of "no, it seems like we shouldn't" but leaves the question hanging in the air (what's the real reason: merely because it's conventional, or because there is indeed a reason why we shouldn't do that.)

For example. two kids once asked me to let them take a marker apart. They were trying to replicate a water gun they'd seen, and needed a small, plastic tube to use. The body of the marker was the best tube they'd been able to find. While normally I wouldn't ordinarily want markers getting cut up, this was a clear example where I was fine with it -- it seemed like a really clever solution to their problem.

So there's an openness to considering each of these unusual situations that I find fantastic. It either leads to a rare, wonderful possibility, or it gets the adult and child on a clear page of why we can't do something (providing an explanation rather than only saying no.) The tricky part with this is the cases where it just doesn't seem obvious what to do -- there's a vague feeling in your gut about the situation, but perhaps you're the only adult around, and no words are coming to mind to articulate that feeling.

That's how it was with the fountain. It felt strange to let kids go into it, but I couldn't figure out why. Eventually, I decided it was ok for them to put their feet in ... and then to stand it in ... and then to swim and play in it ... and then I joined them in there. At the time, I could see no other reason beyond our social norms that people don't go into fountains. (A few weeks later many people pointed out to me that the water's not the cleanest, and now I'd be unlikely to let that go. A year ago though, I was blissfully ignorant. edit! 10/22/08 I just re-read that and don't think that would be my honest reaction. I think my reaction, as with most things, would to be really blunt about it with the kids, and tell them that the cleaning crew at the park had told us that people pee in the fountain at night, I'd explain that it's possible that this is just a story from the cleaning crew to get us not to do weird stuff, and mention that the pee may or may not be washed out by daytime -- you certainly couldn't see any -- and then let the group deliberate. I would listen, I would have some glee while listening, and I'd support what they chose. done editing.)

The kids were thrilled to be in an unusual space, and it's a pretty good fountain for playing. It had two tiers and a series of 12 pipes spurting water at an even height. For the first half hour or so, the kids played and played. Something really interesting happened around then. The kids started playing with the pipes, and began to notice a relationship between them: when you covered up some pipes, the other pipes shot water even higher!

The kids got really into this. I remember joining them in finding a way to cover up all the pipes -- a contortion of hands and feet that resembled a game of Twister. Lots of relationships about the pipes became clear: the more that were covered, the higher the uncovered pipes shot water out. Once a pipe was uncovered, it would first shoot out water much higher at first and then stabilize to the same height as all the other uncovered pipes (if I'm remembering correctly.) Playing with these relationships fascinated the kids, and they proceeded to do this for the next half an hour.

I was reminded of several similar exhibits I've seen at museums -- traditionally with some white PVC pipe and with air instead of water. Often these exhibits have a ping-pong that you can send flying with the pressurized air-flow. I've seen kids tinker with those exhibits for a few minutes, but never this full-on (and full-bodied) half-hour long engagement as it were at the fountain.

The discovery of an idea or a phemonenon -- rather than the direct presentation of it -- seems to have such an excitement and electricity to it that the engagement (and I'm sure the retention of it) are phenomenal. I think this is a crucial piece of an effective educational environment: creating a space where discoveries are possible, rather than exhibited (or of course, some things are displayed as inspiration and some things are left to be explored.)

I've held this memory with me for a while -- why was it so much more exciting for the children to play with this scientific phenomena through their own discovery in the fountain then when I've seen kids see this exhibit in a museum. The fountain itself -- the excitement of being somewhere you don't normally get to go to, and of course somewhere wet -- is a big influence. The experience has often been a guide to me -- how can I provide as little direct guidance as possible so that a child will find something amazing, but still be fully curious about it. I was recently reminded of this experience after reading Eleanor Duckworth's "The Having of Wonderful Ideas."

In this essay, Duckworth describes the feeling of seeing a set of materials, lighting up and going "yes! I've got a great idea" as the having of a wonderful idea. She describes it in the example of conducting a Piaget-style interview, and giving a child a collection of straws of different lengths. The interview is to have the child order the straws by length. One of the children she interviews comes to this idea all on his own, before Duckworth has said anything. Duckworth characterizes his excitement by articulating what she feels the boy is experience: "I have a wonderful idea. You'll be surprised by my wonderful idea."

I was excited to read Duckworth's essay, having words put to an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a year now. While it's perhaps wrong to frame the idea that knowledge should never be direct transmission, the sheer amount of interest that comes with the having of a wonderful idea makes it a powerful one to me. I want to think more about how camp as a whole directly fosters this, and identify the features of camp which used to feel 'intuitively correct' and I can now link to this idea.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

decompression: giving kids the room to do nothing

Last year at camp, we had a 7-year old boy named Ben come for nine weeks of the summer -- pretty much the whole thing. For the first three or four weeks of camp, he pretty steadily played with LEGOs, made a few close friends, and did very few, if any of our activities. He had come to our building night series of events at MIT earlier -- and was fully eager and aware of our style of doing science projects and taking machines apart. He seemed quite happy with the offerings, like he full well would have enjoyed them, but was perfectly content to make LEGO houses and spaceships with his new best friend and do his own thing.

Every now and then, two counselors would have a conversation about him. We'd note that he wasn't doing any of our projects, think about it a bit together, and determine that he seemed happy playing with LEGOs and that somehow, this seemed right for him. Occasionally one of these conversations might have led to a dedicated effort on an adult's part to draw him into an activity, which sometimes would cause him to do the activity and sometimes not. The default mode of doing his own thing and playing with LEGOs would quickly return in either case.

Around the 5th week, he had this sudden spike of interest in a programming language we use, called Scratch. I've mentioned Scratch here before, but I'll talk about it a little more in-depth. It's a very kid, adult, and people friendly way to learn how to program. To code, you snap together puzzle-shaped blocks and these create scripts for characters on a stage to follow. You can easily create commands for characters respond to pressing a certain key on the keyboard, instructions for what happens when one character touches another character, and so on. It's got the basic logic of programming -- control structures (if-then blocks and forver blocks) and variables.

I took a class with the Lifelong Kindergarden group" at MIT's Media Lab my last semester at MIT. It was a class billed to be about technology and education, and focused on Scratch, which they were developing at the time. I had always assumed that computer use in education simply dressed up traditional teaching methods -- an automation of the typical drill-and-practice routines of learning numerical computation or spelling. Scratch (and Seymour Papert's book Mindstorms) transformed the role I saw computers playing in technology. With Scratch kids could both wrap their head around the basics of programming, but more importantly, test out their ideas for a program and see if it worked. They could build something -- a program via Scratch -- and go through their own design process by seeing if their program did what they wanted to, and if not, figuring out why.

I could write a lot here, to explore why I think Scratch is great. The simplest sentence I use to sum all this up is that Scratch lets kids look at computers as a tool. (I often place this in opposition to television, as it's more often viewed by families as an intense media source. That's a thread for another time!)

Scratch was a huge inspiration for me in starting camp. I thought it would be amazing if children were exposed to tools like Scratch, but didn't have the traditional classroom constraints of 50-minute classes and bells. I wanted a child to be able to dive in to Scratch (or circuits or art materials, or whatever. I want children to dive in.) and work until they feel their project or done or that they need a break -- I wanted it to be their call when they were done working on something, not an arbitrary time schedule's.

Ben really took to this exact scenario. In his 5th week at camp he got into Scratch, and he pretty much never stopped until the end. He happily made program after program with it most of his days at camp from there on out. I remember one game he made -- you had a cat (the default character in Scratch) who was armed with a yo-yo. The cat could move around the screen, where they were coins flying back and forth across the screen. Some coins had positive numbers, and some negative numbers. You used the yo-yo to hit the coins, and hat the number on the coin added to your score -- and so you only wanted to hit the positive numbers. When you hit all the positive coins, you got a "congratulations!" style-screen.

There's a lot going on there, especially for a 7-year old. The game makes fluent use of positive and negative numbers and variables. The game holds some notion of state -- once all the positive coins are gone, the level ends, and so somehow the game is keeping track of what's happened to all the positive coins. This isn't to say the value here is these academic skills acquired along the way -- they're side effects of a child figuring how he wants to make a game with a cat and a yo-yo.

The academic skills have served as an interesting benchmark of Ben's capabilities. Variables are a concept that I've seen easily trip-up children at 10, 11, or 12 -- and here Ben was using them comfortably. A friend of mine who works at the Lifelong Kindergarten group was personally stunned that a boy at 7 could create games as complex as the one's he was making. When using these benchmarks as a guide, Ben's work with Scratch seemed like it had to be that of a prodigy. To us at camp, it mostly looked like a boy who had found something he loved doing and was working on it 4 - 6 hours a day.

I now think that what was happening in Ben's first half of camp was a decompression from school. His mom mentioned that he'd a difficult year at school -- academically solid but socially tough. A period of simple play -- unstructured, goal-less play with LEGOs and new friends was his own personal antidote to that difficult year. I think that had Scratch been offered to him in this stage, he would have responded to it the same way he responded to other activities intentionally offered to him: maybe polite acceptance, maybe a bit of curiousity for an hour, or maybe no interest. I don't think that had he been offered Scratch while decompressing that he would have taken off with it as he did later in the summer.

The choice of "decompression" here begs the question -- decompressing from what? I think that in a poor educational situation, a child's personal interests and curiosity can slowly get ground down. Being asked to do something repeatedly that has no personal sense or meaning to it -- instead of purusing it in a way that is meaningful, or perhaps pursuing something else simply because it's exciting -- can slowly close one's instincts to explore and investigate what one wants to. These instincts and impulses of "I want to know why this happens!" aren't compatible with a rigid, pre-determined educational plan.

Of course, the curiosity doesn't get extinguished, but I think lies dormant. As an environment shows itself to be open to, supportive of, and fully compatible with curiousity, that trait can slowly reappear and express itself again. This is what I think is happening in a time of decompression. Its hallmarks are a child's complete contentedness to do nothing that seems novel, stimulating, or engaging, and a content, perhaps polite refusal to do anything offered that would normally engage the child. In an environment that does not halt when the child feels the need to decompress, but rather carries on with it's own business of making things and doing things (as camp does), there are ample opportunities to re-engage (at least at a level visible to adults) when the child feels eager to.

I think the option to decompress as needed is an extremely important one, and makes me reflect personally on myself and other adults that I know. What is the role of play in an adult's life? Why do we take vacations? Why do we take vacations even when enjoying our work, or finding it meaningful? When I talk about decompressing as an adult, I mean an active departure from the things I normally think about and find important to think about, and time to let those thoughts sit while I do something else. It seems that decompression for me personally is a way to cultivate open-mindedness: that until I let whatever it is I'm working on settle and leave it be for a few days, particularly when I'm feeling stuck, I'll be unable to see a new insight or perspective into what I'm working on, and moreover be completely unwilling to tackle any new questions or challenges.

Distinguishing decompression from more uncomfortable states of mind:

This discussion isn't to say that a child idling around is always what the child wants or needs at a given time. This distinction is perhaps why I raise the idea of decompression -- it is on first sight hard to tell apart from a child being shy in a new environment, overwhelmed in a new environment, or perhaps situationally distraught (to use camp as an example: a small boy wants to work on electronics, but feels like he can't be in the room all the electronics are in because it's full of really loud kids twice his age and size.)

I think that each of these cases is quite straightforward to tease out by simply talking to a child and seeing what's going on. Children are often shy in a new environment -- particularly one with a foreign set of rules (and in camp's case, an absence of traditional rules and structure) and people and things -- and this is a thing to look out for when children are new in an environment. With most children, their body language and voice will clearly signal a feeling of shyness to a place. The simplest antidote is a patient adult who will happily show them around -- show them what's where, what kind of materials and activites are happening about the site, and introduce them to other people, both children and adults.

Being overwhelmed has the same indications of being shy, but is often a specific response to the size and intensity of things. (Not only is everything new, but there's so much of it and it's so loud!) The best approach I've found is similar to personally orienting a shy child, but often with an aim to find a quiet activity or place to spend some time getting to know the child. Sometimes this means finding a peaceful project, and sometimes it means really walking through the ideas that you can really do or make anything at camp provided that you can figure out how to make it, and step through simple questions along the lines of "Is there anything you'd really like to make?" and see if you can personally start a project with them. I view this as narrowing the focus down -- rather than observing the masses of unbounded energy, working in a smaller mental space of what would you, you specifically, love to do here? What have you been dying to try for weeks but haven't had a chance to?

A distraught child should be able to be discerned through direct questioning. Just by asking what's going on and what they've been upto today, and inviting them to tell you how their day has gone, usually anything important or unresolved will come up. Often this sort of behavior sticks out in a child who is normally quite comfortable but for whatever reason is wandering about from room to room or hall to hall in search of something to do, given that what he really wants to do feels frustratingly inaccessible.

All of these states are ways to distinguish the contentedness of decompression for more disoriented states. All of them look like idle activity, but decompression tends to be characterized by play and relaxing, and the ones described just now tend to carry some sort of unresolved tension ("I don't know what to do here!" "I can't make sense of how much there is to do here!" "I can't do what I want to!")

Broader environmental efforts can play into this dynamic of idle time being healthy rather than tense. Adults themselves not being full of projects to run and conflicts to sort out gives them a chance to have idle conversations with children, which in turn can lead to an adult becoming aware of whether or not child really is happy playing with LEGOs all day. I think that the Internet -- particularly YouTube and addictive point-and-click style web games -- can work as a way for a child to delay this process of wandering about and opening up to their environment and halt the process of figuring out what to do with oneself. This is still just an intuition for me -- and not a tried-and-true fact that I trust completely -- but it seems that as a child's curiousity can be delayed from fully opening when the extremely sensory option of computers-as-games or computers-as-YouTube exists to divert their physical and mental attention.

All of this leads up to, at camp, tell parents that while it's ok with us if their kids do nothing, we will happily check in with a child to see if they're enjoying themselves at camp, and offer activities that connect to their interests (information often supplied by the parents, children themselves, or the child's friends.) We're happy to make sure that a child is comfortable, is engaged, and spend time with them dreaming up new activities and possibilities for what to do with their day. But we won't push it -- if a child is truly content to play with their friend in the park all day, then that's where they should be.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

making lightsabers with kids: the value of making your own stuff

For the past two weeks, kids have been crazy about making lightsabers. Red ones, blue ones (no one has ventured for a green one yet...). Watching kids make them has provided me with a really concret example of why making your own things (in this case, toys) is such a powerful thing to do.

Soon I'll post an amazing picture of two kids with theirs, but for the time being, I'll just write about it.

I helped a child find parts for one last week. The main burst of lightsabers had been two weeks ago, when Jason -- the counselor came up with the idea -- had been making them with kids. That was his last week at camp, so this week kids had to figure out how to make them on their own. The initial plan had been to make handles out of PVC, spray painting them silver, and the blades out of clear plastic. They were light up by a stick of LEDs -- the connections made and structure held by bare wire, so that the project could be done without soldering. We do have the capacity to solder at camp, but we only have a set-up for one child to work, so it would have been slow going for a group of 6 - 10 kids.

This past week, we didn't know if or where any materials for a lightsaber were, so this boy and I set about looking around camp to see if we could find the materials, or appropriate substitutes. There's a really pleasant mental space one gets into, tromping around camp, trying to solve a problem (in this case, materials to use for a lightsaber), and knowing that there's so many possiblities with all of the materials and tools around that there's got to be a clever solution. The handle in particular seemed easy to replace: we realized that if we didn't find any PVC, we could have made a handle out of clay, or cut off the end of a tennis racquet we found and used that. Eventually, though, we found some PVC.

We didn't find any clear plastic for a while, and then we realized that a few days ago, a bunch of kids had made rockets out of clear mylar (a thick plastic.) Wrapping this around a thin pipe and taping it with clear scotch tape, we had a decent substitute! We eventually found some of the original plastic, and the boy liked it better -- our substitute was slightly conical as we hand't figured out how to roll it perfectly -- but it was neat to come with a substitute for that too.

The kids made their sticks of LEDs, soldered on a switch and a battery pack, assembled it, and had lightsabers! Their were some improvements that other kids made: putting in wax paper to diffuse the light from the LED, so it would look like the whole blade was glowing, rather than having 20 sources of light. One child took a motor and wrapped a wire around it to make it into a vibrating motor (similar to a cell phone's), and then placed it inside the handle so that when the saber was turned on, it made an all-too-satisfying "bzzzzzzzz" sound.

This deep engagement with making a light saber lends itself naturall to the world of modifying it: once you've gone through the construction process, it's easy to think about what you would do to make it even cooler, or what you would do if something broke (like the lights didn't turn on.) This level of engagement with the lightsaber is far different than one purchased at a store -- where it is no longer automatic to think that it would be cool to rip open the lightsaber, stick a vibrating motor in, and reassemble it. (A child could of course see this idea from hand-made lightsabers and bring their store-bought saber in to mod at camp...)

The deeper point is that this shows that lightsabers, like any object that can be bought, can be made by people. They don't have to come from the magical toy factory. If it can be thought of, it can be made. As simple a lesson as this is, I think it's a powerful one, and an empowering one. In college, I'd taken several classes in programming, and it wasn't until until my last year, in taking a class centered around Scratch, that I realized that *I* could make video games. This idea that the objects around us are ones that we can understand, change, make, and make better is a huge one, and it's one that I think kids get when they make things like lightsabers.