Tuesday, December 31, 2013

End of 2013 Reflections on Reading

I've described myself as a voracious reader. I'm not the most prolific reader, but I still read a lot and continually yearn to read more. I rarely get to read as much as I would like, especially since returning to the US. I loved commuting by bus while in China because it allowed me to devote up to an hour a day for reading. The US car culture and the busyness involved with trying to find a job have forced me to significantly curtail my reading volume. I think there will be a future post relating to that.

Nevertheless, I was able to finish 43 books this year. I was hoping to finish Sons and Lovers before New Years Day, but given that it's the morning of New Year's Eve now, my chances don't look promising.  In this post I'm going to comment on a few of the highlights that made an impression on me during 2013. Maybe you'll find something to add to your reading list.

The Shallows - Nicholas Carr
The Dumbest Generation - Mark Bauerlein
As the previous post already dealt with some of this content, I won't say too much this time. These were two of the first three books I read in 2013. Both books put into words and added research evidence to ideas I'd already been considering but only with anecdotal evidence:

  • I'd noticed that my eyes were scanning pages differently on a computer screen than when in physical form.
  • I'd noticed that my thought processes seemed more splintered than in the past.
  • I'd noticed that my students from 2003 to 2013 showed a marked decrease in desire or willingness to read.
  • I'd noticed the facebook-ization or twitter-ization of idea in conversations had with recend college grads coming from the US.
  • I'd noted that my own students seemed absolutely addicted to their devices to the point where it negatively affected their school work, their ability to socialize, and even their sense of contentment with life.

These of things I noticed by way of anecdotal evidence: observation. These two books added researched teeth to those observations. They'll make you think twice about how you spend your time online or with your devices. They'll make you rethink how much or how little you allow your children access to these devices.

The Last Chinese Chef - Nicole Mones
I don't usually read contemporary novels unless overwhelmed with life and in need of something easy. This was a contemporary novel I didn't want to put down. Mones, perhaps better known for her novel Lost in Translation, did a thorough job of researching Chinese food culture, or so say the Chinese friends and family I asked to confirm, and her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. It makes sense, as she did business in China for close to two decades.

Generally, I'm a beverage fan: teas, coffees, spirits, wines, beers, etc. Good food (gourmet or otherwise) doesn't often excite me like a good beverage will. Mones's descriptions of Chinese food -- real, traditional, painstakingly prepared Chinese food -- caused me to yearn for new culinary experiences, at whatever cost. Thankfully I have children that typically prevent me from going to such places and enough economic sense to stay away. But like Pavlov's dogs, my mouth began salivating every time I thought about reading the next chapter.

Mones's story was relatively well-crafted but predictable. Still, her descriptions of Chinese culture through the eyes of a new arrival were engaging, although some of the more subtle aspects would be lost on those who don't a have significant experience with China or Chinese culture. All said, it was a fun read and it made me excited about part of Chinese culture that had ceased intriguing me.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Michael Moss
I first heard of Michael Pollan through a series of Yale MOOC-style lectures that my wife was watching. Later when a friend recommended the book, I took the bait. It's not often I read books and find myself saying, "Yes!" on every page. With these two books, I essentially did just that. Had I had a package of highlighters, they would have been worn out. The authors of these book relentlessly presented research that led to conclusions I'd intuitively reached. It gave me evidence to support the ideas I'd already been having.

I'd been heading toward more and more whole foods and raw foods over the past few years. It just seemed like the best thing to do. I mean, objectively speaking, how many of us really think it is smart to eat foods with ingredients like acesulfame potassium or sucralose? Those ingredients are found in Quaker Oats cinnamon flavored instant oatmeal, a far cry from my morning bowl of whole rolled oats with a half teaspoon of cinnamon and some dried goji berries.

As I said, these two books seemed to hit at so many points that I already intuitively knew: the necessity of eating real food, not chemistry experiments; the nutritional terror that is the huge social experiment called processed foods; added sugars, fats, and salts (not to mention chemicals) can't be what bodies, which have for millennia (up until the 1900s) eaten natural foods, really want.

I would recommend these books to anyone, whether having previously studied nutrition or not. Kate Moss once said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." I don't agree with that view of life, but I like the alternate spin many have put on it: Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels. If not already convinced that your eating habits may need an overhaul, these books will give you something to chew on (pun absolutely intended).

Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
When a popular comedian who has a lot of kids (and loves having a lot of kids) writes a book about parenting, a good time is bound to be had. This book was hilarious, though I may not have found it so funny if I were not a parent myself.

This may be my favorite excerpt from the book:
Occasionally, a dog will be presented as a some training method for having a baby. "My girlfriend and I got a dog. We are going to see if we can handle that before we have kids." This is a little like testing the waters of being a vegetarian by having lettuce on your burger. Okay, maybe that metaphor doesn't make sense, but neither does using a dog as a training method for having a baby.

Or maybe this one:
I used to wonder why I had hair on my legs, but now I know it's for my toddler sons and daughters to pull themselves up off the ground with as I scream in pain.

Those are lines that fit my sense of humor. If you're a parent, I'm sure you;ll find many lines that cause you to laugh out loud. I did.

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
This was not an uplifting novel by any stretch of the imagination. It was dark. It was tragic. It is not for those who require happy endings.

That said, The Sound and the Fury is an amazing novel, written beautifully. Seemingly unconnected sections slowly fill in a broader picture of the Compson family. The prose is difficult but accessible. It may have seemed more accessible to me than it really is, as I had just aborted an attempt to read Ulysses. In comparison, the prose seemed much more comprehensible. This is a novel for fans of the craft, for fans of literary portraits, and for those who may want a challenge.

What's in store for 2014?
Who knows where 2014 will lead? At the beginning of 2013, I never would have guessed I'd read Darkness and Noon (Aurthur Koestler), In the Plex (Steven Levy), or Thank you for Arguing (Jay Heinrichs), but one book leads to another, and one recommendation leads to paths never before taken. Potentially on the immediate horizon for me are these, in no particular order:

  1. Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence
  2. Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
  3. The Way of all Flesh - Samuel Butler
  4. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength - Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney
  5. Cooked - Michael Pollan
  6. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India - Joseph Lelyveld

What were your literature highlights for 2013?

What's on your reading list for 2014?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Messages in the Surface advertisement

Since I've been back in the US, there has been one television/hulu advertisement in particular that has caused me to feel progressively more uncomfortable. I've struggled to put into words exactly how or why it makes me uncomfortable, but this post is my attempt to do so. See the advertisement below:

From the outset, let me clarify that I am in no way an enemy of using technology, especially to educate. Obviously I blog. I have used youtube, but my education-focused vlog is on tudou (土豆网), a Chinese service that is inexplicable slow in the US. I have my own website, wherein I describe a myriad of other computer-based technologies I use or have used in my teaching career. I'm currently playing with Language Cloud, trying to determine its overall usefulness for language teaching in general and in different contexts.

I also use technology to learn. I took a online course from Iowa State University back in 2002, in the early years of online learning. It was self-paced, which meant I finished the January-May course during the second week of March. (That's just how I tend to work.) Later as a grad student in a field-based TESOL program, much peer collaboration was done online. An iPod was a crucial piece of technology while studying Chinese, both for purchased and self-produced mp3s, and I still use my computer and cell phone to tune in to Chinese radio. Even now I'm and trying to decide whether to enroll in one or more Coursura courses (Coaching Teachers, Student Thinking at the Core, Blended Learning) or edX courses (Intro to Computer Science, Effective Thinking Through Math, The Science of Everyday Thinking, China).

Despite my clear belief in the potential usefulness of computer technology to educate, I would describe myself as technologically cautious. Perhaps to use a phrasing with more positive connotation, I could describe my approach to technology integration as research-based. Simply put, technology is not a educational savior, and even if used well, it could harm more than help student learning and achievement, especially in the primary and secondary school years, as it is during these years that students acquire so many fundamental skills.

To get back to the original purpose of this post, I think there are three main reasons why this Surface tablet advertisement makes me uncomfortable.

#1 Fatalism
"Change is coming" remarks the teacher (an actor, I assume). He continues, saying, "All my students have the brand new Surface." He makes this seem so inevitable, as if there really is no choice. Because all the students have the tablet (What kind of school is this?), he feels he must utilize them. Wisdom is not something that young people are known for; wisdom requires age and experience. Just because student have them and like them, does that mean they make for good education? It seems unwise to make pedagogical decisions based on what students due primarily for fun, status, etc.

Daphne Koller has remarked, "Now, this is something that to the people of my generation is still a bit foreign, but if you talk to the kids of today, they actually prefer to text each other than to talk to each other on the phone or even get together for coffee"(1). It may be preferred, but is it a healthy preference? Is it an educationally, academically sound preference? These are huge assumptions that should not be made.

Change is coming, without a doubt, and both schools and teachers must adapt. But to adapt, must they inevitably adopt what may not be in the students' educational best interests? For better or worse, some parents working in high tech companies such as Apple and Google disagree with this inevitability, sending their children to school without computers (2). Again, I'm not saying the technology should not be used, but fatalism is the enemy of best practice.

#2 Overemphasis on entertainment
Granted, the teacher says nothing about students playing games or using Skype in school, but by juxtaposing the social networking and gaming aspects alongside the school aspects, the advertisement tries to tap into the prevailing societal idea that people should be continuously entertained, even at school. It feeds the currently popular notion that people shouldn't have to do things that aren't fun, so if school is not entertaining, school is bad. That whole idea is absolutely absurd.

I'm not anti-fun, though I admit that  my achiever orientation does sometimes lead to anti-entertainment ideas. I try to make my lessons interesting, engaging and, yes, fun. Nevertheless education and learning take work, and work is not usually fun in and of itself, though the final sense of satisfaction may be. Almost anything truly valuable takes effort or persistence or both, neither of which are inherently fun. This advertisement makes me uncomfortable because it continues to blur the lines of reality by giving the impression that good education and deep learning can and should come easily and that students should be entertained.

#3 Bandwagon thinking
The teacher in the advertisement prefaces his comments with "Honestly, I'm a little old fashioned," immediately putting to rest the idea teachers with less technological aptitude could have equal or greater wisdom than those well versed in the latest tech fads. The worldview of the advertisement is revealed immediately: Youth and excitement rule; age and wisdom mean nothing.

Perhaps the most significant reason I am uncomfortable with this advertisement is that it continues to perpetuate the notion that computer and internet technology will and does improve education, a notion that has yet to be realized. There is a rampant belief that any tech is good tech. Since the dawn of television, technology advocates have assigned messiah-like promises to the potential of technology to transform education and facilitate learning. Education is continuing to be transformed; this is true. But is learning being facilitated? For all the spending that schools have done and are doing to upgrade computers and integrate technology, the sad fact is that achievement has not risen, and in some cases has fallen (3). Yet schools, parents, and obviously the tech companies continue to jump on the bandwagon, without evidence to support what everyone assumes (4): technology makes for better learning and better preparation.

That is not to say that the promises are empty. Online learning, mobile devices, and the like do have great potential to transform learning for the better, but at the moment it is merely that: potential. While there has been success with blended learning (also called hybrid learning)(5), these are mostly in areas such as math that have definite answers that lend themselves to adaptive learning. Perhaps as teachers become more skilled at using this technology, as Koller suggests, the true benefits of computer-assisted learning will truly be revealed. In areas such as reading skills development, however, the evidence is overwhelming on the anti-technology side (6). For now it behooves teachers, parents, students and all other stakeholders to reject the bandwagon and adopt a research-based, thoughtful, open-minded but cautious attitude toward the use of technology in the classroom.

  1. See William B. Bowen's book Higher Education in the Digital Age.
  2. There are many articles about this. Here is one from The New York Times and another from Daily Mail.
  3. For discussions and references to research about technology usage and student achievement see the Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein.
  4. Stephen Krashen agrees.
  5. Here's an interesting article from Smithsonian.
  6. Again see the discussion and references from Nicolas Carr.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Clifton StrengthsFinder

As part of my transition into the U.S. job market, some grad school classmates (and fellow ESL colleagues) suggested I complete the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. Frankly, whenever I hear of assessments like this (e.g. Myers-Briggs), I’m always somewhat incredulous. I cannot help but think such assessments could not possibly be able to summarize the complexity that is a human personality. However, despite my ever-present skepticism, I’m consistently shocked by how accurate the results of these types of assessments seem to be. This time was no exception.

For those of you who are as unfamiliar with the assessment as I was, here is a brief description: “The Clifton StrengthsFinder measures the presence of 34 talent themes. Talents are people's naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. The more dominant a theme is in a person, the greater the theme's impact on that person's behavior and performance” (strengthtest).

After obtaining an access code, I went ahead with the assessment. When finished, I was presented with a personalized summary of my five most dominant strengths along with discussion of what the results mean. According to the the assessment, my top five talents are these:

  1. Leaner
  2. Achiever
  3. Connectedness
  4. Intellection
  5. Input

I had not read through the 34 themes prior to taking the assessment, so these labels were a bit bewildering. In fact, when I first looked at the results, I thought numbers 1, 4 and 5 were essentially different sides of the same coin. The provided summaries were quite thorough, however, and as I’ve read through the materials and dialogued with those who understand the assessment well, I’ve started getting a better handle on what these mean and how they show up in my life. Just yesterday I replied to a post on Facebook and only afterwards noted that it was an excellent demonstration of connectedness.

I’ve tried to remember that these are “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior.” These are essentially the ways that a person’s brain is unique and how that uniqueness allows different people to see the world differently, interact with the world differently and weave different colors into the tapestries of people’s lives. These are strengths to be tapped into, developed and expressed. I’m not yet sure how to use this awareness in my future teaching or other professional pursuits, but I’m on the journey.

I am also wondering what could happen if everyone could take this assessment. As a teacher, I want to help students discover their strengths, but I know I am limited in my own ability to personally uncover each student’s strengths, not to mention helping each student individually develop those strengths. I wonder what could happen if all students could take this assessment and receive greater insight into the strengths they already possess and could subsequently apply to their educational and career pursuits.

Imagine students not simply guessing about what they’re good at, but knowing. Imagine students thriving not because they try to do what everyone else does but because they tap into their own natural potentialities. Imagine students gaining confidence not due to the blind blind, ignorant praise of self-esteem language but rather due to seeing their strengths emerge and bloom. It could be beautiful.

Of course this all assumes the assessment’s accuracy.