(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me


On Hegemony, theory, transdisciplinarity and creativity

This is going to be a heck of a messy meta-blogpost! it might only make sense to someone who knows me really closely, and maybe even not, but I need to blog to organize my own thoughts.

I have not blogged in what seems like ages (but is really only a few days) mostly because of other writing commitments. It seems funny to me, because I was originally worried my blogging would detract from my academic or semi-academic writing, but now I am actually a bit upset that my academic writing is taking me away from blogging! Go figure!

I am going to mention snippets of thoughts from different avenues and try to bring them all together somehow. Though they don’t need to come together, really, one’s life is multifaceted and we read and think about different things all the time. We just don’t usually write about them all in one place.

I am really happy we’ve been discussing different ways of presenting the collaborative autoethnography and I am happy we seem to be working like a rhizomatic book (I have updated ideas on the google doc and linked to storifies, blogposts, etc.). These conversations are creative and inspiring in a week that has been dubbed the creativity week.

One of the interesting articles shared on rhizo14 (thanks Vanessa) this week was one by Richard Hall,On the University as Anxiety Machine, where he says a lot of interesting things, but I particularly liked this quote

“Future perfect trumps our present tense. Our present made tense.”

This quote struck me because it applies so much to my current institutional context (that I interpret in my context to refer to how we, in trying to think futuristically, we squeeze our present to the point of breaking from stress, when we should recognize that the future is even more uncertain than we imagine and we should be actually investing in our present) (it also has interesting implications for parenting but that is a trickier matter)

Another great quote from that article is one taken from Vygotsky (it ever ceases to amaze me how much deeper someone like Vygotsky is than what we initially learn about him, important as social constructivism is):

” ‘Education should be structured so that it is not the student that is educated, but that the student educates himself’ or, in other words, ‘…the real secret of education lies in not teaching’ ” (Vygotsky, 1926).

I love that quote. I might share it in class. It seems like a new concept, all this invisible and transparent teaching, all this lifelong learning talk.. But Vygotsky had said it all along. It makes sense that it flows almost obviously from social constructivism but is not always considered that way.

Which reminds me of another great article shared on rhizo14, this one called, Opening the Theory Box (thanks Frances) which does a very interesting job of unpacking educational theory into three levels and their corresponding rhetorics (I am sure the author did not mean to make a rigid delineation or suggest there were only three, but it is a helpful distinction for the sake of the article). What an interesting view of theory. There is the most universal approach to theory, which is often considered by practicing educators as “other”, and there is personal theorizing that comes from practitioner’s reflections that may or may not be based on any theory (and often never on one particular one but a combination of what works in context) and there is a middle level . Now I see two interesting things here: the middle level seems most commonly used but also most problematic because it is neither as rigorous as universal theory, nor as practice-based as personal theory. The other interesting thing is that the article does not (as far as I noticed) ever make a case for the possibilities of personal theories coming together in nuanced ways to create middle theories, although I think this is what happens. I think the process of arriving at theory is extremely important, not just the way it ends up being used. Something like peer instruction is a technique Eric Mazur tried in his class. He must have been influenced by Vygotsky or some such larger theory, and he was influenced by it because it must have somehow made sense to his practice. He adapted it to a technique that worked for his discipline, his context, his students, then when it worked, he disseminated, and others tried it, and it worked for them, etc. That kind of effect for theory, this process, is not obvious in the paper but an important aspect, I think, of theory. There is also a trick here about theory that is not immediately useful but might have future potential benefit… How to integrate that into practitioners’ lives?

Which brings me to the next point… Hegemony of theory. This topic came up in a couple of distinct ways this week, most recently during the discussion on facebook about the above article. There has been some talk in different places about what happened early on in rhizo14 where those who did not want to do theory during the course managed to have their voices heard and inadvertently silenced others who wanted to discuss theory. I have often felt guilty for my part in all of that (though I was not the only one) and I went back to read my blog post at the time – and I now see it was much more balanced than I remembered it. I seem to have been clear in my intention to not exclude those who wanted not to read theory for rhizo14, and say clearly they are welcome to it, but the rest of us are also welcome to learn in a different way. The kinds of comments I got clearly show that others felt the same way. Others elsewhere wrote similar feelings. I am not completely guiltless still, but I feel less guilty. In hindsight, i was only the second week of rhizo14, I knew few people on the course, I was a new blogger, a new cMOOCer… i had no particular power to begin with. The power in that case came from the seeming resonance my article found with some people. Enough people, anyway. I still saw theory around on rhizo14 a bit later, so I am not sure it was a complete silencing (plus I had private conversations with some people to try to bring them back in).

Anywaaay one of the problems of the hegemony of theory is that it can take us deeply into something and blinds us to other things, other possibilities that may be more immediately meaningful or useful. I am fascinated by the blurring of lines across disciplines and more. Jim so kindly and generously archived this talk on Transdisciplinarity that was happening on Second Life for me to look at,because I had been talking a lot about intimate online relationships, even asynchronous ones. The idea of transdisciplinarity ties nicely with the idea that creativity (like critical thinking, which has been my field of research for 7 years) is best taught not alone, but infused with other subjects, and in an interdisciplinary manner. This Chronicle article gives a good example:

In his best-selling book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson documents how frequently pathbreaking innovations derive from inventors’ ability to notice previously unrecognized connections between related fields. For example, Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press stemmed from his intricate understanding of the screw press in wine-making and his equally intricate understanding of metal-typeface design. Only by noticing the previously unforeseen synergies of those two fields did he hit upon the printing press. Imagine if Gutenberg, instead of developing mastery in two crucial fields, had studied only the screw press and “the biographies of famous inventors.”

In an article I wrote just before I graduated, i talked about “globalization of science“but what I really meant was maybe this notion of transdisciplinarity, because I was saying that with so much knowledge everywhere, it is so difficult for one person to be an expert in many different fields. Rather, it is good to be an expert in a couple of fields, and then to be able to work with a global network of others who are experts in different fields, in order to produce something revolutionary. I gave at the time the example of my graduation project which involved Population-oriented simulated annealing with neural networks to predict changes in stock market prices. That’s biology, metallurgy, psychology, neuroscience, computer science and economics/finance – all of these fields working together.

I am also happy we have been discussing the important notion that creativity is not just the purview of the arts, as (this article on discusses).

And this all makes me think about my own teaching… Let me try to tie all this in:

1. The importance of discussing explicitly with student-teachers this notion of theory/practice, and what it means to use educational theory, and what it might be like to feel a disconnect; what it might be like to develop their own personal theories and make them explicit, and to develop their own learning philosophy as well (another article i read y/day)

2. I’ll use the Vygotsky quote to help my student-teachers think of their own learning but also to open up ideas for their teaching

3. I hope the transdisciplinarity topic (which I still want to delve into) might benefit both my graduate and undergrad students – to stop thinking in silos and go beyond to unleash creativity and revolutionary ideas.

Ok…. Enough for now 🙂 Salam


Serendipity, students, and revamping higher education

I have had a serendipitous few days that made me realize something that for some reason had not occurred to me: if I care to revamp education in Egypt, I need not limit myself to working with school teachers and university faculty: I could actually work with students directly!!! I always thought working through teachers was a good way to go, and it is, because it increases my reach, but that should not exclude the option of working with students as well! And I have been doing too little of that. It is time to change. It is time to get closer to the student perspective and work with creative young minds – how could I have missed doing that? I now realize I was missing it (emotionally speaking) so much!

Our university is working on strategy for the next five years or so, and being on taskforces that work on this, and attending sessions of what other taskforces are doing,.. And then doing all that in the midst of taking Cathy Davidson’s MOOC on the history and future of higher education… Then today meeting with a student who is inspired to radicalize education for the better of learning and the community – I am inspired to do more. To think beyond whatever imaginary boxes and structures I have been putting for myself and think beyond (lots of this inspired by rhizo14 of course, which will continue to inspire me for years, i think. Rhizo14 folks will see the influence of it here for sure). I am also at the same time planning an Open Access week at my institution, and revising a couple of articles on issues related to all this so lots of ideas coming together in my muddled mind.

So below is my first draft for this week’s futureed assignment, which asked us to imagine a new university and what kind of values, etc., we would like it to have. (I am deliberately ignoring the Coursera honor code and posting the assignment up on my blog to gather feedback – the usefulness of that goes way BEYOND the arbitrary honor code of Coursera anyway):

MISSION STATEMENT: to support every learner to become more than they ever imagined they could be, working interdependently with peers, faculty and the local and global community to make all university learning meaningful.

1. Capacity to embrace uncertainty and find creative ways to solve problems
2. Capacity to work interdependently, to become interdependent responsible citizens of one’s own country and the world
3. The value of striving to make your actions and work contribute to the public good with a social justice orientation

1. Student-created courses (inspired by the Duke iPod project) where students come up with interdisciplinary ideas for courses they would like to see, and find the faculty member(s) who can help design and facilitate these courses.

2. Authentic/sustainable assessments: all or most assessments need to have value beyond the classroom. No research papers for the teachers’ eyes only, to be unused. Every project or paper needs to connect with some real-life external community and the output of it to be shared with or even used by the community. The output itself may involve action by the students working with a community. Assessment involves the community, not just teachers/students.

3. All learning can be counted for credit (or badges, as in this week’s topic). Learning need not all take place in a classroom formal setting. Any learning that occurs outside e.g. Community service, internships, informal travel experiences can count. To try to make this into valuable learning, students can create ePortfolios reflecting on their learning in each of these experiences.

4. Group mentoring: students work throughout the college years with a slightly older peer and a a faculty member, to brainstorm ways of enhancing their learning in college.

I am looking forward to becoming inspired by other people’s ideas about this assignment. I don’t have time to go to the futureed forums this week but at least I will check out what is on twitter and what I end up peer reviewing. But am more interested in what students think, and how they would envision things. There is, however a book I recently reviewed that has good examples of universities doing some of what I am proposing here:Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners: A College Education for the Twenty-First Century

I am inspired to create a selected topics course about re-imagining higher education, to invite radical teachers and students to share their visions and to imagine what might actually be possible. So much potential here!

I have just started sharing some of these ideas in the document created by #moocmooc which is an editable rethinking highered document: https://t.co/GpMdwXEoTB

Update: there was also a #moocmooc chat Feb 26, storify here.


Why @HybridPed is my Favorite Journal

On the upcoming two-year anniversary of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy, I thought I’d share why this has been my favorite journal for the past few months (and probably for many more years to come).

There are many reasons I love the journal, but foremost among them is its digital agnostic approach (is that a term they made up?) – unlike a lot of other writing about educational technology, that tends to be  overly positive or overly negative (utopian/dystopian, as we discussed in #edcmooc), this journal provides a balanced and critical approach: in their words, they “avoid valorizing educational technology”. The journal is a reflective hybrid of “critical pedagogy” and “digital pedagogy” (though digital pedagogy is not their only focus). I think it is wonderful to find a journal that has an underlying social justice approach, that offers dissenting viewpoints, while also being critical in the most beautiful sense: where the end of the criticism is constructive (don’t take my word for it – check out the journal itself). They do all of this in accessible language – whereas much critical pedagogy work is not written in ways accessible to your average practitioner. It is a journal with an alternative perspective, a radical approach, but through it all, it does all of this in an accessible manner.

It is also not just a journal. The two individuals whom I often connect with it (Jesse & Sean) also lead other creative online pedagogical experiments, some of which I have participated in, such as ReadMake (I made this video reflecting on the creative chaos of it). They also lead monthly discussions on topics of interest to a variety of people, via the Twitter hashtag #digped, and have done lots of other creative experiments that you can read about in the journal.

Insight into their supportive/collaborative peer-review process made me wonder why most peer-reviewed journals take on an antagonistic double-blind peer review process, when it is pedagogically much more constructive to do open and supportive peer review! Jesse recently tweeted “I’ve a staunch no mean reviewers policy @HybridPed. Ironically, it’s the thing I’m ruthless about.” [which reminded me that I was recently tempted to tell someone “by the way, I was one of your peer reviewers for that article you just published – the nice, supportive reviewer, not the mean one!”]

I also love this recent post on promoting open access publications that also reflects on their process, which concludes with “The work of scholarship should ultimately be about generosity” and that we should champion the work of others as well as our own (and, I just realized, I am currently doing just that in this blog post)

Hybrid Pedagogy recently published a list of lists, a great way to navigate the treasure of articles in the journal. However, my favorite article of all-time was not mentioned in that list. That article, Beyond Rigor was the first journal article I read (and shared) after successfully defending my thesis. That might be why I have such a strong emotional affinity for/with it. But there is more to it than that. The article does a great job of articulating an idea I’d been trying to convince my colleagues of for a long time: that outcomes-based approaches to designing curricula are problematic. For some reason, when my colleagues read this article, all of them agreed with it. I am continually amazed by the power of well-articulated discourse and rhetoric. I will expand on this article later in a separate post.

I was recently introduced to the idea of “intellectual love“, and I recognized immediately that I am in deep intellectual love with this journal. It may be that this love stems from a compatibility in world views, but the journal still manages to challenge and stimulate me and push me beyond my comfort zone, which is, I believe, even more important.

A mentor once told me to try to publish in journals I liked to read, and @HybridPed is it right now! I look forward to one day soon being able to make a contribution to scholarship similar to the great quality reflective and provocative work this journal already does.

Join the fan club 😉 and enjoy


We Are Nerds. So how do we reach our students?

It suddenly struck me, a couple of weeks after I finished my PhD, that I was a nerd. This should not have come as a surprise, since I have been a high achieving student throughout school and college, and loved learning in those contexts enough to pursue a master’s and PhD.

I cannot be too different from most academics. I assume we share some common characteristics: we love reading (we chose a career that requires so much of it, after all) though we might differ in how much we love to write. We are passionate about teaching or research, or if we are truly lucky, we are passionate about both (though whether we ever manage to find the best balance for our own personal fulfillment is another matter). Many of us (those who enjoy teaching) are probably not the typical nerd you see on TV. We are probably very social with good interpersonal and communication skills. But we are still, deep down inside, nerds. And the reason I want to point this out, is that this “nerdiness” can stand in our way when we try to “reach” our students, motivate them to learn what we ourselves are so passionate about. Because most of our students, I am predicting (going out on a limb here), are not nerds. They do not already love the subject matter we are teaching. They may not be interested in pursuing a PhD in it. At least not yet (ha!)

How often have I heard during faculty development workshops the odd faculty member who says “well, we must get our students used to doing so and so, because they need those skills for graduate school”. Well, hello! Most of our students are probably not planning to go to graduate school (I probably shout this out before anyone in the room has the chance to agree, so I am unsure how widespread this sentiment is). Yes, it is important to prepare students for graduate school in case they do eventually plan to go. This is our medium-term goal. But our immediate goal is to help them through THIS course that they are taking for whatever purpose they have for taking it.

Which gets me to my second point: do we teach the way we like to learn? I love noise and humor and group discussions and disagreements in my classes. It is how I like to learn, and it is how I like to teach. It is my comfort zone. However, I often need to remind myself that this is not necessarily the way all my students prefer to learn. Occasionally, I will stop my class for individual written reflection before doing a larger group discussion. Occasionally, I will do some more quiet pair work. Occasionally, I will recognize that (oops) not everyone is as comfortable with conflict in my classroom as I thought. And that (oops) sometimes students who deep down inside dissgree with me are not comfortable doing so in class, no matter what assurances I give them that this is something to be desired. It may be desirable to me, but it is not always desirable to them. Occasionally, I will discover that my own culture is slightly (or very?) different from my students’ culture, which reminds me of the importance of “culturally relevant pedagogy” (great pedagogical concept if your students are diverse or very different from yourself).

I really also like the idea of “differentiated engagement” proposed by Michael Feldstein, which proposes that we as teachers consider providing space for our students learn according to their motivations and learning preferences. It has elements of what is called a process-oriented approach to curriculum, where your focus is not on the “myth of the unified learning goal” and not on the product of learning, but rather, the focus is on the learner’s own engagement and the teacher’s judgment of how to use the learning moment to take these particular students’ learning further in this particular context. It puts the actual learning and engagement as the center of discussions about curriculum, rather than any arbitrarily pre-defined goals set by one person or a group of people separate from the individuals in the classroom and separate from its context. The idea of “differentiated engagement” also has elements of the notion of “differentiated instruction” which builds on the idea of addressing different learning preferences (usually about multiple intelligences specifically, but the concept extends to all sorts of learner differences). Feldstein’s concept, as I understood it, focuses on learner motivations and preferences for engagement, and though he begins talking about it with reference to MOOCs, I agree with him that it should be something all teachers think about when thinking about their courses.

I also love Sean Michael Morris’ statement as he discusses contemplative pedagogy (is that his own term?):

“one of the most important skills a teacher can possess is mindful attention, and a willingness to see where a class is really headed, and not stick so tenaciously to his plan that he misses the brilliance of collaboration possible with his students”

(quoted from his website).

I’ll stop here. I hope this blog post keeps reminding me that I may be different from my students, and, because of that, I need to be mindful of what engages them, how they want to learn, so that I can direct my energies and passions in ways that satisfy us all.

Do you have a story to tell about how you taught in ways outside your comfort zone in order to motivate your students or help them learn better? How do we do this while still staying true to our ourselves? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

But are we really nerds?