Ending on an Up Note: Seeing Ourselves

As I get to know my students each term, I’m often struck by the difference  between how I see my students and how they view themselves. I often see courage and ability where they see fear and ineptitude. Maybe we are all too hard on ourselves.  A recent experiment conducted by the folks at Dove shows us just how wrong we can be when we dwell on our flaws rather than our best features. Warning: six minutes of viewing will linger in your mind for days.

Enjoy yourself, and enjoy your weekend.


Connecting Techs to Text

ReadingthuRsday-R2The Dilemma: I am very technically minded; I enjoy reading instructions, but I don’t read well. 

The Solution: Introduce students to small bits of technical reading, which may lead them to the enjoyment of all reading.

You know you are up against a hard problem when the student actually enjoys reading instructions.  What kind of person does that?  Well, maintenance technicians do.  We—I happily take this title as my own—usually enjoy Christmas time and “some assembly required.”  Yes, we know we see the world differently than most, but it allows us to have the confidence to fix something that we have no idea of how it works. instruction-manual

In my classes, if I give a reading assignment of Chapter 1, I can give a test and almost everyone will fail it.  But if I give a lab over Chapter 1, everyone will pass it.  It is amazing to see my students work with foreign concepts and conquer them if they can put wires together.  But if they are just reading for information and memorization, they can see nothing but words.  I know the scholarly people reading this will probably not understand what I mean, but technicians see the world in a binary way.  We like things to be on or off, up or down.  We don’t really care about the theory of something, we want to see it in practice and working.

I have found that my students will read 5 pages of information if those pages are mixed into a lab.  As long as they are working towards an end goal, they will plow through the information.  I have also learned that even if it is easier for me to just tell them how to do something, it is usually better for them to read and try it on their own.  If I show them the way, that will probably be the only way they ever learn how to do something.  But if they read and try to find their own solution, they may find a better way than the way I was going to show them. 

Abstract Art of The World and Binary CodeJust as with kids, if you give them the tools, an idea, and some time, they can accomplish anything.  But if I show them the way to build something, their minds get boxed in very quickly.  If they can understand the “why”, they can usually accomplish a task more easily and they will retain most of what they learn.

Reading for my students is the same way.  If I tell them there is a test over Chapter 1, they don’t know what to learn.  If we are working through a concept, and I have them read Chapter 1 while looking for a certain answer, they will find lots of other information that is useful.  Giving technical students a problem and letting them try and fail is a great way for them to learn.  They will fail once, but never again at that task.  If they never fail, they never learn. 

If I can give another teacher any advice for their technical students, especially in the area of reading, it is this:  Give them the question you want answered before they start reading.  You are very likely to waste your time and theirs if you just tell them to read a chapter.

This May Hurt a Bit

karenHave you ever felt that you’re being stalked by an idea? It happened to me this week.  I had planned to start a series of new posts that I’ve been incubating for some time, but the blogger muse had other plans.  First, I was intrigued by Jason Arnold’s R² post suggesting that students may learn more when they have to do a little digging for the information to build a DNA model. On Monday of this week, Brian Coatney highlighted the benefits of reading difficult material. Finally, my inbox delivered the latest issue of Annie Murphy Paul’s The Brilliant Report, featuring “When to Let Learners Struggle.”

I think somebody’s trying to tell me something. I’ll admit that it’s painful for me when my students don’t do well. Some of the reasons for my discomfort are apparent.  As a pediatrician-turned-anatomy-teacher, I’ve signed up for hitches in two different classic helping professions..and we helpers just love knowing that we’re helping. When patients get better or students learn, my work is done. Conversely, when students don’t achieve, I feel like I must be doing something wrong.  Maybe they just need a little more help: a clearer explanation, a better study guide, a more creative lesson plan, more of something I haven’t figure out yet. Surely there’s a way for me to make the job of learning easier for them.


Information ladle?

I do warn my students that A&P is a big, challenging subject, one that will ask them to learn a lot of new words and complex processes in a very short period of time.  It’s almost like taking a foreign language class, and it can take over a motivated student’s life for the eight-week term. It takes real effort to do well. To illustrate the point, I’ll remove the top of one of the model skulls in my lab and pantomime spooning information into it, noting wistfully that I can’t, unfortunately, actually do that in real life. I also have a “magic wand” that I pull out when I want to be the “Knowledge Fairy,” bestowing instant and effortless knowledge on deserving students. But do I really wish that I could do either of these things?

Maybe not…make that “certainly not.” When my sons were growing up, I made it a practice not to do things for them that they could do themselves. They looked up words in the dictionary. (OK, so maybe I wasn’t always sure of the correct spelling myself.) They completed their own school work without help unless they were really and truly stuck. They learned to keep track of their own things and to manage their own schedules.  It wasn’t always pretty, but it worked in the long run. A study described in The Brilliant Report suggests why the hands-off approach may be effective:

“Kapur’s investigations find that while the model adopted by many teachers and employers when introducing others to new knowledge—providing lots of structure and guidance early on, until the students or workers show that they can do it on their own—makes intuitive sense, it’s not the best way to promote learning. Rather, it’s better to let neophytes wrestle with the material on their own for a while, refraining from giving them any assistance at the start.”

struggleMaybe it’s time I realized that my students can benefit from struggling, even when it makes them uncomfortable…and even when if makes me uncomfortable. In fact, maybe I need to build a little more struggling into the fabric of my classes intentionally. We here at pleasureinlearning recognize the importance of the “achievable challenge,” but maybe I’ve been so focused making learning “achievable” that I’ve neglected the “challenge” part of the formula.

Back in my pediatrician days, I was always dismayed by parents who blithely reassured their children that “the shot won’t hurt a bit.” My own policy was to say, “This will hurt a little, but not very much and not very long.  You’re the kind of kid who can handle it.”

Learning may hurt a little bit, too, but I’m betting my students can handle it.

Tech Tuesday: Formatting Fairy Series, Part 1

Each Tuesday, pleasureinlearning brings you Tech Tuesday.  Come back each week for more ways to become efficient and effective in your use of technology. 


This article is the first of a multi-part visit from the Formatting Fairy.  In this series, we’ll look to exorcise as many Formatting Demons as possible.  Comment and tell us about your Formatting Demons.

We’ll start with a review.  Many formatting problems can be fixed just by seeing what is going on behind the scenes.  Review how to turn on the formatting marks in Word from this previous post.  These formatting marks can make it easy to see why your flyer is running on to a second page as in the picture below.

Formatting Marks on Next Page

Reading Difficult Material

BrianGetting an education means reading difficult material along the way. When not expecting this, the initial reaction is fear, plus the thought, “I should be able to understand all of this right now.” That is a natural reaction and one we will likely often experience at first. After all, new material is a form of culture shock: new terms, symbols, and concepts. “Others seem to know it or be getting it easily, so I must be deficient.” That assumption will not help if the emphasis on deficiency falls on the pronoun I as in “I am deficient.” It’s vital to separate the person from the content to learn.

When my wife and I took a Mortimer Adler based reading course, we were surprised that the emphasis was not on the material’s degree of difficulty so much as on a sense of reward, even if only ten percent comprehension occurred at first. Think of that—ten percent. The point was to encourage reading things more challenging than the present level of what we tackled.

college_stressRoadblocks promote strategies. The question is, “Do I need to get through?” If so, reading becomes a game of strategies to see what a text is and how it might be absorbed in greater and more meaningful quantities. I learned to play chess against a cousin who beat me the first 39 times we played. That meant catching on to what I was doing that let his pieces cut mine down, and learning what he was doing  to defend or attack.

One thing that helped me with difficult reading was not getting bogged down in details so much that the overall concept never occurred to me. It’s amazing how a calculated type of scanning can give a global view of a text. This becomes a focal point for details to organize themselves around. With difficult material, details play a huge role, but without freedom to scan for the concept first, the details crowd out the picture in progress.

bigpictureThink of those puzzle boxes that have a picture on the box and 500 pieces inside that fit together to make that picture. We’re often not that lucky to get such a picture with a text, but when reading, if even a stick figure or a very general image appears, that helps a lot until details begin fleshing out a fuller image of the concept.

An old mentor loved to say, “What you take, takes you.” The mind has an amazing capacity to surprise us with knowledge that comes together for the one who wrestles through the frustration and feelings that nothing is happening, or at least not happening fast enough. What you give yourself to long enough will give itself to you—probably in a serendipity moment.

Ending on an Up Note: Play Nice

Doing unto others as we’d like to have done to us sounds so good…but it isn’t always easy. Wednesday’s offering from http://www.xkcd.com is refreshing in its honesty. We’ve all had days when simply being nice is a tall order.



For days when we feel like the fedora-wearing pal above, we might remember the words of Mother Teresa, who knew a thing or two about consideration:

“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

For a different—but totally fascinating—treat from xkcd, click here and see how long it takes you to figure out what’s happening.  Too cool. (And I admit that it took me a while to catch on.)

Enjoy your weekend.

Making Math Relevant

ReadingthuRsday-R2Mathematics is a subject many students dread because the students view math as having no relevant use in their life. To many students a math problem goes like this:


  1. I am given a confusing word problem.
  2. I have to use confusing symbols representing ‘stuff’ I don’t understand in the word problem.
  3. I have to do complex calculations on stuff I really don’t get.
  4. I have an answer that is not only incorrect, but I forgot what I was originally trying to solve!

Frustration builds and thus students repeat what they have heard for years: “Math is too hard!” Making mathematics useful to students can be challenging, as the skills required to solve the big problems of the world are so complex that students cannot see the forest for all the trees.

Many times we come up with what we believe are fabulous activities or examples that will persuade the math naysayer to come to appreciate the usefulness of the subject. The reaction we think we will get:


is usually dwarfed by the reaction we actually receive:


After my attempts to use different quirky and fun examples that I thought my students would enjoy usually led to the second reaction, I was pleasantly surprised by the example I thought most would have little interest in because it is not fun or exciting. The subject was rate of change, and I decided to use home values to show the boring relationship between home values and how to use rate of change.  I tasked the students to pair up and find four different locations around the country in which to find the price of a house today versus sometime in the past. The students were then asked to calculate the rate of change over time using www.zillow.com . dollar houseAfter they finished, they had to write the location of the home they found and how the values changed over time, then show the rest of the class what they found. We did a quick example so they could see how the website worked and where to look. The excitement grew when I overheard students discussing their shock at how much a house lost or gained in just a few short years. What started out as a boring math problem turned into an economics lesson, a geography lesson, and a math problem rolled into one and it was fun. As they related the information about the locales they chose you could hear the surprise and excitement over the information they gleaned in just a few short minutes. You would have thought I had given them candy and told them we were not doing any math that day! Never did I expect this reaction:


It never occurred to me that the lesson was tapping into the pleasure center of the brain where they could imagine buying a home in some exotic location around the country or imagine selling a home for a huge profit. The problem allowed the student to be creative and have a little fantasy in class while learning. Maybe if we approached the lesson with that in mind we may hear “That was fun!”