Monday, April 23, 2012

Either, Or, And

Who would have thought that three little words could contain so much power?  Three words, not even particularly complicated ones, 'either,' 'or,' 'and,' yet they not only can determine the nature of our relationship with others; they often can also determine our world view; how we see each other; the way we interact socially and even how nations and peoples interact on the world stage.

Most of the known world that we live in operates on the hidden (or in some cases not so hidden) assumptions of 'either.' In a few more enligtened cases, there are some limited examples of 'or.'  'And' thinking, outside of a few rare and isolated examples, is almost never seen.  The irony is that as rare as 'and' thinking is, where it exists it is transformational.

What the heck is he talking about(?!) you may well be asking, if you have not already decided to forgo reading further.

Let's look at some examples: There are literally whole industries and social institutions out there right now geared toward the 'either' paradigm.  In the USA, either you support the Republican Party, believing in small government, free enterprise, large bank bailouts using taxpayer money, and abortion; or you support the Democratic Party, believing in big government, social responsibility, large bank bailouts using taxpayer money, and public enterprise.  The fact that other ways of doing things may exist is barely even discussed.  What about free enterprise that incorporates social responsibility?  Government that is sized according to the tasks it needs to perform and may be bigger or smaller depending on what those needs are? Abortion that is looked at not as a free choice for women (or men), so much as a need in certain cases (rape, incest, threats to a mother's life) and is restricted or controlled in others such as choosing the gender of a child which most would see as unacceptable? Not that I am saying any of these positions is inherently better than another; the point is we don't even discuss them.  The sound bite culture we live in is based only on positions that are antagonistic; and if we can throw in a little violence or a riot for the six o'clock news to improve the ratings, all the better! Either Occupy Wall Street or build another nuclear reactor, the choice is yours, but you only have ten seconds to make it!

Talk shows live on the 'either' mindset.  Get two sides together and have a war on the air: its re-enacated all over the globe every day.  All are disempowered, others are blamed for all our problems, the 'other side' is always at fault, nothing gets done, nobody's responsible, nothing gets solved, but ratings soar!

Thailand has had an on again off again conflict these past few years between the so-called yellow shirts, who appeal to traditional values and royalty, and the so-called red shirts, who appeal to the agrarian base and grassroots populist issues.  Nobody seems to notice that traditional Thai culture is both agrarian and supportive of the royal institution and that certain populist issues such as wide access to health care if funded responsibly in no way impinge on traditional values or threaten the royal institution.  Again, the point is not that any of these positions is superior, but rather that, in the 'either' mode of thinking, where all must define a side or a color or a party then fight it out, such thinking is barely allowed and quickly ridiculed or dismissed as idealistic if voiced.

If we do show some mild maturity once in a while, we may graduate from 'either' thinking to 'or' thinking, which is mildy better but hardly transformative or revolutionary in its impact. We might talk about resolving the Palestinian question using a two state solution, in which you have to define yourself as only wishing to interact with one side or the other and thus living on one side of the dividing line or the other.  So we take care of the interaction challenge by avoiding it! There are many areas of the world where Jews and Muslims live side by side and interact and do business with each other, why not in Israel and Palestine?  Why must it be one or the other?  The Israeli writer Halevi has talked about, "accomodating a competing narrative" but again, such thinking gets lost in the wilderness of angry debate. Suicide bombings or illegal settlements, please make your choice quickly!

Some may say 'and' thinking is idealistic.  I say it's not only realistic it may be our only way forward. With seven billion people on the globe is the 'green' movement without development a reasonable option?  Over half the globe would starve without our cities and industries! Is development with no restrictions realistic?  We will choke to death on our own carbon before we even see 2025! The only realistic choice is development and a green mindset combined, using new technologies that move us away from fossil fuel dependency.  The 'and' option is not only realistic it is probably unavoidable if we want the human race to prosper.

Or what about crime? Being tough on crime and improving rehabilitation is clearly superior to either the soft approach of light sentencing which leads to more rampant crime problems and irresponsibility, or the hard approach of locking everybody up and throwing away the key, which is both unaffordable and unrealistic. A tough on crime approach that includes rehabilitation will be both less expensive, more effective and more humane in the long term.

The only thing 'wrong' with 'and' thinking is that it doesn't generate any headlines! People are doing it quietly.  And we need more of it if we want to survive and prosper and be happier and live more fulfilling lives of contribution!

Be responsible and happy!

Blessings, Dr. Andy

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Experience, Learning and Technology

Hi There and welcome to my new blog. Before I have only used these for university courses I have taught, and this is the first time for me opening one just to express ideas about education, learning, or anything elese that may seem relevent! I hope you enjoy it, please feel free to let me know your thoughts. Best, Dr. Andy

Today's topic:

Experience, Learning and Technology

It seems to me from my own experiences working both with special needs and ESL students in American and international schools, as well as training teachers, that we may have gotten slightly off track in our technological applications and debates or discussion of the use of technology as well as its application in our schools.

We often start the discussion by asking how we are using technology in our lessons: The hidden assumption is that technology is always the better way to go in delivering instruction. As we all know, if you start with an error, as in math and so with life, everything that proceeds after will be erroneous. And it seems to me that this presumption is not, in essence, correct.

Why not?

Well let's look at some real life experiences and ask a few pointed questions. Take a toddler say of 8 to 14 months old, about the time a lot of children first learn to walk. So how is this skill learned? With an I-pad? Virtual reality? Notes derived from google docs? What about reviewing walking videos on youtube? Do social networks like twitter or facebook offer any guidelines?

Walking, like a lot of learning, is experiential, and the two main methods most children will tend to use are imitation, by watching friends or parents do it then trying the same thing, or by trial and error, and in the vast majority of cases a combination of these.

You might feel this is an unfair and overly simplistic example, so let's look at one more directly related to classroom experience, how about figuring out the area of a rectangle is the product of it's length and width in square units, a key concept taught at about the middle school level in mathematics. How is this best learned? Now this is a little trickier and answers will vary. I worked with a child in my class just this week who was totally unable to learn this in any other way than by watching a video, and even then I had to take some of the key parts and play them over and over for him to get the idea down. Score one for technology!

But wait!! With learning disabled kids that have trouble with new concepts, I have found that the number one most effective technique in teaching this idea is to have them compare it with perimeter by pacing around the edges of a room or enclosed area outside, then comparing the fact that area includes everything within those boundaries, while premiter is only the edge or straight line distance. I have them go to different parts of the room and look at the floor, or even touch sections with their hands. Is this part of area? Yes. Go to another section. What about this? Yes, again and again till they get the concept. Retention rates are near 100 percent with this method, better than with books, videos, or anything else I have tried.

We could look at a lot of examples; if you look at counting, with very young children the finger counting method is usually the best place to start because it is both highly visceral (involving physical feelings) and visual. Reading is often best when done orally with both teachers and students doing it. Using a book gives you something to feel, and again it is often easier for the younger reader to flip back pages and find something in a book than with a mouse on a pdf file. But if reading for research, often using links with online resources or databases make the research process quicker and easier for the older learner.

There is nothing wrong with asking how we are using technology; but it is the wrong place to start the discussion. The discussion should always start with what the learning needs of the students are. Then we can discuss what we might use to teach the skills in a way that will best meet those needs, and why and then how.

Starting the discussion with technology is putting the proverbial cart before the horse, and our students will suffer accordingly, from such an approach!

Teach with understanding, teach with compassion, teach with love!

Dr. Andy