“Everything Springs from That”

I don’t listen to many political podcasts. In fact, only one. Dan Carlin’s show, Common Sense. In his latest podcast he interviews James Burke, a science historian, documentary creator, broadcaster and all around smart dude.

This episode flirted with politics, but was more focused on how technology affects society and how the rate of change often has unforeseen ripples. It’s a fascinating interview, but the best part for me comes at the end of the interview. Dan presents Mr. Burke with a hypothetical (which I’m paraphrasing).

Suppose the leaders of the country call you up and ask for your advice. What would you tell them in regards to the absolute most important thing to focus on in the future?

“I’d say put a massive amount of effort into the educational system. Everything springs from giving people the kind of education that allows them to think more clearly and express themselves more clearly. Everything springs from that.”

I’ve been thinking about education a lot lately. I recognize that might be like pointing out that a historian has been thinking about history a lot lately. But I’m talking about the big picture of how we educate our society. With the appointment of charter school evangelist Betsy Devos to the head of the Department of Education and recent moves by the Michigan congress to weaken the teaching profession and cut funding, I worry greatly about where we are headed.

The election of Donald Trump, the proliferation of fake news, the gravitation towards soundbites, the lack of empathy, and constant decrease in social capital mean that having a society that can’t think critically could be (already is?) disastrous. If there was any time in our history that we should be focused on education, it should be now.

We can’t have a society of mindless drones that will believe the headline and first two lines of any article that comes across their news feed. We can’t have a society that can’t take another person’s perspective. We can’t have a society that fears change. We can’t have a society that doesn’t understand the value of civil discourse.

An education system that’s working on all cylinders can help prevent this.

We should be focused on how to graduate great teachers. We should be focused on how to help teachers become great. We should be looking to other education models and schools that we want to emulate. We should be focused on making teaching a profession that our best and brightest want to pursue. We should be working to get away from standardized test scores as the sole measurement of a quality education.

As Mr. Burke mentions in the podcast, if we put as much energy and money into education as we did into the Apollo project it could have countless dividends for our society.

Panera Bread and Learning

In the last month I’ve become a Panera regular. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling and Panera was as close to fast food as we were willing to go. Until the last month however I’d only been there a few times in several years, without being particularly impressed.


image credit: nbcnews.to/29POCSz

Take a look at the menu above. This is what you encounter when you walk into Panera Bread for the first time. Seven sections of menu packed with different dining options. For the less food savvy among us, not only is the menu packed with stuff, but it’s packed with a lot of stuff that is unfamiliar. In my first couple of visits I stood there bewildered for a while, let my friend order, then picked something with turkey in it.

Because I was pretty sure I knew what turkey was.

Well, I was wrong. I mean, I think the thing had turkey in it. But everything else did not complement the turkey in a positive way.

The next time I went there with a few colleagues I ordered a caesar salad. Why? Because every time I’ve ever ordered a caesar salad in a restaurant I haven’t been surprised by what came out. The same was true for this visit.

Sweet. I found something on the menu without holding up the four people behind me.But after that I avoided Panera for a while. A long while. I could get a caesar salad from a lot of places. The notion of standing there in line trying to find something different felt as though it would only bring frustration.

Then my wife and I were looking for something quick and healthy to eat, so we decided, to my slight dismay, to give it another try.

This time however, on the way there my wife looked up the menu on her phone and read off several items, describing them from their website. When we walked in I knew several of the items on the menu, how it worked (that “pick 2” thing for example) and was basically ready to order when I walked up. We’ve been there a couple of times since and now it’s one of my favorite restaurants. Since I’m confident in my understanding of the menu, I try new items, ask questions about different types of food, etc.

How does this relate to learning?

Think about the first time you encountered an unfamiliar topic and tried to learn it. This was difficult at first but I can certainly think back to math lectures (here’s lookin’ at you, Linear Algebra) in which there was new notation, vocabulary, and concepts and it all felt unfamiliar.

However, once I got with my peers and we began working through the problems (encountering the “menu” multiple times) the concepts began to feel more familiar. I realized that I knew more about them than what I thought (romaine and kale! Hey, I know what those are…). The more I worked individually and with my peers the clearer the concepts became.

If I avoided doing the exercises or only did it individually, that feeling of everything being foreign never really went away. Usually parts of the notation would be confusing. Or the instructions around a problem wouldn’t make sense. Or I could start a problem, but get lost in trying to solve it, etc.

A couple points can be pulled from this. First, a student’s first exposure to a topic is incredibly important. If you drop seven new vocab words and a gaggle of new notation on students at 8:00am on Monday morning you’re bound have a large group of students not wanting to come back to the menu you just presented them.

Even if they should know most of the food on there.

So we have to think carefully about how students first engage with content. The second point is helping students understand that multiple engagements with a concept will (usually) alleviate this feeling. I think many students never go back to the restaurant because they don’t want to be embarrassed for not knowing what their peers may already know. We have to help students be comfortable with this phase of unfamiliarity (my study group in college was a place I felt comfortable being wrong), and develop tasks that help them engage with the concept in safe, productive ways (investigating the menu on the way).

For a great post on how students see unfamiliar mathematics check out Ben Orlin’s recent post entitled What Students See When They Look at Algebra.

Alternative Titles

“What’s on that sandwich? Oh… will that be on the test?”

“How Avocado Ruins Education”

“I don’t even like lettuce so why should I be learning about salads?”

The Lack of Time Education: Developing Empathy for my Users

In this paper I have compiled my research and reflections on what I gained from empathizing with my users (teachers). The problem I’m trying to address this semester is that many teachers in America don’t feel like they have the time to innovate and collaborate. This is a serious problem as teachers, arguably more that any time in history, have to be creative and innovative in their craft. By the end of the semester I hope to have gained insights into how to help teachers get (or feel like they’re getting) more time. I do hope you’ll follow along.

(Take my survey at this link and see the results here.)

Taking different Perspectives: An Exercise in Empathy

The purpose of this project in my CEP 817 course (Learning Technology through Design) is to gain a better understanding of empathy by taking a different perspective on a story that I heard. The story that I’ll outline below  was overheard at a party the other day. This story was told to me by “the Boss” and the second story is “the Worker’s” perspective of the same event.

The Boss’s Perspective 

Several months ago the Worker told the boss that she would be taking classes in the winter a couple days a week. The Boss said that that was no problem but requested a class schedule to put in her file as that was the normal procedure in situations like this. The Worker seemed to have no problem with this said she would get it to her when it was available. Then the winter came and after several weeks of the Worker taking a couple days off a week for classes the Boss, once again, requested the class schedule. The Worker dodged this request on several occasions, saying that she didn’t understand the need for the schedule and that she didn’t want the other workers to know her personal business. This confused the Boss because she wouldn’t be sharing it with any of the other workers (and they already knew she was taking those days off). This discussion escalated to a full blown argument that resulted in the firing of the Worker as she continued to refuse to give the schedule to the Boss.

The Worker’s Perspective

She decided several months ago that since things were financially difficult she may need to go back to school. She knew this would mean adjusting her work schedule and she talked to the Boss about it. Although this conversation seemed to go well, the thought of going back to school was intimidating. The last few times hadn’t gone well, it was an increased cost, and she would have to sacrifice hours of working on top of paying for school. As it came close to time to pay for tuition and the money wasn’t there to cover it she cancelled her classes (having not let the Boss know and continuing to take the days off each week). The thought of possibly failing in college again also played a role in her decision to cancel her classes. As part of going to school she was able to get more assistance in the form of food stamps and other aid and if she gained the hours back she’d get less assistance. Although she’d obviously make more money with the added hours, she’d been considering opening a business on the side that would take time to set up and get started. Time that she wouldn’t have if she worked full time. These factors all contributed to her decision to not tell the Boss, or anyone, about the class situation. The combination of the shame from feeling like a failure and the motivation of starting her own business while maintaining the assistance meant she would continue on with not telling anyone. This all came to a head one day and although part of her thought that telling the Boss the truth might be best, she feared for what that might do to her reputation. That refusal resulted in her being let go from her place of employment.


The process of trying to fill in the blanks for the second perspective was a great exercise in empathy. I mean that honestly and not in the “my professor would love to hear that” kind of way. As I wrote from event to event I could feel my brain exploring all the different possibilities at each crossroad. It helps you get inside the head of another person. I think even the process of physically typing it up was important. While I was thinking about the second person’s perspective I had ideas that I wanted to discuss, but the writing process helped me fill in the details as well as explore other possibilities I hadn’t considered.