My Dad and Albert Einstein

education2Albert Einstein, while developing his theories of the universe and time, also gave much thought to the notion of education.  He once wrote:

The school has always been the most important means of transferring the wealth of tradition from one generation to the next. This applies today in an even higher degree than in former times, for through modern development of the economic life, the family as bearer of tradition and education has been weakened. The continuance and health of human society is therefore in a still higher degree dependent on the school than formerly.
Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that is not right. Knowledge is dead; the school however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those qualities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.
To me the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity, and the self-confidence of the pupil. It produces the submissive subject. It is no wonder that such schools are the rule in Germany and Russia.
…the desire for the approval of one’s fellow-man certainly is one of the most important binding powers of society. In this complex of feelings, constructive and destructive forces lie closely together. Desire for approval and recognition is a healthy motive; but the desire to be acknowledged as better, stronger, or more intelligent than a fellow being or scholar easily leads to an excessively egoistic psychological adjustment, which may become injurious for the individual and for the community. Therefore the school and the teacher must guard against employing the easy method of creating individual ambition, in order to induce the pupils to diligent work”. (Einstein)

My real education began for me at the age of 11 years old. It came unexpectedly and was delivered to our home in 2 large boxes filled with beautifully leather bound books. It was a complete set of the 1960 new edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia. My father had purchased the set, which was at the time a very expensive item, to add to the family room’s bookshelf.  I spent many hours propped up with my legs hanging over one of the oversized worn chair in the family room, turning each page in every volume learning something that fed my curiosity about the world I lived in.

I was an average student in school, did lots of daydreaming in the classroom and was more interested in cars and girls during this time than my studies. I found that many of the things taught in school didn’t spark any interest and was presented in such a way that daydreaming was a more productive way of spending time in the classroom. I would think about some of the things I learned reading the encyclopedia that was in our family room.  It’s interesting now to think that my lazy afternoons or evenings spent going through random volumes of the encyclopedia gave me more pleasure in learning than sitting all day in a classroom, being told what to read and then quizzed on my ability to retain the information. My father was a self-taught man. He attended school up the age of 11 years, but then had to quit school to work to help support his family. He worked in a bakery and in addition to his meager pay was allowed to bring home each day a loaf of bread, which was needed for daily meals in his home.  It’s interesting to think that the purchase of the encyclopedia occurred when I was 11, the same age my father had to quit school to help support his family. Perhaps it was his way of having some completion of his own education or provide some insurance to his family that learning will always be available no matter what.  My father was a steelworker for 25 years and moved up the ranks as a metallurgist for the largest steel plant west of the Mississippi. Not bad for someone with only a 5th grade education. He would make jokes about how he was training new employees with college degrees how to do his job.

Perhaps, Einstein was on to something when he wrote: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”   The notion of learning should be seen from various perspectives, the ability to use critical thinking skills for determining a “truth” within ourselves as well as a responsibility of giving back what we learn in bettering the society in which we live.

My father would frequently ask me two questions when he came home from work; what did you learn today and how are you going to use what you learned?  Our teaching should incorporate these 2 questions.  Information can be useless unless it’s applied to something.  Perhaps this should be a given in making sure each course objective should always include the ability to apply what we learn and use it in bettering our lives as well as bettering the world we live in.  Thanks Dad for providing me with that direction.

Tell Me a Story


I love stories; stories about life, our personal experiences, the happy and the sad. Stories teach us about how the world sometimes works and how we relate to it. When I was young, I use to love to hear my parents talk about their experiences when they were young. Their stories gave me the opportunity to learn not only about their lives but also gave me a better understanding of my culture, the traditions of my family and its history. In a sense, these stories gave me a better understanding of myself. Stories put into context information that would otherwise remain fragmented, pieces of this and that, thrown into a catchall closet in which items are tossed and usually hopelessly lost. Our students also love stories. They catch their attention and can set the mood for your class.  We like stories because our brains operate in the same fashion. Stories allow our brain to use information in the most effective way. Our brains need the opportunity to classify and file information that is in relationship to each other. It doesn’t like that catchall closet of miscellaneous bits of information, it likes order and continuity. Stories not only allow the beginning and the end but give us how we came to the end, what brought us there.

I try to start each class with a story. It could be a personal experience, a myth, a historical event, anything that relates to that day’s lesson. Stories grab students’ attention. They become interested in not only what the story is about, but how the story relates to them. Stories in many ways touch the core of who we are and that thing that makes us human. If you think back when you were a child and having a story read to you, didn’t you find yourself becoming that person or at least thinking how you would react if you were the character in the story? Philosopher James Stevens once wrote, “The head does not hear anything until the heart has listened. The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow.” The things that we learn and remember, usually stick with us because on some level we can relate to them personally. If we use stories in our teaching, it may give our students a better opportunity to connect to a more personal kind of learning. Stories affect he heart, we relate to them because we find bits of ourselves in every story that’s ever been told.

Stories in the classroom can be the most fundamental way of making meaning and sense of your discussions. Interjecting that human component, that part of us that we can relate to and assimilating ideas based upon our own personal experiences, not only allow students to begin to connect all the dots but may aid in making students feel more confident in their understanding of the subject matter.

Author and scholar Kieren Egan wrote this about teaching and storytelling:

“Thinking of teaching as storytelling…encourages us to think of curriculum as a collection of great stories of our culture. If we begin to think in these terms, instead of seeing the curriculum as a huge mass of material to be conveyed to students, we can begin to think of teachers in our society as an ancient and honored role. Teachers are the tellers of our cultures role.”

It’s always interesting to me when at the beginning of class, I start with the words, “I’d like to share a story with you,“ how the attention in the class changes. Students seem to put their focus not only on you but themselves as well.  It’s almost magical in some way. It may be one of those few times where technology cannot replace the power of one person telling a story to another person. There is actual evidence that speaks to how we become almost in a trance when we become involved in listening to an interesting or powerful story.

So in using this notion, stories in our classroom can have many advantages:

  1. Getting the students attention, as well as, focusing on the lesson at hand.
  2. Setting a platform for students to interact and comment on their thoughts about the story.
  3. Providing a stronger connection in the classroom with you and your students.
  4. Stories can bring out those students who normally do not participate in class, giving them the opportunity to share their own personal experiences in relation to the stories shared.

Storytelling may be the oldest form of education. Stories throw that human component into the aspect of learning. If I can in some way relate to what is being taught to me, then my learning becomes more personal and becoming more personal, it has the opportunity to become a part of who I am. Our brains make sense of the world with its ability to arrange and re-arrange itself in story format. Our ability to retain information is affected by how our brains can make sense of the information in relation to other information.  To create a lesson in which a story is part of the lesson, give students the opportunity to become personally involved in the story and you may find your students discovering a different opinion of not only the subject matter but the joy of learning itself.

ITV: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

hqdefaultIf you never taught an ITV (Instructional Television) class, imagine teaching a face to face class, long distance, teaching from one location, to students who are in the same room as you and to students who are in an ITV classroom at another location. Barring any technical hiccups, it actually goes pretty well and has its advantages such as; students are able to take classes without having to commute long distances, the classroom media control uses high quality audio and video make adding to presentations much easier, and classes can be easily recorded, archived and accessed online later for students to review or for students who missed the class. But it also has it challenges, even for the experienced instructor teaching in the ITV format.

Yet, here are some common challenges I found using this classroom approach:

1. Students at the remote sites may feel disconnected form the instructor and the students at the host classroom.

2. It becomes much harder for students to remain focused when watching a class over a TV monitor.

3. It difficult for instructors and students to see the faces of other students and become more aware of the non-verbal expressions at other sites.

4. Technical difficulties at one site usually leaves the other site somewhat “stranded” until the problem is solved.

5. Instructors can’t circulate around the class and intermingle in class discussions (movement is extremely limited due to camera location in class).

6. Usually the larger screens are located in the front of the classroom and the smaller screens are in the back of the classroom. This usually poises a problem for the instructor since it becomes more difficult to see the students in the distant classroom depending on the depth of the classroom and the eyesight of the instructor.

Since I have taught classes in the ITV format and I found some things helpful in preparing my approach to this format.

It is very important to spend time at the start of any ITV class to teach students how to participate in the class in hopes of creating a consensus in how the class operates. For example, having students identify themselves if contributing to a discussion or just asking a question.

While most ITV classes run well technically, there are on occasions problems throughout the year, stuff does happen, so always have a backup plan. If there is a technical glitch, students should know how long to wait in the classroom and any information pertinent to that days lecture should be available for students on the Blackboard class site. All assignments would be submitted in the site as well.

Don’t forget to switch presentation modes during class. Changing up the students’ field of vision helps them stay focused. For example, if your using a PowerPoint presentation, you may become some disembodied voice if you don’t switch back to the instructor mode occasionally, to reassure your students your there in real time and not just a recorded lecturer, a voice without a face. I usually try to cut back to my face every three to five slides and ask questions for feedback before continuing back to the PowerPoint presentation.

And if possible, switch campuses when teaching from different locations. I teach an ITV class which meets twice a week, so on Monday I teach in my host campus and my Wednesday class I teach my ITV class on my sister campus. Students seem to really appreciate meeting you face to face and making the effort in alternating classrooms.

All of the above suggestions I found extremely important in my approach to ITV teaching, but depending on individualistic styles, approaches will vary. Challenges in the ITV classroom not only are faced by the instructor, but with the students as well, but keeping a honest discussion with your students regarding their needs as well as their frustrations in this format can be most useful in developing an effective ITV classroom experience.