teaching, learning, and small victories

I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately (well I should say a lot *more* time, really) reading books on habits and learning and thinking about how what I’m reading and learning applies to teaching and progress in general. After presenting on learning styles, and getting the first draft of a paper on feedback in, I have really started missing the day to day reality of teaching, and the opportunity teachers have to watch (and aid) the sort of small victories that gradually grow into big changes.

Those small steps to big changes come up in “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. This book seems especially relevant right now because it deals with habits in three different areas: individual, corporate, and societal and lets its readers understand how habits exist on micro and macro levels. This is not a self-help book (although it does address (and follow up in the appendix) some methods that readers might use on their own habits or goals), instead Duhigg spends significant time explaining, from current research and historical perspective, how habits work–giving those who read it the understanding that enables change, instead of instructions on what to do–instructions that can’t cover for every eventuality and therefore might fall down at crucial moments.

That, in fact, is one of the key take aways from the book.  Habits are not changed by knowing a magic formula (although understanding the “habit loop” will help) or by sheer will power (although, again, knowing how will power can be affected by effort will help); habits are changed through an understanding of how they work and a series of small successes over the obstacles that can derail the best efforts. Duhigg works to make sure his readers understand the process of habit forming–something that I have found myself recently focusing on when talking about teaching and learning.

As exam season approaches, I’ve  been giving a few talks on learning styles (and study skills) around the Uni (and to random people at the yard–I have a difficult time not teaching…), and one aspect I keep coming back to is that giving students an understanding of a process is often as important as helping them to understand content. Once students (or anyone!) understand how they learn best, they can not only seek out opportunities to learn but also are better prepared to compensate for anything that makes their learning more difficult.  Differentiated instruction is not just about preparing lessons that allow all students to learn, it is also about allowing students to take control of their own learning. Continue reading

wackadoodle art installation or photosynthesis experiment: you be the judge

I really enjoyed Antwerp. Sometimes, when you go places for conferences (especially academic ones), you can end up far away from the city you are in, or so insanely busy that you rarely see more than whatever happens to be in between the hotel and the venue.

Antwerp was a great location for a conference.  The university it was held at is absolutely gorgeous (more pictures of that later), and the city itself is nicely navigable on foot, even for me (I can get lost on a straight line). There were also weird and wonderful things around nearly every corner from a printing museum (with the world’s oldest printing press!) to this bizarre combination of sculpture and science they had out on a side street. I couldn’t resist photographing it, but I really should have videoed.  There was steam shooting out bits and propellers spinning and just generally a lot of movement that the still photo doesn’t really capture well. It does look like something out of Scott Westerfeld’s steampunk adventures doesn’t it? It is almost too easy to imagine that it’s just one moment away from lifting up one of those spidery legs and skittering off down the street. Continue reading

on long walks and podcasts….

Now that I am walking, well, everywhere, I have become even more enamoured of my iPhone. I really do appreciate only having to carry/deal with/find one device to carry my music, some notes, and also act as a phone. I hadn’t really ventured much beyond some music and audio books for listening to at the gym until I moved to Manchester.
With that move, and the resulting walking to the office, and the store, and the doctor’s office, I am quickly finding that I sometimes like some “company” on the various treks I make each day. I’ve spent time with the brothers from Car Talk, the Friday Night Comedy Hour, Adam and Joe, and a bunch of one off lectures I’ve downloaded from random universities. I’ve recently found a series of lectures, though, that are a cut above the rest. They’re on serendipity and presented as a part of the Darwin Lectures.
As is often true of things found on the internet, my own encounter with them was serendipitous: both random and fortuitous. They had the additional benefit of being entertaining and thought provoking as well. I’ve not listened to them in order, the first I heard was from Richard Leaky, and his discussion on serendipity and scientific study was wide ranging and inspiring. It also twinned interestingly with Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book in that Leakey emphasized that while some of his fossil and skeletal discoveries may be called serendipitous (or part of the infamous “Leakey Luck”) none of his scientific advances or discoveries deserved that term. He was quite firm in his belief (and this is where he runs parallel with Gladwell) that science is pushed forward more with difficult and diligent work than any other way.
He said, instead, that serendipity played a part in the evolutionary process. He spent some time pointing out that many of the greatest “leaps” in evolution (to complex eyes or the ability to create complex language) may have happened for reasons that will forever stay mysterious. Whatever the evolutionary result was, the original problem solved by it may be forever lost in the past–and that serendipity lies in the myriad of options that were opened up with each evolutionary step.