Sunday, December 18, 2016

Leadership In Life

           Humans have had leaders since the beginning of time. There have always been people who have inspired and motivated others to follow them, and their names have been passed down through generations and millennia. Alexander the Great. Jesus. Gandhi. They all inspired groups of people to follow them, and they all made an impact on our world.
            In today’s life, leaders are almost everywhere. Bosses run their meetings. Teachers speak to their classrooms. Friends decide where and when they want to eat. Whenever there are two or more people together in a room, some form of leadership is happening. Decisions are made. Plans are formed. People are brought together and organized. We don’t always think about it, but leadership is everywhere.
            So, how can we make this leadership more effective? How can we make our groups as efficient as possible?  
            Much of the conversation about good leadership in today’s atmosphere is on the leader herself. Titles that pop up when I google ‘leadership’ include, “How you can talk like a leader” “How great leaders inspire action,” and “22 qualities that make a great leader.” All this focus on the person is important and can be really useful, but I feel like it can undervalue the most essential part of being a good leader: making sure your group as effective. That’s the most important job of any leader, and I feel as though it doesn’t get talked about enough.
            The idea that we need to create effective groups isn’t a new one. There are any number of effective group-theories in Psychology, and they can explain themselves better than I can. From reading about these theories – and from my experiences and conversations – I’ve come up with two theories of my own to help explore leadership and how to make it effective. These theories are new, so if you feel as though something is inaccurate or missing don’t hesitate to contact me.
            My first theory answers the question: what do these effective groups look like?
            The members in these groups are:
            1. Confident and not filled with damaging stress. Some level of stress is beneficial, but too much can damage group member’s willingness to participate and their effectiveness when they do participate.
            2. Engaged with the rest of the group. There’s a synergy between the members.
            3. Sparky: they’re engaged, focused, and motivated to do the task.
             Another way of saying this is that the best groups and teams walk with swagger. They’re confident with themselves and each other. They’re not afraid to express themselves, they feel valued, and they know that they can rely on their fellow members. A great example of this the Golden State Warriors (a basketball team for those who don’t follow sports). Every time they step onto the court, they’re always the most relaxed group in the arena. They laugh, play pranks on each other, and genuinely enjoy their time on-court. They also build off of each other, respect one-another, and value everyone’s contributions. In short, they’re the perfect example of my vision of an effective group.
            So, what do the Warriors have that make them effective? How can groups become as efficient as possible?
            First, I want to show what the Warriors don’t have. (If you don’t know basketball, feel free to skip this paragraph.) They don’t have anyone who would classically be considered The Leader. Yes, Steve Kerr is the one who organizes everything, but Steph Curry is the best player, the facilitator, and Draymond Green is the emotional heart of the team – shouldn’t that count for something? – And let’s not forget Andre Iguadala, Kevin Durant, or Clay Thompson. They all have some leadership role. In short, they’re not the Cleveland Cavilers. Lebron James is the leader of that particular team.
            Thus, a group doesn’t need a leader. In some cases, groups can even more effective when they don’t have A Leader! This is the main point I want to make with this piece: it doesn’t matter who the leader is as long as the group is successful, and it’s the leader’s job to make the group successful. It’s not the leader’s job to stay in charge. It’s not the leader’s job to talk the most or come up with the most ideas. It’s not the leader’s job to make every decision, and it’s certainly not the leader’s job to get everything the way she wants it to be.
            Too many groups have leaders who do these things when they don’t need to, and this causes the group as a whole to suffer. Of course, there will be times when a leader will have to do these things, but they should never be a leader’s primary goal. The leader’s primary goal should be the betterment of the group. Full stop. If this means stepping down from the leadership position, so be it. Good leaders put their group over themselves, and as long as you do that – and have the judgement to know what’s good for the group – you can be a leader. It’s that simple.
            Well…not quite. But that’s all you need to start out with. Everything else can be taught.
But what is that everything else? That’s in my second theory. (We’ll get there in like six paragraphs.)
First, I want to draw a distinction. So far, our definition of leader has been something similar to “the role the person in charge of the organization has.” That’s a good short-hand to get my points across, but it’s not quite nuanced enough for a deeper discussion. In reality, there are five different facets of that definition of ‘leader’: facilitator, organizer, motivator, decision-maker, and title. From this point on, we’ll use the word ‘leader’ to mean “the one responsible for the well-being of the group.”
Facilitator is what usually comes to mind when we think of our original definition of ‘leader.’ That’s the role that runs the meetings, keeps everyone engaged, and knows everyone’s names. (Knowing everyone’s name is so important for a leader! Write them down if you have to. Everyone’s going to know yours, and you’re so much more effective if you know theirs.) On the Warriors, the facilitator role is filled by Steph Curry.
Organizer is the role that calls the meetings, sets the agenda, figures out the strategy, and generally makes sure things get done. On the Warriors, this role is filled by the coach, Steve Kerr.  
            Motivator is the role that pays attention to the emotional dynamic of the group and fixes it if it’s off. This is the person who makes sure the group stays together and is motivated. They’re often the piece that’s missing in a non-functional group. On the Warriors, this role is filled by Draymond Green.
            Decision-maker is the role that decides what the group is going to do in any given moment. In some groups, like the Warriors, this role seems to be split amongst all the members. In other groups, like the President’s Cabinet, the weight of this role falls to one person: the President.
            Title is the role whose “name is on the door” as my mother likes to say. This is the one role that’s not necessary for a functional group to have, but I would consider it a role because it makes discussions around leadership easier. For instance, the phrase, “he was leader in name only” wouldn’t make sense if title wasn’t considered one of the roles of a leader.           
            A leader can fill one or all of these roles, but to be effective a group has to have all four of these roles filled in some capacity.
            So, how can we make our groups effective? What’s the ‘everything else’?
            There are 7 parts that create the relaxed swagger that the Warriors walk with:
            1. Glue-People: those who put the good of the group over themselves.    
            2. Humor: it relaxes group members and helps them work through stressful situations.
            3. Total member involvement: everyone is engaged.
            4. Shared goals: everyone has to know what we’re building towards
            5. Shared methods for achieving goals: everyone has to share the same philosophy.
            6. Reliance: it allows group members to focus on their own tasks (also known as ‘trust’)
            7. Winning: it validates everything
            . Listening and Communication: this one is so important it’s weaved into all the others.  
***
            Glue people, much like the motivator leadership role, are the ones who make the group as pro-social as possible. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “come on guys, we can do this,” then you’ve seen a glue person. They’re the type of people who make jokes at the right times, who make sure isolated people stay engaged, and who give out hugs when people look like they need them. They’re also the type of people who can help soften the edges of less pro-social people. Every group has one or two people who work hard, come up with a lot good ideas, and care about the group, but who will occasionally get defensive or confrontational when they don’t agree with another group member. Glue people can help manage these type A personalities by toning down the emotionality of the discussion and helping everyone understand what everyone else is saying. These people are especially important in high stress environments. When people are stressed, tired, or both, they tend to get nasty. To put it mildly, nasty groups are ineffective: everyone remembers words spoken in the heat of the moment.
            It’s not hard to be a glue person: just start watching other members of your group. If they look tired, do something to wake them up. You could poke them, mention their name, or play some music if the whole room looks that way. If they look confused, take some steps to make sure they understand what’s going on. Depending on the situation, it might not be best to stop the meeting and go back through material, but you can talk to them afterwards or ask if anyone has questions. If they look angry, you can do a number of things depending on your status and the situation. If you think they’ll listen and you have some power, you can tell them that anger isn’t useful for productive discussions. If you don’t think they’ll listen in the moment and you have some power, let them vent and then tell them afterwards that anger isn’t productive. If it’s a milder scenario, you could try speaking after the belligerent person and couching their ideas in less emotional language. Above all, it’s important to make sure the group’s mood isn’t unduly harmed by the episode or person.
            Humor is a great tool for glue-people (and leaders!) to use. Laughter relaxes people and lets them bond with their fellow team members. It also relieves tension when a group member makes a small mistake. You know your team has reached a good place when someone who makes a small mistake is laughed at. If there is silence after someone makes these types of mistakes, the tension, stakes, and stress in the room will increase. Everyone will be thinking, “They screwed up; don’t let it happen to me,” which is not what effective group members think about. Effective group members are focused on the problem in front of them.
If someone makes a large mistake, humor usually isn’t the best response because it might be interpreted that you don’t care. But, at the same time, there usually needs to be some acknowledgment of the mistake and some way to reduce the natural tension the mistake causes. The type of response needed will differ depending on the situation, but I can give one example.
After the website for Obama’s health care plan failed, a team of Silicon Valley techs were hired to fix it. There were many, many problems with the site, and the team was on sharp time constraint. The man leading the operation knew that his team was going to make mistakes: the job was too just complicated, so he instituted a rule that there could be no blaming on the job. Blame wasn’t productive, and it didn’t lead to an effective work environment. One time, someone made a fairly large coding error that set the group’s progress back a week. When the person admitted the mistake was theirs, the leader had the group clap for the person.
This is just an example for how mistakes can be handled, but the most important take-home message from this section on humor is this: tension, stress, and blame don’t lead to creation of efficient groups. Humor relives stress and tension and is a way to resolve a mistake without blaming anyone.  
In effective groups, everyone is involved. Too many discussions only focus on the most engaged people in the room, and the quality of the discourse can lower because of it. If you’ve ever been to a meeting with twenty people but only five talk, then you know what I’m talking about. There are two ways that I’ve found to get everyone involved in group discussions: go around the table and ask for everyone’s thoughts and split the group into smaller parts.
A really simple way to get everyone involved is to ask for their opinion. Whenever there’s a question or a topic of discussion, go around the whole room and ask everyone for their input. This forces the whole group to think of an original idea or solution to the problem. It also limits the free-ranging discussion time that more dominant personalities will control. This seems simple, but it can be incredibly effective. When people are directly asked for their input – and when they know they’re going to be asked – their minds become engaged because now there are stakes to the discussion. They’re expected to contribute, so they end up contributing.
Another simple way to get group members involved is to limit the size of each discussion group. By shrinking the discussion group, each member of the group has to contribute more because now there are fewer people to keep the discussion moving. When splitting the groups, make sure that each group has a good mixture of experienced people and different ideas. There’s no point in having a discussion if no one knows what they’re talking about or if they all agree. Try to keep the groups between five and eight people. Any more and the discussion will usually get out of hand. There are usually too many contradictory statements, too much over-talk, and not enough oxygen in the room for everyone to speak. If there are any fewer, there are usually not enough different ideas to keep the conversation productive or enough people to practically solve the problem. At the end of the meeting, have the groups get together and talk through what they’ve found. Usually, groups will come to similar conclusions or at least discuss similar ideas, and any differences can be hashed out once everyone is back together.   
            Too-large group sizes are the curse of most organizations. For some reason, people feel as though everyone has to stay together during the entire discussion, but this isn’t usually the case. If there is actual disagreement within the association, there’s going to be more than one person who feels a certain way. Simply assign at least one person from each side of the argument to each of the smaller group and let the rest of the group members hear their arguments and come to a conclusion. That way, there’s less cross talk, and everyone will get to hear both sides of the argument. People may also feel as though the quiet ones will not contribute if they’re asked or if they’re put into a smaller group. To that, I say this: you might be surprised. It’s incredible the things people will do if you expect them to do it.
            Every organization has to have a shared set of goals. (Almost every piece on leadership has some form of this idea, so I won’t spend much time on it here.) Basically, everyone has to know what they’re working towards. If it’s a political campaign, everyone’s goal is to get more votes than the other guy. If it’s a more permanent group, like a hospital or school, there will be a mission statement that everyone agrees on. If you’re on a team, the goal is to win. It’s important to make sure everyone knows what the group is there to do, but this isn’t usually a problem for most groups.
            However, there will often be differences about how the group should achieve that goal. This is bad, and it’s not too overdramatic to say this is the alter most groups have bleed out on. When a group’s methods are not shared, there’s friction between team members. Friction which usually comes from the most engaged, experienced, and valuable members. These are the members that have the strongest opinions about how the group should operate, and when there’s a fundamental, philosophical disagreement on how to proceed, they’re usually the ones leading the opposing camps. Both sides know they have the right way to proceed, and in most cases both sides are right according to their framework of thought.
            A good example of this is from one of the campaigns I worked on last summer. I disagreed with my coworker about the most effective way of getting votes. Very basically, I thought we should reach out to as many people as possible. He thought we should target our approach to only certain people. Because we had differing philosophies, we kept giving our candidate conflicting advice, and we continually disagreed with each other. There was no group-wide acknowledgement of one particular strategy over another, so we both tried to make our philosophy the dominate one. Eventually, the tension became too great, and I was asked to leave the team. I was rather distraught at the time, but looking back, it was the right decision for the group. One of us had to go. It just happened to be me.   
            This leads us to two solutions to the problem: one prevention and one cure. The prevention is to make sure everyone knows how the group is going to achieve its goal. This can be in writing, or it can be verbal, but it needs to be in place so everyone knows the type of strategy the team will be using. For instance, in my case the campaign should have sat down and agreed upon a set way for getting votes. Everyone on the team should have been given an opportunity for input. Then, the campaign should have made sure that everyone was on board with the group’s decisions. Everyone might not agree, but they should at least be brought to the point where they say, “I don’t agree with it, but I understand it, and know what I’m supposed to do.”  Like most preventions, this method is preferable.
            The cure is to cull one of the opposing philosophies. This isn’t the most elegant solution, but it’s better than the alternative. The team is never going to be effective if it’s being dragged in two different directions at once, and it’s better to adopt a bad philosophy than to be bogged down by two good ones. The groups with bad philosophies will at least get something done. The groups with two good ones will never stop arguing.
Effective organizations are reliant upon one another. When team members trust one another, a whole new street of possibilities and confidence opens up. The best example of a reliant team in my experience has been my Ethics Bowl debate team. Because of our team philosophy - everyone is expected to be involved in the team’s argument - we’re naturally forced to rely on one another. This gives our team an incredible amount of flexibility during competitions. While one person lays the groundwork for our argument, everyone else can be thinking about the next argument to make. This allows us to be much more creative and nuanced with our presentations because we have four or five different minds all focused on the same problem.
            However, this reliance can be hard to instill in an organization that doesn’t require it. In order to build reliance, every member of the team has to be involved in the group’s process without stepping over one another. In Ethics Bowl, this is fairly easy because the team is so small, but in a larger organization roles would have to be assigned. Political campaigns do this all the time. The social media person creates Facebook and Twitter posts. The fundraiser works on raising money. The messaging team writes all the language the campaign puts out, and is generally the most important, coolest, and essential part of any campaign (I’m not biased at all). But problems arise when people don’t stay in their role. If a member of the group isn’t perceived to be doing his job well, others on the campaign team will begin doing aspects of his job. This leads to jobs being done two different ways. Which is bad.
            The easiest way to solve this problem is to avoid hiring people who are bad at their job, but that isn’t always possible. If at all possible, there should be effective dialogue, communication, and oversight between group members, which can mitigate some of these problems. Clearly defining roles can also help this problem, but there isn’t a magic bullet for fixing a dead-weight group member other than hiring a new one.
              Finally, effective groups are winning groups. When a group accomplishes something together, they bond. They value their fellow group members, view their leader as successful, and generally think their time in the group was worthwhile. This seems obvious, but this can be an effective tool for any leader to use.
            Have you ever been to a team-building exercise at work? I bet you probably played a game during it. I bet you probably achieved something with your fellow work-buddies too. You might have even won a silly prize or gotten to wear a fun hat. Afterwards, you might have felt a warm, fuzzy feeling for your fellow team members. That’s the power of accomplishing something together. Nothing can replicate it, and it does wonders for any group.
            Anyone can be a leader. All you have to do is care about your group and have a good enough judgment to know what is best for your group. From there, all of these different ideas or theories should come naturally. It’s not going to be that simple when you apply it to the real world, but nothing ever is. Life is messy. You’re going to make mistakes, and people are going to have questions you don’t know the answer to. That’s okay. It’s part of being a leader. At the end of the day, you don’t have to do everything in your group. Hell, it’s not a group if you’re doing everything. So, don’t be afraid to delegate a little more, or to ask your group members to contribute a little more to discussions. You might be surprised. People do amazing things when you ask them the right way.


What I Learned From Lecturing

Last time I posted on here, I talked a lot about lecturing: how ineffective it was if done wrong, how boring it could be, how it was, “a red, hairy demon that ought to be banished from our school’s curriculum. It saps student engagement! Destroys curiosity! It’s just a vehicle for teachers to show the rest of the world how much smarter they are.”
             Well, I led a lecture in class a month ago, and it turns out I was right about one thing: you do have to be smart to stand in front of a class for an hour and not make a fool of yourself. It’s not as easy as it looks. Like, at all. Granted, I was mostly kidding when I wrote the above lines, but I definitely didn’t understand how difficult talking for an hour actually was.
Now, my eyes have been opened. I have a whole new perspective on the world. I’ve seen the light, man! I will now rescind everything bad I’ve ever said about my teachers. Every last thought, phrase, and whispered curse late at night. Or at least most of them.
The first - and most important thing - I didn’t understand about lecturing was how long an hour actually is. When you’re sitting at your desk (either taking notes, doodling, or imagining your next story) the time seems like it goes by fairly regularly. Depending on the class, it might feel like forever. You might be hungry or have to go to the bathroom, and the minutes will feel like they’re covered in molasses. Or, if you’re in a good class, you’ll sit at your desk, ten or so seconds will pass and then you’ll be standing up again to leave at the end of the“hour.”
But when you’re standing up there in front of everyone with twenty pairs of eyes watching you, waiting for you to make a mistake, wondering exactly what you’re going to talk about...time does some pretty strange things.
For me, the first five minutes of my lecture went pretty quickly. I knew how I was going to open the lesson, (which was a Neuroscience take on the body’s motor control) knew where I was going to go after that, and knew the first two questions I was going to ask. From there, I figured I could tie in everything else I had planned. I was a smart kid, right? Had given presentations before, was familiar with the material I was going to cover. I could figure it out, right?
To be fair, it didn’t go as badly as you might be expecting. I only stumbled over myself a couple times - mostly between the five and fifteen minute mark. - Those were the longest minutes. I started talking about the different building blocks of the muscle system (myosin, actin, muscle fibers, the like), but I didn’t have much of a frame for the information. Looking back, it would have been easy to build the information into the structure I had established at the beginning (which had been a short story about Little Eric, the creature from the primordial ooze - our professor’s name is Eric -) but, for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me during my prep time. In the end, the information got through, but it could have gotten through better.
After that, the next half hour went fairly quickly. I worked my way through the different muscle units and then talked the class through the different units of the nervous system that controlled them. From there, we took a trip up the spinal cord and discussed how the sensory information travels to the brain for processing. There were a couple hiccups around the thirty minute mark (getting to the spinal cord was a little rough), and those two or three minutes felt closer to ten, but the last half hour went well except for one mistake.
I was inaccurate about one concept in the last fifteen minutes (I mixed up the specific names of the different descending spinal tracts) but I managed to catch myself and fix it before the end of class. In the end, I hope it didn’t end up mattering too much. A couple kids in the class gave me grief about it, and my professor mentioned it in his review, but that’s life, right? Sometimes you confuse the techtospinal tract, lateral reticulospinal tract, medial corticospinal tract, medial reticulospinal tract, and vestibulospinal tract by thinking they’re all part of the ventromedial group of descending motor tracks. It happens. You just gotta remember that the techtospinal tract, lateral reticulospinal tract, medial reticulospinal tract, and vestibulospinal tract are actually the parts of the ventromedial group. The medial corticospinal tract doesn’t actually exist. You’re thinking of the lateral corticospinal tract, which is actually a part of the lateral group of descending motor tracts. It’s simple, right?
            During my lecture, the professor who usually talks in front of the class, Eric, took notes on my performance. When I finished, we debriefed about the things I had done right and wrong. Like any good workshop, he started with the things he had liked: he opened by saying that I was a ‘natural’ in front of the class. I didn’t talk straight from my PowerPoint, I had a good stage presence, and I generally kept the kids on their toes by asking questions and making them think. Hearing that made me feel good. My whole goal had been, “don’t let them be bored,” and it was nice to hear I had mostly succeeded.
            However, there were a number of things I could have improved on. The first was that I hadn’t gone in-depth enough with the stories and examples I gave. One of the biggest benefits students get from lecture is the story behind all the information they’re reading about. Any teacher can go through the material and teach the definitions given in the book. It takes a good teacher to tie the concepts in the book together to create a memorable narrative. This gives students a hook to hang lesson material on, and these stories are usually the things students remember after the class.
            In my particular case, I could have gone more in-depth with the story of Little Eric and done a better job tying it into the material at the beginning of the lecture. I also could have done a little more with the baseball and CCR analogies that I brought up. (What do baseball and CCR have to do with Neuroscience? Well, someone pitching a baseball is a good example of the functionality of the ventrolateral spinal tract. That spinal tract carries the signals for full-body movements. Pitching, like walking, is a full body movement. In contrast, the lateral spinal tract carries information relating to fine motor control movement, like playing musical instruments. CCR is the name of a famous band, and it’s also a handy acronym for the three parts of the lateral spinal tract: the lateral Corticospinal tract, the Corticobulbar tract, and the Rubrospinal tract.)  
            There were also a couple times during my presentation where I could have better defined the terms I was using and been more concise in my language. This is especially important in science classes where students are being asked to learn and remember large numbers of different concepts. There have to be clear distinctions and differences drawn between similar ideas. Without these clear lines, important ideas can become muddled together. From a teacher’s perspective, this means it’s vital to be 100% confident in the material you’re teaching. I wasn’t. I was only about 93% confident in my knowledge of concepts, and this showed on a couple of occasions: there were questions I didn’t word clearly enough, there were a couple phrases that didn’t quite make sense, and there were a couple of pauses when I tried to figure out where the hell I was going to go next. But, like anything, this gets better with practice. The more you do something, the better you are at it…usually.
            There were also a couple practical issues during my lecture: I spelled some words wrong on the board, and I stood in front of my PowerPoint too much. The first one made me look like an idiot. The second made it difficult for the kids to figure out what I was trying to point to. To fix the first, Eric said I could write some of these words in my notebook. I’ll feel a little silly writing words like ‘exercise’ at the top of my notes in the future, but at least I won’t look foolish. To fix the second, I just need to watch where I’m standing while I’m on-stage, which is fairly easy once you’re paying attention to it.
            All in all, I really enjoyed my time preparing and giving my lecture. It was a new experience, and I learned a lot about how to make lectures and presentations interesting to my audience. I also spent an entire hour on-stage, which is more than I ever have before. And, you know? It’s difficult to fill an hour of time! And some professors make it look so easy that it’s boring to watch, which takes real talent, skill, and preparation.
            In seriousness, though, being a teacher is difficult. You always have to be on your toes, you have to know your material better than the back of your hand, and you have to be engaging while you do it. That’s not easy, and the people who do it have a more difficult job than we give them credit for. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Part I: The Nation of Liberalism

Part I in a series of posts about the state of liberalism in the West.

The liberal era has been defined by the rise of what Will Wilkinson called the "multicultural, liberal-democratic, capitalist welfare state". There's a lot of adjectives to unpack there, but let's start with the noun: state, by which I presume Wilkinson means nation-state. Since at least the Peace of Westphalia, the nation-state has been the dominant actor in the international political landscape. 

This post will deal mostly with the American nation-state, since that is the one I know best. The "state" part of the term refers to our physical borders; the fifty states and assorted territories where the United States of America exercises political and legal control. In the American and European cases, the borders of states are fairly set - we aren't engaged in many international territorial disputes anymore (another success of the liberal international order).

The part that has seems to have challenged liberals today is the concept of the nation. I would argue that the West is fractured along nationalist and internationalist lines: on one hand, the internationalists envision a multicultural nation, engaged in international treaties and conflicts, with relatively open borders and low trade barriers. The nationalists would prefer a relatively homogeneous nation with tightly controlled borders and high trade barriers. Traditionally, America's political parties each had elements of nationalism and internationalism to them: the GOP supported free trade and foreign interventionism but wanted limited immigration, while the Democrats supported some trade barriers and favored international treaty-making, but generally opposed sharp limits on immigration. With the election of Trump, however, it seems that the parties have re-aligned: The Democrats are now the primary home of internationalists and post-nationalists, and the GOP the home of nationalists.

Nationalism frightens liberals because it has historically been organized based on ethic, religious, or racial identity; the Nazis in Germany being the most obvious example. Nation-states where race, religion or ethnicity is the central organizing idea behind the national identity tend to purge minorities when nationalism hits a fever pitch - with predictably genocidal results. Any honest accounting of American history must also acknowledge that America was a de-facto white Protestant ethnostate which oppressed religious, racial, and sexual minorities until relatively recently.

The State of Liberalism: A Series

It's been a long time since I posted on this blog, and it remains to be seen whether or not I will continue to post here. But I wanted to take some time and articulate some of my basic beliefs as a person who considers himself "liberal". Some people are appalled by the word liberal. Some believe in it so strongly that they would say that I am far too right-wing to be a liberal. Which is why I think it is important to describe what liberalism means to me.

This project was inspired by a link to Will Wilkinson's article about revitalizing liberalism. It's worth a read in its entirety. He writes:
Liberal political order is humanity’s greatest achievement. That may sound like hype, but it’s the cold, hard truth. The liberal state, and the global traffic of goods, people, and ideas that it has enabled has led to the greatest era of peace in history, to new horizons of practical knowledge, health, wealth, longevity, and equality, and massive decline in desperate poverty and needless suffering. It’s clearer than ever that the multicultural, liberal-democratic, capitalist welfare state is far-and-away the best humanity has ever done.
And yet, Wilkinson notes, support for the liberal political order is at an all-time low, especially among young people like myself. He cites a New York Times article which contains what I find to be an incredibly a disturbing fact: Only 19% of millennials in the US think a military takeover of the government would be illegitimate if the government was failing to function properly.

Does that mean what four out of five people in my generation are latent fascists? I don't think so. Having grown up with all the benefits of the liberal order, we see only the downside to it: the civil unrest, the infighting, the government shutdowns, the fake news, the televised gaffes of leadership figures, the gruesome consequences of international intervention. Most people would probably be shocked to discover that the modern liberal era is the freestmost peaceful, and most prosperous era in all of human history. That success is a direct product of the post-war American order and the rise of the multicultural, liberal-democratic, capitalist welfare state. Yet I have a feeling that most people in the West don't feel really good about where things are going right now - if they did, they probably wouldn't be voting for Brexits and Trumps. Heck, even I don't feel great about it.

This series will continue until I feel I have completed my personal exercise in political philosophy, however insignificant it may be. I encourage anyone who happens to read to join in.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teaching Effectively:The Bad Side

             Engaging a classroom full of people is difficult. It doesn’t matter if those people are 6 or 60. There are always going to be some who think a topic is boring, some who aren’t paying attention, and some who seem to be doodling the entire time. That being said, there are some teachers or presenters who engage their audience better than others. Who are somehow able to make interesting even the most boring of topics. How do they do it? How can we apply these skills to other aspects of life?
           An effective teaching style depends entirely on the topic you happen to be teaching. For instance, letting a kid play the French horn for an hour would be really effective in band class. Less so during a History class. Having students free-draw for a half hour might be really informative for an art lesson. Probably not so much when you’re trying to teach them algebra. Lecturing for an hour would be effective while teaching a concept-heavy subject like neuroscience. However, kids would quickly become bored in the writing class. Actually…come to think of it, an hour’s worth of lecturing is boring no matter what class you’re in. It doesn’t matter how interesting the material is or how funny the professor. If you’re sitting for an hour and only listening, you’re probably going to space out a couple times. We’ve all experienced it, and I know the doodles in my notes can attest to it.
            Most professors and teachers know this at some level (they were all students once) and some do a better job of realizing it than others. For instance, my current Educational Psychology professor has told us a number of times that students learn much better when they’re engaged and not just listening blandly to lecture. Do you know what’s really funny? The first time she told us that was in the middle of a fifteen minute long lecture. She pointed to the concept on the slide she had prepared and then moved on to the next topic. There was no real time spent on it. No discussion. Just a bland reference to another prevalent concept in Ed Psych.
            I feel kinda depressed to say it, but that experience has been fairly average throughout my college career so far. Ed Psych is easily not the most boring class I’ve been in. For some reason, some professors seem to really enjoy hearing the sound of their own voice and some seem not to know how to fix the lack of attention their students are giving them. I wouldn’t be surprised if those same professors routinely mentioned how dull their students seemed on any given day. They realize what’s happening – they’re smart people – but they don’t quite know how to solve the problem.
            Now, don’t get me wrong: there are definitely interesting, engaging professors out there, and even the ones who are boring in class are really fascinating to talk to in person. But, there seems to be a little disconnect between the boredom I know these professors experienced as students and the boredom some of them are causing now. One of the off-hand comments my Ed Psych professor made a couple classes ago is illuminating, “We’ll have a really lecture-heavy day today, but I want to get through it so we can have a good discussion next time.” She knows lecture is boring, but she still sees it as a necessary evil. Never mind the fact that she’s probably forgotten mostly everything she’s ever been lectured. Never mind the fact that her students probably learned more from fifteen minutes of discussion than they did during an hour of her slides and talking.
            If I were to bring these ‘probable facts’ to her, (I don’t actually know if any are true…If this was an academic paper, I would totally fail) I can imagine the counter-argument she would give. It would likely be some form of “We need to get through the material. We have a lot to cover and the quickest way to do that is to lecture about it.”
            My counter-counter argument would be something along the lines of. “That’s true, but that doesn’t mean you have to have fifteen and twenty minute blocks of you talking. There are any number of ways you could split it up.”
            “Like what?” She would ask.

            “Well…” 

Teaching Effectively: Lecturing Well

Well,” I would say, “There are a number of different techniques that can be used to break up 15 and 20 minute blocks of lecture. Asking questions is a great way to get students to figure out the information on their own. Cold calling on them can work especially well to keep the entire class engaged. I’ve even seen professors who have students stand up in front of the class. There are any number of ways to make students just a little bit uncomfortable so they keep paying attention.”
Every (good) teaching book will tell you that students learn much better when they’re engaged with the material. When they’re out of their comfort zone enough so that they’re constantly paying attention, but not so uncomfortable that that their learning is harmed. The goal, these books say,  is to make them active learners. Not passive listeners. However, this can be difficult to do while lecturing. After all, the whole point of lecture is to talk through material that may be too dense or not important enough to have a class discussion about. So, how can we keep our class engaged while lecturing? What techniques have other lecturers used in the past?
(These are in no particular order.)
1. Telling Stories. “Remember that time Colin shot up heroin on Hennepin Avenue?...”This is one technique that most professors (and some high school teachers) have down pat. The human brain is designed to remember narratives. It’s why story-telling around campfires has been a human tradition ever since we could understand each other. As long as these stories relate to specific course topics, they can be an effective way of tying course material together and grounding it in reality.
2. Relating To Student Experiences. “What are some examples of synthesis that you’ve experienced in other classes?” This is one of the simplest ways to get students engaged. Tell them (or ask them to think about) something they already know. Then, show them how that relates to what you’re teaching.
3. Talking About Sex. Food, and Bodily Harm. (One of my friends once saw a problem in his Chemistry textbook that gave some background about how deadly arsenic was and then told a short story about Ryan, a man at a dinner. At the end, the question asked, “If Ryan died twenty minutes later, how much arsenic had his brother, Steve, used?” My friend still talks about that problem.) This concept is closely related to above. There’s a reason why Game of Thrones is so popular: there’s nothing that keeps people’s attention more than appealing to the three lowest tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  
4. Doing Strange Things. (A kid stands in front of the class. The professor walks up behind him while miming a sword in his hands and says, “Kelton is completely unsuspecting while I walk up behind him with my katana. And, what’s a katana again, everyone?”
“A two handed sword.” The class says.
“That’s right. A two handed sword. So, I’m walking up behind Kelton with my katana. He’s completely unsuspecting.”Kelton looks at him. “Turn the other way.” Kelton turns around and the class laughs. “I’m walking up behind him with my katana, he’s not looking, and I cut him in half this way.” The professor mimes cutting Kelton in half on a line between his nose and his belly-button. “That’s the sagittal plane.”)
This may sound like a strange teaching style (probably because it is), but it’s extremely effective. That particular moment has been seared into my brain, and it had an incredible impact on the class I was precepting (Macalester slang for TAing). I heard a number of kids say things along the lines of, “Of course I remember it. It was so drastic. He had someone stand up in front of the class and cut them in half.”  
5. Varying Pitch, Tone, Movement Style,  and Facial Expression. (Watch Ian McKellen do anything.) There are any number of politicians, professors, actors, telemarketers, pieces of music, people who talk about dolphins at zoos, sales clerks, DJ’s, and general everyday people who can benefit from this one. The nervous system notices change. If we want someone to listen, the easiest thing we can do is make sure we’re not speaking in a monotone. If we want to make a music piece interesting, one of the first things we should do is change the dynamics. If we want to write something interesting, make sure to vary sentence length. It’s not complicated.
7. Adding Humor. “What’s the difference between a snowman and a snowwoman? Snowballs.” A couple course relevant jokes can go sooo far in a class. I can’t even begin to describe how essential this is. Humor can make even the most dull lectures palatable, and there’s no subject on Earth that can’t be made funny under the right circumstances.
8. Recapping Old Info. (Remember where the sagittal plane is? It runs from your belly-button to your nose.) What’s the point of teaching students something if they’re not going to remember it? Referencing old information or getting students to think about it is a great way to hammer home important concepts.
9. Lecturing About New Topics. Not Concepts Students Know. (One time, my Stats professor lectured for ten minutes about mean and mode. We had known that since we were twelve.) This is the cardinal sin of teaching. You never want to be spending time on something everyone in the class already knows. It’s the quickest way to lose their attention, and it’s time that could be spent on something else. That being said, teachers do this ALL the time. However, there are a couple easy ways to make sure this doesn’t happen...
10. Asking Students What They Know. (A number of teachers have given me a basic knowledge test on the first day of classes.) Students are more than happy to share what they already know with you. You just have to ask.
11. Having Students Talk To Their Neighbor. “Turn to your neighbor and remind them what the function of the hippocampus is.” This technique covers so many core educational concepts that I’m not sure why every professor doesn’t do it all the time. It gets students to pay attention in class because they don’t want to look like a fool in front of their neighbor. It increases their comfort in class because they realize that their neighbor knows just as much (or as little) as they do about the subject matter. It builds the interpersonal skills that everyone says is important as an adult. It gets the entire class involved in a topic. And, it doesn’t have to take very long. (My mom, a former professor, was rather surprised when I brought up this last point in conversation.) If you choose your questions well, students will be able to answer them in thirty seconds or less. When the conversation level in the room has died down, you can provide the answer, then continue with your lecture. This technique can be especially effective when you have students connect dots you have given them already. You’re much more likely to remember a concept that you figured out on your own.
The most important thing to do while lecturing is to watch student’s reactions and tailor your style appropriately. It’s usually easy to tell when students are paying attention and when they’re not. When you see a lot of them staring off into space, it’s time to try something different. Hopefully, some of these tips can help.  

Teaching Effectively: Other Ways To Engage

Last time, we talked about ways to make lecture interesting. In doing so, we treated lecture as though it was a smart and useful way to teach someone information. That was wrong! Lecture is a red, hairy demon that ought to be banished from our school’s curriculum. It saps student engagement! Destroys curiosity! It’s just a vehicle for teachers to show the rest of the world how much smarter they are. There’s not a single useful thing that I ever learned from a lecture! Not one! Not even this concept of evil lectures that I couldn’t have thought of without actually sitting in a lecture. Well...okay fine. Maybe I did learn one thing from a lecture, But just that one.
Jokes aside, straight lecture (eg. someone talking without interruption) may be one of the least effective ways to get students to remember information for longer than the time before the next test. At its worst, it’s not not much more than an info dump that students will write down and possibly study. One could even say it’s the professoring equivalent of telling versus showing, and every kid who’s taken a creative writing class can tell you how terrible telling is.
So, with that in mind, what are ways other than lecture that teachers can use to share materials?
One things students (and people in general) are excellent at doing is solving problems and putting together knowledge from known facts. It’s one of the reasons some find math so entertaining. So, if happen to be teaching a math class, why spend time lecturing when students could otherwise be actually solving the problems?
It’s worth noting here that there will always be concepts that need to be talked through or that students just don’t have enough information to intuit. These are prime times for lecture, but try to avoid using lecture to reinforce something students have already learned through doing. My current stats professor has the bad habit of doing that, and most in the class have started surfing their computers instead of paying attention. And, why would they pay attention? They already understand the concept well enough to apply it, and that’s all they need to know. Why spend valuable brainpower listening to someone else explain something that you could explain just as well yourself?
Along these same lines, students are much more engaged and motivated when they’re doing something. If you’re teaching a lesson on the different branches of government, an excellent way to get that message across would be to have students set up their own mock-Congress and start thinking about and voting on bills. They’ll likely come up with some wild ideas to be passed into ‘law,’ but that’s part of the fun of it. It’s like the real world. As long as you can get the votes, you can do anything you want.
Another example of having students do lessons instead of listen to them could be during an acting class. There are thousands of books written on acting and acting theory. You could read all of them, memorize all the concepts, and still not know the first thing about actually acting in front of people. The same goes with writing. I once had a writing professor who loved to lecture (who’s also the author of a certain book about 7 killings). His lectures were actually pretty entertaining - he has a great sense of humor - but I didn’t learn much in that class about writing because we didn’t do it very often. As such, the class felt very underwhelming.
Some students are also quite good at learning material on their own. - I have two friends from high-school who basically taught themselves algebra because they wanted to be able to take Calculus their Senior year. - This route wouldn’t be advisable for all students, but it could be an option for those who want to get ahead and feel confident enough in their learning to go off on their own. From experience, I can also say that teaching yourself can be one of the best ways of learning. It forces you to draw your own connections from the material, which makes the material more memorable. From a teacher’s perspective, these students who worked ahead are also in a prime position to teach their peers potentially difficult concepts. Quite often, it’s easier to learn from someone who just mastered a concept than it is to learn from someone who learned the concept a long time ago.
Classroom discussions are also great ways to teach important material. They let students draw their own connections, and they’re a great space for letting students share their connections with the rest of the group. They build interpersonal relationships and build all that important personal communication magic that psychologists always say is so important. They’re also fun. There’s not enough fun in the education system. (If there’s one take-away from these blogs it should be that we should make learning more enjoyable. So what if the rest of the world is a dark place full of business meetings where no one laughs? That doesn’t mean we can’t make learning about it more amusing.)

Teaching Effectively: High Expectations Part 1

(Note: throughout this piece I talk about academic performance. I want to take the time now to stress that there isn’t anything inherently special about having a high GPA or doing well on a couple tests. It doesn’t signify one’s intelligence (no test can), and it doesn’t mean that one is smarter than someone else...it just means that the person with the higher score will think they’re smarter.)
For my entire life, I’ve benefited from high expectations. For whatever reason, my parents, teachers, professors, friends, and people I’ve worked with have expected me to be above average (at the very least). When I was younger, I let these expectations get to my head. I was overconfident, I had a healthy ego, and I had a very self-centric view on the world. I’d like to think that I’ve changed since then, but experience has taught me that I may not be the best judge.
I bring this up because few kids have access to the same high expectations that I did. I’ve come to realize that these expectations may be one of the few ‘real’ differences between me and some of my high school classmates who might not have performed as well academically.
When I was growing up, I didn’t know how to talk to people. I wasn’t the fastest in the class (either cognitively or physically). I had a decent memory, but tended to over-rely on it. Especially in elementary-school, my grades were about average for my class or maybe a hair or two above. The only thing that might have been different about me was my imagination. I used to spend hours and days at a time killing orcs, fighting stormtroopers, and protecting our farm from all sorts of invaders. Of course, this meant I didn’t spend much time socializing with my peers or working on homework, but it did mean I was happy.
In short, I wasn’t anything special. I wasn’t particularly gifted or motivated. Any academic talent that I developed in high-school wasn’t innate. It was learned because others (first my parents, then my teachers) expected it of me.
Most of the other kids in my class didn’t have those same parental expectations. For them, school wasn’t something you were supposed to excel in. Just something you were supposed to get through. For some, school wasn’t even something you were supposed to do well in. We had a couple of kids in my class who went through our school’s special education program. At first (when we were in third and fourth grade), they were just the kids who got ice cream occasionally when they would leave the room. Then, as we got older, we began to notice that they received different assignments than the rest of us. They were easier. Not as complicated or as time consuming. Then, when we got to high school, we noticed that they didn’t know as much as we did. They didn’t seem to pick things up as quickly either. Of course, some of us thought we were clever and made the connection that we were smarter than them. They were the slower kids who needed extra help. None of us ever said anything out loud - that would have been mean - but most of us thought it on some level.

Some of these kids had been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. Others may have performed especially poorly on standardized tests. A couple may have just had trouble making connections in an academic setting. Whatever the reason, these kids were separated from the rest of us and given different assignments with different expectations. And, being the humans that they were, they rose to meet those expectations. They all graduated, and I have no doubt that our school’s special ed teachers were proud of all of their performances.

Teaching Effectively: High Expectations Part 2

(Note: throughout this piece I talk about academic performance. I want to take the time now to stress that there isn’t anything inherently special about having a high GPA or doing well on a couple tests. It doesn’t signify one’s intelligence (no test can), and it doesn’t mean that one is smarter than someone else...it just means that the person with the higher score will think they’re smarter.)
About an hour ago, I was walking from my apartment to campus, pondering the topic for the next blog post. For a fall day, it’s fairly warm outside. The leaves are turning. I’m wearing shorts as I type this. My Educational Psychology class has a test tomorrow, so I had just finished a little studying while I had been eating lunch.
One of the topics that comes up consistently in Educational Psychology is teacher expectations for students. There are any number of things that can change teacher expectation: race, grades, posture, and, of course, whether a student happens to be in a special ed program. There have been a number of studies that have shown that teacher expectation has an incredible impact on how well students perform. It’s even so well documented that it has a name: the pygmalion effect. In essence, this fancy name (that’s probably named after a dead, white man) means what I’ve been trying to show for the last two pages: kids (and the rest of us) rise to the expectation level that people have and sometimes these expectations become internalized.
When this happens, kids expect more of themselves, so they try harder and apply themselves more. In my case, I learned how to study, and I started paying more attention in class once it became clear that everyone seemed to expect me to be academically successful. Eventually, I started to expect it of myself.
As I was walking, I was thinking about all this, and I asked myself the question:
“If this is true, then shouldn’t every student have the same high expectations? Should I have expected the same academic performance from both myself and James?” - One of the kids who had been in special ed in my high school. -
My immediate answer was, “Of course not; it wouldn’t have been fair to have held him to the same standard. He would probably have struggled and may have eventually shut down. It just wouldn’t have been fair.”  
“Okay, well what about Jason and Jonathan?” - Who had had the highest and third highest GPA’s respectively. -
“Of course. We took all the same classes. None of us could have gotten through pre-calc without the other two. ”
“What about Gavin?” - Another one of my classmates who had never needed any special ed help. -  
“Yeah, it would have been fair to expect the same of us.”
“What about Jason and Allison? Should they have had the same expectations?”
“Of course.”
“What about Allison and Cody?” - Cody had also been though the special ed program. Allison hadn’t.-
“Well... Oh, I see where you’re going.”
Completely unconsciously, I had assumed that the special ed kids from my high school couldn’t handle the same expectations that the rest of us could. I knew that each of us were always going to have different levels of success (few students ever have the exact same GPA), but for whatever reason, the kids in the special ed program needed to have training wheels when the rest of us didn’t.   
I thought this because the special ed kids had always had training wheels. They had always received extra help or easier assignments, and almost all of them genuinely believed that they couldn’t handle the material the same way the rest of us could. And, they had good reason to believe that. Whenever they were in the classroom with the rest of us, they were always behind because we had covered the material faster than they had. They saw that the rest of us seemed to know so much more than they, so they assumed it was because we were smarter. They assumed it was because they needed the extra help they were constantly being given. Through the years, whatever small difference there had been in cognitive ability between us and them blossomed into a gulf that could only be bridged by the extra help they had always been given. By labeling them as “special ed,” they became special ed.
The implications for this line of thought are tremendous. Special ed programs exist in almost every school, and billions of dollars are spent on them. They’re seen as an integral part of education in many circles and many teachers have the exact same unconscious thought I had earlier today, “It simply wouldn’t be fair for them. They couldn’t handle it.”
Now, I don’t think we should get rid of the extra support that special ed students get. That would only make the problem worse. Instead, I think we should normalize the help those students get so that the resources are available for everyone. Some college professors do this in their classes. They require everyone to come to office hours at least once or twice in the semester. This makes seeking additional help part of the class, which makes the associated stigma disappear. In an elementary through high school setting, this could be used as a tool to keep everyone in the same class. Require every student to go to the ‘Extra Help’ center a couple times a month during study hall and don’t separate the class while teaching.  
We should also avoid labeling students as much as possible. One of the special ed kids in my high school would often use his ADD as a crutch (at least in my opinion). Whenever we were partners on a project, he would often give up fairly quickly when I tried to walk him through the problem. He would occasionally say things like, “Don’t you remember? I have ADD.” and “I can’t do this.” Because of the belief that his ADD needed help, he seemed to have lost the ability to problem solve without their assistance.   
 These ideas to fix the special ed program may sound well and good, but (now that I think about it), there’s a very good reason why they haven’t been implemented yet. School funding has been on the chopping block for legislatures at all levels of government for a long time. If schools had the money to hire more ‘Extra Helpers,’ I’m sure they would love to. The various labeling techniques used may just be a cost effective way of picking out the kids who need the most help. Schools may or may not realize the effect class separation has on student psychology. If they do, they may have decided that the alternatives (slowing down classes or using more primary teacher time to explain concepts) were too much of a burden to put on classes who needed to move quickly in order to be fully prepared to take the next standardized test.      

But, regardless of school’s reasons for why special ed programs are the way they are, we should always keep in mind the experiences and confidence level of the kids in those programs. Because it’s their lives we’re changing.