Destiny’s Child

 

One facet of human nature that fascinates me is the idea of destiny.  Now when I say destiny here I don’t mean like some blockbuster movie in which I am destined to save the princess, fulfill the prophecy and become the most benevolent leader of mankind.  I am talking about something more fundamental than that.  What some people might refer to as “a calling”.  And maybe not even in the sense of a career only, but rather one’s passions, one’s nature.  It is not too surprising that I am reflecting on that, because as I watch my son, I wonder what he’s going to be like.  What will his interests be?  How will he want to live his life and how different will that be from me or his mother?

The nurturing influence of parents cannot be overlooked, but we’ve all known people who were vastly different from their parents in some very fundamental ways.  Two parents might be very messy and their child is neat.  Two parents might be teachers, and their child wants to run his own business.  Of course trying to determine why somebody ends up the way they do is a fool’s errand in a lot of ways, because nurture is not just a function of parents, but of teachers, friends, relatives, society, etc.  It could be that one day a kid sees a fancy car that he just loves and says to himself, alright how do I get a job that allows me to drive around with that.  Perhaps not the most noble of callings, but he we like shiny things that enhance our status and so these kinds of things certainly happen.

For most of my life I thought I had a calling to be a meteorologist.  I’ve loved storms since I was a small child.  I would get up in the middle of the night to watch the lightning.  In grade 6 we learned about different clouds and how they could tell us about the weather that was coming our way.  I was fascinated by this and remember feeling hooked by it.  I wanted to learn more about clouds and forecasting.  In grade 8 our science class was a full year and broken up into 3 parts:

From http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov

astronomy, meteorology, and geology.  I loved all 3 of those and at the time they had us thinking about careers, but I was already hooked on meteorology and I decided then that I was going to be a meteorologist.  During my undergraduate I decided that being a forecaster wasn’t for me and wanted to teach it so I went to grad school and I loved it and don’t regret a second of it.  At the end of my undergraduate I took a linguistics course and I loved it.  At that time I questioned my career decision a little, but it was my last year of undergrad and it seemed too late to do anything else, and what did it matter, I still loved the weather.  I do think that I would be just as happy if I had chosen linguistics as a career had I been introduced to it earlier in life.  Now my interests lie in cognitive science and neuroscience.  I could definitely see myself being a researcher, or even a clinical psychologist because I am deeply interested in understanding others and our nature, and feel I have some aptitude in understanding the motivations of others.

Despite these ponderings on alternative careers, I still don’t have any regrets.  I enjoy my job, and perhaps being a professor is the reason I have had time to pursue these other passions.  But it has led me to some questions about this idea that I was somehow “destined” to be in the atmospheric sciences.   Would I still have become what I became had I not lived in a climate that did not have thunderstorms?  What if our curriculum in grade 6 did not include learning about clouds?  What if the grade 8 science curriculum didn’t have meteorology which helped me appreciate the subject at a greater depth and attract me to it even more?  What if I had a mother who was afraid of storms and that made me afraid of storms?  Yet my choice to go into meteorology seems beyond these things.  We had lots of subjects in school and with some good teachers.  Why didn’t any of those subjects arouse a passion in me?  My parents were not scientists, teachers, historians, writers, etc. and it seems that they didn’t influence me in any particular academic field so I could have chosen anything.  In terms of time, we spent more time learning about many other subjects than meteorology.  There are rocks everywhere and I had been to the Rockies, so why didn’t I go into geology?  I loved watching nature shows so why didn’t I become a biologist?  Why did I feel I had a “calling” when I meet so many students who aren’t even sure what they want to do?  Is this a rare feeling? Or do other people feel it and just ignore it?

From http://www.zoriah.net

I don’t know that I have an answer to any of these questions, but what I do know is that I was very fortunate.  I’ve seen many students with a passion for meteorology but very weak quantitative skills, having weaknesses in math and physics that forced them to take a different career path even if their interest remains.  I do not have that problem. I am fortunate by circumstances having parents who worked hard for me to give me a chance to pursue my passions.  I wonder how many people feel this “calling” towards science, the arts, humanities, history, education, etc., but simply must take a job as soon as possible to support a family.  Maybe they can’t afford to go to school and don’t want to take out student loans.  Some people might argue that their “calling” is perhaps not that strong to drive them, but there are practical realities that must be adhered to and when basic needs must be met they simply must be taken care of first.  Somewhere there are people who could have been brilliant athletes with enough training and leisure time, but instead had to work in a factory to support their family.  How many geniuses have simply died of starvation?  How many talented artists have died of curable diseases simply because they couldn’t afford a doctor or the vaccine that would have save their life, or a doctor or vaccine simply wasn’t available?

In the end I don’t think I subscribe to this idea of destiny, because whatever natural passions we have, they must be cultivated, and even those passions may fade slightly as new ones take their place.   In the end I can only be thankful for the natural gifts I seem to possess and the family, friends, and society that has allowed me to develop them.

 

 

 

 

 

Teacher Teacher, Can You Teach Me?

As an educator, naturally I think a lot about education (now if you liked that riveting beginning please read on).  Over my years as a professor we hear a lot of about better methods to educate.  A lot of fancy phrases get thrown around like problem based learning, inquiry learning, student centered pedagogy, etc.  Rather than discuss the merits of these techniques and whether or not they are better than the “chalk and talk” style of teaching (another exciting catch phrase) I want to take a look at things from a more fundamental and philosophical level as is often my nature.

Let’s first forget about the fact that there are multiple learning styles amongst people and that the way we learn also changes as we grow in age.  What I mainly want to talk about has to do with knowledge, learning, and critical thinking and we may return to some more specific stuff later, I really can’t be sure, because I haven’t decided what the point is to this blog. 🙂

So how much knowledge is there in the world?  Before we quibble about what knowledge is, or whether we can truly “know” anything, let’s just sort of look at it from a somewhat quantitative point of view.  It seems clear to me that if you take any field of study we simply know more today than we did yesterday.  Every day we are discovering new things.  So we have a lot more to learn or that we can learn today than in the past.  Yes there are always things that we are going to be a little unsure about or that we are on the leading edge of discovery and so haven’t solidified our views yet, but each day we move a lot of things into “okay we know this” category and out of the “unsure” category.  Truthfully speaking every day we probably do the reverse as well, but I would say there is a net movement towards “knowing” something new all the time.

It is also clear, as we look at education (and I am speaking mostly about North America) that critical thinking skills are low.  I am a huge proponent of encouraging better critical thinking skills in children.  In fact children already have great critical thinking skills, it’s just that the education system eventually drives it out of them.  Perhaps due to the fact that kids are often wrong in the conclusions they make (which by the way is amazingly okay because we should be encouraging the process and I think instead we tend to shut the process down in favor of the “right” answer, and perhaps because education as an institution promotes rote memorization over critical thinking.  Not to give rote memorization a completely bad rap, because I think there always has to be a place for being able to memorize things).

So to go back to my point

From http://www.northwestprimetime.com

about knowledge, there is a lot of things to know and even under the banner of better critical thinking skills it is, in my opinion, extremely wasteful to have young children rediscover everything we know in this world.  I also think this is okay because kids are extremely good at memorizing things so why not let those sponges soak up some basic knowledge?  Some very thought provoking researchers on education like Sugata Mitra would argue that in the age of information memorization of information is not necessary, that anybody can simply look up the information they need.  Given the amount of misinformation out there in cyberspace I think at the very least a basic set of knowledge is required to at least help students from sorting out bad information from good.  And as the picture indicates, memory is an important part of the processor that is our brain.  We need to have some stuff in there.

But young children are good at a lot of things and there are certain ages where they are exceptionally good at certain things such as learning languages, learning mathematics, and rote memorization.   I gave a talk one time to a bunch of 2nd graders on tornado safety and there was not a single student who didn’t have a question and who was curious.  At that point I began to wonder, how do we go from this child thirsty for knowledge to the typical apathetic college student I see in my class? The next question then becomes why don’t we take advantage of what we know about how kids learn and when they learn best?  In answer to that question I have only opinions so please forgive me if I’m grossly mistaken, but I think it comes down to several things:

  • A pace of learning that is too slow. Children become bored and their active minds turn to other things.   The rate in which knowledge is expected to be absorbed by a student actually increases with time which is exactly the opposite order it should be. I’ve heard the argument that young children shouldn’t have to work so hard at school at younger ages that they should play more. My experience in watching young children learn is that play and learning aren’t really that different. And I think there are ways to even make the learning more interactive socially for those who might worry about a loss of social skills as they spend more time learning.
  • A lack of funding for schools and low pay in general for educators. I know, another educator complaining about funding, but the emphasis a society places on good education is important. Giving all schools equity in retaining good teachers, smaller class sizes, and having effective tools for the trade is important. By making teaching a higher paying and attractive career by ensuring they will have the tools they need when they start their career, we can bring in brighter and better teachers. In my experience I have seen far too many students choose teaching (especially in science) because specializing in their chosen interest was too hard. This seems wrong to me. Currently most of the brightest and best go elsewhere because they can make more money, and those that are extremely bright and choose nobility over money (I praise them all!) are often frustrated by a system in which they do not feel supported and actually feel constrained and trapped.  I think the lack of finances is in large part why curriculums become less varied and standardized because they are more easily measurable in making decisions on how to dole out the limited funding that all schools fight for.
  • Homogenizing teaching. The feeling that many teachers have is that they have little freedom in their curriculum or how they teach. Exposing students to a diversity of teaching styles and material increases the value of collaborative efforts among students and helps students understand the teaching style that works best for them. If all students are exactly the same and exposed to exactly the same style of learning it doesn’t surprise me that many students are bored, or don’t see the value of education. It doesn’t surprise me that many students simply see education as a game in which once they figure out the system they can cheat themselves out of actual learning and simply get the grade they need to move forward. Let student’s express their individuality through learning is important, and I think part of that comes from letting teachers express their individuality more through teaching.

I apologize for the length of this post as I find I can never be brief when it comes to talking about education.   I think instead of coming up with ways to make learning fun, let’s remember that for every little kid, learning IS fun.  Let’s figure out instead how to foster that feeling as they grow older.

From http://students.ou.edu