Category Archives: teaching

Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance

In my recent work trip to New York City, I had a chance to visit again the fabled Met Museum. In this latest visit I had an interesting encounter with a mythical fantastic persona: Achala, the Destroyer of Ignorance. I immediately linked him to our current situation, precisely due to Ignorance, in both the Washington shutdown and the Puerto Rican debt crisis. But I also connected it to my first job, being a teacher.

So, in a sense, I am -and all teachers are- destroyers of ignorance. Does it sound like the Avengers?

Painting of Achala the Destroyer of Ignorance.

Achala, Destroyer of Ignorance, with Consort. Nepal 1522. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

However, the interesting stuff doesn’t end here. The legend at the portrait’s side reads:

Crowned, jeweled, and grasping a sword, Achala cuts through the veil of ignorance. His left hand, holding a vajra-tipped noose to catch the ignorant, gestures in admonition. He is locked in sexual embrace with his consort Dveshavajri. The pair visually expresses the bliss of enlightenment that can be achieved by the combination of the right knowledge (prajna, female) and the right method (upaya, male).

It strikes me that we find this dualism -a bit naive, if you will- of a combination of two components: Knowledge and Method as essential pieces to obtain the enlightenment and thus the destruction if ignorance. It is certainly fascinating that the metaphor of the combination is sexual, and the artwork is surely tender and hard at the same time -Achala’s tender embrace with his consort, Dveshavajri, accompanied by his menacing sword-grasping.

Also, it strikes me that this is mythology. And I am working with the myths of teaching, learning and technology in my Zen of Teaching project. Often I have dealt with the myth of knowledge and method. In our schools and universities, it is the imperative dualistic construction of the whole educational infrastructure. Which my hyper-dialectic antennae vibrate about. The myth goes like this:

If we can marry (look how the sexual myth is accompanied by language figures of speech, east meets west!) some good chunks of knowledge with the right pedagogic method, and we embody this process in a teacher within a classroom, then, voila, we produce learning.

I have often said that this easy, simplistic model of teaching and learning is adopted and implemented throughout our educational system. Students are convinced that -by some magic induction- they will have learned the lesson at the end of a class session. Without any active part, without any studying, without any will of it being so, without taking responsibility. Of course, then , if students learn at the end of the lesson, then we can measure -assessment!- their learning at the end of said lesson with a nice 1-minute essay.

I believe reality is a bit more complex. You’ll learn a bit within the class lesson, student, but you’ll learn, really learn -not just remember- only if you spend some scarce resource of yours -time, energy, work- by applying yourself at it. Of course, we all know that informal learning is always working in the background. And it works by immersion. But it is not the main component of an academic education.

Anyhow, the Nepali painting is magnificent, elegant and inspiring.

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Zen of Teaching Interview with Trace Jordan

[NYU, June 2012]

Like with previous interviews, the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado has carefully reviewed the video and summarized its most important points here.

Trace Jordan is a scientist and distinguished professor at New York University (NYU). He is also associate director of the Morse Academic Plan (named after famed inventor of the telegraph and code), NYU’s general education curriculum. For close to the past 15 years, Jordan has been working with the Foundations of Scientific Inquiry aspect of the plan, focusing on a core curriculum in math, science and lab development for the university’s general/liberal arts program. Said program consists of a varied curriculum, including a three part component, with emphasis on quantitative reasoning, natural sciences and life sciences. At the core of this academic plan is the goal of helping non-science students become scientifically literate, to train them to think like scientists, use scientific methods and be able to understand social and ethical  issues of the day.

The classroom of today finds itself at a crossroads, between the classic lecture style used by our teachers and our teacher’s teachers, and the possibilities offered through the integration of tools and technologies that surround us. When dealing with the barrage of media that students are faced with on a daily basis, Jordan believes faculty members are usually divided into three camps. There are those who just don’t deal with it (they choose to accept that students might be texting in class and just ignore things like this), those who completely ban it and the brave few who choose to accept the presence of technology (“it is what it is”) and integrate it as part of the course. Jordan makes emphasis on the importance of having the students be fully present in the classroom, and personally prefers a “lids down”/no cell phone policy during most of his courses (except for taking notes). He suggests that modelling may play an important factor in teaching students the appropriate context for the use of these technologies (who hasn’t seen a professional texting during a meeting or conference?), and that adults should explain etiquette boundaries for things such as texting and surfing the Web.

As an ambassador of sorts for the scientific community in a liberal arts environment, Jordan admits that he has faced certain prejudices towards science from the students. Many students are weary of science, thinking it may be “boring”, “irrelevant” or “hard”. Some are under the impression it’s just about fact memorization and unfortunately, many suffer from “math phobia”. The NYU professor finds it absurd how it can be be seemingly culturally acceptable to basically say “Sorry! I don’t do math!” but in his own words, you can’t say “No! (sorry) I don’t do reading!”.

When asked if he thinks the NYU program is changing preconceptions and opening the minds of students towards science, the professor (who also performs as social director) thinks they are doing a “pretty good job” and that course evaluations have been for the most part positive. Jordan agrees that teachers in the field do have a responsibility to help promote the study of science amongst students.

A potential roadblock to innovation in science education is the adaptability of its faculty. Jordan recognizes this as “a big issue” where the availability of published works don’t even help much. He finds that it’s important to always understand where your average professor is coming from. The professor finds that pioneers in education may have trouble sharing and diffusing helpful ideas, and not due to the invalidity of their methods or theories, but due to sheer lack of awareness from most faculty. When it comes down to it most are overworked and simply too busy, between “teaching, research and grant writing”. Jordan suggests the idea of educational sabbaticals for faculty that is open to furthering their knowledge yet simply lack the time to do so, also dividing the material into “bite sized chunks” in order not to overwhelm.

Above all, in order to progress, Jordan emphasizes the importance of person to person relationships in aiding with cooperation between faculty members. For example, during the interview, Jordan mentioned that, even just “having a beer” with them outside of the work environment can help build these relationships. We each need to take the first step in helping each other and giving a even small amount of your most valuable resource, your time, can have the greatest impact of all.

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Myths of Teaching & Learning: Zen of Teaching Interview at CUNY’s Baruch College!

At last!! After some full 9 months of delay, I’ve nailed down another big important chapter of the Myths project: Myths of teaching, learning and technology. I have really no excuses, except perhaps the superwork I surrendered to after I got our STEMmED II grant approved last fall. So, without further ado, here are a wonderful interview and its videos. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

The following is a summary of a conversation held on June 22nd 2011 at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute of CUNY’s Baruch College in Manhattan. I had the privilege to share this conversation with Mikhail Gershovich (the Institute’s Director), Suzanne Epstein (Deputy Director), Lucas Waltzer (Assistant Director for Educational Technology), Thomas Harbison (Instructional Technologist) and Gulmeene Khan (Coordinator). Tom Harbison captured the meeting on video, which I am publishing here for the first time. Before anything else, I wish to thank all the participants for their interest, help, and for the patience they showed during the months the video has been waiting for this moment. The interview/conversation was held as part of my project on the Myths of Teaching, Learning and Technology which I pursued during my stay at NYU during June of 2011. Unfortunately, classes and administrative functions prevented me from following up the work done during the summer, until the awesome Gabriela Rivera Torrado came along to rescue the transcript work from its dormant state. This is the result of her transcription work, which she then summarized into the following article. We hope we have conveyed all of the ideas expressed faithfully. Unlike some of the other videos utilized for my research, this one has been summarized thoroughly, since it represents more of a focus group conversation, rather than than a “simple” interview. The videos and this article will be also cross-posted within the site, which holds the key to human knowledge, and most importantly, holds (or will hold) the ideas, text and interviews for the book and the whole project. Thanks, everyone!


We are living during a very interesting moment in history, as we now have the power to transform education with the technological resources available to us. Currently, there may be some sort of denial about the changes occurring in technology and their possible applications in the field of education. We need to recognize that we are not using these technological resources to their maximum potential. The time has come to experiment with a wide variety of tools available for education, as these tools may play an important role in the development of new pedagogic tendencies.

The first obstacle that exists is the resistance to experimentation. In many institutions research is well compensated, but teaching is not. Therefore, educators that show interest in experimenting with various teaching methods are usually not compensated for their efforts. We need to promote a freer academic environment with a progressive dynamic, where a faculty’s experimental achievements are recognized. Bernard M. Baruch College, better known as Baruch (of The City University of New York) has developed Blogs@Baruch (B@B) as part of the  “Writing Across the Curriculum” initiative which was active under the auspices of CUNY central since 2000. This program is a wonderful example of how experimentation with technology can be successful. As early as 2006, a group of professors composed of Jim Groom, Mikhail Gershovich, Lucas Waltzer, and Zach Davis began publishing daily blogs on WordPress. Soon after, they began to ask themselves how they could use the blog platform in an academic environment. Starting with the premise that many students showed difficulty with writing, they decided to utilize the blog model in order to provide students with the opportunity to develop their writing skills. Blogs@Baruch was launched in 2008. The “Writing Across the Curriculum” program unites various courses from different faculties with the common goal of helping students get used to writing more about a variety of subjects. It is evident that the more students practice writing, the better they read and write.

The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute managed to establish a website with at least twenty individually installed courses. Further along,  WordPress multiuser was launched, facilitating the integration of a variety of blogs for each faculty. This lengthy process demonstrates that even though the experimental process may be tedious and filled with obstacles, the payoff is more often than not quite favorable. Suzanne Epstein explained to us, that from the institutions point of view, many of the initial ideas they had about integrating blogs into the curriculum, were discarded in the experimental process. It is important to promote reflection within the students and to encourage them to maintain communication with other students and faculty through the blogs. Thanks to the wonderful amount of feedback produced in the blogosphere,  Baruch’s professors have been able to modify their blog system according to their preferences and academic needs.

Another example of technological innovation at Baruch college is the development of their VOCAT tool. VOCAT stands for “Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool”. This tool, developed by Mikhail Gershovich and his team at the Schwartz Communication Institute in collaboration with  Zach Davis’ Cast Iron Coding, allows faculty and students to assess oral presentation videos. VOCAT allows users to assign numeric values to presentation video clips. More than 7,000 students have used the program to evaluate their peers.  Eventually, VOCAT’s creators hope to distribute this tool to other institutions.

It is quite evident that education is changing, not only in the way we learn but also in the way that we teach. Online courses have represented a great advance in education.  Asynchronous education has been around for more than 100 years. Soon after the development of the postal system, distance learning courses were developed, where students received learning material through the mail and later sent home work back.  Online courses are a sort of evolution from that system of learning, and the various advances in teaching that have developed over time are evident. The vital element that holds distance learning together is communication. Thanks to communication technologies, in recent times we have seen an exponential increase in how much we communicate and significant advances in the technology we use to communicate. Nowadays it is possible to have real-time communication online, facilitating the necessary feedback essential to education.

Besides the presence of these advances in technology and the benefits that they provide, in some cases there exists a certain resistance from faculty to integrate themselves into an online curriculum. Some professors tend to be a bit more conservative. These educators have a certain idea of what education is and should be. Mikhail Gershovich brought up the example of a certain professor who, when proposed with the idea of having his students give oral presentations, expressed in frustration:

The way that students learn is sitting down to listen to hour-long lectures, that’s how I learned, that’s how my father learned and that’s how his father learned…

It is evident that these fears and myths about education are alive within many educators. Yet this resistance to technology is not exclusive to the faculty. Many students have shown insecurities about the idea of committing to an online course. In Suzanne Epstein’s opinion, many of the students are focused on getting an education, creating a professional persona and bettering their social and economic situation. Therefore, they may hesitate at the idea of taking an experimental online course. Even though there may be quite a few students that are interested in such a course, she believes that the majority hesitate in considering an online course as a viable option.

One challenging obstacle is fear. Many fear change, this is typical amongst human beings. Many faculty members have expressed certain worries about their privacy in online courses, especially in courses that are open to the general public. There is the issue of what happens in the classroom and how it is exposed to the world. They worry about privacy, copyright and the perceived value of tuition. Many students that pay large amounts of money to take certain courses would not think it is fair to provide these courses free of charge online. All of these elements would change the current profit system for universities, and this causes fear within the administration of these institutions.

It is evident that for many professors, the most important thing is to cover all of the content in a course within a certain amount of time. By having this kind of pressure, the faculty finds itself less inclined to experiment with other methods of teaching. The majority of these conservative professors utilize resources such as Blackboard. This resource provides them with a convenient and easy to use platform where they can organize and share their Power Point presentations. Blackboard is a very useful system for disseminating information to students, but many other innovative alternatives exist.

Even when we recognize the pressure that the faculty has to cover a certain amount of content within a parameter of time, we notice that the results of this style of teaching (with a focus on content) does not produce favorable results. The results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (or PISA), have been quite negative for the US.  We can observe a clear dichotomy between the focus on content and the negative results that the method produces.

We keep thinking in terms of this outdated model that dictates that professors must take all of the knowledge that they have accumulated over years of study and then transmit this content to the students, who are supposed to be sitting in class with open minds, absorbing all of this information. They have a difficult time believing that the students may not absorb about 90% of the material covered in a lecture. Blogs and other technological developments can stimulate us in deciphering another method for measuring content and how it is absorbed by the students. One of the negative aspects of standardized testing is that they only measure what they intend to. In this way, it is difficult to have an idea about erroneous concepts that students may have, unless they are asked about them in the exam. On the other hand, this a positive aspect about blogs, they allow the faculty to observe what the students are doing correctly and what they need help in, in order to correct them.

According to Lucas Waltzer, we are in the midst of profound changes that are occurring in our society, which affect the way that we teach and learn. These changes exist across multiple scales, there are global changes and then there are changes that occur at a personal level. The field of technology is flowering and this creates great opportunities for collaboration between institutions. We are even noticing a change in the students. For example, Mikhail Gershovich expressed how before, the students demonstrated more difficulty as they integrated themselves into online courses. This process would take a few days, while the student registered and became familiarized with the use of the system. Now, we see that, in a certain way, the students live in this digital environment. It is evident that many of them have adapted to the changes and in some cases have exceeded their professors in terms of their confidence level in dealing with new tools, such as WordPress. It is important that we continue to innovate in terms of the resources we use to teach and the methods that we use to evaluate the absorption of knowledge and content. It is important to emphasize that perhaps content is not as important as previously thought. With the use of computers in the classroom, we see an important change in the role of the instructor. Their purpose is not to impart knowledge or information to the student, due to the fact that nowadays students have access to much more information than the professor could possibly know. Their true function should be to create students who ask more questions, and to help them think critically about the world that surrounds them. The role of the modern pedagogue is to guide students in the process of analyzing information.

Many times we encounter people, be they students or professors, young or advanced in years, that show certain difficulty when it comes to adapting to the digital changes that have occurred recently. Lucas Waltzer highlights the fact that there is no such thing as a “digital native”. This concept needs to be discarded because excuses members of the previous generations from the rigors necessary in order to commence utilizing and understanding these tools (such as WordPress). Some individuals postulate that technology makes us less intelligent. They believe that because all the information we seek is available to us at the tip of our fingers, we don’t have the need to learn the same methods of research we were required to learn twenty years ago. For example, nowadays we have mobile phones that save all of our phone numbers, and many of us have lost the mental capacity to memorize a variety of phone numbers, simply because we don’t need to. Now, does that mean that we are less intelligent, or that our intelligence has simply adapted to the world that surrounds us? We still have the capacity to, for example, memorize the periodic table of the elements by utilizing online resources we access through our phones, all while riding a bus to class.

We have a wide variety of tools available that assist us in the moment of educating and learning. If we make the effort to dispel negative myths about the use of technology in education, and we decide to experiment with the available resources, we can develop new methods for disseminating information and measuring academic achievement.