Asking the Right Questions

According to Hal Gregersen, author of The Innovator’s DNA, the only way to solve the problems of the future is to “build a capacity in ourselves and the people around us to ask the right question”. He argues that innovators excel in asking the right questions, and know “how to create a space and environment around them that let the new right question surface and emerge to take them down a completely different path.” They also know how to teach that inquisitive mindset to others. He also warns of having a “right” answer to the wrong question. We must learn how to ask the right questions, training our minds to search after the right question to ask in the right context.

Michael “Vsauce” Stevens at TEDxVienna inspires us to be constantly asking “why” and not be afraid to ask the absurd questions, to really dig deep into the reasons behind things, to have that natural curiosity for the world we live in. 

In reflection, I’m struggling to get my mind around a few things: firstly, how to have that mindset to even start wanting to ask the right questions, and secondly, how to actually ask those right questions at the right time.

How to have that mindset to even start wanting to ask the right questions

It helps to have an incentive. In my case it’s entering a new role at work where I’m required to ask questions as a strategy for helping improve the outcome of a project. Incentives give you the initial push to start thinking of how to start formulating the questions you need to ask. But there is something deeper that must go on. One needs to realize that asking of questions will actually help initiate a potential healthy and rich discussion that may lead to improving a system, allowing a project to succeed or helping another colleague overcome a difficult problem. Knowing that you will make a difference in the outcome directly because of the well-formulated questions you pose is really the mindset you need to have.

How to actually ask those right questions at the right time

 This is probably the most difficult one for me. I am a slow processor by nature so things will pass me by in the moment, and I will later on reflect on that moment and be able to formulate an appropriate question to ask, but the meeting will be over! So there must be a way anticipating discussion topics, formulating questions beforehand and being present in the meeting enough to know when to ask your question at the appropriate time. So perhaps steps will look like this (in the context of needing to ask the right in a project meeting):

  1. Understanding everything there is to know about the proposed meeting agenda and specific discussion topics
  2. Invest focused time in formulating a list of questions to ask
  3. Come to the meeting prepared to ask the question at the right point in the discussion

The only problem is that step 2 needs to be unpacked.

How to invest focused time in formulating a list of questions

This would involve brainstorming, mindmaps, process flows, visual diagrams — anything that will stimulate you to generate creative ideas. Perhaps using the Six Thinking Hats will help divide up the questioning into the categories of managing, information, emotions, discernment, optimistic response and creativity.

Another need is to formulate what you in your role are trying to steer the project team into looking at, conceptualizing, rethinking and ultimately deciding on. A clearly defined goal for what you want to achieve in the meeting needs to be clear to you, and then working backwards from that goal, formulate questions that will generate discussion towards that goal.

It would be too ambitious to think of your “right” question always guaranteeing you the ability to change other peoples’ minds. But there is still power in “putting a rock” in the shoe of another person. That is, your question can spark a thought process in the minds of the listener that they will later go away and mull over. It may irritate them like a rock in their shoe, and they will eventually want to take it out, look at it seriously, and consider addressing that question. That could very well create a “change” moment in that person where they decide on reconsidering their original response.

 

The bottom line

It will take work for you to formulate that right question, and to be present, prepared and ready to ask that question at the right time to the right people. It will take the work of formulating a number of questions around a topic in order to achieve a specific goal, and then whittling down those questions to maybe one or two really good ones. You will need as much information about the topic you are asking the question about in order to formulate the best response.

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Flow in STEM Education

 

The concept of flow, a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is also known as “the zone” and is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (Flow in Wikipedia). It is this idea of “being in the zone”, being completely focused on a task, being totally motivated to do a specific task in a concentrated way. When someone is in a state of flow, they have managed to put their emotions completely in service of an activity such as performing or learning. When one is in flow, they enjoy doing that they are doing, they have a sense of losing track of time (Luxenburg 2011).

flowLuxenburg, in his video “The Flow Experience in Education I”, explains the following diagram based on Csíkszentmihályi).  Luxenburg states that flow is the perfect balance between how difficult an activity is and the skill level of the student. If the challenge level is too high and the skill level low, then anxiety occurs on the part of the student. However, if the challenge level is too low and the skill level high in the student, boredom occurs. So the idea for instructors is to constantly strive to achieve that balance of maintaining challenge level and skill level to achieve flow.

anxiety_arousalAnother interesting diagram shown by Luxemburg is the same diagram (also based on Csíkszentmihályi 1990) but with a more granular detailing of emotional/psychological state. Luxemburg basically summarizes the goal of video games as achieving for the player a constant state of arousal leading to flow leading to control and back again. As the player goes up the levels in a game, they are constantly pulled back into a state of arousal which eventually leads to flow which settles down to control.

I am fascinated by this idea of flow because it relates to me personally first and foremost as in how it applies to the creative process of music making. I have often experienced the state of flow and this timeless focus on creating music in my early years as a music composer in high school and later in university. More recently, and more closely related to education, I see how flow applies directly to the ways in which students in our Robotics classes engage with the activities, the programming and the building of robots. It really helps to break down the lessons in terms of challenge level and skill level, so I will spend the rest of the journal breaking this down, so applying flow to the planning and implementation of STEM activities for elementary school students. I’m thinking that especially the two diagrams of Csíkszentmihályi will be very helpful in understanding where students are at in their motivation and engagement with the materials, and how to improve their state of “flow” in the course.

Flow in STEM Robotics? 

Students in the STEM  Robotics program enter with a very low skill level in general (except for the occasional robotics fanatics or returning students who have already been exposed to robotics). They have no experience with the building materials, no experience with programming and some have very little experience even controlling a trackpad on a laptop. The challenge level is also a little beyond what they are familiar with, because they simply haven’t seen these products and software before.

Challenge levels are adjusted according to age and grade level. Students in kindergarten to grade 2 are given an easier set of building bricks, sensors and motors to use, as well as a simple programming block interface on the computer, whereas the Grades 3-8 students are given an interface which can in fact be used all the way up to university. The higher group of students are given a challenge level appropriate for their age but not so challenging as to cause anxiety, but not so simple as to cause boredom.

The trick is to catch students in this state of flow. It would look like students being so engaged in their problem solving, their set of tasks or the building of their robot, that they’ve lost all sense of time and in fact don’t want to leave when it’s time to go. They would be fully engaged without the instructors ever having to tell them what to do or to be on task. They will go from arousal (excited about the project they are about to do), to flow to control over what they are doing. At that point ideally the class would end and they would move on in the next class to yet a new, slightly harder challenge that will arouse their interest sufficiently.

Flow – Between Anxiety and Boredom

The research I have done on flow definitely leads me to be much more conscious of observing flow, anxiety, boredom, even arousal and control, in the students I teach. Particularly, I want to try to be much more intentional about guiding students into that state of flow, balancing challenge level with skill level. I imagine this would be hard with students with varying levels of skill. Perhaps grouping similarly skilled students together will allow me to move those students forward to that appropriate challenge level so they can achieve flow based on their skill level.

Arousing student interest in new projects would be key to maintaining that video-game like cycle of constantly gripping students’ attention with new and interesting challenges. This goal would significantly shape future curricular planning for upcoming courses, in that I will start intentionally planning for achieving flow through successively more difficult tasks. As students get more skilled at particular programming and building features, I need to be constantly challenging to push themselves further to improve their skill level. If I were to design a series of robotic missions that students have to complete, then those missions would have to be successively more challenging and would need to prompt students to use a variety of increasingly more developed skills.

I am excited about observing, encouraging and planning for flow in my students because I believe that ultimately students will be much more excited about the program, engage more deeply in the tasks and are so focused on play that they are not aware of what is going on around them (Luxenburg 2011).

 

References

Csikszentmihályi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.

Luxenburg, Avi. (2011). The Flow Experience in Education I. Retrieved from YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gffdtI6tWHs on November 22, 2015.

Wikipedia. Flow (psychology). Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) on November 22, 2015.

Reflections on Gamification, Badging and Scaffolding

Gamification and Scaffolding

At work, we want to start using BadgeOS with LearnDash in WordPress to gamify modules in a co-curricular career development course. The idea is to allow students get earn and collect badges once modules are complete.

The reasoning and research behind this is that gamification “provides visible milestones of the student’s mastery of content in real time” (Kapp 2014). Visible signs of mastery of a specific content can help students see broadly what they’ve accomplished or which content they have already gone through and completed. Gamification can also provide continual, instant feedback to learners on their progress. It serves to “orient the learner to where they are in the instructional process, where they are going, and how much further they have to go until the end” (ibid.)

So students need to “see” their progress, and they need to progress through a series of increasingly more challenging or difficult levels. So the badges that display whenever they pass a specific module add up to display a certain level of competency a student has achieved.

Kapp’s article, “Show the Learner Visible Signs of Their Learning” goes on to talk about scaffolding, the process of “controlling the task elements that initially are beyond the learner’s capacity, so that the student can concentrate on and complete elements within his or her immediate capability” (Kapp 2014). Scaffolding relates to gamification in that the movement a student makes from one level to another with increasing difficulty, requiring them to apply more skill to master that new level is very much like the approach to scaffolding (ibid.).

Putting it in context

The students: First to fourth year undergraduate students at a major university

The program: A career development co-curricular program

The learning technology platform:  WordPress using LearDash and BadgeOS plugins

Duration: 4 years to complete the co-curricular program 

Levels of Mastery: 4 levels, Basic, Intermediate, Advanced, Masters, each level with 5-9 modules per level.

Gamification could be applied in this context to giving students badges in the different levels and modules. Specifically we would give students one badge per module. We would distinguish the badges visually from each other using logos related to the subjects of each module. Users would have a profile panel in which to see their progress in the course and the badges they have accumulated.

Reflections on applying Gamification to this program

It seems that for the career development program, there is definitely a series of steps students need to accomplish to achieve greater mastery of specific skills. In that way gamification could be applied to provide those visible milestones of student progress over progressively harder material. Scaffolding is used in the sense that the beginning levels are much simpler and basic than the higher levels and so students should be able to accomplish most of level 1 on their own initiative.

What this article (Kapp 2014) has brought up for me is the concept of Zone of Proximal development, which is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Kapp 2014 quoting Vygotsky, 1978). It would be an interesting exercise to see which activities students can do independently and which activities would need, in this case, career development professionals to monitor and guide the student in a more hands on way.

References: 

Kapp, Karl. (2014). Show the Learner Visible Signs of Their Learning. Available at: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/gamification-shows-learner-visible-signs-learning/

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Guiding Principles for Creativity and Critical Thinking Applied to LEGO® Education STEM Programs

The Education World Forum blog article entitled “Creative learning and teaching for the 21st century” outlines 7 very helpful guiding principles for “making teaching productive and learning effective.” The gist of the article advocates that “a hands-on, minds-on approach can help students actively take ownership of their learning process and develop 21st-century skills” including collaboration, creativity and critical thinking skills. There is a picture of two children playing with LEGO products behind a LEGO® Education logo. (Note: This statement sounds remarkably like the official LEGO® Education line on their website which states “LEGO® Education believes a hands-on, minds-on approach helps students actively take ownership of the learning process and develop 21st-century skills such as creative thinking and problem solving.”)

Rather than getting into a discussion about who sponsored the Education World Forum blog article (which has no author), I will instead apply the 7 guiding principles to evaluate my personal experience with and the learning effectiveness of the STEM Education courses I have been volunteering to instruct robotics with at Daedalos Academy.

Guiding principle #1 – Motivation fuels learning

  • Students doing LEGO® WeDo and Mindstorms robotics are extremely motivated for several reasons: they love LEGO, they’re fascinated with robotics and they get to build stuff. If that was not enough, they also have mission challenges to compete in a Space Exploration themed gamefield. Motivation also comes from the competitive nature of trying to be the first to complete all the missions.

Guiding principle #2 – Hands-on enables understanding 

  • Robotics is of course very hands on, especially if you’re doing it with LEGO. Teams of 2 students have a kit of Technic pieces, including electronic motors and sensors. They then have to build a robot, then program it with a laptop to do various maneuvers. So this guiding principle is definitely checked. Students have all the “opportunities and resources for hands-on exploration and first-hand experience with the learning content”.

Guiding principle #3 – Reflection deepens learning

  • This guiding principle recommends learners engage in reflecting on the hands-on learning experiences they are having. In reflecting on this, I would say students have some opportunity for “micro-reflections” in face-to-face discussion with the instructors, but not enough planned reflection time. This could be done perhaps as a wrap-up activity with the whole class coming together at the end of the lesson for purposeful reflection. Questions like “What did you learn about programming today?” or “What made your robot successful or not in the missions?” would help with students reflecting on what they did in class.

Guiding principle #4 – Mastery enables continuation of learning

  • The idea here is that once learners have “mastered and owned” the knowledge and skills they need to learn, they can then move on to more advanced skills. To some extent this is happening in the Robotics classes when students in the junior levels move on to the more advanced levels. However, it would be hard to quantify mastery or to definitively say students have accomplished all there is to know about, say, the programming skills at their level. Also the next level up in the robotics system (at least for LEGO Education) requires a much different set of skills not only for building (the pieces are different) but also for the programming (much more advanced logic). I think more work needs to be done better defining the mastery skills required at each level in order for instructors to identify definitive “mastery” of those skills. As well the determination of that mastery needs to be in line with real-world skills needed for the “jobs of the future”, in this case programming/coding, engineering, problem solving design challenges, etc. In this a curriculum addition to enhance this goal would be to add a Scratch component to the junior robotics level. Scratch approximates real coding slightly better than the drag-and-drop modular blocks that LabView provides with the LEGO Education products.

Guiding principle #5 – Playful learning is the natural way to learn

  • Definitely agree with this and this goes back to the engagement piece – students are so involved in “playing” with the LEGO Robotics creations that they forget they are actually learning something. Which is what I love about working with LEGO® Education products. Learning through play is a highly researched topic these days. This approach to learning posits that “through play children can develop social and cognitive skills, mature emotionally, and gain the self-confidence required to engage in new experiences and environments” (Wikipedia article).

Guiding principle #6 – Collaboration enhances learning

  • All students in the STEM Education Robotics program work in teams of at least 2 students each, so there is a natural collaboration that goes on as teams work together to build, program and accomplish specific missions using robots. And there is a natural “social learning” that goes on as teams watch what each other are doing and learn new ideas piggy-backing off of different creative ideas around the classroom.

Guiding principle #7 –Learning is a creative process

  • No mention of  research references to back this statement in the particular article but the idea here is that learning and creativity are “strongly linked.” There is this idea that knowledge is not static, that it changes over time, and the creative process is involved in the creation of new knowledge. How is this being applied as a principle at Daedalos Academy? I think the fact that we have a very iterative process at the core of what the students are doing is a testament to the creative process of learning. That is, students have full freedom to create programs or design robots that have never been created before. That power in itself allows for the formation of new knowledge, as children, through their creativity, come up with new and novel ways to put robotic systems to use, both in play and in solving real world problems (like the amazing First LEGO League Challenge for 2015 – Trash Trek! – all about sustainability and recycling).

The article concludes that with this statement:

Providing this framework for learning can prepare students for future jobs by teaching them how to systematically and creatively meet challenges, constructively adapt to change, and ultimately solve problems together.

It’s exciting to be part of an initiative like Daedalos Academy that has as its vision this very mandate to prepare students for the future careers that haven’t even been invented yet. Getting there will still require a lot of effort and “concerted cultivation” (to use Malcolm Gladwell’s phrase), applying the above principles along with best practices in STEM Education teaching to foster critical and creative thinking in children.

Send-a-problem Infographic for PIDP3250 (Assignment #1)

Choosing of Engagement Strategy:

  • I chose Send-A-Problem from Barkley’s list of SETS (Student Engagement Techniques from Barkley 2009, p 267)
  • The reason I chose this strategy was to apply it to a specific situation in which I work as a volunteer coordinator/facilitator.
  • I was intrigued by the possibility of students generating their own problems rather than having predetermined problems given to them. This would open up the possibility of students taking ownership of the very problems they were trying to solve because they themselves came up with them.
  • I had to customize the strategy quite a bit to remove it from the typical higher-ed student focused classroom into a non-profit volunteer context where instead of students we had ‘participants’ who were there to solve real-life problems that were generated by themselves through initial brainstorming.
  • As I went into the implementation of the technique, I noticed there was a fair amount of flexibility to adapt this SET for the NGO context, especially when Barklay states “Allow students to generate their own list of problems that they would like to see the class solve” (Barklay 2009, p. 270). This fits perfectly into the context I am in, which I believe would enable the participants to be even more motivated and engaged to discuss and come up with solutions to the problem, because those problems would pertain directly to them.

Technical Process:

  • Started by looking over infographic creation tools such as pikochartCanva and Venngage
  • Decided to go with Microsoft Publisher because it allowed for more flexibility although a slightly outdated set of graphics/fonts
  • Converted to .png/.jpeg from pub to get the Infographic effect.
  • Reflecting on this process, I found it much less intimidating than I initially thought from a technical point of view, providing I had the right tools for it (pikochart for example simply didn’t give me enough arrows and curved lines to my liking).

References

Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Decision Making and Problem Solving. In: NCVO—Know How Non-Profits. Accessed on November 1, 2015 from: http://knowhownonprofit.org/people/your-development/professional/problemsolving.

Send-a-Problem Infographic

Creative Commons License
Send-a-problem Infographic by Barish Golland is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Team Concept Maps

Team Concept Map (Barkley’s list of Student Engagement Techniques (2009, p 219)

Synthesis and Creative Thinking

  • Team Concept Maps are a SET within the topic of “Synthesis and Creative Thinking”. My target audience to use this SET was a group of volunteer members of a non-profit organization who needed not only to synthesize, discuss and brainstorm on various topics, but also to come up with creative solutions to problems at hand, so from the face of it I thought this could be the perfect engagement tool to use.
  • Barkley states that creative thinking is “the ability to interweave the familiar with the new in unexpected and stimulating ways (Barkley 2009, p 218, referencing Angelo and Cross 1993, p. 181). Team Concept Maps essentially assist in the creating thinking process. This engagement strategy allows students to take a familiar concept and by a process of mapping out those concepts in the context of team collaboration, students in the group can be stimulated to more creative thinking on the particular topic at hand.
  • Barkley defines synthesis as “the process by which pre-existing ideas, influences, or objects are combined in such a manner as to make a new, unified whole (Barkley 2009, p. 218).

Team Concept Maps SET

The way team concept maps work as an activity is that students collaborate to design graphic organizer to convert complex information into visually meaningful displays. Students draw diagrams that display combined ideas of students ideas and understanding on any given topic. Students would get together and discuss an issue/topic/concept, then visualize what was discussed by drawing out a team concept map, or diagram, of how the concepts/ideas/thoughts are interconnected under one given topic. Students would have to be in groups and have sufficient drawing materials (paper, pens/pencils) to draw out their concept maps. However, online solutions such as Lucidchart.com could also work as it allows for collaborative diagram drawing.

Exampls of Concept Maps

Concept Map

From: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Conceptmap.png (labeled for reuse)

Another concept map using just connecting lines:

2000px-Semantic_Net.svg

 

Application to my context

I can definitely use concept maps in the context of students in a Higher Ed business school where I work. There are many courses in which students must collaborate in groups to do case studies, group projects, assignments or brainstorming sessions to encourage innovative, entrepreneurial ideas. In this context team concept maps would be very helpful in visualizing otherwise complex topics with a lot of interconnected elements. I would definitely encourage professors to use this technique either in face-to-face sessions or in online learning spaces with tools similar to lucidchart. 

References

Barkley, E. F. (2009). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. John Wiley & Sons.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Babwahsingh, Michael. (2012). Putting Visual Thinking to Work. Accessed on November 1, 2015 from: http://michaelbabwahsingh.com/2012/10/16/putting-visual-thinking-to-work/

20 Hours of Practice

9410571063_b0ba4d1cb1_b

from – https://www.flickr.com/photos/sachac/9410571063

Josh Kaufman did a TED Talk and wrote a book on how to learn anything fast in the first 20 hours, exploring learning and habit-building in a novel way, debunking the inaccurate idea of having to take 10,000 hours to learn anything (a concept that was presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers).

He posits that anyone can achieve rapid skill acquisition in the first 20 hours if they keep to the following these four steps (quoted from LifeHacker):

  1. Deconstruct the skill: Break down the parts and find the most important things to practice first.
  2. Self-correct: Use reference materials to learn enough that you know when you make a mistake so you can correct yourself.
  3. Remove barriers to learning: Identify and remove anything that distracts you from focusing on the skill you want to learn.
  4. Practice at least 20 hours.

(see LifeHacker article for full review)

Kaufman’s 20 hour method is very relevant for me in several specific areas:

  • Piano – want to step up my skills and learn advanced jazz techniques, improve speed, learn new songs, chords, harmonies, etc.
  • Spanish – after all my wife is Puerto Rican and after 13 years I still haven’t put my mind to this
  • Golf – I am a very poor amateur and must improve my swing.

Applying Kaufman’s method, I’ll look at just the first focus area in this blog: Piano playing.

  1. Deconstruct the skill: Need to go back to Mark Levine’s Jazz Piano book focusing on skills, as well as David Hildinger’s harmony book (unpublished) going through all keys
  2. Self-correct: watch youTube videos, record myself playing, video myself playing, go back to the Art of Practicing and Effortless Mastery to perfect the technique of practicing in a relaxed, tense-free manner
  3. Remove barriers to learning: Make sure the room I practice in is junk free, Investigate how to play on a real piano.
  4. Practice at least 20 hours – set aside specific time during the week (2-3 hours over the course of 10-12 weeks) where I practice.

Lastly, Josh Kaufman says in his TED Talk that “the major barrier to skill acquisition isn’t intellectual, it’s emotional”. I find myself in the emotional boat of getting discouraged that I haven’t “made it” or been successful in the musical world, that somehow I’ve “failed” or it’s “too late” to practice and go back to the basics. But recognizing that this is just an emotional state that is a huge barrier to what I really want actually really helps – the awareness of that is itself the first step in overcoming that barrier.

I’ll report back on how I’ve been doing, the game is on!