Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Romantic Effort (and Contemplation)

4:30am, alone in the middle of nowhere, below freezing point temperature, pitch-black visibility, loose gravel and 17 kilometers to travel on foot before 7am.  Those were the conditions that I willingly and joyfully endured for the chance to hear my wife’s voice and to say to her “Good morning.  I love you!”

I am a bit of an unconventional romantic and always keen for a realistic but demanding physical challenge.  That was why I found myself shuffling along at a slow jog, following a winding gravel road on a moonless morning, with only a scattering of faint starlight filtering through the overhead canopy of leaves to guide my way.  I was helping supervise a school camp in the middle of winter and we were staying at the Ngatuhoa Lodge which was over eight kilometers from reliable cell phone reception in the Kaimai ranges of New Zealand’s North Island.

There were a number of aspects of this challenge which I remember clearly
It was really, really dark.  For much of the journey I could see more light from glow worms than from the stars above.  With trees growing thick and high, and bending over the one lane loose gravel road, there was not a lot of chance for light to get through even during day time.  There was just enough light for me to be able to make out a narrow path of gravel compressed by the very few vehicles that travel the road.  But not always.  A lot of the time I had to rely on the feel of the gravel through my Nikes to tell me whether I was still in the right position.  Thankfully it was pretty obvious if I was getting closer to the edge of the road.  I did stop once or twice to make sure that I was making the correct decisions about direction as there are more than one intersections for logging trucks out there.

It was really, really quiet.  I was making the only sounds that I could hear.  Crunch, and scatter of gravel.  Fabric of my shirt rubbing against the synthetic material of my backpack.  The steady intake and exhaust of my breath keeping a sort of rhythm with my heart in my ears.  No animal sounds, and not even wind rustling trees until I neared the top of the 3 or four hills along the way.  The only other man-made noise was a logging truck that passed me while I was on the phone out at the “main” road where I was talking to my sleepy wife at 6am.  The bugger didn’t even stop to check that I was okay out there in the middle of nowhere.  He probably didn’t see me since I was hunkered down avoiding the chill of the wind.

It was really, really cold.  In one of the pictures I took you can see the frost that had formed on my beanie.  Inside my fingerless gloves I had to keep changing position every few minutes to allow sensation to return to the latest fingers that had gone numb.  My nose was too cold to feel that it was running and too cold to feel more than the general pressure when I wiped it on the back of my glove from time to time.  I stepped in the occasional puddle that had become ice, but thankfully my backpack had enough thermal protection to keep the water in my bottle in liquid form.

I had a few carefully thought out items in my backpack.  Some simple first aid bits (wide strapping tape and pocket knife), some home-made chocolate fudge emergency rations, my water bottle, my phone, a polar fleece jumper, and finally some water proof matches if my memory serves me right.

I remember a lot of my thoughts also.  I was concerned with the time I had available and I didn’t know the distance I had to cover, or how close I was to the main road, until I was within about 300 meters of it.  I kept checking my watch every 10 minutes or so for something to do.  I would occupy myself for part of the time by working out the latest possible time I would have to turn around so that nobody would worry if they got up around 7am and found me still gone.  I had told a few people what I was doing so they would know where to come and find me, but it was a nice little bit of pressure to add to the mix and force me to keep moving when I felt like stopping.  My thoughts were also on Psalm One which I was in the process of studying in order to preach on at church in the near future.  I would recite it over and over, getting into little side-tracks of thought and consideration of the meaning and application of the verses.

What occupied my thoughts the most, and drove me to maintain a good pace on the way out to the gate, was the thought of being able to talk to my wife on the first day that I would not see her since we had gotten married a little over a month ago.  I had to make it out to the gate, an unknown distance, in less than an hour and a half and despite all of these challenging conditions.

A little before 6am, I made it.  I stopped for some water so that I could talk without my dry throat betraying a steady voice, and to put on my polar fleece to keep warm while I waited within the zone of reception.  Then I took out my phone, turned it on, and rang my love.  The phone rang, and rang, and rang again.  Then it was answered... by voicemail!  I was horrified!  I left a suitably loving message for posterity, and then tried again just in case.  This time I heard the sleepy voice of my wife on the other end.  It turned out that she had rejected the call before (by accident) and it had sent me through to voicemail.  Being a little more awake the second time, she answered and was pleased to hear my voice also.  We chatted for a bit, expressing our great love for each other, and then I let her get back to sleep while I took a couple of photos of me at the gate as evidence of my success and then made a start on the journey back to the toasty warm lodge.

The mental side of the journey was most fascinating for me.  I am quite a reflective person, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself in a deep philosophical contemplative mode as I ran.  What was fascinating were the subjects of my thoughts.  While I do a lot of thinking, I don’t really do a lot of thinking about thinking.  Out in the wilderness, and perhaps being newly married, I had turned my thoughts inward a lot more than usual.  I remember observing my own thoughts in a very distinct third person point of view, almost watching them form and run their course in my mind while they took care of themselves.  

I remember deciding that this crazy task I was doing, running through adverse conditions to tell my wife that I loved her, was not so far off a parallel of everything that Christ had done to show his love for his bride, the church.  He lived a perfect life, suffered much pain and eventually death on the cross, leading to resurrection and bodily ascension into heaven, and is now guiding his bride into holiness via the holy spirit.  His acts should inspire us to feel abundant gratitude towards him and to love him and change ourselves to be more pleasing to him as some small way of showing these inspired feelings.  I was hoping to demonstrate my own love for my wife in this, and by that I hoped to inspire her to love me more and to show her love for me more by being grateful that I had gone through this for her.  

Every gift I give and sacrifice I make for my wife should be aimed at inspiring her to be a more godly woman.  In doing so, I will become a more loving husband and a more godly man.  Above all, God will be glorified in our attitudes and intentions as we do this.

So, a few months down the track, the most memorable thing isn’t the cold, it isn’t the dark, it isn’t even the strange contemplative process that took place while I ran.  What I remember the strongest is the sound of my sleepy wife’s voice causing my heart to leap in my chest and the blood rush in my veins for joy as she said, “I love you too, babe.”

May we blokes always be willing to put ourselves through a bit of a hard time for our women.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

100 Questions that you absolutely have to ask!

A call for common sense and a well reasoned life, an attempt at inspiration, an encouragement to develop yourself, a personal challenge, and much more.

  1. Who am I?
  2. What is the purpose for my existence?
  3. Is there a God?
  4. If there is a God, how would I find out about him?
  5. Is religion worthwhile?
  6. When faced with a hard decision, how do I decide?
  7. How should I decide?
  8. Am I a person that other people appreciate?
  9. If yes, then why? If no, then why? (I’m only counting this as one question)
  10. Do others feel physically and emotionally safe around me?
  11. If yes, then why? If no, then why?
  12. Do I get enough exercise to be healthy?
  13. How can I get more exercise?
  14. How can I enjoy exercise more?
  15. How can I enjoy life more?
  16. What stops me from enjoying life?
  17. Am I an active and contributing part of a community? (Community could be family)
  18. How can I be better involved in my community?
  19. How can I help others to have a better life?
  20. Do I listen to other people?
  21. When I listen, am I trying to understand the person or am I putting my own experience into what they are saying too much? (Selfish listening versus empathic listening)
  22. What do I do that is selfish?
  23. What do I do that is selfless?
  24. Do I act in a morally consistent way? (Applying the same standard of rules to myself as others)
  25. Where do my morals come from?
  26. Are my morals fair?
  27. Do I care about justice in the world?
  28. Where does our desire for justice come from?
  29. Am I a positive or negative person?
  30. Am I optimistic? Pessimistic?  Realistic?
  31. Can I take criticism without getting defensive?
  32. Can I give criticism without being offensive?
  33. What is love?
  34. Why do we want to love and be loved?
  35. Why does it take work to love others sometimes?
  36. Why is love so satisfying at times while being so unsatisfying at other times?
  37. Why do we hurt other people?
  38. Why are puppies so cute and cuddly?
  39. Why is the sky blue?
  40. Why are spring blossoms so pretty?
  41. How does the Internet work?
  42. What is my favourite food?
  43. Why do we find things funny?
  44. Why do we laugh at inappropriate things sometimes?
  45. What do I want to do with my life?
  46. When will I die?
  47. What happens when I die?
  48. Am I scared of dying?
  49. How can I deal with the death of loved ones and my own certain death?
  50. Do I think about things enough?
  51. Do I make space to think hard about important things?
  52. Do I distract myself with entertainment too much?
  53. What do I miss out on doing because of entertainment?
  54. Is my entertainment social?
  55. When was the last time that I stepped out of my comfort zone socially?
  56. When was the last time that I took a calculated risk?
  57. Do I trust the media?
  58. If so, how far do I trust the media?
  59. What routines do I adopt unconsciously in my life?
  60. What routines do I rely on for “mental comfort”?
  61. How adaptable am I when my routine is upset?
  62. Do I try and develop my ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations?
  63. Am I aware of potential sources of danger around me?
  64. Am I over or under cautious when trusting other people?
  65. Do I threaten people?
  66. Am I trustworthy?
  67. Do I make promises I can’t keep?
  68. Am I a procrastinator?
  69. Which social/cultural/religious groups do I associate myself with?
  70. Do I feel better being associated with a group or being identified as an individual?
  71. Do I show much creative talent?
  72. What is creativity?
  73. Am I a good learner?
  74. Am I a good teacher?
  75. Is there a difference between teaching and learning?
  76. Am I good at helping or serving others?
  77. Is it worth giving to charity?
  78. Do I care about money?
  79. Should people care about money?
  80. How much money is “enough”?
  81. How much pain/sadness must I know to be able to appreciate joy/happiness?
  82. If God exists, does he want me to be happy?
  83. If God exists, is he happy?
  84. Could I learn another language if I tried?
  85. Am I a shy person?
  86. Do I think that war is an appropriate way of dealing with conflict?
  87. How can I know if global warming is really happening?
  88. What does “sustainable living” mean?
  89. Who should be my role models and heroes?
  90. Am I any one's hero?
  91. What makes a person worthy of being a hero?
  92. Do people ever follow the wrong person?
  93. Should I feel bad if I make a mistake?
  94. Am I capable of choosing based on rational/logical thought even if my emotions/feelings make me want to choose something else?
  95. Is there ever a time when someone should go with their emotions instead of the logic?
  96. When is it okay to be afraid?
  97. How would I bring up kids in an ideal world?
  98. Is a mortgage worth getting?
  99. Should I have a second helping?
  100. What other questions do I need to ask myself?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

7 Ways [Video] Games Reward the Brain

I wanted some ideas to apply to my classroom to make it a less stressful and more satisfying place to learn for my students and I.  So, in need of an inspirational kick of energy, I turned to www.TED.com to track down something of interest to revive my brain.  While I wasn’t exactly captured by the blurb for this talk, instead taking a bit of a gamble on the possible productiveness of these 15 minutes, I found myself getting quite excited about how to use these seven ideas in my class.  I think I will experiment with them during the end of this year to see what I can take forward for my teaching practice.

The essence of this talk (by Tom Chatfield) is that we can learn from video games about motivation. He highlights 7 main ways.  Below are the 7 ways and some of my ideas relating to them.  The video is also embedded at the end for your convenience.

1. Experience bars measuring progress
It is highly motivating to players to see their energy or experience bars increasing.  In my class I could have something like this for each student on the front of their book to display their their current level of experience.  I would colour in their level where I think they are at in their understanding of a particular concept and I would colour a different bar to show the amount of time and effort they have put in towards building their level.  Perhaps I could have a series of bars (and effort bars) for a range of skills and abilities including key competencies, tidiness, project progress, and others.

2. Multiple long and short term aims (parallel aims but not too hard and not too easy)
Giving a range of tasks to players helps them engage by allowing them to choose what they feel like doing at a particular time.  Some of the long term goals will likely ensure that players complete even the things they don’t want to do, but if there are multiple ways to accomplish something, then even the perception of being able to choose a personal favourite is motivating.  In my classroom I would offer a range of methods for task completion, and goals could be closely tied with progress bars, e.g. reach the green zone for progress in team-work.  I can also tailor tasks to student ability by having open ended tasks with certain limitations for advanced students to test them.  This is similar to the differentiated learning model.  Short term goals would be crafted to give a sense of accomplishment in each class and also for long term project completion or preparation for exams/assessments.

3. Reward effort (every little bit counts in a video game)
This is self explanatory.  You do something worthwhile and you get a reward.  Rewards can be used to train positive behaviour in the simplest form of learning and can be anything from lollies to verbal praise.  Different rewards will work for different learners but the key is to ensure rewards are not given so long after the positive action that they are not emotionally linked to the action being rewarded.  Especially in today’s world of instant gratification, rewards need to be immediate for good work.  Perhaps over the long term a system can be devised to gradually delay gratification to teach learners how to build a vision for the future.

4. Rapid, frequent, clear feedback (must be able to link consequences to actions very fast)
As mentioned above, but feedback must be meaningful and understandable in order to work towards motivating students and players alike.  In a game you might get eaten by a monster for not using the correct technique or the correct piece of information.  In the classroom you might get the wrong connection to an electrical circuit or use the wrong component and the project fails to work.  As far as the role of the teacher, I need to be constantly giving feedback in the form of advice or support.  If I can design student tasks to be run by the students themselves I will be able to focus on going from student to student to offer suggestions.

5. An element of uncertainty (uncertain rewards 25%) enough to want to find out what happens if...
In the gaming world, your rewards are varied, e.g. opening treasure chests to gain money or weapons.  There must always be some sort of reward, but the reward could be your bread and butter gold for 75% of the time with 25% scoring a special prize.  Once in a blue moon a super special object is in the chest that can give you a super power (or something equivalent).  This keeps things really exciting as you always have a chance of getting something a little bit special, though if everyone is getting the special reward all of the time then it becomes less special and less of a motivator to open chests.  In the classroom the varied rewards could be lollies, extra-special rewards could be cans of fizzy, and super special rewards are ice-cream during lunch for a week.  Maybe that’s not too realistic but teachers can use praise to varying degrees, or a special seat in the class for the best effort, stamps, stickers, hi-fives, and many other rewards for students accomplishing the basics of every lesson.  If we reward the basics then it is easier to get the students to try something a little more than the basic also.

6. Windows of enhanced attention (risk taking potential the most, best time for memory to be used)
The difference between games and the classroom is that students can choose to play games.  All that we can do, when they are effectively forced to be in our class, is make it as comfortable as possible for them to emotionally engage and take risks with their learning. We must create the windows of opportunity where their memory will operate the best in order to retain information, and where they are emotionally safe and willing to push themselves to receive potential rewards for their risk.  Students will not risk if the window is closed and we can’t make them learn by throwing them through without taking the time to open it!

7. Other people/peers/collaboration is the best reward.  
In video games, players team up to help one another and come up with ways to make this help fair on everyone.  Those players who abuse the help of others are shunned.  This points to our natural desire to want to fit in and to be a part of a community to some degree.  We can tap into this as a reward for motivating students in class.  Creating a positive and exciting class culture of collaboration that everyone can feel a valued part of will see engagement levels shoot through the roof.

So there you have it.  Seven ways that we can learn to engage students from observing them with video games.  Businesses and governments would do well to take these ideas into their policy making to make us enjoy and engage with their efforts.  For now, I will look at how I can improve my own experience bar by teaching students how to make their own ones!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Learning Knowledge vs. Learning to Learn (and the four R’s of a powerful learner)

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime - Chinese proverb

Educators can wear themselves out trying to cram all of the answers into the heads of their students before the final exam.  But what happens after the exam?  Will these same students be prepared enough to be fed (educationally speaking) for a lifetime?  As a teacher it is easy to focus on the fish, solving the immediate problem, and leaving the students to learn to fish almost by accident.  Some students have enough initiative to watch someone and then learn from their observation, but this is the exception, not the rule.  

We teachers need to consciously make an effort to teach our students how to learn powerfully for themselves.  This will empower our students so that they gain confidence and enjoyment from their self-driven learning success.  

As if personal happiness in our students wasn’t enough, there is also the very real potential to become active contributors in their families and communities as they become less of a drain on the communal resources.  Instead they will be able to produce solutions to their own problems and create enough surplus to share with others.

Following is a list and brief description of the four R’s of a powerful learner.  Educators should seek to model these four R’s and to actively teach them to their students.  These are not new, but I credit Guy Claxton for bringing them to my attention via his books and hearing him speak last week.  It’s great when someone is able to put into eloquent words what we struggle to communicate and even form in our own minds.

The Four R’s of a Powerful Learner
Resilient - emotional strength
Someone who is resilient is inquisitive and curious, they persist in trying to complete a task of master an idea, they are adventurous, and they are focused enough not to become distracted from completing things.

Resourceful - cognitive capability
Someone who is a resourceful learner is imaginative and creative, good at connecting ideas and noticing patterns, they seek to improve and refine ideas and skills, and they make good use of resources such as tools and materials.

Reflective - strategic awareness
A reflective learner is methodical, good at evaluating themselves and ideas honestly, they are self-aware enough to know their own strengths, and they can transfer ideas to new situations.

Relate - social sophistication
A learner who can relate will be collaborative in the learning process or in task completion, they are open minded about ideas and feedback, they are independent enough to back their own ideas, and they have a degree of empathy so that they can understand others.