Sunday, January 31, 2016

How can we get students actively engaged in learning? (report from a workshop I attended)

A few days ago I attended a symposium about promoting active learning organized by my university. Here are some of the things I learnt. There is a lot of interest currently in "flipping the classroom". We learnt that a new tool that is available to make flipping the classroom a little easier is Perusall. When you add your PDF to this system, students can annotate it collaboratively and ask questions. You will then be provided with a report, so you can adjust your teaching to the student's questions. With some magical algorithm, the system is also able to grade the quality of the students' comments, although I am a little suspicious of that, I must say.

Luckily there are also quite a few non-electronic ideas to "wake up" your students, which I picked up in a workshop by Jasmijn Bloemert. A good start of a lesson is to ask students what they hope to get out of it, and to write it down. Asking the student to think about their objective directs their attention away from the preceding events and towards the learning that will take place in the classroom. Moreover, it creates a sort of contract that they can go back to, to check whether they are getting out of the class what they want to. Writing things down is helpful because it makes the intentions more real than just holding them in your mind.

Lectures often consist of a lot of dense material. To help the student navigate that, it is often useful to give them a question that they need to find the answer to. In that way, they have a target to keep track of. You can alternatively ask them to come up with question about what they just heard, or simply to compare notes with a fellow classmate.
here I am attending a different workshop on teaching, a few years ago, at the UOGC (University of Groningen Teachers Education Centre)

Frequently students don't speak up for fear of making mistakes. To get them to speak up, you can ask them questions that do not have right or wrong answers, such as "how do you feel about this? Is it positive or negative for you? Another good trick to draw out people's interest is to show them a puzzling picture (or quote, or other type of material) and ask them to guess what it is or what it means. In a similar vein, you could show two "things" (e.g., pictures) on the screen and ask students to find the differences.I guess this will be hard for the course Research Methods that I will soon be teaching, but it may work well for courses that involve more concrete "things."

Teaching the reading of difficult material can also be made more social by asking students to underline the most important sentences of a passage, and then asking them to compare notes on what was underlined, and finally to come up with a summary of the text in one sentence. Doing this really helps you to find the essence of a text. I may try this out with research papers in one class where I read the primary literature with students. It is often difficult for them to draw out the essence of a paper, and this exercise may help them to develop this "helicopter view" of the material.

Finally, there was an interesting method used often in America called "teachers teach." At some random moment in the lecture, the lecturer claps their hands three times, and students have to immediately teach each other what they just heard. It is a very high energy method, but kind of fun, and encourages students to think on their feet (if they are willing to do it, of course). Altogether, I acquired some fun ideas in this workshop. I will definitely try out some of these in my upcoming classes.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A cross-cultural collaborative study of monastic debate (aka my India adventure)

Last December I got on the plane with an exciting destination: Bylakuppe, India. It was probably the most mind-blowing journey I have made for work thus far. The primary goal of this journey was to collect pilot data for a research project on debating practices engaged in by TIbetan Buddhist monks. For those who have ever watched debate, it is quite a spectacle (see for example here). When my collaborators (David Fresco, Marcel Bonn-Miller, and Josh Pollock) and I left, we knew very little about debate (except for having read parts of this phenomenal book by Georges Dreyfus), and our objective was to learn as much as we could and collect pilot data for future studies.
picture by David Fresco

What made our study so unique is that--inspired by our work with Science for Monks last year, we wanted to make the research really a two-way street. We went to learn about debate, but also to teach our monastic collaborators about how to conduct science. To accomplish this, we had a meeting every evening with the monastics, and chatted about what debate brought them, showed our EEG equipment, while they showed us their debating practice. The first evening after our arrival we were still fairly hung-over from our flights, but nevertheless learnt a tremendous amount about debate while having a nice dinner with the monastics. They told us for example that debating is not just a dyadic practice, but involves a continuously changing group of people. As the debate heats up and interesting arguments are being made, more people may join in. Informal meetings such as this dinner turned out to be a well-spring of information for us curious scientists.

our puppy team member (picture by Marcel Bonn-Miller)
In the following days we would meet our monastic friends in the evenings in the Sera Jay science centre, a place where the monks learn about science and where we had put up our camp (i.e., the EEG that we had brought along in a suitcase). The first night we just showed our EEG equipment (we were amazed it even worked in India!), but before we knew it the monks were already playing around with the equipment, fascinated by seeing their own brain waves. Because the monks did not seem to have too many problems with the EEG equipment, we could move onto the more exciting stage the next evening: wiring up two monks, and then having them debate while they wore the caps. We were particularly curious about what would happen to the synchronization between their brains over the course of their debate. Inter-brain synchronization is a very new field, but it is thought that it reflects some sense of social connectedness. For example, it has been shown that in a prisoner's dilemma, between brain synchronization is larger when players cooperate than when they defect. Nevertheless, given that this was a very new tool, we had no idea whether this was going to work. Another challenge was that we observed this practice, but since the monks debated in Tibetan, we had little idea of what was going on. For that reason, we developed a new technology. We asked one of the monks to set at one of our computers and press a button whenever he thought and event of interest (e.g., the debaters are now getting in synch, or the debate is heating up, or there is a large amount of disagreement). I sat next to that monk and wrote down his description. What I really liked about this method--as crude as it is--was that it really included the monk's judgments and perspectives into our data analyses. The next day we would spend analyzing the just-collected data, thinking about what we found, and coming up with a plan for that evening.

One of the interesting things we learned from the monks was that debate is not only a method to sharpen your intellect (they quoted a Tibetan saying that says "don't bang your head against the wall, and don't argue with a Geshe", which means that both are not a good idea, since a Geshe will always outwit you). Debate is also a way to train emotion regulation. When the monks start debating, they can be very angry with each other. In debate, they learn to quickly move into and out of the anger, and thereby the emotion loses its intensity. They also told us that debate can help create self-confidence, because they learn how to argue well (interestingly Daniel Perdue argued the same in a book he wrote on applying debate in the Western classroom).

attending the Mind & Life meeting. Picture by David Vago
the dangerous bee nests
debate with EEG hyperscanning in course - picture by David Fresco

While every day was an amazing adventure during this visit because we learnt so many new things (and we also got to attend the Mind & Life meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, doing research in India was not without challenges. Several times we wondered whether we were going to survive the auto-rickshaw ride. As a reminder of impermanence, we saw a little puppy being hit by one such autorickshaw on one of our first days in India. He was adopted by Marcel Bonn-Miller and slowly became a new member of the research team as he was nursed back to health. On one of the last days of our trip, one of the killer bee colonies that was hanging alongside the monastery broke out and preyed on several monks, as well as my colleague Marcel, who suffered 30 bee stings and had to be brought to the clinic. Thankfully he was able to get the appropriate treatment and survived, but it surely brought back the precariousness of life in India. Despite these less-pleasant adventures, I think this visit to India taught us a phenomenal amount, and I am already looking forward to the next trip!

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Moving your meditation - exploring meditating while moving

During new year's eve, I attended a Moving Meditation retreat. As a dancer and meditator myself, it was quite interesting to bring those two together. So what is moving meditation? In many forms of meditation you focus on an object, frequently the breath. Moving meditation is similar, but now the object of your focus is the movement. We mostly danced with music, and the "game" was to be aware where in your body a movement arose, to just let it happen, and not lose focus. Whenever you lost focus, you could stand still, observe, and start to move again, with awareness. What I found interesting was that this movement led to a very fluid state. I had practised modern dance techniques before in which you are also taught to let the movement arise from the body, without commentary, everything is good (e.g., movement research by Edan Gorlicki). What was different in this case was the emphasis on awareness--using the movement as an anchor of your attention.

What was also different from previous classes I have done was the use of relational techniques. We spent a decent amount of time dancing together--feeling the movement not just of ourselves but also of the others. It may well be a very interesting way to cultivate empathy and awareness of how we relate to others. I found it also allowed me to develop a sense of non-judgmentalness towards people, because we practiced interacting with other people from within the space of meditation. In this meditation, I could see my reactions and judgments arise, but I was reminded that I could simply let them dissolve again as well.

Now what are the effects of these practices? I think movement meditation is a beautiful way to bring movement into meditation, and meditation into movement. Very useful for those like me, who cannot sit still. it also opened the door for me to bring meditation in other dance I do, like ballet. Such cases are substantially more difficult, because there is a lot more outward focus and direction by others, but it is a nice challenge. More generally, I feel that movement meditation can make it easier to bring the awareness of meditation into daily life because most of our daily life we're not sitting on a cushion, but moving about.