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Friday, September 18, 2015

Student Athletes: Self-Reflection

I have a profound respect for student athletes.  Not just because I was one in my youth, but because they demonstrate, on a regular basis, qualities that I feel that all people should have.

For example, in order to succeed as an athlete, you have to roll with the punches.  You have to be willing to stumble and fall to perfect yourself in your craft.  It's this level of determination and perseverance that people who don't take sports seriously will never understand (or would never go through themselves).  This level of focus requires lots of discipline and this is not something that is easily taught to youngsters.  When athletes look at their shortcomings and work to improve themselves in their weakest areas, they demonstrate all of the aforementioned attributes, namely resilience, character, and discipline.

Some of the most dangerously motivated people I've come across are athletes coming off a loss.  You won't find a more determined group of people than a team that lost a competitive game they should have won.  There's no athlete in the world that will admit that they love to lose competitive matches.  If you don't believe me, try talking to an athlete after they've just lost a game, good luck giving them positive feedback...  You're better off keeping your mouth shut, trust me.  For athletes, it's losing games that make you a reflective practitioner of what you do.

Imagine going to a training session where you are continuously judged/evaluated, corrected in front of others, and occasionally embarrassed/punished/chastised for something you're not born to do well.  Most people would throw their hands in the air and give up.  But athletes are not most people.  In the realm of a classroom, this behavior amounts to mental or psychological torture or bullying, but in practice on a pitch, it's a form of character development.  Athletes grow thick skin for verbal abuse (by classroom standards) after a while (they also loosen their tongues - which can be good or bad).  This can be a grey area in coaching youngsters, but it tends to focus on a coach's ability to provide meaningful and effective feedback without deteriorating a player's self-confidence.

My closest friends in life all stemmed from school sports.  They may not have been my inner circle at the time, since school sort of socially categorizes kids in strange ways, but the friends that have persisted and stuck with me in life have all come from my youth soccer team.  As I coach the U-18 girls team here, I start to think back to when I was still a lad, specifically about playing the game and the dynamics of the team.  These girls don't realize it yet, but even if they're not in the same social circles now, they'll turn to each other later in life with the same level of intensity and passion that they show on the pitch.  Who am I kidding, every time I join a local intramural or traveling team, I end up socializing with the other players.

Team sports teaches players to make irrational sacrifices.  There are universal instances where players will play through injury or pain to give their team that extra edge.  Every athlete has done it before, just ask (each one has their own stories to tell about this).  As a coach, this can be a dangerous and nerve-racking character attribute.  No benevolent coach encourages players to risk serious injury.  But recognizing signs of serious injury can be masked by the endorphin-saturated, fight-or-flight atmosphere of a competitive match.

As a player, you oftentimes find yourself sizing up your opposite number.  Now that I coach, I do it all the time to evaluate weaknesses in opposition...  But this behavior has diffused to players and now they do it also.  It's a normal behavior to scrutinize your competition to see what you're up against or to see what you can do to embarrass them and send them home in tears (some athletes think this way, I don't fault them for it).  In sports, it's kill or be killed.  If you're not owning your competition, then you're the one being owned.  Identifying players with this mentality weeds out the players who are only in it for fun (win or lose - so not a committed, competitive athlete) and the others who have fun dominating their opponents (who can be occasionally excessive)...

In this light, it is also notable that athletes recognize other athletes.  Players always look for ways to improve their group with new players.  It's a strange and contradictory dynamic.  If they're your opposition, you hate their guts, but if they plan to join your team, you embrace their abilities with high fives and thumbs up!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

I was in Curacao attending a professional development convention for this region of the world:  The AASSA conference.

One of the underlying themes I took away from this professional development experience is the absence of the 3 critical elements of motivated individuals: Autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  This revelation brings back memories of watching this RSA talk about what motivates people to do great things.

Another recurrent theme of this conference is the use of technology.  Though I have my reservations about the immersion of technology in the learning environment of high school students, I can't help but agree that technology has become a vital component of a student's learning experience (for better or for worse).  An educator's conundrum in this arena can be summarized in a single question: How does an educational organization create a safe learning environment within a classroom when students are granted unrestricted access to broadband devices within classrooms?  It is either too authoritarian with the censorship and firewalls, or it's too open leading to the distracted and uninterested student.  How does a school capture the middle ground?

Though we rarely discuss these issues outside of egregious violations, it seems that the high school students are too little, too late to learn and demonstrate responsible online practices (one of the learning points from the keynote speakers - by the time they're in high school it's too late).

Below is the RSA clip I mentioned earlier, as it is posted on YouTube.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How you know a conversation has lost scientific credibility

Conversations pertaining to science oftentimes transforms into meaningless debate on personal positions and emotional issues.  The parrot-effect of media, where people who watch TV shows and repeat what a host says as fact, is a toxic influence.  There are some simple ways to derail this effect that has arisen in recent interviews that should really be emphasized and explained to people...
  1. The need for a nullifying criterion that you establish in advance to clearly define what observations or information you would need to reject or negate your perceptions.  This is grossly absent in the media.  Not many self-proclaimed experts understand that you must set a clear set of criteria that can effectively change your position on a matter.  In the absence of a nullifying criteria, the conversation is no longer scientific, it is ideological.  When you encounter someone who seems committed to a particular set of ideas, ask them the simple question of "What would change your mind?"  If they have no null hypothesis, then don't waste your breath.
  2. Cherry-picking of information to suit the needs of arguing parties.  An inability to agree on facts is pretty consistent with this practice.  "My facts are true, your facts are not."  This is an argument strategy that attacks the observer and not their observations.  When you encounter someone who cherry-picks information, it would be useful to clarify before moving forward why they hold these observations to be true in spite of other observations that are available.  What makes these set of facts or observations more valid than the dozen of other studies that say otherwise?  The burden of proof is on the observer to prove that their ideas are more significant or are more valid than others.  In the absence of this proof, their position should really not be validated.  This is very much like the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  There's an abundance of evidence to support the model of evolution by natural selection, while there is an absence of evidence to support the other.
  3. Pointing to history or anecdotal examples.  This is the most aggravating to deal with.  Many people will often point to the past in an attempt to validate future or current behaviors.  The only way that this approach holds true is if there is a rationale and if they have a criterion to negate their current position.  If a person's point-of-view has no other rationale, other than history or anecdotal evidence, to influence their perception, then you must question how they would ever negate the adherence to their decision.  It's the equivalence of stating that one observation is enough to apply it to all future observations...
  4. Inability to invalidate studies.  One thing that bothers me is when people will speak out against known studies and they either play dumb or fail to invalidate the studies presented.  The CDC, FDA, the NIH, the international agencies that produce these studies are responsible for these studies, not congressmen.  When people go on television and claim that these agencies are bogus have the burden of responsibility to generate the necessary evidence to substantiate their position.  In the absence of their evidence (as convenient as it is to leave them at home), their argument collapses.
  5. Inability to clarify their own point.  The absence of depth is damning in this case.  If a position is to be taken, it must be thoroughly investigated in multiple dimensions.  To simply impose a narrow view in the absence of neighboring and relevant context only illustrates how shallow the position really is.
The following YouTube clip (removed since the account was "terminated") emphasizes the clear distinction between people who conduct actual research and people who simply spread propaganda.  Can you spot the difference?  Who is the one who has done their research and who is the parrot who claims that research suggests otherwise?

Since the YouTube account was terminated, I'll summarize it's contents.  A former congressman was arguing with a news anchor about the claims made that the MMR vaccination is tied to autism.  And despite the news anchor's inquiries about the legitimacy of their findings, the former congressman held his ground, but not for scientific reasons.
 

In the clip, it was quite clear who had done their basic research and who had simply looked up on Google, "Anti-Vaccination Arguments."

Monday, February 23, 2015

Something I've Learned Everywhere I Go

At first it seems to just make sense.  You get what you give - if you treat people with kindness and care, they shall treat you likewise.

I have learned over the years that this concept is nothing but an idealist's fallacy.  You don't get what you give, instead you get what's convenient from others.  What I've ultimately learned over the years is that people who don't look forward to working with you or seeing you regularly are not worth your time.

If my life were defined solely by convenience, my friends would be vast but shallow.  I take pride in the efforts I take for others because it brings me some level of satisfaction that I've made some immeasurable contribution to someone.  I shudder at the thought of the alternative where you hardly do anything, but it's for everybody (to me it's not even a comparison).

It's amazing what I have done on behalf of others.  It's almost ludicrous when I think about it.  But at the end of the day, the ultimate truth is that I only have myself.  I cannot go out on a limb for everybody all the time who would never do the same for me.  I have to be more cognizant of those who intend to profit off my contributions while failing to reciprocate.

A general rule of thumb I've picked up over the years, don't ask me for favors you have little to no intention of returning at some point.  People who earn my favors do what they can to keep me around because they value things like reliability, punctuality, honesty, and quality work.  If these are not worth the minor inconvenience of working to keep in your life, then be prepared to face my indifference, ambivalence, and ultimately my apathy.

The tragedy is not that I think this way, the tragedy is that society made me this way.  I have had the unfortunate experience of having to be the victim of other people too often to fall for this charade over and over again.  I can no longer afford to grant people the benefit of the doubt when they keep me as an outsider all the time.

People don't seem to think that they need to work to maintain certain titles in life.  Being a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a partner, a friend, or a teammate all imply some level of participation at your inconvenience.  If anything, these relationships are simply not possible if they are convenient.

The most rewarding things in life are oftentimes the least convenient option.

In retrospect, the most consistent/persistent presence in my life have all come from teammates (not friends, not girlfriends, not colleagues nor acquaintances)...  Fancy that.  And people wonder why I care so much for competitive team sports.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Modern Day Problem with a Student's Perception of Failure

Here's the modern day issue with dealing with failure.

Student perceptions are not a reflection of the necessary reality.

Allow me to clarify.  Students will oftentimes cite outstanding failures in school systems or institutions and say that their failure is just the beginning for reaching greatness.  Though I have no doubt that many great individuals of today have dealt with failure at some point in their lives, they had the motivation to innovate their way around the rigid nature of the school system.

I cannot tell you as an educator how frequently I have been told by my failing students that some of the greatest human beings who have achieved great things were total failures in school (Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, etc.).

Don't get me wrong, I have complete faith that my students will find success later in life - I don't expect their lives to be defined solely on their ability to answer my exam questions. However, it is my professional responsibility to develop their capacities whether the students care about them or not.

Here are my usual responses to these infamous citations:
  • What's important about these individuals is not that they were called failures by their superiors at the time, but what they did in response to that feedback.  So unless you intend to emulate their efforts, then the label of being a failure is pretty accurate.
  • You are not Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, or whoever you think your life will be modeled after for failing your classes.  These individuals made names of themselves through self-discipline, resilience, and perseverance (not by pointing at someone else and saying "That'll be me someday"). 
  • If you take an unbiased look at everybody that were labeled failures, the notable successes are statistical anomalies - which means the law of averages usually points towards these labels as having merit.  To claim that failing at something means you'll automatically aspire to greatness is hardly a healthy outlook on the reality of the here and now of your present situation.
  • You're ignoring the historical context of their achievements.  For instance, when Edison was around, there was an absence of things like light bulbs, movie theaters, and indoor plumbing...  You can typically do great things when you start with nothing.  This generation doesn't start with nothing (we have global positioning satellites in geosynchronous orbit!), but students anticipate they'll achieve great things at the same exponential rate as Edison after failing basic courses in high school...
  • Your current reality trumps your optimistic outlook on your life every time.  There's a disconnect with your citation of famous individuals.  It's a deflection and a distraction from the current reality that you were not good enough in a measurable way.  Sadly, having a positive outlook does not change your current circumstances...
I usually try to address these citations immediately, since students are often caught in the trap of aspiring to something they have little capacity to pursue.  The key word here is capacity.  Don't get me wrong, students are typically motivated to do great things so it's not an issue of motivation, it's an issue of competence and capacity.

When students confuse their motivation for competence then it's dangerous towards their development as students, especially when we're really only covering the basics (reading, writing, simple arithmetic).

Friday, March 21, 2014

Why Ken Ham is a Quack

Here are my responses to the use of the Bible to explain the origins of life on Earth.  I know it's been a while since the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, but I've been busy, with a legitimate career and I've only had time now (during my spring break) to finally address this issue.
  1. History is a matter of interpretation.  So his notion that the historical record of a written text that has been translated from various languages, re-written, and reformatted from one edition to another only adds to the inconsistency of his beliefs.  Who is to say that the current translation or interpretation of the Biblical story of creation is in any way consistent with the original observations of the author?  Only Ken Ham.  Stratification layers in sediments are far more consistent than the interpretations of scripture - just look at how many different churches have come about as a result of these interpretations of scripture.
  2. Ken Ham offers no reason to believe his version of the young Earth story over other stories from different cultures.  This is a vital component to gain credibility that your position carries any weight.  Why should we be compelled to only incorporate his preferred version of the young Earth story instead of the Chinese variant, or the Egyptian, or the Norse, or the Greek/Roman?  He offers nothing in this regard, which in essence tells these viewpoints that they are also wrong simply because he holds his own beliefs to be true over others.  Science cannot revolve simply on individual belief and interpretation - it has to be a consistent body of knowledge that is constantly revised, verified, and re-verified.
  3. Ken Ham does not offer any room for doubt.  This is not a scientific practice - in essence, it defies one of the fundamental criteria of science pertaining to changing viewpoints given new evidence as well as the ability to replicate an experiment or observation.  Not a single observation noted in the Genesis story can be replicated under controlled conditions - so how does this substitute for science?  It cannot.  Also, the absence of a null hypothesis automatically undermines the validity of his beliefs since he cannot come up with a viable criteria that would convince him that his current views are incorrect.  The ivory tower from which he proclaims that the genesis story represents a valid, literal, and scientific observation offers no room for questioning the original observer or their observations.
  4. Ken Ham loses all credibility as an objective individual and as an analytic thinker by deferring all his misunderstandings to a book that actually doesn't answer the question to begin with.  Just because you are personally incapable of answering a question does not mean the act of forcing scripture to answer the question is rational.  This is a form of propaganda and his constant reference to a non-scientific text for scientific answers makes him lose lots of credibility.
  5. Ken Ham is unwilling to live with open question about the origins of humanity.  Science will never be able to bring back all of the extinct species that have lived on this Earth.  If that is a criteria for validating his position, then the validating position for his should be to have his notion of God physically visit Earth and convince all of humanity that Ken Ham's personal beliefs are the one true interpretation that matters (this will never happen).
  6. Ken Ham is more interested in convincing you that he's right than getting you to convince yourself that the merits of the arguments presented by both sides consistently point towards his point of view.  This indicates that the merits of his argument are groundless.  He cannot talk about a boat that he's never seen before but seems to take the Bible's word for it and even makes the attempt to justify futuristic designs for a ship that has never been found nor had ever been constructed for the purpose of carrying so many animals.
  7. Ken Ham did not successfully nullify any of the fossilized evidence nor did he argue against the stratification layers, tree-ring data, or ice core data that suggest the Earth's relative age.  He essentially danced around the observational data and said that it doesn't equal history or it is unreliable (as if the Bible is...?).  Just because we didn't directly observe the fossil at it's time of existence doesn't mean it didn't exist.  The fact that there exist groups who claim that scientists planted these fossils to stay in business or to keep their jobs is pretty outrageous.
  8. Ken Ham does not address the concern that the Bible was written before the technology existed to critique it's contents.  Ken Ham is the victim of his own argument here since he points towards the scientific evidence and claims that we cannot know what we have never directly observed, when he points to this anecdotal story (which he was not present to directly observe).  This is the equivalent of taking one of Aesop's fables literally - since children are not able to directly observe (or remember) their own birth, how can we know how we were created from our own mothers?  A stork flew through a window and delivered me to my mother...  That's written in a book somewhere, it must be true.
People like Ken Ham are dangerous to America's scientific integrity and our competitiveness in a global market.  The Ken Ham's of the world offer no solutions to real problems like HIV, malaria, schistosomiasis, or cancer, they simply point to a book and say that all the answers to humanity's unanswerable questions lie in this text that was written thousands of years ago.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why America's Education System is Doomed

Here's my take on why America's attempt to reform public education will fail miserably.
  1. Education has not been a cornerstone voting issue for several election cycles.  It's the same problem that Americans have with "gun control."  It's nice to talk about but voters do not identify their elected officials solely on these issues - until this tendency changes, the nation shall continue to see weak attempts at both "gun control" and education reform.
  2. Current reform efforts are either spearheaded by non-educators or by those who have a lot to say about a profession they have little to no respect for.  Also, there are a bunch of failed educators who seem to think their methods and results can be replicated in unique populations of students.
  3. America's hostility towards a unionized teaching force.  Let's not leave out that the union doesn't necessary expedite solutions to educational reform issues either, it's not productive for anybody to solely attribute the problems of the bureaucracy of education solely on the labor unions.  It's a very combative relationship when any conversation takes place about unions.
  4. Absence of accountability at the political and entrepreneur levels.  Teachers are accountable for failing students - it's something that we're being evaluated upon.  But this accountability must trickle out and upwards to all fabrics of society - including school administrators, politicians, investors, parents, and even celebrities like Oprah or Bill Gates.  If they were more accountable for their messages and took responsibility for endorsing flawed systems, perhaps more would be done to iron out problems with public infrastructure and the bureaucracy that is public education.
  5. Teacher suppression.  The public does not understand how suppressed a teacher's voice is.  The moment a teacher goes out to defend their professional practices they're demonized by those who haven't the slightest idea what the circumstances are.  Granted, this is true for all professions that face scrutiny, this practice has taken on a new visage.
  6. Absence of positive media coverage.  The media makes no attempt to objectively evaluate the pros and cons of pursuing education reform and their guest selection for "informed" interviews (if you can call it that) aligns with both numbers 2 and 3 stated above.  There has yet to be a strong teacher advocate interviewed who asks the following relevant questions: 
    • Does the teacher have the necessary resources to effectively teach the students sitting before them each day?
    • Has the teacher been trained to provide the necessary services to the student population they're teaching?
    • What do parents and students do persistently to promote the best possible outcomes?  What is being done to replicate these conditions in households where these practices are absent?
    • Is the teacher a master of their content area?
    • Why is it a societal requirement for students in high school to be ready for college when many students make financially rational decisions that exclude them from attending college?
    • Should we be punishing schools who have students who do not enter colleges but enter our workforce as skilled or apprenticed labor?
    • How does choice promote student achievement?  What study has validated this claim that choices for every student improves their academic outcomes?  And what should be done with students who choose to drop-out?
  7. Universities and colleges are now businesses.  Just look at the branding now from college to college and how they attempt to market themselves to prospective students.  Universities and colleges today aren't doing students any favors since either way, these institutions are getting tuition funds directly from students and from state and federal subsidies.  These are cash cows that attempt to justify tuition increases every year.  I have yet to see in the news a university or college that openly declared a decrease in tuition... When pigs fly, right?
  8. Attrition.  Because teachers are treated like garbage, they don't stay in the profession for very long.  Out of the dozens of teachers I started out with from my cohort, only a select few are left that are still teaching.  No lie, there are better opportunities to teach overseas in terms of compensation, student and community involvement, and political atmosphere. So the real question that's never addressed by reformers, how do you keep the best by slashing their salaries, benefits, and destroying their dignity?
  9. Educational funding is being cut across the board over the past several years. Just look at the available funds made for teacher's through teacher's choice programs in NY.
  10. Funding of science education and research in very lucrative arenas in science have been passed up for other countries to capitalize on.  We've surrendered our particle accelerator to the Swiss.  We've allowed stem-cell biology to develop in Japan, China, and Europe but not in the States.  We've hacked the space shuttle!  With this trend, what will our students aspire to become in science?
  11. America needs to address the mentality that there's some silver bullet solution to complex systems like education.  Looking at the mayor's strategy, he essentially changes the rules each year to prevent any sort of objective, longitudinal comparison.  I have seen schools whose report card scores go up from one year to another but their progress report grade goes down.  These schools are victims to a system that never intended to support their needs, only punish their unpredictable outcomes.  This draconian mentality that competition is the solution doesn't solve anything.  In any competition, there aren't only winners, there are also LOSERS.
  12. The absence of meaningful dialogue.  I can't count how many times I have heard in conversation some of the worst arguments to critique education. For example:
    • "These teachers don't even live in the communities they teach in." - What a cheap attack on motive.  Would you trust anybody on the street around your school in the South Bronx to teach YOUR children about Biology?
    • "Teachers make tens of thousands of dollars off of benefits." - I'm in good health.  I make nothing on these supposedly amazing benefits.  And the presumption that I don't deserve to be treated well when my health is compromised demonstrates a level of hatred that goes beyond professional criticism.  That's like saying, "You're sick or injured?  Since you're a teacher, you should get no support, in fact you should just die of your wounds."
    • "Teachers are the highest paid they have ever been in years." - They're also the products of expensive undergraduate and graduate school programs (which are not getting any cheaper).  Most teachers have students loans to pay back that they are unable to pay back through our supposedly inflated salaries.
    • "Teachers should be offered incentives to teach better. They should implement some form of performance pay." - Then who would voluntarily teach struggling student populations?  Nobody.  Incentive pay does not work.  Take a Stuyvesant teacher and throw them into a school with nothing but ESL/ELL and Sp. Ed. students and see how well they do...
    • "Administrators should have the power to fire whomever they want." - Though I may agree that there are under-performing teachers who should probably find alternative professions to ruin, there's no guarantee that an administrator with the freedom to fire whomever they want will use that ability responsibly.  And who has oversight over these administrators to prevent abuse?
    • "Poverty is no excuse." - You're right, but it's not a condition to be ignored or neglected either. If students are hungry, sick, homeless, or abused in an environment they call their home, there are worse problems in their life than whether or not they get good grades on some stupid exam.    It's not an excuse, but it's the biggest distraction that derails massive numbers of students from learning in school.  I find that the majority of this argument comes from people who have either come from well-off backgrounds, or are anomalies where they've overcome hardship (and they have this unrealistic expectation that their success can be replicated for everyone).
    • "Students are never the problem." - Really?  So if a student is unwilling, unable, or even truant, it's the fault of the school and the teacher?  This is the sort of argument where you have to ask this person whether we've reached a point in history where students aren't even held accountable for learning anymore.  Teachers teach, but apparently, we're also responsible for learning for the students also...  Let's turn the classroom into a service industry - without the compensation, of course...
    • Finger-pointing other countries for higher international test scores...  This is a common argument that we're falling behind.  Well, maybe the rest of the world is starting to catch up.  America's momentum is not slowing down, it's the same as it was for decades.  But developing countries are taking advantage of their own domestic policies to churn out graduates that are technically and academically competitive.  It's not a sign that America has lost its edge, it's a sign that the developing world has slowly caught up with us.
  13. States are forcing curriculum decisions on content areas that should not have to.  When a state forcibly imposes Creationism or Intelligent Design on Biology curricula, you make a conscious choice to surrender any form of credibility within a scientific community that knows better.  What sort of credibility does an American biology student have to an Oxford student when the American student is assessed on Biblical science and the Oxford student is assessed on legitimate evolutionary science from the same biology course?  None.  In this realm, Republicans have demonstrated how big of a joke they are in the advancement of scientific endeavors.
  14. I could go on for days about this topic...  This just scratches the surface...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

BBC: Butterfly Curators...

I thought it was interesting that they even have curators for butterflies, but I suppose as we acknowledge their diversity, it is something that requires close cataloging.

Makes you wonder how significant the next butterfly is that lands on your shoulder...

Thought the audio slideshow, as usual, was quite insightful.  Gave me some new outlooks on the life cycle of these creatures.  Sort of interesting in terms of a field of study.  The description of their metamorphosis caught my attention.

Anyway, here's the link for it, I've added it to the list as BBC - Butterfly Curators.

Enjoy!