Teaching concentration

I am reading a French book on Zhu Xi, compiler of Confucian knowledge and Chinese philosopher from the 12th century – a remarkable introduction to Chinese metaphysics. The fourth chapter, labelled ‘perfectionnement de soi’, focuses on education.

Speaking about meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and adapted to Confucianism, Zhu Xi writes: ‘To sit in calm is not about interrupting one’s reflection, unlike what happens in Zen sitting meditation. It is just about calmly collecting one’s heart and not letting it fly off to otiose ideas. The heart is then spontaneously in a state of serenity without any [disturbing] event, concentrated on its sole object.’ [This is my own second hand translation from the original Chinese via French]

I put down the book for a moment and pondered. I have been through years of schooling in France – and here in Australia. Not only did I receive solid knowledge, but I was also trained – rather well, I believe – in structuring and communicating ideas through language. Yet I cannot recall any specific training in the art of concentration. Looking back – how surprising! For I had to spend considerable amounts of time reading, memorising, analysing, and writing during those years of study. Yet the core competence to support this effort – the capacity to concentrate – was never part of the curriculum.

Here, I believe, lies the radical optimism of Confucianism: not only can people memorise facts and dates and not only can they derive knowledge from this information; more fundamental competences – attention, listening, concentration – can also be taught, irrespective of bloodlines or family background. If only western educators and institutions today could show the same level of optimism, and instead saw the systematic training of cognitive and emotional core strength as a full part of their mission!

Training decisiveness

Lack of decisiveness is our greatest plague. We can waste infinite amounts of time and energy pondering, wondering, wandering in the maze of our own minds. Only decisive action can liberate us from such idle vagueness.

A few days ago, I split my to do list into decision and action. This initiated a series of reflections on the art of making decision. I returned to Descartes. « Ma seconde maxime était d’être le plus ferme et le plus résolu en mes actions que je pourrais, et de ne suivre pas moins constamment les opinions les plus douteuses, lorsque je m’y serais une fois déterminé, que si elles eussent été très assurées. Imitant en ceci les voyageurs qui, se trouvant égarés en quelque forêt, ne doivent pas errer en tournoyant, tantôt d’un côté, tantôt d’un autre, ni encore moins s’arrêter en une place, mais marcher toujours le plus droit qu’ils peuvent vers un même côté, et ne le changer point pour de faibles raisons, encore que ce n’ait peut-être été au commencement que le hasard seul qui les ait déterminés à le choisir : car, par ce moyen, s’ils ne vont justement où ils désirent, ils arriveront au moins à la fin quelque part, où vraisemblablement ils seront mieux que dans le milieu d’une forêt… » If you find yourself lost in the middle of a forest, set on a course, and move forward. Don’t turn left and right for no good reason. Do not stand still. And eventually, you will get somewhere.

Can decisiveness be trained? Spiritual practice and martial arts will help. As will a certain approach to our every day decisions, the way we walk, cook, clean, sleep. As, also, will design thinking, and traditional methods, prayers, and oracles.

Here is one exercise I’m working on. I converted to cold showers, to reduce my own sensitivity to the cold. At first, I hesitated before getting wet – and so, took time, hovering at the back of the shower, getting one leg in, then the other, then an arm. Now, I turn on the water, breathe, and move forward into the cold jet.

Let’s see what comes out of it.

Decision/action

I just did a thing. I broke down my To Do list in two parts: decision/action. Life changing.

I’ve set up to do lists for years now – some online, some on paper. I like them. I like ticking off things as I complete them, I like taking plans out of my head to create space. I’ve read about and developed various productivity systems. Sort your tasks into ‘do now’, ‘do next’, ‘do later’. Make sure every task in the ‘to do’ list is phrased as an action. Break down complex tasks into parts if necessary.

But here’s a new system I came up with. I broke down my ‘to do list’ into two different columns. One column is labelled ‘This week: action’, and contains all the things I have to do during the week, written as imperatives – ‘contact such and such about X’, ‘write/finalise such and such text’, ‘do tax return’, etc. The other column is labelled ‘This week: decision & design’. Every item in that list is phrased as a question. ‘What should I write to such and such?’ ‘How can I efficiently do X?’, ‘What do I need for X?’.

It’s not just about sorting them out – it’s about thinking of decision and action distinctly, by using a different grammatical form. Not only do the questions stimulate me to think; I no longer experience these decisions as ‘things to do’. They no longer take up time in my head. Decisions may require careful research and consideration, but in essence they happen in a flash. Actions, in contrast, require time. Conflating decisions and actions only leads to confusion. Without prior decision, many actions are impossible – How can I write an email to John if I haven’t decided what I need to write, in what tone, and how long the email should be? This is how procrastination occurs: we set ourselves an impossible task, and escape into the world of Facebook streams, online video games, or long, painful draft. Whereas a decision can be made during a walk, a rest, after a session of Qi Gong. And the ensuing action, guided by a clear decision, can be completed in less time than we originally thought.

Importantly, this new system has helped me clarify the way that I work with my assistant. I’m an extravert working in introverted roles. Decision making alone is a particularly demanding task. I don’t need somebody to do things on my behalf, and save time. I need somebody to share the burden of making decisions, and preserve energy. This is what I’ve been doing implicitly for a few months now. I’m now set up to do it explicitly!

 

Teaching is listening

Has everyone heard of ‘the flipped classroom’? I bumped into the concept a number of times when following an education course on Coursera, and more recently, saw allusions to it in my partner’s reading notes for his Master of Teaching. The ‘flipped classroom’ model proposes that, instead of students listening to a lecturing teacher in class, and collaborating outside on homework, they should listen to recorded video lectures at home – and at their pace – while facilitated classroom time is reserved for collaborative exercises.

When I taught at the Sorbonne, I was not encouraged to develop group activities. However, my basic assumption was consistent with the flipped classroom model. Students have a motivation to learn, and previous skills to build on. My role is not to feed them new knowledge as if it fell into a void, but to rectify their imperfect understanding of some point of grammar, or how language works – as well as continuously sustain their motivation. In other words, my role as educator is not to pour knowledge into student-vessels, but guide spontaneous movements and correct harmful postures. And in order to rectify, I need to understand what’s wrong.

This is by no means an original idea of education. It does entail, however, that the main skills teachers need is not speaking or reading – but observing and listening. This New York Times editorial, expresses it with great eloquence: “With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”

Listening requires a different type of preparation from speech delivery. I couldn’t entirely script a class – and definitely not read my notes as some of my colleagues did – but needed the capacity to rephrase and identify errors. Partly, this comes through experience. Partly, this comes through general intelligence and emotional intelligence. Partly, this comes through relaxation. I would come with three basic points I wanted students to learn, and a general idea for potential conversational pathways. Then I would improvise, systematically taking my cues from students’ interventions.

Teachers certainly should be good speakers, but more importantly, they must be good listeners. Do you agree with this statement? And if so – how can we train as teachers to become better at listening?

Will the machine help us learn – or will we learn to use the machine?

Last year, I followed a MOOC called ‘Education and Digital Culture’. I deliberately came to the MOOC with Marco Polo Project glasses on, and in the end, one core question about the future emerged: will we develop better systems for learning languages, or will we develop better translation systems.

At the moment, both are growing in parallel through the power of the web.

On the language learning front, the following is happening:

  • Traditional teaching methods are adapted and circulated online: podcast series offer a full language curriculum,  tutors are available through skype, and Language teachers share their wisdom through blogs (like Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese).
  • Companies are developing more ergonomic language learning tools online – all-inclusive training apps like duolingo, or more focused vocabulary building apps like skritter.
  • Collaborative platforms facilitate peer-to-peer learning – foremost among them Lang-8, which organises a multi-lingual community of amateur bloggers correcting each other.

Meanwhile, we can observe similar developments in the translation space, :

  • Dictionaries are available online or as apps – in Chinese, MDBG and pleco come to mind.
  • Translator forums, such as Proz, offer peer-to-peer support on difficult constructions.
  • Google translate and other companies are developing automatic translators.

Learning a language online – whether assisted by online curriculums, apps, or forums, will still require effort and time from the learner. Online dictionaries and translation forums also reduce the time needed to translate, but still imply effort. Automatic translators, however, differ in quality. The dream beyond automatic translators is to go ‘beyond babel’, allowing direct communication between people speaking different languages, and by-passing the need for language learning altogether.

So what future are we heading towards? Wwith better training, translation tools may not be so necessary? But with translation tools, language training may not be so useful either. Or will we need trainers to use these automatic translators? At present, google translate is improving, but complexities still require interpretation, testing, rephrasing. Teachers will help new humans master the machine that overcomes the language barrier.

Both scenarios hover between a utopian vision of a post-babel super-humanity to more dystopian visions of the future. On the one hand, a ‘mental athleticism’, or cognitive hyper-competition, where if you stop studying, more languages, faster, with better tools – you fall behind. On the other hand a ‘technical-only’ education that forgets about the beauties of idleness in the name of efficiency, or an education losing the wisdom and choice. Maybe, too, the division between a privileged class of overeducateds wired-in ergonomists at increasing distance from under-privileged undereducated people.

That uncertainty about the future of automatic translators and language learning tools also has political implications: if we’re on the verge of developing efficient translation tools, then why invest time in learning foreign languages – there’s better things we can do with our children’s time and our education money. Conversely, if better tools are coming, we should make sure we adopt them early, and train our people for a future where multilingualism will be a basic form of literacy.

We can’t predict what will happen, but we should be well aware of these tensions, and that no scenario, in the present, is at all certain.

Educating global leaders? Let’s give them Humanities!

On the Hub Melbourne yammer network, a friend recently posted the following note: “Am currently at a collaboratory meeting to recreate management and leadership education. These are the 3 questions today ; 1. How does the future leader look like ? 2. What is a globally responsible leader ? 3. Can we teach how to become a globally responsible leader.”

I found it inspiring, and suggested the following: “A good education base for future global leaders will be found in classics, history, philosophy and humanities, rather than ‘business and economics’. Management and leadership theories – or economics and ‘social sciences’ more broadly – tend to come in flashy new clothes. They decay more quickly than solid Aristotle, Plutarch and Montesquieu. In a fast-changing world, you don’t want fast-aging leadership education. Close-reading texts of ancient wisdom will teach future global leaders how to find meaning in complex, ambiguous settings; and reflecting on the distance between past and contemporary value systems will prepare them for accepting diverse, sometimes conflicting, world-views – and negotiate their way forward.”

I wanted to share this reply here, and reflect further on the topic. Everyone likes pushing their own agenda. I was trained in the Humanities – and find myself now more and more among people with a background in business, management and economics. Diversity benefits groups: people solidly trained in arts and classics are rare both in corporate and small business worlds, and their presence is likely to make for better decisions. I also do believe that the practice of translation and close-reading, which I learnt in France, is precious when working as an innovator. Translation is a good bullshit detector, and finding good ideas and people requires a solid capacity to filter out the dross. Innovation is also typically nothing but an old idea adapted to a new settings – who knows whether Medieval monastery rules, immigration models in old Athens, or Teutonic lending systems don’t hold the key to some future and precious model for social innovation in Australia.

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.