What’s a doctor? On original knowledge

In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.

I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.

It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.  

Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably  valuable. But let me dig deeper.

We know less than we think

Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.

I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point. 

Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.  

When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).

Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.

So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.

It takes effort to build knowledge

Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.

Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.

So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.

Knowledge does not exist in a void

New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.   

This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.

When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.

Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.

The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.

So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.  

This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.

When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.

Rethinking the study day model

How can we do academic conferences better?

Over the course of my PhD, I became deeply disappointed with conferences and study days. Those were always presented in the marketing as an opportunity to share and question ideas with peers. Yet the design was hardly conducive to that goal. It was either plenaries or parallel sessions, with a clear division of roles: speakers, listeners. Presenters had one single slot of about 40 minutes in the conference to share their research or ideas. They were invited to leave time for questions, but everybody went overtime, limiting interations to 10 minutes at best. Which typically consisted of a ‘question that is actually a remark suggesting an alternative reference’, clarification on a minor point of detail, and a theoretical challenge with hardly any time to reflect. How is that an opportunity to share ideas with peers?

I noted similar contradictions with the ‘milestone presentations’ I was invited to do, as part of Monash University’s PhD program. Here again, in theory, it was an opportunity to receive feedback – but in fact, seemed to serve mainly the purpose of confirming my academic capacity. I had to share documents in advance, give twenty minutes of presentation, then get feedback from faculty members, and give a short response. Document had to be formatted to standards: how misaligned with research as an emergent process. Practically, it meant a lot of time spent formally perfecting early stage prototypes. Nor was the presentation a proper dialogue, but professorial expert feedback. Again, not a great mode of interaction, especially for an extravert like me.

It’s unlikely that any of this can change: habits run deep. I soon gave up attempts to bring what I had learned in innovation and entrepreneurial circles to a university setting – the final drop was one memorably dysfunctional conversation with a mid-level administrator. Yet, in the margins of a conference, I remember discussing an alternative model, as a provocation, with a friendly peer.

I’m a bit of a design nerd, so, on that evening, I jotted down notes for this conference model. It has remained at the back of a drawer, in draft form, for years. I thought I might take it out, give it shape and share it. Much of it is inspired by the wonderful Liberating Structures model of Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. The timings are slightly tight, with long pauses. This means, it’s possible to extend the length of activities and ‘eat into’ pauses a little. Pauses are also intended for introverts to relax.

I’d love to try it out one day, but not on my own. So, if anyone would like to pick it up? Please, I’d love to talk.  

Day 1: Fast prototyping

Prior to the conference, participants have been invited to prepare a presentation on either their whole research, or part of their research. They have been warned that the purpose of the day is to exchange ideas, tackle challenges, and review their presentation – so to prepare something that could be changed.

9:00 – 9:30: Coffee & tea

Sequence 1: introduction (9:30 – 10:30)

Goal: set the mood and principles for the day. Break the ice. People feel a sense of connection with other participants. People reflect on ‘what brought them here’ and set goals for themselves.

Five finger ice-breaker (9:30-9:55)

Participants are invited to lift their five fingers in turn, and form pairs based on ‘who has a finger that looks a little like yours’. Each round, they reflect and discuss a different question. 3’ / round.


  • What is the latest paper you read?  
  • What’s an author or thinker you keep returning to and why?
  • What’s an idea, or theory that you’re trying to destroy?
  • What would you like to achieve with your research? What’s the big vision?
  • As a researcher, what’s a thing you’re really good at?

General introduction (9h55-10h00)

  • Principles of the day – this is a conference optimized for deep exchange of ideas
  • Over the course of two days, you will present the same paper three times, in different formats, gathering feedback as you go.

Impromptu networking (10h00 – 10h30)

 Impromptu networkingis a way to quickly bring a group to focus on questions that matter to them.  

  • People are invited to form pairs, and answer the following question in turn: ‘What challenge are you hoping to overcome in this conference?’
  • Three rounds, followed by a general debrief. Participants are invited to share insights, maintaining confidentiality (e.g. share ideas or challenges, but not who articulated them).   

Coffee and Tea: 10h30-11h00

Sequence #2: Testing your pitch

Fast-pitching (11h00 – 11h45)

This section is inspired by the ‘Helping heuristics’ liberating structure.  

Participants form groups of 3, and rotate between three roles: speaker, listener, observer. 9 minutes / round

  • Round 1: Pitch your paper. The listener listens silently. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 2: Pitch your paper. The listener can ask clarifying questions. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 3: Pitch your paper. The listener can challenge or make suggestions  (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)

Debrief – what happened

  • Observers: How did the pitches evolve? What else did you notice?
  • Listeners: How did it feel to ‘listen differently’? Did you have time to ask any question?
  • Speakers: How did it feel to have listeners’ attention? Did you modify the pitch?
  • All: What else did you notice?

Review your pitch (11h45 – 12h15)

Participants are given 30 minutes to review presentations, based on the morning’s experience.

Lunch: 12h15 – 1h00

Note, over lunch, participants can choose to socialize, or work on their presentations. Colour-coded stickers may be provided to indicate if participants want to ‘chat’ or ‘be quiet’.

Sequence #3: first presentation (1h00 – 2h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, candidates present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, listeners share questions and comments for 10 minutes. Listeners can interact with each other. Candidates cannot respond.

Sequence #4: silent reflection (2h15 – 3h15)

Alone, candidates reflect on what they heard and review their presentation accordingly.

Sequence #5: second presentation (3h15 – 5h00)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Sequence #6: Closure (5h00-5h15)

Participants are invited to digest the day and review their presentation for the next day.

Note – it would be possible to hold this as a one-day conference, and close with a ‘what, so what, now what’ activity (detailed at the end of Day 2)  

Day 2

Coffee and tea (9h00 – 9h30)

Sequence #1: Fast pitching (9h30 – 10h15)

Participants are invited to form pairs, and do short presentation of their papers, in five successive rounds, with a different focus each round. Strictly 3’ for each person each round.

  • Round 1: focus on why the research matters
  • Round 2: focus on the methodology
  • Round 3: focus on the references
  • Round 4: focus on the data you used
  • Round 5: focus on what’s original about the research  

General debrief:

  • How was it? What did you learn? Did your thinking evolve?  

Sequence #2: Third breakout room presentation (10h15 – 12h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Between each round, participants are invited to take a short 5’ break.

Sequence #3: work lunch (12h15 – 1h30)

Participants finalise their presentation over a light lunch.

Sequence #4: plenary (1h30 – 4h30)

Participants are split in groups of 8 presenters. An external audience may be invited to attend. They present a final, reviewed version of their paper, with strictly 20’/presenter, and no time for question.

A short 10 ‘ pause is given after the first four presenters.

Depending on attendance, the length of this section may vary, and groups of different sizes can be organised.  

Closure: (4h30 – 5h15)

Participants are invited to reflect on the process, and what can be applied from it, following the What, so what, now what liberating structure.

Participants are invited to discuss the following questions in turn. For each question, participants start with 1 minute to think about the question alone, then discuss in groups of 3-5 (depending on total numbers), for 6 minutes.  

  • What happened? What did you notice? What stood out or was new?
  • So what? Why is a process like the one we went through important? What can be learned from it?
  • Now what? After going through this process, what will you do differently?

Participants are then invited to share key insights and actions with the group.

The conference ends with a ritual round circle, where participants are invited to share their experience in one word.

Education is changing people

THNK taught me to think of education as a form of socio-emotional engineering in group context. The purpose is for each participant to transform. In other words, the goal of education is to change people. That change is more likely to come about through well-designed interaction among peers than through new knowledge, even weighing in the possible charism of an inspirational speaker, and the desire to emulate them.

Reflections on rote learning and creative education

There’s a common cliché going around. That Chinese education does not encourage creativity: Instead, it proposes antiquated models based on rote learning. ‘Western’ Universities, on the contrary, train critical thinking, creativity and collaborative problem solving – all the treasures of a balanced life.

I had direct experience of learning in a Chinese university, during a term at Nanjing Daxue, and was deeply dissatisfied  with it. Yet I would like to consider Chinese models of education under a different light.

In preparatory class, in the debrief of an oral presentation where I did averagely, my philosophy teacher pointed out I should find ways of better structuring my thoughts. ‘How can I do that?’ I asked. He winked: ‘There is a secret, but don’t tell anyone I’ve told you’ – I guess enough time has pass that I can get away with sharing this now – ‘You must copy. Take a book, a well-written book, like Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois, take a notebook, and simply copy. And I can guarantee that you will improve.’ With all this talk of originality, we tend to forget the value of copying. Not just to memorise and interiorise knowledge, but develop the capacity to reproduce a movement of thought. And then, if after proper understanding, we continue to disagree, then we might consider rejecting. And how much stronger, how much sharper, how much more valuable, this informed originality.

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.

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.