Tag Archives: Education

Grad School – Enrichment, Immersion, Perseverance

Learning to Argue

Photo of diverse texts from my MA studies

Some valued texts from my MA studies

Earning an MA in English was one of my key learning experiences. This post examines that experience for deeper learning about my skills, knowledge, and values.

Context

When I thought about going back to school I considered a lot of options. Popular possibilities included:

  • earning a Master’s degree in Management and Information Technology, offered at CSUMB
  • earning a teaching credential for either primary or secondary education
  • earning a Law degree.

Hmm. Though I suspected that I needed more formal education, none of those options really attracted me.

One day while enjoying an unusual chance for reading a series of comments, from an English teacher, critiquing an introductory paragraph by my oldest son, I realized that in spite of a life-long love of literature and writing, I had never received that kind of overt scrutiny of my writing.

Although I loved writing and literature and began my undergraduate education as a Journalism major, I quickly switched to Biology and ultimately graduated with a BS in Computer Science. I blamed my parents for providing more emotional support for science than humanities. However, I also recognized in myself, something I mentioned in an earlier post, on Information Overload. I am attracted to straight forward, defensible solutions to well structured problems. My natural interests in literature, philosophy, and psychology, led to messy discussions, and strongly differing opinions. Instead of learning more about how to argue (exchange ideas) in arenas with more “ill-structured” problems, I chose paths that felt safer because they seemed to offer more defensible algorithms and solutions for the problems I was likely to address.

I decided that if I was going to accept the challenge of Grad school, with its investment of time, energy, and money, while also working full time and helping three other people navigate their lives, I wanted to learn about things for which I cared deeply and face challenges previously avoided. I was accepted to the program for a Master of Arts in English at San Jose State University, with the conditional requirement of completing 18 units of undergraduate work before beginning graduate level courses. Completing my degree took five years.

Over the years from about 2003 through 2007 I spent one day each week becoming a student again, leaving early and returning home about midnight. My Mother blessed me and her grandchildren by stepping in each week while I was away, helping in many ways.

Skills and Knowledge

New Ways of Thinking

To do well in my literature courses I had to learn to think in new ways. I had to learn how to argue a point. In the past, as I’ve mentioned, I liked addressing problems with straight forward solutions. When I first began addressing questions related to various works, I found myself floundering for answers — wondering how to know the right answer. I had some weird half formed idea that somehow the answered existed outside the work in the body of some critique of the work. What I did NOT have yet was the “a-ha” that an answer could come directly from me and my experience of the work as long as I could support my answer with relevant details from the text.

This was a huge step for me because I realized that I could apply this new found freedom to decide and express what I thought, based on the evidence available to me, to any situation.

That is a little embarrassing to admit because It seems obvious that that is what we should always do — decide what we think based on the available evidence. HOWEVER, I suspect it is common for people to offer answers based MORE on what they believe someone else thinks is correct than on what they personally believe is correct, based on the evidence they are aware of. I don’t think we usually even realize that’s what we’re doing. It’s more obvious if you notice that you have one answer to a particular question in one context (with certain people)  and a completely different answer to the same question in a different context (with different people). That’s worth examining …

This particular “a-ha” gave me a new compass in life. I realized that in any situation — instead of trying to figure out the “right” answer, I could determine my position based on what I knew. Of course, with my background fear of information overload, and my frequent lack of much research, that means that I simply don’t have a strong opinion on many topics because I don’t know much about them.  However, as I continue to further embrace inquiry and suspended judgement, I don’t believe I’ll necessarily become more opinionated.  If one is “suspending judgement” how can one be polarized?

Things I had to do

Other things I had to be able to do to complete my degree included:

  • about 50 semester units of coursework with a grade of B or better
  • research critical opinions related to course texts and write papers in dialogue with them
  • participate in and occasionally lead graduate seminar sessions
  • study a wide range of periods and genres of English literature and ancient European literature
  • study many critics of literature from Aristotle to the present
  • learn another language (I chose Spanish) well enough to pass a written comprehension test at about a “third semester” level
  • pass two comprehensive written essay exams: one covering literature from ancient European works (like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey) through American and British English literature of the18th century, another covering American and British English literature from the 19th century through the 20th.

Explicit Skills and Knowledge

Review of the Skill Areas Worksheet I’m using related to key learning experiences results in a list of the following skill/knowledge areas related to earning my MA in English:

  • Problem solving skills: critical thinking related to critical theory dialog
  • Written communication: many papers and essays
  • Oral communication: leading and participating in seminar sessions
  • Information Literacy: Research, Evaluation, Interpretation
  • Technology Literacy: Internet browser, Word processing, Online databases
  • Teamwork: participating in seminar discussions and study groups
  • Intercultural Knowledge and competence: Increased knowledge of various aspects of many cultures based on deep study of particular works
  • Literature: Increased knowledge of English Literature and ancient European literature

Lasting Results

I’ve already described the way the demands of my coursework helped change my approach to developing my position on an issue. Some of the other benefits from this learning experience that have ongoing value to me include:

  • Deeper knowledge about the different time periods and cultures from which the literature I studied was created. Literature is a wonderful path to learning more about psychology, history, and politics
  • Realizing that any topic becomes interesting after I dig into it, immersing myself for awhile
  • Stronger writing skills
  • Perseverance. I had to study A LOT. The last six months before my final essay exam found me grabbing regular hours at 4am. Often, when I’m looking for the strength to go on with a challenge I’ll remember that and think, “Every step counts. Just take the next step.”
  • Increased diversity in courses I teach
  • A range level increase in my University status
  • Deeper appreciation for diverse genres of literature
  • Conscious awareness of how FUN learning is

Taking a Deeper Look

Easy vs. Hard

I always liked reading literature. Reading was the easy part of my program, though it was challenging to find enough time, and some works initially seemed dull. I also enjoyed having one day a week completely dedicated to “being a student.” I went to campus early, worked in the library, and went to class in the evening. Writing short papers was fun, but writing long papers was hard. Writing a 25 page paper on a particular theme requires finding a lot of different things to say supported by a lot of research. I could still learn more about strategies for developing a 25 page paper on a literary theme.

Influence on Others and My Biggest Challenge

Immersion in my studies undoubtedly made me less sensitive and available to my children’s needs, but my regular absences also provided greater opportunities for connections between them and my Mother. I suspect that my hard work over a significant time period for something I cared about was a good example for them. Another aspect of this experience that I hope was valuable to them was the biggest challenge I had to overcome. The first time I took the second essay exam I did not pass. Not only was that excruciating for the embarrassment factor, but for the realization that before I could take it again I would have to endure six more months of daily early morning study. The main “silver” lining to this was the hope that it was positive for my kids to know that I could fail at something I cared about and not give up. Part of me wanted to give up,  but I could not find any good reasons to support that decision. The second time I took the second essay exam I knew I had strong answers for each of the questions and I felt good. That was Fall 2007, and that Thanksgiving Holiday I celebrated by cooking dinner for a close group of friends.

Summing Up – Final Thoughts

Working for my Master’s degree helped me learn to argue and increased my self-discipline and perseverance. All of my studies provided tremendous rewards through the pleasure of deep learning of diverse literature, history, psychology, philosophy, and cultures.  I cannot think of any particular weaknesses this experience makes me more aware of, that are continuing challenges and barriers for me. During my studies instead of trying to avoid “information overload” (as I often have!) I dived into as many sources as I could related to any topic I was working with. I did run into time constraints and I never conquered the process of writing a 25 page literary paper well, however, I could learn that if necessary. When I think deeply about this experience my primary feelings are affection for the pleasure of the learning and tremendous satisfaction for meeting a demanding challenge.

Note: This post is one of three developed for an example of examining one’s key learning experiences to learn more deeply about one’s skills, knowledge, and values.

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Teaching: A Path to Learning

Becoming A Lifelong Learner

Flow chart of inquiry while acknowledging fear of information overload

Acknowledge a fear of information overload and choose inquiry!

Context

My past fourteen years teaching for the School of Business at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) has been a key learning experience for me, diverse and  rewarding. This reflection examines this experience for deeper learning about my skills, knowledge, and values.

I was initially hired because my experience with software applications qualified me to step-in where someone else had ducked-out, mid-semester. I began teaching with a B.S. in Computer Science and later earned an M.A. in English.

Since 1999 I’ve:

Taught diverse courses:

  • BUS 200: Intro to BUS Computing: Information literacy and technology skills.
  • BUS 299: Excel Spreadsheet: Spreadsheet skills.
  • BUS 308: Computer Information Systems: Information Management skills.
  • BUS 498: Internship Experience: Guided reflection and research related coursework, internship, and career goals.
  • BUS 304: Reading, Writing, & Crit Thinking/BUS II: Written and Oral communication focused primarily in a critical thinking context.

Participated on several campus committees:

  • Critical thinking workshops
  • ePortfolio committee
  • Technology/Information learning community
  • Search committee for campus-wide Advising Director
  • Tech/info ULR committee

Spent several years managing advising for our department:

  • approved student learning plans
  • trained and managed student peer advisors
  • collaborated with other advising bodies as well as the registrar’s office, and the campus career center
  • participated in informational events at local high schools

Explicit Skills and Knowledge

The large range of skills and knowledge used, initiated, or enhanced by my responsibilities as an adjunct faculty member at CSUMB seems consistent with my sense of always learning something new in this role.

  • Intellectual Skills: All are integral to teaching, special projects and committee work.
  • Sustainable Knowledge: increased through coursework, and department and campus events and goals
  • Helping Individuals: integral to teaching
  • Civic Knowledge and Engagement: increased through committee involvement
  • Ethical Reasoning and Action: increased through coursework and some professional dilemmas.
  • Intercultural Knowledge and Competence: increased through coursework and professional context
  • Philosophy, Education, and Psychology: increased through coursework,  faculty workshops, and professional context

Outcomes

The dynamic, stimulating environment of our CSUMB campus combined with the excellent leadership and collaboration of our faculty in the School of Business have provided countless opportunities for growth. So many kinds of challenges confront teachers: challenges of subject mastery, interpersonal relations, course management, learner engagement, differing learning needs, and changing institutional demands. Many times when faced with a new challenge, I balk, thinking, “NO! I don’t want to do that –!” However, a long time ago I discovered that when I embrace a new challenge that falls in my path, amazing, unexpected rewards follow. When I sidestep a new challenge and opt for an “easy out” I invariably experience either a sterile “dead” period or worse. Addressing challenges requires learning new skills and knowledge,  which, from my experience,  in spite of any frustrations and disappointments, always seems to result in  fertile feelings of growth and fulfillment.

Taking a Deeper Look

Aspects of teaching that have been easy for me include organizing my courses,  guiding learners through specific individual activities, and learning to set some necessary boundaries. More challenging aspects include developing more engaging and effective in-class activities and new ways to teach concepts, as necessary. The most challenging part of teaching, that has led me the closest to dreaming of exit plans, is facing student work that falls far short of acceptable quality, uncertain how to respond. However, I’ve recently had epiphanies that change my perspective on this issue.

An “a-ha” experience that changed how I approach teaching was realizing that learners need not only instruction, but effective, individual feedback on their understanding of all of the fundamental elements of a larger project, before they can effectively develop the larger project.

This sounds obvious. Someone probably could have taught me this sooner. Although I’ve been teaching for 14 years, only in the past few years have I availed myself of opportunities to learn more about the art of teaching from other people and other resources. Previously, I’ve learned primarily from trial and error. My lack of inquiry into the scholarship of teaching and learning is an example of the same kind of fear of information overload I described in my Yoga discussion. I did not consciously acknowledge that I was choosing NOT to learn teaching methods and improve my courses. Instead, afraid of information overload, from the vast field of learning science, I ignored the issue. A certain rigidity accompanies my organization skills. I am attracted to straight forward, defensible solutions to well structured problems. When I ponder integrating new teaching strategies, I wonder,  where does the need for change and improvement end?

Perhaps the need for change and improvement never ends! I’ve recently read some formal discussions about reflection and had the opportunity to consciously understand that a habit of suspended judgement, supporting ongoing inquiry, is necessary for true reflective judgement. But such ongoing inquiry is only possible if I can accept the “discomfort” of suspended judgement, which may be the root of my fear of information overload.

Note: This post is one of three developed as part of my personal example of exploring key learning experiences for deeper self-awareness. The steps for the project will be described in detail on a page of this site.

Reflection ? !

Life without examination is not worth living — Socrates

Reflection Matters!

Reflection Matters!

Upon Reflection I’ve decided …..”

That phrase “upon reflection” sounds so casual, so gentle, so optional in a way – as if you hadn’t really needed to do it, but you did, and by the way, it changed your mind … hmm ….

So, what is the process of reflection – that one might use it to change one’s mind? What does it actually mean?

Reflection put simply means examining WHY you believe what you believe – asking yourself questions about your reasons for your beliefs and considering the results with the possibility of forming new conclusions – beliefs.

It turns out that this inquiry process that we call reflection is considered a KEY element to a good life – an integrated life – a life of wisdom – a life worth living – according to some highly respected teachers.

Who said it first? Socrates. According to Plato’s works, Socrates embodied a practice of constant inquiry and believed that without such inquiry life was not worth living.

A much later teacher, John Dewey, an educator and philosopher of the early 20th century, wrote a lot about how people think and he identified reflective thought as a system of “protracted inquiry”, while suspending judgment. He identified the ability to think this way as necessary for intelligent action related to ill-structured problems – all those problems we face for which no particular solution algorithm exists.

The importance of preparing learners to address such ill-structured problems, related to complex world issues as well as personal life choices, is now a frequent topic in education at many levels, in many countries.

And what is a key practice, encouraged by many respected educators, to help learners develop intelligent problem solving skills? Surprise – a practice of reflective inquiry! Many institutions, programs, and individuals are adopting processes that guide and stimulate reflective thought – responding to questions – particularly related to one’s learning experiences – both formal and informal. Evidence shows that learners can learn more deeply by responding to questions about their learning. They can learn more deeply about the topic under focus, by making more connections with the concepts, and they can learn more deeply about themselves, about how they learn, why they learn, and what matters to them. Such learning contributes to deeper integration of learning and to better, more integrated life choices, because the better one understands what one values  and how to apply concepts in new contexts, the better prepared one is to make meaningful life choices related to all issues.

Based on the advice from diverse sources – a reflective thinking practice involving systematic inquiry about our learning experiences and our resulting beliefs is a valuable tool for developing and leading a life worth living.

 Why Learning Portfolios?

“If you do not integrate your life’s experiences into a coherent whole — a comprehensive understanding of your struggles, failures, successes — then you will have difficulty understanding yourself. You will not achieve wisdom. You will experience despair.”  Carl Alasko, Therapist and Columnist  (Alasko, 2010)Learning Portfolio Cycle

The process of developing Learning Portfolios helps learners develop deeper connections through a cycle of reflecting on their learning, connecting their reflections to evidence, and receiving and responding to feedback.

Alasko’s quote, relating a lack of integration with despair, comes from a column that includes discussion about the need to integrate one’s life experiences into a “coherent whole.” Alasko referenced Erik Erikson’s work on life stages, ego identity, and the value of reaching one’s later years with a sense that one’s life path has been meaningful.

A few months after reading Alasko’s column, I heard Melissa Peet, (now Director of Integrative Learning and Knowledge Management at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business), share examples of using a portfolio process to help individuals come to a more conscious awareness of and a deeper sense of integration with the core skills and knowledge they’ve gathered from key learning experiences in their lives, both formal and informal (ePortfolio California,2011; Peet, 2010).  Because I’m deeply interested in practices that help people move toward integration and meaning, Peet’s talk inspired me to learn more about portfolio development processes as a self-discovery vehicle. Her work with the Integrated Knowledge Portfolio Process (IKPP) ™, lead me to a broader study of best practices developing around Learning Portfolio use and the discovery that Learning Portfolios are in wide use in many contexts (Cambridge, Cambridge, & Yancey, 2009; Lynch & Shaw, 2005; San Francisco State University,2013; University of Michigan, 2009; Virginia Tech & University of Georgia, 2013; Wright, 2001; Zubizarreta, 2009).

A common thread driving the growing use of Learning Portfolios is a goal of deepening students’ integrated learning – helping them better integrate their learning into a “big picture” framework that extends outside a particular course into other aspects of their lives. Personal Portfolios traditionally represent a showcase of a one’s work. Learning Portfolios also include examples of one’s work, but with the important addition of reflective thought related to that work, ideally developed with feedback from mentors and/or peers. Significant evidence shows that, reflective thinking and writing about one’s learning, in connection with specific examples of the fruits of that learning, help deepen and broaden learning of particular concepts and learning about one’s self.

This site will explore some key elements of Learning Portfolio practices, look at some ways they are being used, and provide some guidelines, recommendations, and examples  to help you get started, whether you want to help your students by integrating a Learning Portfolio into a class you teach, or further your own journey of self-discovery by completing a personal Learning Portfolio exploring some key learning experiences selected from any stage and setting in your life.

References

Alasko, C. (2010, October 17). Balance Curbs Selfishness. The Monterey County Herald. Retrieved from http://www.montereyherald.com/carlalasko/ci_16362155

Cambridge D., Cambridge B., & Yancey K.B., (Eds.). (2009). Electronic Portfolios 2.0: Emergent Research on Implementation and Impact.  Sterling, VA: Stylus.

ePortfolio California. (2011). AAC&U ePortfolio Forum Sessions. Retrieved from http://eportfolioca.org/training-a-support/aacau-eportfolio-forum-sessions

Lynch, B. & Shaw, P. (2005). Portfolios, Power and Ethics. TESOL Quarterly. 39(2) 263-297.

San Francisco State University. (2013). ePortfolio. Retrieved from http://eportfolio.sfsu.edu/

Peet, M. (2010) The integrative knowledge portfolio process: A Guide for Educating Reflective Practitioners and Lifelong Learners. MedEdPORTAL, June.

University of Michigan. (2009). MPortfolio. Retrieved from http://mportfolio.umich.edu/

Virginia Tech & University of Georgia. (2013). International Journal of ePortfolio. Retrieved from http://www.theijep.com/

Wright, W.A. (2001). The Dalhousie Career Portfolio Programme: A Multi-faceted Approach to Transition to Work. Quality in Higher Education. 7(2) 149-159.

Zubizarreta, J. (2009). The Learning Portfolio: Reflective Practice for Improving Student Learning (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.