Friday, February 18, 2011

The continuing quest to be a better teacher

I remember when I joined the university about 17 years ago (it feels like only yesterday!) I was given the task of handling a laboratory class. I already had some experiences as a graduate assistant during my time as a Ph.D. student so it was not very difficult. I think I did quite a good job designing new experiments, interacting with the students and helping them with the experiment and marking the lab report. During the first few months, I had to attend induction courses including one or two sessions on teaching and learning. I don’t think I learn much on the learning theory or pedagogy then but I still remember a session where I had to give a mock lecture that was recorded and later commented by the facilitator. That was how much the training I received to become a teacher (lecturer) and I was supposed to be ready to carry out the task of educating the adult students. Without sufficient knowledge in pedagogy and teaching techniques, I was forced to use my intuition and developed my own approach based on my limited understanding of what good teaching is all about.

Now fast forward and looking back, I think I am a better teacher now than I was 17 years ago—but without seeking new knowledge via self-study, my pedagogical approach and teaching skills probably would not have changed very much. Obviously the task of preparing teachers for the profession is a complex and challenging one. Teachers, especially lecturers in higher educational institution should not take it for granted that the basic training in teaching is adequate to help students to learn effectively. Knowledge is not static – indeed it should expand, honed and enhanced. I believe educators at all levels, from kindergarten to university, should always seek new knowledge not only in their area of specialization but also in other disciplines. I always believe that we can only get better, provided we are willing to learn! As someone who is not formally trained as a teacher, I always on the lookout for good resources (books, websites, blogs or courses) on teaching and learning. My motivation is to enhance my teaching based on sound pedagogical principles and ultimately this hopefully would benefit my students’ learning.

In view of the dynamic progress in the 21st century learning environment and the changing needs of our students, teachers (lecturers, faculty) should strive to seek new knowledge and skills through a continuous professional development programme. According to Grant "Professional development ... goes beyond the term 'training' with its implications of learning skills, and encompasses a definition that includes formal and informal means of helping teachers not only learn new skills but also develop new insights into pedagogy and their own practice, and explore new or advanced understandings of content and resources”. In other words, professional development involves activities or programmes that develop an individual’s skills, knowledge, expertise and other characteristics as a teacher.

The development of teachers beyond their initial training can serve a number of objectives (OECD, 1998), including:
  • to update individuals’ knowledge of a subject in light of recent advances in the area;
  • to update individuals’ skills, attitudes and approaches in light of the development of new teaching techniques and objectives, new circumstances and new educational research;
  • to enable individuals to apply changes made to curricula or other aspects of teaching practice;
  • to help weaker teachers become more effective.
What kind of new knowledge, skills and competencies that teachers should equip themselves? In this regard, Paulsen (2001) proposed that teachers should master three types of knowledge: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term coined by Shulman (1986) to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline.

It goes without saying that mastery of the subject matter (theories, principles, and concepts) is essential to help students learn the subject. Assuming that one has mastered the subject content, one also has to understand how their students learn – the learning process. In this regard, a teacher should have some basic understanding of learning theory, Bloom taxonomy, etc. Next, according to Shulman, a teacher should also have a pedagogical content knowledge. It represents “the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction”. In other words, teachers with good pedagogical content knowledge are able to explain and transfer the knowledge of content to their students with clarity and meaningful. This means that the teacher would design the teaching approach in such a way, using appropriate techniques (e.g., demonstration, graphic representation, video, factory/site visit, etc., interview, role play, games, etc.) with ultimate aim to make the subject comprehensible. For example in my course, I always use demonstration in the classroom to illustrate certain concept. In designing a suitable demonstration, first I need to have in-depth understanding of the concept myself. Then I would think of a way to demonstrate it in the simplest possible manner. In my classes you might learn why the tomato sauce flows more readily than the plum sauce, why the chocolate bar melts in your mouth, why the soft margarine is spreadable but the block margarine is hard, etc. There are at least two reasons for such an approach. First, it lets the students see the relevance of the information. Second, it helps the students own the knowledge; they can see with their own ears and eyes what the concepts mean for them. Apart from demonstration, I frequently used analogy to illustrate certain abstract concept.

How do teachers seek new knowledge in their subject matter (content knowledge), pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge? This can be achieved in several ways and here I’d like to share my own approaches:

Attending short courses – Attending short courses related to the discipline or subject matter is a good (and faster) way to improve knowledge and gain in-depth understanding of the subject. By attending these courses, I get to learn something not normally found in the book. I remember many years ago I attended a certification course in Australia – it was a five-day intensive course conducted by an instructor with more than 25 years practical experience in the field. He shared his real industrial experiences and most of the examples given were from his consultation work with industry. Those were very invaluable knowledge that cannot be found in a standard text book. The knowledge I gained from these courses has benefited the students’ learning significantly and adds value to the course. With respect to pedagogy, I have participated in a workshop on using technology in the classroom, leveraging learning management system such as Moodle to develop e-learning courses, developing module, introducing active learning into the classroom, etc. The idea and knowledge I gained from the workshop led me to make significant modifications to my teaching approach, experiment with problem-based learning, new pedagogical approaches, and new tools to help enhance my students’ learning experience. These efforts, taken together, result in continuous efforts to refine, change, remove, and add both to the content of my courses and to the methods I use to deliver that content.

Reading – I constantly look for interesting resources (books, articles) and ideas to incorporate into my lectures and classes. The reading fuels both my teaching (as well as my research), as I am constantly exposed to new ideas, techniques and points of view. On the pedagogy aspect, I’d like to recommend a few books to get at least basic pedagogical knowledge:
  • Alan Pritchard (2009). Ways of Learning – Learning Theories and Learning Styles in the Classroom, 2nd edition. This book presents basic theories on learning, followed by the two major schools of psychology that have dealt with learning: behaviorism and constructivism. I like the simplicity of the presentation – good introduction for the novice teachers (non-education background);
  • Susan A. Ambrose and others (2010). How Learning Works – 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. [Excerpt from the website: “It introduces seven research-based principles of learning and addresses issues such as prior knowledge, knowledge organization, motivation, and metacognition. Written to be accessible and practically useful, this book helps to explain why certain teaching approaches do or do not support student learning and provides faculty with a framework for generating effective approaches and strategies in their own teaching contexts”].
  • Barbara Gross Davis (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd edition. [Description copied from the preface: “Tools for Teaching provides new and experienced faculty in all disciplines with practical, tested strategies for addressing all major aspects of college and university teaching, from planning a course through assigning final grades”].
Of course, there are more books that you can read but let’s start with a small step if you haven’t started at all.

Educational website and blog – This is another useful (or shall I say VERY USEFUL) source to obtain information and new knowledge in subject content and on pedagogy. For example in my area (food science and technology), Institute of Food Technologist (USA) website publishes latest information on various aspects of food science and technology (processing, ingredients, nutrition, food safety, etc.). As for pedagogy and teaching/learning, there are plentiful of good websites such as Faculty Focus, Edutopia, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Higher Education, etc. Often some websites, such as Faculty Focus, provides free articles that are downloadable as PDF file. Over the years I have amassed a huge collection of articles from various websites. Unfortunately I have not read all but I know there's a pool of knowledge on my computer waiting to be tapped.

We should not forget blog and social community network group where educators meet to discuss and share their thought on various issues. One example is Classroom 2.0 (social network for those interested in Web 2.0 and Social Media in education). If you are into using technology, there are plentiful of expert blog such as The Rapid E-learning blog and informative blog such as ZaidLearn.

Journals – If you want to read the latest research in your discipline there’s no substitute for reading peer-reviewed journals. Generally there are two types: Review journals which publish review articles and research journals which publish original research findings. Some journals are only accessible if your institution has a subscription. Others are accessible free of charge through open access. There are a number of open access journals in education, for example the International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. To find the open access journal simply go the extensive online catalogue, Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Here I copied the description about DOAJ – “This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. We aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 6175 journals in the directory. Currently 2631 journals are searchable at article level. As of today 510028 articles are included in the DOAJ”.

To improve the so-called 'pedagogical content knowledge', there are journals in certain discipline that focus on the pedagogical aspect of teaching/learning the content of the discipline. Just to mention two examples, in chemistry there is Journal of Chemical Education (copublished by the ACS Publications Division and the Division of Chemical Education) and in food science we have Journal of Food Science Education (available free online), co-published by Institute of Food Technologist, USA and Wiley.

Well, there’s so much teachers/lecturers/faculties can do in terms of their own professional development. The bottom line is continuous professional development of teachers can no longer be viewed as an option but as a necessity, if we were to enhance the standard of education at all levels.

References and further readings:
  • Paulsen, M.B., “The Relation Between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning, Vol. 86, 2001, pp. 19–29.
  • [Grant, C. M. Professional development in a technological age: New definitions, old challenges, new resources [Available online]. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Do you over teach your students?

I always share my enthusiasm with my colleagues about my teaching approaches and very often one of the issues raised during our discussion is “spoon-feeding” or “over teaching”. “Don’t you think you are spoon-feeding your students by putting your hand-outs, notes, PowerPoints slides, etc. for them to freely download?” “Don’t you think we over teach our students?” – These are the questions commonly asked by my colleagues and also when I give a presentation related to teaching-learning issues. Hmm....actually these are difficult questions to answer because to me there is no fine line or clear demarcation as to what constitutes spoon-feeding or over teaching and what is not.

Well, this is what the dictionary says about spoon feeding in the context of teaching-learning:
"If you spoon-feed someone, you do everything for them or tell them everything that they need to know, thus preventing them from having to think or act for themselves. There is a tendency to spoon-feed your pupils when you’re teaching because it is quicker and easier" (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary). So apparently the result of spoon-feeding in the academic context is the inhibition of the development of the capacity for independent thinking and learning.

I posted a question about this issue in my e-learning portal (title: Spoon-feeding: Are you being pampered?) and asked the students to give their response. Here is one of the responses (verbatim):
Here is my two cents' worth. Honestly, it is not only me that has been spoon-fed, in fact "all" of us will have to raise up our hands and own up! (Please don't sue me for defamation because I think that this is true) Ha ha.... From young, we have been fed with a silver spoon by our biological parents and in school, the same goes with our dedicated "second-parents". The spoon feeding practice is part of our Malaysian education culture which has long built its warm nest and is still very much alive and breathing. That is why we turn out to be pampered passive learners...” (Chan Lai Ean).

I think providing our students with basic learning resources (within reasonable limit) do not mean we spoon feed the students. What’s important is how we design the learning activities - it should be designed carefully in such a manner that it would require the students to construct and scaffold the knowledge, individually or as part of their group assignment. In doing such activities they will acquire the essential skills such as using databases to search the literature and summarizing the information. After all, in this information era students can easily access and download various learning resources related to the subject, sometimes with better quality than those supplied by their teachers. For my course, I do provide students with basic hand-out and all my PowerPoint slides but they know that they cannot find the answer for the assignment without doing further reading and find more learning resources on their own.

What about “over teaching”? Is it possible to over teach? This issue is perhaps relevant and could happen in a traditional teacher-centered classroom when teachers try to deliver and transmit subject content to their students as much as possible. Enthusiastic teachers prone to do too much (rather than too little) during the 50 minutes lecture – very often they talk more than students do. According to Paula [1] this happens for several reasons: teachers are so anxious for students to learn that they try to shove as much information during the set time period, more than the students could effectively comprehend. It boils down to teachers making themselves feel good, thinking that they have covered the essential information on the topic/subject without much thought as to what the students are actually learning.

In student-centered learning paradigm, the role of teacher is shifted from merely transmitting the knowledge passively to students to one involving more students’ participation and responsibility in a classroom. However, one of the teachers’ concerns about student-centered approach is the notion that more time need to be allocated in a classroom for student-centered activities, taking away precious lecture time to cover the syllabus. Obviously in order to create a successful student-centered environment, teachers should change their mindset from “more is better” to “less is more” approach to classroom teaching. Instead of trying to cover everything in the subject, concentrate on fewer major (core) topics and spend more time on those. This approach would promote deep conceptual understanding rather than just a superficial or cursory knowledge of the subject. To facilitate learning and discussion, relevant learning resources can be uploaded in advanced on the learning portal and students can be instructed to read the materials before the lecture. Using this approach, class time can be used more productively to cover conceptually difficult material, leaving the students to cover the rest for themselves.

References and further readings:

  1. Evans, C., Gibbons, N.J., Shah, K. and Griffin, D.K. (2004) Virtual learning in the biological sciences: pitfalls of simply "putting notes on the web" Computers & Education, 43, 49-61.
  2. Felder, R.M. and Brent, R. Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction
  3. Paula, E. (2009). Be a more effective teacher: How to avoid over teaching in the collegiate business classroom. Proceedings of ASBBS, 16(1), 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Quest for Teaching Excellence

"Teachers should not be predictable in their teaching practices or approaches – in fact, in my view all great teachers are not predictable because they always surprise and excite their students with different “tricks of the trade” up their sleeve" - A. A. Karim.

In this posting I will share some of the 'open secrets' of being great teachers and their attributes that provide the environment for teaching excellence. In fact, I put the original title as "Open secret recipes of great teachers" but I changed my mind and instead use the current title. The main points actually are based on the article “The Quest for Excellence in University Teaching” written by Sherman and others [1]. It was published more than 20 years ago but I think the idea is still very much applicable and relevant when we talk about the characteristics of teaching excellence, be it in school or in higher education.  Some might argue whether it is still relevant to talk about teaching excellence while the trend now is towards changing the paradigm from teaching to learning paradigm (teacher-centered to student-centered)? In my view, teaching and learning have to go hand-in-hand – it is inseparable. The student-centered paradigm simply means an increased responsibility and accountability on the part of the student but the role of the teacher is still vital although not so much as a provider of knowledge but more as a facilitator.

Five characteristics have been identified by the authors to constitute excellence in teaching: enthusiasm, clarity, preparation/organization, stimulating, and love of knowledge.

ENTHUSIASM – Without doubt, enthusiasm is a critical element for good teaching, and believe me students have a sixth sense for it! If students see a teacher who demonstrates a passion and exude enthusiasm for the subject he/she is teaching, inevitably they will be affected by this energy and will engage themselves actively in the learning process. The enthusiasm that teachers bring to the classroom helps to create an encouraging and supportive atmosphere. I firmly believed that teachers, who share their passion for teaching, and teach with enthusiasm and empathy, are more likely to both connect with learners and increase learner performance. Numerous researches have affirmed that students respond favorably to enthusiastic teachers and this trait has always been associated with teaching excellence, so it is highly desirable to remain enthusiastic. Having said that, enthusiasm has been regarded by some people as a natural part of the individual teacher – the intrinsic attribute – one either "has it" or "does not have it."

What attributes define enthusiasm? These include vocal delivery that is rapid and excited, eyes that dance, facial expressions that show surprise, word selection which is highly descriptive, and an overall energy level that is explosive and exuberant. Hmm…”overall energy level that is explosive and exuberant?” Yes, this factor is actually very important, at least for me. I’d rather cancel my lecture if I were not mentally or physically prepared. This is because I always want to be seen energetic and enthusiastic when delivering my lecture. Of course, it’s hard to maintain the same level of enthusiasm every time but teachers have little choice if they expect the students to reciprocate and if they want to make the classroom comes alive. “A sound mind resides in a sound body” – so we (teachers) should keep reminding ourselves to maintain a healthy mind and body, keeps fit and be energetic to keep the fire burning!

Dr Patrick Allit in his book “The Art of Teaching: Best Practices from a Master Educators” shares many tips and strategies to master the art of teaching. He raised this interesting statement and question (page 58) – “In the early days of your teaching career, you were no doubt filled with excitement and energy but what happens after 25 years down the road, when you’ve been teaching for so long that every class seems like a rerun of one you’ve done before? Every vocation can become dull through repetition and familiarity, teaching included, but the best teachers find ways to prevent a sense of monotony from ever setting in”.

CLARITY – A good teacher is one who clearly explains themselves clearly so that their students understand exactly what is being taught. Teachers should have an excellent grasp and the mastery of the subject they teach. Teachers should be able to articulate their ideas succinctly without any ambiguity. However, even though teachers are the subject matter expert, sometimes they need to try a few different ways of explaining before they find one that is most effective for their students. In my view, when a teacher is able to explain something in more than one way, it shows that they have a complete understanding of the information they are teaching. That not only gives validity in what they say, but it makes their students believe them too! According to Wallen [3], the effective teacher is one who appears to be able to explain concepts clearly and such that the students seem to be gaining understanding.  The bottom line is that teachers should strive to embrace and immerse themselves in the subject matter to achieve an expert level and this would benefit both teachers and learners immensely.

Personally in my classroom, I spend more time on introducing and explaining important concepts. The approach in presenting the material in the class is of utmost important to achieve this objective. Typically, before delivering a new concept to students, I articulate the background information, and ask them to find out the solution. Along the way this approach would reveal the depth of their prior knowledge and their grasp of fundamental principles. Then I introduce the theory I wanted to communicate. This approach creates curiosity to learn about the concept. It enables the students to remember the subject forever and also stimulate them to look for other approaches for that task.

PREPARATION AND ORGANIZATION - Preparation describes the types of activities the teacher performs to ensure that a lesson or course can be conducted as planned. Organization refers to the way the teacher organizes or structures the subject matter [1]. A good teacher put considerable effort, energy, time and even money to organize and prepare their teaching materials. Typically, this included: constructing detailed course outlines, establishing course objectives, and defining evaluation procedures.

STIMULATING - Boredom can be a teacher’s greatest enemy! Thus, it is important that teachers create a stimulating environment that captures and captivate the interest of the students. Stimulating teaching includes elements such as entertaining, motivating, captivating, engaging, interesting, enlightening, and thought-provoking. According to Sherman and other [1], stimulating teachers appear to create interest and thoughtfulness in students resulting in closer attention.

Making learning fun and stimulating is easier said than done – it is an art as much as it is a practice. This is the part where teachers can be creative and use any “tools” or techniques available at their disposal. Teachers should be aware of the various pedagogical options and techniques so that they can “mix and match” as appropriate to suit certain learning environment and different learning styles. It’s just like a buffet lunch with a variety of foods to choose from to suit your taste. With all the teaching repertoires, teachers should not be predictable in their teaching practices – in fact, in my view all great teachers are not predictable because they always surprise their students with different “tricks of the trade” up their sleeve. If you recall my previous posts about MIT’s physicist Walter Lewin then you’d understand what I mean.

KNOWLEDGE – Sherman and others divided knowledge into two general categories: the teacher's grasp of the subject matter and the teacher's love of and passion for the subject matter. I guess this is the “disciplined mind” as Howard Gardner explained in his book, “Five Minds for the Future”. Gardner asserted that one needs to know how to do at least one thing really well - not only superficially – not a generalist – not that of Jack of all trades but master of none! In other words, a disciplined mind refers to the ability to focus and develop a deep knowledge and mastery of any subject matter, be it music, photography, quantum physics, etc. So if teach about food chemistry, I should have the in-depth knowledge of the subject so that I can guide my students in their exploration appropriately.

Paulsen [2] suggested that teachers should possess three types of knowledge: (1) content knowledge—knowledge of the facts, principles and methods in the discipline that is being taught, (2) pedagogical knowledge—understanding of the learning process and the conditions that facilitate and hinder it, independent of the discipline in which the learning takes place, and (3) pedagogical content knowledge—a term to denote knowledge and understanding of the learning process in the context of a particular discipline.

Five attributes of great teachers as mentioned here are by no means definitive. To be one of the best teachers, one has to make a systematic and reflective appraisal of own teaching approaches and strategies. Knowing what make great teachers is not enough – what’s more important is practicing and infusing the best practices of great teachers in our teaching consistently towards achieving the teaching excellence.

References and further readings:
  1. Sherman, T.M., Armistead, L.P., Fowler, F., Barksdale, M.A. (1987). The Quest for Excellence in University Teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 58(1)1, 66-84.
  2. Paulsen, M.B.(2001). The Relation between Research and the Scholarship of Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 86,19–29.
  3. What are the dimensions of teaching excellence?
  4. Suggestions For Producing Teaching Excellence
  5. A Berkeley Compendium of Suggestions for Teaching with Excellence

I hope to add more resources and links for this posting (when I can find the time!).

    Saturday, February 5, 2011

    The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

    Here I'm just sharing Carmine Gallo's presentation he posted on the Slideshare. Carmine Gallo is the author of two international best-seller books, "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience" and "The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs", which reveals the principles that have driven Steve Jobs’ success and that can help readers achieve incredible breakthroughs. I have not read the books but looking at the points presented in the slides, I'm sure the books contain wealth of good tips and strategies for speakers/presenters.

    For those who's doing a presentation is your bread and butter, then I would highly recommend you to spare a few minutes of your precious time to view the slides. If you can't make it, below I have extracted some important quotes and points from the whole presentation (verbatim).

    "A person can have the greatest idea in the world. But if that person can't convince enough other people, it doesn't matter" - Gregory Berns

    "The single most important thing you can do to dramatically improve your presentations is to have a story to tell before you work on your PowerPoint file" - Cliff Atkinson, Beyond Bullet Points

    In the nutshell, to create and deliver a captivating, effective and memorable presentation, you have to:
    • Create the story
    • Deliver the experience
    • Refine and rehearse
    Steve Jobs presentation is strikingly simple, highly visual and completely devoid of bullet points.

    Researchers have discovered that ideas are much more likely to be remembered if they are presented as pictures instead of words or pictures paired with words. If information is presented orally, people remember about 10% of the content 72 hours later. That figure goes up to 65% if you add a picture. According to John Medina, your brain inteprets every letter as a picture, so wordy slides literally choke your brain!

    "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel" - Maya Angelou.

    Check out other great presentations below:

    Friday, February 4, 2011

    Creating a World without Poverty

    "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” This phrase is simply mean that having a good job is better than giving someone a handout.

    This is an inspiring story of Dr Muhammad Yunus (read his biography), the recipient of 2006 Nobel Peace Price for his creation, the Grameen Bank, to help the poor people in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank provides small loans through a micro-credit (small loans for self-employment) scheme to millions of poor families in Bangladesh to start and grow their own business. Since its establishment the Grameen Bank has helped almost half of them work their way out of poverty.The repayment rate was said to be more than 98%. "You cannot get a dollar without a dollar in your hand", he said. Dr Muhammad believes the concept of Grameen can end world poverty: "There is no reason why poverty should be here. This is a rich country - 120 million energetic, hardworking, intelligent people. They can change the world", he said.

    One of his greatest challenges was to convince the bank to lend money to the poor people. "It can't be done,it can't be done - they are not credible, they will not be able to pay back", said the bank manager. He failed to convince the bank even after a few pilot projects  (after he agreed to become the guarantor) were successful. That was when the idea came up - why don't we have a bank for the poor people? "The conventional banks are for rich people but Grameen Bank is for the poor. It offers interest-free loans to the destitutes to help them improve their lives," he said. "Never give up when people said it could not be done," he said, adding that everybody had to face the challenge if they wanted to succeed.

    Interestingly, over 90% of the bank's customers are women.This is because Dr Muhammad noticed earlier on that the loans were most effectively administered when it was the woman of the house the one who control the budget. He explained, "Money that went to the family through woman brought so much more benefit to the family because she knew exactly how she's going to make business with that - she get the best mileage out of that money and children become the beneficiaries of the mother's income directly".

    Grameen bank and its microcredit model has spread to many countries, especially in the developing world, through thousands of microcredit institutions launched by  nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and business entrepreneurs seeking to emulate the success of Grameen, serving tens of millions of the world's poorest citizens. For example, Jessica Jackley, inspired by the initiative of Dr Muhammad and the success of Grameen Bank, co-founded with her colleague, Matt Flannery. Kiva uses a peer-to-peer model in which lenders sort through profiles of potential borrowers -- be they a farmer in Cambodia, a pharmacist in Sierra Leone, or a shopkeeper in Mongolia -- and make loans to those they find most appealing. Watch her TED Talks presentation, "Poverty, money -- and love".

    In his Nobel Prize Lecture (read full text here) entitled "Poverty is a Threat to Peace" Dr Muhammad said that peace is inextricably linked to poverty - poverty is a threat to peace. He provided the startling statistics of the world's income distribution: 94% of the world income goes to 40% of the population while 60% of people live on only 6% of world income. Half of the world population lives on two dollars a day. Over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. "This is no formula for peace", he said.

    On the initiative and idea of Grameen Bank, Dr Muhammad Yunus said this in his lecture:
    "In 1974, I found it difficult to teach elegant theories of economics in the university classroom, against the backdrop of a terrible famine in Bangladesh. Suddenly, I felt the emptiness of those theories in the face of crushing hunger and poverty. I wanted to do something immediate to help people around me, even if it was just one human being, to get through another day with a little more ease. That brought me face to face with poor people's struggle to find the tiniest amounts of money to support their efforts to eke out a living. I was shocked to discover a woman in the village borrowing less than a dollar from the moneylender on the condition that he would have the exclusive right to buy all she produced at the price he decided. This, to me, was a way of recruiting slave labor".

    Dr Muhammad was awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his efforts in setting up Grameen Bank to address poverty in Bangladesh. He also received the Honorary Doctorate in Economics from Universiti Sains Malaysia in the university's 36th convocation. 

    Dr Muhammad Yunus has written a book, "Creating a World without Poverty - Social Business and the Future of Capitalism". I hope to get my hand on this book soon and share with you the summary - and the spirit of the true intellectual of Dr Yunus. 

    To get a quick overview of the Grameen project, watch this video clip "Banking On The Poor - Bangladesh", produced by ABC Australia and a documentary produced by the Watch also Dr Muhammad Yunus's talk (about 1 hour 7 minutes) at UCSD about the microfinance revolution around the world, and the launch of Grameen America, which will bring microcredit to the U.S.

    On the fate of the so-called "bottom billion", you might want to listen to a talk by Professor Paul Collier on the huge gap between the rich and the poor. He is also the author of a book "The Bottom Billion" (read the book review in the New York Times, London Book, and The Sunday Times). Other links to TED Talk on the issue of poverty is given below:

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    Engaging learners – Use their mobile phone!

    Technology doesn’t inherently improve learning; it merely makes possible more effective pedagogy, and only when it is consonant with an instructor’s educational philosophy and beliefs and reinforced by other components of the total course” – Educause Research Bulletin, 2004(3), 2004. 

    No, no…I’m not talking about mobile learning here but rather on using mobile phone in a classroom for interactive learning. First, let’s picture this scenario: You walk into the classroom with high spirit and full of enthusiasm, eager to start your lecture. As usual, you have prepared well in advance and you have visualised in your head how you would deliver the lecture. You start the lecture and after 10 or 15 minutes you pause and ask, "Does anybody have any questions?" More often than not, nobody raises a hand. “Hmm…sure everything clear?” (yeah…nodding…). If you ask a specific question, “Can anyone give one example of shear-thinning food?", perhaps only one or two students would willingly respond (in most cases, the same student every time). This scenario is quite common in most traditional “passive” classrooms and it can be very discouraging even for enthusiastic teachers. Obviously, merely asking questions and pausing for students to think is insufficient – it hardly engages the students and makes them an active participant in the learning process. It is likely that you end up giving the answer for your own question!

    Research has shown that two fundamental challenges (among others) in teaching are (1) how to engage students in the classroom and (2) how to determine if they are learning what you are teaching. Lectures, even well-crafted and entertaining, are not the most effective way to encourage conceptual understanding and to promote deep learning. Yet lectures are still the dominant mode of teaching. Supplementing or replacing lectures with more active learning approaches can seem daunting, particularly in large classrooms, but a number of alternative methods involving group interactions and inquiry-based learning approaches have been used successfully.

    In this writing I’d like to touch on the aspect of engaging students in the classroom using an electronic Student Response Systems, often referred as “Clickers” or the web-based (online) polling system such as Poll Everywhere. Clickers system consists of a simple hardware and software set up. The teacher asks a multiple-choice question, and the students choose an answer and click a button on a small transmitter. A receiving unit counts all the answers and displays them on the instructor’s computer, usually as a histogram. The histogram may be projected for the class to see. Based on the overall response, the teacher can then decide whether to proceed or to spend more time to revise on a particular topic. Properly designed and implemented, this system provides a convenient way for a teacher to conduct formative (continuous) assessment and evaluate the conceptual understanding of the students. Additionally, the student learns immediately whether he or she understands the concept that the teacher is presenting, without waiting for a test. According to Weiman and Perkins (2005), if used properly, clickers can have a profound impact on the students' educational experience.

    Teachers may have the tendency to cram a lot of things in a 50 minutes lecture. Cognitive research has shown that the amount of new material presented in a typical class is far more than a typical person can process or learn. Moreover, recent research has shown that an average person’s attention span is just around five minutes!  According to Mayer (2003), the more things the brain is given to process at the same time (called cognitive load) the less effectively it can process anything. Any additional cognitive load, no matter what form it takes, will limit people's abilities to mentally process and learn new ideas. To overcome this problem, Weiman and Perkins (2005) randomly divide the students seating at adjacent seats into several groups (3 or 4 students per group). For each lecture, they designed a series of about six clicker questions that cover the key learning goals for that day. Putting the students in a group allows them to discuss and interact before they submit the answer. Weiman and Perkins asserted that peer discussions serve several purposes:
    • Discussion in a group encourages students to share their thoughts and carry out the primary processing of new ideas and problem-solving approaches. 
    • Critiquing each other's ideas to arrive at a consensus answer also enormously improves their ability to carry on scientific discourse. 
    • The discussion helps them to learn to evaluate and test their own understanding. 

    Although multiple-choice questions (MCQ) may seem limiting, they have found that the activity managed to promote the desired student engagement and guiding student thinking. MCQs work particularly well if the possible answers embody common confusions or difficult ideas.

    The problem with using clickers is the investment for the hardware and software system and maybe other logistics and maintenance problems. Worry not – there are several web-based, online polling systems that can be used as long as internet connection is available in the classroom. There’s no requirement for special hardware or software. One system that I have a direct experience is Poll Everywhere which I have described in details in my previous post. The system is free for up to 30 votes. The cost of subscription for more than 30 users is quite reasonable. With Poll Everywhere, you can give MCQ or a question that require a short answer. The cost per "sms" is about the same with normal 'sms'. I have yet to try it in my lecture but my experience using it in the seminar was very positive. I don’t want to elaborate further because I have blogged about it here.

    Duncan (2006) has listed the following advantages on using clickers in a classroom:
    • Measure what students know before you start to teach them (preassessment to gauge students’ prior knowledge)
    • Measure student attitudes
    • Find out if students have done their assigned reading
    • Get students to confront common misconceptions
    • Transform the way you do any demonstrations
    • Increase students’ retention of what you teach
    • Test student understanding (formative assessment)
    • Make some kinds of grading and assessment easier
    • Facilitate testing of conceptual understanding
    • Facilitate discussion and peer instruction
    • Increase class attendance
    References and further readings: