"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Archive for August, 2010

Book Review: Everybody Communicates, Few Connect

John Maxwell attempts to demystify communication principles in a way that enable people to actually make a connection.  He focuses on a range of audience considerations, investigating how to communicate one-on-one, in small groups, and with a large audience.  The book features two sections around principles and practices of connecting.  The main principles of connecting involve realizing that connection is not fundamentally about you; the main practices of connecting involve concrete actions.

Overall, I found the book to be accessible and about as interesting as a book on communication can be.  I wasn’t looking abundantly forward to reading this book, but Maxwell did a solid job at presenting some fairly new ideas.  In particular, his discussion about the role of simplicity in communication stuck with me.  As an academic, it’s my job to appreciate the nuances of complex phenomena; but it is equally my job to make the topic transparent.  Additionally, I picked up some valuable insights about why it is a bad idea to retreat immediately after class.  Connection with my students needs to be about them.

This book isn’t a book for everyone.  If people constantly praise your connection skills, you’re probably not going to get a lot out of the content.  Yet, it is a clear presentation of accessible pointers for connecting if you are the type of person that has some more difficulties.

When do we start?

So many people have theories about the appropriate time to start science and engineering education that it drives me a bit bonkers.  Bringing in STEM-focused initiatives seems to be a growing face of educational innovations, reflected recently in this news story from Richfield, MN.

In particular one of the comments struck me as a grounds for considering STEM education

As a scientist, With degrees in engineering and computer science I can tell you that you cannot teach any meaningful science until 10th grade. Even then it’s marginal. These teachers don’t know one whit about real science. Further engineers and technical people are the first ones laid off (after the ‘project’ is completed) and receive mediocre salaries compared to the sales and marketing staff.

CLAIM: You cannot teach any meaningful science until 10th grade. Even then it’s marginal.

COUNTER: I think this comment presupposes a definition of “meaningful” science that refers to analytical science, rooted in accepting current mathematical models of the world around us.  Therefore, until you have mastered the basics of algebra, do not even bother teaching students science.  And really, “meaningful” science has calculus pre-requisites.  This viewpoint does have some legitimate considerations, particularly when one considers that Isaac Newton invented calculus to explain his observations of how things moved.

Yet, we do not have observation-based science in school.  This fact strikes me as most unfortunate because science, in my humble estimation, requires learning how to see the things that count while simultaneously making an argument for why what you see should count.  It is of scientific interest to learn how to verify that a car moves across the table with a constant velocity; a student who has the ball on a slight incline who makes the observations that the ball is actually accelerating should be commended.  A refined sense of when an-otherwise-anomalous occurrence counts separates experts from the novices.  Yet, unfortunately school science tends to regard assorted canonical norms of science (which is particularly true when we start talking about high school level science.  If you do not believe that a canon drives scientific instruction, take a look at the learning objectives associated with AP science classes.)

CLAIM: These teachers don’t know one whit about real science.

COUNTER: While I disagree with the commentor’s wording, it does have a ring of truth, particularly when we investigate why people get into elementary education.  Elementary educators are notorious for expressing discomfort around math and science topics.  Yet elementary educators are often expected to be all things to all people.  These educators establish students on a broad academic footing while simultaneously working with (largely) the same students all day.  To me, I regard it as somewhat of a marvel that any elementary educator rises to the ranks of affirmed specialist in any area, let alone considerations of math and science.

Yet, we tend to rely on in-service professional development to help teachers expand their skill sets in the classroom.  And herein lies a considerable challenge because we can easily default towards “activities that work” rather than “integrated instructional design.”  If you add to this mix teachers who are uncomfortable with the content to begin with, then you will likely encounter teachers who take the activities without the assorted pedagogy.  Therefore, when I read articles where teachers learn how to “do science” with flashlights and balloons, I cannot help but be skeptical.  Some trends in professional development involve sending paired instructors to the workshop to help when rubber meets the road of implementation, using a wiki-source to develop community, and asking teachers to make a multiple year commitment to a training program.  We also might need to take a good hard look at everything we expect our elementary teachers to be experts.

CLAIM: Further engineers and technical people are the first ones laid off (after the ‘project’ is completed) and receive mediocre salaries compared to the sales and marketing staff.

COUNTER: I think this statement gets to the heart of current discussions about what majoring in a technical field is good for anyway.  And incidentally, I also think it speaks to the need to reconsider technical education.  As Paul Polak recently said, “To solve the other 75% of the [technical] problem, an effective way to put these tools in the hands of millions of last mile customers had to be designed. This is as true of design in the West as it is for developing countries.”  In other words, it is one thing to analyze and build something; it is something else entirely to have a developed approach be a solution.

We mistakenly assume that things are “done” when they are far from it.  Bad design is not a solution inasmuch as it is a problem needing to be solved.

We do not walk alone

We can easily forget that following Christ is a risky choice where Christ invites us to surrender everything we have in order to find ourselves in Him.  Dying to ourselves is accomplished, not in one decision made sometime in the past, but in decisions that go from minute to minute.  Yet, in Christ, I marvel because He does not ask us to do anything He Himself was unwilling to do.  Borrowing another thought from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom,

The Lord says to us that if we want to be followers of His, disciples, we must take up our crosses and follow Him. And when we think of the Cross of the Lord, we think of His gradual, painful ascent to His Crucifixion, we think of the way of the Cross, of His death. And indeed, the Lord calls us, if we want to be faithful to Him, if we want to be His disciples, to be prepared to walk all the way with Him – all the way.

But on the other hand, we must remember that He does not call us to follow a road which He has not trod Himself. He is a Good Shepherd that walks ahead of His sheep, making sure that all is clear, that dangers have been removed, that they can walk safely in His footstep. His call to take up our cross and to follow Him is a call, at the same time, to accept to be true disciples of Him, and also to do it in the certainty that He will never ask from us what He has not done or endured Himself. We can follow Him safely; we can follow Him with assurance, but also with a sense of peace in our heart and our mind.

May God bless you with the grace to pray and authentically seek Christ.

On Limitations

A hunter in the desert once saw Abba Antony enjoying himself with the brothers, and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brothers, the old man said to the hunter: “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. The old man then said: “Shoot another arrow.” And he did so. Then the old man said: “Shoot another arrow.” But the hunter replied: “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” Then Antony said to him: “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brothers beyond their measure, they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.”

-from the life of St Anthony the Great

May we treat all in light of their human limitations while constantly exhorting all through the power of the Holy Spirit.

On doing the right thing

You know, it can be amazingly hard to be generous at times.  The world does not appreciate generous people, and various structures in society assume the absolute worst in people.  Needless to say, this song from Wicked resonates with me from that perspective.  It also helps that it’s just a solid song from start to finish.  Enjoy. 

Improvising our way to life

It’s been a while since I’ve had featured good music on my blog; I figure it’s about time.  Yet it is hard to find good music when a) I’ve been living under a rock working at camp and b) my friend who I can almost always count on for good music has been also hiding under a rock working on school projects.  But you can almost always find someone having a ton of fun with good music.  So I present

Imogen Heap has recently made all of her live improvisation tracks available for download.  I’m a big fan of the Nashville and Los Angeles songs.  Generally, I enjoy improvisation.  I competed in extemporaneous speaking in high school, good improv comedy is one of my favorite things ever and I have a profound respect for people who can adjust things on the fly.

Yet so much of what we do as human beings is to improvise.  Things don’t always go as planned.  Flexibility, adjustments and uncertainty help ground us in the reality of our limitations.  But within that frame, we find life as we learn to trust, breathe and feel.  It takes guts to produce something never before seen.  But every moment in the future has perennial newness that invites the leap of faith.

On the Gospel

“The Gospel is a harsh document; the Gospel is ruthless and specific in what it says; the Gospel is not meant to be re-worded, watered down and brought to the level of either our understanding or our taste. The Gospel is proclaiming something which is beyond us and which is there to stretch our mind, to widen our heart beyond the bearable at times, to recondition all our life, to give us a world view which is simply the world upside-down and this we are not keen to accept….The Gospel is ruthless, and the words of Christ are harsh, however loving they are; because love is ruthless, love will never accept compromise.”

-Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his sermon asking “Can Modern Man Believe?