Efficiency and the Honor System

Teaching STEM in Korea

Our team split up in the morning so that we could purchase supplies from different stores in parallel. Shine and I were in charge of electronics, so we made another trip to Yongsan Electronics Market to buy extension cords. We’re starting to become usual customers…

IMG_4980 Day 2 Breakfast at Paris Baguette

On the way to the market, Shine shared more of her Korean culture knowledge with me. Here are a few selected tidbits:

Hanja: Chinese characters in the Korean language. Before Sejong the Great created Hangul, most Korean documents were written in Hanja. When Shine was growing up, students learned how to read Chinese characters starting in the first grade. Learning Hanja is useful for understanding the etymology of Korean words that are based on Chinese words. Also, Hanja is sometimes used instead of Hangul when it is more convenient. For instance, sometimes 男 (“boy” in Hanja) is used in place of 소년…

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Touchdown in Korea

I’m in Korea now…

Teaching STEM in Korea

As of yesterday, our entire team has landed safely in Seoul and moved into our Airbnb apartment! For our first team dinner, we had garlic fried chicken—more flavor than generic fried chicken but not too spicy either—and complimentary corn pops (unofficial name).

IMG_4920 Day 0 Dinner: Garlic fried chicken and corn pops

Today was our first full day together in Korea, and I’m super proud of how productive we were. We left the apartment around 9 AM and grabbed breakfast on the way to the train station.

IMG_4921 Day 1 Breakfast: Paris Baguette

Up until today, our biggest concern was purchasing 9 sets of computer monitors, keyboards, and mice for under $900. A significant portion of our curriculum involves working with Raspberry Pis, which meant that finding or not finding these monitors would make or break our workshop. After browsing online, we quickly realized that computer monitors under $100 are pretty…

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What I learned from taking a class in prison

This past semester, I spent more than 30 hours in prison as part of my non-violence as a way of life philosophy class. I was one of 9 MIT students who made the hour-long drive from Cambridge to Norfolk every Thursday to attend class alongside prison inmates. I’m still trying to make sense of my prison experiences, and though I can’t say that I’m necessarily a changed person because of the class, I can certainly say that this class has made me think more about issues I hadn’t thought about before, and it has helped me learn more about myself and my own beliefs.

Each week, we covered a different non-violence-related topic (e.g. anger, forgiveness, honesty, and punishment). During our breakout sessions, we would split up into groups of 3 MIT students and 3 inmates and discuss the week’s topic. As the semester went on, many of the inmates started opening up more about themselves, and something I really appreciated was their honesty. The forgiveness discussion was a particularly riveting one, and I think it was primarily because seeking forgiveness from others requires demonstrating vulnerability and opening oneself up to the judgment of other human beings. I think it was at this point when I started developing a soft spot for my inmate classmates.

For my final class assignment, I wrote a paper on how the criminal justice system should prioritize educational programming for the prisoners because it helps rehabilitate offenders and sets them up for success upon their return to society. My initial thesis also mentioned releasing prisoners early if they could convince a panel of judges that they were ready to contribute positively to society. Looking back, I realize that I wanted so badly to believe that all my classmates were wonderful people and that they all deserved a second chance. After all, I listened to them tell their stories, and many of them seem hungry for the chance to help make the world a better place.

To be honest, I’m struggling a lot with writing this blog post because I’m not entirely sure what I think anymore. Transitioning into “stream of consciousness” mode…

My cousin’s three-year-old daughter has nightmares whenever she watches movies or TV shows with bad guys in them, so her parents simply stopped showing her movies and TV shows with antagonists. It occurred to me that I was doing the same thing to myself by convincing myself that there are no truly bad people out there in the world. I give everyone the benefit of the doubt and believe that there is good in everyone. I guess it makes me feel safer, and because I’ve been living in a bubble all my life, that way of thinking has been completely fine for me. But maybe that’s not the smartest way to think.

Many of the prisoners are serving life sentences. I know what some of them are in for, and I still struggle to comprehend how anyone could commit such atrocities to other human beings. Like I said earlier, I have a lot of respect for all my classmates, so it makes it difficult for me to understand why or how they could have committed those acts. I’m experiencing cognitive dissonance for sure, and quite frankly, I don’t think it will ever go away.

I guess if anything, this class has reminded me just how complex the world is and how much I don’t know about it. I’m sorry this post doesn’t have a “punchline” or anything. I just wanted to get something out there before I forgot all my thoughts.

The End of the Rainbow

In her book, The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for HAPPINESS (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools, Susan Engel describes eight dispositions that she believes schools should help students develop so that they can live happier lives. These eight dispositions include:

  1. Engagement: Become immersed in complex and meaningful activities
  2. Purpose: Develop a sense of purpose
  3. Curiosity: Acquire an eagerness for knowledge, and the ability to get it
  4. Thoughtfulness: Think about things fully
  5. Mastery: Become good at things
  6. Contribute to one’s community
  7. Appreciate and understand those who are different from you
  8. Read for pleasure and for information

Engel then goes on to discuss concrete goals that go hand-in-hand with the aforementioned dispositions:

  1. Give students the opportunity to have sustained, varied, and meaningful conversations.
  2. Help students develop a love for reading by letting them read whatever they want.
  3. Teach students to embrace those who are not like themselves by teaching them how to work together toward achieving a common goal.
  4. Focus more on what students want to learn and encourage students to ask their own questions.
  5. Each child should be doing at least one thing he or she is passionate about and developing expertise in that area.
  6. Adults should make the effort to truly get to know the students.

Engel also suggests a new system of assessment to evaluate how effective schools are at developing these key qualities. Randomly recording classroom interactions throughout the school year encourages teachers to focus on goals like encouraging collaboration among students and piquing student curiosity as much as possible.

While Engel does provide convincing arguments as to why students would benefit from an education that develops the eight dispositions listed in the beginning, I’m still doubtful as to how feasible it would be to prioritize happiness in schools. At the end of the day, the current college and job application processes rely on measuring individual student achievement, which does not seem immediately compatible with Engel’s model. I am all for using Engel’s ideas in extracurricular programs (e.g. CodeIt), but it seems like other facets of society must change in order for parents and schools to truly feel comfortable embracing her suggestions.

Gaming from New Perspectives

I’m currently taking a course on educational games for learning, which is an undergraduate course with a graduate counterpart. For the most part, undergraduates and graduate students do the exact same work, except at the end of the semester the graduate students connect the class to their own research (or some other personal connection) by writing a paper or giving a presentation. This week, two of the graduate students presented on topics that made me rethink gaming.

Making games for your children

Although David has very limited programming experience, he shared a game that he put together for his two young sons to play. Starting off with the template for a matching game on the Unity platform, David was able to add recordings of his own voice and add pictures of his sons to the game, which gave it a nice personal touch. His kids enjoyed hearing their father’s voice in the game and also learned that games are actually made by people.

Not having any children of my own, I thought it was neat how David took it upon himself to learn how to program so that he could form a deeper connection with his kids.

“Scaffolded Immersion”

Another one of my classmates, Patricia, had us playtest a Chinese language-learning game. Players learn different phrases in Chinese by watching interactions between people and then saying the phrases themselves in the correct context. There was a nice story component to the game, which simulated the experience of being in a country and interacting with native speakers. Patricia called this “scaffolded immersion” because students are immersed in different situations, which allow them to use the language, but the specific situations are hand-selected to provide scaffolding. I thought this idea was brilliant because it seemed to draw on the benefits of learning a foreign language by spending time in the country and also by learning new terms in a classroom setting. I also thought it was ingenious to make a game that teaches a foreign language without making assumptions about languages you already know. For instance, in Patricia’s game, you don’t have to speak English in order to learn the Chinese language. This also gets rid of the translation habit that many students fall into when learning new languages (e.g. vocabulary lists translating phrases from English to Chinese). Instead, you train yourself, for example, to say xiè xiè when someone gives you a present.

The semester is coming to a close, and while I do regret not getting to know more of my education classmates more, I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn some useful lessons from their personal perspectives on games.

Play

A childhood devoid of play is not a childhood. I never thought much about how integral “play” was to my childhood, but after hearing Scot Osterweil give a presentation to my education class yesterday, I have a much deeper appreciation for the art of inspiring play through games.

In his talk, Osterweil discussed the “Four Freedoms of Play,” which unfortunately are stifled by the traditional school structure:

  1. Freedom to Explore
  2. Freedom to Fail
  3. Freedom of Identity
  4. Freedom of Effort

Although these four freedoms are not generally found in schools, they are actually quite inducive to learning. Osterweil’s projects are founded on the idea that by engaging children in play—actual play, not just educational content disguised behind some game mechanics, we can give children opportunities to learn and to enjoy themselves while doing it.

Games like Lure of the Labyrinth and Vanished create learner-centered environments by building on the knowledge that children already have. These games validate the kids’ identities and train the children to see themselves as learners. They set students up for success rather than knock students down with each new concept introduced.

Osterweil also introduced us to the concept of Fermi problems, which are estimation problems that involve making guesses about certain quantities. The example he gave was “How many cups of coffee are consumed in a day in the US?” The idea is that students can pool together their knowledge and come up with a reasonably accurate guess. It gives students the opportunity to think about not only what they know but also how they know it. It’s beautiful.

This sort of organic learning environment reminds me why I love outreach programs. With outreach programs, there isn’t as much pressure to conform to a predetermined set of standards and teaching methods. As a teacher, I can choose to teach with whatever tools I want, which usually means figuring out what the kids enjoy and finding random ways to remind them that learning can be fun.

Side note: I thought it was interesting how my acting teacher also stresses the importance of “play” in theater arts. I think this lines up especially well with “Freedom of Identity” since acting involves committing oneself completely to an entirely different character or identity.