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100. Curiosity and Staying out of Trouble July 8, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Uncategorized.
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When, as children, do we first start to worry about making mistakes, about getting into trouble? I remember overhearing a conversation in another room between by daughter and her cousin when they were both quite small. It went like this:

– Let’s jump on the bed!

– I don’t think we’re supposed to do that.

– I know.

Like her mother, my daughter was the worrier. But what was the risk here?  The scolding as a parent or grandparent forces the game to end? For one girl, that was a small price to pay for a few moments of fun, but for my daughter, the risk seemed somewhat greater than that. For whatever reasons, she had a vested interest in our good opinion of her. She didn’t want us to be disappointed in her.

I’ve been thinking lately about curiosity and wondering if we are really sparking curiosity in teaching, or if some of our educational and social systems are more likely to discourage curiosity in trying to maintain a social order and keep people safe.

Consider these common expressions in the USA:

  • Curiosity killed the cat.
  • A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
  • Mind your own business.

Do we becomes less curious because we are too concerned about the social implications of our actions, or because we avoid doing things that seem risky either physically or socially? Add to that the concerns that schools and other educational organizations have concerning legal liability issues, and we may suppose that curiosity will suffer.

Those who have studied curiosity, notably Todd Kashdan and his colleagues, suggest that, while anxiety may prevent exploration, those who are curious who and feel confident that they have the capacity to cope and make sense of the situation will pursue new knowledge in spite of anxious feelings. Measuring curiosity is still a work in progress, they say, but you can find their Curiosity and Exploration Inventory (CEI-II) on line and see for yourself how curious you are.

Going abroad for study, for work, or for adventure is often prompted by curiosity and may entail some risk. Reading Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison’s essay this morning in the New York Times Sunday Review reminded me that the challenge of finding my way back when I get lost, of managing to speak with others in their language, or of grappling with an inscrutable bureaucracy is part of the adventure. These days my work doesn’t send me abroad anymore, but the relationships I’ve built over the years will continue to do so. I also always discover new things about these other places and learn more about who I am.

Even more thought provoking was the person from Oregon who commented online in response to Stavans and Ellison, worrying about Westerners who might exploit an exotic destination for tourism or to find themselves, reminiscent of Anthony Ogden’s Colonial Student. Student exchange programs, undergraduate study abroad programs, and even the geographic expeditions of early explorers have often been seen as activities of the elite given that such experiences require resources that are beyond most of the earth’s population. Another essay in today’s Sunday Review by Shamus Khan describes the “New Elitists” as cultural omnivores who relish having a wide range of tastes and experiences, something he notes that is not accessible to everyone. Though Khan didn’t mention it directly, I’m sure that study abroad would be seen as another avenue by which the cultural omnivores absorb new tastes and experiences making them different from the masses.

I don’t at this point have a response to these concerns about inequality, but I find them interesting and worthy of consideration.

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99. Following Clarissa Ward through Syria via Google Earth February 20, 2012

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Geography.
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When I was about 12 years old and growing up in the USA during the Cold War, my dream career was to be a spy. Spy shows on television were filled with wit, adventure, travel, and of course attractive and well-dressed actors and actresses who seldom lost their cool or even soiled their clothes as they showed up in various locations around the globe each week with a new and intriguing problem to solve. In later years, my dream career evolved just slightly as I decided that the most exciting job on earth was to be an international journalist.

Seeing Clarissa Ward a couple of weeks ago dressed in a burqa in front of a crowd in a northern Syrian town, or after nightfall with her blond hair pulled loosely back, I was reminded of the appeal (and the real danger) of my old dream careers. On top of this was the startling report of the death in Syria of Anthony Shadid, the New York Times reporter. Asthma apparently triggered by an allergy to horses felled him suddenly as he was finishing his reporting in Syria. Both reporters had taken similarly dangerous paths sneaking into Syria from Turkey to circumvent the Syrian government restrictions on international journalists and I felt compelled to follow them — virtually.

Years ago when I wanted to know more about a place that had been brought to my attention, I would pull out my old World Atlas and study the locations of cities, rivers, mountains and political boundaries. I would overlay mentally the information I could glean from the climate maps, from the population density maps, the vegetation maps, and whatever else I could find that seemed relevant so I understood the spatial layout of the place.

Now I start out with Google Maps and Google Earth, and the first place I searched was Damascus, Syria. The closest clear view is from about 3000 feet above ground, but even from that height, cars and buses are visible. Individual Google Earth contributors have created virtual 3-D models of some buildings, which can be turned off or on as you like. When I became puzzled about a landscape feature, a quick switch to the map mode provided the information that this was a cemetery. I turned on the “photos” feature and found some snapshots of some of the tombs.

The satellite views are not live images and may be months old, but changes on the landscape can sometimes be clearly seen through the history feature. Looking at the roof surfaces in any city is also not the image you get from walking around on the ground, but with the 3-D feature you can navigate to a ground level view of sorts and let the program take you on a tour.

Personally, I find there’s great advantage in zooming in and out to get a sense of the context of what I’m seeing in Google Earth. It’s important to me to know where landmarks and places are in relation to each other. The Unknown Soldier Monument is high on a hill. The city seems to have engulfed and surrounded a fairly large area of farmland just beyond of the newer development to the north of Old Damascus. New parts of town to the west are filled with diamond shaped street patterns and large star-shaped intersections like the large Umayyad Square. Following a river out south of the city, I could see irrigation canals and fields with what look like olive trees.

North of Damascus, Google shows me the highway to Homs, 160 km away with a one hour and 41 minute travel time. Idlib, where Clarissa Ward was, is another 160 km north of Homs. Idlib is off the main highway, smaller and more compact. Most streets are quite narrow — too narrow for cars. A few broad boulevards ringing the old city and in the newer sections to the south and west. Olive trees dot the outskirts of town, along with some rectangular green fields. The town is less than 30 km from the Turkish border at the nearest point, but the area is hilly and not easy to walk. Along the road closest to the Turkish border, I found photos of the border fence: concrete and steel standards with layers of strands of barbed and concertina wire. Looking west, I see a few possible places where Clarissa Ward and her photographer might have crossed into Turkey with some trees for cover and the canals she mentions having to wade through in the rain.

I can’t claim to know much about Syria have only viewed it virtually and from 3000 feet, but it does give me a sense of the spatial structures that form part of the context in which the Syrians live each day and a way to think about the relationships between the various features of the environment and the choices made by those who live there.  It also makes me aware that even in a city like Homs, some places will be more affected than others when violence erupts, and where you happen to be can be very important.

98. The culture of math teaching December 11, 2011

Posted by Bettina Hansel in Education and Culture.
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What is important to learn?

In the USA, math has long been seen as a difficult subject, and often as one that only some people can master. But math, unlike subjects such as philosophy, anthropology, geography, or sometimes foreign languages, is almost always a required course of study both in high school and college in the United States. And quite regularly, many students fail to learn the concepts and formulas that the math courses require. I have been attending a conference this week about new approaches to teaching and learning basic math concepts for under-prepared college students in the USA. The approach we are taking has been inspired in part by some research of Japanese teaching and learning styles, which seemed to the American researcher to be a very innovative approach. Yet the Japanese teachers insisted that their methodology in fact came from the USA.

My thoughts about math and culture lately have come both from my participation in this project and from my husband’s recent career change that is leading him to take more math than he ever thought he’d need. I tend to believe that further study into almost any field is valuable, but algebra seemed to be the subject I had most forgotten and least used over the years since my last course in college algebra. Still, this project intrigued me, and never being one to spurn an intellectual challenge, I became obsessed with one of the sample algebra problems being considered for the course. The problem dealt with creating a formula to describe relationship between decibels of rock music over time and hearing loss. I could graph several different values and understood that there was an exponential relationship here, but I didn’t seem to be able to put this in an equation true for all cases.

Educational systems are cultures, and as such teachers, administrators, students and the larger society make decisions about students should learn and how best to teach it, basing these decisions on values, beliefs and assumptions that are deeply bound to various other aspects of the culture and how it defines and interprets both history and recent experience. Mathematical concepts and numeric relationships are broadly universal, but there is no such universal consensus about when or how to teach math and to whom.

The methodology for teaching math that we are exploring in this group is one that really begs the question: Does everyone really need to take algebra? Determined to refute the idea that some people cannot understand math, this method focuses largely on understanding how the students think. It relies on the belief that students who are pushed to think about real-world problems and to figure out for themselves how they might be solved, and are not just given solutions to memorize, will in fact be able to discover  for themselves various solutions to the problem. The practice of thinking through problems and finding solutions is seen as more valuable to the students in developing their competence with numbers and mathematical concepts.

This seems very much in keeping with current academic culture in the US that embraces “student-centered” learning over “sage on the stage” teaching which is seen as the traditional model. With a basis in “real-world” problems, this method also endorses the value of education that leads to application rather than emphasizing abstract thinking and knowledge for its own sake.

I must admit that I am intrigued with the new approach and more than ready to question the value of traditional algebra and traditional approaches to teaching to try something new with the students who seem to fail repeatedly in math classes. And yet I am sure that my own ability to think logically, grasp concepts and solve problems was also formed soundly by the algebra, geometry, and trigonometry lectures I received in Cuban-accented English, illustrated only with chalk on a board.  What made her such a good math teacher? I have pondered this off an on over the past months since I learned of her death earlier this year. Was it  simply the way she organized and presented the material? Was it somehow helpful that she had to translate her own knowledge into our language? All I know is that anytime I see an algebraic equation, I hear it in my mind in a strong Spanish accent.  And I’m not the only one to do so.

Gracias, doctora. No le olvidaré jamás.