Monday, March 28, 2011

Embracing Failure

Short Essay Response to Michael Goodwin’s “The Loss of the Freedom to Fail”
Goodwin claims that our society has sacrificed the freedom to fail in its efforts to preserve people’s self-confidence. The danger, he argues, is that success cannot exist without failure. Since we no longer have the opportunity to fail, any “success” is a meaningless shell of true success. This pseudo-success gives false confidence to people who then run into brick walls in the unforgiving real world. Although Goodwin’s assessment of the situation seems logical, the real question is, “How can we restore the freedom to fail in our society?”

As a graduate assistant at Ohio University, I am responsible for teaching mathematics, a subject where fear of failure is particularly crippling. Students tend to volunteer an answer only if they are quite sure it is correct; doing otherwise might result in humiliation. Unfortunately, hearing a student self-assuredly recite the expected answer does little to promote learning. On the other hand, the entire class benefits when a student suggests an unconventional problem-solving approach; even if it ends up being a dead end, the process of exploring the new route often clears up fundamental misconceptions.

An astute reader will notice that I am pointing out a situation where students are free to fail, but are unwilling to do so. How, then, does this connect with Goodwin’s essay? Goodwin implies that we should merely raise the bar for success so that more people fail. Yet, as Goodwin acknowledges in his discussion of social promotion and entitlement, this solution has already been deemed socially unacceptable. What we need is a paradigm shift. We need to view failure in a more formative light so that, for example, students are willing to fail and teachers are unafraid to allow their students to fail. What would this look like? Last year, I began implementing “failure points” in my college pre-calculus class.* At the outset of the course, I informed the students that 5% of their grade would be based on their willingness to fail. To enforce this principle, I regularly encouraged students to volunteer unconventional and alternate ideas for solving problems. Before long, otherwise reticent students began asking “what if…” questions that opened up new pathways and challenged me to reexamine some of my own assumptions. Allowing such questions opened up the door for me to fail also, as I certainly didn’t have all the answers immediately. Suddenly, participation skyrocketed as less confident students realized that their contributions were valuable in exploring uncharted territory. I also made it a point to work through student suggestions, even when I knew they were incorrect, because it allowed students to see why they were incorrect.

Goodwin was right to uphold the value of failure. However, merely raising our standards to guarantee failure would be unproductive. To restore and capitalize upon our freedom to fail, we must seek creative ways to promote a constant willingness to fail and then channel that failure for growth.

*I got the idea for rewarding failure from my academic advisor Bob Klein, who had read an article on the subject by Ed Burger, a mathematics professor at Baylor University (you can read more about Burger's approach here).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Pi, Kids, and a Case of Diminishing Hair

Were I not a perfectionist, perhaps I could have managed a "decent" shave with my left hand in a cast. But without being able to stretch my facial skin like I usually do, it wasn't worth it for me to risk a botched job. So I let the beard grow. And then when I got the cast off, I realized how nice it was to have that extra seven minutes a day that I usually dedicate to shaving, and so I just let it keep growing for awhile. But eventually, it began to feel like clutter (kind of like it feels freeing to let the dishes pile up by the sink for a couple days, but eventually you just need to clear up some counter space) and so I gave it the axe.

Slowly, of course. One doesn't go through that much collecting of anything without reaping some kind of benefits. Mine was experimenting with looks from throughout history.

This look below, incidentally, is slated for the 2020's just in case you were wondering why you didn't recognize it. I call it the "peace touch."

One topic I've kind of glossed over in the blog is my studies (quick grammatical note for those who care: notice how the previous sentence has a singular subject and a plural object? Have you ever wondered how to handle the verb in such cases? Wonder no more; it conjugates with the subject.) I'm 10 weeks away from my master's degree now and I've hardly mentioned what it is that I actually study.

The center of my program is mathematics. And with the exception of one course in Numerical Analysis that was more applied, most of this math is theory-based and dances from proof to proof. In each area (e.g. Algebra, Coding Theory, Calculus), we start with some basic definitions and assumptions and then start building up step by step, one theorem at a time. It's always challenging as it undulates between frustration and ecstasy in a reassuringly rational manner. Even the strictest teachers are open to creative proofs of theorems, giving it an edge over some other fields (especially for someone like me who tends not to prefer the conventional approach).
My mathematics core is then balanced by my post-secondary education track, which is gearing me up for my math education PhD that will start in the Fall. Early in the program, this education portion included a hodgepodge of topics I found interesting such as International Poverty in Education, Gifted and Talented Education, and An Overview of Educational Research. This year, however, I have been much more focused on educational statistics and actual research. In terms of research, I spent last summer working on a place-based math education study. In that study, we looked at several rural schools around the country that were using local resources in their math education curriculum. In the fall, I began working on some more quantitative policy-based research for a different professor. Which brings us to this past quarter when I dove into some of my own research (well, actually it is collaborative research with my advisor Bob Klein, but since I've been involved from the ground level, it feels different).
The project is attempting to connect schools and communities through mathematics. Essentially, we will attempt to uncover the mathematics involved in local jobs (which apparently is not the easiest thing to do according to past research) and then shape this mathematics into an experiential curriculum for area schoolchildren. Specifically, we are looking at possibly doing the study at a historic operahouse that puts on concerts, dramas, and other events. Bob and I took a tour of the operahouse recently (shown above); I was impressed by the way they've maintained the original 19th century feel while including modern accomodations. Shown below are the original dressing rooms which are now almost 150 years old.

After checking out the operahouse as a site for our research, Bob gave me a tour of the area. You would think that is something I would have had by now, considering that Joo and I have lived here for almost two years now. One town, which had been famous for pottery, incorporated all sorts of pottery shards and pipes in their buildings. The church below is an example, although I'm not sure the resolution will do justice to the clever building materials it contains.

Another town he took me to was Shawnee. As with many of the towns in this area, it had boomed during the halcyon years of the mining industry, but then faded into a ghost town in more recent decades. The good news is that mounting restoration efforts are striving to breathe new life into both buildings and social activities/events.

I presented the early stages of our research (which mainly consisted of reading lots of books and articles) at our annual math department Pi Day. All the students doing research prepare a simple poster, and everyone is welcome to browse the projects as they munch on Italian pie (pizza) and regular pie.

Speaking of the math department, I do believe I've neglected to include pictures of our office. There are seven of us, all guys. Greg (shown below), Joe, and Frank are PhD students at various points in their education. Sunjit and Santosh represent the Indian subcontinent, although Sunjit does so more mathematically while Santosh does his best to shatter math-geek stereotypes with his weekend endeavors. Dave is perfectly content to be a math geek and is my main co-conspirator on our quarterly Big Bang TV show nights.
Here is my beloved cubicle.
And the intimidating sign that Dave posted in the cubicle hallway.
Here's Dave.
Although he can much more frequently be found in front of my blackboard scribbling out formulas, math jokes, and a random assortment of things that I can't categorize (other than being "a random assortment of things"). If our chuckles get loud enough, Joe usually pops over to watch for a few minutes before shaking his head and returning to his cubicle.
So that's the school update. On the homefront, Joo has just wrapped up her busiest couple months since coming to America three years ago. She took 17 credits this past quarter, but the thing that made her busy was lab hours (see? I demonstrated the grammatical point again). She had to clock in 35 lab hours for one class and 165 for another, in addition to her normal coursework. At one point, I put together a little booster kit for her...
Making her even more busy (but more relaxed at the same time) has been her involvement in the Korean church. She has made some great friends, including the two ladies shown below (although by "shown" I am counting the hand of the second woman in the bottom left corner of the picture). The woman at the top left (Seung Jin) prepared the huge dinner below for us and a couple that was getting ready to move to Oklahoma.

In addition, she has maintained her Sunday School Korean language teaching to the young kids.

Mom and Dad stopped by on their way home from Grandma's birthday party in Harrisonburg (Grandma, if you're reading this, Happy Birthday!!!) Mom brought me her March edition of the Cheez-its for a year birthday gift.

Though I am generally not a procrastinator, I didn't have the energy to type up my final projects for my educational research class with one hand. So, when I got the cast off two weeks before the deadline, I had a rather large pile of stuff to type up. Here I am at 2:00 a.m. the night before all the projects were due.
We celebrated the close of finals week with another Big Bang party. Micah and Ariel were there, as well as Dave (of course), Michael (from Guatemala) and a first-timer Eduardo (from Mexico). We watched several Big Bang episodes, some interesting Youtube clips, and then played Traveller IQ Challenge (trying to pinpoint locations around the globe) and (an online trivia site that Katie Longenecker pointed out to me- thanks Katie!)
The celebration was followed up by a visit from Drew and Roxie. Having learned to crawl, she was much more mobile this time around.
Her trademark "I'm cute" modeling pose.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Return of the Ring

Well, first off, I consider it to be a privelege now to write phrases like "well" and "first off." The bare bones typing got to me more than I realized it would. Now that I am able to engage in more fleshy typing, I am also unsure of how to handle the growing stack of blogwards pictures and thoughts. Luckily, I am now on spring break so I should have a week to organize it all and spew it out. We'll start with memories of the cast.

Looking back now, I'm a bit surprised how readily I jumped on the cast experiment. By no means do I regret it, but giving up a limb for a month does involve more sacrifices than are apparent. Some of these are rather external (as listed in the top five of my last blog), but it was really the more invisible ones that made me struggle. It strained relationships, meant a fair chunk of sleep lost (which could have been the real reason for the strained relationships), and led to pools of guichana (Korean term for simply not having quite enough energy to do anything).

On the other hand, there were things I loved about wearing the cast. To equalize things out a bit, perhaps a top six is in order:
6. An injection of empathy for others (who isn't wearing a few metaphorical casts?)
5. Being forced to slow down and take a break from the computer
4. A free, no-energy ticket to extroversion (other people starting conversations to ask about the cast)
3. A chance to find out some cool things about my neuromuscular system and its peculiarities
2. The generous monetary compensation
1. A step outside my ordinary routine to see the world in a new light (was this really the number one highlight? Honestly it was a close call between this and number two, but I'd feel superficial if I listed money as my number one!)
It was also timed nicely with my first-ever application to the IRB (Institutional Review Board; they screen and approve - or reject - all proposed research involving human or animal subjects). My project, which I'll get to in a future blog, was seemingly innocuous in comparison to the cast study. However, having the viewpoint of someone being experimented ON made me much more sympathetic to the subjects in our research and I reflected that in the research design. Perhaps because of that, in part, it was approved within hours of submission.

Long story short, I was ecstatic to get Lefty back again.

(Regarding the title, I do have my wedding ring on again finally, but none of these pictures reflect it because I had to wait for the swelling to go down first until it fit again.)

Monday, March 7, 2011

T-30 minutes to Castoff

As I get ready to shed my extra skin, there are a few things I'm really looking forward to:

5. Applying deodorant to my right armpit too.

4. Flossing with 2 hands. Try it with 1.

3. Indulging at buffets. You would not believe how frustrating it is to not get your money's worth at a buffet.

2. Typing with 2 hands.

1. Doing housework. Yes, the break was nice at first, but it wasn't worth the guilt of putting everything onto poor Joo b/c of my "SC" as she called it (Stupid Cast)