December 29, 2008

Time Management Tips

If you are anything like me, you started the winter break with a long list of things you wanted to get done, and now you find yourself half way through the break with none of them done, and you've sort of lost the motivation for doing them. You'd rather just read a book.

I was going through some of the journal entries I wrote last year and found this gem. Maybe it will help! Where did I set that book again?

This week, I took a refresher course on time management by reading Steve Pavlina's excellent Do It Now article. It explains several specific time management techniques that you can use to stay productive. The biggest lesson from the article is this: when you're working, work, and when you're not, don't. Don't waste time in a half-brained, distracted, "I'm 'working' but not really" state.

It takes fifteen minutes to enter a state of flow. Once you're there, your work becomes entirely effortless. It still takes discipline to stay there. There are always distractions and you need to ignore them. But once your brain is in a certain state of mind, time seems to disappear and you become completely absorbed in your work. It's easy to stay in this state for 90 minutes at a time. When you need a break, take a break. Take a real break – not an email checking break or a web surfing break – but an actual restful break.

Pavlina suggests that you set aside long blocks of time for your work – up to six or eight hours at a time – and work as long as you can, taking breaks as needed. The only way you'll be able to do this is if you enjoy your work and it has personal meaning for you. Personally, mine does. But finding the motivation is still difficult sometimes.

Another big lesson from the article is to do one and only one thing at a time. I used to be very good at this but I've been slacking a bit. Work really is easier this way. It is extremely inefficient for our brains to keep switching between different tasks. Instead, focus on one task, dedicate all of your energies to it, and then move to the next task. Thinking about all of the other things that you should be doing is a waste of time.

I'm not a self-help junkie, and I don't think that constantly giving yourself affirmations is the best way to happiness and productivity, but I do think that reading some motivational material every now and then is beneficial. Most of us learned these time management techniques in college and are already familiar with them. But in the long winter months, sometimes a refresher course doesn't hurt. Since reading the article, I've been much more productive in my work and felt better about doing it.

December 28, 2008

Cute, Technically

One of the highlights of my Christmas was getting to see my little cousins (they're actually young enough to be my nieces and nephews and are technically my step-cousins, but that's beyond the point). It's impossible to look at them and not love them. They just light up the room.

This got me thinking: what is it about kids that make them so cute? I remembered from my M.Ed. courses that this has been studied scientifically. Indeed, "cuteness" can actually be predicted and measured based on the following traits (pdf):

  • Small body size with a disproportionately large head

  • Large eyes

  • A pleasantly fair, though not necessarily small nose

  • Dimples

  • Round and softer body features

  • Playfulness

  • Fragility

  • Helplessness

  • Curiosity

  • Innocense

  • Affectionate behavior

That makes sense. The kids in my family whom everyone thinks are so cute have all of these traits. Paul Graham has argued that cuteness in children has many advantages:

It's not surprising we'd have an inborn desire to love and protect helpless creatures, considering human offspring are so helpless for so long. Without the helplessness that makes kids cute, they'd be very annoying. They'd merely seem like incompetent adults.

From Wikipedia:

Konrad Lorenz argued in 1949 that infantile features triggered nurturing responses in adults and that this was an evolutionary adaptation which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the species. As evidence, Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants – with big eyes, big heads, shorted noses, etc – than to animals that do not.

Does this seem like circular logic to you? Lorenz is saying this: the reason kids are cute is that they possess traits which we find cute. Although that thing about the animals is interesting.
OK, so this post is only tangentially related to teaching. It's more of an excuse for me to be that annoying guy who just talks about his own family and brag about how cute they are. It doesn't have anything to do with my job at all, since the students have grown from cute and innocent kids to ungainly and awkward teenagers by the time I see them at the high school (although one could argue that they do have disproportionately large heads. Ha ha). But we're all in the business of working with kids and this might change the way you see "cuteness".

Cute kids usually trigger an affectionate emotional response in adults. Looking at cuteness scientifically gives you a totally different perspective. It's a simple cause-effect relationship. If an organism possesses "cute" traits, the adult will respond positively because we're biologically hard-wired to do so. There's really nothing magical about it. "Cute" is a survival mechanism. (Except MY little cousins really ARE cute! Sorry.)

December 20, 2008

SurveyMonkey in the Classroom

In The New Face of Computer Applications, I discussed how computing is making a gradual shift from the desktop to the web. One great way to engage students using these new Web 2.0 tools is with online surveys. A number of solutions are available, but I tried using SurveyMonkey in my Marketing class last week.

SurveyMonkey lets you easily create free accounts; the only prerequisite is that you have an email address. The free account lets you create surveys with up to ten questions. The question formats and layouts are highly customizable. After you enter your survey questions, SurveyMonkey will give you a link to your survey. You can put this link on a webpage or in an email. Anyone who clicks on it will be directed to your survey. You can log back in to SurveyMonkey later to see the answers that people gave. The software presents your data in a very nice graphical layout.

My Marketing students are in the middle of a market research project, where they need to collect primary and secondary data about a particular organization and then make recommendations on how to improve that organization based on the data that they found. Surveys are obviously a great way to collect primary data about a group of people.

The students made their own online surveys with SurveyMonkey. I put the links to those surveys on my class website, and students spent a day taking each other's surveys online. Students then used Excel to create charts of the data, which will be included in their final research papers.

My middle school Computer Applications class is using SurveyMonkey too, although the requirements for their research project have been scaled down a bit.

The students love this! They like being able to do things with the web, and everyone was very engaged. In class, the students are learning how to conduct social research. We're covering topics such as: reliability & validity, quantitative & qualitative data, samples & populations, basic statistics, inductive logic, and research methods. Online surveys give students a real-world connection to these abstract concepts. I haven't evaluated other online survey systems, but SurveyMonkey has worked great for me, and I highly recommend it.

December 14, 2008

Hockey and the Purpose of Education

Have you ever watched a sporting event with someone who knows nothing about the game? Hockey is a big sport where I live. I've watched plenty of hockey games with people who know next to nothing about the sport, and the scene is a familiar one to many sports fans.

The person I'm watching the game with notices that the play has stopped for no apparent reason. I explain to her that an off sides violation has occurred, and then I explain what an off sides violation is. She says that's a stupid rule. Then I explain why it's not a stupid rule.

One of our players scores a goal and the crowd goes wild, more so than usual. To her, it's just another goal, and she doesn't understand why people are so excited for this one. I calmly explain that the opposing team has been on a 5-on-3 power play for the last minute and a half, and our goal was short handed. "Oh, I guess that's quite an accomplishment," she notes, still not fully realizing how rare a feat this really is.

The teams come out for the second period and she exclaims, "hey, they're skating toward the other end of the ice now!" Later, she asks why there's no goalie in our goal any more, sparking a discussion about delayed penalties.

This game would be so much more enjoyable to her if she understood more about it. She's missing most of the things that happen in the game because she doesn't know about them. Watching the game would be much more fun and exciting to her if she knew why a 5-on-3 shorthanded goal is such a big deal. She'd be able to differentiate between a passing strategy and an icing strategy, and she'd know when each of those strategies should be used. She'd see patterns such as wraparound attempts and zone defense. If she knew the history of the teams involved, she'd understand the significance of a particular game. The game would take on a whole new richness for her if she only could see these things. But now, she doesn't even know what she's not seeing. She doesn't know what she doesn't know.

Still, she can get a pretty good general sense of what's happening in the game without knowing these things. She can see who the good players are, who is trying hardest, who is better at scoring, and who is better at blocking shots. She knows an exciting close shot when she sees one. She knows who's winning and losing. She can differentiate between an exciting game and a boring game. She can generally follow what's going on. She just doesn't appreciate the full richness of the game because there is a lot that she's missing.

The difference between a serious hockey fan and a casual one at a game is analogous to the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one in the world.

Education adds so much richness to life. Uneducated people can still see what's going on in the world. I don't need to know what syncopation and diminished chords are to listen to jazz, but I appreciate the music much more if I do. Uneducated people know that gas prices are high. But they simply complain about it, and educated people have to explain to them why they're so high. Uneducated people blame the TV anchors for inaccurate weather forecasts; educated people turn to chaos theory and understand why they're inaccurate in the first place. I'm sure you can think of many examples from your own content area.

Uneducated people think that learning is boring. What they don't realize is that just like watching hockey is much more fun when you know something about it, living in the world is much more fun when you know something about it. Just like the casual hockey fan misses half of the interesting stuff that happens in a game simply because they don’t know about it, uneducated people miss half of the interesting stuff that happens in the world for the same reason.

This isn't an attempt to put uneducated people down. For many, pursing higher education doesn't make practical sense. What I'm trying to argue here is that education is valuable for its own sake. I'm speaking to students who don't understand when they're ever going to use calculus; or who don't want to learn about government because they don't plan on becoming a politician; or who dislike organized athletics because they'll never become a professional athlete. It doesn't matter whether or not a particular course of study leads directly to a practical outcome. What matters is that your education allows you to see things in the world that you wouldn't otherwise see. A good general education makes life richer. Things make more sense to you.

December 12, 2008

Old Calculators and Old Teachers

Colton: Did you have calculators like this when you were growing up?
Me: Yes, I did.
Colton (to another student): See, these calculators ARE old!!

Stories like this are only supposed to happen to other teachers! Old teachers! Not young ones like me!

December 7, 2008

Fun Things About Teaching

This was a really fun week. Yesterday, the Law class took a field trip to the local university's law school, where they were jurors in a mock trial conducted by the law students. It was cool because they got to experience firsthand some of the things we’ve been talking about in class.

When the judge told them that they were to decide “questions of fact” and not “questions of law”, I was proud to see that the students knew exactly what he meant. They were told in class why the prosecutor always talks first, and on Friday they got to see it. The judge basically explained everything that they had just learned the week before. I could see the expression on the student’s faces that said “we already know that”, and that was really cool to see.

Possibly the most fun part of the day was the bus trip back. They had to wave at each vehicle that passed us, and they thought it was just hilarious when the other drivers honked back. Everyone in the class gets along so well, which makes it more fun too. The students had a great time and it was smiles all around.

On that bus trip, I couldn’t help but compare my job now to what I was doing a year ago – sitting in a desk – maybe smiling once a day, and feeling sorry for the people who are still stuck there. I just think it’s so sad that so many people resign themselves to a joyless career when there are so many other opportunities out there. A year ago, I would have been working behind a computer in solitude playing the daily office political games. Now, I’m spending a day at a law school with 14 energetic and funny people.

I will never go back to a cube farm. If you're in one, you should escape! The other side is even better than you can imagine.

Dilbert's Mom: "What's it like working in a cube?"
Dilbert: "Imagine the most beautiful place on earth."
DM: "OK."
D: "Now imagine you can never go there because you live in a box."

This article was written during my student teaching experience.