Making Learning Happen: Book Post

I am delighted to share with you a new book, with thanks to STAR Scholars Network whose publication wing is making works of public scholarship like this accessible to teachers and scholars around the world.
Titled “Making Learning Happen: Five Shifts Toward Student-Focused Education,” this book evolved from a brief training guide for teachers at my alma mater in Nepal, capturing what a network of professors were practicing in 2016-18, to what is now an expanded, transdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and up-to-date form. I am grateful to my colleague Surendra Subedi who helped to draft that early version, as well as early leaders of TU Grassroots Community, for their contribution to it.
This work captures the collaborations of communities of teachers in Nepal and South Asia and around the world, inspiration of thousands of students in the past 29 years, extensive research and reading in the past few, and experiences as a faculty trainer and curriculum developer/reviewer. I am grateful to teachers in Nepal, India, and the United States whose good teaching strategies I have emulated as a teacher, to colleagues in a very teaching-rich discipline (Writing Studies), and to the many scholars whose teaching ideas I have adopted as a teacher.
नेपालमा खास गरी त्रिभुवन विश्वविद्यालयका शिक्षक साथीहरुको सहकार्य र प्रेरणा प्रति म आभारी छु । हामीले नेपालमा गरेको काम विश्व भर साझा गर्न आवश्यक छ भन्ने लागेर यो पुस्तकलाई २-३ गुणा चौडा, प्रशिक्षण नभएर शिक्षण-केन्द्रित, नेपाल मात्र नभएर विश्व दक्षीणका अरु सन्दर्भहरुमा पनि लागू हुने गरी, विविध विधाहरुलाई र कोभिड महामारी पछिको माहोलमा प्रविधिको प्रयोगलाई समेटेर, अनि सबै परिच्छेदहरुलाई व्यवहारिक शिक्षा र न्यायिक समाजको अवधारणा अनुसार अद्यावधिक गरेको छु ।
Please download a copy for yourself and share it with your network. STAR Scholars Network has kindly made the digital copy free for a while. Hard copy is available for order via Amazon (where it delivers). For colleagues in Nepal, Sunlight Publication, Kathmandu is reprinting it in collaboration with SSN (hopefully within a month) – please wait before you print the .pdf until that low-cost copy arrives.
I am planning to facilitate a few virtual workshops to promote the book. Please let me know if you’d like to organize one. I also have plans to visit a few universities, here in the US and abroad. Please let me know if you’re interested (I have the funds to travel). The e-book is free and I intend to not receive royalty from print. I passionately believe in the need to promote teaching practices that go far beyond lectures and exams, an education that prepares students for successful lives and careers (and not just get degrees and then start learning skills or figure out what to do with their education).
Please share/repost, download, forward, and help to promote. Please remember to skim through and pick what you like best and include that in your post.

[Republica Repost] Expertise Cycle — Rethinking Faculty Training

Published in the Republica on July 26, 2023 08:30 

To truly improve teaching, it is time to take the expert out of training, center professional development back in the classroom, and unleash the power of the practitioner-as-expert–letting such a cycle of expertise replace traditional teacher training.

A lot more teacher training is taking place in Nepal today than, say, ten years ago. In schools and universities, training programs range from informal one-hour sessions run by teachers to formal multi-day ones organized by institutions. They also range from free and virtual gatherings to lavish retreats at fancy places. Unfortunately, this great development remains characterized mostly by lecture–with hands-on practice being an exception.

There is a reason why teacher training remains entrenched in the old habit of delivering lectures. Both trainers and trainees continue to believe that an expert is needed to “deliver” content, that the key objective of training is to increase knowledge, rather than for trainees to learn by doing, sharing, and experiencing.

In reality, there is little to no practical value of content in training. We might as well train farmers how to improve crop yields by taking them to fancy hotels in the city and give them lectures on how to do it. Even simulated activities and discussions are inadequate. Imagine an agricultural expert taking a group of farmers to a sandbank to show them how to use modern farm equipment. Such an expert can teach how to use the tools, but he won’t really show how to grow a crop.

We need a radical shift in how training is done. Training should not only involve participants in doing things and sharing experience, solving problems and creating materials–not lectures or even discussions. It should also happen right in their classroom, as I will describe. A little bit of content may be needed to set up the context, clarify instructions, or during follow up discussion. But if content takes more than a quarter of a program’s time, it is no longer training.

Skipping the expert

One easy and effective way to make training more like training is to get rid of the expert and use a facilitator instead. The less the facilitator has to say the better. The more she makes time and creates opportunities for participants the better. In fact, when the facilitator tells participants that she is not an expert, and that the participants are the experts–in that they are the ones teaching–the training becomes far more effective. In fact, training becomes even more effective when one of the participating practitioners serves as facilitator. All that the facilitator needs is skills for managing the process and fostering collaboration. In exchange for losing the quantity and depth/breadth of knowledge when losing the external expert, such training can gain far deeper grounding in practice and far deeper commitment and accountability among participants. This shift to expertless training does require courage.

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[Republica Repost] Educating Beyond the Bots

Published in Republica on February 12, 2023

The current discourse about artificial intelligence not only reflects a narrow view of education. It also represents romanticization of, or alarmism about, new technologies, while insulting students as dishonest by default. 

“It has saved me 50 hours on a coding project,” whispered one of my students to me in class recently. He was using the artificial intelligence tool named ChatGPT for a web project. His classmates were writing feedback on his reading response for the day, testing a rubric they had collectively generated for how to effectively summarize and respond to an academic text.

The class also observed ChatGPT’s version of the rubric and agreed that there is some value in “giving it a look in the learning process.” But they had decided that their own brain muscles must be developed by grappling with the process of reading and summarizing, synthesizing and analyzing, and learning to take intellectual positions, often across an emotionally felt experience. Our brain muscles couldn’t be developed, the class concluded, by simply looking at content gathered by a bot from the internet, however good that was. When the class finished writing, they shared their often brutal assessment of the volunteer writer’s response to the reading. The class learned by practicing, not asking for an answer.

Beyond the classroom, however, the discourse about artificial intelligence tools “doing writing” has not yet become as nuanced as among my college students. “The college essay is dead,” declared Stephen Marche of the Atlantic recently. This argument is based on a serious but common misunderstanding of a means of education as an end. The essay embodies a complex process and experience that teach many useful skills. It is not a simple product.

But that misunderstanding is just the tip of an iceberg. The current discourse about artificial intelligence not only reflects a shrunken view of education. It also represents a constant romanticization of, or alarmism about, new technologies influencing education. And most saddening for educators like me, it shows a disregard toward students as dishonest by default.

Broaden the view of education

If we focus on writing as a process and vehicle for learning, it is fine to kill the essay as a mere product. It is great if bot-generated texts serve certain purposes. Past generations used templates for letters and memos, not to mention forms to fill. New generations will adapt to more content they didn’t write.

What bots should not replace is the need for us to grow and use our own minds and conscience, to judge when we can or should use a bot and how and why. Teachers must teach students how to use language based on contextual, nuanced, and sensitive understanding of the world. Students must learn to think for themselves, with and without using bots.

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Transcending Monolingual Worldviews: Magnifying the Impact of Knowledge in Academe and Society

This is a post to simply share a public talk I gave at Cornell University in March 2022, titled “Transcending Monolingual Worldviews: Magnifying the Impact of Knowledge in Academe and Society.”

BLURB: All societies, and especially diverse ones like the US, are multilingual; translingual
communication mediates life and professions and makes knowledge grow and work. Yet, myths
about language set up barriers, inhibiting free exchange and application of knowledge. These
myths include the ideas that knowledge must only be produced, can only be exchanged, and is
applied best through dominant languages—damaging assumptions that adversely affect many
domains, but particularly knowledge work by academics across the disciplines. Harm caused by
this suppression of languages has been long documented in the literature in language, writing,
and communication studies. Drawing on the research and his own efforts to counter language
ideologies, Dr. Shyam Sharma will present a framework and share practical strategies, showing
how transcending monolingual worldviews (and mobilizing all languages) helps academe and its
scholars to magnify the impact of the knowledge they produce, both transnationally and within
US academe and society.

Incidentally, I also facilitated a workshop for graduate students at Cornell, titled “Working Across Languages and Genres: Strategies for Magnifying the Impact of
BLURB: Even in culturally and linguistically diverse societies, myths and ideologies narrow down the
number of languages and genres of knowledge sharing often to just one. But, as society and
technology both advance, beyond the journal article, and beyond English-only venues lie a vast
world of knowledge that circulates in many languages and many genres. Graduate students,
whatever number of languages they speak, have access to that vast network, which needs and
rewards their knowledge, offering them the opportunity to grow while giving back to
society/world. How can you harness the power of all your languages? How can you overcome
the barriers of perceptions and policies? A scholar who researches and teaches research and
writing across disciplines and countries, Dr. Shyam Sharma will engage graduate students in
hands-on activities and share practical strategies, helping graduate students explore how they
can harness the full power of different languages, genres, and mediums of communication. This
workshop will help them develop diverse ways to multiply the impact of the scholarship they

TU is Well [Republica Repost]

Published in Republica on February 11, 2022.

Nepalese academia, including Tribhuvan University, has challenges, but we must tell the full story, including what it is doing well.  

I paused, somewhat sad, while skimming through responses submitted to the weekly reading assignment in a professional development workshop series last December. I was supporting the organizers, an informal network of Tribhuvan University scholars from across the country, as a resource person. One participant, who indicated was a senior scholar, had written that they “of course” didn’t need to “read about this issue … any more.” For the final workshop on “new opportunities for scholars’ professional development,” the task was to read some material provided and do some further research on how to prepare effective applications for scholarship/funding. The prompt said that everyone should share what they learned “whether it is for yourself or for supporting your students.…” This senior scholar’s refusal to read, it seemed, was due to “status issue.”

“Our son has finished reading” (padhisakyo), say our proud parents, meaning that he has completed a degree. “Reading” does refer to “studying” and “finishing” terminal degrees. But the reality that many scholars “stop reading” much once they enter academic careers makes the semi-metaphorical expression look very ugly. Discontinuing to read in a profession defined by lifelong learning is a real shame. Sounding like last year is not what a real scholar should do. This unfortunate condition is partly due to a misguided notion of status but it is also caused by current policy: while scholarship is required for promotion, serious study and production can be bypassed by using various shenanigans. The situation is improving but publication quality can still be skipped, especially by those who are politically active.

However, the reason I write this piece is to show that the above is only one part of the story about Nepal’s academe, including about Tribhuvan University. The rest of the narrative must also be advanced. Let us do that.

Flipping negative narratives Continue reading

Unteaching Tyranny [Republica Repost]

It is possible and necessary to use technology to empower and inspire, not be tyrannical. If nothing else, the harrowing global pandemic must help educators come to our senses about the overuse and misuse of authority.

When a fellow professor in a teacher training program said last month that he takes attendance twice during class since going online, I was surprised by the tyrannical idea. What if a student lost internet connection or electricity, ran out of data or was sharing a device, had family obligations or a health problem? We’re not just “going online,” we’re also going through a horrifying global pandemic!

At a workshop on “humanizing pedagogy” for a Bangladeshi university more recently, when asked to list teaching/learning difficulties now, many participants listed challenges due to student absence, disengagement, dishonesty, and expectation of easy grades. When asked to list instructional solutions, many proposed technocratic and rather authoritarian methods. The very system of our education, I realized, is tyrannical and most of us usually try to make it work as it is.

Tyranny, now aided by technology, goes beyond formal education. “You can only fill your bucket if you’ve brought it empty,” said a young yoga instructor in Kathmandu, on Zoom last week. She kept demanding, by name, that participants turned on their video feed. We kept turning it off as needed. Someone kept individually “spotlighting” us on screen. But we were always muted, even as we were constantly asked to respond to instructor questions by chat, thumbs up, hand wave, and smile. Technology magnified autocratic tendencies, undermining the solemnity of yoga.

The quality of yoga lectures and instruction didn’t match the technologically enforced discipline. “Our lungs remove ninety percent of toxins from our body,” said an instructor. Surya namaskar fixes both overweight and underweight, said another, as well as cancer and diabetes. Googling these claims led to junk websites. I quickly became an unengaged learner, waiting for lectures to be over. I read a book on yoga during lectures, or took notes on how technology can magnify tyrannical elements of instruction and academe. I reflected on how to make my own teaching more humane.

This essay is a broader commentary on the element of tyranny in education. But to show that the idea of making teaching more humane is not just a romantic ideal, I share how we can operationalize the concept, including and especially during this disrupted time.

Operationalizing humanity

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Magic Tools and Research Integrity [Republica Repost]

Published in the Republica on March 23, 2021.
Plagiarism is a manifestation of a deeper problem in academia: Of publishing for the sake of publishing, and of rewarding it regardless. 

“Do I need to cite a source if a plagiarism detection tool doesn’t show that I’ve borrowed an author’s words?” asked a participant at a research workshop recently. “I will have to rewrite much of my article if that’s the case.”

I was not surprised. Instead, I started wondering where the question was coming from. In op-eds and other discussions, I’ve seen plagiarism treated as a problem of stealing words (rather than ideas). For instance, in a recent, highly nuanced, proposal for apology as a mode of redemption for those who have plagiarized in the past, the author casually claimed that there are now technological tools for “easily” identifying and preventing cases. Academic leaders and institutional policies alike, I remembered, exude the same incredible hope.

What’s even worse, issues about quality and integrity of research, not to mention its social value and responsibility, are overlooked in discussions of its originality. Across South Asia and the rest of the global south, there is an increasingly misguided focus on the product of publication—rather than on the ends to which it is a means—reflecting what current policies demand and reward. Even when “impact” is talked about, it simply refers to proxy measures of quality of the product, such as the number of citations (which may be mere name-dropping, including one’s own). Indeed, that is what “journal impact factor” means. When “quality” is used explicitly, that too simply means that the venue is “international” (or not locally located) or that the product is in English (instead of a local) language. If these critiques sound radical, it’s because the status quo is absurd. It is because it rewards publications that may have no significant value.

It is not just that someone can reap rewards by simply paraphrasing or summarizing others’ ideas. They can also make progress by fabricating or manipulating data. Either way, the magic of technology fails whenever scholars fail to ask what specific tasks specific technologies can do and how, where they can be bypassed, what to learn from using them.

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Advancing research for social impact [Republica Repost]

The best frameworks for advancing socially impactful research can be created at the intersection of the grassroots efforts and institutional programs.

At the end of an intensive two-day training on semester-based teaching organized by Tribhuvan University in Nagarkot last May, we asked the seventy or so university faculty members from around the country to pick between two groups. One group was asked to  strategize how to institutionalize the teaching excellence training, building on a few years of work done mainly online by a grassroots initiative. The other group would discuss a new topic: how to pursue and promote research and publication in the university. To our pleasant surprise, over two-thirds of the participants went to the research group. We had to come up with a quick way to better regroup the scholars.

We have observed increasing numbers of training and discussions that focus on research, writing, and publication in and beyond our universities in recent years. It is not just that the current lockdown has afforded more time to university professionals. The current trend builds on a strong momentum that we have seen in the last few years, in both the public and private institutions, in the capital and across the country. The incident above was a manifestation of a broader momentum.

Even better, we have observed an increased interest in making research and publication more socially impactful, especially among younger scholars. A recent article about UGC-supported grants showed that while the quality of our research and publications remain concerning, younger researchers are publishing stronger scholarship.

In this essay, we highlight two complementary dimensions for advancing research and publication for greater social impact: a community and culture of research and a policy framework that can foster the culture. The proposed framework would provide incentives to scholars, as well as realigning institutional priorities and accountability mechanisms, for making academic research more driven by social needs.

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Languaging Research [Republica Repost]

Published March 15, 2020

We must develop new indexes that can measure social impact of scholarship, inspire more scholars to publish, increase public access to knowledge, prompt action and community research, and promote translational research in science and medicine

“English is . . . the language of higher education, mass media, information and communication technology, business, tourism, science and medicine,” says the introduction to the recently published English language curriculum for 11th and 12th grades. Built upon this combination of half truths, ignorance, and ideologies, there is another pervasive belief that English is also the language of scientific publication, if not all significant knowledge production in the world. This essay seeks to debunk the latter assumption, going on to discuss the social costs of passively accepting while actively contributing to the conditions behind the assumption, as scholars in developing countries like Nepal are doing increasingly.

As Theresa Lillis and Mary Jane Curry, experts on the issue, point out, the claim that English is the “global” language of scientific and scholarly publication is actually based on English-language databases that include roughly 27,000 journals, leaving out similar databases containing 9,000 journals published in other languages—not to mention thousands of other local venues that are advancing knowledge with even more local value around the world. China, Korea, and Russia are now developing their own citation databases to address the problem, realizing that current understanding is analogous to going into an apple farm to find oranges. In fact, even within the patently English-dominated Scopus list of science-leaning publications, for instance, 12 percent of journal articles overall and 23 percent of those in the Arts and Humanities have non-English abstracts. Continue reading