[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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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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Making Education Three-Dimensional [Republica Repost]

Published on Oct. 23, 2018

Higher education must be a three-dimensional deal, one that includes acquiring knowledge, developing skills for the workplace, and having meaningful experiences that shape the learner for a lifetime.

Last summer, I had a unique opportunity to visit one of the most successful business families in Dhaka, Bangladesh during an academic trip there, along with another New York professor. The family, one of whose members I had taught here in the States a few years earlier, has an impressive business empire in the country. At one point, when the conversation turned to education, one of our hosts lamented that their company too often had to look beyond Bangladeshi universities for top talent. I asked why?

Graduates of local universities, he said, had solid academic knowledge of the subjects. “But if I give them a business problem and ask how they’d solve it, they give me a textbook answer.” That remark made me think about the challenges of higher education across South Asia for quite some time.

Knowledge isn’t Enough

Analyzing a business situation, one could say, requires skills that can only be learned after joining the workforce. Colleges are designed to impart knowledge, one could argue, to lay the foundation of the disciplines. Indeed, this view of college should not be considered outdated. Colleges should not be asked to just prepare students for jobs; they’re centers of learning that must shape habits of mind and inculcate productive perspectives on society and profession for a lifetime. Job preparation can be done by a career center on campus. Continue reading

International illusions [Republica Repost]


Published On:  November 29, 2017

One can only hope that Nepali scholars and policymakers will come back to their senses and start informing the public that English-only instruction is dangerous.

Thousands of Londoners kept dying every year during the early 1800s after the city started draining sewage into the Thames River. This happened because a “scientific orthodoxy” that cholera was caused by “vapor” from the dead, rather than being a waterborne disease, prevented the city from fixing the real problem for decades.

One can hope that Nepali scholars and policymakers will similarly come to their senses and start informing the public that English-only instruction (EOI) is a dangerous social experiment that needs changing. Note the emphasis is on “only”, the culprit in this case.
In the past two essays here, I wrote about the historical and political backdrop and then the dangers plus alternatives of EOI. In this one, I argue that Nepali education must teach other “international” languages as well, if we are sincere about English as a language of international communication and economic opportunities, and not international illusions.

As a bonus, that sincerity could help open gates of new opportunities for our educational institutions and for society. Continue reading

Of “Course”

When we take a course, as we do while traveling or for getting an education, we expect to move along a linear path, with milestones along the way, to a certain goal of experience or learning. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a course, as someone pointed out while I was doing a presentation at the Consortium on Graduate Communication summer institute at George Mason University recently. I was presenting on a modularized and student-centered graduate writing course (the subject of this post), and a colleague said: “No, this is not a course! It is essentially an online writing lab!” I think the lack of structure, especially a linear structure and control by the teacher, prompted her to say so.

A course, as a path, or as a curricular/pedagogical framing, occupies space (physical in the case of travel and intellectual and social in the case of education). But, more significantly, the expectation of linearity, of following a certain order of actions or goals, makes temporality override the spatial dimension of a course. It is not going through/over certain points in any order that makes it a course: it is the particular sequence of the points, the linear design, the timed nature, that gives it structure and certainty. There are the scope/coverage and associated goals, but they are bound in time, and the instructor uses deadlines to help/force students to cover that scope, to achieve the goals that he or she has set for them.

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Dangling Degrees — [Republica Repost]

Published in The Republica on Jan. 25, 2018.

“I am yet to make it,” said a scholar at a regional public university, referring to the doctoral dissertation he wanted to complete. “It’s very difficult to find time.” The word “banaune” in his sentence struck me because one doesn’t really sit down to somehow “make” a dissertation. It also reminded me of various recent conversations—and questions—about the “production” of scholars with advanced degrees, or dangling the “Dr.” title in front of their names, as many scholars themselves cite as the reason to get the degree.

Advanced degrees require extensive research, such as for the master’s and doctoral theses, and these projects demand extensive review of current and relevant knowledge in the discipline, intellectual positioning and proposition of new ideas on the topic of choice, collection and analysis of primary and/or secondary data, and problem-solving or theorization from the research. Some disciplines also require the presentation of new models or methods, designs or products, as modes of advancing new knowledge. As such, while graduate degrees are a means for advancing new knowledge, they also require institutions to provide their students and scholars the foundation of skills for problem-solving, presenting new ideas, and learning through experience and experimentation at the undergraduate level. Unfortunately, we have neither the foundation nor structure we need as yet. Continue reading

Scale what?

I was recently participating in a webinar about a MOOC-style first-year writing course, and a few words kept confusing me. Content. Delivery. Scale. . . .  Especially the last one stops me in my tracks.


When Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Edmund Hillary climbed Mt. Everest for the first time, they weren’t doing numbers. They were undertaking a superhuman challenge. It was a qualitative matter. It was a matter of inspiration. Making the impossible accessible. Showing that someone could actually do it. Redefining success. “Because it was there.” It, the mountain that had killed countless people for trying. They were scaling the un-scale-able.

“The real value add[ed] of higher education,” says Joshua Kim, writing on Inside HigherEd,  “cannot occur at web scale. It can only occur at human scale.” That scale occurs “where a skilled and passionate educator interacts directly with a student to guide and shape their learning.” As Kim adds, in an article meant to debunk myths and criticism of open, at-scale online education (not a critique of it), “[o]pen online courses at scale expose just how valuable, essential, and irreplaceable are our tight-knit learning communities. Never before has the teaching efforts of a gifted, knowledgeable and passionate instructor . . . been as valuable and as essential.” Online education at scale has to somehow find ways to substitute one-on-one and/or face-to-face human interaction, decreasing the time and attention given by an educator to learners who can ask questions, feel the presence. In a writing class, only some things can be scaled without fundamentally compromising learning. Continue reading