Teaching the Daily Practices

Daily practice is a part of many religions and spiritual quests. But the discipline of daily practices does not have to have anything to do with religion or spirituality. The self-discipline of having a daily practice is good for the mind, body and soul.

My writing online is a daily practice that is spread around in a number of places. It is the best thing I have done in my life to improve my writing. I have tried daily writing practices before. William Stafford and other poets are known for their daily poems.

It did that in 2014 with a daily poetry practice that I called Writing the Day. It helps that Stafford, when asked about how he could write a poem each day, replied that he lowered his standards. He didn’t write a gem every day. But he did write every day.

This year, I still write poems and I still contribute weekly to that poetry blog, but my daily practices have changed.

Maybe your practice is yoga, meditation, working in the garden, painting, or making time for serious reading. The list is long with possibilities.

It takes discipline. I know that “discipline” has a bad bad reputation. It makes you think of school and getting sent to the principal’s office for detention. But discipline is good and necessary.

As a teacher, applying what you learn is one of my top goals for my students. It’s also a goal that we should have in our non-academic life.

When I was more seriously into meditation practice, it became important to me that the practice moved into some actions in my life. The idea of meditating peacefully on some hilltop or is some tranquil Zen monastery is very appealing. But it also seems very self-indulgent.

Buddhism is generally not taught in America as a religion. Buddhist teachings are offered in a very practical, nonreligious way, and students of any – or no – religious background can benefit from learning them and putting them into practice.

When I stumbled upon the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, that’s what I was thinking about. EIAB has a mission to not only offer training but also “methods for using Buddha’s teachings to relieve suffering and promote happiness and peace in ourselves, our families, our communities and in the world. “

The institute operates under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, the world-renowned meditation teacher, scholar and writer, and with Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition.

People apply Buddhist teachings in such a way as to release tensions of the body, reduce bodily stress and pains, and in many cases alleviate not only symptoms but also underlying causes of illness. Can you pass on that knowledge and teach others to have a daily practice? I think that is the ultimate point of gaining the knowledge.

The other place I see this happening is with yoga – a practice that I have very little experience with. (I took a 5 week class that didn’t work for me.) But i saw a blog post about Yoga from the Heart by Seane Corn and she talks about a concept of “body prayer.” She applies her yoga practice to her humanitarian efforts. (There is a a video excerpt of her demonstrating the movement of “body prayer”)

I see yoga classes being offered everywhere from corporate centers to churches, hospitals, schools and storefront and formal fitness centers. It’s a 5,000-year-old spiritual practice.

Healing yourself is good, but healing the world, or at least a small part of it, is better. I have been a teacher in schools for my entire adult life, but my sense of the “teacher” is not really connected to schools but to every experience.

I have posted on another site about contemplative practices. I posted something about a very simple and brief guided practice using a bell sound meditation. It takes five minutes to do. Everyone can do a daily practice that only requires five minutes. But that is still more time than many people seem willing to give to quiet contemplation.

Even a daily practice of five minutes a day requires discipline.

One of my new daily practices is taking a few minutes every night before I go to sleep to review the day and note what I am grateful for from the day. Honestly, when I started, for a few nights I couldn’t come up with anything I was grateful for that day. That first saddened me, but then it bothered me. How could there be nothing that day I was grateful for? Sure, I could say I am grateful for being alive and healthy, for having a job, and for being married to someone I love and for my children. But that sounded corny, a bit of a cliche and too easy. I could use them every night. I am grateful for all those things every day, but it is harder and more important to probe deeper and

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says, “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself? The master doesn’t seek fulfillment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present and can welcome all things.”

At the top of this page is the Tree of Contemplative Practices, which is a nice visual of seven branches of practices, that I found on the website for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

You can see that it ranges from quiet practices for stillness (sitting meditation; centering prayer) to movement (walking meditation; pilgrimage). These practices can be done alone, but most of them actually involve others (especially work and volunteering or storytelling), Some of these practices can produce tangible results. That might be music, art, a house, a sacred space, a journal or a dialog with someone.

I asked a co-worker this past week if she sets aside any time each day for conscious contemplation. She said that it was those ten minutes that would sip coffee while waiting for the train every morning. “What do you think about?” I asked. “Nothing. I stare mindlessly at the tracks.”

I know that many teachers of meditation will encourage you to empty your mind, but the “mindless” nature of my co-worker’s practice make me think it’s not a contemplative practice.

You can add another level to an activity that seems mindless or just relaxing. For example, gardening is one of my favorite activities and I consider it to be a contemplative practice when I am conscious of an intention of cultivating awareness. I know someone who gardens as a way of developing a stronger connection with God. That’s different from just gardening.

You can do it while sitting quietly, walking in the woods, watching a fire, gazing at the ocean waves or resting on the couch, but you have to move beyond the experience and the moment.

From Rubrica To Rubric To Grading Papers With a Red Pen

I will doing another rubric workshop for faculty next month and I like to include a slide in my presentation and just touch on the origin of “rubric” as we use it in academia today.

the word has origins in late Middle English rubrish which was the original way to refer to a heading, section of text. Earlier Old French rubriche had the same meaning and came from the Latin rubrica (terra, red clay or ink as in the red ocher/ochre color).

Medieval printers had few ways to give emphasis to text on headings and the first character of a paragraph. Illuminated manuscripts could be quite elaborate and beautiful, but fonts were not standardized and there was no italic or bold.  That left them to use color.

Ochre is a naturally occurring pigment from certain clay deposits containing iron oxides, used since prehistoric times to give color to dyes, paints and inks. Ochre colors are yellow, brown, red and purple. The most common in printing colored text was red ochre. In Latin, red ochre is rubrica and that is the origin of the word rubric as these red emphasized headings.

Take this a bit further in the many religious texts that were reproduced. Those texts, used by clergy, included a kind of “stage directions” for the clergy reading. These were printed in red while the text for the congregation was printed in black ink. This gave an additional meaning to the red rubric writing as instructional text.

As universities are created and books become more commonly used, scholars grading student papers would use red ink to leave instructions, suggestions and corrections on student papers. The practice has survived, although in some educational settings it is frowned on.

You’ll often see a rubric used in academia as a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests. That is the focus for my presentation and I have collected some information and links on rubric use on my NJIT website.

Do We Need Learning Engineers?

Do we need learning engineers? Most people would answer that they didn’t even know there was such a job. Currently, I don’t think anyone does have that job (though I could imagine it being on someone’s business card anyway.)

Wikipedia defines engineering as “the application of scientific, economic, social, and practical knowledge, in order to design, build, and maintain structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective. The discipline of engineering is extremely broad, and encompasses a range of more specialized fields of engineering, each with a more specific emphasis on particular areas of technology and types of application.’

From that I could imagine many teachers, instructional designers and trainers feeling like they might be “learning engineers.”

I have read a few articles that suggest that we consider using the title.

One of those articles is by Bror Saxberg who is chief learning officer at Kaplan Inc. On his blog, he wrote:

The creative educator or instructional designer can and should draw inspiration for tough challenges from everywhere and anywhere, if there isn’t evidence already available to guide him or her. Unlike many challenges faced by an artist or author, however, instructional designers and educators also need to be grounded in how the real world actually works. (Even artists have to battle with the chemistry and material properties of the media they choose, it should be noted – you might want glass to be strong enough to support something in a certain way, but you may have to alter your artistic vision to match the reality.) Simply imagining how learning might work is not enough to build solutions that are effective for learners at scale – whether we like it or not, whether we get it right or not, how learning works in the world is going to affect the outcomes at scale.

A few years back, I heard the term “design thinking” used frequently in education circles. The graduate program I teach in at NJIT is still called Professional and Technical Communications, but “design” has become part of many of the courses.

That is enough of a trend that you can hear others asking if  design thinking is the new liberal arts. One example is the “d.school” at Stanford University (formally, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design)  which considers itself a training ground for problem-solving for graduate students. Rather than stress the typical design path of making products, they look at  design thinking as a way “to equip our students with a methodology for producing reliably innovative results in any field.”

Perhaps, “learning engineer” is more of a way of rethinking how teachers and academics design instruction. Maybe it is another way to look at engineering.

A few years ago, Bill Jerome wrote about the engineering side and said: 

Imagine a more “traditional” engineer hired to design a bridge.  They don’t revisit first principles to design a new bridge.  They don’t investigate gravity, nor do they ignore the lessons learned from previous bridge-building efforts (both the successes and the failures).  They know about many designs and how they apply to the current bridge they’ve been asked to design.  They are drawing upon understandings of many disciplines in order to design the new bridge and, if needed, can identify where the current knowledge  doesn’t account for the problem at hand and know what particular deeper expertise is needed.  They can then inquire about this new problem and incorporate a solution.

I think that there is a place for design thinking in engineering and also an engineering approach to designing instruction.

Design thinking as an approach to problem solving is often described using some basic principles:

  • Show Don’t Tell
  • Focus on Human Values
  • Craft Clarity
  • Embrace Experimentation
  • Be Mindful of Process
  • Bias Toward Action
  • Radical Collaboration

Those could be viewed as five modes that fit easily into engineering and education: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

Saxberg gives the example of needing someone to design a new biotech brewing facility. Do you want a chemist or a chemical engineer? He says the engineer – someone who “deeply understands modern chemistry… but is also conversant with health regulations, safety regulations, costs of building, and thinks in an integrated way about designing things for scale.”

Do we have “learning engineers” now that understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively? Are they teaching or are they doing research? Do all teachers need to be learning engineers?

I somewhat fear that if the title becomes used that it will end up leaning heavily towards educational technology. That’s something I see happening to many “teaching and learning” and “teaching excellence” center at colleges.

Technology can help. I have spent the past fifteen years working with that. But there is no guarantee that instructors using technology will somehow be better instructors. We know a lot about how people learn, but most of that isn’t being used by those who teach.

When I started at NJIT in 2000, I was hesitant about telling seasoned instructors “how to teach” (pedagogy). But I was pleasantly surprised by two things. First, the people who came to me or to our workshops were open to learning not only about new technology but about pedagogy. I was also surprised by how many of them were willing to say that no one had ever taught them “how to teach” and that they were always a little unsure about running only on intuition and their personal experiences with learning. “I try to teach like the good teachers I had and avoid being like the bad ones,” was a sentiment I heard fairly frequently.

Having come from teaching in a secondary school where everyone had a split educational background of subject matter expertise and educational pedagogy with continuing professional development in the latter, it took some transitioning for me to settle into the higher education setting.

Being that NJIT is very much an engineering (and design) institution, the idea of learning engineers might have been a good approach to take with that faculty.