Photo by Aalto University Library and Archive Commons
Recently hearing Josh Waitzkin on the Tim Ferriss podcast brought back memories of reading his book, The Art of Learning, a few years back when it first came out.
I remember finding the book interesting from the perspective of a person who enjoys studying a wide variety of fields. Listening to the podcast made me think about the concepts in the book from a whole new perspective, and that is the perspective of a teacher.
The Challenge of Teaching Politics in
South Korea Jeollado
I teach in the political science department of a middle-of-the-pack private university in a region of South Korea that is, for the most part, disenfranchised from the rest of the country. Jeollado has a history of going its own way politically and the major revolts against authoritarian rule in South Korean were all down in my neck of the woods. Oh yeah, and it’s the geographical center of lingering anti-American sentiment in SK. Did I mention that the main thing that I, a U.S. citizen, teach is U.S. politics?
Honestly , I have never had any problems related to my specific nationality that couldn’t be attributed to general racism towards foreigners, and even that has been fairly mild in my experience. In fact, I often find myself telling other expats that complain about how their boss is treating them or what some rude grandma said to them on the street that if they were Korean they would likely be receiving far worse treatment. The harsh reality is that Korean society is, unfortunately, brutal and unforgiving.
Korea has many things to boast about. Its rapid development from the utter devastation of the Korean War is nothing short of a miracle. It has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. World leaders praise its education system as a model for producing a highly educated population.
Therein lies the problem. Korea is now actually over-educated. The assembly-line public school system based on standardized tests has sent so many young people marching off to college that the labor market for college-educated young adults is over-saturated, and, on average, one can now expect better lifetime earnings by going directly into the labor force out of high school than by delaying entry 4-5 extra years by going to college.
The jobs for all these very smart young people just are not there.
The Korean Dream in a Nutshell
If such a thing as a “Korean dream” exists for young Koreans, it probably looks something like this, and in this exact order:
- Study hard and get into a top university
- Get a job with one of the “Chaebol” (family-run conglomerates that are the bedrock of Korea’s economy).
- Continue to live with parents until you have saved enough money to get married (in other words, saved enough to purchase an apartment for men; for women they should purchase all the furnishings).
- Get married (Korea has some shockingly efficient ways of facilitating this life stage, but I won’t get into all of that here).
- Have children.
- Work hard. Take a yearly vacation, preferrably abroad. Send children to private academies (which can cost $1,000 / month) to supplement their education and make sure they get into a good university just like you did.
The problem is that the system is now breaking down at each and every step.
- The relentless focus on ‘getting in’ has led to a stunning lack of rigor in higher education. College life is seen by many as their only taste of freedom before working life begins.
- The implied promise of a ‘job for life’ no longer exists as Korean firms have recently exhibited less loyalty to its employees (while still expecting their full devotion in return).
- Housing prices are skyrocketing and entry level salaries are stagnant. This dream is getting farther away. Oh yeah, and household debt to income ratio is now higher than it was in the U.S. just before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007/2008.
- Increasing competition in the professional and educational world means less time to devote to your love life. Those that do find a mate are delaying marriage and kids until later and later.
- Children also get delayed. Now Koreans are having less children than ever before and, in fact, one of the lowest birth rates in the OECD.
- The educational costs of having children is another driving factor for the low birth rates.
All of these factors add up to produce the concept known as “Hell Chosun,” an idiomatic term to describe the future (or lack thereof?) that Korean young adults have to look forward to as they enter the meat grinder public education system that forces them to pull all-nighters preparing for standardized tests from middle school on.
By the time I get to know them, many of my students have given up. They missed the top-tier universities of their (and their families’) dreams and are already feel like they have let themselves and their loved ones down. The only thing worse than that is the fierce competitiveness for low-paying jobs that awaits them upon graduation.
Coming back to The Art of Learning
This brings us back to the reason I am writing this blog post: Reconnecting with a book I read many years ago.
I remember tearing through the book at a rapid pace and finding it an exciting, motivating read. But at the end of the book I had a hard time putting into words exactly what I learned from the book. In that sense, the book was a disappointment; it is not a game plan for becoming a polymath as I had hoped. In fact, I bet 10 different people could all read the book and come away with ten different primary lessons that they pulled out.
In that sense, the book is more of a memoir of the author (a child chess prodigy turned martial arts world champion) and his own personal philosophy of learning. The blog Deconstructing Excellence has posted a thorough summary of the book and it’s concepts if you would like to know more about the concepts in great detail without actually buying and reading it yourself.
In the year 2016, the idea of the ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindsets is mainstream, but when TAOL was published in 2008 it wasn’t quite as well known.
Many of the concepts in TAOL were like that. I’ve read several psychology books in more recent years that have gone into excruciating detail on some of the phenomena that Waitzkin discusses anecdotally, through the lens of his own personal experience. This does not detract from TAOL but actually affirms it.
In other words, science has shown that the conclusions Waitzkin draws based on his own experiences with learning are not only right on the money but transferable to the general population. This means that you do not have to be a genius to develop exceptional skill.
As I listened to the aforementioned podcast a couple weeks ago, he kept referring to his foundation and the work that it does with teachers and programs around the world. He mentioned that they are interested in working with teachers at putting the principles to work in various contexts for various purposes. This sparked the realization that my approach to TAOL years ago had been all wrong. I had been looking at it selfishly, as a learner hoping to emulate Waitzkin’s success at rapidly becoming world class in a field (in my case, I had just become addicted to Brazilian Jiujitsu, which is Waitzkin’s most recent field of conquest).
I couldn’t even wait until I got home to make contact with the Josh Waitzkin foundation. I eagerly tapped out an email on my phone:
My name is Steve, and I am really curious about how the JW Foundation could help my students. They are all adults so they may not be your target group, but they are all political science students at a university in the incredibly competitive education environment of South Korea.
Many have a lack of motivation for learning and are already discouraged because they did not make it into one of the top tier universities.
That being said, I am always looking at new ways of reaching out to them. Currently I am teaching a group of them Brazilian Jiujitsu on a totally volunteer basis and through that community I can see the passion come out of them from time to time. Ironically it is in learning a combat sport that they feel like they can relax and unwind from the competition they face in everyday life.
Anyway, if there is a possibility of working with you guys to introduce TAOL concepts I would definitely be game for trying new things.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was excited to get an email back from them in a couple days:
Thank you for contacting us. We have several programs with universities, so the age of your students is not a problem!
I would be happy to discuss the specifics of developing an Art of Learning program with you. I’m attaching an information sheet which will give you a basic outline of what our programs look like. However, we don’t have a static curriculum, so they tend to be fairly individualized. All programs are completely free of charge.
It sounds as though your students would really benefit from some work around Resilience. I’ve also attached our Resilience guide. It was created with younger students in mind, but many of the concepts would translate to older students with slight modification. The work that you’re doing with Brazilian Jiujitsu is wonderful! It provides a great opportunity for you to make a bridge between the Beginner’s Mind they have in learning this new art to what they see as an already established relationship with learning as university students.
I am happy to discuss all of this with you in greater detail both to give you some ideas for how to work with your students, and to provide me with the necessary information to write a program description. If you would like to speak via Skype, I can do so most Mondays or Wednesdays between 10am and 1:30pm EST, and Fridays between10am and 3:30pm EST. I’m not sure what the time difference is between New York and S. Korea, but perhaps we can find a time that will work for both of us. If not, it’s fine to continue the discussion through email.
I look forward to hearing back from you.
I read through the attachments and then… I am ashamed to say that I did nothing with it. I quickly fell behind in my workload for the semester, but her comments about teaching resilience stuck with me and floated to the surface of my consciousness on occasion.
Resilience is a subject that is already dear to me. Nassim Taleb discusses it in some detail in his book Antifragile, which has been enormously influential in my own life. And Katy was exactly correct.
What teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu has taught me about teaching
During a person’s very first lesson in BJJ, they will likely be shown something considered “fundamental,” such as the rear naked choke. In the following ten years it takes that person to go from their very first lesson in any combative art to competing as an ‘expert’ in a mixed martial arts event, they will be exposed to countless other methods of winning a fight. And yet, once they reach expert status and have an encyclopedic knowledge of techniques, statistically it is quite likely that it will be the simple rear naked choke they rely upon. Interesting, no? Why bother spending all those years becoming an expert if you are just going to use what you learned on Day 1? Well, I have a couple of thoughts on this:
- You’ve practiced it about 5,000 times or so. You know how to do it from a hundred different entry positions. You now know what needs to be done, against an equally skilled opponent, in order to create the opportunity now too.
- You didn’t actually learn the rear naked choke on the first day. The real lesson was subconscious. And it remained that way for the first hundred or so times that you practiced it.
After showing the rear naked choke, and a litany of other techniques, to several people for the first time in their lives while also trying to simultaneously improve my own BJJ skill, I’ve developed a theory about the real purpose of the techniques. At the conscious level, on that first day, you think you are learning how to choke someone out. What you are really learning is your introduction to micro-level concepts such as cutting off the blood supply to the brain, the strongest way for your hands to grip each other, and the fact that once you have someone in this position, your relative size and strength is nearly completely irrelevant.
Teaching is more than adding entries to the encyclopedia program running in a student’s brain; we are inherently either updating or reinforcing the learning operating system too. That is a heavy responsibility and deserves both serious thought and intentional action.
I am a Professor of Political Science. I teach courses in US politics, international organizations, and academic writing. But the cold hard reality is that in my students’ future careers if there is a fact or figure about any of the above they find themselves in need of, it is at their fingertips within a few swipes on their smartphones. If teachers and schools continue to approach their jobs as simply moving facts from their brains into their students’ brains, they will quickly be replaced by Wikipedia and Udemy.
I’ve always aspired to be a great teacher but have only had a nebulous idea of what that means in practical terms, so I have never really been confident in my teaching. However, I am starting to get an idea about what that means for me now.
Thinking back on all of this, and mixing in some of my strengths identified in my student evaluations, here are things I believe I am doing right:
- Bending over backward when a student asks for help (a professor personally investing in a students’ success seems to give them a great deal of confidence)
- Approaching classes as an opportunity to study a topic together (giving them respect and treating them as allies)
- Treating mistakes as learning opportunities (plagiarism is a constant problem in Korea, as it isn’t really considered a serious problem here, but my approach of letting them re-submit an essay if, and only if, they come talk to me about how to properly use outside sources first seems to be appreciated)
When I think about what I can do better, though, I think about the underlying operating system in my students’ heads. Katy’s suggestion of making resilience an important part of that operating system is, I think, right on the money. Thankfully, the information she sent me did offer further suggestions on doing this:
- Value Process Before Results
- Investment in Loss
- Beginner’s Mind
- Using Adversity
For each of these four aspects of teaching resilience in the classroom, the guide gives concrete, practical suggestions. For example, for “Value Process Before Results,” is suggests, “Give process-oriented feedback to at least three students a day,” with the following examples: “I see you’re working really hard on this,” “Let’s think about how I can help you stretch yourself further,” and “I can see you’re putting a lot of work into this problem.”
Putting the Latest Learning Research into Practice Teaching
Those types of suggestions are all well and good. And yes, they are quite practical. As I have gone through the list, I find that I have already been doing a lot of these kinds of things, mostly because of parenting tips I’ve picked up since becoming a father. Praising people for their hard work, rather than a specific accomplishment, for example, has become almost second nature for me.
I want to take it a step farther, though, and build the structure of my classes in a way that they reinforce resilience as part of my students’ learning operating systems. How do I create homework assignments and exams in a way that encourage students to build the type of learning habits that will serve them for the rest of their lives?
One thing I could do is entirely change the way I teach my Politics English class. I could basically make it a “study skills” course. Since I am halfway through the year though, I wouldn’t want radically change the format of the class for the second semester. This means that the prime course for experimentation will have to be my International Organizations course next semester. The problem is that the course content does not lend itself easily to many of the suggestions given in the TAOL workbook.
One possibility is to have a group project based around important persons in IO history and ask them to give presentations on a “mistake” that these people made and how they made up for them. A few possibilities for people to study might be Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Maynard Keynes, Ban Ki-Moon, etc.
The hope would be that, much like the BJJ beginner learning a rear naked choke for the first time, it’s not the facts about the persons’ life that they remember five years from now, but the idea that person can make a grievous error and still come back from it to make an important contribution to the world.
This first idea feels grossly inadequate for the aspirations I have for my courses, but it’s a starting point. Like any course, they continuously evolve each time around. Just like my trial of the EduCanon portal last year in my US Politics course led to me going all-in on the ‘flipped classroom’ model with the course this year (even completely re-recording every lecture), I know that my first attempt at integrating lessons on resilience might only be marginally successful. But I also know that the first baby step in a new direction is the most important one, and it will lead to a boost in my own confidence, as well as a flood of further ideas coming shortly after.
In short, TAOL concepts are great, but bringing them into the classroom has been and continues to be a struggle. Nonetheless, I will continue to give it my best shot.