Monthly Archives: December 2012

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What (and who) inspired me in 2012?

As the calendar clicks over to 2013, it’s an opportune time to reflect on some of the inspiring tools and ideas that have engaged me over the past year – and will continue to have traction in the coming year.

Here is a reverse-ordered list with lots of links to explore. Happy New Year!

10. Playlists: Every course (or presentation) needs a good soundtrack. Songza is an auto-playlist-maker recommended by Mary Nisi on NPR’s technology blog

9. Infographics: We can all do a better job at presenting complex ideas visually and elegantly. Here is a List of infographics tools

8. Presentation Zen: (Re)imagining visual communication – Garr Reynolds has been a big influencer on my own presentation style and content

7. Personal Learning Networks (PLNs): The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts

6. Gaming: Networked learning and simulation can benefit from the principles of successful, immersive and authentic hi-fidelity game environments – and this is progressing in medical simulation in Canada and worldwide.

5. Virality: What is the “replicability factor” intrinsic to certain memes? How can we infuse knowledge products with that same DNA? Check out some emerging research by Berger and Milkman (2012) What Makes Online Content Viral? and Stanford now offers an online course on viral marketing

4. Another MOOC MOOC by Hybrid Pedagogy: Because information wants to be free

3. Motivational Interviewing: A clinical approach that maps equally well to teaching and learning

2. Y Combinator: A model with applications for curricular innovation, education research and student engagement?

1. Social Inclusion: Anyone can learn if they have the tools – like the instrumental support pioneered by the World Braille Foundation: Braille = Equality… Why? Because literacy is the key to opportunity, economic security and freedom. Yet in many countries 95 per cent of blind children don’t even attend school due to lack of skilled teachers and limited access to Braille materials.

This international foundation is dedicated to promoting literacy, independence and empowerment to blind persons, with past and current projects in Kenya, Swaziland, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Liberia and Lesotho. I make a donation every year. Plus, full disclosure, the WBF was started 10 years ago by my dad, Euclid Herie, and my #1 inspiration!

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Wise words from a school principal

Grade 8 graduation – lots of speeches, uncomfortable chairs and a few fleeting moments when my own grade 8 grad is on stage for the bestowing of the diploma. Who knew that a few thoughtful words by the school principal at the end of the ceremony would capture with absolutely perfect clarity the essence of what it is to teach (and learn)?

This principal was moving on to a position at a new school, so it was his final address and farewell. I don’t remember much of that final speech, with the exception of the last sentence:

“Most of all, I want to thank you students; you gave me so much more than I ever gave to you.”

I was struck by those words as a container for everything that’s important in teaching and learning. The stance of attention, humility, curiosity, openness, collaboration, gratitude and honouring the other.

Those words were a gift and an affirmation of the truest meaning of “teacher”.

So in the spirit of the holiday season I’m passing the gift along. Thanks Mr. Beatty.

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It’s not rocket science

In a recent article in the journal Medical Education, Dr. Glenn Regehr champions a radical rethink of education research. Drawing on insights and advances in subatomic and macro physics, he argues against the imperatives of proof, generalizable solutions and simplicity (all drawn from the prevalent theoretical and methodological approaches in medical research broadly). Instead, Regehr suggests that we embrace the construct of uncertainty (“elegant messiness”) in unique education settings (“context is the irreducible covariate”).

Does a narrow focus on the success of medical education initiatives diminish the utility of education research? Here is Regehr’s thinking, with which I’m inclined to agree:

“Rather than dwelling on the questions of what is going on, we jump straight to the issue of whether it worked. We keep tweaking when the answer is ‘No’, but are satisfied as soon as the answer is ‘Yes’. We celebrate and publish our positive results as proof of our rightness and treat the negative results as ‘failures’ to be ignored or even buried. As a result, the information we share with the larger education research community through the talks we give and the studies we publish tends to feel more like a ‘show-and-tell’ exercise than an engaging and challenging contribution to the community’s understanding of learning processes and education practices.”

These are brave words, especially in a field that has historically privileged positivist epistemology over interpretivist approaches (a debate for another day). Yet the parallels between dynamic systems described in chaos theory, and its application to learning contexts and communities, are striking.

Both are highly context-sensitive and characterized by an “exponential growth in perturbation.” In other words, while all education settings have broad similarities, it is their unique and particular differences that matter with respect to learning outcomes and applications. Small contextual variations (perturbation) can lead to massively divergent results (that’s the exponential growth part).

Take-home messages and food for thought:

Competence isn’t contained within an individual practitioner – it emerges via interaction with an always-changing context.

Education research should focus on sharing new and better ways of thinking about clinical teaching/learning problems, issues and assumptions.

We need a shift from showing what we did right, to articulating what we learned along the way.










How can we bridge the teaching/learning gap?


The evidence-based clinical practice model that I use and teach, Motivational Interviewing, is a respectful and collaborative way to talk about change with people who are ambivalent or unwilling.

In fact, conversations about change are clearly relevant beyond counselling, therapy or health care. The new edition of Motivational Interviewing by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick outlines four essential processes that map well onto processes of adult education, particularly in contexts where learners may be less than enthusiastic. These processes are somewhat linear but also recursive –  one naturally leads to (and provides a foundation for) the next, but we may also circle backwards and forwards as needed.

1. Engaging:

This is about establishing a relationship with the group and creating a positive learning community. Is it safe to speak up, disagree, critique and explore? Meaningful discourse hinges on successful engagement.

2. Focusing:

Engagement comes first, but it is also important to understand and highlight the relevance of the topic/learning objectives to real world problems and issues. What will I learn, and why should I care? How will mastering new knowledge and skills make my work easier and better? Individuals may raise topics or issues that instructors hadn’t anticipated. These are the burning questions that need to be resolved through successful focusing. Optimally, adult learners are engaged in co-creating curricula.

3. Evoking:

Learning is 100% volitional. Constructivism and paragogy mark a shift from installing knowledge and solutions towards evoking these. Although faculty bring expertise to the table – and we shouldn’t shy away from sharing this – a motivational approach presupposes doing so in partnership with learners, and with a spirit of nonjudgmental acceptance and compassionate empathy.

4. Planning:

We’ve engaged learners in an active partnership, linked curricula to real-world issues, and evoked new connections, insights, ideas and approaches. Now what? Identifying implications for practice and committing to an action plan are key. The planning process helps bridge the gap between learning and life. If new learning has no real-world implications, then we’ve missed the boat somewhere along the way.

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Just how important are your academic references for grad school admission?

I’ve written my share of academic references – never more so than the last couple of months, where one candidate requested a record of twelve (yes, that’s 12) separate letters – but I’ve never served on a university admissions committee. I’ve always been curious about their importance relative to other factors like grades, personal/research statement, publications and relevant experience. My curiosity was finally satisfied when I found myself sitting next to just such a person on a train (currently reviewing candidates for a competitive university program) and we got to talking.

The short answer is VERY IMPORTANT – and although I always knew that excellent references are key, I didn’t appreciate the full extent of their influence.

So, in the interests of supporting would-be grad students everywhere, here are some tips from the perspective of a referee:

1. Be strategic. Is it better to ask a more junior instructor from a small class you loved where you got an A-, versus a tenured, senior faculty member where you got the same grade in a large class you weren’t so enthusiastic about (and not sure the prof remembered anyone’s names)? Rest assured that the sessional might not remember individual students very well either, and the answer should depend on…

2. How will this person rank me relative to what comparison group? In my 10 years of writing reference letters, I have never been asked this question directly – yet this is the most crucial question you need to ask your referee. You are looking for someone who is going to rank you in the top tier, across all categories if possible. Let’s look at the previous example: Is it the junior prof’s first year of university teaching? If so, even a ranking in the top 1% of 20 students probably carries less weight than the seasoned, tenured prof’s ranking in the top 5% of 5000 students. Ask the question – if you don’t like the answer maybe it isn’t the right person.

3. Send your referee a summary of the personal accomplishments and key points you want to emphasize in your application. And can I add that writing clearly and concisely, without errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax should be a given. Trust me, if I disagree with you I will edit. If I agree I will amplify. I will also add my own content. Sending me only your CV and personal or research statement makes it harder to write the best letter I can for you.

4. Follow up and say thank you – whatever the outcome. This obvious courtesy is not always observed, and you might need me again when you decide to apply for your next degree.

5. Don’t give up! This isn’t really a tip about reference letters but I am adding it because grad school applications are a lot of work, and so discouraging when there is no offer. Keep applying and consider spreading your net a little wider next time.

Just please don’t ask me for all twelve letters at once?

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