Apr 25

The New Professional: Shredding Force Fields at the Speed of Light

Parker J. Palmer’s concept of the “new professional” describes those who fight for their true mission “in the midst of the powerful force-field of institutional life, where so much conspires to compromise the core values” of their work. I wholeheartedly embrace this definition, but it presupposes that I align with Palmer’s idea of my work’s core values. In what field do people all agree on ethical or other issues like whether or not to grow transgenic bananas or if too much homework backfires? Education is a tool that can be used to humanize or de-personalize depending on the environment’s and students’ agendas. Immigrants like my parents are good illustrations of how education can be used as a means to improve one’s life.

superhero-534120_1920Parker states that, “The institutions in which we work too often threaten our professional values.” In my previous career as a communications executive, I experienced a few difficult conversations with managers when I disagreed with a plan of action. On one occasion, the plan backfired as I had predicted so I was prepared to help mitigate the situation. After that, I became a more valued—and heard—part of the executive team.

Challenging our supervisors is difficult enough—the idea that professionals are moral superheroes who have to shred the war machines of evil institutions sounds exhausting. Yet, perhaps I have done this already as a marriage and family therapist (MFT). During my student training in both master’s and doctoral programs, I have had to set a limit on my client caseloads because I could not ethically take on new clients without it negatively impacting my other clients and myself. As a student intern, though, you are not entirely in charge of your caseload; faculty both direct and guide treatment through the supervision process. I have been fortunate to have compassionate, understanding supervisors who explored my limits with me and respected my boundaries.

In these cases, I felt able to take a stand. Many students do not feel empowered enough to say no to a faculty member, and some may not even realize that they can discuss alternatives to their situation. For example, to further ease my caseload, my supervisors had me explore which clients would benefit from coming every other week instead of weekly. How can we obtain help if we do not ask for it? At the same time, academia must promote an atmosphere safe for all to come forward and bring up issues of concern.

Many MFT programs now incorporate students’ “self-of-the-therapist,” the awareness and exploration of personal issues that may impact therapy positively or negatively. This work does not just affect clients, it often sparks the self-development and personal growth of therapists themselves. My field easily lends itself to the tenets of critical pedagogy: inspiring students to develop critical consciousness, exercise creativity, and explore their passions. MFT students must develop clinical judgment treating clients, sometimes handling crises such as a threat of suicide. In the three graduate MFT programs I have attended, experiential learning was a crucial aspect of our training from role-plays to internships working with actual clients as a student intern at a clinic. In the doctoral program at Virginia Tech, we are challenged to consider cases from different perspectives to flex our therapeutic muscles and focus on the common factors of effective treatment.

Surprisingly, not all MFT programs engage their students in experiential learning despite the push to outcome-based education. A research project on MFT learning experiences I helped to conduct at Virginia Tech last year revealed that application of theory to practice made students’ education more meaningful. The lack of such opportunities was marked also as students’ least meaningful learning experience. The goal of the survey, the results of which are in press at the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, was to learn what inspires, motivates, and demoralizes MFT students. Thematic analysis helped us to explore the educational experiences of 68 graduates of accredited MFT programs, and we identified several themes in addition to praxis that we hope will serve to improve the quality of education in our field.

Mentorship was a key element of a meaningful learning experience, including having a supervisor who encouraged the student’s own growth without being too directive. Collaborative environments also fostered ideas for how to handle situations that arise in session. Other meaningful learning experiences related to the participants seeing their work pay off in observable client progress and developing the “self-of-the-therapist.” Not surprisingly, poor teaching was cited as a part of students’ least meaningful learning experiences such as when professors rambled, were uninspired, patronized students, and didn’t give them a voice in the classroom.

These results validate what is my true mission—to engage with people to help them improve their lives whether they are my students, clients, colleagues, or supervisees. Critical pedagogy has given me more a new way to talk about my values, and perhaps a collaboration of effort to shred those force fields holding back improving our world.

 

Mar 01

A World Without Color Becomes Black and White

My mother has become legally blind, unable to see the features on the faces of her beloved family members: the shape of our noses that resemble her father’s, the Punjabi cheekbones, and the medium brown color of our skin. Each characteristic is part of who we are, and I am proud that my Indian heritage is visible (even when people start talking Spanish to me or assume I am Native American). It makes me laugh that even racists will envy tanned skin and try to emulate it by burning their own skin in the sun.

I understand and applaud the reasoning behind the politically correct movement that endorses colorblindness: The color of skin shouldn’t matter. The argument against colorblindness is based on the truth that human beings don’t view all races the same just like we don’t treat genders the same. But we don’t need to be colorblind in order to have fairness, equality, and equity. We develop stereotypes as part of our intrinsic need to assess patterns for survival, but then mistake them for knowledge and insight into all beings who could fit that pattern according to our narrow understanding and ignorance. Someone’s skin tone shouldn’t be automatically be associated with their intelligence or particular behavior, yet that doesn’t have to automatically translate into not acknowledging the differences among us.

maxresdefault-2The word tolerance doesn’t help us much because “to tolerate” means to put up with, to endure, to bear. Those of you who think it’s just semantics have probably never walked into a company on your first day of work to realize you’re the only non-White person there. Perhaps we need tolerance as a first step before acceptance, which means agreeing without protest, without fighting the reality of a situation. What we need to get to is high definition imaging—an appreciation for the diversity of our world so that we can come to understanding (not agreement). Unfamiliarity and fear cause much of our racism and intolerance—and our inaction in the face of unspeakable horrors as Shankar Vedantam details in his book about how our hidden biases influence our behavior. We tend to hate what is different when it strikes the chord of fear that this difference has negative implications for our survival. Rush W. Dozier Jr.’s book, Why We Hate, explains how human brains connect higher meaning to our survival instincts, and that we hate because we feel threatened. According to Dozier:

Meaning rather than instinct is so overwhelmingly important to our species—and to our distinctive toolmaking cultures—that our limbic system has evolved a powerful tendency to blindly interpret any meaning system that we deeply believe in as substantially enhancing our survival and reproduction. Someone who wholeheartedly converts to a particular religion or political ideology, for example, is likely to experience strong primal feelings of joy and well being coupled with an exiting new sense of purpose. This is true even if the belief system has elements that are bizarre or self-destructive. Because of this unusual feature of the human brain, strongly held meaning systems are capable of decoupling our behavior from the objective criteria of survival and reproduction. If a particular group’s strongly held meaning system calls on it’s members to be celibate and suicidal, their primitive brain areas will tend to presume that this is the best way to ensure their survival and reproduction, even though rationally, of course, it is not…

The immense significance of meaning to human beings and its distinctive link in our species to the primitive emotional centers of the brain lay the groundwork for a primary source of hatred: fanaticism and intolerance. Lacking specific instincts, humans have no innate identity. It is meaning systems that provide us with our personal sense of meaning and purpose.  The tremendous emotional commitment we tend to make to these systems leaves us vulnerable to interpreting differences in meaning as threats to our survival and reproduction. Many of the most savage conflicts in history have involved quarrels over religious, political and cultural systems of meaning. (2003, p. 12)

Societies are built on identities that unify, so deviations from the norm are labeled evil to preserve the status quo. It becomes personal responsibility to conform in order to protect our culture, thus our very own existence. But ignorance isn’t “not knowing.” Ignorance is clinging to an idea out of desperation for survival like a “desert wanderer clings to a mirage” (Morgan, 2001, p. 62).

As we say in therapy, if you talked your way into a belief then you can usually talk your way out of it. For example, developmental trauma survivors tend to blame themselves for the abuse they suffered as children instead of their perpetrators (usually a caregiver) because unconsciously they know they cannot survive without that adult. It becomes primal, but survivors can and do work to change that self-blaming message through work that involves both brain and heart. It is not an easy process, and it typically requires both changing how our neurons connect with one another and developing self-love.

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Similarly, we can change how we react to differences. We don’t have to see them as threats to our survival since it’s not about instinct. In fact, I believe that in order for us to change our world for the better, we need to see differences as essential criteria for the best collaboration. Solutions for our mutual problems will not come in isolation, but in celebration of diversity. The proof is out there: Companies with more diverse employees have higher revenues. In my family, many couples have married outside the Indian community, and we have admired how beautiful their children are and considered whether mixing gene pools is beneficial overall for humanity (see hybrid vigor). It becomes a fun guessing game to see if they will “brown up” or be light-skinned, but we just enjoy who they become. They show us that we don’t need to ignore color to be good.

(This post is about only one type of diversity and inclusiveness. We have many differences that separate us in addition to skin color such as sexual orientation, gender, and SES level. Click here for a recent blog on how income disparities are harming the American family.)

Here is an exercise from Eastern philosophy to develop appreciation and to de-couple your ingrained meaning system from an object.

Go outside, close your eyes, and breathe in the fresh air. Pretend that you have just arrived on a different planet, and that nothing you see will be familiar. Open your eyes and look around you, pretending that you have never seen the landscape before. Go to an object and describe it—what stands out for you? What do you think this object does? Can you appreciate it without trying to connect it back to yourself?

Journal what you see and feel, then relate it back to what you “know” about the object from socialization and your cultural upbringing. How hard was it to view the object as if you had never seen it before? Can your view of the object be changed? Does it now appear differently to you?

Like most Eastern healing techniques, this “un-knowing” is a practice that you can improve at through time and effort. You can do this at home with your body or your shoes! Have fun imagining the new possibilities available to you through not clinging to snap judgments and assumptions. Try it with your students, esp. those who may suffer from stereotype threat, and see how differently they may react to your class and your teaching in general. It’s a whole new world, and it’s not black and white.

Feb 23

Bridge Over Koolaid-filled Waters or We Don’t Need No Replication

“True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own.” ~ Nikos Kazantzakis

 

We don’t need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teacher leave them kids alone

Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!

All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

~Pink Floyd

 

The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a teacher. The expectations of my family and culture sent me on a different path, but here I am back to the beginning of life’s spiral dance many moons later. This is a good place from which to begin formalized teaching because my experiences have shaped my philosophy of life, which will have a huge influence on the way that I approach pedagogy. The child of immigrants, I employ their method of becoming part of the system: Understand it first before making change to better suit my perspective. In addition, my time in corporate America and Wall Street showed me firsthand the differences between an engaged climate and an uninspired one—the former led to a collaborative and peaceful work environment while the latter damaged morale throughout the organization.

I have the luxury of studying pedagogy a semester before walking in front of the classroom, so I am learning what it entails, best practices, innovations, and what methods might suit my skillset best. I am letting my ideas spark firestorms in my head, thinking in hyperbole as well as trying to understand the traditional methods still employed and encouraged throughout academe. I am also making plans to watch excellent teachers in action so that I can study how they guide students’ imaginations.

I’m also remembering…Why did I want to become a teacher at such a young age? Teachers helped me to find competence and confidence to explore the world, and they often were kind and sometimes inspiring. But I also recall how I excelled in 9th grade algebra and had to sit through almost the entire year bored because I had already mastered the concepts. Many years later, I wish I had retained that knowledge or been given the opportunity to further my mathematical studies because I now sit in statistics classes scratching my head—and today, algebra confounds me. My aptitude was never supported or put into application, and it wasted away.

More recently, what has worked for me as a student is being able to apply theory to practice such as role-playing and engaging in simulations to make concepts come alive and have meaning. So as I prepare to teach for the first time, I want to learn from my predecessors, who include other graduate students who have brought their modern mindset to teaching and use tools of the younger generations to make the classroom a place of discovery rather than boredom. As Sugata Mitra extols, we no longer need to develop apprentices who merely replicate what we do. We need people to learn what ha been done in the past in order to advance it, not only in terms of execution but also of thinking above and beyond how it is conceived. We should be telling our students and employees, “Paradigm shifts encouraged.” But first, we need to listen and hear them, rather than wait our turn to speak or we’ll all be lost in translation.

© Eva Rinaldi

© Eva Rinaldi

I don’t believe that students are asking for us to entertain them (well not the majority anyway). They are asking us to make education relevant and important. Asking “why” shouldn’t be seen as inflammatory but a way of understanding. Why do people invest thousands of hours learning how to play a video game? Because it matters to them. I myself play jigsaw puzzles on my iPad when I need a break. While I enjoy it for its meditative qualities, I find myself hurrying to finish so I can win the promised “reward.” It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t care.

It’s pretty clear that I am unabashedly a yearner in the language of Seymour Papert. My philosophy of life bears that out. I believe that all sentient beings are students and teachers, no matter what our demographics including age or species. I believe that aptitude is not defined by linear standards, and that there are many kinds of intelligence that should be fostered both at home and in school. We do a huge disservice to our civilization by penalizing unique talents and divergent thinking. Like therapists and clients, educators and learners both have mutual responsibility to create an environment conducive to the safe exploration of ideas. It is my hope that as an educator I can be a bridge connecting the old and new, the traditional and innovative, so that we are moving in the right direction toward building a better system.

Feb 16

Burning the Spark: What’s the Barrier to Widespread Implementation of Active Learning?

We know that people will invest time, energy, and money to pursue their passions so it’s a no-brainer to engage in efforts to make students passionate about what they are learning in school. Mark C. Carnes talks about using games to have students experientially learn about the past in a brilliant endeavor that has them debating about real history the way they often do with the fictitious worlds of Dr. Who, World of Warcraft, and Star Wars. He says setting students’ minds on fire requires active learning, and that this can be most effectively accomplished through teamwork and collaboration. Robert Talbert states that classroom lectures are best when used to explain, clarify, and discuss topics rather than act as a primary information transfer source. We’ve all sat through lectures that bored us to tears, except today many students can ignore teachers in favor of surreptitiously going online to chat with friends (in class and outside), shop, or even pay bills. I could go on and on regarding the excellent advice from leading-edge educators on how to engage the imagination of students. Many appear to know what works, and they can prove it. So what is stopping educators and institutions from adopting these strategies? Why does it feel like a fight to prove these techniques should be implemented?

Take James Paul Gee’s 2007 book on how video games use best practices in learning and literacy to keep gamers hooked and begging for more. He first has to spend time convincing readers to take the subject seriously. I appreciate this keenly because last year I had a fellow marriage and family therapist teach me how video games can help assess and treat clients. It now fits in with other practices I use such as asking clients to bring in lyrics, stories, or characters from any form of entertainment that will further connect us, help me understand them, and blossom into a healing intervention through our interaction. If clients do not have anything they feel engaged enough to bring in, I’ll present something tailored to them that I hope will make them feel and think. These poetry therapy techniques, which have ancient roots, help to activate our inner healers. This is based on augmenting the inner spark, which some call hope and others call imagination. Despite my use of these practices, I had previously viewed video games only as a fun time-suck even after reading about their effectiveness in PTSD treatment because I lacked adequate knowledge of their depth and potential.

Yet, I have a hard time believing that it’s ignorance that stops us from widespread use of active learning. As former Xerox Chief Scientist John Seely Brown so eloquently states, we are stuck on creativity without going back to the basics of that blissfully wedded pair, curiosity and imagination. We cut art programs at the same time we insist students in high school learn to think from new perspectives. How can we ask the younger generations to be creative when our educational system strips them of their curiosity regarding what is being taught in school? It always seems to come down to money.

Unfortunately, this approach is having worse economic consequences, such as a college dropout rate of 50 percent. That this rate is being attributed to boredom—rather than skyrocketing costs—is appalling. It means that people are voting with their feet and will increasingly do so until we accept that we need to change our approach to teaching. It also translates into a less skilled workforce. I hope that we as a society are not so stuck in our ways, so fearful of change, or so greedy for the economic power structure to continue lining the same pockets, that we are willing to capitulate our future and that of our children. Perhaps I am missing something, and I invite readers to fill me in on the arguments to keep “skill-and-drill” curriculum and standardized testing. Not that I disagree that we need standards or tests conceptually, but can we choose those that more accurately measure aptitude and assess knowledge rather than memorization?

Ivan Dimkovic’s simulation of the mammal thalamocortical system with 8 million neurons with 1.4 billion synapses

Ivan Dimkovic’s simulation of the mammal thalamocortical system with 8 million neurons with 1.4 billion synapses

While it’s wonderful to hear about pockets of innovation, best practices should not be limited. Ethically, we need to consider if we are providing those especially with limited resources the fighting chance they need to succeed in today’s world (which also then leads to untold societal benefits). Much of what drives imagination and learning is life itself: We are driven to fix problems; find new, better, and cost-effective ways of handling tasks; and discover what is fun and meaningful. Are we challenging students to apply concepts to reality or confusing and boring them with theoretical information that feels far afield from their lives? With the advances we have at our disposal today, we have the mechanisms we need to make education more meaningful to its consumers.

This is an area that I am learning more about because it sparks my curiosity and imagination as I begin my journey to become a formal educator. Meanwhile, I will hope and pray that we really aren’t turning into WALL-E-like creatures who would rather hide behind our technological advances than brave the new world.

Feb 09

B’s Get Degrees and Other Yogic Philosophies for Graduate Life

When I moved from the suburbs of New York City down to the bucolic university town of Blacksburg, Virginia for a PhD program, I expected the culture shock. What I didn’t realize was how much I would divest from my old life to be successful in the new one. Most of my campus colleagues are overachievers like me, and we spend much of our time chasing after looming deadlines or leaping over the major hurdles and the ditches that pockmark the doctoral pathway. This doesn’t leave time for many activities we once deemed seminal to our lives. However, the biggest change has been in our perspective on grades. The most common refrain among my cohort seems to be, “B’s get degrees.” (That and, “Don’t quit the program in November or April.”) In other words, we need to stop measuring our worth by the letter next to our coursework in order to survive to cross the finish line.

 

I loved getting my report card as a child because I did well in school when nothing else felt secure. Good grades at least meant that I had something by which I could measure my value in at least one important aspect of life. This persisted even in the workforce, where the true rating in yearly evaluations was the percentage point of the raise and bonus you received rather than the narrative on your job performance. When I returned to school 18 years after graduating from college, I joined a master’s program that provided evaluations instead of grades, but there was no gold at the end of that rainbow. I appreciated the effort to have students engage during the semester rather than focus on the end result; I nonetheless felt relieved when I returned to traditional grading—and in-person connection—at the program where I transferred. I could go back to assessing myself using a standard that others agreed meant achievement.

 

A curious thing has happened since earning a master’s degree (a terminal one for my profession) and my license as an MFT (marriage and family therapist). While I desire straight A’s because they still make me feel good about myself, they no longer sit in absolute judgment of my worth—or me.

 

Perhaps it’s my training as a psychotherapist, which helps me to understand that I’m not here to look good on my CV, but to explore facets of education that inspire and inform me both professionally and personally. My clinical experience also tells me that competition can be counterproductive. I hear this kind of toxic comparison often in trauma therapy when clients say, “I should be over the abuse I suffered as a child because it wasn’t as bad as what I’ve heard from other people” as if that kind of pain could be mitigated by the negative experience of others. I create a safe environment for clients and students to grow by expressing themselves and by taking risks that could lead to what society terms as “failure,” but is really a stepping stone to success; it feels too hypocritical not to give myself this same permission

 

Maybe it’s my age. Being in my 40s has radically changed my perspective on myself, others, and humanity in general. I care what others think, but opinions don’t have the same burning, clawing effect anymore. As a dear friend of mine says, “What others think of me is none of my business.

 

My changing attitude could be the result of my spiritual journey. As a follower of the Yogic philosophy of Hinduism, I strive to compete with only myself. I learned long ago that trying to make myself into a pretzel to be like my yoga teacher friends was not best for my body or my self-esteem. I practice meditation and the art of letting go, surrendering to the Universe’s wisdom. That means if something doesn’t work out no matter how much energy I have spent on it, I live with the acceptance that another direction may be in my ultimate benefit. Sometimes saying no to an opportunity is saying yes to a better life.

Sunset Yoga

Applying these spiritual concepts to grad school seems easy on the face of it, but it has been a hard won fight through self-judgment. Until recently, when an illness made me hyper aware of my pathway, I could not merge my spiritual and educational lives except in the therapy room with clients. I have had to let go of the worry that I will not attain the standards set for being successful in academia; with this comes a greater acceptance and realization of myself. I no longer need to memorize facts to impress a teacher so I can be rewarded with a gold star because that is not how I succeeded in my work life after college. I started as a green reporter and, by the time I returned to school, I was a communications executive on Wall Street. I understand best when I can see the whole picture before I take in the details, and I have a mind castle that needs attention and nourishment to grow. So, now, the refrain “B’s get degrees” no longer feels like giving up on achieving success, but allowing myself to focus on the true worth of my education.

 

Feb 02

Resistance to Hive Mind Is Not Futile

 

Imagine walking into a Starbucks looking for coffee, but the baristas insisted you needed coconut water instead because that was what they believe everyone should have. What if they even refuse to show you coffee and label you “resistant” for insisting? Most people would be livid and call for the manager, yet we have allowed ourselves to be forced-fed a one-size-fits-all mentality in education. If a student doesn’t fit a specific mold or accept becoming part of the Hive Mind*, they get labeled as oppositional or even special needs.

 

As a society, we warn youth not to mindlessly watch TV or play videogames, yet, when they try to be individuals in school, they get punished. We penalize people for not implicitly following the rules while our most popular forms of entertainment celebrate rebellion and individuality for righteous (and often not so righteous) causes. Take, for example, 15-year-old Anthony Ruelas who recently was suspended from school in Texas after saving a classmate’s life. Anthony decided to take action after his classmate fell to the floor in agony while the teacher sat idly by waiting for an email reply from the nurse. Instead of being commended, he was suspended for leaving class without permission to take the classmate to the nurse’s office to get the crucial immediate medical care she needed. What does this teach any of the children in this situation?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf the concepts of mindfulness are to be properly applied to learning, there must be an understanding that every moment is an opportunity to teach. What we model for children is almost more important than what we say—they follow our actions more than our words. In world where the bystander effect has allowed too many horrible events to unfold, Ruelas should have been praised for his quick thinking and his decision not to protect his place in the Hive Mind. Instead, he will be homeschooled because his family no longer feels public schools provide the right environment. In this case, I have to agree.

 

Hive-mind thinking was just as entrenched in psychology as in education, but we are moving past Freudian rigidness. For example, instead of labeling a client as resistant for opposing treatment, many clinicians today focus on why it failed. Most of the time, it’s because the strategy didn’t take the client’s present needs and abilities fully into account. Or perhaps it was more about the therapist’s needs than the client’s, or that the tools of the trade have become more important than the person they are designed to help. Even the most beloved intervention—for me, it’s usually poetry related—is not for every client. Whichever the case, best practices directs the therapist to figure out what he or she missed instead of blaming clients for not agreeing to interventions that don’t resonate with them. Being a mindful therapist is often accompanied by a “not-knowing stance” in which we recognize that we may know some facts, but we cannot yet understand until the client informs us through all avenues of communication (including non-verbal cues and gestures). We leave our minds open to other possibilities and change, and we question assumptions and “truth.”

 

I view my position as a marriage and family therapist (MFT) as a facilitator in the process of healing. I never claim to be an expert on my clients; they are their own experts who may need some guidance or a supportive relationship. Just like teachers, therapists provide a necessary part of the equation this way. We can help direct, challenge, encourage, and offer a different perspective. When we receive feedback, we must listen so that we can help students (and clients) learn and grow because it is about their journey, not ours.

 

As Sir Ken Robinson says, teachers are supposed to facilitate learning, not merely testing. Rather than being content delivery vehicles, teachers should be celebrated as the mentors of the younger generations, sparking their creativity by modeling it. Despite all the efforts made thus far, children are dropping out of high school at record rates and going to college is becoming harder and harder for some to achieve. Education used to be only for a certain few, and it feels like we are going back to those dark times. As a society, we scoff at ignorance, particularly pointing the finger at older generations for what they didn’t yet know. Yet, what can we say when nutrition activist Jamie Oliver goes into American schools where children have no idea what a tomato is and are surprised to learn that the main ingredient in ketchup comes from the garden? Are we getting smarter or dumber as a society?

 

The Hive Mind mentality suffocates creativity in order to create conformity. While we live in a connected environment where the possibilities for education are endless to combat this asphyxiation of diversity, we cannot throw open the gates to this vastness of information without helping people, esp.  youth, understand both the process of learning and discernment. At the very least, we shouldn’t be condemning those whose state of awareness has not yet been stifled by the Hive Mind. Ruelas can be comforted in knowing that his classmate is alive today because of his resistance.

 

*I use the phrase Hive Mind to denote mass conformity, not the spiritual concept of the World Soul or even the Jungian idea of the Collective Unconscious

Jan 24

Technology: Weapon or Instrument?

Has technology benevolently given us unprecedented access to information and other people or has it created a world of disconnected and discontented souls? The answer seems to be as complicated as human beings are: yes and no. Or, as we marriage and family therapists (MFTs) who are also social constructionists like to say, it’s “both and.” As a former communications executive, my perspective on most things goes further than that to, “it depends.” Technology is a tool like any other. How we use our resources as individuals or as a society is now under intense scrutiny as our climate changes and we face perhaps the sixth mass extinction, this time caused by our misuse of the Earth. Though too many do not have full and free access to technology, for many of us it is our choice how we let it impact or guide our lives.

Some critics decry that the Internet is full of too many blogs, videos, and general opinion giving. The way I see it, the everyday-nature of computers, tablets, and smartphones has turned the information superhighway into a global town full of libraries, shops, creepy neighbors you’re not quite sure you want to know any better, and community groups. Everyone has a chance to be a storyteller or historian—and the unprecedented ability to become part of a global conversation. Many will remain satisfied with connecting to the known and nearby while others will discover curiosities worth exploring or even their real place in the world far from their present reality. Too many still only lurk; Impostor Syndrome runs rampant, especially in academic circles. Genuinely talented and educated people somehow feel like they have become Bernie Madoff, a fraud just waiting to be revealed. But those brave souls who offer their thoughts and experiences up to the wider world are sharing themselves with the rest of humanity, and many receive validation from appreciative audiences.

The impact on how we learn is immense. Instead of cramming the night before a test, studying by rote, students have the chance to explore what they find interesting about a topic in great detail. If I were to teach a class on developmental trauma to budding therapists for example, I could assign the reading of web sites where survivors of abuse publicly post their stories to bring to life the list of symptoms future clinicians would need to recognize, assess, and treat. Rather than mere content delivery, the future of education lies in its application. The question of what we are teaching is being supplanted by why are we teaching what we do? This aligns us with the students themselves who ask why they should care about what we present to them.

I am a returning student, earning my master’s degree and now in pursuit of my PhD in MFT after over two decades in the workforce in communications. None of the successful companies I worked for would consider implementing a project without first answering the questions: What is the benefit and is it worth the cost? Not only that, the return on investment would have to be substantial in order for the project to continue. If success in education is defined as a grade or graduation, what does that teach? Rather, how can we advanced students’ knowledge and spark their passion so that they can develop fulfilling careers beyond our limited scope? Solutions to our problems—including the actual use and beneficial deployment of current technology—will require creativity beyond what we already know. My belief is that we are all teachers and students; those of us with the power to direct the education of others can move beyond our role of expert to that of facilitator, fostering creativity and collaboration on both what moves us and what moves us forward together.

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