Though she's only 20, Samanee Mahbub's insights into her 10 weeks in NYC are important for all of us at any age. How many of these thoughts do you identify with? They are timeless, universal and very human. Please read and reflect.
After ten weeks in this city, I have a lot to reflect and think about on my last day before I embark on my next journey. This post has no clear theme other than what’s been going on my head. Thoughts about New York, about being lost, about feeling useless, about feeling useful, about adventures, about learning, about healing, about loving, about everything and about nothing. Hope you enjoy the thought ramble :) ...."
Leadership: is "Social" Leadership really that different? I submit it isn't and this guest post is by Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, should make you think. See Robin's bio below - after you read this great post!
The social impact sector does a lot of harm. Often, our victims are those who we set out to support -- the people and communities that are already vulnerable in our society. This is not something we like to talk about. As practitioners, funders, and do-gooders we want to believe our good intentions and good technical skills have prepared us to do good. But, examples from history and the present day show this isn’t the case. While there are many things we can do to reduce harm and increase meaningful impact from our collective work, there is one step we can take that represents our most important leverage point: create more effective social impact leaders.
The Core Competencies of Highly Effective Social Impact Leaders
As this question is core to our mission at Thinking Beyond Borders, we examined some historical examples of exceptional social impact leadership: Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Prof. Muhammad Yunus. By reading about the movements and change efforts they led, and reading their personal writings, we noticed two key areas in which they all excelled: critical consciousness of themselves and the world, and building and leading institutions that were truly mission-centered.
Impact through Critical Consciousness
These leaders each pursued critical consciousness of the world and themselves as a fundamental part of their social impact work. To do this, they each developed key capacities: 1) They rooted their purpose and direction in a constant critical examination of their values and beliefs; 2) They were humble but powerful learners who valued questions over answers; 3) They strived for higher order empathy. While I’ve written about these capacities elsewhere (here and here), it’s important to note that on a daily basis, each of these leaders used these skills in working with stakeholders and in maintaining their own personal and professional focus to create a more just society.
It is these capacities that ensured that the Indian Independence movement did not become a violent revolution against the British. These capacities resulted in Black communities of the US Deep South finding love in their hearts and actions in the face of violent and vicious racism during the Civil Rights Movement. It was leadership of this sort that spurred creative protest and a reordering of society, not simply an inversion of power. None of their respective movements were without flaws, nor were they complete. But, their approaches to social impact resulted in that rare and exceptional impact that brought greater equity and justice to society.
Mission-Centered Institution Building
Generating meaningful social impact and building the institutions that will sustain that process are two related but different practices. Knowing how to build an organization effectively is important. What was exceptional about the great leaders we examined was how they combined business and funding models in a manner that allowed the organization to operate and evolve based on the need of the impact work rather than the organization’s bottom line. They established management and leadership structures that encouraged their teams to be responsive the impact work. They developed communications that inspired stakeholders to engage in creating social change rather than simply build brand loyalty.
It was this type of leadership that led to peer to peer ride-sharing to sustain the Montgomery Bus Boycott, long before Uber gained a multi-billion dollar valuation. This leadership led Grameen to establish lending circles that created spaces of mutual financial and personal empowerment for women in their home communities, long before the banking industry pursued micro-lending profits in large scale. As these movements evolved, and as equity and justice advanced, the institutions these leaders created fell victim to changing politics. But, the impact they created remained because the communities they worked in solidarity with had not been encouraged to become dependent upon them.
Lessons for Developing New Leaders
While it’s easy to hold Dr. King, President Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Prof. Yunus up as superheroes of social impact, it’s important to note that they were (are) mortals like the rest of us. If we focus on developing the skills that made them exceptional, we can generate a uniquely qualified cadre of aspiring social impact leaders.
As educators, we’ve identified a set of principles for developing leaders of this calibre:
- Focus on Impact - Aspiring leaders need support in thinking critically about how to define equity and justice, how an effective and ethical pathway is shaped, and what the impact leader’s role in the process should be. These are dynamic and challenging topics. Unfortunately, the social impact sector rewards those who pursue large scale, brand recognition, and specific business models. Teach aspiring leaders how to handle these tensions and maintain their focus on the impact that will lead to greater equity and justice.
- Value Questions Over Answers - Asking good questions that illuminate dynamic topics is a crucial skill. Disappointingly, most education systems generate students who believe they are successful learners when they can present a convincing answer rather than a well refined set of questions. Create learning environments that place value in asking questions and pursuing greater understanding that can be translated into even better questions. Require learning to center around identifying and questioning the core assumptions of arguments and one’s self.
- Instill Humility - Great leaders are great listeners who reflect constantly on their potential and limitations. They admit their mistakes, provide space for others to lead, and are the first people to applaud the successes of their peers. However, great leaders are often driven and ambitious, determined to achieve their goal and overcome obstacles. Support aspiring leaders with learning environments that provide opportunities to wrestle with this tension as teams and individuals. Provide mentors who can support them in their highest and lowest moments. Identify heroes whose struggle with the tension between ambition and humility is made plain and relatable.
The social impact sector invests countless resources in working toward equity and justice. Our global society and local communities reflect the passion and commitment of so many who have shaped their lives in this pursuit. Yet, our present day and all our days past also reflect efforts wasted, misdirected, and many that inadvertently caused harm. As a sector, we can be more effective. It starts by being more intentional in how we create our leaders.
You can learn more about how Thinking Beyond Borders is working to create highly effective social impact leaders by reviewing our programs. Our high school summer abroad and gap year programs help students begin the pursuit of critical consciousness related to creating social impact. Our college study abroad programs teach the skills to lead mission-centered and mission-effective institutions.
Robin Pendoley is Founder & CEO of Thinking Beyond Borders, an educational institution helping students develop the skills and capacities to lead highly effective social impact careers. Born and raised through his early childhood in a working class community in the San Francisco Bay Area, Robin learned that equity and justice are complex but worthy pursuits. Through study, travel, and work in urban and suburban public education, he concluded that meaningful social impact is difficult to create and requires a rare combination of skills and capacities. In 2007, Robin co-founded Thinking Beyond Borders with the vision to create an educational institution that develops highly effective social impact leaders. Robin earned a B.A. in International Development Studies from UCLA and an EdM from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His blog posts on education and social change have been featured on Forbes, Ashoka, and Innovation Excellence.
No matter what your profession or passion, design is a part of it, even the most STEM'y ones. Allison Chen, RISD '15, believes that scientific illustration is a definition of STEAM... and she's right! It's Science, Technology, Engineering (how the body works in the case of biological systems) and Math ... and Art! This great post, from her STEAM Stories project (please follow it!) shows us how art and design are so embedded in our daily lives and our work. Enjoy! And follow her and read these great stories.
Before modern film and computers, scientific phenomena were recorded with meticulous drawings and paintings for centuries. These illustrations illuminated the unobservable or unclear, often answering, “Will that plant kill me?” or “What’s going on inside my body?”
Of course, we still ask these questions, and can now use new media to answer. Based in Seattle, Washington, Eleanor is a designer that puts a modern spin on scientific illustration. Having received her bachelor’s in molecular biology and done visual art since high school, she combines both passions to create stunning animated infographics.
“I think visuals really help explain science to the general public,” Eleanor said. “If you haven’t gotten a degree in it, it’s really hard to understand topics like global warming or GMOs. It’s important for actual experts to explain everything.”
When she isn’t working for clients such as Huffington Post and the Gates Foundation, Eleanor has the freedom to design whatever subjects strike her interest. These interests manifest in both animated and static diagrams that she documents on her blog tabletopwhale.com, where you can also find a tutorial that shows how she works with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
One animation, 3 Different Ways to Breathe, compares human lungs with those of birds and grasshoppers. Watching the animation, you can see how birds can take in oxygen even while exhaling, and how air is transported directly into the grasshopper’s tissue cells.
“I had no idea that things breathed differently,” Eleanor said, “or that the way humans breathe isn’t even the most efficient.”
Another animation, How to Build a Human, depicts the growth of a human fetus from fertilization to birth.
“I really wanted everything to be visible at the same time,” Eleanor said, explaining why she chose the spiral format. “When I was reading about it in college, I had some trouble figuring it out in my head. It was described in the text but I wanted everything on one page.”
And perhaps one of the most visually interesting, Flight Videos Deconstructed compares the flight patterns of five flying species and depicts the curves their wings make in space.
As noted on the infographic, the project was an observational exercise and doesn’t represent any scientifically accepted information.
“You definitely can’t draw conclusions from these videos alone,” Eleanor said, “you have no idea if the animals were injured, how old they are, if they’re even flying normally. In an actual study they would’ve taken 30-40 animals in the same room in the same conditions, done in a lab so that a computer can map it.”
This serves as an important reminder that imagery can always be misinterpreted or contrived, no matter how beautiful. Eleanor has noticed a fair amount of science-related art out there that isn’t accurate, and encourages more communication between artists and scientists.
This Fall, Eleanor is returning to school to get her PhD thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. Best of luck Eleanor, let’s hope your research will inspire more infographics in the future!
Allison is a designer and writer (soon to be) based in Chicago as a DFA (Design for America) Fellow. She seeks to design for learning and play to help us better understand each other and the world around us. While earning her BFA in industrial design at RISD she co-led the DFA RISD|Brown studio 2014-2015, worked on STEAM learning tools, interned at various organizations, and helped build a solar-powered house for Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. Children are her favorite users, and she enjoys designing for the inner child in all of us. Through her STEAM Stories blog series, she hopes to bring together a community of passionate STEAM do-ers to inspire future interdisciplinary work in hobby, education, and industry.
The freedom to ask questions and admit when you don't know is one we take for granted and our society tends to shun as a sign of weakness, yet it is how we learn, grow, create and have impact. Michelle Bailhe's commencement address is one we need to read, re-read and live. Please read this and be grateful for her generation that will help make this world better. Thank you, Michelle.
Our first week at Brown, 500 of us packed Salomon lecture hall for Introduction to Neuroscience. As the professors concluded their opening lecture, a student asked what seemed like a simple question: “Is it true we only use 10 percent of our brains?” Without hesitation, Professor Paradiso answered, “I don’t know.” Our professor, renowned neuroscientist, didn’t know. He said, “New research suggests we don’t really know what percent of our brains we use for neural processes like thinking. The field doesn’t know yet so I don’t know.”
The room went quiet. Students sat up straighter. Ears perked up. The only sound was of the mental gears in 500 Brown student minds — churning. I heard whispers of: “How could you measure that on a cellular level? Could you stain brain tissue or create a computer program?” Our collective curiosity galvanized us. Unimpressed by knowledge alone, by facts already discovered, we were ignited by what we didn’t know.
For the next four years, seeking out these “I don’t know” moments became our daily challenge, our intellectual regimen. Brown made our attraction to the unknown, the undiscovered, the unresolved — magnetic. Even before we arrived on campus, Brown dared us in our admissions essays to answer the question: What don’t you know? And our open curriculum is the University trusting in us saying “we don’t know every course you’ll need to make your impact on the world. Only you can discover that.” A Brown education is being challenged to discern exactly what you don’t know. This is Brown’s most distinguishing strength and its greatest adventure.
We probe visiting dignitaries, testing resolutions to global conflicts as if they could be solved Right There in the lecture hall. We cherish controversies yet unsettled, problems yet unresolved, doctrines long unchallenged. We don’t just embrace the unknown, we ask it out to fair-trade coffee with its enthusiastic consent. If author John Fowles is right that an answer is a form of death, saying “I don’t know” breathes life into our restless minds.
When we asked “whose stories are missing from the history of the civil rights movement?” Our “I don’t know” sent members of our class and faculty to Tougaloo Mississippi searching for silenced voices. When we asked “What was Brown’s relationship to slavery?” Our “I don’t know” launched investigations that rewrote our university’s history. “Does the Higgs Boson exist?” The curiosity of Brown physicists hurls them into experiments at CERN’s particle accelerator week after week after week. Apparently, people at CERN say “I don’t know” a lot.
But beyond the Brown bubble, it can be hard to say “I don’t know.” In our Information Age, we’re rewarded for absorbing knowledge, for being excellent sponges. We’re conditioned to fear moments when we don’t know, moments of vulnerability. Last summer, I worked for a non-profit law firm. One client was facing deportation back to Ghana but required thrice weekly dialysis for kidney failure. Dialysis in Ghana is scarce and expensive, but we needed proof that deporting her was tantamount to a death sentence. I suggested a Ghanaian doctor’s testimony to the lack of access. “Great,” said my boss, “how can we get that?” “I don’t know, but I will find out.” I started by contacting Brown professors who had done field work in Ghana. They directed me to the largest hospital. And then a friend in the Class of 2015, Yao Lui, was visiting Ghana with a Brown-founded medical nonprofit. He directed me to another member of our class, Nia Campinha-Bacote, who was conducting research at that main hospital. She then tracked down the chief dialysis physician, got her testimony and sent it back to us — across the Atlantic — for our client’s case. I was in awe of the power of the Brown community operating not just beyond these gates, but half-way around the world. “I don’t know” wasn’t a dead end in the conversation. It was a beginning.
But “I don’t know” is not only the first step on the path to discovery. It’s also a critical step on the path to human connection. Researchers have demonstrated the power of unconscious bias. When we meet someone new, we’re conditioned to think we already know them. To borrow Nietzsche’s term, there is no “immaculate perception.” Socially-constructed stereotypes seep into our subconscious. They sow assumptions about our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. Preconceptions and misconceptions about race, class, gender, language, religion, sexuality, nationality and ability profoundly shape our world. They structure our institutions and delimit our possibilities. Their reverberations are felt from France to Ferguson, from Birmingham to Baghdad, from Baltimore to Brown.
Bias is dangerous precisely because it is false knowledge. Because the truth is we don’tknow. We cannot know how someone thinks from a weak data set of appearances and social constructions. We as Humans are too Complex, too Dynamic, too Surprising, and too Magnificent. To know what someone thinks, we have to ask them what they think. This is the first step toward what President Paxson calls “transformative conversation.” Throughout our time at Brown, we’ve thrown ourselves into transformative conversations that have been both uncomfortable and powerful. We’ve used what we’ve learned from each other to strengthen our academic and personal lives. “I don’t know” is thus not only an intellectual mantra, it’s also a project of humanization.
Anthropologist and author Zora Neale Hurston wrote “there are years that ask questions, and there are years that answer them.” Even though she went to Columbia, she’s right. This is a year that asks questions. Some of them personal: Where will we take our lives after graduation? How will we stay connected to the life-long friends and mentors that we’ve made here? Some questions are vast: How will we combat climate change and end mass incarceration? How will we alleviate income inequality and improve education? And some of our questions are deeply reflective: Am I enough? Am I brave enough to confront my own biases? Am I driven enough to persevere in solving the issues I care about?
These questions push us into uncomfortable places. To many of them, our answer may be — today and often — “I don’t know.” But Brown has given us every tool and every reason to Venture Boldly into our discomfort. This is how we’ve grown. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to take no observation, no dominant narrative, no established truth at face value. Every day, we’ve challenged each other to hold self-evident only that nothing is self-evident. Brown has shown us that the very engine of discovery and insight, of progress and justice, of our future and the world's is our fearless, relentless questioning. This is our greatest power. Brown has taught us that in this community, within these gates and far beyond, “I don’t know” merely means “I don’t know yet.”
Michelle Bailhe recently graduated from Brown University with honors as a Human Biology concentrator focusing on health disparities in the US prison system and criminal justice-involved populations. She is a recipient of the Arthur H. Joslin Award for service to the Brown University community and the Gaspee Prize for top scholarship in American history in her class. Bailhe is an Arthur Liman Public Interest Fellow through the Liman program at Yale Law School and worked with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest on health justice legal issues and community organizing. She is also an avid dancer and activist, having organized a March for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island. A California native, she will move to New York to work for McKinsey & Company and plans to pursue a career in public service.
We hear all the talk about adversity and how it can shape us. Well, it's true. This is a guest post* from Nick DiNardo, author of The Game of Adversity, who shares from experience how we really can turn adversity into opportunities, if we want to. Nick is passionate about this and it's infectious.**
“Needs are imposed by nature. Wants are sold by society.”
— mokokoma mokhoNoaNa
Imagine this. We have identical twins: the same DNA, the same looks, the same insides. They were the same twins in high school whom you confused more than you’d like to admit and even now can barely tell apart. Now, let’s take these twins and separate them at birth. As soon as they’re born, they’re reared in completely separate environments: different parents, different upbringings, different households, different...everything. They’re the same people—the same twins with the same DNA—but are in wildly different environments. Now, let’s take twins who were brought up together in the same household as a control group and compare the two sets of twins. Here’s the surprise: This was an actual experiment that took place nearly thirty years ago, and its implications are far-reaching.
The researchers had a few questions: How will these two sets of twins turn out? How will this go? And what does this say about nature versus nurture? It was about figuring out how much of who we are is ingrained at birth and how much of who we are is a function of our environment. Interesting things started happening immediately. First, some of the identical twins in the same household actually ended up being wildly different. Yeah, they were competing in the same household, yet they took on very different roles within it. On the other hand, there were twins who had never met who also ended up different as well. The research is by no means conclusive on whether or not we’re 100% nature or 100% nurture. But, as Martin Seligman states in his book Learned Optimism, around 50% of a person is genetic, and the remaining percent can be learned through experience, explanatory style, and growth mind-set. And this is good news. Controlling all the variables, especially all the variables of someone’s life, is a near impossible task. But the science is clear: Who we are is a combination of nature versus nurture. It’s all contextual, and we have the power to change it. If it wasn’t—if we didn’t have a choice—would I have written this book [The Game of Adversity]?
Yes, there are things that give you a specific predisposition to maintaining a growth mind-set and being self-aware. But your environment essentially does the same things: Over time, it cultivates these traits within you. The interesting thing is this: It’s not one or the other. Nature feeds into nurture, which feeds into nature. It all works together as a group effort, and by the end, who you are is a collection of the events that happen to you. You are the end result. By intentionally putting yourself in environments that are difficult and challenging and by understanding yourself on the hero’s journey, you override nature and build your inner greatness—but only if you are equipped with the right tools to flip adversity into advantage. Some of the progressive research has come from leaders in the field of neuroplasticity (brain plasticity)—Norman Doidge and Michael Merzenich, the authors of the books The Brain that Changes Itself and Soft Wired. Prior to the 1970s, the consensus among scientists was that the human brain was relatively fixed—or hardwired—after a critical point in early childhood. Most forms of brain damage and mind-sets were seen as irreversible, and the attitude was nearly apathetic. But over the last thirty-five to forty years, significant research has proven that the brain is far from fixed. Instead, it is supple, plastic, and regenerative, even for those in old age. The process is straightforward: As the brain takes in new information, it rewires itself and forms new neural connections that change the matter of the brain itself. The key point here is, of course, that the inputs matter. Whether you’re a voracious reader or a dedicated gym goer, you are kneading the flour that is your neural network. And this is liberating. What you’re doing this afternoon has a neural impact on who you are going forward, however small, however big. As Robert Greene argues in his book Mastery, “People get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life. Despite the popularity of genetic explanations for our behavior, recent discoveries in neuroscience are overturning long-held beliefs that the brain is genetically hardwired. Scientists are demonstrating the degree to which the brain is actually quite plastic—how our thoughts determine our mental landscape. They are exploring the relationship of willpower to physiology, how profoundly the mind can affect our health and functionality. It is possible that more and more will be discovered about how deeply we create the various patterns of our lives through certain mental operations—how we are truly responsible for so much of what happens to us.”
So, the next time you face a challenging client, a tight timeline, or a bad quarter...work to focus on the opportunity in the obstacle. Each of those situations is an opportunity to build new skills and improve. Adversity shows itself every day, and you'll be better equipped to address because of what you faced today.
**Nick interviewed me for his Meet Education Project Podcast.
Nick is an entrepreneur, author, consultant, and public speaker focused on adversity, personal growth, and education. Throughout his career, he has interviewed hundreds of experts on overcoming adversity, dealing with trauma and stress, and the crucial role that it plays in our cognitive development and education.
Nick has dealt with adversity his entire life. At seven years old, Nick's family went from living the American Dream to a foreclosed home, divorce, and mental illness. He spent a year sleeping on the floor of a one room apartment and sharing a kitchen with 17 people.
It is through eclectic, diverse, and seemingly random relationships, interactions and friendships that we learn and then change the world. Andrew Kaplan eloquently sums this up in his post below he wrote right before graduation. So much of our learning is from each other and I have learned so much from him over the past 3 years. Thank you, Andrew.
To an old house on Angell Street*
As I sit writing this at my kitchen table, a housemate walks into the room and sits down next to me.
“How do you define religion?” he asks as he combs his unruly left sideburn with bunched fingers.
“What?” I respond.
“Just answer the question.”
I live in an old Rhode Island house on Angell Street with five other seniors. Our floors are sinking and our walls are thin; an open floor plan helps a whisper from the basement be heard in the third-floor attic. The house smelled of fresh paint the day I moved in.
Among my housemates are a neuroscientist, a biologist, a philosopher, a computer scientist and a historian. Or, looking at them another way, they are a dancer, a drummer, a basketball player, a teacher and a founder. And they are the blood pumping through the veins of this house, imbuing it with life.
Because I am about to graduate, people often ask me to describe my time at Brown. They expect tales of hallowed professors pronouncing truths in packed lecture halls. They expect memories of heartfelt conversations about the meaning of life on the quiet greens where foliage helps you spin nascent life philosophies into the early mornings. They expect stories of finding romance in the dining hall and losing it into the wild night. And I’ve had my fair share of those experiences.
But the old house on Angell and the people who live in it symbolize what has made my Brown experience unique. One of the greatest pleasures of the past four years has been discovering things I never thought I would simply by being around people who are so infectiously enthusiastic about topics I never thought I’d learn about.
When I think about my time at Brown, I think about one of my housemates working on a computer science project, describing the mystery of the deep web and the power of torrent — and blowing my mind in the process. Or when another inspired me to take NEUR 0010: “The Brain: An Introduction to Neuroscience” by sketching out an action potential’s effect on the nervous system. Or when yet another sat down next to me and asked me to define religion, prompted by a class project on religious law.
This is for them and for what they represent. And this is to thank the countless Brown students with deep-set passions who have passed in and out of my life, many of whom I consider my friends. Watching a fellow Brunonian’s eyes dance with excitement when discussing a subject they love is a truly special experience, one that makes this place so exceptional.
So here’s to a group of housemates brought together by a university that cultivates passions ranging from the microscopic to the universal to form a microcosm of my Brown experience as a whole. Here’s to falling down an intellectual rabbit hole and emerging hours later with a better understanding of what drives my fellow classmates. And here’s to acknowledging one of the reasons why Brown is so special: Each member of the Brown community has the ability to awaken that same curiosity and passion in you.
Lastly, thank you to the place I associate with that type of enthusiastic learning: an old house on Angell Street with an open floor plan and sinking floors.
Andrew just graduated from Brown University with a Bachelors Degree in Political Science. He was a 2013 C.V. Starr Social Innovation Fellow for Common Sense Action, which he co-founded with Sam Gilman. Andrew is moving back to NYC joining the Urban Fellows Program to pursue his passion for public service, especially for the homeless.
*Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald, May 21, 2015 and republished with permission by the author.
How many languages do you speak? Only 7% of American college kids study a language. Think this is a problem? It is a huge socio-economic-global-geopolitical-security one! Amelia Friedman didn't set out to start a business learning languages from her peers - like Bengali, Thai, Tamil... but she has. We need to communicate like never before - and language is how. So be a part of the solution - try learning a language and give to Student Language Exchange to make sure our next generation does.
em·pa·thy (n): the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
Building empathy has been a priority among parents and educators for decades. Why? If the next generation of leaders cares for others in their community and across the world, they just might be able to make one another’s lives better.
More recently, empathy has become a priority for business leaders. In fact, entrepreneurs regularly use empathy maps when trying to understand their target customer. Empathy has become part of an entrepreneur’s tool belt, helping them rise above the competition.
There is debate about whether empathy is something that can be taught. I believe we can teach empathy by listening to and learning from people who are different from us. By asking questions. By meeting others on their level. By immersing ourselves in another culture.
In other words: We can build empathy by learning another language.
lan·guage (n): the system of communication used by a particular community or country
Language is so much more than a collection of words and rules for the order in which they should be spoken. It includes all aspects of communication: the way you should greet someone when they’re in mourning, the requirement that a gift need be refused three times before accepted, or the importance of covering one’s hair when in public— that is all a part of language.
A language is a doorway into another culture; it paves the road toward empathy.
ex·change (n): an act of giving one thing and receiving another in return
I didn’t originally found the Student Language Exchange with the intention of changing the world. The first courses we ran were a reflection of my curiosity and the curiosity of students around me. We just wanted to learn from one another’s experiences, so we ran semester-long courses where our peers could share their languages and cultures.
We came to understand dowry practices in Kenya, limitations of French language in Haiti and the aftereffects of English colonialism in Calcutta. We gifted one another the knowledge that we had gleaned in the first 20 years of our lives. And we learned to listen, ask questions, and empathize.
My formal coursework in language didn’t always allow me to really understand the people that spoke it, and the communities I could learn about at my university were limited, mostly to those of Europe.
At last count, there were 197,757 U.S. college students studying French and 64 studying Bengali. Globally, there are 193 million people who speak Bengali and only 75 million who speak French. In fact, Arne Duncan tells us that 95% of all language enrollments are in a Western language.
We tend to learn about cultures that are similar to our own. But this is holding us back. It keeps us from building empathy, from pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, and from building bridges between peoples.
Our world isn’t perfect. Tragedies, whether man-made as in the case of the Rohingya Crisis or natural in the case of the Nepal earthquakes, plague our global society. We can’t be perfect either, but we can strive to empathize with those affected and respectfully communicate with people in these regions. Through open communication—and through connecting our privilege with their opportunity—we can do our part to make the world a little bit better.
In our SLE courses, students learn to think differently; they learn about other languages and cultures so that they can better understand different people.
I may not have originally intended to build a social enterprise, but somewhere along the way we began to see the impact we were having on our students and the communities they touched.
Today, only 7% of American college students are studying a language. Few Americans—our next-generation leaders—take the time to learn about a new culture and to build the skills they need to communicate with its stakeholders. If we can push that needle a little further to the right, we can make an immense impact.
Amelia Friedman founded the Student Language Exchange while a student at Brown University (’14). An active advocate of global engagement, she has written about language education for the Atlantic, USA Today, Forbes, and the Huffington Post. She is the product of a marriage between a Jew from Maryland and a Catholic from Montevideo, Uruguay that demonstrate the importance of empathy every day. Amelia is a current Halcyon fellow living in Washington, DC.
In full disclosure, I have been Amelia's mentor since her time at Brown and am on the board of SLE, with great pride and admiration for her work.
Some of today's top CEOs were history, political science, sociology, chinese and music majors in college. They are leading global airline, chemical, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and financial companies, among others. There are very practical reasons for a Liberal Arts degree, and Samanee Mahbub (Brown '18) thinks the reasons are crystal clear. Let's hear it from her.
A “Practical” Liberal Arts Degree
“Samanee, what on earth are you going to do with a history degree? I’m not sending you to college to become a historian.”
Those were the words my mother told me when I mentioned the idea of switching from the ever so pragmatic economics major to my newfound passion in studying the past. Not exactly resounding support.
As a college student in this technological era, I’ve felt the constant burden of having to pursue a “practical” degree. My uncle pushes engineering. My brother insists I take computer science. My dad says if I don’t like STEM, then economics is the best option for a woman who wants to pursue business. Yet my mind doesn’t light up the same way in microeconomics as it does learning about the overlapping women’s movement, anti-war movement and civil rights movements of the 1960s.
Educating myself about the fall of the Roman Empire may not provide direct, transferable skills to the corporate office, the quirky startup, or any particular field of work. But I argue it gives me something even better: critical thinking skills.
Critical thinking skills. Quite the buzzword these days. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines it as an “intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” I have a much simpler and arguably, more relevant definition: the ability to rationally use a mental toolkit to analyze a situation with which one might not have had previous experience.
History provides me with this mental toolkit. Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of authors of primary sources, understand biases present within my readings and even my professor, observe the tone of speakers in context to their audience, and seek out further information to support the claims I make when I write my history papers. Now let me change some of the words in this paragraph and show you how my history major will prepare me for the business world.
Through my classes, I’ve been forced to question the intentions of [investors who want to pursue a particular M&A deal], understand biases present within [reports that do not recognize key factors that affect a company’s growth], observe the tone of my [interviewer] in context [of my interview], and seek out further information to support the claims I make when [I recommend a company to diversify their revenue streams in order to save their bottom line].
The situations I study in history are different, but as seen above, the skills used are the same. History, philosophy, sociology, or any liberal arts degree will not prevent me from pursuing a career in business. These disciplines provide me with a tool kit to navigate any situation I am presented, and in my opinion, make me a better employee.
So I’m going to take that Shakespeare class (or maybe not), I will learn about Karl Marx’s theory of alienation, and I’m going to delve further into Middle Eastern history. These are my passions. Even though they don’t directly align with my career aspirations, they will not take me out of the game. A career advisor once told me that those who pursue liberal arts majors and enter finance, consulting or technology are not the exceptions. They are the norm.
Therefore, I urge everyone who loves the liberal arts to pursue their passion. These pursuits are not lost in a world where STEM is rising. You will succeed because of the thinking skills you’ve acquired. And if you’re still not convinced, just remember, the CEO of Goldman Sachs is a government major.
Samanee Mahbub is originally from Bangladesh but has explored over 19 countries. She's dreams of leading her country out of poverty. While in high school, she started a 50-student organization supporting Acid Survivors Foundation to help rehabilitate burn survivors of acid attacks. She is now the core programming director for the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Head of Design for The Intercollegiate Finance Journal. She's spending the summer in Dhaka doing microfinance.
Why are we so lousy at teaching math? Why can't it be taught so kids love it? Lukas WinklerPrins thinks there is a better way. As a 21 year-old mathematician studying metrics, dynamic systems, involved in STEAM and a major Lego lover, his advice is first-hand, based on recent experience and worthy of experimentation.
When you think of math, where does your mind go? Tiresome sets of problems and difficult-to-understand literature? If so, you are not uncommon—there are not many who stay curious in math past grade school.
Sentiments of sadness at the public state of mathematics are well articulated in Paul Lockhart’s A Mathematician’s Lament and P.R. Halmos’ Mathematics as a Creative Art. Both authors espouse mathematics as a creative, thriving field, but bemoan its opaqueness and terrible methods of teaching, with the former being largely a result of the latter. The articles articulate how American math curricula virtually prohibit the viewing of beauty in mathematical ideas, while simultaneously failing to provide meaningful everyday examples. The first point has to do with the chronology of math education.
When educators shield students from the terrors of “higher mathematics” (proof writing and analysis), they are inculcating a fear of it. A beginning violinist can gain much from hearing a masterpiece performed, just as a budding painter can learn by observing and emulating the masters in art museums—even if neither of them can fully comprehend the thoughts and meaning that went into creating the pieces. The deep understanding comes through material practice, knowledge of context, and an ability to self-discover. Almost all three of these steps are scrapped in math education (only bits of the first, through rote memorization, remain).
To be fair, this might be a problem at multiple levels. Students can be complacent or passive, teachers not well-trained in their field, and university professors doing arcane research instead of bringing their knowledge to the public sphere. But we have to start somewhere.
I propose a three-pronged approach to tackle this at the K-8 teaching level.
Many approaches to early-age math education start with physical play. The most famous set of math toys, perhaps, are Cuisenaire rods* (used for ratios in Montessori-style schools). This teaching method comes out of necessity: it is the most directly relevant to children of a young age. Tangible objects are immediate and visual, giving students spatial and relational understanding of numbers as objects with weight, color, and shape—attributes the human body is adept at measuring and understanding. Alan Kay referenced a letter Einstein wrote to the French Mathematician Jacques Hadamard: "'I have sensations of a kinesthetic or muscular type.' Einstein could feel the abstract spaces he was dealing with, in the muscles of his arms and his fingers…”. Hands-on projects in math education give students the opportunity to form this sensibility through experience and introduction to some high-level concepts early on. The scope of tactile representation is limited, however, and ultimately students must learn to work with symbols.
Symbols & Language
Among the most difficult things in the study of mathematics for me personally is notation. Mathematics notation is capricious and context-sensitive, and as such the language is difficult to read and unintuitive. I again implore math educators to focus on the feel, or intuitive understanding of an idea. Language is important: it allows mathematicians to find unintuitive conclusions through intuitive use of syntax. How can we merge these two lines of thought?
As a transitional period of mathematics study, we can still use sensory means of explanation alongside the corresponding equations and symbols. In this sense Math can learn much from Language instruction—the idea of a thing must be known before the word can be learned. Groundwork on concepts can be made through intuitive means, but the notation can come as a simultaneous layer on top; thus, notation will be taught while accommodating for its arbitrariness. As students progress, they will carry their intuition into further symbolic manipulation.
Beyond the issues of understanding and semantics, students must _care_ about what they study. Common rhetoric encourages focusing on “applications” of mathematics—word problems. I warn against this. Teaching by problems is constraining; elegant theories and patterns get squeezed into templates of problems, and the student will find it difficult to pull ideas from diverse fields to solve new and unseen challenges. Modern students need to know how to navigate ambiguous and unknown problems.
Instead, I advocate for “play”. Play should be a bit messy, aimless, and bored, because these are ripe environments for creative action. But the classroom can be a gently guiding force. A community of students studying what they enjoy (through self-directed play) is a more effective learning environment than forced classroom material. Allow the student to guide herself through issues and questions that arise naturally. The key component is making sure the student can justify their choices and explain their thinking, pushing the student to become meta-cognitive and envision alternative possibilities.
All together, this means that a lesson should:
- Introduce concepts through visual & tactile means for a more direct connection to the student.
- Focus on use, meaning, and relations of an idea before enforcing a certain terminology or symbolism.
- Allow for students to play with ideas themselves, nudging them towards correct use through communal experimentation.
Starting here, I hope we can help set the foundations for a generation of students who feel more comfortable, creative, and insightful in the field of mathematics.
BIO: Lukas WinklerPrins is a mathematician and apprentice at Atelier Boris Bally. His work on metrics and dynamic systems has taken him to Thicket, a social design lab, Community Systems Foundation, and NSF grant work at Brown. He helped start Brown STEAM, a diverse team dedicated to innovation between the disciplines at Brown University, and serves as a STEAM advisor for three independent schools throughout the country. Lukas has also served as an organizer for Brickworld Chicago, the largest LEGO fan convention in North America. Contact him through LTWP.NET.
*Personal Note: I had Cuisinaire rods as a kid and loved them!! Math was fun and playful...so I used them with my kids! I don't know if it's related but they both love math!
Anita Verna Crofts is a Flight Instructor at the University of Washington. Yes, you read that correctly. She wrote this post last year and it's only appropriate to repost as we start the new academic year. Anita is one amazing lady who is taking education to new heights - Flying Lessons. There is hope for higher-ed! Thank you Anita! Come meet her at BIF-10!!
The University of Washington Announces Flying Lessons
I have never flown a plane or sat in a flight simulator, but I’ve been teaching people how to fly for years. This spring the Department of Communication at the University of Washington made it official by naming me their Flight Instructor.
Choosing to be named the Flight Instructor reflected my approach to teaching, which encourages students to lead and soar higher than they ever imagined possible, inside and outside of the classroom. In addition to the classes I teach, my punch card includes:
- Encouraging students to see their education as an opportunity to build knowledge and relationships that spread their wings. A degree isn’t just about making the grade, it’s about making a network that lasts a lifetime.
- Reminding students, faculty, and staff to seek the perspective that comes with altitude gain. The broader landscape looks different and reveals patterns that are invisible from the ground.
- Supporting faculty efforts to move students from co-piloting planes to taking over the controls themselves. Everyone has the ability to pilot their own plane.
- Championing opportunities for students to lead in class, on campus, and in the community. The sky’s the limit.
The vision for my role reflects the entrepreneurial instincts of the Communication Leadership graduate program, where I teach and serve as Associate Director, and the department as a whole. Our program houses two unique degrees in digital media and community/networks, both aimed at creatives who are on the frontlines of shaping superb communication strategies through story-driven content, audience engagement, and insightful analytics. The freedom faculty, staff, and students enjoy to dream, build, and grow is my fuel.
As the Flight Instructor, I help students navigate takeoffs, weather turbulence, and stick their landings. Last week an incoming student tweeted to me, “I would love to talk to you about my flight plan.”
Buckle up. It’s time for takeoff.
Education is learning languages: the languages of words, music, math, art, chemistry, biology, etc. Education is learning paradoxes … and oxymorons. So let me highlight an oxymoron that is damaging our kids’ education: Lifelong Learning and Gap Year. If we truly believe in Lifelong Learning, then we have to believe that Gap Years are not Gaps…and we have to use a different word.
Gap means: 1) a break or opening; breach; or 2) an empty space or interval, interruption in continuity. That seems a bit inconsistent with the notion of Lifelong Learning, doesn’t it? Especially since most of our learning in life is experiential, not classroom-based. What if we didn’t call it a “Gap Year” but called it an “Applied Discovery Year”?
What if this was a year students saw worlds they only read about or hadn’t even imagined. This could be a year of learning by doing, one of the best ways we humans learn - a year that challenges students at many levels. Let’s face it, most of the kids who go right from high school to college haven’t had to be responsible for themselves or had the chance to explore areas of interest instead of what has been prescribed.
The move from home’s safety net to the world is a major transition in a late teen’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual formation. It’s a time of learning more from peers (and professors); evolving the values and morals of parents into one’s own; learning to handle emotions; and developing deeper systems-level thinking. This may be the first time we encounter different types of people, ideas, experiences, and cultures and can’t retreat into the world of familiarity in which we were raised.
The concept of an Applied Discovery Year is gaining momentum. Thinking Beyond Borders provides students with opportunities to learn, work hard and improve the lives of others through robust curricular programs around the globe. The Experience Institute provides an apprenticeship-based learning environment with innovative companies in business, technology, design and social innovation. The Applied Discovery Year concept is becoming part of the college experience so students learn how, why and if the theory taught in the classroom applies in the real world.
The Applied Discovery Year gives students a much-needed chance to step back, gain perspective, and recharge their batteries after the non-stop treadmill and stress of the college-prep trajectory, focusing on something other than just themselves. It’s also one of the first times in their lives they need to create their own plan instead of being told what to do. Life, unlike K-12, isn’t a clear path with detailed instructions. The Applied Discovery Year helps students transition from prescription to discovery. I bet these kids will be able to deal the next transition from college to career better than most as well.
Just as our educational system is in need of transformation, K-16+, our language to describe education, its forms, types, curriculum, need to change as well. It’s not a Gap Year; it’s an Applied Discovery Year – as is almost all of Lifelong Learning. It’s Education, plain and simple… Education by doing and living. So let’s stop calling it a Gap Year. Will you join me?
How can you make school more creative? It's not that hard and doesn't take a lot of money... but it does takecommitment and the impact is huge. Here's how one small school went about doing it. They made
- A commitment
- Funds (not a lot) available
- Teachers free to try
Feel free to take any and all of these ideas! And contact them with questions.
Thank you Creative Scholars for sharing this!
We humans love to divide the world: yes, no; either, or; black, white; true, false; winners, losers; successes, failures. Yet little in life is really that nice and tidy, despite how much we want it to be. And our world is not going in that direction anymore.
Many of us know that new discoveries, the disruptions, the innovations are found in the grey – in between the extremes, by recombining what is out there through And and Both instead of Either and Or. As someone with a head of black, white and grey hairs, believe me, I live it!
Perhaps one of the most dangerous of these artificial constructs is that of successes or failures. This has insidiously permeated so many of our systems – especially the language of entrepreneurship and innovation. We don’t allow a middle or blended path. When we look at the successful entrepreneurs, how many of them were successful the very first time? How many had overnight successes that truly were overnight, instead of years? Very few.
What if we start talking about Tryers (which obviously means people will go to the opposite extreme of Non-Tryers) instead of just winners or successes?
What if we started encouraging and supporting those who try, over and over, be it the same or a different venture.
What if we helped the Non-Tryers to understand why they didn’t try? Perhaps it is fear, time, who knows… but perhaps we could develop a support structure to allow them to become Tryers, in their own time?
What if we started to infiltrate our education system with tools, lessons, examples, opportunities to Try so that our children could become Tryers at earlier and earlier ages. And What If we rewarded them for it? And What if we rewarded our teachers for teaching smart Trying?
While a full societal adoption of the Trying construct certainly will take time, you can start now! There are many ways you can start embedding Tryers into your organization’s lexicon. So What If you, tomorrow, asked one of your people to Try and What if you back her or him up when she/he raises objections for why something couldn’t be done? What if you just started with that?
Thank you to @mattmurrie for helping me more fully embed “What If” in my lexicon.
The Founder Project is a new type of venture fund run by students investing in students' startups to create a global student startup ecosystem. The founder of Founder Project, Ilan Saks, did a guest post and asked me to return the favor, which I did here. Currently, Founder Project is only in Canada - Montreal & Toronto, but Ilan has plans to expand to the USA... I sure hope so!!!
Have you just started grinning when reading something? This post by Tomas Quinonez-Riegos will do just that! While being the international program director for iTeach, using video to teach English to kids all over the world (e.g., Cambodia, Panama, etc.) and spending his first semester junior year in Japan, Tomas has started yet another new venture, which he shares with us here. How did this come about? By Random Collisions of Unusual Suspects #RCUS! Read on, revel in his excitement and in the impact it can have.
During the lunch period we were served small, boxed meals and encouraged, in the collaborative spirit of TED, to sit and converse with other attendees we had not met or did not know. After I received my lunch box, the man who happened to be behind me in line met my eye and he complimented me on my bowtie. I thanked him and as we started to walk toward the dining tables he asked me if I was sitting with anyone. I told him that I was recently arrived into Kyoto and knew almost nobody, so I suggested that we sit together. As we made light conversation I learned he was a 30-year old salary-man working at a pharmaceutical company in nearby Osaka. When I asked him why he came to the conference, what he hoped to gain, he completely lit up. He told me that although he is more or less satisfied with his day-job, he is a staunch believer the idea of art as a means of universal communication and dreamed about somehow connecting communities of children around the world through their artwork. I was absolutely thrilled by the idea and could hardly contain my excitement as we bounced ideas off of each other, and furiously brainstormed the potential of the concept until the end of the lunch period. The remainder of the conference fanned the spark we had ignited such that before we parted ways, we had decided on a follow-up meeting in Osaka a few days later.
From that meeting, the organization He(ART) Exchange was born. The concept behind the project is that dialogue between communities that share neither cultural, geographical, nor linguistic commonalities is not only possible, but critical to developing well-rounded understandings of today’s world. By using weekly art projects as the “language” of this dialogue, students have a “conversation” with their partners abroad and in so doing are not only exposed to the lived reality of other cultures and peoples, but also develop an understanding of art as a valid and powerful tool of self-expression. This, I believe, will have lasting effects as participants will perhaps one day be able to use their art to deal with and confront the various obstacles they will face throughout the remainder of their life. From this idea, we developed a rough organizational model, and as my partner worked on developing the website and the legal documents, I began reaching out to schools, teachers, and educational non-profits in my network. After three weeks we had finalized our first partnership between two middle schools in California and Libya, with schools in Panamá, Argentina, Indonesia, and Japan also interested in the project. At this point we are still not sure what the impact of the project will be, yet based on the enthusiasm thus far from the teachers and students, we will try it out regardless. I, for one, look forward to observing what eventually will sprout from the program. I expect we may be pleasantly surprised.