aesthetics and ethics

One of my colleagues and I have been having a long-running conversation about ethics and aesthetics. Her assertion is that aesthetics = ethics– not necessarily that this is the way it should be, but that it is how most people operate:  people have strong aesthetic preferences and they express them as (and often believe them to be) their ethics. My rants about Uber and celebration of public transportation are an excellent example. My colleague’s reactions to others’ photography and the way they explain their work is another. But I think living abroad also affects our aesthetic/ethical experiences, then shapes our reasoning, then broadens (or narrows) both our aesthetic and ethical convictions.

I remember moving back in with my dad after years of living away at college. Again taking showers in the bathroom that had been mine in my four years at high school, I was struck (displeased, alienated, discomfited) by its aesthetics: the dull tan ceramic fittings of the sink and toilet; the K-mart (or equivalent) bathmat; and especially the mass-produced and flowery-scented pink bar of soap. It needled me so much to have shifted back to this pre-college aesthetic that when I first had the opportunity to go to the natural foods store and buy what I thought of as better (‘natural’, brandless, herb-smelling) soap, I immediately felt calmer and more in touch with myself. In hindsight I definitely judge my own snobbery, but I also understand it more since living abroad.

There are so many ways to experience disconnection when you live outside your home country. Most obviously, the language of passers-by on signs and in the street. A newfound geographic orientation and a need to be more aware of where you are so as not to get lost. A need to learn the local habits (restaurant opening times, places to buy vegetables, how to recharge your subway card) and access bureaucratic and logistical systems. But for me, the deeper disconnection is aesthetic. I visited a friend in Sweden in 2011 and was amused and sometimes flustered by the differences in fixtures on faucets, the presence of a sauna in every apartment building basement, and the cleanliness and orderliness of the trains. The baked goods used cardamom instead of cinnamon. The door keys were a different shape of metal. My summer in China in 2008 is still a blur of specific food smells and tastes (lots of soup; red bean buns for breakfast), silk fabric, humidity, and construction-zone dust. Jordan was the home of red dirt creeping in under the doorsill, meat dishes made with lamb and yogurt, and signs written in flowing curly and incomprehensible script. You could say experiencing these is just the adjustment to a new geographic and cultural location and the resulting need to accommodate, but I experienced it as a sometimes aggressive new reality that I needed to sometimes protect myself from or defend myself against. Because who am I if I switch to using lever 2000 or irish spring instead of my vermont-sourced, handmade, sandalwood-scented soap? How can I recognize myself if I start wearing sports-name-brand clothes, or using hairspray, or eating spam? Does my name written in arabic script still signify the same me?

Living abroad can seem like an onslaught against personal identity. Holding tight to aesthetic values is one way to reply to this. Of course, I am exercising my (expat, moneyed) privilege in holding onto these. My ability to shop and pay for the things I want in my home and my ability to choose my method of transportation exists because I am well-paid and can take the time to indulge myself. And in this, I understand my colleague’s assertion that aesthetics equals ethics– the preferences I have become almost sacred to me, because they represent the choices I am making about how to live.



Inverse Relationships: Project Based Subjects and Class Size

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

A classroom containing 18–24 students appears to be the ideal number. Anything less and you lose the unique excitement that comes from a critical mass of engaged students. ~A Commentary and Review of Malcom Gladwell’s research on small class sizes; David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

The Hattie Research

I was introduced to Visible Learning by John Hattie   a few years ago. After studying the data, and doing a course that focused on the data, I was forced to reflect on my beliefs and practices as an educator.

As an IT professional that actually uses meta data to make decisions, I knew the power of data about data.

I think the one point that must be made is that the data and analysis used by Hattie is what is known as long-tail data. Hattie did not find a “smoking gun” or a “big reveal”. He found a collection of things, that when working in combination, make a difference in learning out comes.

This data, when studied, must be studied as a collection. Focusing on a single point, and believing doing “that one thing” will make a difference, is a mistake.

The Hattie data can be viewed here. 

The following image focuses on the areas addressed in this post.


The Class Size Issue in Project Based Subjects

The relationship between class size and project based subjects is inverse compared to studies that look at traditional courses where instruction is rote, and the differentiation needs to be very focused.

Of the top 22 Hattie indicators, 10 connect directly to courses that at project based:

  • Self Report Grades
  • Piagetian Programs
  • Response to Intervention
  • Cognitive Task Analysis
  • Classroom Discussion
  • Teacher Clarity (Students Questioning Teacher Instruction)
  • Reciprocal Teaching (6 Facets of Understanding)
  • Feedback
  • Formative Evaluation
  • Self Questioning

Class size has been a central focus in nearly every school improvement plan I have been connect with. In fact, I recently helped build a schedule that was nearly solely dictated by class size.

As some one who solely works in project based subjects, team driven contests, and peer reviewed assessment I can attest that small classes are detrimental to learning in these environments.

When a class falls below 12 students, the student input, instances of serendipitous discoveries, the diversity of teams, and the needed conflict to fuel trial and error scenarios  all diminish. To be clear: the class becomes boring and stagnant.

Students need to be formed and re-formed into teams and groups in a project based environment. They need variety of opinion. They need to take the lead and be the teacher; they need to lead their peers; and they need their peers to explain “what went wrong” when failure happens. And failure will happen more often than trophies are presented.

If a class size is too small, this process (learning spiral) becomes repetitive and predictable. In my experience, small classes can be a stimulus for groupthink.

As a teacher, I can entertain and keep the energy going. As a believer in a student-centered environment where there is no “front of the room”, being the center of attention undermines that belief.

Successful Projects are Busy and Messy

I recently visited three MIT powered Fablabs. All the labs were busy, messy, and had learners ranging in age from 16-60.

These people were working on entrepreneurial projects, or science projects. The work is difficult at every turn, and the skills are interdisciplinary. In fact, I doubt it is possible for a single person to do their entire project alone. There is collaboration, and exchange of work and ideas, and a general consensus that failure is going to be very common.

These labs run programs and open work days based on simple metrics:

  1. The capacity of the room
  2. The availability of the staff/instructors to help people with specialized equipment

They do not balance sessions to keep the number of people to an optimal level of learning, because they know that having a variety of people means having a variety of talents and ideas.

Project based subjects are not about giving everyone an opinion or platform for an idea. These subjects revolve around taking an idea and making it a reality. Students not only have a variety of known talents, they also have a hidden talents.

Engaging students with a group of people they may not socialize with; allowing them to team up to offset each other’s weaknesses; and scaffolding peer/self criticism into every project is the secret to unlocking a students potential. New potential will lead students to see new opportunities.

Creating opportunity for students should always supersede creating small classes for the sake of creating small classes.