Getting Beyond Your Comfort Zone

A friend of mine recently retired and she told me that she wants to move "out of her comfort zone" and try new things. My first thought was that this was a good idea, but the more I thought about her plan, the less "good" it seemed.

After years of teaching and a few vacations in Italy, she decided she wants to live there for a year. She sold her house and her car, got rid of a lot of stuff, put the essentials into storage, and took off for Florence, Italy.

I realized that I had more fear about her trip than she had. It was too far out of my comfort zone.

The graphic below popped up on Pinterest and got me thinking about that confining comfort zone.

We all have a comfort zone in our jobs, in school and in life. As a teacher, I think I often intentionally tried to push students out of their comfort zone. Why? Looking at the graphic, I would say that I agree that the path to new learning and growth means pushing through your comfort zone.

There is an unsurprising plethora of sites with recommendations on how to break through your comfort zone. How many apply to education?

  • Acknowledge what it is that is holding you back. Literally write down your fears. Then rationalize each fear by flipping it over (a cognitive behavioral therapy technique) and deciding what the worst-case scenario would bring to you. 
  • Many sites advise starting small. Set yourself small targets to that desired destination.
  • If your first steps outside your comfort zone don't go as planned don't be quick to reverse course and run back into the zone.
  • Changing your routine can help. Work in a new place. Try a new approach. means going to the same places, which can stifle inspiration and spontaneity. New thought patterns encourage us to break away.
  • Connect with people who are already in the learning or growth that you aspire to achieve. Mentorship.
  • As the graphic suggests, getting out of your comfort zone may require acquiring new skills. Education is often not only a necessary element but may be a fear for some people. Older workers may not be comfortable going "back to school." The cost of education can be restrictive, but there are so many free MOOCs and other online learning options that can help with both fears.
  • Create challenges for yourself and celebrate victories with actual tangible rewards.

What Happened to Vocational Educational?

A friend who is not involved in education recently asked me, "Whatever happened to vocational educational?" He was thinking about when he was a kid in school back in the 1960s and there came a point before high school where he was presented with a choice. That choice was to go on to high school and prepare for college or go to a vocational school and prepare for a job. That choice is not so evident today in America.

Vocational education in the United States varies from state to state, but vocational schools (AKA trade schools) are both seen as an alternative high school experience and as post-secondary schools. In both cases, they teach the skills necessary to help students acquire jobs in specific industries. Both types of schools still exist.

The breadth of offerings has certainly increased since my friend's options almost 60 years ago, but some industries still are options, such as cooking, business courses, drafting, construction, auto repair, and some healthcare careers.

If we are talking about the postsecondary vocational training, much of that training is now provided by proprietary (privately-owned) career schools.

About 30 percent of all credentials in career training is provided by two-year community colleges.

We should also consider military technical training or government-operated adult education centers as part of this area.

I taught at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and quickly discovered that many people unfamiliar with that university interpreted the name (especially the "institute" part) to mean we were a vocational school. (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, doesn't seem to have this issue.)

The biggest difference between vocational schools and traditional colleges is the amount of time students need to complete their education. Most vocational schools offer programs that students can complete in about one or two years. Students attending traditional colleges often take four to five years to complete their education. Traditional colleges also require students to complete a liberal arts education. Students must enroll in a broad range of courses that are not necessarily related to their area of study. Vocational schools require students to enroll only in classes that pertain to their particular trades.

Manhattan trade school for girls

Manhattan trade school for girls, 1916

In the U.S., vocational education really moved forward in the early 1900s with an effort to introduce German-style industrial education. Educators were looking at the apprenticeship and continuation school models in Germany and were determining how they could be applied in an American context.

The industrial education system evolved more rapidly after World War I into what we call vocational education. On the timeline, the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 was meant to reduce reliance on foreign trade schools, improve domestic wage-earning capacity, reduce unemployment, and protect national security.

The George-Barden Act after WWII expanded federal support of vocational education to support vocations beyond the 4 most common subject areas (agriculture, trade, home economics, and industrial subjects).

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 was focused on improving education in science, mathematics, foreign languages and other areas with a particular focus on topics related to national defense.

In the next decade, the Vocational Education Act (1963) was designed to give support for work-study programs and research. The Vocational Education Amendments (1968) was a modification that created the National Advisory Council on Vocational Education.

In 1984, the Vocational Education Act was renamed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act and amended six years later created the Tech-Prep Program to coordinate educational activities into a coherent sequence of courses.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, vocation ed and "trade schools" acquired a stigma of being below the quality of college and just slightly better than high school. In fact, many vocational programs were in high schools and had become standalone vocational high schools during that time period. 

This stigma even carried over to the 2-year colleges who were not aided by the use of the term "Junior College" that was once used before community and county colleges became the preferred terms.

Still, the "Stigma of Choosing Trade School Over College" persists, as that title from an article in The Atlantic notes. 
"When college is held up as the one true path to success, parents—especially highly educated ones—might worry when their children opt for vocational school instead." 

Vocational education in other countries

YouTube Learning Playlists

YouTube learningFaculty in higher ed and K-12 are prepping for the start of the semester or the school year. In K-12, schools in the southern part of the U.S. already started earlier this month. Students - and later their teachers - have been turning to YouTube videos to learn for at least a decade. YouTube started in 2005, but in the early years, it was more about personal and funny videos than it was about learning.

Khan Academy was one of the first uses of YouTube tutorial videos. It started simply with video tutoring sessions for founder Salman Khan's cousin. I turn to YouTube to learn non-academic and non-credit learning. This summer I used YouTube videos to fix my lawnmower and my clothes dryer. It was great.

YouTube introduced a new education feature that will surely be used by some teachers this fall. It is called Learning Playlists and these dedicated landing pages are designed for educational videos. The playlists have organizational features, like chapters around key concepts, and are ordered from beginner to advanced lessons.

One thing "missing" is the "recommended videos" that you see on YouTube and that can lead you and students distractedly down the video rabbit hole. That a good omission because those algorithm-driven recommended videos can lead to some strange and not really educational places. Videos won’t autoplay at the end of a playlist either.

Last fall, YouTube announced that it was investing $20 million for creators and resources in a Learning Fund initiative with partners like Khan Academy, TED-Ed, Crash Course (Hank and John Green) and the Coding Train.

I Am In a Strange Loop

    ”The Treachery of Images” by René Magritte says that "This is not a pipe." A strange loop.

I got a copy of Douglas Hofstadter's book, Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, when I started working at NJIT in 2000. It was my lunch reading. I read it in almost daily spurts. I often had to reread because it is not light reading.

book coverIt was published in 1979 and won the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. It is said to have inspired many a student to pursue computer science, though it's not really a CS book. It was further described on its cover as a "metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll." In the book itself, he says "I realized that to me, Godel and Escher and Bach were only shadows cast in different directions by some central solid essence. I tried to reconstruct the central object, and came up with this book."

I had not finished the book when I left NJIT and it went on a shelf at home. This summer I was trying to thin out my too-many books and I came upon it again with its bookmarker glowering at me from just past the halfway point in the pages. So, I went back to reading it. Still, tough going, though very interesting.

I remembered writing a post here about the book (it turned out to be from 2007) when I came upon a new book by Hofstadter titled I Am a Strange Loop. That "strange loop" was something he originally proposed in the 1979 book. This post is a rewrite and update on that older post.

The earlier book is a meditation on human thought and creativity. It mixes the music of Bach, the artwork of Escher, and the mathematics of Godel. In the late 1970s when he was writing interest in computers was high and artificial intelligence (AI) was still more of an idea than a reality. Reading Godel, Escher, Bach exposed me to some abstruse math (like undecidability, recursion, and those strange loops) but (here's where Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles" gets referenced though some of you will say it's really a Socratic dialogue as in Xeno's fable, Achilles and the Tortoise) each chapter has a dialogue between the Tortoise and Achilles and other characters to dramatize concepts. Allusions to Bach's music and Escher's art (that loves paradox) also are used, as well as other mathematicians, artists, and thinkers. Godel's Incompleteness Theorem serves as his example of describing the unique properties of minds.

His new book back then was I Am a Strange Loop which focuses on the "strange loop" that he originally proposed in the 1979 book. I haven't read that book, but since I made it through the earlier volume (albeit in 18 years), I may give Strange Loop a try.

From what I read about the author, he was disappointed with how Godel, Escher, Bach (GEB) was received. It certainly got good reviews - and a Pulitzer Prize - but he felt that readers and reviewers missed what he saw as the central theme. I have an older edition but in a 20th-anniversary edition, he added that the theme was "a very personal attempt to say how it is that animate beings can come out of inanimate matter. What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle?"

I Am a Strange Loop focuses on that theme. In both books, he addresses "self-referential systems." (see link at bottom)

One thing that stuck with me from my first attempt at GEB is his using "meta" and defining it as meaning "about." Some people might say that it means "containing." Back on the early part of this century, I thought about that when I first began using Moodle as a learning management system. When you set up a new course in Moodle (and in other LMSs since then), it asks if this is a "metacourse." In Moodle, that means that it is a course that "automatically enrolls participants from other 'child' courses." Metacourses (AKA "master courses") feature all or part of the same content but customized to the enrollments of other sections. 

This was a feature used in big courses like English or Chemistry 101. In my courses, I thought more about having things like meta-discussions or discussions about discussions. My metacourse might be a course about the course. Quite self-referential.

I suppose it can get loopy when you start saying that if we have a course x, the metacourse X could be a course to talk about course x but would not include course x within itself. Though I suppose that it could.

Have I lost you?

Certainly, metatags are quite common on web pages, photos and for cataloging, categorizing and characterizing content objects. Each post on Serendipity35 is tagged with one or more categories and a string of keyword tags that help readers find similar content and help search engines make the post searchable.

A brief Q&A with Hofstadter published in Wired  in March 2007 about the newer book says that he considers the central question to him to be "What am I?."

His examples of "strange loops" include Escher's piece, "Drawing Hands," which shows two hands drawing each other, and the sentence, "I am lying."

Hofstadter gets spiritual in his further thinking and he finds at the core of each person a soul. He feels the "soul is an abstract pattern." Because he felt the soul is strong in mammals (weaker in insects), it brought him to vegetarianism.

He was considered to be an AI researcher, but he now thought of himself as a cognitive scientist.

Reconsidering GED, he decides that another mistake in that book's approach may have been not seeing that the human mind and smarter machines are fundamentally different. He has less of an interest in computers and claims that he always thought that his writing would "resonate with people who love literature, art, and music" more than the tech people.

If it has taken me much longer to finish Godel, Escher, Bach than it should, that makes sense if we follow the strange loop of Hofstadter's Law. ("It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.)

End Note: 
A self-referential situation is one in which the forecasts made by the human agents involved serves to create the world they are trying to forecast. Social systems are self-referential systems based on meaningful communication.