Learning to Teach (Superhero Perspective)

I recently spent four weeks teaching in a comprehensive high school in Sydney’s south. It was my first ever teaching experience, and it was intense! Two things that hit me early on:

  1. lot of preparation goes into each class (e.g., lesson plan, PPT slides, finding resources, making worksheets, designing activities, etc). I’m sure it does get easier over time as you build a portfolio of things to draw on. It also depends on whether you want to be great, or whether you are content with being mediocre.
  2. lot of things are happening all at once inside the classroom. In addition to ‘delivering’ the content, I’m trying to familiarise myself with names/faces, monitor behaviour, formulate questions to ask students, respond to input from students, keep track of time, keep track of environmental factors — good teaching requires expertise in multi-tasking.

What I also began to realise as the weeks went on is that the process of learning to teach is like being a superhero who begins to discover and explore my superpower. Teachers have tremendous power over students, both in terms of how they learn and how they behave. Think about it — we have the power to control people. “Line up outside, two straight lines.” “Open up your books and write this heading.” “Turn around now. Look at me.” “Write down three things you learned today.” “Pick that up. Put it in the bin.”

Being an effective teacher requires having the confidence and capability to exercise power over people. This brings me to a really great quote from Haim Ginott, a child psychologist and author who wrote this about the power of teaching:

I have come to a frightening conclusion.

I am the decisive element in the classroom.

It is my personal approach that creates the climate.

It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous.

I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration.

I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Lots of things have being proposed to improve/reform the education system — money, syllabus, testing, technology, parent choice; the list goes on and on. Ultimately however, learning happens in the classroom, as facilitated by teachers. Developing the knowledge, skills and motivation of teachers is paramount; and also, I would suggest, their character. As we all know, with great power comes great responsibility.

Song On My Mind XII

Confession time: I have fallen into the addiction that is Hamilton the musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda and co have produced an astonishing work of art—more accurately, a series of small pieces of art—on the fascinating life of US founding father Alexander Hamilton.

It is bold, wondrous, uplifting and highly educational. With each re-listen I uncover more of the plots, themes and elements that Miranda has deftly weaved throughout the musical—love, war, friendship, rivalry, betrayal, fatherhood, loss, legacy, and more. This is a soundtrack that richly rewards multiple listens. It is crazy good. Here is an emblematic song that tells of Hamilton’s rise:

 

The Reasons for Trump

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are (i) intelligent, (ii) well-educated and (iii) bemused by what’s going with Donald Trump. If you’re at all into US politics, you have probably seen this video of John Oliver demolishing Trump. It sure feels good to ridicule this outrageous and dangerous public figure. One can also derive some righteous anger from blasting Trump’s supporters for their hypocrisy and short-sightedness.

I can’t help but think that these feelings—superiority, self-righteousness, smugness, and yes, schadenfreude—are just empty calories. The Trump phenomenon is real. Nobody took him seriously, and now he’s on the verge of becoming the Republican candidate for President of the United States. His supporters (albeit only 40-45% of Republican voters so far) are real people, with real grievances.

I think 2016 is a genuine turning point in US history, with monumental implications for at least one side of politics. Instead of ridiculing or dismissing Trump and his supporters, we need to understand what’s going on.

Below are some articles I’ve encountered over the last couple of months that shed light on the Trump phenomenon. Some of them made me feel uncomfortable. I hope you will be able to bear with some discomfort as well—if you’re a liberal reading about a conservative perspective; if you’re an atheist/agnostic reading about a Christian perspective; if you have a pro-immigration stance reading about anti-immigration sentiments; if you have grown up in prosperous, metropolitan environments reading about life on the ground in struggling towns and communities hollowed out by globalisation and outsourcing.

If you have the time, please take a look.

On the favourable environment created by broad changes in media and technology

On the failure of the elites

Among the angry, the voiceless, the dying

Personal testimonies

  • A life-long Republican and conservative writes an open letter explaining why he no longer considers himself part of the conservative movement, as the Trump phenomenon exposes the movement’s past failures and present delusions
  • A Christian author and preacher makes the bad, awful, no good, terrible confession that he likes Trump—Trump is not honest, but he is honest about who he is, and he effectively channels something:

    [T]he rage and desperation of a people who know they don’t matter anymore. Whose lives and wellbeing have become a blight, an embarrassment, who are now disposable. Yes, they have may been a privileged people once, knowing the order of the world arising from the great struggles of the first half of the 20th century was arranged for them, and may be struggling for privilege again, but they also know politics has told them — economically and socially — “lie down and die.” That they are white, and crude, and prone to brutality and violence, frequently not very compassionate or empathetic, all-too-often confused by the world, and that their religion is simplistic and mostly idolatrous, all that makes it hard to sympathize with them. (I find it hard.) But you leave people behind at your peril. You can tell them to “lie down and die,” and some will. But many won’t.

 

A lot of people in America are hurting right now. And rightfully so. Conventional politics have left them—more tax cuts for the rich on the one side, demonisation and dismissal as bigots on the other, and a consensus on more globalisation that, however great it is for humanity in the aggregate, makes their lives objectively worse. In their rage and desperation, they turned to a dangerous figure in Trump.

Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

 

Crony Capitalism, N+1 Edition

A couple of years ago I read a book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild called the Outsourced Self. The book is an account of Hochschild’s investigation into how the logic of the market—commodification, efficiency, promotion—was creeping into more and more intimate parts of our lives. While I consider some of what she encountered to be problematic but probably a net-positive overall (e.g., online dating, nannies and helpers), there are other things that are genuinely disturbing (e.g., “household consultants”, commercial surrogacy).

Today, I encountered two examples of capitalism encroaching into spheres where it probably shouldn’t, with horrible results for society (and great results for the enriched few).

First, conservative outcast David Frum examined the state of super PACs—organisations that have been blessed by the US Supreme Court to raise (mostly from a few rich donors) and spend vast amounts of money on political campaigns. Frum focused on Jeb Bush’s doomed campaign, whose super PAC astoundingly raised over $100 million. The result was bad enough (and perhaps provides a hopeful counterexample to the notion that money buys political success). However, what’s really fascinating is Frum’s account of those who benefited most—the consultants who feasted off the bonanza while accomplishing nothing for the hapless Bush.

Second, defence attorney Greg Toucette fired off a tweet-storm about defending a young black man (YBM) from a reckless driving charge, and the photo that saved his client from the blatantly false allegation made by the police officer. It was an illustrative example of the horrendously broken criminal justice system in the US. One of the underlying causes: local governments straining under the economic damage inflicted by crony capitalism of the recent past and perversely using the criminal justice system as a revenue source, thereby immiserating thousands (millions?) of mostly young, mostly poor, mostly non-white people.

Sad, but true.

Six Months with the Apple Watch

Last year, my cousin gave me an Apple Watch (Sport, Space Grey, 42mm) as a belated wedding gift. I’ve worn it for about 6 months now and… I like it. I’m not a watch person, and yet the Apple Watch has comfortably found a place on my wrist (and in my life).

Below are some thoughts based on my experiences with the Watch. I thought the best way to capture my feelings about the various aspects of the Watch is to use emoji.

(NB: For the TL;DR version, scroll down to the Bottom Line)


Basics

Hardware – 😄

Apple Watch looks and feels nice. After the initial strangeness of having something over my naked wrist, wearing it has become completely normal.

The anodised aluminium case is very durable. There’s not a single scratch, although there is a small chip from the time I bumped my wrist into the door frame a few days into owning the watch. Oops. If I look really closely, I can see a couple of hairline scratches on the Ion-X glass surface. Perhaps this is where the sapphire screen of the non-Sport versions has an upper hand.

I love that the bands are customisable. In addition to the black sport band, I also have the blue leather loop for more formal occasions and an orange sport band for when I want something more colourful. I feel good when I am wearing the Watch.

Watch faces

Interestingly, the different Watch sizes (42mm and 38mm) are compatible with each others’ bands. My wife has a 38mm Watch and I’ve used her white sport band a couple of times. It’s a little narrower but it’s impossible to tell the difference unless you’re looking at it closely. Unfortunately, she’s not able to wear my 42mm bands since they are just wide enough so that the edges of the lugs stick out from the body.

The battery life is very impressive. Unless I’m using the Watch for multiple Workout sessions or long stretches of turn-by-turn Maps directions, I easily get two days’ use out of it.

Software – 😐

Apple Watch is clearly a first-generation product. A theme that I keep coming back to is that the Watch is slow. Launching apps typically takes several seconds, if they open at all. Navigation is solid (but not smooth like on the iPhone), with some stutters here and there. The Watch will occasionally freeze or crash.

User interface – 🙂

In my experience, the user interface is not too complex once you get the hang of it. From the Watch screen, you swipe down to see missed notifications and swipe up for Glances. Glances are discrete ‘cards’ that you navigate by swiping left and right. Some Glances display information (e.g., Activity, Battery, Calendar), while others are immediately actionable (e.g., playback control in Now Playing, toggle Airplane Mode in Settings). I’ve found Now Playing especially to be quite useful.

Where things go awry is when you press the digital crown to go to the app (home?) screen. The app screen feels overwrought. The mass of tiny circles is confusing and difficult to manage. Fortunately it is customisable, and I’ve arranged it so that I can make geographical sense of where things are (h/t to Casey Liss):

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The reality is I hardly ever go to this screen—mostly to launch the Workouts app, and occasionally for a third party app (see below). It feels like Apple just ported the iOS paradigm of app tiles onto the Watch, and the lack of fit really shows.


Tentpole features

When Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled the Watch, he outlined three “tentpole” features:

  • Timekeeping
  • Communication
  • Health and fitness

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I think the Watch does a decent-to-great job on each of these.

Telling time – 😊

As someone who didn’t wear watches before, having the time on my wrist is obviously great. Do I care if the Watch keeps time to within 50 milliseconds of the definitive global time standard, as per Apple marketing? Not really.

The Watch screen is normally off to preserve battery life, and typically I tilt my wrist slightly to turn it on. Occasionally the sensor doesn’t register and I have to overtly raise my wrist or tap the watch to turn the screen on. This is annoying when I have to do it in the middle of a conversation, or when I’m holding a bag of groceries in my left hand.

I love the customisation of the Watch face, which allows me to match it with what I’m doing or what I feel like on a particular day.

  • When I’m going to university, I tend to use the Modular face to see what classes I have coming up and where they are. I can also change the colour to match what I’m wearing.
  • For work, I usually go with the Utility face. Both the Modular and Utility faces display my activity, the weather/temperature and sunset time as complications.
  • For weekends or when I’m just chilling out, I use either the Motion (Jellyfish) or Time Lapse (Hong Kong) face.

Faces

When I’m feeling a little pretentious I’ll use the Simple face with minimal detail. It’s not very practical but looks nice with the all-black setup.

Communications – 🙂

Apple Watch has been a useful, but not indispensable, addition to my life in this regard:

  • Notifications – Receiving messages on my wrist is fast and almost frictionless. For me, most of the time this is a first-world luxury. The Watch gives me haptic feedback that feels like gentle taps. The feedback is really nifty. It varies depending on the type of notification—iMessage, Whatsapp message, Reminder, phone call, etc. I love that my phone now remains inert; no vibrations, no screen lighting up.
  • Digital Touch – This is a feature that allows me to send taps, drawings and my heartbeat to other Apple Watch wearers. My wife and I do this from time to time. It’s cute and can be delightful, but neither of us do it on a regular basis.
  • Phone calls – The Watch is great for making or receiving calls in a pinch, like at home when the phone is sitting somewhere else. This is a cool and underrated feature.
  • Messaging – It is convenient when I do it, which is not very often. I don’t ever think of using Apple’s creepy default emoji.

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Health and fitness – 😄

This is one area in which the Watch really delivers. The Workout app is great. It tracks all the activities that I need: outdoor running/walking, indoor/outdoor cycling, rower and elliptical. During the workout session, the Watch provides a series of metrics that you can swipe through. For me the key metric is heart rate, which it apparently tracks quite well.

Another thing the Watch does well is the gamification of health. It tracks daily Move (pre-determined calorie/KJ target), Exercise (30 min above a certain heart and movement rate) and Stand (at least one minute per hour, for 12 hours) goals. The Watch rewards you with badges for completing various achievements—e.g., Perfect Week (complete all three rings every day for a week) and Perfect Month (reach the Move goal every day for one month). Both my wife and I suckers for this kind of stuff. We have done post-work strolls around the block to reach the Move target and even gratuitous jumping jacks to get that last minute of Exercise. Yes, the Watch is controlling us.

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The Watch has had a subtle yet meaningful impact on my health and fitness. It nudges me to move more. It encourages me to pump my legs just a bit harder during workouts. It facilitates a more intentional and healthier lifestyle—right now I’m keeping a spreadsheet to record my weight/diet/exercise, and the Activity companion app on the phone is a valuable reference source.


Other notable features

Maps – 😊/😓

Maps has been hit and miss. I will typically enter in the destination and start the navigation on my phone, which activates it on the Watch. Siri is unreliable transcribing exact addresses, so when I do use her I will just say the suburb name (normally going home from somewhere).

Most of the time the turn-by-turn directions are fine, although every now and then it lags just enough that I will miss a turn. I’m right on the edge of being able to trust Maps, but it keeps giving me little reasons not to.

When the Watch is having a good day, bringing up walking directions and a map of the surrounding area on my wrist feels wonderful.

Siri – 😄/😡

The story is the same here. When Siri works (I’d say a bare majority of the time), it’s really cool. Some of the stuff that I use her for include:

  • References (“define soporific”, “who is Andy Murray’s brother?”)
  • Reminders (“remind me to water the orchid at 6pm”)
  • Timers (“set timer for 3 minutes”)
  • Music (“play 1989 album”, “shuffle the chill playlist”)

However, Siri fails enough that it is frustrating and prevents me from developing a habit of using her.

Apple Pay – 😍

Apple Pay is awesome. When you would normally tap the payment terminal with a credit card, you can double click the side button and present your Watch instead. Using it feels like I’m truly in the future. Plus, unlike most Watch features this one is highly reliable!

Apple-Payapplewatch

Apple Pay has been really useful for my wife. She can go on a run and pick up groceries on the way home, or duck out of work to get something from the supermarket next door—all without having to grab her bag or wallet.

Luckily we have an American Express card that supports Apple Pay. The Australian banks have refused to play ball, preferring to develop their own mobile solutions. I hope they will capitulate soon, after losing customers and losing transactions due to their intransigence.

I think the future potential for the Watch to interface with the physical world is huge. Whether it’s via NFC, QR code or something else, the Watch can be instrumental in convenient and low-friction interactions at airports, concerts, sporting events, theme parks, hotels, and more.

Third party apps – 😐

I have hardly installed any third party apps—the app screen is cluttered as it is, and the user experience is plain bad. Apps are only likely to load when I tap on them. When I do tap on an app, it will always take several seconds or more to load. Taking out my phone and doing whatever it is that I wanted to do on the Watch is probably the better option most of the time.

esmbh

Third party apps that I keep on the Watch:

  • Instapaper – For when I want to listen to saved articles while driving
  • Overcast – For when I want to change podcast episodes while driving
  • Tripview – Getting the time for the next available train between pre-determined places
  • 2Do – A more powerful kind of Reminder, I have it mostly just to receive notifications
  • LIFX – Turn the smart bulb in my bedroom on and off. Feels gimmicky rather than useful. Before bed I will take my Watch off and put it on charge… and then I want to switch off the light.

Bottom line

Here’s how I would summarise what the Watch does for me.

Things I do a lot + feels natural (short interactions):

  • Proactive – quick look at Watch face for the time or a complication (e.g., temperature, activity, next appointment)
  • Reactive – quick look at a notification after the Watch taps me

Things I do sometimes + feels natural (overt interactions):

  • Swiping down to see missed notification(s)
  • Swiping up and side-to-side to look at Glances (mostly Battery, Now Playing and Activity rings)
  • Going to the app screen and launching the Workout app
  • Activating Apple Pay
  • Sending a Digital Touch
  • Changing my Watch face

Things I do infrequently + still feels like extra work:

  • Using Siri to do anything
  • Sending messages

Things I forget that I can do, but am pleasantly surprised when I realise I can do them:

  • Using the stopwatch directly on the Chronograph face (rather than launching the separate app)
  • Making and receiving phone calls
  • Taking a photo on the phone with Remote
  • Pinging the phone when I can’t find it
  • Looking at the position of the planets on the Astronomy face

Things I pretty much never do:

  • Going to and navigating the app screen for a non-Workout reason

The Apple Watch is useful, delightful, frustrating, flawed. Currently I am only getting out of the Watch only a subset of what it is capable of (which, to be fair, is still quite a lot more than a traditional watch).

Part of it is technical. The Watch needs to be faster, more responsive, less buggy, all that good stuff. That’s (relatively) easy to fix. Part of it is more fundamental. The app screen paradigm is very awkward. I haven’t found any other compelling use cases yet, which is disappointing compared to the robust iOS app ecosystem.

Despite these limitations, I think the Watch is a compelling product with a bright future. To paraphrase Jony Ive, this is just the beginning of the era of personal wearable technology.