Improving the Experience of Online Education

Despite their surge in popularity, many harbor deep reservations about the quality of online courses. There are several possible reasons for this, but perhaps most fundamentally are serious concerns about the experience of online students. In particular, many ask: can online courses provide the kind of experience crucial for students to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity, consistent with the highest ideals of liberal arts education?

I have taught online for several years, and I have struggled with this question as well. However, new thinking and research convinces me that all courses – including those online – have the potential to elicit powerful emotions that can inspire long-term knowledge creation.

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Parenting “Big Picture” Kids

In his classic, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey encouraged individuals to “begin with the end in mind.” As a parent, I find this advice invaluable, as there are so many “ends” and methods of parenting available. Of course, there are many aspects of my kids’ development and behavior beyond my control. Still, to the extent I have any influence, it would seem best to channel it toward my deepest dreams for them.

So, what do I really want for my kids?

Many things, actually. But, what if I were to narrow down my dreams for my kids to a few? What is most important?

In this post, I want to reflect on the insights of a particularly intriguing parenting book called “Never Say No: Raising Big-Picture Kids,” by Mark and Jan Foreman (parents of Jon and Tim Foreman of the popular band “Switchfoot”).

According to the Foremans, the goal of parenting is not to keep a child safe (a goal that often seems most evident in my sometimes anxious parenting behavior). Rather, the goal of parenting, as stated by the Foremans, is to nurture “a big-picture child who loves well.” In other words, parenting ultimately prepares kids to contribute their gifts to a world in need. This positive frame of reference resonates with me as I think through what I’m trying to do as a parent.

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7 Reasons for a More Awesome Life

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious… He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.” — Albert Einstein

Einstein suggests that awe, or wonder, may provide one of the richest experiences available to human beings. It is so elusive and complex that only in the past decade or so have psychological scientists started to study it seriously. Within the past few years, however, the research has made significant progress.

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Kate Romero | Pexels

Part of the difficulty with awe is defining it. The clearest description that I have seen is from leading positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson in her book “Positivity:”

“[A]we happens when you come across goodness on a grand scale. You literally feel overwhelmed by greatness. By comparison, you feel small and humble. Awe makes you stop in your tracks. You are momentarily transfixed. Boundaries melt away and you feel part of something larger than yourself. Mentally, you’re challenged to absorb and accommodate the sheer scale of what you’ve encountered… Although a form of positivity, awe at times sits so close to the edge of safety that we get a whiff of negativity as well. Awe mixes with fear… Awe, like gratitude and inspiration, is a self-transcendent emotion.”

Following are 7 recent studies that indicate something important about the experience of awe and its effects. I tend to favor experimental studies because they show a clearer cause and effect relationship.

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Shots of Awe

This past Saturday, I participated in a 1-day webcast of a conference called “The Art and Science of Awe.” This conference was held at the University of California at Berkeley, and brought together leading scientists and artists to explore and experience awe. I will be integrating insights from this conference into this blog in coming months. For now, though, I wanted to share a youtube channel called “Shots of Awe” that was discussed by its creator, Jason Silva, at the conference. Here are three videos that I’ve found have the most to do with awe.

Note: These are high energy!

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Awe Reduces PTSD Symptoms

For the past several years, a collaboration between the Sierra Club and researchers at the University of California at Berkeley has explored the potential for awe to decrease symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

307168422_f153e4c918_oThis research is preliminary, but shows that combat veterans suffering from PTSD showed a 30% reduction in symptoms after a whitewater rafting excursion. One week after the trip, relationships with family and friends continued to show improvements. Moreover, stress hormones, immune system functioning, and other brain responses showed significant positive changes from before to after the trip.

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In Awe of Complexity

Leading researchers emphasize how awe reorients the way individuals think because of having their minds expanded by something vast – which most people interpret in terms of physical size or space. People sometimes say they are awestruck by the size of mountains, the ocean, or the night sky, for instance.

There are other kinds of vastness, however, that have the potential to elicit awe in us.

One kind of vastness that we often overlook in the midst of our busy lives is the stunning vastness in complexity all around us in nature.

Native to my area of North America, for example, is the perennial, Geum triflorum, sometimes called “old man’s whiskers” or “prairie smoke” because of the way the long heads of seeds extend outward from the plant.

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Making Spaces of Awe and Restoration

Based on research showing therapeutic effects of nature – as well as her personal experience with a well-being decline after moving from a beautiful natural area to a nature-depleted city – Florence Williams describes in this recent TED talk how communities across the world are intentionally making “spaces of awe” for individuals to revitalize. There are lots of great examples here, including intentionally-created “healing forests,” “snorkel travel,” “low tide walks,” and “butterfly gardens.” It also is thought-provoking to consider how Finland recommends that residents spend at least 5 hours per month “taking in” nature to prevent depression. The full talk provides many more details, which you can access below.