I was thrilled when I started my bachelor’s studies in Industrial Engineering, but as semesters went by, my motivation and thereby my GPA decreased dramatically. I did not find any meaning in the courses, I could not carry any insight from my studies neither to my life, nor to what I was doing at work. No-one, including my parents, my friends, and myself thought I’d be able to complete my studies and earn my degree. I was cutting the classes all the time and felt increasingly detached from university.

Once, during a final exam, amongst all the students, I was the only asked to show my student card, I reluctantly did so.  After my credentials on the card and on the exam paper were compared, I was asked “you did not attend the class at all?” I realized that the person who asked for my card was the professor and I did not even know how he looked like! I learned my lesson and went to the last session of a course called “Systems Thinking”, to do some intelligence gathering. The professor was very young. “I could have never guessed he is a professor,” I happily thought to myself. When the course was over and I was about to leave the class, I heard my name, “Professor! That’s the Arash Golnam you have been looking for!” said one of the students. Apparently the professor checked attendance and I was never there!

“Why didn’t you attend the course?” the professor asked. “I am working fulltime,” I responded. It was true, I was lucky enough to find a job in a car manufacturing company. My boss was very flexible he always gave me the chance to continue my studies, the problem was elsewhere; I did not like going to university. “Please do not reduce my grade because of my absences,” I almost begged and he kindly agreed. I was already in the fifth year of my studies (which should normally take four years), I had almost all my technical courses left and I could not afford failing another course.

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge was the main text for the course. The more I read, the more it grew on me. For the first time, what I was reading was making sense, I could see potential applications for the concepts and the techniques in the book. By the time, I finished the book, I had a new and an exciting lens through which I could see the world otherwise. I received one of the highest grades of the class and more importantly, I could finally see some value in my studies. Not only did I complete my studies, but I also managed to become one of the top students in my last semesters.

The first article I co-authored had Systems Thinking as its core methodology won the “Best Paper Award” in an international conference and became one of the main reasons I ended up with a Ph.D. scholarship at EPFL. I met with my future employers while presenting my doctoral research in a systems thinking conference. During my tenure in the industry as a systems modeler, I got a chance to work with some of the most prodigious systems thinkers and I did a second master’s degree in System Dynamics. Furthermore, I believe my Systems Thinking course has been an important reason why the students voted me as one their favorite professors several times in the recent years in different universities.

I sometimes ask myself, what would have happened if I did not have a Systems Thinking course during my bachelor’s studies? Where would I be now? What would I be doing?

I believe the purpose of education is to create transformations in the learners, to help them enhance their mental models, refine their thought patterns and find meaning and motivation in their studies. In my opinion, trans-disciplinary courses such as Systems Thinking are timeless and timely remedies to the fragmented nature of our educational system. Such courses can dramatically enhance the way we perceive ourselves and our relationship to the world.

The result of teaching small parts of a large number of subjects is the passive reception of disconnected ideas not illuminated with any spark of vitality. Let the main ideas which are introduced in the child’s education be few and important and let them be known into every combination possible.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861 – 1947)

Four years ago, I was working as a system dynamics simulation expert with an international company. I could do my work remotely, received a high salary plus a substantial year-end bonus, we had the Christmas parties in some of the most luxurious hotels in Switzerland, and I had the opportunity have some of the leading experts of the field as my colleagues. There was only one problem; I was not happy or to be honest, something in me was extremely unhappy about what I was doing.

Six months after being hired by the company, my spiritual awakening began by discovering meditation. The more I meditated, the more meaningless my job became. More and more, I believed that a mathematical representation of a system could not be deemed as a basis for making predictions about its future behavior. I believed that there were important intangibles that could not be measured mathematically. My colleagues did not share this view. I found my job soulless.

Every day, I was feeling more demotivated to start work from my home office. I did my best to ignore this by thinking about the high salary I was getting from the company, by reminding myself that I was a non-European Union citizen working in Switzerland, by buying things I did not need, etc. But the protests of my psyche became louder and louder, my digestion system did not work well, and back pain came hunting me down every now and then. I could not go on anymore. I was feeling sick and had to take a leave of absence and go to my home country, Iran, for a vacation.

My trips to Iran are always emotionally intense, happily unpredictable, and profound adventures! They give me chance to reconnect with my family, friends and culture, speak my mother tongue … But much more than this, they give me a chance to share knowledge with, and learn from the people of my homeland, whose genuine enthusiasm and passion for learning brings me much inspiration and joy. That trip was not an exception, I delivered a series of workshops and seminars that were attended by hundreds of people. The picture in this post was taken from one of the workshops that I delivered for participants from different countries gathered in Tehran for an international conference.

After coming back to Switzerland, I kept looking at pictures from my seminars and workshops. I looked at my face, I was happy, I had a high level of energy, the participants looked energetic and inspired as well and I remembered how quickly time passed during the seminars. I made up my mind and went to the headquarters and met the CEO.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I said.

“Why?” asked the CEO.

“When I was in Iran, I did not miss my job, I did not miss my colleagues!” I responded.

Nearly four years after that day, I am almost done with the first draft of my book on the intersection between design, systems thinking and psychology, I am mid-way in the process to become a psychoanalyst at Jung Institute, and  I teach a variety of courses in different universities, which are appreciated by the students. Last year, I even started delivering training courses for university professors on “designing effective learning environments”, I have a feeling I am making an impact, and most importantly I am happy. This four-year journey has not been easy, but every day of it has helped me in knowing myself better and in finding meaning in life.

This post is a commemoration of that day and the decision to follow my bliss. Ever since, my Linkedin headline has been: Following my bliss. It is the best description of what I do and what I should be doing for the rest of my life.

Link to my Linkedin profile.

I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. By following your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you.

Joseph Campbell

 

For quite some time, I have been thinking about the characteristics of an effective learning environment. My objective was to compile a list of ideas in response to the question “What makes a learning environment an effective one?”

Recently, I read the book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. First published in 1980, this book includes Papert’s arguments in favor of using computers as a learning tool in an educational setting. Being an education theorist, Papert characterizes the essential properties of an effective educational system. I was amazed how close the ideas presented by the author were to my experiences as an educator. Therefore, I thought it was time for me to present the twelve images that characterize an effective learning environment as seen by Papert and experienced by myself. 

  1. In an effective learning environment, learning occurs naturally as a byproduct of the learners’ interactions with their surroundings, without the need of structured teaching (e.g. lectures, presentations), similar to the way a child learns to talk or walk. In such environments, learning occurs through embodied experiences that engage a full range of human sensitivities in an interactive and spontaneous way. 
  2. In an effective learning environment, the educator focuses on creating personally meaningful and intellectually coherent learning experiences for the learners. In such environments, learning is not separate from reality. The learners are thereby not left alone in making sense of what they learn and are guided by the educators in their journeys of reconciling, accommodating and assimilating new knowledge within their existing intellectual structures.
  3. In an effective learning environment, the learners and educators both challenge themselves by venturing into the unknown and going into a space that is out of the boundaries of their comfort zones. They give themselves the permission to fail and learn from their failures. In such environments, exploration, failure and discovery are key ingredients of the learning process.
  4. In an effective learning environment, the learners make the newly acquired knowledge and ideas their own. They deconstruct what they learn into fundamental ideas, reshuffle and combine them in new and innovative ways and generate a personalized way of applying and communicating what they have learned.
  5.  In an effective learning environment, theoretical knowledge is a means to amplify and expand the learners’ intuitive understanding of their surroundings. In such environments, not only does theoretical knowledge not oppose the intuitive insights of the learners, but it also serves as a mechanism through which the learners can enhance and refine their intuition, and subsequently their creative capacity.
  6.  In an effective learning environment, interaction, communication and collaboration amongst the learners and between the learners and the educators are facilitated and enriched. In such environments dialogues are viewed as a free flow of meaning and  knowledge is viewed as a means of creating harmony between the learners and their surroundings.
  7.  In an effective learning environment, measuring learning provides an opportunity for more learning, rather than hampering it. Therefore, the learner’s understanding of a subject matter is not merely judged as “right” or “wrong” but considered, by the educator, as a powerful starting point and a foothold for designing further learning. 
  8.  In an effective learning environment, the learner and the educator’s roles are interchangeable. In such environments, learners learn from their peers, realizing that the educator’s role is not exclusive to the educator, and that they themselves can be sources of inspiration when it comes to knowledge acquisition and development. Educators also realize that to be an educator is synonymous with being a lifelong learner.
  9. In an effective learning environment, the learners learn from the educators not by “what they say” but by “what they do”. In such an environment, the educators are the embodiment of the ideas that they want the learners to encounter, and they look sensitively for conflicts between what they preach and what they practice (i.e., their stated and revealed preferences). 
  10. In an effective learning environment, both the learners and educators think about the ways they think, and learn about the ways they learn. In such environments, every topic provides the learners and educators with an opportunity to become a better learner and thinker by reflecting upon their assumptions, mental models and cognitive heuristics and biases.
  11. In an effective learning environment, learning is an interdisciplinary undertaking. Meaning that, boundaries between different disciplines fade and that learners and educators are encouraged to transfer insights from one field of inquiry to another. In such environments, the focus is on creating connections between seemingly different ideas.
  12. In an effective learning environment, the fundamental assumptions underlying what constitutes an effective learning environment are continually challenged and critically reflected upon. In such environments, education is a viewed as a fluid and ever-changing phenomenon that should dynamically adapt to cultural, pedagogical, scientific and technological developments.

I hope these 12 images can give you a bigger picture of an effective learning environment. While compiling this list, I quickly realized that each of these 12 images deserve a more in-depth treatment. Therefore, my intention is to elaborate on every point and exemplify it with instances and cases from my own learning design activities. So, stay tuned for the next entries in this series. Meanwhile, if you think some more ideas need to be added to this list, please do not hesitate to leave a comment. I would also be happy to know which of these images resonated most with you.