Epiphanies with Yusuf Pisan

Yusuf PisanYusuf has been with us here at Bothell for about eight years and in that time he was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award. He was a founder of one of the Bothell Learning Communities and ran some wonderful brown bag reflective teaching sessions. Yusuf also runs the Tech4good program.




Yusuf charmed us all by defining an epiphany as a Homer Simpson “d’oh!” moment, adding that epiphanies seem so obvious after we realize them. He teaches computer science, so has the benefit of teaching courses that are always in high demand. Early in his career, he taught a course to 700 students–but the room only held 400, so half of the students came in the morning, and the other half came in the evening. In this course, content was taught in so many ways, through lectures, labs, textbooks…But the attitude toward learning was only taught by role models. So, he realized that, more than teaching content, his students succeeded when he taught them about growth. His primary goal as an instructor became helping his students develop a growth mindset. 

What does that growth mindset look like in his classes now? Part of his inspiration comes from the technical interviews computer scientists have when they apply for jobs. Organizations collect technical interview questions, and publish them, and the problems are categorized as easy, medium, and hard. In a 300-level class, Yusuf began assigning the easy level problems. At the beginning of the term, students aren’t able to complete the problems, but they see themselves getting better at it over time, and by the end of the quarter, they excel! 

Another epiphany that Yusuf shared was about the consistent challenges in the course. The content becomes easier to teach over time, because we, as instructors, know the content better. The consistent challenge, though, is establishing the emotional connection with students as individuals and as a collective class. These relational connections are what distinguish our classes from learning opportunities in which folks just watch generic, untailored, pre-recorded lectures.Yusuf’s talking about teaching with an Ethics of Care (yay, Nel Noddings!).

Group of seven people in a Zoom meeting with a screen sharing with graphic about good teaching.


Reference to definition of “epiphany” reminds me of a word I keep trying to bring back that has similar roots: hierophant

Metacognitive skills and practices/postures trump content.

How to bring faculty to awareness of, and support them in pursuing this development is the central conundrum of learning design and faculty dev in higher ed. There are clear answers (these are not unsolved problems, and it’s kind of frustrating that conversations always start with rediscovering/re-creating them) but no will to pursue them for fiscal, transactional, and governance reasons.

The disincentives and dissonances are baked (burned and blackened) into the system: release time, recognition of development, reward and incentive for quality of teaching, the list goes on.

I completely agree that the field is overwhelming and taking it on all at once is almost always impractical. How do we a) best serve those who have identified and are aware of a starting point/focus and b) how do we bring to awareness the great majority of faculty who are not consciously and intentionally pursuing improvement?


It is important to not underestimate the power of appreciation, even if the token of appreciation is simply a cookie. And maybe not even given as much for appreciation as a token of community building. When Yusuf noted that he had been given a grant ( I could be wrong on the details here) around building community with cookies, I knew I was in the right place. I have worked with some of our computer science faculty and I am always happy to hear about how focused they are on the soft skills as well as the more technical coding skills. Yusuf brings that to the spaces he works in. 

The attitude that gets conveyed is more important than the content. Learning how to approach learning. 

Another realization that there is a body of work around the practice of teaching that does not often seem by higher ed faculty. Not content, but attitude. I am rereading some Neil Postman for a discussion Chris will be leading in January. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman points to John Dewey and our attitudes- 

“We may take as our guide here John Dewey’s observation that the content of a lesson is the least important thing about learning. As he wrote in Experience and Education: ‘Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes… may be and often is more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history …. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.’”

Teaching a class over and over, it should get easier? Right? Maybe it should get harder. Harder because we learn more and more about how challenging it is to be emotionally connected to our students. And we learn how to connect better and more meaningfully. Emotionally connecting with the class is always new and always difficult and each class is new and unique. You are not the first one to travel this road… 

In higher ed, or all educational spaces, we have become so professional at copying the old class into the new one that we have nearly removed all the crafting of the space. It could be a recopied handout. Or a Canvas course. Or a syllabus. We don’t make them for the class at hand anymore, we just use the one from the last class. Yes, it saves time. Yes, it may not be changed much from year to year because it works… Regardless, the thing was made for another group, in another time.

Yusuf spoke about “Being a goldfish…” Start fresh each quarter with each unique class. I agree. 

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