Faculty Innovator: Gary Pinkston

12th December 2018
Gary Pinkston with computer wandGary Pinkston
Associate Professor of Education
School of Education








By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Gary Pinkston, associate professor of education and educational technology instructor, asked a volunteer to grip his arm, as the class looked on.

The volunteer gripped hard. Pinkston tried to free himself by pulling back, using mere strength. To no avail.

Then he simply flipped his arm over and the grip was broken.

The “Big Idea”: work smarter, not harder.

For this class of future teachers, who will spend their working lives instructing students with wildly varied ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, learning styles and intellectual capacities, it’s a lesson that must resonate if they are to be successful.

For Pinkston, it’s the key to a life of innovation that has seen him anticipate the digital revolution and devise ingenious interventions to make sure the students of today are prepared to become the teachers of tomorrow—and the day after.

At the same time, Pinkston’s exercise reaches back to the logic of our primal brains, when memory lodged not in frontal-lobe executive function, but in the sinews of the muscles that enabled us to fight or flee, harnessed with the intent of focusing and relaxing the student mind.

Pinkston’s gift is to synthesize the topical and the eternal in a way that deepens the learning experience for his students, and helps keeps his own curiosity alive and accessible for all around him.

Do no harm

Pinkston has a simple overarching teaching principle: “If it adds, then do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t.”

It’s the educator’s equivalent of the pledge, “Do no harm,” he said, with plenty of leeway for experimentation and play, two of Pinkston’s core themes.

Experimentation and play are closely related, the first systematic, the second more serendipitous. They key for Pinkston is how they relate to one another, the way spontaneous ingenuity leads to insights that can be recorded, reflected upon, and refined for use in teaching.

“Play encourages innovation and the ability to use a range of technology tools in different and inventive ways,” Pinkston said.

It would not be amiss to see Pinkston’s classroom as a playground and to see in his smile the delight of someone who actually gets paid to fiddle around with the coolest new devices. It’s all play—with a purpose. Pinkston has won grants for the classroom use of wireless devices, PDA and database technology in assessment, the integration of electronic chalkboards, and Virtual Reality devices. He has published on the pedagogical applications of multimedia technology, graphic novels, digital graphics, web coding, iPads, ebooks, hand-held devices and more. What begins as play ends up as instructional technique.

The hero’s journey

As an educational technology instructor and computer licensure coordinator in the School of Education, Pinkston is at home in the computer lab in Hillside Hall.

But spend even a few moments with him, and you come to see that technology is but a means to a larger educational and even spiritual end.

“We are all on a journey,” Pinkston said.

He means it in the broadest sense, as a lifelong path of enlightenment and self-realization.

Pinkston’s journey began in conventional, middle-class surroundings in Denver, Colorado, and took him through an interdisciplinary degree program heavy on sociology and psychology to a wider view of the world. As a young teacher, he ventured into ever more diverse teaching environments: a tribal school on the Navajo reservation, international private schools in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, a heavily Hispanic public school in Yuma, Arizona.

When not in the classroom, his journey has continued through travels in Ecuador, Thailand, Mexico, Indonesia, Egypt and many other lands.

There is no end to this road. The rewards are in the journey itself.

Pinkston acknowledges a great debt to Joseph Campbell, whose writings on the “hero’s journey” charts an archetypal template of human growth and development.

For Pinkston, as for Campbell, each of us is the hero of her or his own journey, overcoming challenges in tests of skill and character, constantly growing more accomplished and self-aware.

This paradigm infuses Pinkston’s classroom in a variety of ways. For Pinkston, knowledge emerges as an effect of exploration; exploration is a natural consequence of curiosity; and curiosity, well, there’s no accounting for curiosity. It’s deeply personal. And so it can only be ignited by an appeal to personal predilections.

That is why Pinkston assigns “passion projects,” asking students to identify their interests, delights, hobbies or obsessions, and challenging them to design assignments around them.

“Follow your bliss whenever possible,” Pinkston advises. “Giving students permission to explore and experiment towards doing the things they love is a win/win situation.”

Embedded here is an important lesson for educators: it’s easier to stoke a flame that’s already roaring than it is to kindle a flicker from scratch.

In a one-size-fits-all classroom, an instructor may have all students study the Second World War by learning the same names, dates and battles. A Pinkston classroom would have students learning about this conflict through their individual interests in aviation, spycraft, technological advances, geography, France, politics, music and so on.

The rapidity and personalization of today’s technological innovation means that Pinkston never runs out of new gadgets to enlist in the classroom.

“Diversity, diversity, diversity,” Pinkston said, in describing his approach. “It’s all about helping students create their own knowledge, and take hold of the power in their own lives.”

Rituals of learning

Pinkston is a searcher, alert to hints of transformation in himself and others.

Small wonder then that his disability—essential tremor—figures prominently in his own hero journey.

“I have been fortunate to have disabilities because they have helped me to be tolerant of flaws in others and, as I age, in myself,” Pinkston said.

Without the tremor, Pinkston would likely not have found out about adaptive and assistive computer technologies, or given thought to how they might be applied in the classroom.

One example is full-on virtual reality, which he demonstrated at this summer’s STEM conference. But there are simpler devices, such as the wand—essentially a wireless pointer or mouse—that give his teaching a touch of Harry Potter wizardry.

As disability gave him a new way to learn, he began to reconceptualize all learning as essentially awakening to new sensations. This isn’t a question of overcoming a disability, but of searching for new possibilities it might unveil.

“I was taught how to teach using muscle memory which then taught me how to see things from many different perspectives and levels,” Pinkston said.

Hence every class begins with a physical excercise, drawn from yoga or other sources, that can pull the body into the learning process.

“Muscle memory helps make one self-aware, and is the foundation of most religions and martial arts,” Pinkston said. “When people go through ritual movements they are ingraining the self and a higher consciousness into their body, which you see in Zen meditative walking, Sufi spinning, Muslim prayer routines, and Christian meditative walks.”

Pinkston doesn’t claim that students become more spiritual through exercises, or that course content represents higher consciousness. But students do respond to these alternate ways of remembering, and of binding learned information to their personal identity.

“Most students will forget my name by the beginning of the next semester,” Pinkston said. “But hopefully, after my class, they’ll be closer to knowing themselves,and utilize tech tools that work best for them.”

A world of possibilities

Pinkston credits the environment within the IU Southeast School of Education with giving him the space to be creative and inventive, and to promote learning in a variety of ways that validate the effectiveness and value of these innovations.

For Pinkston, the classroom is a place to open the heart and mind to the possibilities residing within each student. And teaching is not a system for the delivery of pre-packaged curriculum, but a quest for the unique in the universal, and vice versa.

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