The Power of Reinforcement

A few months ago I wrote a blog article in which I discussed something that may be a behavioural phenomenon. I argued that the reason why autonomy- supportive learning goes largely unused in higher education, is that educators become operant conditioned into using more traditional teaching methods, because that is what league tables and authorities reinforce.

The argument comes from Bjork (1994), who suggested that indicators such as the happiness of trainees, or externally set targets become reinforcers. Instead, desirable difficulties such as reduced feedback or frequent informal testing are key to lasting learning (Bjork, 1994).

I always wanted to find just a bit more evidence on just how powerful this conditioning might be. However I have struggled to find literature that demonstrates the strength that reinforcement could have.

While studying Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in a counseling lecture, we were reminded of a study in which the prejudices of early American eating establishments were measured in terms of whether a restaurant owner would refuse entry to a non-white guest in person compared with a written booking request.

Bear in mind here the time period when this investigation took place. The study (Kutner, Wilkins & Yarrow, 1925) demonstrated that when a white woman entered the restaurant, accompanied by a black woman, they were treated without discrimination. Yet written request to book a table for the same clientele were either ignored or rejected upon follow up.

In relation to pedagogical practise, this study demonstrates the disparity between attitudes and behaviour. The presence of the black customer was a strong enough reinforcer for the restaurant owner to admit the guests, but without that presence, their attitude (cognitions) prevailed. Likewise, I would ask: how many educators are aware of better ways, but when it comes to action, choose the more reinforced method.

The progress indicator and league table culture that abounds in today’s world disconnects policy makers from teachers and learners. There are better ways to motivate students, and more meaningful goals they could be working to achieve. But all of this research is useless until it is applied, and the top-down driven ‘performance indicator culture’ will override peoples’ best intentions as long as it exists.

Rigor and Relevance

Have you ever been told to ‘try and go to sleep’? Or to ‘try and forget something’? It’s one of those things that we just don’t do well. Ironically it is the same with remembering. Some things one remembers well, other things just don’t come. Yet even at higher education it seems to be the make or break for academic success.

Last week I wrote touching upon the processes that take place within learning, and how understanding these processes is the key to understanding learning. Connectivist learning theory furthers this in suggesting that with the changing in times – to the world of information abundance – which the real benefits of being educated are not that one is a walking book, but that one knows how to manage information (Siemens, 2004). Where to find it, what it really means, whether it is valid or not and so forth. Knowing things was never any use to anyone until it could get a job done.

I want to give mention to another topic that affects the learning process: academic rigor. We had a semester of blogging last year. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I thought I had been thrown off my feet, and it felt like I had been giving every waking minute across 9 weeks to getting these blogs done. Needless to say it was one of the most time intensive exercises since coming to university. But when I broke it down, I probably spent 15-20 hours a week maximum on it. And I called it hard…

This week I set a goal to have the introduction section of my dissertation complete. Most of my peers thought this was a very ambitious goal – to write a 2500 word argument. And by comparison they would be right. The thesis is by far the largest assignment we will write. But it is only 6000 words. My blogging experiences of last semester, however, have brought me to accept that it is reasonable for the academic world to demand rigor.

On the topic of rigor, I would like to draw attention to the ‘Rigor/Relevance Framework®’ (International Center for Leadership in Education, 2012). This theory postulates that real learning goes far beyond acquisition of knowledge. Assimilation, adaptation and application are all further steps in learning something to a higher level (Daggett, 2005). I might know now the mechanics of long term potentiation within brain neurons. But have I taken that knowledge and found out how it is used in practise? Have I considered how I could add to the research? Have I spent any time really getting into the opposing theories and the critiques? Sufficiently that I might properly be able to form novel ideas? Or am I held to ransom by the tyranny of more course content, to pass the exam?


Image is copyrighted (2012) by the International Centre for Leadership in Education

Even so, the idea of having more analysis, synthesis and evaluation doesn’t sound that demanding does it? Here’s how I see it. The dissertation is demanding, because I have never done it before. And it is a piece of work that does call for the above described skills. I have a novel challenge to meet, I have something to become. A change needs to take place in me.

We all know plenty of tricks for knowledge acquisition. It is often an associative process, so Skinner boxes and behaviourism tell us we will all get there in the end. The problem is that it’s boring! It’s just how it is that actually changing who we are, and learning new skills is hard. We are teaching ourselves new processes. And the content looks after itself.

After I complete my dissertation, I presume the next one will be easier in some respects. On the other hand, it will likely be longer, deeper and therefore harder. But that is its way of breaking my intellectual muscles that I can grow further. With that in mind it is no more complicated than the old adage: nothing ventured nothing gained.

The Rigor/Revelance Framework® is a registered trademark of the International Center for Leadership in Education

We Shape our Learning Environments, and then our Learning Environments Shape Us

While studying recently I came across a paper that was discussing the paradigm shift that has taken place in education. Previously pedagogy has focussed on the teacher: the scholarship of teaching. This lead to a behavioural focus, under the understanding that all learning would be an associative process and that controlling the teaching (cause) would affect the learning of all students similarly (effect) (Hannafin & Land, 1997).

The shift has brought us to a cognitive perspective, wherein the outcome of the educational experience is determined by the student, as an information processor. The emphasis has changed from cause and effect directed by the teacher to finding better ways for the student to process, elaborate and find meaning in the work they are doing. This is in line with Craik and Lockhart’s (1972) depth of processing model, as well as other frameworks such as the MUSIC model of academic motivation.

As I read about this, I thought about the processing vehicles that I use. I think this goes far beyond social media sites or the use of tools such as iPads. I believe the whole room in which you work affects your ability to process information. I struggle to work in the computer lab at the university. However, when I am at home I find I work a lot more effectively. This is due to the information processing devices I have set up in my room. I have a dual screened computer, a large desk and a whiteboard. There is space to lay out the paper and electronic material. Upon the white board there is space to jot down my thoughts as they come, and link them together. Perhaps most importantly of all, there is space to pace. I love to pace around my room, and to look out of my window at the sea and the cars below.

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It all fits together for a much more enjoyable and productive time. I contrast that with the university computer lab where there is often joking and laughter (often caused by me!) Where I have limited desk space, no white board and nowhere to pace. It is as if the emphasis of processing information lies completely inside the mind, wherein it bottlenecks, and is so fragile that small interruptions can cause ideas to disappear completely.

So there we have it. Humans are information processors. We learn through processing information that is meaningful to us. Perhaps universities could change their learning environments in this direction, however a setup like I have just described for each individual does seem unrealistic. They can certainly provide social learning environments for groups, however given that information processing is a student centred process, perhaps we the students should be building that for ourselves.

You can Transfer Information, but you cannot Transfer Skill


Photo Credit: See Image

Today I worked providing I.T. assistance during some research methods exams that were taking place in the university. The first exam session was a little chaotic. We had numerous issues for which we had to call in additional support. We tried all sorts from moving both people and computers around, trying out the use of different network locations with different folder access privileges and so forth. By experimentation I finally worked out what the issues was, and all subsequent sessions ran smoothly and uneventfully.

In theory that makes me indispensible, but should it? One of the plus points of networked learning is that it removes hierarchies and empowers individuals horizontally. However it would be very inefficient practise to restrict the information to the brain of the individual who thought it up. That is when social media and web 2.0 jumps on board. A decent crowd sourced knowledge base could carry that information for the future users of a system, whether that be administering an examination, setting up a software platform, or whatever.

In fact, yesterday I was installing a software platform. Or at least trying. Now it is a common case that when we are having issues with IT, we draw to their online wiki/knowledge base or whatever. The problem can be that these are often quite flat in their design. They contain a number of linked articles, which when you get down into the depths of computer programming languages are both so specific and so many that searching or browsing just doesn’t take you to the help.

We live in the world of information abundance. The generation where ‘knowledge is power’ is rapidly departing our midst, and I might go as to say that for the current generation, the power lies in wisdom. That might be wisdom to think as the end user would, and sort/present knowledge base articles in a layout coherent to the task they are doing.

In terms of learning, the learning that we can do for which our networked position adds value, is experiential in nature. I would be quite anti-competitive to sit in the information I hold, but my skill to solve the future problems cannot be transferred. Any new candidate for the job must learn through their own experience and interest, to gain their own perspectives and thought processes. Since everybody is different, networked experts benefit more from working together and thus social learning perpetuates.

The skill here is relaying that information in a genuinely useful manor to the poor geezer who has to use it next. How often when trawling the internet for solutions do we wish that somebody had that job?

Blogging University

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I’ve found that in the realm of student centered learning, a lot of people are concerned about learner a missing out on important concepts.This is something that would need to be overcome, especially in applied topics such as nursing.

Considering that with respect to the social media tools and their use within education, I’ve been looking at how we could get more out of blogging as a pedagogical tool. I think the use of blogs and Wiki’s are great, but because they are the unmeasured autonomous component they are often swept away, even though they make the best learning experience.

What if the teachers could integrate blogging in a way conceptually similar to googles 20% time? What if a fifth of your grade could be pass/fail marked over blogging assignments. When you need to know about models of memory consolidation, why not expect a student to spend three hours researching and producing a simple blog post explaining it?

You could have students publishing to their blogs or wikis daily, and some blog topics might be specified while others are free choice. The teacher can then guide students through important concepts, have a good measure of real understanding and the students can benefit from autonomous, empowered, intrinsically motivated learning habits.

It would connect learners for networked learning, and it would add both variety and rigor, which are both essential for beneficial, lasting learning. Realistically, what are the reasons that we aren’t trying this?

Web 2.0 Model and Real Learning

Last week I gave a talk about how the Raspberry Pi computer models the psychological concepts of the MUSIC model (Jones, 2009), and also semantic encoding and social networking.

While I was speaking, something occurred to me. There are two factions of opinion to the use of technology in education. There is the movement to put the capitalistic, closed source and blatantly expensive iPad into our classrooms, and there are also products such as the Raspberry Pi, which are cheap, open sourced and have undergone a huge level of development from hobbyist programmers.

Both of them have landed up with a top product but for different reasons. There’s a culture in the Apple organisation for making things such that they can persuade people to want them. From that perspective, they can’t go wrong. But they have made a product and a framework that is simple to use, and allows for plenty of sharing. While you are often roped into subscribing to a lot more of the apple ecosystem than you might like to (think proprietary peripherals), it works, and it is an enjoyable experience to use.

Now the Pi on the other hand has a crowd sourced developing model. The genius to this is that average Joe is empowered to do his own coding. Thus the scope for innovation is practically unlimited. Through this we’ve seen numerous teaching models and novel ideas that make the Pi a true sandbox for creativity.

I read an interesting article this last week also about web 2.0 culture. Web 2.0 has done a lot more than merely make the internet interactive. What is has done is streamline discussion and empowered the individual to speak out. Retweets and reblogs amplify topics and the freedom of speech that web 2.0 affords, along with its audience and network of critics means that crowd sourced innovation and power is easily found. It is not hard then to see how the pedagogical support for the Raspberry Pi and other open source tools have only gotten better.

Jon Husband (2007) talks about how such learning can be likened to a fishnet. As you will see from the image below a fishnet can be lifted up and let down from varies nodes, creating short term and flexible hierarchies. The internet is “all periphery and no centre” (Hamel, but see Husband, 2007), yet there is times when a centre of control and direction is needed. But as the fishnets movements are governed by the waves of the sea, so too must the educational and commercial institutions adapt with such flexibility to make the best possible use of people and learning opportunities.

Picture Credit: Hamel (see Husband, 2007)

Picture Credit: Hamel (see Husband, 2007)

I am sure apple must have a similar such culture within their organisation, which has produced a fantastic product. I must say however that while the iPad is a tool; a means to an end to create something else. On the other hand, the Raspberry Pi’s open nature has empowered people to a level of unprecedented opportunity to dissect, understand, create and share.

 

One iPad Per Child

This is my talk on 1:1 iPad policies and social learning that I gave as part of my Science of Education class of my undergraduate psychology degree.

Of the many movements seeking to comission 1:1 computer access in education, I review the arguments for and against, specifically relating to the recent ‘hull report’.

I talk about how the mere distribution of iPads to students without pedagogical change has key shortcomings, yet when looked at through an autonomy supportive social paradigm, they can be a real enabling force for students.
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One iPad Per Child by Chris James Barker is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.