You Can Learn Anything

I recently saw the new campaign for the Khan Academy, entitled ‘You Can Learn Anything’. The Khan Academy is an online learning tool, which uses the psychological principle of mastery learning to help individuals learn at their own pace. Content is tailored to each individuals own level, and the successes and competences gained server additional as motivators.

Sal Khan (the founder of Khan Academy) interviews Carol Dweck, whose research on growth mindsets reveals a lot about optimal learning climates. Dweck’s research shows that if individuals are praised for their ‘intellect’, growth quickly stops, because they believe that their capacity to achieve is a function of what they were born with. Conversely, if an individual is praised for their effort and strategy, growth will take place. The person learns that they can improve their abilities through work and effort, and thus, they do.

Having considered the principles of behaviourism and conditioning, I do believe that many people could achieve a lot more than they do, if their environment were changed. I fear that many young people today achieve but a fraction of their potential, due either to believing that they aren’t intelligent, or even being numbed by the distracting mess of mediated mess that surrounds us today.

Perhaps bizarrely, I have talked to people who strongly believe that this is fine just the way it is. Some have said it is fair, because in theory our social and political system will allow people from underprivileged backgrounds to ascend. However, I believe that the evidence speaks otherwise.

I have already briefly covered behaviourism, however I want to bring social psychology in to the equation. Zimbardo’s prison experiment can be related to a lot of situations, especially with regard to the nature vs. nurture debate. The Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrates that you can take a selection of healthy men with privileged upbringings, and quickly have them treating their peers like animals. Now let me ask: is that nature (dispositional cues)? Or nurture (Situational cues)? If you can get good people to do that, I ask you to consider what effect a deprived background might have on even the best intentioned individuals?

Now, I am not here to talk politics. I want to adhere strictly to what the evidence says. I would summarise it no better than Sal Khan has already put it: YOU can learn anything!

There is a lot of discussion taking place at the moment about how successful the efforts have been in the United Kingdom to bring higher education to more people. Many undergraduate degrees have been criticised as not giving people the skills they need to be effective in the workplace. It is, however, important to separate qualifications from learning. Imagine if all the people graduating high school, or university did come out with the high skill set that the economy rewards?

It is a scary thought, but the evidence would tell us it is every bit possible.

Remember: YOU can learn ANYTHING!

SAFMEDS Cards and Metacognition

During the last year of my education, I have spent some time, and had some discussions around the topic of metacognition. For the last few years, my supervisor, Jesse Martin, has been overseeing research to measure to what extent metacognition can be taught to an individual.

To answer the question of what metacognition actually is, I will explain. Cognition means thinking, while ‘meta’ means it concerns itself. metacognition may be defined as awareness of your knowledge and thought processes. One who has a high metacognitive awareness should be able to work more effectively due to a more accurate perspective of their own levels of knowledge and also their own abilities to deal with certain challenges [1].

The work which has been done at Bangor is centred on a confidence based quiz. Participants first answer the question, and then they answer whether they were sure or guessing. In doing so, participants appear to be learning to discriminate over their own knowledge. After taking these quizzes for a number of weeks, participant metacognitive index (a number based on A’ calculations) was seen to rise.

I would like to talk about one of the applications of this theory, both in terms of research and how I used it to support my own exam preparation. One of the students at Bangor linked metacognition with a school of thought known as precision teaching

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

I actually accrued quite a lot of cards!

. This is an approach to education, largely rooted in behaviourism. It is the idea of using quick fire techniques to improve fluency of recall within the rote learned components of education. The particular application which I shall now discuss concerns SAFMEDS cards. SAFMEDS (Say All Fast [for a] Minute Every Day Shuffled) cards involve taking brief snippets of content, and quickly cycling through them, and testing oneself for being able to correctly recall an answer on the reverse of the card.

One key aspect concerning the use of SAFMEDs is that the user needs to discriminate quickly what they know and what they don’t know, so they can have as many opportunities inside of one minute as possible to recall correct answers. It was the hypothesis of this study, that using SAFMEDs would also build metacognitive awareness [2]. Indeed this hypothesis was supported, with the previously mentioned A’ scores significantly rising for SAFMEDS users, compared with the group. It has been argued, therefore, that the use of SAFMEDS cards are an effective means of fostering self-monitoring and instilling metacognitive activity.

I used SAFMEDS myself this year to help me prepare for my final exams. Like clockwork, they worked exactly as expected. I found myself quickly able to memorise key terms, and it was motivating to be able to chart my progress. They also helped me keep the breadth of topics I needed to learn within my awareness, so that I could manage my time and select the right areas to study more deeply.

It is a shame that I can’t end this by sharing what it did to my own metacognitive awareness. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a baseline or a post-intervention test. However we have been working on something which we will be unveiling soon, with which you can train and measure your own metacognitive awareness.

[1] – See Cognaware: Supporting Evidence

[2] – Francis, K. (2013). [Effect of Monitoring on Metacognitive Performance Using SAFMEDS Intervention]. Unpublished Raw Data.

This is Real Learning!

Over the last few weeks I’ve observed a few examples of teaching which I was really impressed by. I wanted to share them to amplify their examples.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary's, Horsforth.

Me at Work. Photo Credit: Class 3 of St. Mary’s, Horsforth.

The first one I saw while at work a few weeks back. Since finishing my undergraduate degree in June, I have been working behind the delicatessen counter of a local supermarket. A local man (a web developer by trade) came through the store with a group of young primary school students, all armed with cameras. He told me they were doing a project about the different people who work or shop on ‘Town Street’. They asked me if they could take a picture of me doing my job.

It turned out that they were making a website. Having been inspired by the work of Vivian Maier, (a Chicago street photographer whose portfolio was not discovered until after her death) they wanted to create a street portfolio of Horsforth.

This is a great learning opportunity. It is a chance for students to gain an appreciation for history, and walk in the footsteps of those who have gone before them. It is also an opportunity to have a go at disseminating digital photography via the web – the modern application of what we draw from the history books. It benefits from intrinsic motivation and empowers students to create, not duplicate.

Source: North Leeds Life

Source: North Leeds Life

The second one I read about today in a local magazine. Year 8 students (aged 12-13 years) were asked to bring their phones to school, which they used to measure the mobile phone reception around the school site. They used computers then to map out their findings and consider reasons that may have accounted for the differences they found.

This is a great way to apply classroom teaching to the real world. It answers the question students so often ask: ‘why are we learning this’? Instead of learning a lot of stuff (the what), or how something works, these students become empowered to find out why things are as they are. They have autonomy and purpose, and a sense of real world problem solving.

I am impressed with both of these examples, because they both create meaningful stimulating activities which motivate the students. One way brings history alive, and it presents students with a lot more than just a pile of information. The other empowers the students in a problem solving role, and links mathematical/scientific concepts to the real world. This is the type of learning that will remain planted in their memories. It is the type of learning that will motivate them to study, and take charge of their lives. This, is real learning.

The PKM Masters Degree

I discovered this morning that Harold Jarche had written about how at Bangor University we had been teaching the Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) framework to students. As a ‘Psychology Information Technology Skills’ (PITS) tutor, I have played an important role in teaching PKM, and wanted to share a bit more about my experiences throughout the year.

We actually faced a few challenges in helping the students warm to PKM. It seemed that many could not see the reason why they had to do PKM, and also that many struggled to catch the vision of how to do it. A lot of students had expected higher education to involve memorising information to pass exams, as they had previously done in school. PKM did not have that same type of measurable outcome and many students would ask me what exactly it was they needed to do to pass the class.

However, a few did grasp it well. One student informed me that she kept a fashion blog, through which she had established a network with several clothing labels, who would send her free products to review. Other students ventured to find my twitter account, or to join Pinterest and Scoopit. Students who had used Pinterest previously were also quicker to grasp of PKM, perhaps because the way Pinterest users collect and curate content is similar to PKM’s seek, sense and share framework.

Perhaps PKM is the difference between higher education and that of the typical high school. That it was challenging to foster may be akin to the old adage that ‘you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’. Indeed it is personal, because you do it for yourself. Nobody else is there to grade or assess you. If people don’t want to do it, that’s fine! However they may loose out as the knowledge economies adapt to future needs.

For research and knowledge based economies to work, they need to be more than just transferring information. It is the intrinsic passion and ingenuity that transforms information in to actions or solutions to problems. It comes from within, and that is why (beyond teaching the PKM framework) it can’t be forced. Some will do it and change the world, others won’t.

PKM as a Masters Degree

This takes me on to my second point: PKM as a masters degree. This last year, I took a class called ‘Science of Education’. It was an open ended, ‘autonomy supportive’ blogging module. We would go away, and do some research, and disseminate what we found through writing a weekly blog. Additionally, we would write five weekly comments on fellow classmates blogs, to academically critique their work. We would seek the information, sense what is being portrayed, and share our own ideas in relation to the content. With social media as the platform, each class member came away with their own blog: a portfolio of ideas and discussions, as well as links to original sources.

Bangor University have just agreed to expand the module into a masters degree, run as a MOOC (massive open online course). Students will be able to specialise their knowledge of the ‘scholarship of learning’ through blogging and participate in an online critical discussion. Participation is free and open, as will be the learning and knowledge management skills which are drawn from it. However, those who pay a course fee to the university may have their portfolio assessed and accredited. Students may then graduate from Bangor University with a post graduate certificate, diploma or a masters degree (the level of qualification depends on the number of modules completed).

I consider PKM to be a really exciting development in the way we handle learning and knowledge. It brings meaning and depth to the information we work with, and makes it both accessible and memorable. You might even say it turns information into knowledge. It doesn’t happen automatically, but with practise and involvement, I believe it can make a person very effective in their work. I am excited to see this program commence at Bangor University, as it is a brilliant development for both MOOC’s and knowledge based economy’s. This is a great step forwards for higher education practise and the scholarship of learning.

Respecting the Phenomenology

Photo Credit: Jason Eppink (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Jason Eppink (CC BY 2.0)

I have been thinking this week about a component of humanistic (person centred) psychotherapy known as ‘client phenomenology’. I would not consider myself any more challenged with the travails of this world than the next person, however I have been considering the different counselling approaches that I learned about during my degree in relation to improved wellbeing.
Phenomenology stems from the word ‘phenomenon’, which means to be manifest of itself. Phenomenology thus becomes the study of subjective experience, or experiences which manifest themselves, of themselves. When I studied it in class, I saw it as little more than an offshoot from the need to show unconditional positive regard. However, now that I consider it more intricately, I now perceive it to be quite a profound attribute relating to human wellbeing.

Let us be philosophical for a moment. Is there such thing as a right answer? Strictly speaking, nothing can be proven. The scientific method has verified certain relationships such that there is little need to dispute them, but even so, it is strictly a process of knocking out the alternate explanations. Then there are religious and ideological directions too. These are far more subjective. The choices of how one lives can come from a variety of situational cues and philosophies, as well as the scientific evidence. There is not a right answer concerning how to live.

People learn to supress certain feelings and thoughts. A child may supress the urge to cry, so as to attain respect from our peers. An adult may supress thoughts of an employer may taking advantage, in order to be viewed favourably for a job. This suppression inevitably leads to crisis, and draws us away from what Goldstein (1936) described as self-actualisation (Rogers, 1951).

Self-actualisation is the point in your being that you are at one with your ‘organismic self’ (Rogers, 1951). It really means being as close to your true self as you can get. Your organismic self is the origin of your phenomenology – the root of the things that manifest just because they do. Rogers described this this experience of self-actualisation as ‘the good life’ (Rogers, 1961).

I would say that the real meaning of respecting the phenomenology of oneself and others is not to punish that being for the challenges or questions they have. Whether they be mental or physical, they have occurred as a phenomenon, with a reason for which we know not why. There are those who believe that individual experiences and convictions ought to be swept aside to make way for the social norms society has come to accept. In fact, I would say that it is this belief that contributes to wilful blindness and the evil talked about by Zimbardo (think: Stanford Prison Experiment).

Whether on a large, social or political scale, or on a small and personal scale, it strikes me that not respecting the phenomenology (or conscience?) of any individual will ultimately lead to subdued happiness and wellbeing. This makes me wonder how much happier schools or businesses could be if we stopped subscribing to traditional schools of thought and began to re-empower the individual?

I know that it often makes me feel better to address, rather than repress. I regard it compelling that a major school of thought in psychology and psychotherapy also advocates this principle. It seems to me that this principle is perhaps more global than just being a neat trick to support the worried well. If personal self-exploration leads to improved wellbeing, should this not be allowed also within peoples’ occupations? Of course, pragmatically speaking, there is a big force opposing that, namely the hierarchical structures of today’s world. But the humanistic evidence implies to me that people were never intended to be ordered such.

References

Rogers, C. (1951). Client-centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory.
London, UK: Constable.

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London,
UK: Constable.

Goldstein, K. (1934). The Organism: A Holistic Approach to Biology Derived from
Pathological Data in Man. New York, US: Zone Books.

Help the Man who will Never See an Aston Martin DB6

Well yesterday I got some pretty good feedback on my practise analysis, so I decided to implement it and write another one today. Just one day to go until the exam!!!

Here’s todays ad:

Image

Image Credit: Publicis, Brussels, Belgium

Psychology of Target Consumers

The target audience has no dempgraphic particularities. Instead, it is targetted at people who believe they share the responsibility for the welfare of others and who have the intention to donate to charities. It also targets everyone in that it intends to promote the attitude that donating to charitable causes is good.

The advert from a consumer psychology perspective

The advert contains a bit of puzzle. It draws attention through the iconic Aston Martin. Reading the slogan then draws attention to the blind man walking by and the cause of the ad. When the consumer considers the meaning of the ad, they become aware that the blind man will never see the sensory pleasure of the DB6. This is meant to create feelings of guilt and compassion. The compassionate mood should ideally encourage the consumer to donate.

The ad does not use hevy branding, however it does provide cues for consumers intending to donate. The instruction, and phone number for donation presents a clear means of implementation for intending donors. The ad does not address possible competing charities, but does create compelling feelings, and a route for implementation. It would struggle to create an enduring memory trace or drive repeat business.

Formula Toothcare: Imagery portraying strength

I have a consumer psychology exam this Wednesday, and we were given an advert to analyze as practice. Since we live in the world of information abundance, nothing more is scared. Therefore, I have chosen to share my practice answer. And constructive critiques are warmly welcomed.

Formula Toothcare, Ogilvy & Mather (2006).

Formula Toothcare, Ogilvy & Mather (2006).

This advert plays with the representation of strength through a puzzling illusion that captures attention and is thought provoking. The advertisement is trying to build upon the representations of strength in the viewers mind. The intent is that they will consider the worth and implications of healthy teeth. The image and feelings associated with the strength used to rip apart the metal frame become part of the brands mental representation. It has a semantic meaning which it is hoped will create a more durable memory trace for the brand and product.

Considering the way in which strength is portrayed, the advert is targeted at a young to middle aged male audience. The surprising novelty of the advert will capture attention through its interesting and entertaining form. It will draw its audience to fixate on it, as they try to figure out what the illusion is and how it works.

In considering strength, the peripheral mental processes will be trying to frame the consumer’s opinion against ideals and intentions. They will be mindful of the costs of bad teeth, both financial and social. They may feel that with bad teeth they violate norms and fail to meet up to ideals. All these thoughts should shape their intentions to buy a relatively cheap tube of toothpaste, which will yield the dividends of social acceptance and reduced dental bills.

It is important, however, to be aware that the brand name doesn’t diffuse the same image as the poster content. This will likely weaken the memory trace to the brand and hinder recollection. Another weakness is that people seeing it (this happened with me for sure) is that they may get side-tracked picking apart how the illusion was constructed. This may evoke semantic elaboration and a durable memory, however not for the product or cause of improved dental hygiene.

Improved congruence between the brands word and image representations would make for better future recognition and recall. However, the illusion portraying super strong teeth is thought provoking. If the consumer is not distracted by the sundry matters of the bill board’s construction, they will be nudged to evaluate their behaviour against ideals and potential negative consequences. If the brand identity was more related to the imagery of strength, then better connections would be made in the consumers memory relative to the semantics of the product, even if this processing only takes place in the periphery of the consumers mind.

One in Five Teachers Experience Social Media Abuse

A press release issued this morning by the NASUWT teachers union reveals how 21% of teachers surveyed reported having had adverse comments posted about them on social media websites.

When I look at that, I think of the operant conditioning that Bjork (1994) says teachers become the subject of. Bjork (1994) explains that teachers become conditioned by reinforcers such as the happiness of trainees or performance indicators. Psychologically speaking, neither of these are valid measures of quality teaching, so such would be a flawed system.

I looked on ratemyteacher.com to see what was being said about the teachers in my old high school and I was mortified.

First of all, let’s take a look at what a good teacher gets:

good_teacherThis would appear to be a classic case of the student rating the teacher according to what they value: fun and entertainment.

Now let us look at a badly rated teacher:

poor_rating

Again, I would say this is a narrow minded comment coming from an immature student. I remember being taught by the teacher in question, and I remember being told off a few times. But I also remember the reason why: because I was disrupting the class. This was a good teacher, from whom I learned a lot. I enjoyed attending her lessons.

Last of all, I have some words to say about the sub scales by which teachers have been rated. Easiness is just a joke. If we reward our teachers for making it easy, we really are on a race to the bottom. And helpfulness and clarity are definitely not evidence based scales if we are looking to cognitive psychology for a robust measure of teacher quality. Going back to Bjork (1994), we learn that making it harder is a much more effective way of fostering durable learning. Techniques such as reducing feedback or varying the conditions in which students practise what they learn (Bjork & Bjork 2011) are much more effective teaching strategies.

Now I do not dispute for one minute that there are some rubbish teachers out there. But I also have a lot of sympathy for what I believe to be a majority of teachers who are trying their best to teach in ever toughening conditions. There is a scholarship of teaching and learning, against which teachers ought to be judged and encouraged. It is wrong to measure teachers against shallow performance indicators and the angry mob of rebellious students and misinformed outspoken parents. The whole logic of sites like ‘Rate my Teacher’ or any abuse through social media is more likely an example of ‘stupidity of the mob’ (Wheeler, 2012). Abuse of any type is wrong anyway.

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.

Beer and Bingo!

At first people thought this was a spoof, until the government confirmed even the cynics worst fears: that it was real.

beer_bingo

Considered as offensive to a large cohort of the population, the political opposition embraced this as their silver bullet in a campaign to brand the present government as out of touch with the people. But what was this advert trying to do?

Let us brush aside the rights and wrongs of political swings for a moment. This ad is hoping to address working families. If we consider working families as a reference group, the hope is that they will see that the government understands them and is directly influencing their lives for the better. If they feel this way, and recognise that it is a conservative government doing that, hopefully their loyalty to the conservative ‘brand’ will grow. Labour unions and political parties do this all the time, however usually they are more successful at identifying a common denominator in a reference group.

working_families

A lot of critics have said that the principle of the bingo ad is good, however the wording actually separates the sponsor (the conservative party) from its target audience. Change the word ‘they’ to ‘we’ and then see if it makes you feel any different…

As it is, it conveys the high society Tories looking down on Mr and Mrs Serf and granting them a few extra liberties down on the bottom rung of the British caste system. In addition however, I look at it and think it is very overgeneralising of a group of people in society – a point that no one else seems to have mentioned.

Should it have worked had the conservative party decided to identify with their electorate?

Escalas & Bettman (2005) argue that individuals, to construct their self-concepts, use brands associated with reference groups. When the advert conveys an image that is congruent to the image on an in-group, consumers start to bond with the brand.

There is more to reference group advertising however, than just appealing to an individuals group membership to create a brand connection. Part of the utility of a product or service is what it does for your standing in the group. Bearden and Etzel (1982) demonstrate that there is more leverage from the factors influencing brands that are publicly consumed. Simply put, decisions (either for or against) are made more sensitively when it affects ones image or standing in a reference group.

This can be either good or bad, depending on what the product or reference group is, but the principle is that the involvement of reference groups can make factors contributing to success of the ad a lot more volatile.

To bring it back to the conservative party’s advert, if the reference group is offended, people will consider their loyalty to the conservative party in light of their self image. Even before the bad press, the advert has done its sponsor a disservice. Use of the word ‘they’ over ‘we’ has also separated the public from bonding with the brand, meaning that the wrong use of a tiny (almost meaningless word), and maybe some overgeneralisation, makes this a bad ad.