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!

Advertisements

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.

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.

photo 1photo 2

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.

What Do We Value?

Photo Credit: Tax Credits

Photo Credit: Tax Credits

In a recent seminar we concluded that some of society’s values are misaligned. In a world where some economically developed countries are now developing robots to care for their elderly while one can be paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for making yet more money through the financial markets. Consider that also in terms of education. We say we want to deliver value for money in an education system, which we do through batch processes, shipping students through to get the best ‘value’ for money. Interestingly, some less economically developed countries scratch their heads because they can manage to empower their students with an individual laptop each while we, well… can’t.

Some people will tell you this is the natural flow of things. That that is just how it is. That the refuse collector (who really keeps our streets clear of rats and disease) doesn’t warrant such a high salary. Or the teaching assistant, who might be the difference between children achieving a meaningful role in life, or being left to fail. It’s all to do with our values. It asks the question: what do we value? Do we desire for every child to find purpose in life? Or do we value ‘get rich quick’ schemes based on leverage and speculation?

The problem is that this question seems too anecdotal. Is there any variables, or any break down at all that could give it some depth? I think there is. Look at how businesses measure value? Typically in terms of cost I would say. They ask: for every pound I put in, how much do I get back? It drives their decisions of who to hire or what equipment and raw materials they might choose to use. So value might be what you get back to what you put in. And good value typically means you get back more.

The value of return is measured in more than money. If you value a £300 set of Bose headphones, the sound quality must be worth more than £300. Although, can you put a price on quality? Where society’s values are mixed up then is the worth they place on individuals. It looks to me that we place our worth on things, not people.

I also believe that this applies to education. Not just for teachers and commissioners, but for learners. As a higher education student, what do I value? How do I value my time? Or entertainment? What types of work or study are likely to yield the largest dividends in the long term? And it is in no way clear cut. Ask anybody the right leading questions and they’ll tell you they value study. Which is right, if one wishes to do well; more study typically leads to a more empowering job. But we all need balance, so a measure of recreation and entertainment also yields increasing returns.

We need to carefully discern how to value each, and I think it is something that can only be learned individually after one has selected one’s own overarching values of getting a good education.

Value is so much more than monetary. There are things which are somewhat priceless, but wherein we will experience a ‘law of increasing returns’ for putting resources into it.