Wednesday, 19 December 2007

10 Reasons for using Lectures

Donald Clark has written a post 10 reasons to dump lectures. I agree that we use lectures too often and they often done badly. But I also think good lectures are irreplaceable. (Good lectures are broken into 15-20 minute sections, have a limited number of learning obectives, plan for interaction and participation, include opportunities for recall etc.) So here's 10 reasons for using (good) lectures.

1. The lecturer can control the learning environment. Temperature, lighting, seating.
2. The learner is taken away from the distractions of the workplace. It makes it clear that their main task at this time is to learn.
3. The learner knows what to expect. They are in familiar territory and are not distracted by coming to grips with a new way of learning.
4. Learners have an opportunity to network and learn from each other.
5. Fixing a time for learning provides a focal point for getting it done and avoids prevarication.
6. Development costs can be low compared to most other methods.
7. Development time can be low compared to most other methods.
8. Delivery costs are small for small numbers of learners located close to the lecture.
9. Can combine flexibility with directed instruction. Directed instruction is good for novices (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006*). A good knowledgeable lecturer can adjust that direction to the needs of the learners.
10. It is possible to measure progress against affective objectives (albeit through subjective assessment by lecturer). A good lecturer can judge whether the learners are enthusiastic, convinced, sceptical etc in a way that is very difficult to do at reasonable cost with other media.

*Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., and Clark, R. E. (2006). "Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching". Educational Psychologist 41 (2): 75-86

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Learning Circuits Blog: December Big Question - What did you learn about learning?

The Learning Circuits Blog: December Big Question - What did you learn about learning?

Learning Circuits have revived their Big Question of the Month. And this month it is "What did you learn about learning in 2007?". I am afraid my biggest lessons were negative and were lessons about the degree to which bad things happen rather than totally new ideas:

Even more than I realised, management are almost always content with the box ticked which shows that a "course" with an appropriate title was placed in front of the learner and the learner didn't complain. This then clears them of responsibility for training.

Professional educators are even more obsessed than I thought with the design and content of formal learning events - whether they be e-learning, classroom or whatever. Perhaps because that is the bit they can most easily influence. They ignore the context in which this event falls. However, a mediocre course in a great context where the learner is motivated, given time and space, and will be able to relate the learning to their life will succeed. A terrific learning event in a lousy context will fail every time.

Certification tests are even more meaninglesss than I realised. E.g. I was given an opportunity to take the ECDL tests free of charge. I comfortably passed the database test on the basis of skimming the chapter in a book. I have only opened Access once in my entire life. However, the Certiport tests for Microsoft products appear a bit better.

On a more positive note I am more and more impressed by the resourcefulness of individuals in learning what they need to learn despite the obstacles we place in their path.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Left Brain - Right Brain follows VAK

There is some fascinating discussion here, here and here about this article in the Economist and this article by the excellent Frank Coffield on the relationship between neuroscience and education. Apparently the idea that the left side of the brain is associated with boring serial thinkers and the right side with fascinating lateral thinkers is out, and it is all proving much more complicated than that.

Many teachers must have the same feelings about theories of learning that slimmers have about diets:

every year we are told that everything we have been doing up until now is wrong and here is the real truth

It is true that a lot of what has passed for the theory of learning has proved to be far less useful to teaching and learning than the hype at the time suggested. From operant conditioning through to learning styles, the study of learning has passed through fashions with little more lasting value than clothes fashion. Coffield's paper is warning that this may be just as true for neuroscience. The mistake is to assume that all science is like physics - pretty much a dead cert on which you can build trips to Mars. Theories of learning are tentative and their acceptance is as much down to the prestige and communications skills of its proponents as it is to evidence.

But Coffield also points out that with proper attention to context and the reality of teaching there may be some useful nuggets arising from neuroscience. The same applies to some other theories that have fallen out of fashion. Even operant conditioning has been shown to be useful in the classroom in maintaining discipline among children with learning difficulties.

I have never really taken much notice of the left brain/right brain meme. I always assumed it was an enormous over simplification and I never really cared where things were happening in my brain anyhow. But it is quite useful to bear in mind the difference between analytical, logical approaches to a subject and creative, spontaneous approaches. As long as you don't take it too seriously, then left brain /right brain might be quite a useful image for reminding us that both are needed. In fact I may start to take it more seriously now.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Two examples of e-learning

The learning circuits big question this month is: Where are the Examples of eLearning?

I have a couple of offerings that interest me. Neither of them would normally count as elearning - but then I imagine that will be true of most of the responses to this question.

My first example is the podcast of the BBC radio 4 programme In Our Time.

This splendid series, which has been running for years, is full of solid and knowledgeable discussion about a very wide range of intellectual issues - science, arts and humanities. It demonstrates a few points about e-learning:
  • As a straightforward radio broadcast I don't think you could call it elearning. As a podcast replayed in my car - then I think you could. Which just shows that the elearning label is pretty meaningless.
  • I find it is hopeless listening to it at home. There are too many distractions and a feeling I ought to be getting on with something useful. Listening to it in the car is brilliant. Nothing much else to do! Context is all.
  • It is even better listening to it in the car when travelling with my wife. We share our enthusiasm for the programme and its content. We know we are likely to talk about it when the programme is finished. Social context is even more important.

My second example is For those that don't know it - this is a blog run by a group of climate scientists on the issue of climate change. Last year it was recognised by Nature as one of the top 5 science blogs. I doubt that any of its contributors would regard it as e-learning but it is packed full of content, comment and debate. If you are interested in learning about climate change it is a brilliant resource. You get explanations from leading experts, you see others expanding or disagreeing with what they have written, and get the opportunity to put forward your own opinion. Like most public blogs there is an awful lot of dross to be ignored - but that is quite easy to do.

This demonstrates:
  • Effective elearning does not require great expertise in instructional design and presentation. The contributors are mostly good writers and know their stuff - but they are not professional educators. Subscribers will live with that because they are so interested. Motivation is more important than presentation.
  • For some a blog such as realclimate can become an obsession, with multiple, often irate, postings at all hours of the night. This demonstrates the very high motivation of engaging in debate. It is a powerful learning force - causing people to do their own research and justify their positions with references - but the disagreements also rapidly become sterile and repetitive. Debate is powerful learning tool but needs controlling.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Update on Tony Buzan's forgetting curve

This business of the Tony Buzan forgetting curve (see previous post) is starting to get under my skin. I tried contacting Buzan World and on separate occasions spoke to two very pleasant consultants who were quite sure there was underlying research and would get back to me. Neither did. I found this quite disappointing. Bear in mind that this is an organisation that makes a big deal of being based on sound psychological research.

I first went on a Buzan course in the 1970s and it has given me some useful techniques which have stuck throughout my working life, especially mind mapping. Because they worked I have not questioned the underlying research - but now I may just be a bit more sceptical.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The "forgetting curve" and Tony Buzan

Anyone who has been on a course about learning will probably have seen a graph similar this.

It is called a forgetting curve and shows how quickly we forget something we have learned. Just enter "forgetting curve" into Google Images for many examples. The curve was first established by Herman Ebbinghaus experimenting on himself using nonsense syllables. However, it seems like the general shape of the curve is true for a large range of different subject matter and conditions - and that fits in with our everyday experience. The key points are:
  • you forget most soon after learning
  • the curve flattens out so that the stuff you do retain you forget more slowly
  • you can change the shape of the curve with revision and recall
All that is not controversial and I think anyone who has had to learn or teach would have taken the forgetting curve for granted.

There is a slighty different shaped forgetting curve in use:

which suggests that we can actually remember more a short period (e.g. 10 minutes) after learning something than we can remember immediately afterwards. I got this from Tony Buzan books such as "Use your head" and "Speed Memory" and I have faithfully reproduced it in my courses. It has some interested consequences for an instructor. For example, it might be more effective to finish a presentation, take a short break, and then summarise - rather than the traditional order of summarise and then take a break.

Yesterday I noticed that this "Tony Buzan" shape is not mentioned in any of my more academic books on memory. So I thought I would track down the original research on which it is based. Several frustrated hours later I gave up. The Buzan books do not give academic references - they just use phrases such as "studies show". Google threw up several places where this shape of curve was used - some quite respectable but they all seemed to come back to Buzan. I tried using various academic databases to search the voluminous literature on memory and forgetting - but they all came back to the Ebbinghaus shape not the Buzan shape.

I don't know that it makes a lot of difference for teaching or learning in practice. You still need to review regularly to avoid forgetting. But it frustrates me - especially as I have believed and repeated the Buzan line for nearly 30 years now.

So, if anyone reads this and knows of evidence for the Buzan curve or knows there is no such evidence - I would really like to hear from them.

Meanwhile I will treat is slightly differently when it comes up on my course.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

What use is Kolb?

The Big Question at Learning Circuits on the use of PowerPoint included a reference to "some new research " which was actually a newspaper article about some research. I tracked down the original papers which were interesting about PowerPoint, but included this paper
"Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching"

It slaughters a range of sacred cows including David Kolb's learning cycle and learning styles inventory. Here is a quote from the paper:

"Attempts to validate experiential learning and learning styles (Kolb, 1971, 1984, 1999) appear not to have been completely successful. Iliff (1994), for example, reported in “a
meta-analysis of 101 quantitative LSI studies culled from 275 dissertations and 624 articles that were qualitative, theoretical, and quantitative studies of ELT and the Kolb
Learning Style Inventory” (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2001, p. 20) correlations classified as low (< .5) and effect sizes that were weak (.2) to medium (.5). He concluded that the magnitude of these statistics is not sufficient to meet standards of predictive validity to support the use of the measures or the experiential methods for training at work. Similarly, Ruble and Stout (1993), citing a number of studies from 1980 through 1991, concluded that the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (KLSI-1976; Kolb, 1976) has low test–retest reliability, that there is little or no correlation between factors that should correlate with the classification of learning styles, and that it does not enjoy a general acceptance of its usefulness, particularly for research purposes."

I sometimes include the Kolb learning cycle in my courses. Does this mean I should throw it out? I don't think so. It is a matter of asking the right question.

If you ask - does Kolb describe how people learn?

Then the answer has to be "no". There isn't the evidence.

But if you ask - does Kolb describe a way people learn?

Then the answer is almost trivially "yes"

And the really important question becomes "is it useful?". It is the difference between a psychological law and a pragmatic tool for thinking about training. I find Kolb really useful, provided I treat it as a tool and not as a prescription. I generally interpret the experience stage very broadly e.g. it might include the presentation of information or experience the delegates have had before they come on a class. Then it reminds me to allow for reflection, which might be drawing out common factors from the experience in discussion, conceptualisation, bringing it together into some general lessons, and experimentation - OK try it yourselves.

It is not the only way of structuring a class - but it is often a good one.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Using PowerPoint creates a context

My first post is inspired by this month's Big Question at Learning Circuits on the use of PowerPoint. This seems to come up regularly and many people have already made excellent points about it being only a tool and what matters is how you use it. There is also loads of stuff on what makes for good PowerPoint. I particularly liked Karl Kapp's examples.

What strikes me is that using PowerPoint creates a context.

Look at the picture above. The room is darkened. I am willing to bet there is no view of the outside - either its a room with no windows ore all curtains or blinds have been drawn. Everyone faces in the same direction. There is probably a background hum from the projector. The short sighted put on glasses and (unless they have variable focus) they can no longer easily see their notes. It also sets a social context. Most audiences will have listened to countless PowerPoint management, finance, sales, etc presentations. They expect to be passive , somewhat bored, and not to have to work hard.

All of this applies whatever is on the slides. So if you want your audience to be active, excited and hard working then you are going to have to work that bit harder to make it happen.