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.