Saturday, 2 August 2008

Does new technology reduce the need to memorise facts?

I have been participating in an interesting discussion on Tony Karrer's blog on Brain 2.0. The subject under debate was "the importance of learning a bunch of facts that someone can look up at a later time", especially now that modern technology allows us to look up facts so easily, and the body of knowledge keeps changing so fast. Apparently Tony feels that the need to learn facts is reducing while his wife Margaret writes: memorization is a skill that needs to be developed and sometimes information needed is not readily accessed. This is a theme that has been discussed on the Internet quite a lot recently. Tony links to this video lecture by Michael Wesch which is about moving away from being knowledgeable to being knowledge-able. i.e. what matters is not what you know but your ability to access all the knowledge that is out there.

It is an important but confusing subject and it is quite difficult to pin down exactly what the issue is.

1) Tony's and Margaret's views as written are consistent with each other. Tony accepts the need to memorise some facts, and Margaret accepts that there is need to be able use modern technology to obtain facts. It is a matter of degree.

2) There are couple of red herrings lying in wait:

a) Tony is concerned about learning unnecessary facts such as the names of state capitals. No one in their right mind is going to demand that students learn unnecessary facts, except perhaps as some bizarre exercise in memory training. There is long-standing debate as to what facts are necessary (e.g. how much history should children know?) but that has little to do with new technology and is largely a matter of values.

b) There is also a long-standing objection to courses and education which are "just memorising a lot of facts". Most educators accept that education which simply requires rote learning of facts without moving any higher up the Bloom cognitive scale is very limited and unlikely to be of much value. Learning a lot of facts does not entail learning them by rote. You can acquire and retain facts much better if you learn them as part of activities which are cognitively deeper. Again I see no special link to new technology here. Criticism of rote learning has been around for decades if not centuries.

3) The real issue is summarised by Tony's comment:

What's becoming clear to me is that we can be spending time teaching students how to become "filled with facts" and they can become expert at that process in order to pass the test or we can reduce that in order to help them focus on other things.

The idea presumably is that nowadays we don't need to retain so much knowledge in our brain as facts are so quickly and easily accessed. What we need is the broad concepts and the skills to access and interpret all those facts as the need arises. And this is precisely where I am not convinced by Tony (or by Michael Wesch). I think it is false dichotomy. Tony uses the example of a history teacher who tested him on the size of the population of England in 1800. He rightly dismisses that as a test question because it involves only low level cognitive skills. But anyone who wants to be an expert on English history of that period would benefit greatly from knowing that fact (without having to look it up). For example, if confronted with documentation about the size of the population of London or the percentage of working men fighting in the Napoleonic wars they would immediately be better placed to assess the plausibility and of the documentation and interpret its significance. They would be far more likely to retain any new information they learned about the English population because they would be in a position to link new data to their existing knowledge. As John Medina says in brain rules – we remember things better if we elaborate on them – and there is much more scope for elaboration if you already know a lot.

The point is that knowing facts is one of the best tools for accessing and using other facts. Being knowledgeable is key to being knowledge-able. So the model that says knowledgable and knowledge-able are mutually exclusive is far too simple. To use the new technology effectively we should know even more and the technology will allow us to gain that extra knowledge more easily.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Researching at the right level

Clive Shepherd's post on brain based learning led me indirectly to Professor Daniel Willingham's Brain-based learning: fad or breakthrough? I thought this was a brilliant little video which neatly articulated something I have been thinking about for a couple of years. His point is that the results of brain science are at a different level to actual practice in the classroom and that it is very hard to link results at one level to practice at another. I may know how the hippocampus works in incredible detail, but it is very hard to relate that to a lesson plan, not impossible but extremely hard. I absolutely buy that for brain science but I would extend to a lot of cognitive psychology.

Take, for example, the research on giving feedback as summarised in this excellent report from Will Thalheimer. It refers to several studies which purport to illustrate that negative feedback for learners (correcting errors) is more important than positive feedback (pointing out successes). This is typically proven by providing learners with a limited, constrained, task such as reading a passage and then being presented with multiple choice questions about the content. The learners are split into groups and given types of feedback and then retested. My response to research of this nature is "so what?". It is not just that the task is not realistic – that is the inevitable result of trying to produce quantitative repeatable results in psychology. But it is at the wrong level. In a real learning situation there are so many other things going on that this kind of result is irrelevant. Learners need both negative and positive feedback. Learners have to know if they have made and error, and what that error is, or they will continue to make the error. But they also need the confidence and motivation that comes from recognising their success. In a real context it is daft to ask if one is more important than the other. It depends so much on the situation. Is it a difficult but motivating subject matter or trivial and potentially boring? How is the feedback being given? It can take so many forms: a teacher marking a piece of work, a "well done" to an answer in class, a solution to a problem in a piece of e-learning, an experiment that succeeds or fails.




Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Lessons from the Brain Gym - the Science of Learning

The Brian Gym is a glaring example of a completely unproven theory about learning and development. Learning is full of theories that range from the complete nonsense of the Brain Gym through interesting, but unsubstantiated, ideas such as the hundreds of different learning styles (Kolb etc) to rock solid cognitive psychology (Ebbinghaus forgetting curves). Sitting to one side are a myriad of common-sense rules of thumb and folklore based on experience rather than science - don't lecture for more than 45 minutes, when asking open questions have a closed question to back it up, etc.

The problem I find is that there is a kind of inverse correlation between veracity and utility. There are a few facts from cognitive psychology that are true, interesting and useful - the limits on short term memory for example - but precious few . On the other hand, VAK is scientifically highly dubious - but you can actually use it as an inspiration to make your courses more varied in their use of media and remind you that people do learn in different ways - even if it is not a fixed characteristic of a particular person. It is a productive way of thinking about courses and teaching.

What would be great would be a body of useful, interesting and incontrovertible knowledge. But can anyone give 10 facts about learning that are:

Scientifically indisputable
Interesting - not something that is obviously true
Make a practical difference to how we design or deliver training

If not, then we have to go beyond the scientifically established to say anything interesting about training - a melange of home grown wisdom, interesting concepts and the occasional fact - hopefully held together with some straightforward logic.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Thoughts on the Brain Gym Fiasco and Scepticism

The Brain Gym has been very much in the news recently. Mostly because any pretensions to science behind it have been demolished - most publically by Jeremy Paxman.

This critical piece is typical of the tone of the critics. It includes some short interviews from teachers, headteachers, and childern who have bought into the Brain Gym message. The comments are on the lines of:

This headmistress must be feeling quite embarrassed right about now.

With reference to the Paxman interview:

Ooooh this is a good, good day.
You must watch the glory below. It is radiant.

Ben Goldacre writes in his blog and the Guardian:

Beyond the stupidity of some headteachers, how has Brain Gym survived?

There is a definite tone of exultation in the humiliation of not only the inventor of Brian Gym but all the teachers and headteachers who have bought into it (the children who have bought into it are of course portrayed as innocent victims).

I don't want to defend Brain Gym. Scientifically it is a fraud. But let's not be juvenile in our response. I doubt it it was a total waste of public money and time. Even the fiercest critics acknowledge as an aside that there is a merit in having children do refresher exercises during school. And there is immense scope for a placebo effect. If a child believes something is making them cleverer their confidence and enthusiasm will grow and the child is very likely to try harder and do better. There is a long tradition of teachers using metaphors and images that are not true but very helpful. My wife's singing teacher tells her pupils that the voice should come out of the top of the head. I don't know whether she literally believes this, and I don't care. She is a brilliant teacher and the image works.

That poor headteacher has a real problem. Now that Brian Gym has been exposed, she has to either tell the children not to believe what they hear (i.e. lie to them) or somehow explain that it was an error without letting down all that confidence and energy. I don't want anyone to pretend that Brain Gym is science when it isn't. But sceptics should be wary of gloating over their superior knowledge. By and large they are not the ones on the spot. Many teachers found something they could use. Now it is going to be a lot harder to use it. The greatest blame should lie with Paul Dennison (the founder) but might the sceptics consider the positive side as well as well as the negative. Why not say "this may be useful in practice, but you should know that the underlying science is wrong" rather than accusing teachers of being stupid and gloating over their discomfort? Of course, that wouldn't be nearly so interesting a thing to write.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Can Learning and Development Contribute to Academia?

Rewritten 18th April for greater clarity

I have been exchanging comments with a number of academic lecturers, particularly Philip Moriarty, about the possibility of Learning and Development professionals contributing to the effectiveness of higher education, especially scientific higher education. I seem to have totally failed to explain my position and also offended Philip . This is a real shame and a testament as to how e-mail and blogging can mislead. I hope to correct this below.

The gist of the comments from Philip (and others) is that only specialists in their area can contribute to their skill as educators e.g. “L & D do not have the subject-specific knowledge required to contribute effectively to the teaching of physics.” If true, this is remarkable. All other sectors - government, finance, manufacturing, military etc - get value from cross-fertilisation of ideas about learning, training and teaching. This includes intense technical subjects such such as specialist IT skills.

I suspect that there is an underlying misunderstanding and the reason for the confusion is that Philip thinks that an L&D specialist is going to tell him how to do his job. This is also the implication of some of the other comments. Dr J for example appears to have strong ideas about what kind of lecture I am recommending – even though I have no idea! Nothing could be further from the case. I hope I can illustrate this by giving a fleshed out example. L&D assistance can vary from the very broad (what is your corporate learning strategy?) to the very specific (what is your question protocol when you teach?). I will take an example from the latter end.

From time to time I run a workshop/course for instructors from a number of different areas, although the majority are IT related. Most attendees say this workshop has been productive and worthwhile although I frequently know little about their subject matter expertise (which can be extremely technical). I could imagine a similar workshop might have value for an academic department (I emphasise “might” – I don’t know nearly enough about the situation). The format is for each member to give a mini-teach session based on their own teaching experience and then for all workshop attendees (including the one who has just done the session) to make suggestions as to how that session might be even better. The attendees then have opportunities to develop and repeat their session throughout the workshop (it is usually 3 days). There are also short sessions dealing with certain points about the theory of learning and teaching, and discussion as to how these points might apply to the attendee’s own situation. Finally attendees are asked to write down what they have gained that is useful and make a plan for implementing what they have learned. With luck, the atmosphere is one of mutual respect and learning from each other. I would be surprised if I can’t add something having spent 30 years in learning and development across a wide variety of subject matters and industries, but there is no way in which I would be telling the attendees how to do their job. They learn. I don’t teach. Incidentally it is also generally good fun. It is of course vital that the attendees come with the right attitude!

What kind of things might lecturers learn on a workshop such as this? It is very, very variable. It depends what is useful for them. Some things are fundamental truths of the psychology of learning (the longer you can leave it before recall, provided the recall is successful, then the longer the item will remain in memory afterwards). Other things are as trivial as tricks of the trade – putting post-its on flip charts you want to refer to frequently. Examples include questioning protocols (how to ask questions that sustain interaction and concentration without being discouraging or banal), handling tricky students, helping students with disabilities, when to use different types of visual aid, using different types of classroom technology, activities you can ask students to do, and so it goes on. However, none of these things are specific to the subject matter. The attendee will need to work out for themselves if/when to use them. But most do.

This sounds a bit passive and innocuous. So I should make it clear that I ask instructors to try things they have not tried before and encourage them to think differently about the task of getting students to learn. One common trend is that attendees arrive with a view of education that is based round presentation and questions. The criterion for success is what the students think of the instructor. By the end of the workshop they are thinking in terms of what the students are doing and the criterion for success is what the students have learned and how their attitudes to the subject matter have developed. Anyone who is been in learning and development for a while will find nothing exceptional about this - but it is frequently a significant change for a professional who happens to be an instructor. But I must stress again that this is not prescribed as the "right way to teach". It is something that attendees come to adopt themselves (or not).

It is clear from the comments that many academics have had unfortunate experiences with L&D sessions. And I have learned that FE takes education much more seriously than it did when I was an undergraduate. But there does seem to be an attitude of "no one can tell us anything to help us do our jobs". It is sad if this causes academics to ignore all the experience of learning that has been accumulated over the decades in industry and elsewhere.