Go compare

We reach double figures with number 10 in my series of short blog posts on learning theories. My intention is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In my last post I examined Hermann Ebbinghaus work on memory and forgetting and its applications to education. In this post, we explore the work of Leon Festinger, namely social comparison theory. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

We all want to know how well we are doing. According to Festinger, associating with other people allows us to evaluate our own strengths and weaknesses. Being around other people also helps us to assess our own biases, skills and knowledge. This is particularly true in cases where there are no defined boundaries or objective standards for us to adhere to. In such uncertainty, says Festinger, it's good to be around other people.  We often gauge our own reactions to something on the basis of how it compares to the reactions of others around us.  This is social comparison, and influences the way we behave and think, the clothes we wear and even the way we speak. The theory explains how we acquire regional accents, why we become slaves to fashion, how we adopt new ideas and even the way a group can reach a consensus of opinion over seemingly insoluble problems.

Festinger demonstrated that anxious individuals preferred to be in the company of others if there was an unknown outcome or an unfamiliar experience to face. There is a sense of solidarity that we are 'all in this together', and that we are not alone in our doubts or anxieties. Clearly, there is safety in numbers.

One of the most important findings in social comparison theory says Festinger, is that we tend to compare ourselves upwards (against those who have a perceived higher status) and downwards (against those we perceive as having a lower status, who are considered more unfortunate). At the heart of social comparison theory is the concept of self evaluation - each person has different personal goals in life, and the level of their engagement in social comparison depends on this.

How it can be applied in education

Many studies have been published on the detrimental potential of social comparison on self image and also on cognitive and affective trust between individuals. Teachers should be aware that social comparison can have a negative influence on students' self evaluation. This will probably become most evident in mixed ability classes. If children are constantly working alongside others who consistently achieve higher, their self esteem may suffer and they may eventually give up. Conversely, children who are high flyers may be dragged down by lower achievers.

On a more positive note, children who compare themselves to others who are higher achievers may be inspired to work harder themselves. If the ability is present to succeed, then upward social comparison may work positively as an extrinsic motivator. High achievers could be asked to support their weaker peers and in so doing, might strengthen their own abilities and knowledge as they teach (downward social comparison) as described in this dissertation. Teachers should be aware of both the positive and negative implications of this theory and manage their classes accordingly. It's a fine balance between success and failure, and this is another good reason why teachers need to become familiar with the abilities and potential of each and every one of their students.

Reference

Festinger, L. (1954) A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning
Engeström Activity Theory
Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves

Photo by Michael Johnson on Wikimedia Commons

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Go compare Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A steep learning curve

This is number 9 in my series on learning theories. My intention is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In the last post we examined Yrjö Engeström's Second Generation Activity Theory and its applications to education. In this post, we explore the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus on memory and learning. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

It should be noted that the work of Ebbinghaus is not regarded as a 'theory' of learning, but borrows quite heavily from behaviourist theory, as evidenced through the 'drill and practice' and reinforcement schedules he recommends. His studies can be considered to represent a 'model' or explanation of how memory functions.

We often hear people say they are 'on a steep learning curve'. What they usually mean is that they have a lot to learn, not enough time to learn it in, or that they are finding it difficult. The term 'learning curve' actually derives from the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied memory and recall. In fact, he was probably the first psychologist to conduct experimental research into human memory. Ebbinghaus was interested in discovering why when we learn new information, it tends to fade away over a period of time. He referred to this as the forgetting curve and mapped it using graphs.

What he also discovered was that over time, if learning is rehearsed and repeated at regular intervals, we actually forget less. He also found that there is a spacing effect that influences how much we can recall over a period of time. The frequency of repetition and rehearsal, if spaced at intervals, promotes better recall of memory than if the information is presented in one long burst. When expressed statistically, the learning curve, if steep, represents a quick accumulation of knowledge, and rapid progress in learning expressed through recall from memory.

How it can be applied to education

Teachers know that content can be presented in a variety of sequences, but that some sequences are more effective than others. The reason for this is that some kinds of content are easier to remember than others, depending on their difficulty levels as well as their juxtaposition. Teachers should know that primacy recency effects are often present in the forgetting curve. This means that the first content that is presented in a lesson (primacy) and the most recent content that is presented (recency) are the most readily recalled by learners. According to Ebbinghaus, difficult concepts should thus be presented first and then reiterated at the end of the lesson. For the more difficult content, regular revision over time can be more effective than a single mass delivery. What is even more effective is when the content is applied in authentic contexts, and where learners have the chance to rehearse and stregthen their recall.  These opportunities can be built into a scheme of work, and applied during lessons.

When it comes to revising for an exam, the spacing effect comes into play. It is better to revise content over a longer period of time in the run up to an exam, than it is to do last minute 'cramming'. Memory of information is more resilient if it is made meaningful by the learner.

Reference

Cherry, K. (2014) Forgetting: When memory fails. About.com Psychology. Available online at this link.

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning
Engeström Activity Theory

Photo by ericd on Wikimedia Commons

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A steep learning curve Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Stalking Death

Painted 15m Chuhuac Special Ops Sniper


Hey folks,

Today, I had a chance to have fun with one of my absolute favorite miniatures from the Chuhuac range. The figure is the sniper from RAP005 Chuhuac Special Ops.

RAP005 Chuhuac Special Ops 

I wanted to paint him in a color scheme that was more subdued than the one shown in the catalog pictures which are designed to show the figure clearly.



Today's project was designed to really display the sniper in action. He's in cover, in a position where he can hunker down with his accelerator gun to support the rest of his team as they move forward.

 

This miniatures and others can be found - HERE

Enjoy!


-Eli

Activity learning

This is number 8 in my series on learning theories. My intention is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In the last post we examined the various educational theories of John Dewey including experiential learning. In this post, we explore the work of Yrjö Engeström on Activity Theory. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please refer to the original work of the theorist.

Activity Theory (AT) originated in Soviet Russia from the work of Vygotsky and Leont'ev on Cultural Historical psychology and Rubenstein and others on related neuropsychological perspectives. It is a complex theory which draws on a number of disciplines and it has far reaching implications for education. The Scandinavian school of thought that has developed around AT is arguably the most referred to in the literature and is largely based on the work of Yrjö Engeström.

Figure 1: Second generation Activity Theory
The theory 

Vygotsky's earlier concept of mediation, which encompassed learning alongside others (Zone of Proximal Development) and through interaction with artefacts, was the basis for Engeström's version of AT (known as Scandinavian Activity Theory). Engeström's approach was to explain human thought processes not simply on the basis of the individual, but in the wider context of the individual's interactions within the social world through artefacts, and specifically in situations where activities were being produced.

Figure 2: Interpretation of AT in the context of digital identity
In AT people (actors) use external tools (e.g. hammer, computer, car) and internal tools (e.g. plans, cognitive maps) to achieve their goals. In the social world there are many artefacts, which are seen not only as objects, but also as things that are embedded within culture, with the result that every object has cultural and/or social significance. Tools (which can limit or enable) can also be brought to bear on the mediation of social interaction, and they influence both the behaviour of the actors (those who use the tools) and also the social structure within which the actors exist (the environment, tools, artefacts). For further reading, here is Engeström's own overview of 3 Generations of Activity Theory development. The first figure shows Second Generation AT as it is usually presented in the literature. The second figure is my interpretation in relation to digital presence, community and identity.

How it can be applied in education 

Teachers should be aware that everything in the classroom has a cultural and social meaning. The way children interact with each other and with the teacher will be mediated (influenced) by objects such as the whiteboard, furniture, technology, and even the shape, size and configuration of the room.  This also includes its ambient characteristics such as lighting and noise levels. Learning occurs within these contexts, and usually through specific activities.

Teachers should ensure that those activities are relevant and iterative, providing students with incremental challenges that they can engage with at a social level, so that the entire community of learners extends its collective knowledge through the construction of meaning.  Teachers should also be aware that tools can limit as well as enable social interaction, so must be applied wisely and appropriately to promote the most effective learning.

Reference

Engeström, Y., Mietinnen, R. and Punamäki, R-L. (Eds: 1999) Perspectives on Activity Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Photo by Artaxerxes on Wikimedia Commons
Graphic by Steve Wheeler

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning

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Activity learning Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Experiential learning

This is number 7 in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. In the last post we examined the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on Flow Theory. In this post, we explore the work of John Dewey on experiential and interactive learning. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please refer to the original work of the theorist.

John Dewey is one of the giants in the history of educational theory, and it's difficult to isolate one of his specific theories to discuss here. He was influential in so many areas of educational reform, that to choose one theme would do him a disservice, so I will highlight several of the areas in which he was ahead of his time.

The theory and how it can be applied to education

Even before the constructivist theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky were widely known, Dewey was talking about how children learn best when they interacted with their environments and were actively involved with the school curriculum. He rejected much of the prevalent theory of the time - behaviourism - as too simplistic and inadequate to explain complex learning processes. He argued that rather than the child being a passive recipient of knowledge, as was presumed by many educators of the time, children were better served if they took an active part in the process of their own learning. He also placed greater emphasis on the social context of learning. At the turn of the 20th Century, these were radical ideas.

Dewey further argued that for education to be at its most effective, children should be given learning opportunities that enabled them to link present content to previous experiences and knowledge. Again, this was a ground breaking idea for the period. Yet another feature in Dewey's theories was the need for learners to engage directly with their environment, in what came to be known as experiential learning, where 'knowledge comes from the impressions made upon us by natural objects.' This approach led later to a number of other similar approaches such as problem based learning and inquiry based learning.

Notwithstanding, Dewey was wary of placing too much emphasis on the child's abilities, but preferred to place his trust in a more balanced approach to education where teacher, students and content were given equal importance in the learning equation. Ultimately, his belief was that teachers should not be in the classroom to act simply as instructors, but should adopt the role of facilitator and guide, giving students the opportunities to discover for themselves and to develop as active and independent learners. In some schools, a return to these values is long overdue.

Reference

Dewey, J. (2011) Democracy and Education. Milton Keynes: Simon and Brown.

Photo by Sharpemtbr on Pixabay

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory

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Experiential learning Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

In the flow

This is number 6 in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. In the last post we examined the work of Craik and Lockhart on Levels of Processing theory. In this post, we explore the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on Flow Theory. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please refer to the original work of the theorist.

There is an interesting news report on the BBC News website this morning. It is a piece claiming that children who use technology at home are finding that they are not able to concentrate in school. They are not able to focus, claims the report, because 'they're spending so much time on digital games or social media.' Yeah right. It's easy to blame lack of concentration on technology, but what about the quality of the lessons they are attending? The onus is on teachers to make lessons more interesting, and that is what they are trained to do. Part of the solution might be to incorporate these digital games and social media into some of the lessons. Just how can we engage students more effectively? Here's Flow Theory:

The theory

You know that moment when you are in the zone, on the ball, completely focused? You become so absorbed by what you are doing that your forget what the time is, you forget to eat, you miss sleep. That's essentially what flow is. According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, being in the flow is the ultimate in focused intrinsic motivation. In simplistic terms, being in the flow is where students find themselves in that narrow channel between disinterest and fear. There is a fine balance between the challenge of the task, and the skills the learner has at their disposal. Maintaining this balance avoids disillusionment if your skills don't measure up to the challenge, or boredom if the task is too simple and easy to achieve.

How it can be applied in education

Learners who are immersed in their studies tend to be single-mindedly motivated to explore their topic. Getting them to the place where they fall so in love with learning that little else matters is another matter entirely. One of the ways teachers can help students to focus more on their studies is to make learning so irresistible that there is seems to be no other option. Games and gamification may offer students the fine equilibrium between boredom and anxiety, as will other forms of immersive learning such as role play, simulation and problem solving. As long as the learning resource is designed to have the appropriate levels of challenge built into it, students will be interested. The graphic illustrates this clearly. P2 and P3 are positions that should be traversed quickly if students are to remain in the flow.

To be successful, challenge based learning requires achievable goals that require some incremental development of skills beyond the average, and where the challenge rises commensurately to match those skills (student progresses from P1 to P4). If the subject matter is made interesting and enjoyable enough, teachers won't have to work too hard to encourage students to actively engage. They will do so naturally, because they will want to rise to the challenge, and succeed because they see no other possible outcome.

Reference

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper and Row.

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing

Photo by Randy on Wikimedia Commons
Graphic by Steve Wheeler

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In the flow by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Deeper learning

This is number 5 in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. In the last post we examined the work of Jerome Bruner on scaffolding. In this post, we explore the work of Craik and Lockhart on levels of processing. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the original works.

The theory

The history of human memory research has strongly featured differences between types of memory sch as Working Memory (previously known as Short Term Memory or STM) and Long Term Memory (LTM). Other explanations of memory have focused on the functions of various types of memory, and such approaches are often referred to as multi-store theories. 

When Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart researched human memory and recall, they argued that there was no clear difference between what others had identified as seemingly discrete memory stores, but that all memory was a result of the depth to which information was processed in the mind. Instead of referring to different stores of memory, Craik and Lockhart proposed that there are different levels of information processing. They identified at least three levels:

1. Structural level: This is a shallow layer of processing where we only pay attention to the outward appearance of a word (e.g. its morphology). 
2. Phonetic level: This is a deeper level of processing where we listen to the sound of the word.
3. Semantic level: This is the deepest level of processing where we consider the meaning of the word.

Craik and Lockhart claimed that the deeper the processing, the stronger will be the trace of that memory, and thus recall will take less cognitive effort. This framework for human memory research is considered by many cognitive psychologists to be a stronger explanation than those of the multi-store memory models. Levels of processing theory certainly does seem to explain more about the human memory than the multi-store theories, although the framework has also attracted some criticism. It has also influenced other recently proposed cognitive processing theories including spreading activation theory and neural network theory

How it can be applied to education

Teachers should be aware that children can process information in different ways and at different levels as they transform it into knowledge. Educators should think about how they can encourage students to process content in deeper and more meaningful ways. For example, students process content more deeply if they have to discuss its meaning, or are involved in solving a related problem. Educators should also give students opportunities to present their learning through seminars, or through the creation of artefacts (e.g. blogs, videos, posters) to deepen the semantic processing of their learning, thereby strengthening their memories. This is one reason why participative and active forms of learning are more powerful than direct instruction through didactive methods. 

Reference

Craik, F. I. M. and Lockhart, R. S. (1972) Levels of Processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11 (6), 671-684. [Full text here]

Other posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory

Photo by Scott Sanchez on Wikimedia Commons

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Deeper learning by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Reaching further

This is number 4 in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. Yesterday we examined the work of Albert Bandura on social learning theory. In this post, we explore the work of Jerome Bruner on scaffolding of learning. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the original works.

The theory

Bruner's theory of scaffolding emerged around 1976 as a part of social constructivist theory, and was particularly influenced by the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky argued that we learn best in a social environment, where we construct meaning through interaction with others. His Zone of Proximal Development theory, where we can learn more in the presence of a knowledgeable other person, became the template for Bruner's model.

Bruner believed that when children start to learn new concepts, they need help from teachers and other adults in the form of active support. To begin with, they are dependent on their adult support, but as they become more independent in their thinking and acquire new skills and knowledge, the support can be gradually faded. This form of structured interaction between the child and the adult is reminiscent of the scaffolding that supports the construction of a building. It is gradually dismantled as the work is completed. In a very specific way, scaffolding represents a reduction in the many choices I child might face, so that they become focused only on acquiring the skill or knowledge that is required. The simplistic elegance of Bruner's theory means that scaffolding can be applied across all sectors, for all ages and for all topics of learning.

How it can be applied to education

It is important for teachers to provide opportunities for children to constantly learn new things. Some of those may be highly complex and will require support of a very focused kind. Teachers need to be aware of the developmental state of each of the children in their care, and should provide scaffolding that is appropriate. Although this may not be possible to do on their own, teachers can improvise and provide scaffolding through other support, including the use of other adults such as teaching assistants (para-educators) parent helpers, or more knowledgeable other children within the classroom. As children gain in confidence and competence in a particular areas, teachers might place them in groups to extend each other's learning further. It's also important that teachers recognise when a child is at the point where they begin to learn independently, and decisions can be made to set them free from the scaffolding.

Reference

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S. and Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 17(2), 89-100.

Other posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory

Photo by Clément Bucco-Lechat on Wikimedia Commons

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Reaching further by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Watch and learn

This is the third in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. Yesterday we examined the work of Chris Argyris on double loop learning. Today, we explore the work of Albert Bandura on social learning theory.

It's been said that Albert Bandura's theory of social learning spans the gap between behaviourism and cognitivism. Social learning theory incorporates the idea of behaviour reinforcement from the former, and cognitive processes such as attention, motivation and memory from the latter. In fact, Social Learning theory is essentially - as the name suggests - an explanation of how we learn when we are in social contexts.

The theory

It was Albert Bandura's intention to explain how children learn in social environments by observing and then imitating the behaviour of others. In essence, be believed that learning could not be fully explained simply through reinforcement, but that the presence of others was also an influence. He noticed that the consequences of an observed behaviour often determined whether or not children adopted the behaviour themselves. Through a series of experiments, he watched children as they observed adults attacking Bobo Dolls. When hit, the dolls fell over and then bounced back up again. Then children were then let loose, and imitated the aggressive behaviour of the adults. However, when they observed adults acting aggressively and then being punished, Bandura noted that the children were less willing to imitate the aggressive behaviour themselves.

From his research Bandura formulated four principles of social learning. These were:
1. Attention. We cannot learn if we are not focused on the task. If we see something as being novel or different in some way, we are more likely to make it the focus of their attention. Social contexts help to reinforce these perceptions.
2. Retention. We learn by internalising information in our memories. We recall that information later when we are required to respond to a situation that is similar the situation within which we first learnt the information.
3. Reproduction. We reproduce previously learnt information (behaviour, skills, knowledge) when required. However, practice through mental and physical rehearsal often improves our responses.
4. Motivation. We need to be motivated to do anything. Often that motivation originates from our observation of someone else being rewarded or punished for something they have done or said. This usually motivates us later to do, or avoid doing, the same thing.

How it can be applied to education

Social modelling is a very powerful method of education. If children see positive consequences from a particular type of behaviour, they are more likely to repeat that behaviour themselves. Conversely, if negative consequences are the result, they are less likely to perform that behaviour. Novel and unique contexts often capture students' attention, and can stand out in the memory. Students are more motivated to pay attention if they see others around them also paying attention. Another less obvious application of this theory is to encourage students to develop their individual self efficacy through confidence building and constructive feedback, a concept that is rooted in social learning theory.

Reference

Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory. New York: General Learning Press.

Photo by MikePD

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Watch and learn by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

In the loop (twice)

This is the second in my series of short blog posts on important theories of learning. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied to education. In the first post we looked at John Anderson's cognitive architecture model ACT-R.

Today, I'm going to discuss the work of Chris Argyris and his theory of double loop learning. This is a simplified explanation of the theory, so those who wish to read more deeply should read to the volume in the reference section.

The theory

Argyris bases his theory on the premise that each of us has a cognitive map inside our heads - in other words, a mental script to deal with problems and challenges based on previous experience. Working with others including Donald Schon, Argyris developed this idea into a theory of learning. We live and work in a mode of 'detection and correction of error'. When we meet a problem, we fall back on our experience (including the rules and what we are allowed to do within them) and attempt to address the problem from this mental array of skills and knowledge - known as our 'espoused theory of action'. We learn to develop a theory for everything, and this becomes our way of coping with change, decision making and challenges that come our way. Argyris calls this process Single Loop learning, and sees it as the most common response. He likens this to a thermostat in your house. When it becomes too warm, the thermostat turns down the heating.

Alternatively, in Double Loop learning, we learn to think outside of the box. We learn to examine the problem from a different angle, perhaps questioning the rules (what Argyris calls the 'governing variables'), and attempting to make changes that are more holistic and wide ranging than merely solving the problem itself. As Argyris and Schon wrote in 1978, 'Double loop learning occurs when the error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization's underlying norms, policies and objectives' (p 2-3).

How it can be applied in education

It's clear that Argyris's work is aimed at organisational learning, so his work is of great relevance for learning and development professionals. Those who manage change in large organisations would also have an interest in how double loop learning (and the thinking behind it) might be encouraged. Essentially, Argyris is calling for creative approaches to problem solving, where the problems themselves become opportunities for workers to improve their organisation, reflect on their practice and implement change that is sustainable and effective. The theory also has applications in education where teachers can encourage their students to think more widely than the problem itself, examining the entire context in which the problem is presented. Creative and critical thinking of this kind can often lead the learner to a global appreciation of the topic they are studying.

Reference

Argyris, C. and Schon, D. A. (1978) Organizational Learning: A theory of action perspective. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Photo by Albert Debruijn
Graphic by xjent03 on Wikimedia Commons

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In the loop (twice) by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Making memories

This is the first in a series of posts on important theories of learning and memory. Over the next few weeks I plan to work through the alphabet of psychologists to explain over 30 major theories that relate to teaching and learning. In each post I'm going to try to simplify some complex ideas and present the models and theories in brief, bite sized posts. Each will also have a brief section on how the theory might apply to everyday teaching and learning. Here's the first: John Anderson's ACT-R model of memory.

A considerable amount of research into learning has focused on human memory. A number of theories about how memory and recall function has been published, but one that stands out is a model derived from the work of Canadian psychologist John Robert Anderson. Adaptive Control of Thought - Rational - abbreviated to ACT-R (previously known as ACT*) - is a cognitive theory of learning that is concerned with the way memory is structured. The so called cognitive architecture of ACT-R is made up of three main components. These are represented in the model below (adapted from the earlier ACT* model)..

The theory

The working memory (WM) is the conscious part of the memory. Previously referred to as Short Term Memory (or STM), working memory itself is thought to be constructed of several kinds of memory, including visual and auditory stores (See the work of Baddeley and Hitch and my earlier blog post memories are made of this for more on this idea). Working memory is the active buffer between the sensory register (the senses) and Long Term Memory (LTM).  In LTM there are at least two forms of memory storage, concerned with Declarative (what something is - facts) and Procedural (how to do something). According to Anderson, procedural memory consists of sequences of actions based on pattern matching that is similar to computing instructions such as if-then - if this happens, then do that. Declarative memory on the other hand, holds factual knowledge, and any relevant association and context.

How it can be applied in education

The ACT-R model of memory could be applied in education in a number of ways. Teachers should be aware that there are different kinds of memory, and that these associate with each other through the limited Working Memory. Overloading WM with too much information at once will not be conducive to good knowledge making (see my previous post Memory Full for more on this problem). At the same time, encouraging students to combine their knowledge with actions can have the effect of reinforcing learning in both procedural and declarative memory. A combination of thinking and doing can be a powerful mix of activity to deepen learning in just about any subject area.

NB: This is a simplified version of a complex theory. If you want to know more, you are advised to seek out the published literature in this field including:

Anderson, J. R. (1990) The adaptive character of thought. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Graphic by Steve Wheeler

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Making memories by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The world's greatest underachiever?

The actor Henry Winkler (famous for his role as 'The Fonz' in the 1970s American TV series Happy Days) says he felt like a failure at school because of his dyslexia. He is quite critical of the traditional school system. 'It's easier to herd children than to treat them as individuals' he says, and recalled that he himself had felt as though he was a failure when he was told he 'would never achieve'. Labelling is an awful thing, but he is positive, saying that 'school does not define who you are.'

In his busy schedule, Winkler can still find time to work supporting children with dyslexia. Together with his partner Lin Oliver, he has even written a book series about his own alter-ego - a school boy with dyslexia called Hank Zipzer. 12 year-old Henry 'Hank' Zipzer is 'the world's greatest underachiever' and has many hilarious experiences at school. The series is funny, fantastic and fast moving and captures what it's like to live inside the head of a student with dyslexia. It also portrays exactly what is wrong - and right - about schooling. Hank is easily distracted but has a vivid imagination. He just experiences a blockages between his mind and the page. As he says - 'I have a lot of ideas, it's just difficult getting them down onto the page.' The irony is clear to see in the books and the TV series that now shows on BBC's children's channel CBeebies.

The school system is biased toward assessment that relies on students writing. Hank's dyslexia makes it difficult for him to complete his essay on what he did on his summer holidays, and he becomes very anxious even thinking about writing and reading. In the summer, he and his family visited Niagara Falls, so he creates a scale working model of his holiday instead, including a fully functioning waterfall. Needless to say, it all goes disastrously wrong, and as a punishment he has to read his essay out in front of the entire school. He triumphed when he gains his confidence, showing that he really can communicate - just not in the conventional way the school is expecting. The story is funny, but the message is clear -  learning can be expressed in many forms, so why can't school systems be more flexible and allow a variety of different methods of assessment?

Here's the first episode, introducing Henry and his school chums.  I bet you'll really enjoy it.

Photo by BBC Television

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Doing and knowing

This is a follow up to my recent Knowing and Doing blog post. Those who read it will recall that I discussed the tensions between traditional and progressive teaching philosophies. Traditionalists put great stress on the need to memorise facts so that they can apply them later in authentic contexts. Progressives on the other hand, place more emphasis on the need to learn skills, that are transferable in the real world. This is an oversimplification of the two positions, but hopefully the distinction is clear.

For the traditionalists, tools such as Google and other digital media are not to be completely trusted or relied upon, and some even consider them a distraction from the real business of learning, or question the veracity of their content. Tara Brabazon, for example, has written entire volumes (see for example Digital Hemlock, or the University of Google) on what she perceives as the dangers of digital technology and its role in 'dumbing down' learning; toxic educational practices; and that the ease of use of Google for example, causes superficial learning. Nicholas Carr, in his thought provoking book The Shallows, offers much the same critique.

The progressives see the use of technology as an inextricable part of modern education, regarding the use of search, aggregation, curation and creation tools as an essential component in the preparation of young people in a world of work that is dominated by technology. They pay less attention to memorisation (although this is an inevitable and essential byproduct of everyday learning) and eschew drill and practice in favour of more collaborative and student centred approaches to learning. John Moravec's book Knowmad Society outlines some of the key factors of learning in a technology dominated workplace, including an emphasis on learning through social connections rather than simply through direct exposure to knowledge.

Today, I was doing some personal research related to a book I have been reading. I wanted to find the island of Saipan, and all I knew was that it is located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. I have a map of the world on my wall. It is quite a detailed map, supplied by National Geographic Magazine. I searched for some time but without success (the typeface was too small), before resorting to Google Maps. I found Saipan in seconds, releasing me to do other research on the island, using the links Google supplied.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know that Saipan is an island in the Marianas, south of Japan, and that it is a part of the Commonwealth of the US, with a population of close to 50,000 people. It takes only a few seconds to cross reference these facts with another website. This is information that the map on my office wall could not provide me, and information that I probably won't remember for long. Perhaps I won't need to remember it, because political allegiances and populations fluctuate. Some facts go out of date quickly.

My point is this: We all need a certain amount of facts inside our heads. But ultimately, when the chips are down, and time is of the essence, sometimes, gaps in our knowledge (possibly due to never having learnt those facts in the first place, or failure of memory) necessitate resorting to the use of technology. Wouldn't it be tragic if we were raising an entire generation of young people who knew how to find facts, but didn't have the skills to negotiate meaning, discern good from bad content, or practice safely online, because schools were focusing more on the teaching of facts.

Skills and knowledge go hand in hand. We need an equal balance of the two in our school curricula if we want to prepare young people to fully participate in the digital society.

References
Brabazon, T. (2002) Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.
Brabazon, T. (2007) The University of Google: Education in a (Post) Information Age. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Carr, N. (2010) The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. London: W W Norton.
Moravec, J. (Ed: 2013) Knowmad Society. Charleston, SC: Education Futures.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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Doing and knowing by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Knowing and doing

Right now there is plenty of debate about the way schools are conducting education. Delivery of the curriculum - and specifically the knowledge versus skills debate - is constantly at the centre of this discourse.

The argument is not about whether facts or skills are more important. Children need to learn a certain amount of facts and they also need to develop their skills. The real battle is actually an ideological dialectic on how learning is changing in the digital age.

The traditionalists are represented by Daisy Christodoulou who believes that committing facts to memory through instruction is the best approach for education. She says: "we can't just rely on the Internet to look things up" and argues that too much information overloads working memory. She gives the example of learning the times table, which she argues will allow children to perform better in mathematical calculation than if they rely solely on technology. She believes that teaching facts is the best way to establish this kind of skill.

The progressive side including Howard Rheingold, disagree. Rheingold argues that direct teaching is not the best way, but that in his experience, students learn better when they inquire among themselves (he calls this peeragogy) while they independently search for meaning. His peeragogy approach demands that he steps away from his students, and embraces social media as a route to learning, because this is where they tend to spend much of their time.

Who is right? Is it more important to be taught facts, and to memorise them; or is self directed peer learning, and reliance on technology the best way forward? Actually, both positions hold some merit, but both only tell a part of the story. We need knowledge and we also need skills to progress. However, ignoring technology is not the answer. Ignoring memory, and relying solely on technology is also a mistake. Working the two in powerful combination - that is using technology as a mind tool to extend cognitive abilities - is a better approach. It is an emerging phenomenon that few understand, and is easily dismissed. Today's society is increasingly engaged with learning through as well as with technology. Keeping up to date through this medium will become a part of the new social capital we will all value in the future.

The problem lies in relying on one or the other while ignoring the most important aspect of education - how children actually learn and how they become engaged in that learning. No amount of good instruction will be enough if students are disengaged with learning. By the same token, facilitating an environment where students are able to acquire new skills is worthless if they don't know how to apply them in the real world.

Several factors are important, including the relationship and interaction that exists between student and teacher, the relevance and meaningfulness of the content the student is learning, and the pedagogical skills and knowledge of the teacher. These are represented in the Venn diagram. The plain truth is this: facts remain facts unless they are transformed by learners into knowledge that they can actually use.

For me, the final word on this topic comes from Richard Gerver, and can be found in his excellent book Creating Tomorrow's Schools Today. He says:

'Information can only be power if you have the skills to use it to develop your journey and turn facts into knowledge. Knowledge is only powerful if it is important to you and your context.'

Photo and graphics by Steve Wheeler
Venn diagram adapted from original (source unknown)

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Taking risks

Students, when asked, are usually quite honest. What engages them in learning the most is taking risks and having fun. This was mentioned recently by a headteacher of a school in England, who argued that schools are too risk averse today, and we need to inject some excitement back into lessons. Those who can remember their school days will often remember the fun they used to have with their friends. Ask them when the fun times happened, and most of them will recollect them occurring outside of formal lesson time. Rigid standards and curricula, and a growing culture of strict health and safety in schools has militated against a lot of risk taking. 'You can't do that' has become the commonly heard phrase when someone tries to innovate.

So how can we build fun and risk taking back into the school day?

Firstly, we need to look at learning in a new light. Students make their own meaning. They are not taught. They learn - and only if they are motivated and inspired to do so. Giving students some latitude to make their own meaning by solving problems and meeting challenges is more effective than giving them the answers. Too often in the past teachers have presented answers, when they should be asking questions. Better still, get the students to ask their own questions. Kate Friedwald, a teacher in Christchurch, New Zealand believes in this, suggesting an approach that answers questions with more questions, finding out for themselves, and exploring. This is the start of enquiry based learning, and for some will develop into a lifelong interest in personal research.

Secondly, make lessons fun. Teachers can only provide so many resources, but the best fun and engagement comes when students create their own resources. This is learning by stealth. As they conceive and construct their resources and then present them, students are actually going through a process where they solve problems, investigate and learn more deeply around the topic. Varying the pace and offer of a lesson also works, as Sonia Guilana, a teacher in Spain notes. She introduces surprise elements, polling and games.

Thirdly, risk taking in a controlled environment such as school need never be hazardous. Experimenting under supervision with chemicals, light sources, language, videos, music, computers, historical events, writing styles, mathematical formulae, in fact just about anything that is in the curriculum, will offer new perspectives for students. The most important point to consider here is to ensure that the lessons are not only physically safe, but also psychologically safe. That means that students are allowed to make mistakes, and are not penalised for doing so. Some of the best learning comes from reflection on failure rather than on success. Kate Galloway, a lecturer at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, argues that there is no real learning without some form of risk.

Finally, a word of advice from former deputy head teacher and now independent education consultant Dave Mitchell, who suggests that all teachers should imagine themselves being a student in the class. Wise words.

'The secret of change is to focus your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.' - Socrates

Image by Zenos Frudakis

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All our tomorrows

It's impossible to predict the future. If I could do so, I would have been a millionaire many times over when I visited Las Vegas. Fortunately I don't gamble, so I simply sat and watched other people trying to predict what would happen next.

Most of them lost their money.

No, I'm not a prophet or a clairvoyant. And yet people keep inviting me to speak about the future of learning. Some physicists argue that the present, the past and the future are much the same thing, but they tend to obfuscate their arguments with strange words such as string theory and quantum foam. Anyway, for most of us common folk, our experience is that the past is a memory and the future is imaginary. All we have and all we experience is the present, time flows in a straight line, and it flows in only one direction.

We can look at the trends though, and we can look at the past to see what lies there. Many technologies are a lot older than we realise, and many are already on the drawing board, or in production before we see them even appearing in science fiction movies. Gesture based computing was already being developed before it featured in the movie Minority Report. The fax machine is nearly 150 years old (in 1846 it was called the telecopier). Newer technologies such as the tablet computer and mobile telephone were first conceived in the 1960s.

Sometimes these emerging ideas and technologies help us to anticipate what is coming next. Often all we need to do is look around us to see what is on the horizon. We could tell in the late 1980s that multi-media was going to be very big. And so it was. In the late 1990s, with the new millennium approaching, we could see that everything was beginning to converge on the Web.  Several years ago, I stuck my head above the parapet at a major conference and predicted that the future of learning would be focused on smart mobile technology. I was lucky to be fairly accurate with that prediction.

Today, at the Reform Symposium #RSCON5 Online Miniconference I presented a keynote entitled 'Digital Learning Futures: 3 things you should know about future learning'. I mentioned several times that our predictions of the future are often seen as ludicrous in hindsight. Where are all the flying cars and moon colonies? Predictions about the future are often so wide of the mark because we talk about the future from our limited present-time horizons.

I overheard two young school boys talking on the train a few months ago. One was saying how much he liked the new Sherlock TV series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The other agreed, but sagely pointed out that the 'classic Sherlock Holmes' films were far superior - the ones starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law! The only way we can ever begin to think about our possible futures is to take a leap of imagination outside and beyond our current experiences. And that is a very difficult thing to do.

My talk went quite well with plenty of great questions from the audience. Soon, I am reliably informed, the full presentation will be online for people to download and watch at their leisure. In the meantime, the slides are made available below for anyone who missed my talk and would like to catch up. Ultimately, my parting comments at #RSCON5 showed that we can invent our own futures. But to do so, we need to stop thinking of the future from the perspective of our current thinking, and take some leaps of imagination into the seemingly impossible.



Photo by McKay Savage on Wikimedia Commons

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Curious learning

Curiosity killed the cat, but it also made each of us who we are today. Without curiosity, none of us would learn very much at all. Learning is based more on curiosity than any other human characteristic. Children who are curious are always interested in discovering more. Children who lose their curiosity usually turn off and tune out. Children are naturally curious, but sadly, rigid school systems and curricula have often knocked this out of them by the time they graduate.

My wife Dawn, who is a teacher in a secondary school, told me this morning that the school inspectors are always demanding evidence that children progress rapidly. She went on to add that children will only progress rapidly if they are fully engaged in their learning, and that engagement can only happen if they are really interested in the subject they are learning. She's right. All educators instinctively know that children who are engaged, are children who achieve. Having a passion for your subject is always a good thing for an educator, and it has an impact on students. But sometimes it is not enough. Other means are necessary to promote curiosity.

The trick is not to rely on new technology. That doesn't necessarily impress younger students. The solution for engaging children and sustaining their curiosity is to engineer situations where they will be challenged, surprised and yes - kept in a constant state of suspense. Sometimes it is as simple as changing the format of a lesson, or altering the layout of a classroom. Sometimes it is to introduce a new approach or problem where students need to take an alternative role. I often create chaos and uncertainty in my lessons. People are not comfortable with this, and will do anything to resolve it into something meaningful. The answer is always, always keep them guessing - and then send them out confused, if you have to.

Sometimes technology can be used to support this process of maintaining curiosity. Giving students a problem to solve is one thing. Embedding the problem into a larger project where they need to rely on each other (collaborative), and their resources (content) and their own intuition and personal qualities (creativity) to achieve their goals. The process is equally important - what they do to get to their goal should require some stamina and fortitude, and it shouldn't come easy. Some of the best learning projects I have seen have been wide ranging, open to multiple interpretations, complex and problematic, and have involved technology of some kind to support the process.

We need to engage our learners. They will only be engaged fully if they can actively participate in their learning. They won't learn if they are not curious. The responsibility for this lies with the educator. Go figure.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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What makes an inspirational teacher?

I had the honour to be presented with an award for 'most innovative use of teaching methods' at the recent Plymouth University student union SSTAR Awards. The evening was a joyous celebration of teaching excellence, and most importantly, all the award nominees and winners were chosen by the university students. For me and other members of teaching staff, this made the event more meaningful. The programme for the event details all of the categories, but what strikes readers the most is the emphasis that is placed on the relationships and respect that exist between the tutors and their students. But how does someone develop their skills to become an excellent teacher? Let's start with being inspirational.

In their nomination statements, Plymouth University students revealed what they thought were the secrets of becoming an inspirational teacher. By far the most important trait they identified was enthusiasm and passion for the subject. Almost a third of those who voted said they were inspired by those lecturers who were genuinely excited about their subject. One student said about their lecturer: 'He excitedly cites relevant material from memory, rousing students' interest and maintaining their attention as if it were vital to their existence - and sometimes, I am convinced of it.' Another stated: 'His inspirational teaching and enthusiasm for the subject is overwhelming. His lessons are delivered with such passion that you cannot help but leave inspired and with a thirst to learn more.'

Learning is not an easy business, so inspiring students to actually want to learn more is quite a feat. Sometimes studying can be tedious, arduous and can even sap the motivation right out of students. Inspirational teachers intervene at the right point, and know instinctively how to change the emphasis and direction of learning, bringing students back on to track by motivating them to succeed. Many times in my teaching career I have seen the need to sit down with a student and encourage them back in to line, and not to give up. Plymouth students also identified many other facets of inspirational teaching they thought important, including the art of giving good feedback that is constructive and forward looking, offering help outside of the formal lecture and seminar context, giving first rate support and advice, and using a variety of innovative and captivating teaching methods. The SSTAR annual awards not only identifies excellent teaching, but also encourages all of us here in Plymouth to strive to be better, and more inspirational as educators.

Photo by Steve Wheeler

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