The Purpose of a Brain…

As my career has moved from mainstream cognitive psychology to applying psychology to education, I have become aware of how far apart these two fields (psychology and education) are. There are many educationalists who are very aware of psychology, and a number of them have psychological backgrounds. What surprises me is how the field of education has so many theories and ideas that are not based on what we know about the brain.

One of the most pervasive is the learning preferences (VARK) idea. With no empirical evidence to support it, it has become a fundamental principle of teaching. Other educational theories are brilliant ideas that just don’t fit when it comes to the reality of how we work.

A friend of mine once said to me that the brain is the organ of selection. Using the various sensory inputs, vast storage capabilities, and incredible processing power, the brain uses information to select a course of action. There are various domains of action that might be considered from selecting nourishment from among everything that could be consumed or identifying physical threats to manoeuvring through a complex social structure. I need to be able to select the edible berries from the poisonous ones, respond appropriately the big cat while ignoring the zebra, or differentiate between the sarcastic remark of my line-manager belittling my work, and the joke at the water-cooler. I must be able to select the proper course of action, my brain is the bodily organ that serves that function.

Over the years, I have filtered my understanding of behaviour through that simple theory of the brain with great effectiveness. If someone has an idea about what some form of behaviour represents, I ask myself if this fits with the brain being the organ of selection.

For this reason, I wonder about the recent ideas that the digital world results in the brain rewiring itself. Or the idea that exposure to digital stimulus means that the brain wires itself in a different manner somehow. I know that the brain has incredible plasticity, and changes constantly on exposure to new (or even repeated) stimulus, however, I think that the educationalists who are proponents of brain rewiring are thinking of something more profound and fundamental. This leaves me asking the same question again: how does this fit with the brain being the organ of selection.

As the organ of selection, the brain stores, reuses, recombines information that has been useful in making good selection decisions in the past (learning), and will create novel solutions that can be used to make good selection decisions either in the present or in the future. A vital aspect of the brain’s selection processes are tools. Tools are incorporated by the brain as being extensions of itself, and can include bodily appendages (arms and hands or legs and feet) physical implements (spear, hammer), or mental implements (abacus, computer or internet). When incorporating a tool into its arsenal, the brain does rewire itself in order to effectively use it, but the brain does not become a fundamentally different organ. It is still about selecting the proper course of action.

I read again Siemen’s connectivist theory of learning, and asked myself, how does this fit with the brain being the organ of selection. I think connectivist theory is a brilliant way of thinking about how we can incorporate and use information for selecting a course of action, however, I wouldn’t say that connectivist theory is a theory explaining learning. I think of it as a tool that the brain uses to carry out selection. A powerful tool that provides competitive edge to those who understand and use it, but a tool nonetheless.


Book Limitations

I have been following Dave Cormier’s xED Book blog as he writes his book about MOOCs. His latest entry about textbooks hit a real chord with me.In it, he writes about books, and here is what he says:

public doman, published in 1895 (see http://ww...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The physical book and the logistical and practical constraints that it imposes on knowledge and learning are key to understanding the shift that the internet imposes on education. Among other things the book

  1. Imposes a need to ‘finalize’ a version of knowledge
  2. Requires that the content of a course be decided before the students arrive
  3. Is not easily added to – it does not allow contribution by the learner
  4. cannot argue back

If I was to accuse the book of one crime, it would be that it tends to encourage passivity. As it cannot change, it does not encourage change in others.

The textbook has a set of implicit literacies that go along with it. It encourages linearity. It is a single source. Many of them speak as a single point of authority.

To me, this sums up the problems with traditional teaching methods. As brilliant as books are (and they are brilliant – I love them), they represent a different time and a different age. They are, as Dave points out, a finished product.

I downloaded a visual a few weeks ago about what happens in an internet minute. I know that much of what is posted, uploaded, blogged and tweeted is of limited (very limited, in my view) interest to most of the world, however, some of it represents the explosion of useful information in the world. If I were to disregard 99.9% of it, that still leaves me with over 40 hours of YouTube a day, over 4000 photos, nine new wikipedia articles, 2400 tweets, and over 500 blog articles and 400 comments (on WordPress alone). The point is, how can anyone produce a definitive work? That is what a book is. How can a lecturer teach you the content – that is what a lecture is.

Internet Minute Infographic
Internet Minute Infographic (Photo credit: IntelFreePress)

That is why I feel that higher education needs to change. We are still largely using a book model of knowledge.

Classroom scene, student as teacher
Student as teacher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I teach, I ask my students to wade through these hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of bits of new information every day to find the pearls that apply to what we are learning and present them to the group for evaluation. I am the final arbiter and have to pass judgement on how well they have done (always about the grade), but I can tell you, they generally do well.

For me, this represents the shift from information scarcity to information abundance. And, for my students’ sake I have to resist the constant pressure from University management to conform to real teaching (a mid-term, essay, and a final exam with a question from each section).

Blended Learning

I was reading some of the articles posted for the CFHE12 MOOC and was thinking about why it is that research shows that blended learning is more effective than either face-to-face or online models of teaching.

I know I sound like a broken record, but could it be the underlying psychological principles that are at play here? Does a blended environment lend itself to better engagement with students? Does good blended learning lead to a more thoughtful curriculum design? Or, does improved performance arise out of a coincidental convergence of several factors?

Something is fundamentally changed in a blended environment in order for student performance and satisfaction to be increased. The research on blended learning suggests that students spend more time, or have more time to spend, on the work. However, other research suggests that students have the time, if they choose to prioritise their studies (they spend on average between 26 and 28 hours a week on studies). I know that one of the principles of psychology that will enhance engagement in learning is empowerment in the learning process. I wonder if the blended aspects allow the students to feel some measure of control that they otherwise wouldn’t feel. In the Educause chapter, on postmodality in learning, there is an emphasis on flexibility as the key to new directions. Flexibility, from a learners perspective, is situational empowerment. That may not be empowerment in what they learn, but it is empowerment in the process of learning.

Keep Calm and Carry On

In July, Jordan Weissmann gave us all a warm fuzzy blanket to make us feel better about higher education and the direction we are going. Whispering a soothing lullaby to university heads and administers everywhere, he rocked the cradle of complacency with reassurances that all is well, and we have nothing to fear.

However, the fear is still there. The unsettled feelings of disquiet just won’t go away. I’m sure the apologists who still lecture in the same way they always have will be relieved to hear that the internet isn’t really going to change anything. We should keep calm and carry on.

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...
Photo credit: Wikipedia

The idea that researchers make the best teachers is still resoundingly true, I am the centre of my teaching world because of my expertise, lecturing is a fine art refined over centuries of practise, students are learning as well today as they ever have, our graduates can think better, and have better skills than ever before, and we have new funding models and resources that will answer all our problems.

Except that all of this simply isn’t true. The world is changing. Just because we want to hear that everything is the same as it always has been, and aways will be, that doesn’t make it true. The world has moved into the age of information abundance in as little as five years. Our world (the world of universities) is firmly rooted in the age of information scarcity. EDx isn’t going to change that. EDx is based on a flawed model. EDx is simply taking what we currently do and digitising it.

There are answers out there. There are models of learning that work. There are reasons for universities to still exist. We just haven’t embraced them yet, and I have doubts that we (in the West) will, which is why I read with interest about Africa and India will lead the education revolution. I agree, and am excited to see it happening.

Talent or Labour and Learning

I read a great post by Harold Jarche where he talked about an article in the NY Times about this topic. I wanted to explore it a bit in regards to what our students learn, and what they want to learn.

The difference, as Harold hi-lighted, is that talent is related to initiative, creativity, and passion, and is not easily replaceable by automation. Labour can be, and is being, automated and outsourced. Our post industrial, capitalist society is destroying labour, and elevating talent.

So, what does this have to do with learning, or more precisely, what does this have to do with what students want to learn.

I have the opportunity to teach hundreds of students research methods and statistics in a large psychology department. I have done this for about 20 years, and deal with about 300 students a year. One of the most difficult things that I have to teach them (and usually fail with too many) is to use their judgment in the interpretation of their findings. They want rules to follow, checklists to refer to, and algorithms to run. They want to be able to use formulaic language to describe their outcomes.

As an example, they will write that “Group A performed higher than Group B, and the difference was significant, t(43) = 4.72, p = .001, and therefore the null hypothesis is not accepted.” Very safe, but utterly meaningless. Completely devoid of any need for judgement. What I want them to write is the following “The Social Learning group learned significantly more than the Individual Learning Group, t(43) = 4.72, p = .001, meaning that students learn more in groups than when studying alone.”

What does this have to do with talent or labour? I think that being a labourer is much easier than being someone who uses talent. Being a labourer relies on following rules and procedures, referring to checklists, and running algorithms. Expressing talent means you must rely more on yourself, make judgments, and take a chance. I know that the illustration above doesn’t take a lot of talent, however, I think that a willingness to take the difficult step of putting yourself out there.

The illustration relies on rules, checklists, and algorithms, but they don’t define the outcome, only guide it. I think that real talent knows the rules, can rely on them for guidance, and then steps outside expectations to use expertise and judgment to come up with novel solutions. This can’t be reduced to a set of algorithms. This is what higher order skills should foster. This should be our goal as educators in Higher Education.

This is why teaching content is a dead end for HE. Content, and content alone is only information. In order for information to become knowledge, an internal transformation must take place that allows connections to be made, and information to become usable.