Wednesday, March 30, 2016

One book on learning that every teacher, lecturer & trainer should read (7 reasons)

I have shelf upon shelf of books on learning but if I had to recommend just one book it would be Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. It has one big weakness, and I’ll come to that later., but what makes it compelling is it’s its laser like focus on contemporary research on optimal methods of learning, while swatting pseudo-theories to one side.
1. Counterintuitive
By far the most important message in the book comes at the start when they boldly claim that most good learning theory is counterintuitive. They set the scene by explaining why most students are misled by institutions into the wrong strategies for studying. Intuitively, reading, highlighting, underlining and rereading seems productive but the evidence suggests it is a largely hopeless strategy for learning. In fact, the evidence shows that we are very poor judges of our own learning. The optimal strategies for learning are in the 'doing' and some of that doing is counterintuitive. 
We kid ourselves into thinking we’re mastering something but this is an illusion of mastery. It’s easy to think you’re learning when the going is easy – re-reading, underlining, repetition…. but it doesn’t work. To learn effectively, you must make the going harder and employ a few counterintuitive tricks along the way. They neatly explain why the research is NOT about rote learning, the charge that is usually levelled against them - just to head that one off at the pass.
2. Effortful learning
This is the premise – effortful learning. It’s what most of the people I admire in the learning world have been saying for years – Schank, Downes and most academic, cognitive scientists. By effort they mostly mean retrieval practice This is the one strategy they hammer home. Use your own brain to retrieve, or do, what you think you know. Flashcard questions, simple quizzes (not multiple-choice) anything to exercise the brain through active recall, not only reinforces what you know (and so easily forget) but may even be even stronger, in terms of subsequent retention and recall, than the original exposure. That’s a killer finding. Recall is more powerful than teaching.
3. Testing
Practically, they recommend regular, low-stakes testing for teachers and learners. And before you get all tetchy about ‘teaching to the test’, they don’t mean summative assessment but regular formative exercises, where recall is stimulated and encouraged. The evidence here is pretty overwhelming. Test little and often – that’s what makes effortful learning stick. To repeat - they don’t mean testing as assessment, they mean learning.
4. Solve before being taught
Interesting research is also presented for the idea that having a go, even when you make mistakes and errors, is better than simply getting the exposition. The active learning seems to have a powerful effect on retention and recall.
5. Spaced-practice
I’ve been banging on about this for decades but they nail the research, namely its efficacy, and the fact that it is NOT mere repetition. All of that Bjork stuff on ‘Deliberate difficulties’ is also in here.
6. Interleaving
Rather than doing a homogeneous set of learning or retrieval tasks, try interleaving them. The evidence suggests that this makes gives you higher retention and you are much more adaptable when it comes to solving new problems in the future.
7. Delayed feedback
An interesting one this. Apparently, instantaneous feedback can be less productive than delayed feedback. I’ve used this recently and have to agree that I see the point.
The book cleverly employs the methods they recommend in its structure but it has one big weakness - the third author. Whereas I had heard of Roediger and McDaniel as well published academics, I had never heard of Peter Brown. It looks as though the publisher has made them hire a novelist to bring their research to life. Brown introduces each chapter with overwritten stories to illustrate the research but I found them wearisome. Interestingly, none of their research supports this approach to learning and stories and storytelling don’t even appear in the index. Read them if you want - I just skipped them.
The book gives a brilliant update on recent research in cognitive science on how we learn. (You don’t see Vygotsky in the index of this book, thank God.) It's the result of over ten years of focused research on 'Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice'. It’s practical and gives plenty of advice on both how to teach and how to learn, the point being that knowing how to learn is a necessary condition for good teaching.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

I’m a 'storyteller' – yawn!

I’m increasingly introduced, or sharing a platform with people, who claim they’re a ‘storyteller’. I’m just perplexed, as I have no idea what this means. I know lots of people who can tell a damn good story down the pub and can hold a group entranced, but they’d never have the cheek to call themselves ‘storytellers’. When I try to tease out what their storytelling actually means, I find that it’s usually a synonym for being an underemployed extrovert.
Stories about what?
For one, it simply begs the question, ‘Stories about what?’ Now that you’ve told me you’re some sort of Homer, what have you got to say? I’ve known lots of oddballs who tell great stories but I wouldn’t trust them to hold a stick for two minutes, never mind regard their stories as sage advice. This is to confuse substance with form. Ever been collared by a ‘storyteller’ and felt internally as if you were going to expire with boredom?
Cock and bullshit
I’ve seen umpteen ‘futurists’ cull stories from the web and string them together to form story-based talks. It’s often cock and bullshit. Even worse, are those who present theories based on a flimsy list of words starting with the letter “C”, as if the real world (as opposed to their limited vocabulary) is really that alliterative. The word ‘creativity’ will inevitably appear, that most hollow of concepts, but so will collaboration, critical thinking, community, character, connectedness….
Plural of story is not data
Now let me turn to another ‘storytelling school of thought’. In education and training, there’s plenty who profess, as if it were a Copernican revelation, that ‘it’s all about storytelling’. Don’t give me THAT story. We have, since Socrates and Plato, been warned about the dangers of storytelling. Its tendency to tell tall tales, romanticise, exaggerate, over-structure into a beginning, middle and a happy end, come to unwarranted conclusions and be used as a form of fictional propaganda. Me – when I really want to learn something - I like straight stuff.  I like good research, straight to the point, concise and evidenced writing. Stories can get in the way. The ‘storytellers’ often peddle tales without substance, evidence or data. The plural of story is not data.
Storytelling s marketing
I’m OK with stories, in their place, but they’re not ‘everything’. They may even encourage the sort of long-form lecturing that plagues education and training. Sure, tell a narrative or story if that’s helpful, but the mantra, that good teaching is ALL about storytelling, is a caricature of the many methods one has to employ to teach – and learn. Stories that have gone wrong, as they were untrue and dangerous include; learning styles, L/R brain theory, Dales cone, whole word teaching, NLP, Myers Briggs, Maslow, Kirkpatrick and so on. Many of these are ‘stories’ have some triangle or concept grid, that is easy to tell and sell. The storytellers recruit ‘practitioners’ and through the storytelling that is marketing, they become Ponzi schemes. The same old stories, told again and again and again….

To take the telling of tales seriously, and some have, like Roger Schank, who, usefully in my view, used the word ‘script’, as opposed to story, you’d want to look at the way we learn in terms of short contextualised narratives. That’s fine, but few of the so-called self-styled, storytellers have this in mind. Indeed, as we all know, we have a tendency to get locked into those scripts and narratives, our stock of anecdotes, out ‘stories’. This often misses the nuances of teaching and learning. Learning is far too complex a business to be reduced to the idea of ‘stories’. And before you accuse me of just having told a ‘story’ – it’s not, it’s a ‘rant’ – there’s a difference.

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Amazing, mind-blowing ‘people’ possibilities in VR and AR

When I demo VR to people they often struggle to see its potential application in the real world. One dimension they often miss is its potential to let you interact with other people - it’s social dimension. Far from being socially isolating, it may be socially liberating. The possibilities are mind-blowing.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Remember that Facebook bought Oculus for 2.3 billion dollars, when it had not a single customer. Why? Zuckerberg saw the social possibilities of multiplayer VR. He could see that Facebook, the world’s most successful social network, could be transformed by this technology. VR may be the future of social networking. Rather than the flat, text and pics medium we see today, we’ll be able to meet, socialise, do business, experience entertainment and learn in 3D spaces with anyone, anyplace at anytime. Multiplayer VR is already here. You can play games or train in a multiplayer environment right now.
Augmented Reality (AR)
Microsoft is also working on the AR angle with ‘holoportation’. The ability for you and anyone else to holoport to any place at any time really is on the horizon. Imagine teleporting from one place to another. If two people can wear their HoloLens they can see each other as being present in the same space. You have to see this to believe it. First you need to capture you’re body, so that it can be reconstructed online. We can all be created as virtual people,  compressed and reconstructed in the other person’s space, in real time. Note that with AR anyone can be seen in the room with you, as if they were standing there. This works through ‘live capture’.
Within VR or AR worlds you need to be able to move around, interact and do things. In VR, controllers such as the Xbox games controller, that comes with the Oculus Rift, are already shipping. Other devices such as the Oculus Touch are in development, along with haptic gloves and suits. You can already move around, manipulate objects and feel them in you hands.
In AR, Microsoft’s Bluetooth controller is a simple one button device that you strap to your fingers. Remember that voice recognition and is likely to play a huge role in interactivity and, of course, social interaction, along with gestures. Don’t forget the possibilities with the headtracking itself, as you know where the person is looking and can place sounds, other people and objects anywhere you want, dynamically, in relation to that movement.
As others see us
Weirdly, you can also put yourself in another person’s shoes and see the world from their point of view. A doctor sees as a patient and experience what it is like to have a visual, hearing or physical disability. A teacher can experience what the learner sees and does. A coach can experience what a sport’s person is experiencing during practice. A man can experience what a woman sees, does and experiences and vice-versa. This opens up possibilities in training of sexual harassment and equal opps. You can experience what it is like to be of any other gender, race, age or disability in any other place. There have already been experiments in experiencing life as a refugee.
Global experience
Virtual travel with a mountaineer or astronaut is possible. You can fly with a bird. You can actually be on the Moon or Mars. You can experience being in a concert or sports event and be with there on the field or stage. More than this, new forms of film and games will allow you to be inside the film or game and have other people in your team right there with you. You will be able to interact with these other people, just as you would in real face-to-face situations, whether they are AI controlled avatars or real people.
Global classroom
In learning, we really can have one-to-one tuition, as if the person was actually there, with you, in the same space. The Global Classroom becomes a possibility, with teachers and learners getting together, no matter where they are on the planet. Groups of people can learn together, even in other created VR worlds, such as outer space, below the ocean, at the atomic level, inside the body – anywhere. Imagine MOOCs where all of this is possible and millions can be taught by the best teachers using the best created worlds, as if you were actually there.

In both VR and AR, you will be able to connect with relatives, work colleagues, friends, teachers and other learners at any time, in any place. The world is literally in your living room or wherever you choose it to be. This is more than the global village it is the global room.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Social media as powerful method of learning – the evidence

Discussion around social media and learning tends to focus on the networking effects; the fact that you are in touch with others and gain from that nexus of expertise and knowledge. While this is true, there is another dimension to social media that is pertinent to learning – it’s role in terms of actual learning and memory.
The fact that social media is an act of expression, reflection, elaboration, retrieval and practice is of interest to those of us who like to see concrete evidence for powerful learning and retention. I often feel as though I remember more when I use social media, indeed have stronger memories of the things I posted than the original exposure. Tweeting during a conference helps me consolidate my thoughts and capture key insights. Facebook helps me share resources. LinkedIn is a useful professional tool. However, it is blogging, such as this post, that is by far my strongest form of learning, as it involves a number of things that are all supported by researched learning theory, and which improve memory and recall:
1. Reflection
We know that deep processing increases learning and recall and in my experience, those active on social media get used to reflecting in some depth on their experiences. You get into the habit of reflecting as you know you are likely to express yourself later. The act of Tweeting, posting or blogging is therefore a direct act of deep reflection. This intentional attitude, in my experience, increases curiosity and the habit of taking notes and exploring things in greater detail.
2. Generation
Tweeting, posting or blogging is a self-generative act and we know that this effortful learning (see make It Stick) contributes positively to deeper understanding, processing and eventually recall. In writing you are both retrieving and elaborating on your own experiences. A perfect example of generative learning is the correction and generation of Wikipedia content. All of these forms of generation have proven benefits in learning.
3. Elaboration
The act of expressing yourself also helps elaborate learning, another proven positive effect on memory. With a Tweet, this may be the useful act of being concise and pithy. With Facebook, it may be a longer post but with a personal touch. With blog posts, there’s often a deeper form of elaboration through analysis, structured writing and conclusions. There may also be photographs, graphics, diagrams and links, all elaborating your learning, McGaugh (2000)
4. Retrieval
This is one of the most powerful ways to learn in terms of long-term recall. To use social media is to retrieve what your remember, often re-expressing it in the form of a Tweet, post or blog. This act of retrieval, according to recent research (see make It Stick), is even more powerful than the original exposure. So social media expression may be more powerful than the original learning experience.
5. Interleaved and varied practice
Given the often fragmented nature of social media use, you often find yourself, not expressing a series of similar ideas but a more interleaved set of items. Varied practice, another well researched method of improving learning, is also likely as many who use social media, use its different forms, varying the way information is expressed. It is this variation and sequential interleaving of activity that is far more powerful than re-reading and repetition.
6. Spaced-practice
Social media is not a designed form of spaced-practice, it is just a form of expression that takes place across time. Tweets, posts and blogs may be written minutes, hours, even days after an event or learning experience. Note that this is not a form of mere repetition, which we know does not result in significant gains in learning. It is spaced ‘practice’ in the sense of retrieved, re-expressed and generated knowledge. This is the form of spaced-practice that does increase consolidation and recall.
7. Imagery
An interesting adjunct to the core 'textual' nature of social media is the growing use of images and video. Wikipedia, that great social construct, one which I have not mentioned as a learning resource, but is clearly a monumental achievement and resource, now has accompanying images. But in posting images of places you've been, slides you've seen, objects you've seen in museums, you are reinforcing their presence and relevance in memory. For me, these act as 'cues' in Tulving's sense, which allow me to retrieve entire experiences in conferences, foreign cities, museums, art galleries and so on.
8. Portfolio
Lastly, we have the idea that your learning has been archived. Those active on social media often observe that they go back to look at something that they Tweeted, posted or blogged some time ago. These items preserve valuable information and links, almost like an on-going e-portfolio. In fact I almost regard my blog as my huge, persaonal e-portfolio. You find yourself consolidating your own knowledge by backward reference to your own blogs, posts and Tweets.
9. Habit
One more powerful learning strategy is 'habit' or habitual learning. John Locke and William James both stressed the importance of developing fruitful habits in learning. Strong, autonomous learners tend to have these habits, whether it's reading, Tweeting, posting, blogging, note taking and practice. Social media is, by definition, habitual, some would call it addictive. When learning becomes addictive, we make real progress in moving from the culture of 'learn then forget' to 'learn to remember' and 'lifelong learning'.
10. Social learning
Of course, the most obvious point is left to last. We learn from others and there is a social component in learning. Bandura and others have identified this as an important component in the learning process and social media delivers it in spades.
Rather than scoff at social media, we should celebrate its use when associated with learning. Many report great benefits in terms of learning through social media. There is even an argument for seeing it as a valuable component in CPD. What better way to learn that keeping in touch with experts and colleagues not just limited to those in your workplace or through the occasional training course. More than this it is clear that some well-researched principles of learning are congruent with social media use. And.... it's free.

Note that abundant evidence is presented for all these principles in learning theory, in one excellent book which summarises ten years of research in “Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice’. Brown P, Roediger H. McDaniel M.(2014) Make It Stick. Harvard University Press. When asked if there is one book in learning theory that summarises the findings of recent research into learning and memory, I always recommend this one book. For me, it should be essential reading for any teacher, lecturer or learner.

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