Thursday, February 27, 2020
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Robert and Elizabeth Bjork are outstanding researchers on learning, the optimisation of memory in particular. The Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab is a trusted source for contemporary research on cognitive science and learning theory. Their focus on memory led to research with real recommendations on how to teach and study, with a particular emphasis on effortful learning using desirable difficulties,
Their starting point, based on evidence, is that many learners are mistaken at best, at worst delusional, when it comes to judgements on whether they have learned things or not. Learners may feel as though they have learnt knowledge or skills but subsequent tests often show that they have not. This is why self-reporting is not a valid method when reporting learning. This illusory or delusional view of learning is very common and results in shallow teaching methods and inefficient study strategies. The Bjorks believe that both teaching and learning can be improved and optimised by introducing techniques that force cognitive effort. Note that Richard Bjork also played a role in researching the lack of efficacy in learning styles in Paschler (2008).
Learning should not be made too easy. Counterintuitively, making learning too easy may lead to easier forgetting. This is because desirable difficulties lead to deeper cognitive effort and processing. Desirable difficulties result in better long-term retention and examples of desirable difficulties may be spaced-practice, interleaving and retrieval practice. Desirable difficulty can also mean that you have to work that little bit harder to learn. But they call upon several techniques to provide desirable difficulties in learning, including but not exclusively:
Do not read repeatedly and underline text, look away from the page and try to recall what you think you know. This act of recall has a strong reinforcement effect and results in higher retention and subsequent recall. The effort in processing increases remembering. Note that retrieval practice is not a test or assessment strategy but a learning experience. It is the repeated act of retrieval that is the most powerful learning experience. This is why frequent quizzing and testing can be a powerful teaching method. In online learning, retrieval can be made more effortful through open input questions.
Spaced practice has also been shown, from Ebbinghaus onwards, to provide desirable difficulty, making learners repeatedly retrieve what they think they know thereby increasing retention and recall. This is not easy to implement but there are many techniques, offline and online that can be used. Topping and tailing with summaries of what was learnt last time, formal nudging, even use of social media are all possible, as are the use of online tools that automate and personalise the practice. It is frequently built into adaptive and personalised learning systems, like Duolingo.
Generating words and knowledge is better than simply reading text. It would appear that this act of generation provides the context for greater subsequent recall.
Interleaving, avoiding long sequences of similar material, interleaving very different learning tasks or variations on that task, increases retention, recall and skill acquisition. This may seem counterintuitive but shows that, rather than learning one thing for a long time, many things can be interleaved, to the benefit of the learner.
When we are aware of what makes us learn better and actively monitor this process, our study practices and schedules change. The Bjorks recommends that learners be taught good learning practices, such as retrieval, interleaving and spaced practice to increase their efficacy in learning.
The Bjorks have taken known practices in learning, and used controlled studies to show that, with changes in practice, we can learn more efficiently. Learning professionals and learners often engage in practices that are sub-optimal, worse still, they may inhibit efficient learning. Their recommended techniques may seem counterintuitive and difficult to implement as they run counter to most current practice but the evidence suggest that he is right. We see these recommendations increasingly used in education and training as those who both teach and learn become aware of these techniques. Technology has also allowed retrieval practice, interleaving and spaced practice to be more easily implemented over time on a personalised basis.
Memory and retrieval cues
Classic study on practice
- Best - word-class soloists
- Good - professional musician
- OK - music teachers
Then he asked them about how often they had practiced. All started at around age five and had a similar pattern of practice in those first few years of about 2-3 hours a week. Thereafter differences arose, so that by age twenty, there were:
- Best - word-class soloists – 10,000 hours
- Good - professional musicians – 8,000 hour
- OK - music teachers – 4,000 hours
He then looked at amateur pianists and found that they practiced around 3 hours a week, clocking up around 2000 hours by age twenty. How do you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice. Note that this was caricatured as a general 10,000 rule, especially by Malcolm Gladwell, something Ericsson doesn’t propose. Another interesting aspect of his study was the complete absence of ‘natural talent’. There were no professionals who hadn’t practiced to the higher level and, just as interesting, none that had practiced this amount and failed. Talent seemed almost absent, hard work produced results.
Experts bred not born
Talent management myth
William James, close friend of the Pragmatist philosopher Charles Pierce and elder brother of Henry James the novelist, asked his younger brother to stay close for six weeks after he died, as he wanted to try to contact him from the next world. No messages were ever received but it showed how seriously he took real inquiry and experimentation. He first studied medicine, then empirical psychology in Germany (starting the first psychological laboratory in the US at Harvard) and later in life, a philosopher.
Widely regarded as the father of modern psychology, his The Principles of Psychology (1890) setting the tone for future inquiry into the mind, establishing psychology as a separate discipline; the scientific study of the mind. Grounded in his philosophical theory of pragmatism, James’s theories emphasised the consequences of one’s actions, and the development of habits, rather than pure theoretical speculation.
Learning by doing
Like Locke, he wrote a practical book Talks to Teachers (1899), originally a series of lectures, giving practical advice to teachers. The difference is that psychology had now become, through his efforts, a science, and its principles could be used in practice. It was here that he put forward his now famous theory on learning by doing. This was to heavily influence John Dewey, and the future of educational theory through to Kolb, Schank and others. The book doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, as psychology is a science; teaching an art. But some psychological principles are clear.
James was the first to see emotions as an important constituent in psychology. They were not some correspondence between physiological events and conscious feelings but actual perception of those processes. Although Cartesian in essence, James saw the emotional world as a primary part of the stream of consciousness and therefore the process of learning.
Like Locke, he believed that education is, above all, the organization of acquired habits of conduct and tendencies to behaviour. Children should not be expected to learn by rote. Their experiences must be turned into useful and habitual behaviour through action, as early as possible. This automaticity makes some cognitive tasks easier, freeing the mind for other higher goals. There is then combination of heart, head and hands here that is beyond pure cognitive structures, a bodily, biological basis for habit. The learner must listen, but then take notes, experiment, write essays, measure, consult and apply. He warned us against seeing this as a purely scientific approach to learning.
The supervision of the acquisition of habit is another of his principles. “Habit is thus the enormous flywheel of society” and should be exercised until securely rooted. The result of almost all learning is this habitual behaviour encouraged in suitable learning habitats, which include self-interest, reflection, efficacy and control matter as these are what drives one towards gaining suitable habits. Human association, interest, attention, will and motivation; these are James’s driving forces in education. In addition there is memory, curiosity, emulation, constructiveness, pride, fear and love - all impulses that must be turned to good use. This is not to say that he favoured a lazy, or what he called ‘soft pedagogics’. He recognized that learning was sometimes hard, effortful, even arduous.
He warns us against reading too much in science, itself a changing feast, as it helps but does not wholly inform real, situated practice in the classroom.
He recommends learning through work and the creation of real things or dealings with real people in, for example, a shop, to give you educational experiences beyond mere theory. He was in fact a firm advocate of vocationally oriented schools and work-based learning. Learners are real, human beings situated in the world and have to see the connection between what they do and its consequences in that world.
Russell roundly attacked James Pragmatism claiming that it was ridiculous to say that “other people exist” means “it is useful to believe that other people exist”. that Someone who holds a pluralistic position must also accept that their own theories are just one or some, among many. This paradox haunts pragmatism. It is related to another criticism, that of relativism. Once the relativist genie is let loose, it is hard to decide on which of the available perspectives is either right or the right pragmatic course of action.
William James proved to be a turning point in the history of both psychology and educational theory. He set both off in a more orderly fashion, introducing the scientific study of the mind as applied to learning. This has since proved to be by far the most fruitful approach to education and learning theory, although still often ignored. In particular, his emphasis on learning by doing still reverberates through Dewey, Kolb and others. James warned us about being too academic and imbalanced in our educational systems, ignoring the vocational and learning by doing. This is a lesson that has been ignored but many countries are now looking at rebalancing their national systems towards the vocational.
John Dewey was a philosopher with a deep interest in politics and education. Dewey spoke out against communism as well as the right-wing threat in US politics, including what he saw as reactionary Catholicism. He was a typical American liberal believing in a secular approach and reform in education, moving it beyond the limitations of traditional ‘schooling’. Did you know that Dewy headed up the commission that investigated Trotsky in Mexico? He also took an interest in finding out about how schools operated with trips to Japan, China, Mexico, Turkey and the Soviet Union.
As a philosopher he was what is called a ‘pragmatist’, a school of philosophy that picked up on ideas from the German idealism of Kant (Dewey’s doctoral dissertation was on Kant) and Hegel, and later emerged from Pierce and James in the 19th century.
Education and society
As befits an American with strong democratic beliefs, he saw education as leading towards the enhancement of and authentic participation in a democratic nation. His reflections on the nature of knowledge, experience and communication, combined with his views of democracy and community, led to an educational theory that started with a broad based vision of what education should be, an identification of educational methods and a practical view of its implementation. He practised what he preached through his own elementary ‘Laboratory School’.
Schools – realisation through practice
That schools had become divorced from society was one of his basic claims. He was refreshingly honest about their limitations and saw schools as only one means of learning, ‘and compared with other agencies, a relatively superficial means’. In fact, he was keen to break down the boundaries of school, seeing them as a community within a community or an ‘embryonic society’. Schools are necessary but must not get obsessed with streaming, testing and not be overly academic in the curriculum. They must reflect the real world, not sit above and apart from society.
His Pragmatist beliefs led him to believe that schools should create real-life, learning opportunities that could be put into practice, by engaging in occupational activities, as practised by the rest of society. He was keen on ‘occupational’ learning and practical skills that produced independent, self-directing, autonomous adults. In his model school, the students planted wheat and cotton, processed and transported it for sale to market. It was about fulfilling the potential of the many, not the few.
Problem based learning
John Dewey, like Socrates, was a philosopher first and educational theorist second, and like Socrates, his progressive educational theory has been simplified to the level of caricature. It is often assumed that he favoured an extreme version of student-centred or discovery learning but this was not in fact the case. In Democracy and Education (1916) he presents a sophisticated interplay between teachers and students, where the teacher must not simply present the subject matter but pay attention to efficacious methods of instruction and meet the developmental needs and interests of learners
He is best known for his scientific or problem-solving approach to learning, presented in How we think (1910). In line with his view that science, experimentation and practice lay at the heart of learning, for both a person and society, he encouraged innovation and abhorred dogmatic principles and practices. For Dewey, exposure to certain types of learning experiences are more important than exposure to others but his concrete advice is often absent.
Dewey was not, as some assume, a full-on progressive and had little time for Rousseau’s free approach to the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Structure and teaching were important. Perhaps his most important contribution to education is his constant attempts to break down the traditional dualities in education between theory and practice, academic and vocational, public and private, individual and group. This mode of thinking, he thought, led education astray. The educational establishment, in his view, seemed determined to keep themselves, and their institutions, apart from the real world by holding on to abstract and often ill-defined definitions about the purpose of education. Aghast at the teaching of religion in schools he also thought that high-end social theories such as neo-Darwiniasm, capitalism and socialism were inappropriate and was against those who believe in dogmas and ideologies.
Habit and practice
Dewey, like Pierce and James, in Human Nature and Conduct (1922) saw ‘habit’ as a fundamental mover in learning. Not the mechanical reinforcement of habit, not the exercise of pure reason but the active formation of emotion and reason in tandem, an active process with biological, cognitive and moral components. He is a post-Darwinian thinker, who sees in habit a flow of given, learnt and social dispositions. Education is a social function and habits are social functions. In Democracy and Education (1916), he promotes diversity of interests, pluralism, experimentation and freedom of thought, where changes in social habit are also important to overcome the barriers of class, race and geography.
Communication and dialogue fuels democratic social action and move individuals towards growth with democracy and science providing degrees of consensus, to encourage this type of growth.
Many criticise Dewey as being a man of his day, subjecting himself to uncritical, faithful adherence to science and capitalism. Critics suggest that this is not truly diverse and pluralistic, as it does, as mIll noted, lead to the tyranny of the majority. He was, despite his pragmatic bent, also non-specific on many aspects of teaching and learning. leaving is somewhat in the dark on detail.