Monday, June 27, 2022


Allison Rossett was Professor of Educational Technology at San Diego University for 36 years from 1977 to 2013. From the 1980s onwards she was a pioneer in seeing performance, performance support and job aids as fundamental in the workplace. With a constant eye on the psychology of learning, especially transfer, she saw the need for performance support that was proximate to what people actually did at work. Rossett was as much interested in applying her ideas to education as organisational learning. 

Performance technology

It was over 30 years ago (1990) that Rossett was looking at performance technology, as opposed to instructional technology. She saw, in both education and organisational training, the need to see learning as a process that requires up-front analysis to determine how to meet learner needs. This meant reimagining what had to be done to meet those needs. These ideas were expanded in the Handbook of Human Performance Technology (1992) in which early performance theorists such as Rummler, Ruth and Richard Clark had papers, hers focusing on analysis and evaluation, which she saw as being intimately connected. It was her recognition that technology was and would continue to be the enabler of performance support that made her work relevant at the time and prophetic. 

Job aids

As early as 1991, in her Job aids in a performance technology world, she was recommending Job Aids in learning, including the now fashionable checklists, decision aids, step-by-step aids, all with the aim of improving performance on the job. What marks her out here is that she grounded these recommendations in cognitive psychology, especially transfer. Rossett was always keen to see performance technology as playing a role in technology based learning but was keen to flesh out the necessary analysis, especially of performance problems, along with issues around implementation. Innovation in performance technology is easy, implementation is hard and so this included the motivational issues around making job aids noticeable and engaging (1993). But it was in Job aids and performance support (2007) that she laid out her theories, along with many useful examples where job aids “match needs of the task to the performer”. She introduced two different forms of performance support:

    1. Planners
    2. Sidekicks

Planners prepare for longer-term decisions, sidekicks immediate problems. She also anticipated nudge learning, with captology (Computer As Persuasive Technology). In relating performance support back to memory, she acknowledges the work of Ruth Clark and what she calls the ‘father of Performance Support’, Tom Gilbert and the father of Job Aids, Joe Harless, and, of course, Gloria Gery. 
What also matters is her identification of the situations where performance support is not suitable, such as fluency, novel problems, workers with low literacy and demotivated employees. They work well with procedures and information, where there can be a convergence of work with learning and as new technology, such as mobiles, came along, she also kept a keen eye on whether they were actually being used or not, wary of the hype. She also explored the role of performance support in everyday life (2008), showing her breadth of thought. 

Blended learning 

As blended learning emerged she provided some useful guidance on how to implement the idea without the fatuous default to cookbook metaphors. Blended learning, was for Rossett (2006) something obvious that needed to replace the one-size-fits-all training paradigm. It also had to accept that performance and performance support was likely to be part of most blends. 


She was committed to working with her graduate students on campus, online and in their field placements. Like many others at that time, Rossett saw that technology should not be restricted to the production of ‘courses’. Her interest in performance led her to use the phrase ‘learning in the workflow’ years before more recent consultants pretended they had invented the term. This led her to see Job Aids as essential, efficient and timely, as transfer of knowledge and skills could more be more readily realised. It is to her credit that she stuck firmly to this view, even when the technology was difficult to implement, before the advent of the internet and all of the learning in the workflow theorists around now are in debt to her foresight. 


Rossett, A., 1990. Performance technology and academic programs in instructional design and technology: Must we change?. Educational Technology, 30 (pp.48-51. Stolovitch, H.D., Keeps, E.J. and Finnegan, G., 2000. Handbook of human performance technology: Improving individual and organizational performance worldwide. Rossett, A., 1991. Job Aids in a Performance Technology World. Performance and Instruction, 30(5), pp.1-6. Rossett, A., 1992. Performance Technology for Instructional Technologists: Comparisons and Possibilities. Performance and instruction, 31(10), pp.6-10. Tilaro, A. and Rossett, A., 1993. Creating Motivating Job Aids. Performance and Instruction, 32(9), pp.13-20. Rossett, A. and Schafer, L., 2007. Job aids and performance support: Moving from knowledge in the classroom to knowledge everywhere. John Wiley & Sons. Paino, M. and Rossett, A., 2008. Performance support that adds value to everyday lives. Performance Improvement, 47(1), pp.37-44.

Monday, April 25, 2022

Is the Ukraine Russia's Vietnam?

Many moons ago, Gil and I went to Vietnam on a whim. It wasn’t long after the end of the Vietnam war. We saw people cooking pho in GI helmets on the street, purple hearts were on sale in junk shops, crashed helicopters in gardens, the signs and wreckage of war were everywhere. Some images from Ukraine reminded me of this. The folly of thinking that full armoured divisions and helicopters will defeat a more determined army.

The Ukraine is, indeed, starting to look like Russia’s Vietnam. As the war continues, a highly motivated, agile, local army continues to out-think and ambush the invader at every opportunity, not with heavy armour but local support and surprise. The body bags keep piling up, angering folk back home and an increasing use of conscripts is being used as casualties (circa 20,000) continue to rise. This is a much faster casualty rate than either Vietnam for the Americans or Afghanistan for the Russians. It will take its toll.

Putin is even starting to look like Nixon, lost in his own peculiar Alice in Wonderland fantasy world of uber-long tables, sitting in big Baroque chairs (dictators adore these) in big white rooms, having Mad Hatter tea parties with expressionless guys in big brown and red military hats and epaulets. What worries me is the possibility that he turns into Kurtz, who takes that Marxist historicist, dialectical materialist BS and turns his thesis and anti-thesis, into the final nuclear synthesis. Historicism has a bad habit of becoming deterministic, driven by what he, and Marx, perceived as destiny. I thought that shit had died in 1975 with Pol Pot. It hadn't, the flame still kept alive by mad dictators and hapless academics.

For the present, however, despite his delusional bombast, Russia lost the Battle of Kiev, lost their flagship Naval vessel, a week later they have made no progress on their new fronts, are fighting clearly subversive fires on Russian territory and, unbelievably, Mariupal is still not completely conquered. Like the US in Vietnam, they have responded by simply bombing the hell out of the place. That’s desperate, it’s also morally despicable.

In truth, like the US, they had lost the war the minute they invaded, as the damage they inflicted in trying to win was sure to destroy most of the country. The means had become worse than the end. Their troops are most likely exhausted, demotivated, poorly supplied and want this to end as quickly as possible, just like the GIs at the time. 

The sad truth is that this whole exercise, like Vietnam, seems ‘doomed to succeed’ in that Putin, once he had started, couldn’t back down, even though he has unleashed forces - militarily, economic and political - way beyond his expectations. They’re now stuck in a global quagmire, having made more enemies than friends. The US had the economic clout to pay for Vietnam and recover, Putin may, single-handedly, have created a second Soviet Union collapse, similar to that of the 90s. Lloyd Austin said as much yesterday “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine. It has already lost a lot of military capability… we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”

The similarity doesn’t end there. Within two years Kennedy was dead (we tend to forget that it was a very popular President Kennedy, who escalated that war but that’s another story), LBJ rumbled on and Nixon was eventually kicked out as the country turned against him. War does funny things to so-called leaders - both good and bad.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

The Drone War: Ukraine

I've been droning on about drones for some time. In 2018 I was in Rwanda, where I got to meet a number of drone companies, delivering blood, doing crop mapping and so on. I came back, wrote a lot about this technology, bought one, gave talks at conferences on the topic and on 27 March had a punt here on Facebook, saying that “Ukraine is a drone war. Ukraine may be the first ever drone war.”

I have a consumer drone. The DJI Mavic 2 Pro can fly up to 8 km (4.3 miles) and will return to your feet with the press of a button. You can see what it sees on your smartphone and the stills and video quality are superb. When you use one, it is not difficult to see its potential in war.

Drones are being used in the Ukraine for several purposes
1. Reconnaissance
2. Payload delivery
3. Distraction 
4. PR

The Ukrainians have employed small autonomous teams, armed with drones, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and beaten off the supposed might of Red Army. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and the US-made Switchblade are attack drones that have been hugely effective. Swicgtblades are small, less than 2 foot, collapsable drones that fit in a rucksack, and are armoured. There's a larger 50 pound version. These are being sent in the hundreds to Ukraine.

My friend Peter O’Shea sent me a military article explaining why ‘finding is better than flanking’. Find and destroy, by drones, negated the need to risk flanking as it has the immediacy of surprise. A whole range of drones with lethal payloads have been used to good effect. They have even been used as distractors. The pride of the Russian Navy was sunk after being distracted by drones while a Neptune missile was launched.

A feature of drone tech often missed is its propaganda value. We are watching this war through the eyes of drones. Drone tech is tech that has changed the world without us realising it. We are barely aware of those thousands of drone shots we watch in films and box sets. Spectacular and cheap, it has changed the whole aesthetic of film. Those shots of Mariupol and tanks being taken out are often from the sky, recoded directly and downloadable from a smartphone. We see tank turrets fly, Russian soldiers running in fire. This war is Baudriallardian in that we see it from the sky. We’re there. There is nowhere to hide. All of that video is, of course carefully curated and released. Ultimately, wars are won by hearts not heads. The Ukrainians have won our hearts, hands down.

What we now see is a clapped out Red army, fighting an imaginary war from some old World War II manual. Their Putinesque centralised, command and control structure has been out manoeuvred by small teams with little drones, backed up with payload drones and a population with smartphones that pinpoints the position of every one of their clumsy tanks and trucks. All they’re left with is artillery. Even Mariupol has not yet fallen, with a small group holding on for weeks against the supposed might of the Red army. It’s prized naval ship was sunk after being distracted by a drone! 

This clapped-out, old bandwagon has caused chaos simply because of its size but it is being wiped out, vehicle by vehicle. It’s a short drive from the Belarus border to Kiev, less than London to Birmingham and they still couldn’t get near the city, never mind take it. They have depleted their army, embarrassed themselves, turned Europe against them, strengthened NATO, lost their largest export market and will go through a second economic collapse, shunned by decent democracies.

Russia has already lost this war. Its army is being decimated. Its reputation is in the toilet. It has lost all of its bordering states and will lose more. More than this, it has strengthened the West. The only two countries left in Europe that are pro-Putin are Serbia and Cyprus, which is basically a Russian bank.

So where next? The same direction of travel. The EU needs to get its 27 fingers out of their bumholes and contribute to the defence of their people with a 2% of GDP commitment. They need to wash the dirty money out of the system and continue with strict sanctions until Putin and his cronies go. 

Oh... and invest in drones. We don't know the half of it in drone world. Truss talked about Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems, which are armed drones. They are designed for open, flat country, so perfect on the new Eastern front. Phoenix Ghost is a low-cost, single-use suicide drone that behaves like a loitering munition — flying around an airspace before ramming itself into a target. My own view is that long distance, bird-like drones are already being used with incendiary payloads to start fires in key buildings. Insect size drones for surveillance also in action. I suspect these have already been in use and that drones will continue to play their key role, if not winning role, in this war.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Is handwriting better than typing for note taking? Surprisingly, it's not!

Karl Marx wrote a short summary of every book he read and many scholars and successful people refer to note taking as the secret of their success. I once shared a platform with Richard Branson, where he put his entire business success down to his lifetime habit of taking notes. Apart from being dyslectic, he made the simple point that we forget most of the good ideas we come up with, so taking notes prevents forgetting. He attributed almost all of his business ideas and successes to note taking.

I am also an obsessive note taker and have dozens of black notebooks which have helped me learn and plan over the years. I am often astonished, when speaking to large audiences of learning professionals, how few take notes, when the forgetting curve has been established, since Ebbinghaus in 1885, as one of best known and researched pieces of learning science.

Of course, note taking has always been a staple for learners, especially in Higher Education and the research is clear on their efficacy. Generative note taking and the use of such notes significantly enhances learning. Yet, as technology has become more ubiquitous in learning, the ways in which learners can take notes have expanded. In a study of 577 college students, Morehead (2019), it was found that notes were almost always taken, in notebooks and laptops. Smartphones are also increasingly used to grab images of whole slides, useful when graphs and diagrams are presented but also for the main test points. Students often chose different and combined methods for different courses and contexts. Unfortunately, they don’t always know how and when to optimise their note taking.

That brings me to one of the great myths in learning theory, the idea that it has been proven, without doubt, that hand written notes result in greater learning outcomes than typing.

It is an often deeply held belief among educators that, for learners, handwriting is better than typing. You can see why it is so enthusiastically embraced by those who don't really like this pesky new technology, and that good old fashioned pens and pencils trump the computer. But there’s a problem - it’s not true.

The study that got everyone in such a traditional tizz, by Mueller and Oppenheimer, came out in 2014, with the grand title of ‘The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking’. This eye catching title got tons of publicity and a willing audience of believers. It is strange how a study is enthusiastically taken up and remembered when it confirms one biases.

Most note-taking literature pre-dates computers, so the study hypothesised that typing led to shallower processing and that typing tended to encourage more verbatim note-taking. In three studies, it compared learners who watched the same TED videos:

  1. Laptop versus longhand performance.

  2. Laptop versus longhand performance (students instructed to avoid verbatim not taking)

  3. Laptop versus longhand performance (study of notes was included before testing)

In all three cases they noted the superior performance on conceptual questions by longhand note takers


Few picked up on the replication study in 2019. In this study, researchers replicated and expanded the earlier work by using the same videos but adding a group that took notes on an eWriter and a group that took no notes. The researchers also tested students on the content of the videos two days after watching to examine the effect of different note-taking styles on retention. In one version of the experiment, they allowed participants to study their notes before the test to imitate more closely how students use class notes to study for assessments.

When it came to conceptual questions, longhand did not outperform typing. Indeed, in one test, the laptop, eWriter and no notes groups actually outperformed the handwriting group on conceptual questions. In general, when learners were allowed to study their notes, all advantages just disappeared for the retention test.

In truth, this study does not prove it either way, as the results seemed to reverse. But the idea that there is a significant difference is not proven.

Then Voyer et al. 2022, a meta-anaylsis that explored the effect of longhand and digital note taking on performance, showed no effect of method of note taking on performance under controlled conditions. It considered 77 effect sizes from 39 samples in 36 articles, showing no effect on note taking approach.

It would seem that writing notes in your own words, and studying your notes, matter more than the methods used to write your notes. This makes sense, as the cognitive effort involved in studying are likely to outweigh the initial method of capture. It is not note taking that matters but effortful learning.

Digital note taking has the clear advantage of being capable of being edited, formatted, stored, printed, searched and transmitted anywhere across the internet and devices. This blog piece is a good example. It also allows tools such as spellcheck and grammar checks to be applied, citations automatically formatted, images and video imported. Not much text is written in longhand these days.

This debate focuses on one issue, the method of note talking but the more important issue is to move beyond note taking to actual learning. Here we know that underlining, highlighting and rereading are not efficient learning strategies. One needs to move towards effortful, generative learning, deliberate, retrieval and spaced practice. Note taking is not an end in itself, merely the start of a learning journey. It is an important bridge to more effortful learning.


Voyer, D., Ronis, S.T. and Byers, N., 2022. The effect of notetaking method on academic performance: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 68, p.102025.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Blasiman, R. and Hollis, R.B., 2019. Note-taking habits of 21st century college students: implications for student learning, memory, and achievement. Memory, 27(6), pp.807-819.

Morehead, K., Dunlosky, J. and Rawson, K.A., 2019. How much mightier is the pen than the keyboard for note-taking? A replication and extension of Mueller and Oppenheimer (2014). Educational Psychology Review, 31(3), pp.753-780.

Mueller, P.A. and Oppenheimer, D.M., 2014. The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological science, 25(6), pp.1159-1168.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Galton - Nature v nurture and eugenics

Sir Francis Galton  (1822-1911), the English polymath, was Darwin’s half cousin, and was enormously influenced by both The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, especially the chapter in former on Variation under Domestication. This was to lead to his later work on ‘eugenics’, a term he coined. As a child prodigy, who left school at 16 as he found the curriculum too dull and narrowly classical, he was a mind of individual spirit, developing the modern fingerprint identification system and weather maps. He was a brilliant statistician and it was his aim to identify and quantify the nature of human intelligence. The phrase ‘Nature versus nurture’ came from Galton. 

Experimental psychology 

As an example of his approach to science, in meteorology, he gathered data at different locations, three times a day and invented weather maps based on htat data, with the arrows and symbols we see today. As one of the first experimental psychologists, he used his analytic skills, along with data, to create what is called Differential Psychology, the attempt to identify differences between people, rather than their common abilities and traits. He used many of the statistical ideas and techniques we take for granted today, including: correlation (which he used but did not invent) and observed, rather than applied, regression to the mean in his observations of breeding sweet peas. He also used natural distribution curves to analyse the data. 

This developed into a more specific inquiry into the nature of our species. He started with large data sets on physical characteristics such as height and facial shapes. This led to him developing fingerprints as a unique identifier. This was presented in Hereditary Genius (1869). 

This led to his work on specific traits that could be measured to determine cognitive abilities. This included the mental representation and imagination of numbers, including synesthesia, visualisation, word association, unconscious events, social traits, moral instincts and reaction times. But it was his work on character and personality, along with heritability that marks him out as an experimental psychologist of some note. Experimentally, and well ahead of his time in psychology, he used twin studies, both identical and fraternal, along with adopted twins, all in an attempt to separate nature from nurture. 


Unfortunately, this led to his obsession with ‘eugenics’, a term he invented, to promote the marriage and breeding of traits, as Darwin had explained in The Origin of Species. It led to his belief that improvements should be sought, not by allowing hereditary wealth but by showing your personal worth, marriage among equals encouraged and the “better sort of emigrants and refugees from other lands were invited and welcomed, and their descendants naturalised.” One should note that he believed in not allowing what hesawas inferior humans to breed, encouraging them to be monastic and celibate and at times his views bordered on the recommendation of genocide. He was the founding president of the British Eugenics Society. 


He was often so eager to prove his hypotheses, such as the inferiority of Africans, that he refused to accept the evidence that their fingerprints were in fact not less complex than those of other races. His hereditary traits evidence often did not show up in the data, but were promoted as true. The nature-nurture debate had continued with the trend being towards it being much more complex than we mav imagined. Behavioural genetics is now a complex field, the genome has been decoded and much progress is being made to identify and solve problems using knowledge of genetics. 


Eugenics took a terrible toll across the world, with involuntary sterilisation in the US and even in Sweden until as recently as 1976 and in Japan until 1996. It has influenced immigration policies, the repression of bropups within countries and, of courses, genocides, suchas the Holocaust. Galton is now seen as a racist, eugenicist, which he clearly was. Galton was well travelled and with the spread of the British Empire in the Victorian era, he had enormous influence on attitudes towards how people were seen at home in Britain and abroad. This was to influence many aspects of intellectual and public life, not least in education, where it directly influenced Cyril Burt, who then applied this to UK policy in education, aspects of which have survived to this day. At UCL the Galton Chair of Genetics was actually renamed from the Galton Chair of Eugenics and the word Galton only changed in 2019. Yet his encouragement of statistical techniques and experimental methods to maintain objectivity have had a lasting influence in psychology. 


Galton, F., 1869. Hereditary genius. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1892. Finger prints. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. Natural inheritance. Macmillan and Company. 
Galton, F., 1889. I. Co-relations and their measurement, chiefly from anthropometric data. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 45(273-279), pp.135-145.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Exemplar of successful implementation of tech in schools

Not often you see schools having resolved the ‘technology’ issue. It is usually a contentious issue, often tribal, defensive, even hostile. Despite the endless claims on workload, the refusal to do what every other area of human endeavour does, use technology to reduce it, education often seems to wilfully avoid the issue. Schools have, in the past, been quite independent, creating their own websites, buying and building their own technology, reducing much of it to a cottage industry. It was impressive to find a school network that took technology as seriously as Curro, in South Africa. They had invited me to give a keynote on AI for Learning, based on my book and experience but I hung around as the teacher sessions were so damn good. This is what I learnt, as I think it is a recipe for success.

Centralised service

Curro technology was a centralised service that provided CPD for all teachers, as well as procuring and implementing ALL technology across the entire network of schools. This is NOT simply centralised procurement, it is a group with the deep expertise needed to tackle the change management, training, trials and implementation of a range of activities. They had already implemented a wide range of technologies across the network, accessible through a single point of entry. This, I think is a necessary condition for success, single door, single sign-in. Everything from administration to advanced AI and adaptive learning systems were distributed from this point. Teachers, in particular, appreciated the simplicity of this one-stop-shop approach. It was clear that the service also had real and trusted expertise from which the whole school could draw, rather than distributing responsibility out to all teachers.

Ecosystem of technology

There was a real sense of technology as a force for good in teaching and learning. With champions out in the schools, supported by expertise at the centre, they understood the balance between innovation and implementation. This allows experimentation and constructive feedback. I got none of the tired scepticism I’ve seen elsewhere. Rather than plump for one system, they have built an ecosystem of technologies accepted by everyone. Careful choices, careful implementation and the sense that different tech meets different needs.

Emphasis on CPD

Webinars and other training is distributed, a term in advance, with practical training in hte technology, news on what’s new and other relevant services for teachers. It is clearly a dynamic service designed to bring teachers with them in the change management process. I was giving a talk as part of that process. The day’s activities were under the banner of ‘Imagining 2022’. It’s hard enough to Imagine what any year will bring these days but it was clear that this was a learning organisation, willing to learn from their mistakes and make the effort to plan forward. It was CPD organised by teachers for teachers and not scared of introducing outside ideas and speakers. There was no sense of being a protected, inward-looking process. You got that sense of CPD being in the hands of the teachers themselves, not something done TO teachers.

Content curation

The teachers were full of praise for the provision of content that they could use themselves or for students. There was no sense of the schools hanging on to the idea that ALL content has to be created and delivered internally by the existing teachers. So what of it wasn’t invented here. It was refreshing to find a sense of openness to curated content from outside sources.

Adaptive learning

This was the big surprise. There were glowing testimonials from teachers about the power of adaptive learning, using AI, to personalise learning for students. It was described as a ‘gamechanger’ by the teacher who presented, with clear targeting, so that efficient and relevant, individual interventions could be made for students. It was clear that they knew why they wanted this technology, had implemented it well and were using teacher feedback to spread the word internally.

Content, slides and short videos, along with digital worksheets, were used in class with regular assessments. A big win was saving time on marking and correction, which was automated and done instantly, even alternative question provision. This, I feel, is an argument that is massively underappreciated in schools. Diagnostic questions, provided by the system were found to be particularly useful, for identifying individual learners’ strengths and weaknesses. This meant that teachers didn’t have to wait for an assessment before making an intervention. There was also openness to including parents in the process, using the tech to allow access to their progress, lessening the need for teachers to respond to parent requests. Learners at home can also be held accountable for work in class or at home in realtime. This use of technology to extend teaching and learning was exactly what I had presented in my Keynote, using Artificial Intelligence as ‘Augmented’ Intelligence.


Far from being reactive to innovation they were on the front foot, seeking out the best of breed technologies. By creating a separate entity that centralised these efforts they could keep delivery safe and simple, as well as think about how to bring staff with them. The fact that I was brought in, someone 5,500 miles away, to give a talk, was a testament to their ambition and openness. I learnt more from them as they did from me. That’s as it should be.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Wittrock Generative learning

Merlin Wittrock (1931 - 2007) worked at the University of California and saw good learning as a generative process. In a series of papers over two decades he saw 'generative' learning as the key to creating a shift in education towards more efficient learning. 
It has its roots in Bartlett (1932) and Piaget (1926) who both saw learning as acts of construction and, for Piaget, fitting knowledge into existing schemas. But for Wittrock, generative learning theory was built on the idea of learners integrating new knowledge and skills into what they already know though generative activities, where effective teaching facilitates leavers to construct meaning from various generative experiences.

Generative theory of learning

Wittrock not only developed his generative theory of learning, he also researched its effectiveness and applied it in practice. Learners, for Wittrock, are not passive receivers of knowledge, they are active reorgansisers of knowledge, creating meaning from their own generative activities. His generative learning theory was built on the idea of learners integrating new knowledge and skills into what they already know through generative activities. Effective teaching must therefore facilitate learners to construct meaning from various generative experiences.

His model encourages learners to generate meaning and understanding from instruction through effortful, generative activities and has four major processes:

(a) attention - directing generative processes on relevant incoming material and stored knowledge

(b) motivation - willingness to invest effort to make sense of material

(c) knowledge and preconceptions - prior knowledge, experiences, and beliefs

(d) generation - sense making

For Wittrock all four have generative components, what some would describe as constructive, where the learners control and build their own models, rather than interpreting taught content. Teachers must therefore learn to lead learners towards learning by encouraging generative activities. 

Generative activities

The generation of notes in one’s own words, use of analogies and effortful activities are all generative. Summaries and analogies in reading, for example, is an effective learning strategy, Wittrock & Alesandrini (1990). 

Fiorella & Mayer (2015) recommend eight types of generative strategies:

Summarizing: Create a written or oral summary of the material 

Mapping: Create a concept map, knowledge map or matrix organizer 

Drawing: Create a drawing that depicts the text

Imagining: Imagine a drawing that depicts the text 

Self-testing: Give yourself a practice test on the material 

Self-explaining Create a written or oral explanation of the material 

Teaching: Explain the material to others 

Enacting: Move objects to act out the material

Problem solving

With Richard Mayer, Wittrock also contributed to research on problem solving in order to identify the best way to teach it, with three main findings:

  1. Domain-specific principle - teach problem as a domain specific skill not as a general skill

  2. Near transfer principle - accept that problem solving skills work across a limited range of applicability

  3. Knowledge integration principle - use guided problem-solving tasks to teach knowledge

Wittorck was heavily involved in teacher training and his generative theory was not just about what the learner did, it was also about appropriately generative teaching strategies. Problem solving was one such strategy.


Generative learning has been criticised by some as swinging the instructional pendulum too far towards discovery or exploratory learning, diminishing the role of direct instruction. Its singular focus on the generative processes, some think are partial, with other processes involved in learning.


Wittrock’s work on generative learning has not had as much influence as the topic and his work deserve. As technology has developed and social media normalised, the creation of text, images and videos have become common online, generative activities.


Wittrock, M.C., 1992. Generative learning processes of the brain. Educational Psychologist, 27(4), pp.531-541.

Wittrock, M.C., 1989. Generative processes of comprehension. Educational psychologist, 24(4), pp.345-376.

Wittrock, M.C., 1974. Learning as a generative process. Educational psychologist, 11(2), pp.87-95.

Fiorella, L. and Mayer, R.E., 2016. Eight ways to promote generative learning. Educational Psychology Review, 28(4), pp.717-741.

Wittrock, M.C. and Alesandrini, K., 1990. Generation of summaries and analogies and analytic and holistic abilities. American Educational Research Journal, 27(3), pp.489-502.

Mayer, R.E., 2010. Merlin C. Wittrock's enduring contributions to the science of learning. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), pp.46-50.

Mayer, R.E. and Wittrock, M.C., 2006. Problem Solving In P. Alexander, P. Winne, & G. Phye.

Education during COVID debate in Berlin

The UK Government has announced an acceleration of the booster programme, as they know a huge wave of infections is coming based on Omicron's infection rate (high). Although the variant is less lethal, when you have so many people infected, the strain on hospitals will be intense and people will die.

Yet the Government (and opposition) completely ignores the fact that schools and Universities are two massive vectors for infection. They are basically wheel and hub networks designed to optimise viral spread. Schools bring huge groups of people, a thousand and more, from every street in the community, to sit in small cramped rooms all day, then send them back to their homes, five days a week. With Universities you do this on a national scale with longer distances. These vast networks basically boost infection by forcing millions into close contact wil Amazon levels of distribution reach.

I took part in The Big Debate in Berlin this month. The motion was “This house belives that Education has failed to learn the lesson of Covid19”. I was up against the head of the NUS, who thought that “poor students who had to study in their pyjamas and dressing gowns” were “suffering badly from mental illness and loss of social contact”. Not only was this a caricature of education, as most people being ‘educated’ were in schools or the workplace, it was the usual placing of students on a social pedestal.

My retort was that viewing students as victims was an insult to the front line workers who had no choice other than to risk their lives, and sometimes die doing so, to keep us fed, supplied and safe - the delivery drivers, lorry drivers, paramedics, care home workers, police officers, bus drivers and factory workers - almost none of whom went to ‘Uni’.

I did argue that educators did a good job, many raising their skills as online educators under immense pressure. It was also good for both teachers and learners to raise their digital skills and literacy. Like Eric Mazur at Harvard,, I argued that it would be "almost unethical" to go back on those gains,

Rather than build on the advances we’ve made on Blending learning, the education system seems to be defaulting back to their old model. Why? Lecturing is easy, teaching is hard. We have a chance to make Higher Education cheaper, more accessible and efficient. We may blow it.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Tales of the absurd from Berlin

It was my first live conference for eons and the final session was a L&D roundup which was a bit of fun but two odd things happened. It was one of those bingo word events, where someone in the audience chooses a word from the screen and someone else stands up to say something for five minutes on that word. I can’t remember all of the words but they were things like ‘resilience’ and ‘curiosity’ and ‘obstacles’. When asked about ‘obstacles’ I put my hand up and said that I thought faffing around with abstract words in L&D had become an ‘obstacle’ to progress. 

BIG mistake, as I then heard the words ”Next we have (can’t remember their names) who will speak on ‘Resilience’”. To be fair the whole room laughed. If I’m resilient, it’s on one thing, trying to stop learning people rattle on about grit, resilience, or any other obscure, abstract noun, that no real people ever actually utter. We’ve only just put ‘mindfulness’ to bed, when a new one appears. I’ve had a bellyful of the stuff and lost interest when they were describing their ‘resilience meter’. It really is a thing. It just wasn’t my thing. Actually they were lovely people.

My SECOND mistake was to drift off, then coming round to hear “ turn to the person next to you and give it a try” a phrase that makes my heart sink. I missed the first part of the sentence and on turning round, I said something and the person, who is a good friend of mine, started to object to what I said. She was repeatedly abrasive. My responses, at first polite, became angier and then I got obstreperous. Turns out it was a role-play, the key piece of information that had failed to register . A third person turned to me and said “You do know it’s a role-play?”. I apologised and all was fine. Again we had a bit of a giggle.

I suppose I’m just weary of this stuff, the idea that L&D is some sort of pop-up therapy service. Is this resilience thing much more than HR once again ticking people off for having a perceived deficit, a weakness, a flaw? Then there’s that old-school performative ‘turn to the person next to you’ BS. Are we really going back to that after Covid?

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Stickgold & Walker Sleep and learning

Robert Stickgold is a US Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, whose sleep research looks at the links between sleep and learning, especially sleep deprivation. He was a colleague and mentor to Matthew Walker, an English sleep researcher, now Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. His research is on sleep and his international bestseller Why We Sleep (2017) contains much that is relevant to the topic of sleep, memory and learning. His 2019 TED talk Sleep is your Superpower was also hugely popular, watched by millions.

Sleep and memory

Walker has written about the effects of sleep on student learning and recommends a rethink around the idea of end-of-semester exams that encourage cramming, even all-nighters. He has changed his own teaching to avoid final exams, splitting his courses up into thirds to spread the assessment load. 

Sleep before learning

Sleep is an active process that improves memory. When we are awake the hippocampus experiences and learns things in the real world, as a short-term location for new memories. It is also limited in capacity. It deals with this by shifting memories into other locations, namely the cortex, during sleep. You can test this using daytime naps and Walker compared a 90 minute ‘nap’ with a ‘no-nap’ group, after they performed a taxing 100 face-name pair task. Later that day, another intense learning task was performed, to see if learning had declined. Those that napped actually increased their ability to learn, while those that stayed awake showed a decline, the difference being a staggering 20%. It would appear that light, Stage 2 NREM sleep and short sleep spindles led to greater retention. It would appear that sleep refreshes our ability to learn, especially the later period of a night’s sleep. Getting up too early and shortening your sleep period seems to be deleterious to learning. This seems to decline with age.

Sleep after learning

What about after one has learnt something? Consolidation of memories has been posited for 2000 years, but it was Jenkins and Dallenbach (1924), who tested forgetting of verbal facts over eight hours, either awake or asleep. This has been replicated many times and forgetting in the group that was awake is greater, the benefits of sleep being 20-40% greater for the sleep groups.

REM and NREM  sleep was then discovered in the 1950s and the link between consolidation of memory and deep NREM was established, with MRI evidence indicating that memories literally move from the hippocampus to the neocortex during sleep. It would appear that your cache of memories gets cleared and stored every night, leaving  you ready for the next day’s learning. Sleep can also improve learning by recovering memories you lost while learning. It seems to rescue memories. Motor skills are also consolidated and enhanced during sleep.

Stimulating learning during sleep

Sleepers stimulated by electrical voltage pulses during deep NREM. The sleepers felt nothing but doubled their ability to recall facts learnt just before going to sleep. Quiet auditory tones synchronised with brain waves, from speakers next to the bed, have also been found to have an effect, namely a 40% improvement on recall. 

Sleep to forget  

When two groups were presented with words to remember but told to remember some (tagged R) and forget others (tagged F), the group that had a 90 minute nap had actively remembered more R words and forgotten more F words. It would seem that sleep is quite intelligent or active in what it selects as memories to be stored.

Sleep and emotions

Emotions or the affective side of learning are also influenced by sleep. The brain does reprocess or modulate emotions through sleep. Sleep deprivation encourages high emotional responses including aggression, bullying and behavioural problems in children.


Walker has been criticised for being slapdash with his data and references in his book. He has responded and apologised for some of its weaknesses.


Walker’s book and TED talk popularised sleep research and although he has been criticised for some inaccuracies, the benefits of sleep are now well known, especially among teachers and parents, worried by the rise in late night screen time.


Walker, M., 2017. Why we sleep: Unlocking the power of sleep and dreams. Simon and Schuster.

Stickgold, R. and Walker, M.P., 2013. Sleep-dependent memory triage: evolving generalization through selective processing. Nature neuroscience, 16(2), pp.139-145.

Walker, M.P. and van Der Helm, E., 2009. Overnight therapy? The role of sleep in emotional brain processing. Psychological bulletin, 135(5), p.731.

Walker, M.P. and Stickgold, R., 2004. Sleep-dependent learning and memory consolidation. Neuron, 44(1), pp.121-133.

Walker, M.P. and Stickgold, R., 2006. Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 57, pp.139-166.

Jenkins, J.G. and Dallenbach, K.M., 1924. Obliviscence during sleep and waking. The American Journal of Psychology, 35(4), pp.605-612.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Engelbart Collective intelligence and IQ

Douglas Carl Engelbart (1925 – 2013) was instrumental in establishing human-computer interaction as an area of technical and psychological research, playing an instrumental role in the invention of the computer mouse, joystick and tracker-ball, also bitmapped screens and hypertext. These and other prophetic features were shown in the famous ‘Mother of all demos’ in 1968. He also put forward an early and full vision of collective intelligence and the idea of collective IQ. He envisioned much of this before the advent of the internet but foresaw the importance of networked knowledge and the networked organisation.

Collective intelligence

While in the Navy he read Vannevar Bush’s article As We May Think and saw the possibility of a shared network being able to be more than the sum of its parts.

We need to get better at getting better. To do this we needed to augment our individual intellects with techniques that leverage collective knowledge. He saw this as the solution to solving complex problems. He called this Bootstrapping and at the heart of the Bootstapping Paradigm was his Dynamic Knowledge Repository (DKR) which allowed a process called the  Concurrent Development, Integration and Application of Knowledge (CoDIAK). This DKTR is also subject to the CoDIAK process.

There is, of course, the human activity with tools and within networked technology but Englebart’s focus was on

A-level, core business as usual activities

B-level improvements on that process, such as quality control

C-level improving on the improvements. 

This C-level is the most im[ortant for exponential improvement. It is what he meant by getting better at being better and is an iterative process where lessons learnt are included in the process of improvement.

Collective IQ

Beyond the mere qualitative description of the web being a place where collective intelligence could flourish, in 1994 he proposed a measure for such intelligence - collective IQ. It measures ‘effectiveness’ or how well groups work together to anticipate and respond to problems and situations. 

This could be a product, service or research goal. Whatever the goal, Collective IQ determines the effectiveness of the response. Speed and quality of response are the key measures, along with development and deployment. It is not an abstract measure of reason but a measure of getting things done and completed, to meet the goal.

Complex goals need more collective IQ, so it is challenging projects, such as the Moonshot or Manhattan project that are often quoted as examples, where collective efforts resulted in goals being met faster and more effectively than they would have been, on the basis of a less collective effort.

The components of Collective IQ are, unlike the brain and individual IQ:

  1. Group process - collective ability to develop, integrate and apply knowledge to a goal

  2. Shared memory - gained, captured, accessed as a shared resource

Collective IQ can be raised or lowered through ignoring, obstructing the bootstrapping process.


The measurement of individual intelligence is hard enough, the measurement of collective intelligence that much harder, not only in terms of how one combines the individual inputs but also any additional value that images from it being a collective. It is not clear that any general measure could be possible.


Engelbart’s invention of the mouse and initalm work in envisioning the internet is reason enough to see him as an influential pioneer. His further work on collective intelligence saw the start of serious analysis of networks in terms of their emerging features as forms of collective effort and intelligence.


Boosting Our Collective IQ, by Douglas C. Engelbart, 1995