The end of "The Social Nature of Blog Comments", a post in which I applied Alan Fiske's social relational models to blog commenting, states that these relational models can also affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Let's take a look at each of the relational models to see practically how they can operate in a class.

Communal Sharing (CS): Have you ever noticed that students tend to sit in the same seats throughout the semester that they occupied on the first day of class? When classes are "homogenous", it may be simply a matter of keeping one's initial territory staked out. In an ESL class, however, students quickly aggregate with members of their home countries. In one of my classes a few years back, such groupings stood out: five Chinese students (in pairs or triads) usually sat together, as did two Indonesians. The two Malaysians were usually within one seat of each other, and the lone Turkish student, a male, always sat with one of the other two males. The two Spanish speakers did not sit together, because on the first day, they had sat with others, and quickly grouping with others, did not break those groups, although they would speak together at the beginning of class and they did a collaborative paper together at the end of the semester, as did the three younger Chinese, and also four other women. Briefly, these students formed groups on the basis of nationality, gender, or initial seating position in the case of the two Spanish speakers.

None of this is particularly new. When teaching or working abroad, expatriates form groups. In the U.S., we often see students hanging out in the student union or dormitories with other students of their own background. It's normal to seek out people like yourself. In the classroom, however, forming groups on the basis of language encourages students to use their L1 instead of the L2. In an EFL setting, students may form groups with friends rather than on the basis of complementary abilities that may be more useful for learning. Most teachers know this. Still, having a theoretical understanding of how and why groups form, along with an understanding of student social expectations, can help in designing class activities involving group work.

Authority Ranking (AR): Generally speaking, authority ranking is the main social relational model governing interaction between students and instructor, but it is usually not so among students. There are exceptions. For instance, the social cue of age seems to delineate an AR model among Chinese students. In my classes, I've noticed that the eldest Chinese student seems to hold a position of authority, and with respect to those outside the group, acts as a representative or spokesperson for the group. In one of my classes, for instance, the eldest, a female, was usually the only one who would speak in whole class discussions, unless I called upon a younger Chinese student. Depending on whether one wants the students to participate equally in a conversation, it might be important to consider whether and how an AR model might be operating.

The AR model explains why students are averse to peer reviewing essays. Such a task is perceived as placing one student in a position of authority, a position that violates the Communal Sharing and Equality Matching models that students use in their social relations with one another. If a teacher wants students to engage in peer review, then it should be framed so it is not perceived as an action of authority but of collaboration in which students are helping one another as equals rather than directing as authorities.

An AR model may be permitted in one situation but not in another. In my other post, I noted that although students usually follow a teacher’s guidance, they may not in some contexts. Graduate ESL (English as a second language) students will accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but reject content changes if the paper is in their discipline, an area in which the student feels they have more authority than the teacher. I've also noticed that older students tend to disagree more, too. Age grants a certain amount of authority.

Authority Ranking is a legitimate, not a power, relationship when both teacher and students (or employer and employees, or supervisor and supervisees) agree on the parameters of authority. Only when one, either teacher or student, insists on a certain outcome and obtains it without the other's approval does it become a power relationship. Yes, the distinction can be a fine line.

Equality Matching (EM): EM and CS are the main social relational models operating among students with knowledge being a major resource shared. In one of my classes, two students sought help from the class mathematics major for help in their lower-division mathematics courses. Another student, writing a paper on the notion of jihad in Islam, queried many Muslims who resided in her dormitory. Other students consulted students who had previously taken the class. Without more information, it is difficult to differentiate between communal sharing and equality matching in these examples. That is, if no return of a favor was expected in these cases, then the knowledge was a communal resource available to all. If a potential favor was expected at some time in the future, then the social relational model would be an equality matching one. Even so, these students sought resources in groups of which they were members, whether ethnicity or dormitory, so that both communal sharing and equality matching relational models were likely influencing their social interactions.

Although not common, EM can also occur between student and teacher. One of my students agreed to do interviews for my research because it was “a good chance to practice speech.” In effect, we exchanged favors.

EM supports the use of cooperative learning, in which students have different tasks and must share their results with team members in order to complete their own project. Note that the students need to have different tasks rather than the same ones; otherwise, no real favor or resource is being exchanged.

Market Pricing (MP): Market pricing is not a relational model operating often among students and teachers. Still, students do have expectations concerning course work. ESL students may not consider group work to be beneficial. One told me, “I think I can learn more from the teacher than I just talk with students.” Another said she paid attention to my comments on her paper but not her classmates. And a third complained about "not getting some lectures." In other words, they were not getting a good enough deal for the tuition they were paying and the "education" they were expecting. In combination with the other three relational models, peer reviewing, and sometimes group work, can be a tough sell to students.

Violating Models: When social relational models are violated, discomfort and sanctions can occur. In one class, a student who was initially with a group of all women students intentionally formed her own group of four computer science majors (she was a CS major) because as she said,

Like they were talking about their country, but I didn't knew about what they were talking about, so it wasn't interesting to me, or whatever I'm talking, it wasn't interesting to them, and this was the problem.

In other words, she felt excluded from the group talking about their country, a violation of the CS model and pehaps EM model. Needing to form a communal social relationship, she created one in which they all had computer science in common (instead of gender), a social bond based on similar interests.

In a different case, four students working in a group found it difficult to continue to work together. Three students mentioned their difficulty in their observations, and the fourth student asked not to be assigned with the other three for the rest of the semester. He wrote:

Actually it’s really hard for me to work with a group. We always have different ideas. This is good, but we need to synthesize these ideas and produce a work which reflects everybody’s ideas. Sometimes we need to forego our ideas even though we believe that the ideas are right. Always there are trade-offs. But I think, I gain more than I lost by working with a group, if I can learn how to accept people’s ideas. In the beginning of the class, I was poorer on group study. Probably, I didn’t know how to do it. I cannot say that I totally learned how to cooperate on the same work, but I opened the locked door in this class and I will go in through very soon.

Apparently, this student was rather forceful in promoting his ideas and perceived by group members as inappropriately exercising authority in a context requiring communal sharing or equality matching. The violation of the expected social relational model(s) was sufficiently strong that the three excluded him from their group in future interactions and he asked not to be placed in that group again.

Note that not all saw him as exerting authority inappropriately. Some students considered him to be an important knowledge resource. Comments they made included:

He had his “own ideas,” which was “very important.”

"He’s a smart person, that’s why I always come up to him if I have any question, person-to-person."

So, although the psychological foundations of social relational models are biological, the expression of social relationships is dependent upon one's perception and sociocultural history. And perception and history changes over time. Because social relational models are instinctive, the student apparently felt a need to belong (CS) with those other three classmates and worked hard at accepting others’ ideas (EM rather than AR), an effort that seemed to have been recognized by them as they did collaborate on tasks later in the semester.

These social relational models, although always operating, are expressed differently by different cultures with different combinations of relational models being more prevalent in particular contexts. For the most part, however, students tend toward Communal Sharing and Equality Matching. Students, actually all of us, engage in activity as much for the social relationships engendered as for the goal of the activity. We are by nature social beings. Thus, activities that violate these models can create discomfort and resistance, as in the case of peer reviewing essays. Thus, to faciliate learning in the classroom, it's important to frame tasks and activities so that students perceive them as an expression of an appropriate social relational model.

"Teaching 'the least boring job'", according to a survey reported in BBC News:

The Training and Development Agency for Schools questioned more than 2,000 graduates aged 21 to 45, finding more than half were regularly bored at work.

Those in administrative and manufacturing jobs were the most frustrated, followed by marketing and sales employees.

Teachers and healthcare workers were the least bored.

Graduates working in the media, law and in engineering were middle of the "boredom scale". ...

When asked why they found their job interesting, 81% of teachers questioned said it was the challenge of the role and the same proportion said it was because "no two days were the same".

Of course, this needs to be balanced by the fact that "Half of Teachers Quit in 5 Years" (Lisa Lambert, Washington Post) due to "poor working conditions and low salaries."

Jentis, now a stay-at-home mother of three, says that she could not make enough money teaching in Manhattan to pay for her student loans and that dealing with the school bureaucracy was too difficult.

"The kids were wonderful to be with, but the stress of everything that went with it and the low pay did not make it hard to leave," she said. "It's sad because you see a lot of the teachers that are young and gung-ho are ready to leave."

Those working conditions lead to teacher burnout. A search at Amazon.com resulted in 419 books on the topic of teacher burnout.

So, teaching is enjoyable, as long as conditions are permitting. I've been more than fortunate in this regard. I get to dream of better ways of engaging my students in learning to write, to implement those ways, and to see those dreams come to fruition.

Ken Yamosh at the Read/Write Web has written a brief review of four smart social networks: Facebook, imbee, Vox, and Multiply. The main points are as follows:

multiply Facebook is a social networking space used much by college students that allows them to determine who can see their profile and the amount of contact information according to a determined classification.

multiply Multiply gives one fine-tuned control over who can view their space.

vox Vox seems to be good for integrating a variety of web services like flickr, youtube, and others.

imbeeBecause children are more and more entering the digital world, imbee is one parents should be interested in.

imbee is the "first secure social networking and blogging destination for kids." Users can't just connect with each other by browsing profiles. They need to know the e-mail addresses and/or imbee user names of other imbee members.

Kids cannot join the site without a credit card being on file (and not necessarily charged), meaning that someone - probably a parent - is going to have to be involved from the start. Parents can also control the way their kids interact on the site. New messages, connections, and other profile changes get put into a queue for parents to approve - depending on the approval rules put in place.

All of these services are providing more control over your privacy and how much you reveal of yourself to the outside world.

I like all of these tools, especially imbee. But I wonder how much use they are to professionals. Usually, I can easily contact those I collaborate with by email, and for subject-specific interests, there are email listservs, along with wikis and blogs. They seem to work well for "social" endeavors but I'm not sure how well they work for "professional" purposes.

Brenda Hall of ESL School wrote on the nature of "Student-Centred Learning":

student-centred learning is about helping students to discover their own learning styles, to understand their motivation and to acquire effective study skills that will be valuable throughout their lives. To put this approach into practice, teachers need to help students set achievable goals; encourage students to assess themselves and their peers; help them to work co-operatively in groups and ensure that they know how to exploit all the available resources for learning.

Learning is thus more a form of personal development than a linear progression that the teacher achieves by rewards and sanctions. Errors are seen as a constructive part of the learning process and need not be a source of embarrassment.

The main principles of student-centred learning are:

  • The learner has full responsibility for her/his learning
  • Involvement and participation are necessary for learning
  • The relationship between learners is more equal, promoting growth, development
  • The teacher becomes a facilitator and resource person
  • The learner experiences confluence in his education
  • The learner sees himself/herself differently as a result of the learning experience.

When I first read this post, I mostly agreed. And I still agree with the main thrust of learners becoming autonomous, learning as development, and errors being constructive. Yet, as I continued to read it, certain points didn't match my own experience. So, I offer another perspective.

When I began school more than a few years ago, I never "discovered [my] own learning styles." I still don't know what my learning style is. And it doesn't seem to have slowed me down as far as learning is concerned. When I think about the activities in which I engaged: studying various "book" subjects, taking Wood Shop, playing baritone horn in the band, and being on the wrestling team in high school, if there is such a thing as a learning style (at least in a way that it significantly affects learning), it seems obvious that the modality of the activity decides what "style" of learning should be employed.

On understanding one's motivation, I'm not sure what that means. Most young people know why they go to school: Everyone says they must. Most college students know, too: It's for a better job. And the motivation for non-required learning is simply that they're interested in the activity. For instance, I like to play chess. How would understanding my motivation for chess help me learn more? The only way I can think of understanding motivation as helping is to know about motivational constructs, such as Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory. Knowing that motivation is influenced by three needs--that is autonomy, competence, and social relatedness--would help me understand my motivation at a particular moment and allow me to influence it if I needed to. But that doesn't seem to be what is being said here.

On acquiring effective study skills, definitely. But I'm not sure what is meant here. The most important factor in learning is effective time on task (see "Forget IQ. Just Work Hard!"). One particular study skill that makes time more effective is repetition: reviewing the same material in bite-sized chunks over a period of time rather than spending an equivalent amount of time at one sitting. For example, reviewing notes for 15 minutes after a class, then again the same notes 15 minutes before the next class, and all of one's notes for 1-2 hours on the weekend. I did it, and it worked. Before I had had to cram for exams, but once I started the bite-sized reviewing approach, I stopped cramming and got a good night's sleep, because I found that I knew the material.

But most of these study skills can be picked up in a few lessons. Why is there such an emphasis on them? Are they never taught? Or, are they taught and students don't apply them? Actually, I was never taught any study skills until I went to a seminar offered by the university's Learning Center. The only one that stuck was that of repetition, and I'm glad it did. But now that I'm working, I don't have the time to employ any study skills (outside of removing distractions) because I have very little time to reflect, assess, and so on. That's why I began blogging, to force myself to reflect on my work. Perhaps blogging is a study skill.

For me, a crucial element is time. On my last five posts, I linked to items I found interesting but added little or nothing of my own to them. I wanted to take time with them, consider learning theories connecting to the main points, then practical learning applications, and so make a thoughtful contribution on how these posts might inform learning and classroom pedagogy. But right now I'm just pressed for time. I need to finish a paper, finish analyzing some data, prepare for coaching on technology for this coming semester, revamp my courses, and a thousand other tasks.

Some of my students, like me, are also pressed for time, especially the students in my night class. These students usually work full time and have families and children. Coming to class after work, then going home and spending some time with their children, perhaps fixing dinner and checking their children's homework, leaves little time for their own studies. If there were no pressure, such as grades, they wouldn't study, or at least much less. Not that they wouldn't want to. But when squeezed for time, they, like all of us, prioritize according to what will benefit them the most or cost them the least. Sometimes, their lack of time leads them to prioritize in ways that undermine their taking full responsibility for their learning, and thus the teacher-student relationship may need to move more toward "director" than "facilitator."

The students' environment, both in the class and outside must be considered in how much a teacher can facilitate vs. direct. There are no "best practices" that apply at all times in all places with all students. And Brenda seems to say the same thing:

Teachers wishing to ensure a student-centred approach must know their students and their backgrounds in order to help them develop appropriately. Clearly there are cultural and personal issues to be addressed, as student-centred learning will be different for each group.

Hmm. Interesting comment that "student-centred learning will be different for each group" not each student. Was that a slip or an implied theoretical position? Although student-centered learning is usually placed in opposition to teacher-centered learning, perhaps both foci are off. Perhaps learning should be activity-centered. More on that later.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has opened a forum "Can Blogging Derail Your Career" (via Brian Lamb via Stephen Downes) on why Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, wasn't granted a position at Yale University, the main suspicion being that it was related to his blogging. So far, there are eight, all interesting, posts, including a response by Juan Cole:

The question is whether Web-log commentary helps or damages an academic's career. It is a shameful question. Intellectuals should not be worrying about "careers," the tenured among us least of all. Despite the First Amendment, which only really protects one from the government, most Americans who speak out can face sanctions from other institutions in society. Journalists are fired all the time for taking the wrong political stance. That is why most bloggers employed in the private sector are anonymous or started out trying to be so.

Academics cannot easily be handed a pink slip, but they can be punished in other ways. The issues facing academics who dissent in public and in clear prose are the same today as they have always been. Maintaining a Web log now is no different in principle from writing a newsletter or publishing sharp opinion in popular magazines in the 1950s. ...

I am a Middle East expert. I lived in the area for nearly 10 years, speak several of its languages, and have given my life to understanding its history and culture. Since September 11, 2001, my country has been profoundly involved with the region, both negatively and positively. Powerful economic and political forces in American society would like to monopolize the discourse on these matters for the sake of their own interests, which may not be the same as the interests of those of us in the general public. Obviously, such forces will attempt to smear and marginalize those with whom they disagree. Before the Internet, they might have had an easier time of it. Being in the middle of all this, trying to help mutual understanding, is what I trained for. Should I have been silent, published only years later in stolid academic prose in journals locked up in a handful of research libraries? And this for the sake of a "career"? The role of the public intellectual is my career. And it is a hell of a career. I recommend it.

If all could learn to have this attitude, the world would be a much better place.

I'm not sure what we can learn from this, but sometimes, some things are just too fascinating not to link to. In New Scientist is the article Fatherhood Boosts Male Brains:

FATHERHOOD could be good for your brain, at least if you're a monkey.

It's already known that male primates, including men, experience dramatic hormone changes when they become fathers. Yevgenia Kozorovitskiy and her colleagues from Princeton University realised that certain parts of the brain contain receptors for these hormones. So they studied the brain structure of common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) that had become fathers. The species is rare among mammals in that fathers share in caring for their offspring.

In both first-time and experienced fathers with dependent offspring, the team found structural changes in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain important for planning and memory. In these areas the neurons showed signs of enhancement, with a greater number of connections. They also had more receptor sites for the hormone vasopressin. The number decreases as the infants age, dropping back to normal as the young become independent.

"Fatherhood produces changes in very high-cognitive-level areas," said Kozorovitskiy at a meeting of the Forum of European Neurosciences in Vienna, Austria, last week. The nerve enhancements may reflect changes in the reward system, she suggests, encouraging the father to bond and care for the infant. It could be the neural basis of parenting, she says.

Ebrahim Ezzy at the Read/Write Web continues to review Search 2.0 engines.

SE 2.0 SE 2.0 Part 1 looked at Swicki, Rollyo, Clusty, Wink, and Lexxe.

Part 2 looks at Gravee, Jookster, Krugle, LivePlasma, Qube, and ZoomInfo.

For me, the good thing about these different search engines is their niche orientation. By focusing on specific types of searches, they reduce the clutter of items I'm not interested in. If I want to search music and movies, then LivePlasma is of help. If I want to find someone, then it's ZoomInfo. Krugle is good for code-related technical questions.

As Ezzy says,

S-2.0 enabled data is distributed through the lateral route of a user's interests - rather than the direct route of TSEs, which require a user to carefully craft his/her query to be an accurate statement of the information desired.

Having students explore these search engines for their own interests may be a good stepping stone to performing academic searches using databases.

Jennifer Viegas in Serious Study: Immaturity Levels Rising (Discovery News) writes on the increasing phenomenon of psychological neoteny, a state of remaining immature and retaining childlike behaviors. The article quotes Bruce Charlton, the theory's creator and a professor in the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle:

“By contrast, many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people," he said.

"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”

Charlton added that since modern cultures now favor cognitive flexibility, “immature” people tend to thrive and succeed, and have set the tone not only for contemporary life, but also for the future, when it is possible our genes may even change as a result of the psychological shift.

The faults of youth are retained along with the virtues, he believes. These include short attention span, sensation and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness.

Cognitive flexibility goes hand-in-hand with immaturity? Perhaps the converse would be true, too: Maturity goes together with cognitive stubbornness. I wonder if I can increase my cognitive flexibility by working at becoming more immature. What does this mean with respect to school curricula and to learning?

Ebrahim Ezzy at the Read/Write Web reviews Search 2.0 engines (Part 1). He categorizes search engines as follows:

What I'm calling Search 2.0 are actually third generation search technologies. To explain the generations:

  • First-generation search ranked sites based on page content - examples are early yahoo.com and Alta Vista.
  • Second-generation relies on link analysis for ranking - so they take the structure of the Web into account. Examples are Google and Overture.
  • Third-generation search technologies are designed to combine the scalability of existing internet search engines with new and improved relevancy models; they bring into the equation user preferences, collaboration, collective intelligence, a rich user experience, and many other specialized capabilities that make information more productive.

Examples: Swicki, Rollyo, Clusty, Wink, Lexxe

Ezzy's review is concise, informative, and worth reading. In Part 2, he plans to review other search engines and ask these questions:

How is traditional search evolving to Search 2.0? Can Search 2.0 replace Traditional Search, ever?

The answers to these questions may help us in deciding how to help our students improve their research skills.

Although I've long favored group work in learning to write, I wonder if much of that group work has been wasted because the students didn't have sufficient guidance, but were "discovering" how writing worked. Richard Mayer (professor of psychology at UCSB) in "Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning" (pdf) argues that students need guided discovery. He writes:

The research in this brief review shows that the formula constructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster.

And concludes with:

Activity may help promote meaningful learning, but instead of behavioral activity per se (e.g., hands-on activity, discussion, and free exploration), the kind of activity that really promotes meaningful learning is cognitive activity (e.g., selecting, organizing, and integrating knowledge). Instead of depending solely on learning by doing or learning by discussion, the most genuine approach to constructivist learning is learning by thinking. Methods that rely on doing or discussing should be judged not on how much doing or discussing is involved but rather on the degree to which they promote appropriate cognitive processing. Guidance, structure, and focused goals should not be ignored. This is the consistent and clear lesson of decade after decade of research on the effects of discovery methods.

Mayer's article concurs with Laurence Musgrove's advice on designing writing assisgnments (see "Pitching Writing") and Anderson's work on effective time on task (see "Learning with Examples"). That is, insufficient guidance can promote time off-task, that is, wasted time. Still, I have a problem with this dichotomizing of "learning by doing" and "learning by thinking". Imagine a surgeon who could cognitively select, organize, and integrate knowledge about the correct surgical procedure but couldn't physically do it. Knowledge is embodied, not embrained. So I might rephrase one of his sentences as:

Methods that rely on thinking, organizing, or integrating knowledge should be judged not on how much thinking, organizing, or integrating is involved but rather on the degree to which they promote appropriate doing.

In "Pitching Writing", Laurence Musgrove gives advice to faculty teaching writing. One piece of advice concerned how faculty design assignments:

Garbage In, Garbage Out. And then come the many complaints that students don’t know how to write.

I don’t mean to place all of the blame on faculty — though some serious reflection on our culpability in these matters would certainly help. However, I did say to my colleague that students often fail to understand the complexity and time-consuming nature of writing, and instead of just demanding writing projects and assume students come to us as primed and ready to fire away, we need to help them manage their writing projects by providing carefully constructed assignments and a few opportunities to practice writing as a process over the course of the term.


Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, asserts that "Immersion is the best way to learn a language". Without commenting on the issue itself, the speech is a great study in rhetoric and audience awareness.

Schwarzenegger uses "I" 19 times, mostly when giving his own experience as a second language learner and identifying with second language learners (i.e., he knows what he's talking about). He uses "we" three times in identifying with the people of California and what they ("we") need to do (i.e., we're all in this together). On Proposition 227 and supporting it, he uses the words, "voters" (twice), "experts" (with examples), and "our State Board of Education and Legislature" and "board", and "California" (twice). In other words, it's the decision of the voters, board, and legislature; he just agrees with them.

This article should be interesting to and useful for discussing the rhetorical use of pronouns with L2 (and L1) learners, along with combining personal experience with outside expertise for a stronger argument.

Kerry Hempenstall. senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT University, argues for a phonics approach to L1 reading in "Practice Makes Permanent":

We now understand that the brain responds to multiple similar experiences. These stimulate activity in particular areas, building connections in and between those active brain regions. That is how practice makes permanent. Practising productive strategies forms and strengthens the optimal connections that stimulate subsequent reading development.

In the same way, routinely engaging in ineffective strategies also builds circuits in the brain, but circuits that are second-rate for reading. These routines are not easy to break when students grow older, perhaps because between ages five and 10, there's a pruning process that erases under-used neural cells. ...

Among those struggling readers, there are teaching strategies that can alter the inefficient pattern of brain activation. Studies have indicated that about 60 hours of careful daily phonics teaching alters the way the brain responds to print. Inefficient right-hemisphere activity diminishes, and left-hemisphere activity increases. New MRI images now look much more like those of good readers. The measured reading outcomes include increased fluency and comprehension.

The brain imaging studies have also shown how difficult and exhausting is the task of reading for struggling students. They use up to five times as much energy when reading as do fluent readers. It is not surprising that they prefer not to read.

With adult learners of a second language, these studies suggest a few areas for consideration. Take, for example, fossilization. Why is it so hard to overcome? It may because circuits for undesired forms have been constructed that are not easy to break. Although research would be needed, if correct, such a perspective would support not so much correction as practice on desired forms--not drill and kill, but use and learn in context.

Relatedly, the post "Forget IQ. Just Work Hard" cites John Anderson's assertion that there are no magic bullets to speed up learning. Rather,

the ACT-R theory makes it clear that there is no magic bullet that allows some way out of these enormous differences in time on task [between 9th grade students in Pittsburgh and in Japan]. For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

Thus, gimmicks like mnemonics are simply that: gimmicks for vocabulary regurgitation at the expense of language proficiency. What's crucial in language learning is time, practice, and examples. As "Learning with Examples" notes, however, without appropriate examples, time and practice cannot only be wasted but also used to construct, as seems to be the case with some L1 readers, incorrect language circuits.

I've partially fixed my webdesign problem with Internet Explorer. The sidebar can be seen. However, on IE 6, a supposedly transparent spacer covers the title, and on IE 5.2, the sidebar has dropped down. I have no more time right now. Maybe in December?

Working on my own design instead of just using the templates provided wasn't easy, especially as my HTML knowledge is limited, while my CSS knowledge is even more limited. So, why did I go through frustration instead of just using the templates? Where'd the motivation come from? Both the notion of flow and self-determination theory can shed some light here.

From the perspective of flow, I had clear goals, immediate feedback, focused attention, a sense of control (at least when I was successful), and a merging of action and awareness (see Flow, Games, and Learning and Flow Theory): As I tinkered with the design, I could quickly see what worked and what didn't. And the time flew by as I focused on the task at hand.

In self-determination theory, three needs for intrinsic motivation are autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. I'm not quite sure how social relatedness applies here, but it's obvious that I had some competence (or I couldn't have finished what I had begun) and that I was fully autonomous in choosing what I wanted to do, how I went about it, and what I accepted as the final (for now) product. Despite the frustration, solving the puzzle of creating my own design was fun and satisfying.

Now I wonder, How often do our students enjoy the puzzle of learning? Looking back at my own undergraduate days, I'm not sure I enjoyed learning as much then as I do now. First off, the amount of cramming required for a high GPA required for going to graduate school simply took the fun out of learning. Note the word "required," a staple of educational institutions, which precludes much of autonomy. Of course, there were other factors, such as lack of time: I had to work my way through school. Lack of time affects the ability to develop competence--as noted above by my problem with Internet Explorer.

So, how do we go about creating environments that promote flow and self-determination in our classes? More on that later.

IE Isn't that a great-looking icon! Why can't the browser live up to the icon's beauty?!!

I've slowly been re-working the design on my blog. Although it still has a way to go, I thought yesterday morning that I had finally achieved my design framework of having no banner with title but instead using just two columns, one for the posts and one for the blog title and other items of interest. About an hour later, I found out that the sidebar cannot be seen in Internet Explorer. The design works in Safari, Firefox, Camino, Flock, and Opera. But NOT Internet Explorer!!

I'm not proficient in CSS, so this will take some time. At least there is a lot of help on the web here, and Mark Bernstein brought to my attention Matthew Levine's excellent article In search of the Holy Grail, which shows how to create a cross-browser web design. Well, back to the designing board.

P.S. Although this design doesn't work in later versions of IE, it does work in IE 5.2 for the Mac. Go figure.

Engaging Minds I'm re-reading a fascinating book, Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World. It's a book that intertwines learning theory and pedagogical practice. In it is the following claim:

Teachers must themselves know what it means to engage in a particular practice before they can teach it. Whether writing poetry, conducting a scientific inquiry, or whatever, being able to engage learners in disciplined study demands a well developed sense of what is involved in such engagements. One needs more than a textbook and a teacher's manual. To teach how to write, one must have written. To teach mathematics, one must have participated in mathematical inquiry.

The authors are not saying that teachers must be professionals in their discipline but that they must participate in the discipline to understand how to structure learning environments specific to the discipline.

As a composition instructor, I do my own sorts of writing. I submit manuscripts to be published, I post on email listservs, and I blog. In fact, the reason I began to blog was because I wanted my students to blog, I wanted to understand what blogging entailed. However, as a teacher of second language writing, I don't engage in writing in a second language. I've studied quite a few languages, but have had limited experience writing in them.

It might be interesting to have myself do what I have my students do: read blogs and keep a blog. (I might hold off on writing publicly for a while until I achieve an intermediate level of proficiency again, as it's been some time since studying my last language.) And I could perhaps join a listserv. The difficult part might be getting sufficient and targeted feedback. I wonder,

  • How much time would I need to invest?
  • How much time would be needed to obtain insights that would inform my teaching practice?
  • How would the insights gained compare with the insights obtained from just reading the literature and listening to my students as they learn to write in another language?
  • Does learning to write programming code count?

Previously, in "The Web: The Future of Learning", I noted how a variety of online language sites were springing up, such as ChinesePod.com, and many language podcasts like JapanesePod101, TOEFL Podcast, and ESL Pod were available free via iTunes. Well, another major site has come into being: Linese.com. From Xinhuanet (via China View):

Linese.comThe largest website focusing on teaching Chinese and promoting Chinese culture (www.linese.com) opened on Saturday.

The portal website, the Chinese Language Website, serves as a window for people around the world to learn Chinese and experience Chinese culture. At the same time, it is considered a base for Chinese to study foreign languages and better understand Chinese and foreign cultures.

Using different languages, the website provides professional products for teaching or learning Chinese for users with different backgrounds at various levels. Users all over the world can easily study Chinese and communicate with each other through the website and interactive communities.

The virtual interactive community on the net supported by the website is titled "Experiencing China", from which registered users can appreciate Chinese culture, communicate with each other and learn Chinese easily and enjoyably through its specially designed games.

The website updates up to the minute news regarding China's social development, shows picturesque Chinese landscapes and reveals rich local customs. In addition, users can deeply experience Chinese culture through blogs and wikis.

It's certainly a massive and professional portal with links to audio, lessons, blogs, forum, community, and more. The contact information lists the address as Beijing Language And Culture University, so it appears to be government sponsored, which reminds me of the Voice of America. It will be interesting to see how other governments step up their presence on the World Wide Web and influence the shape of web conversations and learning.

A little while ago, my seven-year-old son asserted on doing his homework,

I'm so smart. I have everything in my brain.

However, about ten minutes later when I asked him to tie his own shoelaces, he said,

I can't. I know the first part, but I don't know the second part. Is it the thumb or two fingers?

His comments reminded me of the book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, which posits a fundamental circularity between cognition and experience. There is no disembodied mind directing our actions: All knowledge is enacted via experience.

Eleanor Rosch gave a talk at the American Psychological Association a few years ago titled "What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind". She ended her talk with some quotes from the autobiography of Peter Ralston, a world martial arts champion:

One: The starting point: ambition, focused intention “As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. Period!”

Two: Recognition of the unsatisfactoriness of the ordinary conscious way of doing things. (May come with success) “Around that time, I would go to classes and fight black belts and win, but still feel like I lost…Something wasn’t right…. I was winning from natural ability, but I wasn’t winning because I really understood anything…”

Three: Finding the unbiased mind beyond fear and desire. Opening perceptions. Appreciation. “It was in that situation that I first learned to drop fear of getting hit, or of winning or losing… What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening. I just saw a fist coming and I’d move…When I’d get worried about it, I’d get stuck somewhere and get hit… It’s a beautiful secret, an exacting and tremendous feedback.”

Four: Expansion of the knowing field. Also some change in sense of time. “…abilities like being able to read somebody’s disposition accurately started to come. The moment they would think to hit me I would stop them. That’s it. Handled. I just kept finishing everything before it got started.”

Five: Actions from awareness; simply knowing what to do and it’s always appropriate “New abilities started to arise… I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do. I just knew. That blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing…very simple, very simple.”

Six: Comes full circle; transformation of the original ambition and intention “I decided that if I were to continue to do this, I wanted to start contributing what I did and what I knew in a much larger way. I wanted to transform the martial arts in the world into a place for the development of the human being, and of honesty.”

Quite a bit of what Ralston says is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, a process of total enagement in an activity for its own sake with the result that one feels a sense of satisfaction and loses track of time. Flow has eight dimensions, not all of which must be operating at once (from EduTech Wiki):

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

It seems obvious that Ralston often enjoyed the state of flow. Many athletes do, as do video gamers, gardeners, and others. According to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor), however, flow is not typical:

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

Elsewhere, Csikszentmihalyi wrote,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

And they don't, because school is seldom a place of "intense living." Of course, work isn't, either, but that's not the point. If we wish for students to enjoy learning, then it would help to design our classes so that they are more conducive for states of flow to occur.

Sometimes, the system just works against states of flow. For instance, my ESL students are expected to reach levels of English that, although possible, are often more than challenging due to obligations constraining their study time, such as working 20, 30, and 40 hours a week. In addition to working full time, most of my night students (and some of my day students) are married (or single) with children.

Still, another condition for flow is clear goals and immediate feedback. As I look at my composition syllabus, those goals are probably not clear enough to my students, and feedback is usually delayed. It shouldn't be too difficult to make the goals clearer, but it's more difficult to give immediate feedback on essays. I usually grade them on the weekend, and so there's a 5- to 7-day delay.

What would be interesting would to develop a software tutor for writing that could provide immediate feedback and guidance. John Anderson et al. has an interesting article "Cognitive Tutors: Lessons Learned". The article discusses different tutors (algebra, geometry, LISP) used to facilitate student learning and mentions a few problems:

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

Isn't it terrible when motivation becomes a problem? A tutor application for writing would likely be harder to create than it is for math. Math has right and wrong answers, and the wrong answers can fall into different types of errors for which a tutor can be programmed to respond. Writing is fuzzier than math. It's not right or wrong: it's more or less effective. But if it could be done, it would have the advantage of many of the conditions for flow.

Another possibility would be to create video games in which writing plays a major role. James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book "What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" strongly supports using games in education. Christine Simmons ("Video games seen as way to train, learn") reports that the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) "has developed three 3-D video games to be used for training and education," two of which are for firefighting and immunology. On the latter one:

"Immune Attack," places players on a tiny vessel that can travel inside the human body. The game aims to educate high school, college and graduate-level students in immunology. The goal is to find and attack dangerous bacteria, said Kay Howell, vice president for information technologies at the FAS.

Shaffer et al. have a paper on "Video Games and the Future of Learning". As they note:

The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army —games that introduce civilians to military ideology. Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history (Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our Own).

I doubt that most of my students would be interested in a game designed simply to write better. But what if writing were a crucial element in the game? Perhaps games for journalists, business managers, lawyers, and others for whom writing is an integral part of the job? Or perhaps redesign existing games to put the focus on writing? I have more questions than answers. But Shaffer et al. comment on the implicit learning theory behind video games:

Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values, and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.

So, we need a game in which students "live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of" a rhetorician. Hmm. I think I would enjoy, playing that game.

On a final note, educators, myself included, often try to ease students' way into materials as much as possible, thus sometimes (often?) "dumbing down" their learning. In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn't its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.

Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn't happen much in our routine-driven schools, where "good" students are often just good at "doing school."

How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren't trained as cognitive scientists. It's a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn't teach players how to play it well, it won't sell well. Game companies don't rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material - aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete.

"Hover[ing] at the boundary of a student's competence" and challenging students "to adapt and evolve" with immediate feedback put players in a state of flow. Hmm. Would it be possible to design an entire course as a video game?

When writing the post Learning with Examples, I forgot that I had commented on my previous blog about Carl Zimmer's article in the New York Times "Children learn by monkey see, monkey do. Chimps don't". This article reported on psychological studies concluding that human beings are hard-wired to learn via imitation.

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said.

As the article reports, there are times when imitation is not the best way to learn. Yet, we save a tremendous amount of time when someone shows us how to use a software application compared to trying to decipher the manual. I wonder if perhaps we place too much emphasis on metacognition and reflection, that these processes are not always worth the time invested, and that they do not always make a significant difference in learning. Perhaps we should consider when reflection is productive rather than assume it is.

For choosing a news reader, previously I've recommended Ryan Stewart's "Rich RSS Readers: best of breed picks" provides an excellent introduction to his choices for the best readers. On Wednesday, Mark Glaser gave his "Top 5 for RSS Week", one of which is an exhaustive and annotated list of RSS readers, "RSS Compendium - RSS Readers".

Why is RSS so important? From TechCrunch, Marshall Kirkpatrick's article "Newsgator posts roadmap for the future of RSS" provides this answer:

RSS is the foundation of almost everything Web 2.0 - isn’t it? It’s what makes blog readership scalable, podcasts subscribable, wiki changes watchable and so much more.

RSS works by bringing to us new content from web sites (whether from blogs, wikis, online newspapers, or others) immediately as they're updated so that we don't need to return to those sites (thus saving us time) to check for new content. The content can either be chosen or searched for. For instance, for the former, I have a subscription to the Education section of the New York Times, and for the latter, I have a Google Search Engine feed that looks for items related to ESL. The Search feed brings me news from sites I am unaware of, thus diversifying my sources of information on particular topics. Thus, RSS, or news, feeds enable us, and our students, to enter and participate in conversations with others near and far away (in a way that's manageable), which in turn exposes us to diverse ideas and perspectives, which in turn are requisites of good writing, critical thinking, and learning, which in turn are primary constituents of education. RSS is the future of education in ways that we have just begun to imagine. For more on RSS, read Mark Glaser's "Your Guide to RSS", which also has links to other good resources.

As you may have noticed, I've been working on the design of this blog: mostly color changes but also a fluid design for the content side. At first, I started trying to wrap the posts around at the bottom of the sidebar. I did my research, read the tutorials, but couldn't figure it out. I emailed Mark Bernstein, the designer of Tinderbox, this weblog's software application, suggesting that the feature be incorporated into later versions. He responded (Mark's generosity with his time is unbelievable!), offered to do it for me, and, one hour later, sent me my weblog file re-coded with the fluid design (a switch from the earlier wrapping style). And I continued with changing the colors, which is not a straightforward process for someone who is colorblind. (I use the Color Generator and patient friends.)

What's this got to do with learning with examples? Well, I've learned by observing what Mark did. Previously, I would duplicate an entire file to have a practice file; Mark simply added a new CSS note. Previously, I would export an entire document to see how it looked in html. While in Boston, I noticed that Mark just used the Preview button. And from the code he sent, I began to understand the difference between "float" and "absolute". In trying to re-design this blog,I spent two full days acquiring quite a bit of frustration but little understanding, as opposed to taking a few minutes to look at Mark's re-coding to learn where I had gone wrong.

Such incidental learning via examples underscores John Anderson's ACT-R learning theory. Anderson, a professor of psychology and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, is the one who first posited two types of knowledge: declarative and procedural. I've posted on Anderson before (see "Lies teachers tell?" and "Forget IQ. Just Work Hard!".

Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) write:

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.


Thus, ACT-R's theory of procedural learning claims that procedural skills are acquired by making references to past problem solutions while actively trying to solve new problems. Thus, it is both a theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example.

Simply providing the learner with examples is not sufficient to guarantee learning in the ACT-R theory. The sufficiency of the production rules acquired depends on the understanding of the example.

Anderson and Schunn add, "For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor." That is, learners must practice a lot. The problem is one can practice the wrong skills, in which case "practice makes imperfect." In other words, learners need feedback and explicit guidance, often in the form of examples, to make their practice effective.

But how can examples be so effective? Perhaps because human beings learn mostly through imitating. Vilayanur Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition, posits that imitation via mirror neurons is the driving force of human evolution:

With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: "mind reading" empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds."

An earlier post "Be Happy, and Learn!", commented on Kathy Sierra's post "Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain" on the effect of mirror neurons on one's emotional state:

There is now strong evidence to suggest that humans have the same type of "mirror neurons" found in monkeys. It's what these neurons do that's amazing--they activate in the same way when you're watching someone else do something as they do when you're doing it yourself! This mirroring process/capability is thought to be behind our ability to empathize, but you can imagine the role these neurons have played in keeping us alive as a species. We learn from watching others. We learn from imitating (mirroring) others. The potential problem, though, is that these neurons go happily about their business of imitating others without our conscious intention.

Note, however, that this imitation is an unconscious process. I'm not quite sure of the relationship between consciously understanding and using examples and imitating those examples. Perhaps understanding comes through imitation + practice.

Although we wouldn't want to limit ourselves to learning by imitation, the fact that imitation is such a strong component of learning should give us pause when we read statements that denigrate imitation and position it in opposition to creativity.

Paul Butler argues for re-introducing imitation into composition in his article "Imitation as Freedom: (Re)Forming Student Writing":

For many years now, the use of imitation in the composition classroom has been waning. As Connors points out, articles on imitation, sentence combining, and generative rhetoric have steadily declined and have been almost nonexistent since 1995. Yet in composition classrooms all over the country, as we adopt various process techniques, we still hold our students accountable for the fundamental elements of good writing: organization, coherence, unity, and clarity, among others. Lisa Delpit has pointed out that our expectations are sometimes “hidden,” that they remain invisible to students as we encourage them to explore their ideas and work within the process model of teaching. Delpit’s argument, though intended to address the situation of minority students, also applies to students in composition classes around the country. Indeed, it seems the height of hypocrisy to use strictly process techniques when we expect high quality “products” from our students’ writing.

Along these lines of using examples and imitation, I commented previously on They say/I say : the moves that matter in academic writing, a book by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein that uses templates to help students see and be able to make the rhetorical moves of academia.

I think that most of us forget how often we use and appreciate examples when we enter new territory. For instance, when writing my first book review, I looked at dozens of other book reviews to understand this genre's requirements. I imagine if someday I write a grant proposal, I'll do the same, too. And, I imagine that most writers follow suit. If we learn this way, then why wouldn't our students do so, too? Why do we expect them to start from scratch when we don't? And with respect to EFL/ESL students who don't have a strong L2 cultural foundation for learning L2 writing by "osmosis," the case for making explicit the implicit is even more essential.

None of this is an argument for rote memorization of models. Rather, it's an acknowledgement that if we are wired for imitation, for learning with examples, then why not take advantage of our "wiring" when designing class activities?

Much of my posting on comments on blogs has been that they often end up confirming biases, primarily those in the original post. However, they can also simply confirm the commenter's biases.

On David Warlick's post for questions on blog posts, he noted that the conversation can be "polarizing". Indeed, it was. Rather than reflecting on what was said and building on it, quite a few commenters and trackbackers, chained to their previous experiences, reacted. Not that there weren't good ideas contained in the comments. Having comments from a variety of perspectives--college professors, K-12 teachers, IT managers, and others--helps to provide the "disconfirming evidence" that can facilitate reflecting on one's own "chained" perspective, as long as one can brush away the tone of the comments to see the content.

As noted in "Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks", although trackbacks should provide more time for thought than comments, it seems that the content of the post (along with the author's expertise and the comment's tone/register) has more to do with the nature of the response: reflective vs. spontaneous, confirming vs. disconfirming, building constructively vs. destructively tearing down, and so on. So, I'm still pondering whether it's better to enable or disable comments. There's the hope of more disconfirming evidence, but that can be obtained just as easily through trackbacks. There's also the realization that Seth was apparently right when he said that comments "changes the way [one] writes". Perhaps, this is part of what learning is about.

There is also the beauty of the blog, of one's thoughts. Mark Bernstein wrote,

Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable.

Although Haloscan has the comments in a separate window, thus creating a distance from one's weblog, and lets one delete comments, which controls the problem of idiots, one still needs to monitor them. Hmm. Time to go back to the pondering board.