July

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.