August

Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities, interviews (Part One, Part Two) Elizabeth Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer for Youth Radio, and some of her coworkers. In the preface to the interview, he comments on problems with the term "Digital Generation." The term

  1. is "ahistorical," meaning that in every generation, youth have been technologically ahead of their parents;
  2. "collapses all young people into a so-called digital generation," forgetting the Columbine Generation myth and the Digital Divide of access and participation; and
  3. "ignores the degree that what's really powerful about most of the new forms of participatory culture of fans, bloggers, and gamers is that such affinity spaces allow young people and adults to interact with each other in new terms."

The interviews are worth reading for insight into "collegial pedagogy" between adults and children, and I'll look at that in a later post. But for now I'd like to emphasize points #1 and #2.

On #2, my classes (almost all ESL) have had a range of students: typical teenagers out of high school, single mothers, parents with children who have graduated from college, most working part-time, quite a few working full time, and the categories go on. Just looking at the teenagers, I've seen a few who have had accounts on Myspace or Xanga, but most of them didn't. One had actually signed up for an account with Blogger.com but had not used it and wasn't sure what to do with it.

On #1, it's obvious that cars are a recent invention, as are computers and calculators. My father showed me how to use a slide rule, but I bought a handheld calculator instead. I remember a contest on TV between someone using one of the first calculators and another using an abacus. The abacus won.

Perhaps because people forget the history of technological innovation, they exaggerate the differences between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants". Marc Prensky wrote,

They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite.

An ancient proverb says that a picture is worth a thousand words. It is not new that people are visual. What is new is that we have a way of realizing our teaching visually in ways today that weren't available yesterday.

Prensky also wrote,

Unfortunately for our Digital Immigrant teachers, the people sitting in their classes grew up on the "twitch speed" of video games and MTV. They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They've been networked most or all of their lives.  They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and "tell-test" instruction. 

Are there many people who really prefer lectures? I remember sleeping through high school and many of my undergraduate college courses. Rather than the step-by-step procedures in manuals, I prefer just having someone show me what to do. I don't think I'm unique.

Although the pace of multitasking has reached a new high, it is not a new phenomenon. As Claudia Wallis in The multitasking generation states:

HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALWAYS HAD A CAPACITY to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era--picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler. Nor is electronic multitasking entirely new: we've been driving while listening to car radios since they became popular in the 1930s. But there is no doubt that the phenomenon has reached a kind of warp speed in the era of Web-enabled computers, when it has become routine to conduct six IM conversations, watch American Idol on TV and Google the names of last season's finalists all at once.

Yes, youngsters multitask faster, but it's not new. And I would expect them to do it faster even if they hadn't grown up with it. After all, multitasking, like other physical and mental abilities, is age-related: it declines with age. The fact that "digital natives" multi-task "well" is a factor of age as well as being "digital."

As far as "twitch speed" goes, so what if "digital natives" can twitch. Are they learning anything as they twitch? In research reported on last year, Study: Multitasking hinders learning, twitch learning appears less effective:

"What's new is that even if you can learn while distracted, it changes how you learn"--making the learning "less efficient and useful," said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It was a small study, and it was downplayed by Stephen Downes. But APA Online reports that multitasking is less efficient. In an introductory psychology course of 137 students, Fried (see source below) looked at how using laptops in class affected learning. Having students fill out online surveys weekly, she found that

the negative influence of in-class laptop use is two-pronged; laptop use is negatively associated with student learning [according to course performance] and it poses a distraction to fellow students.

Wallis's article concurs. Here are some excepts:

The mental habit of dividing one's attention into many small slices has significant implications for the way young people learn, reason, socialize, do creative work and understand the world.

Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks.

the ability to multiprocess has its limits, even among young adults. When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer--often double the time or more--to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially, says David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan: "The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large--amazingly so." Meyer frequently tests Gen M students in his lab, and he sees no exception for them, despite their "mystique" as master multitaskers. "The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once," he says. "If a teenager is trying to have a conversation on an e-mail chat line while doing algebra, she'll suffer a decrease in efficiency, compared to if she just thought about algebra until she was done. People may think otherwise, but it's a myth. With such complicated tasks [you] will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information during multitasking. It just can't be, any more than the best of all humans will ever be able to run a one-minute mile."

In an earlier post (Twitter, or How to Fritter your Life Away), I cited Kathy Sierra, who wrote,

this onslaught [of twittering] is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And not only are we stopping ourselves from ever getting in flow, we're stopping ourselves from ever getting really good at something. From becoming experts. The brain scientists now tell us that becoming an expert is not a matter of being a prodigy, it's a matter of being able to focus.

Although this post was on Twitter, it applies also to mulitasking. The ability to focus one's attention is necessary both for acquiring expertise and for being in flow. The fact that youngsters like to multitask and that they can do it better than oldsters says little about well they learn while multitasking. And the research says otherwise.

Prensky does have some good ideas. From his website, he has apparently done well at creating computer games for learning. I think games are great for learning. If I had the money, I'd get him to create a game for my first-year composition course.

I don't doubt that there are differences between my generation and the digital generation. I also don't doubt that much of what is said about the digital native has been exaggerated to the level of myth.

Related posts:
The Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation

Source:

Fried, Carrie B. (in press). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and Education.



Marc Prensky reports on the NSBA Study on Online Behaviors. The report, "Creating & Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational Networking", gives some welcome statistics on how students are using the Internet, showing that much of the concern on the dangers on online social networking is exaggerated. For me, another problem is the exaggerated hype on why schools and teachers aren't using web tools.

Prensky writes:

In general, schools (teachers and administrators) are deathly afraid of what I call “The Emerging Online Life of the Digital Native” because it is something they don’t understand.

On what evidence does Prensky base these claims: (1) that schools are "deathly afraid" and (2) they are afraid because they don't understand it. I can imagine some schools and teachers being nervous, but deathly afraid? And perhaps some don't understand it, but all of the schools who don't accept it don't understand it?

I can think of other reasons for not rushing to accept social networking apps. The main one is time. I have my students using blogs, wikis, and RSS now. And I've been wanting to start incorporating podcasts and videos. But to learn how to use them (some of my students do use them, which is great!) effectively in my classes, I just don't have the time: I have two papers to write on the front burner, two on the back burner, a new text for our composition courses that I have to study and figure out what changes are needed to incorporate it, committees to serve on, and a wife, son, and daughter who I want to spend time with. (I suppose I could stop blogging to find the time.) I imagine other teachers are just as busy, too, and they may simply be finding it difficult to find the time to to restructure and revise their teaching and keep up with their other tasks and responsibilities. Of course, some teachers, as Prensky notes, are likely stuck on "lecturing."

Prensky states:

A lot of concerns about the “have nots” would go away if the schools kept their computer labs open till midnight and on weekends, and teachers assigned projects to groups where at least one member (or the school) had the technology. Kids are great at sharing and teaching each other.

Now, I like this idea, but I wonder what would be involved and how much it would cost to do this. Most people already grumble about the taxes they pay now for schools. As a member of a school's board, I know that we couldn't cover the cost with our present budget.

Prensky has other good ideas, too. The exaggeration, however, is problematic: That is, those who don't listen to the Web 2.0 evangelists are in "darkness," as Prensky puts it, and those who heed the call will be in the "light" and go to education heaven.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation



At 43 Folders, there is a great video of then-14-year-old pianist Jennifer Lin playing, who also gives "her thoughts on flow and creativity" with respect to composing music. An excerpt of her process follows:

What I do first is, I make a lot of little musical ideas that you can just improvise here at the piano. I choose one of those to become the main theme, main melody. Once I choose my main theme, I have to decide out of all the styles of music, what style do I want. And this year I composed a romantic style. So for inspiration, I listened to Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and all the great romantic composers. Next I made the structure of the entire piece with my teachers. They helped me plan out the whole piece. The hard part is filling it in with musical ideas, because then you have to think. And then when the piece takes somewhat of a solidified form, you're supposed to actually polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition.

And another thing I enjoy doing is drawing. Drawing because I like to draw Japanese anime art. And once I realized it, there's a parallel between creating music and creating art, because for your motive or your little initial idea for your drawing. It's your character. You want to decide, who do you want to draw, or if you want to draw an original character. And then you want to decide how you're going to draw that character. Like am I going to use one page, am I going to draw it on the computer, am I going to use a two-page spread like in a comic book for more grandiose effect. And then you have to do the initial sketch of the character, which is like your structure of a piece, and then you add pen and pencil and whatever details you need. That's polishing the drawing.

Lin noticed a similar process for composing music and drawing anime art. It makes sense to me that the process is similar for many activities, including writing.

The need for scaffolding
Lin is a prodigy. She started studying music with Yamaha at the age of four. So, by the time of this video, she had been studying music intensively for 10 years, achieving the status of an expert (see The Expert Mind). Yet, notice that even at her level of experience, knowledge, and skill, her teachers helped her "structure" and "plan out the whole piece." That approach is somewhat at odds with the expressionist school of writing which wants students to find their own voice from the beginning, and composition theory that prefers to be non-directive. (In practice, many, probably most, composition instructors scaffold students by teaching about strategies, invention, and other processes.) Note that Lin found her musical "voice" by listening to great composers. Similarly, chess enthusiasts study the games of the grandmasters.

The need for extensive reading
Lin's approach, a typical one in music and chess, suggests that students need to read great authors to find their voice, and to do so over a lengthy period of time. One obstacle in teaching writing, however, is that few students read extensively, much less read great authors extensively. Another is that for ESL writers, finding a voice means finding one acceptable to native English speakers, not a voice true to them and to their culture. There is no way to bypass this need. Lin's ability to "polish the piece, polish the details, and then polish the overall performance of the composition"--in writing, to revise the essay, edit the details, and then finetune the overall coherence of the composition--is directly related to her extensive background in music.

Bottleneck constraints on creativity and learning
Lin's approach also indicates that creativity stems from one's familiarity with one's discipline or content. One problem in teaching composition at the university level has been transfer. For a variety of reasons, what is learned in first-year composition doesn't seem to transfer well to later courses, especially in other disciplines. Part of that lack of transfer is due to a lack of discipline/content knowledge. In attempting to develop their writing, students face two hurdles, subject matter knowledge and writing knowledge, creating a bottleneck that constrains developing their writing. (On bottlenecks, see here and here and here.)

Suggestions in teaching writing
One consequence of a bottleneck perspective is that students learning to write should write on topics they know well. Of course, they should move beyond their personal knowledge and experience and research their topics. Even though Lin obviously knew the romantic composers, she immersed herself in their music again. Thus, students need to immerse themselves in the conversations, academic and popular, on their topic, so that the more they know the concepts and issues on a particular topic, the more they can focus on their writing.

Along these lines, students might write on (and continue to research) the same topic via a series of papers that will allow them to focus more on developing their writing. For instance, on any topic, papers might include:

  • a rhetorical analysis of posters, advertisements, or photos on the topic
  • a letter to the editor of a newspaper
  • a review of a book or film on the topic
  • a proposal to a concerned party to take action on the issue

Reading, analyzing, and writing in different genres can also help students to become more aware of rhetorical conventions as they see how the conventions vary across genre, audience, and context. And as with Lin's teachers, we need to "structure" how they fill in the details: introducing them to different strategies for developing their ideas and planning their composition, making academic conventions explicit (see They say / I say), and so on.

To sum up, developing one's writing, one's voice, one's creativity, is mostly a matter students of spending time on task, as Lin does. However, providing structure and reducing the bottleneck of subject matter knowledge can help students in this process.

Related posts
Engagement and FLow
Flow, Games, and Learning
Want to be creative? Slack off
Engagement, flow, and classroom activity
They Say / I Say
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing



It's exciting to see our Kean U. ESL students be successful. Nitza M. Gallardo Rodriguez, a student from Puerto Rico, won a higher education scholarship from NJTESOL/NJBE on May 21, 2007.

And tomorrow, Elizabeth Torres, a winner in the American Eagle Outfitter's Live Your Life contest, will be appearing on the CNN live video show Young People Who Rock Friday, August 17, at 3:00 pm.



We're all familiar with the notion of first impressions and how the first day of class is crucial for setting the tone for the entire semester. But how does it work?

Primed by our senses
Part of the answer can be found in Benedict Carey's article "Who's Minding the Mind? (New York Times via Will Thalheimer), which reports on psychology experiments showing that people are primed by their senses:

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

And the article gives quite a few more examples of how sounds, smells and sights can prime us, for instance:

In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

More sensory hardwiring
We're hardwired by our senses in many ways, one of which is beauty. The "waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a significant factor in judging female attractiveness" (Wikipedia). Symmetry is apparently a factor in judging beauty, too, not only in humans but also in other species (Feng). "[A]ttractive scents - like the smell of freshly baked bread - are already known to keep customers in a store for longer (New Scientist). Music affects us, too. In one piece of research, it was shown that labeling wines with flags representing country of origin (France or Germany) and playing French accordion and German beer-hall music on alternating days affected sales:

"Despite an overall bias in favor of French over German wine sales," they soberly reported last week in the prestigious science journal Nature, "French wine outsold German wine when French music was being played, whereas German wine outsold French wine when German music was played." What may be even more significant is that only six of the 44 customers who consented to fill out a questionnaire admitted that they had been influenced by the music.

The Power of Precedent and Cultural Norms
Similarly, students subconsciously notice cues about the instructor, about their classmates, and about the general classroom environment that prime them to act in particular ways. Of course, later sense impressions can also have an effect, perhaps contrary to the earlier ones. However, once a group, such as students in a class, has established a precedent, or culture, for particular ways of acting or feeling about writing, that precedent has a strong effect on later actions.

In The Psychological Foundations of Culture, Holly Arrow and K.L. Burns look at how small groups establish behavioral norms. Using both complexity science and Alan Page Fiske's social relational models of culture (see Social Relations and Classroom Activity for a brief explanation) as a basis, they studied four groups of college students playing social poker. These groups, for different reasons, formed different norms in their groups. Once formed, however, those norms tend to stay in place, although they can be disrupted.

A combined authority ranking/communal sharing model was popular but persisted. The group stuck with this norm not because they were happy, but because dissatisfaction did not translate into coordinated action. The market pricing/communal sharing norm disappeared when a dissident dyad shook up the system.

In other words, it takes effort to oppose or change norms, once they've been established. Remember the Stanley Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments? Just as our senses prime our actions subconsciously, so do societal norms.

Practice
What does that mean in practice? At the minimum, we should work at becoming more aware of how all that we do--from our appearance to our habits and attitudes to our gender--affects our students and us. (See here and here and here and here.) Actually, we're quite aware when an occasion is important to us. Few of us wear less than business attire when in a job interview or in court (see, for example, Judging by Appearance).

Of course, as noted in Trout's satire, How to Improve your Teaching Evaluation without Improving your Teaching!", we could approach this in a manipulative manner. That's not the point. As Robert Rosenthal, Professor of Psychology, remarks in his biographical blurb:

For nearly half a century I have been fascinated by the psychology of interpersonal expectations; the idea that one person's expectation for the behavior of another can come to serve as self-fulfilling prophecy. Our experiments have been conducted in laboratories and in the field, and we have learned that when teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect certain responses from their research participants they tend to get those responses. For almost as long as I've been interested in interpersonal expectations I've also been interested in various processes of nonverbal communication. In part, this interest developed when it became clear that the mediating mechanisms of interpersonal expectancy effects were to a large extent nonverbal. That is, when people expect more of those with whom they come in contact, they treat them differently nonverbally. Some of our most recent research on nonverbal behavior has examined "thin slices" of nonverbal behavior -- silent videos or tone-of-voice clips of about 30 seconds or less. Some of our more recent work with these thin slices shows that we can predict, using 30 seconds of instructors' nonverbal behavior, what end-of-term ratings college students will give their instructors. From thin slices of doctors' interactions with one set of patients, we can also predict which doctors are more likely to be sued by a different set of patients. Finally, jury verdicts can be predicted from the nonverbal behavior of the judges as they instruct the jury.

Similar to our senses instinctively priming our behavior, our nonverbal behavior reflects our (often unconscious) attitudes and expectations, which in turn, prime students' behavior and performance. We need to "mind our mind," to become more aware of our habits, attitudes, and expectations, from the first day of class on in order to help spark the intellectual performance that our students are capable of.



More than a few people confuse "it's" (for "it is") with "its" (the possessive pronoun) in their writing. What I didn't know was the history of "it's". Daily Writing Tips provides this interesting tidbit:

when the third person neuter possessive adjective came into the language in the 16th century, it was spelled it’s for the very reason that the new form was modeled on the ’s of the possessive noun. The spelling it’s for the possessive adjective was acceptable “down to about 1800 (A.C. Baugh, A History of the English Language, p. 295).

Although we generally have to teach standard forms, it's good to keep in mind that what is "incorrect" today may have been "correct" yesterday.



Most of us are aware that diversity of ideas can lead to innovative solutions to problems in work environments and learning in educational environments. But diversity apparently has negative effects. Based on interviews with almost 30,000 people in the U.S., Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, has found that diversity in a community has its downsides (via EdNews.org).

Diversity is proportional to

  • less voting,
  • less volunteering,
  • less giving to charity,
  • less working on community projects,
  • less trusting of one's neighbors, and
  • less civic well-being.

How much less? "In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings." Although we might expect trust to lessen between different groups, Putnam found that trust lessened "even among members of the same group."

These are serious findings. Diversity is important for creativitiy and learning. At the same time, it creates friction and distrust. As noted in the post Multiculturalism and Prejudice, promoting multiculturalism has a side effect of increasing prejudice for some people. Somehow, while maintaining respect for all cultures, we, our schools, and our communities need to emphasize and teach what we have in common instead of our differences.

Related posts:
Multiculturalism and Prejudice
Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain
Economic Diversity Raises Test Scores
Collective Intelligence vs. Crowd Dumbness



Baroness Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, considers the notion of learning styles to be "a waste of valuable time and resources" (Julie Henry, Telegraph via Education News):

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is "nonsense" from a neuroscientific point of view: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together - the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person's lips - that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

"The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits."

Thirty years without independent evidence!

Commenting on student-centered learning about a year ago, I said that learning styles were not as important as the modality of the task:

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.

As Greenfield states, "our senses [are] working in unison." A little bit of reflection confirms this: When playing baritone horn, I was using my ear for music, my eyes for reading music notation and watching the director, my fingers on the valves and lips on the mouthpiece for controlling the pitch, and my entire body for correct posture. And it didn't matter which of my "learning styles" I preferred. I had to use what was needed for the modality of playing music, in this case auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities working together.

Greenfield is not alone. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia (American Educator), says,

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.

Willingham's article is worth reading in its entirety, but two of his points are:

  1. Some memories are stored as visual and auditory representations—but most memories are stored in terms of meaning.
  2. The different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another.

They seem clear enough. Despite the pervasive belief in the effectiveness of teaching according to students' learning styles, there's too little, if any, evidence supporting it--not to mention that the most important variable in learning is "time on task" (see The Expert Mind). From a pedagogical perspective, it seems Greenfield is right: Learning styles is nonsense.

Update of related articles (via ict-echo):
Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : A systematic and critical review
Stephen Draper's "Learning Styles (Notes)"