Sana Saeed (The Islamic Monthly writes about "The Shaykh and the F Word." It's a response to the Internet backlash "over sexist comments made by UK-based Shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, affiliated with the Al Maghrib Institute." (His response to the backlash is here.) She writes

Instead of taking this opportunity to get in line and bash the Shaykh- who I do respect otherwise and who actually has done great work in his community – I want to take this opportunity to navigate the underlying, insidious problem that makes it okay for Niamatullah to get away with saying what he said about Feminists.

She writes a balanced critique of the situation, worth reading, and her conclusion is on target:

We have a real problem of sexism and misogyny within and outside our communities – social media chants can be cathartic (and I do love them) and yes we have a right to be angry, but we have an even greater responsibility to be productive in finding the solutions to our ailments.

And to our Shayukh – especially those who have lessened the seriousness of the impact of Shaykh Niamatullah’s ‘jokes’: you have a responsibility to promote that which is good and forbid that which is evil. When you have a segment of your community, of this Ummah, which is constantly under a barrage of hatred and suspicion, constantly have their bodies used as cultural warfare fronts – those jokes that you may see as misunderstood playful banter become daggers in the back.

UPDATE (March 12):

Since yesterday, I've read more posts, and Abu Eesa has issued a clear apology. Reactions are still raging, going from outrage to unconditional support, with a few, very few that are balanced and thoughtful. It reminds me of Doris Lessing's comment,

for every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to look carefully at our assumptions, there are twenty rabble-rousers whose real motive is a desire for power.

The "idea" was that of feminism, but can be applied to any idea. Comparing "political correctness" to "progressive thinking" and "communism," Doris Lessing talked about "attitudes of mind" in an interview with Dwight Garner, in which people have

A need to oversimplify. To control. And an enormous distrust of the innovative, of new ideas. All political movements are like this — we are in the right, everyone else is in the wrong. The people on our own side who disagree with us are heretics, and they start becoming enemies. With it comes an absolute conviction of your own moral superiority. There’s oversimplification in everything, and a terror of flexibility. This characterizes political correctness.

Political correctness, feminist correctness, religious correctness, .... Nothing is new.

UPDATE (March 14)

As I've continued to read articles on this topic, I've moved the ones I had previously mentioned above to here so I can continue to add without needing to update this post.

Quite some time ago, Nancy McKeand responded to a comment of mine about the role of facts in learning::

It is obvious that you have to know the facts before you can think critically about them.  What I should have said is that we don’t make the facts the important part of the lesson.  Teach them the facts.  (Although I think we have to be careful about what we call facts when we are teaching.  But that is another issue, I think.) But that isn’t what they should be held responsible for.  They should be help responsible for what they can do with the facts.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The ability to use information shows a deeper understanding of that item than simple recitation of information about the item. But I do think we need to carefully think about the types of doing we have students do. For instance, Nancy gives this example:

I started life (or at least it was so long ago it seems like I did!) as a history teacher.  Let me use that field and give you an example.  If I am teaching about the Civil War, I could have them memorize the facts: generals, battles, victories, etc.  I could give them a test on which they have to give me that information back.  I am teaching them the facts of the Civil War – as it was taught to me and many of the rest of us, I imagine.  The other option is that I could resent material about the Civil War (including those facts) and then have them do something with the information.  This fall when I do that, one thing my students are going to do is write a letter as a soldier from one side or the other.  It will require them to refer to those facts, but the facts are not the goal.  The goal is to have them understand what life might have been like for a soldier in the civil war, what he might have been thinking and feeling.  They will be free to look up as many of the facts as they need to when they write their letters.  I think that this will be more beneficial to them in terms of learning about that period of US history than having a multiple choice test on the facts in isolation.

I wonder about this letter exercise. Can they really understand the life of a soldier just by thinking about information? Wouldn’t that be like trying to understand what an apple tastes like without eating it? This doing can build imagination, but I'm not sure that it helps to understand how a soldier was "thinking and feeling."

In addition, it seems to me that the study of history should be to develop the skills of a historian, just as studying biology should develop biologist skills, and so on. (Of course, the expectations for students are adjusted according to their level of experience.) Historian skills focus on using sources: analyzing them critically for bias and motive, considering counterevidence, and so on. None of those skills seem to be applied in the writing of this type of letter.

So, although doing is important for learning, the type of doing needs to be carefully thought out.

McKeand continues,

Taking that example a step further, this could be a totally independent research project, actually.  I would not have to teach them any facts.  They could look the facts up themselves and then bring that knowledge to class to incorporate into class discussions and other activities.  This goes back to a discussion Charles and I had a long time ago: What is the role of the teacher — facilitator or expert?  I fall squarely on the facilitator side of that question.  Even if we learn facts, I don’t need to be the one to dispense them.

On the research project, I've never quite understood why many educators oppose their own dispensing of "facts." Why is it better for students to get the facts from someone else than from themselves?

Or, Why is it better for students to look up the facts themselves? Does it lead to better learning? Do people need to research on their own how nuts and bolts are used? Or can they just be told/shown and then apply that knowledge?

In a previous post on Learning with Examples, I cited Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf):

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.

Note that the reason that it might be preferable for students to acquire facts via their own research is due to "redundant encoding" of the facts they come across, but this advantage is offset by their possible misunderstanding the "facts." What is preferable is that learning be tied to "actively trying to solve new problems," applying “facts” to new contexts. As finding information takes time, instructors need to consider what level of facts are given, what level should students research, and what activities can help students learn to apply those "facts" in normal and novel contexts. Again, the doing that we ask students to perform needs to be thought out instead of assuming that all doing is equal.

Others have written in more depth on this topic. Check out Anderson and Schunn's article mentioned above (along with other articles at that site) and read Stephen Downes' An operating system for the mind and Facts versus Skills.

ScienceBlog reports on research showing that humility is key to effective leadership. A few excerpts:

Although the leaders were from vastly different organizations — military, manufacturing, health care, financial services, retailing and religious — they all agreed that the essence of leader humility involves modeling to followers how to grow.

The researchers found that such leaders model how to be effectively human rather than superhuman and legitimize “becoming” rather than “pretending.”

A follow-up study that is forthcoming in Organization Science using data from more than 700 employees and 218 leaders confirmed that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees and lower voluntary employee turnover.

Although the research is focusing on leader humility, it points out the a result of leader humility is learning—not only by leaders but also by followers.

This research fits in well with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Here are a few excepts from his book:

Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality… The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity. (p. 65)

dialogue cannot exist without humility. ... Men and women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. (p. 71)

Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. (p. 70)

As can be seen, Freire goes beyond humility to include either elements of learning: dialogue, love, and elsewhere in the book, faith, hope, and critical thinking. For a little more on this, see Jim Knight's Requirements for Dialogue, in which he comments on Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

A few other interesting reads (and excerpts) on humility in teaching:

Cunningham, Lawrence. My lifelong lesson in humility

In fact, being a worthy professor is a lifelong exercise in humility.

The true humility of the teacher (and, equally, the administrator) becomes manifest when we have an open eye and a soft spot for the shy students who turn in barely satisfactory papers. The cultivation of that kind of humility (the word itself has an etymological root that calls to mind “earthiness") gives the serious teacher a certain slant on things which says, in effect, that this person is worth my attention although my reputation will not be buffed up because that student will not get a medal at the annual convocation.

Hare, William. Humility as a virtue in teaching

Some teachers, then, seem so assured of their own authority that humility is completely absent from their perspective on teaching, while others seem to have translated humility into a denial of their right to critically assess a student's response. Some, however, manage to hit the mark exactly and capture the delicate balance between authority and humility which teachers must strive to attain.

Reilly, Brendan M. (2007). Inconvenient truths about effective clinical teaching. Lancet, 370: 705-711.

If our profession is serious about lifelong learning, we must recognise that learning can’t happen without humility. Teachers who humbly think out loud help to show the way.

In The Atlantic Monthly, James Somers argues that email can improve first-year composition by providing immediate feedback:

But of course professors don't train writers the way coaches train athletes. Instead they do it obliquely, one paper, one small barrage of comments at a time.

The whole process is rather clumsy. In a typical semester-long university English class there might be three opportunities to showcase your writing, each one a standard one-to-three-thousand-word expository essay, each one born, for the most part, in a few miserable halfday blasts.

Whatever you produce joins dozens of other efforts in a stack whose growing thickness doesn't exactly thrill your professor. But still he'll soldier on and read, and maybe re-read, and mark up and grade each one. Along the way he might leave short contextual notes in the margin; he might write one long critique at the end; he might do both; or he might do neither and let your grade do all the talking.

Trouble is, no matter how detailed and incisive the feedback, by the time it gets back to you it's already too late -- and, in a way, too early. Too late because your paper has already been written, and what you really needed help with was its composition, with the micromechanics of style, with all the small decisions that led you to say whatever it is you said. And too early because even if the professor's ex post pointers make every bit of sense, a whole month might go by before you next get to use them.

In contrast, there's email feedback:

it's deliberate practice: goal-directed, supervised. It's unfolding in smallish chunks in a series of tight feedback cycles. The conversations can be referenced, excerpted and combined; there is a clear trail of progress. "By the time we've done our half dozen email back-and-forths about their thesis, a lot of the time I can see direct evidence -- and they can see direct evidence -- that it's gotten better."

Alex Reid disagrees:

Writers don't need instant feedback from a mentor every time they get stuck. They mostly need to figure out how to work through their own problems.

In the comments, Alex provides more information, basically arguing that writing is complex and that, despite students' beliefs, there is no "ONE way to write." From this perspective giving instant feedback reinforces students' beliefs rather than helping them become independent writers.

The problem with this perspective is that it doesn't consider evidence from research on the role of feedback in learning.

Somers mentions, for instance, the research on expertise:

Ericsson argues that to become an expert at something you have to log about 10,000 hours of practice, but not just any practice -- a kind of practice that includes an "active search for methods to improve performance," immediate informative feedback, structure, supervision from an expert, and "close attention to every detail of performance 'each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.'"

Now, although I wouldn't expect that students in first-year composition will become experts in one semester (or by the time they graduate), the practice of "immediate informative feedback" still applies to improving competence (as does Alex's goal of having students engaging in "an intensive, regular writing practice"). Similar to Somers' points, I've written before about the importance of immediate feedback:

Although learning and instruction may meet conditions 2-4, seldom is immediate feedback given in composition classes. In one semester, students might write from three to six essays, depending on the instructor, which means that feedback on essays is given every two to three weeks. In addition, the feedback of peer reviews generally takes place hours after the last version, unless a student pulled an all-nighter for an 8:00 am class. In this case, most of the feedback will be seen through a haze. The feedback of instructors usually occurs days later after they have looked at all of them.

The importance of immediate feedback with cognitive tutors has been demonstrated in teaching LISP, algebra, and geometry. In their abstract, Anderson et al. write,

Early evaluations of these tutors usually but not always showed significant achievement gains. Best case evaluations showed that students could achieve at least the same level of proficiency as conventional instruction in one-third of the time.

Those "best case evaluations" are in the lab where there are no distractions, but even in real classrooms, Anderson and Schunn (pdf) have found achievement gains equal to one letter grade. Learning is directly due to time on task, that is, practice. (Of course, practicing the wrong tasks leads to mislearning.) Thus, providing immediate feedback helps to eliminate wasted time in trying to figure out how to do something, which in turn, decreases the time required to learn a particular activity.

Having students figure things out on their own wastes time not simply from the figuring out process but also from the mislearning that can just as easily occur and which must then be unlearned.

So, having students learn to "figure things out" sounds like a worthy goal, but it doesn't seem to be taught directly. Alex writes,

Over the years it seems that students increasingly come to me with a desire to be told what to do. I won't tell them what to do, but I will try to give them some insight into how they might figure out what to do. This isn't a matter of their playing guess what's on my mind. There isn't a right answer. Or more precisely, if there is a thing I want them to do it's for them to figure out what to do on their own. That's what I want them to learn, and if there is no shortcut to learning that, then the only way for students to learn this is for them to actual to do it.

Apparently, Alex uses an informal, implicit approach for those students who take the initiative to see Alex. However, although there are no shortcuts to learning, the wasted time incurred by implicit approaches can be eliminated through examples and feedback (see Learning with Examples and Learning with Examples cont'd).

To eliminate wasted time, ACT-R Theory (see, again, Anderson and Schunn) proposes the following:

  1. Learning occurs sequentially through three stages of declarative, procedural, and automatic knowledge.
  2. Acquiring expertise in any field requires extensive practice.
  3. Practice is made effective through
    • accurate diagnosis of the task/rules,
    • examples and understandable explanations for the task/rules, and
    • feedback based on the examples and explanations.
  4. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.
  5. Learning occurs best when re-iterated at intervals.

Note that it is effective time on task, not just time. One can practice bad habits of writing as well as good ones. In terms of learning to write, then,

  1. the first step in helping students to figure things out is figuring out how writers figure out what they need to do—that is, make explicit Alex's insight to students in classroom instruction. (The diagnosis of figuring out is unlikely to be easy.)
  2. Then, a sequence of examples of that "figuring out" need to be created, along with explanations.
  3. Students then iteratively practice "figuring out" and receive feedback connected to the examples and explanations.

On point 3, repetition in practice is important for learning as learning and forgetting are governed by power laws. That is, as noted in Learning: One step forward, then forgotten,

(1) with practice, learning increases quickly; (2) with a lack of practice, retention of learning drops off quickly; and (3) the effects of (1) and (2) interact in a way that multiplies each other rather than just adds up.

To avoid students' perception that "there is ONE way to write" and to promote transfer to novel situations, examples should be chosen that provide different aspects of "figuring out" (read also Learning by Remixing and Building Blocks and Learning).

One point I've never figured out is, Why is it not good for teachers to intervene heavily with students who are at a novice or intermediate level while coaches of different sports at the professional level consider it their job to do so?

Some time ago, I wrote about not being able to find my car in the university parking lot (If It'd Been a Snake, It Would've Bit Me):

Often, I wonder, Why don't my students get it? Why don't they see what I see? Perhaps it's because they're not looking where I am.

Trimmer SpoolOn Saturday, I was reminded how knowing where to look depends on one's experience. I was trying to reload my electric lawn trimmer with new nylon string. The manual had a picture that gave the basics but apparently not the "fine" points that I needed because when I tried to insert the spool back into the head, it didn't fit: The string was crossing an edge and stopping it from being inserted. After 15 minutes of re-reading the manual, looking at the images, scratching my head, and trying again and again, I gave up. Time to go back to the store.

At the store, the salesman showed me how to thread the nylon string. I had missed the grooves for the nylon string to lie in so that the string wouldn't be outside the edge of the spool. Note that the spool image doesn't show any grooves, either. And he showed me a few other tips to ensure that it would work right.

All of this reminds me of the importance of examples for learning. After he showed me, it all made sense, but before his example, I simply didn't see what was in front of my eyes. Of course, I can imagine that eventually I would have figured it out, but one good example can save hours of figuring things out.

It also reminds me that without practice, what is learned is forgotten. The same salesman had shown me how to thread the spool a year ago, but I had not practiced once since then.

I'm just lucky that I'm not overlooking a snake.

Dave Snowden complains rightly about the oversimplification of differences between generations, in particular, the fuss being made over so-called digital natives:

We now have this rather silly idea that the next generation will be digital natives, comfortable with technology in a way that their parents were not. We also have the idea that this is necessarily a good thing. There are several reasons to challenge this but there are two main themes to the arguments. Firstly its simply not true that you can classify a whole generation and secondly the assumption that the new skills can displace older capabilities without loss.

Snowden goes into more detail with some telling examples. In particular, I liked his comment, "Professions have more in common across the generations that the generations do across professions."

Related posts:

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

From Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics (Posted on Gregory Kilcup's site)

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing - it didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I'd see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn't have to do it; it wasn't important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn't make any difference. I'd invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate - two to one [Note: Feynman mis-remembers here---the factor of 2 is the other way]. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, ``Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it's two to one?''

I don't remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ``Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it's two to one is ...'' and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, ``Feynman, that's pretty interesting, but what's the importance of it? Why are you doing it?''

``Hah!'' I say. ``There's no importance whatsoever. I'm just doing it for the fun of it.'' His reaction didn't discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there's the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was ``playing'' - working, really - with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

Dylan McLain reports on a study showing that in their field of expertise experts process information differently:

What set the experts apart was that parts of their right brain hemispheres — which are more involved in pattern recognition — also lit up with activity. The experts were processing the information in two places at once.

The researchers also found that when the subjects were shown the chess diagrams, the novices looked directly at the pieces to recognize them, while the experts looked on the middle of the boards and took everything in with their peripheral vision.

One of researchers, Merim Bilalic, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, said in an interview that the way the experts’ brains handled the chess tasks was more efficient. The study also showed that expertise is an acquired skill, not an innate one. “It tells you a very sobering message,” he said. “It tells you there are no shortcuts to expertise.”

One interesting session at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Writing Project was Reading the Research: Living and Learning with New Media, which discussed the MacArthur report summarizing its findings from the Digital Youth Project.

Report Findings:

  • Youth use online media to extend friendships and interests.
  • Youth engage in peer-based, self-directed learning online.

Implications from the Report:

  • Adults should facilitate young people's engagement with digital media.
  • Given the diversity of digital media, it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks against which to measure young people's technical and new media literacy.
  • In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play.
  • To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.

Looking at these findings and implications, I wondered, "Is there anything new here?" and initially concluded, "Not really." But continuing to read it, I thought that with respect to learning, it's difficult to posit something new. (As noted below, I continue to work with the same theories of learning I've used for the past 15 years.) Even so, it's an important report in that it shows that present theories of learning apply online as well as offline, thus supporting the validity of generalizing these theories across various contexts.

For its theoretical framework, the report drew upon the work of Henry Jenkins, Jean Lave, and Etienne Wenger, and emphasized the "social and cultural participation" nature of learning. In particular, learning occurs through interest- and "friendship-driven genres of participation."

Despite this emphasis, in many ways the report supported a psychological approach to learning with new media. In looking at interest-driven genres of participation, the report stated,

It is not about the given social relations that structure youth's school lives but about both focusing and expanding on an individual's social circle based on interests. (p. 10)

Despite the report's emphasizing "an individual's social circle", what is seen is an individual's interests driving his/her actions and the expanding of the social circle a by-product not a focus. In fact, the report itself also states,

Messing around with digital media is driven by personal interest, but it is supported by a broader social and technical ecology ...

Naturally, social support is key to pursuing one's own interests. Even Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory, a psychological theory of motivation (see Self-determination and motivation), notes its importance. However, this theory posits that the key factor in motivation is autonomy, which the report also noted as essential in learning "fluent and expert use of new media" (p. 36).

Another key factor in interest-driven genres of participation was "feedback," a term emphasized in Csikzentmihalyi's theory of flow (see Engagement and Flow), another theory of individual motivation.

Feedback is also a key factor in John Anderson's ACT-R theory of cognition, which posits the key factor in learning as "time on task," and the report also noted the need for "ample time" to learning to use new media.

So, in many ways, this report underscored how learning to use new media can be understood through cognitive theories of learning.

In its conclusion, the report asks some good questions:

Rather than thinking of public education as a burden that schools must shoulder on their own, what would it mean to think of public education as a responsibility of a more distributed network of people and institutions? And rather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational, and civic engagement? And finally, what would it mean to enlist help in this endeavor from an engaged and diverse set of publics that are broader than what we traditionally think of as educational and civic institutions? (p. 39)

In quite a few posts, I've commented on poverty being the number one factor in academic underachievement. But High school teacher Patrick Welsh in his article Making the Grade Isn't About Race. It's About Parents takes a closer look at it and comes up the importance of parents in academic achievement:

"Why don't you guys study like the kids from Africa?"

In a moment of exasperation last spring, I asked that question to a virtually all-black class of 12th-graders who had done horribly on a test I had just given. A kid who seldom came to class -- and was constantly distracting other students when he did -- shot back: "It's because they have fathers who kick their butts and make them study."

Another student angrily challenged me: "You ask the class, just ask how many of us have our fathers living with us." When I did, not one hand went up.

Welsh is arguing against the simplistic racial explanations for academic achievement and for the importance of parenting in academic achievement.

Four years ago, William Raspberry, Pulitzer Prize recipient and retired Washington Post columnist, also commented on the importance of fathers in his article "A Better Cure than Abortion", connecting it to this story:

Some years ago, South Africa's game managers had to figure out what to do about the elephant herd at Kruger National Park. The herd was growing well beyond the ability of the park to sustain it.

The two-phase solution: transport some of the herd to the Pilanesberg game park and kill off some of those that were too big to transport. And so they did.

A dozen years later, several of the transported young males (now teenagers) started attacking Pilanesberg's herd of white rhinos, an endangered species. They used their trunks to throw sticks at the rhinos, chased them over long hours and great distances, and stomped to death a tenth of the herd -- all for no discernible reason.

Park managers decided they had no choice but to kill some of the worst juvenile offenders. They had killed five of them when someone came up with another bright idea: Bring in some of the mature males from Kruger -- there was by then the technology to transport the larger animals -- and hope that the bigger, stronger males could bring the adolescents under control.

To the delight of the park officials, it worked. The big bulls, quickly establishing the natural hierarchy, became the dominant sexual partners of the females, and the reduction in sexual activity among the juveniles lowered their soaring testosterone levels and reduced their violent behavior.

The new discipline, it turned out, was not just a matter of size intimidation. The young bulls actually started following the Big Daddies around, enjoying the association with the adults, yielding to their authority and learning from them proper elephant conduct. The assaults on the white rhinos ended abruptly.

Raspberry is arguing against long legal sentences for non-violent offences that results in "fatherless communities."

Naturally, there are other contributing and overlapping factors, such as poverty, that exacerbates the problems many students have in succeeding academically. There are also curriculum effects and teacher quality effects, at least in mathematics. Even so, the family factor is arguably a, if not the, major one. And this is true in other arenas, too. For instance, the National Institutes of Health reported that "Family Characteristics Have More Influence On Child Development Than Does Experience In Child Care". This governmental review of the literature shows the importance of family influences in problem behaviors of children. And some research shows the effects of divorce on children.

We need to reconsider, as Raspberry argues, legal policy effects on communities and families. We need to rethink the effects of our social policy effects on communities and families. Children are our future, and we need to invest in them. We need to rethink our priorities.

David Jones, a PhD student at The Australian National University, writes about the progress on his dissertation, which looks at how educational institutions constrain the implementation of e-learning initiatives. In his most recent post People, Cognition, Rationality, and E-Learning, he reviews some of the literature on the irrationality of human decision making and states:

At the level of the individual, there is significant research to indicate that people do not make rational decisions. It has been shown that when making decisions people rely on strategies such as rules of thumb and heuristics to simplify decisions, several of which suffer from systematic biases that influence judgement (Tversky and Kahneman 1974).

We usually assume that people are rational, but when you think about it, it's pretty obvious we aren't. Otherwise, we would come to similar conclusions most of the time, and, quite obviously, we don't. In fact, the old saying "Don't discuss politics or religion" underscores how Emotions Overrule Reason and moves us to ignore facts that contradict our position. And that also applies to experts, who predict no better than non-experts.

So, if we and our students are primarily not rational, how do we move ourselves and them to rationality? Should we? Does learning need to be a rational endeavor?

Better Learning with Sites and Sounds (by Andy Guess from InsideHIgherEd)

One qualitative study ... found that students who create and edit documents using Web-based collaboration tools include more complex visual media in their assignments — and come away with a better understanding in the process. Another ongoing experiment finds, with statistical significance, that instructors can be more effective in grading students’ work if they record their comments directly into documents as audio.

Perhaps the first finding in this article sheds some light on the finding from the previous post in which the NSSE found that online learning resulted in "deep" learning. Using "more complex visual media," that is, leads to thinking about what one is learning in ways that offline learning doesn't. And using that media depends, in part, on how easy it is to use them.

The second finding is interesting, too, because it's not the same as giving them an audio file that is separate from the document. According to Ice, one of the researchers in the article, separating the audio file results in little additional learning. I'm guessing that having the audio play as you read focuses the listener more on those areas of writing that need work and why. To use this method, however, requires Adobe Acrobat Pro, about a $200 expenditure. (Students can read and listen with the free Acrobat Reader.) Still, read the Virtual Canuck's experience and enthusiasm for Marking with Voice Tools.

E-mails 'hurt IQ more than pot' (via Bruce Hoppe)

Workers distracted by phone calls, e-mails and text messages suffer a greater loss of IQ than a person smoking marijuana, a British study shows.

Fascinating comparison! I don't know about the effect on IQ, but distractions take away time from being, or becoming, competent at anything. (See The Expert Mind and Twitter, or How to Fritter your Life Away.) And again, it underscores the negative effects of multitasking on learning. (See Myths of the Digital Generation, Part I, Part II, and Cont'd.)

Scientific Journal to Authors: Publish in Wikipedia or Perish (via Stephen Downes)

Every day, hundreds of articles appear in academic journals and very little of this information is available to the public. Now, RNA Biology has decided to ask every author who submits an article to a newly created section of the journal about families of RNA molecules to also submit a Wikipedia page that summarizes the work. As Nature reports, this is the first time an academic journal has forced its authors to disseminate information this way. The initiative is a collaboration between the journal and the RNA family database (Rfam) consortium led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute.

This is a great move toward making knowledge available to all. I hope other journals will follow suit.

iTunes Study Podcasts

Clicking on the above link opens up iTunes and takes you to Wired Study Tips, podcasts on test preparation, study skills, and time management from Continuing and Professional Studies at Texas A&M University.


How the City Hurts Your Brain

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it's long been recognized that city life is exhausting -- that's why Picasso left Paris -- this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

"The mind is a limited machine,"says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations." ...

In a study published last month, Berman outfitted undergraduates at the University of Michigan with GPS receivers. Some of the students took a stroll in an arboretum, while others walked around the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor.

The subjects were then run through a battery of psychological tests. People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory, which involved repeating a series of numbers backwards.

I wonder how urban effects compare with multitasking.

However, on the plus side:

Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life, from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory -- the crowded streets, the crushing density of people -- also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the "concentration of social interactions" that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.

Results of the National Survey of Student Engagement 2008 (pdf) is online. It's a large survey ""based on information from nearly 380,000 randomly selected first-year and senior students at 722 four-year colleges and universities in the U.S." (NSSE press release):

The survey—now entering its tenth year—annually provides comparative standards for assessing effective educational practices in higher education. Five key areas of educational performance are measured: 1) Level of Academic Challenge, 2) Active and Collaborative Learning, 3) Student-Faculty Interaction, 4) Enriching Educational Experiences, and 5) Supportive Campus Environment.

Some of the survey's key findings are:

  • Students taking most of their classes online report more deep approaches to learning in their classes, relative to classroom-based learners. Furthermore, a larger share of online learners reported very often participating in intellectually challenging course activities.
  • Seniors who entered as transfers lag behind their peers on several measures of engagement. They talked less frequently with faculty about their future plans, were less likely than their peers to work with their classmates on assignments outside of class, and fewer participated in co-curricular activities. On the other hand, they more frequently prepared multiple drafts of assignments.
  • Nearly a quarter of first-year students and one in five seniors reported that they frequently came to class without completing readings or assignments.
  • First-year students wrote on average 92 pages and seniors wrote 146 pages during the academic year. Seniors majoring in the social sciences and arts and humanities wrote considerably more than those studying the physical and biological sciences.
  • When courses provided extensive, intellectually challenging writing activities, students engaged in more deep learning activities such as analysis, synthesis, and integration of ideas from various sources, and they grappled more with course ideas both in and out of the classroom. These students also reported greater personal, social, practical, and academic learning and development.

The first finding is rather curious. I need to look at the report more closely, but it seems unlikely, at least to me, that online learning per se would create "deep" learning. Perhaps students who sign up for online courses are already the type who enage in "deep" learning. Perhaps online courses are taught by instructors who are not content with the status quo, but continually seek to improve their pedagogy, to improve student learning, to challenge students. And the students responded accordingly, as noted in the fifth finding.

The second finding on transfers is not surprising. It takes time when entering a new environment to know the ropes and to make friends with whom they could collaborate on homework. What's interesting is that a new environment in which one is somewhat alone apparently challenges individuals toward success, or "survival", and thus the "multiple drafts of assignments." Perhaps such a challenge is related to the first finding.

The third and fifth findings remind me of Csikzentmihalyi's research, which shows that challenge is a crucial part of learning and of enjoying that learning. As Csikszentmihalyi states:

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

There may different reasons why students do not wish to learn, such as a belief that school learning is irrelevant to their lives. Still, Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows the relationship of challenge to one's level of skills, and thus to a state of flow:

The NSSE report, in other words, supports Csikszentmihayli's theory of flow. Students who are challenged enjoy learning and learn more. From Csikszentmihaly's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience":

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Writing is not the only activity that can challenge students. But it is an activity that does well at "pushing" and "stretching" our ability to write and, through the corollary skills of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating, our ability to think. Writing is an activity that lends itself to creating a flow of learning.

Related posts:
Engagement and Flow
Curiosity and Learning

Related links:
online learning, writing, and student engagement (Alex Reid)
Educational Cultures in the "Arts" Faculties (Edu*Rhetor)
Encouraging colleges to look within (Insider HIgher Ed)
Writing leads to deeper learning, study finds (USA Today)
NSSE homepage

D'Arcy Norman says Content is not enough (via Nancy McKeand):

Content is the least important part of education. What is far more important is what takes place between and among the students. The activities of the community of learners. What they actually DO with the content and with each other.

Great content IS important, but only if there is also a functioning and active community working together to learn, create and share. Otherwise, all that takes place is content dissemination. And that’s not education, open or otherwise.

How did Norman come to the conclusion that content is "the least important"? Perhaps by reacting to those classrooms in which students sit as passive receptacles, never using the content being disseminated. Obviously, that is "not education." Still, let's consider the converse: students DOing whatever without content. Would that be education?

Both content and DOing are important, and both need each other. DOing, however, does not always takes place collaboratively. I may read a book or, better yet, go to a conference in which I sit in the audience, listen, and take back some tidbit of content that I apply to my own work. My DOing, in this case, is not one of "working together" (although social constructionists would say that my DOing is the result of many previous instances of social interaction.) In this case, the dissemination of content was more important than what didn't take place between me, the other members of the audience, and the presenter. And perhaps we might not call it education, but it was learning.

Learning does take place in communities, too. But simply sharing and working together doesn't guarantee that learning will take place. Think of the many committee meetings that most complain about as a waste of time. The nature of sharing and working together is crucial, too.

Arguing whether content or DOing is more important is a fruitless endeavor. Depending on the purpose, the time, the place, and the individual/people, one or the other might take precedence—but both are essential.

What is the value of a degree in literature, philosophy, or humanities?

Frankly, I enjoy literature because as a human being, stories stir my imagination. As Doris Lessing, in her 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech, stated,

The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us -for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

And, in addition, I would love to have a good understanding of the craft involved in great stories so that I could appreciate them better.

But that's not the same as justifying their study to an external audience (see Fish's "Will the Humanities Save Us?"). Yet various articles make the assertion for a practical application of a degree in English. For instance, So you want to study ... A master's in English (Liz Ford) is a series of interviews on people who chose to study English, including why they did.

One individual stated, "One employer said, 'We want people who can think outside the box.'" Well, I imagine that English majors can certainly think outside of science or business boxes, but I'm not sure what value one of Shakespeare's sonnets would have in engineering design or accounting procedures.

Another stated, "More so than any other subject, English gives you transferable skills. You learn to write and express yourself well and learn communication skills." To some degree, I buy into this. Even so, it's a well-known fact that writing in a one style doesn't transfer well to another. One study (Berkenkotter, Huckin, & Ackerman), for instance, showed the difficulty a doctoral student had in transferring his previous experience in writing (bachelor's and master's in education, along with an intensive eight week seminar on "The Writing Process: A Humanistic Perspective") into the field of rhetoric:

During his early months in the program ... An analysis of his papers reveals several months of confusion during whicdh his writing suffered from numerous stylistic problems: poor cohesion, disorganized paragraphs, lack of focus, inappropriate vocabulary.

One reason for the difficulty in writing transfer was

Nate is "wrestling with ideas" at the expense of organization and style

In other words, to write well, you need to know the content matter. In fact, although Nate did make progress, his

difficulties with cohesion and coherence persisted long after he gained a relative mastery over the material that he was studying in his courses

If this much difficulty occurred in transferring writing knowledge and skills from one social science discipline to another, imagine how much more difficulty will occur when transferring outside of the social sciences to business or the "hard" sciences.

Then, Why should anyone think that academic experience, regardless of discipline, would provide someone with good writing skills? Denis Dutton, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, wrote an article entitled "Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate",

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

Having spent the past 23 years editing a scholarly journal, Philosophy and Literature, I have come to know many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist there are a hundred whose writing is no better than adequate — or just plain awful.

Yet, literature, as Lessing asserts, has a value in its stories. Stories may be the best way of learning. As Alicia Juarrero, a philosopher, asserts, understanding requires a hermeneutics that “provide[s] insight into and understanding of how something happened, that is, into its dynamics, background, and context” (p. 240), that is, stories (see Dynamics in action, Part III). The stories she speaks of, however, are not limited to literature but may take the nature of Shell Scenarios for managerial decision making or of Roger Shank's Socratic Arts, in which

students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Daniel Drolet, reporting on Philosophy's Makeover (via Stephen Downes), quotes Jeff Noonan,

“Philosophy develops communication skills, the ability to organize complex materials, negotiate between different positions and tease out different problems,” says Jeff Noonan, head of the philosophy department at the University of Windsor. “An extraordinary range of jobs require those abilities.”

And according to Daniel Gervais, a professor of law,

There’s definitely a thirst in business for people who can think creatively, analytically and outside the box

Although I would instinctively think that learning to think systematically and logically should be of help in solving certain types of problems, I know too little of philosophy to evaluate its practical use. Yet, isn't this claim about creative thinking and thinking outside the box the same as claimed by English majors? And wouldn't it also be subject to the limitation of a lack of subject matter knowledge? Perkins and Salomon in Teaching for Transfer write,

While the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic typically show transfer (for reasons to be discussed later), other sorts of knowledge and skill very often do not.

And philosophy would not seem to be a basic skill, although perhaps, as Perkins and Salomon note, certain skills such as "the role of evidence" and "general and important thinking strategies" may be applicable here. (See also The Expert Mind by Phillip Ross and Eklund's review of Heather Dykes' book Metaphysics and the Representational Fallacy via Stephen Downes.)

In addition to critical thinking outside-the-box skills, many argue that humanities can give character. Stanley Fish naysays that as wishful thinking in Will the Humanities Save Us?

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so. Teachers and students of literature and philosophy don’t learn how to be good and wise; they learn how to analyze literary effects and to distinguish between different accounts of the foundations of knowledge. The texts Kronman recommends are, as he says, concerned with the meaning of life; those who study them, however, come away not with a life made newly meaningful, but with a disciplinary knowledge newly enlarged.

And Fish's position is backed up by studies in character education. Lawrence Kohlberg found that reasoning was necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action, but moral reasoning and judgment were not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action.

Although Fish concludes that there is no practical "use" to the humanities, I'm more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to philosophy, as far as transfer of critical thinking goes. And although the evidence for transfer of thinking skills with respect to literature would not seem to be on the same level as philosophy, with Lessing, its stories can instill a "fire" within us that has its own value and without which we might not be human. In fact, along the lines of Juarrero and informed by literature, I would redesign, as much as possible, curricula to be great stories.

Offline references
Berkenkotter, C., T. N. Huckin, & J. Ackerman (1998). Conventions, conversations, and the writer: Case study of a student in a rhetoric Ph.D. program. Research in the Teaching of English, 22, 9-44.

Juarrero, A. (2002). Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kohlberg, L. (1999). The cognitive-developmental approach to moral education." In A. C. Ornstein and L. S. Behar-Horenstein, eds., Contemporary Issues in Curriculum, 4th ed. (pp. 163-75). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

I was just rereading Will Richardson assertion that it's about Networks, Not Tools:

Today, it was all about networks, not tools. All about connections, not publishing. All about working together to get smarter, not learning alone. All about how RSS connects us to ideas, how blogs connect us to people, how Twitter connects us to, um, the Twitterverse, and on and on and on. ...

Networks and connections are important in learning. But as Richardson goes "on and on and on," he says little about what he actually learned from skyping over to Utrecht during his presentation. Instead, he gives us words like "cool", "passion", and "glow", but no indication of what learning, if any, took place. We can now "buzz" around in streams of information overflow, but it's not clear how that makes us "smarter." There seems to be an emotional conflating (1) of fact aggregating with learning and (2) of stream of consciousness socializing with mastering a body of knowledge to the extent that you can use it in novel situations. Twitter, like any other tool, can be useful, but it is just as likely to lead to frittering our time away. As I wrote earlier about twitter,

Twitter can keep us from achieving, as noted in [Kathy Sierra's] article How to be an Expert, Philip Ross's The Expert Mind, and my post Forget IQ. Just Work Hard! Twittering one's time away may be momentarily pleasurable, but real pleasure, real achievement, and real learning--whether it's learning a language, learning to write, or learning in general--come from real, focused, and challenging endeavors.

Participation Inequality

Most people are lurkers. Jakob Nielsen, writing on participation inequality, states:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.

These percentages vary somewhat according to type of site (see Quantitative Analysis of User-Generated Content on the Web by Ochoa and Duval via Robert Hughes). Nielsen notes,

Blogs have even worse participation inequality than is evident in the 90-9-1 rule that characterizes most online communities. With blogs, the rule is more like 95-5-0.1.

Participation inequality is a fact of life. Suw Carman adds that in and of itself, is not a problem.

Still, it is possible to decrease the number of lurkers a little by making it easier for them to participate. Conversely, of course, the percentage of lurkers is likely to increase as the difficulty to contribute increases. In the case of trackbacks, as posting on one's own website requires more time than simply rushing off an "I agree" comment, the number of trackbacks will be smaller as they are more difficult than commenting. Looking at EFL Geek's statistics (before his new redesign), we see that he had written 1007 posts, received 1924 comments, 50 trackbacks, and 184 members. These statistics support the previous post's speculation that trackbacks took too much energy for people to use as compared to commenting.

Comments are Uninteresting

On enabling comments, Nielsen writes,

I would say to only allow comments if you have the time to moderate them. Otherwise, your site will suffer information pollution and waste readers' time because of the dominance of uninteresting comments.

I don't imagine that this site would ever have so many comments as to require much time to moderate them, but as, he notes, most comments are just "uninteresting." However, that assertion also has qualifiers. In analyzing the collaborative nature of the Web, he compares chat and discussion forums, writing that although most discussion forum posting are "uninteresting,"

the longer postings [in discussion forums] typically lead people to include some arguments and not just pure name-calling [compared to chat rooms]

This is in line with my earlier posts concerning commenting. In Monologic and Empty Comments vs. Parallel Conversations, I looked at comments on the sites of two well-known bloggers:

When I counted, out of the 58 comments on Brogan's post, perhaps 20% of them said something that added "content." Out of the 141 on Arrington's (not including trackback, which have a higher percentage of "content"), it seemed to be a little more than 20%. (I stopped counting quickly as my eyes glazed over.) Now, a few of the 20% were very good. Still, most comments were simply thanks, pats on the back, or repetition of something already said, without reference to others in the "conversation."

Learning from comments like these, which are fairly normal, is about as easy as learning in a room full of speakers, each with a megaphone shouting out their own opinion.

Generating Quality Comments

The exceptions to these types of comments tend to be found on blogs like that of the Becker-Posner Blog. The more serious the tone, the more knowledgeable the article, the more specific the focus of the blog the more specific, knowledgeable, and serious the responses will be. As mentioned two years ago in Rethinking Comments and Trackbacks, comments differed quite a bit, depending on the blog:

Over at weblogg-ed, I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

So, quality comments are possible, depending on the quality of the post. One other factor in getting quality comments is your responses to commenters. Referring to business, Nielsen writes,

Promote quality contributors. If you display all contributions equally, then people who post only when they have something important to say will be drowned out by the torrent of material from the hyperactive 1%. Instead, give extra prominence to good contributions and to contributions from people who've proven their value

Applying that to education blogs, respond in kind to comments that add some new insight into the topic at hand, and ignore those that add nothing.

Learning through Comments

For our students, Mary Hillis has a suggestion:

After the first week of the Book and Literature Circle Blog, I found that students wrote short comments, and there was no flow between contributions in the comment area. During the second week (this week), I specifically asked students to think about how they could connect their comments to previous ones and build up a conversation.

Thinking about participating in academic discussions, and synthesizing sources in academic writing assignments, I think that by challenging students to make connections between their comments and their classmates' comments, they are learning a valuable communication skill that they may be able to apply to other types of assignments.

This approach fits in well with Graff and Birkenstein's book They Say / I say, which

shows how academic argument is a dialogue in which an individual acknowledges what others are saying and at the same time makes a space for what s/he is saying.

As Mary noted in her other post on comments,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on

So, along the lines of making connections and synthesizing, I would help the students consider how to remix their comments and those of others (and of course giving credit appropriately) with the goal of coming up with new insights into the issue at hand. Perhaps, in this way, good comments can be generated, and learning might take place.

About two weeks ago, Claire Thompson, upon finding that I didn't allow comments initially was "aghast" and wrote,

On my blog comments were my riason d’etre. What was wrong with this guy? If only I could give him a piece of my mind…"

I'm glad that I wasn't close at hand then. :)

She then went on to a brief but thoughtful consideration of the pros and cons of having comments. One point she made that I hadn't given much thought to before was that many readers are not likely to follow trackbacks. Comments have a time advantage by having the entire conversation in one place.

I'm not sure why readers don't follow trackbacks, but I believe that many want to skim something quickly, and if it attracts them enough, they will slow down to think about it. Going after trackbacks simply doesn't have a sufficient level of catalytic attraction to get them to click. That applies to me, too, because often all trackbacks do is quote part of a post from which I can't determine if it's worth my time to click on it. Trackbacks need to have a few words that indicate the value/substance of the reply sufficiently so that I want to see what they have to say. As Christine Martell, one of the commenters on Claire's post, stated,

I don’t check out trackbacks on others posts unless the blogger points them out in a subsequent post. I’m even clicking on less and less links in a post unless the blogger gives me a sense of why I should. I’ve just gone down too many paths of check out this post only to find out it doesn’t add a lot of value for me.

Similarly, the large majority of readers do not want to expend the time and energy in writing a lenghty and thoughtful comment. In the two years since I initially gave my rationale for no comments, not one reader has taken me up on my invitation to send me by email a thoughtful and measured response to anything I've written for posting on my blog. (Before that time, two individuals did post lengthy responses on my blog, one, a colleague whose response I invited.)

Now I do think that some blogs are meant for comments. Technical ones are a good example, in which a large number of people can bring together isolated pieces of information, giving readers a much better grasp of possibilities for resolving some problem. And some blogs seem to encourage good comments, such as the Becker-Posner Blog.

But many blogs (I would say most), for whatever the reason, have too many comments that add nothing but feelings. As Claire noted, this post

by Will Richardson has garnered 68 blog reactions and 166 comments to date. What could someone possibly add to the conversation at comment 166? I don’t know, but they must feel pretty stongly to add their 2 cents worth.

For these reasons, I don't think comments are best for students because they often take the path of least resistance due to time pressures, such as work, family, and so on. The goal for blogs used in classes has to be learning, but the instantaneous nature of comments inhibit reflection. Then, again, as Mary Hillis wrote,

commenting is a skill that students need some guidance on.

From this perspective, with guidance, perhaps commenting can be a learning endeavor. Before assuming that comments or no comments are better, we should be able to answer questions like these:

  • Is commenting as effective for learning as writing a post on one's own blog and trackbacking to the initial post.
  • Does posting on one's own blog reduce the tendency of confirmation bias that is found in comments?
  • Does the social nature of commenting (compared to trackbacks) motivate students more to continue their learning via blogs after the class ends?

Each of these questions would make for a good study, and at the least require some thought before assuming that comments are important for learning.

Although I lean against commenting, I do not see it as black and white. There's no research along these lines that I am aware of that can give definitive answers according to type of blog, context, and so on. But for those of us who are educators, I would say that we need to be careful about being sidetracked by the social contagion of commenting and instead keep the goal of learning in the foreground of our blogging and of our students' blogging.

Related posts can be found at Why I don't have comments.

Abstract is better than concrete for transfer, according to the New York Times reporting of recent research in mathematics:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The explanation of examples clouding up the concepts reminds me somewhat of the research on reading about seductive details diminishing recall of information. (There are many articles on this phenomenon, but see, for example, Processing and recall of seductive details in scientific text.)

Transfer is also a major problem in writing: Students often don't transfer what they know about writing in one situation to new situations. Somehow, the situations are compartmentalized so that the concepts don't transfer, which remains me of the research on students learning physics. David Hammer's research showed that students could compartmentalize and keep their every day notions about motion from the physics concepts they were learning.

So, although this was a small study (and one that needs to be replicated), it does fit in with what we know of transfer, that learning that is bound to a particular context doesn't transfer well--which explains why students who have learned the five-paragraph essay structure in high school continue to use it in college even when an assignment requires them not to.

What would be the abstract set of rules for writing? I've looked at that before, except I called them "building blocks." But although I can see the need for knowing the building blocks abstractly, I think mastering them abstractly is achieved through much practice of remixing these building blocks across contexts. (See Learning by Remixing and also this review/synopsis of Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility Theory.)

The problem remains determining what those building blocks are. Although they likely differ across genre (just as math concepts differ from geometry to algebra to calculus and so on), they must also have elements in common. At a basic level, there's always writer, audience, text, and purpose. For persuasion, it may come down to the formula in Graff and Birkenstein's book "They Say / I Say", in which writers join into a conversation with others and position themselves with respect to those others. It's a small book with three parts and ten chapters:

Part 1. "They say"

ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)

TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)

THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"

FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)

FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)

SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)

SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together

EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)

NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)

TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

As you can see, despite having only two building blocks--"they say" and "I say"--students are led into a variety of ways of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating what "they say," along with generating their own understanding and position among others in a conversation. And treating persuasive writing like a conversation has many connections to students' lives: They argue about their sports, clothes, cars, majors, professors, and so on.

I imagine that different sets of building blocks are possible, just as different sets of rules can be found in different fields of math. The key seems to be helping students practice using one coherent set of building blocks (i.e., abstract principles) across contexts.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
Learning by Remixing

For those interested in getting a better understanding of how learning occurs, see the following websites:

Explorations into Learning and Instruction: The Theory into Practice Database. Maintained by Greg Kearsley, it's quite useful for brief introductions into learning theories, domains, and concepts.

EmTech has "over 15,000 resources organized by topics for teachers, students, and parents" with this page of links to learning theories.

See also Kathy Sierra's Crash Course in Learning Theory.

Michael Shaughnessy (Ednews.org) interviews E.D. Hirsch on school choice and the Core Knowledge Curriculum, and they discussed an article by Sol Stern and reactions to that article by E.D. Hirsch and others such as Jay P. Greene, Diane Ravitch, Neal McCluskey, Matthew Ladner, Thomas W. Carroll, Andrew J. Coulson and Robert Enlow. Here are two excerpts from the interview:

Critical thinking skills cannot be learned in the abstract.They always pertain to concrete knowledge of subject matter.I review the scientific literature on this in The Schools We Need.Writing skills are obverse of reading skills.They both depend more on knowledge of the unspoken within the language community than on knowledge of the spoken.The main, somewhat revolutionary point I have been making is that teaching content is teaching skills, where as teaching formal processes is, in the end, teaching neither content nor skills.This is not only clear in the scientific literature, it is also clear from comparative results.Students who have had been taught coherent knowledge are more highly skilled than those who have been taught "skills."See the (unfortunately repressed) book by the late Jeanne Chall: The Academic Achievement Challenge

The state standards in language arts (where students spend most of their time in early grades) are empty of content.It's all process.They are not standards at all in a meaningful sense.And they cause reading tests to be hugely unfair, because the topics in passages on reading tests always assume content knowledge that has not been taught in the schools.

This makes sense to me. Just try reading a treatise on quantum mechanics. Without a strong background in physics, any previous critical thinking skills you've acquired will be useless in interpreting this text.

This is one of the problems in many first-year composition programs: They teach the process of writing with limited content knowledge. Usually, students will choose one issue for, say, a definition paper, then another topic for an evaluative argument, and so on. Moving from content area to content area shortchanges students' ability to master process skills, as they must learn two areas: content knowledge and skills.

A better approach is to have students stay with one issue of their own interest the entire semester. In that way, they'll build their content knowledge, so that as the semester continues, they can begin to pay more attention to the critical thinking and writing skills associated with that domain. I noticed the Department of Rhetoric & Composition at UT Austin seems to be doing that now in First-Year Writing.

Of course, there's still the question of whether the writing skills they've learned will transfer to other courses not pertaining to those issues. My guess is they will have some chance of transferring, because the knowledge required in introductory courses is "introductory", unlike the knowledge in the example on quantum mechanics, meaning also that the skills acquired should be more general in nature. Testing that guess would make a good research project.

Ever notice that students seem to learn a particular rhetorical convention or grammar point, then go back to an earlier stage of writing. I've noticed that my learning seems to take one step forward, and then regress, too.

One Step Forward
A year ago. I had finally got around to fixing the trackback on my blog. It seemed strange: Although my page template had scripts for Haloscan but not for Yahoo maps api, the html code showed the latter but not the former. Apparently, around January while playing with the design, I changed which templates were being referenced to an older version in another folder. What led me to looking for the template location was something that Mark Bernstein, the designer of Tinderbox (the software I use to write this blog) had said on more than one occasion: Look at the HTML code.

Easy enough to change folders. After fixing it, however, I created another problem. After I added google analytics script to the page template, the sidebar dropped below the posts. It made no sense that the one would lead to the other, but I took the script out anyway. Sure enough, that didn't fix it. Comparing my template with another orginal one, I saw that somehow, while pasting in the script, I had somehow deleted six important characters after the post division: </div>.

One Step Forgotten
Apparently, despite the many times Mark has advised me to look at the HTML code and the few steps I've taken in doing so, I may still forget to look at the code. On Thursday, I downloaded Tinderbox 4.0. When I looked at the web version of a post I was working on, there was no formatting. It was as if the CSS had disappeared. For some reason, I didn't compare the before and after HTML codes. If I had, I would have seen that they were different. Anyway, I emailed Mark, who replied:

Also, there's a warning in the release notes about stylesheet export -- a new tag pair


need to be redefined as empty strings for notes that are exporting stylesheets or other code where paragraph markup is unwanted.

Sure enough. That was the problem. And another problem was that I hadn't seen the release notes. Usually they're included in the DMG image, but not this time. Now, common sense might've told me to look in the Help menu, but I didn't. After all, they hadn't been there before. It took another email from Mark to direct my attention to this possibility. It's hard to see something when you're looking in the wrong direction.

Like Student, Like Teacher
I'm much like my students. That is, although everything that Mark had told me was pretty much common sense, at least for someone who was overly familiar with Tinderbox, HTML, and CSS, it wasn't so for me. And although everything that I tell my students is common sense, at least for someone like me familiar with English, writing, and language elarning, it isn't so for my students. And like me looking at HTML code, my students often zigzag in their ability to remember grammar points like subject-verb agreement and rhetorical conventions, such as framing quotations. Why would that be?

Forgetting and Learning
Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets" (pdf) state that there are three learning processes (at the subsymbolic level):

1. Power Law of Learning. As a particular skill is practiced there is a gradual and systematic improvement in performance which corresponds to a power law. ...

2. Power Law of Forgetting. As time passes performance degrades, also according to a power function. ...

3. Multiplicative Effect of Practice and Retention. Most important, the Base-Level Equation implies a relationship between the combined variables of amount of practice and duration over which the information must be maintained. ...

This implies performance continuously improves with practice ... and continuously degrades with retention interval .... Most significantly the two factors multiply which means that increasing practice is a way to preserve the knowledge from the ravages of time.

As these are power laws, learning is a logarithmic function:

Picture by Hay Kranen / PD

In other words, (1) with practice, learning increases quickly; (2) with a lack of practice, retention of learning drops off quickly; and (3) the effects of (1) and (2) interact in a way that multiplies each other rather than just adds up.

In my case, I seldom look at release notes, infrequently look at HTML and CSS, and so easily forget. In the case of students, although they may be using English every day and may be writing every few days, they are only reminded every few weeks about subject-verb agreement or rhetorical conventions, when after turning in a draft, they receive my feedback. Their time on grammar and rhetorical conventions is insufficient to stabilize it. So, sometimes they remember and sometimes they don't.

Understanding these power laws is crucial to helping students improve their writing. Most of the literature on grammar feedback and error correction with L1 students say that it doesn't work, and the L2 research has had contradictory results. However, it's unlikely that students in any of this research practiced specific grammar points frequently enough to stabilize them. Of course, it may not be feasible for most students to practice enough and for most teachers to give feedback frequently enough in order to take advantage of these power laws of learning and forgetting. I have no real answers at this time, but for some of my earlier thoughts on error correction, see my series of posts beginning at Error Feedback in L2 Writing.

Dave Munger reports on research testing the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis that language influences our thoughts. In an experiment on distinguishing aliens,

The students who saw the labels learned the difference between approachable and unapproachable aliens significantly faster than students who didn't see the labels -- even though the labels gave them no information that wasn't available in the unlabeled condition. During the testing session, 8 new aliens that hadn't been seen before (but were clearly members of one of the categories) were introduced. Once again, the students who had seen the labels performed significantly better (no labels were present during the testing session).

Many of the students in the unlabeled group actually reported that they invented their own names to keep track of the two kinds of aliens. A second experiment confirmed the effect using spoken words as labels instead of written words. Interestingly, a third method of labeling, on-screen location, did not produce results significantly different from unlabeled objects.

Here, it seems, we have a clear case of language influencing thoughts. When people have a label for a category of objects, they learn how to identify objects in that category quicker than if they don't have a label. They're also better at identifying new objects that they haven't seen before.

These findings have implications for learning to write. That is, by giving students labels to recognize different aspects of writing, such as warrants for example, they will be able to recognize them more effectively in others' writing, and hopefully in their own writing. I've seen that in my own students' writing. One student, some years ago, wrote the following two observations in his journal:

Well, practicing, that’s good. ... rhetoric theory, it’s good, because ... you have to have some organization and I knew what was definition argument, and evaluation argument, but I didn’t have words and conceptions for this. ... You have kind of structure ... for some things, but rhetoric gives you concepts, it’s more easy to deal with it. ... sometimes we read something and you recognize this ... you know what the guy’s doing

I’m reading a text written by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1615 called “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (Drake, S. Discoveries and opinions of Galileo). I’m astonished with Galileo’s power of argumentation! He defends his scientific cause within the theological affairs and gives good reasons! I observed that he used in his text arguments of character such as quotations of St Augustine and other greats figures of the church….

As you can see, by learning labels, such as "arguments of character," or ethos, he now sees them in his readings and understands how Galileo is using them. Of course, we all use labels to give us an easy way to talk about something, such as the present perfect tense in grammar or thesis statement in organization. But now we have a better reason to use labels: they facilitate learning new concepts.


Culture affects your brain according to recent brain research at MIT (Live Science via Neuroanthropology).

Neuroscientists Trey Hedden and John Gabrieli of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research asked Americans and East Asians to solve basic shape puzzles while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. They found that both groups could successfully complete the tasks, but American brains had to work harder at relative judgments, while East Asian brains found absolute judgments more challenging.

It's possible that those preferences can change. From the article,

Gabrieli said he is interested in testing whether brain patterns change if a person immigrates.

"There's a hint that six months in a culture already changes you," he said, referring to psychological, rather than neurological, research. "It suggests that there's a lot of flexibility."

Although such findings could lead people to stereotype others, as Gabriele said,

I like to think the more you understand different cultures, the better you understand their perspectives."

Neuroanthropology gave the following information on the research:

 Trey Hedden, Sarah Ketay, Arthur Aron, Hazel Rose Markus, John D.E. Gabrieli (2008). Cultural Influences on Neural Substrates of Attentional Control.  Psychological Science 19 (1), 12–17. 

ABSTRACT—Behavioral research has shown that people from Western cultural contexts perform better on tasks emphasizing independent (absolute) dimensions than on tasks emphasizing interdependent (relative) dimensions, whereas the reverse is true for people from East Asian contexts. We assessed functional magnetic resonance imaging responses during performance of simple visuospatial tasks in which participants made absolute judgments (ignoring visual context) or relative judgments (taking visual context into account). In each group, activation in frontal and parietal brain regions known to be associated with attentional control was greater during culturally nonpreferred judgments than during culturally preferred judgments. Also, within each group, activation differences in these regions correlated strongly with scores on questionnaires measuring individual differences in culture-typical identity. Thus, the cultural background of an individual and the degree to which the individual endorses cultural values moderate activation in brain networks engaged during even simple visual and attentional tasks.

These findings may explain in part why what is so clear to me as a teacher is not so clear to my students.

Learning Math via Sudoku, Music, and Web Design
In Who Needs Maths?, Andrew Hodges, maths lecturer at Wadham College, Oxford, states that mathematics would be better learned through logical puzzles like Sudoku and adds,

"We should be trying to find ways of equipping children with the basic maths they will need to function adequately in society. ... We should be looking at ways of teaching maths skills through other media, such as electronic music and web design, that are more relevant to most students."

Learning and Exercise
Use it or lose it! If you want to keep your mind in good shape, you need to use it, and there are recommendations from playing crossword puzzles to using your non-dominant hand for combing your hair. But did you know that you need to use your muscles to keep your brain functioning well? The article Lobes of Steel (New York Times) reports on research showing that regular aerobic exercise "boosts memory and cognitive processing speed" in both mice and people due to increased neurogenesis.

Students Remixing Teachers on YouTube
How would you like to be videotaped without your knowledge and then find yourself on YouTube? Students are now posting videos of their teachers on YouTube. Vaishali Honawar has a lengthy article, "Cellphone taping a classroom threat".

Faculty Grating Habits
From a study on Professors' Most Grating Habits, here are the top ten:

  1. Poor course organization and planning.
  2. Poor teaching mechanics (for example, poor use of the blackboard or speaking too fast, softly, or slowly).
  3. Lecture style and technique, including being too wooden or long-winded.
  4. Poor testing and exam procedures.
  5. Negative mannerisms, including attire and verbal and nonverbal tics.
  6. Monotone voice.
  7. Poor use of class time (for example, coming in late and stopping early).
  8. Intellectual arrogance--talking down to or showing a lack of respect for students.
  9. Being unhelpful and not approachable.
  10. Unfair or confusing grading process.

More bloggers are commenting on the myths of the Digital Generation.

Juliette White wrote of her misgivings on the notion of digital natives. As she notes, most of the evidence on their characteristics is "anecdotal."

George Siemens also critiques the so-called digital native/immigrant division of Marc Prensky, stating,

But I don't think the distinction has merit beyond a buzz phrase that has outlived the role it initially played in getting educators to think about the different types of learners now entering our classrooms.

the premise is wrong (and offensive), the remedy suggested is wrong, and the research is needlessly twisted to lead readers in directions at conflict with even the slightest amount of critical thinking. Prensky’s articles takes readers through a very shallow dive of a very deep pool.

Also critiquing Prensky's digital evangelism, Jamie McKenzie, in his article Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation (via George Siemens), gets to the point:

Prensky's labels are crude, inaccurate and based on no data. His gross generalizations lump complex segments together as if identical.

McKenzie's critique of Prensky is rather harsh, but he details how Prensky overgeneralizes, simplifies groups of people, and lacks evidence for his claims.

On a calmer note, Carrie Fried, Associate Professor of Psychology at Winona State University, conducted a study on how using laptops in class negatively affected learning. Her research is crucial because much of the earlier research, according to Fried, (1) did not objectively measure learning; (2) did not have a control group; but (3) prescribed how laptops could be used in the classroom. Although I wouldn't limit research to only experimental approaches, it is important that so far the effect computers on student learning has been left out. In addition to distracting other students, she found,

Students admit to spending considerable time during lectures using their laptops for things other than taking notes. More importantly, the use of laptops was negatively related to several measures of learning. The pattern of the correlations suggests that laptop use interfered with students’ abilities to pay attention to and understand the lecture material, which in turn resulted in lower test scores. The results of the regression analysis clearly show that success in the class was negatively related to the level of laptop use.

In other words, multitasking by digital natives decreases learning. Common sense dictates this finding: Learning depends on effective time on task (see Anderson & Schunn's Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf)), and dividing one's time among tasks lessens the amount of time devoted to any one task, along with losing time for switching between tasks. And other research has found the same results for multitasking. (See, for example, Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory and its Projects for links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes.)

None of this is to say that computers cannot be used for learning in the classroom. Actually, they should be: They are part of the fabric in which we exist. Some research indicates that they can promote learning if used appropriately. (See again Fried's article and also this news about the Maine laptop project.) But also note that if used inappropriately, computers do nothing for learning.

So, we need to avoid the hype and exaggeration associated with the digital generation, focus on how Web 2.0 applications can support learning, and support instructors in gaining the skills to use these tools. Web 2.0 tools are not a panacea for ineffective instruction, but

  • They can engage students more than traditional forms of instruction.
  • They can enable students to interact with each other and others outside the classroom, thus
    • multiplying their exposure to course concepts and
    • motivating them to spend more time on task, the number one factor in learning.


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

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part I
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
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

Update (June 8, 2008) : I just came across this blog via Chris Lott: Net Gen Nonsense

From Science Daily is a digest of some research by John Dunlosky and Amanda Lipko of Kent State on techniques for evaluating your learning. Generally speaking, people aren't good at this. Two techniques mentioned are:

rereading or summarizing text can improve people's ability to accurately evaluate how well they are learning those texts.

In addition, techniques that focus people's attention on just the most important details of a text also help them to evaluate their learning.

How to use this information in the classroom?

On focusing people's attention for evaluation, the article said,

if a text includes several key ideas, attempting to recall these ideas from memory and then explicitly comparing the recall with the correct answers improves people's ability to accurately evaluate how well they are learning the ideas.

In other words, it's a way to test your memory or recall. If you don't do well, then you need to read some more.

With respect to re-reading, for me, that means repetition, repetition means practice, and the more practice, the better. Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, writes, "Practice makes perfect: but only if you practice beyond the point of perfection".

Exactly when to engage students in practice, through what method, and for what duration are educational decisions that teachers will need to make on a regular basis. But, that students will only remember what they have extensively practiced--and that they will only remember for the long term that which they have practiced in a sustained way over many years--are realities that can’t be bypassed.

Practice is related to competence, which is related to the ability to evaluate how well you can do something. Seven years ago, Erica Goode (New York Times) in Incompetent People Really Have No Clue reported on research conducted by David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell, and Justin Kruger, now associate professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business:

One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence. 

The incompetent, therefore, suffer doubly, they suggested in a paper  appearing in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social  Psychology. 

"Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate  choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,'' wrote Kruger, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, and Dunning. 

So, in essence we're back to the fact that there are no shortcuts in learning (see Anderson & Schunn's article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf)). Learning and being able to evaluate your learning depend primarily on lots of practice--or time on task--and mastery depends on practicing past the point of perfection.

Related posts:
Reading: A Case for Practice and Examples
IQ vs. Self-Discipline
Forget IQ: Just Work Hard!
The Expert Mind

The 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature was just awarded to Doris Lessing. From the New York Times:

Ms. Lessing, who turns 88 this month, never finished high school and largely educated herself through voracious reading. She has written dozens of books of fiction, as well as plays, nonfiction and two volumes of autobiography. She is the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

She never finished high school but won the Nobel Prize. The key to her success was reading, "voracious reading." What slows down students, especially ESL students, is a lack of reading. Without a strong reading background, students lack the vocabulary and the sensitivity to understanding and intuiting how reading and writing works, from such simple mechanical items as spacing, punctuation, and spelling to the critical issues of comprehension; questioning authors and assumptions; analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information; and more

Reading is crucial to all academic endeavors. A few years back, the principal of a charter school in Texas that had a majority of at-risk students, told me,

These students can do the math and science. Their difficulty is they can't read: They can't understand what a problem is asking them to do. But once you explain it to them, they can do it.

Reading is also important for acquiring a second language, especially at the academic level. Although I consider Stephen Krashen's distinction between acquisition and learning to be a specific application of the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge (and thus there is an interface between the two), he is right on the importance of reading. That is, massive reading is important for spelling, vocabulary, literacy development, and language acquisition. Thus, for teachers, a major, probably the major, key to helping their students to learn another language remains creating environments that engage and motivate students to read.

Related posts:
Language Learning vs. Language Acquistion
Engagement and Flow

My previous post on The Myths of the Digital Generation looked at how many of the characteristics ascribed to "digital natives" were exaggerated to the point of becoming myth. What is more founded in research (although I'm sure it has its share of controversy) is the native multitasking ability of women. Helen Fisher, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, researches "the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and gender differences in the brain and behavior." From Chapter 1 (NY Times, free registration required) of her book The First Sex, here are some excerpts on what she calls women's "web thinking" and men's "step thinking":

  • As a general rule, men tend to focus on one thing at a time—a male trait I first noticed in my twenties. At the time I had a boyfriend who liked to watch the news on television, listen to rock music on the stereo, and read a book—presumably all at once. In reality, he just switched channels in his head. When he was imbibing from one modality, he tuned the others out. Not I. The flashing of the TV screen, the throbbing music, the printed words: all of these stimuli swamped my mind.
  • Janet Scott Batchler has described this gender difference succinctly. She writes feature films with her husband and partner, Lee Batchler. She says of her spouse, "He does one thing at a time. Does it well. Finishes it and moves on. He's very direct in his thought processes and in his actions. And he deals with people in that same focused way, meaning exactly what he says, with no hidden agenda. I'm the one who can juggle a hundred balls at once, and can realize that other people may be doing the same thing, professionally or emotionally."
  • Web thinking versus step thinking; an emphasis on the whole versus a focus on the parts; multitasking versus doing one thing at a time: scientists are far from understanding, even properly defining, these subtle differences between women and men.
  • As women around the world do multiple tasks simultaneously, they are mentally assessing and assimilating an abundance of data— engaging in web thinking.
  • Women are "process-oriented." They are "gathering." They want to explore the multiple interactions, the multidirectional paths, all of the permutations of the puzzle.
  • Psychologists argue that contemporary women learn to do and think several things simultaneously. Just watch a working mother in the morning, dressing children, packing lunches, feeding goldfish, pouring cereal, and arranging day care on the phone—all at once.
  • I suspect that women's talent for contextual thinking—and the related skill of multitasking—evolved in deep history. Thousands of generations of performing mental and physical acrobatics as they raised helpless infants built these outstanding capacities into the architecture of the female brain.

Note that ahough Fisher's boyfriend seemed to be multitasking, he wasn't.

Note also that many of the characteristics attributed to digital natives by Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants are also attributed to women by Fisher. One difference is that while digital natives acquire their multitasking skills through normal learning processes, according to Fisher, about 50 percent of women have it hardwired into their brain. Obviously, although Prensky claimed that digital natives' multitasking and other skills "are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants," they are not foreign to women.

Of course, Fisher's theories are (contested) interpretations of data, but to me they adhere more closely to the evidence. Prensky's interpretations are speculative extrapolations from research findings that the brain continues to adapt and is malleable, and that people think differently according to their experiences. In Part II of Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (pdf), he writes,

So, today’s neurobiologists and social psychologists agree that brains can and do change with new input.

And elsewhere:

While these individual cognitive skills may not be new, the particular combination and intensity is. We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors—the Digital Natives.

From very general concepts of plasticity and malleability, Prensky jumps to a very specific conclusion of "very different" cognitive processing . And elsewhere:

But these differences, most observers agree, are less a matter of kind than a difference of degree.

This last statement is key. First, if it's more a matter of degree, then considerable more evidence is needed before claiming that it is "a very different blend." Second, what is the specific combination and what is the difference in degree? As David E. Meyer, Director of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, said with respect to Net Gen's multitasking ability, "it's a myth" (see The Myths of the Digital Generation). So, the degree doesn't seem that large.

And the particular combination doesn't seem all that new, either: For millenia, according to Fisher, women have been natural, or native, multi-taskers. (Perhaps Meyer will disagree with Fisher.)

As stated in the previous post, that each generation differs from the preceding ones is common sense. But that the differences reach mythical levels, well, let's have a little more evidence.

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists
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

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


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

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.

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.

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)"

The Online Education Database is an excellent resource for online learning. Yesterday, they posted "Take Any College Class for Free: 236 Open Courseware Collections, Podcasts, and Videos". This page also has a link to their Top 100 Open Courseware Projects, The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help You Learn, and The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help a Student's or Professor's Productivity.

About a year ago, Dave Lee at Learning Circuits Blog wrote on why the Help Desk and Customer Service in a company are the best at helping employees or customers learn. His reasons included:

  • generally don't teach courses
  • answer the questions their "learners" have at the time they are in greatest need
  • assess each situation and determine the best course of action to answer the learner's need
  • provide the learner with only the answers they need to overcome the current problems
  • have a database of answers to questions that have been asked before and will likely be asked again
  • have a mechanism for escalating the response when the learner's need is of greater breath than can be resolved immediately.
  • track very specific metrics regarding performance and learner response.
  • often have a follow-up mechanism to determine whether their solution to the learner's need is still working several weeks later and to gain feedback from the learner regarding their experience with the group
  • feed overall questions and needs back to the stakeholder groups who can take action regarding the issue to mitigate the same problem in the future.
  • gather feedback from their stakeholders regarding their effectiveness.
  • push as much of the process and answers pro-actively to their learners in the form of knowledge bases and FAQ as well as anticipatory actions like alerts and job aides.

Quite a few people disagreed with him, saying that many help desks weren't all that good. Even so, note that most of his reasons are associated directly, or indirectly, with feedback: answering questions, tracking performance and responses, follow-up mechanisms, stakeholder feedback (two-way). As noted in "Flow, Games, and Learning", feedback, especially when immediate, is a crucial element of obtaining a state of flow, of intrinsic motivation, especially when that feedback is immediate, or just in time.

Note also that the learners are actively participating in a meaningful process: asking questions, reading knowledge bases, using the information toward their immediate goals.

We could continue analyzing this list and seeing learning "best practices". Isn't it interesting that parts of a company can come up with "best practices" of learning without having studied educational theory? Might it be that business survival pressures can lead to learning systems that work? And when educational systems don't work, might it be that they don't have enough pressure to change. I'm not suggesting that schools should become businesses. Our purposes are different. Still, perhaps we can learn from business "best practices."

With respect to pressure, one difference between businesses and schools is that both the help desk and the customers have a more pressing need to learn than students do, and they have reasons for learning answers to specific questions that students don't have. Take introductory biology, for example. Have you ever used the Krebs electron cycle once in your daily life? At Work? Learning in school is not just-in-time necessary learning: It's learning for possibly (or probably not) necessary future endeavors.

The structure of school "learning" works against facilitating intrinsic motivation. Although re-structuring traditional schools is unlikely, one approach would follow Roger Shank's story-tellling curriculum:

The idea behind the Story-Centered Curriculum (SCC) is that a good curriculum should consist of a story in which students play a key role (for example, VP of Information Security at a financial services company). These roles are selected to be ones that the graduate of such a program might actually do in real life or might need to know about (because he or she will manage or collaborate with someone who performs that role). Students, working in groups, are given detailed information about the simulated company they are working for together with detailed and authentic projects. Supporting materials and resources are available and experts and online mentors are available to answer questions and point students in the right direction on an as-needed basis.

The effect of the SCC model is that as students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Shank gives examples of how the SCC curriculum would work for an MBA program and even for high school:

The SCC is about the elimination of courses in favor of curricula that tell a meaningful story that the student is likely to engage in again after graduation. Now, many high school students are simply preparing for college, and thus one could argue that they take trigonometry in order to take college math. The fact that this isn't really true may not matter in this case. What is important is that we identify some stories that the student might want to live in high school because they may come up again. Here are some examples: running a small business, working on a political campaign, building a house, designing a city, running an organization, being a parent, creating an invention, making a discovery, convincing an organization to do things differently. Now, these are not normally thought of as courses in high school. However, looked at closely, they would entail calculating, planning, reasoning, dealing with societal issues, basic psychology, basic economics, dealing with historical issues, communicating in written and oral fashion, teamwork, research and nearly every other subject normally taught in high school (and quite a few that are not.)

Unlike traditional curricula, such a curriculum can have clear goals that give immediate and contextualized feedback on one's learning. To read more on the story-centered curriculum, see Shank's white paper Every curriculum tells a story (pdf).

So now I'm wondering how the SCC curriculum might be adapted for first-year composition. The problem is that the SCC curriculum is for programs not individual courses and Shank notes that not even all programs fit into an SCC curriculum because they don't have well-defined career goals. Generally speaking, first-year composition doesn't have career goals because it's a general education course designed to prepare students to write in more advanced classes and eventually in their widely disparate careers. So, I need to think about this a bit. If you have any ideas about turning composition courses into stories based on career goals, email me.

What do you think? Does one "learn" a language much like any other cognitive endeavor? Or is it "acquired" due to some innate language-specific biological mechanism?

There's quite a bit of controversy on this issue, on whether some universal grammar (UG) is responsible for language acquisition, deriving from an innate process specific for language. For those taking the UG approach, acquisition results from the UG module while "learning" is due to normal learning processes. Not all agree. For example, consider Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain". Here's the abstract:

It is widely assumed that human learning and the structure of human languages are intimately related. This relationship is frequently suggested to be rooted in a language-specific biological endowment, which encodes universal, but arbitrary, principles of language structure (a universal grammar or UG). How might such a UG have evolved? We argue that UG could not have arisen either by biological adaptation or non-adaptationist genetic processes. The resulting puzzle concerning the origin of UG we call the logical problem of language evolution. Because the processes of language change are much more rapid than processes of genetic change, language constitutes a “moving target” both over time and across different human populations, and hence cannot provide a stable environment to which UG genes could have adapted. We conclude that a biologically determined UG is not evolutionarily viable. Instead, the original motivation for UG--the mesh between learners and languages--arises because language has been shaped to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa. Following Darwin, we view language itself as a complex and interdependent “organism,” which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms. That is, languages are themselves undergoing severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners. This suggests that apparently arbitrary aspects of linguistic structure may result from general learning and processing biases, independent of language. We illustrate how this framework can integrate evidence from different literatures and methodologies to explain core linguistic phenomena, including binding constraints, word order universals, and diachronic language change.

In brief, learning a language is like learning any other skill.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health released news on a six-year study on brain development in healthy children. The study followed the brain development of about 500 children, ages 6-18, each child being tracked over a four-year period. One finding (accompanied by caveats) undermines the notion of language being innate:

Children appear to approach adult levels of performance on many basic cognitive and motor skills by age 11 or 12, according to a new study coordinated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ...

Regardless of income or sex, children appeared to improve rapidly on many tasks between ages 6 and 10, with much less dramatic cognitive growth in adolescence. This result fits with previous research suggesting that in adolescence, there is a shift toward integrating what one knows rather than learning new basic skills.

In other words, there is a "critical period" for learning general cognitive tasks that corresponds to the critical period for "acquiring" a language, usually considered to be up until the age of 12, after which individuals will not develop a complete command of a language. In Error Feedback: Theory, I mentioned the 10-year rule, which states that becoming an expert requires at least 10 years of intense practice, a period of time similar to achieving nativelike fluency in a second langauge.

If language learning has a similar critical period time frame as other endeavors and takes similar amounts of time to become an "expert," then it would seem to be governed by general cognitive learning processes rather than by a language-specific learning process.

These findings do not contradict Krashen's assertion of the need for massive comprehensible input for learning a language. After all, the crucial element for achieving mastery of any activity is, as Anderson and Schunn (pdf) state,

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

As teachers, then, one of our primary tasks is to motivate students to spend the necessary time in learning a language (see Error Feedback: Motivation, The Inverse Power of Praise, and Engagement and Flow).

Keith Burnett responded to my response on his preference for being a Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage:

I’m both in different parts of the lesson. I think that many people assume that PowerPoint use implies Sage role, and I was trying to provide counterexamples.

That Burnett did well, and it's also clear that he plays both roles, choosing the role appropriate to a student's stage in the learning process.

Unlike Burnett, however, not everyone seems to understand that both roles are appropriate. If you google the words "sage stage guide side", you'll find more than a few links to titles saying "Guide on the side, not Sage on the stage." Here's a typical example from the Internet Time Group:

an instructor’s energy should be channeled to become the medium whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment. No longer a "sage on the stage, " the online instructor becomes a "guide on the side," helping others to discover and synthesize the learning material.

Discovery learning is simply re-inventing the wheel. The time spent in "discovering" could be better spent using the wheels that have already been designed.

Here's another one, an excerpt from an article in College English by Alison King:

In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes. The professor is the central figure, the "sage on the stage," the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam-often without even thinking about it. This model of the teaching- learning process, called the transmittal model, assumes that the student's brain is like an empty container into which the professor pours knowledge. In this view of teaching and learning, students are passive learners rather than active ones. Such a view is outdated and will not be effective for the twenty-first century, when individuals will be expected to think for themselves, pose and solve complex problems, and generally produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.

There's some truth in this perspective. We've all had classes in which we took notes, crammed for an exam, and regurgitated information on the exam. The problem, however, is that this is a caricature of lecturing. Not all lecturers assume that students are empty containers, and not all use lecture as their only mode of teaching. Interestingly, the same people who promote this perspective are often the same ones who give presentations in lecture mode at a conference.

Again from the excerpt:

According to the current constructivist theory of learning, knowledge does not come package in books, or journal, or computer disks (or professors' and students' heads) to be transmitted intact from one to another. Those vessels contain information, not knowledge. Rather, knowledge is a state of understanding and can only exist in the mind of the individual knower; as such, knowledge must be constructed--or re-constructed--by each individual knower through the process of trying to make sense of new information in terms of what that individual already knows. In this constructivist view of learning, students use their own existing knowledge and prior experience to help them understand the new material; in particular, they generate relationships between and among the new ideas and between the new material and information already in memory (see also Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione 1983; Wittrock 1990).

And again, we can say, yes, students construct their understanding and in terms of previous experience. However, this does not mean that they cannot "generate relationships" from the information in lectures to their own experiences. If lectures are "bad," so are books and any other "containers" of information.

When students are engaged in actively processing information by reconstructing that information in such new and personally meaningful ways, they are far more likely to remember it and apply it in new situations. This approach to learning is consistent with information-processing theories (e.g., Mayer 1984), which argue that reformulating given information or generating new information based on what is provided helps one build extensive cognitive structures that connect the new ideas and link them to what is already known. According to this view, creating such elaborated memory structures aids understanding of the new material and makes it easier to remember.

It's not clear that one way of engaging with new information is more likely to be remembered than another. This is an interpretation. Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) note that it is much more likely that any better remembering is due to more "time on task" rather than the notion of self-constructing as opposed to learning from provided examples, and they 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.

None of this is to oppose the "guide on the side" perspective. Rather, there is a time and place for being a sage and for being a guide. Repeating mantras is no more than educational indoctrination.

Jason, reporting about Mike O'Connell's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a post worth reading on this issue and ends nicely on this note:

In short, I think we need to get beyond the “sage” and “guide” dichotomy, and use both for truly effective teaching. One cannot just impose a set teaching style when it doesn’t work. It behooves teachers at all levels to consider what really works (or what might really work), drawing upon the makeup of individual classes and individual students to make the course truly memorable and meaningful. Otherwise, we’re just playing with techniques, and using unwitting students as guinea pigs.

Keith Burnett posted his response to the Learning Circuits Blog's question of when and how to use Powerpoint. He obviously uses Powerpoint in ways that go beyond presenting material. Here's some of the ways he uses it:

  • Activity briefs
  • Quick whole class exercises
  • Voting slides
  • Mind maps and bubble diagrams
  • Builds in diagrams
  • Photos of a procedure

You'll need to go to his site to get the explanation for these, but they show that you can use Powerpoint in creative ways and not be limited simply to using it for a lecture presentation.

One point that needs to be considered a little more is Burnett's preference for Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage. This is a common refrain based on the belief that students constructing knowledge from the ground up results in better learning. However, one point of the initial question of how to use powerpoint was some research reported by Anna Patty (Sydney Morning Herald), which had several findings.

One finding was that people don't process the same information as effectively when it's presented both verbally and in written form. With respect to Powerpoint, then, you don't want to just read words off a slide. Rather, if used, the slide should provide a visual, such as a picture or graph, that supports the points that you are saying.

Another finding was this:

instead of asking students to solve problems on their own, teachers helped students more if they presented already solved problems.

"Looking at an already solved problem reduces the working memory load and allows you to learn. It means the next time you come across a problem like that, you have a better chance at solving it," Professor Sweller said.

The working memory was only effective in juggling two or three tasks at the same time, retaining them for a few seconds. When too many mental tasks were taken on some things were forgotten.

In other words, this research indicates that in learning something new, it's better for teachers to act as Sages who present examples of "already solved problems." After a problem or process been learned and students are moving towards mastery of that area, then the role switches to Guide.

In a related post Learning with Examples, I commented on the power of examples for learning:

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.

For myself, I prefer to have a Sage tell me what to do and save me hours of frustration and wasted effort.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent article in the New York Times, "Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops". That is, students had not shown any improvement "on grades and test scores" as a result of laptop initiatives. Alex Reid at Digital Digs has an excellent response:

So basically the teachers couldn't figure out how to use the technology in the classroom. Not surprisingly, as a result, the technology did not have much of an impact on outcomes. It is not surprising that the teachers have no idea what they are doing. Why would we imagine that they would? ...

As I've said before and will say again (here and later, no doubt), it's not about delivering the same old curriculum with a new technology.

Why should I use books in my classroom? Lecturing works much better. Students hide magazines inside the covers of their books. They look at the wrong pages. They copy text out of the book and plagiarize. They can't do any of those things when I'm lecturing. The book is just a box that gets in the way of my one-to-one relationship with my students.

Sounds pretty funny when it's put that way, huh?

As Reid notes, it's not clear that laptops will aid learning effectively; however, "our children will live and work, and yes, learn, in these networked environments." So, it's not a question of whether to incorporate technology into our schools. But two questions we do need to answer are:

  1. What are the best ways to introduce our children to the networked environments they will "live and work" in?
  2. What are the best ways to introduce our teachers to using networked environments to facilitate learning in school?

Quite a few people are agush in enthusiasm about Twitter, a new social networking application that allows quick messages to others. Here's Tim Lauer's Twitter Updates for 2007-04-19:

  • Reading: “Get a First Life: A One Page Satire of Second Life” (http://tinyurl.com/2m9t8a) #
  • Good Morning from Portland… #
  • At Lewis… putting together a painting easel for our life skills classroom… #
  • Visiting another school this morning #
  • Back at school for a bit, than to another meeting…. #
  • In an admin meeting… #

I'm not sure why Tim puts this on his blog nor why anyone would be interested in it. But some obviously are. Liz Lawley writes her thoughts on twitter,

I’m completely fascinated by Twitter right now—in much the same way I was by blogging four years ago, and by ICQ years before that.

Clarence Fisher (Twittervision) has "a mash - up of Google maps and Twitter allowing you to see all of the Twitterers (Twits?) posts in real time posted on a world map." Beth Kanter wonders about Twitter for Nonprofits: Waste of Time or Potentially Useful?. (She has quite a few links to others writing on Twitter.)

But as Kathy Sierra noted some time ago in her article The Twitter Curve, people need to be careful about frittering away their time multi-tasking on less than trivial pursuits. She wrote,

For those of you who don't know about Twitter, it has one purpose in life--to be (in its own words)--A global community of friends and strangers answering one simple question: What are you doing? And people answer it. And answer it. And answer it. Over and over and over again, every moment of every hour, people type in a word, fragment, or sentence about what they're doing right then. (Let's overlook the fact that there can be only one true answer to the question: "I'm typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now... which is typing to tell twitter what I'm doing right now." Or something else that makes my head hurt.)

About a month ago, she noted being in a minority (Is Twitter TOO Good?). The worst thing is,

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 Twitter can keep us from achieving, as noted in her article How to be an Expert, Philip Ross's The Expert Mind, and my post Forget IQ. Just Work Hard! Twittering one's time away may be momentarily pleasurable, but real pleasure, real achievement, and real learning--whether it's learning a language, learning to write, or learning in general--come from real, focused, and challenging endeavors.

Update: Robin Good has posted an excellent introduction to Twitter.

In an earlier post, I wrote,

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

Many apparently disagree with that assertion, at least about the part on structure being limiting. I'm not sure why they do. Perhaps it's because many do use the five-paragraph essay in limiting ways. Perhaps it comes from a notion of learning as a creative endeavor, and perhaps the notion of "creative" for many suggests that learning occurs by intuitive leaps and bounds, which structure unduly restrains. However, without structure, no creativity can take place. Language itself requires structure to communicate meaning. In English, for example, stress can differentiate between adjectives and compound nouns, as in the difference between a "blue bird" (a bird that is blue in color) and a "bluebird" (a particular type of bird).

learning never occurs de novo.

Similarly, structure is crucial for learning. After all, learning never occurs de novo. Rather,

  • Learning always builds upon that which came before, and
  • Learning almost always involves a remixing of known building blocks.

My favorite example of these two principles is the many species that have evolved from the remixing of only four building blocks of DNA.

In looking at the five-paragraph essay, we can see at least four potential building blocks of writing:

  • introduction
  • "main idea" (thesis statement and topic sentence)
  • evidence
  • explanation (explanation of evidence and conclusion)

Let's look at how these four building blocks are used across three different situations: (1) framing a quotation, (2) the five-paragraph essay, and (3) introducing an academic journal article.

When introducing a quotation, as Graff and Birkenstein note in their book "They Say / I Say", it is typically framed. First, one introduces the source/author of the quotation and the author's main claim, then the quotation (evidence), and next one explains the quotation in light of the author's claim. Then, one uses the framed quotation to introduce one's own position (claim), thus starting another cycle of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation.

In the five-paragraph essay, of course, one introduces the main claim (thesis statement), provides evidence for that claim in the form of subclaims (topic sentences), explains the subclaims with more evidence and explanations (logic or reasoning), and finally re-explains the main claim in the conclusion.

In introductions to academic journal articles, John Swales has shown that regardless of discipline they always include four rhetorical moves: introduce the topic, review the literature on that topic (explain the topic and the evidence surrounding it), indicate a gap in the literature (explain how something is missing or wrong in the literature, a claim accompanied by evidence and explanation), and then explain what one will do to remedy that gap (another claim with the evidence and further explanation forthcoming in the rest of the article).

The building blocks naturally take different forms in each context and build upon one another as the context becomes more complex. The power of such an approach is its interlocking strength of basic concepts across contexts, thus facilitating learning and transfer via student use and practice of building block concepts across different writing landscapes.

Thus, again, although one can use structure in limiting ways, when used appropriately, structure supports learning. For those who use the five-paragraph essay, then, rather than treat the structure as a formula, it would be more fruitful to familiarize students with its building blocks across contexts (including the five-paragraph essay), rearranging the building blocks in different orders and combinations to consider their rhetorical effect.

To acquaint students with these building blocks, consider beginning by building upon their own experiences with conversation. For example,

  1. First, have students write a conversation they might have with friends trying to persuade them to see a certain movie, play a particular game, or do some other activity, keeping in focus that their friends want to see a different movie or play a different game.
  2. Next, have them analyze their conversations, asking questions such as:
    • Are the building blocks of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation there?
    • Are there other building blocks?
    • Are they consistently in a particular sequence?
    • Does the order of building blocks change?
    • Is a particular sequence of building blocks more effective?
    • When?
    • Why?
    • How do the sequences and uses of building blocks in conversations compare/contrast to those in the five-paragraph essay?

Of course, you can extend this process of analysis to other genres, such as blogs and editorials in newspapers, and to other media, such as podcasts and videos.

contradictions ... are the driving force of learning.

Whether learning new languages or new dialects, such as academese and blogese, this process of analyzing concepts across contexts can bring into focus contradictions between the rhetorical conventions of different dialects, languages, disciplines, and media. And it is contradictions that are the driving force of learning.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Click on building blocks and contradictions under Topics.
See also my article in Complicity: "Building Blocks and Learning".

Po Bronson (NY Magazine) writes a lengthy article titled "How Not to Talk to your Kids:The Inverse Power of Praise", which looks primarily Carol Dweck's research on motivation showing that praising children for their intelligence causes them to underperform. The article begins:

What do we make of a boy like Thomas?

Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are “the smart kids.” Thomas’s one of them, and he likes belonging.

Since Thomas could walk, he has heard constantly that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top one percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top one percent. He scored in the top one percent of the top one percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t.

For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’s father tried to reason with him. “Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out some effort.” (Eventually, he mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father.)

Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?

Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

In brief, praise that is directed towards one's self-esteem not only doesn't improve students' performance, it can even cause performance to deteriorate by causing students

  1. to avoid risk
  2. to give up on a task instead of exerting more effort and
  3. to believe that they are not autonomous.

For praise to be effective,

  1. It must be specific to the task being performed.
  2. It must be sincere.
  3. It must be intermittent.
  4. It should be given during the process not at the end of a task.

On #3, if praise is given too often, then effort becomes tied to the reward of praise, and when praise is removed, so is one's effort. It needs to be tied to effort. And for the same line of reasoning, on #4, praise needs to focus on the process not the product of "success." So, praise is important, but it must be given timely and wisely.

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

Have you ever noticed that second thoughts are often better than first ones? In my previous post, my first thoughts were to tie engagment to autonomy and time on task. Two days later, on my desk staring at me was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". "Flow" fits the notion of engagement better. From the book, flow is

the state in whch people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Most of us have had that "involved" moment happen, when we concentrated our attention so intensely on solving a problem, reading a book, climbing a mountain, on some task, that we lost track of time and when we became aware of our surroundings, a few hours or more had passed by as if they were minutes. Such "flow", according to Csikszentmihalyi, is "optimal experience" that leads to happiness and creativity.

Flow occurs when certain conditions are met, four of which are

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. focused attention
  4. tasks that challenge (without frustrating) one's skills

Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows why flow should be taken into consideration when designing class tasks.

If a task is not challenging enough, boredom sets in, while too great a challenge results in anxiety, and both cases result in task, and thus learning, avoidance. As one's skills increase, then the challenge must also increase for one to remain in a state of flow. Because flow is an enjoyable experience, one continues to increase the challenge level (as from A1 to A4 and so on), and consequently continues to improve one's skills because doing so is necessary to stay in a flow state. Thus, we see the importance of "engaging" students in school. From the book,

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Of course, easier said than done, especially when one's students (mine, for example) often hold full-time jobs while being full-time plus students. Too much work and too little time constantly puts my students in states of frustration. Even when not, flow states are not a regular occurrence in life; according to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor),

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

So, it's unlikely that in formal learning contexts that states of flow will be become the norm every day all day. After all, not all tasks are enjoyable, but they might be necessary, just as grading is a necessary but tedious part of teaching. Still, it seems more and more that students are being turned off by classroom learning. As Csikszentmihalyi asserts,

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

They don't, because they don't see the relevance of school learning. The relevance of math, for example, remains hidden until it is needed in a real world context such as engineering. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, in former times, young children learned in real settings, whether it was hunting, farming, or some trade. They could see first hand the relevance of their activity. Similarly, students playing sports and music see the relevance of any associated instruction. More importantly, goals are clear and feedback is immediate, as in chess when a piece has been taken.

Now, I still agree with Artichoke that student satisfaction/enjoyment is not a reliable measure of learning and that much talk about "engagement" is more jumping on a not-too-well-thought-out, feel-good bandwagon than anything else, but I want to look at this one point:

And engagement, despite Prensky’s slickly marketable “engage me or enrage me” stuff,  engagement is not a self report measure of wonderment and awe but rather a reflection of the determined and persistent focus that a learner needs to promote learning.

As Brabazon notes in her provocative book Digital Hemlock  “To read remember, understand, synthesise and interpret knowledge is often drudgery.  To learn with effectiveness requires repetition, practice and failure.”’ (p9)

Why should repetition, practice and failure be equated with drudgery? James Paul Gee (pdf) notes how in good video games,

mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.

Yet gamers play hours on end, repeating the same moves over and over. And this is true, too, of playing sports, music, and chess. Yet, one seldom hears of the repetition in these arenas as drudgery, perhaps hard, perhaps demanding, but not drudgery. In fact, flow can be achieved in something as apparently boring as working on an assembly line. In his book, Csikszentmihalyi recounts the example of Rico:

The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform—the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record? Like the runner who trains for years to shave a few seconds off his best performance on the track, Rico has trained himself to better his time on the assembly line. With the painstaking care of a surgeon, he has worked out a private routine for how to use his tools, how to do his moves. After five years, his best average for a day has been twenty-eight seconds per unit. ... when he is working at top performance the experience is so enthralling that it is almost painful for him to slow down. "It's better than anything else," Rico says. "It's a whole lot better than watching TV." Rico know that very soon he will reach the limit beyond which he will no longer be able to improve his performance at his job. So twice a week he takes evening courses in electronics. When he has his diploma he will seek a more complex job, one that presumably he will confront with the same enthusiasm he has shown so far. (pp. 39-40)

Apparently, it is not repetition or practice per se that is drudgery. Perhaps, in school learning, repetition is not accompanied by variation, and so becomes drudgery. Perhaps, school repetition too often lacks the clear goals and immediate feedback of video games, sports, music, and chess, and so becomes drudgery. We need to find ways of integrating repetition and practice into school learning without them becoming drudgerous.

In the comments section, Artichoke stated,

the problem does seem to lie in the many differing meanings we attribute to "engagement".

If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Definitely. But the everyday meaning of engagement seems congruent with the academic concept of flow. In fact, one of Csikszentmihalyi's books is titled "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life". Perhaps informing our understanding of engagement with the research on flow can help us move forward in "engaging" our students. Flow, again, requires clear goals, immediate feedback, challenging tasks, and variation in those tasks. If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Related posts and articles:

"effective time on task" and "self-determination" are important pillars of the learning process.

Engagement is a term heard everywhere in educational circles. But how do we measure it? Is engagement always relevant to learning? Artichoke asks these questions and others:

“Engagement” is an interesting notion, as is “rich and authentic”. When I hear schools advocating the use of student inquiry and authentic contexts over other pedagogical approaches on the grounds that it engages (and thus apparently motivates) students, I always want to ask

  • How do you assess engagement?
  • How different are these measures when students are learning through inquiry activities than when they are learning through other pedagogical approaches? And
  • What difference do you find in student learning outcomes that can be causally attributed to your measures of engagement?

And when I think about “rich and authentic” I want to ask, authentic to whom? I want to know why “rich and authentic” is a more popular descriptor of the quantity and quality of the learning experience than “educationally relevant”

Perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Engagement is a fuzzy and anecdotal term. Still, I suppose when I use that term, I'm really referring to time on task and self-determination. In terms of self-determination theory, acting autonomously promotes intrinisic motivation, which in turn leads to more time on task. And it's clear that the more "effective time on task" there is (see Implications of ACT-R Theory: No Magic Bullets (pdf)), the more learning can take place.

So, yes, we need to be careful in our bandying about the terms "engagement" and "rich and authentic." Having said that, "effective time on task" and "self-determination" are important pillars of the learning process.

Do you ever come across a piece of research that seems both common sense and yet counter to your teaching practices? That's what this article "Rote Learning Improves Memory in Seniors" did for me:

A new study offers older adults a simple way to combat memory loss: memorization. Researchers found that seniors who engaged in an intensive period of rote learning followed by an equally long rest period exhibited improved memory and verbal recall. The study was presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

"Use it or lose it"

This study affirms the adage "Use it or lose it" and the notion that you learn what you do: Memorizing improves memory. However, education practice shuns rote learning. Of course, younger students are not yet facing memory loss. And the rapid proliferation of information has led to learning how to search, find, and evaluate the information available, certainly skills needed more today than yesterday, and likely even more so in the future.

At the same time, I've read on more than one occasion that people in careers that use their mind more have less incidence of Alzheimer's. Using one's mind "creatively" isn't the same as rote learning. Still, I wonder. That is, with respect to another disease, osteoporosis, it appears that prevention in one's youth is crucial, as stated by a NIH news release:

"Osteoporosis is a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences," said Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), sponsor of the Milk Matters calcium education campaign. "Preventing this and other bone diseases begins in childhood. With low calcium intake levels during these important bone growth periods, today's children and teens are certain to face a serious public health problem in the future."

Clearly, the stage for health--physical and mental--is set in our youth. This is true for the development of great chess players, mathematicians, and musicians (see The Expert Mind by Philip Ross). It would seem to be true of education in general. Just consider Matthew effects in reading (see ESL/EFL Learners Like Slow Readers). So, although I wouldn't want to return to a pedagogy focused on rote learning and repetitive drills, such as ALM, we should consider what sort of role rote learning might play in learning.

Will Thalheimer in his recent post "People remember 10%, 20%...Oh Really?" comments on false information masquerading as research fact:

People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they see, 30% of what they hear, etc. That information, and similar pronouncements are fraudulent. Moreover, general statements on the effectiveness of learning methods are not credible---learning results depend on too many variables to enable such precision. Unfortunately, this bogus information has been floating around our field for decades, crafted by many different authors and presented in many different configurations, including bastardizations of Dale's Cone. The rest of this article offers more detail.

Thalheimer does a great job of tracking down the sources of this misinformation, showing that sometimes it was a result of intentional deception. As he concludes,

It will seem obvious, but each and every one of us must take responsibility for the information we transmit to ensure its integrity. More importantly, we must be actively skeptical of the information we receive. We ought to check the facts, investigate the evidence, and evaluate the research. Finally, we must continue our personal search for knowledge---for it is only with knowledge that we can validly evaluate the claims that we encounter.

Update (June 8, 2008): A recent CISCO report (via Edutopia), "Multimodal learning through media: What the research says", supports Thalheimer, concluding,

The complexity of teaching and learning becomes increasingly apparent as the physiological, cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of learning become known. The percentages related to the cone of learning were a simplistic attempt to explain very complex phenomenon. The reality is that the most effective designs for learning adapt to include a variety of media, combinations of modalities, levels of interactivity, learner characteristics, and pedagogy based on a complex set of circumstances.

In general, multimodal learning has been shown to be more effective than traditional, unimodal learning. Adding visuals to verbal (text and/or auditory) learning can result in significant gains in basic and higher-order learning. The meta-analytic findings in this report provide insights into when interactivity augments multimodal learning of moderately to complex topics, and when it is advantageous for students to work individually when learning or building automaticity with basic skills.

Jay Mathews, in "New teacher jolts KIPP", writes about Lisa Suben, a new teacher in the KIPP schools, who had her math students jump from the 16th to the 77th percentile in a single year. That's an unbelievably huge jump! How'd she do it? Theoretically, she says:

"My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it."

Items (2) and (3) are related. That is, communication can (but need not) present more strands of knowledge to enter the picture that allows more connections to be made. It's not the connections per se that build understanding but rather the contradictions among them. Contradictions are the driving force of learning. On item (4), reflecting and questioning can improve one's understanding, of course, but most understanding is unconscious. That doesn't make it unvaluable.

Suben translated her theory into the following practice:

The core of her method is the workbook she produced last year on the fly. It "lets students build their own notes and create their own examples. It is incredibly active learning," she said. They were encouraged to write down the meaning of important terms and strategies they used that worked with certain kinds of problems.

Suben, I imagine, is differentiating between a traditional lecture form of teaching and Deweyan "learning by doing". It's not clear that one type of learning is more active than another. All learning is active. Of course, I can also imagine that students focus more on something they are "doing" as opposed to "receiving," and thus they spend more "effective time on task," the crucial element in learning. Thus, Suben's having her students create their own notes, examples, and meaning is an excellent way to (1) focus them more effectively on the tasks at hand and (2) bring them into contradictions between their declarative and procedural knowledge (see ACT-R Theory) and so improve their understanding.

Related posts on the five-paragraph essay:
Forget IQ. Just Work Hard!
The Expert Mind
Learning: A State of Disatisfaction
Learning with Examples

For academic achievement, use a fountain pen. Or, so says Bryan Lewis, principal of the Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville Junior School in Scotland (reported by Ben McConville, Associated Press, via Remote Access):

"The pens improve the quality of work because they force the children to take care, and better work improves self-esteem," principal Bryan Lewis said. "Proper handwriting is as relevant today as it ever has been."

Students as young as 7 have been instructed to forgo their ball point pens and get to grips with its more artful predecessor. By the time they reach grade five, at age 9, they are expected to write mainly with fountain pens.

In another post, I wrote about a claim that holding a pen or pencil "stimulates ideas," because it "massages acupuncture points." And now we read that "proper handwriting" results in "better work," because it "massages" self-esteem. It's interesting how it can even make sense: Students take more care, so their work improves, which in turn improves their self-confidence, which in turn improves their work, and so on. But,then again, it may be an instance of an expectancy effect, such as the Hawthorne Effect. What do you think?

Aaron Nelson at Teacher in Development has an interesting post on Teaching and Learning: How to Increase Transfer. Referring to my post on The Transfer of Expertise, he said,

the teacher must first of all DELIVER content in meaningful ways.

To illustrate, he gave an example. One of his students had requested help on how to learn word and preposition combinations. After asking her for a few weeks how he could provide that help, he came up with the creative and engaging notion of combining photos from Flickr with Powerpoint to help students "visualize word/preposition combinations in meaningful ways." What's even more pedagogically interesting to me is that he listened carefully to his student to understand how he could best help her.

At the end of his post, Nelson asked:

How are you being relevant to your students? Would you share how you make meaningful links between your content and your student’s lives?

So, now, I'll share one example of how I listened to a student to make the content more meaningful. A few years ago, one of my students made the claim that Japanese cars were better than American cars. A few days later, I entered the classroom with a PowerPoint presentation to have the students confront contradictions between that claim and the fact that not everyone bought a Japanese car. First, however, I asked the students whether or not they agreed with the other student. They all did. Next, I asked what their criteria were for evaluating Japanese cars as better than American cars. After they had listed quite a few, I then began the following series of PowerPoint slides:

  • Cars, Criteria, and Audience
  • Which car would you prefer to own?
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • American Corvette (with accompanying picture)
  • What car would a Texan prefer to own? (with a picture of John Wayne as a dusty cowboy)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Dodge Ram pickup (with accompanying picture)
  • What would Schnarzenegger prefer to own? (with a picture of the Terminator holding a shotgun)
  • Honda Civic (with accompanying picture)
  • Harley Davidson (with accompanying picture)

This presentation, pitting a Japanese car, the Honda civic, against American products, stirred up much discussion on how audiences differed in their values and in their criteria for purchasing cars, thus causing the students to reflect on contradictions between the evaluation criteria they initially formulated and the criteria that different audiences used in purchasing vehicles, and hopefully enabling them to construct a better understanding of audience that they might be able to transfer to other contexts.

Like Nelson, as a result of listening, I had responded with a presentation and tasks that would engage my students. So, I would add that to be able to "deliver content in meaningful ways," a key component is listening carefully to our students to understand their reality.

On a sidenote, although it was likely not intended, the notion of "delivering content" can suggest a transmission model of teaching/learning. With respect to student learning, you do not "connect your content with your students' reality." Connections we make reflect our learning, not the students. Rather, we establish conditions that facilitate their connecting their reality to our "content." This shift of perspective might be perceived as trivial, but for me, it is an important one because the perspectives we give voice to shape our pedagogical practices, whether consciously or not. Learning is not to a passive process of receiving knowledge, but an active process of constructing meaning as when Nelson's students "figure[d] out" prepositions and "create[d] their own sentences."

If transfer is to occur, it will be a result of students doing the connecting. Thus, in addition to listening, another key component of effective pedagogy is a focus on the learning environment, on conditions that can facilitate learning, as in Nelson's innovation of combining Flickr and Powerpoint to create "an interesting and highly visual way to work on prepositions."

A few related posts:
If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me
Is there anything new under the sun?
Chains of experience

Want to improve your learning? Read Hacking Knowledge: 77 Ways to Learn Faster, Deeper, and Better (via Teaching Hacks), a compendium of tips on learning:

Life-changing knowledge does typically require advanced learning techniques. In fact, it's been said that the average adult only uses 10% of his/her brain. Imagine what we may be capable of with more advanced learning techniques. Here are 77 tips related to knowledge and learning to help you on your quest. A few are specifically for students in traditional learning institutions; the rest for self-starters, or those learning on their own. Happy learning.

Most of it is just common sense, but it's good to have all of these tips in one place and to review them once in a while. One of the interesting ones for me was #29:

Write, don't type. While typing your notes into the computer is great for posterity, writing by hand stimulates ideas. The simple act of holding and using a pen or pencil massages acupuncture points in the hand, which in turn stimulates ideas.

I don't know about the acupuncture part, but I can imagine that having to write notes by hand would slow me down, giving more time for thinking and reflecting while writing. Even so, I do almost all of my notetaking by computer with Tinderbox. Using Tinderbox allows my notes to be revised and searchable. It also allows me to make links between my notes and create a visual representation of those connections, to allow patterns to emerge. So, I can see the value to slowing down and thinking while writing, but there is also the value of revisiting notes, reflecting on them, re-organizing them, and having them in a format that "stimulates ideas." Here's a map view of notes from the Tinderbox site:

Isn't a picture worth a thousand handwritten notes?

Update: I just came across a similar article, 22 ways to overclock your brain at the Ririan Project blog (via Problogger).

How do people develop fluency in a second language? A similar question might be, How do people develop expertise in a subject?

Last month, I posted on Philip Ross's review of The Expert Mind (Scientific American). Besides the 10-year rule on acquiring expertise (and I would add L2 fluency at native levels), the article also noted the problem of transfer:

Chess memory was thus shown to be even more specific than it had seemed, being tuned not merely to the game itself but to typical chess positions. These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life.

Transfer is a problem. Although first-year composition is designed to prepare students for academic writing in other courses and eventually to their careers, the skills they acquire often, even usually, do not transfer in part because the concepts in FYC are not seen as relevant to other contexts. (See a few references below on the difficulty of writing transfer.) In tackling this problem, two approaches are helpful. One is making connections between class concepts and students' own societal practices. In addition to assignments that cross classroom boundaries, it is helpful for students to keep a journal in which they look for the presence of classroom concepts and practices outside the classroom.

The second approach is one of having a few concepts that are used in a variety of contexts and in interaction with one another lead to higher-level hybrid concepts. I talked about this approach in "Learning by remixing". (See also my paper "Building Blocks and Learning".) The ability to transfer skills and knowledge across domains is not automatic: Just like any other skill, it needs practice.

Some references related to problems in writing transfer:
Anson, Chris, & Forsberg, L. (1990). Moving beyond the academic community: Transitional stages in professional writing. _Written Communication_, 7, 200-231.
Carroll, Lee Ann. (2002). Rehearsing roles: how college students develop as writers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.
Smit, David. (2004). _The end of composition studies_. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

Kathy Sierra asks "Why does engineering/math/science education in the US suck?":

If you studied math, science, or engineering at a four-year college in the US, much of what you learned is useless, forgotten, or obsolete. All that money, all that time, all that wasted talent. If all we lost were a few years, no big deal. But the really scary part is that we never learned what matters most to true experts in math, science, and engineering. We never really learned how to DO math, science, and engineering. ...

What experts use to do their work are the things we don't teach. We focus almost exclusively on how to talk about the work. ...

If intuition is the heart of what true experts do, then shouldn't we be trying to teach that? Or at the least, stop stifling and dissing it? And yes, I do believe that we can teach and inspire all those fuzzy things including intuition and even curiosity. But we are running out of time.

Kathy is right: Learning "facts" is not the same as "doing". That's one advantage of teaching composition: it's always focused towards the "doing" of writing. It's still not perfect, of course. Writing in first-year comp can easily be disconnected from the writing that students will do in other classes or in their careers. On that basis, some make the argument that first-year comp should be abolished and replaced with discipline-specific writing courses. I suppose we could carry that logic a little further and claim that discipline-specific writing courses be replaced with writing-intensive internships in one's future career. But what then happens to the goal of a well-rounded university education? Is it education to become no more than intense vocational training? That's not what Creating Passionate Users is arguing, of course. However, we do need to consider, What is the purpose of writing in first-year composition? In the University? For students who are not majoring in writing. Especially for ESL/EFL students.

In "Words of discomfort", Harold Jarche questions the value of homework, noting that research supporting the effectiveness of homework for academic performance is lacking. He cites Alfie Kohn as saying,

For starters, there are no data whatsoever to show that elementary school students benefit from doing homework. None. And even in high school there’s only a modest correlation between time spent on homework and achievement - with little reason to think that the achievement was caused by doing more homework. Then there’s other evidence, including a brand-new study of TIMSS data from 50 countries, and it shows no positive effects from homework, even for older students. I wasn’t able to find any reason to believe that students would be at any sort of intellectual disadvantage if they had no homework at all.

I have to say, I think elementary school children should focus on having fun after school instead of more school work. And I'm not quite sure at what grade homework should really enter the picture. But simply to say that homework doesn't benefit older students, well, I need more than a simple correlation. I commented on his post, mentioning the research on expertise (see The Expert Mind" and learning (see Learning with Examples. It's pretty clear in just about any endeavor that the more "effective" time on task that is spent, the more one learns. As I responded concerning a lack of correlation,

The only thing that comes to my mind is that homework is busy work, is perhaps not related to learning that counts, or is not “effective time on task.” Another possibility is that the homework, being spread over a variety of subjects, means that the amount of extra time on a particular subject is not significant enough to aid achievement in that subject or overall. With just these few possibilities, it seems that we need to know more to understand the effect, or non-effect, of homework on school achievement.

Harold pointed me to Emily Bazon's review of three books on the topic, which came strongly down of the side that homework does not benefit. Much of it made sense until I came to this point:

When homework boosts achievement, it mostly boosts the achievement of affluent students. They're the ones whose parents are most likely to make them do the assignments, and who have the education to explain and help.

In other words, there is little or no correlation between homework and academic performance because the majority of students (I assume that most are not affluent) are not doing their homework or do not have enough help in doing it. So, it's not that homework does not benefit; rather, it's that not doing or understanding homework does not benefit. Would we really expect any other result?

To sum up, because there is no definitive research on this issue, more than a correlation is needed to assume a lack of cause, especially in light of the research on expertise and learning. Even so, I'm still not in favor of young children having homework and I'm not sure when homework should begin in school. After all, the burden of proof should be on those who want homework in the schools. And as Harold commented,

There is more to life than school and there is more to learning than doing homework. Six hours a day, ten months per year, over 12 years, is enough time for teaching and instruction.

I wish I had known that before I went to graduate school!

Shari Wilson ("Ignorance of the Ignorant", Inside Higher Ed) writes about students' incompetence in judging their performance level:

My undergraduate students can’t accurately predict their academic performance or skill levels. Earlier in the semester, a writing assignment on study styles revealed that 14 percent of my undergraduate English composition students considered themselves “overachievers.” Not one of those students was receiving an A in my course by midterm. Fifty percent were receiving a C, another third was receiving B’s and the remainder had earned failing grades by midterm. One student wrote, “overachievers like myself began a long time ago.” She received a 70 percent on her first paper and a low C at midterm.


Dozens of colleagues have told me that their undergraduates simply do not have the tools to criticize and evaluate their own work-much less predict how well they will do on assignments. What’s behind this great drop in ability to assess performance?

What are the causes? According to Wilson, they are many, including low high school standards, helicopter parenting, multi-tasking with email and the internet while studying, and so on. Note that higher ed assumes that (1) the purpose of public schools is to prepare students for college, (2) none of this is higher ed's fault, and (3) the students today aren't as good as those yesterday.

Such simple simplifying seems less than satisfying in understanding a phenomenon impacted by a variety of influences. One influence not mentioned is, I believe, the greater expectations of professors and universities over time. Biology courses, for instance, continually increase the amount of information to be learned in the same amount of time. (Just compare textbooks between today and 30 years ago for the same course.) At the University of Texas at Austin, the biology department finally woke up (in the 90s?) and changed a 3-credit microbiology course to three 2-credit courses, doubling the amount of time needed for the "same" material. The 2-credit course I took was still jam packed with information.

Being embedded in the system, professors are often unaware that they are requiring more than was required of them as undergraduates because changes increment slowly over the years. It's also likely that their memory has reconstructed their memories of when they were undergraduates in line with their own academic cultural expectations in a manner similar to Bartlett's experiment in having British citizens recount a Native American story "The War of the Ghosts":

Bartlett's readers (typically unconsciously) made the story more orderly and coherent within their own cultural framework.

I don't doubt that there are differences in student populations. My students are surprised that I expect 2-3 hours of outside study for every one hour of class time. Wilson doesn't simply bemoan the situation, however. She lays out ways to improve our instruction:

As an instructor of undergraduate core classes, however, I realize that my responsibility does not stop at content. I cannot simply list assessment as a course objective and then feign ignorance when my students show me again and again that they cannot predict their own performance. Strategies — not only for instruction, but also for exercises and assessment — are integral in setting my students on the right path for the remainder of their college careers. To accomplish this, I realize that I will need to work much, much harder to help my undergraduates understand assignments and expectations, rubrics and assessments, in-class grades and the prediction of success.

Some is already in place. Like many English composition instructors, I do instill a peer-editing component to my writing courses — not only to help students view writing as a process — but to give them some tools and much-needed experience in evaluating student work. I provide instruction in how to apply rubrics to student work and often use past student work as “models.” Some students are glad for the transparency of my courses; with a detailed 16-week course outline given out at the first class, they can start relating course objectives to specific assignments throughout the semester. Lessons scaffold one on another; assessment follows thorough instruction. Still, there is much to be done. It’s clear that I need to develop more tools to help my students learn to assess their own work and predict academic performance more accurately.

Along with the interaction of peer-editing, having much of their work online can aid in seeing, comparing, and contrasting their own work with others. In the past, I had my students use Blogger.com. This semester, I moved to Bloglines. Posting and reading posts in one place makes it easier for them to become more aware of how well they are doing. In addition, they now have access to all comments made on others' posts, unlike with Blogger, so that the amount of reading interaction has increased compared to previous semesters. One key to accurate self-assessment is being exposed to what one's peers are doing, an exposure facilitated by blogging.

Alex Reid at "digital digs" writes on "the threat of the network". Alex states that teachers

continue to view their profession as one that will be founded on a discrete, unchanging body of information that they will acquire before graduating. We might all deride the notion of the teacher/professor reciting the same lectures and lessons plans year after year, but somehow this does not alter this belief that a degree will certify us once and for all as authorities. Sure, all these teacher-students recognize that they will gain experience as teachers, learn helpful tips along the way, and become better practitioners. But this development of practice is separated from the acquisition of authoritative knowledge.

And this faith exists in both  K-12 and  college faculty. 

The threat of the network is the dissolution of this authority. The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn't mean that what we've learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. We cannot imagine the classroom as resting upon a core body of knowledge. We are engaged in a technocultural shift that shakes the very foundations of epistemology: what began as a philosophical critique in theory now becomes a material condition (Hayles makes this argument, citing the birth of Netscape as the end of the "postmodern" era and the beginning of something new)

In many ways, I agree with all that Alex wrote, especially on the disconnect between formal education and the real world. Still, some points need to be clarified with respect to technological expertise and disciplinary expertise. Certainly, I don't consider myself as an authority on new technologies. But why should I? Technology and new media is not the goal of learning in my classes, although it is a byproduct. Rather, it supports learning certain concepts and practices of my subject of composition.

As a teacher of university composition for 14+ years, I've never thought about possessing an unchanging body of content knowledge. What I do consider not to change much over time are principles of rhetoric. For instance, when trying to communicate, especially persuasive communication, we use logic, appeal to emotions and values, and attempt to establish a credible ethos. Or coming from stasis theory, we might consider what are the facts, what are their nature, how do we evaluate them, and what should we do about them. These principles haven't changed in millenia and apply to cyberwriting as well as to print writing as well as to oral communication. So, although I do not consider myself to be an expert [perhaps I might in another 14+ years :) ], I would say that I have some "authority" in applying these principles and some "authority" in teaching the application of those principles to old and new media and networks or writing.

I accept that knowledge changes and that what we teach should change, too. But does that really mean that teachers, such as myself with many years of experience, have no more authority than our students with respect to our disciplines? I don't think that's what Alex is arguing, but in attempts to make education more relevant to students, I wonder about the hype associated with these new media and about the conflating of technological expertise with disciplinary knowledge.

Somewhat related posts:
Experts in the Learning Profession
Experts, Learning, and Networks
The Expert Mind

Why do we dress up and behave more formally than usual for job interviews? Because we know that first impressions and stereotype expectations are important. Research has shown how being informed of stereotypes can affect negatively one's performance, as when women are told about men being better at math before taking a math test. The opposite is also true. That is, being informed about a stereotype threat can reduce or eliminate its effects). And, in addition, belonging to a positive stereotype ethnicity can impair performance as in some research with Asian-American women.

As the Mungers (Cognitive Daily) point out,

The impact of stereotypes clearly is complex—we've reported on positive, negative, and neutral effects (as in the case of gender here). Perhaps this experiment's findings on Asian-American women won't be replicated with other groups. What's certain is that stereotypes do have an important impact on performance.

So, how does this play out in the second language classroom? One way is in the stereotypical expectations my students have concerning writing in English as represented by their comments, often at the beginning of a course, and occasionally throughout the semester. They often say,

  • Writing is hard because it's not my native language.
  • Writing in Spanish (or another L1) is easy [although they may not have any experience writing in Spanish].

Some of their comments imply,

  • I must be stupid because I don't understand what I should be doing.
  • I must be incompetent because I can't get this right.

Obviously, it's important to establish a classroom environment that's supportive and nurturing. Just as important is an environment that counters stereotypical expectations. In this case, students have the impression that learning should be easy and that because they're ESL students, writing will be too difficult for them to master. To counter these impressions, on the first day of class, I begin with,

In this class, you will be confused throughout the semester. And that's great! Because it means you're learning! If you aren't confused, at least a little, then it means you already know this material and will be bored. In contrast, confusion means an opportunity for learning to take place.

Simply setting the tone at the beginning that "confusion is normal" and "confusion is important for learning" is not enough; it must permeate the course environment. So throughout the semester, as students show confusion and sometimes frustration, my response is, "Great! We're about to learn something!" And I remind them of Dudley Herschbach, Nobel laureate in chemistry, who stated,

You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.

Thus, by building a new stereotype (a true one) that confusion is a normal part of learning, students' expectations about writing in a second language slowly change toward an attitude supporting their learning instead of one defeating it.

Philip Ross wrote a good review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American via elearningpost via elearnspace via Stephen's Edu_RSS). Some excepts:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?

"Effortful study" is related to ACT-R theory and in some ways just seems to be common sense. What seems to be missing in this article is the recognition that the 10-year rule when applied to reading and math equals 20 years, unless we double the total amount of "effortful study" in each and every day. Although we might argue that reading (especially reading) and math have greater application to more subjects, it would still mean that students would need to focus on a career subject at an early age in order to become an expert.

The ten-year rule also puts into better perspective why people take so long to acquire a second language. Language fluency requires expertise in the language. Add to that expertise in writing in a second language means adding even more time.

The article also notes that experts do not exist in abundance:

Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees.

Some questions: Is this a problem for education? In general? That is, should people in general strive for expertise in their fields? Or simply to be competent? With respect to second language learning, how should the 10-year rule affect our approach to language teaching and our expectations about language learning?

A study by Brescia and Miller (via Stephen's Web) on the benefits of instructional blogging suggests that the main benefits are "the reinforcing of course engagement and the repetition of exposure to coursework are the most valuable aspects of blogging."

Henry Jenkins (subbing for Mark Glaser at Mediashift) writes an interesting article Learning by Remixing. He notes that re-mixing is a Western tradtion: that The Iliad and the Odyssey were remixes of other myths, that the Sistine Chapel Ceiling is a remix of Biblical stories, that Shakespeare's work is a remix of parts of other plays, and so on. However,

Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs often remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in emphasizing totally “original work”, schools sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process; and they don’t teach them the relationship between analysis and production.

Today, I want to report on several interesting new experiments which involve students sampling and remixing in order to develop better media literacy skills. My MIT students often report that they learned how engines worked by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Maybe students can learn how culture works by breaking it down into its basic building blocks and remixing them.

After reporting on those projects that value remixing, Jenkins concludes:

What each of these projects have in common is a hands-on approach to culture: they recognize the value of remixing as a means of mastering the core vocabulary of storytelling and representation. They value the kinds of creative expression which emerges when familiar materials get placed in unfamiliar contexts or get rethought through different perspectives.

Of course, though the digital environment places a new emphasis on understanding and responding to remixing practices, this is not a radically new idea. I was going through some of my mother’s things recently and stumbled upon a box of her school papers from the late 1930s. One of the assignments had been to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. As they say, everything old is new again.

Jenkins' position on "learning by remixing" meshes well with the building blocks in John Holland's model of complexity theory. Interactions of building blocks lead to the emergence of new building blocks at higher levels. In Hidden Order, he gives the example of quarks, nucleons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, and so on, to show the integration of building blocks at different levels. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

I've wondered before what would be the building blocks that could lead to the various genres and concepts of writing. From classical rhetoric are candidates, such as stasis theory or the elements of pathos, ethos, and logos. More recently, Toulmin logic or Halliday's functional linguistics might be candidates. It's not that clear, however. Holland himself (Emergence, 1998) notes that poetry has a "looser framework" than physics when it comes to re-combining building blocks. Poetry's looseness, he says, "limits the possibilities for a cumulative structure," although not making it impossible.

Perhaps the levels are utterance (or word), clause, paragraph, and genre. I'm not sure how helpful using these levels would be in learning to write across genres. Gordon Wells (Dialogic Inquiry, 1999) tied Halliday's functional model with its concepts of ideational, interpersonal, and textual semantics to activity theory's levels of operation, action, and activity.

I've noticed that quite a few books on writing have similar sorts of questions. From stasis theory comes: What are the facts? What is the nature of the event? What is its value? and What should we do about it? From Deborah Meier's Habits of Mind: How do we know what we know? Who's speaking? What causes what? How might things have been different? and Who cares? (or So what?)

Quite close to the notion of Holland's building blocks are activity theorist Davydov's germ cell concepts in his "Ascending from the abstract to the concrete." This approach starts with students discovering primary general concepts in a particular discipline, investigating those concepts across particular contexts, and in the process retrace/recreate the process through which people developed the present day concepts.

These similarities across disciplines and theories suggest that human thinking runs along a few fundamental paths (this is not new), so perhaps the building blocks of any of those paths will be sufficient for students to learn and use in their writing in ways that help them transfer their learning to new contexts, whether to other classes or to future careers.

The key, however, remains remixing. In a fashion like the four bases of DNA that in various combinations lead to different species, composition might focus on a few building blocks that can produce a variety of genres across different contexts. Previously, I wrote about Graff and Birkentstein's book They say / I say. The book's goal, as they put it,

is to demystify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates. (p. x)

There are just two basic building blocks: "They say" and "I say". However, the permutations and recombinations are endless.

Scott Leslie of EdTechPost reports on a new web2.0 tool: stu.dicio.us.

stu.dicio.us, while still in beta, is an incredibly simple student-focused tool that currently supports note taking and scheduling, with file storage and self grade-tracking coming soon. There are three things about it that are really beautiful:

- it is REALLY simple, and yet quite useful. ...

- all class notes are shared (you have to agree to this to use the system). ...

- based on the amazingly simple interface....

As Scott notes, this tool produces "an ecology of class notes for individual classes" but can also be used to find notes in similar classes around the world, simply by searching via keywords. I'm not sure how this tool might affect attendance, but imagine students reading other students' notes, seeing differences between their notes and others, and expanding and re-organizing their own notes. The importance of reviewing notes has been posited in research. Jeff Beecher's "Note-Taking: What Do We Know About The Benefits?" (ERIC Digest) covers this topic. Here's an excerpt:

The importance of reviewing notes was mentioned briefly by Crawford in 1925. In 1973, Fisher and Harris concluded that "note taking serves both an encoding function and an external memory function reviewing, with the latter being the more important." (p. 324) Kiewra (1983) found that reorganizing notes while reviewing led to higher test achievement. The Cornell system of note-taking encourages this practice (King et al., 1984).

In a report on their study which allowed students to review their notes immediately before a test, Carter and Van Matre (1975) argued that the benefit of note-taking appeared to be derived from the review rather than from the act of note-taking itself. They even went so far as to suggest that reviewing notes may actually cue the student to reconstruct parts of the lecture not initially recorded in the notes. An interesting study by Kiewra (1985) also endorsed the value of review--but not of student notes. He suggested that "Teachers should be aware of students' relatively incomplete note-taking behaviours, and therefore, encouraged to provide learners with adequate notes for review." (p. 77 ...)

Whether it's note-taking or reviewing that helps, stu.dicio.us would seem to accomplish both. Plus, it should help students complete their "relatively incomplete" notes and more fully understand a topic as they attempt to resolve differences, or contradictions, between their notes and others. In addition, it facilitates the building of networks outside of class that can support learning, along with the social-relatedness and autonomy elements of motivation (see self-determination theory).

Earlier in "Education Leads to Immaturity", I commented briefly on Charlton's hypothesis that people are becoming more immature. I'd have to read the study to see how Charlton came to these conclusions. Still, in some ways, this relationship makes sense. Maturity is closely tied to responsibility. And as long as one is in school, responsibility is at a minimum for several reasons. One is that students are not stakeholders in their education: They have no, or little, voice in how their education should proceed. Another reason is that they have no, or little, direct feedback on how their education will contribute to their future interests, careers, and lives. (For student voice, see Listening to Students and for the value of feedback, see Flow, Games, and Learning. And somewhat related, download Maehr & McInerney's book chapter, Motivation as Personal Investment.)

I imagine one thing that would help would be to have students share responsibility in the governance of classes and schools, and in the direction and nature of their learning, along with graduates (from recent to not-so-recent) serving as ex-officio members to provide feedback as to the consequences (successes and failures) of their education preparing them for their careers.

As I continue to think about this, it doesn't seem so odd that the level of education correlates with immaturity. What does seem odd is that schools do not have curricula that help students become responsible and mature. What seems unlikely is that schools will redesign their curricula accordingly as long as they remain overfocused on testing. Unless, of course, they can test maturity, too. What seems likely is that NCLB's testing mania results from "highly educated" politicians, acting outside of their areas of competence, being "unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.” Interestingly, "highly educated" educators who are supposedly acting within their areas of competence apparently also have unbalanced priorities on testing. Perhaps, we're back to "Emotion Overrules Reason". Or perhaps what Charlton has come across is a variation on "Experts predict no better than non-experts":

The experts’ trouble in Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong.

And hating to be wrong, many continue to love the road of testing what can easily be counted rather than measuring what counts.

The article on Charlton's hypothesis also stated:

A “child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge” is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, Charlton believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

Actually, I don't mind being unfinished as long as I have the flexibility to keep learning.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

As I mentioned in my last post on commenting, Seth Godin was seen as arrogant when he disabled comments on his blog. Some asserted that blogging was about the conversation. Although I earlier said that it wasn't about the conversation, in a way, it is. More precisely, it's about the social relations between people that conversation enables. In looking at how Seth's post triggered a blogospheric uproar, we might consider how his post violated people's perceptions of the social relationships "required" in blogging from the perspective of social relational models, a theoretical model for social interaction posited by Alan Fiske, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fiske proposes that four relational models in various combinations govern all social interactions. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Although I've posted before on these social relations (see "The Internet and Ownership" and "Academic Blogging"), it's been a while. So, I'll review those models and then look at how they can explain people's reactions to disabling comments.

Communal Sharing is a relationship among a bounded group of people in which members are considered equivalent and have equal access to the group's resources, such as in the case of family members having equal access to the refrigerator regardless of who purchased the food or students having equal access to library resources regardless of whether they are on full scholarship, paying in-state tuition, or out-of state tuition. In communal sharing, people identify with their group and conform to its characteristics and behavior.

Authority Ranking is a linear, hierarchical relationship in which one person is above or below another person instead of being equivalent. The higher person has more privileges, status, and control, while the lower person is entitled to protection and care. It is not a matter of power, which is an asocial relationship, but of a social model that supports legitimate authority. Those in subordinate positions grant their leaders authority. That authority may be allowed in one situation but not in another. For example, students generally follow a teacher’s rules and directions. However, it is not uncommon for students to disagree with their teacher when they hold expertise in a particular area. In ESL (English as a second language) writing courses, for instance, graduate students accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but may reject content corrections in discipline-related papers because they consider themselves to have more authority with respect to their discipline. And Authority Ranking can co-exist with Communal Sharing as in the case of parents in a family.

Equality Matching is a relationship in which there is a one-to-one correspondence in the transfer of resources, often with a delay in response, such as when a someone extends a favor, which is expected eventually to be returned in kind. Unlike in Communal Sharing relationships in which accounts are not kept, they are in Equality Matching. Consequently, if too many favors are owed, an Equality Matching relationship can turn into an Authority Ranking relationship.

In contrast, Market Pricing is an exchange of resources based on proportionality, that is, a ratio or rate, such as exchanging goods or services in return for money. People want to get the best deal for themselves, or at least a fair deal.

In any particular action, more than one of these are usually operating, although it is normal for more than one to be more prominent than the others.

In addition to the social relational models, there are also asocial models in which people either ignore others or use others as a means to some end. Having evolved and emerged from psychological mechanisms, Fiske’s social relational models are the building blocks of cultures. Just as the four building blocks of DNA account for the diversity of species, so, too, do the four social relational models account for the diversity of cultures.

When we look at the many comments about Seth Godin, one word that comes up is "arrogant." Why? The tone does seem flippant. By itself, however, such a tone from most bloggers wouldn't have triggered such a response. More likely, the response resulted from his violating the Communal Sharing model. Although the blogging community does not have a uniform opinion on commenting, the overwhelming majority believe that to be a blog, it should have comments. Previously, bloggers had access to posting their opinions at Seth's site, and now they don't. Previously, they were part of Seth's "bounded group," wide-open as it may have been. Now they aren't. By unilaterally disabling comments, Seth was also violating the Authority Ranking model. That is, he was perceived to be acting from a position of authority that they did not grant (when not granted, it is considered an abuse of power). The combination of breaking off from the community and asserting authority, both actions violating social relational models, led to the blogging community's strong reaction.

Seth, on the other hand,might have been treating it as a Market Pricing relationship: He figured that the uproar would increase his traffic and was worth the backlash, thus an attempt to make the best deal for himself. Or, perhaps as he wrote:

I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them.

Just looking at his previous post on "On how to get traffic for your blog", you can see 113 comments and 76 trackbacks. Plus, Seth often writes 4 or more posts in a day. Commenters expect some interaction, as EFL Geek wrote:

If an author choose to disable comments I think that is fine, I don’t really support it, but that’s a fair choice. What bothers me is that authors who have comments enabled but never respond to any comments by their readership.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would expect that Seth would respond to all commenters. Still, it's rather easy to imagine that he may have thought that he wasn't getting a good enough deal out of the comments to make it worth his while to keep them and respond to them. It's also possible that an Equality Matching model played some part. That is, when someone comments on your blog, you feel the obligation, as Seth said, to respond in kind. Obviously, he couldn't do so, and rather than feel uncomfortable about not fulfilling the social obligation of matching the comment, he simply withdrew from the conversation that maintained the relationship.

When people use different social relational models to their interactions with one another, conflict is likely to ensue. However, although the people involved may attribute their reactions to a variety of causes, they are governed unconsciously just as much, if not more, by underlying psychological mechanisms that guide social relations.

Obviously, these mechanisms can affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Just consider the aversion of many students to peer reviewing essays and the social relational models that are likely underlying that aversion. However, that's a topic for a later post.

Often, I wonder, Why don't my students get it? Why don't they see what I see? Perhaps it's because they're not looking where I am.

Well, just the other day, I wasn't looking where I should have been. Trying to find my car, I zig-zagged through the parking lot, turning my head left and right. Where was my car? I couldn't find it. I finally stopped, looked left and right again, didn't see it, but just as I started to walk again--I looked down and there it was: one foot in front of me. If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me.

Similarly in language "seeing," I remember while in Istanbul I once asked a minibus driver in Turkish if he would go by Mecidiye. Each time he answered, "No speak English." On the third time, an elderly man behind him leaned forward, saying, "Türkçe konusuyor" (He's speaking Turkish). And then the driver could understand me. He had been listening for English, not Turkish. He hadn't been hearing where the other passenger was hearing.

And the converse is true, too. We don't understand why our students don't get it, because we aren't seeing where they're looking. To be able to see with them (and they with us), our most valuable skill may be that of listening to our students, listening to understand what they understand, in order to build a bridge between our understandings.

Have you ever complained about a student who either ignored your feedback on their paper, or because they completely deleted that section and replaced it with something new because they didn't understand how to respond to your feedback?

I used to do that. Nowadays, I tend to smile, because I notice more and more that I do the same thing as my students. As I mentioned earlier, I was having trouble getting trackback to work correctly because Haloscan had a limit on the number of characters for a trackback URL. So, in Tinderbox, I switched from the URL to an ID I created for each post to form the basis of the trackback URL, an ID that should have been unique for each post. For some strange reason, I was getting duplicate IDs. Rather than try to figure out how to solve it, I just deleted the ID and went to the date created for each post. Seems to be working. Sometimes, deleting and replacing with something new is a good short-term strategy. And, sometimes, we are more like our students than we realize.

Recently, my son and I read The Old Woman and the Eagle. In some ways, it reminds me of the recent spate of comments on Seth Godin's post "Why I don't have comments". Here are some excerpts concerning an eagle who landed at the front door of an old woman, who said,

"Oh my, what a funny pigeon you are!"

She figured he was a pigeon, you see, because although she had never seen an eagle, she had seen lots of pigeons. ...

[Despite the eagle's protests, the old woman continued.]

"Nonsense!" said the old woman. "I've lived for more years than you've got feathers in your wings, and I know a pigeon when I see one."

This story, like the Three Tradesmen in "Chains of Experience", illustrates our natural disposition to be chained to our experience. We read people who have seen lots of blogs and are saying, "I know a blog when I see one. They must have comments." Like the old woman, their argument is based on personal experience, not on thoughtful reasoning. Consider, for example, this excerpt from a curriculum consultant:

At least Godin turns trackbacks on which, if you’ll look, has generated quite a bit of discussion and I suppose is part of the conversation. It just comes across as arrogant. (a term that comes up quite a bit in these trackbacks)

“it changes the way I write”…. that’s the point. Writing for yourself is important but I believe blogs are about conversations and not simply individuals writing their experiences and ideas. I don’t write for everyone and hope I’m confident enough to write about what matters to me but also consider what matters to others. It’s like going to a dinner party and only talking about things you like and not allowing others to share their thoughts. A blog without comments is more like a diary and that’s just what we as educators are trying to dismiss.

For someone who is supposed to be cutting edge he’s pretty old school.

This excerpt is rife with fallacies. Trackback is "old school" while comments aren't? Seth Godin is arrogant, an ad hominem attack that doesn't address the arguments of, Is a blog without comments a blog? Or, Is blogging only about one type of conversation?

Another point is some "educators" are trying to "dismiss" other types of conversation. Now, I'm at a loss for why certain educators are dismissing diaries, but in the field of composition and rhetoric, many instructors promote journals (i.e., diaries) as a way of getting students to observe and reflect on their learning. Check out, for example, the Learning Record Online, a portfolio system in which "observations" and self-"evaluation" are pillars of the portfolio system.

A third point is that he "believes" blogs are about conversations and "supposes" trackbacks can be part of the conversation, implying that trackbacks are not much of a conversation. In other words, real conversations can take only one form, that is, via comments. One of the commenters on this consultant's post stated, "I won't read a blog without comments." Imagine someone saying, "I won't read a book without comments." Such positions are not based on logic but emotional "belief" systems.

Belief systems, like that of the old woman's, can hinder people from engaging in critical thinking. The sanctity of a "comment-enabled conversation" precludes entertaining the notion of "comment-disabled conversations." It's rather ironic in a way. We talk about the value of diversity all the time, but when it comes to innovation with respect to diverse forms of conversation, many are resistant, as seen on this issue.

It would be nice to have some empirical data comparing trackback posts to comment posts to see if there is a difference that makes a difference, to see which type of blog has more confirmation bias or more measured discourse to an extent that it outweighs social expectations concerning blogs. And we would need to see if there are differences with respect to the subject matter of blogs (and even emotional involvement). As we turn to blogs that entertain more subjective interpretations, the potential for confirmation bias increases while that for measured discourse decreases. This occurs regardless of whether posts occur as comments or as trackbacks (again just look at Seth Godin's post with its trackbacks), which makes me wonder if the subject matter has a stronger pull toward confirmation bias than does the post format.

As mentioned earlier (I wrongly attributed the post to Richard MacManus, the site's owner, but the author was actually Ryan Stewart, a guest blogger writing about RSS Readers), comments do seem to work on some types of blogs, in particular on blogs that offer solutions to practical problems, that have more facts than opinions, that have points easily proved or disproved, whose subjects do not require much reflection. But do comments work as well on more subjective type blogs, blogs whose topics more easily invite shallow comments or confirmation of biases?

Let's ignore the controversial topics and blogs and focus on education blogs, at both teacher/researcher and student levels. At the student level, my experience in first-year composition has been that student comments are generally supportive without offering constructive comment. Many ESL students do not feel comfortable offering constructive critique in general, and in such a public forum, they likely will feel more uncomfortable. Trackback offers some distance, along with the notion that rather than critiquing a post, they would be creating their own perspective on the topic. Whether trackback on direct comments, students need some direction. Anne Davis gives a few pointers with respect to her fifth grade students in "Significant Comments".

At the teacher/researcher level, I perused different blogs to get a feel for how comments seemed to be going. EFL Geek, out of 718 posts, had 1313 comments and 50 trackbacks. So, it's only about 2 comments per post, certainly not overwhelming as on some blogs.

Over at weblogg-ed, I looked at the first 30 comments. The overwhelming majority of comments were in agreement with Will's position, sometimes adding a twist on it, but mostly agreeing.

At Creating Passionate Users, we see a different picture on one post, "Intuition", which had 15 comments when I looked at it. Three comments added nothing, but the majority added some point that was slightly new or gave a different perspective.

At "Half an Hour," Stephen Downes writes about "Adults and MySpace". It's a long article: 1758 words. It has two comments, one with 78 words that doesn't add much, and another with 280 words that adds new insight into the issue of adults on MySpace.

It's interesting to compare Will's post on Stephen's article. Will's post was only 219 words (not including the quotation from Stephen), fewer than even the long comment on Stephen's article, but it drew 8 responses, including one that I would call a trackback, as it was a link to the author's lengthy essay (1084 words) in District Administration, an online magazine for administrators. Of the other 7 comments, 4 added nothing at all, 1 added nothing really, 1 ranted, and 1 asked a question that might be further explored. But none questioned Will's concluding sentence:

The dirty little secret is that we as a society are all up in arms about MySpace not because it’s not safe but because it’s making visible the extent to which we are failing our kids.

As a parent, I might get upset about MySpace and I might feel that I'm failing my child, but it would never have occurred to me that I was upset because my failing had become visible. It seems that confirmation bias buttons were pushed instead of critical thinking ones. Stephen's article is much more nuanced, and the one response corresponded in kind to those subtleties. Apparently, the content and nature of the post, even when on the same topic, affects the comments.

Initially, my focus was limited to the structuring effect of comments and trackbacks with respect to confirmation bias. However, from these few and non-randomly selected examples, as Daniel commented, "there is no real dichotomy". Instead, it's multi-dimensional with the context, the author, the audience, and the subject all playing a role in the quality of comments and trackbacks.

In an earlier post of questions on blog commenting, I asked,

What would the blogging community be like if the majority of bloggers moved to a "measured discourse" mode of commenting on the ideas in other blogs? Would we learn more? Would we become better, more thoughtful bloggers? Or not?

Perhaps the analogy of the maturing brain might be a suitable answer. That is, children's brains have many more neurons than adults do. Part of brain development is the pruning of unneeded neurons and circuits. From Philip Seeman on "Brain Development" in the Journal of American Psychiatry, we read:

The developmental task of childhood years from an anatomic point of view is to prune and to select the most useful (perhaps the most used) neurons, synapses, and dendrites to preserve for the adult brain. This process of pruning continues through the early teen years. Presumably, the pruning is accomplished "wisely." This would mean that synapses that are most important to survival and optimal function flourish whereas useless connections vanish.

The structural media of commenting has some effect on the nature of those comments. Still, whether via comments or trackback, a development of "measured discourse" in blogs might have the effect of pruning less useful biased sound bites, resulting in "optimal" thoughtful discourse. Probably, that will never occur. Despite the desirability of engaging in thoughtful discourse and learning, people are social beings and find it difficult to escape from social relations and expectations. I'll talk about that in a later post.

Daniel Mangrum in his post "Comments “On” or “Off”?" wrote:

I’ve been in a sort of dialogue with Charles on the issue of having comments enabled or disabled on one’s blog. His post on the question makes for a good read. I approached it with the assumption that I should come away either convince or unconvinced, but now I see that I don’t have to be either.

Although I'm mostly convinced, I'm still muddling my way through quite a few questions.

We mostly agree that enabling comments in a blog is to provide interaction between writers and readers. Is such direct interaction, however, the best form of interaction? As I mentioned earlier, much depends on the blog's purpose. For educators and learners, learning should play the prevailing role. Daniel himself wants to "improve [his] teaching", or in other words, learn to become a better teacher. In such a case, Which form of interaction has greater potential to facilitate learning? Direct comments on one's blog? Or, an exchange of "measured responses" at a distance? In what ways can the environment affect this choice? In what sorts of environments would it be better to enable comments? To disable them?

Daniel, like most of us, doesn't "see so much traffic ... [that we are] in danger of being over run by inane commentary". In such a case, does simply having any traffic (i.e., direct comments on one's blog) outweigh the possibility of confirmation bias? Although most blogs never become one of the Top 500, obviously some do. If the traffic became too much, would it be possible to turn off comments without creating a backlash, as Seth Godin has done? Or simply not respond to comments without creating alienation (see, for example, EFL Geek's comment here).

With these possibilities plus others mentioned earlier, why do people prefer direct commenting on blogs? The main rationale that comes to my mind is the motivation that comes from social interaction. One of the three pillars of Deci and Ryan's self-determination theory of motivation is social relatedness. We are simply more motivated to do something when we have a positive relationship with others. But why would that positive relationship prefer direct comments to "measured discoursed" at a distance? Is it that one seems more "immediate" than the other, and so closer in social relatedness? Or is it simply that it is easier to have a conversation when everyone is in the same room, that is, on the same blog?

Daniel wrote that my blog is about my learning. It is. However, learning is facilitated through social interaction, and the rate of my learning depends considerably upon the rate of learning for all bloggers. Consequently, whether or not comments are enabled or disabled should take into consideration the effect on the blogging community, or more specifically for this conversation, the educational blogging community. What would the blogging community be like if the majority of bloggers moved to a "measured discourse" mode of commenting on the ideas in other blogs? Would we learn more? Would we become better, more thoughtful bloggers? Or not?

The environment affects all of these points. Daniel's blog, for instance, doesn't include trackback. So, I'm not able to provide a link to his blog on my most recent comments on his post. If I wish to increase my range of interaction with others on this topic, others who are reading his blog, then I must use his comment feature to lead them to my posts, where my blog, which disables commenting, enables trackback, which lets me and others know that they've linked to your post and provides the address of their post.

Actually, it's no more difficult to interact via RSS feeds and trackback than it is through direct comments. Haloscan is a free service that provides not only commenting (which I've disabled) but also trackback. For RSS feeds, one can use Bloglines, if an online service is preferred, or one can download free applications, such as RSS Bandit (for PC users) or NetNewsWire Lite (for Mac users). Using news readers saves time. Instead of clicking on each blog individually to see whether or not someone has posted, new posts are automatically delivered to one's news reader. For more on RSS possibilities, see my brief intro with resource links here, and for more on RSS readers, read Richard MacManus' post last week, "Rich RSS Readers: best of breed picks". Richard's post seems to be a good counter to my position, a post where the comments work well. What's the difference between this sort of post with comments and the ones I've been talking about? Or is there a difference here that makes a difference?

As the purpose changes, so does the environment. How would answers to these questions change as we consider having our students use blogs?

Not having comments means I don't get the point of blogging, at least according to The Carnival of English Language Teaching:

Bloggers who don’t allow comments seem to be missing the point, don’t you think? I started to add this guy’s link to the blogroll but stopped when I realized that he doesn’t allow comments at his site [italics are mine; original has strikethrough] you have to e-mail your comments to him directly as opposed to the normal way through the blog. Recently, I found myself back by his blog and couldn’t resist sharing this post about the value of hard work versus student IQ. I guess you’ll have to send the guy an e-mail or just keep your opinion to yourself.

Clicking on the link, you can see that I'm the one "missing the point." With all the emphasis on blogging as social software, as a way of interacting with others, as a conversation, you might easily agree: This guy is missing the point. Not too long ago, I would have agreed. After all, there is something to be said for comments building on one another. On more than one occasion, I've been in a face-to-face group discussion in which one comment triggered another comment triggered another one and so on until what emerged was much, much better than the initial comment.

So, why don't I allow comments now? Actually, the initial reason is rather mundane. At first, I did have Haloscan commenting on my previous blogs here and here, but I had problems implementing it, no doubt due to density on my part, and so commenting slowly faded from my mind. More lately, I've thought about having the time to respond to many comments, unlikely as it may be that this blog would ever become a Technorati 500. Even so, I would feel obligated to participate in a conversation that I began or at least read it. There would be the ones that, thoughtfully disagreeing, would make me think, but there would also be the many that would simply join a chorus of agreement, a sort of social feel-good bonding that does nothing but promote confirmation bias (see below).

A few others have a similar position. Author Seth Godin recently posted (via Mark Bernstein, creator of Tinderbox) "Why I don't have comments":

I think comments are terrific, and they are the key attraction for some blogs and some bloggers. Not for me, though. First, I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them. And finally, and most important for you, it permanently changes the way I write. Instead of writing for everyone, I find myself writing in anticipation of the commenters. I'm already itching to rewrite my traffic post below. So, given a choice between a blog with comments or no blog at all, I think I'd have to choose the latter.

I doubt that Seth can escape from including some anticipation in his posts, but if you want to read more about the pros and cons, Seth has quite a few trackbacks to bloggers mostly "conning" on his not including comments.

Mark Bernstein goes further than Seth and argues against including comments on a weblog:

Comments don't belong in weblogs.

The measured pace of weblog response, and the distance between rival weblogs, makes measured discourse possible. Comments let idiots deface your weblog, and that's intolerable. Because you can't tolerate it, you have to do something. And that means the idiots have to do something, too.

For example, Kathryn has been doing some interesting sleuth-work on last month's mysterious African rent-a-coup, and so her weblog has been immersed in spam, bickering, and legal threats. (You know it's getting complicated with you see Comments (158) | TrackBack (0) )

Mark is arguing against comments because of flame wars, which can destroy a blog. Still, as Angela Thomas, a lecturer in English Education at the University of Sydney, responds in "Commenting on Academic Blogs", flame wars aren't as common on blogs like mine. Yet, academics are not immune to them. Margaret Syverson in her dissertation (now the book "The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition") reported on the Gulf War's effect on an email discussion group:

In 1991, a collegial group of social scientists sharing ideas in a computer forum became embroiled in a bitter conflict about the Gulf War, which threatened to destroy long-standing research partnerships and nearly terminated the group.

Moreover, any blog can receive comments from fictitious bloggers, as Mark Glaser at Mediashift writes in his article "Bloggers Must Be Vigilant Against Astroturf Comments":

The issue came up here on MediaShift when a number of people (or what appeared to be a number of people) expressed their opposition to Net neutrality legislation. Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press , did a little basic sleuthing to find a coordinated campaign by various blog and forum posters who gave talking points from telecom companies opposed to Net neutrality. I followed up and wondered whether this campaign was indeed coming from telecom companies or people they paid.

While I have seen a lot of evidence pointing toward certain individuals who post time and again against Net neutrality, I haven’t found a “smoking gun” that proves without a doubt that this campaign is paid for by telecom companies. But it does speak volumes that none of these individuals would respond to my queries or those of other bloggers interested in this topic. If they are not being paid, and are not working in a concerted effort as it appears, then why not at least deny it?

Glaser ends by noting the imperfection of commenting systems, stating:

The best defense we have is to check and double-check what people say, and work together as a community of bloggers to out the people who would try to use sock puppetry, astroturf or other means to deceive us.

How many of us have the time to "check and double-check"?

Actually, I'm not expecting flame wars or astroturf comments on my blog. They aren't the main reasons I don't allow comments here. My main reasons, as odd as it may sound at first, are linked directly to my blogging goal of learning.

First, there's something to be said for "measured discourse" at a distance. I read the post at The Carnival of English Language Teaching, reflected on it for quite a few days, and am now responding on my blog much more thoughtfully than I would have done by dashing off a quick sound bite (and I was motivated to learn and implement HaloScan's trackback system). As pleasurable as social interaction is (and I do enjoy comments as much as anyone else), learning is more important. And I learn more when I take time to reflect.

Second, a measured response at a distance can dilute the effect of confirmation bias. In his book "Cognition in the Wild", Edwin Hutchins, a cultural anthropologist at UCSD, writes about confirmation bias, "a propensity to affirm prior interpretations and to discount, ignore, or reinterpret evidence that runs counter to an already-formed interpretation" (p. 239). When communication is "too rich" in a network, the confirmation bias tendency leads to groupthink rather than a diversity of opinions. For networks to avoid groupthink (and also solipsistic-individual-think), they need two modes of communication:

Where there is a need for both exploration of an interpretation space and consensus of interpretation, a system typically has two modes of operation. One mode trades off the ability to reach a decision in favor of diversity of interpretation. The participants in the system proceed in relative isolation and in parallel. Each may be subject to confirmation bias, but because they proceed independently, the system as a whole does not manifest confirmation bias. The second mode breaks the isolation of the participants and exposes the interpretations to disconfirming evidence, the goal being to avoid erroneous perseverence on an interpretation when a better one is available. This mode trades off diversity in favor of the commitment to a single, interpretation that will stand as the new reality of the situation. (p. 261)

Consequently, blogs with comments are more likely to develop confirmation bias than blogs without comments because they are not sufficiently independent. (Flaming also confirms biases because emotion overrules reason. See my brief posts on reasoning here.)

In contrast, a blog without comments is in a mode of being somewhat isolated and in parallel with other blogs writing on similar topics, while at any time, the blogger can break that "isolation" and get "disconfirming evidence" by using search engines, RSS feeds, email, Technorati, trackback, pingback, and so on. Thus, blogs without commenting sections can more easily promote a diversity of interpretations that may lead to new ways of thinking about blogging and or other issues. Naturally, no-comment blogs may lack reflection while blogs with comments may have diverse, reflective responses. However, most comments on blogs tend to be social and supportive (or perhaps flaming) rather than substantive: They seldom challenge us to think out of the box. Thus, the structure of no-comment blogs in parallel has a greater potential to promote learning.

Back to "missing the point." "Missing the point" implies that one size fits all, that a blogging conversation can take only one form, that all bloggers have the same purpose in blogging. But they don't. Bloggers occupy different niches in various ecologies and have different purposes. Some blog to participate in social interaction. Some do it to enhance their business or be their business. Others simply like to write. Others still have more than one purpose. And so on. Direct comments on a blog might support some goals, but not others as well. It's not "about the conversation," as Matthew Ingram and many others claim. It's about the blog's purpose. The "conversation" plays a supporting role, and its form should serve the blog's purpose(s).

For me, as my blog's title states, the purpose is learning rather than confirming my biases. For educators and learners, shouldn't that be the point?

Apparently, as I read Harold Jarche's response "Who are the experts?" to my critique of his earlier posting, there is some misunderstanding of my points. I thought I would clarify them. I'll do that below, first covering two interesting comments he made. One was:

I am only as good as my last project. Knowledge workers are like actors, we are only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting moment, we may be viewed as experts, but for not much longer.

Many of my students, and I imagine many people, would like to think that after a certain amount of training, they become an expert and there's no need to continue learning. But in our fast-changing world, having Jarche's attitude of being only as good as one's last job is the sort of perspective that keeps us learning, which seems to be ever more crucial for survival nowadays.

How can teachers and educational institutions help students acquire this sort of attitude? I think that one way is modeling it, making transparent the fact that we are always learning and to share how we are always learning with our students, making it a natural, pervading aspect of the classroom and school. For example, this past year, I have had my students blogging, and in the past I have had them keep learning journals, journals contained with observations of their learning. I also maintained a blog separate from this one for my classes. Mostly, I used it for examples of what they needed to do and recaps of what we've covered in class. However, I didn't include anything I was learning. So, this coming year, I'm considering how to include what I'm learning--perhaps new theories, perhaps new ways of teaching--and comment on it in class, drawing them into a conversation that compares my learning with theirs. Any comments? Email me. I'd appreciate it.

Another point Jarche made that's worth thinking about is:

my greatest asset is my network. Perhaps individual expertise is gradually being replaced by collaborative expertise.

Although I wouldn't quite say that individual expertise is being replaced by collaborative expertise, not enough attention is paid to the notion of collaborative expertise with respect to education.

Both types of expertise have existed for quite some time. In earlier times, the activity of hunting could include two roles: noisemakers and slaughterers. The noisemakers would beat drums or other items to drive the animals towards the hunters lying in wait, who would kill the animals when they approached.

The need for more complex networks increases according to the complexity ot the activity. Consider the activity of health care. A hospital's activity, for instance, is distributed among many people, each of them occupying particular niches and no one of them knowing every aspect of every other niche and task in the hospital. The different levels of expertise are interdependent, and both the "collaborative expertise" of the hospital and the expertise of its members are needed for health care activity to take place.

We see the same phenomenon in educational institutions with teachers, other staff, and administrators. What's interesting to me is that similar to the role of patients in a hospital is the role of students in schools. That is, patients are usually treated as if they had no expertise, or knowledge, and likewise, students. Students are often treated as receivers of content rather than creators of knowledge. Just as important, students are often considered mostly as individuals rather than as members of networks or ecologies. Just as patients are not considered part of the community of health care practice, neither are students considered as part of the community of knowledge creation.

In their book, Wenger, McDermott, and Synder posit that there are seven principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice:

  1. Design for evolution.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives.
  3. Invite different levels of participation.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces.
  5. Focus on value.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community. (p. 50)

As they note, these are principles, not a "recipe." These principles were oriented towards business organizations. I'm not quite sure how they would apply in an elementary school with respect to students. As we move into middle school, high school, and college, they seem to be more applicable. For now, I'll limit myself mostly to the college level.

What sorts of structures facilitate schools to become communities of practice? One would be to facilitate student (and teacher) reflection on class and school practices, whether through open discussion, an anonymous suggestion box, as part of student self-evaluations throughout the semester or year, and so on. That would also require a certain flexibility and open-mindedness on the part of teachers, staff, and administrators to consider student input seriously and invite them into implementations. Otherwise, the students are not really a part of the community.

Along these lines, our classrooms often operate as self-contained entities, making the "learning" that occurs in it irrelevant to and not valued by the students. More needs to be done on taking the learning outside the classroom and bringing outside reality into the classroom, to turn the classroom into a living network that interacts with other networks. Technology can help facilitate the blurring of classroom boundaries. Will Richardson, in his book Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, mentions how his high school class corresponded with Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees (and other books), and they wrote an online study guide for the book, which at the printing of his book had already received more than 1.5 million hits.

Regarding our networks and our students' networks as great "assets" in designing our classes to be communities of practice is a notion well-worth considering if learning is our focus.

Clarification of points

Jarche wrote:

Dr. Nelson feels that experts are necessary, or “learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.” He says that experts should proceed with humility, but that experts are necessary for our field to progress.

I did not tie a lack of experts to derailing or stopping learning. Rather, I said a lack of critical thinking can derail or stop learning:

To learn, to engage in critical thinking, we need to play both the "believing game" and the "doubting game." With respect to a flattened learning economy with no experts, there's been too much reliance on the believing game. It's time to play the doubting game: instead of "echoing," we need to question our common "refrains." Otherwise, learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.

Nor did I claim that experts were "necessary" for progress. What I did say was that experts existed, and given a choice, most people would prefer to be advised or taught by an expert than by someone who knows no more than they do. Applying this to education, of course, I want my children to be taught by teachers who know considerably more about teaching than the average person walking down the street.

Jarche quotes me,

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts …

The second is that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”.

and claims:

Without heirarchies, no authority can tell us who is the expert. ...

Personally, I know that hyperlinks subvert heirarchies. ...

By subverting traditional business heirarchies ...

On hyperlinks not subverting hierarchies, Jarche seems to equate subverting "traditional" hierarchies as equivalent to getting rid of all hierarchy. Citing Mark Bernstein, my point was that old hierarchies are simply replaced with new ones.

Not having an authority to tell us who is an expert does not mean that there are no experts. When I think of what an expert is, my thoughts are close to this definition from Dictionary.com; an expert is,

A person with a high degree of skill in or knowledge of a certain subject. ...

a person with special or superior skill or knowledge in a particular area.

It seems obvious, at least to me, that some people, compared to others, have much more knowledge or skill in certain areas. As I mentioned in my post, if I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic who has "a high degree of skill in" fixing cars.

Jarche talks about patients who co-manage their health with their doctor. I'm one of them. Even so, unless I have strong reason not to (and in that case I get a second opinion or a new doctor), I defer to the doctor who has 4 years of medical school, 3-5+ years of residency, and often 10+ years of practice. It's possible that I may "get the scoop" on my doctor on a particular disease. Even so, is it realistic to compare my 1-2 (perhaps 3-4 or more) weeks of research on a particular illness with the 15-25+ years of experience of my doctor? In what way has my several weeks, even months, of research flattened the doctor's 15-25 years of experience and made us equal?

So, I keep wondering, Why does Jarche (and others) say, "I'm no expert"? Is it some sort of self-effacement? Some sort of anti-intellectualism? (See, for example, Todd Gitlin's review in The Chronicle Review of Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.) Or, are people following Socrates' lead, proclaiming, "I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing." I have to admit, the more I learn, the less I seem to know. Still, one thing for sure, if a consultant says they know nothing and a potential client believes them, that job is gone.

Harold Jarche, an independent consultant in Canada, writes on "The relevance of the learning profession" and has quite a few good comments, such as:

Democracy is subversive and so is the Web. In a connected world, every learner brings his or her own network with them. Learners no longer integrate into the educational system, they connect their network to it - if they want to. How relevant is an educational system that does not allow learners to connect their personal, professional or vocational networks to the “system”?

I like the assertions that education needs to be relevant and that learners need to connect their worlds to the world of educational institutions. Here are some more good thoughts:

As a learning professional, it’s time to take a stance. Enabling learning is no longer about disseminating good content. Enabling learning is about being a learner yourself, sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm and then taking a back seat.

These are important premises of good teaching. But, Jarche goes one claim too far:

In a flattened learning system there are no more experts, only fellow learners on paths that may cross.

Are there really "no more experts"? When I want my car fixed, I go to a mechanic. When I need my body repaired, I go to a doctor. When I have a question on Tinderbox and have become so frustrated that I'm banging my head on my laptop, I go to Mark Bernstein.

Of course, there are experts. Out of an ideological zeal for egalitarianism, however, the Internet crowd, along with many educators, love to chant the mantra "there are no experts." But this is only grouptalk resulting from too much groupthinking. As Jarche himself says,

Most bloggers (including me) have been echoing the Cluetrain refrain that "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy".

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hiearchy results in no experts. There's simply no evidence for such a claim--not to mention that one can just as easily imagine a diversity of experts occupying a variety of niches even in a flattened ecology.

The second is that "hyperlinks subvert hierarchy." Mark Bernstein has effectively responded to this asssumption in "Do Links Subvert the Hierarchy?" He notes that although links can break hierarchies,

there's no evidence that these links don't simply form a new hierarchy -- or even recreate the old one -- although there's no particular evidence that they do.

Yes, learning needs to be relevant. However, relevance does not exclude either hierarchy or experts. All other things being equal, is there anyone who, when they want to learn something, prefers to go a peer instead of an expert?

Perhaps I've overreacted. Perhaps what Jarche primarily meant is that teachers should assume the "humility" of those who learn beside their students rather than the "arrogance" of those who hover over them with authority or expertise. Certainly. Still, I have heard this claim enough times to know that many believe that there are, or should be, no experts in the "teaching profession."

To learn, to engage in critical thinking, we need to play both the "believing game" and the "doubting game." With respect to a flattened learning economy with no experts, there's been too much reliance on the believing game. It's time to play the doubting game: instead of "echoing," we need to question our common "refrains." Otherwise, learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.

Richard Garner (" School with no rules is forced to lay down law because of spoilt pupils", Independent) reports on how Summerhill has lately had to enact rules for its students.

For years, Summerhill, the "free" school founded by the philosopher A S Neill in the 1920s, gained notoriety for its pupils skipping lessons, outdoor bathing in the nude and voting for their own school rules. It was, in fact, the very epitome of the kind of liberal progressive school so frowned upon by education traditionalists such as Chris Woodhead, the former schools inspector.

Now, in a new book, its current head, Zoe Neill Redhead, the founder's daughter, reveals the school is having to adopt a more disciplinarian tone towards its current pupils, who have been so pampered by their parents, she says, that they no longer know the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Such a situation highlights that change is inevitable and that change in cultures can undermine traditional approaches to educational development. Unlike "The Three Tradesmen" who in seeking solutions to their city's imminent demise were chained by the materials of their trade ecologies, Ms. Redhead apparently has moved away from aspects of a completely libertarian approach to education.

As with Redhead, it usually takes a crisis to shake us up and take a new look at an old subject. As they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." However, sometimes waiting for a crisis can result in a catastrophe. From complexity theory, any single change in an environment can, at least theoretically, trigger a cascade of interactions that result in the emergence of a new ecology (or the destruction of the old one). Consider, for example, the effect of digital media on print books, as noted in Motoko Rich's article "Digital publishing is scrambling the industry's rules" (New York Times).

Right now, education appears poised on the edge of a crisis. Barbara Ganning on her talk at the UK's First Edublogging Conference points to "the deepening divide between what students need and what schools allow." Ganning seems to be one of those small changers who may trigger others in the system to change.

Let’s face it. It’s hopeless for us to think we can change a behemoth like our educational system—it reflects, after all, the fine fix we find ourselves in, and because it very elegantly keeps those with power in power. And so what we do for the time being will continue to be tense, strained even—except with our students in the classroom and on the blogs. They can practice for citizenship at the very least in a learning culture that fosters empathy on the part of the powerful and privileged, and a voice and a say as well as important skills and connections for those clumped into the faceless middle or the marginalized reaches. As M. Scott Peck tells us, “It is our task--our essential, central, crucial task-- to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed.” (The Different Drum) We can take a page from civil rights and women’s rights movements.

Ganning believes that blogs can help us in our learning endeavors, writing, "Because learning is both a social and solitary activity, it is important to have both collaborative and personal blogging spaces."

In other words, learning takes place in an ecology. We need to give more thought on how to structure the interactions of social and individual learning to faciliate learning at both levels. Otherwise, one or both can collapse.

"Teacher in Development" writes about the death of a program in his post "Reinvent or Die":

2006 saw something different. A disconnect between program and staff. A disconnect that I didn’t notice until a month or two ago. Interest and staff "buy-in" seem to have parted company, but the program marched onward.  

I just had a meeting with my bosses about it, and they are feeling the same: the program seems to have lost it’s usefullness. I sort of felt the same way, but didn’t know if I wanted to come to terms with that.

That comment sounds quite similar to the disconnect between "interest and student 'buy-in'". He also notes that even great programs don't last forever unless they're relevant and ends with

Reinvent yourself, your programs, your lesson plans, your class content, or find yourself in the place of being irrelevant.

While re-inventing yourself, keep in mind that relevance means keeping one eye on individual learning and the other on the ecology of learning.

I read an article two months ago called "Simple ways to make yourself far cleverer" (Denis Campbell, The Observer, in The Guardian). According to it, we can all become up to 40% cleverer in a week by playing games, solving puzzles, remembering lists, even "taking a shower with your eyes closed." Some time ago, I read another article on a similar topic, which included using the left hand to do functions normally reserved for the right hand (vice versa if you're left-handed, of course), such as combing your hair or brushing your teeth.

Apparently, just as exercising one's muscles strengthens them, exercising one's brain makes it cleverer. But, I imagine, just as serious weightlifters change up their routine about every two months--because the muscles plateau when repeating the same exercises--brain exercises must vary the games, puzzles, or types of lists.

I'm wondering about applying these findings to composition pedagogy, particularly that of playing games or solving puzzles. It's not clear that making someone smarter is related to helping someone learn. That would be an interesting proposition to research. But I'm wondering if it's not only that people become smarter, but that they may do so related to a particular subject like writing. For now, I'll bypass that and look at the interest factor of games and puzzles.

I like the notion of applying games and puzzles to learning, not simply because it would make students smarter, but because as Csikszentimihalyi wrote in his "Thoughts on Education",

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

Csikszentmihalyi states that it's important that students understand the real consequences of learning, or not learning, and that it's more important that learning become "fun," that is, intrinsically interesting.

Games and puzzles are intrinsically interesting. It would take some time to formulate a game for a composition course, although the Ann Arbor District Library System has created an online game as part of their library system. What sort of game could it be? A mystery novel incorporating research to make an argument? In place of a game, could a wiki be used to write such a novel?

Puzzle solving is a little easier to arrange. Perhaps an ethnographic approach to writing that compares how professor and student languages resemble each other, and how they don't, when making an argument. Along these lines, I'm still looking at Graff and Birkenstein's book They Say / I Say that I mentioned in an earlier post. Or perhaps it's as simple as making the familiar unfamiliar by using classical rhetoric to analyze students' ways of arguing. Or perhaps a combination of the two. Or ...?

Recently, several people have agreed with my claim, "Confusion is the beginning of learning," but disagreed with "Satisfaction is the end of learning." (See "Thoughts" in the sidebar.) One considered satisfaction to be the reward of learning, and thus the motive to continue learning. Another said that satisfication leads to exploring new avenues of knowledge and learning. They and one other considered the second claim to be negative; that is, dissatisfication, a negative term, is not appropriate for approaching learning, a positive term. After all, how many people enjoy being in a state of discomfort?

I imagine that they are referring to the sense of pleasure, a hormonal high, that results from accomplishment, whether overcoming some struggle or solving a puzzle. That pleasure can enable one to struggle and work through some confusion again, which can lead to "exploring new avenues" of learning.

Satisfaction for me, however, indicates a state of equilibrium rather than a sense of pleasure.

Learning from a radical constructivist, or Piagetian, perspective occurs through the interactive processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the adding of new knowledge to old by “reduc[ing] new experiences to already existing sensorimotor or conceptual structures” without changing the structures; accommodation is the modifying of old knowledge to accommodate the new or the creation of new cognitive structures, patterns of thought, and behavior. Accommodation occurs when new experiences that cannot be reduced to existing experiences create a perturbation that, leading to reflection on the situation and activity, may, in turn, cause either a change in prior cognitive structures or the creation of a new schema (von Glasersfeld, 1995b, p. 63). Both assimilation and accommodation, individual in nature and based on experience, are driven by the process of equilibration, a process of self-regulating the mental tension between the two, between internal mental states and external reality.

From the viewpoint of activity theory, learning is a process driven by contradictions, contradictions in the activity of learning between students and institutional influences or between classrooms and other activity systems. To learn and develop means to resolve or transform these contradictions (instead of merely shifting them elsewhere) at individual and system levels. In other words, learning means that one cannot be satisfied with the status quo.

From a third theory, complexity theory, adaptation, and I include learning, requires an organism to be on the edge of chaos, where forces of order and disorder interact in a balanced way. Satisfaction would be a force of stability in this model, and confusion, a force of disorder. Complete confusion would be disruptive to learning, as would be total satisfaction. Complete confusion brings anarchy, while total satisfaction with the status quo has no motivation to change, to learn.

From these theoretical perspectives, satisfaction cannot lead to learning. Then, again, neither can too much confusion. Rather, learning is recursively driven by the desire for satisfaction (or equilibrium), a desire once reached, leads to new dissatisfactions, and thus more learning. Pedagogically, then, instruction must keep students balanced on the edge of dissatisfaction with their present state of understanding.

Amit Paley ("Homework Help, From a World Away: Web Joins Students, Cheap Overseas Tutors", Washington Post) writes on the thousands of students who are accessing tutors in other countries via the Internet. The rhetoric for and against is interesting:

"We don't believe that education should become a business of outsourcing," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. "When you start talking about overseas people teaching children, it just doesn't seem right to me."


Teachers unions are vigorously lobbying for legislation that would make it more difficult for overseas tutors to receive No Child Left Behind funds. Weil, of the American Federation of Teachers, said after-school tutors should be required to pass the same rigorous certification process as public school teachers.

"Quality control doesn't end at 3 o'clock when the school bell rings," he said. "If you need a highly qualified teacher in school at 2:59, you should have a qualified teacher as a tutor after school at 3:01."

In response, Burck Smith, CEO for Smartthinking, an online tutoring company, states:

"We can do better service, more consistent service, and at a better price."

Smith says he believes that eventually schools will outsource their office hours, review sessions and other aspects of instruction to teachers that might be located anywhere in the world. Right now, about 20 percent of Smarthinking's 500 tutors are in countries such as India, the Philippines, Chile, South Africa and Israel.

"This is no different than what happens in any industry. Labor gets stratified," Smith said. "And that leads to the democratization of education, because the lower prices for tutoring means the rich and poor can access the same services."

The arguments against educational outsourcing appear to be two: quality control and it's not right. The arguments for appear to be democracy, and it's better and cheaper.

All of these, even if true, are red herrings. Take the quality control argument, for example.

In an hour-long session that cost just $18, the Indian tutor, who said his name was Mike, spent an hour walking Del Monte through such esoteric concepts as confidence intervals and alpha divisions, Del Monte recalled. He got an A on the final exam. "Mike helped me unscramble everything in my mind," the 20-year-old said.

It's highly unlikely that Del Monte (or other students or their parents) would continue to pay $18-20/hour if he had not "unscrambled" those concepts and done well on the test.

The real arguments, as usual, are power and money: Who controls education? Who gets the NCLB money? These are serious and important issues. As a U.S. educator, I'm biased: I lean toward supporting our educational system and keeping the money at home. Still, I would like to see better rhetoric than a fictitious quality control and "it's not right."

These sorts of arguments remind me of an essay I read last week by Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning" on a not-yet-in-operation website named "Tools of Learning." Presented at Oxford in 1947, Ms. Sayers said:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

And she ended with:

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.

To move past the rhetoric of outsourcing or any other issue, people must be able to learn for themselves. But how do we teach people to learn for themselves? What does it mean to learn for themselves? Is that "critical thinking"? Many "scholars" are good are critiquing positions other than their own, but not so well their own position. Somehow learning for oneself needs to include an attitude of learning, not treating any partticular position as sacrosanct, even one's own.

An attitude of learning, I'm thinking, needs to be joined with an attitude of respect toward and concern for others. Such an attitude can open one up to other perspectives instead of clinging to one's own position (see my post "Experts predict no better than non-experts"). I'm not sure attitudes can be taught. They seem to be more like viruses that get caught.

Another story by Idries Shah, this one in the children's book The Old Woman and the Eagle, continues the theme that people are chained by their experiences, which shape what they see. In this story, an eagle lands in front of an old woman:

The old woman took a long, hard look at the eagle and said, "Oh my, what a funny pigeon you are!"

She figured he was a pigeon, you see, because although she had never seen an eagle, she had seen lots of pigeons.

"I am not a pigeon at all," said the eagle, drawing himself up to his full height.

"Nonsense!" said the old woman. "I've lived for more years than you've got feathers in your wings, and I know a pigeon when I see one."

Judging by one's experience fits in well with John O'Neil's article "Adults' Differing Perceptions Make It Hard to Read Johnny":

A mother, a father and a teacher sit down for a conference. A question soon arises: Are they talking about the same child?

It may not seem so. Several studies have found that evaluations of students by parents and teachers overlap on less than a third of the measures, a "pretty low" rate of agreement, said Timothy R. Konold, coordinator of research, statistics and evaluation at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education.

Educators have generally assumed that the teacher is right, with some justification, Dr. Konold said. "Teachers have a whole classroom of kids to use as a standard" for assessing behavior, he said, "and can compare them with others."

But a new study by Dr. Konold concluded that parents and teachers focus on different aspects of children, with teachers more attuned to external behavior and parents more sensitive to emotional states.

Hmm. So, how do students and teachers focus differently with respect to achievement?

I mentioned this back in December, but it's worth repeating. Dave Munger ("High IQ: Not as good for you as you thought", Cognitive Daily) reported on some research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman that investigates the question,

Could a more robust measure of self-discipline demonstrate that it's more relevant to academic performance than IQ?

To address this question, Duckworth and Seligman conducted a two-year study of eighth graders, combining several measures of self-discipline for a more reliable measure, and also assessing IQ, achievement test scores, grades, and several other measures of academic performance. Using this better measure of self-discipline, they found that self-discipline was a significantly better predictor of academic performance 7 months later than IQ.

As Munger comments, "Most impressive was the whopping .67 correlation between self-discipline and final GPA, compared to a .32 correlation for IQ." That's certainly impressive.

Self-discipline, of course, means that students spend more time on task. From this perspective, John R. Anderson's ACT-R model of learning supports the stance that self-discipline is important. ACT-R is a theory of how people think and learn.

The original ACT (Atomic Components of Thought) model was the one that posited the different types of knowledge, declarative and procedural. Anderson and Schunn's article "Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets", as the title suggests, asserts:

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.

This perspective is a crucial one for language learning. Many try to speed up language acquisition through various strategies such as mnemonics. As the article states:

There has been a long-standing strand of research in human memory looking at the advantage of mnemonics and various memory-enhancing strategies in terms of learning material. Such mnemonics strategies have been recommended for domains as far ranging as foreign vocabulary learning and learning of chemical formulas. However, the important thing to recognize is that these techniques speed the initial acquisition of the knowledge. Speed of the first steps on the learning curve becomes insignificant if ones goal is long-term possession of the knowledge. Such mnemonics drop out with practice and the critical factor becomes, not saving a relatively small amount of time in initial acquisition, but rather investing substantial amounts of time in subsequent practice. It is not clear that there is anything to be saved in subsequent practice by use of mnemonics.

In other words, practice makes perfect--not learning gimmicks.

So, for Munger the question becomes, How (if we can) teach self-discipline? For me, the question becomes, How can we foster an environment in which self-discipline is the norm?

From DomainInformer, "Educators Rate MarcoPolo 'Best Site' for Free Lessons and Materials".

MarcoPolo has been rated the top free Web site for downloading educational material to use in the classroom, according to a survey conducted by Edutopia Magazine. The site, http://www.marcopolo-education.org, is a partnership among leading educational organizations and the Verizon Foundation. Voted the "best site to download free lessons and material," MarcoPolo beat out other well-known education Web sites including DiscoverySchool.com, Education World, PBS and Scholastic Teacher.

Gil Klein reports on the use of iPods in "Teachers Turn Nuisance into a Tool." In composition:

"The students are drawn in because they see the bells and whistles," said John Stewart, an English teacher at Gunston Middle School in Arlington County. "But it really helps them with their writing, basic logic and the fundamentals of composition."

Students eagerly stay after school to work with Stewart to create podcasts of their poetry, essays, and just the sounds of their lives. They mix music, sounds and words.

For English language learners:

The big advantage has been for English-language learners, Conner said.

The teacher creates a podcast of vocabulary words. The students download it into their iPods and can listen to it over and over. They can make their own recording of the words and compare their pronunciation to the teacher's.

Every week, students are given 20 vocabulary words to learn, Conner said. Before they used iPods, the students might on average learn 40 percent. Using the iPods, she said, they now average 95 percent.

Combining math and music:

"You can get material to students just in time at a level they need," he said. "They can go over the content again and again. And if you put math lessons to rap music, they can have fun."

iPod-toting students are in the Education Corral, facing off and learning their subjects.

I came across this folk story at a testing blog, "Know Enough to be Dangerous":

The Three Tradesmen

A great city was besieged, and its inhabitants were called together to consider the best means of protecting it from the enemy.

  • A Bricklayer earnestly recommended bricks as affording the best material for an effective resistance.
  • A Carpenter, with equal enthusiasm, proposed timber as a preferable method of defense.
  • Upon which a Currier stood up and said, "Sirs, I differ from you altogether: there is no material for resistance equal to a covering of hides; and nothing so good as leather."

Every man for himself.

Rather than "Every man for himself," I would say "Every man from himself." That is, it refers to individuals' (and theorists') chains of experience that constrain their ability to think and learn, much like my son's interpreting situations in terms of his own experience, and again showing the viability of radical constructivism as a theory.

von Glasersfeld, drawing upon Piaget, was the architect of radical constructivism. According to this theory,

  • Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication;
  • Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject;
  • The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or viability;
  • Cognition serves the organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality. (Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning, 1995, p. 51)

These four principles refute that notion that one can access--or make progress toward increasingly accurate representations of--objective reality or truth. Rather, we simply construct models and revise those models as we interact with our environment. So, radical constructivists use the term "viability" to represent how well one's models fit one's experiences with the environment. For this reason, "good" teaching results from the ability to listen to one's students and respond to them in ways that help them construct viable models for their school experiences.

Similarly, "good" theory building results from the ability to listen to other theorists and respond to them in ways that helps one create a new model that is perceived to fit our experiences better than our previous models.

A few weeks ago, my wife related to me these questions from our son when he learned she was expecting:

Son (to mom): "How did the baby get there? Did you eat him?"

Similar to the story of the three blind men stating their opinions of the elephant's nature, academic theories derive from interpretations of experience--not from objective perceptions of reality.

I noted this earlier in "Is there anything new under the sun?"

learning to write involves a process of reflecting and acting on contradictions between students’ existing schemas and their present experiences.

... The concept of viability reminds us that reality cannot be directly perceived.

Although learning anything is a processing of resolving contradictions, or in Piaget's terms, a process of equilibrating between assimilation and accommodation, that learning remains an adaptation to experience rather than an insight into reality.

This is not an "anything goes" theory. Try jumping off the Empire State Building. Rather, it's acknowledging that at best we "see in a mirror dimly." What I'm wondering is how we apply this theoretical perspective practically to our other theories. When we say to "listen carefully" to our students, do we really see with more light?

Kathy Sierra of "Creating passionate users" has an interesting article, "Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain."

Basically, it's that emotions are contagious, or you become like who you associate with. Of course, folklore wisdom already has this concept, as in "birds of a feather flock together." Our ESL/EFL students pick up the accent of their instructors, albeit influenced by their own language. However, folklore, as she notes, also has notions that are wrong, or at least suspect in their application:

And there's this one we hear most often, especially in reference to comment moderation--"if you can't say whatever the hell you want to express your anger, you can't be authentic and honest." While that may be true, here's what the psychologists say:

"Psychologists now say that this is a dangerous myth. Some people use this theory as a license to hurt others. Research has found that "letting it rip" with anger actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you (or the person you're angry with) resolve the situation.

It's best to find out what it is that triggers your anger, and then to develop strategies to keep those triggers from tipping you over the edge."

In the case of folklore on being happy, Kathy brings in research supporting it, research on mirror neurons and emotional contagion. The importance of protecting one's happiness cannot be underestimated:

So, when Robert [Scoble] says he wants to spend time hanging around "happy people" and keeping his distance from "deeply unhappy" people, he's keeping his brain from making--over the long term--negative structural and chemical changes. Regarding the effect of mirror neurons and emotional contagion on personal performance, neurologist Richard Restak offers this advice:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

This sounds harsh, and it is, but it's his recommendation based on the facts as the neuroscientists interpret them today. This is not new age self-help--it's simply the way brains work.

Kathy also touches on the fact that happiness is good for one's health, which I had read about. One study, for instance, showed that positive emotions were "associated with greater resistance to developing a common cold" What I didn't know was that it improved one's reasoning. She writes:

Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain. From a Society for Neuroscience article on Bliss and the Brain:

"Furthermore, studies suggest that certain people's ability to see life through rose-colored glasses links to a heightened left-sided brain function. A scrutiny of brain activity indicates that individuals with natural positive dispositions have trumped up activity in the left prefrontal cortex compared with their more negative counterparts. "

In other words, happy people are better able to think logically.

A key work here is "suggest," meaning that it's not ironclad. Other factors are likely involved. The two studies I keep quoting clearly show that inflexibility in one's position shuts off thinking. Is it possible to be happily inflexible?

Perhaps, this is rather simplistic, but I'm wondering if happiness in general can lead to being better able to learn. That is, Is being better able to think logically related to, or does it lead to, being better able to learn? Lots of questions. No answers right now.

The ESL Program at Kean University received an ELMS (Education of Language Minority Students) Grant from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education for the purposes of implementing software to help our students to learn English. One software program that we acquired is Citation

In the grant team's discussions of how to use this software, we have focused on its notetaking capabilities to improve students' reading and writing abilities. Some of our ideas include having students take notes on everything related to the class: lectures, readings, activities. Others were summarizing readings, excerpting importation quotations, and responding to the summaries and quotations. We also considered having students review their notes at the end of the semester (and also throughout), reflect on them, and use them as a springboard for an essay on their learning.

Although Citation is convenient with respect to searching and writing up references in different styles, actually, all of these activities can be done without Citation. We'd like to use Citation in a way that takes advantage of its capabilities to move beyond simply replicating print possibilities. If anyone has any thoughts on to be innovative with Citation, I'd appreciate hearing them.

Here's an interesting story from Idries Shah's book Tales of the Dervishes:

One dark night a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. 'What is the matter?' he called down.

'I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized.' responded the other.

'Hold, friend, and I'll fetch a ladder and rope,' said the dervish.

'One moment please!' said the grammarian. 'Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.'

'If that is so much more important than the essentials,' shouted the dervish, 'you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.'

And he went his way.

This story reminds me of the psychology study, which I mentioned in an earlier posting, "Emotion overrules reason," that found that staunch Democrats and Republications are "both adept at ignoring facts,"

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

As someone said thousands of years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9), at least when it comes to understanding human behavior. Our pet theories can "immobilize" us, preventing us from seeing others' perspectives (see again "Everybody's an Expert" by Louis Menand).

So, where does this take us? For me, I return to a paper I wrote on the application of radical constructivism to writing in another language. Radical constructivism is based on Jean Piaget's work and is a perspective on knowing by Ernst von Glasersfeld, who asserted that knowledge is constructed actively by an individual in a way that fits one's experience, that provides a viable explanation of one's experience.

In looking at how students learn, many simply accept that learning is "merely a straightforward process of building upon students’ prior experiences and filling in schemas with new data, or knowledge. Rather, learning to write involves a process of reflecting and acting on contradictions between students’ existing schemas and their present experiences."

In looking at how teachers interact with students, we might believe "that these contradictions should be resolved in favor of the teacher’s “correct” model. The concept of viability reminds us that reality cannot be directly perceived. Teachers, as well as students, construct models representing their experiences rather than an actual reality. Thus, the student’s schema may not only be coherent according to his or her experiences but may also be insightful and effective. ... [Thus], we must listen closely to hear what is productive in the students’ models and build from there (Confrey, 1991, 1998)."

So, although this notion may not be new, still it is worth repeating: Listening may be a instructor's most valuable asset for learning how to teach.

The Higher Ed Blog Conference is is full swing now. Last week, Monday looked at podcasting and screencasting. Tuesday had two sessions: one on integrating blogs and blackboard, and another on using blogs to bring Chinese and American marketing students together.

Wednesday had empirical blog studies. One compared blogging to traditional paper writing, coming up with mixed results. Another Ethan Watrall and Nicole Ellison, professors at Michigan State University, screencast their "Blogs for Learning: Case Study." They assert that the main barriers to implementing blogs are technical. However, they also note four other challenges, as perceived by students:

1. Felt like "busy work" or a "chore" for many at times

2. Too overwhelming to read all the posts and comments

3. Felt uncomfortable posting on the posts of other students; had trouble locating interesting content in others' posts.

These findings are not limited to blogs. Students generally complain of too much work and that much work is not necessary. So do teachers, and just about most people in general.

Students also saw benefits:

1. Gives all students a chance to express themselves ...

2. Many students preferred blogging over hard copy papers.

3. Some participants enjoyed the exposure to new materials and the ideas of their peers, but did not feel that it enhanced their understanding of course content.

4. Were not concerned about privacy implications of blogging

The authors were surprised by #4, but I'm not quite sure why. It seems to be fairly common knowledge in the press, and I'm also not sure why it would be considered a benefit.

Watrall and Ellison also plan to set up a "Blogs for Learning" (blogsforlearning.msu.edu) website beginning in the fall, a website that will be a resource for teachers, researchers, and all.

In an earlier posting, I asked, Should we blog in the classroom? One aspect of answering in the affirmative is looking at the social aspect of learning. That is, when people work together, play together, learn together, it's simply more engaging, interesting, and motivating. Katrina Rinaldi, a high school senior, has written quite a few articles on student perspectives on technology (in Students of Explanazine). In her article Students on Student Technology -- Why We Like Xanga (Part 1), the social dimension of technology and learning is prominent. Her article is worth reading in its entirety, but here are some excerpts:

Human contact. Something every human yearns for -- especially teenagers. ... Thankfully, with Xanga, when you can't be with your friends physically, you can at least browse their thoughts online as well share your own ideas.

Xanga is an online blogging site that now also allows you to accumulate a social network. ....

I prefer Xanga to Myspace because it's more personal. ...

The main attraction of Xanga for me and my friends is the ability to write and post your own thoughts and ideas, quotes and passages from books, or even pictures. You also get to read your friends' posts, and comment on them. Xanga certainly helps us understand each other better -- you learn to see people differently when you really understand where they are coming from and how they think.

Xanga is also an amazing resource for keeping in touch with friends. ...

Interaction with friends is necessary for friendships to continue, and Xanga is a great way to make that interaction happen. It works if you're separated by continents, or simply stuck inside because of weather or punishment. I think it probably seems like time wasted to parents, but a good deal of the time teenagers spend on Xanga should be considered social interaction. While that may not seem like a huge thing to some parents, but believe me, it is.

There's not much to add here, but for me Katrina highlights the need for teachers always to keep in mind how to build communities of personal interaction and friends in the classroom. In my readings, I see a lot about the need for interaction and the social, but little about "friends."

Anne Fisher ("Be smarter at work, slack off," Fortune Magazine) writes,

In a world of too much work and too much multitasking, the best way to beat the competition may be to do less.

Although talking about businesses remaining competitive in a global economy, Fisher's article is pertinent to any endeavor. That is,

it's really, really hard, if not impossible, for the human brain to come up with fresh new ideas when its owner is overworked, overtired, and stressed out.

Fisher quotes Peter Drucker,

The late Peter Drucker agreed. He wrote in The Effective Executive (an eerily prescient 40 years ago), "All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done." Gulp.

Moreover, in Drucker's view, simply working longer and longer hours won't help. "To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive...needs to dispose of time in fairly large chunks," he wrote. "To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours."

Fisher cites a study by University of Michigan psychologists that shows that multi-tasking leads to inefficiency ranging from 20% to 40% due to the time needed to redirect and refocus one's attention. Other psychologists have found that

The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere or, perhaps better yet, not overtaxed at all.

Despite the research and common sense behind the notion that having free time leads to more productivity and creativity, consider the work schedules of medical interns, untenured professors, and students who maintain a full course load (and more) while working full time. Any solutions?

Quite a few posts are at the Metafilter Community Weblog (via Lifehacker) on free online learning resources.

In my previous post, I discussed foregoing the term "passionate learners" for "enjoying learners." I'd like to take it a step further and talk about "curious" learners. Actually, most people are curious; they just aren't that curious about school subjects. As Csikszentmihalyi states:

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

Perhaps students do not wish to because teachers transmit information instead of engaging students in creating knowledge. Perhaps they do not wish to because school subjects are disconnected from their own communities and societal activities. And perhaps they do not wish to because they do not have the experiences to make connections to school knowledge.

Then, again, am I myself really curious about everything I come across? I remember considering majoring in math and I signed up for two classes (geometry and diff eq). I read the first few chapters before the class, went to class the first day, and thought to myself: Boring!! I had no experience to see any relevance to this dry subject. And that ended my math major.

Turning to writing, I like it much more. I especially enjoy playing with words and tweaking sentences to make them more rhetorically effective. That natural (?) interest in language may be the reason I enjoy teaching ESL and studying languages. Still, I have to say that learning languages is frustrating when I try to communicate unsuccessfully. So, I can sympathize with the overwhelming majority of my students who say that they do not like writing, especially in English. When speaking, many "mistakes" go by unnoticed or unremarked upon. Writing accompanied by teacher comments, however, stares them in the face with the fact that they still have not mastered English, a process that will take probably ten years or more. Of course, giving students more control over the topics and genres of writing helps. But that's not enough for a long lasting curiousity in learning to write better. What else can help?

The blog Creating Passionate Users is written by a trio who are

all passionate about the brain and metacognition, most especially--how the brain works and how to exploit it for better learning and memory. Oh yeah, and how to recognize when someone else (including one of us) is applying brain-based techniques to get you to do something.

I enjoy reading their insights on learning, but I wonder about the emphasis on "passion." What does it mean to be a passionate learner? How would being passionate differ from being obsessive? How many people are truly passionate, or obsessive, about anything?

According to Dictionary.com, passion is defined as "A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger" and obsession is defined as "A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion." I'm not quite sure where "a powerful emotion" ends and "an unreasonable emotion" begins. Perhaps it's a matter of societal approval as it is for the difference between a hard worker and a workaholic.

I wonder about this distinction because I enjoy learning and a variety of activities, but I find it difficult to consider myself passionate about learning or these other pastimes. Of course, I could be a little strange, but I like to think that more people are like me than unlike me.

We might compare passion and enjoyment to attraction and attachment in Helen Fisher's, an anthropologist at Rutgers, research on love. In her work, attraction, or romantic love, is caused by high levels of dopamine and norephinephrine. It's a euphoric chemical high that cannot be maintained, but eventually wears off. In contrast, attachment, stimulated by the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, is associated with feelings of comfort, peace, and stability, and unlike attraction can last longer than a year, even a lifetime. Extrapolating, if we consider an educational goal to be life-long learners, we need to move away from passion and toward an enjoyment of learning.

One theoretical construct that can be of use in this move is flow. Flow, a theory developed by Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, a professor of psychology formerly at the University of Chicago, refers to an experience of total involvement and deep concentration. Most people experience flow at one time or another, and some frequently. I can remember being so absorbed in a game of chess or that I was oblivious to my surroundings for an hour. The conditions of flow are clear goals, immediate and unambiguous feedback, and matching one's skills to the challenge, none of which relate to emotion.

Flow is a type of intrinsic motivation, a doing of the activity for the sake of the activity rather than extrinsic pressures. Csikszentmihalyi notes that both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is needed for people to want to learn, but that intrinsic motivation should be educators' focus "to make children aware of how much fun learning can be."

I imagine the phrase "creating passionate learners" is more hyperbole than anything else, but perhaps we should simply consider motivating students to have "fun" learning.

Aaron Campbell (via Aaron Nelson) says in teaching ESL, start with students' passions. He begins,

Learning happens naturally as the human being grows. Fueled by curiosity, it is a process directed toward that which the learner desires most. As educators, we should trust this natural process while cultivating a nurturing environment in which the learner can grow best. In P2P approaches, we encourage students to call upon the authority within and take charge of the direction that their own learning takes. For example, when using weblogs with second language learners, it is important to give them the opportunity to decide the topics about which they are to write. To repeatedly ask students to write on weekly topics of the teacher’s choice is to direct their intellects toward subjects that have no connection to their own hearts. It becomes yet another exercise in the discipline of academic study, which bores a lot of people. If we want our students to be excited about learning, let us begin with their passions.

It's hard to disagree with this point. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder how those who teach the sciences engage their students. Do students in introductory chemistry get to study the chemicals that excite them? Of course, chemistry is not the same as learning a language. And if we can engage the student more, why not?

There are differences in the type of learning institutions and in the level of the students. For beginning language learners, it should be easy to build a course around their interests. Or, if the students are beginners in a workplace, it should not be a problem to orient the class around the English used at work. As students advance in their language proficiency, as much as possible, certainly incorporate students' majors into their writing.

But incorporating interests and passions are not quite the same. I doubt that many students are passionate either about their majors or about learning a language. At least ,I don't remember being "passionate" about learning. I do remember being "interested" in learning. Aaron's main point, of course, is that the more interested the students are in the topics they write about, the more students will engage in the activities and so learn more. But expecting passion, well, that seems to be an exaggeration.

Carl Zimmer of the New York Times reported in an article "Children learn by monkey see, monkey do. Chimps don't" 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.

Much of learning theory posits that reflection is a deeper form of learning while imitation is a lower form of learning (e.g., Engeström). Yet, there is also an understanding that examples and models facilitate learning. John Anderson of ACT-R learning theory (i.e., declarative and procedural knwoledge) states that there is no real difference between self-generated learning and passive reception of knowledge (unless the former "produces multiple ways to retrieve the material"). Extrapolating to the difference between imitation and reflection, I wonder when reflection is worth the time invested and how much of a difference it really makes.

In Discover (via Kelly Creighton), Steven Johnson, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Feedcovers the positive effects of video games on learning. Essentially, they operate on the "competence principle"; that is, they bring learners to the higher edge of their competence and challenge them (rather than the lower edge and boring them). In addition, there's instant feedback on their performance. According to the article, video game players "see the world more clearly" and are "consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively."

This edge of competence reminds me of the edge of chaos, where complex systems arise out of chaos or restructure via a phase transition. And the notion of challenge fits in well with the motivational theories of Deci & Ryan and Lepper & Malone (see July 14, 2005 entry). Apparently, we're seeing a cross-domain phenomenon that complexity theory will be well suited for unifying. I wonder how that can further our understanding of learning theory and pedagogy.

In Holland's model, tags direct the attention of agents toward certain features while disregarding others, thus facilitating selective interaction. In effect, tags identify and categorize phenomena, thus setting the boundaries of aggregates, or groups. Practically, that means that students recognize salient features of other students, thus forming groups that last the semester. Those features tend to be ethnicity, language, and gender. Tags are also values. When students work in groups, some value consensus models of interaction while others prefer more aggressive competition models. These values lead students to continue working with those of the same values and avoiding those of different values. With some groups, age tags operate. With the Chinese students I've had in my classes, the eldest one seemed to be a spokesperson for the rest, regardless of gender. Because tags regulate the formation of groups and networks, having an awareness of the mechanism of tagging can provide a new stance from which to see bottlenecks and lever points of classroom interaction and learning.

So, what/where are the bottlenecks and lever points of classroom interaction and learning?

This entry is adapted from my article "Building blocks and learning."

In Holland's model, the mechanism building blocks are of particular interest to me as the concept suggests that most learning and creativity occurs recombining what is known rather than invention de novo.

The term building blocks may suggest a mechanical perspective on learning, but simply consider the myriads of living species that have emerged from various combinations of the four building blocks of DNA. And in writing, the repetition and reusability of building blocks, or patterns, allow for commonality across genres, while new circumstances fuel unique interactions between the patterns that generate novelty—and learning.

A major goal for me now is determining what building blocks in rhetoric are particularly fruitful for recombining. (This notion is similar to that of Davydov’s “ascending from the abstract to the concrete.”) Of course, students naturally select and combine building blocks on their own without direction from the teacher, and teachers present students with a variety of strategies and concepts to use in writing. However, a haphazard, cornucopia approach to pedagogy misses the point. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

In other words, if there are kernel building blocks from which all other building blocks in composition can be derived, then learners, through a process of recombining them across novel and varied contexts, can gain a deeper, conceptual understanding of the discipline than they would otherwise. Contenders for building blocks might come from stasis theory, Toulmin logic, or the lines of argument of pathos, ethos, and logos.

The main model that I have been using to guide my research and teaching practice has been that of John Holland, father of genetic algorithms and professor of psychology and computer science & electrical engineering at the University of Michigan. His model of complexity theory (Hidden Order, 1995) considers complex systems to have four properties (aggregation, diversity, flows, and nonlinearity) and three mechanisms (internal models, building blocks, and tags). Most of my work has looked at the networks of knowledge flows and the role of building blocks in learning. If you go to the Complexity and Education website, you can read two of my articles: "The role of networks in learning to write" and "Building blocks and learning." I'll be looking at those two articles over the next few weeks. Comments are welcome.