The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 2)

If the conclusions in Part 1 are correct, it does not really matter which teaching method instructors use. Lecture? Small-group? Discussion? Tutorials? Online? Some combination of these? It makes no difference. Student outcomes on final examinations will be the same.

Perhaps this conclusion is way too obvious. Why should something as superficial as the physical arrangement of the room and the shuffling around of its human components have any meaningful impact on learning?

If I’m being honest, small-group work has always struck me as a gimmick hashed-out during some administrative retreat, and whenever I employ it, I always feel like I’m appealing to some newfangled rule book in order to check an activity off of a list.

It’s pedagogical hokey-pokey.

But this is too harsh. And I’m ignoring my own conclusions from Part 1. It is not the teaching method, per say, that affects learning. If small-group work is a gimmick, then so is lecturing.

The reason that The Teaching-Learning Paradox concluded that teaching method has no impact on learning is simple:  only learning has an impact on learning.

Cue the sound of a million minds being blown.

Here it is again, in case you missed it:  Only learning has an impact on learning.

(I know it sounds like a poorly edited bumper sticker, but stay with me.)

We like to think of learning as social, as shared, as something that happens together in collective spaces and that can be facilitated by arrangements supporting a diversity of human interactions, and we tend to preference intimate, close-knit combos in which we assume the exchange of ideas and reflections will be more fluid and will lead to comprehensive understandings that far exceed what one individual could think up alone sitting in a cold lecture hall listening to someone drone on about stagflation.

But there isn’t anything magical about these arrangements in-and-of themselves. And I suspect that they are just as likely to reinforce bad learning as they are to support it. I hate to use this cliché, but it seems appropriate: if the classroom is not centered on authentic learning, shifting into small group discussion is merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

So what is authentic learning? I don’t know, but I would like to suggest some conclusions reached by cognitive science, in particular the research that centers on how we learn. Ultimately, learning must take place in the brain, whether that brain is sitting in a lecture hall, in a small group, or in front of a computer screen. We have more knowledge now of how the brain learns, and instructors and students should take advantage of this knowledge to increase learning.

It seems that, because it was published in 1968, the conclusions of The Teaching-Learning Paradox could not take cognitive strategies into account. Furthermore, since their focus was on various teaching arrangements (and not on styles, strategies, and tactics*), they were unable to analyze the actual infrastructure of learning. This supports the criticism put forth by Ten Cate and others (see Part 1) that Dubin and Taveggia are not really measuring a dependent variable by comparing final exam scores. Also, what is the true effect on the student? Certainly, one key component of learning is the demonstration of content acquisition, but are the studies in The Teaching-Learning Paradox merely testing for how efficiently the knowledge provided by the instructor slid from his mouth and onto the final exam page? Seen in that light, every study that Dubin and Taveggia analyzed was a success. The knowledge did transfer, and all at the same rate.

But what about the students? Did they learn? Really, how would you expect to measure learning if you’re merely testing how the classroom is structured. You are not testing learning or learning strategies. You are, instead, testing physical arrangements. And if the instructor and the students are not employing strategies that facilitate learning, then what is the value of the study?

Fortunately, a lot of work has been done with authentic learning strategies based on cognitive research. And in order to test these strategies, you can look at studies that are not too dissimilar from the ones Dubin and Taveggia analyzed in The Teaching-Learning Paradox. Do classrooms that employ cognitive strategies result in greater learning on final examinations? (Later we’ll address the shortcomings of solely focusing on content knowledge and memorization, but, as many cognitive scientists note, memorization is a critical component to learning, though not sufficient in-and-of itself).

This new focus on learning strategies will be a true student-centered approach, since the goal will be to figure out how students actually learn** (how the brain actually works) and to design curricula, lectures, assignments, and study sessions with this knowledge in mind. And since, as Dubin and Taveggia point out, studying is a measureable difference-maker, teachers should find ways to facilitate student learning by teaching effective strategies, delivering content with the cognitive “tricks” in mind, and motivating students to take their learning into their own hands, hearts, and minds. (Is that a Girl Scout motto?)

What are these cognitive “tricks?”

Well, let’s take one. It doesn’t matter if you’re tutoring someone one-on-one, standing in front of a lecture hall filled with 500 students, or sitting in a circle with 15 students, if you’re not asking “Why?” your students aren’t learning.

Dunlosky, et al. present ten learning techniques based on cognitive research in a 2013 article titled “Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Each technique is summarized and bolstered with supporting studies. The first, “elaborative interrogation” is essentially a fancy way of asking students “Why?” and encouraging them to construct their own answers. You might present some content on (drawing from my own experience) the correlation between the increase in sophisticated literature during the so-called American Renaissance period  and the rise of American printing companies. “Why do you suppose literature became more sophisticated as more printing companies arose?” Or, in a Mythology course, you could have students read creation myths from several different cultures and ask them “Why do so many of these cultures portray female goddesses as earthbound and male gods as living in the sky?” The idea is that learners must now actively construct new knowledge in response to the question, and in doing so, retrieve existing knowledge in order to fill in the gaps: “The prevailing theoretical account of elaborative-interrogation effects is that elaborative interrogation enhances learning by supporting the integration of new information with existing prior knowledge” leading to insights that are “self-generated rather than provided” (8). More learning is actually occurring in the learner’s brain as they struggle to develop an answer, and not just as part of a transfer from the instructor to the pages of the final exam. The authors cite one study where “Why” questions were integrated into a biology text, resulting in higher exam scores compared to a control group.

This is true learner-centered, active learning, not the kind that is staged by simply rearranging the classroom. The interesting thing about the above study is that the vast majority of their strategies are student studying strategies, some involving annotation of texts, pacing of study sessions, and mnemonic devices. The idea is to empower students to turn their own brains on to better learning strategies. We want lifelong learners who learn to do things for themselves. We want more of the learning to be happening in their own brains.

I will discuss more examples of cognitive strategies in futures posts, but I’d like to close with a few words from education theorist Bill McKeachie who discussed the “learning” approach to teaching in a 2008 interview in Teaching of Psychology:

We also found that when students thought more about the material, they were likely to become more intrinsically motivated and interested in the material for its own sake rather than just to pass the test. That shift in focus makes a big difference. If teachers are interested in helping students learn for the rest of their lives, then they should want their students to develop intrinsic motivation for learning and not just learn when they are told to learn because they are going to be tested on it.

A couple of things here: First, next time I’ll discuss the work of Daniel Willingham (who is also one of the authors of the study I cite above) who echoes McKeachie’s deceptively simple call for getting students to think about the material. It sounds obvious. However, if you want to make something stick in the brain, you first need to figure out how to make it sticky.

Second, McKeachie’s emphasis on intrinsic motivation could not be more important. And this is exactly what Dubin and Taveggia’s The Teaching-Learning Paradox cannot measure. In fact, I don’t think intrinsic motivation can be measured quantitatively. This is what prompted B.F. Skinner to disagree with cognitive research, since it could not be observed as behavior could. (McKeachie recounts their disagreement in the interview.)

Dubin and Taveggia could, however, (in limited samples) measure the effect of studying, and found it to be positive for test results. If we can help students become intrinsically motivated, get them to pay closer and deeper attention (to think about the material, in Willingham’s and McKeachie’s formulation, which means to take advantages of cognitive tricks that line up with how the brain actually learns), arm them with proven study skills, and structure class sessions with the cognitive research in mind, measurable improvements might be recorded. If students need to learn how to learn, then teachers need to teach them how to learn.

In short: if you want learning, you have to teach learning.

*In Part 1, I suggested a difference between method and style. I’m going to alter this. I like the word “arrangements” better to describe Dubin and Taveggia’s focus on comparing lectures, discussion, one-on-one sessions and other such organizational methods. For now, at least, “styles, strategies, and tactics” will be a stand-in for a discussion of approaches to authentic learning that can occur irrespective of classroom arrangements.

**Next time I’ll cover Daniel Willingham’s claim that learning styles, as they have been propagated, do not exist.

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Should Only Rock Stars Make Online Lectures?

After reading David Byrne’s recent ode to Iowa (in which he recounts the state’s socialist utopian roots and observes that Iowa “may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction”), I went looking for more wisdom from the former Talking Heads musician and found his TED talk (which was thankfully decidedly un-TED. By that I mean it wasn’t a breathless, triumphant paean to the coming salvation of our digital overlords).

In fact, Bryne’s presentation is quite understated. He only makes one simple point: the evolution of music can be tied to architecture of performance venues.

This sound obvious, but it carries immense implications, essentially undermining the Romantic notion of creativity’s emergence from individual emotion and intuition. In other words, creativity isn’t the product of inner-magic. It is shaped by the external environment. In fact, Byrne argues that the external form might precede creativity, or, as he writes elsewhere:

So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.

He is writing about music, but I instantly thought of online lectures, and of the classroom in general.

Today, I read an anti-MOOC article in Slate by Jonathan Rees which, among other complaints, trashes the lecture format that appears in some MOOCs:

But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now.

I know exactly what’s he talking about, but I think he’s missing the point. You simply can’t teach the same way online that you can in the classroom. Had he told his tenure committee that he recorded and uploaded a live 80-minute lecture and discussion session onto Blackboard, he would not have pleased them either. Online instructors who use the 5-minute-and-quiz format are not trying to dumb their product down (that might be the unintentional result). Instead, they’re trying to adapt to a new environment.

I write differently on a blog than I do with my pen and notebook. I teach differently in a lecture hall than in an oval-shaped seminar room. I have some classrooms that I’m still trying to figure out. Exactly how do I teach in here?

The online classroom is one of those. We are all struggling to adapt.

Perhaps I was enamored by Byrne’s star power or his recent praise of Iowa, but I was able to pay attention to his lecture, in part, because of environmental or technological factors (it helped that I was intrigued by his argument as well).

That is, he used pictures, which he changed frequently. Also, the camera angles changed often. I don’t have a crew to replicate the latter, but the former is quite simple to do in an online lecture.

The video below is my relatively recent attempt to make a lecture that suits the online format, minus the camera (I have a hard time making this look natural or finding the right setting. I wish, like Byrne’s TED talk I could be recorded in a hall packed with people). Still, I use ten slides in less than 10 minutes, not MTV fast, but enough perhaps to keep attention.

In this respect, I should probably follow more of Pecha Kucha format, which is 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. Here is author Dan Pink explaining and demonstrating:

Finally, here is a recent video I did using a webcam and a few pictures and text on PowerPoint. Someone told me it looked like I was talking in a closet. Again, I’m not sure how to make the video appealing without either having the camera pointed up my nostrils or projecting me in the background like a specter:

A regular classroom is just a regular classroom. No one is expecting Literature 101 at 8:00 in the morning to be a Hollywood production. But, once you create a video and upload it to YouTube you are, in a way, competing with the pros.

What is someone with no training in media and performance supposed to do? I guess become famous and let the TED folks film you.

I’ll get right on that.

The MOOC is a Modern Marvel for the 1950’s Company Man!

Today’s Company Man has to know certain things in order to please the boss and keep the organization running smoothly. Gee whiz! These MOOC’s sure are nifty. Simply punch the right buttons from the comfort of your home!

The MOOC is the perfect tool for the booming 1950’s economy. It should help the United States launch the next Sputnik or program the world’s first computer that can fit inside your garage (but leave your Chrystler parked on the street!)

And think of how we will expand university enrollment! Heck, with that G.I. Bill and a little elbow grease, you will climb the ladder at IBM or NASA and helping to build today’s technological wizardry: satellites, washing machines, and motorized golfing transporation devices!

I’ll bet you didn’t think getting an education would be as simple as watching a few videos and taking a multiple choice exam! Well, it is!

And did I mention that it’s free! (Don’t worry, it’s not a communist conspiracy! But those Red spies will sure be shaking when they find out how advanced our education system has become. Whiz bang!)

MOOC wants YOU! Help the 1950’s become the greatest decade yet! Man your stations and let the MOOC help you become today’s Company Man!

Using Twitter on the Half-Dipper Bridge

Based on I.S.T (Internet Standard Time) , this 2010 David Carr article about Twitter is ancient. However, I’ve just come around to David Carr after watching the brilliant Page One, so forgive me for coming late to the party.

Carr, who was initially a Twitter skeptic, has come to find great value in the micro-blogging software:

At first, Twitter can be overwhelming, but think of it as a river of data rushing past that I dip a cup into every once in a while. Much of what I need to know is in that cup: if it looks like Apple is going to demo its new tablet, or Amazon sold more Kindles than actual books at Christmas, or the final vote in the Senate gets locked in on health care, I almost always learn about it first on Twitter.

I find this to be true when preparing for class or exploring ideas for research. If you’re following the right people on Twitter, it can be an endless source for material. Carr’s quote also made me think of a passage from Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, where he explains the proper way to draw water from a stream:

If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery, just before you enter you will see a small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo, which means ‘half-dipper bridge’. Whenever Dogen-zenji dipped water from the river, he used only half a dipper, returning the rest to the river again, without throwing it away. That is why we call the bridge Hanshaku-kyo, ‘half-dipper bridge’. It may be difficult to understand why Dogen returned half of the water he dipped to the river. When we feel the beauty of the river, we intuitively do it in Dogen’s way. It is in our nature to do so.

I guess it’s best to avoid drinking too deeply from the stream of information, to let some of water pass back into motion. Carr warns that Twitter’s power can wash you away:

All those riches do not come at zero cost: If you think e-mail and surfing can make time disappear, wait until you get ahold of Twitter, or more likely, it gets ahold of you. There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.

All that gurgling can also be misleading. Carr quotes Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky, who has long praised the wisdom of crowd-sourcing your problems and allowing the hive-mind to go to work (how’s that for larding up my prose with buzz words?)

Twitter helps define what is important by what Mr. Shirky has called “algorithmic authority,” meaning that if all kinds of people are pointing at the same thing at the same instant, it must be a pretty big deal.

Maybe. You’ll see “Kim Kardashian” trending on Twitter more frequently than “Eurozone.” Collective intelligence is powerful, but so is collective ignorance. Sometimes the stream of consciousness is just water under the bridge.