The cost of admission to the unlearning zone

picture of dull classroom (pubic domain)I describe some of what I do as ‘unteaching’, so I find this highly critical article by Miss Smith – The Unlearning Zone –  interesting. Miss Smith dislikes the terms ‘ unteaching’ and ‘unlearning’ for some well-expressed aesthetic and practical reasons: as she puts it, they are terms “that would not be out of place in a particularly self-satisfied piece of poststructuralist literary analysis circa 1994.”  I partially agree. However, she also seems equally unenamoured with what she thinks they stand for. I disagree with her profoundly on this so, as she claims to be new to these terms, here is my attempt to explain a little about what I mean by them and why I think they are a useful part of the educators’ lexicon, and why they are crucially important for learners’ development in general.

First the terms…

Yes, ‘unteaching’ is an ugly neoligism and it doesn’t really make sense: that’s part of the appeal of using it – a bit of cognitive dissonance can be useful for drawing attention to something. However, it is totally true that someone who is untaught is just someone who has not (yet) been taught, so ‘unteaching’, seen through that light, is at best pointless, at worst self-contradictory.  On the other hand, it does seem to follow pretty naturally from ‘unlearning’ which, contrary to Miss Smith’s assertion, has been in common use for centuries and makes perfect sense. Have you ever had to unlearn bad habits? Me too.

As I understand it, ‘unteach’ is to ‘teach’ as ‘undo’ is to ‘do’.  Unteaching is still teaching, just as undoing is still doing, and unlearning is still learning. Perhaps deteaching would be a better term. Whatever we choose to call it, unteaching is concerned with intentionally dismantling the taught belief that teaching is about exerting power over learners to teach, and replacing it with the attitude that teachers are there to empower learners to learn. This is not a particularly radical idea. It is what all teachers should do anyway, I reckon. But it is worth drawing attention to it as a distinct activity because it runs counter to the tide, and the problem it addresses is virtually ubiquitous in education up to, and sometimes at, doctoral level.

Traditional teaching of the sort Miss Smith seems to defend in her critique does a lot more than teach a subject, skill, or way of thinking. It teaches that learning is a chore that is not valuable in and of itself, that learners must be forced to do it for some other purpose, often someone else’s purpose. It teaches that teaching is something done to students by a teacher: at its worst, it teaches that teaching is telling; at best, that teaching involves telling someone to do something. It’s not that (many) teachers deliberately seek these outcomes, but that they are the most likely lessons to be learned, because they are the ones that are repeated most often. The need for unteaching arises because traditional teaching, with luck in addition to whatever it intends to teach, teaches some terrible lessons about learning and the role of teaching in that process that must be unlearned.

What is unteaching?

Miss Smith claims that unteaching means “open plan classes, unstructured lessons and bean bags.” That’s not the way I see it at all. Unlike traditional teaching, with its timetables, lesson plans, learning objectives, and uniform tests, unteaching does not have its own technologies and methods, though it does, for sure, tend to be a precursor to connectivist, social constructivist, constructionist, and other more learner-centred ways of thinking about the learning process, which may sometimes be used as part of the process of unteaching itself. Such methods, models, and attitudes emerge fairly naturally when you stop forcing people to do your bidding. However, they are just as capable of being used in a controlling way as the worst of instructivist methods: the number of reports on such interventions that include words like ‘students must…’, ‘I make my students…’ or (less blatantly) ‘students (do X)’ far outnumber all others, and that is the very opposite of unteaching. The specific technologies (including pedagogies as much as open-plan classrooms and beanbags) are not the point. Lectures, drill-and-practice and other instructivist methods are absolutely fine, as long as:

  1. they at least attempt to do the job that students want or need,
  2. they are willingly and deliberately chosen by students,
  3. students are well-informed enough to make those choices, and
  4. students can choose to learn otherwise at any time.

No matter how cool and groovy your problem-based, inquiry-based, active methods might be, if they are imposed on students (especially with the use of threats for non-compliance and rewards for compliance – e.g. qualifications, grades, etc) then it is not unteaching at all: it’s just another way of doing the same kind of teaching that caused the problem in the first place. But if students have control – and ‘control’ includes being able to delegate control to someone else who can scaffold, advise, assist, instruct, direct, and help them when needed, as well as being able to take it back whenever they wish – then such methods can be very useful. So can lectures. To all those educational researchers that object to lectures, I ask whether they have ever found them valuable in a conference (and , if not, why did they go to a conference in the first place?). It’s not the pedagogy of lectures that is at fault. It’s the requirement to attend them and the accompanying expectation that people are going to learn what you are teaching as a result. That’s, simply put, empirically wrong. It doesn’t mean that lecturees learn nothing. Far from it. But what you teach and what they learn are different kinds of animal.

Problems with unteaching

It’s really easy to be a bad unteacher – I think that is what Miss Smith is railing against, and it’s a fair criticism. I’m often pretty bad at it myself, though I have had a few successes along the way too. Unteaching and, especially, the pedagogies that result from having done unteaching, are far more likely to go wrong, and they take a lot more emotional, intellectual, and social effort than traditional teaching because they don’t come pre-assembled. They have no convenient structures and processes in place to do the teaching for you.  Traditional teaching ‘works’ even when it doesn’t. If you throw someone into a school system, with all its attendant rewards, punishments, timetables, rules and curricula, and if you give them the odd textbook and assessment along the way, then most students will wind up learning something like what is intended to be taught by the system, no matter how awful the teachers might be. In such a system, students will rarely learn well, rarely persistently, rarely passionately, seldom kindly, and the love of learning will have been squashed out of many of them along the way (survivors often become academics and teachers themselves). But they will mostly pass tests at the end of it. With a bit of luck many might even have gained a bit of useful knowledge or skill, albeit that much will be not just wasted and forgotten as easily as a hotel room number when your stay is over, but actively disliked by the end of it. And, of course, they will have learned dependent ways of learning that will serve them poorly outside institutional systems.

To make things far worse, those very structures that assist the traditional teacher (grades, compulsory attendance, fixed outcomes, concept of failure, etc) are deeply antagonistic to unteaching and are exactly why it is needed in the first place. Unteachers face a huge upstream struggle against an overwhelming tide that threatens to drown passionate learning every inch of the way. The results of unteaching can be hard to defend within a traditional educational system because, by conventional measures, it is often inefficient and time-consuming. But conventional measures only make sense when you are trying to make everyone do the same things, through the same means, with the same ends, measured by and in order to meet the same criteria. That’s precisely the problem.

The final nail in unteaching’s coffin is that it is applied very unevenly across the educational system, so every freedom it brings is counterbalanced by a mass of reiterated antagonistic lessons from other courses and programs. Every time we unteach someone, two others reteach them.  Ideally, we should design educational systems that are friendlier to and more supportive of learner autonomy, and that are (above all else) respectful of learners as human beings. In K-12 teaching there are plenty of models to draw from, including Summerhill, Steiner (AKA Waldorf) schools, Montessori schools, Experiential Learning Schools etc. Few are even close to perfect, but most are at least no worse than their conventional counterparts, and they start with an attitude of respect for the children rather than a desire to make them conform. That alone makes them worthwhile. There are even some regional systems, such as those found in Finland or (recently) British Columbia, that are heading broadly in the right direction. In universities and colleges there are plenty of working models, from Oxford tutorials to Cambridge supervisions, to traditional theses and projects, to independent study courses and programs, to competency-based programs, to PLAR/APEL portfolios, and much more. It is not a new idea at all. There is copious literature and many theoretical models that have stood the test of time, from andragogy to communities of practice, through to teachings from Freire, Illich, Dewey and even (a bit quirkily) Vygotsky. Furthermore, generically and innately, most distance and e-learning unteaches better than its p-learning counterparts because teachers cannot exert the same level of control and students must learn to learn independently. Sadly, much of it is spoiled by coercing students with grades, thereby providing the worst of both worlds: students are forced to behave as the teacher demands in their terminal behaviours but, without physical copresence, are less empowered by guidance and emotional/social support with the process. Much of my own research and teaching is concerned with inverting that dynamic – increasing empowerment and social support through online learning, while decreasing coercion. I’d like to believe that my institution, Athabasca University, is largely dedicated to the same goal, though we do mostly have a way to go before we get it right.

Why it matters

Unteaching is to a large extent concerned with helping learners – including adult learners – to get back to the point at which most children start their school careers – driven by curiosity, personal interest, social value, joy, delight – but that is schooled out of them over years of being taught dependency.  Once misconceptions about what education is for, what teachers do, and how we learn, have been removed, teaching can happen much more effectively: supporting, nurturing, inspiring, challenging, responding, etc, but not controlling, not making students do things they are not ready to do for reasons that mean little to them and have even less to do with what they are learning.

However, though it is an immensely valuable terminal outcome, improved learning is perhaps not the biggest reason for unteaching. The real issue is moral: it’s simply the right thing to do. The greatest value is that students are far more likely to have been treated with the respect, care, and honour that all human beings deserve along the way. Not ‘care’ of the sort you would give to a dog when you train it to be obedient and well behaved. Care of the sort that recognizes and valorizes autonomy and diversity, that respects individuals, that cherishes their creativity and passion, that sees learners as ends in themselves, not products or (perish the thought) customers. That’s a lesson worth teaching, a way of being that is worth modelling. If that demands more effort, if it is more fallible, and if it means that fewer students pass your tests, then I’m OK with that. That’s the price of admission to the unlearning zone.

 

Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments

What they did

This is a report by, Simon Burgess, Robert Metcalfe, and Sally Sadoff on a large scale study conducted in the UK on the effects of financial and non-financial incentives on GCSE scores (GCSEs are UK qualifications usually taken around age 16 and usually involving exams), involving over 10,000 students in 63 schools being given cash or ‘non-financial incentives’. ‘Non-financial incentives’ did not stretch as far as a pat on the back or encouragement given by caring teachers – this was about giving tickets for appealing events. The rewards were given not for getting good results but for particular behaviours the researchers felt should be useful proxies for effective study: specifically, attendance, conduct, homework, and classwork. None of the incentives were huge rewards to those already possessing plenty of creature comforts but, for poorer students, they might have seemed substantial. Effectiveness of the intervention was measured in terminal grades. The researchers were very thorough and were very careful to observe limitations and concerns. It is as close to an experimental design as you can get in a messy real-world educational intervention, with numbers that are sufficient and diverse enough to make justifiable empirical claims about the generalizability of the results.

What they found

Rewards had little effect on average marks overall, and it made little difference whether rewards were financial or not. However, in high risk groups (poor, immigrants, etc) there was a substantial improvement in GCSE results for those given rewards, compared with the control groups. 

My thoughts

The only thing that does surprise me a little is that so little effect was seen overall, but I hypothesize that the reward/punishment conditions are so extreme already among GCSE students that it made little difference to add any more to the mix.  The only ones that might be affected would be those for whom the extrinsic motivation is not already strong enough. There is also a possibility that the demotivating effects for some were balanced out by the compliance effects for others: averages are incredibly dangerous things, and this study is big on averages.

What makes me sad is that there appears to be no sense of surprise or moral outrage about this basic premise in this report.

dogs being whipped, from Jack London's 'Call of the Wild' It appears reasonable at first glance: who would not want kids to be more successful in their exams? When my own kids had to do this sort of thing I would have been very keen on something that would improve their chances of success, and would be especially keen on something that appears to help to reduce systemic inequalities. But this is not about helping students to learn or improving education: this is completely and utterly about enforcing compliance and improving exam results. The fact that there might be a perceived benefit to the victims is a red herring: it’s like saying that hitting dogs harder is good for the dogs because it makes them behave better than hitting them gently. The point is that we should not be hitting them at all. It’s not just morally wrong, it doesn’t even work very well, and only continues to work at all if you keep hitting them. It teaches students that the end matters more than the process, that learning is inherently undesirable and should only done when there is a promise of a reward or threat of punishment, and that they are not in charge of it. 

The inevitable result of increasing rewards (or punishments – they are functionally equivalent) is to further quench any love of learning that might be left at this point in their school careers, to reinforce harmful beliefs about how to learn, and to further put students off the subjects they might have loved under other circumstances for life.  In years to come people will look back on barbaric practices like this much as we now look back at the slave trade or pre-emancipation rights for women.

Studies like this make me feel a bit sick. 

 

Address of the bookmark: http://www.efm.bris.ac.uk/economics/working_papers/pdffiles/dp16678.pdf

Udacity Partners with IBM, Amazon for Artificial Intelligence 'Degree'

http://fortune.com/2016/10/25/udacity-ibm-amazon-ai/

Udacity is now valued at over $1b. This seems a long way from the dream of open (libre and free) learning of the early MOOC pioneers (pre-Thrun):

“Earlier this year, Udacity’s revenue from Nanodegrees was growing nearly 30% month over month and the initiative is profitable, according to Thrun. According to one source, Udacity was on track to make $24 million this year. Udacity also just became a unicorn—a startup valued at or above $1 billion—in its most recent $105 million funding round in 2015.”

This should also be a wake-up call to universities that believe their value is measurable by the employability of their graduates. Udacity has commitments from huge companies like IBM, BMW, Tata and others to accept its nanodegree graduates. Nanodegrees are becoming a serious currency in the job market, at lower cost and higher productivity than anything universities can match, with all the notable benefits of online delivery and timeframes that make lifelong learning of up-to-date competencies a reality, not an aspiration. If we don’t adapt to this then universities are, if not dead in the water, definitely at risk of becoming of less relevance.

I recently posted a response to Dave Cormier’s question about the goals of education in which I suggested that our educational institutions play an important sustaining and generative role in cultures  – not just in large-scale societal level culture, but in the myriad overlapping and contained cultures within societies. Though I have reservations about the risks of government involvement in education, I am a little fearful but also a little intrigued about what happens when private organizations start to make a substantial contribution to that role. There have always been a few such cases, and that has always been a useful thing. Having a few alternatives nipping around your heels and introducing fresh ideas helps to keep an ecosystem from stagnating. But this is big scale stuff, and it’s part of a trend that worries me. We are already seeing extremely large contributions to traditional education from private donors like the Gates and Zuckerberg foundations that reinforce dreadful misguided beliefs about what education is, or what it is for. With big funding, these become self-fulfilling beliefs. As long as we can sustain diversity then I think it is not a bad thing, but the massive influence of a few (even well-meaning) individuals with the spending power of nations is  very, very dangerous.

Original post

‘Rote learning, not play, is essential for a child’s education’ – seriously?

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/rote-learning-essential-a-childs-education-play-isnt-says-expert

An interesting observation…

Helen Abadzi, an expert in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, who was an education specialist at the World Bank, said that pupils who “overlearn” and repeatedly practise tasks, such as mental arithmetic, free up their working memory for more “higher order” analytical thinking.

Yes, they do, good point. We should not forget that. Unfortunately, she goes way beyond her field of expertise and explicitly picks on Sir Ken Robinson in the process…

“Go out and play, well sure – but is that going to teach me mental math so I can go to a store and instantly make a decision about what is the best offer to buy?” she said.

I cannot be certain but, as far as I know, and although he has made the occasional wild assertion, Sir Ken has never for one moment suggested that overlearning should be avoided. In fact, that’s rather obvious from the examples he gives in what the article acknowledges is the most popular TED talk of all time. I’ve yet to meet a good ballerina that has not practiced until it hurt. When you get into the flow of something and truly play, rote learning is exactly what you do. I have practiced my guitar until my fingers bled. Indeed, for each of my many interests in life, I have very notably repeatedly practiced again, again, and again, doing it until I get it right (or at least right enough). I’m doing it right now. I am fairly certain that you have done the same. To suggest that play does not involve an incredible amount of gruelling repetition and rote learning (particularly valuable when done from different angles, in different contexts, and with different purposes, a point Abadzi fails to highlight but I am sure understands) is bizarre. Even my cats do it. It is even more bizarre to leap from suggesting that overlearning is necessary to a wildly wrong and completely unsubstantiated statement like:

People may not like methods like direct instruction – “repeat after me” – but they help students to remember over the long term. A class of children sitting and listening is viewed as a negative thing, yet lecturing is highly effective for brief periods.

Where the hell did that come from? A scientist should be ashamed of such unsupported and unsupportable tripe. It does not follow from the premises. We need to practice, so extrinsic motivation is needed to make students learn? And play is not essential? Seriously? Such idiocy needs to be stamped on, stamped out, and stamped out hard. This is a good case study in why neuroscience is inadequate as a means to explain learning, and is completely inadequate as a means to explain education.

In the interests of fairness, I should note that brief lectures (and, actually, even long lectures) can indeed lead to effective learning, albeit not necessarily of what is being lectured about and only when they are actually interesting. The problem is not lectures per se, but the fact that people are forced to attend them, and that they are expected to learn what the lecturer intends to teach.

Activity trackers flop without cash motivation – Futurity

http://www.futurity.org/activity-trackers-motivation-1281832-2/

Another from the annals of unnecessary and possibly harmful research on motivation. Unsurprisingly, fitness trackers do nothing for motivation and, even less surprisingly, if you offer a reward then people do exercise more, but are significantly less active when the reward is taken away…

…at the end of twelve months, six months after the incentives were removed, this group showed poorer step outcomes than the tracker only group, suggesting that removing the incentives may have demotivated these individuals and caused them to do worse than had the incentives never been offered.

This effect has been demonstrate countless times. Giving rewards infallibly kills intrinsic motivation. When will we ever learn?

One interesting take-away is that (whether or not the subjects took more steps) there were no noticeable improvements in health outcomes across the entire experimental group. Perhaps this is because 6 months is not long enough to register the minor improvements involved, or maybe the instrument for measuring improved outcomes was too coarse. More likely, and as I have previously observed, subjects probably did things to increase their step count at the expense of other healthy activities like cycling etc. 

What is education for?

Dave Cormier, in typically excellent form, reflects on the differences between education and learning in his latest post. I very much agree with pretty much everything he writes here. This extract condenses the central point that, I think, matters more than any other:

Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?””

This is crucial: it is impossible to live and not to learn. Failure to learn is not an option. What matters is what we learn and how we learn it. The thing is, as Dave puts it:

Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for.”

My take on this

I have written here and there about the deep intertwingled relationship between education and indoctrination (e.g, most recently, here). Most of its early formal incarnations were, and a majority of them still are, concerned with passing on doctrine, often of a religious, quasi-religious, or political nature. To do that also requires the inculcation of values, and the acquisition of literacies (by my definition, the set of hard, human-enacted technologies needed to engage with a given culture, be that culture big or small). The balance between indoctrination, inculcation and literacy acquisition has shifted over the years and varies according to culture, context, and level, but education remains, at its heart, a process for helping learners learn to be in a given society or subset of it. This remains true even at the highest levels of terminal degrees: PhDs are almost never about the research topic so much as they are about learning to be an academic, a researcher, someone that understands and lives the norms, values and beliefs of the academic research community in which their discipline resides. To speak the language of a discipline. It is best to speak multiple languages, of course. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of crossing disciplinary boundaries is that it slightly disrupts that process by letting us compare, contrast, and pick between the values of different cultures, but such blurring is usually relatively minor. Hard core physicists share much in common with the softest literary theorists. Much has been written about the quality of ‘graduateness‘, typically with some further intent in mind (eg. employability) but what the term really refers to is a gestalt of ways of thinking, behaving, and believing that have what Wittgenstein thought of as family likenesses. No single thing or cluster of things typifies a graduate, but there are common features spread between them. We are all part of the same family.

Education has a lot to do with replication and stability but it is, and must always have been, at least as much about being able to adapt and change that society. While, in days gone by, it might have been enough to use education as a means to produce submissive workers, soldiers, and priests, and to leave it to higher echelons to manage change (and manage their underlings), it would be nice to think that we have gone beyond that now. In fact, we must go beyond that now, if we are to survive as a species and as a planet. Our world is too complex for hierarchical management alone.

I believe that education must be both replicative and generative. It must valorize challenge to beliefs and diversity as much as it preserves wisdom and uniformity. It must support both individual needs and social needs, the needs of people and the needs of the planet, the needs of all the societies within and intersecting with its society. This balance between order and chaos is about sustaining evolution. Evolution happens on the edge of chaos, not in chaos itself (the Red Queen Regime), and not in order (the Stalinist Regime). This is not about design so much as it is about the rules of change in a diverse complex adaptive system. The ever burgeoning adjacent possible means that our societies, as much as ecosystems, can do nothing but evolve to ever greater complexity, ever greater interdependence but, equally, ever greater independence, ever greater diversity. We are not just one global society, we are billions of them, overlapping, cross-cutting, independent, interdependent. And there is not just one educational system that needs to change. There are millions of them, millions of pieces of them, and more of them arriving all the time. We don’t need to change Education: that’s too simplistic and would, inevitably, just replace one set of mistakes with another. We need to change educations.

Address of the bookmark: http://davecormier.com/edblog/2016/10/24/planning-for-educational-change-what-is-education-for/

A Devil’s Dictionary of Educational Technology – Medium

Delightful compendium from Bryan Alexander. I particularly like:

Analytics, n. pl. “The use of numbers to confirm existing prejudices, and the design of complex systems to generate these numbers.”

Big data. n. pl. 1.When ordinary surveillance just isn’t enough.

Failure, n. 1. A temporary practice educators encourage in students, which schools then ruthlessly, publicly, and permanently punish.

Forum, n. 1. Social Darwinism using 1980s technology.

 World Wide Web, n. A strange new technology, the reality of which can be fended off or ignored through the LMS, proprietary databases, non-linking mobile apps, and judicious use of login requirements.

 

 

Address of the bookmark: https://medium.com/@bryanalexander/a-devils-dictionary-of-educational-technology-1c3ea9a0b932#.aqn3aqsho

Curiosity Is Not Intrinsically Good

Interesting reflections in Scientific American on morbid curiosity – that we are driven by our curiosity, sometimes even when we actually know that there is a strong likelihood it will hurt us. In the article, as the title implies, this is portrayed as a bad thing. I disagree.

“The drive to discover is deeply ingrained in humans, on par with the basic drives for food or sex, says Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago, a co-author of the paper. Curiosity is often considered a good instinct—it can lead to new scientific advances, for instance—but sometimes such inquiry can backfire. “The insight that curiosity can drive you to do self-destructive things is a profound one,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who has pioneered the scientific study of curiosity.”

Bub in a boxThis is not exactly a novel, nor a profound insight: we even have a popular proverb for it that I mention to my cats on an almost daily basis. They don’t listen. 

There is a strong relationship between curiosity and the desire for competence: a need to know how things work, how to do something we cannot yet do, why things are the way they are, where our limits lie, how to become more capable of acting in the world. From an evolutionary perspective we are curious with a purpose. It allows us to make effective use of our environment, to become competent within it. This is really good for survival so, of course, it is selected for. That it sometimes drives us to do things that harm us is actually a very positive feature, as long as it is balanced with a sufficient level of caution and the harm it causes is not too great. It helps us to know what to avoid, as well as what is useful to us. It also helps us to be more adaptable to bad things that we cannot avoid. It makes us more flexible, and lets us both know and extend our limits.

The first experiment described here involved people playing with pens even knowing that some were novelty items that would give them an electric shock. I’m not sure why the researchers mixed in some harmless pens in this because, even when pain is an absolute certainty, curiosity can drive us to experience it. I have long used electrostatic zappers that are designed to alleviate the itch in mosquito bites by administering a sharp and slightly painful shock to the skin. I have yet to meet a single child and have met very few adults that did not want to try it out on their own skin, regardless of whether they had any bites, in the full and certain knowledge that it would hurt. This is described in the article as self-destructive curiosity but I don’t think that’s right at all. If subjects had been convincingly warned that some pens would kill or maim them, then I am quite certain that very few would have played with them (some might, of course – evolution thrives on variation and, in some environments, high-risk strategies might pay off). But being curious about what kind of pain it might cause is really just a way of discovering or achieving competence, of discovering how we cope with this kind of shock, of testing hypotheses about ourselves and the environment, as well as finding out whether such joke pens actually work as advertised. This is potentially useful information: it will make you less likely to be a victim of a practical joke, or perhaps inspire you to perform one more effectively. Either way, it’s probably not a big thing in the grand scheme of things but, then again, very few learning experiences are. The value is more about how we integrate and connect such experiences.

The article describes another experiment in which participants were encouraged to predict their feelings after being shown an unpleasant image. Those so primed were less likely to choose to see it. Again, this makes sense in the light of what we already know. We are curious with a purpose – to learn – so, if we reflect a bit on what we have already learned, then it might dull our curiosity to experience something bad again. That’s potentially useful. I’m not sure that it is always a good thing, though. I happen to like, say, some horror movies that disgust me, or comedies that rely on discomfort for their humour. In fact, the anticipation of fear or disgust is often one of the main things that drives their plots and keeps my eyes glued to them. If the zombie apocalypse comes, I will be totally prepared. It also prepares me better for things that are going to really upset me. Likewise for funfair rides, sailing on a breezy day, exercising until it hurts, eating hot chili, or struggling with difficult deadlines.

So while, yes, we absolutely should learn from experience, we also need to remember that it can lead us into fixed ways of thinking that can, when conditions change, be less adaptable and adaptive. There is an ever-shifting balance between fear and curiosity that we need to embrace, perhaps especially when curiosity leads to the likelihood of something unpleasant (though not too unpleasant) happening. And, even when the danger is great, there are also risks that are sometimes worth taking. ‘What if..?’ is one of the most powerful phrases in any language.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/curiosity-is-not-intrinsically-good/

Cocktails and educational research

A lot of progress has been made in medicine in recent years through the application of cocktails of drugs. Those used to combat AIDS are perhaps the most well-known, but there are many other applications of the technique to everything from lung cancer to Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The logic is simple. Different drugs attack different vulnerabilities in the pathogens etc they seek to kill. Though evolution means that some bacteria, viruses or cancers are likely to be adapted to escape one attack, the more different attacks you make, the less likely it will be that any will survive.

Simulated learningUnfortunately, combinatorial complexity means this is not a simply a question of throwing a bunch of the best drugs of each type together and gaining their benefits additively. I have recently been reading John H. Miller’s ‘A crude look at the whole: the science of complex systems in business, life and society‘ which is, so far, excellent, and that addresses this and many other problems in complexity science. Miller uses the nice analogy of fashion to help explain the problem: if you simply choose the most fashionable belt, the trendiest shoes, the latest greatest shirt, the snappiest hat, etc, the chances of walking out with the most fashionable outfit by combining them together are virtually zero. In fact, there’s a very strong chance that you will wind up looking pretty awful. It is not easily susceptible to reductive science because the variables all affect one another deeply. If your shirt doesn’t go with your shoes, it doesn’t matter how good either are separately. The same is true of drugs. You can’t simply pick those that are best on their own without understanding how they all work together. Not only may they not additively combine, they may often have highly negative effects, or may prevent one another being effective, or may behave differently in a different sequence, or in different relative concentrations. To make matters worse, side effects multiply as well as therapeutic benefits so, at the very least, you want to aim for the smallest number of compounds in the cocktail that you can get away with. Even were the effects of combining drugs positive, it would be premature to believe that it is the best possible solution unless you have actually tried them all. And therein lies the rub, because there are really a great many ways to combine them.

Miller and colleagues have been using the ideas behind simulated annealing to create faster, better ways to discover working cocktails of drugs. They started with 19 drugs which, a small bit of math shows, could be combined in 2 to the power of 19 different ways – about half a million possible combinations (not counting sequencing or relative strength issues). As only 20 such combinations could be tested each week, the chances of finding an effective, let alone the best combination, were slim within any reasonable timeframe. Simplifying a bit, rather than attempting to cover the entire range of possibilities, their approach finds a local optimum within one locale by picking a point and iterating variations from there until the best combination is found for that patch of the fitness landscape. It then checks another locale and repeats the process, and iterates until they have covered a large enough portion of the fitness landscape to be confident of having found at least a good solution: they have at least several peaks to compare. This also lets them follow up on hunches and to use educated guesses to speed up the search. It seems pretty effective, at least when compared with alternatives that attempt a theory-driven intentional design (too many non-independent variables), and is certainly vastly superior to methodically trying every alternative, inasmuch as it is actually possible to do this within acceptable timescales.

The central trick is to deliberately go downhill on the fitness landscape, rather than following an uphill route of continuous improvement all the time, which may simply get you to the top of an anthill rather than the peak of Everest in the fitness landscape. Miller very effectively shows that this is the fundamental error committed by followers of the Six-Sigma approach to management, an iterative method of process improvement originally invented to reduce errors in the manufacturing process: it may work well in a manufacturing context with a small number of variables to play with in a fixed and well-known landscape, but it is much worse than useless when applied in a creative industry like, say, education, because the chances that we are climbing a mountain and not an anthill are slim to negligible. In fact, the same is true even in manufacturing: if you are just making something inherently weak as good as it can be, it is still weak. There are lessons here for those that work hard to make our educational systems work better. For instance, attempts to make examination processes more reliable are doomed to fail because it’s exams that are the problem, not the processes used to run them. As I finish this while listening to a talk on learning analytics, I see dozens of such examples: most of the analytics tools described are designed to make the various parts of the educational machine work ‘ better’, ie. (for the most part) to help ensure that students’ behaviour complies with teachers’ intent. Of course, the only reason such compliance was ever needed was for efficient use of teaching resources, not because it is good for learning. Anthills.

This way of thinking seems to me to have potentially interesting applications in educational research. We who work in the area are faced with an irreducibly large number of recombinable and mutually affective variables that make any ethical attempt to do experimental research on effectiveness (however we choose to measure that – so many anthills here) impossible. It doesn’t stop a lot of people doing it, and telling us about p-values that prove their point in more or less scupulous studies, but they are – not to put too fine a point on it – almost always completely pointless.  At best, they might be telling us something useful about a single, non-replicable anthill, from which we might draw a lesson or two for our own context. But even a single omitted word in a lecture, a small change in inflection, let alone an impossibly vast range of design, contextual, historical and human factors, can have a substantial effect on learning outcomes and effectiveness for any given individual at any given time. We are always dealing with a lot more than 2 to the power of 19 possible mutually interacting combinations in real educational contexts. For even the simplest of research designs in a realistic educational context, the number of possible combinations of relevant variables is more likely closer to 2 to the power of 100 (in base 10 that’s  1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376). To make matters worse, the effects we are looking for may sometimes not be apparent for decades (having recombined and interacted with countless others along the way) and, for anything beyond trivial reductive experiments that would tell us nothing really useful, could seldom be done at a rate of more than a handful per semester, let alone 20 per week. This is a very good reason to do a lot more qualitative research, seeking meanings, connections, values and stories rather than trying to prove our approaches using experimental results. Education is more comparable to psychology than medicine and suffers the same central problem, that the general does not transfer to the specific, as well as a whole bunch of related problems that Smedslund recently coherently summarized. The article is paywalled, but Smedlund’s abstract states his main points succinctly:

“The current empirical paradigm for psychological research is criticized because it ignores the irreversibility of psychological processes, the infinite number of influential factors, the pseudo-empirical nature of many hypotheses, and the methodological implications of social interactivity. An additional point is that the differences and correlations usually found are much too small to be useful in psychological practice and in daily life. Together, these criticisms imply that an objective, accumulative, empirical and theoretical science of psychology is an impossible project.”

You could simply substitute ‘education’ for ‘psychology’ in this, and it would read the same. But it gets worse, because education is as much about technology and design as it is about states of mind and behaviour, so it is orders of magnitude more complex than psychology. The potential for invention of new ways of teaching and new states of learning is essentially infinite. Reductive science thus has a very limited role in educational research, at least as it has hitherto been done.

But what if we took the lessons of simulated annealing to heart? I recently bookmarked an approach to more reliable research suggested by the Christensen Institute that might provide a relevant methodology. The idea behind this is (again, simplifying a bit) to do the experimental stuff, then to sweep the normal results to one side and concentrate on the outliers, performing iterations of conjectures and experiments on an ever more diverse and precise range of samples until a richer, fuller picture results. Although it would be painstaking and longwinded, it is a good idea. But one cycle of this is a bit like a single iteration of Miller’s simulated annealing approach, a means to reach the top of one peak in the fitness landscape, that may still be a low-lying peak. However if, having done that, we jumbled up the variables again and repeated it starting in a different place, we might stand a chance of climbing some higher anthills and, perhaps, over time we might even hit a mountain and begin to have something that looks like a true science of education, in which we might make some reasonable predictions that do not rely on vague generalizations. It would either take a terribly long time (which itself might preclude it because, by the time we had finished researching, the discipline will have moved somewhere else) or would hit some notable ethical boundaries (you can’t deliberately mis-teach someone), but it seems more plausible than most existing techniques, if a reductive science of education is what we seek.

To be frank, I am not convinced it is worth the trouble. It seems to me that education is far closer as a discipline to art and design than it is to psychology, let alone to physics. Sure, there is a lot of important and useful stuff to be learned about how we learn: no doubt about that at all, and a simulated annealing approach might speed up that kind of research. Painters need to know what paints do too. But from there to prescribing how we should therefore teach spans a big chasm that reductive science cannot, in principle or practice, cross. This doesn’t mean that we cannot know anything: it just means it’s a different kind of knowledge than reductive science can provide. We are dealing with emergent phenomena in complex systems that are ontologically and epistemologically different from the parts of which they consist. So, yes, knowledge of the parts is valuable, but we can no more predict how best to teach or learn from those parts than we can predict the shape and function of the heart from knowledge of cellular organelles in its constituent cells. But knowledge of the cocktails that result – that might be useful.

 

 

Be less pigeon

I love the slogan that Audrey Watters has chosen for her new branding:

Be less pigeon

As she puts it…

“I wanted my work to both highlight the longstanding relationship between behaviorism and testing – built into the ideology and the infrastructure since ed-tech’s origins in the early twentieth century – and to remind people that there are also alternatives to treating students like animals to be trained.”

Absolutely.

Address of the bookmark: http://hackeducation.com/2016/06/08/pigeons