These are the slides from my recent talk with students studying the philosophy of education at Pace University.
This is a mashup of various talks I have given in recent years, with a little new stuff drawn from my in-progress book. It starts with a discussion of the nature of technology, and the distinction between hard and soft technologies that sees relative hardness as the amount of pre-orchestration in a technology (be it a machine or a legal system or whatever). I observe that pedagogical methods (‘pedagogies’ for short) are soft technologies to those who are applying them, if not to those on the receiving end. It is implied (though I forgot to explicitly mention) that hard technologies are always more structurally significant than soft ones: they frame what is possible.
All technologies are assemblies, and (in education), the pedagogies applied by learners are always the most important parts of those assemblies. However, in traditional in-person classrooms, learners are (by default) highly controlled due to the nature of physics – the need to get a bunch of people together in one place at one time, scarcity of resources, the limits of human voice and hearing, etc – and the consequent power relationships and organizational constraints that occur. The classroom thus becomes the environment that frames the entire experience, which is very different from what are inaccurately described as online learning environments (which are just parts of a learner’s environment).
Because of physical constraints, the traditional classroom context is inherently very bad for intrinsic motivation. It leads to learners who don’t necessarily want to be there, having to do things they don’t necessarily want to do, often being either bored or confused. By far the most common solution to that problem is to apply externally regulated extrinsic motivation, such as grades, punishments for non-attendance, rules of classroom behaviour, and so on. This just makes matters much worse, and makes the reward (or the avoidance of punishment) the purpose of learning. Intelligent responses to this situation include cheating, short-term memorization strategies, satisficing, and agreeing with the teacher. It’s really bad for learning. Such issues are not at all surprising: all technologies create as well as solve problems, so we need to create counter technologies to deal with them. Thus, what we normally recognize as good pedagogy is, for the most part, a set of solutions to the problems created by the constraints of in-person teaching, to bring back the love of learning that is destroyed by the basic set-up. A lot of good teaching is therefore to do with supporting at least better, more internally regulated forms of extrinsic motivation.
Because pedagogies are soft technologies, skill is needed to use them well. Harder pedagogies, such as Direct Instruction, that are more prescriptive of method tend (on average) to work better than softer pedagogies such as problem-based learning, because most teachers tend towards being pretty average: that’s implicit in the term, after all. Lack of skill can be compensated for through the application of a standard set of methods that only need to be done correctly in order to work. Because such methods can also work for good teachers as well as the merely average or bad, their average effectiveness is, of course, high. Softer pedagogical methods such as active learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and so on rely heavily on passionate, dedicated, skilled, time-rich teachers and so, on average, tend to be less successful. However, when done well, they outstrip more prescriptive methods by a large margin, and lead to richer, more expansive outcomes that go far beyond those specified in a syllabus or test. Softer technologies, by definition, allow for greater creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and so on than harder technologies but are therefore difficult to implement. There is no such thing as a purely hard or purely soft technology, though, and all exist on a spectrum,. Because all pedagogies are relatively soft technologies, even those that are quite prescriptive, almost any pedagogical method can work if it is done well: clunky, ugly, weak pedagogies used by a fantastic teacher can lead to great, persistent, enthusiastic learning. As Hattie observes, almost everything works – at least, that’s true of most things that are reported on in educational research studies :-). But (and this is the central message of my book, the consequences of which are profound) it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results.
Problems can occur, though, when we use the same methods that work in person in a different context for which they were not designed. Online learning is by far the most dominant mode of learning (for those with an Internet connection – some big social, political, economic, and equity issues here) on the planet. Google, YouTube, Wikipedia, Reddit, StackExchange, Quora, etc, etc, etc, not to mention email, social networking sites, and so on, are central to how most of us in the online world learn anything nowadays. The weird thing about online education (in the institutional sense) is that online learning is far less obviously dominant, and tends to be viewed in a far less favourable light when offered as an option. Given the choice, and without other constraints, most students would rather learn in-person than online. At least in part, this is due to the fact that those of us working in formal online education continue to apply pedagogies and organizational methods that solved problems in in-person classrooms, especially with regard to teacher control: the rewards and punishments of grades, fixed length courses, strictly controlled pathways, and so on are solutions to problems that do not exist or that exist in very different forms for online learners, whose learning environment is never entirely controlled by a teacher.
The final section of the presentation is concerned with what – in very broad terms – native distance pedagogies might look like. Distance pedagogies need to acknowledge the inherently greater freedoms of distance learners and the inherently distributed nature of distance learning. Truly learner-centric teaching does not seek to control, but to support, and to acknowledge the massively distributed nature of the activity, in which everyone (including emergent collective and networked forms arising from their interactions) is part of the gestalt teacher, and each learner is – from their perspective – the most important part of all of that. To emphasize that none of this is exactly new (apart from the massive scale of connection, which does matter a lot), I include a slide of Leonardo’s to-do list that describes much the same kinds of activity as those that are needed of modern learners and teachers.
For those seeking more detail, I list a few of what Terry Anderson and I described as ‘Connectivist-generation’ pedagogical models. These are far more applicable to native online learning than earlier pedagogical generations that were invented for an in-person context. In my book I am now describing this new, digitally native generation as ‘complexivist’ pedagogies, which I think is a more accurate and less confusing name. It also acknowledges that many theories and models in the family (such as John Seely Brown’s distributed cognitive apprenticeship) predate Connectivism itself. The term comes from Davis’s and Sumara’s 2006 book, ‘Complexity and Education‘, which is a great read that deserves more attention than it received when it was published.
This is a slide deck for a talk I’m giving today, at a faculty workshop, on the subject of learning outcomes.
I think that well-considered learning outcomes can be really helpful when planning and designing learning activities, especially where there is a need to assess learning. They can help keep a learning designer focused, and to remember to ensure that assessment activities actually make a positive contribution to learning. They can also be helpful to teachers while teaching, as a framework to keep them on track (if they wish to remain on track). However, that’s about it. Learning outcomes are not useful when applied to bureaucratic ends, they are very poor descriptors of what learning actually happens, as a rule, and they are of very little (if any) use to students under most circumstances (there are exceptions – it’s a design issue, not a logical flaw).
The big point of my talk, though, is that we should be measuring what students have actually learned, not whether they have learned what we think we have taught, and that the purpose of everything we do should be to support learning, not to support bureaucracy.
I frame this in terms of the relationships between:
what we teach (what we actually teach, not just what we think we are teaching, including stuff like attitudes, beliefs, methods of teaching, etc),
what a student learns in the process (an individual student, not students as a whole), and
what we assess (formally and summatively, not necessarily as part of the learning process).
There are many things that we teach that any given student will not learn, albeit that (arguably) we wouldn’t be teaching at all if learning were not happening for someone. Most students get a small subset of that. There are also many things that we teach without intentionally teaching, not all of them good or useful.
There are also very many things that students learn that we do not teach, intentionally or otherwise. In fact, it is normal for us to mandate this as part of a learning design: any mildly creative or problem-solving/inquiry-oriented activity will lead to different learning outcomes for every learner. Even in the most horribly regimented teaching contexts, students are the ones that connect everything together, and that’s always going to include a lot more than what their teachers teach.
Similarly, there are lots of things that we assess that we do not teach, even with great constructive alignment. For example, the students’ ability to string a sentence together tends to be not just a prerequisite but something that is actively graded in typical assessments.
My main points are that, though it is good to have a teaching plan (albeit that it should be flexible, reponsive to student needs, and should accommodate serendipity)learning :
students should be participants in planning outcomes and
we should assess what students actually learn, not what we think we are teaching.
From a learning perspective, there’s less than no point in summatively judging what learners have not learned. However, that’s exactly what most institutions actually do. Assessment should be about how learners have positively changed, not whether they have met our demands.
This also implies that students should be participants in the planning and use of learning outcomes: they should be able to personalize their learning, and we should recognize their needs and interests. I use andragogy to frame this, because it is relatively uncontroversial, is easily understood, and doesn’t require people to change everything in their world view to become better teachers, but I could have equally used quite a large number of other models. Connectivism, Communities of Practice, and most constructivist theories, for instance, force us to similar conclusions.
I suggest that appreciative inquiry may be useful as an approach to assessment, inasmuch as the research methodology is purpose-built to bring about positive change, and its focus on success rather than failure makes sense in a learning context.
I also suggest the use of outcome mapping (and its close cousin, outcome harvesting) as a means of capturing unplanned as well as planned outcomes. I like these methods because they only look at changes, and then try to find out what led to those changes. Again, it’s about evaluation rather than judgment.
This is my Spotlight Session from the 34th Distance Teaching & Learning Conference, at Wisconsin Madison, August 8th, 2018. Appropriately enough, I did this online and at a distance thanks to my ineptitude at dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration. Unfortunately my audio died as we moved to the Q&A session so, if anyone who was there (or anyone else) has any questions or observations, do please post them here! Comments are moderated.
The talk was concerned with how online learning is fundamentally different from in-person learning, and what that means for how (or even whether) we teach, in the traditional formal sense of the word.
Teaching is always a gestalt process, an emergent consequence of the actions of many teachers, including most notably the learners themselves, which is always greater than (and notably different from) the sum of its parts. This deeply distributed process is often masked by the inevitable (thanks to physics in traditional classrooms) dominance of an individual teacher in the process. Online, the mask falls off. Learners invariably have both far greater control and far more connection with the distributed gestalt. This is great, unless institutional teachers fight against it with rewards and punishments, in a pointless and counter-productive effort to try to sustain the level of control that is almost effortlessly attained by traditional in-person teachers, and that is purely a consequence of solving problems caused by physical classroom needs, not of the needs of learners. I describe some of the ways that we deal with the inherent weaknesses of in-person teaching especially relating to autonomy and competence support, and observe how such pedagogical methods are a solution to problems caused by the contingent side effects of in person teaching, not to learning in general.
The talk concludes with some broad characterization of what is different when teachers choose to let go of that control. I observe that what might have been Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest creation was his effective learning process, without which none of the rest of his creations could have happened. I am hopeful that now, thanks to the connected world that we live in, we can all learn like Leonardo, if and only if teachers can learn to let go.
The Verge reports on a variety of studies that show taking notes with laptops during lectures results in decreased learning when compared with notes taken using pen and paper. This tells me three things, none of which is what the article is aiming to tell me:
That the institutions are teaching very badly. Countless decades of far better evidence than that provided in these studies shows that giving lectures with the intent of imparting information like this is close to being the worst way to teach. Don’t blame the students for poor note taking, blame the institutions for poor teaching. Students should not be put in such an awful situation (nor should teachers, for that matter). If students have to take notes in your lectures then you are doing it wrong.
That the students are not skillful laptop notetakers. These studies do not imply that laptops are bad for notetaking, any more than giving students violins that they cannot play implies that violins are bad for making music. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it. If their classes depend on effective notetaking then teachers should be teaching students how to do it. But, of course, most of them probably never learned to do it well themselves (at least using laptops). It becomes a vicious circle.
That laptop and, especially, software designers have a long way to go before their machines disappear into the background like a pencil and paper. This may be inherent in the medium, inasmuch as a) they are vastly more complex toolsets with much more to learn about, and b) interfaces and apps constantly evolve so, as soon as people have figured out one of them, everything changes under their feet. It becomes a vicious cycle.
The extra cognitive load involved in manipulating a laptop app (and stopping the distractions that manufacturers seem intent on providing even if you have the self-discipline to avoid proactively seeking them yourself) can be a hindrance unless you are proficient to the point that it becomes an unconscious behaviour. Few of us are. Tablets are a better bet, for now, though they too are becoming overburdened with unsought complexity and unwanted distractions. I have for a couple of years now been taking most of my notes at conferences etc with an Apple Pencil and an iPad Pro, because I like the notetaking flexibility, the simplicity, the lack of distraction (albeit that I have to actively manage that), and the tactile sensation of drawing and doodling. All of that likely contributes to making it easier to remember stuff that I want to remember. The main downside is that, though I still gain laptop-like benefits of everything being in one place, of digital permanence, and of it being distributed to all my devices, I have, in the process, lost a bit in terms of searchability and reusability. I may regret it in future, too, because graphic formats tend to be less persistent over decades than text. On the bright side, using a tablet, I am not stuck in one app. If I want to remember a paper or URL (which is most of what I normally want to remember other than my own ideas and connections that are sparked by the speaker) I tend to look it up immediately and save it to Pocket so that I can return to it later, and I do still make use of a simple notepad for things I know I will need later. Horses for courses, and you get a lot more of both with a tablet than you do with a pencil and paper. And, of course, I can still use pen and paper if I want a throwaway single-use record – conference programs can be useful for that.
It is not much of a surprise that many apps are designed to be addictive, nor that there is a whole discipline behind making them so, but I was particularly interested in the delightfully named Dopamine Labs‘ use of behaviourist techniques (operant conditioning with variable ratio scheduling, I think), and the reasoning behind it. As the article puts it:
One of the most popular techniques … is called variable reinforcement or variable rewards. It involves three steps: a trigger, an action and a reward. A push notification, such as a message that someone has commented on your Facebook photo, is a trigger; opening the app is the action; and the reward could be a “like” or a “share” of a message you posted. These rewards trigger the release of dopamine in the brain, making the user feel happy, possibly even euphoric, Brown says. “Just by controlling when and how you give people that little burst of dopamine, you can get them to go from using [the app] a couple times a week to using it dozens of times a week.”
For well-designed social media and games, the reward is intrinsic to the activity, and perfectly aligned with its function. If the intent is to create addicts – which, in both kinds of system, it probably is – the trick is to design an environment that builds rewards into the algorithms (the rules) of the system, and to keep them coming, ideally making it possible for the rewards to increase in intensity as the user gains greater expertise or experience, but varying ratios or intervals between rewards to keep things interesting. Though this particular example falls out from behaviourist theory, it is also well supported by cognitivist and brain-based understandings of how we think. Drug dealers know this too, as it happens. If you want to keep people using your product, this is how to make your product particularly addictive.
Lovers of learning experience addiction too. The more we learn, the more there is to learn, the greater the depth and pleasure there is to be found in doing so, and the sporadic ups and downs, especially when faced with challenges we eventually solve, are part of the joy of it. Increasing mastery of anything is a reward in itself that seems quite intrinsic to our make-up, and to that of many other animals. Doing it in a social context is even better, as we share in the learning of others and gain value (social capital, different perspectives, help overcoming problems, etc) in the process. We gain greater control, greater autonomy, greater capability to live our lives as we want to live them, which is very motivating. As long as the reward comes from the activity itself, and the activity is not harmful, this is good news. It makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. We are innately motivated to learn, because learning is an extremely valuable survival characteristic. Learning generally makes dopamine positively drip from our eyeballs.
So what’s the problem with applying the principle in education?
None at all, until you hit something that you do not wish to learn, that is too difficult to master right now, that is too boring, that has no obvious rewards in and of itself. The correct response to this problem is, ideally, to find what there is to love in it. Good teachers can help with that a lot, inspiring, revealing, supporting, demonstrating, and discussing. Other learners can make a huge difference too, supporting, modelling behaviours, filling gaps, and so on. We very often learn things for other people, with other people, or because of other people. Educational systems offer a good substrate for that.
If intrinsic motivation fails to move us, then at least the motivation should be self-determined. Figure 2 shows a very successful and well-validated model of motivation (from Ryan and Deci) that, amongst other things, usefully describes differing degrees of extrinsic motivation (external, introjected, identified, and integrated) that, as they approach the right of the diagram, increasingly approach intrinsic motivation in value, though ‘external regulation’ is rather different, of which more soon. When intrinsic motivation fails, what we need is some kind of internal regulation to push us onwards. It is not a bad idea to find some internally regulated reason that aligns with your beliefs about yourself and your goals, or that at least fits with some purpose or goal that you find valuable. It’s sometimes useful to develop a bit of ‘grit‘ – to be able to do something that you don’t love doing in order to be able to do things that you do love doing, to find reasons for learning stuff that are meaningful and fit with your personal values, even if the immediately presenting activity is not fun in itself. Again, teachers and other people can help a lot with that, by showing ways that they are doing so themselves, by providing support, by engaging, or by being the reason that we do something in the first place. It’s all very social, at its heart.
Figure 2: Forms of motivation
That social element is important, and not clearly represented in the diagram, despite being a critical aspect of intrinsic motivation and mattering a lot for the ‘higher’ identified forms of extrinsic motivation. From an evolutionary perspective, I suspect this ability to learn because of the presence of others accounts for our species’ apparent dominance in our ecosystems. We are not particularly clever as independent individuals but, collectively, we are mighty smart. This could not be the case without having an innate inclination to value, and to gain value from, other people, and for this to have the consequence that others very materially contribute towards our motivation to do something. I guess I should mention that ‘innate’ does not mean ‘pre-programmed’ – this is almost certainly an emergent phenomenon. But it is a big part of who we are.
So far so good. Educational systems are, at least in principle, very effective ways of bringing people together. It all goes horribly wrong, however, when the educators’ response to amotivation (or worse, to motivation to avoid) is to change the rules by throwing in extrinsic rewards and punishments, like grades, say, or applying other controls to the process like forced attendance. Externally regulated extrinsic motivation is extremely dangerous.
Extrinsic rewards and punishments do work, in the sense that they coerce people and other animals into behaving as the giver of the rewards or punishments wishes them to behave. And yes, dopamine is implicated. This immediate effectiveness is what makes them so alluring. But it’s like giving an athlete performance-enhancing but ultimately harmful drugs. Rewards and punishments are also highly addictive and, like other addictions, you need more and more to sustain your addiction because you become inured to the effects, and withdrawal gets more painful the longer you are addicted. This works two ways. Those that get the rewards (the good grades, gold stars, praise, whatever) go on to want more of them, and will do what they need to get them, whether or not there are any further benefits (like, say, learning). Cheating is one popular way to do this. Tactical study, where the student tries to do what will get good grades rather than learn for the love of it, is another. But grading, though extrinsically motivating for the most part, is not always effective: bad grades can achieve the opposite effect, like drugs spiked with something horrible. Those that get grades as punishments often try to avoid them by whatever means they can: dropping out and cheating (a way to bypass the system to get hold of the good stuff) are popular solutions.
The biggest problems, however, come when you take the rewards/punishments away. As a vast body of research has shown and continues to show, this diminishes intrinsic motivation and often eliminates it altogether. If people are not very inclined to do something then you can temporarily boost interest by adding extrinsic rewards or punishments but, when you take them away, people are considerably less inclined to do the thing than they were before your started even when they originally liked to do it. At a high level this can be explained by the fact that, in giving a reward or punishment, you are drawing attention away from (crowding out) the thing itself and, at the same time, sending a strong signal that the activity itself is not rewarding enough in itself to be worth doing. But I am not sure that this fully explains the very strong negative effects on motivation that we actually see when rewards or punishments are withdrawn. I idly speculate that part of the reason for this effect might be the dopamine crash. We come to associate an activity with a dopamine boost and, when that boost is no longer forthcoming, it can be very disappointing, like smoking a nicotine-free cigarette (trust me – that’s awful). Cold turkey is not the best state to be in, especially when you associate it with an activity like learning something. It could really put you off a subject. This is just a thought: I know of no evidence that it is true, but it seems a plausible hypothesis that would be worth testing.
Whatever the cause, the effects are terrible. By extrinsically driving our students, we kill the love of the activity itself for those that might have loved it, and permanently prevent those that might have later found it valuable from ever wanting to do it again. Remarkably few survive unscathed, and a disproportionate number of those that do go on to become teachers, and so the cycle continues. I don’t think this is how education should be, and I don’t think it is what most of us in the system intend from it.
Getting out of the loop
The only really effective way to ensure lifelong interest and ongoing love of learning is to find the reward in the activity itself, not in an extrinsic reward. The games and social applications described in this article do that very well but it is important to remember that the intent of the designers of the applications is to increase addiction to them in order to sell or promote the product, and that there is perfect alignment between the reward and the activity itself. This is built into the rule system. In an education system that is driven by marks, we are making grades (not learning) the product, and making those the source of the addiction. This is very different. It has nothing to do with the activity of learning itself: it is extrinsic to the process. It might be even more effective give our students addictive drugs (higher concentrations equate to higher grades) to increase the incentive. I’m surprised no one has tried this.
But, seriously, what we really need to be doing is to make learning the addiction.
We can reduce the harm to an extent by removing grades from the teaching process and focusing on useful feedback and encouragement instead. If forced to judge, we can use pass/fail grades that are still harmful but not quite as controlling. If we are inexplicably drawn to grading, then we can build systems similar to those of ‘likes’ and badges of social media where, instead of rewards we give awards – in other words, we remove the expectation of a grade but, where merit is found, sometimes show our approval – and we can make that a social process, so that it is not dominated by a teacher and therefore does not involve exercise of arbitrary power. We can use pedagogies that give teachers and students the chance to model and demonstrate their passion and interest. We can encourage students to reflect on why they are doing it, ideally shared so they can gain inspiration from others. We can help students to integrate work with other things that matter to them. We can help them personalize their own learning so that it is appropriately challenging, not too dull, not to hard, and so that it matches the goals they set for themselves. We can help them to set those goals, and help them to figure out how to attain them. We can make them participants in the grading process, picking outcomes and assessments that match their interests and needs. We can build communities that support and nourish learning through sharing and mutual support. This is just a small sample of ways – there are really quite a few things that we can do, even within a broken system, to make learning addictive, to find ways to make it rewarding in and of itself, even when there is little initial interest to build upon. But we are still stuck in a system that treats grades as rewards, so we are still faced with a furious current pushing against all of our efforts.
Really, we need to change the system, but just a bit: our current educational systems have evolved for pragmatic reasons, mainly because alternatives are too expensive or inconvenient for teachers to manage, not because they are any good for learners. One of the consequences of that is that it is almost impossible to run an institutional course or program without at least some form of grading, even if only at pass/fail level, even if only at the end.
An obvious big part of the solution is to decouple learning and grading. Some more advanced competency-based approaches already do that, as do things like challenge assessments and assessment of prior experience and learning, to some extent project/essay/thesis paths, outcomes-based programs, and even some kinds of professional exams (the latter not in a good way, for the most part, because they tend to drive the process). However, there are risks that universities might turn into an up-market version of driving schools, teaching how to pass the tests and doing just as they are doing now, rather than enabling more expansive learning as they should. To avoid that, it is critical that learners are involved in helping to determine their own personalized outcomes, and very much not to have those learning outcomes ‘personalized’ for them – personal, not personalized, as Alfie Kohn puts it and as Stephen Downes agrees. Grades that learners control, for activities that they choose to undertake, are many times better than grades that someone else imposes. It would also be a good idea either to split teaching activities into assemblable chunks, or into open narratives, without alignment with specific awards or qualifications. Students might build competences from smaller pieces – often from different sources – in order to seek a specific award, or might gain more than one award from a single learning narrative (or perhaps from a couple that overlap). It would be a very good idea to provide ways to mentor and help learners to seek appropriate paths, perhaps through personal tuition, and/or through automated help, and/or through membership of supportive communities (I am a fan of action learning sets for this kind of thing). Such mechanisms might also assist in the preparation of portfolios of evidence that would be an obvious way to manage the formal assessment process. I’m not in any way suggesting that we educators (especially for adult learners) should get rid of our accreditation role, merely that we should stop using it to drive our teaching and to enforce compliance in our students.
I think that such relatively small tweaks to how we teach and assess could have massive benefits further upstream. In one fell swoop it would change the focus of educational systems from grades to learning, and change the reward structure from extrinsic to intrinsic. Instead of building fixed-length courses with measurable outcomes that we the teachers control, we could create ecosystems for learning, where cooperation and collaboration would have greater value than competition, where learners are really part of a club, not a cohort, where teachers are perceived as enablers of learning, not as causes, and certainly not as judges. The words ‘learner-centred’ have been much over-used, often being a shorthand for ‘a friendlier way of making students comply with our demands’ or ‘helping students to get better grades’, but I think they fairly accurately denote what this sort of system would entail when taken seriously. Some of my friends and colleagues prefer ‘learning-centred’ and that works for me too. But really this is about being more human and more humane. It’s about breaking the machines that determine what we do and how we do it, and focusing instead on what we – collectively and individually – want to be. We can do this by thinking carefully about what motivates people, as opposed to attempting to motivate them. As soon as our attitude is one of ‘how can we make our students to this?’ rather than ‘how can we help our students to do this?’ we have failed. It’s easy to create addicts of extrinsic motivation. It is hard to make addicts of learning. But, sometimes, the hard way is the right way.
A straightforward and briefly reported study that supports the rather obvious hypothesis that quite young (15-month-old) children can and do learn from observing adults, at least in the short term. The twist here is that adults in the study were deliberately trying to model an attitude (grit) more than a distinct behaviour, in an attempt to teach the kids to do the same.
It is fair to say that the researchers demonstrated to the kids that persevering with problems after initially failure can lead to desirable results, and that the kids appeared to be more inclined to do the same after watching adults doing so: this accords well with the title of the paper. I’m not sure that the adults adequately demonstrated grit, though. I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoy solving problems and positively relish the failures that teach me how to succeed. In fact, in many situations (programming, for example) I deliberately make things fail in order to understand how they do so, and that’s part of the fun, even though (and partly because) I may curse and fume when the process fails to enlighten me. Same for many commercially available puzzles, from Rubik’s Cubes to letter-sliding games. Seems to me that grit involves more than doing something enjoyable on the way to achieving some anticipated goal that matters to us. It’s often about doing unenjoyable things, sometimes for goals we don’t even find particularly interesting or worthwhile, often over a prolonged period. That’s not what was happening here. This is interesting, though, if only to confirm that really quite young kids are able to see others as beings like themselves, and to transfer the lessons of stories that they construct about what they perceive others to be doing into actions they then take themselves.
The brief timeframe of the study means that it doesn’t show whether this is how grit is actually learned over time. The extent to which lessons persist depends on a great many things, including prior experience, repetition, who is repeating it, success in the short term, effectiveness of the attitude in overcoming meaningful challenges in the long term, social value of the attitude, current context, and counter-examples over time. Outside an experimental context we pick up attitudes and sentiments from kids as much as they do from us, from one another, and from the world at large. There are usually very many others around us who are all engaged in a rich reciprocal dance with us through which we collectively construct our various intersecting cultures and subcultures, including our attitudes and values. Also, life is seldom so neatly structured and categorized that a lesson can be so directly transferred from one context to another. At least, such cases are not the interesting ones. Though the experimenters tried to make the tasks a bit different, the study was really set up to highlight the similarities, and to lead to results that would please the children. In real life, we usually need to connect one situation with another that is quite different, separated by time, and to choose between competing strategies to deal with it, often with others around us that are adopting different approaches, all of which will influence us. Often, we are not even particularly interested in the outcomes. It’s much harder to do experiments that reflect that reality. In fact, it’s probably impossible, at least without adopting the ethical precepts of Josef Mengele. The researchers laudably note a range of other limitations, including cultural differences, beliefs of children about adults, task specific issues, and so on, and make no extravagant claims that it can be generalized further. Indeed it cannot.
That said, this is good evidence for something that I believe is not a bad idea: that teachers (formal or otherwise) should act as they hope their students will act. A very large part of the role of a teacher is to model how people in their field (or society at large, in the case of younger kids) think and behave, to enact and demonstrate their approaches and attitudes, perhaps more than to pass on the facts, skills, and technologies of their discipline, or to provide support for gaining such knowledge.
Bearing that in mind, while there is value in ‘grit’ and I don’t want to knock it too much, I think there are other attitudes that might matter a whole lot more, especially those that enable us to not just stick with stuff we don’t enjoy but to find pleasure and meaning in it. Passion is way more useful than grit, in the long run. Caring, too. Teachers that light fires in students’ hearts achieve way more than those that simply show them how to stick at things they hate.
Persistence, above and beyond IQ, is associated with long-term academic outcomes. To look at the effect of adult models on infants’ persistence, we conducted an experiment in which 15-month-olds were assigned to one of three conditions: an Effort condition in which they saw an adult try repeatedly, using various methods, to achieve each of two different goals; a No Effort condition in which the adult achieved the goals effortlessly; or a Baseline condition. Infants were then given a difficult, novel task. Across an initial study and two preregistered experiments (N = 262), infants in the Effort condition made more attempts to achieve the goal than did infants in the other conditions. Pedagogical cues modulated the effect. The results suggest that adult models causally affect infants’ persistence and that infants can generalize the value of persistence to novel tasks.
It’s a damning indictment of our collective resistance to truth that the point of this article still has to be restated, yet again. Amazingly, 93% of the general public and 76% of educators still erroneously believe that we should be taught in ways that match our learning styles. I assume this is so in the US – unless things have changed recently, the percentages, for teachers at least, are even worse in some other countries where the idea has been pushed harder from the top down, such as the UK and Netherlands. To be quite clear: this belief is not supported by any compelling evidence at all.
The fact that it is false (or, at best, no more provable than, and just as likely as, astrology) doesn’t mean that designing for learning styles necessarily a terrible idea, inasmuch as it can encourage reflective practice on the part of teachers and can even result in quite useful outcomes. As the article puts it:
“If you’re trying to vary what you do in the classroom to respect different styles, variation in instruction is probably a good thing, anyway,” he says. But rather than formatting lessons differently for auditory, kinetic or visual learners, he and Macdonald suggest that teachers tweak their instruction based on content.
“I think it really depends on your objectives for the lesson,” Macdonald says. “Some types of content really lend themselves to visual presentation … if you’re teaching maps, that’s got to be visual. If you’re teaching music, those are [the] types of things that need to be auditory.
“But if your goal is to get a multifaceted exposure to certain content, it can be helpful to weave in all different types of modalities.”
That thinking about learning styles can be a useful design tool is a fair point, and one that I have often made myself (including in quite some detail in my first book), though it’s a happy side effect of a mistake, rather than a consequence of a good theory. Using star signs would probably work just as well. I am not convinced that content should always lead design either: objectives-driven teaching is not the only fruit and, for some expansive subject areas and pedagogies, it is positively (positivistly?) harmful. But, notwithstanding its constraints and limitations, at least it is not based on a fiction.
There are many risks to using a false world model, even if it has some practical value or plausible results (pre-Copernican geocentric astronomy was better than Copernicus’s own theory at predicting movements of planets), not least of which being that it blinds us to real possibilities and leads us in worthless, wasteful, or even harmful directions. Even when the consequences include better teaching, it’s a terrible lesson to teach someone that they are a visual (or sensing, or whatever nonsense the particular theory suggests) learner. No they are not. They might have some habits, reinforced patterns, or preferences, sure. But that just means they need to try a bit harder to extend themselves and to learn to use some alternative approaches because they are definitely going to have to use them at some point when there’s no teacher in control of things but themselves, and nothing to fit their preferred style available. My learning style is and should be whatever the hell I need.
I’ve mentioned before that I believe a better (if less attractive) term would be ‘being-taught habits’ because one of the least savoury aspects of the whole learning styles gestalt is that it actually has little to do with learning, and everything to do with achieving better indoctrination; of asserting the power of the teacher (at least, it would if it worked). For that kind of thing, we’d learn more from the sciences and arts of the advertising industry than from any snake oil learning style theory. We might equally learn from preachers and religions: they are mostly pretty good at making people think and behave the way they wish.
There are other ways to gain the useful side-effects of designing for learning styles that do not rely on falsehoods, or that make no claims that they match reality one way or the other – de Bono’s Thinking Hats, for instance, or design-based research. And it doesn’t take much to make learning style theories less dumb. I am personally quite fond of Gordon Pask’s serialist/holist model, despite coming perilously close to a learning styles theory at times, because it describes a continuum of learning strategies, without suggesting too much (OK, fair enough, Pask slipped here and there) that such strategies be fixed, habitual, or generally preferred by particular learners. They are simply perspectives we can choose as and when it is helpful to do so. However, if possible, when designing learning activities, we should use approaches that are based as much as we are able on how the world is, not how we think it should be. From that perspective, learning styles are a potentially dangerous and time-consuming dead end.
The title of this Alphr article is a little misleading because the point the article rightly makes is that it all depends on the type of praise given. It reports on research from the University of Toronto that confirms (yet again) what should be obvious: praising learners for who they are (‘you’re so smart’) is a really bad idea, while praising what they do (‘you did that well’) is not normally a bad idea. The issue, though, is essentially one of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. By praising the person for being a particular way you are positioning that as the purpose, rather than a side-effect, of the activity, and positioning yourself as the arbiter, so disempowering the learner. By praising the behaviour, you are offering useful feedback on performance that empowers the recipient to choose whether and how to do such things again, as well as supporting needs for relatedness (it shows you care) and competence (it helps them improve). Both forms of praise contribute to feelings of self-esteem, but only one supports intrinsic motivation.
The nice twist in these particular studies (here and here) is that the researchers were looking at effects on morality. They found that ability praise (teling them they are smart) is very strongly correlated with a propensity to cheat. Exactly as theory would predict, kids who have been told that they are smart are significantly more likely to respond to the extrinsic motivation (the need to live up to expectations when given ability praise) by cheating, when given the opportunity. Interestingly, praising the behaviour (performance praise) has little or no effect on likelihood of cheating when compared with those given no praise at all: it is only when an expectation is set that the children are perceived as smart that cheating behaviour increases. It is also interesting, if tangential, that boys appeared to be way more likely to cheat than girls under all the conditions though, once primed by ability praise, girls were more likely to cheat than boys that had received no praise or performance praise.
The lesson is nothing like as simple as remembering to just praise the action, not the person. Praising behaviours can, when used badly, be just as disempowering as praising the person. For instance, while in some senses it might be possible to view grades as a kind of abbreviated praise (or punishment, which amounts to much the same thing) for a behaviour, there’s a critical difference: the fact that it will be graded is known in advance by the learner. This is compounded by the fact that the grade matters to them, often more than the performance of the activity itself. Thus, achieving the grade becomes the goal, not the consequence of the behaviour, and it reinforces the power of the grader to determine the behaviour of the learner, with a consequent loss of learner autonomy. That shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is the big issue here, not the praise itself. There are lots of ways to give both performance praise and ability praise that are not coercive. They are only harmful when used to manipulate behaviour.
A Quartz article that claims (accurately) that p-learning bootcamps dominate for those learning programming and other technical skills and (inaccurately) that the reason for that is that e-learning is much less engaging. In fact, there’s a sneaky and almost unnoticeable sleight of hand here, because what is actually claimed is that online learning can be less engaging and, based on that indubitable fact, extrapolates from the particular to the general, asserting that all online learning suffers the same way.
Yes, there is a lot of rubbish online learning and, in fairness, even a well-evolved establishment like Athabasca University has some of it, at least for some people some of the time. But that’s not at all surprising because every university (online or not) presents the same problem and, if you are trying to make a single learning design work for everyone, you are sure to make it too complex for some and too boring for others (personalization technologies and intelligent personal learning designs notwithstanding). Athabasca has a lot less of it thanks to its extremely rigorous quality assurance processes, but it would be crazy to imagine that everything it does is perfect for every learner at every time, as much as it would be crazy to imagine that everyone at a bricks and mortar institution gets a wonderful learning experience every time. Crazier, in fact.
The thing is, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. It’s not that online learning is less effective (countless studies prove otherwise), it’s simply that it tends to be done in a way that gives control and flexibility to learners. The immersion of physical bootcamps does have one major and very distinctive benefit: that it pulls people out of everything else and forces them to engage for a lot of hours in the day. The ‘bootcamp’ part of it ensures that they are well and truly immersed, with no way to back out apart from backing out completely It’s not that the learning experience is any better – very far from it in most cases. Most bootcamps I have seen use inane pedagogies that would not pass muster even in a conventional university, let alone somewhere like Athabasca University that actually pays attention to such things. It’s just that people are there and they have to do stuff (a lot of social pressure is involved, as well as loss-aversion) so they wind up learning a lot simply because they put in the hours, and that happens simply because they are enrolled on a bootcamp and cannot get away.Not dissimilar to the ways traditional universities work, as it happens, just a lot more intense.
Online learning gives people more choice and greater control so, if they are not innately fascinated or they have not very single-mindedly put aside enough time then, of course, they wind up learning less quickly because they put in less time over a longer period. Duh. It’s not rocket science. This is not about teaching effectiveness or smart learning designs, it is simply about stopping people from being distracted and doing other things. The solution, if a solution is needed, is for online learners to block out the time and drop the distractions. I can imagine plenty of learning designs for online learning that would make that happen – simply making it real-time and using smart tools for desktop sharing, real-time interaction, and monitoring of progress would achieve much the same results, as long as the ground rules are fully understood by all concerned. I was at a conference the other day that did pretty much that. Such an approach doesn’t happen much, of course, for all the reasons people go for online learning in the first place, inasmuch as such methods take away the control and flexibility that make it so appealing. On the other hand, perhaps there is a place for such techniques. It seems there is a market and, as long as expectations are carefully managed (you don’t distract yourself with reading emails and engaging in social media, you pledge to be available, you block out your calendar) it might work pretty well. But why bother? Seems to me that online learning is better precisely because of the control it gives people. If they need extrinsic motivation to force them to learn then that’s the problem that should be solved before enrolling on any courses, and it will do them a world of good in many other situations too.
Earlier today I responded to a prospective student who was, amongst other things, seeking advice on strategies for success on a couple of our self-paced programming courses. My response was just a stream of consciousness off the top of my head but I think it might be useful to others. Here, then, with some very light editing to remove references to specific courses, are a few fairly random thoughts on how to succeed on a self-paced online programming course (and, for the most part, other courses) at Athabasca University. In no particular order:
Try to make sure that people close to you know what you are doing and, ideally, are supportive. Other people can really help, not just for the mechanical stuff but for the emotional support. Online learning, especially the self-paced form we use, can feel a bit isolating at times, but there are lots of ways to close the gap and they aren’t all found in the course materials and processes. Find support wherever you can.
Make a schedule and try to keep to it, but don’t blame yourself if your deadlines slip a bit here and there – just adjust the plan. The really important thing is that you should feel in control of the process. Having such control is one of the huge benefits of our way of teaching, but you need to take ownership of the process yourself in order to experience the benefits.
If the course provides forums or other social engagement try to proactively engage in them. Again, other people really help.
You will have way more freedom than those in traditional classrooms, who have to follow a teacher simply because of the nature of physics. However, that freedom is a two-edged sword as you can sometimes be swamped with choices and not know which way to go. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But do take advantage of the freedom. Set your own goals. Look for the things that excite you and explore further. Take breaks if you are getting tired. Play. Take control of the learning process and enjoy the ride.
Enjoy the challenges. Sometimes it will be hard, and you should expect that, especially in programming courses like these. Programming can be very frustrating at times – after 35 years of programming I can still spend days on a problem that turns out to involve a misplaced semi-colon! Accept that, and accept that even the most intractable problems will eventually be solved (and it is a wonderful feeling when you do finally get it to work). Make time to sleep on it. If you’re stuck, ask for help.
Get your work/life/learning balance right. Be realistic in your aspirations and expect to spend many hours a week on this, but make sure you make time to get away from it.
Keep a learning journal, a reflective diary of what you have done and how you have addressed the struggles, even if the course itself doesn’t ask for one. There are few more effective ways to consolidate and connect your learning than to reflect on it, and it can help to mark your progress: good to read when your motivation is flagging.
Get used to waiting for responses and find other things to learn in the meantime. Don’t stop learning because you are waiting – move on to something else, practice something you have already done, or reflect on what you have been doing so far.
Programming is a performance skill that demands constant and repeated practice. You just need to do it, get it wrong, do it again, and again, and again, until it feels like second nature. In many ways it is like learning a musical instrument or maybe even driving. It’s not something you can learn simply by reading or by being told, you really have to immerse yourself in doing it. Make up your own challenges if you run out of things to do.
Don’t just limit yourself to what we provide. Find forums and communities with appropriate interests. I am a big fan of StackOverflow.com for help and inspiration from others, though relevant subreddits can be useful and there are many other sites and systems dedicated to programming. Find one or two that make sense to you. Again, other people can really help.
Online learning can be great fun as long as you are aware of the big differences, primarily relating to control and personal agency. Our role is to provide a bit of structure and a supportive environment to enable you to learn, rather than to tell you stuff and make you do things, which can be disconcerting at first if you are used to traditional classroom learning. This puts more pressure on you, and more onus on you to organize and manage your own learning, but don’t ever forget that you are not ever really alone – we are here to help.
In summary, I think it really comes down to three big things, all of which are really about motivation, and all of which are quite different when learning online compared to face-to-face:
Autonomy – you are in control, but you must take responsibility for your own learning. You can always delegate control to us (or others) when the going gets hard or choices are hard to make, but you are always free to take it back again, and there will be no one standing over you making you do stuff apart from yourself.
Competence – there are few things more satisfying than being able to do more today than you could do yesterday. We provide some challenges and we try to keep them difficult-but-achievable at every stage along the way, but it is a great idea for you to also seek your own challenges, to play, to explore, to discover, especially if the challenges we offer are too difficult or too boring. Reflection can help a lot with this, as a means to recognize what, how, and why you have learned.
Relatedness – never forget the importance of other people. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so (that’s another freedom we offer), but it is at the very least helpful to think about how you belong in our community, your own community, and the broader community of learners and programmers, and how what and how you are learning can affect others (directly or indirectly).
This advice is by no means comprehensive! If you have other ideas or advice, or things that have worked for you, or things that you disagree with, do feel free to share them in the comments.