Schools and education

Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious” becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe.

Feb 092013
 

I’ve been reading All I Really Need to Know (about Creative Thinking) I Learned (by Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten, by Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media lab. This was the suggested reading for the first session of the Learning Creative Learning online course.

This paper argues that the “kindergarten approach to learning” – characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine – is ideally suited to the needs of the 21st century, helping learners develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success and satisfaction in today’s society. The paper discusses strategies for designing new technologies that encourage and support kindergarten-style learning, building on the success of traditional kindergarten materials and activities, but extending to learners of all ages, helping them continue to develop as creative thinkers.

Resnick's image of kindergarten learning

Resnick’s image of kindergarten learning

Resnick is referring to the kind of kindergarten where kids are not “filling out phonics worksheets and memorizing flash cards” — more like the one I remember, with huge wooden blocks, a full-size rolltop desk, and nothing that I can recall as an effort to get me ready for the LSAT.

His diagram’s a spiral because the steps in this process aren’t as distinct or sequential as describing or depicting them might imply.

It’s through this process that kindergarteners “develop and refine their abilities as creating thinkers.” And, as they grow, they need resources beyond wooden blocks and finger paint.

I like his stress on little-c creativity (“creativity within one’s personal life”). Not everyone’s going to be the next Freeman Dyson or Linus Torvalds, but everyone can “become more creative in the ways they deal with everyday problems.”

In the Imagine section, he points out that many kindergarten materials encourage the imagination–they don’t over-structure. By contrast, a lot of “education technologies are overly constrained” — you can only do what they’re set up to do.

It’s like all that fun drill and practice.

He offers the example of Crickets, which I hadn’t heard of: small programmable devices, suited to children, that they can interconnect, modify, and program. Don’t take my word for it, though:

In the article, he says:

The design challenge is to develop features specific enough so that children can quickly learn how to use them, but general enough so that children can contine to imagine new ways to use them.

For some reason, this reminded me of explanations of “simple machines” in long-ago science classes–things like inclined planes, wedges, screws, and pulleys. I’d been told that a screw was a kind of inclined plane, but when it came to pulleys, I don’t think we ever actually rigged up a bunch of pulleys to experience how the right combination would let us lift a load we otherwise could not.

While reading the Create section, I read this line three times:

With Mindstorms and Crickets, for example, children can create dynamic, interactive constructions — and, in the process, learn concepts related to sensing, feedback, and control.

It’s the last part that got me. What it brought to mind was the first course I wrote in the computer-based training system we used for reservations training at Amtrak. Things I had learned about learning (like using a minimalist approach, or providing feedback without giving away the answer) clicked. I could create a course that would help someone learn how to request and interpret train schedules–and I wouldn’t have to be there when that happened.

Resnick says (sensibly) that playing and learning ought to be linked. “Each at its best involves…experimentation, exploration, and testing.” This is part of why he disliked “edutainment” (and not just for its overripe, marketeerish name).

Studios, directors, and actors provide you with entertainment; schools and teachers provide you with education… In all of these cases, you are viewed as a passive recipient. If we are trying to help children develop as creative thinkers, it is more productive to focus on “play” and “learning” (things you do) rather than “entertainment” and “education” (things that others provide for you).

Also in this section, he mentions Scratch, a programmable language that kids can use to create interactive stories. I haven’t gone into this, but just the illustrations of the code remind me of the MIT App Inventor that I used to build a smartphone app (touch a picture of a cat, hear a purring sound, after which the image changes to a cow).

A scrap of Scratch

 

Say meow, then switch to the cow.

Scratch is one way that Resnick’s article moves into the Share section. He quotes Marvin Minsky as saying that the Logo programming language has great grammar but not much literature.

So the Scratch website is an example of “both inspiration and audience.” And, in my way of thinking, if that’s not what you want to share, you at least see how sharing can happen.

Resnick is talking about children, but I come to this from a career mostly involving helping adults to learn. And perhaps the single biggest drawback to learning in the workplace (well, after you get past icebreakers and listening-as-learning and endless recordkeeping) is the dearth of support for reflection.

What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How’s it going? What do you think made that happen (for all kinds of outcomes)?

A colleague I respect recently said he’s decided to propose his first professional-conference presentation. I was surprised that he hadn’t presented already, but no matter. I can recall the first one I did. I wanted to share with people, but I was nearly paralyzed by the idea that I didn’t have all that much to say.

And you know, maybe I didn’t, depending on what measurements you choose.

What I did have was my particular experience (using a complex computer-based training system) combined with the data-based, lean approach to helping people improve, which I’d learned from folks like Geary Rummler and Dale Brethower.

My point is that thinking about what I’d been doing, and trying to uncover value it might have for other people, helped me see the everyday in a new light. That’s the goal of useful reflection.

* * *

I’ve written this post both to help me process the ideas in Resnick’s articles and to set down thoughts of my own. In addition, I found myself noting in a separate document things I wanted to know more about (like Crickets, epistemic games, and Lev Vygotsky). To me those were sidelights; I might discuss them one on one, but this post is plenty long as is.

 

Oct 142011
 

Lena H. Sun of The Washington Post, who often reports on health-related topics, has an article in today’s paper about the use in medical training of “standardized patients” — healthy people portraying patients.  (Here’s how Johns Hopkins Medicine describes its standardized patient program.)

Developing the capabilities of doctors, nurses, and other practitioners is a clear example of complex learning.  You have a wide range of skills.  Some are primarily procedural: when you draw blood, do it like this; when you’re checking vital signs, do it like that. Follow this process for obtaining and recording data.

Most of what we think of as medical training, though, involves skill for situations where there’s no single correct approach to a given problem.  So the standardized patient is an individual who’s portraying a particular type of patient–in other words, someone who’s acting as a realistic learning task.

Many [of the standardized patients] are actors, but actors don’t always make the best patients, clinical directors said. Improv is not allowed. People trained to portray a particular type of patient must work from the same facts and deliver responses in the same way to the students examining them.

“They can’t overact,” said Kathy Schaivone, clinical instructor and director [of the Clinical Education and Evaluation Laboratory] at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. “If I can’t guarantee that all five will cry, the ones that I know that can [cry], I have to ask them not to.”

(Here’s an overview of the standardized patient curriculum at U-Maryland Baltimore.)

One challenge for the standardized patients is to provide a structured debriefing: “Did the student palpate the sinuses? Listen to the heart in all four places? Wash hands before and after touching the patient?”

In this setting, I see two interconnected sets of skills:

  • Those needed by the medical practitioners to relate to patients, interact with them, and arrive at a reasonable diagnosis based on limited information.
  • Those needed by the standardized patients in order to believably and consistently portray someone with a particular condition.

Behind both of these, of course, is an intensive effort to design, develop, and implement the training.  Beyond the somewhat obvious (what conditions are both useful to have portrayed and suited to the standardized patient approach?), there’s the multilevel skill required of the patients: how do I portray the condition?  What do I share readily?  What do I tend to withhold?  What am I incorrect about?

In addition, the patients need to debrief the students, both via checklists and via face-to-face feedback. Program directors like Schaivone, meanwhile, need to monitor the performances of both the patients and the students.

To illustrate the complexity of behavior, the online version of Sun’s article has a link to this May 2011 article on how doctors struggle to show compassion, by Manoj Jain, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Emory University.

‘Standardized medicine’ image adapted from the CC-licensed original by Ben Weston (Tek F).

Sep 212010
 

Kevin Kelly, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, writes about home-schooling his eighth-grade son.  He balances a nothing-special tone (“one of more than a million students home-schooled” last year) with crisp examples like the boy’s decision to learn to make fire the old-fashioned way.

He was surprised by the enormous amount of bodily energy required [to use the bow method]… and how a minuscule, nearly invisible bit of fuel… can quickly amplify into a flame and then a fire.  Chemistry, physics, history and gym all in one lesson.  And, man, when you are 13 years old and Prometheus, it’s exhilarating!

(Probably took a little while longer than this demo I found on YouTube.)

Kelly and his wife had a goal: to provide an ideal learning environment.  Their son had gone to school for 7 years, and planned to attend an “intense” high school.  He was the one who asked if he could be home schooled.

What stands out for me is Kelly’s statement that technology was not a major factor in the success of this year.  Yes, lots of online materials and research.  But the computer was only one tool among many.

Kelly sees “technological literacy” as yet another proficiency children need to acquire.  It supplements but isn’t the same kind of critter as critical thinking, logic, or the scientific method:

Technological literacy is…proficiency with the larger system of our invented world.  It is close to an intuitive sense of how you add up, or parse, the manufactured ralm.  We don’t need expertise with every invention; that is not only impossible, it’s not very useful.  Rather, we need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general…

What kinds of literacy is he talking about? These stood out for me:

  • Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second.  Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
    • This aligns with a tongue-in-cheek watchword: never buy a low serial number.  More seriously, it’s allowed me to happily skip at least 1 out of 2 OS  upgrades.
  • Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner.  Get good at it.
    • “You will always be a beginner.”  It sounds like you’re being sentenced.  It’s more like having a gate opened: you’re not the only one here.
  • Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls.  If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.
  • Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for.  The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  • The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.

That last point truly resonated with me.  Among other things, it recalled a somewhat dry but oddly compelling book I’ve been rereading: The Coming of the Book: the Impact of Printing, 1450-1800.

Atoms take time, but bits are instant.Kelly’s website announces the coming of his latest book, What Technology Wants.  Here’s part of what he says about the book as a book:

I suspect this will be the last paper-native book that I do. The amount of work required to process atoms into a sheaf of fibers and ink and then ship it to your house or the local bookstore is more than most of us are willing to pay anymore. And of course the extra time needed upfront to print and transport it is shocking. This book was finished, designed, proofed, and ready to be read four months ago. But atoms take time, while bits are instant.

What about Kelly’s son?  I think he’ll do fine in that demanding high school, based on this anecdote near the end of the NYTM piece:

On one particularly long day, with books piled up and papers spread out, my son was slumped in his chair.

“Is everything O.K.?” I asked.

“It’s hard,” he said.  “I not only have to be the student, I also have to be the teacher.”

“Yes!  So what have you learned about being a teacher?”

“You have to teach the student — that’s me — not only to learn stuff but to learn how to learn.”

“And have you?”

“I think I am doing better as the student than the teacher.  I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”

Mar 252010
 

I was surprised to learn–from my wife, no less–that I unconsciously assess things (especially edible things) on a personal scale with almost as many degrees as a thermometer.

It’s an understatement scale, I guess, because even as my approval increases, the terminology is…less than exuberant, as in these examples:

  • That’s okay.  (Barely acceptable.)
  • That’s not bad.
  • Not half bad.  (Well above average.)
  • Not bad at all.
  • That’s all right. (At least one Michelin star.)
  • Pretty good.  (At least two.)

There’s a theoretical maximum, “really good.”  It’s like absolute zero, only warmer; you don’t find it much in nature.

I asked my children whether they’d ever heard me apply these terms.  They couldn’t say, because it’s hard to talk when you’re convulsed in laughter.

The purpose of a scale is twofold: measuring and evaluating.  Measuring is a comparison with some standard: you’re this tall (in inches, in cubits, in stacked-up poker chips).  You typed 268 characters in 3 minutes and made 4 errors.

Evaluating is forming a judgment, usually by means of a further comparison.  You’re tall for a 14-year-old boy.  You meet the minimum speed required for this job.

Thanks to Stephen Downes’s OLDaily, I came across Clarence Fisher’s connecting assessment.  It’s a rubric he created for middle schoolers “to help students think about the connections and global understandings they are establishing.”

He doesn’t plan to assign grades based on where students are–this is a conversation starter, he says.  To me, it’s a way to say to the student, “This is how it might look if you’re at a beginner level of skill.  This is more-than-beginner.  This is how it looks if you’re accomplished.”

Fisher offered another rubric in an earlier post–one to help grade student blog posts.

What I like about these is that Fisher shares what he’s come up with for a particular situation.  He even provides Google doc versions (blogging rubric, connecting rubric) in case someone wants to use them as starting points.

Pretty good, I’d say.

“Approval scale” image adapted from this CC-licensed photo by mag3737 / Tom Magliery
(images are his; cartoon balloons are mine).

Mar 092010
 

This morning’s Washington Post has an article about college professors banning laptops from their classrooms.  (The first example is from a Georgetown Law lecture on “democracy and coercion.”)

Similar bans, the article claims, exist at William and Mary, the University of Virginia, and other big-name schools.

It’s been years for me since college, so my own notions are just notions.  That rarely stops me from musing.

  • That law lecture occurred in a room with a hundred students.  Ipso facto, it seems to me, the average student didn’t get to say ten words.  Not that you have to say something to rework, reconsider, connect what’s new to what’s known–but talking about new material is at least as helpful as writing notes on paper.
  • It’s not as if a room without laptops is a room without distractions (or a room that suddenly has interesting lecture).  As a U-Va professor says, “If students don’t want to pay attention, the laptop is the least of your problems.”
  • One comment added to the Post story reminds us of all the people who doodled, crossword-puzzled, or just read the sports pages while safely and quietly lodged toward the back of the lecture hall.

I don’t mean to seem one-sided.  No matter how cool your keyboard, even ten people in a room going clickety clickety clickety can be distracting–just as Worlds of Warcraft can be when it’s on the screen of the person in front of you during Conflict in Nineteenth-Century East Asia.

Stepping completely outside things I know about: maybe the tried-and-true formal education approach isn’t always ideal.  A law professor in a lecture hall might not be so impartial about his methods as to concede their shortcomings.  Is a lecture to 100 people an optimal way to achieve whatever the goal is for “democracy and coercion?”

Maybe not–because formal systems like law school have a built-in time and exposure constraint, culminating in not just the law degree but the bar exam.

Mostly I think the question hinges on specifics: what’s the purpose of this (presumably in-person) class?  Why is it in-person?  Am I as the professor dispensing knowledge (the Font of Wisdom approach)?  Am I encouraging people to explore issues, grapple with implications, bring in things from the outside?

Consider the approach of another Georgetown law professor (who does allow laptops).  He told his class that Chief Justice John Roberts was stepping down from the Supreme Court.

That was untrue, as the professor knew–but the news flew out.  It seems the real point of the lesson was: credibility. (Much more on this story at Above the Law, including a follow-up.)

CC-licensed image of lecture notes by Kevin Lawver.