Learning, conflation, and the right of way

My driver’s ed instructor told my class:

You never have the right of way.
You can only yield the right of way.

Recalling this precept got me thinking about driver education / driver training, and that got me thinking about how people have very different readings for “training,” “education,” and “learning.”

Learning to drive is a good example of a complex skill (the kind van Merrienboër and Kirschner grappled with in Ten Steps to Complex Learning).  We tend to think we know what the outcome of the education or training will be: a good driver.

But what’s that?

On the formal side, it’s really about passing requirements.  If you’re an adult who moves to Maryland, for instance,  you have to:

  • Pass a vision test
  • Have had an out-of-state license within the past year (no suspensions)

And if your out-of-state license expired a year ago, you have to take “the knowledge and skills tests,” which I take to mean a road test and what was once known as a written test.

I’ve been driving for more than 40 years and have had licenses in four states, but I don’t recall taking more than one road test.  Not that I’m eager to do so, but you do get the impression that if you pass it once, still drive, and haven’t lost your license, you’re doing okay.

Some of what vM&K would call constituent skills for driving are recurrent ones–how to start the car, how to stop, how to steer, how to recognize signals and respond to them.  But there are many non-recurrent skills (things we do differently in each situation).  The other day I was exiting a strip-mall parking lot, wanting to turn right onto the highway.  An oncoming car on that highway had its right turn signal on.

Did that mean he’d be turning into the lot I was exiting?  How could I tell?  How could I help a novice driver figure that out?

My old instructor’s advice about right of way was a kind schema or mental model, like the two-second rule–one way to help new learners acquire cognitive strategies.

In writing about this, I’m seeing more clearly that there’s also an overlap of stakeholders: the general public (represented by the state) wants the roads to be safe; new drivers want to be able to drive; parents want their children to drive safely.

They might not even agree on the outcome.  Is it “status as skilled driver” or simply “holder of a driver’s license?” Is “skilled” the same as “safe?”

(I can answer that one: no.  Just take a drive through heavy traffic with someone who prides himself on what a skillful driver he is.)

Page 21 from the Maryland MVA Skills Log & Practice GuideMaryland’s Motor Vehicle Adminstration publishes a skills log and practice guide “to help the new drives gain valuable experience in operating a motor vehicle in a variety of conditions and highway environments.”  Maryland now requires 60 hours of supervised driving prior to taking the tests, with 10 of those hours at night.  The parent, guardian, or mentor of the new driver must sign a statement attesting to this, in addition to the 6 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction in the mandatory driver education course.

I like the guide (other than the mid-60s bureaucratic tone of the writing).  A “planning guide” (on the right; click for a larger version) summarizes skills; individual sections amplify them with descriptions, examples, and checklists.

Because of the state’s interest in having competent drivers, it makes sense for the state to have created this.  Is 60 hours the right amount?  Are these skills the right skills?  Will parents or guardians follow the guide, or simply certify that they had?

I can’t say–and, frankly, neither can you.  This is a complex skill; there’s no one right answer.  I think you can make a case that most of the skills in the guide are basic ones for a competent driver.  At the same time, no test is going to guarantee that a new driver, or even an experienced one, will never have an accident.  (I’d settle at times for “will not talk on the phone while driving.”)

Schools: dipsticks and demonstration

From Dean Shareski’s Ideas and Thoughts blog, an energizing presentation by Chris Lehmann. He’s the principal of Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy, working under a time crunch (20 slides, 15 seconds per slide), and having a great time.

I found myself connecting what he says to the world of work; I’ll keep that to myself till after you hear Chris. (Note: You can’t see all Lehmann’s slides, so I’ve posted them below the video clip.)



View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: ignitephilly education)

I actually stopped the video a few times to scribble stuff down.

“Good data costs a lot more than we want to spend.”

That’s true for schools, and it’s also true in the world of work. There’s a lot of lip service paid to Kirkpatrick’s levels and to ROI, but in reality, we can’t afford to assess everything at Level IV, and if we’re doing a full ROI assessment on whether to devote a day and a half of our own time to learning some new technology, we’re going to end up getting to spend more time with our families.

I absolutely believe in the value of data — it’s the requirement for performance improvement — but as I listened to Chris Lehmann, I realized that ofter we are in great shape if we have good enough data. Claude Lineberry (as energetic a guy as Lehmann) hammered in the point that businesses don’t do control groups. Some data, carefully chosen, is a hell of a lot better than no data, which is what many people run with all the time.

“Tests and quizzes as dipsticks…”

When I get gas for my car, I always get a fill-up; I calculate the mileage and record it in a booklet I keep in the glove compartment. This is a kind of dipstick — it’s one stream of data that I can glance at, and if I see a variation from my car’s typical performance, then I go looking for more data and for causes.

Lehmann is pushing back from treating tests as goals. As he talked, I thought of the painful annual corporate ritual, the performance review. More than once in my career, I was asked to create a list of what I’d done so my boss could “update” my goals. In other words, I was backing from accomplishments to goals.

Which, I suppose, is better than being slammed for not doing stuff people forgot about nine months ago. The platonic ideal, where you and your manager (or, you poor schmo, your “leader”) regularly look at what you’re doing, what you’re getting done, and what needs to get done — I don’t know how often that happens, but when it does, it’s the dipstick model in action.

“You want to see what kids have learned, give them a project.”

As Lehmann points out, we adults learn when we’re trying to solve something, which means we’re trying to achieve a result. A depressing amount of corporate “learning” involves passive reception: listening to presentations, clicking through page-turners, reading documents. Nothing happens, which means there probably aren’t any new neural connections forming and few old ones getting stronger.

Working on a specific outcome probably leaves gaps in your learning. You can hear someone saying, “Okay, great, you got the web page menus to work entirely with CSS — but you don’t know how to do A, B, and C.” There are two assessments there: was the point to get the menus working, or to do A, B, and C?

I content that much of the time, getting X accomplished is the way to go. If afterward, you feel you don’t have the right result, then you go back and redefine X. I have seen perfectly harmless people subjected to a one-hour lecture on the step-by-step telephone switch, only to learn afterward that their telephone-company employer did not actually own any step-by-step switches; the last one had been replaced more than 10 years before, by computers.

But it was “good for them” to learn about the switches.

Bodging with Jonathan Drori

Jonathan Drori helped launch the online face of the BBC. He’s edited and produced TV series on science, and is not a director at Changing Media Ltd.

In a TED talk in February, 2007, he discussed why we don’t understand as much as we think. Points that stood out for me:

  • We look for evidence to support our mental models.
  • Some people are all too ready to supply that evidence.
  • Early mental models are extremely persistent.
  • We collude: we design tests so people pass them.

At one point, Drori says that kids learn by messing around with everyday objects, things that are “bodged and stuffed.” “Bodge” was new to me, but “quick and dirty” seems a good American English counterpart. Urban Dictionary gives this example:

Bodge (verb)… to repair hastily and without care of durability or aesthetics or perfection. Popularized in British television show “Scrapheap Challenge,” known as “Junkyard Wars” in the US, and by producer Cathy Rodgers.
“Your task is to bodge together a hovercraft from nothing but twisted metal, scrapped cars, and other assorted bits of rubbish!”

But he can speak for himself:

(Here’s a direct link to Drori’s talk on the TED site.)

Making book on free texts

Earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article, “Don’t Buy That Textbook, Download It Free.”

I haven’t taken a higher-education course in some time, so I didn’t know what heights textbooks had achieved. Introductory Econometrics: A Modern Approach is discounted at Amazon — to $126.85. The Paralegal Professional is discounted to $99.20 (I’ve got a virtually unused copy; make me an offer).

Part of the Jack Kerouac manuscript for On The RoadNoam Cohen’s column in the Times mentioned R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at Cal Tech, who’s put his introductory text online — free. Or, if you’re not keen on reading 328 pages online, you can order a printed copy for $11.10 from Lulu.com.

McAfee actually deals with two online publishers, Lulu and Flat World Knowledge — “to further constrain their ability to engage in monopoly pricing.”

(The Flat World site is “info only” at the moment; for now, it has four short videos explaining their business.)

Another publisher, CourseSmart, is owned by five publishers. CourseSmart’s model allows students to subscribe to a text — they can read it online, then highlight and print out portions. Oddly, you can either read online or download the book, but not both.

A third path: Connexions, which calls itself “a content commons.” Connexions includes modules (‘small knowledge chunks’) and collections (groups of modules structured as books or as class notes). Modules and collections use a Creative Commons attribution license, meaning anyone can add or edit, as well as reuse, as long as there’s attribution.

I played a bit with Connexions. As you might expect, some modules are better written than others. A sidebar offers links to related material and provides cross-references to collections using the module; a footer includes a link for sending feedback to the author.

Image: Jack Kerouac’s manuscript for On the Road; photo by emdot / marya.

Thinking about the science of education

One reason I started the Working/Learning blog carnival is that I’ve gotten so much out of other carnivals — like Encephalon, the neuroscience and psychology carnival, now in its 54th edition.

Two hops from the carnival, I learned about Brains R Us: The Science of Educating, a day-long conference last March at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

The videos on the site are lengthy (over an hour each). I can’t find any hint of the content of each video other than a list of speakers (on the agenda tab, below the video window). (Maybe they should have looked at Jakobsen’s suggestions.)

That’s too bad, because I suspect there’s good stuff. For instace, about at about 5:30 into the Highlights video, you see an example of a baby learned to detect differences in tones that are 70 milliseconds apart.

So what? Well, a baby’s ability on this task at the age of six months accurately predicts a language impairment at 3 years — with 91% accuracy. Speech involves “a lot of rapid auditory transitions.” Training children on a task to distinguish different kinds of beeps and boops can bring their language ability to normal.

The other videos:

  • Brains
  • Schools
  • Children
  • Teachers
  • Transformation

Starting next Monday, I’m going to be doing intense research on North Carolina tides. I burn easily, though, so I’ll have to spend some time indoors, and so I may watch a couple of these and turn my notes into a series here.