I totally flaked on my intention to blog the “Learning and the Brain” conference last weekend.
They cram so much into the day, that I’d lose the chance at taking notes and processing some of the information if I simply reported on what was happening (which was the form many of the microblogs from the conference were taking). People were tweeting under the hashtag #lb30, but it wasn’t commentary, just factual reporting. No thinking, just recording.
That bothers me. I go to those things to learn something new, but for about half of it, I felt like I was simply at a pep-rally for reforming education. Look, I’m there already. I know that cognitive neuroscience and our understanding of the brain and memory have opened up new avenues for re-examining the structures and practices of education. I need the practical thinking now. I don’t need to be convinced by Tony Wagner (I’ve now seen him make the same pitch three times). Everyone is saying the same thing, and they’re probably right (or at least they’re trendy).
Here’s what I need:
I need the support to create my own laboratory classrooms. I want to use what I’m learning about the brain and memory, and I want to carefully test the effectiveness of new practices in the learning environments I design.
One of the problems I have with education research is that people too often make causal links when there is only correlation. Then they hold those links up as the new holy grail of learning, as the evidence for changing the way we do things. Yes. It’s evidence, but there’s another part to the story.
I just heard bits from an interesting interview of Richard Feynman. He talks about how the world is made up of simple laws which we can understand, and which we can understand completely. When we isolate variables (which is what scientists try to do to create experimental conditions), we can understand the mechanisms which make something work and we can use those to predict outcomes (in itself it’s amazing that we can do this).
However in reality, nothing is in isolation. There are so many variables unaccounted for that influence initial conditions, experimental conditions, outcomes.
For example, in education, we can use knowledge of memory and learning and the brain to inform our practice, but we can’t say that the methods we develop from that knowledge represent the only correct practices. It depends on the population, it depends on the background of the students and the teacher, it depends on the institution, it depends on the genetic predispositions of both student and teacher, it depends on socio-economic-status, and even more importantly, it depends on cultural-historical context. The purporters of using research seem to be saying that all this new knowledge is pointing at one way we should teach students (sure - I’m oversimplifying a very nuanced argument) but it’s all based on knowledge we’ve arrived at through research we’ve done within the cultural-historical framework we’re currently living within. No education research is done in a vacuum. Researchers try best to control for the factors they can, but they’ll never be fully successful at isolating a process and examining it if they’re performing their experiments in real world conditions. And I question whether they should even try to isolate the experimental factors, because the point of the research is to improve education and education only takes place in environments when all those uncontrollable factors play a part in influencing outcomes. If the same research were done in a different cultural environment, there’s the possibility for changed results. So no matter how hard we try to find causal linkage in the realm of education research, those “truths” represent an illusion at best.
I’m all for improving the system we have, but I will not accept that the science is telling us the truth about how people learn. All it can ever tell us is how people learn in the environments in which we do the research. I guess it ensures that education researchers will always have jobs, since as we change the system, they’ll have to do the research again and again to examine how the stability of their “truths” is maintained.
I’m part of an ongoing conversation on another forum about technology and education. Someone opened up the topic of multi-tasking and I though you guys might have some interesting thoughts as well.
Part of what made the OB wilderness experience I recently participated in so impressive for me was the “slowing down” and the dedicated time for processing and reflection.
I’m beginning to realize how important it is to our mental and physical health, and in light of the speed which technology forces on us as a culture and society, I offered this response:
Balance must be considered when structuring the learning environments we create in schools. If schools will continue to be spaces in which educators have an impact on determining what outcomes are important, and where educators design environments in which students encounter experiences aimed at those outcomes, we will have to consider the value of both multi-tasking and uninterrupted deep thinking.
Most importantly, we will have to state explicitly that both have value. In an environment where we provide an appropriate setting and instruct students effectively to practice mindfulness (meta-cognitive awareness) and concentration, they can experience a depth of thinking that is not possible when their attention is being vied for by multiple simultaneous streams of information.
Practicing such depth of thinking can balance out and mitigate the effects of cognitive overload which poses a real threat to our mental and physical health. The effects of too much input and very little output differ among individuals, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t help to generate a certain kind of anxiety. To that end, processing and deep reflection need to be taught in our 21st century classrooms alongside the skill sets for navigating changing information landscapes. Students need to be trained to reflect on the information experiences they’re having and to know how to make sense of them, either as they occur or after they do. Such processing should naturally lead to some kind of expression, be it written, oral, artistic, etc.
In expression, we’re able to transform that internal processing into something physical. The combined experience of processing and expressing through the creative act is similar to release valve for all the information we take in on a daily basis. It helps to lessen the effects of information overload and reduce the pressure we feel.
While I understand that multi-tasking (or quick task-shifting) may be here to stay, in order to develop strong healthy habits for living in a world with so much information, we have to take the time to teach deeper reflection in conjunction with creative expression.
Maybe you all have some thoughts.