Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Towards a Unified Theory of Learning?

Very young children, once thought to be blank slates who develop mentally through interactions with their environment, possess innate abilities and predilections for certain knowledge, according to research summarized by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999). Innate abilities include limited number sense, some grasp of causation, and understanding of rudimentary physical properties. Analysis of infant learning may lead to early intervention strategies or development of pedagogies sensitive to the intrinsic characteristics of human learning.

An area of infant learning with specific application to the manner in which adult learners function may be research conducted on infant behavior during violations of expectation. According to research conducted by Walden, Kim, McCoy, and Karrass (2007) infants are more attentive to events that are unexpected. When witnessing events that violate their expectations, children will look at such events longer than those which behave according to their expectations. When possible, confused children as young as three months will engage in “social looking;” or looking to adults for reference on how to react to unexpected events. Attention to novelty and a natural inclination to look to social partners for behavioral models in unusual situations may be innate human characteristics which carry on into adulthood.

In fact, Kuhn, Amlani, and Rensink (2008) argue that human attention to novelty and social modeling are the medium which stage magicians use to create illusions. Magician’s tricks include using an audience’s inclination to follow the line of a performer’s sight and novel gestures and props to misdirect attention when creating illusions. Witnessing magic is, itself, in defiance of an audience’s expectations, and responsible for the success of magical entertainment across gender, age, and cultural groups. Kuhn, Amlani, and Rensink advocate a scientific study of the methods of science and application to human learning and communication.

Many animals are born precocious; able to fend for themselves, and in most ways act as adults from birth. Humans are altricial, unable to survive without paternal aid. Because humans are born in such a physically helpless state it has been assumed that we are born mentally unformed. Current evidence refutes this assertion and posits that humans have innate mental capacities that can serve as a foundation for entertainment, such as magic, or the development of sophisticated forms of communication and pedagogy. By considering the commonalities of infant learning and magic, researchers may be able to examine the characteristics of learning which are least influenced by environment and culture; providing an opportunity to teach in a manner able to communicate effectively with all learners.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Kuhn, G., Amlani, A. A., & Rensink, R. A. (2008). Towards a science of magic. Trends in Cognitive Science, 349-354.

Walden, T., Kim, G., McCoy, C., & Karrass, J. (2007). Do You Believe in Magic? Infants' social looking during violations of expectations. Developmental Science , 654-653.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Learning and Transfer

High stakes testing creates an artificial environment which impedes the implementation of pedagogical strategies designed to impart students with the means to be successful beyond the classroom. Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (1999) argue that the ultimate goal of formal education is to provide students with the ability to transfer knowledge and learning skills from school to the rest of their lives. In this light, acquisition of facts or skills is of secondary concern to the impact that knowledge can have once a student has left school. Consequently, pedagogy should reflect learning transfer as a priority.

Snowman, McCown, and Biehler (2009) propose that successful pedagogy will explicitly teach transfer skills and assess transfer as an outcome of learning. Strategically teaching transfer skills requires real world application and opportunities for students to problem-solve in new situations. Transfer would then become the focus of schooling, while specific content would serve as media with which to deliver this mode of thinking.

While education theorists, such as those cited above, argue for the merits of learning transfer as a goal and pedagogy, education policy is developing in a contrary fashion. Political demands for accountability and top-down management of curricula have resulted in an emphasis on high stakes testing which has profoundly altered the classroom environment.

Students, particularly those in districts struggling to meet standards of accountability, are asked to focus not on transfer of learning to the rest of their lives, but to the development of skills required to perform on high stakes tests. As accountability standards are made increasingly difficult to attain, teachers and administrators become frantic developing programs to insure student “success.”

Focus on test performance is often at the expense of learning transfer. The goal of classroom instruction has become passing test scores, which at best are symptomatic of a particular set of test-taking skills and strategies which are only marginally applicable to most peoples’ lives once they leave school. High stakes testing engenders pedagogy focused on artificial standards of assessment.

While the climate of high stakes testing is a relatively recent phenomenon, we will soon see the first cohort of students in Pennsylvania who have been educated K-12 in this environment graduate and move into the real world. I have personally heard many college professors lament their students’ decreasing preparation for the rigors of academic thought. The effects of a lifetime of artificial learning on our society at large will not be understood quickly. In fact, we are probably feeling the effects of students educated in the high stakes testing climate right now, though the pangs are diffuse. Eventually, we will have to reckon with the lack of learning transfer skills that have been provided to a generation of learners.

Snowman, J., McCown, R., & Biehler, R. (2009). Psychology applied to teaching, (12th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Available online:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

#2 Experts and Novices

According to research summarized in How People Learn, it is clear that experts and novices differ in the manner by which they acquire information and problem-solve. What seems implicit in this assertion is that experts learn in a superior manner and produce superior results as a result of their expertise. While this implication is neither made directly by the author nor essential to the understanding of expertise and its impacts on pedagogy, it is pertinent to expand the comparison between experts and novices to include the products of their different methodologies.

The implication that superior learning processes inherently generate superior products is flawed in that it confuses the essential natures or process and the results of process. Many different processes may result in similar products. Processes may differ in quantitative (number of steps, time involved) or qualitative (attention to detail, or ability to connect concepts) aspects; but this does not mean the resultant product will have a meaningful difference. In the example cited in HPL regarding novices and experts selecting images to represent the battle of Lexington, a good deal of attention is paid to the meaningful way in which experts carefully selected an image, while novices chose without much care. What is not presented is the very likely fact that at least some novices and experts chose the same image.

The fact that varying processes may result in similar products has been addressed by fine artists since the development of photography. As it became apparent that a machine could produce life-like images easily, painters found it necessary to experiment in increasingly less realistic forms to achieve dramatic or emotional effect which used to be possible through the execution of skillfully rendered verisimilitude. Impressionism delivered a personal expression of light and form which led to the expression of idiosyncratic dream states in Surrealist works and then to complete abstraction. Abstract art attempted to circumvent representation to achieve a pure form of painterly expression. In time this gave way to the display of mundane, manufactured products, such as Warhol’s soup labels or Du Champ’s toilet.

Many of those who criticize contemporary art fail to recognize the process-orientation inherent in fine art. Contemporary art lacks the visceral power of past masters, but seen in context, with the eye of an expert, can be every bit as revelatory or exciting as representational art. But what is essential to the understanding of the novices’ criticism of contemporary art is that the product itself lacks meaning to them. As such, a lack of expertise bars novices from participating in the culture of fine art and leads to divisions of high and low culture.

We can see a similar divide in the realm of education policy. Theorists and working educators understand expertly that learning itself is a process. Politicians and the general public, however, continue to demand measurable products of student learning. To this, novice, segment of the population the product must be meaningful. Educators cannot allow themselves to be segregated from the society they serve by chasing increased abstraction and valuing process over shared goals.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

#1 McLuhan's Wake

The Horizon K-12 report discusses six emerging technologies in application to education in school settings. Marshall McLuhan proposed a tetrad of questions to analyze emerging media, the Laws of Media. Mobiles are one type of technological device expected to be adopted by schools in the next two to three years. Hand held devices capable to interpersonal communication, video and audio recording, and a host of applications with various functions will serve to extend the human nervous system of students and teachers. The ability to send, receive and record information will alter the way learning occurs.

Mobiles have the potential to make entire ways of knowing obsolete. Students will expect to have access to information at the tips of their fingers, and may be baffled by teachers who expect them to memorize facts or formulas. Rapid access to information will develop concurrently with the mobiles’ ability to search for and retrieve material in non-linear ways. Students will be able to organize information in idiosyncratic patterns which best serve their own cognitive pathways as they build their knowledge base on an as-needed basis.

As mobiles become ubiquitous from the student perspective teachers will be challenged to formulate new pedagogies. As educators pursue new methods to compliment mobile technologies, the classroom will be able to retrieve the highest levels of student learning. Students unburdened from factual recall and memorization will be able to construct critical models and analyze connections between disparate information. A teacher who successfully employs mobiles in his classroom will facilitate students’ abilities to create their own meanings.

Students engaged in the use of mobiles to facilitate higher level learning, however, run the risk of reverting to a state of dependence if mobile technology is over extended. Efforts to use mobiles to allow students freedom to pursue knowledge and construct meaning independently may result in an over reliance on rapid access to information. Pedagogical methods designed to shift the focus of classroom learning from teachers to students may be undermined without a strong base in factual content knowledge. Students which constantly need to look up information will engage in repetitious and wasteful fact-searching, or worse, be unable to think critically if separated from their mobile device.