Is It Live or Is it Memorex?


Talk about remembering something that has no real relevance to my current life.  Memorex?  That dates me!

We have discussed two basic types of learning but here are some questions we should be asking ourselves about learning?  How do we learn, why do we learn and when do we learn?  Is it all just memory?  What does that mean?  Let’s start with the “how” of learning. 

According to the latest neuroscience theories, we basically have 2 memory systems:  working memory (formally known as short-term memory) and long-term memory. We are processing information every second of every day; which by the way, we can only pay attention to and process on average 7 pieces of information at any given point in time out of the 1000’s of pieces to which we are exposed.  We literally filter out and ignore the rest. What we don’t see as important isn’t even registered.  What we do think is important makes its way into working memory.  Kind of makes you question “reality” huh?   What’s really going on out there we are not paying attention to?

Anyway, what makes it through the filter goes into what is called working memory. Here it remains briefly and we can configure it, work it around, plan steps of action and make decisions with the information.    If we have to pay attention to something else, it’s gone as to make space for the newest filtered information coming in.  This is why we forget a phone number we are bouncing around in our head trying to dial the second we think about something else!  Once we have repeatedly practiced or rehearsed what’s in our working memory, it moves into long-term memory.   When we say it moves into long-term memory what that really means is we create neural patterns or neural networks and neural connections in the brain.  That’s how we learn, by creating neural connections.  As we begin to access the information in those newly formed neural pathways, apply it under different circumstances, the neural connections become more complex, they continue to expand with additional pathways.  If we don’t continue to use the pathways, the neurons find other connections to make.  Hence, if you don’t use it, you literally lose it.  The more it’s accessed, the more permanent those neural patterns become.

The “why” we learn is attributed to multiple factors.

1) Neurotransmitters and energy available to form those networks.  In other words optimal physiology and biology.

2) Emotional context influences how quickly we form those connections because it impacts hormones and therefore neurotransmitters.  Stress and depression matter here.

3) Environmental stimuli.  Not enough stimulus, not good for learning. Too much stimulus, not good for learning.  Just the right amount, different for everyone.  Some people are better filterers of relevant information.   Some people get caught up in the details and struggle to see the bigger picture.  Some people are easily distracted and can’t focus on the relevant information coming in.  Some people focus right in on the key elements.

4) Previous experiences.  If a basic neural pattern is already developed, creating newer ones that just connect to the already solidly formed pattern is much easier than creating a brand new neural pattern.  This can work for and against us under different circumstances.

5) Individual learning styles.  Some learn more visually, some are more auditory and some are more kinesthetic.

6) Attitude and motivation are key. The individual has to be ready to learn.  If they don’t see it as important or relevant, well, the information is filtered out and isn’t even registered.

Last question: “When” do we learn?

Well this is very interesting and applies to our culture.  If I understand the research correctly, we form these new permanent neural patterns when we rest and when we sleep.  Ironically, all this technology is actually a detractor from learning because it does a couple of things: constantly keeps us stimulated and interferes with our sleep (if we let it of course).   Sitting in front of a computer screen apparently doesn’t qualify as rest for the brain.  That might be physical rest, but it’s mental rest that is important here.  Multi-tasking, not so good for learning according to recent research.  Most of us (and our students) are multi-tasking almost 24/7.  I have even heard of young people who sleep with their smart phones so as not to miss a text.  We wonder why students are struggling?  Perhaps they are overstimulated?

So as you can tell, what it means to “learn”  is actually a pretty complex process.  So many different components can impact how we learn, why we learn and when we learn.  From a pure neuroscience perspective, learning is the creation and activation of neural patterns.  That’s great, but it doesn’t really help us in education since we currently can’t watch to see if a new neural pattern was developed overnight!  I think the next question might be how we “measure” learning?

(The author of this blog is not a Neuroscientist.  All of this is purely an interpretation and summary of multiple books and articles on neuroscience and memory).


“Higher” Learning

I think there are many things contributing to the “failing” education system in the US.  Failing is a harsh word as I am unsure of its accuracy in describing what is really going on, but it’s not the teachers that are failing within this system, though they get much of the blame.  The system itself is broken and needs repair.  Part of the issue, as I suggested in my previous post is policy.  The system, focuses on the pieces of learning, not on higher levels of  learning.  Mostly because informational learning is easily quantifiable.  Transformative learning is more difficult to quantify and relies heavily on the learner’s experiences.

Another commonly used approach to education and learning is Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is a building block of types of learning that has identified three of types of basic learning: cognitive (mental skills, knowledge), affective (growth in feelings or emotional areas, attitude) and psychomotor (manual or physical skills).  Within each category of learning are the dimensions that typically follow the same process to having mastered each skill: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.  Being able to create represents the mastery of each skill set.  This would take the concept of a puzzle into a new realm, not just putting the pieces together, but creating your own puzzle.  Unfortunately, standardized tests measure primarily the dimension of remembering and on occasion understanding.  This is in no way representative of learning except at the earliest stages.  The process of mastering the dimensions within each skill is being lost.  And this is where our education policy is flawed.

Learning is a process.  Our culture doesn’t really value process, we value outcome.  To a large degree so does our education system unfortunately.  I see this all the time with my students.  They are not interested in learning the material, they are focused on grades.  Most students equate an “A” with having “learned” the material, which is patently unrelated in the long run, but grades are all they care about.  They want the information they need to know (or memorize) to earn a good grade.  They do not value learning as a process or just learning in general.  They see their college experience as a means to an end, a job.  That’s fair, but not the purpose of education.  Education is an opportunity.  What someone does with that opportunity is up to them.  The first question out of many prospective  students mouths is “What can I do with this degree?”  Again, that’s a fair question.  There is an ROI that must be factored in to how much someone is willing to spend to obtain an “education”, to a point.  I use that term loosely because I still don’t think we have defined what it means to be “educated” or “learned”.  So I turn it right around on them and say “what do you want to do with a degree?”  “What are you passionate about?”  However, passion is part of that process and we tend to skip right over that part and focus on the outcome.  This is cultural, and it’s part of the problem with our idea of education.


Information and Learning

The bottle in ocean!

We live in the information age.  We have more information available to us at our fingertips or on our television screens than we could possibly keep up with on a daily basis.  Everything we do now revolves around obtaining more and more information.  We think that if we have more information, we will be better “informed”.  The issue is not with the information itself, but with the quality of the information.  Because we are inundated with information in the form of blurbs, headlines and sensationalism, we peruse through the information like we lead the rest of lives, surface readers.  We “surf” the web.  We don’t “dive” into it or “immerse” ourselves in the information. We mostly just skim along the surface of that information.  Most of us float along, letting the current take us where it will.  Why think?  That’s hard.  Thinking takes effort (and time), the same kind of effort it would take to actually dive beneath the surface and into the context of the information. That’s where the context is, where learning takes place.   Thinking through something is a process.  We have to take a deep breath and dive in.  It’s scary, because we don’t know what might be lurking beneath. But think of what might be discovered as well, if of course, we have an open mind?  There is a whole ocean of possibility, of discovery and exploration.  But it takes time and a shift in how we think about learning.

What is learning, how do we know when we have “learned” something?  How is learning measured?  What does it mean to be educated?  What are the benefits of education?  Without repeating an Epistemology course, these are fundamental questions we should be asking ourselves, especially in the education debate.   Why are we not asking these questions?

There are two foundational types of learning.  The first is informational learning.   Informational learning is the type of learning that can be easily memorized and regurgitated.  This is to a large degree what standardized tests measure.  Informational learning is important, think of it as the pieces of a puzzle.   The details.  But is this enough because this is what our education system is focused on?  Well, let me rephrase that.  This is what the Legislators and corporate influencers are focused on, and they are driving the conversation and the policy.  We, I mean “they” like informational learning because it is easily quantified.

What about transformative learning, or contextualized learning?  If we think of informational learning as the puzzle pieces then transformative learning is taking those individual pieces and putting the puzzle together.  This is also referred to as “critical thinking” or “problem solving” and we as a society are losing our focus on the ability to think through situations, problems and puzzles, critically and creatively.  Many of us have the pieces of the puzzle, but lack the skill set to put the puzzle together.  Are both aspects necessary?  Yes!  No one can put together a puzzle without the pieces. However, this type of learning is much more difficult to quantify yet these are the skills business and corporate leaders are asking for in the workforce and our education system is moving in the opposite direction, largely due to policy!  Bad policy I might add.


Transition to Digital Media In and Out of the Classroom (Part 2)

digital society

By 2008 I was moving totally in a digital direction.  I had transitioned one of my F2F courses to a fully online course to try it out.    The LMS was becoming more useful in that context and now everything was “paperless”.  I was beginning to see my role in the classroom as the one providing context to the information and helping the students make the connections between what was being covered in the class to the real world.   I embraced that role by bringing more and more of the digital world into the classroom.  I started by providing more links to information that would not only supplement student learning, but might actually even better engage students as I came across it myself.  I began to see my students (especially the visual learners) really embrace this new content as well.  And it seemed more and more of them were visual learners.  They learned as much from a video as any textbook that could be provided.

By 2010 I started to realize that although all of this information was great, students were actually overwhelmed by the amount of information out there available to them.  If learning was the equivalent of putting a puzzle together, they had so many puzzle pieces they couldn’t even figure out which puzzle each piece would fit into and they certainly were not seeing the big picture.  Many of those puzzle pieces they were discovering on their own with no context or foundation to help them.  Students had lots of opinions, but not really ‘informed” opinions or beliefs.  So the information age, although great for information, has on some levels made “learning” more difficult just due to the vast amount of information out there.  It’s also made it really easy to “surf” instead of “dive” into the information, which often breeds a “no critical thinking necessary” mentality.  Our society appears to be propagating this mentality as well.

Then the question became, “How can I help my students navigate this proliferation of digital resources, keep them engaged, bring context into the conversation and make it all social?” The answer I found wasn’t out there.  So I co-founded TheHubEdu.  I was finding it difficult to manage and organize all of these great resources and serve them up in a simple way for my students.  I wanted a space where I could interact with my students and colleagues in a social, yet educational context; a space that wasn’t locked down to a single university.  TheHubEdu bridges the gap between the LMS’s and popular social media sites. A social learning network.   It’s a start for certain and one that can support the shifting role of the university professor to vet and provide some context to all of the information to which students are currently exposed.

Transition to Digital Media In and Out of the Classroom (Part 1)

Digital learning and research...

When I first started teaching about 12-15 years ago, I spent a lot of time working through each textbook, transferring key points to overheads and then lecturing from that material.  From time to time I would photo copy an interesting article I had read in a magazine or newspaper and bring that into the classroom as well to supplement learning, help students make connections and give the information we were covering some context.  Still, I was the primary source of information and the textbook was there to support student learning and back me up as a source of that information.

About 5  years later I begin to utilize power points more so than any overheads for my lectures as more and more computers and projectors started showing up in the classrooms for instructors to use.   Transferring my overheads to power points was tedious but necessary.  I was still the primary source of information and the textbook was there in support of what we were covering in the classroom.  Although I knew students really were not learning “more” or “better” from power points, this is what they were beginning to expect.  Our LMS was bulky and painful, but I started to see more uses for it now that things were moving in that digital direction.  I still however would copy interesting articles for them and bring them into the classroom on paper.  The difference being now I was finding more “interesting articles” via the web which was really beginning to proliferate with the amount and type of information available.  This was probably circa 2005.  A century in data and information ago!

Around that time, something strange began to happen.  It was subtle but it was there, in the classroom, in the hallways, even in my office!  Because of the proliferation of information available at the fingertips of my students online, I was becoming a secondary source of information, not the primary one.  This is when more and more laptops began to show up in the classroom and students were beginning to take notes on their own laptops (or surf the web, I really couldn’t tell the difference).  More social media sites began to take hold and Google became a household word.  When I had a question, instead of going to a textbook or research article, I would “Google” it myself so I knew exactly what the students were doing when they had questions too.  I knew times were changing when discussing a concept one day in class, I had just reiterated a particular concept and a student raised their hand and said, “I just Googled it and this website says ‘this’.”  Yes, times were changing.


The Instructor as a Student (of Entrepreneurship) (Part 2)

Mentoring Matters

After all of the language learning, then came the mentoring.  Our company has some really great mentors who have all been incredibly helpful and insightful.  We have actually been very fortunate.  At first this was great.  We were getting lots of helpful ideas and suggestions, but nothing too specific.    However, the longer the mentoring went on, the more frustrated I became.  Not because they were not doing their jobs, but because I just wanted someone to tell me exactly what to do to be successful at this, being an entrepreneur.  How exactly do we pitch this in 5-7 words?  Don’t give me potentialities, give me something I can pitch; exactly, word for word.  You are the expert; tell me what to say!

As I was reflecting on this the other day, my frustration, I thought…”Hmmm, this sounds very familiar, except I usually hear it from students in a different context”.   What I generally hear from them is “Tell us exactly what we need to study for the test” or “tell me which chapters should I focus on for the paper,  spoon feed me”!  I just kind of laugh and say, “Why anything we have covered in the class is a possibility.  You need to make the connections between the how and the why of what we have been discussing. Show me you know what you are talking about, and don’t ramble hoping to stumble across what you think I am looking for in your responses.   Learning is a process.  It’s different for everyone.  Don’t focus on the answers; focus on asking the right questions”.

My epiphany: this entrepreneurship stuff is no different.  I am learning this as a process and no one can give me “the answer”.  I have to discover it myself.   Or we have to discover it for ourselves, as a team.   This is exactly what I say to my students, repeatedly.  And thus, the instructor becomes a student.  Value the process, value the process, value the process.   Sigh.


The Instructor As a Student (of entrepreneurship) (Part 1)

Chalkboard Quotation

So about 2 years ago I had this really brilliant idea.  I knew the moment it popped into my head that it was a really good one; perhaps my best to date and I needed to act on it.  I ruminated for a couple of months and solidified it a bit before contacting a former colleague of mine to dialogue (academic language) about it or pitch it (entrepreneur language) and see if he was interested in working on the idea together.  He was, and so it began.

We both come from the higher education space.  Mine is more curriculum and instruction oriented and he from a course infrastructure, learning management system background.   Neither of us really had any real business or entrepreneur experience.  So for both of us, this was really stepping out of our comfort zone. My strengths are academic, not entrepreneurial.  Need me to research a topic and write a paper on it or teach it?  I can do that.  Want me to say the same thing 5 different ways? That’s just standard academic speech.  Want me to ponder on something, for years and still not have a conclusion?   Another one of my strengths!

Want me to tell you what our company does in 5-7 words?  I can tell you what we do in 5 different ways.  I can write a dissertation on it.  I can research and tell you why it’s a great idea. Take away: Academia revolves around theoretical constructs and complex ideas. Entrepreneurship/business revolves around application and clarity.  There is little room for dialogue or discourse in business, no vibrant discussions or the use of language like locution or pontification.   It was pretty obvious we needed help.

My first step was completing an incubator program.  I graduated from the Founder Institute Seattle program in June 2012.  I must say, those were a tough 16 weeks.    The language barriers alone were difficult to overcome.  Pitch decks/slide decks /investor decks = power point presentations.  Executive summary = abstract?  CTO’s?  Proforma = spreadsheet.  Java?  Ruby on Rails?    Convertible Notes?  Pinging?  Target Markets?  Market Caps?  Go To Market (Strategies)? Verticals? Branding?  Whew, it was a lot to absorb.

Part 2 (TBD)