Education: “The Sky Is Falling” Part II

Chicken Little

So now that we feel better about the k-12 system, let’s delve a bit into higher education.   No one seems to be outright accusing the higher education system of failure just yet, however, there are some mumblings that the system is not adequately preparing students for jobs, the ones in the real world anyway.  The loudest beating drum though appears to be the rising costs of higher education and the egregious expenses associated with the accrual of student loan debt.

The issue at the core of this is the focus on a job at the end of a college career.  It’s not that jobs aren’t an important part of this equation, but unfortunately they become the only part of the equation we focus on.  Statistically, students graduating with a college degree still have a higher probability of finding employment, any employment, which really should be the focus.  I would assume it’s better to be underemployed than unemployed and sometimes, experience is necessary and helpful in finding better jobs.  I have seen many students graduate and walk out the door expecting to make a six figure salary and unwilling to work their way up to that level.  Now I get that this is not every college graduate.  Many can’t find good jobs, even the ones that are willing to work, but that is more a market factor and it’s not permanent.  Sometimes it is just about gaining experience and working up to a position they want or feel they deserve.

Education is about creating a better citizenry, not just jobs.  If all we can focus on is the outcome of a college degree, which these days is about a job, and not the true purpose of higher education; then we might as well go back to trade schools and forget about actually providing a well-rounded education to students that hopefully enhances their ability to be well-rounded human beings.  By graduating well-rounded students who can critically and creatively think and contribute to society, we will promote a well-rounded and critically evaluative society.  This is about promoting culture and understanding.  It’s about students having a general idea about how the world works. It’s about expanding their horizons and opening their eyes to the wonders of the world itself.  It’s about inspiring curiosity.  This will directly impact our competitiveness in a world market because without a well-rounded education, we will not be able to critically think and evaluate.  Now in this respect our colleges and universities are not failing, yet anyway.  As we focus more and more on jobs and less on the finer components of education, we start removing programs and departments like humanities from our universities because they don’t directly lead to high paying jobs.  Without the humanities, are we not somehow removing a critical component of being human?

Ironically, what most employers seem to be asking for is exactly this.  They want employees who can communicate, critically evaluate and problems solve (sounds much like humanities courses).  Problem is, all students focus on are grades and test scores.  This goes back to the k-12 system where everything is now about standardized test scores.  These tests don’t promote any of the aforementioned skill sets.  In fact, they actually detract from those 3 skills and this becomes all they know and how they think.  It’s not about learning, it’s about a grade.  This thinking transfers into college and alas, into the workforce.  Want a more creative work force?   Allow more creativity and flexibility in our k-12 system.  Want problem solvers?  Don’t focus on the outcomes.  There are many different paths to solving a problem.  Want people who can think and communicate?  It’s called the humanities.

The egregious costs of higher education and MOOC’s: asset or hindrance?  That’s another entire blog posts.

Education: “The Sky is Falling” Part 1

OMG!!!

We hear a lot about the education system being broken or ripe for disruption. Ripe for disruption literally means technologically ripe because some people in technology seem to think technology will save education from itself although they have never stepped foot in the classroom as an actual teacher and seem to know very little about what actually happens in an everyday classroom.  I have also noticed the ones with the loudest voices, deepest pocketbooks and policy makers in the education space, seem to be lacking in actual education experience, attended private school and largely send their own children to private schools.  Yet they are the ones driving public education policy.  It’s the equivalent to putting individuals on a corporate board to drive corporate policy with no experience or background in business or in that particular space.

The education system is not broken nor is it in desperate need of repair or disruption.  It’s flawed, certainly.   But show me any system that’s perfect?  Really, show me a perfect system.   The system might be slow to adapt or change, but why is that a bad thing?  We rush into so much these days and then often end up backtracking (and wasting a lot of money…think recent iPad debacle in LA and NC) because we should have stopped and reflected, defined and delineated before we took that first step.  But instead, lock step in fear of what we can’t even define, we forge ahead into the unknown with no clear path and no clear idea of exactly what the problem is we are trying to resolve.

It’s another perfect example of how we just ride a wave of sensationalism without any context or clarity these days.  I see this in my students and how can I fault them, what example would I hold up and ask them to emulate?  We all do it.   We react instead of stopping and thinking about something and being judiciously proactive after we have put some real thought and insight into problems and solutions, causes and effects.

As I delve more and more into this space apparently there are 2 major “problems” with the education system: 1) It’s failing and 2) It’s too expensive (though this largely applies to higher education).  Apparently, and this is just my interpretation of the constant noise around this space, the K-12 system is failing because we are so far behind everyone else in test scores.  The higher education system isn’t failing yet according to these “experts”, but it’s right behind the k-12 space and has grown way too expensive.  In ride the saviors of both systems.  Test developers (k-12) and MOOC’s (higher education).

Let’s tackle the k-12 systems first.  If you ask someone how is the US public education system failing, they will largely tell you about test scores and how we have fallen so far behind everyone else internationally.  So here is a little context for you.  I hate to break it to you folks.  The US has never been number 1 in test scores and scores have actually improved over the past decade.  We aren’t failing; we have actually improved our standing.  However, you would never know this by reading any popular media.  By just relying on media reports (which is largely what we do) you would think the world was ending and our children will suffer the dire consequences of this failing system. I was planning on dazzling my two loyal readers here with a barrage of statistics that would make me look really intelligent and would obviously solidify my point on this matter.  After having worked through the various reports on this subject however, I can understand why we sensationalize.  Those reports are tedious to say the least.  What I can do is provide links to the reports for you so you can take the time to wade through them yourself.

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2013/03/18%20brown%20center%20loveless/2013%20brown%20center%20report%20web

http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2012/2/brown%20center/0216_brown_education_loveless.pdf

Now these reports do not in any way say there is no room for improvement.  There obviously is and we should take it seriously.  However, the idea that our education system is “failing” is really not supported by this data.

So what is the real problem?  Is there even a problem at all?  Well I will get to that after I discuss higher education in the next post.

The Pros and Cons of Online Courses

computer courses

I have been teaching in university settings for over 12 years now.  I have taught F2F, hybrid and purely online courses over that period and have observed the learning process for my students and my role in it all under all 3 conditions.   Over this time span I have averaged teaching 50 credit hours per year which means I have taught at or over 600 total credit hours of courses and have taught those courses within 5 different institutions ranging from state schools to private institutions to online for-profits.  Needless to say, I have lots of teaching experience.

There are pros and cons to all 3 systems but honestly I think my preference is the hybrid model, which entails some F2F and some online components.  If the newest research is correct, this may also be the model that exhibits the best learning outcomes for students as well.   But how best to compare these models?  I will discuss the online model commonly used by the for-profits here.

Pros of Online Courses (students)

1)   Convenience (students can literally work it into their schedules)

2)   Self-paced or asynchronous learning (within the confines of the course infrastructure)

3)   Self-motivation (forces students to be pretty self-motivated)

4)   Heavy reliance on group discussions (much learning can happen with good discussions but the instructor has to be present to really monitor and facilitate that process)

 

Cons of Online Courses (students)

1)   Lack of social infrastructure.  Students literally only interact with their instructors and fellow classmates.  No social interaction beyond the classroom so no diverse or differing perspectives on things they might normally discuss in dorm rooms or over lunch in the cafeteria. They can also self-select into just interacting with a few of their classmates in discussions further limiting their interactions.

2)   Collaboration is difficult.  Collaborative projects are doable, but difficult without a truly collaborative workspace.

3)   Self-motivation (successful students have to be pretty self-motivated and directed and there is no real way to facilitate that if they don’t connect with the material, instructor or class).  It’s harder to “connect” online because of the asynchronous nature since everyone is kind of fitting it into their schedule and their timeline, it can breed this sense of disconnection.

4)   Heavy reliance on standardized courses (for-profits).  Makes it really easy to cheat on just about everything because the classes are all the same.  If I were a really savvy student, I would keep everything from my group discussions to my papers to my tests and projects and sell them to a new student taking the same class at the same institution!  Because all the classes are “taught” by adjuncts and so highly outsourced, the likelihood it would be the same instructor is also minimal.

 

Pros of Online Courses (instructor)

1)   Less energy goes into “teaching” because the instructor doesn’t have to “perform” for students like in a F2F class where the instructor constantly has to be enthusiastic and energetic to keep their attention.  This is why the online students have to be more self-motivated.

2)   Convenience (instructors can literally work it into their schedules)

3)   Standardized courses.  The classes are heavily standardized and pre-prepared for the instructor.  For some less experienced instructors or instructors who don’t really know how to be creative or adaptive in a classroom this works perfectly.  Little work goes into course infrastructure and set-up.

 

Cons of Online Courses (instructor)

1)   Standardized courses.   For instructors who value creative license and academic freedom in the classroom, this is a negative because they are forced to use the pre-prepared course infrastructure.  They can work within the confines of that but really can’t deviate much since these schools want every student to have the “exact same experience”.  I think this is a big disservice to students.  It’s part of what makes the US higher education system the envy of the world.  The ability of every instructor to bring their own teaching style, expertise and creative license to the classroom and this is lacking in the for-profit online model.

2)   Time.  Although it’s convenient, to truly facilitate those online discussions in the classroom, it takes a lot of time to guide that process.

3)   Pay.  No one goes into teaching for money, that’s a given.  As an adjunct, few of these online schools differentiate between PhD’s and Master’s degrees.  And why should they?   The courses are so standardized being an “expert” is really irrelevant and meaningless.  They tend to pay the instructor per student so teaching experience doesn’t really matter either.  Still comparing my adjunct salaries between the brick and mortar non-profits and the online for-profits it does tend to be around 25%-35% less than the traditional schools pay their adjuncts.  It’s important to understand the adjunct salaries at traditional universities are also about 50% less than what a full-time faculty would be paid per course and there are far more adjuncts than full-time faculty at most universities these days.  Welcome to the outsourcing of higher education.

So let me just add a couple of caveats here.  I think we do have a negative perception of online learning, and I am not sure it’s correct.  In my experience, in every type of classroom setting about 25%-30% of students are motivated, driven, organized, structured and eager to learn, online or F2F.  These students will be successful regardless of the platform.  About 50%-60% will do okay because they are kind of interested, kind of motivated….maybe they have to work full-time or have families and other responsibilities, but they will do okay…again, regardless of the platform. It’s more hit or miss, but overall they will get through the class okay.   Then there are the students in the 10%-15% that just struggle for any number of reasons.  Lack of motivation, lack of time, other stressors….maybe they just aren’t ready for college or just aren’t interested enough.  These are the ones that get lost in the online mechanism.  There are no fellow classmates to support them, to help them study or bump into them on campus and remind them of class.  There is no social infrastructure of support.  These students will struggle, alone really.  Most of the online schools have implemented online tutors, advisers, etc… but it may not be enough but it might not be enough in the F2F environment either.  So really, it is about the same statistically between the 2 learning models.  Which is why I really like the hybrid model best, because it catches the pros of both environments and minimizes the cons of online learning particularly for both instructors and students.  It would be nice to see this model implemented more frequently although perhaps not as logistically convenient.

Poverty: The Real Problem With Education

Old Faithful

I participated in a Twitter conversation (although calling it a conversation is difficult for me since it requires 140 characters or less to communicate) via #edchat on the role poverty plays in education this week.  I don’t even know how this topic is debatable given the immense amount of research published on the role socioeconomics play in everything from health to health care to education to mortality (which is influenced by health and education), etc…

So some of the conversation revolved around making access to technology (which apparently is the solution to every problem these days) the answer to resolve the discrepancies between the impoverished and the affluent.  No, we should provide breakfast (which most districts already do and lunch by the way too).  There was even what I think was an architecture firm talking about how we need to create safer school environments (build them of course at the taxpayers expense).   No, “we should be the change we want to see in the classroom”.   OMG, really?

I suppose I should praise anyone who remains remotely optimistic in the face of what we need to do to begin to address all of this, but nah, why ruin a perfectly negative attitude.  I suppose I should explain why I have such a negative attitude about this at all….being well-educated and from a middle class family.  I grew up in a fairly rural area with a great deal of poverty.  I attended school (public of course) with students who had very little.  Poverty is a problem because the environment outside of the classroom is just as important, if not more important, than the environment in the classroom from a learning perspective.  As there becomes a larger divide between socioeconomic classes in the US, the access to resources beyond the school system start to make a real difference.  The affluent have it.  The less affluent don’t.  Those foundational barriers make a huge difference in the classroom when it comes to learning and success.

My partner works in a fairly affluent school district teaching second grade.  Some kids are on the free lunch program, but not a large percentage.  Many of the families are pretty affluent and they care about their kids learning and are already concerned that a poor assessment in second grade might keep their child out of Harvard.   They have access to multiple resources: after school sports (which or course cost money to play), music, ballet, dance, chess, tutors, museums and aquariums, national parks.  They have Internet access at home and probably their own computer.  They travel, a lot, both within and beyond the US.  Their parents are educated, hold white-collar jobs, they eat well, they play sports, they work hard and they are expected to go to college.  Many of them even attend their own cultural schools on the weekends.  Do they deal with stress outside of the classroom?  Yes, they are still kids.  Their parents still fight, get divorces, they deal with bullies. They actually have a lot of pressure to perform well on tests and excel in their activities.  Too much pressure really.  But they have a huge support system both within and beyond the classroom setting.  My partner is an outstanding teacher.   She finds a way to connect with each one of her students, regardless of background and holds them to a high standard.   Their parents hold them to a high standard too.  In the long run, that plays a bigger role in their success than anything my partner does or does not do in that classroom.  Most of these kids will be successful because of their access to resources and support systems beyond the classroom.

My sister works in a poor district in rural NC. Most of those kids are on the free lunch program.  Most of the families are poor.  Mostly blue-collar jobs in the area but most of those jobs are gone now.  Unemployment is very high.  Many of the parents likely completed high school, but few attended college.  Many don’t have access to resources outside of the classroom: no sports, no chess club, no ballet or dance classes, no private music lessons.  They don’t have access to museums or aquariums, unless they travel to a large city.  They don’t travel much.  They can’t afford to.  They may have access to the Internet at home but probably not their own personal computer.  They don’t eat well, probably not even every day and they certainly don’t shop at Whole Foods because well, there isn’t even one within 50 miles and they couldn’t afford it anyway.  Their parents care about them, want them to succeed and do well in school.  Some probably want their children to go to college and push them academically, many don’t or can’t.  Harvard not being the goal, the local community college is far more realistic. Which would be great if they can make it there.  They don’t have access to private tutors. Their everyday experiences, their foundations are the polar opposite of what my partner deals with on a daily basis. My sister has to do daily lice checks.  Call each kid up to her desk and use a comb to look through their hair for evidence of lice.  The teachers always buy extra clothes to have available because there are always kids who come to school in the same clothes for days and the teachers provide new clothes for them.   Sometimes they even have to wipe them down with Wet Wipes because they haven’t been bathed in days.  She has kids whose dad is the local drug dealer and is in and out of jail.  These kids come to school as an escape, a safe harbor for 7 hours.  They worry more about survival, the basics: shelter, food, clothing.  Learning becomes secondary under these conditions.  My sister is also an outstanding teacher (and social worker too apparently).  She finds a way to connect with each one of her students, regardless of background and holds them to a high standard.   Do these students “learn”? Absolutely.  She is no different than my partner when it comes to being an outstanding teacher, however, the children she works with on a daily basis are very different.  Their foundations are different because their access to resources outside of the classroom are different.  Let’s not kid ourselves either.  The resources are different in the classroom as well because so much of education is district dependent and depends on tax levies and local fundraising. Schools in poorer districts also have access to fewer resources than the affluent ones, compounding the inequities.

So shouldn’t schools be the great equalizer?  Maybe they used to be when we had a middle class, but as the socioeconomic divisions grow, so does the educational gap. I find it difficult to believe that the affluent and policy makers in this country don’t understand this.  They do.  But instead of addressing the real problem, which is poverty and lack of resources and the growing socioeconomic divide, they just put more pressure on an already broken system without adequate funding to support the policies and infrastructure. This just leads to more of a division between the affluent and less affluent districts because now they have to fill the funding gap.   Hmmm, I wonder which socioeconomic group those policy makers fall into?

“Those Who Can’t, Teach”

teachers desk

I really dislike that quote.  We have all heard it.  It’s disparaging, it’s demeaning and it’s bullshit.  Teaching is a skill, it’s a passion; it’s something that really cannot be measured and has little to do with test scores.

There are really great teachers out there, those it really seems to come naturally to.  They easily connect with their students, they read levels of comfort and discomfort in their students, and they know when to push and when to ease up on their students when it comes to learning.  They know how to reach each individual student and they make an effort to do so even though their varied and overwhelming responsibilities both in and out of the classroom don’t really allow for it or support it.  They know how to manage a classroom and in the k-12 space, how to manage the parents.  They want to see their students learn and grow and they find a way to make it happen, usually at their own personal expense and time of lost sleep, fretting, pedagogical trials and errors, numerous meetings with specialist, parents, principals and other teachers.  They spend their own money to supplement classroom supplies and often on some students who can’t afford their own personal supplies.  They are creative, energetic, and passionate.  They work both in and out of the classroom: planning, preparing, grading, and organizing (the stuff that goes on beyond the classroom but has everything to do with what goes on in the classroom).  These are teachers.

Why does anyone teach?  I mean, really think about it.  With the myriad of choice available today, they don’t do it because they can’t do anything else.  They do it as a choice, because they want to teach and to make a difference in a child’s life.  I don’t personally understand why anyone would choose this.  I couldn’t do it.  I wouldn’t last 5 minutes dealing with the parents or the kids.  With all the bullshit they have to deal with on a daily basis: the parental politics, the school politics; as the kids get older, the attitude and entitlement.  I can barely handle the politics of a university setting and it’s not nearly as brutal as the k-12 space.

Oh I know why people choose to teach.  It must be the prestige.  No, maybe it’s the salaries and the fact they must like picking up second jobs just to make ends meet.    No, it must be the eternal gratitude of the parents and the kids themselves.   Maybe it’s the rallying support of a nation that values and appreciates all that teachers do to try to educate our future generations under the pressure and policies of an increasingly industrialized system, with limited resources, overflowing classrooms and sometimes overcrowded buildings that are falling down around them.  That must be the reason.

No, with all the potential job choices out there today, you have to want to teach.  You have to have a calling to do it.  You have to be passionate about it and damn good at your job. You have to be willing to sacrifice yourself, your time, your energy, a decent living and work in a system and country that refuses to treat you like the professional you are because you desperately want to make a difference.   Because there is no other reason any sane individual would choose a teaching career.  Teachers are overworked, underpaid, undervalued and under appreciated.  I am not saying every teacher is perfect.  There are some bad teachers out there.  What I am saying is that most teachers are doing the very best they can for their students with limited resources and increasing external pressures. Yet, all we can do is bitch and point fingers.  Way to go America.  Way to go.

“Choose Your Own Adventure” Learning

Choose Your Own Adventure Book Covers

I had an interesting debate with some of my students in a class once over self-directed learning.  I had gone off on some diatribe about learning and student responsibility and one student flat out asked “why they couldn’t just learn what they wanted to learn”?  If they could do that, they would enjoy classes so much more they said.  You know, because education is all about student happiness.

I responded saying “I loved Choose Your Own Adventure Books when I was growing up and I don’t think education has to be all one way.”  I actually like the idea of some part of education being similar to Choose Your Own Adventure.  Of course, they had no idea what I was talking about as most had not ever heard of that series!

But I get it.  It doesn’t all have to be so formal and structured.  The issue I explained to them was if all learning was self-directed, would any of them self-direct themselves into learning Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry which were foundational courses for their major?  A few of them, maybe, would have worked their way through some of it, but not most of them.  I knew that.  Hell, I wouldn’t have when I was a student and I like to learn. Those classes in particular were hard and as a student I didn’t understand how those courses were foundational to what I would be doing, what my interests were or how they helped me learn to think about the world.  I lacked context then, as do they now.

Here is the issue with 100% self-directed learning.  It is my job as an educator to do 2 things in the classroom:

1)   Create an environment where learning can take place.

2)   Prepare them as best I can for the real world, which includes employment.

If all learning was self-directed then many students would not cover the material necessary to adequately prepare them for the real world and the job market because they wouldn’t find it interesting or they wouldn’t see the relevance.  Now this does not mean I don’t think some of their education shouldn’t be self-directed.   In any course there are pieces of information and concepts to which students must be exposed because it builds into future courses or they are really going to need it directly in some capacity as a “professional” in their field.  Now as students, they don’t know what they need as a professional so there is an obvious disconnect between what is being covered in class to what they will be doing in the real world. Hence, their unhappiness.

That being said, once the core pieces are covered, there should be some room remaining for self-directed, “choose your own adventure” learning.  I try to give my students in every class this opportunity.   This is one of the reasons I co-founded TheHubEdu.  It’s a space that is less formal, less structured and more social than a traditional classroom.  We promote self-directed learning beyond the classroom and the opportunity for exploration and discovery for both students and instructors.

There is room for this type of learning in the “traditional” education model.   Instructors just have to loosen the reigns a bit and guide students through the process.   Instructors are no longer the primary source of information, but I think some of us still don’t get it.  It’s all about context and connections now.  Still, some of us are reluctant to change.  I remember having a conversation with a colleague of mine in the hallway one day where he was discussing the issues he was having establishing a couple of “make-up” days for a course that was cancelled  due to weather.  My initial thought was “Okay, maybe my being happy classes were cancelled last week is not an appropriate response for an instructor”. So I asked him, why?  Why go to all the trouble to try to schedule a make-up class?  He said “Because if I don’t cover the information, where will they get it”?  And I said “Google, like everyone else”!  He didn’t get it.

Is It Live or Is it Memorex?

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.