More Thoughts on Technology and Cognitive Science

As I struggled through studying for a recent exam, I realized another impact technology potentially has on cognitive science: memory.

I used to thrive when faced with multiple choice tests. While we can debate about the effectiveness of this type of assessment on learning outcomes, for me at least I’ve always had a good memory and I looked forward to courses with these easy grade boosters. I was one of those lucky students, I’d take notes, but I never needed to use them. It always seemed that the act of just writing things down, wrote these in my brain somehow. How things have changed! For this particular course in question, I chose to go full digital, even choosing to purchase a digital text book which I could use on my smartphone and tablet. While I used the notes function built in the app and even took extra time to study, I found this experience to be a challenge were my old study habits would fail.

Many of you can probably relate to this phenomenon. Just a few years ago, you could probably easily recall many of your friend’s phone numbers by heart, but now you probably find this a challenge or would be completely lost without your smart phone.

This is a widely debated topic:

This article discusses some interesting points on memory in the digital age. Research indicates that the experience I’ve recently had is linked to the fact that much of our information is stored in computers so we have less of a need to remember. While that can be seen as a negative side, as this author points out, through social media and other forms, we’re storing a lot more ‘memories’ than we ever did with our brain. This can allow us to recall experiences we would normally never remember.

This debate has been infused in educational circles.

The above article discusses recent debates surrounding allowed tools in exams. I remember when I was in high school, the use of calculators was a highly debated topic. The same is now happening regarding use of search engines. The argument against the use of these tools is that it prevents students from using memory. Proponents argue that we need to adapt to the digital world and encourage critical use of these tools.

These tools will not disappear any time soon, so learning and assessment of learning needs to adapt to incorporate these tools. If the goal of learning is to be able to adapt skills and knowledge to various situations, the best use of our time is to incorporate these tools in learning. Critical thinking and evaluating information sources are far more important skills in the digital age than memorizing facts.

We still have a long way to go in developing online educational tools that have similar benefits to the traditional face to face classroom. This is no reason to block the tools. It is an amazing thing that these tools are forcing a high order evaluation and critical thinking than traditional route learning. I’m much happier spending my brain power and space on developing critical thinking than memorization.

So while the digital textbook and noting taking has been a challenge, I plan on continuing down this path. My studying habits will need to adapt. And maybe one day soon technology will adapt to reproduce that noting taking to memory experience I once enjoyed.


Preparing for Instruction 5: Transformative Learning

Transformative learning

One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had studying adult learning theories is each time a new theory is introduced the thought that goes through my head is “Yes! This is what I want to do!” While I struggle identifying any one learning theory that represents my personal teaching philosophy, I definitely lie somewhere in the spectrum between humanism and constructivism.

Transformative learning is a growing area in adult learning.  Jack Mezirow is one theorist who has made major contributions in transformative learning. To Mezirow, transformative learning is a process by which learners use their experiences to change their perspective. The outcome is not just learning, but a change in ideas and perspective.

There are many links between transformative learning and the business world. Indeed, transformative leadership is a popular topic in leadership. One of the main drives behind this is the link between employee engagement and empowerment and the positive affect this has on business. Employers are looking to increase engagement as this increases companies competitive advantage.

The interesting things about both transformative learning and empowerment is these are not things you can force on people. You can create an environment or curriculum that enables and support it, but you cannot just transfer empowerment or transformation. This comes from the learner.

The above article discusses transformative learning in a coaching environment. I use coaching a lot for training, as a lot of the learning opportunities in my workplace are on the job. This article explains that the coaching relationship encourages transformative learning by presenting learners with a different perspective and encourages reflection.

In relation to leadership, this article suggests that coaching is more valuable than traditional techniques, as it is based on action, not routine. The increased interest in coaching might also be a reflection of changing values and needed competencies in business. Globalization and technology are requiring businesses to be more agile to keep pace. Learning agility and critical thinking therefore has more value than direct team leadership and performance management.

While coaching is used in a lot of workplaces, I think one things we need to keep in mind as practitioners is that this is a dialogue. It can be easy to rush the process—there are tons of tasks that need to be done in a day. Coaching can easily become a “do this thing this way next time”. We need to dig deeper to make this a learning opportunity. Instead of giving the answer, facilitate the discussion so that the learner reflects and finds their own way to improve.

Preparing for Instruction 4: Right vs Left Brain Myth

Most of us have probably heard at one time or another that people are either right brain dominated or left brain dominated. Righties are supposed to be more creative and/or in touch with their emotional side, while lefties are supposed to be more analytical. How much of this is true?

Very little!

In this article, the right vs left brain myth is debunked. The root of the myth appears to date back to research done by Sperry in the 1960’s, where he studies patients who had damage to the corpus callosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain). In his research he did find peculiarities of certain preferences for one side in patients. This was misinterpreted by popular media to the myth we know today.

Many researchers have since tried to reproduce the results. While brain scans show that there is some grounding to certain types of processing taking place in a particular hemisphere (such as analytic tasks originating on the left side, creative tasks on the right), it is the connection between these two hemispheres that allow us to interpret and make meaning of most tasks.

What does this mean for Learning and Teaching?

As reflective practitioners, I think we need to be aware of these myths and more importantly how these inaccurate popularized myths can affect learners. This is just one example of how analytic and rational thinking gets privileged over creative or emotional thinking. We need to be aware of these dichotomies, as they can affect learner’s self esteem. For an example, someone who is creative might have been labeled a right brainer, so the learner may be uneasy around highly analytic tasks because right brainers are not supposed to be good at them. By being aware of these myths, we help debunk these myths in learners by supporting learners through tasks they may be uncomfortable with.

For further debunking of this right vs left brain myth, checking out Neil deGrasse Tyson speak on this issue:

Preparing for Instruction 3: Motivation

Motivation just so happens to be one of my favourite topics. Through my leadership roles over the years, I’ve had the experience of working with different personalities and levels of motivation. Just like personalities, not two people are quite a like. Managing this in the workplace and classroom can be a bit of an art form.

Both in management and training, engagement is key. The lesson connections learners have to material, the less engaged they appear, and eventually that motivation will slowly seep away. Understanding what motivates individuals is important. You can tailor your content to make connections what motivates the learner. Understanding what is interesting and important is just as important, as this can allow you to create engaging material that keeps motivation high.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivators are two key concepts within the field of motivation studies in psychology, education, and even management. Extrinsic motivators are those that are external to the learner. These are external rewards, such as better job prospects or financial rewards. Intrinsic motivators, on the other hand, are internal to the learner. These can be things like ‘learning for the sake of learning’. Social connections can be both extrinsic or intrinsic, as it could both be from an internal need to socialize or for the need of external status recognition.

There is much debate on whether intrinsic or extrinsic motivators are more important in education. Adult learners could certainly be motivated by both at any given time. Any group of adult learners could reveal a mixture of both extrinsic and intrinsically motivated learners. Getting to know your class and what motivates them on an individual level can help you enable the success of all learners.

However, teachers cannot control motivation of learners. They can create engaging environments and material, but this does not guarantee learner motivation. This is the core discussion of the following article:

This article explores the phenomena of low online learning completion rates among adult learners. In some circumstances, completion rates for online classes amongst adults is 30%, while traditional classroom is over 85%. The main reason for this is lack of interaction. In a traditional classroom environment, students interact with the teacher and students. However, there are few opportunities for interactions online. Course designers can attempt to create more engaging platforms—videos, rather than just series of pages, discussion boards—to increase interaction.

Even if course platforms were more engaging, this would not guarantee motivation. Learners will naturally compare their experiences with traditional classroom, so interactions will still come up short. This does not mean the online learning industry is doomed. Rather, more development is needed. In an earlier post, I discussed Coursera and the work they are doing with MOOCs. Engaging and interactive platforms are key and many progressive developments being released constantly.

I was actually really surprised to hear that adults have low completion rates online. I personally love this style of learning. I even find them more engaging. Discussions and blogs are common assignments and I find the discussion more thoughtful and productive than my experiences in some classroom environments. The flexibility of online fits my life and I would have assumed many adults feel the same way.

Anyways, to leave on a motivational note, here’s one of my favourite TED talks of all time. Dan Ariely discusses what motivates us about work. His examples and studies give a good demonstration of the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: