What the heck is Neurodiversity?

Firstly a few definitions, Neurodiversity is a term used to describe the spectrum of differences that exist as to the way brains function differently from each other. Neurodivergent refers to an individual who processes information differently to what might be considered standard or typical.

“I am a very slow reader. I have to have things written in a pithy way.” Matt Hancock, Dyslexic.

Most people are classed as Neurotypical, meaning they process information in a manner that would be considered typical. In terms of behaviour, they tend to learn skills and reach developmental milestones around the same time as others. These words are chosen carefully to avoid using ‘normal’ and as a consequence ‘abnormal’. This is not about being politically correct but highlights that the differences can result in both positives and negatives depending on the circumstances.

By way of an example of what processing differently looks like watch this video of Stephen Wiltshire, MBE, the British architectural artist who was diagnosed with autism when he was 3.

Neurodiverse conditions
There are a whole range of different Neurodiverse conditions, they include Dyslexia, Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Dyspraxia. In terms of how diverse we are as a nation it is estimated that more that 15% of the UK population are Neurodivergent in some way with the most common being dyslexia at around 10%, followed by ADHD.

“Being dyslexic, I was told that I was an idiot all the time.” David Bailey (Photographer), Dyslexic.

I am going to focus on dyslexia because it’s the one most people have heard of but for completeness here are further details of the Neurodiverse conditions mentioned above.

  • Dyslexia, primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent reading of words and spelling.
  • ADHD is behavioural resulting in people being restless, struggling to concentrate and having a tendency to be impulsive.
  • ASD, as the name suggests is a spectrum, with people experiencing a wide variation in the type and severity of symptoms. The main ones being difficulty with social communication and interaction, and restricted, repetitive behaviours or interests.
  • Dyspraxia affects movement and co-ordination.

“I had to train myself to focus my attention. I became very visual and learned how to create mental images in order to comprehend what I read.” Tom Cruise, Dyslexic.

What’s happening in the dyslexic brain
Like many other Neurodiverse conditions dyslexia results from the way in which the brain processes information. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has provided us with a unique picture as to what is happening in the dyslexic brain, for example we know that when people who are dyslexic read, a different part of their brain is activated. The main problem with the commonest form of dyslexia, phonological dyslexia is that the brain finds it difficult to recognise phonemes, these are the basic sounds of speech, for example the C in Cat is a phoneme. The impact is that it’s hard for the brain to connect the sound with the letter which in turn makes recognising words problematic. Unfortunately, in the time it takes to make the connection, comprehension is lost and the learner falls behind, creating the impression that they are slow and not very clever!

“Being diagnosed with dyslexia at age 60 was like the last part of the puzzle in a tremendous mystery that I’ve kept to myself all these years. “Steven Spielberg,” Dyslexic.

What causes Dyslexia
Knowing what is actually happening inside the brain of someone with dyslexia is interesting but there is perhaps a more pressing question, why do some people have it and others do not? Most of the evidence points to a genetic connection with some suggesting that if a parent has dyslexia there is a 40% to 60% chance of their children also being dyslexic. The risk is increased if the condition is known to exist in the wider family. That said the degree to which anyone is impacted is less well known and it may be relatively mild and as a result will go undetected. Environmental factors are also believed to play a part, these include the mother’s health during pregnancy and poor diet.

“Both my sons are dyslexic, and so, too, in a much milder form, is one of my daughters.” Theo Paphitis, Dyslexic.

At this point I did intend to add that dyslexia is two to three times more prevalent in males, however this is not universally accepted and there seems to be some contradictory research so I will leave that one for now.

“I suffer from severe dyslexia. I was the only child on my block on Halloween to go ‘trick or trout’ … Here comes that young William’s boy. Better get some fish. ” Robin Williams, Dyslexic.

What can you do?
Should you get a formal diagnosis, well maybe and it could be necessary especially if you want to get extra time in an exam. A diagnostic assessment for dyslexia is carried out by experienced specialist teachers and psychologists across the UK. The British Dyslexic Association (BDA) quotes an average fee for a specialist teacher of £515 and for a Psychologist £670 although there are cheaper options available. But if you just want to know a little more there are many free checklists or screening options, here is one from the BDA.

However, if you are a slow reader, have difficulty spelling, need to re-read paragraphs to better understand them and confuse similar words such as dog and dug then maybe you have enough information. Whatever route you choose for diagnosis, below are some positive steps that can help improve how you learn.

  • Do not use dyslexia as an excuse, it’s not who you are, nor a reason as to why you can’t succeed.
  • Recognise that dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence, it’s a processing of information problem.
  • You may find that podcasts and other forms of audio recordings are an easier way of taking in information. You can also listen to them several times.
  • Ask for and use dyslexic friendly fonts. In a classic study, fonts that were found easier to read were Sans Serif fonts, such as Arial and Comic Sans with a font size of 12-14 point, another key takeaway was that italicising words severely decreases its readability.
  • Make lists and produce notes in a bullet style format. Also consider using more visual techniques such as mind maps and diagrams.
  • Allow for the fact that it will take you more time, tell yourself that slow is better.
  • Consider dyslexic tools such as coloured overlays, there are also many great apps out there that can help such as Voice Dream Reader which lets you listen to any document and ebook using text-to-speech.

The overall message is that we all process information in different ways, but a traditional school environment does not favour those with Neurodivergent traits. However, take full advantage of all the support and remember school may not be your best event in the “decathlon of life” but there will be other events at which you can and will excel.

I would like to thank two of my Kaplan colleagues Abbi Nolan and Kirsty Gibson for sharing their expertise and inspiring me to find out more about this fascinating subject.

The Metaverse and Learning – Blue or Red pill?

Getting to grips with the Metaverse is one thing, attempting to figure out if you should take the blue or red pill and enter it as either a learner or educator is another. Which is my way of saying, this is a big, complicated gnarly subject and getting a definitive answer highly unlikely, partly because the Metaverse doesn’t exist just yet and as a result we have little or no evidence to prove its effectiveness either way.

However, maybe we could get some insight by looking at the component parts and imagining its potential.

A Virtual world
Although we need to define the Metaverse, to help better understand it let’s start with what a virtual world is. Here is what Stanford University have to say “A virtual world is a computer-simulated representation of a world with specific spatial and physical characteristics, and users of virtual worlds interact with each other via representations of themselves called avatars.” In 1994 Paul Milgram and Fumio Kishino explained how you get from a real environment (world) to a virtual one in four stages, firstly, the real one followed by Augmented (AR) then Virtual (VR), finally ending up in the virtual environment.

Reality may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it’s still the only place where you can get a decent steak. Woody Allen

The Metaverse is a virtual world that has transitioned from the real one using technologies like AR and VR but has as a result become something more. *The Metaverse does not simply combine the physical and virtual worlds, instead it is a continuity of the physical world in the virtual one, to create an ecosystem that merges both (Physical and virtual). In other words, it is a brand-new world that is as engaging and important as the real one. Mark Zuckerberg (Meta) says that it is a world of endless and interconnected virtual communities, where people can meet each other, work together, play games and more. He sees it as the successor to the internet, an invention that changed all lives by allowing people to be online (in a virtual world) from anywhere and for as long as they would like.

“In simplest terms, the Metaverse is the internet, but in 3D” – Ed Greig, Chief Disruptor, Deloitte Digital

Take a look at how Meta see education in the Metaverse and check out the original promotional video in which Mark Zuckerberg “appears” in order to introduce the world to his new creation.

Changes in the environment change behaviour
There is of course another aspect to being in a virtual world, it is a different environment, and because of that it can have an impact on what you do and how you feel. It is well recognised that spending time in nature, a different environment to the one I am in just now as I write this blog, helps with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. We also know that in some instances the brain finds it difficult to differentiate between what is reality and what is imagined. When these two ideas are combined it becomes possible to understand how a realistic virtual immersive environment could change levels of motivation, confidence and even beliefs. After all, don’t people behave differently online when using social media tools such as Twitter, being unknown in a virtual world is like a cloak of invisibility, you can be whoever you want and say and do whatever you like without any consequence!

Learning in the Metaverse
In terms of learning, the Metaverse like many technologies or learning environments, is neither good nor bad. Whilst some are sceptical and express concerns about loss of identity, hate and cybercrime, security, and privacy, others are excited and want to take advantage of the learning opportunities, here are a few.

High levels of engagement – Much is made of the term “immersive” when talking about the Metaverse, it means that you are surrounded by and become part of the environment. This can be incredibly powerful when it comes to learning resulting in high levels of excitement, motivation and engagement.

Real life skill development – The metaverse provides a safe environment in which you can practice skill development. This is particularly valuable where mistakes can be made that might be upsetting or result in significant cost and even death. Here are a few examples from an article by the World Bank. Note this is not the Metaverse but examples of VR and games-based simulations that would be part of its ecosystem.

High risk – Pharmaceutical industry leader Novartis had to quickly train 100’s of people on best practice production and procedures for a new leukaemia treatment. They had limited physical training labs and subject matter experts to train people in skills where mistakes have life and death consequences.

Not so much life and death but perception, how to see the organisation through your customers eyes. This was the challenge facing Fortune 200 healthcare leader DaVita.

Developing soft skills – Practising communication, decision making and emotional intelligence.

A virtual University campus – A virtual campus has the potential to make a university experience available for everyone around the world. Meet likeminded people in the virtual world, discuss ideas and share ambitions, just like you would in the real world. Virbela have developed a Virtual campus that can be used for both education and or work-based interactions. The pandemic has shown that people can easily work from home, the Metaverse may have a significant role to play in the future of work as well as learning.   

Takes the learner into the world I was going to say that the Metaverse has the ability to bring the world to the classroom when in fact it’s the opposite. Although human imagination is a powerful tool think how impactful it would be if you could begin by explaining in a classroom that T Rex roamed the planet during the late Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago and that they could be up to 12m long and 6m tall, but then ask your learners to come and meet one, made possible by VR – Click here to see how the American Museum of Natural History has brought T Rex to life.

The social dimension – Social media allows people to interact, transact, and share interests with others virtually (pun intended) regardless of where they live. The metaverse is social media but in 3D, for better or for worse.

Conclusions
The Metaverse could end up being the biggest white elephant of all time. Reality Labs, the division building the metaverse, lost £3.16bn between July and September this year. Mark Zuckerberg has said that he would invest $10 billion to $15 billion per year, but that it may take 10 years before it yields results. That’s an estimated $100B+ investment into an unknown future.

BUT it might be as Zuckerberg predicts become the next iteration of the internet, personally I would like to give it a chance because it has the potential to contribute to a new and exciting next chapter as to how we help people learn.

That said, I don’t think I would be putting any money into it just yet.

And for a more in-depth explanation, Donald Clark in discussion with John Helmer   VR & Metaverse with Donald Clark

The picture is obviously From the matrix – the blue pill will allow the subject to remain in the fabricated reality of the Matrix; the red serves as a “location device” to locate the subject’s body in the real world and to prepare them to be “unplugged” from the Matrix. Once one chooses the red or blue pill, the choice is irrevocable.

*Is Metaverse in education a blessing or a curse: a combined content and bibliometric analysis

Beam me up Kirkpatrick – evaluating learning

One of the most difficult questions to answer for both the learner and teacher is, “how do you know you or they are learning”?

On the face of it, the answer might seem simple, you are learning if you think you are, if what has been said makes sense and that you are happy with the way it’s being taught. But what does “make sense” actually mean? Presumably the process was logical and you understand it, you might even have found it interesting. However just to make sure you understood it, maybe we should ask some questions in the form of a test, and if you pass the test then that must mean you have learned it? But passing a test doesn’t mean you could apply it in a practical situation, isn’t that the best way to decide if it has been learned?

Each of these questions is doing something different, they are evaluating learning from a different perspective and if that seems the right approach you will probably very much like the Kirkpatrick model.  

The Kirkpatrick Model
In the 1950’s Donald Kirkpatrick developed the model that carries his name when he used it as the basis for his Ph.D. dissertation entitled, “Evaluating Human Relations Programs for Industrial Foremen and Supervisors.” But don’t let that put you off, the main point is, it’s a practical model designed to evaluate training not necessarily learning in a wider context or education. However as discussed in a previous blog, “Training V Education”, may not always be that far apart.

The model has four levels.

Level 1: Reaction – this measures the degree to which participants find the training useful, engaging, and relevant. Its focus is on the learner’s perception and as such is an opinion, which leads to the criticism that people may be happy but have learned nothing or vice versa. It is commonly evaluated using so called “happy sheets”, offering a range of smiley faces for the participant to indicate which one they think best captures how they feel, but they can be more sophisticated, with detailed questionnaires pre and post learning. This is the most popular method of measuring learning, with some suggesting around 80% of organisations use them.

Level 2: Learning – this is about the degree to which learners acquire the intended knowledge and skills and is most often evaluated using exams or tests. Critics will argue these only measure short term memory and not the longer-term deep learning that is required. Also, in practice the actual assessments are not always well written, partly because the expertise is not available to question the reliability and validity of the test.  

Level 3: Behaviour – this relates directly to how much the learners can apply in practice what they have learned. In the workplace this would be the application of what was learned reflected in improvements as to how the individual does their job. But it can also be assessed using assignments, case studies and real-world projects.

Level 4: Results – the last level is a measurement of the impact the training has had on the learning outcomes. Has the training achieved what it was originally designed to do. This is the least measured largely because of the difficulty and costs involved. Which is unfortunate because in many ways its the most important measure of success.

Kirkpatrick is far from perfect but the biggest criticism is probably in its application, with most organisations stopping at level 2 because 3 and 4 are too difficult. There are other models of assessment that some consider to be superior for example, the Philips model (ROI Methodology), the Kaufman model and Rob Brinkerhoff’s success case methodology, but obviously they are have critics as well.

Why does this matter?
Learning evaluation is clearly hugely valuable for educators, given the amount of time, energy and money that goes into training, it’s essential you know how effective it is. In addition, the Kirkpatrick model serves another purpose by helping with course design, just spin it around and ask the following questions. Starting with level 4, what do you want the training to achieve, what is the learning outcome? Then moving to level 3 ask, what behaviour will you see if learners are doing what is needed? Level 2, what knowledge and skills do learners need to do this? And lastly level 1, how do I want learners to feel, to help make the experience as effective as possible.

But it also has some value for learners, enjoying a course is important because it helps with concentration and to a certain extent motivation but the evidence shows, learners are not very good judges as to the effectiveness of learning. That’s not to say if something doesn’t’ make sense you shouldn’t challenge, just that sometimes you might find a particular exercise difficult, begin to question your level of intelligence and worry you’re not learning, when in fact the difficulty is a necessary prerequisite to embed the learning in the first place.

Lastly – What the Kirkpatrick model does is shift the perspective from measuring learning in terms of an emotion and the ability to answer a question, towards creating new improved behaviours and ultimately getting the results you want.

Footnote – the famous quote “Beam me up Scotty” is of course Captain or latterly Admiral Kirk speaking to Scotty his Chief Engineer. But Montgomery Scott to give him his full fictional name may have been a wizard with the Enterprise but unfortunately, he didn’t come up with a framework for evaluating learning.

Flash Ah, Ahhhh……..Cards

y

I can’t believe I have not written about flashcards before. They are an incredibly popular learning tool and have moved relatively seamlessly to digital in recent years. Research published earlier this year found that 78% of students said they had used digital flashcards and of those who used both the digital and paper version, 60% preferred digital, largely because of their convenience and ease of use.

What is a flashcard? – essentially its a card with a question on one side and the corresponding answer on the other. You pick up the card and read the question, maybe it says, who was the 77th Prime minister in the UK? you then attempt to recall the answer in your head before flipping the card over to reveal the name “Boris Johnson”. Interestingly, in that same survey only 53 % of learners turn the card over to check if they were right, something we will discover later is not a particularly good idea. Which highlights another problem that might be happening, students are using flashcards, just not correctly.

Why do they work?
Of course, it doesn’t follow that just because lots of students use flashcards, they are good, but in this instance they are. Flashcards force students into doing things that we know are good for learning. For example, they are excellent for retrieval practice, spaced practice and interleaving, in fact, they support most of the evidenced based learning techniques. Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

Retrieval practice – The process of reflecting back and having to retrieve a memory of something previously learned is very powerful. When you look at the card and attempt to recall the answer the brain is working hard, this will result in the reinforcement of neural pathways, in simple terms you are learning. And of course, it requires effort, that’s the reason it works, don’t do as it would appear 47% of all learners and not check if you were right or flip the card over too soon.

Spaced practice – Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming, you effectively take the same amount of time to study, just do it over a longer period. The evidence shows that if you revisit what you have studied over time it boosts what is called retrieval and storage strength but if you study in a short period of time, your retrieval strength improves but your storage strength reduces. Flashcards can be used intermittently, effectively spacing out you’re learning, a good way to do this is to use something called the *Leitner system. Let’s assume there are three envelopes and on the first is written, “every day”, on the second, “every other day” and on the third, “once a week”. All flashcards initially start in envelope one, if you answer a flashcard correctly it moves into envelope two, if incorrectly it stays in envelope one. Each time you get a card correct, you move it to the next envelope but if you get it wrong, you move it back to the previous one. Eventually, in theory at least, all cards will end up in envelope three. Here is a video that shows exactly how it works.

*The Leitner system was developed by the German science journalist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s.

Interleaving – Interleaving is simply studying different topics as opposed to studying one topic very thoroughly, this latter process is called blocking. Repetition is one of the main benefits of using flashcards, the process takes place naturally as you go through the pack several times, however that same repetition can make the process easier, because the brain will begin to remember cards by association with each other. This is not the same as remembering the information on the card, because if you change the order then the association is broken and you will forget. A simple technique is to shuffle the deck each time you go through it.

Paper based or digital
The evidence to support using paper-based flashcards or the digital version is mixed with some suggesting that digital is better, Azabdaftari & Mozaheb, 2012 and others Gilbert Dizon and Daniel Tang concluding that there is no significant difference. Although they do acknowledge as our earlier research did that students prefer digital when asked.

The arguments are that digital is more convenient, for example everyone carries a mobile and they easier to create and use due to the sophistication of some of the Apps available. However, in contrast producing your own papers-based cards, deciding what to put on them or how they should look, together with their tactile nature makes the learning more effective.

My advice, do whatever works best for you. Perhaps using an app such as Quizlet, Brainscape or the very popular AnkiApp for one subject and produce your own paper based cards for another.

Conclusions
I should have written about flashcards before, they are a hugely effective tool that utilise many of the best evidenced based strategies. Don’t worry about the, “should I use digital or paper” debate, it really doesn’t matter, try both.

And one last tip, don’t leave the use of flashcards until the end of your studies. To maximise their value start using them about a month before the exam, not the night before! Oh, and why not rate yourself in terms of confidence in getting the correct answer before turning the card over, it’s just another way of deepening learning through reflection.

You might find this helpful, it shows 5 ways to use flashcards, although in fairness some are just good note making skills, but then what’s wrong with that.

Gagne’s style – Nine steps to delivery

Robert Gagne was an American educational psychologist who pioneered the science of instruction in the second world war working with the Army Air Corps, training pilots. His focus was on simplifying and explaining what he and others believed to be good instruction.

Like many academics he wrote and published papers on different areas, for example he developed a hierarchy of learning, similar to Bloom with behavioural aspects at the bottom and cognitive ones at the top. But he is probably most well-known for his Nine levels of learning or as it is referred to here, The nine steps of delivery.

Now the only problem with this is that there are nine steps and anyone who has read this blog before will know, nine is just to The answer is simple, chunk it down into smaller sections.

Why is this important?
Gagne’s objective was to provide a systematic process to help teachers and trainers better structure what they do in order to keep students engaged and help them retain knowledge. But the process he created also provides an insight as to how learning works and can be used by students to structure their own learning. Below are the nine steps broken down under three headings. As well as explaining how each step works, I will also add comments as to what it means for a student who might be studying on their own.

Preparation

  1. Gaining attention
    Start the learning experience by gaining the attention of your learners. The change in stimulus tells them that learning will soon take place. For the student this means you need to create a break from what you are doing and get into a mood to start studying. This might involve going to the library or setting an alarm on your phone to create a trigger telling you something different is about to happen.
  1. Informing the learner of the objective
    Share the learning objective with students early on. What should they know at the end of the session that they didn’t before. For the student it’s important you also know what you are trying to learn, what will you be aware of at the end of this session that you don’t know now. It also helps if your aware of why its important e.g. maybe it’s a very popular exam area or is developed in more detail later so you need to learn it now.
  1. Stimulating recall of prior learning
    Relate the new learning back to something learned before or a similar experience your learners have had, this forms a link between the old and new. For the student this is a reflective process, how does this topic relate to what you have learned in the past, how does it fit in?

Instruction and practice

  1. Presenting the content
    Present the new content to the learners. For the student this is where you start reading or listening to the new content.
  1. Providing learning guidance
    Explain to the learners what something means by giving examples, highlight what’s difficult and what’s not. For the student this is where you have to rely on the instruction provided in the learning materials
  1. Eliciting performance
    Here the learner has to practice what they have been taught in order to demonstrate understanding. For the student this is the equivalent to attempting a question or by way of analogy, trying to turn the theory of how to bake a cake into a reality by actually baking one.

Assessment and transfer

  1. Providing feedback
    Provide guidance to the learner as to what the difference was between their answer and the correct one, what do they need to do to close that gap? For the student this is where it is helpful to work with others, perhaps you mark their answer and they mark yours. To follow the cake example, take it out of the oven and look at it, is it the right texture and colour, then taste it. What do you need to do to make it the best cake ever?
  1. Assessing the performance
    Assessing learner performance is usually demonstrated by asking them to take a test. For the student its very similar this time, take the test and see what score you get.
  1. Enhancing retention and transfer
    The learner now needs to demonstrate this by applying it to their job or by teaching others. This last stage often requires continual practice and feedback to become competent. For the student who thinks their objective is to do little more than pass the exam it may not seem important, however in the medium to long term applying learning is the main goal.

And that’s all you have to do, nine steps that break down instruction and in so doing providing a roadmap to effective study. It has been argued that the process doesn’t work so well for more creative subjects, after all it was designed around training airline pilots. However, it can teach you to fly and most importantly land a plane it’s probably good enough for most areas of learning.

Who needs a teacher – the power of self-explanation

One of the great skills of a teacher is that they explain things you don’t understand, that’s really helpful – right?

Well maybe not, a meta study entitled, Inducing Self-Explanation published back in 2018 concluded that it is better to ask a student to try and explain something to themselves, than for a teacher to do that for them. Although in fairness the teacher’s explanation was better than no explanation, which might seem an obvious point but it shows that the content is important and it’s not just the process. However, the process does help because it forces the student to recognise links between the knowledge or skills they have already learned and identify the gaps in their understanding which need to be bridged. In further defence of teachers, there is some evidence to show that the technique is more effective following an initial explanation, with the student asked to explain it to themselves afterwards.

In simple terms self-explanation requires the learner to try to explain concepts, ideas and processes in their head to themselves prior to answering a question. However there is a little more to it than that.

Self-explanation and elaborative interrogation
Elaborative interrogation is similar to self-exploration but not exactly the same. If you ask someone “why that makes sense” or “why is this true”, this is an example of elaboration, it generally relies on a specific chunk of prior knowledge that you are elaborating on. Self-explanation is more generic in that you could ask “what does this mean to you” or “explain what you have just read”. To answer these questions there is no need for past knowledge as the paragraph may only just have been read. As a result, self-explanation is better suited to knowledge acquisition.

But for all intent and purposes they are both techniques that force reflection, requiring the learner to assemble the component parts of process or argument in their head, challenge the conclusions and ask further questions to narrow the gap in their understanding. One last point, we also know that more effective learners (although you may think they are just really smart) are likely to engage in self-explaining naturally.

Learning requires effort – desirable difficulty
If this process sounds like hard work, it is, learning is not meant to be easy, it can be enjoyable and rewarding but not necessarily easy. Compare, trying to explain something to re-reading the textbook or highlighting key words. My guess is that you would much rather re-read or highlight, but they are both far less effective learning techniques.

The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.
Marcus Tullius Cicero

This is yet another example of what Robert Bjork’s referred to as desirable difficulty (Bjork, 1994; McDaniel & Butler). It is the idea that having certain difficulties in the learning process greatly improves long-term retention. Other examples include, spacing, interleaving and retrieval practice which I have written about before. It’s the effort and reflection that helps transfer the knowledge from short term to long term memory and without that it would be forgotten.

More effective
The key point is not about the difficulty of learning but the effectiveness of the methods used to learn, and developing the confidence that when something is hard it’s probably a good thing. So, the next time you are asked a question that requires an explanation and you can’t give one, don’t jump straight back into the textbook to reread the entire chapter. Think and reflect on what it is you don’t understand, create a sentence that captures that lack of understanding, maybe even saying it out loud, find the answer and then attempt to explain it again.

A little more difficult of course but you will be learning and not just sitting there thinking you are.

My thanks to John Eaton for his observations on this topic and for the fab picture of Less Dawson.

Blooms 1984 – Getting an A instead of a C

When people see the year 1984 most think of George Orwell’s book about a dystopian future, but a few other things happened that year. Dynasty and Dallas were the most popular TV programs and one of my favorite movies, Amadeus won best picture at the Oscars. You can be excused for missing the publication of what has become known as the two Sigma problem by Benjamin Bloom, of Blooms taxonomy fame. He provided the answer to a question that both teachers and students have been asking for some time – how can you significantly improve student performance?  

One of the reasons this is still being talked about nearly 40 years later is because Bloom demonstrated that most students have the potential to achieve mastery of a given topic. The implication is that it’s the teaching at fault rather than the students inherent lack of ability. It’s worth adding that this might equally apply to the method of learning, it’s not you but the way you’re studying.

The two-sigma problem
Two of Bloom’s doctoral students (J. Anania and A.J. Burke) compared how people learned in three different situations:

  1. A conventional lecture with 30 students and one teacher. The students listened to the lectures and were periodically tested on the material.
  2. Mastery learning – this was the conventional lecture with the same testing however students were given formative style feedback and guidance, effectively correcting misunderstandings before re-testing to find out the extent of the mastery.
  3. Tutoring – this was the same as for mastery learning but with one teacher per student.

The results were significant and showed that mastery learning increased student performance by approximately one standard deviation/sigma, the equivalent of an increase in grading from a B to an A. However, if this was combined with one-to-one teaching, the performance improved by two standard deviations, the equivalent of moving from a C to an A. Interestingly the need to correct students work was relatively small.

Bloom then set up the challenge that became known as the two-sigma problem.

“Can researchers and teachers devise teaching/learning conditions that will enable the majority of students under group instruction to attain levels of achievement that can at present be reached only under good tutoring conditions?”

In other words, how can you do this in the “real world” at scale where it’s not possible to provide this type of formative feedback and one to one tuition because it would be too expensive.

Mastery learning – To answer this question you probably need to understand a little more about mastery learning. Firstly, content has to be broken down into small chunks, each with a specific learning outcome. The process is very similar to direct instruction that I have written about before. The next stage is important, learners have to demonstrate mastery of each chunk of content, normally by passing a test scoring around 80% before moving onto new material. If not, the student is given extra support, perhaps in the form of additional teaching or homework. Learners then continue the cycle of studying and testing until the mastery criteria are met.

Why does it work?
Bloom was of the opinion that the results were so strong because of the corrective feedback which was targeted at the very area the student didn’t understand. The one to one also helped because the teacher had time to explain in a different way and encourage the student to participate in their own learning which in turn helped with motivation. As you might imagine mastery is particularly effective in situations where one subject builds on another, for example, introduction to economics is followed by economics in business.

Of course, there are always problems, students may have mastered something to the desired level but forget what they have learned due to lack of use. It’s easy to set a test but relatively difficult to assess mastery, for example do you have sufficient coverage at the right level, is 80% the right cut score? And finally, how long should you allow someone to study in order to reach the mastery level and what happens in practice when time runs out and they don’t?

The Artificial Intelligence (AI) solution
When Bloom set the challenge, he was right, it was far too expensive to offer personalised tuition, however it is almost as if AI was invented to solve the problem. AI can offer an adaptive pathway tracking the student’s progression and harnessing what it gleans to serve up a learning experience designed specifically for the individual. Add to this instructionally designed online content that can be watched by the student at their own pace until mastery is achieved and you are getting close to what Bloom envisaged. However, although much of this is technically possible, questions remain. For example, was the improvement in performance the result of the ‘personal relationship’ between the teacher and student and the advise given or the clarity in explaining the topic. Can this really be replicated by a machine?

In the meantime, how does this help?
What Bloom identified was that in most situations it’s not the learner who is at fault but the method of learning or instruction. Be careful however, this cannot be used as an excuse for lack of effort, “its not my fault, it’s because the teacher isn’t doing it right”.

How to use Blooms principles.

  • Change the instruction/content – if you are finding a particular topic difficult to understand, ask questions such as, do I need to look at this differently, maybe watching a video or studying from another book. Providing yourself with an alternative way of exploring the problem.
  • Mastery of questions – at the end of most text books there are a number of different questions, don’t ignore them, test yourself and even if you get them wrong spend some time understanding why before moving on. You might also use the 80% rule, the point being you don’t need to get everything right

In conclusion – It’s interesting that in 1985 Bloom came up with a solution to a problem we are still struggling to implement. What we can say is that personalisation is now high on the agenda for many organisations because they recognise that one size does not fit all. Although AI provides a glimmer of hope, for now at least Blooms 2 Sigma problem remains unsolved.

Listen to Sal Khan on TED – Let’s teach for mastery, not test scores

When a horse might be a cow – the importance of Schema

Although there is a difference between learning, “the process of acquiring knowledge” and remembering, “the process of recording, storing and retrieving knowledge”, they are symbiotic, the one having little purpose without the other. Which goes someway to explaining why I have written so much about memory over the years. Here is one such example Never forget – improving memory.

In some of these blogs I have referred to the word schema but have not really explored it in much detail, it’s time to put that right.

It’s easy to think that when the brain transfers information from short to long term memory it just sits there floating in a vacuum, waiting for the day it will be needed. But it doesn’t work like that, the brain cannot simply pluck something from this vast space without having structured the information in the first place, effectively having filed it away correctly.

The packets that organise information and make sense of experience are ‘schemas’, the building blocks of cognition. Daniel Goleman

Schema – how information is stored
Schema can be derived from the word’s Greek origin, which means to shape or plan, but it wasnt until 1923 that the child developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used it in the context of learning.

Nine years later Frederic Bartlett described schema in more detail by saying that people organise concepts into mental constructs, models, or frameworks that help them process and remember information. The implication being that when faced with information that fits an existing schema, it will be remembered but if not, it is easily forgotten.

Schemas contribute to our understanding as to how information is stored in the brain and provide insight as to what we can do to learn more effectively. They are built through experience, for example a child may have been told that a cow is an animal that has four legs, eats grass and lives in a field, they may even have seen one. When they next come across a cow, they will associate what they see with that schema and say “cow”. However, if in the next field they see a horse which also has four legs, eats grass and lives in a field, they may believe that is also a cow. It’s at this point the child’s parents intervene by telling the child “No that’s a horse, can you see its taller and runs faster”, this leaves the child with two choices either, build a new schema or adapt the existing one.

Piaget gave us the answer as to what’s happening here, he called it Assimilation and Accommodation. Assimilation is when you make the new information fit with an existing schema for example, the child can adapt their schema by adding – not all animals that live in a field with four legs and eat grass are cows, some are horses. Alternatively, they create a new schema for horses, being fast, tall animals with four legs, that eat grass and live in a field, this is accommodation.

People who do well in maths are those that make connections and see maths as a connected subject.
Jo Boaler, 2014

Chess players use schemas
There is a general assumption that chess players have good memories, which on the face of it is true. But it’s not necessarily an innate ability, they have been building up information of past games and storing them in schemas for years. This is why an expert chess player is able to beat a novice, not because they are processing each move individually, they suffer from cognitive load like everyone else, they are simply accessing past schemas. (Chase & Simon, 1973 et al).

The reason experts remember more is that what novices see as separate pieces of information, experts see as organised sets of ideas. Donovan & Bransford, 2005

How does this help with learning?
If you aware of how your brain stores information you can change the way you study to work with your brain not against it. Below are a few tips you might want to consider.

  • Pre-Assessment or subject review – It’s a good idea before starting a new subject to test yourself or review the underpinning content. This is not so much about finding out what you know, although this might be helpful, it reminds you of prior knowledge and schemas that can be adapted to fit the new information you will learn.
  • Look for analogies and comparisons – when new information is presented think how this might fit with what you now. For example, if you have already learned about income tax, when you come to capital gains tax ask, what are the differences and similarities. They both fit into the schema of taxation.
  • Put Information Into context – when trying to understand something new, consider the context from which it comes, its possible that although the knowledge is new the context is familiar. For example, if you were learning about people who break the law, it might be a good idea to ask yourself in what context you would do this. This could help fit the new information into an existing schema.
  • Challenge your existing schemas – like many things’ schemas can be good or bad. Here is a riddle, a father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the doctor says ‘I cannot do the surgery because this is my son’. How is this possible?

The answer is of course that the doctor is the son’s mother, but because we have a schema that tells us doctors are male, we get it wrong.

And one last big tip for teachers, inside your head you have created schemas that work, share them with your students, they have probably taken you many years to create making them hugely valuable in terms of knowledge transfer.

For more information here is a really good video that explains Memory Schemas in more detail.

Chatter – why talking to yourself matters

If you are reading this, think for a moment as to what you are doing……… are you sounding out the words in your head or did you pause, reflect and ask yourself “what exactly am I doing?”, either way you have been using your inner voice, your internal dialogue or have been experiencing what Ethan Kross calls Chatter.

Ethan is the Professor of Psychology and Management at the University of Michigan and author of a book called Chatter, the voice in our head and how to harness it.

On the one hand this might all seem a little strange, how many people would you ask what they have been talking to themselves about today, perhaps you wouldn’t because it’s too personal a question or maybe you don’t want to admit you do it all of the time. The good news is its perfectly normal and the vast majority of people talk to themselves. It’s worth adding however that not everyone has an internal voice, with some suggesting that this might be more likely for people with dyslexia.

Where does it come from?
Evolution would suggest that if we have this ability, it must serve a purpose. Mark Scott from the University of British Columbia has found evidence that a brain signal called “corollary discharge” plays an important role in our experiences of internal speech. Corollary discharge arises when the brain generates an internal copy of the sound of our voice in parallel to the external sound we hear. Its purpose is to prevent confusion between a self-caused sound or sensation for example, a dog growling noise inside our head and an externally-caused sound, for example a real dog growling who is about to bite. If both are the same, we run pretty fast, if not the brain will cancel the internal sound. This is the reason we can’t tickle ourselves; the brain sends a signal that we are going to tickle ourselves before we actually do, effectively cancelling the sensation.

Interestingly children don’t develop this skill until around 6 or 7 although its gradual and starts much earlier. This is the reason a young child will just say what they think, regardless of the consequences!

“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” Steve Jobs

Why it matters and what you can do?
One of the most powerful tools to help manage stress, wellbeing and self-esteem is your inner voice, and examinations provide a rich environment where without support all of these can bring you down. Heightened dialogue is not of course just experienced when studying or in the exam room, how was it possible that Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed penalties in the Euros. Maybe it was the result of too much chatter, telling themselves that they must score, they have to score, the country is relying on them?

“Non-judgment quiets the internal dialogue, and this opens once again the doorway to creativity.” Deepak Chopra

And this is where Ethan Kross offers a whole raft of advice. He talks about having the ability to step back from the Chatter by adopting a broader, calmer and more objective perspective. You also need to listen to what your saying, low self esteem for example can easily develop if you are continually criticising yourself, perhaps as a thoughtless parent might do, always finding fault no matter what.

Here are a few of the practical tools in the book.

  1. Use distanced self-talk – rather than saying “why can’t I do this”, use your name in the second person “why is it that Stuart can’t do this”. This results in reduced activation in brain networks associated with negative thoughts.
  2. Imagine advising a friend – this has a similar impact in that it helps you view the experience from a distance. “I know this is a tricky question but you’ve been in a similar situation before and you figured it out”. This is also an example of what Kross calls time travel, (temporal distancing) either going forward in time to look in the rear-view mirror at the problem, effectively leaving it behind or travelling back to a time when you were successful.
  3. Broaden your perspective – in this situation, compare what you’re worrying about with other adverse events or ask what other people would do in the same situation. A variation on the “what would Jesus do?” question.
  4. Reinterpreted your bodies chatter response – when you experience stress its likely your heart rate will increase and you will begin to sweat. Becoming aware of this can lead you to conclude that you are stressed which in fact makes the situation worse. Kross suggest you tell yourself that this is not bad news but the body doing what it has to in order to help you.

And finally, if you want to find out more, check out this video, Do you have an inner voice?

Old Marley was as dead as a door nail – the power of analogy

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

A Christmas Carol was written by Charles Dickens in October 1843 and published on December 19th the same year. By Christmas’s Eve it had sold 6,000 copies at 5 shillings each, unfortunately Dickens only made £230 due to the elaborate illustrations and a not so lucrative deal with Chapman and Hall, the publishers. Today you could by an original copy for around £40,000.

Although Dickens might not have struck a particularly good business deal, he used an excellent analogy to describe exactly how dead Marley, his business partner was. Incidentally the reason a doornail is considered so dead is to do with the way it is bent over and hammered flat, making it unusable. Click for a more detailed explanation.

Analogy
Put simply, analogies highlight shared characteristics between two things. It’s an umbrella term for a cognitive process where we transfer meaning or information from one subject to another and as a result improve understanding. For example, “life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get” is an analogy from Forrest Gump that makes the connection between the choices and surprises you face when deciding on what chocolate to have…. and life. It helps illustrate the uncertainty of life, the fact that faced with choice you don’t always make the best one and sometimes when you “bite” into life you might be pleasantly surprised. Many analogies are used in everyday speech, for example “doing that will be as about as effective as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”, meaning it will make no difference. Similes and metaphors can be used in the same way, in many instances providing the infrastructure to support the analogy. Life is like a box of chocolates, is a simile.

But the distinction between, analogy, metaphor and similia doesn’t really matter, the important point is that all of these can be used to improve understanding, navigate complexity and help with problem solving by using what is called analogical reasoning.

Making abstract concrete
There are many reasons as to why analogies work so well. They often require the use of images, connect existing information with new and encourage reflection, retrieval and the manipulation of ideas. All of which help move information from short to long term memory. There is also a strong connection with the 6 evidenced based learning strategies covered in previous blogs, in particular using concrete examples to make concepts more real. This is one of the most powerful ways to use an analogy.

How do you explain the dual concept in accounting? Here is the answer – the dual concept tells us that every transaction affects the business in at least two ways which are equal and opposite in nature.

Even though you have an explanation, because it’s a concept, an abstract idea, it has no form which makes it difficult for the brain to grasp. But if you can relate it by way of an analogy, perhaps thinking of the dual concept as a set of scales where whatever you put on one side you have to put on another, it becomes more tangible and an understanding develops.

Designing an analogy
Sometimes an analogy will just emerge, from my own experience this is often the case when I have thought about a particular topic or taught it for many years. The catalyst might be someone saying, I don’t understand. As a result, you rack your brains to come up with an alternative way of explaining, and the analogy just appears. However, when studying, you don’t have time for this but coming up with your own analogy might really help. Here is one way of doing it.

Pick two objects, ideas or domains
e.g. a carrot and learning
Write down the main characteristics
– Carrots – are orange, grow from a seed, need water, good for you etc
– Learning – requires effort, takes time, builds on prior knowledge, helps you in life etc
Evaluate by looking for commonalities
Learning is not dissimilar to a carrot, it starts very small, takes time to grow, needs nurturing and is good for you. A slightly silly example but hopefully it shows how the process could work.

A word of warning, as powerful as analogies can be they aren’t the answer to everything. Research shows they can cause learners to create incorrect mental models and as such draw the wrong conclusions, so always keep a check on the logic behind the analogy and at what point it stops working.

A few more analogies
– “A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.” Winston S. Churchill
– “You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.” Albert Einstein
– “Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” Leo Tolstoy
They can also make you laugh – “When I die, I want to go peacefully like my Grandfather did, in his sleep – not screaming, like the passengers in his car.”

And as Tiny Tim said, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”
Happy Holidays and here’s to a much better 2022.