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

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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

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.

Motivation by Reward and Consequence – Behaviourism

Motivation is one of the most important aspects of learning and as a result has featured in many previous blogs. In its simplest form motivation can be defined as something that you want; you want to get fit or you want to pass the exam, and as a result that want directs your behaviour. For example, if I want to pass the exam, a good behaviour would be to attempt 5 more questions.

But do we ever really know what is motivating someone? We could ask Tom Dean, the gold medal winner in the 200-meter freestyle at this year’s Tokyo Olympics. What motivated him to train even harder after he contracted Covid for a second time? I’m sure he would give us an answer, the problem is it could well be something he has constructed to explain it to himself rather than the real reason.

Maybe we should think less of the cognitive reasoning behind motivation and consider only the actions of a motivated person? It’s likely Tom had a few early mornings and went through some pretty painful training sessions in order to get fit for the games, but it could be that his ability to do this is more a consequence of conditioning rather than his desire for a gold medal. There is also the question as to why a gold medal is motivational, after all its not even gold, they are 92.5% silver. Interestingly the Tokyo medals include recycled metal from electrical devises. Maybe its because he associates it with success and or pride, something that he has been conditioned to over many years.

Behaviourism
Behaviourism, is a theory of learning which states that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment by a process called conditioning. The implication is that your behaviour is simply the response to a stimulus, a cause and effect.

The environment shapes people’s actions. B.F. Skinner

Its highly likely you will have experienced and even been involved in motivating someone in this way. For example, were you ever put on the naughty step as a child or told your dog to sit and when he does, reward him? These are examples of how changing the environment results in a different behaviour. The dog is motivated to sit not because it’s a lifelong ambition but because he wants the reward. Tom Dean may well have got up early to go training but that might have more to do with the conditioning resulting from his alarm going off, than a burning desire to get out of bed.

It is effectively motivation as a result of reward and consequence, if you do something you get something.

Classical conditioning – association
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered that dogs could “learn” to salivate at the sound of a bell that rang before they were fed. He called this classical conditioning, the dog associating the bell with food. These types of associations can be the reason people are afraid of spiders or chewing gum, yes, it’s real, Oprah Winfrey is a sufferer. It also explains why having a designated study area can help you feel more like studying, you associate it with getting work done. Here are a few more examples, your smart phone bleeps and you pick it up, celebrities are used to associate a product with glamour, Christmas music makes you feel Christmassy and an exam hall brings on exam anxiety.

Operant conditioning – reinforcement
In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning encourages or discourages a specific behaviour using reinforcement. The argument being that a good behaviour should be reinforced by a repeated reward or a bad behaviour stopped by a repeated punishment. The person who developed this type of conditioning is B.F. Skinner, who famously used pigeons in what became known as “Skinner boxes”.

There are four types of reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement – The behaviour is strengthened by adding something, a reward (praise/treats/prizes) which leads to repetition of the desired behaviour e.g. “Well done, Beth, that was a great question”. Here praise is added to encourage students to ask questions.
  • Negative reinforcement – The removal of something to increase the response e.g. “I can’t study because, everyone is shouting”. The shouting stops which encourages the behaviour of studying.
  • Punishment – The opposite of reinforcement, it adds something that will reduce or eliminate the response. e.g. “that’s probably the worse answer I have ever heard Beth, were you listening at all”. Here humiliation is added that will reduce the likelihood of students asking questions.
  • Negative punishment (Extinction) – This involves removing or taking something away e.g. “You can have your mobile phone back when you have done your homework”. In this situation removing access to the mobile phone results in the homework being completed.

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment. B.F. Skinner

Limitations
Skinner remained convinced anything could be taught with operant conditioning and went on to invent a teaching machine using the principles of reinforcement. It required students to fill in the blank, if the answer was correct, they were rewarded if incorrect they had to study the correct answer again to learn why they were wrong.

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything. B.F. Skinner

However, there are many limitations, the motivation is not always permanent, it’s too basic to teach complex concepts, punishment can lead to a reinforcement of the undesirable behaviour and its possible the person is just pretending.

Operant conditioning is still a hugely influential in the modern world, for example have you ever watched someone play a fruit machine, the required behaviour rewarded to extract more money. What about online gaming where points and leader boards provide rewards in terms of status and prizes.
Then then there are the ideas surrounding behavioural economics popularised by Nudge theory which suggest that you can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by changing the environment.

And finally, have ever seen how the military train, check out this video.

So next time you think you are making a decision of your own free will, maybe you’re just responding to an external stimulus!

Becoming a better thinker – Edward de Bono learning leader

There are a number of people who have changed the way I think but no more than Edward de Bono who died this month aged 88, a great example of a learning leader.

Born in 1933, he graduated as a doctor from the University of Malta before studying physiology and psychology at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He represented Oxford in polo, set two canoeing records and later gained a PhD in medicine from Trinity College, Cambridge.

But he is probably best known for two things, firstly as the creator of the term lateral thinking and secondly for his six thinking hats strategy that went on to influence business leaders around the world.

Lateral thinking

To understand lateral thinking, we first need to figure out what thinking is. There are many definitions but my own take is that it’s a reflective process involving the manipulation of knowledge, feelings and experiences as we seek to connect what we know with new information, normally focused on a problem.

There are two or maybe three modes of thinking!

1. Convergent – focuses on coming up with a single, “correct” answer to a question or problem. Examples of convergent thinking would include critical thinking, a logical process that involves challenging underpinning assumptions, questioning accuracy, motivation and purpose in order to make sense of a situation or solve a problem. Its origins can be traced back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, or as De Bono disparagingly referred to them, the gang of three.  Also, analytical thinking, where you break down complex information into its component parts, this can and is often used in conjunction with critical thinking. Convergent thinking is logical thinking, meaning its rule based, systematic and linear. If for example we concluded that 2 + 2 = 4 and we decided to add another 2, logically the answer would be 6. 

But logic can still be challenging, there is a logical answer to this question yet 80% of people get it wrong.

Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married, but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
A: Yes
B: No
C: Cannot be determined

The correct answer is A. (click here for the explanation)

The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas.

2. Divergent – is the opposite of convergent and involves coming up with many possible solutions, acknowledging that there may be no single correct answer. This type of thinking is often emergent, free flowing, illogical and requires creativity. Convergent and divergent thinking can be used together, divergent to generate ideas and convergent to make sense of those ideas and find a practical application. Click here for a video that explains how these two types of thinking work together.

3. Lateral thinking – is a way of solving problems by taking an indirect and creative approach by looking at the problem from different perspectives. Although there are similarities with divergent thinking it is not the same. Divergent thinking starts with a problem at the centre and random ideas are generated branching outwards in all directions, lateral thinking requires the individual to come up with a solution by generating different ideas that result from changing perspective. De Bono writes that lateral thinking forces the brain to break set patterns, it’s a pattern switching technique.

Let’s consider one of his examples, Granny is sitting knitting and three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests putting Susan into the playpen, a relatively creative (divergent) solution. A logical (convergent) answer might be to tell Susan not to do it, but anyone with a three-year-old will know how effective this will be, but that won’t stop them trying!

The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan, this is lateral thinking, looking at the problem from a different perspective. Its illogical because granny is bigger and surely you don’t need to protect granny from a three-year-old, but it is still a solution and would work.

I am reminded of a question I was once asked whilst visiting Berlin. “Why did the East Germans build the Berlin wall?” ………“To keep people in of course”, it was a prison not a defence. It’s all about perspective.

Lateral thinking is not a substitute for logical thinking and can be used as a way of generating new divergent solutions, they complement each other and are interchangeable. Lateral thinking is generative, logical thinking selective.

In summary lateral thinking is about changing perspective……

Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic.

My own personal favourite perspective story

This is the transcript of a radio conversation of a US naval ship with Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October, 1995. Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.

Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

Lateral thinking for learning

But what has this got to do with learning? Well learning is not just about facts and knowing stuff, the reason we go to school is to gain an understanding of a wide range of issues, concepts and ideas that when faced with a problem we can manipulate and cross check in order to form opinion and come up with a solution. Learning is a consequence of thinking.

Learning without thinking is useless. Thinking without learning is dangerous.
Confucius

De Bono believed that thinking was a skill that could be learned and because lateral thinking helps people develop creative ideas, creativity could also be learned. It is not an innate trait, a type of intelligence that you are borne with, it’s something we all possess, we just need the techniques to do it. He did however distinguish between artistic creativity and idea creativity, Michael Angelo and Shakespeare are artistically creative, lateral thinking will only ever make you idea creative.

As to the techniques, maybe they will feature in another blog but if you can’t wait, here is a short video, but beware De Bono was the master of acronym.

We tend to take thinking for granted, believing we are good at it or maybe never even questioning our ability. But what De Bono made popular was the idea that it was a skill and that we can improve. We live in a time when information is more accessible and freely available than ever, so the real value has to be in what we do with it.

Thank you, Edward De Bono 1933 – 2021.

And lastly….the blog would not be complete without one of De Bono’s lateral thinking puzzles.

A man lives on the tenth floor of a building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or to go shopping. When he returns, he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking so why does he do it?

The man is a dwarf and cant reach the higher buttons.

Learning is emotional

We are all emotional, it’s part of what it means to be human, your emotions help navigate uncertainty and experience the world. For some it’s even considered an intelligence, requiring the ability to understand and manage your own emotions, as well as others.

For many years’ emotions were considered something that “got in the way” of learning, effectively disrupting the efficiency, but it is now believed that emotion has a substantial influence on cognitive processes, including perception, attention, memory, reasoning, and problem solving.

Emotions, feelings and mood

In last month’s blog I outlined how sensory input impact memory and the story continues because memories are a key part of emotion and both are found in something called the limbic system, a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain. The limbic system plays an important part in controlling emotional responses (Hypothalamus), coordinating those responses (Amygdala), and laying down memories (Hippocampus).

There is no single definition of emotion that everyone agrees upon, what we know is, it relies upon the release of chemicals in response to a trigger which in turn leads to three distinct phases. Firstly, a subjective experience, perhaps a feeling of anger, although not everyone would necessarily respond in the same way to the same stimulus. Secondly, a physiological response for example, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate and lastly a behavioural or expressive response, a furrowing of the brow, showing of teeth etc.  

Although emotions are not believed to be hard-wired, in the 1970s Paul Eckman identified six emotions that were universally experienced in all human cultures. They are happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. This list has however been expanded to include others for example shame, embarrassment, excitement etc.

Feelings on the other hand arise from emotions, they are a conscious interpretation of the stimulus, asking questions as to what it might mean, some refer to feelings as the human response to emotions.  And finally, moods which are more general and longer term, an emotion might exist for a fraction of a second but moods can last for hours, even days and are sometimes a symptom of more worrying mental health issues.   In addition, moods are not necessarily linked to a single event but shaped by different events over time.

Impact on learning

Understanding what this means for students and educators is complex and in a short blog it’s only possible to introduce the subject. But there are a few lessons we can learn.

  • Emotions direct attention – if students can make an emotional connection with what they are learning it will improve levels of concentration and enjoyment.
  • Consider the emotional environment – the emotional context in which information is delivered can help students experience more positive emotions such as happiness and one of the most powerful emotions in learning, curiosity.
  • Avoid negative emotions – students who are in a continual state of anxiety or fearing failure whilst learning will find concentrating and retaining information difficult. This is partly the result of the brain going into its fight or flight mode which effectively narrows its focus to the task in hand.
  • Emotional state is contagious – the emotional state of the teacher can have a significant impact on students.
  • Memory and emotions are bound together – emotions have a considerable influence on memory. This is why we remember more emotionally charged events such as September 11 or the London bridge attack in 2017.

And if you would like to find out moreHow do emotions impact learning.

Dedication – in a lifetime we will all experience many emotions some good, some bad, but none are as powerful or more gratefully received than a mother’s love, for my mom.