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.

Food for thoughts – the impact of food on learning

According the latest government statistics obesity is on the rise, there is also a link to Covid deaths with nearly 8% of critically ill patients in intensive care being obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population. The WHO has stated that being overweight and obese is the fifth leading risk for global deaths with at least 2.8 million adults dying each year.

Eating too much is clearly not good for your health but how about what you eat, how might that impact your health, in particular your brain?

Viva las Vagus

Have you ever used your gut instinct, had butterflies in your stomach or when feeling nervous had to rush to the toilet? If so then you already have some evidence of the connection and importance of your gut to the way you think and feel. The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve and runs from the brain stem to part of the colon in effect making the connection. The biggest influence on the levels of activity of the vagus nerve are the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut. The vagus nerve is able to sense the microbe activity and effectively transfer this gut information to the nervous system and ultimately the brain. Watch this 2-minute video that shows how this works.

Scientists refer to the relationship between the gut and the brain as the “gut brain axis”. The brain sends chemical signals to the gut through the bloodstream, one such example is the feeling of being full or hungry. But and this is the interesting part – the stomach talks back; gut bacteria send messages in the same way the brain communicates using neurotransmission. Prior blog – The learning brain.

Exactly what the messages say depends on what you eat, a gut filled with fruit and vegetables will have different microbes to one that has just consumed a Big Mac. This is a very new area and most of the research has been completed on rats but there is already some evidence to suggest that junk food impairs memory.

Hopefully this gives you some idea as to the strong connection that exist between your stomach and your brain. We can now move on and consider what specific types of foods can help when learning.

These Ted talks are well worth watching if you want to find out more – Your Gut Microbiome: The most important organ you’ve never heard of (11m), and Mind-altering microbes: How the microbiome affects brain and behaviour (6m).

What to eat when studying

The first thing to say is that I am far from an expert on nutrition and so the focus here is more on the impact food has on mood, concentration, cognition and memory. Secondly, to give this some context it might be worth thinking about what you eat in the same way an athlete does. They pay close attention to their diet to make sure their body is in the best possible condition in order to compete because if not they are reducing their chances of success. However, a good diet is no substitute for the hard work they have to put in at the gym, you have to do both. Short video on how nutrition is key to sports performance.

Brain foods

  1. Apples, berries and Citrus – The British Journal of Nutrition published research in 2010 (The impact of fruit flavonoids on memory and cognition) indicating that consuming certain fruits such as berries, apple and citrus, that are rich in flavonoids can help improve memory and cognition.
  2. Dark chocolate – Research published in the Frontiers in Nutrition (Enhancing Human Cognition with Cocoa Flavonoids) found that dark chocolate which also contains flavonoids improved memory in both the short and long term. But remember many types of chocolate are high in sugar, fats, and calories so it’s not all good news.
  3. Rosemary – Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology found that herbs such as rosemary and lavender impacted memory, with the scent of rosemary enhancing memory but lavender impairing it. Maybe Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he said ‘rosemary is for remembrance’.
  4. Oily fish and walnuts (omega 3) – There is a much-published connection between omega three and the improvement in learning and memory. However, many of these claims are exaggerated to promote a particular type of food or brand with most having such small doses to make little or no difference. There is some evidence published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology that found people who ate more seafood, which naturally contains omega 3, had reduced rates of decline in semantic memory. But there is little evidence to show that supplements work at all. The best advice is to eat fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet but don’t expect your exam results to improve by that much.
  5. Fruit and vegetables – A study conducted by Pennsylvania State University in April 2012 found an association between consuming fruit and vegetables and being in a positive mood.
  6. Water – Despite being the least exciting of them all, water remains one of the best ways in which you can improve brain functionality. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied 101 participants to see if low water consumption impacted cognition. The result was those who had reduced amounts of water experienced poor memory, reduced energy levels and feelings of anxiety, but those drinking water experienced the opposite.

The evidence on specific foods and its impact on cognition and learning is complex and nuanced. However the connection between the stomach and the brain although still in its early stages has greater potential to lead us to a better understanding as to what we should eat to improve our mental wellbeing.

In the meantime, the best advice is to think about how your diet impacts you personally, identify when you feel best studying is it before a meal or after, pay attention to snacking and of course drink lots of water, eat your greens, all as part of a balanced diet.

Brain overload

Have you ever felt that you just can’t learn anymore, your head is spinning, your brain must be full? And yet we are told that the brains capacity is potentially limitless, made up of around 86 billion neurons.

To understand why both of these may be true, we have to delve a little more into how the brain learns or to be precise how it manages information. In a previous blog I outlined the key parts of the brain and discussed some of the implications for learning – the learning brain, but as you might imagine this is a complex subject, but I should add a fascinating one.

Cognitive load and schemas

Building on the work of George (magic number 7) Miller and Jean Paget’s development of schemas, in 1988 John Sweller introduced us to cognitive load, the idea that we have a limit to the amount of information we can process.

Cognitive load relates to the amount of information that working memory can hold at one time

Human memory can be divided into working memory and long-term memory. Working memory also called short term memory is limited, only capable of holding 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at any one time, hence the magic number 7, but long-term memory has arguably infinite capacity.

The limited nature of working memory can be highlighted by asking you to look at the 12 letters below. Take about 5 seconds. Look away from the screen and write down what you can remember on a blank piece of paper.

MBIAWTDHPIBF

Because there are more than 9 characters this will be difficult. 

Schemas – Information is stored in long-term memory in the form of schemas, these are frameworks or concepts that help organise and interpret new information. For example, when you think of a tree it is defined by a number of characteristics, its green, has a trunk and leaves at the end of branches, this is a schema. But when it comes to autumn, the tree is no longer green and loses its leaves, suggesting that this cannot be a tree. However, if you assimilate the new information with your existing schema and accommodate this in a revised version of how you think about a tree, you have effectively learned something new and stored it in long term memory. By holding information in schemas, when new information arrives your brain can very quickly identify if it fits within an existing one and in so doing enable rapid knowledge acquisition and understanding.

The problem therefore lies with working memory and its limited capacity, but if we could change the way we take in information, such that it doesn’t overload working memory the whole process will become more effective.

Avoiding cognitive overload

This is where it gets really interesting from a learning perspective. What can we do to avoid the brain becoming overloaded?

1. Simple first – this may sound like common sense, start with a simple example e.g. 2+2 = 4 and move towards the more complex e.g. 2,423 + 12,324,345. If you start with a complex calculation the brain will struggle to manipulate the numbers or find any pattern.

2. Direct Instruction not discovery – although there is significant merit in figuring things out for yourself, when learning something new it is better to follow guided instruction (teacher led) supported by several examples, starting simple and becoming more complex (as above). When you have created your own schema, you can begin to work independently.

3. Visual overload – a presentation point, avoid having too much information on a page or slide, reveal each part slowly. The secret is to break down complexity into smaller segments. This is the argument for not having too much content all on one page, which is often the case in textbooks. Read with a piece of paper or ruler effectively underlining the words you are reading, moving the paper down revealing a new line at a time.

4. Pictures and words (contiguity) – having “relevant” pictures alongside text helps avoid what’s called split attention. This is why creating your own notes with images as well as text when producing a mind map works so well.

5. Focus, avoid distraction (coherence) – similar to visual overload, remove all unnecessary images and information, keep focused on the task in hand. There may be some nice to know facts, but stick to the essential ones.

6. Key words (redundancy) – when reading or making notes don’t highlight or write down exactly what you read, simplify the sentence, focusing on the key words which will reduce the amount of input.

7. Use existing schemas – if you already have an understanding of a topic or subject, it will be sat within a schema, think how the new information changes your original understanding.

Remember the 12 characters from earlier, if we chunk them into 4 pieces of information and link to an existing schema, you will find it much easier to remember. Here are the same 12 characters chunked down.

FBI – TWA – PHD – IBM

Each one sits within an existing schema e.g. Federal Bureau of Investigation etc, making it easier for the brain to learn the new information.

Note – the above ideas are based on Richard E. Mayer’s principles of multimedia learning.

In conclusion

Understanding more about how the brain works, in particular how to manage some of its limitations as is the case with short term memory not only makes learning more efficient but also gives you confidence that how your learning is the most effective.

Double entry bookkeeping replaced by internet

There is an interesting question being asked at the moment, given that fact-based knowledge is so accessible using the internet, is there a case for not teaching facts at all?

According to Don Tapscott, a consultant and speaker, who specialises in organisations and technology, memorising facts and figures is a waste of time because such information is readily available. It would be far better to teach students to think creatively so that they can learn to interpret and apply the knowledge they discover online.

“Teachers are no longer the fountain of knowledge, the internet is”
Don Tapscott

Is this the solution for educators with an over full curriculum, the result of having to continually add new content to ensure their qualification remains relevant and topical? Perhaps they can remove facts and focus on skills development? After all its skills that matter, knowing is useful but it’s the ability to apply that really matters …right?

What makes you an accountant

When you start to learn about finance, you will be taught a number of underpinning foundational subjects including, law, economics, costing and of course basic accounting. Sat stubbornly within the accounting section will be double entry bookkeeping. This axiom is fiercely protected by the finance community such that if anyone questions its value or challenges its relevance they will be met with pure contempt. And yet, is the knowledge as to how you move numbers around following a hugely simple rule i.e. put a number on one side and an equivalent on the other of any use in a world where most accounting is performed by computers and sophisticated algorithms? I am sure there will be similar examples from other professions and industries. The challenge being, do doctors really need to understand basic anatomy or lawyers read cases dating back to 1892?

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan

But Knowledge is power

Daniel T. Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author of a number of books including, why students don’t like school. His early research was on the brain, learning and memory but more recently he has focused on the application of cognitive psychology in K-16 education.

Willingham argues that knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. In addition, factual knowledge enhances cognitive processes like problem solving and reasoning. How knowledge Helps.

Knowledge is cumulative – the more you know the more you can learn. Individual chunks of knowledge will stick to new knowledge because what you already know provides context and so aids comprehension. For example, knowing the definition of a bond ‘a fixed income instrument that represents a loan made by an investor to a borrower (prior knowledge), enables the student to grasp the idea that anything fixed has to be paid by the company (the lender) regardless of its profitability and this is the reason debt is considered risky. (new knowledge)

Knowledge helps you remember – the elaboration effect has featured in a previous blog. In essence it suggests that the brain finds it easier to remember something if it can be associated with existing information. Using the same example from above, it is easier to remember that bonds are risky if you already knew what a bond was.

Knowledge improves thinking – there are two reasons for this, firstly it helps with problem solving. Imagine you have a problem to solve, if you don’t have sufficient background knowledge, understanding the problem can consume most of your working memory leaving no space for you to consider solutions. This argument is based on the understanding that we have limited capacity in working memory (magic number 7) and so to occupy it with grasping the problem at best slows down the problem-solving process, but at worse might result in walking away with no solution. Secondly knowledge helps speed up problem solving and thinking. People with prior knowledge are better at drawing analogies as they gain experience in a domain. Research by Bruce Burns in 2004 compared the performance of top chess players at normal and blitz tournaments. He found that what was making some players better than others is differences in the speed of recognition, not faster processing skills. Players who had knowledge of prior games where far quicker in coming up with moves than those who were effectively solving the problem from first principle. Chess speed at least has a lot to do with the brain recognising pre learned patterns.

Skills are domain specific – not transferable

There is one other important lesson from an understanding of knowledge – skills are domain specific. The implication being that teaching “transferable skills” e.g. skills that can be used in different areas, communication, critical thinking etc doesn’t work. A skill (Merriam Webster) is the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance. The argument being that in order to use knowledge effectively, it needs to be in a specific domain.
In July 2016 the Education Endowment Foundation in the UK released the results of a two-year study involving almost 100 schools that wanted to find out if playing chess would improve maths. The hypothesis was that the logical and systematic processes involved in being a good chess player would help students better understand maths i.e. the skills would transfer. The conclusion however found there were no significant differences in mathematical achievement between those having regular chess classes and the control group.

Long live double entry bookkeeping

This is an interesting topic and open to some degree of interpretation and debate but it highlights the difficult path curriculum designers have to tread when it comes to removing the old to make space for the new. In addition there is a strong argument to suggest that core principles and foundational knowledge are essential prerequisites for efficient learning.
But whatever happens, we need to keep double entry bookkeeping, not because knowing that every debit has a credit is important but it helps structure a way of thinking and problem solving that has enabled finance professional to navigate significant complexity and change since Luca Pacioli allegedly invented it in 1494.

And the case from 1893 – Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company

The independent learner – Metacognition

Metacognition is not a great word but it’s an important one when it comes to learning, especially if you are studying at higher academic levels or on your own. Cognition refers to the range of mental processes that help you acquire knowledge and understanding or more simply, learn. These processes include the storage, manipulation, and retrieval of information. Meta on the other hand means higher than or overarching, put the two together and we are talking about something that sits above learning, connecting it by way of thought. For this reason, it’s often described as thinking about thinking or in this context thinking about how you learn.

Smarter not harder

When you have a lot to learn in terms of subject matter it may feel like a distraction to spend any time learning something other than what you must know, let alone reflecting on it, but this fits under the heading of working smarter not harder, if you can find more effective ways of learning that must be helpful.
As mentioned earlier cognition is about mental processes, storage and retrieval relate to memory, manipulation, to the shifting of attention, changing perception etc. But the meta aspect creates distance, allowing us to become aware of what we are doing, standing back and observing how for example perception has changed, this reflection is a high-level skill that many believe is unique to humans. One final aspect is that we can take control of how we learn, planning tasks, changing strategies, monitoring those that work and evaluating the whole process.

Keeping it simple

Its very easy to overcomplicate metacognition, in some ways its little more than asking a few simple questions, thinking about how you are learning, what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some examples as to how you might do this.

  • Talk to yourself, ask questions at each stage, does this make sense, I have read it several times maybe I should try writing it down.
  • Ask, have I set myself sensible goals?
  • Maybe it’s time to try something different, for example mind mapping, but remember to reflect on how effective it was or perhaps was not.
  • Do I need help from anyone, this could be a fellow student or try YouTube which is a great way to find a different explanation in a different format?

Clearly these skills are helpful for all students but they are especially valuable when studying on your own perhaps on a distance learning programme or engaged in large periods of self-study.

Benefits

There are many reasons for investing some time in this area.

  • Growing self-confidence – by finding out more about how you learn you will discover both your strengths and weaknesses. Confidence isn’t about being good at everything but understanding your limitations.  
  • Improves performance – research has shown that students who actively engage in metacognition do better in exams.
  • Gives control – you are no longer reliant on the way something is taught; you have the ability to teach yourself. Being an autonomous learner is also hugely motivational.
  • The skills are transferable – this knowledge will not only help with your current subjects but all that follow, not to mention what you will need to learn in the workplace.  

It will take some time initially but, in a way, metacognition is part of learning, it’s an essential component and as such you will end up knowing more about yourself at some point, even if you don’t want to, so why not do it sooner rather than later.

And just for fun – Sheldon knows everything about himself – even when he is wrong