Blog Post #3, or “What does all this mean to me now?”
To answer my own question, nothing. 🙂 That’s not true.
Because this class was so challenging for me, it meant that I wasn’t really focusing on all of the things I was apparently supposed to learn; rather, I focused on the things that my brain (yay cognition!) apparently decided I needed to know to further both my own educational goals as well as my goals within the course that I teach. How do you decide what’s important to learn? Short answer–your brain does that for you. And thus, mine did.
One of the biggest things I took out of this course was the lessons I learned from the Perkins book. Learning is not about me, really, but about how I can better help my students take the knowledge I’m trying to give them and apply it. I teach history, so maybe they won’t be able to apply it to their own lives as a general rule, but if they’re better able to argue for or against the Second Amendment because they took my class, awesome. If they’re able to better argue why one presidential candidate is scarier than another because of expansion of presidential powers; if they’re able to discuss competently why the current issue of blocking a Supreme Court nominee is detrimental to society as a whole; if they’re able to argue why Apple absolutely should not build a backdoor code to the iPhone–I’ve done my job.
But for all that I’m relatively good at my job (though it’s still a work in progress–don’t judge; I’m still new at this), there’s always something new that I can learn to help them learn. Perkins’ book was probably the most useful thing, next to a book about online learning pedagogy from another class I took, that I’ve ever found, because it really taught me how to view things differently. I waxed poetic about the Perkins book in my last blog post–you should take a look, and then go find the book and read it because educational reasons.
Cognition is, by definition, all about the science of learning. Cognition is how you learn. I’m always telling my students to be cognizant of the posting requirements, or of the questions being asked, or of their spelling/grammatical errors (because none of them proofread, apparently. Ever.). But what does that mean to them? I’m realizing that I’m phrasing things wrong. I’m not teaching smarter–I’m teaching harder. I’m trying to get them to be aware of their mistakes so they’ll fix them. This is Perkins’ hearts-and-minds theory that fails so spectacularly across the board. My students can be aware of their mistakes all day every day, but unless I’m teaching them how to fix them, unless I’m giving them a better understanding of why what they’re doing is inaccurate, nothing is going to change. That mistake is on me.
If you were to tell me seven weeks ago that I would have learned a different way of teaching my students because I understand how their brains work a little better, I’d’ve called you a liar. Learning styles and all that are great, and yeah, we know all about those, so what else would I have needed to know? Yeah, about that…
I needed to know that there are better ways of teaching the same information in a way that students can build the connections they need to build in order to learn what I’m teaching them, but also learn how to apply those skills to other things. Do I want them to be able to argue historical points? Absolutely. But more to the point, I want them to be able to take a source–any source, be it a book or a newspaper article or something else–and work through it to analyze it for what it doesn’t say. I want them to be able to support any arguments they make with well thought out evidence, because it means they’ve learned how to do research, and not blindly believe what other people tell them is the truth. I want them to question authority, because authority is not perfect. And if they don’t know how to do that, then I failed as a teacher. My job isn’t just to drill information into their heads–they may or may not learn it that way because the brain is screwy and cognition can screw with us (I think I included that CrashCourse video in another blog post, but since I love those guys so much, here it is again)
We as instructors live with an illusion when it comes to teaching our students. We believe the illusion that we’re better than this, that our students just don’t get it, and that it’s not our fault that they don’t get it. That’s our perception–and I believe it’s faulty. Because so many people equate cognition to, essentially, human computing, it’s easy to assume that learning is also static. However, behavior and performance are not static (Booth, 2012). It’s far too easy to put people into little boxes because you don’t understand how they work, but therein lies the beauty of the brain and the various cognitive processes—it’s for this very reason that AI is so far behind the human brain. The illusion that learning is static makes it very difficult for us to think outside that box in regards to instruction. However, if we realize that this idea of a static mental representation is simply an illusion—a subjective perception—it’s easier to see past it to the reality beyond. And that reality is that maybe we’re doing something wrong. Maybe something we’re doing isn’t working. So rather than just blaming the students, or the resources, or even ourselves, why don’t we fix it? Think outside the box and find a way to look past the illusion to the truth beyond. What harm could it do?
Booth, A. (2012). Dynamic Systems Theory. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyOQyw7ws-c
Blog Post #2, or “I’m too broke to pay attention.”
Have you ever been in the middle of doing something, and something happens and breaks your concentration? Like, I’ll be in the middle of doing homework, and my husband will do something really cool in his video game, and I’ll lose my train of thought, because video games are easier to pay attention to than my homework (especially for this class, and that’s literally happening right this second). Or I’ll be reading something important, and my kid will call me, and I will completely forget the thing I just read, so when I go back to reading it, I’ll have to read it all over again and hope like hell this time it clicks. Sometimes–and this is the really fun part–I’ll have the ability to sit down and just hammer out my work, and I’ll open my computer, read what I have to do for the week, try it a bunch of times and break down in tears because I just. Don’t. Get. It. So trying to pick that topic back up is ridiculously hard.
Apparently, all of these things are researched aspects of cognitive science. The idea of emotions screwing up your work? There was an entire study done regarding the relationship of emotions in psychopathology–essentially, that it doesn’t matter how motivated you are, and it doesn’t matter whether that motivation is internal or external, sometimes emotions just screw you up. Motivation is important to getting things done. Let me open up to you here. But first, here’s a video about motivation (I love these guys!).
I suffer from clinical depression and general anxiety disorder–things I was diagnosed with very early on in my college experience (I think I was about 17?). I have always been an extremely motivated individual–I’ve never needed my parents to bribe me or otherwise motivate me to do well; I do that all on my own. And generally speaking, I’m pretty good when things are challenging, because it means I’m learning something. This class, on the other hand, is ridiculously difficult for me. Like, tears inducing, contemplating quitting the program because I’m obviously not smart enough for this difficult for me. I don’t understand…probably half of what we learn about the first time we read it, and the other half not at all. It doesn’t matter how motivated I am, this class causes a significant amount of anxiety and defeated feelings, which in turn reduces my motivation by an order of magnitude (i.e. I start crying and telling my husband I can’t do this). Crocker et al. (2013) posited that depression and anxiety causes dysfunction in cognitive processing, which then leads to the breakdown of motivation in regards to achieving an end goal; specifically, that “deficits in specific EFs [executive functions] are at least partly responsible for key cognitive, emotion, and motivation features…including cognitive biases [and] motivation-related dysfunction (Crocker et al, 2013, p5). Or, in plain terms, the higher my anxiety gets, the less my brain works, the stupider I feel, the less motivated I am.
This whole idea of internal versus external motivation comes into play a lot in online learning. I see it inside myself, and I see it with my own students–many of whom are in school for the very first time, trying to balance school with work and the full time obligations of taking care of a family. Some of them are working two jobs–many of them are in the military, with all the stress that goes along with that. It doesn’t matter how motivated you are; when life gets in the way, it’s hard to pay attention to the schoolwork you should be doing at that moment. Attention is, essentially, defined as the ability to selectively process information in an environment (Fougnie, 2008). It’s expected that students will be able to pay attention to their work when it’s an online environment.
Realistically, though, as online educators, we need to be aware that life happens, and that will, by default, cause students to pay attention to something else entirely. The goal at that point is to hope that the students’ working memory is strong enough so that when they come back to the work, they remember what they’d learned beforehand. What is working memory? Essentially, working memory is the ability to take what you’ve just read about/done and keep it as something that you’ve learned, something you can refer back to. You can also call this short-term memory, I guess, but it’s not…quite. But, whatever works. There was going to be a picture here, but this video is so much better. (Seriously, the CrashCourse guys are AMAZING).
It’s at this point that you need to consider that students’ working memory is…less than stellar. As a general rule, people only tend to remember things for no more than 20 seconds unless they apply the information in some way (Doolitle, 2013). So, if I’m reading something about attention and memory, and my child calls me away to check her own homework, I have about 20 seconds to apply what I’ve just read so I can recall that information later. Simpler things are, obviously, easier to keep. Harder concepts (like pretty much everything we learn about in this class) are significantly more difficult to apply or keep in mind when jumping from one thing that needs attention back to schoolwork.
The connection between attention and working memory is obvious to me–mostly because my working memory is atrocious. Which might explain why every module I think that my students will absolutely get it this time, and then I’m surprised and somewhat disappointed when they don’t get it. There’s this idea in Making Learning Whole that really clicks for me. Perkins (2009) talks about the ideas of “near transfer” and “far transfer” in regards to how students make connections between information they already know and something I want them to learn. The concept of “bridging,” in which students make deliberate thoughtful connections between two separate concepts, really spoke to me, and caused me to think about how I can connect things that my students already know, or have already learned about, or have read about in current events, with past events (Perkins, 2009). There are also a few insights into how to combat the the concept of presentism, in which people look at historical events through the lens of today’s attitudes and knowledge that will absolutely help me teach smarter, not harder, and not blame the online program or the curriculum for why my students just aren’t getting it.
As a historian, I understand the need to take myself out of 21st century mindsets and attitudes and think about how the events played out for 16th and 17th century people. My students have a very hard time with this, and I’ve been trying to teach them harder. I will own that I sometimes blame the program, as there are places I think it can be improved to help me out with this, but honestly? It’s on me to ask better questions of my students to get them to think outside of a very narrow box that they’ve been living in for quite some time.
I wish I could show you the image in the Perkins book that connects how to teach the trouble spots, and differentiating between blame, focus, and explain (essentially teaching the same way, teaching harder, or teaching smarter). If you’re an educator reading this, and you haven’t read Making Learning Whole by David Perkins, then you’re missing out. It helps give you ideas on how to get your students to perform better in a very personable and easy to read way. I highly, highly recommend it no matter who you are. Maybe you’ll get some ideas too.
Crocker, L. D., Heller, W., Warren, S. L., O’Hare, A. J., Infantolino, Z. P., & Miller, G. A. (2013). Relationships among cognition, emotion, and motivation: implications for intervention and neuroplasticity in psychopathology. Frontiers in Human Neuroscienc, 1-19. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00261
Doolitle, P. (2013, November 22). Peter Doolittle: How your “working memory” makes sense of the world. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_doolittle_how_your_working_memory_makes_sense_of_the_world
Fougnie, D. (2008). The Relationship between Attention and Working Memory. In N. B. Johansen (Ed.), New Research on Short-Term Memory (pp. 1-45). Happauge, NY: Nova Science Publishers. Retrieved from http://visionlab.harvard.edu/Members/darylfougnie/Daryl_Fougnie_%28Academic%29/Home_files/Fougnie-in%20press-chap%201.pdf
Perkins, D. N. (2009). Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Blog Post #1, or “Cognition is Hard.”
The past few weeks of my cognitive science course have been…challenging, to say the least. I’m not a sciency-type person, and while I’m not learning hard core neurobiology or anything like that, my brain does not grasp some of the concepts sometimes, so it’s taken a bit to really figure out what’s going on. That being said, there are a few things I’ve learned so far.
Thing number one: Cognition and cognitive science is really, really hard. So in keeping with the trend I utilize in my own course of finding easy to understand videos, here’s a video by Crash Course explaining cognition, and why we can be really, really stupid sometimes.
Thing number two: People really, really disagree on whether or not there’s such a thing as a learning style or a multiple intelligence. Dan Willingham put out a video disproving the whole idea of multiple intelligences and learning styles. Titled “Learning Styles Don’t Exist” (I know, it’s *really* vague on what the topic is, huh?), Willingham (2008) goes into a discussion about how people only believe learning styles exist because part of the theories is true. Well, if part of the theories is true, wouldn’t it stand to reason that it’s possible that the rest of it is also true, and you’re just being obstinate or testing it wrong? I mean, maybe I’m wrong there, but I know for certain that I am much better at some things than others. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. One of those is mathematical/logistical. I cannot math. I’m remarkably bad at it. I can add, subtract, multiply, and, in small numbers, divide. Long division? Nope—and that’s something my 11-year-old can do. Complex math? Troublesome. Imaginary numbers like in calculus? NOPE.
That’s part of what makes teaching and learning so difficult—you may not learn the way I teach, and I teach the way I learn. That’s part of what makes teaching difficult. Which leads to thing number two: Children learn and problem solve in ways that are drastically different from adults, even when allowing for multiple intelligences and learning styles. Adults don’t really think outside the box; they’re more rigid and, in general, are inflexible in regards to taking a solution (even if it’s the wrong one), and running with it. An example: I teach U.S. History I to adults. These adults, in general, have very set thoughts and ideas and beliefs about why the American Revolution happened. In general, many of these ideas are wrong, but it’s not their fault—it’s just how we teach history to children. What that means for me as an instructor is that my students are very “inside the box” when it comes to thinking critically about the Revolution as a whole and what the catalysts for independence were. And, for the most part, they’re all incorrect, but rather than think about what’s being asked, they insist on making the evidence fit their belief. It’s called historical bias (or bad history, if you’re my thesis advisor), and almost everybody who isn’t a historian does it.
But if I try to teach that same concept to my 11-year-old, that lightbulb immediately goes off, and she gets it. Her cognitive processes are more flexible because, at 11, she hasn’t gone through the same experiences that build those preconceived notions that adults are hindered by. She may not understand the politics and the nuances of the Revolution (again, mature, but still 11), but she’ll talk about the basics of the concept, and understand it. Those rules, that logic that we’re so attached to as adults—that’s what kills adult learners. More than learning style, more than anything else—trying to rework the neural pathways of adults is like trying to tear down the Golden Gate Bridge and rebuild it in a day—it just isn’t going to happen. Adults, as a general rule, follow logic and rules more than anything else. “If I read this paper, then I’ll learn that topic.” “If I learn this topic, then I’ll pass the class.” It’s very linear, very structured. Children, on the other hand, are so much more abstract in their thinking, which means they solve problems in much different ways than adults do.
And this leads to thing number three (which might seem like it comes out of nowhere): We are absolutely screwed if artificial intelligence ever kicks off. Skynet (or the Matrix) will happen, and we will no longer be necessary. As it stands right now, AI is limited by those same rules and that same logic that adults are, and since it will be adults programming them, the AI won’t learn that there are exceptions to every rule. And then the Terminator will happen and it’ll be all over.
Green, H. (2014). Cognition: How Your Mind Can Amaze and Betray You. Crash Course Psychology #15. Crash Course. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R-sVnmmw6WY&index=15&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtOPRKzVLY0jJY-uHOH9KVU6
How We Learn: Synapses and Neural Pathways. (2010). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEwg8TeipfQ
Willingham, D. T. (2008). Learning Styles Don’t Exist. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk