YOGA, MENTAL HEALTH, AND THE LINK TO LEARNING

Life can be hard. Really hard. There are practically unlimited ways that one can become stressed, and I think I must have absorbed most of them over the last 25 years.

To cut a long story short, over these years I have incorrectly dealt with these stresses, and absorbed them into my shoulders and neck. Gradually, both became like rocks, stiff, tight and inflexible. But instead of doing anything about it, I let it build and build and build to the point of being in constant physical pain, often resulting in headaches, poor sleep and sadness. I know everything is relative, and that others are experiencing real pain and loss, but it was chronically affecting my entire being.

People: friends and family, always kept telling me that I needed to stretch to relieve the muscle pain and that I should go to a physio or massage therapist. I did that a few times, but it only touched the surface, so I would go onto YouTube and search for some free yoga as they suggested. Now I’ve done yoga before, but every time I did, I would always injure myself after a couple of sessions. The reason for that is because I would, unknowingly, choose a session that wasn’t suited to where my body was at. Or, if i got passed a few sessions unscathed, I would still be in pain and always think that it wasn’t working, and so stop.

Now, despite these bad experiences, I knew I couldn’t just leave it. I also knew that it made sense that the tension would ironically have to be reduced by exercising the muscles. Yoga must be the answer.

So I got to thinking, and then finally it occurred to me 3 months ago that doing yoga should be no different from doing anything as a novice, and that I absolutely needed modelled and scaffolded support to be able to get anything out of this ancient philosophy. I’m not sure why it took me so long to register this, especially since I have written about the imperative of modelling numerous times: here, here, here, and the importance of incremental knowledge building here and here, but anyways, eventually it clicked.

So what did I do?

1. The first thing was for me to accept a different motivation: learning, and not performance. I realised that I had to accept that the years of wrenching myself would not be unwound in a couple of yoga sessions. This meant that I would have to tell myself that the process was an extended one, and that if I was to measure any improvement, I would realistically need to give myself a month of continuous practice to evaluate any effectiveness, but even then, that it would be only small if at all.

2. The second thing was to realise that I needed to be taught by someone who knew what they were doing, who knew that building strength takes time, and who offered a continuum of learning where I could start at the very beginning. I found this in the reasonably priced platform www.glo.com.

3. The third thing was to realise that I needed to choose only two 20 minute classes that offered a chance to work on specific sections of the body (upper and lower), and that I would have to repeat those two classes, and alternate between them each day.

4. The fourth thing was to accept that even though some of the beginner class stretches were ostensibly too easy, that I was in fact strengthening muscles that I would need to support more difficult and inflexible muscles in other poses. This reminded me of Engelmenn, here and here.

5. The fifth thing was to discipline myself to doing the practice each day before work. And there were a lot of times where it would have been so easy not to do it – but I knew it was only 20 minutes, and I knew that I would be glad I had done it – I was able to self-regulate.

So after 90 sessions, where am I?

  • I don’t wake up anymore in more pain than when I went to bed.
  • I still experience pain, but nowhere near as much
  • I am still prone to headaches, but the frequency of them is significantly reduced.
  • I am a lot more flexible and have noticed that I feel better in my hips as well as my lower back.
  • I feel stronger.
  • I have begun to do some running as a result of this increased liberation.

Without any shadow of doubt, I am feeling better. My mental health has improved a lot. I am not constantly plagued by a physical pain that shouldn’t even be there. I know that I still have a way to go, but the cool thing is that because things have improved quite a lot, I’m obviously on the right path – and that gives me even more motivation. I know that I can also start to increase the level of difficulty now too to strengthen even more…and that’s exciting.

Develop a plan – like a sequence of learning

For me, the greatest realisation was that to strengthen my mental health, I needed to have a plan that allowed me to gradually develop and build my knowledge of a domain that could address it. For me, it was yoga. For you, it might be swimming, running, or cooking. Patience and discipline reign supreme, but planning an incremental curriculum that will help you achieve tangible benefits is more important.

I might check back in with you in another 90 days.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow this blog for more stuff about education and follow me on Twitter @edmerger

DO YOU EXPLICITLY DISCUSS MOTIVATION WITH STUDENTS?

This is part 2 of an essay based on self-regulated learning, and whether it needs to be taught for students to become skilled in it. Part 1 is here.

In part 1 I discussed how explicitly teaching and modelling to students how to think with knowledge potentially facilitates students being able to self-regulate such thinking. The proposition has implications for the explicit modelling of thinking critically and creatively. In this post I will expound on Zimmerman and Moylan’s 2009 paper that theorises that motivation is inextricably linked to these metacognitive processes, and just like everything else connected to learning, needs to be explicitly taught to students in equal measure for them to eventually be able to use the knowledge independently.

Zimmerman and Moylan suggest that there are 3 differentiated stages in achieving self-regulation. These can be equated with the EEFs appropriated terms: planning, monitoring and evaluation. The diagram below represents the cyclical processes of self-regulation.

FORETHOUGHT = PLANNING 

IT’S A CASE OF WHICH COMES FIRST, the chicken or the egg, but in order for a student to get their learning off the ground, they need to be motivated to do so. Oftentimes in the school sector, this may not be an intrinsic motivation, with extrinsic rewards and punishments tending to dominate the setting. Upon presentation of a new learning activity, a student will process a range of thoughts evaluating whether they should in fact participate in the endeavour. Students immediately process the expectations against any prior experiences or knowledge, drawing on their schemata to ascertain the extent of having to set new goals and strategies to achieve the new learning, whilst probably concomitantly deciding if they have any intrinsic interest in the task. If they arrive at the conclusion that they don’t possess either of these motivators, your work is immediately cut out for you.

Compounding this will be the fact that students also naturally draw from that schemata the affective responses they had or indeed have built over time in dealing with similar types of activities or learning experiences. If this audit brings up negative memories, perhaps emanating from a lack of success, or serious disinterest, then this will heavily impact on their motivation to continue. It certainly won’t be the case that ‘If you build it they will come’. A student’s self-efficacy or belief that they will be able to positively engage in the task will most certainly affect their planning, strategy and goal setting capacity. So, besides forcing students to participate, what can be done to break this thought pattern?

METACOGNITION – Make explicit the possible reactions students may have to a new task: ‘You may have had a negative experience with this type of problem before, but this time is different because…’, ‘You may immediately think there’s no relevance to this task, but…’, ‘You may have not achieved the grade you wanted in the last task, but this time we are going to plan the response better…’. By making such reactions explicit, explaining how demotivating factors can arise, and providing explicit strategies that ‘show’ how a different outcome may eventuate, the teacher is training the student to think about the new context in a new way, and mitigating against poor self-efficacy inhibiting impetus.   

Also crucial to setting up learning is making explicit the goal orientation of the task. Plenty of research suggests that ‘performance’ orientated goal setting, where students’ motivations to learn are primarily centered on comparison and competing against others, is tellingly inferior to having a ‘learning’ goal orientation: here. The positioning of a task’s import as being an opportunity to strengthen personal understanding against personal standards has been shown to facilitate a deepening of learning: ‘In this activity, let’s think about how we can incrementally improve our knowledge of the topic…’, ‘I want you to think about what your level of knowledge is on the topic and set yourself a goal of looking to strengthen it by the time we have finished….’, ‘In this task, we are going to concentrate on mastery…’ However, such ambition is made infinitely more difficult in a system predicated on accountability. Nonetheless, a good teacher will explicitly and inexorably focus their students’ attention on setting goals for self-improvement, and that learning is indeed a continuum that takes time and practice to master. When such purpose is part of the learning culture, once the task is successfully completed the student’s evaluation process then positively feeds into and strengthens the self-efficacy required to engage in a new learning context, regardless of how they fared compared to others in the cohort.  

This personal growth rather than competitive epistemology is particularly relevant if you are trying to encourage students who are working hard but not quite succeeding – and observing others around them achieving – in the beginning of a course. These students not only need the explicit discussion of what success means (improvement against your last effort), but precise feedback that articulates what the gaps in knowledge are, and crucially, scaffolded activities that facilitate the opportunity for observed improvement against the last effort. Mastery pathways not only provide opportunity for incremental success, but also the chance to eventually catch up to the expected standard. Because success is the greatest motivator of all, when those achievements are explicitly labelled to the student, s/he will accommodate their self-efficacy to become more positive.

PERFORMANCE = MONITORING 

During the task, drawing students’ attention to how they are solving problems and the progress they are making and the motivation required to do so will facilitate the eventual automaticity of such thinking. Modelling self-questioning and verbalisation of thinking processes whilst scaffolding learning through worked and completion examples builds the schema of such processes in students’ minds, and teaching students how to manage time and set up an appropriate learning space should never be assumed to be assumed knowledge. Providing as many opportunities as necessary to facilitate a culture where the student can control these learning strategies and can readily select the most appropriate tools to negotiate the context they find themselves in should be an engrained aspect of a teacher’s curriculum design. When students feel such control over the strategies they employ to negotiate the present task, their motivation and self-efficacy will be strong.

The explicit drawing of attention to higher order thinking processes during the task goes towards developing the schema for doing so in future, independent contexts. As argued in part 1, assuming students will engage in higher order thinking once knowledge is sufficiently acquired is not a good idea, as students may not do this unless they are highly motivated in the discipline or topic in question. Prompting with questions like ‘So if we know this about …., what would happen if …..?’, ‘What is the connection of this idea to the topic we looked at last week?’, ‘What would happen if we combined these 2 ideas?, ‘So imagine this scenario…., how would you solve the problem at hand?‘ If you model this thinking, students will use the model as a strategy when asked to think about knowledge in new contexts, and being able to do so will boost their confidence in engaging with knowledge in interesting ways. This confidence develops self-efficacy, and thus motivation.

SELF-REFLECTION = EVALUATING 

From my experience, one of the most difficult things to do is to get students to reflect on their performance and planning after the event. This is especially difficult if the student entered the transaction with a performance goal orientation and wasn’t overly successful. The immediate deflation is palpable. Explicitly discussing this with the students is important at this very moment. But perhaps most importantly, understanding the causal attributions some students may have applied to their success or failure is necessary to ensure that they are able to benefit from the evaluation.

Many students attribute their experience to fixed ability, which is particularly detrimental if they engaged in the activity with a performance goal and didn’t succeed. The comparison against others that essentially results in a defeat if unsuccessful solidifies a negative self-efficacy, which in turn has a negative influence on the planning stage of the next learning moment. If however, the student can be persuaded by the learning continuum theory and that their ability in the task is not fixed and can in fact be improved by application of effort, practice and good revision and study techniques, then the probability of their motivation being secure for the next task is high.  

Unfortunately, over time and repeated negative experiences in learning environments, some students develop entrenched negative evaluations that seriously inhibit motivation to continue or engage in future learning contexts. Procrastination may be a milder symptom of such a state, but more serious and damaging is learned helplessness, a notable defence mechanism employed that prevents a student from trying because they believe that there’s nothing that they can do to change an inevitable failure. Often, such a state becomes an unconscious default, and can only be changed by carefully designed scaffolded learning opportunities that promote success, as well as making the psychological context explicit. Of course it is time consuming, but a well-constructed audit of a student’s performance, including how they approached and revised etc for the task, will likely find a host of issues that could be rectified. A checklist may work in helping students evaluate their performance in a task, and the explicit discussion about how neglect in each element on the list is quite impactful could act as a motivator for a student to alter their preconceived beliefs that they aren’t in control of changing their learning potential.

TAKE AWAY

Teaching students about motivation and how past experiences affect the present, and helping students identify patterns of behaviour, their ‘real’ causes and how they can be adjusted is as imperative as teaching them content. Making thinking explicit can go a long way to positively affect how a student perceives a task and their ability to process, engage with, and succeed in it. The result is that students will willingly drink from the water you have led them to.    

The next post will discuss how beneficial it can be for students to understand how learning actually happens.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

DO WE NEED TO TEACH SELF-REGULATION?

Achieving independence and self-regulation in learning is the holy grail of education, but how to go about it is as equally mystical. Essential to the quest is developing a rich schema through the building and interaction of knowledge, and whilst belief in the explicit teaching of students in how to think about their thinking processes (metacognition) and how to evaluate them as being an integral part of self-regulation is gaining momentum (EEF), this 2 part post will seek to extend the current understanding by discussing whether it is necessary to promote critical and creative thinking inside subject domains. The essay also expounds on Zimmerman and Moylan’s 2009 paper that theorises that motivation is inextricably linked to both of these metacognitive processes, can’t be omitted from the discussion, and in fact needs to be explicitly taught to students in equal measure. As Kuhn exhorts, ’People must see the point of thinking if they are to engage in it.’  

WE ALL WANT 21ST CENTURY SKILLS 

Whilst many argue that labelling skills such as critical thinking and creativity as ‘21st century’ does an injustice to those who for thousands of years exhibited such proficiency in them, few could argue that there is a growing demand for graduates to be strong in these areas in the age of increasingly automated and mechanised jobs. How to equip students with such skills then has become the mission of educators, but many well-intentioned educators have erroneously conflated the desired outcome with a direct pedagogy, succinctly stated by Kirschner: the epistemology of a discipline should not be confused with a pedagogy for teaching or learning it. The practice of a profession is not the same as learning to practise the profession. There are plenty of excellent voices who assent to this notion, none better then Daisy Christodoulou, specifically pointing to the fact that thinking critically or creatively relies entirely on a strong bedrock of knowledge and can’t be taught in the abstract. If we think about this it seems rather logical – you can’t think about things you have no knowledge of, and most creativity is the accommodation of knowledge already in existence. Such constraints make the application of such skills heavily context and domain dependent. But what tends to be lacking from such unequivocal pedagogy is the answer to this question: once the foundations of knowledge are secure, do students need explicit modelling of how to think critically and creatively with that knowledge? I contend that the answer is yes.  

If we consider how learning is characterised by the acquisition of schema, and how crucial modelling is in that continuum, I would argue that modelling how to play with knowledge is no less important than modelling the knowledge itself. However, it is something that is often overlooked in modern curricula for three reasons:  

  • Because we sometimes assume that students will naturally think in these ways  
  • Because of the need to fit in so much content in so little time  
  • Because it is hard to assess, relying on subjective and therefore unstable evaluation 

The first relies on Geary’s theory of primary vs secondary knowledge. The exposition of the theory is that once sufficient knowledge is obtained, the mixing/matching and challenging/critiquing of what is understood should become axiomatic. From my experience though, without the continuous prompting by the teacher to engage with the knowledge in this way, such an outcome tends to rely heavily on a student being highly motivated in a specific domain of knowledge, with the less interested, but equally as capable student, content with achieving in assessment but not necessarily interested in exploring the content further. But what is notable however about the self-motivated student, is that they still will undertake a process of learning in how to mix and match and challenge what they know, albeit, independently: it is through the experimentation of their thinking and its evaluation that they may eventually arrive at something unique and interesting, but this ostensibly natural skill is actually being practised and refined to be maximised – and quite possibly, inefficiently, compared to what some guidance in the process could afford. When motivation to pursue a discipline is not as high, students need to be prompted to engage in ‘higher order’ thinking. Interestingly, sometimes it is only after these higher order prompts that real interest and motivation is sparked, and so the explicit provocation of them in a learning environment is important.

Sweller’s addition to Geary’s thesis, that : ‘Organizing general skills to assist in the acquisition of subject matter knowledge may be more productive than attempting to teach skills that we have evolved to acquire automatically…’ supports the earlier statement that teaching critical and creative thinking in the abstract is pointless, but it is the focus on the word ‘organising’ that is crucial here: the conclusion then is that it’s not enough to assume students will naturally engage with this type of thinking – it is only through the explicit organisation and modelling of it that will facilitate students being able to self-regulate this thinking.

Practising the application of critical and creative thinking needs time and space for it to be strengthened, and this is why the existence of the 2nd obstacle in educational contexts is so concerning. The impetus of non-invigilated exams has certainly made apparent the need for assessment to involve the application of knowledge. But to do so requires a carefully designed curriculum that facilitates such opportunity in the sequence of learning.  I tend to promote a sequence patterned by the rhythm: learn, practise, apply. New knowledge is introduced by the expert, students interact with and practise using the knowledge to confirm understanding, students then apply their knowledge to do something with it. The application doesn’t have to be a large project type task. It may simply be the asking of higher order questions that include hypothesising, creating analogies, exploring various points of view, wondering if the content can be applied in other contexts, what the connections are to other aspects of the course, or brainstorming with a view to generate new ideas for a real-world context. The latter is especially relevant for the later stages of higher education.  

It is such a pattern of learning that models for students how to interact with the understood knowledge they now have in their possession, a modelling process that observes what Volet (1991) imports as the necessity of identifying and making explicit how an expert thinks. This is relevant to not just when the expert is presented with new problems, but also how they think with the knowledge they already have. Palincsar &Brown (1989) concur, ‘By demonstrating the different activities by which subject matter may be processed, problems solved, and learning processes regulated, the teacher makes knowledge construction and utilization activities overt and explicit that usually stay covert and implicit.’ Like all learning, the goal is to take the metacognition to automaticity so the propensity for self-regulation in the next sequence of learning isn’t compromised by cognitive overload.   

WHAT ABOUT TRANSFER?

Whether or not this explicit process of thinking within specific domains can be transferred to new contexts remains to be seen, but Simon, Anderson, & Reder (1999) arouse our curiosity when they suggest that transfer happens far more frequently than we might think. They cite reading as a prime example, but more specifically challenge a famous study by Gick and Holyoak who demonstrated that students were unable to see the abstract similarities between two problems even when they were presented side by side:  

One of the striking characteristics of such failures of transfer is how relatively transient they are. Gick and Holyoak were able to increase transfer greatly just by suggesting to subjects that they try to use the problem about the ‘general’. Exposing subjects to two such analogues also greatly increased transfer. The amount of transfer appeared to depend in large part on where the attention of subjects was directed during the experiment, which suggests that instruction and training on the cues that signal the relevance of an available skill might well deserve more emphasis than they now typically receive–a promising topic for cognitive research with very important educational implications.’  

They then continue to suggest that: ‘Representation and degree of practice are critical for determining the transfer from one task to another, and transfer varies from one domain to another as a function of the number of symbolic components that are shared.’ It follows then that for Dignath and Buttner’s claim to be valid, in their meta-analysis on Components of Fostering Self-regulated Learning, that ‘Providing students with opportunities to practice strategy use will foster the transfer of metastrategic knowledge to real learning contexts’, relies on students being able to recognise patterns or connections between contexts where they can apply their metacognition.  

As stated earlier, you can’t think critically and creatively without a strong foundation of knowledge, and further, some of that thinking will be only relevant in specific domains. But it does seem likely that some of the higher order strategies stated above (hypothesising etc) would be able to be applied in a range of disciplines, and that a student observing the modelled thinking processes of a teacher in a second context will recognise some (if not many) elements learnt from their first. Once reinforced through this observation, students will begin the regular learning continuum of taking the skills to automaticity through practice. Once achieved, being able to apply the thinking in new contexts is made more possible – it will be up to further research to ascertain whether, having met these conditions, such transfer is actually possible.  

WHAT DO WE WANT FROM EDUCATION? 

 Another consideration when teaching critical thinking draws from Kuhn, who exhorts that the development of epistemological understanding may be the most fundamental underpinning of critical thinking. In no uncertain terms, she beseeches that teachers provide the opportunity for students to reach an evaluative level of epistemological understanding, realising that simply possessing an absolute epistemology constrains and in fact eliminates a need for critical thinking, as does a ‘multiplist’ stance, allowing students a degree of apathy characterised by statements such as “I feel it’s not worth it to argue because everyone has their opinion.” The explicit modelling of an evaluative epistemology, where students are encouraged to the fact that people have a right to their views with the understanding that some views can nonetheless be more right than others, sets up a learning culture where students see the ‘weighing of alternative claims in a process of reasoned debate as the path to informed opinion, and they understand that arguments can be evaluated and compared based on their merit (Kuhn, 1991).’ Such a pedagogy may satiate an interesting question posed by Martin Robinson: ‘Should the result of a good education include all students thinking the same or thinking differently?’

The 3rd obstacle also looms large. Assessing creativity especially is a difficult thing due to its subjectivity. Rubrics are notoriously imprecise as a reliable reference in determining success or failure of creativity: what I may think satisfies one element of a rubric may be argued against by a colleague; maintaining consistency even with myself in marking is difficult. And if we don’t assess, will students not particularly interested in the topic lose motivation, and make the process a challenging one to manage? I think the answer lies within the answer to Martin Robinson’s question: surely we don’t want everyone robotically programmed. We want students to engage critically and creatively with concepts, and participate in the building of a dynamic and interesting world, so we have to have faith that the knowledge taught to our students, when learnt well, will provide avenues for curiosity that will engage them to participate. Such an epistemology then satisfies stakeholder desires to employ graduates who can think critically and creatively in a modern workplace.      

So how is motivation linked to it all?

 In the next post, I will extrapolate on Zimmerman’s imperative that metacognition is inextricably linked to motivation, and how educators can ensure they incorporate both in learning design.  

References 

Anderson, J. R., Reder, L.M., & Simon, H.A. (2000, Summer).Applications and Misapplications of Cognitive Psychology to Mathematics Education.Texas Educational Review. 

Dignath, C., Buttner, G. (2008). Components of fostering self-regulated learning among students. A metaanalysis on intervention studies at primary and secondary school level. Article in Metacognition and Learning · December 2008 retrieved from here 

Geary, D. (2001). Principles of evolutionary educational psychology.
Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri at Columbia,
210 McAlester Hall, Columbia, MO 65211-2500, USA here

Palincsar, A. S., & Brown, A. L. (1989). Classroom dialogues to promote self-regulated comprehension. In J. Brophy (Ed.), Advances in research on teaching, Vol. 1 (pp. 35–67). Greenwich, CO: JAI Press. 

Sweller, J. (2008) Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology, Educational Psychologist, 43:4, 214-216, DOI: 10.1080/00461520802392208

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students’ learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319–336. 

Zimmerman, B., Moylan, A. R. (2009). Self-Regulation from:
Handbook of Metacognition in Education. Routledge.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger