SCHEMA

What’s the most important thing to consider when designing a learning sequence?

Simple – know where your students are on the journey of cognition. Know how much schemata they have!

The Learning Continuum

It matters little what age or sector your students are in. Where they are on the cognition continuum determines the type of learning experiences you design, the questions you can ask and the quality of responses you can hope for. This is because the brain looks very different at each of these stages, stages that ultimately represent the amount of knowledge and understanding about a given topic.

The brain stores information by creating schema (schemata in the plural), or webs of interrelated ideas. The more knowledge a student has, the greater the number of connections that the schema possesses and the more likelihood that more complex questions will be able to be processed, and answered.

The acquisition of schema is absolutely paramount to learning, and so MUST be the primary focus of the design of a learning sequence.

This learning continuum informs the AQF Level 7 threshold learning outcomes for Higher Education in Australia, with focus of year 1 undergraduate degrees that provide induction into the key ideas and knowledge of the discipline, and moving to application of the knowledge in the third year.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.

DUAL CODING and ART – is there a connection?

I recently tweeted an imploration to primary teachers to teach more art in order to help secondary students become better at utilising the method of dual coding. The response to the tweet certainly took me by surprise, with a mix of responses ranging from:

  • support, to
  • indignation at the notion that art should not be taught to benefit secondary students but be taught for art’s sake, to
  • indignation that primary teachers shouldn’t be serving secondary teachers

But most surprising of all was the assured dismissal of the notion from one of the strongest proponents of dual coding in the present climate: Oliver Caviglioli.

My position is this: a student who is better at art, and specifically drawing (a distinction I admit I should have made clear in the original tweet), is more likely to dual code because they are more confident in drawing and more able to represent their conceptual understanding.

There is an important distinction to be made here however. If the conceptual understanding is already there, then there isn’t much more encoding happening, so technically, it is not dual coding. The benefit of drawing would be in the retrieval process, strengthening the memory by creating another neural pathway to it via the drawing. However, it could also be argued that the drawing is still serving teh encoding process by strengthening the coding, forcing teh drawer to think deeper about the concept. It is from this position then that i shall continue in this line of argument. Thanks to Dan Williams for this insight.

I’m certainly not suggesting that someone who is not good at drawing is excluded from dual coding, a point that Oliver understandably exhorts in order to open the practice to as many as possible. Oliver states that dual coding is not about drawing or perception, but is more a means of translating conceptual thinking. I completely understand this distinction, however I believe that a more confident drawer is more able to represent concepts and understanding because they possess the ability to convert what’s in their brain onto the paper with greater ease than someone who isn’t a good drawer. The automaticity that resulted from the development of the hand eye/brain coordination would free the working memory, and should significantly speed up the process of encoding with dual channels*.

I use myself as the example of this: I am always trying to dual code my understanding of what I read, but my lack of drawing ability forces me to go to google and search for images, which takes time, and is at the mercy of what is already there. My ‘search’ is my conceptual understanding, it is what I want, but if the drawing I have in my mind isn’t there, perceptually, not only has it taken considerably more time than if I drew it myself, but worse is that I have to take the second best image. A student in the classroom trying to conceptualise their understanding to improve the encoding process is also at the mercy of such conditions, but worse without google, clumsily and painstakingly attempts to transcribe their ideas onto the paper. It’s demotivating.  

One of Oliver’s retorts to this is that the skill of line drawing is simply a 5 minute training exercise, and thereby negates the connection between competency in drawing and dual coding. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Oliver, but I believe there is some creeping in here of the ‘curse of knowledge’. All skills are arrived at via a process of the acquisition of schema. It is the accumulation of knowledge and indeed its practice that eventually leads to automaticity when new contexts present themselves, and without the underlying acquisition of a ‘learning to draw’ schema, the skill of dual coding suffers. Take for example the images I’ve chosen in the post’s front image. Getting line drawings to reflect the differences between the old aged person and the zombie and the assertive flag bearer (in other words, numerous and maybe even countless concepts) is not something that can be mastered in 5 minutes.

Alex Quigley also challenged the tweet suggesting that there is no evidence linking the idea of better drawing with better dual coding, intimating that the connection between effective drawing and dual coding would in fact be quite the jump, an example of ‘far’ transfer of knowledge. I replied that using this as a basis for not engaging in the development of ‘drawing’ knowledge to develop a broader skill is dangerous ground as it effectively renders the accepted argument for the concerted development of distinct knowledge that doesn’t resemble the final skill as redundant. Daisy Christodoulou succinctly addresses this here with her marathon analogy. She also recently addresses an ostensible contradiction with ‘far transfer’ and the distinct development of knowledge here, leaning on the idea that there are alternating stages in a larger cycle of learning, and that well thought out learning design essentially replaces the ‘far’ with ‘near’; with the larger goal in mind, all knowledge acquisition is a part of the journey, and the concept of ‘far’ becomes ironically short-sighted.

I would place learning to draw as a useful component on the journey to mastering the larger broader skillset of dual coding. And because of that, I would say there is a connection between art and dual coding. Of course, as Alex states, there is no evidence to truly affirm this, but it seems pretty logical to me. Open to being wrong.

*I don’t have any evidence of this. It is an intuitive assumption.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog, if you’d like.

SHOWING and telling your CURRICULUM’S STORY

Last year I posted how I approached my GCSE Literature course design; it was one of my most read blogs (thank you to all). I suggested the course should essentially be a story, with each new learning sequence inextricably connected to the last, and indeed, to several other parts of the journey. The story would be continuously referenced when every new piece of content was added, the discussion of the links significantly helping my students to understand that the course was a whole being, and not to see it merely as a disparate collection of units: a process that would significantly aid their memories as the links would effectively and continuously and unconsciously build a strong schema that could be referenced to reduce cognitive strain in new learning contexts.

Well, it most definitely worked. The post is below.

What I Would Change

I should have added a visual map of the final product, as well as making each stage of the journey visually explicit so students could see how the journey unfolds. This would have helped students see how each new piece was connected to what had been learnt. The map then would have become a representation of the schemata that would form in the student’s brain, and helped secure the links of knowledge that enable understanding.

So I’ve added the visual map now. The video shows the content incrementally building and connecting to various other content.

This visual display also serves other very powerful functions

  • It helps you as the teacher to see the key elements of your course, and design a relevant sequence that will piece it all together.
  • The visual aspect to the mapping provides a more concrete demonstration of how lesson after lesson actually fits together. Obviously the final map presented at the beginning of the unit of work won’t mean very much to your students, but as the units unfold, the connections will become more tangible. I would always have the final map as well as the map in progress visible to students somewhere in the classroom.
  • Students themselves could be adding to their own map using dual coding as the learning sequences are presented to assist developing understanding. See how I have done this for A Christmas Carol here and the entire poetry anthology here.
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  • Students can then also self-evaluate if there are any gaps in the sequence; they will be able to see why they can’t engage with a certain topic because they have a clear visual display of the gap leading up to it.

Zoning in and Mastery

  • This process can be emulated in micro, at every stage of the learning journey. Each new topic should have a small concept map that the teacher frequently refers to, that articulates and visually shows the various links of importance.
  • Each map, once secure in the student’s mind (effectively turning them into an expert on this particular learning continuum), presents opportunities for more open ended questions and tasks to be explored and undertaken. Designing learning that incorporates this balance between higher order thinking and more concrete closed knowledge chunks is an essential component of healthy retrieval practice, as suggested in this latest fascinating research by Poojah Agarwal.
  • Retrieval practice – remove sections of the map; remove words in each circle; remove some of the lines connecting the topics and have students create new connections justifying their choices in writing along the line, as Sophie has done with her excellent reading connections post here. There are also other options for mixing up retrieval here.

The Power of the Map

Of course, the links are subjective, but that only serves to strengthen the learning as links are debated and justified. In fact, this process presents many higher order learning possibilities, all serving to deepen the understanding of the key concepts and constructing new thinking:

  • Justifying the links and connections strengthens the understanding of each aspect of the map
  • Strengthen comparisons – Once individual content is secure, the student can ‘think’ with what s/he has, and with comparison a must in all literature courses, this process pushes thinking to connect ideas. The comparisons can also be made with context, and students can more easily see how certain eras and writers are affected by others.
  • Each section can have many more contextual links added if time permits, which continuously builds a cultural literacy that can have a big impact on the Language course comprehension tasks and general reading proficiency.

Here’s the explanation as to how the map has been constructed from the previous blog. In the explanation I’ve covered every text/element of the Eduqas GCSE English Literature and Language courses. 

The courses offer a wonderful web that spans centuries of time. The oldest text is of course Shakespeare. What’s good to know when thinking of Elizabethan context is that the time is dominated by religious conflict, with the heirless Elizabeth I’s court choosing James I (James IV of Scotland) to succeed her primarily because he was Protestant. His continuation of the persecution of Catholics is what led to the Gun Powder Plot, and James’ consequent fear of assassination. In Jacobean times the showing of Macbeth served to illustrate that corrupt ambitions lead to tragic outcomes, but the theme is pertinent still because it can be accessed on a variety of levels: selfishness, greed, lying etc, and thus becomes a central strand of the moral and affective learning in the entire course. 

Jumping to the late 1700’s, George III lightened some of the anti-Roman Catholic laws, but Catholics still couldn’t vote in parliament. George is disliked for extending the war in America after the failed prevention of American independence, intransigent in his view that the new state should be made to pay for its disrespectful arrogance of wanting such freedoms. William Blake references this in the poem London: ‘The hapless soldier’s sigh/ Runs in blood down the palace walls.’  Soldiers are disillusioned in being forced to fight for things they don’t believe in. The blood down palace walls is perhaps a signal to Londoners to rise up against such tyranny like those involved in the French Revolution.

Shelley reiterates opposition to George’s warmongering, in the metaphorical Ozymandias, a tale of an arrogant egotistical ruler who proudly expresses his ‘sneer of cold command’, and who doesn’t realise the futility of demanding to be seen as the ‘king of kings’. Shelley’s reference to the bible’s labelling of Jesus is likely the result of exhaustion from the continuous battles between Catholic and Protestant religious factions. Shelley’s solution: become atheist, a stance that had him expelled from Oxford. (Shelley essay here)

Shelley’s, and indeed all of the Romantics insistence that it is really only nature that lasts and therefore warrants our ultimate attention is confirmed when a book of poetry by one of the strongest ‘natural’ poets, Keats, was found on his drowned body in 1822. Wordsworth too could be considered in this vain, with Excerpt from The Prelude adroitly referencing the importance of nature in grounding the developing individual, as well as Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist that similarly uses nature as a cover to examine the human condition, but Shelley was more aligned to the newer Romantics. Keats’ instruction to cherish the moment and to accept the inevitability of death in To Autumn, an admirable feat considering that death and loss dominated his life, is a timely message for students whose culture demands that what is now is irrelevant and that the next best thing must be acquired at any cost. The perpetual message, interminably promoted on social media, that the grass is always greener on the other side is an incredibly damaging one for our students. The message corrupts and distorts into the belief that what is on the surface must be prioritised, and that we must look and act like the unrealistic impressions generated by media… Continue reading

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog, if you’d like.

Learning Design and the Biathlon

A biathlon is an amazing endurance event competed in winter climates. Originating from the real necessity of skiing in incredibly rugged terrain for long distances in order to hunt, the activity demands the athlete to be incredibly fit and strong, having to push the body through great strain and physical punishment, and to be able to ignore the screaming pain that floods the brain that wants it all to stop. Whilst under such duress, the athlete is then required to slow the heart rate sufficiently that they can compose their hand eye coordination and fire at a target from some distance. It’s certainly no easy feat.

Target shooting after skiing is like sprinting up 10 flights of stairs, then trying to thread a needle

In the old days, before it was a sport, one simply couldn’t separate the two activities. It was a necessity if you wanted to eat, and not let down your growing family, hungry and expectant. But modern times afford more luxurious lifestyles, where the two activities can and are separated, the need to hunt most definitely outsourced, and skiing branching into a multitude of specific disciplines. In a lot of ways, this reminds me of modern higher education (HE). Once upon a time*, the learning experience was characterised by having faith that the lecturer in front of you was not only expert in their respective field, but also in a second field, in education, and could expertly slow their ambition to convey their superior knowledge to the eager and willing student. The lecturer was a biathlete.

But now, the lecturer is probably there first and foremost for their research prowess; they are experts in their fields, and the better the university, the stronger and more prominent the expertise, and the more pressure placed on them to continue to publish research, at prolific rates. In such a climate, the focus on teaching takes a large back step, sliding off the radars of those researchers who simply struggle to find the time to fit in the demands of both disciplines. Indeed, some researchers see their position as only that, with teaching an annoying intrusion and fine printed obligation of their contract. But for the majority, pragmatism rules, and a choice has to be made. The academic must direct a significant amount of time on getting better at skiing, and skiing only.

THE EXPERT IN PEDAGOGY

This is where the learning designer adds invaluable value. The learning designer takes up the slack, provides the pedagogical expertise the academic lacks, and the time to help design the communication of content, both in the face to face setting and its online supplemental component, or in the exclusively online modern course. The learning designer has to help guide and train the skier to add another skill set to their bow, to develop the expertise required to provide for the hungry dependents. After all, without the food, the next generation cannot exist, let alone thrive.

Over a series of blogs, I will outline my plan as a manager of a learning design team in one of the Group of 8 universities in Australia to negotiate this context and provide many many resources and ideas that will inform learning designers as to how to affect better practice in their respective academic colleagues. All insights will be based on the pedagogical implications provoked by the latest cognitive science research, research that has begun to provide substantial evidence of how the brain encodes and retrieves information. It is my hope that despite the difficult mission we face, that by continuously providing expertise in pedagogy, that we are able to inspire academics to fall in love with education in the way we have. It is after all, one of the most rewarding professions there is.

*of course, you may say that this was actually never the case, with most lecturers getting away with not being expert in pedagogy simply because their students were advantaged in either academic ability, high levels of motivation, or simply cultural currency, but let’s not let reality get in the way of a good analogy.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more learning design resources, and general education advice and discussions.

Acronyms and initialisms – what’s the difference?

When I started my new job recently, I was absolutely bombarded with hundreds, nay, thousands of acronyms and initialisms. It’s been a revelation that so many could be used in such a relatively limited context, and of course I had no idea what many conversations were on about without the relevant background knowledge. But as an English teacher, what I did know was that my colleagues’ use of acronym in the oft said sentence ‘I’m sorry about all the acronyms’ was technically incorrect, for many of them weren’t acronyms, but initialisms.

So what’s the difference?

First, let’s discuss the similarities: both are abbreviations of several words, and both use the first letter of each word in the abbreviated version. But the difference is that an acronym is pronounceable as a complete new word, where as an initialism is not.

In the table below, the left column is full of acronyms, and the right with initialisms .

LASERLD (Learning Designer)
NASAKFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken)
FIFAWSL (World Surf League)
QANTASFBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)
UNICEFWTO (World Trade Organisation)

The initialisms have to be spoken as individual letters, whereas the acronyms can be pronounced as single words.

Image result for acronyms vs initialism

This site provides a useful discussion about the differences, including the ludicrous modern acceptance that they are in fact the same thing. Arghhh!!!!

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English resources, and general education advice and discussions.

NOT ACTUALLY LEARNING

Today I spent 7 hours on a mandatory course required to gain Teacher Registration in South Australia. For once, I was a student, and so unbelievably bored during the presentation I can’t describe it. I wanted to learn, but maintaining attention, an essential component of learning, was incredibly difficult. Why? Because the design of the learning was poor. But that’s not even the worst thing. The worst thing is this: there is no follow up to the session, meaning that most of it, if not all of it, will be forgotten, rendering the entire experience redundant.  

Delivering content 

 Simply presenting slide after slide on ppt whilst talking at the same time is highly ineffective pedagogy. The auditory channel has 2 stimuli both competing equally for the same spot in the working memory. One must be compromised, and is. I found myself alternating between what was being said by the presenter and then deciding to focus only on the slides.  

It is essential that a multimodal approach to delivering content is taken. Slide after slide with sentences of words needed to be broken by image, and preferably dual coded. Yes, every now and again an image was used, but again it was word heavy as annotations and labels peppered the screen.

The presenter attempted to engage the audience, but when a question was asked, they took the first person’s answer as proof everyone knew what was happening. There was opportunity to discuss answers to posed questions with other attendees at the tables, as an obvious attempt to break up the slides, but again the interactions were almost meaningless, with some dominating the conversations, others disengaged, and others not understanding the level of depth required in answers. Feedback asked for by the presenter again only took the first answer presented. Some answers moved off topic and presented opportunities for some venting that unfortunately had little to do with the course. 

All in all, the enormous amount of content could actually have been summed up in about 5 slides, and delivered in ¼ of the time. 

Retrieval? 

Without testing the attendees the instructor has no way of knowing who has learnt anything on the course. Certificates were handed out, and I now have completed the mandatory training, but no one knows if I actually know anything about it. But even if there was some testing there and then, the performance would have been quite good, but illusory in terms of actual learning. This is because when we are tested straight after being taught something, recalling the content is easy because there hasn’t been any other information to displace it from our working memory. The retrieval strength is extremely low. It is only after some time after many things have displaced the desired content, but we can still recall it, that we can infer that we have learnt the content.

If trainers and facilitators and the departments who engage them to deliver their mandatory content want to ensure learning has taken place, it is essential that follow up retrieval takes place. I can’t even say that this is one area that the training industry could do better, because without this element added to the offering, the industry is irrelevant.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

Finding time for CREATIVITY

This is part 3 in a series of blogs on creativity in the classroom. The first is here, and the second here.

As stated previously, providing students with adequate knowledge before problem solving or inquiry is opened up is not an attempt to smother or stifle curiosity or independence, it’s simply a necessary, pragmatic and sensible approach that understands motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and is trying to foster a love of learning. Daisy Christodoulou argues something similar convincingly here in a debate with Guy Claxton. I think a reasonable take away from Daisy’s perspective is this:

A knowledge approach is actually the problem-solver’s best friend, trying to develop an independent learner by keeping them enthused about inquiry because they have the capacity to engage with it.

But equally, as Guy exhorts, only teaching knowledge and forgetting about its application may also be doing students a disservice. It is not a condition of learning that all knowledge should be applied for it to be a valid learning experience, but there should be ample opportunity in a curriculum because it’s another way to engage a sense of excitement about the content, a way to foster a love of learning, and a way to begin the development of the next innovators, artists, entertainers and scientists etc. Almost without exception, students producing interesting applications of what we’ve taught them is highly motivating for them. The feelings of excitement and satisfaction evoked by successful creative endeavours would assuage Guy Claxton’s fear that students in traditional education aren’t given the preparedness for the demands of a future society that values creativity as a highly adaptive skill. If experienced, students will seek these feelings as often as possible. 

It’s also another way to maintain our love of the subjects we teach when we see students creatively apply the knowledge in new and novel ways – it’s exciting! Those moments when I’ve read a really insightful interpretation of a text is one of the best parts of my job.

So where do we add it in the curriculum?

It seems that prescribing space near the end of a unit would be the first place to begin. However, end of unit tasks certainly shouldn’t be dumbed down expositions into weakened curriculum, as Joe Kirby warns against but resolves wonderfully here. Mark Enser similarly cautions us about the ease with which sequenced activities can fall into the mire of simply ‘doing’ tasks here. But like all experts, the best teachers explore all the research available to them and use their common sense, intuition and specific contexts to design a learning experience for their students that fosters a love of learning.

Here are some possible counterarguments to the legitimate issues raised in the last post that may serve to get you rethinking about how much opportunity you provide for creative application of the knowledge you’ve taught:

Issues with creative curriculum design Solutions to issues
Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
Can we loosen the standardised nature of some assessments to encourage creative responses to tasks, and take a leap of faith that it will still be a valid endeavour? Can we at least use criterion based measurement, even though they are wrought with validity issues? Do we have to have data on everything, or can a task have inherent value, knowing what it is developing a habit of thinking about what to do with the knowledge? Sometimes too an episodic experience can serve to strengthen the semantic knowledge in other, ostensibly hidden ways.

Also, can we truly measure the benefits of engagement? If students are genuinely enthused about your subject having created an interesting application of what we’ve taught them, this may drive further learning in ways we can’t always foresee.
Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all. Building the metacognition of how to approach a creative task can alleviate this issue. Helping students become more reasonable with their projects, helping them learn about resources and time management as early as possible, and beginning with creative opportunities that are actually quite limited in scope so as to build that thinking. Culturing a classroom of high expectations is crucial to build this type of thinking also, and this post by Cerridwen Eccles exemplifies that.
Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen. Never has there been a stronger argument for keeping the arts as a central focus in school. Ensuring that a curriculum provides students access to a range of mediums to express themselves is key here. Limiting creative experiences initially to areas that have been learnt in other subjects would be a wise place to build the success of creative time in classes. Primary teachers seem to be particularly good at this, say for example using art to strengthen other curriculum areas. These teachers teach students how to paint and draw so that this knowledge can be applied with ease in expression of ideas related to other learning. Having a good understanding of what students are taught in other subjects is a good place to start.
There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  Taking the established knowledge to creative places will result in deeper understandings, and ironically, may result in more learning happening overall, as students find the next topic potentially easier having built schemas that facilitate acquisition of new, but related information; the espousing of a quest for depth of knowledge is a common thread in every piece of education literature I’ve ever read about goals of education. The absolute key then is to design your curriculum that has obvious links.  Claire Hill articulates such a proposition beautifully here.

Also, mini creative moments during units of work can serve as creative opportunities for students who have secured content and are waiting for others in the class to get there too. This may be in the form of challenging questions, designing representations, applying understanding to new contexts etc. This differentiation can be simply done as the teacher wanders the room and sees students ready for such exploration. 
It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out. I think a well designed curriculum borrowing from the expertise of educators who have clearly mastered the craft is the answer here. Direct instruction hosts connotations of restrictive pedagogy, but in reality no teacher wants there to be gaps in learning, so if direct instruction eliminates them, it would seem feasible to entertain the method. Using worked examples and focusing on removing ambiguity in communication is teh topic of this superb series of blogs by Tom Needham here. Adam Boxer also discusses the importance of then slowly removing the scaffold to increase the challenge here.
To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.Logically it is quite clear that teaching to the test simply doesn’t work. The reason is that tests are a sample of a domain of knowledge, and if you only teach a sample then students won’t have the requisite knowledge if that sample isn’t in the next exam. It is also so boring to teach in this way. It doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have the end game in mind; pragmatically you just have to, but you would understand what knowledge is needed and design curriculum that builds towards it. That’s just good teaching anyway.

It is imperative that educators do not conflate the argument for creativity with the idea that learning isn’t worthwhile unless it has a creative element. Often, the learning itself in adding to the student’s knowledge is a worthwhile endeavour, and I am certain that teachers will add to this post their own ideas about how creativity can be a natural part of a learning sequence, from which lots of inquiry can be generated. So, is there space in your curriculum for some creative application of the knowledge that you have spent considerable energy designing and presenting to your students? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

IS THERE A PLACE FOR CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING IN SCHOOL?

This is part 2 of a series on creativity in schools. Part 1 is here

Ben Newmark’s rousing and simply wonderful treaty on why we teach insists that knowledge is to be taught so students can make connections with their world, and to respect what has gone before them in so much as the gift of what it provides. But I think there’s another purpose: invention.

Invention, or its synonymous ‘innovation’, or ‘creativity’, is an attributing factor as to why society advances. From medicine, to technology, to science, to entertainment, we value dearly our ability to invent, innovate, and create. Great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers, artists etc all become great because they master multiple components of knowledge in their respective fields, but then crucially have opportunity to draw on that knowledge to mix and reshape and experiment with it (sometimes by mistake) to solve a presented problem.

So yes, there most certainly is a place for creative problem solving in schools, but in order to avoid the dreaded Matthew Effect, ONLY once a sufficient amount of knowledge has been acquired first. This seems antithetical to prominent proponents who excoriate traditional teaching practices want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, like here, but I don’t really think that the majority of teachers share such an extreme position. I think that most teachers who understand the importance of building knowledge in a curriculum also see education as more than just learning knowledge. They see education as an avenue to develop a student’s capacity to DO something with the acquired knowledge, to offer opportunities for them to become the next innovator in a chosen field, rather than just moving on to the next thing to be learnt in the scheme. But this inclination isn’t so easy to put into practice, and I’ll try to explain the issues with this below.  

Caught in a trap

An ideal curriculum would explicitly teach content to continually develop schemata, then encourage inquiry into that knowledge and then if relevant, some sort of application of the knowledge to both deepen the understanding of it and to cultivate a habit of experimenting with it. But it is the last of these that tends to be omitted from modern curricula because:

  • Lack of reliability in assessing it summative standardised tests are the only valid method of assessment at national level, so how do you assess creativity, which is highly subjective? How then can we safely say that everyone in the class is benefitting from this context? Are there some (many) who are simply bludging? and if the amount of time dedicated to creatively applying knowledge is several lessons, is this wasted time?
  • Creative application is messy – in a class of many children completing multiple projects, it is extremely difficult to manage their progress and whether there is sufficient application from all. Each project would have to be assessed in terms of its practicality and feasibility, and adjusted if unrealistic on both fronts. Like EYFS teachers who insist that scripted lessons are impractical in terms of managing the children, likewise secondary students left to open undirected learning can be equally troublesome, and most teachers could do without the exhaustion of it all.
  • Lack of expertise in other fields– students working on projects may not have the appropriate skills needed to carry out the intentions of their project. E.g. artistic, technological, etc. and employing other areas of the school to assist is a logistical issue. This then takes us back to the original issue that prevents this type of learning from being successful – when the knowledge base isn’t sufficient for actual learning to happen.
  • There’s so much content – as soon as a unit is completed, it is assessed, and the next one introduced, predominantly with external examinations in mind. Boards of education seem to have rammed so much content into the curriculum possibly because of a fear of there being empty spaces – because creative aspects can’t be assessed, those who don’t provide such learning experiences need something to do – the corollary of this is that everyone pays the price with the need to add more content.  
  • It’s hard enough teaching the knowledge right – few of us have mastered the intricacies required to take students to mastery, and with the next part of the course needed to be got at, not only is there not time to foster an experimental context of the knowledge, but students likely haven’t mastered the knowledge to be able to use it effectively anyway. I hold myself up against educators like Tom Needham and Adam Boxer in this regard, educators who are meticulous in their planning and delivery of content to ensure mastery. I recommend you check them out.
  • To allow space for practising skills – Inexorable accountability results in schools panicking, ‘like swimmers that do cling together, and choke their art’*, by sterilising curriculum, and teaching to the test. Opponents to this aspect of modern schooling are numerous, correct and vociferous about the reductionist outcomes of accountability, but nevertheless, this elephant is very much still in the room.

English creativity?

I am certain every subject would identify with the above, but for me as an English teacher, English is certainly guilty as charged. With a disproportionate emphasis placed on decontextualized grammar and analysis, secondary students rarely have opportunities to create their own content. Poets, writers, speakers, dramatists, are usually only offered such opportunity to participate in these artforms in extra-curricular clubs. Most creative writing is restricted to a time limit in externalised testing, and if it is internally moderated, is likely to also be restricted so as to be managed.

So are there solutions to these barriers? Is it actually possible to include creative exploration of content and knowledge in a school curriculum?

That’s the subject of the next post.

* do you know what text this quote is from?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more education and English teaching posts.

IF CREATIVITY IS BIOLOGICALLY PRIMARY, IS DISCOVERY LEARNING ACTUALLY DOABLE?

If creativity is biologically primary does that mean it wouldn’t tax the working memory in discovery learning, thereby eliminating one of the main arguments against the pedagogy?

As humans we are naturally inclined to problem solve. When we problem solve we employ creativity. It as an instinctive aspect of our human condition primarily because our lives are dominated by cause and effect – every decision we make is influenced by a perceived outcome, and we get good at creatively solving problems so we can survive in this way. In this sense, problem solving and creativity are synonymous. Think about the decisions you’ve made today – you invariably did everything to achieve a goal. Of course, most of the decisions were likely to be automatic and subconscious, like cleaning your teeth, but nonetheless, they are goal orientated. To illustrate, imagine if your toothpaste had ostensibly run out. What do you do? Stand there, helpless? No, you find a way to scape every last drop out of that tube – you roll it up, you cut it open etc. You do this because you have the problem of going to work with unbrushed teeth and the social implications your mind conjures up with that fact are unbearable. We find solutions to hundreds of things all day, every day.

Despite the very large elephant in the (class)room of the above notion rendering such an insistent focus on teaching creativity in ’21st century’ curricula practically redundant, even if it is removed as a central focus of curricula, can we not exploit this natural biological tendency in students to be creative and immerse them in project based or discovery learning in which students will creatively solve the problems presented before them via instinct. Wouldn’t this cultivate an independent learning environment but crucially, without it placing excessive load and strain on the working memory and incapacitating it? As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.” Is this cognitive science wanting its cake and eating it too?

No!

It’s not the general problem-solving strategies which are to blame in overloading the working memory, it is the limited amount of knowledge the novice possesses that denies the problem solving from taking place in the first place. The instinctive problem-solving brain, if prompted, scurries to solve whatever it is confronted with by mixing and matching what it already knows into new and novel ways, but if it can’t access any knowledge to creatively apply to the current context, it can’t do it. It’s like one of those shows like Taskmaster where contestants are provided with a problem and given a limited number of resources to overcome the issue – but they come across a challenge without any resources whatsoever. What would contestants do without anything to use? They would revert to what information they already had in their minds. And some will have more than others based on their cultural literacy and thus be able to achieve better solutions. And this is where discovery learning can become enormously disadvantageous for those students with limited background knowledge. Discovery learning can exacerbate the Matthew Effect significantly.  

But what if the student did possess enough background knowledge to creatively apply problem-solving strategies, would discovery learning then be a suitable approach? Yes, it would be, and I contend that it is important to regularly provide such a context in education (which I discuss below), but with two caveats for educators: there’s lots of content to learn in so little time, and it’s far easier not to learn it.

The path of least resistance is deleterious

Learning biologically primary knowledge such as learning to speak and learning to walk is easy and relatively effortless because it is an adaptive evolutionary strategy we need to survive. However, learning biologically secondary knowledge like learning to read and learning to write is not easy as the brain hasn’t evolved sufficiently yet to do it effortlessly. David Geary’s article explains this concept here. It requires dedicated focus and enormous amounts of scaffolding. Setting up a context where students have to continually find the knowledge for themselves in order to promote the end goal of autonomous and independent learning is an inefficient way of going about it. It requires significantly more effort than biologically primary learning, resulting in most students naturally shying away from pursuing it and taking an easier option.

It is not me being some pessimistic bore that exhorts that students will take the path of least resistance, and not engage in a range of learning activities of their own volition. It’s a human trait. The loss is most evident when the path of learning chosen from the inquiring mind is ultimately and ironically determined by what it already knows, and won’t make giant leaps in thinking if it simply doesn’t have the tools/knowledge to do so. It might ask itself questions that arise from the learning that are significantly removed from the current understanding, which is fabulous, but when it comes to the reality of trying to answer those questions, if the knowledge isn’t there that the mind can creatively mix and match to solve the problem, the path of least resistance will take over, and little learning will eventuate. This is an ironic corollary for those citing constructivism as a justification of discovery learning. By the way, if you’re interested in how constructivism has been incorrectly conflated with the need to make learning in schools an unguided affair, read this by Mayer.

It is at this point of the student mind flailing that the teacher would be expected to step in and scaffold the learning to accommodate the inquisitive philosophy, but again, in reality, it would be impossible to fill the gaps of a class full of discoverers. Take this sequence as an example from a ‘pure’* discovery context: a teacher initialises learning with a prompt which the student then learns about thereby opening the door to a tangential aspect of the learning, which the teacher then adapts to and designs necessary assessment of, including the interleaving of that assessment to ensure learning is actually happening. After several iterations of this, the student would find themselves significantly diverged from the initial teaching moment.

Even in a utopianly small class of 5 students, this becomes totally unmanageable, with the teacher effectively teaching 5 lessons in one. The teacher ends up working infinitely harder than the student. And that’s just for a class of 5. Also, the fact that the divergence is all student led could result in a very thin range of knowledge being learnt – only knowledge that is desirable to the student. It’s difficult to not sound patronising when I use the analogy of it being like allowing your child just to eat what they want and avoid anything that they don’t like, but I think it is a similar level of maturity that tends to guide most children’s/teen’s educational aspiration if left to their own devices.  

It is only an assiduously designed, unbounded and appropriately funded curriculum that could possibly facilitate a true discovery approach to learning for an individual, and we all know this just isn’t practical.

Another thorn in the side of discovery learning is that it is incredibly difficult to assess. We know there are problems with summative assessment, but it is still by far the fairest way of assessing a mass of people and providing relevant stakeholders with information that is wanted in selection processes (jobs, universities etc). Assessing discovery learning relies on subjective perspectives against criteria that must be adopted for a vast range of projects, which not only suffer greatly from marker bias, but also raise issues of parity when projects are so diversified: which tangents are more desirable, which show greater insight etc? Therefore, the validity of such assessment comes under question.

So it seems that despite the pressure from a misinformed public’s view of creativity, fashioned largely through emotive claims, which in a time poor schooling context has enormous implications for which components of curricula, by default, must be missed out, proponents of discovery learning really do want to have their cake and eat it too!

SO, IS THERE A PLACE FOR CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING IN SCHOOL?

That’s the focus of the next post.

* ‘Pure’ discovery is where the jumps in learning can be cognitively managed as there is adequate knowledge to draw on.  

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blof for more educational discussions

The imperative of storytelling Pt 1

‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people’ Heinrich Heine

Story has the power to radically change our emotions. The Nazi Party understood the power of storytelling all too well. Hitler himself was completely transfixed by Wagner’s opera Rienzi, inspired by the central character’s determination to free the enslaved populace: “You know, Ley, it isn’t by chance that I have the Party Rallies open with the overture to Rienzi. It’s not just a musical question. At the age of twenty-four this man, an innkeeper’s son, persuaded the Roman people to drive out the corrupt Senate by reminding them of the magnificent past of the Roman Empire. Listening to this blessed music as a young man in the theatre at Linz, I had the vision that I too must someday succeed in uniting the German Empire and making it great once more.”[32].   Thisenrapture with the story eventuated in a lifelong fascination with the composer, but fatalistically, inspired the catastrophic manifestation of Wagner’s nationalistic vigour and extreme anti-Semitic beliefs. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi Party held a public demonstration, where they burned books written by Jews, modernists, socialists and writers deemed un-German in spirit. The exhibition was orchestrated by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who was all too aware of the influence of words inked on a page. Jonathan Gottschall in his excellent book ‘The Storytelling Animal’ articulates it perfectly when he describes the prophetic burning of Heinrich Heine’s book Almansor: ‘… and so they committed a holocaust of undesirable ink people so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people.’

Melanie Green and Timothy Brock argue in their paper titled ‘The Power of Fiction: Determinants and Boundaries’, that fictional worlds are able to radically alter the way information is processed. They infer that we become emotional slaves to the writer. When we read non-fiction, our emotional shields are up and we become critical and sceptical, but fiction leaves us vulnerable, like naïve children fashionable to the writer’s whim. Ray Bradbury was attuned to this phenomenon, penning Fahrenheit 451, and completely cognizant of the need of a story to warn us against a society devoid of stories.  

But why do we become so defenceless to these emotional sagas? It’s for two reasons: the brain’s architecture, and the dominant theme in most stories.  

Inside the cerebral cortex lies the anterior insula, a section of the brain that plays a large role in cognition and consciousness. It provides us with self-awareness of our own physiology, and is linked to the feelings associated with direct sensations. But researchers found something incredible about this area. When subjects were shown others experiencing feelings of pain and sadness and happiness, the anterior insula reacted in a similar way as though it was experiencing these feelings itself. And voila, an explanation as to why we feel empathy. When we hear a story the anterior insula is activated, which causes us to vicariously experience the emotions offered in the story. We don’t just sympathise with a character experiencing sadness, we empathise with them. We feel it. Sometimes (or lots if you’re me), you’ll cry at sad moments of a story, whether it be in book or film form. You’ll feel genuine happiness when the central character’s conflict is resolved. You’ll feel visceral anger and indignation when injustice prevails. Evolutionary psychologists suggest this is so we are able to learn about these emotions and how to deal with them in a non-confrontational safe way, so that people, and especially children, are exposed to a wide range of experiences and can develop strategies and appropriate responses to the emotion should they find themselves experiencing it at some point in their future.

‘One of the possible negative aspects of the insular cortex is its role in addiction. For example, if one is attempting to quit smoking, environmental cues such as seeing others smoke act as a trigger in the cortex. One’s desire to smoke rises because the cortex expects smoking to follow certain sensory stimulation. This trigger applies to any number of drugs and can make abstaining extremely difficult.’

from here

You may worry that this leaves us in an extremely vulnerable state if such stories are teaching immoral or unproductive lessons, but interestingly, such worry is mitigated by the knowledge that the vast majority of stories tend inherently to be moral arbiters, consistently promoting the demise of negative social behaviour in favour of the cooperative morally right. We tend to have an instinct for what is morally right it seems, and rarely are stories successful without such an outcome. Even in the movie the Joker, despite its violent lead character a seemingly sadistic psychopath, the audience views him as the hero, only because they are privy to the injustices he has experienced over an extended period of time, and so we empathise with his violence, understanding it to be reactive rather than calculated; justice versus injustice.

The power of stories certainly can’t be underestimated, and teachers of every subject and phase have a wonderful opportunity to exploit the benefits they offer. The least of which is the teaching of emotional intelligence.

In a coming series of posts I will discuss the natural unavoidable biological lure of story, and its use in developing cultural literacy, vocabulary, grammatical structure, the development of semantic memory, and lots of other educational connections to the artform. These conversations are part of a book I am writing with Ceridwen Eccles on reading, called ‘Love, and Reading’.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions.