This month, the Royal Society has published its latest report on neuroscience and education, Brainwaves 2. It is a gloriously positive assessment of learning and the contribution science can make to fulfilling its potential.
The report’s summary suggests that the fertile common ground between the disciplines offers a “future where educational practice can be transformed by science” and goes on to describe the key insights that might eventually lead to such a change.
It’s a fascinating read that I’ll unpack over the next few posts but I just wanted to start by flagging its main findings and recommendations.
“Education is the wellspring of our health, wealth and happiness”
Among the insights and opportunities that neuroscience provides for a transformation in education, the report describes:
As I say, it’s a treasure trove of ideas that I’ll comment on over the next few days. I think there are some interesting day-to-day implications for how we learn and facilitate learning. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think too.
Meanwhile on the basis of their thoughts (and the associated challenges), the Society recommends the following:
No-one’s going to argue with those, but it remains to be seen whether the Powers that be see fit to follow them up.
There’s a lot of research that seems to state the blindingly obvious but sometimes it is reassuring to discover that our innate beliefs are sound. Like having a local park improves your health or this piece from Concordia University published in the journal Family Relations that reminds us that families that play together are more cohesive. It’s true apparently even with adult grandchildren and their grandparents.
One aspect of the research that struck me was Hebblethwaite and Norris’s assertion that ‘grandparents often use such get-togethers as opportunities to teach, mentor and pass on legacies. “They share family histories, personal experiences and life lessons,” says Hebblethwaite. “They pass on family values, traditions and stressed the importance of family cohesion.”‘
It is quite an unfashionable position to suggest that we adults might learn from someone else (as opposed to with) but I think there is a basic truth to it in many circumstances. And it doesn’t contradict the assertion that adult learning is based on conversation. On the contrary, the fact that ‘playing together’ breaks down barriers, provides shared experiences and takes us out of the daily routine encourages dialogue in ways that are more relaxed than other equally worthwhile activities. Even collaborative jobs provide less coalescing potential because of the inherently serious and productive nature of ‘work.’
One of the unspoken objections to the idea of a ‘teacher’ is the suggestion of hierarchy in the relationship. Personally, I find it easy to accept a hierarchy associated with greater knowledge and experience; but only a fool of an expert would discount the possibility of discovering something new from less-learned others. The Concordia research flags the transactional nature of inter-generational leisure that makes the relationship balanced. Play is a catalyst for the grandparents too: the grandchildren receive family culture and philosophies while their elders are exposed to new ideas and technologies. It’s a winning combination.
But then we knew that, didn’t we?
My little girl was ‘Star of the Week’ at her school last week for ‘great number work.’ She was ecstatic to receive the recognition. And it’s a big encouragement to her to keep on trying. I’m very proud of her.
Coincidentally but far more trivially, I went up a level in Modern Warfare 2. It made me think about how we reward learning compared to the achievements celebrated in gaming.
I am not very good at Call of Duty, indeed my role largely seems to be cannon fodder for American teenagers, but I am persistent despite my thousands of deaths. According the stats, I’ve been playing for more than 4 days over the last year. That’s a lot of time but it’s less than a tenth of that spent by some young people I know. One of the elements that keeps us coming back is the quality of the game’s encouragement – it rewards every achievement and all the effort.
If you’re not familiar with Call of Duty, here are the potential rewards:
In single player mode, you progress through the game unlocking harder levels, viewing cut scenes and revealing new elements of the storyline. There are 18 ‘scenes’ split over 3 acts. Each has a progressive but different set of challenges, characters, settings and equipment. It’s a level of richness that proves compelling in its own right. But it’s not all.
In multiplayer mode you also receive a public accolade at the end of each game and XP and bonus points. There are public leaderboards to show your global ranking and private ones to compare your scores to that of your friends.
You earn points by using each weapon. For example, assault rifles have the following challenges:
|Challenge||How To Complete||Unlocks||XP Reward|
|Marksman I||10 Kills||Grenade Launcher||250|
|Marksman II||25 Kills||Red Dot Sight||1000|
|Marksman III||75 Kills||Silencer||2000|
|Marksman IV||150 Kills||ACOG Scope||5000|
|Marksman V||300 Kills||FMJ||10000|
|Marksman VI||500 Kills||Experience Points||10000|
|Marksman VII||750 Kills||Experience Points||10000|
|Marksman VIII||1000 Kills||Experience Points||10000|
|Expert I||5 Headshots||Woodland Camouflage||500|
|Expert II||15 Headshots||Digital Camouflage||1000|
|Expert III||30 Headshots||Urban Camouflage||2500|
|Expert IV||75 Headshots||Blue Tiger Camouflage||5000|
|Expert V||150 Headshots||Red Tiger Camouflage||10000|
|Expert VI||250 Headshots||Fall Camouflage||10000|
|Expert VII||350 Headshots||-||10000|
|Expert VIII||500 Headshots||-||10000|
|Shotgun||20 Kills w/ Grenade Launcher||Shotgun Attachment||750|
|Holographic Sight||60 Kills w/ Red Dot Sight||Holographic Sight||1000|
|Heartbeat Sensor||15 Kills w/ Silencer||Heartbeat Sensor||750|
|Thermal Scope||20 Kills w/ ACOG Scope||Thermal Scope||750|
|Extended Mags||40 Bullet Penetration Kills w/ FMJ||Extended Mags||1000|
|Mastery||Unlock all attachments||Title (Gold w/ Iron Cross)||10,000|
|Veteran I||500 Kills||Title (Plain Grey)||10,000|
|Veteran II||1000 Kills||Emblem (Silver)||10,000|
|Veteran III||2500 Kills||Title (Silver Skulls)||10,000|
|Master I||250 Headshots||Title (Grey w/ Head)||10,000|
|Master II||500 Headshots||Emblem (Gold)||10,000|
|Master III||1000 Headshots||Title (Gold Skulls)||10,000|
Pretty impressive list, isn’t it? Notice how achievements are rewarded with points, emblems, titles and new content unlocks. It is persuasive feedback to players.
Now consider this. There are
Mastering the game’s arsenal offers more than a 1000 separate challenges.
And there’s more. There are:
That’s nearly 1500 different challenges in total, each rewarded with new content, status and points. There are 70 levels, 297 different emblems for players and 570 callsigns.
This post isn’t a celebration of Call of Duty or the violent type of gameplay associated with it but it is an example of how games do everything they can to engage users. It’s not just the sheer quantity of awards, it is the variety and value of them that we need to acknowledge. Games reward effort and achievement in the following ways:
It makes the tick after a right answer look a little paltry doesn’t it?
I lose a lot of games. In fact, on balance I almost certainly lose more times than I win. But I’m not going to let it get me down. Repeated failure in games demonstrates a number of important aspects of in-game learning. The fact that getting it wrong, often terminally, is an intrinsic part of gameplay and yet doesn’t discourage us from having another go clearly illustrates the effective scaffolding of the system. Each failure is supported by a series of devices to improve the player’s performance. If the designers have done their jobs well then the challenge is tough but not too tough.
Games promote reflection in a number of ways:
When we lose or die in a game, we’re not instantly catapulted back to moment just before the end. Instead there’s a delay and some form of resetting to a previous ‘checkpoint.’ We see it in the respawning during first-person shooters like Left 4 Dead, the restarting of levels in games like Angry Birds and return to the starting grid in the likes of Forza. Although it’s largely the consequence of technical issues (the need to reload all the appropriate data), it gives us just enough time to curse our misfortune, consider what went wrong and prepare ourselves for another go. It’s part punishment, part breathing space.
In games like Call of Duty we have the pleasure of watching our own death from our assassin’s point of view. The killcam is a bit disconcerting. Still, it reveals some interesting information about our demise – where we were killed from, the type of weapon, whether or not we wounded our assailant. It’s all valuable feedback about our performance and inevitably encourages us to think about how we might minimise the chance of it happening again and how we might deploy those same tactics offensively. Just as in sports television, racing and football games have long used action replays to show what’s just happened. It’s not simply gratuitous eye-candy: it’s a lesson in the winning strategy.
The final form of in-game reflection comes through a dialogue of sorts: a combination of multiplayer chat and system feedback. It is easy to be given (at times fairly blunt) feedback to improve our performance from team mates during a game, non-player characters too. Similarly, the game itself often provides prompts for reflection through hints and tips at the end of each ‘life.’ It is a conversation that starts with our performance and concludes with the game’s response. These prompts help us to frame our thinking and ultimately support our progress.
Of course there are many other forms of feedback that describe performance but they don’t necessarily encourage reflection, rather they simply describe the current state of play and progress to date. That’s not to say it’s not valuable but it serves another purpose – encouragement. More on that another time.
I am working with the University of Bradford to think about creativity and it’s got me thinking about risk-taking. If creativity is about doing something new, something fresh, something novel, then inevitably it includes a degree of risk: the risk that the idea won’t solve the problem, the risk that it’s different to expectations, that risk that comes with offering something of yourself. Risk is scary.
There is a constant call for more creativity in business but an apparent disconnect between the encouragement to take risks and day-to-day reality of most of our jobs. In most of the jobs I know, failure isn’t welcomed – taking risks, genuine risks that might not work out, is something most of us, when our livelihoods are at stake, will avoid.
The creativity that is demanded of us at work is often borne out of urgent need, forced on us by unforeseen circumstances and problems: necessity is the mother of invention afterall. However it is ominous risk-taking when we’re forced into a corner. And although the pressure usually produces something, it may not be the best solution.
The other form of creativity isn’t necessarily reactive but open – seeking and imaging new opportunities – not firefighting but fire starting. Wildly successful companies such as Apple, Google and alike dedicate enormous time and resource to creativity through R&D. It is their success that demonstrates the need to experiment and enables them to do so. Gratuitous risk-taking is usually the preserve of the comfortable and confident.
So what does this mean for our daily lives? How do we find that comfort and confidence to be creative in our workplaces and homes? Crucially, I think it means working together. Generally ideas are instigated by an individual but refined and polished through dialogue, that is it takes input from other people to turn a spark into a fire. The dialogue doesn’t have to be collaborative to improve an idea, competition is a great motivator too, but teams will ultimately pull themselves apart if they’re not working together.
Working together requires us to have confidence in our own contribution. We can all be creative because every one of us has something unique to offer. Each of us views the world from a particular perspective that is shaped by our individual lives. No-one else can see things the way we do. It gives us something special to present; we should take confidence from our own idiosyncratic experiences. And the diversity of a team is a fertile space for ideas but it needs protecting.
Most of us need dedicated time, space and a clear purpose to be creative. The framework created by these elements gives us a secure and structured place to experiment. We need to be able to explore foolishness and the unconventional, to turn things on their heads and look at them from a different perspective if we want to discover something new and, like the magic circle of play, these boundaries help to set us free.
The last aspect of acheiving confidence and comfort in teams is the clear and immutable agreement that “we’re all in this together.” The group needs to give credit where credit is due and share collective responsibility for both the risk-taking that succeeds and the risk-taking that doesn’t.
Thankfully in a commited culture of creativity, even the risks that fail provide the fertiliser for the next big idea. There are always blue skies eventually.
I was party to a fascinating discussion with colleagues from the RSA yesterday about the nature of education: asking the basic question – what’s the point of school? Catalysed by the change in UK government, there seems to be a battle between the idea of school being a place for ‘transferring a body of knowledge’ and education as an ‘interactive process of developing skills.’ Proponents of ‘traditional methods’ cite the high academic achievements of Singapore and alike as demonstration of the strengths of rote-learning. Ken Robinson and others argue we need a paradigm shift in education; that the existing system of industrial education (based on deductive reasoning and a knowledge of the classics) is ill-suited to the needs of the twenty-first century.
Knowledge without skills is pointless and skills without knowledge are useless.
Personally, I think that’s a false dichotomy: knowledge without skills is pointless and skills without knowledge are useless. For me, they are both essential elements of learning. Still, something is clearly going awry with the current system. Very few people seem to be happy with the outcomes of a childhood spent in formal education – employers claim graduates, let alone school leavers, lack core competencies and the population generally appears to believe that learning stops at the school gate.
Although most people’s experience of schools seems positive during their primary years (5-ish to 11) for many, secondary education doesn’t just strip fun and satisfaction from learning but sucks the very life out of it. I suspect that, because of the curse of competitive league tables, young people are being taught to pass exams rather than think. The deficit model of highlighting what isn’t known removes the possibility that learning could be enlightening and rewarding in any other way than acquiring a paper certificate.
School is where we’re taught what we can’t do
There’s clearly a need to have a standardised measure of ability to help identify strengths and weaknesses. However, I think that as a society we are suffering the consequences of School, and the exam-system foisted upon it, being the place where we’re taught what we can’t do.
Maybe initiatives like the RSA’s Opening Minds which place competencies at the centre of curriculum and help smooth the transition from primary (theme-based) to secondary (subject-based) education are part of the answer. At least as crucial as bridging the transition between Year 6 and Year 7 is a change in attitude that dissolves the boundaries of learning and dismantles the idea that learning is confined to formal education environments. One might argue that the key to a satisfying life (and all the wellbeing and economic benefits that that creates) is the development of a mentality that embraces constant and continual learning; that school’s greatest legacy, therefore, is providing us with the ability to think for ourselves.