There’s an interesting article in this week’s Journal of Neuroscience about the how we learn, specifically how our genes might influence our attitude towards learning from instruction or experience. It’s an interesting new perspective on the differences between learning and teaching.
According to researchers from Brown University, people genetically inclined to follow instructions can make sensible decisions much more quickly than if they had to learn the right thing to do from experience. They say “In some cases (e.g., “Danger: high voltage”) experience is a very dangerous way to learn. But in other cases (e.g. “The cable guy should be there at 1 p.m.” or “This slot machine pays off”), believing in advice for too long is just foolish.”
Recognising that learning from first principles can be slower and less effective is an important point. Of course there are times when working something out for ourselves is essential but only the most determined and diligent of us would want or be capable of doing that for even the essential disciplines and subjects required for twenty-first century life.
The concept of teaching has become rather unfashionable in many quarters. ‘Foisted teaching creates more harm than good; it blunts curiosity, promotes helplessness’ says Peter Gray over at Psychology Today. He stresses that it is ‘foisted’ or ‘forced’ teaching that is unhelpful but still there’s the implicit accusation that instructing someone on the basis of greater knowledge or experience is somehow morally dubious.
The dissatisfaction with ‘teaching’ also fails to acknowledge a key outcome in schools: that many of us would never choose to study some of the subjects that prove so valuable or enjoyable later in life. One could argue that coerced exposure to ideas outside our own tastes prevents us from being self-absorbed egotists, helps us grow into more rounded individuals and seeds occasionally wonderful, life changing, serendipity.
The examples from Brown University illustrate how we can learn from others’ mistakes (“believe me, touching that electricity pylon is going to sting”) but we also learn from earlier successes. It makes our lives easier. And hopefully encourages us to pursue greater knowledge and understanding for ourselves.
The shift from learning from instruction to learning from experience takes places inevitably as we mature cognitively and emotionally. Teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive or even competitive: if we’re taught well, we learn better.
George Auckland is an inspirational figure from the BBC. Last night, to celebrate 41 years at the Corporation, Manchester Metropolitan University hosted an evening to flag his achievements.
George retires as the head of the BBC’s Learning Innovation Unit having started his career as a trainee assistant film editor in September 1969. In between, George has worked on various TV shows, most famously perhaps, Think of a Number and its successors with Johnny Ball. But it is, arguably his embrace of computing and the Internet for which George is most renowned.
It was George and his team that gave the world Teletubbies Online. Launched months before BBC News had a web presence, it was possibly the world’s first multiuser website (it was aimed at parents and their young children to use simultaneously). The site transformed a misunderstood television programme for toddlers into a fabulously successful educational experience for the under 3s. He did the same thing for adults with WebWise, unlocking the treasures of the Net for millions of us.
Much of George’s success comes from his insatiable curiosity and a personal desire to work from first principles: as a child in the 1950s himself built he a printing machine, later a television, in 1996 he taught himself HTML in 24 hours placing himself at the ‘bleeding edge’ of web development at the time. ”Fortune favours the well prepared” he says.
The ongoing joy of discovery has enabled George to exploit technology for the sake of learning. He credits Disney’s Bambi and a story-based encyclopaedia as childhood inspirations that have obviously shaped his approach to education. They vividly illustrated to him the value and effectiveness of beautifully crafted narratives that engage an audience on an emotional level.
Never let the facts get in the way of a good joke
This principle was reinforced to him by Johnny Ball who, on having had his script corrected by George about some scientific point, commented: ”Never let the facts get in the way of a good joke”
The lesson is timeless – engage the audience, captured their imagination, then unpick it with the delight of learning.
As remarkable as George’s technical achievements is the warmth in which he is held by all who have met him. His self-effacing and generous personality is legendary. I think there’s a lot we can learn from George. I’ll leave you with a quote that resonates loudly for me:
“A lot of life is not discovering new things but discovering things for yourself”
One of the projects I’m working on at the moment is a website that will help primary school children (5-11s) with their art work.
The audience for the resource is quite complicated because teachers are likely to be the standard bearers for it – they’ll be the ones that direct children to it (at least in the first instance). So the site has to be teacher and classroom (i.e. interactive whiteboard) – friendly as well appealing to the under 11s. The task is further complicated by the double-edged sword of being a ‘fun’ subject – anecdotally, we’ve heard that teaching can suffer both from unimaginative lessons (“it’s already engaging what else do we need to do?”) and from the cacophony of opinions about creative expression.
Our expectation and aim is for the site to help teachers integrate and delivery ‘good’ art education into the classroom and produce a vehicle for children to structure their projects.
A device we’re exploring to promote participation is a scoring mechanism: a simple mechanic that rewards effort. I’m not going to argue with Huizinga (or indeed my post on game definitions) when he says such activity is not a game but we’re hoping that the playful rewards will add value to each child’s involvement. Not only will the scoring recognise effort, it will create an internal system of value to the resource – harder activities will carry greater recompense. For example, identifying more features of a ‘great work’ will score more points, writing a note on what you’d do differently next time will receive a bonus, and uploading an image of your work will give you a badge of achievement.
The rewards won’t be as sophisticated or varied as Call of Duty but we recognise that they will have to have a meaningful currency if the points are to be perceived as worth acquiring. If the rewards are too easy, they become cheap and unattractive, too sparse and there’s insufficient wage for effort. Likewise, what exactly does acquiring the points mean? Can users brag? Compete? Unlock? Level up? If a dollar or a pound is theoretically worth that amount of gold, what’s out precious metal? It’s an issue to address.
One of the other interesting aspects we’ll be testing during development is whether such incentives actually promote learning or simply drive the children to ‘play the game better.’
I’ll let you know how we get on, but I’d be interested in hearing of similar activities if you have them…
In an earlier post I wonder “What is a game?‘ It looked at the characteristics you can use to define a game.
This week for a project I’m working on, I’ve been thinking about how you turn a normal activity into a game, the process of gamification. Jane McGonical is one of the most passionate advocates of turning life into a game to solve some of its otherwise intractable problems. My particular challenges aren’t so grand but I still want to see if and how I can use game mechanics to make an activity more engaging. When I’m talking about gamification I often use this very simple analogy:
A ball on it’s own is just an object. Bounce it around and it becomes a toy. Start trying to do something with it and it becomes a challenge. Add some rules and you have a game that delights and excites hundreds of millions of people around the globe.
Chris Crawford describes how objects progress to be games more elegantly in his 2003 book on game design. His process is:
There’s a clear sense of progression in this process but one of the critical elements is fun. How easy do you think it is to turn a mundane activity into game?