Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Learning Curves

Following up on the 'just tell me the answer' post last week, I've been trying to find ways to articulate what I'm attempting to do with students so that they don't become frustrated.  It's said that familiarity breeds contempt, but what I'm hoping is that familiarity breeds confidence and a willingness to experiment and push the boundaries of student knowledge.  

The germination of self-directed learning should be the goal of instruction in any teaching.  A student who is forever dependent upon a teacher is a poor student indeed.  With that goal in mind I'm working out the process of developing self directed learning in students using Prezi to map out how familiarity breeds confidence and self direction.

Some brilliant Google+ sharing by Liz Krane &
Carmelyne Thompson via Josh Kaufman
Explaining this to my senior computer engineers I tried to stress that this process is what I'm looking at, not necessarily what you know.  Even though the seniors are supposed to have previous experience many don't so the course needs to be flexible in how it approaches a wide range of abilities.  If I see steady growth in familiarity through guided instruction the inevitable result should be the formation of self-directed learning demonstrated through experimentation, collaboration and troubleshooting.  Looking for what a student knows is much less important than looking for where a student is in this learning process towards mastery.  Mastery itself is really just another word for a person who knows enough to error correct and self direct their learning - expertise never came at a teacher's hand, mastery is always self taught.

Josh Kaufman's TEDtalk on how 20 hours takes you through the initial steep climb (humbling and intensely rewarding) when picking up a new skills is telling:

We fail to do a lot of these things in school.  Distractions in the form of bells, announcements, lousy chairs and tables, large classes, and dozens of other interferences break focus.  I like to say, "stop learning now, you have to leave" to students when the bell goes and students who were lost in what they were doing are jarred back into the present.

Kaufman's learning curve,
seems perfectly sensible...
On top of school itself we now have digital technology which is most effective at monetizing us if we 'surf' rather than focus.  The habits we develop while being consumers online plague educational technology as students who are used to being digitally shallow out of school bring the same lack of focus to their learning.  That we ignore digital habits and corporate influence in educational technology will probably be the reason it never does what it promises it might do.

Beyond industrialized settings and digital distractions education systems fail to recognize the basic process of learning and in doing so spend a lot of time and money producing under-performing students.  When 50% is a pass even a perfect pass rate isn't saying much.  If our learning happens on a curve as Kaufman suggests, then we are doing this wrong in just about every possible way.

About a year ago I took a weekend course in order to begin riding a motorcycle.  Difficult and uncompromising it demanded my full attention both in the classroom and for hours in the saddle.  Not paying attention resulted in possible injury (and several people were).  That weekend course might seem too short but it just happens to be about twenty hours long (what Kaufman suggests you need to get over the steepest part of the learning curve).  With the right kind of support (small class size with a 1:4 instructor/student ratio and everything we needed to learn the skill including bikes, space, etc) and an expectation of focused learning, that twenty hours got me over the hump and able to continue developing expertise in a complex skill set that I had no previous experience in.  I'd have to say, anecdotally, that Kaufman's 20 hours seems right on the money.

We don't think about learning curves in school.  We don't consider how students feel when they are picking up a new skill and feel inadequate; feelings aren't in the curriculum.  Worse, we consider learning to be a twelve year long marathon in school rather than a series of short sprints.  Student goals aren't always clear or consistent, failure isn't considered an option and learning itself is less a focus than are irrelevant personal details like your age.  We'd rather bunch students by age than where they are in their learning process.  We lose sight of the possibilities and challenges inherent in the first twenty hours of new learning in favour of decade long statistical growth.

Can you imagine a school guided by Kaufman's logic?  Students are given focused learning to get them into a self correcting phase and then are expected to self-direct their learning. There would be classrooms with very high student:teacher ratios where the focus is on early learning.  There may be other times and spaces where students are entirely independent and producing their own directed learning.  Instead of a blanket approach our classrooms and schedules would reflect our variable learning curves; our schools would be responsive to how we learn instead of the other way round.

Digital technology would lend itself to this kind of learning by offering information, collaboration and communication to students on a profoundly personalized level.  If we don't begin taking the training of digital tools seriously the consumerist habits developed by everybody (students and staff) outside of school won't allow us to de-industrialize education and adapt it to how we learn.