Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Summer Reading List

With the summer solstice mere hours away, I have accumulated my stack of summer reading in anticipation of a fall internship season that is looking as exciting as ever.  My wife is under the impression that I am particularly ambitious in my choices due to both reading volume and variety.  I, on the other hand, feel a certain excitement in blending humor, politics, social psychology, and educational innovation into something that both inspires and anchors my thinking for the next little while.
Here is the list of titles stacked up beside me.  If any of these selections has a particularly impactful message, I’ll be sure to post a comment in the coming months.

The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs (2004)
I started this one a few days ago and am up to the letter “F”.  Very good sense of humor so far, although I’m not sure that the ‘lets try this just to say we did it’ approach isn’t a little dated now.  I can remember 30 years ago when, as students in university residence are sometimes apt to do, there would be a suggestion of spontaneity, and a road trip to the border would soon follow, all in the name of being able to get some Coors (getting American beer was seen as a treat) and also to be able to tell stories of cross-border accomplishment.  Of course the participants in these adventures didn’t write a book about their date with destiny in Shelby, Montana.  Come to think of it, I haven’t seen the corollary story written from the American convenience store operator’s point of view either.  I guess in hindsight these kinds of efforts are better left to legend.

Self-Efficacy In Changing Societies by Albert Bandura (1997)

Two different people have told me that there are more up-to-date authors that I could be looking at.  I’m sure this is true, but this one is in honor of a researcher whom I have the utmost respect for.   If the author’s papers I’ve reviewed are any indication, this one should be a definite keeper.

The Presidents Club by Gibbs and Duffy (2012)

I admit it; I am an unapologetic follower of American politics.  For some reason, I find the whole spectacle of how Americans select a leader quite fascinating.  Maybe it’s the way that people just say stuff like they own the facts that is so compelling.  I know that compared to Canada, you can be sure that every little detail is going to be revealed (our oligarchs are better hiders than their oligarchs).  I’ve never aspired to be a ‘frat boy’, so this insider’s look at the ultimate club should have me stoked as much as learning how to surf this summer.

The Righteous Mind – Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt (2012)

I saw this author on Bill Moyers and had to get the book.  I haven’t opened it yet (I can only read one book at once) but I can hardly wait to get into it.  I even gave a copy to my father for Father’s Day.  I’m not sure what the degree of enlightenment will be in the end, but I am sure that I’ll have a much better understanding of sanctification when I’m done.

Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner (2012)

If you’ve been one to look back at where this whole blog thing started, Dr. Wagner’s work was an early topic.  When this book arrived, I immediately read the first chapter and smiled.  Then I read the ‘advanced praise’ on the back cover and saw the potential for politicians to climb aboard this work and went, oh-oh.  This will be the last book I get to (sometime in August), as I want to cleanse my mind before I start down the path of argumentation once again (whether I’m still on board with Dr. Wagner’s ways will be a good test of whether the seasonal beers and island life have dulled my edginess too much).

So there it is…a collage of the things I am currently trying to get my mind around.  It wasn’t so long ago as a practicing educator that the thought of summer school was quite repulsive.  Now that I am self-selecting (in both work and thought), the idea of horizon expansion is actually quite appealing.  If anyone reading this post has additional selections that they feel would fit into this menagerie let me know.  I’m always keen to hear if there is something written that is attention worthy.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Timing Self-Selected Learning

While recently attending a “Here’s where we are, and here’s where we’re going!” organizational event, I was introduced to a teaching approach which I found quite intriguing.  The simplicity with which the model can be applied, and the emphasis on the cyclic nature of learning got my attention.  Having spent the past few months examining research studies on oscillation cycles in the brain, it is becoming apparent that teaching approaches based on theoretical work produced in 1983, is being confirmed with fMRI work completed in the last two years. Perhaps the case could be made to study the way the internal cycles of the mind synch with the external information cycles that we are exposed to every day.  If it could be proven that brain oscillations facilitate more than semantic information recall and recognition, the implications could be massive.

The teaching approach I mentioned in the introduction is called Scan-Focus-Act (MG Taylor Corp.).  The methodology used makes inherent sense when attempting to structure and channel a learner’s attention.  As we all know, what we attend to is where the learning is going to take place.  Helping the learner recognize and plan for an attentional effort can be summed up in the following loop:
1.     SCAN-Take in the environmental stimulus for both the obvious and the subtle
2.     FOCUS-Refine your attention once a context has been established
3.     ACT-Demonstrate your learning commitment by doing
a.     Get feedback
4.     Repeat

The reason this expedites knowledge development is because the ‘learning as objective’ of this methodology elicits responses in the three primary learning dimensions (behavioral, cognitive, affective) and has the potential to capture the multi-sensory nature of learning, as observations can morph out to a variety of other sensory mechanisms that consolidate meaning. 

Here is an example.  While on a nature walk, students are asked to determine the source of odors lingering in the air.  This turns into studying how flowers are ‘distilled’ into packaged scents, which may eventually have the learner making their own perfume.   Note that there are 3 divergent decision points in this example; the decision is made to go for a walk, and find the source of the bouquet lingering in the air, a decision is made to research sourcing and refinement of flower scents, and a decision is made to determine how fragrance chemistries are packaged for resale.  To me, this is the critical benefit of using S-F-A as part of teaching practice…the possibility for scaffolded learning.  The one thing that is left out of this example, is the opportunity for the learners to self-select the decision points.  Because the authors of the S-F-A model highlight the ‘sequential-ness’ and the parallels with an inquiry-learning path, you could be fooled into thinking that this approach is a commitment to a teacher-designed decisioning process.  From what I saw with S-F-A being used, learners get to choose what they want to work on next, but what is chosen can say a lot about what is actually learned.  To that point, the authors of the methodology state:

         “A lot of emphasis is placed on the nature of the stages--what Scan feels like, or what activities take place within Focus, or what organizational structures might serve better in the Act phase. But what is it that triggers movement from one stage to another? Or what inhibits such movement? And is there a transition period, a kind of limbo or no man's land between stages? I suspect there is but I'm not sure how to define it or whether its definition will be of value or not.” (Channon, Burns, & Nelson, 2001)

To be fair, that statement was made in 1983, and in the meantime there are likely answers by the same authors to the questions posed (I just haven’t found their answers yet).  Also in the meantime, a great deal of research has been generated as a result of studying how the mind works through the decisioning process. 

Today’s blog installment is all about the decision points, specifically, decision points that are self-selected by the learner.   I hope to make a case for why we should be encouraging self-selection in the decisioning, when the learner is ready.  At the same time I’ll be showing that bringing into consciousness the stages that a learner goes through in their thinking cycle (becoming aware of how we think using the ‘objective lens’ of S-F-A), may or may not lead the mind to determining causality.   Being able to recount or defend a decision made will always be a useful tool, but being able to self-select in anticipation of an outcome that turns out to be true because the cause-effect relationship is understood, is where knowledge as power tool becomes very handy.  

Recognizing when the mind has the capacity to evolve from associative thinking to causal thinking has been tricky for educators in that we have to wait around for evidence that the learner has grasped the underlying meaning of something before they/we can get on to figuring out the implications of that meaning.  Some adolescents are adept at recognizing the patterns but aren’t in any hurry to ask why the pattern holds.  Their ability to predict that the sun will rise tomorrow because that is what the sun does, implies that there is no real need to Scan (‘yes, that is the sun up there in the sky’), focus (‘I know already that staring at the sun can cause blindness’) or act (‘I want a tan, so sunscreen can wait’).  This line of thinking is not unusual and can become the grand interrupter of our best teaching/planning intentions in the secondary school classroom.  Given the choice to self-select too soon, and the more impulsive learner may very well make all three of the above decisions and be able to:

A.   Describe both the nature and order of the decisions made.
B.   Make an argument for why each decision was self-rated as having achieved sufficiency and appropriateness given the circumstances.

Of course we as educators can ‘up the ante’ by creating a learning outcome within our Cosmology Unit that requires deeper awareness through testing, and to many in the teaching profession, this appears to be the only thing that motivates learners to select knowing more.  I would argue that despite the human tendency to be lazy if given the opportunity, there is hardwired within the mind (including the teenaged mind) the capacity for deliberative thought, the exercise of which manifests itself in a couple of ways germane to this topic:

1.     Acceptance or aversion to the teacher’s efforts to overtly control impulsive or indifferent behavior (the behavior modification model)
2.     Learner realization that self-control (as opposed to teacher control), meaning making, and habituation, are not initially linked.  Consciously linking all three improves the likelihood of learner self-preservation AND actually generates rewards in the form of more learning autonomy.

I know I’m repeating the obvious here; that number one above deals with punishments while number two deals with incentives.  I think both fear and hope play a powerful role in how the mind evolves, and some of the recent clinical work studying Fear Learning points out that the mind values both the ‘stick and the carrot’ when building frames that make sense.

So, back to the million-dollar question: When are students ready to self-select?

While researching the answer to this question I came across a great resource written by Colin Beard and John Peter Wilson titled, Experiential Learning: a Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers.  As the name suggests, this book looks carefully at the incorporation of well thought out experiential learning episodes, and specifically how enhanced learning outcomes can be achieved.  What I like about the book is that they build off the seminal work of John Dewey and David Kolb.  They highlight the key ingredients to building a memorable and meaningful learning experience.  Their attention to the importance of reflection, the influence of affect and emotion on thought, and the time they spend explaining Frame-change (my term, not theirs) as a result of experience, ties in nicely with work done by Corballis, Bandura, and the Taylor work cited above. 

The book doesn’t attempt to predict readiness for self-selection, as much as it speaks to how the learner must organize the experience, and by extension the stimulus around them so that coherence triumphs over chaos.  By chapter two, they speak to the phenomenon that every learner faces; that overwhelming sense that too much information can, and will, simply overload the learner’s capacity to think.  The following excerpt speaks to the mind’s need to filter:   

“Through the use of a mental magnifying glass we are able to bring into focus varying levels of detail.  However, to look at everything at this [high] level of intensity would be overpowering and our brains would not be able to cope; in other words, there would be paralysis through analysis.
In order to prevent this overloading and stop it working effectively, the brain filters these stimulants to allow only those elements that are perceived to be of relevance to be mentally processed either consciously or unconsciously.  Thus, we selectively choose what we believe to be of importance and consciously and unconsciously, ignore other elements.  It is these cognitive filters, which are part of our mindset and disposition, which can create mental blind spots.  For this reason we may not be able to see things even when they are right in front of our eyes.
Despite cognitive blind spots our brains are always scanning the environment in what might be called the ‘cocktail party phenomenon’.  At a party we might be talking to a person and concentrating on what is being said, oblivious to everything happening around us.  However, this focus may only be happening at a very conscious level; subconsciously, we would appear to be taking in other things that are happening.  For instance, despite high levels of noise we may suddenly pick out from the cacophony the sound of our name being spoken and then immediately tune into that frequency to hear what people are saying about us!
Thus, perception and interaction are insufficient in themselves, and we must interact in a meaningful way with external stimulants if we are to learn.  Experience is a meaningful engagement with the environment in which we use our previous knowledge (itself built from experience) to bring new meanings to an interaction.” (Beard & Wilson, 2006)

When you read this you once again hear the grand educational/learning contradiction.  On the one hand, the mind has a need for filtering and reductionism which teacher’s respond to by simplifying/intervening/remediating in order to help the learner figure out what something means.  On the other hand, the environment and the experience, the context if you will, is the only thing that will consolidate meaningfulness.   Of course the rest of the book goes on to argue the limits and benefits of reductionism and contextualism.   To that end, the authors note that a human bias exists for assimilation over accommodation (the Predictions of the Sun illustration included above being a good example of assimilative thought), and that as educators we have to know going in, that given a choice, most people making a choice, choose the easiest path, one that affirms and re-assimilates what the mind has already consolidated and generalized. 

Of course my tendency to resist using reductionism as the exclusive path to knowledge had me asking: what happens when educators recognize that learning is only being assimilated, and talk about this phenomenon in the everyday learning dialogue?   What if the availability of the self-selection option is part of an experiential learning program that has conditions attached?  What if having a self-selection option required a demonstrable ability to self-control.  And what if a second condition was applied that would require that the learner demonstrate the conscious will to ‘make a choice’ that provides evidence of intentional accommodation (a willingness to take in more than is already known)?  There would be agreement going in that learner perspective and perceptions will change as a result of being given ownership of the selection process.  That change would be measured by the degree of alignment between the individual learner expectation and the cultural expectation of the situation being experienced.  

The Handbook provides some compelling evidence for when the conditions would be right for this to happen.  Developing an inventor’s/self-selector’s mindset isn’t easy.  Creating the mindset through experiential learning has to be carefully planned.  Most learners who are used to being information acquirers as opposed to experiencers see their mistakes as a problem.  On the other hand, learners as experiencers who are guided by a teacher comfortable with this type of learning, are afforded the opportunity to build the library of mistakes needed to get past the tendency to self-constrain (giving up before something is invented).  The authors talk about the mistake making experience needing to be part of the experiential learning set-up.  They also speak to the need to acknowledge that success with the experience, however that is measured, isn’t guaranteed. 

I’m highly summarizing here, but if I were to take a stab at saying when the book authors believe self-selection would be appropriate, it would be when the learner’s actions in an experiential learning context begets self-reflection.  In other words, few or no external cues from teachers are needed to get the learner to think about what just happened.   Although the authors never state this in a succinct quote, they spend 12 chapters making the case that when current learning is deeply connected to the past and future, there is a higher capacity for learner independence.  Of course the quality of the learning experience plays a huge role in whether or not the learner feels the need to connect the learning moment to prior knowledge or to imagine using the experience gained to enhance future learning episodes.

Once again readers are left with determining how learning becomes so important that students want to take over the selection process for the sake of learning growth.  My guess is, if students are assimilating and not accommodating they are: behaving pretty normally, and the lesson being learned is not significant enough to elicit self-generated reflection.  There are times when I think that classroom teachers are put in an impossible position.  They know the concept won’t be learned unless the concept is isolated and studied, but study alone isn't exciting enough to get students connecting to the past or imagining the future with any degree of commitment. 

On top of this, not every teacher has the resources to take that walk through the field of lavender with their class.  The authors of the handbook would say that location matters less than the ability to squeeze every ounce of learning opportunity out of the combining and connecting powers of experiential learning moments.  I, of course, say that location very much matters, and for those who have been reading along from other posts, this is no surprise. 

So even though this installment doesn’t derive the antidote for the reductionism/contextualism contradiction, I hope it did reveal some information of import.  Some students have the capacity to self-select, and they reveal that capacity based on their commitment to self-reflect. Self-reflection shouldn’t be confused with recalling what you scanned, focused or acted on even though those are good steps to take in a learning cycle.  The quality of the self-reflection is measured by the strength of connection to ideas past and potentially future.  If your students want to participate in the decisioning process maybe it’s time to have the conversation around the conditions under which self-selection can occur.   At least then students will know that they are making a decision that must achieve accommodative learning outcomes.  Even a few students making this choice could have meaning makers turning into meaningfulness managers.   

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Excuses, Excuses

What are excuses?  The following three sources should prime the pump quite nicely.

DSM IV definition of rationalization - when the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by concealing the true motivations for his or her own thoughts, actions, or feelings through the elaboration of reassuring or self-serving but incorrect explanations.

1: the act of excusing

2:  a: something offered as justification or as grounds for being excused

      b (plural): an expression of regret for failure to do something

      c: a note of explanation of an absence

3: justification, reason

http://www.topexcuse.com/ - A clearing house of collected “World famous excuses”

Rationalization or excuse making comes about for a variety of reasons, but after years of looking at the problem it would appear that there is a thinking threshold that contributes to the volume of excuses that educators face every day.  I see one of the greatest sources for excuses being the sense-making – meaning-making divide.  What makes sense, and what something means are not always in perfect alignment.  If the learner has a sense of what is going on, but can’t say for sure where the meaning lies, they are in that place where reasons resolutions.  It’s no wonder then that making excuses makes sense. The excuse is certain while the resolution is not.

People are comfortable with what they know and understand, and this provides the foundations that morph into reasons.  What they don’t yet know, and are required to learn, is the messy par.  This takes some thinking organization to make meaning out of what up to now makes sense (at least intuitively) but isn’t necessarily resolved.  That ability to move beyond sense- making to meaning making requires reflection (and analysis), reconciliation (or letting go of a belief in order to achieve resolution), and recovery (as a way of re-charging).  What I’m about to share is the path taken that developed this insight…

Let’s be intellectually honest for just a moment shall we?  One of the greatest arguments for education in general and learning specifically is the potential by-product we describe as 
‘self-empowerment’.  An individual’s ability to control the selection or de-selection of dependency is incredibly motivational if for no other reason than basic survival.  We know that to lack the ability to some day be self-sustaining poses consequences that are quite unappealing to most.  And yet it is the ability to rationalize or make excuses that appears to act as one of the greatest barriers to accomplishing the ‘realization of potential-actualization and empowerment’ feat.

Manufacturing reasons to justify the tensions, conflicts, and concerns that arise from day-to-day decision making, rather than working at a means to resolution may very well be a good self-defense mechanism but it also holds us back.  To those of us who listen to the reasons given for a course of action/non-action, there is always something revealing over and above self-protection.  The disclosure spectrum spans avoidance tactics to subjective priority, with even the occasional lie thrown in to test plausibility.   After a while you stop wondering why students fall back on excuses and you either accept that this is simply a part of human nature, or like me, you dig a little deeper to try and figure out if there is something more systemic (less cultural) about why once again the homework deadline has not been met. 

To me, excuses are portals into decision making that hold out all kinds of informative data, not only about ways of thinking, but about self-competency and efficacy beliefs as well.  Before becoming aware of the value of excuses, I was guilty of two assumptions when I heard rationalizations:

1.     - The excuse was a form of questioning of control on the part of the learner.  The excuse became more than a reason for not learning what was assigned.  It often brought into question the legitimacy and fairness of the person in charge (What happens now when expectations are not met?  The teacher’s expectations were never fair in the first place!)  Let’s just say I had a tendency to take this personally.

2.     - The more times I heard excuses the more I was inclined to believe that a kind of habituated thinking pattern had evolved (almost to an art form in some) on the part of the excuse giver.  All too quickly I was prepared to simply dismiss this as a personality problem that would only go away through exposure to natural consequences.  Let’s just say my willingness and patience to wait around for the right natural consequences is still evolving.

Along the path to excuse enlightenment, I was helping my wife a few years back as she was slogging through the early stages of her master’s degree.  One of my ways of supporting her was to help her put together ideas that she might use for course assignments.  This was a few years ago now, back in the day when the terms “Rigor, Relationship, and Relevancy” were being bantered about as counterweights to the original learning content barbells, the 3 R’s.  I never questioned that the additional learning factors should be recognized for influencing the learning process.  In fact, there have been many studies in the meantime that substantiate just how impactful each factor is in supporting learning sophistication, trust in the thing being learned, and learning coherence.  It was as though the early work on brain-based learning had discovered the amygdala, so it was now legitimate to talk about some of the affective consequences of the teacher/learner interface. 

It turned out that I’d spent most of my early years as a practitioner having some innate sense but little more, for there was little empirical research supporting my thinking.  I knew that developing awareness of learning content (that could eventually be used as an analytical toolbox) meant acknowledging the shift from safe/comfortable/familiar (the known and understood) to momentarily disorientating/messy/sometimes hopeful, in other words, new learning.  This shift, a kind of intellectual ‘heavy lifting’ (thus the barbell analogy), would always carry a certain emotional weight as well; for some a greater burden than for others.  For me the bigger question was the connecting rod between the barbells, which I hypothesized at the time, was a third set of R’s.  These connecting or bridging R’s fit neatly under the title of Rationalization, although at the time I didn’t view them as reasons for learning or not learning, as much as a set of processing functions that supported or impeded both logical and creative thinking.  Reflection, Reconciliation, and Recovery were the terms I used to describe the thoughtful, as opposed to impulsive, stages that the mind engages in when choosing which course of action to proceed down when a decision point appears. 

What I believed in at the time was, ‘making conscious and becoming more self-aware’ of the efforts that are necessary to work through each of these stages would have a positive learning effect.  I’d discovered through my own teaching practices that making these processes more prevalent in the learning conversation, made deciphering the learner’s real and imagined learning obstacles much easier, which in turn helped reduce the potential for excuses.  I tried to avoid jargon (meta-cognition) and went instead with the actions required to achieve a result.  For a while all was good and right in the world, and then three years ago I began to have second thoughts and began to question my own thinking.  Was I simply complicating a way of describing one aspect of critical thought?   A closer review and a further 6 months of study have revealed that each of these stages are building blocks of critical thinking, AND, if they aren’t working in concert (bundled), learner excuses inevitably follow. 

The last couple of years have helped me appreciate that thinking consolidation (not thinking up an excuse) is rooted in many things, not the least of which is our mind’s ability to think recursively, understand the purpose of conflict and resolution (even though I’m not a fan of drama), and acknowledge the need to restore.  All require an amount of processing attention and effort that is greater than simple recall.  To some personality types (the more relaxed among us) this extra effort can become an object of criticism or indifference.  Unless I was using a learning platform like debate where resolution is the centerpiece of the learning, there were always those students who questioned the importance of reflection and reconciliation (but seldom did they question recovery).  Students liked the idea that they had to decide; they just didn’t like the effort I expected them to put forward to make a well thought out decision.  So even though I was sowing the seeds of critical thinking, I could see that there was going to be some work ahead converging expectations and gaining priority agreement.  Expectation 1 then, was that if these processes are to be done properly, time consumption would go up and a greater than average effort would be required.

Expectation 2 centred on attractiveness.  Let’s face it, as educators we’ve been wracking our brains for years to make organizing and re-organizing sexier (to those with a flair for inspirational organization or some particularly intriguing graphic/technology platform, my apologies).  Reflection, reconciliation, and recovery aren’t sexy per se, but they are the organizing and re-organizing mechanisms through which all the exciting outcomes must first pass through.  When we make a choice and it turns out to be correct we can chalk it up to luck or good planning/organization. Which is better won’t be debated here.  One thing is certain though; the act of getting organized in school doesn’t strike a healthy percentage of the learner population as being of a critical nature, unless, through the lack of organizing ability, something is lost (i.e. a hoped for grade, a role in the school play being tried out for).  As powerful as this third set of R’s are in reaction to a perceived or real failure, they are way more attractive when they help us avoid problems in the first place.  This is just common sense to those of us who recognize the power of planning, but can still be a challenge for those who believe they can improvise rather than organize. 

Expectation 3 deals with an assumption and a resulting difficulty to be overcome.  As adult learners we can often ‘trick’ ourselves into thinking organizing is fun or at least less onerous, usually through making a game of something (strategizing) or incentivization and reward (our business plan actually worked!). The assumption of course is that what works in the adult world can be instituted on a simpler scale in schools.  On an adolescent level, the ‘trick’ is to make sure that these R’s are bundled at all times.  If separated, the sequential actions of analysis, replacement, and restoration, the problem-solving package that occurs when we reflect, reconcile and recover, might never move beyond being ‘conceptual’.  This implies then that breaking down the series (a typical strategy in learning) must be avoided, while maintaining focus on the goal (getting organized in order to break out to something better) is of paramount importance.

Expectation 4 deals with a potential behavioral difficulty to be overcome.  See if you can’t recall a time when processing functions were used as a way to modify behavior; which is often linked to punishment:

·          Reflection - “Go take a timeout and think about what you’ve done.”
·          Reconciliation - “Tell your classmate you are sorry, and that you won’t do that again”
·          Recovery – “Recess is 15 minutes only, you can resume your game at lunchtime.”

Of course there is seldom a conscious association between your desire to develop thinking strategies in the classroom and these other scenarios.  In fact, teachers and learners are usually completely unaware that the potential for substitution exists.  This substitution happens when ‘How I felt when I was timed out’ (even if that was in the distant past) now influences my ability to ‘intellectually review the outcome of a learning effort’.  Reminding learners that these R’s are not a behavior strategy may seem a little strange at first, but it can make a huge difference in terms of accepting the benefits of this processing cycle.  The alternative is the potential for prior experience to act as an impediment to evolving thinking, which is not how we want to see learning unfold.

The approach you take to dealing with excuses can be reactionary or pro-active.  For years I was in the reactionary camp.  When I did the research I soon discovered that there were ways that you could begin to reduce excuses by taking the time to talk about and practice the elements that construct critical thought.  Of course the more you expect because you insist on deeper reflection, stronger arguments, and timely recovery breaks, the more likely it is that excuses will NOT get in the way of significant learning outcomes.  Learners, who move from sense making, to appreciation of self awareness in learning development,  to eventually knowing what something means, tend to use fewer excuses.  Learners who sense that through specific effort refinement, there will be meaning made, tend to feel more in control.   Pointing out, and finding utility in the elements that develop meaning making, can go a long way towards reducing any systemic contribution to the justification of an unsatisfactory situation or outcome.    

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Useful Shelf Life of Experiential Learning

The choice of title for this installment is a little odd given that one could assume that learning through experience doesn’t possess a ‘best before’ date.  I for one, having a bias for ‘experiences’ and ‘adventure’, may not be the most objective individual when it comes to pointing out the benefits and limitations of this segment of learning. For the purposes of argument, experiential learning focuses on the dynamic around how the learner and the thing being learned interface with the resultant effect on the learner.  There are other definitions, but this explanation gets to the core of the matter.  With this in mind I’d like to talk about a problem that I’ve encountered when chatting with my fellow educators about the power of situated versus experiential learning.  It seems that the mind’s ability to substitute the general for the specific is at play when the terms ‘experiential’ and ‘situational’ are volleyed around in the same conversation.  

The confusion usually begins with the assumption that the learning experience and the learning situation are interchangeable.  If you look closely it becomes apparent that this is not the case, especially if we use the ‘interface’ definition as an experiential reference point.  There will always be an interface between the learner and a thing being learned (the experience of the learning regardless of situation), but it is the specifics of the situational context that seem to have the most impact on what the mind retains and reuses should the need arise some time into the future.

Let me provide an up to the moment example.  As I type today it is snowing hard.  Under a different set of circumstances I’d probably have to do what my spouse and everyone else on our crescent did this morning…curse Canadian weather, then leave for work early so as to avoid the traffic congestion that 20 cm’s of new snow creates.  If one were to ask about the experience of driving to work under these conditions, one would probably hear answers describing the traction issues or the visibility issues.  However, if one were to hear a description of the situation there would likely be some mention of how the conditions affected driving behavior.  The focus would subtly shift but there would be no doubt that causality would come into play. 

With causality you might hear something about the cautious, more deliberate effort required in order to avoid an accident.  Maybe there would be some conversation around how things went smoother or faster than anticipated, or why some people really shouldn’t drive without snow tires.  What shouldn’t be confusing is that the response to the experience is different than the response to the situation.  Additionally, even though driving in deep snow is rather uncommon this year from a learning standpoint (there is relative infrequency) it is the situational exposure to a snowstorm that provides the impetus for exchanging understandings as to why behavioral dynamics change (causality) when heavy snows fall during the morning commute.

Yes, the experience of driving to work today like the experience of driving to work everyday is something that can be inventoried, but that isn’t the same as what is shared when asked to explain what went on.  The point of taking an inventory is to keep track of large volumes of information.  How often does the description of the commute sound like this: 4 red lights, 3 drivers failed to signal, 2 plows witnessed etc. even though this way of organizing information is perfectly sound?  What we track are the strategies and tactics that are employed to deal with the unique properties of deep snow and our ability to overcome the potential impediment that this might become.  If there are prior experiences that we can draw on (“the car slid at that intersection last snow storm”) we don’t need to be prompted to compare, contrast and consolidate that experience with the one currently being re-visited. 

What this scenario points out, is the fact that our minds are eager to find similarities between situations, but not necessarily commonalities of feelings via the experience of driving winter roads…with the ‘misery loves company in a snowstorm’ exception duly noted.  Our intuitions, our pattern detectors if you will, tell us what the temperature will probably feel like, what our wet hair will smell like until it dries, what that unplowed hill will generate in terms of potential anxiety, even the name “Slippery Corner” now attached to the place where we slid.  These experiential factors are momentary considerations at best and play only a cursory role while drivers get to work.   What we learn is that our extra ten minute cushion was sufficient this time, that we didn’t check the windshield washer reservoir before leaving, and that a rear window defogger won’t melt snow across the entire back windshield, especially when waiting in traffic.  Each of these learnings came about through exposure, and in this example the specific situational exposure of this morning’s driving effort.

So beyond the use of terms as descriptors, is there another fundamental difference between experience and exposure?  To my mind we should also look at how experiences can be used to anticipate the probability of outcomes given similar circumstances, whereas exposure reveals cues or prompts in real time.  A quick example of a cue might be avoiding left hand turns given the long lines that were already forming at the first two sets of lights.  These cues are much closer to the eventual outcome than are the intuitions we had about the drive prior to starting the car.  This tends to make the cues more accurate (guess the final score with one minute vs. one second remaining).   The cues may or may not confirm our best guesses but they will definitely add to the mounting evidence that will be examined should a performance autopsy be taken post outcome.

When I question experiential education, and as mentioned in the opening, I probably don’t question this enough, it is in the generalities around ‘experiencing’ and ‘experienced’ replacing the specific effort as a result of exposure.  This tendency to substitute the specifics of exposure with the more superficial nature of experience isn’t the exclusive domain of educators.   Still, educators appear to have a hard time realizing that if you are going to take up learning with an exposure element, you must be prepared to deal with the responses you get in a different way than how you deal with what you gather when determining learner prior knowledge and learner prior experience.  The learning conversations involving accident avoidance on snowy streets, and why husbands should take care of the windshield washer fluids, require a willingness to appreciate the specific efforts that were made on a detailed level, and cannot be resolved through re-telling experience (individual or shared) alone.

If you are at that point in your educational practice that you see the differences between experiences and exposures, you too may have begun to ask whether learning from experience is given more credit than it deserves.  This is a tough call because experiencing is ever present and many teachers would love their students to become more immersed in the knowledge seeking process.  The fact that experiential learning is now given its own forum of consideration in educational publications provides additional legitimacy.  But once again, through added focusing on the learning experience are we increasing the likelihood of specific effort, which we know is fundamental to learning?  In many ways, in the wrong teaching hands, experiential learning can assume many of the characteristics (see the inventory example above) of content coverage now employed when teaching for a test.  Not that there is anything wrong with preparing for tests, but memorizing terms does not guarantee the ability to employ proper tactics (being able to identify a ‘windrow of snow’ won’t help you get to work today).

So as you might be able to tell, I do see that experiential learning has an important role to play.  I know that, for example, background information becomes consolidated when that information is used to solve a problem correctly.   This is learning 101.  I also know that repetitive experience reduces the amount of time required to attend.  Awareness becomes familiarity.  But neither of these fundamental forms of learning speaks to causality.  Does this mean we should reduce the experiential load?  Absolutely not.  What we must become aware of is the fact that experience does not always beget better understanding.  We must watch and see if the experience is moving the thinking to a place where intentional, specific efforts are being made to determine the cause-effect relationships.  If not, the usefulness of the ‘experience’ has run its course, and now’s the time to find a specific situation to test – refine – verify.  In that respect, there is no certainty around the idea of experiential shelf life, but with a keen eye, you can certainly tell when the experience no longer serves a useful purpose.