Thursday, 26 January 2012

Complexity as a Course

If dimensional thinking diversity in our instructional practices gives our learners a leg up, then what do we do when dimensionality foists upon us a world of complexity that is neither predictable nor easily comprehendible?  This question is a derivative of a topic query posted by Darren Stanley on ResearchGate a few days ago.  His original message follows:

Constructing a new course on complexity, interdisciplinarity, and systems thinking

This is a big topic and a challenge to think through. Moreover, I am trying to shift my thinking away from a teaching/instructional focus paradigm to that of a learning-centered paradigm. The course, as I imagine it, will be inherently interdisciplinary - perhaps, more to point, it am attempting to frame matters in terms of the notion of transdisciplinarity or a view of the disciplines as different in substance, but arising from similar principles and underlying dynamics. I thought I would throw this question out there to see what a crowd sourced attempt might dig up. What would you include in a course that emphasized principles of complex dynamical systems as a way of viewing the world as an interdisciplinary structure? It would be an upper-level undergraduate or graduate course by design, open to anyone in the university community. 

As you might appreciate, this topic of discussion piqued my interest for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that the person seeking input was using what I have defined as a learner-centred approach, in that he was using this forum as a means of connecting to (pulling in) information providers as opposed to being the person in the forum with the information to be pushed out (teacher-centred approach).  Asking for advice about learner centred-ness while using a tool that reinforces learner centred dimensionality had me smiling. 
My second reason for joining the conversation was my own thinking dissonance around how the study of dynamics/systemics/complexity differs dramatically from participating in a complex, dynamic system.  As I mentioned in one of my forum responses, an ‘elements of complexity’ approach to course development may help in the ‘defining of terms’ phase, but could potentially de-construct dimensionality, thus hampering the learner's ability to keep at least one eye on ‘the limits of expertise, and therefore the need for disciplinarity’.   
It was quite predictable that individuals contributing to answering Darren’s question would provide links to content on systems and structure, as a course on complexity needs topics to study.  One of the other forum contributors (Ray Evans Harrell) was particularly good at asking what specific frames of reference Darren would be using.  He knew that the overarching topic has many dimensions not the least of which are the two primary frames of the observed and the observer, each with its own unique complexity. 
Not being an expert on complexity myself, I thought that the idea of teaching complexity was both ambitious and exciting, but that learning complexity held out all kinds of possibilities, especially if as the learner you were given the choice on how you wanted to share your sense of understanding about what complexity is based on one or the other primary frames.  This would become a Tony Wagner or Michael Lewis-esque endeavor as you surveyed disciplines as either individual agents, or as cultures, to determine why disciplinarity has become the de-facto way of organizing ourselves around problem solving.  The anthropological implications would be fascinating.  Of course, getting your head wrapped around how to do this would probably mean that a single course delivery system might not be the best solution.  You might have to look at a form of practicum (finding and interviewing willing experts takes time.  Getting them to give up their interpretations, translations and insights without giving away their secrets is even more tricky…I speak to this point from personal experience…it can be done but you better know what you are doing) if you were going to do the topic justice.
To go back to my opening question, I’m not sure you can say with any kind of certainty how people, especially people who consider themselves ‘learning’ will behave when faced with increasing complexity.  My goal here has been to look at how we can increase learner capacity, and believe that any time the learner can make better sense of their environment because they surround themselves with expertise, they come out way ahead.  This to me is the inflection point, when the topic we are examining has us examining our frames.  Mezerow and Taylor’s work started me down this path, and every time I have the pleasure of seeing other educators attempting to set the conditions for transformational thought, my faith in the evolution of pedagogy is restored.     

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Two, Three, and Four Dimensional Thinking

What is the link between learning competency and ‘familiarity of place’?   When well defined, rules-based problem solving is the goal, we’ve typically ‘placed’ our educational assumptions in schools, as we believe this location accommodates the most competency potential.  But does this assumption hold when managing fluid, ill-defined open-ended thinking or creative problem solving in transfer necessary and unfamiliar contexts?  The principle that knowing your surroundings leaves available a higher proportion of cognitive resources for other mental processing should no longer take anyone by surprise (just ask a tourist what the opposite feels like).  Many among us recognize that there are more than economic benefits to the educational housing mechanisms we typically employ.  The concept of ‘learning community’ within the larger community can bring many social benefits as well.  What’s fascinating from a human nature (and educational reform blogger’s) perspective is this: the ‘familiarity as comfort/familiarity as contempt’ dichotomy has been around for a lot longer than the school down the road.

Today we are going to look at the interplay between learning variables, learning dimensionality, and the familiarity dichotomy. The learning variables are novelty and creative problem solving abilities.  Novelty plays a key role in building memory, especially in novel learning environments, while creative problem solving abilities speak to how we extract and recombine relevant/critical information in an effective, timely, and innovative manner to gain an appropriate solution.  We also learn what is transferable and what isn’t.  Together, these particular learning variables assist in the development of comfortable familiarity when organized as part of an activity platform.   What makes an activity platform and a definition of learning dimensionality will eventually be provided but first we need to think about the educational assumption highlighted in the introduction.  Does school as a place of learning help or hinder us given the changes we as a society have undergone for the past 100 years, not to mention the individual changes that occur during adolescence?  I feel compelled to say up front that a primary assumption I’ll be making while looking at this question is:

That which can best be represented in school, should be observed, researched, and practiced in school.  Those representations that must be experienced in their natural contexts in order to be properly appreciated and learned should become part of the extended classroom beyond the walls of the school. 

Note: the word ‘experienced’ has thus far been left undefined, as we add a number of learning dimensions when the learning edifice both figuratively and literally expands.  Am I advocating for a kind of hybrid-homeschooling?  No, even though homeschoolers have a deep appreciation for experiences, I believe that learning in-school/beyond –school is a better formula than hybridized or distributed learning models.

We can’t be exactly sure when a student will, due to learning familiarity, reach for the comfort/contempt switch.  By bringing onboard instructional practices in an instructional environment that promotes new and expanded thinking, there may be less temptation to shift emotions.  It seems that for adolescents there are a number of influences at play.  Author Laurence Steinberg cites some considerations:

If early adolescence is a time for distinguishing oneself from one’s parents, middle adolescence is a time for distinguishing oneself from the crowd.  The quest for identity now takes the form of exploration and experimentation.  The teenager tries on a variety of different political attitudes, religious persuasions, occupational interests, and romantic involvements…In late adolescence and young adulthood the search becomes more introspective (“who am I really?” “What do I believe?” “What do I want in life?”) and also more pragmatic (“How can I achieve my goals?” “Where am I willing to compromise?”).  Typically this is a period of “de-illusionment” (though not necessarily disillusionment).” (Steinberg, 2011)

The way we organize our classroom (as a place of facilitation and not just as a formal facility) says a lot about our awareness of, and therefore our ability to, assist middle adolescent learners balance off the desire to distinguish themselves, with the concurrent need to feel secure while they and their peers work their way through complicated learning.  Based on our own experience as educators, we may have crossed paths with learning personalities that have a tendency to swing a little more dramatically on the comfort/contempt scale, as balance isn’t always easy to achieve.   As we know, this can be quite energy sapping.  The following information is shared to help minimize the back and forth on the familiarity continuum.  There are a number of ways of dealing with adolescent ‘attitudes’ and this is but one suggestion.  By bringing novelty and creative problem solving opportunities together on an activities platform you have a good chance of co-opting an otherwise indifferent or contemptuous learner. 

For this to work, we need to think about what is new and different, not from a content perspective (to the learner there always seems to be more than enough new content to be learned), but from a dimensional thinking perspective.  Dimensional thinking implies thinking that results from more or less contexts that are impacting decision-making.  The more new dimensions or contexts you add, the more complicated is the task of managing information.  As thinking becomes more complicated, our minds recruit more processing power in order to meet the challenge. 

This recruitment of processing power was studied by Fergus Craik and Robert Lockhart in the 1970’s and given the name Levels-of-processing effect.  Craik and Lockhart’s work theorized that neurocognitive processing depth can be measured on a “Shallow to Deep Processing Continuum” (i.e. shallow processing begets more fragile memories, deep processing begets more robust memories).  For them, the ability to correlate cognitive processing to degree of memory retention with some measurable predictability was, and is, seen as quite the accomplishment.  To those in the world of psychology this is still a pretty big deal.   In the last ten years university education faculties took notice, which spawned the movement within teacher professional development of pedagogical outcomes that are the result of deeper thinking.  Inquiry-based learning was a by-product of how we should get learners to tap their curiosity in order to solicit more synapses.  As I’ve already noted in previous posts, inquiry has its pluses and its minuses.  One of the minuses is that students quickly become familiar with the modus operandi of the inquiry question and some see this as manipulation, more so than inspiration.  To me, that is a problem for the inquirers to sort out.

My goal here is to figure out how learners operationalize their problem-solving efforts based on their perception of familiarity with ‘the kind of processing that the learning requires’.  Adolescents typically can’t reconcile why they honestly believe “I know how to do that” and yet fail to demonstrate the correct conceptual transfer processing that would verify that in fact they do know and can correctly apply the concept.  For the learner, this sense that something feels familiar and yet still can’t be solved consistently is a puzzle beyond heuristics (rule of thumb) thinking and bias problems (identified by Tversky and Kahneman and given excellent explanation in Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast And Slow).  It becomes a big problem because the teacher is there and is just as eager to move on to something new, but is compelled to refrain from moving on until mastery across contexts can be demonstrated.  The result:  For the learner what was at one time reasonably comfortable…ok…it was benign, is now contemptible (“I thought I knew it and now I just hate it!”).

So how does dimensional thinking awareness and novelty and creativity minimize the possibility of familiarity as contempt?  Well, since the 1970’s there has been a great deal of work done to study how our brain processes information, with fMRI’s being a particularly helpful tool in the last decade.  There is now additional physical evidence of this ‘levels of processing’ theory as cognitive neuroscientists have been analyzing brain images to confirm that not just the amount of neural activation, but also the type of neural activation, determines memory durability. In addition to how long we store the information, there is also evidence that familiarity and novelty activate different neural substrates within identified regions of the brain.

“Several recent reviews of the MTL [medial temporal lobe] literature suggest a common pattern of findings such that anterior portions of the para- hippocampal gyrus (typically assumed to map onto PRC [Perirhinal]) support encoding of the individual elements of an event leading to subsequent feelings of familiarity, whereas the posterior extent (PHC) supports encoding of spatial information and the context in which individual elements occur, enabling later episodic recollection.” (Carr, Viskontas, Engel, & Knowlton, 2009) 

Carr’s study goes on to point out that although the MTL is engaged across memory formation, a particular subfield (the PRC) “is associated with memories that will maintain their episodic character over time, whereas memories that lose this vividness are associated with significantly less PRC activity during encoding. [The] PRC appear[s] to play a more selective role in encoding memories subsequently maintaining their episodic character over time than the PHC, whose activity reflected successful encoding regardless of the durability of a memory’s vividness.” (Carr, Viskontas, Engel, & Knowlton, 2009)

Putting all this information together; rather than limit the implications of these neural-activation/neural-processing types to the fragility or durability, or for that matter familiarity of memory traces, you are asked to consider how levels of processing are bound by the dimensional nature of what, and where, something is being taught.  With a little imagination you might be starting to sense that there is a predictability piece that effects memory selectivity based on location of learning.  Even though the learner is unconscious of the underlying calculations they are making (as they can’t tell when both MTL subfields [PRC/PHC] are being activated), we educators can add learning dimensions so that the feeling (the PRC is activated) of what is new aligns with the seeing of what is new. 

Perhaps now is the time to give a concrete definition of what we mean by Dimensional Thinking so that if we add or reduce learning dimensions to our curriculum, we do it with a full understanding of what is transpiring.

Two-dimensional thinking = on the page thinking.  Information is packaged as codes and symbols, which represent concepts to be learned (encoded or processed appropriately).  Lacks two forms of engagement: Takes little or no imagination, and in and of itself does not create any sense of urgency (unless the learner is having decoding issues).

Three-dimensional thinking = actionable (move through space) thinking where learning implies doing something with the conscious (now internalized via additional sensory modalities) information.  Can potentially add a creative element, and definitely adds a motor function as learning reinforcement.

Four-dimensional thinking = placing actionable thinking within a time dimension that is known and adhered to.  Adds a temporal contextual element.

Between each of these thinking types lay some dimensional learning bridges.  Some examples are; using metaphorical thinking to gap up from two dimensional to three dimensional processing or gapping from three to four dimensions by incorporating a time limit for providing the answers to a test (assuming the test is a formative rather than summative evaluation).   Within the context of school, every teacher is familiar with how the range of dimensionality from asking students to read chapters of background information (two dimensional), to rehearsing narration to be overdubbed to a video presentation (four dimensional) applies to both the teacher’s and student’s familiarity range of instructional and pedagogical strategies employed to move the learning along.   Students are usually pretty adept at picking up on your assignment patterns based on the kind of work you are asking them to do over the school year.  Use the same teaching methods regardless of changes of content, and the pattern becomes apparent to the learner (as mentioned above, the inquiry question has a way of losing caché if overused, regardless of relevancy). 

Educators in the younger grades don’t typically have the same issues around a pattern of familiarity developing in the mind of the learner because routine is an essential anchor to free up cognitive space (lining up avoids expending all kinds of social conflict energy).  Unfortunately, in middle school and beyond, these routines can backfire, as there is now a neurobiological (and cultural) imperative to explore and experiment while at the same time, as individuals, adolescents are becoming more introspective and pragmatic.  What this tells us is that the secondary school aged thinker is primed to take action and push time limits even while they realize that a new kind of (dare we say ‘expanded’) thoughtfulness is dominating their thinking patterns.  If we educators could channel this imperative into activities that seemed novel, but retained some connection with what is already known, the familiarity as contempt switch may be less likely to be thrown, AND we may begin to tap into the more creative aspects of problem solving. 

I see this developing out in three stages:

  1. Student sponsorship and coordination of school-based events 
  2. Participation in Learning Fairs, Working Abroad Volunteer Programs and DIY (do it yourself)   Competitions 
  3. Developing and engaging in an Internship opportunity(s) with a Professional Mentor

Note the following:

·  Although 1-3 all require multi-dimensional (including the 4th dimension) thinking, each is progressively more sophisticated in terms of the amount of planning and preparation required on the part of both the teacher and the learner.  For either party, the volume of prep/plan changes with repetition (planning decreases dramatically as templates are re-used, preparation stabilizes or increases slightly depending on learner retention of thinking scaffolds that support conceptual consolidation under new conditions)
·  Activating any of the above requires thinkers to see their classroom as a home base and not the exclusive domain of where they have to think about the subject matter (knowledge transfer is a given)
·  There is a selectivity factor built into each of these activities as decisions that require executive thinking skills (judgment, prioritizing, monitoring, and knowledge transfer) are now bound by the novelty of new physical limits (new environments) under which one can test the ‘answers’ one hoped would work.
·  Each of these activities are recognized as distinctive from the typical learning regimen.  In order for them to maintain their effectiveness, these activity practices should not become the default learning protocol, but instead be available as an enhancement tool.

Using any of the above activity platforms leaves little doubt that the parts of the brain that need to be engaged to encode information that can be retrieved over greater time distances (the PRC subfield of the Medial temporal Lobe) will be engaged.  It also eliminates the learning assumption “I thought I knew it and now I just hate it!” because these learning episodes in activity form, are focused equally on what is known, and what to create with that knowledge.  This IS the difference between the medial temporal lobe having a durable memory, and having a durable memory that is also transferable because there was a novel environment that required creative thinking to derive a solution. 

If we work towards a redefinition of learning competency as possessing both qualities (a durable memory that can be used in a variety of contexts), and adjust some of our instructional strategies accordingly, then maybe, just maybe, we can slay the ‘familiarity as contempt’ dragon as well.  We need to start by avoiding the assumption that ‘new content’ wrapped up in familiar delivery systems has the same ability to keep our attention as the introduction of dimension-inducing activity platforms.  We can still use school to confirm the well defined, but we certainly shouldn’t limit ourselves to that which is already known.  There are other competencies out there which school should now be able to help learners gain access to.  With dimensional thinking in mind, the learner preparation needed to explore for those other competencies should be much easier to organize and impart. 

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Space-Time Learning

 Immanuel Kant spoke of architectonics, but what about the time it takes to build a representation?

To begin the study of episodic memory one needs to appreciate the role that space –time has on anchoring and consolidating content memory not just as material, but material within and beyond the moment.  Remembering the specifics of when and where something happened effects how we think.  There is a growing body of evidence that speaks to multiple pathways or “Traces” for different memories.  This is leading researchers to examine the significance of the effects of placement of learning on learning retrieval and retention.  Memory retention can possess both a recollection (Time) element and a recognition (Space) element.  If both are required, memory consolidation may have to blanket more neuro-anatomy (elicit effort from more neural mechanisms) due to the nature of the ‘richer’ information being consolidated.  This in turn requires a more sophisticated categorization system, which will eventually be drawn upon during memory retrieval.  Sprinkle a little novelty (make the learning places more than the classroom or the lab) into the mix, and you are left with a potent set of circumstances for the brain to ‘build out’ a robust neocortical system for future learning.

Today’s post is going to deal with some of the factors that, should they converge under the right set of learning conditions, appear to have the ability to increase both the volume and the amount of detail that is retained in long term memory, and most importantly from an educators perspective, be retrieved even if the memory is remote.  These factors are:

·      Environmental Novelty
·      Self-awareness learning and autobiographical representation of information
·      Transferring and testing sematic information into genuine applications/contexts (how does your knowledge hold up to environmental scrutiny?)
·      Find and create new associative links by first determining what exists (take inventory), then generate something constructive to be added to the context

Together, these four factors appear to provide the means by which learning refinement becomes capable of moving beyond simply recognizing a pattern sooner.  Because of the neural mechanisms that are engaged when these factors are more or less simultaneously at play, there appears to be a ‘kick starting’ of the mental processes involved in making information categorizations that are easier to draw upon (more available) and which seem to make sense (are more apparent) when trying to think in innovative ways.  As I have mentioned, I believe that Situating Learning is the perfect excuse for all four factors to be included and turned into a learning episode that has the potential to significantly alter how memory is used to expand thinking capacity.

There is a type of learning inertia that is the direct by-product of intentionally situating a learning episode that simply will not take place if the thing being studied/learned is representational rather than experienced verbatim in the social setting in which it naturally occurs.  Virtually all of the most basic efforts to consolidate sematic knowledge in the learner’s memory are supported when new dimensions and contexts (Novelty) requiring physically travelling in space and mentally travelling in time (learning self-awareness and recursive thought) are present. 

Testing and transferring information in multiple contexts reinforces the space-time construct (learners begin to appreciate time as a fourth dimension placeholder and not just a measure.  Film the same person run around a track, scramble up a sport wall, or try and hold their breath under water for exactly 30 seconds…in each case time behaves the same, but we react differently to how time holds our place). 

Requiring that the learner create something that is missing, imposes a discovery element to the learning, which by its nature requires activating thinking that connects information rather than simply being available to receive information.   Suffice it to say, given the choice; learning should be directly connected in as many ways as possible to real life.

The journey down the “Four Factors” road begins with a long look at the some of the work of Dr. Morris Moscovitch (et. al.) out of the University of Toronto whose work on ‘understanding of the processes and brain mechanisms mediating memory’; serve as an empirical foundation for what might be happening on a neuro-cognitive level when the Four Factors are in play.  As a senior scientist and professor, Dr. Moscovitch has carried out a distinguished career in neuropsychology both at U of T and with research partners from around the world.  Our orbits crossed paths due to his work studying the role of the hippocampus in working memory, specifically episodic memory.  A study he published in 2005 in the Journal of Anatomy speaks to what he and the other authors were able to parse in terms of the role the hippocampus plays in “retention and retrieval of recent and remote memories.” (Moscovitch, et al., 2005)  Aside from the thorough examination of working memory processes, the study speaks to a comparison of the Standard Model of memory consolidation versus Multiple Trace Theory which can be summed up as follows:

The hippocampal complex takes attended/apprehended information and binds the neurons that fire as a result of the experience into a Memory Trace.  Once formed (or bound), the HC then confirms that the information has been correctly categorized.  What takes place next is better explained in the author’s own words:

“In this model, there is no prolonged consolidation process, as the standard model asserts, that slowly strengthens the neocortical component of the memory trace, so that with time the trace becomes independent of the HC/Medial Temporal Lobe. Instead, each time an old memory is retrieved, a new hippocampally mediated trace is created so that old memories are represented by more or stronger HC/MTL–neocortical traces than are new ones and, therefore, are less susceptible to disruption from brain damage than are more recent memories.” (Moscovitch, et al., 2005)

If this theory is correct, then the role of the Hippocampus/MTL structure appears to deal with rapid representation that allows for encoding, retention and retrieval of current experiences.  The structure rapidly consolidates information, particularly information that appears to be critical when the vividness and detail of environmental stimuli is added to recognition volume.   Eventually, commonality of experience takes shape (a pattern develops) and the role of the HC/MTL tends to then remain critical to explicit memory (and is no longer needed for implicit, or non-declarative memory). 

From an autobiographical memory perspective (one aspect of episodic memory), the ability to recall information is in addition to the ability to recognize information.  Recognition of transferable information is the result of the ability to semanticize episodic information (or build a mental rule for ‘similar’ repetitions).  The neo-cortex notes the thematic patterns within the experiential spectrum, and the medial temporal lobes consolidate the information so that it can be stored.  The implication here is that long-term memory updating is a product of the recognition of ‘similar’ or related traces which then adds to the ‘volume’ of traces already stored that are believed to share a ‘likeness’.

In opening up a dialogue with Dr. Moscovitch (my thanks again for his graciousness in helping me get a better sense of what is going on brain-wise) my hope was/is to get some sense of why we tend to reach farther into our memories when episodic aspects of the past are as important as the retrieval of ‘known data’ (both studying for a test and remembering a “cool” story that the learner was a part of, cause us to organize information, but the “cool” story creates more robust memory traces).  The implications for the K-12 learner are significant due to the fact that the way we determine if something has been learned is by testing what can be retrieved.  If it can be determined that the memory is more readily accessed using the four factors mentioned above, then we might say that not only is something learned, but the ability to correctly reuse the learned information is expedited.  The way the brain structures information and the context from which the information is received appear to both play a significant role in making remote information available for longer periods of time.  To do this properly, we’ll need to look at each part separately.

Looking first at the neurological structures, Moskovitch writes, “knowledge about the world, about people and events acquired in the context of a specific episode is separated from the episode and ultimately stored independently of it. This process of increased semanticization with experience and retrieval over time may give the impression of prolonged consolidation of the original trace.  Without a well-functioning hippocampal system, acquisition of semantic memory is slow and effortful, at least in adulthood.” (Emphasis added)  He then goes on to point out, “Based on Multiple Trace Theory, vividness and experiential aspects of episodic memory, rather than its age or semantic content, are considered the crucial factors associated with hippocampal activation. This account also is consistent with evidence on anterograde memory showing that recollection, an index of experiential factors, is a determinant of hippocampal involvement in memory.” (Moscovitch, et al., 2005).

Where this becomes important in formal learning situations is when the circumstances are such that the experience that surrounds the learning is recognizable as being differentiated from the experience of learning.  Where most young learners can tell you why they go to school (hopefully to learn) most will not naturally be able to extrapolate how the experience of learning is supposed to transfer to contexts where professionals make a living using their learning.  Based on some of the scientific evidence now being gathered, the mind may eventually separate the episodic and the semantic aspects of memories, but to trigger the use of the hippocampus to retrieve the memory implies that something about the event to be remembered has required the need to incorporate additional neural resources to consolidate vividness.  The HC/MTL structure resource appears to be stimulated when the learning takes on autobiographical themes and when sematic knowledge must be tested under a different set of circumstances/experiences. 

A great example of this was demonstrated in the National Geographic television series Test Your Brain (episode three: Memory) where two basic memory themes were interwoven.  Different types of working memory were shown to be limited without functional Brain exercise, and that not all long-term memories should be considered reliable. What really stood out however was that when people were asked questions that tested the capacity of their working memory, most found that they could recall between 3-6 specific details in a sequence or an order.  When subjects were asked what they could remember from witnessing a robbery on the streets of New York (a one time event which happened in real time and did not allow for repeated study) the number of details each witness brought forward had at least 5-20 specific memories of what happened.  Granted, not all of the memories were accurate, but something of significance (in this case a mugging) caused the mind to bring in more neurological resources to try and figure out exactly what happened.  Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting that we can stage robberies in the classroom to invoke more vivid memories, quite the opposite.  Besides the fact that this act in a classroom would appear to be contrived, there are plenty of authentic circumstances beyond the walls of the school that could be field studied that should invoke the proper mental resources for precisely the right reasons.

Authentic learning episodes, by their nature, change the dynamic so that recollection assists recognition.  We would never describe a subject-based class as a learning episode because rarely does the “story” of learning enter the narrative.  Rather, the classroom agenda will usually focus either on knowledge and skill elements (via content recognition and retrieval) or topical constructs.  Rarely will there be a sense that a ‘cliffhanger moment’ awaits those who are finishing a biology lab or completing the last of the assigned math problems because routine-ization tends to take a greater priority.  Sadly, any benefits that can be taken from learning via routine can quickly dissolve when the learner drifts from task attention to the class-to-class distractions that are used as a way to break the monotony of repetitive or near-repetitive teaching approaches.
Contrast this with extended learning in authentic contexts where episodic attributes abound.  Moving the learning to the place where professionals live the learning every day ensures that the four core elements of a compelling story; character, causality, conflict, and complications are ever present.   So the story begins with school learners seeing professionals being paid to carry out their unique learning/learned production (this was what I learned in order to do this work).  One of the professional’s production tasks is to do the best they can to keep any ‘drama’ associated with the work in check.  As the professional works through the complications associated with their tasks, the learner in their charge gets first hand experience seeing how space-time issues like budgeting and project timelines/deadlines get met.

The second attribute is spatial in nature as there is usually identifiable separation between the school and the authentic context in a physical sense.  With this division into places of learning, the learner needs to locate him or herself in multiple dimensions.  Granted, the learner isn’t physically in two places at once, but their minds should be able to determine if there is alignment between the representations at school and the realities of a professional context. 

Attribute three is temporal in nature. Depending on how the time extending school is scheduled, you can build in time gaps between each visit while out doing your field study work.  This creates a sense of anticipation for the next learning engagement.  Again, space and time elements working in concert with engaging situations, creates the sense of a learning arc that very much parallels the kinds of story arcs found in serial programming broadcast on radio and television.

The one crucial element of a learning arc episode is that when you measure the distance between the end points of the arc you will see that they are physically closer than a straight-line (conventional) learning approach.  The following image should assist in appreciating what is actually going on.

            If we believe that the conventional expertise development model
follows a sequential pattern (in this case spanning middle school
to seasoned professional) then the time spent developing skills
is represented by the arrows above.  Note that “compacting” a
curriculum aligns with learning as training, where a concentrated
effort to polish or refine skills is the priority.  Situational learning
arcs expose the learner to contexts that are novel and that require
learning adaptations that incorporate prior knowledge, new
knowledge development and application, and most importantly,
collaboration with someone who has acquired the skills and can
therefore accelerate innovative thinking on the part of the young

At this point in the conversation it would be easy to go off on a variety of different tangents that could include a deeper look at the temporal aspects of memory, the amygdala’s role in determining if Novel implies the need for an emotional reaction or not, why day dreaming is essential to contributing and so on.  Maybe it is better to consolidate all that has been written here into the critical question that I hope has begun to be answered.  Does episodic memory need to become more engaged in order to enhance working and long-term memory consolidation processes required in formal learning?  In the coming weeks I hope to be able to engage a few more scholars like Dr. Moscovitch to help in the setting up of a study that will provide the empirical basis for the four-factor theory.  In the meantime, the next few blog installments will continue the focus on the neuro-cognitive substrates at play when trying to provide the learner with the experiences that develop fluid (new knowledge development) intelligence.