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. 

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