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.