I’d like to share with you one of my favourite YouTube channels, called Smarter Every Day. Destin is an engineer in Alabama and he has created this channel on YouTube to share his love for science. His videos are generally pretty short but very informative and entertaining.
The video embedded below is rich with lessons for educators…have a look.
When I first watched that video, I was struck with how hard it is to actually learn something especially when we have to unlearn something first. Destin calls this moving from knowledge to understanding. Our brains are lazy, in a sense. Once we know (or think we know) how to do something, the neural pathway that produces the desired outcome starts to become the default pathway. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.
I remember from my course in motor skill acquisition, that learning to perform a motor skill, like riding a bike, is very similar to learning to perform a cognitive skill, like addition. If that is true, then we can get some clues from watching how kids (novices) learn to ride a bike, to understand how people in general learn to perform complex cognitive processes. Sometimes, as experts, we forget that our students are novices.
One of the strategies that adults used to use to teach kids how to ride a bike was to strap training wheels onto bikes, which give the illusion of riding a bike. However, the trouble with training wheels is that they prevent the learner from actually learning how to ride a bike. The key to riding a bike is being able to balance on two wheels, and the development of that skill is negated by training wheels, which remove the requirement to balance.
More recently, some creative people have developed and marketed bikes for kids that actually train kids to balance on a bike before they learn to propel themselves with the pedals. Gone are the days of running behind your kid’s bike holding onto the seat!
One lesson for educators is that the environment in which learners practice the intended skills needs to be authentic. In other words, we need to work towards getting our students to do work that has real application to ‘real life’ (whatever that means).
One implication of this is the need to do away with what David Wiley calls disposable assignments.
These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spendsthree hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world. Talk about an incredible waste of time and brain power (an a potentially huge source of cognitive surplus)!
I’ve never cared for burning calories just to burn calories. I’d rather go somewhere. Even running in a circle is better than running in place. I can’t stop thinking about how much time and energy go into things that neither the student nor the teacher want.
Also, consider the process of a novice learning to ride a bike (or unlearning, then relearning, in Destin’s case). It doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time…sometimes, a long time, especially for adults, who carry more intellectual baggage in the form of misconceptions and biases.
I remember moving to Japan and becoming illiterate overnight. Much like Destin being completely unable to ride the rigged bike, I was completely unable to speak Japanese. Learning the language was difficult for me, although it would have been much easier if I had studied…but that’s another story.
My kids, who were 6 and 8 years old at the time had a much different experience with learning Japanese. Within about 6 months, my son was translating for me at the doctor’s office, and a couple months later, my daughter was fluent for her age with no discernible accent when she spoke with her friends.
My point is that learning anything requires practice, ideally over an extended period of time. Educational psychologists talk about the importance of spaced repetition in learning. It is not enough to simply ‘cover’ the material, assign a (disposable) task for homework, and presume that our students have mastered the material. Notice that Destin had to practice riding the goofy bike for several months whereas his young son was able to gain competence within a couple of weeks.
This leads me to the importance of misconceptions in learning. As adults, we have detailed schema for thinking about the world and these schema are quite persistent because they are very well practiced, but that doesn’t mean that our schema are correct. Often they are wildly incorrect. But when we encounter new information, we tend to simply integrate that new information into our pre-existing schema. We don’t overwrite previous patterns of thinking, we simply tweak them a little. Sometimes this leads to a more accurate model of the world, sometimes it doesn’t.
Worse than that though, sometimes, when adults are presented with information that contradicts their schema, instead of integrating that new information, we tend to actively resist it and become more convinced that our incorrect views are true. This is the problem of bias that Destin talks about in the video.
So, if you are in a position of influence over a learning environment, remember to avoid disposable assignments, allow for plenty of spaced repetition, and always specifically address common misconceptions related to the topic.
Learning is Hard by Colin Madland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.