Information Scarcity

The rise of universities in the C11-C12 was in response to the rise of merchants and traders who needed to keep track of their goods and exchanges in an orderly manner. There was also demand from traditional property owners to have access to those who knew the law and could prosecute or defend their interests in the courts.

At the time, the production of written material was simply writing things down. If one of the sons of a wealthy individual was sent off to become a scholar, they went to a university (Bologna, Paris, Oxford and later others) where they learned to read and write, and then would go to a hall with a few of their peers to record the words of an established scholar. The scholar would read, or recite from memory, information that was necessary for the learners to master, and the learners would write down everything that was said. In this way, books, written on vellum and later on paper, were produced. They contained the information that was recorded by students listening to a scholar.

This was, of course, in addition to the books that were reproduced in monasteries by scribes (clerks) who carefully copied, verbatim, works that were already in existence. Occasionally a monk would produce something new and original, but this was rare (Bede, or the authors of the Winchcombe Annals), and most of the effort was reproducing works that already existed for wealthy patrons. This was ubiquitous information scarcity.

Mechanical printing existed but was done by a process called woodcutting. A wooden plate was carved out and mounted on a press that could produce exact copies of a single page. Not really mechanical printing as we know it today. The invention of movable type in 1439 by Gutenberg changed the world of producing or reproducing the written word. This was the first major step away from the world of information scarcity

The introduction of printed books was (surprise, surprise) not universally welcomed. There were nobles who refused to have printed books in their libraries, preferring the more traditional hand written copies as proper books. Much of the Islamic world refused to embrace printed books and the Papal court initially tried to introduce licensing of printing presses (in order to control what was printed) and exercised heavy censorship wherever it could. Many secular governments took up where the Church failed and made registering, licensing, and heavy censorship as a way to control information.

To some extent, this has worked even to the present day where some governments control information with an iron fist.

However, with the introduction of movable type printing, the first barriers to the movement of the world from information scarcity to information abundance was in place. Of course, from that time, the oral transmission if information from scholars to learners (either by reading it for the learners or reciting it from memory), so they could write it all down began to fade from the formal learning environment. This wasn’t an immediate transition, however, and it is still going on today (almost 600 years later) with 90% of formal learning relying on a scholar reading, or reciting from memory, their wisdom with learners writing it all down as fast as they can. A massive innovation that has recently been introduced is the ability to display writing to the students as a scholar reads it to them. We call this a lecture, and it has a long and rich tradition that has to be correct because it is hundreds of years old.

I will explore some of the reasons for this, what research has to tell us about this, and recent philosophies (that are really thousands of years old) that are the foundation of modern education.

Stay tuned!                                                                                                                                                    

How could we take something as natural and wonderful as learning and turn it into education?

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Discussion Group – Continued Professional Development

I am an educational reformer – because I truly believe education is broken. Unfortunately, the current philosophies for moving education forward are founded in traditional education. Traditional education, with roots in social constructionist philosophies, tell us that reality is a social construct, and so there is no such thing as an objective truth. As a scientist who has spent his life looking for ever closer approximations of reality, I have trouble understanding this approach to life.

I believe that there is a reality separate from whatever it is that we make up in our heads. Reality is objective and constant. How people learn is a part of that reality and the research/evidence base around the subject is enormous.

However, the current educational philosophies (social constructionism) abjure using hard evidence to guide teaching practices.

CE85ZiCW8AAEoBNA teacher that is satisfied with their teaching is a poor teacher. Teachers are always looking for ways to improve and ways to reach their students better. Ways to increase understanding. Ways to generate interest and excitement in learning. Better ways to teach.

Unfortunately, the world of education focuses almost entirely on just that – better ways to TEACH.

What is missing is any real understanding of how their students actually learn.

Over the years, I have amassed a wealth of blog posts (numbering in the thousands) from senior level university students who had to produce short (around 500 words), weekly blog posts giving me evidence about how people learn, and how this applies to the world of formal education. This year, I have (finally) been gathering them together in one place, categorising, and indexing them so that they are useful (I am about 1/4 done). They are a treasure trove of insights and evidence.

I have been involved in continued professional development for years and years, and since discussions are the number one method of fostering understanding, I have decided that this horde of information should be used to help, anyone really, to understand how people learn, and how we can harness that knowledge and understanding to improve how learning can be done in a formal setting (education). I am going to host discussion groups that would like to look at what the evidence says about how people learn and what that means in real life.

Have a look at what I have proposed here, and if you are interested, let me know.

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Mindset (again) and Learning Styles (again)

I just finished teaching my University class yesterday, and one of the focusses this year (by the students) was a focus on mindsets. Several of them wrote about mindsets, and a couple of them drew the link between mindset and learning styles (they were prompted during their presentations by someone). It has reminded me again about how important this aspect of learning is,and how devastatingly damaging it is to children trying to learn (I know, you can’t believe how I am moving slowly from higher education to primary and secondary education – but I have grandchildren in the system).

Mindset theory is an area of study founded and developed by Carol Dweck, and I think it is one of the most important findings in psychology in the last 50 years.

In the early 1980s, Dweck began her academic career looking into the question of why girls consistently score (and still do) lower (in the aggregate) than boys in math. Girls scoring lower than boys in math is as pervasive, and entrenched in our society today as it was when Carol began looking into it 35 years ago. The shame of it is that she found the answer some years ago, and the cause is easily fixed, or would be if it wasn’t something to do with education.

What Dweck found is simple, and has laid the foundation for a whole area of powerful research and understanding around the concept of fixed and growth mindsets. Girls do worse than boys in math because we all know that girls do worse than boys in math. This has become a belief founded on our knowledge acquisition method of tenacity I discussed a couple of months ago. We know it because we know it, and everyone knows it. It is based on nothing in reality, except the fact that girls consistently perform worse than boys in math. So, how does this work.

Because girls do worse than boys at math, when a girl is struggling to understand a math concept, she is usually told (either explicitly or through implicit actions) that girls can’t do as well as boys at math, and so don’t worry is she doesn’t really understand. This is reinforced over and over in her life by teachers, parents and peers until it becomes something that she “is” – a girl who cannot get math.

Now, if you are a girl, and girls don’t really get math, what is the use of trying. It is like asking a fish to climb a tree. They can’t do it – no matter how hard they try, because that is just what hey are. It doesn’t matter if the assertion is founded in reality. That has nothing to do with it. If a monkey were raised to believe it were a fish, and that became its reality, the monkey could no more climb a tree than fly, because it believes it is a fish. If a girl believes that she won’t ever really understand math because she is a girl, she will never understand math – because she believes she will never understand math, so she will never really try. A fixed mindset. She is something, and there is nothing she can do to change that fact, so she learns to live with it.

In a fixed mindset, you become something because you believe it. It is as simple as that.

The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset. You accomplish what you accomplish because you put forth the effort to try. What you do is not because of what you are, what you do is because you have tried to do it.

The differences Dweck has found in so many domains (IQ, relationships etc) are amazing. If you believe that you are something, your actions fit with your belief, or else, your actions protect that identity (positive or negative).

Unfortunately, children are very susceptible to believing their labels – stupid, smart, emotional, physical etc. They become (or try to become) the labels they are given. Their labels define them, and their identities become their labels.

What does this have to do with learning styles? Firstly learning styles (visual learner, auditory learner etc.) are based on nothing more than a teaching fad. There is no evidence for them, and a recent Nature Neuroscience paper (Nature is one of the two premier science publications in the world) listed learning styles as an educational neuromyth believed by 98% of the teachers studied.

Does it really matter that teachers actively use, promote, label, and conform to something that is a complete myth – after all, it is harmless, right?

Given what we know about mindsets, labeling, and belief systems, what happens when you tell a child that are a visual learner, and carefully explain what being a visual learner entails. That becomes, in the child’s mind, what they are. They are a visual learner. It becomes an entrenched part of their identity. It is a label that they then become. They then have a fixed mindset about this part of their life – they are a visual learner.

When you are a visual learner, that is simply what you are (although I’m talking about children here, the same applies to adults as well). When information is presented to you auditorily, you simply cannot learn it, because you are a visual learner. Being a visual learner is what defines you,and other kinds of learning are not a part of what you are.

A complete myth that has become an educational mainstay is destroying our children’s potential. It is crippling them from the starting gate. Ninety-eight percent of teachers firmly believe this stuff and are actively using and promoting it in their classrooms – measuring the children and labeling them from their earliest formal learning experiences, invoking a fixed mindset and crippling their potential right at the start.

This is not a harmless fad and it needs attention!

If you are interested in exploring one of our free online classes, click here for information.

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Discovery Learning in Math?

Unbelievable! Discovery based learning – a huge failure in the wrong context – is the latest fad in teaching math to children in Canada.

Discovery-based learning is the idea that someone is given a problem to resolve, and they will explore ways to solve the problem. Brilliant idea, but problematic to the core. Problem-based learning (e.g. used in medical education) is a form of discovery-based learning, and when used right (like in a medical school), and with a massive amount of support (I’ve supported a class moving to problem-based — huge amount of prep and work), is the most effective method of preparing medical practitioners for working in the real world.

How is this related to learning math in elementary school?

One of the things needed for discovery-based learning to work is that the foundational knowledge needs to be in place. Elementary school math, by its very definition, is where children acquire their foundational skills in math. The basic academic skills necessary for doing academic work – reading, writing, and arithmetic – are rarely learned through discovery. If this were so, there would be little illiteracy in te world. People would have figured out these skills, on their own, as soon as the brain was evolved enough to have these capabilities. It didn’t happen.

A very few individuals had the interest, time and inclination to discover these basic skills on their own, and then they taught these skills to others. The earliest foundation of civilization. There were never masses of people who discovered these skills for themselves. There are still millions today, who do not have access to basic education who do not discover these skills for themselves.

Some things just have to be taught!

This is another example of educators having a good idea and then implementing it with no research whatsoever to see if it will work. The research HAS BEEN DONE! and discovery-based learning DOES NOT WORK! for the fundamentals. People do not learn that way, but with no background in how people learn, teachers will rush from fad to fad, ruining generation after generation of children and their learning.

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Information Digitization – a Paradigm Shift

There is a paradigm shift taking place in learning today. I have written before that there is a paradigm shift in education, but the status quo is reinforcing the traditional trenches in a way that is unbelievable in today’s world. Just as the Germans simply zipped around the impregnable Maginot line (the massively reinforced trenches from WWI) at the beginning of WWII, learning is preparing to zip around the heavily reinforced educational institutions of today.

The music industry, the publishing industry, the newspaper industry, the postal systems, the public libraries, the traditional bookstore, video stores, movie theatres – these and other sectors of our society have had to (or are in the process of) reinventing themselves to fit into the new world of digitized information. Only in education have the powers that be refused to engage in a critical self-examination to ask what digitization really means to this sector of society.

As long ago as 30 years, the education sector “embraced” digitization with the beginnings of the e-learning revolution. As time has unfolded, the rush to embrace e-learning has continued unabated – even though it has become increasingly clear that this is not the answer. The entry of private providers – introducing competition into the moribund higher education sector – has been hailed as either the saviour or the satan of learning. It too is in the process of becoming irrelevant. There is a fundamental reason for this that has been glibly ignored. The education system was never that good at fostering learning, and all that has happened with the digitization age has been the transferring of poor learning experiences into a digitized format.

David Price, in his book Open, articulates his realization of the massive shift in perspective as follows:

Mine was when I realised formal education could no longer look upon learning which happens socially as either inferior or complementary. Rather, it’s a direct challenge to centuries-old orthodoxies, and simply can’t ignored

And, the vast majority of teachers/lecturers/professors still look at the mobile information tools as a distraction in the classroom, and tell their students to turn them off!

As I have talked about the over the years, I hear the same refrain echoed over and over again – higher education’s strength lies in its ability to ignore fads and whims, and just keep going as it has always gone. A millennium of achievements can’t possibly be wrong.

How wrong they are. A big part of the strength of higher education today lies in its ability to absorb change and make it a part of what it is. Universities have not always done research. In the thousand years history of HE, research is merely a 150 year old phenomenon that didn’t take firm root until a mere 6-0 – 70 years ago. The massification of HE is only about 50 years old. HE has changed dramatically over the centuries to embrace new activities and ways of doing things. It may survive this fundamental shift, but I’m unsure, given the power of the entrenched interests.

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Conformity and Education

I have written before about the drive for conformity in education. Given the massification of education which has led to huge classrooms with, literally, hundreds of students being taught, conformity is essential. It has become, unabashedly, one of the central and core tenants of education. When I wrote about conformity three years ago, I focussed on the loss of creativity in the learning process. However, I now believe that there is a much greater cost to our society than the simple loss of creativity. I now believe that the greatest cost that society bears as a result of the enforced conformity from the youngest to the oldest students in education is a personal tragedy borne by, literally, millions of students and former students.

That students of all shapes and sizes are forced into a mold by the educational “system” is without disagreement. Students, at least for a significant portion of their studies, are forced by law to submit to education. Bells, rows, uniforms (often), silence, a learned horror of mistakes – all of these things (and more) make up the experience of the majority of learners throughout school, primary, secondary, and to some degree, tertiary. In the world we live in, the non-educational option has been all but closed off. There is no longer any choice – everyone must get an education, and the more the better.

What is the personal cost of this kind of enforced conformity? The only other societal institution that compares is the prison system. We force all of our children and a large proportion of our youths and young adults to endure between 12 and16 or even 20 years of absolute conformity. What is the cost to individuals of such a prolonged, legally enforced conformity?

I asked a colleague who is a clinical psychology researcher what he thought the cost of prolonged, enforced conformity would be to an individual. He thought that the first thing to suffer would be a person’s sense of self – it would be seriously diminished if the period of time were long enough. He then said the, if the person had a genetic predisposition for serious mental health problems (anxiety, depression etc.) that prolonged conformity would likely be a good environmental trigger to bring on these serious mental health problems.

I checked into the literature on prisons, and there are many mental health researchers who believe that the conformity and loss of freedom that occurs with a prison sentence is more than enough to bring on mental health problems if a person is susceptible to them. I now believe this is the greatest cost our society must carry because of the drive for ever more conformity in education.

Martin Seligman, while president of the American Psychological Association made this observation. “We discovered two astonishing things about the rate of depression across the century. The first was there is now between ten and twenty times as much of it as there was fifty years ago. And the second is that it has become a young person’s problem. When I first started working in depression thirty years ago… the average age at which the first onset of depression occurred was 29.5… Now the average age is between 14 and 15. (1998)”

First onset of depression between 14 and 15! What are we doing to our children. Anyone who knows someone with a serious mental health issue knows of the pain and suffering that accompany these problems.

The idea that the education system is somehow responsible for causing real pain and suffering in our society is horrible. However, the pain and suffering of the individuals concerned is many times more horrifying. And the cost of such suffering to our society is beyond imagination.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As a society, we are richer and more prosperous than ever before in history. We can come up with better solutions for educating our people. We just have to decide that we must, and then make it happen. I have written more about this in my book if you want to read about it there.

To quote and paraphrase Stephen Jay Gould – I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died unable to escape the confinement of their education.

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How We Know

I know that this blog post will be old news to most of us, but I think it needs reiterating within the present context of my thinking – how do we find out what we believe in, or what are the methods of knowing?

According to Peirce (1877), there are three methods of knowing charles_sanders_peirceinformation, method of authority, method of tenacity, a priori method, and the scientific method. I will review each one of them, and consider how they impact us in our society today. I will consider the method of tenacity and the a priori method first

In both the method of tenacity and the a priori method, there is often no way to identify where knowledge of a belief came from, it just is. The fundamental difference is the willingness to change a belief.

In the a priori method, the belief is there because it seems reasonable and rational within the cultural context of the day. Our society has certain beliefs that we accept, without question, simply because our society holds to those beliefs. As an example, in our western democracies, we all know that democracy is a good form of government. We don’t question that belief, and it becomes one of the assumptions that we live with. It is reasonable, and we have no reason to question this belief. If asked, we usually have no idea where the belief came from, it just is. We accept it as a part of our belief system without close examination or consideration, we accept it before (a priori) really thinking about it. It is one of the beliefs that we simply have.

Like beliefs that could be classified as a priori, beliefs that fall under the banner of the method of tenacity don’t usually have an identifiable source. Method of tenacity beliefs are just beliefs that we acquire. How they differ from a priori beliefs is our unwillingness to abandon these beliefs in light of new evidence.

Beliefs that become method of tenacity beliefs allow us to live in a fixed world. A world that doesn’t change, and our beliefs reflect that world. For most of us, gravity is a constant that never changes. Through inductive reasoning, practised from an early age, we fix in our minds our belief about gravity. It allows us to contextualise our physical world, and we can be secure that our belief system, along with the fixed physical properties that our belief represents, will provide us with a stable world through which we can live and move. Evidence available from the world of advanced theoretical physics that tells us that gravity isn’t exactly what we believe it is has virtually no impact on how we live our lives in the physical world. It has virtually no impact on our belief in gravity and the pragmatic effects it has on our physical beings. Our belief in gravity is a fixed belief that we don’t change, and it allows us to live in a fixed and settled world.

An example of method of tenacity beliefs that are problematic are racial biases and bigotry. Although they allow people to live in a fixed and unchanging world, these beliefs are founded on falsehoods and cause no end of problems in our society. Because they are fixed and people refuse to change them, in spite of evidence, the problems that attend adherence to these beliefs can be extremely problematic.

One of the  sources of problems with any false beliefs, but especially ones that are classified as method of tenacity beliefs, is that people seek out others who hold to the same beliefs in order to validate their beliefs. In this day and age, the internet allows people to gather in larger and larger clusters to support false beliefs, and keep their belief system protected from the inconvenience of evidence that might cause someone to question what they believe in.

The third method for us to consider is the method of authority. The method of authority encompasses the beliefs that we acquire because someone we trust (a trusted source) has told us about something. Most of the knowledge we have, and most of our beliefs, are acquired through the method of authority. Even our beliefs that we would classify as a priori and method of tenacity, are largely acquired because someone has told us the information.

When we are told something from a trusted source that we have no reason to disbelieve, we are acquiring information through the method of authority. Traditionally, the trusted sources in our society are parents, teachers, news sources, politicians, etc. More recently, the internet (surfing, blogs – like this one, facebook, twitter etc.) has taken on an increasingly important role as a trusted source. In the absence of an understanding of how to evaluate the veracity of a source, something that must be learned and practiced (can’t happen in our world of education, because there’s too much content to cover), we live in an age where false beliefs are accepted and incorporated at an unprecedented rate in the general population. Which brings us to the final method of acquiring belief systems – the scientific method.

The scientific method of acquiring knowledge (or beliefs) is really quite simple, even though it has become shrouded in misconceptions. The scientific method really involves four steps.

  1. Make an observation – measure something.
  2. Evaluate that measurement in light of what we already know about what you have measured.
  3. Publish your measurement and the evaluation that has been carried out.
  4. Listen to and respond to the feedback that you receive about the measurements that you have made and the evaluation you have published.

Simple really – measure, evaluate, publish, and then listen. This cycle of acquiring knowledge means that the community studying something will go through cycles of understanding, as they incorporate new findings into the communal understanding of something.

The scientific method works, and has resulted in a world that is awash with findings and understanding that have arisen through the scientific method of acquiring knowledge. This method can (and has) been derailed at any step. If the measurements are not precise, if an evaluation is biased or flawed for any reason, if the publication of methods and results is prevented (something that happens increasingly in the proprietary world of corporate or secret government research programmes), or if the feedback to the community is not incorporated.

In addition, the scientific method can be undermined if there is distrust in the method itself. Think about the popular (movies, books, magazines) portrayal of scientists. They are almost always negative, with the scientists portrayed as evil, stupid, or conniving.

In addition, in my last couple of posts, I’ve discussed the problem of the lack of ability to engage in deductive reasoning in the general population. What this means is that, even if someone really wants to look at the evidence themselves, for some issue, they are unable to follow the logic that leads to scientific conclusions. Because many (or most) conclusions rely on deductive reasoning to be able to follow the evaluation of evidence and background. Because we, as educators, have failed to teach people how to engage in deductive reasoning, we have cut the general population out of this process of acquiring knowledge and beliefs.

As a result, the primary method of acquiring beliefs in our society today is the method of authority. This means that individuals have no choice but to rely on a trusted source, and we (the educators) have not even taught them how to evaluate a source for veracity. Is it any wonder that we have huge swaths of the populace embroiled in scientific controversies for which there is no controversy? This societal problem must be laid squarely on our shoulders. We are 100% responsible, and, for the most part, have no intention of changing what we are doing to fix it.

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