Monday, November 21, 2005

Learning to learn versus learning to get a good grade

A week or so ago while I was channel surfing for some TV programming to get me to relax, I spent a few minutes watching Tony Brown’s Journal, a show I have not watched at all in the last several years. He had on a high school senior with the highest GPA in his school district, along with the student’s father. The novel thing is that the student is a black male and before Brown brought the father and son on, Brown cited the grim statistics about percentage of black males who graduate from high school nationally with at least a B average and the percentage who don’t graduate at all. So Brown posed the question, what was it in this kid’s approach to school that let him outperform all of his peers, black or white. (It sure didn’t hurt that the kid’s father was a chaired Professor at Hampton University.)

The question is an interesting one. To the extent that it is behavioral strategies that determine these outcomes, not the student's genes, it really would be good to understand those strategies that very good students use and in a detailed way contrast them to the strategies that more ordinary students use. One would think that being a child of university faculty would be a good predictor of academic success, but that may confound the genetic and the disciplined behavior, and thus Tony Brown's star performer may not be the best person from whom to generalize. It turns out that many of our highest academic achievers are children of immigrants and so that offers some indicator of what type of behavioral strategy is needed. Indeed, others have mentioned the need to have multiple perspectives on what is possible regarding the learning environment, a natural for immigrants.

Having my curiosity piqued by this Tony Brown show, I went to my bookcase to see if I had anything on the subject; lo and behold, there was Howard Gardner’s book Extraordinary Minds: Portraits of 4 Exceptional Individuals and an Examination of our own Extraordinariness. I started to read this book over the weekend and because it is short am about half through it now. (I’ve finished the chapters on Mozart and on Freud that followed the chapters that introduced the issues and about normal human development.) This has helped me in putting many things into perspective.

Among Gardner’s points is that many people can accomplish a great deal in a particular domain if they put in the requisite time to achieve mastery. Proclivity for the subject may assist in getting that time on task, but we who have not put in the time are often confused between expertise that comes from extensive practice versus expertise that truly is exceptional. Furthermore, in certain highly rule-based domains – music, math, and chess are quintessential examples – rather young, bright but not necessarily really extraordinary children can make substantial progress with the appropriate coaching and intervention. The Suzuki method for violin is probably the most well-known example. Thus, in many children of overt academic accomplishment, one is likely to find a strong parental influence that acts as a driver for the child.

Another lesson from the Gardner book, and this is confirmed by the Ann Hulbert featured piece in this week’s New York Times Magazine, The Prodigy Puzzle, is about the rather low correlation between very high performance on IQ tests at an early age and lifetime achievement in advance of humanity as the exceptionally bright individuals come of age. Both works consider the Terman study from 80 years ago, which though it was not intended to prove this result showed that IQ tests are fairly good at predicting performance in a school environment or a school-like environment, but don’t do well at predicting performance outside of that environment. There is the further issue of mastery of an existing domain of knowledge versus creation of new knowledge and that being very adept at the former may not be an indicator at being skillful at the latter. Indeed, there may be reasons that I’ll get to in a bit where for the latter one might actually want to discourage the former and encourage a different type of behavior early on.

Let me linger on this point. Mastery for more typical students, particularly at a young age, often is associated with rote learning and drill. How does a kid learn the state capitols? Memorize them. How does a kid learn basic arithmetic facts? Again, memorize them. Some very high performers in grade school do so because they are prolific at memorization.

To the extent that the memorization comes from kindling some inner fire, that is certainly wonderful and something to be cultivated. I know that my mother, who grew up in Germany, could recite lots of poetry in German, because she thought it was beautiful and represented the essence of culture. My younger kid today learns much of his history from the computer game Age of Empires III and because there is so much repetition in the game playing, he has committed much of what he has learned to memory.

But it certainly is not true that all memorization in school lights a fire under the students, even among the high achievers. Indeed, I expect that for many of them, the memorization which was a challenge in the early grades starts to become tedious in the latter grades and if it is not replaced by something more satisfying as the student matures then it becomes a symbol of alienation, even for the best students. Memorization will still be a part of the learning but it should be happening en passant, as part of something else.

With that, let me turn back to Gardner’s book and focus on his description of Freud, who is the exemplar of an extraordinary person who has created a new domain of inquiry. There are many lessons to be learned from Freud about how to learn that are relevant for all bright individuals, in my opinion, even if none of them will be in a position to create a new knowledge domain. (This is unlike Mozart, who is Gardner’s exemplar of an utter master in his field. Mozart is likely the first person we think of when using the word prodigy and his genius is unquestionable, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way he lived that we can appropriate for our own learning.)

It is notable that Freud changed the domain of his work at the time he was 40. (Coincidentally, I moved from Economics to Learning Technology also around the time I was 40.) This capacity for change is something learned much earlier. Freud also spent considerable time in reflection on his work and then would engage in open discussion on those reflections. Somewhere fairly early in life Freud learned to direct his own inquiry. He was very broadly read and fluent in several languages. Information acquisition for him required both a large library and the free time to do the reading. Moreover, Freud was allowed to “test” his ideas on his own, and then to observe the consequences of his own conjectures. I note that the curriculum for both of my kids today in Middle School has much more of an “inquiry based approach” than I can recall from when I was growing up. But the questions are being driven from outside, by adults. Freud learned early on to ask his own questions and thus he became much more of an independent thinker.

This is somewhat at odds with how school works, where there is a degree of conformity necessary to keep the class “on track.” So, there is much to suggest for an individually driven curriculum, at least for obviously bright students, so they can pursue their interests and ask their questions and learn to answer them. But, of course, how to supervise this is certainly a nightmare and how to assure that the time is productive and not simply some grand goof off is another serious problem.

Consequently, one might look for extra curricular outlets for these kids. Science Olympiad is one such outlet that seems well conceived. The Hulbert piece actually goes on to say that “science prodigies” seem more well adjusted and overall good students than “humanities prodigies” who don’t have such extra curricular projects. We may have to content ourselves with encouraging the kids to develop the reading habit, certainly by the time they reach adolescence, and then by providing these kids with areas to explore and alternative means to express their own learning.

I’m guessing that the critical years for the kids are in the 10 – 14 range and depends on achieving some physical maturity. Earlier on students can’t associate their learning with their own identity. Later on their prior habits may be so imbued that they can’t move to a more mature approach to learn. During this critical period, we really should be focusing on these kids achieving learning to learn. But I’m not so sure how helpful school can be in this regard and especially if there are a number of other students not ready to “make the leap” whether school is the right place for this to happen.

Let me make one more point before I close. Gardner points out that Freud had many failures and he was able to recover from those and indeed use them to re-channel his efforts in a new, more productive direction. I’m sure all kids go through challenges when they are young. The issue is whether the learn to overcome challenges through persistence and their own ingenuity or if they instead learn to shy away from things that are difficult. Bright kids, especially, may learn the latter because the ego rewards from their own performance, which may initially be a spur, can easily turn into a burden that they don’t know how to jettison. So, there may be some good reasons for these kids to learn on the sly so they can explore, including things that are tough, without an adult watching their every move. The fear of failure may be a much greater inhibitor to learning than any lack of intelligence and having personal coping mechanisms to deal with failure may be the greatest lesson we can teach youngsters.


A Londoner said...

In an excellent article, the final paragraph makes a point whose contemplation is, in my view, often missed. This may because the "bright" thinkers "learn to shy away from it" because it is "difficult".

It's about failure and fear: fearing failure, fearing fear of failure, and all sorts of re-entrant versions of this. And it's about a failure to grasp the difference between a failure in an episodic sense (which Freud and others have used as "stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things") and "being a failure" (and thereby indelibly stigmatised or auto-stigmatised).

My generation grew up in the glare of being reminded of our failure at every turn - the tally being kept for the Day of Judgement and the separation of the sheep from the goats. This brings the aversion reflex of fear of failure inhibiting action (and thus inhibiting learning), and fosters self-loathing. This is, of course, helpful to parents and other power-sources because it dims the ego, and this dimming to docility may be reinforced by decrying any ego-reward and thus ensuring it becomes a burden. When this notion kicks in at a formative time (no argument with the 10-14 age range suggested), it may provide a bit of resilience and "stiff upper lip", but a darker outcome is the tortured soul who can never experience satisfaction, who sees difficulty in reaching the pinnacle of a subject, and therefore shies away from any attempt to master it, thus committing "learning suicide". That's the person who gives up thrashing a ball round the local course because Tiger Woods is evidently and consistently better at the game, who won't touch a piano because the newspapers are full of someone called Argerich, who fails to engage with life because someone else - anyone else - seems more engaging.

Then in the "nasty cop, nice cop" oscillation, we see the whole notion of failure as being denied: the word itself becomes doubleplusungood. Is this better for our children? Do they learn more easily by never having failure to fear? Si monumentum requiris, circumspice - or in the simpler language of the Scots, Look aboot ye. When we look around, we can all find so many who have never known a challenge, nor have been presented (by parents or teachers, and Heaven help anyone else who has the temerity to do it) a challenge to their opinions, solutions or anything else. Many are incapable of self-questioning, of playing Devil's advocate (and how easily and destructively that comes to those of the foregoing paragraph!): their worldview ends at the experiences which have been brought to them, and needless to say, the universe revolves around them.

I am sure that we need to allow learners to benefit and to mature from experiences both positive and negative, and we need to ensure that failing in a task is not the same as being a failure, any more than missing the 8:14 from Willesden Junction means that there will never be another train available to you until your dying day. To do this, we need to acknowledge the existence of (episodic) failure, to assert the non-existence of Utopian equality, and to steer the middle course between constant gratification and gratuitous condemnation.

And you're right, some of the experiments with learning must be undertaken as so many other youthful explorations are attempted - away from the prying eyes of parents, tutors and other such authorities. Youths know these spies can't be trusted to keep quiet, so they learn not to display potentially embarrassing behaviour in their sight. Parents et al will always puff up their best intentions with regard to this surveillance, but let each one of us ask ourselves - are we watching Tai Shan's webcam at the National Zoo to be able to learn more about behavioural psychology, or do we want to be first to the water-cooler with news of his latest pratfall?

Where does this leave us at university? We have used all these tactics: none has been totally successful, and none can be a single one-size-fits-all answer. The virtual learning environment can, perhaps, give students a safe place to practise (and to practise falling over and getting up again). But only if we on the other side of the assessment rope allow them to do so. If we give any hint that our WebCTs or our Blackboards are being used as a pedagogic panopticon, they'll stay away from experimentation in their droves. We must make clear lines of demarcation between playpen and workbench in our VLEs, and we must never break faith with the essential dichotomy.

Fear of failure? There's the well-worn story of the novice engineer whose newly designed process machine goes up in flames, and he dutifully presents his letter of resignation the following day, only to have the boss tear it up, saying, "Yesterday, we spent three million pounds on your management training, and with the help of seven fire-crews, it wasn't thirty million pounds - we need to see a return on that investment in your future work with us". We need our students to know that we have that philosophy, and that they have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Lanny Arvan said...

Thanks for the extensive comments. I wonder if there might be some effective way to pair up interested 10-14 year olds with college students so the kids can find someone who is a bit of a mentor and is yet not in that authority/judgmental role. If the kids find an avenue where they can open up, that might be really helpful.

A Londoner said...

Mentoring across the high-school/college divide has real potential, but it won't work if there is too much "matchmaking" from the authorities. Some of the older Scottish universities have the tradition of "academic family", where a newcomer attaches to a male and/or a female third-year/fourth-year. In our day, it wasn't called "mentoring", and though the practice was mentioned in the prospectus, the University took no hand in the process.

Perhaps the student unions and student associations can play a part in arranging mentoring between students and high-school kids.

Back in the mists of time, schools were attached to colleges. Fifty years ago, after teacher training moved to specialist colleges, training schools (where the trainee teachers would work alongside established professionals) were attached, and there was healthy competition to get into them.

Maybe co-location is an answer. Teach the kids on campus. It poses lots of questions, but if it helps in the mentoring/role-modelling, why not?