Saturday, February 18, 2012

Learning about Learning: Introspection versus Research

Yesterday was an odd day for me.  Pretty early in the day I read a piece in the Times about Governor Cuomo getting the sides to agree about  how teacher evaluations would occur in New York.  I didn't like what they were planning to do - 40% of the evaluation would be based on student test performance, increments over performance the year before would be attributed to the current teachers, and there seems to be some fixation with teachers who under perform in this dimension. The rest of the evaluation was to be based on direct observation of the teaching by the principal.  If that were really happening intensively it would provide an excellent source of professional development for the teachers, via an ongoing conversation regarding teaching method and customizing that to the teacher's personality and the students' needs.  Alas, there was no discussion of such professional development at all in the piece, no sense that teachers can get better in their craft over time, and that the system should be mainly about promoting such improvement.

So I set out to write a post that would offer up my critique.  As is my habit, I used Kwout to make a snippet of the piece.  For reasons I don't understand, the font in this particular snip looks huge compared to the font in the rest of the post, though it looks fine alone at the link provided.  This annoys me a bit, unsure what to do about it, so I leave it hanging while I move on to the next task.  I'm wanting evidence to support my point of view.  The day before on the Tomorrow's Professor listserv there was a post entitled The Power of Mindful Teaching, which seemed fitting for the purpose.  It is an interview with the Harvard Psychologist Ellen J. Langer about her book, The Power of Mindful Learning.  To make reference to the piece I go to the online archive for the listserv.   Disappointingly, the archive is woefully behind.  This is post #1153.  As of the morning in writing this blog post, the archive only goes through post #1144.  I start to wonder if there is a near term way to make reference to that piece.  It would be little trouble to copy the post and put it in a Google doc.  But checking out when the archive had caught up and remembering to take down my link at the time would be more troublesome.  I'm getting more and more forgetful.  Here's another little annoyance that I set aside.

But by then my enthusiasm for writing the post has waned, a bit unusual for me.  Instead, I find myself on the site for the book and the "download to your PC" button is beckoning.  I have Kindle software on both my PC and my iPad.  The Kindle version of the book costs $10.  It's so easy to get it then and there.  The book is in the Education Library on Campus, but it is checked out to another patron.  (I only verified that this morning.  I didn't even check the Library yesterday.)  So I click the button and it downloads.  Ironically, in the book there is a section on the myth of deferred gratification.  I spent a good chunk of time reading the book thereafter and am now a bit more than halfway through it.  The rest of this post contains observations and commentary based on that reading and how what Langer says compares to my own thinking on the issues.

I start out very enthused with her book.  My initial question was whether mindful learning is one and the same as inquiry based learning, which several Dewey scholars here, notably Chip Bruce, have promoted for some time.  On that one, I'm not sure.  Part way through the reading the style seemed to change.  Where it began with what mindful learning is, a multidimensional and contingent way of understanding the object being studied, the subject changed to how to teach with a mindful learning approach and whether doing so is effective.  Determining effectiveness of the teaching approach is somewhat at odds with considering cycles of inquiry, with the next cycle determined by the outcome of the prior cycle.  Nevertheless, I was also excited to see somebody writing both from a scientific and a personal perspective.  The last book I can recall reading which took a personal perspective about teaching and learning is Jane Tompkins' A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. That book was somewhat unsettling because each successive course offering was a more radical experiment than it's predecessor and the process never settled down, right till she stopped teaching.  I understand the feeling that motivated the movement to a radical approach.  I've had similar feelings as a teacher. Tompkins was an English professor.  Unlike Langer, I don't believe that Hopkins viewed her experiments as hypothesis testing.  She certainly couldn't and didn't try to have controls - what was the outcome with the placebo?   I'm more like Hopkins than Langer with regard both to my teaching and my own learning.  But as an economist, I believe I also have some understanding for why one does want to test hypotheses.

Nevertheless, in what I've read so far I came to find Langer's emphasis on controlled experiments quite limiting.  All of them seemed to be of the one and done variety.  There is an intervention with a mindful learning approach to the study of some subject done with some students and a comparison is done studying the same subject via the traditional approach done with other students.  In all the studies I've read about, the mindful learning approach trumped the traditional approach.  After the first few of these, this stopped being informative for me.  The most interesting bit I read, but it wasn't a recurrent theme, is that the students who had been taught with the mindful learning approach were more self-confident, more willing to go against the crowd, because they had developed their own  point of view, reached from their own individualistic experiences with the subject.

I wish that theme cascaded with further implications, but in what I've read so far it didn't.  I didn't see anything at all about intuition and developing that.   To me developing intuition is the heart of the matter.  It's where the spark comes from.  While it was mentioned early on, there was essentially no follow up about the joy of learning for itself.  And there was nothing on whether having been exposed to mindful learning approaches students come to demand a mindful approach in their own learning and if, having developed such a taste, they continue to need the teacher to approach the next inquiry mindfully or if they can become self-sufficient that way.  Let me illustrate this point by reference to my post on PLAs Please, and the relationship between learning outside school and learning in the classroom.  Langer makes a strong distinction between play, which we take up immediately with no hesitation, which we enjoy for itself and do as its own reward, and for which we receive no external evaluation nor do we get branded by some performance standard, and classroom learning, where many students struggle to pay attention, where the object for the student seems to be to get through the experience since the diploma is a passport, and where for homework or other coursework done outside the classroom procrastination is the norm.  Langer wants school to be more like play.  Fine, I agree with that.   But she seems to ignore whether self-directed learning outside school can be reward just as play is, and if so whether the two are one and the same or if they are different.

Here's a little anecdote on this one.  I was picking my son up to come home for the weekend.  He's a sophomore in engineering here.  He said his best friend from high school, who was coming over later in the evening so they could play video games, is studying Psychology here and has to do an awful lot of reading for his courses and write a lot of papers. My son said the friend wasn't liking that very much.  Then my son reported that in his classes, his favorite now seems to be a computer programming class, it's more math than reading.  And the advantage for him is that he can still enjoy pleasure reading, which is not tied to his school work.  My son does have a taste to read the New York Times online and he enjoys fiction too.  The Harry Potter craze followed by the Lord of the Rings films got all these kids started on fantasy/science fiction.  I'm not sure what he reads now. In high school he was on a Michael Crichton kick for a while.  After a lot of urging on my part he eventually did read the Grapes of Wrath one summer, but otherwise as far as I know he's the driver of his own bus with regard to his reading.  The Daily Show and Colbert are not his only source for news, and at least some of the time he feels a need to read a book on his own, a different source of stimulus than the Xbox or the latest computer games.  I'm not sure whether he has gone to films that are more challenging or has participated in other forms of educational entertainment.  But clearly he is open to possibility and trying new things.  So on an intellectual level, irrespective of how he does from here out in school,  I think he's at a good place.

There is a rather large question of how that learning outside of school fits in with what happens in school.  Over the last several years, I've wrestled with that question, the PLA post one expression of that.  Another one, is this piece on The Purpose of General Education.  If, in my jargon, a kid had a PLA, then the kid is doing General Education right along.  Is the kid mindful in doing that the way Langer wants us to be mindful?  I believe the answer to that is yes, but in a not so overt way.  If one makes a personal discovery one likely wants to share it.  If the sharing it is itself enjoyable that serves as spur to make further discoveries and then the sharing serves to make the learning overt.  But it's not always the case that there is a best friend to share those ideas.  When there's not the alternative is having a conversation with oneself.  That can be absorbing,  and I believe that mindful learners do that on a regular basis, but there is no mark that it's happened.  One reason I turned to blogging some years ago was to make such a mark.  I then made a subsequent discovery that if I could get it out of my system I could move onto something else.  Otherwise the same conversation would play over and over again in my head.

School, no matter how well it is done has a coercive aspect to it.  Where self-direction always provides the next departure based on what has come before, school can insert the student into something truly new, done at a level and in a mode where the student may very well be unfamiliar.  Many have recognized the inherent tension between the coercion and promoting intrinsic motivation for the new endeavor, but I've seen very few convincing analyses on how that tension should be managed.  My current belief is best articulated in this piece, which is about work for wages as in part coercion and the role money incentive plays.  There I argue that money incentive is primarily good for initiation of new work.  For a while thereafter it fades into the background and intrinsic motivation takes over to guide the employee's effort.  Money incentive then reappears when either that work has been completed or when the employee becomes aware that the market values him differently as a consequence of that new work.

In the classroom context there is first the question whether intrinsic motivation ever makes its presence known.  With rote it seemingly does not because the subject being memorized is disembodied from all else the student knows.  The mindful approach aims in large part to encourage intrinsic motivation by creating connection to the subject based on other things the student does know, leveraging the student's inherent curiosity.  By analogy then to the employee case, there is the question when the coercion next makes itself known and does it puncture the intrinsic motivation too soon.   If the pattern had been two midterms and a final under the traditional approach, would only one midterm and a final be better?  And then what about the role of other sorts of feedback that comes without grades?  In my own teaching I've come to like having the students make weekly blog posts, responding with comments (and hoping other students would comment too) without any grades tied to the comments.  Then I will go back to them later and evaluate a bunch of posts for a student at one time for grade purposes.  In teaching there is a further large question of pace and content coverage.  With self-directed learning, the students own hunger for understanding dictates the pace.  For courses that are prerequisites for other other classes, topic coverage dictates the pace irrespective of how well students master the material.  Langer does not ask whether a mindful approach would be slower, faster, or the same pace as the traditional approach.   I do think that if we ask, are the students getting it?, and try to provide an empirically based answer to this, we'll often find that they are not getting it.  There has always been a teaching question of whether to target the top of the class or somewhere in the middle.  Targeting the middle encourages a slower pace.

I want to switch gears here and note that Langer has many examples from sports.  She is not just about academic learning.  Indeed she talks about her own athletic training as a kid and contrasts that to the performance of the top players in the world that she has observed.   In sports one prized attribute of a competitor is his toughness.  Witness two different examples from the past week regarding basketball.  The first is all the hoopla about Linsanity and Mike D'Antoni, the coach of the Knicks, talking about Jeremy Lin as a player with a lot of toughness, able to handle adversity and then make the team thrive when the pressure is on. The other is about the Illini Men's Basketball team and the press conference Coach Weber had after the recent loss to Purdue, where he blamed himself for not developing a culture of toughness around the team.  It was a very emotional moment, not least because Weber may be out of a job after the season concludes.  No doubt toughness is prized in sports.  Is there an analog to toughness to be found in the academic sort of learning?  Langer takes to task deferred gratification as the analog.  It is contrary to how people actually behave.  I'm with her on that.  But she makes no attempt to provide something else that fits the bill.

In my purpose of general education piece, I bring up the word "sitzfleisch" as one of the primary goals.  (I do so in a section that tries to get at the goals of general education without using the terms "critical thinking" or "communication skills," because these labels have lost their meaning, in my view.)  I think sitzfleisch is the right term and appropriate analog for toughness, though it is not one and the same.  One aspect of athletic toughness is playing through pain.  Measured in that way, I'm not tough.  I've got arthritis pain on an ongoing basis.  The doctor says exercise is really the best thing for it.  I try to do the treadmill most days.  When the pain is minor, I hope the warmup period will allow it to vanish temporarily.  But when the pain is more acute, I yield to it and don't do the treadmill, hoping the pain will ebb by tomorrow.  Yesterday I didn't do the treadmill.  Today I will, during the first half of the Illini game.  (Screaming at the TV over bad calls by the refs or our by good or bad plays by the team does get my focus onto an external subject).

Intellectually, however, I have sitzfleisch in that I won't let go of an idea easily once it has come to me.  In the post, Getting Closure, about Jane Leavy's book The Last Boy, a probing biography of Mickey Mantle, I took on the questions why are we still fascinated with Mickey all these years later and why does he seem heroic in a way no other player has seemed since?  The premises for these questions seemed obviously true to me, but the answers were far from apparent.   So I stewed for some days before writing the post.  In the post I wrote the following:
I have this habit/arrogance about me that in order to let go of an idea and move onto something else I must comment about it in a way that provides some insight. Once I get my two cents in I can refocus on what is ahead of me. Until then, however, I can't let go. I wanted to say something about why we love Mickey so much, but I wasn't sure what I should say. So I let the thought simmer. Yesterday, I did a Google search on Mickey Mantle versus Bo Jackson, thinking perhaps that would help. I found several links to fascinating content - this piece on tape measure home runs, who actually hit them, and the misreporting of how long the home runs actually were; a different piece from Baseball Digest about Bo's amazing feats on the diamond; and a YouTube video clip of Mickey with a rather young David Letterman, compelling to view.

Bo had less longevity than Mickey but otherwise he is the other athlete I can think of who combined speed and power in a package that amazed even very accomplished professional players. And I got to witness some of those performances on TV, so I have a better memory of what Bo did than of what Mickey did. Yet while I'm aware of this, I don't regard Bo as a hero, an amazing athlete, yes, a hero, no. So I puzzled over this and came up with the following.....
The habit/arrogance is the sitzfleisch.  I believe it emerges from two different though complementary sources.  One is an emotional need to contribute intellectually.  When our dog, Ginger, sees something that commands her attention in the back yard, she gets very excited, starts barking, begins to rise up on her hind legs, and then claws at the sliding door, offering up a strong signal that she wants to be let outside.  I'm kind of the same way when a topic grabs me, though perhaps not quite so demonstrative.  The other source is repeated practice at doing this sort of thing.  I don't know what Langer would say now about the work of Anders Ericsson and his colleagues regarding deliberate practice.  To me, the question at hand is whether sitzfleish of an intellectual sort emerges from deliberate practice with mindful learning.  I saw nothing about that in what I've read in Langer's book.  I believe it is true, but it is likely a hypothesis that will defy measurement for some time to come.  I would like to see Langer speculate about it.  But she seems content to stick with only those hypotheses where she can perform the experiment.

Ericsson and his colleagues write about the difficulties of persisting with the practice regime.  They make several points on that about how to encourage persistence.  One is that the practice needs to be situated to the current performance level.  If it doesn't push the performer, the performer will become bored with it.  If it expects too much of a step up, it will discourage the performer who will implicitly regard the goal as impossible.  This sort of practice seems quite different from the drill we associate with rote learning.  Langer is against drill of that sort and I am too.  Much of what Ericsson and his colleagues focus on regards one-on-one coaching between the coach and the performer.  This is how the practice becomes individualized.  In the classroom, one-on-one coaching is not realistic.  If only one-on-many coaching is possible, can it possibly achieve the requisite goals?  This makes for a challenge.  It is one real reason whey I see the necessity of the PLA in conjunction with the classroom learning.  The individual student needs the self-direction as well as the one-on-many coaching to make progress.  The teacher needs to know that the student has some self-direction as a learner and based on that is bringing something to the table.

Another point Ericsson and colleagues make is that practice can't happen day and night.  It happens for a limited time on a daily basis, perhaps an hour or so only, maybe only a half hour per day.  If you run a marathon as if it is a sprint, you will not finish the race.  Burnout among high performers is fairly common.   For me, there is a tension with not letting go of an idea I've glommed onto and being always on and therefore burning out, a common affliction with my learning technologist friends (and with me when I was one full time).   On this one, however, I think the parallel with concert musicians or world-class athletes regarding practice is inexact.   The best I've been able to achieve for myself in doing the blog posting is periods of rather intense concentration where I seem to be making good progress, other periods where I'm stuck but haven't abandoned the idea and if nothing else is obligating me then returning to the idea, and complete veg-out periods where I'm awake but for all practical purposes it's mindless activities I'm after so am definitely not thinking about a possible blog post.  (I still teach and am in fact teaching a new preparation this semester, so am putting a fair amount of time into that.  Some of that serves as a substitute for the intellectual joy I get from writing my posts here.  In talking about my sine wave regarding intensity of effort on the blog, I'm abstracting from my teaching time as well as from other more mundane tasks I do.)    Unlike writing a novel, where for the next day of writing your 300 words you already know today the general subject matter, I let different things come to me, usually out of something I've read that day.

The diversity regarding topic helps to keep it interesting.  But since there is a lot more that I read than what I write about, there remains the question of what it takes for me to get absorbed by an idea.  Mostly that happens intuitively.  I'm looking for novelty yet also for the ability to offer up critique.  As you can tell, those criteria make for an imperfect search algorithm.  There may be a period where I find a candidate idea but am not so locked into it, such as with the piece from the Times about teacher evaluation.  (If I finish a book there is little issue here, as I've already made a big personal commitment to the ideas.  But if it is only a movie or even more so an article that takes only a short while to read, that effort isn't sufficient in itself to establish the commitment to see the idea through.)   And like most people these days, I'm subject to distractions in electronic form - email and Facebook posts by friends being the primary source of those.  When in intense concentration mode I'm able to ignore those distractions; when in veg-out mode those can become my primary focus.

The imperfections aside, the approach has been fruitful for me.    So I would like to see something like it in my students.  That would mean I'm helping them learn to learn, a meta-skill which is durable.  Their knowledge of the subject matter I'm teaching is likely not to persist in any depth with them, unless they go onto graduate school in economics.  My ultimate question for Langer is whether she has evidence that mindful learning has durable value.  I know this is extremely difficult to measure, because what is durable in our thinking is the amalgam of many prior experiences.  But for that reason we should be talking about regimes with one approach rather than individual courses or even individual topics within a course with that approach.  So I'd like to see Langer speculate, even if the evidence on this is scant, about where the learners would get to if they had such a regime.  And I'd like to hear her further speculate whether such a regime, say if done in college, can undo the mental numbness that many students seem to develop from the traditional approach in the K-12 grades.  Since Langer wrote her book, we seem to have gone backwards in K-12.  I can' see us going forward again unless there are coherent arguments put forward about what to do instead.

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