Digger Deeper: go to the source

One of the most important “interaction” lessons we humans must learn (though there’s plenty of evidence that some of us never do), is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Get-rich-quick ruses and “short-cut” rags-to-riches stories and multi-level marketing or pyramid schemes abound. How does this relate to the education world? Certainly we can argue the role popular media plays in twisting or at least misrepresenting research, especially as it pertains to education. In fact, perfectly good research aside, when something is taken out of context or applied to widgets when it was developed for doodads, it is probably going to fail or break or not quite fit. (For an entertaining and thought-provoking review on Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, check out Paul Morsink’s post.)

Another striking case is Gardner’s multiple intelligences. A positive result of his research is that teachers are at least thinking about the various ways a student can exhibit learning, but his theory “has not received wide acceptance in the scientific community” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 114). In fact, “there is not yet strong research evidence that adopting a multiple intelligences approach will enhance learning” (p. 116). Yet, one can find teachers who will argue until they’re blue in the face that it is completely appropriate to “include every ‘intelligence’ in every lesson, no matter how inappropriate” (p. 115). Ultimately, the lesson we must learn is that nothing, not brain research, not intelligence theory, not technology, nothing is the panacea that we’re looking for. There is no magic pill. There is no one-size-fits-all. And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

On the flip side, there is strong evidence that if we actually look at the research, assess the “applicability of study conclusions to one’s own situation” (Firestone 1993), and carefully apply those strands that are appropriate for generalization, we may be able to affect change, impact schools, and provide learning for all students. We just have to be mindful of misrepresented research (I was especially appalled to learn that our very own government participates in perpetrating conclusions that the original research would never support – or that such misrepresentations could be the “scientific centerpiece for the May 2, 2000 White House Conference on Teenagers” (Bruer, 2002, pg. 1033).) and diligently work to restore truth.

Finally, the more educators understand about intelligence, the more likely we are to recognize its diverse indicators, craft lessons that enhance thinking processes, and scaffold exercises to build such abilities as emotional intelligence. My bias, of course, is my belief in the incremental view of ability, and that “knowledge can be increased and thus ability can be improved” (Woolfolk, 2007, p. 389). As teachers, we know that in order to effectively teach our lessons, in order for students to feel safe and nurtured and motivated to learn, we must attend to issues of classroom management. By explicitly teaching our students to manage their emotions through focusing their energy, persisting, controlling impulses, and delaying immediate gratification, we accomplish several goals. First, a natural by-product is that we are allowed to teach. Secondly, students who learn these skills are more likely to succeed in school, as well as “life outside the classroom” (p. 117). Finally, we are helping to create citizens of a democratic-republic who have the capacity to take part in a participatory government. Since “cognitive skills, like any other skills, are always improveable [sic],” it is our responsibility to move students along the continuum, to stretch their abilities, to encourage and challenge them. Thus, schools have the task of utilizing research to ensure learning for all students.

Of course, it also seems to me that many of the different teaching strategies, tools, and materials that are developed to help students who are labeled one way or another are actually the very strategies, tools, and materials that can help all students learn, though perhaps in varying degrees. When such strategies are adopted into the mainstream curriculum, students who feel part of the “other” or nonmainstream culture see less stigma attached to the tool or strategy, and are less likely to abandon it since “some assistive technology can create a stigmatizing effect given the student will stand out in the classroom from its use” (Bouck, 2010, pg. 96). Ultimately, isn’t our job as educators of our future leaders to promote thinking, empathy, engagement, and, most importantly, independence? Although Bouck (2010) speaks specifically of technology in relation to disabilities, we can think more broadly of all that we do as educators when we realize that while what and how we teach may “have…limitations, they grant access and, more importantly, independence in controlling one’s own learning and knowledge acquisition” (pg. 99). Isn’t that the whole point?

Thoughts Upon Research Consequences

A very human tendency is to act without thinking, to act upon impulse, to act without considering the unintended consequences. In years past, these impulsive acts often had dire consequences, so dire, in fact, that the unintended consequences tended to result in death. Those humans who learned, through observation and with maturity, to think before action lived longer and passed these traits to off-spring. Of course, in more recent centuries the tie between action and consequence has faded a bit; and with the advent of modern civilization, fewer humans yet are required to pay the stiffest penalty for their actions. Those who do pay the piper that ultimate price (with a certain flair, I might add) find themselves immortalized in the rather macabre annuals of the Darwin Awards.

It is this impulse that makes for very interesting science: for the very necessary ingredients of curiosity, open-mindedness, honesty, and, above all, a commitment to the free-flow of knowledge, combine to make a heady potion. And who among us is so strong as to resist the temptation of being human, to refuse the seduction of a swift swallow of a scientific concoction?

Of course, this is where we must add yet another layer of being human: the values and mores that we’ve developed (no doubt, to keep us safe in those yesteryears) and must then see the world through. As teachers, we struggle with the desire to see our students protected and kept safe (think: kiddie porn) while we advocate for the free-flow of information (think: Internet nannies and censorship). This tension is omni-present in such a degree that we barely notice it. But as we look toward our own research, it seems that we must consider it more closely. What if we believe, with our entire beings, that a certain strategy will help a student learn, grasp a concept, be motivated to learn? In order to conduct research, we choose to expose some students to such a strategy while denying others of it. With children as our research subjects, the questions we face are enormous. They are such impressionable, fragile things. What if this was the year, little Megan would have learned to read? What if this semester was the tipping point for John, the semester he lost all hope? What if our strategies, applied instead to these students, made all the difference in the world? As teachers, we advocate for saving every child, not just the more lovable ones, the easier ones, the ones with more caring parents. The can of worms awaiting our can openers is a bit daunting.

Educational technology, itself, holds a fresh set of dilemmas. I think of cell phone cameras that have been used to capture an integral part of a lesson (take a picture of this flower; label the various parts) or to capture a classmate in the locker room (state of dishabille). Equally as distressing is the use of ed tech to perpetrate reprehensible forms of teaching upon unsuspecting students. The “transfer of knowledge” via lecture is not the “construction of knowledge” that true teachers understand must take place in order for their students to experience the transformation inherent in learning.

It is our very humanness, however, that allows us to contemplate these issues, make room for them in our discussions, and attempt to define, catalogue, and address them. We seek to make better, to overcome, to “fix” because we are humans, we are scientists, we are teachers. Opening Pandora’s box is but the beginning.

Knowing Where to Look

Because so much of what we know today is built upon the science giants of the past, attendance to their foundational theories is warranted. We need to know that what we accept to be true is, indeed, factual. Of course, to subject every single theory to this level of scrutiny is impractical and impossible. And then, of course, sometimes we test things not because we look to disprove something or even to find something radically new but simply because we want more precise measurements (eg Lord Rayleigh). Minor discrepancies, then, are not to be glossed over, but taken as a starting point for questions, searchings, deeper diggings.

Indivisible from this step, however, is the idea that one must be highly knowledgeable, skilled, and well-versed in the discussion at hand – otherwise, the discrepancy has little meaning. We won’t know what questions to ask or even where to start. Ignoring the small discrepancies, then, means that our theories may not be able to hold water under the scrutiny of our peers or scientific descendants. On the other hand, a human can only do so much, and sometimes a human mind can only hold so much dissonance at once, so to at least add to the scientific dialogue at hand (even though not all pieces fit precisely or all discrepancies are accounted for) is the essential piece. This allows for the furthering of scientific knowledge, even if it’s by others and not our doing.

This is the part I’m struggling with (and “struggling” is more like coming to terms with or sorting out or mulling over): which of the discrepancies are worthy of exploration and which are needless detours? And how can we know unless we explore them? Obviously, scientific knowledge, experience, and being well-grounded in current research can only benefit — but ultimately, is it simply serendipity that determines whether we’ll discover Uranus or spend a lifetime trying to spin straw into gold?

It also occurs to me that the very process of leaving a record of one’s thought processes is invaluable not only to one’s own journey but also to those who come behind. As Derry (1999) implies, our job, then, as researchers is to notice the “minor observational discrepancy within a well-accepted but incorrect principle” (p. 48). This is easier said than done. After all, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s so easy to identify incorrect principles after the fact. On the other hand, if we behave as scientists, immersing ourselves in the academic literature, experimenting within our realms of interest, and asking questions, then it’s only natural that we will notice the minor discrepancies. And, because of our immense knowledge and intimate understandings of our selected subject matter, we will know both the importance and the implications of such discrepancies.

So, here, then, is where I sit. Articles and books and papers and scribblings clutter my desk. The floor. My bedside. I imagine your living space doesn’t look much differently, especially if you’re elbow-deep in sifting through the research that interests you. J  My brain is likewise filing and cross-filing and organizing, and I feel like there is so much to know, so much that I won’t be able to read it, absorb it, organize it, utilize it. Despite this, I feel no alarm. No panic. No depression. Instead, a rather giddy sense of determination settles through my bones, and I even smile as I glance through another list of “must read” articles.

Where are you in all of this research mess?

Motivating the Unmotivated

Most current learning theory understands that humans are driven by a desire to be competent and successful, and that these needs are realized as we build connections with people we care about and can trust. Students are no different. However, we teachers know that many times the homes our students come from are not motivational or nurturing, loving or kind. As teachers, we have several choices: we can bemoan our fate; we can blame the student; or, hopefully, we can choose to take our students as they come and help transform them into intrinsically motivated, self-determined, and thinking citizens. Since “cognitive theorists believe that behavior is determined by our thinking,” it is imperative that we teach logical, analytical, cause-and-effect type of thinking to our students (Woolfolk 375).

If humans are naturally “active and curious, searching for information to solve personally relevant problems” as cognitive theorists believe, then our job as teachers should be pretty easy (365). And yet, every educator knows the struggle of teaching the unmotivated, the apathetic, the ego-involved, and the performance goal setters. Where, then, is the disconnect? One area that is often overlooked, I’m afraid, is the sociocultural view of motivation that emphasizes “participation in communities of practice” (376). Social groups work to establish both identity and norms, as Gee (2007) points out, and these social groups serve as models and help increase competency and collaboration. Without working with our students to help them establish their identity, purpose, place, and role within our classroom community, they may feel alienated, unwanted, and unneeded. No wonder, then, that they feel unmotivated. The ultimate goal for all learners, of course, is that they achieve a level of intrinsic motivation and self-determination. And even if it’s controversial and has collected its own set of groupie nay-sayers, I firmly believe that it is our job as teachers to provide a scaffold of external motivators for our students even as we help them find the intrinsic motivation. When we build a classroom community that is not only caring, loving, and nurturing but also one that upholds high standards and achievable goals, we allow our students to take root, grow, and bloom within a safe haven. They have permission to take risks, to push the learning envelope, and to succeed (or, as Gee would say, collaborate, compete, and have agency/ownership in which co-creation and choice is fully honored.) For some students, however, this is not enough.

Sometimes, just sometimes, we have to be very honest with that one disbeliever, the one who still shrugs and says, “I don’t care,” and tell him, “Let me care. I will care for you until you can.” You use those carefully selected external motivators and ask for homework completion not because there’s an inner spark lighted and eager to scrawl it out but because you’ve earned the trust to ask for it. You take those baby steps together, and by the end of the semester or the end of the year, maybe you haven’t changed the world, but you’ve made all the difference in the life of one young man…and you hope that there are inroads made toward intrinsic motivation. You’ve certainly delivered a way of thinking that leads to “achievement, power, and affiliation” (Woolfolk 377).

Fostering Creativity in the Classroom

Wide-spread creativity is both the life-blood and the consequence of a free society. When teachers encourage and nurture creativity in their classrooms, students come alive, ideas are bandied about, and “inventions” or “creations” abound. With curious, engaged teachers and equally as curious and engaged students, the classroom becomes a place where divergent thinking, originality, and flexibility is the norm. Insight happens. Teachers can promote creativity by creating warm and nurturing environments where brainstorming, open discussions, and “playing” occur. By encouraging debate and a sense of adventure and openness, teachers can open their classroom to the possibility of deep innovation. By adding the component of reflection, teachers can help ensure that the ideas offered have time “to grow, develop, and be restructured” (Woolfolk).

For example, the ability to re-vision or re-purpose a tool allows us to problem-solve, to use that tool for a purpose it was not originally designed for. But if a student suffers from functional fixedness and fixates only upon the “intended” use of that tool, it’s difficult to see past the immediate. Another challenge is representativeness heuristics. This is when we’re tempted to make judgments or answer questions based only upon our prototypes, regardless of what might actually be (e.g. Woolcraft’s poetry-loving truck driver vs Ivy League classics professor). Because of confirmation bias (our desire to seek out proof that confirms our beliefs), we might not explore or be open to opposing viewpoints.

Unless directly prompted or guided, many students do not transfer new knowledge, skills, or learning strategies. This is problematic for learners because they will end up facing a variety of situations that require problem solving over the course of their lives. Inability to transfer skill sets from one situation to another means decrease in efficiency, loss of time and energy, and wasted learning. When learning is situated, students have difficulty seeing the connection to simple problem encountered elsewhere.

Teachers can help by first determining exactly what is worth learning and then ensuring that students over-learn that skill. Once students learn, understand, and practice forming abstractions, they are more like to transfer that knowledge to new situations. If teachers create learning environments that encourage self-regulation, independence, and collaboration, students are more likely to make personal meaning for themselves, which, in turn, leads to self-awareness. When students are able to both value and develop cognitive and motivational processes, they are more likely to transfer skills to new situations.