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Monday, July 28, 2008

Brain 2.0

I had a nice six hour drive today with my wife, Margaret, who is an ex high school counselor and teacher along with all the normal credentials and masters degrees, etc. Part of our conversation was in my changing belief about the importance of learning a bunch of facts that someone can look up at a later time. Does a student really need to know all the state capitals? I argued that it was more important for my kids to know:

a. when they might care about a capital in their life (when they might want to know about a capital) and how to look up a capital (and possibly how to check the accuracy if they are just using google).

than it was for them to know

b. the 50 capitals, states and the locations of the states.

Granted, I am sometimes amazed that people have no clue where a state is and I'm certainly happy that my kids have done well on the capitals/states tests in their lives, but I'm still pretty adamant that we should be looking at aiming at creativity, synthesis, composition, etc. more than memorization. We need to create students who are knowledge-able rather than knowledgeable.

I also had to vent on my poor wife about a question asked by a history professor in college. The class cost me my 4.0 GPA (and I only had to take it because of a weird rule that I couldn't count my AP US History Units against college world history so those AP Units did me no good ... the horror of the situation). In any case, the question was two parts multiple choice. (1) "What was the population in England in 1800?" (2) "What percentage worked in agriculture?". I actually knew the first part, because I believe that fully 10% of the population had moved to London which had grown to 1M people. (Now these facts could be completely wrong some 25 years later, but that's besides the point.) I got part 1 correct. The second part I had to guess between 25% and 35% or some such thing and still don't remember.

I could have told the professor about the move towards more urban and away from agriculture, but he didn't ask that. He didn't know if I knew the important concepts that he stressed in the class. No he had to ask a ridiculous memorization question. I vowed never to ask such a thing or at least to have all open book tests so that such questions were useless. And, I'm pretty sure I stuck to that pledge. But the rest of the world still asks these questions all the time.

And my wife certainly would. She feels it's still important to teach memorization and I don't disagree. You still need memory to be able to pull up how to look up the capitals and when it might apply. But my guess is that your brain would be organized significantly different if you were taught around concepts, and were taught when and how to look-up as opposed to all the little bits.

I get back from the trip and I see a post from Brent - There is no why Learning2.0? and I have to jump in and say that I'm not so sure that there's not something along the lines of a Brain 2.0 emerging. I'm not claiming that the brain itself has changed, but instead what's changing is:
  • metacognition
  • metamemory
  • access to information
  • access to other people
  • access to smart systems
all of this changes what the brain needs to do. A look inside the processing of problems by the brain of someone born today when they reach 40 vs. the brain of someone who is 40 today, I would guess is going to be quite different.


Anonymous said...

Tony, interesting post. I agree that we need more focus on what some call PBL (Problem Based Learning). While I IBM I participated in a large initiative out of a think tank in DC, The Council on Competitiveness, focused on assessing the US's global competitiveness on Innovation. One big point was we need more PBL in our education system. As a science major I couldn't agree more. Teach people how to solve problems and they are better equipped to compete.

everdream said...

Tony: Your college history story is a perfect example (and variation of what happened to me in a college course also) of why I became a professional educator and worked in public education for 10 years. My father is a Ph.D. and professor of Mass Media Law at the University of North Florida, and I used to think I wanted to be a professor as well. Then I learned that professors don't have to take any courses or have any certification in Instructional Design or Education at all! How ironic and even hypocritical, I thought. My dad agreed. He teaches using a derivative of the Socratic method instead of simple lecture.

Needless to say, public education reform is important to me and was a motivating factor in my career choice. But today I work as a corporate educator and not in public education. But the same is still true here: too many courses are just a regurgitation of memorized facts. This is the lowest level of the heirarchy (Bloom's taxonomy).

Your blog post reinforces the concept of Bloom's taxonomy. +1

bschlenker said...

Hi Tony! I share your frustration over the state of our educational institutions.
However, regarding the Brain2.0, I would encourage you to read Brain Rules and then lets talk to the author about it at DevLearn in November.
You can also check out his web site for some very cool videos.

Manish Mohan said...

Hi Tony
If your reaction to this video is Oh My Gosh!!! then your wife is right :-).

Anonymous said...

Why does it have to be either/or?

Mark Frank said...

An interesting post but I think we need to respect knowledge. I remember when I left uni(in 1972!) telling my tutor that my degree in philosophy was as useful as any degree because it gave me the meta-skills to gain and interpet whatever knowledge I would need in the unpredictable future. 35 years later I have come to have immense respect for the people who actually know their stuff (respect largely gained with IBM, Gemmill!). In the end an expert is not just someone who has techniques for finding answers. It is someone who has a large body of knowledge which allows them to acquire and integrate new knowledge very quickly. You can't usefully acquire facts without a context to put them in. There is a good chapter on this in "How People Learn" by Bransford et al.

None of this justifies your extraordinary History professor or takes away from the value of problem based learning.

Tony Karrer said...

Chris (Gammill) - Problem-based learning is definitely great. In fact, I always liked the model of using a problem that I knew students couldn't solve (or at least would be hard to solve) to set up learning about a topic - even if it was lecture.

Everdream - I too am somewhat amazed that I was allowed to teach for 11 years without any formal training on teaching. I had my role models and definitely used them as mentors. But certainly there was needless trial and error (of course there still is). And, you are right that this is Bloom 101 isn't it. But the question is level you need to get.

Brent - I've not read the book, but I've looked at the presentations. Looking forward to hearing from him.

Manish - that's exactly the kind of thing that I mean about lack of knowledge, but most of those folks were taught to memorize facts such as capitals at one point. Not sure I buy that this means my wife is right.

Doug - while it's not purely an either/or it's a question of where do you spend your time. In the context of the conversation with my wife, we were discussing the lack of study skills that many students have going into college. An example was using a textbook to study for tests. And knowing what would be important from the textbook. Well is a raw fact important? Or figuring out the main theme? Or being prepared to juxtapose it? It all came down to what the real expectation of the teacher (and the resulting test) was for the student. You study quite differently for each.

Mark - I agree that there needs to be something to attach things to and scaffolding for learning. And I completely agree that the ultimate goal is "meta-skills to gain and interpret whatever knowledge I would need in the unpredictable future."

However, my belief is that there's a finite amount of learning time that students have. You have to make choices about what to spend your time on. And truly with access to very rich, easily accessible information sources, some time is wasted on needless facts. My earlier post on Life is an Open Book test talks to this. We test all the time closed book, but that's not reality. And especially now. So there's some balance that's needed. But my belief right now is that we are tending to stick with what we all accept as the right stuff to test just because that's how all of us learned and we think it represents important base knowledge.

Still - I've never really used my knowledge of state capitals. Likely I would have been embarrassed to be asked the capital of some state on CNN a couple years ago before I had a refresher via my children. Actually, I wonder how our two presidential candidates would do? But, is that important base knowledge. Or would I have rather had them spend time learning how to find it and when/why it's relevant?

These are not easy questions ... and, unfortunately, my wife and I could not resolve it in the 2 or 3 hours we spent. If only the drive had been longer or we'd not been diverted onto other topics. ;)

Betsy said...

People have knowledge because they know how to find the information, but also because they are curious and they remember and can organize that information in their own head. Learning the names of the US states and their capital cities is best done in the context of studying various maps of the USA and world maps and globes and gaining a strong spatial sense of where things are located and how places differ. Of course, the activity of memorizing a meaningless list of names of states and cities is useless except in the context of wanting to remember them. The You-Tube video referred to by Manish Mohan was embarrassing, and we have long known that geography education here is very poor, but I have to believe they selected the worst cases and excluded anyone who knew the answers. On the other hand, as I watched the video I came up with Uganda as a country beginning with U and must admit that I didn't think of the USA. Maybe that's because most web sites helpfully but the USA on top rather than in alphabetical order. :-)

Anonymous said...

Once again, great post, Tony.
The question of whether we change how people learn is an interesting one, to say the least. We know that neuroscience has had much to say in recent years about the continued plasticity of the brain That makes me think that this argument is more semantic and philosophical than actual. While it may be true that we don’t change the manner in which the brain handles input at the genetic level, the brain itself is constantly being “updated” by our experiences, adapting itself to the input it receives. As new neural pathways are laid, the information coming in is then processed “differently.”
How does this relate to the debate of memorization vs concepts? I am inclined to believe that whether we are better at one or the other has to do with the brain’s constant adaptation. Obviously, we have the ability to do both. But as is accepted in personality studies, we know that over time our brains tend to wire themselves in such a way that favors one method of information processing over another based on individual experiences.
I personally stink at memorization and am way more conceptual in my thinking. Honestly, though, memorization and recall of exact data is critical to our day-to-day functioning and I, along with your wife, believe it’s one of those critical skills that we must continue to develop in our students. I don’t think I need to tick off the endless examples where this would be true (medicine, law, science, etc). Sometimes, conceptually close just won’t cut it…we need to be exact. And we may not have a high speed connection to the world wide brain at that specific moment.
I think the balance is in teaching students to improve memorization of critical data that can quickly link to and from the more expansive conceptual data.

V Yonkers said...

I just discovered the writings of
Rand Spiro
who distinguishes between ill-defined learning contexts and well-defined learning contexts. In essence, what he says is that there are differences in how we think (and learn) given each of these contexts. Traditional schooling has included the well-defined learning contexts (memorization, reformulating information, content based, discrete information and contexts). However, the digital age requires skills to navigate ill-defined contexts (reformulating the questions and problems, creating knowledge, a dynamic and consistently changing context).

I think that both are needed depending on the situation. I can teach rules of grammar, but non-native speakers must understand the context of the rules (sometimes there is a variety of language dependent upon speakers, purpose, region, etc...). On the other hand, sometimes it takes memorization to learn the irregular use of the language that marks if a person is a native or non-native speaker (i.e. knowing when to use two word verbs such as step up: step it up means something different than step up.

Tom Haskins said...

Tony: I also think there's something like Brain 2.0 emerging. I like your thoughts which seems partly like a McLuhanesque "extension of brain" with new technologies. After reading John Medina's brain Rules, I'd add the possibility that Brain 2.0 is knowing what our brains need in order to function optimally, recognizing signals of what to change for the brain's sake, learning in ways that synch up with brain functions and understanding others in terms of how their brains are getting deprived, misunderstood and tormented.

Clark said...

Tony, I couldn't agree more. The interesting thing is, technology (including 2.0) has essentially removed any limitations from what we want to do (e.g. Clarke's "any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"), and caused us to refocus on what we want to (or should) do. That's when we realize memorizing is for the days when we didn't have ubiquitous access. You do need to know things, but they're different (e.g. as you say, how to find things, not the things themselves). There's a new curriculum needed, and some people get it, but it's not NoChildLeftUntested.

Anonymous said...

Memorization skills enhance memory development in the formative years. It is a lazy teacher that teaches to fact based testing in higher education. It is so much easier to grade scantrons than to grade testing at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. So Tony, you have let me down… I did not say that memorization is most important in education. I did say that memorization is a skill that needs to be developed and sometimes information needed is not readily accessed.

Tony’s Wife – Margaret – A sometimes reader of his blog

Mark Frank said...

Great discussion. The more I think about this the more I am with Margaret.

Here's a few additional thoughts.

1) This debate is a lot older than the Internet. New technology just shifts the bar. Dickens mocked Gradgrind's model of education - "pitchers to be filled with facts" - in 1854. (A fact I knew which helped put this debate in context!)

2) To some extent this is a matter of values. Many people would argue that there is no point in knowing the capitals of all the States if you an easily look them up. Others might say that it is part of US culture and not to know them is as bad as not knowing the names of the planets (not being a US citizen I don't know whether this is reasonable)

3) "However, my belief is that there's a finite amount of learning time that students have. You have to make choices about what to spend your time on. And truly with access to very rich, easily accessible information sources, some time is wasted on needless facts." You can argue about which facts are needless (see 2 above) but this suggests a model of learning in which you somehow develop higher cognitive skills without any knowing any facts. As Margaret says, in the end you typically want to develop skills in the relevant domain that are higher up the Bloom taxonomy. But you need facts to apply, analyse, synthesise etc. and you need them in your mind not on a screen. Knowing stuff is one of the most important ways of making best use of those very rich, easily accessible information sources

Fascinating ....

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

This is a topical topic to say the least!

Marc Prensky attempted to spread the myth that the young of today have brains that have 'evolved' and are already different from the brains of people a generation or two ago. I'm afraid that the only thing in my brain that has developed through being introduced to that theory is what Carl Sagan rightly called the baloney detector.

I have no doubt that everyone's brain is different. There would probably be a greater difference between any two (unrelated) 40 year old persons' brains who are living today than between the two 40 year olds that you describe (all other things being equal). This is simply because memory plays such an important part in contributing to who we are and also how we think. Every experience contributes in small and more significant ways to these and everyone's experience sequence in life is truly unique, even in identical twins.

For my money, there is more likely to be a revolution in brain use and development when we begin to understand how to put the (brain) right and left hemispheres to better use, and also understand how such wonderfully complex and intelligent parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex, can be utilised for thinking, rather than what they are traditionally designated to do.

It is now known, for instance, that the blind use the visual cortex in a way different from normal sighted people. Consequently, people who are blind develop incredible directional hearing and have powers of perception that make them truly amazing when compared with even some extraordinary gifted sighted people.

It is also known that people who have had major strokes that disabled large areas of their brain almost to the extent that they were practically vegetables, have, through determination and sheer humanness, enabled the use of other parts of their brain to take over with astonishing results, so that through time, they were able to resume normal life activities without loss of quality of life or thinking capacity. These events have revolutionised the way the mind-specialists now look upon the brain and how it works.

And what does all this mean to me? Simply that the brain is undoubtedly an amazing piece of human equipment.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Tony Karrer said...

This has been some great discussion and it appears that it's not only my wife and I that may struggle a bit with these questions.

One thing I need to clarify is that I am not saying there is no need for any memorization of facts and certainly being able to pull up specifics to support your argument is often important - although knowing the actual fact or quote vs. being able to quickly access it because you know roughly what it is and can grab it ... that part may be up for debate.

And Mark - you are right that you probably can't build higher levels without facts - but you often can pose questions that require higher level thinking where they are solved without having to pull together all of the individual facts. It's all going to depend.

What's becoming clear to me is that we can be spending time teaching students how to become "filled with facts" and they can become expert at that process in order to pass the test or we can reduce that in order to help them focus on other things. I know this is not a new discussion, but it has a new emphasis given how easy it is to access information.

Ken - I take it you don't believe that brains wire differently based on how they are taught to learn things and work with information? Someone who is taught all sorts of memorization techniques is not wired differently from someone who doesn't know or use those techniques, but who instead works on building techniques for other kinds of thinking?

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony

I believe the term 'wiring' of the brain is a metaphor.

While there are different ways of teaching things to people, I'd say that it does not necessarily follow that the way the learning happens (the wiring) is different. Don't get me wrong here - I'm saying that it does not necessarily follow. This is your assumption, I take it, that if something is taught to someone through a particular process (or way) then the learning (and the way it is 'wired' in the brain) is necessarily specific according to the means used to teach.

But if I can use your assumption, it would then follow that what I said in my original comment fits with your idea, since then everyone would indeed be unique, even if it was at all possible that they all learnt the same things only through different means.

To a large extent this is indeed what happens. Even if they are from different families within the same cultural background, their experiences and the sequence in which even like experiences may have occurred, are going to be different.

I believe that these differences affect each individual's perception, and it would be reasonable to say that everyone's perception is not exactly the same because of this. This could be because (and according to your assumption) their brains are likely to be wired differently. I think this is a reasonable assumption for the brain of anyone at any age much beyond kindergarten stage.

But it would also be presumptive to believe that all brains are wired the same at birth - they probably are not.

I will use an example to illustrate my point about perception and how it affects learning. Take one fundamentalist and one agnostic. Neither has ever been introduced to Darwin's theory of evolution. It is conceivable that, even if these two people are taught about Darwin's theory using precisely the same method (let's say on a wiki or maybe a blog) that the way they have learnt will be quite different (because of different wiring to begin with).

I'm not at all suggesting that the fundamentalist would not learn the theory, quite the reverse. There are many fundamentalists who know Darwinian evolution well and even all its intricacies very well. But I can assure you their brains will be 'wired' differently on that piece of learning compared to that of the person who learnt about the theory and also thoroughly believed that it is valid.

So I challenge your assumption that just because learning happens specifically in a particular environment (elearning as opposed to, say, a classroom, or even a F2F tuition or using text-books) that the brain necessarily becomes wired in a particular way because of the method used in learning. I say it is just as likely to be affected by the learner's previous experiences, which from one learner to another will be different in each case.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Tēnā kōrua Tony and Mark!

I don't know if it's anything to do with the way my brain is wired or what, but on following your link to Bransford et al, Mark, I see that it is an advert for a book! A book! I've nothing against books, save us from their extinction!

However, as it happens my brain seems to be wired differently. Not only that, but I have a good memory (maybe that's why it's wired differently:-) for I recall citing Bransford et al in an article I wrote on elearning earlier this year with a link to the electronic copy :-)

John D Bransford, How People Learn.

Mark, I believe the chapter you refer to is How Experts Differ From Novices.

Tony, I'm sorry to have to admit this, but I agree with Bransford. It would appear that experience does make a difference to the way the brain is 'wired'. BUT you can save a trip to the bookseller and just click my links :-).

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Mark Frank said...

Blogger In Middle-earth

Thanks. I had no idea Bransford was available electronically (I am still glad I have a printed version as well).


Tony Karrer said...

Ken - this is likely a disagreement about the definition of wiring of the brain. I think of it in terms of attaching one piece of information to the next. In which case, what gets attached to what has the net effect of being wired differently. Thus, if you tell someone that knowing a given set of facts is unimportant, but stress that other information and ways of bringing that information back up is important - likely you create different wiring. And then as you attach more and more onto that structure, you have a network built differently.

As you say, it's all way more complicated than this, but I'm not sure I get where we disagree other than in my simplistic thinking of wiring and likely in what I think of as being the important stuff to wire things onto and helping people to pull things out against.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

Your premise is that we disagree. I'm not so confident about that. One of the useful things about blogging and commenting on posts is that differences of opinion can be aired and discussed. But what is so wonderful about this mode of discussion is that it gives the opportunity for all parties to reflect, not only on what they've read, but also on how they think.

In order to initiate discussion, I do believe that there has to be certain amounts of difference between the way people see things, however small.

I think what you are picking up from my comments on this (and I may be wrong:-) is that I disagree with how you think. I'll be quite firm about this - I know how you think for I read all your posts and comments. I may disagree with your opinion on a few nuances, but on this particular topic, I'm willing to admit to you that I feel strongly that the jury is out on it.

Frankly, I don't really know how the brain works, and I wonder if anyone does, but I have a fair idea from my own and the experience of observing others what patterns the brain exhibits in learning.

As I've said in comments before, the brain is a wonderful piece of human equipment. It is probably the most complex piece of equipment that you or I have ever come across. So I'm reluctant to make sweeping claims about its function and how its fabric works. Only by observing human action can we imagine models for how the brain operates, the basis of psychology I guess.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Tony Karrer said...

Ken - I very much appreciate the conversation and like you I enjoy when there is disagreement - real or based on misunderstanding and when conversation turns into something unexpected. So, I love that you challenge much of what I say/think - it helps me clarify a great many things.

Like you, I can't claim to have any real understanding of how the brain operates. I have this weird, fuzzy model based on a combination of experience, reading of researchers, and study of various AI approaches designed to mimic human learning. None of that actually amounts to anything approximating real understanding. But, I'm not sure science actually knows at this point. So, all of this must be theories anyhow.

Still, its worth comparing our hypothesis (what's plural of hypothesis?) to see how they then relate to questions like: What's important for people to learn? Does the ability to more quickly get to any fact change what's important? Will that change cause different learning? And different wiring?

One thing that I think likely you and I would agree on is that the terminology "2.0" always has the problem of suggesting that you leave "1.0" behind. That's not true in eLearning 2.0. And it's not true in this case (Brain 2.0). We still have to develop wiring that brings back facts. Although I wonder about bringing them back as the answer to a simplistic test question vs. bringing them up to support your position on a topic.

Thanks Ken for the great discussions.

Brad Andrews said...

WHile learning facts may seem useless, you can't do solid reasoning if you don't have a solid basis of facts to build upon.

So a college course had a stupid question? Who really cares? I really am not concerned whether you have a 4.0 or a 3.99, and I doubt you really are now, however "traumatic" it was at the time.

Most students don't face the challenge of a 4.0, so it is a rather strawman argument. Were you scarred for life? Getting scarred over that would indicate other problems.


Tony Karrer said...

Brad - having a foundation is important. It's more a question of the facts and the foundation that the teacher is trying to build. Was 25% vs 35% important or the general trends and concepts. But who really cares about any of that.

What's more important is the theme that the because of easy access to information and new metacognitive tools, things can and should be taught differently.

The story (which seems to be your focus) is not important. The theme is.