Monday, August 3, 2015

Dirksen's Design for How People Learn - Part 3

I find myself wanting more nuance from Dirksen as the book goes on. I find myself saying, “Yes but…” more often, especially in Chapter 6. There is nothing factually untrue with what Dirksen, but I think her choice of emphasis risks playing into some common misconceptions (and, thus in itself, not causing enough “friction” to overcome those misconceptions). One common misconception is that students should never be told anything directly. In fact, that misconception is so pernicious that is was also addressed by Wiggins and McTeague in Understanding by Design in 2005 and by Hattie and Yates in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn in 2014. Dirksen comes close to reinforcing this misconception in her discussion of friction and stickiness. Sometimes, if students have sufficient background knowledge, that form of direct instruction is the most efficient use of students’ working memory. It is more of a call, based on the teacher’s pedagogical-content knowledge (PCK), as to when telling is most appropriate. Otherwise, cognitive load theorists would argue that processing is being wasted on extraneous cognitive load instead of germane cognitive load. Likewise, if one is not familiar with Clark and Meyer’s Engagement Matrix (also known with slight modification as “The Activity Grid”). Cognitive engagement does not require behavioural activity; students can be engaged psychologically without behavioural activity (“Principled Presentations”) or along with behavioural activity (“Principled Engagement”). This misconception can lead to some of the worst kinds of so-called “constructivist” lesson planning, where some behavioural activity with limited psychological engagement does not activate or stimulate learning.
Another common misconception is that all student struggle to learn is positive and equal. While some struggle or “friction” is good, there is an optimal level of arousal that must be achieved for learning to occur. As I noted last week, a stressed, upset, or frustrated student’s amygdala will likely not root information for higher-order processing. That principle has been known for over 100 years; it’s known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which found a curvilinear relationship between arousal and performance. At both the low end of arousal and the high end of arousal, performance degrades. Students need to stay within the range of good “friction.” Too much friction and learning will not be as efficient.
Finally, since I also brought up the concept of “attention span” last week parenthetically (“The brain must stop paying attention to new information (attention span) to replenish the executive function.”), I don’t think it was correct for Derksen to be so dismissive about attention spans, that the concept is “silly.” I don’t think it’s a particularly good comparison between a learning situation and watching a movie since as she has already previously explained why we remember stories better than information. Attention span is how long we can devote to thinking hard about something. And, yes, there will be variations in attention span from person to person, day to day, and topic to topic. And the general guideline is that one can concentrate and think hard for roughly the equivalent of one’s age in minutes. I think that’s a good guideline to use. If you say that the concept of attention span is “silly,” you run the risk of people misinterpreting that idea and thinking that hours-long lectures are productive. In fact, most of her suggestions for keeping learners’ attention are strategies for replenishing executive function and reinforcing schema building and consolidation.

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