These days, in our ever complex society, it's becoming increasingly important to be able to think critically, in particular with young minds that can be easily molded. Understanding cognitive biases, logical fallacies and mental models at an early age may well give them and us the hope of a better and brighter future. The Decision-Making Blueprint by Patrik Edblad lists 45 of these important tools, though I will only focus on several that young learners in particular struggle with.
The status quo bias and the homeostasis model work hand in hand with many students. The status quo bias is the tendency to prefer things stay the same, while homeostasis is the state of a system that wants to maintain internal stability. For example, kids who say they don't like art or PE or math, continue to maintain that viewpoint. This could have come about because of confirmation bias, where people tend to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. So if a student does poorly on a math quiz, that confirms the "fact" that they are poor at math. All of these ways of thinking run counter to the growth mindset, where effort and dedication will lead to success, which is what teachers try to instill in learners. Connected to this idea is that of compounding. Most kids have trouble seeing too far into their future, but modest gains on a daily or weekly basis can achieve dramatic results, according to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. If you memorize your times tables 5 minutes, 3 times a week, for one week, the results might be negligible. However, if you maintain that for a whole year, then you will probably memorize them quite easily.
In some cases, students suffer from the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the tendency to be more confident the less you know. "If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent," says David Dunning. I think the simple graphic organizer, K-W-L, helps visualize the gaps in learning. Also, the W, which represents "want" is critical. What do students want to learn? Curiosity is one of the main bulwarks to remaining ignorant or incompetent.
Young kids also suffer from self-serving bias. For example, if a student gets a good mark, it's because of their effort or intelligence, but if they do poorly, it's because of the tough teacher or unfair tests. This goes hand-in-hand with the fundamental attribution error: when someone else makes a mistake, it's their fault entirely, but when you make an error, it's due to circumstance. A classic example would be if you hit a student in the head with a dodgeball; it was an accident and the ball slipped out of your hand or they ducked at the inopportune time. But if they hit you in the head, it was intentional and mean-spirited. This aptly segways into Hanlon's Razor (a subset of Occam's Razor), which is to never attribute to malice what can be explained by neglect. However, when you listen to countless arguments between kids, this is often the mental model that they base their thinking on. In addition, the availability bias, is a contributing factor--basing our judgments on what easily comes to mind. Kids (along with adults) often keep a mental record of all the wrongs done to them. Instead of a pattern of behavior, Hanlon's Razor would treat each as an isolated occurrence.
The 80/20 Principle, developed by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in the late 1800s, has proven to be a valuable principle today--essentially that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It would be wise and valuable to figure out what that 20% is in the classroom, which would result in 80% of the learning. It could be the basics of the curriculum--reading, writing and math; or it could be instilling curiosity, hard work, passion, self-directed learning, and the growth mindset. Or maybe which 20% of the students need the most support. Or something entirely different in another classroom.
On a final note, of course there are caveats for all of these biases, logical fallacies and mental models. Sometimes the opposite can be true. They are not 100% accurate all the time, so treat them as principles or guidelines, not laws or commandments.
Source: The Decision-Making Blueprint, Patrik Edblad, 2019
Is ultralearning the new method of learning? Can anyone do it? How effective is it? What is it, exactly?
The author, Scott Young, begins the book with a bang. He essentially completed the equivalent of an MIT engineering degree in one year, using ultralearning strategy. The book also describes his other experiences, such as learning four languages, in a year, as well as numerous stories of other friends and acquaintances that have learned in this unique manner. This includes Roger Craig of Jeopardy! fame and Eric Barone, who spent five years of his life creating a computer game called Stardew Valley entirely on his own. It sold over 10 million copies and he is now a multimillionaire. Of course, not all ultralearners achieve fame and fortune, but many achieve their goals of learning something new in an accelerated and intensive way.
So what is ultralearning? It is an rigorous self-directed strategy of learning. Right away this should tell you that it is not for the faint of heart. But it may be something that will continue to gain momentum for several reasons. First, Tyler Cowen, in his Average is over book, talks about "skill polarization," where only the top and bottom of the income spectrum is remaining, so more specialized, advanced skills are needed to succeed in this society. (Unless you want to be in the bottom layer.) As post-secondary education costs skyrocket, unless you need a required professional degree, this learning strategy is a cheap alternative. Finally, technology and endless resources allow for self-directed learning to soar to new heights.
Young discusses nine principles to ultralearning:
Principal #1: Metalearning; First Draw a Map
First, answer the 3 W(H)s. Why? Is your project instrumental (extrinsic) or intrinsic? For instrumental reasons, you'll need to do extra research. Find an expert and get advice. What? Get a piece of paper and write down Concepts, Facts, Procedures. How? Use benchmarking to compare what you want to learn with existing programs. Then you can Emphasize/Exclude elements that you need to achieve your goal. Spend about 5-10% of your time planning (this is essential).
Principal #2: Focus: Sharpen Your Knife
Problem #1: Failing to get started (procrastinating)
First find out why you're procrastinating. The main solution is to start! Five minutes, and later the Pomodoro Technique of 25 minutes, then 5 minute break.
Problem #2: Failing to sustain focus (Getting Distracted)
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pioneered the flow concept, that sweet spot of an activity--not too hard or too easy. K. Anders Ericsson, the psychologist behind deliberate practice, said flow did not occur during deliberate practice. Young feels that during ultralearning, you may or may not be in the flow state, but that is not of importance. Chunks of about 50 minutes are ideal for learning, if possible. Try to eliminate the distractions of the environment, task and mind.
Problem #3: Failing to create the right kind of focus
High arousal (energy, alertness) is good for simple tasks or intense concentration activities. These can be done in a slightly noiser setting, such as a coffee shop. Complex tasks (solving math problems or writing essays) require a more relaxed kind of focus. A quiet room is a good place to focus.
Principal #3: Directness: Go Straight Ahead
Directness is tying the learning as closely to the actual situation or context you want to use it in. He gave the example of a recent architectural graduate, Vatsal Jaiswal, whose program focused mostly on design and theory. After submitting hundreds of resumes with zero interest, Jaiswal decided to learn about two things: Revit (a current design software) and knowledge of architectural drawings. He then designed his own building using his newfound knowledge and skills. After applying to just two firms with his new portfolio, he was offered both jobs.
Educational psychology deals with the idea of transfer, and its failings. Psychologist Robert Haskell says that the research has shown that transfer of learning has been minimal at best. For example, college students who have taken a high school psychology course do no better than those who haven't take a course.
Here are some possible solutions:
Tactic #1: Project-based Learning
At the end of your project, you will have something to show for it. As well, a number of other subskills will be gained during the process.
Tactic #2: Immersive Learning
When possible, try to seek the environment or situation of the desired goal. If you are learning a language, then speak the language only in that location or with native speakers.
Tactic #3: The Flight Simulator Method
Of course, when the actual experience is impossible, then a simulation is fine. So Skype tutoring is better than flash cards.
Tactic #4: The Overkill Approach
Try to increase your directness by increasing your challenge. That means more risk-taking and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations. But if you can overcome your fears and anxieties you will achieve more much that much quicker.
Principal #4: Drill: Attack Your Weakest Point
Young highlights the rate-determining step, the "bottleneck" in the learning process. For example, in language learning, if you can increase your vocabulary dramatically, then your ability to speak with your existing language skills expands greatly. This is where drills come in. You can simplify a skill enough to focus your cognitive resources in one area.
Direct-Then-Drill Approach: First practice the skill directly; for example, learning programming by writing software. Analyze the skill and try to isolate components to improve on and create drills. Finally, go back to direct practice and integrate what you've learned.
Tactics: First, you need to figure out when and what to drill--what would be of most benefit. The key is to experiment, make a hypothesis, do some drills, then get feedback. Second, design the drill to produce improvement and transfer. Finally, remember drills can be hard, so be prepared to work hard and not quit.
Principal #5: Retrieval: Test to Learn
Psychologists Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt conducted a study in reading, examining students' choice of learning strategy: 1) review the text once; 2) review it repeatedly; 3) free recall; 4) concept mapping. The clear winner? Free recall (retrieving information without looking at the text), remembering almost 50% more than the other groups. Surprisingly, even when the final test was to produce a concept map, the free recall group performed better.
So if free recall is the best method of retrieval, why isn't it used more? That's because of our judgements of learning (JOLs). If we feel the learning task is easy, we believe we've learned it; on the other hand, the harder it feels, the less we think we know it.
Psychologist R.A. Bjork talks about the concept of desirable difficulty. Free recall tests tend to result in better retention than cued recall tests (multiple-choice). Giving a test immediately after learning is less effective than delaying a bit. However, too long of a wait results in information being completely forgotten. Also, testing more difficult material before you are "ready" is more efficient. Even giving the final exam (a pre-test) has benefits, known as the forward-testing effect. The analogy is that of laying down a road leading to a building that has yet to be built. The mechanism could also be of attention. Your mind uses its attentional resources to spot information you learn later on.
Methods of Recall:
Principal #6: Feedback: Don't Dodge the Punches
Why does famous comedian Chris Rock perform at the modest Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village, NY, from time to time? He wants honest, sometimes brutal feedback--an essential component of ultralearning.
Feedback can be a tricky thing. In a large meta-analysis, Avraham Kluger and Angelo DeNisi found that although the overall effect of feedback was positive, over 38% was negative.
There are three types of feedback: 1) outcome: an aggregate or broad-scale form, like a letter grade; 2) informational: this explains what's going wrong but not how to fix it, like an error message in coding; 3) corrective: this is the best form and it comes from a coach, mentor or teacher who can pinpoint mistakes and correct them.
How quick should feedback be? According to James A. Kulik and Chen-Lin C. Kulik, in applied studies, immediate feedback in usually more effective than delay. Yet in lab studies, delaying the correct response was more effective.
Tactics to improve feedback:
Principal #7: Retention: Don't Fill a Leaky Bucket
Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the forgetting curve, an exponential decay in knowledge especially right after learning. The reasons why: 1) time: memories decay with time; 2) interference: overwriting old with new memories; 3) forgotten cues: memories are inaccessible.
Memory mechanism #1: Spacing: Find a perfect gap between learning sessions. Spaced-repetition systems (SRS) are tools to help. Both tech and paper tools work.
Memory mechanism #2: Proceduralization: declarative skills become procedural often, so emphasize a core set of reusable information that have longer lasting effects
Memory mechanism #3: Overlearning: if you study and learn beyond the adequate, you can remember it for a longer period of time. Personally, that's probably why I still remember by multiplication facts instantly even after 4 decades or more.
Memory mechanism #5: Mnemonics: overall, they are rigid and specific but powerful tools that work as intermediaries to memory, but not a strong foundation to base learning efforts on
Principal #8: Intuition: Dig Deep Before Building Up
Rule 1: Don't Give up on Hard Problems Easily: Push yourself even beyond frustration. Even if you fail, you'll more likely remember how to get to the solution when you find it.
Rule 2: Prove things to understand them: Rebecca Lawson talks about the "illusion of explanatory depth." People think they know more than they do. For example, most couldn't draw a bicycle properly or explain how it worked.
Rule 3: Always start with a concrete example: We go from concrete to abstract. Also, how we think about something is more important than how much time we spend. This is known as the levels-of -processing effect.
Rule 4: Don't fool yourself: The Dunning-Druger effect is when a person believes he or she knows more than experts.
Principal #9: Experimentation: Explore outside your comfort zone
Vincent van Gogh was not a child prodigy and suddenly start painting sunflowers and stars. In fact, he started late, 26, and tried countless styles, resources and techniques. The lesson learned is that experimentation is critical for ultralearning. Scott considers experimentation as an extension of the growth mindset, a concept from psychologist Carol Dweck. Experimentation creates a plan to reach those potential opportunities.
All in all, I think ultralearning has its place, particularly in non-school settings, with motivated and self-directed learners, although there are definitely a number of strategies and techniques that could be applied in any educational setting. The only way to know for certain how effective it is for you, of course, is to try it.
Source: Ultralearning, Scott H. Young, 2019
Benefits of curiosity:
How to maintain curiosity?
Role models are important. In an experiment with kindergarten children behind one-way glass, they saw their parents do one of three things: 1) play with objects on a table; 2) look at the table; 3) ignore the objects as they chatted. Later on, the children whose parents touched the objects did so themselves when given the opportunity.
Children want to talk; they just need the opportunity. Dinner table conversations also varied the amount of questions by the child. Of course, the more interest and open-ended questions resulted in a more curious and engaged child, compared to kids whose parents simply told them the "answers." Interestingly, toddlers may ask up to 26 questions per hour at home but just two per hour at school. Even worse, a researcher often observed during grade 5 lessons that two hours would pass without a single expression of active interest by students. On a surprising note, the expression of interest is directly correlated to the number of times a teacher smiles during the lesson.
In 2016, a study in Chile with 10th graders showed that the poorest children with a growth mindset performed at well as the richest children in the sample. In other words, a growth mindset may be able to compensate for many of the built-in disadvantages of being poor.
Even for someone whose genius seems almost "magical," Nobel-prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, made his groundbreaking discovery when he decided to just have fun and play and experiment with questions he personally was interested in. It was this renewed curious mindset that led him to watch a man in the Cornell cafeteria throw, spin and catch plates in the air. He connected that with an electron's orbit, which eventually led to his theory of quantum electrodynamics. Feynman also acknowledges all the blood, sweat and tears (and drudgery) needed to achieve his accomplishments.
Source: The Intelligence Trap, David Robson, 2019
Zest is enthusiasm for and enjoyment of something. John Holt wrote in 1967 that since we don't don't what people need to know in the future, "we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned." This makes a lot of sense and is similar to lifelong learning.
The authors break down zest for learning into two bodies of knowledge: psychology of flourishing (psychology traits, theories of intelligence, positive psychology and psychology of motivation) and education for flourishing (purpose and pedagogy). So they cover a lot of varied but interrelated topics. This entry will be more of a brief summary of key ideas.
The psychological traits needed for zest can be summed up with the mnemonic OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Embracing novel experiences, risk taking and taking on new challenges is a big part of zest.
Theories of intelligence related to zest are cognition, experiential learning, deliberate practice (expertise) and experience flow. Zestful learners find meaning, both in body and mind. Experiential learning began with John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget, and the experiential learning cycle involves thinking, acting, experiencing and reflecting. The authors argue that the learning that happens in classrooms is as valuable as "real-life" learning. As much as teamwork and collaboration is held in high esteem in learning and society, deliberate practice is often best done alone, as in the case of elite athletes (Anders Ericsson). There is some disagreement with deliberate practice and flow, coined by Csikszentmihalyi. Angela Duckworth, who focuses on grit, explains that deliberate practice helps in preparation, but in the performance flow happens. Cal Newport and Jordan Peterson feel that flow might keep people in thrall but not actually improving. Duckworth is more positive about flow and feels grit is necessary to keep in the flow. Grit comes through four ways: 1) cultivate your interests; 2) develop a habit of daily challenge-exceeding-skill practice; 3) connect your work to a purpose beyond yourself; 4) learn to hope when all is lost!
Positive psychology studies well-being, self-actualization and flow. Similar to flow is the notion of "the zone" (Ken Robinson) when activities are "completely absorbing," A word of caution regarding the self-esteem movement, based on dispositions and character strengths, which carried to the extreme can lead to narcissism. The authors believe self-esteem based not on subjective feelings but rather the innate value and dignity of human beings is a wiser approach. Peterson and Seligman have identified 24 character strengths, based on six virtues, related to zest: 1) wisdom and knowledge; 2) courage; 3) humanity; 4) justice; 5) temperance; 6) transcendence. Carol Dweck's growth mindset also connects to this area of positive psychology; as well, maintaining optimism, physical activity and social well-being are all important aspects of zest.
The psychology of motivation is related to performance (though there are differences, of course). Performance has been turned into an equation by Campbell and Pritchard (1976):
performance = f (aptitude level x skill level x understanding of the task x choice to expend effort x choice to persist x choice of degree of effort to expend x facilitating and inhibiting conditions not under the control of the individual)
Four key factors for motivation are based on two habits:
1) performing well (feedback from good performance; expectation of good performance; goals worth pursuing) and 2) finding meaning (a sense of purpose)
Maslow (1970) identified 15 characteristics of people who are able to self-actualise. The following 8 are related to zest:
Source: Zest for Learning, Bill Lucas & Ellen Spencer, 2020
This book, written by Howard Eaton, caught my attention because of my recent interest in learning disabilities.
The basis of the Brain School is neuroplasticity, or basically the ability of the brain to adapt. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, neuroplasticity is the “capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.” This is good news when you consider the people suffering from serious disorders and illnesses related to the brain, such as stroke, injury, autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, brain deficits, depression and addiction.
A psycho-educational assessment measures a variety of areas with a percentile rating (25% - 75% is average range, while 50% is age-level ability) :
ARROWSMITH PROGRAM (19 cognitive dysfunctions and common features)
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PSYCHO-EDUCATIONAL ASSESSMENT AND THE ARROWHEAD ASSESSMENT
The purposes of the two assessments are very different. The psycho-educational assessment seeks to diagnose a learning disability, assist in skill remediation, in-class adaptations, and assistive technology. The Arrowhead assessment is used solely to design the cognitive capacity training intervention for achievement acquisition. Psycho-ed assessments take about three to four hours, while the Arrowhead assessment can take several hours more. The psycho-ed assessments finds percentile scores on measures of intelligence, cognitive ability, and achievement in reading, writing and math. The Arrowhead assessment does not measure reading, spelling, or mathematical abilities but rather cognitive areas, and results falls on a spectrum from very severe to moderate to mild to above average.
It is unique in some ways. It goes from 8:30 to 3:00 pm, and has eight periods; six of those are cognitive classes, each 40 minutes long, and the other two are English and math. The focus of the school is cognitive remediation. There are two teachers per classroom, so the teacher-student ratio is around one-to-nine. When a student masters a cognitive exercise, a new one is started. Students keep track of their achievements and set new daily goals. In one word, students are focussed--on cognitive exercises, active engagement, and repetition. Despite the intensity of the cognitive classes, students engage in other activities, as well. Daily physical education is 40 minutes a day, and students can participate in extracurricular activities, such as field trips, plays, guest artists, track and field and a talent show.
Source: Eaton, Howard, 2011. Brain School. Vancouver, Glia Press.
Willingham's cognitive principle is children differ in intelligence, but the good news is intelligence can be improved through persistent hard work. This has been the Asian educational view for a long time, although with Dr. Dweck's growth mindset ideas, Western thought is changing in that direction. Intelligence is essentially how "people reason well and catch on to new ideas quickly." The current view of intelligence is that there is a general intelligence (g), which contributes to verbal and mathematical intelligence. Therefore, verbal scores are related to math scores, although individual verbal scores relate closer to each other. The "g" is not clearly known, but could be related to the speed or capacity of working memory.
What Makes People Intelligent?
It's the classic nature vs. nature debate; is it genetics or the environment that makes people intelligent? Through many twin studies, genes are responsible for about 50 percent of our smartness. What's interesting is that is starts off young, about 20 percent, then increases to about 60 percent in later life. The bottom line: genetic effects can make people seek out or select different environments. For example, imagine you start off life with a little better memory, more persistence, or simply more curiosity. Your parents pick up on this trait subtly, and begin to use a larger vocabulary or discuss deeper-thinking ideas. This leads you to spend more time with "smarter" kids, and grades become a natural focus. On the other hand, genetically you may not have the physical abilities, which leads you to avoid many sports and instead pick up a book and read instead.
Though genetics plays a large role, intelligence is malleable and can be improved.
Implications for the Classroom
Praise Effort, Not Ability
You want kids to understand they are in control of their intelligence. Praise effort, persistence, and taking responsibility for the work. Be careful of insincere praise, as kids are not easily fooled.
Hard Work Pays Off
Remind students that it takes hard work to be smart, just like it takes hard work and practice to be a successful athlete; natural talent can only take you so far.
Failure leads to Learning
Again, the most successful people (think entrepreneurs, inventors, athletes) take risks and fail in order to succeed. Michael Jordan talks about all his mistakes and failures on the court, which ultimately led to his greatest successes. Remind students that failure is not necessarily embarrassing or negative; it's an opportunity to learn something new.
Study Skills are Necessary
Help struggling students with techniques and methods of effective studying, memorizing, and organizing their time. They need to be self-disciplined and resourceful, as well.
Catching Up is the Goal
In order to catch up with the brighter students, they will need to work even harder than them. There is no easy solution or magic pill. They may need to revamp their entire schedule and drop activities that do not contribute to their educational goals.
Show Confidence in Them
As a teacher, set high standards and expect students to meet them. If they do an substandard job, simply state what they have done and give them feedback for improvement. Do not overpraise them for a mediocre job.
Source: Willingham, Daniel T., Why Don’t Students Like School? (2009)
PERSONAL VS. SITUATIONAL
Pessimist: "I'm dumb."
Optimist: "That was a challenging test."
Pessimist: "I always get stuck with a weak partner."
Optimist: "I need to help my partner improve."
PERMANENT VS. SHORT-LIVED
Pessimist: "That team always beats us."
Optimist: "We are learning what it will take to beat them."
Pessimist: "I'll never figure out how to do math."
Optimist: "I'll need to spend extra time practicing these problems at home."
PERVASIVE VS. SPECIFIC
Pessimist: "There's no way I can find the time to do all of this. I have soccer practice tonight. My teacher gives me too much homework."
Optimist: "I'll have to use my time more wisely in class. If I spend 45 minutes a night studying, I can get my assignments completed."
Source: adapted from The Champion's Comeback, Jim Afremow, (2016)
Fixed: I can't execute this skill.
Growth: I'm going to devote more practice time to honing this skill.
Fixed: I am so embarrassed by this mistake.
Growth: I will learn from this mistake.
Fixed: I should be able to make changes quickly.
Growth: It takes time and effort to build winning habits.
Fixed: The other player (or team) is too good.
Growth: Playing against good players (or teams) is one of the best ways to improve my own performance.
Source: The Champion's Comeback, Jim Afremow (2016)
What does it take to become an expert in a field? Conventional wisdom tells you do something for 10000 hours, and voila, you’re an expert! No, says K. Anders Ericsson, an expert in the field of expert-level skill acquisition, who’s a professor psychology at Florida State University. It’s not how much time your spend learning, but how you use that time. Experts parse their learning into tiny slices or segments, practice that one action endlessly, but most importantly, they observe what’s happening and make imperceptible adjustments to improve. This goes for athletes, surgeons, chefs or spelling bee champions. Ericsson refers to this as deliberate practice: small tasks are repeated with immediate feedback, correction and experimentation.
The question is this: Are our students and we as teachers engaging in deliberate practice? Or are we just doing the same things over and over, without knowing what and how to change? Are we improving over time and growing, or just spinning our wheels in the mud?
(Source: Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock)
Dr. Carol Dweck has studied this area extensively. A fixed mindset is where a person is very pessimistic. They believe that their personal qualities are unalterable and negative experiences reveal their inherent limitations. The growth mindset is one where people assume that effort and dedication will shape achievement and failure is just an obstacle to overcome.
To support the growth mindset, we should praise effort and limit criticism of our students. Also, more importantly, we should encourage children's pursuit of challenges and focus proactively and what they can do right now to take on those challenges.
I think even as teachers we sometimes fall prey to the fixed mindset. We might look at a student and feel as if nothing is going to change, that today will be just like yesterday. But we need to remember to use our concerted effort and come up with fresh, creative solutions to overcome the present-day obstacle. As Albert Einstein once said: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.