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
This book is chockful of excellent ideas, strategies and techniques, as well as great stories, to help people both acquire good habits and eliminate bad ones. I will attempt to note as much as I possibly can, and relate them to education and learning.
The title of the book and the thrust of it is scaling down to the "atomic" level, or to as small steps or manageable blocks of action. The author, James Clear, talks about the difference in improving by 1% a day over a year (37.78) vs. declining by 1% over the same span (0.03). So thinking small in the short term can amount to huge gains in the future. Of course, Clear talks about people and their desire for immediate gratification (the now), which is stronger than delayed gratification (the future). Short-term gains have longer-lasting negative consequences; long-term gains give you long-lasting benefits.
The waiting game is difficult, something the author calls the Plateau of Latent Potential. An ice cube sits in a room getting ever warmer, with little change. Suddenly, at 0 degrees C, it begins to melt. If our goal is like waiting for the ice to melt, we may be sorely disappointed. Instead of goals, focus on systems. If you're a teacher, your goal is to teach students to learn the curriculum. Your system is the way you manage the class, assess students, and create engaging and effective lessons.
I like how he talks about the importance of identity, and not just processes and outcomes. If we start from the outcomes and move towards identity, we may never reach our core identity. Instead, think every time you write a paragraph, you are a writer. The process is simple: 1) decide the type of person you want to be; 2) show it with small wins. Who do you want to be? Then do the small actions that demonstrate that kind of person. Are you a teacher who believes students should have a voice and choice? Do your actions reflect that belief system?
Clear describes the four stages of habit, a feedback loop: problem (cue, craving); solution (response, reward). For example, a student gets stuck on a math problem (cue); she wants to relieve the frustration (craving); she asks to go to the washroom (response); reward (to satisfy craving and avoid work, she escapes from the problem).
How to Create a Good Habit
To break a bad habit, we do the opposite.
Law #1: Make it obvious
To begin a good habit, use the implementation intention, essentially stating specifically what you plan on doing: I will [behavior] at [time] in [location]. I will exercise for one hour at 5pm in my gym. Once this habit is established, then move on to BJ Fogg's habit stacking formula: After I [current habit], I will [new habit]. Thinking: After I hang up my coat, I will sit down and work on the morning questions. Then add another habit, beginning a cascading effect of habits. After I finished the problem, I will hand it in. Then I will read a book in my desk.
In 1936, psychologist Kurt Lewin wrote the equation, B=f (P,E), where behavior is a function of the person in their environment. A clear example is the phenomenon tested by economist Hawkins Stern in 1952, called Suggestion Impulse Buying. Essentially the more available a product or service is, the more likely it will be bought or used. More expensive brand-name items are at eye level and at the end of aisles. This makes clear sense when you realize that about 10 million out of 11 million sensory receptors are for vision. Many teachers have realized that fact and have created their classrooms as environments that accentuate their values and desired behaviors. More books means more reading. More tech means more virtual learning. More sports equipment means more active children. If you have student art or work on the walls, you're sending the message that their efforts are worthy to be displayed.
Law #2: Make it attractive
You will need to use temptation bundling, created by professor David Premack, where "more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors."
To add a habit that is not as desired, use the habit stacking + temptation bundling formula: After I [current habit], I will [habit I need]. After [habit I need], I will [habit I want].
For example, if you want to watch YouTube, but you have to do homework:
1. After I open my web browser, I will do 20 minutes of homework (need).
2. After I do the homework, I will watch 10 minutes of YouTube (want).
Another important facet is realizing the power of peer pressure from three groups: the close, the many, and the powerful. First, we tend to imitate the behaviors of those closest to us, our family or friends. Your chances of becoming obese is 57% greater if you have a friend who became obese. So a good idea is join a group where you behavior is normal and you have a commonality. Second, the influence of the many (the tribe) is seen with reviews on Amazon or Yelp. Third, we copy those who are powerful or successful.
So, how do we enjoy hard habits, things we dislike doing? One way is to shift your mindset. Instead of saying I have to go to work, say you get to go to work. A man in a wheelchair was asked how it felt to be confined to it. Instead he replied that he was liberated! Without it he would be bed-bound and stuck in his house. It's a shift in perspective, mindset, and counting your blessings.
Law # 3: Make it easy
Habits are formed when behaviors become automatic through repetition. This is known as long-term potentiation, first described by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949, known as Hebb's Law: "Neurons that fire together wire together."
The most effective form of learning is practice, not planning; action, not being in motion. A film photography class at the University of Florida was conducted in an unusual way. Half the class would be graded on quantity (100 photos an A, 90 a B, 80 a C, etc.) while the other group would be grade on "quality." They only needed to produce one photo for an A, but it had to be nearly perfect. What happened? The quantity group produced the best photos, with all their practice with lighting, composition, making mistakes, while the quality group spent all their time thinking about the best photo, but ultimately producing a mediocre one.
So practice, practice, practice to create a habit.
Reduce the friction involved in doing good habits. The Law of Least Effort states that people will choose the easiest option between two. That's why scrolling on our phones or checking email is so commonplace. It takes little to no effort. Meal delivery services reduce the friction of shopping for groceries.
So to make your habit have less friction, prime your environment. Want to draw more? Then put your pencils and paper on your desk. Want to send a card to a friend? Have a box of cards all ready for all occasions. The opposite holds true. Want to use your phone less? Put it in a different room or tell a friend to hide it for a few hours. Out of sight, out of mind.
Clear talks about decisive moments in our day, and we have so many, but each individual choice will lead to further choices (good or bad), which will ultimately decide how good our day was. So choose wisely. Also, the Two-Minute Rule is key: a new habit should take less than two minutes to do. Start tiny. To start to exercise, change into workout clothes. That's it! Next phase is to step outside, and maybe walk. Eventually, you're get to exercising three times a week. This will also prevent procrastination.
Law #4: Make it satisfying
The Cardinal rule of Behavior Change: What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. For a habit to stick, you need to feel some kind of reward, however small immediately. You can move money into a money jar to save for a vacation. You can track your habit with a measurement tool as a motivator. Just be careful that you're tracking the right thing.
There's a ton more, but that's about I can manage. Plus I have to return it to the library.
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.