How CAN we help our students be the kind of thinkers we want?
My friend and colleague, @brendasherry, recently wrote a thoughtful post called What is Deep Understanding? She asked several excellent questions:
- what kind of thinkers do we want our students to be?
- what is deep understanding?
- can schools really provide the learning environment to nurture and develop it?
In thinking about these questions, I would like to ask: “How can we help novice learners become more expert learners?” Read more
Can Students Multitask? This is the Wrong Question.
I hear it all the time from students. “I am doing my work! I’m multitasking.” And, in fact, they often are flipping back and forth between the ‘task at hand’, Facebook, internet radio, YouTube, etc.
“I am doing my work! I’m multitasking.”
I won’t debate the issue of multitasking itself in this post. That one is open for discussion later. Briefly, many people are now saying that, in fact, people don’t multitask. They suggest that your mind is switching back and forth (sometimes rapidly) between thought streams or tasks. Parallel processing models of computation, on the other hand, would suggest that you can indeed multitask. However, that is not the big question for me. I would suggest it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’.
…it is more a matter of ‘available mental effort’
Mental effort is not unlimited. It is somewhat finite. However, when you are working on a task it is often the case that it does not occupy your total ‘mental effort’. You may have some spare mental capacity.
Mindful Engagement & Expertise
There are three options for allocating your spare mental capacity.
One, you may exert NO effort, or intentional control, over the extra mental capacity and just allow ideas and thoughts to enter your mind at random… responding to external or internal stimuli such as a phone ringing or voices overheard.
Second, you may choose to direct that spare mental capacity to something specific, yet unrelated to the present task. For example, you may think about an upcoming holiday, or your child’s next sporting event.
Third, you may choose to direct the extra mental effort back into the task itself… evaluating effectiveness, determining better strategies, reflecting on generalizations to other similar, or different, domains. ‘How am I doing?’ ‘What could I do differently next time?’ ‘How can I kick it up a notch?’ Thus you are reinvesting all your efforts into maximizing performance and generalizable skills.
I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’.
This latter example characterizes ‘expertise’ and ‘expert learners’. I am always encouraging my students to become ‘expert learners’. If they are not reinvesting their extra mental energy back into the task in this intentional, metacognitive fashion, then, in my opinion, they are not ‘doing their work’ effectively.
I have found this explanation useful to students when they claim that they are ‘doing their work’.
Disclaimers – but a few:
I will grant that there may be environmental conditions that may enhance ‘flow’ or ‘state of mind’. For example, Baroque music – at 40–60 beats per minute – encourages beta brainwave activity that is associated with relaxation. Not that most of our students are listening to baroque! However, the point is made that some music, as an example, may be conducive to guiding the brain to a better place for learning.
It is also understood that there are other parameters to this discussion. For example, if I am intentionally directing spare mental effort elsewhere – to another ‘purposeful’ task, one could say that I am becoming an ‘expert generalist’. After all, ‘specialization is for insects’ – said Robert Heinlein.
And indeed, there are personality factors, mood factors, variety and quantity of modalities engaged, and, of course, the inherent level of demand of the ‘task at hand’. It may be fairly ‘mindless’ or absolutely uninteresting and inconsequential to my life.
Novice and Expert Learners – From: M. Suzanne Donovan, John D. Bransford, and James W. Pellegrino (eds.), How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, xiii.
Expert Learners – a post from Will Richardson
Thank you to Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter for their inspiration to me regarding ‘expertise’.
- The Multitasker’s Guide to Happiness (aolhealth.com)
- Is Social Media Multitasking Worse Than Marijuana? (clickz.com)
- What is the Quality of Education in Online Programs and Classes? (thebestdegrees.org)
- Multitasking is still a lie (christopherspenn.com)
- To Multitask Effectively, Focus on Value Not Volume (blogs.forbes.com)
What’s Dynamic Scaffolding?
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. The student should ideally be engaged at the outside limit of competence.
Advancing one’s knowledge, by definition, requires that one operates in advance of one’s level of competence. One may conceive of the ZPD as being a zone just in advance of the student’s position of competence. It is in this zone where learning and development occur.
But this may be a wide zone – a large ‘depth of field’, if you like. The inner edge of the ZPD (close to total competence) is characterized by tasks that can be carried out with a minimum of support whereas at the outer edge of the ZPD a greater amount of scaffolding is required. A great deal of complexity is inherent in assuming control of ‘scaffolding’ within that zone. Is this possible, or best handled, by others?
A great deal of complexity is inherent in assuming control of ‘scaffolding’ within the ZPD. Is this possible, or best handled, by others?
Novice & Expert Learners
There are common behaviours that are characteristic of relative levels of expertise. Novice learners display approaches that are consistent across domains. So do expert learners. This theoretically allows for an easier determination of one’s position on this novice-expert continuum due to similarities of strategic approaches or behaviours. One may therefore be able to identify a ZPD just in advance of this position. For example, a novice may not think to generate a variety of possible solutions before embarking on one approach to a task, whereas a more expert student might, so one could afford opportunities for this generation of alternate strategies to occur. However, as the student gains expertise and moves up the continuum, the ZPD is always in advance. Therefore, it necessitates that the ‘cognitive partner’ provide ‘dynamic’ support or scaffolding. Not just the gradual quantitative reduction of support as the learner acquires more competence in a particular skill, but a qualitative shift because now new competencies become attainable with appropriate support. An ‘optimal mismatch’ needs to be maintained. This is quite a challenge.
…the ‘cognitive partner’ needs to provide ‘dynamic’ support or scaffolding.
Robbie Case developed a theory & technology of instruction that focused on analysis of novice-expert behaviours and procedures and the design of “successive stages for transforming the novices procedures into more expert-like ones” (Bereiter & Scardamalia). My own work on spelling acquisition was consistent with this work. It was determined that relative expertise in spelling could be acquired by identifying and supporting stages & procedures in between novice and expert. However, it is still questionable whether this determination and judgement of one’s position might not best be assigned to the student rather than the teacher or other. In this work on spelling acquisition, there was student involvement in the analysis of the progression of learning. I remember asking them to think they were holding a video camera just above themselves…that they were watching themselves. What do they see?
Who’s in Charge?
Is an outside individual able to determine the appropriate support to advance another’s expertise?
Is an outside individual able to determine the appropriate support to advance another’s expertise? With such complexity involved, even though there are general patterns among novices and experts, many of us believe that one should be proactive in one’s own construction of knowledge within the ZPD. The teacher often assumes responsibility for this learning process and I am suggesting that we turn over this responsibility to the student. This already occurs in many other settings and does not mean abandoning scaffolding.
Bruner (in Toohey) suggests in regard to parent-child interactions “…mothers most often see their role as supporting the child in achieving an intended outcome, entering only to assist or reciprocate or ‘scaffold’ the action.” Donald Graves (in Writing : Teachers & Children at Work, 1983 p.271) says that “scaffolding follows the contours of child growth”. Both Bruner and Graves identify that the child is in control while the adult remains sensitive and responsive.
However, often scaffolding in schools means the ‘imposition’ of a structure on the student. Is a sheet of questions outlining steps on how to proceed on a science experiment effective scaffolding? “Whose intentions are being honored” asks Searle (in Jordan, 1997)? “The adequacy of the metaphor implied by scaffolding hinges on the question of who is constructing the edifice.” (in Jordan, 1997)
“The adequacy of the metaphor implied by scaffolding hinges on the question of who is constructing the edifice.”
Here is an example of a child in charge of the construction of new knowledge within the ZPD. This is a description of a parent’s support of a child who is learning to count to 100. The child can manage alone through each set of ones, but needs to be prompted at each ‘ten’.
Further on, perhaps at another session the adult may only have to shape her mouth like the initial sound of the tens number for the child to say it. It is in this way that an adult can collaborate in the ZPD. The adult initially needs to provide considerable scaffolding, but scaffolding is only a temporary building structure that is gradually reduced and withdrawn as the student constructs the knowledge and competence necessary to continue unaided. A cognitively sensitive, attuned adult allows the control of the ZPD to remain in the hands of the student.
A cognitively sensitive, attuned adult allows the control of the ZPD to remain in the hands of the student.
C:“Don’t tell me!!”
A:“Sorry, I didn’t know whether to help.”
C:“67..68..69..Don’t tell me…Don’t tell me…(pause)…Give me a hint..”
Here the adult has attuned to the ‘depth of field’ of the ZPD (on this task) and has allowed and encouraged control to remain with the student.
More Complex Problem Spaces
I recognize that the above examples illustrate the concepts with relatively simple learning tasks. The same holds, I believe, for more complex problem spaces. Much of my everyday work with students struggles in those spaces.
So before David Jakes started his keynote presentation at RCAC the other day, he walked past our table – where a bunch of twitterers were poised to backchannel as he presented. David made a comment about the efficacy of backchanneling while a speaker is on stage. We ended up in a quick discussion about this phenomenon and about the criteria surrounding effective backchanneling.
I believe that this is in its infancy (with these new media) and requires some controversial discussions.
Types of Backchanneling during a Presentation (via twitter, chatroom, etc.)
- to share the content out to a wider audience
- to create online notes (easily retrieved later via a hashtag)
- to pose questions that the presenter to which a presenter could respond (best managed by a moderator)
- to make associations with prior knowledge and note/describe that
- to share related links to websites or other resources
- to discuss or engage in conversation with others (in the room or at a distance)
Mental Effort and Cognitive Load
I would suggest that the first three of these are extremely similar to things we have traditionally done in the past…taking notes.
However, the last three – and specifically the last one – require a greater intensity of mental effort. Mental effort is not unlimited. It is somewhat finite. So if we are expending a percentage of our mental effort into conversation, we are taking our concentration and effort away from what the speaker is currently saying.
I was teaching my daughter to drive with a standard transmission yesterday. She is an experienced driver, but because managing the clutch, the gearshift, the gas, and the brake were quite new to her, she was quite overwhelmed. However, her level of expertise in the other aspects of driving – traffic patterns, rules of the road, etc. – allowed her to more easily cope with the new demands
If you are merely note taking or posing questions, this does not necessarily draw upon a great amount of mental effort. However, if you are engaged in making associations and documenting them, or involved in a discussion about issues in the backchannel, you are definitely expending a greater amount of your mental energies in those activities.
Factors Impacting Efficacy of Backchanneling
Having said that, there are other factors that are at play here. It is not a simple equation. Consider the following factors of the presentation and its delivery:
- level of expertise with the material/content (more expertise with the content may require a lower cognitive load and therefore free up some mental space to engage in other activities)
- engaging characteristics of the speaker/speed of delivery
- variety and quantity of modalities provided in the presentation
- learning style
In other words, a fast-paced presentation rich with multimedia on material that is new and complex will likely be demanding. A droll, slow verbal delivery on well-understood material will require less of you.
Other Observations from an Old Guy
In my years as an ICT-using educator, I’ve watched new technologies/software come along. And I have studied novice behaviours with these. You will all recognize the characteristics when people get their hands on a new piece of software. People typically use it in playful ways at first. They use all the features. They use every font and every colour and every effect. They use the tool for everything – even when it isn’t appropriate to do so. I remember kids using Logo. They always typed forward 1,000,000,000 to see what would happen! Who remembers that? After a while, and perhaps with experience, the tools become more effectively used.
I think, in some ways, we are seeing this with backchanneling. I believe it will settle into an appropriate rhythm.
Effects on the Speaker
I will not dwell on this point, but I do wish to mention it. Audience feedback – body language, eye contact, looks of engagement – have a cyclical impact on the ability of the speaker to do a great job. It is important to respect the individual speaker’s comfort level and desire for backchanneling.
Some speakers engage a moderator to manage the backchannel – and define ways in which the audience could use it to, for example, bring questions or issues to the speaker.
David Jakes said to me in our brief conversation in advance of his presentation, “the extraneous discussions are really off putting for everyone”. I agree.
- Holiday Edition: 11 Techy Things for Teachers to Try This Year (freetech4teachers.com)
- Jessica Northey Slated to Speak at Jacobs Media Summit #js15 (fingercandymedia.com)
- My favorite new learning tool is Tweetdeck (sparkyourinterest.wordpress.com)
- Powerful Learning Practice, LLC ” Blog (plpnetwork.com)
- Networked Learning – It’s how I work now! (http://bsherry.wordpress.com)