Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Memory and Maths - Gladwell's Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers is out this month and I was struck by this extract from the Guardian/Observer:

Take a look at the following list of numbers: 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6. Read them out loud. Now look away and spend 20 seconds memorising that sequence before saying them out loud again. If you speak English, you have about a 50 per cent chance of remembering that sequence perfectly. If you're Chinese, though, you're almost certain to get it right every time. Why is that? Because as human beings we store digits in a memory loop that runs for about two seconds. We most easily memorise whatever we can say or read within that two-second span. And Chinese speakers get that list of numbers - 4, 8, 5, 3, 9, 7, 6 - right almost every time because, unlike English, their language allows them to fit all those seven numbers into two seconds.

That difference means that Asian children learn to count much faster than American children. Four-year-old Chinese children can count, on average, to 40. American children at that age can count only to 15, and most don't reach 40 until they're five. By the age of five, in other words, American children are already a year behind their Asian counterparts in the most fundamental of math skills.

The much-storied disenchantment with mathematics among Western children starts in the third and fourth grades, and Fuson argues that perhaps a part of that disenchantment is due to the fact that math doesn't seem to make sense; its linguistic structure is clumsy; its basic rules seem arbitrary and complicated.

Asian children, by contrast, don't feel nearly that same bafflement. They can hold more numbers in their heads and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their languages corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is - and maybe that makes them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more, they try a little harder and take more math classes, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

Gladwell goes on to make the point that this is just one example of how a small, yet deeply rooted cultural difference - the time it takes to count in your mother tongue - can over time and much repetition lead to a significant difference in ability. He also expresses the view that highly successful individuals such as Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Mozart, the Beatles are just as much a product of their environment and effort (10,000 hours to reach genius level) as they are of any pure innate ability. The clear message is the earlier you focus, and practice, taking advantage of the environment (and support network) around you, the more likely you will master your chosen vocation.

Pondering further on the maths example resonates with another area of research I am investigating - microdevelopment. I'll come back to that in a later post.

I'll leave you with another anecdote from Gladwell:

There is the fact that children from disadvantaged homes perform less well at school than children from middle-class homes, but only when you measure their progress over the entire year. If you make the same measurements without the long summer holidays, when children from wealthier homes can exploit their greater educational opportunities, the difference is marginal. Rather than fretting about resources and catchments, why not try truncating summer holidays?

Why not indeed.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Black Swans - Barriers to Effective Learning

Here's an article I wrote a few weeks back for Learning Technologies magazine which has just been published. It's a fairly long post but if you make it to the end I would welcome your comments.


When unpredictable change becomes the only constant, learning on your own terms is an essential survival skill in these turbulent times, says Lars Hyland.

The unthinkable is happening. In just a matter of months, the financial upheaval in the US, UK and the rest of the world has shaken us to the core. What we once believed to be immovable - rock solid even - reveals itself in all its brittle fragility. It could be described as a financial "black swan" (a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book of the same name), a large impact, hard-to-predict and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations. A black swan being a metaphor for something that could not exist or happen since all swans are believed to be white.

While this has a certain air of Douglas Adams' infamous "Infinite Improbability Drive" there is a growing sense that the seeming randomness of change around us is just the beginning of a fundamental reappraisal of the way we do things in many areas of modern life. That includes the way we learn, both in the workplace and within our education systems.

The rate of change really does feel like it is accelerating, which means just keeping up takes new levels of determination. Crucially, if efforts are not to become all consuming, we need new strategies and tools that help us to cope and prosper. Learning using traditional methods in this increasingly turbulent climate is rapidly losing its effectiveness and for that matter its audience. Embracing and harnessing new technology is simply essential. The good news is that while old institutional structures are crumbling around us, so too are the barriers to new ways of learning, sharing, interacting with our peers, colleagues, family and friends.

So what and where are these barriers? How are they changing? And what is its impact on learning in the workplace?

E-learning benefits finally understood

So with recession ringing in our ears, the traditional cut back in budgets does not appear to be brutally focused on training cost centres in contrast to days gone by. There is an emerging trend towards more effective, longer lasting investments in e-learning and performance support where the core benefits of a consistent and persistent learning experience can be offered to a large, dispersed group of people. Multimodal learning (or blended learning if you prefer) is much more common, where different mixes of media are used to create a more varied, engaging and impactful learning experience. E-learning is a core component now rather than a novel add-on.

Attention and persuasion critical to engagement

In an "always-on" environment there is a growing risk that we are becoming increasingly "time-poor" and beginning to suffer from an ever more fragmented attention span. This has its benefits and its distractions. Increasing numbers of people are happy to manage a continuous stream of SMS, emails and voice calls that challenge the effectiveness of the traditional "course" format. So rather than persevere with models that are at odds with the way we actually cognitively assimilate and consolidate new knowledge and skills, we can now provide instant and contextualised access to learning support at the point of need, wherever that may be. Where individuals take more responsibility for their learning and development, they will vote with their feet - and rightly so - if they feel their time is being wasted. Communications are critical in persuading learners to spend their valuable time and attention on a learning experience.

The Invisible LMS

While bespoke e-learning development is on the ascent, there are still many organisations offering employees libraries of blandly designed content on systems that make it difficult to find and use. The eLearningGuild in the US commented in its LMS 360 Report 2008 that learning management systems score some of the lowest satisfaction scores they've seen in any research report. As the emphasis rightly moves towards the learning experience, the supporting platforms must become transparent - if not invisible - and present no unnecessary steps or hindrance to engaging with content, tools or people.
For more than a year, Brightwave has helped stimulate the trend amongst its clients for the provision of a learning platform that puts usability and accessibility at the forefront. This signals a move towards targeted learning portals in the workplace that can present learning content in a focused, context-sensitive manner.

Universal broadband access

Everyone in the European Union could have, by right, broadband access by 2010. The European Commission's Universal Service Obligations (USO) demand that all citizens who want them should be able to get access to basic telephone services including a fixed line of sufficient quality to "permit functional internet access". "High-speed internet is the passport to the Information Society and an essential condition for economic growth," says Viviane Reding, EU Telecoms Commissioner. But what about the other 3 billion people who have no viable access to the internet? Google, together with John Malone, the cable television magnate, and HSBC, have set up O3b Networks to put up 16 low orbit satellites connecting mobile masts to fast broadband networks, and in the process bring the cost down by 95 per cent. If these are operational in 2010 as planned, then it marks a huge step forward in ubiquitous access and for driving the use of the internet for learning and knowledge in the parts of the world with the most to gain.

In the workplace, we are already seeing the liberating effects of broadband access encouraging rapidly increasing levels of teleworking (admittedly after a slow start). According to the CBI, 46 per cent of UK businesses now offer teleworking to help with working-hours flexibility, reducing carbon footprint, downsizing pressure on corporate workspaces while at the same time increasing productivity. With more distance working comes distance learning. E-learning support and online collaboration tools are essential for workers to engage with colleagues and teams often distributed globally.

Mobile internet access gets usable

The advent of Apple's iPhone and now Google's Android mobile platform is transforming the experience of using communications devices on the move. Innovations such as an intuitive touch-based interface, large, clear screens and powerful support for a wide range of applications is bringing mobile internet use to life. Soon after its launch, O2 revealed over 60 per cent of their iPhone customers were sending and receiving more than 25 MB of data per month compared to just 1.8 per cent of their other contract customers. While mobile internet access used to be the preserve of those with a natural interest in technology, this has now changed. Most of us are pretty ambivalent about the technology we use - we just want it to work. The iPhone is a great example of technology that removes most of the former barriers through careful attention to ease of use. Google's new Android platform, while perhaps lacking the glamour of Apple, could further open up the potential of mobile services that are intuitive, fast and productive.

There have been many of us in the e-learning industry - myself included - who have been tolling the bell for mobile learning over the past five years but it appears that we are at last trudging out of what Gartner's Hype Cycle terms the Trough of Disillusionment (remember WAP?) and sliding onto the Slope of Enlightenment. With a more powerful, easy to use, standardised and open platform, the opportunities for learning on the move will grow rapidly.

Games become learning simulations

Games are firmly out of the teenagers' bedroom and are a natural part of developing experience in areas of personal and professional interest. Whether it is rearing virtual pets, performing virtual surgery or playing in a virtual rock band, whatever your interest there is almost certainly going to be an increasingly accurate simulation available for you to develop and practice your skills. Aviation led the way with flight simulators that once were £millions. Now they can be bought for little more than three thousand pounds (including cockpit controls and multiple monitors for a full 180 degree view).

More and more professions and job roles can and should be simulated. You wouldn't want to board a plane without knowing that the pilot has been through thousands of hours of practice, even though much of it on a simulator. This will dramatically accelerate the induction training period, which can often take several months before trainees become fully productive.

Mitra's self organising theories state that when learners feel empowered and self motivated, the difference in learning outcomes can be dramatic. What does this mean for the workplace? Well, similar young people are already entering the workforce and are demanding a more interactive learning experience. What works for them is an immersive, simulative solution that provides a safe, yet meaningful place to practice - and share their experiences with others.

Social Networking means we can all be reached

The move towards simpler, integrated interfaces is one facet of the wider move to Web 2.0. Social networking (whether Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, Linkedin etc...) continues to explode in its popularity and develop in its application. Recent statistics from the European Commission state that just in the past year, the use of social networks has grown 35 per cent in Europe. Over half of the European online population visited social networking sites last year and the number of regular users is forecast to rise from today's 41.7 million to 107.4 million in the next four years. That's a significant growth pattern given that we barely understood the concept three years ago.

Sharing is at the heart of the learning process and being able to reach people with the answers, advice, knowledge, stories that you need, greatly accelerates the underlying learning curve of any individual. Social networking is now an accepted part of the landscape - and that includes organisations. According to the 2008 Cone Business in Social Media Study, 93% of Americans believe that a company should have a presence on social media sites and 85 percent believe that these companies should use these services to interact with consumers. Through sheer bottom up demand companies have to embrace these communities or face being sidelined in terms of their ability to successfully recruit and retain staff as well as their relationship with their customer base.

A new scientific base for learning

While all these technologies evolve and develop around us, our understanding of how our brains acquire, process, hold and use knowledge and skills is striding forward. The unravelling of the deeper mechanisms of the mind will inform new, more robust instructional practices and support methodologies than we have at present. The fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and anthropology are yielding fascinating insights into how we make decisions, how we remember (and forget), how our brain chemistry alters the effectiveness of the learning process. Who would have thought that blueberries have a positive effect on memory recall? Or that a six minute nap can boost your learning skills? (See my blog http://larsislearning.blogspot.com/ for more on this theme).
Indeed, "smart drugs" are becoming more prevalent which clearly provide users with a cognitive edge. There are growing reports from the US that students are making full use of these drugs to gain an advantage at examination time. It is a trend also known as "cosmetic neurology," a term coined by Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

In Summary

In times of rapid and radical change it is more important than ever that we find and adopt learning strategies and technologies that will allow us to adapt. The barriers to effective learning that I have listed can just as easily be thought of as frontiers. There is much work to be done but attitudes are altering at a brisk pace now that we have all embraced technology so fundamentally into our lives. In many ways it is the corporate and governmental institutions which are proving to have the slowest response to adapting to a new learning landscape. In short, be prepared, our very own "black swan" is just around the corner.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Home Sweet Office - the changing workspace

Wired Magazine have run an interesting feature reminding us that with a functioning networked society the old assumptions of physically working alongside each other are rightly being challenged. But its interesting how slowly the notion of teleworking/telecommuting has moved into the mainstream.

Though a third of the more than 150 million working Americans telecommute at least occasionally, most do so just a few days each month. Only 40 percent of companies permit any sort of work-at-home arrangement, which means most insist on full-time attendance.

Engagement isn't the issue. As this study points out:

Last year, researchers from Penn State analyzed 46 studies of telecommuting conducted over two decades and covering almost 13,000 employees. Their sweeping inquiry concluded that working from home has "favorable effects on perceived autonomy, work-family conflict, job satisfaction, performance, turnover intent, and stress." The only demonstrable drawback is a slight fraying of the relationships between telecommuters and their colleagues back at headquarters — largely because of jealousy on the part of the latter group.

In comparison the traditional office environment can be counter productive:

According to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at UC Irvine, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes — hardly enough time to accomplish anything of substance.

Aside from the productivity and environmental benefits, working remotely places more emphasis on mediated communication skills and active learning. Clearly different disciplines apply, but they appear to be less of a barrier to effective performance than the traditional head office cubicle model in the long term.

Changing the office environment

But some organisations are recognising the need for change and have radically challenged the preconceptions of an office space. Interpolis - a Dutch insurance company - has transformed their HQ into an environment that encourages effective communication and focuses on results, rather than activity. In doing so they have freed up 51 percent of their working areas, cut 33 percent of construction and equipment costs, and reduced office usage expenses by 21 percent. Employees have no separate desks, work virtually paperlessly.

Nooteboom - who was responsible for the transformation project commented:

One should attend the Interpolice office - depending on the function - at least two to three days in office due to social cohesion. In contrast to the past, work is not measured on the presence, but output; The performance of the staff expected by the company. This is a fundamental change that requires time and training - amongst workers, but even more in the administration. What are the new tasks of the management ? No longer to check whether someone is there, but to define the output and control it. It takes months to incorporate this culture into a company.

As I wander the corporate corridors of various organisations here in the UK, there is some evidence of attempts to free workers and provide more conducive work spaces. But there is a long way to go before the fundamental culture shift described by Nooteboom is achieved.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Think Gum - chew and remember

Think Gum aims to:

...take advantage of proven brain-boosting herbs and herbal extracts, potent antioxidants, the principles of aromatherapy, the stimulant qualities of naturally occurring caffeine, breakthroughs in memory research, and the physical properties of chewing gum itself. In short, Think Gum enhances mental performance.

Not sure of the claims but besides the impact of brain chemistry on cognitive processes, it does highlight the importance of context in learning. The environment - taste and smell included - plays a significant role in recalling memories:

If test takers chew Think Gum while learning, their recall of such information will be better when they chew Think Gum again.

Not sure what happens when you get through all the distinctive flavours they offer, but these are interesting studies quoted on the site:

(1) Herz RS. The effects of cue distinctiveness on odor-based context-dependent memory. Mem Cognit. 1997 May;25(3):375-80.
(2)Pointer SC, Bond NW. Context-dependent memory: colour versus odour. Chem Senses. 1998 Jun;23(3):359-62.
(3)Morgan CL. Odors as cues for the recall of words unrelated to odor. Percept Mot Skills. 1996 Dec;83(3 Pt 2):1227-34.
(4)Smith DG, Standing L, de Man A. Verbal memory elicited by ambient odor. Percept Mot Skills. 1992 Apr;74(2):339-43.

Scratch and sniff test papers can only be a short time a way...

If anyone has had a try of this stuff I'd be interested to know if you felt any positive effects.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Same old story says Clive

Clive Shepherd has posted on the continuing failure of many organisations to harness the benefits of e-learning:

...a large government department, had initiated a major e-learning programme, but the response had been disappointing. "I bet I can guess why," I said. "Really?" she said, "Do tell me." This was my guess:
  • the e-learning was entirely self-study;
  • the e-learning was unsupported;
  • the content was largely textual and uninspiring.

"How did you guess?" she said. "Easy," I said, "that's always the problem."

I agree with Clive's weary tone.

There are still far too many e-learning initiatives which flounder because of a simplistic view that transferring learning content from one medium to another is sufficient.

Of course it needs support (so does classroom), of course it needs to be engagingly designed and instructionally sound (so does classroom) and of course it needs to be multimodal (that means sensibly deploy a range of media, online, offline, interactive, human) to generate a learning experience that effectively segues into the desired performance in the workplace.

A lot of e-learning projects brutally expose the lack of fundamental design thinking. In many respects this at least is a positive step forward as it is harder for organisations to continue hiding behind a thin veil of training activity that is clearly ineffective, costly, variable in its presentational quality and unsupported once back in the job.

A more holistic approach to design (that includes communication, performance support as well as the learning experience itself) and collaborative partnership with e-learning expertise would pay dividends. As does a focus on learning as an ongoing process rather than a defined event (with an arbitrary deadline).

Sunday, 19 October 2008


It seems that to attract attention these days you have to summarise your idea and intent into a single syllable. Ever since Gladwell's Blink, it seems that every book I pick up follows the same pattern:

Sway - the Irresistable Pull of Irrational Behaviour - Brafman & Brafman

Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness - Thaler & Sunstein

Yes! - 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion- Cialdini, Goldstein, Martin

Spark - The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain - Ratey & Hagerman

Then if we up the word count consecutive notches we have:

Brain Rules - 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School- Medina

The Dip - The Extraordinary Benefits of Knowing When to Quit (and When to Stick) - Godin

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck - Heath & Heath

A Mind of its Own - How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives - Fine

Any others I can add to the list?

I'll post back a revised summary of your suggestions.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Memories Are Made of This

We're getting excitingly close to observing how our memory works at a fundamental level. This study picked up by PsyBlog reports on a study that demonstrates how memory works through the reactivation of specific individual neurons in the hippocampus.

Effectively, things that happen to us activate networks of neurons in the brain, and when we recall past events at least some of these same neurons fire again.

Researchers monitored 857 specific neurons within the brains of epilipsy patients awaiting surgery, by inserting
probes into the medial temporal lobe, near the hippocampus, an area of the brain central to memory and how we remember events. They managed to trace and link a memory pattern being formed as a result of the volunteers exposure to specific video clips.

They also noticed that the neurons began to fire about 1.5 seconds before participants were conscious of remembering the particular clip, and so could predict which clip the patients were in the process of remembering before they actually said they became aware of it.

Dr. Itzhak Fried, who conducted the study, commented:

"In a way then, reliving past experience in our memory is the resurrection of neuronal activity from the past".

I think this further supports why reinforcement and spaced repetition in learning is so important in strengthening memory patterns and therefore improving recall.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Google Goggles - targeted performance support

At last - I return. To many of you I may have appeared to have taken a previous post on sleep and memory a little too literally. While I now consider myself fully consolidated, what with holidays and a surge in demand for my e-learning services to contend with, it's proven difficult to post at the frequency I intended. So I figure I'm in need of some performance support...

On that note, I picked up this great Google Labs feature - Mail Goggles:

When you enable Mail Goggles, it will check that you're really sure you want to send that late night Friday email. And what better way to check than by making you solve a few simple math problems after you click send to verify you're in the right state of mind?

By default, Mail Goggles is only active late night on the weekend as that is the time you're most likely to need it.

I like this, and not just because it's clearly aimed at night owls like me. There is a lot to be said for preparing ourselves for performing a task, getting into the right frame of mind to execute as effectively as possible. The simple technique here of being asked to complete some mental arithmetic helps focus the mind. I like also the use of time pressure.

We need to apply thinking and concepts like this to learning and training activities to actively improve their efficiency and effectiveness. Tools that will help us ensure we are in an appropriate state of mind to begin and complete a learning task. Tools that will help learning professionals provide support and guidance to their learning communities before, during and after the learning experiences they design and deliver.

P.S. There's another great little tool - the Forgotten Attachment Detector - which prevents you sending an email without an attachment if you mention it in the body of the email. How many times have you done that? Simple, yet effective.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Memory research roundup - More Sleep

Following my last post, I received a comment from njtom as follows:

"Brain scans of humans and animals have indicated that bursts of information pass between the neocortex and the hippocampus during the first hours of sleep, known as slow wave sleep. It is during slow wave sleep that the brain remembers declarative or episodic memory – precise facts a person can access consciously."

If this is correct than how can the current medical advice to prevent Slow-wave sleep in infants be safe? Slow-wave sleep is when infants die of SIDS. So, doctors no longer allow infants to get slow-wave sleep. Is this safe?

This led me to read a couple of fascinating detailed research posts on the njtom's Tummy Sleep Central blog. The latest post covers Post-natal Slow Wave Sleep Inhibition and the SIDS "Back to Sleep" Campaign. Essentially the current advice to change an infant's sleeping position from tummy (prone) to back (supine) may be having a long term negative effect on their cognitive development while having a negligible effect on the reduction of SIDS deaths. Particularly resonant with my post is the following excerpt:

Since 1998 there have been three studies published which show that infants placed to sleep in the supine position lag in motor skills, social skills, and cognitive ability development when compared to infants who sleep in the prone position [35-37]. None of these three studies analyzed children older than 18 months of age and the authors of all three studies considered the lags at less than 18 months of age to be temporary and do not think that the supine sleep recommendations should be changed. Placing infants in the prone position while they are awake has been recommended to offset the motor skills delays associated with the supine sleep position [38] but positioning the infant prone while awake will not impact the amount of slow wave sleep [39-43].

These studies are covered in more detail in an earlier post and lead to further research that suggests supine sleep position increases apnea episodes and decreases sleep duration in infants. This nocturnal respiratory disturbance is associated with a decrease in learning in children who were otherwise healthy. Sleep fragmentation has an adverse impact on memory and learning (as indicated in my previous post), and that hypoxemia (a condition in which there is an inadequate supply of oxygen in the blood) has an adverse influence on nonverbal skills.

I don't know the answer to the question posed by njtom but it emphasises the importance of further research in how the quality of our sleep affects our cognitive development at all ages.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Memory research roundup - Sleep

I've previously posted on the effect of sleep on our learning and memory effectiveness in Snooze and Learn Faster and Six minute nap may boost memory.

Here's yet another study supporting the need for sleep to consolidate a new experience.

To sleep, perchance to remember
(Nice title, not mine but a similar Shakespearian steal as Learning As You Like It)

Neuroscientists at Geneva University have discovered that sleep can produce a lasting impact on how the brain processes and stores newly learnt information. The research, conducted by Sophie Schwartz of the Neurology and Imaging of Cognition laboratory at Geneva University, involved subjects being exposed to new visual stimuli, such as a face or tasks like tracing a moving dot with a joystick. They were then allowed to sleep normally - or not.

Scientists compared a whole night of normal sleep with a whole night of sleep deprivation, naps versus no naps, and eight hours of night sleep compared with eight hours of being awake during the day. The brain changes were highly localised and relevant to the task the volunteer had been set.

Brain scans of humans and animals have indicated that bursts of information pass between the neocortex and the hippocampus during the first hours of sleep, known as slow wave sleep. It is during slow wave sleep that the brain remembers declarative or episodic memory – precise facts a person can access consciously. Our skills – or procedural memory – are encoded during the rapid eye movement sleep, which is more abundant during the latter hours of the night.

Right, I'd better get off to bed myself now for a bit of my own consolidation...

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Memory research roundup - Blueberries

In the last post, HDL cholesterol levels appear to have a positive effect on memory recall (or at least arrest its decline). On a similar dietary theme:

Scientists Find Blueberries Reverse Age Related Memory Deficits

Researchers (from the Schools of Food Biosciences and Psychology in Reading and the Institute of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences at the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter) supplemented a regular diet with blueberries over a three month period. Within three weeks, they discovered improvements in spatial working tasks and the improvements continued throughout the course of the study.

The enhancement of both short-term and long-term memory is controlled in neurons (brain cells) at the molecular level. The researchers think flavonoids found in blueberries may help learning and memory by enhancing existing neuronal connections, improving communication between cells and stimulating the regeneration of neurons.

The scientists were able to pinpoint the ability of flavonoids to activate signaling proteins in a specific area of the hippocampus, the learning and memory-controlling part of the brain.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Memory research round up - Cholesterol

Over the past month I've managed to collect an interesting range of research snippets relating to memory and cognition. There's definitely a sense of acceleration of activity in this area, which unfortunately also brings with it its own hype and hysterical headlines.

Over the next few posts I'll summarise the ones that most caught my eye:

Cholesterol and Memory

People with high levels of cholesterol of the HDL variety (high-density lipoprotein) did better on memory tests than those with lower levels. The UK research checked the levels of 3,600 British civil servants and gave them memory tests at an average age of 55 and then again at 61. The tests involved reading a list of 20 words and then asked to write down as many as they could remember within 2 minutes (I'm guessing they didn't use Brain Training on the Nintendo DS for this task).

Apparently, not only did those with higher HDL do better, but those whose HDL levels declined between tests also saw a decline in their performance.

This research is part of a long term "Whitehall II" study that started in 1985 and has been following over 10,000 male and female London-based members of the British Civil Service. The participants have regular clinical exams and periodically fill in questionnaires.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

A rock and roll education

This headline raised a smile:

Brian May, guitarist for rock band Queen, completes Ph.D. thesis following 30-year hiatus

May began his research of the Zodiacal Light (astronomy) in 1970 and completed his research and thesis in 2007, following a 30-year hiatus to play guitar in the well-known rock band Queen.

Probably not the most effective use of the spacing effect to help reinforce learning but hey, he had a great excuse.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Armed forces 'get free education'

According to the BBC news site:

Service personnel are to be given university education free of charge after they end their duty with the armed forces, it has been reported.

The UK government will pay tuition fees to study for GCSEs, A-levels, university degrees or other qualifications. This is in part a response to a recent Ministry of Defence survey of 9,000 servicemen and women suggested that some 47% of Army and Royal Navy respondents and 44% of those in the RAF regularly felt like quitting.

The armed forces have a long heritage of providing excellent training - immersive, highly focused and using a motivational base that is a million miles away from the cosy world of formal education.

I would not be surprised if many service personnel vote with their feet as they fail to connect with the teaching practices and environment that is far more abstract than their own personal experiences of training.

Immersion, simulation, teamwork (not operating as isolated individuals), lots of spaced repetition and practice is business-as-usual for those in service - but largely missing from most of our education and training efforts.

Higher Education embracing change

Last week I was invited to speak to all the teaching staff at City College, a higher education institution in Brighton, UK, which in its own words:

Each year over 2,000 full-time learners, 13,000 part-time learners as well as many international and European students choose City College as their education provider.

The main thrust of my presentation was to stimulate a recognition that the connected world we now live in forces a deep reassessment of traditional teaching practices. Michael Wesch and his Vision of Students Today helped set a context for how learners views, context and behaviour has changed as a result of the every day technology they use. Meantime Father Guido Sarduci demonstrated the elephant in the room in most education and training activities - we forget most of what we are presented with.

I went on to explore the principles of follow-through, and how in an age where we can have constant, mobile access to the internet, with all its knowledge repositories and applications, we can now design education and training to support us when we learn rather than when we are expected to learn (two fundamentally different things).

The economics of knowledge acquisition and skills development have changed. We can, as I like to say: Learn Less, More Often.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Blog of the Week - Learning Technologies

Well, just over six months in, and I'm still here, albeit with a backlog of ideas/thoughts that really should be up here by now. So it's nice to find that this blog was selected as a Blog of the Week by the Learning Technologies team.

A useful little motivator to step things up a little.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Five Minute University

Harold Jarche referenced this delicious video clip of Father Guido Sarduci pointing out what we all know about traditional schooling and higher education - we forget most of it. So what is the net value to us and society in perpetuating a model that is plainly inefficient, especially when the connected world we live in now fundamentally changes the economics on which that model was based.

As I've said before in one of my original posts to this blog: Less Learning, More Often is a conceptual framework that goes someway to address this chasm.

By the way - get to the end of the clip. The legal profession is vastly over engineered and at some point must undergo disruptive change once we remove the archaic language and democratise access to the computer systems and databases that many lawyers rely on anyway. E-learning can play a big role in helping society better understand the laws of the land.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Tagging Reality - Enkin has huge learning potential

Great submission for the upcoming Google Android mobile platform. The rather dense description is:

"Enkin" introduces a new handheld navigation concept. It displays location-based content in a unique way that bridges the gap between reality and classic map-like representations. It combines GPS, orientation sensors, 3D graphics, live video, several web services, and a novel user interface into an intuitive and light navigation system for mobile devices.

But watch this video summary to get a real feel for the possibilities of tagging the reality around you with a mobile device:

Enkin from Enkin on Vimeo.

Imagine being able to provide real-time embedded support that is contextual to what a learner sees in the world around them. Any mobile worker who moves into a physical space that is initially unfamiliar could now access real-time commentary from a valued peer group or expert panel. The potential for the utility, telecoms and construction industries who have large numbers of staff working on our streets is enormous.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Home schooling - the future?

The Financial Times has run a feature - A Class Apart (warning: you may need to register) - which reports on the continuing rise in families opting for home schooling. These statistics caught my eye:
  • 17%: The estimated annual increase in children who are home-schooled in the UK (presently 50,000)
  • 10%: The proportion of home-educating families in the UK who use textbooks on a frequent basis
  • 42%: The proportion of home-educating families in the UK that earn less than the national average wage. Despite perceptions that learning at home is a middle class phenomenon, 17 per cent of families live on incomes of under £10,000 per year
    Source: Mike Fortune-Wood
  • 1.1 million: The lowest estimate of the number of children being home-schooled in the US. (17 US presidents were educated at home.)
    Source: Fraser Institute
In the overall scheme of things 50,000 families may not be huge but given that The Guardian reported just last year (2007) that the figure was 16,000 (which represented a three fold increase since 1999) the growth is not linear. Something that was once regarded as fringe and alternative may rapidly become mainstream.

As the FT reports:
Since there is no legal duty on parents to inform local education authorities that they are home schooling their children, the government has no idea how many children are in this position. Only if a child starts school and is then withdrawn is there an official record. But this misses out the thousands of children who never start school in the first place.

School is not compulsory in the UK - which may come as a surprise to many parents.

Section 7 of The Education Act 1996 (England and Wales) states that: "The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable: (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise.

This "otherwise" gives us a surprising amount of freedom as the FT summarises:

They don’t have to follow the national curriculum, enter their children for exams, observe school hours, give formal lessons, or mark work. Local authority inspectors can ask annually for written information on how a child is being educated, but they have no right to meet the child or visit the home. Should a local authority decide a child is not receiving a “suitable” education it does have powers to send him or her back to school. In practice, though, courts rarely rule in the authority’s favour.

This, I feel, may open the flood gates. There is growing pressure and dissatisfaction in the education system from all sides - from parents, students, teachers and education professionals. Like the proverbial boiling frog, the temperature is at a level which is already causing real damage to the very foundations of the system.

Research conducted by the University of Durham looked at the motives for home schooling. Top of the list is disappointment with "education", schools, ideology, school bullying, lack of personal attention. But putting negativity aside, when asked what home education meant to them the breakdown of descriptors was as follows:

These descriptions reflect a lot of current thinking around effective learning strategies at all ages, in education and in the workplace. Technology now enables this model to work far more efficiently than ever before. We can have highly individual learning experiences, be geographically dispersed and yet actually maintain a larger, more diverse set of social connections while simultaneously reinforcing family bonds. Interhigh is just one example of an "internet based school" that provides some structure and support for home-schooled kids.

Of course the key to this working is the shape of the family unit, having parents/carers interested and motivated to support children in their learning experiences. Time and money are issues but with increased mobility and flexibility around how we work and learn, the increasing accessibility of technology, and harnessing of our innate desire to self-learn it starts to become practical to stop "schooling" and instead support learning as a constant activity throughout our lives.

The traditional school experience will inevitably undergo radical change - perhaps sooner than we all expect.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Movement and Memory

Well I'm back from vacation in sunny southern Spain. The majority of time was spent relaxing, gazing at the view above, a bit of swimming, reading and generally moving as little as possible. One day, my son Gus (aged nine) and I (a lot older) decided that the mountain needed climbing. So we did. Took us seven hours and required lots of moving...up and down rocky trails mainly. We were fortunate to bump into Ibex, numerous lizards of various sizes and shapes, and thousands of butterflies and, on arriving at the top, were rewarded with some tremendous views across the Spanish coast and even out to North Africa. We had a great day - it was hard work at times but were left with a real sense of achievement (especially for Gus as that was his first proper mountain). We will recall many memories of that journey for years to come.

So it was particularly resonant for Cognitive Daily to re-post an article citing how body position affects the memory of events.

According to the study:

Holding your body in the right position means you'll have faster, more accurate access to certain memories. If you stand as if holding a golf club, you're quicker to remember an event that happened while you were golfing than if you position your body in a non-golfing pose.

Regardless of their age, the study volunteers' memories were reported significantly sooner when the volunteers' body position matched the memory being asked for.

Dijkstra's team believes that the effect may be due to the way memories are stored in the brain: one theory of memory suggests that memories are composed of linked sensory fragments -- odors, sights, sounds, and even body positions. Simply activating one or more of those fragments makes the entire memory more likely to be retrieved. In any case, if you're trying to recall a particular incident in your life, putting your body in the right position might help you remember it faster and more accurately. The key appears to be your body position when the memory occurred.

The implications for effective learning transfer are significant. To speed memory recall the learning event should closely mimic the context and physicality of the environment in which that learning is put into actual practice. Learning through doing, that closely simulates a real situation means that the experience gained (the memory of the practice) can be readily and meaningfully recalled when a similar situation occurs.

It follows that the multisensory experience of games and virtual simulation are much more likely to achieve meaningfull recall if you are free to move about in the way that mimics the "real" environment you will perform these skills in. So until the Wii came along, sitting still in front of screen, in a largely sedentary and still position is not congruent with achieving effective recall of practice memories to use in real world situations. The military, aerospace and the world of sport all know the value of consistent, spaced, repetitive practice that closely simulates the real often highly stressful (and in some cases life threatening) situations in which they need perform.

A lot of face to face training and e-learning fails to take this into consideration. But that will change as we become less and less bound by walls and desktop PCs and become fully mobile learners. It will be intriguing to see how we then design learning experiences that effectively align our physical and cognitive performance.

Wii Fit may be leading the way...

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Gaming Kids More Social, Not Less

It's SATs time in the UK for primary school kids and I'm sitting writing this post while Question Time is discussing the value of testing kids at the age of 11 in this way (my own daughter being one of them). The emphasis on testing in artificial environments that are abstracted from a real world context seems to create a lot of heated debate. The issue of stress and pressure placed on kids to perform appears to be of high concern.

At the same time, there is the usual fuss over the latest Grand Theft Auto release and how it legitimises violent and illegal behaviour (despite most people missing the level of irony and sophistication of interactive narrative the game employs).

So it's intriguing to read a research study from University of California, Davis that finds the following:

"There is a lot of hemming and hawing among educators about the introduction of technology in the early grades," said Cynthia Carter Ching, associate professor of education at the University of California, Davis. "But the worst-case scenarios just don't pan out. Technology can facilitate creativity and social awareness, even when we don't design the use of it to do so. And when we do design technology activities with these things in mind, the possibilities are endless."

In two recent studies of kindergarten and first-grade students, Ching observed that children find ways to transform their experiences with technology into fun, highly organized group activities. She also found that technology-based activities can be explicitly designed to foster social reflection and advanced planning among young children.

In their first study, Ching and Wang observed children who chose to play a computer game during their free time. Though only one child could play at a time, the children negotiated turns and gave each other advice about how to play the game."Though this is hardly the ideal setting for social interaction and higher-level thinking, the children exhibited a great deal of executive planning skills and complex social negotiations without any guidance or interference from adults," Ching said.

In the second study, children were given digital cameras and told to create digital photo journals. The students displayed creativity and engaged in complex planning at every stage of the assignment, from how they framed their shots to how they chose to organize them to tell a story, Ching found."This study shows that rather than technology being something that children merely use, it can be a creative tool for increased reflection on social networks, friendships, relationships with teachers and a sense of self within the world of school," Ching said.

These findings seem to sit well with Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University's findings from his Hole in the Wall experiments (see my Learning as you like it article). By literally building a networked PC into a wall accessible in an outside space (very much like a cash machine here), and providing no direction or instruction he sat and waited to watch what would happen. One child learned to browse in 6 minutes and was teaching 70 other children by the end of the day. They interacted with content that was not even in their own language – they had to self-learn English to get to the content itself. In one experiment children managed to grasp basic concepts of biotechnology and the principles of DNA! All this occurred without a teacher or classroom.

So imagine a world where SATs were not old school exams that stress and, arguably, reveal little about actual learning, and instead were embodied in one big social, highly collaborative game environment that kids where naturally motivated to play as individuals and in teams. In the process they would demonstrate the learning and cognitive performance we are looking for. The metrics we could get from such an environment would help deliver personalised coaching and tuition for each child.

A misguided fantasy? Maybe - Tell me what you think. But whatever your view we can't ignore the positive impact that technology can make to self motivate learning at all ages and it has to challenge the fundamental ways in which we educate and train.

Ching's second study will be replayed by my daughter over the next two weeks who, having sat through her SATs, will be bounding around olive groves in Spain with a camcorder making the "TV channel with lots of cool programmes" that she's been itching to do for the past month - school got in the way of that creativity.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Smarter, Faster - research breakthroughs

We really do live in exciting times. What with global geopolitical and economic power shifts and increasingly evident environmental concerns it's easy to feel uneasy. Yet there are plenty of reasons to remain optimistic about our ability to learn new ways to manage and cope through what will inevitably be a long rollercoaster ride over the next few decades. The pace of innovation in many fields is accelerating as the collaborative power of the internet widens its influence across the world. One of these is the world of neuroscience which focuses on the human organ at the root of it all - the brain.

What we are finding out about how our brain interacts with the outside environment, processes and stores information is poised to have a truly fundamental impact. The current institutional inertia within education and training is beginning to look like the proverbial leaky dam. -It's going to take more than a few fingers in holes to stop the whole thing tumbling down in the face of a flood of evidence, yes real evidence, that reveals how we really learn - not only that, how we can optimise that process.

Here's one study that particularly caught my eye:

Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory

As reported by Wired:

Brain researchers for the first time claim to have found a method for improving the general problem-solving ability scientists call fluid intelligence, otherwise known as "smarts."

Fluid intelligence was previously thought to be genetically hard-wired, but the finding suggests that with about 25 minutes of rigorous mental training a day, healthy adults could improve their mental capacities.

Fluid intelligence measures how people adapt to new situations and solve problems they've never seen before. Fluid intelligence differs from crystallized intelligence, which takes into account skills and knowledge that have been acquired -- like vocabulary, grammar and math.

Subjects trained on a complex version of the so-called "n-back task" -- a difficult visual/auditory memory test -- improved their scores on a set of IQ questions drawn from a German intelligence measure called the Bochumer Matrizen-Test. (The Bochumer Matrizen-Test is a harder version of the well-known Ravens Progressive Matrices).

Initially, the test subjects scored an average of 10 questions correctly on the IQ test. But after the group trained on the n-back task for 25 minutes a day for 19 days, they averaged 14.7 correct answers, an increase of more than 40 percent. (A control group that was not trained showed only a very slight performance increase.)

Transfer of learning - or as I have discussed before the lack of transfer - is the elephant in the room. Most learning activities fail due to an inability to equip people with the "smarts" to apply what they know in one context into a new, even slightly different one. Given that the world we are entering is one of constant and increasing change, this is more than a worry. So, while it is still early days, reports that we are finding ways to develop models and tools that tackle this central pillar of intelligence is fantastic news.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Placebo effect - confidence in learning

I've been thinking about a short commentary by Simon Caulkin in the The Observer last weekend on the power of the placebo effect in the business world.

He picked out an interesting example which relates to the world of training and learning:

Consider, for example, the experiment in an Israeli army boot camp recounted in Bob Sutton's quirky book Weird Ideas That Work. Incoming recruits were randomly assigned to three undifferentiated groups. Their instructors were (falsely) informed that one group had been singled out as having 'high command potential', unlike the other two, whose potential was average or unknown. Only the instructors knew about the rankings; the soldiers had no idea they were in a trial. Yet by the end of the 15-week course, the 'high potential' group were objectively better shots, better navigators and better judges of tactics than the other groups. The placebo had worked. The evidence of this and many other studies is incontrovertible: that confidence, even if misplaced, makes people perform better.

Here, the confidence and perceptions of the trainers affects the learning capability of the learner and their eventual performance. We all have good days and bad days, and this suggests that the motivation and morale levels of your trainers, and how they perceive the people they train, will have a greater influence on the effectiveness of a learning experience than the content design itself.

Just as importantly, the perceptions and confidence levels of the learners will also impact the effectiveness of the sessions they attend. So if, as we anecdotally hear on a day to day basis, many (if not most?) people attending the vast majority of typical corporate training sessions are doing so reluctantly, with low levels personal confidence and perhaps cynicism for their own organisation, then not much learning is likely to happen, and even less chance of a positive performance change occuring back in the job situation from which they came.

So what about e-learning? This takes one side of the equation out - no good days or bad days in terms of the delivery and presentation of the content. But clearly learners come to an e-learning experience with their own perceptions and levels of confidence with regard to the subject and the use of technology itself.

So perhaps we should concentrating much more on managing attitudes to e-learning, giving people real confidence to master the technology and to believe they really do have the control and ability to learn new skills and behaviour to improve their performance. By successfully managing these perceptions, the real value and impact of e-learning will rise. I wonder if there have been many controlled trials/research here?

Maybe LCMS should really stand for Learning Confidence Management System - without the right mindset and outlook at the outset, our carefully crafted learning content has little chance of being paid the right attention to have the intended effect.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Boolify - tackling a new basic skill

Thanks to Jane Hart for pointing me to Boolify - David Crusoe and his team are, in his own words addressing what I would term a 21st century basic skill:

"One of the challenges of web searching is that while it's important for kids to know how to conduct good searches, e.g., for research, the common textual tools do a poor job of modeling, for kids, the impact that their boolean has on results. As you can guess, good results inform good research.
"So, we've worked with a team of librarians and others to develop something called Boolify, a graphical search tool meant for K12 use. It pulls results from Google's SafeSearch (Strict), so it's reasonably classroom-safe, and we get the best of both worlds: a great way to understand and build searches, as well as great results provided by Google."

This is a simple, yet powerful, attempt to address some of the core challenges we face in a networked world - how do you find something of value, how do decide what you find is of value. It's very easy to just go with the flow and yes, technology will improve, especially if you allow it into your life to the extent it learns your own preferences and actions for you (although this has clear privacy implications). As I commented to Jane, many adults could do with using tools like this, not just kids. In my post on Knowledge Loses its Luster, I reference Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason", who observes two worrying trends among younger people: anti-intellectualism (the belief that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism (the idea that "there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion").

Tools like Boolify will help us all learn to use online content in more sophisticated and objective ways. Any other examples out there?

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Newsnight - Paxman KOs Brain Gym founder

Just watched Jeremy Paxman do his usual combative stuff interviewing the US founder behind Brain Gym - in the words of the Newsnight blog:

Brain Gym is a programme used in hundreds of schools across Britain - backed by the government. It’s a series of daily physical exercises that are supposed to aid learning - by stimulating the vital organs. Many teachers - and many pupils - are convinced it works. But scientists are worried - believing that it amounts to "pseudo-science" and is misleading young children about the workings of the human body.

The report showing kids and teachers actively using the techniques were more disturbing than heartening. While I believe more awareness of how we think and learn should be part of our curriculum, there should be more care applied to adopting programmes such as these which appear to be largely unproven. The one bit of evidence available showed a link between physical exercise and calmer more focused classes of kids. But this really isn't anything new. I wouldn't be surprised if you replaced these particular Brain Gym exercises ("brain buttons" and "energy yawns" were to examples) with any other set of similar physical activities and you'd get largely the same results.

The other claimed effects were viewed with high sceptism by Colin Blakemore, Neuroscientist at Oxford University. Mr Dennison, the founder, was not at all convincing. Neither were the kids who were interviewed in support of the techniques - they appeared to parroting back phrases that you could see they didn't really understand.

It would be a real shame - and a huge missed opportunity - if we end up confusing neuroscience with pseudoscience. It appears that our education system and much of the training world is still too ready to adopt programmes that lack strong scientific foundations. Let's hope this doesn't obscure some of the geniune progress being made in understanding how our brain works and learns.

Sense about Science will have something to say about this.

You can probably catch a re-run of Newsnight on BBC iPlayer - watch it and let me know if you'd be happy for your own kids' school offering this type of tuition.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Pop a pill to get smarter

Following my last post on learning being a health issue, I neglected the whole smart drugs phenomenon. Mark Oehlert has written a great post referencing a thought provoking article in The Escapist by Lara Crigger - a selected quote gives you a flavour:

But what if, instead, we could simply pop a pill to become smarter? A medication that could make us more alert, sharpen our concentration - even make learning easier.

But here's the dirty little secret: The pills are out there, just prescribed for different conditions. Healthy individuals are secretly taking drugs that fix ailing hearts and help kids with ADHD sit still in class, to make themselves smarter. It's a trend called "cosmetic neurology," a term coined by Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. And it's the future of thought. After all, when it comes to being smarter, who wouldn't want an extra dose of genius?

I wonder how prevalent this is already amongst UK/European students? More than I imagine, no doubt.

And I wonder what the implications are going forward for fair assessment/examination and indeed equal opportunities legislation as those with access to these cognitive performance enhancers gain the advantage in the workplace.

As Mark reflects in his posting:

Can you imagine designing a course one that has a drug prescription as one of the design elements? What if the "D" Divide ends up not standing for digital but for drugs?

A stimulating or sobering thought - depending on your point of view.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Learning is a health issue

I'm playing a bit of catch up after a particularly busy month - although the way things are looking that'll be the pattern for the foreseeable future. The European e-learning market appears to be thriving in stark contrast to the ongoing financial crisis and what looks like an inevitable recession in the US. As I raised in an early post - training budget shock - e-learning is now very much a mainstream option for training delivery and as general budgets tighten and cost efficiency returns to the fore (did it ever really go away?), the obvious benefits of making available persistent, consistent and trackable learning content are now fully accepted. The question has moved on from "Why e-learning?" to "Why not e-learning?". But the wider context is one recognising the ongoing and growing need to learn, train and re-train in order to stay relevant in a fast changing global economy.

The old...

In some respects, you could say that the world of Education and Health are beginning to converge. The relatively new fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and other studies of brain behaviour is starting to stray firmly into the more fluffy world of learning. This means we can start to view education as a brain health issue. This thought was triggered by a recent report by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reporting that rates of cognitive impairment among older Americans are on the decline, with education associated with better cognitive health.

The data comes from the NIA-supported Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national, longitudinal examination of health, retirement and economic conditions of more than 20,000 men and women over 50. Researchers tested memory and judgment of a large subset of HRS participants to determine cognitive status in two groups of people, those age 70 and older in 1993 and in 2002. The scientists then followed each group for two years to track death rates.

They also looked at levels of education, income, and other factors in each group, finding that the 2002 participants were wealthier and had significantly higher levels of education, with 17 percent college-educated compared to 13 percent in 1993. The analysis found:

Cognitive impairment dropped from 12.2 percent in 1993 to 8.7 percent in 2002 among people 70 and older.
Cognitive impairment was associated with a significantly higher risk of death in both cohorts.
Education and financial status appeared overall to protect against developing cognitive impairment.
Once older people with higher levels of education reached a threshold of moderate to severe cognitive impairment, they had an increased risk of death over the next 2 years compared to those with lower levels of education.

While health treatment has improved for stroke, heart disease, and vascular conditions the researchers also suggest that cognitive reserve - our mind's resilience to neurological damage - may explain why the higher level of education found in the 2002 study group may be influencing the lower rate of cognitive impairment.

The New...

A commercial sign of this convergence between health and education is the growing industry in brain fitness, largely triggered by Nintendo's Brain Training success on the DS and Wii. Much of this is opportunistic bandwaggoning. However there are some exciting developments in Scotland which are reporting real benefits in the use of brain training exercises in a school setting.

A study in Dundee led by Learning and Teaching Scotland, as reporting by the Times, found:

“The initial pilot project that used the Nintendo DS and Dr Kawashima produced fascinating results," Derek Robertson, a development officer for 'games-based learning' at the LTS, said.
“Not only was there a marked and significant improvement in attainment in mental maths but there was also an improvement in concentration levels, behaviour and self regulation in the learning process.” Over a 10-week period, students in years 5 and 6 at St Columba's Primary played a series of 'brain training games' – including reading tests, problem-solving exercises, and memory puzzles – for 20 minutes in the morning when classes began. In a maths test at the end of the trial, their performance improved by an average 10 per cent, and the time to complete the test also dropped from 17 minutes to 13 minutes and nine seconds. Some children halved the time it took to complete the test while either maintaining or improving their score, the study found.

This is more evidence of Less Learning More Often at work. The success is leading to an extension of the study to 16 more schools - buying 480 Nintendo DS consoles for £34,000. This a small investment given the potential return, even if you scale it up across the entire country. Compare this to the billions wasted by Governments on over-engineered support structures that attempt to prop up the traditional methods of learning support to little lasting effect. Learning Skills Councils come to mind but there are plenty of others littering recent history - I only mention these as the Government announces their closure in 2010.

If we start to view education and our capacity to learn as a social health issue, perhaps we will see better targetted funding and real analytical rigour becoming commonplace rather than the exception it is today.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

'Millionaire' tests help kids learn

This is an interesting short report up from the New Scientist:

Replacing dry multiple-choice tests with quizzes akin to the hit TV show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire could help boost comprehension levels in children.

Tzu-Hua Wang at the National Hsinchu University of Education in Taiwan has devised a web-based multiple choice testing system with some fun elements influenced by the TV quiz. The system gives pupils the chance to "prune" away two incorrect answers from four - or, in a nod to "phone a friend", they may ask the class for help.

Unsurprisingly, children were more willing to be tested using Wang's system. But he also found kids had higher comprehension levels after using it, suggesting the system could be used for educational purposes.

This is interesting as it supports my view that DESIGN MATTERS. Engaging and holding attention is increasingly tough and just moving something online is not enough. Testing strategies really do need to move on from standard multiple choice mechanisms. This research demonstrates that different approaches can have an impact on learning effectiveness.

From Tzu-Hua Wang's paper, the use of an "Ask-Hint Strategy" turns what would otherwise be a standard web-based formative assessment into an online quiz game, called GAM-WATA (not quite as catchy a title as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"). The strategy consists of two elements: a ‘Prune Strategy’ and a 'Call-in Strategy'. The Prune Strategy emulates the "50/50" life line contestants are offered on the TV show, but contrary to the New Scientist report removes one option from four, not two. The Call-in Strategy provides the rate at which other test takers choose each option when answering a question. This I think is more like "Ask the Audience" than "Phone a Friend" as reported.

I'd like to understand better how they measured the improvement in comprehension amongst students taking these assessments, but it certainly illustrates that smart design does make a difference to learning outcomes.

It also shows that you should go back to the original research wherever possible as this seemed slightly misrepresented by the New Scientist report.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Our plastic brain - a game of give and take?

Neuroplasticity refers to our brains ability to change and reorganise itself through forming new neural connections. This is clearly at the heart of the learning process but also shows itself in the remarkable ability to move and redevelop brain function in the event of injury or damage.

Indeed, as we specialise and become experts in a specific skill or knowledge area, then the brain area used most to support this activity grows. As an example, this comparative study of London taxi and bus drivers (Maguire, Woollet and Spiers, 2006) found:

...that compared with bus drivers, taxi drivers had greater gray matter volume in mid-posterior hippocampi and less volume in anterior hippocampi. Furthermore, years of navigation experience correlated with hippocampal gray matter volume only in taxi drivers, with right posterior gray matter volume increasing and anterior volume decreasing with more navigation experience. This suggests that spatial knowledge, and not stress, driving, or self-motion, is associated with the pattern of hippocampal gray matter volume in taxi drivers.

Taxi drivers navigate around a city demanding constant recall of the spatial area, adapting constantly to traffic flow, passenger preferences and other factors. Bus drivers, on the other hand follow a more limited set of routes.

Another study (Draganski et al, 2006) focused on German medical students demonstrating that extensive learning of abtract information in preparing for an exam (and comparing them with students not being examed), showed that:

During the learning period, the gray matter increased significantly in the posterior and lateral parietal cortex bilaterally. These structural changes did not change significantly toward the third scan during the semester break 3 months after the exam. The posterior hippocampus showed a different pattern over time: the initial increase in gray matter during the learning period was even more pronounced toward the third time point.

I wonder whether this suggests that cramming intensively - usually frowned upon but still a very common practice - has a more lasting impact on future learning and memory retrieval than we have assumed to date?

But then how does this sit with the other finding from Maguire's study that the brains ability to change to suit the tasks and activities we engage in, comes at a cost to other brain areas not used as intensively? In this case, they found that the ability to acquire new visuo-spatial information was worse for taxi drivers than bus drivers. This is the effect of the anterior hippocampus decreasing in size.


With the growing use of MRI and voxel-based morphometry we'll be seeing more and more of these types of study informing our understanding of how we actually learn.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Knowledge Loses Its Luster

Here in the UK, the sunday papers tend to be a much of a muchness, preferring quantity over quality. An unending volume of supplements and junk inserts hardly send out the right environmental message. However there is one virtuously slim insert that comes with The Observer (the sunday sister publication to The Guardian) which I have been consistently impressed with - and that is The New York Times. The perspective is refreshing and reminds me that where ever we are in the world we tend to see things through a peculiarly regional lens. The internet is clearly changing this – I can access numerous feeds that originate from all over the planet and that certainly helps me achieve a different sort of perspective than I would otherwise have with just my local media.

So, notwithstanding Marc Andreessen's (of Netscape fame) recently announced "death watch" campaign against print media, the NYT in particular, I have valued the highly edited version I get to see. This week I've been struck by the harmonious resonance of several short reports which I'll post on over the coming days. Here's the first:

In the US Knowledge Loses Its Luster
Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason" has observed a growing generalised hostility to knowledge. Citing the example of Kellie Pickler failing to know that Hungary is a country in Europe instead believing Europe itself to be one country, Jacoby senses that there are two worrying trends of anti-intellectualism (the belief that "too much learning can be a dangerous thing") and anti-rationalism (the idea that "there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion").

In short, people just don't think that this knowledge matters. In 2006 a poll found that nearly half of 18-24 year olds thought it unimportant to know where countries in the news are located. Only 23% could locate Iraq, Iran and Israel despite dominating the news and political agenda over recent years.

My immediate reaction is to defend these young Americans as I would say that not many Europeans could place many of the states that make up the US. And perhaps more importantly, what awareness do we all really have of the rapidly growing economies of India and China outside of a few major cities?

Jacoby partly blames a failing education system saying "although people are going to school more and more years, there is no evidence they know more".

This is interesting as maybe it's not as important to know these facts when you can look it up at the point of need, even fly in on a specific place in the world with Google Earth. When I need to know, I can easily get to the answer. Indeed, if you define learning as traditional education, then may be too much is a dangerous thing in this new networked, globalised world we live in.

The second trend of anti-rationalism is perhaps more worrying. However in a world which is changing at an ever increasing pace, in many respects the concept of fact being a static concept begins to weaken. What you knew to be true yesterday may not be true today. With such shifting sands, it's no wonder that evaluating the prevailing opinion is a more practical skill than vainly holding onto facts that may be irrelevant before you get a chance to apply it.

So what do you think? Does knowledge matter? Are these trends of real concern?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Six minute nap 'may boost memory'

The BBC reports on the New Scientist reporting on a German study finding (here's the source article) that:

Just six minutes "shut-eye" for volunteers was followed by significantly better recall of words.
"Ultra-short" sleep could launch memory processing in the brain, suggested the researchers from the University of Dusseldorf.

This follows on from my earlier post Snooze and Learn Faster.

It's too early to determine whether this study is significant (many other studies seem to think that at least 20 minutes is needed before this effect kicks in), but this line of research has got to have some impact on the way we structure our learning interventions so that we work with our natural brain/memory processing functions rather than fight against them.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Can social networks work within institutional walls?

I had an interesting comment from Mark on my article on Applying Social Networking in the Workplace. This statement got me thinking:

I think social networks within an organisation will become tremendously useful - think of the opportunities for knowledge sharing through the creation of pools of expertise across the organisation consisting of people who would otherwise be locked into some isolated project team. I think social networking behind the firewall has great potential that will hopefully be realised sooner rather than later.

Well, I agree that social software appears to have lots of natural applications within corporates, but a key challenge to their success is that users of social tools like these may not recognise the normal corporate boundaries as much as the current generation of managers. Indeed much of the value from these tools comes from offering direct contact with people who may have valuable information/collaborative input from your customer base, supplier base, completely different industry sectors, or even your own competitor base as well as your peers inside and outside your own organisation. In which case, networking tools that are limited within the corporate firewall may not get the long term grass roots support we might expect. Perhaps this is where initiatives such as OpenSocial come in to their own. But being open creates a bit of a paradox for many organisations who are highly protective of their internal processes and intellectual capital.

This is not to say that there are not examples of this already working within some corporates. This BBC business podcast - All Join In - cites some examples of social networking being used by the likes of T-Mobile and Ernst & Young (the representative here makes a great point about ensuring that the postings and discussion remain uncensored and "true" even if at first they appear negative to his own organisation).

I know Jay Cross has strong views on this, which are neatly summarised in his CLO article. Here's one key observation that supports my own thoughts:

Today’s executives grew up in a business world managed by industrial-age rules. Deeply ingrained beliefs are difficult, if not impossible to unlearn. Many managers pay unquestioned allegiance to the vestiges of the industrial paradigm. They believe in hierarchical organizational structures, top-down control, information hoarding, rigidity, formality, competition and undervaluing intangibles.

In the opposite corner, most network-age businesspeople support flat organizations, shared responsibility, information sharing, extreme collaboration, flexibility, informality, cooperation and the importance of social capital and reputation.

Few people have a foot in both camps. The industrial-agers see the network folk as undisciplined techno-optimists. The network-agers think of the industry people as clueless reactionaries. The conflict between the two groups is building.

The maxim "Networks subvert hierarchy" goes neatly with my reflection:

That old maxim "Knowledge is Power" appears to be waning. Maybe the new mantra should be "Your Network is Power".