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.