Recently, I attended a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey A. Greene, Ph.D. at the Friday Institute The lecture was an installment of the FI Seminar Series which showcases innovative work from FI research and engagement teams, as well as that of their partners in the College of Education, throughout NC State University, and across the nation.
The lecturer, Dr. Greene (CV, Google Scholar, Twitter) is an Associate Professor at UNC Chapel Hill where he also serves as Director of Graduate and Undergraduate Research Programs in the School of Education. Greene has an academic background in educational psychology and measurement, statistics, and evaluation.
Upon reviewing Greene’s faculty website before the lecture, my eye was immediately drawn the the quote he chose include at the top of the page:
"Soft pedagogics have taken the place of the old steep and rocky path to learning. But from this lukewarm air the bracing oxygen of effort is left out. It is nonsense to suppose that every step in education can be interesting. The fighting impulse must often be appealed to."
Reading this, I wondered what point this established scholar was getting at by including this quote in such a prominent location on his website. Was he suggesting that educators are headed down a slippery slope of trying to make every instructional endeavor overly fun, novel, and catchy (turned up to 11, if you will) out of a fear that otherwise, students would not pay attention and/or learn? Is the instructional technology field guilty of exacerbating this trend with all of our fancy tools (apps, videos, 3D models, virtual teachers in an online class, etc.)? If so, are we doing kids a disservice by desensitizing them to all but the most flashy and engaging of learning materials? In a quest to make all learning flashy and fun, are we shying away from the simple truth that often, learning (especially in later life in the workplace or as a college student) is ultimately dependent upon a person sitting down and putting in the challenging mental work necessary to understand new information? From my personal experience, I can promise you that nothing about my doctoral coursework at Virginia Tech was overly engaging or fun. The vast majority of my time at VT was spent on what James called, “the old steep and rocky path to learning”.
Lots to think about here and I look forward to seeing your responses in the comments section. Like everything in life, I suspect a reasonable balance is best. I am all for instructors putting in the effort, where appropriate, to use technology to make lessons engaging or even fun. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that ultimately, it is the students who have to put in most of the effort and that often, outside of school, learning environments will not always be so polished and appealing. My hope is that educators are always being thoughtful about how to best prepare kids for what lies ahead.
Alright, moving on…
Some notes from the lecture:
1.Greene started out talking about what it means when we call modern students digital natives. He acknowledged that yes, millennials and neo-mellennials have likely used technological devices their entire lives but gave some pushback on any assumptions that they absolutely need these devices to learn and may somehow be unable to learn without them. Here, I am in agreement with Greene.
2. Dr. Greene then moved on to discuss what he calls epistemic cognition which is summed up nicely here. Without getting caught up in a bunch of philosophical terms like positivism and post-positivism, epistemic cognition refers to how students think of knowledge. Do they view knowledge as fixed and absolute, as highly negotiable and changing, or somewhere in between? Greene suggests students’ epistemic cognition is particularly important in the modern world. He posits that since students are bombarded with information from a huge variety of sources and opinions, it is vital that they think critically about what they are hearing. Greene made a case for the benefits of helping students view knowledge as something that is to be constantly questioned, evaluated, and changed according to current information.
For example, think of how much scientific attitudes have changed over the years about things like smoking or climate change in light of new information. Scientific facts were facts until they weren’t anymore. What was thought to be true has changed. People questioned, evaluated, and acted accordingly. Interestingly, such a change is presently underway in the education field. Scholars are openly challenging the longheld belief in the existence of learning styles (more on this in another post!) and this is certainly an area where educators may want evaluate their our beliefs accordingly.
I think Greene is on very solid ground here. It is vital that we teach kids to be critical consumers of information and to constantly evaluate their beliefs/thoughts/knowledge and the beliefs/thoughts/knowledge of others. Given our area of work at the intersection of the media and instructional technology fields, it seems that we are well positioned to help students cultivate such behaviors. What do you think? Is this important? Should kids view knowledge as negotiable and changing? If so, how can we help them learn these habits of the mind?
3. Finally, Dr. Greene moved on discuss Self Regulated Learning (SRL), an area in which he has done extensive research. He shared the example of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. This series of studies was conducted by Mischel back in the 60s and 70s (he still publishes on the topic today). Check out this video to learn more. Anyway, the findings of the experiments strongly suggested that children who were able to wait longer for gratification tended to have better life outcomes like higher SAT scores, greater educational attainment, and lower body mass index. Pretty strong implications, right?
Dr. Greene did a great job connecting the SRL/gratification research to the attributes and affordances of modern technologies. His point was that, sure, such hardware and software open up a huge variety of instructional opportunities that may otherwise not be possible. However, on the other hand, they also open the possibility for vast array of distractions (websites, social networks, videos, etc.) that potentially eat up valuable learning time. Greene self admitted that he was prone to such distractions and often fell down what he called the ”You Tube Rabbit Hole”. He explained how, at times, when working at his desk at night, he would suddenly and inexplicably find himself watching videos of the 80s band Journey with a half hour suddenly elapsed. Listening to him talk, I knew exactly what he meant (though my YouTube Rabbit Holes involve Manchester City F.C. highlights and clips from Archer episodes)!
So what do you think? Can SRL be taught or is the ability to delay gratification hereditary? Are student self regulation strategies already entrenched before they start school or can we shape them? Is this something we as instructional technologists should care about and try to support with teachers?
So that is it! I am glad I had the chance to attend this lecture as it gave me lots of new information to think about. I would very much like to hear what you think about all that was discussed here. Please consider posting some comments and try your best to stay out of the YouTube Rabbit Hole!