November 30, 2005

Learning Teams

There is a growing body of literature regarding the effectiveness of "learning teams" - small groups of learners of different levels of knowledge, skill, and experience. Learning teams have existed in various forms for millenia - modern examples that most of us are familar with are the American 1-room school house and medical clinical education. McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario is a pioneer in medical education and has used the learning team concept extensively in their new Compass Curriculum.

The principle of a learning team is to create an environment where EVERYONE learns from one another and where (full-time, paid) instructors serve as role models and their content expertise (perhaps) is not particularly important. In learning teams, every individual on the team is responsible for the learning process - not just the "teacher" - and everyone is expected to contribute. Obviously, more novice learners, those who've joined the team most recently, are generally able to contribute less in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience ... but they can (and should) contribute by asking the fundamentally important questions and challenging the status quo ... thereby forcing more knowledgeable, skilled and experienced members of the team to either defend (support) the "dogma" or reconsider it. Since we spend most of our working lives working (and learning) in teams, shouldn't our formal education teach us how to be effective and contributing members of working (and learning) teams?

Learning teams are often constructed around important and genuine (not artificial) work - for example, taking care of patients on a particular hospital ward or conducting research to develop a new drug for Parkinson's disease. But the true goal of the learning team (and the instructor who leads them) is to go beyond learning the day-to-day technical functions (of patient care or discorvering new drugs) but to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to contribute to other learning teams.

Peter Senge, well known for his books and articles on management and leadership, talks about the "learning organization" in his book "The Fifth Discipline." The principles in Senge's books - "personal mastery," "mental models," "shared vision," and "team learning" - were initially developed to conceptualize how highly effective corporations "work" ... but they are equally important concepts in higher education and the "work" of learning teams. It's not surprising that Senge's more recent work has focused on how these principles can be applied to education in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook entitled "Schools that Learn."The bottom line - learning isn't about what the "teacher" knows and can impart to "students" but rather a shared process where people come together to grow and develop. The best teachers - while they may be known for their content expertise - are really achitects of the "learning process."

October 29, 2005

Learning Environment

Its been a few weeks since I've made an entry on this Blog ... not for the lack of ideas, but time. I did manage to take a vacation over the past month (Lake Tahoe - this picture was taken at dusk).

I've been reading and thinking about the learning environment we create as teachers - and how that has a profound influence on a student's eagerness to learn (or lack thereof). Its no great surprise that many students get turned off at an early age to school - not because they are not bright or talented in some way, but because a teacher or other respected authority criticized the student's performance OR because the student did not initially succeed at a task (while others around him or her did). Even among adult learners, criticism is hard to swallow, makes people defensive, and often turns people off to learning. But given that its our JOB to help people improve their performance and acheive high standards, how do we enhance learning or improve performance without critism? If someone is doing something wrong or in less than an optimal manner, shouldn't we point that out? Yes, sometimes ... and with do caution and care.

I've been listening to yet another audiobook in my car - "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. This a classic book about human relationships and clearly has implications for teaching. The author postulates that there are three fundamental principles for influencing people:

1) Don't criticize, condemn, or complain (... show positive examples of exemplary performance)
2) Given honest, sincere appreciation (... give praise not flattery)
3) Arouse in the other person an eager want (... to learn)

Through these techniques, teachers can steer learners toward the desired outcomes (but not in a manipulative way!) by creating a supportive learning environment - where success is acknowledged and failures are merely new opportunities to learn. Of course, "living" these principles - as teachers and as human beings - is far easier said than done! Becoming aware and constantly mindful of what we say to our students and how we say it is perhaps among the greatest challenges that any teacher (or parent) faces. What we say, of course, is a reflection of what we feel and think. If we find it difficult to avoid criticism or express appreciation, the initial step toward improving the learning environment is altering our own mental framework and attitudes. Needless to say, I haven't perfected these techniques yet. But few, in human history ever have ... so I'm consoled. I'm working to get better at it ... not acheive perfection.

These techniques are not a panacea. Being a good educator requires A LOT more than praising people, smiling, and remembering everyone's name. You actually have to DO something ... like performing a thorough analysis, design and development sound units of instruction, implement it, and conduct a well-planned evaluation.

For a humorous look at "How to Win Friends and Influence People" check out this broadcast from THIS AMERICAN LIFE (November 2, 2001). You'll need RealPlayer to listen to this program.

September 12, 2005

Shaping Attitudes

After attending church this past Sunday, I began to think about how teachers shape students' attitudes. Religous education is, in large part, about shaping attitudes, values, and beliefs. As an educator, there is no doubt that I hope to shape students' attitudes, values, and beliefs as they related to pharmacy practice. This process is called "professionalization." Perhaps the most difficult thing to teach is attitude. Yet, if teachers are in the business of empowering people to become COMPETENT citizens or professionals, it clearly requires teaching people more than a bunch of facts and arming them with the tools to DO certain tasks ... it requires shaping an appropriate attitude (or willingness) to actually use the knowledge and skill. Indeed, it could be argued, that the teacher's single most important task is shaping students' attitudes because the desire to gain the necessary knowledge and skills will naturally follow. In the absense of an appropriate attitude, merely possessing the knowledge and skills to DO something will not result in someone actually DOING something when the appropriate times comes in the "real world."

But how do teachers shape attitudes? Most of us have experienced circumstances when a teacher shaped our attitudes ... but not always in a positive way. Indeed, we may have been turned off from learning how to do something because we had a negative experience or because a teacher (or anyone for that matter) we admired expressed negative opinions about something. Or discourage us in subtle or even overt ways by communicating to us that we weren't capable of doing it. I think we all know ways to turn people off. But how can we "turn them on" ... in other words, create positive feelings and a willingness to engage - spontaneously, without promising rewards or threatening punishment - in a particular endeavor. Or an eagerness to learn more about a particular subject. Or develop a yearning to do something. How do we, as teachers, create desire so compelling that students no longer need (or want) prompting to DO the desired activity. While some (perhaps most) students have an intrinsic desire to learn how to DO lots of things in this world (including the things we are passionate about and think are important), teachers can cultivate or destroy that desire.

Here's what the experts say about cultivating and shaping POSITIVE attitudes:

1) Teachers who have a positive attitude (better yet, enthusiasm) toward the subject matter or tasks they are teaching are more likely to engender a positive attitude (if not enthusiasm) toward the subject matter or tasks.

2) Teachers who possess a great deal of expertise in the subject matter or tasks they are asking students to learn about are more likely to be perceived as credible ... and excellent role models.

3) Teachers who challenge students in authentic (meaningful) learning experiences (from the learner's perspective) can shape a positive attitude toward the subject matter or task. Material that seems irrelevant (to the learner) is unlikely to inspire anyone to want to learn it!

4) Teachers who believe their students can (and will) excel creative a positive learning environment. This does not mean that teachers must avoid giving students critical feedback about ways they can improve performance. Insincere praise won't help people excel and it quickly leads to mistrust and feelings of betrayal. Setting high standards - standards that are clearly articulated - and providing regular and meaningful feedback to students about their performance can motivate students to excel. But teachers must communicate a belief that students can improve their performance and are capable of meeting high standards. The best teachers notice and readily acknowledge improvements in performance when they occur.

5) Teachers who are culturally sensitive or exhibit cultural responsiveness can also enhance motivation to learn. This is not limited to the cultural difference among ethnic groups but also a sensitivity and responsiveness to the cultural differences between men and women, younger and older adults, socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged learners, and a host of other factors that shape a group of learners understanding of the world, norms of behavior, and values. Indeed, if the teacher is attempting to alter students' perceptions, behavior, and values, the teacher must have an awareness of (and acknowledge) students' pre-existing cultural perspectives. Failure to do so will lead to resistance or out right rejection of the perspectives and values the teacher is hoping students will consider.

For more information about motivation and shaping attitudes, check out this book: Wlodkowski, R. Enhancing Adult Motivation to Learn: A Comprehensive Guide for Teaching All Adults (Revised Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999. Click here to Read the book review.

August 31, 2005

The Impact of Stress on Learning and Memory

This is a photograph I recently took during my travels in Maine. Its a very peaceful scene with my nephews paddling on a pond at sunset. As luck would have it, I captured in the foreground the concentric rings of tiny waves created where a fish jumped. You can also see lily pads and grass growing in the water. I wish every day were as beautiful and carefree as depicted in this photo. But they are not. Indeed, our lives are full of stress and I've begun to think about how it impacts our ability to learn and remember.

I think most of us are intrinsically aware that people under stress have a more difficult time learning and remembering things. At one point in our lives all of us has been "stressed out" about something and performance at school or work (or life in general) suffered. Personally, over the past year, I've had increasing difficulty expressing myself clearly and remembering the little things that once came so easily to me. This may be a function of age-related memory loss (I hope not!!) or it may be related to a persistent level of stress or perhaps both. Why does stress impact learning and memory? This may be related to several factors. First, people who are under a lot of stress have a difficult time paying attention to the sensory inputs in the immediate surroundings - their minds are pre-occupied with other thoughts and are not focused on perceiving, interpreting, and reflecting on new information in the environment. Second, stress hormones cause disturbances in our brain chemistry (don't ask me the details ... remember, I'm a primary care practitioner ... not a biochemist!) which appears to make accessing previously learned material more difficult. Just think back to a particularly stressful exam!

Stress is a self-percieved phenomenon. A situation or environment that seems stressful to one person is an unnoticed annoyance (or perhaps even pleasurable) to someone else. A certain amount of stress can be very useful and, when its not excessive, it can enhance performance. People who are "challenged" to meet high expectations often meet them. Thus, "low balling" learners to make things easy or stress-free isn't productive. I think the best analogy for this phenomena is the Starling curve (actually, its called the Frank-Starling curve ... but most of us seem to forget about Otto Frank who was Ernst Starling's partner!). In the Frank-Starling curve, cardiac output improves with increasing preload (left-ventricular end diastolic volume) and is dependent on stroke volume. In other words, if you push more into the heart (e.g. stress it) it will end up pumping out more (if the heart is healthy) ... at least to a point, and then it progressively goes into failure. The point at which the heart will begin to go into failure is variable from one individual to another. Individuals who already have some degree of cardiac dysfunction can accommodate much less pressure before they go into failure. That's why we give them drugs to reduce pre-load. And analogously, people who already have cognitive dysfunctions (e.g. learning disabilities, cognitive impairment due to age or disease, mental illness, or difficulty coping to a new life situation) can be pushed into "learning failure" more easily. As teachers, particularly as college professors who are trying to develop professionals who continue to perform well even under situations where there is significant stress and pressure, how much should we accommodate the needs of these individuals? How much should we reduce the pre-load? Certainly, the learning environment should not be purposely stressful. Further, students should be given encouragement and their confidence boosted (when appropriate) with positive affirmations about their ability to succeed. Any student who has a temporary stressor (i.e. death in family, moving, divorce) should be accommodated for awhile. But how about those who are always "stressed out." Perhaps we should be offering (or even requiring) these students to learn and regularly engage in a variety of stress management techniques? Food for thought.

You can find a wealth of information about the relationship between stress and learning at:

August 24, 2005

Early Childhood Performance and Parental Contributions

I've been listening (yes, listening) to the book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner this past week in my car on the way to work. A fascinating look at social phenomena from an economist's point of view. Among many other things explored in the book, the authors examine the impact that parents have on the intellectual development of childen, particularly during the "most formative" years between birth and kindergarten. They use a massive data set - the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS)- collected over the past decade in a very large cohort of children in the US to determine what parental factors contribute to a child's success in school (at least in elementary school). The results are surprising in some ways because they refute some of the "conventional wisdom" regarding parental behaviors that are believed to increase a child's chances of success in school.

Eight factors that appear to matter (and were significantly correlated with performance):
1) The child's parents' educational attainment (positive correlation)
2) The child's parents' socioeconomic standing (positive correlation)
3) The child's mother was > 30 years old when she had her first child
4) Low birthweight (negative correlation)
5) The child's parents speak English in the home
6) The child is adopted (negative correlation)
7) The child's parents participate in the PTA
8) The child's parents have many books in the home

Eight factors that do not appear to matter (e.g. no correlation was found):
1) The child's family is intact (e.g. mom and dad are married and live in the same household)
2) The child's family recently moved to a better neighborhood
3) The child's mother did not work from the child's birth to kindergarten
4) The child participated in HeadStart
5) The child's parents regularly take the child to museums
6) The child's parents regularly spank the child
7) The child regularly watches TV
8) The child's parents read to the child nearly every day

The authors contend that these data indicate that who the parents "are" is more important than what the parents "do" in determining how well their child will do in school. This would suggest that our intellectual ability and our performance in school is determined more by genetic and general social factors (e.g. socioeconomic class) than any specific behaviors that our parents engage in to prepare us for school. At least in childhood. But do these same factors hold true in adolesence, early adulthood, and beyond? Are we "formed" early in our lives and the path of our existence irreverisibly established? Or do other factors play more important roles later in life? And most importantly, from my perspective as a teacher, does the power to develop and grow primarily reside within the learner or is it determined by the environment created by the teacher. What do you think?