May 7, 2006

Social Learning and the Diffusion of Knowledge

The Sydney Opera House, depicted in this photo, is among the most recognizable and beautiful structures in the world. The Syndey Harbour Bridge, which is the world's largest - but not the longest - single arch bridge in the world, overlooks the Opera House ... and from the top of the Bridge one can get a awe inspiring vista of the Harbour. The technical expertise required to build these structures was not developed in isolation but rather from the cumulative knowledge, skill, and cultural beliefs of the society that created them. It is through social learning that communities and cultures develop. It is through social learning that technological advances are diffused and adopted by a population, a profession, or a discipline.

Albert Bandura is perhaps the best known for articulating social learning (or social cognition) theory. While behaviorism postulates that learners are shaped by consequences (e.g. rewards and punishments) and constructivism theorizes that learners "construct" meaning from their personal experiences as they relate to previous experiences, social learning theory states that learners are largely shaped by observing other people in a social context. No single theory can explain (exclusively) how we learn. Clearly behaviorist and constructivist strategies both work. But I am intrigued by the power that social learning can have in shaping professional norms of behavior.

I think it is vitally important to read widely outside one's own discipline (including fiction!) to develop a greater understanding of the world. It is usually through my readings of these "tangential" materials that I have made surprising discoveries that have furthered my understanding as a teacher and health care practitioner. This alone is a strong argument why all professionals should have a liberal education - not merely a technical education in their discipline ... but I digress. I recently subscribed to Scientific American and I stumbled across an intriguing article in the April 2006 issue about social learning among orangutans in Sumatra (Why Are Some Animals So Smart? by Sarel Van Schaik pp64-71). Apparently the orangutan is not a particularly social animal and rather docile. Most orangutans do not use tools to forage for food - even though there would be a significiant advantage to adopting such a strategy. However, unlike their brethren throughout South East Asia, orangutans in the Kluet swamp of Sumatra are sophisticated tool users. Why? Researchers postulate that the use of tools is a cultural phenomena where the knowledge and skills necessary to use tools is perpetuated through social learning. Orangutans in the Kluet swamp are found in unusually high numbers (due to plentiful food and natural boundaries that prohibit their movement to other locations) - and this forces far more social interaction than most of their peers in other parts of Asia. It is through these social interactions that the brightest orangutans share their knowledge and skills with other members of the community (but not necessarily in an overt, intentional manner - they are orangutans after all!) . Most orangutans are bright enough to adopt tool use while they are in capacity when trained by humans. So intelligence can not explain the unique behavior observed in the Kluet swamp orangutans. Perhaps orangutans in the Kluet swamp have a great need to use tools? After all, necessity is the mother of invention - right? Doubtful - because food is generally plentiful in the Kluet swamp ... and orangutans in other areas have not adopted tool use in times of famine. Why hasn't the knowledge and skills needed to use tools diffused to other orangutan populations? Geography! There is little or no contact between the Kluet swamp population and other orangutan populations. Indeed, orangutans that have been displaced from the Kluet swamp loose the ability to use tools over time - presumably because the behavior is not reinforce by the community.

So - what are the implications of these findings for humans? Learning is a social (cultural) phenomena - and our collective intelligence sustains our development. The greatest achievements of mankind (as well as our tragic failures and exploitations) are not the result of a single great person or intellect – but rather the consequence of the cumulative knowledge perpetuated and expanded over time as well as the collective wisdom (or ignorance) of a particular society and culture. Great teachers know how to harness the power of social learning!

April 25, 2006

Books that Every Educator Should Read

I took this photograph recently in Rochefeller Center in New York City. Great architecture has always inspired me. On one level, the technical genious required to make these monumental structures is amazing. It requires a great deal of expertise to determine what is the best design and materials to withstand the slowly (and sometimes acutely) destructive elements of nature over years, decades, and even centuries. On another level, the artistic and creative genious that is required to make a functional structure into something that is aesthetically pleasing and evokes an emotional response is a gift. I think great teachers are like great architects. Creating great structures requires not only technical expertise but also a cultural sensitivity, an awareness of the surroundings, and an ability to visualize a potential that does not yet exist.

Every educator (who takes their vocation seriously) probably has two or three books that have shaped and inspired them as teachers. Here is a list of books that have influenced me the most over the past year:

What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain (Harvard University Press 2004). This short, inexpensive (less than $15 thru and inspiring little book was a delight to read. While the book cover is a bit goofy, Bain takes a scholarly (but accessible) approach to the subject matter. The bottom line - the best colleges teachers know and love the subject matter they teach ... engage their students to think about the most relevant questions that matter ... and have confidence that their students can (and will) meet high standards.

The Courage to Teach. Exploring the Inner Landscape of A Teacher's Life by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass 1998) is a book about the vulnerability of being a teacher and the importance of integrity and being whole. Great teaching is not achieved by employing superior pedagogical techniques but rather in developing self-awareness and connectedness to one's subject and students. My favorite chapter is entitled "Knowing in Community." Truth - according to Palmer - is a reality created by a dynamic web of communal relationships between "knowers." In the community of truth, there is no ultimate authority - but rather knowing, learning, and teaching is a dialogue among a community of people (knowers) who approach a common subject in a shared way (e.g. they communicate in a shared language, share rules of observation, and interpret information in a similar manner). It is only after we (teachers) abandon our need to be the ultimate authority that we can truly engage students to become members of the community of truth.

The Wisdom of Practice: Essays on Teaching, Learning, and Learning to Teach by Lee S. Shulman (Jossey-Bass 2004) is collection of essays (as the title would imply) on a wide range of topics related to pedagogy. Dr. Shulman is currently the President of the Carnegie Foundation - a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of teaching - and previously a professor in psychology at Stanford University (1982-1996) and a professor in educational psychology and medical education at Michigan State University. These essays span his career. Again, the focus is not on technique but the art and craft of teaching.

February 12, 2006

Educational Resources On-Line

This photo is from the Pompidou Centre in Paris - one of the world's greatest museums. The Pompidou is dedicated to modern art in its many forms - including photographs, films, scuptures, furniture, and architecture. Sure - no visit to Paris would be complete without seeing the Louvre or d'Orsey - but be sure to visit the Pompidou.

The Web is rich with resources and forums dedicated to education, teaching, and learning. Finding credible sources of informaton, however, can be a challenge. Here is a short list of on-line resources I have found very helpful:

Search Engines

ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) is the world's largest educational database - similar to MEDLINE - with more than 1.1 million citations dating back to 1966. If you want to do a general literature search on an education topic or find the primary educational research literature, this is the first place to go!

Journals / Newsletters / Weblogs

BMC Medical Education provides access to full-text and abstracts to original research articles regarding professional, post-graduate, and continuing medical education.

The American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (AJPE) is the official journal of the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. All manuscripts published since 2003 are available on-line in full-text.

The Carnegie Foundation was founded in 1905 and is dedicated to the advancement of teaching. They publish a monthy on-line newsletter called Carnegie Perspectives.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is a weekly newspaper covering a wide range of issues of interest to educators and adminstrators at institutions of higher learning.

January 25, 2006

The Learning and Forgetting Curves

This is a photo I recently took in Paris - a truly unforgetable city! I've traveled to Paris several times and I have fond memories from each trip.

Nearly everything we know today about learning and forgetting was "discovered" by Herman Ebbinghaus in the late 1800's.

Ebbinghaus, a psychologist, had a keen interest in memory and higher cognitive processes. He was the first to describe the "learning curve" and characterize retention. His experiments were quite clever. He was able to systematically measure how long it takes for people to "memorize" new information and how much was retain over time by developing a series of nonsense syllables and words. During his experiments, subjects repeated a series of nonsense syllables and/or words as many times as was necessary to reach an a priori level of accuracy (for example, three perfect reproductions without being prompted verbally or looking at it in writing). What he discover was that the time required to memorize nonsense syllables increased sharply as the number of syllables increased. I think we can all appreciate that it requires much more time and effort to memorize a 13-digit overseas telephone number than it does a 5-digit zip code. Ebbinghaus also discovered that people are able to memorize more in distributed learning sessions rather than by trying to assimilate everything in a single session.

Ebbinghaus then set out to determine the duration and strength of retention. Using a concept he invented, called the "savings method," he determined the number of repetitions required to relearn material (to the same criterion) and compared it to the number of trials initially required to learn the material. The more repititions you required to relearn the material, the more you had forgotten - he surmised.

What he discovered through these experiments are things we inutitively know. First, items that are associated with one another are more easily remembered together. These associations could be due to congruity (e.g. they appeared next to each other on the list) or due to remote association (e.g. the learner made some connections between the two items in their own mind). Second, we remember best what we FIRST and LAST encounter (the so-called primacy and recency effects) and tend to forget middle items. Third, even small amounts of practice, far less than what is required for mastery to the criterion level of performance, lead to "savings" (e.g. improved retention over time). Finally, most humans tend to forget 50% of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks. But the speed of forgetting is related to a number of factors. Most importantly, our ability to learn nonsense material (e.g. things we don't understand) is quite poor - requiring a great deal of effort - and the forgetting curve is quite steep. On the other hand, meaningful material (e.g. things that make sense because they relate to things we already know) takes only about one tenth the effort to learn and the forgetting is relatively gradual. Not surprisingly, the forgetting curve is nearly flat for vivid or traumatic experiences - perhaps because the learner "reviews" the memory repetitively in his/her mind.

What are the implications of Ebbinghaus' work? Many of our "best practices" in education are based on these findings and most of us probably take them for granted. For example, stating the important learning points at the being and end of a lecture relates to the primacy and lacency effect of memory. Breaking up material into small chucks of information - rather than massive amounts of information at a single sitting - relates to the inherently limited capacity that most of us have to absorb new information. Opportunities for practice during a lecture or workshop - even when its not mastered - improves retention. And encountering the material repetitively over time - rather than concentrating on it intensely for a short period of time - is a more effective learning strategy.

Cognitive learning theory (aka contructivism) postulates that we construct our own learning by making connections between what we sense (see, hear, feel, taste, touch) and what we already know. Ebbinghaus' experiments certainly provides evidence to support that contention - learning new materials is far more efficient when it is "meaningful" to the learner (not the teacher!!). But how can we, as teachers, make the material "meaningful?" .... That's a topic for another time.

December 30, 2005

Learning Communities

There has been a lot of talk about "learning communities" over the past few year. Many corporations are trying to build them. And learning communities have spontaneously formed in cyber-space. But what are learning communities?

A learning community is a group of individuals (usually 20 or more, too large to be a "team") who've gathered together to learn about a specific subject or professional discipline. Learning communities, like learning teams, generally have individuals at all levels of development. Some members of the community are novices and other are experts. Learning communities may have specific tasks or objectives they are trying to accomplish - but many do not. Members may simply gather together because they have a strong personal interest in the subject matter or commitment to the discipline. Examples that we're all familiar with are Schools or Colleges within a University. And many professional associations are learning communities because they foster the development of people within a particular discipline by offering a variety of instructional activities and enabling like-minded people to communicate with one another. Prior to the advent of the Internet, learning communities were a PHYSICAL place where people met face-to-face. But now "virtual" learning communities exist where people communicate only online. Of course, most schools and associations have quickly adopted the Internet to augment the face-to-face interactions that occur in their communities.

Building effective learning communities requires more than just subject matter to hold them together. No doubt, some schools are probably held together merely because the law or the market place requires individuals to have a certain academic degree or credential in order to work in the field. But in most learning communities are constructed by people who've voluntarily come together. Strong learning communities, like any organization or neighborhood, generally have the same key ingredients that sustain them and help them flourish:

1) All members have a sense of belonging; new members feel welcomed
2) A mission or purpose which is important and transcends individuals
3) Members share responsibility for sustaining the community

The distinction between a learning team and a learning community is a sutle one. Learning communities are generally larger in size (often several hundred people) and have a much broader purpose. Learning communities are frequently sustained over long periods of time. Learning teams are generally much smaller groups - generally less than 20 people. The purpose of a learning team is generally a short term goal - their actions are often focused on a specific task or objective. Learning teams may be disbanded when the objectives have been met or when its members move on to do different things. Learning teams are often found within learning communities.

An analogy, one that I think is helpful, is to compare learning communities and teams to neighborhoods and households. A strong neighborhood is a large group of people with common interests (not merely the land that they occupy together). Strong neighborhoods are made of not only households but also businesses and other organizations (e.g. churches, senior center) that support and sustain the members of the neighborhood. Most strong neighborhoods have strong households - smaller units of people who spend significant amounts of time together and who enable one another to succeed. Older, more experienced members of the household (usually called parents, but this is not always the case) have a particular responsibility to attend to the needs of the younger members of the household. But members of a household often grow and leave. New household are sometime built and others fall apart or move away. Strong neighborhoods can help households that are faltering. But strong neighborhood are rarely destroyed by an isolated or even a few households that aren't doing well.

Like strong neighborhoods, strong learning communities have similar requirements - they don't thrive merely by having a bunch of members or a collection of learning teams affiliated with them. Food for thought in this new year.

If you're really interested in this stuff, check out or this site at Miami University of Ohio regarding Faculty and Professional Learning Communities.