Friday, December 21, 2018

What IS in our DNA? Anything about learning?

I've been hearing and reading a lot about what's in our DNA or what our brain is hardwired to do. Apparently we are or are not hardwired to remember stuff. Healing is in our DNA as is empathy. I'll track down more on some of those topics over the holidays for other blogs, but I'd like to talk about the Siri-Alexa Effect and its impact on learning and creativity.

Sir Ken Robinson has been talking about the absence of creativity in schools for a while. We've pummeled the factory model of education for a couple of decades now and we're beginning to see some changes in classrooms, though often in the form of bouncy balls and wobble chairs as teachers try to figure out what flexible seating means for them. I think kids are naturally creative and inquisitive, but we tend to stifle that in classrooms and often unintentionally. Hang on to that for a minute.

In 2014, there was a study about learning and our DNA. It's an interesting article. What I found particularly compelling is the notion of whether or not we're "good" at math or reading or something else. Compared to everyone else in the world? Maybe. I need to share a substantial part of the end of the article.

Plomin also points out that genes don't predetermine performance. Appetite is just as important as aptitude, he said.
"The brilliant mathematician — that's all they do for decades, they just think math and work on math," Plomin said. "It's not like it comes to them with a flash of inspiration. It's really a long, long process of thinking about these things."
The study results show that attitudes about learning are out of date and need to change, Bates said.
"Just as we no longer blame mothers for schizophrenia, we should be humble when blaming schools and parents for not every child learning as quickly as we'd desire," he said. "The implications, I think, are that children really do differ at very deep levels in how easily they learn."
Another article in 2016 addressed "the interplay between brain and behavior." It didn't really add a lot to my arsenal for thinking about such things, but the author may have inadvertently reminded me that one of the reasons I'm "not good" at playing the piano (or any other musical instrument) is that I wasn't willing to practice. I think I'd like to know how to play the cello but mostly I like the idea of knowing how to play the cello. I like math, but it isn't my passion. Nor is science. If I could get paid for reading, thinking, traveling to talk with others about ideas, and writing, and doing some teaching, I'd be one of the happiest people on earth.

One of the things I've come to realize in my work with teachers and students is that most of the professional development work we do focuses on the teacher and the teaching. Oh, it makes sense. . . to a degree. After all, the teachers is a facilitator of learning so the strategies an educator learns will help him find better ways to help students learn.

So many of our strategies are on helping students figure out how to complete a task so they can successfully complete a task. We seem to spend much too much time, directly and indirectly, on asking students to focus on completing tasks. Somehow we hope they will equate that with learning.

Which brings me back to my question about whether or not learning, the process of learning, is part of our DNA. I think it is and based on absolutely nothing scientific. See, kids are naturally curious. They are okay with taking things apart and seeing what else they can make. They don't seem to mind trying to figure out how to work something or do something or even learn how to read based on what they hear people do when a book is being read to them. Give them some technology and, when they're young, they'll spend time figuring out how to make it work or one of their classmates will rush over to show them how.

But then they get past about 2nd grade and all that inquisitiveness and willingness to try to do something seems to have been wrung out of them because we have focused so much on the task and its completion. I wonder how many times a teacher says something like, "You've got to get this done." It becomes, then, all about the task and nothing about the process of learning, which is, I think, rambling down a trail prompted by curiosity and creativity.

And because teachers worry about how to grade something--and there are lots of factors to contribute to their thinking, too, and why grades and performance become their focal points--they prefer students to complete a task in a particular way. And creativity gets boxed out.

Now. The Siri-Alexa effect. It goes back further than Siri but it's really blatant with these tools. Kids (and adults) ask a question. They may have to rephrase a few times for Siri or Alexa to be able to give them the information they need or want, but then they're done. "Research" accomplished. Answer retrieved. Because isn't the point to get the right answer? Is there any value in being curious? or being creative in one's approach to answering a question or completing a task?

Teachers complain that kids won't read closely. They want to find the answer right away. They want every answer to be "right there." Just like when they ask Siri or Alexa or Google. They don't know how or think it is important to know how to read more closely, to take their time to read, to realize that part of that reading and thinking and figuring out process is called learning. That being curious and thinking creatively about something is part of the process of learning.

That the point of asking them to read and think and figure out is to learn how to learn.

Or is it?

Or have we become so focused on making sure students complete tasks and in a particular way that we have forgotten to teach them that learning is part of the process and, as one of my friends noted, the process is the process.

We want, or maybe only I want, students to be engaged in the process of learning. I'd love for them to get so lost in looking something up that they forget what they were looking for because of all of the cool stuff they are finding and learning about. I want them to read something and instead of racing to find the main idea or the key argument, I would love for them to say "Hey! Wait a minute. What about. . .?" and want to do the research to go find out more rather than simply taking the word of the author.

Does that mean banning Google, Siri, or Alexa? Nope. We know that asking Siri and Alexa more questions helps the AI software behind the device get smarter. But does that process make us smarter or just more dependent on whatever resources Siri or Alexa happen to tap into (often Wikipedia, by the way).

But that does mean making sure students know there is more to this school experience, so much more to learning, than being the first to get the right answer. And that's a whole different mindset for educators, students, and parents.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Thinking about majors. . . and employability

I remember talking with the parents of a freshman advisee who were worried what their student might be able to do with a degree in English. The student's dad said the word "English" like it tasted bad. I sighed, inwardly, I hope. It was not a new question and neither was the palpable concern that parents were going to be investing a lot of money in a piece of paper that would not translate to opportunities worth mentioning.

Even then, and this was over a decade ago, it was easy to tell parents about the skills their student would gain as an English major and that this learning wasn't as much about the literature he would get to read, but the work he would have to do because of the reading; because of the research; because of the writing; and, of perhaps most importantly, because of the thinking, the necessity of learning how to make connections, the requirement to articulate those ideas, and the expectation of listening to others, making connections with those ideas, and articulating any change of thought or perception. I wish I could report on the trajectory of that particular student, but, alas, I cannot. I do know that some of my English majors went on to be teachers, others went to graduate school in different fields, others went into the military, and still others found a profession and line of work that had nothing to do with English or literature and yet makes them happy.

I've been talking with teachers about their concerns about their juniors and seniors who seem to lack interest in a meaningful future and with students who respond with a shrug or with some semblance of an idea of what they might maybe kind of sort of want to focus on in college. It's hard to tell if they don't know about their options or if they don't care. One of the teachers I was talking to is alarmed that one of her seniors wants to play in the NFL so he wants to go to college to go pro and, if he doesn't get drafted, he'll just work at Taco Bell. Nothing wrong with wanting to work at Taco Bell, but the teacher is frustrated that his vision goes no further. On the other hand, right now, he can't imagine not playing football. That's his dream. At least he has one.

These days there is a lot of emphasis on STEM, and rightly so. We do need more people in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. However, we need them to be creative and collaborative. Personally, I think we need them to be familiar with systematic inventive thinking. I'm sure some of what they're teaching and discussing has changed from what I learned back in 2004 or 2005, and that's good. It should evolve. But one thing that was revelatory to me is that sometimes the best solution is a simple addition or a simple subtraction. It was transformational thinking in the purest sense and recognizing that transformation doesn't necessarily mean massive redesign, but perhaps one small change making a large difference in a way of doing, in a way of thinking.

Because I do a lot of work in STEM, and because of my own unusual background, I'm aware that the liberal arts are often maligned and misunderstood. I'm also aware of the concern of underemployment of those with any degree, the subject of many a report this past spring.

Traditionally, students have pursued jobs that aligned with their major; therefore, a business major looks for jobs that seem to reflect the courses taken for that major or the kind of work they think they want to do. However, it's true that one's major does not define one's career. A degree is representative of something in which a student may be interested. I qualify that because I've had my share of students who graduated and realized they had a degree in something they didn't really want to do or didn't really like.

Soft skills aren't new but they are of greater interest to employers now. And why? Well, take a look at those top skills in that graphic at the top of this post. What do you see? Anything about a specific major? Nope.

Seth Godin wanted to call them vocational skills. Meh. I think that what we call "soft skills" are life skills. We need to be active listeners and good communicators whether we're collaborating with work colleagues or life colleagues. Emotional intelligence has value outside of the work place as does, well, pretty much everything on that list.

While a degree might be important for the work graduates might do some day, there are several things to consider. First, the job students get when they graduate may be on the path to their ultimate career or may be a stepping stone to get to where they really want or are meant to go. Second, some students right out of college often lack a clear sense of self and also don't really know how far they can go or what all they might be capable of accomplishing. Limiting themselves to the major on their degree might be self-defeating. Having a sense of their capabilities and their competencies might help them figure out what they really want to be doing and start them on the path to get there. Third, many of us didn't really hit our strides in our work life for a few years or even longer. Fourth, plenty of us have changed career paths more than once, and that's okay.