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The study results show that attitudes about learning are out of date and need to change, Bates said.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.

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