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Posts Tagged ‘choice

A generation of Singaporeans will be familiar with the call to chase the five Cs: Cash, Car, Condo, Credit card, Country club membership.

It seems to have fallen out of fashion. But I do not think this is because we have abandoned the relentless pursuit of extrinsic rewards. Judging from the equally relentless money-making ads I get on YouTube, we are still a mercenary lot.

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This is why I like what I heard recently in a Trevor Noah interview. His guest, Richard Antoine White, suggested that life would be more fulfilling if we pursued three Cs (2min 5sec mark):

  • Choice
  • Chance
  • Change

White combined all three when he summarised his life story so far. He was given “a chance to make the right choices to see the changes that would better (his) life“.

Educators who really care for their learners might offer any or all of the three Cs. How might student choice lead to the same ends? What sorts of chances do you give students when they make honest mistakes? What changes can you make in your collective lives?

Not a semester goes by when I meet preservice teachers, inservice teachers, or future faculty who swear by learning styles. Every semester, I try to correct such errant thinking.

Someone taught my latest batch of educators the learning styles myth and I felt duty-bound to say otherwise even though my modules were not about that. For me it was like knowing that a bridge ahead was destroyed and I had to warn the travellers blindly heading towards it.

I have a time-tested collection of resources that refute the learning styles myth better than I can. But I also offer my perspective.

Learning preferences are not learning styles. A student might prefer to watch a video instead of read a book, but that does not mean you give in to that preference if the learning outcomes are about reading.

Styles are impractical treatments. A teacher who has been taught to apply styles might prepare lessons based on visual, auditory, and psychomotor (VAK) “styles” because this supposedly optimises learning for three categories of students. The matching styles with strategies is called the meshing hypothesis. This is not only impractical over time, it is also insufficient and self-fulfilling.

Why insufficient? It practitioners are to take styles seriously, they need to cater to all learner differences. There is currently between 70 to 80 style inventories now. Even if we take the lower end, there are 70! (70 factorial or 70x69x68…x1) possibilities. Even if a teacher elects to focus only on VAK, such effort is not pragmatic over every lesson.

Why is focusing on styles self-fulfilling? Imagine being identified or labelled as a visual learner. If that is supposed to be your style and it is catered to, there is no incentive to develop the other ways of learning. Such learning is not only incomplete and irresponsible, a learner also becomes what s/he is labelled, just as easily as s/he grows to accept being called the class clown or teacher’s pet.

Learning styles ignore context. If a task is necessarily psychomotor, e.g., swimming a particular stroke or riding a bike, are visual and auditory learners supposed to rely on imagery and sounds of the same? No, the task necessitates the strategy, not the supposed optimal style.

Now consider an argument from the special needs angle. A visually impaired person cannot help but rely on auditory and tactile learning. But this does not mean that the learner has a style. The circumstances necessitate the reliance on non-visual forms of learning, but no reasonable person would call those forms learning styles.

If the logic against learning styles is not enough, consider what research says about this stubborn myth. Drawing from some resources I have shared before:

The American Psychological Association has come out against learning styles. The APA went so far at to say that “many parents and educators may be wasting time and money on products, services and teaching methods that are geared toward learning styles.”

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The TEDx video above was of Dr. Tesia Marshik, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who highlighted how learning styles:

  • had no research evidence that show that they improve learning
  • wasted the time and effort of teachers who tried to cater to different styles
  • labelled and limited people into believing they learn best in certain ways

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In the SciShow video above, Hank Green highlighted how:

  • the only study that seemed to support learning styles had severe flaws in its design
  • students with perceptions that they had one style over others actually benefitted from visual information regardless of their preference

This SciShow video and educators Dylan Wiliam and Donald H Taylor cited the work of Pashlar et al (2008) who declared this:

… we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis. We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.

I share the thoughts of Willingham et al (2015) when they concluded: “Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.”

Catering to a supposed inherent style does not necessarily optimise learning. Sadly, learning styles are a myth perpetuated by teacher educators and workplace trainers who do not keep up with critical research and reflective practice. They are easy to latch on to because the pseudo science is a low-hanging fruit that preys on our innate perception of individual differences.

The local TODAY paper co-opted a NYT article titled Don’t kid yourself: Online lectures are here to stay. It was written by an economist from Cornell. He had this to say:

Quote from NYT article.

His point was that all things being equal (including the cost of both options), most students would probably choose the first option.

He also went on to state that “the average instructor reading from yellowed notes” is more common and dominant. Citing his own book, he argued that the player with the foot first in the door had the advantage.

But I would argue that he presented a false dichotomy. There is not just a choice of different content delivery packages, i.e., by shiny or old-fashioned lectures.

Progressive educators are realising that they cannot rely only on remote instruction. They are creating more choices like cooperative learning, peer teaching, portfolio-based learning, and project-based learning. These are not the work of “Pixar-class animators” and “award-winning documentary film makers”. They are pedagogues whose practice and research is teaching and learning.

So let us not kid ourselves and declare that online lectures are here to stay. They might be mainstay now, but if the disruptions of COVID-19 shut downs have taught us anything, it is that bit players (like Zoom) can become major ones. I hope that bit pedagogues with progressive strategies provide some healthy competition.

I am glad that I am not the only one to notice this about alarm buttons in iOS.

A rise-and-shine alarm lets you stop or snooze it. The snooze button is large and orange (see example above on the right).

There is a similar interface for the countdown timer, but the prominent button is stops the alarm (see example above on the left).

What is the big deal, just tap the buttons, you say?

The affordance of a large, coloured button positioned in the middle over a small, dark button at the bottom is to draw attention to the first one. However, its function is inconsistent. In the alarm the main button extends the alarm, but in the timer you stop it.

I get that some people would rather snooze an alarm and a large button is helpful. But how about those who would rather stop the button? Alarms are by their nature jarring, and the instinct is to stop them from ringing continuously.

The superficial issue is visual design and the placement of the buttons. The deeper issue is providing users with the flexibility and choice. I would rather that both buttons be “stop”, but do not have that choice.

So why bring up this first world problem? There is a lesson for those of us in instructional design. Even the best designers, developers, and educators cannot think of every learning possibility. What we think is best might not be so for our learners. The trick is to provide choice which then powers agency. Our designs should not just set paths, they should also allow path making.

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Here is an unoriginal thought: You can get into a state of flow no matter what video game you play.

My wife, my son, and I play very different games on our phones. My wife likes tile-matching puzzle games — she started with games like Bejeweled and now plays Simon’s Cat Crunch Time.

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My son plays a variety of games and seems to favour multiplayer inline battle arena (MOBA) games now. He is currently playing Mobile Legends.

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My main game is Pokémon Go. This is a location-based game that requires me to leave home to catch Pokémon, spin stops, battle rival gyms, and coordinate raids.

One more level to go!

Whatever game we play, we get into a state of flow. This is an almost zen-like state of focus, quick decision-making, and honed movements.

Different games and gameplay result in the same outcomes while allowing players choice of game based on their interests or strengths. If this sounds familiar, it is because the tenets are built on the same foundations as personal learning.

It does not take an external vendor, elaborate proposals, or a king’s ransom to implement personal learning. It takes actual gameplay and a willingness to reflect and try something new.

One of the best reads of 2017 so far is this blog entry simply titled Evaluating Personalization.

Personalised learning is a continuum between non-learner-provided choices and learner-directed agency.

I distill the long read to this takeaway: Personalised learning is a continuum between non-learner-provided choices and learner-directed agency. The non-learner could be the teacher, vendor, or edtech platform.

Or, in the words of the author:

…one end of the continuum is personalization for the learner; the other end is personalization by the learner

Instead of trying to outline the main points of the article, I will try to add value to it by making an observation.

In the era before current technologies like computers and phones, the focus was on providing choice. Today, edtech vendors still tout choice: pacing, content, modes, etc. The personalisation by agency — goals, expectations, strategies, evaluation — is still sorely lacking.

We cannot keep making the excuse that learners do not know what they want. If we teach them to wait to be fed, they will be lazy consumers. If we nurture them to think, they will not just critically consume, they will also skilfully catch and create.

There is another major problem with personalisation-as-choice. The options a vendor or designer provides might not actually be choices. I use an example I have cited before.

StarHub app

My current telco, StarHub, has an app that claims to provide “choices” for some cards that you can display or hide. However, if you deselect them, the app reverts to the selected state upon restart. So you cannot remove the content that is not relevant to you from the app.

While the example is from a commercial entity, edtech vendors and designers of curricula often do the same thing — they provide choices in theory that are not actually choices in practice. So even the provision of choice is not necessarily indicative of personalisation.

Learners need not wait for vendors, designers, or teachers to give them choices. With current open and/or collaborative tools like Google Apps and YouTube, learners can take matters into their own hands and find or make their own choices. In doing so, they move from one end of the spectrum to the other by creating their own agency.

Talks are the least effectiveness way to effect change, but they are a necessary evil because people still organise them and the talks can have extensive reach.

But when I conduct talks, seminars, or keynotes, I ensure that I interact with my audience richly in a few ways.

Why do this? Most speakers will use an “e” word like engagement or even entertainment. I do not play these games because I know my participants are smarter than to fall for that.

I use tools to interact so that my audience (listeners) become participants (thinkers, doers). I do not wish to merely engage, I want to participants to take ownership of learning and responsibility of action.

Beth Kanter shared some ideas last week. I am weighing in on my own and I suggest free tools combined with basic principles of educational psychology.

A backchannel is an online space for participants to comment, discuss, and ask questions while I am speaking or after I have asked them to consider an issue.

My favourite backchannel tools are Twitter and TodaysMeet.

Twitter is great when an organiser already has one or more event #hashtags that participants can use. This presumes that a sizeable number of participants already use Twitter or are willing to get on it quickly.

Twitter backchannel.

TodaysMeet is better when participants have not committed to any particular platform. If they can text or SMS, then can use TodaysMeet.

With my own free TodaysMeet account, I can create an online text-based interaction space and define how long it will be open for. I then invite participants to it by sharing the access URL. (Pro tip: Create a custom URL with and a QR code with this generator.)

One of the most recent versions of Google Slides lets you invite questions from the audience. The URL for participants to submit questions appears at the top of your slides and they can vote up the best questions. (Read my review of Google Slides audience tool.)

Audience Tool URL as overlay.

This is not quite a backchannel because it is not designed for chatter. It favours focused queries. This tool might be better for less adventurous participants who are not used to switching quickly between tasks.

Whatever the backchannel tool, its use must be guided by sound educational principles. You might want to provide participants with a space to be heard immediately instead of waiting till the end, or you want to monitor their thoughts, sense their doubts, or get feedback.

The visualisations I am referring to are not images and videos. These are show-and-tell elements which are attempts to engage, but have little to do with interacting with participants.

My most common strategy of participative visualisation is to incorporate data collecting and collating tools like Google Forms and AnswerGarden.

Both these tools require user inputs that can be visualised. For example, I could ask the room which major phone platform they are on: Android, iOS, other in a Google Form.

The data they provide is collated in a Google Sheet and can be visualised in a pie chart or bar graph. The relative proportions are more obvious to see than asking the participants to raise their hands.

There are many tools that do what Google Forms and Sheets do, possibly a bit quicker and slicker. But these normally come at a premium. The GSuite is free.

One way to visualise a group’s grasp of concepts is to use a word cloud. For example, I am fond of asking participants what they consider the most important 21st century competencies.

AnswerGarden word cloud.

I invite them to share words or short phrases in an AnswerGarden in brainstorming mode. The most commonly cited concepts appear large while the less common ones become small.

The purpose of such illustrations is not just to leverage on the fact that we are visual creatures and the visuals make an immediate impact. I want participants to get involved in real time and this helps also me illustrate how the technology enables more current forms of learning and work.

One of the worst things I could do as a speaker is talk about something that the audience has no interest in. As it is, some or most of the people there might be present as an obligation and not by choice. So I try to find out what they might want to learn.

I often use Google Forms to find out beforehand and present the popular suggested topics in the form of a chart.

With smaller seminars, I might use Dotstorming to determine which direction to take midway through the event. I ask participants to suggest areas to explore and they vote on topics each others topics.

Dotstorming is similar to Padlet in that users input ideas on online stickies. However, Dotstorming allows me to let them vote on the best ideas and arrange the notes by popularity.

Dotstorming example.

The idea here is to give the participant a say in what gets covered or uncovered. It is about providing and fulfilling user choice instead of focusing on a potentially irrelevant curriculum or plan.

My perennial favourite for quick-quizzing participants is Flubaroo, an add-on to Google Forms for auto-grading quizzes as well as providing feedback and answers to my learners.

Google Forms has since upped its game to offer quiz-like functions, but it still lags behind the leader, Flubaroo in some ways. This site provides a detailed breakdown of a Forms quiz vs a Flubaroo one.

Quiz is coming!

The point of quizzing is not just to keep participants on their toes. Some might be driven by such a challenge, but all benefit from evaluating themselves in terms of learning. The results can also be an indicator of how much my talk was understood.

I am fond of using Padlet and Google Forms for pitstops and one-minute papers.

Pitstops are pauses in my sessions for participants to collect their thoughts and think of questions. They are an opportunity for them to see if they can link the negotiated outcomes with their current state of learning, and to see where they still need to go.

A takeaway or “dabao” (in local vernacular) is a terminal activity in which I ask participants to tell me their biggest learning outcome from the session.

In both I find that there is an even mix of planned and unplanned learning outcomes. This is a good thing because the internalisation and ownership of learning is important, not just the blind reception of information.

I do not only like to connect with participants before and during a talk, but also after it. I do so a few ways.

I leave my social media information in one of the final slides.

Contact me.

If I use a backchannel, participants can contact me indefinitely on Twitter and up to several days or weeks after on TodaysMeet.

I also use my blog to reflect on the events and to answer questions I might not have been able to address during the session.

In this reflection, I draw a lesson from a Netflix strategy and apply it to blended and e-learning.

This Gizmodo interview of Netflix’s Chief Product Officer revealed that the reason why the company does not plan on offering an option to download videos for offline viewing is the paradox of choice.

Simply put, Netflix rationalized that when people are offered too many choices, they do not know what to do.

In this case, they are not referring to the variety of television shows and movies you can stream to watch because you rely on your preferences and Netflix’s algorithms.

Instead, Netflix seems to make the argument that it wants to make the answer of watch now (with a reliable Internet connection) or watch later (without an Internet connection) simple. It takes away the latter option so people have only one choice and change their behaviours based on that choice. That is why we now have binge watching.

There is still an element of choice in binge watching in that a consumer decides how much to watch over a given time instead of being held to traditional weekly television programming for example.

Wide variety of food by markb120, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  markb120 

How does this apply to providing choice when flipping a classroom, differentiating learning, or preparing e-resources?

No, it is not about creating binge learning opportunities.

It is the idea that more is not always better. Not only is creating more choices and resources more work for the teacher or media creator, it might also paralyze learners who do not know what to start with.

A teacher might offer just one resource, an article that is entirely text-based. This unlikely to reach all learners — not because of learning styles but because the text is boring and the format is irrelevant — so the teacher decides to create one or more videos. Now should the teacher also create audio-only resources, braille resources, and other alternatives? Can the teacher rely on just the videos?

There is a point of diminishing returns in terms of preparing a wide variety of resources, particularly under the misguided practice of applying learning styles.

Instead of focusing on choice and content, a teacher or instructional designer might start first with learning outcome(s) and context of use. The latter two are fundamental principles upon which a myriad of considerations should be factored in for teaching that leads to learning.

The problem of content and choice keeps resurfacing when because those in the instructional line forget:

  • to ask why a concept is important
  • that teaching does not always lead to learning
  • that lessons should lead to better thinking not better grades

So here is a choice you can make. You can continue to do things the same way because that does not rock the boat and it seems efficient. The paradox is that you will be constantly buffeted by change and you will struggle to keep things the same.

Alternatively, you can embrace the initial difficulty with change. Like jumping off a platform, the first step is the hardest. Then you hang on and start to enjoy the ride.

Glass Floor - Observation Deck of the Sh by _chrisUK, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  _chrisUK 

I recall playing a childhood game where we would cock a pretend gun to someone’s head and ask, “Your money or your life?”

That was just a game. I had to ask myself that question yesterday because I had to decide between taking a well-paying consultancy gig or taking care of my health.

As chipper as I have tried to be about the last week since being diagnosed with a kidney stone, I have been in considerable pain. While I am better now, I still cannot stand up straight or walk properly without punishing myself.

I was ready to bite the bullet and do a consulting gig today which required a quick trip overseas. Just the thought of all the months of planning, preparation, and effort was enough to push me to go. But deep down I knew that I was being stupid.

When I had an office, one of my walls was covered with a spiral of my son’s photos to remind me why I did what I did. The photo above is one that I took in 2010.

The photos reminded me to do what I can (and even push myself to do what I think I cannot) to ensure my son has the education that he deserves, not just the schooling he is provided. To do that, I must change the mindsets and behaviours of teachers and educators of all kinds and at all levels.

That mission has not changed. But now that I am at home more, I have a more immediate mission of being there for my family. So the question of money or life was easy to answer. I am glad I chose life.


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