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Yesterday I spotted this sign near where I stay.

A warning sign & a cry for help #english #grammar

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

In proper English, the sign might read: “Danger – spoilt seat. Please don’t sit.”

Despite the broken English, most of us still get the message. Why?

We are probably mentally flexible enough to bend the rules to understand what the sign intended. Just as likely, the warning tape was a visual cue and physical barrier.

The bottom line is that you get the message in spite of the poor English. Something else helps send and enforce that message.

This reminds me of lecturers who insist that students can learn deeply from didactic teaching. The students learn not because of a lecture, but in spite of it.

In higher education, students learn more outside the lecture. They visit the library to research, read quietly, and edit their notes. They form study groups, meet with faculty or tutors, and might even pay for remedial tuition. They Google for information and search YouTube for videos.

I get anecdotal confirmation of this every semester when I conduct classes for university students.

You might think of this as the 80:20 “rule” of learning. The actual proportion is not important nor is it that precise. The point is that deeper and more meaningful learning is often a result of what students do, not what the lecturers do.

In the working or corporate world, there is the 70:20:10 rule. The learning opportunities are hands-on work, learning from others, and formal professional development. Again the ratios are not absolute or fixed, and the point is that learning socially and on the run are key.

The fact is that much more effort to learn is spent outside the classroom or training venue than inside of it. This is because the other contexts are more fitting, opportune, or otherwise meaningful for learning.

Our students do not necessarily learn because we teach. They learn in spite of what we do. This is a humbling thought and we need to focus on where, when, how, and why they learn, not just what they learn or who they learn it from.

 
Routine. It is repeated, expected, and scheduled, so it feels safe. Just take as examples your typical commute to school or work, and once you are there, the mostly routine nature of schooling and work.

But therein lies the insidious harm of routine. Your brain switches off as you operate in autopilot. This is fine if you are a robot and your circumstances do not change. But you are a learning creature and learning is about responding to change.

Jedidiah Jenkins recognised this decided to make an extreme move. He quit his job and cycled from Oregon, USA, to the southern tip of South America.


Video source

From the blurb in the YouTube page and from the video:

When you’re a kid, everything is astonishing. Everything is new, and so your brain is awake and turned on … Once your brain establishes a routine, it stops … the alertness goes away

Once you’re an adult, that’s a choice… it’s about getting out of routine.

Routine is comforting, but too much of it is bad. It dulls your senses and it kills your joy for life.

Routine could also be the enemy of lifelong learning. It is the border wall that separates you from discovering and uncovering. It is the safe space that stops you from taking risks and embracing change.

But we do not have to do something as drastic as Jenkins. The key strategy to create discomfort or dissonance. We learn when we are pushed off balance and attempt to right ourselves or to go with the flow.

One way to learn like this is to read, watch, or listen to something everyday that challenges you. That is my routine: A routine of change.

 
I have read about the pushback against “personalised learning”, particularly in the USA, for a while. The latest is this article, Teachers’ Union Faces Backlash Over Publication on Personalized Learning.

It might seem strange that attempts to help learners are met with resistance from the people at the frontline of helping them. The rhetoric, and perhaps the possible reality, is that computers and corporatised solutions threaten the jobs of teachers.

The actual reality might be that there are other factors that reduce teaching positions, e.g., shrinking budgets, poor test scores, political mandates.

Singapore’s reality was and is our low birthrate. As a former faculty of Singapore’s only teacher preparation institute, I saw the demand for teachers plateau and now see it in gentle decline.

When I started educating teachers 20 years ago, I would hear preservice teachers occasionally remark during our ICT classes how computers were going to replace them. That did not happen then and ICT is not the cause now.

We have yet to “personalise” learning in the mainstream Singapore classroom as much as edtech vendors might like. We do not have computerised standardised testing like many schools in the USA.

Our personal and personalisable technology is stealthily hidden in students’ bags, locked away in carts, or white-elephanted in labs. ICT is still like good-to-have bottled water and not must-have tap water.

Our edtech vendors are thankfully not as aggressive or creative as enrichment tuition agencies. The latter offer a different sort of personalisation: Exchange money, drilling, and sweat for better grades, never mind if you actually learn anything.

So in the USA and Singapore, we have depersonalised personal learning. It is corporatised and mechanical ICT in the USA; it is the avoidance of meaningful ICT and being test smart here.

 
Have you ever wondered why some of the meat that we eat is not called what it was when it was alive?

Fish is fish, chicken is chicken, and duck is duck. However, cow is beef, pig is pork, and sheep is lamb or mutton.

I wondered why but it was never important enough to find out. That is, until YouTube suggested I watch this video.


Video source

Now I want to know why everything is named what it is. The makers of this video series and YouTube are there to tell me why the Earth’s continents have their names and why kiwi is a fruit, bird, and nationality.

This approach might be called serendipitous or incidental learning. Better still, accidental learning. A teacher does not have any teaching objectives (old school) or even learning outcomes (newer school). There is no plan or test.

The information about meat names is not particularly useful, but it is not useless either. There are more important lessons for teachers and learners.

For teachers, it is designing lessons that are fun or intriguing. These leverage on emotion and curiosity.

For learners, the lesson is about learning for its own sake. It is not about memorising facts but about enjoying them as well as the process of learning. It is constant, low pressure, and on demand.


Video source

You are never too old to learn from the past, and to invent and inspire the future.


Video source

You are never to old to learn from what is current and to create based on what you have now.

I read this article, Sesame Workshop and IBM team up to test a new A.I.-powered teaching method, with critical optimism.
 

 
After reading the article, I still wondered if the AI was actually adapting to how kids learn or if it was learning how to teach as an adult would. The former focuses on learning while the latter is about teaching.

Teaching and learning are not synonymous. Ideally and intentionally, effective teaching should lead to meaningful learning. However, teaching does not guarantee learning. Let me illustrate.

The article claimed that:

kindergarteners learned words like “arachnid,” “amplify,” “camouflage,” and “applause,” which are typically considered above their grade level.

Kids were taught these words, but did they really learn to use these words in contexts that were meaningful to them? Will they retain and use the words appropriately in future?

My son learnt “chela” and “carapace” in kindergarten. I only learnt these as a Biology major in university. Today he cannot recall those terms or even learning them. However, those terms are etched in my memory even though I have not taught Biology in over 20 years.

I argue that my son was taught those terms, but only I learnt them. It is one thing to teach for short-term gain and retention. It is entirely another to design for long-term and meaningful learning.

If we teach AI the wrong way, then artificial intelligence will have another meaning. It will be about “learning” that is meaningless, superficial, and fleeting.
 

Some self-serving proclamations from “edtech” vendors make me do my version of gymnastics — my eyes roll and my stomach turns.

Recently I read how one claimed that it could “make learning more engaging, personalised and accessible”. I did my flips and then I felt nauseous.
 

 
Why should something that seems positive be so repulsive to me? Let’s break the claim down element by element.

First, the rhetoric of engagement. The premise for this rhetoric might read: I need to stimulate you, and if I do not, you do not learn. There is some merit to this based on what we know about cognition. If you do not get first attention, then subsequent stimuli are not likely to register.

However, the assumption here is that the stimulus is external. Students are taught to expect to be entertained or switched on instead of nurtured to be independent and self-driving.

Leaders in education and edtech have already started writing and speaking about learner agency and empowerment. This means that learners should not be treated only as consumers, but also as creators of content.

“Engaging” learners with extrinsic motivations is old school and futile in the long run. Empowering them to make, teach, and share is the new order of the day.

Vendors know that policymakers and teachers like to hear about engagement. It feels powerful to be able to engage. However, this does not guarantee students learn powerfully and meaningfully.

Vendors also know that the students must remain consumers and teachers or policymakers must remain buyers. If students and teachers learn to DIY and share openly, then vendors go out of business.

Second, personalised learning is not when it focuses on instruction. Teaching is not the same act as learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning in the same way that talking is not the same as listening.

Let’s assume that the personalisation of learning has three main requirements:

  1. Meeting students where they are.
  2. Letting students progress at their own rate.
  3. Offering students rich and relevant learning experiences.

The reality of “personalised learning” by vendors is often the opposite. Students to go where the vendor is (platforms, logins, access policies, etc.) Students may also need to meet prerequisites to earn the right to “personalise” their learning the vendor’s way.

Resources expire or are locked away if someone else decides the learners do not need them or should not see them. The same entity also dictates an access duration and period.

Sometimes what vendors actually mean by “rich and relevant learning” is actually individualised or customised instruction. They would like you to believe that they can provide choices for your students. For reasons pragmatic and financial, these choices are finite, predetermined, and locked behind a paywall.

Meanwhile learners young and old are already “personalising their learning” by a) not calling it that, b) Googling, c) using YouTube, and d) relying on social connections.

In other words, learners of today are already taking agency and empowering themselves to make their own decisions.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Teaching is neat while learning is messy. Personalisation is also messy, and no vendor can or should promise neat packages.

Third, “accessible” is not as broad as it should be. The vendor might mean online and reachable 24×7 (barring maintenance, which coincidentally, will always mess with your schedule). It could also refer to online resources being available on desktop, laptop, slate, or phone.

Such a claim of being accessible is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Consider if the resource is available if the learner is at level 5 but needs to access level 4 or 6 work. In most cases, the learner will not have such access.

Now consider if the learners are disabled is some way (mentally, physically, socially) or disenfranchised (financially, culturally). How more broadly accessible are the resources to these learners?

The vendors might call me fussy. I might call them dishonest. You decide whose interests I have in mind and heart.


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