Wired To Learn

nlclogoEver feel like you are far more capable than what society expects of you, even far more capable than your expectations of yourself? I know I do. Remember being a teenager, and school being less about a passion to learn and more about getting good grades. How many times did you sit in class bored and desperate to just get AWAY!!!

Every teenager in the world has felt that sometime in his teens and Albert Einstein acted on it. At just age 15, he was sitting in class and all of a sudden he decided that enough is enough and got up to walk right out the door. And HE NEVER WENT BACK.

“It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry” ~ Albert Einstein

Remember being a kid and just wanting to play around with stuff, pull things together, and knock things apart. To which the grown-ups were saying – No No No ! Or being called “GOOD” for sitting still and “NAUGHTY” when you couldn’t bear to sit still any longer. It is all well-intentioned of course but that doesn’t make it any less INSANE! Because the fact is that our capacity to inquire and learn knows no bounds and scientists have proved it by research as well. With the development of MRI scans in the last 25 areas, it has allowed scientists to observe which parts of our brain is used in different kinds of thinking. We now know infinitely more about how we learn and what makes up “HUMAN INTELLIGENCE” and its extraordinary.

So, want to know what we are really capable of?

Then read on, let’s start at the beginning.

A baby’s brain is amazing. It doesn’t take 9 months to create. It has taken 7 million years and more than 350,000 generations. All the skills, knowledge and talents cultivated by our ancestors are stored inside it. All of them are like numerous software programs which can only be activated by the baby engaging with its environment. Here is the striking thing – If not activated at the most appropriate time they simply disappear. Take language, if a child doesn’t hear language by around the age of 8 they may never learn to speak. So, you may begin to see just how vital our normal interactions are. They ignite our dormant intelligence and reinforce it too. There is something else; we have evolved to learn things by looking at things from different perspectives and making connections between different things and we do that by play. So wouldn’t it be amazing if we bore all this in mind when we are raising kids and letting them play when they are younger and older too?

In conversations with my one of my mentors, Glen Martin who is psychotherapist with decades of experience under his belt dealing with kids who have had all kinds of disorders stamped on them. I learnt that the human brain undergoes “pruning” successively at regular intervals of time while we grow up. Those areas of potential which go untapped only make it harder for us to work on later in our adult life. It’s not that we can’t do it later, it just gets more harder to do that. Yes, for some kids the medium of instruction is vital, for some the environment matters, but in general freedom to learn by doing and learning from play, failure being encouraged is what cuts across all kinds of learners and learning styles.

Charles Darwin’s teacher once remarked that “He’d never amount to much because he spent too much time looking at insects”. So let children play, because it’s never just play. Of course, it takes more time and energy to do this. But, when you are deciding where to focus resources for kids learning. You couldn’t do better than focusing during pre-puberty. That’s when we learn by copying the people around us. After the age of 12, it’s all about change. Say goodbye to sweet, pliable, innocent and easy child say Hello! to rebellious challenging teenager. Arrrgh! Many parents would go nuts when their kids begin freaking out in their teens. (Jokes apart). 😛 (Mine did as well)

Ah! Well. Let’s understand what is happening in that brain. Loads of the connections made during childhood are breaking up and re-forming. From 12 – 20 – the equivalent of a earthquake takes place in a young person’s brain. No more going along with what the grown-ups say. The adolescent brain needs to go it own way.

To this, Oh No! Say the parents. But,

Oh yes! Say evolutionary scientists.

Because if we hadn’t developed this urge to do things differently, we wouldn’t have made it this far. Up until about 60-70,000 years ago. It was okay for the children to grow up like their parents. But then came the ICE AGE. Thank goodness for the handful of our ancestors who chose to break away from their doomed parents freezing to death in their ancestral caves. They built rafts and set off across the ocean hoping to find warmer climate. Critically, this made risk-taking the essential feature of adolescence. We shouldn’t undermine it. We must learn to honor it for what it really is. The defining struggle, the moment when the next generation challenges the status quo and pioneers new ways of thinking and being that ensure our survival.

Just imagine if we actually gave adolescence the freedom to enjoy that struggle. Rather than forcing them to sit passively in class.  How about we begin trusting that their earlier clone like learning now will enable them to spread their wings and work things out for themselves. If this sounds terrifying, it needn’t be. Because if we allow their natural curiosity to flourish in childhood. They will be bursting with a longing to learn and climb unscaled mountains of the mind. That’s not scary, it’s fucking exhilarating! ( I can speak for myself here with a 100% gut conviction) \m/

This is the way we have evolved to be. It’s what makes us fulfilled well-adjusted human beings. Let’s stop trying to live in a way that so goes against how we are hard-wired to live. Let’s allow ourselves and our next generation to reclaim the gift of our ancestors. Adolescence isn’t a problem; it is but an opportunity that we are setting fire to everyday in most schools around the world. Personally, I don’t know if me being right-brained had anything to do with me breaking all the rules, getting in all sorts of trouble during my adolescence but it sure did build in me the heart to experiment things my way. Yes, there were a lot of beliefs that I had to bust and a lot of backtalk’s with parents, family that happened but it helped me find my own way and still am exploring it. Yes, sometimes it feels so unsure/ There have been days where I had to depend on some unknown force in the universe to get me through and things did work out but my contention is this.

I can summarize my process of learning as follows:

  • Observe
  • Copy / Imitate
  • Research
  • Practice
  • Vomit
  • Deconstruct
  • Craft
  • Voila! ( My own piece of genius) 😀

isn’t it about the adventure? Learning to learn, learning from failure, learning from everything around. This is a much better, fun filled path I’d choose any day than doing things the conventional way.

The Hack of ZPD

Let me begin with two questions.

What is learning?

What kind of instruction is optimal for a particular child?

Without doubt, such questions are immediately comprehensible to any committed teacher in virtually any country in the world, and most of them are likely to want concrete answers to the question, not only as a theoretical puzzle, but in relation to their immediate practices. If one were to look to scientific psychology and educational research for advice in relation to this practical problem, what would the answer(s) look like?

This simple question raises several profound problems. Normative and political issues about the goals of instruction and the resources available for realizing these goals must be resolved. A theory of learning is needed that can explain how intellectual capabilities are developed.

Can we come up with a vision or a platform where dialogue, diversity and collaboration become the driving principles to let a child explore his deep aptitudes as much as s/he can.

If not can we help educate parents to let them know about the ZPD (Zone of proximal development) process. I have been a fan of Lev Vygotsky’s ZPD process for a while now. I have used it to teach myself and experiment this with my parents and family in helping them to learn something with their skill-set at their current level along with the principles of Behavior Design and Gamification.

In a classroom of 30 students, each student has a learning pace and style that is most appropriate for him or her, yet differentiating instruction for all 30 can be a formidable challenge. At the same time, we also know that teaching without taking into account what students already understand and what they still
need to work on is ineffective.

ZPDPsychologist Lev Vygotsky coined this term in the 20th century to describe the sweet spot where instruction is most beneficial for each student – just beyond his or her current level of independent capability.

His work being in Russian was one of the major reasons it took a long time for others to know until it got translated into other languages. This was later took further and using scaffolding, it was applied and was found that with the aid of appropriate scaffolding, students can gain skills and knowledge by completing tasks (with assistance as needed) until they are eventually able to complete them independently.

“the aim of scaffolding is the ultimate transfer of responsibility for the task to the child as adult support decreases and child capability increases”

The common thread between formative assessment practices and the practice of identifying and teaching within the ZPD is the idea that in order for teaching and learning to be effective, instruction should focus on skills and knowledge that are attainable for students (not too easy, not too difficult, but just right). With constant feedback, or scaffolding, we know that students’ learning and understanding
can continue to develop at an appropriate pace.

When I first read more about this, it became clear to me that this is again Behavior Design in essence.

What if we could apply this to our school systems and take away grading completely and include teachers in the learning process as learners and teachers. Now wouldn’t that environment be organic and the learning holistic?

Of course, the learning curves can be amplified further once the learning becomes fun using other technologies that can speed up learning as per each learner’s desire. Learning that’s fun gets done. One can ask, what might the benefits be of such a model.

Here something that I came up with:

Students can be provided with:

  • challenging but reasonable tasks that stimulate thinking and motivate efforts to learn
  • meaningful instruction and feedback that helps drive further development at an appropriate pace
  • a learning environment where they are valued as individuals, a collaborative
    group, and a class
  • a learning environment where their creativity and thought processes are
    acknowledged and accepted

Teachers could:

  • identify and use areas of strength and weakness to tailor learning experiences at the individual and group level
  • engage students in social interactions to enable learning
  • better understand students as individual learners, learners in a small group
    setting and learners in a larger social setting
  • discover unique thought processes that different students may use to solve
    problems

The Administration could:

  • promote higher quality differentiated instruction in schools or let self designed learning drive the administration rules which can be flexed with some order in it.
  • emphasize better teacher student relationships
  • work with more motivated teachers and students

How can I locate and teach in the ZPD?

Here are some questions one can ask ? I have placed small wins that can be used to tailor the material and generate insights.

  1. Do I know what I want my students to understand by the end of this unit?

    ZPD Small Win – Identify the target level of knowledge and
    understanding you want your students to attain (e.g. for the year, a specific unit or a specific concept). Chunk it down, prepare a trail of breadcrumbs.

  2. Do I have an idea of the skills and knowledge that students must have in order to reach this level of understanding?

    ZPD Small Win – Work backwards from the end‐of‐unit goal(s).
    Ask yourself: “What needs to be understood before this goal can be reached?” Develop a model of the learning progression that you
    expect students to follow in order to attain the targeted knowledge and understanding

  3. Do the tasks and activities I have created help me see what my students
    understand and what they still need to work on?

    ZPD Small Win – Create tasks, activities and problems that allow
    you to gather information about students’ understanding of the topic at hand while they are learning.

  4. Am I observing, assessing, and listening to my students in order to understand the thought processes they are using to arrive at their
    answers?

    ZPD Small Win – Observe, assess, and listen to student behaviors
    and inquiries in response to the topic. Frequent assessments, whether formal or informal, allow patterns of strengths and weaknesses to
    emerge both at the individual and group level. This will help you identify students’ ZPDs.
    This can help collect a set of data points out of which consistent patterns will start to emerge over time which can be leveraged later.

  5. Am I adjusting my instruction based on what I see my students have
    grasped and what they still need to work on?

    ZPD Small Win: Modify instruction, activities and groups based on information you gather about what your students can do independently, what they can do with peers, and what they are struggling with overall.

  6. Am I providing feed forwards that uses students’ strengths to build on their weaknesses?

    ZPD Small Win: Work with small groups and individual students. Push their thinking by asking guiding questions, modeling and providing demonstrations as necessary.

    Research has shown that interactions between a child and a more competent peer or adult in which everyone is actively engaged tend to produce higher student achievement. And even if assessments are made they should be made so that the teacher gains instructionally valuable information about students’ independent thinking. + I’m curious to see what would result if a ZPD learning system like this is taken outside the classrooms and then seeing if the learning is much more accelerated or not. 🙂