Procedural Learning

From Dusty World in December of 2014:

You can learn anywhere, but some places are better than others

We had one of our few professional development days last week (this one on metacognitionand I had a moment of insight in spite of the circumstances.

For the better part of three hours we were sitting on too-small benches designed for children in a large, drafty, echo-y cafeteria listening to booming, static-y microphones and online videos.  It was a near perfect storm of poor environmental factors around learning for me.  I’m not a good auditory learner at the best of times, when barriers to listening are in place I quickly fall off the engagement wagon, though I try to hang on.

Why was our professional development done here?  Because we could fit two schools worth of teachers into that space.  When teachers don’t consider basic pedagogical factors in teaching each other, it makes me wonder what happens in their classrooms (also designed to fit as many bodies as possible).

What would a learning space designed for learning (rather than body count) look like?  Tech could mitigate the need for massive spaces to warehouse lots of bodies.  We’ve build this complex and expensive communications infrastructure between schools, but we still expect teachers to burn fossil fuels and gather physically for material that could have more efficiently and effectively been delivered through interactive video and shared notes.  If the advanced life-long learners aren’t going to test these possibilities, who will?

It was in this environment, rather ironically, that Jenny Donohoo, one of the presenters, clarified procedural learning for me.  She did it in the context of metacognition, but it allowed me to more accurately understand why I fell out of subjects in high school that I otherwise had a great deal of interest in.

I’d initially entered physics wanting to get into astronomy, but instead of science being a tool with which to explore the universe, I discovered that it (at least in high school in the 1980s) was a procedural course designed to chase anyone who didn’t like repetition for the sake of it out.  I greatly enjoyed computers too, but the computer science teacher approached the subject with the same procedural bent, as did most of my math teachers.  I’d like to think that things have changed since I was taking those classes, but the amount of photocopies still pouring out of those departments suggests otherwise.

I’d often find myself in a  math or science class doing procedural work with no idea why.  I’m not averse to procedural work, in fact, I have a great deal of respect for it.  You don’t spend hundreds of hours power skating with a psychotic Russian figure skating instructor in full goalie’s equipment if you don’t appreciate what drilling can do for you, but I never suffered through that for the sake of suffering through that, I did it to become a better hockey goalie.

You don’t have to look far for inspirational sports quotes.
Many encourage practice, but the goal is never practice itself.

When students are asked to do procedural work (ie: getting drilled in skills so they become second nature), the reason why they are being asked to do this difficult, repetitive thing had better be crystal clear or you’re going to run into engagement problems.  I’ll suffer through power skating, or exhausting 6am practices in a frozen arena if I know it’ll give me a better chance at peak performance in my next game.  I’ll get up early and ride a motorbike until my legs are jello if I know it will lead me to a moment of bliss on two wheels.  I won’t do these difficult things without a reason.  No one has ever described dedication as doing something for no clear reason (that would be futility).

When I look back on my experiences in mathematics, science and computer science I see teachers who want to drill students without telling them why.  They want stringent discipline without a goal.  Unless you’re some sort of masochist or really enjoy being told what to do, procedural learning for the sake of it is likely to cause a great deal of friction with your learners; it chased me right out of those subjects.

Another thing Donohoo said in that PD was, “the most useful thing you can do for your students is find ways to communicate what is going on in your mind when you are practising your discipline.”  Maybe some teachers simply enjoy solving problems and couldn’t give a care that there isn’t a greater goal in mind, but that alienates a lot of students.  If your expertise allows you to do something useful, articulating that to your students is a valuable way to engage them in your discipline.


I’ve tackled this from an individual teacher perspective, but procedural learning leaks into the classroom in other ways.  The most obvious example is the data gathering process of standardized testing.  You can take any complex skill like literacy or numeracy and by applying standardized testing to it, reduce learning to procedure.  Doing this can often result in better standardized testing scores!  No one loves procedure more than statistics gatherers.  I’m speculating, but I bet there is a high correlation between those teachers with encyclopedic, complex marks books and procedural approaches to learning.

They are usually the ones wringing their hands over engagement and classroom management.

The idea that education is something we do to students fits well with this procedural approach.  Bells ring, ten year old photocopies are handed out, teachers repeat what they’ve said before word for word, and we continue the production line.  Sometimes I’m amazed that anyone learns anything in a school.

Damned Statistics & Digital Meta-cognitive Opportunities

Tweeting my mouth off
Education would rather  focus on arbitrary and fabricated data, like graduation rates.  It’s easy to increase graduation rates, just lower standards.  It has been working for Ontario Education for years now.  You barely have to even attend a class now to get a credit, and if you fail? A teacher not even qualified in the subject area will pass you along; we call that student success.  The grade eleven university level English paper with no less than three grammar and punctuation errors IN THE TITLE was an example I saw of this.  It was given a 78% by the credit recovery teacher grading it.  That failing student will now go on to university thinking that they are an ‘A’ student (they went from failing badly to 80%!).
There is another way.  Rather than chasing our own tails by trying to improve statistics that we create ourselves, why not start harnessing data that is actually useful and relevant to students beyond the context of education?  Digital technology offers us a fantastic and under utilized avenue for collecting meaningful data on student learning; data that might actually help them beyond the walled garden of education.

Rather than addressing the distraction caused by digital devices, we ignore them, or try to ban them.  Even at our best we only tentatively use digital tools, and when we do we ignore the data they could be providing on student activity.  Digital devices could shine a powerful light on student learning, instead we call them a distraction and let students abuse them into uselessness.  Effectively harnessing educational technology could give us granular, specific data about student activity in the classroom, yet we choose to wallow in darkness.  Really useful data-driven learning is only a decision away from implementation.

Education, like so many other sectors, has become increasingly interested in data driven management.  I don’t have anything against that on principal, in fact, I’d rather be managed according to logic and fact than the usual management ethos (egomania and paranoia).  Where we go wrong with data driven educational reform is where human beings are involved.  Education, more than most fields, prefers not to reveal its inner workings.  The choices made on what data to collect and how to present it usually revolve around a sense of self preservation rather than a focus on student success.  The only data we collect is data we can control for our own ends.
The intent of the education factory is to reduce something as complex as human learning down to a percentage.  That in itself is about the biggest abstraction you could devise, what Twain would call a statistic in the truest sense.  Those numbers are ultimately useless in anything other than education.  The only time in your life your grade will ever matter is if you’re transferring from one educational institution to another.  No will ever ask what your marks were once you’re out of school.  They don’t even ask teachers what their marks were before hiring them; even educators realize how meaningless grades are.
Instead of spending all our energy fabricating meaningless statistics in the form of grades, imagine harnessing all the data that flows through education technology and presenting it in a radically transparent reporting system that connects students to their lives after they graduate. That system would provide students with a powerful tool for metacognitive review around their own learning, and their use of digital tools.  Instead of reductive grades and empty comment banks, why not offer an insightful statistical analysis of how a student uses digital tools as they learn?  The tools themselves are eager to share this data, it is only educators who are stopping it.

A student who is shown, in specific detail, why they failed a course (but watched oh so many fascinating youtube videos), is being shown their own poor choices in stark detail.  One of the great joys I have in elearning is showing students their analytics.   When I get the, “I don’t understand this!” line, I ask for specifics, which usually gets me a, “I don’t get any of it!”  I can then pull up an analysis of what lessons the student has attempted.  The student who didn’t bother to actually even try any of the lessons gets wonderfully sheepish at this point.

With meaningful data on hand about their poor choices, education’s arbitrariness instead becomes a metacognitive opportunity to adjust learning habits; something we seem loath to do on digital tools, even as we criticize how students use them.

Collecting meaningful student data would allow us to connect the abstract world of education with what students will face on the other side of graduation, especially if we continue to collect data after they move on.  Ever wondered what high school courses are actually useful (and I don’t mean in graduating, I mean in finding work, being useful, living a good life)?  How about a live stat attached to each showing employablity based on course choice?  Think you’ll move over to applied level English because your friends are in there and you don’t like doing homework? Welcome to a 14% higher unemployment rate, and a 6% higher criminality rate!  Imagine what parents and students could do if this kind of data were available.  Realizing that there are real world consequences to your educational choices would do much to remove apathy and a lack of engagement on the part of students.  Education has very real consequences beyond school but we seem intent on trying to remove any obvious connection between education and the rest of a student’s life.  With open learning data we’d have way fewer students who have missed the starting gun.
Last year my school talked about creating a cosmetology program.  This would be a hugely expensive undertaking requiring changing the face of the school.  That was OK though because the board was willing to throw tens of thousands of dollars at an increase in graduation rates for at risk girls.  What would they do with it once they were out?  It made me want to start up a video game program, not because it would do anything helpful, but because it would fill sections.  We subvert usefulness in a desperate attempt to game graduation statistics.
I couldn’t help but think of the college computer engineering program I’d been to see a few months before.  They had a 100% placement rate for grads with starting pay well above the Canadian average, but they couldn’t find enough people interested in the field to run a full course each year.  They didn’t have any females in the course at all, and were desperately trying to get more women interested.  I can’t find enough kids in my high school to run more than one combined senior computer engineering course… in a field that all but guarantees a good job when you graduate and is about as future proof as you could wish.  I don’t imagine cosmeticians are walking into that kind of employment certainty at high rates of pay, but a future out of school isn’t what we’re aiming students at, we’re just concerned with graduating them.
It sounds harsh, but one of the reasons students are so disengaged from school is because they recognize the cognitive dissonance between the world beyond school and the fabricated reality we keep them in until they turn eighteen.  If you want students to engage in their educations provide them with metacognitive data that actually helps them.  Education has gone to greater and greater lengths to try and protect students from themselves and the ‘real’ world, all to chase fictional statistics.

Digitization in the classroom offers us access to meaningful data on student learning behaviour that was impossible even ten years ago.  Instead of being ignored and treated as a distraction, we should be harnessing digital technology and communicating that data.  A student who spends less than 10% of class time working on their project before failing it?  If that data were included in assessment, a student would have a metacognitive opportunity to understand the mechanics of their own failure.  They might then also begin to harness digital tools rather than being distracted by them.  Digitization shouldn’t be an escape from accountability, it should amplify it.

In such an environment, assessment might become something more than a damned statistic.

***

I didn’t even get into how this data could serve employment after school.  Detailed data on how students tackle work would be of great interest to employers.  Even the basics like attendance and ability to focus on work would be of more interest to employers than any grade.

Imagine an Ontario Student Record that offered employers an automated resume that included attendance and other useful details like ability to complete work in a timely fashion, group/team skills, communications and approach to new challenges.  Instead of hiding education behind a curtain of graduation, we could begin to make it immediately and obviously connected to future success.

Metacognition Missteps

What Mr. Cleese is so eloquently describing above is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, something that didn’t receive a moment of notice in the metacognitive PD we recently received.  Metacognition is often seen as a way to encourage student directed learning, and I’m generally a fan of the idea, but this bias deserves some consideration, especially if we’re trying to improve student learning.
In trying to break this down I came up with the Venn diagram to the right in hopes of understanding what should be a process toward enlightenment rather than a barrier to it.

There is a degree of stupidity so intense that it is self-consuming.  People trapped in that tend to reinforce their own ignorance and simply can’t hear alternative points of view, even if they are self evident.  These people tend to wallow in limited, habitual action.  If you want to see it happening watch most digital natives on a computer.  In that kind of stupidity you’re going to be hard pressed to learn anything, let alone expect any kind of accurate self assessment.

Ignorance is bliss, you’re going to be happy if you think you know everything.  Anyone who lives in an Earth centred universe and thinks their species the darling of creation is that kind of certain-happy.  People like this make a point of surrounding themselves with like minded people.

If you can begin to take in evidence from around you, certain self-evident truths will begin to make you question your beliefs.  That would get you out of the stupid vortex and into ignorance.  The more you realize you don’t know, the more rapidly you’re able to move toward knowledge.  Humility is a vital component in this process, and where metacognition could begin to help.

In the realm of knowledge you may know many things but your experience with them is limited, so while you know theory you are unable to successfully interact with it in reality – this is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching tech so much (reality doesn’t coddle you in your learning).  You’ve read about riding a bicycle but you’ve never done the deed.  The final step is to do as well as know, only then do you graduate from talking head to doer.

Metacognition is a valuable tool in creating the kind of self-aware humility that can move you from ignorance to knowledge, but applying it too early will push you in the wrong direction.  At the early stages of learning you are incapable of knowing what you don’t know, so you’ll think you’re better at something than you are.  This appears especially true in mind based, academic work because your math equation doesn’t burst into flames when you do it wrong.

At no point did our metacognitive training suggest that there was a threshold where you should (carefully) begin to implement self-analysis of learning, rather, it was suggested that we do this continually and throughout, which appears to be just what you shouldn’t do if you want to get somewhere with it.

I like the DIY motive here, but getting to “learning to self correct” is a tricky step
that can push you the wrong way if you do it too soon.