Monday, September 28, 2015

Learning to learn

Serendipity is a powerful tool of nature. Disciples of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will recognise it as perturbation, random stuff chucked in to deviate us from some set path that would ensure we saw only what was visible from that pathway, potentially missing better opportunities. For the rest of us it’s called feeling lucky. You’ll recognise the link here between the Google search engine, its early interface “I’m feeling lucky" and the (then) ground breaking algorithm under the hood.

I like to read. So, from time to time I cast around on Amazon trying out different search strings to see what comes up. Fascinated by the hard life, I typed in "Russian trawler”. I was rewarded with a book entitled Hair of the Dog by Barbara Oakland. I bought the book and it duly arrived and was a great read. The author, as a young woman in the 1980s, had worked as a translator aboard a Russian factory ship engaged in a Russian-American joint venture. Her anecdotes were raw, pithy, and funny. Deeply impressed by her (she was tough, rude, lacked empathy, and could drink vodka with the best of them) I searched for more titles by the same author. This is where the serendipity cut in.

Listed was Barbara Oakland, Ph.D. A Mind for Numbers, How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). A companion to COURSERA’s popular online course Learning How to Learn. Was this the same author? Not only was this woman into fishing in a rather big way, she was also a learning designer! I had clearly struck gold.

So now I have the book and I’m all signed up and ready to roll on the MOOC. I’m surveying myself to see what I hope to get from this course. What does success look like for me? Another certificate? Er, no. I think what I’m after are some strong underpinnings about what learning really really is and how to achieve it. I suspect it could be the two Rs and the one S. Repetition, Recall, and Synthesis. Repeat it again, and again, and again. Wait a day and repeat it again. Practice recalling it. Use flash cards and carry them around in your pocket. Once a few ideas are thoroughly internalized in this way start joining the dots, linking this idea to that. You know, old fashioned learning was hard, back in the day.

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” Henry Ford.

What has triggered this rant? I have recently heard the expression "Space Cadet" and "Ed Tech" used in the same sentence. I am suddenly seriously worried that I am a dedicated follower of fashion, a trend-surfer, an environmental scanner, a tatty moth to a lamp. Am I really serving the next generation if I tell them that learning is easy, learning is everywhere, learning is fun? No, maybe not. Ed Tech is fine, just fine, only so long as it is underpinned with GOFL. GOFL? Good old fashioned learning. They tried GOLF, but it really doesn’t work. So now, I’m hangin’ with the learning hackers, the people who actually know how the brain works.

“Do a little work every day,  gradually allowing yourself to grow a neural scaffold to hang your thinking on.” Barbara Oakley

Dr Barbara Oakley and Dr Terrence Sejnowski run one of the most popular courses on the planet. Is it called Learning How to Learn: Handy tips and tricks to turn tough subjects into a breeze? No. It’s called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. And I think we have to listen, and watch, and learn, because a course that is so popular (since it started last year 325,000 students have signed up) is like a big piece of market research. Go back and read the title one more time. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. That’s what the next generation of learners are signing up for. They don’t want easy, they’ll soon get bored. They want tough and escalating challenges. And they want recognition: from their peers, their tutors, and their whanau. To them, Ed Tech is simply a given, a delivery channel.

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