27 May 2011

Learning is fun

In every sphere of teaching, there is a tendency to try to "make learning fun".  This is done through games and the selection of "relevant" or "interesting" material.

I have always been of the opinion that most of the games presented in classes are a distraction from learning rather than an aid to learning, and that most of the attempts to make subjects relevant or interesting tend to obscure the point being taught.  In maths and physics at high school, I used to get given all sorts of contrived scenarios that boiled down to a pretty simple calculation, and many of my classmates would be puzzled by what the question was asking.  The "relevance" that was supposed to be helping motivate us became a hindrance.  And yet the teachers saw the difficulty as a good thing because in the real world, we wouldn't just be given a sum.  Well in the real world, we'd have a lot more variables to deal with.  Personally, I couldn't see any benefit.

I have always been of the opinion that one of the most mentally enjoyable things on the planet is learning.  "You would say that," people tell me, "because you're good at it.  Other people are different."

But to answer that is to miss my point, because learning is pure mental stimulation, and mental stimulation is (to simplify horribly) the basis of enjoyment.  I argue that there is no-one who doesn't enjoy learning.  "But what about the people who don't do well in school?  They don't enjoy it!"  But if learning is a universal pleasure, this is looking at things the wrong way round: underachievers don't fail to learn because they're not enjoying themselves, they fail to enjoy themselves because they're not learning!

On a recent trip to a charity shop, I was lucky enough to stumble across the book Towards a Theory of Instruction by Jerome S Bruner.  In the first chapter of the book, published in 1966 but based on earler papers and lectures, he says:
We discovered one point of especial value for my own future inquiry.  There is a sharp distinction that must be made between behavior that copes with the requirements of a problem and behavior that is designed to defend against entry into the problem.
 He says that the nature of the poor performance of the children he was studying...
was not so much a distortion as it was the result of their working on a different set of problems from those the school had set for them.
He then goes on to point out that
Once our blocked children were able to bear the problems as set -- when we were able to give them a chance for conflict-free coping -- their performance was quite like that of other children
Essentially, he tells us that kids' learning problems seem to be pretty much absolute and digital -- you've either learned or you haven't, which would suggest that changing the way the problem is stated isn't going to make any positive difference to the underperforming students, because they still won't use the appropriate strategy.

But Bruner's legacy is the idea of "discovery learning": that people don't need to be taught things, and that they learn better by discovering things for themselves.  It's an idea that has been horribly distorted and misrepresented over the years.  Certainly every description of this that I have ever read takes a much harder line than Bruner himself, and even Bruner's own studies on this were within a very confined field.

In the book, Bruner deals mostly with elementary maths, ostensibly because of the clarity of expression and the fact that all readers will be familiar with the basic arithmetic under study.  Using cubes to work out areas and volumes is fairly standard, but often the full potential is ignored -- Bruner's studies went on to explore recombinations, and then eventually on to elementary calculus, all at an early primary level.  Bruner was surprised and impressed by how little explicit instruction the children needed, and the additional concepts they explored without being asked.

But the physical constraints here were leading, and they also meant feedback was immediate.  When high schools try to employ discovery learning we get into dubious practices such as "discovering the boiling point of water".  You stick a thermometer in a beaker of water and put it over a bunsen burner.  When it boils, you read it off.

But wait... at what point is water officially "boiling"?  I'm in my 30s, and even though I'm a competent cook, I still couldn't identify with confidence the actual point at which a pan is "on the boil".  So as a teenager I was staring at this beaker, trying to decide when it was right, and scribbling down several numbers.  At the end of the "experiment", we all gave our numbers, and we were all wrong.  What exactly did we discover?  The teacher had to tell us that it was 100.  Yes, that's right, we were using Celsius, the temperature scale defined by the boiling and freezing point of water.  This exercise was pretty ridiculous....

So far, so irrelevant to the language learner.  Well, that's all background.

The idea of discovery learning has infected the language profession too.  But language is pure abstraction -- there is no physical reality to count or measure or explore.  The notion of "correct" language is so vague that it is exceptionally difficult to stumble upon by accident.  And whereas most physical experiments can be reattempted without prejudicing the results, every reformulation in language gives the listener a partial understanding.  Three or four attempts to speak make not result in a single correct sentence, but the other person may well know what you mean by the end of it.  You never need to discover the correct answer.

But as I said, most modern advocates of discovery learning are far more hard-line than Bruner.  In Toward a Theory of Instruction, Bruner didn't use the term very much at all.  Instead, Bruner focused on learning as a process of increasing abstraction, starting at enactive (physically carrying it out), moving through iconic (typified by diagrams) and finally becoming symbolic (including linguistic descriptions of the problem).  To Bruner, the point of physical learning seems to have been the idea that it is required to form the understanding of the concept.  On the simplest level, you can't really learn the word "biscuit" if you've no concept of baked goods.

This ties neatly to the work of one of Bruner's contemporaries: David Ausubel.  Ausubel proposed something called an "advance organiser".  According to Ausubel, the main thing was to prime the student to receive new information, and much of that was about showing why something wasn't new at all.

My dad taught chemistry, and he was big on advance organisers.

But an advance organiser doesn't have to be physical, like discovery learners think -- it can be conceptual.  He taught the wave equation (velocity = frequency * wavelength) by analogy to a factory conveyor belt.  Each item on the belt was a wavefront, and the gap was a wavelength.  Most kids want to have frequency increase when wavelength increases, but the analogy makes it clear why this can't happen.  Needless to say, he didn't have physical access to a baked bean cannery to carry this out in, so he did it on the blackboard.  Under Bruner's structure, it is therefore iconic, and he's skipped the enactive phase entirely.

So what does this mean for the language learner?

Well, a suitable advance organiser can bypass the "enactive" discovery stage if we already have a suitable analogy at another level of abstraction.  The physical reality of a conveyor belt is so easily understood that my father only needed to evoke the idea -- the "advance organiser" for the wave equation.  With language, we can go one step further -- we already have an advance organiser in the symbolic domain: ie our native equivalent.

Let's look at an example.  In EFL we tend to talk about 1st, 2nd and 3rd conditionals and teach them by example.
1st: I will do it if you tell me to.
2nd: I would do it if you told me to.
3rd: I would have done it if you had told me to.

Many teachers avoid translation, as they see at as a dangerous thing.  But what if we stop saying "translation" and start saying "by analogy to your native language"...?

Michel Thomas teaches the conditionals in his Spanish course, and he does it entirely by analogy to English.  Even the 3rd conditional, often considered hopelessly difficult and very advanced, becomes simplicity itself, because the structure in both languages is almost 100% equivalent.

Another device he uses is when teaching "to wait".  In the Romance languages, this doesn't take the "for" of the English "waiting for" someone.  So he takes the word "await" and uses it as an advance organiser, saying that in French, Spanish and Italian, you "await" someone.  But he still says "wait for" too, because he is evoking both the meaning and the form.

One of the most striking things about Thomas's courses is how little of the material in them is specific to any situation or context.  Thomas taught only the most general and reusable language, and by playing with the structures, he gave his students an incredible level of control over the language.  When he demonstrated his techniques in an English high school for a TV documentary (The Language Master), one of the regular teaching staff had this to say:
The revelation is that it's the learning process itself that motivates these kids, the mastery of the stucture, the mastery of part of the language is the thing that keeps them going, keeps them enthusiastic.  And we lose sight of that in the way we teach. ... We think we capture their interest by finding them interesting materials that are supposedly related to their interests outside in the world generally, and maybe we miss the point.  And I think he's probably onto something very important here.
Which leads us back to where we started: learning is fun.

What triggered this post was actually getting a link to an article on computer games (of all things!) in the Guardian several weeks ago.  To quote:
our growing love of video games may actually have important things to tell us about our intrinsic desires and motivations.
Central to it all is a simple theory – that games are fun because they teach us interesting things and they do it in a way that our brains prefer – through systems and puzzles. Five years ago, Raph Koster, the designer of seminal multiplayer fantasy games such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies wrote a fascinating book called A Theory of Fun for Game Design, in which he put forward the irresistibly catchy tenet that "with games, learning is the drug".
Games can sell themselves on superficial features like graphics, soundtracks and clever media campaigns, but in the long run, the fun in any game derives from the fact that learning stimulates the brain.

So while the experts in fun are telling us that it's the learning that matters, the experts in learning are trying to look elsewhere for fun....

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