Archive for July, 2010

Practice makes native

July 27, 2010

As we debate the validity of the digital natives/digital immigrants hypothesis, it is undeniable that younger users of new technologies seem more skilled at using it.  My point has always been that some older people can be just as skilled and that there are some young people who can not use computers.  Whatever is going on, it is not a function of a person’s age.

So how do we account for why some people have greater skill in using computers?   I think the answer can be found in the research into what makes exceptional people in any human endeavour: sport, games or more intellectual pursuits.   Anders Ericsson found that the key was practice.  These skills and abilities are achieved by practice. Rather than being the result of an evolutionary advance, (which is how I interpret Mark Prensky’s hypothesis) truly outstanding skill in any field is achieved with long practice which can not be done by cramming over several days but typically takes up to ten years.

The following exerpt from David Shenk’s The genius in all of us sets out the argument quite well:
“For those on their way to greatness [in physical or intellectual endeavours],
several themes regarding practice consistently come to light:

1. Practice changes your body. Researchers have recorded a constellation of physical changes (occurring in direct response to practice) in the muscles, nerves, hearts, lungs, and brains of those showing profound increases in skill level in any domain.
2. Skills are specific. Individuals becoming great at one particular skill do not serendipitously become great at other skills. Chess champions can remember hundreds of intricate chess positions in sequence but can have a perfectly ordinary memory for everything else. Physical and intellectual changes are ultraspecific responses to particular skill requirements.
3. The brain drives the brawn. Even among athletes, changes in the brain are arguably the most profound, with a vast increase in precise task knowledge, a shift from conscious analysis to intuitive thinking (saving time and energy), and elaborate self-monitoring mechanisms that allow for constant adjustments in real time.
4. Practice style is crucial. Ordinary practice, where your current skill level is simply being reinforced, is not enough to get better. It takes a special kind of practice to force your mind and body into the kind of change necessary to improve.
5. Short-term intensity cannot replace long-term commitment. Many crucial changes take place over long periods of time. Physiologically, it’s impossible to become great overnight.

“Across the board, these last two variables – practice style and practice
time – emerged as universal and critical. From Scrabble players to dart players to soccer players to violin players, it was observed that the uppermost achievers not only spent significantly more time in solitary study and drills, but also exhibited a consistent (and persistent) style of preparation that K. Anders Ericsson came to call ‘deliberate practice.’ First introduced in a 1993 Psychological Review article, the notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. ‘Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,’ explains Ericsson. ‘Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level which is associated with frequent failures.’ …

“In other words, it is practice that doesn’t take no for an answer; practice that perseveres; the type of practice where the individual keeps raising the
bar of what he or she considers success. …

“[One example of research in this field is] Eleanor Maguire’s 1999 brain scans of London cabbies, which revealed greatly enlarged representation in the brain region that controls spatial awareness. The same holds for any specific task being honed; the relevant brain regions adapt accordingly. …

“[Practice of the kind Ericsson described] requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again. …

“The physiology of this process also requires extraordinary amounts of
elapsed time – not just hours and hours of deliberate practice each day,
Ericsson found, but also thousands of hours over the course of many years. Interestingly, a number of separate studies have turned up the same common number, concluding that truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years’ time (which comes to an average of three hours per day). From sublime pianists to unusually profound physicists, researchers have been very hard-pressed to find any examples of truly extraordinary performers in any field who reached the top of their game before that ten-thousand-hour mark.”

Shenk, David, (2010) The genius in all of us, Doubleday, NY pages 53-57.

Ericsson, K.A. and Lehmann A.C. (1996) Expert and exceptional performance; evidence of maximal adaptation to task constraints, Annual Review of Psychology .

Maguire E.A., Frackowiak R.S.J., Frith C.D., (1997) Recalling routes around London, activation of the right hippocampus in taxi drivers, Journal of Neuroscience Vol 17 Number 18, September.

Is it truly possible to be too old to learn?

July 12, 2010

I think the term “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” is a gross generalisation, and as such unhelpful to our discussion.

It is a generalisation because it is abundantly clear that while children can pick up new technologies very quickly, this is not inevitable.   Children raised in traditional communities will not pick up new technologies because they do not have the opportunities and they are socialised to avoid and resist.   Imagine an Amish child presented with a computer.

Secondly, young people adopt new technologies much like adults, some are early adopters and some stoutly resist.  Most fall somewhere in between along a continuum between the two extremes.  This point is well made in a recent report by the [United States] National Schools Board Association, Creating and Connecting//Research and Guidelines on Online Social – and Educational – Networking.  The report discusses the “Nonconformist” who is at the cutting edge of adopting new technologies.   It also mentions by omission the adolescents who do not participate in online communities

The dichotomy suggested by “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” also implies the idea behind the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.   There may be some truth in that saying but I question whether we should apply an understanding which we have gained about dogs and apply it to human beings.

Like young people, adults adopt new technologies at different rates.   The educational community might learn a little from market research which has coined the term “early adopters”.

One of the many things which separate human beings from animals is that adults do learn.  What is more useful to grasp is that adults learn differently to children and adolescents.    In 1975, Malcolm Knowles published his ideas on what he called “andragogy” (to distinguish it from pedagogy).

His principles are that:

  1. Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction (Self-concept and Motivation to learn).
  2. Experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for learning activities (Experience).
  3. Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life (Readiness to learn).
  4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented (Orientation to learning).

I suggest these principles are more useful than “Digital natives, Digital immigrants”.