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.

Advertisements

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”.

Facing the future: can Facebook be a future space?

November 13, 2009

My old school’s song has lyrics by its most famous principal, Frank Milner, a man born in the Ninteenth Century so his lyrics have a Edwardian feel but the sentiments can be quite modern. 

“Facing the future with nought to dismay us

We shall not fear what the years may unfold”

This song has always seemed to me to be a call to embrace the new as opportunities, not threats, so I am one of the Woodstock Generation who tweeted on Facebook about it being forty years since Woodstock.  (You would be surprised how my Thirty Something colleagues and my Generation Y sons reacted to that post!)  I also set up this blog to explore how the new information and communication technologies could be used in education.   I am aware of others older than myself, who are also tweeting and blogging and supporting my point of view, which is why I reject the opinion that older people can not adapt to these new technologies.

Yet it is true there is resistance  and disbelief  throughout the community that there can be any value in social media.  Last year while exploring with other residents of my community the idea of e-government at the local level, the convenor spoke of “silent resistance”, the phenomenon of decision makers and managers who, while speaking in support of change, will themselves revert to older methods and express an unwillingness to make the changes in their own lives.  Dennis Littky and Robby Fried, in 1988 called this type  “the Glad-Handing Administrator”.

Today I write about a challenge issued by The Learning Circuits Blog to discuss this issue, although I disagree with the writer’s analysis which sees the issue as a generational one.  Just as there are those of the Woodstock Generation open to new ideas, there are those in Generation X and Generation Y who have closed minds, – the Champions of Inertia  and the Programmatic Power-Mongers described by Littky and Fried in their article.

Is the issue all doom and gloom then?  I believe human beings have a capacity to keep on learning all their lives.  The motives which work against them adopting change are the same things which motivate our economy, fear and greed, perhaps with a big helping of ignorance.  Bolstered by the negative publicity towards new media by the traditional news media, many are fearful of what they don’t know.  They are fearful of appearing foolish if they “get it wrong”.   They also can perhaps glimpse that the new age of collaboration means that traditional hierarchical power structures will become irrelevant and, with it, the loss of their own positions of power.

Reference

Littky, Dennis and Fried, Robbie (1988) “The Challenge to make good schools great” NEA Today 6 No. 6 (January) P4-8.

I’m in a google state of mind

October 29, 2009

One of the things I have been critical of in my comments on Marc Prensky and his Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants hypothesis is that there is no evidence which would  support his claim that Digital Natives by virtue of their exposure to computers and the internet, have differently wired brains.  Apparently, neuro scientists do believe in a concept they call neuro plasticity but that in itself does not support Prensky’s hypothesis.

In 2008 Dr Gary Small published a book iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the Modern Mind, along with his partner, Gigi Vorgon,  a freelance writer. Small is an eminent medical researcher who pioneered MRI scans to show there was physical evidence that the brain aged, and he was able to show evidence of Altzheimer’s Disease in living persons.  It would follow, therefore, that his adoption of the Digital Native Digital Immigrant model in his book would give much weight to Prensky’s case.

In iBrain, Small is writing about young people, Generation Y, but his research has been with older people, mostly, but not always, the elderly.  We see this in a paper he published in February 2009  in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychology. (I said he has lots of street cred!)

To this untutored person, what Small, Moody, Siddarth and Bookheimer found actually argues against the Prensky hypothesis.  The study asked a group of older people to conduct on line searches in Google while the researchers studied their brain activity, hence the title of their paper, Patterns of cerebral activation during internet searching.  The subjects varied in age, the youngest was 55, and some were experienced users of the internet while others were novices.  The conclusion was that all subjects showed changes in the ways their brains worked during and after their searching.  The trouble for the Prensky hypothesis is it argues that only Digital Natives will show  changes to their brains. Whatever you call the people born between 1945 and 1955, Baby Boomers, Woodstock Generation, Generation Jones,  they are all part of Prensky’s Digital Immigrants and this should not be happening.  The fact that this research was conducted by a researcher who had previously supported the Prensky hypothesis should give pause for thought.

Small, Garry W., Moody, T.D.,  Siddarth, P., and Bookheimer, S.Y., (2009) Patterns of Cerebral Activation during internet searching, American Journal of Geriatric Psychology pp 116-126.

Small, Garry W and Vorgon, Gigi (2008) iBrain: surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind, Collins 256p.

The devil you know

October 6, 2009

The research supports the evidence coming from the media and the conversations of most adolescents.  Social Networks are big.

The media focuses on the negative.  Tonight we have a repeat television story  about how a hoax site was used to undermine a 15 year old girl’s self esteem and encourage her to join a suicide pact. The radio had a story about how a fan obtained the contact details of a celeb on Facebook.   No wonder most older people treat this new medium with suspicion.

Academic research is more objective and more positive.   Without dismissing the harm caused on social network sites, we should see that the overwhelming majority of young people use these sites without any adverse effects.

As I have argued in posts about using texting, we are in danger of letting the opportunity to use these sites for educational purposes go begging.

It seems to me that Facebook because it allows add-ons has more potential than the other sites which evolve much more slowly.   One use I quite like is the ability to add “causes” to your Facebook profile.  This allows like minded people to network and so become a more cohesive grouping which can act together.

Tweet what you eat

October 5, 2009

How’s this for a practical application of Twitter? Alex Rossi has set up an on-line food diary where users tweet their daily food intake.  Big tweeters (the pun is deliberate) such as Stephen Fry, credit this simple approach as helping them lose weight. With obesity a major health problem, the time is fast approaching when the detractors will have to fall silent and let users develop Twitter in whatver way appeals to them.

Who’s twittering now?

October 5, 2009

In the media’s on going interest in Twitter, more and more stories are coming to light about how Twitter can be used for purposes never thought of by its creators.  The latest comes from Pittsburgh where two self confessed anarchists, Elliott Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger have been using Twitter to update protesters at the G20 summit about police movements.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/6260255/Anarchists-used-Twitter-to-inform-protesters-of-police-movements-at-G20-protests.html The police have found a way to charge them with criminal misuse of a communications device.    It is interesting how law enforcement can catch up with new technologies when there is a strong enough incentive.

Goggle eyed or google brained?

October 5, 2009

I’ve just heard another journalist riding Mark Prensky’s bandwagon about how electronic technology is changing our brains.  Nicholas Carr has been speaking on Kim Hill’s Saturday radio programme on Radio New Zealand.

His ideas are perhaps most accessible in a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google where he asks “Is Google making us stupid?”.  He begins with stories about the difficulty he has in concentrating on what he has been reading and then citing other people who have the same experience.  Well, add me to that list but unlike Carr, I do not blame Google and the Internet for my own infirmities.  When the book is interesting enough like The Da Vinci Code, I have no difficulty concentrating.

Perhaps more telling is his next remark:

Anecdotes alone don’t prove much.  And we still await the long term neurological and psychological experiments that will provide a definitive picture of how Internet use affects cognition.

I couldn’t agree more with his first remark, but has he considered that there will not be any experiments or that the experiments will be inconclusive?

His anecdote about Nietsche in the last years of his life, learning to touch type so he could continue to write even though his eyesight was failing, is an interesting one.  Nietsche’s friends noticed that his writing style had changed as a result of this new way of writing, leading Nietsche to comment “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts”.   Similar anecdotes can be told about the Roman writer Quintillian when he employed a scribe to write at his dictation and about Henry James when he employed a secretary to type at his dictation.  Unlike Nietsche, they found their writing became more verbose.  I don’t think that these anecdotes prove anything at all.  McLuhan said it all, the medium is the message.  The medium is not rewiring our brains.

We don’t ‘low no natives round here

August 21, 2008

I have just attended the DEANZ conference in Wellington, New Zealand and been struck by how criticism of Mark Prensky’s digital natives metaphor has now become mainstream thinking. While it is high time his views were subject to scrutiny and judged for their worth, I would be concerned that some of his less well promoted ideas might be lumped in with the digital natives idea and rejected without being examined.

In particular I refer to his ideas about the merits of cell phones as teaching tools.  While Prensky’s ideas of how cell phones could be used are not developed, he is aware of the huge potential.  I’ve covered this in earlier posts to this blog and in other media, but the reports of how cell phones are being used proliferate in the media.  The New Zealand Education Gazette 11 August 2008 reports how Nathan Kerr of Onehunga High School sends teaching notes to his students’ cell phones.

However, the merits of this initiative are reduced by Kerr’s Prenskian analysis of his project.   Kerr is quoted as saying “The most important thing to remember about the mobile teaching project is that it is student driven, they know a lot more about the type of technology than I do.”  Well, excuse me, but when did we last hear about a student compressing teaching materials and sending it to cell phones?   Surely what Kerr has done shows just the opposite, that he knows more about the technology than they do?  Prensky has a lot to answer for.

The second question about why other teachers aren’t using mobile technology is not answered in the media reports.   The answer to that question does swing the debate back in Prensky’s direction.  Many teachers and school administrators see cell phones as threats, not as opportunities.  Accordingly, money is not budgeted for these new approaches and teachers are discouraged.   When a teacher provides the resources themselves, they are met with obstacles, prohibitions and downright hostility.  As I have said in other posts, there are systemic obstacles to adopting new technologies, not so much the digital immigrants imposing their ways of life on the natives, but a Praetorian guard working to preserve the power of the elite, who talk the need for change while working behind the scenes to prevent any change threatening their way of life.

The tribe that crossed its head

November 1, 2007

The idea of the world being divided on generational lines between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” seems to be a widespread belief among educational managers. Its origin seems to go back to the American software developer Marc Prensky, who has written several books on educational technology. (You can access his blog from my blogroll.)

The problem is that for teachers working daily with the so called digital natives there appears to be scant evidence for Prensky’s claim. Yes, many adolescents are very skilled at using new technology and knowledgeable in a way their parents are not, but Prensky’s claim is a generalisation and like all generalisations it is very easy to disprove. Teenagers exist out there who can not use computers and cell phones and more importantly don’t want to. Nor are these all from communities which have turned their backs on new technologies. I’ve actually taught students who couldn’t use email but who had parents who were very computer savy; the exact opposite of what Prensky is claiming to be the case.

Now academics are examining Prensky’s claims in more detail. Gregor Kennedy head of the biomedical multimedia unit at the University of Melbourne says, “The data is showing that there is certainly a percentage of students who aren’t as technologically adept as some of the commentators make out.”

Prensky’s second claim that through their experiences using electronic media has meant that “digital natives” have their brains wired differently to the older generation. This is a view which resonates with me as the father of a thirteen year old with classic autism and profound intellectual disability. I might like to say his brain is wired up differently but the various brain scans and other neurological investigations didn’t find anything different about his brain or that of any other person with autism. The same is true with Prensky’s “digital natives.” This is not a “tribe that has lost its head” or found it again. Their heads are where they have always been, squarely between their shoulders. There simply is no evidence to back up Prensky’s claim.

Prensky’s loudest claim is that the education system is outdated and needs some fundamental changes to be able to cater to these new students. Well, the families who make up the autistic community have been saying this for years so I’m not going to argue with it, except to observe that these claims are being promoted by self-serving administrators who posssess the hallmark of the true reformer, a person who wants to change everyone but themselves. Ask Prensky’s more vocal disciples. What are they doing to show their commitment to changing the education system? Do they have a blog or use wikis to encourage collaborative and networked approaches to educational administration? Some do but many do not.

I’ve been in education long enough to see the way new approaches appear like new fashions in clothing and music only to disappear, as another new approach rises to take its place. This is a pity because personalising education does have the potential to improve motivation and outcomes for the students who are not succeeeding in schools. It would be a pity if this approach was to disappear now that Steve Maharey has resigned as Minister of Education and his successor, Chris Carter promotes some new enthusiasm of his own. However, I recall that “Parents as first teachers” lasted as long as Lockwood Smith was Minister of Education and I am not optimistic.

And let us also realise that Prensky’s claim is yet another generalisation. Our present system is working very well for many of our present students and there is no reason to believe it will not continue. Let us promote innovation not because all the old ways are not working, but because issues of equity demand that we do something for students who are not succeeding at school. Yes, we have students who are persistently truant and leave school without qualifications but these students have always been there. Once schooling was just for the sons of the nobility and gentry. After all, the word “school” comes from the Greek word for leisure. We have progressively extended the opportunity to attend school to the sons of the middle classes then to girls and finally to the children of working class families. The present group causing concern are part of a large underclass which we have created. When their parents left school before the school leaving age we just turned a blind eye. If we didn’t see it happening, we could pretend it wasn’t happening.  Now that is no longer acceptable. What has changed is not the students but our attitude towards underachievement.