29 September 2013

Cognitive Flexibility Memory aka Photoshop of the Mind

Do you think your technology use has affected the way you think and learn?  
Yes. Absolutely. I went back to school in 2004 and that was a time in which technology was really making serious in-roads into education. We were using Blackboard, heavily using email, and my undergraduate degree was in Science Education. We utilized technology in a variety of ways in the lab. No longer did I write papers with a pen and paper (or word processor/typewriter) like I did in the late 80’s. I could type my thoughts out about as fast as I could think them (as my typing speed improved). I wonder if that was the cause of Nietzsche's change in writing style when he moved to the typewriter? Maybe he was actually processing his thoughts at a faster rate than he did with a pen and paper? I could see an argument both for and against this (think about speaking a response vs. writing out a well-articulated response to someone's question).

If so, has the change been positive or negative?
I, too, have experienced the difficulty in engaging with long-texts. I’m working to get my habits of mind back to being able to engage with those longer texts (out of necessity - otherwise I might never finish this program!). I enjoy the snippets of information on the web. Twitter gives me a tremendous amount of information. I engage with only some it deeply. However, it has exposed me to so much more knowledge than I would have been able to see without it (twitter). Learning on the web (isn’t everything web-based now days?) is a bit like being a public education student. You get a tremendous amount of information and only some of the it sticks. To use Carr’s example, public education is much like the pancake. Students cover a huge breadth of subjects yet their shallow understanding of those subjects can often be problematic. Without going too far on a tangent, I attribute this problem more to education’s woes in testing (data-driven nature) rather than students’ inability to think deeply.

What ideas do you have for how the design of technology could facilitate positive, rather than negative, changes in human thinking and learning habits?  
I’m not entirely sure that I have anything new to add to the design of technology. I enjoy utilizing technology to encourage collaboration and get students to engage with (the instructor and) one another in new, deeper, more meaningful ways. That said, one big piece for me is to have students access knowledge (the internet) and do something with that information. An example might be to pull something from the news (say a natural disaster) and have students analyze it from a scientific (conceptual) point of view, a resilience (recovery) point of view, and a moral worldview. As Spiro pointed out, have students engage with a single mini-case from several different conceptual standpoints. While reading this part of the 1990 text excerpt, I kept thinking about Photoshop. If you are at all familiar with PS, you know that it works with layers. So you take several layers (each of which could stand on its own) and lay them on top of one another to form an image (which could be completely separate from the layers). The best part about this CF theory is the “multiplicative” nature of it - the sum of the parts being greater than the whole (which applies to one of my favorite physics theories, too).

For example, how can technology promote cognitive flexibility, or any other positive consequences you can imagine?
If I may digress a bit here, in education (specifically K-12) administration (including all elected officials) feel that education is a well-defined domain. They have taken a decidedly reductionist theory of education. One which can be simplified to a series of standards, lessons, and tests. This strategy absolutely will equal greater student achievement. However, practitioners (present company included) likely/hopefully recognize that education is an ill-structured domain. I recognize that there are exceptions to this idea. Young learners who are learning language or writing will eventually arrive at the same destination (a literacy of some degree in writing or speaking). However, when those two skills are required to be applied to life (e.g. a paper or a speech analyzing some big concept in history/business/education/philosophy) we begin to enter a domain which is ill-structured. In fact, isn’t this what education as a whole looks like? We have a series of processes that teachers are required to learn, tests they have to pass, several concepts and educational philosophers they should know (well-structured) and then they are turned loose in a classroom with a group of students and are expected to teach them the ideas, concepts, skills, and knowledge (well-structured - well defined destination with a clear roadmap to get to said destination) they need to know to be successful in life (ill-structured). Additionally, it doesn’t take long to look at the Common Core State Standards to know that we are expecting students to be able to work in an ill-structured domain (connections between subjects), yet how often do we give them the opportunity to do so?

So, what about technology? Our students are (by and large) connected (at a minimum through a smartphone) to the largest body of knowledge ever compiled in the whole of human history. Using technology and mini-cases (Spiro) we have the ability (and I would say the responsibility) to engage students in opportunities to construct their own connections between concepts, ideas, and events. Those concepts, ideas, and events are the layers of the Photoshop image before it has been “flattened” (where all the layers are combined and are no longer parts, but are integral to the whole image) and the connections are the entire image. These “images” constructed by students make up their entire knowledge base (about anything) and are akin to a collage of images (stored in their minds), with a series of layers (many of which may not be in the students minds, but part of the web/body of all human knowledge).