Tag Archives: education

Economic growth is impossible without learning

cause of economic growth

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” as a former president of Harvard University famously said.

Whatever its primary purpose is (or should be), education has a huge effect on any country’s productivity and economic health.

When you look at the data, you see a clear correlation between the education level of a population (enrollment ratio) and its country’s GDP. Today, let’s go further and explore how learning is actually the main driving force behind current economic growth.

First off, how does an economy grow?

If you remember your economics class, you know growth usually depends on the increase of the four traditional production factors, namely

  1. Land
  2. Labor
  3. Capital
  4. Entrepreneurship

But in reality, these inputs are typically hard to change in developed economies. Instead, as some recent theories have proposed, economic growth comes down to two things:

  1. Working smarter (human capital)
  2. Using better tools (technology)

So, in knowledge economies, getting better beats getting more. Of course, working harder, using more machines, and extracting natural resources from more land will generate some growth. But that’s not where most of our productivity gains have come from in the last decades.

Rather, it has come from working smarter and using better machines. In other words, it’s been the result of a more efficient use of existing assets. Let’s look at the two ways of achieving that.

Human capital refers to the knowledge, skills and experience of a country’s workforce. By and large, the more trained and educated workers get, the more productive they become. The general principle behind this is the specialization and division of labor, which has been one of the most powerful economical force since the Industrial Revolution.

Technological innovation refers to the development and adoption of better processes and products. Even if they disagree on how much of the growth can be attributed to new technology, all economists agree it plays a major role. For example, Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow pegged it at more than 80%.

Now what drives the increase of knowledge and technology?

Effective learning, of course. In a world where change is ubiquitous, there no better way, sorry, there’s no other way to succeed.

Therefore, peak learners are really the core of economic growth.

Why I regularly test my students even if it’s not popular (and the takeaway for peak learners)

testing students

This may surprise you, but I get criticized for my way of teaching. More precisely, some of my colleagues think I give too many evaluations. I confess I love my quizzes, and I typically assess my students’ progress every week.

But “teachers should spend less time testing and more time teaching” as the Badass Teachers Association often reminds me on Facebook. Similarly, for some of my colleagues, my strategy just reeks of old-school thinking. They say frequent quizzes undermine learners’ sense of responsibility and intrinsic motivation.

But, to me, regular testing has always felt intuitively right, and a few years ago, this intuition was confirmed by the largest evidence-based research about what works best in education. John Hattie’s mega-study Visible Learning is a synthesis of 50,000 studies involving more than 80 million students; there’s a reason why it’s been called the holy grail of education.

Hattie has identified 138 influences on student achievement and ranked them by degree of effectiveness. Here’s his top ten.

Optimized-ranks

As you clearly see, providing formative evaluation ranks third (formative means low or no point value). Let me repeat this: testing has the third most powerful effect on learning among hundreds of investigated variables.

The thing is, formative assessments do two main things.

  1. They measure learning
  2. They strengthen learning

First, progress monitoring provides a great window into where you’re at as well as what works and what doesn’t, which allows both the teacher and the student to adjust accordingly. And the more often they get this feedback, the faster they can course correct.

Second, many recent studies (most likely included in Hattie’s mega-study) have established that taking tests is one of the best ways to reinforce learning, and that it should be done sooner rather than later (even if you haven’t finished learning).

For example, one of the studies shows that giving short quizzes on a regular basis like I do increases performance by about half a letter grade as opposed to relying on four major exams. The most famous research has been done by Roediger, who has listed ten benefits of testing.

This is the takeaway for peak learners. You really have to stop seeing studying and testing as two different things.

Testing / self-testing is learning at its best.

People don’t naturally think like scientists (but peak learners should)

learners as scientists

One of my close friends definitely prefers “being right” than being accurate. He has lots of opinions and theories on everything, but if you show him evidence that contradicts one of them, he’ll put the full weight of his reasoning power to discount your evidence.

As it turns out, we’re all like him to a lesser or greater extent, and this flies in the face of the popular theory of discovery-based learning, which posits that students intuitively learn like scientists.

What does it mean to learn like a scientist?

It means you’re an active creator of your own learning, and you do this by

  1. exploring your environment,
  2. generating ideas about how things work,
  3. testing those ideas and
  4. changing your model accordingly.

In other words, scientific thinking is about coordinating evidence (things you observe) and theory (ideas about how those things work).

So, for people to think like scientists, they need at least to be able

  1. to distinguish theory and evidence and
  2. to update their theory in the light of new evidence.

As many studies have found, untrained people are bad at both.

After reading Researcher Deanna Kuhn’s study, you’ll indeed notice that people easily blur the difference between theory and evidence in everyday life.

Let me give you the simplest example. When you see people smile, you probably take this as evidence that they’re happy, right? But the thing is, you can’t see happy; happy is a theory. It may look like a safe theory, but it’s still a theory.

But even when theories don’t get confused with facts, shifting theories to match facts doesn’t come naturally for most people. As Lord, Ross and Lepper’s classic study showed, when they come across a fact that contradicts their theory, people will often ignore it or interpret it in a biased way (confirmation bias).

Of course, as evidence accumulates, people will eventually adjust their theory accordingly, but that process often occurs unconsciously; unlike scientists, people don’t actively review their models (Kuhn).

With information currently flowing from all directions, critical thinking is more needed than ever. But thinking like a scientist is an acquired skill, and a difficult one at that. And if you want to become a peak learner, you have no choice but to develop that skill.

The best first step you can take in that direction is to set your ego aside and ask yourself: “What would show me I’m wrong?”

Of The 3 Domains of Learning, Which One Is Yours?

bloom's three domains of learning

I’ve been going to that new coffee shop in my area, and this place has two doors side by side, but you can only open one of them because the other is kept locked. Each time I leave the building, do you know what happens? I go for the wrong door (on my left) even if I know it’s locked.

Doctor, why can’t I learn faster? Breaking stupid habits should be a piece of cake for peak learners, shouldn’t it?

The thing is, learning is a big concept that applies to many situations. Of course, it always involves some change or adaptation, but that’s about where the common denominator stops. So you can easily be a peak learner in one domain and an average joe in another.

As it turns out, all things learnable can be sorted out into three big domains. As the education expert Benjamin Bloom showed, you can either make a change in what you know, in what you feel, or in what you do.

In other words, learning can occur in:

  • the cognitive domain (head)
  • the affective domain (heart)
  • the psychomotor domain (hands)

The cognitive domain includes knowledge recall and mental skills; it’s really about things you learn in school. In my posts, I may seem to be biased toward this domain, but that’s because I’m a teacher and I can’t help it (sorry).

The affective domain involves emotions, attitudes and behaviors; so it covers everything from being aware of your environment to internalizing values that will determine the way you act. This domain is often overlooked, but it’s everywhere in your life.

The psychomotor domain is about manual and physical skills; so it includes manipulating objects and moving your body to perform tasks found in most jobs. Here, you learn by doing, either through imitation or mental representation, which often requires System 1 (see previous post).

Even if it’s possible to reach peak learning in solely one domain, try to take a holistic approach and get the three domains involved whenever you can.

Creating as many neural pathways as possible is the ultimate goal of peak learning.

Why Rewards Aren’t Good for Learning

kids and rewards

I want my kids to become peak learners. So, I have them play creative games, do cognitive activities, and practice foreign languages.

And to get them fully on board, I’ve been using the magical power of rewards. I started with cute little stickers, then I moved to a token system, but now I’m giving cold, hard cash.

Is it yielding results? You bet it is! They’re hooked on it. Skinner was dead on the money. Rewards act as powerful reinforcers; they do increase the occurrence of behaviors.

So what’s the problem?

As it turns out, external rewards undermine autonomy and intrinsic motivation, which are the holy grail of lifelong learning. According to the self-determination theory, in order to persist in their learning, people need to feel in control; they’re also better at what they choose to do. Rewards do the opposite, as they basically tell you that someone wants you to do something.

For example, many studies have shown that when you give people a reward for an activity at one time, later they’re less likely to choose that activity over other options, and when they do, they don’t persist for very long.

I can see this with my kids. When I stop paying, sorry, rewarding them for their efforts, they wonder what is going on, and they don’t instinctively turn to puzzles and memory games afterwards.

So what’s the solution?

First, don’t discard rewards altogether. Incentives like grades and competitions are wonderful motivators and provide great feedback. What you want to do is make sure the learning continues after the exam, contest or bonus is gone.

How do you do that?

Boost the learner’s autonomy and sense of competence. For example, focus on his/her own happiness of doing well instead of yours, reduce monitoring, and offer as much choice as possible (when, where and what task to do).

You want to train peak learners and really ignite their desire to learn? Give them passion, not rewards.

How To Create Teachable Moments

perfect teachable moment

What is a teachable moment? How do you provoke such a moment in the classroom, the office and the playroom?

(pause)

This is usually how I start my class. Question. Silence.

A teachable moment is often defined as an unplanned opportunity to offer insight to learners.

I don’t agree. You can plan teachable moments. As a teacher, trainer or parent, you should try to create them all the time.

How do you do that?

First, you need to grasp this fundamental principle: learning happens when thinking happens.

So what’s the easiest way to make learners think?

Here’s my two-step recipe:

  1. Ask a thought-provoking question.
  2. Wait.

Your thought-provoking questions must bring about vulnerability and curiosity, and they best achieve that goal when they start with how and why.

In Globalization, Lifelong Learning and The Learning Society, the education expert Peter Jarvis explains that learning can’t occur without a tension or disjuncture. He describes a disjuncture as a situation when our unthinking harmony with our world is disturbed, or when our past experiences are no longer sufficient to cope automatically with the situation.

This is exactly the kind of situation your questions must create.

The second step is as important, but very often omitted. You must give learners time to think about your questions. If you answer your own questions right away like I used to do, the whole process becomes worthless.

Waiting for the learner to come up with an answer often feels awkward, but that’s where the gold is found. As Jarvis shows, learning occurs when sudden changes or novel situations make people stop in their tracks, because they don’t know automatically what to do or how to respond.

That’s your teachable moment.

People don’t remember much of what they’re taught unless they stop and think. Asking (ourselves) questions is key here. So peak learners must do like kids. Never stop asking why.

Elaborative Encoding Must Be Part of Any Peak Learner’s Toolkit

how to optimize learning

For homework, my daughter has to learn definitions by heart. Lots of definitions. That’s tough enough for an adult, now imagine for a kid. Fortunately, her dad knows a thing or two about learning.

The trick here is to use elaborative encoding.

To encode means to convert info into code in order to better retrieve it when needed. More concretely, it means to pay attention and organize the information we wish to remember. The encoding is elaborative when it’s deep and broad.

If you’ve ever rehearsed a speech or a presentation, you know that memorizing sentences (memoria verborum) like my daughter does is about as efficient as a holed bucket. This kind of focusing on symbols (words, numbers, etc.) is called shallow processing. What you want to do instead is go for deep processing, that is concentrate on ideas and meaning.

How can you put this into practice?

As the memory expert Joshua Foer explains, our brain doesn’t remember all types of info equally well. Its favorite kinds of data are images and locations; it can store terabytes of those. So the goal of elaborative encoding is to transform the types of memories the brain is bad at (symbols) into the types it was built for (images).

What does it mean for my daughter?

We took her definitions and divided each of them into logical parts; then she drew one image for each part. It worked like a charm. In fact, it was so intuitive that, the next morning, even I was able to recite some of her definitions although I had made no conscious effort to learn them. Her drawings just stuck in my mind. It’s a really powerful method indeed.

Dr. John Medina says that the quality of the encoding phase (the way you learn) is “the single greatest predictor of later learning success.”

So if you wish to improve your encoding process, do like my daughter. Make the info you’re learning more memorable by using images (real or mental). You’ll be amazed at how effortless your memorizing will become.