Nutrition, Diet Fads and Tablets – a take on virtual learning.

‘If Music be the food of love, play on’ spoke Duke Orsino in Twelfth  Night. His courtship for the Countess Olivia is not going well, and he rather hopes that an overdose would perhaps cure him of his  appetite.  The play is full of mistaken identities and misplaced trusts, but all works out in the end for the lovers (x 3 sets) and Music gets to take a back seat after all.

I recall much of the plot of  Twelfth  Night as if it were yesterday, partly because I studied it as my set text for O’Level and partly because I have seen it quite a few times since on stage. As a fourteen year old, I was given a much read and  previously  annotated edition of the play in hardback copy, and we worked through the set text for some 3 months with our teacher, the venerable Father Dunstan, whose myopic eyesight required pebble-sized glasses but whose grasp of the set text and his student audience was pretty tight.

In recent years, I have chosen to grapple positively with learning in the digital age, and pleasingly received some attention, support, recognition and such like for my efforts. Just now, as I type this article into WordPress’ frame, I have a wide variety of tablets (Apple and Android), laptops & chrome-books nearby, as I rehearse for new teacher induction how best our soon-to-be employed staff can make use of our Google Apps for Edu and Google Classroom environment. I know I need to do this preparation, for my new colleagues will in the main have no idea at all how collaborative documents and paperless assignments work. 

As I browse the Internet looking at world research and corporate bravado, it’s quite clear that for many schools the pressure is on to go digital, move paperless, use Apps and be seen to be 21st century learners.  But rules for what actually works in this brave new world are not that easily found, and frankly might work on day 1 or 2, because it is all new and bright and shiny, but into the second term and beyond might be found  wanting.  As a school, we have been truly digital for 30 months now, and yes our A level results are certainly better than we might have expected, but the positive difference is perhaps just a vanity at  this stage.  I like what the technology can bring, imediacy and intimacy of contact between teacher and taught, but of the other benefits of this internet age, I am rather more wary. 

A recent post by Alex Quigley, Hunting English, pointed me at a research paper by Dunlosky et al, published by the  Association for  Psychological  Science, one of those groups seeking to provide evidence-based research to advise what works best in the classroom.  Here’s a couple of testers for you: what would you rather do – read through a chapter and highlight the key points, or alternatively, sit regular practice tests on the content to test your understanding and knowledge?  Which student is going to do better, the one that reads and re-reads the set-text or the one that makes summary notes of same?

Three rules of thumb are recognisable:

1. What is easiest to do works least effectively 

2. Practice makes perfect

2. Teacher-feedback makes  the difference.

So in example 1, practice tests beats rereading for learning hands down.  In example 2, since there is no practice or teacher feedback, neither are  terribly  useful.  You can read the article here – – and it’s a beauty.  Like much other cognitive research emerging at present, it tells us a lot more than just confirm prejudices.  It is  particularly interesting to note that approaching problems in diverse ways may actually be less effective than just nailing the problem head-on, because a variety of practice does not necessarily mean sufficient attention is spent on the memorising or the technical skills involved. 

Imagine now that I was given not an old, well thumbed edition of a play, but a bright shiny digital artifact on my iPad screen instead.  Yes, I can see straight away I am missing  those  helpful notes written by others before me, so I have to start writing on my screen straight-away to add those memories of what the words mean. Hang-on, the pdf doesn’t allow me that choice.  Never-mind, I can quickly surf the internet, review what others think and make those thoughts my own.  That’s cool, I can rather more readily research and rework the material than perhaps I could using paper and print. But will that help me learn the lines, quote the examples I need and raise my self-awareness sufficiently to become the best student I’d like to be?

I have developed a rule of thumb that suggests that up to 33% of work can be created in digital form, and that assignments and such like should measure up in similar manner. But more than that would take children and teachers away from the other necessary learning activities that cause real learning to occur and growth mind-sets to be established. It is  interesting  to note that recent UK research highlights that students who sit 3 A levels do better than those that sit 2, and so sixth form advisers better watch out if they slim students diet to 2 subjects so that they can do better, because the evidence is to the contrary. I’ll join this research with my own practice, highlighting perhaps that people’s cognitive engagement has got to be full-on for them to learn best.  So learning just in a virtual world will certainly not be as effective as working in a broader mixed economy to include paper, people and practice.

We are just beginning to see the first research papers out showing the warning signs for those institutions that have gone fully paper-free, highlighting that the early successes of Tablets in the classroom can’t be maintained into the long term. As ever with such research, it’ll need some peer review and publication by APS, CEM centre and others before I’ll make it a real headline.  Real learning has to include a digital dimension, so familiar and available that the children can deploy its use as appropriate. But like TV dinners, not the diet of choice all the time.  The last thing we want is to supersize our children through a diet of easy-to-acquire information and apps-that-do-the-work into Learning Obesity, whereby excess gratuitous study & activity has accumulated in the learner an undeserved confidence to the extent that it has a negative effect on mental health, leading to reduced academic performance and/or increased health problems. It is not just about knowing how to find the information; for  Shakespeare  that was always obviously in his  completed  works. But studying, revising, forgetting and memorising takes time and energy, yet are indeed the food of learning, and need to play on for many years to come. 

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Nutrition, Diet Fads and Tablets – a take on virtual learning.

  1. clare hirst says:

    Very interesting paper on learning techniques – thank you. Clare Hirst.

  2. What a material of un-ambiguity and preserveness
    of precious know-how on the topic of unexpected feelings.

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