Are Two (or Three or Four) Heads Better Than One?
The conversation surrounding education reform is not a simple one.
One frequent talking point is the issue of class size. With education funding being cut around the country, class sizes are continuing to grow, but how big is too big? And how can we ensure that our students are getting enough attention from their teachers? In fact, overcrowded classrooms have become a common problem in many public schools. So what is the solution?
The traditional response has been that smaller class sizes and more teachers are the answer, as this will allow students to work more directly with instructors. But given the lack of funding in education, this solution may not be the most practical.
That’s where Sugata Mitra’s work comes in. As an education scientist, Mitra addresses this same issue on an even more dramatic level. Mitra has studied the absence of good teachers and schools in the areas where that are needed most (rural, poor parts of developing countries) and has come up with a startlingly simple solution – a combination of technology and student collaboration.
Many education advocates have argued the students must have more contact with teachers in order to improve. But Mitra’s experiments have shown that student collaboration can lead to greater learning and a longer retention rate. In his study in Gateshead (see 10:10), students’ scores on a particular test actually improved over time because of ongoing conversation among the students and the students’ continued research after they had completed the test.
The problems facing American students and students in impoverished New Delhi are obviously quite different. But the underlying principle is the same.
Student collaboration will probably never be able to fully replace good instruction from a teacher. However, in educational settings where the only resource was a computer, students were able to work together to teach each other and themselves. So in Western countries with much greater resources, how is it that we fail to maximize what we have?
For some students, private instruction may offer the only viable solution. But for others, Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall” experiment may have found the answer. And that might simply be talking to the person next to you.
Education at Every Age: The Broad Applicability of Online Learning
Online learning is becoming more ubiquitous in today’s increasingly tech-savvy society. As this platform becomes more sophisticated and more tailored to the user’s needs, different applications for a virtual learning environment have started to appear. Here are just a few ways that online learning is being used today.
Elite Private Colleges
While an online college education is nothing new, the presence of top-tier universities in the realm of digital learning is something that has only recently been introduced. MIT offered its first free online course this past spring and other prestigious universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have begun to do the same. These online courses have provided students with access to some of the world’s best professors directly from their home.
What is interesting to note is that these classes do not offer any college credit but they have nonetheless found a large following online, creating an environment centered around learning that is free from the constraints and incentives of the education system. However, some professors fear that online classes will begin to supplant the traditional university experience, a community of students and academics that cannot be replicated online. “It's going to transform the work of professors,” said William Tierney, a professor at the University of Southern California, in an interview with Yahoo! in August 2012. “I don’t think you can just dismiss this.”
At the Vallejo City United School District Adult School in California, online learning has given its students the chance to get back on track. The implementation of an online learning platform allowed the district to help its students recover 900 high school credits, helping them graduate or refocus their efforts to earn their degree. The number of classes recovered this year represents a 25% increase over last year and has given the school district an effective way to keep at-risk students on pace to graduate, despite a serious lack of resources. Online learning has been particularly effective because of its ability to tailor a course to a particular student’s needs, reducing and maximizing study time.
K-12 School System
Some schools have chosen to introduce online learning at a much younger age. KIPP Empower Academy in Los Angeles is one example the use of online learning at an elementary school level. Before introducing a blended learning program, using online learning and classroom learning together, 36 percent of the KIPP Empower Academy’s kindergartners were reading at a proficient or advanced level. The number went up to 96 percent after the implementation of supplementary online learning.
The basic principle is that blended learning curriculums have created greater efficiency, allowing each student to work at his own pace and giving teachers the opportunity to spend their time working individually with students, rather than teaching concepts to a group of students, all of whom are learning at different rates.
Do we have any control over our own intellect?
According to a new Newsweek article, "Can you build a better brain?" there are proven activities that can enhance the brain's cognitive capacity and, in turn, enhance intelligence. But it’s not as simple as eating blueberries or doing Sudoku.
In fact, it’s a lot of hard work (aka: if you want bigger biceps, you’ve got to pump some iron).
The key is taking up new, cognitively demanding activities. These types of activities like learning a new language or how to ballroom dance, are more likely “to boost processing speed, strengthen synapses, and expand or create functional networks.”
Besides picking up a new, attention-grabbing activity, what else can we do to boost cognitive function? Well, the key is participating in activities that affect the brain itself and not just the brain’s ability to complete a certain task, such as:
• Physical exercise – Simple aerobic exercise “improves episodic memory and executive-control functions by about 20 percent.”
• Meditation – This can “increase the thickness of regions that control attention and process sensory signals from the outside world.” As a result, the brain’s mental agility and attention is enhances and the brain’s processes become more efficient.
The real key here is that there is no quick-fix path to a better brain. Doing crosswords (long claimed to increase cognitive function) will only enhance your ability to do a crossword. In fact, doing a skill we’ve become good at (like, say, a crossword) doesn’t make us smarter because we no longer have to pay much attention when completing them.
Through either professional or personal experiences, have you encountered a time when exposure to a new activity seemed to boost your energy and brain function? Do you think that simple exercise and meditation really has the power to change the structure and cognitive function of your brain?
Software to Enrich Student Learning
The article "Inflating the Software Report Card," discusses the concern of whether the trend toward online learning that we are seeing in education is actually corresponding to an improvement in student performance and learning. The article explains that many new online learning software companies are producing software that "cherry-pick[s] results and promote[s] surveys or limited case studies that lack scientific rigor.' The deepest concern is that schools will end up purchasing technology for the sake of trying to look as though they are keeping up with the technological curve instead of for the sake of promoting learning and retention for students.
This causes readers to ask the question: what is the point of funding the estimated $2.2 billion dollar classroom-based software industry if the technology is not effective in enriching student learning?
But what if the science behind learning and memory was integrated into online learning software? After over a decade of research in cognitive psychology and neurobiology, amplifire was created as the most scientifically rigorous software that aimed at not just simply putting classroom context into a technological format. Instead, amplifire strives to improve students' learning and long-term retention by taking advantage of the scientific understanding of how the brain stores and recalls information.
Experience the software for yourself: take our sample course.