Monday, October 12, 2015

Thoughts on learning

I am using the app/online program (I use the online version, being an unreconstructed dumbphone user) called Duolingo to try to teach myself a bit more German.

Late last week, when I logged on, I noticed things had changed slightly - more lessons had been added to some of the lower-level stuff I'd already completed, there were some more sections added. And I thought, "Oh. They must have decided that this was would work better, or there are things they weren't teaching before."

(And yes. there are more animal names in the "Animals" section, and they started covering the verb fressen, which is used for how an animal eats. The ONLY German proverb I knew before undertaking this was one that came down from the German side of my family: Essen, essen, nicht fressen, which best translates as "Eat like a person, not like an animal!" (You can imagine that comes in handy in families with children in the process of being civilized into table manners).

Anyway, my reaction to the change was neutral to positive - no big deal to "cool, new stuff to learn."

Then I went onto the site's discussion board to see if the people running it had some detail and if there were more things to be added in the future.

And I was struck to see that at least a few learners were UPSET by the change. Because it meant they "lost their owls!" (I guess once you hit a certain point, you get a little cartoon owl or something?) And that they had to go back and "regild!" (The icons pertaining to a set of lessons turns a goldish color when you have completed them).

And two things struck me:

1. Wow, those people have really bought into the gamification of this, to the point where they're not seeing "Maybe they did this as an improvement so I learn more" and

2. People are paying attention to the wrong things here.

(And one other that struck me: wow, there's a whole argot surrounding all the gamification. Wow, that's almost a little cargo-culty)

And while on some level I knew about #2 - otherwise, I wouldn't have to make forms A, B, and sometimes C of exams, or check papers for plagiarism. A certain subset of students have forgotten - or never really believed/understood that a grade is a STAND-IN for how much you have learned; it is representative of the degree to which you mastered the material and is not important for any other reason. (I have had students come in to classes with enough of the material mastered already they pretty much had a lock on an A as long as they didn't goof off; there were others who had to work very hard to get their mastery up to a C).

But the way the world works, the grade - the piece of paper - the certification has become what is important, and people forget about the learning that underlies it. And of course, that encourages people playing games (honestly or dishonestly) to try to maximize their grades without doing the work that should actually be required to earn them. So I have things like plagiarists. And when I call them on it, they present me with a couple different scenarios:

1. "I didn't KNOW THAT counted as plagiarism, that's how other teachers told me to do it." (Oh, pull the other one, it's got bells on. I do a minilecture every time I make a paper assignment about what is and is not correct citation, and I provide references people can look up. And when I gently confronted the 'other teachers,' they insisted that they didn't tell the student that.)

2. "I got too busy to do it and figured you wouldn't check." I generally give assignments, even for 3-5 page papers, a month in advance. The idea is to have good time management and start on it as soon as you have time. And I'm busy too, but I MAKE time to check, because really, that's part of my job: not unleashing people on the work-world who think it's perfectly okay to cut and paste something without attribution because it's Wikipedia.

3. "This is a BS assignment and why should I put in any effort." I almost never hear that one, though, because I do strive to make the assignments relevant (E.g.: you have been told by your boss that you need to set up a lab for a specific purpose, what equipment would you need, why, how would you outfit the lab, what specific tests would you do, what is the budget you need. I give the students leeway on who their "boss" could be - a principal or superintendent, a park supervisor, a PI, a lab director, even the guy running the local golf course. Or they can be an "independent contractor" and set up their lab as a small business....)

And anyway: any writing assignment gives one a chance to hone their writing, and, ideally, in the sciences, their research skills.

But yeah. I think one of the problems education faces - maybe has faced for very long - is that people don't see its value and they see the grade or the diploma as being the valuable thing, rather than being (as I said) representative of the fact that the student SHOULD HAVE mastered a certain level of work.

And I don't know if we change that and how we change it. I wish I did. It's a motivation issue, partly, but I wonder if it's also partly an issue of us being so divorced from things we actually *do* a lot of the time....I've mentioned before how I take a certain pride in being good at plant identification; this was knowledge gained over years of hard work and while I may not use it every day of my life, I use it regularly enough that it's important I have it. And I admit, with some of my classes, when I get them out in the field and they start being able to identify the stuff they've seen before, I do see a little of that old magic of learning - the, "Wow, I can actually DO this!" I wonder if all the layers of junk that happen in the older grades of grade school destroy some of the joy of learning that little kids have....I've seen little kids learning to read or learning their numbers and it does seem like it's magic to them. And I wish we could recapture that for the older students.

And that's maybe why gamification irritates a lot of slightly older educators (like me) but seems to be seen as the wave of the future for education: "earn virtual badges!" "level up!" "get some kind of currency-of-the-realm that you can only spend on essentially valueless virtual things at our virtual store!" "complete this exercise and you get to watch a cartoon of a dancing duck!" It has nothing to do with the actual learning, and chasing after badges or lingots or whatever becomes the goal, not, "Do I genuinely understand noun declensions in German?" (I don't, yet. I have a really hard time with that and constantly use the wrong articles.)

(I have a ton of those lingot things and once I "bought" the "supplemental" lessons, there wasn't really anything else I wanted to spend them they pile up.)

I dunno. I think learning should be exciting in and of itself. While it's not exactly what separates us from the animals (even roundworms can "learn" if you apply enough electric shocks to them), learning for the SAKE of learning maybe does. (I say maybe, because it's not entirely impossible that crows or elephants might learn for learning's sake....). Dogs learn mainly for their master's approval or for the treats provided, for example. And I see all the stinkin' badges and dancing ducks as being kind of like that little piece of raw liver.....

1 comment:

Dyddgu said...

I'm reminded of when OH worked on one of those crowd-sourcing programs, like SETI-at-home, which used computers' idle time to run enormous data - on climate change, in this case. And my goodness, they spend *so much time* trying to placate users who were cross that they didn't get the right number of "points" for their data-running, for whatever reason (like I remember one time when there was a catastrophic data crash, and everything got zeroes, you would have thought that the team had gone and killed everyone's kittens, I swear.) Ugh. I like some amount of 'gamification' to measure progress and such, but really, it's not the be all and end all, surely?!