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Cognitive Development of Twentysomethings

I remember being told as an undergraduate student by Prof Peter Metcalf that that one’s choice of major didn’t really matter, and that we could reassure our parents that there would be plenty of middle-management positions waiting for us down the road. Many, if not most, people do not work in the same field as what they studied as an undergrad, he said. I was thus reassured with my choice to give up engineering in favor of cultural anthropology. I’m sure he was right about the second part. I’m still waiting to see about the first.

On another occasion, my advisor, Prof Adria LaViollete, seeing that I wanted to pile on more courses within my major, said that specialization should be saved for grad school.  Undergrad was the time for exploration, not specialization. (I ignored her advice and now regret it.) Either way, grad school can come years after the bachelors degree and subsequent formative work experiences. I did take that advice. I’ll never really know if I could have made better decision, but a recent NIH study suggests that a final period of brain development is occurring in people’s twenties. This is worth considering in an era where 1) young people are pushed to make decisions about how they will earn a living and 2) most people will have multiple careers in different fields because of a more dynamic/chaotic job market.



Classrealm is an idea for a learning management system (LMS) unlike any I have seen. It’s a struggling idea (failed its kickstart fundraiser), but worth thinking about.  The LMS itself will be nothing new. But layered over the LMS nuts and bolts will be a Tolkienesque fantasy world. Students have a hero persona that advances a la video game style as the student completes assignments. The fantasy component is meant to motivate students to learn the standard state/local curriculum. Gamification, as Classrealm’s creator suggests, is a way to motivate students to complete otherwise unappealing tasks.

My take is that Classrealm is more of a different way of grading than a different way of learning. Instead of a grade point average, you have a hero persona with health a la a video game. Assignments are linked to quests and so on. My first impression is that Classrealm will only function as a crutch to help a curriculum that students do not find interesting. Nevertheless, it may very well find success in reaching students who would otherwise fall behind their classmates.

I see great potential in using games for learning and development in every part of society, but they have to be designed from the ground up. I think that the real sea change in using games to teach will occur when professional game designers with a serious budget (think Sony or Nintendo) are presented with the task of creating games to teach the content.

Differentiation! An agreement with David Brooks op/ed

In a recent op/ed in the NY Times, David Brooks’ makes a claim that schools are failing to provide ways for rowdy, competitive boys to find success in school. Brooks’ claim is that many typical behaviors are not supported by the environment. As a result, this subset of boys must either change or fail out of school, he says. He cites falling numbers of high school and college graduation as evidence that many are failing out.

I agree with Brooks. I think his point is supported by the cry for differentiation that has been echoing for decades. Differentiation theory calls for multiple paths to success. Paths can still be rigorous but they need to be available. And I think that schools are too often structured in the wrong ways and not structured enough in the right ways.

Wrong structures, in my opinion, are those that suppress behaviors that are, according to psychologists, both developmentally normal and necessary for adulthood. This includes setting ones’ own schedule and choosing ones’ own tasks (see executive function). Typically, I would argue, the teacher is setting schedules and choosing tasks. Executive function, according to psychologists, develops from preK through high school and into the 20s (see auto insurance rates for men under 25 and their deficient ability to assess risk as a group is apparent). Schools may either help or hinder this development in each of the many types of students present in each classroom. I think the rigid schedules and task lists inhibit development of executive function in students who have a strong impulse to set their own agendas.

Another wrong structure is the tragic application of only 1/3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the most widely applied theories on learning in the K12 world. I challenge anyone to find a school in the U.S. where the teachers have not heard of it. Benjamin Bloom (1956) said there are three parts to the mind and how it learns: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Schools typically focus only on the cognitive functions while affective and psychomotor domains are ignored. Sure, there’s PE class and sometimes teacher’s ask, “What’s wrong?”, but affect and motor development are taken for granted. Arguments we find for applying only 1/3 are just a sad defense of the state of society and not a defense of what children need to develop into whole adults.

So if the development of executive function and affect are largely ignored by schools, what should change?

I think a right way to structure schools is to diversify the setting such that rowdy movement, impulse, and friendly competition (some of the traits Brooks’ argues are inhibited) are a viable path to success in school. I will add that the quiet, nervous boys should also have a way to succeed. I think the boys who like collaboration should be allowed to succeed. It’s not that the current environment is wrong, it’s just too narrow. I think Brook’s would agree here.

Before you think I mean to say that all behaviors emerging from developing boys be encouraged, I do not say that. Schools do need rules. A school cannot be chaotic. I do not propose that kids do whatever they please. There must be structure. But I do think there should be room, often literally, for children to run and explore and build, to define problems, to formulate solutions, and then to follow through to completion. As children grow into young adults, these activities should increase in sophistication.

So what would be an example of what I am talking about? Schools need to facilitate solving the types of problems which students would like to solve. For upper elementary grades with classes of 11-15 students, schools might add the following options: building a wooden fort and the accompanying applied geometry called carpentry. Damming a stream (one of my favorite childhood activities) in order to learn about watersheds, materials technology, and even some basic physics if a teacher is there to explain it.  Having student run competing newspapers that cover school events and select news from mainstream papers. Having students run competitive gaming leagues of whatever type they like DURING school hours. Brooks mentions learning to deal with both wins and losses. Schools should provide these opportunities. Failure is just as valuable a learning tool as success. However, the failures that are a part of the learning process should not be defined as academic failures. Similarly, the characteristics that emerge from a subset of healthy children should also not mean academic failure. Remember that boys have been boys for tens of thousands of years, while compulsory schooling has only been around for about a hundred. We’re still working out the kinks when it comes to formal education.

Training at Artomatic 2012

Artomatic 2012 officially closed yesterday.  If you don’t know already, Artomatic is an occasional DC metro event wherein a massive amount of art is rapidly installed and deinstalled into an otherwise vacant building. I had the opportunity to work there as a site manager, which meant I was onsite nearly every day of the event. I worked alongside gallery managers every day and was helped by a fabulous leadership team behind the scenes. This year it was held in an 11- story building in Crystal City. The show was open for five weeks in May and June. Before opening, we built three bars, dozens of tables, five performance stages with light and sound, and facilitated 1000+ visual art installations. On the weekends, we had 5000 to 8000 people come through. This means several thousand people in the building at any given moment. Total attendance was close to 80,000 people in five weeks.

Another opportunity disguised as a disaster.

The 1200+ participating artists provided all the labor for the event, each artist generally performing three five-hour shifts. Training was an ongoing, everyday task. Some days I was the only person in the building familiar with any of our operating procedures. Every day from Wed to Sun, two or three shifts of about 20-45 artists arrived for their mandatory volunteer shifts. I was not delivering planned, structured training. I was verbally explaining tasks that the learner would have to immediately implement. I usually had less than a minute to debrief a volunteer on their duties before leaving them at their station. I was constantly floating to monitor task performance throughout a 380,000 square foot building. This was a very short, very real-time training cycle!

Defining the Essential: What was important versus not important?

Rapidly assessing my learners and knowing what to communicate to them was essential. Moreover, I was training adults, many of whom were older than I am. I worked in schools for four years. I’ve worked with other adults for 12 years. However, I have never been in the position of telling adults exactly what they needed to be doing at every moment for five hours.  I have trouble imagining a more intensive introduction to training adults. I tried to apply what I know about Adult Learning Theory to my task. I had to know if this volunteer needed to know how his task was important to the overall functioning of Artomatic that day, or this person could perform without that knowledge. I had to know what problems they might encounter (or create!) and adequately explain the solutions. When I failed to do any part of this, the “cogs” did not work well together. Volunteers became flustered, visitors perturbed. When I succeeded, volunteers were able to perform their tasks and visitors’ experience was pleasant.

Previously, I have done volunteer work such as disaster relief on the Gulf Coast and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. But I have never participated on such a people-intensive event as Artomatic. Definitely a transformative experience in my life. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Simulated Field Experiences

Getting out of the classroom is almost always a relief for students. Teachers typically enjoy it as well, albeit less so if the students are coming along. I’m kidding! I always loved field trips with students. I do recall that the administrative burden was irritating and legal burden of leaving school grounds with students was worrisome.  Those practical considerations aside, just about any contemporary theory of learning and development will argue that field experiences should happen as often as can possibly be facilitated. I think this is supported by the fact that while I regret a few of my lectures or activities that bored or confounded students, I do not regret a single trip, as they all provided memorable, fun learning experiences.

Simulated field experiences can be either a second-best option or can offer good pre and post trip activities. Gigapan allows users to upload and view very large pictures. The images are so large, they allow a level of zoom that feels to the viewer like “traveling” through the image.  They are typically so detail rich, one image alone could be the topic of a lecture or an assignment. A teacher can throw with a digital projector onto big screen to support a short lecture or class discussion. An instructor could also use an image as a source material for an assignment requiring individuals or small groups to explore the images, both at a wide-angle view and in close detail.

Special cameras are used to capture many of the following images, but you may be surprised by the resolution of some older technologies. Be sure to use the zoom feature and wait for the image to clarify if you have a slower connection.

mLearning: Education on a Wireless Plan

The term mobile learning, or mLearning, refers to the use of mobile devices as part of a structured learning experience. Although learning in the field is not a new idea, using technology to asynchronously link teachers and students outside of the classroom is.  Recent mobile technologies are impacting mLearning in substantial ways.

  • map/navigation software on mobile devices
  • GPS (longitude/latitude/altitude) function of mobile devices
  • QR codes – can link a mobile user to a physical location or a location to a website viewed on mobile
  • Instant wireless upload capability of mobiles to Web 2.o tools
  • Augmented reality – by taking advantage of a mobile devices camera, accelerometer, and GPS, users can view their surroundings through their phone. Similar to the heads-up displays in modern aircraft.
  • podcasting – an instance of “flipping” the classroom
One of the hurdles that schools face is making content relevant to students’ social and professional lives. Many bored or frustrated students ask, “Why am I learning this?” mLearning methods allows teachers to respond to this question by blurring the line between academia and experience. These methods have the potential to mix “book smart” and “street smart”. Ideally, learning and life become one holistic entity. Looking across human history, we see our “traditional” classroom as an aberration, with most learning happening in genuine contexts. mLearning allows teachers to “Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war [or lore!]”.
I have an exhibit in Artomatic 2012 that demonstrates a few simple instances of how QR codes can be used for mLearning. It’s an unusual venue to present a topic in education but a very good location for mLearning experiences.  The QR codes link to materials that support different types of mobile learning experiences. Viewable on the ninth floor, my space is on north side past the double glass doors.  (Spoiler: The answer to question 2 in my exhibit is “The type of rock in the lobby is granite. The lighter color is caused by the predominance of orthoclase feldspar and quartz. The key is finding the rock that is a mix of several minerals as shown in the table, one of which looks like the orthoclase feldspar in the image”.)
Another example of mLearning could be a Facebook group created for a Spanish class. Students would turn the language setting on their Facebook accounts to Spanish and leave it there for the year. Homework assignments could be given through Facebook each week. Students would upload topical photos or videos and caption them in Spanish. Other students could also respond in Spanish. Learning experiences should be  relevant to students’ lives and mLearning is one way to facilitate this.
A third example is this Google Map of Presidential Memorials. High school or college students could use this as a basis for a walking tour. A teacher could provide writing or talking prompts to which students could respond by uploading captioned photos to Picasa or videos to Youtube. Took me about ten minutes to make and will give students a two-hour field experience to be completed at their convenience.

Stereotype Threat

Reactivity is a phenomenon that occurs when a subject’s performance changes because he knows his performance is being evaluated. As an educator, I am interested in the effect of reactivity on standardized test performance. In particular, my interest centers on the effect this may have on the persisting difference in test scores between between white and black students in America. Evidence suggests that a particular type of reactivity called stereotype threat may be a contributing factor.

Professor Jeff Stone, a social psychologist at the  University of Arizona, studies stereotype threat. In one experiment, three groups made a series of identical golf puts. But each group was told a different characteristic was being measured: Group 1 was told “sports psycology”; group 2 was told the round would measure “natural athletic ability”; group 3 was told “sports intelligence”. The researchers were not measuring these characteristics. They were looking for correlations between race of the subject, common racial stereotypes, and effects on the subject’s performance. The researchers found the following: being told what was being measured had a statistically significant effect on performance.

  • Group 1: control group. The term “sports psychology” was chosen because it had no bearing on stereotypes. No measured effect on performance between white and blacks subjects.
  • Group 2: “natural athletic ability”. Black subjects’ performance was measurably than white subjects.
  • Group 3: “sports intelligence”. White subjects’ performance was measurably better than black subjects.

The data showed a correlation between a subject’s race, stereotype of that race, and performance when the subject believed stereotyped characteristic was being tested for. In other words, individual performance on this test regardless of actual ability, improved or declined based on racial stereotype, even if it was a negative result. Many other studies reach similar conclusions.

Despite the strong possibility that stereotype threat is affecting childrens’ test scores in every state, lawmakers and administrators use standardized tests to make decisions every day. Decisions that affect children’s beliefs about themselves, about school funding, and applying to college. White/black race relations are inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture and history. As Roger Wilkins said to me in 2001 after a talk he gave at NVCC, “The problem is 400 years old. Is 40 years [referring to civil rights movement] enough to fix it”? So while we may not have a short-term solution to the achievement gap, we shouldn’t exacerbate it by making decisions based on invalid test results.