All entries for Friday 11 November 2005

November 11, 2005

Research Notes: switching between cognitive and behavioural/affective attention

Writing about web page

Acquiring IT skills often involves mastering detailled but prgrammatic patterns of behaviour concurrently with understanding theoretical and non-visually-presentable models. What can the experience of teaching such a subject tell us about extended cognition?

I have been reading What teachers know the final report of the project Attention and the knowledge bases of expertise (Michael Luntley and Janet Ainley). So far it has proved to be quite thought provoking, both in terms of philosophy and also in direct pedagogical implications. The aim of the project (broadly) is to examine the conjecture that the expert knowledge of the teacher goes much further than what is commonly and easily represented in a lesson plan. In fact, as I think they demonstrate, the most significant expert knowledge involves the teachers understanding of patterns of attentional activity amongst the students and themselves.

Teaching is, as I recognize from my own experience, about engaging with and guiding the attentional activity of the students in discovery, skills practice and moving towards independence. My recent work with concept mapping techniques, in which a map is used to focus and guide attention towards insight and discovery, has given demonstration of this.

There is, however, one assumption in the methodology of the project that is philosophically controversial, thought provoking, and significant. That is the disctinction used between cognitive tasks and behavioural/affective tasks. The challenge to this comes from Andy Clark's extended cognition thesis. The nature of the challenge is a concerted effort by Clark to show that many practical activities, and the tools that they use, are in fact inseperable from and definitively part of cognitive activities. The relationship between mind and world is porous. The case of IT teaching would support this. The process of carrying out an algorithm on a computer, physically operating the interface, is a classic case of thinking through a non-brain-contained activity. It could also be said to have an affective component (this is more contentious).

The teaching observations and subsequent interviews carried out as part of the research noted one very significant, and to me familiar, case where the difference between the cognitive and the behavioural/affective has to be considered. Most teachers recognize this situation:

  • a class is working on a physical ativity, requiring the playing out of a set of behaviours;
  • the teacher wants the class to abstract out of that activity a concept (or model) that summarizes, extends, makes generic, or contextualises the activity;
  • the teacher must somehow shift the attention of the students from the physical activity to conceptual thought.

You will often hear me signposting this in a lesson: "we now need to focus on the following concepts which you should think and use during the practical activity". That's fine when I'm teaching adults, but with children it is much more difficult.

This is interesting because it indicated that there are two different forms of activity, and teachers must understand the relationship between them. The challenge back to Clark is: does this experience mark out a separation of the physical and the cognitive? I would say that there is a clear difference between these two modes of learning, but it is not a physical/cognitive distinction. As evidence, consider the use of physical tools in the understanding of a concept or model – the classic example being a concept map shown by the teacher at the point of teaching the concept.

The really significant issue is: what are the differences that mark out the two modes of learning. From experience I would say that there is a difference. This difference, I argue, marks out the separation of behavioural and conceptual. I suspect that considering this distinction more fully would give a better understanding of attention, insight, learning etc. So then, what is a concept?

Note that I don't think that this in any way undermines the argument about attention. In fact it may add weight and subtlety to it. Teachers should certainly be aware of the grey areas between the physical and the mental, as that may be where most learning actually happens. A big question for every teacher is: how does a physical embedded activity become an independent concept?

If you are interested in this entry, then please contact me

Teaching Techniques: concept maps developing critical and investigative skills in presentations

Follow-up to Session Report: Introduction to concept mapping for PhD and staff from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

How do students think they are assessed for their seminar presentations and essays? Do some of them have a simplistic "check-list" attitude to writing? Do they aim to simply ensure that they have all of the facts and topics on the check-list covered? Is this necessarily counter to the development and demonstration of critical investigative skills and discursive argumentative presentation and writing? Can the concept mapping techniques that I discussed in my recent Graduate Skills Programme session help to overcome this problem?

I just overheard a discussion that some undergraduates were having. They were planning a seminar presentation. The discussion seemed to consist of:

  1. guessing what topics the tutor would expect them to cover;
  2. analysing the available information (text books) to identify which of the topics they could cover;
  3. identifying facts for some of the topics that would justify their claims to coverage.

If this were the sole scope of the resulting presentation, they would certainly not justify a claim to honours degree level performance, or even undergraduate certificate performance (see the QQA descriptors for details of what that means). But I guess (hope) that this actually represents just the first stage of the process, in which the students assure themselves of some self-confidence in the subject domain by getting a sense that they have at least a minimal degree of coverage. However, I have observed many undergraduate seminars in which the students have come prepared only with a check-list of facts, and the tutor has subsequently had to drag investigative and critical thought out of them.

Note that my argument is not that this kind of activity is wrong for undergraduates, but rather that it only represents a small aspect of what they should be doing. And more significantly, it is the aspect of the process that they focus upon. My guess is that this is the case because it gives them confidence in preparation for the presentation. A check-list of topics and facts is simply more tangible and less subject to challenge than "a critical and investigative processes".

This is where I think technology can make a significant contribution. If we could identify ways of making the critical and investigative process more concrete, more controlled for the student in the presentation, then we might be able to give them more confidence. Of course they may still lack confidence in the arguments that they produce, but we should expect that a more concrete representation of the arguments (in relation to the underlying knowledge base) has the benefit of making it easy to rehearse the investigative and critical discourse.

And that is exactly what is offered by some of the concept mapping techniques that I described.

A concept map is a simple and efficient way of recording facts and ideas. Each node in a map refers to a fact or idea, which may be documented elsewhere (to which the node can be linked), or which may exist in the memory of the map author[s]. Nodes are linked and arranged in some kind of order. This order may represent an assumed order of things in the world, or it may represent the order in which they can be investigated and understood (philosophically these amount to the same thing). Thus in creating and using a concept map, critical and investigative issues are automatically raised. Of course it is still possible to naively build a map as a simple check-list. However, in transferring from the map (non-sequential) to a presentation (sequential to a great extent), questions are raised:

  • where do I start?
  • does the audience need a high level overview?
  • does the audience need to connect with their own detailed and specific perspective?
  • what path do I follow?
  • which nodes are most important?
  • what are the possible links?
  • where are the gaps?
  • what detail is required?
  • at what points should I consider making the path contingent?
  • how will I modify the map as it is used?

The available technologies, such as the FreeMind and MindManager applications, have features that support and indeed encourage this behaviour. There are also well developed presentation and writing techniques that take advantage of these features to create presentations that are both investigative/critical and to a great extent predictable and confident.

I'm going to investigate this further, and am looking for opportunities to use these techniques with students.

Any volunteers? If so then contact me