Students do better when we focus on how they take in facts and turn them into wisdom, say Barbara Gorayska and Chris Lonsdale
Students, looking slightly bored and hassled, file into a lecture theatre. Something is wrong. They are unable to go to their accustomed seats at the back because they have been painted. At least that is what the signs say. So they go to the front. The latecomers are not so lucky. They have to decide which is correct, their own sense of touch or the "Wet Paint" signs.
A cheap prank? Or a subtle and powerful way to help somebody fully understand, and reflect on, the power of symbols?
We see it as a simple experience in a box full of possibilities to help students discover their learning potential and gear up for the changing world of work. Employers now look for more than technical skills. They increasingly place value on intangibles such as courage, creativity, imagination, feeling, passion, enthusiasm, vision and even ethics. Competitive advantage lies in people who can be flexible, continuously thinking up new solutions and new questions that require solutions.
The tradition of lecturing to students, who store knowledge for later retrieval and application, is out of date. Education needs a rethink if it is to provide real value. Luckily, an understanding of how the brain works has run parallel to technological innovation.
Learning is natural. You cannot prevent people from doing it. We know that a rich sensory environment is better for learning than a sensorily-deprived one. We know about motivation and the importance of removing the fear that can block learning.
We have taken the best elements of leading-edge instructional methodologies, including accelerated, neuro-linguistic programming, problem-based and experiential learning and others, and built on them to develop "integron" methodology.
The City University of Hong Kong sponsored a pilot integron project to teach a course in human/computer interface (HCI) design. The result was that most students not only mastered the material fast, but were more imaginative, creative and, in some cases, passionate about what they were learning. In the words of one student: "(the facilitators) have my eternal thanks for expanding my views and teaching me to learn and teach".
But what is an integron? The word was coined following our realisation that humans do not process information sequentially but on multiple levels, in parallel, through many different sensory channels. The brain actively organises the data of experience to create knowledge and wisdom.
A person's understanding of the world can be viewed as a landscape, with peaks and gulleys, and features in between. Once you know the reference points, you can find your way around. These "topographical points" consist of beliefs, facts, experiences, emotions, skills, conceptual knowledge and abstractions.
In real life, people become aware of their gaps and fill them in. This is where the integron comes in. An integron is a process of experiences, activities and communications that creates insights. These help to channel thinking in a way that recreates the "topographical points" of a discipline within the learner.
Each integron element in a course is an interactive "packet" that contains raw data and various experiences that can spark a learner into making connections and asking new questions. A whole course, and every element of a course, can be structured as an integron.
Think of learning from the learner's point of view. You come to a lecture theatre ready to listen, only to be told that you now have to sit the first exam. You, and others, are off balance.
As expected, almost everyone fails, with the positive result that everyone has a baseline by which to judge their own improvement. Motivation is now high. A basic principle in learning has been met - first get people's attention.
As one student said after this experience in the HCI design course, he had thought he was quite accomplished in the area and could not accept that he had done so badly until he found out why.
Key elements of the method may seem obvious. For one thing, there are no "teachers". Individuals responsible for developing and running a course are learning facilitators. Everyone is seen as a learner and everything that happens in the course is used as data to generate insights and understanding.
In the HCI course, students had to develop skits describing the process of human cultural evolution, which forces thinking about the nature of tools; they had to do a magazine paste-up of articles on design metaphors, thereby learning about metaphors as they explored the process of manually doing a task; they had to observe the impact of different teaching styles as if these were interfaces. They had to keep diaries of observations and insights attained during everyday activities.
Much of what is important is learned at the level of the unsaid and the presupposed. More questions are posed than answered. The way an activity is structured simply leads learners to think in a new direction and individually to explore the implications of that shift. "Once the professor planted the idea in my head that 'everything communicates' and I accepted and agreed with the notion, it would only be a matter of time before I began to perceive more in my everyday life," one course participant said.
There are other important mind shifts: the power of language and the way that it can direct attention; the emotional states and beliefs of learners are addressed directly. The learning context, including decorations, music and seating, is part of the learning design, as is the way that students are measured and rewarded. The focus of effort is no longer placed on content, but rather on the process by which a human assimilates information and turns this into knowledge and wisdom.
When this is done well, content is learned easily, and just as easily turned into individual wisdom.
Barbara Gorayska is associate professor at the City University of Hong Kong. Chris Lonsdale is a
director of Chris Lonsdale & Associates. For more