Thursday, March 1, 2012

Panpedia, Pedometrics and the Golden Cauldron

Panpedia (universal learning) is a theory that proposes learning should be available to all across national boundaries and it should be available in a format suited to learning styles and conditions, i.e. in a variety of formats and available on a variety of platforms.
Current learning is much more restrictive.  Classes are taught and the learner has little control over the pace, the content or the format in which the materials are presented.  Many governments prescribe levels pupils are expected to achieve by a certain stage in their “education”.  This usually translates as facts or set methods that can be demonstrated in tests applied across the board to all.  That way, governments reason, there is an objective measure which can be used as a tool for control.
However, education is much more than learning.  Education needs the facts, but then puts these in context and changes the view the learner has of the world.  For example, a pupil may be able to tell you that the Battle of Hastings was fought on 14th October 1066 between the Norman, William, Duke of Normandy and the Saxon, King Harold II of England with William coming out on top to take the crown.  All of this may be true – and is useful as a basis from which to work.  But another pupil who appreciates that this battle changed the legal and social systems of this island which in turn then changed these systems around the world via its empire, is much more educated (but maybe not as learned).
The Internet has overcome most national boundaries when disseminating learning.  Some governments try to plug the dyke with varying success, but trade and travel make that awkward.  The big difficulty is language, but even that is becoming less with the rise of English as a lingua franca and automated translation.  The cost of an Internet connection is dropping and could be subsidised by wealthier nations for those less fortunate – which would allow everyone to learn.
Some people learn best when they have an overview of the area (holists) whilst others work best with the detail (serialists).  Some learners achieve more when they hear the topic (auditory), some when they see a demonstration (visual) and others when they experience it (kinaesthetic).  No matter how good the teacher, they cannot realistically accommodate every permutation of these preferred learning styles into a class.  Even if they could, grouping by learning style and then by preferred speed of learning means you need a different lesson plan for each student.  So the second theme of panpedia is that the materials should be presented in a variety of ways so that the learner can choose which works best for them – maybe with guidance.  This would have been difficult before but the Internet would make presenting materials in this way both cheap and easy.

Pedometrics is the measurement and modelling of learning. At the moment, measurement happens as broad bands such as GCSEs, A'Levels and degrees. But these measures are VERY coarse grained and have fixed boundaries. Let me tell you a story ... I was in class and outside it was snowing. One of my students quipped that it looked as if we were in for another ice age. Then someone else said that at least there was no "squirrel" running round trying to catch an acorn (you have to have seen one of the Ice Age films to understand).  However, it is not a squirrel but a plesiadapis, the type of mammal that was around at the time of the dinosaurs and would later evolve into humans.  A couple of the students were so intrigued by the idea that they then spent a while looking up the little critters to find out more.  However, the educational system does not credit them with either having the get-up-and-go to find out nor is their extra knowledge recognised.

The current system is wrong for two reasons; first, even a top grade does not mean that all the atoms on the syllabus have been acquired.  Also, a fail does not imply that no atoms have been gained.  No matter how you look at it, the system does not recognise the real quantity of learning which has taken place.

However, a more realistic measure would be if all atoms of learning were accredited.  It would then be possible to measure value added much more precisely.  Primary schools are graded by their SATS results in England.  Yet a school with a less enhancing environment might do more for its pupils than the one rated more highly in an area in which children are more likely to be stimulated.

What is needed is a mathematical basis for the theory of learning so that strategies can be developed to enhance learning and the result of these experiments can be analysed objectively.  We are calling the mathematical models of learning pedometrics and these would have to be based on atoms and not qualifications.

The Golden Cauldron
So we had a think ... and when that didn't work, we had another one. Ah, well, third time lucky; what we needed was a metaphor.

Individuals are born with a cauldron that defines their intellectual limits. This cauldron has a volume that may be deceased by external pressures or re-expanded by removing the dents, but will never exceed its original capacity.

The top of the cauldron is open so that atoms of learning can flow in from a pipe which empties into it above the centre of the cauldron. The pipe gets its flow from smaller pipes such as formal education, the family, friends and so on. However, the contents of the cauldron may also evaporate.

The atoms in a cauldron will naturally bond with similar atoms to form molecules of learning. Therefore, say, maths molecules will inter-link. However, there will also be a degree of bonding between molecules of learning. The more links are made, the greater the ability of an individual to think things through, i.e. display intelligence.

An individual may have a cauldron with lots of atoms, most of which are unlinked. This person would be learned but unintelligent. Another might have far fewer atoms, but possess the ability to link them well. That one would be intelligent but learning poor.

There are two factors which determine the amount of linking going on in the cauldron. First, innate ability - they are born with more of the wires which can be used to connect atoms and molecules. The second factor would be the access that the individual has to others who show them how to make connections. This coaching could come from family, friends or even teachers.

The downside is that poor teaching can harm the bonding process. If the educational system insists on rote learning then the bonding process does not take place. Atoms may be acquired, but intelligence is diminished. Some would be tempted to say that you shovel in as many atoms as possible and let the learner take care of the bonding. There are two problems with this; it relies on natural ability and the system will not allow time for bonding. A better system would be to maximize the bonding facility and put the atoms in later.  This would mean teaching thinking skills instead of facts - and that would have social implications too.  Imagine how a population which can empathise would function.

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