Vygotsky, programming, computer gaming and fulfilling our potential

I had a fascinating discussion with Alasdair Blackwell from Decoded today about the kind of pedagogy that might ground his innovative approach to teaching coding. This conversation allowed me to indulge myself in talking about the work of Lev Vygotsky, a man who lived in Russia at the start fo the 20th century and from whom we can still learn a lot. So, what could his work have to say that could be relevant to ICT, Computer Science and the emerging technologies of today on games consoles, smart phones, ipads etc.? Quite a lot actually…

One of the key things Vygotsky’s work promoted is the idea that we should be more interested in a learner’s potential for future growth and achievement than we should be in their current ability to achieve, as measured, for example through many forms of assessment. We should be more interested in this potential because it is a greater predictor of a learner’s ability to develop further in the future and because we can help learners to do better by focusing upon this potential.

But how can we focus on this potential? We can do this by offering learners assistance so that we can see how much they can achieve with this assistance. The more learners  achieve with assistance, the greater their potential for the future. The idea is that as the assistance is removed, the learner moves on to the next challenge. So what has this got to do with emerging technologies?

Well, consider the types of popular application that offer an adaptive learning experience, for example Manga High if these adaptive ‘engines’ were powered by data bout how well their users had dealt with challenges beyond their current ability and how well they had taken best advantage of any hints, tips and assistance available to them, then they would be better predictors of a learner’s potential and they may also be even better at extending learners to build on their current understanding and progress to a greater extent. The idea that being given assistance to achieve is important for learning and development must of course be tempered with the knowledge that this assistance must be sensitively faded so that the learner can do it alone and then move onto the next challenge when the help and assistance must be ramped up. This idea of offering and withdrawing assistance in a manner that is suited to a learner’s needs is what top teachers achieve and it is what emerging technology can also enable. This is applicable not just to games and adaptive system like, but also to technologies that support collaborative learning, such as (add links). These technologies are great for young learners who find them deeply motivating, but left to their own devices learning for most young people is unlikely to move beyond the relatively pedestrian social activities that are fun, but that don’t stretch them to fulfill their potential. Of course, with the help of a teacher or a friend who knows a bit more they can achieve a great deal more, using the technologies that they already own and use. (see the evidence for this in these papers). What does this mean in practical terms for people who are using or designing technologies and applications? It means that learners need to be constantly challenged to achieve things beyond their own individual ability and then given some assistance to help them achieve success. This assistance might come in the form of hints and tips and feedback built into the activity or application, or it might come from other learners, teachers, parents friends, whatever the sources of the help, the important thing is that it is gradually and sensitively removed, so that the learner develops to their full potential. games that challenge you to take on the next level of difficulty and allow you to take advantage of hints and tips to be successful. If these games measured the efficiency with which their players used those hints and tips to achieve success they could tailor the levels of difficulty the user is challenged to take on in order to maximise the extension of their learning potential. and then extent to which users in the potential of a learner to achieve something that challenges them than we should be in their ability to achieve something on their own.

Let’s talk about what the research says: Industry, Academia, Learning: 7 days to go

Vanessa Pittard DfE, Richard Noss TEL Research Programme Director, BESA, Intellect, ALT, and Demos about research inspired technology enhanced learning to tackle challenges from teenagers’ energy consumption to social communication in a multimodal virtual environment for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorders. What the research says event at LKL now has a waiting list for places! Clearly people do want to talk.

Speak to Me

Understanding you, Understanding me: is this the best we can do?

The wide-spread ownership of sophisticated computing devices such as smart phones and ipads allows mass access to social media, augmented reality and 3D virtual world applications. BUT are we making the most of these technologies to help learners communicate using all their senses? These technologies make it technically possible for people to share information about themselves and their contexts using multiple media and multi-sensory communication. This ought to mean that learners who may struggle with traditional text and image can explore new ways to express themselves. New ways to communicate what they do and don’t understand and new ways to allow others to understand more about their particular context and perspective.

One of the essential ingredients for effective learning  where a more knowledgeable person, such as a teacher, is helping a less knowledgeable person (or people) to learn something is that both of them share some common understanding of what the less knowledgable person currently understands. The technical possibilities for multi modal communication offered by emerging technologies should provide new ways for people to share their understanding and misunderstanding and to communicate important aspects of their personal context that may help teachers, parents, and friends to  provide more effective support. But are we making enough of this potential?

I suspect we are not. To tackle challenges such as, developing a clearer understanding of how we make the most of such communication possibilities requires research rigour and energy. To develop technologies and applications that make these new formats for communication and interaction easier and effective we need industrial enterprise and innovation. To understand the needs of learners and teachers, we need to bring them into the research and design process. Most importantly of all, to improve learners’ experiences we will need research, industry, practitioners and learners to work in harmony, and that is hard to orchestrate.

More relevant than ever…Information plenty, but knowledge famine: are we succumbing to an illusion?

I am curious about knowledge, not in philosophical sense, but in a practical one. I worry about what it means to know something in a world that is increasingly complex, ill defined and interconnected: a world that demands that we develop, and that we ensure that our children develop, the knowledge capacity to solve the problems it manifests and those that we create.

The first recollections that I have of my own curiosity about knowledge date back to 1966 when I was eight years old and growing up in Manfred Mann’s semi-detached suburbia: dad, mum, older brother and me. My father was an aircraft engineer and my mother taught typing and shorthand to women whose working lives were about to be dramatically changed by the word processing power of the digital computer. My brother was 3 years older than me, and his lack of interest in formal education was causing my parents some concern. Their reaction was to invest in ‘knowledge books’, or at least that’s how they saw the children’s book of knowledge and the encyclopedia that now filled up the bureau bookshelf. To keep us up to date, there was also the weekly general knowledge magazine that plopped on the doormat with a reassuring thud: the weight of its knowledge there for all to hear.

I suspect that my parent’s reaction to their son’s educational malaise was not an unusual one amongst the aspiring middle class families of our neighbourhood. My brother’s reaction to the new literary arrivals was cool; he was far more concerned with exploring the world of the woodland around our housing estate, than with sitting at home and reading about it. My father however, became quite addicted to the weekly general knowledge magazine. He did not have a great deal of time to read, but each evening when he went to bed he would sit in his paisley pyjamas and thumb through the pages. The stock of copies soon grew on the nightstand as his pace of reading failed to match the frequency of their arrival. The corners became slightly curled as the months and years passed and the dust gathered in and around the pile that now extended from the nightstand to the floor. His interest never waned and I do believe there were a pile of old issues by his bedside when he died many years later.

Forty years on and it’s a sunny day and I’m walking along the Euston Road in London. I pass the entrance to the British Library and a sign catches my eye, the sign says: “Step inside – Knowledge freely available”. I dislike the suggestion that one can walk into the British Library and just pick up some knowledge like going into Tesco and buying some bananas. I can relatively quickly formulate an explanation for myself about why the sign irritates me, because I have a clear idea about what I believe knowledge to be. I have moved on from the conception of knowledge loved by my father and represented by the pages of his books and articles. I know that I have to construct knowledge from the evidence available to me, that it is not handed to me by others, though they can certainly help me along the way, and that I can aspire to continually increase my knowledge by weaving together the information resources distributed throughout my world.

This is not the case for many of the youngsters who attend our schools and colleges. For them knowledge is still to be found in the dusty concepts in the out of date magazines on my father’s nightstand or on the shelves of a library they never visit.

“But what of the internet and world wide web?” I hear you wonder. These technological masterpieces offer information resources wherever we are and whenever we need them. These must surely pave the way for us to become more knowledgeable, both personally and as a human community?

The sheer abundance of this information has thrown into sharp relief our understanding of the relationship between information and knowledge. It makes my modest collection of childhood encyclopedias and my father’s overflowing magazine collection look like a speck of dust on the library shelf. I fear however that our understanding of what knowledge is and what it means to know something has not progressed in tandem with this technological progress. This puts us at risk of succumbing to the illusion that we know more than we actually do, because the more information we have the more we become certain that we know something.

Without helping young people to develop an understanding of what knowledge is in a digital age they cannot progress beyond the well meaning, but limited conception of knowledge promoted by the books and magazines that appealed to my parents. Those of us who understand what we mean by knowledge can indulge ourselves, as my father did with his magazines. But, without actively engaging people in the excitement of connecting the knowledge construction process to their own particular context, we merely encourage them to pass the opportunity by in the same way as my brother did all those years ago.

In a time of information plenty we are at risk of a knowledge famine.

I wrote thsi piece originally for  Learning to Live – Creativity, Money and Love