Budding Inventors at the Nitzaney Ha Mada School

By Boris Serebro

(This is a guest post, contributed by one of our parents who collaborated with us to bring the “How To Be An Inventor” program in his school. Boris, not only championed to bring this in his school, he helped translate the material, coordinated with other parents, and found ways to enhance the program! It was truly a joy working with him and we are grateful for that.)

I think most of us already know that creativity and innovation are major contributors to today’s changes in the world, but not a single one of them is taught in schools. I was looking for ways to improve and freshen up the way my children learn, in order to prepare them better for a successful career and grown-up life. I happened to stumble upon a publication about this wonderful idea of “creativity is something that can be taught”, and saw the “How To Be An Inventor” course, and it fit like a glove!

The school my kids learn in, Nitzaney Ha Mada, has earned itself a reputation of a fresh and open-minded school over the last years, mainly due to the amazing work of the school director, Dorit Nadler, and her pedagogic team. They are working hard on inventing new ways to help the students reach newer heights, by bringing extracurricular activities and programs, such as  adopting a new teaching method of positive thinking and speaking the happiness language as a way of promoting personal excellence in students, and making the novel concept of “school without homework” a working example for other schools. 

So all I had to do is stitch the various pieces together. I first met with Pronita, the MindAntix founder and CEO and got her agreement. My spouse and I then met with Dorit and got her excited blessing and agreement of cooperation from the pedagogic team. Since the current staff was very busy with its own curriculum and extracurricular activities, and the fact that the material is in English, we had to gather a group of volunteering parents to teach in each of the four 4th grade classes. For all that to run smoothly, I also had to translate the material before each lesson.

Creativity Skills

The course is structured in a way that for almost half the duration students focus on learning different creativity techniques that can help them come up with interesting ideas for their inventions. Only after spending enough time with ideation, do students pick the most promising one to take further as their final invention.

Some of the creative thinking techniques that students learned were:

  • Association Map: How to use combine concepts that were one or more hops away to find product ideas that were surprising. 
  • Using Random Associations: How to combine unrelated ideas to get original and interesting ideas. 
  • Challenging Assumptions:  How to look out for hidden assumptions and reverse them to get new insights and ideas. 

Student Inventions

By the end of the course students had come up with many interesting ideas for their inventions and were excited to showcase them. Below is a small sampling of some of the neat ideas from the students:

  • A Scented Book: It’s a book that also comes with the smells of the story and upgrades the experience of reading a book. It was originally a book with lemon/orange smell to help to cope with nausea during bus rides, but the idea evolved over time.
  • Rubber Duck Vacuum: A rubber duck-shaped vacuum, to be operated by small children to help their parents.  While kids play with it, it vacuums and cleans the house. 
  • Seasonal shirt: A self-folding/ collapsible (into a small box, that can fit in a pocket) sweater for those times when the weather changes and you’re too hot / too cold. 
  • Climate control doll:The doll would detect the weather by itself and will operate its hands like a fan to cool you and even add some water splashes out of its mouth, to help you cool.
  • Juice box: A single bottle with internal compartments that allow you to store more than one type of drink, be able to drink and mix and bring it all with you on a trip.
  • An effective wake-up clock:  A clock with an arm, which is set to be activated after some time the user does not wake up (the inventor has difficulties waking up in the morning).
  • Smart closet: The closet is operated by voice commands, opens up and brings you the clothes you need with a telescopic hand. 
  • Airplane book stand: A retractable stand to help with holding an open book for reading, without the use of hands. The original intention was to help with nausea, but is also helpful in times when food is served or busy hands.

Overall Experience

The course material is very organized and contains very detailed instructions on what to teach, how to say it, how to present the examples and even how much time each part should take. So, as the teacher-parents we had confidence and a very good starting point to prepare for the lesson.

The course itself takes a methodical approach on how to teach children to be inventors. The course teaches the kids a few tools and methods to come up with new ideas. The kids were excited to learn those new methods and play with them. 

We enhanced these activities by bringing real-life examples of useful and funny inventions, to inspire the children and engage them in thinking. We also added additional examples to the course material, in order to let the children practice together before approaching the course exercises, so that they would grasp the ideas better. This was really important, as the children from various levels sit together in the same class. This was a method to bring them all closer to a more or less equal start. Another purpose of those examples was to better and graphically explain the concepts to the kids, who are used to learning from screens and powerpoint presentations. 

Some sessions took us longer than expected, despite us separating them into working groups. Some times when the students had difficulty grasping a concept, we had to adjust our pace, reinvent examples and modify methodologies (like do class reviews on peer work so that other kids would get inspired).

Later on, the course continued to show students the process of turning their creative ideas into reality. The kids got to learn about the process inventors go through, which is something we learn today only in universities, if at all.

Since some of the material was less relevant for us (for instance, our students didn’t have computers in the class to work on their online assignment), we decided to add our own material and went deeper with them on the process entrepreneurs go through. We added modern subjects such as crowdfunding, together with real-life examples of actual products that started there and became a reality.

The feedback we got from the parents and the children were amazing. First, the children would eagerly wait for this weekly lesson. The lessons are interactive, and almost all of them have some game that involves the whole class. Since this was a totally new and different material,  alongside games, this added to the excitement in the class. Second, the parents told us that “their kids always shared with them the new things they learned in the course”, and were amazed by the content and how interesting this program is.

In the end, we felt that the students learned at a much deeper level what it takes to be an inventor and had fun along the way. 

How To Improve Creative Collaboration

After decades of living in near obscurity, Einstein published his theory of general relativity a little over a century ago. He had toiled away for years on those problems, and when he finally figured out his theory, the rewards and recognition that followed completely changed his life.

But did he really deserve all the accolades? Many of his ideas were fleshed out through regular discussions with his long time friends, Grossman and Besso. Grossman, in particular, was a gifted mathematician who helped Einstein at crucial points. So was Einstein really a lone genius or just a smart collaborator?

The answer is both. Einstein was both a lone genius and a smart collaborator. While he relied on his collaborators for solving some key parts, he also provided the insights and ideas that led to the theories. Removing any of the two elements would have resulted in failure.  

All significant creative accomplishments are the product of both individual excellence and fruitful collaborations. And as the problems and challenges we face become more complex, the importance of collaboration is only going to increase. 

However, collaboration is not easy. For instance, several studies have found that group brainstorming is less effective than individual brainstorming. The challenges that get in the way of productive group work include social loafing, evaluation apprehension and production blocking. 

So the real challenge in creative problem solving, is finding ways to balance both individual and group work. Given the challenges involved in group work, here are some tips to improve the quality of collaboration:

Interleave Solo and Group Work

One way to improve the creativity in a collaborative setting is to allow for both individual and group times in the problem solving process. Asking students to think of ideas before presenting to the group avoids the problem of production blocking in the group setting. During the group session, ideas can be pooled and combined, and if followed by another solo session where everyone gets a chance to reflect on the results, the outcome can be much better than either solo or group work. 

Additionally, some kinds of tasks are better suited for individual or group settings. For example, solo work in the initial ideation phase produces better results whereas evaluating ideas as a group is more effective than evaluating individually. 

Assign Clear Roles

Collaborative work also works better when team members have complementary roles that all contribute to the bigger task. Team members are more prone to social loafing when they all work on the same task but when each team member had a separate task, they are more motivated to do their share. These results were true even when team members knew that their individual work is not going to be identified in the task. 

Increase Attention To Group Ideas

The advantage of collaboration from a creativity perspective comes from being able to combine different ideas in new ways, which is a cognitively demanding task. Simply sharing each others’ ideas in a group setting does not help as much. However, allocating time to listen to different ideas and asking students to reflect on all group ideas, with the intent to find ways to integrate multiple ideas can improve the overall creativity of the group. Having a more diverse group also helps in this case, as each person brings a different perspective to the table all of which could potentially be combined in interesting ways.  

Creativity requires both individual and group work to flourish. Truly creative ideas might start with an individual but really take wings when they meet other ideas and perspectives. Students need to build skills for both working independently and collaboratively, in a way that produces better solutions and learning. 

3 Reasons To Encourage Peer Learning In The Classroom

Lev Vygotsky, a highly influential Soviet psychologist, believed that learning in children is heavily influenced by social interaction. At the earliest stages, an infant’s unsuccessful grasping motion is (incorrectly) interpreted as pointing by parents and their subsequent response determines what the baby learns about that gesture. This kind of learning isn’t just limited to the infant stage or to simple tasks. Higher order cognitive processes, he believed, follow the same pattern – they start at the social level and are then internalized at an individual level.

Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism is also the underpinning of the more recent peer and cooperative learning. While adults like parents and teachers play a crucial role in learning, children’s conversations with each other play an equally important role. Through exchanging ideas, asking questions or offering explanations children can help each other build better mental models of the concept they are learning. 

The advantages to peer learning aren’t limited to knowledge building. Several research studies have shown the benefits of using peer learning that go beyond the cognitive domain. Here are three reasons why peer learning can be beneficial to students and culture:

Better Learning Outcomes

The biggest advantage of peer learning is the increase in academic achievement. Several structures of peer cooperative learning, like Student Teams-Achievement Divisions and Teams-Games-Tournament, have been studied and all of them consistently shown that students perform significantly better with peer learning than without. While the majority of these studies focused more on knowledge acquisition, there are indications that peer learning is just as beneficial for building higher order thinking skills. In one study researchers broke out tasks into “high cognitive level” and “low cognitive level”, and found positive achievement gains on the high level items. 

Positive Social Gains

A key benefit of peer learning is the increase in communication and social interaction skills among students. One study found that the gains in cooperative learning skills correlated with social gains both in and outside of the class. Students in peer learning have also reported more positively on mutual concern –  liking their classmates’ and feeling that their classmates like them too. 

Improved Racial Relationships

Cooperative peer learning has been found to be one of the best ways to improve racial relationships. Several studies have documented that students in mixed race groups, name more of their classmates from different races as friends compared to control groups. One followup study found that the students who had worked in interracial groups made significantly more cross-racial friendships several months after the study ended. 

In our programs, peer learning is a central component in both structured and unstructured formats. For example, in our “How To Be An Inventor” program, we teach students how to give constructive feedback to each other. Before students present their ideas to the group, we explain that the goal for the students is to improve each other’s ideas and make it the best possible version. With that goal as the backdrop, we often find that students ask great questions and offer concrete suggestions to improve each others’ ideas. Peer learning is also supported in other unstructured ways when students browse their friends’ solutions online or when they walk over and see how others are working on a problem. 

While there is no formal reward associated with being constructive peers, the social recognition that comes with it, is enough to cognitively and emotionally engage students. In addition, we often find that students build more confidence and start relating better to their classmates.

Summer Camp: Designing Board Games

We just wrapped up our multi-disciplinary summer camps this year, and once again had so much fun guiding our middle schoolers in their creative journey! Our challenge for students this year was to design original board games based on their own areas of interests. We partnered with Archimedes school, who taught 3D printing, so students could make meeples and dice for their games.

By asking students to design a game around their passion or interests, our goal was that they would bring their domain knowledge on the topic, without which they wouldn’t be able to make a sufficiently creative game. In addition, we expected them to be more engaged during learning and more incentivized to put in extra effort to create the best version of their idea. 

Game Design Concepts

To design a good game, students had to first learn some basic game concepts like game mechanics, victory conditions and tension. To make learning more relevant,  we brought in common (and a couple not-so-common) board games that students used in deconstructing the various elements. We also used other games like Rock-Paper-Scissors to demonstrate the concept of balance in a game (and it also gave us a chance to sneak in some math and logic). They figured out that a Rock-Paper-Scissors version with an even number of elements can never be balanced, and then had a blast designing their own balanced versions with more than three elements!

Creative Process

While planning for the camp we also designed how the creative process would flow. If you ask a student (or most adults for that matter) to come up with an original idea, it often stumps them. Integrating a creative process into the workflow can give students the tools and direction to think creatively, and makes the process far less intimidating. 

The two techniques we focused on for the camp were analogical and associative thinking, which we felt were best suited for this scenario. 

To start with students first picked a game they liked and created an analogous version based on their interest. As a simple example, suppose the theme is to teach children about nutrition and health, and the model game is Snakes and Ladders. After deconstructing the game into its elements, one could design a new board game where some spots, like eating junk food or catching a cold makes you lose spots while exercising might make you go forward more spots. 

At this point the game still looks a lot like Snakes and Ladders. You could then start associating  with other game elements and modifying the game. For instance, you could add chance cards (e.g. falling and breaking a bone that sends you back a few spots) or convert the game to a point based system. By using different game elements, the game now starts to evolve differently and takes a very different shape. 

Student Designed Games

It was fascinating to see the students come up with very interesting, and very different, ideas for their board games. Here is a sampling of the board games students designed:

  • Rainforest Exploration – A game that teaches you about different animals in the rainforest as you race to the finish. 
  • Sun Power: A game that incentivizes using renewable energy sources. 
  • Collect-It: An interior design game, where you race to decorate your room. 
  • Archi-tex: A game where you have to be the first one to build a 2,000 ft building. 
  • Prime Switch: A fast paced math game that tests your computationals skills.
  • Soccer Board Game: Score goals by answering soccer trivia questions. 

The most fun part, though, was to see the excitement and energy as students got ready for the final demo to parents. Almost every student found last minute mistakes or changes that they just had to fix, but eventually all of them were able to put their demo together! And of course, they all found several ways that they could have designed things differently. 

We hope they enjoyed playing their game with friends and family, and maybe even designed their next versions!


Inventor Spotlight: Max Baryshnikov

Our featured student inventor this time is Max Baryshnikov, whose invention idea is to make a drone that helps in emergency services. His invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. He conceived the idea for the drone as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Max talking about his idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Max Baryshnikov, I am currently 11 years old. I am in sixth grade of the International Community school.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention was a drone-like device. It would help emergency services when they need to explore and secure hazardous locations, mainly fires. It is based of a drone on wheels, but I thought of how I can modify it to make it helpful in fires. This drone would have bright lights, a small speaker, and a mechanism like a grappling hook. If the fire departments need to scout out a fire, they would send in this drone. It would drive around, finding a secure path to get into the fire. If it finds trapped survivors, it would turn on its lights to show the way; the speaker can be used to communicate with the survivors and lead them to safety. But if the drone can’t get to an area, it uses its grappling hook to hook into a higher location, and then it will utilize its bright lights, to mark paths.

How did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea when I thought: “There are so many problems in the world now, what can I do to help?” With a lot of fires going on during the summer when I attended this camp, fire drone seemed like a very useful device.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

My prototype didn’t work because I didn’t know how to fit this all into one drone, I also didn’t even have a way to test it in situations. The experience was a bit disappointing, when my prototype didn’t do well, but that means I hit a wall and if I hit a wall, that means I progressed, which made me happy.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

In my summer camp I learn about other wonderful inventors, their inventions, and how they worked. I also learned that if were to make something – we should organize it and evolve it.

What was your favorite memory from the camp?

My favorite memory from camp was probably learning about all the inventors. It was amazing to learn what they did to create their inventions that made them famous, and how they advanced their lives in such a long time ago.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

I don’t know what problems will come up in the future. At this age there is only so much I can do. But when I grow up, I can see what new problems develop in that time, because I can be more effective then, then I can now.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I don’t really want to spend my prize money immediately, because I don’t have anything in mind to use it for. I’m going to instead save it, so when I need it, I’ll always have it waiting.   

Congratulations Max for winning the award! We wish you the best as you solve future world problems.

The Neuroscience Of Creativity

A few hours after Einstein died, Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed his autopsy, removed Einstein’s brain without his family’s permission and against Einstein’s wishes of what he wanted done with his remains. He then carved out his brain into 240 pieces and preserved them. After hiding them for several years, he finally sent parts of the brain to other scientists to conduct studies and unravel the mystery behind Einstein’s intellectual prowess.

One of the studies found that Einstein’s brain, compared to 11 other control brains, had a higher ratio of glial cells to neurons in a part of the association cortex, which is responsible for integrating and synthesizing information from multiple parts of the brain. This possibly resulted from Einstein spending so much time visualizing and solving complex scientific problems in creative ways. Not everyone agreed with the study’s conclusions though, and there have been valid criticisms of the way this and other similar studies were conducted.

Since the time of these (potentially flawed) studies, we have come a long way in understanding about the brain structures that aid in creative and critical thinking.

In a recent study, researchers found that the ability to think creatively depends on the interconnectedness between different parts of the brain involved in creative problem solving. The three large-scale networks that span both hemispheres and aid in creative thinking are:

  • Default network: This network consists of the cortical midline and posterior inferior parietal regions of the brain structures. The default network is active when you are not in deliberate thought and helps in idea generation.
  • Executive network: The executive network, which is composed of the anterior and lateral regions of the prefrontal cortex and other interconnected regions like the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The executive network is active when you are consciously thinking, and is responsible for planning, reasoning and decision making.
  • Salience network: The salience network, comprised of bilateral insula and anterior cingulate cortex facilitates the transition between the default and executive networks.

The study, which used connectome based predictive modeling, found some interesting results.

First, people who were more creative showed dense functional connectivity between the parts of the brain that comprised the default, executive and salience networks. Of the highest connected nodes in the high creative network, almost a half were in the default network followed by those in the salience and executive networks. In comparison, the low creative network showed diffused connectivity mainly in the subcortical/brainstem regions. Second, creative people were able to engage simultaneously parts of the brain that are typically supposed to work in isolation. For example, the default and executive networks, which correspond to the ideation and evaluation phases respectively, are normally assumed to be active at separate times. Creative people, however, are able to engage these networks at the same time.

If you are one of the people who believe they weren’t born with the creative gene (or the creative brain), there is reason for some hope.

Studies have also found that training for creativity can be effective. In a study where participants were trained on divergent thinking, researchers found that due to neural plasticity, structural changes were found in some parts of the brain post training that caused improvement in the participants’ creativity.  Similar effects have been found in other studies that looked at music and visual art training, where researchers found plasticity in neural pathways that enhance creative cognition.

All of this clearly indicates that, from a cognitive development perspective, it’s vital to have creativity and arts integrated into school curriculum. As the researchers in the creativity training study summarized, “Obviously, it is promising that human creativity capacities can be developed through well-designed training programs, which may contribute to social development and human civilization.

Inventor Spotlight: Krithi Iyer

Our featured student inventor this time is Krithi Iyer, who came up with an idea to make a temperature sensing shoe. Her invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. She designed the shoe as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Krithi talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Krithi Iyer from Redmond Middle School. I am currently in 7th grade and enjoy coming up with new ideas. Usually my ideas take the form of artwork, however I often come up with various inventive ideas.  

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention was a ‘Thermochromic Shoe’, a shoe that could change its internal temperature. A problem I usually encountered was super cold, or super sweaty feet. This shoe can either cool or heat your foot. As the temperature changes, the color of the thermochromic paint also changes, a color sensor inside of the shoe will then sense the color and either heat up the shoe or cool it down based on the color of the paint. The shoe can also grow or shrink, to fit your foot size and to allow more air circulation inside.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

My prototype worked partially. I wasn’t able to make the color sensor or the heating and cooling system, but I was able to show how thermochromic paint reacted to the temperature outside. I hope that one day I will be able to build this shoe. I enjoyed the experience especially since I enjoyed painting with the thermochromic paint.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

Probably the most significant thing I learned from this camp was what thermochromic paint was. I was previously unaware such a thing existed, but I found it to be a tool that could be used to solve many problems—smaller or larger than a sweaty foot. I also learned the stages of becoming an inventor and how they come up with and execute their ideas.

Who is your favorite inventor and why?

My favorite inventor is Leonardo Da Vinci. He not only created several inventions such as the prototype for a plane, but he was also an artist. His inventions have greatly shaped our world today and I give my thanks to him.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up, or maybe even now, I want to find cures to diseases. Medicine has usually always intrigued me and learning about new diseases enthralls me, or sometimes scares me.  

What will you be using your prize money for?

My prize money will be used for 3 things. First, I am going to donate 20% of it to charity. 10% I am going to save, and the remaining 70% will be used for a business fair I plan to participate in.  I will use the money to buy the materials I need to make my merchandise.

 

Congratulations Krithi for winning the award! We wish you the best in your upcoming business fair, and other creative endeavors in the future.

Inventor Spotlight: Aaron Liu

Our featured student inventor this time is Aaron Liu, who came up with an idea to make a temperature sensing food bowl. His invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. He designed the bowl as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Aaron talking about his idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Aaron and I was born in Washington in 2008. I am in fifth grade and go to Ben Franklin Elementary school. In my free time I enjoy playing baseball.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is the thermochromic bowl and it works when a hot substance is placed with in the bowl. The bowl will then change colors.

How did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea when I realized that I hurt my tongue a lot while eating hot foods and a bowl that changes colors when something hot was in it was a good idea.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

The prototype did not work at first because the plastic was too thick. So I put paint on the brims instead of the whole bowl and it worked. The experience was good.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

I learned a lot but some things I learned are how to use a website to make 3d images, and how thermochromic paint works.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

My favorite memory was when I won jeopardy on the last day of camp.

Who is your favorite inventor and why?

My favorite inventor is Thomas Edison. He is my favorite inventor because he invented the light bulb and pioneered the way for the different forms of electronic light we have now.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up I want to solve global warming.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I want to save the prize money to buy a arcade game.

 

Congratulations Aaron for winning the award! Solving global warming is a great goal and we wish you the best as you apply your creativity to solve future problems.

How Rewards Impact Learning And Motivation

In an interesting study to understand the relationship between motivation and learning, researchers gave elementary students a reading comprehension task. One group was explicitly told that they were going to be tested and graded on what they learned at the end of the activity, while the others were not.

The results of the experiment revealed a lot about the interplay between learning, motivation and rewards. Students who were told that they would be tested and graded, found the reading task less interesting and felt more stress compared to the others. Their assessment afterwards also showed an interesting pattern. They performed as well as the other groups, but only when limited to rote information. Conceptual integration of the material was poorer than the other groups. In addition, one week after the experiment, they had forgotten more information compared to other groups! As the researchers concluded, “It is not unreasonably speculative to argue that grades as traditionally used in schools often result in the perception of an external locus of causality, produce pressure, and result in force-fed, poorly integrated and maintained learning.

So how does learning get affected by motivation and rewards, like grades?

Learning can happen in multiple ways. Autonomous learning, where there is no directive to learn something specific, happens all the time and might even be the biggest source of learning. This type of learning, also called undirected learning, is triggered by curiosity and interest and is associated with lower negative emotional states. However, since this type of learning can’t be managed, we’ll focus on directed learning, where there is a specific set of material that needs to be learned and assimilated.

Students can be directed to learn in two ways:

  • Controlling, where the control comes from external mechanisms like grades or evaluations.
  • Noncontrolling, which uses approaches that tap into students’ need for autonomy and self-determination.

The issue with the controlling approach is that it leads to inferior learning outcomes compared to the noncontrolling approach. The reason behind this is better explained through achievement goal theory of motivation.

According to the achievement goal theory, people expend different levels and quality of cognitive self-regulation depending on the purpose of the goal. Cognitive self-regulation refers to how deliberate one is in the learning process and includes using different strategies, or planning and using resources effectively. What determines the level of cognitive self-regulation is the purpose behind the goal, which could be performance or learning based.

Performance Goals

Performance goals, also known as ego-goals, are driven primarily by a need to outperform others in order to increase one’s status. Performance goals are positively associated with more superficial, rote learning and not with deep learning. Performance orientation further comes in two flavors – performance/approach and performance/avoidance. Performance/approach is when students are aiming to outperform their peers. Students with this orientation do end up spending considerable effort and using superior study strategies. Performance/avoidance students want to avoid failure so as not to look less competent compared to their peers, and therefore put in less effort and avoid challenging work.

This is where class incentives or rewards, like grades, also come into play. When rewards are scarce, like when only the top few students get the highest grade, it creates a competitive environment where the focus changes from learning a concept to finding ways to outperform other students.

Students in the performance/avoidance orientation fare the worst since the incentive structure does not give them any reason to learn. Instead, they use strategies like procrastination which provides an explanation of their poor performance without being perceived incompetent (if the student only studies on the last day, they are not expected to do well and it isn’t a reflection of their ability).

Learning Goals

Learning goals, also known as mastery goals, are driven by a need to improve one’s competency irrespective of how others are doing. Related to this is the growth mindset, or the belief that one can learn and become smarter by putting in effort. Learning orientation is positively associated with deep-level processing, higher cognitive self-regulation, and pride and satisfaction in success.

Research has shown some promising directions to change grades and reward structure to create a better learning environment. This includes permitting students to work for any grade they want by accomplishing more, and using mastery based grading which focuses on whether one finally mastered a concept regardless of failures along the way.

 

Our current educational system has often been compared to a factory model where students are expected to learn the same content at the same pace as others in their age group. However, there is an additional dimension – extrinsic-focused scarce rewards – that makes the educational system mirror a corporate environment. Unfortunately, such rewards encourage performance goals in both systems leading to poorer learning, higher stress and less satisfaction.

Extrinsic rewards and performance goals work can be effective in limited ways where the task is simple or algorithmic. For more complex and creative work, a learning orientation becomes critical. However, nurturing a learning and growth mindset cannot happen in a vacuum – it needs a supportive environment to go with it. A poorly designed environment can push people from a learning orientation to that of a ego-focused performance mindset, while a well designed one could enable deep learning, growth and positive emotional well-being.

How Technology Can Improve Deep Learning

In an experiment to evaluate the impact of media on learning, researchers showed volunteers a presentation about the country Mali. Some of the subjects saw a text-only version of the presentation while the others saw a multimedia version that included additional audio-visual content.

After the presentation, the researchers gave all subjects a quiz on the material. The text-only group were able to answer more questions correctly on the quiz compared to the multimedia group. The outcome of this experiment was summarized as, “The text-only readers found it to be more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable than did the multimedia viewers, and the multimedia viewers were much more likely to agree with the statement ‘I did not learn anything from this presentation’ than were the text-only readers.”

Technology has undoubtedly made a big impact in education. Apps and games that teach specific reading and math skills have shown to improve learning outcomes, and productivity apps have made research and collaboration so much more easier in the classroom.

However, technology doesn’t just provide us with tools to learn specific skills or be productive, it also actively changes the way we think and process information.

And quite often, these changes inadvertently end up being detrimental to learning in some ways. Professor Patricia Greenfield explains, “Although the visual capabilities of television, video games, and the Internet may develop impressive visual intelligence, the cost seems to be deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.

Inappropriate or overuse of technology can significantly impair learning, by breaking attention and interrupting the learning process. Our brains contain two types of memory – short-term and long-term. Long-term memory, which can hold information for a long periods of time, is the seat of understanding where complex schemas and patterns that give us meaning are held. Short term memory on the other hand is fragile – it can hold information for only a few seconds. One type of short term memory, called the working memory, is what we use when we have to retain partial results as we work through a math problem or follow a sequence of steps. However, working memory, unlike long-term memory, is small and can hold only a few chunks of information at a time. After the contents of the working memory are processed, they can be encoded in long term memory for future retrieval.

The challenge with this learning process is that since working memory can retain information for only a few seconds (~20 sec), and any distractions in that time interrupt the flow of information to long-term memory. Being able to focus and reflect on concepts for extended periods of time are critical to learning new things.

In addition to inferior learning, poorly designed technology can have other harmful effects.  When the ability to focus on tasks decline, it can lead to feelings of boredom and an increased desire to seek more external stimuli. Time spent with media (television, video games) has been shown to result in ADHD like behavior.

If we want to promote critical and creative thinking, essential for deep learning, we have to unlearn the way technology is designed. Here are some things to pay attention to when designing technology products for use in education that can promote deep learning.

Pay Attention To Passive Switches

Switches are interruptions that result in students switching between different tasks. Passive switches, as opposed to active switches, are those that students don’t initiate themselves. Obvious examples of passive switches are email notifications, chat features, or pop-ups within an app that are meant to help students but inadvertently break their focus.

Less obvious examples of passive switches include using hyperlinks in the text, often with the good intention of providing information to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, hyperlinks also subtly nudge students into clicking before they have had sufficient time to process information, thereby breaking their flow. In one experiment, groups of people were asked to read the same piece online writing with different number of hyperlinks. Results showed that as the number of hyperlinks increased, reading comprehension went down. The researcher explained her findings as, “Reading and comprehension require establishing relationships between concepts, drawing inferences, activating prior knowledge, and synthesizing main ideas. Disorientation or cognitive overload may thus interfere with cognitive activities of reading and comprehension.

Be Less Helpful

In an interesting experiment, researchers gave students a tricky puzzle to solve that involved moving colored balls between boxes based on some rules. One group of students got a helpful version of the software that had on-screen assistance and other cues, while the other group got a bare-bones version with no hints or guidance.

In the early stages, the helpful group outperformed the bare-bones group in how fast they solved the puzzle. However, as the test progressed the bare-bones group got more proficient and was able to solve faster with fewer incorrect moves as compared to the helpful group, which gave clear indication that they were planning ahead and using strategy.

It didn’t just end there. Eight months after running the experiment, the researchers invited the students again and gave them similar puzzles to solve. The group that used the unhelpful version of the software was able to solve the puzzles twice as fast compared to the helpful group.

When help is too easily available, it robs students of the opportunity to think for themselves and build critical and creative thinking skills.

Be Judicious With Media And Visuals

Unnecessary media usage can overload working memory making it harder to process and assimilate knowledge.

In an experiment conducted on college students, researchers showed groups of students a typical CNN broadcast. One group saw the broadcast along with infographics that flashed on-screen and text-crawls on the bottom. The other group saw the simpler version of the same broadcast without any additional infographics or text-crawls. Subsequent testing showed that the multimedia group retained far fewer facts about the news compared to the simpler group. The researchers theorized that the “multimessage format exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity.

Keeping things simple when working with different forms of media works much better from a learning perspective. While different forms of media are good to use individually, using them simultaneously can overwhelm working memory.  

 

To design educational technology we need to carefully assess if the technology or feature encourages students to think and reflect, or does it distract them. When we introduced a team related feature not too long ago, we realized it was working a little too well, to the point of getting in the way of real learning. We decided to remove the feature and will likely introduce it again in a different incarnation, where it improves productivity without being a distraction.

Technology has great potential to improve student learning in different ways, but it requires us to be more mindful of the learning process while designing it.